Thursday, October 31, 2013

The wrong kind of modern medievalism: Geocentrism

Well over a year after this blog's creation, I continue to plumb the medieval world's treasury of ideas for ways to make our own world better, or, at least, more beautiful (to which a medieval would likely say is the same thing). Because we live in fundamentally the same place, and since the medieval philosophers so loved to preoccupy themselves with questions of universal application, I believe turning to them for inspiration is generally a sound principle. Every so often, though, the well-meaning medievalist tries to hammer a square peg through a hole, and in doing so, they only succeed in making the rest of us look like fools. Today, I write to you about one tiny segment of the medievalist peanut gallery: the geocentrists. 

You may not be able to tell, but before I was a history nerd, or even a Batman nerd, my first two loves were dinosaurs and space. While other kids played tag or soccer, my father gave me Discover Space, a learning game/software suite published by Broderbund Software in 1992 for DOS systems. By the time I was in 2nd grade, I was regularly stargazing, drawing maps of constellations, and pondering about quasars.

The cosmos, as actually seen by medievals

You probably already know that in the medieval cosmology, the earth was placed at the center of the universe. Tempting as it is to dismiss anyone who lived in the days before Kanye West and smartphones as a complete idiot, a scholar in the 12th century didn't have any reason to believe the earth was anything but fixed, immovable; hence the expression terra firma. For if the earth did move, then what would keep us all from careening into the void beyond? And, as the Galileo affair highlighted, the Bible's own cosmology suggests a fixed earth. The psalmist says "the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved". And in the book of Joshua, God held the sun and moon in place for the Israelites to have enough daylight to vanquish the Canaanite heathens.

Beyond the earth's immovability, in a world without the benefit of telescopes, much less space travel, the rest was a matter of wild speculation. Today, we take it for granted that the universe is mostly an unfathomable expanse of empty space. But from Aristotle's day until the modern age, the heavens were generally believed to be a series of perfect, concentric spheres. The planets didn't fly about the earth in empty space; rather, they were fixed upon these spheres like gemstones embedded in cloth. The "fabric" was the fifth element, aether, the perfect substance that held our existence together. When Dante wrote of the nine circles of paradise, he wasn't thinking solely of the planets in orbit around the earth. The "circles" were whole spheres encasing the earth, exponentially larger and perfectly proportioned. It seems quite eccentric to us now, and I don't think even modern geocentrists defend the idea of the concentric spheres; but in the pre-telescopic world, the spheres theory as found in the models of Aristotle of Claudius Ptolemy seemed the best idea anyone could come up with. And so, it went unchallenged for well over a thousand years until an obscure Polish priest, Nicolaus Copernicus, came along in the 16th century.

The modern geocentrist

The old Ptolemaic system still has its uses. For example, planetariums are built using what is basically a Ptolemaic system since earth is our point of reference, and a truly heliocentric planetarium would be needlessly expensive. For a handful of people out there, including in the trad Catholic community which I'm a part of, this isn't good enough. Indeed, there are a few stubborn trads out there whose faith in God would be shattered if they accepted the idea that a judgment from Rome in the 17th century, outside its purview of faith and morality, could be wrong. If they could agree with our generation's so-called "militant atheists" on one thing, it's this: that even one misstep by the Church invalidates her entire claim to any share of the truth whatsoever. This has the tragic consequence of reasonable trads having to witness their brethren fall on their swords for the indefensible, plugging their ears with their fingers and chanting "nuh uh" like schoolchildren at any and every piece of evidence to the contrary.

Let me step back for a minute and clarify that there are actually three kinds of geocentrists:

1.) the apathetic,
2.) the anti-intellectuals, and
3.) the pseudo-intellectuals.

Category 1.) makes up the vast majority of geocentrists in existence. If you're reading this, you might think that's already a miniscule number, but multiple surveys, such as this one, count one out of every five adult Americans as a geocentrist. Even if we discount a full half of the respondents as being either pranksters or senile old folks, that still leaves us with a 10% of Americans who believe the sun orbits the earth. Of these, I imagine the greater part by far are just people who have never seriously thought about the question one way or the other. These are the same one out of five Americans who don't know which country the United States declared independence from, or where we are on a map of the world. They're frankly beyond the scope of this article.

Category 2.) are the trads who outright distrust telescopes, or anyone who has survived academia long enough to hold a PhD. In their minds, our entire understanding of science is built upon one lie after another, all according to the designs of Jewish atheists. If one of these anti-intellectuals is forced to confront such stubborn things as facts, they might propose the idea that God created the universe to appear much more vast and ancient than it really is to test our faith and confound the unbelievers. That sort of answer would bewilder Aquinas, and is probably more fitting for the irrational whims of a radical Islamist terror cell's god than the orderly First Mover of the medieval scholastics. Asking such a simple question as, "why would a much greater mass such as the sun orbit around a much smaller mass such as the earth?" is an exercise in futility, for all you'll get in response is something along the lines of, "well, you haven't actually gone to the sun yourself, have you? Then how do you know how big it is? Have you walked to and from it with a measuring stick to really know it's as far away as you say it is?" I wish I were exaggerating. The most extreme geo's I've come across will go so far as to pull the old moon-landings-are-a-hoax card, and that every mission NASA has ever accomplished is a lie. Since my father was an engineer for NASA in the 1970's, I won't even bother dignifying that with a real response.

