An Interesting Medieval Misinterpretation of the Bible

It is impossible for a modern person to know or imagine how a medieval person thought about any particular subject, to think like they did.  Even a scholar who has studied medieval literature and art all their life cannot truly duplicate a medieval thought in their modern mind.  That doesn’t mean we can’t muse, and amuse ourselves and one another trying.

I have shared how the name for this blog comes from my appreciation of a medieval Spanish book, the Book of Good Love.  We all want Good Love.  We can turn Good Love into Better Love with action of gratitude and encouragement and sharing.  Then the Best Love, the love of God, demonstrates to us a model of what Jesus said was the second most important command – to love our neighbor.

I have also shared examples of ancient statements that state that we see and believe what we want to see and believe.  One of my favorite stories from the Book of Good Love, the debate between the Greek and the Roman, demonstrates this principle. I talked here about why Julius Caesar wrote “In most cases men willingly believe what they wish.”  Here I also shared Demosthenes statement: ” Nothing is so easy as to deceive one’s self; for what we wish, we readily believe.”

In a future article I will share the main reason I am like a Medieval Christian, and the main reason I am different from a Medieval Christian.  But a medieval person expected the good side and the bad side, the Holy and the profane, to be presented together.  To them, that was the only way a person could make an informed and proper decision, to choose the right choice over the wrong choice, to do good or to do evil.

So while Juan Ruiz, the author of the Book of Good Love, has many praises for God, he also discusses the pursuit of women.  The author relates a story of his trip to the mountains, with four episodes of how the tables were turned and he was pursued and abused by the mountain women.  He quotes a Bible verse as a reason for making his journey to the mountains:  Try all things, hold to that which is good. I Thes 5:21.  This verse was widely commented on in the Middle Ages, and the thought was that even a well-intentioned person needs to not only see both sides of the coin, but experience both sides as well in order to be able to make the proper choice.

The same type of thought is seen in a 13th century German goliardic song.  The Goliards were medieval scholars who wrote satirical Latin poetry, and some would say their real studies were of wine, women and song.  In this German song, the first stanza says we are to go into all the world and spread the word of Christ.  The second stanza is based on I Thess. 5:21 and says we are to examine everything and take advantage of what life offers.  The second half of the verse, hold to that which is good, is conveniently omitted.

Piers Plowman is a 14th century English poem, also satirical, about the narrator’s search for the true Christian life.  Lady Mead shares that her guide to live by is to “try everything,” the first half of I thess 5:21.  Conscience points out that Lady Mead is ignoring the second half of the verse, just as the German goliardic song does.  Lady Mead decides to, chooses to indulge herself in everything she finds interesting, with no regard for the good.

There are my three examples of the medieval misuse of a Bible verse.  Part of the blame could be laid on the Vulgate Bible used.  While they are interpreting the verse to say “try all things” and “experience everything,” modern translations to English give us “prove, test, examine.”  Most today would agree we are being exhorted to examine everything before us for value, whether it is good or bad, before we make a decision and act, holding on to the good.  Not that we do it all and then decide which part of what we did was good.

The verse can be even more easily used to justify license when the second half of the verse is omitted.  But in all the medieval (mis)uses of the verse I have seen, the following verse (22) is also conveniently omitted – Avoid every kind of evil.  That makes it crystal clear we are to flee evil rather than choose to experience it to better decide between good and evil.  They say that experience is the best teacher, the best source of knowledge.  And experience comes from mistakes.  It’s just better if we can gain our knowledge from the mistakes of others, rather than having to repeat the mistakes on our own.

The picture at the top is a representation of an old German saying – “Who does not love wine, women, and song, remains a fool all his life long.”  Some suggest that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, is the author of this saying.

About Mark Gredler

I want to move from Good Love to Better Love, share it, and share the Best Love of God. I like ancient and medieval history, especially of Spain. I like photographing Spanish fiestas, and visiting Romanesque churches, from the 11th to 13th centuries. I enjoy traveling, seeing new places, meeting new friends, taking photographs of that, and want to write more about it all.
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