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Hendrik Willem Van Loon

The Mediaeval World

What the People of the Middle Ages Thought of the World in Which They Happened to Live

D ATES are a very useful invention. We could not do without them but unless we are very careful, they will play tricks with us. They are apt to make history too precise. For example, when I talk of the point-of-view of mediaeval man, I do not mean that on the 31st of December of the year 476, suddenly all the people of Europe said, "Ah, now the Roman Empire has come to an end and we are living in the Middle Ages. How interesting!"

You could have found men at the Frankish court of Charlemagne who were Romans in their habits, in their manners, in their out-look upon life. On the other hand, when you grow up you will discover that some of the people in this world have never passed beyond the stage of the cave-man. All times and all ages overlap, and the ideas of succeeding generations play tag with each other. But it is possible to study the minds of a good many true representatives of the Middle Ages and then give you an idea of the average man's attitude toward life and the many difficult problems of living.

First of all, remember that the people of the Middle Ages never thought of themselves as free-born citizens, who could come and go at will and shape their fate according to their ability or energy or luck. On the contrary, they all considered themselves part of the general scheme of things, which included emperors and serfs, popes and heretics, heroes and swashbucklers, rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves. They accepted this divine ordinance and asked no questions. In this, of course, they differed radically from modern people who accept nothing and who are forever trying to improve their own financial and political situation.

To the man and woman of the thirteenth century, the world hereafter—a Heaven of wonderful delights and a Hell of brimstone and suffering—meant something more than empty words or vague theological phrases. It was an actual fact and the mediaeval burghers and knights spent the greater part of their time preparing for it. We modern people regard a noble death after a well-spent life with the quiet calm of the ancient Greeks and Romans. After three score years of work and effort, we go to sleep with the feeling that all will be well.

But during the Middle Ages, the King of Terrors with his grinning skull and his rattling bones was man's steady companion. He woke his victims up with terrible tunes on his scratchy fiddle—he sat down with them at dinner—he smiled at them from behind trees and shrubs when they took a girl out for a walk. If you had heard nothing but hair-raising yarns about cemeteries and coffins and fearful diseases when you were very young, instead of listening to the fairy stories of Anderson and Grimm, you, too, would have lived all your days in a dread of the final hour and the gruesome day of Judgment. That is exactly what happened to the children of the Middle Ages. They moved in a world of devils and spooks and only a few occasional angels. Sometimes, their fear of the future filled their souls with humility and piety, but often it influenced them the other way and made them cruel and sentimental. They would first of all murder all the women and children of a captured city and then they would devoutly march to a holy spot and with their hands gory with the blood of innocent victims, they would pray that a merciful heaven forgive them their sins. Yea, they would do more than pray, they would weep bitter tears and would confess themselves the most wicked of sinners. But the next day, they would once more butcher a camp of Saracen enemies without a spark of mercy in their hearts.

Of course, the Crusaders were Knights and obeyed a somewhat different code of manners from the common men. But in such respects the common man was just the same as his master. He, too, resembled a shy horse, easily frightened by a shadow or a silly piece of paper, capable of excellent and faithful service but liable to run away and do terrible damage when his feverish imagination saw a ghost.

In judging these good people, however, it is wise to remember the terrible disadvantages under which they lived. They were really barbarians who posed as civilised people. Charlemagne and Otto the Great were called "Roman Emperors," but they had as little resemblance to a real Roman Emperor (say Augustus or Marcus Aurelius) as "King" Wumba Wumba of the upper Congo has to the highly educated rulers of Sweden or Denmark. They were savages who lived amidst glorious ruins but who did not share the benefits of the civilisation which their fathers and grandfathers had destroyed. They knew nothing. They were ignorant of almost every fact which a boy of twelve knows to-day. They were obliged to go to one single book for all their information. That was the Bible. But those parts of the Bible which have influenced the history of the human race for the better are those chapters of the New Testament which teach us the great moral lessons of love, charity and forgiveness. As a handbook of astronomy, zoology, botany, geometry and all the other sciences, the venerable book is not entirely reliable. In the twelfth century, a second book was added to the mediaeval library, the great encyclopaedia of useful knowledge, compiled by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of the fourth century before Christ. Why the Christian church should have been willing to accord such high honors to the teacher of Alexander the Great, whereas they condemned all other Greek philosophers on account of their heathenish doctrines, I really do not know. But next to the Bible, Aristotle was recognized as the only reliable teacher whose works could be safely placed into the hands of true Christians.

His works had reached Europe in a somewhat roundabout way. They had gone from Greece to Alexandria. They had then been translated from the Greek into the Arabic language by the Mohammedans who conquered Egypt in the seventh century. They had followed the Moslem armies into Spain and the philosophy of the great Stagirite (Aristotle was a native of Stagira in Macedonia) was taught in the Moorish universities of Cordova. The Arabic text was then translated into Latin by the Christian students who had crossed the Pyrenees to get a liberal education and this much travelled version of the famous books was at last taught at the different schools of northwestern Europe. It was not very clear, but that made it all the more interesting.

