A Theory on Mandeville

Preparations for my course on travel (still time to sign up!), led me to reread one of my favorite medieval works recently, Mandeville’s Travels.  The merits of the book are many. It’s wondrously imaginative, with all the sciapods, fountains of youth, and mighty Christian kings of the East that you could ask for, made all the more charming because it’s likely that Mandeville1 hadn’t traveled any further than his local monastery’s library.

Reading this time, I was struck by the question of why then did he write the book?  Why invent these travels?  Luckily, medieval authors are prone to explaining (even over-explaining) themselves, and Mandeville is no exception:2

And for as much as it is a long time past since there was any general passage over the sea into the Holy Land, and since men covet to hear that land spoken of, and divers countries thereabout, and have of that great pleasure and enjoyment…of these lands and isles I shall speak more plainly, and shall describe a part of those things that are there, when the time comes, according as they come to my mind, and specially for those who desire and intend to visit the holy city of Jerusalem and the holy places that are thereabout; and shall tell of the way that they shall go thither, for I have many times traveled and ridden over it in goodly company of lords.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, 44-5

What do we take from this?  I think it’s unlikely that Mandeville intended for his book to be a serious guide to the routes toward the Holy Land.  Any number of these already existed in his time period and, while he does give fairly concrete directions in the first part of the book (that part dealing with the Eastern Mediterranean world), that leaves the entire second part, his fantastical travels through Asia, unaccounted for.

Instead, I’d like to suggest that his purposes speak to the purposes of medieval travel writing more generally (and perhaps modern travel writing as well).  Medieval travel literature, particularly the literature of pilgrimage, can often dull us with its pedantic concern with how many paces wide a church is, how tall the altar of this shrine is to that shrine, and endless catalogs of relics.  But these passages serve a very specific purpose.  They’re their so that the reader can construct an imaginative landscape in their memory, so that they can continue to contemplate the place visited well after they have returned home, and even if they hadn’t traveled at all.  In a passage that I was pointed to by Shayne Legassie’s book on medieval travel, Elizabeth Bennet neatly describes the end goal of this sort of writing:

Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chap. 27

The point (or a point, at least) of travel writing, therefore, is to engender a recollection of the distant landscape as an object of contemplation.

Connecting back to Mandeville, what if we take his comments about the difficulty of travelling to the Holy Land (notably, they are preceded by a call for Crusade to re-open these routes) as not simply a statement of fact but also a lament.  Mandeville’s own ambitions to travel there thwarted, he turns to books, reading widely and constructing imaginative journeys therefrom.  As he notes, learning about the wonders of the world affords great pleasure (and he repeatedly invokes delight when describing these later in the book), and so he writes his book in order to impart the joy of these imaginative journeys to others.  He turns out to not be such a liar after all, for he had traveled to the east many times in the company of great lords, the great lords who wrote the accounts that delighted him so.  He traveled the landscape of memory, where he now sets out to take his readers on a journey of their own.

Very cool.


1. Who, incidentally, probably didn’t exist.
2. Of course, we can’t always trust these, for a myriad of reasons, but that doesn’t mean we ought to discount them, as too many scholars are willing to do, out of hand.


Something I Wish I Had Made Explicit in My Dissertation

I’m never particularly satisfied with anything I’ve written.  The end result never tallies with the original vision in my mind.  When I go back and read again, I find so many lapses, so much unexplained and implicit.  What was entirely clear to me as I wrote is now muddled and slow on the page.  Does the reader get any of it?  Have I failed?1

In particular, my dissertation suffered from a lack of an adequate conclusion.  Frankly, I was tired and scattered and up against a deadline, and I didn’t take the time to properly sum up the whole of my research.  Thus, there are a number of points that I wish had been made more emphatically throughout, and I want to emphasize one here.

First, a bit of background because apparently not everyone has read my dissertation (ridiculous, you should be ashamed).  The subject of that noble work was Honorius Augustodunensis, an extremely popular author of the early twelfth century.  Honorius is notable for all sorts of reasons–you often find him cited as an exemplar of this or that aspect of medieval thought or one of the first to utilize some soon-to-be-widespread literary technique–but there is little comprehensive study of his works.  In a large part this is because Honorius has been classified as a “popularizer,” someone writing for wide audiences whose work is essentially unsophisticated summaries of more important intellectual figures.  Except in one aspect, this is not necessarily an unfair categorization.  Indeed, it’s one he himself readily admits to.  He tells us he is writing for the unlearned, that his style is crude, and that nothing in his works is original, save the effort he expended putting everything together.2

But it’s that bit about being unsophisticated that rings false upon even a cursory examination of his work. It turns out that the effort spent assembling everything was actually quite considerable, and the more we look, the more sophisticated Honorius’s thought appears. His background theology is quite advanced, based on a complex synthesis of John Scottus Eriugena, a maddeningly difficult thinker of whom Honorius is perhaps the most devoted medieval student, Augustine, and Anselm. It’s hard to summarize huge swathes of Christian thought in concise, clear, and easily memorized package. Moreover, there’s a profound unity to both what Honorius writes and how he writes it. The very style of the work, all his unique literary techniques, are in line with his theological outlook. Therefore, the writing itself works to convey the same ideas as the words and to practically enact the ideal of salvific contemplative pedagogy that animates his whole authorial mission. Pretty neat stuff.

Now, the big take-away of all this that I wish I had emphasized more is that this exploring all this demonstrates something very important about medieval thought and about a mistake we often make when studying it. Namely, the dismissal of Honorius by modern scholars rests on a false dichotomy between popular and learned works, between simplicity of style and sophistication of thought. “Simple” is not opposed to “theological” (much less, as it’s sometimes cast to “orthodox”). In fact, if Honorius is any indication, medieval authors expend tremendous effort and marshal considerable literary sophistication to impart correct theology in a simple package, often in the style itself. The simplicity of popular works3 is itself an expression of the theology–the Bible, after all, is written in a simple style–as important as the content which it contains.

Also, since these works are the means by which the vast majority of people seem to have gotten their basic instruction and are read by essentially everyone who is able, it’s foolish to oppose them to the teachings of the Church, some abstract orthodoxy. These popular works were orthodoxy, they were how the Church taught, and we must not allow our biases against “the popular”4 to cause us to forget that.

1. I’ve thought about this issue a lot recently, both because of frustrations with my work and because in Augustine’s On the Catechism of the Unlearned I found that he had the same struggle.  Indeed, that short work was written precisely in response to this problem.  He notes that he struggles with it in every sermon he gives, in all that he writes, yet his conclusion is that we should not be so hard on ourselves.  Yes, our words, bound by time and our own deficiencies, can never truly match the understanding we hold of a subject.  Nevertheless, we also must recognize that the effect of these words, limited as they might be, on others still has the potential to cue in them something more, for understanding ultimately doesn’t derive from the words of other men but from above.   Good advice that should be taken to heart.  

2. The fact that these are all common rhetorical tropes that virtually every author of the Middle Ages makes use of should probably give us some pause here.

3. Which are very often written and read enthusiastically by the most well-educated and theologically astute men of their age, something we ignore all too often.

4. Or, as sometimes seem to be the case, against medieval beliefs/practices that have become unfashionable, gauche, to our modern “sophisticated” eyes.

Fruits of Enlightenment

Alternatively, A Response to Steven Pinker.

There has never been as society that was more civilized in the humanist sense than the French society of the Enlightenment, nor one more completely convinced of the powers of reason and science to solve all the problems of life and to create a completely rational culture, based on a firm foundation of science and philosophy. Yet when this society, as represented by Condorcet and his friends, had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice in the first years of the French Revolution, they failed disastrously and were themselves destroyed, almost to a man, by the eruption of the irrational forces that they had released. One of the writers of the emigration has described in a remarkable passage how he came to realize the fallacies of the rationalist ideology in a sudden flash of intuition one night as he was making the terrible march across the frozen Zuyder Zee with the defeated English army in 1796, and how all the illusions of the Enlightenment dropped away from him under the cold light of the winter stars

Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 192

Thomas Browne

I was first introduced to Thomas Browne in one of my favorite books, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.  How could I not be intrigued by Sebald’s distillation of Browne’s thought?

