Throughout 2020, I have tried to keep up with the most recent data, not only on officially coded COVID-19 deaths, but also on other measures. An important one is known as excess mortality, which is an attempt to measure the number of deaths in a year that are above the normal level. Defining “normal” is sometimes challenging, but looking at deaths for recent years, especially if nothing unusual was happening, is one way to define normal. The team at Our World in Data has a nice essay explaining the concept of excess mortality.
One thing to remember about death data is that it is often reported with a lag. The CDC does a good job of regularly posting death data as it is reported, but these numbers can be unfortunately deceptive. For example, while the CDC has some death data reported through 51 weeks of 2020, but they note that death data can be delayed for 1-8 weeks, and some states report slower than others (for reasons that are not totally clear to me, North Carolina seems to be way behind in reporting, with very little data reporting after August).
So there’s the caution. What can we do with this data? Since 2019 was a pretty “normal” year for deaths, we can compare the deaths in 2020 to the same weeks of data in 2019. In the chart at the right, I use the first 48 weeks of the year (through November), as this seems to be fairly complete data (but not 100% complete!). The red line in the chart shows excess deaths, the difference between 2019 and 2020 deaths. From this, we can see that there were over 357,000 excess deaths in 2020 in the first 11 months of the year, or about a 13.6% increase over the prior year.
Is 13.6% a large increase? In short, yes. It is very large. I’ll explain more below, but essentially this is the largest increase since the 1918 flu pandemic.
It started as a simple question: can you substitute blackstrap molasses for regular molasses in a gingerbread recipe?
In order to reduce our potential exposure to Covid, we are ordering groceries online and having them delivered. Whole Foods (owned by Amazon), delivers free to Amazon Prime customers like us. In our order the other day we included molasses. We are almost out, and I wanted to make a gingerbread recipe this holiday week. The bottle that arrived yesterday along with the rest of our order says “Blackstrap Molasses”. Hmm, I wondered, what is different about blackstrap molasses and can you use it in place of the usual Grandma’s molasses that we have always had in our cupboards?
Once I get reading on a topic, it is hard to stop. It turns out there is much to know about molasses (treacle, in the U.K.). We all know it to be a sweet, flavorful ingredient in baked goods, and in savory dishes like pulled pork and baked beans. Diluted molasses is touted as a hair de-frizzer and hair mask, and there are even claims it can help combat gray hair.
However, there is a decidedly unsavory side to its past. It played a key role in fueling the triangular Atlantic slave trade in the 1700’s and early 1800s. Plantations worked by slaves in the Caribbean would ship molasses to the American colonies, where it would be converted into rum. The rum was shipped to West Africa, to pay for more people to be captured and then shipped to the Caribbean plantations to grow more sugar and make more molasses.
Not to mention the deadly “Great Molasses Flood” in Boston. On January 15, 1919, a 50-ft high storage tank of molasses ruptured, and sent a 15-ft high wall of syrup racing through the street at 35 miles an hour. It crushed and drowned anything and anyone in its path. Buildings were collapsed, and 19 people died. It has a place in the history of litigation as the birthing the modern class action lawsuit.
But I digress. Back to the difference since between types of molasses. Sugarcane is squeezed to extract cane juice. Sugar, the main desired product, starts off dissolved in the juice. The cane juice is boiled to remove water, to precipitate the solid sugar crystals. The liquid that remains after the first boiling (and the removal of the sugar from that stage) is called first or light molasses. That is what has usually been sold in U.S. grocery stores.
That first molasses is subjected to a second boiling, to extract even more sugar. The remaining liquid is called second molasses, or dark or robust molasses. From all accounts, this is pretty similar in properties to the initial light molasses, just somewhat less sweet and more flavorful. Folks say that you can substitute dark molasses for light molasses in most recipes without making a big difference.
To extract the last little bit of sugar, the second molasses is boiled even longer and hotter. After the sugar from that stage has been removed, what is left is the so-called blackstrap molasses. Obviously, this product will have less sugar and less liquid, then the light molasses, with a higher concentration of the other flavoring components. The operational question for me is: Can I take some of that blackstrap molasses and simply re-dilute it with some sugar and some water to get the equivalent of light molasses?
