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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

10 Facts You Didn't Know about Medieval English History

Picking up books on this era has become a fascinating hobby for me. The following is a compilation of some of the most surprising things I've come across in my limited study. If you're thinking this is too nerdy, you're right but... Onward!

  1. Slavery existed. After William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066, he took a census. 10% of the total population were slaves, with some areas being as high as 20%. Luckily actual slavery was outlawed at the beginning of the 12th century.
  2. King Richard the Lionheart was neglectful of England, cruel, and probably homosexual. This is not the image we have of Richard from Robin Hood! France was pleasant and glorious for Richard, England was “cold and always raining.” He spent only 6 months of his 9 year reign in England; his military prowess could not be surpassed but it came at the price of most brutal behavior; and he had an unusually close, most likely sexual relationship with both his brother-in-law, Sancho, and with the king of France, Philip (II) Augustus.
  3. England officially belonged to the pope. Yep, King John defied the power of the Church at a most unfortunate time: when it was ruled by the iron-willed Innocent III. Innocent responded by putting England under interdict and eventually excommunicating John (therefore damning him to hell). John relented and as recompense officially gave England to the pope in 1213. The pope let John rule England in fiefdom from then on but John never quite felt assured of his salvation, probably due to his nefarious lifestyle. He wore holy relics and charms around his neck until the day he died.
  4. Norman French was the spoken language of the court and the nobility up until the 14th century. Because William the Conqueror was from Normandy, government adopted this language. And what we now think of as a unified “English” language was originally only the dialect of southeast England around London and didn’t become widespread until centuries later.
  5. All adults drank red wine. White wine was for children, of course! When it came to food, seafood was abundant. Along with crappy bread. If you were lucky enough to be born a noble you might have dined on such widespread fare as eels and peacocks. Regardless though, the years of sweet wine eventually took their dental toll. Women carried handkerchiefs to hold over their mouths so as not to show their rotting teeth.
  6. William (the) Marshall was the greatest knight to ever live. He served three kings of England (Henry II, Richard, & John), and not only did he embody the best part of the system of chivalry but he once estimated that he participated in some 300 tournaments in his lifetime and was the champion in every single one! He was famed and universally admired throughout Europe.
  7. All adult males were required by law to practice archery every Sunday. This law mixed with the longbow provided some of the greatest archers the world has ever seen. In fact, skeletal remains show deformities from the physical exertion of firing a bow with a 60 lb. draw one's entire adult life. These archers were incredibly accurate and Robin Hood-like skill was considered the norm, not the exception.
  8. Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar, invented gunpowder. Yes, it was invented in China too but he certainly never got the formula from a passing Chinese tradesman. No, this philosopher and scientist had an incredible mind and invented it in one of his many experimental pursuits. Unfortunately (though unsurprisingly) he was accused of sorcery.
  9. Under the 1st Tudor, Henry VII, England was the richest and most feared country in all of Europe. The greed and wealth of Henry VII was almost unfathomable. But Henry’s son, the infamous Henry VIII, spent it so frivolously that none of it remained when he left the throne to his own children.
  10. Families are rough. Families with rivals, supreme power, and bloody regime changes are rougher. Of the 21 rulers of medieval England since the conquest, the following are almost certainly true and morbid examples of royal-on-royal violence.
  • King John drowned or castrated to death his nephew and rival, Arthur of Brittany.
  • Queen Isabella used her lover to kill her husband, King Edward II, by sticking a hot poker up his, er... nether regions.
  • King Henry IV sent guards to stab to death his cousin, the deposed King Richard II while Richard was under house arrest.
  • King Edward IV had his predecessor, Henry VI, killed in the Tower of London. He officially died of "distress." Edward was crowned the next day.
  • Edward IV (again) - It is possible his rival's son and heir to the throne of England, Edward of Lancaster, died in battle. But it's equally likely the rival prince was killed after the battle on the king's orders.
  • Edward IV (third time's the charm!) executed his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, after he was convicted of treason. Edward had him drowned in a tub of George's favorite drink: Malmsey wine.
  • King Richard III OR King Henry VII secured the crown by killing the dead Edward IV's two young sons, the famous "Princes in the Tower." Their disappearance and manner of death is a great mystery to this day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Spirit of the Law

The prophetic voices in the Old Testament are really what speak to me. Without them Israel's religion becomes stale, condemnatory, and legalistic. The Prophets are the critical voice that sees not just the words that God uses to communicate to us but His Spirit propelling those words. They see that God is not in the storm, He's in the whisper of the wind.

