Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas and the Incarnation in the Middle Ages



Last week, I was honored to appear on the radio with old friends from my hometown: the Poor Clares of the Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel. The sisters invited me to chat with them for an hour on the development of Christmas in the Middle Ages. I was glad to do so, particularly emphasizing a growing focus on the Incarnation in the west. Here's a link to the recording on Mixcloud

A good deal of the program referenced the visual arts and architecture, so I'm going to post a few images below for you to glance at while listening.


The Palatine Chapel, built in the Romanesque style, is the only surviving part of Charlemagne's palace in Aachen. The Holy Roman Emperors held their coronations as Kings of Germany here for many centuries until 1531.
The Romanesque church of Ss. Peter and Paul, Rosheim (currently in France, along the German border). Note the sturdy, box-like walls and high, narrow windows. The Gothic style would later allow windows to be much more expansive, turning cathedrals from dark halls lit by candle and torchlight into riots of color.

The famous mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in San Vitale, Ravenna may bear marks of heavy Byzantine influence, but western and eastern iconography had much more in common until the Gothic age.

The principles of Romanesque (or "Norman") architecture also, of course, lay the foundation for the stone castles of the medieval age. The Tower of London and the original keep of Windsor Castle are but two iconic examples of the Normans using Romanesque to subjugate the conquered Saxons.
When I speak of a pre-Gothic crucifix, I think of ones like this: the Santa Majestat at the Chapelle de la Trinité (Prunet-et-Belpuig). Fully clothed, gazing intently at the viewer, no crown of thorns or sign of suffering. The focus is on Christ triumphant on the cross, not sharing in the suffering of mankind.

Romanesque crucifix and mural of the Christ Child juxtaposed at the Cloisters at the Met in New York. Observe the continued similarities to eastern iconography.

Giotto paints the story of Saint Francis of Assisi instituting the Christmas crib at Greccio.


The 13th century sees an explosion of interest in the Incarnation. Above: a stained-glass window of the Nativity in Canterbury Cathedral, dating around the 13th century.

As the cult of the Christ Child grows, so too does that of the Blessed Virgin. Above: 15th century painting by Hans Memling of the Annunciation at the Met, New York. One of my favorite details is how the angel is painted in a deacon's dalmatic.

Toward the end of the program, I also mention the tree of Jesse: a common motif in medieval art to illustrate Christ's lineage from King David and his father, Jesse.

Don't forget to buy the sisters' organic soap!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Radio appearance today

Today at 1pm central time (2pm eastern), I'll be on the radio with the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in San Antonio, whom I've known and worked with over the years, to chat about Christmas in the Middle Ages. If you happen to be in the San Antonio area, tune in to 89.7 FM. Otherwise, visit the Guadalupe Radio Network's website and listen through there.

Once the recorded version is online, I'll share that with you along with some images to accompany whatever we end up talking about.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The chancellor: Hamilton as a modern model of a medieval archetype

Three men of humble birth who rose to manage kings and presidents.
There's an immortal trope in fairy tales--and in political history--that when corruption is afoot in the kingdom, the fault lies not with the wise king himself, but with his wily vizier. You know him by many names: Jafar, Grima, Haman.... He's typically a man of obscure origins whose talents have nonetheless gained the king's attention and allowed him to rise above his station to become the real power behind the throne. Of course, the king's noble heart blinds him to this upstart's devious schemes until the hero unmasks the vizier's betrayal and saves the day.

The villain of Aladdin and the Prince of Persia games was inspired by an historical figure, Ja'far ibn Yahya Barmaki, a vizier to one of the early Islamic caliphs. Ja'far brought papermaking and Greek science to the Islamic world, only to be beheaded by the caliph for (allegedly) sleeping with the caliph's sister.

A skeptic might say "it's a feature, not a bug" in traditional monarchy. That is to say, the unpopular chancellor is a convenient fall guy for the king to blame and sack when his policies go adrift. While there's probably some truth to that theory, what I find more fascinating is how the trope of the evil chancellor is a survival of the old nobility's suspicions of lower-born bureaucrats--how "new men" undermine their standing in relation to the ruler. What are fairy tales and myths, if not artful expressions of what we really hold dear? I suddenly realized that some of us in 21st century America have our own bogeyman embedded in our founding mythos when, sometime last month, I scrolled past an article shared by former Congressman Ron Paul's Facebook page. Dr. Paul; or at least, his social media manager; naturally had to weigh in on the "Hamilton" controversy erupting at that moment. (Summary for those who missed it: liberal stage actors express disapproval of Trump at end of performance attended by Pence. In other news...) While most of the Republican world was clutching their pearls with some form of "how dare they disturb Pence's night of entertainment?", Paul's site pulled a bait-and-switch by reposting excerpts from an article criticizing not the actors, but Pence from daring to patronize a musical about the worst American who ever lived (emphases mine):
"But Governor Pence’s bigger mistake was to somehow believe that Alexander Hamilton is someone that he should admire.  This is hugely ironic, since Hamilton was the founding father of corrupt crony capitalism funded by a crooked central bank, exclusively for the benefit of the one-percenters of his day.  He stood for everything that the Trump campaign stood against. Hamilton was the consummate statist and imperialist and political water boy for the big business interests of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston (the Federalists) who wanted to essentially establish the rotten, corrupt, imperialist, British mercantilist system in America. The very system the American Revolution had just deposed, in other words.  Hamilton was a traitor to the principles of the Revolution who spent the last fifteen years of his life attempting to transform the American government into a government for crony capitalists, by crony capitalists, of crony capitalists, all centrally planned by clever Machiavellian political manipulators like himself."

This trip down the time machine with rehashed Jeffersonian propaganda goes on and on:
"Alexander Hamilton was the founding father of constitutional subversion who denounced the Constitution as “a frail and worthless fabric” because it imposed so many limits on governmental powers.
He was the inventor of the subversive idea of “implied powers” of the Constitution and of using the General Welfare Clause to create a government of unlimited powers.  He was perhaps the first to spout The Big Lie that the states were never sovereign, the lie that was at the heart of Lincoln’s case for invading his own country in order to destroy the system of federalism and states’ rights that had been primarily the work of the Jeffersonian tradition of the founding generation. Hamilton and his political heirs (like Lincoln) worked mightily for some seventy-five years to destroy the Jeffersonian, states’ rights tradition of federalism and decentralized government once and for all.  Instead of self rule, they believed, Americans needed to be ruled by their wise “Yankee” betters.  Or else.
The Hamiltonians eventually succeeded at this when the War to Prevent Southern Independence destroyed federalism and consolidated all political power in Washington, D.C., after which corporate welfare, protectionism (another form of corporate welfare), a nationalized money supply, and military imperialism —  Hamilton’s Orwellian-named “American System” — was cemented into place.  It was really an American version of the British mercantilist/imperialist system."

Like many of Dr. Paul's other, increasingly embittered posts of late, this hatchet-job on the memory of Alexander Hamilton; an immigrant who rose from orphanhood and obscurity and hazarded his life in battle multiple times to win independence; wasn't well-received by his readership (save, perhaps, his most die-hard followers). Nevertheless, it's hard to fault the Paulites entirely because they're taking cues from one of this country's most successful smear jobs, two centuries in the making--and, to be fair, the bastard of St. Croix plays perfectly into the trope of the Evil Chancellor which we've subconsciously inherited from days of yore.

