Friday, August 27, 2004


I am currently working my way through Johan Huzinga’s 1924 work ‘The Waning of the Middle Ages,’ an analysis of life and thought in 14th and 15th century France and Holland. I’m not sure that I can agree fully with his assessment of the philosophical and religious thought of the time, but overall he is quite astute and his tight focus with respect to time and geography allows him to introduce entertaining vignettes and references that would escape the scope of a more broadly focused study.
We read, for example, about the quasi-liturgical instructions for Charles the Bold’s meal-times. His master of ceremonies even compiled a kind of cathechism:
Q. Who is to take the Chief-Cook’s place in case he is absent: the ‘spit-master’ or the ‘soup-master’?
A. Neither; the substitute will be designated by election,
Q. Why do the ‘panetiers’ and cup-bearers form the first ranks, above the carvers and the cooks?
A. Because they are in charge of bread and wine, to which the sanctity of the sacrament gives a holy character.

Another interesting snippet can be found in the chapter ‘Religious Thought Crystallizing into Images
Even in the case of a sublime mystic, like Henry Suso, the craving for hallowing every action of daily life verges in our eyes on the ridiculous. He is sublime when, following the usages of profane love, he celebrates New Year’s Day and May Day by offering a wreath and a song to his betrothed, Eternal Wisdom, or when, out of reverence for the Holy Virgin, he renders homage to all womankind and walks in the mud to let a beggar woman pass. But what are we to think of what follows? At table Suso eats three-quarters of an apple in the name of the Trinity and the remaining quarter in commemoration of ‘the love with which the heavenly Mother gave her tender child Jesus an apple to eat’; and for this reason he eats the last quarter with the paring, as little boys do not peel their apples. After Christmas he does not eat it, for then the infant Jesus was too young to eat apples. He drinks in five draughts because of the five wounds of the Lord, but as blood and water flowed from the side of Christ, he takes his last draught twice.

Huzinga also sheds some light on the attitudes of the less devout:
A startling piece of impudence is recorded of he father of the Frisian humanist Rudolph Agricola, who received the news that his concubine had given birth to a son on the very day when he was elected abbot. ‘Today I have twice become a father. God’s blessing on it!’ said he.

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