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Mediaeval History

Shanet Clark

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Medieval History I

“We must understand in order to believe.”

Peter Abelard was a critical thinker. His instructions for harmonizing the Fathers indicate an unusually forward-looking, critical mind.

The three critical techniques Peter Abelard developed to deal with ancient Church documents required both genius to originate and courage to implement:

“Ascertain whether texts quoted from the Fathers may be ones they themselves have retracted and corrected . . . whether they are giving the opinion of another rather that their own . . . (or have) they left them open to question rather than settled them.”

With considerable genius Abelard developed these devices and with courage he taught them, flying in the face of the rigid intellectual milieux of the early 12th century. Intellectually, he went beyond the critical compass of his contemporaries and in establishing these techniques he fearlessly went against the conservatism of Bernard and Anselm, opening up great opportunities for critical thinkers to come.

Through the letters of Innocent III and Gregory VII we have learned of the struggle to present biblical law as a new Roman law, useful in the struggle to gain “temporal power” in Britain and the Continent. A sort of Christian Talmud was posited, based upon Church decrees, the fragmentary evidence of Saints, the Eusebius rescension of the records of the pre-Constantine Church, and the various glosses, translations and versions of the writings of the ancient Church Fathers.

When the Church put this body of tradition forward as binding law, it came into conflict with the secular leaders. Minor barons who held manorial court were often trumped by this elastic form of justice, and even powerful Kings of the period like William Rufus and Henry I of England were often confronted by this papal law from beyond their realm. In this volatile secular-priestly struggle, Abelard was an appropriately forward thinking ‘referee.’

Abelard is unique within his era, an enlightened romantic poet and an outspoken individual; he foreshadows and even overshadows many of the 12th (and even 15th) century figures. Abelard was a medieval monk, resigned to a life of letters, forswearing pleasure, (although this was largely due to his brutalization at the hands of Fulbert). The castration of Abelard came to late to entirely quell his restless spirit; the brutalization refrigerated his body back into the celibacy of the monastic tradition, but only after the genius and courage of his mind had brought forth the critical devices and romantic tragedies of his life.

Specific to the readings in Tierney, Abelard was condemned for explicating the Trinity too well. His genius and his courage allowed him to skillfully show the three personalities of the ineffable being in detail and for this he was egregiously condemned as heretic.

Here is my argument – Peter Abelard was in fact orthodox and serving the critical text sources well through his genius and courage. The Church of the early twelfth century, like the Puritans of Cromwell’s age, was becoming more monotheistic. The politically ascendant and secularly invested Roman universal church was beginning to favor the terrible justice implicit in the Old Testament, reverting to dependence on the all-seeing God of the God-fearing Grecians, reverencing the God of primitive fear.

Peter Abelard, an equivocator in the fairest sense of that word (like Aquinas), could just as easily have been condemned for many of his other critiques and stances, since heresy was subjective and a judgment lightly thrown at the unconventional scholars of that era. Abelard could have just as easily been condemned as an Arian heretic, or for moral charges, for obstinacy, for insubordination, etc. His courage in confronting the paradoxical difficulties implicit in the Triune theology made his very rationality a target. Bernard’s mysticism, stressing faith, can be seen as an opposing school of thought - more timid and less confident in the rational power of the human mind than Abelard’s new school of exposition. The “calamity” of Abelard’s heresy came from strict canonical lawyers fixated on promulgating an anachronistic religious law, a papacy battling the secular power of Christian nobility (represented by the Burgundian Cluniacs, Angevins, Normans, et al.), and this Roman power was pushing their case for autocracy in religious, intellectual and political affairs.

Instead of pressing for a belief in the allegorical lessons of mercy and forgiveness found in the New Testament, which was supposedly their “Constitution,”

Church leaders in this period, distracted by their rising territorial and secular powers, preferred to stress the all-seeing God, a God of terrible justice. In pursuit of their own hegemony over princes they distorted the balance of the Trinitarian doctrine, branding orthodox (if fearless) explicators of the gospel as heretics. Bernard of Clairveaux was unable to digest the scope and methods of Abelard’s explication. Aquinas would face similar difficulties in the next century, and Galileo’s, Descartes’ and Darwin’s difficulties bring this pattern into the modern era, with lingering contemporary impact on the field of learning and critique.

