The Alt-Right is Hijacking the Middle Ages: Medievalists Aren’t Going to Let Them.

I was as disturbed as anyone tracking the reports of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend. Disturbed by the shouted slogans, the violence, the anger, the typically disturbing imagery of swastikas, confederate flags, and automatic weapons displayed alongside American flags. All that was sickening enough.

But then I noticed something else about the images; something equally–if not more–horrifying. It began as an uncanny sensation; the way it feels to stand in a creepy, abandoned house and still recognize, on some level, the traces of very familiar daily life that remain.

It took a little while for the reality to hit me: I was seeing images and concepts pulled from the area of study to which I’ve dedicated my professional life: the history and culture of the Middle Ages in Europe. The uncanny sensation came from the fact that, for me, encountering symbolism from the Middle Ages is what I do for a living every day, so I was literally reading those symbols in my knee-jerk fashtion as though they were appearing in the contexts in which they normally appear for me, familiar symbols with familiar meanings and connotations, encountered in the course of historical and literary study. The images had become so “normal” to me that the unusual context didn’t register at first, leaving me with a strange “something is off here” sensation that I could not, initially, put my finger on.

Then it hit me: I was reading those medieval images in my usual way, such that they were barely on my radar at first. It had to dawn on me that these were neo-Nazi thugs using these images and symbols in the service of their abhorrent ideology. The awareness of what they were doing grew on me through the course of the weekend, as I continued to study the images, and listened to what many of my fellow medievalist scholars were saying: This is what I study. None of these images and concepts have anything to do with the realities of medieval European history and culture. They are hijacking the Middle Ages.

Then came the next thought:


Oh. No. You. Don’t.

I don’t know how effective I’d be as a counter-protester on the streets of Charlottesville. I’m not a politician. Honestly, I’m pretty much an introvert. But this? This is something I can deal with. If this is a hijacking, it’s one for which I–along with my fellow medievalists–am well equipped to help mount a rescue.

Before I show you a few examples of what I’ve been noticing, as a medievalist, in the Charlottesville images, let me make one point of supreme importance:

The basic idea behind the neo-Nazi appropriation of the European Middle Ages appears to be the appeal to the idea of a “pure white race.” That is, the (entirely false) notion that Europeans in the Middle Ages were white people, that the Middle Ages in Europe represent a kind of “purer” time in which other perceived racial groups had yet to corrupt that purity.

Here’s the key point: There was no such thing as “White People” in the Middle Ages.

The concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness, ” in the ways in which we understand those terms in our present time, place, and culture, simply were not present in the Middle Ages. (This is not to say that the cultural processes by which later forms of racism developed were not underway in the Middle Ages, or that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have other, perfectly effective ways of creating difference and killing one another for it; but it is to say that those terms did not have the associations they do now.)  To talk about “white” culture in Medieval Europe is no less anachronistic than it would be to talk about “fourteenth-century Flemish smartphones,” or “the space stations of Carolingian France.” This alone renders the alt-right idea of a purely “white” medieval Europe absurd from the get-go. Were that not enough, we know from many varieties of evidence (literary, documentary, archaeological) that one traveling through Europe in the Middle Ages would have experienced a wide variety of skin tones, and a wide variety of ancestries from all over the known (at the time) world, including the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.

So, white supremacist misappropriations of images and ideas of medieval Europe are precisely that: misappropriations. They have nothing whatever to do with the historical and cultural realities.

Take a look at the following images from the Charlottesville demonstrations. I’ll try to unpack some of the salient features of each:


Edu Bayer, New York Times

This particular image has been reproduced and discussed quite a bit. Note the shield, the form of which is reminiscent of Germanic (Norse, Saxon) design. You might have seen Vikings carrying shields like these. The symbol on the shield is called a “Black Eagle.” Traditionally, it’s the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably, these white supremacists are thinking of the symbol as something connected with the idea of a “white” pan-European power. However, as several commentators, including Joseph Livingstone at the New Republic have pointed out, and as just about any scholar of the Middle Ages will tell you, this appropriation is more than a little ironic: the symbol was originally that of St. Maurice, an early Christian, and also a soldier in the 3rd Roman Legion, who was martyred for refusing the Emperor’s command to harass a community of Christians. The kicker is that Maurice was Egyptian, and looked like this:


Notice the left-hand shield in this image:


Edu Bayer, New York Times

The shape is based on that of the Roman Scutum, the design favored by the Empire’s legions. These groups, apparently, also have a thing about the Roman Empire, seeing it, too, as somehow nostalgic of a purer whiteness. Again, this is odd, since the Empire covered a very great deal of territory, and even most natives of Rome would hardly have been fair-complected. While Caucasian-looking skin was not unheard of in Rome, it was at lease sufficiently unusual that a shipment of fair-skinned slaves from Northern England caught the attention of the 6th century Pope Gregory I. The medieval historian Bede relates that Gregory, upon hearing that the slaves were called Angles (Angli in Latin), remarked that they were “Non Angli, sed Angeli.” Not Angles, but Angels. Clearly fair faces were not the norm in most of the Empire.

The symbol on the shield is even more interesting. It’s a character from a runic alphabet known as the Elder Futharc, a writing system used in Scandinavia in the 2nd-8th centuries or so, and which became the basis for a number of later runic scripts. It’s called an odal or othala rune. Phonetically, it sounds like the English letter “O.” Symbolically, it means something like “heritage” or “inheritance.” A version of the symbol was adopted by a unit of the Nazi SS in World War II, and has been appropriated by the present-day American National Socialist movement, mainly as a sort of less-recognizable (to outsiders) replacement for the swastika, in a sort of euphemistic re-branding. Of course, no ancient Norse person would have had any awareness of him/herself as “white,” and the ideas of heritage and inheritance had much more to do with the idea of the transmission of privileges and property within a family than anything having to do with “heritage” in its (thoroughly modern) nationalistic sense.

This last image is one that’s particularly upsetting to me as a specialist in Scottish history and culture:



The sigil on the two (again, Roman-influenced) left-hand shields is known as the “Black Saltire,” and is the sigil of the Southern Nationalist movement, including, most notably, the League of the South, a group that advocates a second Southern “secession” and the establishment of a new state dominated by what they call an “Anglo-Celtic elite.”

The saltire image is telling. The saltire is also known as the Cross of St. Andrew (one of the original Disciples of Jesus, and the brother of St. Peter). Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of Scotland, and a white-on-blue saltire is still the national Flag of Scotland. Already there’s some irony here, as both Peter and Andrew, as natives of Bethsaida, in Galilee–and professional fishermen who spent most of their time on the open water–would have had swarthy Middle Eastern (and sun-darkened) complexions.

The shield on the right may be significant as well. While some media outlets have noted that other organizations that use the image of a lion, such as the Detroit Lions, have already denounced the use of the image, both present-day Scots, and anyone with a passion for Scottish history, should be even more horrified. The symbol of the “Rampant Lion” is another important Scottish symbol, none other than the Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland. In Britain, the use of the image of the Rampant Lion is so


The Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland (Wikimedia image).

important that its use is highly regulated, by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the body governing the use of heraldry in Scotland, where such a use of the image would be considered illegal (in addition to being simply offensive). It’s been the traditional symbol of Scots royalty since the early 13th century, and, as such representative of a host of ideas, none of which is that of “whiteness.” Its misuse in this context is nothing less than nauseating.


It gets worse.

The Scots, as I’ve discovered, are of special importance to American white supremacists. The basic idea stems from a group known as the “Christian Identity” movement, which itself is a derivative of the idea of “British Israelism.” To make a long, tortured story short, the CI movement believes that medieval Celts are, in fact, one of the lost tribes of Israel. According to these groups, present-day Jews and Israelis are essentially impostors, and “Scots-Irish” descendants, in America, of medieval Celts, are really God’s Chosen People, the heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, and the descendants of those they see as the last “pure white” race.

Of course, this has nothing whatever to do with what we know from the documentary and archaeological records of where the Scots came from. And we most certainly know that even medieval Scots were a very ethnically mixed group, with influences ranging from Celtic and Norse, to Norman, to African (thanks to occupying Roman legions). In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, not even those living in Scotland could agree on who was really a “Scot,” and, especially in the late Middle Ages, the definition often hinged on political allegiances more than anything. The fourteenth-century poet John Barbour, in his poem The Bruce (about the life of King Robert I, 1274-1329), seems to think of Scottishness as exclusively a matter of allegiance to King Robert: Barbour even describes native-born Scots loyal to the English Edward I as “Englis,” and only when they, and even their English-born counterparts, swear allegiance to Robert does Barbour label them”Scottis men,” no matter where they came from.

