Medieval Innovators

6 Apr

We’ve a somewhat iconoclastic culture.

There’s not much in America too sacred or time-honored to escape the gleefully malicious

Here’s an example for all you Catholics out there, since we know the Pope got some serious bad PR this last Lenten season.  From mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer, circa  1965:

The American humorist par excellence, Mark Twain, made a name for himself poking fun at the upper crust of New England society in The Innocents Abroad—a travelogue of his time as a subversive among the reputables on the first U.S. cruise vacation.  (Neither priest, nor Parisian, nor any passenger escaped his pen.)

H.L. Mencken—probably best known for covering the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (see E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind)—got everyone else.

And hitting on the most incendiary issues of today, a rebel vlogger across the pond even dared to criticize that most vaunted book—Twilight.

I’m of the opinion that this is just one facet of a larger cultural trend—loving the innovator.

If there’s anything Americans don’t value—save the Bill of Rights, in theory—it’s tradition.  Nothing’s off limits, and nothing’s too far (see the 1960s).  Nobody’s looking backwards; it’s all about what’s new.

Why was there so much hype about the iPad, anyway?  I was hearing awed whispers about the fabled “Apple Tablet” long before the newest tool in Steve Jobs’s plot to take over the world was unveiled.    First sales weren’t as high as expected this past weekend, after all, and I’m still crossing my fingers for Amazon to win the ebooks/ereader war (mainly because I already have a Kindle…)

In any case—Steve Jobs has a reputation as an innovator, the technological visionary of the new millennium, and possibly for the rest of time if he sticks around for the Singularity.  We want ingenuity, creativity, anything anything new.

I’m all for forward ho!—and thoroughly looking forward to the “Nerd Rapture,” as I’m told those heathen Luddite doubters call the Singularity (just wait—they’ll be sorry when they’re not among the elect)—but it’s still fascinating to look back and see just how different things were way back when.

[I realize that my last post was about consistency throughout history—well guess what? There’s also chaos!  And vast cultural changes.  The past is an alien, alien place, and pretty scary sometimes.]

In late-medieval Europe, mid-16th century—also known as the Reformation, or, as I like to call it, “That-Time-When-Martin-Luther’s-Mental-Breakdown-Led-to-a-Theological-Revolution-and-Everything-Went-Effing-Crazy”—reformers were tripping over each other trying to argue that they weren’t innovators.  “Innovation,” in fact, was a pejorative word.

Strange, because John Calvin’s name is almost synonymous with (literal) iconoclasm of the period.  Down with superstition!  With empty ritual and the cult of saints!  Down with papal tyranny, false prophets and false sacraments!  That sounds pretty radical—and of course, it was.  But like innovation means something different to us now, so does tradition.

Survivors of the Catholic school system or of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes (aka, CCD, or those kids who messed up everything in our desks) will know that the Catholic Church bases its authority on two things: Scripture, and Tradition.  Scripture’s pretty obvious—it’s that book with the cross on it.  Tradition, however, isn’t contained in any one book.  It’s the theory and praxis of centuries (millennia?) of institutional development: papal bulls and decrees and encyclicals, ceremonies and ritual, writings of Church fathers and Church doctors (some women in there, surprisingly).

This is the tradition the Protestant reformers were Protestanting against.  For Luther and the gang, Scripture was the only basis for orthodoxy—anything else was the work of the papists trying to ensnare you and your property.

[I’ll let Karlstadt and Eck debate it out at Lepzig—as I’ve said, my salvation lies in the prophecies of Ray Kurzweil.]

And yet, despite their tirades against tradition of the papacy, Protestant reformers made very clear that they had tradition too—that of the original, first-centuries Apostolic church.

John Calvin’s Response to Sadoleto is a great example.  The Reader’s Digest version:

Where last we left off, Calvin was fleeing Paris under suspicion of heresy and being a really good speechwriter.  He headed from Paris to Basel (in Switzerland), then from Basel to Italy (where he hung out with a pro-Protestant duchess and got a nice suntan), then back to Basel again, from Basel to Paris, and Paris to Strasbourg—or that was the plan.  The French Valois dynasty was in the middle of a war with (of course) the Spanish Hapsburgs, and so Calvin was detoured into a city on the edge of a lake, near the French border: Geneva.

So it’s summer 1536 and Calvin arrives, gets bullied by fellow predestinarian William Farel into staying, and the two of them take over the city.  Or, kind of.  The city council and local Genevans start getting cold feet about the whole crypto-theocracy thing, so they throw Calvin and Farel out of town (a couple years later they invite them back and everything goes to hell, but that’s another story—and Calvin would probably argue that everyone went to heaven.  Ah well).

After Calvin got booted, the clever Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto decides that it’s his time to jump back into the fray and try to bring back the city from the edge, back into the fold of the Mother Church.  Basically, he writes an open letter encouraging a return to Catholicism, arguing that Calvin and co. were nothing more than a bunch of (wait for it…) innovators.

Code for: no respect for authority, for sanctity, for tradition.  The Catholic Church had been around, after all, for 1,500 years.  That’s a long time, and a big rival for lone men like Luther and Calvin to take on with only the strength of their consciences and heretical vernacular bibles.

But though the city had turned out Calvin, they hadn’t turned aside Protestantism, and searched in vain for someone to respond to the cardinal’s claims.  I imagine you can guess that those fickle, fickle Genevans turned back to Calvin.  And Calvin, being a genius and really fast writer, got his reply out in a matter of days—including possibly the best medieval burn I’ve read this semester:

You call us crafty men, enemies of Christian unity and peace, innovators on things ancient and well-established, seditious, alike pestiferous to souls, and destructive both publicly and privately to society at large.  I am unwilling, however, to dwell on each of these points.

But… You know, Sadoleto, and if you venture to deny, I will make it palpable to all that you knew yet cunningly and craftily disguised the fact, not only that our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, but that we have attempted to renew that ancient form of the church which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterward flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman pontiff and his faction.

First of all—how awesome is it to accuse someone’s colleagues of being illiterate and then throw down a word like flagitiously.  Ouch.  That’s almost as harsh as double predestination itself.

But most importantly— innovation was cearly not desirable.

And yet, like it or not, the times they were a’changin’.  A very literate populace devoured the letters as fast as they could be printed.  Of course, there’s a certain delicious irony in denouncing innovation by means of the most influential invention in human history (excepting fire…maybe): the printing press.

I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Cromwell, via James Frain and The Tudors: “It’s called a printing press, my Lord, and it will change the world.”


One Response to “Medieval Innovators”


  1. G is for Grande « The Scattering - April 17, 2010

    […] In any case, the unusual jocularity the above incident unleashed carried over through the rest of the period, during which everything about Ignatius Loyola seemed absolutely hilarious to absolutely everyone.  I believe I must be a miracle-worker, as Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises are almost as terrifying as Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Church.  And we all know how much Calvin frightens me. […]

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