Saturday, October 18, 2008

Contexts: Contemptus Mundi

Throughout the first section of Lady Godiva and Me, a Contemptus Mundi preacher intrudes. I hope his voice is distinctive. I find him utterly repellent, and writing him was unpleasant, but he is the essential context in which any medieval story operates.

The Christian Church undoubtedly saved civilization in Northern Europe, if by civilization you mean more than just living in towns. It also provided an ideal of social behavior, based on the first ten commandments, which made life something more than a vicious little grudge match.

The cost however, was a guilt culture, institutionalized misogyny, and at the extreme, a belief that the best life you could live would be one where you died immediately after you were baptized. And a context which was so intolerant of dissent that for a thousand years people were burnt, tortured, murdered, and persecuted, for disagreeing over the interpretation of some Hebrew Folk tales.

That old joke that Catholics don’t believe in life after birth is grounded here, as is the distrust of the body, and the cultural awkwardness about sex and gender we’re still living with.

Whether or not guilt cultures actually work is a fascinating historical question. In theory, wanting to do something, but knowing it’s defined as wrong, you experience a sense of guilt and stop. Macbeth at 1.7 would be the classic rebuttal. You can know all the moral reasons for not doing something, and if you want it badly enough, they won’t stop you.

Which eventually leads towards peeping Tom. Shame cultures work the other way round, what prevents you is fear of being caught and being exposed. Tom doesn't feel guilt, Lady G risks shame.

Though in the later versions of the story, she really risks very little.

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