IT is fitting that we should end our long and devious narrative with Dante; for in the century of his death those men appeared who would begin to destroy the majestic edifice of faith and hope in which he had lived: Wyclif and Huss would preface the Reformation; Giotto and Chrysoloras, Petrarch and Boccaccio would proclaim the Renaissance. In the history of man—so multiple is he and diverse—one mood may survive in some souls and places long after its successor or opposite has risen in other minds or states. In Europe the Age of Faith reached its last full flower in Dante; it suffered a vital wound from Occam’s “razor” in the fourteenth century; but it lingered, ailing, till the advent of Bruno and Galileo, Descartes and Spinoza, Bacon and Hobbes; it may return if the Age of Reason achieves catastrophe. Great areas of the world remained under the sign and rule of faith while Western Europe sailed Reason’s uncharted seas. The Middle Ages are a condition as well as a period: in Western Europe we should close them with Columbus; in Russia they continued till Peter the Great (d. 1725); in India till our time.
We are tempted to think of the Middle Ages as a fallow interval between the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (476) and the discovery of America; we must remind ourselves that the followers of Abélard called themselves moderni, and that the bishop of Exeter, in 1287, spoke of his century as moderni tempores, “modern times.”1 The boundary between “medieval” and “modern” is always advancing; and our age of coal and oil and sooty slums may some day be accounted medieval by an era of cleaner power and more gracious life. The Middle Ages were no mere interlude between one civilization and another; if we date them from Rome’s acceptance of Christianity and the Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, they included the final centuries of the classic culture, the ripening of Catholic Christianity into a full and rich civilization in the thirteenth century, and the breakup of that civilization into the opposed cultures of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The men of the Middle Ages were the victims of barbarism, then the conquerors of barbarism, then the creators of a new civilization. It would be unwise to look down with hybritic pride upon a period that produced so many great men and women, and raised from the ruins of barbarism the papacy, the European states, and the hard-won wealth of our medieval heritage.*
That legacy included evil as well as good. We have not fully recovered from the Dark Ages: the insecurity that excites greed, the fear that fosters cruelty, the poverty that breeds filth and ignorance, the filth that generates disease, the ignorance that begets credulity, superstition, occultism—these still survive amongst us; and the dogmatism that festers into intolerance and Inquisitions only awaits opportunity or permission to oppress, kill, ravage, and destroy. In this sense modernity is a cloak put upon medievalism, which secretly remains; and in every generation civilization is the laborious product and precarious obligating privilege of an engulfed minority. The Inquisition left its evil mark on European society: it made torture a recognized part of legal procedure, and it drove men back from the adventure of reason into a fearful and stagnant conformity.
The preponderant bequest of the Age of Faith was religion: a Judaism absorbed till the eighteenth century in the Talmud; a Mohammedanism becalmed after the victory of the Koran over philosophy in the twelfth century; a Christianity divided between East and West, between North and South, and yet the most powerful and influential religion in the white man’s history. The creed of the medieval Church is today (1950) cherished by 330,000,000 Roman, 128,000,000 Orthodox, Catholics; her liturgy still moves the soul after every argument has failed; and the work of the Church in education, charity, and the moral taming of barbaric man left to modernity a precious fund of social order and moral discipline. The papal dream of a united Europe faded in the strife of Empire and papacy; but every generation is stirred by a kindred vision of an international moral order superior to the jungle ethics of sovereign states.
When that papal dream broke, the nations of Europe took essentially the form that they retained till our century; and the principle of nationality prepared to write the political history of modern times. Meanwhile the medieval mind created great systems of civil and canon law, maritime and mercantile codes, charters of municipal freedom, the jury system and habeas corpus, and the Magna Carta of the aristocracy. Courts and curias prepared for states and Church modes and mechanisms of administration employed to this day. Representative government appeared in the Spanish Cortes, the Icelandic Althing, the French Estates-General, the English Parliament.
Greater still was the economic heritage. The Middle Ages conquered the wilderness, won the great war against forest, jungle, marsh, and sea, and yoked the soil to the will of man. Over most of Western Europe they ended slavery, and almost ended serfdom. They organized production into guilds that even now enter into the ideals of economists seeking a middle way between the irresponsible individual and the autocratic state. Tailors, cobblers, and dressmakers, until our own time, practiced their handicrafts in personal shops after the medieval fashion; their submission to large-scale production and capitalistic organization has occurred under our eyes. The great fairs that now and then gather men and goods in modern cities are a legacy of medieval trade; so are our efforts to check monopoly and regulate prices and wages; and nearly all the processes of modern banking were inherited from medieval finance. Even our fraternities and secret societies have medieval roots and rites.
Medieval morality was the heir of barbarism and the parent of chivalry. Our idea of the gentleman is a medieval creation; and the chivalric ideal, however removed from knightly practice, has survived as one of the noblest conceptions of the human spirit. Perhaps the worship of Mary brought new elements of tenderness into the behavior of European man. If later centuries advanced upon medieval morality, it was on a medieval foundation of family unity, moral education, and slowly spreading habits of honor and courtesy-much as the moral life of modern skeptics may be an afterglow of the Christian ethic absorbed in youth.
The intellectual legacy of the Middle Ages is poorer than our Hellenic inheritance, and is alloyed with a thousand occult perversions mostly stemming from antiquity. Even so it includes the modern languages, the universities, and the terminology of philosophy and science. Scholasticism was a training in logic rather than a lasting philosophical conquest, though it still dominates a thousand colleges. The assumptions of medieval faith hampered historiography; men thought they knew the origin and destiny of the world and man, and wove a web of myth that almost imprisoned history within the walls of monastic chronicles. It is not quite true that medieval historians had no notion of development or progress; the thirteenth century, like the nineteenth, was powerfully impressed by its own achievements. Nor were the Middle Ages as static as we once proudly supposed; distance immobilizes motion, assimilates differences, and freezes change; but change was as insistent then as now, in manners and dress, language and ideas, law and government, commerce and finance, literature and art. Medieval thinkers, however, did not attach as much importance as the modern thoughtless to progress in means unaccompanied by improvement in ends.
