Monday, 5 September 2011

Merry or miserable medievals - and Carmina Burana

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Was the medieval time merry? - as suggested by Chesterton - or was it miserable as portrayed in popular culture and indeed in popular history.

I am not going to answer that question except to state that it depends on whether or not Christianity is taken into consideration and taken seriously.

Any past era was 'miserable' for most people in the sense that (compared with the past several decades) there was a lot of starvation, disease, warfare, torture, discomfort and dirt.

But in eras of great Christian devoutness - other-worldly eras - these factors carried much, much less weight than they do or would for us.

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An interesting test case is Carmina Burana (songs from the Beuern, a monastery), which is a collection of essentially secular lyrics, a selection from which was set to music in a dramatized cantata by Carl Orff during the paganistic era of National Socialism - in other words a modern and non-Christian angle on medievalism.

Carmina Burana is probably my favourite piece of 20th century music, something I find almost wholly enjoyable.

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To appreciate Orff's Carmina Burana, I think it needs to be seen dramatized, as in the first-rate 1975 TV version conducted by Eichhorn and currently available in segments on YouTube, e.g:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqutsAaQQK4&NR=1

Orff's CB represents just about the 'merriest' version of the medieval era that is possible minus Christianity - and (yet) it is (taken in total) a terrifying vision of life.

(It also notable the the vulgar vigour of this 1975 dramatization - its 'lust for life', a factor which is absolutely necessary to its positive appeal - would be utterly impossible for the PC-ridden world of 2011.) 

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A further example of this is the (excellent) novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. All positive valences attach to modern phenomena (science, philosophy) and the religious aspects are seen as negative, obscurationist, or simply deluded, psychotic, wishful, pitiful.

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My contention is that the evaluation of medieval times (or indeed any past era) is for modern people systematically and severely distorted by our habitual subtraction or trivialization of religion from the world view.

Either we miss Christianity out altogether, regard it as peripheral, or regard it purely negatively. All of these are grossly unhistorical biases.

For example, the popular Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer is solid, engaging and informative so far as it goes - but it contains very little about the Christian life, and completely misses its centrality to the Middle Ages; therefore, ultimately, the book ends by being a travesty of its subject, a massive misrepresentation of the experienced quality of medieval life.

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The deeply-entrenched secularism of the modern age is revealed most strongly in such matters: it seems we simply cannot understand what it is to live with religion at the centre of life; or else we can only imagine this an an unmitigated horror.

The idea of a world in which sweetness, beauty and hope; craft, learning, justice and morality, were Christian phenomena - is simply unimaginable to most people, most of the time - and recent literature, art and history are not helping matters.

So if the medievals were indeed merry, as Chesterton argued, then the fact would be necessarily invisible to the modern secular mind-set. 

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10 comments:

Thursday said...

One should remember though that the farther north one went the less Christianized the great mass of people were. Christianity was important to the Middle Ages, but it seems to have been mostly important to the more educated classes. Most of the people in Northern Europe were still essentially pagan until the Reformation.

Though more of a phenonmenon in Northern Europe, some of the same things can be said of all Europe. The villagers in Carlo Levi's memoir Christ Stopped At Eboli is a good example of this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Stopped_at_Eboli

bgc said...

@Thursday

I agree that medieval (Northern) Europe cannot compare with late-first millenium Byzantium, nor with early Orthodox Russia, as a through-and-through religious society.

Nonetheless, Northern Europe was at least as religious in the medieval era as it is now leftist and politically correct - both 'ideologies' led by elites, but adopted - in somewhat diluted and reluctant form, by the masses.

Northern European populations are much more coherent, placid and obedient than in the south; so the elites have more influence.

Anonymous said...

@Thursday:

That broadside is a product of early Romantics at the earliest; once one examines individual countries of northern Europe, the idea falls apart.

Ireland needs no examination. England? Try Duffy's Stripping of the Altars or histories of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England. Germany? Any histories of the great monastic orders there. The only place where I think one might even say 'most of the people were mostly pagan' might be Norway and Sweden, which to the medieval Church was a remote territory, far beyond the organism of Roman Europe.

