The Fourteenth Century Mystics as God's Children (an Introductory Cognitive Study). (Literature)

By Wicher, Andrzej | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Fourteenth Century Mystics as God's Children (an Introductory Cognitive Study). (Literature)


Wicher, Andrzej, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


The theme of youth as opposed to old age belongs to one of the most permanent archetypes of culture. Curtius talks about the conflict between the young (juniores) and the old (seniores) in the context of discussing the remnants of the ancient Indo-European religion in European culture as interpreted by Dumezil:

This Indo-European polarity covers a large number of paired opposites, among them that of stormy youth (iuniores) and thoughtful old age (seniores). There is not room for the details and the evidence here. I shall quote only Dumezil's conclusion: "L'un des deux termes (Varuna, etc.) recouvre ce qui est inspire, imprevisible, frenetique, rapide, magique, terrible, sombre, exigeant, totalitaire (iunior) etc., tandis que l'autre (Mitra, etc.) recouvre ce qui est regle, exact, majestueux, lent, juridique, bienveillant, clair, liberal, distributif, senior, etc. Mais ile est vain de pretendre partir d'un element de ces 'contenus' por en deduire les autres." (Curtius 1990:171-172).

It is interesting that Curtius, in spite of his being a medieval scholar of great distinction, did not, apparently, think of applying this polarity, which he knew so well, and particularly the notion of youth, or childhood to his conception of the Middle Ages. There is no room for the idea that the Middle Ages were a period that could be called European culture's childhood, or youth in Curtius's monumental European literature and the Latin Middle Ages (ELLMA). Probably in his eyes it would spoil the purity of the intellectual venture of ELLMA, which was to bring us (or rather West Europeans) back to the Latin Middle Ages rather like a wayward child is brought back to its mother. In his foreword to the English edition of ELLMA, he says: "In 1932 I published my polemical pamphlet Deutscher Geist in Gefahr. It attacked the barbarization of education and the nationalistic frenzy which were the forerunners of the Nazi regime. In it I pleaded for a new Humanism, which should integrate the Middle Ages, from Augustin e to Dante" (Curtius 1990: vii-viii). Talking about the reasons for the American enthusiasm for medieval studies, Curtius remarks: "The American mind might go back to Puritanism or William Penn, but it lacked that which preceded them; it lacked the Middle Ages. It was in the position of a man who has never known his mother" (1990: 587). In view of the above quotations it is clear enough that Curtius, with his vision of the Latin Middle Ages as Europe's Alma Mater (fostering mother) could hardly see that epoch as an irresponsible child, with its tendency to be "imprevisible, frenetique, rapide, magique, terrible, sombre, exigeant, totalitaire". Of course he saw probably very well such tendencies in the Middle Ages, but he never tired of emphasising the Latin element in the medieval culture, and it may fairly be surmised that his concept of Latinity, which seems to include both Latin learning and Latin civilisation, was to serve as an antidote to anything "imprevisible", and a medicine containing the salutary e lement of a responsible, though liberal, adulthood.

Le Pan, on the other hand, in his book The cognitive revolution in Western culture, feels no compunction about suggesting that medieval people were endowed, in comparison with the modern Western man, with a different cognitive apparatus through which they perceived the world, and that this apparatus was strikingly similar to that of a typical child:

As the general atmosphere of violence suggests, medieval society was in some ways more primitive than our own -- or more frankly primitive -- and may thus seem to us more child-like. People took tremendous pleasure in color, in dress, in ritual, in parades, in spectacles, in elaborate food and drink (when they could get them) in all those aspects of life that children especially love, and most adults do not scorn. Like children, medieval people were subject to emotional extremes -- they wept more quickly than we do, were headstrong and hasty, quick to sin zestily and repent heartily, and then to sin and repent again (Le Pan 1989: 47).

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