The Interconnected Middle Ages

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

Let us return to the topic of pre-Reformation Christianity in England. One of the most important other facts about it was that it wasn’t just in England. However wide the English may think the English Channel and the North Sea are, the island of Britain has always had strong social, intellectual, political, economic, and whatever other kind of ties to continental Europe.

Consider two of the men I mentioned in my last post — Alexander de Hales and Anselm of Canterbury. The former, although an Englishman, spent his entire scholarly career in France, from what I can tell. The latter was not English and wrote most of his major works while a monk/prior/abbot in Normandy before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. A third of the ‘A’s — Alcuin of York — spent most of his career on the continent as well.

One of our oldest complete Latin Bibles is the Codex Amiatinus in Amiata, Italy. It has been demonstrated that this codex was actually made in St Bede’s monastery in Northumberland. And, interestingly enough, it is a copy of an Italian Bible brought North by Bede’s spiritual father, Benedict Biscop. Elsewhere in Italy we find one of the most famous books of Old English literature, the Vercelli Book. Both of these will have been left behind by pilgrims.

Canterbury and Durham may have been important sites of pilgrimage in mediaeval England, but the English went on pilgrimage to Rome so much that not only were they complained of in terms of bad behaviour along the route, but there was a whole section of the city abutting the Vatican where they lived. They also went to Spain, to Santiago, one of the biggest pilgrim sites in Europe. And even when Jerusalem was not in Crusader hands, some went so far as that!

Coming to know the continental contemporaries of British theologians and devotional writers will help us enter more fully into their thought-world. It will also benefit us. Consider some of the bright lights whom I found listed as being in Durham Priory’s library:

  • St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) – One of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, he not only tamed Aristotle for Christianity in his Summa, he brought many of the riches of Greek Christianity into dialogue with his own Latin tradition. Saint of the week here.
  • St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) – Called ‘the Last of the Fathers’ by his Cistercian brothers, this is one of the greatest mystical theologians in the Latin Middle Ages. He was even Dante’s guide to the Uncreated Light. Saint of the week here.
  • Peter Lombard (1096-1160) – His Sentences became the standard theological textbook of the Latin Middle Ages, and a major exercise of many Masters and Doctors was to write a commentary on him. Thomas Aquinas did.
  • St Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) – Ivo was Bishop of Chartres. He’s most famous for canon law compendia, but his preface to said compendia as well as his letters are worth reading. They show a man with a strong moral sense but a pastor’s heart. (I mean, expressed in mediaeval terms, so…)
  • Richard of St Victor (1110-1173) – A Scottish mystical theologian who was prior of the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris. Both scholastic and mystical, in a way. The Victorines were heavily influenced by their friends over at Clairvaux, from what I understand.
  • Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141) – A Saxon mystical theologian and exegete also at the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris.
  • Bonaventure (1221-1274) – Head-honcho Franciscan who wrote a life of St Francis as well as some pretty intense mystical theology. Saint of the week here.

There were many others, like Hrabanus Maurus, in Durham’s library. But you get the point. Christianity is never insular, not even in Britain, especially not in the Middle Ages.

Of course, now we all have more than enough reading to last a lifetime…

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The Cult of the Cross & Christ the King Sunday

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday.  Rick Dugan has a good meditation on the topic over at St. George the Dragonslayer.  The image of Christ as the King he is was one easily taken up by the Anglo-Saxon world, reflected in many pieces of literature, such as Andreas where Christ is portrayed as a King and the Apostles his thegns.

One piece of devotional poetry that comes from the earliest days of English writing and is preserved for us in the tenth-century Vercelli Book, a manuscript containing various pieces of Old English literature.  It describes a dream the narrator had wherein he beheld the Rood (ie. Cross), and the Rood spoke to him, relating in dramatic verse and forceful power the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.  There is a translation of the whole poem here.  Read it; it’s worth the time, trust me.

For our purposes, I’ll quote the following from that translation:

The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.

And this, later on:

Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem–he holds power of doom–
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.

This is a clear, unequivocal statement of the Kingship of Jesus.  Jesus is King.  He truly reigns on high, perfectly indivisible from the Father as true God.  Each age and culture tries to cast him into its own image of the ideal leader — we smile at the Dream of the Rood and Christ’s thegns and grimace at Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) when he says that God can do whatever He pleases since He is a Lord — and what we have to realise is that Christ is unlike any earthly ruler.

Christ is the King who laid down His life for His subjects.

His crown is of thorns.

His throne is the seat of his own execution.

He calls us to obedience and to follow his own example of self-giving love and endless charity.  We are to give of ourselves for others, give our lives for life.  We are to be humble.  We are to turn the other cheek.  We are not to consider our own esteem as something to be grasped.  If we live walking in His path, then we shall see Him when He comes to “deem . . . everyone here”.  He is King and, unlike any modern monarch, demands complete and utter obedience — an obedience, a service, that is perfect freedom.

So, “worship the King, all glorious above.”  He is seated on a sapphire throne today; let us remember the glory of the Cross of yesterday.