In Sic et Non, Abelard not only attempted to mediate divergent scriptures, he publicized the inherent (if not insoluble) contradictions in the biblical canon and writings of the Church Fathers. Lecturing on these contradictions was of course a convenient way to get his method and new critical techniques exposed. Thomas Aquinas followed in this public path, continuing the tradition of Abelard, genius combined with courage, and this brought European intellectual tradition to new heights in the High Middle Ages. The backlash these writers generated added to the dynamic momentum of the early University scholasticism.

Abelard’s stress on the dilemmas and paradox within canon law helped to place the subjective reader

in the situation of one who had less grace, faith and spirit than the Fathers. By artfully building this context, a context consistent with humility, Abelard did not allow for heavy-handed, final, cruel and un-spiritual interpretations. Men like Bernard, less sophisticated and tolerant, took all this personally, and as an attack upon the Church.

More timid minds held that certain questions should simply not be asked. Abelard’s statement that “even the texts of divine scripture are corrupted by the errors of scribes” was an open door to the collapse of Roman papal authority, a slippery slope that could (and slowly would) lead to national and like-minded independent and regional churches.

In the field of scholastic academia, Peter Abelard holds a pivotal, catalytic importance to historians. The Church Fathers had been reticent or silent on such basic geographic questions as the shape of the Earth, the existence of the Antipodes, the heavenly waters, etc. As these issues were grappled with, the Dark Ages passed away. While we recognize the un-nuanced pejorative of the term, nevertheless historians have traditionally insisted that a Dark Age of ignorance in Europe passed away as the High Middle Ages set the stage for The Renaissance. During the period of the Germanic ascension in Europe, through the Carolingian and Angevin dynasties classical science, the philosophy of Aristotle was lost or seriously obscured.

The actual location of the Sun in relationship to the Earth and the spherical nature of the planet were better understood by Ptolemy and Pliny than by the tenth century monastic scholars in Paris or Canterbury. The Roman authorities, regional Bishops and Abbots kept a lid on scientific development, firmly resolved against the concept of the Antipodes, and clung to an extremely simplistic biblical cosmology.

Bede had held a cosmology somewhat more elastic than this, and Isidore of Seville had proposed that some ancients had believed in a round earth, but these were rare exceptions in the intellectual history of the medieval period in Europe. Constantine and Charlemagne had greatly empowered the Church within the old Empire’s borders, but, sadly, had combined it with repressive and violent secular interests. When the time came to question basic premises of geographical and astronomical fact, the Church was motivated and authorized to crush dissent.

The shift in cosmography was incessant as Albert the Great delivered Aristotle’s works to European University masters in its original Greek. The critical methods of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, their questing defense of the new rational method pushed this process of re-examination forward.

As the lame cosmology of the medieval tradition gave way to classically derived truths—a spherical Earth, the existence of Antipodes, etc., the intellectual world became larger and richer.

This intellectual revolution was a slow process with many reversals and losses of momentum, but the genius and courage of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas lead the way, helping lift the veil through the application of their sweeping and fearless methods.

Mediaeval History II

Colin Wilson would show us the character of Thomas Aquinas in defense of his theory of the Pre-Renaissance individual.

Thomas Aquinas synthesizes and harmonizes various schools of thought in a way considered radical by many at the time, but accepted as orthodox canon and good scholastic theory from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Aquinas is the hero, centerpiece or pivotal individual in the University of Chicago’s Great Ideas series, and Mortimer Adler’s editorial makes clear that Aquinas, more than any other single individual, embodied the potential of the Western intellectual tradition.

Thomas Aquinas, building on the groundbreaking efforts of Peter Abelard (q.v.) was a catalyst for Europe’s intellectual swing back to an Aristotelian, differentiating deductive method, away from the Neo-Platonic idealism and induction of the medieval school. In this view of the intellectual history of Europe, Albert Magnus’s rescension of the full body of The Philosopher’s works is the critical phase. Aristotle’s works are integrated into the early University system and scientific realism (nominalism) makes headway against the constraints of Neo-Platonic Idealism and the superstitious, reactionary theories of the twelfth century Church.

The Philosopher, Aristotle, had views differing from and more compelling than those of the Church, and European Cosmology took a great leap forward as Albert, Avicenna and Averroes introduced his Greek ideas salvaged from our early history by Arabic and Syriac scribes. Feudal Europe rapidly recapped the intellectual history of the ancient world as Pliny, Euripides, Thucidydes, Euclid, Ptolemy and Pythagoras re-entered the discourse. After c. 1240 these sources were considered in light of the newly re-discovered Aristotelian methods. New theories of matter, natural history and astronomy were compared with the records of travelers, navigators and ancient records. Tensions built as a new classically inspired paradigm emerged in thirteenth century Europe. In many instances Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle to clarify Aristotle.

The classic tradition of dividing knowledge between natural philosophy and metaphysics served Aquinas well. With natural philosophy (what we would call science) restricted to the visible, observable universe, metaphysics (what we would call theology) or mystical knowledge could hold its own legitimacy within its own domain. This system of separate spheres of knowledge and responsibility appealed to Church leaders and scientifically critical “natural philosophers” alike. Aquinas, by reviving and approving of a separate metaphysical domain of knowledge allowed for great critical strides to be made in botany, geography and cosmology—by removing the threat that revolutions in these fields could in any way challenge the orthodoxy of the Church.

In many habits of style and method, Aquinas follows Abelard, and Abelard certainly prepared the authorities for the rigorous rhetoric of Aquinas. Like Anselm and Abelard, Aquinas shows agility and character, attributes of a fully confident individual.

Aquinas is masterful in the good sense of that word, having control of all around him, secure and comfortable in his rhetoric.

Aquinas was ahead of his time, the greatest thinkers of the following century would move forward hardly at all from the positions of Aquinas. Duns Scotus would sink back to endless configurations on the fate of dead saints’ free will and the possibility of angels sinning. Aquinas had also dealt with such arcane “angels on the head of a pin” type of theological issues, but only within the context of his exhaustive sweep of contemporary debates. Aquinas dealt directly with the volatile issues brought into play by the renascence of Aristotelian nominalism, and he settled every church debate up to that point, easily pointing out weaknesses in the traditional arguments. Using the tools of Abelard, the method of critical comparison of apparently irreconcilable truths, Aquinas solves, resolves or lessens the paradoxes endemic in Trinitarian medieval thought.

Aquinas holds a special place in the history of Western civilization for his skepticism of the Fathers when they differ from Aristotle, and his willingness to de-emphasize the Philosopher where he was not decisive and proven out by further (Aristotelian) inquiry. The Summa Theologiae and his other writings brought a new balance to intellectual and spiritual thinking, allowing for uncertainty and tentative conclusions in the face of incomplete human knowledge. His distinction (an ancient one), between metaphysical mystical truth and objective fact, allowed the Church to regain its foundation and legitimacy in religious debates, while allowing it to insulate itself from factional and divisive debate over scientific knowledge. Admittedly, the Church was slow to take advantage of this separation of realms, but this is no fault of Aquinas’s.

Duns Scotus and Bonaventura wrote on many of the same issues and knew the terrain but too often they fell back into hairsplitting inanity, retreating into an airy philosophical pose without moral immediacy or compelling rationale.

Aquinas was rather the direct antecedent of Descartes, Newton and Samuel Clarke, defining orthodoxy as beyond the pale of negating attack, while opening up the natural world to all methods of rigorous study.

The biography of Aquinas helps reveal the temper of the times and helps us place his work in its appropriate context, socially and politically.

Aquinas was born near Naples in the year 1225, possibly late 1224. He was second cousin to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and a nephew of Frederick Barbarossa. Of the Hohenstaufen dynastic family, Thomas Aquinas was seventh son of the Count of Aquino, Landulfo. His mother Teodora Carracciola was a Countess in the Sicilian branch of the Norman nobility. Aquinas’s life is closely intertwined with the earliest and greatest of Benedictine monasteries, Montecassino. His father and older brothers sacked the monastery of Montecassino for Frederick II when Thomas was four, and Thomas was intended to become the abbot when he was sent as an oblate to the monastery in 1230 and studied their until 1239, when it was again sacked.

