Archive | December, 2014


13 Dec

A Passage to India and the Question of Difference


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The turn of the twentieth century ushered in the ghost of an institution that if not deceased was certainly dying. The esteem of Anglo largesse and of global control was in its death throes and rather than succumbing to a quick and painless demise, Britain would endure until the last gasps of Rule Britannia had been wrung from its Hydra like necks. Britain was bereft, bankrupt and morally destitute, having outstayed its welcome in so many far flung outposts: occupied lands that were slowly becoming conscious of the fact that they could govern themselves and no longer required the heavy imprint of the British boot or the nursemaid of Imperialism. The sense of burgeoning modernity, and the twilight of Empire can be found in the work of modernists writers such as E.M. Forster who, although deprecating, had sufficient style to not speak overtly ill of the dead. His novel A Passage to India is reminiscent of a guest who having overstayed his invitation still elicits fond memories despite the knowledge that he’ll never be welcome again. Forster’s prose style, though not polemic, is representative of anti-colonialist sentiment. As such his novel, in the modernist style, contributes a pessimistic view with regard to nationalism and an awareness of the necessity for change: “a progressive attitude that advocates societal reconfiguration and a conscious recognition of the reevaluation of Western culture.” (Lackey.4) His subtle denunciation of preceding tradition and the recognition of “other” is what make him a modernist.

            Rudyard Kipling when countering antidisestablishmentarians argued that in order to guarantee the freedoms of collectives such as the Bloomsbury group (of which Forster was a member) it required an Empire with a strong international presence, to protect their artistic sensibilities. George Orwell likewise, although a little later, said that “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” This sort of empirical rhetoric is not lost on contemporary politicians either, who claim that in order to preserve democracy and personal freedom a degree of  autocracy is necessary: political jargon which insinuates that the innate rights to free thought and intellectual liberty  only exist thanks to the existence of an authoritarian body . The Bloomsbury group protected by those “rough men” didn’t agree and instead declared the tenets of their collective as anti-militaristic, anti-clerical and the Empire as anathema. Contrarily they celebrated the values of the aesthetic, friendship and personal pleasure. Forster himself verified these conclusions in a personal statement when he wrote, “should I have to choose between betraying my country or betraying my friends I hope that I should have the courage to betray my country.”  Although derogatory towards what Kipling declared as the “Chosen Race” – the Anglo Saxon – the attitudes of Forster and the other members of the collective was also a modernist one. The Bloomsbury’s saw Kipling “as a stalwart of the establishment [who used]… his aesthetic to communicate the mystical truths of an authoritarian political system.”(Lackey. 3) However, Forster outlines his own attitude to nineteenth century colonial influence and his disillusionment with the manufactured belief in the superiority of race and the inappropriate colonialist morality of Britain. The novel Passage to India embodies “the modernist shift away from authoritarianism and the rejection of other.”(Lackey. 13)

            “A Passage to India is the quintessential novel of modernism in its exaggeration of other;” (Lackey.12) the revelation that a brown skin and a warmer climate do not conclude social inferiority or the right of another culture to usurp and use the other for its own benefit as a matter of preordination.  The essence of the story “stages …“an attack on difference,” which makes it “that archetypal novel of modernity” (Moffat. 109). The authoritarianism of British empiricists was vested uneasily in the premise that the English were superior and that theirs was the white man’s burden with the divine obligation to elevate the other races. Given the dwindling prominence of the British Empire during the early part of the twentieth century when Forster wrote his novel, the prevailing attitude towards the colonies was one of racial segregation and moral superiority. This was hardly surprising given that the archaic class system of the British had been embraced with the recognition of the medieval estates of being and their associated feudalistic form of governance. What was known as class distinction in Britain had simply morphed into color segregation in India.

            “Forster’s primary achievement in the novel is the articulation of “an experience of alienation expressed in the impossibility of reconciliation”(Moffat. 112) This is a modernist trope that until the appearance of his novel had rarely been read and those subjected to colonialism had lacked a sympathetic voice. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Europeans on company business in Africa exploit both the indigenous population and the natural resources for corporate gain. Although we bear witness throughout the novel to the hostility and rank exploitation of the natives, there is an expectation of acquiescence by the protagonists given their myopic color-coded barbarism. The Africans are never given a voice and are simply faceless shadows that impede the progress of industrialization and hinder the rescue of the mysterious Kurtz by the novels central character Marlow. The brutalization that takes place between the colonizers and the Africans is matter of fact and is merely the accepted cost of doing business. The novels misdirected ending, with a guilt ridden colonizer returning the letters of his dead colleague to his fiancée, puts emphasis on the value of racial purity. Kurtz despite his own brutality is mourned by the book and never a second thought is given to those natives who suffered defending what was rightfully theirs. The conflict in the story is between Marlow and his employer and is never one of conscience, whilst the only humanist quality, yet another modernist identifier, is when Marlow switches his allegiance from the company to his fellow European Kurtz. Forster’s novel delves deeper than this and we are allowed to look in the segregated world of Empirical India and witness the duality of attitudes of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Although there is an obvious notion of cognitive dissonance on the part of both parties with regard to Anglo-Indian political class and caste, Forster has the esthetic sensibility to create real people with human emotions, rather than stock, colonial characters. Forster, unlike Conrad’s stereo-typical imagery of the African, gives India an identity, not just a geographical location.

            Forster’s Indians show emotion, human weakness, ambition, lust and even fear. The figure of Doctor Aziz embodies all of these attributions and rather than a two dimensional tin-cut figure, he is a very real person. Typically the oppressed colonial was stereotyped by color and accent with perhaps a flourish of raw emotion towards his colonial master. One is reminded of the novels of Rider Haggard and Jules Verne and their descriptions of the faithful man servant, or rather the human sacrifice that dies willingly to preserve the pre-conceived notion of British purity. Rather than the preservation of flesh it is the admiration for it that is constantly on the doctor’s mind and his futile pursuit of female relationships with local women and admiration for his white superiors. Aziz we know is a widower, a man who doted on a wife who died in childbirth whilst bearing him a son. Forster’s description of Aziz’s loss lends the character an empathy that evokes reader sympathy when the doctor eulogizes his dead wife, “A piece of brown cardboard and three children – that was all that was left of his wife. It was unbearable, “How unhappy I am…never shall I get over this.”(58) Instantly Forster changes Aziz from a character to that of a fully fleshed human being; an identifier that the Indian is no longer a shadow, but an entity made new according to the axiom of modernism expressed by the modernist Ezra Pound. The native is transformed and the reader can never again see him simply as a phantom. Forster is careful not to paint his character as a plaster saint and we soon learn that without his wife he has sought occasional solace with the whores in Delhi.  This discovery of the “man” is not the readers alone, but is also that of Mrs. Moore; an English woman who has come to India to visit her son, whom Aziz meets serendipitously at a mosque. Mrs. Moore surprised by the meeting converses with him in a way to which he is clearly unaccustomed. “I think you are newly arrived in India,” says Aziz, “…by the way you address me.”(19) Clearly Aziz finds it unusual to be spoken to by a white skinned woman as though he was an equal. Forster is attempting to break down the barriers of multiculturalism by engendering conversation between two supposedly inequitable races. The affinity for Aziz by Mrs. Moore is obvious and later Forster speaks through her as she addresses her extremely prejudicial son. “India is part of earth… and God has put us on earth in order to be pleasant to each other…to love our neighbors and to show it…he is omnipresent even here in India.”(53) The promotion of human relationships and the value of friendship are ripped straight from the Bloomsbury manifesto where the assumption of other is anathema to the collective.  Rather than one of Conrad’s savages Aziz is an educated, linguistically capable human being and barring his cultural difference would not have been out of place at the Chandrapore Club with the other professionals. Modernism reveals the human being and dismisses the pre conceived notion of cultural disparity.

            The interaction with Mrs. Moore at the ruined temple acknowledges a human side to India that 19th century Britain was unfamiliar with. The irony is that the disparagement of modernism for realism is erroneous, as through the advent of stylistic change a much more honest picture of the world is painted. Forster’s novel adds legitimacy to characterization and one could argue that instead of breaking with realist tradition he was in fact improving the genre.

