I was watching the CADFAEL series again, from PBS some years ago.
CADFAEL is set in the times of the war between King Steven and Empress Maud over the succession to the English throne after the death of William the Conqueror. Cadfael, played by Derek Jacobi, is a brother in the abbey of Shrewsbury who solves mysteries and does his utmost to see justice done. Coming late in life to the cloister, he brings a more worldly wisdom to problems others would solve with faith and biblical precedent alone.
And this brings me to my point for this blog.
Consider what medieval justice entailed: physical trials to determine God’s will, applying to God’s prescience to determine good from evil, right from wrong, truth from lies. Sometimes one-on-one combat settled legal matters.
In one episode, the disputants, blind-folded, each opened the Bible and set a finger on a verse, and from this, the will of the Divine was known.
And it was well-known that casting a miscreant into a pond would determine guilt or innocence, particularly in the case of witches: If you float, you’re guilty. Because God wants it that way.
As centuries have passed, we’ve considerably upgraded our skills and tools for determining truth, and we have set standards that must be met to determine guilt: actual and not merely circumstantial evidence. We have jury trials, not just the opinion or whim of the ranking lord or sovereign.
In Cadfael’s day, justice was based on what people at all levels of life believed about God. They could not question the logic of a condemnation, lest they be questioning God’s disposition of the matter. Because God did that. This was the way God acted in the lives of humanity. That was how they understood God.
We can look back at the absurdities and horrors of medieval justice, and we understand that no matter how all-powerful God may be, we still have to find truth, and determine guilt by scientific methods like forensics, and through thorough police work, and in a courtroom according to the Rule of Law. Temporal law is our problem, not God’s.
Vigilantism is no longer a valid or acceptible way to mete out justice. Emotional perception no longer sets the standard for condemnation. We have learned that more often than not, emotions lead us astray, that the wrong people are held responsible for the wrong reasons.
But in the 12th Century, by 12th Century beliefs and understandings, that kind of justice was entirely valid. Few questioned it, despite what we see now as pure absurdities and misunderstandings of how the physical world works.
So… finally, ’round Robin Hood’s barn, I come to my actual point here:
Centuries from now, what will people look back at and be amazed by in our 21st Century understandings, beliefs, and ignorances of how the spiritual world works? What absurdities will they scoff at, or be horrified by? And what medieval notions will even then survive on the basis of “No, no, our spiritual teachers could not have been so wrong!”