Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Messiah

Last weekend we went to a terrific performance of Handel's "Messiah" (not a singalong version).  The program had all the words with their sources.  Although officially the piece is about the birth of Jesus (which is why it's usually played at Christmas), most of the words are from the Old Testament, not the New.

This is because the idea of a Messiah did not start with Christianity.  The Jews had been looking forward to the coming of a Messiah for at least half a millennium before a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.  The so-called Old Testament prophets (Isaiah gets most of the attention, along with Jeremiah and Zechariah, plus a few others) wrote around the time of the "Babylonian captivity," when the Babylonians captured the city of Jerusalem and took a lot of Jews back home as slaves.  (The Jews got back to Jerusalem a generation or so later, after the Babylonians were in turn attacked by the Persians, but that's another story.)

The prophets wrote about how the Jews had brought it all on themselves through their sin and turning from God but also offered hope:  a Messiah would come, someone who would bring about peace and prosperity.  Indeed, there is some debate among scholars whether the book of Isaiah was written by one or two (or more) authors, the despairing, denouncing Isaiah and the hopeful Isaiah.

Jewish hopes for a Messiah continued for the next 2500 years--indeed until now.  During the life of Jesus, many Jews had a more specific hope, that the Messiah would drive the Romans out of their land.  The group called the Zealots were especially eager to give the Romans a violent shove.  The Romans heard Jesus being hailed as the Messiah and decided he was a Zealot and put him to death as a traitor, one working against the Roman state.  (He wasn't, but that's also another story.)

One version of prophecies of the Messiah was that the Messiah indeed appears every generation, but if the people are not ready--not prepared to overcome their sinful ways--they will kill him.  That's why there's a lot in the Old Testament about the Suffering Servant, the innocent man on whom the stiff-necked people turn.  When Jesus was put to death, it appeared to be one more example of a Messiah the people rejected.

But in this case, his followers said that he had come back from death.  This was totally different.  Paul, the person who essentially started Christianity as its own religion (not just a sect of Judaism), understandably found this extremely significant.  His letters, the earliest part of the New Testament, are all about this.  "As in Adam all shall die, so in Christ shall all be made alive."  For Paul, the Messiah was to be understood not only as bringing about peace and prosperity, beating swords into plowshares and the like, but as bringing about triumph over death.

But He was still supposed to be the Messiah prophesied by the Jews centuries earlier.  The Book of Matthew in the New Testament is addressed to a Jewish audience, explaining how Jesus's birth, life, and death fulfilled all the prophecies.  The word 'messiah' by the way is from the Hebrew, which in the Greek in which the New Testament is written became the 'Christos,' the 'anointed one.'  (You didn't think Christ was a last name, did you?  Good.  I didn't think so.)

Once it was determined that Christians would adopt the Jewish Bible as their Old Testament (on which see more here), it became quite easy to interpret all Old Testament references to a Messiah as leading straight to Jesus Christ.  For medieval theologians, looking at a Bible that said all sorts of different contradictory things (not surprising, as it was written over a thousand-year period for a great variety of purposes), the goal was the interpret it all so that it all made sense, making a single, coherent statement.  It was like working with the universe's most complex puzzle, further complicated because not only did they have to make all the different parts of the Bible make sense, but they had to deal with earlier theologians, popes, and councils and their version of what it all meant.

Although the letters of Paul suggest that the glorious new world that the Messiah was supposed to bring in was thought to be imminent during his time, as the years and centuries went by the world we know continued to be as painful and stubborn as ever.  Quickly the coming of the Messiah (second coming in fact) and His glorious time of peace was put off further and further into the future, indeed into the time when death would be overcome, as He had already demonstrated possible.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more about medieval Christianity and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jane Austen and the gentry

Jane Austen was not medieval.  Not even close.  She lived and wrote in the early nineteenth century, the century when, as I have discussed elsewhere, a whole lot of the things that we would now consider modern were invented, from electricity to indoor plumbing to factory goods to furnaces to telephones to being able to get quickly down the road by mechanical means (e.g. trains).

But the early nineteenth-century English world that Austen describes, at a time shortly before all these inventions took place, was, for the gentry (the well-to-do), sort of a half-way spot between aristocratic life in the Middle Ages and the modern age.

(If you haven't read any of Jane Austen's novels, I urge you to do so.  Start with Pride and Prejudice.  If they made you read it in high school I hope they told you that it is extremely funny.  Austen found all the silliness, greed, misplaced pride, and lack of education of many of her contemporaries hilarious.  If you have trouble getting into it--and you shouldn't--start by watching the BBC mini series with Colin Firth.)

Austen's gentry lived in large manor houses with servants, as the twelfth-century aristocracy would have lived.  They derived much of their income from agricultural rents and had their own "home farm" lands.  They valued music, art, and literature.  In this they were like medieval aristocrats.

Also like medieval aristocrats, they believed in love as a reason to get married, even though marrying someone from outside one's social class was unthinkable.  Austen's heroines still have their parents and guardians trying to arrange appropriate marriages for their children, as twelfth-century parents had done, though Austen suggests this often led to disaster.

We think of medieval aristocrats as living in castles, and indeed many did, but a castle was too expensive for everyone to have one, so a lot of them lived in large and elegant houses, like their nineteenth-century descendants.  The castles not destroyed during the early modern period would still have had wealthy owners in the nineteenth century, but the interiors had been transformed to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas of comfort.

Manor houses were thick on the ground in Austen's day, but by a century later (the time of Downton Abbey if you watched that show), it became hard to maintain them, and many were turned into institutions (nursing homes, schools, hotels, etc.) or torn down.

Like aristocratic households of the twelfth century, the nineteenth-century gentry's big meal of the day, called dinner, was in what we would call late afternoon, around 4 or 5 o'clock.  But whereas medieval people would have been up at dawn, maybe had a quick bite then, worked till dinner, and then relaxed for a short period before going to bed (with or without an additional quick bite of supper), Austen's gentry liked to stay up late.  (See more here on medieval meals and meal-times.)

The nineteenth-century gentry breakfasted at 9 or 10, then had their "morning," which lasted until dinner time (ever wonder why a performance at 1 o'clock is called a matinĂ©e?).  After dinner there were many more hours of socializing, playing music, and the like, broken at some point by tea.  The after dinner period was called evening.  This is when one had parties and dancing, and many stayed up until midnight.  A party would be expected to include a light supper.

The gentry provided a lot of military leaders for England, as the medieval aristocracy had defined themselves militarily, but wars were far away, and most young men did not take part in military exercises.  There were still knights, or at least men called Sir, but unlike medieval knights they never charged into combat with long lances and swords at the ready; nineteenth-century knighthood was primarily a matter of status.

The gentry still learned to fence, and an insult might end in a challenge to a duel.  Duels were officially illegal but happened anyway, men without shields or armor fencing with foils (light weight swords) until one yielded or was killed or at least injured.  A medieval challenge to single combat in contrast would have required horses, lances, armor, shields, and serious swords, and nobody would have considered it illegal.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more about life of the aristocracy, fighting, knights, and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.