Thomas Aquinas was no stranger to the difficulties inherent in secular power residing in Church leaders and the unsettled state of Italy and the Empire had an effect on his development. For this reason he was able to soberly delineate the respective spheres of influences appropriate to secular and religious authorities.

Aquinas enlarged upon the genius and courage of Abelard and participated in the mid thirteenth century revolution in European thought, helping grow the power of scholastic intellectual endeavors, while providing cover and legitimacy to the spiritual realm of the Church.

Medieval History III

The extreme position taken by Gregory VII in his papal bull Dictatus Papae in 1075 set the stage for the firm refusal of Henry IV of Germany to obey it.

Gregory VII, or Hildebrand, had claimed the exclusive right to depose Emperors and over-reached himself in a series of inflammatory statements, such as “his name alone shall be spoken in Churches,” “that he himself may be judged by no one,” etc. This extreme statement of papal authority was followed by a series of Papal orders that no Bishops could be invested in the office at the hands of “Emperor or King.” At this point the investiture conflict came to head as evidenced by the letter of Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor to Gregory VII, received in Rome in 1076.

Henry ruled over the unwieldy Empire through the services of a rough regional bureaucracy based on loyal Bishops. The Dictatus Papae was literally impossible for Henry IV to enforce, as his power as head of state was based largely on his ability to counter the feudal aristocracy of Germany with these loyal Bishops.

Gregory made extreme claims for the Church, but the modern reader must remember that the Church in this era was a secular principality, a large and ambitious Papal State, in relatively constant conflict with Normandy, Lombardy, France and the Empire.

Spiritual power was one thing, a moral and theological realm of authority, but the Church at this time was attempting to grow it regional secular and political power at the expense of legitimate Kings and Barons.

The Empire had preserved the Papal authority in central Italy through force of arms, much as Charlemagne had done in the ninth century. The Emperor believed he had earned certain rights to install Bishops in the unruly small principalities of Germany that made up the Empire.

Again, Bishops in this context were not Church leaders so much as they were officers of State, literate co-coordinating bureaucrats and thusly the principle of state government was challenged by the decrees of Gregory VII.

Henry IV used hostile language and a mocking tone in his letter to Gregory because he was engaged in an earthly secular debate with a powerful regional prince, a conflict over the control of his own domain. Henry’s letter led to his excommunication by Gregory and is part of the long running Investiture Conflict that raged in Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Innocent III and King John of England would engage in a similar conflict one hundred and thirty years later.

The meaning of these conflicts is clear. Europe had not settled the relationship of sacrosanct Church power when it conflicted with the rising power of Kings. Kings were busy securing their own borders, reforming law and judicial functions and forcing back the feudal power of foreign lords and domestic vassals. In this unsettled proto-national era, the Pope was rising in secular power while simultaneously declining in spiritual legitimacy. The Popes of this era are best understood as petty Kings themselves. The transition to a collaborative relationship would come later as Kings and Bishops would retreat to their respective spheres of influence.

Because of the loyalty of most Europeans to a single Universal Church, the relative weakness of Kings due to a weakly developed sense of national orientation by the subjects, and a certain superstitious and heavy handed approach to statecraft, the Church versus State conflict became a dominant motif of Medieval history.

Despite its sad and quizzical nature many historians, including Kenneth Clark, consider this conflict to be essential to the development of Western Civilization, as we know it. The conflict highlighted here provided a dynamic tension, forcing the expansion of the written legal system. The conflict countered various powerful persons and institutions against other powerful people and institutions, allowing a vitality and growth not found in many other contemporary societies.


98. A Woman Mystic: Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena was a romantic type, personalizing God to an unusual degree. Her style shows an extreme conviction and individuality, prefiguring the character of Joan of Arc. In her letter to the Pope she shows a dangerous familiarity and willingness to criticize and places herself at or above the spiritual level of the pontiff, prefiguring Protestant zealots and Puritans of later eras.

99. A Woman Heretic: Marguerite Porete

Marguerite Porete also exhibits the exalted self-awareness of Catherine and in this case she suffered the medieval remedy for such forward behavior, she was burned at the stake. Her literary style is strongly romantic and individualistic and her poetry reminds me of later Chansons.

