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The Chain of Being Chaos and Order in the Renaissance Worldview Shakespeare 208 (Winter 2002)
In the Beginning. . . • Biblical explanation for cosmology • Designed by a benevolent deity • Perfection and lack of change • Perfect order and hierarchy from God down to the most insignificant creature or object
In Principio creatavit Deus caelum et terram. . “In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. But the Earth was void and without form, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved over the waters. ” Genesis 1: 1 For Renaissance Christians, the act of creation is an act of imposing organization on raw chaos. For them, orderliness is next to Godliness.
The Design? A Chain from Highest. . • Creator seen as highest link in chain, but also outside it. • Purely spiritual beings below the creator. • Beings of both spirit and physical body (humans) below angelic beings. • Then animate creatures with only physical bodies and five senses, but lacking reason (non-human mammals, fowl, fish, insects)
• Then animals with fewer than five senses or inanimate bodies (oysters, barnacles, mollusks) • Then plant life, which is both inanimate and lacking in sensory organs (trees, shrubs, bushes, vegetables) • Then minerals and inanimate objects Everything had a place in the hierarchy, and all was well as long as each creature behaved according to its station. . Down to the Lowest
The Universe as We Know it
Versus the Ptolemaic Model The Sun Earth The Moon Planets
The Ptolemaic Model Grew Increasingly Elaborate Under Medieval Theology • Sublunary Spheres • Music of the Spheres • Astrological Influence • All Creation interconnected by Divine Love • Stars and Planets corresponded to Alchemical elements, to Bodily Humors, to types of plants. . to nearly everything.
Four Alchemical Elements Fire (Highest but most volatile element, closest to heavenly matter that composes spiritual ether and stars; its natural state was warm/dry) Air (Second ranking element; Natural state: warm/wet) Water (Earth naturally sinks below water, so water is higher in status. Natural state: cool/wet Earth (Lowest but most stable element, closest to base desires. Natural state: cool/dry)
Four Bodily Humors From Latin Humoris: “liquid” • Choler (called Yellow Bile in some models) liquid in the body that caused irritability and anger • Tears (in some models, Black Bile) liquid in the body that caused melancholy, sadness, and depression) • Blood (corresponded to excitement, energy, sexual arousal, happiness, desire for activity) • Phlegm (corresponded to lethargy, boredom, inaction, fatigue, sleepiness)
So What Went Wrong? For medieval and Renaissance Christians, the universe was created by a benevolent deity. So how did one explain the existence of unpleasant evil within a world that was thought to have been created as an ordered paradise?
Keep in mind, all of creation was bound together. Whatever affected one thing affected other things in the Chain of Being. This was called a “Correspondence. ” What is below is like that which is above. What is above is like what is below. Thus is the miracle of the One accomplished. --Paracelsus
Correspondences Three interlocking parts of the Chain corresponded to each other. These were: ü Macrocosm (the universe, nature, and the skies) ü Microcosm (the Human body as a map of the Universe) ü Body Politic (the kingdom as a social institute, including its government and its citizens).
The Human Body was the Microcosm It connected to every part of creation.
“The Body is a Little World. ” Created in God’s Own Image Set in the very center of creation Given the position of primate over the animals Given both soul and flesh. Immortal, never dying. .
Remember those Four Bodily Humors? • Choler (called Yellow Bile in some models) liquid in the body that caused irritability and anger • Tears (in some models, Black Bile) liquid in the body that caused melancholy, sadness, and depression) • Blood (corresponded to excitement, energy, sexual arousal, happiness, desire for activity) • Phlegm (corresponded to lethargy, boredom, inaction, fatigue, sleepiness) What would happen if the human body became corrupted?
Health and Balance When the humors are balanced proportionately in the human body, mankind is healthy, and experiences no negative or inappropriate emotions. When unbalanced, it was another story.
Unbalance Leads to Disease
. . . And to Civil Disorder
. . . And to Disorder in Nature Animals attacking people, eating their own young, stealing grain from crops, all these were signs of the fallen nature of the earth, and corresponded to breaks in the Chain of Being and disorder within the microcosm.
. . . And to disorder in the heavenly constellations.
Enter Sin and Disorder “Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise? ” (Gen 3: 1) Demonic trickery leads humanity to rebel against its place in nature as paragon in divine creation.
Decay in the Sublunary Sphere Note that the vast majority of creation was still thought to be perfect, uncorrupt. The effects of sin were limited to the earth and its immediate atmosphere, i. e. , everything beneath the orbit of the moon. Thus the references in Shakespeare to “the sublunary sphere, ” and “everything beneath the moon. ” Within this boundary, the nature of the world changed. It began to rot. .
Mutability • Old Age • Death • Erosion • Disease • Rain, Wind, and Weather • Rust and Decay • Entropy “God commanded us that we should not eat the fruit; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die. ” (Gen 3: 3)
So how did the Great Chain Work? • Sort of like the Death-Star, the Chain had a few pieces missing due to human rebellion. • But enough pieces remain for it to function. • The trick is for each creature to know its duty and its place in the Chain, and act accordingly.
Hierarchy • Primate • Higher on Chain had more spiritual aspects, greater capacity for rationality (as opposed to instinct), closer in likeness to God. • Correspondences on three levels: – Microcosm (the individual human body) – Macrocosm (the universe and the world of nature) – Body Politic (the kingdom)
God • The Supreme Primate • King of Angels (Rex Angelorum)
Angelic Beings Organized in strict hierarchy of seven choires (or nine, depending upon source). “There are nine orders of angels, to wit, angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, Ophanim, Cherubim, and Seraphim. ” --St. Gregory, Summa Theologica
The King and Nobility Right to rule given by God, and could only be removed by Him. Believed superior in his virtue, wisdom, grace, and strength.
