Angels on Christmas trees and medieval ideas of hierarchy

Angels are often associated with Christmas time as celestial beings from above sitting atop decorated trees.

christmas tree angel - photo by missteee / Flickr

It is fitting that angels are often positioned in high places, as they are an element in one of the oldest explanations for how organisations and hierarchies keep the ‘little guy’ down, according to an academic from the University of Leicester.


Professor Martin Parker from the University’s School of Management has suggested that one of our earliest understandings of where authority comes from correlates with ideas about angelic hierarchies. Although we have now largely replaced winged figures with the business magnate sitting atop a pile of money, we still seem to believe that hierarchies are somehow natural and inevitable.

“Hierarchy was, and still is, often seen as a principle of nature. No wonder then that we often assume that society, like angels, must be organised vertically – the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate,” says Professor Parker.

Knowledge of angelic hierarchy dates from hundreds of years ago. In the fifth century, the medieval theologian Pseudo-Dionysius wrote the definitive work on angelic hierarchies, during which he asserted that there were nine orders of hierarchy, ranging from the most humble messenger angels to the most elevated archangels.


At the top of this hierarchy was God, whose light, according to Pseudo-Dionysius, was so bright that only the topmost angels would not shrivel in its light. This explains why angels often acted as relays, each order taking brightness off with each step, until the lower angels could talk to the highest human beings.

The second part of Pseudo-Dionysius’s work describes the necessary existence of these same kinds of hierarchies on Earth. He theorised that seven further stages are required, from the most elevated bishop down to the lowest peasants.

“Five centuries later these writings became a central part of scholastic disputation in the emerging universities of the time,” Professor Parker explains. “Obedience to authority was the key, and ideas about social organisation gradually became inseparable from ideas of hierarchy.”


Fast forward a millennium and we now have business schools in universities across the world teaching the modern version of hierarchy – one that is similar to the model proposed by Pseudo-Dionysius.

“Nowadays, ideas about social order no longer begin with God, at least not explicitly, but they certainly trade on the same ideas about where authority comes from: the top,” says Professor Parker. “The sorts of disputation taught in business schools echoes the mediaeval kind in many ways, in that it is safe to discuss empowerment, flat organisations and 360 appraisal, as long as the structures of power are not actually challenged.

“Business schools sell themselves as guaranteeing that you will become one of the higher angels, echoing an ancient theology by proposing that there are some who organise and that there are others who get organised, with little to upset the status quo.”


Professor Parker suggests that hierarchies and management teaching does not need to be organised in such a way.

He said: “There are plenty of alternatives to hierarchical organisation – co-operatives, communes, networks, communities and so on. Within all of these alternative forms there may well be different distributions of power, and influence, so that hierarchy actually ends up being one form of organisation amongst others.

“We can all be organisers in different ways, at different times. We don’t need to wait for others to do it for us, whether they have MBAs or wings. But to claim this too loudly would be heresy. It would suggest that we could all be angels.”


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