Giotto, St. Francis Giving His Mantle to a Poor Man

Throughout his books Barfield writes with sympathy and more than a little admiration of the medieval world view.

"Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved," Barfield writes in Saving the Appearances. The men and women of the Middle Ages existed in a very different stage in the evolution of consciousness. "In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. . . . It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of--what shall we say?--of 'meaning,' if you choose. It seems the most adequate word" (94-95).

Seeking to explain the change that has occurred in our outlook from the Medieval to the modern, Barfield offers the following Gedanken [thought] experiment:

    If, with the help of some time-machine working in reverse, a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man of the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our "figuration" the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. "Oh!" he would say, "look how they stand out!" (SA 94)
The "mind and soul" of the medieval "were not felt to be imprisoned within, and dependent upon, [the] body. Intellectual classifications were accordingly less dry and clear, and science--that general speculative activity which a later age has split up into such categories as astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, psychology. . . ,--was as yet almost an undivided whole" (HEW 136).

"In his relation to [the] environment," Barfield insists, "the man of the middle ages was rather less like an island, rather more like an embryo, than we are" (SA 78). "The universe was a kind of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing" (SA 92). Indeed, "The phenomena [of the middle sges] themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we today only find in symbols" (SA 74).

Barfield is especially interested in the medieval understanding of language and the way it shaped its increasingly "literal" mindset. In "Speech, Reason and Imagination" (in Romanticism Comes of Age), he observes that "To Plato, dialogue was a tokos--a begetting; the words of one speaker were conceived of as merely the instruments by which true thinking, itself beyond words, was 'begotten' or generated in another." In the Middle Ages, however,

    words and the thought begin to be identified, and intellect therefore conceived of as waiting upon the senses. . . . Hence the medieval period was above all the age of Logic--it worshipped Logic, in which--through the concept of the "term"--the word and the thought are kept as close together as possible. . . . Identifying the thought with the words, they felt that the truth could be wholly embodied in creed and dogma and identifying the self with the thought, they were--quite rightly--intolerant. A wrong thought could strike them as far more immoral than a wrong action. (69)
See in particular Saving the Appearances, Chaps. XI, XII, XIII, XIV, "England Before the Reformation" (HEW 44-58).