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§ 137. The Age passing Judgment upon Itself.


The preceding pages have shown the remarkable character of the events and movements, the men and ideas which fill the centuries from Hildebrand’s entrance into Rome with Leo IX., 1049, to the abdication of the simple-minded Coelestin, 1294. The present generation regards the events of the last half-century as most extraordinary. The same judgment was passed by Matthew Paris upon the half-century of which he was a spectator, 1200–1250. Useful inventions and discoveries, such as we associate with the second half of the nineteenth century, there were few or none in the thirteenth century, and yet those times were full of occurrences and measures which excited the deepest interest and the speculation of men. The retrospect of the fifty years, which the clearheaded English monk sums up in his Chronicles, furnishes one of the most instructive pieces of mediaeval literature.

Here is what Matthew Paris says: There occurred in this time extraordinary and strange events, the like of which had never been seen before nor were found in any of the writings of the Fathers. The Tartars ravaged countries inhabited by Christians. Damietta was twice taken and retaken, Jerusalem twice desolated by the Infidel. St. Louis was captured with his brothers in the East. Wales passed under the domination of England. Frederick, the Wonder of the World, had lived his career. The Crusades had given to a great host a glorious death. As for natural wonders, an eclipse of the sun had occurred twice in three years, earthquakes had shaken England several times, and there had been a destructive rise of the sea such as had never been seen before. One night immense numbers of stars fell from the heavens, a reason for which could not be found in the Book of Meteors, except that Christ’s threat was impending when he said, "There shall be signs in the heavens."

Among things distinctively religious, the chronicler notes that an English cardinal was suffocated in his palace, as was supposed, for having his eye on the tiara. The figure of Christ appeared in the sky in Germany and was plainly seen by every one. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Hildegard flourished. The ordeal of fire and water was abolished. Seville, Cordova, and other parts of Spain were rescued from the Moors. The orders of the Minorites and the Preachers arose, startling the world by their devotion and disgusting it by their sudden decline. Some of the blood of Christ and a stone, bearing his footprints, arrived in England.

Such are some of the occurrences which seemed wonderful to the racy English historian. If he had read over the leaves of his Chronicles as we do, how many other events he might have singled out,—from the appearance of the elephant, a gift of the king of France to the king of England, which, as he says, was the first ever seen in England and the appearance of the sea-monster thrown up in Norwich,21522152    Luard’s ed., V. 448 sq.

Life was by no means a humdrum, monotonous existence to the people who lived in the age of the Crusades and Innocent III. On the contrary it was full of surprises and attractive movements, from every turn of the papacy and empire, to the expeditions of the Crusaders and the travels of Marco Polo and Rubruquis.

A historical period is measured by the judgment passed upon it by its contemporaries and by the judgment of succeeding generations. What did the period from 1050 to 1294 offer that seemed notable to those who were living then and what contribution did it make to the progress and well-being of mankind? The first of these questions can be answered by the generation which then lived; the second, best by the generations which have come since.

It is the persuasion of a school of mediaeval enthusiasts that this period was a golden age of faith and morals and tenable systems of belief, an age when the laws of God were obeyed as they have not been since, an age when proper attention was given to the things of religion, an age of high ideals and spiritual repose. Is this judgment justified or is the older Protestant view the right one that the Middle Ages handed down nothing distinctive—which has been of permanent value; but, on the contrary, many of the superstitions and false doctrines now prevailing in the Church are an inheritance from the Middle Ages, and it would have been better if the Church had passed directly from the patristic age and skipped the mediaeval.21532153    For a terse description of the social, religious, and moral condition of mediaeval England and the prevalence of disease, see Jessopp, Coming of the Friars, p. 111, etc.

Neither judgment is right. A more just opinion is beginning to prevail, and upon a modification of the extreme views of Protestants and Roman Catholics on the subject depends to a considerable extent the closer fellowship between the ecclesiastical communions of the West. Much chaff will be found there mixed with the wheat. On the other hand, in this mediaeval period were also sown the seeds of religious ideas and institutions which are now in their period of bloom or awaiting the time of full fruitage.

