The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes – outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony a.k.a Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356) was a Christian monk and visionary who reacted against the increasing acceptance and normalisation of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire by becoming, first an ascetic, and then rejecting social life altogether by going to live in the Egyptian desert, to fast and pray by himself, relying only on gifts of food from pilgrims and local villagers.

Rumours and legends spread about his simple life and holiness, and soon he gained a following. He is known to posterity because his contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a long biography of him. For many years Anthony was credited as the founded of monasticism i.e. the idea that holy men should go and live in isolation from society, ideally in remote locations, to live simple lives and praise God – though modern scholars now know he was part of a widespread movement of religious puritans away from urban centres, which predated and accompanied him.

Athanasius’s biography describes how Anthony was tempted by the devil and by demons who appeared in numerous disguises, trying to seduce him with food and the pleasures of the flesh or, more subtly, trying to lure him into some of the heretical beliefs with which his age abounded.

Continually elaborated in the retelling, embellished with demons, naked women and weird monsters, the legend of the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ went on to become a familiar subject in western art, inspiring lovingly grotesque depictions by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1501)

In more modern times the Temptation was painted by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and was the subject of a symphony by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1934).

And it inspired this prose fantasia by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1874.

The mundane and the fantastic in Flaubert

As I’ve read through Flaubert I’ve realised his output can be very simply divided into two categories: the contemporary realist works (Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education) and the exuberant historical fantasias (Salammbô, The Temptation of Saint Anthony).

In other words, alongside his painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary life, Flaubert was also fascinated and inspired by a wide range of historical and fantastical subjects. He had a long-running interest in the ancient world of the Mediterranean (an interest fuelled by his visits to Tunisia and Egypt) and a lifelong fascination with religion, all religions, ranging as far afield as Buddhism and Hinduism.

It is as if all the uncontrolled sexual, sadistic, fantastical and philosophical fantasies which Flaubert kept completely bottled up when creating the painstaking ‘realist’ novels, just had to erupt somewhere else – in the sustained cruelty of Salammbô and into the extended philosophical and psychological fantasia of Saint Anthony.

The problem of ‘evil’ in 19th century literature (i.e. it is boring)

Flaubert wrote three completely different versions of the Temptation (1849, 1856 and this one).

The long introduction to the Penguin paperback edition by Kitty Mrosovsky compares how the images and ideas changed in the three versions. She then goes on to quote the opinions of later French writers and critics, from Baudelaire through Valéry, from Sartre to Michel Foucault.

What becomes clear is that if you write about God and the devil, heaven and hell, being and nothingness, sex and sin, any number of critics will be able to impose their own critical schemas and obsessions on your text, and it can be turned into a Symbolist, Freudian, Modernist, Existentialist or Structuralist masterpiece, depending on which critic you’re reading.

In other words, modern texts on this kind of subject often turn out to be strangely empty.

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Personally, I find the history of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and the efflorescence of its countless heresies, absolutely riveting. By contrast I often find the way secular ‘modern’ writers use this era and these ideas to spool out endless ruminations about the meaning of life, unutterably boring. Why?

I think the reason I like the history of the actual heresies – all those gnostics and Arians, the Adamites, Marcionians, Nicolaitans, Paternians, Archonites and so on – is that they are interesting in themselves, and they really mattered. There were riots, insurrections, people fought to the death about these beliefs and – arguably – the weakness of the Church in North Africa after centuries of bitter sectarian fighting made it easy for militant Islam to sweep across the region in the 7th century. This was of world-historical importance.

And the arcane Christological heresies of the 3rd or 4th centuries AD are interesting in themselves as thought-provoking explorations of the potential of Christian theology – was Christ a man? or a God? or half-man and half-God? Which half was which? Did God speak through him or were his words his own? Has the Son existed for all time, like God, or was he created at some later date i.e. is he equal to, or inferior to, God the Father? How can they be part of the same Substance when Jesus continually refers to ‘his Father’ as a distinct entity? And how does the Holy Spirit fit into each of these scenarios?

