Eleanor Parker on myths about the Middle Ages

An interesting piece that touches on anti-Catholic myths, historical myths, and science vs. religion myths.


The medieval Church, let’s be clear, had no objection to scientific progress. Throughout the Middle Ages, scientists and scholars – many of them monks and friars – explored their curiosity about the natural world, debating, reasoning, theorising and delighting in learning of all kinds. Medieval scholars studied many varieties of science, including subjects we would now call astronomy, mathematics, engineering, geography, branches of physics (such as optics) and, yes, medicine.

They didn’t define these subjects precisely as we do today, and they didn’t approach them by the same methods or draw the same conclusions. Scientific knowledge and methods change and develop over time. But to suggest that because the various medieval ways of approaching these questions were different from ours they must be an obstacle to “progress”, a sign of “stagnation”, is to impose a kind of intellectual conformity which refuses to see value in any culture but our own. That’s a worrying attitude to teach to schoolchildren.


Equally troubling is the sense of cultural superiority implicit in that term “superstition”. What value can there be, for teaching history, in using such a label unless you explain what you mean by it? The term is both inappropriately pejorative and far too broad, since people have different views of what qualifies as superstition.

What most people intend when they talk about medieval superstition is probably a vague reference to the devotional practices of medieval Catholicism – pilgrimage, a belief in miracles and saints’ relics, visits to holy wells, and so on. These practices were not confined to peasants in the Middle Ages, or to the uneducated. Social and intellectual elites engaged in them as enthusiastically as anyone, and for centuries they were an unchallenged aspect of learned as well as popular faith. To understand medieval religion, it is essential to try to explore why such practices held meaning for so many kinds of people – not just to dismiss them as superstitious.

Generally speaking (and bearing in mind the difficulties of generalising about a period of 1,000 years), the worldview which underpinned such practices was of a universe in which every created thing held the potential to be a vessel for God’s grace. There was nothing in the world so trivial that it could not be of importance to God. Everything had its purpose and place, from the planets to the tiniest herb. There were blessings to be said over the fruits of each harvest and the tools of everyday work, prayers for every hour of the day and every possible human need.

Medieval scientists calculated times and calendars, developing intricate theories about the interlocking cycles of the natural year, the movement of the stars and the Church’s calendar; and for ordinary people those cycles were woven into their daily lives, so that every day of the year belonged to a saint whose story might point one to God.

It is this worldview which lies behind the kind of miracle stories some people smile at today, where saints cure sick cattle, find lost property or alter the weather. No human concern was beneath God’s notice, or too small to be the occasion for a miracle. When faced with more serious difficulties, it was not fatalism which led people to seek God’s help in illness; it was faith, which believed God could and did intervene in the world.

Pilgrimage can provide genuine health benefits (if not quite in the way medieval Christians would have explained it), as well as being an opportunity to travel, meet new people and have profound spiritual experiences in places hallowed by centuries of devotion.


“Hell is where the damned stay, immobilized by their choices” – Rowan Williams on The Divine Comedy, TLS, September 12th 2017


From this review

There is still a tendency among not very attentive readers – not to mention people who have read almost nothing of the work but have picked up the odd juicy morsel – to think of the Inferno as the really “interesting” section of the poem, the part where recognizable human emotion is most dramatically depicted and evoked: guilty love, transgression, punishment, tragic disaster and horror. It is salutary to remember that we as readers are not meant to linger in Hell and that, for all Dante’s obsessional score-settling in the Inferno, this is not what he intends to write about. The first part of the Commedia represents a terrifying descent towards complete stasis, the frozenness of Lucifer: the circles of Hell put before us a more and more total paralysis of energy and movement, and it is only by way of the extraordinary acrobatic feat that takes Virgil and Dante into Purgatory that the poem is enabled to continue. Hell is where the damned stay, immobilized by their choices; and for just that reason it cannot be where the poem stays. The choices of writer and reader alike have to be released, thawed out, if the poem is not itself to be silenced like the appalling figures of Satan and the three traitors in the Ninth Circle, who can neither move nor speak.