Today, after a long hiatus, I'm pleased to take a long, leisurely walk through the annals of history with you as we explore how the Chancellor has manifested himself over the ages. But before we hop into those terrrrible Middle Ages you and I both know and love so well, let's take a brief look at the life of General Hamilton, this time without the Jacobin-tinted glasses.


Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804): America's evil vizier

It's true enough that Hamilton was never even Vice President--he was something more. (Then, as now, the Vice Presidency was mostly ornamental in nature, leading John Adams to call it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived".) At age 34, President Washington bestowed upon his old protégé the unassuming title of Secretary of the Treasury. On paper, Hamilton was junior to Vice President Adams and Secretary of State Jefferson... but only Hamilton had actually fought in the War of Independence and commanded Washington's complete trust. While Adams played the courtier in Europe and Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia, fled Benedict Arnold's army and let Richmond burn to ash, Washington and Hamilton put their lives on the line of battle for independence--usually in the same tent, as Hamilton was effectively the General's chief of staff. As the war progressed, Washington's trust in Hamilton grew until the latter was ghostwriting whole letters perfectly in Washington's voice and even issuing orders in his name. And just as Washington secretly allowed his aide-de-camp to influence his strategy during the war, so too did he take Hamilton's advice into account in all matters of statecraft, well beyond mere economics, in our first presidency.

The first Cabinet. Rather like Donald Trump, Washington favored military men. Excepting Jefferson, all men above were high-ranking Army officers in the War of Independence.
Hamilton, who considered the British Constitution the finest government model on earth, probably saw himself as a stand-in for the mother country's First Lord of the Treasury... better known to most of us under the name of "Prime Minister"! In England, he who controls the nation's purse strings controls the entire government--and so it was in Washington's presidency, with the bastard from Nevis effectively managing the rest of the Cabinet while the Declaration of Independence's author was consigned to being a voice of opposition. To illustrate Jefferson's fear over the influence his rival held: according to biographer Ron Chernow, Hamilton oversaw a staff of over five hundred Treasury employees. Jefferson's State Department, by contrast, had a measly twelve. Hamilton's invisible hand continued to pull strings after he stepped down from the post, and indeed, even after Washington himself retired. President Adams had to fire some of his Cabinet members after finding out that they were taking orders from Hamilton instead of him.

As President Adams readied for possible war  with
revolutionary France, Washington wouldn't even accept
leadership of the Army unless Adams appointed
Hamilton as second-in-command.
It's said that in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs. To build up the American empire, Hamilton had to make a lot of enemies in the process, particularly those who imagined the newborn United States as a quiet republic of rural landowners where everyone kept to themselves, instead of a mercantile behemoth destined to one day take its place among the major powers of the world. Further, in order for his President to stand above partisanship, Hamilton ended up taking all of Washington's would-be critics to himself as well: the convenient scapegoat whenever someone drew the short end of the stick on a policy or ran into a tax they didn't like. Jefferson and James Madison, fellow members of the southern planter aristocracy, saw Hamilton's vision as a threat to everything the Revolution stood for and so took it upon themselves to create an opposition league, complete with its own newspapers, slogans, and scathing op-eds. The political party system was thus born.

In my late re-examining of Alexander Hamilton's life, I was struck with how many similarities and recurring themes his biography shares with certain medieval and Renaissance figures whom I've always found compelling. The surest way to rise above one's station in a feudal society was by mastery of the quill. The keeping of accounts and the managing of bureaucracies were two skills that existed firmly outside of the training bred into the average knight of the warrior aristocracy that ruled medieval Europe. They had neither the talent nor the interest in such mundane matters, but the more savvy and ambitious rulers at least valued their importance. Therefore, the administration of county and kingdom was typically entrusted to a clerk; and in this era, that literally meant a cleric, for the clergy were the class of men most likely to be taught the art of letters in the course of learning how to administer the sacraments. The more talented they were, the further they would ascend in an otherwise stratified hierarchy, and the more jealousy they would arouse from those of noble blood who believed their privileges were being trampled afoot. This was just the sort of course taken by one of the medieval Church's most famous saints: Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury... and, for a time, chancellor to King Henry II of England.



St Thomas Becket (1118-1170): from Cheapside to Chancellor

The historical Thomas Becket was probably not quite so lowborn as one of my all-time favorite films (1964's Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole) suggests. The film, based on an earlier play, recycles the legend that Becket was born of conquered Saxon peasants. This backstory was more likely contrived by Becket's enemies in the nobility, rather like a medieval "birther" conspiracy. Nevertheless, his origins from amongst a merchant family in Cheapside, London suggested he would probably never rise above a middle-class burgher's lot in life.... unless, of course, he joined the clergy, furthered his education, and gained the attention of a prominent bishop. This he did, eventually entering the household of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England.

Theobald found the young Thomas a promising lad and paid for his education in canon law abroad. Following his return, Thomas was ordained to the diaconate and given the office of Archdeacon of Canterbury: the Archbishop's right-hand man, a title commanding tremendous authority in its own right. The modern Catholic Church has opted to split the ancient archdeacon's responsibilities between the vicar-general, the chancellor, and one or two other diocesan offices, but the archdeacons of the medieval Church were forces unto themselves. They were at once prime ministers and regents, with the power to manage the Church's temporal goods near-independently of the bishops themselves. The more worldly bishops of the age were probably happy to leave the archdeacons alone to do this while they played as courtiers or built episcopal palaces for themselves. In any event, Thomas Becket, aged about 34, was already the number-two man in the English church.

Not long after, Theobald elevated his protege even higher by recommending Thomas for the newly vacant office of Lord Chancellor: the keeper of the royal seal and senior-most civic official in the kingdom. This, in itself, in unsurprising given that every single Lord Chancellor prior to Thomas, going back to the Norman Conquest, was also a cleric (usually a bishop).

Henry II and Thomas Becket according
to one of my all-time favorite films.
But if Theobald gave his archdeacon away in the hopes of having an inside man in the royal court, he was to be disappointed. As Chancellor, Thomas Becket proved to be a king's man through and through: zealous in executing Henry's will in all matters, even to the point of encroaching against the Church's tax exemptions. He seems to have cultivated Henry's personal friendship during this time (probably not quite to the extent made famous by the film), and made himself a reflection of the King's glory. If King Henry was scheduled to process through a village decked in a gold tunic with twenty horses, Thomas would precede him in a silver robe with a team of fifteen horses, and then give it away to a beggar, all the more to demonstrate the King's generosity. All the while, the nobles of the realm glared and seethed at the upstart's place in the sun.

Perhaps it was not a conscious betrayal of the Church so much as it was simply in Thomas's nature to excel in whatever job he was given, which led him to execute the Chancellor's office with such rigor and magnificence. When Theobald at last gave up the ghost, King Henry saw a chance to return the late archbishop's favor by returning Thomas, now firmly a king's man, back to Canterbury as a new puppet prelate. Once the mitre settled on his head, Thomas Becket famously began to take his new job even more seriously than his old one--and made a foe of his former friend in the process. The ensuing war over the rights of the Church reached a fever pitch when Henry, in a moment of rage, uttered aloud in his court: "will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Four of his knights took the outburst in deadly earnest and slew the archbishop right at the altar of his own cathedral during Vespers a few days after Christmas.

