Trad 104 Herlihy

 The Middle Ages: Introductory Essays by David Herlihy:

Medieval Culture and Society, ed. by David Herlihy (New York: Harper Collins, 1968) I.

General Introduction Essays on medieval civilization require at the outset some definition of that awkward and misleading term, “medieval.” Perhaps they also require some apology for its use. For the modern scholarly understanding of the Middle Ages is now much different from the meaning given the concept at its birth. The authors of the notion of a “middle” age (and the creators of its venerable reputation for darkness) were the Italian humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Francesco Petrarch (1304-74), one of the first and greatest of their number, professed a stronger attachment and a closer spiritual kinship to the great classical writers than to his own medieval predecessors. The disdain he expressed for the allegedly idle speculations and bad Latin of the medieval authors soon became the fashionable slogan of the humanist movement. Apparently the first to use the precise words media tempestas, or Middle Age, was Giovanni Andrea, bishop of Andrea in Corsica, in a history of Latin poetry published by him in 1469. Characteristically, the humanists looked upon the centuries separating their own age from the distant brilliance of the classical world as a forlorn and barren time, devoid of memorable cultural achievements. In this Middle Age, good manners and good letters had both sunk nearly out of sight in a sea of triumphant barbarism. Never the victims of false modesty, the humanists roundly congratulated themselves and their times for restoring the arts in which the classical world had excelled. Foremost among those arts were the mastery of good manners and the ability to produce, and to appreciate, good literature. The modern view of the Middle Ages differs from this traditional concept on several fundamental counts. Confronting a now massive body of evidence, most modern scholars conclude that Western society in this medieval period must be considered neither stagnant nor uncreative. So considerable were the changes experienced in those centuries that most historians even doubt whether they may appropriately be regarded as parts of a single historical epoch. Europe at about the year 500 pretty much resembled the grim world conjured up and condemned by the humanists. Its predominantly rural society lived a poor, uncouth and often violent life, and achieved little originality in its literature or thought. But Europe by the thirteenth century had attained a much higher level of civilization. It boasted great cities, thriving agriculture and trade, complex governmental and legal systems, crowded and creative universities and magnificent cathedrals. Its literature, philosophy and art may be fairly compared with the finest produced in any other century of Western history. To do justice to the great and dramatic changes experienced by medieval society, to give recognition to this fundamental fact of growth, scholars today are prone to divide the single Middle Age of traditional historiography into separate epochs, each quite distinct from the others. The chronological division outlined and followed here, although one of many proposed, seems to be gaining considerable favor among historians. The centuries from the fall of the Roman empire in the West to about the year 1000, which may be simply called the “early Middle Ages,” have a certain basic unity. These centuries constitute the true “Dark Ages,” if any period of Western history really deserves that opprobrious title. They are dark for two reasons.

Comparatively few documents have survived to illuminate them for us, and fewer still are the literary or artistic works produced in these times which could be considered major cultural monuments. But the early Middle Ages still made fundamental contributions to the formation of the new Western civilization. The great theme of their history is the emergence of Europe, and the beginnings of a distinctively Western or European culture. There was no “Europe” in ancient times, in the sense of a traditional association of Western peoples, retaining their identity but sharing certain common cultural assumptions and Ideals. This association of peoples, ultimately including Latins, Celts, Germans, Slavs and others, this true Europe of cultural history, was born in the early Middle Ages. It resulted from the divisions of the ancient Roman empire, the migrations of the barbarians, the conquests of the Franks, and the conversions of the Latin Christian Church. The first, truly Western culture was also a product of these centuries. It was based in large part upon a fusion of three prior cultural traditions. These were the classical civilization of the Roman empire, the religious heritage of Judeo-Christianity, and the popular or “vulgar” cultures of the Western peoples, including the barbarians. The early Middle Ages could claim few brilliant cultural accomplishments, but the period did create a stable social and cultural framework for Western civilization and pointed the way towards its later, great achievements. The years from about 1000 to 1350 form the central or the high Middle Ages. This was the great creative period of medieval civilization.

From about the year 1000, European peoples began to grow, in numbers, in territory, in wealth, skills and learning. Against the background of expanding frontiers, crusades, rising towns and a growing trade, medieval society also embarked upon a series of bold cultural innovations. New schools grew up in the cities, and universities developed out of many of them: The university in turn ranks as one of the Middle Ages’ most influential institutional creations. Scholars within the schools created a novel and even audacious system of thought known as scholasticism. Medieval culture was enriched with the emergence of distinctive social and literary attitudes concerning women, love, chivalry and romance. For the first time, nearly all the major vernacular tongues of Europe could lay claim to masterpieces, and in all these languages, traditions of literary expression were established which have since remained lively and unbroken. “Modern” European literature, someone has remarked, begins in the twelfth century. Perhaps modern art does too. The art and architecture known as Romanesque which dates from this period is the first great artistic style properly indigenous to the West. It also marks the beginning of a rich tradition of artistic production which has similarly remained continuous to the present. Our modern civilization is in fact much closer in type as well as time to the society and culture of the high Middle Ages than it is to the world of the ancient Mediterranean. For this reason, some historians have dared to see in these transformations of the central Middle Ages a major turning point in Western history, marking the emergence of Ideals, attitudes and traditions of behavior which have since remained a permanent Part of our own “modern” civilization. From the early fourteenth century, numerous catastrophes — plagues, famines, wars and social disturbances — struck the medieval world, and this somber experience introduces the third and final period of medieval history. This period is the late or closing Middle Ages (ca. 1350-1500). During these years of dislocations and disasters, medieval civilization changed in tone. A new extravagance and a corresponding lack of balance, restraint and plain good sense appeared in the traditional practices of chivalry and piety. In thought and religion, a new skeptical and critical spirit emerged. Many philosophers and theologians turned to a critical and partially destructive revaluation of older systems of thought and belief.

Amid extravagance and criticism, the cultural unity and consensus of the early Middle Ages began to disintegrate. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Western world was already moving towards that system of cultural pluralism which has characterized its civilization in the modern age. In view of the great changes experienced by Western society between 500 and 1500, is there still sufficient reason for speaking of a “middle” age? There seems to be at least one justification for the continued use of the term: Europeans of the period did preserve a certain agreement and consensus, founded upon their allegiance to a single Church and a common ideal of Christendom. The end of that unity-and it was badly weakened well before the Reformation-marks the end of a properly “medieval” culture. But the term should not suggest, as the humanists intended, that medieval culture is something foreign to our own. Many ideas and ideals of the Middle Ages have exerted a permanent influence upon the culture of the modern world and have been a permanent source of enrichment for it. In this collection of sources concerned with medieval society and culture, we shall follow this tripartite division of medieval history. The documents assembled for each of these three periods are intended to serve two purposes. An initial selection will illustrate for each period its society and social milieu. The second group of documents will give examples of the chief forms of literary expression and illustrate some of the characteristic cultural attitudes of the age. In surveying so lengthy a period, the editor is well aware that he has left poorly represented some centuries, some countries, and some types of medieval sources. But no group of selected readings can do justice to the enormous range and volume of the surviving documents of medieval civilization. Perhaps this anthology may at least stimulate in the reader a deeper appreciation for and wider interest in the rich and still living heritage of the medieval world. If it does, then it will have served its purpose.


RECOMMENDED READINGS Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages (3rd ed., New York: Knopf, 1962). P. Boissonnade, Life and Work in Medieval Europe (Fifth to Fifteenth Centuries), trans. with an Introduction by Eileen Power (New York: Knopf, 1927; Harper Torchbooks, 1964, TB 1141. Frederick C. Copleston, Medieval Philosophy (London: Methuen, 1952; New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961, TB 376). C. G. Crump and E. F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926). Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, I955) David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1962; New York: Random House, Vintage V 246). Paul Lacroix, France in the Middle Ages. Customs, Classes and Social Conditions (New York: Ungar, 1963). Gordon Leff, Medieval Thought. St. Augustine to Ockham (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1959; Baltimore: Penguin Books, A 424). Sydney Painter, Medieval Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1951). Eileen Power, Medieval People (10th ed., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963; University Paperbacks UP 49). F. J. E. Raby, A History of Christian-Latin Poetry from the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages (2nd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, I953). F. J. E. Raby, A History o f Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934). H. O. Taylor, The Medieval Mind (4th ed., 2 vols., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, I959).


