Chaucer and the inner world of man

The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.

In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.

The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.

The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.

Beowulf and the Trinitarian nature of man

Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes

prayed aloud, promising sometimes

on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices

if the Slayer of souls would send relief

to the suffering people

Such was their practice,

a heathen hope; Hell possessed

their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,

the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,

they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,

the Wielder of Glory.

Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.

The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:

It was with pain that the powerful spirit

dwelling in darkness endured that time,

hearing daily the hall filled

with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,

the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling

of the remote first making of man’s race.

He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth

a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,

exulting established the sun and the moon

as lights to illumine the land-dwellers

and furnished forth the face of Earth

with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted

to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.

While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.

The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.

Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:

Wearily he sat,

a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,

trying to wake him with water; but without success.

For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold

his battle-leader’s life in this world

or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;

for every man’s action was under the sway

of God’s judgement, just as it is now.

The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.

The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.

Primary Source: Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.8)

Pages and squires were expected to read many books about the lives of the great knights and other warriors who had come before them. They were encouraged to imitate the examples of these great men. One of the most popular of these books was Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. Charlemagne, which means “Charles the Great,” was a Frankish king who was crowed as the first Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800. Charlemagne was admired even in his own lifetime for his great learning, great virtue, and skill as a military leader. In the selection below, Einhard discusses Charlemagne’s looks and the things Charlemagne enjoyed doing.

 

Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot. Even in those years he consulted rather his own inclinations than the advice of physicians, who were almost hateful to him, because they wanted him to give up roasts, to which he was accustomed, and to eat boiled meat instead. In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, accomplishments in which scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practised swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aixla-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years until his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him.

Charles was temperate in eating, and particularly so in drinking, for he abominated drunkenness in anybody, much more in himself and those of his household; but he could not easily abstain from food, and often complained that fasts injured his health. He very rarely gave entertainments, only on great feast-days, and then to large numbers of people. His meals ordinarily consisted of four courses, not counting the roast, which his huntsmen used to bring in on the spit; he was more fond of this than of any other dish. While at table, he listened to reading or music. The subjects of the readings were the stories and deeds of olden time: he was fond, too, of St. Augustine’s books, and especially of the one entitled “The City of God.”

He was so moderate in the use of wine and all sorts of drink that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal. In summer after the midday meal, he would eat some fruit, drain a single cup, put off his clothes and shoes, just as he did for the night, and rest for two or three hours. He was in the habit of awaking and rising from bed four or five times during the night. While he was dressing and putting on his shoes, he not only gave audience to his friends, but if the Count of the Palace told him of any suit in which his judgment was necessary, he had the parties brought before him forthwith, took cognizance of the case, and gave his decision, just as if he were sitting on the Judgment-seat. This was not the only business that he transacted at this time, but he performed any duty of the day whatever, whether he had to attend to the matter himself, or to give commands concerning it to his officers.

Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence. He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them. He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning. The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny. He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.

He cherished with the greatest fervor and devotion the principles of the Christian religion, which had been instilled into him from infancy. Hence it was that he built the beautiful basilica at Aix-la-Chapelle, which he adorned with gold and silver and lamps, and with rails and doors of solid brass. He had the columns and marbles for this structure brought from Rome and Ravenna, for he could not find such as were suitable elsewhere. He was a constant worshipper at this church as long as his health permitted, going morning and evening, even after nightfall, besides attending mass; and he took care that all the services there conducted should be administered with the utmost possible propriety, very often warning the sextons not to let any improper or unclean thing be brought into the building or remain in it. He provided it with a great number of sacred vessels of gold and silver and with such a quantity of clerical robes that not even the doorkeepers who fill the humblest office in the church were obliged to wear their everyday clothes when in the exercise of their duties. He was at great pains to improve the church reading and psalmody, for he was well skilled in both although he neither read in public nor sang, except in a low tone and with others.

He was very forward in succoring the poor, and in that gratuitous generosity which the Greeks call alms, so much so that he not only made a point of giving in his own country and his own kingdom, but when he discovered that there were Christians living in poverty in Syria, Egypt, and Africa, at Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage, he had compassion on their wants, and used to send money over the seas to them. The reason that he zealously strove to make friends with the kings beyond seas was that he might get help and relief to the Christians living under their rule.