The achievement of absolute power by the papacy, magnificent as it was, represents an ideal utterly at fault, whether we consider the teaching of Scripture or the prevailing judgment of the present time. Ambition, pride, avarice, were mingled in popes with a sincere belief that the Roman see inherited from the Apostle plenitude of authority in all realms. Europe, more enlightened, cannot accept such a claim and the moral degeneracy and spiritual incompetency of the popes, in the period following this, were an experimental proof that the theory was wrong.

As for the priesthood and hierarchy, evidence enough has been adduced to show that ordination did not insure devotion to office and personal purity. Dante’s hell contains more than one pontiff of this period. The nearer we approach Rome, the more numerous the scandals are. The term "the Romans" was synonymous with unscrupulous greed. Gregory X. in 1274 declared that "the prelates were the ruin of Christendom." Frederick II., though pronounced a poor churchman, was a keen observer and no doubt indicated a widespread discontent with the lives the clergy were leading when he declared that, if they would change their mode of living, the world might again see miracles as in the days of old.21542154    M. Paris, Luard’s ed., IV. 538 sq.

The distinctively mediaeval ideal of a religious life has little attraction to-day. The seclusion of the monastery presents a striking contrast to the active career demanded of a Christian profession in this age. The example of St. Bernard and his praise of monasticism, as the praise of other writers, are so weighty that one cannot deny that the best men saw in monastic solitude the highest advantage. Monastic institutions had a most useful part to play as a leavening force in the wild and unsettled society of that time. But the discipline and ardor of monastic orders quickly passed away, in spite of the devotion of Francis d’Assisi and other monastic founders. Simplicity yielded to luxury, and spiritual devotion to sloth and pride. It was the ardent Franciscan, Bonaventura, who instances the vices which had crept into his order and Jacques de Vitry, cardinal-bishop, d. 1240, who said that a girl’s virtue was safe under no Rule except the Cistercian. What can be said of the ideal of human life as it is set forth in the tale of St. Brandon, not to speak of innumerable similar tales told by Jacob de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa, d. 1298! What shall be thought of the example of the Blessed St. Angela of Foligno, admired and praised by so many Franciscan writers, who on her "conversion" prayed to be relieved of the impediments of obedience to husband, respect to mother and the care of children and rejoiced to have her request granted by their deaths!

If we desire priestly rule, there was enough of it to satisfy any one. But with the rule of the priesthood came the loss of individual freedom and the right of the soul to determine its own destiny in the sight of the Creator. De Voragine21552155    Legenda, Temple Classics ed., II. 189.rchical pride of the age when he exclaimed to an English king that priests are the fathers and masters of kings. The laity, according to Caesar of Heisterbach, as already quoted, were compared to the night, the clergy to the day, The preacher Werner of St. Blasius called the peasants the feet whose toil was appointed to maintain the more worthy parts of the body,—bishops, priests, and monks.21562156    Migne, 157. 1047,

The Middle Ages have been praised as a period of religious contentment and freedom from sectarian strife. The very contrary was the case. The strife between the friars and the secular clergy and, in cases, within the monastic orders themselves equals in bitterness any strife that has been maintained between branches of the Protestant Church. It was a question not whether there was religious unrest but, from the days of Arnold of Brescia on, how the established Church might crush out heretical revolt. There was also religious doubt among the monks, and there were women who denied that Eve had been tempted by an apple, as Caesar of Heisterbach assures us.

The superstitions which prevailed were largely inherited from preceding ages. The worship of Mary clouded the merits of Christ. What can be said when Thomas of Chantimpré, d. about 1263, relates in all seriousness that a robber, whose head had been cut off, kept calling upon the Virgin, as the body rolled down a hill, until the parts were put together by a priest. The criminal then told how, as a boy, he had devoted Saturdays and Wednesdays to Mary and she had promised he should not die till opportunity was given him to make confession. So he made confession and died again, and, as the reader is left to believe, went into the other world rejoicing.

