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Our wills become one single will

Friday, 19 Dec 2014

Dante on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn

The essence of this blessed life consists
in keeping to the boundaries of God’s will,
Through which our wills become one single will.
(Dante - Paradiso Canto iii ll 73 - 81)

An appreciation of the way in which the medieval mind strove for perfection undermines the modern demagogical condemnation of a herd-like mentality amongst individuals who lived in traditional societies.

To suggest there was none of the sense of dignity and freedom of every individual, that only modern, “evolved” mankind is supposed to have achieved, would be a gross distortion of the truth, resulting from a shallow analysis.

Feudal peasants were rooted in the soil of their village communities generation after generation. This immobility, this enduring attachment to the soil, established a relationship between people and space. Being fixed in space led people to live in solitude and isolation. But the unit of isolation was not the individual, it was the group.

The majority of peasants lived grouped together in small villages. The division of labour required for agriculture was very simple, so it was unnecessary for many people to live together in the same place. Villages remained small and evenly distributed, the density being dictated by the productivity of the land. The isolated farm, a feature of the modern landscape, did not exist. Peasants lived grouped together for the following reasons. 1)The piece of land that each family cultivated was invariably small, typically divided into three strips of rotating crops, which were located with other family strips in an allocated field system. People lived together in the same place so thatthey could be close to the their fields. 2) Where shared ownership and effort was required, such as ploughing and the use of oxen teams, people had to work together as a group, so living together was convenient. 3) Living together as a group also greatly contributed to everyone’s security.

No matter what the reasons, and there are probably many more than those noted, the rural solitude was that of the group, not the individual. Because villagers did not move around much, the communities did not interact much. Life in a medieval village was very parochial as a result. Villagers restricted the scope of their daily activities; they did not travel far; they seldom made contact with the outside world; they led solitary lives; they maintained their own isolated social circle. The people they saw every day were the people they had known since childhood, just as they knew the people in their own families. They did not have to select the kind of society they would live in; they were born into it; choice was not a factor.

In a society characterised by this level of familiarity, people achieved alevel of freedom whereby they could do whatever they pleased without fear of violating the norms of the society. This type of freedom was different from the those freedoms in modern society, which are defined and protected by laws. The social norms in a familiar society rested not upon laws but, rather, upon rituals and customs that were defined through practice; hence, to follow those norms was to follow one’s own heart and mind. In other words, society and individual were one, a single social organism, a people of God, which aptly reflected St Paul’s metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ.

We come back to the point that there was no division between the inner and personal life of religion, and the practical interests of the external order. Each individual was part of an order of faith that stretched from the parish church and manor, to kingship, the Holy Roman Empire and Christendom. The First Crusade, notable for not being merely a military operation, included vast numbers of ordinary men and women within a tide of humanity, known as the People’s Crusade, that swept across Europe towards the Holy Land, probably representing the high water mark of medieval social cohesion from emperor to vassal. Such a coalition of souls could never have been imposed by the political or economic despotism of a centralised power. It grew from an acceptance that to comply perfectly with one’s own specific function there was a need for an identical participation in the spirituality of the whole, conceived as a living organism. This kind of social order, with the sovereign at the centre, was the form within which the subjects demonstrated their faithfulness to God through faithfulness to their ruler. This faithfulness was a cornerstone of traditional society, in addition to work as rite and an elite that embodied transcendence. This was the force which as a magnet held together the social structure, establishing an unsaid coordination and gravitation between the individual and the centre, between the individual and the whole. It was a force acknowledged by Dante:

The essence of this blessed life consists
in keeping to the boundaries of God’s will,
Through which our wills become one single will.
(Paradiso Canto iii ll 73 - 81)

By contrast, modern society is composed of strangers. We fear that oral arrangements are not binding; therefore we draw up written contracts to which we sign our names. Laws arise in this fashion. But there was no way for laws like this to develop in feudal society, where trust was derived from familiarity.

Looked at this way, the decline of feudal society marked the decline of the personal freedom of familiarity and a separation of the inner and the outer selves. Few, save the kingand officials, saw the need for a distinguishing signature or mark. Each signed with a cross just like everyone else, personal identity was not important or even understood. Perhaps it is not surprising that some of the early contractual agreements in the Middle Ages were those drawn up with outsiders, in the form of money lending agreements. Notably, a Jew would sign with a personal name.

There may not have been an absolute division in the medieval mind between the inner and personal life, which is the sphere of religion, and the practical interests of the external order, but there was a division of quality. The world of social organisation, originating in physical necessities, passed by insensible gradations into that of the spirit.

There was a gradation between nature and grace, between human appetites and interests and religion. And what was true of the individual was true also of society. In the words of the famous Bull of Pope Boniface VIII:‘The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher through the things which are intermediate. According to the law of the universe all things are not reduced to order equally and immediately; but the lowest through the intermediate, the intermediate through the higher.’ Thus social institutions assumed a character which may almost be called sacramental, for they were the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme spiritual reality. Ideally conceived, society was an organism of different grades, and human activities formed a hierarchy of functions, which differed in kind and in significance, but each of which was of value on its own plane, provided that it was governed, however remotely, by the end which is common to all. Like the celestial order, of which it was the dim reflection, society was stable, because it was straining upwards across aJacob’s ladder connecting heaven and earth, in a cosmic harmony.

Thomas More’s Utopia, written on the cusp of of the medieval and modern worlds, was a self-conscious presentation of a rationally ordered state in which minds in harmony with Christ’s teachings might exist. The money-free communal order was an echo of what had been lost. Utopia, governed by its ascetic spiritual discipline, was an image of man’s soulaspiring to a state of redemption. The humanist More’s scholarly positing of this ideal from the outside was an act complicit in its final demise.

John Dunn.

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