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The 'Model' of the Mediaeval World

Preface to Paradise Lost, The Allegory of Love, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama are all academic works written by C. S. Lewis in his role as teacher of medieval and renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Though scholarly and focused on their topics with precision, most of Lewis’s professorial works are written with the same kind of clarity and vision associated with his fiction. Though most of these books lie outside the scope of this work, the same themes can be found there, the fascination with the spiritual and the seeking to find the bridge into another world being amongst them.

The Discarded Image, the last book he completed before his death, is a study of the medieval model of the universe. Lewis simply calls it ‘the Model’ and examines the ways in which it was influenced by, and in turn exerted influence on, imaginative literature at that time. At first glance this might seem a dry topic, but what brings it to life is Lewis’s obvious affinity for it:

I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree… Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.

Mediaeval books were often full of ‘solid instruction’, statements and restatements of what was commonly believed about the universe. In a way, this is made more understandable by a comparison to the early novel: readers, before the age of film or television, and in this case before the rise of the theatre as such, needed a great deal of sensory input in their fiction. Just as 19th century novels incorporate page after page of rich description of the world of the story, so medieval literature delighted in explaining and describing the universe as it was understood at the time. As we will see, this is also due to another factor, quite alien to us now: the cosmos as comprehended by the thinking reader or listener of the Middle Ages was very much more ‘comfortable’ than our own. It was an ‘indoor’ universe; its workings and designs were ‘known’ and ‘knowable’ to the educated mind. There was no infinity about it, no sense of endless emptiness or entropy: when the Middle Ages looked up at the stars, they were looking at a slowly rotating ceiling, not a fathomless abyss.

There was another dimension to this too: whereas we are used, in our modern culture, to see art and literature as a product of inspired individuals bringing something original to light, in the Middle Ages, everything had already been brought to light. There was no fascination with ‘originality’ as such - in fact, to be ‘original’ meant that the author had probably not grasped what was already available and was in one sense ‘going out of control'. The mediaeval universe was like a massive clock, the workings of which were openly on display. To gain fame through being 'original' was almost inconceivable to the medieval mind: what mattered ws not new ideas but the skilful re-telling of old ideas. To write well, one only need find a worthy subject; authors took stories already in existence and re-told them, re-imagined them. Invention was not part of creativity: finding artful ways of looking at known things was where the centre of attention lay. This was not a lack of imagination but a different focus for the imagination, as Lewis put it:

If you had asked Layamon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?

The author’s job was to add value to what was there.

This naturally meant that all fiction was historical fiction. But we should not let that term confuse us with regard to our own understanding of historical fiction as a genre today. The mediaeval mind was not really interested in the question of whether something was historically accurate or even ‘true’ in the sense that we are used to thinking of truth. The point of a story did not lie in whether or not it had ‘really happened’, but in whether or not its point was morally or spiritually valid.

It is by no means necessary to suppose that Chaucer’s contemporaries believed the tale of Troy or Thebes as we believe in the Napoleonic Wars; but neither did they disbelieve them as we disbelieve a novel… I am inclined to think that most of those who read ‘historical’ works about Troy, Alexander, Arthur, or Charlemagne, believed their matter to be in the main true. But I feel much more certain that they did not believe it to be false. I feel surest of all that the question of belief or disbelief was seldom uppermost in their minds.

Lewis goes on to say that medieval people had little or no sense of historical period, assuming that people in the past dressed the same way they did, observed much the same social conventions, and shared the same kind of cultural ideas. Whereas for us the idea that history is a sequence of events in the past which has progressively given rise to the state of affairs around us today, for the mediaeval thinker history lacked that dimension altogether. The people and events of the past were culturally and psychologically closer, therefore. Hundreds of years might separate ancient Troy from the time in which they lived, but, just as spatial perspective was missing from their visual art, temporal perspective was missing from their grasp of ‘the past’.

Another way to understand this might be to relate it to the earlier idea of the ‘indoor universe’: Space for the medieval person was closed in and ordered, comfortable, something to which they could relate intimately. It was the same with Time: the ancient world was part of that indoor world, snug, warm, pleasant, enjoyable in the sense that its ideas were not far removed from their own, agreeable, congenial. In terms of a view of Life, the mediaeval individual felt sheltered, secure, safe, even when events around him or her were often violent or disturbed. The horror and the brutality were just a darker part of the ‘clock’, something that ‘fitted in’ to what was ultimately a providential existence.

Insofar as they thought about it at all, the past was considered to be better than the present, based on the general notion that there had once been a Golden Age and that things were slowly winding down from that. But even that idea was part of a universe which was divinely ruled and shaped.

Medieval and nineteenth century man agreed that their present was no very admirable age; not to be compared (said one) with the glory that was, not to be compared (said the other) with the glory that is still to come. The odd thing is that the first view seems to have bred on the whole a more cheerful temper. Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

One of the ruing principles of this very different world was the notion of sympathies, antipathies, and strivings which were believed to be inherent in matter.

Every kindly thing that is

Hath a kindly stede ther he

May best in hit conserved be;

Unto which place every thing

Through his kindly enclyning

Moveth for to come to.

— Chaucer, Hous of Fame, II, 730 sq

Everything in the universe sought its natural place under the influence of these sympathies: fire strove to rise, earth to fall. This was called ‘kindly enclyning’. It was a dominant concept, much like quantum physics is in our own day: everything was understood in its light. It explained why stones fell to the ground - they ‘enclyned’ to be there. It explained why water flowed, why the human body worked as it appeared to do, and much else.

In another fundamental difference from our own view of the universe, the medieval Model was bursting with Life: creatures inhabited the sea, the land, and the air, but also the region above the air, which was the domain of the daemons, spirit-like rational animals which filled the space between us and the higher beings. Above them, tier after tier of the heavens were home to even greater beings in a glorious hierarchy.

Things worked in threes: whenever two things were related, there must be a third thing to mediate that relationship. For example, a human ‘spirit’ mediated between the body and the soul, between appetite and reason. This meant that the universe was filled with beings whose role was mediation between one level and another: angels were the messengers between higher and lower regions. In fact, a whole ladder of angelic orders stretched up and down the Model, an extension of the ‘bursting with Life’ idea above.

All of this was inferred from ancient writers like Apuleius. The belief in daemons, for example, stemmed from pagan writers; medieval angelology was taken from The Celestial Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius (sixth century). Almost all of the elements of the Model can find a precedent in Greek, Roman, and early Christian writings. Anything an ancient writer wrote was taken as true: this was not so much a widespread gullibility on the part of mediaevals, but really an extension of their worldview - these writers were not removed from them as we might imagine they are from us: they were a part of the ‘indoor culture’, and were to be trusted just as a neighbour or friend might be trusted.

What this meant for Lewis’s purposes as a writer will become clearer when we examine the workings of the Model in more detail.


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