He cherished the Church of St. Peter the Apostle at Rome above all other holy and sacred places, and heaped its treasury with a vast wealth of gold, silver, and precious stones. He sent great and countless gifts to the popes; and throughout his whole reign the wish that he had nearest at heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence, and to defend and protect the Church of St. Peter, and to beautify and enrich it out of his own store above all other churches. Although he held it in such veneration, he only repaired to Rome to pay his vows and make his supplications four times during the whole forty-seven years that he reigned.

Knights and Chivalry (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.7)

Medieval people used to say that there are three “orders,” or groups of people, in Christian society. There are, they said, “those who pray, those who work, and those who fight.” Most people, of course, were among “those who work.” The common people were all of the people who farmed, who built buildings, who made art, and did all of the other things necessary for any society to continue. The monks were “those who pray.” It was expected that they would help the rest of society by praying to God to protect them. “Those who fight” were called knights. It was the duty of knights to protect Christian kingdoms and villages from those who wanted to harm them.

Boys were chosen at a very young age to be knights, usually when they were babies. If a father wanted his son to become a knight someday, he would tell the child stories about other knights from a very young age and encourage his son to imitate the heroes of those stories. He would also teach the boy about good manners and courtesy as knights were expected to be very well-behaved. Most of the boy’s toys would be wooden swords and shields and other toy versions of things he would use as a knight.

Once the boy turned seven years old, his training as a knight began. He would be sent to a knight’s castle to be a page. As a page, the boy was expected to spend all of his time either learning or serving the other people in the castle. He was especially expected to serve the women of the castle. A page, for example, might be ordered to walk behind the lady of the castle, carrying the train of her dress, the part of the dress that would otherwise drag on the floor. A page might spent months doing this job in order to learn to treat women with respect. As a page, the boy would also study the great accomplishments of other knights and attend tournaments where knights displayed their skills by playing war games in front of crowds.

If the boy had done a good job as a page, he could be made a squire at the age of 14. As a squire, the boy dedicated more of his time to learning music, dancing, and other arts. He was also expected to perfect his etiquette by interacting with others in a courteous manner at all times. Squires also acted as assistants to knights. They carried the knights equipment around, helped the knights put their armor on, travelled with the knights, and even went into battle with them. In this way, the squire learned all about the how knights fought and the weapons they used to fight.

If the boy had done well as a squire, he would finally become a knight at about 21 years old. A great ceremony was held when a man became a knight. His armor would be placed on the altar of a church and he would stay awake all night in the church to guard it. In the morning, a worship service would be held in the church. After many prayers and blessings for the knight, he would at least kneel in front of a lord, a noble person who owned land, and would be knighted. The lord would swear to support the knight by paying for his equipment and a castle for him. The knight, in turn, pledged to serve the lord by protecting the lord’s lands from enemy invasions.

Once a man became a knight, he was expected to follow a strict code of honor called chivalry. The code of chivalry ordered that knights always observe the virtues. Knights were expected to be compassionate, temperate, diligent, and respectful. They were always to help those who were weaker than themselves and to obey those who had authority over them. The knights, “those who fight,” were expected by all people to keep Europe safe.

 

Review Questions

 1. What are the steps to becoming a knight?

2. What is chivalry?

Primary Source: The Rule of St. Benedict (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.6)

When St. Benedict founded his monastery, he wrote a book, called The Rule, which he expected all of the monks in his monastery to read. In The Rule, St. Benedict laid out the lifestyle that the monks in his monastery would live. In the selection below, Benedict lists the rules his monks must follow:

1. In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.

2. Then, one’s neighbor as oneself.

3. Then not to murder.

4. Not to commit adultery.

5. Not to steal.

6. Not to covet.

7. Not to bear false witness.

8. To honor all.

9. And not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.

10. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.

