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Cadfael - the Middle Ages - &Despair

Earle Fox

[COMMENT:   The following (here slightly edited) was sent to a relative from whom I received the 13 episode set of the Cadfael DVD's for a Christmas present,.  I went late into Christmas night watching the first episode.  They are an English production, very well done, depicting life in England in the 1100's.  Christianity had been around for those 11 centuries, but the Christianizing of the role of civil government had not proceeded by much.  The commonly accepted brutality by government inherited from pagan culture did not begin to change until long after the Reformation.  Secular governments have only made it far, far worse.  The piece was powerful, and set me to thinking about the relation between Christianity, civil government, and the deep sense of despair that saturated much of the Middle Ages. 

The despair had many causes, such as the failure to understand the Biblical view of government under God, the lack of understanding the feminine side of the Image of God, resulting in a punitive, hyper-masculine deity of the late middle ages, the terrible effects of the plagues, and a failure of the Christian understanding of atonement to help resolve any of the horrendous guilt problems -- all of which was a major factor in the degradation of Christian theology leading to the explosion of the Reformation, which itself did little to resolve the above issues, and created some of its own (notably a spirit of splitting). 

The era of the American Revolution was (and for the foreseeable future will be) the peak level of resolving these matters, because America has not been able to meet Ben Franklin's challenge, when, after the Constitutional convention he was asked by a woman, "Sir, what kind of government have you given us?"  to which he replied, "A republic, ma'am, a republic,  ...if you can keep it."   The founders were well aware of the dangers of losing what they had given us, and very rightly so.  We have not kept it, and are now spiraling downhill back into the pagan form of government.]   


Dear Xx,

It is late, but I just spent the last 75 minutes watching the first part of Cadfael which you sent.  It is an extraordinary piece of work, giving insight into various aspects of the middle ages.  The opening introduction sets the tone of a deep background rumble of despair with its haunting minor-key theme, and a scene of wood carvings ending focused on a skeleton topped by a crown.  King Death.  No New Testament sense of victory over death.  The late middle ages was full of this sense of despair (the flagellants, the art of Grunwald, etc.), even though at the same time germinating the seeds of a freemarket of ideas and the rise of science.  Why this terrible, deep despair?

Cadfael is a monk of the middle ages who had been a crusader knight.  The story portrayed, though not intentionally I suspect, a theme I have long thought to be true of Western history, that the early (pre-Constantine) Christians knew how to deal with Caesar (i.e., with government) as their enemy which is why the Christians won the Roman Empire.  They followed the way of the cross, never raising a sword.  But they did not know how to deal with Caesar as their friend.  That is, when Christians got into power, they very often got seduced by the attractions of power struggle. 

It was probably inevitable because the pagan mentality about power was so deeply engrained, but the 1500 year contest between Church and State portrayed that struggle.  Yet it was never taught that way in my seminary history courses, it was taught as just another power struggle between Church and State, not at all as the early and foundational struggle for the Biblical understanding of civil government.  The relationship between Biblical religion and civil government had never been worked through.  It took a long very painful, fractious history, right up into the present -- because the Church itself has only seldom seen that there is indeed a Biblical form of government.   

The pagan world was founded on the notion that the strong (those who had commanding control of coercive force) had the right, even the duty, to govern the weak.  The pagan view of the world of time and space was pretty much of a place of chaos, a vale of tears, which needed to be tamed by those with power.  So they tried their best, and sometimes succeeded to a very fragile degree. 

Life was thus ordered around one's loyalties to a given power-figure.  But that was inherently competitive, not cooperative, because there was always another power rising up to topple the one at the pinnacle, with rarely any way to adjudicate between the contenders other than the battle field.  Cadfael starts off with just that event taking place.  The city has been stormed and taken, and some 94 of its leaders hanged.  It is not clear who was right in that tussle, but that was not necessary to the theme. 

Much of the story of the middle ages is the story of how Christians were slowly learning to apply the way of the cross to politics, mainly through the slow advance of the principle that all persons are created equally in the Image of God, and are therefore equal before any government and among each other.  No one other than Jews and Christians had said that. 

