Do you think God cares only for Italy?
—FRANCIS OF ASSISI TO CARDINAL UGOLINO, WHO HAD WARNED THE SAINT AGAINST PREACHING IN FRANCE
THE MIDDLE AAGES ARE A GREAT jumble. As I have put my manuscript together, I have sometimes felt I was not so much writing a book as sewing a gigantic quilt, full of disparate and even clashing remnants: a large patch of ancient Greece, swatches of late antique and early medieval Rome, oddly conjoined strips from maps both geographical and metaphysical, a not-so-blushing virgin, a blushless queen, and (as we shall soon see) a nun who prides herself on being her lover’s whore. What on earth do all these things have to do with one another? But to present the Middle Ages otherwise—as a seamless garment—would be to falsify their character and leave the reader grasping at a phantasm.
A medievalist friend of mine once confided that he often daydreamed of living in medieval times. Of course, he added, he always imagined himself a lord of some sort, sitting in his great hall, being served a side of succulent wild boar from his woodland demesnes. He never imagined himself the housechurl who did the serving or the estate serf who had done the hunting and the butchering. Though distinctions between high and low were less acute then than they are in our world, they were sufficiently stark to steer any dreamer’s fancies away from the furrowed farms of Europe and toward its castellated hilltops. What appalls a modern dreamer about the Middle Ages is not so much the distance that lay between peasant and prince as that there was seldom any way of shortening that distance: the peasant would always be a peasant, the prince always a prince.
And yet … the rigid stratification of social roles was shaken by the rise of the merchant class, the medieval bourgeoisie. Francis of Assisi’s youthful plan to “become a great prince” was unrealistic because he took no steps to realize it; but had he taken his father’s route, he could have become a great merchant prince. As time went on, wealth vied with nobility for political and social power, and wealth won out often enough, especially as independent cities and towns like Assisi grew into alternative centers of power. But withal, the trader’s route to self-improvement was a slippery one. Caravans could be raided by brigands and ships founder at sea. Markets could be cruelly affected by the cosmic vagaries of weather, war, and trade barriers—just as suddenly as markets in our day.
However difficult it may be to characterize correctly the medieval class system, it is even more difficult to grasp medieval thinking, which was broadly metaphorical and analogical rather than merely logical and rational. The hagiographical stories that clustered around Francis’s life—that he preached even to birds (who stopped twittering to listen), tamed the ravening wolf of Gubbio, and received in his body the five wounds of the crucified Christ (the stigmata, or piercing of his hands, feet, and side)—were probably taken in a nonliteral spirit by many of the people who first heard them. Interactions with birds spoke of Francis’s instinctive resonance with the natural world, the chastened wolf of his ability to elicit good from even the worst of creatures, the stigmata of his thoroughgoing identification with the sufferings of Christ. Did medieval people think these things had actually happened? They might well have considered such a question beyond answering and would instead, like Frida Kahlo, have invoked “the extraordinary beauty of truth.”
But because we do not think the way they did, we often misunderstand them. In the historian William Manchester, for instance, we find only contempt for all things medieval. “In all that time,” he claims preposterously, “nothing of real consequence had either improved or declined.…Shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear, and sheathed in superstition, [medieval people] trudged into the sixteenth century in the clumsy, hunched, pigeon-toed gait of rickets victims, their vacant faces, pocked by smallpox, turned blindly toward the future they thought they knew—gullible, pitiful innocents who were about to be swept up in the most powerful, incomprehensible, irresistible vortex [that is, the Renaissance] since Alaric had led his Visigoths and Huns across the Alps, fallen on Rome, and extinguished the lamps of learning a thousand years before.”
Manchester’s libel is peppered with his own unexamined anti-Catholicism, which leads him into one howler after another. (He fulminates against an “infallible” “Vatican,” seeming not to know that the doctrine of papal infallibility was virtually unknown in the Middle Ages and that the Vatican did not become the primary papal residence till the union of Italy in 1870.) How he imagines that the Renaissance of the sixteenth century could have arisen from the starved and shrunken medieval culture he describes, I just don’t know. As King Lear said (with exquisite medieval logic), “Nothing will come of nothing.”
In fact, medieval Europe was far more cosmopolitan and international than it has been since—at least till the establishment and uncertain functioning of the EU. A Frenchman could be king of England; his archbishop of Canterbury might be Greek; a Provençal princess might wed a Spaniard, a German, or a Pole; a man from Umbria might consider himself more French than Italian. But there was a division even then between Europe north and Europe south. The south—Italy south of Lombardy, the parts of France that spoke Provençal, Spain, Portugal, and (to some extent) Ireland, a sort of Mediterranean island misplaced in the Atlantica—was sensuous and sexual. As one went north toward the Germanic tribes, the Saxons, the Franks, the Prussians, the Scandinavians, many pleasures lost their evident appeal, and one encountered more silence, less show, a more rigorous sense of order, both personal and social, and people who had probably never since adulthood taken all their clothes off—and who, if stripped naked, looked like plucked chickens, rather than like the sinuous, sun-loving, copper-colored humans of the south. (Think of the embarrassed white limbs of Adam and Eve in the paintings of Dutch and Flemish masters, as opposed to the expansively easeful biblical nudes given us byMichelangelo and his fellow Italians.) It was partly a matter of climate, of course, and partly of ethnicity. The Mediterranean lands of the old Romans (and even of the old Celts) would remain Catholic; those of the Germanic tribes—unless, like the Rhinelanders, the Schwarzwalders, the Bavarians, and the Austrians, they maintained southern connections—would tend in the sixteenth century to break away and form less ambiguous, more clearly rule-bound and austere societies.
