Archive for January, 2012

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—“Fallen Institutions” of the Middle Ages

[This is the fourth installment of my mini-history—more to come]

I’ve been searching for years for a book or a course that would guide me through the intellectual history of Western Europe from the time of Charlemagne (A.D. 800) to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (1600-1800).  How did events and people in this time manage to unseat Christianity from its monopoly of moral authority in medieval Western Europe on questions of what is True and Right and Good (see my January 2011 post on “Science and Religion—Where is the Source of Authority?”).  In my just-previous post (April 2011), I shared my discovery that there was so much about the Medieval Mind, thoroughly imbued with the Christian worldview, that fostered development of the Modern Mind.  Yet the Modern Mind is deeply conflicted about Christianity as the Source of Authority, or even a source of authority, and wants to search for other authorities, any other for some of us.  What happened to cause this reaction, even rejection?  Most of us have taken for granted what popular authors of the past three centuries have glibly told us about religion, especially Christianity, as a reflection of ignorant bias, a cause of war and suffering, and an impediment to science and progress.  Satisfying as this dismissal may be for many, it has the unfortunate burden of being historically incorrect on all three counts of the indictment.  Therefore this glib dismissal itself must be a reflection of some ignorant bias.  Where did this bias come from?

I finally found a comprehensive course that filled the historical gap for me:  “The Development of European Civilization,” taught by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett of the University of Toronto as one of The Great Courses of The Teaching Company ( http://www.thegreatcourses.com), published in 2011.  Unless otherwise noted, my main source for the facts and interpretations I offer here and in the next four posts is this course by Professor Bartlett.  I am embarrassed to admit that millions of university students have taken a similar “European Civ” course as freshmen or sophomores to fulfill their core course requirements.  I did not.  I went to Cornell University, specifically because in the 1960s this was one of the first of the big-name universities to de-emphasize “liberal arts education” in favor of allowing eager students like me to focus almost immediately on a specialty—biological sciences in my case.  As I’ve puzzled over the difficult questions of life beyond my initial profession, I’ve keenly felt this deficit in my basic education and had to do remedial work (such as the reading for this Idiot’s History).  Often I’ve learned from my son’s coursework within a more traditional core curriculum (I’ll offer an example in a moment).

Fallen Institutions

I take the title of this post from a conversation with a friend, Dr. Robb Davis, an accomplished scientist, practitioner of international development and a deeply thoughtful Christian.  His conversation point is captured in this passage of an article Robb wrote for The Ellul Forum (p. 7 of the Fall 2010 issue):

Included in this broader understanding [from the writings of St. Paul] is the idea that institutions and systems which God has created for good act as dehumanizing forces; essentially trading their true role in maintaining the conditions for human flourishing for other ends, including their own survival.  In this way they reveal their ‘fallenness.’” (© International Jacques Ellul Society. www.ellul.org).

This point would have been understood easily by the Medieval Mind, because of the immense influence of St. Augustine’s writings, in particular on the concept of Original Sin.  Human institutions may be divinely conceived and constructed from divine inspiration, but they are nonetheless built, staffed and run by humans, who suffer the burden of Original Sin, which arose with the Fall of Adam and Eve from God’s Grace in the Garden of Eden.

This concept has enormous explanatory power for Christians trying to make sense of the ways of the world.  It generates a testable prediction, that a human being is not born good, only to be corrupted by interaction with family and society (which is a popular view in the Modern Mind), rather a child is born with free will, which has a tendency to self-absorbed evil in the absence of self-discipline that comes from education by adults who have mastered this self-discipline.  The Medieval Mind took this notion for granted, attributing this self-discipline to Christian education benefiting from God’s Grace through the work of the Holy Spirit.  It was no big stretch to extend the concept of “fallenness” from human individuals to human institutions—divinely inspired, perhaps specifically mandated by God, but subject to the entropy of human “fallenness,” constantly corroding all it touches and so requiring regular correction, just as a house needs an occasional new coat of paint and other forms of routine maintenance to keep it from rotting away and falling down.  The falling of institutions, even divinely-inspired ones, has been seen over and over as “trading their true role … for other ends, including their own survival.”  And so it must have been that dominance for a thousand years took their toll on Christianity and the Christian-soaked institutions of the Middle Ages.

