Sitting at the feet of : a Medievalist

When he asked his Franciscan Father, “When did you become a Franciscan?” Alex Giltner’s Father answered, “When I was born.” Alex feels the same about medievalism—he can’t trace back the source. However, like most young boys, he drew close to stories and films of dragons and swords. Then at fourteen, he read The Lord of the Rings—a series of fantastic books that gave him his first Medieval inkling. Again, right before undergrad college, he read the series and that time it opened up the discipline of Tolkien scholarship. Old English, Norse sagas, Celtic and Finnish mythologies made blips on Giltner’s radar. At the same time, he studied Gregorian and Byzantine chants. Medieval music connected the dots on Giltner’s radar. He formed his first image of a Medieval world.

Later in grad school, he took a Medieval survey course and discovered their literature, their worldview, and the old logic. Parallels between their world and our current critique of Modernism cropped up. Then he studied the works of John Scotus Eriugena. The theology of Eriugena appealed to him enough that he declared his specialization (a full-ride for his PhD): the age of dragons and swords.

Alex feels the Medieval era gets a bad name. “Swords and dragons and all of that seemed to be viewed as quaint. The actual period is not represented by those.” He pointed out how people consider those stories Romantic—the good guys always win, the bad guys always lose. Many consider the “Dark Ages” backwards, but he pointed out that Petrarch termed it the “Dark Ages” in the Renaissance because he felt they had come into the light, as if we needed to get over Medievalism:

I remember telling someone about incredible medical advances made in the Medieval period and they answered, ‘Yeah, but they still burned witches,’ which is funny to me because [witch burnings] are definitely foreign and crude and unjust to us, but the major burnings happened in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which is a modern era. The Salem Witch Trials were not Medieval events. [They were] modern events.

People think Medievalists thought the world was flat. That’s a myth…. There’re some people around today that feel like the world is flat called “The Flat Earth Society.” Like most educated people today, most educated people in the Medieval society thought that the earth was round. They knew that since ancient times.

If we “grew up” during the Renaissance, Alex thinks the Medieval thinkers enabled us. They weren’t stupid. Like any other age, brilliant people did brilliant work. Our society borrows from theirs, especially concerning philosophy, medicine, and education. “It’s not like there’s this watershed moment where it stops being the society that came before us. It continues to be that society.” He doesn’t defend trial by ordeal, for instance, but he does reframe it by showing how they believed God meddled in society down to the tiniest detail.

In fact, like Lewis Giltner rejects the idea of a special historical Renaissance. “No, I don’t believe there’s a period where an entire society was reborn into a new one. The people of the Renaissance had a lot of the same values and the same preoccupations.” Renaissance people could only recover ancient works of literature because the monks preserved and copied them for a thousand years prior. Their thinkers used documents preserved by people who came before them—they weren’t special. “The Renaissance is not some special period as in like, ‘Before that there was no such thing as revolution. Everybody wanted to do everything the same and nobody ever wanted to do anything different or interesting or insightful or innovative.”

For Alex, the period of the Renaissance describes more of a political change. “I’m not arguing that Renaissance thinkers weren’t doing something different. I’m arguing that they were doing something different based upon very similar values in the midst of a different historical context… Every century has its own evolution. Every century has its own changes.” Advances happened every century between the ninth and the twefth—simply because we call a thousand years of history “Medieval” doesn’t make them uniform. Technological and medicinal advances happen all the time.  Renaissance happens all the time.

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No one in the Medieval period would have thought it prudent to drive a twenty-five-hundred pound S.U.V. ten miles for a half-gallon of milk. They would have squeezed an utter. “If you read Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’s Incarnation of the Word, he admits there were errors in the preceding centuries. Is this special? No. Like you’re talking about with the S.U.V.—there’s so many things that the Medievalists, if they were to meet up with us, would call us backwards.” We get things right and we get things wrong just like they did. To err and to succeed is human. We should acknowledge their errors and then learn from their brilliance to correct our own. If we shrug Medievalists off as witch-burners, we miss out “on the medieval view of ecology and education that could teach us a few things about how not to destroy the planet.”