1. The long line of 19th century non-believing poets and writers who tackled issues of ‘sin’ and ‘damnation’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – from Byron via Baudelaire to Rimbaud and beyond – were just playing at being ‘damned poets’. There is no sense of risk in their work. The absolutely worst thing they could conceive of in their fictions, was suicide (which, when all is said and done, is just a personal psychological disorder), or murdering someone (just the one person) the subject of Dostoyevsky’s 500-page-long Crime and Punishment. Even the primevally wicked Mr Hyde only in fact murders one person. The worst thing most of these writers did, in practice, was sleep around and get drunk a lot.

In a sense the twentieth century made much 19th century literature redundant. The First World War went a long way towards (and then the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, completed the work of) redefining forever the meaning of evil, despair, horror.

Agonising over one person’s soul seems, well, rather paltry in the light of the world we live in. (This is the reason I find the novels of Graham Greene, and their enormous obsession with the sinfulness or damnation of just one person, rather ludicrous.)

2. Also, no-one believes in Christianity any more. Not in a literal hell and damnation, not like they used to. In the Middle Ages the idea of damnation really mattered, psychologically: in Chaucer and Dante it is a real place, with real fire, and real demons skewering your tortured body. By the nineteenth century, in the hands of a dilettante like Byron, it is a fashion accessory, part of the pose of tormented genius.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation is divided into seven parts. It is written as if a play, with prose instructions describing the setting and goings-on (Opening words: ‘The setting is Thebaid, high on a mountain…’) while the dialogue of the ‘characters’ is given in dramatic format- the name, a colon, the speech.

It starts with Anthony outside his primitive hut in the desert at nightfall, and he proceeds to have a bewildering series of visions, some of which transport him to cities and palaces, where he encounters emperors and queens, and all manner of famous individuals such as the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, the Buddha, the Greek gods and so on.

Right from the start Anthony – surprisingly – bemoans his lot, hates being alone, wonders whether he shouldn’t have followed another vocation, grumbles and complains in what – to be honest – is Flaubert’s awful, stagey dialogue.

Another day! another day gone!… What solitude! what weariness!… Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!… Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!… What shame for me! Alas! poor Anthony!… It is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous!…

Since he doesn’t really do anything, we only know Anthony through his speech and his speech is hammy Victorian melodrama. As with the dialogue in Salammbô, every sentence seems to end in an exclamation mark but, paradoxically, the more exclamation marks he uses, the less dramatic (or interesting) the speech becomes, the more tiresome and simple-minded.

I found it impossible to take Anthony seriously as a character.

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

In fact, given the extravagant cast of characters, there is also surprisingly little drama, hardly any sense of conflict or threat, in the whole work. Anthony remains the same miserable moaner all the way through. There is no change or development, no sense of critical encounters or turning points or sudden revelations.

As I’ve read through Flaubert’s works I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of Set Piece Scenes in his fiction. In a sense the Temptation is a reductio ad absurdam of this approach: it consists of nothing but an apparently endless series of set-piece encounters and scenes. This accounts for the highly static impression it makes on the reader.

One critic compares the entire book to the panoramas created by magic lanterns in the mid-nineteenth century. These enchanted their simpler audiences by projecting a series of images onto a flat wall. You can envisage the entire book as just such a series of slides.

The Temptation Of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck (1650)

Part one – Human frailty

We find Saint Anthony in front of his hut in the desert as the sun sets. The entire book takes place in the space of this one night, from dusk to dawn.

Anthony is moaning about his lot in life and wonders why he didn’t do almost anything else, become a soldier or a teacher. Almost continually his thoughts are interrupted by wolves prowling just outside the light of his torch, or by birds, by strange noises.