Part Two: The Central Middle Ages, ca. 1000-1350 Introduction

From about the year 1000, profound changes become evident on virtually all levels of medieval social and cultural life. These changes make of the central Middle Ages (ca. 1000-1350) certainly the most vigorous, and probably also the most creative period of medieval history. A. Countryside and City One of the forces active in transforming European society in the central Middle Ages was a sizeable growth in Population. We are not sure when exactly this considerable Population expansion began, but it seems to have been well under way by the eleventh century. We are not even sure when exactly it ended; Population size had probably stabilized well before it was drastically cut back by the Black Death of 1348. Perhaps it had reached its medieval peak even before 1300. It is, however, certain that Europe by the late thirteenth century had become a remarkably crowded (perhaps even overcrowded) continent. With a Population surging upward at home, Europeans from the eleventh century were vigorously and, on the whole, successfully beyond virtually all the land frontiers they confronted. The crusades, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095, are the most s example of Western expansion in the central Middle Ages. But they were probably not the most significant. In the same period, German colonists were penetrating beyond the Elbe in a movement known as the “push to the east” (Drang nach Osten). By 1350, they had tripled the area of German settlement over what it had been in Carolingian times. In the Iberian peninsula, the reconquista or reconquest, led by the northern Christian states, exerted a strong and ultimately irrepressible pressure against the Moorish frontier. From the early eleventh century, in another manifestation of Europe’s aggressive vitality, Norman soldiers of fortune were driving the Byzantines and Muslims from southern Italy and Sicily and bringing these lands into the Latin-Christian cultural sphere. At the same time, fleets from the mercantile cities of Italy were sweeping Saracen power from the waters of the western Mediterranean and restoring its islands to Latin rule. Within Europe, an internal frontier of equal importance developed. Colonists energetically attacked the extensive forests which still covered much of the European north. By ca.1300, these “great clearances” (grands defrichements) had won for the plow a larger area of France than is cultivated today. In other places (as, for example, in the Low Countries or the fen regions of eastern England), settlers were pushing back the sea or draining marshes, in order to gain still wider fields to plant. Population growth, vigorous external expansion and internal colonization, inevitably had a profound impact upon Europe’s social institutions and practices. Within the countryside, perhaps the most fundamental social change was the gradual erosion of serfdom, and the parallel breakdown of the isolation and self-sufficiency of the medieval manor. With a growing population and an abundance of labor, it was no longer necessary to bind men tightly to the soil. With beckoning frontiers so accessible, it was difficult anyway to hold men on the land against their wills. Serfdom had also imposed traditional restrictions concerning the use of the land and froze the levels of rent. Even the lord could not unilaterally change the immemorial customs of the manor. Landlords who wished to reorganize their properties in the interest of higher returns had first to free the serfs if they wished to free the land.

Already by the twelfth century, the manor was losing in importance to other, more flexible forms of agricultural exploitation. The chronology of peasant emancipation differs widely in the various parts of Europe, although in all areas a similar trend is noticeable. In France, Italy, western Germany and Spain, serfdom had ceased to weigh upon the majority of the rural population probably by 1200. England, an the other hand, was rather exceptional. In the thirteenth century, it seems even to have experienced a “manorial reaction.” In order to supply cereals to the new and demanding urban markets of the north, English lords revitalized and strengthened the traditional system of manorial agriculture and the labor obligation upon which it depended. In thirteenth-century England, serfdom enjoyed an Indian summer. But its demise was only delayed, not avoided, and in England too serfdom was in manifest decline not long after 1300. With the emancipation of the serfs, lords largely abandoned the direct cultivation of their own demesnes. They preferred to lease out their properties, often for high rents, to peasant cultivators, who were in turn free to farm the land pretty much as they saw fit. The nobles of Europe were thus gradually transformed from a class of direct cultivators to one of rentiers. The widespread decline of serfdom and manorial agriculture I freed not only the serfs, but their former masters too. The lords were no longer needed to supervise plantings or plowings, or to watch the Stewards charged with such duties. They could now more freely spend extended time away from home. They could travel widely over Europe, and join pilgrimages and crusades to distant shores. Perhaps most important of all, they could gather with their peers at certain favored centers or courts. For the first time, a vigorous court life sprang to life in the West, and with it came a new, rich, lay culture and literature. Southern France in the twelfth century was particularly renowned for the elegance and sophistication of its noble courts. Most famous of them was probably that of the counts of Aquitaine at Poitiers. Among the notables who reflected its influence was Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife first of Louis VII of France and then of Henry 11 of England. At court, the nobleman learned the new forms of “courteous” deportment. He was educated to the new, chivalrous attitudes concerning war, women and love, and helped form the audience for new types of literary expression.


It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of courtly society in the development of the European vernacular literatures. One other segment of European society directly benefitted from the new freedom and mobility of the population: the towns. If the nobles of southern France liked to gather at the courts of great princes, their Italian counterparts rather preferred the city. Italian landlords and rentiers took to spending a good part of the year in the country’s many towns, and their presence added substantially to the remarkable economic and political strength of the Italian communes. Along with the appearance of feudal courts, this revitalization of urban life ranks as the great social novelty of the central Middle Ages. Historians have long argued futilely about the exact social origins of the European bourgeoisie. They have disputed whether the urban population was principally recruited from merchants or landlords, rich men or poor.


Today, most historians prudently consider that towns were socially complex from their births. Their growth primarily reflects the new mobility, energy and enterprise of medieval society. Paralleling this rise of towns, and lending it added thrust, was the development of new forms of economic endeavor. In Carolingian times, Europe’s commerce had remained sluggish and anemic. From the eleventh century, Latin merchants came to manifest a hitherto unaccustomed vitality, as if to compensate for centuries of past lethargy. In Europe’s south, Italians were the leaders in building new trade routes across the Mediterranean to Africa and to the Levant. At the same time, they were passing over the Alps, in a successful search for customers and partners.

From about 1100 to 1300, the great fairs of the French province of Champagne served as the entrepot where the wool cloth and raw materials of the north were exchanged for the luxuries of the Mediterranean. In the north, Frisian, Norse, Flemish, later German and English traders were similarly throwing lines of exchange across the Baltic and North Seas, linking England, Flanders, Scandinavia, Germany and Russia in a tight, lively and profitable trading area. Large-scale manufacture in the cities was not much behind large scale trade in developing, and was greatly stimulated by it. The greatest of all medieval industries was the manufacture of woolen cloth. The oldest centers of this important industry were the towns of Flanders, where a tradition of wool manufacture had existed apparently since Roman times. At the height of its prosperity in the thirteenth century, the Flemish industry was a true pioneer of capitalist business and industrial organization. It brought its raw materials from distant suppliers, and its finished products reached still more distant markets. It employed large quantities of capital, and supported a large and often restless body of laborers. But it was not for long unique in Europe. By the late thirteenth century, the wool industry in Italian cities rivaled it in size, and probably surpassed it in the sophistication of its business and marketing techniques. By the thirteenth century, European society had undergone a remarkable transformation since Carolingian times. No longer overwhelmingly rural in character, no longer differentiated almost exclusively into peasants, warriors and clergy, no longer poor, the new European society had reached unprecedented levels of size, mobility, wealth and complexity. Besides peasants, priests and warriors, it now counted in its numbers merchants and artisans (even a nascent urban proletariat), and strong professional classes of lawyers, administrators and scholars. It is not too much to say that the great social experience of the central Middle Ages was growth, and a vigorous exploration of new avenues of social endeavor in almost all areas of life.


