Monday, February 7, 2011

Holier Than Me

In the Cambridge Medieval History; Vol. VIII: The Close of the Middle Ages,published in 1936, ch II, "John Hus," pp 45-64, Dr Kamil Krofta, then Professor of Bohemian History in Prague and Minister of Foreign Affairs in Czechoslovakia, laments (p 45) some conditions in the later 14th century in Catholic Europe generally and in Bohemia specifically: "the almost limitless wealth and power of the Church of Rome, two factors which resulted in extravagance and immorality among the priesthood," as well as a "general relaxation of morals." Throughout the chapter, Dr Krofta gets no more specific than "extravagance," "immorality," "relaxation of morals" or "moral degeneration," leading the reader to wonder just exactly what he could be talking about -- sexual promiscuity? pagan folk festivals? athletic competitions, with gambling? or without ganbling? or gambling without athletic competitions? mass murder and rape? drunkenness? theatre? the study of ancient literature? Your guess, gentle reader, is at least as good as mine.

But perhaps Dr Krofta himself doesn't know very specifically just what sort of sin it is which he is deploring here. He reminds me more than a bit of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Conner's novel Wise Blood,and I feel sort of like the man who tells Hazel that talking about sin is best left to those who have some experience with it.

But I'm jumping to conclusions here. Whatever it actually was which, five and a half centuries later, aroused Krofta's indignation so, it bothered some people at the time, too, and aroused "the zealous and extraordinary activity of a few chosen spirits," (p 45) including the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV -- the same Charles who appears as a figure of fun in Burckhardt's Kultur der Renaissance in Italien,being led around by the nose by Italian noblemen -- extravagant and degenerate Italian noblemen, presumably, with relaxed morals -- and selling off Imperial privileges to them at bargain-basement prices. (pp 25-26 in Burckhardt, Frankfurt aM: Insel, 1997) The same Charles whose Autobiography,even by medieval literary standards, so drips with wince-making piety.

To be sure, this is also the same Charles IV who founded the first university in Central Europe, in Prague in 1348. But if we judge this university by Charles, and by Hus, its most famous alumnus, and by Krofta, its Professor of Bohemian History in 1936, how stimulating a place could it ever have been? No. Until we know more, we must not judge it so.

To return to Krofta's narrative -- besides the Emperor Charles IV, another "chosen spirit" who fought the rigorously unspecified bad morals of the time was, of course, John Hus. Krofta gets no more specific about moral things than his mention (p 46) of three "vanities" Hus gave up upon entering the priesthood: fine clothing, fine food and chess. Krofta remarks that although Hus had earlier indulged in all of these, "he was certainly at all times far removed from any debauchery or immorality." So it could have been worse: Krofta seems to be implying that playing chess, getting proper nutrition and not wearing hair shirts won't necessarily send you to Hell, and praising Hus, if I'm reading between the lines properly, for never having had a girlfriend and/or gotten drunk and/or used a cussword.

P 47: Early on in Hus' career -- he was ordained in 1400 or 1401 -- "Queen Sophia herself was so attracted by him that she made him her chaplain or perhaps even her confessor." I've heard of several instances, in bygone Christian centuries, from St Jerome to Franz von Dietrichstein in Bohemia two centuries after Hus, of noble ladies being powerfully drawn to passionate young priests. And I have wondered whether their relationships might have been like those between ancient Roman ladies and leading gladiators -- with the difference of secrecy of course, because of Christianity generally frowning upon sex. But perhaps these suspicions of mine are merely projections of my own preferences and fantasies. Maybe what Jerome and Hus and Dietrichstein and their many lady friends were doing was much more like "Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys." Or maybe Andy Warhol captured the essence of such relstionships with his opinion, "The most exciting thing is not doing it." Actual ascetic ecstasy? Okay, Andy, whatever you say.

P 48: "It is possible[...]that Hus[...]found a divergence between the teaching of Christ and that of the oldest Fathers of the Church on the one hand and doctrines which the Church of his day asked its adherents to believe on the other, that he was dissatisfied with the manner in which the scholasticism of his day settled the fundamental questions of the Christian faith." Quelle horreur! Over the course of a thousand years, some things had diverged! Holier than thou, more Christian than thou, just like Luther -- assuming Krofta is correct.

Krofta sums up his laudatio, (p 63) "Hus assumed for himself and thus for every believer the right to be his own judge in matters of faith. Although he himself placed limits to the freedom of this right of judgment, desiring that the Holy Writ should be acknowledged as a law from which there should be no departure soever[...]"

If Krofta is at all aware of the monstrous irony here, he gives no sign of it: Hus fought and died for the "freedom" of every person to decide just exactly how the Bible was the absolute authority.

Hus, Savonarola, Luther: every now and then a wild-eyed fanatic with a heart full of fear comes along, dreaming of vengeance, taking all of this stuff seriously.

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