What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.

W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 19

And, indeed, Browne is an intriguing thinker, an eclectic sort of man, with an appreciation of nature near and dear to my own:

Thus there are two bookes from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universall and publik Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other: This was the Scripture and Theology of the Heathens the naturall motion of the Sun made them more admire him, than its supernaturall station did the Children of Israel the ordinary effects of nature wrought more admiration in them, than in the other all his miracles; surely the Heathens knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters, than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphicks and disdain to suck Divinity from the flowers of nature.

Thomas Browne, Religio Medici19

Idiosyncratic spelling original.  Incidentally, Browne apparently invented the words electricity, medical, pathology, hallucination, and literary.  The list itself is an apt description of his works. More of Browne on nature:

I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind of species of creature whatsoever: I Cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare or an Elephant, ugly; they being crated in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein not withstanding to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme nor was it yet impregnate by the voyce of God: Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence; Art is the perfection of Nature; Were the world now as it was the sixt day, there were yet a Chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe all things are artificall for Nature is the Art of God.

Religio Medici, 20

In Urne Buriall, perhaps a better showcase of his eclectic sensibilities than Religio Medici, he offers insight into the eternal struggle of the historian, enthralled by the fragments of the past, fighting a desperate and losing battle against the mists of forgetfulness:

Large are the treasures of oblivion, and heapes of things in a state next to nothing almost numberlesse  much more is buried in silence than is recorded, and the largest volumes are butt epitomes of what hath been.  The account of time beganne with night, and darnesse still attendeth it.  Some things never come to light; many have been delivered; butt more hath been swallowed in obscurity & the caverns of oblivion.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 141

The urns of the title were Roman funerary urns found in a field in England.  Browne marveled at how such fragile artifacts could be preserved yet undiscovered only a few feet below the surface, trod upon by who knows how many in the long centuries between their burial and discovery.  This discovery leads him to some truly wonderful prose and a near-bewildering survey of ancient funerary customs.  It culminates:

But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 137

I like Browne, I like the way his mind works, and I’m keen to explore further, particularly in The Garden of Cyrus, his companion piece to Urne Buriall, which (I’m told) is a discourse on the interaction of art and nature hinted at in the above quoted passage from Religio Medici.  Fun stuff.

The Hollow Earth

The wonder of history lies in the fact that it is only available to us in fragments, tantalizing scraps that glimmer amidst the obscurity of the past.  Take, for example, this brief mention found in the letter of Pope Zachary to Boniface, the indomitable English missionary and destroyer of pagan oaks. For Boniface, the greatest threat to his mission were not the defenders of said oaks but wicked priests.  He is eternally complaining, prosecuting, and excommunicating these imperillers of his flock, typically for the mundane sins of adultery, murder, and failing to recognize that being a Christian priest requires one to stop being a pagan.  Yet, there are also unique cases, such as that of Virgilius, who (apparently) attempted to usurp one of the dioceses under Boniface’s care and, moreover, taught a “false and sinful doctrine” that “there is below this earth another world and other men, and also a sun and a moon.”1

Was Virgilius merely guilty of teaching that there were men living in the antipodes?2  The mention of another sun and moon seems to belie this.  Perhaps then he was a preacher of the Hollow Earth?  He was Irish after all, and the Irish had a rich tradition of a subterranean otherworld, the dwelling-place of the sídhe–fairies.  The Germans also had a tradition of underworld spirits, and we can easily imagine an Irish preacher appealing to this tradition as a piece of common ground, “now we all know about the fairies underground, don’t we?”  Or maybe it was both, the antipodes made accessible through the subterranean paths of the sídhe, a syncretic blend of cutting-edge medieval geography and Hiberno-German mythology?  (This last is obviously the best and most likely scenario).  In any case, Virgilius was apparently acquitted of teaching this pernicious doctrine–guilt would have necessitated his expulsion from the Church, Zachary tells us–and later became bishop of Salzburg and a saint in his own right.  I like to think this acquittal was not the result of him renouncing his belief or of Boniface misrepresenting his teaching, but rather canniness on the part of the Irish bishop, who remained dedicated to his belief in another world lying below our own, to subterranean paths that led to the far side of the earth, with other men and another sun, lurking in the caves of Thuringia.


