The man, the man, the armed man,
The armed man
The armed man should be feared, should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail. (attr. the court of Charles the Bold, 1433-77).
The warmongering Charles the Bold of Burgundy, in between skirmishes and battles, presided over a remarkably musical court, one of whose members penned the song ‘L’homme armé’. The tune caught on, appearing in dozens of mediæval mass settings, but so far as I know, no-one had the brass face to use the words in a religious context.
I admit to being underwhelmed when I first heard Karl Jenkins’ ‘The armed man — a mass for peace’, probably because it was being hyped to death by Classic FM (note for colonials — a radio station specialising in lifestyle music for the moneyed middle classes) in ‘lollipop’ snatches designed to calm gridlocked commuters. But I came to realise he’d done something rather clever: by creative use of text and intertextuality — including the Ordinary of the mass — he’d managed to take the uncompromisingly military ‘L’homme armé doibt on doubter’, ‘The armed man should be feared’ and so subvert it that by the end of the work it became an impassioned plea for peace, doubtless leaving Charles the Bold (who, it should be noted, died in one of his own battles) gently spinning in his grave. Subversion, a leading up the proverbial garden path, is perhaps a more fruitful way of bringing about change than reaction.
For Christians, this can hardly be a surprise. The ‘crux gemmata’, the ‘jewelled cross’ demonstrates one way in which we have subverted the Cross, transforming its original power as an instrument of Roman oppression into a symbol of honour and glory, and some recent studies place the stone crosses of the Anglo-Saxon period (e.g., at Ruthwell) in the same ‘crux gemmata’ tradition. The art of the early mediæval period, with its ‘Christus Rex’ symbolism points us in a similar direction, as do the various forms of the Rood poem and Venantius Fortunatus’ ‘Vexilla Regis’.
It is suggested that the devotion to a tortured Christ begins only in the writings of the ninth-century Candidus of Fulda, which devotion opened the way to a literalistic, rather than a subversive, reading of the Cross (and which, we might argue, facilitated the penal understanding of atonement, not to mention Mel Gibson’s profoundly unbiblical gorefest). The tortured Christ invites pity and shame; Christ subversive on the Cross takes us somewhere else, ‘leading captivity captive’.
St. Mary’s Barton backs on to an artesian well, the sort of ‘holy well’ which historically (and currently, at places like Walsingham, Lourdes and Madron) has been associated with healing and the like. Of the mediæval chapels within our building, the oldest dedication is that of St Thomas of Canterbury, victim of twelfth-century power politics, whose feast we celebrated a couple of days ago. This juxtaposition of a martyr’s altar and a site with connotations of healing echoes the cult of Thomas evidenced in the Canterbury Tales — where a story of the violent is subverted into one of healing and hope and wholeness.
Christianity as revolution has been a theological platitude since the 1960s (‘Sing we a song of high revolt,’ gets the blood fizzing, to be sure, but most western Christians are still wealthy and white, which rather gives the game away). But there is good reason to think that our current context, our common societal mental matrix, is no longer centred on revolution but subversion, the undermining of the powerful by means of their own tools. Entering a new year intent on subverting the world for God might be a Christian vocation with much deeper roots than that knee-jerk counter-culturalism so often offered us as the Good News.