History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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Medieval Consolations

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

The test of any philosophy is how it helps you survive difficulty. It is simple enough to hold the line in good times, but when your misfortunes seem to know no end, your patience and perseverance were truly tested. The Anglo-Saxons had a trust in wyrd both as pagans and as Christians. The thought might best be summed up in the refrain from the poem Deor:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg. 

That passed away, so may this.

Probably the most popular of philosophers in the Middle Ages who counselled this kind of acceptance of fate was the 6th century Roman, Boethius. Even in the 14th century Chaucer still found much to admire, translating the whole of his Consolation of Philosophy into English. He must have considered the book to be helpful in sustaining the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' that human life is made of. We think of him as famous and successful, but at the end of his life he was writing laments about his purse and begging the king to pay the money promised to him. 

Success is often clearer from the distance. Up close, it may not be apparent at all.

Like the Buddhists who teach that desire leads to unhappiness, Boethius knew that comparisons between where we are and where we thought we ought to be could crush our spirits. In Book II of the Consolation he writes:

Nam in omni adversitate fortunae infelicissimum est genus infortunii fuisse felicem.

In every adversity of fortune, to have been happy is the most unhappy kind of misfortune.

That Wheel of Fortune: it turns ever. When we are on the bottom, how we wish to be on top. Yet when we are on the top, we seldom think of it ever turning again. Best if, as Guildenstern tells Hamlet, 'On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button' for then the downward turn is certain.

Let the wheel turn: change is the only constant.

[Quene of Fortune image via Manchester Middle English Manuscripts, Lydgate's Siege of Troy]

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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