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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?