Humanity of Various Ranks Ancient medieval model of Three Estates: • Bellatores: Knights and royalty, those who fight and rule, protecting the physical health of God’s flock • Oratores: The Clergy, the priests who pray and tend to the spiritual needs of God’s flock. • Labores: Those who work, the farmers and serfs who feed God’s flock. If those who protect the kingdom do their job, the people will be safe. If those who work the fields do their job, all will be fed. If those who tend to the soul do their job, all will have their spiritual needs met. Refusing to keep one’s place damages the Body Politic, society as a whole.
Even the lowest serf slaving away in a field had some dignity and authority over other creatures. .
. . . Ruling over the Fields and Floods Just as God had authority over all kings, and king had authority over men, lesser men had dominion over animals and plants. Once again, this authority was believed to be sanctioned by the Bible.
“Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts of the field, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the ground. ” (Gen 1: 26) “And let the fear and dread of you be upon all the beasts of the earth, and upon all the fowls of the air, and all that moveth upon the earth, all the fishes of the sea are delivered into your hands. And every thing that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you, even as the green herbs have I delivered them all to you. ” (Gen. 9: 2 -3)
Each had its hierarchy. “And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and every thing that creepeth on the earth after its kind. And God saw that it was good. ” --(Gen. 1: 25)
Noble Beasts But each animal, plant, fish, and mineral had its own king, a superior example of its own “species. ” This creature was known as the “Primate. ”
Among Beasts, the primate was either the lion or the elephant.
Fish, Flesh, and Fowl
Vegetable Love • “My vegetable love shall grow vaster than empires. ” – Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress. ” The oak was primate among plants, with trees ranking above shrubs, which ranked above bushes, which ranks above grains, which ranked above grasses, and so on.
Mineral World “You Blocks, You Stones, You Worse Than Senseless Things!” --Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Even rocks had rankings. Diamonds were the mineral primate, with other gems below them. As Tillyard notes, every object in creation was thought to have unique gifts. Even the basest of objects, a stone lacking sentience, sensation, location, and reproduction, was still endowed with the trait of unusual durability and hardness. Everything, even stones and dirt, had an important place, even if just supporting those who walked upon them.
This cosmology permeated earlier medieval society in Western Europe • Barthomew Anglicus’ Natural Philosophy • Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura • Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Any educated person would be familiar with these concepts in the days before the 1600 s. Modern people know about atoms or evolution, even if they aren’t themselves physicists or biologists. Likewise, even uneducated peasants would know about the chain.
An Example: Hawking Consider for example the sport of hawking (hunting small animals with trained birds).
An Example: Hawking Each rank in society had a corresponding bird to use. • Emperor: Golden Eagle, Vulture, & Merlin • King: Gyrfalcon (male & female) • Prince: Female Peregrine • Duke: Rock Falcon (subspecies of the Peregrine) • Earl: Peregrine • Baron: Male peregrine • Knight: Saker • Squire: Lanner Falcon • Lady: Female Merlin • Yeoman: Goshawk or Hobby • Priest: Female Sparrowhawk • Holywater clerk: Male Sparrowhawk • Knaves, Servants, Children: Old World Kestrel
To use a bird for the wrong rank was an act not just of poor etiquette, but of subversion. For example, keeping a falcon above one's station was considered a felony and duly regarded as an act of rebellion against an inflexible social order. The Boke of St. Albans relates that the typical punishment of cutting off the hands of people who kept birds above their social rank also served as an excellent deterrent to the crime.
Another Example: Hunting Even the more general sport of hunting was a re-enactment of the social hierarchy.
Ethical, Political and Literary Ramifications? Important to know one’s place, and not seek to rise above it through unholy ambition. Equally important to know one’s place, and not to sink below it by neglecting one’s duties. Important to balance physical and animal needs of the body with divine reason. Pre-established hierarchy of literary symbols, accessible to any educated reader or writer.
Thus Pride Becomes the Worst Sin Pride is always an act of disobedience to legitimate authority, hence an act against the will of God, and also against the very structure of the universe. It is cosmological vandalism.
After all, it is the original sin leading to Lucifer’s fall in medieval theology. “And thou saidst in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountains of the covenant, in the sides of the North. I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the most high. ” (Isaiah 14: 13 -14)
Regicide: The Worst Act of Pride “If I could find example of thousands that had struck anointed kings And flourish’d after, I’ld not do’t; but [. . . ] Nor brass nor stone nor parchment bears not one. ” --The Winter’s Tale I. ii. 357 -360 The King is God’s deputy on earth, and is himself parallel in authority to God. Just as God is king of Angels and all creation, the king is ruler of his countrymen, and deserves similar awe. The unlawful death of kings always causes disruption in the heavens (stars fall from the sky, freakish storms blow across the country) and disruption in the world of nature (famines, plagues, unnatural activity among the animals, etc. )
Killing the King is attacking an emblem of Godhead. It is worse than even killing a priest. For he has two bodies, and injuring the head of the state is a blow to the entire people.
Explicit Presentatio! Works Consulted: Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Richard Green. NY: Macmillan Pub. Co. , 1962. Douay-Rheims Translation of the Bible. Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King’s Two Bodies. NJ: Princeton UP, 1997. Saintbury, George, ed. Elizabethan and Jacobean Pamphlets. NY: Macmillan and Co. , 1892. Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture • 2002 © Dr. L. K. Wheeler