Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Church’

Jean Verdon: Le plaisir au Moyen Age

September 30, 2018

51zbteZ-JsL._AC_US218_I’ve read, enjoyed and found enormously informative this author’s book on travelling in the Middle Ages, and couldn’t resist this one, on pleasure. Verdon was immensely informative on the idea of courtly love, which I’d first encountered at A level when studying Chaucer, but what we were given as school students was a basic outline and some key concepts. To have it all clearly exemplified with extracts from a wide range of literature from the time was fascinating, and only partly because I’d always regarded courtly love as such a crazy idea…

Pleasure only makes slaves of those who consider it an end in itself…’ that I found really thought-provoking. In those times, everything was overlaid by a strongly religious outlook – not just sexual activity – and yet it’s clear that there were lively debates and disagreements on the subject, with clerics and ascetics taking a much harder line than those who actually lived in and engaged with the real world. Verdon explains the astonishing religious scruples and hair-splitting about the different kinds of sexual activity, and the sinfulness of pleasure: from a twenty-first century perspective, it’s quite mind-boggling. And yet, there seemed to be a general agreement that desire was necessary in nature…

I found myself wondering why what seemed to have changed most radically in religious attitudes towards human sexuality over the centuries was its acceptance of pleasure, whereas the Catholic Church is still wedded to the idea that all sexual acts must be open to procreation, thus creating the problems we are all familiar with, concerning contraception, abortion, homosexual activity, before we even come on to considering clerical celibacy: why is enjoying sex now OK whereas the other baggage is still retained?

I found Verdon’s further exploration of the influence of religious attitudes to food, fasting and other forms of asceticism just as mad as attitudes to sex; within the total religious weltanschauung, they make sense perhaps, but at the cost of such an astonishing warping of human life and experience. There was basically an ‘official’ downer on any kind of pleasure, enjoyment or fulfilment, with the clergy wanting to dictate to everyone how they should live. However, as Verdon also makes clear, there was fairly widespread scepticism and ignoring of official dictates.

It was useful to be reminded that the entire mediaeval mindset was shaped by Christianity – or rather, interpretations of Christianity over the centuries – and focused ultimately on the duty to love God and have the eternal rather than the secular in view at all times.. And while this may make little sense to us in these radically different times, I am often unsure that our current materialistic, money-focused and ultimately hedonistic approach is any saner or healthier an approach to life, happiness or contentment.

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Anne Brenon: Les Cathares

December 11, 2016

51pp-bkvpyl-_ac_us160_After my visit to Cathar country in September, I allowed myself some in-depth reading about this mediaeval Church, exterminated in the fourteenth century by Rome and its secular allies. Anne Brenon‘s book was just what I needed by way of further history, and more importantly, explanation of Cathar beliefs, theology and religious practice.

Much has been uncovered about the Cathars over the last fifty years or so, including ritual books, and much has been unravelled from the detailed records kept by the Inquisition: the church was much more widespread, longer-lasting and more deeply rooted in the south of France, northern Spain and northern Italy than had previously been known. It was a properly organised and run church, not secretive, hidden or lurking.

It was a very different church from the official Catholic Church of the times: it rejected violence, allowed equality between men and women, was against the taking of oaths, believed that its members were the church, rather than any buildings or property. Cathars denied the humanity of Christ – he was purely divine – and they held a dualist view of creation: God was only good, and the sinful world we lived in was the creation and work of the devil; we aspired to and could return to God’s world after death. But this was not a belief in two Gods; it did solve the problem about the origins of evil in the world, which traditional Catholics have always had problems explaining. However, it did do away with the notion of free will, too. And if there was hell, it was only the place of the devil and his crew: in many ways the Cathar picture of God was more human and more merciful than the traditional one.

It’s a fascinating slice of the past, of what could have been; it’s an indictment of the Catholic Church and its temporal obsessions, maybe an indication of the problems all religions face when they become widespread in their influence and following. Certainly George Orwell would have been proud of the job the Church did in disappearing history and evidence for the Cathars and their beliefs: everything into the memory-hole, books and people burnt alike.

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