The lands of the Slavs, the snowmen, the toughest peoples of all, lay beyond such distinctions. For in Eastern Europe, whether Catholicism or Orthodoxy prevailed, there flourished a Christianity of inhuman fasts, unending winters, and interminable liturgies, as well as a personal hygiene that included boiling oneself in steam, then rolling in ice. Whether one was naked or clothed, the point was never sensuality but survival. The Czechs, a partly Slavic, partly Celtic people, were an interesting exception.
The great jumble that was medieval Europe should warn the historian against pronouncements too broad, for sprightly—and sometimes garish—exceptions to his generalizations spring up everywhere. As one considers Manchester’s depictions of medievals as “shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear, and sheathed in superstition,” one wonders if he ever surveyed the freewheeling spirit of intellectual inquiry that invigorated the great urban universities of the thirteenth century.
If you could walk the streets of Paris in the thirteenth century, you would encounter many familiar sights and sounds. The bustling city, full of impressive architecture, lively commerce and exotic wares, beggars and other casualties of urban life, self-regarding fashion plates, men on the make, and even gawking tourists, would remind you of many a modern city. Though much smaller than any contemporary capital, the Paris of eight centuries ago was a noisy warren of rough and splendid contrasts, a maze of stage sets featuring comic and tragic scenes in alternation, such as only a great city can produce.
But nowhere in this always colorful, often dirty, sometimes sweaty panorama would you feel more at home, more sure of who was who and what was what, than along the city’s Left Bank, home to artists, writers, absentminded professors, and unruly students—indeed, the cultural nerve center of medieval Europe. The students, many thousands of them, constituted the largest population group on the Left Bank. They were especially numerous in the Latin Quarter, clustered around the famous rue du Fouarre.b They were divided into four principal groupings: the French, the Norman, the English-German, and the Picard (or students from the Low Countries). Students who didn’t fit obviously into one of the other three categories were assigned to the Picard. Since all had different mother tongues, Latin, the language in which the masters gave their lectures, became the lingua franca of student intercourse; hence, the Latin Quarter.
The University of Paris was chartered in 1200, some fifty years after Europe’s first university at Bologna. But whereas Bologna distinguished itself immediately in the field of law (and thereby ensured that Latin would remain the technical language of law throughout the West), Paris seemed to distinguish itself in everything, if especially in philosophy and other liberal arts. Though we sometimes speak of ancient “universities” (such as one at Bordeaux in Gaul in the time of Ausonius and another at Glendalough in Ireland in the time of Saint Kevin), those were amorphous, informal, voluntary associations compared to the structured universities of the Middle Ages, which are the direct ancestors of our own. Students enrolled, paid tuition, and sat for announced series of lectures, which were delivered by salaried scholars who were members of specific faculties—medicine, law, theology, the arts—as well as of professional associations. The university itself was a chartered corporationc largely independent of the city and kingdom in which it was housed. The University of Bologna was even run by its students, who voted the members of the administration into and out of office.
Other universities soon sprang up after the models of these first two: at Oxford, for instance, at Naples and Salerno, at Angers and Toulouse, at Valladolid and Salamanca, and by the fourteenth century at Prague, Vienna, Heidelberg, and Cologne, all of them blossoming from well-established and intellectually busy city schools of earlier centuries. Sometimes a university was born of student discontent, as when some dissident Oxfordians betook themselves to Cambridge and some outraged Bolognese exiled themselves permanently to Padua.
Except at Bologna, students did not rule the roost. Their sheer numbers gave them much power, nonetheless, and their mass movements were rightly feared by administrators, masters, and townsmen, who had come gradually to depend on student patronage for their livelihoods. If the so-called student nations elected to close down a university and take their leave of the city in which they lodged, all their providers suffered, but none more than the local entrepreneurs who offered food, drink, lodging, books, paper, ink, and other services, such as laundry, housekeeping, and whoring. Most feared by administrators and townees alike was any common effort by faculty and student body to wrest concessions or new rights. Such “strikes” were no more unknown in medieval Paris than they were in the Paris of 1968. More common than strikes, however, was the widespread late-night student consumption of cheap and plentiful beer, as well as the deadly combination of drunken student hooliganism and police overreaction. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
At the same time, there were many differences between the medieval university and the modern. Students generally entered the university at age fourteen and stayed for a minimum of eight years. Their basic study was of the seven liberal arts, divided in the Roman manner into the trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (the mathematical sciences of arithmetic, Euclidean geometry, astronomy, and musical theory).d In grammar, one mastered Latin, the continent-wide language of the educated classes; in dialectic, one learned to fashion a logical argument, partly by imitation of philosophers, ancient and contemporary; and in rhetoric, one was taught the refinements of constructing prose, whether oral or written, in such a way as to seize the attention of listeners or readers and to hold their attention through the course of one’s exposition. That so much time was devoted to what would today be compressed into a single course with a title such as “Freshman Comp” meant that, unlike contemporary graduates, all the graduates of medieval universities were truly literate and markedly skilled in an impressive repertoire of communication techniques.
Whereas the first six years at university were devoted to lectures by faculty, the last two were set aside to allow the students to show off what they had learned by putting forth specific theses and defending these publicly before audiences that were critical and vocal. University audiences could make a novice lecturer into an overnight intellectual celebrity. Just as peremptorily, they could pack him off to permanent provincial obscurity.
