In “the Tale of the Sankgreal,” as related by Thomas Malory, Sir Gala-had witnesses the miracle of transubstantiation during the holy communion of the Catholic Mass. The bishop took up a wafer “which was made in lyknesse of brede. And at the lyfftyng up there cam a figoure in lyknesse of a chylde, and the vysage was as rede and as bryght os ony fyre, and smote hymselff into the brede, that all they saw hit that the brede was fourmed of a fleyshely man. And than he put hit into the holy vessell agayne.” It is a strange scene, as the wafer of bread is transformed into a child and man before being dipped into the chalice, but it is fully consistent with the belief of Malory’s contemporaries that in the miracle of the Mass the Word does indeed become flesh. There are many stories, or legends, of the eucharist turning into a burning babe, just as the miraculous properties of the consecrated host were endlessly attested. It is at the heart of Catholic England and, as a matter of instinctive practice and natural belief, at the center of the culture which Catholic England manifested. The material world was relished with as much fullness as spiritual truths were venerated. It has been said of London customs of the fourteenth century that “the drinking bouts and rough games had once been religious ceremonies in themselves: and the two ideas were still confused in the popular imagination.” 1 The remark is of the utmost significance for any understanding of medieval England.
From the reports of foreign observers it becomes clear that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the English were notable for their piety; they rivalled the Romans in their love of ceremony, and the Spanish in their devotion to the Virgin. The bells of the London churches deafened those who were unfamiliar with them, and a continental observer noted of the citizens that “they all attend Mass every day, and say many Paternosters in public, the women carrying large rosaries in their hands.” This was the dispensation and condition of England until the time of Henry VIII, and it is open to question whether the legacy of the last five hundred years will outweigh or outlast a previous tradition of fifteen hundred years.
We may begin by saying that England then was at the center of Catholic Europe. It was a shared civilisation of ceremony and spectacle, of drama, of ritual and display; life was only the beginning, not the end, of existence and thus could be celebrated or scorned as one station along the holy way. It was a world in which irony and parody of all kinds flourished, where excremental truth and holy vision were considered fundamentally compatible, where Aquinas could mount towards heaven with his divine dialectic and Rabelais stoop towards the earth with his gargantuan corporeality. It was a world of symbolic ceremony, with the processions of Palm Sunday, the rending of the veil in Holy Week and the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. Doves were released at Pentecost in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Resurrection dramatised on Easter Day in Lichfield Cathedral. It was a world also deeply imbued with symbolic numerology; this lies behind the preoccupation with form and ritual, as well as the fascination with pattern. There were the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of the Virgin, the five wits of the human self and the five principal social virtues of fraunchise, felawship, cleanness, cortaysye and pite. This concern for pattern is embodied in the form of the pentangle, otherwise known as “David’s Foot” and created by the wooden swords of early folk-dancers with the cry of “A Nut! A Nut!” or a Knott—
. . . the English call it, In all the land, I hear, the Endless Knot2
There are seven sins, seven sacraments, and seven works of mercy, all of them part of the passage of humankind through earthly existence; the importance of allegory may here be glimpsed, with the allegorical “reading” of texts and illuminations as a fundamental prerequisite for the understanding of Piers the Plowman, Pearl or the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales. We might suggest in turn that the history plays of Shakespeare, and the symbolic fictions of Charles Dickens, owe something to this now buried or disregarded tradition.
The day itself was the medium of ritual. The canonical hours of the Church—with the “Great Hours” of Lauds and Vespers mingled with the “Little Hours” of Prime, Tierce, Sext, None and Compline—materially altered the shape of time in medieval discourse. The hours were connected with the narrative of Christ’s Passion, with Sext representing the Crucifixion and entombment, but there was also a farther litany of time with the hours of the Virgin as intercessor and intermediary for mankind. The sequence of hours then represents the passage of sacred events which are beyond the claims of time; linear duration is replaced by cyclical commemoration so that the elusive present moment is always hallowed by the presence of spiritual truth. Thus the drama of the medieval period is at once eternal and starkly contemporary, the shepherds both local men and emblems of wandering mankind. When in one of the nativity plays a sheep, stolen from a field near Bethlehem, is disguised as an infant child in a cradle, the allusion to Christ as the Lamb of God might seem crude and even shocking; but, for the Yorkshire audience of “The Second Shepherd’s Play” in 1440, it would have seemed natural if decidedly comic. There was no aversion to things of the flesh but, rather, an understanding of them as tokens of the divine order. A prayer at the end of the Mass celebrates the fact that God blesses “oure brede & oure ayl,” where the bread of holy communion is seen to be equivalent to the bread upon the table of kitchen or tavern.
