Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part I

In the months since my last post, the world, or at least anyone with a degree of cinematic taste, wept for the loss of Peter O'Toole. An eight-time Academy Award nominee, one of the last great film actors of yesteryear, O'Toole's was the only celebrity death that I truly took notice of in... well, as long as I can remember. His second hit, Becket, starring alongside Richard Burton, remains one of my all-time favorites. And so, when I found myself with more free time than usual after the end of classes, I stopped by the public library and checked out Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, A Nine-hundred-year-old Story, Retold by John Guy. Published just last year, I thank Guy for the refreshingly modest title; no pretensions of earth-shattering, Bible Code proportions of research. Indeed, after 900 years, very little new information has come about the shed light on the life of the "hooly blisful martir", yet the book still taught me a great many things I didn't already know. Guy, like other Becket historians before him, tries to answer those over-persistent questions: "was he really a saint?" "Were his differences with the king really worth getting killed over?" "Did he provoke his own martyrdom?" And now, since today happens to be his feast, the 843rd anniversary of his death at Canterbury Cathedral, I'm rushing to get out this summary of Becket's life and thoughts on Guy's book to share with you.

Part I: The Early Years

The future archbishop was born in London against the backdrop of a great calamity. Those of you who have read or seen the TV adaptation of The Pillars of the Earth will recall the sinking of the White Ship. On the 25th of November, 1120, the English Channel's depths claimed the lives of some three hundred of the realm's highborn, including Prince William, his brother, Richard, and sister, Matilda. King Henry I sired twenty bastards, but only one legitimate son, so when William died, so too did any hope of a peaceful succession. England was torn apart in the ensuing decades by a civil war between Henry I's nephew, Stephen, and his one legitimate daughter, Empress Matilda (or Maud, but yes, Henry had two Matilda's). The usurping nephew won the bid for the throne, but Matilda perhaps had the last laugh as Stephen was forced to pass the kingship to Matilda's son, the future Henry II, after his death. It's this second Henry, portrayed by the thunderous Peter O'Toole not just in Becket, but again in The Lion in Winter, who forms the other great player in this story.

And so, on the 21st of December, either 1118 or 1120, depending on the source, a boy was born to Gilbert and Matilda Becket (the English at this time were as fond of Matilda's as we today are of Aidan's and Liam's), who was given the name Thomas, after the apostle on whose feast it was. He was baptized the same day, at Saint Mary Colechurch. Guy remarks that Matilda wasn't present "since canon (or church) law forbade a newly delivered woman to enter a consecrated church space until she had been ritually purified in a special ceremony some forty days after birth." He's referring, of course, to the "churching of women" that you can still find in the old Rituale Romanum, but I've never heard of the rite being strictly mandatory. Maybe Matilda just had the wind knocked out of her, having given birth the very same day? It's worth some further study. 

The presentation of Christ in the Temple (also called the Purification of the Virgin by some) forms the basis of the ritual of churching of women.
The Beckets lived on Cheapside, which to modern ears would suggest a medieval way of saying "the ghetto" and give lie to the popular folk belief that Thomas belonged to the conquered and dispossessed Saxon majority. The Saxon myth admittedly makes for a good story, and Jean Anouilh, playwright for what would eventually become the 1964 film, acknowledged that he learned of Becket's true origins before the play debuted and retained the script as it was for the sake of the plot. To the contrary, Thomas's parents were both from Normandy, and "Cheapside" simply meant "the marketplace". Gilbert was a textile merchant who provided a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for his family. Thomas's enemies would nonetheless begrudge him for his non-noble origins every chance they got. Guy quotes him as responding in one of these occasions with, "'I prefer... to be a man in whom nobility of mind creates nobility, rather than one in whom nobility of birth degenerates. Perhaps I was born in a humble cottage, but through the aid of divine mercy... I lived very well indeed in my poverty."

A word on the name: "Becket", says Guy, most likely stems from Bec Abbey, situated near the village where Thomas's ancestors hailed. Surnames were not yet in general use, so our established customs did not yet come into play. For example, when Thomas's sister, Agnes, married, she still used the Becket name afterward. Thomas himself never used the name, instead going by "Thomas of London", "Thomas the chancellor", or "Thomas the archbishop" as his career progressed. Anyone who addressed him as "Thomas Becket" meant to incite him by using his lowborn surname, so his hagiographers omit it entirely. At last, the form "Thomas à Becket" is entirely foreign to the 12th century. It may have arisen from a pious imitation of a later medieval writer, Thomas à Kempis, who wrote the massively influential Imitation of Christ.

Bec Abbey, abandoned during the French Revolution, was actually restored by a small community of Olivetan Benedictine monks in 1948, and therefore is an active monastery once again. The tower above is the only surviving medieval portion of the Abbey.
We can thank "Mrs. Becket" for pushing the young Thomas through an education. French was his native tongue, but he was exposed to English early on from the family's servants; more than can be said for the Norman, so-called English kings such as Henry II, who neither spoke nor even cared to learn the language of his subjects. Thomas began formal schooling at an Augustinian priory in Surrey at the age of 10, then returned to London to advance his Latin, composition, and rhetoric at one of the city's grammar schools. Most of these boys would be destined for careers in the Church hierarchy. Thomas doesn't seem to have had any clerical ambitions for himself at this point. He coasted through his studies, neither earning his teachers' ire, nor their praise.

His first taste of the high life came when, as an adolescent, a noble by the name of Richer de l'Aigle, began lodging at the Becket house during business trips to London. It was this Richer that took Thomas out on adventures during school holidays, partaking especially of the pleasures of the hunt. Thomas would become known for his love falconry in particular, easily the most expensive sport of the age. To be seen with a hooded falcon on one's arm was as conspicuous a form of consumption as our Lamborghinis today, and Thomas would someday keep a whole aviary of them. His mother disapproved Thomas's new worldly habits, so before he and Richer grew too close, not to mention that the civil war was escalating and making the country increasingly more dangerous to live in, Thomas was sent away to school in Paris... a safer city, to be sure, but at no time from then to now was Paris every the place to go to find one's virtue.

It seems that Thomas was a bit of a loner during his time in Paris, so we know little of his "college days"; his friends, teachers, whether he enjoyed the usual kegger, and so on. The city housed as motley collection of schools that would eventually form the University of Paris. One of Thomas's most likely tutors was Robert of Melun, a fellow Englishman who numbered among the first to challenge the theory of divine right and defend "active resistance to a tyrant by the ministers of the church". Perhaps his lectures on resistance to kings emboldened Thomas and laid the foundation for his future actions?

Two years into his liberal arts studies and now grown over six feet, Thomas received word that his mother had died. He rushed back to London, never to return. He took what Guy identifies as a "gap year", and according to John of Salisbury, "'indulged in the rakish pleasures of youth and was unduly eager to be noticed'". But his father's fortunes were failing, and eventually, Thomas had to find a job. He had a brief stint as a clerk for one of his relatives, a banker named Osbert Huitdeniers (Eightpence), but the work soon proved to be beneath his talents. It so happened that two brothers who frequently lodged with the Beckets when they were in town, Archdeacon Baldwin and Master Eustace, took note of Thomas's underemployment and referred him to their friend, a certain Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England. The archbishop gave a cursory interview, and to Thomas's surprise, offered him a job as one of Theobald's nine or ten clerks on the spot. It was quite an accomplishment for a college dropout, as the leaders of the English church typically only hired the best and brightest; thus proving once again the value of having friends in high places. The appointment launched Thomas into the world of ecclesiastical and royal politics. Such would be true even in times of peace, but when Thomas entered the archbishop's service in 1145, Theobald's ongoing battles with King Stephen over royal incursions against church property, as well as his role as mediator between king and Pope Eugenius, propelled the primacy to a level of influence never before seen in England.

