Aquinas fused classical virtue with Christianity with unmatched intellectual rigor, and it might be argued that the fusion was inevitable given the epistemological monopoly the Roman Catholic Church had upon western Europe and the British Islands by the 13th century. But this same era, called the High Middle Ages by most scholars, was also one often remembered for the Knights of the Round Table and the chivalric ideal. Chivalry did not develop in a vacuum; it was brought into being in large part by the dominance of Christian culture, but also by the literary milieu of the time, which was reaching unheard of popularity due to advances in printing and rising literacy in lower social classes.
Aquinas has given us a high classical account of the virtues, borrowing as he did from Aristotle’s intellectual virtues and Cicero’s cardinal moral virtues. But other accounts were operative in the middle ages, notably less rigorous but also far more appealing to everyday Europeans. This alternative, vulgar account of virtues and vices often corresponded with popular works of literature of the time, including Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and Jacob de Voragine’s Golden Legend, which we’ll get to momentarily.
The Seven Deadly Sins or Vices first took shape in the fourth century, under the pen of Evagrius Ponticus, and were codified two hundred years later by Pope Gregory I. Aquinas defends Gregory’s list in his summa seven hundred years later, a testament to its popularity. (Summa, I.II Q.84, A.4) The seven deadly sins are, in case you haven’t seen the Brad Pitt movie (or have and only remember the final scene; “what’s in the box?!”);
It is noteworthy that the vices appear without any corresponding virtues, and are not classical vices. Aristotle, for example, would see gluttony as only the excess expression of the appetite for food. No deficiency appears, something we might call starvation or something. Others, like sloth, only name a deficiency (of energy or passion, for example). For this account is therefor rather odd, and may fall apart under intense philosophical scrutiny. But they survived seven centuries anyway, and in fact seemed to only grow in popularity in the Late Middle Ages.
Dante Alighieri uses the seven deadly sins in his fanciful description of purgatory in the second part of his Commedia trilogy, “Purgatorio.” You’re probably more familiar with the prequel, “Inferno,” but the sequel is less known, “Paradiso.” The trilogy was later called Divine, in part because his Comedy drew heavily upon Thomistic theology, the reason why it is often thought of as “The Summa in Verse.” The work is significant for this course in that it has been called epic, like Homer’s song of Ilium and Virgil’s song of Aeneas. The use of “epic” to describe Dante’s Commedia is largely a reference to its length, though, like the works of Homer and Virgil before him, Dante exerted significant influence over later generations and culture.
Dante employs Pope Gregory’s list of Seven Deadly Sins in Purgatorio as “terraces of purgation” through which men and women ascend on their way to Paradiso, or heavenly paradise. In Roman Catholic theology, purgatory is a place in which those who have died are slowly purged of their earthly sins before they arrive at heaven, for the pure goodness of God and the heavenly hosts cannot tolerate imperfection. In purgatory, people destined for heaven undergo temporal punishments to finalize their purification, as penance for their earthly sins. Theologically, it is a process, not a place, so Dante is giving substance to an idea by geo-morphizing an abstraction in narrative form.
This relates to our readings and course trajectory in two ways. On the one hand, the notion of purgatory contributed to the moral corruption of the Church and fertilized the later reformations. On the other, the seven deadly sins were given corresponding virtues through the propagation of the chivalric code to which crusaders and knights were thought to adhere.
In terms of the first, purgatory provided anxious Middle Agers the psychological placebo of potential posthumous penance within a world of the Black Plague, injury and infection,and other forms of sudden, inglorious death. Purgatory served a function, conscious or not, to placate a culture of consciousness infiltrated by Catholic doctrine. Obsessed even more with the hopes of heaven than the most fundamentalist of televangelists, the fear of death arriving before one could receive last rites or atone for past sins could be crushing. But when those sins could be forgiven not on, but after, one’s death bed, the church could soothe a lot of souls. In time, the purification process came to be seen as open to participation by the dead’s family and close friends, who could reduce the time required for purgation by their prayers, called indulgences. It wasn’t long before the living could even purchase indulgences on behalf of their loved ones, or someone could store up indulgences in advance by bequeathing their estate to the church.
But the moment they became commercial transactions, they privileged the rich over the poor. If, in the pursuit of wealth, you commit a few mortal sins, then that same wealth could easily serve as your eternal insurance policy. One of the primary claims against the church that Luther would later make was about the sale of indulgences, literally pieces of paper that could be purchased that would promise a shorter stay in purgatory. Penance, Luther argued, could not be purchased. In fact, it was by grace and grace alone that souls entered eternal perfection. The pendulum had pushed back, and human agency was about to take another crazy path. But that’s another rabbit hole…
Bernard Verkamp gives us more information than we need on the Medieval practice of penance, and he connects it directly to the subject matter for this course, soldiers and veterans in Western cultures. But before we get there, let’s discuss the second way purgatory relates to the Seven Deadly Sins and alternative accounts of virtue competing with Thomas’.
