The High Middle Ages were a period of incredible technological innovation, architectural design, and artistic production. Nevertheless, myths about the period’s backwardness and ignorance remain. Below is an excerpt from a book by medieval and Renaissance scholar Anthony Esolen on myth and fact about the High Middle Ages.
We all know what the High Middle Ages were like. My freshmen know. They’ve learned it from the infallible authority known as High School Platitudes.
First, the High Middle Ages were dark. People lived in squalor. Beset by terrible fears, they burned kindly old ladies peddling herbal remedies, calling them witches. They made no progress in the natural sciences. They knew nothing of the world beyond their time and place, and had no desire to know. Their studies were narrow and dogmatic, and the few great minds of their era plied their intelligence to discover how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Life was so miserable that most people, especially the dirt-peasant majority, lived only for the next world, placing all their hope in a heaven beyond the stars.
Let’s set the record straight. From 962 (the crowning of Otto the Great as Holy Roman Emperor) to 1321 (the death of Dante), Europe enjoyed one of the most magnificent flourishings of culture the world has seen. In some ways it was the most magnificent. And this was not despite the fact that the daily tolling of the church bells provided the rhythm of men’s lives, but because of it. Because the people believed they lived in a comic world, that is a world redeemed from sin, wherein the Savior had triumphed over darkness and death, they could love that world aright. They were pilgrims at heart, who yet passionately loved their native lands, their town walls, their hillsides, their many colorful festivals, their local food and drink. They enjoyed the freedom of hope. They were not pressed to death with the urgency to create a heaven upon earth, a longing that ends in despair, or the gulag.
You won’t hear this tale on television or in school. A powerful Church should be a regular monster, destroying intellectual endeavor and enforcing dreariness upon art—long before academe made artistic dreariness a mark of sophistication. Forswearing instant gratification (not that everyone in the High Middle Ages did forswear it) should produce a continent of mopes, or seething villains, or something miserable which Americans with their dropout factories and nearly three million incarcerated men know nothing of. Besides, because we all believe in inevitable social progress, everything must have been terrible in the past, at least compared to today. Why, I feel myself progressing morally with every tick of the clock; don’t you? Mainly, the High Middle Ages must have been bad because they were middle.
Marx Misreads the High Middle Ages
The myths about the High Middle Ages are passed down to us, in part, from Karl Marx.
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another.
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (79)
No, they didn’t. Take the medieval journeyman. He benefited from training he had received as an apprentice, and when he produced a work of sufficiently impressive quality—literally, a master-piece—he too would become a full member of a guild. In fact, the guild system is exactly what Marx’s contemporary, Pope Leo XIII, a great opponent of socialism, recommended for the workingman, whom Marx held in scorn.
Warmer is better
The third factor is a subtle one. We hear a lot about global warming these days, and since I’m no geologist I won’t venture an opinion, except to say that in history the great threat to man has not been warming but cooling. It’s obvious why. If you shorten the growing season by a few weeks and make the summer highs a little cooler, you remove millions of acres of land from the plow. You put stubby grass and mosses where cattle used to graze on the savannah; and you turn into savannah what used to be prime land for growing cereal grains.
The cooling helps explain the barbarian invasions: they and their cattle were cold and hungry. And, as I’ve noted, one winter they had a Rhine River frozen solid, so they could cross where they pleased, and the Roman legions, already stretched thin, could do nothing about it.
Cooling weather causes the occasional failed harvest. But if harvests are only fair, any outright failures will deplete your stores of grain. People grow sickly. Life expectancy drops. Population shrinks. The cities—dependent upon storeable grain—empty. Town life withers away. People cannot afford the division of labor that allows for scholars, accountants, merchants, sculptors, actors, whatever. Back to the land they go: for man needs bread.
But when one or two of these factors had disappeared or been overcome, Europe was ready for its grand resurgence. Consider its cultural advantages. Christianity had scrubbed away most of the late GrecoRoman prejudice against manual labor. Recall Benedict and his monastic rule. Monks, whatever their background, worked the land. They cleared the thick, damp German forests of trees and stumps. They drained the marshes. They dug wells, built granaries, planted vineyards, and communicated technological innovations among themselves, in a network extending across Europe.
The monks retained a healthy respect for hierarchy and law. Imagine what it might be like to build an economic hot spot where nothing but black firs and mosquitoes had been, without a clear and effective chain of command. At the same time, they inherited the Christian revelation that Christ came for all men, not only for the rulers. Their model of hierarchy and equality, or equality expressed by obedience and Christ-like service, exerted a powerful influence upon the villages that grew up around the monasteries, and then upon medieval life generally. For Christ Himself was obedient, even unto death upon a cross, and therefore, says Paul, every knee shall bend to Him, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. So despite wickedness and selfishness, which we will always have with us, the people of the High Middle Ages knew that the soul of a peasant was no less worth saving than was the soul of a duke. That meant that, as harsh as serfdom could be, the continent could never quite slide back into slavery. The irrepressible movement in the High Middle Ages is towards freedom.