As both a scholar of medieval Scottish history, literature, and culture–and as an American of Scottish ancestry–I ashamed to see these images and ideas abused in this way, appropriated to stand for things they never, ever meant.

For me (and for just about any medievalist), the Middle Ages don’t appear monolithic in any way, least of all monolithically “white” (as we, in the here and now, understand the term). Medieval Europe was a highly diverse time and place, much more connected to other parts of the world than, I think, most people are aware. One of the reasons for my own interest in the British Isles is that the population thereof in the Middle Ages was one of the most diverse I’ve ever encountered, a complex and vibrant mingling of languages, ethnicities, cultures, conflicts, and ideas. It is out of that diversity, because of that diversity, that the works of literature I love and study emerged.

I’m not sure precisely what combating the evil appropriation of the Middle Ages of the so-called “alt-right” is going to wind up looking like. There have already been some promising statements, such as this one, from groups of scholars of the Middle Ages. But certainly, one strand of our response has to be to find ways to make sure these appropriations fall on the least-fertile ground possible, on the ears of a public sufficiently well-educated about the realities of the Middle Ages to spot the deception. That’s a challenge I’m ready take up.


Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing, Part Three

In which St. Augustine and a medieval mystic show us how it’s done, and we realize John Lennon was plagiarizing both of them…

I ended the previous part of this meditationSaint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne on this note: if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism.

The good news–quite literally–in this case is that God has already made this possible by accomplishing what was discussed in the first part of this meditation  the incarnation, where all that fullness, in a great and mysterious action, became one and the same thing as an embodied human being. That’s why the incarnation is so important. It means human and God can in fact be made one.

At the same time, that gap between what we can know and what God is is still there, so what takes us the rest of the way? It can’t be understanding. It can’t be knowledge. It can’t be human effort under its own steam.

But what might happen if we try to get to the point where we can work through those things: start with what we can sense, move up through what we can understand and symbolize, precisely in order to be so aware of those things that we can come into some kind of contact with that realm beyond it. Get past sense and signification so that we’re stretching our intent entirely toward that “Cloud of unknowing?”

St. Augustine gives us an interesting glimpse into what something like that might be like. The moment happens at a point where Augustine, after his conversion, is sitting in a garden, having a conversation with his mother:

From Confessions, Book Nine (New Advent Trans.):

We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, Philippians 3:13 we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which You are, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. But yet we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You; that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery.

And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting ourselves with a more ardent affection towards the Selfsame, did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where You feed Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come; and she is not made, but is as she has been, and so shall ever be; yea, rather, to have been, and to be hereafter, are not in her, but only to be, seeing she is eternal, for to have been and to be hereafter are not eternal. And while we were thus speaking, and straining after her, we slightly touched her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there left bound the first-fruits of the Spirit; Romans 8:23 and returned to the noise of our own mouth, where the word uttered has both beginning and end. And what is like Your Word, our Lord, who remains in Himself without becoming old, and makes all things new? Wisdom 7:27

We were saying, then (my trans):

If the roar of flesh fell silent

silent the phantasms of earth,‭ ‬water,‭ ‬air,

silent the heavens

silent the very soul to itself,

so that it passes beyond itself,

not knowing itself‭;

If dreams quieted‭

‬and imagination,

and all tongues,

every sign,

each transient thing

just stopped–

since,‭ ‬if one hears,‭ ‬all things say this:

‏>“‎not for ourselves were we made

but for he who made us who dwells in eternity‭”‬–

and,‭ ‬having aroused the ear

of Him who made them,

they quieted down,

and He spoke:

Himself only,

so that we heard the Word Himself

not through carnal tongue

nor voice of angels

nor sound of a cloud,

nor cryptic metaphor–

If we heard only Him,

who we love through these things

but without them

(just as now

we strain

and in a lightning thought

touch eternal wisdom

dwelling above all‭)

And if this could continue,

purging all other visions

of far inferior birth,

and this alone ravish and absorb

the spectator,‭ ‬hide him

in inward joys,

so that eternal life was this moment

of understanding:

Isn‭’‬t this,‭ ‬and this alone:

‏“‎Enter into the joy of your Lord‭?”

What Augustine does, here, is give us a fascinating dual movement: he starts by sort of listing out all of the things through which we can begin to experience some sense of God through his sensible creation: the natural world, through which we have evidence of God’s activity–something that points toward God but is not itself God. Symbols that help us explain our conceptions of God but don’t express God himself. Even God speaking to us in words we can understand as words. Then he asks a really amazing question:

What if, for a single moment, all that stuff just shut up? What if all that fell silent and we just felt pure, unmediated communion with the thing all those symbols point toward but aren’t? What if we didn’t have to understand or experience God through these things (like pesky middlemen), but were right there, being with God as God?

Then he asks: What if that single moment–which he’d just experienced with his mom–wasn’t just a single, beautiful moment? What if it stretched out infinitely, an eternal, un-mediated being-present with the divine?

And the final humdinger: Wouldn’t that be heaven?

Notice that while Augustine didn’t get quite that far–to heaven, that is–he did get to that moment that, if stretched out infinitely, would be heaven. So what he he can achieve in this existence isn’t itself heaven–but it’s a a piece of it.

So how does one actually come to be in such a state? To commune with that part of God we cannot know?

Augustine gives us a glimpse: he and his mother start by being fully present in a moment with one another, and consider all those sense-able and knowable things we most often use to know and relate to God, but are present with them so completely that they are able to move beyond them into that space of what can’t be known.

So how, then might real people (who aren’t, you know, St. Augustine) reach toward this kind of communion? And how do we know that what we’re communing with is really the divine, and not something else?

Another mystic, the anonymous writer of a fourteenth-century Middle English treatise on mysticism called the Cloud of Unkowing perhaps helps us understand this process a little better. The Cloud author recognizes that “Cloud of Unknowing”, and his basic method is not to lament that there are things about God we cannot understand, but rather to stretch our awareness directly and fully to that “Cloud:”

Lette not therfore, bot travayle [work] therin tyl thou fele lyst [motivated, desirous]. For at the first tyme when thou dost it, thou fyndest bot a derknes, and as it were a cloude of unknowyng, thou wost [knows] never what, savyng that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent unto God. This derknes and this cloude is, howsoever thou dost, bitwix thee and thi God, and letteth [hinders] thee that thou maist not see Him cleerly by light of understonding in thi reson, ne fele Him in swetnes of love in thin affeccion.

The Cloud author’s most basic and brilliant observation is that, while, as I’ve mentioned above, God in all his fullness cannot be known by a human mind, knowledge isn’t the only, or even necessarily the best, tool we have when it comes to relating to God:

For of alle other creatures and theire werkes — ye, and of the werkes of God self — may a man thorou grace have fulheed of knowing, and wel to kon [know] thinke on hem [them]; bot of God Himself can no man thinke. And therfore I wole leve al that thing that I can think, and chese [choose] to my love that thing that I cannot think. For whi He may wel be loved, bot not thought. By love may He be getyn and holden; bot bi thought neither. And therfore, thof al [although] it be good sumtyme to think of the kyndnes and the worthines of God in special, and thof al it be a light and a party of contemplacion, nevertheles in this werk it schal be casten down and keverid with a cloude of forgetyng. And thou schalt step aboven it stalworthly [stalwartly, bravely], bot listely [carefully], with a devoute and a plesing stering [stirring] of love, and fonde for to peerse that derknes aboven thee. And smyte apon that thicke cloude of unknowyng with a scharp darte of longing love, and go not thens for thing that befalleth.

Notice that what the contemplative is doing here is essentially reaching out toward that Cloud with loving intention, to “smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love”. Obviously that’s not going to get one all the way. But it does act as a way of clearing one’s consciousness of all the other matters–sensible and symbolic–that can’t lead toward that full relationship. And the good news–literally once again–is that the incarnation means that we do not need to complete the task under our own steam. What happens when we enter that contemplative state is that we clear the air of things that make us less receptive to the force that works the other direction, God’s own grace and mercy:

And therfore schap [determine] thee to bide in this derknes as longe as thou maist, evermore criing after Him that thou lovest; for yif ever schalt thou fele Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth alweis be in this cloude and in this derknes. And yif thou wilte besily travayle [diligently work] as I bid thee, I triste in His mercy that thou schalt come therto.

By stretching that loving intent and desire for God directly toward that Cloud of Unknowing, we put ourselves as purely as possible in the way of grace, and grace takes it the rest of the way.

A blessed Christmas to all.


Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing: An Advent Meditation, Part Two

In which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a burnshead1crazy Scottish love poem.