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

From James Common’s blog, an extract from a fascinating sounding book whose themes seem to chime with my own interests. I particularly found this passage resonant:

‘Silence’ is a fascinating word. At a very simple level it can be taken to mean the absence of sound, or at least the absence of noise that is intrusive or irritating. But this is misleading. Silence is not an absence of sound but as Sara Maitland puts it in her Book of Silence, it is a ‘positive presence… Perhaps it is a real, actual thing’. It is rather more difficult to say just what it is that is present.

Certainly, as I sat on the grass above Craigaig Bay, I was reaching outward with my listening as if seeking to touch something elusive and fragile: the call of the birds, the whisper of the wind; maybe even the trace of the now-absent sounds of those people who once lived here. Maybe I was reaching into the gaps between the sounds, to hear that which was occluded. Sometimes I felt I was also trying to reach behind those present and past sounds to a sense of an underlying cosmic silence, maybe to what the ancient ones called the music of the spheres.

But the silence was also about me. It was about a certain quality of mind and attention. Sara Maitland describes ‘an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space’. This ‘rich space’ certainly is one that is stilled, relatively emptied of internal chatter and self-absorption. But it is nevertheless awake, alert, full of imaginative response to my surroundings.

“Why do you go sailing on your own?” people often ask me. I usually reply that the presence of other humans seems to demand conversation, and however attractive that is, it fills the rich space of internal quiet and overwhelms the possibility of opening to the underlying silence of the world.

So while silence is a positive space, it is a space that opens only when ‘I’ am no longer filling it. By ‘I’, I mean in particular my self-importance and self-concern, my attachment to my own purposes, all of which create a deafening internal ‘noise’. Silence, in the extended, positive sense of the word, seems to arise when external ‘quiet’—the absence of intrusive noise—meets an internal quietude. This meeting is a delicate place: the external quiet may be unexpectedly disrupted, as my encounter with the helicopters suggests; my quietude is continually threatened by egoic concerns. This is the kind of silence prized, according to Barry Lopez, by the Tukano Indians of Brazil when they speak in praise of ‘The Quiet’: a ‘realm of life that could not be sensed until one overcame the damage done to perception by long exposure to inescapable noise.

James Common

If, like me, you are an avid consumer of natural history based literature, you will surely love the below extract from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace – An ecological pilgrimage. The book is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author in his small yacht, Coral, from the south of England and round the west coast of Ireland, to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage: the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth, and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence and of fragility.

Out of the church and through the creaking gate I chose the pathway that led high over the centre of the island and, I hoped, toward my original destination. After climbing through muddy woodland to the open hilltops I looked down…

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Benjamin Parzybok . “The Hole in the Reef”, Reckoning #1

From Reckoning “an annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice”, comes this tight little story about a father and son, the ocean, and waste by Benjamin Parzybok.

A couple of slightly awkward sentences aside (“Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded’) the story conveys the tensions of the father-son relationship and, by extension, different approaches to the world extremely well. Reckoning have an interview with Parzybok on the story here – worth reading the story first. The story alternates above-water dialogue with below-water prose:

The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.
When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.
He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.
It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.
At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.
At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.

In the interview Parzybok says that to believe the world has a designer (or creator I guess) is to disclaim responsibility for it – I think I know where he is coming from but surely notions of stewardship and responsibility being given chime as much with the idea of creation as with the idea that responsibility is something self-defined and self-ordained?

Alexander Masters, Dido Davies and William Gerhardie

Having just blogged about Cornelius Medvei, and his friendship with the writer Alexander Masters, I came across a connection between Masters and a recurrent subject of this blog – the perpetually “lost writer” William Gerhardie.

From The Guardian:

According to his mother, Stuart Shorter had been “a real happy-go-lucky little boy” until the age of 12, after which he became for the next 20 years a “thief, hostage taker, psycho and sociopathic street raconteur”. In short he was, from Masters’s point of view, “a man with an important life”. He had been found living in and out of skips, was then given methadone to release him from heroin and began a new chapter of his life in a “cramped, dank little apartment”. It was a strange entry into ordinary life – interrupted by some radical attacks on the furniture. Masters would talk to him and eventually showed him the dog-eared manuscript of his biography. “It’s bollocks boring,” Stuart told him. “Do it the other way round … Write it backwards.”

