Another Look at Medieval Society


To illustrate this page, I borrowed, a drawing of two bishops and two devils from a website that offers art with a Medieval theme. The lady on the previous page that got you here is from the same place at: http://www.retroka t. com/medieval/ilos.htmart

McCall's book "The Medieval Underworld" adds several new insights into the societies and times in which Francis, the Cathars, and even the Sufis in Spain found themselves. McCall asserts that we can understand our own times better by coming to understanding the realities of Medieval society and the results of an enormous effort to force conformity. Force is an appropriate word. Persuasion back to conformity required the application of degrees of physical duress, torture was common. Resistance brought death, or duress and confinement leading to same. But the underworld persisted.

Another Look at Medieval Society:

Francis, Cathars, Courtly Love and Muslims

This is a review of a book I ran into while on a trip to Richland, Washington in April 2002. I couldn't resist the title: "The Medieval Underworld." It seemed tailor made for having some additional insights into my favorite Medieval topics. The book is by Andrew McCall (Barnes & Noble, 1993).

ASIDE: Let me walk you through some things that I found interesting in and off themselves. On page 28, a list of serious sins includes: "worldly sadness [the dreaded accidia, from which apparently large numbers of medieval people suffered]," . . . . Why is this of interest? Because in my younger years while a believing member of a religion with fundamentalist tendencies among its members, the idea was afloat among some that being depressed was a sin, a sin related to ingratitude. I heard that from some, and others of course said it was what it was, unfeeling, unthinking, self-righteous and judgemental bull-puckey. But it has deep roots!

ASIDE: Page 69 makes a rather obvious connection between medieval torture practices and the Old Testament showing God inflicting "fire and brimstone" attacks to eradicate those who displeased him, and legislating "death by stoning" and "up to forty strokes of the lash." It reconfirms my distaste for portions of that book.

Directly related to the subject of the other pages in this sub-site were these insights:

The mystically gifted Saint Louis, the King of France is discussed in the Francis of Assisi Revisited page as having communicated wordlessly with one of Saint Francis' followers, while on crusade at Damietta, who was captured after a bloody battle in which he took the city, and who then ended up giving back the city he had taken to ransom himself. He was not your usual Crusade general, this book by McCall suggests, in that he made sure there were no prostitutes with his soldiers (page 94). During the Saint's reign as King of France (1226-70) he attempted to buy prostitutes out of their profession (pp. 189-190). Also page 206 discusses the practice of burning and property confiscation for persons committing sodomy under St. Louis' long reign. McCall adds that later a firm connection was made between homosexuality and heresy, as in Old and New Testament mentions of idolatry and homosexuality in same sentence. That led to the routine accusation of homosexuality for heretics in later years, proof not necessary.

But for me the main value of McCall's book lies in its Chapter 8, "Heretics." Examples of insights of interest in that chapter are several observations by the author, such as on page 210: . . . "it was not until St Paul's Catholic brand of Christianity was given the seal of Imperial approval in 313 A.D. that large numbers of Christians began to go in mortal fear of other Christians on account of their beliefs."

McCall amplifies on this on page 211 and begins a history of heresy that culminates in the Cathars and others of interest to this discussion: "In 382, a law of Theodosius I made heresy punishable by death." The author then describes some of the old gnostic sects that had before come under verbal fire, and who now came under the reign of terror that accompanied the new compulsory orthodoxy. First there were the . . ."Montanists, who scandalized the Catholics by claiming that the perfect Christian actually became God,". . . . On page 234 McCall suggests their allowing women to be spiritual leaders was also a thorn in the side of orthodoxy.

Next McCall describes the Marcionites and their Cathar-like dualism that saw Jesus as the messenger of the "real God" in contrast with "the cruel and vengeful God of the Old Testament," . . . . Marcion described himself as the Paraclete, also claiming Godly status.

Similarly, Mani, "a mid-third-century ecstatic who lived in Persia" declared himself an apostle of Christ and combined Marcionite and old Zoroastrian dualism to create a religion with a dual membership, the Elect and the Hearers." According to McCall the Hearers were the masses that supported and confessed to the Elect. A Hearer could not be saved. I suppose this means, like in the case of the later Cathars, that there was a rite to make a Hearer into an Elect as death drew near. Else what would be the point of membership?

