In which C S Lewis meets the “bookish people” of the Middle Ages and shares their love of old books with new readers


A Roman Missal - the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A Roman Missal – the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A few posts ago, we looked at C S Lewis’s youthful disdain of the medieval period. When at Oxford he had been faced with the thoroughgoing (if heretodox) supernaturalism of two friends who had become converts to Rudolf Steiner‘s mystical Anthroposophy, he had thrown his hands up in despair: “why–damn it–it’s medieval!” Such ancient superstitions, he had snorted, had no place in the modern mind, guided as it is by the light of clear-eyed reason.

Little did this self-described “chronological snob” know that he would soon become not only a scholar of medieval literature, but in fact one of the foremost modern exponents of that thoroughly supernatural ancient and medieval faith: Christianity. Before long he was urging his readers to read two old books for every new book they read, for the latter are still untested (and often simply wrong).

Near the end of his long, Boethian career as a “traditionerfor a dark and amnesiac age, Lewis compiled and refined the notes from twenty years of Cambridge lectures on medieval culture, and published them under the title The Discarded Image.

Here, with great and obvious affection, Lewis described medieval people’s passionate allegiance to the “traditioned” (passed-down) written word. The subtext throughout was clear: If only we moderns could catch this same lovesickness for the past: How much wiser we would be! Not, he clearly warned, that we should swallow whole the errors of past thinkers. But that we should let their ancient wisdom correct our own:

the Middle Ages as time of “traditioning”

In Discarded Image (a compendium of lectures he gave at Cambridge), Lewis shows us that medievals trusted implicitly historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He notes “the overwhelmingly bookish . . . character of medieval culture,” elaborating: “When we speak of the Middle Ages as the ages of authority we are usually thinking about the authority of the Church. But they were the age not only of her authority, but of authorities. . . . Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer . . . preferably a Latin one.” He distinguishes this impulse both from the “savage” (primitive) community, in which “you absorb your culture . . . from the immemorial pattern of behavior” and from the modern West, in which “most knowledge depends, in the last resort, on observation” (that is, the empiricism of the scientific method). “But,” he concludes, “the Middle Ages depended predominantly on books,” despite lower literacy rates than much of the modern world enjoys. (DI, 5)

Lewis also shows that medievals saw truth not just in Scripture and explicitly Christian tradition, but also in the words of the Pagan philosophers and the works of Greco-Roman culture—indeed far more the Roman than the Germanic authorities [note: “For one reference to Wade or Weland we meet fifty to Hector, Aeneas, Alexander, or Caesar.” (DI, 8)].

For the medieval person, tradition was not past but present. And it was not merely intellectual—some card-file of truths that one dragged out in an argument. It was a matter of the heart. “Historically,” wrote Lewis, “medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight.” Delight, and the warmth of companionship: “The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own amours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.” [Discarded Image, 185]

In other words, one actively belonged to a family that stretched far back in time. That family was constantly recognized. It was recognized through the cult of the saints, through prayer for intercession to those same saints, prayer for those who were in purgatory (a belief that itself developed out of the ancient Christian practice of praying for the dead at every service). It also shines out in the pair of terms medievals used for the church. Both referred to the same church, but there were two parts of the body of Christ: the Church Militant—those still on earth, fighting the good fight, and the Church Triumphant—in heaven, who are cheering on those still on earth. For medievals, the Church Triumphant was still very much a part of the Church Militant (and vice versa), and we have access to them as mentors, guides, intercessors. So what we have is not just a legacy of doctrine, a legacy of intellect, but also a legacy of love.

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