I have to confess I actually like Advent more than I like Christmas. Christmas itself, at least in my own Midwestern, American, middle-class culture has been so taken over by a combination of commercialism and seemingly obligatory rituals and expectations that, for me, Christmas proper, I fear, has become more of a yearly exercise in stress management techniques (as much about dealing with the stress of others as about dealing with my own) than in commemoration of the incarnation of Christ.

Advent is different: it’s a season rather than an “event,” which gives me time–to prepare, to rest, reflect backwards and imagine forwards. Advent is when I have the time and wherewithal to think about things like the incarnation itself, with a sense of anticipation, as in the first part of this meditation. This second part tries to get to the purpose of that kind of thinking, to the idea of the kind of communion with the Divine that that event of the incarnation makes possible. This will come in two installments, one on Christmas Eve, and the next on Christmas proper.

To begin, try a quick exercise:

  1. Think about something you love deeply: a person, a friend, a spouse, or even an activity or a work of art.
  2. Try to list the things you know about that that thing that you love.

Now consider this question: To what degree do those things that you know seem to account for the love itself?

Now try again, but instead of explaining things you know about that object of your love, start explaining the love itself.

Show of hands: do you feel like your explanation of your love expressed that love in every iota of its fullness?

Yeah, of course not.

Now think about that “gap.” There’s some distance, there, between what you can explain and understand intellectually,, or even symbolically: “my love is like a red, red rose”–kinda, but not all of it, right?

So in a way, that gap is important. That gap between what you can know and whatever it is that accounts for the complete fullness of your experience. In a way, the gap is the thing; that’s what you love. That gap, in a sense, is the most “real” thing about your love; the very thing that makes it more than anything you can symbolize or put into words is its most essential component.

It’s like this:

Your experience of your love in all its fullness.
What you can explain
What you can sense

In a sense it’s that top gap that’s most essential, right? If you were only stuck with what you could explain, your experience of it wouldn’t be love.

So there’s a very real sense in which what we cannot symbolize is precisely the same thing as what we love. The existence of something we cannot symbolize is precisely what makes it as real as it is.

And that thing is really hard to talk about, precisely because it’s not something that can be expressed using any of the tools we humans have–that is, symbols–to express and communicate things.

This is why, for example, even great love poems tend to end in things like failure and negation. Take this one by Robert Burns:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Notice how this poem starts with two really cheesy, cliche similes; then moves to a sort of attempt at equation, which doesn’t quite work for the speaker either, and then the speaker goes on not to positive images but rather to images of dissolution: the seaIn which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a Scottish love poem.s going dry, rocks melting with the sun. It’s a strange set of images–we’re destroying the world in a Sci-Fi apocalypse and it’s still not right! Then all the speaker can do is say goodbye–twice–and try to imagine placing infinite distance between himself and his love and try to think about an infinite effort to return to that at which he never arrived to begin with.

But that’s the idea: the love, the real love, that which makes it love, begins precisely at the point where the speaker’s ability to symbolize and express it breaks down. That’s what the poem is about.

That’s as good an initial illustration as any, perhaps, of how medieval mystics tend to think about the relationship of human beings to God: knowledge and intellect and human powers of symbolic expression only get us so far in terms of relating to God in all his fullness, because what we can express and understand about God is limited by our fallen humanity.There’s a very real way in which, if we can understand and express it, it must not be God, because we are less than God, so anything that we can actually get our minds around is also less than God. If we can understand it, we’ve already got it wrong.

At the same time, we have a sort of vague sense of that gap between what we can understand and symbolize and something else, and that something else as to be precisely what makes God God (because it can’t be what makes God God if we can explain it in human terms that fit within the finite and fallen human capacity for knowing).

Which means that if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism I’ll talk about on Christmas Day.


Surfing the Matrix: A Medievalist Does Tech

Surfing the MatrixTheMatrixWallpaper1024 

Here’s an interesting etymology for you:

In the present, the word “Matrix” conjures a lot of high-tech imagery. Part of my mind immediately envisions that parade of mystical green characters cascading down a screen in front of Keanu Reeves, the manifestation, in raw digital code, of the virtual creation most people in that world accept as “reality.” That reality, in the film, is also not a disinterested one, but rather one imposed by the robotic conquerors of mankind to keep human beings docile as they unwittingly serve as the biological batteries that power their own enslavers.

But why is that thing called a “Matrix” as opposed to anything else? That’s where the medievalist and Latinist in me kick in. In the Middle Ages, the word “matrix” referred to the physical tool used to impress the form of a seal on another surface, such as wax or a coin. To own the “matrix” of a seal was to possess power: seals were the way in which power was transmitted. Normally, the power of a King or nobleman was expressed by his bodily presence. This is why, for sealmatrixexample, medieval monarchs typically didn’t headquarter their administrations in fixed capitals, but rather moved around their territories: to spread their power evenly, they had to spread their persons evenly. What allowed such a person to spread his power where his body was not was his seal, which was a sort of material symbol that acted as a stand-in for his physical presence. A document bearing the seal of the monarch bore the power of that monarch. Anyone with access to that seal had access to that power. Thus the word “matrix” in the movie is really just a reiteration, in a later, digitized era, of precisely what the “matrix” was in the middle ages: a virtual construct that transmits and spreads power.

But again, why, in the Middle Ages, was that tool called a “Matrix?” You need a geeky little Latin lesson to understand this: in Latin, the ending -er on a noun most often indicates a neuter or masculine gender, as in pater, “father,” or puer, “boy.” Mater simply means “Mother” in Latin, a female role. Interestingly, there’s a different kind of noun in Latin that expresses the idea of a person specifically as an agent of something, and agency is often gendered. Hence a pastor is a male person who tends sheep. If you want to talk about a female person who tends sheep, you change the ending, to pastrix. In the same way, mater simply indicates a mother. The word matrix, on the other hand, specifically denotes the mother in respect to the role of propagation. Metaphorically, then, matrix can mean origin, progenitor, cause, or even womb. The word also comes to refer, by metaphorical transference over time, to other things that are “wombs” or “origins” of power, such as public registers, lists–and, eventually, the patterns for seals, matrices.

Tracing the term through its medieval and classical origins, then, allows us to see more clearly the meaning of The Matrix in the present. It is, as it always has been, virtual power, or the potential for that power’s deployment. It is the “womb” that holds us (nurturing us, or holdings us captive?), or that contains the potential for and propagates power. Hence it is no surprise that the the denizens of the Matrix in the film exist, literally, in artificial wombs, floating in manufactured amniotic fluid, hooked up to mechanical umbilicals.

A Medievalist in the Digital Matrix

I just received a happy little automated note from WordPress reminding me, in a congratulatory tone, that I officially created this blog two years ago. Less-than-consistent blogger than I am, I appear to have waited to post anything until about a year ago, when I began my blogging experiment in earnest.

I named the blog “surfingedges” because I’m always very interested in strange and difficult middles, and seem to exist on quite a few of them: one of the main things I study as a scholar of medieval literature is the literal and imaginative borderland between England and Scotland in the Late Middle Ages, but my interest in that particular border only obtains because it is such a rich ground for exploring the way human identity behaves at its limits.

Looking back across a year of blogging activity, I’ve talked about that particular “edge” a few times, but I seem to have concentrated even more on three others:

The primary “edge” has been the often-blurry seam between medieval and modern. I think I’ve tried to take this in two directions: on the one hand, I’ve thought about ways in which texts and ideas from the Middle Ages can be useful and relevant to us in the present; on the other, I’ve also reflected on the meaning of modern representations of the Middle Ages in the present day, such as John Eldredge’s use of the figure of William Wallace.

The situation in which I work (as a professional scholar at an institution with a strong Protestant Christian affiliation), also leads me to deal with a third edge: that of the very strange, often surreal, hinterlands one encounters as both a professional learner and a person of faith. A subset of this hinterland is the set of often even-stranger relations one negotiates from such a position, between one audience that is often suspicious of any religious affiliation whatsoever, and another that is, equally often, suspicious of or even hostile toward anything they regard as too “secular” (or even politically liberal).

Looking back over my posts, though, there’s another edge that I’ve come to explore that seems incongruous with the rest: that of a scholar of the middle ages working with and in relation to various technologies. At first, finding, among my own blog entries, postings that had to do with technology seemed incongruous: what do things like my own development of a writing process centered around digital plain text have to do with my fascinations with temporal, imaginative, and political borders?