God chose to be present in history. God exists outside of human history but He chooses to work inside of it. God appears as a (God-)man in a specific space and at a specific point in time. Since Christ flaunts his society’s convention and is constantly upsetting the social order to the point of being executed for it, we know that He is not afraid of acting in accordance with Truth, which is timeless. He is never limited by His being a 1st century Palestinian Jew. But He also exists within a certain time and culture. God chooses to exist not above us but with us, and He revealed Himself slowly throughout time. This is why we see Jacob's family keeping household idols despite being in communication with the Living God. This is why Israel had such a difficult time embracing monotheism despite constant nudges toward that truth. The same way you have to learn the basic rules of grammar before you can understand poetry, God had to reveal himself slowly and with care so that we could understand the complexity that is Him. Finally this process came to completion in the person of Jesus Christ.

But when God speaks to us through human vocabulary (as He must) we are tempted to dominate His words. If I can only memorize these words! If we can only interpret these commandments into practical laws! If we can only find all the answers we can forget about the questions! I know in my spiritual life I always seize upon an answer. It feels much surer, more secure than having to walk the path of spirituality, which as Richard Rohr says is about asking the right questions and not about finding the right answers.

This need to control God, to have the answers, to seize upon God’s words is the tendency found in the Old Testament. It’s legalism. The prophets speak against it. They're always telling Israel to stop worrying about punching their spiritual timecard and start caring with the heart of God, to stop interpreting the Law and to live it, to stop rending their garments in penance and start rending their hearts.

The legalism of Israel’s faith, to me, seems to come to culmination with the 1st century Pharisees. Isn’t it funny that that’s when the incarnation occurs and Christ appears? The culmination of the Letter of the Law and the culmination of the Spirit of the Law appear in history at the same time.

Yet Christ has come and Christians - of every branch - are still legalistic. That’s exactly the type of Christian I tend to be, though at least now I'm fairly conscious of it. But it’s just so attractive! It’s nice to have all the answers, to know the rules. It makes existence and the spiritual life seem ordered and understandable and far less mysterious, at least to me. A black and white worldview is so seductive. Who has time to wrestle with the gray?

Photo by Rick Holliday -
I became Catholic and joined a tradition that understands that it’s not about legalism yet has spent its whole existence developing answers. But I realize even our rules and knowledge today aren't the end-all. It’s not enough to observe Lenten fasting or abstinence. It’s not enough to do penance. It’s about how you are meeting God, how you are growing in consciousness of the Divine Reality, and how you are being transformed. It's not about the Letter of the Law; it's about the Spirit of it.

All Christians struggle with legalism but Catholics do especially. We have to hold only lightly our rules, our dogma, our standards for what constitutes right or wrong belief or action. And we have to do this not because the rules are wrong (Christ was clear about never rewriting the Law) but because they are tools. They are signposts pointing toward paradise and not paradise itself. There's a natural attachment of the ego with the Law, and it's something we have to break.

I always think of a wonderful story from the Buddhist tradition that my philosophy adviser once related to me:
Two Buddhist monks were walking alongside a road. As they reached a bend in the road they came upon a poor, crippled woman crawling on the ground and trying to reach the other side. Buddhist monks, of course, are strictly forbidden from having any physical contact with women. But upon seeing the woman, the first monk picked her up, gingerly carried her across the road, and set her down on the other side. The two monks continued on their way and it wasn't long before the second monk said, with no small amount of exasperation, “What have you done?! Don’t you know we’re not allowed to have contact with women?” The first monk stopped, turned to the second with a curious look on his face, and said in reply, “I left that woman back there by the side of the road. Are you still carrying her?”
Hearing this story made me realize which monk I was at the time and which one we're all called to be. The Letter of the Law is binding. The Spirit is always freeing.

I'd love a comment, especially offering your own perspective.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Resignation of a Father

His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, announced yesterday that he would resign his sacred office at the end of the month. Although not unheard of, it's the first resignation by a pope in almost 600 years. The last one was in the 15th century and was only done to end the Great Western Schism that threatened to break apart the Church. The one before that was in the 13th century and caught the attention of Dante. Dante placed that pope in hell.

Though there will always be conspiracy theorists when it comes to the Church and gossip is as popular as ever it seems that His Holiness is sincere and well-intentioned in his choice to abdicate (and certainly not landing in hell, despite Dante's beliefs).

I wrote a completely different blog post trying to hash out the complexities of Pope Benedict's papacy but decided to scratch it. Plenty of the news outlets are doing that already. Suffice it to say, he had big shoes to fill during his reign. It's hard to follow the charismatic and beloved Pope John Paul II, one of only four popes to be called "the great" in 2000 years of Church history. But Benedict was the the pope chosen by the Spirit to lead at this time. And that is comforting for those who believe. I think the only question I can answer is What has this pope meant to me?

His Holiness is the only pope I have known. On my 18th birthday I came home from school to learn that John Paul II had died. While in college two years later, I became Catholic. I get asked fairly often why I converted, especially in Wheaton. There were three main reasons and one of them was a lesson that Benedict taught me: to know that faith and reason are never at odds.