The Three Estates of the Feudal System

Let’s look at those Christian-soaked institutions of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, in light of the course by Prof. Bartlett (who shows no pro- or anti-Christian bias in his presentation of history, as far as I can tell).  He starts with the disintegration of the Roman imperial system of laws, administration, roads and ports, and coinage to facilitate trade, in the fearsome chaos of successive barbarian invasions from the north and the east. All that was left was a diminished population with a shrinking economy shattered into hundreds of isolated pieces and a memory of the imperial system of which only the still-relatively-new state religion, the Roman version of Christianity, remained just barely standing.  As I explained in an earlier (March 2011) post, Thomas Cahill, in Mysteries of the Middle Ages (p.39), described the local bishop as often the only Roman official who stayed at his post and was “capable of implementing a body of law and custom that could reestablish social peace and guide the new barbarian ruler (and the mixed population of Romans and barbarians that he now ruled) toward a rational political settlement.” Roman popes and their bishops and priests had to make deals for the Western Church to survive; circumstances required that they be practical and flexible. This was not a time to be overly zealous about fine points of theology.  Romans long had a deeply practical streak, even in their theology, preferring to focus on the literally down-to-earth implications of the Incarnation of God as a human being like themselves.  If God could accommodate human beings through the Incarnation, surely the Roman Church could accommodate the barbarians in all their loathsomeness.  Moreover, the Church had no choice.

From the chaos, this awkward accommodation of Christian officials and barbarian overlords built the “feudal system” with its three “estates”—the landed nobility, the Church, and everyone else who did the hard work.  The feudal system had its origins partly in the Roman custom of patronage, in which prominent men drew prestige from literally being followed through the streets by less prominent men who sought prestige by association and a share of the favors the Man could provide to loyal followers.  Even more, the feudal system drew from the similar Germanic custom of comitatus, in which a heroic warrior was surrounded by other proven warriors who gained honor and favor through their valorous military service to their hero-chief as well as first pick of the spoils of victory in battle.  Prof. Bartlett offers the colorful analogy of these Germanic warrior alliances to modern biker gangs—in the absence of any effective state apparatus, they could do pretty much what they wanted, with no constraints other than their own code of ethics—public power in private hands.  However, to enjoy the spoils of their victory, these strong men (kings) and their henchmen (nobles) had to prepare for defense against the next wave of barbarians as well as the miscreants of their own tribe.  And they had to eat!  Without money to pay for the military service of the nobles, the king had to offer them control of food-producing land and the people who would work it for them.  So, with the collaboration of the Church (presumed to be essential for gaining the cooperation of the Third Estate), these biker gangs settled on the land and developed the feudal system and the “manorial economy.”

Knights and Monks

The stirrup, one of the many prosaic inventions of the Middle Ages, made it possible to fight on horseback, protected by heavy armor and able to use high-impact lances and other heavy weapons.  The warriors became knights, the fearsome medieval equivalent of modern military tanks.  The care and feeding of a knight and his horse “takes a village” and enough good land to feed and clothe both the knight’s family and the villagers and their priest, who all benefited from the knight’s protection from outsiders—this was the “manor” over which the knight ruled as he chose to rule, constrained only by the web of customary practice and mutual obligation that governed nobility and villagers alike with the blessing and help of the Christian authorities.   The king provided the land and people to support the knight and in return had the right to call upon his knights to gather in defense of the kingdom or to attack other kingdoms.  Otherwise, the knight was the lord of his own manor, with little support or interference from other knights.  The manor was a self-contained and self-supported economic and social unit.  All administration, economy and social life itself was supremely local and, in the best of times, mostly isolated from the rest of the world.  Trade among these local units was hampered not only by marauding bandits and lack of roads and bridges but also by lack of money—literally no currency with widely recognized value.

