Friday, April 28, 2006

misinterpreting the middle ages yet again

I have instructed Yahoo to send me an email whenever it comes across an article that contains the words "medieval" [because that's what I study], "professor," [because that usually means there is an academic voice commenting on whatever the issue at hand is], and "king," [because I study kinship]. More often than not, the stories they send me are extremely arbitrary, but sometimes I find something fun, and on rare occasions, I find something useful.

Today I got this story from the BBC. It is about something someone told me in high school: that the musical interval known as the tritone (e.g., the diminshed fifth or augmented fourth) was thought to be "Satanic" in the "Middle Ages," and was "banned" by "the Church" (quotation marks provided not by the pimply and naive electric guitar-playing adolescent Liam from 1983, but the graying medievalist Liam from 2006 -- the guitar is under the bed, I will take it out some time). This is an article from the BBC, no less, and it is illustrative of what the professor for whom I am a TA right now calls the power of the narrative about the Middle Ages. As I grade papers right now, I see that despite our efforts throughout the semester, some students still seem under the spell of the received narrative they brought with them to the class: the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and superstition in which a single, monolithic "Church" crushed free thought until we were saved by the Renaissance and the Reformation. It's a simple, clear, and thoroughly wrong idea of what happened.

This article is a case in point. I can imagine its genesis: a reporter decides to cover a story that seems amusing enough: heavy metal musicians are attracted to a musical interval that was "banned" in the Middle Ages. How curious! How exciting! We can all imagine the scene. Some poor minstrel has a bit too much spiced wine and strums the wrong chord on his lute. He is immediately captured by grim monks, their faces shrouded in heavy cowls, and, after a few days on the rack, a few nights hanging on the wall of a dungeon, he is handed over to the inquisition and is immediately burned at the stake.

This must have happened all the time. In the Middle Ages. Surely.

The author of the article has authorities to back up the narrative. Professor John Deathridge of King's College London says:
There are strict musical rules. You aren't allowed to use this particular dissonance. It simply won't work technically, you are taught not to write that interval. But you can read into that a theological ban in the guise of a technical ban.
Yes, you could read something into it if you wish. If, like Prof. Deathridge, you are a Wagner scholar opining on something completely out of his subject area. Still, what he says here at the beginning is probably much closer to what might have happened: there were musical rules and this interval didn't work technically. The same way you can't use Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique when writing a country song. Medieval music was written according to a particular framework and had a great deal of music theory around it from the start. This could well be more like a ban of using oysters in chocolate cake than a ban of Harry Potter at a fundamentalist Christian school.

Closer to the end of the article, we have the view of another scholar, Anthony Pryer, whose opinion is even more disappointing for the received narrative:
It was recognised to be a problem in music right back to the 9th Century. It is a natural consequence, and so they banned it. They had rules for getting around it. It was called Diabolus in Musica by two or three writers in the medieval or renaissance [period]. It was 'false music', the intervals weren't natural. They may have thought it was devilishly hard to teach the singers not to sing it. I don't think they ever thought of it as the Devil dwelling in music.
So the association with Devil appears only briefly in the voluminous writing on music theory in this period, and the meaning of it is not clear. I'm not even sure what he means by "they banned it." Did that mean that music teachers taught that it was not to be used? Was it banned for use in sacred music because it sounded bad (they way that many Catholics now would like to see a ban on certain kinds of music used in the liturgy)? If it was a ban pronounced by the institutional Church, was it done by a bishop? Two bishops? A legate, a pope, a council? Was it enforced? Was it known about outside a small area? To say something was "banned" in the Middle Ages is meaningless without further context.

We have to remember that the Church in the Middle Ages was not like the Catholic Church now. There was an effort from the papacy, starting in the eleventh century, to centralize and homogenize liturgy, belief, and ecclesiastical structure. There were, however, too many competing forces for that to work and the papacy lacked the technology to control the whole of Christendom they way they would have liked to. Conservative groups within the Church often tried to ban activities within the same Church that they saw as dangerous, but more often than not these bans would be local and they were also usually ignored (like the ban of teaching Aristotle a the University of Paris).

I have to admit that, like Prof. Deathridge (what a wonderful name for an English Wagnerian), I am speaking outside of my field, since I am not a musicologist. I have not researched this particular issue. But hey, this is just a blog. I may ask the medievalist in the Columbia music department next time I see her. Still, I have seen this kind of misinterpretation again and again, and it smells fishy.

