The Medieval World View (2)
Council was a watershed in the religious life of the middle ages. On November 11,
1215, Pope Innocent III painted an alarming picture of a Church dissolving in a sea of
heresy. He could paint such a
picture because the success of popular heretical and evangelical movements, such as the
Albigensians, was positively explosive.
The Church was faced with the threat of change by these heresies, a threat reflected in
the THIRD CANON of the Council. Heresy threatened the very
foundation of the Church and of papal authority. But criticism came from elsewhere as well
-- nobles, physicians, judges, merchants, men and women joined with the lower orders in
order to criticize Church abuses and infidelity.
The people, the bulk of Europe's population, were especially critical. They did not understand the fineries of theological thought. Nor did they understand Church government. They complained about the un-Christian lives of the higher clergy. Had they been able to read Dante's Divine Comedy, they would have nodded in approval as Dante situated seven popes in Hell. To make matters worse, none of the people understood Latin. If and when they bothered to attend mass, they heard strange words uttered while the clergy conducted rituals and ceremonies which they clearly did not understand. If the Middle Ages was the age of Christendom, or a Christian Kingdom in Europe, then just what did it mean to be a Christian? What is a good Christian? The people began to recognize their need for their own Gospel -- they sought their own Christ, not the Christ manufactured by Rome. It is clear that the institution of the Church would not give these people what they wanted. And so, as a form of protest, many of these people were attracted to heresy. The heretics seemed to fill a role the Church could not.
Two major factors conditioned a person's choice to become a heretic. First, most people had lost all confidence in the highest Church authorities -- the popes and bishops. Second, they were dissatisfied with a monastic form of life. With liberty and new-found freedoms so characteristic of 13th century society, most people would rather enjoy some of what life had to offer rather than abandon themselves to the rigors and denials of an ascetic life in the monastery (a life specified by the Benedictine Rule). And this led to a fundamental problem of medieval Christianity: how could an individual reconcile their worldly endeavors with their spiritual needs?
The European awakening was a double-edged sword. The growth of cities, trade, universities and culture showed people that there were rewards to be found in the life of the material world. But, this came into direct conflict with their religious aspirations -- aspirations which, in fact, had been fabricated by the Church. Christianity was a form of social control and it was in the 12th and 13th centuries that more people became aware of this fact (see Innocent and the Great Schism). Religion was not to be questioned nor abandoned. Neither was Christianity. What was challenged, however, was the authority of the Church.
With this is mind, beginning in the 12th century a religious movement began to spread across western Europe. This movement took the form of wandering preachers who called for repentance, poverty and an apostolic life in imitation of Christ. Like the tele-evangelists of today, these wandering preachers were trying to spread good news. They appealed to the anti-clerical and anti-monastic beliefs of the people. More importantly, they carried the Gospel to the people. If the people could not get guidance from the clergy, they certainly needed to get it from some other source. In other words, the people were more than prepared for the message the wandering priests were about to give them. These priests told them what they wanted to hear.
As early as the year 1030, heretical groups from Milan preferred burning at the stake than recant their beliefs. Only the Gospel was the true source of authority. Throughout the 12th century and into the 13th, heresies arose among individual thinkers, theologians and philosophers. Their ideas first took hold among the nobility but eventually filtered down to the peasantry. Although we have seen why the peasantry might have been willing to follow the heretics, why the nobility? The nobility saw heresy as a way of combating papal authority. Second, heresy could also be used to attack the authority of secular powers. Third, since all men wanted to go to Heaven it seemed to the nobility that the closer they got to the Church, the better their chances of salvation. But, these men could not join monasteries, whose doors were closed. Nor could they enter Church government since those positions were now hereditary. So, as a form of protest, the nobility joined the ranks of the heretical movements.