Internet opinion on this matter is mixed. On the one hand, there are those who answer this question in the affirmative. They say that a half cup of blackstrap molasses plus half cup of light corn syrup (or half a cup of a water plus sugar mixture) can readily be substituted for a cup of light molasses.
Blackstrap molasses is what results when regular molasses is boiled down and super-concentrated, This results in bitter, salty sludge that only has a 45 percent sugar content, as opposed to the 70 percent sugar level found in both light and dark varieties of baking molasses. Spoon University warns against using blackstrap molasses as substitute for true molasses in any recipe calling for the latter due to the fact that its bitter flavor will overpower the taste of whatever you’re making.
Do not use blackstrap molasses as a substitute for light or dark molasses. It has a strong, bitter taste and isn’t very sweet. It’s more likely to wreck your recipe than help it.
But still I (being a chemical engineer by trade) wondered if this “strong, bitter” taste is merely the lack of sugar, which could be cured by replacing the missing sugar. After all, unsweetened chocolate is unpalatably bitter, but we fix that by adding sugar.
I don’t claim the final word on this, but it seems that the severe third boiling that yields the blackstrap molasses does some chemical alterations. It is not merely a matter of removing sugar. It is all well when sugar is lightly heated to form light brown caramel, but when it gets pushed too far, some bitter, dark brown compounds can form. It is not clear that merely adding sugar can undo these flavors, considering that blackstrap still contains a lot (45%) of sugar.
Conclusion: Blackstrap molasses may be fine for your BBQ sauce and as a trendy, mineral-packed low-sugar sweetener for your yoghurt and tea. But that bottle of thick black goo on my counter is going back to Whole Foods, not into my gingerbread.
A balance sheet gives a snapshot of a corporation’s assets and liabilities. The difference between total assets and total liabilities is (by definition) the value of the equity owned by the owners or shareholders of the company.
With, say, a manufacturing firm, the assets would include tangible items such as buildings and equipment and inventory, and intangibles such as cash, bank accounts, and accounts receivable. Liabilities may include mortgages and other loans, and accounts payable such as taxes, wages, pensions, and bills for purchased goods.
The balance sheet for a bank is different. The “Assets” are mainly loans that the bank has made, plus some securities (such as US Treasury bonds) that the bank has purchased. These assets pay interest to the bank. The money the bank used to make these loans and purchase these securities came mainly from customer deposits or other borrowings by the bank (which are considered “Liabilities” of the bank), and also from paid-in capital from the bank owners/shareholders.  As usual, the current equity of the bank is assets minus liabilities. Thus:
The Federal Reserve System is a complex beast. We will not delve into all the components and moving parts, but just take a look at the overall balance sheet.
Unlike other banks, the Fed has the magical power of being able to create money out of thin air. Technically, what the Fed can do with that money is mainly make loans, i.e. buy interest-bearing securities such as government bonds. The Fed makes its transactions through affiliated banks, so it credits a bank’s reserve account with a million dollars, if it buys from that bank a million dollars’ worth of bonds. Those bonds then become part of the Fed’s “assets”, while the reserve account of the bank at the Fed (which is a liability of the Fed) becomes larger by a million dollars. Since the Fed is not a for-profit bank, the “Equity” entry on its balance sheet is nearly zero. Thus, total assets are essentially equal to total liabilities.
The Fed also has the power of literally printing money, in the form of Federal Reserve Notes (printed dollar bills). These, too, are classified as liabilities. Thus, you are probably carrying in your wallet right now some of the liabilities of the central bank of the United States.
Before 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed was under a trillion dollars. Nearly all the “Liabilities” were the Federal Reserve Notes and nearly all the “Assets” were US Treasury securities. The reserve accounts of the affiliated Depository Institutions was minuscule. All that changed with the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. To help stabilize the financial system, the Fed started buying lots of various types of securities, including mortgage-backed securities (MBS) . The Fed thus propped up the value of these securities, and injected cash (liquidity) into the system.