After all this (and a battery of oral examinations), one might be awarded the symbolic laurel wreath of a bachelor of arts degree—though then, as now, there were students who failed to attain a degree, while others settled comfortably into the routine of the perpetual student, still taking courses when their contemporaries had long since taken up professions. An additional year beyond the baccalaureate could win you a master’s degree (or license to teach). But if you wished further study in, say, law, medicine, philosophy, or theology, you would need to be able to stay for as much as a dozen years more. Given such daunting prospects (and so many years with little chance of earned income), it is not surprising that the sons of the aristocracy made up a sizable portion of student populations, though there were also scholarships for poorer students, often instituted and administered by local lords or clergy who wished to raise intellectual standards in their home districts.
Like all rich and abiding manifestations of human cultural life, universities took time to develop. We can trace their beginnings to the palace and cathedral schools of the Carolingian era,e staffed initially by Irish and English monks, who were the first to implement the trivium/quadrivium structure. Their pupils, both noble and poor (for there were scholarship students even then), were educated to take their places, some as lords who could actually read their own correspondence, others as court scribes or bishops’ scribes—the two professions that then required literacy and learning. From the ranks of these scribes the higher clergy (bishops, archbishops, and cardinals) would be chosen, but not parish priests, who were required to learn by heart—but not necessarily to read—the words inscribed in the splendidly ornamented books of Latin prayers and rituals.
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the West had devastated European learning, and in the process literacy itself had become endangered. The enormous loss of books in the early Middle Ages (through catastrophes large and small, connected to the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions) meant that centuries had to pass for basic texts to be rediscovered, recopied, and distributed widely and for libraries to be built up again. But once this had happened, and libraries such as Disibodenberg’s were established, creative intellectual life began to percolate once more. Isolated monastic schools, however, could never quite morph into lively centers of learning, for they could not attract the variety of teachers who, in the end, make for intellectual excitement—if only because they are so often in disagreement with one another. For that to happen, cathedral schools in towns and cities had to grow to the point where they could support a larger range of lecturers. A full century before the formal chartering of the University of Paris, the city was already astir with new learning and new masters. And of these masters, none was more celebrated, hated, and sought after than a hot young Breton aristocrat in his early twenties named Peter Abelard.
There can be no doubt that Abelard’s was the best mind of his age. Not only that, he was exceptionally handsome and utterly self-possessed; he spoke (and sang, for that matter) in an alluring timbre that few could match; and his ready wit was sharp as a short sword. Even as a student in Paris, he had publicly exposed the logical flaws in the propositions of one of his masters and, by sheer force of argument, lured most of the master’s students to his own unofficial lectures. The master, Anselm de Laon, was, to be sure, an obfuscating pontificator, and “anyone who knocked at his door to seek an answer to some question went away more uncertain than he came.” “He had,” recalled Peter much later, “a remarkable command of words, but their meaning was worthless and empty of all sense.” Abelard knew how good he was; and if he had a fault, it was the strutting cockiness of a young man who knows he’s smarter than everyone else—a quality few can admire, while many pray fervently for his bouleversement.
Abelard rooted his thinking in the writings of Plato’s student and antagonist Aristotle, only some of which were available in twelfth-century Europe. Plato, not Aristotle, was the Greek philosopher beloved of the fathers of the ancient church and, for that matter, of the whole ancient world. Plato was the one who taught that there was another world, a truer world, in which all the partial goodness, beauty, and justice that we experience in this world is whole and complete; and the fathers saw his description of this “World of the Forms” as a kind of Greek pagan anticipation of the Christian doctrine of the Heaven where God resides. Plato was a radical pessimist who bemoaned the broken incompleteness of our world and of our earthly existence, so much so that one can trace a direct line of development from Plato’s antimaterialism and scorn for human flesh to Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin.
Aristotle denied that the World of the Forms was anything but a figment of Plato’s imagination.f While not denying the existence of the soul—a pagan Greek discovery—Aristotle pointed his students in the direction of this world, the world that could be observed, analyzed, and understood. Aristotle was no idealist like Plato, who believed that ideas were realer than everything we saw, heard, and touched. Aristotle was a rationalist and a materialist. His chief tool for understanding the world was logic, a science he invented; and though many of Aristotle’s writings had been lost to the West during the catastrophic destruction of its libraries, some of his writings on logic remained available.
It was the panoply of Aristotelian techniques associated with rational persuasion that Abelard made such brilliant and innovative use of. In his book Sic et Non (Yes and No), he would one day show students how to set up an argument for almost anything (Yes) and then demolish it (No) by rational means. This practice would enable a student to feel at home in the world of argument to such an extent that he could finally come to think for himself, to critique the ideas of others—even ideas held sacrosanct by centuries of tradition—and to come at last to his own rational (but firmly held) conclusions. For, as Abelard would write in his famous book, “the prime source of wisdom has been defined as continuous and penetrating inquiry. The most brilliant of all philosophers, Aristotle, encouraged his students to undertake this task with every ounce of their curiosity.…For by doubting we come to inquire, and by inquiring we perceive the truth.”