Although one explanation for the rise of heresy can be found in the general idea that the spiritual needs of the majority of people were not being met, there is perhaps another explanation. By the 13th century, the division between the old world and the new was not yet that large. This is why ancient heresies and religions, many of them pre-dating Christianity, and superstitions and astrology, could exist side by side with orthodox Christian belief. In fact, the history of early Christianity would have been quite different without these pre-Christian religious beliefs. Christianity did not appear in a vacuum. It was necessary, as Saint Paul remarked, "that there must also be heresies." It fell upon the shoulders of the Church to stamp out these heresies as quickly as they had appeared. And the Church tried to stamp out heresy with Crusades, the Inquisition and even by sending Dominican friars out to the cities and towns to convert the spiritually starving communities of Europe.
A few examples of heretical thinking ought to suffice. Around 1175, and in the city of Lyons in France, a hotbed of Christian orthodoxy as well as heresy, the citizen Peter Waldo (or Valdes) commissioned a poor student to translate the Gospels into French. A Christian lay movement began to grow around Peter Waldo. The movement, known as the "Poor Men of Lyons" or simply, the Waldensians, had as its main activity the reading of the Bible in the vernacular and a life in strict imitation of Christ. The Poor men of Lyons suffered bitter opposition by the Archbishop so what began as a revolt then became downright heresy. The Waldensians were opposed to relics and the cult of Saints. They would not honor nor would they pray for the dead. They would rather pray in a barn or a stable than a Church. "Away with the cathedrals!" they said. For the Waldensians, a vernacular Bible, vernacular prayer and songs, a communal life, schools of their own and well-organized missionary work and propaganda brought about a rapid spread of their ideas in Italy, southern France and Spain. Their violent anti-clericalism and anti-Roman preaching brought them into sympathy with another heretical groups, the Cathari.
The Cathari of southern France, also know as the Albigensians, were far more dangerous than the Waldensians. At least this was how the Church interpreted them. The Cathari were not even nominally Christian since their spiritual doctrines were drawn from religious beliefs which pre-dated Christianity. The Cathari were pre-Christian, non-Christian and anti-Christian all at one and the same time. Between 1150 and 1250, the Cathari built at least sixteen churches: six were located in Italy, another six in Constantinople and four in France. The Cathari rejected nearly everything associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition: existing political authority, kings and princes, the death penalty, the taking of oaths and war. Furthermore, they rejected the material world as evil; they abstained from marriage, meat, eggs and milk. All the Cathari claimed to die by their own hand -- starvation was preferred. For the Cathari. Christian baptism was rejected. Why? Since water is of this world and hence, material, then it must also be evil. Therefore, the Cathari would only be baptized upon their death by the laying of hands of other Cathari.
Bizarre as they sound, both the Cathari and Waldensians managed to win thousands of converts. Nobles found in these heretical groups a way to assault bishops and other members of the clergy. The people, meanwhile, were now given some form of spiritual guidance. The movement spread so rapidly that the Church had to react and it did so by proclaiming a Crusade. The Church also secured the services of a Spanish monk by the name of Dominic (c.1170-1216). Dominic insisted that his followers live in poverty by begging, and he and his followers were sent to southern France to tame and convert the Cathari. Using intellectual arguments, the Dominicans met with some success but in the end, all that was established was a new religious order -- the Dominicans -- who now stood outside the Church. Get the point? The Church sends out Dominic to convert heretics back to Rome. Instead, Dominic created Dominicans! Although the Dominicans were not heretics, they were serving a role that ought to have been served by the Church itself. What this tells me, and what it must have told 13th century men and women, was that the Church was just not doing its job.
The Church had to reach more people by giving them the spiritual guidance that they demanded. So, while Dominic traveled the French countryside appealing to human intellect, another man, by the name of Francis of Assisi began an appeal to the human heart. The son of a wealthy merchant, the young Francis dreamed of becoming a powerful knight. However, an injury he suffered while in his teens made the prospects of knighthood improbable. Francis lived a life of ease and all the townspeople of Assisi looked up to him, as I suppose today, some people look up to entertainers and sports figures. Francis enjoyed his popularity but something happened to him. He began to look inward to his soul and he discovered that he could no longer reconcile his life in the material world and his quest for higher spiritual truth. So, like Peter Waldo before him, and Muhammed before him, and Luther to come, Francis rejected the material world. He wanted to live like Christ -- in poverty, so he abandoned the world. But as he preached his wisdom to the lost souls of the neighboring villages, many people were attracted to his teachings and to his lifestyle. Again, the only reason why Francis could attract so much support is that he was clearly giving the people a spiritual message which they wanted to hear. Before he knew it, and quite against his wishes, Francis had become the leader of a completely new religious order, the Franciscans.