Here is a plot of how the assets of the Fed ballooned in the wake of the GFC, from about $ 0.9 trillion to over $ 4 trillion:
The initial purchases in 2008 were US Treasuries, which the Fed had prior authorization to do. To buy other securities, especially the mortgage products, required congressional authorization. The increased liabilities of the Fed which offset these purchases were mainly in the form of larger reserve accounts of the affiliated banks. The Fed started paying interest on these reserve accounts, to keep short term interest rates above zero at all times (otherwise the whole money market in the U.S. might implode).
With the Fed relentlessly buying the mortgage and bond products, the interest rates on long-term mortgages and bonds was kept low. This was deemed good for economic growth. The Fed tried to sell off some securities to taper down its balance sheet in 2018, but that effort blew up in its face – – the stock market started crashing in response in late 2018, and so the Fed backtracked . You can look at weekly tables of the Fed balance sheet here.
Anyway, the GFC and its aftermath provided the precedent for massive purchases of “stuff” by the Fed. When the Covid shutdown of the economy hit in March of this year, the Fed very quickly went into high gear. Its balance sheet shot up from $4 trillion to $7 trillion in just a few months. It bought not only Treasuries and MBS, but corporate bonds. This was way outside the Fed’s original charter, but the crisis was so intense that nobody seemed to care whether these actions were legal or not. And now, to finance the huge deficit spending of the federal government in the wake of the shutdowns, the Fed has been buying up nearly the entire issuance of Treasury bonds and notes.
These actions may have long term consequences we will explore in later posts . For now, the Fed has made it clear that it will keep interests rates near zero for at least the next couple of years. Invest accordingly.
 Huge caveat: This statement gives the impression that a bank must first receive say a thousand dollar deposit before it can make a thousand dollar loan. That is not the case. The reality is just the opposite: the act of making a thousand dollar loan actually CREATES a corresponding thousand dollar deposit. This is very counterintuitive, and I won’t try to explain or justify this point here.
 Technically, the Fed is not “buying” the mortgage-backed security (MBS). Rather, it is making a “loan” to the bank, and holding the MBS as collateral against that loan.
 It is now harder to take the federal deficit seriously as a constraint on spending: the government can issue unlimited bonds to fund deficits, which the Fed will purchase to keep interest rates low. Yes, the government has to pay interest on those bonds, but the Fed has to return most of that interest to the Treasury, so the real cost to the government of that extra debt is low.
This book describes the development of intellectual life and related events in Scotland from about 1700 onward. Scotland in 1700 was a small, poor, largely agrarian independent nation, still characterized in large part by feudalism. In much of the country, clansmen in their kilts constantly robbed and fought each other. By 1800, it was an economically thriving section of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and a huge contributor to modern thought on many levels. The subtitle on the front jacket of the book expansively portrays its contents as: “The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It”.
A key event which helped launch this flowering was an economic one. The 1690’s were an unusually cold decade, leading to famine and poverty in the more northern European countries like Scotland. Scottish trade and industry were constricted by the policies of England, their more powerful neighbor to the south. Other nations of Western Europe in the 1600’s had colonies in the Americas, which seemed to be a source of national wealth and influence. Scotland tried to found her own colony, called Darien, on the coast of the Isthmus of Panama. A huge fraction of the wealth of Scotland was invested in this venture. It failed, for various reasons, which was an economic disaster for the country.
This led to a willingness on the part of the Scottish elite to surrender their independence in return for the chance to participate in commerce on the same terms as the English and under the protection of the Royal Navy. An Act of Union between the two kingdoms was approved in 1707. This led to a rise in prosperity and helped set in motion various influences of modernization.
A lively intellectual life in the burgeoning cities of the Scottish lowlands put Scotland at the forefront of the 18th century enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment was more practical and aligned with common sense than was the Enlightenment of the French philosophes. David Hume and Adam Smith are just two of the significant Scottish thinkers of this era. The works of Hume and of Smith (e.g. The Wealth of Nations) are still required reading today in the fields of philosophy and of economics.
Scots likewise made great contributions to science and technology. Today we measure power in terms of “watts”, a tribute to James Watt, whose improvements to steam engines made them finally practical for widespread use. We drive on “macadam” roads, initially developed by John McAdam.
