The Medieval Mind

by Cynthia McLeod

During the Middle Ages, in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, the Catholic Church was the center of the lives of the people in Europe and England. Religion enveloped a person's entire life from birth to death.   Most people learned trades or farming, but the young men who managed to obtain an education received a religious one.   During this time, there was one theologian, Peter Abelard, who was so outspoken, according to Church rules, that the Church itself judged him and carried out a cruel punishment.   Then, there were other theologians who were canonized, such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in France, and Saint Francis of Assisi, in Italy.   Even though everyone's life revolved around the Catholic Church, some professed their religion but did not actually believe; such was the last Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who was more concerned with personal power.   Important building projects reflected the people's faith , provided employment for many, and became places for celebrations. The cathedrals, such as the one at Chartres, France, served the local populace in many ways: not only did the people worship at the cathedrals, many of them had helped to build them.   The people participated in all the religious activities and life of their community from birth, with   baptism immediately thereafter, to death, when they wanted to be buried in the churchyard, close to the saints they had invoked all their lives.   Local farmers brought their produce to sell, and circuit judges heard civil and criminal cases.   Other events held in or around the outside of the Church were feasts, mystery plays depicting biblical stories, and village processions.   Business meetings were held at the church, and the priest would read announcements from royal or religious authorities.   Most people were uneducated and could not read, so they depended on the priests to deliver the Word of God.   Most of the time the Word was delivered in Latin.   When one man who could read and write well, the Italian Dante Alighieri, wrote his great work, he wrote in Italian, and he used the framework of Christianity. He brought together the lives of real people, living and dead, including popes, that he placed in his version of Hell, and then, placed the Roman poet, Virgil, in Hell and Purgatory as the Guide. Dante exposed greed at all levels of society, and his Divine Comedy eventually takes the reader through an explanation of the wondrous heights of heaven for life in eternity.   Dante's inspiration for writing, as will be shown, was two-fold: the glimpse of the Baptistery at Florence but also his feelings for a woman.

A worthwhile set of five videos, written, produced and narrated by Professor Frayling, presents many of the social and cultural facets of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries in Europe under the following titles:

1. "The Jewelled City: The Cathedral of Chartres"

2. "The Circle of Light: The Divine Comedy"

3.  "The Fires of Faith: Dissidents and the Church"

4.  "The Saint and the Scholar: Portrait of Abelard"

5.  " Frederick II, The Last Emperor"

In the videos we see the contrasting figures of  the spiritual world, the temporal world and the literary world.

Peter Abelard and Saint Bernard were contemporary theologians who present   opposing views in the early 12th century.   They were both born in 1079.   Peter Abelard was a scholar, and a teacher of the rational school of thought that was just becoming popular in Paris.   He was a prolific writer and was vocal in his views all of his life.   He argued that one could not believe in something unless he understood it first.   His theological "opponent", Saint Bernard, argued that one must have faith first; then, he could have understanding.   Their opposing views led to what was called a theological prizefight, or the great confrontation of Europe.   At one point, Peter was sent to England, but he thought the monks there tried to poison him, so he returned home.   The king of France forbade Peter to preach on French soil so Peter preached from perches in trees and from boats in the water just offshore.   Naturally, the king admitted defeat.   Because Peter preached the Gospels, the Church thought he should not have married, even to make an honest woman of his love, Eloise.   Later, the Church felt Peter had tricked them.   So, the Church took matters into their own knife-wielding hands and ensured Peter would never demonstrate his love again.   He sent Eloise to a nunnery where she remained the rest of her life.   Peter was so outspoken all of his life that he was eventually excommunicated, the worst thing that could happen to someone in the Middle Ages.   One feels sorry for Peter Abelard as he was only expressing his point of view, a trait that was not appreciated in his times.   He was accepted back into the Church just before he died.   Peter and his wife, Eloise, are buried side by side.