In part II, I'll write about Thomas's role under Archbishop Theobald and his path to the chancellorship. (Update: part II is up, now here.)

Saturday, December 28, 2013


I'm hoping to finish my book review on a biography of Saint Thomas Becket in time to post it on his feast tomorrow. In the meantime, if any of you were wondering where I've been:

-I finished my first semester of an associate's degree in computer game programming. It was already several degrees of magnitude tougher than anything I did for my last year of my bachelor's in history. I don't know if I'll manage to survive a second.

-My application for graduate school was rejected for the second time.

-I visited my relatives in Georgia for Christmas. That was nice.

-My bank account fell afoul of the Steam winter sale. That was not good, since I don't have enough time to play most of these games, anyway.

-Today, I chanted at a 1962 nuptial Mass and attended the reception afterward. I always feel awkward at wedding receptions. I spent most of the time imagining planning my own wedding, and was terrified.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The wrong kind of modern medievalism: Geocentrism

Well over a year after this blog's creation, I continue to plumb the medieval world's treasury of ideas for ways to make our own world better, or, at least, more beautiful (to which a medieval would likely say is the same thing). Because we live in fundamentally the same place, and since the medieval philosophers so loved to preoccupy themselves with questions of universal application, I believe turning to them for inspiration is generally a sound principle. Every so often, though, the well-meaning medievalist tries to hammer a square peg through a hole, and in doing so, they only succeed in making the rest of us look like fools. Today, I write to you about one tiny segment of the medievalist peanut gallery: the geocentrists. 

You may not be able to tell, but before I was a history nerd, or even a Batman nerd, my first two loves were dinosaurs and space. While other kids played tag or soccer, my father gave me Discover Space, a learning game/software suite published by Broderbund Software in 1992 for DOS systems. By the time I was in 2nd grade, I was regularly stargazing, drawing maps of constellations, and pondering about quasars.

The cosmos, as actually seen by medievals

You probably already know that in the medieval cosmology, the earth was placed at the center of the universe. Tempting as it is to dismiss anyone who lived in the days before Kanye West and smartphones as a complete idiot, a scholar in the 12th century didn't have any reason to believe the earth was anything but fixed, immovable; hence the expression terra firma. For if the earth did move, then what would keep us all from careening into the void beyond? And, as the Galileo affair highlighted, the Bible's own cosmology suggests a fixed earth. The psalmist says "the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved". And in the book of Joshua, God held the sun and moon in place for the Israelites to have enough daylight to vanquish the Canaanite heathens.

Beyond the earth's immovability, in a world without the benefit of telescopes, much less space travel, the rest was a matter of wild speculation. Today, we take it for granted that the universe is mostly an unfathomable expanse of empty space. But from Aristotle's day until the modern age, the heavens were generally believed to be a series of perfect, concentric spheres. The planets didn't fly about the earth in empty space; rather, they were fixed upon these spheres like gemstones embedded in cloth. The "fabric" was the fifth element, aether, the perfect substance that held our existence together. When Dante wrote of the nine circles of paradise, he wasn't thinking solely of the planets in orbit around the earth. The "circles" were whole spheres encasing the earth, exponentially larger and perfectly proportioned. It seems quite eccentric to us now, and I don't think even modern geocentrists defend the idea of the concentric spheres; but in the pre-telescopic world, the spheres theory as found in the models of Aristotle of Claudius Ptolemy seemed the best idea anyone could come up with. And so, it went unchallenged for well over a thousand years until an obscure Polish priest, Nicolaus Copernicus, came along in the 16th century.

The modern geocentrist

The old Ptolemaic system still has its uses. For example, planetariums are built using what is basically a Ptolemaic system since earth is our point of reference, and a truly heliocentric planetarium would be needlessly expensive. For a handful of people out there, including in the trad Catholic community which I'm a part of, this isn't good enough. Indeed, there are a few stubborn trads out there whose faith in God would be shattered if they accepted the idea that a judgment from Rome in the 17th century, outside its purview of faith and morality, could be wrong. If they could agree with our generation's so-called "militant atheists" on one thing, it's this: that even one misstep by the Church invalidates her entire claim to any share of the truth whatsoever. This has the tragic consequence of reasonable trads having to witness their brethren fall on their swords for the indefensible, plugging their ears with their fingers and chanting "nuh uh" like schoolchildren at any and every piece of evidence to the contrary.

Let me step back for a minute and clarify that there are actually three kinds of geocentrists:

1.) the apathetic,
2.) the anti-intellectuals, and
3.) the pseudo-intellectuals.

Category 1.) makes up the vast majority of geocentrists in existence. If you're reading this, you might think that's already a miniscule number, but multiple surveys, such as this one, count one out of every five adult Americans as a geocentrist. Even if we discount a full half of the respondents as being either pranksters or senile old folks, that still leaves us with a 10% of Americans who believe the sun orbits the earth. Of these, I imagine the greater part by far are just people who have never seriously thought about the question one way or the other. These are the same one out of five Americans who don't know which country the United States declared independence from, or where we are on a map of the world. They're frankly beyond the scope of this article.

Category 2.) are the trads who outright distrust telescopes, or anyone who has survived academia long enough to hold a PhD. In their minds, our entire understanding of science is built upon one lie after another, all according to the designs of Jewish atheists. If one of these anti-intellectuals is forced to confront such stubborn things as facts, they might propose the idea that God created the universe to appear much more vast and ancient than it really is to test our faith and confound the unbelievers. That sort of answer would bewilder Aquinas, and is probably more fitting for the irrational whims of a radical Islamist terror cell's god than the orderly First Mover of the medieval scholastics. Asking such a simple question as, "why would a much greater mass such as the sun orbit around a much smaller mass such as the earth?" is an exercise in futility, for all you'll get in response is something along the lines of, "well, you haven't actually gone to the sun yourself, have you? Then how do you know how big it is? Have you walked to and from it with a measuring stick to really know it's as far away as you say it is?" I wish I were exaggerating. The most extreme geo's I've come across will go so far as to pull the old moon-landings-are-a-hoax card, and that every mission NASA has ever accomplished is a lie. Since my father was an engineer for NASA in the 1970's, I won't even bother dignifying that with a real response.

Category 3.) are the fideists' comrades in the "devout geocentrist" ranks (or perhaps I should say "rank" in the singular, as anything more would suggest an army). The pseudo-intellectuals will write entire books in an attempt to prove the geocentrist model as not just a point of reference or a philosophical truth, but an accurate scientific model. These folks would be as worthy of comment as Raelians, Pope Michael, or whether Queen Elizabeth is a lizard, save for that the geocentrists' chief champion is Robert Sungenis, a fairly well-respected and established apologist in the trad Catholic community. (I even remember selling some of his apologetic works at a Catholic bookstore I worked at years ago.) Unfortunately, his insistence upon the geocentric universe effectively undoes all the good work he's achieved elsewhere in his career. A quick glance at reviews of his book Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right on reveals that the president of Catholic Apologetics, International has only attracted mockery from skeptics and generally made the magisterium a laughing stock.

