Summary: The Friend Chapter 3, Families and Friends

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here fore more chapter summaries from The Friend.

Chapter three opens with a discussion of the memorial brass for the joint tomb of John Bloxham and John Whytton in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford. The two stand beside each other with their hands together in prayer, looking at the viewer, a depiction common for joint tombs of spouses at the time. Bray points out that one of the most significant features of the memorial, however, are the names of the two men beneath an icon for St. John the Baptist. Bray writes that the design designates the saint “as their spiritual godfather and thus each other as spiritual brothers.” It establishes a kinship.

Bray points out that the resemblance of the tomb to those of married couples is significant, as is the fact that the promises of betrothal recognized in canon law “appear substantially the same” as those used for sworn brotherhood at the time. Indeed, a man was considered “wed” to a sworn brother, just as one would be to his wife. Bray notes that through history, “different kinds of kinship terminology overlap and shade into each other and are not clearly distinguished from friendship.”

Friendship and Traditional Religion

Sworn friendship in traditional society took place in an ecclesiastical setting, a fact frequently brushed aside by historians of the late twentieth century. Though Claudia Rapp notes that the office of adelphopoiesis was included in the euchologia even in post-Byzantine times, Rapp treats the distinctly religious nature of the rite with an “arbitrariness.” Bray inquires into the persistence of shared burials within churches, as well as “the symmetry between this gesture, at the end of a friendship that it marks so publicly, and the Eucharistic practice (in the fourteenth century at least) could have marked its beginning in the same setting.” He looks especially at the role of the Eucharist in ritual brotherhood.

Bray notes that even with the religious upheavals of sixteenth-century England, the tangible presence of the Eucharist “and its association with the creation of friendship remained.” This can be seen in the will of Dr. John Gostlin, which provided that after his death in 1626, a shared monument be made for him and his friend, Dr. Thomas Legge, who had died about twenty years before him. The inscription translated: “Love joined them living. So may the earth join them in their burial. O Legge, Gostlin’s heart you have still with you.” The monument is tied to the Eucharist in the monument’s placement in a Cambridge chapel according to Gostlin’s wishes, rather than in the new academic building funded by his legacy.

The connection between friendship and the Eucharist is further recorded in a contemporary account of Gostlin’s death. Apparently Gostlin “asked to receive communion with the fellows of the college and talked to them there about the nature of friendship. But first, he asked them to forgive him.” According to Bray, “[t]he Eucharist of traditional Christianity was designed to restore defective human relations in the world about it, and that work was the work of kinship and friendship.”

Christianity played a “socially unitive role” in the world, but this role came under pressure on both sides of the Reformation as the sixteenth century progressed. Tudor reformers removed the kiss of peace from the reformed Prayer Book of England and denied that baptism established “godbrotherhood”, while Catholic bishops restricted the kiss of peace to a clerical rite and placed obstacles to the social use of baptism.

Nonetheless, as Gostlin and Legge demonstrate, friends in the seventeenth century continued to regard “communion together as affirming their friendship.” William More, who knew Gostlin intimately, wrote of the two: “They had lived conjunctissime” and “qui cum eo conjunctissime vixerat.” Bray notes that the term “conjunctissime” implies a formal and binding union, one created alike by friendship or by kinship.” The term “conjunctissime” for the two friends also links them to fifteenth-century sworn brothers. The medieval Latin Amys and Amylion story says of its friends: “Quos Deus sicut unamini Concordia et dilectione in vita coniunxit, ita et in morte eos separari noluit”, which Bray translates as: “God did not wish to divide in death those whom in life he had joined (coniunxit) as one in unity and love.”

While the reformers held suspicion over such bonds, Bray argues that in traditional society “Christian charity could never be detached from the actual bonds of friendship that permeated the social world about it. Without them it was an abstraction that was unlikely to touch the lives of men and women… and the Eucharist that reaffirmed their friendship was the common union that knit all friendship together.”