Uh-oh. Rational inquiry begins with doubt? Such as doubting, say, the revealed truths of the Christian religion? Though Abelard never directly challenged central truths, such as the Trinity or Christ’s divinity and saving mission, he brazenly announced solutions to knotty theological questions that left conservatives shocked to their marrow. He rejected Augustine’s claims on behalf of Original Sin, committed by Adam and Eve and inherited by all mankind. How could we inherit a sin that we had no part in committing? (We may, like the heirs of a bankrupt, he admitted, inherit the punishment.) He denied that Christ died to pay for our sins, as if God the Father either required such ghoulish restitution or permitted Satan to exact it. Christ, asserted Abelard, died—in an act of supreme generosity and identification with the human condition—out of love for us and to make us more loving. The young philosopher exonerated the Jews from the charge of deicide, a favorite in the canon of medieval prejudices. Since they had no idea that Jesus was God, the Jews cannot be accused of wishing to murder God, only of proposing for execution a man they considered a rebel against Jewish religious authority. As Jesus himself had said of all his executioners, “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
It would take more than eight centuries and the perpetration of unspeakable horrors before the Catholic Church—during the quasi-miraculous event of the Second Vatican Council—would conclusively adopt Abelard’s reasoning in respect to Jewish guilt for the death of Christ. As for Original Sin, it is chiefly because Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the ever-gentlemanly twentieth-century Jesuit paleontologist, distanced himself from this Augustinian position that his works of genius, offering a unique combination of scientific and theological insight, remain under a Vatican cloud. And though the idea that Christ died to repay his Father for human sin is still a favorite theory of many (especially evangelical) Christians, it is a doctrine no one can make logical sense of, for, like the Calvinist theory of Election, it necessitates a sort of voraciously pagan Father God steeped in cruelty and, in the case of Jesus’s horrific death, his son’s blood.
At the age of twenty-five, Abelard set up his own Left Bank school on Mont-Sainte-Geneviève, which would soon provide the nucleus for the University of Paris. In 1113, when he was not yet thirty-five, he was invited to teach at the prestigious cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris, where his sensational lectures were sold-out, standing-room-only successes. There he also undertook a private tutorial for the niece of one of the cathedral canons, a man named Fulbert. The niece, Héloïse, was an extremely beautiful and intellectually accomplished teenager; and Abelard, the consummate scholar, who had previously seemed impervious to any temptation but learning and literature, fell deeply in love with her, as did she with him. “In looks she did not rank lowest,” Abelard would report smugly at a later date, “while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme.” Thus does the consummate scholar convey to us that he loved Héloïse especially for her mind, while giving himself away completely in his subsequent description of their union:
We were united, first under one roof, then in heart; and so with our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts. To avert suspicion I sometimes struck her, but these blows were prompted by love and tender feeling rather than anger and irritation, and were sweeter than any balm could be. In short, our desires left no stage of love-making untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it. We entered on each joy the more eagerly for our previous inexperience, and were the less easily sated.
Here in the second decade of the twelfth century we meet a couple whose sensibility is as modern as our own, as rational as the wryest critic writing in The New York Review of Books, as flagrant as the lovers in a buzz-worthy contemporary novel. Little if anything separates us from them.
The punishment visited upon them, however, must bring any reader up short, reminding us that Abelard and Héloïse lived in a very different time and place from those most of us inhabit. Their steamy affair was the subject that all Paris was talking about. The lovers had thrown caution to the winds to such an extent that songs Abelard had written to Héloïse began to be sung everywhere—though undoubtedly in haunts not frequented by Fulbert, so it took a while for the uncle to catch on. Once he did, he attempted to keep the lovers apart, which drove them to such indiscretion that they were finally found in bed together. The sight of Héloïse’s growing belly impelled Abelard to send her to his sister in Brittany, where Héloïse gave birth to a son, whom she named Astralabe.
Abelard then sought out Fulbert, made a clean breast of it, and promised to marry Héloïse. Abelard’s apologia for himself relied heavily on the language of Ovid and the troubadours: “protest[ing] that I had done nothing unusual in the eyes of anyone who had known the power of love.” The word he uses for love is amor, the Latin equivalent of Greek eros, meaning sexual desire. The usual word used by medievals (as by ancient Romans) to indicate nonsexual love was caritas, the Latin equivalent of agape, the Greek New Testament’s word for love that does not seek its own aggrandizement. In the ancient world, there was no connection between the two loves, for one was self-seeking, the other disinterested. But by Abelard’s day the new romanticism had already succeeded in blurring the difference between the two words,g so it may be that Abelard hoped to recruit old Fulbert to the newly laundered banner of amor. If so, he had badly misjudged his man.
Abelard’s only stipulation to Fulbert was “that the marriage should be kept secret so as not to damage my reputation.” In those days, a master of the cathedral school, even if he was not an ordained priest (which Abelard was not), was expected to live as a celibate because the school was revered throughout Europe for the severity of its standards. Fulbert “agreed, pledged his word and that of his supporters, and sealed the reconciliation I desired with a kiss.” Abelard then set out for Brittany intending to bring Héloïse back to Paris “to make her my wife.”
But here he ran into what was for him an entirely unanticipated difficulty: Héloïse was unwilling to marry. Unlike Abelard, she did not believe that Fulbert was genuinely satisfied with the arrangements nor that any “satisfaction could ever appease” him. Second, she believed that philosophers had no business marrying, since they belonged to “all mankind,” and that she could win no honor from such a marriage. She foresaw clearly “the unbearable annoyances of marriage and its endless anxieties … What harmony can there be,” she asked, “between pupils and nursemaids, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pen or stylus and spindles? Who can concentrate on thoughts of Scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy coming and going of men and women about the house? Will [you],” she questioned Abelard, “put up with the constant muddle and squalor which small children bring into the home?”
She proposed an unheard-of solution: she would stay out of her uncle’s reach in Brittany, where Abelard could visit her whenever he was free. As Abelard was to recount it later, she insisted that “the name of friend [amica] instead of wife would be dearer to her and more honorable to me—only love [amor] freely given should keep me for her, not the constriction of a marriage tie, and if we had to be parted for a time, we should find the joy of being together all the sweeter the rarer our meetings were.” A no-strings arrangement, which Abelard in his earnestness refused. So Héloïse gave way to his wishes, prophesying, however, that “we shall both be destroyed. All that is left to us is suffering as great as our love has been.”