This sense of movement and taste of success encouraged a willingness to experiment in cultural fields too, and nourished a reassuring confidence that discoveries could be made. B. Schools and scholasticism One field of medieval culture which was quickly and decisively touched by the new social changes was education. Up until the late eleventh century, the monastery, usually rural in location, had dominated medieval education. But it had worked under several handicaps, which help explain the modest originality of early medieval thought. The humility and personal self-effacement expected of the monks were not likely to inspire a spirit of bold inquiry among them, nor did strict monastic discipline leave much room for the expression of daring ideas. The contemplative and mystical inclinations of the monks were also infertile ground for the development of a taste for and a tradition of hard, methodical analysis. Moreover, the isolation of the monasteries, staffed by men professionally committed to flee the world, made communications difficult, and upon good communications the dynamics of scholarly dialogue always depend. From the eleventh century, a new kind of school replaced the monastic as the most influential educational institution of the medieval world. This was the bishop’s school. It was of course located in the City. Bishops had always been responsible for the education of their clergy and were supposed to maintain schools, but their efforts tended to be ineffective (or at least scarcely visible) amid the economically and culturally starved cities of the early Middle Ages. On the other hand, the bishop’s school was the direct beneficiary of the new size, movement, wealth and vitality of urban society after the eleventh century.

The bishop’s school was distinctly more favorable than the monastery to the pursuit of creative scholarship. It was not isolated in the countryside, nor ascetic in character, nor did the scant discipline it maintained weigh heavily upon scholarly freedom. Both teachers and students were initially subject to a minimum of obligations. Both roamed at will from school to school in search of the best ideas, companions, teachers, or the most liberal atmosphere. During the twelfth century, the schools in northern France acquired a particular reputation for scholarship. Chartres, for example, became the center for the study of Platonic philosophy (or what little was then known of it) and of rhetoric and belles-lettres. Paris acquired the highest prestige for logical and philosophical learning, which was won for it largely through the brilliance of Peter Abelard (1079-1142) , of whom more will presently be said. The medieval university in the north of Europe developed directly out of the bishop’s school.

The word universitas was a common medieval term for “guild.” The university was exactly a guild of masters, organized like every other guild for two purposes: the defense and advancement of the art, and the training of young people to assure its survival over generations. The stimuli which gave rise to such a guild organization among teachers were undoubtedly many, but one issue had a particular importance. This was the right of conferring the licentia docendi, or the “license to teach.” In the course of the twelfth century, the bishop’s school had found it necessary to impose some restriction upon the right of lecturing, in order to protect students from incompetent or unorthodox teachers. A man aspiring to be a master had first to offer proof of learning and accomplishment, and if judged competent was granted permission to lecture publicly.

This licentia docendi was in fact the first academic degree, and was for long the only one. It was initially awarded by the chancellor, the bishop’s secretary. However, the established masters felt that they, or their guild, rather than a non-academic episcopal official, should have the right of judging the qualifications of prospective teachers. They struggled to win that right for themselves, with eventual success. The masters of the school at Paris probably had gained this prerogative by 1200 (at least they then had a functioning guild, making Paris the oldest university in the north). We know that they certainly had it by 1231; it is mentioned in the great papal privilege of that date, the bull Parens Scientiarum, which was granted to the university of masters at Paris. University origins in southern Europe were somewhat different. The academic strengths of the south were not logic and theology, but medicine and law. These were traditionally taught in Professional schools, of which little is really known for the early medieval period. About the time that guilds of masters were gaining control of the bishop’s school in the north, these professional schools were likewise falling under the authority of guilds. At the oldest of the southern universities, Bologna in Italy, and at others too, the dominant guild was made up of students rather than masters. The guild of students regulated the curriculum, the content of courses, and even the fees to be charged. While differing in origins, universities in both north and south were largely self-governing institutions, with power exercised by established or prospective masters.

For the first time in its history, Western society possessed in the university an institution which existed exclusively for the purpose of advancing learning and assuring its survival over generations. Understandably, its appearance brought a new dynamism into the intellectual life of the West. The rise of the universities parallels an equally important social change: the emergence of a class of Professional scholars. The first students, the “wandering scholars” or clerici vagantes, enjoyed, even among contemporaries, a reputation for boisterous living. A body of their student songs has survived, known as Goliardic poems, and these show that many scholars were indeed deeply interested in wine, women and song. But the charm and gaiety of their spirit should not obscure the uniqueness of the medieval university population. It was a true intelligentsia, the first intelligentsia in European history, and its influence an cultural development was thereafter profound. Within the framework of the new schools, there also appeared a new style and system of thought, traditionally known as scholasticism. Scholasticism, in its broadest sense, means the teaching characteristic of the medieval schools. In its narrower, and more usual meaning, it refers to the content of learning specifically characteristic of the bishop’s school from about 1100, and then of the university which succeeded it. The great intellectual interest of monastic scholarship in the early Middle Ages had been the proper understanding of Sacred Scripture through exegesis. Scholasticism, an the other hand, went much beyond textual Interpretation. The basis of its method was “dialectic,” which means the art or science of determining the logical relations of propositions within a discourse. Taking propositions initially from Christian dogma, then also from natural philosophy as expounded by Aristotle, the scholastics were committed to examining what if any logical ties connected them. They thus hoped to make of Christian theology a logically coherent and consistent System of thought. They ultimately sought to achieve a total synthesis of theology and natural philosophy, which would mirror the whole of intelligible reality.

The first thinker to manifest these new intellectual interests was St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) . His own career excellently illustrates the mobility and action characteristic of the age. A north Italian by birth, he became successively abbot of Bec in Normandy (from 1078) and archbishop of the primal See of England (from 1093 ) . He played a prominent rote in the ecclesiastical and secular politics of the day. His intellectual interests were no less enterprising. In his work known as the Proslogium, Anselm tried to prove without question the existence of God. He approached the problem in a novel manner; he set out to Show that there was a necessary, logical connection between the traditional, Judeo-Christian concept of what God was, and the equally traditional affirmation that he was. Men thought of God as a perfect being, or, as Anselm put it, a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. But such a being, he argued, must have existence. If it did not, then a still greater being could be conceived which did exist. But this would be contrary to the original premise, that God, and only God, was the being than which nothing greater can be conceived. To avoid this logical contradiction, men must accept that the God they conceive of as a perfect being must also possess the perfection of existence. This reasoning has since been called the “ontological” argument for the existence of God; the term “ontological” means that it is based an the “being” or character of concepts, rather than an direct experience. In his Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), Anselm attempted with still greater boldness to show the logical relationships linking three fundamental Christian beliefs: the infinite nature of God, the fact of original sin, and the incarnation of Christ. Anselm argued that the degree of an offense was measured by the dignity of the one offended. Original sin was therefore an act of infinite evil, as it offended God himself. But the worth of an apology or act of atonement was measured by the dignity of the one conferring the apology. Man, therefore, while capable of a sin of infinite magnitude, could not as a finite creature offer equal atonement. Only a man of infinite worth could do this, 1.e. a man who was also God. If God wished to save man, argued Anselm, the only suitable way for him to do so was to allow his son to become one of them, to offer atonement for the human race. Anselm defined his method as “faith seeking to understand” ( fides quaerens intellectum). He stayed within the realm of dogma, and he never questioned its truth. But his search for logical connections and consistency (i.e. his search for the reasons why something was true, forintellectus) still had sensational implications. It implied that unaided human reason could explore the logical and metaphysical laws within which even God operated. Men could hope to understand in some measure the ways of God, and even in some measure rethink his thoughts. This assumption that God acted in ways consistent with human logic struck many contemporaries (including the great Cistercian saint, Bernard of Clairvaux) as dangerously arrogant.