Some of these local units were abbeys—spiritual communities of monks (monasteries) or nuns (convents), most organized according to the Rule of St. Benedict.  Their number exploded in the period 550-700.  This seems strange in the chaos of the time, when we might assume that mere survival would trump the luxury of supporting whole communities of Christian contemplatives removed from the world.  The monastic movement was effectively autonomous of Church control but benefited from Church endorsement and grants of land by a king or other noble.  The phenomenal growth no doubt reflects the pervasive esteem for Christianity as well as the need to protect its traditions and learning from the barbarian onslaught and for many, of course, the opportunity to take refuge from the danger and hard work experienced by most people of the time.  An abbey was the fortified great house of a manor, supported in the same way as for a knight, by a village and land worked by the villagers for the benefit of the abbey’s residents.  Often the monks and nuns themselves worked very hard, too, along with the villagers, to support the manorial economy and protect life and property from marauders.  Moreover, the abbeys were responsible for much of the remarkable inventiveness of the Middle Ages and the preservation and advancement of learning and arts.

While recognizing that Wikipedia accounts need to be treated with caution, I find they often provide succinct descriptions as good or better than I can offer (for now, at least).  I will occasionally quote from Wikipedia to summarize what I have found in other sources that confirm the facts offered, such as this one (just as Wikipedia welcomes correction and amplification, so do I—please comment):

“The Benedictine monasteries went on to make considerable contributions not only to the monastic and the spiritual life of the West, but also to economics, education, and government, so that the years from 550 to 1150 may be called the ‘Benedictine centuries’.” 

Meritocracy Corroding into Aristocracy

This feudal system lasted so long because it met the needs of people bereft of the protection and administration of a larger government.  It was most developed in France, England and Germany but similar forms were widespread throughout the former Roman Empire.  It worked especially well when it was still a meritocracy, with the bravest, most capable warriors becoming knights and the most spiritually committed Christians becoming priests, monks and nuns, thereby justifying the privileges and honor yielded to them by the Third Estate in exchange for their protection and assistance in the temporal and spiritual worlds.

Over the centuries, however, meritocracy corroded into aristocracy.  A knight’s investment in the years of training and equipment needed to prepare his successor was most efficiently focused on the knight’s own sons.  And to maintain the minimal size necessary for a manor to support a knight and his family and horse and so on, the “law of primogeniture” arose to forbid the knight from dividing his manor among his sons.  From these practical constraints arose the cultural assumption that succession was the eldest son’s birthright, sometimes in spite of rather than because of the son’s competence.  Surplus sons were destined to join the Church, as the only respectable alternative profession for the sons of nobility.  While members of the Third Estate could become priests and advance up the ranks of the Church, most commonly the privileged status of the nobility adhered to the sons who joined the Church, so that privileged positions of status within the Church, especially the bishops and abbots, were mostly given to those born of noble families.  Given that the boys typically did not freely choose to join the Church, they were not dependably pious or even of good moral character.  For both knights and leaders of the Church, moral leadership and self-sacrifice for the common good, even administrative competence, too often melted away, leaving only the seeking and protection of privilege and luxury.  These baked-in contradictions of the feudal system would play out over many, many centuries, even well beyond the Middle Ages.

The principal contradiction was between the ideal of the Christian life (loving and serving God and each other as God’s children, each an invaluable part of the mystical body of Christ) and the Roman and barbarian reality (violence met with violence and might making the right to enforce a rigid hierarchy of status, rights and privileges).  Being the state religion at the time of imperial disintegration and the only widespread and remotely effective guardian of moral and civic order afterward, the Roman Catholic Church had both the opportunity and the self-imposed duty to concern itself with the temporal as well as spiritual lives of its parishioners, Roman citizens and barbarians alike.  In retrospect, it is easy for us to foresee the danger in religious leaders (promoters of the ideal life) taking responsibility for the messy job of creating and maintaining civic order.  But only some of the religious could exercise the monastic option to attempt withdrawal from the real world.  The rest, from the Pope to the parish priests, had to find a way to work with and even support the emerging social and political order, no matter how far it was from the Christian ideal.  The danger, of course, is guilt by association.  If you undertake to fix it, you often end up owning it.  After centuries, the Church was thoroughly entangled with the feudal system.

Beowulf and the Unpleasant Compromise

The tension and danger in the process of Christianizing the barbarians is illustrated by the earliest of Old English literature, the epic poem Beowulf, the date and author unknown but believed to be as early as the 700s (but maybe as late as 1000).  My son, Jeremy Dunford, wrote a “final paper” for Loyola Marymount University’s History 100, in which he interpreted Beowulf as emblematic of the tension in the Middle Ages that finally produced an unpleasant compromise.  In addition to the history course on European civilization, Jeremy drew from his Jesuit high school freshman English course that focused on the study of Beowulf.  At Jeremy’s age, I would not have been caught dead reading Beowulf, nor did he choose to read it!  But he clearly gained a much deeper understanding of both European history and Christianity from this forced exposure, as well as benefiting in some way from reading one of the Great Books of our civilization.  I learned so much from his essay that I thought it worthwhile to share it (posted just before this piece).