How theScots Invented the Modern World weaves all these themes together, going into enough detail with key actors to make them come alive as real persons. Since there are so many books and so little time, I rarely go back and reread a book. Also, I ruthlessly pruned my collection as part of our recent household interstate move. But I have found myself picking up this volume from time to time, and so it survived the cut. I recommend it as an entertaining and enlightening read.
The sudden shutdown of much of the economy of the U.S. and of the world starting in February and March of 2020 led to deep concern, if not panic, in world financial markets. Millions of people were suddenly unemployed or furloughed, millions of small businesses faced bankruptcy, and stocks plunged some 30% in the fastest fall of global markets in history. Demand collapsed, and prices for nearly all financial assets fell. Trillions of dollars of financial transactions were in danger of unravelling.
The Federal Reserve immediately rode to the rescue, slashing interest rates and buying up all kinds of financial assets. These purchases of bonds and similar products injected cash into the markets to provide much-needed liquidity, and kept the system on track. In late March, the U.S. federal government authorized trillions of dollars of payments to individuals and businesses to stave off bankruptcy, and forbade foreclosures on mortgages, to keep people from losing their homes (at least in the near term). Banks and governments in other nations took similar measures. By May, it was clear that the worst scenarios had been averted, even though there will be significant lingering consequences of the Covid shutdowns.
The speed and scale of the Fed and government responses in March, 2020, may be attributed in part to learnings from the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In that crisis, the severity of the problem was not understood at first. There was naturally reluctance to take unprecedented actions to do what was perceived as bailing out of irresponsible banks and other companies. Over a period of many months, various measures were implemented to address some immediate needs, but then more and more problems kept cropping up. It was a macroeconomic game of whack-a-mole.
As a bit of a history lesson, here is a timeline of the main financial events of January-September, 2008. These descriptions are taken, with only minor editing, from an article by Kimberly Amadeo in The Balance.
Easy credit and expectations of always-increasing home prices led to a speculative run-up in housing in 2002-2006. Mortgages were given to people who really could not afford them, and billions of dollars of those unsound sub-prime mortgages were repackaged and sold into the broad financial system. That all began to unravel in 2006-2007. In response to a struggling housing market, the Federal Market Open Committee began lowering the fed funds rate. It dropped the rate to 3.5% on January 22, 2008, then to 3.0% a week later. Economic analysts thought lower rates would be enough to restore demand for homes.
February 2008: Bush Signs Tax Rebate as Home Sales Continue to Plummet
President Bush signed a tax rebate bill to help the struggling housing market. The bill increased limits for Federal Housing Administration loans and allowed Freddie Mac to repurchase jumbo loans.
February’s homes sales fell 24% year-over-year. It reached 5.03 million according to the National Association of Realtors. The median resale home price was $195,900, down 8.2% year-over-year. Foreclosures were up.
March 2008: Fed Begins Bailouts
The Fed Chair realized the Fed needed to take aggressive action. It had to prevent a more serious recession. Falling oil prices meant the Fed was not concerned about inflation. When inflation isn’t a concern, the Fed can use expansionary monetary policy. The Fed’s goal was to lower the LIBOR benchmark interest rate, and keep adjustable-rate mortgages affordable. In its role of “bank of last resort,” it became the only bank willing to lend.
It increased its Term Auction Facility program to $50 billion. It also initiated a series of term repurchase transactions. These were 28-day term repurchase agreements with primary dealers. The Fed’s goal was to pump $100 billion into the economy.
No one knew who had the bad debt or how much was out there. All buyers of debt instruments became afraid to buy and sell from each other. No one wanted to get caught with bad debt on their books. The Fed was trying to keep liquidity in the financial markets.
But the problem was not just one of liquidity, but also of solvency. Banks were playing a huge game of musical chairs, hoping that no one would get caught with more bad debt. The Fed tried to buy time by temporarily taking on the bad debt itself. It protected itself by only holding the debt for 28 days and only accepting AAA-rated debt.
March 14: The Federal Reserve held its first emergency weekend meeting in 30 years. On March 17, it announced it would guarantee Bear Stearns‘ bad loans. It wanted JP Morgan to purchase Bear and prevent bankruptcy. Bear Stearns’ had about $10 trillion in securities on its books. If it had gone under, these securities would have become worthless. That would have jeopardized the global financial system.