And, by the way, if you happen to be one of the said geocentrists and you're offended by the fact that I won't shell out $20.38 plus tax and shipping to hear out a tortured semantic debate that twists Einstein's theory of relativity to mean that heliocentrism and geocentrism are equally valid models, then I'll just say this: if you can provide just one reasonable explanation for how a geocentric model makes even a modicum of sense when it would require Pluto to travel faster than the speed of light in order to revolve around the earth once every 24-hour period...... then I'll listen to the entire thing. Until then, the prospect of buying Galileo Was Wrong is about as thrilling as reading a 15-volume series about how 2 + 2 = 5 or how I'm actually black.

The hardcore geo's and Dawkinites are both missing the point

The "new atheist" points to our ancestors' belief in a geocentric universe as proof that we put ourselves in the center of existence; that we made God in our own image. The modern geocentrist confirms his suspicion that all religious people are rubes who can't even believe in a god big enough to set Earth on the third planet of one of many solar systems. Richard Dawkins himself couldn't imagine a better man in his wildest wet dreams. But both of these ridiculous caricatures miss the great point behind the entire medieval cosmology.....

Returning to Dante, we see that God didn't place the earth in the center because it was the most important part of the universe. The earth is there because that's where all the shit falls. When Satan was cast out of heaven, he fell into the very core of the world, the ninth circle of hell, which is the furthest point from the ninth heaven on all sides. Medieval man saw himself at the center, yes, but he certainly didn't want to be there. He wanted to ascend higher, to climb the nine levels of mount purgatory and see God in the highest heights of the heavens. He raised up towers and cathedrals higher than any civilization before. I can think of few things that would delight a medieval thinker more than the chance to defy gravity and fly into space, taking in all the nations of the world at once with his own eyes.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Occitan: tongue of the troubadours, brought to life

I had the pleasure of discovering this video, which may be one of the ultimate expressions of modern medievalism in the musical sphere. Introducing Lo Còr De La Plana, an Occitan revivalist polyphonic choir that sounds just as much like a rap group as anything else. 

Occitan is also known as the lenga d'òc, roughly meaning "the language of oc", oc meaning "yes". The people of southern France adapted it from the Latin word hoc ("this"), and by the Middle Ages, Occitan developed a unique language apart from the French of their northern neighbors. Today it stands on the verge of extinction, but in its heyday, Occitan was the native speech of such powermongerers as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart. It was the established tongue of the troubadours, the men (and women, called trobairitz) who repurposed music as a legitimate pursuit for the upper class. Before, the mere minstrel, like the actor, was perceived to fill a crude occupation. But men such as William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, made it fashionable for the highborn to compose and sing songs of chivalry and courtly love; especially the theme of forbidden love.

One such example of troubadour music, which might suggest some Moorish influence in the style:

This one, allegedly composed by Richard the Lionheart himself, speaks of his capture and ransom by the dirty Austrians:


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Short story: The Price of Treason

Just for fun, I'll share with you good folks a short story I whipped up for a creative writing class last year. I tried to fashion a story around one of my ancestors, and settled on my many-times-great grandfather from the 13th century, William Malet, one of the signers of Magna Carta. I don't claim much historical accuracy or innovation here. I wrote the bulk of it in the middle of class. Just be entertained.

The Price of Treason
By James Griffin

England, A.D. 1215

            Dusk had finally settled over the walls of Malet Castle.  Their shadows grew taller until they completely enveloped a man standing alone in the garden.  William was lost in thought when his seneschal, cautiously leaning out of the entrance to the keep, called out to him. “The guests are waiting, my lord.”  William gave no heed.  “My lord?”

            “I’ll be there straight away, Henry.  Keep them entertained.”  Waking from his trance, William took a great gasp of air and collected his resolve.  He had not been sure if he would carry out his plan when he woke this morning, but now he was certain.  The din of rowdy laughter and merriment grew louder with each step he took back to the keep.  It was the feast day of Saint Edward the Confessor, last of the Saxon kings, patron of England.  For the pious, it was an occasion to visit the churches, or perhaps even go on pilgrimage to London.  For the rest, it was as good an excuse as any to feast and drink their daily troubles away.  But for William, it was a painful reminder of every quality King John lacked: justice, mercy, wisdom, honor.  He crossed the threshold and the herald stood at attention.

            “William Malet, lord of Somerset, sheriff of—“
            “My guests know who I am,” William interrupted.  The herald bowed his head with understanding and receded into the shadows.  Though the tables in the great hall were already soaked by the ale flowing from spilled tankards, Henry’s fearsome build and bellowing voice quickly put the men in order.  William nodded in gratitude to his seneschal. Henry was his liege’s most loyal soldier, and had been so since their first foray into the Holy Land back in the days of the Lionheart’s rule.  With fifteen armed men of unproven loyalty, in varying states of drunkenness under his roof, William needed Henry’s services as much as ever.  He continued his speech, carefully recalling the words he composed in the garden.  

“And you know why I called you from your lands to break bread with me tonight.  We stand at a point of crisis.  Four months ago, our king fixed his seal upon Magna Carta, swearing to uphold our ancient rights.  To not raise taxes without the barons’ counsel.  To expel his foreign mercenaries from the realm.  To release our wives and children from captivity.”  

At that, a thunderous cry could be heard, as a hundred voices joined together to jeer at William’s indictment of the king.  He let them stir in their rage for a moment before continuing.  

“We returned to our homes, believing we were victorious.  And how does he repay us?  Last week, I received a message from our allies.  John has secretly been raising an army against us!  Forsaking his honor, he has declared every name on the Charter a traitor and is, even now, marching upon the countryside to put to the sword every man in England who stood up for God and our liberty.  What say you to the king’s justice?”

            From the back of the hall, a bearded man with ruddy complexion shouted, “I say he’s proven himself a whoreson and no king at all!”  Another man, a familiar face who served under William before, called out,
            “I say we raise arms put John’s head on a spike!”  An entire hall resounded with agreement and boasts of defiance.  Though William fancied himself too refined for such brutish sentiments, he could not help but smile to himself.  He had the beginnings of an army of his own.  Almost without thinking, he said,

“Gentlemen: if you are willing to put your words to action, then I will hear your oaths…”

            Some hours later, William climbed the stairs to his bedchamber.  As he prepared for bed, he noticed that his wife was absent.  “Alice?”  There was no answer.  Perhaps she went to check on the men’s sleeping arrangements, he thought to himself.  Laying down, William tried to let the cloud of sleep fall upon him, but it would not come.  There was simply too much to prepare, and not enough money, nor men, nor time.  In the darkness, he made out the figure of someone standing in the corner of the room.  “Alice,” he called again.  But it would not answer.  It stepped forward, and then William recognized the form of his seneschal and comrade in arms.  “Harry, it’s well past the last hour. What are you—“

            But it was too late. In an instant, William felt the surface of a pillow completely cover his face.  An overwhelming force sent him back into his bed, and everything went dark.

