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It is sixty years since the posthumous publication of The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis. (Its author had died in November 1963, on the same day as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley.) Lewis’s book is a lengthy, scholarly love letter to an idea: a model of the universe, the medieval one, that we know to be faulty—hence, discarded—but that is deeply satisfying nonetheless. 

Nearly thirty years later, Eamon Duffy—who is, as Lewis once was, a professor at Magdalene College, Cambridge—published The Stripping of the Altars, a very different exploration of medieval ideas and customs. Where Lewis soars to the heavens, to the very boundaries of the Empyrean, Duffy inches his way across the parishes of a lost England, recreating traditional religious ideas and practice in the period before and after the Reformation. Yet despite their obvious differences, these two books have come to form a kind of diptych in my mind. 

The Discarded Image is suffused with the delight that is never far off in so much of C. S. Lewis’s work, across all genres. “The human imagination,” he writes, “has seldom had before it an object so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos.” This cosmos is not the trackless waste of modern fears and imaginings, but an enormous, vertiginous, orderly building, something that we can both look up at and look into, and which Lewis carefully reconstructs for us, source by source, chapter by chapter. 

And this building is teeming with life. Lewis describes the “Intelligences” that occupy the celestial spheres and keep them in motion; the graded angelic population of Seraphim, Cherubim, Hosts, and so on downward; Dante’s blessed souls—the wise and just princes on Jupiter, the now penitent but once lawless lovers on Venus, the beneficent men of action on Mercury. Multiple forms of purposeful life crowd into the vast, ethereal region between the Moon and the primum mobile, or outermost sphere.

Lewis attributes this aspect of the medieval model to what he terms “the Principle of Plenitude,” inherited in part from ancient writers such as Apuleius. According to this imaginative and philosophical principle, the universe “must be fully exploited.  Nothing must go to waste.” If, for instance, between aether and earth, there is a belt of air, then “ratio herself demands that it should be inhabited.” And so the air beneath the moon is also home to its own distinctive beings, the “daemons.”

Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars is less interested in the doings of the medieval heavens than the medieval earth. It has been credited with transforming the historiography of pre-Reformation England. As Professor Duffy writes in his introduction to the most recent edition, the products and practices of late medieval Christianity were not “a meaningless mount of mumbo-jumbo, culpably remote from the personality and teaching of Jesus, strong on magic, weak on personal responsibility”; instead, they “represented the ritual building-blocks of a coherent worldview that expressed itself not in individualist striving after personal authenticity, but in powerful symbolic gestures designed to shape and create community.” 

Duffy devotes a chapter to “Signs and Seasons” and it is here in particular that I began to make a connection between his and Lewis’s book. Just as the medieval mind could not seem to tolerate the idea of cosmic spaces without life, purpose, and intelligence, so it would not tolerate time stretching on without color, meaning, and ritual. Duffy writes at length about two great feasts of the liturgical year—Candlemas and Holy Week—and the core ceremonies and practices that grew up around them. But we hear also of minor offshoots such as Plough Monday and St. Agnes’s Eve, with their idiosyncratic customs and observances, and of Corpus Christi processions in York where citizens whose houses lay along the route were required to “hang before ther doors and foorfrontes beddes and coverynges of beddes of the best that they can gytt and strewe before their doors resshes and other such flowres.” 

All of this and more was part of the common life of the visible Church, which, as Duffy reminds us elsewhere, Thomas More valued so highly and was so determined to defend. On the eve of the Reformation, “the rhythm of the liturgy ( . . . ) remained the rhythm of life itself.” 

It does not seem too fanciful to imagine that—along, of course, with many other things—some form of Lewis’s “Principle of Plenitude” is also at work in the worldview Duffy describes. Like incoming seawater filling every crevice of a rock pool, the irrepressible, boisterous, creative strain of the medieval spirit filled with life and incident what otherwise might appear to be a void, Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” Lewis himself drew a link (in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature) between medieval notions of the cosmos and all of the effort poured into “high pomps, the Mass, coronations, pageants, tournaments, carols” here on earth. People in the Middle Ages, he argued, felt that

the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the social hierarchy on Earth were dim reproductions of the celestial hierarchies. The pageantry and ceremony which they indulged in to the utmost of their powers were their attempt to imitate the modus operandi of the universe; to live, in that sense, “according to nature.”

Does our society have any such principle of plenitude now? Our aesthetic tastes—or at least the tastes that shape the public realm—seem to run more toward minimalism enlivened by exhibitionism than a plenitude both ordered and organic. And the night sky, however beautiful, is seen as either cold and empty or as a darkness that will sooner or later propel threats at us. We have a secular calendar of sorts, but it is one in which good causes must scramble with passing fads and talking points for media airtime or celebrity endorsement or corporate backers. This calendar reflects no fuller mission to nourish or comfort us, or to save our souls.

We should be grateful to Lewis and Duffy for their labors in not letting the fruits of the principle of plenitude slip from view. But we are a long, long way now from this element of the medieval outlook and spirit, probably beyond recall. It feels like an impoverishment.

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

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Image by NASA licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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