Holiness and humanity in the Middle Ages

Mark Gregory Pegg’s new book explores love, heresy, and the individual stories of the medieval West.

In his new book, “Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages,” Professor of History Mark Gregory Pegg traces humanity’s changing relationship to the divine over 1,200 years of western medieval history. Recently, he sat down with the Ampersand to explain what that history tells us about personhood in the medieval past, the meaning of love, and the culture of the West.

What is the significance of the book’s title, “Beatrice’s Last Smile”?

Mark Gregory Pegg

At the end of Dante Alighieri’s poem “The Divine Comedy,” Dante is surrounded by the white rose of paradise in the company of Beatrice, a young woman he once loved. Suddenly, his companion disappears. He looks up and sees her in the rose’s distant third tier. She smiles at him one final time before turning away. Dante, far from being sad, is joyful as he now understands love, himself, and the universe — indeed all existence that ever was and will be — because of Beatrice’s last smile.

Jorge Luis Borges thought Beatrice’s last smile the most moving image ever achieved in Western literature. For me, it encapsulates the history of the Middle Ages because it evokes the ebb and flow of holiness and humanity in the living of a life that shaped the medieval world. 

The book follows these fluctuations between the divine and the human through an interweaving of stories of men, women, and children living and dying between the third and the 15th centuries. Whatever we may wish, there is nothing similar between us and them. Yet trying to evoke lives long gone — and maybe capturing some part of their reality — is what is so wonderful about being a historian.

In the book, you distinguish between a “penitential” culture, which arose during the Early Middle Ages, and a “confessional” culture, which arose during the High Middle Ages. How did these different cultures reflect a changing understanding of the self?

According to a Christian penitential culture, you cleansed your soul whenever you did public penance for your sins; Your slate was wiped clean. All lives were full of gaps where sinful actions and thoughts had been deleted. The last thing an individual wanted was an uninterrupted biographical narrative, where evil was interwoven with virtue, where the recollection of wrongdoing never disappeared. A good life was a sequence of jump cuts — abrupt transitions from one penitential act to another. 

After the rise of confessional culture in the 12th century, it was no longer possible to escape your past. Men, women, and children still engaged in penances for sins, but those sins were never erased from their lives. An individual life was now understood as moving forward through time as a linear, unbroken story. This understanding of the self eventually spread throughout Latin Christendom, so that princes, peasants, and intellectuals all thought of their existence in this way.

Individual existence was now continuous and unbreakable not only in life, but also in death. The memories and idiosyncrasies of a person, when alive, remained with them in the afterlife. This belief in the continuity of the living person from the here-and-now to the hereafter meant, for instance, that ghosts — as lost souls delaying their journeys to hell or heaven — started appearing for the first time in the West.

How did the confessional sense of self reflect a new understanding of the relationship between humanity and divinity?

Confessional culture arose partially because people were obsessed with imitating Christ’s life on earth, from the crawling child to the crucified adult. The idea was that by copying Christ’s humanity, people could also share his divinity. Indeed, it was now argued in sermons and songs that the experience of temporal love recreated the eternal love that Christ had for humanity as a man. Love was a perpetual form of penance, at once wonderful, humiliating, sacrificial, and redemptive. All love stories were now the story of Christ.

How was this Western concept of the confessional self shaped by violence against heretics in the High Middle Ages?

There is an irony that the individualized sense of self that marked the last centuries of the Middle Ages was premised upon copying the life of an individual man. In a similar way, this confessional distinctiveness in the lives of men, women, and children throughout Latin Christendom was also determined by the efforts of popes and kings, preachers and poets, at achieving doctrinal, behavioral, and even physical similarity between all Christians from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. But in so sharply and aggressively defining what it was to be a Christian, there was now an awful clarity in defining the opposite, such as Jews and Muslims, and most especially heresy and heretics.

By the beginning of the 13th century, this led to Pope Innocent III proclaiming a crusade against supposed heretics in southern France, which was the first holy war in which Christians were guaranteed salvation through the killing of other Christians. After this savage war, Christendom was understood as encompassing all time and space; Everyone was Christian whether they realized it or not. A person not accepting this understanding of the universe and themselves within it was a heretic. 

Why should we hold onto “the West” as a concept when it has so often been politicized towards destructive ends?

The West is a convenient shorthand for the lands and peoples that constituted the Western Roman Empire before and after its fall. But even in these centuries, the West means more than just what was the empire; including, for instance, Irish monks freezing in the Inner Hebrides or the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabian peninsula receiving messages from the Highest God. 

By 700, however, the West usefully designated the developing religious and social distinctiveness of the regions between the Mediterranean and the North Sea that were not part of the East Roman Empire or Muslim Islamicate. This difference was only accentuated during the later centuries, although the West remained porous and molded by other cultures. Indeed, what is commonly assumed to be the defining characteristics of Western civilization, especially a particular sense of the self, were formed in the 12th and 13th centuries of Latin Christendom. 

To talk of the “West” should not be to engage in any form of cultural triumphalism. I'm not trying to defend Western culture, nor the world that created it. Great beauty was created alongside great terror in the medieval world. But it’s important to understand the West as a cultural entity that has shaped us. To feel that we’re not trapped by the past, we must understand it.

History is not a metaphysical discipline; It is an epistemological one. It is not about how the world could have been or could be; It is about what can be known of the actual world as it is and was. I believe in historical truth — even if that truth is always beyond my reach, even if it can never be grasped. Searching for it must be enough.