Thursday, February 11, 2010

Based on the title alone I would find "From Dawn to Decadence" appealing. I have always found history to be very interesting and I like the idea of examining events from longer term timescales. Since my own particular bias is that Western Civilization is in decline, I want read Barzun theories critically.

Some of my initial thoughts on the prologue are:

I like Barzun bias of the exceptionalism of Western Civilization. The advances made by the West are really impressive. It is interesting that he is limiting the "West" to the past 500 years. Rediscovering the classic works of Roman and Greeks contributed the Renaissance, did any of these classics plant the seeds for the eventual Decadence?

"EMANCIPATION is one of the cultural themes of the era, perhaps the most characteristic of all. And of course it requires more and more limitations in order to prevent my right from infringing yours." This passage makes me think of a snake slowly constricting the creative breath out of a society.

Barzun's definition of Decadence is straight forward, a multitude of groups and institutions blocking and preventing progress. I am having a harder time understanding what constitutes the unity of Western Civilization.

Thoughts on the first chapter:

I like the description of the Reformation as more then a religious revolution, especially the part about raising the status of vernacular languages. Writing great works in native tongue helps to unify a culture. I am still not comfortable with a "ancestral sense of unity". My feeling is that the unity was already lost at this point.

Barzun covers a lot of material; I have read entire books and taken courses on subjects he refers to in a paragraph. This is necessary trade-off in covering a large time span but I am concerned about my understanding in other chapters where I don't have as much background information.

I think the brief introduction allows Barzun to understate the corruption of medieval church and the absurdities of the sale of indulgences. Consider Johann Tetzel:

He was a sort of medieval P. T. Barnum who traveled from village to village with a brass-bound chest, a bag of printed receipts, and an enormous cross draped with the papal banner. Accompanying him were a Fugger accountant and another friar, an assistant carrying a velvet cushion bearing Leo's bull of indulgence.

Setting up in the nave of the local church, Tetzel would begin his pitch by opening the bag and calling out, "I have here the passports . . . to lead the human soul to the celestial joys of Paradise. " The fees were dirt-cheap, he pointed out, if they considered the alternatives. Christians who had committed a mortal sin owed God seven years' penance. "Who then," he asked, "would hesitate for a quarter-florin to secure one of these letters of remission?" Anything could be forgiven, he assured them, anything. He gave an example. Suppose a youth had slipped into his mother's bed and spent his seed inside her. If that boy put the right coins in the pontiff's bowl, "the Holy Father has the power in heaven and earth to forgive that sin, and if he forgives it, God must do so also." Warming up, Tetzel even appealed to the survivors of men who had gone to their graves unshriven: "As soon as the coin rings in the bowl, the soul for whom it is paid will fly out of purgatory and straight to heaven."

In Germany Tetzel exceeded his quota. He always did. This was his profession; he traveled from one diocese to another, raising funds as instructed by the Curia. Indulgences were popular among the peasantry, but less so among those who, in those days, formed the opinions of the laity. And this time he was in hostile territory. Northeastern Germany — Magdeburg, Halberstadt, and Mainz — had been chosen for this extortion because it was weak. France, Spain, and England were strong, and when they had asked that little be expected of them, pleading poverty, the pontiff had agreed. The decision was not without risk. Anti-papal feeling was strong and vocal in Germany. The papal nuncio to the Holy Roman Empire was worried. That part of the Reich, he had written the pope, was in an ugly mood. He had therefore urged cancellation of the jubilee.

Leo had ignored him — unwisely, for presently ominous signs appeared. After watching Tetzel perform, a local Franciscan friar wrote: "It is incredible what this ignorant monk said and preached. He gave sealed letters stating that even the sins a man was intending to commit would be forgiven. The pope, he said, had more power than all the Apostles, all the angels and saints, more even than the Virgin Mary herself, for these were all subjects of Christ, but the pope was equal to Christ." Another eyewitness quoted the money-raiser as declaring that even if a man had violated the Mother of God the indulgence would wipe away his sin.

The call for PRIMITIVISM seems more understandable considering the level of corruption.

"Violent events were to be typical of European life till the middle of the 17C." How does the level of violence compare with the time before the Reformation? Warfare in Europe seems to be the norm.

Martin Luther theology seems very appealing to me, having God's grace heal a sick soul must be a blissful experience. I think this idea can bind really tightly in some people's minds and the comfort they derive from it would compel to fight for a new religion. I really liked the way Barzun presented the various character traits of Martin Luther. Luther was an intelligent man who didn't seem particular ambitions but rose to the occasion when history called. It was interesting that he added the part about "despite the rude noises that the Devil kept making to thwart him".

"For Luther the bathroom was also a place of worship. His holiest monuments often came when he was seated on the privy (Abort) in a Wittenburg monastery tower. It was there, while moving his bowels, that he conceived the revolutionary Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. Afterward he wrote: "These words 'just' and 'justice of God' were a thunderbolt to my conscience. . . I soon had the thought [that] God's justice ought to be the salvation of every believer. . . Therefore it is God's justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower."

Well, God is everywhere, as the Vatican conceded four centuries later, backing away from a Jesuit scholar who had gleefully translated explicit excretory passages in Luther's Sammitche Schriften. The Jesuit had provoked angry protests from Lutherans who accused him of "vulgar Catholic polemics." Yet the real vulgarity lies in Luther's own words, which his followers have shelved. They enjoy telling the story of how the devil threw ink at Luther and Luther threw it back. But in the original version it wasn't ink; it was Scheiss (shit). That feces was the ammunition Satan and his Wittenberg adversary employed against each other is clear from the rest of Luther's story, as set down by his Wittenberg faculty colleague Philipp Melanchthon: "Having been worsted. . . the Demon departed indignant and murmuring to himself after having emitted a crepitation of no small size, which left a foul stench in the chamber for several days afterwards."

Again and again, in recalling Satan's attacks on him, Luther uses the crude verb bescheissen, which describes what happens when someone soils you with his Scheiss. In another demonic stratagem, an apparition of the prince of darkness would humiliate the monk by "showing his arse" (Steiss). Fighting back, Luther adopted satanic tactics. He invited the devil to "kiss" or "lick" his Steiss, threatened to "throw him into my anus, where he belongs," to defecate "in his face" or, better yet, "in his pants" and then "hang them around his neck."

A man who battled the foulest of fiends in der Abort and die Latrine was unlikely to be intimidated by the vaudevillian Tetzel.

Final thought is, I am happy the Reformation happened, even happier that I wasn't there for it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi David,

    Excellent post. One thing that prevents my understanding of the church is the concept of "soul." Do you know what it was meant to be in that time?

    Also, I was really amazed at how poor my reading skills were when I didn't recognize your quotation, regarding Luther's obsession with scatology as an effective weapon against the devil, as writing from Barzun. I think it actually came from elsewhere. Is this it?

    William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire, The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (Boston, 1992), pp.139-140