Rorate Caeli

RORATE CÆLI Editorial:
Very well, we are "neo-Medievalists"... But could we end the ignorance of the "Middle Ages" anyway?


The supreme indictment came in an article published by "progressive" Catholic periodical "Commonweal". Though it is certainly an honor for us to be placed alongside those mentioned below, it is quite a disparate group:

Francis also faces criticism from those who seek to restore nineteenth-century European Catholicism, like the historian Roberto de Mattei. His Lepanto Foundation holds that Vatican II was a radical break with tradition, as do the online magazines he oversees: Corrispondenza Romana and Radici Cristiane. The neo-medievalists resist Francis because they oppose Vatican II on liturgical issues. The widely read blog Rorate Caeli falls into this camp, as does Vittorio Messori, who co-authored the famous Ratzinger Report (1985). As recently as May 28, he wrote about the church’s diarchical papacy—two popes, Benedict and Francis—in Italy’s most important newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera. (Massimo Faggioli, The Italian Job: Can Pope Francis Manage His Local Opposition?

The great Régine Pernoud would be so frustrated! Decades after her main works, over a century worth of studies that demystify the long period that lasted roughly from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West to the Protestant revolt and that was anachronistically defined simply as a "middle" age -- as if every age were not the middle between one that came before it and one that succeeded it -- and the term "medieval" and its derivations are still used, misused, and intended as disparaging. Even by Catholics, who should be the first to know better.

She had high hopes: her short and amazingly entertaining 1977 essay "Pour en finir avec le Moyen Âge" (whose title could be loosely translated as "Please, could we just get over this 'Middle Ages' thing?" and which was published in English not by a radical "medievalist" organization, but by "Ignatius Press", under the title "Those Terrible Middle Ages: debunking the myths") includes growing expectations by her that the accumulating scholarship on the period and the popularization of its legacy and monuments would finally lead the public to grow out of the infantile Protestant and 18th-century stereotypes related to that fascinating and long period of European and global history, in which the bases of (for better or worse) the domination of the whole world by Western Europe, its parameters and ideas were laid. Alas, that was not to be.

Pernoud was also rightly frustrated because the term itself is inaccurate and lacks precision: the "ages" are a transitory period between two glorious times, Classical Antiquity and a modernity in which a part of the upper classes desperately aspired to a rebirth (renaissance) of Classical Antiquity, slavery included... And instead those centuries, beginning in a dramatic period framed by the double turmoil of the collapse of centralized state order in the former Western Empire (5th century) and the ravages of the Arab conquests (7th-8th century) -- which, differently from the hordes from Eurasia, did not integrate into the feebly Christianized and Romanized areas, but completely lorded over the layers of civilization of the newly conquered areas -- are instead characterized by the development of that mighty collective adventure known as Christendom.

The prejudice against the period is so great that nothing that is good is thought to come from it. Even if it appeared during the time, the excuse of the anti-"medievalists" is that it either came from Antiquity, or that it was a precocious manifestation of the modern spirit. And yet, it is the complete opposite. The institutions that endured through the centuries ever since are those whose establishment is inherently "medieval": parliaments; courts; universities; the identification of nation and state. That burning spirit that gave us the Crusades is exactly the same that explains the Reconquest, and with it, the discovery and conquest of the New World, by groups that included terrible men, but also men whose desire to evangelize the whole universe was much greater than themselves and sustained them in their excruciating journeys around the globe, an explosive desire to explain and understand all things under God -- as well as God Himself! Quite relevant for us, in the beginning of the period, throughout the West and in various uses, the Liturgy we know had mostly been settled, and from its beautiful roots grew organically through all peoples, in a unified language. We live still today, not in Christendom, of course, but off the fraying threads of its mighty tapestry: these collapsing and utterly exhausted remains of Civilization, a Civilization established precisely in the centuries that followed the fall of the Western Empire and whose Mother, Teacher and Guarantor was that sole survivor from Antiquity in Western Europe, the Catholic Church.

Almost three centuries of prejudiced historians, and one and a half of Marxist and post-Marxist historians, have left us with the most distorted image of the period. How can we understand ourselves, and accept ourselves, if we reject, deface, and defame the circumstances and reality of our birth and spiritual lineage, as has been done, first by the Protestants, and then by the entire educated classes since the "enlightened" 18th century? Pernoud recalls the process of words that are abused so that they can be used to change the collective memory of Western Europe:

The ambiguity of the term 'feudal' was complete by the same period. [Late 18th century, before the Revolution.] As, also, that of the term 'Gothic' was complete -- or as the ambiguity continues even today of the term 'Middle Ages'; for it is perfectly absurd to designate by the word 'middle', as if it were a mere intermediary period, a period of a thousand years of human history.