They were wed in secret, after which Fulbert and his friends began to spread news of the marriage, breaking “the promise of secrecy.” Fulbert then began to abuse Héloïse verbally and physically, so Abelard spirited her away to the convent of Argenteuil, where she had once gone to school. Fulbert, certain that Abelard intended to rid himself of Héloïse and leave her forever with the nuns, managed to enter his lodgings while he slept. There, with the help of kinsmen and servants, he held Abelard fast and castrated him. As the sun rose, news of the atrocity spread through Paris like wildfire, and “the whole city gathered before [Abelard’s] house,” lamenting, crying, and groaning. Their “unbearable weeping and wailing” so tormented the poor philosopher, lying in a pool of his own blood, that “I suffered more from their sympathy than from the pain of my wound, and felt the misery of my mutilation less than my shame and humiliation.”
Fulbert seems never to have been held to account for his act of retribution, perhaps because Abelard never pressed charges, more likely because Fulbert was too well connected to be brought to justice. But, as Abelard informs us, “the two who could be caught”—his own treacherous servant and one of Fulbert’s men—were blinded and castrated, probably by students of Abelard. All that was left to the tragic couple was the lifetime of suffering Héloïse had foreseen. Héloïse became a famous abbess, Abelard a monk and an even more famous philosopher, theologian, and writer than he was alreadyh—but also a public thinker dogged by insistent accusations of heresy.
His chief tormentor would be Bernard of Clairvaux, sponsor of Hildegard of Bingen and would-be censor of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who now makes his third appearance in this book. Bernard was the self-appointed Grand Inquisitor of twelfth-century Europe, a sham saint capable of complete chastity as well as of undying jealousy and hatred. How he loathed Abelard for his former freedom of body and his continuing freedom of mind. How he wished him only further ruin—all of course under the deceptive umbrella of Bernard’s scrupulous monitoring of theological orthodoxy. “Faith believes,” proclaimed Bernard with a sneer. “It does not dispute.”
His persecution, following his very nearly public castration, shook Abelard’s famous self-confidence. “God,” Abelard came to believe, “had struck me in the parts of the body with which I had sinned.” At his life’s end, Abelard even begged forgiveness for any inadvertent heresy he might have fallen into. “Logic,” wrote Abelard in his final “Confession of Faith,” “has made me hated by the world.…I do not wish to be a philosopher if it means conflicting with Paul [the first-century missionary apostle and author of many New Testament letters], nor to be an Aristotle if it cuts me off from Christ.” A sincere statement, but still the confession of a broken spirit whose fire has been quenched.
Héloïse was someone else altogether. More Roman Stoic than medieval Christian, more feeling woman than merely cerebral philosopher, more astringent realist than pious believer, she nonetheless kept both her religious vows and her promises to Abelard. Having no alternative, she became an exemplary, cool-headed nun, but one who never forgot who she really was and what she really felt. Many years after the parting of the lovers and their claustration in separate monastic communities, they embarked upon an intense correspondence. Héloïse’s letters, in particular, are so unlike any other medieval expression left to us that many scholars for many years upheld the theory that they were modern forgeries. But they are written in an excellent, allusive twelfth-century Latin that would be nearly impossible to fake; and since no one has been able to offer a consistent theory on how they came to be if they are not by Héloïse, the scholarly tide has turned at last and named her as their author.
Her first letter begins with a salutation that is both technically correct and utterly atypical of her time (and just as atypical of most other times, as well):
To her lord, or rather father; to her husband, or rather brother;
from his handmaid, or rather daughter; from his wife, or rather sister:
to Abelard, from Héloïse.
She upbraids her former lover in no uncertain terms for having failed to write to her for so many years, for forgetting her and leaving her comfortless, despite “the love I have always borne you, as everyone knows, a love which is beyond all bounds … God knows,” she goes on,
I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.…God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.
What she asks for now is that Abelard write to her so as to fortify her courage and help her persevere in an arid life she would never have chosen freely. So it is her letter that initiates the famous correspondence that follows, one in which Abelard does his best to explain himself and to make up, as well as he can, for his long silence. “And so,” writes the abbess,
in the name of that God to whom you have dedicated yourself, I beg you to restore your presence to me in the way you can—by writing me some word of comfort, so that in this at least I may find increased strength and readiness to serve God. When in the past you sought me out for sinful pleasures your letters came to me thick and fast, and your many songs put your Héloïse on everyone’s lips, so that every street and house resounded with my name. Is it not far better now to summon me to God than it was then to satisfy our lust? I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my only love.
The correspondence took place over five years or so, containing many queries from Héloïse, ever the eager student, and many instructions from Abelard, and ending in all likelihood about the year 1138. Abelard died early in the next decade at the Cluniac monastery of Saint-Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saône, at the age of sixty-three, probably of Hodgkin’s disease. Afterwards, Héloïse sought the favor of Abelard’s body from Peter the Venerable, the holy abbot of Cluny. Peter had admired Abelard, calling him “the Socrates of the Gauls, Plato of the West, our Aristotle, prince of scholars,” and was happy to oblige Héloïse, who buried her husband in a tomb in her Convent of the Paraclete, which Abelard had founded and turned over to her and her nuns. At the same time, Peter the Venerable promised Héloïse that he would try to get a good cathedral job (“a prebend”) for Astralabe—the only mention we possess of Astralabe’s continuing existence and of his mother’s continuing concern for him. When she died some twenty years later, the nuns buried her with Abelard, her “only love”; and though their bones have been disinterred several times over the eight and a half centuries that have intervened between them and us, they lie together to this day, close to the entrance of Père-Lachaise, where sympathetic Parisians still leave flowers on their grave.