To say that God acted with logical consistency seemed to impinge upon his sovereign freedom, and to claim that men could understand the suitability of even some of his actions was to cater to human pride. There is little doubt that the early scholastics did manifest an extraordinary intellectual boldness, and a courage to match. Ranking with Anselm as the founder of scholasticism was Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard, a brash young man from Brittany, established the reputation of the school of Paris by his logical powers and brilliant teaching. To Show the necessity of dialectic he wrote a work called Sic et Non (“Yes and No”), the first version of which appeared probably in 1122. By later revisions, the work eventually came to include 158 theological questions (“Is God the author of evil, or no?” “Has God free will, or no?”). In response to these questions, Abelard lined up citations from the Bible and the fathers of the Church, some responding “yes” and some “no,” in apparent flat contradiction with each other. The clear implication was that one either reconciled the discrepancies through dialectic, or conceded that the faith was a tissue of contradictions. Abelard’s Sic et Non also helped define the scholastic method. Scholars after him continued to pose formal questions and continued to cite conflicting authorities. They then went on, as Abelard did not, to respond to the question and explain away the contradictions. Sic et Non thus solved the utility and even the necessity of dialectical reasoning, within theology, and helped build a model for its systematic application.


This birth of dialectic forms part of the intellectual movement now usually called the “Renaissance of the twelfth century.” Until as late as 1200, the prestige of dialectic in the schools was rivaled by that of literary and rhetorical studies and by the cultivation of good writing. Chartres was the great center of these literary arts. But by the end of the century, dialectic was carrying the day, and went on to dominate the intellectual interests of the new universities. One reason for this was the new availability of the complete works of Aristotle. By the late twelfth century, scholars in Spain and elsewhere were busy translating Aristotle’s metaphysical works from the Arabic into Latin. By the thirteenth century, translations were being made directly from the Greek. The Aristotelian corpus for the first time confronted Western scholars with an example of a thoroughly systematic and rationalistic natural philosophy. Aristotelian logic and philosophy seemed to offer a sure, scientific way to the truth, and the method claimed the enthusiastic allegiance of the brightest scholastic minds. The study and appreciation of belles-lettres faded from the medieval schools, and were not to be revived until the humanist movement of the fourteenth century.

The newly recovered Aristotle, and perhaps even more the rationalizing, confident spirit of the age which found him attractive, seriously challenged the hitherto dominant attitudes of medieval intellectual culture. Aristotle, to begin with, stressed the rational composition of the world, and the ability of human reason to know its order. He also stressed an empirical approach to reality. There was nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses, and sensible nature was not therefore a cloud obscuring man’s vision or a temptation ensnaring him with its beauties. It was the one, perhaps the only road to truth. Nature, rationally constructed, was also authoritative. All beings, including man, tended towards their natural ends; human appetites were therefore good, as they were implanted by nature to assure the fulfillment of its design. Rather than a defective if not an evil guide to life, nature was in fact the measure by which all things in this world should be judged. Aristotelian rationalism and naturalism seemed antithetical to the traditional Christian assumptions concerning the weakness of human faculties, the inadequacies of nature, and the necessity of revelation and grace. The reconciliation of Aristotle, and the viewpoint he represented, with long-accepted cultural and religious attitudes was the great philosophical Problem of the thirteenth century. The great figure in this work was Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1227-74). The son of a nobleman of southern Italy, Thomas was destined by his family to become a monk, but he was attracted to the new Dominican Order. He studied at Cologne and Paris, and began to lecture at the University of Paris in 1257.

In a relatively short life, he produced works of prodigious size and intellectual density, and touched upon a wide variety of subjects of interest to Christian thought. His greatest work, an attempt at a systematic examination (introduction, he called it modestly) of and to Christian theology was his Summa Theologica. Although left unfinished at his death, it still represents the greatest single achievement of medieval scholastic thought. Aquinas presents a fascinating example of the scholastic, synthesizing mind at its most resourceful. Rarely does he accuse prior philosophers of error, even those who take positions apparently contradictory to his own. By drawing subtle and perceptive distinctions, he rather seeks to take from them the element of accurate insight which he feels that they must possess, to illuminate further the truth as he sees it. Through dialectic, he sought to reconcile not only philosophical and theological propositions, but entire viewpoints; specifically the Aristotelian emphasis on the power of reason and the goodness of nature, with the Christian emphasis on the need for a special divine intervention through grace. It may also be said that Aquinas was seeking to reconcile and thus to save two cultural experiences–the sense of human helplessness, which was the inheritance of the troubled period of the declining Roman empire; and the new confidence in human power, which accompanied the vigorous growth of European society in the central Middle Ages. Thomas constantly reiterates the theme that reason is powerful but not powerful enough, that nature is good but not good enough. Both can take man far, but God has made it possible for him, through revelation and redemption, to go farther still.


C. The literature of feudal society

Modern literature, it may justly be argued, begins in the period of the central Middle Ages. Before 1000, literary survivals are sporadic and discontinuous, and a major family of European tongues –the Romance languages–is hardly represented at all by literary texts. From the late eleventh century, on the other hand, literary production in most European languages becomes abundant and thereafter nearly uninterrupted. The richest of the medieval literary languages are probably the Romance tongues, especially the two great dialects of France, the langue d’oil spoken in the regions north of the Loire river, and thelangue d’oc of the south. But all the vernaculars enter upon a great creative age after 1100. Only English, after a rich Anglo-Saxon period, was delayed in its development by the Norman conquest of 1066 and by the French, aristocratic culture it imposed upon the land. Moreover, the same period witnesses the formation of a new literary style or tradition which has exerted a lasting influence in Western letters. If the great heritage of antiquity was the classical Spirit, the central Middle Ages brought to life the equally influential traditions of romance. This vernacular upsurge was initially associated with the lay aristocracy of medieval society, the warrior class of nobles and knights. European nobles from the eleventh century were touched with a passion for movement, which carriedWestern knights an pilgrimages and crusades to regions well beyond Europe’s own frontiers.

The nobility was also marked by a tendency, evident at an especially early date in southern France, to congregate in courts. The experiences of both the war camp and the court deeply influenced the earliest literature of feudal society. We shall discuss that literature under three principal categories: the heroic epic, the lyric poetry of the troubadours, and the courtly romance. The literature of the war camp is best represented by the heroic epic. The epic was one of the most popular forms of vernacular literature. The oldest and best of these epics is the Song of Roland. It was written in the language of the north of France probably in the last quarter of the eleventh century. It was thus nearly contemporary with the First Crusade, and authentically reflects its militant spirit. Roland is also the first representative of an extremely abundant tradition. The surviving number of heroic epics (or chansons de geste) written in French between the late eleventh and early fourteenth centuries falls somewhere between 80 and 100, and they include certainly over one million lines. The second major genre of feudal literature appears at nearly the same time, but reflects a much different social milieu. This was the lyric poetry of thetroubadours, who sang in the language of “oc.” Of some 400 troubadours from whom works have survived, the earliest known is William IX, duke of Aquitaine, who lived from 1071 to 1127. Troubadour lyric poetry reflected the life not of the battle camp, but the mores of the Courts of southern France, where women had come to acquire a Position of extraordinary influence. They had become what they were long to remain in many Western societies: the true arbiters of polite manners and acceptable morals. Troubadour poetry, influenced by the new courtly refinements, is therefore the first “courtly” literature.

The favorite theme of the troubadours was love, and they handled love in a manner unprecedented in the Western tradition. To the troubadours, love was something much more than a pleasant diversion or a way to sensuous gratification. It was a redemptive Power. Love saved its devotee from an initial despondency (the lover was always suffering at the beginning of his courtship), took him through hope, and, if his lady was favorable, rewarded him with unequaled joy. Not only the lover but nature around him was transformed by this Power; the world became decked in unending spring, the earthly equivalent of the Christian heaven. The novelty of this interpretation of the redemptive powers of love is so striking that historians have devised numerous theories to explain it. Some see fit as a foreign import, perhaps from the Islamic world, where a similar poetry seems to have been cultivated. Others consider it a reflection of the peculiar social importance gained by women in the noble class of southern France. Still others regard it as a Christian heresy, or at least a parody of Christian mysticism. It has also been called a parody of the feudal relationship between Lord and vassal (the lady is constantly addressed in terms appropriate to a feudal lord). While much mystery surrounds its origins, there is no doubt about its impact on both manners and literature. Troubadour lyric poetry, in its praises of women and of love, established the great cliches of the Western love tradition.


