Dare Stones

I have just discovered the existence of South’s version of the Kensington Runestone. From the Brenau Window:

In November 1937 as America clawed its way out of The Great Depression, a Californian man showed up at the history department of Emory University in Atlanta with a most peculiar object – a 21-pound chunk of rough veined quartz with some foreign looking words chiseled into its surface. The man said he found the rock in a North Carolina swamp, about 80 miles from Roanoke Island, while he was driving through on vacation. The strange stone caught the attention of one of the professors, Dr. Haywood Pearce Jr., who also served as vice president of Brenau, where his father was president. The inscription on the stone read “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591,” and a message to notify John White of that news bore the initials of the author of the carved writing, EWD, presumably those of Eleanor Dare.

Although Emory’s historians weren’t interested, Pearce and his father certainly were. Perhaps they concluded that, if this chuck of rock indeed marked the graves of America’s “first white child” and her father, it might well be the thing to put their college on the map. They wound up paying the California man $1,000 for the treasure.

Anyone who has used tiller, plow or trowel in Appalachian dirt will swear the region grows rocks. But nothing plows better than cold cash. To make a long story short, over the next four years, similar rocks popped up all over the place, mostly found by four people. Pearce and his father over the years acquired close to 50 of the huge stones, all with similar inscriptions unearthed as far south as the banks of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. Although the Pearces’ fervent explorations and money never turned up graves or any other evidence to authenticate the stones, a team of Smithsonian Institution-commissioned historians – headed by the venerable Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard – traveled to Gainesville and, in a preliminary report, assigned some validity to what had then come to be known as “The Dare Stones.”

David Morrison’s article notes that the Saturday Evening Post, in 1941, conclusively proved that most of these stones were forgeries, but what about the original one? From the Washington Post on July 5 (hat tip: Ron Good):

In the past few years, researchers have been taking another look. For one, the letters etched on the first stone look very different from the others. It doesn’t contain any suspiciously modern words as the others do. Plus, Dare was “moderately educated,” Schrader says, and her husband was a stonemason. It’s reasonable to think she may have learned the skill from him.

In 2016, Schrader had a sample of the stone analyzed by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, exposing the quartz’s bright white interior.

“The original inscription would have been a stark contrast to the weathered exterior,” science writer Andrew Lawler wrote for National Geographic. “A good choice for a Roanoke colonist but a poor one for a modern forger.”

Schrader said he would like to marshal the funds for an “exhaustive, geochemical investigation,” but first, this fall, a Brenau professor will assemble a team of outside experts to analyze the language more thoroughly.

“The type of English that’s on the stone was really only used for about a hundred years, so it’s a nice time marker to be able to study,” Schrader said.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. (I make no comment on the use of “Virginia Dare” by white nationalists – if the rock is authentic, then it’s authentic, and if it’s fake, then it’s fake. What “uses” it is put to are beyond the investigator’s concern.)

Book Review

From The American Interest:

Addicted to Addiction

A new book about early modern England reveals an eternal truth: We are all addicted to something, and maybe that’s not a bad thing, so long as we choose well.

The first addicts to stumble across the threshold of the English language, refugees from Latin, were not only drunks or gamblers. Their ranks included devout Christians and scholars. Today we argue about whether addiction is a sin or a sickness, but when the term first entered our language it could name a virtue and an accomplishment: In the 16th century “addiction” covered many forms of “service, debt, and dedication,” including the pious Christian’s zeal to obey God’s every command. Rebecca Lemon’s new study, Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England, does not merely trace an etymological development. She takes the earliest meanings of “addiction” not as a cute quirk of linguistic history, but as a challenge to our contemporary shared understandings of substance abuse, political sovereignty, religious faith, and love.

