What the Middle Ages and my 11-Year-Old Can Teach us About Diversity

robinson-islandEach year my son and I camp on Prince Edward Island’s heavenly north shore. On one of our hike days we scramble down the red clay rocks to the white sand beaches, hopping over huddles of dry moss as we make our way south. When the shore levels out we hike back west into the farmland, walking down what we call “butterfly lane.” It is an old farm road, really two streaks of red hard-packed clay with wildflowers tall enough that they brush along the bottoms of cars and trucks. As we run up the lane, yellow and white butterflies scatter ahead of us like clouds of dust. For a moment, it looks like starlings at dusk, and then the butterflies shoot off in every direction, doing whatever it is butterflies do.

At the end of butterfly lane we cut into an unkempt wood. If we are lucky, we emerg cut and covered in sap, escaping by climbing up a lightening-felled spruce and falling on the farm-side of a barbwire fence. As we curve back to camp, we find our rhythm cutting across the old jutted rows of a fallow field of wheat till we come to the treeline that borders the cornfield.

By this time, we know what is up ahead. As we head for this particular treeline, we aren’t looking down. Our necks are craned upward, watching the sky for the family of eagles. And there they are, high above the earth, swooping in grand circles like God’s mobile. When we come to the sun-bleached tree, we sit down on the edge of a clod of dirt, munching sandwiches. If we are really quiet, the eagles will find their nest, do whatever it is eagles at home do, and alight again into the sky, only metres from our own perch.

cornfield-peiFor an eleven-year-old, a corn field in August is apocalyptic. We scoot along the rows, careful not to bend the stocks. Finally, when it seems like we will never see sky again, we come to another twixt-field wood. This one has abandoned farm machinery and a massive hill of sod. We conquer the sod, and fight through the tangle of branches, and we are suddenly in a white spruce garden. As we walk now, at ease and hand-to-hand, my son asks the question:

“Dad, how come the trees are all in neat rows?”

“They were planted that way, son.”

“Why are they all the same?”

It’s a great question. They are all the same, I explain, because a generation ago there was a school of thought that believed in monoculture. Even though our little Island’s farming culture was founded on the idea of the rotation of crops, in the 1960s and 1970s there was a group of people that believed that it was best to have all the same kinds of crops in the same place.

white-spruce-peNow, across our continent, monocultural forests are being ravaged with disease. Over the last couple of years we harvested all the elms in Charlottetown to avoid Dutch elm disease, and now we are waiting for the spruce bugs to come. 53% of our Island’s trees are white spruce, so a bug would be devastating. Even without the bug, with our shift in temperatures and weather patterns, our ecosystem is moving north at a rate of about a half metre a day. Within a couple of generations, we will have an ecosystem that can no longer bear a northern tree like the white spruce.

While diversity has its risks, a diverse ecosystem will thrive most under a variety of conditions.

As it turns out, Dante thought the same about human culture.

monty-python-lynchI know we view the middle ages as this dark, strict, amalgam of crusades and inquisitions. Monty Python captures it well. We call it the Dark Ages.

A strange thing to call it the Dark Ages, I think. Perhaps the Mixed Ages would be better. The brutal, dehumanizing power of Rome was shaken and Europe was thrown into a system of warring barbarian hordes and peaceful, unstable city-states, loosely gathered together into the Holy Roman Empire. The rest of Europe beyond the Empire’s control was converted sometimes by the sword, more often by politics, and most often by humble little monks in streamside hovels.

It was a dangerous time, at times. Jewish people themselves were hunted seasonally, and Muslims reached such a power as to all but eliminate Eastern Christianity, including the warlord conversion of parts of Roman Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and the Balkans. Meanwhile, however, Muslim, Jewish and Christian philosophers and theologians enjoyed a dialogue that is still not available in some of these regions. At home, women had measures of control in patriarchal families that many women still don’t experience today, and children were given vocational options—including the excellent option of monastic and priestly life—that could change the way their family experienced life. Literacy rates stagnated among men, yet science was developing, theology was growing in intensity, and some of the great European universities were beginning.

monty-python-political-peasantsIn the Church, it is a time of great diversity and freedom. True, published theologians had to stay within certain lines, and groups like the Waldensians and the Wyclifians had to look over their shoulders as they shared their religious ideas in the markets and around dinner tables. But a great diversity existed, and many who could later be considered “Protestants” and “Heretics” were enjoying full fellowship in the Holy Roman Church. As Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Derek Wilson say in their stunning book, Reformations: A Radical Interpretation of Christianity and the World:

“It is hard – perhaps impossible – to find a doctrine associated with the sixteenth-century reformers that had not be anticipated from within the world of medieval Catholicism” (6).

reformations-a-radical-interpretation-of-christianity-and-the-worldThere was freedom in liturgy and expression, with great differences ranging from the Eastern rite to St. Peter’s Cathedral to the Irish fireside, half-pagan, half-Catholic earthy Eucharistic celebrations. For all the evil of the crusades, there were also missions by normal church folk into barbarian territories and Muslim communities—and the latter of the two were the more receptive and hospitality. Religious art was finding form—though not as sophisticated as renaissance and modern art, it was moving and personal and beautiful. And as Thomas Cahill tells us in How the Irish Saved Civilization, persistent monks in far-flung places as Ireland were saving civilization by copying out the greatest works of Western and Byzantine history.