In large part, I think, I’ve been interested in technology because it’s the medium in which, especially in blog form, my interaction as a modern person with the Middle Ages takes place. It’s the matrix, if you will, both of much of my engagement with the past. It is through the digital medium that I and most of my fellow medievalists access texts, read articles, study images of manuscripts, and communicate our findings and questions with one another. For me, the digital field is also the one I’ve used to try to communicate the relevance of medieval studies to a wider audience.

I’ve had colleagues in other disciplines express surprise, at times, that I’m one of the people at my particular institution who is overtly interested in what’s known as the “digital humanities.” What does a medievalist, who studies things that were, originally, hand-copied my monks using organic inks on cured animal skins, have to do with interest in digital technologies in the present?

In part, it’s because medievalists, like any other scholars, exist and operate in that digital realm. Like other denizens of the matrix, we interact through and within its amniotic medium. But as those who deal in what were original very “analog” materials, I think medievalists have a sort of advantage: we tend to be acutely aware of the differences and similarities between the medium in which we do our work, and in which we interact with our subject matter, and the medium in which those who created the texts in which we study operated. The differences, of course, are obvious: screens and manuscripts seem like vastly different things. On the other hand, there are similarities: is the power conferred by the matrix of a seal any less “virtual” and figurative than the ghostly arrangement of pixels that organize light into an image of such a seal on a screen? How different is the stamping of a symbol on an impermanent surface like wax from the projection of a set of binary symbols in a pattern on a TFT display? Is the only real difference the speed at which the impression occurs and changes?

Also in part, it’s because awareness of the origins of the modern world in the medieval and classical worlds can help us understand the modern more fully. The concept of the “Matrix” in the Keanu Reeves film could not exist as it does in the present day without the evolution of the idea that I traced earlier in the article through the Middle Ages back to classical Latin. Every word we use, concept we think, comes to use through such a historical process. In a culture that tends to see itself as the hotbed of everything new, of innovations that only we enlightened moderns could dream up, medievalists can remind us that nothing we think is without a history, and that we can understand ourselves better by being mindful of that history.

Finally, I think medievalists can help us negotiate technology in the digital present by communicating a healthy sense of what technology is. We moderns often tend to be blinded by novelty, as though the term “technology” only refers to the cutting-edge of present-day science and tech. Medievalists (and, really, students of any other points our our more distant past), can help remind us that “technology” refers to a history of human making and not only its present. For example, when we hear the term “information storage and retrieval technology,” we tend, as a knee-jerk, modern response, to think of computers. Ones and zeroes encoded on optical, magnetic, or solid-state media. What a medievalist knows is that while a computer might be one information storage and retrieval technology, so is a paper codex. So is a wax tablet. Or a papyrus scroll. A computer can also be an information encoding device. As can a typewriter, a fountain pen, or a quill.

Technology, in many ways, can become more useful and effective for us in the present, I think, when we conceive of it historically, taking novelty out of the question. Doing so allows us to ask not “what’s the newest technology we can use” but rather “what is the best technology for the job?” in the realization that novelty may not be the best indicator. For example, I own a stack of 5.25 inch, 520k floppy disks that I used to store information with the Commodore 64 computer I had in high school. That computer is long gone, and there’s little chance I’ll ever retrieve the information stored on them again. On the other hand, I can go to the British Library and read a vellum codex created 700 years ago as if it were written yesterday. Which, then, is the better technology for long-term information storage?

On the other hand, medievalists are also at the forefront of making use of those very new technologies for studying the past. The digitization of manuscripts is making it possible for scholars to access medieval texts in ways that, previously, required expensive travel to various libraries around the world. Digitizing things like medieval records allows us to search for patterns therein that once took years of manual collation to see. I regularly work and collaborate with colleagues across the country–and across the Atlantic–in ways that would be virtually impossible without electronic forms of communication and data transmission.

Hence a thread for this blog, an “edge” which I plan on honoring and reflecting upon, along with the others, even more in the coming year: the edge where a medievalist stands, between the analog past and digital present and future. Surfing the matrix.

The Strange Afterlife of the “Declaration of Arbroath”: With an Introduction, Edition, and Translation


The “Tyningham” copy of the 1320 Abroath letter. This was the home “file copy” of the duplicate that was sent to John XXII in Avignon.

I was interested–but not entirely astonished–to find an article in a recent Scotsman about Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s presentation of a “new Declaration of Arbroath” as an expression of support for the present-day Scottish independence movement. I’m not Scottish, of course (save by very remote descent), so I don’t think I’m qualified to have an opinion on the independence movement one way or the other. As someone who’s fascinated with Scottish history, however, I’ve watched the contemporary independence movement with interest, and, now that the referendum as passed, with a very close “no” vote for independence (much to the chagrin of most of my Scottish friends), I will continue to watch the issue develop–possibly toward another referendum in the no-too-distant future, with great fascination.

Making reference to the famous document known as the “Declaration of Arbroath,” a letter sent by a number of Scottish magnates to Pope John XXII in 1320, expressing their support for Robert I and his polity (one of several competing polities in Scotland at the time), is not a new phenomenon. While the document itself would seem very bound to the particular circumstances of that group of magnates in 1320, the Arbroath document has been trotted out numerous times throughout Scotland’s history when issues of Scotland’s sovereignty and relation to its southern neighbor have come to a head. It was part, for instance, of the debates in 1689 over whether Scotland should throw in its lot with William of Orange, and again in the ramp-up to the 1707 Act of Union that made Scotland part of the British Commonwealth. Even drafting “new” Declarations of Arbroath is something that’s been tried before: in 2004 a conservative Scottish group drew up a “new” declaration in order to protest Scotland’s participation in the European Union. Referring to the original document, this new one stated that:

The tradition in Scotland, as set out in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, is that sovereignty belongs to the people. Today that sovereignty is vested in the British nation state and in the system of devolved government it has created. In whatever changes lie ahead in Europe, we the undersigned call for that sovereignty to be respected and maintained.1

Whether the nacio referred to by the original Declaration can be considered congruent with “the people” reference in this new one is a matter of debate (if you want my take, you can read my article on the subject via my site here;), but it’s fascinating to me that this letter from 1320 has such seeming power to communicate in contexts of which its creators could hardly have conceived. Salmond creates a similar kind of connection, suggesting that “The Arbroath Declaration didn’t simply help to ensure Scotland’s survival as an independent nation. It said that the wider community of Scotland could choose a government to protect their interests.”

In the interest of promoting awareness of the original document on which this latest Scottish iteration is based, I’ve included below a brief “primer” on the document (meant to be very friendly for non-scholars), along with my own edition and translation of the text.

If you would like a copy of my introduction, edition, and translation in an independent, printable PDF format, you may download it here. The document is issued under a Creative Commons license.


Creative Commons License
The Declaration of Arbroath: A Primer by Mark P. Bruce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

1 “The Declaration of Arbroath 2004,” Scottish Conservatives, 2004, <> (6 June, 2005).

The Declaration of Arbroath: A Primer

Prepared by Mark Bruce, Ph.D, FSA Scot

What is the Declaration of Arbroath?

The Declaration of Arbroath is a letter, written in Latin, sent to Pope John XXII in 1320 by a number of Scots noblemen who identify themselves as supporters of King Robert I (the Bruce). The main purpose of the letter was to ask the pope to pressure the English to cease hostilities against Scotland. The term “Declaration”—a term first applied to the document in the 18th century—is actually a little misleading. The letter’s medieval audience (which was just Pope John and his curia, or court) would have considered it a letter of petition or request and not a statement or “declaration.”

Where does it come from?

We know of the document because of an existing copy, a large parchment page preserved in the Scottish Record Office. This is probably the home-department “file copy” of the original document, which was sent to the Pope’s court in Avignon, France. So far, no one has found the original. We know the pope got it, though, because he wrote a letter in response to it, which quotes parts of the Declaration directly.

Why was it written in Latin and not English, Gaelic, or Scots?

Latin, in the Middle Ages, was the universal language of the Roman Catholic Church. Since the letter was written to the Pope, and composed by members of the clergy, it was naturally written in Latin, since Latin was the language that all clergy could understand no matter where they came from. In fact, those who drafted it would have considered it a vulgar insult to the Pope to write it in any other language.

Who wrote it?

Scholars aren’t one hundred percent sure who wrote the Declaration of Arbroath. The most likely candidate, however, is Abbot Bernard of Arbroath. Arbroath abbey, at the time the document was written, was the home of the king’s chancery. The chancery of a medieval king was like his main ‘information office,’ which had a staff that drew up and archived royal documents. These were often associated with religious houses, because the clergy were the people who knew how to read and write well. At the time, Abbot Bernard was the king’s chancellor. So, either he drafted the document, or it was drafted by one of his top chancery clerks. What we know for sure is that whoever wrote it was a master of medieval Latin prose and rhetoric—exactly the kind that could impress the Pope and his court.