By the year of his death in 1226, there were more than 5000 Franciscans with another 1000 or more waiting for admission into the order. St. Francis, like Dominic, was no heretic. But, and here is the irony, the strength of his movement is that people were appealing to his order and not the Church, for spiritual guidance. All this clearly shows that first, the Church was clearly losing ground in providing its flock with necessary spirituality. Second, it shows an amazing spiritual vitality among the people of Europe as a whole. The people did not reject Christianity. What they were rejecting was the way the Church hierarchy had interpreted and manipulated Christian dogma. Evangelists like Waldo, the Cathari, Dominicans and Franciscans could only exist and flourish because they told the people what they wanted to hear. And the people were eager for spiritual guidance. An evangelical movement is a clear sign of crisis or decay. After all, is a revival necessary if most people are satisfied? So, the fact that there were so many revival movements in Italy, southern France and elsewhere -- and there are dozens more which we have not mentioned -- all attests to the decay of the Christian Church as an institution. Some sort of revitalization, perhaps from within, seemed absolutely necessary.
This internal revitalization was, I think, carried out by a man whose entire life only occupied the middle two quarters of the 13th century. As I pointed out at the outset, it was Saint Thomas Aquinas who supplied medieval Europe with its world view. What Aquinas did was quite simple -- he provided a synthesis of Reason and Faith.
Aquinas was born in the castle of his father at Roccasecca, near Naples, about the year 1224. His education began at the ancient Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. He went on to study at the University at Naples and received his M.A. degree in 1244 -- he was then 20 years old. At this time and up to 1256, we find the "Dumb Ox," as he was called, studying philosophy and theology under the tutelage of the Dominicans at Paris and Cologne. In 1256, he received his doctorate in theology and taught at Paris until 1259. For the next ten years Aquinas spent his time in various Dominican monasteries surrounding Rome. Here we find him lecturing on philosophy and theology. His special interest was the philosophy of Aristotle.
By 1269, Aquinas returned to the University of Paris where he presented his lectures on a variety of theological and philosophical questions. In 1274, and while on his way to Rome, Aquinas died of fever, barely fifty years of age. All his most important writings, but especially the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles, were written in Latin between 1252 and 1273. I mention these details about his education because Aquinas was, like Abelard before him, a university man. He was an intellectual in the modern sense of the word.
Although Thomism -- as the thought of Aquinas is known -- was eclectic to the core it can be said with certainty that the greatest influence upon his thought was the philosophy of Aristotle whom Aquinas simply referred to as "The Philosopher." How Aquinas came to know "The Philosopher" is important for the intellectual history of the west. After the fall of Rome and after Justinian closed Plato's Academy and the Lyceum of Aristotle in 529, the majority of the major texts of Greek philosophy became unavailable. But Islamic scholars in the Near East saved many of these ancient manuscripts they had found in Byzantine libraries and, from the richest library in the ancient world, the library at Alexandria. Between the 8th and 9th centuries, Islamic scholars like Avicenna (980-1037) and Averro�s (1126-1198) as well as the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), studied these manuscripts and wrote commentaries on them. By the 12th century, these manuscripts as well as the commentaries on them, made their way back into Europe by way of Spain, Sicily and North Africa. And all of this was due to the Crusades and the reactivation of trade which the end of the Crusades made possible. These texts also helped to make the 12th century Renaissance a reality. By the middle of the 13th century, French and Italian universities were literally inundated with these ancient texts, especially the philosophical works of Aristotle.