All the literatures of western Europe developed a love poetry comparable in attitude and style to that of the troubadours. Their counterparts in northern France, where love poetry became exceedingly popular after 1150, were trouvères. Before 1200, in German lands, the Minnesinger, or poet of love, was similarly emulating the troubadour adoration of love and women. Of these, the greatest lyric poet, hardly in fact to equaled as a master of verse in the entire history of German literature, was Walther von der Vogelweide (d. 1228). Troubadour conventions also influenced Italian literature, which was considerably less precocious than the French. Italian lyric poets were being patronized in the south-Italian Court of Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1198-1250). In the last decades of the century, a group of Tuscan poets, with Dante at their Center, were experimenting with a new style of love poetry, called the “sweet new style” (dolce stil nuovo). They tried to bring authentic sentiment into their poems, and to avoid the more stilted conventions of the early troubadour poetry, but their work remains very much within tradition of courtly love. The third important genre of the literature of feudal society was later than these first two in developing, and was in many ways a combination of them both. This was the courtly romance, which might be written in either prose or poetry. Northern France and Germany have left us our richest heritage of these colorful narratives. Stories were drawn from a wide variety of sources.

The romance of Aucassin and Nicolete, written about 1200 partly in verse and partly in prose and unique for that reason, has been traced back to Arabic sources. Tristan and Iseult, perhaps the most poignant of the medieval love stories, is clearly beholden to Celtic folklore. These abundant stories tended to divide according to their material into three groups or cycles. There was a cycle of Charlemagne, of Alexander the Great, but richest of all were the stories dealing with the sixth-century British king Arthur and his company of knights. Arthur was undoubtedly a historical figure, but the Arthur of these romances is fashioned very much after the ideals of twelfth-century chivalry. The exact origins of this enormously wealthy collection of stories centering on Arthur’s court are still very obscure, and it is hard to judge the relative contributions made by folklore, by learned ecclesiastical scholars, or by imaginative writers working with little more than a few traditional names. Arthur is mentioned sporadically in early medieval histories, but the basis of his fame was the publication about 1137 of the Histories of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey devoted five books to Arthur, and has given us our oldest abundant collection of stories concerning him. From 1150, medieval romancers were turning out narratives in great volume. Chretien de Troyes was probably the most gifted of the French authors, and is famed for his exquisitely contrived narratives inspired by Arthurian legends. In German, Gottfried von Strassburg produced probably the most effective version of the popular romance, Tristan and Iseult. Another popular theme was the quest for the grail, a sacred amulet, perhaps the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. Only a perfect knight could find it, and perfection was judged by numerous, exotic tests. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, written in German, is probably the most polished version of the grail legend. The great contribution of courtly literature was its introduction of attitudes, ideas and values which have since remained the basis of the romantic tradition.


The romantic characteristics of this literature are its love of the distant and the mysterious, its delight in magic, the favor it shows to characters with extravagant attributes of strength, virtue or beauty. More fundamentally, this literature stressed the supreme importance of emotion and sentiment in human life. The way to an understanding of the world, to happiness itself, was not through the intellect, but through feeling, sentiment and love. The courtly lover, in his journey from despondency to joy, went through a kind of sentimental education, an emotional ascension, which equipped his soul with powers to discern harmony and taste joy. This idea that the heart too has its truth, and that man is wise to pursue it, is at the foundation of the romantic tradition. While the scholastics were helping form the Western intellect, the troubadours and romancers were simultaneously educating Western Sentiments.


D. The literature of the towns

Historians of medieval culture have traditionally distinguished feudal literature (i.e. works intended for a noble audience) from that devised for the entertainment of a wider social group, including especially the new urban classes. In the first category are placed the heroic epics, and the courtly lyrics and romances; in the second, the fabliaux and fables, notably the stories dealing with Reynard the Fox. Today the tendency is to recognize that medieval literature cannot be classified too rigorously along social or class lines. Both courtly and bourgeois literature often make use of the same material. Town literature sometimes even parodies courtly themes, and this assumes that the audience would be familiar with them. While it would be wrong to imply that medieval literature developed in categories rigidly defined by social classes and completely isolated from each other, it still remains permissible to describe certain genres as primarily appealing to an urban audience, and reflective of its taste. The fabliaux, one of the most important of these genres, means “little fables.” More exactly, they were short stories, written in French in eight-syllabled, rimed couplets. The great age for their composition extended from the late twelfth to the middle fourteenth century. According to the perhaps too strict Standards of a modern scholar (Per Nykrog), there are 160 stories which may be accurately calledfabliaux. The fabliaux differ from the courtly romances an several counts. Rather than dwelling on distant and exotic events, they treat of people and scenes familiar from daily life. They thus introduce a new note of social realism into medieval literature.

Their plots are frequently racy, not to say obscene. They share nothing of the idealism of the courtly romance. They are vicious in their characterization of women, who are presented as quarrelsome, greedy, lecherous and faithless. They also hurl shafts at the clergy and the monks, venal officials and ignorant peasants. They are little concerned with character analysis or development. Their mark is fast narrative action, and their tone is almost always humorous. The distinctive feature of the fabliaux is that they represent probably the first literary genre intended not to teach, improve or inspire, but simply to entertain. They are a literature of pure diversion. Similar to the fabliaux in spirit were the fables, after the manner of Aesop. The most abundant of fables were those recounting the adventures of Reynard the Fox, the Roman de Renart. Composed chiefly between the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, these stories reached a huge volume of about 30,000 verses. The oldest tales were entertaining accounts of the repeated triumphs of sly wit (Reynard) over such characteristics as unthinking force (Isegrim the Wolf) or pompous dullness (Noble the Lion).

By the late thirteenth century, the stories came to mask considerable social satire and criticism, and their moralizing tone compromised somewhat their popularity. Still, the appeal of these tales is shown by the fact that the proper name Reynard has become the modern French word for fox (Renard).


E. Religious literature

A deep religious feeling permeated all classes of medieval society, and literature dealing with religious themes enjoyed a continuing popularity. Saints’ lives and miracle stories retained their appeal, and provided a religious counterpoise to the secular and ribald fabliaux. The most important collection of saints’ lives was put together by the archbishop of Genoa, Iacobus de Voragine, sometime between 1258 and 1270. This was the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, an anthology of 180 brief lives of the saints. It remained a medieval best-seller, and grew over the years, eventually including some four hundred tales. Translated into English by William Caxton in 1483, it was one of the first books to be printed in the English language. The Golden Legend seems clearly intended for a primarily urban and lay audience.


Monastic saints are comparatively few, and the saintly figures are in the main spirited young ladies, brave young men, or wise bishops, living under the temptations or persecutions of the Roman empire. Miracles are common and colorful, and seem consciously designed to be entertaining and exciting as well as edifying. These stories have been called a Christian Arabian Nights. Medieval religious literature also reflects the changing character and style of Christian piety. Simultaneously as the troubadours were exploring the emotional content of profane love, religious thinkers and artists were bringing a more pronounced sentimental and emotional element into the practice of religion. This is reflected in the remarkable growth of devotion to the Virgin Mary. All the major Gothic cathedrals built after 1150 are named in her honor. A rich body of Stories grew up around her, similar in spirit to the Golden Legend, which celebrated her motherly concern for sinners and her gracious intercessions. Perhaps the major figure in this new sentimental approach to religion was a man who styled himself God’s troubadour: Giovanni Bernadone, or Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226). He was the son of a rich merchant of Assisi in central Italy (he acquired the name “Francis,” or the “French one,” as his father was away trading in France at his birth).


