All posts tagged: middle ages

A Closer Look at Medieval Lent’s Toughness

Medieval Lent was onerous, too difficult for us moderns to imagine—bread, beer (basically liquid bread), and vegetables for 40 days for all people. Peasants especially are supposed to have been durable, hard-knuckled folks who embraced the light yoke of fasting as a necessary part of the rhythms of liturgical time. Underlying each epoch, after all, is what Fritz Bauerschmidt has called a “metaphysical image,” that is, some metaphor that defines it, shapes it such that it produces specific sorts of people, rooted in specific values.[1] On this reading of medieval Lent, tradition is not merely something handed down; rather, it is something to which we look in awe—pristinely pious, dedicated, a measuring stick for our own inadequacies and misgivings. An article on one website says it all: “Think Lent is Tough? Take a Look at Medieval Lenten Practices.” When a topic becomes clickbait, it is safe to say it is an embedded part of Catholic consciousness. In its way, this perspective has led to something of a cottage industry of Lenten repentance. There was, until …

A Knight in St. Patrick’s Purgatory

Each year St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent and the question arises how should we observe his feast during the penitential season? If it falls on a Friday will there be special dispensations for corned beef? If you give up alcohol for Lent can you celebrate with a glass of whiskey on March 17th? St. Patrick’s Day festivities are a welcome break in the somber 40 days, but there is actually a connection between the popular saint and taking on surprisingly severe penance. In a medieval tale, a young knight named Owen journeys into a portal to the Otherworld to voluntarily take on an extreme penance to cleanse him of the sin of cruelty. The place of purgation he enters is called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and the island of Lough Derg connected to the legend draws pilgrims even today. The first Old French version of the tale, the Espurgatoire seint Patriz (c. 1190) was penned by a 12th century authoress who calls herself Marie. Marie wrote popular stories of love and chivalry, fables, and possibly …

Political Theology’s Haunting of Contemporary Politics

Erik Peterson’s Thought Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt had met as early as 1919 but became better acquainted in 1924 when Peterson took a Church History and New Testament chair at the University of Bonn. This was a period of development for Peterson’s thought and he would eventually cross the Tiber in 1930 at great personal expense. The road to Catholicism was not a short one for Peterson and his relationship with Schmitt was significant in multiple ways. They were friends who commonly shared ideas and spoke highly of each other. Not the least significant of these shared ideas was that in Peterson’s own study of the New Testament he discovered that it was rife with legal terms. Thus, according to Peterson’s astute biographer Barbra Nichtwieß, the friendship between Schmitt and Peterson led to certain parallel insights in their respective disciplines as well.[1] Both thinkers are apocalyptic, but whereas Schmitt’s apocalyptic identifies a particular political crisis and emphasizes the importance of political decision, Peterson’s focuses on the cosmic and revelatory transformation that has occurred through …

The Birth of Scholasticism from a Series of Fortunate Mistakes

Stephen M. Metzger, in a brilliant and provocative piece, entitled “We Have Never Been Medieval,” rightly points to the unfulfilled promise of the Leonine program, which “held up the Middle Ages as its official response to the challenges and deficiencies of the modern world.” He notes the central place of Saint Thomas Aquinas in that program, brought forth by Leo XIII in fitting medieval fashion as a sort of champion to combat modernity’s thinking and ills. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of that choice and the outcome of that program—there are many Catholic scholars who believe that the almost exclusive emphasis on the thought of Thomas Aquinas in our study of the Middle Ages has narrowed and arguably even stunted our understanding of the Catholic theological tradition—Metzger’s notion that there may not be such an antinomy after all between our medieval predecessors and ourselves merits serious consideration. As a sort of sequel to that thought, it seems fitting to recall to mind a great medieval thinker who was, unlike Thomas, decidedly not a saint: …

The Eschatological Marian Image

In sharp contrast to the multiple-viewpoint technique and elongated figures dominating the old, Byzantine-influenced paintings, the new Western 15th century religious images are distinguished above all by an “increasing realism” embedding conspicuous moments in biblical narrative within landscapes or interiors of great spatial and symbolic complexity. Moreover, the increased availability of panel paintings and, by the mid-15th-century, woodcuts, naturally facilitates their acquisition as quasi-spiritual tokens for the purpose of private devotion. Hans Belting writes: “Individual citizens did not want an image different from the public one so much as they needed one that would belong to them personally. They expected the image to speak to them in person.” Jeffrey Hamburger notes that the transition from aniconic to an image-based vision is characterized by “the increasingly important role of corporeal imagery in spiritual life.” In this development, spanning from the late 13th through the 15th century, “the process of vision is detached from the process of reading [Scripture].” Less the focus of sustained exegesis or affective vision than a deposit of possible allusions and increasingly fungible …

Medieval Rites and Contemporary Dying

Medieval Rites The scribes lived over 700 years ago, but their documents give us insight into the monastery’s practices when a brother became seriously ill: The leader of the community, the prior, came to the brother’s sickbed to hear his confession. The others gathered and processed to the infirmary with oil for anointing, incense, the communion host, a cross, and candles. They assembled in the room, singing antiphons and psalms as their sick brother was anointed. The gathered brothers sang songs of petition, using words from the Gospels: “Lord, come down to heal my son before he dies,” and songs of hope: “Jesus said to him, Go, your son lives.”[1] After the anointing, the brothers arranged a schedule so that at least one person remained always at his bedside. Prayers were said for him at the daily public Mass. If the brother did not regain strength, but instead seemed to be nearing the end of his life, the entire community gathered again. In their brother’s presence, they sang a litany, naming members of the heavenly …

We Have Never Been Medieval

In the early 1990’s the French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour published a remarkable, and scandalous, essay, in which he argued that society had never been modern.[1] According to Latour, modernity has never been able to fully achieve its desired goal of an objective understanding of Nature, epitomized in scientific studies, bracketed off from an understanding of society, especially in politics. Modern people always take recourse to hybrids or “quasi-objects” that bridge this desired divide in order to make the world intelligible and to make society possible. The findings of scientific inquiry are never as objective and certain as they claim or hope to be, nor are political and economic considerations ever divorced from our understanding of the natural world and the way the natural environment acts upon humanity. In the end René Descartes and his intellectual descendants were never able to truly have an objective mastery of Nature. One consequence of Latour’s argument is that if society has never truly achieved the idealized hope of being modern so too has humanity never truly …

The Dramatic Double Vision of the Catholic Imagination

The debates of our ancient faith keep returning in surprising ways. The issue is not so much a return of the repressed, but the constitutive presence of the theological in our post-Christian midst. According to Natalie Carnes, the recent trend of toppling Confederate statues has connections with the theological imagination(s) of the ancient Christian faith.[1] Her essay, “Breaking the Power of Monuments,” rewinds to the historical moment that produced the Byzantine iconographic conventions mentioned in my initial piece on the Catholic imagination. Carnes’s explanation of the immense power of images to create social relations deserves an extended quotation: The public monument had a definitive moment in Byzantium, where the ubiquitous images of the emperor witnessed the extent of his political power. Thanks to images, the emperor could be present even where he was absent. So closely was the presence of the emperor identified with his image that to honor the image was to honor the emperor himself. Early Christians like fourth-century bishop Basil of Caesarea used this image logic to explain Christ’s relationship to the …