21 Oct

The religious character of medieval secular life

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/21/15

John Milbank on the sacred canopy of premodern Europe

“[F]rom Augustine onwards, the Church showed a desire to infuse secular practices of warfare, punishment, trade and feudal tenure with the exercise of mercy and forbearance. Even in relation to the function of doing justice, it is arguable that Christianity had an innovative impact: Oliver O’Donovan plausibly contends that St. Paul for the first time made judgement (the provision of equity) the sole legitimating ground of government and no longer also the guarding of a terrain, which paganism had always included. This renders rule purely active and donative rather than reactive and defensive. . . . And if Christianity asked the State to attend more closely to mercy and justice, inversely its own ‘household' communities from the outset took over in part from the polis the ‘political’ function of paideia: training in ultimate virtues. Moreover, salvation itself was not simply an individual matter in the Patristic and Medieval period: redemptive charity, for example, was a state pertaining between people, not simply a virtue exercised by an individual. The Church itself was a complex multiple society and not simply the administrative machinery for the saving of souls which it later tended to evolve into. Hence to speak of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ concerns in this period can be to overlook the fact that monasteries were also farms, that the Church saw to the upkeep of bridges which were at once crossing places and shrines to the Virgin and that the laity often exercised economic, charitable and festive functions in confraternities that were themselves units of the Church as much as parishes, and therefore occupied no unambiguously ‘secular’ space. . . .

“One should remember too that the supreme laymen, namely kings, were anointed, and assumed that they had thereby received a Christic office in another aspect to that received by the priesthood: Christ being understood following the New Testament as fulfilling the offices of prophet, priest and king.

“So to speak of the secular in the Middle Ages can be problematic. For this period the Saeculum was not a space but the time before the eschaton: certainly some concerns that were more worldly belonged more to this time, but this did not imply quite our sense of sheer ‘indifference’ and ‘neutrality’ as concerns religious matters when we speak of ‘the secular.’ Indeed one can go further: ‘temporal’ concerns existed in ontological contrast to eternal ones, but both were ‘religious’ as falling under divine judgement.”

—from John Milbank, “The Gift of Ruling” (New Blackfriars, Vol. 85, No. 996 [March 2004])

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