The sword blow heard 'round the world: December 29, 1170.


The murder of Becket sounds like sheer lunacy to have taken place in the Age of Faith, but it also goes to show how much contempt the gentry and nobility of the kingdom had for him, even well after he had resigned his royal office. Here was a man who needed to be punished for reaching above his station, consequences be damned. In the end, it was the humble monks of Canterbury Cathedral who had the last laugh, as they took the lash to King Henry's bare backside in an act of penance. The common-born Saint Thomas of Canterbury's cult soon overshadowed King Edward the Confessor's and grew to become the premier saintly devotion in England for over three centuries to come.


Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530): the chessmaster

Simon Sudbury's skull
Though the shrine of Saint Thomas put Canterbury on the map, few of his successors lived up to his legacy of sanctity and fortitude as archbishop. Quite the contrary, more of the archbishops seem to have followed the younger Becket's footsteps. They continued to serve the king as chancellors, often to the detriment of their flocks. The trope of the Evil Chancellor caused Simon Sudbury (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1375 to 1381, as well as Chancellor) to pay the ultimate price for serving two masters. In 1381, peasants driven to violence by taxation and other economic turmoils stormed the Tower of London to take their frustrations out on the one they blamed most for their ills: the Chancellor-Archbishop. So unpopular was he that his own guards, like the Praetorians in the final scene of Gladiator, stepped aside to let the mob have their way. The archbishop's mitre didn't save Simon's head from being clumsily hacked off his head (it took eight blows to do the job) and put on display on Tower Bridge. If he cried out to his illustrious predecessor, Thomas Becket, his prayers were unheard: when Simon was Bishop of London, he discouraged the people of his see from taking pilgrimages to Saint Thomas's shrine in Canterbury, only adding to their hatred of him.

As for King Henry II... his dynasty, the Plantagenets, came to an end in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth when the forces of Henry ap Tuddor defeated and slew Richard III on the field. Tudor became Henry VII and, in a sense, ushered the end of the Middle Ages in England. For his entire reign, Henry VII's claim to the throne was questioned and threatened by the possibility of uprisings from powerful lords. Determined to ensure the Wars of the Roses would never erupt again, Henry used his yet-another-evil chancellor, Cardinal Morton, to ruthlessly tax the nobility, especially by the levying of fines against "livery and maintenance" (basically, the great lords' use of private armies and their own ranks of civil servants). One of Henry's many policies to divide and conquer the nobles was in his reliance of the burgher class to run his kingdom.

Thomas Wolsey, said to have been a butcher's son, rose to prominence in much the same way as Thomas Becket. He entered clerical life early, showed promise in his studies (graduating from Oxford at 15), and became a chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. At some point, he gained the king's attention and transferred his service to the thus became a royal chaplain. When Henry VII died and his son, the 18-year old Henry VIII came to the throne, Wolsey was in the perfect position to secure his own rise to prominence.

In his youth, Henry VIII was more interested in pleasure than governing, but felt the need to at least staff his court with officers more amenable to his ambitions for military glory in the field. Showcasing his brilliance and flexibility in changing his views to whatever the king happened to be supporting at the time, Wolsey began as Almoner and acquired one title after another until, by 1515, he was a cardinal, Archbishop of York and bishop of several other sees besides, and Lord Chancellor. For the next fifteen years, the butcher's son ruled England in the king's name: an alter rex (other king). After 1518, he was also named papal legate, effectively guaranteeing his control of the entire English church. Wolsey's critical role in orchestrating diplomatic relations between the great kingdoms of Europe prove how far a man of humble origins could go in the Church hierarchy of that age--the "butcher's son" moved kings from one alliance to the next like pieces on a chessboard. The most famous of his efforts to secure peace in Europe was the 1520 summit between his master and King Francis I of France.

Well before the tyranny of his later years, Henry VIII was renowned as an enlightened prince for a budding golden age in Europe; an image he would have had to maintain at the summit by what we now call "conspicuous consumption". The two rivals met near Calais, along the border between their realms. So splendid were both their camps that the summit was forever known after as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Wolsey, as chief architect of the meeting, had to play his part as well. The Legate arrived with 300 servants: more than the Archbishop of Canterbury's and the dukes' retinues combined... and a hundred more than the King's. As the cardinal celebrated Mass for the two eminent princes, the nobles gritted their teeth at Wolsey's flaunting of power and laid in wait for the right moment to strike back.

One of the most celebrated events at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was when Henry VIII challenged Francis I to a wrestling match. Henry quickly lost.
The summit's greater purpose was, in part, to give force to the Treaty of London signed two years prior. Another brainchild of Wolsey's, the Treaty was beyond ambitious for 16th century Europe. It aimed to bind the leading 20 powers of Christendom in a perpetual peace. Its provisions banned Christian states from going to war with one another. If one state broke the peace, the terms of the treaty would require every other signatory to declare war against the violator. By keeping the peace, all the powers would conserve their resources for a renewed crusade against the Turks. The Treaty was, of course, a pipe dream, destined only to be trampled into the dustbin of history by the ambitions of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Rome recognized its visionary quality and gave Wolsey the prestige he needed to become a contender for the Papacy in the conclaves of 1521 and 1523. Ultimate power, so it seemed, was now but one heart attack away for the ever-ascending Archbishop of York.

Wolsey debates More over the matter of Henry VIII's annulment.
Whether by the grace of God or the machinations of Emperor Charles V, the 1523 conclave passed Wolsey over in favor of Giulio de Medici, Clement VII. This outcome would eventually prove ruinous for Wolsey's prospects since it was Clement VII who, years later, blocked all of Wolsey's efforts to secure an annulment for Henry VIII's marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon. In this so-called "Great Matter", the Cardinal's sole failure in a lifetime of successes shattered the King's confidence in him. While he was away from England on a diplomatic mission, the Boleyns and Howards took advantage of Henry's fickleness and convinced him that Wolsey had fumbled the annulment trial on purpose. On his return, Wolsey, who had heretofore relied entirely on the King's patronage to maintain his status in court, found himself a pariah in court and, soon enough, without a job. There was nothing left for him to do but go to York and fulfill his long-neglected vocation (he had not actually been to York the whole fifteen years he had been archbishop). For a few months, far from the distractions of court life, it seems the world-weary Wolsey was making an honest attempt at shepherding his flock. The Boleyns' revenge, however, was not yet complete. They knew Henry could change his mind again and restore the cardinal to his good graces. And so, Henry was persuaded to revoke his pardon and summon Wolsey back to London on charges of treason. The cardinal, afflicted with poor health, died in transit, saying "if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs".


Favourites in the age of absolutism

After the Cardinal, Henry only ever entrusted the chancellorship to laymen, but he continued to draw on the best and brightest of the realm's educated middle class in order to execute his vision... even if that meant executing his chancellors whenever his ambitions took a new turn. Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Richard Rich may have been as far apart in beliefs as heaven and hell, but like the statesmen of today, all three caught the King's eye through a combination of university education, civil or military service, and legal practice (and, of course, a recommendation or two from Cardinal Wolsey). Like Wolsey, the next two Thomases were undone, in part, by the jealous whispering of the nobility behind closed doors.