You want to talk about errors of an era, it wasn’t until 1946 that America killed two-hundred thousand people in two days. Nothing like that ever happened in the Medieval period. The wars of this past century have been more bloody and more costly than any wars ever and have been fought for very different reasons than Medieval people fought wars… The kind of mass destruction that Colonialists caused throughout the world is a modern invention. Colonialism was about profits and resources. Not that I’m defending the Crusades [or Charlemagne]. Far from it. But Charlemagne’s bloody conquests wasn’t about profit and resources.

We want gold. We want tobacco. Oil. I’m not saying that Medievalists didn’t have times of destruction, conquest, and murder in the name of god and country. They didn’t have anything like annihilating an entire people group from an entire continent that had lived there for thousands of years. They knew about places outside of themselves. They didn’t know about North America, but they knew about Africa, Asia. We need to think about how it wasn’t the Medievalists who did some of the most atrocious things in the entire existence of humanity. The Medievalists did not like the Jews—I will not defend them on that point. They were very, very cruel and very, very wrong to the Jews, but they didn’t try to mass exterminate them either.

The Abolition of Man sums up their period well but also gets at their idea of education. There’s a reason scholars today do their most important work when they’re fifty or sixty. Calvin wrote The Institutes of Christian Religion at the age of twenty-four. Though Alex considered Calvin a “lame example,” he still used adjectives of their education system like “severe, arduous, more effective and much more important.” You had to practically become a monk to make it through basic education. Budding historians learned history in eremitic groups under a professional Historian.

Here, a high school history teacher doesn’t need a degree in history. They need a degree in this empire’s concept of education. Few teachers train in the field they teach. If they have an emphasis in history, history classes are not core in their master’s degree. Education in the states involves recitation of some spoon-fed script. Does that make sense? As Father Kurt said: 1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

“It’s historically true that Medievalists thought of education this way, but it’s my opinion that it’s better: they thought that education was about forming a good person.” The trivium came first: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Trivium prepared them for the quadrivium: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.

We don’t do that. Music is an elective. They fought for a well-rounded education to create a well-rounded individual—a “good” person in the general sense. Our education comes from teaching tasks, the lectern of the industrial revolution. I mentioned Milton’s On Education, how Milton thought we should teach English, Latin and Greek grammar before we introduce mathematics in order to prevent kids from asking, “when am I ever going to use this in real life?”

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Trivium brought out grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar was not mere syntax, but an understanding of the way their language worked. Then they learned to turn and use language in a way to find truth—Logic. Much of what they called “logic” was what we call “metaphysics” in philosophy. After Logic, they learned Rhetoric, how to speak in such a way as to appeal to the whole of your audience—mind, body, and soul. After you’ve learned how to learn, why you learn, and how to teach others what you’ve learned, you moved on to the quadrivium. You could say Medievalists spent years teaching kids why it all mattered in the real world first, then took them onto higher sciences and arts.

People make fun of the Medieval disputations. ‘The Medievalists didn’t care about things, they just sat around arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.’ Which is not true, they never argued about that—that’s another myth. But they did argue about things that we think are strange. For example they argued, ‘If a priest drops the host and then a mouse comes and eats it, does the mouse get grace?’ That question seems silly to us, but it was something that asked about their notion of the Eucharist.

They didn’t think that answers to question had applicable value in the answer. They weren’t worried about whether or not a mouse ate the Eucharist. What they were worried about was using a pedagogical tool to train students to think critically. You dispute something so that you can try to get into every corner of a situation and make a sound judgment. Whether or not a mouse gets grace or not isn’t as interesting to them as whether or not their students become good thinkers and good people who are able to deal with situations. People like Thomas Aquinas are able to give such fascinating, intricate, mind-boggling accounts of the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Eucharist because they argued about whether or not a mouse would get grace if they ate it.

