An integral world of physical and spiritual properties
Commentary on Chapter 4 of The Wistful and the Good
This is one of a series of commentaries on the historical background and literary issues raised by my serialized novel, The Wistful and the Good. You can follow both the novel and the commentaries on the index page and subscribe to get the latest updates.
Sometimes you don’t know quite what you are doing until you have begun. What I see emerging in these background posts is an attempt to understand what it felt like to live with the ideas and institutions of past times.
“Felt like” seems an inadequate term for what I am getting at, and maybe continuing with this series will yield a better one. But it is not enough to observe that the people of a particular time or place held a particular opinion about adolescence or slavery or the guilt of people related to people who have done bad things. All it leads us to is contrasting their opinions with our own, which inevitably leaves us feeling that our opinions are correct and that theirs must come from either a deficit of intelligence or a deficit of good will (properties which we, of course, possess in abundance).
The problem with such judgements, apart from their lack of charity, is that they lead us into anachronism. If past opinions are bad and current opinions are good, the writer feels a great temptation to give their sympathetic characters modern opinions, even it they do not belong to their times. Apart from its being an anachronism, this robs historical fiction of perhaps the most useful insights it could bring to the modern reader.
The purpose of studying the people of the past is not to congratulate ourselves on our superior virtue, but to understand how they were formed by their circumstances so that we might come to realize how our circumstances have shaped us. By studying other times and places we may perhaps prepare ourselves to step outside our own time and place and see ourselves and our prejudices with greater clarity.
To get there, though, we need to get past the mere judgement or condemnation of opinions and try to get some sense of their context. We need to look at how people’s opinions were shaped by the totality of their experience.
Here, it seems to me, is where history and fiction provide two complementary halves of the solution. History can contextualize the opinions of past peoples analytically, explaining why the opinion is one that naturally fits a set of circumstances. Fiction can allow us to live those circumstances and their resultant opinions through the lives of characters. Fiction is about being there. History is made of propositions; fiction is made of experiences. Together, perhaps, they can get us past the reflexive condemnation of opinions that differ from own.
The purpose of gaining this understanding is not to make us agree with the opinions of past times, but to make us more charitable towards them. Nor is it to exculpate the sins of the past, but perhaps to make us less sanguine about the virtues of the present. It can help us to realize how much our own opinions are a product of our circumstances, and it can help guard us against the ideological misuses of the past to sow misinformation and stir up resentment.
Nowhere is it more important in historical fiction to avoid presentism in our judgements than when it comes to the treatment of religious opinions. Whether one is religious or not (I am Roman Catholic myself) today one is conscious of the divide between believers and non-believers. For believer and non-believer alike there is a clear line drawn between the practical knowledge of the material universe and faith in a spiritual universe. However much the believer may, as a proposition, insist that the two are fully integral, they are nevertheless always aware of when they are on one side of that bright line and when they are on the other.
I think it is fair to say that it was not always so. For most people and most times, the integral universe of material and spiritual was a given. The line between them is, after all, an artificial one, drawn to delineate the intellectual domain of the physical sciences from that of philosophy and theology. The distinction is based on the differences in their methods. Things are on one side of the line or the other based on the available means to study them.
Neither Eric nor Elswyth, of course, would have had any exposure to this distinction. Their religious opinions would have been integral with their opinions on everyday things. The religious believer today is inevitably self-conscious in their belief, aware that it sets them apart. The religious believer then would not be self-conscious in their belief. Indeed, the term “religious believer” makes a modern distinction that would not apply for people of Elswyth’s time and station. For Elswyth and Eric, the actions of God or gods, of saints or Valkyries, are simply part of how the world works.
This is not to suggest that they were aware of no distinction between thing seen and unseen, between physical and spiritual. It is rather to suggest that they probably saw these things as much more of an integral whole, elements of a complete experience and explanation of life. It is the relationship between these things, rather than their distinction, that would have interested them, and they would have had no qualms about seeing problems, explanations, and solutions as naturally involving both elements.
We can see evidence of this in Bald’s Leech Book, to which we own most of what we know about Anglo-Saxon medicine. In it we find over and over again this integral view of the physical and spiritual responses to illness.
For a fiend sick man, or demoniac, when a devil possesses the man or controls him from within with disease ; a spew drink, or emetic, lupin, bishop wort, henbane, cropleek ; pound these together, add ale for a liquid, let it stand for a night, add fifty libcorns, or cathartic grains, and holy water. A drink for a fiend sick man, to be drunk out of a church bell; githrife, cynoglossum, yarrow, lupin, betony, attorlothe, cassock, flower de luce, fennel, church lichen, lichen, of Crists mark or cross, lovagc ; work up the driuk off. clear ale, sing seven masses over the worts, add garlic and holy water, and drip the drink into every drink which he will subsequently drink, and let him sing the psalm, Beati immaculati, and Exurgat, and Salvum me fac, dens, and then let him drink the drink out of a church bell, and let the mass priest after the drink sing this over him, Domine, sancte pater omnipotens.' For a lunatic; costmary, goutweed, lupin, betony, attorlothe, cropleek, field gentian, hove, fennel; let masses be sung over, let it be wrought of foreign ale and of holy water ; let him drink this drink for nine mornings, at every one fresh, and no other liquid that is thick and still, and let him give alms, and earnestly pray God for his mercies. For the phrenzied ; bishopwort, lupin, bonewort, everfern, githrife, elecampane, when day and night divide, then sing thou in the church litanies, that is, the names of the hallows or saints, and the Paternoster ; with the song go thou, that thou mayest be near the worts, and go thrice about them, and when thou takest them go again to church with the same song, and sing twelve masses over them, and over all the drinks which belong to the disease, in honour of the twelve apostles.
This is not faith healing as we understand it today. Prayer, medicine, and the influence of sacred objects work together to effect a cure. It is not prayer in opposition to, or as an alternative to, medicine. It is an integral view in which all the elements work together. We roll our eyes at this idea today, even if we are religious believers. They would likely have rolled their eyes that the idea that these elements could be separated (though not every cure in Bald’s Leechbook involves a spiritual element).
Eric and Elswyth would have likely shared this integral view of physical and spiritual. But they belonged to different faiths that painted different pictures of this integral world of physical and spiritual properties. What we know of Norse religion comes from the stories written down by Christian monks in Iceland centuries after the time of the Lindisfarne raid. We cannot know if some of the parallels between Christian and Pagan stories that we find there are true to the religion of 8th century Norse, or if they were drawn into it over time by contact with Christianity, or if they were simply adapted into the myths by the Christian monks who wrote them down. My portrayal of Eric’s views on the indifference of the gods, and of the essentially trade-based relationship between gods and men, is very much a construct, then. It serves to throw up a contrast to Elswyth’s own faith—a faith in which she is poorly catechized, and therefore poorly equipped to explain or defend.
In writing a scene like this there is always a temptation to fall into didactic mode, to turn one of the characters into a teacher — either a teacher of faith or a teacher of history — of trying to slip a sermon or a lesson past the reader. Nothing of the kind is going on here. Elswyth is no theologian and is certainly in no position to explain Christianity to Eric, or to the reader. What I was rather trying to work out, and to portray, in this scene is the way someone like Elswyth puts the pieces together in her own head and how she attempts to think through the little she knows when she is confronted with a very different view of the relationship between gods and men, and the moral consequence of such a view. My aim was to explore the dissonance and the discomfort of that encounter—not get to the truth of the issue, but to get to the truth of the experience of being confronted with the issue.
That, I think, is the job of the novelist.
The Wistful and the Good will take a break for Christmas and return in the new year.