Monday, January 24, 2011

Death and the Idea of Mexico: Claudio Lomnitz (1)

The notion of Purgatory, adopted as official church doctrine in 1274, was arguably one of the great commercial innovations of the Middle Ages. It was Catholicism's iPod, turning a good business into a great one.

In the early days of Christian faith, bodies were typically buried outside city walls, and St Augustine observed that the prevalent mortuary ritual was rather short on religious significance. But somewhere between 1024 and 1033 Abbot Odilo of Cluny took an important step in the instigation of a proper Christian death cult when he invented the holiday of All Souls' Day, choosing November 2, the day after All Saints' Day.

As Lomnitz notes, "The relationship between the dead and the living is a key to social control and social reproduction in any society." With this new festival and the complex array of masses, prayers, acts of contrition and so-called 'suffrages' that the medieval church established as potential alleviation for the souls being blanched by purgatorial fire, the priesthood took on a formal new role as mediators between past and present members of the religious community.

Intercession was of course a whole new revenue stream based on monopolistic control of post-mortem suffering and control over 'the good death'. And bodies were now of course placed in burial grounds around the church, with more saintly relics stored within it. (Most notably within the altarpieces.)

Today when I hear that someone has gone round to our local church to pay for a mass for a departed loved-on, the compassion I undoubtedly feel is inevitably preceded by the less charitable thought 'what a dupe!'.

As a lapsed medieval historian I have to square this disdain with the comparative respect I have always had for medieval systems of belief. How can I justify this apparent double standard? Well, for a start, I base my opinion of my contemporaries on the extent to which they have had the opportunity to extract themselves from a culture founded to a large extent on ignorance.

Medieval people had many more unexplained things to cope with. They also had a number of consciously clever ways of operating their multifarious superstitions — so we see them manipulating magical sequences of numbers (or even colours) when deploying candles and spoken invocations. In contrast, many of the modern faithful barely seem to understand the theological underpinnings of the practices they so slavishly repeat.

And, as Lomnitz also points out, just about every schismatic movement that took shape after the launch of purgatory, strongly rejected the concept in its entirety, so there have always been plenty of people around capable of seeing it for the system of exploitation that it is.

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