If it’s a letter to the Pope, who’s it from, exactly?

One of the conventions of medieval letter-writing was that every letter had to start by saying who the letter was to, followed by a list of who it was from. The Declaration of Arbroath lists 38 names that include many of the most important and powerful barons in Scotland. King Robert himself was not one of the signers, since the document was designed to be a show of support for him from the magnates of the realm. Robert sent his own letter to the pope, as well.

Why was it written in the first place?

The Declaration of Arbroath is a document that’s very much tied up with the circumstances under which it was originally written. Those circumstances are related to two problems King Robert I and his supporters faced in 1319-20. Both problems threatened the stability of Bruce’s kingship despite his influential victory at Bannockburn in 1314.

One was increased pressure from Pope John XXII to enforce both an excommunication of Bruce himself for Bruce’s murder of a rival claimant to the Scottish throne, John Comyn, and an interdict of Scotland for Bruce’s recent recapture of Berwick-on-Tweed (which had been part of Scotland until it was captured by the English at the beginning of the Wars of Independence) in violation of a papal truce. (John XXII was vitally interested in maintaining that truce, since he viewed the conflict as delaying English participation in his projected crusade). Beginning in November, 1319, Pope John had begun to send what historian Grant Simpson calls a “hailstorm of threatening papal letters,” geared toward enforcing Bruce’s excommunication and Scotland’s interdict. Bruce had ignored these demands for some time, refusing, for instance, to accept letters addressed to “Robert Bruce, governing in Scotland,” rather than to him as Rex Scottorum, “King of Scots.” But neither Bruce nor his nobles could go on playing games of deferral forever, and Pope John was increasing diplomatic pressure.

The other problem was that, even though Robert had come a long way since his 1306 coronation in gathering support for himself in both northern and southern Scotland, that support in 1319-20 was still far from unified. Not only was there support for Edward II of England (among the Scots nobles that had been, as Bruce himself once was, received into Edward’s peace), but there was also support for Robert’s predecessor, John Balliol, whose throne Bruce, at least from one political point of view, had usurped. Several signers of the Declaration were tried for conspiring to kill Robert I not long after the Declaration was sent to Avignon. Fiona Watson argues, too, that many Scots nobles in the early 1300’s were likely to be more interested in the restoration of good government and a legitimate kingship than in the idea of a specifically Scottish kingship. Chris Brown, in discussing the origins of the second Scottish War of Independence, argues that in this period there were “real divisions of loyalty. Some Scots maintained their allegiance to the Balliols, some stood by the fealty that they had given to Edward I after John’s deposition, while some no doubt refused allegiance to Robert because he was an excommunicate or because they were simply horrified by the murder of John Comyn.” That the 1332 campaign backed by Edward III to put Edward Balliol, King John’s son, on the throne found significant support among Scots suggests that these internal divisions would have been current in 1320. Such divisions at home would certainly not have spoken well for Bruce’s cause.

Consequently, Bruce and his supporters needed a solution that would mollify Pope John and do so in a manner which occluded the divisions back home and created the illusion of a unified Scottish nobility with, of course, Bruce at its head. Part of that solution was the letter now known as the Declaration.

Is the Declaration of Arbroath evidence that the Scots invented modern democracy?

While scholars debate about the degree to which certain ideas in the Declaration can be considered politically innovative, none would say that the Scots actually invented modern democracy. In fact, the ideas of representative government and personal liberty, in the way we think about them as modern Americans, would have been alien to the Scottish aristocrats who sent the Declaration to Pope John. But that doesn’t mean that the Declaration isn’t important to the history of democracy. The idea of representative government actually has its roots in a debate that initially took place within the medieval church. The debate was essentially about what to do with a heretical pope. This was a big issue in the church, since the pope was supposed to be God’s right-hand-man on earth. In the case of a pope who was speaking against the traditional doctrines of the church, the problem was, basically, “how does an employee fire the boss?” The ideas that grew around this question came to be known as the “Conciliar Theory,” and several prominent medieval philopshers and theologians began to develop the idea that while the pope was the head of the church, he could be overruled or deposed by his council. Why was the council more powerful than the pope? Because the council represented the whole community of the faithful. Voila! Here’s the idea of a body of representatives speaking for the people. These ideas were becoming most fully developed at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth. The line in the Declaration that talks about the right of the barons of the realm to depose a weak king is one of the earliest examples of an idea from the Conciliar Theory being adopted into secular politics. The Conciliar Theory, and such early uses of it in the political world, were some of the sources drawn upon by later thinkers such as George Buchanan and John Locke, who really were the ones who, in the seventeenth century, began to articulate the ideas that we think of as foundational to modern, populist, representative democracy.

Is there a relationship between the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence?

It’d be cool if there was, wouldn’t it? There is some suggestive, circumstantial evidence for a relationship. We know that the Declaration was available in print, in both Latin and in English translations, in Jefferson’s time (although there’s not a copy listed in the catalog of his personal library, which we still have). We also know that certain of his close associates probably would have been aware of the document, and possibly that a couple of them may actually have viewed the manuscript of the Declaration in Scotland. For the best explanation of this circumstantial evidence, see the book by Edward Cowan in the “further reading” section. What we don’t have, unfortunately, is any direct evidence that they told Jefferson about it, or that he actually read it or drew upon it when he was drafting the American declaration. We also know that there were more local precedents that Jefferson most certainly drew upon, such as the 1689 British Declaration of Rights and the Mason draft of the Virignia Declaration of Rights of June, 1776.

There are some words and phrases in the two declarations that look similar—but it’s important to be careful about making a comparison between the American Declaration, which was originally written in English, and an English translation of the Declaration of Arbroath, which was originally written in Latin, because that kind of comparison looks at the translator’s words and not the writer’s. Even similarities in the Latin and English words can be deceiving. For instance, the Declaration of Arbroath talks a great deal about libertas, which, in the English versions, is usually translated by the modern English word derived from it, liberty. However, the Latin word libertas had a different set of meanings in the fourteenth century than the English word liberty does in the twenty-first. When we read the word liberty as present-day Americans, we tend to automatically think about it in the terms we’ve always been taught, as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Liberty, for us, refers to the right to freedom of every individual, regardless of race, class, or gender. In the fourteenth century, though, the Latin word libertas was most often used to refer to the special privileges of the nobility. So, when the barons say they’ll fight to the death for their libertas, it’s possible that they’re talking about maintaining their aristocratic privileges rather than about individual human rights. It’s also important to remember that fourteenth-century Scotland was a still a feudal society. To have freedom in that society, you needed a title of nobility, land, or (preferably) both. Historian Ranald Nicholson reminds us, however, that those who “lived and worked upon the land but enjoyed neither secure tenure nor complete personal freedom” greatly outnumbered those who “held their land by homage and fealty, quit of labour service or any other dishonorable ‘burden’” So, it’s important to remember that even though the American Declaration and the Declaration of Arbroath both appeal to something they call “liberty,” the writers of those documents may well have had very different ideas in mind.

What’s the difference between this translation and others?

Most translations try to make an original document read as smoothly as possible in the target language. Other translators, such as Sir James Fergusson, have already done an amazing job of creating smooth translations of the Declaration that convey the linguistic beauty of the original. However, creating a really smooth, fluent English translation of a Latin text means making a lot of substantial changes, because the grammar of Latin is so different from the grammar of English. These changes can alter some of the meanings of the original. In this translation, I’ve tried to supplement the others by staying as close to the original Latin grammar as possible, even where that meant making phrases and sentences that sound awkward in English. This should help English language readers to see a number of things about the original Latin text that are hard or impossible to see in the smoother translations. As such, it’s intended to be a supplment to, not a replacement for, those translations.

Where can I learn more (further reading)?

Here are some of the best sources for information concerning the Declaration of Arbroath. Most of them are out of print, but should be available at a university library or large public library—or through smaller libraries via interlibrary loan. If you’re unfamiliar with how to find scholarly books and articles, just ask your local librarian—it’s not hard when someone shows you how.

  • G.W.S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988) The definitive political biography of Robert Bruce.
  • Grant G. Simpson, “The Declaration of Arbroath Revitalised,” The Scottish Historical Review, 56 (1977). A seminal scholarly article on the context of the Declaration.
  • James Goldstein, The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993). Goldstein talks about the ways literary rhetoric was used to promote pro-Bruce nationalism in medieval Scotland. There’s a great section on the Declaration.
  • Fiona Watson, “The Enigmatic Lion: Scotland, Kingship, and National Identity in the Wars of Independence.” in Dauvit Broun, R.J. Finlay, and Michael Lynch, ed., Image and Identity: The Making and Re-Making of Scotland Through the Ages. (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1998).
  • A.A.M Duncan, “‘The Making of the Declaration of Arbroath,” in The Study of Medieval Records: Essays in Honor of Kathleen Major, ed. D.A. Bullough and R.L. Storey, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). Duncan does an amazing, close study of the physical details of the manuscript of the Declaration.
  • Rt. Hon. Lord Cooper, “The Declaration of Arbroath Revisited,” in Supra Crepidam: Presidential Addresss Delivered to the Scottish Historical Society (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1951)
  • Sir James Fergusson, The Declaration of Arbroath (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970). The best-sounding of all the translations of the Declaration, which makes some sacrifices in literal accuracy. Fergusson also includes a Latin text of the Declaration and much useful background information.
  • E.L.G. Stones, ed., Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174-1328: Some Selected Documents. (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965). This is a collection of other medieval documents relevant to the relationship between England and Scotland in the Middle Ages. It has the original Latin and French texts with facing-page English translations.
  • Edward J. Cowan, For Freedom Alone: The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320, East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2003). A recent study of the Declaration, including one of the best (to date) studies of the evidence regarding the potential relationship between the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence. Cowan is somewhat more optimistic than I am about the relationship.
  • A.A.M. Duncan, The Nation of the Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320). (London: The Historical Association, 1970). Another important translation, not as pretty as Fergusson’s, but closer to the original Latin.

Original Latin Text

English Translation

Sanctissimo Patri in Christo ac Domino, domino Johanni, diuina prouidiencia Sacrosancte Romane et Vniuersalis Ecclesie Summo Pontifici, Filii Sui Humiles et deuoti […] Ceterique Barones et Liberetenenetes ac tota Communitas Regni Scocie, omnimodam Reuerenciam filialem cum deuotis Pedum osculis beatorum.

To the Most Holy Father and Lord In Christ, the Lord John, by divine providence supreme pontiff of the Holy Roman and Universal Church, his humble and devout sons […], and other barons and freeholders and the whole community of the realm of Scotland, send all manner of filial reverence, with devout kisses of his blessed feet.1

Scimus, Sanctissime Pater et Domine, et ex antiquorum gestis et libris Colligimus quod inter Ceteras naciones egregias nostra scilicet Scottorum nacio multis preconijs fuerit insignita, que de Maiori Schithia per Mare tirenium et Columpnas Herculis transiens et in Hispania inter ferocissimas gentes per multa temporum curricula Residens a nullis quantumcumque barbaricis poterat allicubi gentibus subiugari. Indeque veniens post mille et ducentos annos a transitu populi israelitici per mare rubrum sibi sedes in Occidente quas nunc optinet, expulsis primo Britonibus et Pictis omnino deletis, licet per Norwagienses, Dacos et Anglicos sepius inpugnata fuerit, multis cum victorijs et Laboribus quamplurimis adquisuit, ipsaque ab omni seruitute liberas, vt Priscorum testantur Historie, semper tenuit. In quorum Regno Centum et Tredescim Reges de ipsorum Regali prosapia, nullo alienigena interueniente, Regnauerunt.

We know, Most Holy Father and Lord, and we gather from the chronicles and books of the ancients, that among other eminent nations our own nation of the Scots has certainly been distinguished with many acclamations, which, crossing from Greater Scythia through the Tyrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelling among the most ferocious tribes in Spain throughout the course of many eras, could not be subjugated by any people however alien, and coming thence twelve hundred years after the passage of the People of Israel over the Red Sea to the Seat in the West which they now hold, the Britons having been expelled and the Picts having been utterly destroyed, and often having been attacked by the Norwegians, Danes, and Angles, obtained that Seat through many victories and untold labors and held it free from all feudal obligation, as the historians of old always testify, in which Realm three hundred kings of their royal progeny have reigned, interrupted by no foreigner.2

Nobilitates et Merita, licet ex aliis non clarerent, satis patenter effulgent ex eo quod Rex Regum et dominancium dominus Jhesus Christus post passionem suam et Resurreccionem ipsos in vltimis terre finibus constitutos quasi primos ad suam fidem sanctissimam conuocauit. Nec eos per quemlibet in dicta fide confirmari voluit set per suum primum apostolum vocacione quamuis ordine secundum vel tercium, sanctum Andream mitissimum beati Petri Germanum, quem semper ipsis preesse voluit vt Patronum.

The merits and noble qualities of whom, did they not gleam from other things, shine forth clearly enough from this: that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, after his Passion and Resurrection, called them together, settled at the ultimate ends of the earth, just as the first to his most holy faith. Nor did he wish them to be confirmed in word of faith by anyone but the first-called of his apostles, though second or third in degree, Saint Andrew the Most Mild, the Blessed Peter’s brother, who desired always to have charge over them as their patron.

Hec autem Sanctissimi Patres et Predecessores vestri sollicita mente pensantes ipsum Regnum et populum vt beati Petri germani peculium multis fauoribus et priuilegijs quamplurimis Munierunt, Ita quippe quod gens nostra sub ipsorum proteccione hactenus libera deguit et quieta donec ille Princeps Magnificus Rex Anglorum Edwardus, pater istius qui nunc est, Regnum nostrum acephalum populumque nullius mali aut doli nec bellis aut insultibus tunc assuetum sub amici et confederati specie inimicabiliter infestauit. Cuius iniurias, Cedes, violencias, predaciones, incendia, prelatorum incarceraciones, Monasteriorum combustiones, Religiosorum spoliaciones et occisiones alia quoque enormia et innumera que in dicto populo exercuit, nulli parcens etati aut sexui, Religioni aut ordini, nullus scriberet nec ad plenum intelligeret nisi quem experiencia informaret.

Weighing all this, however, the Most Holy Fathers your predecessors, stirred in mind, supported that same realm and people with many favors and numerous perogatives, as the Blessed Peter’s Brother’s personal possession. So indeed our line lived, hitherto free and unmolested, under the protection of those same until that Mighty Prince of the English, Edward, father of the one who is now King, under the guise of a friend and ally, infested as an enemy our headless realm and people, who were then accustomed to neither malice nor treachery, wars nor insults, of whose massacres, violences, predations, burnings, incarcerations of prelates, torchings of monasteries, spoilings and killings of Religious, and all the other innumerable enormities which he exercised against the aforesaid people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank, no one could write or even fully comprehend save whom experience alone could inform.3

A quibus Malis innumeris, ipso Juuante qui post uulnera medetur et sanat, liberati sumus per strenuissimum Principem, Regem et Dominum nostrum, Dominum Robertum, qui pro populo et hereditate suis de manibus Inimicorum liberandis quasi alter Machabeus aut Josue labores et tedia, inedias et pericula, leto sustinuit animo. Quem eciam diuina disposicio et iuxta leges et Consuetudines nostra, quas vsque ad mortem sustinere volumus, Juris successio et debitus nostrorum omnium Consensus et Assensus nostrum fecerunt Principem atque Regem, cui tanquam illi per quem salus in populo nostro facta est pro nostra libertate tuenda tam Jure quam meritis tenemur et volumus in omnibus adherere.

From which innumerable evils we have been set free, by the help of He who after injuries heals and restores, through that most vigorous Prince, our King and Lord, the Lord Robert, who for his people and lineage, for the purpose of liberating from the hands of Enemies just as another Macabee or Joshua, sustained labors and hardships, hungers and perils, with glad spirit, who also, by divine disposition and according to our laws and customs which we will sustain to the death, by right of succession and all our due consent, we have made our Prince and King; to him, just as to He through whom salvation has been established for our people,4 and for the purpose of maintaining our libertas, we cleave as much by right as by merits, and to him in all things we will adhere.5

Quem si ab inceptis desisteret, regi Anglorum aut Anglicis nos aut Regnum nostrum volens subicere, tanquam inimicum nostrum et sui nostrique Juris subuersorem statim expellere niteremur et alium Regem nostrum qui ad defensionem nostram sufficeret faceremus. Quia quamdiu Centum ex nobis viui remanserint, nuncquam Anglorum dominio aliquatenus volumus subiugari. Non enim propter gloriam, diuicias aut honores pugnamus set propter libertatem solummodo quam Nemo bonus nisi simul cum vita amittit.

Whom, if he should desist from that which has been begun, wishing to subject our Realm to the King of the English or to England, we could be compelled to drive out forthwith as our enemy and as a subverter of his rights and ours, and we could make another our King who could suffice for our defense. For as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never under any circumstances be reduced to submission to the lordship of the English. Truly, we fight not for glory, riches, or honors, but for libertas alone, which no bonus6 gives up save along with his life.