Then, around 1000, the weather warmed up, and the Vikings began to settle down to civilized life. What happened afterwards does not disappoint.
We probably wouldn’t enjoy living in a medieval town. We’d have animals everywhere, chickens, pigs, goats, dogs, cows, and all that they eat, and all that what they eat becomes. Not until the nineteenth century did Europeans build sewer systems to match those of ancient Rome. People were crowded within the town walls, many of them living in houses with packed earth floors, and rushes laid upon them to catch droppings from the table and from other places. People ate with their fingers, though the food was saucy and spicy. Chaucer gently satirizes his Prioress in The Canterbury Tales by praising her daintiness at table: she never let the grease fall on her lap. If you caught a disease, you couldn’t expect much from a medieval physician, particularly in northern Europe. People lost most of their teeth (from eating a lot of starchy food; meat was for the rich, and for holidays), so you might find them chewing licorice before a tryst to hide their bad breath, as Chaucer’s Absolom does in “The Miller’s Tale.”
But one thing it was impossible to be, if the art of the time is any indication: you couldn’t be lonely. Granted, it’s hard to base an argument upon an omission, but the lack of any mention of loneliness in medieval literature really is striking. You were busy. You worked alongside your fellow villagers. You slept three or four in a bed. You might belong to a guild. You stood alongside everyone else as you crowded the church for celebration.
Your life was also not drab. For the first time since the heyday of the Roman empire, people of the West, if they were not as poor as church mice, enjoyed bright clothing, spices from the East, sweet wine from the Mediterranean (Chaucer’s Pardoner is a connoisseur of the heady port wines from Spain), not to mention music and dancing and folk poetry ranging from the delicate and genteel to the coarse and randy. So we have songs of awakening love in the springtime, for the Lord of Easter:
When I see the blossoms spring, And I hear the small birds sing, A sweet love-longing
Pierces all my heart.
And we have merry peddlers eyeing the girls and crowing up their finest jewels:
I have a pocket for the nonce,
And in it are two precious stones: Damsel, if you had tried them once, You’d be right ready to go with me!
We would shy away from the High Middle Ages not because of its drabness, but because its vitality would fray our weak nerves. We’d have to rub our eyes to get used to the light.
The Bright Ages: Life in the cathedrals
Where shall we look first for this light? Why not in those stone symphonies, the Gothic cathedrals?
Let’s be clear about this. The men of the High Middle Ages did not build their cathedrals to be squat, dark, ghoulish structures manifesting their fear and ignorance. We have to scrub from the church walls the smoke of the later Industrial Revolution, and from our minds the smoke of Victorian Dracuas. Nor had they progressed as far as modern man, who aspires to work in a steel cage or a cardboard box. No, the medieval master builders wanted light, because their faith taught them to want it, for “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (Jn. 1:5).
That association of divinity with light was as old as Genesis. The first creature God made was not mud, not a habitation for himself, not a consort to rut with, but light. Christ, too, in John’s gospel, is called the light that comes into the world, and his disciples are to let their light shine before men. The Church fathers, taking their cue from Scripture and from Plato, saw light as the noblest thing in creation: not simply the brilliant light of sun and moon and stars, but the light of the intellect, whose first and final dwelling place is the mind of God. The contemplative Syriac monk who called himself Dionysius (naming himself after the man Saint Paul had converted on the Athenian mount) developed a grand theology of light, and the thinkers and the artists of the High Middle Ages paid heed.
One man who took it to heart was a powerful abbot in Paris, named Suger. He wanted to help unite the squabbling dukedoms of France under the authority of the anointed king; and to that end he would build a chapel worthy of the patron saint of France, Saint Denis, or Saint Dionysius. What better way than to take the architectural innovations of the last two centuries—vaulted ceilings, pointed arches—and put them together to pour light into a sanctuary such as no one had seen before? That would fashion a gem for the king’s capital and would honor God—for “God is light” (1 Jn. 1:5).
They did not have reinforced steel then, or fiberglass, or super-light mixtures of concrete. The problem for Suger, and for builders generally over the next two or three centuries, was how to build high, span broad interior spaces, and remove stone from walls and replace it with glass, without having the roof cave in or the walls buckle.
