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From The Mediaeval Mind, A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, by Henry Osborn Taylor in Two Volumes, Volume I., MacMillan Co., New York, 1911; pp. 3-23.





THE antique civilization of the Roman Empire was followed by that depression of decadence and barbarization which separates antiquity from the Middle Ages. Out of the confusion of this intervening period emerged the mediaeval peoples of western Europe. These, as knowledge increased with them, began to manifest spiritual traits having no clear counterpart in the ancient sources from which they drew the matter of their thought and contemplation.

The past which furnished the content of mediaeval thought was twofold, very dual, even carrying within itself the elements of irreconcilable conflict; and yet with its opposing fronts seemingly confederated, if not made into one. Sprung from such warring elements, fashioned by all the interests of life in heaven as well as life on earth, the traits and faculties of mediaeval humanity were to make a motley company. Cleary each mediaeval century will offer a manifold of disparity and irrelationshlip, not to be brought to unity, any more than can be followed to the breast of one mighty wind-god the blasts that blow from every quarter over the waters of our own time. Nevertheless, each mediaeval century, and if one will, the entire Middle Ages, seen in distant perspective, presents a consistent picture, in which dominant mediaeval traits, retaining their due pre-eminence, may afford a just conception of the mediaeval genius.1



While complex in themselves, and intricate in their interaction, the elements that were to form the spiritual constituency of the Middle ages of western Europe may be disentangled and regarded separately. There was first the element of the antique, which was descended from the thought and knowledge current in Italy and the western provinces of the Roman Empire, where Latin was the common language. In those Roman times, this fund of thought and knowledge consisted of Greek metaphysics, physical science, and ethics, and also of much that the Latin had themselves evolved, especially in private law and political institutions.

Rome had borrowed her philosophy and the motives of her literature and art from Greece. At first, quite provincially, she drew as from a foreign source; but as the great Republic extended her boundaries around the Mediterranean world, and brought under her levelling power the Hellenized or still Asiatic East, and Africa and Spain and Gaul as well, Greek thought, as the informing principle of knowledge, was diffused throughout all this Roman Empire, and ceased to be alien to the Latin West. Yet the peoples of the West did not become Hellenized, or change their speech for Greek. Latin held its own against its subtle rival, and continued to advance with power through the lands which had spoken other tongues before their Roman subjugation; and it was the soul of Latium, and not the soul of Hellas, that imbued these lands with a new homogeneity of civic order. The Greek knowledge which spread through them was transmuted in Latin speech or writings; while the great Latin authors who modelled Latin literature upon the Greek, and did so much to fill the Latin mind with Greek thoughts, recast their borrowings in their own style as well as language, and re-tempered the matter to accord with the Roman natures of themselves and their countrymen. Hence only through Latin paraphrase, and through transformation in the Latin classics, Greek thought reached the mediaeval peoples; until the thirteenth century, 5 when a better acquaintance was opened with the Greek sources, yet still through closer Latin translations, as will be seen.

Thus it was with the pagan antique as an element of mediaeval culture. Nor was it very different with the patristic, or Christian antique, element. For in the fourth and fifth centuries, the influence of pagan Greece on pagan Rome tended to repeat itself in the relations between the Greek and the Latin Fathers of the Church. The dogmatic formulation of Christianity was mainly the work of the former. Tertullian, a Latin, had indeed been an early and important contributor to the process. But, in general, the Latin Fathers were to approve and confirm the work of Athanasius and of his coadjutors and predecessors, who thought and wrote in Greek. Nevertheless, Augustine and other Latin Fathers ordered and made anew what had come from their elder brethren in the East, Latinizing it in form and temper as well as language. At the same time, they supplemented it with matter drawn from their own thinking. And so, the thoughts of the Greek Fathers having been well transmuted in the writings of Ambrose, Hilary, and Augustine, patristic theology and the entire mass of Christianized knowledge and opinion came to the Middle Ages in a Latin medium.

A third and vaguest factor in the evolution of the mediaeval genius consisted in the diverse and manifold capacities of the mediaeval peoples: Italians whose ancestors had been very part of the antique; inhabitants of Spain and Gaul who were descended from once Latinized provincials; and lastly that widespread Teuton folk, whose forbears had barbarized and broken the Roman Empire in those centuries when a decadent civilization could no longer make Romans of barbarians. Moreover, the way in which Christianity was brought to the Teuton peoples and accepted by then, and the manner of their introduction to the pagan culture, reduced at last to following in the Christian train, did not cease for centuries to react upon the course of mediaeval development.