With the help of the Bible and Aristotle, the most brilliant men of the Middle Ages now set to work to explain all things between Heaven and Earth in their relation to the expressed will of God. These brilliant men, the so-called Scholasts or Schoolmen, were really very intelligent, but they had obtained their information exclusively from books, and never from actual observation. If they wanted to lecture on the sturgeon or on caterpillars, they read the Old and New Testaments and Aristotle, and told their students everything these good books had to say upon the subject of caterpillars and sturgeons. They did not go out to the nearest river to catch a sturgeon. They did not leave their libraries and repair to the backyard to catch a few caterpillars and look at these animals and study them in their native haunts. Even such famous scholars as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas did not inquire whether the sturgeons in the land of Palestine and the caterpillars of Macedonia might not have been different from the sturgeons and the caterpillars of western Europe.


The Mediaeval World

When occasionally an exceptionally curious person like Roger Bacon appeared in the council of the learned and began to experiment with magnifying glasses and funny little telescopes and actually dragged the sturgeon and the caterpillar into the lecturing room and proved that they were different from the creatures described by the Old Testament and by Aristotle, the Schoolmen shook their dignified heads. Bacon was going too far. When he dared to suggest that an hour of actual observation was worth more than ten years with Aristotle and that the works of that famous Greek might as well have remained untranslated for all the good they had ever done, the scholasts went to the police and said, "This man is a danger to the safety of the state. He wants us to study Greek that we may read Aristotle in the original. Why should he not be contented with our Latin-Arabic translation which has satisfied our faithful people for so many hundred years? Why is he so curious about the insides of fishes and the insides of insects? He is probably a wicked magician trying to upset the established order of things by his Black Magic." And so well did they plead their cause that the frightened guardians of the peace forbade Bacon to write a single word for more than ten years. When he resumed his studies he had learned a lesson. He wrote his books in a queer cipher which made it impossible for his contemporaries to read them, a trick which became common as the Church became more desperate in its attempts to prevent people from asking questions which would lead to doubts and infidelity.

This, however, was not done out of any wicked desire to keep people ignorant. The feeling which prompted the heretic hunters of that day was really a very kindly one. They firmly believed—nay, they knew—that this life was but the preparation for our real existence in the next world. They felt convinced that too much knowledge made people uncomfortable, filled their minds with dangerous opinions and led to doubt and hence to perdition. A mediaeval Schoolman who saw one of his pupils stray away from the revealed authority of the Bible and Aristotle, that he might study things for himself, felt as uncomfortable as a loving mother who sees her young child approach a hot stove. She knows that he will burn his little fingers if he is allowed to touch it and she tries to keep him back, if necessary she will use force. But she really loves the child and if he will only obey her, she will be as good to him as she possibly can be. In the same way the mediaeval guardians of people's souls, while they were strict in all matters pertaining to the Faith, slaved day and night to render the greatest possible service to the members of their flock. They held out a helping hand whenever they could and the society of that day shows the influence of thousands of good men and pious women who tried to make the fate of the average mortal as bearable as possible.

A serf was a serf and his position would never change. But the Good Lord of the Middle Ages who allowed the serf to remain a slave all his life had bestowed an immortal soul upon this humble creature and therefore he must be protected in his rights, that he might live and die as a good Christian. When he grew too old or too weak to work he must be taken care of by the feudal master for whom he had worked. The serf, therefore, who led a monotonous and dreary life, was never haunted by fear of to-morrow. He knew that he was "safe"—that he could not be thrown out of employment, that he would always have a roof over his head (a leaky roof, perhaps, but roof all the same), and that he would always have something to eat.

This feeling of "stability" and of "safety" was found in all classes of society. In the towns the merchants and the artisans established guilds which assured every member of a steady income. It did not encourage the ambitious to do better than their neighbours. Too often the guilds gave protection to the "slacker" who managed to "get by." But they established a general feeling of content and assurance among the labouring classes which no longer exists in our day of general competition. The Middle Ages were familiar with the dangers of what we modern people call "corners," when a single rich man gets hold of all the available grain or soap or pickled herring, and then forces the world to buy from him at his own price. The authorities, therefore, discouraged wholesale trading and regulated the price at which merchants were allowed to sell their goods.

The Middle Ages disliked competition. Why compete and fill the world with hurry and rivalry and a multitude of pushing men, when the Day of Judgement was near at hand, when riches would count for nothing and when the good serf would enter the golden gates of Heaven while the bad knight was sent to do penance in the deepest pit of Inferno?

In short, the people of the Middle Ages were asked to surrender part of their liberty of thought and action, that they might enjoy greater safety from poverty of the body and poverty of the soul.

And with a very few exceptions, they did not object. They firmly believed that they were mere visitors upon this planet— that they were here to be prepared for a greater and more important life. Deliberately they turned their backs upon a world which was filled with suffering and wickedness and injustice. They pulled down the blinds that the rays of the sun might not distract their attention from that chapter in the Apocalypse which told them of that heavenly light which was to illumine their happiness in all eternity. They tried to close their eyes to most of the joys of the world in which they lived that they might enjoy those which awaited them in the near future. They accepted life as a necessary evil and welcomed death as the beginning of a glorious day.

The Greeks and the Romans had never bothered about the future but had tried to establish their Paradise right here upon this earth. They had succeeded in making life extremely pleasant for those of their fellow men who did not happen to be slaves. Then came the other extreme of the Middle Ages, when man built himself a Paradise beyond the highest clouds and turned this world into a vale of tears for high and low, for rich and poor, for the intelligent and the dumb. It was time for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction, as I shall tell you in my next chapter.