That same day, federal regulators agreed to let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac take on another $200 billion in subprime mortgage debt. The two government-sponsored enterprises would buy mortgages from banks. This process is known as buying on the secondary market. They then package these into mortgage-backed securities and resell them on Wall Street. All goes well if the mortgages are good, but if they turn south, then the two GSEs would be liable for the debt.
The Federal Housing Finance Board also took action. It authorized the regional Federal Home Loan Banks to take an extra $100 billion in subprime mortgage debt.The loans had to be guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie Mac.
Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson thought this would take care of the problem. They underestimated how extensive the crisis had become. These bailouts only further destabilized the two mortgage giants.
April – June: Fed Lowers Rate and Buys More Toxic Bank Debt
April 30: The FOMC lowered the fed funds rate to 2%.
April 7 and April 21: The Fed added another $50 billion each through its Term Auction Facility.
May 20: The Fed auctioned another $150 billion through the Term Auction Facility.
By June 2, the Fed auctions totaled $1.2 trillion. In June, the Federal Reserve lent $225 billion through its Term Auction Facility. This temporary stop-gap measure of adding liquidity had become a permanent fixture.
July 11, 2008: IndyMac Bank Fails
July 11: The Office of Thrift Supervision closed IndyMac Bank. Los Angeles police warned angry IndyMac depositors to remain calm while they waited in line to withdraw funds from the failed bank. About 100 people worried they would lose their deposit. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) only insured amounts up to $100,000. This was later raised to $250,000.
July 23: Treasury Secretary Paulson made the Sunday talk show rounds. He explained the need for a bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two agencies themselves held or guaranteed almost half of the $12 trillion of the nation’s mortgages.
Wall Street’s fears that these loans would default caused Fannie’s and Freddie’s shares to tumble. This made it more difficult for private companies to raise capital themselves. Paulson reassured talk show listeners that the banking system was solid, even though other banks might fail like IndyMac.
July 30: Congress passed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act. It gave the Treasury Department authority to guarantee as much as $25 billion in loans held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
September 7: Treasury Nationalizes Fannie and Freddie
The FHFA placed Fannie and Freddie under conservatorship. It allowed the government to run the two until they were strong enough to return to independent management.
The FHFA allowed Treasury to purchase preferred stock of the two to keep them afloat. They could also borrow from the Treasury. Last but not least, Treasury was allowed to purchase their mortgage-backed securities.
The Fannie and Freddie bailout initially cost taxpayers $187 billion. But over time, they two paid back all costs plus added $58 billion in profit to the general fund.
September 15, 2008: Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy Triggered Global Panic
Paulson urged Lehman Brothers to find a buyer. Only two banks were interested: Bank of America and British Barclays.
Bank of America didn’t want a loan. It wanted the government to cover $65 billion to $70 billion in anticipated losses. Paulson said no. The U.S. Treasury had no legal authority to invest capital in Lehman Brothers, as Congress hadn’t yet authorized the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Barclays announced its British regulators would not approve a Lehman Brothers deal.
Since Lehman Brothers was an investment bank, the government could not nationalize it like it did government enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For that same reason, no federal regulator, like the FDIC, could take it over. Moreover, the Fed couldn’t guarantee a loan as it did with Bear Stearns. Lehman Brothers didn’t have enough assets to secure one.
When Lehman’s declared bankruptcy, financial markets reeled. The Dow fell 504 points, its worst decline in seven years. U.S. Treasury bond prices rose as investors fled to their relative safety. Oil prices tanked.
Later that day, Bank of America announced it would purchase struggling Merrill Lynch for $50 billion.
September 16, 2008: Fed Buys AIG for $85 Billion
The American International Group Inc. turned to the Federal Reserve for emergency funding. The company had insured trillions of dollars of mortgages throughout the world. If it had fallen, so would the global banking system. Bernanke said that this bailout made him angrier than anything else. AIG took risks with cash from supposedly ultra-safe insurance policies. It used it to boost profits by offering unregulated credit default swaps.