Lemon looks at a range of sources, from translations of John Calvin’s sermons to pamphlets promoting anti-drunkenness laws, but her primary focus is on plays and poetry. The first chapter looks at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; then we get Twelfth Night, the Henry IV and Henry V plays, and Othello; and lastly, literary portrayals of the custom of “health-drinking.” Throughout, Lemon uses other sources to explore the artistic works’ portrayals of addiction: For Faustus we get religious texts on God’s grace as the power determining whether someone is addicted to God or to vice; for Othello, with its crimes of passion, shifting legal rulings on the culpability of people who commit crimes while drunk.

Lemon begins in the 1530s, when “addiction” begins to appear in English to designate both distorted desire for wine or riches and properly exclusive, single-minded desire for Christ. In 1534 George Joye asks God to “make faste thye promises to thy servant which is addicte unto thy worshyppe.” For these Protestant writers, Catholics were “addict to their supersticyons,” whereas they should be “addict unto none but to christ,” “addicted to praiers,” to “the meaneynge of the scripture.” Lemon’s Protestant sources share a suspicion of anything too material, too embodied—fasting, kneeling—as if Catholic sacraments were the original substance abuse. Lemon quotes a translation of the Letter of St. Paul to Titus which opens, “I Paule my selfe the addict servant & obeyer, not of Moses lawe as I was once, but of God the father, and ambassador of his sonne Jesus Christ.” That Paul should be an addict is obvious to his English readers; the important question is to whom he ought addict himself.

More at the link.

Hymns

From Ponder Anew, a blog on Patheos (via my friend Bill Campbell):

No, the melodies of our beloved hymns weren’t borrowed from drinking songs, bar tunes, and tavern music. I’ve had about ten comments on my blog posts this week alone trying to use the bar song myth as their smoking gun in the case for commercial worship. It’s an argument many love to make, but it didn’t happen.

Those most often implicated in this myth are Martin Luther and the Wesleys. Luther did use German Bar form, a musical style in an AAB pattern having nothing to do with the suds. There is no indication John John and Charlie ever suggested such a thing, and knowing their position on imbibing and the importance placed on proper text/tune pairing, it’s unlikely the would have even considered the idea. Tunes were occasionally borrowed from existing folk songs, but they weren’t simply extracted from whatever people were singing at the local watering hole and paired with jesusy poetry. And even if they were, it was not, as commercial worship apologists are wont to say, in an effort to borrow from culture for the purpose of evangelism or getting butts on the stools…er…in the pews.

This rumor has been thoroughly debunked by both scholars and laypeople. So why do people still believe it? I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like the “Grassy Knoll” theory of Christian hymnody. There’s no evidence for it, but dang it, it’s just more interesting than the truth.

Irresponsible? Yes, absolutely.

Difficult to suppress? You bet.

Some Twitter exchanges promoting the idea follow.

Ye Olde Shoppyng Liste

From Smithsonian.com, courtesy of Reinhardt alumna Wanda Pirtle Cronauer:

Seventeenth-Century Shopping List Discovered Under Floorboards of Historic English Home

Penned in 1633, the “beautifully written” list hints at household life 400 years ago

Among other necessary items, the list includes “greenfish,” a “fireshovel” and two dozen pewter spoons. (Image courtesy of the National Trust)

By Brigit Katz

SMITHSONIAN.COM
JANUARY 31, 2017

Pewter spoons, a frying pan and “greenfish”—these must-have items were scribbled on a shopping list 400 years ago. The scrap of paper was recently discovered under the floorboards of Knole, a historic country home in Kent, England.

As Oliver Porritt reports for Kent Live, Jim Parker, a volunteer working with the archaeology team at Knole, discovered the 1633 note during a multi-million dollar project to restore the house. The team also found two other 17th century letters nearby. One, like the shopping list, was located under the attic floorboards; another was stuffed into a ceiling void.

More, including a complete transcription, at the link. It is wonderful when such slices of social history appear after so many years. (I would happily save more of my ephemera as a service to humanity, although I don’t really have the space for it…)

Exam Question

Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?

This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.

Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?