To be continued, of course!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

On The Hollow Crown, and medieval pet names

(This poster is incorrect as Ben Whishaw plays as Richard II, not I, aka the Lionheart.)
Due to having started my degree program in video game programming and assuming a temp job which insults my intelligence every minute of the day, I haven't been able to dedicate much time to this blog. But for now, allow me to apprise you on something I've been watching: The Hollow Crown, a BBC mini-series adaptation of Shakespeare's Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V). The series features several big names and familiar faces, including Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston (of Thor and Avengers fame as Loki), Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, James Purefoy, Michelle Dockery, and so on.

The events of the first play kick off what would come to be called the Wars of the Roses: the bloody game of thrones which began when Henry of Lancaster ousted the throne from his cousin, Richard II. I've only seen the first play so far, but if that's any indication, then the first of the mini-series should be fantastic. The series can be had on DVD from Amazon here (no Blu-ray so far).

My next planned topic was to be on the sorts of names that medievals liked to use for their pets. It turns out that one of the characters in the Henriad, Edward, 2nd Duke of York (whose death is portrayed in Henry V), was responsible for the oldest book on hunting in the English language. Truth be told, The Master Game is mostly a translation of a previous French work, but it's noteworthy for the fact that Edward somehow thought it necessary to include a whole 1,100 names that would be appropriate to give to hunting dogs. The relevant article on lists just a handful of those you might consider the next time you sally forth to the pet store: "Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast". There's a free version of Edward's book online here, which includes a forward by one of the most famous hunters of our own civilization, President Theodore Roosevelt himself!

Not to leave you cat people out of the loop, it seems the English really liked to name theirs Gilbert, or Gyb for short; and Frenchies were partial to Tibert. We can also look to the old Irish poem of a monk and his cat named Pangur Bán. In homage to the poem, Pangur Bán is also the name of Aisling's cat in the animated film The Secret of Kells.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Sunday at a Russian Orthodox church

My girlfriend has been struggling for some time with the Catholic Church's current situation as a haven for banal liturgy, pedophilic clergy, and effeminacy (or so it would seem when one is frustrated). It's hard to blame her, as I sometimes feel embarrassed to be associated with the Roman church myself. The easy solution, you may think, is to recommend her to the local Latin Mass community, but her "brand" of medievalism shares Orthodoxy's consternation against the angel-on-a-pinhead-counting type of rationalization and legalism that has pervaded the Catholic world's intellectual circles since the age of scholasticism. True that these words don't mean anything to your average Catholic in the pew, but Latin Mass communities are practically built by eggheads whose idea of a good time is reading a commentary on Aquinas. Being an egghead herself, she does what most disaffected, liturgy-loving Catholics in her situation do: turn to the East.

This past Sunday morning, we visited a Russian Orthodox church in the outskirts of the city. "Tiny" would be an understatement, as it was established in a converted house well within a residential neighborhood. I don't think the congregation numbered above 20. And why the Russian church, as opposed to a larger Greek church in the city? Lauren is a bit of a Russophile and has some Russian ancestry. We both spent the summer reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov too, a tome chock-full of Russian Orthodox themes. I also knew that the celebrating priest was an expert on the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite (which I've blogged about extensively last year) with many articles about it on the web, so I wanted to see him in person.

Modern Medievalism and Orthodoxy

First, what does this have to do with the theme of "modern medievalism"? The answer is simple: as much as the Roman church embodies the word "medieval" as we think of it today, the Orthodox do a much better job of bringing medievalism to the modern world than we westerners do. Every Latin Mass is "compromised", if you will, by the newfangled Gregorian calendar and its artificial Easter dating. Most are celebrated in the trappings of Rococo barbarism branded as traditional because, in the literal sense, they were still fashionable in the 1950's. Baroque music is at least as likely to be heard as plainchant. If the Roman liturgy is truly older than that of Saint John Chrysostom, as certain apologists claim, it's only by accident on the part of westerners. The Orthodox, on the contrary, seem hellbent on giving their believers the impression that they've stepped into a time warp peering back to the apex of Byzantium's hold on the Christian world.

Now that I've set the story, I'll narrate to you my thoughts as I entered the church and pondered what made our eastern brethren different from us.

Attending Divine Liturgy, step by step

We were ten minutes late, but the Divine Liturgy being as long as it is, they were just getting started. A lot of regulars showed up much later than we did. I'm told that the Orthodox are not given to punctuality, and many come in and out of the church throughout the Liturgy without batting an eye; already one point in their favor, in my book. Ten minutes in, and the congregation was only a little more than half what it would become later in the day. Also of note: when we entered, I observed that women and men had segregated themselves into opposing sides of the church. I split off from Lauren after that, but when some families came in, they stayed together on what I understood to be the "men's side", so perhaps I made up that rule in my head entirely based off of a coincidence. Moving on....

Aside from what I perceived to be sex segregation, the first thing that struck me when I walked in was that the entire nave and sanctuary of the church, all in what was perhaps some guy's living room once upon a time, still looked "churchier" than most Catholic churches I've been to. Icons decked out all sides, and the sanctuary was sectioned off by an impressive iconostasis (considering the surroundings). These were definitely not a people who were concerned about offending their Protestant neighbors' sensibilities. They would probably not think whitewashing their walls or getting rid of their fine vestments would make them any more humble than they already are. (After all, they were worshipping in a house like the early Christians, or like underground Catholics in China. I doubt they need any more reminders about their position in society.)

After what felt like something six times longer than our fore-Mass (here I mean the preparatory prayers, Kyrie, Gloria), a lector in cassock stepped from the choir in the back to the center of the nave to chant the Epistle in English. Another gentleman stood beside him, following the English version immediately with a re-chanting in Russian. The church didn't have a deacon, so the priest chanted the Gospel. This was the first time I got a good look at him. He was a hieromonk (the word easterners use to describe a monastic priest), and appeared in the flesh as I imagined all priests should: clad in the finest vestments a church can afford, with a great beard and unclipped hair, just as virtually all our depictions of Christ have it. I've never bought the idea that a western priest should shave just because that was the fashion during the late Roman Empire. Do we want a priest to be an alter Christus, or a mock Roman senator? Another argument I've heard is that a priest with long hair and a big beard would scandalize people. (Who, your grandmother?) But then, why wear a cassock outside of the church? Indeed, why bother with the Roman collar at all? In the first world of the 21st century, a Roman collar is going to scandalize a lot more people than a beard if for no other reason than because the collar has become the universal sign of the pedophile.

Bishop Nikon
After the gospel, the priest gave his sermon. A kind middle-aged guy who knew I was visiting and helped me follow along in a service book invited me to sit on a bench resting against the wall. As there were no pews and only a couple other benches beside the one I was sitting on, everyone else sat on the floor, Woodstock-style while the priest spoke. He wanted to expound upon a sermon of Bishop Nikon (Rklitsky's) on the Transfiguration and passed out printouts of that sermon to everyone (the following day was to be the feast of the Transfiguration in the old Julian calendar, which this church observes). The priest was very engaging and personable without having to resort to lame jokes, as one Latin Mass priest I know does. For a moment, I imagined I was really there with Peter, James, and John as Jesus revealed His divine nature to them. Most of the time, I can't wait for a sermon to be over, but I was sad when this priest ran out of things to say. 