Aquinas studied Aristotle like no other man had before or since and he used Aristotle to justify his entire thinking. Aquinas' theory of knowledge is not a vision of divine truth -- you might expect that coming from this very Christian saint. Rather, his theory of knowledge is a sober statement of how men know the world. Man is a rational animal and the world can be understood by Human Reason. Being endowed with reason, man can understand the universe. But as an animal, man can know only that which he can experience with his senses. This is Aristotelianism to the core. As Aquinas himself put it: "whatever is known is known in the manner in which man can know it." This is a fundamental principle of all knowledge according to Aquinas and could lead man in two directions:
To find these principles or first causes is the whole object of our knowledge. What experience conveys can be put into language and expressed in words, propositions and demonstrations. Though man cannot say all that the world is, what he can say is truly said. This is a theory of the function of the individual knower. The mind knows itself, knows its objects, and finally, the mind knows its own nature. St. Augustine struggled with these same questions nearly 800 years before Aquinas. But Augustine wanted to understand the intelligibility of the universe -- Aquinas wanted to understand the intelligibility of the individual human soul. The focus of Augustine was the world -- for Aquinas, it was man.
Aquinas was not satisfied with knowing things as they are -- he wanted to know why. And this took him to Aristotelian logic. Aquinas found truth in logical argument -- if you could argue back and forth successfully, then you could find the first principle or first cause. And of course, the first cause, the prime mover, was God. Just to give you an idea of the logical power of Aquinas' thinking, consider the following statement taken from the Summa Contra Gentiles:
We may poke fun at Aquinas for expending so much energy to prove by logical argument what millions of people for the past 2000 years have accepted on faith alone. But, the Thomistic synthesis is indicative of tendencies within the western intellectual tradition.
Theology had developed -- dogmatically, of course -- since the days of the early Church, let's say, since the 2nd or 3rd century. This theology was strengthened as more people converted to Christianity and as more bishops and theologians began to write their treatises and commentaries on the Holy Scriptures. Pagan philosophers -- great as they might have been -- had to be shunned simply because they had never known Christ. Even Dante's guide through Inferno and Purgatory, the great Roman poet Virgil, could not make the final ascent to the mountain because he was, after all, a pagan. This theology and dogmatism was under steady attack at least as early as 1100 -- a new spirit of inquiry seemed to be haunting theologians and Christian philosophers. Again, it was Abelard who hinted at this trend when he wrote in his Preface to Sic et Non, "By doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth." Why should we inquire when the Scriptures are truth? But the Scriptures we hold in our hands and the Scriptures interpreted by Saint Dominic, or Waldo or the Cathari or a Pope or a Lateran Council, are two different things. The argument here is that religious conformity had finally broken down. The conformity or dogmatism of the early Church was now confronted by a general awakening of the European mind. This awakening took various forms among different groups of people across the European continent.
Many heretics like the Waldensians set up their own religious organizations while remaining Christians. The Cathari of southern France did not even claim to be Christian -- the evil God Jehovah allowed the persecution and crucifixion of the good God, Jesus Christ. And the Dominicans and Franciscans were extra-ecclesiastical religious orders who, while defending Christian dogma, had the unintended consequence of asserting their independence. And Aquinas, the Dumb Ox from Roccasecca, a Dominican who taught at Paris, sought an academic, university-based reconciliation between Reason and Faith. His greatest achievement was perhaps the proof of God's existence using Aristotelian logic.
Heresy was never beaten back -- the Inquisition set out to "round up the usual suspects" but the awakening of the European mind, I suppose, was here to stay. Even the heretic Martin Luther (1483-1546) never came before the bench of the Inquisition. His Reformation based on justification by faith alone was condemned by the Pope at Rome, but ironically, his movement was never effectively suppressed. In fact, the very growth of Lutheranism, Calvinism and dozens of other Protestant sects shows that the Church could no longer maintain its dogmatic authority.