Despite Abelard’s intellectual brilliance, his handsome exterior and theatrical temperament worked against the wide acceptance of his novel ideas. But in the thirteenth century at the University of Paris, then in full swing, a man of very different aspect and temperament, though just as innovative and even more dependent on Aristotle, succeeded in baptizing Aristotelian thought in a manner that gained wide acceptance and, in the end, even lasting papal approval. That man was Thomas Aquinas, a slow-moving, seldom-speaking great lump of a friar,i who gave off no flashes of brilliance and even appeared to casual observers to be a bit of a dimwit.
Thomas (Tomasso d’Aquino in his native Italian) was the youngest son of Landulf of Aquino, an important nobleman whose lands lay between Naples and Rome in the northern reaches of the Kingdom of Sicily, then ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Barbarossa’s Hohenstaufen grandson and Thomas’s second cousin, the astonishing Frederick II, known as Stupor Mundi (the Stupefaction of the World). Landulf sired at least six other sons and five daughters, most of whom grew up to take prominent places in the world. Thomas’s mother, Teodora of Chieti, Landulf’s second wife, was a Lombard, but in his veins flowed Norman, German, and Italian blood as well. His ancestry was, in fact, typically continental; and the males of his family, like their fellow knights throughout Europe, were skilled in war and poetry. Their particular war was waged almost continually on behalf of the emperor against the pope, rendering their lovely hill country of Roccasecca and Montesangiovanni full of peril.
Thomas gave evidence from an early age that he would rather handle a book than a sword. Indeed, so visibly did he shirk the school of chivalry, of horse and target, lance and armor, that Landulf and Teodora resolved quite early in his life to give him to Monte Cassino, the great Benedictine abbey in their neighborhood. With the monks, Thomas advanced from discipline to discipline with amazing speed, despite his heavy gait and growing girth. But physical prowess was so lacking in the boy that even his handwriting was embarrassingly awkward. In later life, it would become, as the manuscripts left to us bear witness, as unintelligible as a doctor’s prescription.
By the time he was eighteen, the imperial-papal war had reached Monte Cassino itself, so the monks-in-training were removed to the University of Naples in the Kingdom of Sicily to complete their studies. There, under the tutelage of Peter of Ireland, the teenage Thomas was introduced to Aristotle through the recently translated commentaries of the Hispano-Arabic philosopher Averroës. The surviving works of Aristotle had never been lost to the Muslim world (thanks to Arabic-Byzantine connections); and in the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Arabic Spain, all these were gradually translated into Latin in a collaborative Muslim-Jewish-Christian effort. Thomas Aquinas was the first medieval Christian to have such access to all the surviving works (in Latin translation) that he could use them freely to construct his own philosophy.j
The members of Thomas’s family, unimpressed by his original interest in an ancient Greek philosopher, were thrown into confusion by his decision to leave the Benedictines and join the Dominicans. The Dominicans, like the Franciscans, were not vowed to stability but were known as mendicants (or wandering beggars), because they depended not on the abundance of abbey lands but on handouts from the faithful. Since the Aquinos could never have made Thomas a soldier, they had expected to make him in due course the abbot of Monte Cassino, a distinguished figure appropriate to their heritage. No lord or lady could bear a beggar in the family. The more soldierly Aquinos were dispatched to kidnap Thomas on his way to Bologna, whither he was wending in the company of John of Wildeshausen, master general of the Dominican order, and other friars en route to their annual general chapter. Thomas was confined to the family castle at Roccasecca, where he demonstrated such tenacity of purpose that Donna Teodora gave in at last and released him to rejoin the friars.
Thomas was fortunate to study at Cologne with the foremost Aristotelian of the day, Albert the Great, a German count who had joined the Dominicans. Albert’s famous exposition De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things) was a landmark attempt to reestablish “natural philosophy”—or science, as we would call it today—in the Aristotelian spirit of observation, analysis, and conclusion. Simple people, amazed by what he seemed to know about the processes of nature, feared him as a sorcerer. He became Thomas’s advance man, informing one and all that this seeming dolt, teased by his fellow students as “the Dumb Ox of Sicily,” was a quiet genius who would outshine them all: “You call him a Dumb Ox; I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud that his bellowing will fill the world.” Following Thomas’s ordination to the priesthood (while only in his mid-twenties), Albert recommended him for a teaching post at the University of Paris.
Thomas would spend much of his working life lecturing and writing at Paris, but with a significant interval in Italy, much of it spent setting up a school at the Dominicans’ glorious complex of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Wherever he was, he read, lectured, wrote, and, as his obligations multiplied, dictated. Though he was able to read much more of Aristotle than had been available to Abelard, and though (as he remarked gratefully), “I have understood every page I ever read,” Thomas’s philosophical positions hardly differ from those of the earlier Parisian lecturer. The difference is in the tone, seldom contentious, never contemptuous, always serene and reasonable and so tranquilly analytical as to be magisterial. It is a tone that allays his readers’ prejudices, calms their fears, and shores up their confidence. “So far as I can see” is his bland, oft-invoked phrase, even though what follows may contain a novel proposal or a conclusive rejection of some widely held notion.
In this way, Thomas eventually—by the wide circulation of his voluminous writings after his death—won over almost the whole of the Christian world to his philosophy. In the wake of Thomas Aquinas, medieval Christendom gave up its dread of non-Christian pagan philosophy and adopted most of the philosophical positions of Aristotle, as sorted through Thomas’s careful sieve. The gloomy old Platonism of the early fathers of the church—Plato and his disciples (such as Plotinus) being the only Greeks previously exempted from general condemnation—was set aside somewhat and invoked less and less frequently. For Thomas did not believe that we lived in the gloom of a cave, tied to a decaying mass of matter, and that everything we perceived was illusion or trickery. He believed we lived in our bodies, created good by a good God, and received true perceptions through the media of our five senses, which like clear windows enabled us to form generally accurate impressions of the world as it is. He replaced the shadows of Plato’s Cave with the sunshine of everyday reality.