            Outside of the club where the British meet to drink, where Mrs. Moore is embarrassed by the fact Aziz is not allowed to enter, exists a generic landscape that contains a single stereotype. The Aryan brothers are discernable by their dress and mannerisms and not by their individual personalities and exist purely for the viewing pleasure, in their various categories as though they were animals in a zoo, of the newly arrived ladies. The real India it would seem is available but by invitation only. Mrs. Turton reminds Mrs.  Moore that she is, “… superior to them in every way” and, “not to forget it!” (42) This is the essence of other that Forester wants to expose, that empire does nothing to distinguish humanity but rather strips it of all value by turning the Indians into a designated population. The only “worthwhile” community that is given any attention by Forster is that of the administrators; not that of the locals who simply survive on its fringes. Even so Forster’s view of their community is not idealized and we learn how stiff and regimented their lives are within its endemic hierarchy. The administrators eke out their hum-drum existence waiting for pensions and promotions and acting in ways they accuse the Indians of, when taking bribes and aggrandizing  themselves. In effect the empire begins and ends at the doors of the Sahibs. Forster doesn’t portray a Utopian view of British Indian but tells it how it is. A hot, sweaty, sycophantic existence where Britains thrive only by following strict rules and where the Indians, despite their supposed colonization, have more freedom than their European masters. He destroys the myth of the Raj and simply equates it to a pseudo England basking in forty degrees Celsius with only a modicum of tolerated power. The Indians recognized this and Forster enlightens us with what our contemporary culture ineptly terms reverse racism. Aziz and his friends discuss whether or not it is possible to be friends with an Englishman, use racial slurs to deprecate their white skins and revel in the fact that they are misunderstood. “All Englishman,” says Aziz, “are exactly the same, and all English women are haughty and venal.”(27) Paradoxically the Indians are suddenly a reflection of the British themselves and so the misconception of racial segregation is obliterated as Forster weighs both cultures and find them equally wanting. Once again there is an explication that no other exists as attitudes are pervasive and human hypocrisy extends beyond the boundaries of both language and international demarcation. Through the dialectic of the over determination principle both societies are created by contradictions and so exist in relationship to one another in a cultural imbalance of cause and effect.

            In spite of the contemporary, colonial attitudes foisted upon her, Mrs. Moore wishes to explore the unfamiliar; she wishes to discover the true India. Upon leaving the club and entering the decrepit mosque, alone and unescorted, Forster describes that just as Aziz is awed by the site of the river and the brightness of the night sky, so is she. The unfamiliar is once again personified as other and gives reverence once again to Pounds adage of making it new; of walking away from the staid predictability of 19th century realism into the modernist world of the early twentieth century. Perhaps Forster casts Mrs. Moore as the epitome of modernism as she strives to learn more of the unexplored and dares to go beyond the unthinkable. Taking off her shoes she treads fresh footsteps into the dust of the ancient masonry and in doing so denounces the validity of preceding literature and aesthetic traditions; a rejection of the romantic and of Victorian realism. Mrs. Moore is in a space she shouldn’t occupy, in a country she should be in, with a man she shouldn’t be with. There is no sense of the colonizer or the colonized and they converse on terms which exist outside of the moment. This meeting, not unlike the strange unexplained occurrences at the Marabar caves later in the novel is an example of parataxis; a moment which disrupts and fragments conventional sequencing. Rather than the metaphysical it is the social order which is distorted into the unheimlich: the juxtaposition according to Freud between the familiar and the unfamiliar: East meets West and the universe does not come to a crashing end. The fact that a friendship is kindled between the two is implicit criticism of the colonialist attitude towards the Indians that views them as subhuman. “To understand India is to understand the rationale of the whole of creation; but the characters do not understand it, and Forster’s plot makes us ask…whether human faculties are capable of such an understanding at all.” (Christensen. 144) 

            Doctor Aziz is a living representation of India and is a mix of emotions that represents the diversity of the vast land mass that constitutes the continent. A learned man and yet he is subject to flights of emotion, irrationality and childlike naivety. Forster frequently alludes to the real India and yet given that the doctor is an Indian, one would find oneself hard pressed to discover exactly what that is. Instead of an explication of the continent Forster is perhaps suggesting that India and its citizens can’t be tarred with the same brush and that rather than a shade on a map, India is a vibrant country filled with diverse humanity. Once again Forster juxtaposes Conrad’s notion of none human entities when we read in the Heart of Darkness how, “Two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees… his brother phantom rested its forehead… [whilst] all about others were scattered in every pose… as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.” (127) Conrad dehumanizes those of whom he writes and the men of mud, hidden in the bushes, are simply hues of the jungle which camouflages them. Forster on the other hands paints his characters in vibrant colors and allows them to walk out of the shadow of empire and into their own legitimate space. “Great as the problem of India is, Forster’s book is not about India alone; it is about all of human life” (Christensen.161)

            From the very beginning of the novel we are bombarded with comings and goings of marriages and potential marriages and all the other ephemera of quotidian life. Aziz and his comrades sit at home smoking, eating and playing cards whilst discussing their day. It is the minutia of life  to which Forster eludes; the blandness of the food, the too tightly packed tobacco the impromptu leaving and returning of dinner guests, the arrival of a messenger and the perception of the British from the Indian perspective. Forster is attempting to dismiss the differences between the two by juxtaposing the Indian meal as though they were an ordinary British household. “We are drawn into the Moslem culture of Chandrapore, and despite its characteristic details, it seems no more exotic or alien than, say, the situations of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice.” (Christensen.156) Forster holds up a mirror and in it we see ourselves. The modernist trope of dismissing other and recognizing similarities rather than differences in an attempt at unification is the underlying message of the novel. Congruent with Bloomsbury modernist ideology Forster espouses the benefits of friendship and dismisses the cultural constructs of nationhood and geographical boundaries.




Christensen, Timothy. Bearing the White Man’s Burden and Cultural Differences in E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India. Duke University Press. A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 2, Postcolonial Disjunctions (Spring, 2006), pp. 155-178. Print.


Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. New York, Brace and Co. 1952. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. NY, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988. Print.

Lackey, Michael. E.M.Forster’s Lecture “Kipling’s Poems.” Negotiating the modernist shift. Indiana University Press. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 30, No 3 (Spring 2007) pp.1-11. Print.


 Moffat, Wendy. A Passage to India and the Limits of Certainty. The Journal of Narrative Techniques, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Fall, 1990), pp. 331-341. Print


10 Dec

Mother Courage and the Theatre of the Absurd


            In America in 1947 at the end of the Second World War, a committee was formed for the investigation into un-American activities. It was claimed that America and in particular the Hollywood movie industry, had been infiltrated by Communist sympathizers and with the fear of the spread of the Soviet idealism many celebrities where put on trial for their professional lives. One such figure who was interviewed by the committee was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was a Bavarian and an immigrant playwright who’d fled the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Ironically he’d been persecuted in Europe for anti-fascist incitement which had led to his exile in Denmark, only later to be pursued in America for alleged Soviet affiliations.

             Neither a Communist nor a Fascist, Brecht was an absurdist; a playwright who’d invented a new genre of theater that did not follow the Aristotelean model as proscribed in the Poetics. (White. 6)  Subjected to the illogical scrutiny of ideological purity he eventually left America and settled in Berlin in the former D.D.R. where he continued to pursue his craft. Although subscribing to Marxist ideology he never joined the Communist party however, did declare his support for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. (7) Brecht in his politics as in his writing was himself absurd to the point of contradiction; a man who curiously welcomed the Socialist Ideal and the cache of the Workers’ Paradise whilst being personally sustained by the West thanks to the remunerations of his many plays. A man who claimed not to be a Communist and yet who willingly lived behind the Iron Curtain.