The clash between Reason and Faith was perhaps inevitable considering the intellectual, social, economic and cultural changes of the 12th and 13th centuries. While one never conquered the other, it is clear that some sort of synthesis was desperately needed. This synthesis came with Thomas Aquinas. So strong was the Church's support of Aquinas, he was made a saint in 1323 and his thought became the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church down to the present day.
For the intellectual history of Europe, Aquinas utilized Aristotelian logic as an instrument of both theological and philosophical analysis. Faith and Reason are two roads to a single truth. What Reason cannot uncover, Faith will. Truth is the knowledge of God and God's will. As a theologian and a philosopher -- this is the meaning of the word Scholasticism -- Aquinas helped to fashion a world view for high medieval Europe. This was a world view which expressed the divinity and truth of Christianity and was supported by rigorous logical argument.
While Aquinas was certainly the New Aristotle of the 13th century, it was DANTE (1265-1321) who was perhaps the new Virgil, or even the new Homer. Dante was born in Florence, a city synonymous with the Italian Renaissance. Like Saint Francis, Dante came from a family of great wealth and influence. In 1274, at the age of nine, Dante fell in love with a young girl by the name of Beatrice, the daughter of yet another wealthy family. It has been said that this one event determined Dante's career as a poet. Dante's greatest work, The Divine Comedy, was written after 1302, a period marked by Dante's political exile from the city of Florence. As we have already seen, Dante's guide through Inferno or Hell, was the Roman poet and pagan, Virgil. In Hell they meet Homer, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Socrates, and Plato. Noble and wise though these men certainly were, they must remain in Hell for the simple reason that they were pagans. In Hell we also find gluttons, thieves, murderers and men like Cassius, Brutus and Judas. Dante and his guide then find themselves in Purgatory where man is purged of sin before he, if he is lucky, makes the ascent to Paradise. They eventually come to the Garden of Eden but Virgil must remain behind because without faith in Christ, he cannot achieve purity. With Virgil left behind, Dante now enters Paradise where he encounters St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Aquinas, Jerome, Augustine and all the other saints, martyrs and Church Fathers. It is here that Dante also learns about the structure of the cosmos. It is a universe spherical in shape -- or rather, it is depicted as a series of concentric spheres. The spheres are arranged in hierarchical order -- the smallest (inner) sphere contains formless matter. As we move outward from sphere to sphere we move from matter to plants to animals to man. The spheres above man contain the heavenly bodies, the angels and finally, God. We have reached the first principle of Aquinas or, as Aristotle called it, the prime mover. Here Dante receives an angelic vision -- it is a vision of man made in God's image. So, for Dante, the way to God is found in human life. This was Abelard's message. It was the message of Aquinas as well. There are two roads to truth, not one.
Although the cosmology and theology of The Divine Comedy is clearly that of Aristotle and Aquinas, Dante regarded the Church at Rome in a fashion which could only be called heretical. He called the Church a harlot -- a whore. For Dante, the message was quite clear -- the Church no longer served the spiritual needs of the flock. For instance, in Inferno Dante and Virgil not only meet up with thieves, gluttons a Judas Iscariot -- they also meet seven popes.
Abelard, Aquinas and Dante helped to construct a world view which placed Reason and Faith at the center of man's quest for truth. That truth was God and God's will. However, what we will notice in the coming weeks is that over the course of the next several centuries, Reason and Faith would be slowly drawn apart. The European mind awakened itself from centuries-old slumber and began to explain and justify itself according to the principles of a new synthesis. In the immediate future lay bleak years. The Black Death of 1347 would destroy nearly thirty-five per cent of Europe's population. France and England would go to war for more than a century. The economy would collapse. Turmoil and disorder seemed to be the order of the day. The Italian and Northern Renaissance, of course, would damn all of this as the "media aetis," a Dark Age. Europe was about to face even more disasters but the awakening of the European mind was real and continual. And again, it was the religious institution we call the medieval Church which was to take the real brunt of the attack. And then there was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. A revolutionary event to the core, it was Martin Luther who perhaps completed what Abelard had begun.
| The History Guide | |
copyright © 2016 Steven Kreis