Hinc est, Reuerende Pater et Domine, quod sanctitatem vestram omni precum instancia genuflexis cordibus exoramus quatinus sincero corde Menteque pia recensentes quod apud eum cuius vices in terris geritis cum non sit Pondus nec distinccio Judei et greci, Scoti aut Anglici, tribulaciones et angustias nobis et Ecclesie dei illatas ab Anglicis paternis occulis intuentes, Regem Anglorum, cui sufficere debet quod possidet cum olim Anglia septem aut pluribus solebat sufficere Regibus, Monere et exhortari dignemini vt nos scotos, in exili degentes Scocia vltra quam habitacia non est nichilque nisi nostrum Cupientes, in pace dimittat. Cui pro nostra procuranda quiete quicquid possumus, ad statum nostrum Respectu habito, facere volumus cum effectu.

Hence it is, Reverend Father and Lord, that we exhort your Holiness with bended knees and every impendence of prayers,7 inasmuch as, considering with sincere heart and devout mind that for Him whose vice-gerent you are on earth there should be no weighing nor distinction between Jew or Greek, Scot or Englishman, seeing with the eyes of a father the tribulations and straits brought by the English to us and to the Church of God, that you should deem fit to warn and to have exhorted the King of the English, for whom what he already holds ought to suffice since it was once wont to sustain seven kings or more,8 that he should leave we Scots, abiding in poor Scotland outside of which there is no habitation and desiring nothing but out own, in peace. For him we in fact desire to do anything we are able, with respect to our own tradition, for ourselves to gain peace.

Vestra enim interest, sancte Pater, hoc facere qui paganorum feritatem, Christianorum culpis exigentibus, in Christianos seuientem aspicitis et Christianorum terminos arctari indies, quantumque vestre sanctitatis memorie derogat si (quod absit) Ecclesia in aliqua sui parte vestris temporibus patiatur eclipsim aut Scandalum, vos videritis. Excitet igitur Christianos Principes qui non causam vt causam ponentes se fingunt in subsidium terre sancte propter guerras quas habent cum proximis ire non posse. Cuius inpedimenti Causa est verior quod in Minoribus proximis debellandis vtilitas proprior et resistencia debilior estimantur. Set quam leto corde dictus dominus Rex noster et Nos si Rex Anglorum nos is pace dimitteret illus iremus qui nichil ignorat satis novit. Quod Christi vicario totique Christianitati ostendimus et testamur.

It is truly in the interest of yours9 to act on this, Holy Father, who sees the ferocity of heathens raging against the sins of the Christians, and the boundaries of Christendom curbing inward every day, and you must see how much your holy memory would suffer if (God forbid) the Church in any part should suffer eclipse or scandal in your time. Arouse therefore the Christian Princes who, putting forward a false cause as a real one, feign not to be able to go to the aid of the Holy Land10 because of the wars which they have with their neighbors, the truer reason of whose impediment is that in their lesser neighbors they find their own advantage in fighting and weaker resistance. But with what glad hearts would we and our aforesaid Lord King go there if the King of the English left us in peace, He from whom nothing is hidden well knows, which we profess and declare to the Vicar of Christ and all Christendom.

Quibus si sanctitas vestra Anglorum relatibus nimis credula fidem sinceram non adhibeat aut ipsis in nostram confusionem fauere non desinat, corporum excidia, animarum exicia, et cetera que sequentur incomoda que ipsi in nobis et Nos in ipsis fecerimus vobis ab altissimo credimus inputanda.

But if your Holiness will not apply very much credit or sincere faith to the tales of the English or refrain to favor them to our prejudice, the ruin of bodies, the destruction of souls, and other things which trouble will follow, which will be done by them to us and by us to them we believe ought to be imputed to you by the Most High.11

Ex quo sumus et erimus in hiis que tenemur tanquam obediencie filii vobis tanquam ipsius vicario parati in omnibus complacere, ipsique tanquam Summo Regi et Judici causam nostram tuendam committimus, Cogitatium nostrum Jactantes in ipso sperantesque firmiter quod in nobis virtutem faciet et ad nichilum rediget hostes nostros.

From which, we are and will be ready to fulfill your will in all things to you His vicar, as obedient sons–insofar as we are bound–and to Him as the High King and Judge we commit the maintenance of our cause, casting our thoughts on Him and hoping firmly that he will instill virtue in us and bring our enemies to naught.

Sanctitatem ac sanitatem vestram conseruet altissimus Ecclesie sue sancte per tempora diuturna.

Datum apud Monasterium de Abirbrothoc in Scocis Sexto die mensis Aprilis Anno gracie Millesimo Trescentesimo vicesimo Anno vero Regni Regis nostri supradicti Quinto decimo.

May the Most High preserve your holiness and health to His Holy Church for the length of your days.

Given at the Monastery of Arbroath in Scotland on the sixth day of the month of April in the year of grace thirteen hundred and twenty and the fifteenth year of the reign of our aforesaid King.

1 In the middle ages, letter-writing was goverened by a strict set of conventions known as the ars dictaminis. This section is called the salutatio, or salutation, which not only lays out the to/from information but also marks the social relationship between the sender and reciever. This particular form of salutation is the one specified in period ars dictaminis manuals as the one for a ruler writing to the pope. This is possibly a significant move on the part of the writer, since the pope had not formally acknowledged the legitimacy of Bruce’s government!

2 This is the beginning of the next formal section of the letter, called the narratio, or narrative, in which the writer is to explain the cicrmstances for the reqest that will come in the next section, the petitio, or petition. This first part lays out the mythological beginnings of the Scottish people. Traditionally, the Scots went to Ireland first, and then to Scotland, and the idea of them going straight from Scythia to Scotland appears for the first time here in the Declaration. This may be because Edward Bruce, King Robert’s brother, had recently been killed in his failed attempt to become the King of Ireland. The pope would have known about this, of course, which means that Ireland would have been a little embarrasing to mention. Notice all the phrases that begin with “having been” here—the grammar is designed to make it look like the Scots destroyed both the Picts and Britons, when in fact the Britons had been driven out long before the Scots got there. The “Pillars of Hercules” refer to the Straits of Gibraltar.

3 The list of all the terrible things the English had done to the Scots closely follows a similar phrase in an earlier letter sent to the pope by the English, in which they say exactly the same thing about the Scots. Certain aspects of politics haven’t changed since the fourteenth century!

4 In other words, Christ.

5 Judas Macabeus (the “Maccabee”) was a Jewish leader in the first century a.d. who led a Jewish rebellion against the occupying Romans in Israel; Joshua, in the old testament, is the successor of Moses, who led the Hebrew people into the promised land.

6 I have left the words “libertas” and “bonus” in Latin in order to preserve the idea that their Latin meanings are different from those of their English cognates. In medieval latin, libertas can refer not only to the ideas of individual and state freedom, but also the the special privileges and perogatives of the nobility. The word bonus is often translated as “good man” or “honest man,” but it doesn’t just mean “any decent person.” It’s a specialized term that refers to those who have the status to be able to participate in government, which, in the middle ages, means the landed freeholders and nobility. It’s related to the term bon homme in French, also a term designating a landed gentleman. This passage, which asserts the right of the barons to depose a weak king, is the idea imported from the Conciliar Theory mentioned in the introduction.

7 This is the beginning of the next formal section of the letter, the petitio, in which the senders, having set up the circumstances, make their actual request.

8 The part of the British isles now known as England was, in the early Middle Ages, broken up in to seven different kingdoms, each with its own king. The writer is saying that the English shouldn’t want any more territory since the territory they have now used to be enough for seven different kings.

9 The Latin only uses a pronoun here, “yours” with an implied referent (i.e. “your [things]), a construction that works the same way as the phrase “you and yours” does in English. Since the pope, as the head of the Roman church, technically has the whole body of the faithful and all the posessions of the church under his care, “yours” means a bit more for him than it would for anyone else.

10 Pope John XXII, to whom this letter is addressed, was, at the time, trying to get together a new crusade to the holy land. He thought the Anglo-Scottish conflict was delaying the participation of both countries in his plan, which is why he had declared a truce between England and Scotland earlier. The Scots’ recent recapture of Berwick broke the truce, and the Pope responded by placing Scotland under interdict. The Declaration is, in part, the Scottish response to this situation. Here, the writer picks up on the idea to insinuate that English aggression, not Scottish, was responsible for the violation.

