The interview continues,
F It seems to me that one of the bigger differences between the Ancient world, and the Middle Ages and the contemporary world, is that the Ancient world placed a huge emphasis on duty. Duty and loyalty were basically everything. Right now I’m reading the Aeneid and duty was the underlining [sic, should be underlying] theme of that work, and Virgil created it in support of the Roman Empire.
F: Now, the value of duty carried into the Middle Ages, but, what would be the underlying value of the Middle Ages? Would it be deeds tempered by faith? Would it be duty and loyalty?
JF: That is a fascinating question, and you really are getting to one of the points of difference between what I call the “Old World”. By the Old World I start at a fairly late date.
I think that one of the great changes in Western mental structure came at about the end of the 18th Century, with the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and then the Industrial Revolution, and of course, in a very very broad generalization, but it is true that earlier stages of European civilization, very much like other societies that you find in most parts of the world today were, to a large extent, tribal or collectivist in the sense that one’s chief identity was not personal, “I am so-and-so” but, “I am a member of this family”, or “I am a member of the Church”, or “I owe my feudal duty to such-and-such a lord”.
You probably remember from the Chaucer course how this shows up even in comic situations. The Canterbury Tales, after you get through The Knight’s Tale, begins with those two scurrilous, very funny, Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale. Well, the Reeve is a carpenter by trade. The Miller tells a tale about a dumb carpenter, and the Reeve, who is a carpenter, immediately assumes, “Oh, he’s talking about me!”. That is to say, the group identity is so great. So the way he attacks this miller is to tell a story about another miller.
However, there is one caveat in all this:
Christianity, basic Christian doctrine, and the sense of Christian identity, did have a very radical sense of individuality in this sense: If there was going to be a moral judgement, that is, if there was a way of adjudicating what is right and what is wrong, there had to be the independence of the individual human will. Things had to be done by volition. So that in this sense, you do have the germ, in Medieval Christianity, of the kind of radical and sometimes chaotic individualism of modern life.
One of the big problems in history is this relationship of the individual and society. We have an awful lot of societies still in the world who want to reduce the role of the individual into just kind of a cog in a larger society.
In Arthur Koestler’s great book, Darkness at Noon – which is one of the first books to really have a huge impact on Western public opinion against the pretensions of Soviet communism – is about the purge trials and Rubichef, the chief character, is sort of an imaginary or fictional amalgam of a few of the Bolshevik leaders who were [among the] first murdered by Stalin, and the interrogator talking to him refers to the first person nominative pronoun, I, yo, as “the grammatical fiction”. That is to say, “I”, has no existence except in grammar because what matters is the masses, or the crowd.
Now, that was a tension in Medieval society, but it was resolved at the intellectual level, at least, by the end of the radical freedom of the will that came with Baptism.
F The rise of individualism during the Middle Ages is the start of the Modern Age, as I understand it.
JF: Well, that’s right, and of course we all look in the mirror of history in the sort of way that Narcissus looked in the pool, that is to say, we can always see ourselves, so there is a great tendency to try to impose upon the past those categories with which we’re comfortable, and one of the features of this is that individuality, or as the scholars now prefer to call it, subjectivity, the idea of an I who has a deep personal sense of individuality; one of the current features of scholarship is to keep pushing this back.
It used to be thought that, well, this phenomena appears only in the High Italian Rennaissance, other people said, “oh no, you have it in the 14th Century”, now we find it in Abelard and Heloise in the 12th Century, and so on. But in general terms, what you say is true.
F: One theme I found in Chaucer is a theme of redemption through good deeds: You’re not just what you say, and it’s not just what you believe, it’s what you do… so the emphasis was not just on a belief but also on what the individual character was doing.
JF: That is really interesting because it seems to me that you’re finding there is one of the defining controversies of the Protestant Reformation. If you read the Scriptures, you can come up with arguments on either side; in the Epistle of James it says that “faith without works is dead”, for example. But the very famous statement by St Paul, that Abraham was justified by faith – that is to say, he didn’t do anything except believe, or accept what God was offering him. That became a foundational idea of a very broad stream of thought in the 16th Century, and it’s part of the defining difference between what is a generally Catholic view of Christianity and what is generally a Protestant view of Christianity altogether.
That is, in Medieval Christianity there was a great deal of materiality: Beautiful buildings, beautiful sculptures, a rich liturgy, people went on physical pilgrimages, they made the sign of the Cross mechanically many times a day, and so forth, so there was a very physical dimension to it. Certainly a part of that was the belief that good works can be efficatious. This is where we get so many of our great public buildings and the monasteries, and the beautiful baptistries in the churches and so on. And people, to put it crudely, were so scared of their eternal disposition that they put a great deal of money into these things.
F: I was thinking of The Pardoner’s Tale particularly, where there was a big split between what he was selling and what he was being.
JF: You’re a brilliant student of Chaucer.
F: It’s all your fault.
JF: That’s exactly what the – I think Chaucer was trying to raise many different things with Pardoner’s, but that’s one of them.
Most people misunderstand Chaucer’s ecclesiastical satire. They think it’s like modern ecclesiastical satire and it isn’t. If he had no use for the Church or the sacraments, or was an unbelieving agnostic or something, his incredible investment in ecclesiastical satire would be more or less meaningless. He is particularly invested in the idea of penance. That is to say, in the idea that, yeah, we all screw up, we all do terrible things but there is a remedy in repentance, in turning to God, saying you’re sorry, and so on. And of course the poem is structured around a penitential action, namely the pilgrimage, and has many penitential actions including the final tale, The Parson’s Tale, which is a very long sermon on the seven deadly sins, and offers an invitation to the whole world to come up and confess and one person does it, and that’s Geoffrey Chaucer.
But to get back to the Pardoner, this is a person who understands at an intellectual level the efficacy of penance. He’s even participating in the economy of penance but of course he did not have the power of it.
part 3 continues below)
Copyright 2007 Fausta Wertz, John Fleming