So King James I writes in a 1624 letter to his “intimate friend” George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham: “I cannot content myself, without… praying god that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting with you, and that we may make at this Christmas a new marriage, ever to be kept after” (adapted from old English). Villiers responds: “… I will not only give my word swear upon the holy evangile but take the blessed sacrament upon them” (adapted from old English). Bray explains that the two will seal their friendship by receiving communion together at Christmas “before the eyes of all”, and that “marriage” here is in the old English sense, “the solemn exchange of promises… that could create kinship among those it encompassed.”

Bray writes that the relationship between James and George illustrates an important conviction about traditional society’s view of the nature of friendship. That is, friendship created an irrevocable bond. “I know of no occasion from the eleventh to the seventeenth century when it was ever claimed that the infidelity of one friend could release the other from the covenant he had made with him; for good or ill, they were bound together.” Just as in a marriage, the “wedding” of ritual brotherhood established kinship by promise.

Friendship and the Family

Thus, “family” can be difficult to define precisely in traditional society and is not restricted, as is usual in contemporary society, to parents and children linked by blood or marriage. In traditional society, there were “several forms of what one might call voluntary kinship, kinship created not by blood but by ritual or a promise. Modern society recognizes only one such ‘voluntary’ kinship, in marriage.” Examples of other forms include kinship established by baptism, by betrothal, and by sworn brotherhood, such that “an individual lived in a potential plurality of families, in the strict sense of the term.” An individual existed in a complex network of relationships, with both distinct and overlapping rules and obligations.

Further, the kinship established by friendship would extend beyond the two friends and to their respective families. So when William Neville visited Raby in 1385 and exchanged the formal kiss of piece with his friend in a public setting, the gesture “would have signified eloquently… in a wider context than… these two men alone.” Likewise, when the two died, their friends arranged for the joint tomb. Bray notes that “until the eighteenth century in England ‘friends’ remained a category that comprehended rather than excluded kin” and that the friendship of the two was also the property of their broader group of friends. The English reformers were suspicious of the role that the kiss of peace played in the Eucharist: “the kinship and friendship it marked seemed to them a distraction from the zeal for the Lord’s religion that the times demanded.” Nonetheless, it persisted.

The Uses of Friendship

Friendship could have a variety of uses in traditional society. The oaths sworn to each other, “to stand by each other in well and woe”, would take concrete forms. For one thing, the bonds created by baptism would create limitations on whether and how those involved could marry, but this was not so for sworn brotherhood. While the kinship of sworn brothers “could be as indisputable as that formed by marriage, sworn brotherhood could forge unique links across social divisions.

Further, ritual brotherhood could play unique roles in family affairs. Upon the death of one man, his sworn brother could become responsible for the care of his family, as was the case of Edward II after Piers Gaveston’s death in 1312. In the fifteenth century, Nicholas Molyneux and John Winter made similar provisions were either to die. Throughout history, sworn brothers would leave great possessions and memories to each other, “[b]ut in a wider commonwealth, beyond their intimacy and the memories of their youth, what figured first and most tellingly was that they left each other their families.”

Amice Cristi Johannes

Bray begins the next section of chapter three with a sixteenth-century “Christmas carol”:

Pray for us the Prince of Peace,

Amice Cristi Johannes.

To the now, Christ’s dear darling,

That were a maiden both old and young,

My heart is set to thee to sing,

Amice Cristi Johannes.

For thou were so clean a virgin,

The secrets of heaven forsothe thou say

When on Christ’s breast thou lay,

Amice Cristi Johannes.

When Christ before Pilate was brought,

Thou clean maiden, forsook him not;

To die with him was all thy thought,

Amice Cristi Johannes.

Christ’s mother was thee betake,

A maiden to ben a maiden’s make (companion);

Thou be our help we be not forsake,

Amice Christi Johannes.

(adapted from old English).