One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.

But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.

But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.

Pirates

Via Instapundit, an interesting article on pirates, from Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities (so you should probably visit the site while you still can):

A Lot of What Is Known about Pirates Is Not True, and a Lot of What Is True Is Not Known

By Mark G. Hanna

In 1701, in Middletown, New Jersey, Moses Butterworth languished in a jail, accused of piracy. Like many young men based in England or her colonies, he had joined a crew that sailed the Indian Ocean intent on plundering ships of the Muslim Mughal Empire. Throughout the 1690s, these pirates marauded vessels laden with gold, jewels, silk, and calico on pilgrimage toward Mecca. After achieving great success, many of these men sailed back into the Atlantic via Madagascar to the North American seaboard, where they quietly disembarked in Charleston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Newport, and Boston, and made themselves at home.

When Butterworth was captured, he admitted to authorities that he had served under the notorious Captain William Kidd, arriving with him in Boston before making his way to New Jersey. This would seem quite damning. Governor Andrew Hamilton and his entourage rushed to Monmouth County Court to quickly try Butterworth for his crimes. But the swashbuckling Butterworth was not without supporters.

In a surprising turn of events, Samuel Willet, a local leader, sent a drummer, Thomas Johnson, to sound the alarm and gather a company of men armed with guns and clubs to attack the courthouse. One report estimated the crowd at over a hundred furious East Jersey residents. The shouts of the men, along with the “Drum beating,” made it impossible to examine Butterworth and ask him about his financial and social relationships with the local Monmouth gentry.

Armed with clubs, locals Benjamin and Richard Borden freed Butterworth from the colonial authorities. “Commanding ye Kings peace to be keept,” the judge and sheriff drew their swords and injured both Bordens in the scuffle. Soon, however, the judge and sheriff were beaten back by the crowd, which succeeded in taking Butterworth away. The mob then seized Hamilton, his followers, and the sheriff, taking them prisoner in Butterworth’s place.

A witness claimed this was not a spontaneous uprising but “a Design for some Considerable time past,” as the ringleaders had kept “a pyratt in their houses and threatened any that will offer to seize him.”

Governor Hamilton had felt that his life was in danger. Had the Bordens been killed in the melee, he said, the mob would have murdered him. As it was, he was confined for four days until Butterworth was free and clear.

Jailbreaks and riots in support of alleged pirates were common throughout the British Empire during the late seventeenth century. Local political leaders openly protected men who committed acts of piracy against powers that were nominally allied or at peace with England. In large part, these leaders were protecting their own hides: Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of the instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

There were less materialist reasons, too, why otherwise upstanding members of the community rebelled in support of sea marauders. Many colonists feared that crack-downs on piracy masked darker intentions to impose royal authority, set up admiralty courts without juries of one’s peers, or even force the establishment of the Anglican Church. Openly helping a pirate escape jail was also a way of protesting policies that interfered with the trade in bullion, slaves, and luxury items such as silk and calico from the Indian Ocean.

Much more at the link. It’s interesting how such popular violence was a part of life in early America.

Thoughts I have had while lecturing

I. An interesting shift: at one point African-American slaves took inspiration from Moses leading the Hebrew slaves out of bondage from Egypt, hence the spiritual:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let My people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let My people go!
Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh To let My people go!

But of course Egypt is African, or judged to be representative of Africa, so starting in the twentieth century African-Americans began to look back with admiration on ancient Egypt, partly as a riposte to the European idealization of Ancient Greece (this is where the Afrocentric charge that the latter “stole” everything from the former comes from). Thus, for example, Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first black fraternity, founded at Cornell in 1906 and which:

utilizes motifs from Ancient Egypt and uses images and songs depicting the Her-em-akhet (Great Sphinx of Giza), pharaohs, and other Egyptian artifacts to represent the organization…. This is in contrast to other fraternities that traditionally echo themes from the golden age of Ancient Greece. Alpha’s constant reference to Ethiopia in hymns and poems are further examples of Alpha’s mission to imbue itself with an African cultural heritage.

