Saturday, 23 July 2016

Thoughts - trains set in motion

An interesting examination in how trains of thought develop and unfold within the conscious mind; take one thought, let it lead to another, and another, and see what develops, taking notes all the while...

I'm having lunch in a field near Łady (pron. 'Wuddy'), looking across at the church there. I watch the planes landing behind it, and snapping the snap below, the lyrics of the Clash song, Rock the Casbah, come to my mind. 'Drop the bombs between the minarets'... Two minarets, two towers... The song's chorus - 'Shareef don't like it/Rockin' the casbah, rock the casbah'.

Shareef/sharif... It occurred to me that about an hour earlier I'd watched an Emirates plane landing at Okęcie and thought how many names for rulers there are in the Islamic world that have entered everyday usage in English - Emir, caliph, sultan, shah, sharif...

Sharif - sheriff. Is there an etymological link between the two? No. I'd checked this one before; the English word 'sheriff' comes from the contraction of 'shire reeve' - the reeve of the shire. The reeve... wasn't there one in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales?

Yes. I'd encountered Chaucer's Canterbury Tales 40 years ago, in my final year at school for English A-level (matura equivalent). It is a great work of literary, social and historical significance.

And the train of thought carries on. The reeve? the feudal lord's accountant? He was one of that host of characters who were on the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket. On the journey, they kept each other amused by telling stories.

First, in the prologue, Chaucer introduces us to the group. Fully one-third fulfilled some function or other in the Church. These included the Pardoner and the Summoner, who fulfilled functions to do with the ecclesiastical courts (the courts of the Christian Church - for this was before the Reformation). The pardoner sold pardons, the summoner summoned those who breached the law of the Church (judged in ecclesiastical courts as opposed to the law of the land).

Today ecclesiastical courts have little power other than to judge disputes within the church, but in Chaucer's Middle Ages, they were as powerful as the lay courts, and affected ordinary people in their everyday life.

[Like sharia in Islam... and then we're back with sharif. Again, no connection, for 'sharif' means 'noble', while 'sharia' has its etymology in the word for 'way' or 'path'.]

But back to my train of thought, sitting in the field, overlooking Łady.

The pre-Reformation Church was the world's first multinational service-sector business. It's product - a rather intangible one - the salvation of the eternal soul. Indulgences, penances, pardons, bought and sold. Chaucer took many swipes at the corrupt practices rampant in the Church at the time, based on the idea that one could purchase absolution from God's punishment by paying the right price to the right person. Incidentally, an 'indulgence' is odpust, a word now more associated with metallic helium balloons, cheap toys and obwarzanki sold outside churches on specific feast-days in the Church calendar.

But back in Chaucer's days, price lists showing how many years you could knock off your stay in Purgatory for a given sin were standard. You'd pay the pardoner (quaestor in Latin - from which the word in Polish for a university treasurer - kwestor) a given sum, and your sins would be forgiven.

A great business idea - it paid for the Crusades - but one which did not stand the scrutiny of Martin Luther and Protestant theology, and later the Catholic Church's Council of Trent.

Right! lunchtime over, time to get up and walk back to Jeziorki.


adthelad said...

Dear Michał,

Two thoughts I wanted to share.

1. "You'd pay the pardoner (quaestor in Latin - from which the word in Polish for a university treasurer - kwestor) a given sum, and your sins would be forgiven."

Er...., no! Slip of the tongue me thinks. Sins have always been forgiven through confession. Indulgences serve as a means of reducing purgatory time in that they relate to the process of restitution - as you note when your sins are forgiven - after confession you are still obliged to make restitution for any wrongs you have done.

FYI - and here

and for history here about the black background but very informative).

"From the 1300’s onward, the business of indulgences gets truly interesting because it becomes just that: a business. Sure, apologists will rightly point out that you can’t strictly “buy” an indulgence; that indulgences are attached to the giving of alms to a charitable cause or other worthy endeavour. This is really semantics because, like it or not, a large part of the later medieval Church’s works were driven by the revenues generated by indulgences. The fantastic Gothic cathedrals with their towers reaching to the heavens and shrines studded with precious stones of every color didn’t all pay for themselves, after all. The difference between Luther and me is that I find the idea rather useful."

2. It's Sundau and I've just watched this video - - an interactive feature is also available.

Best regards,

adthelad said...

Sorry, should have said my second thought was totally off topic, best, A

Michael Dembinski said...


Thanks for the paragraph about the buying and selling of indulgences. The link between the Gothic cathedrals and mediaeval universities becomes clearer - the kwestor went around selling cegiełki for both in a similar vein.

You are of course right about the forgiveness of sins - in the technical sense confession is a sine qua non and it is about shortening time in purgatory. The idea of 'five years off purgatory for tuppence three-farthings' rather flies in the face of the notion of Eternity.

As Woody Allen said "Eternity is a really long time, especially the last bit".