Here we discover ingenious engineering solutions, both practical and beautiful. No doubt you’ve seen some of them. There are the flying buttresses, spindles of stone thrust out from the exterior walls like the spokes of a wheel, “nailed” in place by decorative caps of statuary. Or the ropeike interior ribs of marble, perfectly hewn, often alternating white and green or white and pink or white and gray, reaching up along pillars to the roof in slender curves, the blocks not mortared but set in place by the magic of balance and gravity. Or the lacework of stone tracery, setting off the windows stained in deep blue and red and green and gold—rose windows of mathematical complexity, a kaleidoscopic glance into paradise.
But more interesting than how these masons, carpenters, smiths, and glaziers built what I believe are the most splendid architectural works to grace the earth, is why they built them so. Let the Abbot speak for himself, in the verses he engraved upon the doors of Saint Denis:
All you who seek to honor these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through the lights
To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
The golden door defines how it is immanent in these things. The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion when the light is seen.
Here, from the pen of the man who more than any other deserves the honor of having invented the Gothic style, we find the medieval reveling in both the bright and beautiful things of the world, and the infinitely brighter and more beautiful things of heaven. The beauty of the world is not rejected but ordered towards the beauty of heaven. Deep calls unto deep, and light unto light.
Forget that the church was the heart of that common life, and that the people dwelt in the shadow and the reflected gleam of these places of beauty. Neglect to imagine what it was to “own,” with the rest of your townsmen, a structure that pierced the skies with its grandeur, yet that also welcomed you in; and that stood an eloquent witness when you were born, when you married, when you had children, and when you died. What is still astonishing, what we find hard to fathom now, is that those common people were the ones who built the churches. We’re not talking about huge indistinguishable blocks of stone hauled up the side of a pyramid by sledge and slave to commemorate a dead pharaoh. We’re not talking even about the Athenian Parthenon, with master sculptors hammering at the pediment and frieze, while slaves haul the stone from the quarry and dress it.
We are talking about free men, troops of them moving from place to place, paid pretty well, masters of their crafts, with local laborers for the less skilled work. We don’t know the names of most of these, and that too is telling. For the work is not designed and mandated by potentates far away. It is true folk art, maybe the most muscular and bodacious folk art the world has known.
The whole of a Gothic cathedral, wrote John Ruskin, is scrawled over with the spirit of playfulness.5 Maybe over here a gangly boy named Wat, not yet a master, chisels the leer of a dragon whose mouth will gush rainwater and keep the roof from leaking. Over there a carpenter works at a coffered wooden ceiling, gouging out for decoration—and for affirming
the goodness of all God’s creatures—the flowers and animals of his native land. If he’s an Italian, look for lemons and pinecones. Back toward the sanctuary a priest may be asking the glaziers for a rose window in the east based on the number eight, since the eighth day is Easter, the day beyond all days, the day of resurrection. The townsfolk, who have contributed much to the building, will also gain from it. People will come to see the church, and people need food and drink and lodging. For the church is also an expression of town pride and love, and if it takes fifty or sixty years to build (or more) the people bequeath the project to their children. It is their great artistic and economic triumph.
Did the Church usurp that energy? It was the faith that brought that energy into being.
Drama’s rebirth: Another fruit of Christianity
Let’s take one example of this vibrant life. For civic creativity and wholehearted bustle, let alone the transcendent meaning of it, I know of nothing we Americans enjoy, with our mass entertainment, mass government, and withered neighborhoods, that can compare.
Imagine that for several weeks every spring, the guildsmen in your town are in high gear. The carpenters are nailing together floats, to roll them in a pageant from church to church. The weavers are mending colorful costumes, some a suspiciously fiery red, with horns and spiky tail. The ironmongers are hammering a special gate with a hair-trigger that will spring it open at the right touch. The priests and clerks are rummaging up old scripts and trying them out on the “actors,” one of whom is that fat blustery neighbor of yours, playing Herod.
Everyone is waiting for the great three-day feast of Corpus Christi, beginning on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. On those three days, amid sacred processions and boisterous children and women hawking fruit, you and your townsmen will put on a cycle of plays spanning all of time, from the Creation of Man through the Redemption to the Final Judgment. These plays will be composed with homespun rhyming and tags of Latin scripture, yet with an imaginative power which you will find quite natural, seeing the end of man even in the beginning, and the revelation of Christ even in the curse that God pronounced upon the snake in the garden.
Imagine that these cycles of plays show up not here and there, but from Portugal to Germany, from England to Italy. Then you will understand why in the High Middle Ages, after a thousand years of dormancy, drama was reborn. This was no accident. The people intuited that the Christian faith is intensely dramatic, with all kinds of wondrous surprises. So in the famous Second Shepherds’ Play at Wakefield, the lowly shepherds (after a lot of medieval shenanigans, including tossing the villain in a blanket, and forgiving him at last) find the Christ Child, the creator of the world, in a manger. There they give him three humble gifts: a bob of cherries, a bird, and something else you will find in no manger scene now:
Hail, hold forth thy hand small; I bring thee but a ball:
Have thou and play withal, And go to the tennis.
