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The Chain of Being

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The Chain of Being
Chaos and Order in the
Renaissance Worldview
Shakespeare 207 (Spring 2002)
In the Beginning...
• Biblical explanation for cosmology
• Designed by a benevolent deity
• Perfection and lack of change
• Perfect order and hierarchy from
God down to the most insignificant
creature or object
In Principio creatavit Deus
caelum et terram....
“In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and
the Earth. But the Earth was void and without
form, and darkness was upon the face of the
deep: and the spirit of God moved over the
waters.” Genesis 1:1
For Renaissance Christians, the act of
creation is an act of imposing organization
on raw chaos. For them, orderliness is next
to Godliness.
The Design? A Chain from
Highest . . . .
• Creator seen as highest link in chain, but
also outside it.
• Purely spiritual beings below the creator.
• Beings of both spirit and physical body
(humans) below angelic beings.
• Then animate creatures with only physical
bodies and five senses, but lacking reason
(non-human mammals, fowl, fish, insects)
• Then animals with fewer than five senses or
inanimate bodies (oysters, barnacles, mollusks)
• Then plant life, which is both inanimate and
lacking in sensory organs (trees, shrubs,
bushes, vegetables)
• Then minerals and inanimate objects
Everything had a place in the hierarchy, and all
was well as long as each creature behaved
according to its station.
. . .Down to the Lowest
The Universe as We Know
Versus the Ptolemaic Model
The Sun
The Moon
The Ptolemaic Model
Grew Increasingly Elaborate
Under Medieval Theology
• Sublunary Spheres
• Music of the Spheres
• Astrological Influence
• All Creation interconnected by Divine Love
• Stars and Planets corresponded to Alchemical
elements, to Bodily Humors, to types of nearly everything.
Four Alchemical Elements
Fire (Highest but most volatile element, closest
to heavenly matter that composes spiritual
ether and stars; its natural state was warm/dry)
Air (Second ranking element; Natural state:
Water (Earth naturally sinks below water, so
water is higher in status. Natural state: cool/wet
Earth (Lowest but most stable element, closest
to base desires. Natural state: cool/dry)
Four Bodily Humors
From Latin Humoris: “liquid”
• Choler (called Yellow Bile in some models)
liquid in the body that caused irritability and
• Tears (in some models, Black Bile) liquid in
the body that caused melancholy, sadness,
and depression)
• Blood (corresponded to excitement, energy,
sexual arousal, happiness, desire for activity)
• Phlegm (corresponded to lethargy, boredom,
inaction, fatigue, sleepiness)
So What Went Wrong?
For medieval and Renaissance
Christians, the universe was
created by a benevolent deity. So
how did one explain the existence
of unpleasant evil within a world
that was thought to have been
created as an ordered paradise?
Keep in mind, all of creation was
bound together. Whatever
affected one thing affected other
things in the Chain of Being. This
was called a “Correspondence.”
“What is below is like that
which is above. What is above
is like what is below. Thus is
the miracle of the One
Three interlocking parts of the
Chain corresponded to each
other. These were:
пѓј Macrocosm (the universe, nature,
and the skies)
пѓј Microcosm (the Human body as a
map of the Universe)
пѓј Body Politic (the kingdom as a social
institute, including its government
and its citizens).
The Human Body was the
It connected to every part of creation.
“The Body is a Little World.”
Created in God’s Own Image
Set in the very center of creation
Given the position of primate over the
Given both soul and flesh.
Immortal, never dying....
Remember those Four
Bodily Humors?
• Choler (called Yellow Bile in some models) liquid in the
body that caused irritability and anger
• Tears (in some models, Black Bile) liquid in the body that
caused melancholy, sadness, and depression)
• Blood (corresponded to excitement, energy, sexual arousal,
happiness, desire for activity)
• Phlegm (corresponded to lethargy, boredom, inaction,
fatigue, sleepiness)
What would happen if the human
body became corrupted?
Health and Balance
When the humors are balanced
proportionately in the human
body, mankind is healthy, and
experiences no negative or
inappropriate emotions.
When unbalanced, it was
another story.
Unbalance Leads to Disease
...And to Civil Disorder
...And to Disorder in Nature
Animals attacking people, eating their own
young, stealing grain or crops, all these
were signs of the fallen nature of the earth,
and corresponded to breaks in the Chain of
Being and disorder within the microcosm.
