Tag Archives: spirituality

A certain sensitivity to the medieval, expressed by means of a bagful of links

One way I sometimes wind up writing a post is that I have two or three links that I see a common theme in. Because I tend to put things together over a while, these inevitably collect more links like fluff and not all of these fit the theme. The three extras this time do however pick up on old themes here. For a start, do you remember me posting something about Norse-Inuit contact in the Western Atlantic a while ago? A Canadian archæologist by the name of Patricia Sutherland had been set onto a search by some wool from circa 1300 found at Kimmirut on Baffin Island, and also come up with several other articles that she thinks can be called Norse. Some of these things later got displayed by the Smithsonian Museum, and now there is apparently more, a whalebone spade and drainage constructed in what Sutherland says is a Norse style, which would indicate some attempt at prolonged Viking occupation in what is now Canada, if she’s right. I evince caution because she seems to be a voice in the wilderness, and the article to which I’ve linked there shows that at least one other archæologist is reading the finds differently, as evidence that Western archæology just doesn’t rate the Dorset Inuit’s sophistication the way it should. I imagine the debate will continue, and more digging is afoot so it may even be resolved, but since I broached it here it seemed necessary to keep it up to date. Hat tip here to Melissa Snell at about.com.

Medieval wool recovered from Kimmirut site, carbon-dated to circa 1300

Medieval wool recovered from Kimmirut site, carbon-dated to circa 1300

The second piece was just a rather nice little piece of media antiquarianism. Would you like a digital copy of the original newspaper report of the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon royal burial at Sutton Hoo? The East Anglian Daily Times, who carried it, have put it online. Hat tip here to Sæsferd of Antiquarian’s Attic.

The original 1939 excavations of the Sutton Hoo boat burial

The original 1939 excavations of the Sutton Hoo boat burial

And the third is slightly gratuitous in as much as it’s more the period of bloggers such as, well, Ceirseach, than mine, but I hereby decree that it can never be gratuitous to feature a charter on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, especially a charter which has turned up somewhere rather unexpected, to wit, Brock University in Canada:

The Clopton Charter, Brock University

Donation by Robert Clopton to his son William, <i>c. </i>1216

This linked to the St Catharine’s Standard, which reports on the discovery (hat tip to News for Medievalists), where they say: “The best educated guess among faculty pegged it somewhere in the 15th century.” Well, I’m no palæographer for all I once passed a test in it but I do have a copy of Michelle Brown‘s A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 handy and it sure looks a lot like her sample of 13th-century cursiva anglicana to me, and indeed 1216 is the date that their examinations have settled on though I’m not going to pretend that I can read that off the JPEG myself. Still cool, though: as with the charter of Abbess Emma at Harvard or the one about Espinosa de Berguedà at Berkeley, some of this stuff has travelled a long long way. Seems to be in good shape considering…

The actual things I wanted to talk about, though, were four pieces all of which for various reasons made me quietly pleased that someone had done some genuine thinking on the basis of their knowledge of the Middle Ages, while about something where that wasn’t strictly necessary. One of these is that I have a new piece at Cliopatria talking about the two cultures and how odd it is, on a European scale, to have them. It’s not terribly surprising however that that would contain some medieval checkpoints, right? So, the oddest of these was a post at Strange Maps, in which a suggestion by Freddy Heineken, the guy who made Heineken lager a household name, that Europe would work better if its states were replaced with more equally-sized polities which punched a more equal democratic weight. It’s no more than an interesting exercise given the continuing disparity of the area’s resources, but it was slightly fascinating firstly for the breakdown of the population balances—I mean my goodness I live in a populous country compared to some—and secondly for the units he chose, apparently in collaboration with two unnamed historians. The Strange Maps crew say the new states would have had less historical baggage, but they should probably say not less, but older… Do have a look, you need their text too hence only thumbnail below.

heinekens_europe

Then, I was reading a thing I downloaded more or less at whim about the Catalan monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, which is as you see below rather splendid even now and is still a pilgrimage centre for the relics of Saint Peter that it claims to have. A few years ago the Generalitat de Catalunya put quite a chunk of money into education programmes around its historic sites, most of which are administered loosely by the Museu Hisòric de Catalunya, and one of the results has been a set of ‘Dossiers educatius’, the one for Sant Pere being here, and being written by Sònia Masmarti. Now Miss, Mrs, Dr or whatever Masmarti has or had a nice touch with the language, and although it might be slightly romantic, it is still very far from wrong to point out that:

The majority of people lived in small houses of mud and wood, and believed firmly in the supernatural powers with which the Church acted as intercessor. They would turn up at religious centres of pilgrimage with a blend of fear and hope, looking for consolation and the pardon of their sins, or indeed for the healing of their maladies. We can imagine the enormous impression that would have been produced in them by contemplating this marble portal, crossing it and entering into the magnificence of the temple, with its decorated furniture and pictures, now disappeared.