(This despite the fact that they use Greek letters to identify themselves – why not a couple of hieroglyphs?)

I suppose the fall of slavery in the United States lessened the appeal of the ancient Hebrews, allowing the shift toward sympathizing with the Egyptians.

II. One of my favorite records when I was in college features the novelty song “Istanbul (not Constantinople),” which dates from the 1950s and is (I suppose) a celebration of the rise of nationalist Turkey. By way of explaining the name change of that county’s most famous city, the song points out a parallel situation:

Even old New York, was once New Amsterdam.
Why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way.

But perhaps a more accurate assessment of this name change is that the British defeated their continental rivals the Dutch and took possession of the New Netherlands in 1664, and promptly changed the names of New Amsterdam and Fort Orange to New York and Albany respectively, after the Duke of York and Albany, the future King James II. Fort Orange was so called, of course, on account of “Orange” being the name of the ruling house of the Netherlands.

What’s ironic is that James II was a Catholic, and didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself, and provoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688, whereby Parliament invited his daughter Mary Stuart to become queen, and her husband to become king… that husband being none other than William of Orange, king of the Netherlands. These two reigned as co-monarchs, hence the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

So an Orange was replaced by an Albany, who was replaced by another Orange (who opened up Ireland for Protestant settlement, hence the Orange Order, and Orangeman’s Day).

Caitlin Green

As chance would have it, today I discovered two interesting items from Caitlin Green, an archaeologist of Roman and medieval Britain and currently a tutor at the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge.

The first was an article of hers that originally appeared in The Heroic Age in 2012:

John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic 

From 1577 to 1580 the English polymath John Dee was engaged in manufacturing and disseminating some extraordinary claims on behalf of the English monarchy and its imperial ambitions. Most intriguingly, Dee, generally seen as the originator of the phrase ‘the British Empire’, argued that Queen Elizabeth could assert dominion over a vast tract of the northern globe and the New World, partially by dint of it having been once conquered and ruled by the Tudors’ reputed early medieval ancestor, King Arthur. In his most important treatment of the issue, the Brytanici Imperii Limites (‘Limits of the British Empire’) of 1578, he wrote that Elizabeth could claim “title royall to all the coastes and ilandes begining at or about Terra Florida and so alongst, or neere vnto Atlantis [=America], goinge northerly, and then to all the most northern ilands great and small, and so compassinge about Groenland [=Greenland], eastwards until the teritoris opposite vnto the farthest easterlie and northen boundes of the Duke of Moscovia his dominions…” Dee’s arguments, culminating in the Limites, do not rest exclusively upon Arthur’s supposed conquest of the northern latitudes – an Oxford friar, the Welsh Prince Madoc, and St Brendan the Navigator were all also cited as evidence for a historical dominion and thus current ownership – but Dee himself admitted that his case did ‘depende cheiflie vppon our Kinge Arthur’. As a result, Dee went to some pains to legitimise his Arthurian material, complaining that the profusion of ‘fables, glosinges, vntruthes, and impossibilities, incerted in the true historie of King Arthure’ meant that the ‘truth ytselfe’ of Arthur’s historical acts – as Dee conceives them – was often disbelieved or ignored, and can only be retrieved through a purging of the parasitic legends that had gathered around it, something which Dee proceeded to do. Having weeded out the ‘untruths’ from his gathered Arthurian narratives, Dee could confidently proclaim that Arthur had conquered Gaul, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, all the northern islands around Russia i.e. the entire Arctic Ocean abutting northern Europe, Estotiland (which may be the Canadian Baffin Island, if it describes a real place), and even up to the North Pole itself.