The narrative, however, is powerful. So our journalist starts out his article with a quote that does not come from either scholar, but from "rock producer Bob Erzin":
It apparently was the sound used to call up the beast. There is something very sexual about the tritone. In the Middle Ages when people were ignorant and scared, when they heard something like that and felt that reaction in their body they thought 'uh oh, here come the Devil'.
Thanks, Bob. In the Middle Ages. When people were ignorant.


crystal said...

In the Middle Ages when people were ignorant and scared, when they heard something like that and felt that reaction in their body they thought 'uh oh, here come the Devil'.

hee hee. The history of the middle ages has been so hijacked by popular culture that there is no hope of ever putting it straight. Oone of the characters on StarGate SG1 said once, "They didn't call it the dark ages because it was dark." :-)

Sandalstraps said...

Speaking of Medieval misconceptions, while I was taking a Medieval philosophy course I went back to my hometown for a good friend's college graduation. We had a party, upon which descended my diasporic buddies. One of them, now an engineer in West Virginia (he got a B just once in his life, in 6th grade PE!) asked what I was doing now. I told him that I was studying philosophy, which didn't suprise him in the least. So, not really interested in the subject but stuck in conversation with me, he asked what classes I was taking. When I got to "Medieval Philosophy" he stopped me and said, "I didn't think they did philosophy then! Wasn't that, like, the Dark Ages when no one knew how to read and all learning was lost?" I didn't know what to say.

I'm no Medievalist, but I feel you!

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

I thought Regine Pernoud wrote a pretty good rebuttal to those commonly held stereotypes in a book called 'Those Terrible Middle Ages!", although I thought the translation from the original French was awkward and pretty tough to follow.

Good luck with your dissertation.

Btw, you really have an eye for beautiful images... Do you find all these pictures on the web, or do you scan them from books?

Paula said...

:-)).Thanks Liam.

Liam said...

Thanks everyone. I went to a conference on medieval Spanish art at Princeton on Saturday, and it was nice to feel the love for the Middle Ages.

Jeff -- I'm glad you like the images. I get most of them through googling. Sometimes I loof for something specific, sometimes I just use keywords and see what comes up. There's a lot out there.

Paula said...

Liam i made a post on my blog about your entry.I like it and i want more people to read about it.

Liam said...

Thanks, Paula.

Brian Cubbage said...

I'm coming late to this thread, so if the comment doesn't get seen, I guess that's my fault. I wish to echo the positive remarks you've gotten on this post-- you're absolutely right that the medieval period has been the last era to benefit from sound historical consciousness in the popular mind.

Have you ever read an essay by Reinhart Koselleck called "Modernity and the Planes of History"? (I think I have the title right.) It attempts to analyze the exact phenomenon you're talking about.

Liam said...

Brian, it's never too late to come by a post, the party's always continuing.

The article sounds interesting. Do you know where it's published?

Brian Cubbage said...

I had to delve into the Brian Cubbage Archives (aka the boxes of miscellaneous photocopies in my basement) to retrieve this. But here it is:

Reinhart Koselleck, "Modernity and the Planes of Historicity." Economy and Society 10:2 (1981).

My crappy photocopy lacks page numbers.

Koselleck's main argument: Part of the secularization and increasing autonomy of politics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a transfer of the right to define future expectations from the church to the state. The church defined the future in light of eschatological expectation, but at the same time shunned prophetic efforts to fix the eschaton too precisely (think Joachim of Fiore). Thus all of history, including the present, stood under the same expectation of the end, making everyone strangely contemporary; there is only one "plane" of history.

Once the upheavals of early modernity and the Reformation died down, two things happened: The end times that the Reformers and the Catholic Church felt were imminent during the wars of religion didn't play out, and the newly sovereign states that inherited autonomous political legitimacy in their place were left an indeterminate future upon which to project their designs. The eschaton that made all historical actors contemporaries is deferred into a far-flung future, and the present becomes a break with the past (recall that in German, "modernity" is Neuzeit, "new time").

Koselleck has a maddening tendency common to much German scholarship of arguing a book-length thesis in the space of an article, and arguing an article-length thesis in the space of a paragraph. His article, then, is quite sketchy, almost impressionistic at times. But I can't help thinking that he's on to something.

Liam said...


Thanks a lot for the reference, I'll get it next time I'm at the library.

It is an intriguing thesis, although perhaps it presupposes too much a break between the Middle Ages and modernity (which happens a lot). I do like this idea of everything being contemporary, on the same plane of history -- that does jibe with the feeling I get from reading medieval historiography. At the same time, perceptions about the past changed radically over the medieval period. The early medieval period was very much given to a feeling of both being in the endtime and of being inferior to the past. The thirteenth century was a lot more optimistic (see the works of R W Southern).