The translation is mine, because the original is in Catalan, but you get the idea.

The monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, as it now stands (albeit mostly empty inside)

The monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, as it now stands (albeit mostly empty inside)

Yup. That portal led to a different world in a whole range of senses, economic, cultural and theological. For all that people did easily move between the two worlds, we’re wise not to lose grip of the contrast between them.

The Regensburg fragment, a page of a twelfth-century litany of Irish saints

The Regensburg fragment, a page of a twelfth-century litany of Irish saints

And something similar seemed to strike me when I saw this, an article in the Irish Times about a fragment of a litany from the Schottenkloster, the Irish monastery, at Regensburg, the which fragment has now been bought by University College Cork. (Hat tip here to Larry Swain at The Heroic Age.) I don’t want to weigh in one way or another on the repatriation of artefacts; it doesn’t seem to me that there’s a good way to argue that that ‘belongs’ to Ireland and we should instead celebrate the fact that it can be shared by all. Pádraig Ó Riain has done some serious work on the text and brought out all kinds of ways in which it can show what bits of Ireland were feeding the Regensburg community with monks by the 12th century, when it seems to have been composed, but that wasn’t what struck me, what struck me was this:

Of course, it has immense significance as the only early medieval written record of the Irish community in Regensburg in its day, and of course it has much more to tell us than even both Ó Riains could cover in their initial lectures. But it was meant to be prayed. Following the seminar, it was at the Benedictine’s Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick that the monks sang the litany at vespers, giving it its first ever liturgical recital in Ireland and possibly the first chanting of its verses since the 16th century.

I’m not a religious man but I find that attention to purpose and the sense of connection and duty involved in that very satisfying, both to hear of and to sort of understand.

Seminary XLV, Interdisciplinary Conversation II: Douglas in the jungle

Dame Mary Douglas, pictured in March 2006 shortly before her death

Dame Mary Douglas, pictured in March 2006 shortly before her death

On 16 March a rather unusual sort of seminar took place in University College London, as the concluding episode for this term in a series that I’m sorry I haven’t been able to go to more of, the UCL Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar. This time the disciplines intersecting were history and anthropology, because David d’Avray and Eamon Duffy were presenting in tandem to the title, “Mary Douglas among the Medievalists”. Because I have at least a leisure interest in how these two humanities meet, I made sure I made it along.

Both of the presenters had known Dame Mary Douglas, of whom I had but dimly heard, so I went mainly to find out more about this Anthropological Name and what she might have to tell me. I think I wound up learning more about myself than about the subject, which was, well, unusual. This was in part because the assumption, and fair enough, seemed to be that people coming to a seminar about Mary Douglas already knew about her work. The format was therefore that Professor Duffy spoke first about his memories of her and what he had got from reading her work, and then Professor d’Avray did likewise. If you have encountered these people you may guess that their style differed considerably. Professor Duffy told us of his upbringing in very-Catholic Ireland and his increasing involvement in theology at a time when, in a mirror of the other social revolutions of the sixties, and in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic thought was going through a considerable change, roughly from organised piety to personal piety, but as a result away also from heavy emphasis on community attendance and ritual and tradition. This, as Professor Duffy described very eloquently, left him less and less emotionally satisified with what he was certain was theologically correct, and it was only when he read Douglas’s Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo that he realised what it was that he was missing, the ritualised structure of tradition and guidance that what Douglas called `high-grid’ societies erect to defend their own functions and identities. This, of course, had considerable implications for how he looked at the medieval religion he was increasingly interested in. So from reading, and eventually exchanging texts and ideas with, Douglas, he got a much clearer idea of how to express what religion in the Middle Ages (late Middle Ages, for Professor Duffy) might have meant to its participants and what function it performed in medieval society’s reproduction.