11 This passage always strikes me as a little dangerous—the idea is basically, “if the killing continues, Your Holiness, it’s all your fault!”

God Becomes Meat: Mary and Medieval Incarnational Imagination

Image[Note: When I sat down to write this morning, I had intended to produce a posting about recent disturbing developments in the world of Christian universities, such as the recent departures of several universities from the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities over issues of sexuality, the suspension of a Wheaton professor for statements about the relationship between concepts of God in Christianity and Islam, and statements about mechanized violence from the President of Liberty University. While I still indent to get to those subjects, it felt “off” to me to wax so political and so critical so near my own commemoration of the birth of Christ. At the same time, I realized that, at the heart of my own critique of those events is a conviction that Christian Universities are so concerned with policing the borders of their own orthodoxies that they’re forgetting what lies at their core: a mystery; specifically, the mystery of incarnation. So, in order to both respect what remains of the season of advent and to set up some forthcoming comments–which will wait until after Christmas–about those political issues, I offer two reflections. Today, this one, on the incarnation itself; tomorrow, on what one medieval writer aptly described as the “cloud of unknowing.”]

I had the delightful task, close to this time last year, to speak–along with two of my colleagues, Carrie Peffley (Philosophy) and Chris Armstrong (Church History) to speak to the Bethel University faculty–on medieval approaches to the idea of the incarnation. My particular job, as the literature scholar in the group, was to offer a literary example. Since there’s no figure–aside from Christ himself–more closely associated with the concept of incarnation in the Middle Ages than Mary, I shared one well-known example of an entire genre of medieval poems and songs, often referred to as “Marian lyrics.” They exist in Latin as well as in most medieval European vernaculars. Like the Mystery Plays and other popular medieval works, such lyrics often involve what one might call an “incarnational logic”: the idea is to go for the most relatable kind of human factor in biblical stories and theological ideas, to find an opening whereby our experiences as flesh-and-blood, everyday human beings can, properly directed, become points of access to more transcendent truths.

It is important to remember, speaking of the incarnation, that the root word of the term “incarnation” is the Latin carnis. Meat. So to be incarnated is not only to be “made man” in later humanistic sense of Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man,” much less in the sense of a Cartesian cogito, but rather to be made meat: real flesh and bone and sinew and organ. Real human experience, one that includes as much transcendent reason as it does stubbed toes and post-nasal drip. Just as God had to become incarnate–en-meat-ed–in order to become reconciled with humankind, the medieval mind recognized that those of us who start out as meat and walk around as sacks of it, to understand that very act, have to work the other direction, and try to understand the divine through our own embodiedness.

Mary provided a strong instance of that kind of embodied access-point to the incarnation through her very special relationship to it: while medieval Christians believed that all have access, by grace, to the incarnate God, they also strenuously acknowledged that she was the only one who literally gave birth to him (and if you don’t think that creates a special relationship, ask anyone who’s gone through labor). They were also acutely aware that she was the only one who, having given that birth, had to look on as her child was mercilessly tortured, her knowledge of the spiritual significance of what was happening in no way diminishing her shock and grief at the agonizing death of her son.

I sometimes hear present-day, protestant Christians speak uneasily about the medieval veneration on Mary, as though too much attention to her might amount to giving her a kind of worship that should only be given to God. But as the lyric I’m about to share shows, the medieval interest in Mary–and the kind of interest that I think it might be illuminating and helpful for modern Protestants to recover–stems from precisely her lack of divinity, and her unique participation in the event of the incarnation as a fully human, and in no way divine, being. It is precisely her humanity that makes her a point of access to the more difficult concept of the incarnate Christ. For medieval she thus becomes not an object of worship in herself, but a special access point to an understanding of the sacrifice of her son.

The poem I’d like to share to demonstrate this concept is a 13th century Latin lyric, most commonly known as the Stabat Mater.[1] It’s part of a whole sub-genre of Marian lyrics that dwell on the image of Mary at the foot of the cross. This is a kind of move very typical of a popular medieval theological imagination: That imagination, as I’ve said, looks for the most human element in Biblical story, the one an audience of regular people can best relate to.

Most of the translations I’ve encountered online seem to be geared primarily toward creating texts for singing, and for that reason concentrate on preserving the meter and rhyme of the Latin original. While I by no means consider myself an expert Latinist, the text below is my own attempt at a translation that focuses on preserving, specifically, the very embodied sense of Mary’s experience that the poem channels.

Here’s the first part:

The anguished mother stood,

full of tears

beside the cross

while her son hung down.

A sword pierced

her groaning,

darkened, raw soul.

How desolate,

how shattered,

was that blessed mother

of the only-begotten,

who mourned, ached,

and shook while she watched

the agony of her glorious child.

Who is the one who could not shed tears

if he saw the mother of Christ

in such torment?

For the sins of her people

she saw Jesus

given to tortures,

to whips.

She saw her sweet baby dying,

forsaken, while he gave up

his spirit.

Notice that what the poem already begins to do, here, is access the event of the crucifixion not from the perspective of the mystery of the God/Man, but through something to which we regular humans might have a much easier time relating. After all, none of us can claim to know what it might feel like to die as the incarnate Christ–but we know what it’s like to grieve. We know what it feels like in the pits of our stomachs to lose someone, to watch a loved one suffer. The poem leads us into that impossible experience of the suffering Christ through the more familiar experience of the grieving parent. The image of Mary at the foot of the cross brings readers to experience the incarnation by means of the most broken parts of our own souls, the parts that still ache from our own losses of husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, and friends.

The idea, in the second stanza, of Mary’s heart being pierced would be an especially familiar and theologically important one in Middle Ages, one that also speaks to Mary’s importance as a human with a unique relationship to the incarnation. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Abbot, explained it this way:

Truly, O blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart. For only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your son. Indeed, after your Jesus, who belongs to everyone–but is especially yours–gave up his life, the cruel spear, which was not withheld from his lifeless body, tore open his side. Clearly it did not touch his soul and could not harm him, but it did pierce your heart. For surely his soul was no longer there, but yours could not be torn away. This the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering.[2]

Bernard here makes an incredible observation about Mary’s relationship to this moment in the crucifixion: when the sword pierced Christ’s side, he was past the point of being hurt by it. But Mary wasn’t. So the sword that gives proof of his bodily humanity, in that sense, passed through her–the mom who had to watch it happen–before it passed through him. She felt the pain of it in a way he did not. Notice that for Bernard, too, Mary is not simply special because of her personal grief, but because of her compassion, and the compassion of which he speaks is not her compassion for her suffering son, although that’s there, but rather her compassion for us: she, more than any other human being, gave up the most to allow the reconciliation of God and humankind to happen. She watched her son die horribly, suffering even past his physical pain, sacrificing her own grief for her son to the knowledge of what his death would mean for the rest of humanity.

The poet continues from here, not worshipping Mary, but rather asking for the privilege of joining with her in her suffering in order to more properly reverence the suffering Christ:

Oh mother, source of love,

make me feel your sorrow,

that I may mourn with you.

Make my heart flame

in loving my Lord Christ,

so I might be pleasing to Him.

Holy mother, do this:

Drive the wounds of the crucified one

powerfully into my heart.

Share with me

the pain of your wounded son,

who deigned to suffer for me.

Make me weep with you in truth,

suffer the crucifixion with you,

for as long as I live;

Make me stand by the cross with you,

I want to share, freely,

in your wailing grief.

Bright virgin of virgins,

do not be bitter toward me,

but let me weep with you

Grant that I might bear

the death of Christ,

the fate of his passion,

to remember his gashes,

Make me be wounded with his wounds,

make me drunk with the cross

out of love for your son,

May I be inflammed, set on fire

through you, O Virgin,

and defended through you

on the day of judgment.

Let me be guarded by the cross,

defended by the death of Christ,

cherished by grace.

I find it fascinating that the poet, here, asks to suffer the crucifixion not with Christ, but with Mary. This is not Mary-worship, as some modern protestants might fear, but precisely the opposite: an acknowledgement that the suffering of Christ himself–of the God-Man taking on the sins of humankind–is not something we poor meat-sacks can share in. What we can do is stand at the foot of the cross with Mary and share in her all-too-human suffering, suffering that she endures precisely because she understands its importance; the depth of her suffering as the one who gave birth to Christ equal to the depth of her compassion for the rest of us. To quote Bernard once again, “He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.”

P.S. If you find this interesting, be sure to check out the much more complete thoughts on the medieval concept of the incarnation by the redoubtable Chris Armstrong, at his blog Grateful to the Dead.

[1] For a convenient Latin text, see

[2] See for a text of Bernard’s complete homily.