This reminds me of a paper I wrote in graduate school and I’m annoyed that I did not discover John Dee in the course of my research for it! The historicity of King Arthur was much debated in Tudor England: Polydor Vergil, an Italian humanist at the court of Henry VII, got the ball rolling in his Anglica Historica (1513), which deals with Arthur in a single paragraph:

At this time Utherius departed owte of the world, after whome succeded his sonne Arthur, being noe doubte suche a mann as, if hee hadd lived longe, hee surelie would have restored the whole somme beeing allmost loste to his Britons. As concerninge this noble prince, for the marvelus force of his boddie, and the invincible valiaunce of his minde, his posteritee hath allmost vaunted and divulged suche gestes, as in our memorie emong the Italiens ar commonlie noysed of Roland, the nephew of Charles the Great bie his sister, allbeit hee perished in the flour of his yowthe; for with woonderus admiration they extol Arthure unto the heavens, alleginge that hee daunted three capitans of the Saxons in plaine feelde; that hee subdewed Scotlande with the Iles adjoyninge; that in the teritorie of the Parisiens hee manfullie overthrew the Romaines, with there capitan Lucius; that hee didd depopulat Fraunce; that finallie hee slewe giauntes, and appalled the hartes of sterne and warlike menne. This redowbted conqueror, of so manifolde exploits, is reported to have ben sodainle retrayted from his jornay with domesticall contention, while hee minded to invade Rome, and consequentlie to have extinguished his tratorus nephew, Mordred, who usurped the regall power in his absence, in which conflict hee himselfe receaved a fatall stroke and baleful wounde, whereof he died. Not manie years since in the abbey of Glastonburie was extructed for Arthur a magnificent sepulchre, that the posteritee might gather how worthie he was of all monuments, whearas in the dayse of Arthure this abbaye was not builded.

This attack is actually rather mild, consisting of the brevity of the passage (cf. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who devotes five of the twelve books in his twelfth-century Historia Regum Brittaniae to the subject of King Arthur), the use of the word “alleging,” and the demonstration that King Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury was anachronistic. But even if Vergil was simply employing new techniques of humanist critical enquiry, he was still a foreigner, attacking a hometown hero! So for the rest of the century a number of Englishmen vociferously defended King Arthur, using the same techniques (or what they imagined to be the same techniques) to argue that King Arthur did in fact exist – and running down Vergil and Italians for good measure. Of course, some of the embarrassingly exaggerated Arthurian stories had to go – just as Dee discarded some of the more fanciful material in his own investigation. But that didn’t mean that King Arthur himself didn’t exist!

(“Cleaning up” fanciful medieval legends, rather than discarding them entirely, also played itself out with the figure of St. George: Pope Clement VII, stung by Protestant mockery, tried to expunge all mention of the dragon from prayers to St. George in breviaries and missals of the church, while maintaining that he was still worthy of veneration.)

The second item of Dr. Green’s was an interesting post on her blog today:

The aim of the following post is to offer a draft look at an interesting Arabic account of early medieval Britain that appears to have its origins in the late ninth century. Despite being rarely mentioned by British historians concerned with this era, this account has a number of points of interest, most especially the fact that it may contain the earliest reference yet encountered to there having been seven kingdoms (the ‘Heptarchy’) in pre-Viking England and the fact that its text implies that Britain was still considered to be somehow under Byzantine lordship at that time.

Read the whole thing.

Henry the Terrible

Interesting article on Mental_floss. I had heard traumatic head injury proposed as a theory to explain Henry’s tyrannical adult behavior; a trio of neurologists has injected new life into the theory in the journal Clinical Neuroscience. Excerpts from the Mental_floss article are below:

Did Head Injuries Cause Henry VIII’s Bad Behavior?

From all accounts, as a young man, Henry was a pretty happy dude, and a pleasure to be around. By 1536, he was decidedly … not. The King Henry VIII we think of today was a bloodthirsty tyrant, impulsive, unpredictable, and murderous—the kind of man who would send two of his six wives to the executioner. So what happened?

