Post-classical history

The Magnificent Century

WHILE England was taking remarkable strides in the direction of freedom and establishing principles of democratic rule which the world would accept later, Englishmen had been sharing also in other activities of this great and beneficent period.

The twelfth had been the century of the Crusades, a memorable, gallant, resounding century. Men marched away singing and died in battle or were captured and sold into slavery; and comparatively few came back. The heroic but badly managed efforts to wrest the Holy City from the infidels kept Christendom in a continuous flurry of exultation, of preparation, of loss and despair. But something grew out of it. Those who came back brought the first hints of a new life.

They brought books and medicines and maps and Eastern magic as well as new foods, new diseases, new heresies. Spices from the East awakened the dull palates of Christian people. Knowledge from the lands of the hot desert enlivened their sluggish minds. Europe would have roused slowly from the lethargy of the Dark Ages, in any event, but the breaking of barriers between East and West stimulated the process. It would have been a quicker burgeoning if the nations of Europe had not started warring among themselves. During the last decades of the twelfth century there were civil wars in Germany and Italy, religious troubles in France, dynastic in England. As a result the cloud lifted a little, but a little only, and the light which came through was fitful. Men continued to suffer unceasingly. Those of high station lived in dank stone castles and those of low degree in mean hovels without chimney or window. They clothed their bodies in dun shoddiness and counted a man a meacock who wore an embroidered band on his tunic. They had faith in God but believed just as surely in the devil. Men died early, in the wars, on the rack, or with a searing hot pain in their insides about which they knew nothing and for which nothing could be done. Women began to bear children in their teens and died in their thirties after losing all their bloom and most of their teeth. All this was as it had been.

Then the thirteenth century dawned—and a great change came over things. Wars went on just the same and ignorance lost only a little of its grip. Lepers went on dying in woeful neglect and in the stench of lazar-cotes. The first dark cruelties of the Inquisition were felt. It was a vastly imperfect century, with everything wrong from the Dark Ages carried over into it in some degree. That must be accepted at the outset.

But it was magnificent because it saw the beginnings of so much. Men began to think new thoughts, to dream again, to rediscover beauty which, like dyes for the making of gay cloth, had almost been lost. Science, which had started with Plato and Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and Pythagoras, may be said to have been born a second time in the thirteenth because it was then that the principles of scientific research were discovered. These years from 1200 to 1300 were to see progress in all directions. Invention, after lying fallow for centuries, was to bloom again with the suddenness which can turn a desert into a riot of lupine overnight.

It was a century of great men. They stand out from the darkness like pillars of light, their achievements undimmed by distance, their personalities vivid in spite of the scantiness of the records. Consider them for a moment, forgiving the inevitable use of superlatives which cannot be avoided in dealing with a superlative period in the march of time.

Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus represent the fields of philosophy and theology, and they were, it will be admitted, authentic giants. The teachings of the former are as much regarded today as when he labored by the light of a tallow dip over his Summa Theologiae.

Giotto, the shepherd’s boy who humanized painting, paved the way for the Renaissance in art, while Nicola Pisano was doing the same for sculpture. Greater than either stands a figure of supreme luster, an Italian named Dante, who would not produce his great work in the thirteenth but would acquire his training and draw his inspiration from that century.

Innocent III, one of the most justly acclaimed of popes, might be classified under many resounding titles, but one may be selected because of its humanitarianism, the father of the modern hospital. Genghis Khan, the Tartar who overran Asia and whose lieutenants shattered the armies of Western chivalry, was on every count the most devastating conqueror of history. There was a king in France, Louis IX, who was so enlightened of spirit and so filled with desire to make kingship what he conceived God had intended it to be that men called him St. Louis. A monk in a Dominican monastery, one Vincent of Beauvais, conceived the idea of an encyclopedia which would be revived five hundred years later to set the modern standard; and, moreover, he wrote the first one all by himself, a monumental effort.

A courageous English churchman named Robert Grosseteste may be called the greatest teacher of the age because he imparted to his pupils the first glimmer of scientific truth.

Roger Bacon, that man of mighty intellect and fascinating mystery, raised the torch higher and taught the principles of research and experiment on which scientific advance has been based, applying them himself in many inventions. Believers in the Baconian cult will say that a century which did no more than produce this inspired Franciscan monk might rest content with its share in the annals of progress.


A few examples of thirteenth-century activities will suffice to convey an idea of the spirit of the times. Toward the end of the twelfth century the spires of churches began to rise higher. In the thirteenth they soared into the heavens in a glory of carved stone and with a daring which told of the release of men’s minds. With height went a conception of new beauty in all detail. G. K. Chesterton speaks of Late Gothic, the gift to the world of the thirteenth, as fighting architecture, its spires like spears at rest, its arches clashinglike swords. It was that, of course, but much more. It was a manifestation of faith so great that man wanted to carry this symbol of it right up to the stars. Of all the signs that the curtain of ignorance and inertia was beginning to fall, the new type of church was the clearest and most marked. It flaunted, moreover, a return of interest in beauty and a general desire to create it.

This amazing span of years produced in France the cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, Amiens, Bourges, and Le Mans. In England, following the more subdued lines of English Gothic, came Salisbury, Ely, Lincoln, the great Yorkshire abbeys which rank above everything else for sheer purity of design.

It was possible quite early in the century to walk into buildings in almost all large cities of Europe which were so different from other structures that they instantly aroused wonder as to the purpose they served. They were generally of a single story. They had a few rooms only, and these were large and the ceilings high, the windows spacious enough to admit plenty of light and air. Almost invariably they were located near running water so there would be plenty for all uses and waste matter could be carried away quickly, this latter a curious consideration indeed in the dirt of medievalism. They were hospitals, and this will be hard to believe because of the conception man has of the hospitals of any period before the middle of the nineteenth century; a picture, and a true one, of unclean hotbeds of disease and suffering, dark and fetid, with crowded beds and mortuaries filled with untended bodies.

The hospitals of the Holy Ghost came about in this way. Innocent III, in some inspired moment when he laid aside his plans for bringing the whole Christian world into one great federation under the active control of the papacy, conceived the idea of having in Rome a model hospital which would serve to enlighten the nations in the proper treatment of the sick. Knowledge of medicine had been limited through the dark centuries to accepted ideas and practices, a great deal of superstition, a jumble of absurd cures from leech-books, a little practical understanding of the use of herbs, and very considerable skill in surface surgery. Connected with the school of medicine at Montpellier, France, there was, however, a physician who had created an institution for the sick which was a model of organization and new thought. This man, Guy of Montpellier, was summoned to Rome and given a free hand by the Pope. He built the hospital of Santo Spiritu, which fulfilled every desire of the forward-looking Innocent. Thereafter it was pointed out to every churchman who came to Rome and the suggestion made that he should carry back with him a determination to create hospitals of a like nature. Many were built along these lines, mostly in Germany, France, and England.

The premature death of Innocent resulted in a loss of impetus, and it may be taken for granted that the finer type of hospital was found only in the larger cities. The Tonnerre in Paris was one of the best examples, having wards 270 feet long and 55 feet wide, the roof high and vaulted to admit plenty of air and light. In Germany at least one Holy Ghost institution still stands, exhibiting the admirable features which made them so remarkable in this early age. In London five royal hospitals were built or reorganized during the thirteenth century and had, no doubt, some of the new ideas: St. Thomas’s, St. Bartholomew’s, Bethlehem (which later became known as Bedlem), Bridewell, and Christ’s Hospital.

It must be conceded that the picture of medicine remained, in spite of this, a dark one. The number of houses for the segregation of lepers rose before the year 1300 to the staggering figure of nineteen thousand in all Europe, and the physician of the day seems at this distance a combination of quack and native medicine man. Still, an Italian named Salvenus de Armat invented spectacles in 1280, a somewhat crude aid to eyesight but a definite step in the forward direction.

Something in the nature of a miracle (or so it seemed to those who saw it) would be performed on rare occasions, and this is worth telling about. When a great nobleman had been thrown from his horse in the course of a tilting and a splinter of steel had become lodged in his head, or a bishop had fallen and suffered a fracture in a great fat thigh, the physician summoned to the case might resolve to ease the pain of what had to be done. His assistant always carried a bag wherever they went, containing a book in which the tides of the ocean and the phases of the moon were recorded (it being considered important not to do anything at the wrong time), and such varied items as saffron seed, soda, dried frogs’ legs, yarrow, belony, asses’ hoofs, and powders of crushed precious stones. From this assortment the assistant would produce a not overly clean sleeping sponge. A sleeping sponge was a very rare thing, and its use was something to be whispered about in awed tones. The doctors knew little about the strange power it contained and were loath to make use of it. It was a plain sponge, nevertheless, which had been dipped at some previous time in a mixture of the juices of opium, hyoscyamus, mandragora, and conium and then dried in the sun.

The assistant, an overworked and usually not very clean individual who drew the teeth and administered clysters and such routine work, would dip the sponge in warm water. The doctor would then take it and place it over the mouth and nostrils of the sufferer. Sometimes, of course, nothing happened, but sometimes the patient would begin to breathe stertorously, indicating that he had fallen asleep and would continue unconscious while the doctor went to work with knife and searing iron and splints.

This secret was lost some time thereafter. The mists closed in again. Even as late as the nineteenth century people would suffer excruciating pain during operations, with no more aid to endurance than a glass of brandy or rum. But write it down to the credit of the thirteenth century that the mercy of anesthesia was known then, although not fully understood and most sparingly used.


A creative urge was felt in all the arts. Men composed, painted, wrote, with an almost feverish new interest. The beauty of the magnificent churches was reflected in the poems, the romances, the pictures, the Latin hymns, which this inspired century produced. It was then that Dies Irae and the Stabat Mater were first sung; that the songs of the Crusades, polyphonic and sonorous, grew out of the marching feet turned eastward. It was a poor parish church indeed which did not have a biblical painting, usually depicting the Second Coming, on its walls. An inn lacking gay decorations was counted no better than a spittlehouse. The meanest home had something to distinguish it, a boldness of line, a carved sign, a vigorous splash of paint.

The mind of man, awakening from its long torpor, had turned with vigorous energy to progress. He was no longer content with what he had known-before, the narrow limits and interests of the life he had been forced to live. He was questing in all directions, thinking, asking, demanding, inventing. New weapons were being produced, new types of ships built Clocks were put up in church towers, at Westminster, Canterbury, St. Albans, to the great wonderment of Englishmen, and one Robertas Anglicus was experimenting with a mechanical clock which would be operated with weights.

Most remarkable of all, the inspired English friar, Roger Bacon, was beginning to speak of curious things, of glasses which would make it possible to see clearly across the Channel from Dover to France, of vehicles which would soar unsupported through the air, of a powder of the most secret kind, made up largely of saltpeter, which would explode with a flash of fire like lightning in the sky and a roar to equal the terror of winds at the end of the world.

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