Following the sermon, the priest began the "Litany of Fervent Supplication", which corresponds to the prayers of the faithful in the Novus Ordo Mass. Latin Mass purists may get irritated when I say that I believe restoring the prayers of the faithful was one of the (very few) legitimate improvements of the Novus Ordo. I use the word "improvement" loosely because intercessions used to exist in the Roman liturgy (and continue to exist in the famous intercessions of Good Friday), but I can't go so far as to say "restoration" because I don't think the early medieval West had middle-aged women in pantsuits rasp the prayers out from the lectern. A handful of western churches, such as my Anglican Use parish, pray them in a sensible manner with a deacon, but it's a needle-in-haystack situation. (For further reference, I posted an example of the intercessions, or "bidding prayers", that existed in pre-Reformation England near the end of this article.)

Anyway, I smirked when the litany used charmingly old-fashioned phrases like "again we pray for our great lord and father, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill" and for "pious kings and right-believing queens" as though any still existed. After that, the priest said "as many as are catechumens, depart". The Eucharistic portion of the liturgy hadn't even started yet, but if I had gone to a Roman Mass, it would already be well into coffee hour by now. I had gotten a little tired of standing and contemplated taking the liturgy's cue to leave, but I then resolved to restrain by pathetically short westerner's attention span and see it through to the end. I also concluded that as a validly baptized Christian, I wasn't really a catechumen by Orthodox reckoning, just a schismatic. And so I stuck around.

A word on the music: one of Lauren's beefs with the western church, which I heartily agree with, is what some call the "low Mass mentality". Don't get me wrong, I like low Mass... in its proper context. But when it was developed in the later Middle Ages, it was supposed to allow a monastic priest to celebrate an additional Mass for his own and other intentions, beside the conventual solemn Mass that he and his brothers all attended. Later on, during the Church's great missionary age, the low Mass was very useful for priests stuck by themselves in strange lands without the resources to recreate Notre-Dame in the middle of Indian territory, or say in Ireland when priests were on the lam during the penal days. And even today, low Mass is great for weekdays when the pious faithful want to get in and get out for a boost of holiness before the start of the work day. I get it, truly. But at no point was the low Mass ever supposed to replace the solemn Sunday liturgy. Every Sunday is a feast, and a feast implies singing. Somewhere down the line, we in the west have supplanted "festivity" with "obligation", so it's no wonder we want to punch our timecards at church as quickly as possible and get back to football season. 

So I was struck that at this tiny Divine Liturgy I was observing, attended more sparsely than even some weekday low Masses, everything was still sung from beginning to end. I'll hasten to add that the Divine Liturgy would probably take a long time even if it ever occurred to a priest to just recite the entire thing in the spoken tone. The choir was a mix of men and women singing the responses and other liturgical texts in harmony, but by no means dragging them out. They went through the Nicene Creed much faster than it would take us westerners to chant Credo I or III. I don't know if the Divine Liturgy has anything analogous to our long, melismatic Proper chants like the Gradual, but I didn't hear anything like that here. In truth, I was disappointed that I didn't hear anything like the deep all-male Russian chants you might find on YouTube with the droning, but I'm told those sorts of choirs are rare outside of Russia itself. Or perhaps it's just beyond this tiny parish's resources. Either way, the choir here seemed to exist just to lead the congregational singing. In America, though the schola I belong to actively tries to foster as much congregational singing as possible, sung Latin Masses tend to be showpieces for the choir as the congregation listens in admiration. (I've actually heard the line, "if you were at a symphony, you wouldn't climb into the orchestra pit to perform with the musicians, would you?")  

An iconostasis
The priest withdrew behind the iconostasis for the anaphora/Eucharistic prayer, and for at least part of it, he closed an additional screen so that you couldn't see even the top of his head. My mind wandered for a while so I don't recall all the details, but I think the entire anaphora was sung aloud. There was no silent Canon as we have in the old Mass. Later, Lauren remarked to me that in the west, after the Counter-Reformation, we seem to have discarded visual veiling in favor of verbal veiling. We got rid of the rood screens to appease Protestant objections, but retained the silence, and the Latin language, to preserve a sense of mystery. The east, I would venture to guess, didn't see the need for a silent Canon or any problem with the common tongue because they already had the iconostasis. In my opinion, it'd be great for the Mass to make use of all of the above, but according to Cardinal Newman, you might as well celebrate Mass in the sacristy if no one can see the action. Apparently, most traditional Catholics agree with the sentiment, so rood screens won't make a comeback anytime soon.

Communion eastern-style
Naturally, just being a visitor, I refrained from Communion. Many people in attendance, who I assume are regulars, also refrained from receiving. I'm not sure if it's because this is normal for Orthodox churches the world over, or because the congregation is made up of "trads". (Nearly all the women also wore headcoverings like in trad Catholic churches, but not a mantilla in sight.) Again to the consternation of my friends who are 1962 purists, I admired the Divine Liturgy's use of both species and wished I could receive both in the context of the old Mass. The priest addressed the communicants by name, saying "the servant/handmaid of God, N., partaketh of the precious and holy Body and Blood of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, for remission of sins and for life everlasting." 

An aeon later, after the dismissal, the priest informally spoke to the congregation about things like Russian traditions regarding Communion, the vigil for the Transfiguration to be held that evening, and about the current attacks on Christian churches in the Middle East. Finally, he asked if anyone had any birthdays or name days coming up. One guy did, so the whole church sang "God Grant You Many Years" or something similar. When that was done, everyone dispersed to either the "parish hall" (another room in the house) or to receive a blessing from the priest. The guy who helped me follow along in the service book invited me to receive a blessing from the priest along with everyone else, but for the same reason I decided not to make signs of the cross Eastern-style, I decided not to go up for fear of mucking things up. 

The fellow who had a birthday was, I think, also the choir director. He warmly welcomed me to the church and asked if I was a musician. I don't know what prompted him to ask since I didn't even sing the congregational parts, but I said I was, and he responded along the lines of, "if I had known, I would've invited you to join us in sightreading some of the parts." To which I replied, "thanks, but I'm not Orthodox." He continued, saying, "that's okay, I wasn't Orthodox when I began singing here, either." He then invited me to stay and eat lunch with the other parishioners. I would've taken him up on it if I didn't feel so awkward, but instead, Lauren and I left.

The ride home

Lauren enjoyed the Liturgy quite a bit, and I had a very positive experience about it and the community myself. In fact, if you've read up to this point, you might be wondering if I've thought of "going Dox" by the end of it all. In a word, no. And although I mused that I unwittingly tossed Lauren headfirst into Patriarch Kirill's clutches by indulging her with this visit, she actually came through it more comfortable with her Catholic identity. Although our proverbial pilgrimage to Moscow affirmed in both us everything we disliked about western spirituality, there was still something missing. Lauren iterated the four marks of the Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) and said she believed the Orthodox came up short on the "catholic" part. After all, we visited a Russian Orthodox church, as distinct from a Greek or Serbian one. While it's true that the Roman Church also has eastern rites, and in the not-too-distant past also had ethnic Irish, Italian, Polish, and Korean parishes in America, these are all window dressing by comparison to the distinct ethnic character of the various Orthodox churches out there.