Perhaps it is easier to tell the story this way, but we often paint the middle ages in shades of black with highlights of red. What we miss in doing so is the fact that medieval Christians thought that diversity was not only necessary, but good.

Dante captures what the middle ages felt, which was that diversity is needed in human cultures—as necessary as in forest cultures. More than needed, that diversity is not just that “For this cause behooves / The roots, from whence your operations come, / Must differ,” but it is also, to use the prose translation, for the “weal of man”—for our common good. Dante takes the human metaphor from what he knows of agriculture:

Nature ever
Finding discordant fortune, like all seed
Out of its proper climate, thrives but ill. (Paradiso, Canto VIII, Cary Translation)

divine-comedy-dante-alighieriThis diversity is not just about the success of human culture. It is also about the personal vocation of the individual. It is in a monocultural world where we make everyone out to be the same. I think young people feel this press in on them the most. All smart kids are told to go into science. When they arrive at university they may be tempted by psychology or poetry or business. Sometimes they are late to discover that they don’t fit what the world was trying to make them do.

Dante talks about it this way:

But ye perversely to religion strain
Him, who was born to gird on him the sword,
And of the fluent phrasemen make your king;
Therefore your steps have wander’d from the paths. (Paradiso, Canto VIII, Cary Translation)

Why do you make a person born for the braves of battle take up the way of meditation? And why make a poet your king? When we do these things, when we press people into certain molds, we bend ourselves away from God’s best for us and our world.

I won’t pretend that the pressures of immigration are not complex in the Unites States, Canada, and Europe. America and Western Europe were once the refuges of wandering souls. Now they are sought in desperation, and “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” is a difficult national doctrine in an age of war and division.

dante-divine-comedy-1As modern Christians in Europe and North America face these issues, and face the exploding diversity around them, I would encourage them to learn this lesson from the Middle Ages. There are certainly costs to diversity. In America and parts of Europe, it is the feeling that culture is slipping away, that what it means to be a citizen is changing. There are losses in efficiency when we abandon monocultural practices, and we probably lose yield in the short term. But the long-term prosperity of our social ecosystem is better for diversity.

And if you don’t listen to Dante, listen to my eleven-year-old. In all those many spaces we hike, they all fit within about 12 city blocks—about the size of a traditional family farm. There is more diversity of life in our hike—more beauty and wonder and temptations to curiosity—than my meager words can contain. It is for us all delight.

dante-divine-comedyYet it is the monoculture that so puzzled my boy. The straight, branch-stripped white spruces, in neat cross-hatches across a carpet of needles, these carefully planted trees competing for light in even lines—this is what is odd for my son.

It is no wonder, I realize, for God loves wondrous variety. Perhaps we can learn from the dark ages about the value of diversity for a healthy world.

Thus did he come, deducing to this point,
And then concluded: “For this cause behooves,
The roots, from whence your operations come,
Must differ.  Therefore one is Solon born;
Another, Xerxes; and Melchisidec
A third; and he a fourth, whose airy voyage
Cost him his son.  In her circuitous course,
Nature, that is the seal to mortal wax,
Doth well her art, but no distinctions owns
‘Twixt one or other household.  Hence befalls
That Esau is so wide of Jacob: hence
Quirinus of so base a father springs,
He dates from Mars his lineage.  Were it not
That providence celestial overrul’d,
Nature, in generation, must the path
Trac’d by the generator, still pursue
Unswervingly.  Thus place I in thy sight
That, which was late behind thee.  But, in sign
Of more affection for thee, ’tis my will
Thou wear this corollary.  Nature ever
Finding discordant fortune, like all seed
Out of its proper climate, thrives but ill.
And were the world below content to mark
And work on the foundation nature lays,
It would not lack supply of excellence.
But ye perversely to religion strain
Him, who was born to gird on him the sword,
And of the fluent phrasemen make your king;
Therefore your steps have wander’d from the paths.” (Paradiso, Canto VIII, Cary Translation)

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to What the Middle Ages and my 11-Year-Old Can Teach us About Diversity

  1. joviator says:

    There is something seductive about a monoculture, though. I love watching the patterns in a cornfield as I drive by it. A lawn around a house looks pleasant and comfortable. (That is, my next-door neighbor’s does. Mine’s a bit more … diverse.) Some of my favorite places on earth are formal 18-century boxwood gardens.