             The Theatre of the Absurd which is widely attributed to the modernist period was the progeny of Brecht and was much emulated during and after his lifetime.  Bertolt Brecht’s, “play style followed plots that were cyclical or absurdly expansive… [and consequently]either a parody or dismissive of realism… [as well as] the concept of the well-made play.” (White. 16)

            Mother Courage probably the most famous of Brecht’s plays is a depiction of a family struggling to survive the Thirty Years War (a conflict which initially pitted Catholics against Protestants during the seventeenth century; 1618-1648) Although historically relevant it is easy to understand how contemporary theatre has portrayed his work as analogous to the influx of Communism in Eastern Europe and the conflict of political conscience. Originally written to warn of the rise of fascism in Germany during the thirties, it has seen myriad performances globally to great acclaim. The play is said by some to be the greatest play of the twentieth century and also the greatest antiwar play of all time. Labeled as epic-theatre it includes all the absurdist’s devices that Brecht has become synonymous with. The play includes bright, garish white lighting rather than the subdued lighting contemporary audiences have become accustomed to, minimalist stage props to indicate location, live stage direction during the performance and hand held placards to insure that the audience is aware of the falling action. Mother Courage is an austere, scaffold of a play that operates in full view of the audience and juxtaposes the traditionally polished performances modern audiences have come to expect. Nothing is hidden from the audience and even the costume changes are performed on stage. Brecht was intent upon total immersion theatre where the audience was conscious the whole time that the play wasn’t just a work of entertainment or an exposition of art but a necessary, visceral interaction between the performers and the audience in order to evoke a reaction. By adding a nontraditional dimensionality to the performance Brecht expected that the audience would identify with the actors and not just their characters. Brecht wanted his audience to experience his plays rather than just observe them. By witnessing the construction of the play as well as the performance each participant i.e. member of the audience, would take away an individual experience of that which they’d seen. By purposeful construction Brecht created a very private performance in a very public space, where no two plays were exactly the same and where each performance allowed the audience to experience something fresh. This is not dissimilar to the sixteenth century street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte where, although the audience was familiar with the stock characters and their representative personality traits, each was a separate and distinct performance. This ensured that the characters and the production had longevity and the story remained vital and financially viable. Brecht borrowed heavily from a genre famous for sketch and improvisation; something he achieved with great success in the subsequent themes of his own productions.

            Mother Courage and her three children are tinkers who harness themselves to their own wagon and who drag it from battlefield to battlefield. Their poverty is abject and their only source of income is the chandlery they sell to the Protestant soldiers of the Thirty Years War. Conflict rages on all fronts and the corpses of the dead, whose only value in death is the clothing and equipment they still wear, are innumerable. Courage and her family strip the dead in order to resell it so that they, by means of war profiteering at its most meagre, may survive: albeit from hand to mouth.

            During a lull in the fighting Courage happens upon two recruiters who, looking for fresh cannon fodder to replace those already killed distract her with an offer of money in order to trick her youngest son Eilif – an anagram for life – into joining the Protestant Army. Unable to prevent what will almost certainly be the death of her son she prophetically lists the fates of all her three children. Eilif will die for his courage, her second son Swiss Cheese for his honesty and her daughter Kattrin for her kindness. The progress of the play, despite the obvious qualities that her children possess, will prove the validity of her predictions.

             The play advances by several years, as it does in each subsequent act, to another battlefield where in the pursuit of her livelihood she comes across her brave soldier son Eilif who is now a decorated hero. Reunited with her son Courage ponders the soldierly virtue of bravery and realizes that if commanders need brave men then trouble is surely on the wind. A minor character chatters about the righteousness of the campaign and how if their leaders hadn’t been ordained by a Protestant God to destroy the Catholics they would surely be accused of war profiteering. This is ironic in that everybody in the microcosm of the world of the camp followers is doing exactly that. Eilif is eventually caught by the Catholics doing that for which he has been decorated by his own side and is executed for his “courageous” deeds. Seen as an enemy by the Catholics and not as a hero, Brecht presents the paradox of one man’s freedom fighter being another man’s terrorist. Eilif is hanged in chains for his part in the war. Likewise his brother Swiss Cheese, also a member of the Protestant Army, is caught and executed whilst trying to protect the regiment’s payroll. In an act of honesty, as predicted by his mother, he too is hanged.

            Berieved of both her boys, Mother Courage finds herself alone with just her daughter in a burned out village where the wounded from the latest battle lay dying on the ground. In need of rags to stem their bleeding a commander begs Courage for some of her shirts to rip into rags to turn into bandages. Courage refuses saying that she will not part with her officers’ shirts, her most valuable merchandise, unless it is for money. Courage understands the suffering of the wounded and despite having lost her own children persists in the absurdity of survival that the shirts represent to her. Without the sale of the shirts she herself will die of starvation; an obvious paradox of who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

             In the midst of the carnage of war Courage finds love however, in order to be with a man who will save her from herself and the war, she must abandon her daughter Kattrin her only surviving child. Once again Courage is faced with the agony of decision and ultimately chooses to relinquish her love and remain with her daughter: an act of self-sacrifice in a world where nobody notices and nobody cares.

             The play ends several years after it has begun. Overrun by the Catholics whilst Courage goes to town for supplies, her daughter is witness to the advancing enemy. Climbing onto the tinker’s wagon, Kattrin sounds out a drum to warn the locals of imminent danger and for her kindness and bravery is shot and killed. Mother Courage returns to the wagon and the corpse of her dead daughter. Instead of burying the girl herself, she uses that which is most important to her and pays the local villages to do the job instead. With nobody left in the world, her children dead and her love lost, the only thing that survives is her diabolical occupation. Strapping herself into the harness of the wagon as though she were a horse, she moves forward to join up with the advancing Protestant Army. Her final words which strike deep into any audience with revulsion for war and an awareness of social subjugation are, “I must return to business.”  This is particularly pertinent and representative of indifferently turning the other cheek whilst living under intolerable, irrevocable strain. Brecht may have lived in East Germany but his message is very astute to anybody paying the least attention.

                        According to Blau, “Brecht is a polemicist… and his dialectic approach is rhetoric.”(4) This is conceivable when one considers that Brecht was the founder of the theatrical epic (Mother Courage is a performance that endures for a full three hours) and the avant-garde of modernist twentieth century political theatre. His play Mother Courage relates the story of those who participate in war, not for patriotic or selfless reasons, but for financial gain; those who paradoxically make their living from the carnage of which they themselves are victims. The symbolism is that of an ordinary woman trying to survive in an impossible situation. In order to preserve the lives of her children she must ultimately sacrifice them all to feed the war machine that sustains her own life. Rather than the epitome of conflict and courage she represents human absurdity. Brecht’s play is therefore, a polemic on war and an exposition of the tragedy of the human condition.

            Mother Courage has unusual facility in that it can be recast to suit any number of political topics. In the past the play has been used to highlight climate change, racial segregation, geo-politics and in particular anti-Soviet rhetoric. The story is a survival story that portrays the protagonist as a besieged, embattled figure. This of course can be representative of almost any conflict and accounts for both the longevity and brilliance of Brecht’s play writing. It is the method by which he portrays his subject that is the most enduring; a theatrical framework that espouses no particular ideology but which unapologetically renounces the subjugation of human freedoms.

             Mother Courage although first appearing in the first half of the twentieth Century is as relevant today as it was in 1939. Given Brecht’s own persecution at the hands of the Un-American committee in 1947, the play has come to be seen as a prophetic piece of writing similar to the dystopian novel 1984, that was published just a couple of years later in 1949 by George Orwell. Just like Orwell, Brecht realized the necessity of highlighting the dangers of totalitarianism and the ineffectuality of the individual when faced by the crushing power of overt political will. Whether an envisaged dystopia, or protracted warfare created by unseen forces in order to realize political goals beneficial to the few at the expense of the many, Brecht created an “every woman” in Mother just as Orwell created an “everyman” in Winston Smith. In Brecht’s own words, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” (White. 17) This reflects Orwell’s own treatise of, “War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is truth.”(Rodden. 5)

             Brecht despite his socialist leanings realized that no matter the quotidian politic, whether it was Capitalist or Communist, the dangers to civil liberties where very real and that everything should be done to preserve those hard won freedoms and the sanctity of human life. It is this kind of theatrical discourse that makes Brecht such a political chameleon and could possibly explain his ability to live in affability whether in the West or behind the Iron Curtain. Although espousing socialist tendency it was the rights of man which were truly at the heart of his political genius rather than ideological dogma.