Henry VIII's reign nailed shut the coffin of merry ole England, and with his death came too the end of burghers and other baseborn men ascending to high office. Successive kings into the age of absolutism had their favourites, but they were chosen from among old playmates in the nursery, not lawyers or ex-mercenaries. This was the age of the Duke of Buckingham and the Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu. The French maintained the tradition of entrusting high offices to cardinals, but there were no butchers' sons in red hats to be found here. Cardinals Richelieu (whom Dumas' Musketeers called their equal in class if not in office) and Mazarin were both nobly born. After Mazarin's death, Louis XIV determined he would thenceforth rule the kingdom on his own. Where the old medieval order had commoners play their part among the three estates, no such place existed for them in the gilded cage of Versailles.

Little did the great lords and ladies of the realm know that Versailles would become their cage, trapping their ambitions within its walls. It was the maxim "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" set in marble.

Built around his father's old hunting lodge, far enough from Paris to avoid the smell and noise pollution of the chattering rabble, Versailles was a spectacle designed to enthrall the aristocracy and, in the process, finally put a leash on their designs. The third estate existed chiefly as a source of taxable revenue to fund Louis's palaces and foreign wars. Give them an inch and they'll take your head, as befell England's Charles I. Even so, Louis needed a man who knew money, regardless of his origins--in France's golden age, there was no master of coin greater than Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

I was privileged to see this portrait of Colbert
in person at the Met in New York just last month....
Colbert (1619-1683) was raised in a family of merchants, though beyond that we know little of his early life. His rise to prominence mirrors that of the Thomases in Henry VIII's court: that is, it all started by gaining a cardinal's attention. Cardinal Mazarin brought Colbert on as a secretary but then grew to entrust him in serious matters while the Cardinal was away. Once Louis XIV came of age and Mazarin died, he never again had a prime minister... but Colbert came close. The King's greatest obstacle to reshaping France as a modern world power was the archaic tax system he inherited. The two greatest landowners, the aristocracy and the Church, were mostly exempt from taxes thanks to centuries of privileges conceded by kings past. The bourgeois, too, were adept at dodging taxes by claiming exemptions of dubious authenticity. In the end, the royal treasury was filled chiefly by whatever meager scraps could be collected from peasant farmers.

Even while Mazarin's secretary, Colbert identified the troubles plaguing Louis's purse and their prescription: an overhaul of the tax system and initiatives to stimulate and expand trade in both Europe and the New World. The King saw Colbert's merits and conferred one office after another upon him over the years: Superintendent of Buildings, Controller-General of Finances, and Secretary of State in the King's Household, to name but a few among dozens. To impose direct taxes on the nobility was beyond his grasp, but Colbert was able to hit them with indirect taxes and confidently stamp out fraudulent exemptions. Once a steady stream of taxable revenue was established, he then set his sights to establishing corporations, securing trade monopolies, and enacting laws to prevent French laborers from leaving the country. Colbert was the first man to articulate the economic theory we now call mercantilism, which of course had already catapulted Spain and the Italian city-states to power and prestige earlier in the era.

After decades of loyal service, Louis XIV's esteemed finance minister died at age 64, probably overworked, never to be matched by any of his successors. For all his efforts, Colbert was never quite able to balance the royal checkbook, so spendthrift was the King in pursuing glory for France and himself. These habits were to prove ruinous by the time of Louis XVI's reign. It's worth mentioning that Colbert plays the role of an "evil chancellor" in Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask, whom the great author casts as planting false evidence to ruin his predecessor, Nicholas Fouquet. It also bears mention that Colbert was a figure of inspiration for the man who would enact many of the same economic reforms in America: Alexander Hamilton.


The Chancellor vs. the agararian myth

If there's one recurring theme to the opposition against all of these great personalities through history, it's probably that each one of them, Hamilton most of all, acted in the ruler's name to undermine the role of the great landowner or gentleman farmer. Our pundits today are diagnosing the rise of Trump as a battle in the ever-widening divide not between red and blue states so much as between urban and rural America. The Paulites are right to say that Hamilton's policies favored city over country folk. Madison and Jefferson, being lords of vast tracts of land and hundreds of slaves, were right to fear the Federalists' encroachment on their way of life. What the Paulites fail to mention is that Hamilton's biggest backer was the most famous gentleman farmer of all: George Washington. 

Our first President conducted himself much like a modern-day monarch: aside from making great progresses through the land while being drawn by a fancy carriage and liveried servants and speaking of himself in the third person, Washington preferred to act as a non-partisan figurehead in the public eye. He rarely spoke his mind in the papers or in speeches, but Hamilton's policies on the national debt, the first national bank, and the whiskey tax were all made a reality by Washington's approval--the two knowing fully well that Hamilton would take the brunt of the heat whenever the Jeffersonians ran another hit piece on the administration's latest act of imperialism. Although Washington embodied the gentleman farmer above all the other Founders (no one showed quite such a keen interest in agricultural science or a desire to leave the public spotlight to return to his plow), he knew that a land of perpetual yeoman farmers wouldn't survive a return visit from Great Britain. For the Union to keep her independence, she would have to become like the mother country: an economic power with strong commercial hubs.

My readers may be surprised that a self-styled medievalist would take the side of the city and commerce over the agrarian myth so beautifully illustrated in manuscripts like the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and idealized in Tolkien's Shire. These are treasured and time-honored concepts, but I would invite you to consider a few examples of the city's contribution to medieval culture:
  • First, that the Church, the ideal society of the medieval age, is divided not by nation or county, but by dioceses drawn around cities. Virtually all bishops were bishops of a particular city. The perfect society is described by Saint Augustine of Hippo in De Civitate Dei: The City of God.
  • Second, that while the feudal hierarchy was extolled as a reflection of the hierarchy in heaven, no serious moral philosopher of the age applauded the condition of serfdom. There's a reason why so many serfs fled to the cities in the hope of emancipation from their lords. The medieval city, with its charter of liberties, was a symbol of freedom--not slavery.
  • Third, the full flowering of the medieval spirit and imagination in Gothic art and architecture took root above all in the cities, especially those of the mercantile city-states of Italy and the Low Countries. The output of feudal England and France in high Gothic art and architecture is but a drop in the bucket compared to those of Venice, Florence, Genoa, Bruges, and Amsterdam. Where the great kingdoms saved the expenses of Gothic architecture for cathedrals and royal palaces, the city-states used their empires of trade to furnish entire city blocks, down to their own private homes, in the splendid Christian pointed style that directed all eyes up to heaven.

There's no doubt that, in the years since Hamilton's death, much evil has been done by the misuse of the economic powerhouse which he built ("as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be"). On the other hand, the honest inquirer must admit that, just as the Commercial Revolution of the 14th century catapulted merchant families like the Medicis into the palaces of kings and popes and thereby expanded the Third Estate's share in medieval/Renaissance society, it was the genius of a bastard orphan from a faraway island in the Caribbean, who stayed up late into the night pouring over dense economic treatises while dreaming of a better future for himself as a young lad, that built up the empire which so many immigrants after him sought refuge and work. 

In 1846, as a million Irishmen passed through Ellis Island to seek a better future when agriculture failed them back home, Manhattan saw the completion of the rebuilt Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton was affiliated (if not quite a regularly communicating member) and buried, in the new Gothic Revival style. Just as the medieval guildsmen of old raised up grand Gothic edifices to compete with other cities and visibly proclaim God's blessings as far as the eye could see, Trinity Church's spire soared 281 feet, making it the tallest building in the entire country at that time. As I walked through the nave during a visit to Manhattan last month, admiring the "high Federalist Gothic" handiwork which mentally transported me to any one of the great chapels of medieval England, I wondered to myself if the merchant families that rebuilt Trinity Church to evoke such past glories were conscious of the same spirit that first brought those churches to life.