October 8, 2008: The Federal lent another $37.8 billion to AIG subsidiaries in exchange for fixed-income securities.
November 10, 2008: The Fed restructured its aid package. It reduced its $85 billion loan to $60 billion. The $37.8 billion loan was repaid and terminated.The Treasury Department purchased $40 billion in AIG preferred shares. The funds allowed AIG to retire its credit default swaps rationally, stave off bankruptcy, and protect the government’s original investment.
September 17, 2008: Economy Almost Collapsed
Due to losses from Lehman’s bankruptcy, investors fled money market mutual funds. That’s where companies obtain their short-term cash.
September 16: The Reserve Primary Fund “broke the buck.” It didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay out all the redemptions that were occurring.
September 17: The attack spread. Investors withdrew a record $172 billion from their money market accounts. During a typical week, only about $7 billion is withdrawn. If it had continued, companies couldn’t get money to fund their day-to-day operations. In just a few weeks, shippers wouldn’t have had the cash to deliver food to grocery stores. We were that close to a complete collapse.
September 19, 2008: Paulson and Bernanke Meet with Congress
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (L) speaks as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke (R) listens during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
September 19: Paulson and Bernanke met with Congressional leaders to explain the crisis. Republicans and Democrats alike were stunned by the somber warnings. They realized that credit markets were only a few days away from a meltdown.
The leaders were prepared to work together in a bipartisan fashion to craft a solution. But many rank-and-file members of Congress were not on board.
Bernanke announced the Fed would lend the money needed by banks and businesses to operate so they wouldn’t have to pull out the cash in money market funds. This, along with the announcement of the bailout package, calmed the markets enough keep the economy functioning.
September 20, 2008: Treasury Submits Legislation to Congress
On September 20, Paulson submitted a three-page document that asked Congress to approve a $700 billion bailout. Treasury would use the funds to buy up mortgage-backed securities that were in danger of defaulting. By doing so, Paulson wanted to take these debts off the books of banks, hedge funds, and pension funds that held them.
When asked what would happen if Congress didn’t approve the bailout, Paulson replied, “If it doesn’t pass, then heaven help us all.”
September 21, 2008: The End of the “Greed Is Good” Era
Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two of the most successful investment banks on Wall Street, applied to become regular commercial banks. They wanted the Fed’s protection.
September 26, 2008: WaMu Goes Bankrupt
Washington Mutual Bank went bankrupt when its panicked depositors withdrew $16.7 billion in 10 days. It had insufficient capital to run its business. The FDIC then took over. The bank was sold to J.P. Morgan for $1.9 billion.
September 29, 2008: Stock Market Crashes as Bailout Rejected
A trader gestures as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange September 29, 2008 in New York City. U.S. stocks took a nosedive in reaction to the global credit crisis and as the U.S. House of Representatives rejected the $700 billion rescue package, 228-205. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The stock market collapsed when the U.S. House of Representatives rejected the bailout bill. Opponents were rightly concerned that their constituents saw the bill as bailing out Wall Street at the expense of taxpayers. But they didn’t realize that the future of the global economy was at stake.
To restore financial stability, the Federal Reserve doubled its currency swaps with foreign central banks in Europe, England, and Japan to $620 billion. The governments of the world were forced to provide all the liquidity for frozen credit markets.
[Again, these descriptions are taken nearly verbatim from 2008 Financial Crisis Timeline, by Kimberly Amadeo. See her article for coverage of the rest of 2008, and the ending of the recession in 2009.]
I recently read C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature for a Zoom reading club at Samford University. It is based on his course lectures given at Oxford. I had expected a somewhat boring discussion of one obscure manuscript after another. But the book went in a different, highly engaging direction.
The Medieval Model
Lewis spends much of his time in describing the general mindset and methodology of the medieval writers, what Lewis terms their “Model”, to give us the necessary background for understanding and appreciating medieval literature. This helped me to better understand how people were thinking back in the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 A.D.). Obviously, the particulars of their model of the universe were incorrect. But having a comprehensive model of reality which worked at the time helped to ground them, so they did not experience the sort of alienation which characterizes our age.
