Where are the Mormon Middle Ages?

May 22, 2011 | 17 comments
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castleEven though most Americans are thousands of miles from the nearest palace, fortress, or castle ruin, the European Middle Ages continue to play an outsized role in our imaginations (see: Disneyland, Hogwarts, Helm’s Deep). From the Clash of Civilizations to the Campus Crusade, the Middle Ages still provide us with ways to think about the world.

Except in Mormon discourse. For us, the Middle Ages is largely limited to a “Great Apostasy” that is virtually interchangeable with the “Dark Ages” narrative: the common (but largely mistaken) notion that the Middle Ages were 1000 years of disease, violence, barbarous ignorance, popish corruption and feudal oppression (think: orcs with crude iron weapons shuffling towards the hamlets of Gondor), an ugly blot on the timeline between Rome and the Renaissance . While the Dark Ages narrative is quite common in society at large – see the wholly incorrect designation of violent jihad as ‘medieval Islam,’ or calls for an ‘Islamic Reformation’ – the Middle Ages are invoked in several other ways as well, including for sacral warfare (the Crusades), national origin (Charlemagne and Alfred the Great), rustic pastoral idyll (Hobbiton) and cultural, scientific, spiritual, and artistic union (the Cathedral).

These narratives are largely absent from Mormon discourse (which we’ll define here as “something you are likely to hear in General Conference, read in the New Era, or hear during Sunday meetings”). At the same time, these narratives are too useful to Americans to disappear entirely, or to be simply overwhelmed by the Dark Ages/Great Apostasy narrative. Where have the Mormon Middle Ages gone?

The functions of these narratives have, I think, been displaced from the Middle Ages to other times and places. Such as:

The Book of Mormon. If you want to see a good example of an oppressed band of Christians beset on all sides by heathen invaders who are divinely sent to admonish Christians to unity and faithfulness, you can read any number of medieval chronicles or epics, such als Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Willehalm. Or you can read Alma. For embodying sacral warfare, Charlemagne’s paladins have nothing on Helaman’s stripling warriors. Moroni’s Title of Liberty would not be at all out of place in the legends of Charlemagne’s foundation of the chivalric code in binding his knights by oath to defend their religion, their land, and their people. Thanks in no small part to the iconic images of Arnold Freiberg, the Book of Mormon occupies a thoroughly medieval part of our imaginations.

Nauvoo, Far West, the Mormon Trail, and early Utah. The Mormon past and current Mormon discourse have a surplus of Golden Ages where life was (supposed to be) simpler, the political direction of society was still married to its spiritual direction, pioneer children sang as they walked, and Mormon communities had a tabernacle for dancing, concerts, and worship. The Middle Ages get re-enacted today in passion plays, pilgrimages, and Renaissance fairs; Mormons have pageants, Nauvoo, and handcart treks. The European landscape is dotted with medieval ruins as monuments to a lost age in much the same way that the American west bears the remains of pioneer structures (and where ruins of either kind are lacking, they can be constructed from scratch).

The Present. What the Middle Ages offered to their Romantic admirers was a sublime artistic authenticity, above all in the cathedrals that united architecture, sculpture, painting, and music. Although the austerity of our chapels would pass inspection in Calvin’s Genevan, Mormon temples embrace the union of art and spirituality. The ways that monasticism is and has been depicted and deployed – ranging from spiritual idealization to artistic awakening to sexual objectification to vilification – maps fairly neatly onto discussions of the Mormon missionary experience, for good or ill.

Most Americans populate their imagined Middle Ages with dwarven architecture, elven wisdom, orcish oppression, and horse-borne warriors of Rohan. But for Mormons, all but the orcs have left Middle Earth, headed West in covered wagons.

17 Responses to Where are the Mormon Middle Ages?

  1. J. Stapley on May 22, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    So that makes the Missourians orcs?

    I appreciate the thoughts, Jonathan.

  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    ;)

  3. dangermom on May 22, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Are we not allowed to love the history of the Middle Ages for its own sake? I’ll just retire to a corner with my history books, then.

    I suppose I did refer to the Middle Ages when teaching an RS lesson a couple of months ago, in reference to the “faith, hope, and charity” verse. Heavenly Father did not leave his children comfortless, even as the true gospel was disappearing from the earth.

  4. WVS on May 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Very interesting, Jonathan.

  5. Cameron N on May 22, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Although the bloggernacle may not believe it, my BYU experience taught be the exact opposite about the middle ages – in my civ class I was taught about the advancements (cathedral, forge, and waterwheel), and other more distant preparations for the restoration, and many of my professors knew middle age history very well (french civ and econ).

