Rowan Williams

Late medieval culture was heavily weighted with symbolism: its world was one in which virtually anything could speak of or point to virtually anything else. But, more specifically, it was a world in which events and objects might be expected to speak of God, in such a way that (in the words of one of the greatest scholars of late medieval thought, Johan Huizinga) 'Nothing is too humble to represent and to glorify the sublime' (Huizinga 1965:198). Qualities or characteristics in common between things, however apparently trivial, indicated a shared participation in a more profound unity. It is not surprising, then, that the devotional and artistic practice of the late Middle Ages tended to more and more complex levels of elaboration. Writers of the fifteenth century often expressed anxiety that the basic coherence of the Christian liturgical year was being overlaid by the multiplication of new feasts and cults; and, of course, the cult of the saints continued to burgeon, often carrying very significant local and political loyalties or aspirations. Much has recently been made of the importance in the later Middle Ages of the relatively new solemnity of Corpus Christi as a focal point of the year—a celebration of the community's identity and integrity, an occasion for restoring broken or threatened bonds of charity: it would be misleading to say that it overshadowed the historic feasts of Christmas and Easter, which were themselves also elaborated with new liturgical and para-liturgical ceremony at this time, but it is undoubtedly true that the position of Corpus Christi near the summer solstice, at the very end of the cycle of biblical feasts (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) gave a radically new shape to the calendar. The eucharistic Christ, adored on Corpus Christi, could be clearly seen as the focus of all symbolic action, the point at which the transparency of created reality to God was most authoritatively set forth. The act of God through Jesus Christ, an act continued by Christ's authorized ministers, establishes the identity of two apparently dissimilar things, the eucharistic bread and the flesh of Christ (in the words of a late medieval English poem, the eucharistic host 'is quick

[alive] and seems dead'). In celebrating the eucharistic transformation, the people of the late Middle Ages affirmed their faith in a universe held together by God's creative and redeeming grace, and their trust in the sustaining bonds that held them together as a community within the Body of Christ.

Alongside this were other elements, in some tension with the great synthesis of public liturgy and sign. The beginnings of modern capitalism and mercantilism were already changing and fragmenting social patterns, and challenging the interlocking hierarchical relations of pre-modern community life. The crisis of moral confidence in the papacy and the early fifteenth-century struggles over where supreme authority lay in the Church had intensified popular scepticism about the authority of the clergy. And the spread of various sorts of radical spirituality had introduced an area of religious activity not all that easily contained within the public synthesis. Influential teachers of prayer, from Eckhart and his successors to Dionysius the Carthusian and Nicholas of Cusa, had given new force to the old tradition of insisting that God could only be spoken of by negations, and had aroused anxiety by what seemed to be a position encouraging indifference to the public linguistic and ritual activity of the Church, despite the manifest loyalty of such teachers to Catholic discipline. In a related but rather different context, we find, in the 'new devotion', the devotio moderna, the impulse towards a simple life-style, moral earnestness rather than speculative or symbolic imagination, and withdrawal from the public stage. Groups like that from which the Imitation of Christ (a Kempis 1952) emerged, reformist religious communities especially in the Low Countries, represented something of a challenge to the prevailing style of Catholic thought and imagining, though not in any overtly revolutionary way.

One final factor to be considered is 'humanism'—the new concern in the late fifteenth century throughout Europe to deploy classical scholarship, above all the possibilities opened up by the diffusion of Greek learning in Western Europe after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, in the service of a renewal of the Church. The attempt by Erasmus and his circle to recover a sound Greek text of the New Testament not unnaturally went with a certain discontent with the extravagant elaborations of popular and not so popular religious practice. Earlier medieval reformers, like Bernard or Francis, had worked with an ideal of the 'apostolic life' as lived by the earliest Christians, but the Erasmian movement linked this long-standing and respectable tradition to a far stronger historical sense of how a primitive simplicity had been overlaid. And, like the reformist communities of the Upper Rhineland, Erasmus's circle stressed sincerity and directness in personal and social relations. Much influenced by Stoic literature (Seneca and Cicero in particular), they were aware of the problems created by the gulf between external hierarchy and the 'inner' realities of spirituality and morality. What is the authority of an external power devoid of inner moral probity?

The spirituality of the sixteenth century cannot be easily understood without this background of a growing tension between a sophisticated and resourceful system of public signs and public resolutions of conflict, and a widespread move in quite different areas of social life towards a valuing of inner experience and a consequent scepticism (which appears in varying levels of clarity or explicitness) about the harmonies, and so also the hierarchies, of Catholic society. Much in the medieval synthesis depends on the conviction that there is an authoritative guarantor of the unities and convergences that make the world a coherent communicating whole: unease about authority and unease about the reliability of symbolic systems goes hand in hand. The history of spirituality in the Reformation period is a history of attempts to manage this unease, either by a radical abandonment of the symbolic universe, or by the bringing of interiority into the service of the system itself.

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