To Masters’s astonishment this turned out to be an inspiration. It solved “the major problem of writing a biography of a man who is not famous”. So the book was created by the subject and the writer together – and with one other person thanked in the book’s acknowledgements. Without Dido Davies “I could not have got past the first pages”, Masters wrote.

Davies was also a writer and in 1990 had published one of those biographies Masters had described and derided, about semi-well-known public people. Her subject was the novelist William Gerhardie and, although Davies did not bring herself into the narrative, she had known him. In fact I first met her (with her mother) at Gerhardie’s home in London several years earlier, and was able to give her some help with her book about this talented and eccentric figure. It’s not until now that I notice at the end of her acknowledgements a tribute to Alexander Masters, for his “patient attention, his careful editing, but above all his innumerable helpful and sensitive suggestions which improved the whole tone of the book”.

Davies herself had a colourful life:

It was Dido Davies who had slid into the skip and brought out the diaries (that would form the basis of Masters’ book A Life Discarded – SS). She and Masters were long-time friends. Many years earlier, as a newly elected English fellow, she had crawled through the window of Masters’ Cambridge college and said hello. Her career was unusual. Under the name “Rachel Swift” she published two sex manuals, and, pursuing her interest in zoology, she travelled widely in Asia, occasionally giving lectures on rats and serpents. While Masters was working on this book, she had been writing a biography of Thomas More. They helped each other and she became his “writing collaborator”, giving his books direction. But in 2007, she was diagnosed with cancer, which was the cause of her death in 2013. Three years later, A Life Discarded was published and dedicated to Dido Davies.

Cornelius Medvei: “We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to solve them”

Cornelius Medvei: “We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to solve them”

The Making of Mr Bolsover is a novel which it is relatively easy to find critical words phrases to describe – mock-heroic, deadpan, quietly subversive – yet each leaves one with a sense of dissatisfaction. Ostensibly it is the political biography of a former civil servant who begins to live wild and embarks on a career in local politics. The narrator periodicaly references weighty biographies of the likes of Gladstone, Disraeli and Lord Salisbury The book is set in a recognisably contemporary world with references to email and mobile phones, but these are rather incidental to a more timeless depiction of suburbia and the wild places near suburbia that could be set any time in the last fifty or so years.

Medvei is a somewhat obscure figure – indeed, the first two Google results are for a different man entirely (his father?), a high powered legal professional. And while while this is the man his bio doesn’t mention his novel. I get the sense Medvei may not be the world’s most assiduous self-promoter.


Cornelius Medvei‘s father lives near to the writer Alexander Masters (of “Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards) who wrote about him in the Spectator
(under the headline “There’s nothing wrong with plugging a friends book”

Cornelius Medvei, whose father lives in Sussex, a few fields away from me, has published three novels. They are fables that are witty, wry and thin (in terms of pages) and nobody except Susan Hill and I reads them. The latest one, The Making of Mr Bolsover, is about a local politician who becomes a prophet and ends up living in a wood, cooking rats. On the back cover is a review of Medvei’s first novel, Mr Thundermug. ‘Delightful, unforgettable and splendidly peculiar.’ That review is by me. ‘A book of genius,’ says another review — that’s by Susan Hill.

Cornelius writes ‘like nothing else I have ever read’, says Susan. I’ve met her only once, at a fundraising event for the Emmaus homeless community in Oxford. We instantly forgot about the homeless and talked about Cornelius. About how odd he is; how lanky; how his writing makes you feel he’s been
teleported from the 1920s, part-Kafka, part-John Collier; how at unlikelymparties you turn round and find him standing six inches behind you, quiet and steady as a post; and how he should be in every bookcase.

I’ve had Mr Bolsover on my desk for the past six months. I tore it open the instant it arrived, finished it in two hours, then shoved the book aside in despair. It is brilliant; and, again, it won’t sell

Masters takes on Medvei when walking together:

‘What is wrong with you?’ I demanded as we began our walk up onto the Downs. It was a drizzly day. ‘Why can’t you write a straightforward book that will give you a decent income?’