  6. Keith on May 23, 2011 at 2:50 am

    I’m guessing Jonathan knows this article by Eric Dursteller, but many of your readers may not: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=42&chapid=202 I like the move towards seeing more positive aspects of the middle ages.

  7. Keith on May 23, 2011 at 2:54 am

    Sorry for getting Eric’s last name wrong–Dursteler.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on May 23, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Wonderful bit of cultural criticism here, Jonathan. It is striking to realize that the collective public imagination of the Mormon Heimat (I doubt, despite the best efforts of a centralized church media department, that you get much of this outside the U.S., or even outside the Mormon Corridor) really does partake of elements of a “lost age” trope: the pioneers (July 24th), the collective economics, the purported local distinctiveness and sovereignty or wards and stakes before correlation, the Gemütlichkeit of a smaller church (“Brother Brigham” and all that), and the indisputably much-more-attractive chapels and temples built in those days. And yet, this exists despite (or because of?) a strong theological streak of progressivism or teleology in our doctrine: that we are building and moving forward, leaving behind the earlier acts and preparing ourselves ever for the big finale. Fascinating.

  9. NJensen on May 23, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Just finished my Senior Honor’s Thesis in Anglo-Norman history about the three sons of William the Conqueror. In fact, in teaching Elder’s Quorum the other week, I quoted the chronicler Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, where he said that he was not as concerned with the end of the world because of his belief that the day a man dies, that is the end of his world (“Quo die moritur, id est finem mundi”). We can learn a lot from the Middle Ages, not only in broadbased themes dealing with cross-cultural experience (The Crusades) or complex political structures (primogeniture and feudalism), but in the survival of many spiritual truths. It is beneficial to look at what remained after the Apostasy, and not just what was lost.

  10. Adam Greenwood on May 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Jonathan G.,
    pretty insightful. Never thought of this before, but it makes a lot of sense.

  11. Jonathan Green on May 23, 2011 at 10:07 am

    J., Stephen, WVS, Adam, thank you for your comments. I aim to please.

    Dangermom, your point is correct. Of course we’re allowed to appreciate the Middle Ages for their own sake, and try to understand them in their own context. I’m not sure how my post prompted your comment, but your point is nevertheless correct.

    Cameron, indeed, my experience is that education at BYU (on the Middle Ages and other topics) is very similar to what one will get elsewhere.

    NJensen, that’s a nice quote, and far better sourced than Martin Luther’s supposed cherry tree comment.

    Keith, thanks for the link to Dursteler’s article, which I’ve glanced at but soon need to read more thoroughly.

    Russell, I suspect that you’ll find elements well outside the Mormon Corridor – handcart treks and July 24th celebrations aren’t exactly uncommon, are they? See also recent discussions of the pre-1980 Sunday and weekly church schedule.

  12. Bob on May 23, 2011 at 11:38 am

    “Of course we’re allowed to appreciate the Middle Ages for their own sake.”
    I don’t know. If the “Great Apostasy” is too big an idea to die in Mormonism. Then how can one see the “Middle Ages” as maybe a Golden Age of Christianity?

  13. Paul on May 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    I find myself wondering if you give the rest of Americans too much credit. It seems to me the greatest part of my associates (mostly non-LDS) couldn’t give two hoots about the middle ages unless they’re featured in a Hollywood hit. That LDS folks at least see them in terms of Apostacy is a step up, I think.

  14. Bob on May 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    @ Paul: I think if those friends of yours took a tour of Europe, they would be taken mostly to see the relics of the Middle Ages__ the Christian arts and buildings. I don’t see the Middle Ages as an apostacy from the love of Christ or His simple Gospel teachings.

  15. Paul on May 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Bob, nor did I mean to suggest that it was. The Wormser Dom in my mission’s first city was started in the 1100’s and finished in the 15th century. Despite our immature missionary disdain for all things non-Mormon, we could not help but be in awe of the awesome structure — beautiful for its size and simplicity.

    When I was an exchange student in Germany during my high school years, my German friends joked that we Americans had no history as we (as a country) were not nearly old enough yet (we were still a year shy of our bicentennial). That said, as American students we grew weary of having all the churches we visited blur together as the various resting places for the bones of John the Baptist and other relics.

    Despite my own interest in morality plays, Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and Beowulf, I just don’t find many who share that interest. (Of course if I were teaching theatre history — as I onced planned to — instead of working in finance at a Fortune 10 company, I might have a different experience.)

  16. Edje Jeter on May 23, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Very interesting. And cool. Thanks.

  17. Church Construction on June 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Whilst one can see where sincere Protestant might be coming from in terms of the Church needing reform by the end of the Middle Ages (although one might also debate with them whether throwing the baby out along with the bathwater was a wise thing to do), the Mormon thing baffles me.