Works Cited.

Blau, Herbert. Mother Courage: The Rite of War and the Rhythm of Epic. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 1-10. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and her Children. Arcade Publishing. New York. 1994. Print

Rodden, John. George Orwell: the politics of literary reputation. New Brunswick,N.J. Transactions Publishers. 2002. Print.


White, John J. Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic theory. Camden House. Rochester, N.Y. 2004. Print.



9 Dec

Medieval Morality Inversion


             Nothing is more mercurial than a liberal society and the attitudes and morals of those citizens who live within it. What’s acceptable today is unacceptable tomorrow, the waxing and waning of human values seemingly as ephemeral as the moon. That being said, the sins as described by Evagrius, have not always been regarded, even during the medieval period, with the same, strict uniformity or enjoyed the same level of adherence. In fact, contemporary society would no doubt disagree with his compilation upon principal and unashamedly cite political correctness as its raison d’etre. Consequently the measure with which we weigh the sins can be reduced to their quotidian import with regard to what is expedient, how they affect society and will their abuses be tolerated? One only has to observe the imperialistic ambitions of American geo-political maneuverings in the Middle East, in what are clearly self-aggrandizing nation building endeavors, to understand this.

            The taxonomy of the sins as originally proposed by Evagrius and proliferated by Cassian were in essence, not just a tool to bring the supplicant closer to God, but to engender a lifestyle that would be convivial to all. A fail safe control mechanism that would draw the boundaries of societal acceptance, coerce appropriate behavior and allow trespassers of etiquette to be duly punished. The idea was simple enough, but actually adhering to them as the centuries have revealed, has been fraught with difficulties and excess. This is not a modern issue by any notion and one can trace the paradox of doing wrong in order to do right throughout the annals of history. This becomes clear when one probes the original meaning of some of the sins and explores how they mutated through time. The changing attitudes towards sin, especially Avarice and Wrath, are particularly conspicuous during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Black Death which swept through Europe during the fourteenth century. By examining these deadly sins and their subsequent metamorphosis from their original intent it is possible to analyze the degree to which their meanings have changed, even to the point where instead of being considered sinful some of the tenets are now considered virtues. 

            The Seven Deadly Sins were instrumental in the medieval period to illustrate the dangers of human frailty. Not only where they a guide to life but also a means of control by which the Roman Church could exercise its power and ensure the subservience of its congregations. The priests, through the ever present threat of sinning, could literally damn a man into hell or praise him into heaven. The Church-centric world of the medieval period was the norm and church going an expectation and therefore, there would have been a familiarity by both the clergy and the lay population with the taxonomy. Imagery of the Seven Deadly Sins would have been emblazoned in the painted murals of the religious buildings they attended or they would have been a gentle reminder on the cleric’s lips as to their relevance to daily life. The sins were taught in a simplified, easy to understand format (given the dearth of literacy during the period) to the people either visually or preached from the pulpit. Despite their lack of formal education the message was abundantly clear and congregations were put in mortal fear of their souls. The Seven Deadly Sins were beyond reproach and an empirical devise with which a man could recognize his own failings and in doing so attempt to correct his human weaknesses by treading the path of the righteous. Although this was true of the period, it would appear that there was also ample wriggle-room.

            Life in medieval times was seen as an interim to heavenly reward, the afterlife being far more important than the temporal sufferings of the great unwashed. Therefore, in order to ensure one’s place on the path of righteousness, one had to abide by clerical law and pray fervently in the hope of divine intervention or suffer eternal damnation. Needless to say the system was based upon human frailty and inevitably therefore, doomed to failure. In a society that was established on the estates of being and where feudalism was the accepted hierarchy, the differences between those who had and those who had not must have been abyssal. Little wonder then that the boundaries of sin where blurred to account for these differences and manipulated according to the crisis of the moment. The fourteenth century witnessed everything from abundance to plague and starvation to war as well as religious and political upheaval. Not so different from the great state of being that shapes our own modern twenty-first century lives.

            Ownership of property and land was based ultimately on position and therefore on God’s grace. If God had deigned that one was to fulfill one’s mortal role in a particular category of the estates then one should of course accept one’s lot in life and make of it what one could. This gift from God it would appear was not enough and often those with temporal position felt that despite being divinely rewarded it was their duty in life to acquire as much as they possibly could during their lifetime. The sin of Greed being a venial sin could easily be dismissed, as power and position trumped any notion that the holding and acquisition of wealth was bad. So long as one was contrite in prayer and contributed to the Church and gave alms for the poor then the pursuit of earthly delight was reasonable if not forgivable. According to Goddard, “Research on late medieval and rural economic social history reveals that the privilege of land and money was without doubt controlled by the manorial Lords” (89) Huge tracts of land in England known as the wastes, which then constituted much of the barren moorland to be found throughout the British Isles, were jealously possessed by its then owners. Rather than wasteland, manorial lords saw the means for profit in a land which until the Norman Conquest had been in the hands of the commoners. The waste lands were part of the common heritage and were used to graze animals and to supply sundry basics such as wood. That was of course until greed reared its ugly head and the inevitable realization by the already wealthy of the immense profits to be made from them. There are countless accounts of commoners being prosecuted for using the lands without permission or utilizing the raw materials found upon it. The quarrying of material to manufacture mills stones, despite the economic boon they would provide to the local community and the tithes paid by the miller to the incumbent Lord, was punishable by death in the county of Devon. “All the furzes, heath moors, marshes, commons, ways and waste grounds,” (33) land which had been communal, now constituted pure profit to those granted tenancy by the crown. This acrimonious business was not confined between the lords and the peasants but also between the king and his barons: the question of greed eventually coming to a head at Runnymede in 1215. King John, writes McKechnie, God’s representative on earth and answerable to none other than the almighty, was malicious in both reign and taxation. (12) “ Renowned for his jealousies, wrath and avarice, he was eventually forced by those able to wield a sword against his dictatorship to sign the Magna Carta diminishing some of the powers of the crown and forever setting in motion the rights of free men.” (3) Greed and acquisition of wealth by any means was, in the opinion of the crown, a God given right despite the tenets of the Seven Deadly Sins. The king’s attitude towards them was not dissimilar to the manorial lords who regarded their gargantuan estates as theirs alone. Clearly the idea of sinning was arbitrary when it came to collecting what was “rightfully” one’s due, no matter the consequence to those affected. The acquisition of land by the crown by usurpation wasn’t halted, writes Goddard, until 1359 under the council of the Black Prince who “ensured that land given could not be retaken through right of writ.”(33) No matter the pedantic nature of the King the tenant Lords could be sure that unless forfeited by an act of treason, the land would be theirs in perpetuity. Not so the experience of the serf who had no rights under English law and therefore remained subject to the whims of the manorial lords. Clearly the distinction between sin and sinning was based on ones proximity to those “of the manor born,” and therefore the ability to eke out a life at the expense of the lord’s profits was clearly not recommended if one wanted to enjoy a full and rewarding life. Despite the veniality of the lordship’s sin and the opportunity for the serf to enjoy the eventual treasures of heaven, this would have been poor reward after suffering prosecution and even death at the hands of a land grabbing tyrant. Clearly God was on the side of the rich and the sin of greed merely a question of semantics providing that manorial justice and not heavenly truth was being applied.

