Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation

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As in their moral lives, medieval scholars operated under the assumption that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (2 Cor. 3). Anglo-Saxons Christians loved unity and order. Perhaps the upheaval of the times, the rapidly rising, falling, and fragmenting of kingdoms and countries, stimulated a passion for order that might have otherwise been absent. Perhaps it was the presence of “huge masses of heterogeneous material,” fragments of a more civilized and advanced time that they inherited after the fall of Rome.[1] Regardless, they operated upon these principles of finding unity and order and this led them to become extraordinary synthesizers. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes that “At his most characteristic, medieval man was … an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.”[2] He wanted “place for everything and everything in the right place.” From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.”[3]  Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans.  All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which came from pagan cultures. Though the forces of fragmentation may be different in modern times, we can still learn from their ability to create harmony across disciplines. Indeed, the fragmentation of our moral lives extends into all areas of culture, including our academics, arts, and sciences. We set reason high “on the soul’s acropolis,” as C.S. Lewis writes in his poem “Reason,” consigning the imagination with her “dim exploring touch” to seemingly impassable depths.[4] As we enter a post-Christian era, we can learn from the medieval church’s ability to bring together all of the disciplines into “a complex unity that encompassed all of time and space,” leaving out nothing, thus revealing the grandeur of God.[5]

Eventually, the educational standards that the monasteries sought for themselves (in accordance with passages like Colossians 3:16) would spill over to the surrounding communities. As “an important new stratum of educated people was introduced into society … local gentry and nobility” began to pressure the monks to “provide education for their young.”[6],[7]Therefore, “external schools” for teaching those outside the cloister began to be established. Monasteries became centers of learning and preservation, housing libraries and repositories of writings from Italy, France, and England. Because of the tireless efforts of the monks in their commitment to preservation, much of the oral history of England has survived.

By the eighth century, a monk named Bede would go on to compile the “first account of Anglo-Saxon England ever written,” and one that is cherished still today.[8] The Venerable Bede undertook the seemingly impossible ask of synthesizing into a “coherent whole from fragmentary elements,” coming to him “through tradition, the relations of friends, or documentary evidence,” his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.[9] As can be seen in the title, this is a history of the church in England. Bede “saw Christianity as the unifying force which brought together” a culture that had been fractured into various warring kingdoms and peoples.[10] Adopting the ideas of Gregory the Great, “the main theme of the History was the progression from diversity to unity.”[11]

As one reads Bede’s History it becomes evident that he believed that there is a coherence and meaning to all events under the sun. Bede composed his history not as a pattern – a collection of disparate facts to be knitted together artificially – but as a picture to be painted.[12] It is a vision that can’t be reduced to a modern, Marxian abstraction of haves and have-nots. Rather, Bede understood that history is decidedly more complex and therefore only narrative can do it justice.[13] Once again, medieval Christians like Bede assumed that there are a logos and telos to history that results from God working all things toward His good and perfect ends. Unlike in modern times, it was believed that meaning and order had an objective existence apart from mankind’s perspective, and it was the job of the historian to discern the Divine logic. As the Benedictines structured the moral life in view of this unity, so did Bede and others in the realm of scholarship. Doubtless, these medieval thinkers would be troubled at the fragmentary way moderns approach such subjects as ethics, aesthetics, religion, and science. To them, these were all one, joined together in God who upholds all by his powerful word. Bede saw Christ as unifying history, just as Aquinas came to see our Lord as doing the same for philosophy.

Of course, the forces of fragmentation were always at hand as can be seen throughout Bede’s accounts. Only a few centuries after his passing, England would experience a “complete collapse of learning,” seeming to undo all the progress Bede and others had achieved.[14] By the ninth century, literacy had deteriorated to such an extent that King Alfred observed that “we should now have to get them [wisdom and instruction] from abroad if we were to have them.”[15] They had not valued the wisdom passed down to them, he remarks.[16] Alfred himself had been unable to read until the age of twelve. Nevertheless, this remarkable king would be responsible for one of the most ambitious educational reforms in England. Most importantly, he developed a prose tradition for ordinary use, working hard “to coax and knead English prose into a workmanlike and flexible medium.”[17] Surely, the king should be considered a pre-Renaissance man for “in the midst of governing the country and keeping the Vikings at bay, Alfred set about learning Latin” and translating books into Old English, the first of which was Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.[18] He would go on to translate Bede, Plato, and Boethius, among others. Yet despite his herculean accomplishments, the reforms struggled to take root in the unstable soil of the times. It would take several more generations for Christianity to reestablish the necessary stability for intellectual recovery.

