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The late-fifth or early-sixth century corpus of writings probably of Syrian origin which goes under the name of pseudo-Dionysius had an enormous effect on Christian thinking for many centuries, partly of course because they masqueraded authority of their supposed author, Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St Paul.(1) Their authority increased when the author became conflated with the supposed evangelist of the Gauls and the first bishop of Paris.(2) The writings were also attractive because they expounded a neo-platonic mysticism. They also suggested that human hierarchies must as far as possible be base. d on those of heaven, the latter being carefully traced out in The Celestial Hierarchy. In The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, pseudo-Denys had given his view of church order in the context of liturgy, but when the corpus came West, from the ninth century onwards, this proved less useful to theorists about ecclesiastical power than his more general vision, since many of the actual practices and offices described did not exist in the West or could only with difficulty be equated with its habits. But Dionysius had sketched the hierarchies of heaven, with the Trinity at the centre shedding illumination outwards through the nine orders of angels, who ranked in threes and had different tasks and different degrees of closeness to God, reaching humanity through guardian angels and special messengers, whose task of illuminating, purging and perfecting was to lead humans into sharing the life of heaven. This inspiring picture could be used as a critique of present practices, as an ideal to which the church should strive or as a model for discussing the God-given relation of church and state.
In this paper I wish to explore the use made of it by Adam Easton in his Defensorium ecclesiastice potestatis, completed in the papal curia probably just before the outbreak of the Great Schism.(3) Easton was already a seasoned controversialist.(4) A Benedictine of Norwich Cathedral Priory, in about 1356 he had been recalled to Norwich from Oxford by his superiors to defend the Black Monks against attacks by the Mendicants. In 1368/9 he had been taken by Cardinal Langham to the curia as Langham's socius. He stayed on after Langham's death in 1376, to become a beneficed religious and later, probably as a result of Defensorium and of his support for Urban VI in the schism, a cardinal. His only known works before Defensorium were produced in the course of ordinary academic exercises or as lectures. Defensorium is different. It is a refutation of all the errors of the day which over-exalted royal power at the expense of the church. What is left, probably all he completed, is book one, where he discusses many modern views, including increasingly as the work progresses John Wyclif's De civili dominio. The whole is in the form of a dialogue between Rex and Episcopus; in the end the latter wins, in defence of an extremely high theory of the papal plentitude of power.
There is much more in the Defensorium than can be dealt with in one short paper; the intention here is to discuss Easton's view that the history of the church could only be understood in the context of the whole history of creation and the manner in which, like many others, he used for this Dionysius' picture of the universe. According to Easton, the exemplar for the ordering of this world was the heavenly hierarchy with its ranked orders of angels; only when he had worked out their relationships did he embark on the history of humanity, which he saw as involving an age of innocence before the fall, a period called the law of nature after the Fall but before the law of Moses, the period of that law, and then the period from Christ. For the study of early history after the law he devoted himself most carefully to the Book of Kings.(5) In the stages of history he thought he could trace first of all after the fall a gradual loss of the knowledge that had existed in the age of innocence, and then gradual enlightenment by God. This pattern is from pseudo-Dionysius, whom he believed, of course, to be a disciple of St Paul, doctorem ecclesie majorem post apostolos.(6) Easton used the pattern in a manner which would have astonished its creator; he wanted to show that, just as in heaven there are chief hierarchs, so on earth, when God's plan was being followed most closely, it was priests and not kings who led humankind.
The works of pseudo-Dionysius comprised letters to named historical persons with treatises on the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies, on the divine names, and on mystical theology. Westerners seldom read these without an apparatus of glosses and aids; Easton was no exception.(7) Judging by the citations in Defensorium he used Compellit me, a compendium made for the Paris schools in the early-thirteenth century, which consisted of the translation and commentary of John the Scot Eriugena, with glosses, scholia, and introductory letters by Anastasius, the papal librarian, partly taken from Maximus the Confessor; it also included a commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy by Hugh of St Victor and by John the Saracen, twelfth century additions to the earlier apparatus on the text.(8) …