11. To chastise the body.

12. Not to become attached to pleasures.

13. To love fasting.

14. To relieve the poor.

15. To clothe the naked.

16. To visit the sick.

17. To bury the dead.

18. To help in trouble.

19. To console the sorrowing.

20. To become a stranger to the world’s ways.

21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

22. Not to give way to anger.

23. Not to nurse a grudge.

24. Not to entertain deceit in one’s heart.

25. Not to give a false peace.

26. Not to forsake charity.

27. Not to swear, for fear of perjuring oneself.

28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.

29. Not to return evil for evil.

30. To do no wrong to anyone, and to bear patiently wrongs done to oneself.

31. To love one’s enemies.

32. Not to curse those who curse us, but rather to bless them.

33. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.

34. Not to be proud.

35. Not addicted to wine.

36. Not a great eater.

37. Not drowsy.

38. Not lazy.

39. Not a grumbler.

40. Not a detractor.

41. To put one’s hope in God.

42. To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself.

43. But to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself.

44. To fear the Day of Judgment.

45. To be in dread of hell.

46. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit.

47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.

48. To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life.

49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.

50. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.

51. And to manifest them to one’s spiritual guardian.

52. To guard one’s tongue against evil and depraved speech.

53. Not to love much talking.

54. Not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.

55. Not to love much or boisterous laughter.

56. To listen willingly to holy reading.

57. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.

58. Daily in one’s prayers, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God, and to amend them for the future.

59. Not to fulfill the desires of the flesh; to hate one’s own will.

60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot or Abbess even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord’s precept, “Do what they say, but not what they do.”

61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.

Introduction to the Middle Ages (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.2)

The Middle Ages is a 1000 year period during which Western Civilization took shape. During this time, Europe became a Christian continent. These Christians then began the long process of sorting out the great heritage they had received from those who came before them. The Christians of the Middle Ages wanted to figure out a way to bring together the ideas and traditions they had received from the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans into one. Of course, they also had to make these Greek, Jewish, and Roman ideas fit with the ideas of their own Christian religion. The result was a thousand years of great achievements in art, architecture, music, philosophy, literature, and science.

Medieval art and architecture focused almost entirely on themes from Christianity. Nearly all of the paintings and sculptures of the Middle Ages are of Jesus, Mary, angels, and other people important to Christians. In almost every town of Europe, the largest and most beautiful building was the church. Often, these churches were not built by experts and construction workers but by the people of the town. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, for example, was built by the common people there. Medieval churches were usually built with very high ceilings and filled with art, including paintings, statues, and stained glass windows. They used the art and the high ceilings to emphasize the greatness of God and the beauty of heaven.

Medieval music also drew heavily on Christian themes. Musical instruments were not usually used in Christian worship services, so medieval musicians came up with a variety of ways to use the human voice to create beautiful music. Both Gregorian chant, in the Western part of Europe, and Byzantine chant, in the Eastern part, used all different types of voices singing together. Medieval musicians looked to the psalms in the Bible for inspiration for their own musical creations. Sometimes they would have singers with different kinds of voices take turns singing lines from the text of a psalm. Other musicians wrote their own songs which imitated the psalms in their content and style. It was also during the Middle Ages that the first musical notation was written. Now, it was possible for people in distant places to all sing the same song in the same way by following the notes that were written with it.

Early in the Middle Ages, most poetry and literature were written in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. As time went on, however, people all over Europe began to appreciate the local languages of their own nations and to write in those languages. The poems and books that were produced are still regarded today as among the greatest literature of the world. In the 13th century, Dante Alighieri wrote an epic poem called The Divine Comedy which told the story of an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Geoffrey Chaucer became the first great poet of the English language when he wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims heading to pray at Canterbury, an important Christian site in England. The most popular stories of the Middle Ages were tales of great heroes, warriors, and knights who battled against evil. Love songs about knights and the women they fought to defend were also very popular.

Philosophers of the Middle Ages continued to discuss subjects like God and the meaning of life in the same way philosophers before them had done. Most philosophers of the Middle Ages, however, were Christian. As a result, the answers they gave to the questions philosophers ask often were ones that came from the Bible and other Christian writings. Philosophers like Boethius and Thomas Aquinas tried to figure out if Christian beliefs could be proved by using reason instead of just the Bible.

