Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Despite Their Hypocrisy

I'm just back from holiday in France where we have been in the Dordogne. It is one of my favourite places, having a great deal of history about it, some of that human history stretching very far back in time: the famous painted caves of Lascaux and elsewhere - and some of it more recent: the many medieval castles and the romanesque churches of Souilliac and Perigueux.

Because of the temperatures last week we spent a good part of the holiday trying to keep cool. One day we managed this by going to visit the romanesque church (formerly an abbey) in Souilliac. It's a very large church, more like a cathedral really, but very simple inside (as befits a monastery) and with some striking carved columns inside the large door of the nave. Many beasts of different kind have been carved rising up the columns, each one biting the one next to it and seemingly affirming the tooth-and-claw nature of existence.

I had spent the holiday reading Terry Jones' book about medieval occupations. It is entitled 'Medieval Lives'. I recommend it as a thought-provoking journey through the social landscape of the time. Jones is not an unbiased commentator and his personal take on the behaviour of those living in the past provides thought-provoking insights. He is particularly down on the idea of knightly chivalry and also well explains why he believes that monks became hypocritical in their behaviour. The riches of the church, he explains, came from the wealthy kings, barons and knights who paid the monks to pray for their souls after slaughtering the enemy in battle. For every dead man, someone would have to pray for 40 days - and as the lords didn't have the time to do it, they preferred to pay a monk to do their praying for them. A lot of people died (notably in the early days of the Norman Conquest) and therefore the number of abbeys that had to be built and housed with praying monks was large).

But the rub was, according to Jones, that the monks, who took their vows in order to lead a simple and pure life, instead inherited a world of conspicuous wealth boosted by all kinds of taxes on local populations. They overate and found ways to circumvent their vows of silence using a sign language that was known throughout Europe.

With these thoughts in my head, I sat in Soulliac abbey looking up at the beautifully pure proportions of the cupola and arches, the restrained windows up high which brought touches of colour into the muted yellows of the shaded interior.

We were alone in the building, keeping quiet as one generally does in a holy place, when two men, dressed as tourists, came into the church. They walked quickly down to the altar area and then one of them began singing Gregorian chants. He continued for several minutes, walking around like any normal tourist, but singing in what might have been Latin. He seemed to be testing the acoustics. Then, as quickly as they had come, both men left.

I have never seen anyone visit a church and behave in this way before, and found myself quite impressed by the man's presumption. My thirteen year old daughter, normally quite retiring, clearly felt the same way and was emboldened to go up to the altar area and try out her own voice.

My family were now alone in the cathedral as she sang to us, her lovely singing filling the vast echoey space. Her impromptu performance consisted of devotional songs which she had learnt this year before going on a choir tour in Belgium. The sound took on an immense physicality as it bounded out into the great amplifying chamber and reverberated back at varying intervals from the different enclaves of the church.

Those minutes of her singing are ones I will always remember. And here was also the other side of history. The other legacy of history that cannot be contained in arguments (however well justified) between the pages of a book. Which has to be gone out and looked for and touched and sung into being. At that moment I wanted to thank the monks and the chevaliers for what they had left behind, despite their hypocrisy.


Lucy said...

How wonderful, bless your daughter for doing that. It's uch how I feel about the Middle Ages, the darkness and the beauty.

Jones take his cue from Chaucer a lot of course, which is a good prompt. Have you read 'Wolf Hall'? Something of a revision of the revision about the reformation, I suppose, and also not unbiased. Though Henry VIII was a cynical greedy monster of course, it makes you think that perhaps the monasteries had it coming after all...

Glad you had a good holiday!

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks for your comment Lucy. No I haven't read Wolf Hall. Some people I've talked to don't seem to like it. Others seem to like it a lot. I guess I'll have to try and read it one of these days. The Terry Jones I enjoyed a lot though. It is a book I could quite happily read again.