In the first instalment of a three-part article, Barry E.B. Swain SSC reflects on the medieval world view


Every year in my Church, we present a ‘Medieval Mass’. During this Mass, electric lights are not used, there are no metrical hymns, no English, no spoken words, and no organ. What is offered to God is what would have been offered in the fourteenth or fifteenth century: one of the very early polyphonic Mass settings, the Latin Mass, and the Holy Sacrifice itself.


Modern accretions

The Church is normally quite full for this exercise, and we do everything we can to make it plain that this is not a re-enactment or a stunt, but a real Mass, and a real way to enter into a different kind of worship. It all works surprisingly well. But one of the things that constantly impresses itself upon me is how vigilant we must be to exclude any of the liturgical understandings of the world since 1540 or so. Even here, where the Traditional Catholic Mass of the Western Rite is offered, so many modern accretions have crept in. Some come from the Book of Common Prayer (the use of English, and the use of prayers recited rather than sung). Others come from the pressures of modern liturgical understandings (the Canon of the Mass aloud, and the Epistle and Gospel sung towards the congregation rather than towards the altar and the north side of the sanctuary respectively).

But what surprises me is the realization of how many perfectly good Catholic traditions, very old in themselves, are simply not appropriate in a medieval context. Many of the most prevalent ideas about Our Lord, for example, the devotion to his Sacred Heart, have no roots in the medieval world. Likewise, discussion of the Immaculate Conception itself occurred in the Middle Ages, but was not an absolute certainty, as it has been since 1854, but a topic of disagreement and heated discussion. Even the assumption we have that people would be reverently participating in the Mass is probably a very hopeful exaggeration of what must have gone on. So the past few years of putting this exercise together with our Organist and Choir Master, David Enlow, have reminded me of the first line of one of my favourite modern novels, L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’


Rooted in a continuing past

Our first understanding must be that Christian life and liturgy were, for medieval man, a pilgrimage, a holy journey. This medieval idea is almost incomprehensible today with our emphasis on and pre-occupation with the moment, instant communication, constant news, and what’s happening this minute. Twice a year, I conduct a retreat for priests who have elected to come away from the world, and I have to stress the necessity of not taking telephone calls, using the internet or email and not watching television or listening to the radio. They know perfectly well that doing these things detracts from the purpose of the retreat, and allows the world to intrude on their time away, but it is almost as if they can’t help themselves: the need to be in touch, connected, at all times is so great.

For medieval man, of course, this idea would have been unthinkable. It wasn’t just that it was not possible to learn of current events until much later, it was also that they did not figure so largely in his consciousness. The medieval person had a vivid sense of being rooted in a continuing past which stretched forward into the future, and in which all of Christendom was moving towards God together. It was this which formed the important consideration of society, and therefore of the liturgy. You may all have attended those Masses (either in the Roman or the Anglican churches) where the prayers of the people form a kind of digest of that day’s New York Times or The Guardian in England. One friend of mine in England says he knows perfectly well what is on the mind of any self-respecting liberal in London just by listening to the intercessions in his parish church on Sunday! (There are naturally similar churches in New York, though mine is not one of them.)


The next world

It is hard to imagine an idea farther removed from the spirit of the Middle Ages. There was concern, obviously, about other people and difficulties they may have been having, but their view was always coloured by the fact that God had a purpose and a plan and that these things are being worked out by him. They would also have felt very strongly indeed that the purpose of the liturgy was not to dwell on the world outside and its needs, but on their need for salvation and eternal life in the next world. This focus on pilgrimage was expressed not only in the liturgy but in the great mixing of church and secular life we see in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And even in using that expression ‘mixing of church and secular life’ I have given myself away. No medieval person would ever have said such a thing; the very idea that they were separate would have been a bizarre suggestion. They were both completely, and inevitably, for him intertwined and inextricable.

Another difference of concern would be found in the corporate nature of medieval life versus the private, personal nature of modern life. We are faced with this constantly, and the digital age is accentuating it even further. A walk past a coffee shop, revealing in a plate glass window 30 people staring on to their own computer screens paying no attention to each other, shows that the ‘coffee house culture’ of old where people talked, and visited and even shared ideas, couldn’t be more dead. Even the phrase ‘online community’ shows how far we have come from the sense of real belonging that began to disintegrate after the Industrial Revolution began and has now been utterly destroyed by the digital revolution.