Trinity Church, Manhattan: an exemplification of the "high Federalist Gothic" style in America.

The Modern Medievalist's family paid respects to A. Hams, buried outside Trinity Church. To steal a line from Batman v. Superman (or, I suppose, Wren's tomb at St. Paul's Cathedral): "If you seek his monument, look around you." New York was a fantastic city to visit!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Lessons on plainchant from "Hamilton"


Later today, I'll be assisting at a sung Vespers for the feast of Blessed Karl of Austria on this 105th anniversary of his wedding to Princess Zita; an event which I'm pleased to say has been listed on the official Blessed Karl League of Prayer website's calendar. The program will rely mostly on the singing of the psalms and canticles to basic Gregorian tones, unaccompanied. I sincerely hope it catches on with the attendees!

On a less important and entirely unrelated note, this evening PBS will be premiering Hamilton's America, a documentary about the making of the hit Broadway musical. Our first Secretary of the Treasury admittedly has nothing to do with the theme of medievalism (other than perhaps that his plan for the Constitution, if adopted, would have been more parliamentary than what we now have), but since I always admire plucky young men who rise from obscurity to accomplish great deeds, Alexander Hamilton ranks among my favorite historical figures. He began life with what seemed like a losing hand: a bastard from an obscure island in the Caribbean, orphaned at age 12, who raised money to send himself to the mainland for an education. By 20, Hamilton was a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and aide-de-camp to George Washington. After the war, he passed the bar exam merely by reading law books on his own, soon winning landmark cases that continue to influence the interpretation of the law to this day. Of course, his role in shaping the Constitution and the Federal Reserve (regardless of how one feels about those things) needs no commentary. His life was cut short by the infamous duel with Aaron Burr, but the man had done more in 47 years than most of us could hope to achieve even if we were miraculously blessed with two centuries of good health.

Hamilton's incredible story has sadly been neglected in most classrooms to the point that the average American probably assumes he was just another in a long line of early Presidents by virtue of appearing on the 10-dollar bill! Thankfully, with the smashing success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's production, Hamilton stands a chance of finally entering our cultural mythos alongside Franklin's kite and Washington's cherry tree. Considering that tickets are still going for $500 and up, I haven't seen it yet, but I've listened to the soundtrack on YouTube several times now and can say with confidence that even the most fervent rap-haters can't deny the brilliance of each song's lyrics. There's no need for me to add to all the platitudes already floating out there on the Internet (here's a solid review if you need one), but I want to draw attention to one small detail...

Many of the raps are interspersed with short sung phrases. This is hardly unique to Hamilton, but in any case, it's not something that anti-rap folks (by this, I mean people who dislike rap as a form; not the culture of violence and misogyny that's often packaged with it) take into much account. These phrases oddly remind me of, believe it not, the Gregorian chants to which I spend a lot of my free time practicing. You see, the tradition of plainchant includes not only those melodious Mass propers and hymns that took the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos to the top of the charts, and which can take my schola many hours to rehearse. The bulk of chant in a fully sung Mass, though, is really made up of the ministers singing Scriptures and prayers to a simple tone with a particular cadence and inflections: the Epistle tone, Gospel tone, Preface tone, Collect tone, and so on. At certain times of the year, we get to roll out special tones like those for the Passion or the Exsultet. The ability to sing any number of lines on a page to a simple melody was once a core part of a Catholic priest's training, but is now nearly extinct save in traditionally-minded communities and the Eastern rites.

I suspect the average Latin Rite priest finds the idea of singing the Mass parts eccentric and fussy, or at best, a respectable idea in theory but too difficult for them to personally bother trying. They can learn a thing or two from the only people in pop culture who've retained the skill of recitative singing in the modern age: rappers. The art is mostly spoken, of course, but it's often given a flourish by singing some lines in a straightforward way--purposefully simple, as otherwise I suppose they would be R&B singers. In chant terms, this might be called syllabic chant; the kind where every syllable gets only one note and is sung in a recitative manner. The main difference between "sung rap" and liturgical chant, as far as this goes, is that the former is set to a beat while the latter is freeflowing.


Example of an accentus or syllabic/recitative chant in the Gregorian tradition, from the Gospel of Easter Sunday ("At that time: Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought sweet spices, that coming they might anoint Jesus...") The deacon sings the note mostly on la, but has a little variation at the incipit (beginning) and ends every sentence on sol.
An early experiment of mine using Gregorio, a score editor for square chant notation. Lyrics from the opening title song of Hamilton. I only started learning to use it for this blog post, so I'm sure it doesn't look quite right yet. The lesson here is how the verse is sustained on a single note until the end, which chanters might call an inflection.

So you see? The basic principles of recitative chant are so easy, even those "no-talent rap hacks" can get it!

From there, you can take what you've learned and apply it to more musically complex lyrics:

Another adventure in Gregorio, this time with a more lyrical phrase from "Guns and Ships". In this part of the song, Washington writes a letter to Hamilton, enticing him to return to the fight prior to the Battle of Yorktown with an offer of a command. It's not quite recitative like the other two examples, perhaps more resembling a sequence like the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass. The final word is embellished with five notes. In chant, when a single syllable of a word is sung with three or more different notes in succession, it's called a melisma.

I hope you dear readers enjoyed today's whimsical excursion. Here's a trailer for the documentary, Hamilton's America, which premieres tonight (Oct. 21, 2016) on PBS at 9pm eastern time.


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Magna opera Domini: a reflection on the institution of acolytes

(Unless excepted, photos are courtesy of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter)
Magna opera Domini: "great are the works of the Lord". This is the motto on the coat of arms of Bishop Steven Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, who explained its meaning in his first remarks after being raised to the order of bishop here. This past Sunday, on the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham (transferred), I was very privileged to be a part of that motto brought to life when I was instituted as an acolyte by Bishop Lopes alongside a fellow parishioner and 50 other men nominated by their pastors across the Ordinariate in the US and Canada. Some were new additions to the ranks of our Cathedral's clerks, but most of those who traveled to our cathedral in Houston, Texas with me, even as far as Nova Scotia, are lay leaders of their respective parishes in and out of the liturgy.

As some of you may know, I've written here and elsewhere extensively about the minor orders and the role that they once played at the parish level in the medieval Church to carry out the work of divine worship; indeed, how these orders was once required for admittance to the choir or altar service. Even after the Church of England abolished the minor orders, the lay "parish clerk" continued to feature in Anglican life as an invaluable assistant to the priest, and has thankfully been re-introduced into the post-conciliar Catholic Church through the Ordinariate.

To be sure, some of the 52 men instituted last Sunday were chosen for their encyclopedic knowledge of ceremony. The cathedral rector said to us that the parish clerk is often the man to whom the priest can turn when he stares blankly into an unfamiliar page in the Missal and whispers, "explain to me what I'm supposed to do here!" Others were called not so much for that, but to expand upon their many years of dedicated service to their parishes in general, now in an established manner. When I learned that one of my fellow candidates to be installed was a papal Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, I felt in some sense that I was standing among giants.