People will talk about His Holiness as a traditionalist and probably as someone who was out of touch with the world. While he certainly loved tradition he was not an ignorant, medieval man. I know him as the man who wrote 'In the Beginning...' A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall and in it taught that if you believe faith and reason are in conflict, you're misunderstanding at least one of them. I know him as someone who wasn't afraid of the mind, and as the man who published What It Means to Be a Christian and in it said that a Christian is simply anyone who loves. (Eat your heart out, universalists!)

I don't know him as a perfect man or leader or even with any level of intimacy. But I experienced a profound respect for his office and a deep connection with him as a teacher. The Bavarian Catholic who went from being in the Hitler Youth, which was something compulsory, to priest to brilliant theologian to pope had an extraordinary journey.

People sometimes ask about popes. I tell them a king wears a crown, an emperor wears two, but a pope wears three. Now that's a rosy, idyllic, and ultimately unhealthy prism for viewing the papacy. But it does help convey the profound reverence a faithful Catholic can't help but feel for, not the man, but the office - the Vicar of Christ, God's chosen representative and the direct successor to St. Peter. All of that should be held alongside a particularly critical eye toward The Church (which too many Catholics forget, by the way) but it's nevertheless quite awe-some.

I think of Benedict as a teacher and mentor at a time when I, as a young, isolated Catholic, desperately needed one. His decision is unusual but fair and canonically legal. I had an inherent respect for the man who shouldered the weighty papal burden, a burden one of the current cardinals has called "a nightmare."

I think I'll remember the teacher and the advocate: a traditionalist who still had the common sense and gospel-inspired courage to oppose America's wars, contraception, unfair labor laws, unbridled capitalism, and infringements on religious liberty, all of which made him greatly unpopular. I didn't agree with everything he did nor all of his beliefs. I don't know how history will remember him but I think what I feel when I hear "Benedict XVI" or "Joseph Ratzinger" is mostly pride. In remembering a father, that's not too bad.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Timeless Violence

Since I'm coming from a Christian perspective and try to write about issues of spirituality, I could hardly do that for long without addressing violence among us. I'm convinced we have an obsession with violence. Why else would it be seen so often as a solution?

During the Super Bowl there was a dual Jeep and USO commercial. It was a clever bit of marketing where the whole commercial was full of touching scenes of men & women in the armed services. Visually it was like the film version of Instagram. The language too was soft and poetic and before long you were being whisked away on this vision of American homeland, heroism, and nationalism. Oh, and did I mention the narrator was Oprah? It was so moving that I found my American spirit soaring while my logical self was repulsed by the blatant propaganda and nationalism. What's more, the commercial specifically evoked church and prayer. I actually watched the Super Bowl with a large group of Christians. Not one of us, myself included, seemed to even notice at the time the marriage of Christianity and militarism being displayed before our eyes.

Why do we accept violence? Why are there so many Christians who oppose nonviolence as impractical? Why do so many Christians believe solutions in the Middle East will be brought about by military superiority? Why do Christians, in poll after poll, support our country's wars no matter the justification?

In the gospel when Judas finally leads the soldiers to arrest Jesus, Peter draws a sword and "defends" Jesus by striking another man. Jesus picks up the severed ear and heals the man with his open hand. Isn't that an interesting image: a closed fist that strikes and divides while an open hand heals and makes whole. But you also have to read that passage and wonder What on earth was Peter doing with a sword?

I don't know but I've heard most of the Jews and even the Apostles at the time were likely armed. But where does arming yourself and violence fit into the message of Christ? Jesus certainly didn't carry a sword. What were his followers doing? Why weren't they emulating him? Or did they imagine an importance to themselves as the physical "defenders" of Christ? Did they not see Jesus would never give his followers that role?

And when they met their own end did they nobly fight to the death? Nope. They were martyred as they lived - in their space of naked vulnerability. And that wasn't a weakness. We really need to get away from associating strength with power in a sort of anti-gospel message of our own making.

Christians, and I include myself here, are really failing on violence. I'm not against football or soldiers. I'm not even against justified armed intervention or armed police. But I think on the issue of violence as much as anything else we've given up our power and adopted a cultural ideology that seems more attractive than the gospel. I see it clearly when we support drone strikes and torture and "preemptive" wars and compelling people with laws and imprisoning persons who need help not incarceration. I'm sure there are other areas too. But I'm convinced the answer isn't ideology or military strategy or nationalism. That's not what gives us life. It's the quiet, vulnerable, intentionally defenseless, pacifistic message of the gospel. It's not Peter's sword, it's Jesus' open hand that heals. And if Christians aren't looking for the way of healing, what in the world are we doing?