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A distant mirror

Medieval history has its striking themes and incidents. Beyond that, it’s fascinating for us today, or at least for me today, because it’s the source of the modern Western world, so it’s infinitely close—our modern thoughts and institutions can all be traced back there—but it’s also infinitely far away.

Maybe something like that could be said of other historical periods, or other people generally. They’re all just like us and also totally different. However that may be, it’s the High Middle Ages I’ve just been reading about, and I was struck by the idealization of poverty at that time. Saint Francis wasn’t the only one who wanted to marry Lady Poverty.

What was that about? Some not-so-original thoughts:

  • Asceticism was like modern extreme sports: running the marathon, climbing Mount Everest, doing the Ironman Triathlon. You reach for the infinite by overcoming ordinary human limitations, which include ordinary human dependencies.
  • Some accounts of Saint Francis make him sound like a wild and crazy young guy doing wild and crazy things out of high spirits, or because he’s in love, or he wants to break out of the bourgeois lifestyle. Maybe people like him so much because he took those tendencies and raised them to a whole different level?
  • The Medieval world was highly social, and also chaotic. It was a mixture of vivid and conflicting elements of every kind: Romans, barbarians, pagans, Christians, antiquity, the present, the particular, the universal, high ideals, harsh realities, etc., etc, etc. If you were a sensitive and passionate soul it tossed you about. There was too much in play that had too much of a grip on you. To get the better of life’s conflicts you had to give yourself wholly to something incomparably greater in a way that made it absolutely clear what you were doing. That was the way of extreme renunciation.
  • Or is that overly romantic? The opposite view is that they were all bored out of their minds so they had to do something, run off on a crusade or whatever, and some of them got tired of drinking and brawling and became monks because that was also something different from the everyday swamp they were stuck in. (I don’t really believe the “boredom” explanation. The general level of artistic achievement was too high for me to think they were generally disengaged from life. It must have some significance that if you look at the OED “boredom” seems to have been a product of the French Enlightenment.)

Other thoughts?



It’s a lot easier to idealize poverty when there is plenty to eat. The benign climate leading up to and encompassing the High Middle Ages in Europe resulted in a robustly healthy population whose skeletal remains show average heights on par with modern Europeans and unlike those from the middle of the Little Ice Age which averaged a full two and a half inches shorter.

Whether inspired by boredom or an overly stimulating social life medieval man certainly had more time to spare for pursuits other than growing food and keeping warm due to centuries of regularly recurring long growing seasons and mild winters. The underlying motif to the tumultuous 14th century (pace Barbara Tuchman) is the ragged descent into centuries of relative wet and cold.

There is a distinct strain of idealistic asceticism evident in the more affluent sectors of modern consumerist culture where celebration of the pursuit of “personal bests” in sports, the eschewment of automobile travel in favor of bicycling, paganistic reverence for pristine wilderness and low impact camping, etc. is endemic. St. Francis is the lone Christian saint still venerated among this class of folks due to his perceived hippiedom being in synch with the environmentalist zeitgeist. (Although I must say that I think we would all be better served by a renewed interest in the cult of Santiago Matamoros.)

Perhaps the simplest explanation for the fascination with our forebears of the 12th century is that they, like us, were well fed, healthy, and relatively rich.

No need to go so far. It is a lot easier to idealize Siberia when you live in Manhattan.

Yes, you can’t beat a nice cozy easy chair when it comes to watching the blizzard scene in Dersu Uzala on video.