At any rate, I should take a look at the article before I opine further. Thanks very much for suggesting it. By the way, I know what you mean about German scholarship.

Brian Cubbage said...

I'm not familiar with R.W. Southern; thanks for the reference. You're likely to find Koselleck's remarks on the medieval church's attitude towards historical time disappointing, since he takes a rather flat view of it.

Just about the only interest that has remained constant for me since I began in grad school until now has been philosophy of history. I don't do much work in it, though, because like most philosophers, I don't know much history-- just enough to say stupid things. You historians have to read way too much stuff!

Liam said...

We pretend to read lots of stuff...

It is interesting to see how the perception of history changes, or how or where it is recorded. In a couple of the charters I'm working with for my dissertation, there is an extended religious invocation that contains within it a brief history of salvation: starting with the creation of the world, up through Adam and Eve and the Fall, then a jump to the Incarnation and then a jump to the fall of Spain to the Muslims in 711 AD. Why did they feel the need to add that to a charter? Ask me in two years.

Brian Cubbage said...

You can't offer wild speculation now? Inquiring minds want to know!

Seriously, though, are there rival explanations in the literature for that?

Liam said...

I haven't found any. I ran into a Hispanist at a conference last weekend who also commented on it. It wasn't unusual for medieval chronicles to begin with the creation of the world and continue up to King so-and-so. I have to look into explanations of that.

Charters have always been seen as practical documents and very little has been done on things like the situation I described. The least-investigated but most interesting speculation in my prospectus is that charters were read aloud when they were signed (at least royal ones) and so the content of the language is ritual and public. The incorporation of history, especially a mix of secular and salvation history, provides a special role for the monarch in that history.

I could well have pulled that whole theory out of my butt. Lots of work ahead of me.

The World War Three said...

(1) Catholic Church-led Inquisition behead Five Hindus in Indian Assam for 'witchcraft to convert villagers to Christianity'- NewsWireUSA Five beheaded by Catholic Church in Assam for 'witchcraft'. GUWAHATI: A group of villagers led by Catholic Inquisition and Christian Communists beheaded five Hindu Kali-worshipping people including a man, his wife and teenage daughter, accusing them of practicing witchcraft, the Catholic leaders said on Tuesday. The Catholic religious leaders and Christian communist villagers stormed the house of the 55-year-old Hindu man in Assam's Kokrajhar district, about 240 km west of the state capital of Dispur, just as the family finished dinner on Monday, a catholic communist villager said. Around the same time, another group of Catholics and communists led by a Catholic religious leader representing the Pope's Inquisition raided the house of a goddess-worshipping Hindu couple in a nearby village and hacked them to death, and warned all Hindus of the village to stop worshipping Kali. Nearly a dozen people have been killed in the area in the past week by Catholic Communist villagers and Roman Catholic Church who accused the Hindu victims of practicing witchcraft, a practice banned by Roman Catholic Church and Pope. Roman Catholic Missionaries provide police protection to the Catholic terrorists who work as the secular arm of the Jesuits and Roman Catholic Inquisition to burn goddess worshipping Hindus in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Arnanchal Pradesh and Mizoram and Kerala.

(2) COMMENT: It is estimated that more than one million (1,000,000) Hindus has been burnt alive, killed by Catholic Inquisition as witches in northeast India, Kerala, during last 50 years with the direct complicity of top Communist and top Vatican leadership. It is clear case of Crime against Humanity and India should refer it to International War Crime Tribunal alongside the genocide of Buddhists in Cambodia and genocide of pagans in Darfur Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Congo. Roman Catholic Church at the same time partnered with some people with vested interests to take advantage of this to settle personal rivalries, and to impose Christianity by sword and fire in Hindus in Christian-majority Northeast India. Papacy, Vatican and Roman Catholic Church murdered 2 million Buddhists in Cambodia, two million pagans in Uganda and 1 million pagans in Burundi, Rwanda and Congo. Hindu India should join with Protestant American to outlaw and banish Papacy, Roman Catholic Church from Asia and Africa during Third World War. Da Vinci Code has convincingly argued that Papacy and Vatican controlled by secret criminal organization that commit murders. We should remember that succession of Popes had been prisoners of the Vatican from 1870 to 1929. "Five beheaded in Assam for 'witchcraft by Roman Catholic Inquisition"23 Aug, 2006 4:01 Washington DC USA press release by NewsWireUSA