44. St. Anselm: Proof of the Existence of God

On a very personal level, this is my favorite entry in the Sources. The strength of Anselm’s conviction, his rhetorical strength and philosophical style are more important than his actual logic, which is, in fact, circular and self referencing. Nevertheless, this is one of the highest points of Anglican theology. It is conclusive to believers, while it cannot prove anything to one unwilling to believe, or imagine, a divine force.

45. Peter Abelard: Sic et Non

Abelard challenged church orthodoxy by delving into paradoxical realms of faith. His methods earned him both enmity and respect and were a great influence on Aquinas. His Calamities form a romantic tragic autobiography, fully fleshing him out as an individual in a period of transition when individual characters are rare.

46. Bernard of Clairvaux: The Love of God

Bernard, Abelard’s nemesis, was the founder of the Cistercian order. His style is a strange and difficult mix of the coming romantic individualism, well larded with traditional medieval tropes. His defenses of the church are mystical and immediate, unlike Abelard and Anselm, who use logic and rhetorical force to convey spiritual truth. Bernard was a poetic and truly spiritual person, but not really a part of the intellectual revolution Abelard foreshadowed.

53. Troubadour Songs

William of Poitou was part of the revolution in literature, as entertainment became an end in itself. This is light verse, impossible to imagine being written in the tenth century, sprightly and light, foreshadowing Chaucer and the minstrel songs that would soon mark the end of medieval literature. For a Duke of France to have written such fluff is a sign of changing times, a less harsh interior world, and a refreshing change in mentalitie.

54. Goliardic Literature: Songs and Satire

The Archpoet breaks new ground with a certain earthiness and resistance to the stifling religiosity of the medieval period. I believe here we begin to find in the records an earthy traditional vernacular tradition beginning to be written down, and again entertainment and a certain lightness of heart begin to re-emerge. Church leaders would have hated these, common people would have loved them, and so we begin to creep into a more modern mindset.

55: Popular Piety: Our Lady’s Tumbler

A wandering minstrel dances and does acrobatics in the cloister to show his love for the Virgin. This is a wild and far-out story for the period and the gloomy medieval preachiness of the previous centuries seems to fall away rapidly. The individual, the entertaining, the common and the sublime mix easily. There is something definitely new in the air as this sort of literature begins to break the restrictive mentalitie.

82: University Regulations

Deans, masters, bishops and students fought for control of the new European institution, the university. Here Gregory IX in 1231 enters the fray and we get the distinct feeling that the Pope’s desires for strict Roman discipline may not be taken to heart by the various players. This is the era of the banning of Aristotle, which was ignored, and the Pope is really facing the force that will eventually break his power, the intelligentsia of Europe.

83: Student Life

This passage and the corresponding section of Tierney’s text are highly entertaining and enlightening. Like the rule of Benedict, the imagination is drawn to the implications of the dry text, and a certain modern rambunctiousness is seen below the details, a symptom of that troublesome new player in late medieval history, the dreaded individual.

84: Philosophy and Science

Aquinas is difficult for the contemporary reader to “wade through” but after some study one notices the genius and refreshing vitality of the writing. Bonaventure was not as brilliant, but built upon the Aquinas tradition in his own way, establishing a rhetorical standard, which defined the scholastic method for centuries to come.

67: Peter Waldo and the Waldensians

The Waldensians are celebrated in history as the precursors of Protestantism, the first group to openly declare their own ability to interpret and judge the Church. They certainly were anathema to good order and triggered that new phenomenon in Europe, the mendicant religious figure, the friar.

68: Albigensians

As stated in the caption, bias one way or the other often distorts records of sects. We must assume that his is not an accurate picture of the Albigensians, but the conservative Church they were opposing has distorted their message.

69: Heresy and Inquisition

The Church made stronger claims for temporal and spiritual power in this period, and a surviving first person account of the inquisitor’s catechism is chilling. When countered with the chansons, the records of the new sects and the minstrels’ frolics, we see a growing rift between orthodoxy and individualism, which would steer European history for centuries to come.

70: St. Francis

Francis is the unqualified hero of this era. Spiritual, mendicant, a true gospel believer, his legacy has been seized by high church and low sects, Francis is one character who can actually synthesize the late twelfth century, an individual and a monk, a mendicant and an orthodox church leader.

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