20 May 2017

Across the Centuries

Sub Tuum.

Some of us know the feeling depicted in this impressive and well-portrayed scene in The Gathering Storm, a movie about Churchill. We feel our ancestors looking at us from across the centuries, saying, "This is what we have done. What will you do? We stood firm, immovable, never yielding in tame submission. Will you? We never die, for you are our voice in the realm of the living."

For context of this video clip, Churchill reflects on his ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, commander of the British forces in the War of Spanish Succession, at the Battle of Blenheim, 1704, a decisive victory of the Grand Alliance over the French under Louis XIV.



13 May 2017

The More Society Changes, the More It Stays the Same

Sub Tuum.

One of the traits of modern society, and indeed no doubt of many generations in the past, is one of hubris -- that we are so much more advanced and vastly superior than the "unenlightened" people of prior generations. The cries of "this is 2017" echo the self-same complaints I heard decades ago and those I heard when I was young. "We are born into a brave new age," we're told, "free of the chains of the past, brimming with freedom and opportunities that those poor people of the past never enjoyed." Like a broken record, it is the mantra of every new generation. 

To back up their belief comes in that old crutch, confirmation bias. If we're so superior and the past was so bad, then we must tell all that which supports that notion and suppress all that which might challenge our viewpoint. Indeed, our post-modern viewpoint cannot be challenged, because that would mean that we are not in fact special compared to the humans who went before. And, if real information to support our claims of modern superiority cannot be found, things can be made up. If a total myth is repeated enough, especially if by celebrities and teachers, then it becomes an accepted myth. Experience has shown that people cling to accepted myths like a drowning man to a life-preserver, even when the rescue line of simple truth is proffered. 

One common mantra is that medieval society was oppressive, particularly to women. There is freedom today, people say, because we live in modern, democratic societies in which we get to choose our leaders. Do we, though? Would it shatter the dream too much if it is pointed out that, to use the U.S.A. system as an example, people don't really choose their leaders so much as they vote for the people placed in front of them? The theoretical promise that anyone can be President does not in fact match reality.  And how is a system in which two political parties determine the pool from which the President shall be chosen really that much different than an hereditary monarchy? (And monarchs can and did change -- even from different families. Some were even elected.)  I could point out that the concept of democracy in its modern incarnation was born out of the Enlightenment and a direct challenge to the authority not so much of Kings, but of the Church (the Bible is replete with monarchies, but there is not one single democracy). But, that might challenge the idea (primarily promoted by Protestants) that Christianity and democracy actually go together. 

Returning to medieval society, there were probably more female rulers (and warriors) than there have been under democracy. That is not a scientific statement based on numerical analysis (which would be an interesting study itself), but simply based on my study of the middle ages. There were plenty of great female rulers and military leaders. Countess Caterina Sforza, the Lioness of Forli comes to mind. Quite deserving of her style of lioness, she held Pope Alexander VI and his son the mercenary and Cardinal Cesare Borgia at bay for quite some time.  Matilda, Margravine of Tuscany is another example. She ruled a vast swath of central Italy and personally led troops in defense of the Papacy. She was never conquered. In recognition of her service to the Church, there is a statue of her at Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican in which she is holding a marshal's baton in one hand and cradling the Papal tiara and keys in the other arm. Isabella, Queen of Spain. Sybilla, Queen of Jerusalem. Matilda, Holy Roman Empress and Queen of England. Constance of Antioch. Sichelgaita, Princess of Salerno and Duchess of Calabria. Melisdende de Rethel, Queen of Jerusalem. Isabella I, Queen of Jerusalem. Anne Stafford, Countess of Huntingdon. Margaret I, Countess of Flanders.

It is difficult to imagine a woman in such roles in modern society, yet it is the medieval period that we call backwards and oppressive. 

Now, those were powerful female rulers. What of other women in society? The following is an excerpt that discusses activity and equality in the medieval period: 

"The role of women in Medieval life and literature is a complicated one. Historical documents reflect little activity on the part of women unless they were somehow involved in religion, but literature is full of well-rounded female characters. Cook and Herzman argue, 'the frequency with which women appear in such legal documents [charters and wills] suggests that women’s activities in feudal society were more complex and public than often imagined.' In the stories of King Arthur, Lancelot and other notable romances of the time there is a shift in the roles of women; some of them are moving out of the shadows and becoming important parts of the story. In the early part of the Medieval period women’s roles were that of a supporting cast, as the Middle Ages reached its high point women began expressing their opinions and a more active and equal role in society. Some literature presented the women who were becoming more active in a less than positive light seeing them as troublesome and not knowing their place; but over all there is a positive reaction in the romance of the period." 

Anita Kay O’Pry-Reynolds. "Men and Women as Represented in Medieval Literature and Society." Saber and Scroll. Vol. 2. Iss. 2. Art. 6. Spring 2013.

Simple historical fact and open-minded, scientific analysis often forces people to step out of their comfort zone and challenge things that they have long held to be true. Understandably, confronting the historical and social myths held as fundamental truth with actual truth is almost always met with great resistance. Actual, verifiable historical fact is attacked as bogus. Logic is replaced with emotion. And it is all done in the name of defending against the cognitive dissonance that results when fiction-held-as-fact is confronted with fact.

People were oppressed during the middle ages -- but people are oppressed now in our so-called post-modern enlightened society. People have not changed as much as they think. Weapons have changed, but the heart of man is as dark as it ever was. Those who want to make an authentic positive difference on modern society would do well to abandon the idea that our modern society is inherently better than all that went before it. That is liberating and opens the mind to great possibilities to which it was previously closed through insular, small-minded hubris.