A tale of two whores: Dante, Luther and the Pope

I am preparing an introductory talk on Dante’s radicalism and I thought I would seize on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to offer a brief reflection on one of the hot issues in both Dante’s work and Luther’s ministry: the Papacy as the whore of Babylon, the prostitute enslaving the Church.

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Luther’s vituperation against the papacy is well-known. His critique developed over time, in stages, as Scott Hendrix noted, and found its best expression in the pamphlet The Babylonian Captivity of the Church published in 1520. Luther wrote:

But after hearing and reading the super-subtle subtleties of those coxcombs [i.e. Eccius, Emser and their followers], by which they so ingeniously set up their idol—my mind being not entirely unteachable in such matters—I now know and am sure that the Papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter.

(Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, trans. J. J. Schindel and C. M. Jacobs, intro. Albert T. W. Steinhaeuser, in vol. 2 of Works of Martin Luther with Introductions and Notes, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1915), p. 179.)

In the New Testament book of Revelation, the whore of Babylon is a figure associated with the Antichrist: “Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters.” (Rev 17:1). A popular image in medieval apocalyptic writings as well as in the popular imagination, the Whore becomes, in Luther’s polemical works, synonymous with the papacy. Engravings in various early editions of the Luther Bible show the whore wearing the papal tiara, as in the above image.

More than 200 years earlier, the poet Dante Alighieri had expressed a similar, almost identical idea. Towards the end of Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy, after the pilgrim’s ascent to the top of the mountain and into the locus amoenus of the Earthly Paradise, Dante offers us a performance of God’s providential history and a mise-en-scène of ‘Apocalypse Now‘ as a cinematic procession: the Book of Revelation‘s whore of Babylon is sitting in a chariot surrounded by the beasts of the Apocalypse:

Just like a fortress set on a steep slope,
securely seated there, ungirt, a whore [puttana],
whose eyes were quick to rove, appeared to me;
and I saw at her side, erect, a giant,
who seemed to serve as her custodian;
and they—again, again—embraced each other.

(Purgatorio 32.148-50)

The strong allusion to the papacy was clear to most early readers of the Comedy. Earlier in Purgatorio, Rome was depicted as a widow, the papacy as a prostitute, and Italy as a whorehouse (6.76-90).

Nevertheless, the force of Dante’s condemnation was quickly weakened by a subsequent commentary tradition that emphasised the allegorical and biblical character of the imagery. It was not uncommon for the papal puttana to be scaled down to an embodiment of sin, as in the Holkham manuscript illustration above. In a sense, it was the early Lutherans who ‘recovered’ the radicalism of this idea and used as a weapon against their Catholic adversaries.


Fragmentarium: because manuscript fragments count, too

Let’s not be codicists! Manuscript fragments also have a story to tell, and it’s usually far more dramatic.

Here’s where the freshly-launched Fragmentarium website comes into play.
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Rolled out on 1 September 2017, Fragmentarium is an international digital research lab for medieval manuscript fragments that enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them online.

Collaborating with 16 partner institutions throughout Europe and the USA, the project aims, over the next years, to lay the foundations for research on medieval manuscript fragments by providing open standards and guidelines.

Fragments of medieval manuscripts offer an as-yet largely unexplored field of study. Except for isolated initiatives and individual, often spectacular discoveries, traditional manuscript research has so far only marginally undertaken work with fragments. The Internet offers extraordinary potential for overcoming some of the chief difficulties of traditional fragment research. Building on the technology developed by e-codices – Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, Fragmentarium offers an application for scholarly work with fragments. Collaborating with 16 partner institutions throughout Europe and the USA, the project aims, over the next years, to lay the foundations for research on medieval manuscript fragments by providing open standards and guidelines.

This is one of the collection’s earliest fragments (so far): this was once part of a psalter (mainly Romanum, with readings from the Mozabicum, and glosses and corrections from the Gallicanum by a later hand) made sometime between 600 – 700 AD. (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, Cod. Sang. 1395 III)
More information, and the first digitised fragments may be found on the project website at http://www.fragmentarium.unifr.ch

Dante’s Big Bang

Un punto vidi che raggiava lume…

One of my favourite scenes in the Commedia is that of Paradiso 28 where Dante, arriving in the proto-heaven of the Primum Mobile, describes his experience of reaching the engine of the universe, a place of strong ontological instability, thus pushing the envelope of poetic expression to the limit.

