Strange Hues

‘In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues.’

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

‘In the eyes of all who were capable of reflection the material world was little more than a mask, behind which took place all the important things; it seemed to them also a language, intended to express by signs a more profound reality. Since a tissue of appearances can offer but little interest in itself, the result of this view was that observation was neglected in favour of interpretation. In a little treatise on the universe, which was written in the ninth century and enjoyed a very long popularity, Rabanus Maurus explained how he followed his plan: ‘I conceived the idea of composing a little work…which should treat not only the nature of things and the property of words…but still more on their mystical meanings.’

Further, this discredited nature could scarcely have seemed fitted to provide its own interpretation, for in the infinite detail of its illusory manifestation it was conceived above all as the work of hidden wills – wills in the plural, in the opinion of simple folk and even many of the learned. Below the One God and subordinated to his almighty power – though the exact significance of this subjection was not as a rule, very clearly pictured – the generality of mankind imagined the opposing wills of a host of beings good and bad in  a state of perpetual strife; saints, angels and especially devils.’

Marc Bloch, Feudal Society.

‘In God nothing is empty of sense; nihil vacuum neque sine signo apud Deum, said Saint Irenaeus. So the conviction of a transcendental meaning in all things seeks to formulate itself. About the figure of the Divinity a majestic system of correlated figures crystallizes, which all have reference to Him, because all things derive their meaning from Him. The world unfolds itself like a vast whole of symbols, like a cathedral of ideas. It is the most richly rhythmical conception of the world, a polyphonous expression of eternal harmony.

The ethical and aesthetic value of the symbolical interpretation of the world was inestimable. Embracing all nature and all history, symbolism gave a conception of the world, of a still more vigorous unity than that which modern science can offer. Symbolism’s image of the world is distinguished by impeccable order, architectonic structure, hierarchic subordination. For each symbolic connexion implies a difference of rank or sanctity: two things of equal value are hardly capable of a symbolic relationship with each other, unless they are both connected with some third thing of a higher order.

The world, objectionable in itself, became acceptable by its symbolic purport. For every object, each common trade had a mystical relationship with the most holy, which ennobled it.’

Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages.