Page images

from many quarters. The blindness which the philosophers of the eighteenth century manifested to their better side has produced a reaction which has led many to an opposite, and, I believe, far more erroneous extreme. Some have become eulogists of the period, through love of its distinctive theological doctrines, and others through archæological enthusiasm, while a very pretentious and dogmatic, but, I think, sometimes superficial, school of writers, who loudly boast themselves the regenerators of history, and treat with supreme contempt all the varieties of theological opinion, are accustomed, partly through a very shallow historical optimism which scarcely admits the possibility of retrogression, and partly through sympathy with the despotic character of Catholicism, to extol the mediæval society in the most extravagant terms. Without entering into a lengthy examination of this subject, I may be permitted to indicate shortly two or three fallacies which are continually displayed in their appreciations.

It is an undoubted truth that, for a considerable period, almost all the knowledge of Europe was included in the monasteries, and from this it is continually inferred that, had these institutions not existed, knowledge would have been absolutely extinguished. But such a conclusion I conceive to be altogether untrue. During the period of the Pagan empire, intellectual life had been diffused over a vast portion of the globe. Egypt and Asia Minor had become great centres of civilisation. Greece was still a land of learning. Spain, Gaul, and even Britain,' were full of libraries and teachers. The schools of Narbonne, Arles, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyons, Marseilles, Poitiers, and Trèves were already famous. The Christian emperor Gratian, in A.D. 376, carried out in Gaul a system similar to that which

On the progress of Roman civilisation in Britain, see Tacitus, Agricola, xxi.


had already, under the Antonines, been pursued in Italy, ordaining that teachers should be supported by the State in every leading city.' To suppose that Latin literature, having been so widely diffused, could have totally perished, or that all interest in it could have permanently ceased, even under the extremely unfavourable circumstances that followed the downfall of the Roman Empire and the Mohammedan invasions, is, I conceive, absurd. If Catholicism had never existed, the human mind would have sought other spheres for its development, and at least a part of the treasures of antiquity would have been preserved in other ways. The monasteries, as corporations of peaceful men protected from the incursions of the barbarians, became very naturally the reservoirs to which the streams of literature flowed; but much of what they are represented as creating, they had in reality only attracted. The inviolable sanctity which they secured rendered them invaluable receptacles of ancient learning in a period of anarchy and perpetual war,

and the industry of the monks in transcribing, probably more than counterbalanced their industry in effacing, the classical writings. The ecclesiastical unity of Christendom was also of extreme importance in rendering possible a general interchange of ideas. Whether these services outweighed the intellectual evils resulting from the complete diversion of the human mind from all secular learning, and from the persistent inculcation, as a matter of duty, of that habit of abject credulity which it is the first task of the intellectual reformer to eradicate, may be reasonably doubted.

It is not unfrequent, again, to hear the preceding fallacy stated in a somewhat different form. We are reminded that almost all the men of genius during several centuries were great theologians, and we are asked to conceive the more than Egyptian darkness that would have prevailed had the

See the Benedictine Hist. littér. de la France, tome i. part ii. p. 9.

Catholic theology which produced them not existed. This judgment resembles that of the prisoner in a famous passage of Cicero, who, having spent his entire life in a dark dungeon, and knowing the light of day only from a single ray which passed through a fissure in the wall, inferred that if the wall were removed, as the fissure would no longer exist, all light would be excluded. Mediæval Catholicism discouraged and suppressed in every way secular studies, while it conferred a monopoly of wealth and honour and power upon the distinguished theologian. Very naturally, therefore, it attracted into the path of theology the genius that would have existed without it, but would under other circumstances have been displayed in other forms.

It is not to be inferred, however, from this, that medieval Catholicism had not, in the sphere of intellect, any real creative power.

A great moral or religious enthusiasm always evokes a certain amount of genius that would not otherwise have existed, or at least been displayed, and the monasteries were peculiarly fitted to develop certain casts of mind, which in no other sphere could have so perfectly expanded. The great writings of St. Thomas Aquinas? and his followers, and, in more modern times, the massive and conscientious erudition of the Benedictines, will always make certain periods of the monastic history venerable to the scholar. But, when we remember that during many centuries nearly every one possessing any literary taste or talents became a monk, when we recollect that these monks were familiar with the language, and might easily have been familiar with the noble literature, of ancient Rome, and when

? A biographer of St. Thomas est non-seulement son chef-d'ouvre Aquinas modestly observes :- mais aussi celui de l'esprit humain.' • L'opinion généralement répandue (!!)—Carle, Hist. de St.-Thomas parmi les théologiens c'est que la d Aquin, p. 140. Somme de Théologie de St. Thomas

[blocks in formation]



we also consider the mode of their life, which would seem, from its freedom from care, and from the very monotony of its routine, peculiarly calculated to impel them to study, we can hardly fail to wonder how very little of any real value they added, for so long a period, to the knowledge of mankind. It is indeed a remarkable fact that, even in the ages when the Catholic ascendancy was most perfect, some of the greatest achievements were either opposed or simply external to ecclesiastical influence. Roger Bacon, having been a monk, is frequently spoken of as a creature of Catholic teaching. But there never was a more striking instance of the force of a great genius in resisting the tendencies of his age. At a time when physical science was continually neglected, discouraged, or condemned, at a time when all the great prizes of the world were open to men who pursued a very

different course, Bacon applied himself with transcendent genius to the study of nature. Fourteen years of his life were spent in prison, and when he died his name was blasted as a magician. The mediæval laboratories were chiefly due to the pursuit of alchemy, or to Mohammedan encouragement. The inventions of the mariner's compass, of gunpowder, and of rag paper were all, indeed, of extreme importance; but no part of the credit of them belongs to the monks. Their origin is involved in much obscurity, but it is almost certain that the last two, at all events, were first employed in Europe by the Mohammedans of Spain. Cotton paper was in use among these as early as 1009. Among the Christian nations it appears to have been unknown till late in the thirteenth century. The first instance of the employment of artillery among Christian nations was at the battle of Crecy, but the knowledge of gunpowder among them has been traced back as far as 1338. There is abundant evidence, however, of its employment in Spain by Mohammedans in several sieges in the thirteenth century, and even in a battle between the Moors of Seville and those of Tunis at the end of the eleventh century. In invention, indeed, as well as in original research, the mediæval monasteries were singularly barren. They cultivated formal logic to great perfection. They produced many patient and laborious, though, for the most part, wholly uncritical scholars, and many philosophers who, having assumed their premises with unfaltering faith, reasoned from them with admirable subtlety; but they taught men to regard the sacrifice of secular learning as a noble thing; they impressed upon them a theory of the habitual government of the universe, which is absolutely untrue; and they diffused, wherever their influence extended, habits of credulity and intolerance that are the most deadly poisons to the human mind.

It is, again, very frequently observed among the more philosophic eulogists of the mediæval period, that although the Catholic Church is a trammel and an obstacle to the progress of civilised nations, although it would be scarcely possible to exaggerate the misery her persecuting spirit caused, when the human mind had outstripped her teaching; yet there was a time when she was greatly in advance of the age, and the complete and absolute ascendancy she then exercised was intellectually eminently beneficial. That there is much truth in this view, I have myself repeatedly maintained. But when men proceed to isolate the former period, and to make it the theme of unqualified eulogy, they fall, I think, into a grave error. The evils that sprang from the later period of Catholic ascendancy were not an accident or a perversion, but a normal and necessary consequence of the previous despotism. The principles which were imposed on the mediæval world, and which were the conditions of so


* See Viardot, Hist. des Arabes known in China—was first introen Espagne, ii. 142–166. Prescott's duced into Europe by the MohamFerdinand and Isabella, ch. viii. medans; but the evidence of this Viardot contends that the compass appears inconclusive. —which appears to have been long

« PreviousContinue »