Saint Bernard is presented as a devoutly pious individual who had a history of anorexia nervosa most of his life.   He entered the monastery in 1112 at Citeaux, just south of Dijon, France.   His entire family of thirty-one individuals entered the monastery with him.   With his "faith first" viewpoint, he was the most persuasive person of the twelfth century and perhaps the most famous individual in Europe during his lifetime.   Also, Bernard's eloquent style of preaching drew many pilgrims to hear the Word of God.   He was very adept at showing the weaknesses of the Church and admonished churchmen to act properly.   At the Council of Sens, Saint Bernard presented such a good case against the "heretic" Peter Abelard, that the Council condemned Peter without hearing his side of the story. Saint Bernard preached for the Second Crusade and was made a saint in 1174.   The Catholic Church celebrates his life with a feast day every August 20th.   Both Peter Abelard and Saint Bernard died in 1142 at sixty-three years of age.    

The Church in the early thirteenth century was facing troubling times and battling heretical   movements. It was thought that the world was supposed to end in 1260.   That was the best date the medieval people had and their problem was how to reconcile religion with the changing life and increased trade and commercialism.   The Cathars, or Albigensians, in France believed in a Father of Light for spiritual needs, and a Prince of Darkness for worldly goods.   Rome believed the Cathars were heretics, was afraid of them, and wanted them wiped out. At this time, 1209, the Catholic Church was raising an army of crusaders to fight the Cathars and put down heresy.   The inhabitants of the town of the Cathars were slaughtered with no regard as to who was a Cathar, and the supposed heretics were burned.   The Church chased the heretics for ten years, but the Cathars persisted in their beliefs. In 1215 in Rome, the Inquisition was established to fight continuing heresy in France.   Two hundred years later, in 1431, they were still burning heretics.   The English burnt Joan of Arc at the stake in Rouen, France for heresy (they could not admit that a young woman could do what she did without consorting with the Devil).   Joan was finally canonized in 1920 and today is the second patron saint of France.   St. Denis is the first patron saint.   In 1243, the Church launched another attack against the last of the Cathars.   In 1244, on a steep mountainside dwelling, the Cathars were told to recant or be burnt.   There was no trial and over two hundred souls were burnt.   Most were manhandled and pushed into the flames, even though it was reported some voluntarily threw themselves onto the pyre.  

Another major figure of the period was St. Francis who was born 1181 in Assisi, Italy and died in 1226. He lived in a time when Rome met many challenges.   Saint Francis was just beginning his spiritual journey while all of this was occurring. Francis grew up in a wealthy merchant family and as a young man felt the need to turn to God.   Hedid not change his life immediately, but a major turning point in St. Francis' life was when he kissed the hand of a leper and gave him some money.   Shortly thereafter, Francis gave up worldly things and turned to God.   At San Damiano, Francis prayed in a ruined church where God told him to "repair my Church".   God was speaking of the spiritual church, not that particular building.   So, Francis embraced extreme poverty and lived on handouts and old, discarded clothing as he spread the Word.   Very soon he had men joining him to "rebuild" the Church, and some women even joined him.   To be able to continue his preaching, Francis needed the permission of Pope Innocent III, or he risked   being condemned as a heretic.   Back in Rome, Saint Francis asked Pope Innocent III to found a new order of friars.   A friar is a man in religious life who walks about from place to place preaching, while a monk remains sequestered in his monastery.   The Pope granted permission for the order of Franciscans and also another order, the Dominicans.

After returning from Rome, Saint Francis withdrew from his companions to the nearby mountains.   As he was praying, his hands, feet and side began to bleed.   This is the first time ever that the phenomenon of the stigmata was witnessed and recorded.   The "stigmata" refers to the wounds that appear on a person for no physical reason and which correspond to the wounds that Jesus Christ suffered when he was crucified.   In later years, these wounds caused Saint Francis great physical difficulties.  

Saint Francis died on October 3, 1226, with bodyguards hovering over him so that his body would not be stolen.   His bones are housed in a basilica, which had another basilica built around it.   The Franciscans are the largest order of friars on Earth, and Saint Francis is the Patron Saint of Ecology because of his famous sermon to the birds.   He also wrote the earliest surviving literature written in Italian, a prayer.  