McCall suggests Manicheeism died out in the sixth century, but its theology was recycled into Armenian Paulism, then Balkan Bogomilism, and finally into the Catharism of Southern France that led to "hysterical violence and mass murder" in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (p. 212). Some of McCall's discussion of Satanism and witchcraft in a later chapter refers to the Cathars as having been accused of Satan worship (p. 245), similarly they were accused of homosexuality (p. 207), which we were warned above was a routine accusation for anyone suspected of heresy by this time.

On pages 218 through 221, McCall describes the beginnings of the Cathar suppression and suggests that while Pope Innocent had a crusade in progress to wipe out this heresy, he . . . "began to look about for ways in which the Church might in future be able to prevent any heretical sect from attracting so large and so resolute a following. As a first tentative step in this direction, in 1210, Innocent decided to grant official papal recognition to the ministry of the charismatic poverello, Francesco Bernardone of Assisi . By doing this he hoped to provide an orthodox outlet for the religious cravings of the growing number of Christians whose fervent desire it was to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of holy poverty."" McCall states that within a generation of the death of Saint Francis in 1226, . . . "the governing body of the Franciscan Order was demanding the execution, as heretics, of fellow Franciscans who had in fact done little more than try to practice to the letter the asceticism and self-abnegation advocated by their founder." (p. 221)

McCall makes a very good point when he continues: "Had things gone slightly differently for Francesco Bernardone, or had he lived earlier, longer or later, he might well have been condemned as a heretic rather than canonized." He then describes the Waldensian movement (pp. 221-222). Peter Waldo has a similar understanding of God's nature as preached by Francis. His movement has a similar core modus operandi as the Franciscan movement, notably embracing poverty in imitation of the original apostolic charge given by Christ. His movement is directed at saving the orthodox from Catharism and bringing Catholics out of that heretical belief. But, he made his plea to Rome about 40 years before Francis arrived there and before the crusade was called against the Cathars. Waldo's petition was denied. His movement persisted into what is in essence the first Protestant religion (McCall mentions Waldo, Wyclif and Hus as examples of movements to peacefully reform the Church that were rebuffed and instead led to the formation of a competing, heretical religion on page 230). Different popes and different times explain the different receptions of these two rather similar movements.

On pages 225-230 McCall discusses the influential work of Joachim of Fiore, a work encouraged by popes, that led people to expect the end of time and to look to the extraordinary plagues and famines and wars of their times as signs of the end. Somehow this led to the urge to cleanse oneself through mortifications of one sort or another, and to the very popular phenomenon of itinerant bands of flagellants who ritually beat themselves several times a day in a frenzy of spirituality. The cleansing urge also spread to the killing of Jews, and after there was a denouncement of the movement by the Church it led to attacks on the Church's properties and clergy, of course. Some flagellants, and this is why I wanted to mention them, claimed to have been saved into Heaven, forgiven of all sin, and to be able to perform miraculous healings. Some claimed . . ."to have regular conversations and even meals with Christ and his Mother."

In other words, they claimed to be in a relationship with God that had nothing to do with the Church that was now condemning them. The next group of heretics, the Free Spirits , made a similar claim, and McCall discuses them on pages 230-235. In fact, McCall mentions a group of "secret flagellants" having close links with the Brethren of the Free Spirit on page 235.

McCall's discussion of the roots of the movement of the Free Spirit was uninteresting to me until this showed up on page 231: . . . "a variety of their antinomian mysticism may well have been transmitted to Western Europe by the brotherhoods of Moslem holy beggars, who were known as Sufis and were in the twelfth century active in Spain."

