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.


Appreciating nature in the 6th Century: From “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius

It is sometimes argued that an argument often made that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial societies. It is implied that nature is something that intellectuals and city folk appreciate – not people living in times where survival is more of a struggle.


One contra example is the nature poetry of the Irish monks which Flann O’Brien wrote about for his MA Thesis. Another seems to be this passage from Boethius (obviously an elite source, but nevertheless a contra example to the idea that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial society alone:

Perhaps, again, you find pleasure in the beauty of the countryside. Creation is indeed very beautiful, and the countryside a beautiful part of creation. In the same way we are sometimes delighted by the appearance of the sea when it’s very calm and look up with wonder at the sky, the stars, the moon and the sun.

(trans. Victor Watts

The passage in the context of The Consolation of Philosophy implies that these are common sentiments of the time. It goes on to somewhat throw cold water on consolation from the natural world:

However, not one of these has anything to do with you, and you daren’t take credit for the splendour of any of them. The fact that flowers blossom in spring confers no distinction on you, and the swelling fullness of the autumn harvest is no work of yours. You are, in fact, enraptured with empty joys, embracing blessings that are alien to you as if they were your own. I ask you, why? For Fortune can never make yours what Nature has made alien to you. Of course the fruits of the land are appointed as food for living beings; but if you wish only to satisfy your needs – and that is all Nature requires – there is no need to seek an excess from Fortune. Nature is content with few and little: if you try to press superfluous additions upon what is sufficient for Nature, your bounty will become sickening if not harmful.

Of course, quite aprat from responding to this passage int he context of the book and of the philosophy fo the time, one could ask whether “nature is content with few and little” is in fact a reasonable reason to give for deriving consolation from it.

Via Philosophers.co.uk

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Killenaule 

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Killenaule 

St Mary’s Church is one of the most striking Tipperary Churches I have come across. Designed by a student of Pugin (reportedly) it is an impressive structure set onto a hillside which accentuates the drama:

Some of the stained glass inside is among the most striking I have come across. Some of the windows are from the studio of Harry Clarke, and share the distinctive style of Clarke:

This saint reminded me of the less than saintly Klaus Kinski:

Here is the window in some context within the church :

This Visitation  (I think) was especially moving:

The window behind the altar is, according to the Killenaule.net site, said to be the largest in the country. Unfortunately I found my photos did not do it justice. Perhaps I will be more successful on further visits:

There is more “traditional” glass work here also, equally dramatic:

Here is Our Lady appearing to Bernadette, with a particularly ruminating expression. on her face : 

Here is an unfortunately out of focus image of the window above the entrance of the Assumption 

There’s a St Michael The Archangel battling a particularly red dragon: 

Here are windows of St Patrick and St Brigid – I liked the name plates below :

Why people still buy luxury watches – From “Timekeepers”, Simon Garfield 

“But there is another reason for the proliferation of the wristwatch beyond our innate desire to preen. Telling the time has, since sometime in the fifteenth century, been the way we display our mechanical and technological mastery. A watch may be something to show off to a colleague at work, but may also represent something grander, something astronomical: we have achieved this magnificent feat of engineering, and in so doing we have aligned our stars and gone some way to mastering the very nature of time itself. What began as a pendulum and evolved into an escapement has now become a tiny, light and elegant contraption to regulate a frantic world. The world we have made, accelerating almost beyond our control, was created in large part by the clock and the watch – the ability to take our destinies inside, away from the universal cues of the heavens. A watch of precision may still suggest that we are nominally in charge. But does a more expensive, rarer, thicker, thinner and more complicated watch suggest we are more in charge than others, or more in charge than before? The advertisers would have it that way.”
 (from “Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time” by Simon Garfield)

Mourinho at Baselworld

It is hard to parody the overheated rhetoric of the luxury watch business’ merchandising arm. In his book Timekeepers, Simon Garfield has some very funny passages on the world of haut horologie. Garfield is evidently a watch aficionado, but one aware of the somewhat absurd side of this business.

Anyway, here is a passage on Jose Mourinho at Baselworld 2017. Mourinho’s campaign for/with Hublot can be viewed here and is as grandiose as you would expect (though in fairness in the below video he doesn’t seem to be just going through the PR motions). I present this piece really in the spirit of a previously shared profile of The Rock from GQ – as a relief from the times I fear a little too much of monasticism and worries about whether the classical and early Christian worlds were really in conflict dominates this blog too much…