Personally, I found almost all the scenes involving Anthony off-putting because he comes across as so wet and feeble. As in Salammbô and the realist novels, I often found the quiet, descriptive passages the most enjoyable, the ones where Flaubert uses his extensive background reading in the period to depict ordinary life of the time. Here he is imagining the life of your ordinary Alexandrian merchant.

The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him – the hunter among the wheat-fields – the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.

Anthony sees this vision because he himself is lonely and hungry. The local villagers used to come and give him food, now they’ve stopped. Anthony reminisces about his days back in the city, as a trainee monk, when he was invited by Athanasius to join a set piece debate against the Arians (a very popular type of Christian heresy). Then he sees visions -‘ a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple, a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing’, then he faints.

Part two – the Seven Deadly Sins

Out of the darkness comes the Devil, like a huge vampire bat, and under its wings are suckling the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a disappointment, then, that this ominous creature doesn’t speak. Instead Anthony hallucinates that his mat is a boat, rocking on a river, floating past the temple of Serapis.

Papyrus-leaves and the red flowers of the nymphæa, larger than the body of a man, bend over him. He is lying at the bottom of the boat; one oar at the stem, drags in the water. From time to time, a lukewarm wind blows; and the slender reeds rub one against the other, and rustle. Then the sobbing of the wavelets becomes indistinct. A heavy drowsiness falls upon him. He dreams that he is a Solitary of Egypt.

I like passages like this, clips or little scenelets of vivid description. When Anthony wakes the Devil has, apparently, disappeared – very disappointing. Anthony finds a husk of bread and his jug empty and this prompts a vivid hallucination of a great banqueting table set for a feast, replete with intoxicating sights and smells.

Then many things appear which he has never seen before – black hashes, jellies, the colour of gold, ragouts in which mushrooms float like nenuphars upon ponds, dishes of whipped cream light as clouds.

It was only the notes which explained to me that what now follows is a sequence in which Anthony hallucinates each of the Seven Deadly Sins in turn. This one represented the Sin of Gluttony. As in a hallucination the food morphs into lips and then into one loaf on a table which now stretches to right in front of his face. He pushes it away and it vanishes.

Then Anthony stumbles over something underfoot, which turns into money, lots of money, a crown, precious jewels.

As water streams overflowing from the basin of a fountain, so diamonds, carbuncles, and sapphires, all mingled with broad pieces of gold bearing the effigies of Kings, overflow from the cup in never ceasing streams, to form a glittering hillock upon the sand…

It is the Sin of Avarice. As he throws himself upon the pile it vanishes. He trembles in the knowledge that, had he died in the middle of succumbing to any of these temptations, he would have gone to hell.

Now the scene completely changes and Anthony thinks he sees a panoramic overview of the city of Alexandria. In style this is identical to the numerous panoramic overviews of Carthage which Flaubert gave us in Salammbô. He sees crowds of vengeful monks pouring through the streets, seeking out their heretical opponents, the Arians, and then Anthony suddenly sees himself to be one of them, bursting into the houses of the heretics, burning their books, torturing and eviscerating them, wading up to his knees in the heretics’ blood!

And the blood gushes to the ceilings, falls back upon the walls like sheets of rain, streams from the trunks of decapitated corpses, fills the aqueducts, forms huge red pools upon the ground. Anthony is up to his knees in it. He wades in it; he sucks up the blood-spray on his lips; he is thrilled with joy as he feels it upon his limbs, under his hair-tunic which is soaked through with it.

This is the Sin of Wrath.

Next the scene morphs to a Roman city (which I deduce is the newish capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople) and Anthony finds himself ushered through countless rooms in a grand palace, past armed guards to arrive in the presence of the Emperor. This painted, dazzling personage treats him as an equal, discusses politics and religion with him and places his imperial diadem on Anthony’s brow. He is taken out into the balcony overlooking the Hippodrome where the great chariot races are held, walking past prison cells in which are imprisoned his theological enemies, the Arians, grovelling and begging hur hur hur. The Sin of Pride.

