The Things You Learn
If Fortuna is what she is said to be, that is, unstable and changing by definition, what good is there in maintaining her worship? – St. Augustine, 5th Century
I was struck dumb with fear when I beheld her great stature and the wondrous form of her body. For she had burning eyes, and it seemed they threatened those who gazed upon her. Fortuna had a cruel and horrible face. She had rough, long hair that hung down from her mouth, and I think she had a hundred hand and as many arms, to give and take away riches from men to cast them down raise them on high. Fortuna’s clothes were of divers colors. For no ma knows her. Her voice was so harsh and so hard that it seemed her mouth was made of iron, so she could threaten all the greatest men of the world and put these threats into action – Boccaccio, De Casibus, 14th century
My summer reading project is Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries by the French historian Jean Delumeau. Reading history is always humbling, especially when it concerns an era about which one knows next to nothing. It reminds me, at least, just how little I know, just how much there is to learn, and just how much I shall never learn, even if I spend the rest of my days doing nothing but reading.
Part I of Delumeau’s work sets the stage for the detailed examination of ideas about sin, fallen humanity, and associated guilt that follow. This is a very long, very dense, work, and Delumeau almost overwhelms the reader with the intricate and interlaced links among ideas such as contemptus mundi, death, the macabre, the Danse Macabre, and the many things that make humanity fragile. A major theme, at least of this part of his work, is that far from the heady, optimistic, humanistic age of Discovery and not-quite-hubris, the Renaissance was an age filled with dread, fear, and uncertainty. This found expression in art, poetry, sermons, treatises, even those fragments of popular song that have made their way through the mists of time. While there were certainly those – Pico dela Mirandola comes to mind; Erasmus had his moments, although he also drank deep of the pessimism of the age; the rulers who saw in the Americas a source of riches and a ripe missionary field for the church – who were optimistic for what was to come, by and large the long shadow of the Late Medieval period – the Schism in the church; the plague; the constant warfare and its depredations upon populations and crops and goods; an air of cruelty bordering on general sadism and lack of empathy that surpasses our own imaginings of the horrors of the 20th century – left very few even learned men and those few women hopeful for the future.
One thing I’ve learned reading this book is that there was a long-running, serious theological discussion over the Person and Role of Fortuna, destiny or fate. As noted in the epigraphs above, St. Augustine was quite sure she was unworthy of worship. Nine hundred years later, however, Boccaccio was quite sure Fortuna was a horrendous Person, a figure of power. While the painting at top comes much later, placing Fortuna in her pagan surroundings, the trappings and details all come from artistic depictions that emerged in the Renaissance: Fortuna balanced on a globe, often depicted as fragile (the one above certainly looks so); with one hand she casts out, with another she blesses; she is blind or blindfolded, so even she is not aware of where her blessings or curses fall. These are all topos that were current over the several centuries during which learned theologians discussed whether Fortuna was a divine being, created by God to dispense the details of Divine Providence. Precisely because there seemed so little rhyme or reason to men’s lives, because the entire notion of “dessert”, that is that people receive their just reward for their correct actions and upright lives and vice-versa, there was at the very least strong empirical evidence that, while God may well be loving and just, the details were in the hands of One far more capricious and less attune to the details of people’s lives. If I didn’t know better, if it hasn’t been done already, there’s a good theological monograph waiting to be written on this topic, filling in the details of the theological disputes of Fortuna and fate over the 10th-16th centuries.
I’m writing this because I find it fascinating how much time and intellectual energy was spent on what seems to my contemporary Protestant ears to be quite silly and inconsequential. For those engaged in the disputes, however, it was far from either. Understanding why it was there seemed no ratio to how human lives flowed; why those who were amoral in their dealings in public and immoral in their private lives were successful while those who practiced piety in private and charity in public very often led anonymous, unsuccessful lives seemed counter intuitive at best. What was worse was the fact that some people, generous, fair-dealing people, could suddenly find their riches and families gone, wiped out in an outbreak of the plague, or the ravages or war. Trying to make sense of the senselessness – this is a human thing, to be sure, and one for which Fortuna as a Divine Being blindly executing the details of God’s Providence makes as much sense as saying, “God works in mysterious ways.”
How will our theological disputes – over the role of humanity in creation; over human sexuality; perhaps even over the status of the deity – look in six hundred years? Will our distant Christian great-great-grandchildren wonder at how silly they all seemed? Will some come to read the theology of the early 21st century and discover things they, in their time, couldn’t imagine being the source of dispute?
And how about all those learned “leaders” who insist we return to some pristine theological and doctrinal past, adhere to the principles and teachings of an earlier age? Should we ask them if we should then embrace Fortuna as, if not a goddess (although she is addressed as such as late as the 15th century; she is also called a “daughter of God”, in contrast to the Son of God), then at the very least a Divine Being worthy of worship and consideration? Should we, perhaps, return to discussions of witches, of demons, of whether or not natural disasters are the result of Divine Wrath? Or should we, perhaps, heed Scriptural advice as well as the teachings of the centuries, and do our theological work for our own time? If that means creating a body of theological literature that later centuries will scratch their collective heads over, so be it. We should also approach the whole task of theology with much more humility, especially should we feel the urge to speak about past theologies and doctrines with authority but without the requisite understanding of the details. Our task is to understand the Living God for our own age; that others did it in ways that are strange, perhaps even a bit, well, heretical to us is neither here nor there for us. They did the best they could, getting as much wrong as they did right. Nothing more or less will be said of us.
On the subject of Fortuna, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a video of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. A series of poems written to Fortune in the 12th century, the first movement is especially famous because it just so over the top. It is also the subject of what may well be the funniest misheard lyric videos on YouTube. And that is appropriate precisely because this entire post is about what we don’t understand, and have still to learn, about the past. The misheard lyrics make as much sense as any introduction to the detailed theology of Lady Fortune. So I say, Laugh, but remember the joke is kind of on us for being so ignorant: