VI. LIFE AMONG THE RUINS

Morals were such as any country might expect from so long and tragic a disablement of economy and government. Geoffrey de la Tour-Landry, about 1372, wrote two books to guide his children in the chaos; only that which he addressed to his daughters survives. It is a gentle and tender volume warm with parental love, and disturbed by solicitude for a virginity especially unstable in a time when many women came through generous sins to ungenerous contumely. Against such temptations, the good knight thought, the best protection was frequent prayer.32 The book reflects an age still clinging to civilized sentiments and moral sense. Seventy years later we come to the gruesome figure of the Maréchal de Rais or Retz, a great and wealthy lord of Brittany. It was his custom to invite children into his castle on pretense of training them for the chapel choir; one by one he killed them and offered them in sacrifice to demons of whom he begged magic powers. But also he killed for pleasure and (we are told) laughed at the cries of his tortured or dying choristers. For fourteen years he followed this routine, until at last the father of a victim dared to indict him; he confessed all these details and was hanged (1440), but only because he had offended the Duke of Brittany; men of his rank could seldom be brought to justice whatever their crimes.33 Yet the aristocracy to which he belonged produced heroes in abundance, like King John of Bohemia, or the Gaston Phoebus de Foix so loved and lauded by Froissart. The final flowers of chivalry blossomed in this mire.

The morality of the people shared in the common debacle. Cruelty, treachery, and corruption were endemic. Commoner and governor were alike open to bribes. Profanity flourished; Chancellor Gerson complained that the most sacred festivals were passed in card-playing,* gambling, and blasphemy.35 Sharpers, forgers, thieves, vagabonds, and beggars clogged the streets by day, and gathered at night to enjoy their gleanings, at Paris, in the Cours des Miracles, so called because the mendicants who had posed as cripples during the day appeared there marvelously sound in every limb.36

Sodomy was frequent, prostitution was general, adultery was almost universal.37 A sect of “Adamites” in the fourteenth century advocated nudism, and practiced it in public till the Inquisition suppressed them.38 Obscene pictures were as widely marketed as now; according to Gerson they were sold even in churches and on holy days.39 Poets like Deschamps wrote erotic ballads for noble dames.40 Nicolas de Clémanges, Archdeacon of Bayeux, described the convents of his district as “sanctuaries devoted to the cult of Venus.”41 It was taken as a matter of course that kings and princes should have mistresses, since royal—and many noble—marriages were political matches involving, it was held, no due of love. Highborn ladies continued to hold formal discussions on the casuistry of sexual relations. Philip the Bold of Burgundy established a “court of love” in Paris in 1401.42 Amid or beneath this moneyed laxity there were presumably some virtuous women and honest men; we catch a fleeting glimpse of them in a strange book written about 1393 by an anonymous sexagenarian known as the Ménagier, or householder, of Paris:

I believe that when two good and honorable people are wed, all loves are put off .... save only the love of each for the other. And meseems that when they are in each other’s presence they look upon each other more than upon the others; they clasp and hold each other; and they do not willingly speak and make signs save to each other.... And all their special pleasure, their chief desire and perfect joy, is to do pleasure or obedience one to the other.43

Persecutions of Jews (1306, 1384, 1396) and lepers (1321), trials and executions of animals for injuring or copulating with human beings,44 public hangings that drew immense crowds of eager spectators, entered into the picture of the age. In the cemetery of the Church of the Innocents at Paris so many newly dead sought admission that bodies were exhumed as soon as the flesh might be expected to have fallen from the bones; the bones were indiscriminately piled in charnel houses alongside the cloisters; nevertheless, these cloisters were a popular rendezvous; shops were set up there, and prostitutes invited patronage.45 On a wall of the cemetery an artist labored for months in 1424 to paint a Dance of Death, in which demons, pirouetting with men, women, and children, led them step by merry step to hell. This became a symbolic theme of a desperate age; a play presented it at Bruges in 1449; Dürer, Holbein, and Bosch would illustrate it in their art. Pessimism wrote half the poetry of the period. Deschamps reviled life in almost all its parts; the world seemed to him like a weak, timorous, covetous old man, confused and decayed; “all goes badly,” he concluded. Gerson agreed with him: “We lived in the senility of the world,” and the Last Judgment was near. An old woman thought that every twitch of pain in her toes announced another soul heaved into hell. Her estimate was moderate; according to popular belief no one had entered paradise in the past thirty years.46

What did religion do in this collapse of an assaulted nation? In the first four decades of the Hundred Years’ War the popes, immured at Avignon, received the protection and commands of the French kings. Much of the revenues drawn from Europe by the popes of that captivity went to those kings to finance the struggle of life and death against Britain; in eleven years (1345–55) the Church advanced 3,392,000 florins ($84,800,000?) to the monarchy.47 The popes tried again and again to end the war, but failed. The Church suffered grievously from the century-long devastation of France; hundreds of churches and monasteries were abandoned or destroyed; and the lower clergy shared in the demoralization of the age. Knights and footmen ignored religion until the hour of battle or death, and must have felt some qualms of creed at the maddening indifference of the skies. The people, while breaking all the commandments, clung fearfully to the Church and the faith; they brought their pennies and their griefs to the comforting shrines of the Mother of God; they rose en masse to religious ecstasy at the earnest preaching of Friar Richard or St. Vincent Ferrer. Some houses had statuettes of the Virgin so contrived that a touch would open her abdomen and reveal the Trinity.48

The intellectual leaders of the Church in this period were mostly Frenchmen. Pierre d’Ailly was not only one of the most suggestive scientists of the time; he was among the ablest and most incorruptible leaders of the Church; and he was one of the ecclesiastical statesmen who, at the Council of Constance, healed the schism in the papacy. As director of the College of Navarre in Paris he had among his pupils a youth who became the outstanding theologian of his generation. Jean de Gerson visited the Lowlands, and was much impressed by the mysticism of Ruysbroeck and the moderna devotio of the Brethren of the Common Life. When he became chancellor of the University of Paris (1395) he sought to introduce this form of piety into France, even while censuring the egoism and pantheism of the mystic school. His six sisters were overcome by his arguments and example, and we are told that they remained virgins to the end of their lives. Gerson condemned the superstitions of the populace, and the quackeries of astrology, magic, and medicine; but he admitted that charms may have efficacy by working upon the imagination. Our knowledge of the stars, he thought, is too imperfect to allow specific predictions; we cannot even reckon a solar year precisely; we cannot tell the true positions of the stars because their light is refracted, as it passes down to us, through a variety of mediums. Gerson advocated a limited democracy, and the supremacy of the councils, in the Church, but favored a strong monarchy in France; perhaps his inconsistency was justified by the condition of his country, which needed order more than liberty. He was a great man in his fashion and generation; his virtues, as Goethe would have said, were his own attainment, while his delusions were infections from the age. He led the movement to depose rival popes and reform the Church; and he shared in sending John Huss and Jerome of Prague to the stake.

Amid the destitution of their people the upper classes glorified their persons and adorned their homes. Common men wore simple jerkins, blouses, culottes or trousers, and high boots; the middle classes, imitating the kings despite sumptuary laws, wore long robes, perhaps dyed in scarlet or edged with fur; noble lords wore doublets and long hose, handsome capes, and feathered hats that swept the earth in courtly bows. Some men wore horns on the toes of their shoes, to correspond with less visible emblems on their heads. Highborn ladies affected conical hats like church steeples, straitened themselves in tight jackets and colorful pantaloons, trailed furry skirts over the floor majestically, and graciously displayed their bosoms while enhancing their faces with veils. Buttons were coming into fashion for fastenings,49 having before been merely ornaments; we are reversing that movement now. Silks, cloth of gold, brocade, lace, jewelry in the hair, on neck and hands and dress and shoes, made even stout women sparkle; and under this protective brilliance nearly all upper-class women developed a Rubensian amplitude.

The homes of the poor remained as in former centuries, except that glass windows were now general. But the villas and town houses (hotels) of the rich were no longer gloomy donjons; they were commodious and well-furnished mansions, with spacious fountained courts, broad winding stairs, overhanging balconies, and sharply sloping roofs that cut the sky and sloughed the snow; they were equipped with servants’ rooms, storerooms, guard room, porter’s room, linen room, laundry, wine cellar, and bakery, in addition to the great hall and bedrooms of the master’s family. Some châteaux, like those of Pierrefonds (c. 1390) and Châteaudun (c. 1450), already presaged the regal castles of the Loire. Better preserved than any palace of the time is the house of the great capitalist Jacques CŒur at Bourges, a full block long, with Gothic tower of carved stone, ornate cornices and reliefs, and Renaissance windows, the whole costing, we are told, some $4,000,000 in the money of today.50 Interiors were now sumptuously furnished: magnificent fireplaces, which could warm at least one side of a room and its occupants; sturdy chairs and tables indefatigably carved; cushioned benches along tapestried walls; gigantic dressers and cupboards displaying gold and silver plate, and far lovelier glass; thick carpets, and floors of polished oak or enameled tiles; and high canopied beds vast enough to hold the lord, his lady, and a child or two. On these recumbent thrones the men and women of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries slept naked;51nightgowns were not yet an indispensable impediment.

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