1. Letter LXIV in the Emerton translation.
2. An issue because it was widely believed that the antipodes were inaccessible, thus making the Gospel command to preach to the whole world impossible.

A Mysterious Fellow

Herodotus is full of wonderful things.

Aristeas, they say, was in lineage the equal or superior of any citizen in his town.  One day he entered a fuller’s shop in Proconnesus and died there, so the fuller locked up his workshop and went to announce to Aristeas’ relatives that he had died.  The news of his death spread quickly throughout the city, but a man of Cyzicus objected.  he had just come from the city of Artace  and he claimed to have just met and talked with Aristeas, who was on his way to Cyzicus.  So he vehemently denied that Aristeas was dead.  Meanwhile, the relatives of Aristeas went for his body at the fuller’s shop bringing along what they needed to take up the corpse for burial.  But when the place was opened, Aristeas was nowhere to be seen, dead or alive.  Seven years later, he appeared in Proconnesus, composed the verses that the Hellenes now call the Arimaspea, and, after he had finished them, disappeared a second time.
(Herodotus, Histories 4.14)

The Arimaspea  detailed Aristeas’s travels in the far north among the cannibal Issedones, who tell him of the the one-eyed titular Arimaspi, locked in perpetual battle with the gold-guarding griffins, and the Hyberboreans, living with Apollo beyond the beyond.  (As an aside, Herodotus also teaches us about Abaris the Hyberborean, who traveled with an arrow and ate no food.)  Only two fragments of the poem remain, the more notable of which is quoted by Longinus:

A marvel exceeding great is this withal to my soul—
Men dwell on the water afar from the land, where deep seas roll.
Wretches are they, for they reap but a harvest of travail and pain,
Their eyes on the stars ever dwell, while their hearts abide in the main.
Often, I ween, to the Gods are their hands upraised on high,
And with hearts in misery heavenward-lifted in prayer do they cry.
(On the Sublime, 10) 

What a fascinating character.

Mission to Asia

One of my great frustrations is that the very thing which draws me to a subject is the degree to which it outstrips the ability of my words, and even conceptions, to describe it.  It’s the space beyond the edges of the text that fascinates me.  Those things of which we only catch glimpses, brief tantalizing hints of an impossible to reach whole, and like Augustine with time, I’m fine as long as no one asks me to explain.  Hence my attraction to the dim forgotten corners of history, the dark ages, to the aporia of Plato, and, relevant to the topic of this post, to travel narratives.

These narratives by their very nature are only fragments, scattered impressions of a world necessarily alien to both author and reader.  Somewhere beyond the words of a travel narrative is the memory of place and time which is irrevocably lost, faded.  W.G. Sebald’s use of scattered, haunting photographs in his writings is the greatest expression of this that I’ve encountered thus far.

The world, central Asia in the wake of the Mongol conquests, of Christopher Dawson’s collection Mission to Asia is fascinating in its incomprehensibility.  The most famous and detailed account within is William of  Rubruck’s, whose words imbue me with a strange sense of tragedy.  William was sent by the king of France, the future St. Louis, to meet with Sartach, the future ruler of the Golden Horde and rumored to be a Christian.  The expedition is a failure from the outset.  Sartach is no Christian. William’s missionary efforts are in vain.  The Great Khan wants no alliance. This failure infuses William’s writing with sadness and wasted opportunity, a sense that the cliffs of despair are not far distant, warded off only by a sliver of desperate hope.