A sensitive young man, familiar with the troubadours (his mother may have been French), he set out early in life to find for himself that great troubadour ideal: perfect joy. He tried the satisfactions available in the City to a rich man’s son, but was disappointed in them. He became a knight, but here too joy eluded him. Finally, he turned to religion. He abandoned all his possessions, in order, as he put it, to take up the courtship of Lady Poverty. But he brought a new Spirit into this act of traditional asceticism. Rather than rejecting nature as a deception and a snare, he composed canticles or songs to its creatures, praised their loveliness and celebrated God’s wonderful handiwork in them. He preached to the birds and persuaded a wolf, who had been terrorizing the Small town of Gubbio, to reform his ways, out of love of God. One of the great cultural novelties of the central Middle Ages is the rehabilitation of nature, the rediscovery of its dignity and beauty. This Spirit finds nowhere a more charming expression than with Francis. He further maintained that the fruits of true religion were not sorrow and grim resignation, but abounding joy. The rewards which the troubadours located in the love of women, Francis found in the love of God. Franciscan piety evoked an extraordinary response in the thirteenth century. The Mendicant or begging order he founded spread with an extraordinary rapidity, and soon became the largest in the Church. His delight in creation affected the visual arts. The Florentine painter Giotto (1266-1337), who among other works painted Francis’ life, manifested a spirit which is unmistakably Franciscan. His own effort at visual accuracy makes him the first major figure of Italian, properly Renaissance art. Francis’ influence an literature was similarly pervasive. Two great hymns of the thirteenth century, the Dies Irae by an unknown author, and the Stabat Mater by the Franciscan Thomas of Celano, reflect the new Franciscan sentiment. He also inspired a collection of legends concerning him, the Fioretti or Little Flowers. They seem to have been put together in their present form about 1330, by a Franciscan living in the Marches of Ancona in central Italy. They remain today probably the best introduction to the religion and the spirit of Francis, greatest of the medieval saints.

The most important of all the religious works of the central Middle Ages is the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante was in several ways the representative and the beneficiary of the enriched culture of the central Middle Ages. He was born in 1265 at Florence, which was then on its way to becoming one of Europe’s biggest towns, a capital of large-scale banking and high finance. Little is known about his education. He undoubtedly attended the grammar schools which were numerous in the Italian cities, and apparently also heard lectures an philosophy and theology at the city’s many religious houses. What is certain is that Dante, although a layman and not a university graduate, acquired an enormous erudition. He was knowledgeable in most of the major branches of medieval learning, and his Comedy is one of literature’s most erudite poems. His experience of town life and his own active participation in the politics of his city seem to have convinced him that abstract or speculative learning was wasted if it did not offer a guide to men in their practical affairs, if it did not direct them in their earthly behavior. As he explained in a letter written to Can Grande delle Scala, tyrant of Verona and his own patron, his Comedy was an exercise not in speculative but in practical wisdom; it was intended to “remove those who are living in this life from the state of wretchedness, and to lead them to the state of blessedness.” Before writing the Comedy, Dante produced several works, which may be viewed as preparatory exercises for his masterpiece. In 1295, he wrote his Vita Nuova, or New Life. This was an extended commentary on thirty-one love poems or canzoni written in honor of the Lady Beatrice. It is invaluable for the biographical information concerning his youth and encounter with death. These canzoni include some of the most graceful in the Italian language. They are among the best examples of the Tuscan type of love poetry known as the “sweet new style,” or dolce stil nuovo. In 1305-08, in his Latin tract De vulgari eloquentia (“On Vulgar Eloquence”), he defended the dignity of the vernacular, and maintained that it could be used for the most exalted forms of literary expression.

Another tract, of uncertain date, was a defense, on largely Aristotelian principles, of the Holy Roman Empire, and a rebuttal of papal claims to authority over it. This was called the De monarchia. The Convivio, or “Banquet,” written between 1305 and 1308 but left unfinished, was, like the Vita Nuova, a commentary on his sonnets and the philosophical assumptions behind them. The Comedy itself was written between 1313 and 1321. Like all great works of literature, it has several dimensions of meaning. It was reflective of Dante’s own life. As a young man (he says he was only nine years old), he met and fell in love with Beatrice, then only eight. She is usually identified as Beatrice Portinari, from a prominent Florentine family. She later married Simone de’ Bardi, and died in 1290. While he could have seen her no more than a few times, his love for her illuminated his young years and gave him that sense of harmony and joy which, as the troubadours had taught him, were the expected rewards of love. But troubles then shattered his idyllic world. For political reasons, Dante was exiled from his native Florence in 1302, and he never returned. He died in 1321, and his body is buried at Ravenna. While experiencing the personal disaster of his exile, he was a close witness of the troubles disturbing the Italy of his day. Wars among the towns and unrest within them were nearly continuous. The great universal powers of Church and Empire seemed powerless to advance the high ideals of peace and unity which they were supposed to serve. Dante had reason for bitterness and disillusionment. The Comedy may be considered a reflection upon the poet’s own life. It represents an effort to bring into synthesis his two great experiences–his youthful, serene, idyllic and joyful love for Beatrice, and the sense of chaos and of evil, the failing faith, of his later years. The Comedy begins with Dante “in the middle of the way of our life.” He wanders in a dark woods, beset upon by wild animals, Symbols of untamed passions. He has lost, as an older man, the guiding principles of his youth. The theme of the poem thus becomes the poet’s quest for his lost peace, for that sense of harmony and order which, as a young man in love, he had once so easily found.

Through his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, Dante comes once more to see that for all the undeniable complexities of the world, for all the apparent triumphs of vice and confusion, divine love had created and still rules the universe. In the Comedy, Dante also confronts the great cultural problem of the central Middle Ages: the reconciliation of human power and freedom with traditional belief in the supremacy of grace. Dante places a high dignity upon human reason; he makes it primarily responsible for guiding men to the happy and blessed life on earth. His symbol for reason is the Roman poet Vergil, and Vergil guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory to the Earthly Paradise. In Hell, Vergil introduces Dante to a panorama of human sins and sinners, some mythical figures, others historical personages, and still others Dante’s own acquaintances. These are the persons who took as their supreme value in life something other than the love of God-greed, perhaps, or lust, gluttony, pride or some other sin. The moral here is clear: all men in their journey through life have a comparable choice. It is Vergil’s function to show that reason itself declares that those selfish values cannot provide the substance of a happy life. The Inferno thus emerges as a richly textured allegorical tract, showing the rational foundations of ethics, proudly affirming that reason alone can guide men past the pitfalls of material existence. Reason can do more than that. It conducts Dante up the seven-storied mountain of Purgatory, where the natural virtues are acquired that are the foundation for the Earthly Paradise at its summit. All this implies that reason can do much in guiding men to a good life in this world. This high dignity alloted to reason is the common feature of thirteenth-century intellectual culture. But common too is Dante’s affirmation that reason and its rewards are still not good enough. Man is destined for something still better. Here, at the summit of Purgatory, Beatrice, the Symbol of revelation and grace, enters the story, to guide Dante upward through the heavens, into the kingdom of grace. She brings him through the celestial spheres, where the saints shine like stars in their wisdom and virtue, and leads him to the presence of God “in whom is our peace.”

Like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the Comedy may be considered an effort to synthesize and reconcile the great experiences of medieval society: the low view of man’s competence, nurtured in the desperate years when Rome was in decline, and the new boldness and enterprise bred in the central Middle Ages, when men again recognized the Potentials of nature and the dimensions of their own powers. Dante, like most thinkers of his age, felt that in spite of their diversity, there was truth in both attitudes concerning man and his destiny. His Comedy may well be called the testament of medieval man, and the noblest statement of what that age believed to be wisdom.


RECOMMENDED READINGS: Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Boston and New York: Houghton-Mifllin Co., 1933). Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, trans. L. A. Manyon, with a Foreword by M. M. Postan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963; Phoenix P 156-57). G. G. Coupon, Five Ceuturies of Religion (4 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923-50). G. G. Coupon, Medieval Panorama. The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation (New York: Macmillan Co., 1945). G. G. Coupon, The Mediaeval Village, Manor and Monastery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925; New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960, TB 1022). Jessie R. Crosland, The Old Freuch Epic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1951). C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1927; Cleveland: World Publishing Co., Meridian M 49). C. H. Haskins, The Rise of the Universities (New York; Holt and Co., 1923; Ithaca, New York: Great Seal Books, 1957). Friedrich Heer, The Medieval World: Europe, 1100-1350 (Cleveland:World Publishing Co., 1962; New York: New American Library, Mentor MQ 524). C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love. A Study in Medieval Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1959, Galaxy GB 17). Sydney Painter, French Chivatry. Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1940, Ithaca, New York: Great Seal Books, 1962). H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, new F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden (London: Oxford University Press, 1958). R. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953; Yale Paperbound Y 46).