Then the scene morphs into the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon 600 BC, a long banqueting table, and crawling in the dirt all the kings Nebuchadnezzar has defeated, whose hands and feet have been cut off. A little way off sit the king’s brothers, all of whom have been blinded. As in Salammbô the reader becomes aware of Flaubert’s oppressive interest in sadism and cruelty. Anthony enters the mind of the king of kings and is immediately drenched in feelings of lust and cruelty. He climbs on the table and bellows like a bull and then…

Comes to himself. He is alone in front of his hut. He picks up his whip and flagellates himself, enjoying the pain, the tearing of his rebellious flesh, whereupon…

He sees men riding on onagers (a kind of Asiatic wild ass) and then a procession of camels and horses and then a white elephant with a golden net and waving peacock feathers, which bears the Queen of Sheba. The elephant kneels, the queen slides down its trunk onto a precious carpet laid out by her slaves and she greets Anthony. As with Salammbô, there is in these scenes an excess of description over psychology or character.

Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by coloured designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

She wears very high pattens – one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle. Her wide sleeves, decorated with emeralds and bird-plumes, leave exposed her little round bare arms, clasped at the wrist by ebony bracelets; and her hands, loaded with precious rings, are terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles.

A chain of dead gold, passing under her chin, is caught up on either side of her face, and spirally coiled about her coiffure, whence, redescending, it grazes her shoulders and is attached upon her bosom to a diamond scorpion, which protrudes a jewelled tongue between her breasts. Two immense blond pearls depend heavily from her ears. The borders of her eyelids are painted black.

And she claims they have been searching the wilderness for him and, now they have found him, she will marry him and worship him and anoint him and caress him. There is a great deal of Miltonic description of the riches and luxuries from far-flung exotic places which she can offer him, but then it focuses down to the pleasure of her body, which sums up a whole world of desire. The Sin of Lust.

I am not a woman: I am a world!

But Anthony stands firm and after flirting with him some more, she turns on her heel, remounts her elephant and departs along with all her servants, laughing, mocking him.

Part three – Hilarion (11 pages)

A small child appears. Going up to him Anthony recognises the face of his one-time disciple, Hilarion, long since departed for Palestine. This phantasmal Hilarion sets about systematically undermining Anthony’s faith:

  • he criticises Anthony’s teacher, Athanasius, pointing out his theological errors
  • he says Anthony’s mortification is pointless since many heretics do just the same
  • Jesus went cheerfully about his ministry, mixing with people, talking, teaching, unlike misanthropic Anthony
  • when Anthony points to the Scriptures as the basis of faith, Hilarion immediately rattles off a list of the inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of Jesus
The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

Part four – the Heresiarchs and the circus victims (60 pages)

The heresiarchs Hilarion ushers Anthony into a vast basilica full of people who turn out to be a collection of all the founders of heresies, all the rival theologians and preachers and mystic, the Gnostics and neo-Platonics and religious thinkers, of his time. This is quite a long list and, as most of them only get a sentence or so designed to baffle and demoralise Anthony, it is very difficult from Flaubert’s text alone to properly understand their deviant beliefs.

After all these years I still recommend Paul Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity (1977), whose long second chapter is devoted to a detailed exposition of the Christian heresies which exploded around the Mediterranean and caused outrage, riots and even wars (when different candidates for emperor adopted opposing theologies) until well into the 8th century.