There’s disappointment not only for William, but me as well, as William offers a rather prosaic explanation for the wondrous stories of Prester John:

In a certain plain among these pasture lands was a Nestorian, a mighty shepher and lord of all the people called Naimans, who were Nestorian Christians.  On the death of Coir Chan, this Nestorian set himself up as a king and the Nestorians called him King John, and they used to tell of him ten times more than the truth.  For the Nesotorians coming from these parts do this kind of thing-out of nothing they make a great rumor.  This accounts for their spreading the story that Sartach was a Christian, also Mangu Chan and Keu Chan, just because they pay a greater respect to Christians than to other people.  And yet the truth is they are not Christians. So in the same way the great tale of this King John went abroad.  Now I passed through his pasture lands and nobody knew anything about him with the exception of a few Nestorians.  (122)

Years ago it was Prester John, first encountered in Hanover Public Library’s copy of Baudolino which I checked out between re-readings of books about sea monsters and ravishings of the science fiction section,  that kindled my interest in the Middle Ages. William’s account seems all too plausible, all too tawdry and dull (but how could it be otherwise?).  A far cry from:

XIII.—In our palace we eat once a day; each day thirty thousand men eat at our board, besides the guests that come and go. And these all receive their charges from our palace, both in horses and other things also. That table is made of precious stone called smaragdns, and it is supported by two pillars of amethyst. The virtue of this stone is that it suffers no one to get drunk so long as he sits thereon. Before the doorposts of our hall, near where the combatants are, there is a watch-tower of great height, and thereto one climbs by one hundred and twenty-five steps; and these steps, some of them are made of porphyry, blended with the blood of serpents, and alabaster ointment. The third part at the bottom of these is made of crystal, and jasper, and sardooyx, and another part, at the top, is of amethyst, and amber, and jasper, and sardonyx, and panthera. This watch-tower is supported by one pillar, and on this there is a base, that is, some stone-work so called, and on this base two columns, that is to say, arms; and on these there is a base, and on this four columns, and again a base, and on this sixteen arms; and so the work proceeds, until the number thirty-four is reached, and then the number of the bases lessens, and the columns, until they come to one, and that by ascending upwards, as they increased before, ascending to thirty-four.

XIV.—Now the columns and bases are of the same kind of precious stone as the steps through which men ascend. On the summit of the highest there is a watch-tower placed by some graceful skill, so that no one in the various kinds of laud subject to us can work any fraud, or treachery, or dissensions against us whatever, nor those among us, without it being clearly seen from that watch-tower, and without its being recognised who they are, or what they do. There are three thousand men of arms ever guarding this watch-tower night and day, lest by chance it be broken or overthrown to the ground.

XV.—Each month in the year seven kings serve me, each one of them in his order, and forty-two princes, and three hundred and fifty-six earls. That number is always at our board, without those placed in the various duties in our palace. At our board there eat each day, on the right twelve archbishops, and on my left hand twenty bishops, and the patriarch from the place where is the grave of the Apostle Thomas and he that is in place of a pope. (The Letter of Prester John)

William’s own sadness can, I think, be witnessed most acutely in one of the few moments when his traveling companions express interest in his faith.  He has neither the time nor the resources to truly instruct them, and in lieu of books:

I will teach you a word which you will bear in your hearts, by means of which both your souls and your bodies will be saved for eternity.”  But whenever I wanted to instruct them my interpreter let me down.  However, I wrote out the “Credo in Deum” and the “Pater noster”, saying, “Here is written down what a man ought to believe about God and a prayer in which petition is made to God for everything which is necessary for man; therefore firmly believe what is written here although you cannot understand it and ask of God that He will do to you what is contained in the prayer written here, which He Himself taught His friends with His own lips; and I trust that He will save you.  I could do no other, for to speak words of doctrine through such an interpreter was dangerous; nay, it was impossible, for he did not know the words. (146-7)

That line “I trust that He will save you” expresses a desperate hope that even in this desolate, alien country, even with the faith reduced to incomprehensible, quasi-magical formulae, William’s mission might not be in vain.*

William’s efforts are plagued not merely by the difficulties of travel, hostile Nestorians, and inept translators.  These he might have dealt with.  It’s the overwhelming apathy that plagues him the most, that seems to slowly wear him down towards despair.  Not a rejection of what he teaches but far worse, indifference.  We see this in his famous account of a debate between Buddhists, Muslims, Nestorians, and himself, arranged by the Great Khan.