One of the videos considers an important temporal figure of the time. Frederick II, the last Holy Roman Emperor, was born in 1194 in Italy.   In the film series, Frederick is presented as a king concerned with his own life first and then with the Holy Roman Empire, since he had his son running the Holy Roman Empire for several years, while he remained in Italy.   Frederick's reason for remaining in Italy was that without possession of Sicily, he believed there would be no security for Italy.   The Catholic Church was historically powerful in its over one thousand years of ruling, and it could not risk having an emperor wield more power than the Church.   Therefore, in June 1215, Pope Innocent III forced Frederick to acknowledge the pope as Frederick's overlord, and this put an end to Frederick's dream of the union of Italy and Sicily.   Frederick was a very intelligent man with an insatiable curiosity for learning and he was also an avid hunter.   But, he was also labeled as calamitous, depraved, and mischievous.   He had little regard for others' lives.   He once had a man locked in a box so he could see the man's spirit leave his body when he died.   However, Frederick did not see anything.

Frederick made a contract in 1215 with Pope Innocent III to lead a Crusade in 1216, but for several reasons, was late leaving.   Due to the delay in leaving for the Crusades Frederick was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX in September 1227.   Frederick finally made it to Jerusalem in 1229 and crowned himself King of Jerusalem.   During this time, three hundred years before Columbus, Jerusalem was considered the center of the geographic world.   To Frederick's credit, in 1231 he had the first written constitution since Roman times, and he founded the University of Naples, which is in keeping with his characteristic desire of continuing one's education.   Contrary to Christian views and the Crusade mentality, Frederick made friends with Muslims who had occupied Sicily, the area he grew up in.   He even had some Muslims as his bodyguards.   He liked the Muslims because they had knowledge unknown to him, and since he knew Arabic very well, he could converse with them.    Frederick died in 1250 at fifty-six years of age.

Architecture naturally reflected Christianity and the life of the Church at this period.The Cathedral at Chartres is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in all of France.   It is eighty-five kilometers southwest of Paris and pilgrims have been traveling there since medieval times.   During this time, the 12th and 13th centuries, light was becoming important as a way out of the (spiritual) darkness and the stained glass windows in the renovated Chartres provided a magnificent way to illustrate this.   Between 1170 and 1270, several million tons of stone was quarried for cathedrals and churches.   More stone was quarried in this one hundred year time span than was quarried in all of ancient Egypt.   Cathedrals and churches became "stopovers" or resting places for pilgrims on their way to their destinations.   Churches housed holy relics; usually bones of a saint, and no church could be built without a relic.  

Chartres was started in 1136 and it pioneered the architecture of light with its stained glass windows.   Saint Bernard was unimpressed; he thought it was useless luxury.   Between 1194 and 1220, no fewer than 10,000 people worked to rebuild Chartres, the largest cathedral built at that time.   The cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.   The tunic Mary is believed to have worn when giving birth to Jesus Christ is housed in the cathedral.   The church was rebuilt after the fire in 1194, and the addition of stained glass windows portray all the important events of the Bible.   The first flying buttresses were used in this cathedral.   The roof of the cathedral is very heavy and continually pushing outwards, and the flying buttresses receive the outward push and carry it to the ground. The cathedral is 54' wide and 120' high.   Its floor is on a slight angle so it can be washed out.   Remember, in addition to church services, the church was home to market day, meetings, and general public gatherings.   Chartres inspired a frenzy of church building over the next one hundred years, including one built out of different stone that eventually encountered numerous difficulties.   The beautiful architecture is definitely impressive, but the explanation of the building of Chartres is awe-inspiring.   The people who built the cathedral did not have tools or knowledge as we do today, yet they built difficult buildings that have withstood 900 years of time.
 

A favorite movie in this series deals with the literary legacy: Dante Alighieri a literary treasure. It is so amazing that Dante could have amassed all the knowledge that he did without benefit of a library card catalog, or the abundance of books that proliferated after Gutenberg invented the printing press, three hundred years later.   Dante was the last great medieval writer and this book, The Divine Comedy, has been continually in print ever since printing was invented.   Dante originally named the book The Comedy because it ended on a happy note.  Later generations added the word "divine" to the title to indicate its sacred subject matter.   In his allegorical trilogy of three equal parts, he takes us on a tour of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.   The movie is excellent in its visual portrayal of all three levels of life after death, especially Hell.  

Two sources of inspiration for Dante are suggested in the video. In Florence, Italy, the Baptistery was the heart of the city, and when Dante was eleven years old, he got to see the ceiling after it had been remodeled into a beautiful mosaic depicting events of the Bible from Adam and Eve until the end of the world.   He was enchanted with its beauty, and its stories eventually translated themselves through his pen into this book.   

