In the twelfth century, Walter of Chatillon wrote a rather pessimistic appraisal of the world’s condition.
|Dum contemplor animo saeculi tenorem,
Reproborum gaudia, proborum maerorem,
Contemptum iustitiae, fidei torporem,
Credo, quod non habeant saecula rectorem.
O, qui quadrupliciter iubes figurari
Hylen, qui res dispares ita nexu pari
Copulas, ut nequeant a se disparari:
Cur permittis hominem sic denaturari?
|When I think upon the world’s status and position,
The sorrows of the righteous, rejoicing perdition,
The torpor of the faithful, justice in suspicion,
I fear no hand perchance guides our present world’s mission.
You who made the world four-fold, the elements enslaved,
Joined unlikes as man and wife, in single whole encaved
That never shall be sundered till every heathen’s saved,
Why do you permit mankind’s becoming so depraved?
The verse continues for another hundred lines in similar manner, but since I’ve already outrun my ability to render Walter’s Latin lyric form into English verse, I’ll stick to prose after this (but do read the rest of the original; it’s excellent).
Walter’s mention of elements and unlikes is part of a longer thought about the Creation and God’s seeming neglect of the human race: “Although you join the elements together and discern the lights by sure methods and eternal laws, it appears that you spurn mankind alone, whose life you do not govern with similar care.” While thus lamenting mankind’s sorry state, Walter is caught up in a vision of the netherworld, where demons are assembling from throughout the cosmos in a place filled with worms and disease. At last the Antichrist appears: “Neither was that fount of haughtiness missing, the son of wickedness and perdition referred to in public as a chosen vessel, who will stab the world with the sword of his word.”
The Antichrist makes a legal complaint against the Fates, arguing that they should no longer demand that he await his appointed hour. With only scorn for further delay, he pleads his case before Satan. “Father, what delay hinders my birth? Fate, why do you prevent my entry into the world? Open the gates, for if you hold back my exit, by the god Beelzebub, I’ll ram through the wall. All the signs of judgment are coming to pass: dissension arises, the law perishes, famine, pestilence, and war rush in.” The Fates then make their case by insisting that things couldn’t be going more splendidly than they are now, since all political and ecclesiastic leaders seem to be doing the Devil’s will.
At last Satan puts an end to the trial: “Woe, you insatiable brood, woe! Bitter chaos, what is it to you to discuss secrets? The number of days is manifest and known only to me, the true father. For the days are coming when I will be made man, when I will snatch the way of truth away from the world, so that I might bind Enoch and Elias with a marvelous chain. Rachel will serve me and I will blind Leah.” Satan explains that all educational, religious, and political institutions are his already, and then sends his minions on his way. “Go, scatter yourselves around the globe, draw all things to you into the center of the depths. By the flesh of the saints, I will pursue you just as I promised.” And the demons, wailing and moaning, flee away.
Apart from the quality of the verse – and, really, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of medieval Latin lyric now and then – what I like about Walter’s “De adventu Antichristi” are its surprisingly neat parallels to Mormon teaching about premortal life, as seen through a funhouse mirror. The quasi-judicial premortal council with reference to human agency and the world’s beginning and end, the impatient enthusiasm for birth – it’s like a satanic karaoke rendition of My Turn on Earth. It amuses me.
I’m not quite sure what else besides amusement can be found in the poem, at least for a discussion of Mormonism. I don’t think we’ll hear it quoted next to Wordsworth in General Conference. The apologetic value of “De adventu Antichristi” seems low. “People in the twelfth century also bore witness to the reality of the Preexistence…of the Antichrist” is not an argument that will win many debates. In the same way, the parallels say little about Joseph Smith’s claims to inspiration. “Although Smith claimed to receive visions, his so-called ‘inspired’ teachings were clearly borrowed from…um, thirteenth century Latin verse” is not an observation that will shake many testimonies. Maybe all this poem shows us is that the Middle Ages is, for Mormonism and its attendant controversies, an era mostly empty of significance. If Walter had written in the early third or the late eighteenth century, someone at FARMS, or at your favorite publisher of fine anti-Mormon publications, would have noticed. But in the twelfth century, no one cares. That’s not entirely a bad thing.