Shortly before the principal Mass and rite of institution. After this, we all recited the Prayers of Preparation with Bishop Lopes before processing into the cathedral.
The training during the weekend of institution, which arose particularly in response to the desire among various parishes to offer solemn high Mass with the classical three-fold ministry of the altar (priest, deacon, and subdeacon), numbers among the most grace-filled experiences I've ever had. We prayed morning and evening hours of the Divine Office in common, shared stories of growth and struggle amongst our communities, and partook of the richness of beauty in worship offered by the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham. I especially enjoyed how, during the principal Mass, there was a vested schola for plainchant in the north transept, in addition to the cathedral choir. The schola chanted the Introit, Offertory, and Communion antiphons out of the Plainchant Gradual (in sacral English but with the ancient Gregorian melodies). A schola chorister sang the first reading in the Prophecy tone, and the acolyte acting as subdeacon sang the second reading in the Epistle tone. I came away with the sense that it was the supreme model for sung vernacular liturgy in the Latin Rite today.

Our weekend began with Evening Prayer of Ember Friday
Instituted acolytes are authorized to serve Mass in both the Ordinariate's unique Missal; Divine Worship; as well as the Extraordinary Form (traditional or "Tridentine" Latin Mass), in the ancient role of subdeacon, clad in colored vestments, chanting the Scriptures, and standing at the priest's left hand or behind the deacon at the foot of the altar. In the Ordinary Form, they may be asked to purify the sacred vessels. In the absence of a priest or deacon, they may also lead hours of the Divine Office, deliver holy Communion to the sick, or prepare a monstrance for Eucharistic Adoration (but not give Benediction). Bishop Lopes, who personally delivered instruction to us despite having just returned from a visit with other American bishops to the Pope himself in Rome, made it clear that we were to be instituted not just for the Ordinariate, but for the entire Church. He encouraged us to engage and give service (in and out of liturgy) at our neighboring diocesan parishes, including for solemn celebrations of the Extraordinary Form.

In return, we pledged to intensify our prayer lives, frequency of confession, and particularly grow in devotion to the holy Eucharist through regular Adoration. We were asked even to take into account our public witness of Christ, remembering that we extend the ministry of the priest and deacon in places they can't reach. The subdiaconal ministry was compared to a Wifi signal in a large house. If the router is in a closet at one end of the house and you're trying to get a connection from the living room on the other side, your reception will be poor and slow; so to remedy, you might think to install a repeater to boost the signal. Likewise, in the places in and out of the church where neither the priest nor deacon can reach, the acolyte is there extend their ministry. It doesn't advance the kingdom of God for an acolyte to insult a parishioner in a Facebook comment one day and present themselves in a tunicle the next, so we're called to be the face of Christ as far as we can.

The cathedral rector, Fr. Hough (in cassock), teaching a practicum on the subdiaconal role in the Divine Worship Missal (photo by my friend Armando, one of our Ordinariate seminarians)

Another of my photos. This one models the acolyte holding the Gospel-book for the deacon, using the common "in the midst" method of singing the Gospel. In this style, the procession enters partly into the aisle of the nave. Though seldom used in the Extraordinary Form, it's also permitted there. I've also seen it done in Eastern Divine Liturgies with the congregation flocking in to surround the ministers.
It was an arduous journey which began with a train ride well before the crack of dawn, but I'm glad my wife and children were able to make the journey from Philadelphia to Houston with me and partake of the worship at the Cathedral; especially solemn choral Evensong at the end of the weekend, directed by Mr. Edmund Murray, whom I sang Gregorian chant with for many years. That Evensong, a form of Vespers which preserves some of the finest choral works of the Anglican tradition, such as four-part psalmody and even splendid compositions from 20th century masters like Sir John Tavener, was recorded and may be watched or listened to here or below. It was well attended by lay faithful, local diocesan clergy and seminarians, and Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta.



In the rite of institution, we approached the bishop two at a time as he presented a ciborium filled with unconsecrated bread. We held the base with our right hands as he said, "Take this vessel with bread for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Make your life worthy of your service at the Table of the Lord and of his Church."

As I finish this entry, the following verse from the Psalms comes to mind:
“What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.”

More photos from the weekend can be found here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

More than boys; why men are needed to serve the altar


"To serve at the altar, as to sing in the choir, is next to the priesthood the highest privilege which a human can enjoy. He represents the faithful and takes a most intimate part in the rich treasures of the church's liturgy and ceremonial. Those sacred ceremonies should be carried out with devotion, dignity and attention to detail." 
--Bernard Cardinal Griffin, Archbishop of Westminster, in the preface to the Altar Server's Handbook for the Archconfraternity of Saint Stephen

Those of us who are devoted to restoring the fullness of tradition in our worship generally agree that no good has come out of permitting girls or women to serve the altar at Mass. Even Pope Paul VI, of all men, affirmed such in his instruction for carrying out Vatican II's liturgical reforms, Liturgicae Instaurationes (1970):
"In conformity with norms traditional in the Church, women (single, married, religious), whether in churches, homes, convents, schools, or institutions for women, are barred from serving the priest at the altar."
Beyond this, and without any disrespect to female altar servers themselves or questioning their good intentions, I'm happy to leave the reasons for why the practice of admitting women to altar service should be eschewed to other authors. There's a plethora of solid articles out there, such as this recent one posted by Regina Magazine entitled Bring Back the Lowly Altar Boy. Any additions I have to that argument would be merely preaching to the choir.

Those columns, however, are only tackling half of the problem; and some of them even argue from faulty, if innocent, premises. If we want to dig down to the root of the trouble and diagnose just why altar service has devolved into a trivial activity fit only for children, we must look beyond the gender wars of the 1980's and 1990's. In truth, the admission of altar girls was merely the logical conclusion of bad habits long in the making.


What is an altar server, really?

An altar server is what we call a layman who stands in for the role of the ordained (or, in post-1972 rites, "instituted") acolyte. As I explained in my previous article on deaconesses, the ordained acolyte was one of the minor orders: ministries created by the Church around the 3rd century so that the deacon (not the priest) could delegate some of his lesser responsibilities and add greater solemnity to the liturgical offices. In the traditional rite of ordination to the acolytate, the bishop presented the acolyte with the symbols of his office: a candle and an empty cruet. Together, these illustrate the essence of his duties, which are to carry the candlesticks in procession (to and from the altar, and for the Gospel procession) and to bring the cruets of wine and water to the altar during the Offertory. Of course, they often take on other duties, such as carrying the thurible or moving the Missal, but the foundation of the acolyte's service rests in the candles and cruets.

The Mass of Saint Martin of Tours, 1490. Saint Martin is attended by a torchbearing acolyte.

What is an altar server not?

