Face-to-face with eternity, a human is given the ultimate choice, paradise or suffering. This question- Heaven or Hell - has offered humanity centuries of fear, and with it, centuries of history’s most formidable motivation. Religion has offered humans a moral compass since the dawn of the construct itself, however, our present ideas of sin and penance have not been perpetually relevant. In Medieval Europe, morality is not a warm fuzzy concept, but a cold, hard world where good is shamelessly intertwined with pain, and mere pleasure is tantamount to sin itself. Beginning with a man, a woman, and an apple in the Garden of Eden, medieval humans are believed to be instinctual sinners, and it is only through a complete abstinence of pleasure and an eschewing of both desire and autonomy that one can even begin to breach the surface of what it is to be good.
In just the first tercet of his poem, “Inferno,” Dante illustrates a key part of the medieval concept of morality. “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a shadowed forest, / For I had lost the path that does not stray”. With half of his life already under his belt, Dante admits his malfeasance; he has lost the path that does not stray. This confession tells us many things about how, it was perceived, one can become good. Dante writes of the path to Heaven - the moral path - as a steady, dependable path, but as one that is easily lost, a crime of which he is guilty. This sentiment is echoed by numerous contemporaries, including St. Benedict, who writes, “Even if...something a little irksome shalt be the result...thou shalt not therefore, struck by fear, flee the way of salvation, which cannot be entered except upon a narrow entrance”. This commonly held v...
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...hooses chastity, however uncertain of a choice this is. “Indeed. by God”, says Gawain, “you graciously speak; but force finds no favour among the folk where I dwell.” Even for those who are truly virtuous, the path to paradise is not one that is easily followed.
Morality, the path that does not stray, is a difficult thing for the medieval human to reconcile with their day-to-day life. Even though the path is steady, humans are said fickle, and in their innate pre-disposition to sin, they are easily the ones who stray far and wide from the light. When compared with our relatively hedonistic view of modern morality, this form of morality seems alien, and contrary to the function of our society. We are caught up with the morality of our actions, and the good of today. Looking forward to the eternal tomorrow, however, the medieval man cannot concern himself with today.
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