Serendipity: A Plea from the Pagans

Winged Victory (Nike) bronze statue against background of Trajan’s Column and dome of Santa Maria di Loreto church. Rome, Italy.

I have always been fascinated by the period of transition from the Paganism of Ancient Rome to the Christianity of the last days of the Western Roman Empire. It was in AD 313 when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire with his Edict of Milan; and it was in AD 476 when the Western empire fell.

Naturally, the transition was not sudden. In AD 375, the Emperor Gratian had the Altar of Victory removed from the Roman Senate, this despite the fact that most of the members of the Senate were still Pagans. On that occasion, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus complained to the emperor: “Grant, I implore you, that we who are old men may leave to posterity that which we received as boys.” He goes on:

All things … are full of God, and no place is safe for perjurers, but the fear of transgression is greatly spurred by the consciousness of the very presence of deity. That altar contains in itself the harmony of the members of our order and the good faith of each of them individually. Nor does anything so much contribute to the authority of the Senate’s decrees, as the fact that one body, sworn to the same oath, has resolved them. Greco-Roman Paganism is to us a ridiculous body of myths, but to the Roman Senators, making sacrifices to the Altar of Victory was not only patriotic but an act of piety.

Symmachus continues:

Let me use my ancestral ceremonies, she says, for I do not repent me of them. Let me live after my own way; for I am free. This was the cult that drove Hannibal from the walls of Rome and the Gauls from the Capitolium. Am I kept for this, to be chastised in my old age?… I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers, the native gods of Rome. It is right that what all adore should be deemed one. We all look up at the same stars. We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret. All this is matter of discussion for men of leisure. We offer your majesties not a debate but a plea.

This plea did not sit well with the new Christian orthodoxy of the empire. St. Ambrose wrote the official response, which was essentially that Christianity was replacing the old order of things.

Interestingly, it is now Christianity that seems to be on the defensive … to be replaced by—whatever.

 

A Christian Sugar Coating

Landscape from Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

This is my first post since I promised to read several Arthurian manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. and report on my conclusions. The main conclusion is that we have been conditioned by later re-tellings of the legend to regard the tales as primarily Christian. That’s because the whole Matter of Britain including Arthur, the Holy Grail, Lancelot, and Camelot have been hijacked—first by Christian monks and then by Victorians such as Howard Pyle.

I am currently reading a work by the 12th century poet and troubadour Chrétien de Troyes entitled Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charette). It contains what might be the earliest mention of Lancelot of the Lake, whose name is not even mentioned until halfway through the work. (Since there are so many unnamed knights in the work, it is difficult at times to follow the action.)

Lancelot Having Sex with Guinevere or Some Unnamed Damsel

In no other early Christian work does one find such unabashed indulgence in sex as one does in some of the earlier Arthurian romances. This seems to me somewhat contrary to Christian mores of the time, though probably not in actual practice. In Chrétien’s telling, several damsels want to give themselves to Lancelot, but he holds back because of his desire to rescue Guinevere from King Bademagu and his nasty son Meleagant, who kidnapped her. After Lancelot’s fight with Maleagant, the married Guinevere readily gives herself to the French knight:

Now Lancelot possesses all he wants, when the Queen voluntarily seeks his company and love, and when he holds her in his arms, and she holds him in hers. Their sport is so agreeable and sweet, as they kiss and fondle each other, that in truth such a marvellous joy comes over them as was never heard or known. But their joy will not be revealed by me, for in a story it has no place.

Lancelot Slaying Enemy Knights

The adulterous love is only one element borrowed from earlier pagan myths. There is something rather suspicious about medieval knighthood. It seems to derive from Celtic and Germanic sources of powerful warriors, but glazed over with a Christian sugar-coating.