The distinguishing characteristics which make the Middle Ages a period in the history of western Europe were 6 the result of the interaction of the elements of mediaeval development working together, and did not spring from the singular nature of any one of them. Accordingly, the proper beginning of the Middle Ages, so far as one may speak of a beginning, should lie in the time of the conjunction of these elements in a joint activity. That could not be before the barbaric disturbers of the Roman peace had settled down to life and progress under the action of Latin Christianity and the surviving antique culture. Nor may this beginning be placed before the time when Gregory the Great (died 604) had refashioned Augustine, and much that was earlier, to the measure of the coming centuries; nor before Boethius (died 523), Cassiodorus (died 575), and Isidore of Seville (died 636), had prepared the antique pabulum for the mediaeval stomach. All these men were intermediaries or transmitters, and belong to the epoch of transition from the antique and the patristic to the properly inceptive time, when new learners were beginning, in typically mediaeval ways, to rehandle the patristic material and what remained of the antique. Contemporary with those intermediaries, or following hard upon them, were the great missionaries or converters, who laboured to introduce Christianity, with antique thought incorporated into it, and the squalid survival of antique education sheltered in its train, to Teuton peoples in Gaul, England, and Rhenish Germany. Among these was the truculent Irishman, St. Columbanus (died 615), founder of Luxeuil and Bobbio, whose disciple was St. Gall, and whose contemporary was St. Augustine of Canterbury, whom Gregory the Great sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons. A good century later, St. Winifried-Boniface is working to establish Christianity in Germany.2 Thus it will not be easy to find a large and catholic beginning for the Middle Ages until the eighth century is reached, and we are come on what is called the Carolingian period.

Let us approach a little nearer, and consider the situation of western Europe, with respect to antique culture and Latin Christianity, in the centuries following the disruption of the Roman Empire. The broadest distinction is to be drawn between Italy and the lands north of the Alps. Under 7 the Empire, there was an Italian people. However diverse may have been its ancient stocks, this people had long since become Latin in language, culture, sentiment and tradition. They were the heirs of the Greek, and the creators of the Roman literature, art, philosophy, and law. They were never to become barbarians, although they suffered decadence. Like all great peoples, they had shown a power to assimilate foreigners, which was not lost, but only degraded and diminished, in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Teutonic slaves, immigrants, invaders, seemed to be barbarizing the Latin order quite as much as it was Latinizing them. In these and the following times the culture of Italy sank lamentably low. Yet there was no break of civilization, but only a deep decline and then a re-emergence, in the course of which the Latin civilization had become Italian. For a lowered form of classical education had survived, and the better classes continued to be educated people according to the degraded standard and lessened intellectual energies of those times.3

Undoubtedly, in its decline this Latin civilization of Italy could no longer raise barbarians to the level of the Augustan age. Yet it still was making them over into the likeness of its own weakened children. The Visigoths broke into Italy, then, as we are told, passed into southern France; other confused barbarians came and went, and then the Ostrogoths, with Theodoric at their head, an excellent but not very numerous folk. They stayed in Italy, and fought and died, or lived on, changing into indistinguishable Italians, save for flashes of yellow hair, appearing and re-appearing where the Goths had lived. And then the Lombards, crueller than the Goths, but better able to maintain their energies effective. Their numbers also were not great, compared with the Italians. And thereafter, in spite of their fierceness and the tenacity of their Germanic customs, the succeeding Lombard generations became imbued with the culture of Italy. They became North Italians, gravitating to the towns of Lombardy, or perhaps, farther to the south, holding together in settlements of their own, or forming the nucleus of a hill-dwelling country nobility.


The Italian stock remained predominant over all the incomers of northern blood. It certainly needed no introduction to what had largely been its own creation, the Latin civilization. With weakened hands, it still held to the education, the culture, of its own past; it still read its ancient literature, and imitated it in miserable verse. The incoming barbarians had hastened the land’s intellectual downfall. But all the plagues of inroad and pestilence and famine, which intermittently devastated Italy from the fifth to the tenth century, left some squalid continuity of education. And those barbarian stocks which stayed in that home of the classics, became imbued with whatever culture existed around them, and tended gradually to coalesce with the Italians.

Evidently in its old home, where it merely had become decadent, this ancient culture would fill a rôle quite different from any specific influence which it might exert in a country where the Latin education was freshly introduced. In Italy, a general survival of Roman law and institution, custom and tradition, endured so far as these various elements of the Italian civilization had not been lost or dispossessed, or left high and dry above the receding tide of culture and intelligence. Christianity had been superimposed upon paganism; and the Christian faith held thoughts incompatible with antique views of life. Teutonic customs were brought in, and the Lombard codes were enacted, working some specific supersession of the Roman law. The tone, the sentiment, the mind of the Italian people had altered from the patterns presented by Cicero, or Virgil, or Horace, or Tacitus. Nevertheless, the antique remained as the soil from which things grew, or as the somewhat turgid atmosphere breathed by living beings. It was not merely a form of education or vehicle of edifying knowledge, nor solely a literary standard. The common modes of the antique were there as well, its daily habits, its urbanity and its dross.

The relationship toward the antique held by the peoples of the Iberian peninsula and the lands which eventually were to make France, was not quite the same as that held by the Italians. Spain, save in intractable mountain regions, 9 had become a domicile of Latin culture before its people were converted to Christianity. Then it became a stronghold of early Catholicism. Latin and Catholic Spain absorbed its Visigothic invaders, who in a few generations had appropriated the antique culture, and had turned from Arianism to the orthodoxy of their new home. Under Visigothic rule, the Spanish Church became exceptionally authoritative, and its Latin and Catholic learning flourished at the beginning of the seventh century. These conditions gave way before the Moorish conquest, which was most complete in the most thoroughly Romanized portions of the land. Yet the permanent Latinization of the territory where Christianity continued, is borne witness to by the languages growing from the vulgar Latin dialects. The endurance of Latin culture is shown by the polished Latinity of Theodulphus, a Spanish Goth, who left his home at the invitation of Charlemagne, and died, the best Latin verse-maker of his time, as Bishop of Orleans in 821. Thus the education, culture, and languages of Spain were all from the antique. Yet the genius of the land was to be specifically Spanish rather than assimilated to any such deep-soiled paganism as underlay the ecclesiastical Christianization of Italy.

As for France, in the southern part which had been Provincia, the antique endured in laws and institutions, in architecture and in ways of life, to a degree second only to its dynamic continuity in Italy. And this in spite of the crude masses of Teutondom which poured into Provincia to be leavened by its culture. In northern France there were more barbarian folk and a less universally diffused Latinity. The Merovingian period swept most of the last away, leaving a fair field to be sown afresh with the Latin education of the Carolingian revival. Yet the inherited discipline of obedience to the Roman order was not obliterated from the Gallic stock, and the lasting Latinization of Gaul endured in the Romance tongues, which were also to be impressed upon all German invaders. Franks, Burgundians, or Alemanni, who came in contact with the provincials, began to be affected by their language, their religion, their ways of living, and by whatever survival of letters there was 10 among them. The Romance dialects were to triumph, were to become French; and in the earliest extant pieces of this vernacular poetry, the effect of Latin verse-forms appears. Yet Franks and Burgundians were not Latinized in spirit; and, in truth, the Gauls before them had only become good imitation Latins. At all events, from these mixed and intermediate conditions, a people were to emerge who were not German, nor altogether Latin, in spite of their Romance speech. Latin culture was not quite as a foreign influence upon these Gallo-Roman, Teutonically re-inspirited, incipient French. Nor were they born and bred to it, like the Italians. The antique was not to dominate the French genius; it was not to stem the growth of what was, so to speak, Gothic or northern or Teutonic. The glass-painting, the sculpture, the architecture of northern France were to become their own great French selves; and while the literature was to hold to forms derived from the antique and the Romanesque, the spirit and the contents did not come from Italy.

The office of Latin culture in Germany and England was to be more definite and limited. Germany had never been subdued to the Roman order; in Anglo-Saxon England, Roman civilization had been effaced by the Saxon conquest, which, like the Moorish conquest of Spain, was most complete in those parts of the land where the Roman influence had been the strongest. In neither of these lands was there any antique atmosphere, or antique pagan substratum — save as the universal human soul is pagan! Latinity came to Germans and Anglo-Saxons as a foreign culture, which was not to pertain to all men’s daily living. It was matter for the educated, for the clergy. Its vehicle was a formal language, having no connection with the vernacular. And when the antique culture had obtained certain resting-places in England and Germany, the first benign labours of those Germans or Anglo-Saxons who had mastered the language consisted in the translation of edifying Latin matter into their own tongues. So Latinity in England and Germany was likely to remain a distinguishable influence. The Anglo-Saxons and the rest in England were to become Englishmen, the Germans were to remain Germans; nor was 11 either race ever to become Latinized, however deeply the educated people of these countries might imbibe Latinity, and exercise their intellects upon all that was contained in the antique metaphysics and natural science, literature and law.

Thus diverse were the situations of the young mediaeval peoples with respect to the antique store. There were like differences of situation in regard to Latin Christianity. It had been formed (from some points of view one might say, created) by the civilized peoples of the Roman Empire who had been converted in the course of the original diffusion of the Faith. It was, in fact, the product of the conversion of the Roman Empire, and, in Italy and the Latin provinces received its final fashioning and temper from the Latin Fathers. Thus within the Latin-speaking portions of the Empire was formed the system which was to be presented to the Teutonic heathen peoples of the north. They had neither made it nor grown up with it. It was brought to the Franks, to the Anglo-Saxons, and to the Germans east of the Rhine, as a new and foreign faith. And the import of the fact that it was introduced to them as an authoritative religion brought from afar, did not lessen as Christianity became a formative element in their natures.

One may say that an attitude of humble inferiority before Christianity and Latin culture was an initial condition of mediaeval development, having much to do with setting its future lines. In Italy, men looked back to what seemed even as a greater ancestral self, while in the minds of the northern peoples the ancient Empire represented all knowledge and the summit of human greatness. The formulated and ordered Latin Christianity evoked even deeper homage. Well it might, since besides the resistless Gospel (its source of life) it held the intelligence and the organizing power of Rome, which had passed into its own last creation, the Catholic Church. And when this Christianity, so mighty in itself and august through the prestige of Rome, was presented as under authority, its new converts might well be struck with awe.4 It was such awe as this that acknowledged the claims of the Roman bishops, and made possible a Roman 12 and Catholic Church — the most potent unifying influence of the Middle Ages.

Still more was the character of mediaeval progress set by the action and effect of these two forces. The Latin culture provided the means and method of elementary education, as well as the material for study; while Latin Christianity, with transforming power, worked itself into the souls of the young mediaeval peoples. The two were assuredly the moulding forces of all medieval development; and whatever sprang to life beyond the range of their action was not, properly speaking, mediaeval, even though seeing the light in the twelfth century.5 Yet one should not think of these two great influences as entities, unchanging and utterly distinct from what must be called for simplicity’s sake the native traits of the mediaeval peoples. The antique culture had never ceased to form part of the nature and faculties of Italians, and to some extent still made the inherited equipment of the Latinized or Latin-descended people of Spain and France. In the same lands also, Latin Christianity had attained its form. And even in England and Germany, Christianity and Latin culture would be distinct from the Teuton folk only at the first moment of presentation and acceptance. Thereupon the two would begin to enter into and affect their new disciples, and would themselves change under the process of their own assimilation by these Teutonic natures.


Nevertheless, the Latin Christianity of the Fathers and the antique fund of sentiment and knowledge, through their self-conserving strength, affected men in constant ways. Under their action the peoples of western Europe, from the eighth to the thirteenth century, passed through a homogeneous growth, and evolved a spirit different from that of any other period of history — a spirit which stood in awe before its monitors divine and human, and deemed that knowledge was to be drawn from the storehouse of the past; which seemed to rely on everything except its sin-crushed self, and trusted everything except its senses; which in the actual looked for the ideal, in the concrete saw the symbol, in the earthly Church beheld the heavenly, and in fleshly joys discerned the devil’s lures; which lived in the unreconciled opposition between the lust and vain-glory of earth and the attainment of salvation; which felt life’s terror and its pitifulness, and its eternal hope; around which waved concrete infinitudes, and over which flamed the terror of darkness and the Judgment Day.


Under the action of Latin Christianity and the antique culture the mediaeval genius developed, as it fused the constituents of its growth into temperament and power. Its energies were neither to produce an extension of knowledge, nor originate substantial novelties either of thought or imaginative conception. They were rather to expend themselves in the creation of new forms — forms of apprehending and presenting what was (or might be) known form the old books, and all that from century to century was ever more plastically felt. This principle is most important for the true appreciation of the intellectual and emotional phenomena of the Middle Ages.

When a sublime religion is presented to capable but half-civilized peoples, and at the same time an acquaintance is opened to them with the education, the knowledge, the literature of a great civilization, they cannot create new forms or presentations of what they have received, until the same has been assimilated, and has become plastic in their 14 minds, as it were, part of their faculty and feeling. Manifestly the northern peoples could not at once transmute the lofty and superabundant matter of Latin Christianity and its accompanying Latin culture, and present the same in new forms. Nor in truth could Italy, involved as she was in a disturbed decadence, wherein she seemed to be receding from an understanding of the nobler portions of her antique and Christian heritage, rather than progressing toward a vital use of one or the other. In Spain and France there was some decadence among Latinized provincials; and the Teutonic conquerors were novices in both Christianity and Latinity. In these lands neither decadence nor the novelty of the matter was the sole embarrassment, but both combined to hinder creativeness, although the decadence was less obvious in Italy, and the newness of the matter less utter than in Germany.

The ancient material was appropriated, and then re-expressed in new forms, through two general ways of transmutation, the intellectual and the emotional. Although patently distinguishable, these would usually work together, with one or the other dominating the joint progress.

Of the two, the intellectual is the easier to analyze. Thinking is necessarily dependent on the thinker, although it appear less intimately part of him than his emotions, and less expressive of his character. Accordingly, the mediaeval genius shows somewhat more palely in its intellectual productions, than in the more emotional phases of literature and art. Yet the former exemplify not only mediaeval capacities, but also the mediaeval intellectual temperament, or, as it were, the synthetic predisposition of the mediaeval mind. This temperament, this intellectual predisposition, became in general more marked through the centuries from the ninth to the twelfth. People could not go on generation after generation occupied with like topics of intellectual interest, reasoning upon them along certain lines of religious and ethical suggestion, without developing or intensifying some general type of intellectual temper.

From the Carolingian period onward, the men interested in knowledge learned the patristic theology, and, in gradually expanding compass, acquired antique logic and metaphysics, 15 mathematics, natural science and jurisprudence. What they learned, they laboured to restate or expound. With each succeeding generation, the subjects of mediaeval study were made more closely part of the intelligence occupied with them; because the matter had been considered for a longer time, and had been constantly restated and restudied in terms more nearly adapted to the comprehension of the men who were learning and restating it. At length mediaeval men made the antique and patristic material, or rather their understanding of it, dynamically their own. Their comprehension of it became part of their intellectual faculties, they could think for themselves in its terms, think almost originally and creatively, and could present as their own the matter of their thoughts in restatements, that is in forms, essentially new.

From century to century may be traced the process of restatement of patristic Christianity, with the antique material contained in it. The Christianity of the fifth century contained an amplitude of thought and learning. To the creative work of earlier and chiefly eastern men, the Latin intellect finally incorporate in Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine had added its further great accomplishment and ordering. The sum of dogma was well-nigh made up; the Trinity was established; Christian learning had reached a compass beyond which it was not to pass for the next thousand years; the doctrines as to the “sacred mysteries,” as to the functions of the Church and its spiritual authority, existed in substance; the principles of symbolism and allegory had been set; the great mass of allegorical Scriptural interpretations had been devised; the spiritual relationship of man to God’s ordainment, to wit, the part to be played by the human will in man’s salvation or damnation, had been reasoned out; and man’s need and love of God, his nothingness apart from the Source and King and End of Life, had been uttered in words which men still use. Evidently succeeding generations of less illumination could not add to this vast intellectual creation; much indeed had to be done before they could comprehend and make it theirs, so as to use it as an element of their own thinking, or possess it as an inspiration of passionate, imaginative reverie.


At the darkening close of the patristic period, Gregory the Great was still partially creative in his barbarizing handling of patristic themes.6 After his death, for some three centuries, theologians were to devote themselves to mastering the great heritage from the Church Fathers. It was still a time of racial antipathy and conflict. The disparate elements of the mediaeval personality were as yet unblended. How could the unformed intellect of such a period grasp the patristic store of thought in its integrity? Still less might this wavering human spirit, uncertain of itself and unadjusted to novel and great conceptions, transform, and so renew, them with fresh life. Scarcely any proper recasting of patristic doctrine will be found in the Carolingian period, but merely a shuffling of the matter. There were some exceptions, arising, as in the case of Eriugena, from the extraordinary genius of this thinker; or again from the narrow controversial treatment of the matter argued with rupturing detachment of patristic opinions from their setting and balancing qualifications.7 But the typical works of the eighth and ninth centuries were commentaries upon Scripture, consisting chiefly of excerpts from the Fathers. The flower of them all was the compendious Glossa Ordinaria of Walafrid Strabo, a pupil of the voluminous commentator Rabanus Maurus.8

Through the tenth and eleventh centuries, one finds no great advance in the systematic restatement of Christian doctrine.9 Nevertheless, two hundred years of devotion have been put upon it; and statements of parts of it occur, showing that the eleventh century has made progress over the ninth in its thoughtful and vital appropriation of Latin Christianity. A man like German Othloh has thought for himself within its lines;10 Anselm of Canterbury has set forth pieces of it with a depth of reflection and intimacy of 17 understanding which make his works creative;11 Peter Damiani thorough intensity of feeling has become the embodiment of Christian asceticism and the grace of Christian tears;12 and Hildebrand has established the mediaeval papal church. Of a truth, the mediaeval man was adjusting himself, and reaching his understanding of what the past had given him.

The twelfth century presents a universal progress in philosophic and theological thinking. It is the century of Abaelard, of Hugo of St. Victor, and St. Bernard, and of Peter Lombard. The first of these penetrates into the logical premises of systematic thought as no mediaeval man had done before him; St. Bernard moves the world through his emotional and political comprehension of Faith; Hugo of St. Victor offers a sacramental explanation of the universe and man, based upon symbolism as the working principle of creation; and Peter Lombard makes or, at least, typifies, the systematic advance from the Commentary to the Books of Sentences, in which he presents patristic doctrine arranged according to the cardinal topics of the Christian scheme. Here Abaelard’s Sic et non had been a precursor rather carping in its excessive clear-sightedness.

Thus, as a rule, each successive mediaeval period shows a more organic restatement of the old material. Yet this principle may be impeded or deflected, in its exemplifications, by social turmoil and disaster, or even by the use of further antique matter, demanding assimilation. For example, upon the introduction of the complete works of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, an enormous intellectual effort was required for the mastery of their contents. They were not mastered at once, or by all people who studied the philosopher. So the works of Hugo of St. Victor, of the first half of the twelfth century, are more original in their organic restatement of less vast material than are the works of Albertus Magnus, Aristotle’s prodigious expounder, one hundred years later. But Thomas Aquinas accomplished a final Catholic presentation of the whole enlarged material, patristic and antique.13

One may perceive three stages in this chief phase of 18 mediaeval intellectual progress, consisting in the appropriation of Latin Christianity: its first coming, its more vital appropriation, its re-expression, with added elements of thought. There were also three stages in the evolution of the outer forms of this same catholic mastery and re-expression of doctrine: first, the Scriptural Commentary; secondly, the Books of Sentences; and thirdly, the Summa Theologiae, of which Thomas Aquinas is the final definitive creator. The philosophical material used in its making was the substantial philosophy of Aristotle, mastered at length by this Christian Titan of the thirteenth century. In the Summa, both visibly as well as more inwardly and essentially considered, the Latin Christianity of the Fathers received an organically new form.

Quite as impressive, more moving, and possibly more creative, than the intellectual recasting of the ancient patristic matter, were its emotional transformations. The sequence and character of mediaeval development is clearly seen in the evolution of new forms of emotional, and especially of poetic and plastic, expression. The intellectual transformation of the antique and more especially the patristic matter, was accompanied by currents of desire and aversion, running with increasing definiteness and power. As patristic thought became more organically mediaeval, more intrinsically part of the intellectual faculties of men, it constituted with increasing incisiveness the suggestion and the rationale of emotional experiences, and set the lines accordingly of impassioned expression in devotional prose and verse, and in the more serious forms of art. Patristic theology, the authoritative statement of the Christian faith, contained men’s furthest hopes and deepest fears, set forth together with the divine Means by which those might be realized and these allayed. As generation after generation clung to this system as to the stay of their salvation, the intellectual consideration of it became instinct with the emotions of desire and aversion, and with love and gratitude toward the suffering means and instruments which made salvation possible — the Crucified, the Weeping Mother, and the martyred or self-torturing saints. All these had suffered; they were sublime objects for human compassion. Who could think upon them without 19 tears? Thus mediaeval religious thought became a well of emotion.

Emotion breaks its way to expression; it feeds itself upon its expression, thereby increasing in resistlessness; it even becomes identical with its expression. Surely it creates the modes of its expression, seeking continually the more facile, the more unimpeded, which is to say, the adequate and perfect form. Typical mediaeval emotion, which was religious, cast itself around the Gospel of Christ and the theology of the Fathers as studied and pondered on in the mediaeval centuries. Seeking fitting forms of expression, which are at once modes of relief and forms of added power, the passionate energy of the mediaeval genius constrained the intellectual faculties to unite with it in the production of these forms. They were to become more personal and original than any mere scholastic restatement of the patristic and antique thought. Yet the perfect form of the emotional expression was not quickly reached. It could not outrun the intelligent appropriation of Latin Christianity. Its media, moreover, as in the case of sculpture, might present retarding difficulties, to be overcome before that means of presentation could be mastered. A sequence may be observed in the evolution of the mediaeval emotional expression of patristic Christianity. One of the first attained was impassioned devotional Latin prose, like that of Peter Damiani or St. Anselm of Canterbury.14 But prose is a halting means of emotional expression. It is too circumstantial and too slow. Only in the chanted strophe, winged with the power of rhythm, can emotion pour out its unimpeded strength. But before the thought can be fused in verse, it must be plastic, molten indeed. Even then, the finished verse is not produced at once. The perfected mediaeval Latin strophe was a final form of religious emotional expression, which was not attained until the twelfth century.15

Impassioned prose may be art; the loftier forms of verse are surely art. And art is not spontaneous, but carefully intended; no babbling of a child, but a mutual fitting of form and content, in which efficient unison the artist’s intellect has worked. Such intellectual, such artistic endeavour, 20 was evinced in the long development of mediaeval plastic art. The sculpture and the painted glass, which tell the Christian story in Chartres Cathedral, set forth the patristic and antique matter in forms expressive of the feeling and emotion which had gathered around the scheme of Latin Christianity. They were forms never to be outdone for appropriateness and power. Several centuries not only of spiritual growth, but of mechanical and artistic endeavour, had been needed for their perfecting.

In these and like emotional recastings, or indeed creations, patristic and antique elements were transformed and transfigured, And again, in fields non-religious and non-philosophical, through a combined evolution of the mediaeval mind and heart, novelties of sentiment and situation were introduced into antique themes of fiction; new forms of romance, new phases of human love and devotion were evolved, in which (witness the poetry of chivalric love in Provençal and Old French) the energies of intellect and passion were curiously blended.16 These represented a side of human growth not unrelated to the supreme mediaeval achievement, the vital appropriation and emotional humanizing of patristic Christianity. For that carried an impassioning of its teachings with love and tears, a fostering of them with devotion, an adorning of them with quivering fantasies, a translation of them into art, into poetry, into romance. With what wealth of love and terror, with what grandeur of imagination, with what power of mystery and symbolism, did the Middle Ages glorify their heritage, turning its precepts into spirit.

Of a surety the emotional is not to be separated from the intellectual recasting of Christianity. The greatest exponents of the one had their share in the other. Hugo of St. Victor as well as St. Bernard were mighty agents of this spiritually passionate mode of apprehending Latin Christianity, and transfusing it with emotion, or reviving the Gospel elements in it. Here work, knowingly or instinctively, many men and women, Peter Damiani and St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg, who, according to their diverse temperaments, overmasteringly 21 and burningly loved Christ. With them the intellectual appropriation of dogmatic Christianity was subordinate.

Such men and women were poets and artists, even when they wrote no poetry, and did not carve or paint. For their lives were poems, unisons of overmastering thoughts and the emotions inspired by them. The life of Francis was a living poem. It was kin to the Dies Irae, the Stabat Mater, the hymns of Adam of St. Victor, and in a later time, the Divina Commedia. For all these poems, in their different ways, using Christian thought and feeling as symbols, created imaginative presentations of universal human moods, even as the lives of Francis and many a cloistered soul presented like moods in visible embodiment.