The love of Dante's life was Beatrice Portinari , whom he saw for the first time when she was eight and he was nine years old.   She is the one in the book, in Paradise, who receives him into Heaven.   Dante and Beatrice only saw each other on five occasions before she died at the age of twenty-five.   The Divine Comedy was written in part because he wanted to honor her after her death.  

In the book, Dante has to have a guide, and the person who guides Dante through Hell is Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid.   There are many recognizable contemporaries of Dante's time that he has placed in Hell, and he describes the ever-increasing punishment they receive according to their crimes.   The movie does a superb job of recreating a visual Hell that Dante would have been proud of.   Dante spares no one, as he even places deserving popes in Hell.   They are thrust head down into a furnace with other popes being crammed in after them.  

After leaving Hell, Dante is in Purgatory where souls are judged.   Since Virgil is a pagan, he cannot leave Purgatory. So, as Dante seeks the higher levels of Paradise and God, his next guide is Beatrice, looking like the beautiful twenty-five year-old that she was when she died.   She explains some heavenly things to him, and shows him some of the famous people in history who are now in heaven, including the only Englishman, Venerable Bede, the historian.   While in Paradise, Saint Bernard (the opponent of Peter Abelard) leads Dante to the Virgin Mary.  

In 1315, six years before Dante died, many events were occurring that would have long lasting effects on mankind.   A famine was developing due to excessive rain which ruined the crops.   This famine weakened the people and animals.   Therefore, when the Black Death infested Italy in the middle of the century, it took hold more easily   The last years of Dante's life also saw the start of the One Hundred Years War and the first recorded use of firearms in Europe.   Dante was born in 1265 in Florence and died in 1321 in Ravenna, Italy.  

With these videos, one gets a sense of how it might have been to have lived in the high Middle Ages with the Catholic Church ruling one's life from birth to death.   Work, family life, marriage, and even matters considered private by today's standards were common matters for the Church to issue rulings on.   The Church was the power and the salvation, and the Church also fulfilled almost every political station in the communities.  We see the profound influence of the Church on each of the figures examined in the videos, Maybe this is why Peter Abelard, a vocal, rational teacher, was treated so severely.   He was just ahead of his time with his constant arguments and desire to reason things out.   The Church's castration of him seems out of proportion to the crime of sex outside of marriage.   Then, there is Saint Bernard, who was the most persuasive speaker of his time.   This means he would have been very vocal, like Peter Abelard, but his subject matter and beliefs were different than Abelard's.   Therefore, Saint Bernard is honored every year with a feast day. Thirty-nine years after Peter Abelard and Saint Bernard died, Saint Francis was born.   He was revered in his lifetime, and is one of the most revered of the saints today.   Once he embraced Jesus Christ, his entire reason for living was refocused.   But, even with his devotion, he still had to obtain the permission of the Church to continue his preaching.   One person who did not like to obtain permission was Frederick.   Also, he was as good as he was bad: he wrote a hunting book on falcons that was the model of hunting for the next 800 years, and he put two babies in solitary confinement to see what language they would speak "naturally".   Naturally, the babies died.  

Life from birth through death and the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were interconnected in a web that could not be undone.   The cathedrals provided a place for worship and also acted as a town square, with the priest overlooking everything.   The churches must have been an inspiration to many people, but the one who made a substantial literary contribution was Dante.   He had the freedom to pursue his craft, even though he became a political refugee and had to flee his hometown.  

For additional reading or study, one could pursue subjects such as the Catholic Church, architecture and construction, kings and hunting, the study of theology from the secular and religious viewpoints, the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperors, literature and writing, clothing, and family strife (Saint Francis) of the high Middle Ages.

Recommended books for additional reading: Joseph & Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval City; Joan Evans, Life in Medieval France; Anne Paolucci (editor) Dante's Gallery of Rogues.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is on the web (www.newadvent.org) and can be purchased through this website on CD -Rom for $30

 

Cynthia McLeod, Administrative Assistant in the Department of Secondary Education and Educational Leadership, Stephen F. Austin State University, has contributed two earlier articles to the Clio Online Journal: "Michelangelo" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel". She will graduate in 2005 with a Bachelor's Degree in Applied Arts and Sciences with a Minor in History.