An Orthodox reading this will quickly object by saying that there's no ethnic requirement to joining the church. Indeed, I believe the priest at the church I visited was of Irish descent (just based on name and appearance; I didn't talk to him), and I'm led to believe that it's quite normal for Orthodox clergy in America to be of Anglo, Irish, German, or otherwise non-Eastern European origin. But still, just speaking personally as a non-Slav, I feel like even if I did have the urge to convert to Orthodoxy, I wouldn't feel completely integrated into the Orthodox world unless I went above and beyond, and became a cleric in the faith. Otherwise, I'd perpetually be a hanger-on, a token half-Anglo, half-Indonesian guy (if not the only half-Anglo, half-Indonesian guy in all of Orthodoxy). As a convert to the Roman church, while I do still feel like a bit of an outsider, this is more because I'm just a single person going to church without any family ties or little ones trailing behind me, rather than because of ethnicity. 

In spite of all the eye-rolling induced whenever I read about the latest media stunt or soundbite surrounding Pope Francis, or my general cynicism about anything related to Vatican politics, I have to admit that the bishop of Rome somehow still supports a unity and catholicity you just can't find anywhere else in Christianity. I can look at photos of Japanese people attending Mass in Nagasaki after the bombs fell and think it makes sense, but think it would be bizarre if it were a Divine Liturgy instead. I can be irritated as hell looking over photos of the Eucharist being tossed like candy at World Youth Day in Brazil, but still feel the event is somehow relevant to me because I'm Catholic. I can have absolutely nothing in common with the average pew-warmer at the Catholic parish down the street, but what happens at his Novus Ordo Mass still matters to me more than what happens at an aesthetically perfect solemn Mass at Saint Clement's Episcopal in downtown Philly (though they are more Tridentine than Puginesque, but I digress). Much as I'd like to ignore the daily doings of Francis, his office somehow ties the ordinary Joe Catholic pew-warmer's fate to mine more than that of the most zealous Anglo-Catholic medievalist.

A Western Orthodox world

If I could build my own church, it would look like the Sainte-Chapelle and have daily solemn Mass and Office in the Sarum Use with a rood screen, choir stalls in the sanctuary, Communion under both species, less scholasticism and legalism, and some odd combination of both married secular clergy and celibate canons; and somehow still have a very active role in social justice and ministering to the poor of the area. As a young male convert to Catholicism with just enough education to enjoy armchair pontificating and not enough to be wise and content with what I have, I have the bizarre daily temptation to re-imagine the Church as I want it to be. Lauren, being a more masculine thinker than most women (don't tell her I said that, but honestly, when was the last time you heard of a single young female who thought of converting to Orthodoxy because Catholicism is too effeminate?), sought solace in the East but came through with a reassurance of Catholicism's catholicity, despite itself.

My imaginary church will never exist under the auspices of Pope Francis or (probably) any of his successors in my lifetime. The closest it's ever come would be under the extremely niche communities of Anglo-Catholics (such as Saint Clement's, as I mentioned above) or in so-called Western Orthodox communities. The priest of the Russian Orthodox parish I visited is an expert on the Sarum Use and, I imagine, has celebrated it many times before if he doesn't now. These communities are havens for thinkers such as Lauren and myself, and I'm sure some of them even read my blog. 

This Western Orthodox bishop (?) is precisely what I imagine all western churchmen ought to look like

My last thought for this entry: if reincarnation were true, I'm pretty certain I would have been Henry VIII in a past life. No other historical figure so embodies the "if I could build my own church" sentence I wrote better than he. Contrary to popular belief, Henry didn't create the Church of England just because he was randy. Any other king in his position would have just taken Anne Boleyn as a mistress and carried on with life. But before Henry became king, he was a young man groomed for a career in the clergy while his older brother, Prince Arthur, was set to be king. Indeed, his father named his firstborn "Arthur" out of a belief that he, the first of a union between the feuding houses of York and Lancaster, would lead England to a new golden age just like the king of myth. Young Henry, some said, would serve the realm as Archbishop of Canterbury beside his elder brother. 

Henry VIII before he was fat
So when Arthur died and Henry became heir, it's no surprise that his background as a potential churchman shaped his approach to the kingship. Henry's piety led him to come to the Papal States' defense during the Italian Wars. With the aid of Saint Thomas More, he published the Defense of the Seven Sacraments against Luther and was named by the Pope a "defender of the faith". When the continuation of the Tudor line came into question, it wasn't enough for Henry to just take a mistress as any other king would have done. He had to have his union validated by the Church, and if the Church wouldn't acquiesce (and honestly, if Katherine weren't the Holy Roman Emperor's aunt, the annulment probably would have gone through), he would have to take matters into his own hands.

Still, for the average Englishman, nothing changed under Henry's Church of England at all. At most, he introduced the "for thine is the kingdom" doxology to the Lord's Prayer, but that was already in Eastern usage, not a Protestant innovation. Lutheranism was still condemned in Henry's church. So ironically, I don't see Henry VIII as a Protestant at all. He was instead, perhaps, the first Western Orthodox; for if every king had followed his example, the West would have broken into national churches while otherwise remaining completely apostolic. The Pope would have remained "patriarch of the west" but with no real power outside the see of Rome.

And therefore, every day in between brushing my teeth and flossing, I look into the mirror and ask myself, "have I become Henry VIII?" The answer remains no, and it's not just because I decided to lay off the enchiladas. No, friends. Lauren and I will remain where we are, loving the Roman church despite Her best efforts to eject medievalists to the dustbin of history. Apologies if I offended anyone in the process.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A look into the medieval parish church's vestry: on vestments

This article is written by request of a good friend (a seminarian) who wanted to read more about church vestments in the Middle Ages.

In truth, my title is misleading because from what little I've gleamed on such an obscure subject, medieval parish churches didn't have vestries (or sacristies); or at least, they were uncommon outside of cathedrals and abbeys. Perhaps the idea to partition a space to hold vestments and vessels didn't seem necessary until the Renaissance. At any rate, without a vestry, a priest dressed for holy rites within the sanctuary, or perhaps his vestments were laid upon a side altar as when a bishop vests.

Why have vestments?

Before we begin, it's worth asking: why should priests or their assistants wear any special kind of clothing in the first place? I've spent a long enough time in the evangelical faith to think a pastor's service dress was a power suit, perhaps also a cross lapel pin. If we to ask your average Catholic in the pew today why a priest wears vestments, I'd bet he wouldn't have really thought about it at all. "That's just the way it's done." It's true, insofar as that a priest is required by liturgical laws to wear vestments.

A more savvy sort of Catholic (the EWTN-watching kind who likes to read apologetic works) might say, "it's to obliterate the priest's personal identity because he acts not a man, but in the person of Christ Himself. The vestments are blessed and set apart for sacred services only, because the Mass is an otherworldly experience." Also not wrong, but that doesn't appear to have been the idea all along. Vestments arose from the street dress of the ancient Church, as fashions evolved but the clergy stubbornly insisted upon wearing the same old styles of clothing for liturgy. This would be like if Christ founded the Church in the 1920's, and a hundred years from now, only priests ever wore neckties and fedoras, but only at Mass, and only in very stylized or "Hollywood" forms.

The medieval liturgist might have said, "our clergy wear vestments because they were handed down to us from the clothing worn by the priests of the Old Testament, who in turn wore them by the express command of God in the law of Moses." This is a tall tale or at least a mistake because ancient Jewish and Christian vestments have only superficial similarities; and by the time the Church made use of vestments (after the end of Roman persecutions and the rise of Constantine, say) Jews and Christians had near zero cultural exchange. Indeed, it was more likely that a Christian would change his habits solely not appear like a Jew, and vice versa.