Thus Anthony meets in quick succession the heresiarchs Mani, Saturninus, Cerdo, St Clement of Alexandria, Bardesanes, the Herbians, the Priscillianists, Valentine, Origen, the Elkhasaites, the Carpocratians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcosians, the Helvidians, the Messalians, the Paternians, Aetius, Tertullian, Priscilla, Maximilla, Montanus, the Archontics, the Tatianians, the Valesians, the Cainites, the Circumcellions, Arius. Pandemonium breaks out:

The Audians shoot arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians throw blue cloths toward the roof; the Ascites prostrate themselves before a waterskin; the Marcionites baptise a dead man with oil. A woman, standing near Appelles, exhibits a round loaf within a bottle, in order the better to explain her idea. Another, standing in the midst of an assembly of Sampseans distributes, as a sacrament, the dust of her own sandals. Upon the rose-strewn bed of the Marcosians, two lovers embrace. The Circumcellionites slaughter one another; the Valesians utter the death-rattle; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla moan; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, completely naked, leaning upon a lion, and brandishing three torches, shrieks the Terrible Invocation.

As you can see, this glorified list is more a goldmine for editors and annotators than any kind of pleasure for readers. Indeed, the Penguin edition has 47 pages of notes giving you fascinating facts on almost every one of the characters and places mentioned in the text. But if you read it as text alone, all these names quickly blur.

This long section about heretics makes clearer than ever the fact that Flaubert has the mentality of an encyclopedist, a compiler of dictionaries. He boasted to friends about the hundreds of history books he read as research for both Salammbô and Anthony and boy does it show.

Flaubert cuts and pastes together the results to produce scenes packed with exotic names, but almost always without any life or psychology and, as here, disappointingly uninformative. The controversies about the precise meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion which racked the early church are riveting because there was so much to play for; they were political as well as theological arguments, because different sects seized control of entire Roman provinces, Roman emperors disinherited their own children or fought opponents because they espoused divergent beliefs.

Flaubert manages to drain this exciting and complex historical and theological subject of all interest and turn it into a procession of cardboard mouthpieces, who all sound the same.

Following Arius, the chapter continues with a paragraph or so from: Sabellius, the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Theodotians, the Merinthians, the Apollinarists, Marcellus of Ancyra, Pope Calixtus, Methodius, Cerinthus, Paul of Samosata, Hermogenes, the Cerinthians, the Marcosians, the Encratites, the Cainites, the Old Ebionites, Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellina…

The ceremony of the Orphites Anthony is then taken through a door into a dark shrine where he witnesses a ceremony of the Orphites, who worshipped the snake, the serpent in the Eden story, believing it to be the true saviour. Their chanting awakens a monstrously huge python which they handle and twine around themselves as they hold a blasphemous eucharist.

Christians being thrown to the lions Exhausted with horror at the sheer number of heresies, Anthony falls to the floor and is immediately back in the dust in front of his humble hut. Time passes and a new hallucination begins. He is in a dark room, a prison cell, among other wretches. Outside it is sunny, he hears the roar of a crowd, the sound of lions and has a vision of the arena, tier after tier of seats. He is among Christians about to be thrown to the lions.

Various characters explain why they’re there (interrupting pagan rites, burning down temples, refusing to worship pagan gods) and explore their plight: an Old Man lamenting he didn’t escape, a Young Man bewailing the lost years, a Consoler saying a miracle might happen. The idea (apparently) is to disillusion Anthony by showing him the mean motives, the backsliding and lack of faith of the so-called ‘martyrs’. The portcullis on the other side of the arena opens and out lope lazy lions, panthers, leopards, and then the martyrs’ door opens and the gaoler whips the weeping Christians out into the sand…

In the cemetery And Anthony awakes, dazed, looks around him, then.. falls into another dream. He is in a cemetery where he meets veiled women lamenting the deaths of their husbands, sons or how they themselves were condemned as Christians and persecuted, and then… as they bow and pray together, eat together, their robes slip open and their mouths join and.. I think they have an orgy – presumably the Devil’s intention is to show him the lack of faith and the easy lasciviousness of the widows of the faithful. This scene fades out and…

The Hindu sage Anthony is at the edge of a tropical forest, with parrots and lizards. On a pyre squats a shrivelled man wearing a necklace of shells and with a bird’s nest built in his long matted hair. He is ‘the Gymnosophist’, a Hindu sage. This wizened figure repeats basic Hindu teachings about reincarnation, about striving to reach purity so as not to fall into corruption. Then his pyre bursts into flames and he is burnt alive without a sound.