Part Three The Late Middle Ages, ca. 1350-1500

Introduction: In the Late Middle Ages (ca. 1350-1500), European society entered upon a time of troubles which severely affected the character of its civilization. The Population fell drastically, and the economy entered upon a period of protracted slump. Numerous and destructive wars erupted all over Europe. The institutions, the ways of doing things, which had apparently worked so well in the thirteenth and earlier centuries, seemed no longer able to cope with the mounting Problems of the age. The character of late medieval culture, as it unfolds against this dismal background, is difficult to evaluate. To many historians, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a period of decadence, of excessive ripeness, an “autumn” following the high summer of the thirteenth century. But it would be wrong to interpret the closing Middle Ages exclusively in terms of an effete and dying culture. Its spirit, at once critical and searching, undermined the confident and unified cultural attitudes of the thirteenth century and prepared the way for the cultural pluralism of the modern world. In rejecting, at least partially, many of the ideas and values of the earlier period, it cleared the way for new cultural experiments and departures, and initiated currents which were to gain in strength in the coming centuries. It therefore played a role of no little importance in lending character and content to the civilization of the modern West.


A. Spectacular catastrophes

The prosperity of the central Middle Ages had ridden a high wave of population growth which had persisted from at least the year 1000 to probably the late thirteenth century. The troubles of the closing Middle Ages, in their turn, were poised upon an acute and protracted population collapse. The size of the late medieval population fall cannot be measured exactly, and it differed among the various regions of Europe. Losses seem usually to have been more than a third, and ranged in some unhappy areas to two-thirds or more. The decline was also protracted. The population may have stabilized as early as 1300, but it did not experience serious losses until the middle fourteenth century. Then it plummeted and continued to slide until well past the year 1400. It stabilized at much lower levels in the early or middle fifteenth century, and not until the century’s end was it able again to register significant gains. Historians are not sure of all the forces which influenced this substantial decline, nor of their relative importance. Some factors are evident enough: the Black Death of 1348, and the other numerous onslaughts of plague which followed it; the frequent famines; and widespread wars. But some scholars feel that these troubles were only manifestations of a deeper crisis. Perhaps they show an underlying excess of population within the medieval community, which by 1300 was an the verge of provoking, and eventually did provoke, a true Malthusian crisis. Still other historians feel that a major root of the population decline and stagnation was a low and sluggish birth rate, which crippled the population’s efforts to make good its losses. The low birth rate may have been in turn a product of the poor social conditions under which the masses of the people had come to live by the thirteenth century. Perhaps it also reflected a widespread psychological discouragement and malaise, which compromised the desire. of a large segment of the population to bring children into the world. All these possible influences upon the late medieval population collapse are currently the subjects of much scholarly research and discussion. The results of these huge population losses were understandably profound. With dwindling numbers of people, wages tended to increase and rents decline, as landlords and employers had to compete with favorable terms to attract needed laborers. High costs and low returns ruined the prosperity which rentiers and businessmen had enjoyed in the thirteenth century. Ultimately, to be sure, the population decline brought better conditions for the diminished number of poor who survived. But its more immediate impact was an acute dislocation of economic production and of social relationships. The rich, unwilling to meet the high labor costs demanded, tried to hold down wages through legislation and even sought to limit the movement of peasants, creating a kind of neo-serfdom. These efforts in turn provoked social unrest and even revolt among the laboring classes. Perhaps the best known of these social uprisings are the Peasants’ War in England (1381), and the Ciompi rebellion (1378), which involved the wool workers of Florence. Similar manifestations of social dissatisfactions are widely found in this unsettled age.


Economic and social dislocations were paralleled by political crises, to which they undoubtedly contributed. The greatest such crisis was the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, which was fought intermittently between 1339 and 1453. Its origins were complex, but it may be considered fundamentally a struggle between the king of France and his chief vassal, who happened also to be the king of England. It thus represents a breakdown in the feudal constitution of France, which, in the thirteenth century, had apparently worked so well. Italy in the same period faced the crisis involving the decline of the free city, the rise of the despot and the coalescence of larger territorial principalities. For Italy too, the age was one of incessant strife. The Church similarly experienced acute constitutional difficulties. The long residence of the popes at Avignon rather than at Rome (1309-78) compromised papal prestige, and helped inspire protests from all over Europe concerning the papacy’s growing fiscal exactions. The still greater scandal of the Great Schism ( 1378-1417 ), when two and eventually three popes battled for supremacy, further aggravated the plight of the See of Peter. Demands for reform were constant, but little was actually accomplished. Against the background of these repeated disasters, late medieval culture also shows some basic transformations. We can distinguish two major trends in the cultural history of the age: an exaggerated, even unbalanced pursuit of traditional ideals; and a critical reevaluation of them, leading to a search for new values to take their place.


B. Chivalry, thought and religion

The argument that the culture of the late Middle Ages grew overripe and decadent is probably best supported by a consideration of the Ideals of the noble class, which are conveniently summarized under the term, chivalry. The experience of the noble in this tumultuous age was paradoxical. The heavily armed, mounted fighter was losing his former military pre-eminence, and was in fact becoming technologically obsolete. The Brest English victories in theHundred Years’ War at Crecy ( 1346) , Poitiers ( 1356) and Agincourt (1415) showed the superiority of the foot soldier, armed with his longbow, over the mounted armies of France. The emergence of the Swiss pikemen as the most effective fighters of Europe, and the continuing improvement of firearms, confirmed that in the fifteenth century infantry was becoming the queen of battles. But as their military importance declined, the pretensions and self-adulation of Europe’s nobles acquired a new extravagance. The courts of Europe vied with one another in the pomp of their ceremonies and lavishness of display; the court of the dukes of Burgundy probably ranked as the most sumptuous of the age. This is the period of the foundation of the great knightly orders, such as the English Knights of the Garter (founded in 1346), or still more typical, the Burgundian Knights of the Golden Fleece (founded in 1430). It was confidently assumed that such orders and the virtues they cultivated would save the world. This is also the age of the dashing hero, such as the model knight, the Fleming Jacques de Lalaing, and of the dramatic beau geste, the brilliant deed, done by a single brave man, which turns the tide of battle, while thousands stand in awe. The literature of feudal society in the closing Middle Ages tends to view both life and history through blinders formed by its chivalrous ideals. The important events of history were summarized in the doings of the “Nine Worthies” (three pagan heroes, three Jewish and three Christian). Chroniclers such as Jean Froissart record battles largely in terms of the combat of knights, and ignore such factors as resources, wealth, men and weapons on which victory or defeat really depended. Balance too was lost in the cult of love. Attitudes towards love varied between the cynical eroticism already manifest in Jean de Meun’s section of the Romance of the Rose, and an artificial and unbalanced devotion to all women, no matter how undeserving, characteristic of the model knights. The attitudes and behavior of the nobles in the late Middle Ages betray a weakening sense of proportion, a defective understanding of the world, a failure (or perhaps unwillingness) to come to grips with the realities around them.