            Just as with any paradoxical situation the observance of the Seven Deadly Sins lends itself to interpretation and therefore their relevance is a product of contemporary attitudes. The accidental execution of venial sins and the misappropriation of vice instead of virtue is fundamentally a narrow path to walk and one which even we, living in a supposed modern progressive society, have difficulty in avoiding. Although in retrospect we clearly see the misappropriations of the common land as theft and the punishment of the serfs as unjust, this would have been viewed quite differently by those guilty of the exploitation.  Although one could suggest, in mitigating the gross injustices visited upon the poor, that they were simply the victims of moral hypocrisy. That is to suggest that despite the manorial lords best intent to preserve what was rightly theirs, or the King his, there would still exist a conscious awareness that one was doing wrong even when acting within the law or through the supposed grace of God. This hypocrisy is apparent in the actions of the barons towards their King who held him accountable for what they themselves were committing on their own lands and to their own people. Clearly sin, at least in this instance, was in the eyes of the beholder – the peasants – rather than the perpetrators. Many of the virtues themselves could be perceived as sins and therefore digression from the higher and narrow path to Truth is understandable thanks to their ambiguity and therefore perhaps excusable under the auspices of medieval canonical law. In Prudentius’ Psychomachia he describes a battle between the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. All individual combat is easily won by the Virtues except in the instance of one. Avarice initially takes the upper hand when his character is mistaken for Frugality rather than Avarice. It is only when the vice is discovered to be appropriating the virtue that Avarice can be defeated.

            The idea that man is beyond helping himself despite the taxonomy of the Sins is never clearer than in Langland’s parable told by the Friars when confronted by the dreamer in Piers Ploughman. When seeking the home of Do-Well the dreamer questions the notion of virtue when, “…even as the Bible says, even the just man falls into sin seven times a day.”(82) The Friars concede that mankind is afloat on an ocean that tosses and turns and though the dreamer may fall and flounder, as long as he stays within the boat, he will be saved.(83) The boat of course is an allusion to the Church and the sea, the troubles and vices of the world. Consequently admit the Friars, even the most conscientious person succumbs to sin. Newhauser writes that it only through the painstaking analysis of sin that there can be any possible recognition of guilt.(5) “Theologians were aware of the ambiguity,”(5) and despite their attempts to resolve it, moral hypocrisy remained, as Langland observes, a very real medieval concept.

            The relevance of ambiguity with regards to sinning is founded during the medieval period in political and social upheaval and the necessitating of centralized policy. Emphasis and even mutability can be found in the medieval texts and one perceives that although retribution is set in stone, the hell fire to be endured wasn’t always as hot as the priests declared. This isn’t untrue of religion itself which, insidious in nature, tends to adopt that with which a society is familiar with and usurps it for its own ends. Evidence can be found of local saints being beatified into the Catholic pantheon and even traditions and customs being adopted on a regional basis in order to make the “new” religion more appealing. Just as local customs became Christian doctrine so too the Deadly Sins were applied with an uneven hand. The perception that sin is mutable is not a recent one and is an idea that is recurrent throughout history. One often hears of Victorian values and yet we know that they were not the same as either those of the Georgians or the Edwardians. Sin is culturally relevant and therefore, is based on the period in which it is experienced or dependent upon a quotidian political climate. Often in contemporary culture, in order to accomplish certain goals, pride and greed are interchangeable as well as absolutely necessary.  Norman Cantor writes, “Through economic necessity or, as in the context of extraordinary situations such as the plagues of the fourteenth century, people are often empowered to take advantage of that which ordinarily would be beyond their scope. (12) In his book, In the Wake of the Plague, he explores the devastating effect the epidemic had on Europe and what affect the near extinction of the entire population had on the socio-political and religious way of life, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards the Seven Deadly Sins. The upheaval of contemporary living and the ensuing social chaos it created meant that nothing, as he describes, would ever be the same again; including the values of those who survived. Suddenly the boot was on the other foot and those who previously had little or no power found themselves in positions of influence. Labor was suddenly valued, food was at an optimum and the fact that the plague could kill a king as easily as it could kill a peasant leant itself to a new psychological paradigm. The serf suddenly had an opportunity to exact some kind of retribution and enact those lessons which they’d been taught so painfully well.

            The great plagues that wiped out more than a third of the population after sweeping through Europe helped to assimilate the dilemma of sin. When work was plentiful peasants were more than happy to accept a reduced wage; however, due to the untimely death of the working population the power of the medieval proletariat, as opposed to the power of the medieval bourgeoisie, became the standard.(28) Workers fomenting their new found status and their own inherent appreciation of avarice could now withhold their labor and demand higher wages, much to the chagrin of the lords who’d regularly, thanks to their own tenuous relationship with avarice, abused and underpaid them. The lack of available labor was so prolific thanks to the horrific death toll extorted by the plagues that records reveal children, women and prisoners were set to work alongside the men in order to curtail the shortage of willing hands. The rise of avarice and even the recognition by women of their previously unattributed value, thanks to the economic prosperity generated by global catastrophe, changed by definition the sex of the working class and consequently a woman’s economic value. (29) This was something that had been unthinkable, writes Goddard,  prior to the pestilence, as evidenced by the diverse labor force used to complete “Royal Works” of the post-plague period (233) The plague didn’t only bring death and disease but also moral enlightenment. Thanks to the economic pressures and demographic inequality the accepted attitudes toward sin were suddenly liable to revision. A man who had been happy with his lot was now capable of doubling his earnings and even of owning land. The pressure of labor was such that some peasants ultimately became wealthy land owners themselves (yeomen) and challenged the natural order of things. (65) Just as wealthy industrialists in the nineteenth century had challenged the birth right of the gentry, money was the new key to influence. It was money rather than blood that was asserting political and social change on what had, up until the period, been accepted as self-evident and God ordained. Men weren’t just greedy for wealth, but for position and power as well.

            Avarice and pride weren’t the only acceptable faces of revisionary sin and in a post plague period gluttony also had its part to play. Diet was a matter of class and meat was primarily, especially the likes of game, consumed by the gentry. The serfs existed on a diet of cereal and occasional dairy but were forced to farm live stock for those who ate it. The problem with livestock farming was that it was inefficient, as the animals had to graze on land which could otherwise be used for cereal. Further, the animals had to be fed from the harvest that was supposed to feed the serfs. Despite the inconstancy of harvests due to the unusually wet summers of the period the meat dishes were still required by the gentry. Rather than acquiescing to Mother Nature and accepting to share the burden of meager harvests, the gentry insisted that the forfeiture of food and consequently the malnutrition and death that followed was borne by the serfs. Once again sin was obfuscated by rank, the restrictions of piety not pertaining to all estates. Newhauser relates the story of Augustine and the “rich and aristocratic Proba” who finding herself living in grandiose circumstances and unbelievable opulence garnered by what is related as “great cruelties” questioned whether she was succumbing to the sin of Avarice. Augustine responded that “so long as she lived in abundance but distanced herself from the “riches of the heart she did not have to reject the superfluously of her surroundings.”(6) Newhauser describes how the clergy of the day had difficulty in defining sufficiency and that the Church, given the acquisition of fantastic riches over the ensuing centuries, not unlike Proba, must have been asking themselves the same question? Similarly the survivors of the plague found themselves enjoying a disproportionate advantage as well as abundance and so it is hard to moralize on their greed and avarice considering the conspicuous wealth of the estates to whom they were subject. Therefore to strip off the mask of Avarice as in Prudentius Psychomachia would be to expose the post-plague acceptability of new found affluence as a possible sin. Fortunately for the sinners they didn’t have to wait for God’s wrath but instead could look forward to extra taxation and judicial decree by a King who needed their wealth more than they did. King Richard, writes Dean, installed legislation that limited the wages of the workers as well as imposing recurring poll taxes that would force the peasants to exchange their sin of avarice to that of wrath. (119)  

            Warfare, a constant drain on financial resources, was rife during the period. If it wasn’t the French, then it was the Scottish or the Irish: bloody murder decreed by imperial expansion and the divinely ordained birthright of being English. Although God was apparently on England’s side at Crecy and Poitiers under the generalship of Edward III, the warlike activities of the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was not seen in the same religious light. Their willingness to burn, murder and pillage cast the peasants as outlaws, despite the fact that once again it was the circumvention of the sins that had caused their grievances. Avarice, however, came at a price and those who survived the Black Death didn’t have it all their own way for long. The ensuing power struggle between the factions of the “estates” as they tried to hold onto what they’d gained thanks to the ravages of the plague, with those who’d previously been manorial lords. Sinning or rather hypocrisy had once again become necessary and this time by the hand of King Richard. If he was to fill his coffers, wage war and enrich both himself and his followers then the money had to come from somewhere. Naturally the burden fell to the poor who, with little or no means, were required to staunch a crumbling monarchy. Notwithstanding his years the King took it upon himself to ignore any religious instruction he’d ever received and instead, do what he felt was “best” for the country. The negation of the sins, for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, hopefully struck him as ironic when surrounded by the angry mob at Smithfield.