Dante’s implicit metaphysics requires that the Empyrean be not a place, a thing, a moment. In the neighbouring Primum Mobile, Dante is just a step away from no-thing.

William Egginton has shown how, since the 19th century, mathematicians have understood Dante to conceive of the universe as a hypersphere, a finite yet curved space – actually not so much a space as a mode of being. Creation, Christian Moevs tells us in The Metaphysics of Dante, is not a materialist coming into existence of matter, but an inflection or restriction of the verb ‘to be’, which lies, forever in the infinitive, in the mind of God. The Creation of the world doesn’t happen in time, because this declension of the infinitive Form, itself creates the fabric of space-time, allowing matter to embody the form. Reaching the Primum Mobile, Dante is on the verge of the describable, on the edge of the infinitive becoming present tense, of Oneness falling into multiplicity.

Dante’s creation of the world is the projection of the extensionless point of the Divine Nous, which generating space and time, spawns the hypersphere and the heavenly orbs. When Dante experiences this foundational moment, he has before his eyes an inside-out view of the universe, a re-enactment of its dawn – and the image is quite striking:

I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,

and any star that, seen from earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point,
as star conjoined with star, would seem a moon.

Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring perhaps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that colors it

when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world.

That ring was circled by a second ring,
the second by a third, third by a fourth,
fourth by a fifth, and fifth ring by a sixth.

(Paradiso, 28:16-30, Mandelbaum’s translation)

The earliest extant manuscript of Dante’s Comedy dates from just before 1335 and is Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Ashburnham 828, known by Dante scholars as ASH. Folio 96v starts the passage quoted above: ‘un punto vidi che raggiava lume’

The best modern approximation of this image is that of the Big Bang. Emanative rather than explosive, the Dantean universe comes into existence through the paradox of a process outside time which itself creates time and space. Although outside time, the blinding punto generates so much energy and speed that no words can describe the appearance of its velocity to the poet’s eyes. At the centre of the Ptolemaic-scholastic cosmos  is the potentiality of form and matter which emanates being, desire and virtue to the rest of created space, informing the hierarchy of matter. The heavenly spheres are engendered out of this emission, and they begin to spin through Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Scientific American contributor Davide Castelvecchi has some interesting insights about Dante’s universe and the findings of the ‘New Cosmology’ here.

Everything is code, everything is number. And the medievals knew this, of course.

Modern biology has been telling us that all living matter may be reduced to code stored in the DNA. Physics may be reduced to mathematical formulae, which in turn can be distilled down to numbers, the most elusive of all our objects of thought. This sounds advanced and modern enough, but, as a classical scholar once put it, there is nothing about today’s knowledge that the ancients or the medievals didn’t have at least an intuition about.

Take Dante. In a typical effort of fusing together ancient and medieval natural philosophy, he concludes that everything in the natural world is made up of numbers. We might say code to sound quantum-modern, but the idea’s the same.

How does Dante work this out? As usual, few of his ideas are original. His originality lies, rather, in weaving together multiple traditions and strands of thought available in 13th- and 14th-century Western Europe.

In the Convivio, he says:

Non solamente in tutti insieme, ma ancora in ciascuno è numero, chi ben considera sottilmente; per che Pittagora, secondo che dice Aristotile nel primo de la Fisica, poneva li principii de le cose naturali lo pari e lo dispari, considerando tutte le cose esser numero. (Convivio, 2.13.18)

Number exists not only in all of them together [matter, privation, form], but also, upon careful reflection, in each one individually; for this reason Pythagoras, as Aristotle says in the first book of the Physics, laid down even and odd as the principles of natural things, considering all things to have numerical aspect.

He gets to Pythagoras through Aristotle’s first book of Physics and to Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. The odd and even numbers echo the binary system we have built the cyber-world on. And Dante has much to say, of course, about the way we experience such a world, in all its multiplicity. But for that, we need to follow him down, then up, through numbers, circles, spirals and spheres.

The polyglot and poly-alphabetical Middle Ages

An exceptional collection of seven alphabets (two Hebrew, one Greek, one ‘Chaldaean’, one ‘Egyptian’, one runic, and one of obscure origin entitled ‘Norma’) is preserved in a manuscript in the Vatican library (Reg.lat.338) composed in Northern France or perhaps Germany and dating, probably, from the first half of the 9th century AD.  Written in Caroline minuscule (the script that would be adopted by the Humanists and the printers of the Renaissance), the alphabets reflect a remarkable knowledge of non-Western writing. Though partly fanciful, the alphabets are learned enough to challenge the still-pervasive notion that the early Middle Ages were a ‘dark’, ignorant period.

