In the previous post on Augustine of Hippo, I suggested that Christianity became the dominant religion in Western Civilization because of changes in doctrine had primed the Roman Catholic Church to compete with the ideologies of competing pagan religions. But these changes of religious doctrine would have been no value if they had not proved to be the right ideas at the right time for other changes occurring then in the societies in which they were imbedded.
|The Destruction by Thomas Cole (1836)|
Just as St Augustine was putting the finishing touches on the City of God (409), economic, demographic and even climatological changes were placing the Western Roman Empire under extreme pressure. Climate change in the form of a mini-ice age displaced tribal people from the central Asian periphery and drove their migrations to the west, and these incursions would lead to protracted attrition on Rome’s borders. This led to a contraction of the Western Empire, and, in 410, Rome was starved into submission to Alaric the Visigoth and sacked. In 455, the Vandals sacked Rome, forever giving their name to the concept of wanton destruction. By this time, the center of political gravity in the Roman Empire had shifted to Byzantium. The crop failure, starvation, depopulation, liberated and escaped slaves and collapse of trade routes due to barbarian depredations resulted in declining markets which would eventually leave the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic Church too politically weak to dominate the diversity of the faithful. This resulted in the Great Schism of 1054 and the establishment of the Eastern Church. The Fall the Eastern Roman Empire would not come for another millennium, and the fall of these two “Roman” cities bookends the medieval period.
During the medieval period there was an absolute decline in population, trade, the size of armies leaders could field, industrial activity, and city size. By just about any metric that mattered, the feudal states of Western Europe were smaller and less vigorous replacements for the central Roman government they supplanted. Carbon dating of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean documents a precipitous decline in trade after 100AD. The city of Rome, which surged to more than a million inhabitants at the time of Christ, fell to about 50,000 by 1000AD. These lost inhabitants had not simply moved to the suburbs. The West’s largest city would not reach Rome’s peak again until London exceeded it sometime in the 19th century. Analysis of glacial deposits suggests world metal smelting and refining didn’t return to peaks established during the Roman period until about 1780, about the time Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown.
During the Medieval period, population was low; social order fragmentary; fertility paramount even for commoners – aristocrats needed male heirs and daughters to marry off to expand their dynastic influence; peasants needed labor to work the lands, lords needed subjects to tax-- and the focus of church teachings and official regulation of sex was based on marriage and fecundity. Most people traveled little, subsistence agriculture and peonage tied them to the land, and small intimate communities made social norms, customs and mores powerful restraints on deviant sexual expression. In this period, homosexuality was mostly below the radar. Serious deviance included sex that threatened marriage, marital property rights, and the clear attribution of parentage of children.
|The Great Chain of Being derived from Aristotle, Plato and St.Augustine by way of Ptolemaic Astronomy|
In the years following Augustine, church thinkers worked out a cosmology, The Great Chain of Being, which ordered the entire cosmos, with Heaven at the top traveled by the planets in their perfect spheres, Hell below, the earth in between, and all living and spiritual entities arrayed by rank. God was at the apex, followed by saints, angels, men, beasts, and demons, with Satan ruling the material realm from Hell. Men too were ranked, with the Pope at the top, followed by his prelates, cardinals, bishops and priests, and kings (and occasionally queens) arrayed above their nobility, followed by landowners, and serfs and peasants who occupied the lowest social ranks. This was a system of modest and predictable change. Comets, famines, personal deviance and wars were all signs of moral disorder. Social mobility had no place. Authority was fully apportioned and static.
Sexual variations as we know them today constituted perversions of God’s law when they were noticed at all. The more that unusual sex behaviors resembled pagan practices, the more likely they were to draw attention and sanctions. Spiritual agents were known to be alive in the world, and ghosts, saints, angels, witches, demons and devils populated the medieval world and were thought to control human behavior. Sexually variant behaviors were often attributed to evil supernatural agents, and seen as cause for spiritual interventions. The 1966 film The Exorcist depicts actual church practices that continue today, but were commonplace and unchallenged until late in the Enlightenment.
|A detail from The Temptation of St. Anthony by Grunewald (c 1515) Demons were real, even if no one agreed on what they looked like!|
The central struggle of Western political life in this period was between clerical and secular power. For each sphere had its ranks, but the relative balance of power of church and state was a work in progress. Partly this is a legacy of Augustine’s Gnosticism, partly it reflects the infusion of barbarian practices as the tribes that conquered and stayed in Northern and Western Europe had required effective militaristic cultures to overcome the Romans, and used these skills to hold power. For these peoples, might was an important determinant of right. The church became the primary source of literacy, and all that was remembered of Greek and Roman culture was filtered through clerical stewardship. Many rulers could neither read nor write, and could only govern areas they could directly dominate through force of arms and alliances, often cemented by marriage. The collapse of trade meant that the most able men chose either military or clerical life, the arenas in life where the strongest traces of meritocracy remained. The church provided the binding morality for Western culture during the period.