This must be emphasized because of the errors and misuse to which the term feudalism has given rise, particularly when it has been set in opposition to that other term, 'bourgeoisie', itself just as ambiguous. Marx's Manifesto, published in 1847, reflects the state of historical science of the period. It fixes the thirteenth century as the beginning of the 'battle against feudal absolutism' and attributes to the bourgeoisie 'an essentially revolutionary role' in history. Did the bourgeoisie not uproot the countryside from a 'state of torpor and latent barbarism'? These are all propositions that are today [1977] unacceptable for the historian; those who continue to perpetuate such errors of vocabulary, which are intellectually necessary if one wants to maintain at any price the feudalism-bourgeoisie-proletariat, prolong an ambiguity just as erroneous as the continued use of the term 'Gothic' during the era of Marx. In other words, the Marxist historians, who speak of feudalism destroyed by the French Revolution, makes one think of those ecclesiastics who see in the Second Vatican Council the 'end of the Constantinian period' -- as if nothing had happened, in more than sixteen hundred years, between Constantine and Vatican II, as if the beginning of the sixteenth century, particularly, had not led to that radical change in the state of the Church that was (without any play on words) the establishment of the Church of State.*

Pernoud, as usual, identified the problem. Men possessed of a revolutionary spirit and a distorted view of history need to encircle, restrict, mischaracterize, and misname the founding centuries of Christian Civilization in order to re-"found" history and society in their own image - no matter how many lives (in the case of Marxist revolutionaries) or souls (in the case of religious revolutionaries) are lost. That has always been, of course, the choice of the "Spirit of the Council" barbarians, and that is why they need to use a vocabulary that is already mistaken in order to malign those whom they identify as adversaries.

Fine, let us assume the term of "neo-medievalist" makes any sense: we want to return to the "Middle Ages"-- but what "middle age"? The age of the Isidore of Seville? Of the Islamic Conquests? Of the first Pippinids, or of the Viking raids? Is it the age of the Monarchies, or the age of the founding and splendor of the 1000-year-long Venetian Republic? Of fiefs, or of autonomous Free Cities? The age of the Hanseatic League, or of the Holy Empire? Of serfs, or of Lombard bankers? Or the age of Charlemagne and Alcuin? Or the age of Saint Hildegard, Saint Anselm, or Saint Thomas Aquinas? Is it the age of the Rosary, or the age of the Cathedrals? Is it the age of the invention of the Missal, or the age of the Universities? Is it the age of the Oaths of Strasbourg, or of Beowulf, or of the Glosas Emilianenses? Is it the age of the Venerable Bede, of Saint Columba and his Iona, and of the Lindisfarne Gospels? Or it the age of Petrarch, or that of Saint Francis (probably neither, they were 'good', therefore they were precursors of 'Modernity')? The age of plainchant, or of Machaut? Is it the age of the Reconquest, or the age of the Islamic raids in search of slaves? Is it the age of Cluny and Saint Gregory VII? The age of Philip the Fair, or the age of Magna Carta? Of Saint Louis and Saint Ferdinand or Saint Edward, or of Emperor Henry IV? Of Saint Thomas Becket, or King Henry II? Of Saint Dominic, or instead much earlier that of Saint Boniface, or rather much later that of Thomas à Kempis?... The list can go on endlessly. As it can be seen, this founding period of Western European Civilization, and indeed of each European nation as we know them, can be grouped under a single name only as a result of either ignorance or malice.

What is meant by "medievalist" in Church circles is even worse, because anything that resembles a love for what the Church always was, what she always believed, how she always worshiped just until the 1960s is by itself viewed suspiciously as "Medieval". This is indeed, as Pernoud implied, the Founding Myth of Liberal Catholicism, and is in every way parallel with the Founding Myth of Protestantism. For Protestants, the "Primitive Church" was a mostly pure entity, just until the original sin of Constantine, and then it survived in the shadows with isolated figures until its glorious total re-emergence with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the whole team, as the shackles of the Dark Ages and Popery were lifted from pure Christianity. For Post-Conciliarists, the story is pretty much the same, after the first Fathers, came the long Dark Ages of the Church, the "Triumphalist", "Constantinian" Church existed from just around Nicaea all the way to the 1960s -- in a sense, all the intervening period is "medieval".

So, yes, certainly, if, by malice or ignorance, the history of the free Church, from the emergence from the catacombs up to the 1960s -- that is, practically the entire history of the Church soon after apostolic times -- is considered "medieval", then we are quite proud, and even eager, to be so characterized. And so should every Catholic.

[Image: Octagon crossing, Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Ely - restored in the 19th century to approach original 13th-14th centuries design and aspect. The church was a "Conventual Cathedral", both a Cathedral and an Abbatial Church (with the local bishop as prior), before the unfortunate events of the 16th century. © Copyright William Starkey and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License. // * p. 81-82 of the English version, emphases added; p. 69-70 of the current French edition, published by Éditions du Seuil // Original posting date: June 14]