The Christian view began to have more impact during the 1300's (200 years after Cadfael was "taking place"), i.e., as Christians began to translate the Bible into the local languages, and as education began to be democratized, spreading to lower and lower classes.  That spread of education and expansion of the educated population reduced the power of the Church to control people by keeping them ignorant of essentials (chiefly the Bible), and began also to reduce the power of the State. 

John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English (1300's), wrote in his introduction that God wanted a government of, by, and for the people, made famous by a much later speaker at Gettysburg.  Take a look at I Samuel 8 for the Biblical view of centralized government. 

The progress of the Biblical view began to take off with the Magna Carta (1215, between the centuries of Cadfael and Wycliffe), with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that, for the first time in English history, the king (in the person of John) was forced to share his power with the barons who had defeated him.  Over time, that trickled down to lower and lower classes who began to demand a part of the growing freedom from tyranny.  The process reached a new high water mark with the American Declaration and Constitution -- a government more than any other to that time of, by, and for the people, a new event in human history. 

But at Cadfael's time (1100's), it was just barely off the ground.  Cadfael is a monk (a former knight returned from the crusades) in an English city just conquered by a contender for the crown.  Cadfael plays the part of a (rather modernish) Sherlock Holmes to solve a murder -- in the midst of this carnage by the kings and pretenders to the post.  There was not yet the English notion of a "loyal opposition".  The winner took all, and usually hung or otherwise dispensed with his opposition.  Death was on every street corner (thieves, government, disease, etc.), hence the background rumble of despair.  Getting rid of your opposition was the traditional pagan way of solving the problem of there being no loyal opposition -- or you took the chance of being gotten rid of yourself.  Julius Caesar did not kill his opposition, but they did not say "thank you",  they killed him. 

{Did  you see "The Seventh Seal", a 1970's (?) Swedish film about another knight returning from the crusades to a Europe being decimated by the Black Plague?  It had that same sense of deep despair.  Even more so because there was no Christian element in it at all.  Every time the returning knight looked for an answer, he saw the face of death, not Jesus, peering back.  I remember seeing Swedish churches "decorated" with images of skulls (I suppose to remind the people of their mortal nature).  Just as there is a violent streak in the Germanic culture, so there is a morbid side to the Swedish (and maybe Norwegian?) culture.}   

The Biblical solution to power-struggle dominating all else was still a long time coming even by the 1500's Reformation.  The pagan solution to the chaos was power-control from the top down.  The Biblical solution was control under the law of God which not only could supersede any human government, based on a search for truth on a level playing field, but give nature itself an order.  Only the government of God, by mandating that level playing field and search for truth, could provide an effective adjudicator to the conflicts among human governments.  That is the Biblical way, but not the way typically of either secularism or paganism (though there have been many of both pagan and secular folks who have wanted to have that sort of search-for-truth). 

I think we are fast losing what we had gained regarding Wycliffe's/Lincoln's statement, as American government gets more and more re-centralized, with confusion, violence, and despair steadily mounting.  When God goes, human government takes over, and so back to all of those above deficits shown in most of human history.  Without God, without an authority higher than both the State and the Church, what or who can possibly be the adjudicator between power figures?  No human government can successfully do that, including (even especially) the United Nations.  But that is another story. 

Anyway, many thanks for the set.  It is powerful stuff and sparked a lot of thought, with deep (and not a little scary) feeling.  Christians, in the middle ages, were at a huge cross roads, but failed, I think, to take the appropriate path, uniting reason and revelation, mandating the level playing field, open to all who will obey the rules.  That is what our American government was set up to do.  We in the 21st century, are at a point where we can begin to do that..., if the Church will have the spunk, fortitude, and trust in the King of kings and Lord of lords. 

Jeepers, it's 3:40 a.m...! 

                       Love, blessings, and a happy 12 days of Christmas,  Earle 

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Date Posted - 12/26/2012   -   Date Last Edited - 05/21/2013