Getting Medieval

Take a wander around an old church pretty much anywhere in Europe and especially in France and you’ll often see a sculpture or mural of a Roman soldier on horseback wearing a voluminous cloak and looking down at a naked man.

What you’ve got there is an image of Saint Martin of Tours.

To abridge his story quite drastically, Martin was a young cavalry officer in the Roman army. One particularly miserable day in winter he was approached by a naked beggar. Martin had a bit of a reputation for giving away bits of his kit to the poor who were dying of cold and was down to his cloak and pants.  Without a second thought, the teenaged Martin took out his sword and sliced his cloak in two handing half to the beggar. Martin’s comrades thought he looked like an idiot with half a cloak and wearing his pants but that night as he slept Martin had a vision of Jesus wearing the beggar’s portion of the cloak, and in the morning his cloak was once again whole.

We have this story through Sulpicius Severus, a contemporary of Martin. Sulpicius wrote what’s called a hagiography of Martin. If you don’t know, a hagiography is the biography of a saint, and in the Western tradition, they are written as uncritical commentaries, jazzing up the lives of the canonized.

In the medieval world, life could be uncertain: Will I die of plague tomorrow? Will I starve to death? Will I get a pike in the eye because someone decided to ban Christmas?

Thanks though to the Medieval Church in Europe, some things were certain. To once again summarise rather brutally, the world was at the centre of the universe, there were heaven and hell, and there was eternal accountability.

Half a millennium later, it’s challenging to get across how all-pervasive the Church was in people’s lives. It wasn’t just the attendance at Church. There were taxes to pay (tithes), rents to be handed over (many small tenant farmers worked church land), rules and regulations to follow down to what you could eat and when. Best of all it ran the civil service (imagine the Inland Revenue staffed entirely by religiously fanatical, celibate men in odd clothes and you’ll begin to see that this didn’t make daily life easy for the general population).

The Church had a rich literature developed over a millennium to explain everything from free will to miraculous interventions in cases of gout.

The problem, as we know now, was that this material, whether developed by the Latin Doctors of the Church or lesser mortals, was increasingly divorced from the reality observed by individuals. If the Church said that the earth didn’t move, then it didn’t, but that made for some remarkable mental athleticism when trying to explain the movement of the planets. The Moon might well be a perfect celestial body but rather inconveniently Mr Huygens’s telescopes showed that the surface was rather rough. The heart, everyone knew was the seat of the soul and the controller of the body’s heat although that didn’t put William Harvey off having a closer look.

Then the modern world arrived. Things became increasingly uncertain. Copernicus moved the Earth, Newton removed God from day to day physics, and Einstein found ways to let physicists be gods.

Now, I have a theory that certain 21st Century people in some areas of business (I’m looking at you Recruitment) tend to behave like the 14th Century church. There is dogma, received truth. There is the understanding abroad among the faithful that rocking the boat is a sure way to excommunication or worse. Moreover, we have our rituals, the things that must be done in a certain way or the sun will fail to rise.

Many of us recruitment types are, in short, very sure of ourselves and we all crave fundamental certainty otherwise we get all skittish and bury gold in our back gardens instead of investing in our businesses. We have a sense of belonging in a collection of like-minded people that is successful and easily capable of putting down heresies. It is to be sure a broad church, but ultimately, it has its central doctrines on how people should behave. It can do all this while holding a wide variety of contradictory positions inside its collective heads.

That said, my conclusion on reading acres of the daily output of my fellow recruiters is that we’re either all terrible writers or that nobody at really knows anything beyond the superficial. I’ve mentioned this before, one of the defining things about my trade is that quite a lot of our current written output is awful. Not in the sense that it’s a bit dry and lacking in inspiration but the sense that it’s just rubbish

My final point for today then.

There’s a story that does the rounds on recruiter social media pretty much daily. It varies with transcription, but the gist of it is: someone who is unemployed/wet/homeless has a job interview with an important person, usually the writer of the story, under challenging circumstances (the interviewee is late, can’t get childcare or has no relevant experience). However, the writer of the story offers them a job, and they become a star performer at work. Helping people is a good thing and the author by helping people is obviously good and so worthy of your respect and veneration.

Saint Martin never really went away, did he?

Ivor Campbell
Posted on: 26th June 2019 by Ivor Campbell

Into his fourth decade of search Ivor has a voice with stories to tell, observations to make and the odd picture to share. Mostly related to the day job.

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