The culture of this noble class has all the aspects of a colorful, entertaining, but fundamentally impossible dream. The history of late medieval scholasticism also shows a slipping sense of proportion, but combines this with a powerful current of criticism, directed against its own traditional assumptions. St. Thomas continued to attract supporters and defenders in the schools of the late Middle Ages, but their work was distinguished by few new insights. Rather their interest in puerile questions (how many angels could dance an the head of a pin? ), their highly elaborate and complex reasoning, their exaggerated subtleties helped give scholasticism a reputation for futility it was not soon to lose. Opposed to the traditionalists were the promoters of a new, critical approach to philosophy, which came to be called thevia moderna. One of the first and probably the greatest figure in the movement was the English Franciscan William of Ockham, who after an active and harried life died in Germany, perhaps in 1349. He is best known for his critical logic, and a principle advanced by him has come to be called “Ockham’s razor.” It can be stated in several ways, but says in essence that in reasoning the simpler explanation is always to be preferred. This principle of parsimony was used to hack away at the multiplied forms and essences with which traditional scholasticism had crowded the universe. The new critical logic was also nominalist in inspiration, that is, it located the only knowable reality in the individual object as it was perceived by the senses. It denied the possibility of getting beyond the individual into a world of common essences or supersensory forms. The new logic thus favored an empirical and even experimental approach to reality, and created a favorable milieu for the growth of a new, non-Aristotelian natural science. At Paris in the fourteenth century, scholastics such as Nicholas of Oresme and Jean Buridan were experimenting with the nature of acceleration, and advancing non-Aristotelian explanations for it. The center of such interests shifted to Padua in Italy in the fifteenth century, and linked directly with the scientific tradition that eventually produced Galileo. (This father of modern science was for part of his life professor at Padua.) Religion too, in the late Middle Ages, shows these characteristic features of loss of proportion in pious practices, and a tendency critically to re-evaluate former assumptions.

Late medieval piety was touched by an intense preoccupation with death and its ravages. Literature and art became crowded with depictions of the danse macabre, the dance of death, and with lurid portraits of the putrefaction of the grave. It has well been observed that this perverted concern with the decay of matter does not reflect a religious delight in the spiritual world but a true materialism, an excessive attachment to the fleeting character of sensual beauty. This kind of troubled, tortured religion could well be interpreted not as a triumphant, but as a failing faith. So also, such traditional religious practices as penance and self-mortification, the veneration of relics, or the quest for indulgences, exceeded all prior bounds, and invited the critical attacks even of those fundamentally orthodox. On a more positive note, the age also witnessed efforts to develop new forms and styles of piety. The piety of the late Middle Ages was marked by a profound mystical bent, which perhaps surpassed in its depth and fervor all prior mystical movements. It stressed the importance of the inner life, the need of cultivating within the soul a sensitivity to the presence of God. It tended to discount the importance of precisely defined dogmatic systems and punctilious rules of conduct. Unless the believer first felt the love of God and returned it, it mattered little what he thought or did.

Mystics appeared all over Europe, but perhaps the most influential were Germans and Dutch of the Rhineland, who had a particular appeal to laymen. The first prominent name in this group is Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-1327). A devoted student of St. Thomas, he rose to high office in the Dominican order, and won fame for his inspiring sermons. The goal of his mysticism was the preparation for God’s “eternal birth” within the soul. To receive God within him, the Christian should first exclude from his mind all thoughts of the world, and should not even think about God in the traditional categories of dogma. He should cultivate a state of complete passivity. God will then be born within him, and kindle a divine spark in his soul. This spark, when nurtured, would bring the believer to eventual union with God. Eckhart’s theories of eternal birth and reunion with God seemed to verge an pantheism. After his death, Pope John XXII in 1329 condemned seventeen articles drawn from his works as heretical, and declared eleven others suspect. But Eckhart’s emphasis an the cultivation of an interior spiritual disposition found continued expression, although in more moderate form, in the works of his fellow Dominican preachers John Tauler (ca. 1300-61) and Henry Suso (ca. 1295-1366). The believer could find within himself, if not a divine spark, at least a kind of mystical wisdom. One of the most influential of these Rhenish mystics was the Dutchman Gerard Groote (1340-81), who was born at Deventer and educated at Paris and Cologne. Shortly after his death, a group of men inspired by him formed a new religious congregation, known as the Brethren of the Common Life. They established schools in Germany and the Low Countries, and played a role in fifteenth-century education comparable to that of the Jesuits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The great humanist Erasmus was one of their students. The Brethren tried to instill a kind of piety known as the devotio moderna, or “modern devotion.” It finds its richest expression in one of the great religious classics of the Middle Ages, the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. Thomas wrote his meditations (which may have been based directly upon the teachings of Groote) about 1425, and a copy in Thomas’ own hand dates from 1441. The Imitation is critical of a formal approach to religion, even formal theology: “Let all teachers hold their peace . . .” it says, “do Thou alone speak to me.” It is particularly disdainful of the precise logic of scholastic theology: “I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it.” The Imitation rather emphasizes the calling to the inner life, and the inward consolation that comes from it. Even after the Reformation, this work retained its appeal to Christians of every confessional persuasion. The difficulties of the ecclesiastical government, the demands for reform, the excesses evident in many traditional practices and the search for an interior religion contributed not only to new forms of orthodox piety, but to open heretical revolts against the medieval Church. Heresy had been a familiar problem, particularly since the twelfth century, but never before had the Church faced so powerful a challenge to its system. [note: many female mystics: Hildegard of Bingen, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrud the Great, Marguerite de Porete, Joan of Arc, etc. – AC]

Foremost among the heretics of the late Middle Ages was the Englishman John Wycliffe (ca. 1320-80). Educated at Oxford and eventually a professor there, he reveals a distinctively conservative, Augustinian cast to his thought. He dwells upon the weakness of human nature and the all-important role of grace in the government of the world. Wycliffe attacked with ferocity the authority claimed by the established hierarchy. He argued that grace alone conferred dominion, that is, that only the good had a right to rule. The Pope and cardinals, manifestly not in the state of grace, had no right either to dominate kings, exercise jurisdiction, or even own property. He looked to the secular prince or magistrate as God’s chief instrument in ruling and reforming his visible Church, and thus anticipated the policy of “magisterial reformation” which many Protestant reformers later also supported. He further denied the dogma of transubstantiation, which affirmed that at Mass the species of bread and wine lost their natural substances and took an the substance, the body, blood, soul and divinity, of Christ. Transubstantiation conceded to priests the power to work a miracle, and its denial thus undermined their distinct and privileged status within Christian society. Finally, he defended the supremacy of Scripture, and denied that the Pope and cardinals could authoritatively define its meaning. He began the translation of the Bible into English, and the work was continued by his followers. Wycliffe’s supporters in England, known as Lollards, were eventually suppressed by the king and Church.

His ideas appealed to another university Professor, John Hus (ca. 1370-1415) in Bohemia. Hus was burned at the stake for his views at the Council of Constance in 1415, but his death helped inspire the formation in Bohemia of a Czech national Church. In spite of crusades declared against it and compromises offered to it (and in spite of its own internal divisions), this national Church was never entirely suppressed. The religious defiance of the Bohemians represents the first permanent division within the fabric of medieval Christianity. It was thus a landmark along the way from the unity of medieval Christian civilization to the pluralism of the modern age. In discussing the culture of the late Middle Ages, recognition should also be given to the humanist movement, which gained strength in Italy from the fourteenth century and spread to encompass all Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Humanism is, however, amply represented in a separate volume of this series. We need only note here that humanism was one other product of late medieval civilization which was to influence profoundly the culture of the modern world. The Middle Ages thus ended amid disasters and disunion, but with some important creations. When all is considered, medieval men left behind them an impressive heritage. The modern world in no small measure was built upon their efforts. And in their literature, thought and art, they examined with insight, Imagination and passion problems which to thinking men should still be alive today.


RECOMMENDED READINGS: H. S. Bennett, Chancer and the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961 ). Otto Cartellieri, The Court of Burgundy (New York: Knopf, 1929). E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close o f the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961). J. M. Clark, The Great German Mystics: Eckhart, Tauler, Suso (Oxford: Blackwell, I949). A. C. Flick, The Decline of the Medieval Church (2 viols., London: Paul, Trench and Trubner, I930). Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (London: Arnold,1924; New York: Doubleday, Anchor A 42). Kenneth B. McFarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (New York: Macmillan, 1953 ). W. A. Pantin, The English Church in the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955). L. Thorndike, Science and Thought in the Fifteenth Century (New York: Hafner, 1963).