Not only had God made us and made us good—and here Thomas’s philosophy slid into his theology—God had deigned to share our humanity in the person of Jesus. Our bodies were not despicable carrion but temples of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that brooded over the face of the deep at the world’s creation, the same Spirit that descended from on high to consecrate Jesus at his baptism in the River Jordan, for ours was the same physical humanity that Jesus shared, our senses the same five with which he had perceived the world. The Son of God’s Incarnation had blessed and elevated all matter. With such thoughts as these did the medieval schoolmen (or scholastics) move the Christian worldview away from its previously pessimistic meditations on material corruption and human depravity and toward a worldview that was happier, more incarnational, and more appropriately Judeo-Christian.
Whether or not Augustine and the other ancient fathers would have consented to such propositions no longer mattered. They were far enough in the past, and Thomas’s voice strong enough in the present, that his moderate realism carried the day, becoming in time the sturdy philosophy on which the Catholic Church would rest its theological structure, a happier edifice altogether than what had served it in earlier centuries. And yet, this considerable change in emphasis still linked the medieval with the ancient world, for a Greek was still at the bottom of the whole thing. When Chesterton, that sly exaggerator, calls this vast embrace by which medieval believer was linked to ancient philosopher “the great central Synthesis of history,” he cannot be far wrong, for surely there is no other synthesis with longer grasp or deeper roots.
For all his balanced and capacious mind, much that Thomas had to say seems hugely irrelevant today. Modern readers find many passages baffling and wearisome. So many of Aristotle’s distinctions, which Thomas brought over wholesale into his own system, impress us as pretty useless. What contemporary scientist could possibly do much of anything with the distinctions of substance (or essential nature) and accident (or appearance, inessential quality)? And yet it was from just such meditations on incarnate reality that medieval science would take its uncertain first steps.
What is a thing in itself? Is it even possible to understand anything in itself, or do we understand it only through the medium of universal categories? What is any object, and how is it related to the whole—to the rest of reality? These are questions the Presocratic philosophers had asked and which in the time of Thomas Aquinas continued to receive Greek answers.
Though Thomas distinguished carefully between natural reality and supernatural, he found that his (and Aristotle’s) philosophical categories could be useful instruments for dealing with matters of faith. Thus, substance and accident were distinctions useful for the study of the Christian Eucharist. All such matters as the Eucharist, the Trinity, the Incarnation were mysteries inexplicable. Yet the mind could not be stopped from considering them, turning them over as if they were specimens in a laboratory, and trying to make some human sense of them. In the mystery of the Eucharist, ordinary bread and wine became Christ’s body and blood, so that our bodies might feed on him and our souls be nourished. But when the priest pronounced the words of consecration used by Jesus at his Last Supper—“This is my body”; “This is my blood”—what happened? The elements did not change their appearance. No, said Thomas, the accidental appearances of bread and wine remain, but the substance, the essential nature of the elements, is metaphysically transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood.
The ancient fathers of the church, men from Clement to Augustine to Gregory the Great and beyond, had felt no need to pick apart such mysteries so clinically. They preferred to guard them, then leave them in the realm of mystery. But by the time of Thomas a great shift had already occurred. Centuries of eucharistic enactments—liturgies, masses, viaticums, communion services, eucharistic benedictions, expositions of the Blessed Sacrament, Corpus Christi processions through the streets—had introduced into inquiring minds a series of insistent questions: what is going on here? what is its meaning? is anything happening and, if so, how? Many were as dissatisfied with Thomas’s (and the church’s) explanation as would have been Aristotle himself, who taught that an accident could not exist if it did not adhere to a substance. For there is no floating whiteness in our world, only the white picket fence. And since the accidents of bread and wine could hardly be said to adhere to Christ’s body, was not this church teaching logical nonsense? Such a question pushed the questioner back to ancient Presocratic inquiries: what is this thing? what is its nature? what is that thing? what is everything? what is the world?
Thomas Aquinas died before he reached fifty, as pious a priest as ever lived and more industrious than any other, leaving behind twenty-five packed volumes of Latin (in the definitive Parma edition of 1873). Yet he stopped writing in his last days because, he said, “Everything I’ve written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen.” What he had seen we don’t know but we probably have some hint of it in his eucharistic hymns, some composed at the invitation of the pope and showing a hidden side of Thomas, deeply devotional and surprisingly poetic. His hymns are untranslatable, their Latin too pithy and witty. The greatest one, the soaring “Pange lingua” (Sing, My Tongue), is still sung throughout the world each Maundy Thursday but never sounds quite right in English. Another, “Adoro te devote, latens Deitas” (Faithfully Do I Adore Thee, Hidden Deity), is almost as challenging to translate, though Gerard Manley Hopkins made a laudable attempt:
Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,
Quae sub his figuris vere latitas:
Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit,
Quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur;
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur:
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius:
Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed:
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
In cruce latebat sola Deitas,
At hic latet simul et humanitas:
Ambo tamen credens atque confitens
Peto quod petivit latro paenitens.…
On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men;
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.…k
In this poetic pondering, those old, reliable senses of ours are found to be deceived by the silent but overwhelming mystery of God. Behind the meditation unanswered questions surely press upon us—matters psychological, metaphysical, theological, and scientific. But the hymn removes the obscuring veil of centuries from the medieval mind, showing us a humble but questing spirit that must soon advance into unknown territory.