Cherries, a bird, and a tennis ball? Don’t dismiss it as earthy clowning, for even earthy clowning, in medieval art and culture, is touched by the clowning of God. These gifts are the hayseed way of symbolizing the red blood Christ will shed (blood that is as fruitful as spring), his rising again, and his ruling the globe. In that same village—for generations!— the people will behold one of their neighbors playing Jesus, standing before Hell’s gates, defying a buffoonishly impotent “Sir Satan,” bursting the bars open with a command that recalls Moses when he delivered the Jews from their bondage in Egypt: “Open up, and let my people pass!”7
Myth: The High Middle Ages were the Dark Ages
The standard account holds that the High Middle Ages were a period of technological stagnation. Real historians of the era shred that notion. For one thing, modern industry was launched: The great expansion of the use of watermills and windmills that took place during the later Middle Ages, in association with the growth of manufacturing, brought in an essentially new stage in mechanical technique. From this period must be dated that increasing mechanization of life and industry, based on the ever-increasing exploitation of new forms of mechanical power, which characterizes modern civilization.
Whence, then, comes the nonsensical charge that in the High Middle Ages, the commoners lived lives of unutterable dreariness, while churchmen and warriors (often illiterate warriors) lorded it over them? In a typical medieval town—I am not talking about serfs in the backcountry of eastern Europe—there was more real equality of life, less of a gap between rich and poor, less of a division between one man’s life and another, than there would be in the West until the American pioneers were made equal by a forbidding land, no money, and hard work.
It wasn’t that life was easy. Life for most people has never been easy, until fairly recently. Nor should we think that the warrior aristocracies throughout Europe were all enjoying fine poetry and intellectual discourse. In many places they were simply marauders. But the leaven of Christian teaching, that all men are precious in the sight of God, was working its way up to the kings. So we have the pious king, Saint Louis IX of France, stationing himself under an oak tree in Paris to adjudicate cases brought by artisans and shopkeepers and plowmen. Louis was an able politician, but more than that, he was a true Christian king. Our heads of state would do well to heed the advice he left to his son and heir. Note, for instance, his preference for the poor, but also his politically incorrect acknowledgment that sometimes the rich too are in the right:
Dear son, if you come to the throne, strive to have that which befits a king, that is to say, that in justice and rectitude you hold yourself steadfast and loyal toward your subjects and your vassals, without turning either to the right or to the left, but always straight, whatever may happen. And if a poor man has a quarrel with a rich man, sustain the poor rather than the rich, until the truth is made clear, and when you know the truth, do justice to them.9
Indeed, commoners frequently allied themselves with their king, against their common rivals, the noblemen. On this too Saint Louis gives his son advice:
Preserve [your towns and cities] in the estate and the liberty in which your predecessors kept them, redress it, and if there be anything to amend, amend and preserve their favor and their love. For it is by the strength and the riches of your good cities and your good towns that the native and the foreigner, especially your peers and your barons, are deterred from doing ill to you. I well remember that Paris and the good towns of my kingdom aided me against the barons, when I was newly crowned.
Kings granted charters to individual towns or guilds, guaranteeing them wide freedom in business affairs, in return for a modest tax revenue. On the whole it worked quite well. English wool traders sent raw fleece to the free towns in Flanders, where the fullers and weavers wove it into cloth and sent it along to the town-republics in northern Italy and Tuscany.
There, for instance in Florence, the cloth would be dyed, and sent further east, to Venice and her trading ships, or overland to Constantinople and beyond. Cloth and other goods would be traded for spices, gold, herbal drugs, and so forth, with the encouragement of local rulers, but managed through private banking houses. A merchant might need “factors” or agents in several far-flung cities, Antwerp, Genoa, Hamburg, Constantinople, to whom he would write letters asking for credit. Thus we see in medieval Europe the beginnings of capitalism and home rule: of local independence and productive (in Italy often bloodily productive) economic rivalry.