‘I don’t know,’ groaned Cornelius, bending himself into the wind. ‘I thought this one would do it. It is very funny, it has a strong plot.’

‘And it is full of obscure 19th-century
references to political theory. Why don’t you write about 21st-century issues?’

Mr Thundermug was about alienation,’ he protested.

‘The hero was a monkey who spends his time gazing at the sky and having
philosophical thoughts while his wife eats the bugs out of his fur.’

‘Bookshops often put it in the children’s section,’ admitted Cornelius. ‘They don’t know what to make of it.’

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‘Couldn’t you include a murder or a love interest — something that the reader can get his teeth into?’

‘My second book, Caroline, was a romantic novel.’

‘About a man who falls in love with a

‘I often find that one in crime,’ agreed Cornelius.

We get to read Medvei’s own justification for the detached, rather abstracted style of Mr Bolsover:

‘And then you have adopted this strange detached style for Mr Bolsover, a sort of arch remoteness, as though you’d attached your pen to the end of a long stick, like Matisse …you don’t try to get inside Mr Bolsover’s head, like another novelist would. You don’t explain why he changes from a councillor into a rat-eater.’ (actually in the novel he is a rat eater before a councillor – SS)

‘Precisely! Political biographies don’t. Why did Trotsky become an advocate of permanent revolution? In the biographies there’s a wan passage about him being an idealist, or driven by a sense of mission; but otherwise they pass over it. The motivations for change in these books are either not identified or are banal. In Mr Bolsover’s case, he was hit over the head by a library book.’

I could identify with a approach of Medvei’s to writing , setting him (and Masters) apart from the usual approach of so many creative writing seminars and so forth:


He paused at a hedge, pushed aside a strand of bramble to reveal a muddy
bridleway and stooped into it. ‘There are different reasons people write, and we’ve got ourselves caught in a wrong one. We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to
solve them. Do you know that story by Somerset Maugham that starts, “I wonder if I can do this?” No? Read it. He is another of us.’

This algebraic attitude to writing also explains why Cornelius’s books take so long. ‘I can see this scene or that twist, but I don’t know the answer overall. I just know the feeling I’m after. I’m always going on at my students about how they should spend more time planning essays before starting writing, but that’s never the way I do it. I just jump in, start writing, chasing this feeling that will be an answer to the puzzle, and get bogged down. It leads to endless points of despair.’

Masters’ semi-tongue in cheek point – that knowing an author gives their books a life and dimension beyond the supposedly detached critical review of a strange – is somewhat incident in this piece to a consideration of the sameness and rather formulaic nature of much contemporary writing.

From “The Making of Mr Bolsover”, Cornelius Medvei


Perhaps then, Mr Cruikshank suggested, he would like to tell everyone which political figures he did admire.

Without hesitation Mr Bolsover named Lord Salisbury, Queen Victoria’s last prime minister.

Amid the general murmur of surprise and disbelief, he went on to explain. It was not the details of Salisbury’s policies that Mr Bolsover admired, but his guiding principles. Salisbury had a deep aversion to officials and lawmakers. He took a quietist approach to government, and was contemptuous of those who believed that a government’s effectiveness is directly proportional the number of laws it passes.

There was also his appearance. Salisbury’s luxuriant, flowing beard and the great balding dome of his head lent him an air of immense gravitas, as did his pensive expression: his portraits generally showed him lost in thought, as thought pondering important matters of state. This was in direct contrast to his great contemporary and rival Gladstone who posed for photographs looking, so Mr Bolsover said, warming to his theme, ‘like an indignant owl’, and whose bristling side-whiskers appeared merely eccentric to modern eyes. Both men, however presented a salutary contrast the moon-faced chldren who held political office today. And Salisbury had been a supreme pragmatist: not for him the lethal devotion to an ideology at the expense of everything else. ‘The axioms of the last age are the fallacies of the present,’ he once wrote ‘There is nothing abiding in political science but the necessity for truth, purity and justice.’