The scientific legacy of the Middle Ages is modest indeed; yet it includes the Hindu numerals, the decimal system, the conception of experimental science, substantial contributions to mathematics, geography, astronomy, and optics, the discovery of gunpowder, the invention of eyeglasses, the mariner’s compass, the pendulum clock, and—apparently the most indispensable of all—the distillation of alcohol. Arabic and Jewish physicians advanced Greek medicine, and Christian pioneers emancipated surgery from the tonsorial arts. Half the hospitals of Europe are medieval foundations, or modern restorations of medieval establishments. Modern science has inherited the internationalism, and in part the international language, of medieval thought.
Next to moral discipline, the richest portion of our medieval heritage is in art. The Empire State Building is as sublime as Chartres Cathedral, and owes its grandeur to architecture alone—to the stability of its audacious height and the purity of its functional lines. But the union of sculpture, painting, poetry, and music with architecture in the life of a Gothic cathedral gives to Chartres, Amiens, Reims, and Notre Dame a scope and depth of sensuous and spiritual harmony, a wealth and diversity of content and ornament, that never lets our interest sleep, and more fully fills the soul. These portals, towers, and spires, these vaults that made a soaring counterpoint of stone, these statues, altars, fonts, and tombs so fondly carved, these windows that rivaled the rainbow and chastened the sun—one must forgive much to an age that loved so conscientiously the symbols of its faith and the work of its hands. It was for the cathedrals that polyphonic music was developed, and a musical notation and staff; and from the Church the modern drama was born.
The medieval heritage in literature, though it cannot vie in quality with that of Greece, may bear comparison with Rome’s. Dante may stand beside Virgil, Petrarch beside Horace, the love poetry of the Arabs and the troubadours beside Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius; the Arthurian romances are deeper and nobler than anything in the Metamorphoses or the Heroides, and as graceful; and the major medieval hymns top the finest lyrics of Roman poetry. The thirteenth century ranks with the age of Augustus or of Leo X. Rarely has any century seen so full and varied an intellectual or artistic flowering. A commercial expansion almost as vigorous as that which marked the close of the fifteenth century enlarged, enriched, and aroused the world; strong popes from Innocent III to Boniface VIII made the Church for a century the summit of European order and law; St. Francis dared to be a Christian; the mendicant orders restored the monastic ideal; great statesmen like Philip Augustus, St. Louis, Philip IV, Edward I, Frederick II, Alfonso X raised their states from custom to law, and their peoples to new medieval levels of civilization. Triumphing over the mystical tendencies of the twelfth century, the thirteenth sallied forth into philosophy and science with a zest and courage not surpassed by the Renaissance. In literature the “wonderful century” ran the gamut from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival to the conception of The Divine Comedy. Nearly all elements of medieval civilization seemed in that century to reach unity, maturity, and culminating form.
We shall never do justice to the Middle Ages until we see the Italian Renaissance not as their repudiation but as their fulfillment. Columbus and Magellan continued the explorations already far advanced by the merchants and navigators of Venice, Genoa, Marseille, Barcelona, Lisbon, and Cadiz. The same spirit that had stirred the twelfth century gave pride and battle to the cities of Renaissance Italy. The same energy and vitality of character that marked Enrico Dandolo, Frederick II, and Gregory IX consumed the men of the Renaissance; the condottieri stemmed from Robert Guiscard, the “despots” from Ezzelino and Pallavicino; the painters walked in the paths opened by Cimabue and Duccio; and Palestrina mediated between Gregorian chant and Bach. Petrarch was the heir of Dante and the troubadours, Boccaccio was an Italian trouvère. Despite Don Quixote romance continued to flourish in Renaissance Europe, and Chrétien de Troyes came to perfection in Malory. The “revival of letters” had begun in the medieval schools; what distinguished the Renaissance was that it extended the revival from Latin to Greek classics, and rejected Gothic to revive Greek art. But Greek sculpture had already been accepted as a model by Niccolò Pisano in the thirteenth century; and when Chrysoloras brought the Greek language and classics to Italy (1393) the Middle Ages had still a century to run.
In Renaissance Italy, Spain, and France the same religion held sway that had built the cathedrals and composed the hymns, with only this difference, that the Italian Church, sharing richly in the culture of the time, gave to the Italian mind a freedom of thought born in the medieval universities, and predicated on the tacit understanding that philosophers and scientists would pursue their work without attempting to destroy the faith of the people.
So it was that Italy and France did not share in the Reformation; they moved from the Catholic culture of the thirteenth century to the humanism of the fifteenth and sixteenth, and thence to the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth. It was this continuity, combined with pre-Columbian Mediterranean trade, that gave to the Latin peoples a temporary cultural advantage over northern nations more severely ravaged by religious wars. That continuity went back through the Middle Ages to classic Rome, and through southern Italy to classic Greece. Through Greek colonies in Sicily, Italy, and France, through the Roman conquest and Latinization of France and Spain, one magnificent thread of culture ran, from Sappho and Anacreon to Virgil and Horace, to Dante and Petrarch, to Rabelais and Montaigne, to Voltaire and Anatole France. In passing from the Age of Faith to the Renaissance we shall be advancing from the uncertain childhood to the lusty and exhilarating youth of a culture that married classic grace to barbaric strength, and transmitted to us, rejuvenated and enriched, that heritage of civilization to which we must always add, but which we must never let die.