The author of a tract revered in the movement was a woman, Marguerite Porete, who was condemned to death by fire for her writings. I discuss her in my series on a Women's Movement in the Middle Ages, as she was a Beguine. Her booklet "Mirror of simple souls" goes beyond orthodoxy, according to McCall's reading of the charges brought against her, where it goes beyond describing . . . "that moment of illumination, or mystical union," . . . and interprets it as a soul actually becoming "lost . . . in God, as a drop of water might be lost in the sea. And having thus become God, it remained God, reunited forever in a state of pristine innocence, and hence of absolute freedom." (p. 232)

The problem with the Free Spirits went beyond what Marguerite had written, however, and extended to the idea that it was alright to commit sins and crimes, and for some that it was obligatory to do so in order to emancipate one's soul into freedom. Sexual sins were favorites of course. The heresy was hunted and destroyed but remained quite elusive until it was discovered that it was alive and well in two lay movements that imitated the Franciscan model of begging and social service, the Beghards (male and usually itinerant in their ministry) and Beguines (female and settled in houses in towns). Many Beghard and Beguine organizations were orthodox and very useful as providers of social services (the Beguines and their run ins with the orthodox drive to conformity are the main focus of my pages on A Women's Movement in the High Middle Ages ), but the Church sought to do away with its lack of control over these lay movements by having the members move into recognized tertiary orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans, which allowed lay people to live religious lives. In some areas where the Beguine movement was allowed to persist because its settled style lent itself to control, the mendicant Beghards went underground and were in some cases supported by the Beguine houses. The Inquisition's severe tactics were used on some Beguines to get them to reveal the whereabouts of their Beghard spiritual advisors. One of the crimes of the Beguines was to have vernacular Biblical quotes in their possession. McCall discusses these things on pages 233-235.

In his discussion of the lot of the Jews, McCall discusses the enslavement of all Jews in Spain under the Visigoths, and on page 263 states that: . . . "there can have been few Jewish slaves who regretted the annihilation in 711 of the Visigothic kingdom at the hand of the Moors, under whom the subject peoples, both Christians and Jews, were permitted to practice their own religions in a more tolerant atmosphere of cultural exchange-an atmosphere that was to linger on even into the Spain of the Christian reconquest and so, through Jewish scholars such as Mamoinides, transmit to Christian European scholars much of ancient and Arabic learning that had been lost or unknown to them." Thus, the time of the Muslim domination of Spain was a time of religious liberty that fed the lifting of the intellectual fences around the Middle Ages. Amazing, and instructive!

That is just about the end of what I found useful and instructive in McCall's book in terms of the topics ranged over in this set of pages. There was one other thing, another aside, I found thought-provoking:

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ASIDE(FAR AFIELD, PERHAPS: Something that may offer some insight into current affairs (sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests) may be lingering influences of a combination of several things McCall accurately describes about Medieval Catholicism: (1) discounting women as inferior creatures, (2) discounting sex with a woman as evil if not within a wedded relationship, and even then it is may be evil if the motive is not procreation (though that seems to have been relaxed later), (3) responding with love and arousal to the adoration and submissiveness of boys who are taught to revere the Church's 'fathers' as God's representatives to them, who are to be obeyed, and who are role models.

The combination of 1 and 2 mean that women are to be shunned as objects of love at all cost, while 3 serves up a worthy and spiritually safe love-object. The impulse to love is easily confused over time with the impulse to experience the exhilaration of mutual sexual experience.

On page 234, McCall offers words addressing point 1 above (the book's context here is explaining the appeal of heretical movements to women because they allowed official positions to be filled by them, recognizing their inspiration and spirituality):

"In a society built and controlled by men who firmly believed in their own superiority to women in virtually all respects save as incubators of children, it was not unnatural that many women should have felt frustrated by the way in which the medieval Church so emphatically endorsed this view, not only by denying them admission to the priesthood but, more generally, by regarding any sign of a spiritual awakening in a woman with the deepest mistrust. 'Just as in the human soul there is one element which takes thought and dominates, another which is subjected to obedience,' wrote St. Augustine in his Confessions, 'so woman has been created corporeally for man; for though she has indeed a nature like that of man in her mind and rational intelligence, yet by her bodily sex she is subjected to the sex of her husband, much as appetite, which is the source of action, must be subjected to reason if it is to learn the rules of right action.'"