Of course, if one goes applying Protestant or modern understandings of religion to medieval peasant folkways, one will be confused. Most likely the majority of men in any age never have the intelligence to hold to reliable, complex, complete orthodox faith; which is probably why Christ gives so many second chances and loves the faith of little children. I think the error of many 'traditionalists' or counter-liberals still within the modern perspective is to miss this. (Charlton here has done much here illuminating that problem for me, of course).

Thursday said...

Religious != Christian. I have no doubt that most people in Medieval society were religious, because most people in every society, except modern ones, are always religious.

The middle classes, particularly in urban centres, had been pretty thoroughly Christianized and there were other pockets of Christianization as well. How could it be otherwise? I think Duffy is way overegging the pudding: serious attempts to Christianize the peasantry only followed threats to the church from Lollardy and then later Protestantism.

Don't know much about Byzantium, but Russia doesn't seem to have been all that different from the rest of Northern Europe in having a long survival of pagan belief among the peasants.

I don't know much about it, but I have no doubt that Byzantine empire, like much of the rest of of the Mediterranean was much more thoroughly Christianized. However, even there I would guess that the situation in the countryside was often similar to that as depicted in Levi's book on Southern Italy.

Thursday said...

I should make clear that Christianity _was_ absolutely central to the intellectual life of the Middle Ages and to suggest otherwise would be completely crazy.

Thursday said...

Northern Europe was at least as [Christian] in the medieval era as it is now leftist and politically correct - both 'ideologies' led by elites, but adopted - in somewhat diluted and reluctant form, by the masses.

I'd generally agree with this.

Anonymous said...

I'm unsure why you rely principally on a single, 20th century, Jewish leftist snapshot to get to the idea that "most of the people...were still essentially pagan." If one can be 'essentially pagan' without pagan priests, public religion, self-identification, or collective memory (reifying various folk magics, superstitions, etc. as the long-forgotten Oden-and-Thor paganism is a stretch). The Christianity/leftism definition you accept later seems more on target, but it is definitely qualitatively different from your first statement.

Not sure what the import of all this discussion is given that peasant superstitions etc. were of almost no historical importance. Additionally I don't think these superstitions had anything to do with the very frequent heresies of medieval Europe, the Cathars most infamous among them. They are a very real problem with any rose-colored image of medieval Christendom. But the roots of those heresies seem to have been entirely inside the Christian cultural-intellectual structure.

Anonymous said...

Also, bgc, what do you mean that northern populations are more obedient than southern ones? The invention of Protestantism and Leftism, among other great rebellions, in the north point at least somewhat to the opposite conclusion. Not to say that the more reliable obedience of Mediterraneans to Rome and to established power was an unmitigated good, but it seems to speak to more innate obedience in the south.

Thursday said...

I'm unsure why you rely principally on a single, 20th century

I haven't.

If one can be 'essentially pagan' without pagan priests, public religion, self-identification, or collective memory (reifying various folk magics, superstitions, etc. as the long-forgotten Oden-and-Thor paganism is a stretch).

None of these are necessary.

Not sure what the import of all this discussion is given that peasant superstitions etc. were of almost no historical importance.

They were of importance to the daily lives of people in the Middle Ages, which is the topic under discussion.

bgc said...

wrt 'paganism' - Paganism is the natural spontaneous religion - Christianity is added to paganism; so pagan elements are in themselves not evidence against Christianity - indeed I would say they are essential to Christianity so long as they are subordinated to Christianity.

So, pagan gods are found in Christianity as angels and demons, where they have a powerful influences and an important role. But they are subordinated to the triune creator God, and salvation is possible only through Christ.

The pagans gods are conceptualized as partial understandings of reality, which was later reveal more fully.

In such matters it is necessary to remember that three quarters of Christianity existed before the Reformation, and half of it before the Great Schism - the rule-of-thumb baseline of Christianity is (say) AD 400-1000, after the scriptures had been compiled and its doctrines sorted-out, but before it began to fall-apart. Developments since then have been at best double-edged - advantages in one respect being balanced by disadvantages in other respects - like scholasticism.