With respect to their literature, the people of the early middle Ages were a “literate people who had lost most of their books,” writes C.S. Lewis in his work Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.[19] Nevertheless, one of the significant achievements of the Anglo-Saxon Christians is their poetry and the integrated approach they employed by using the literary form to glorify God and build his church. In his History, Bede “emphasized the importance of Caedmon and vernacular poetry in the spread of Christianity” during the time period. The Anglo-Saxon Christians’ genius for synthesis, and ability to redirect pagan virtues such as courage and heroism toward better ends, is displayed in poems like “Caedmon’s Hymn” and “The Dream of the Rood.” Adapting the pagan “Germanic heroic poetic discipline of vocabulary, style, and general technique to Christian story and Christian edification” enabled them to preserve “for Christian art the great verbal inheritance of Germanic culture.”[20] Though a historian, Bede also “wrote poetry in Latin,” even composing what most likely were his last lines in the verse. In them, Bede implies “that it is good deeds, not profound thoughts, that count in the end.”[21] In this, we see the balance of the medieval mind that, unlike our times, does not favor one discipline over another and can easily move between different subjects.

With respect to their science, in particular cosmology, Lewis claims that “they tidied up the universe” without stripping it of meaning.[22] Of course, their cosmological model was defective insofar as the data available to them were limited, but that could be said of any age, and we can be assured that future generations will say that of our own models.  The key is that the medieval mind took for granted that there was purpose in the universe and, as a result, their model was richer, more imaginative, and better at reconciling all the data of our experience. Lewis writes that when medieval man looked at the night sky, he “felt he was looking in” past the gates of day into what would be for us an “opera or a feast” full of life and grandeur.[23] Beyond the scientific, their model had definite moral and aesthetic dimensions that could not be divorced from the data since these were all unified in Christ. The experience of looking at the night sky for us is completely reversed for we look “out of somewhere warm and lighted into dark, cold, indifferent desolation, out of a house onto the dark waste of the sea.”[24]  There is no connection between the two worlds, this being a consequence of our belief in an accidental universe.  For Lewis, this assumption creates a blind spot in modern man, and the models we produce are defective in that we have to discard important data in order to reduce our world to a mindless machine. What we are left with are facts and a one-dimensional, lifeless image.

In the end, cultural engagement in Anglo-Saxon England was holistic because of its commitment to the idea that all things in heaven and earth are reconciled and unified in Christ, our reason as well as our imagination. Lewis would write in his memoir of his own struggles with the fragmentation of our modern life, saying that “the two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast,” with “one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth,” while “on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’”[25] In the modern mind, ethics, the arts, theology, philosophy, and science are all packaged into neat, discrete compartments where they seldom meet and rarely, if ever, are allowed to mingle. Once again, our science is pitiless and our pity is often very untruthful. “Oh who will reconcile in me both maid [Imagination] and mother [Reason], / Who make in me a concord of the depth and height?” Lewis asked.[26] Who, indeed. We can see the medieval church doing just this, using Christ to bring together what was put asunder in the chaos of their times.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1966), 44.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper, (New York: Harcourt, 1992), 81.

[5] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 25.

[6]David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: Second Edition, 154.

[7] Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, xxii.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Ibid.

[12] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Mineola, NY:  Dover Publications, 2007), 238.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kevin Crossly-Holland, ed., The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 209.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 208.

[17] Ibid., 209.

[18] Ibid.

[19] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper, 44.

[20] Kevin Crossly-Holland, 194.

[21] Ibid.

[22] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 45.

[23] Ibid., 59.

[24] Ibid., 59.

[25] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1984), 170.

[26] C.S. Lewis, Poems, 81.

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2 thoughts on “Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation

  1. Pingback: The Lost Light of the “Dark Ages” | Along the Beam

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