And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 15. juli 2014

Unto the End of Days - Time in medieval historical and liturgical thought

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
- Book of Daniel 12:2

From MS Harley 334, Image du Monde, 2nd quarter of the 15th century
Courtesy of British Library

Medieval man understood time differently from how we do. We tend to think of time as linear and divided into successive epochs. We recognise to a great extent that these epochs are constructs which help us navigate and make sense of history, but they are nonetheless an inextricable part of the way we understand the past. For learned people of the Middle Ages, men and women, things were different. They likewise had successive epochs, like the six ages of man as formulated by Saint Augustine or the four kingdoms expressed in the Book of Daniel, but history had a teleological nature which to many historians these days is alien.

This difference makes it sometimes very difficult for modern historians to faithfully represent medieval people in their research. Often, historians run the risk of focussing on one particular aspect of, say, a medieval monk's literary output, while ignoring some other parts that may be just as significant. The Norwegian medievalist Dr. Sigbjørn Sønnesyn has recently argued that the historiographical output of William of Malmesbury must be considered in conjunction with his theological work, and his office as historian should not be separated from his office as cantor and participant in the monastic liturgy at Malmesbury Abbey. By pointing to these two aspects of William of Malmesbury's life as a monk, Dr. Sønnesyn points to one of the significant problems often encountered in medieval studies: the frequent neglect of the omnipresent liturgical rites so fundamental to the monastic life.

To be precise: there are many medievalist scholars, and not all of them musicologists, who have done significant research which includes liturgical sources. However, the tendency, addressed by Dr. Sønnesyn, to divorce William of Malmesbury the historian from William of Malmesbury the liturgist, has resulted in a failure to consider his historiographical output together with his theological work.  

The last three days of Creation
MS Egerton 1894, Genesis picture book, England, 3rd quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

In this blogpost, I want to follow up on Dr. Sønnesyn's remarks on the relationship between liturgy and history, and argue that this relationship is only natural to a medieval mind because of the multi-layered nature of medieval time, or perhaps rather times. These musings are also informed by a one-day colloquium held at St Mary's College in London and papers given by Emma Dillon, Nils Holger Petersen and Beth Williamson.

First of all, in medieval historical thought there were two major strands of the movement or progression of history. Both of these were formulated around the eve of the Western Roman Empire, both of these were founded upon Jewish history as presented in the Bible and both of them were expressively Christian. The oldest strand was that formulated by Augustine, and which in German scholarship is referred to as Heilsgeschichte, the history of the salvation of mankind (with thanks to Nathaniel Campbell). In this presentation of history, Augustine sought to express the progression of time from Creation unto Judgement Day and was concerned with the work of holy men and women and God's intervention in mankind's life and work.  

St Augustine in his study
Sandro Botticelli
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The second strand to be considered here was formulated by Augustine's disciple Orosius and was concerned with the passing of earthly empires, for the most part modelled on the historical books of the Old Testament, in particular Kings and Chronicles, but perhaps also heavily informed by that famous dictum of Ecclesiastes: There is no new thing under the sun. This approach by Orosius, called Weltreichslehre by German scholarship, was often placed within the overarching narrative of Heilsgeschicte.

Both these strands of history are linear in the sense that they have a clearly defined beginning and a clearly defined end. At the same time, both these strands have cyclical aspects to the way history progresses. In Augustine's Heilsgeschichte, we encounter men and women who imitate Christ in their lives and works and sometimes deaths, and although each life and death has a beginning and an end, this succession of imitations has a certain cyclical aspect to it. In a similar way, Weltreichslehre describes the cyclical rise and fall and ultimate demise of kingdoms, empires and princedoms in their progression through history towards Judgement Day. In this sense we see that to a medieval historiographer, history had at least two layers of time, two parallel lines of historical progression. 

Christ in Majesty
MS Arundel 157, St Albans psalter from c.1240
Courtesy of British Library

A similar multiplicity of layers can be found within the yearly cycle of monastic life. I do not claim that these layers correspond with those of historiography, for that would imply that historiography and liturgy are separate spheres of historical progress. Rather, these layers come in addition to those presented in historiographical writing and help to illustrate how thoroughly medieval life was permeated by multiple layers of historical progress.

In the liturgical year we also find an overarching narrative of linear progression, as the liturgy recreates the temporale, the life and times of Christ, beginning at Advent, reaching a climax at Easter and then coming to its close around All Saints. Of course, this linear narrative in turn becomes cyclical since it is reenacted every year, but within the structure of the liturgical year it is linear in a way similar - but not identical to - Augustine's vision of the history of the holy.

However, within this overarching structure of the temporale, the liturgical year is also marked by the daily cycle of the divine office, in which saints are celebrated in a series of communal prayers and meditations known as the hours. The office begins at Vespers, around six in the afternoon, on the day before the saint's day and concludes with the Vespers of the saint's day, an hour known as the second Vespers. Similar to Orosius' everchanging yet neverchanging succession of earthly realms, the catalogue of saints celebrated in the divine office, the sanctorale, was continuously emended with new saints being added and old saints receiving new days as their relics were moved. Additions occurred, but these additions were celebrated in the same way as the older saints. There were differences in celebration, of course, depending on the time of the year and the importance of the saint at a particular monastery. For instance, St Edmund had a more significant position at Bury St Edmunds than he had at, say, Westminster Abbey. Despite these differences, the daily celebration of the divine office nonetheless was a liturgical wheel within the greater liturgical wheel of the temporale.

Day of Judgement
Triptych by Hans Memling, fifteenth century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The liturgical year as a recreation of the life and times of Christ points to one interesting difference between medieval historiography and literature pertaining to the cult of the saints, i.e. hagiography and liturgy. While historiography - through the Orosian approach - was largely modelled on the Old Testament, hagiography and liturgy were chiefly concernced with the imitatio Christi of the saints. This does not mean that historiography did not employ motifs from the New Testament or that liturgy did not refer to events of the Old Testament, but we see that historiography and liturgy focus on different parts of the Bible. In this way we can sense that historiographical writing and liturgical celebration form a kind of unity in the way that they each emphasise different parts of the Bible and together create a whole within which medieval men and women navigate their way towards Heaven.

When we consider the multiple layers of time that permeated the life of a medieval monk or a nun, there is little reason to separate the monk as a writer of history from the monk as a partaker in the daily rhythm of the liturgical year. Consequently, when we consider a medieval monk's historical oeuvre, like that of William of Malmesbury, we would do well to remember that his writing must have been heavily informed by liturgical ritual and the theology espoused at the monastery at which he worked. Taking this into consideration, we must also, as Dr. Sønnesyn wisely exhorts us to do, look at points where the liturgical background bleeds into the arrangement of historiography. What implications this has on the presentation of morality of history or the interpretation of worldly events are aspects that must be examined on an individual basis, but must be included in order to represent a medieval monk's literary production as faithfully as possible.  

4 kommentarer:

  1. Thanks so much for the plug, my young friend. And thanks for turning my musings into something actually useful and interesting through inclusion into your very important line of argument here!

    1. Sorry for the late reply; my thanks are all due to you and your excellent paper which served as a catalyst for these ideas. Otherwise I'd only had some half-formulated thoughts refusing to congeal into anything tangible and concrete.

  2. A quick correction: the better English equivalent for Heilsgeschichte would be "salvation history".

    Otherwise, very insightful!

    1. You are of course entirely right, thank you for the correction, I'll see to it. Glad you found this interesting, it is yet in a seminal stage.