...And to disorder in the
heavenly constellations.
Enter Sin and Disorder
“Now the serpent was more subtle than
any of the beasts of the earth which the
Lord God had made. And he said to the
woman: Why hath God commanded you,
that you should not eat of every tree of
paradise?” (Gen 3:1)
Demonic trickery leads
humanity to rebel against
its place in nature as
paragon in divine creation.
Decay in the
Sublunary Sphere
Note that the vast majority of creation was still
thought to be perfect, uncorrupt. The effects of
sin were limited to the earth and its immediate
atmosphere, i.e., everything beneath the orbit
of the moon.
Thus the references in Shakespeare to “the
sublunary sphere,” and “everything beneath
the moon.”
Within this boundary, the nature of the world
changed. It began to rot....
• Old Age
• Death
• Erosion
• Disease
• Rain, Wind, and
• Rust and Decay
• Entropy
“God commanded us that we should
not eat the fruit; and that we should
not touch it, lest perhaps we die.”
(Gen 3:3)
So how did the Great
Chain Work?
• Sort of like the Death-Star, the Chain had a
few pieces missing due to human rebellion.
• But enough pieces remain for it to function.
• The trick is for each creature to know its
duty and its place in the Chain, and act
• Primate
• Higher on Chain had more spiritual aspects, greater
capacity for rationality (as opposed to instinct),
closer in likeness to God.
• Correspondences on three levels:
– Microcosm (the individual human body)
– Macrocosm (the universe and the world of nature)
– Body Politic (the kingdom)
• The Supreme Primate
• King of Angels (Rex Angelorum)
Angelic Beings
Organized in strict hierarchy
of seven choires (or nine,
depending upon source).
“There are nine orders of
angels, to wit, angels,
archangels, virtues, powers,
principalities, dominations,
Ophanim, Cherubim, and
--St. Gregory, Summa
The King and
Right to rule given by God, and
could only be removed by
Believed superior in his virtue,
wisdom, grace, and strength.
Humanity of Various Ranks
Ancient medieval model of Three Estates:
• Bellatores: Knights and royalty, those who fight and
rule, protecting the physical health of God’s flock
• Oratores: The Clergy, the priests who pray and tend to
the spiritual needs of God’s flock.
• Labores: Those who work, the farmers and serfs who
feed God’s flock.
If those who protect the kingdom do their job, the people
will be safe. If those who work the fields do their job, all
will be fed. If those who tend to the soul do their job, all
will have their spiritual needs met. Refusing to keep
one’s place damages the Body Politic, society as a
The knights’ duty was
to protect the innocent and
uphold justice.
“Our duty as priests is to nourish the flock
spiritually as good shepherds ought with
Christ’s grain and the water of life. Your
destined task, O worthy lords, is to defend the
flock by force of arms, to drive away the
wolves and bears that would devour God’s
children. You are to smite with iron the evil and
the arrogant but uplift the humble, the widow,
the orphan.”
--Saint Bernard of Clairvaux,
c. 1140 AD
This entailed combat as a virtue;
one’s worth as a knight was
determined by one’s loyalty, by
steadfastness in combat.
But this also entailed violence as
a virtue--the willingness to do
barbaric deeds with civilized
Even the lowest serf slaving
away in a field had some
dignity and authority over other
. . . Ruling over the
Fields and Floods
Just as God had authority over all kings,
and king had authority over men,
lesser men had dominion over animals
and plants.
Once again, this authority was believed
to be sanctioned by the Bible.
“Let us make man to our image and
likeness: and let him have dominion over the
fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air,
and the beasts of the field, and the whole
earth, and every creeping creature that
moveth upon the ground.” (Gen 1:26)
“And let the fear and dread of you be upon
all the beasts of the earth, and upon all the
fowls of the air, and all that moveth upon the
earth, all the fishes of the sea are delivered
into your hands. And every thing that
moveth and liveth shall be meat to you, even
as the green herbs have I delivered them all
to you.” (Gen. 9:2-3)
Each had its hierarchy.
“And God made the beasts of the earth
according to their kinds, and cattle, and
every thing that creepeth on the earth
after its kind. And God saw that it was
good.” --(Gen. 1:25)
Noble Beasts
But each animal, plant, fish,
and mineral had its own
king, a superior example of
its own “species.”