The relevant point in Jeremy’s essay is that the poet employs all the classic elements of a Norse epic to introduce his pagan audience to the Christian worldview and way of life.   Beowulf is the proud hero that the Germanic newcomers to England could admire and understand, a man who flaunts his raw power and unmatched wit, whose valor and accomplishments were admired above all else.  Having established his credibility as a true hero in pagan eyes, Beowulf gradually morphs into a Christian in what he says and does, embodying Christian virtues.  In death, Beowulf becomes a Christ-like figure, saving his people from the clutches of evil and fulfilling his duty to promote the common good of humanity.  Jeremy’s interpretation is that the poet engaged in a very modern type of message packaging—telling the Christian story to pagan Germanics in the language of their own culture and in terms they could understand and embrace.  However, the flash of insight (from either Jeremy or his teachers or both) is that “While millions of pagans were converted when Christianity mixed with paganism, the influence was not a one-way street.”  The Church’s accommodation with the barbarians created the feudal system, but it proved to be a Faustian bargain.

Quoting from Professor Bartlett:

Thus, by the end of the 11th century, Western Europe was fragmented into small units, ruled by a professional warrior class, who obeyed no laws but their own principles of feudal practice and custom, known as chivalry.  Although the Church knew that it could not change these professional killing machines into men of peace, it also knew that their power and aggression could be turned against the enemies of Christendom.  It was not an accident, then, that the Crusades erupted at just the time when these principles of chivalry were beginning.

I’ll let Jeremy finish this post:

Certain pagan values such as militancy and material prosperity were adopted into a new sense of piety that proved to be the driving spirit of the Crusades.  Nothing in Jesus’ or Augustine’s Christianity would have allowed for such brutal massacre or such worldly desires, yet in 1099, as described by William of Tyre, the crusaders butchered the inhabitants of Jerusalem, showing no mercy and leaving no survivors. Concealed by the veil of “God’s will,” crusaders’ passion overtook their Biblical foundations. After killing all and sundry, the pillagers selfishly claimed any possessions that they wanted, completely discarding the principles of moderation and sacrifice. These were not starving peasants, but wealthy lords who were claiming more for themselves. Without the promise of land, they probably would never have left to fight in the first place. Their greed vanquished any remaining ounce of true Christian character.  Moreover, immediately after killing and raping the people of Jerusalem and stealing all of their possessions, the crusaders knelt to pray. Clearly they were under the impression that they were working for God, assuming that, because they had been sent by Pope Urban, this was the will of the Church. Since the Church defined what “Christianity” meant at any given time, Christianity itself was now a religion of self-interested rich men looking to get richer by any means possible while hiding under the mask of doing God’s will. This could not be farther towards the opposite end of the spectrum from those to whom Christianity originally appealed – the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.

Historians agree that the ‘Dark Ages’ for European culture ended around the turn of the millennium. The darkest days for Christianity, on the other hand, lasted much longer. By the time of the Crusades, the Christianity of Jesus and Augustine had been so greatly influenced by pagan materialism that greed replaced piety, acquisitive militancy replaced mercy, and corrupt misconceptions of God’s will replaced the testament of the disciples.  Francis of Assisi recognized this overwhelming materialism at the forefront of Christianity and dedicated his life toward reestablishing the spirit of sacrifice on which it was founded, marking a decisive turning point in the Church’s history and setting it on course to restore its former virtuous glory.”

Not that the medieval Church approved of all that the Christian knights did or that it took no effective action to moderate their behavior, but the society that gave rise to the Crusades was formed in large part by the Roman Catholic Church.  The Crusades were only one of the new developments in the High Middle Ages that ultimately undermined the moral authority of the Church as well as the feudal system.  In my next post, I will delve into specifics of what happened and how figures like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas sparked a true renaissance that might have saved Christianity from its later fate.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—Beowulf and the Christian Compromise

[In support of my next post in the Idiot’s History series, I am posting the full text of a paper my son, Jeremy Dunford, wrote for a history course at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.]

