The Council in the Preexistence (medieval Antichrist edition)

December 26, 2012 | 7 comments
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In the twelfth century, Walter of Chatillon wrote a rather pessimistic appraisal of the world’s condition.

Dum contemplor animo saeculi tenorem,

Reproborum gaudia, proborum maerorem,

Contemptum iustitiae, fidei torporem,

Credo, quod non habeant saecula rectorem.

 

O, qui quadrupliciter iubes figurari

Hylen, qui res dispares ita nexu pari

Copulas, ut nequeant a se disparari:

Cur permittis hominem sic denaturari?

When I think upon the world’s status and position,

The sorrows of the righteous, rejoicing perdition,

The torpor of the faithful, justice in suspicion,

I fear no hand perchance guides our present world’s mission.

 

You who made the world four-fold, the elements enslaved,

Joined unlikes as man and wife, in single whole encaved

That never shall be sundered till every heathen’s saved,

Why do you permit mankind’s becoming so depraved?

The verse continues for another hundred lines in similar manner, but since I’ve already outrun my ability to render Walter’s Latin lyric form into English verse, I’ll stick to prose after this (but do read the rest of the original; it’s excellent).

Walter’s mention of elements and unlikes is part of a longer thought about the Creation and God’s seeming neglect of the human race: “Although you join the elements together and discern the lights by sure methods and eternal laws, it appears that you spurn mankind alone, whose life you do not govern with similar care.” While thus lamenting mankind’s sorry state, Walter is caught up in a vision of the netherworld, where demons are assembling from throughout the cosmos in a place filled with worms and disease. At last the Antichrist appears: “Neither was that fount of haughtiness missing, the son of wickedness and perdition referred to in public as a chosen vessel, who will stab the world with the sword of his word.”

The Antichrist makes a legal complaint against the Fates, arguing that they should no longer demand that he await his appointed hour. With only scorn for further delay, he pleads his case before Satan. “Father, what delay hinders my birth? Fate, why do you prevent my entry into the world? Open the gates, for if you hold back my exit, by the god Beelzebub, I’ll ram through the wall. All the signs of judgment are coming to pass: dissension arises, the law perishes, famine, pestilence, and war rush in.” The Fates then make their case by insisting that things couldn’t be going more splendidly than they are now, since all political and ecclesiastic leaders seem to be doing the Devil’s will.

At last Satan puts an end to the trial: “Woe, you insatiable brood, woe! Bitter chaos, what is it to you to discuss secrets? The number of days is manifest and known only to me, the true father. For the days are coming when I will be made man, when I will snatch the way of truth away from the world, so that I might bind Enoch and Elias with a marvelous chain. Rachel will serve me and I will blind Leah.” Satan explains that all educational, religious, and political institutions are his already, and then sends his minions on his way. “Go, scatter yourselves around the globe, draw all things to you into the center of the depths. By the flesh of the saints, I will pursue you just as I promised.” And the demons, wailing and moaning, flee away.

Apart from the quality of the verse – and, really, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of medieval Latin lyric now and then – what I like about Walter’s “De adventu Antichristi” are its surprisingly neat parallels to Mormon teaching about premortal life, as seen through a funhouse mirror. The quasi-judicial premortal council with reference to human agency and the world’s beginning and end, the impatient enthusiasm for birth – it’s like a satanic karaoke rendition of My Turn on Earth. It amuses me.

I’m not quite sure what else besides amusement can be found in the poem, at least for a discussion of Mormonism. I don’t think we’ll hear it quoted next to Wordsworth in General Conference. The apologetic value of “De adventu Antichristi” seems low. “People in the twelfth century also bore witness to the reality of the Preexistence…of the Antichrist” is not an argument that will win many debates. In the same way, the parallels say little about Joseph Smith’s claims to inspiration. “Although Smith claimed to receive visions, his so-called ‘inspired’ teachings were clearly borrowed from…um, thirteenth century Latin verse” is not an observation that will shake many testimonies. Maybe all this poem shows us is that the Middle Ages is, for Mormonism and its attendant controversies, an era mostly empty of significance. If Walter had written in the early third or the late eighteenth century, someone at FARMS, or at your favorite publisher of fine anti-Mormon publications, would have noticed. But in the twelfth century, no one cares. That’s not entirely a bad thing.

7 Responses to The Council in the Preexistence (medieval Antichrist edition)

  1. Wilfried on December 26, 2012 at 5:22 am

    Thanks, Jonathan. Fascinating. Fun to relate it to quoting Wordsworth in General Conference or to sources Joseph Smith could have used…

    Brought back memories of my studies in the 1960s at the U of Ghent when we had to struggle through medieval poets, such as your Walter of Châtillon, born in Lille, and therefore Flemish city at the time (I need to emphasize this of course…).

    What our professors taught us is to ask five questions about medieval poetry: quid? quomodo? cur? quando? ubi? You told us briefly the what and the how, the when and the where, but what about the why? That is an intriguing question for this piece. Do you have more information? Political metaphor? Attack against the one or the other? There must be some scholarly writing about it.

  2. Kristine on December 26, 2012 at 10:12 am

    “satanic karaoke rendition of My Turn on Earth”

    ftw

  3. Nickel on December 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Lots of texts talk about Satan’s evil plans for the world – Milton’s Paradise Lost. Moreover, Antichrist was a hugely popular figure in the Middle Ages and many medieval authors tried to predict when he would arrive and what kind of destruction he would wreak. To name just a few: the Christian Tiburtine Sibyl, Iraneus, Origen, the Letter of Adso of Montier-en-Der, numerous medieval miracle plays, numerous commentaries on Revelation. And if he exists in the minds of late antique and medieval writers long before he actually shows up on earth, then he has a pre-existence, even if it is not of the Mormon variety.

  4. Edje Jeter on December 26, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Very interesting. Thanks.

  5. Jonathan Green on December 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Wilfried, I left out all the parts where Walter identifies various Europeans kings and princes as servants as Satan. The council in Hell seems to be a vehicle for various demons to crow Screwtape style about which people are best serving their infernal intentions. As for bibliography – which I’m barely familiar with – I’ve seen one article that deals with the poem in the context of Walter’s anti-semitism and two that deal with it as a source for a phrase found in Milton.

    Nickel, yes, the Antichrist has a long history (which Bernard McGinn treats extensively in his excellent book on Antichrist, which is where I first came across Walter’s poem). What’s so striking about this poem, though, is that the Antichrist is given a very Mormon preexistence as a mortal being awaiting his future birth in a state of rational awareness and social interaction.

  6. Adam G. on December 27, 2012 at 10:40 am

    That’s pretty good stuff.

    What this is is a model for Mormon story-tellers, about how to use the properties of religion to tell truths but where the details aren’t expected to be more than fiction. Did Walter believe in a literal Satanic council? Probably not. Was it heretical of him to write about one? No.

  7. Jonathan Green on December 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    Good points, Adam.

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