Again in a different context (this time explaining the greater horror of male homosexuality as compared with female homosexuality), McCall sheds light on how this ancient misogynism led to a reverence for the male and a discounting of the female (still addressing my point 1, on pp. 203-204):

. . . "this comparative lack of legal interest in lesbianism as opposed to male homosexuality is probably due to the survival until the sixteenth century of the primitive superstitious reverence for semen, as a precious fluid which should on no account be wasted, and to the essentially inferior role allotted to women, not only in society as a whole but even in the process of producing a child. For, whereas the male sperm was credited, on the authority of Aristotle himself, with the potential possession of a sentient soul, the menstrual fluid of a woman (whose contribution to the generation of a child was considered to be little more than the provision of a convenient incubator in which the all-important male egg could develop) was thought to contain only the potential parts of the body and a merely nutritive soul."

In the context of explaining the medieval Church attitudes toward prostitution, McCall discusses the Church's well-known attitude toward sex (addressing my point 2, above, on pages 179-180):

"If sex was, unfortunately, necessary to the reproduction of the human species, the Church declared, it was nonetheless very wicked to derive any enjoyment from this animal function. Pope Gregory the Great, in the eighth century, thundered his condemnation of such base pleasures and some churchmen went so far as to demand that there should be restrictions on sexual intercourse even within marriage-an attitude that was to be responsible for the appearance in the later Middle Ages of the chemise cajoule, a sort of thick nightshirt with a strategically placed hole in it, through which a pious husband might impregnate his wife with the minimal risk of experiencing pleasure in the discharge of his duty."

McCall's discussion goes on to make other points and show there was some softening of this attitude, but I believe the attitude toward sexual pleasure between a man and woman described in the above paragraph provides a good illustration of my point 2. A priest dedicated to a celibate life would go to great lengths to avoid the tempations that could lead him into this clearly prohibited and sinful outlet for his biological urges. It is a double whammy of sexual experience, in and of itself evil, and even more evil since in the case of a priest it is obviously being pursued without any intent to cause a child to be born.

So what we had in the Middle Ages is a class of men with authority in their communities who were so effectively indoctrinated that they actually came to (1) see woman as an inferior creature, (2) came to see that sex with a woman is the one thing to avoid at all cost, and (3) came to believe that only their fellow men are the part of creation that reflects the image of God. Given those three ingredients, actually believed, is it any wonder that there was a turning to adoring and obedient young men for giving and receiving love? And I choose the word 'love' here because it is no doubt, at the beginning, the genuine motive, a genuinely inspired feeling, that can then easily become the start of a relationship. Typically, as nature intended, initial feelings of love become combined with the desire to share sexual experience. And is with any sex-addict's experience, whether homosexual or heterosexual, the confusion of the urge for sexual experience with love leads to serial or even parallel sexual adventures, each leaving the addict more hungry than the previous one.

In other words, given belief in points 1 through 3, the only allowable object of true 'spiritual' love is other men. Sexual love is forbidden. But nature has commingled the urges to love, often interpreted as a spiritual feeling, and the urge to share sexuality, often interpreted as a carnal feeling although that separation is very artificial and fragile. Hence the line between love and sexual sharing is easily crossed, especially in a relationship, like the man-woman relationship, in which one has authority over the other.

Saint Basil was apparently very aware of this issue as far back as the sixth century, as McCall reports on his page 202. Note all of the elements that apply even in these modern times, and note the nuance of being young, either in reality or in mind, and the reference to acting on the spiritual feelings that may indicate an attraction:

"St. Basil, who, towards the end of the sixth century, reckoned homosexuality to be on a par with adultery, was a man at the same time acutely aware of its temptations. 'If thou art young in either body or mind,' he writes in his Renunciation of the Secular World, 'shun the companionship of other young men and avoid them as thou wouldst a flame. For through them the enemy has kindled the desires of many and then handed them over to eternal fire, hurling them into the vile pit of the five cities under the pretence of spiritual love . . .;' at meals, it is advisable to choose a seat far from other young men; when lying down to sleep, it is better to have an old man between you rather than run the risk of touching a young man's clothing; and, if a young man should speak to you, 'lest perhaps by gazing at his face thou receive a seed of desire sown by the enemy and reap sheaves of corruption and ruin . . .', it is best to reply to him with your eyes fixed firmly upon the ground. In the letter of 375, which had bracketed sodomy with adultery, St. Basil recommended that those found guilty of homosexual practices should be debarred from Holy Communion for a period of up to fifteen years in the case of those in the most important positions."