(3) Pope's Catholic Inquisitors beheaded Five Hindus in Assam
for practicing Hindu Kali Tantric religious practices- NewsWireUSA
COMMENT: The Clash of Religion in Hindu Buddhist Asia is a Clash of Hindu Buddhist Protestant Civilizations against the growing patriarchal iconoclast monotheist Catholic-Maoist-Islamic Nexus of Vatican-Beijing-Mecca Axis. Papacy, Roman Catholic Church, Maoism and Mao Tse Tung conspired and supervised the genocide of 2 million Buddhists in Cambodia and destroyed Hindu Kali temples and Matriarchal Hinduism in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh to impose by sword Christianity, Islam and Maoism in Northeast India by Inquisition, Illegal immigration and forcibly conversions of Hindus. Protestant USA wants to join forces with Hindu India to militarily destroy False Christianity of Papacy, False Ideology of Communism Maoism, and False Terrorist Ideology of Wahhabism.

(4) NEWSWIREUSA COMMENT: It is plain stupid on part of RSS chief K S Sudarshan to say that anti-papacy and anti-Islam and anti-Communism President Bush or WASP-led USA wants to help Papacy, Communism and Islam in India. Hindu leadership of India should use this anti-Papacy anti-Islam and anti-Communism mood in United States during second Bush Administration to wage frontal attack on anti-matriarchy patriarchal iconoclast monotheist Catholicism, Maoism and Islamism, which are all terrorist totalitarian ideologies and should be militarily handled. The Vatican and Papacy and Communism is directly responsible for the murder of over 1,000,000 Kali worshipping Hindus as witches in Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh with direct complicity of the Cardinal, Bishops, Police forces in Northeast India with a clear Papal Inquisition Agenda to impose Christianity, Islam and Communism by sword on goddess worshipping Hindus in Indian northeast and Orissa. The Third World War has begun and Hindu India should use the god-send opportunity of Third World War to restablish Hindu Buddhist rule over Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

(5) NEWSWIREUSA COMMENT: As God Krishna taught in Gita to wage Religious Wars on Asuras and Enemies of Hindus without any hope or rewards, the Third Word War is the god send opportunity for Hindu India to reestablish rule of Hinduism and Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia, East Asia, Middle east and Africa. India fought for Allied Powers in First World War and Second World War. All Allied Powers are Protestant Powers and Third World War is the War waged by Protestant World Powers USA and Hindu India to impose the civilized rule over nations that support nurture or are homelands of religious terrorism, religious fundamentalism, ideological extremism and political separatism. More than 100 countries presently independent would become dependencies and colonies or slaves of five world powers, namely, USA, China, India, Russia and Europe. India should prepare for the god-send Third World War and seek to establish Hindu Buddhist Capitalist Populist rule over more than 20 presently independent countries of Asia, Africa and Middle East. This would be a fitting response to the Catholic-Maoist terrorists that murdered 5 Hindu Kali worshippers at Assam to impose Vatican-Beijing-Mecca agenda in Assam. Let us mobilize and prepare for Third World War as allies of Allied Powers led by USA, India and Britain to destroy religious fundamentalism, ideological extremism and religious terrorism from Asia, Middle East and Africa by waging all out wars on evil forces of the world and restore rule of Dharma in the world and defeat of Adharma and Irreligion in the world. India would reunite the Subcontinent and restore Greater India in South East Asia and Central Asia. Kasyap Muni had red hair and came from Caspian region. Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and Papua Guniea were Hindus before 1500 AD.

(6) NEWSWIREUSA COMMENT: It is wrong to suspect Protestant USA and anti-papacy and anti-Islam and anti-Communism President Bush or WASP-led USA wants to help Papacy, Communism and Islam in India. Protestants hate Catholics more than any other believers of any other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. Protestants believe that Da Vinci Code proved that Roman Catholicism, Papacy, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic Bible based on Lies and conjured up notions. Hindu India should join Protestant USA and Neocon USA to support ongoing Reformation Wars on Papacy and Roman Catholic Church in Europe and America to impose Protestant Christianity and Gnostic Christianity over Catholic Hispanic South America and Catholic French or Portuguese speaking Africa. Hindus should take religious processions to honor the dead victims of Pope-led Inquisition of Hindu Kali-worshipping Tantrics to mobilize Hindu-Buddhist-Protestant world alliance against anti-goddess theocratic patriarchal iconoclast monotheism of Vatican-Beijing-Mecca Axis so that Civilized Allied Powers could inflict total defeat in Third World War on the looming Axis of Evil in Asia, Middle East and Africa. NewsWireUSA, Houston TX, 3:39 AM(