    I think if I understood that, I’d understand immigration debates a lot better. Am I really just an Entwife?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An interesting earlier medieval example, commemorated later this month (17 Nov.) is St. Hilda. If you’ll indulge me, I wrote this about her for a monthly newsletter (with various death years and feast days in parentheses):

    Hilda (680), grand-niece of St. Edwin (633: 12 Oct.), King of Northumbria, was baptized together with him by St. Paulinus (644: 10 Oct.) when she was thirteen. Some 20 years later, she decided to become a nun, first thinking to join her sister, the widowed queen, St. Hereswitha (c. 690: variously, 3, 20, 23 Sept., 1 Dec.), at Chelles Abbey (near Paris), but St. Aidan (651: 31 Aug.) offered her a small plot of land on the Wear to begin her own, and soon made her abbess of Hartlepool. In 657, she founded (or refounded?) a double monastery at Streaneshalch (a place later renamed by successful Danish invaders as ‘Whitby’).

    She was zealous in building up the library there and instructing clerics in Latin and its literature (especially, Holy Scripture), five of whom became bishops, including Sts. Bosa (c. 705: 9 Mar.), John of Beverly (721: 25 Oct.), and Wilfrid the Younger (c. 745: 29 Apr.), the last three bishops of York before it became an Archdiocese (St. John having first been Bishop at St. Andrew’s (30 Nov.) cathedral, Hexham).

    Also among her monks was St. Caedmon (680:11 Feb.), a cowherd who suddenly discovered himself gifted with poetry and song, and was encouraged to treat Christian material in the vernacular – a few lines of which survive, as one of the earliest examples of Old English poetry.

    She hosted the famous Synod (663-64) to decide between Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical customs, supporting the Irish party, but accepting the decision in favour of Rome. Dr. David Hugh Farmer (in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints) echoes our main source, the Venerable Bede (735: variously 25,26, 27 May), saying, ‘not only did religious and learned men value her wisdom, but kings, rulers, and common people would ask her advice’, while Donald Attwater (in the Penguin one) quotes him, ‘all who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace.’ The earliest reference to her cult is in the 8th-century Calendar of St.Willibrord.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am a greater fan now of St. Hilda; did not know the connection to St. Caedmon. Was there any confusion between Hilda and Bridgit, conflation of the two?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’m a pretty derivative hagiographer, to put it mildly. On the one hand, the Venerable Bede’s account of St. Hilda is pretty close in time and place and connections, and real scholars seem to see him as largely pretty reliable about her, while saying things about St. Bridgit of Ireland like “Historical facts about her are extremely rare; some scholars have even doubted her existence” (Farmer) and “ascertainable facts about her life are few” (Attwater). On the other hand, while I’m not sure there was a Latin Life of her which St. Hilda could have read, yet, the earliest Life, metrical and in Gaelic, seems to have been written in time for her reputation to reach St. Hilda via her Irish connexions. Whether later Lives and lore borrowed back and forth is probably something someone has worked on well – but I haven’t run into it. There are delightful similarities enough: pagan princess to very influential, yet approachable, charitable abbess – which could all be simply real common features, I’d think.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Not so long ago, I read a translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s and Gustav Beaumont’s letters home from their travels in America (and a bit of Canada) – interestingly, both had earlier attended François Guizot’s lectures on, among other things, the Middle Ages. (His Wikipedia article says, “From 1822 to 1830 he published two important collections of historical sources, the memoirs of the history of England in 26 volumes, and the memoirs of the history of France in 31 volumes, and a revised translation, of Shakespeare, and a volume of essays on the history of France”!) Their experiences of, and reflections upon, how the United States gave opportunities for diversity unparalleled in their experience (especially where religious freedom was concerned), as well as (we might say) problems of ‘majoritarian pressures’, make fascinating reading.


  4. Hannah says:

    Thanks for calling the Middle Ages mixed instead of dark and showing some of the great positives of that period with the great Dante quotes.
    The discussion on unity in diversity reminded me of a very funny Tennis match at Wimbledon by senior doubles with the ‘greatest tennis entertainer’ Mansour Bahrami. But if the other three guys hadn’t continued to play so very straight and seriously, it wouldn’t have been as funny.


    • Hannah says:

      I just wanted to add the Youtube link, somehow it turned into the actual video …
      And in Holland crop rotation is being put in practice again, at least at a small scale. And there is a lot of research going on in agricultural and other biodiversity.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hannah, this video is hilarious. I’m just not sure what I’m watching. Perhaps tennis needed a little comedy!
      So, in the good copy back copy of history, are the Middle Ages the good cop? Is the medieval world the straight man on stage?


      • Hannah says:

        Bahrami is a very interesting & comic person and a good tennis player. He very likely would have gone up in the rankings if he would have been allowed out of Iran to play on the world tour when young! I just posted it because of that discussion on unity & diversity, but thinking about it in regard to history I would indeed call the medieval world the good cop (with the Reformation period), with things going downhill since.
        Your straight man on the stage makes me thing of Shakespeare’s fools though, being a lot wiser then the supposedly straight characters, being very foolish thinking they know it all ….

        Liked by 1 person

  5. wanderwolf says:

    Ah. Very well said. Taught me a bit about Dante as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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