When Earthly Beauty is Beautiful

It is all too common to hear dogmatic medieval Christian writers talking about the falseness of earthly goods, the inferiority of earthly beauty, etc. etc. True beauty is with God and in the afterlife – nothing else is worthy of notice.

So it was quite interesting to come across this line in one of Alcuin‘s letters, discussing the beauty of Wearmouth and Jarrow monasteries:

‘Videte librorum thesaura; considerate ecclesiarum decorem, aedificiorum pulchritudinem, regularis vitae ordinem. Rememorate, quam beatus est homo, qui de his pulcherrimis habitaculis ad caelestis regni gaudia transeat’ (MGH, Alcuini Epistolae 19)

‘Look at the treasure-chests of books; think on the adornments of the churches, the beauty of the edifices, the order of the regular life. Think how blessed is the man, who from these most beautiful dwellings should cross over to the joys of the heavenly kingdom’ (My translation)

Of course the heavenly kingdom is still the desired end result, but Alcuin nontheless instructs the monks to think about the beauty of the buildings, the chests full of books and, yes, the spiritual beauty of the rule to which they adhere. He asks them to take a moment to think about everything that is beautiful in this life, and see the heavenly kingdom as enhancing something which is already worth valuing.

This letter was written in 793, after the first Viking attack on Lindisfarne. Since Wearmouth and Jarrow are located relatively near to Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria, as far as Alcuin knew this could very well be one of the last times that the monks would get a chance to appreciate what was one of the wealthiest, best endowed, most culturally advanced monasteries in Europe at the time.

map Lindis WJ

Elsewhere in the letter, Alcuin tells the monks to stay strong, stick fast to their prayers, and trust in the love of God and in their spiritual strength to protect them.

Of course, the fact that this beauty was about to be destroyed by angry northmen also means that appreciating it fits nicely into the ubi sunt (translated as ‘where are…’) motif that is so beloved of Old English poetry. The most famous example is in the wanderer:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
[…]Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
[…]How that time has passed away,
grown dark under cover of night, as if it had never been

Therefore Alcuin’s admonition may not be as aberrant as it seems at first glance. Nonetheless, it is touching to see the nostalgia and perhaps somewhat personal attachment (Alcuin was Northumbrian, after all) that a very public medieval figure had to something so earthly and so human.

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