Simon Magus and Helen of Troy Anthony tramples out the flames and it is dark again. Then through a cleft in the rocks comes a voice followed by a white-haired old man leading a young girl with bite marks on her face and bruises on her arm. It emerges that he is Simon Magus, a magician of the first century mentioned in the Gospels. He claims to be the reincarnation of God and that the woman with him is his ‘First Thought’ or Ennoia, who has been reincarnated through the ages, at one point in the body of the legendary Helen of Troy, before he rescued from her work in a brothel in Tyre. Simon shakes the pot he’s carrying which has a live flame at the top, but the flame shivers and goes out and a great smoke or fog fills the stage.

Apollonius of Tyana Anthony stumbles though the fog to discover Simon and Helen are gone. Now through the fog come a pair of men, one tall and lordly like Christ, the other a short servant. It is Apollonius of Tyana, the sage or thaumaturge, and his servant Dimas. Apollonius declaims grandly. As so often with Flaubert, the reader gets the sense that the author is more interested, intoxicated even, by lists of grand, exotic-sounding and remote peoples and places – than by any kind of sense or logic. Thus Apollonius:

I have conversed with the Samaneans of the Ganges, with the astrologers of Chaldea, with the magi of Babylon, with the Gaulish Druids, with the priests of the negroes! I have ascended the fourteen Olympii; I have sounded the Scythian lakes; I have measured the breadth of the Desert!…

But first I had visited the Hyrcanian Sea; I made the tour of it; and descending by way of the country of the Baraomati, where Bucephalus is buried, I approached the city of Nineveh….

At Taxilla, the capital of five thousand fortresses, Phraortes, King of the Ganges, showed us his guard of black men, whose stature was five cubits, and under a pavilion of green brocade in his gardens, an enormous elephant, which the queens amused themselves by perfuming. It was the elephant of Porus which had taken flight after the death of Alexander….

Upon the shores of the sea we met with the milk-gorged Cynocephali, who were returning from their expedition to the Island Taprobana…

So we returned through the Region of Aromatics, by way of the country of the Gangarides, the promontory of Comaria, the country of the Sachalites, of the Adramites and of the Homerites; then, across the Cassanian mountains, the Red Sea, and the Island Topazos, we penetrated into Ethiopia through the country of the Pygmies…

I have penetrated into the cave of Trophonius, son of Apollo! I have kneaded for Syracusan women the cakes which they carry to the mountains. I have endured the eighty tests of Mithra! I have pressed to my heart the serpent of Sabasius! I have received the scarf of Kabiri! I have laved Cybele in the waters of the Campanian gulfs! and I have passed three moons in the caverns of Samothracia!

And so on. There is not a trace of drama, character, psychology, theology or philosophy in sight. This is quite transparently just a litany of resonant names. Apollonius and Dimas step backwards off a cliff and remain suspended in the air, like Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, before ascending slowly into the black night sky.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

Part five – the pagan gods and goddesses (42 pages)

Another long chapter in which Anthony meets what amounts to a list of all the pagan gods and goddesses, each of them given – as we’ve become used to – a few sentences or a paragraph in which to show off Flaubert’s erudition and wide reading, before handing on to the next one.

In fact it starts off with a parade of pre-pagan gods, the blocks of wood or stone which original humans worshipped. Anthony and Hilarion mock the stupidity of the men who worshiped these clods. Then detours (unexpectedly) to a quick review of the original Hindu gods and of the Buddha, who tells the story of his life. The purpose of this temptation is that, as each of these entities tells its story, Hilarion (like a mini-devil) chips in to point out that this or that aspect of their worship is really no different from Christian belief or practice; it is designed to erode Christianity’s claims to uniqueness.