In a drama of the Crucifixion the “pinners” or nail-makers re-enact all the physical details of Christ’s suffering—“He weyes a wikkid weght”—in comic corporeal re-enactment of the mystery. It will often be remarked, in this study, how the most ostensibly tragic and comic episodes are thoroughly intermingled in English drama and English fiction; here lies one of the explanations. When the fifteenth-century recluse Julian of Norwich saw the face of the devil, “the color was rede like the tilestone whan it is new brent . . . his here was rode as rust.” Red was also the colour conventionally attributed to the hair of Herod and of Judas. So the more vivid the material of physical description, the more intense becomes the spiritual experience. Thus again in Julian’s revelations, “the blewhede [blue] of the clothing betokinith his stedfastnes.”
This equivalence between the material and the ideal can lead to irony as well as pathos, parody as much as melancholy; in a world where certain sacred truths are accepted without question, then parody and irony themselves become necessary devices. The great historian of the Middle Ages Johan Huizinga remarked “that the line of demarcation between seriousness and pretence was never less clear than in the medieval period”;3 it is a temperamental characteristic which has never entirely deserted what might be called the Catholic imagination. It has been said that Chaucer’s fabliaux, in The Canterbury Tales , suggest that “men’s lives are seen as burlesque re-enactments of sacred prototypes.”4 But this equivalence might also encourage a sense of completeness or wholeness. In the ceremonies of Corpus Christi, when the sacrament was carried down the principal streets with banners and crosses in attendance, wreathed in smoke and attended by joyful chanters, the physical communion of the faithful was joined in spirit to the heavenly community. The ritual then became a social and cultural performance, a form of outdoor theatre not unlike the mystery plays when the crucifix rather than the eucharist was carried through the streets of England’s towns. This had been the message of St. Augustine: the religion of the urban centres demanded an audience, just like that of the theatre, where a “secret sympathy” is shared.
There is another connection with the English imagination, also, in the context of “the rhetoric of performance and the performance of rhetoric,”5 whether in the debate poems of Chaucer or the declamations of Tudor drama. We cannot at this date, in other words, separate an English sensibility from a Catholic sensibility. The world of miracles and marvels is still alive in Shakespeare’s late plays.
What else might be expected from a Catholic sensibility? The delight in splendour is of course related to the intoxication with the marvellous, but resplendent pomp and display were also the means of celebrating the hierarchy and order of the universe. If the people of England gazed heavenward, and looked up at the night sky filled with light and harmony, they believed that they were looking inward not outward; the pattern of the heavens then became a paradigm for the orders of significance upon the earth, whether orders of interpretation, orders of human rank, orders of dream, or orders of perception. This is of some importance to the writer and artist, since the concept of personality was not far advanced; just as the personal sinfulness of a priest made no difference to his power upon the altar, so unique or individual perception was less important than the corpus of approved and acquired knowledge. Authenticity was more significant than individuality or originality, so we may expect an art or a literature that rests upon things already known and understood. It is the essential reason why Pope translated Homer and William Morris translated Beowulf, why Tennyson modelled his verse upon Arthurian epic and why Alfred translated Boethius and Augustine. If in one aspect we describe the English imagination as antiquarian in instinct, animated by the delight in the past, then it is important to see how a predominantly Catholic culture and sensibility may still dwell within it.
It is a nice point indeed to settle rival instincts and rival claims. There was an English Catholicism, with its rituals and its own local saints, but the Roman declarations at the Synod of Whitby and the arrival of Norman abbots steadily diminished its power; the names of its saints linger in Cornwall and Northumbria, but their shrines and relics have long gone. Nevertheless ecclesiastical historians have outlined a particular form of English spirituality which renders it distinct. It has been described as one of earnest practicality combined with a certain strain of optimism; it also manifests a native common sense and instinct for compromise. Its hermits and anchorites, so much a part of medieval life, illustrate both a tendency towards individualism and a distaste for regimentation or excessive display. The spiritual pragmatism may have begun with Alcuin, who, at the court of Charlemagne, wrote out manuals of practical conduct for the Christian layman; but it was perhaps best summarised by Robert of Bridlington who wrote that priests ought also “to plough, sow, reap, mow hay with a sickle, and make a haystack.”6 It has been called the via media of English spirituality. As William of Malmesbury put it, “Best is ever mete,” or moderation in all things. This, too, has been described as a “distinctively English manifestation” 7 of “saving sanity and discretion.” It is perhaps the reason for the relative failure of the Carthusians in England, with their obsessive dedication to silence and penance. There had also been a movement away from excessive clericalism, and the medieval English priest was characteristically a comic figure lambasted for greed, drunkenness and lechery.