I then gave a place to them [the Nestorians] and when they wanted to dispute with the Saracens the latter replied: “We grant that your faith is true and that whatever is in the Gospel is true, therefore we do not wish to argue on any point with you.”  They admitted that in all their prayers they beseech God that they may die a Christian death.

There was an old man there, a priest of the sect of the Uigurs, who say there is one God and yet make idols, and the Nestorians spoke a great deal with him, giving him an account of everything from the coming of Christ to the Judgment, and also by means of comparisons explaining the Trinity to him and the Saracens.  They all listened without a word of contradiction, yet not one of them said, “I believe, I wish to become a Christian.”

When this was finished the Nestorians and Saracens alike sang loudly while the tuins [Buddhists] kept silence, and afterwards they all drank their fill. (193-4)

Christianity is tolerated in this world, even favored.  It’s a nice thing, maybe the nicest thing, but it is ultimately just one thing among many, not worthy of serious commitment.

There’s something else lurking in William’s final moments at the court though, perhaps another fragment of hope mixed with desperation shining through in his final audience with the Great Khan who, William tells us, is quite drunk at the time.

When he had said this I asked his leave to say a few words.  “You may speak,” he answered.  Then I said: “My Lord, we are not warlike men, we would like to see those holding dominion over the world who would govern it most justly according to the will of God.  Our duty is to teach mean to live according to the will of God; for this reason did we come to these parts and we would gladly have remained here if you had allowed it.  Since it is your good pleasure that we return, it must needs be I will go back and carry your letter to the best of my ability in accordance with your commands.  I would like to ask of your Eminence that, when I have taken your letter, I may be granted your permission to return to you, especially as you have some poor serfs at Bolac who speak our language and need a priest to teach them and their children their faith, and I would gladly abide with them.”  He replied, “Provided your masters send you back to me.”  I then said: “My Lord, I do not know what my masters have in mind, but I have permission from them to go wherever I will, where there is need to preach the word of God; and it seems to me that it is most necessary in these parts, therefore whether he send back an envoy to you or not, given your permission I would return.”

He kept silent and sat for a long time as if turning things over in his mind, and the interpreter told me not to speak any more.  However, I anxiously awaited his reply.  At last he spoke: “You have a long journey ahead of you, fortify yourself with food so that you may be strong enough to reach your own country.”  And he had given me something to drink.  I then left his presence, and never afterwards returned.  If I had had the power of working miracles like Moses, he might have humbled himself.  (196-7)

Though maybe I read too much into this, I can picture it all, better than any other scene in William’s narrative.  Somehow it’s the Khan’s drunkenness that makes it so real, that gives it the sense of a moment on the precipice, a chance not quite seized.  And that last line, if only.

Finally, and on a somewhat different note, there’s an off-handed comment by William that I found intriguing.  He advocates for the reconquest of the formerly Byzantine lands (Turkey) which he passes through on the way home.  He’s convinced it could be accomplished easily, for

I can inform you that not one man in ten there is a Saracen; rather are they all Armenians and Greeks and the power is in the hands of boys. (219)

A different picture than I expected, indeed the whole of the lands through which William, and the others in the collection whom I have unjustly neglected, journeyed is unexpected and strange, leaving only the barest sketches in my memory.  That’s what makes it a joy to read, to explore.



*Compare John of Monte Corvino, perhaps the most remarkable character in Mission to Asia, doggedly baptizing thousands in China with no support, no companions save a few Italian merchants.  I am thoroughly impressed by John.  He seems to have been an amazing man.