There were also many important scientific discoveries and inventions during the Middle Ages. Many people became very interested in nature and in the world around them because of the Christian belief that God had created the world to be beautiful. They wanted to investigate the world and the place of humans in it. Astronomy was considered especially important because medieval Christians believed the movement of the stars and planets in the sky had a lot to teach people about God.

All students were required to study astronomy at schools throughout Europe. In addition to astronomy, students also studied music, arithmetic, geometry, rhetoric, logic, and grammar. These seven together were called the “liberal arts” because people believed that studying these subjects liberated a person, which means it made them free. Theology, the study of God, was considered the highest and most important science. A student could only study theology if they had first studied the seven liberal arts.

As the people of the Middle Ages sought to understand their Greek, Roman, and Jewish heritage, they created a great civilization of their own. It was this civilization which became our civilization.

 

Review Questions

 1. What themes are most medieval art, music, and literature about?

2. What are the seven liberal arts?

3. What subject was considered the highest and greatest science?

 

Vocabulary Words

 Liberate – to make someone free

Theology – the study of God and other religious subjects

Fall of the Roman Empire (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.1)

Constantine had changed the Roman Empire in many ways. He ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. He changed the laws to make them more acceptable to Christians. He even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from Rome to the new city of Constantinople. In doing all of this, Constantine was trying to save the Roman Empire from destruction. Rome had been facing many very big problems for a long time. Its many wars and the size of its territory led to economic problems. The people of Rome had gotten used to living happy, easy lives and were unwilling to face hardship and suffer to keep their Empire alive. While Constantine’s reforms brought a new life to the Roman Empire, even he was unable to prevent its eventual destruction.

The Roman Empire went through a short period of new energy after Constantine. The people of the Roman Empire united around their new religion, Christianity. By the year 400, Emperor Theodosius had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and ordered the last few temples dedicated to the Roman gods to close their doors forever. Some of these temples were destroyed. Others were converted into Christian churches. Still others were closed up and forgotten about for hundreds of years.

The Romans also tried to solve their problems by dividing their Empire into two. There would be one emperor in the East in Constantinople and another in the West in Rome. They hoped that by doing this it would be easier for each emperor to rule over his territory and defend it from barbarian attacks. Unfortunately, this division of the Empire probably made the Empire weaker. While much of the wealth and military might of the Roman Empire came to be centered in the East in Constantinople, the Western Roman Empire grew poorer and weaker.

The last Roman Emperor in the West was a young boy, Romulus Augustus. He was six years old when he became Roman Emperor, leading the people of Rome to call him Romulus Augustulus, which means “Little Emperor.” He was unable to lead the Romans and defend the Italian peninsula from the barbarian armies coming in from the northern part of Europe. The adults around him were busy fighting each other for power and were too afraid and weak to lead the fight against the barbarians. As a result, the barbarians finally conquered the city of Rome and the rest of the Italian peninsula, the old heart of the Roman Empire.

At first, the barbarians who came in from the northern part of Europe to conquer the Italian peninsula pretended that Romulus was still in charge. Finally, in 476, the barbarian king Odoacer, who was actually in charge in Italy, decided to stop pretending. He sent Romulus away to live in a castle and declared that there was no longer any Roman emperor. Instead, Odoacer called himself “King of Italy.” The Western Roman Empire had finally fallen. The result of the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 was the beginning of the 1000 year period we call the Middle Ages.

 

Review Questions

1. What year did the Roman Empire fall?

2. Who was the last Roman Emperor?

3. What is the name of the 1000 year period which followed the fall of the Roman Empire?

Our Dark Age

Every period in history is remembered in popular consciousness by a set of characteristics which have attached themselves to it. Although this popular characterization of a given period is often little more than stereotype and caricature the power exerted by this collective summarization of an epoch nonetheless permanently colors perception of the period. These characterizations frequently even become the title by which the period is remembered, guaranteeing that any time the period is mentioned the immediate implication of the truth of this characterization will follow inevitably. The Renaissance, for example, is characterized as a great period of “rebirth” and of the flourishing of the arts.  The Scientific Revolution as, of course, a period of revolution in the sciences. At some point, every historian wonders how his own era will be characterized by future generations; how will the present age be remembered by those a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now? What summarization or title will be bestowed upon our era? In addition, the conclusion one reaches about the reputation of the present among those of the future has imminent ramifications for potential courses of action to improve the heritage bequeathed to posterity by the current generation.