An important consequence of this was the rise of the idea that church lands were governed by churchman appointed by the Holy See, rather than local landowners or nobility. Catholic doctrine held that sinners needed to be forgiven if they repented their sins. Since churches were sacred places consecrated against evil spiritual influences, subjects who broke secular law were afforded sanctuary, or asylum, in churches where they might repent and save their souls without interference from corrupting spiritual agents before becoming subject to secular law. This is the source of the modern concept of asylums for the insane, and the practice of granting political asylum.
|Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) and Henry II (Peter O'Toole) in conflict in Becket (1964)|
Just how serious this conflict between secular and spiritual powers could become is illustrated by the murder of Thomas á Beckett, the subject of T. S. Eliott’s play Murder in the Cathedral and the 1964 film Becket staring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. In 1152 Henry II arranged to have his friend and courtier Thomas Becket appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, expecting some responsiveness to royal prerogatives in return. But a crisis ensued when Henry Plantagenet’s efforts to limit church powers led to a series of conflicts and Becket sided with the Church. Some of the allegations were as modern as today’s headlines, with claims that a priest had molested local boys. This was a serious violation of holy and secular law, but Becket insisted that the priest was subject to Becket’s authority. Generally, this is just one special case of a much wider conflict about taxation and confiscation of church lands and Henry’s attempts to extend Norman authority over a still restive priestly class he felt was too responsive to Anglo-Saxon interests. And the churchman were not entirely blameless of intrusions on royal authority, having prematurely crowned Henry the Young King, Henry’s son, king, without Henry II’s permission. The seditious influence of rival France was suspected. This conflict escalated to the point that Becket threatened Henry II with ex-communication, and Henry forced Becket to flee the country, but Pope Alexander III eventually brokered a rapprochement. Upon his return, Henry continued to pressure Becket to acquiesce to the extension of royal powers, Becket again resisted and in 1160 nobles allied with Henry entered Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Becket in the nave of the highest church in England. Two years later, lightening speed by Vatican standards, Becket was declared a martyr and canonized. Those famous pilgrims populating Chaucer’s tales were traveling to visit St. Thomas’s tomb in Canterbury. Henry II, recognizing how much he had overstepped, did public penance in Canterbury.
|Pope Urban II, Commander of Kings|
Before the 11th Century, secular Western Europe was more fragmented, and the power of the church was ascendant. In 1095, Pope Urban II declared the first crusade, and ordered the monarchs of the West to help defend Byzantium from the Seljuk Turks and retake Jerusalem for Christianity. Over the next two centuries, the monarchs complied, many losing their lives and kingdoms in the process, before the Papacy had frittered away its power in internal conflict, corruption, and the Babylonian captivity 1309-78 in which three men claimed to be pope simultaneously and the church moved from Rome to Avignon.
|Sainte-Chapelle, Louis IX's home for the Crown of Thorns (1239-48)|
At the height of its power, Catholicism found a sovereign who modeled perfect submission to holy will in King Louis IX. At the height of his power between 1226 and 1270, he created a Western bastion to replace declining Byzantium. He built Sainte-Chapelle as his personal chapel, and bought the Crown of Thorns, carefully authenticated over the ensuing 1200 years since its wearer’s sacrifice, from looters fleeing Constantinople. That the crown had been removed at all from the declining Eastern Roman capital was a sign of how fragile the Byzantine Empire’s grip on holy authority appeared to be at the time. But it proved to be a false alarm, by hook and crook, Constantinople remained intact for another 200 years.
|The Reliquary containing The Crown of Thorns|
But I mention the Crown of Thorns because to all but the faithful, the Crown of Thorns is a fetish. It is not a sexual fetish, and no one, even infidels, would have called it a fetish at the time. The term is from 18th century anthropology. It signifies that a material artifact has become imbued with mystical powers, with the culturally imperialistic subtext that the scholar wielding the term doesn’t believe the attributed magic is real. But to the faithful, the Crown of Thorns had caused many reported miraculous healings, and was considered so powerful because of its close proximity to Christ that many reliquaries were made by breaking off individual thorns and donating them to consecrate new cathedrals. Its powers were beyond question, and rebounding Western population required spectacular new places of worship. Louis had a fabulous Gothic reliquary built for it, which now resides in le Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris, completely oblivious to that portion of Christ’s teachings that called for poverty, humility, and emphasis on good works. The reliquary looks like a caricature of the Nazi-sympathizing industrialist Walter Donovan’s poor choice of grails in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade! What St. Augustine would have thought about all this materialism can only be guessed.