We have appearances from the Buddha, Oanna (of the Chaldeans), the gods of ancient Babylon and their temple prostitutes, Ormuz god of the Persians, the Great Diana of Ephesus with her three rows of breasts.

Cybele’s priests sacrifice a sheep and spatter Anthony and Hilarion with the blood, Atys who in a frenzy castrates himself as do his priests, we see the funeral of Adonis, killed by the boar, and the lamentation of Persephone, Isis suckling her babe and lamenting the death and dismemberment of Osiris.

Anthony is racked with sadness that so many souls have been lost worshiping these false gods; but sly Hilarion points out that so many aspects of the gods or their worship echo the True Religion, seeking to undermine Anthony’s belief.

Now he and Anthony see a vast mountain with Olympus on its height and witness the pantheon of Greek gods, one by one lamenting their decline and fall: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, one by one they lament the loss of their powers and the end of their worship, before going tumbling down into a black abyss.

The lament of Osiris for her lost lover, and the sorrow of the Greek gods are the only pages in the book which I found moving enough to reread and savour. In it we can hear the voice of Flaubert, who from his schooldays believed he lived in a fallen world of stupidity and vulgarity. Hence the words he puts into dying Jupiter’s mouth:

‘Eagle of apotheoses, what wind from Erebus has wafted thee to me? or, fleeing from the Campus Martins, dost thou bear me the soul of the last of the Emperors? – I no longer desire to receive those of men. Let the Earth keep them; and let them move upon the level of its baseness. Their hearts are now the hearts of slaves; – they forget injuries, forget their ancestors, forget their oaths – and everywhere the mob’s imbecility, the mediocrity of individuals, the hideousness of every race, hold sway!

Latterly go the household gods, those minor deities who gave grace and dignity to all aspects of daily life in ancient Rome, who laid the bride in her bed, tended at childbirth, at sickness, at feasts, during illness. All scorned, ignored and gone. Finally – surprisingly – a page is devoted to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, himself rejected and abused, his followers – the Jews – scorned and scattered over the earth.

It was a struggle to read the previous chapters, but these long laments of the dying pagan gods and the imaginative grace and nobility they brought to everyday life is, I think, genuinely moving. For the first time the text stirred, for me, as actual literature instead of a list of gaudy names.

Part six – the Devil (8 pages)

Hilarion gives way to the Devil himself who chucks Anthony onto his horns and carries him up, up and away, through the sky, into space, up to the moon, beyond the solar system, into the realm of the stars, all the time explaining a) that the universe is infinite, nothing like the earth-centred structure of the ancient Greeks or Jews b) while giving him a compelling lecture on theology (the only theology in the text), explaining in a dry logical, professorial manner the unbounded infinitude and one substance of God.

God has no imperfections, God has no passions, God doesn’t worry or fret about his creatures, he is vastly beyond the momentary whims of man, his is as extended, infinite and integral as the universe. BUT the corollary of this is that He doesn’t listen to prayers and hear the sobs and hopes of his countless creations. He is infinitely remote, completely Perfect, utterly indifferent. (According to the notes, this is a summary of the philosophical pantheism of Spinoza.)

The point is that the Devil’s fluent and vast philosophising leads up to the terrifyingly logical conclusion:

Adore me, then! – and curse the phantom thou callest God!

On some instinct Anthony, despite being overwhelmed by this vision of the universe and the Devil’s compelling logic, lifts his eyes as if to pray. The Devil drops him in disgust.

Part seven (20 pages)

Anthony regains consciousness by the cliff edge. It crosses his mind to end it all by simply rolling over it and falling to his death. This final chapter is in three parts:

1. He is approached by a wizened old woman and a nubile young woman. One argues the case for suicide, the other urges him to embrace life. Slowly it becomes clear they are Death and Lust, respectively. He dismisses them and is confronted by:

2. The Chimera and the Sphinx. The former attracts men towards pointless delusions, the latter devours seekers after God. They squabble and argue until the Sphinx sinks into the sand and the Chimaera goes swooping off in pointless circles.