This creature was known as
the “Primate.”
Among Beasts, the primate was
either the lion or the elephant.
Fish, Flesh, and Fowl
Vegetable Love
• “My vegetable love shall grow vaster than
– Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress.”
The oak was primate among plants, with
trees ranking above shrubs, which
ranked above bushes, which ranked
above grains, which ranked above
grasses, and so on.
Mineral World
“You Blocks, You Stones, You Worse Than Senseless Things!”
--Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Even rocks had rankings. Diamonds were the mineral
primate, with other gems below them.
As Tillyard notes, every object in creation was thought
to have unique gifts. Even the basest of objects, a
stone lacking sentience, sensation, location, and
reproduction, was still endowed with the trait of
unusual durability and hardness.
Everything, even stones and dirt, had an important
place, even if just supporting those who walked
upon them.
This cosmology permeated
earlier medieval society in
Western Europe
• Barthomew Anglicus’ Natural Philosophy
• Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura
• Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica
Any educated person would be familiar with
these concepts in the days before the
1600s. Modern people know about atoms or
evolution, even if they aren’t themselves
physicists or biologists. Likewise, even
uneducated peasants would know about the
An Example: Hawking
Consider for example the sport of hawking (hunting small
animals with trained birds).
An Example: Hawking
Each rank in society had a corresponding bird to use.
• Emperor: Golden Eagle, Vulture, & Merlin
• King: Gyrfalcon (male & female)
• Prince: Female Peregrine
• Duke: Rock Falcon (subspecies of the Peregrine)
• Earl: Peregrine
• Baron: Male peregrine
• Knight: Saker
• Squire: Lanner Falcon
• Lady: Female Merlin
• Yeoman: Goshawk or Hobby
• Priest: Female Sparrowhawk
• Holywater clerk: Male Sparrowhawk
• Knaves, Servants, Children: Old World Kestrel
To use a bird for the wrong rank was an act not just of
poor etiquette, but of subversion.
For example, keeping a falcon above one's station was
considered a felony and duly regarded as an act of
rebellion against an inflexible social order. The
Boke of St. Albans relates that the typical
punishment of cutting off the hands of people who
kept birds above their social rank also served as an
excellent deterrent to the crime.
Another Example: Hunting
Even the more general sport of hunting was
a re-enactment of the social hierarchy.
Ethical, Political and
Literary Ramifications?
Important to know one’s place, and not seek to rise above it
through unholy ambition.
Equally important to know one’s place, and not to sink
below it by neglecting one’s duties.
Important to balance physical and animal needs of the body
with divine reason.
Pre-established hierarchy of literary symbols, accessible to
any educated reader or writer.
Thus Pride Becomes the
Worst Sin
Pride is always an act of
disobedience to legitimate
authority, hence an act
against the will of God, and
also against the very
structure of the universe. It
is cosmological vandalism.
After all, it is the original
sin leading to Lucifer’s fall
in medieval theology.
“And thou saidst in thy heart: I will ascend
into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the
stars of God, I will sit in the mountains of the
covenant, in the sides of the North. I will
ascend above the height of the clouds, I will
be like the most high.” (Isaiah 14:13-14)
Regicide: The Worst Act of
“If I could find example
of thousands that had struck anointed kings
And flourish’d after, I’ld not do’t; but [. . .]
Nor brass nor stone nor parchment bears not one.”
--The Winter’s Tale I.ii. 357-360
The King is God’s deputy on earth, and is himself parallel in
authority to God. Just as God is king of Angels and all creation,
the king is ruler of his countrymen, and deserves similar awe.
The unlawful death of kings always causes disruption in the
heavens (stars fall from the sky, freakish storms blow across
the country) and disruption in the world of nature (famines,
plagues, unnatural activity among the animals, etc.)
Killing the King is attacking an emblem of
Godhead. It is worse than even killing a
priest. For he has two bodies, and injuring
the head of the state is a blow to the entire
Explicit Presentatio!
Works Consulted:
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Richard Green.
NY: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1962.
Douay-Rheims Translation of the Bible.
Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King’s Two Bodies. NJ: Princeton UP,
Saintbury, George, ed. Elizabethan and Jacobean Pamphlets.
NY: Macmillan and Co., 1892.
Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture
•2002 © Dr. L. K. Wheeler
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