Stemming from the roots of Judaism, Christianity developed in the wake of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the first millennium following his death, the new religion cyclically spread and morphed to fit the time period and people who became enveloped by the ever-growing phenomenon. As pagan traditions were integrated into monotheistic Christianity, the core foundations of the religion managed to remain steadfast until end of the Dark Ages. Around this time, grand transformations in how the Europeans interpreted and lived out the teachings of the Church began to occur. By comparing the historical texts that connect Christ to the Christendom of the High Middle Ages, we can clearly discern that the shifts that occurred were fundamentally in line with classic Christian tradition to a point, but by the time of the Crusades had completely obliterated the philosophies of Christ and Augustine. Pagan ideals that emphasized physical wealth eventually overcame the righteous nature that had defined followers of Christ since the time of the Pax Romana. The centrality of Christian piety remained a constant across the earlier centuries, but between the Dark Ages and High Middle Ages its definition drastically changed from one of selfless sacrifice to one of zealous materialism.

The strong Jewish ancestry of Christianity is shown in the Old Testament. In Exodus, the Hebrews name themselves as God’s “chosen people,” the first recipients of His law and constituents in the Covenant. Essentially, the Covenant says that God will bless His people so long as they obey His law, made explicit in the Ten Commandments. The concept of sin, introduced in Genesis and later expanded upon by Saint Augustine, is defined as the usage of man’s free will to violate God’s laws and breach the Covenant. Original Sin, the origin of evil illustrated in Genesis by the eating of an apple from the tree of knowledge, can be simply described as man acting selfishly to fulfill his own desires rather than living life in the name of God. As the first to present the concept of ethics, the Hebrews symbolized the shift from this-worldliness to the supernatural that would be developed in the Christianity that followed.

Thousands of years after prophets first began to preach of a Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth expounded Old Testament philosophies and taught what would become the apex of Christian doctrine. According to the Gospel of Mark, the greatest commandment of all is to, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Central to the early Christian worldview were the notions of selflessness and living as a vassal for God’s grace. The Beatitudes, outlined by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, were meant to curb the worldly, egocentric vices of pride, revenge, and greed. Jesus’ teachings especially appealed to the poor, meek, downtrodden, and persecuted who felt left out by Rome’s grand successes.

As Lactantius describes, Greed is the source of evil and is the principal cause for the degeneration of society. Thus, as Jesus commanded, generosity towards the needy is the basis for achieving social justice and bringing order to the earth. Concern for the common good was of primary moral importance, and it was on this point that Saint Augustine based his most famous work, City of God. Augustine’s central premise is that when human beings turn away from God to follow their own appetites (in effect succumbing to original sin), they fall into evil and cannot possibly find true happiness (happiness here is equated to an afterlife in heaven). He says that, “When a man lives ‘according to man’ and not ‘according to God’ he is like the devil,” and that while human nature inherently involves the capacity for sin, we can overcome our natural immoral desires to work for God and attain eternal salvation. As opposed to the City of Man, there exists in the City of God, “a piety which worships the true God…and all of the citizens are personally immortal with an immortality…which even human beings can come to share.”  Happiness, he says, cannot come from man alone but only through God in the afterlife; to sin is to live according to oneself and thus lose God. Pagans claimed that happiness was achievable in this world, but Augustine argued that the only perfect world is heaven with God. He asserts that it is in swallowing our pride (the foundation on which sin is built) and complying with the laws of God that we might be saved by Jesus Christ and gain entrance to this City of God.

Once Constantine reunited the Empire, made Christianity legal in 313, and officially established Christian dogma with the Nicene Creed in 325, the spirit of Christendom spread like wildfire. A vivid example of how Christendom was achieved in the Dark Ages is the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. When Rome abandoned the Britons, they were a newly Christian society that was now vulnerable to powerful pagan Germanic tribes. As Bede describes, Christian monks slowly assimilated the newcomers to their religion through slow integration. While Beowulf includes certain values such as pride, material wealth, and desire for fame and glory, its message has a clear Christian tone of selfless piety. The writer’s expression of the story is plainly steeped in a deeply pagan tradition (empathizing with his readers), yet he focuses on distinctly Christian ethics, signaling his attempt to quicken the expansion of Christianity to the Viking commoners.