The most severe blow [to Henry’s head] came in 1536, during another jousting match. Henry was unhorsed. He fell to the ground, and his horse fell on top of him. The king was out cold for two hours.

That same year, Henry’s reign of terror commenced. His unpredictable, inexplicable explosions made him the terror of his own court, for he was just as likely to order the execution of a friend as he was a foe. His behavior was erratic and violent, and he often flew into rages for reasons that were unclear to those around him. He became impulsive—and if you need more evidence of that, just look at his six marriages and two dispatched queens.

Henry started suffering bouts of bizarre amnesia, which led to dangerous contradictions in his commands. As the city of Boulogne was under siege, Henry reportedly demanded on paper that the city be protected, while saying aloud he wanted it to be demolished. In 1546, the king assured his sixth wife Catherine Parr that he would protect her, forgetting that the day before he had ordered his guards to take her to the Tower of London.

The king was also subject to migraine headaches and deep depressions, as well as a number of seeming endocrinological problems that could have been triggered by TBI. His rages, his erratic behavior, even his impotence later in life—there may be a simple explanation for it all, lead author Arash Salardini said in a press release: “It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head.”

 

Medieval and Modern Time

Rod Dreher reviews the YouTube series Tudor Monastery Farm, in reference to Charles Taylor’s A Secular AgeExcerpts:

Charles Taylor begins his magisterial book A Secular Age by asking why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500, but in 2000, believing in God is seen as something you do with difficulty, if at all. Taylor says that it’s because the late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. You really feel this in Tudor Monastery Farm, and the feeling is important, because, says Taylor, what really matters are the things that everybody takes for granted. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose.

 

As theologian Hans Boersma has shown me, the ideas that swept away the TMF worldview were already in play among religious and academic elites for centuries before they had a popular effect. And as Taylor, as well as the historian Brad Gregory, demonstrate, the Reformation was the key event that destroyed the medieval sense of sacramentalism undergirding the TMF “imaginary” (a Taylor word). To be clear, neither Taylor nor Gregory blame the Reformation. The medieval church was massively corrupt, and efforts to reform it from within Catholicism itself inadvertently brought the whole superstructure of medieval belief crashing down — and with it, Christendom.

It’s a much more complex story than I have time to get into in this blog post, and it’s by no means simply a matter of ideas having consequences. It is also true that, as you might put it, consequences also have ideas. That is, you can’t understand why the project of church reform had so much power without also understanding how traumatic the Black Death of the 14th century — which killed one in three Europeans — was for the people of Europe. Plus, it is plain even in Dante, writing in the early 14th century, that the wars fought by the papacy, and its thoroughgoing corruption as a worldly power, was bound to undermine the belief of ordinary Christians.

Charles Taylor is extremely careful to say that it did not have to be this way. It is, he stresses, a self-serving anachronism to accept the standard secularist narrative that we live in “reality” now, and that reality is what you get when you strip the God delusion away from society. Had certain actors behaved differently, things might have turned out differently. The point is, “exclusive humanism” — the idea that this world is all there is, and we should seek out happiness and flourishing within it, with no reference at all to the transcendent — is itself a construal, a “take” on reality. Ours is the only civilization in history that has had this particular take, he notes.

There is no clearly demonstrable reason why the medievals were wrong to sacralize time, or to believe that they lived in an enchanted world. The key thing to take from this, though, is that we moderns live in a different plausibility structure than they did. This means that efforts to re-inhabit the medieval worldview cannot succeed, because we can’t un-learn from our experience. For Taylor, “a secular age” means not strictly an age in which religion has been walled off from the common experience. It means primarily an age in which we all know that belief in God, or unbelief in God, is a choice. The fact that belief in God is not taken for granted is what makes this a secular age. Even communities that fervently believe in God live in a secular age, because they are surrounded with evidence, as the medievals were not, that it is possible to live without strong belief, or to live with believing in God in a different way … or not at all.