The gruesome tales of demoniacal presence and influence indicate a condition of mind from which we do well to be thankful we are delivered. John of St. Giles, the admirable English Dominican, used to say, as he retired to his cell in the evening, "Now I await my martyrdom," meaning the buffetings of the devil. The awful story of how Ludwig the Iron, 1100–1172, was welcomed to hell and shown all its compartments and then pitched mercilessly into quenchless flames is no worse than the visions of Dante, but too revolting in the apparent callousness of it to the suffering of others not to call forth a shudder to-day.21572157    Heisterbach, Dial., XII. 2, Strange’s ed., II. 316.

Such representations, however, do not warrant the conclusion that human charity was dead. St. Francis and Hugh of Lincoln kissed the hands of lepers. The Knights of St. Lazarus were intrusted by Louis IX. with the care of this class of sufferers. Houses for lepers were established in England by Lanfranc, Mathilda, queen of Henry, King Stephen at Burton, and others. Mathilda washed their feet, believing that, in so doing, she was washing the feet of Christ.21582158    See Creighton in Traill, I. 368 sq., and Geo. Pernet, Leprosy, in Quart. Rev., 1903, pp. 384 sqq.

On the other hand the period sets, in some respects, an example of great devotion, and has handed down to us the universities and the cathedrals, some of the most tender hymns and imposing theological systems which, if they cannot be accepted in important particulars, are yet remarkable constructions of thought and piety. And, above all, it has handed down to us a group of notable men who may well serve as a stimulus to all generations which are interested in the extension of Christ’s kingdom.

But in the judgment of these very men, the period was not an ideal one either in morals or faith. If we go to preachers, like Berthold of Regensburg, we find evidence of the prevalence of vice and irreligion among all classes. If we go to popes and Schoolmen, we hear bitter complaints of the evils of the age and of human lot which would fit in with the most pessimistic philosophy of our times. Innocent III., in his Disdain of the World,—De contemptu mundi,—poured out a lamentation, lugubrious enough for the most desolate and forsaken. Anselm dilates under the same title, and Hugo of St. Victor21592159    Migne, 158. 705 sqq., 176. 703-739.s coming to an end.


Exulat justitia, cessat Christi cultus.


The most famous of the longer poems of the period repeats Innocent’s title, and its author, Bernard of Cluny, is most severe upon the corruption in church and society. The poem starts in the minor key.


The last times, the worst times are here, watch.

Behold the Judge, supreme, is at hand with His wrath.

He is here, He is here. He will terminate the evils. He will reward the just.


Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus

Ecce minaciter, imminet arbiter ille supremus.

Imminet, imminet, et mala terminet, aequa coronet.


The greater Bernard of Clairvaux exclaimed, "Oh! that I might, before dying, see the Church of God led back to the ideal of her early days. Then the nets were cast, not to catch gold and silver, but to save souls. The perilous times are not impending. They are here. Violence prevails on the earth."21602160    Ep., 238, to Eugenius, Migne, 182. 430. De consid. I. 10.hese most damnable times," his diebus damnatissimis.21612161    Mon. Franc., Ep. XXVI. p. 11621622162    Creighton, Hist. Lectures, p. 132ness and decay everywhere, and he agreed with other moralists of his day, in making the clergy chiefly responsible for the prevailing corruption. The whole clergy, he says, "is given to pride, avarice, and self-indulgence. Where clergymen are gathered together, as at Paris and Oxford, their quarrels and strife, and their vices are a scandal to laymen."21632163    Brewer’s ed., pp. 399 sqq.

With a similar lament Hildebrand, at the opening of the period, took up the duties of the papacy.

The prophet Joachim looked for a new dispensation as the only relief.

The real greatness of this period lies not in its relative moral and religious perfection, as compared with our own, but in a certain imposing grandeur of conception and of faith, as shown in the Crusades, the cathedrals, the Scholastic systems, and even the mistaken ideal of papal supremacy. Its institutions were not in a settled condition, and its religious life was not characterized by repose. A tremendous struggle was going on. The surface was troubled, and there was a mighty undercurrent of restlessness. It would be an ungracious and a foolish thing for this generation, the heir of twice as many centuries of Christian schooling as were the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to boast as though Christian charity and morality and devotion to high aims had waited until now to manifest themselves. The Middle Ages, from 1050 to 1300, offer a spectacle of stirring devotion to religious aims in thought and conduct.


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