Very unimaginative and literal-minded church historian spoils everybody’s fun…

Twitter, etc. have been buzzing for the last few days with the figure from an illuminated manuscript, who looks like Yoda from Star Wars, to wit:

from Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v
from Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

In the interests of ploddingly dull accuracy, I feel obliged to point out that this figure is probably supposed to represent the devil dressed as a university lecturer (don’t say that it’s never occurred to you that your lecturers might be shape-shifting demons).

One of the less demonic academics inhabiting the pages of the Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 26v. This one is wearing the academic's
One of the less demonic academics inhabiting the pages of the Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 26v. This one is wearing the academic’s “pileum” or cap – an ancestor of the modern academic mortar-board.

Specifically, he probably represents a doctor of canon law, since the manuscript in which he appears is a copy of the Decretals of Gregory IX with a commentary by Bernard of Parma (and not a commentary on the story of Samson as alleged by one source*).

The Decretals were also known as the “extra book” (liber extra) because they were compiled in the 13th century as an addition to the so-called Decree of Gratian, the main collection of canon law composed a century earlier.

Image from the index of the volume showing a representative of Pope Gregory IX handing canon law to the judges or doctors of the law. On the far right a layman is pleading his suit before a judge of a canon law-court. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 3v.
Image from the index of the volume showing a representative of Pope Gregory IX handing canon law to the judges or doctors of the law. On the far right a layman is pleading his suit before a judge of a canon law-court. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 3v.

While this probably sounds recondite and tedious (or both), one of the interesting features of the Decretals is that they codified the 12th century papal legislation against heresy, which led to the establishment of the first inquisitions in the south of France. This legislation also compared heresy to treason, implying that in certain cases it could be punished by execution.

However, even if this volume contains the legislative basis for the persecution of heretics by the medieval church, the illuminations are often quite critical of those charged with upholding this legislation – not only the demonic doctor of canon law, but also the kind of bishop whose sole aim in life is to prey on his flock.

Bishop fox preaches the prosperity gospel to his flock of geese. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the 'Smithfield Decretals') (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 3v.
Bishop fox preaches the prosperity gospel to his flock of farmyard birds. From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 49v.

Fortunately, the corrupt and exploitative clerics eventually get what is coming to them.

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The farmyard birds take their revenge on the fox, from From Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma (the ‘Smithfield Decretals’) (c1300-1340), British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 48v.

See, this is almost as much fun as Master Yoda.

(If you want to view more of this manuscript yourself, it’s on the British Library website here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_10_E_IV)

* Note: the NPR story which alleges that this manuscript is a commentary on the story of Samson is probably referring to the illustrations of the story of Samson which run along the bottom of the page in this section of the manuscript. For example, the bottom of the “Yoda” page (f. 30v) shows Samson bringing honey home to his father and mother – Judges 14:9. These have nothing to do with the text above.

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Anastasis

Harrowing of Hell

Jesus releasing the souls of the patriarchs and matriarchs from hell, beginning with Adam and Eve. 12th century fresco in the Kariye Camii Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul. Satan lies bound at Jesus’s feet, together with a profusion of broken keys and locks that once kept the prisoners captive.

The medieval English knew this scene as the “Harrowing of Hell.” It’s played to comic effect in the York Mystery Plays. Jesus arrives in great solemnity to break down the gates of hell and liberate the captives inside. Satan and the demons panic like the owners of a tinny house who have just realised that the police are battering down the front door.

The belief that Jesus descended into hell after his death is based on a number of biblical texts including1 Peter 4:6 For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. 1 Peter 19-20: For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient… 

The so-called Apostles’ Creed, dating from the fourth century, also professes belief in the descent into hell.

This wasn’t easy to reconcile with the later Christian belief that the souls of the dead went immediately to eternal punishment or reward (the latter usually via purgatory). In other words, under this view, there shouldn’t have been any souls in hell for Jesus to liberate: they either deserved to be there and had to stay, or they were already in heaven. This was why many Protestant exegetes especially, were inclined to spiritualise these and similar verses away, arguing that they refer to Jesus’s “spiritual” typological presence in the Old Testament – e.g. in the warnings to Noah.

However, the older tradition persisted in the medieval church, and was partly responsible for belief in a hypothetical “borderland of the patriarchs” (Latin limbus patrum) – a fringe area around hell (but not quite hell) in which the souls of the Old Testament’s mothers and fathers waited for release by Jesus.

By the time of Dante’s Divine Comedy, this limbus also included virtuous pagans like Virgil, who would never get to heaven, but were not wicked enough to be consigned to hell. While deprived of the vision of God, they were believed to enjoy the highest kind of “natural” blessedness – i.e. to be as happy as any human can be in this life.

Happy Easter.