Medieval and early Renaissance authors did not generally just make things up. They very much relied on whatever Greek and Roman texts they had from pre-Middle Ages or early Middle Ages, which included a mix of philosophical/scientific (e.g. Platonic, Aristotelean, neo-Platonic), historical, and mythological treatises. In the medieval model of the universe (which was pieced together from readings of pre-500 A.D. authors), things below the orbit of the moon were contingent and corruptible and somewhat unpredictable. This was the realm of which we would call “nature”.
From the moon upward, was a more exalted realm, where the seven visible “planets”, which included the moon and sun, was each carried on its own transparent sphere. And also there was a sphere holding the stars. All these concentric spheres moved regularly (with some complications) and predictably. Beyond that was the “prime mobile” sphere, invisible to us, which gave motion to all the other spheres within it. God is the “Unmoved Mover” who gives motion to everything else.
Above the moon the space was filled with rarefied “aether”, instead of the thick, sometimes noxious air down closer to earth. Up there, it was always light, not dark, as we now think of “space”. (They understood the darkness seen when we look up at night as simply the relatively narrow shadow cast by the earth; everyplace else in the heavens was bathed in light). The heavens rang with the beautiful “music of the spheres”, and was inhabited only by good, incorruptible beings such as angels and the stars and planets, and, of course, God. Any daemons or other evil spirits were down in the thick air closer to earth, below the level of the moon.
The planets (which included the sun and moon) and the stars were perhaps not fully conscious beings, but they were not dead lumps of rock and gas. They were, in some sense, intelligent beings who were happy doing what they were made for as they danced their patterns in the heavens over and over again. They had effects or “influences” on the affairs of men. The moon could make people a little crazy, Venus called forth romance, Mars promoted warring passions, and so on. This influencing was not some kind of creepy, occult operation, but just the way things are, a more or less natural principle like gravity.
Some people could take this to a fatalistic determinism. The more judicious thinkers held that, while the planets and stars did indeed exert such influences, humans could and should exercise their reason and free will to resist being driven solely by such propensities. This nuanced notion carries down into Shakespeare, writing around 1600: “Men are at some time master of our fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar)
Feeling at Home in the Universe
Medieval folks were aware that the universe was really, really huge. The earth was a tiny speck compared to the whole universe. However, the universe was finite, not infinite. That meant when they looked up, it was like looking up into a huge towering cathedral, not into empty space. So they would not experience what Pascal referred to as the frightening infinite dark empty silences of space. Also, they were looking up at a realm which was essentially happy and orderly, with each planet and star fulfilling its proper destiny.
I will close with a set of excerpts which convey their sense of being at home within a well-functioning universe and also their feeling of relatively seamless continuity with many previous centuries of interesting and often honorable human history. Their technology of plows drawn by oxen and of wars fought with swords and shields was not too different from the physical world of ancient Greece and Rome, and their culture of honor was likewise similar. I italicized some phrases which seemed particularly illuminating:
“Because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, containing within itself an ordered variety. Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one and a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The great ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. …This explains why all sense of the pathless, the baffling, and the utterly alien – all agoraphobia – is so markedly absent from medieval poetry when it leads us, as so often, into the sky. ”
“Thanks to his deficiency in the sense of period, that packed and gorgeous past [i.e. of classical myth and history] was [i.e. seemed or felt] far more immediate to him in the dark and bestial past could ever be to a Lecky or a Wells [i.e. modern science or science fiction of cave men, etc.]. It differed from the present only by being better. Hector was like any other knight, only braver. The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own armours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need to be neither proud nor lonely.”
“Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination…. Every particular fact and story became more interesting and more pleasurable if, by being properly fitted in, it carried one’s mind back to the Model as a whole.”
“If I am right, the man of genius then found himself in a situation very different from that of his modern successor. Such a man today often, perhaps usually, feels himself confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know, or a reality that has no significance… It is for him, by his own sensibility, to discover a meaning, or, out of his own subjectivity, to give a meaning – or at least a shape – to what in itself had neither. But the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance.”
“I doubt they would have understood our demand for originality… [Why would one want to] spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve? The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of property. Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking? The modern artist often does not think the riches is there. He is the alchemist who must turn base metal into gold.”