            John Ball one of the leaders of the rebellion understood that in times of struggle it was men who would stand and fight who were required, not those who would quibble and quake. In order to supplant the idea of rebellion in the minds of God fearing citizens it was necessary for him to equivocate with the sins and, rather than perpetrate them, he bent them to his will and in so doing turned vice to virtue. Ball would have been aware of the ambiguity of sin just as, according to Newhauser,(5) Pope Gregory had been. Gregory noted that prodigality, avarice and inconstancy could all be juxtaposed with mercy, parsimony and flexibility (10) and likewise, Ball understood that the vice of wrath was the antithetical virtue of valor and justice. He proposed in a letter, writes Dean, that it was necessary “to stand manly together to help truth, in order that truth will help them.”(136) In short they were tired of paying taxes for foreign wars, of bearing witness to the nobles enriching themselves in spite of the peasantry and seeing their only asset, their labor, financially restricted. John Ball and his followers wished to instill the revolutionary idea that a man should be paid an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labor; a principle that socialists throughout the twentieth century have fought and died to uphold. Thinking only to lose his chains and not his head by uniting the workers of medieval England he lists the Seven Deadly Sins in his letter and appropriates each to the royal aberration of power. In his list of seven he actually only names six. The seventh, wrath, he saved as the virtue he hoped to inspire in his followers in order to carry the day. Unluckily for John Ball the rebellion failed and the wrath he hoped to serve on the king was revisited disproportionately upon him with capital justice and royal revenge.

            Having analyzed The Seven Deadly Sins and Evagrius’ original intent to create a platform from which one could lead a principled and God-fearing life, it is possible to perceive the morality shift that has been their constant companion. The hypocrisy of which Gregory the Great wrote in defining the virtues that closely resembled the Sins was not only a medieval conundrum but also a contemporary paradox with quotidian relevance. Many of the tenets of medieval vice, just as they were then, are now seen as modern virtues.  Despite the dichotomy of immoral war we honor our warriors, applaud our self-aggrandizing governments and continue to vote for those charlatans we think will do us the most good in order to selfishly improve our own social and financial standing. Capitalism by default demands this and so we endeavor to better our international neighbors whilst scaling the dizzying heights of corporate ladders.  Brimming with self-righteousness and driven by self-obsession, we ignorantly shun those with diverse beliefs, avoid those with alien ethnicity and minimal wealth and enact just laws to ensure that the tired, poor and impoverished masses don’t sully our neighborhoods and impact our property values whilst infringing upon housing association regulations. In short, as with all compartmentalized human society, there is more than a tang of hypocrisy wrapped in faux piety and the outward sheen of virtuosity camouflages those characteristics we would rather not display. The perversion of the original taxonomy of the Sins is clearly not a modern dilemma by any notion and one can trace the ambiguity of committing sin in order to appear virtuous throughout the annals of history.




Cantor. Norman F. University Press. In the Wake of the Plague.  NY. 2001. Print.

Dean, James M. Medieval English Political Writings. Medieval Institute. Michigan. 1996. Print.

Goddard. Langdon.Muller .Survival and Discord in Medieval Society. Brepols Publishers N.v.

Turnhout, Belgium.2010. Print.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman. Trans. A. V. C. Schmidt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.

McKechnie, William Sharp. Magna Carta: a commentary on the great carter of King John. Glasgow. J.Maclehose and Sons, 1905. Print.

Newhauser, Richard. “On Ambiguity in Moral Theology: When the Vices Masquerade as Virtues.” Trans. Andrea Nemeth-Newhauser. In R. Newhauser. Sin: Essays on the Moral Tradition in the Western Middle Ages. Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS869. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Essay I.Print.

Prudentius. Psychomachia. Trans. H. J. Thomson. In Prudentius, vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library, 387. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1949, reprint 1969

Medieval Revolt and the Dialectic of the Icon

5 Dec

Instruments of Devotion and the

 Demise of the Icon with the Advent of Lollardry



            The idea that an image can convey a message is nothing new; in fact, the genre that society has become so familiar with through the medium of film and graphic novel can probably trace its roots back to the cave paintings in Lascaux in France. Although early man was illiterate, he was able to convey that which was important to him through imagery. In Lascaux we see images of what appear to be hunters chasing wild animals, many of which are now extinct. The only surviving record of them apart from their inanimate presence in the fossil records is the extraordinary animation they retain, despite the millennia they have endured, on the lime stone walls of the French caves. Just as primitive man wished to convey a message, so did those living in the Church-centric world of the Middle Ages. Despite the fact that literacy as a medium was not as prominent in the laity of the period, there existed a strong alternative through which “necessary” information could be conveyed. In exploring the significance of the medieval icon one can begin to understand the willingness with which it was accepted and the utility it supplied in supporting the hegemony of the Catholic Church. Not only did icons help to maintain the defacto power of the institution through their spiritual and financial exploitation, they also gave rise to a Reformist voice in the form of Lollardry. By comparing and contrasting both the importance and the controversy that surrounded reliquary and iconography and the reformist teachings and movements of the period, it is possible to identify some of the many reasons that led to the eventual collapse of the spiritual monopoly enjoyed by the Catholic Church.

            The medieval period bore witness to the sacerdotium, the earthly priestly hierarchy responsible for the salvation of souls. This meant that not only was the heavenly salvation of the public, via their earthly wealth, up for grabs, but so was their usefulness via their tacit acquiescence. In order to achieve these ends there had to be a means by which the people of the period, either through cognitive dissonance or religious indoctrination, would allow themselves to be manipulated. Through the coercion of Biblical readings, textual exploitation and most importantly iconography, the church was able to maintain its position of dominance and remain at the center of medieval life for many centuries. It’s the importance of iconography both literal and physical that is significant.

            According to Yale professor Keith Wrightson, who lectures on early medieval Catholicism in England, there were “myriad examples of functional iconography to be found within the churches and cathedrals of the period, where beautiful examples of medieval art were available to a God fearing public.” (115)  In particular the cathedrals of Ely, York and Durham offered the illiterate laity a visually rich religion. Access to God for the common man was through the Church and its sacraments and in particular through partionary prayer. By offering gifts or by venerating icons the supplicant was able to ask the painted, plaster saints to intercede with God on their behalf. Given that there was widespread illiteracy amongst the contemporary public and that the Bible was only available in Latin, the conveyance of the Biblical narrative was most successfully achieved through visual representation. “Rood screens, paintings, statues and religious relics were all stock-in-trade pedagogic ephemera to the Catholic Church.” (122)  The Stained glass windows, for example, in Exeter Cathedral depict in seven glass panels the wounds of Christ interconnected to images of the seven sacraments and served as a focus for congregational education and veneration. “The contrived link,” writes Wrightson, “between Christ and the Church precipitated community participation and a general understanding of what it was the Catholic Church was trying to convey.”(137) Similarly the devotion to the shrines of particular saints is well documented and those of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral and the great shrine of Saint Cuthbert in Durham were both important destinations of medieval pilgrimage. “Pilgrims would decorate icons with rosary beads and offer gifts for the dressing of statues… in the account books of contemporary church wardens the wills and generous donations of prominent parishioners can be found for the beautification and restoration of alters and chapels dedicated to favorite saints.” (136) The Christian religion of the medieval period lent itself to the aphorism that an image was representative of a thousand words and therefore, was nothing if not opulent.

