Sunday, 15 November 2009

On 'Medieval Spirituality'

Apart from the occasional excitement about a new movie adaptation of Beowulf - each one less accurate and more cringeworthy than the last! - it's rare to find references to Anglo-Saxon literature anywhere in the mainstream media. As far as the world at large is concerned, Beowulf is the sum total of the poetry produced in these islands between the Roman occupation and the birth of Chaucer. This is sad but understandable - Anglo-Saxon poetry isn't easy - and probably something to be grateful for, when you consider how the media makes a mess of any academic subject it touches (this is why I turn off the Today programme at 8.55, before the 'turning complex subjects into nonsense' segment).

There is one exception to this news blackout of the medieval period, but you only tend to encounter it if you frequent certain Christian circles (both in the CofE and the Catholic Church). That is 'medieval spirituality'.

Now, this kind of 'medieval spirituality' includes the following:

- labyrinths
- Julian of Norwich (that is, 'Mother Julian')
- the Cloud of Unknowing, or bits of it, anyway
- 'Celtic' artwork (it's 'Celtic' even if it's based on Anglo-Saxon designs, because the Celts are more spiritual)

It does not include the following:

- medieval Biblical translation, Biblical poetry, or scriptural art of any kind
- monastic or religious life
- medieval devotion to the Eucharist and the sacrament of confession
- the role of the Church in the political, cultural and social life of the nation
- saints
- devotion to the Virgin Mary

It does not take more than five minutes' acquaintance with English medieval literature to realise that the second list is far more representative of the spirituality of the Middle Ages than the first. If anything from the second list is mentioned, that's 'medieval' in the bad sense - when 'medieval' is synonymous with 'fascist'.

There's nothing wrong with this popular conception of 'medieval spirituality', except that it's inaccurate; academics can't insist on inserting facts into other people's spiritual lives. If people like this kind of thing, that's fine. But it does lead to a limited and decidedly soft-left-friendly view of medieval religion.

This brings me to this morning's Sunday Worship programme on Radio 4. I am fond of this programme: it is sometimes sublime (last week's edition, which interviewed serving soldiers about their faith, was excellent) and always well-meaning. This morning fell into the 'well-meaning' category. It was a celebration of environmental theology, from a gathering of 'the Alliance of Religions and Conservation', so it included pieces of music and readings from numerous religious traditions.

One of these was from the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Dream of the Rood'. Now, whoever arranged the programme was obviously keen to present the various readings in some kind of appropriate cultural context. An Indian story was chanted, in the original language, to the background of drums; an Arabic story was read in Persian and English at the same time; Psalm 148 was sung in Hebrew.

'The Dream of the Rood' was sung, in a free modern English translation, in the manner of an African spiritual.

See the difference? I want to emphasise that I don't have a problem with this as an idea. It was sung well, and it's nice to hear anyone making use of 'The Dream of the Rood' in a creative way! But the treatment of this poem, as against the other texts used, was striking. The Indian, Arabic and Jewish texts were recognised as coming from distinctive cultural traditions which were preserved in the way they were performed. Anglo-Saxon England? Nowhere to be heard. The other texts were read in their original languages; not a word of the Old English poem was presented. I find it hard to believe that Old English is any more or less accessible to hear than Hebrew or Persian for the average listener.

Would it have killed them to find a vaguely medieval-sounding harp, or something?

I'm sure this bizarre act of cultural appropriation was not intentional. It's an example of our society's ignorance about medieval culture. The same ignorance is at the root of the 'medieval spirituality' industry, which cherry-picks acceptably vague bits and pieces of medieval religion (not the gory bits, just the bits where 'all will be well', and somehow there are hazelnuts involved), packages them up, and sells them on prayer-cards in the backs of churches. It's also a form of cultural cringe, which sees Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England as dark and primitive and not exotic enough. Even when you're using an Anglo-Saxon poem for your diverse and multicultural radio programme, it's not worth trying to convey a sense of Anglo-Saxon context for the words (which is very specific and important for the DOTR, as it happens). Medieval is not one of the cultures in 'multicultural'.

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