There has never been in England a tradition of theological speculation, in the manner of an Augustine or an Aquinas, or of devotional concepts divorced from practice; the nearest equivalents to the great “summa theologica” of European Catholicism are the short handbooks for English contemplatives or anchorites. It is of some significance that these treatises were always directed towards individuals and were concerned with the exigencies of the solitary life; they were not monastic productions or authoritarian edicts. They were instruments of personal direction, in other words, and were “intensely English in that they combine unimpeachable orthodoxy with individualism.”8 The piety of the English was by no means a morbid piety; there has been no Savonarola or Luther but instead Wycliff and Tyndale. Pelagius refused to countenance the orthodox belief that humankind had inherited the primal guilt of Adam and that “original sin” thereby damned the world to perdition without the intervention of divine grace; he was a thoroughly English heretic. The affective devotion of the English has also been free of lachrymose or penitential excesses; the manuals of prayer consistently invoke the Incarnation rather than the Passion. It is an aspect of what has been called English optimism which, in native tragi-comic fashion, runs beside English melancholy. It is manifested in the benevolent expression upon the statues in Wells Cathedral and in the belief of Julian of Norwich that “al manner of thyng shal be wele.” In the images of Spain and Italy the Holy Virgin is seen as a figure in tears; in England she is characteristically represented as the loving mother of the divine babe. It has been described as the difference of “the clear lines of English perpendicular against both the baroque and the whitewashed shed.”9
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that English Catholicism represents an independent version of European Catholicism; the fact that the great monastic orders, the Benedictines and the Cistercians, flourished all over England would disprove any such simple statement. The Dominican and Franciscan friars also helped to create the large body of English lyric, both sacred and secular, as well as a variety of English texts; among the great Franciscans can be numbered, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively, Roger Bacon and William of Ockham. All of them, too, wrote in Latin for a European community of scholars. Nevertheless, it has often been maintained that their sensibility was of a distinct and distinctive English kind. Thus Ockham believed that “all knowledge is derived from experience,” 10 an argument which anticipates in an uncanny way the English predilection for empiricism, or logical positivism, or whatever term is used for a principled but pragmatic attitude towards all metaphysical speculation. Roger Bacon, too, has often been seen as the forerunner of his more famous namesake, Francis Bacon, in his emphasis on the importance of scientific method in intellectual enquiry. So we have the paradox of a distinctively English sensibility working within, and gaining strength from, a European and Latin tradition of learning. When we read also that in the twelfth century English architecture and painting represented “a great, at moments supreme, exponent of a European style”, 11 the question of influence and identity becomes a difficult one.
If there is such a thing as a native cast of thought it can properly be understood only in the context of a broadly European sensibility. There was a great movement of “humanism” in the twelfth century, for example, but the most significant contribution which England made to the new learning was historical and practical in nature. Has this not become a familiar theme? The great strength of English learning was of course monastic learning, but from the English religious houses came tens of thousands of charters, annals and chronicles. Matthew Paris, who died in the middle of the thirteenth century, wrote a history of his monastery as well as a universal history entitled Chronica Majora . There is no English Aquinas, whose scholasticism rose into the empyrean, but rather John of Salisbury, whose books were concerned with the art of government. The English writers were well versed in patristic texts and in classical literature but they applied their learning to administrative and diplomatic affairs. As R. W. Southern wrote in his Medieval Humanism, this “mixture of philosophical interest and practical familiarity”12 was unique to twelfth-century England. He compares their work to that of Jeremy Bentham and Walter Bagehot in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and traces a distinct native sensibility in this preoccupation with the art of government. We may draw a similar conclusion about the career of Sir Thomas More, a great humanist and companion of Erasmus who became a courtier and a statesman rather than a philosopher or a theologian. He was an English European. The English imagination, and the English sensibility, emerged out of both collusion and collision with European exempla.great movement of “humanism” in the twelfth century, for example, but the most significant contribution which England made to the new learning was historical and practical in nature. Has this not become a familiar theme? The great strength of English learning was of course monastic learning, but from the English religious houses came tens of thousands of charters, annals and chronicles. Matthew Paris, who died in the middle of the thirteenth century, wrote a history of his monastery as well as a universal history entitled Chronica Majora . There is no English Aquinas, whose scholasticism rose into the empyrean, but rather John of Salisbury, whose books were concerned with the art of government. The English writers were well versed in patristic texts and in classical literature but they applied their learning to administrative and diplomatic affairs. As R. W. Southern wrote in his Medieval Humanism, this “mixture of philosophical interest and practical familiarity” 12 was unique to twelfth-century England. He compares their work to that of Jeremy Bentham and Walter Bagehot in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and traces a distinct native sensibility in this preoccupation with the art of government. We may draw a similar conclusion about the career of Sir Thomas More, a great humanist and companion of Erasmus who became a courtier and a statesman rather than a philosopher or a theologian. He was an English European. The English imagination, and the English sensibility, emerged out of both collusion and collision with European exempla.
The Chapter House of Wells Cathedral