Baselworld has chosen its name well. It is indeed a world of its own, held each March in a multi-tiered exhibition hall of 140,000 square metres, and most of the big brands have created a nation state within it. When I visited in 2014, for example, Breitling had built a huge rectangular tank containing hundreds of tropical fish above its stand, for no other reason than that it could. And it wasn’t a stand, it was a ‘Pavilion’. Elsewhere, Tissot and Tudor had giant walls of flashing disco lights above their wares, while TAG Heuer had placed one of its watchmakers at a bench at the front of its pavilion to demonstrate how doubly difficult it was to build a watch while being watched. Just as motor racing fans love the occasional crash, TAG Heuer aficionados stand around waiting for their man to drop a screw on the carpet. I crushed my way into the Hublot conference with José Mourinho, then still the Chelsea manager, the company’s latest brand ambassador. Every watch company needs its ambassadors: the fact that they do not usually wear the watch while achieving their greatest feats is not a major consideration. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have signed for Audemars Piguet and Jacob & Co. Alongside Mourinho, Hublot also has Usain Bolt. Breitling has John Travolta and David Beckham, Montblanc Hugh Jackman, TAG Heuer Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz, Rolex Roger Federer, IWC Ewan McGregor, and Longines Kate Winslet. Patek Philippe, ever keen to market itself as a brand with longevity and cross-generational worth, has shied away from asking, say, Taylor Swift or other shooting stars to represent its interests. Instead, it celebrates its client list from another era, starting with Queen Victoria.

Mourinho has just flown in to Basel from the Chelsea training ground at Cobham. He is wearing a grey raincoat over grey cashmere knitwear, and he accepts his watch with light applause and a short speech about how he has been part of the ‘Hublot family’ for a long time as a fan, but now it’s all been made official (i.e. he’s received his bank transfer). His watch is called the King Power ‘Special One’, almost the size of a fist, 18-carat ‘king gold’ with blue carbon, a self-winding Unico manufacture Flyback Chronograph with 300 components, 48mm case, all the mechanics exposed on the dial side, blue alligator strap, a skeleton dial, a power reserve of 72 hours, an edition of 100 and a price of $44,200. Just like Mourinho, the blurb says, ‘The watch is provocative . . . the robust exterior hides the genius below.’ Astonishingly, it’s both stunning and hideous at the same time. Call for availability

The strangest thing about the Hublot King Power was not that it looked like an armoured tank, but that it didn’t keep very accurate time. When the popular American magazine WatchTime conducted tests on an earlier model, it found it gained between 1.6 to 4.3 seconds a day, which is not what you’d expect from a Swiss watch costing so much. My Timex Expedition Scout does better, losing about 18 seconds a month, or about 4 minutes annually. Four minutes annually, in the scheme of things, is nothing. You can run a mile in that, but it takes longer to stroll the length of the Baselworld carpeted walkways. Because I only had Timex money and not Hublot money I spent most of my time at the fair looking at the marketing, the thing that had brought me here in the first place. I particularly liked the text for the Mondaine Stop2go, which, as with most Mondaine watches, modelled itself on the Swiss railway clock. But this one was designed to run fast for 58 seconds and then stop at the top of the dial for two seconds before moving on again. It was an unnerving thing to see on the watch itself – time really standing still – but I was also thrown by the accompanying tagline: ‘What does two seconds mean to you?’ At the Victorinox Swiss Army stand was a man who said that his watches reflected the same attributes as its knives, being both functional and reliable

“his ideas have a curious tendency to come to life” – Therese Scarpelli Cory on studying Aquinas

From Medievalists.net, an interesting interview with Therese Scarpelli Cory, Professor of Philosophy and author of Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge. I found the following passage particularly interesting:

So when I had the opportunity to study medieval philosophy further in grad school, I started digging into Aquinas’s theory of self-knowledge. His texts can initially appear relatively straightforward, even formulaic. But if you keep working with them and widen the area of investigation outside the “usual” contexts (as I mentioned earlier), his ideas have a curious tendency to come to life. For me that’s one of the biggest thrills of studying medieval philosophical texts.

Anyway, the more I dug into his texts on self-knowledge, the more I realized that they are driven by wonderfully common-sense reflections on how the ordinary person experiences himself or herself in daily life, and very serious consideration about what conditions need to be in place in order to have such experience of ourselves. That’s was surprising, because we tend to think of serious theories of selfhood and self-knowledge as the product of modernity. In the book, Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge, I try to show that medieval thinkers were just as interested in these themes; they just have a different (and philosophically very interesting) approach.

What I especially appreciate about Aquinas’s theory of self-knowledge is that it’s entirely respectful of our embodied nature: He insists that we come to understand ourselves in and through our interactions with the sensory world. This insight into experience seems to me to be exactly right. I don’t learn about myself, what I’m capable of, what I enjoy, what makes me happy, what it means to be human—by turning inwards and simply “looking.” Rather, I learn about myself in the moment of engaging intentionally with the world around me, in experiencing myself as sensing or thinking or reasoning or feeling happy and sad about something.