Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Middle Ages

David Brooks in today's New York Times, has an essay, The Great Escape, which is worth reading. He covers a lot of territory regarding points of view and wilful acts of imagination. He mentions an essay,

The essay, which appeared in Books & Culture, is called "C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem," by Michael Ward, a chaplain at Peterhouse College at Cambridge. It points out that while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God. The medieval universe, Lewis wrote, "was tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine."

Later he also mentions a book, Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages, which I recently purchased based solely on the basis of the first two wonderful paragraphs:

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of a tight, invariable lifestyle. The great events of human life - birth, marriage, death - by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of the divine mystery. But even the lesser events - a journey, labor, a visit - were accompanied by a multitude of blessings, ceremonies, sayings, and conventions.

There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness; they came in a more fearful and more painful way. Sickness contrasted more strongly with health. The cutting cold and the dreaded darkness of winter were more concrete evils. Honor and wealth were enjoyed more fervently and more greedily because they contrasted still more than now with lamentable poverty. A fur-lined robe of office, a bright fire in the oven, drink and jest, and a soft bed still possessed that high value for enjoyment that perhaps the English novel, in describing the joy of life, has affirmed over the longest period of time. In short, all things in life had about them something gliterringly and cruelly public. The lepers, shaking their rattles and holding processions, put their deformities openly on display. Every estate, order, and craft could be recognized by its dress. The notables, never appearing without the ostentatious display of their weapons and liveried servants, inspired awe and envy. The administration of justice, the sales of goods, weddings and funerals - all announced themselves through processions, shouts, lamentations and music. The lover carried the emblem of his lady, the member the insignia of his fraternity, the party the colors and coat of arms of its lord.

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