Finally, there’s the favorite slur against the High Middle Ages, which has the added virtues of being a handy metaphor for anti-communism and persecution of women: witch-hunts and witch-burning. Witches were a real preoccupation of the High Middle Ages, right? Not really. Probably more people have been shot in American shopping malls and high schools than were executed for witchcraft in all of Europe from 1000–1300. The real hunts for witches began only after the bouts of mass hysteria in the wake of the Black Plague, which struck Europe in 1348 and flared up every twenty years or so until the nineteenth century. The most famous witch trials, of course, were conducted in 1700 by post-Reformation, post-Renaissance Puritans in Massachusetts, after demonology had become a “science.” Racialism would soon follow in the wake of the Enlightenment. The High Middle Ages were ignorant of these sciences, I admit. Still, the HIgh Middle Ages serve as the politically correct hitching post for any unsavory episodes in Western history.
When love and nature were richer
By now the reader should see that to call the people of the High Middle Ages “otherworldly” is as accurate as to say that their lives were drab and ignorant and miserable. We need to draw distinctions here.
In the darker corners of ancient Greek religion, which was about as sunny as paganism can be, there still lurked a fear of the tremendous forces of nature, and an urge, with sacrificial blood or ritual orgies, to placate them or to try to wrest them to one’s will. Hence would you see young maidens, at a feast for the wine-god Dionysus, carrying a huge wooden phallus in ritual procession. But Christianity drove out those gods and, as Chesterton puts it, made it possible for people once again to revel in nature with a free conscience. Long before the Renaissance, we witness a flourishing of art and literature that pays loving attention to the beauty of the natural world, even when it is God and not that earthly beauty that is the object of the artist’s ultimate desire.
We have Saint Francis of Assisi, that barefoot fellow, “Frenchy,” as we might call him by name, stripping himself of the fancy clothes his merchant-father provided for him, but in his burlap not stripping off his love for the fancy creatures of God’s world. So he sings in his famous hymn:
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong. (Canticle of Brother Sun, 17–19)
That love is sweetly captured in Giotto’s painting of Francis preaching to the birds, with a fellow friar nearby raising his hands in surprise and incomprehension, or in the amiable story of how Francis persuaded one Brother Wolf to stop harassing the good people of Gubbio, promising him a daily meal if he would leave them in peace.
Francis was not alone in this regard. Only someone who reveled in the humble and the earthy could give us Dante’s delicate description of a mother bird waiting for the dawn, so that she might fly from the nest to feed her chicks (Paradiso 23.1–9), or Chaucer’s portrait of the luscious pin-up wench Alison, who tweezed her eyebrows that were “arched and black as any sloe” (“The Miller’s Tale,” 3246), or these lines steeped in the sweat and grime of a good deer hunt, written by a great anonymous poet:
Ah they brayed and they bled and died by the banks, while the racing dogs ran right on their tails,
hunters with high horns hastening after,
with a cry so clear it could shatter the cliffs! (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1163–66)
Or we may see their taste for color, for the winsomeness of sky and leaf and flower, in the illuminated pages of the Duc de Berry’s Tres Riches Heures. My favorite page celebrates a truly Merry Christmas, with the work of that blessed time—feasting—rambunctiously going on, dogs and all, under the quiet order of the stars.
And those stars are filled with meaning. They are not random points of light in the sky, the debris of an old and meaningless explosion. They are signs in the book of God. Nature is all the greater in that it beckons beyond itself. If you take nature’s beauty to be final—if, like the old man in Chaucer’s “Merchant’s Tale,” you marry a frisky girl because a wife is a man’s sport and earthly paradise (1332), and that is all—you will be cruelly disappointed. “All flesh is grass,” says the prophet (Is. 40:6), and the people of the High Middle Ages were quick to acknowledge that judgment. Where are the snows of yesteryear?” asks the affable rake Francois Villon, considering the beauty of ladies unremembered.
The ruling wisdom had it that all this wealth of beauty—the leaping of Brother Fire, or the gleaming smile of a little girl as she meets her father beside a stream whose bed is encrusted with jewels (Pearl)—is meant to lead man to contemplate its Creator, whose beauty does not fade. Naturally, people do not contemplate God all the time, and the medieval authors will cheerfully recount their rascality, as when a friar seduces a dimwitted lady by dressing himself up as the angel Gabriel (Boccaccio, Decameron 4.2). Still the ideal is present and powerful. It beats warmly at the heart of the greatest thinkers and artists. Let’s take the greatest of those in turn: Dante and his theological master, Thomas Aquinas.