            Although the word of God in the form of the Bible was of primary importance in proliferating Christianity, it was the instruments of devotion that helped to spread and sustain the faith. Concrete, albeit painted, evidence of a divinity that existed beyond the constraints of an earthly realm was necessary in order to excite the imaginations of the faithful and ensure sustained obedience to the teachings of the Church. This was demonstrated in ways which are still accessible to contemporary scholars. The iconography of the period hangs in museums and galleries, the tales of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury can be found in our libraries and the objects of medieval adoration can still be seen to this day in many European cathedrals.  Instruments of Devotion deals with the subject of iconography, its effect and its social, religious and political importance. The book edited by Henning Laugerud and Laura Katrine Skinnebach delves into the practices and objects of religious piety from the period of the Late Middle Ages onwards. This collection of lectures and essays, through which the editors offer well-researched historicism, documents the importance of religious imagery to both the Church and those who viewed it. The book describes in detail, what to contemporary society may appear as simply pictographs, the complex, instructional medium that helped to bind the common man to the Church and helped maintain it in its position of preeminence during a historical period when Christianity was at the center of public life. People lived in a God-centric universe defined by preordained estates and owed their allegiance and prayers to those who existed beyond the mortal plain. According to Laugerud, “… life on earth was simply the interim of hardship before the reward of eternal bliss.” (6) This being so, it was the duty of the Church to inform those of their congregation who were inevitably destined for heaven or hell of their options and what could be done on earth to assuage the demons of mortality and insure the angels of grace. By means of “visual theory,” (7) pictographs and artistic impression developed into a viable means of medieval pictorial technology. Successful information dissemination was therefore established via the medium of art.

            The chapter  Piety, Practice and Process which references an excerpt written by Henrik Von Achen, deals with the phenomenon of a rewarded life, where Henrik proposes that human redemption is not encapsulated within the limits of the soul but rather, that salvation was accessible through “books, pictures, music, and liturgical practices.” (24) Von Achen suggests that piety can be studied through the instruments of devotion that were utilized during the period. This being “true,” the religious ephemera which we still see in our modern society takes on a whole new meaning. Rather than gaudy, expensive and over expressive, the icons that have survived can be seen at their most basic as instructional and at their most sinister as religious propaganda. The traditions of “spiritual deference” (13) embodied within medieval art are an “important ingredient” (13) in understanding the medieval psyche. Von Achen suggests that “the instrument, or image, played a constitutional role in creating that special, intense, and existential meeting between God and the individual believer,”(14) and so rather than just color on canvas or paint on brick, iconography was fundamental  in what we today recognize as faith. Modern Christians may also speak of faith whereas the medieval characterization of the same religious emotion would be devotion or objectified fetishism; something which is still very apparent in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.

            Given the position of the Church and its rivalry with monarchy in the temporal hierarchy of the estates, their ability to communicate and show the message of God would have been akin to being the owner of the only newspaper in town. Equally able to repress and promote the pertinent message of the hour, the Church was the sole source of doctrinal dissemination and the Rupert Murdoch of its day. In order to popularize their ideas, themes were a very important part of illumination. Recognizable Biblical characters and religious tracts were incorporated into art with the addition of recognizable human emotion. For instance, the image of the heart which we see time and again in clerical imagery is one that has been coopted to represent so many different things. In particular, in the iconography of the period, man’s immediate access to God through means of either Grace or heartfelt prayer. In ancient cultures the heart had consistently been seen as the source of reason but instead rose to prominence in the late medieval period as the center of human emotion, something with which our own society is still familiar.  Iconography created a common ground that reflected on the relationship between the art and the supplicant instead of the dogmatic teachings that had been common in earlier religious education. (27)

            The Medieval citizen, according to the essays edited by Flemming in the work Medieval Iconography and Narrative, “had a more inclusive concept of reality [and] … saw much more than we do.”(187) Knud Banning, one of the collected essayists, proposes that a modern day visionary is understood to see beyond what is the norm and in this sense can be applied to medieval supplicants of religious art. His essay, The Book and Church Wall, goes even further and boldly states that during the period, visions defined reality and that religious art was a means of “giving their own mysticism [substance and even] credibility. (187) Banning points out that although the experience of God is not within the art, it is the art that provoked the sense of Christ that was used as an aid to visualization during private moments of devotion and prayer. The evocation of Christ through familiar religious symbolism would probably have stayed with the devotee for the rest of their life. Hence, the importance of icons in rural churches, as well as those to be found in major centers of population. No matter the location and despite the fact that most congregations wouldn’t have been able understand the Latin used during the sermon, there would have existed a religious affinity, albeit with an individual image emblazoned upon their memory.

            “The importance of images had to do with the importance of sight and vision and their connection with knowledge and understanding.” (173) Fleming focuses particular attention in several of the collected essays to impress the idea of a story-board iconography that could impart this idea. The concept, for instance, of the painted Triptych which can be found in so many of our Cathedrals and galleries today is not an artefact of artistic whim, but rather a means of apportioned learning. The book delves into the process of conquering souls through intense focus, where the Triptych could be separated and used, much as a teacher uses a black-board, to educate congregations. Not only was it utilitarian in its pedagogical sense, but it was also a point of focus for prayer and supplication. Rather than an ephemeral, stylistic image of God in his heaven, a universal icon was available that could create a sense of unity and community. It wasn’t for nothing that pilgrims would progress to distant destinations to view a remarkable mural or observe a particular relic. It was precisely the visual that was their reward for their ardors and a moral boost to their already keen sense of what they believed: the imagery confirming their own “true” paths and ultimate destinations. According to the essay The Role of the Frontispiece or Prefatory Picture by Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall, medieval scholars understood that “the theory of visual cognition became the common ground for all theories of vision in the Middle Ages.”(175) Saint Augustine writes in The Confessions, as they remark, “that sight is the chief of our senses in the acquisition of knowledge and is… the divine language”(175) and the modern aphorism of “a lust for the eyes” can be found in Augustine’s fifth century writings, although this was first emphasized in the Gospel of Saint John, which helped develop Augustine’s later comments on the importance of sight, when John writes, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” “The act of seeing was both a sacramental aspect and an aspect of identification.”(180) By persevering with the idea that religious devotion as well as religious hegemony  were of major importance to the Church, the book continues to define the icon as not simply  a work of art but as an “instrument of piety”(180) utilized as a medium for the “transference of grace.”(180) But this is perhaps a one sided view.

            The medieval period is renowned for the ecclesiastical iconography that framed both the ambition of the Catholic Church and its ability to maintain control over a servile population. Given that the tools of the trade were in the hands of Mother Church, one can easily envision how the ignorant masses were psychologically coerced: a classic example of knowledge being the key to power and the mysterious revelations of all things Biblical existing as the only moral route to heaven. In a society that was both controlled and ruled by the Church, an illiterate lay population would have been relatively easy to manipulate through the power of iconography and strict adherence to Church doctrine. The perception that clerical truth was the only tolerated truth was implemented via the teachings of the Church and through the iconic representation of religious lore. Professor Wrightson describes the resentment felt by those eager for the reform of an institution “that failed to castigate pride and worldliness, especially within its own organization.” (142) The use of religious icons to generate clerical wealth went far beyond scripture and consequently was unrepresentative of the teachings of God.