Such lives likewise close in with art. They poured themselves around the symbols of the human person of Christ and its sacrificial presence in the Eucharist; they grasped the infinite and universal through these tangibilities. But the poems also sprang into being through a concrete realizing in mood, and a visualizing in narrative, of such symbols. And the same need of grasping the infinite and universal through symbols was the inspiration of mediaeval art: it built the cathedrals, painted their windows, filled their niches with statues, carving prophet types, carving the times and seasons of God’s providence, carving the vices and virtues of the soul and its eternal destiny, and at the same time augmenting the Liturgy with symbolic words and acts. So saint and poet and artist-craftsman join in that appropriation of Christianity which was putting life into whatever had come from the Latin Fathers, by pondering upon it, loving it, living it, imagining it, and making it into poetry and art.

It is better not to generalize further, or attempt more specifically to characterize the mediaeval genius. As its manifestations pass before our consideration, we shall see the complexity of thought and life within the interplay of the moulding forces of mediaeval development, as they strove with each other or wrought in harmony, as they were displayed in frightful contrasts between the brutalities of life, and the lofty, but not less real, strainings of the spirit, or again in the opposition between inchoately variant ideals and the endeavour for their more inclusive reconcilement. 22 Various phases of the mediaeval spirit were to unfold only too diversely with popes, kings and knights, monks, nuns, and heretics, satirists, troubadours and minnesingers; in emotional yearnings and intellectual ideals; in the literature of love and the literature of its suppression; in mistress-worship, and the worship of the Virgin and the passion-flooded Christ of Canticles. Sublimely will this spirit show itself in the resistless apotheosis of symbolism, and in art and poetry giving utterance to the mediaeval conceptions of order and beauty. Other of its phases will be evinced in the striving of earnest souls for spiritual certitude; in the scholastic structure and accomplishment; in the ways in which men felt the spell of the Classics; and everywhere and universally in the mediaeval conflict between life’s fulness and the insistency of the soul’s salvation.



1  The present work is not occupied with the brutalities of mediaeval life, nor with all the lower grades of ignorance and superstition abounding in the Middle Ages, and still existing, in a less degree, through parts of Spain and southern France and Italy. Consequently I have not such things very actively in mind when speaking of the mediaeval genius. That phrase, and the like, in this book, will signify the more informed and constructive spirit of the mediaeval time.

2  There will be much to say of all these men in later chapters.

3  Post, Chapter XI.

4  See post, Chapter IX., as to the manner of the coming of Augustine to England.

5  The Icelandic Sagas, for example, were then brought into written form. They have a genius of their own; they are realistic and without a trace of symbolism. They are wonderful expressions of the people among whom they were composed. Post, Chapter VIII. But, products of a remote island, they were unaffected by the moulding forces of mediaeval development, nor did they exert any influence in turn. The native traits of the mediaeval peoples were the great complementary factor in mediaeval progress — complementary, that is to say, to Latin Christianity and antique culture. Mediaeval characteristics sprang from the interaction of these elements; they certainly did not spring from any such independent and severed growth of native Teuton quality as is evinced by the Sagas. One will look far, however, for another instance of such spiritual aloofness. For clear as are the different racial or national traits throughout the mediaeval period, they constantly appear in conjunction with other elements. They are discerned working beneath, possibly reacting against, and always affected by, the genius of the Middle Ages, to wit, the genius of the mutual interaction of the whole. Wolfram’s very German Parzival, the old French Chanson de Roland, and above them all the Divina Commedia, are mediaeval. In these compositions in the vernacular, racial traits manifest themselves distinctly, and yet are affected by the mediaeval spirit.

6  See post, Chapter V.

7  The Predestination and Eucharistic controversies are examples; post, Chapter X.

8  See post, Chapter X.

9  The lack of originality in the first half of the tenth century is illustrated by the Epitome of Gregory’s Moralia, made by such an energetic person as Odo of Cluny. It occupies four hundred columns in Migne’s Patrologia Latina , 133. See post, Chapter XII.

10  See post, Chapter XIII.

11  See post, Chapter XI.

12  See post, Chapter XVI.

13  These men will be fully considered later, Chapters XXXIV. — XL.

14  See post, Chapter XXXI.

15  See post, Chapter XXXII.

16  Post, Chapter XXIII.


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