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The reality is societal attitudes change to many things as time unwinds and our knowledge changes. In today's commentary Tom McMahon is looking at how people looked upon marriage in the Middle Ages — and the changing attitudes within the clerical and monastic classes which were driven perhaps more from their own self-interests than any concern for the married. This is only an introduction to a period which Tom sees as crucial in forming attitudes that we still carry less as a heritage and more as a legacy today.
We approach the Middle Ages, wondering what happened …
We have made whistle stops in ancient times and the Bronze Age looking for a personal identification of woman and man in the bond we speak of today as sacred marriage. Remember from our previous commentaries that sacred is something made special by people. The age of the historical Jesus offered some evidence of love and respect between male and female; for biblical readers the story of Jesus' historical life is twisted, meeting the needs of the post resurrection Christ. The Song of Songs tells us of the love affair between Yahweh and the nation of Israel, using sexual pictures of a male-female love affair, yet failing to offer evidence of two human beings in a healthy marriage union. That the symbolism is used does reveal human possibility; humans can't talk about the divine without using human language. We have yet to come upon a time where mutual choice and consent are involved and dominant.
Somewhere, using my imagination, I sense that a deep respect for the woman as both person and life provider could be found in genuine Christianity, a key issue in their early successful communities. Christians lived out the fundamental teachings of Judaism, particularly love of God is love of neighbor. "See how they love one another" could not have been said if there was absolute male dominance and female exclusion. The Gospels do preserve this mindset of the Master as Jesus addressed women with equality and respect; I see Jesus as a foil to the male militarism that first raised its ugly head when men made shields and swords during the Bronze Age and have never ceased playing their life-killing war games. One does not get intimate with a male who carries a sword. There seems to be an endless human struggle between the givers of life and those who destroy life in the lust for power — the woman wants a home for family while the male seeks to rule over land possessions, the hunter male needing territory. As an aside keep the crusades in mind; it is in the Middle Ages that the cross is used for the first time to identify the religion of Jesus. A suffering lonely Jesus is all Middle Age.
While in 1950's seminary, bored with teachings on the church, I would daydream in class about the day I too could "sit at the well" and dialogue with a troubled woman. Certainly as Jesus commissioned his followers to bring good news to the world he had in mind both genders as disciples and future converts to the Christian way of life. Jesus sends out his followers and they are to be armed with neither staff nor abuse. They carry good news to humankind. The only hint at marriage is Jesus' courtesy visit to Peter's ailing wife and she is soon swept under the rug. In a previous commentary we ruled out the Marriage Feast at Cana. Eleven of the twelve apostles seem to be married; did they abandon their wives to follow Jesus? Did Jesus demand celibacy? or even think of abstinence from pleasure as pleasing the Creator?
Where did something go radically wrong?
Where did something go radically wrong? Somewhere between the 3rd century and the 10th there is a malicious influence that steals/creeps into early Christianity. In the 6th century peaceful Christian families gather in community (common union) for Sunday worship, placing their gifts on the altar through the hands of a married priest. By the 10th century Saint Peter Damiani is screaming at the religious order-monk Pope Sylvester that the wives of the priests are "sows, she bitches, whores, devil witches…" Peter Damiani sees Jesus as a virgin and heavily promotes the idea that only virginal hands can touch the holy Eucharist [this is the Eucharist as thing that we addressed in Catholica Commentary of Oct. 26th 2007 – LINK]. By the Middle Ages the non-sexed priest is on his way to controlling the People of God. Wholesome touch is on its way out.
In the monastic world gender is no longer a gift of the Creator. Along with her pleasures the female is to be feared as an evil that will defile the monk. The woman is locked away in a convent with her rules written by males. Marriage, except for the wealthy, is to be ignored with 85% of women of the Middle Ages never seeing a marriage ceremony while experiencing a terrifying contradiction to the mind of Jesus and his Abba (papa) God. The Catholic faith will henceforth ignore Genesis as monks take over the papacy.
Fear dominates the Middle Ages, particularly ignorance of the after life and the soul being taken over by the Devil. With great imagination Dante writes The Inferno in the 12th century. The crisis demands a scapegoat. Scapegoating was a Jewish ritual in which the townsfolk would gather and pray their "sins" on a goat who would be driven off into the desert; the female (and soon the Jew and leper) was the "weaker" sex, progesterone softening body tissue while testosterone hardens muscle. Nature orders the female body to be attractive to the male, skin in particular beaconing the male to touch and thus to preserve the human species. (More coming in our ongoing 101) Women are blamed for men's childish and often criminal conduct, scapegoats of male immaturity. In the 2000's some bishops have accused innocent females and children of enticing paedophilic priests … how little the bishops know of human sexuality and its God-created power and beauty and the terrifying immaturity of seminary-trained clergy.
The Middle Ages were most difficult times: there is the ongoing collapse of the Roman Empire; the breakdown of the Christian community as the married priesthood disappears with no one to train the secular clergy; widespread clerical and lay ignorance and fear while experiencing the Black Death; the crusades; and the dulling effects of serfdom during the Middle Ages. Fear and chaotic ignorance rule supreme. Ordinary people are victims both of the power of the king, the papacy, and that of the monastery. The papacy is a roman political tool. Trent will apply some valuable band-aids but the haemorrhaging still persists in the year 2009.
A 10th Century legacy still alive and active in the 21st Century...
Monastic asceticism that Jesus never sanctioned crippled the medieval institutional church, displacing women as co-equal life partners; the legitimate wives of priests in 1239 CE are torn from their holy positions and some sold along with their children into slavery in the Lateran papal palaces. When in a 1953 seminary morals class a student questioned if it was sinful for a married couple to enjoy sexual pleasure, I saw the deadly remnant of the 10th century still alive and active in the church of the 21st century. The professor never answered — and within the year 33 young priests were sitting in confessional boxes, ignorant and innocent, a living crime against the People of God.
Books are needed to flesh out the chaos of the Middle Ages concerning the union of male and female as well as male and male and female and female. People today are battling the deadly cancer of injustices that were sealed in place in the 11th century; that Hilary Clinton could campaign to be the President of the United States is proof that the evils of gender prejudice and misogyny are on their dying legs today. The all male bastion of Rome just does not get the developing picture of women's liberation and the effects on modern society. The Holy Spirit of the Creator is bringing the woman back into her rightful place. We shall see later on how this has opened the doorway to a proliferation of ideas of what marriage is and can be.
Italians have a great saying: festina lente, which translates: make haste slowly. We have just touched the outskirts of marriage in the Middle Ages; we shall full throttle in next week, full steam ahead. We will cross into the dark tunnels of the Cult of Mary and the reality of homosexuality. Let's take a look at the marriage of Saints Serge and Bacchus and who is their chief witness; their 7th century marriage certificate is in Kiev. Investigating the word marriage is a roller coaster ride … and yet again have we bitten off too big a mouthful to digest. Can the People of God stomach historical truth?
Tom McMahon, San Jose, Ca. 31/03/2009
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Image Credits: The image used in the headline is adapted from an image available from AllPosters entitled "Tender Passion" available at: www.allposters.com. Clicking on the images in the body of the article will take you to the original source.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?