In essence, the opening passage depicting an all-powerful, omnipresent force to whom all creation owes its existence, perfectly in line with the Christian image of God that was developed in the Roman Empire, serves to offer insight into the audience for whom this poem was intended – the common people who could be hearing the Creation story for the first time and whom the writer hoped would come to understand Christianity, if not fully convert. God’s counter-character, Grendel, is directly juxtaposed to the, “Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of Heavens and High King of the World” (180). Grendel evidently defies the pagan ideals of prideful boasts and cunning, strategic battle while also challenging Augustine’s Christian view that man should act solely for the purpose of serving God rather than fulfilling his own worldly appetites. The beast is simply living to literally fulfill his own appetites by eating men, thus embodying the exact animalistic evil identified by Augustine in City of God. The author of the poem thus drives home the Christian message of the immorality of living for one’s selfish desires, using exaggerated images of the savage slaughter of the Danes that would be considered evil by pagans and Christians alike.

On the other hand, the Great Hero demonstrates virtues that were idealized by the Anglo-Saxons. We find aspects of both pagan and Christian traditions portrayed in the writer’s characterization of Beowulf as proud to the point of arrogance, yet at the same time willing to trust in God and submit to a greater destiny that will ultimately decide his fate. For example, when introducing himself to Hrothgar, Beowulf says that, “every elder and experienced councilman among my people supported my resolve to come here to you…because all knew of my awesome strength” (415). The Germanics needed a proud hero to relate to, a man who flaunts his raw power and unmatched wit. They came from a lawless barbarian culture in which, as Tacitus described, valor and accomplishments were admired above all else. For the Anglo-Saxons to support Beowulf as their champion, the author needed to show his experience, credibility, and merit. Because prideful boasts, while not at all a Christian idea, were valued highly by the pagans, they were a necessary inclusion to the story for the audience to accept the concept of piety which the poet would later introduce.

In what some might call a conceited display of pure egotism, Beowulf renounces his weaponry so as to even the playing field when the time comes to grapple with the monster. In essence, he is welcoming the challenge from evil, firmly asserting his confidence not only in his own abilities, but in his God as well. With this act, Beowulf expresses his utmost assurance that he is fighting for the right cause, and that, no matter what unfavorable circumstances might confront him, he cannot lose with God on his side. He proclaims that, “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God…Fate goes ever as fate must” (440-455), and later, “May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever He sees fit” (685). In one sense, fate is primarily a pagan attribute, as Christians believe that man was given the power to voluntarily disobey God’s will (deemed “sin”). Beowulf feels that all of his strength is God-given and every battle he wins is ultimately the result of God’s judgment. To a degree, he sees the outcome of each campaign as somewhat pre-determined, consequently deeming the specific details of his own actions insignificant. This might lead us to believe that the Anglo-Saxons followed in the footsteps of the ancient Sumerians (as portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh) who viewed fate as the dominating force in the universe and entirely disregarded free will.

Yet, as the poem continues, a distinctively Christian tone emerges and eventually consumes the pagan theory of fate. In living as though he is enmeshed within the greater framework of fate, Beowulf seems to exhibit signs of belief in the Christian idea that there are multiple parts to one Almighty God. He is constantly claiming that, while God’s will always wins in the end, God is working through him to achieve that end. It is almost as if the hero is indicating faith in a sort of “Holy Spirit” force that drives man to carry out the will of God. In most pagan traditions, the gods were directly involved in bringing their decrees to reality, but in Beowulf fate is realized through man. The author thus ties the two together:  it is not fate versus free will, but fate with free will. For Christendom to be achieved, the Anglo-Saxons must understand free will in terms that can be reconciled with their pre-existing beliefs. Beowulf’s expression of both signifies that God works indirectly through man to bring forth an ultimate fate; God cannot paint the image of fate Himself, so He needs man as His brush. After this combination cosmology had been accepted, the English could be fully converted to the ethical morality of pure free will that devout Christians believed to be truth.