Many traditional Catholics may assume that the acolyte's most important role is in answering the priest at Mass. This is, unfortunately, an effect of "low Mass culture". The responses (particularly at the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar) are really proper to the deacon and subdeacon; hence why the priest turns from side to side and confesses et vobis, fratres ("and to you, brothers") to the deacon and subdeacon on his left and right during the Confiteor. It's merely a matter of form that the priest still refers to the mere acolyte as "brother" during low Mass; the prayer was not certainly not composed with little altar boys in mind, but rather, the acolyte simply supplies the responses in the deacon's and subdeacon's absence. Hence, the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on "Acolyte" states,
"We may therefore regard the ministry of the subdeacon and acolyte as a development of that of the deacon."
Acolytes are not junior priests, nor was altar service ever meant to be seen chiefly in terms of grooming boys to be priests. As seen above, if they must be seen to derive from anything, they are really substitutes for the deacon, or else, the deacon's minions! But it is better to treat the role of acolyte as an order, or ministry, that stands on its own. Well into the High Middle Ages, the acolytate and other minor orders were not merely stepping stones to the priesthood, but orders that stood in their own, permanently held by men at the parish level; even married. For many centuries, ordination was a requirement before a man could serve at the altar. Since it was forbidden all the way up until the 20th century for a priest to celebrate Mass without a server except by papal indult, this meant that a great many men in society were actually clerics. Hence, when you come across a statistic that reads something like, "in the 10th century, the First Estate (the clerical caste) was as large as 1/10th of the population", that doesn't mean one out of every ten people was a priest or even studying for priesthood. Rather, it means a very large segment of the population was formally pledged in service to the Church. Beyond all the ordained acolytes for the parish, virtually everyone who ever went to university also received a minor order. Administrative officials from the royal courts down to local manors also were likely to be "clerks". Though they may have been ordained as acolytes as young as thirteen or fourteen, most ordained acolytes in the medieval Church were adult men; often in very respectable professions or high ranks in society.

Saint Giles's acolyte appears to be just as old as Giles himself in this 15th century painting.


How did the minor orders fade away from everyday life?

This is an aspect of Church history that receives very little attention. To be honest, I don't know exactly why myself, nor when this transition definitively took place. What I can say for sure is that by the 1500's, it seems the minor orders were usually reserved only for students on a track for priesthood (I don't say "seminarians" because seminaries hadn't been invented yet). My best educated guess is that the minor orders disappeared from the parish level and replaced by substitute lay servers because of legal battles between the Church and state, such as the famous feud between Saint Thomas Becket and King Henry II. In these ages, any cleric, no matter how humble, enjoyed numerous privileges in society such as the benefit of clergy: the right to be tried for a crime in the local bishop's ecclesiastical court, rather than by the officers of the king. The notion that a cleric ought to be protected from secular prosecution obviously seems ripe for injustices of the worst sort today, but in the medieval world's rougher and, shall we say, more expedited form of justice, it offended popular piety to see a holy man or learned scholar dragged in chains before the local magistrate like a common criminal. 

As the centuries passed, the popes and ecumenical councils had to gradually concede one clerical privilege after another as the kings of Europe grew in authority. The first to hit the chopping block were inevitably the larger mass of married minor clerics, but even then, the popes could not totally concede their legal status to the state without serious ramifications for the clergy as a whole. It is, perhaps, as a result of these feuds that the bishops decided it would be better to not ordain anyone at all unless they were going to eventually become priests.

In the Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath's fifth husband is the clerk, Jankin. Someone like Jankin would have lost some of his legal privileges after marrying a widow like Alisoun (as opposed to a virgin), but not his clerical status or ability to carry out the minor orders.

The Church desires the minor orders to be restored

Although, by an accident of history, the minor orders have faded from parish life up to the present (except in a few dioceses such as Lincoln, where the bishop regularly institutes acolytes and lectors for parishes), this was not part of the Church's plan for the re-invigoration of the priesthood! On the contrary, the disappearance of the minor orders from the parishes was deplored by the Council of Trent, and the decrees of the Council's 23rd session, along with dogmatically defining the priesthood and issuing provisions for the establishment of a new system for training priests (called "seminaries"), at the same time issued a decree to re-establish the minor orders as permanently held ranks:
"CHAPTER XVII.
In what manner the exercise of the minor orders is to be restored.

That the functions of holy orders, from the deacon to the janitor,-which functions have been laudably received in the Church from the times of the apostles, and which have been for some time interrupted in very many places,-may be again brought into use in accordance with the sacred canons; and that they may not be traduced by heretics as useless; the holy Synod, burning with the desire of restoring the pristine usage, ordains that, for the future, such functions shall not be exercised but by those who are actually in the said orders; and It exhorts in the Lord all and each of the prelates of the churches, and commands them, that it be their care to restore the said functions, as far as it can be conveniently done, in the cathedral, collegiate, and parochial churches of their dioceses, where the number of the people and the revenues of the church can support it; and, to those who exercise those functions, they shall assign salaries out of some part of the revenues of any simple benefices, or those of the fabric of the church,-if the funds allow of it,-or out of the revenues of both together, of which stipends they may, if negligent, be mulcted in a part, or be wholly deprived thereof, according to the judgment of the Ordinary. And if there should not be unmarried clerics at hand to exercise the functions of the four minor orders, their place may be supplied by married clerics of approved life; provided they have not been twice married, be competent to discharge the said duties, and wear the tonsure and the clerical dress in church."
 
The composer Franz Liszt in his cassock. Liszt was a rare example of a permanent ordained acolyte in the "Tridentine" era of the Church.

 

What does this old history with the minor orders have to do the age of altar boys today?

Trent's decree to restore the minor orders, like Vatican II's giving "pride of place" to Gregorian chant, was a dead letter; but the principles behind it are no less true today. Furthermore, Session 23 tells us what kind of men ought to be acolytes. First, there is the tonsure:
"None shall be initiated by the first tonsure, who have not received the sacrament of Confirmation; and who have not been taught the rudiments of the faith; and who do not know how to read and write; and in whose regard there is not a probable conjecture, that they have chosen this manner of life, that they may render unto God a faithful service, and not that they may fraudulently withdraw themselves from Secular jurisdiction."
And then, for the receiving of minor orders:
"Those who are to be promoted to minor orders shall have a good testimonial from their parish priest; and from the master of the school in which they are educated."
While it certainly doesn't exclude teenagers, this also could hardly describe a boy who has just received his first Communion and depends on rote memorization to make the responses of Mass! A better model might instead be that great scholar and martyr (not to mention my confirmation saint), Sir Thomas More. 

After years of service to crown and country, King Henry VIII appointed More to replace Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor of the Realm. Even when More held the highest office in England below the King himself, he was still known to throw on his surplice and serve daily Mass or sing in the choir stalls at his home parish of Saint Chelsea. His biography by Peter Ackroyd recounts the story that the Duke of Norfolk came calling to More's house one day and found him at the church, serving the parish priest at the altar. The Duke questioned Sir Thomas for publicly humbling himself in such a way that could be taken as an offense to the king's dignity. Sir Thomas said, "My master the King cannot be displeased at the service I pay to his master, God."


How did boys come to replace men as altar servers?

This appears to have been a combination of two factors:

1.) The effect of the Industrial Revolution on society. While rural peasant life was hard, it did not demand regular 12-hour shifts. Men had time to pop into the chapel or parish church for the daily Mass and Offices. As working men moved to the factories, time became a cruel mistress, as many of us still find today. Further, when the Napoleonic wars (and, later, the World Wars) brought about mass conscription, entire villages could find themselves totally vacant of able-bodied men for weeks or months at a time. In such conditions, only boys were left to serve Mass.