I was nine years old, says Dante, “when there appeared before my eyes the now glorious lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice,” that is, the woman who blesses, “even by those who did not know what her name was” (The New Life, II). From this chance encounter springs, in the transforming imagination of the poet, the allegory of love to which he devoted his poetic career. As he tells it, he fell in love with Beatrice, or rather this love overtook him, changing him from within. That is what happens when one encounters and submits to divine beauty,
... for where she goes
Love drives a killing frost into vile hearts
that freezes and destroys what they are thinking;
should such a one insist on looking at her,
he is changed to something noble or he dies. (The New Life,
Now of course a young man in love is prey to self-pity, and the callow Dante was no exception, as he relates to us his youthful infatuation. But after Beatrice dies young, and Dante has been jolted from his ensuing spiritual dullness by a vision of glory, he resolves to do for her what had never been done in honor of any woman before. The result will be the poem we call The Divine Comedy—wherein that earthly woman named Beatrice Portinari, whom Dante beheld and loved, will lead the poet’s vision to heaven and to the face of God. Nor is that simply a subject for a fascinating poem. Dante is quite serious about it; the hope enlists all the ardor of his mind and heart. For even after he writes his incomparable tribute, he says, he shall yearn for more:
And then may it please the One who is the Lord of graciousness that my soul ascend to behold the glory of its lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice, who in glory contemplates the countenance of the One qui est per omnia secula benedictus [who is for all generations blessed]. (The New Life, XLII)
Perhaps the reader is not interested in learning how a young love led to the wonder of The Divine Comedy. That would not surprise me. We find it hard to imagine how loving a pretty but otherwise seemingly ordinary woman can open the soul up to the vistas of paradise. That, too, without one’s ever having been granted a kiss. But that is the point. We cannot imagine it, not because the medievals lived in some gauzy daydream of another world, but because we do not feel as intensely as they the beauty of this or any world, “beauty” having been demoted to a matter of taste, as of crackers or postcards. Our teachers preach it as dogma. No doubt we experience beauty subjectively—I happen to find the polyphonic music of Palestrina wondrously complex and lovely, while your heart may rather be touched by the brooding fury of Beethoven. But to say, flatly, that the beauty of their works does not itself really exist has consequences. Cold and ugly modern art and atonal concerts are bad enough, but worse than those is the assertion that there is no real order in things; all is random and without purpose. And how can anyone fall in love with the random and purposeless? But medieval man’s faith in an ultimate and immutable beauty whetted the appetite. So for three centuries, almost everything that people write or preach or sing has to do with love, with passionate love. Dante is at the peak of a long tradition. “Now one who asks for a kiss,” writes the austere monk Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, “is in love. It is not for liberty that she asks, nor for an award, not for an inheritance nor even knowledge, but for a kiss... With a spontaneous outburst from the abundance of her heart, direct even to the point of boldness, she says, ‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth’.”
Bernard is talking about the faithful soul, longing for God. If such longings are hard for the modern heart to bear, we can turn to William of Aquitaine, the first great troubadour of Provence. In one song he pretends to be deaf and dumb so he can enjoy bedding down with two ladies at once. They give him a surefire test: they drag a big red cat down the side of his naked body, to make him cry out. When he still makes no sound, they let him have his way with them, maybe more than he’d wanted, for eight whole days. “No, no!” he moans at the end of the poem, “I cannot tell the vexation, it hurt so bad!” He is not, ahem, talking about the scratches he got from the cat.
The trick of it was, in art and in life, to find the harmony between earthly beauty and heavenly beauty, to fall so deeply in love that no earthly creature could finally satisfy the longing, although love could and did lead you along the way to that satisfaction. Or it could lead you astray from it, if you indulged a sinful love.
So Lancelot, after years of betraying his friend and king by sleeping with the gentle (and treacherous) Queen Guinevere, must turn from that love, if he would do right by himself, his king, his queen, and God. If he did not love the queen as his idol, he would have no problem setting her aside; and if he did not long for God, he would not set her aside. It is precisely the strong passion that we admire, and that we in our art cannot find the strength to celebrate. At the moment of his repentance Lancelot wept “as bitterly as if had seen the object of his dearest love lying dead before him, and with the desperation of a man at his wit’s end for grief” (The Quest of the Holy Grail).
That struggle between what we ought to love best and what we do love instead provides the medieval poet with terrifically fruitful ground to work. Should Isolde give way to her love for the handsome and courtly Tristan, even though she is married to his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall? Or is sexual desire too powerful to resist? Is that what the poet Beroul means when he has her drink the potion that turns her heart toward the young man? If love brings joy and life, why is it self-destructive?
Why does Chretien de Troyes have Lancelot cross a twenty foot long sword-bridge set on edge, maiming his bare hands and feet and knees, to save Guinevere, held in custody in a castle on the other side, kidnapped by a man who “loves” her as unreasonably as Lancelot does? Or, if you are an aristocratic lady at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, do you follow the advice of her chaplain Andrew, who says that Love demands that the beloved deny nothing to the lover? Or is the good priest winking at “courtly” amours, slyly revealing them for the follies they are?
