An Imaginary Dialogue with a Medieval Monk
In my last post, I recommended Boethius’s classic work The Consolation of Philosophy, which was one of the most popular and influential books in Europe throughout the Middle Ages but isn’t read much anymore. I shared some ideas about why it’s so neglected nowadays, but I didn’t mention one major factor that might discourage some people from reading it: It’s just hard to believe that anything written during the “Dark Ages” could be of use to a modern person. People in that era were benighted and ridiculous buffoons. Right?
The pinnacle expression of this view might be Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which an ordinary 19th century American travels back in time to the Middle Ages and is able to easily dupe everyone into thinking he is a great wizard, supplanting Merlin himself, using his modern knowledge of science and mechanics. The medievals in this book are grotesquely stupid; they almost come across as sub-human in their idiocy. The Yankee happens to know the date of a historic solar eclipse, and he uses this knowledge to make them think he is blotting out the sun. He uses explosives to blow up Merlin’s tower, proving himself the greater wizard. And so on.
I’m not sure that things would have turned out as Twain imagined for the time traveler. So let’s imagine our own Connecticut Yankee who time travels back to the Middle Ages. We can forget about “King Arthur’s Court”—many of those legends were fantasy for the medievals, just as Harry Potter is for us. Let’s send our time traveler to a real time and place, and let him talk with a real person. Let’s say, the kingdom of Dál Riata, in the 7th century AD.
Upon arrival, he finds it harder than he expects to do miracles and wonders—who actually knows the dates of medieval solar eclipses or how to make a bomb from scratch, anyway? So our time traveler abandons the idea of wowing the locals with practical demonstrations of science, and instead focuses on blowing their minds with superior knowledge. He goes looking for someone of sufficient intellectual bent to have a discussion with. A young monk named Aedán offers him lodging for the night, and the time traveler decides to give it a try on him.
The time traveler points up to the heavens. “People used to think they occupied a noble place in the universe. They thought they were the most important things in the cosmos. They looked up and saw the stars as a homey canopy above their flat little world. But that’s all wrong. We moderns have discovered the true vastness of space—it goes on and on for light years. We know now that the world itself is nothing more than a tiny, insignificant speck in a vast galaxy among millions of galaxies—no more than piece of dust!”
To his surprise, Aedán simply nods calmly. “Yes, some rustics imagine the earth flat and the heavens small, but the natural philosophers tell us differently. If I recall the words of Boethius:
The whole of this earth’s globe, as thou hast learnt from the demonstration of astronomy, compared with the expanse of heaven, is found no bigger than a point; that is to say, if measured by the vastness of heaven’s sphere, it is held to occupy absolutely no space at all.”
The time traveler is taken off guard. “I didn’t know you knew that. But I’m sure you still don’t get the full scope of it. You medievals have a puffed-up view Man; you know, the ‘Lord of Creation,’ with his ‘fair visage’ and ‘upright stature’ or whatever. It was only with the advent of Science that we saw him for what he was—a dressed-up monkey, a microbe crawled out of the pond, an imperfect contraption of organs, nerves, muscle, and bone—a disgusting, undignified weakling!”
Aedán nods sagely. “Yes, this is quite true, and calls for humility. As Boethius writes,
Can ye ever surpass the elephant in bulk or the bull in strength? Can ye excel the tiger swiftness? … if, as Aristotle says, men should see with the eyes of Lynceus, so that their sight might pierce through obstructions, would not that body of Alcibiades, so gloriously fair in outward seeming, appear altogether loathsome when all its inward parts lay open to the view? Therefore, it is not thy own nature that makes thee seem beautiful, but the weakness of the eyes that see thee.”
“Well, if you know all this, you must admit that Man is nothing but a worthless blob of goo!” cries the time traveler. “But don’t tell me you’ve progressed far enough to realize that!”
Aedán rubs his chin, looking a bit confused. Then he smiles. “I see that you are testing me! For even a beginner in the study of logic can see the error in that conclusion. As Boethius writes,
If anyone finds it hard to admit the conclusion, he ought in fairness either to prove some falsity in the premises, or to show that the combination of propositions does not adequately enforce the necessity of the conclusion; otherwise, if the premises be granted, nothing whatever can be said against the inference of the conclusion.