More on Nature on the Fringes

In the last post, we noted that, at the edges of things, the order of nature breaks down.  Exhausted by the work of creation, she begins to tire of her labor and the whole tapestry begins to fray.  It resembles the sea, unfathomable and vast, mysterious and dangerous.

There’s another factor on this particular edge, Ireland, which also disrupts the order of things.  Its roots lie in the deep connection between the natural and social orders.  At their heart the two are inseparable, both facets of the larger harmony of Creation as it extends through space and time.  To skip a good bit of exposition on the character of creation in medieval thought, we might get an idea of the general understanding by picturing an infinite and beautifully arranged series of imperfect mirrors, all reflecting a light so bright that it appears as darkness beyond black (cf. fuligin).  The natural and social orders are both a subset of these mirrors, simultaneously interlinking with and reflecting each other, giving us glimpses, tantalizing fragments, of the primal order which underlies them both.

The immediate consequence of this in Gerald of Wales is that the social structure of the bounds of the world mirrors the natural, less refined, unpredictable, raw and not fully formed.  Thus, the barbarism of the Irish,

They are a wild and inhospitable people.  They live on beasts only, and live like beasts.  They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living (101).

He tells us with astonishment of sailors venturing near the extreme edge of the island encountering truly barbarous folk, men wearing only hides who had never seen bread or cheese, even taking some home to show their people as a wonder, who knew nothing of Christ (110-112).  Such men could only exist on the outskirts, beyond the pale of civilization (to say nothing of the customs which Gerald describes on the preceding page, kings confirmed in their dominion by intercourse with a mare).  On the fringes of the edge, where nature herself has grown tired, so to do the structures of man fail to take root.

Thus also, the forthcoming disruption of the Norman Invasion, which precipitated Gerald’s visit to the island and the writing of his account, is presaged by the warping of nature.  A frog, a poisonous beast which ought to have died upon contact with Ireland’s soil due to the island’s natural enmity towards the venomous is found alive after many days,

While the English, and more so the Irish, regarded it with great wonder, Duvenaldus, the king of Ossory, who happened to be there at the time, with a great shaking of his head and great sorrow in his heart at last said: ‘That reptile brings very bad news to Ireland.’ (52)

So too does the appearance of a fish “of unusual size and quality” possessing (among other wonderful things) three gold teeth prefigure the imminent conquest of the country.  Wales, Gerald tells us in his description of traveling through that country, experienced similar portents on the eve of their subjugation by the English.  Beware unusual fish.

Perhaps it is the fraying of nature and the corresponding simplicity of the political order which allows for an immediacy to the Irish encounter with nature, an immediacy which leaves the men closer to beasts, but which gives fuel to the fire of monastic devotion that even Gerald can’t help but praise.  This immediacy, the close connection to nature on the edges, provides the locus for the characteristically Irish devotion of exile and solitude which seeks the boundaries, places which lay bare the energies of nature in which we might glimpse flashes of her Creator and Guide.

Indeed, the predominance of miracles in Gerald’s account are nature miracles, animals behaving strangely, mysterious wells, holy hedges.  Like nature, there is a dangerous inscrutability to the saints of Ireland.  They are a vindictive bunch, inclined towards cycles of revenge and anger, capable of great holiness, but with danger lurking just under the surface (91).  In them we see a mirror of the order of the world in which they live-nature wild, unfathomable, and raw; society barbarous, violent, and unformed-for the sacred is a mirror too.