Thanks to Arthur Westwell (@ArthurWestwell) for bringing this incredible manuscript to my attention.

The Hebrew Alphabet: Haec sunt litteras hebreorum (These are the letters of the Hebrews)
The Greek alphabet: Haec sunt caracteres grecas (‘These are the Greek characters’) 
The Syriac alphabet: Haec sunt caracteres que Caldei et Asyrii utuntur (‘These are the characters used by the Chaldeans and the Assyrians’) ; The Egyptian alphabet: Hec sunt caracteres Egyptiorum quas utuntur (‘These are the characters used by the Egyptians’)
The Runic alphabet and The “Norma” alphabet

The reforms before the Reformation

The Romanian cultural magazine Dilema Veche (‘The Old Dilemma’) published this week my essay on the various reform movements punctuating the medieval period and which Martin Luther inherited when he sparked the controversy which led to what we now call the Reformation. As the Western world commemorates 500 years since the publication of Luther’s famous Theses, I look at how ideas of change, church reform, spiritual renewal, personal responsibility and Christianity’s centuries-long self-challenging created the framework that made Luther the effulgent comet-head of a movement that would literally change the world. I argue that Luther’s radical critique (of the Church, textual and human authority, convention, practice, etc) did not arise ex nihilo, but was as much a product as a reaction of what may be called the spirit of the Middle Ages.

The essay, in Romanian, was also published online here.

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In principio erat verbum (and not the noun)

I’ve been reading about Sigier de Courtrai, a lesser known grammarian belonging to the group of 13th and 14th-century Northern European speculative grammarians known as Modistae. Like the rest of the Modists, Sigier reflected on the relationship between mind and reality, and how language, or the ‘modes of signifying’ opens the latter to the former. Adopting and adapting Aristotle’s emphasis on the hierarchical structure of the universe, he concludes that within a sentence, the parts of speech gravitate around a heavy centre like an orb around another. Although the idea of syntactical government or regimen, the concept used in modern linguistics, was formulated by Peter Helias in the 12th century, Sigier makes it look like a cosmological (Aristotelico-Ptolemaic) system.

Having postulated a heavy core, Sigier went on to argue against his colleagues’ view that the verb, not the noun, should be granted this honour. Boethius of Dacia (i.e. Denmark), for instance, had argued that the noun, corresponding to the Aristotelian substance, should take precedence over the verb, the accident. This was because the substance corresponds to permanence and immobility, whereas the accident is movement, instability and transience.

These speculative claims were made in the margin of theological thought. As Elena Lombardi writes:

In Sigier’s argument, regimen becomes the key word for cosmic operation and order: instead of grammar being patterned on nature, nature begins to look like a giant grammatical construction that tends toward God.

‘The Syntax of Desire, Language and Love in Augustine, the Modistae and Dante’, p. 104′

As language is seen as a cosmological system, the primordial and ultimate substance becomes the verb, against the objection that the noun should instead coordinate the syntactical regimen. The reason is that the verb ensures that “the multitude of the parts tends toward the one that complies and renders perfect the sentence itself.” Instead of reaching perfection from bottom up (noun -> verb, substance -> accident), perfection is achieved through completion, which, occurring at the top, is filtered down to the bottom. (verb -> noun, accident -> substance). The verb’s ability to justify the proper place of each part of speech ensures its preeminence.

Sigier’s ideas may have been shaped by cosmology and theology, but they may also prompt a theological insight – which may have been made by Sigier himself or a modern scholar, but which I haven’t come across yet. That is the relationship between his idea and John 1:1: “In principio erat verbum”. Medieval theologians less sensitive to grammatical speculation would not have thought that verbum designates a grammatical verb rather than, canonically, the Divine Logos. Yet, Sigier’s speculation opens the perspective that the Divine word is, ultimately, a verb, the mover of God’s mind, and the prime mover of the universe.  As language, and we’re talking about universal language here, reflects the universe of God, so the gravitational pull of the verb on the rest of syntax points to the ‘princeps verbum’ lying deep within Creation’s nuclear reactor.