|"This certainly is the Cup of the King of Kings!" He chose poorly. From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)|
The power of Louis IX’s faith was not to be denied. He was the only Western monarch canonized for his contributions to the church. In addition to building Sainte-Chapelle, buying another holy relic from Byzantium, leading two crusades, and dying in Tunis attempting to lead the second one, Louis altered the center of gravity in the Roman Catholic Church so much that the power of the French monarchy could leverage the Roman Catholic Church to leave Rome! For over 80 years, it resided in Avignon, admittedly a compromise relative to more populous and prosperous Paris. But the power of the Crown of Thorns conferred legitimacy on the succeeding French monarchs. It truly had magical political powers, and remains an object lesson in the power of fetishes. Louis IX Capet was so blessed that over three centuries after his death, cities were named St Louis all over the New World, including St Louis Missouri, St Louis Obispo, CA, and St Louis, Quebec, to name only a few.
For those of you who are family therapists, The Plantagenets were the subject of another film, the Lion in Winter, written by James Goldman and released in 1968. During the late 60s and early 70s, it was the focus of countless graduate writing assignments designed to demonstrate the power of structural family therapy on the fractious family.
|Eleanor, John, and Henry the Young King having trouble getting along in The Lion in Winter (1968)|
Historically, the Plantagenet clan was admittedly rather conflicted. Henry II allowed his son Henry the Young King to be crowned king before dad was ready to step down out of fear that his more capable and ambitious, but junior, siblings would depose Henry the Young King if he didn’t have a running start. Fallout from that effort led to conflict with Becket and the Holy See as I described above. But things were hardly peaceful in his relationship with his wife, the firebrand Eleanor of Aquitaine, eleven years his senior. Henry showed no lack of ambition in marrying her for her rich lands in Southern France (Bordeaux wine comes from there, a valuable commodity even in a weak medieval economy! ) She had already had her marriage to Henry’s main rival, King Lois VII of France annulled by the Pope himself after a protracted but failed attempt at marital therapy! Henry would eventually die after losing a battle to his middle son, Richard Lionheart. So it is no fiction devised by Goldman that the Plantangent clan under Henry II was a hotbed of conflict. The genograms of the Capet and Plantagenet dynasties with all their resultant conflicting claims to each other’s lands would be the focus of political conflicts between Britain and France for centuries to come.
One thing Henry II and Eleanor probably didn’t need was a sex therapist. Despite the fact that he was happy to see her out of the way for years at a time in Aquitaine, where she participated in the creation of the tradition of courtly love, he also imprisoned her for inciting his children to rebellion against him. In between all this ill-managed conflict, Henry and Eleanor managed to sire 8 children. Henry II was famous for his philandering, and he is a study in contrast to the equally entitled, but more constrained Henry VIII, who needed to behead and imprison wives who could not provide him with sons. Henry II’s ill-managed family conflict led to civil war, and eventually, his death.
|Richard Lionheart and Philip Auguste in The Lion in Winter.|
However Lion in Winter is a work of fiction, and there is no evidence that King Philip Auguste and Richard Lionheart had a homosexual affair, or that Henry, who took numerous mistresses, had an actual relationship with the alleged mistress in Goldman’s play. Lion in Winter is an interesting challenge in social constructionism, in that it is unclear the Goldman didn’t profit as much from the study of structural family therapy in the writing of this play as all those later family therapy student’s did deconstructing it! It is still a great deal of fun. The Lion in Winter and Becket are noteworthy for being the first big-budget depictions of medieval life that were not grossly idealized. Gilded tableware, fancy thrones and ornate costumes were far from the rule in the real medieval West of this period, relative to the Arthurian legend as depicted in Excalibur and glamorous earlier cinema. Neither is the social construction of family life glamorized. I can’t help thinking Goldman is challenging the conventional contemporary idealization of the family prevalent in the 1950’s with is choice of material. Speaking of family, James is the brother of the more famous screen writer William Goldman.
Richard Lionheart: Les Andelys
Eleanor Of Aquitaine: Eleanor of Aquitaine
Louis IX: Sainte Chapelle
© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, Ann Arbor, June 2013. All rights reserved.