McCall continues by citing later authorities recommending shorter punishment durations for having religious privileges withheld, for youthful but knowledgeable offenders accompanied by beatings, depending on the exact nature of the acts, the age and knowledge level of a youth, and the level of the priestly perpetrator's authority. But the point that is germane to this day is the idea that this is a religious issue, therefore one to be dealt with and punished by the Church.

This is not a complete exploration of the issue of priestly abuse of boys in their charge of course. There may also be a confusion of stirrings of parental instincts and love with sexual feelings. But it seems that several aspects of Medieval theology linger on in today's Catholic world. First there is the implied belief in the superiority of the male over the female half of humanity reflected in an all-male priesthood and godhood, which discourages intimate friendships between spiritual equals. Next is a learned, self-imposed abhorrence of the very idea of sexual intercourse with a woman, to protect oneself against the temptation of violating the defining condition of the priesthood: celibacy. This, when combined with necessarily close and nurturing relationships with young men who are in awe of and obedient to the authority presented by ones priesthood, is a dangerous mix for some who come to confuse genuine and appropriate love feelings with sexual desire. It is much as St. Basil warned over a thousand years ago.

These same ingredients are in the mix that led to the selection of a young man as a worthy love object among Sufis. Rarely was it a young girl, for similar reasons as in the Catholic faith: men were spiritually superior and thus boys were more worthy of guidance and attention of a master than girls. No doubt, though the ideal was a nurturing relationship of mutual benefit, those types of loves also fell into the same rut of becoming sexual outlets as in the modern cases. In both cases the religion strictly prohibited homosexuality, but human nature being what it is, well, it seems to be a rather common outcome.

In the Sufi case marriage was encouraged, in the Catholic case it is forbidden. What the two have in common (Rumi's words that can be used to indicate the contrary notwithstanding: his example tells he is of the same mind set) is a vision of the male as the spiritual being, the female as the biological being, with the latter supporting and serving the former.

Hence one looks to other males for spiritual knowledge, for inspiration. The nurturing relationship of a young man and an older accomplished man is well illustrated in the story of Saul and David in the Old Testament. In ancient Greece it was also a commonplace and expected thing for a man of some accomplishment to take a young man under his wings and teach him what he knows in a very openly loving and sexual relationship, even though the man would also typically have a wife at home, and his own children. Women were subservient and not to be nurtured in this way. Sexual relations between such old/young man pairs were stylized to a degree, but were expected, even though the men were expected to be husbands (owners) and impregnators of their wife and were free to engage in the use of prostitutes. As in the Sufi and Catholic cases, it seems that a common outcome of some homosexual activity between older men and boys is the natural outcome of an internalized belief in the worthiness of males and the inherent lesser status of females. As St. Augustine said it, woman's sexual anatomy indicates she was made to be sexually and otherwise subservient to men and in need of male direction. This is a basis for a relationship between a superior and an inferior, but not a basis for love

In fact in the Middle Ages the idea of love being an expected part of marriage was a foreign one. Hence the Courtly Love idealization, which presumed that one had a wife, but also presumed that one would naturally seek true love elsewhere, even if it were the love of a married woman that had to be kept at a distance. Although much adultery followed from seeking to implement this Courtly Love ideal, we see some examples as successful.

For example Dante revering his Beatrice when both were married, and especially after her untimely death when the pining for her was changed to an imaginary relationship of love, mediated by the God Love, that led Dante into the Divine Presence. But the healthy thing about the Courtly Love ideal was that the love object tended to be a relatively mature woman. For this to be so it had to involve a revolution in the way women were perceived by men. No wonder this "Religion of Love" came from the Languedoc and was declared a heresy! It was a heresy if orhtodoxy meant that women were to be owned and used as servants and tools for reproducing men.