The lyric was designed not only for admiration but to be a catechetical work for friendship, and it was so popular that it is present in more manuscripts than any other carol. It established persuasive ideals of friendship in the friendship of Christ and St. John of the Bible’s fourth Gospel. “To die with him was all thy thought” corresponds to the promises of sworn brothers. Here, John is made into Christ’s sworn brother, just as the thirteenth-century poem Genesis and Exodus had made Isaac the sworn brother of Abimelech and Abram the sworn brother of Mamre, Eschol, and Aner.

Bray discusses a similar lyric for homiletic use in the late fourteenth century which presents John as Christ’s sworn brother explicitly. Turning to the original carol, however, Bray notes two important details. First, Christ never tells John “secrets” in the gospel narratives, but the carol places John within the context of the “secretary” of the sixteenth century, the intimate friend discussed by the humanists who would be “privy to his patron’s secrets.” Second, a lay audience at the time would read the line “Prince of Peace” and identify it with the “peace” exchanged in the mass.

Finally, the sworn friendship here ends with the establishment of family. “[T]he climax of the poem is not the fidelity of John, as if it stood alone. Its movement is in the same direction as in the friendships that this chapter has been following: from friendship to family… The end of the lyric, in ethics as well as in narrative, is the scene at the foot of the cross in which Christ entrusts his mother to John’s care: the paradoxical depiction of the divine Christ, in the mystery of the incarnation, entrusting the care of his mother—the Virgin Mary and the mother of God—to the man who, after the manner of the flesh, was his sworn brother.”

Friendship’s Doubts

Despite the grand ideals of friendship, many had doubts about the institution. William Cornwallis, in his essay, “Of Love”, says: “I laugh, and wonder, at the strange occasions that men take nowadays to say they love.” Cornwallis expresses the fear that men may enter into friendship simply hoping to profit from each other. Bray notes that, in a time where many feared sedition, “Cornwallis knew how to manipulate the fears of the privileged world”, and his essay would throw doubts onto an important institution of that world.

Another concern arose about the “ends to which friendship might be put.” Just as there was a potential for good, there was also a “potential for wrong”, and the unreserved vows of sworn friendship brought additional concerns. In the East, concerns arose from time to time about sins that could arise from ritual brotherhood, though the practice remained in the East just as sworn friendship did in the West.

Though many reservations about friendship did not arise explicitly until the sixteenth century, Bray suggests an implicit reservation prior to that time in the rite for sworn brotherhood’s liturgical placement. The rite didn’t take place in the mass, but prior to the mass before the door of the church, as was the practice in betrothal liturgies and the rite of baptism. The bond was “reaffirmed but not necessarily created in the Eucharist… [T]he communion was not the setting for the vows of sworn brotherhood, it was a response to them, an amplification of their significance, a public embodiment of them in a wide world of ethical obligation.”

Still, Bray suggests that this setting for the ritual did not necessarily make the vows less Christian, but spoke to their role. The vows were “part of the moral economy of religion rather than a narrowly sacerdotal matter.” The setting at the church door indicated that the rite had both a religious and a secular context.

It was significant that the two would then receive the Eucharist together within the church after the ritual. The joint reception of the Eucharist arose in the eleventh century as a practice at the same time that the Eucharist took a new place across Europe, as the center of social life. The practice of receiving the Eucharist following the rite also expressed a “distinctively Augustinian understanding of grace”, whereby the vows were incomplete as simply human vows but were elevated in the sustaining grace of the Eucharist.

Further, the reception of the Eucharist in the church placed the vows in the divine realm. In this way, “these were oaths ‘upon God’s body’ and upon the relics of the saints.” As these vows were made beside relics of saints, the saints became patrons and witnesses to these vows. And as the vows are sealed in the Eucharist, Christ himself becomes a witness to them. “Oaths are the instruments of an oral culture and are bound by the testimony of witnesses, but witnesses could be found not only among one’s neighbors or friends, they could also be sought among figures that were celestial and divine.”

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