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§ 74. General Character of Mediaeval Morals.
The middle age of Western Christendom resembles the period of the Judges in the history of Israel when “the highways were unoccupied, and the travelers walked through by-ways,” and when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”326326 Comp, Judges 5:6; 17:6. It was a time of civil and political commotions and upheavings, of domestic wars and foreign invasions. Society was in a chaotic state and bordering on the brink of anarchy. Might was right. It was the golden age of border-ruffians, filibusters, pirates and bold adventurers, but also of gallant knights, genuine heroes and judges, like Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel of old. It presents, in striking contrasts, Christian virtues and heathen vices, ascetic self-denial and gross sensuality. Nor were there wanting idyllic episodes of domestic virtue and happiness which call to mind the charming story of Ruth from the period of the Judges.
Upon the whole the people were more religious than moral. Piety was often made a substitute or atonement for virtue. Belief in the supernatural and miraculous was universal; scepticism and unbelief were almost unknown. Men feared purgatory and hell, and made great sacrifices to gain heaven by founding churches, convents, and charitable institutions. And yet there was a frightful amount of immorality among the rulers and the people. In the East the church had to contend with the vices of an effete civilization and a corrupt court. In Italy, France and Spain the old Roman vices continued and were even invigorated by the infusion of fresh and barbaric blood. The history of the Merovingian rulers, as we learn from Bishop Gregory of Tours, is a tragedy of murder, adultery, and incest, and ends in destruction.327327 “It would be difficult,” says Gibbon of this period, “to find anywhere more vice or less virtue.” The judgments of Hallam, Milman, and Lecky are to the same effect. Compare also the description of Montalembert, quoted above, p. 82 sq.
The church was unfavorably affected by the state of surrounding society, and often drawn into the current of prevailing immorality. Yet, upon the whole, she was a powerful barrier against vice, and the chief, if not the only promoter of education, virtue and piety in the dark ages. From barbaric and semi-barbaric material she had to build up the temple of a Christian civilization. She taught the new converts the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments the best popular summaries of faith, piety, and duty. She taught them also the occupations of peaceful life. She restrained vice and encouraged virtue. The synodical legislation was nearly always in the right direction. Great stress was laid on prayer and fasting, on acts of hospitality, charity, and benevolence, and on pilgrimages to sacred places. The rewards of heaven entered largely as an inducement for leading a virtuous and holy life; but it is far better that people should be good from fear of hell and love of heaven than ruin themselves by immorality and vice.
A vast amount of private virtue and piety is never recorded on the pages of histor y, and is spent in modest retirement. So the wild flowers in the woods and on the mountains bloom and fade away unseen by human eyes. Every now and then incidental allusion is made to unknown saints. Pope Gregory mentions a certain Servulus in Rome who was a poor cripple from childhood, but found rich comfort and peace in the Bible, although he could not read himself, and had to ask pious friends to read it to him while he was lying on his couch; he never complained, but was full of gratitude and praise; when death drew near he requested his friends to sing psalms with him; then stopped suddenly and expired with the words: “Peace, hear ye not the praises of God sounding from heaven?” This man’s life of patient suffering was not in vain, but a benediction to many who came in contact with it. “Those also serve who only stand and wait.”
The moral condition of the middle age varied considerably. The migration of nations was most unfavorable to the peaceful work of the church. Then came the bright reign of Charlemagne with his noble efforts for education and religion, but it was soon followed, under his weak successors, by another period of darkness which grew worse and worse till a moral reformation began in the convent of Cluny, and reached the papal chair under the lead of Hildebrand.
Yet if we judge by the number of saints in the Roman Calendar, the seventh century, which is among the, darkest, was more pious than any of the preceding and succeeding centuries, except the third and fourth (which are enriched by the martyrs).
The following is the table of saints in the Roman Calendar (according to Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints): Saints.
In the first centuries the numerous but nameless martyrs of the Neronian and other persecutions are not separately counted. The Holy Innocents, the Seven Sleepers (in the third century), the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (fourth century,) and other groups of martyrs are counted only one each. Lecky asserts too confidently that the seventh century was the most prolific in saints, and yet the most immoral. It is strange that the number of saints should have declined from the seventh century, while the church increased, and that the eighteenth century of infidelity should have produced five more saints than the seventeenth century. It would therefore be very unsafe to make this table the basis for
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