Friday, May 30, 2008

The Medieval Mindset

I read a great opinion piece by David Brooks on the Medieval Mind in the New York Times about a month ago that I've been meaning to share. In it, Brooks bemoans the disenchantment that is the hallmark of the modern world. And while modern society has benefited from growing knowledge about the world that surrounds us, we have lost the sense of wonder and magic that seems so pervasive to the medieval worldview.

Brooks notes that, for the premoderns, the night sky was an "intimate and magical place." The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God." C.S. Lewis once noted that the medieval world “was tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.” For us moderns, it is an expanse of "black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces."

Brooks closes his article by reflecting on writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin who "seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization."

I sometimes wonder if knowledge must lead to disenchantment. I remember when I was a kid and I looked at the stars in the night sky in blissful ignorance. They looked so beautiful and ethereal in the night sky. I loved gazing at them. I even believed they would grant wishes (thank you Disney Pinocchio). Then a loving adult--I think it was my mom--informed me that the stars were actually just balls of gas. This was, um, not quite so romantic. It was like something snapped in my head. I continued to wonder at the beauty of nature, but it was a little depressing and disenchanting.

People often say that familiarity breeds contempt. I don't believe this is necessarily true--some things (and people!) you love even more as you get to know them better. But I also think that one of the reasons I love, say, my husband, even more as I spend more time with him, is because I believe he is more (pardon the expression) than just the some of his parts. I think that is one of the most important lessons that we can bring away from our medieval predecessors: there is more to this world than meets the eye.


alice c said...

I am delighted to know that your husband is 'more than some of his parts'. It sounds like the recipe for a long and happy marriage.

Margaret said...

Haha, thanks Alice!

Kelly said...

I dig the post. I haven't read the article you've cited, but I will be sure to later. From what you have given us I would say that I disagree with Brooks. It isn't so much human knowledge that has effected our view of beauty as much as it's been the change in human interest. The industrial revolution brought about a visual economy that changed the way people interacted with one another. No longer was there the fascination with one's relationship with heaven or nature, the interest shifted to one's relationship with their peers. So it's not that we have lost our sense of wonder and appreciation, I think that we have just fine tuned what we set up for analysis. I may be taking this much further than what is necessary (this is actually my first visit to your blog) and I'm sure I could ramble on and on, but I'll save us from that. Again, great post. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and posting lovely comments.

I am glad I have found your blog. I rather like the Arts and Crafts Movement -the fabrics, furniture and tiles. I originally come from the area near Kelmscott Manor, and saw a few bits in the Ashmolean which made me look into the how and why of their creation.

Well done for having a fascinating blog.

skatej said...

I think that an understanding of the knowledge can bring even more wonder. Yes, the stars are balls of burning gas. But look at the extreme order in the universe! It's amazing to see the beauty in the cosmos and know that something causes it, that order exists even beyond the farthest reaches that humans can never hope to reach. I look at the stars and wonder that there are so many more that I will never see! Have you seen the pictures of the cosmos? The swan nebula, the sombrero galaxy, the carino nebula, even white dwarfs (dying stars) are spectacular to behold. I think that the medieval people were only just barely able to comprehend "The heavens declare the works of your hands" and now that we have so much more we can witness because of our knowledge. I think the expanse in knowledge over time has been abused, that we don't look at the consequences of what we know. If we did, we would look at creation with increased wonder at every revelation, finding out more about how our world works in order despite human chaos.

Margaret said...

Such interesting comments from everyone!

I think you're right Kate, knowledge doesn't have to lead to less wonderment, and can (and should) in fact help us appreciate things a lot more.

Sabina said...

Interesting...wonderful blog!!

GMG said...

Hi Margaret! Interesting blog you have!
Thanks for your comment Blogtrotter, where the last post on Marrakesh 2006 waits for you... ;)) Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Dear Margaret,

It couldn't have been me that spoke of balls of frozen gas! I still sit on the deck at night and chant "Star-light, star-bright--I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight" to the first evening star! Here is "Starlight Night," from Gerard Manley Hopkins 1918 collection, pasted from Bartleby's online.

LOOK at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.


Thorsprincess said...

Dear Daughter,
I can hardly be anonymous if I am your mother. I hope you enjoy the poem.