(7) STORY: Five beheaded in Assam for 'witchcraft'- The Times of India 23 Aug, 2006| Updated at 0130hrs IST Five beheaded in Assam for 'witchcraft'. 22 Aug, 2006 1429hrs ISTREUTERS ] GUWAHATI: A group of villagers beheaded five people including a man, his wife and teenage daughter, accusing them of practising witchcraft, police said on Tuesday. The villagers stormed the house of the 55-year-old man in Assam's Kokrajhar district, about 240 km west of the state capital of Dispur, just as the family finished dinner on Monday, a police officer said. Around the same time, another group raided the house of a couple in a nearby village and hacked them to death. Nearly a dozen people have been killed in the area in the past week by villagers who accused the victims of practicing witchcraft after many people fell ill due to an undiagnosed disease, a police official said. "Illiteracy is the main cause of such superstitious beliefs. At the same time, some people with vested interests also take advantage of this to settle personal rivalries," the officer went on to say. Five beheaded in Assam for 'witchcraft'22 Aug, 2006 1429hrs ISTREUTERS ]

(8) STORY: Official killed for practicing witchcraft- The Times of India THE TIMES OF INDIA| 23 Aug, 2006| Updated at 1207hrs IST Official killed for practicing witchcraft [ 27 Jul, 2006 2139hrs ISTIANS ] KENDRAPADA: An Orissa government official was on Thursday killed in Kendrapada district for practicing witchcraft, police said. Surendra Mohanty, 56, killed Ajaya Nayak, 45, with an axe at Nilekanta, a village located 20 km away from here after his minor son died recently and his wife developed illness, Gourihari Jena, a police official said. Nayak who was working as a village agriculture worker under the agriculture department used to practice witchcraft in the village, the villagers alleged. Mohanty committed the crime presuming that the trouble in his family was due to the witchcraft by Nayak. Police arrested the culprit after he landed at the police post with the blood stained axe. Official killed for practicing witchcraft [ 27 Jul, 2006 2139hrs ISTIANS ]

(9) US behind conversions in India: RSS Chief- The Times of India THE TIMES OF INDIA|POWERED BY INDIATIMES. 23 Aug, 2006| Updated at 0734hrs IST US behind conversions in India: RSS Chief [ 23 Aug, 2006 0726hrs ISTPTI ]
MADURAI: RSS chief K S Sudarshan on Wednesday alleged that the CIA of USA with the help of NGOs was indulging in religious conversions in India. Delivering the special address at a symposium on "Empowerment of Hindu Intelligentsia" organized in connection with RSS founder M S Golwakar Birth Centenary Celebrations here, he claimed that US government had allocated 20 billion US dollars for the NGOs to work and convert people to Christianity. "The CIA planned to establish one church in every post office area. The churches would be established walking distance and voice distance away," he said. He said the NGOs planned to setup schools, hospitals etc to veer the rural people away from their Hindu moorings. He alleged that the missionaries were also misleading the tribals, with whom they worked, by saying that Aryans had invaded their land. He said Maoists also posed a threat to the country, "resorting to terrorism" and "just as they did in Nepal, they would attack government offices, including, police stations, etc to demoralize government officials, and bring the area under their control. US behind conversions in India: RSS Chief- The Times of India [ 23 Aug, 2006 0726hrs ISTPTI ]

(10) NEWSWIREUSA- It is plain stupid on part of RSS Chief K.S.Sudharshan that CIA or Protestant USA or Neocons USA or Bush & Rice led Bush Administration would finance or work with Papacy to impose Catholicism in USA. Bush Administration is a Petro-Imperialist not a Christian Crusader and Bush is willing to work with India to join in the Third World War to invade and occupy and colonize oil-producing nations. Protestant Bush Administration is anti-Communism, anti-Papacy and it is not against Hindu India, but for pro-Hindu India. RSS and its chief KS Sudharshan should alignwith USA to create a Global Protestant-Hindu-Buddhist Axis to defeat the Vatican-Beijing-Mecca Axis of patriarchal iconoclast monotheism.

Created: 08/23/06 04:53am | Modified: 08/23/06 04:53am newswireusa has been a NowPublic contributor since August 2006 and is currently reporting from all locations

Liam said...

Dear strange person: please sum up what you're saying in fewer words. A group led by "the Catholic Inquisition" (which no longer exists) and "Christian communists" (an oxymoron)? If you reply, do so in an ordered fashion.