The point is that in medieval song and poetry and art we are never far from the passions, but also never far from that divine Love that Dante says is his sole inspiration:
I’m one who takes the pen
when Love breathes wisdom into me, and go
finding the signs for what he speaks within. (Purgatory,
Then the artists could not take the passions for granted. “God is Love,” says Saint John (1 Jn. 4:8), and “God is not the author of confusion,” says Saint Paul (1 Cor. 14:33). So then if love brings confusion, as anyone with eyes open can see, we must distinguish between love and love, between passions that are licit and illicit, passions rightly ordered and disordered. In other words, precisely because they took the passion so seriously, medieval thinkers searched for a way to see how true human love springs from the love that comes from God and is God. Consideration of love brings us inevitably to theology.
Trope: Dancing angels and pinheads
Here we must debunk another charge against medieval thinkers: that they were divorced from the world, wasting centuries arguing about metaphysical trivia. Set aside for the moment whether, during their two hundred years of brightest glory, their metaphysical debates were in fact trivial. Were they divorced from the world?
Certainly there were mystics, as there are today (and as there will be in any age) whose imaginations soared into realms where only a contemplative can go. Richard of Saint Victor was one. He described, with painstaking attention to the progress of actual people on their spiritual journeys, how we climb, step by step, from contemplation of the material creatures around us to loving union with their Creator. Saint Bonaventure called such an ascent the mind’s journey into God, and he too insisted that the soul must begin by reading the Book of Nature, written by the hand of God.
If such language seems quaint, we should note that it is anchored in physical things that we can see and touch, here and now. No medieval thinker could say, with the Gnostic heretics of the first two centuries after Christ, or some German idealists after the Enlightenment, that this world is an evil illusion, a mere husk. The Incarnation of Christ—the enfleshing—forbids it. Christ was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. His mother nursed him at the breast. He worked with his carpenter father at the plane and the lathe. For the first time in Christian history, Christmas, the day that most powerfully celebrates the fleshliness of the Savior, assumes its place, second only to Easter, at the heart of the Christian calendar. It is from the High Middle Ages that we derive our first Christmas carols. It is Francis of Assisi, that earthy beggar and mystic, who constructs the first Christmas creche.
Then the things about us are blessed, as the Incarnation shows. It follows that we should pay them heed. Saint Albert the Great taught his students to do just that. Albert was by avocation a biologist, gathering and classifying examples of flora and fauna, and compiling accounts of creatures he saw, creatures described in books, and creatures reported by travelers (who do engage in exaggeration). In the same mind, Albert welcomed into his school the close study of Aristotle. Muslim philosophers in Spain and North Africa had long been fascinated by Aristotle’s works, and had been attempting, without much success, to reconcile his metaphysical deductions with the Koran. So the works of the man whom the medieval schoolmen came to honor as simply The Philosopher had been reintroduced into the West via translations and commentaries from the Arabic, particularly those of Averroes, whom they honored as The Commentator.
What was important about this? Aristotle insisted, against Plato, that everything we know, we learn first from the senses. Now, many medieval thinkers hedged, believing that our finest way of knowing is by direct intuition of the truth, an illumination by God. But many agreed with The Philosopher, as did the great student of Albert, Thomas Aquinas.
In his Summa Theologiae (The Encyclopedia of Theological Questions is a fair translation), Thomas aligns himself with one side of this vigorous debate, and insists that all of our knowledge, including our knowledge of God, comes to us first through the senses. That does not mean we are limited to knowing only what we can sense, he says, since the existence and operation of a cause we cannot sense can be inferred from its effects. Thomas, I’d like to assert, is not less of a rationalist and an empiricist than a modern scientist would be, but more. He allows reason a broad scope. He encourages us to see everything about us (including human passions), and draw rational conclusions from them, rather than limiting our attention only to those things we can place on the scales or measure with a ruler. Thomas combines the most precise metaphysical acuity with common sense, and in this regard he is both the best and the most typical of the medieval thinkers.
Let’s see how this reasoning, both practical and metaphysical, works in practice. Consider the question, “Is it ever morally justified to swerve from the letter of the civil law?” Thomas understands that, in answering this question, reason must begin with the everyday objects around us, and the situations in which we may find ourselves. That is where reason begins. But, since reason is a far more powerful tool than modern man believes, that is not where it ends. So if a man in fury wants you to return the sword he lent you, even though the law says you must return it, you can justly refuse. That’s because laws are created for the general case, and cannot foresee every event in which they might be used for harm. You must use prudence to apply the law to the circumstances. We of course agree with Aquinas here; it’s an easy case.