That’s how guys like Aquinas worked his way up to Summa Theologica–pedagogical argumentation. You learn to learn, then you use that learning to grow in math, science and art and then move to “the book that made the Middle Ages: The Bible.” He called the disputatio a “pedagogical drama” that teaches you how to think high thoughts. That’s why the order goes:

  1. Assertion
  2. Objection
  3. Objection
  4. Objection
  5. Reply from Authority
  6. Reply to Objections

“Think about the finer points of any kind of subculture. I find when people argue sports around me, I don’t understand what they’re talking about. It seems silly when people see me arguing theology with my friends. Everyone always says, ‘What does it matter? Who cares?’ But we’re exercising our understanding of the finer points of our discipline and engaging in a self-teaching process.” That’s probably the best word for the Medieval education system: exercise. Medievalists formalized this process and by formalizing it, they bolstered their education. “We think we’re just shooting the bull.” They borrowed that from Aristotle: virtue, vice and habituation. Slap the knuckle puck enough times with your hockey stick, you’ll form the habit of scoring goals. Argue enough and you’ll know what to say when a real question arises.

Giltner doesn’t, however, want to create antagonism between the modern and medieval period. This all comes in the context of pros and cons in every era. “Why does Lewis write a book like The Discarded Image? Because he wants people to understand his period.” Key concepts to learn from the medieval period:

  1. Go back to tradition. (Classics, Liturgy, Mythology, etc.) – Innovation was bad. The people who came before us were smarter. We need to explore their accounts to find out how they fit in our time.
  2. Structures are temporal. – They would never think “this is how the whole world works, will always work and there’s no questioning it.” Theories should never be unquestionable. Everything is a model—as long as the model works, we keep using it. Galileo made a political statement, not a metaphysical one. Copernicus said the same thing a century before and no one minded—things changed. When the model stops working, we change it or get rid of it.
  3. Think like a librarian. – They love everything in its spot. They love order, but they’re not fundamentalists. Things can change, but find a spot for them until they do. Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish. Rarely can you ever say, “YES! That’s it!” Never can you say, “No, you’re wrong,” because no one is ever completely wrong. Always distinguish so as to understand where everything fits in language, the universe and our relation to them.
  4. Learn to learn. – Education mentioned above.
  5. Wonder at the universe. – They felt unquenchable awe about their world. As a devotional practice, they wanted to understand the universe and dream and think. We are creatures, not creators. We don’t know everything that’s going on. We don’t have a bird’s eye view—we’re quite small. They are the upstanding model of what it means to seek truth with childlike wonder. They respected their universe and world without a desire to control it. They wanted to know the order of the universe so they could live rightly within it.
  6. Virtue. – Life’s not about right or wrong. Life’s about being a good person. It’s about learning to become the kind of person who can blend in relationships and deal with situations as they arise. It always depends on the situation. There’s no manual for right and wrong, there’s only good character. You must become a virtuous person to make the right distinction in any situation at any given time.
  7. Art. – They created art for different reasons, for devotion in a general sense. Their paintings, songs, poetry were all dances with the soul. They were unquenchably curious, intolerably cataloging everything, and endlessly awed by the world they inhabited.
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Finally, I asked him about the Fae. He pointed to works like Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Faerie Queen, Gawain and the Green Night but also pointed out how they weren’t all thinking about faeries. That was restricted to the Isles. But their stories of heroism, of love like Roman de la Rose taught the virtues. Their poems of otherworldly encounters all come back to their mystical view of the world. They inhabited a world they did not understand and understanding the world was a mystical or aesthetic practice. You are still a creature. Nothing more. You inhabit a world of mystery that you will never ever be able to escape.

In today’s world, we often explore worlds of mystery and other medieval ideals though fantasy literature. “We see it most potently in the symbolism of language. Certain phrases are symbolically or theologically loaded for us: The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time or The Name of the Wind or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. You see those titles and immediately you think, ‘I don’t know what that sh*t is, but I want to read it. Now.’”


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