If we could synthesize all these strains of thought into a greater idea, then, I'd say that a priest wears vestments to: 1.) conform to the rule of the Church (liturgical law), 2.) symbolically erase his own identity by taking up the cloak of Christ, and 3.) emphasize continuity between the religion of the Old Testament and of the New. Each reason may seem questionable on its own, but together, they refute the idea held by cynical nonbelievers that vestments are worn for priests to vainly adorn themselves in rich fabric sewn by the blood, sweat, and tears of a peasant class kept in ignorant darkness by their ecclesiastic overlords. No, friends, it's just the opposite: the priest wears vestments as an act of obedience, to conform himself to the will of God. In theory, at least. This is true for the medieval priest just as much as for the modern one.

The alb

The alb (from the Latin word alba for "white") may not necessarily be the first thing a cleric reached for, but it's the foundation of all the other vestments and must be mentioned before all else. The big white gown evokes all sorts of negative emotions from the modern man: to the skeptic, it ranges from the uniform of fools being baptized in the river after a euphoria of preacher-induced excitement, down to the image of hundreds of robed believers drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the anticipation of a better world (even if, at such cult suicides as the one in 1978, no robes were actually involved). Traditional Catholics likewise often deride the alb simply because they see it worn on altar servers, perhaps with ugly sneakers peaking from the bottom, at their local temple of banality (your average Catholic parish) instead of the usual pre-Vatican II practice of wearing a surplice.

In my experience, it's a small matter to say the alb represents purity. It's another thing to stress that an all-white garment in the ancient or medieval world was a challenging thing to make, and even more difficult to maintain. Like teeth in the age before modern dentistry, clothes were most likely to range from shades of yellow to brown. The Roman citizen's toga candida ("bright toga") was only bright white because it was powdered in chalk, in order to draw attention to him while he sought political office; hence he was a candidate for office. Queen Victoria kickstarted the fashion of the white wedding dress, but at that time it was a garment fit for royalty precisely because of its purity, thus any cinematic depictions of medieval peasants or even lesser noblewomen marrying in a white dress are very unlikely.

The alb is also unique in that it's not a vestment for clerics alone, but the uniform of all Christians. Every Christian earns the alb in baptism. I don't know if the Church provided them or if believers had to bring their own, but at least since the time of Saint Augustine, who mentions the custom in a sermon, converts who were baptized on Easter were supposed to wear the albs until the following Sunday. This is why you'll see, in some missals, the Sunday after Easter called Dominica in albis depositis ("the Sunday in which the white is put away").

The alb's form in the Middle Ages was mostly the same as it was in Roman times, from the common tunic worn by men of the old Empire. Lacemaking techniques were very primitive before the Renaissance and unknown in ecclesiastic arts, so don't expect to find any medieval vestments resembling anything like the sheer "liturgerie" of the later centuries. Any decoration was made in the form of embroidery around the cuffs or head opening, or from the 13th century onward, in apparels. The first form, embroidery, can be seen below, dated to the 13th century:

Apparels are strips of fabric that are pinned to the alb's cuffs or the bottom, and can be exchanged with others. This is one very fine example from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, made between 1320 and 1340:

I can't post an image directly, but this model shows how apparels would be worn on the alb today.

Another apparel is shown on the back of this alb.

The amice

The amice (from the Latin amictus for "covering" or "dressing") is a rectangular cloth that the priest and his ministers put on before anything else. The idea is to completely cover any sign of the priest's street clothes, including the Roman collar; again, fitting with the idea of obliterating the priest's identity. But since medieval clergy didn't wear anything resembling collars as we know them today, the question of where the amice came from is trickier. A pre-Vatican II rubric had the priest wrap the amice around his head for a moment before pulling it back over the shoulders. The prayer he had to recite while putting it on called the amice "the helmet of salvation". Was this some vestige of when clerics used them as a hood to protect their ears against the cold, like the white hood you might see on a portrait of Dante? But again in the old rites, when a subdeacon was ordained, the bishop would say, "Receive the amice, by which is signified the discipline of the voice". Was it supposed to protect the throat? The Catholic Encyclopedia presents a whole host of theories: 

"Early liturgical writers, such, e.g. as Rabanus Maurus, were inclined to regard the amice as derived from the ephod of the Jewish priesthood, but modern authorities are unanimous in rejecting this theory. They trace the origin of the amice to some utilitarian purpose, though there is considerable difference of opinion whether it was in the beginning a neck cloth introduced for reasons of seemliness, to hide the bare throat; or again a kerchief which protected the richer vestment from the perspiration so apt in southern climates to stream from the face and neck, or perhaps a winter muffler protecting the throat of those who, in the interests of church music, had to take care of their voices. Something may be said in favour of each of these views, but no certain conclusion seems to be possible (see Braun, Die priesterlichen Gewänder, p. 5). The variant names, humerale (i.e. "shoulder cloth", Germ. Schultertuch), superhumerale anagologium, etc., by which it was known in early times do not help us much in tracing, its history."
We can take that as a sign that the Encyclopedia had no idea precisely where the amice came from, either, though the medieval belief that the vestment came from Old Testament times resurges once again. My own bet is that the amice protected the alb and other vestments from getting stained by sweat, and was a lot easier to launder. Anyone with experience in laundering vestments could probably back me up. Nonetheless, by the ninth century, it was considered an essential garment for the liturgy.

The medieval amice was the same as it is today, except that it, like the alb, was frequently apparelled. I was unable to find pictures of surviving examples from the era, but here are some reconstructed forms today:

Vesting Priest with Apparelled Amice by Charles Blamey. Remarkable that an artist would bother to paint this subject in the first place, and even more remarkable that this painting dates only to 1991. Blamey, however, was an altar server for Saint Pancras Old Church in London and liked to paint what he called "ecclesiastical" (as opposed to religious) art.

All these representations admittedly look silly until you see the apparelled amice in its final form, pulled back over the chasuble. Then it looks quite splendid.

The cincture

The cincture (from the Latin word cingulum for "girdle", also often just called a girdle) is a cord with knotted or tassled ends that the minister uses to keep his alb and stole together. Over time this has come to represent chastity, but cinctures were probably used from very early times onward for no other reason than to keep the priest from stepping on and tripping over his own alb. All medievals wore belts over their long tunics or dresses for the same reason.

The stole

The stole (from the Latin word stola for "garment", as in the Roman woman's counterpart to the toga) is the sash that deacons, priests, and bishops wear as a sign of their authority. Outside of the strictly liturgical context, even most Catholic priests today will put on the stole during confession to represent their authority to absolve sin. In older times, there was also the concept of a "preaching stole" for priests who gave sermons outside of Mass, or for priests at Mass who were visiting or simply attending in choir. Since it's hard enough these days for priests to get people to come even to Sunday Mass, and since visiting priests now pretty much always concelebrate rather than attend in choir (and thus are already wearing a stole under the chasuble), the idea of a "preaching stole" has now vanished from the Church. Ironically, it may live on in Protestant denominations which formerly condemned the stole as vain popery, but now see it as a useful symbol.

Deacons wear the stole diagonally across the chest. It seems that in the earlier Middle Ages, deacons wore the stole over the dalmatic, as Eastern deacons do today. From the later Middle Ages until Vatican II, priests wore the stole with the ends crossed one over the other. At other times, they wore it with the ends hanging straight down, as bishops do.