In addition, Beowulf’s main goal in life appears to be achieving fame and glory on this earth, undoubtedly pagan objectives. While acknowledging that, physically, “all of us…must make our way to a destination already ordained where the body…sleeps on its deathbed” (1003), he seeks eternal life through legends and tales of his epic accomplishments. Beowulf is showered in gifts honoring his triumphs, which he graciously accepts. These rewards are earthly, and it seems as though Beowulf does not recognize the Christian concept that one’s true recompense comes through everlasting life with God in Heaven. Again, as Bede’s process of slow assimilation suggests, the idea of an afterlife may have been completely unfamiliar to the pagan barbarians. Christian missionaries had to relate to the worldly views of the Anglo Saxons before introducing such a wildly outlandish proposal.

Much later in the poem, Beowulf displays a very Christian selflessness. Upon his deathbed, he announces, “To the everlasting Lord of All, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure…that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die” (2794).  At this point, he could potentially be considered a Christ-like figure. In death, both leave their respective people free from the clutches of evil and rejoice in the fact that they have fulfilled their duty by truly contributing to the common good of humanity. The author thus attempts to create a Christ figure for the English since they could not yet read the Bible. It was in writing down a relatable story in their own language (Old English) that they could spread the new ideas amongst themselves without having to hear monks read alien Bible stories in Latin. The result would be exactly what the missionaries had hoped for – Germanic peoples being introduced to Christianity in the language of their own culture and terms they could understand.

For most of the poem, contrasting pagan and Christian concepts appear to balance each other in emphasis. But in his final speech to Wiglaf, Beowulf makes it clear that even more than any personal reward of power, wealth, or fame, he wants to depart from this world knowing that he used all of his God-given talents to help mankind thrive. Most pagan societies would place utmost importance on personal achievement, but Beowulf embraces the unmistakably Christian philosophy of caring for others before oneself. Contrary to pagan beliefs, Beowulf is revealed to have lived as if his own true happiness came from devoting his life to making others happy. Instead of scoffing at this concept, the pagan audience is open to it because it is placed within framework of God’s will. The author has thus accomplished his goal, successfully presenting Christianity through a pagan lens and slowly leading his audience from admiration of pride to ultimate acceptance of Augustine’s Christian piety as heroic. The pagan aspects of the story served as a permeable buffer between the writer’s pagan audience and his own Christianity.

As the Dark Ages progressed into the High Middle Ages, Christianity drastically altered in both practice and principle. While millions of pagans were converted when Christianity mixed with paganism, the influence was not a one-way street. Certain pagan values such as militancy and material prosperity were adopted into a new sense of piety that proved to be the driving spirit of the Crusades.  Nothing in Jesus’ or Augustine’s Christianity would have allowed for such brutal massacre or such worldly desires, yet in 1099, as described by William of Tyre, the crusaders butchered the inhabitants of Jerusalem, showing no mercy and leaving no survivors. Concealed in the veil of “God’s will,” crusaders’ passion overtook their Biblical foundations. After killing all and sundry, the pillagers selfishly claimed any possessions that they wanted, completely discarding the principles of moderation and sacrifice. These were not starving peasants, but wealthy lords who were claiming more for themselves. Without the promise of land, they probably would never have left to fight in the first place. Their greed vanquished any remaining ounce of true Christian character. Moreover, immediately after killing and raping the people of Jerusalem and stealing all of their possessions, the crusaders knelt to pray. Clearly they were under the impression that they were working for God, assuming that, because they had been sent by Pope Urban, this was the will of the Church. Since the Church defined what “Christianity” meant at any given time, Christianity itself was now a religion of self-interested rich men looking to get richer by any means possible while hiding under the mask of doing God’s will. This could not be farther towards the opposite end of the spectrum from those to whom Christianity originally appealed – the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.

Historians agree that the “Dark Ages” for European culture ended around the turn of the millennium. The darkest days for Christianity, on the other hand, lasted much longer. By the time of the Crusades, the Christianity of Jesus and Augustine had been so greatly influenced by pagan materialism that greed replaced piety, acquisitive militancy replaced mercy, and corrupt misconceptions of God’s will replaced the testament of the disciples. Francis of Assisi recognized this overwhelming materialism at the forefront of Christianity and dedicated his life toward reestablishing the spirit of sacrifice on which it was founded, marking a decisive turning point in the Church’s history and setting it on course to restore its former virtuous glory.

Copyright 2010 by Jeremy Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Jeremy Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)


Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!