To arrive at a conclusion concerning how our age might viewed in retrospect, one of the soundest methods is the use of historical knowledge as a measuring stick by which to evaluate the present, one of its most traditional and important usages. In a comparison with previous eras in history, our age bears the most striking resemblance, unfortunate though the fact may be for us its denizens, to the two great dark ages of earlier times in Western Civilization, namely the Greek Dark Age and the Medieval Dark Age.

Both of these dark ages are characterized by the dissolution of centralized governmental and military authority. In the case of the Greek Dark Age, the authority which dissolved was that of the old order of the Greek peninsula, the Aegean Sea, and surrounding areas which is best exhibited by the wealth and power of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples. With the onset of the Iron Age and the ostensible Dorian Invasion, however questionable the size and nature of the latter event may be, a fracturing of institutional unity gave rise to a fracturing of cultural and intellectual unity in a world of increasingly prevalent sectionalism. The inception of the second dark age of Western Civilization arose from similar circumstances. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD removed from the western half of the Mediterranean Sea and most of Western Europe the institutional and cultural structures which had maintained some level of stability in and among societies. This institutional collapse was swiftly followed by a period of rapid cultural and intellectual decline coupled with ceaseless warfare among various tribes and peoples competing for dominance within relatively insignificant realms of power.

The cataclysmic event which triggered the onset of the current dark age is almost certainly World War I. Merely contrasting a map of Europe before and after the war is ample evidence. A look at the events “on the ground,” so to speak, is even more revealing. Through  Europe, and much else of the world, political structures collapse and disappeared altogether or were replaced by ideologies which arose from the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras, ranging from Marxism and other socialist philosophies to the radical, notably not Classical, forms of republicanism and democracy advocated by some 18th and 19th century thinkers. Throughout the civilized world, the old structures of government which had united various peoples under a single figure and various empires under a universal civilizational outlook were abolished. Along with these institutions went the cultural and intellectual unity of Western Civilization and of the old order in a supracivilizational sense.

Greece emerged from its dark age at about the time of the poet Homer, in the 7th century BC, and the flourishing age of Classical Greece followed quickly. The Medieval Dark Age ended with the rise of Charlemagne and the dawn of the Carolingian Renaissance at the turn of the 19th century AD. Although it is less clear in the case of the Greek Dark Age, there is sufficient evidence to establish the thesis that the various elements of a vibrant culture were kept alive during both of these dark ages by the fastidious work of certain concerned groups and individuals.

In the better documented case of the Medieval Dark Age, more often than not these individuals were the Fathers of the Church and other great Christian thinkers. Cassiodorus and Boethius, contemporaries who lived in Italy shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for example, each recognized the precarious nature of their age and the tremendous task which their circumstances had placed before them. Each sought to preserve the greatest elements of their Greco-Roman heritage while allowing these to pass through the formative lense of Christianity. The result was that when the dark age did finally end some 300 years after this men lived, the ensuing era, which lasted nearly a thousand years, was a period of rapid scientific and technological progress as well as intellectual and cultural flourishing which remains still the greatest period in all of the history of Western Civilization.

If we are greet our current circumstances soberly, we must be honest about the perilous time in which we, who wish to bear our heritage and to pass it on to future generations, find ourselves. We must work with the same assiduity as our great forebears to preserve and improve about our great Western tradition. We must form the same sorts of assemblies for this task which our fathers before us formed. And we must continue their great work. If not, our progeny will have us to blame for the destruction of the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

Concluding Thoughts on Personhood (Personhood Part VII)

The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.

The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77

While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.

Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.

Notes


76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.

77 Ibid.

78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 

Notes

69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, http://www.piousfabrications.com/2013/04/aquinass-uncomfortable-synthesis.html (accessed 20 April 2013).