The stole seems to have been used in Rome since the sixth century, possibly earlier. Even then, it was conferred upon someone to show that he had entered the ranks of the clergy. In many places, particularly the Frankish lands, priests were supposed to wear the stole not just in the liturgy, but as part of daily dress (that may be why in the movie Becket, you see Thomas wearing the stole even over his usual robes). Indeed, it was the Franks who gave the stole its current name. Before, it was called the orarium, and the Eastern clergy know their form of it as the orarion even today. Later on, some medievals stated that it had a common origin with the Jewish prayer shawl, but as with other theories relating to vestments' origins in Judaism, this one isn't true, either.

Returning to Becket, we're very fortunate to have some of the saint's own vestments preserved at the cathedral of Sens, France. You can see how the stoles from his age were very long, narrow, and generally of uniform width except for a little widening out at the ends. No medieval stoles ever fattened out like spades at the ends as Rococo stoles do, however.

The photo also shows an alb with apparels as I described before, a maniple, and a conical chasuble which I'll bring up again in a bit. Photo courtesy of Genevra Kornbluth.

The maniple

The maniple (from the Latin word manipulum for "handful" or "bundle") is a strip of fabric, often made out of the same material as the stole, that hangs over the cleric's left forearm. This one will be strange to anyone not familiar with the traditional Latin Mass, because it's hardly ever seen outside of that context. After Vatican II, the maniple was no longer required by the rubrics for Mass, and with no practical purpose to justify it, that meant it was as good as abolished for the post-conciliar Church.

Saint Alphonsus Liguori, in language typical of the 18th century pious, wrote: 
"It is well known that the maniple was introduced for the purpose of wiping away the tears of devotion that flowed from the eyes of the priest; for in former times priests wept continually during the celebration of Mass."
I'm not so sure about that. The maniple was also referred to as the sudarium, which literally means a sweat cloth. The liturgical maniple, then, probably descended from ornamental handkerchiefs that upper-class people in Roman times used to wipe off their sweat. Before it took its current form as a strip of cloth around the forearm, it was folded and carried in-hand. One can easily imagine Cassius, the fat games announcer from Gladiator, using it to wipe his brow in between bouts. 

The oldest surviving example I know, the maniple of Saint Cuthbert on display at Durham Cathedral, is of the folded handkerchief kind. Predatng the Norman Conquest, it was a gift from Queen Aethelflaed to the bishop of Winchester. 

The world's finest sweat rag ever made depicts Saint Sixtus II. I'm not sure how Sixtus feels about that.

A 14th century German maniple at the Victoria & Albert Museum. By this time, the maniple has been worn as a band around the forearm.

Considering the maniple's aristocratic origins, I can see why the maniple, which in its earliest days was used even by acolytes, gradually became restricted to subdeacons and higher. What I still don't know is how the maniple came to be used strictly for Mass and no other liturgical function.

The tunicle and dalmatic

The tunicle (from the Latin word tunicula for "little tunic") and the dalmatic (literally "Dalmatian", as in a robe made of Dalmatian wool) are the outer vestments for the subdeacon and deacon respectively. I group them together because in traditional Latin Mass communities today, they're basically interchangeable garments. This is because the medievals wanted the subdeacon and deacon to appear more symmetrical when assisting the priest. In theory, the subdeacon's tunicle is supposed to appear shorter and plainer, but I can't say I've ever seen any meaningful distinction in practice.

The tunicle, in Roman times, was a fine gown to be worn around the villa like a lounge suit. Subdeacons were already wearing tunicles by the time of Pope Gregory the Great, who wrote in a letter that he abolished the custom and had them wearing chasubles as before. (For those of you who are really in-the-know, you may remember that subdeacons and deacons wore folded chasubles during Advent and Lent until 1960. Perhaps this was an attempt to honor Gregory's rule halfway.) But that likewise was overturned, and subdeacons were wearing tunicles again until Vatican II, when the order was abolished entirely.

The dalmatic likewise was a garment worn by the late Roman aristocracy, only even more richly adorned. Deacons began wearing them in Rome as an honorific at the time of Pope Sylvester I, who was contemporary to Emperor Constantine. Both the tunicle and the dalmatic have luxurious, festive origins which help to explain why they were put away during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, as I mentioned before. The noble connotations remain today in the secular world because the British monarch still wears a dalmatic during the coronation rite.

In the early Middle Ages, dalmatics reached nearly to the floor and were always white. In the succeeding centuries, the length shortened a bit and colors were introduced at the same time that the system of prescribed colors for the chasuble came into play. 

In this famous mosaic of Emperor Justinian, I believe those two on the right of Bishop Maximianus are deacons in white dalmatics. They don't wear the chasuble (which was very cumbersome in early medieval times) as the bishop does because the deacons, being the bishop's servants, need their hands free to work.

A southern German dalmatic dating to c.1260, part of a set called the Göss Vestments. By this time the sleeves are shorter, but the sides are not yet cut with high slits like the Baroque dalmatics.

This dalmatic was a gift from the Byzantine emperor to Pope Eugene IV in the 15th century. It's the only medieval vestment left in the treasury of Saint Peter's Basilica. Sad. Perhaps the gentlemen in the Vatican thought "LOL, where's the lace?"

Left: how the dalmatic should look on a person.

The chasuble

Though this article could go on for nearly twice the length by just talking about copes and episcopal vestments, I'd like to end here with the priest's outer vestment, the chasuble. Called in Latin the casula ("little house"), it descends from a much humbler garment than the tunicle or dalmatic, despite the priest being higher in rank. The chasuble's ancestor in Roman times was a traveling poncho, serving the same purpose as the modern trenchcoat. The chasuble "housed" its wearer completely because the fabric extended from the neck all the way down to the ankle in the shape of a cone; in other words, basically a cope that's sewn shut in the middle.

Many details about the chasuble's evolution can be found elsewhere in plenty, so it suffices to say here that the medieval chasuble was very bulky, encumbering vestment that virtually required the deacon's and subdeacon's assistance to help the priest move around. This is why in the Latin Mass, the deacon and subdeacon are required to hold up the edges of the priest's chasuble when he ascends the altar steps, moves from side to side while incensing, or when he elevates the Eucharist. Without their help in lifting the material, it would have very difficult, if not impossible, for an elderly priest to elevate the Chalice without making an unholy mess.

All these inconveniences caused liturgical "fashion" to cut down the chasuble's length, inch by inch, until eventually, in the 18th century, we were left with the absurdity known as the fiddleback. Such chasubles are like the sleeveless t-shirt, or perhaps the g-string of vestments, and makes the gesture of the deacon pinching the sides of the priest's chasuble pointless, if not ridiculous. That is not to say that a priest's chasuble must be of the full conical form, but the vestment should at least be long and voluminous enough to suggest nobility, dignity, gravitas. The Gothic style attempts to do that while still allowing the priest some mobility. The fiddleback style does none.

The Wolfgangskasel (chasuble of Saint Wolfgang) dates c.1050. It's currently displayed in Regensburg. One of the oldest surviving chasubles out there, but much of the fabric is also reconstructed.

The chasuble of Bishop Bernulf, c.1150.

Another view of Saint Thomas Becket's chasuble at Sens.

An illustration by Augustus Welby Pugin of chasubles and copes as depicted on real effigies (such as on tombs). These are mostly from the later Middle Ages or the Renaissance.