Yet there are moral absolutes, as patently offensive as that would be today, and these too are discoverable by reason. “Is it ever justified to tell a lie?” Thomas asks. Here, unlike the case of the man who wants to keep the sword from his hot-tempered friend, we are dealing with the very nature of man. We see that a dog, for example, wants food and water and a place to rest, but man is not satisfied only with these things. Man possesses an intellect. He hungers to know the truth, and his principal means of learning and teaching is language. To say what you know is not true, then, is to strike at the heart of who we are: “For since words are natural signs of the intellect, it is unnatural and uncalled for to use words to signify what is not in your mind. That is why [Aristotle] says that the lie is in itself crooked and to be avoided, while the truth is good and to be praised” (Summa Theol. 18.104.22.168). Here we see Aristotle taken seriously—not simply as an ancient thinker whose thoughts should be dissected, diagrammed, and analyzed—but as a philosopher whose conclusions about right and wrong, articulated in a most judgmental and politically incorrect way (“in itself crooked” vs. “good and to be praised”), ought to guide our actions.
While clear and absolute in his moral teachings, St. Thomas was not at all simplistic, regardless of what our more ethically-creative peers might say. One can, for instance, refrain from revealing the truth to wicked men, or refrain from speaking at all. The good sisters in The Sound of Music were shrewd Thomists, not lying to the Nazis pursuing the Von Trapp family, but neither telling them where they were, and managing to remove their car’s distributor cap to boot. It is a sign of our intelectual confusion that we can no longer fathom the difference between law and prudence; we sin with abandon, but will set a murderer free over a legal stutter.
But that flatfooted, earthbound, commonsense observation, that man alone among beasts hungers to know, leads Thomas to potent conclusions. For there is no other creature whose principal faculties are in vain. The dog has teeth, and there are deer for his prey. Man has a mind, and there are things around him to know, but these things by themselves fail to satisfy. I see a crystal, and I experience real pleasure in beholding it, testing it for hardness, chiseling it apart, learning why, chemically, it has its pale violet color. But if I investigated a million such, I would be no wiser about who I am than before. I want not only to know, but to know the highest things.
And in fact, Thomas affirms, we can know much about those highest things without the revelation of God. We see a table, a stream, a stalk of corn, and know, by experience, that none of these things need have been. They are contingent. If the carpenter had not worked the wood, there would be no table. If the earth had not had a sufficient mass, there would have been no atmosphere to hold the vapor for rain to fill the stream. If the
seed had not fallen to the earth, there would have sprung no corn. We can regard the whole world as a great collection of such things, no one of which need have been, though each of which, once it exists, is bound by the necessities governing it, as a droplet in the desert must evaporate. Then the collection itself, because it is only a collection, need not have been. But the world—the cosmos—exists: we see it. Therefore there must be, Thomas concludes, something whose existence is not contingent, but necessary in itself, “not possessing the cause of its necessity from somewhere else, but the cause of the necessity of other things” (Summa Theol. 1.2.3).
The attention to the question of God, then, is not browbeaten into the heads of docile scholars. It springs from the observable nature of man as a knowing creature, and from the observable order and insufficiency of the world. If we limit reason to detecting the hairs on a pussy willow preserved in a lump of coal, as fascinating as that may be, we will never accost those questions of greatest importance, as “What is this world for?” and “What is it good for me to be?” and “Where did I come from, and where am I going?” Perhaps, if medieval men had plied their minds to study hydraulics and optics and agriculture (and some of them did, preparing the way for the explosion of natural science in the Renaissance) then people would have had superior wells, and eyeglasses, and white bread. But Aquinas and Bonaventure, for all their stark differences on the question of how we know things, agreed that man, by that nature of his that we can see before our eyes, needs far more than wells and eyeglasses and white bread. The low bar set by our secular materialistic culture today makes it hard to comprehend, but maybe modern conveniences and healthy bodies are badly purchased at the price of modern vices and sick souls. Medieval Europe, we may have to admit, had its greatest minds aimed in a worthier direction.
So it is not true that there were no scientists and mathematicians then. Setting aside men like the number-wizard Fibonacci, who was exactly what we would call a mathematician, the schools were bursting with people who plied their reason, beginning with observations of visible things, to grasp after the truth; and with people who, beginning with what is bodily, came to understand things that are not bodily, and to examine their necessary characteristics. These too were their scientists, these too were their mathematicians.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? No medieval writer ever asked such a thing. But the question, which appears to have been the invention of a smug Enlightenment satirist, could be considered no different from “how many infinitesimals can fit between any two numbers, no matter how close they are,” the question that burst open Newton’s imagination as he invented the calculus. Nor would it have been absurd to imagine that a being can exist without the limitation of a body. At least one such Being, Thomas showed, must necessarily exist.
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