Let’s go medieval

David Brooks seeks escape from the campaign in the wonder of the Middle Ages.  He writes:

Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.

But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

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.”

If the connection between the Middle Ages and the present campaign Brooks has done such a rotten job of thinking about appears tenuous, you're not alone.  But what is even more baffling is his comparison of the view of relatively well educated "Moderns" with uneducated medieval people.

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints.

The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in “The Autumn of the Middle Ages,” “The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.”

For educated Europeans in the Middle Ages, such views were as silly as young earth creationism (a view which many educated people believe today). 

If you want a world filled with magic and ignorance, in other words, read Bob Herbert's column (in the same paper) about the state of the American educational system–or just continue reading David Brooks's columns.

3 thoughts on “Let’s go medieval”

  1. I’m pretty sure Brooks wrote this column while some thumped him on the head with a lead pipe, but here’s the choicest morsel:

    We tend to see economics and politics as the source of human motives, and then explain spirituality as their byproduct as Barack Obama tried artlessly to do in San Francisco the other week. But in the Middle Ages, faith came first.

    So, let me get this right, in an age where the majority of the people were poor, politically impotent, chronically unemployed, and rigidly classed, they clung to….faith. Thanks for proving Barack’s point, Dave, with your own completely inelegant, over-romaticized, factually inaccrate vision of the Middle Ages.

  2. I tend to see economics and politics as “a” source of human motives. And I also tend to see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces. I tend to think that I am correct about these things.

    On another note, what the hell does this mean:

    “There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers”?

    There are stark contrasts between the changing seasons, day and night, misery and exuberance, etc. today. What does that have to do with anything? As far as I can tell, Brooks is trying to say that we are too cynical today. Perhaps…but Brooks’ existence is a contributing factor to my own cynicism.

  3. I knew you wouldn’t be able to lay off of Brooks for long.

    Your stamina is at least as strong as mine.

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