Loneliness on the Edge of the World

A passage in J.A. Baker’s obsessive, wonderful little book, The Peregrinebrought together a number of threads which have been tossing around my head lately.  He writes, describing his home in the south of England “out there at the edges of things,”

Farms are well ordered, prosperous, but a fragrance of neglect still lingers, like a ghost of fallen grass.  There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten.  There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like grey clouds.  It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields.  Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterize all sorrow.  (8)

The same sense, of loneliness, loss and exile, pervades the Anglo-Saxon poetry that I’ve been enjoying recently.  We might forget it today in the wake of England’s great empire, but the British Isles were truly at the edge of the world in the geographical consciousness of the Middle Ages.  Gerald of Wales in his Topography of Ireland puts it beautifully,

For beyond those limits [of Ireland] there is no land, nor is there any habitation either of men or beasts — buy beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space through its unsearchable and hidden ways. (31)*

Beautiful, but terrifying.  No wonder then that Anglo-Saxon poetry is so riven with sorrow and loneliness, a desperate craving for the warmth of home and fire.  No surprise also that there’s an almost overwhelming feeling of tenuousness in their poetry and in the writings of authors like Bede, a recognition of just how fragile the security that hall and hearth provide, think Heorot.  Against this background, Bede’s monasteries are anchors, squat fortresses of stability in an ever-shifting landscape.   One can see the appeal.**

At the edges of things, reality becomes frayed.  Gerald tells us

For sometimes tired, as it were, of the true and the serious, [Nature] draws aside and goes away, and in these remote parts indulges herself in these secret and distant freaks (31)

And not only are we at the edge of space but time as well.  The world has grown old and grey, the past faded and fallen into ruin

The days are gone
of all the glory
of the kingdoms of the earth;
there are not now kings,
nor Cæsars,
nor givers of gold
as once there were,
when they, the greatest, among themselves
performed valorous deeds,
and with a most lordly
majesty lived.
All that old guard is gone
and the revels are over
the weaker ones now dwell
and hold the world,
enjoy it through their sweat.
The glory is fled,
the nobility of the world
ages and grows sere,
as now does every man
throughout the world. (83-9)

Nature tires and warps in her decay,

This indeed was the true course of nature; but as the world began to grow old, and, as it were, began to slip into the decrepitude of old age, and to come to the end, the nature of almost all things became corrupted and changed for the worst. (53)

Unsurprising then that she might throw up monsters in the dark, against which all we can do is huddle around the slimmest glimmers of light.



*Strangely, Irish literature seems to display less awareness of this.  Perhaps they’re so on the edge that they don’t realize they’re on the edge.

**You get a similar sense in a very different context in Richer of Saint-Rémi’s Histories, a book I hope to write about at length later.

Three Fragments of Tacitus

I remembered Tacitus as a grumpy stick-in-the-mud, and, while that’s not necessarily an incorrect characterization, I actually enjoyed re-reading him more than I expected.  Three passages which stood out to me, all from the Agricola:

There is no great difference in language [between the Gauls and the Britons], and there is the same hardihood in challenging danger, the same cowardice in shirking it when it comes close. (62)

Interesting that we encounter Romans with this same stereotype of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth, albeit from the other side. I doubt Monmouth read Tacitus, though I have no idea of the Agricola’s reception in the Middle Ages, but I wonder if some diligent detective work might uncover a line of transmission.

Here’s some of that old Tacitus crabbiness:

And so the population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets.  The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.  (73)
We might consider in what ways today that we’ve become enslaved under the guise of ‘civilization.’  Quite a few, I think.
Memory has been on my mind a lot lately, in reaction to loss, in Honorius’ writings, and in the classical texts in which I’ve been whiling away my time.  It’s an enduring concern of the ancients, so much of what they write, particularly histories, is to prevent us from forgetting those who’ve come before.
But representations of the human face, like that face itself, are subject to decay and dissolution, whereas the essence of man’s mind is something everlasting, which you cannot preserve or express in material wrought by another’s skill, but only in your own character.  All that we loved and admired in Agricola abides and shall abide in the hearts of men through the endless procession of the ages; for his achievements are of great renown.  With many it will be as with men who had no name or fame: they will be buried in oblivion.  But Agricola’s story is set on record for posterity, and he will live. (99)
 History, memory, art, poetry, immanence and distance, all bouncing around in the back of my brain, like an itch that I can’t scratch.  Frustrating, but perhaps if I stare into the mist long enough something real might emerge.  We’ll see.