The Sistine Chapel altar in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, c. 1590

The Sistine Chapel altar in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, c. 1590

Professor d’Avray’s portion of the paper was less personal and less flowing (or, he might have said, gushing). It had, he told us, taken him a long time to find anything in Douglas’s work that he could really appreciate, which he put down partly to him being a follower of Weber and she of Durckheim and it being nigh-on impossible for these two schools of thought to converse. (He also observed, repeatedly, that despite those two being contemporary and occupied with very similar problems they never cited or referred to each other.) It was, he said, only now that he was teaching the fifth-century papacy and doing things like arguing with Jack Goody about the purpose of codifying rules of Christian marriage that the high-grid idea was suddenly serving a purpose in making all the ritual and rules by which that period of Christian development can seem so characterised explicable, as a kind of self-asserted structure of importance set up by a fragile social organisation to make itself more sturdy and regulated.

Reflecting on this I can’t help but feel that there must have been a lot more to Douglas’s work than this one idea of high-grid societies tending towards high symbolism, however much we can see medieval analogies for that. This was the one that the two commentators had got furthest with, and they were both agreed that Purity and Danger had been the book that clicked for them, but it’s hardly all she wrote. I consulted my anthropologist of resort on this and she reckoned that Douglas’s work is now something that first-year undergraduates get set, because it’s big on ideas and enthrallment but the actual discipline of study and the modern approaches to evidence and how anthropologists get it have moved on some way. There had however been a question (part of a spontaneous five-minute-plus response by Kate Cooper which the seminar organiser had to cut off), which I might now throw to the readership, about whether it necessarily matters, when you’re raiding other disciplines for ideas, if they’re current or not, as long as they help you think. I think it matters if they have been classed as wrong (as, for example, the nineteenth-century stuff about national characteristics, which is easy to think with but really no actual help understanding) but if it’s just old that need not necessarily be a bar if it’s new somewhere else. After all, I was just delighting in how old a certain critical idea was, wasn’t I?

And indeed that idea came up again. Professor Duffy finished by wondering if historians could ever escape their background and formation, and whether indeed one should struggle to do so or write unashamedly involved and personal history by way of playing to one’s own ability to understand and express. Professor d’Avray was less inclined to regard this as worrisome because, as he pointed out, our formations don’t prevent us changing our minds, and people with similar formations can come to very opposite views. (This was driven home to me by a very hostile comment about Irish Catholicism from the floor, a comment so hostile that Professor Duffy sought the commentator out immediately afterwards, and the first question he asked, understandably, was “Did you grow up in Ireland?”, expecting therefore that this involvement, though opposite to his own, could only come from long immersion.) The fact that Professor Duffy and Douglas had almost precisely opposite Christian formations, he as a deep-culture Irish Catholic, and she as a cucumber-sandwiches-and-tea Anglican, and both came to appreciate both sides’s qualities, positive or negative, in much the same way, also suggests as much.

James Joyce in Trieste, 1915. (Photograph by Ottacaro Weiss, a friend who was scandalized by Joyce’s guitar playing.)

James Joyce in Trieste, 1915. (Photograph by Ottacaro Weiss, a friend who was "scandalized" by Joyce’s guitar playing.)

Because there had been little enough about anthropology in this seminar and lots about personal formation and religion, I was left wondering how I could better explain myself in these lights. Maybe I shouldn’t spend a lot of time on this, but it did strike me that I have more or less avoided working on religious expression: I work on an area where there’s almost no sources for it except religious donations, which can be read in an almost entirely worldly way, but why did I choose that? and so on. It cannot be entirely coincidental that my own religious impression, which was fairly insipid Church of England at school undermined by atheism at home, was very easy to shake off without necessitating either some substitute mysticism or an embittered hatred of indoctrination. It’s not that I don’t think religion was important in the Middle Ages, it self-evidently was and I quite enjoy knowing more about Christianity than many practising Christians, but I don’t feel it necessary to include the spiritual in much of what I do. Perhaps I should. On the other hand, when I do think of the term `God-fearing’ I ineluctably also think of one of Professor Duffy’s examples, the Hell sermon in James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which I studied at school. I still cordially loathe Joyce but that bit has guts and won’t leave my head, and to exemplify what deep-seated religion could mean to a mind it has often served me as `a thing to think with‘. It seems therefore that perhaps I would not be immune to the effects of reading some of Dame Mary’s explanations of what that was actually about…