a The tradition of Irish prudery is of recent origin. Though its roots may be traced in part to the post-Reformation education of Irish Catholic clergy in French institutions tinged by Jansenism (Calvinism in its Catholic manifestation), its most obvious source is the English language itself, learned by the great majority of Irish people only in the nineteenth century—and then in its sexually repressed and respectability-obsessed Victorian form. In any case, it is not of medieval origin. See How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 214n and passim.
b Rue du Fouarre (or Straw Street) still exists, though most of its curved extent has been renamed rue de Dante; and it continues to attract hordes of young people—today to its cluster of comic book shops. It may be found across the Seine just south of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. A few steps west of rue du Fouarre, once strewn with straw to keep down dust, stands the twelfth-century Church of Saint Julien-le-Pauvre, Paris’s oldest surviving building. The winding streets surrounding this little church still speak of medieval matters.
c The idea of separately chartered entities began with chartered towns, which provided the models for chartered universities. Medieval craft guilds, which were a combination of professional associations and labor unions, provided the models for university faculties as well as for professors banding together to achieve common goals not directly connected to teaching.
d The medieval course of studies can be traced at least as far back as Julius Caesar’s librarian, Varro, who died in 27 B.C. He, however, enumerated nine liberal arts: the seven recognized by medievals plus medicine and architecture—which were dropped from the list by certain early medieval figures, such as Cassiodorus (d. 585) and Isidore of Seville (d. 636).
e Charlemagne (or Carolus Magnus), the first Holy Roman Emperor, instigated the short-lived Carolingian renaissance of the ninth century, often referred to as medieval Europe’s first renaissance. The renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—the subject of this book—is the second. The Renaissance of the sixteenth century is the third.
f In medieval philosophy, this dispute was called “the problem of universals.” A universal signifies a unity with reference to some plurality—i.e., “mankind” versus individual men. Any intellectual concept—beauty, goodness, justice, etc.—is a universal, for it stands as a unity against individual beauties, individual persons of goodness, individual acts of justice, etc. The basic philosophical question is what reality these universals possess. Plato believed they had a reality separate from earthly things and existed in the World of the Forms, which was far superior to the shadowy realities of our world because earthly realities were real only insofar as they partook of the existence of their ultimate models in the World of the Forms (the “really real”). This philosophical position is called—paradoxically, from a modern standpoint—extreme realism; Augustine of Hippo was its most outstanding later proponent. Aristotle, the father of moderate realism, believed that universals do exist but only in the real objects of sense experience and that human beings perceive the universal dimension intellectually (i.e., I know my neighbor Sam is an individual; I also know him to be human and therefore partaking of the universal, humanity). Thomas Aquinas would in the thirteenth century become the most important proponent of the Aristotelian position. “Everything,” said Thomas, “that is in the intellect has been in the senses.” Though it was to the Aristotelian school that Abelard attached himself, he was ingeniously anticipating Aristotle’s solution, since Aristotle’s writings on this subject were not available in the West till after Abelard’s time. Other positions are possible, such as nominalism, which contends that universals are but words. A fairly concise discussion of this mind-scrambling business may be found in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, XIV, 322ff—though you are advised to read at your own risk.
g The popular medieval hymn “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where caritas and amor are, there is God) displays this blurring of meanings. There is an innocence to Abelard that probably blinded him to Fulbert’s more primitive thought patterns. This flower-child aspect certainly evidences itself in the name the lovers bestowed on their child. An astralabe (now, more commonly “astrolabe”) was an analogue computer invented by the ancient Greeks, and improved by the Arabs, to measure the altitude of stars and other heavenly bodies. In the twelfth century, thanks to Arab mariners, Western Europeans had begun to use it to plot the course of seagoing vessels and to make vast improvements in astronomical (and calendrical) predictability. To name a child Astralabe was to suggest that he was destined to be a very modern (and starry) trendsetter. It brings to mind the avant-garde rock musician Frank Zappa, who named his daughter Moon Unit.
h We have lost Abelard’s songs to Héloïse in the days of their courtship (though some may have been incorporated anonymously into the famous collection Carmina Burana). Besides his works of ethics and theology, his later liturgical songs, his letters to Héloïse, and his autobiography (called Historia Calamitatum and usually appended to the letters), he left an intriguingly modern account entitled Dialogue Between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian.
i “Friar” (from frere, or brother, in both Old French and Middle English) was the normal designation for a man of one of the wandering orders, such as the Franciscans, not vowed to remain in a particular place and sing the hours of the church’s office (or official prayer).
j Latin translations from Arabic, as well as original Latin works making use of Arabic—and often of Hebrew—words, begin to appear in Europe as early as the mid-tenth century. Such Oriental influences also figure in the works of Gerbert of Aurillac, who was one of the first to introduce “Arabic” (actually Indian) numerals to replace the clumsy Roman system, which required the use of an abacus even for many simple calculations. (In 999, Gerbert became the first French pope, dying in office four years later.) Another early route by which Greek learning reached the West was that of Sicily and southern Italy, which long retained their Greco-Arabic culture. Salerno, in particular, which was a medical center from at least the ninth century, provided the medieval world with continuous, if flickering, illumination by Greek science. The great irony in all this cultural borrowing was that as Greek works in translation became generally available to Europeans, Islam, which had served the role of cultural conduit, was in retreat throughout Europe.
k “The dying thief” is one of two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, the thief asks Jesus to remember him “when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus replies: “I tell you solemnly: today you will be with me in Paradise.”