3. Their argument morphs into the most genuinely surreal and hallucinatory section in the text, where Flaubert creates a parade of the strangest creatures or human-beasts he has come across in all his reading of myths and legends. These include:

  • the Astomi, humans who are completely transparent
  • the Nisnas, who have only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart
  • the Blemmyes who have no head at all
  • the Pygmies
  • the Sciapods, who live with their heads and bodies in the earth, only the soles of their feet and legs showing
  • the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs who fly through trees in great forests,
  • the Sadhuzag, who has seventy-four antlers which the wind blows through to make beautiful sounds
  • the Martichoras, a gigantic red lion, with human face, and three rows of teeth
  • the Catoblepas, a black buffalo with a pig’s head, falling to the ground, and attached to his shoulders by a neck long, thin, and flaccid as an empty gut
  • the Basilisk, a great violet serpent, with trilobate crest, and two fangs, one above, one below
  • the Griffin, a lion with a vulture’s beak, and white wings, red paws and blue neck

And then there is a terrifying outpouring of Life in a profusion of forms:

And all manner of frightful creatures arise: – The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks.

Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.
Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies: – Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful.

Suffocating under their own numbers, multiplying by their own contact, they climb over one another; and move about Anthony with a surging motion as though the ground were the deck of a ship. He feels the trail of snails upon the calves of his legs, the chilliness of vipers upon his hands: – and spiders spinning about him enclose him within their network.

Finally, in this endless chain of evolutions and transformations, animals turn into insects, flowers turn into rocks, beasts turn to crystal, ice pullulates with life, it is a wild hallucination of the pantheistic vision of life in all things

And now the vegetables are no longer distinguishable from the animals. Polyparies that seem like trees, have arms upon their branches. Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight. He is about to step on a pebble: a grey locust leaps away. One shrub is bedecked with insects that look like petals of roses; fragments of ephemerides form a snowy layer upon the soil.

And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry.

He sees efflorescences in fragments of ice, imprints of shrubs and shells—yet so that one cannot detect whether they be imprints only, or the things themselves. Diamonds gleam like eyes; metals palpitate.

His vision narrows right down onto ants, onto the tiniest creatures, onto organisms no bigger than pinheads, furred with cilia and quivering with primordial life. Anthony has seen the origins of life and evolution in reverse, and he bursts out:

‘O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life! I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting! I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl! Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell – that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk – make my body writhe – divide myself everywhere – be in everything – emanate with odours – develop myself like the plants – flow like water – vibrate like sound – shine like light, squatting upon all forms – penetrate each atom – descend to the very bottom of matter – be matter itself!

And then:

Day at last appears, and, like the raised curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds furling into larger scrolls unveil the sky.

There in the middle, inside the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

Conclusion

Now, either Anthony has learned something definitive in the course of this long, busy night, and Flaubert intends this final outcry, apparently in praise of a kind of pantheistic materialism, as the climax and ‘message’ of the piece (which is very much how it feels when you read it)…

Or the ending has a more pessimistic meaning: namely that the return to his prayers signals a return to the same rut, the same wheel, and that the next night the whole thing will repeat itself all over again. I.e. he is caught like a Beckett character in an endless, pointless cycle of torment and fake wisdom.

I could see that both of these are possibilities but I am happy to leave my reading of the ending completely open because I was just so relieved to get to the end of this long, dense, almost unreadable fantasia of cuttings and notes transmuted into a bizarre sequence of sometimes unbearably tedious scenes.

The only moving part of the whole book is the Lament of the Pagan Gods – where the scenario of each of the gods in turn lamenting the decline of their worship and the end of their influence for once was adequate to the feeling of world sadness Flaubert is obviously aiming at.

Also, the final few pages, the almost hysterical hallucination of the very origins of life, are also head-spinningly delirious. But most if it felt like I was at the dentist having a filling.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

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