[O]ne more general remark about this whole period. It is, as Delumeaux argues, an age of anxiety. An age of great fears. Fear of magic, of outsiders, of disorders, and of course of sin, death, and judgement. This is particularly marked after the great disasters of the fourteenth century: famines, wars, and above all the Black Death. It is sometimes just explained by these disasters.
But it seems plausible that the fear was multiplied by the transitions this society was going through. Not only the slow disenchantments, but also the destablizations involved in the continuing attempts to re-order it, abolishing the familiar, and starting something new. – Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p.88
The opening chapter is a tour de force overview of what Taylor calls “the enchanted world”, using “enchanted” antonymic to Weber’s notion of “disenchantment”. He sets himself the goal, and succeeds masterfully, of limning the general structure of the world prior to what he calls Reform. Taylor is also at pains, as many historians over the past generation have been, to be clear that Reform is as much continuity as it is radical break; that the world before Reform, the world of enchantment, a world in which time was multiple and qualitative as well as quantitative, horizontal and vertical at the same time, intersecting and defining one another; a world filled with creatures and power with names like demons and witches and sprites, with the Church holding the power of white magic against the forces of darkness that were always lurking, always waiting for a chance to kill a crop, or a child, or bring about a plague; that society existed within an uneasy yet workable tension and equilibrium of status and class, overseen by a Church that was a part of this web; that part of keeping this equilibrium from collapsing in to chaos was to allow certain special times – again, time not understood as we understand it – when the world is turned upside down, such as the Feast Of Fools; finally, a world in which death, while certainly not welcome, was not the source of existential terror it would become in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, when so much focus on human sinfulness by mendicant preaching orders and secular clergy left the impression that the vast majority of those even sitting in church and following its laws and ordinances were doomed and damned.
Taylor’s exposition of how this enchanted world prior to the first stirrings of the modern era, usually offered up as the beginning of the 16th century, although much of what would pick up pace in that century had sources in previous centuries, offers a view that is at once encyclopedic and detailed, overarching and underpinning. That the Christian West that emerged from what had been known as the Dark Ages, ca. A.D. 1000, was a complex society with a background – a naivete, if you will – that in many ways was far more complex than our own should come as no surprise to those who have at least passing understanding of the history of the West. All the same, Taylor offers a marvelous account of how all these pieces – the way magic and meaning and time and death and social order – fit together. He also explains the beginnings, the very first stirrings, of disenchantment as part of processes that began as attempts at personal and social Reform. That part of what happened was this Reform started spiraling out of control due to conflicts between secular and clerical powers is indeed part of Taylor’s story; he is keenly aware not only of the background, this enchanted world whose demise he begins to trace, but all the contradictory and opposing forces pulling this way and that, such that what has actually happened is not a thing of necessity.
The bulwarks of belief, those interlocking understandings of power, of meaning, of social order, of time, and ultimately of death take Taylor 65 long pages to explain. The world of Latin Christendom was far more complex, its ideas and notions and suppositions so alien that getting a description of them right takes a great deal of unpacking, of explaining, and of analogies that Taylor understands are poor at their very best. Just considering the idea that, say, your average miller or smithy understood his place in the Universe as governed by multi-layered, multi-valent understandings of time, governed by differing rules and governors, and that these times intersected creating yet another understanding of time out of time; these notions are difficult for us to understand. Those who lived within this complexity, however, understood it as the order Created by God.
It was “Reform”, which began within the higher orders of the church to reign in abuses of power among some of the lower order of clergy (as well as limit simony among the well-to-do), soon spread to the rest of society, as there was a recovery of Christocentric theologies within the Church; a drive for better public and private morality; a reduction of the complex ways God’s “white magic” kept evil at bay morphed to understand all magic as from Satan, and the uses of what had previously been permitted suddenly sanctioned as heretical and idolatrous; finally, the Reformation came, and Luther and particularly Calvin gave new shape to all this background. In particular the relocation of meaning from something that can inhere in objects – thus the veneration of saintly reliquaries; the white magic, particularly of the consecrated host and candles blessed at Candlemas are examples Taylor offers – to something that the human mind creates and asserts of objects creates the most potent weapon against the world of multiple enchantments: what Taylor calls “the buffered self”, one in which the individual suddenly is not impinged upon by forces outside the self, what Taylor calls “the porous self” is no longer at play. This notion that the self is a thing whole and complete, not accessible to meaningful forces outside the self is important precisely by creating the idea of a “self”, a whole person, although one, as Taylor notes, open suddenly to different problems, not least of them being the emergence of Cartesian and other dualisms.
The disenchantment of the world, at least at the beginning, is indeed a tale of loss – the loss of meaning outside the self; the loss of multiple times in which human life is lived to the singular notion of the universe – as opposed to “cosmos”, which implies an imposed order centered on human life – and time as an arrow, a singular line running from the past through the present to the future; the loss of Divine intervention via various media, from the bones of saints through the milk from Mary’s breast to pieces of the real cross, to do everything from cure illness to protect whole villages against drought or flood; the loss of a sense of death being a passage within the natural, created order, albeit with ambivalent feelings about the dead who were believed to be able to haunt the living to an existential dread of judgment, Purgatory, or at worst damnation following death. That part of Reform also included creating a more moral public life, as well as private life, created the conditions for what Taylor calls, “the police state”. The notion of various Festivals, like Carnival, suddenly moved from necessary to suspect to banned precisely because, in allowing the world to be turned upside down, even for a moment, they expressed the chaos that was always waiting, just beyond our ability to comprehend it.
By the end of the Chapter, we have an understanding of this enchanted world, of what we in the formerly Latin Christendom had taken for granted, as well as the possible directions it might take, even as we recognize in the fears within a society undergoing radical change some of our own fears. In that sense, Taylor’s work of historical analysis, or perhaps philosophical history, or whatever it might be, is as important for us today as a way of coming to understand ourselves as it is to understand those who lived in the past. Ours is, perhaps, a world no longer enchanted; yet disenchantment can only go so far until meaninglessness takes over, something Taylor noted in his Introduction in brief comments on post-modernism and its roots in Nietzsche. In that sense, this story is as much a guidebook for thoughtful contemporaries as it is a rear-view look at what was.