Common life

A television commercial by one of the cable companies makes this point perfectly: a father uses his laptop to engage in work he has brought home, the mother is engaged in video chat with a far-away friend, a teenage daughter is instant messaging someone, and the son is playing video games. They may all be in the same house, but they have little or no connection, and the nuclear family living alone in a house, probably far from other blood relations, was itself a big change from the very large extended communities of the past, when families all lived together in one place and their roots went back for many generations. Everything about the computer is personal and individual, ‘My computer’ is the tab to configure what we want, and even when visiting the website of a huge store like Macy’s, we immediately see a way to make it ‘My Macy’s’, that is to personalize the experience so that it is unlike anyone else’s.

The medieval world was centred and rooted in communities, real, living communities which existed and had existed for hundreds of years, and it seemed often, forever. This carried over into the church’s liturgy of course. People rarely thought of themselves as attending a Mass ‘alone’. They had gone with friends or relations to the Mass and sat with them. A person sitting alone would have been thought mad or peculiar. Large numbers of the population lived in religious communities: monks, nuns, priests living in colleges or presbyteries. Others lived and worked in Guilds based on their trades: coopers, goldsmiths, cobblers, fishermen, ironmongers, greengrocers and so on. At the glittering top of the social scale there were knights who belonged to chivalrous orders, but just as often soldiers who fought in the army together for life, and women who had drawn water from the same well every day with each other for years. There was a rich context of common life, and this was all brought into the church. The Guilds, chivalrous orders, army companies, monasteries, convents, noble families, and of course above it all the Royal Family of a country, all engaged in worship together, and in a sense all approached God together. They knew absolutely that every sinner would one day confront God naked and alone, but in the meantime they engaged in the liturgy together.


Things of the spirit

Modern society is very focused on things. If you don’t understand that, you have only to look at last Sunday’s Times. Section after section shows pictures of things you can buy for yourself or as Christmas gifts for others: clothing, electronics, cars, and everything else you can think of. We are completely obsessed with things. Medieval man thought little of things. For most of them, ‘things’ beyond what they absolutely needed were beyond what they could ever afford. But even for many with more money, things were viewed much as St Francis viewed them, as obstacles which weighed one down. Even Kings lived quite simply compared to what even a middle-class person of the late nineteenth century would have. The medieval person was focused on God, on things of the spirit, and the afterlife.


Fear of hell

This concentration was partially sparked by fear, constant concern about the fear of hell, and the dread of death, obsessed people in the Middle Ages. Timor mortis conturbat me was the famous phrase from William Dunbar’s wonderful poem at the end of the fifteenth century, which summed it all up: the fear of death keeps me in a constant turmoil. Life was hard, brutish and short and was not there to enjoy but to use as a means to get to the next step: eternal life. They felt that the Church was one: in Earth yes, but also in Purgatory (the Church being prepared to be with God) and in Heaven (the Church already with God). They understood quite clearly that the Church extended beyond time (encompassing those who had lived before and had now moved on to Purgatory and Heaven) and beyond space (they were quite convinced of the idea that the Church, or Christendom, as they would have called it, included people all over the world, regardless of any considerations of nationality or region. Modern man, if he thinks of the Church at all, tends to think of it as the living people standing around in pews, or even worse, just the buildings that it owns.


Canon Swain is the Rector of the Church of the Resurrection, New York City, Spiritual Director of the SSC in the Americas, Vicar of the SSC Chapter of St John Fisher (which includes New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and the Middle Atlantic), Superior-General of the Guild of All Souls, an Honorary Canon of St Peter’s Cathedral, Koforidua in Ghana, and St George’s Cathedral, Ho, in Ghana. He is American Commissary for the Church in Ghana, and received the Star of the Order of the Living Rosary from the Most Revd David Hope, Lord Archbishop of York, Master of the Guardians of the Shrine at Walsingham, in recognition for his work for the Shrine. The Order’s membership is limited to fifteen. He was previously Rector of St Clement’s, Philadelphia, and Curate of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Times Square. He is a graduate of The General Seminary in New York, and was previously Princess Louise Lecturer in Latin & Greek in McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, where he was doing his Ph.D. degree.