             One such dissenter to these contrived teachings, writes Christ Von-Wedel, was Erasmus of Rotterdam, “a seminal figure in the proto-protestant movement, whose ideas and dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church gave rise to the advent of other dissidents such as John Wycliffe and the Lollard movement.”(64) Erasmus, she states, was hostile to the privileges extolled by the Church and recognized the reverence to guilded saints as fraudulent and idolatrous, purgatory as a false doctrine and sermons for souls as a racket based on a misappropriation of  Biblical authority. As Erasmus was keenly aware, the worship of imagery was bound to induce clerical corruption given the esteem with which they were held by a supplicant laity. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a man more interested in a Bible centered faith than religious fetishism and famously remarked “that with all the true splinters of the cross to be found in the churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, there were probably enough to rebuild Noah’s Ark.” (66)

            This search for true faith, writes Dean, is evident in the anticlerical literature of the period and the denouncement of religious orders, such as the friars, in their ability to adhere to the pious lifestyles they proposed for others. William Langland’s Piers Ploughman is vociferous on this issue and can be read as a polemic in its clerical views and recognized as a piece of “early” propaganda for a religious alternative to the Catholic Church. “Langland’s narrator,” writes Dean, “consults friars – a Franciscan, a Dominican, an Augustinian and a Carmelite, respectively – hoping to learn what he calls the “graith,” the plain truth, but is dismayed that the friars instead denounce the rival fraternal orders or try to dun him for money.” (15) Langland writes of the familiarity the laity has with the clerical devices and the icons of the church, but of the inability of the individual to delve deeper into the true theology of the Bible.(15)  Langland’s dreamer remonstrates that many people know their prayers, their specific saints and canonical responses but little else. Dean points out that, “The implication is that the friars do not know the Creed, which was a charge often leveled against the fraternal orders.” (16) Awakening from the cognitive malaise in the belief of the power of the Church, Langland’s protagonist recognizes in himself that there is more to scripture than is being represented by the clergy and that the way to God is not through the veneration of reliquary and pilgrimage but through truth and personal spiritual supplication as witnessed by his quest for the characters of Lady Study, Clergy and Scripture.(90) The engagement with something deeper mirrors the concerns voiced by Erasmus and later by John Wycliffe and Martin Luther. There is an awareness, writes Langland, of  kynd  – “the father and maker of everything ever made” (87) – of something else, of an existential preexisting relationship between man and God that transcends parables, decorated alters and pilgrimages.

             The later emphasis given by the Church to the Ten Commandments instead of the Seven Deadly Sins, to the eventual detriment of the Church’s own hegemony, also reflected a conscious movement towards a tangible God, as evidenced by the first three of the commandments in the Decalogue that are all concerned with disavowing idolatry: a misstep perhaps of naïve, pious intent on the part of the Church? The earlier teachings of the Church, Bossy writes, as proposed by Augustine, were later accepted, along with the new moral code represented by the Ten Commandments, by both the Catholics and Lutherans, which included the prohibition of graven images (217) “As well as being a ritual and moral code … against the worshipping of strange gods… the rationale of the Decalogue was the prohibition of idolatry.”(217) It was thought that the movement away from the teachings of the Seven Deadly Sins in favor of the Decalogue presented a moral code that was more focused on one’s own obligations to God than it was to painted imagery and reliquary. Naturally this radical change in teaching met with opposition and support from both sides of the aisle and in particular Saint Antonio of Florence who decreed that equal time should be given to both the Sins and the Decalogue.(226)  Bossy suggests (226) that this schism was caused by business morality and not spirituality and may account for the climax of religious art in the mid sixteenth century by “artists who depicted the Seven Sins with more vigor than ever before” and who had never found true inspiration in the Ten Commandments. This historical switch between fundamental moral teachings can be seen in particular with the Church reformists such as the Lollards who in “an iconoclastic passion…destroyed a whole epoch of European visual culture.” (229) Thanks to the ethics of the newly revived Decalogue and the advent of religious reformism, idol worship became the fundamental enemy of all Christians.

            The Lollards, according to Rex were “a decentralized religious movement with no core belief system or doctrine…their ambition to remove the obstacle of the Church from a personal relationship with God was paramount in their aspirations.” (24) Rather than follow the obviously corrupt Catholic Church the Lollards used original scripture to further their religious goals. Recognizing, just as the dreamer had in Langland’s poem, that the Church had been corrupted by pride and self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of temporal wealth, it had metamorphosed into a misrepresentation of its own Christian heredity and therefore, Christianity as a whole. (27)  The Lollards insisted that chantries, dispensations and the idea of purgatory was anathema to the “true faith” and were merely instruments of clerical coercion in the control of the populous and the accumulation of wealth. The Lollards also expressed iconoclasm. The excesses of the Catholic faith were seen as wasteful and the money used to adorn churches and the like could better go to help the poor and the needy. The worship of idols and painted saints was perceived as derogatory to true faith, as it took away from that which was truly owed to God.

             This iconoclastic belief was inherent, according to Hudson, in what can be regarded as their spiritual manifesto, known as The Twelve Conclusions, which they posted in 1395 as testimony to their own beliefs.(71) Understanding the business like nature of the Catholic Church and its accumulation of wealth through reliquary and iconic representation as well as other insidious means, their first conclusion stated “forbid the acquisition of temporal wealth by any means as this was detriment to Christian values and led to greed.”(72) The eighth conclusion also attacked idolatry and directly referenced the worship of saints, the adoration of the image and the homage of the pilgrimage, all of which were central to the spiritual lives of medieval Christians. (72) The Conclusion points out the farcicality of reverence towards images and statues, “If the cross of Christ, the nails, the spear and crown and thorns are to be honored, then why not honor Judas’s lips, if only they could be found?”(59) This veniality towards idolatry and therefore by extension the religious icon  can be seen in later years with the advent of Protestantism and to a larger degree in Puritanism where everything representative of God and the scriptures was completely removed from the Church to the extreme that medieval images painted on church walls were white-washed over.

            Having compared and contrasted both the importance and controversy that surrounded reliquary, iconography and reformist teachings it is possible to identify some of the events and attitudes that led to the eventual collapse of the spiritual monopoly enjoyed by the Church. Although the Lollards were suppressed and some of their number burned at the stake, writes Rex, their ideas eventually succeeded to the point that the hegemony of the Catholic Church and the importance of iconology within the Christian tradition, especially in England, was eviscerated. (65) The relationship with God would become a personal one communicated by prayer and contrition rather than the adoration of ephemera. The relevance of iconography was that it established an important instrument of power wielded by the Church over its followers and the very real danger to the status quo of organized, centralized religion that the advent of the Lollards and their translation of the Bible as well as other reformists represented. Rome’s hegemonic power was experiencing a momentous destabilization that would eventually manifest itself as Protestantism, the rise of the Iconoclasts and eventual schism. The word would take the place of the symbolic which ironically, as we recognize from our own modern culture which thrives on advertising and product placement, would lead to the negation and demise of religion in Western society. No longer being able to experience theistic imagery would take away the personal experience of a painted God and instead resign human salvation to the black and white of Caxton’s press. The eventual preeminence, Bossy writes, of the Ten Commandments and the success of reformists such as the Lollards  meant that churches were stripped of their icons and religious murals and in their place, “above the denuded altars of English churches” (228) textual representations of the Decalogue were painted, replacing the Host, Lights, images and sacramental paraphernalia of the old regime (228) Illustrating this point, Thomas Hardy wrote in Jude the Obscure, “ The tables of Jewish Law towered sternly over the utensils of Christian grace.”(229) Therefore, the demise of reliquary and iconography was the consequence of the prohibition of worshipping false gods and a shift in religious teaching and reformist attitudes.




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Bossy, John. Moral Arithmetic: Seven Sins into Ten Commandments. In Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Ed.Edmund Leites.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Paris: Editions de la maison de sciences del’homme,1988. Pp 214-34

Christ Von-Wedel, Christine. Erasmus of Rotterdam. University of Toronto Press.Toronto, ON. 2013. Print.

Dean, James, M. Six Ecclesiastical Satires. Medieval Institute Publications. Kalamazoo, Michigan.1991. Print. 

Hudson Anne. Selections from English Wycliffite Writings. University of Toronto Press. Toronto.1997.Print.

Trans. A.V.C. Schmidt. Langland, William. Piers Ploughman. Oxford University Press. New York. 1992

Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print.

Von Achen, Henrik. Piety, Practise and Process. Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print. Ch 4.

Laugerud, Henning. Visuality and Devotion in the Middle Ages. Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print.Ch 10.

Rex, Richard. The Lollards. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave 2002.Print

Ed. Keith, Wrightson and David, Levine. Poverty and Piety in an English Village.Terling. Oxford University Press, U.S.A. 1997.Print.