Like an argument from silence, describing vices doesn’t give us a positive moral structure by which to live lives that move us toward human goods like happiness. Luckily, not long after Evagrius gave us his list of sins, another Christian poet, Prudentius, wrote Psychomachia, modeled upon Virgil’s Aeneid, which personified the seven vices in a battle against similarly anthropomorphized virtues, including;
- Lust Chastity
- Gluttony Temperance
- Greed Charity/Love
- Sloth Diligence
- Wrath Patience
- Envy Kindness
- Pride Humility
Each poet and their list became wildly popular not when they were composed, in Late Antiquity, but nearly a thousand years later, during the High Middle Ages. It is no coincidence, then that these virtues correspond with the chivalric code intended for cavalry soldiers marching off to the crusades, a role we have come to call “Knights.” Maurice Keen argues that new, restrictive changes in military technology and strategy domesticated European warrior classes in the twelfth century. Those changes made the codification of a warrior ethos appealing in a time when soldiers were reduced to entertainment in tournament and dueling culture. These games needed a measure by which to judge sportsmanship and fair play, as they rarely resulted in death, which had been the final proof of a noble warrior’s virtue.
But the chivalric code was also employed in actual battle, in various forms. Verkamp gives us some idea of this, if you can bear the dense jargon and historical sources he provides in his first chapter. Prototypes of what we might think of as the virtues of chivalry appear in the early penitentials described by Verkamp, which seem like pre-formative accounts of what it means to be a “good soldier.” Describing the criteria by which one may be a good soldier or knight is also an attempt to understand what good military force secures, and therefore what virtues and practices enable those who commit violence to retain their virtue in a Christianized culture like Europe.
More than anything, knights served precisely this narrative function, for the prohibitions against violence in the Christian canon are many. Furthermore, the embodied reality of martial violence necessitates justification of violence as an answer to the question with which many soldiers are left when they leave the battle field; “Am I a good person?” Landing what, at first strike, appears to be a non-lethal blow to one’s opponent would usually result in death. In pre-modern combat, there were very few wounds from which one would survive. The mortality rate was much higher than it is now, and the mechanical proximity to death left psychological and spiritual pollution that threatened the soldier as well as his community. In a world without penicillin or sterilized gauze, death appeared to be contagious, which explains why siege tactics included lobbing dead livestock over city walls in the hopes infection would spread and the city be defeated.
The long list of soldier saints and chivalric knights provide a narrative moral backdrop against which soldiers and non soldiers can make sense of the chaotic intersection of armed service and (Christian) faith. Not only had they encountered death and lived, their actions were seen as just, and their survival could be explained, by merit of their adhering to some code or set of criteria which pleased God. Chivalry became ritualized and assumed overt religious themes in the eleventh century, setting the stage for the many Crusades.
Perhaps partly to blame for the nostalgic world upon which the Crusades were narratively dependent (and sought to protect) was the very popularity by which chivalry rose to prominence. In the thirteenth century, the same in which Aquinas was writing and which had already seen no less than three crusades, Jacobus de Voragine produced his Legenda sanctorum, or Readings of the Saints. For several centuries, it became the authoritative sources for the stories of saints, soldiers or not. By the time moveable type printing reached Europe, it was so popular that it quickly eclipsed the Bible in raw numbers as well as languages into which it was translated. The problem is that it was composed as devotional literature, meant to inspire rather than to educate, and freely embellished stories which either only existed in fragments, or did not exist at all. It sought to follow the liturgical calendar, and had to supply saints for days in which no feast was observed by the Church.
Some saints in the book, which came to be called legenda aurea, or Golden Legend, received special treatment to make them especially appealing to knights, like George for example. According to classicist David Woods, Saint George was, at most, a Cappadocian gentleman a veteran of the Roman military in Palestine, who was killed for refusing to confess Apollo as god. Most of the historical record is fragmentary and anachronistic. But in the Golden Legend, George is depicted in spectacular terms, as a knight in shining armor who slays a dragon and saves a damsel in distress. Surely the embellishment makes the story more appealing, but at what cost? Certainly a product of his environment, his description of Muhammad as “a false prophet and sorcerer” probably didn’t do much for Christian-Muslim diplomacy either…
The Middles Ages were a time of intense cultural revision and change as Christianity solidified its political and intellectual power in Rome, but which also secured its own moral demise when it failed to balance the competing interests and goods of the church against a secular public. Chivalry and the knighthood, bolstered by the new literary genre of romance and shifting notions of nobility, encapsulated by the Arthurian legends and the Readings curated by de Voragine, played a central part of the self-identification of Medieval Europe. But clearly, we must question the moral coherence of the narrative ecosystem within which it flourished, as the project to unify church and state corrupted each. Hobbes noticed the pending fragmentation and argued in his Leviathan for a composite ruler who would combine the religious rule of the Pope and the political power of a king, a proposal which in no way arises from the list of the Seven Virtues outlined above. Enlightenment philosophers argued in a different direction, basically rejecting theology and any philosophy dependent upon the fundamentally flawed narrative world the Roman Catholic church sought to propagate. Reason, they decided, was the antidote to the autocratic moral rule of the Papacy, and I’m not sure we can blame them. But as we see in MacIntyre, even that can be taken too far.
 Maurice Keen, Chivalry (Yale University Press, 2005)