Category 3.) are the fideists' comrades in the "devout geocentrist" ranks (or perhaps I should say "rank" in the singular, as anything more would suggest an army). The pseudo-intellectuals will write entire books in an attempt to prove the geocentrist model as not just a point of reference or a philosophical truth, but an accurate scientific model. These folks would be as worthy of comment as Raelians, Pope Michael, or whether Queen Elizabeth is a lizard, save for that the geocentrists' chief champion is Robert Sungenis, a fairly well-respected and established apologist in the trad Catholic community. (I even remember selling some of his apologetic works at a Catholic bookstore I worked at years ago.) Unfortunately, his insistence upon the geocentric universe effectively undoes all the good work he's achieved elsewhere in his career. A quick glance at reviews of his book Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right on reveals that the president of Catholic Apologetics, International has only attracted mockery from skeptics and generally made the magisterium a laughing stock.

And, by the way, if you happen to be one of the said geocentrists and you're offended by the fact that I won't shell out $20.38 plus tax and shipping to hear out a tortured semantic debate that twists Einstein's theory of relativity to mean that heliocentrism and geocentrism are equally valid models, then I'll just say this: if you can provide just one reasonable explanation for how a geocentric model makes even a modicum of sense when it would require Pluto to travel faster than the speed of light in order to revolve around the earth once every 24-hour period...... then I'll listen to the entire thing. Until then, the prospect of buying Galileo Was Wrong is about as thrilling as reading a 15-volume series about how 2 + 2 = 5 or how I'm actually black.

The hardcore geo's and Dawkinites are both missing the point

The "new atheist" points to our ancestors' belief in a geocentric universe as proof that we put ourselves in the center of existence; that we made God in our own image. The modern geocentrist confirms his suspicion that all religious people are rubes who can't even believe in a god big enough to set Earth on the third planet of one of many solar systems. Richard Dawkins himself couldn't imagine a better man in his wildest wet dreams. But both of these ridiculous caricatures miss the great point behind the entire medieval cosmology.....

Returning to Dante, we see that God didn't place the earth in the center because it was the most important part of the universe. The earth is there because that's where all the shit falls. When Satan was cast out of heaven, he fell into the very core of the world, the ninth circle of hell, which is the furthest point from the ninth heaven on all sides. Medieval man saw himself at the center, yes, but he certainly didn't want to be there. He wanted to ascend higher, to climb the nine levels of mount purgatory and see God in the highest heights of the heavens. He raised up towers and cathedrals higher than any civilization before. I can think of few things that would delight a medieval thinker more than the chance to defy gravity and fly into space, taking in all the nations of the world at once with his own eyes.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Occitan: tongue of the troubadours, brought to life

I had the pleasure of discovering this video, which may be one of the ultimate expressions of modern medievalism in the musical sphere. Introducing Lo Còr De La Plana, an Occitan revivalist polyphonic choir that sounds just as much like a rap group as anything else. 

Occitan is also known as the lenga d'òc, roughly meaning "the language of oc", oc meaning "yes". The people of southern France adapted it from the Latin word hoc ("this"), and by the Middle Ages, Occitan developed a unique language apart from the French of their northern neighbors. Today it stands on the verge of extinction, but in its heyday, Occitan was the native speech of such powermongerers as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart. It was the established tongue of the troubadours, the men (and women, called trobairitz) who repurposed music as a legitimate pursuit for the upper class. Before, the mere minstrel, like the actor, was perceived to fill a crude occupation. But men such as William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, made it fashionable for the highborn to compose and sing songs of chivalry and courtly love; especially the theme of forbidden love.

One such example of troubadour music, which might suggest some Moorish influence in the style:

This one, allegedly composed by Richard the Lionheart himself, speaks of his capture and ransom by the dirty Austrians:


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Short story: The Price of Treason

Just for fun, I'll share with you good folks a short story I whipped up for a creative writing class last year. I tried to fashion a story around one of my ancestors, and settled on my many-times-great grandfather from the 13th century, William Malet, one of the signers of Magna Carta. I don't claim much historical accuracy or innovation here. I wrote the bulk of it in the middle of class. Just be entertained.

The Price of Treason
By James Griffin

England, A.D. 1215

            Dusk had finally settled over the walls of Malet Castle.  Their shadows grew taller until they completely enveloped a man standing alone in the garden.  William was lost in thought when his seneschal, cautiously leaning out of the entrance to the keep, called out to him. “The guests are waiting, my lord.”  William gave no heed.  “My lord?”