Altar boys as ornaments.
2.)  The overall decline of religiosity among men. It's often observed that, in Europe, the men tend to stay in the back of the church (if they bother to come at all) and chatter amongst themselves about sports or other trivialities while the women and children sit up front. Accounts of the 19th and early 20th centuries tell the same story, particularly amongst certain ethnic groups, such as Italians, where religion had become something deemed highly personal or worse, feminine. It's hard to blame them: my office has a framed photograph of a class of altar boys taken in the late 1940's from my boss's neighborhood parish in south Philadelphia (an old Italian-American community), where he grew up and was eventually ordained priest. No boy appears above the age of 12. All are clad with white gloves, ridiculous bows around their necks, and (judging by the shade in this black-and-white photo) red cassocks. One can easily imagine they were all fawned over by their mothers and grandmothers, pinching their cheeks and exclaiming how much their chierichetti ("little priests") looked like cardinals in miniature. And one can imagine just as well how boys accustomed to treating the Catholic faith as an exercise in "cuteness" were all too happy to shed the cassock and surplice once they were deemed too old and impure to continue serving the altar.

These sorts of photos, which form a certain type of "like-bait" on certain Facebook groups, don't actually do anything for vocations.
Even then, this trend of boy servers didn't dominate the entire Church. The book Peregrinus Gasolinus: Peregrinus Goes Abroad has a little dialogue on the use of boy servers. This work was written by Father Michael Andrew Chapman around the 1920's to discuss small matters of liturgy in a humorous way through the disputes between two liturgist-priests of differing schools of thought (one called the Antiquary, the other the Liturgiologist) as they go on road trips across the United States.
 “But why, in the name of Martinucci, must a Mass Server always be a sniveling little brat with his wrists bursting out of his cassock far too short for him, a very imperfect knowledge of the responses he has to say, and a generally rowdy and unedifying appearance—”

Pere, Pere,” remonstrated the Antiquary.

“Well, maybe not so bad as that. We have some good pious kids, I’ll admit. But the older lads are really edifying, at least not distracting. Years of experience have taught them their business, they serve well, answer promptly and intelligibly, and at High Mass they put things through in a really distinguished and thoroughly correct manner which is a joy to behold.”

“After all,” remarked the Antiquary, “the Altar Boy, qua boy,[5] is a modern institution. And in quantities, almost, one might say, an American institution.”[6]

“Imported from France,” cut in the Liturgiologist.

“Like most of our ceremonial practice,” went on the Antiquary. “But even in France, the serving of Mass is not restricted to children. One sees grown men, often stepping up from the congregation, serving at Low Mass constantly, and so everywhere on the continent. For more elaborate ceremonies the younger lads are used, but the important positions in the ceremonies are usually taken by older boys who have been carefully drilled. It seems only to be here in America that a positive prejudice exists against the presence of older boys and young men in the sanctuary."

(The rest of the chapter in context may be read on Romanitas Press's site here.)

The depiction of altar service as child's play was practically a cottage industry in the saccharine world of 19th century French religious art.

 

How the juvenalizing of altar service has destroyed the ministry altogether

Once boys came to predominate altar service, then came the trend of stuffing the sanctuary to no purpose but ornamentation. American parishes before the Council were rife with low Masses assisted by four servers when the rubrics admit no more than two; eight torchbearers when two or four were enough for an ordinary Sunday; and, of course, the aforementioned dressing up of boys as mini-prelates, complete with shoulder-capes, lace rochets, and even birettas in some places. 

Following Vatican II, priests suffered a violent reaction against this fussiness, even as the new rite of Mass drove the final nail in the coffin of traditional altar service. The server's duties for the new Mass were so simplified that to even have one seemed more a luxury, or a mere activity to give the boys something to do and be shown off for their parents, than a necessity. Indeed, the former prohibitions against a priest serving Mass without a server were lifted. Today, it's commonplace for a priest to celebrate Mass without a server even if it's in a cathedral attended by hundreds, just because it's on a weekday. There may be dozens of men qualified to serve in the congregation, but the server's role is so trivial that it would seem beneath a grown man's dignity for a priest to walk up to one and ask him to throw on a surplice (or alb, more commonly) and assist in such a menial way.

When the serving of Mass is too trivial for a grown man with the responsibilities of the world on his shoulders, is it any surprise that, with our distorted view of femininity, we've now reached the conclusion that altar service is so easy that "even a girl can do it"?

An unfortunate sight all too common in churches today: Father and a gaggle of kids. The natural conclusion of a century or more of juvenalizing altar service. Even though this is a school Mass and one would expect more children present, there is apparently no room for teachers to serve.

Wouldn't adult servers get in the way of allowing boys to discern a priestly vocation?

First, this is beside the point since we already established that the order of acolyte stands on its own, and is not merely a stepping stone to priesthood; nor were altar servers instituted to give boys a "foretaste" of priestly life. But even if this were true, it's even more important that boys see the serving of God's altar as a firmly masculine duty. This is not the picture you communicate when Father and his harem of boys are sauntering up to the sanctuary; then you only have "Catholic boy scouts" at best, or something rather more lascivious at worst.

We need another Saint Thomas More approaching the altar of God. We need fathers and sons serving together. We need men of solemn reverence handling the cruets and thurible. Indeed, we need lawyers, managers, foremen, and other such men of consequence whom the world would assume far too busy or important to play "altar boy" on Sundays to show boys that the Lord is supreme even to men of high station.
Father Adrian Fortescue and his retinue of mostly adult servers at the church of Saint Hugh, Letchworth (England), around 1910. Fortescue was the author of Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, the standard manual for priests learning the traditional Latin Mass today.


What exactly do you propose?

Quite simply, I'm calling upon men who care about restoring the beauty and fullness of worship to get off their armchairs and make it a reality in the sanctuaries of their own churches. If the essence of masculinity is in taking action, then what's the manlier course: complaining about your parish's sloppy practices at Mass on an Internet forum, or signing up as an altar server to personally see right reverence given to God

This need not displace boys or teenagers from serving Mass entirely, but they should, as a general rule, fill the simpler roles while adult men serve as crucifer, thurifer, and master of ceremonies; or, more often than not, the sole acolyte of low Mass. In the traditional Latin rite, these divisions are already built-in and quite natural. In the Ordinary Form, it will probably take a little more ingenuity for most. You will probably have to endure a much-diminished form of service until you find yourself in a position to gradually add on other traditional duties, or reintroduce the positions of thurifer and MC which are absent from most ordinary parishes today for various reasons, namely apathy.

In truth, the boys need not give up their cassocks and surplices at all. A better place for them would be to learn to sit "in choir"; not only filling seats like the over-dressed boys of old, but actually learning to read square notation and sing the short responses and sacred plainchants of the Mass as an auxiliary to the men's schola cantorum, all vested in their traditional place not in the organ loft, but in the sanctuary or choir stalls. In this way, we can slowly but surely restore the traditional choirs of men and boys that reigned supreme in the more glorious ages of Christendom. But this will take much greater efforts, and shall be the subject of a future article.

For now, it's enough to make our sanctuaries a fitting place for the divine services, where the "devotion, dignity and attention to detail" spoken of by Cardinal Griffin in the manual I first quoted are not ideals aspired to by young boys, but daily seen by them from the careful hands of the leading men of the parish. 

 
Men and boys enrolling together in the Archconfraternity of Saint Stephen in Philadelphia.

Unsurpassed dignity: the procession for a solemn Mass at Merton College Chapel, Oxford.

The servers of all ages at our nuptial Mass, to whom I'm forever grateful, receiving Communion.