It is with the enforcement of the conclusion that I take issue. For smallness in size does not necessarily imply smallness in value. Were that so, a mountain would be of greater value than a man, but no one imagines this to be the case. Nor is lowliness and weakness cause for shame, but everything has value in its own proper place in the hierarchy of creation, for everything has its being and its purpose from the One craftsman who formed great and small alike with equal care.”
The time traveler begins to be frustrated and confused. He has seen Monty Python. Where is all the blathering about ducks and wood and stuff?
He decides to go a bit more personal. “Yes, you’ve passed my logic test,” he says. “You see that humans could have inherent worth, even though we are small and weak compared to some other things. But then tell me, why are you so far behind us in tolerance and pluralism? You are bigots because you are so hopelessly provincial that you think that your morality is objective! But we have conquered space and traveled over sea and in the air to many regions of the world, and we have learned that what is good in one culture may be bad in another, and what is deemed bad in one place may be good somewhere else.”
“On the contrary, traveler,” replies Aedán. “Though I am not so far-traveled as yourself, I am yet well aware that we are but one race of many, with our own particular customs. Indeed, Boethius has written that the quest for fame and glory in the eyes of man is altogether vanity, for,
the customs and institutions of different races agree not together, so that what is deemed praise worthy in one country is thought punishable in another.
However, you might have misspoken when you said this proved morality cannot be ‘objective,’ for that word refers to that which does not depend upon the opinions of men, and therefore cannot rightly be discarded or established on the basis of opinion.”
“Well, good for you,” says the time traveler, not quite getting that last bit about the word “objective.” “But surely you are caught up in fantasies about aristocracy and ‘noble blood’ and all that! The idea that all people are created equal was a triumph of the Enlightenment that was only fully grasped in post-modernity. In America, it was an ideal imperfectly grasped by the authors of the U.S. Constitution, who limited it to white landowning males, and it was only gradually extended to everyone. Before that revolution in thought, bigotry prevailed going back to time immemorial!”
Aedán nods sadly. “Yes, you are right. This way of seeing things is a great folly and plague on the world, and if it is extinct in your own country, you are a wise and noble people indeed! As Boethius says, ‘who does not see how empty, how foolish, is the fame of noble birth?’ He expresses it even better in these lines of poetry that I must quote to you:
All men are of one kindred stock,
though scattered far and wide;
For one is Father of us all—one doth
for all provide.
He gave the sun his golden beams,
the moon her silver horn;
He set mankind upon the earth as
stars the heavens adorn.
He shut a soul—a heaven-born soul—
within the body’s frame;
The noble origin he gave each mortal
wight may claim.
Why boast ye, then, so loud of race and
high ancestral line?
If ye behold your being’s source, and
God’s supreme design,
None is degenerate, none base, unless
by taint of sin
And cherished vice he foully stain his
At this point, the time traveler decides to quit while he’s ahead. (He doesn’t correct Aedán’s impression that bigotry and unjust prejudice are non-existent in the time traveler’s land.) He goes to bed with a lot to think about, while Saint Aedán stays outside contemplating the stars. Unlike the time traveler, Aedán knows them by name: Arcturus, Sirius, Hesperus, the Bear, the Pleiades...
Though the dialogue was imaginary, the quotes from the medieval writer are all real, and they come from what was one of the most well-known books in all Christendom throughout the Middle Ages. How does this compare to what is implied – or said directly – about the beliefs of that era?
A shocking amount of what is said about the Middles Ages is just plain lies—not even innocent exaggeration. The medievals were not stupid or wicked, or at least, no more than people usually are. In fact, Boethius is like an adult among children when compared to most modern writers, not the other way around. It’s worth asking… why do modern people have such a need to assure ourselves that we are superior to the medievals, to the point that we will invent blatant falsehoods about them?
Could it be that we’re afraid of hearing what they might say to us, if we were to listen?Daniel Witt
Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/a-connecticut-yankee-in-the-actual-middle-ages