            “I’ll be there straight away, Henry.  Keep them entertained.”  Waking from his trance, William took a great gasp of air and collected his resolve.  He had not been sure if he would carry out his plan when he woke this morning, but now he was certain.  The din of rowdy laughter and merriment grew louder with each step he took back to the keep.  It was the feast day of Saint Edward the Confessor, last of the Saxon kings, patron of England.  For the pious, it was an occasion to visit the churches, or perhaps even go on pilgrimage to London.  For the rest, it was as good an excuse as any to feast and drink their daily troubles away.  But for William, it was a painful reminder of every quality King John lacked: justice, mercy, wisdom, honor.  He crossed the threshold and the herald stood at attention.

            “William Malet, lord of Somerset, sheriff of—“
            “My guests know who I am,” William interrupted.  The herald bowed his head with understanding and receded into the shadows.  Though the tables in the great hall were already soaked by the ale flowing from spilled tankards, Henry’s fearsome build and bellowing voice quickly put the men in order.  William nodded in gratitude to his seneschal. Henry was his liege’s most loyal soldier, and had been so since their first foray into the Holy Land back in the days of the Lionheart’s rule.  With fifteen armed men of unproven loyalty, in varying states of drunkenness under his roof, William needed Henry’s services as much as ever.  He continued his speech, carefully recalling the words he composed in the garden.  

“And you know why I called you from your lands to break bread with me tonight.  We stand at a point of crisis.  Four months ago, our king fixed his seal upon Magna Carta, swearing to uphold our ancient rights.  To not raise taxes without the barons’ counsel.  To expel his foreign mercenaries from the realm.  To release our wives and children from captivity.”  

At that, a thunderous cry could be heard, as a hundred voices joined together to jeer at William’s indictment of the king.  He let them stir in their rage for a moment before continuing.  

“We returned to our homes, believing we were victorious.  And how does he repay us?  Last week, I received a message from our allies.  John has secretly been raising an army against us!  Forsaking his honor, he has declared every name on the Charter a traitor and is, even now, marching upon the countryside to put to the sword every man in England who stood up for God and our liberty.  What say you to the king’s justice?”

            From the back of the hall, a bearded man with ruddy complexion shouted, “I say he’s proven himself a whoreson and no king at all!”  Another man, a familiar face who served under William before, called out,
            “I say we raise arms put John’s head on a spike!”  An entire hall resounded with agreement and boasts of defiance.  Though William fancied himself too refined for such brutish sentiments, he could not help but smile to himself.  He had the beginnings of an army of his own.  Almost without thinking, he said,

“Gentlemen: if you are willing to put your words to action, then I will hear your oaths…”

            Some hours later, William climbed the stairs to his bedchamber.  As he prepared for bed, he noticed that his wife was absent.  “Alice?”  There was no answer.  Perhaps she went to check on the men’s sleeping arrangements, he thought to himself.  Laying down, William tried to let the cloud of sleep fall upon him, but it would not come.  There was simply too much to prepare, and not enough money, nor men, nor time.  In the darkness, he made out the figure of someone standing in the corner of the room.  “Alice,” he called again.  But it would not answer.  It stepped forward, and then William recognized the form of his seneschal and comrade in arms.  “Harry, it’s well past the last hour. What are you—“

            But it was too late. In an instant, William felt the surface of a pillow completely cover his face.  An overwhelming force sent him back into his bed, and everything went dark.

To be continued, of course!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

On The Hollow Crown, and medieval pet names

(This poster is incorrect as Ben Whishaw plays as Richard II, not I, aka the Lionheart.)
Due to having started my degree program in video game programming and assuming a temp job which insults my intelligence every minute of the day, I haven't been able to dedicate much time to this blog. But for now, allow me to apprise you on something I've been watching: The Hollow Crown, a BBC mini-series adaptation of Shakespeare's Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V). The series features several big names and familiar faces, including Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston (of Thor and Avengers fame as Loki), Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, James Purefoy, Michelle Dockery, and so on.

The events of the first play kick off what would come to be called the Wars of the Roses: the bloody game of thrones which began when Henry of Lancaster ousted the throne from his cousin, Richard II. I've only seen the first play so far, but if that's any indication, then the first of the mini-series should be fantastic. The series can be had on DVD from Amazon here (no Blu-ray so far).

My next planned topic was to be on the sorts of names that medievals liked to use for their pets. It turns out that one of the characters in the Henriad, Edward, 2nd Duke of York (whose death is portrayed in Henry V), was responsible for the oldest book on hunting in the English language. Truth be told, The Master Game is mostly a translation of a previous French work, but it's noteworthy for the fact that Edward somehow thought it necessary to include a whole 1,100 names that would be appropriate to give to hunting dogs. The relevant article on lists just a handful of those you might consider the next time you sally forth to the pet store: "Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast". There's a free version of Edward's book online here, which includes a forward by one of the most famous hunters of our own civilization, President Theodore Roosevelt himself!

Not to leave you cat people out of the loop, it seems the English really liked to name theirs Gilbert, or Gyb for short; and Frenchies were partial to Tibert. We can also look to the old Irish poem of a monk and his cat named Pangur Bán. In homage to the poem, Pangur Bán is also the name of Aisling's cat in the animated film The Secret of Kells.