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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Middle Ages as a Period of Intellectual Darkness
By Henry Hallam (1777–1859)
 
From ‘View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages’

IF we would listen to some literary historians, we should believe that the darkest ages contained many individuals not only distinguished among their contemporaries, but positively eminent for abilities and knowledge. A proneness to extol every monk of whose production a few letters or a devotional treatise survives, every bishop of whom it is related that he composed homilies, runs through the laborious work of ‘The Benedictines of St. Maur,’ ‘The Literary History of France,’ and in a less degree is observable even in Tiraboschi and in most books of this class. Bede, Alcuin, Hincmar, Raban, and a number of inferior names, become real giants of learning in their uncritical panegyrics. But one might justly say that ignorance is the smallest defect of the writers of these dark ages. Several of them were tolerably acquainted with books; but that wherein they are uniformly deficient is original argument or expression. Almost every one is a compiler of scraps from the Fathers, or from such semi-classical authors as Boethius, Cassiodorus, or Martianus Capella. Indeed, I am not aware that there appeared more than two really considerable men in the republic of letters from the sixth to the middle of the eleventh century—John, surnamed Scotus or Erigena, a native of Ireland; and Gerbert, who became pope by the name of Sylvester II.: the first endowed with a bold and acute metaphysical genius; the second excellent, for the time when he lived, in mathematical science and mechanical inventions.  1
  If it be demanded by what cause it happened that a few sparks of ancient learning survived throughout this long winter, we can only ascribe their preservation to the establishment of Christianity. Religion alone made a bridge, as it were, across the chaos, and has linked the two periods of ancient and modern civilization. Without this connecting principle, Europe might indeed have awakened to intellectual pursuits; and the genius of recent times needed not to be invigorated by the imitation of antiquity. But the memory of Greece and Rome would have been feebly preserved by tradition, and the monuments of those nations might have excited, on the return of civilization, that vague sentiment of speculation and wonder with which men now contemplate Persepolis or the Pyramids. It is not, however, from religion simply that we have derived this advantage, but from religion as it was modified in the Dark Ages. Such is the complex reciprocation of good and evil in the dispensations of Providence that we may assert, with only an apparent paradox, that had religion been more pure it would have been less permanent; and that Christianity has been preserved by means of its corruptions. The sole hope for literature depended on the Latin language; and I do not see why that should not have been lost, if three circumstances in the prevailing religious system, all of which we are justly accustomed to disapprove, had not conspired to maintain it,—the papal supremacy, the monastic institutions, and the use of a Latin liturgy. 1. A continual intercourse was kept up, in consequence of the first, between Rome and the several nations of Europe; her laws were received by the bishops, her legates presided in councils: so that a common language was as necessary in the Church as it is at present in the diplomatic relations of kingdoms. 2. Throughout the whole course of the Middle Ages there was no learning, and very little regularity of manners, among the parochial clergy. Almost every distinguished man was either the member of a chapter or a convent. The monasteries were subjected to strict rules of discipline, and held out more opportunities for study than the secular clergy possessed, and fewer for worldly dissipations. But their most important service was as secure repositories for books. All our manuscripts have been preserved in this manner, and could hardly have descended to us by any other channel; at least, there were intervals when I do not conceive that any royal or private libraries existed….  2
  In the shadows of this universal ignorance a thousand superstitions, like foul animals of night, were propagated and nourished. It would be very unsatisfactory to exhibit a few specimens of this odious brood, when the real character of those times is only to be judged by their accumulated multitude. There are many books, from which a sufficient number of instances may be collected to show the absurdity and ignorance of the Middle Ages in this respect. I shall only mention two, as affording more general evidence than any local or obscure superstition. In the tenth century an opinion prevailed everywhere that the end of the world was approaching. Many charters begin with these words: “As the world is now drawing to its close.” An army marching under the Emperor Otho I. was so terrified by an eclipse of the sun, which it conceived to announce this consummation, as to disperse hastily on all sides. As this notion seems to have been founded on some confused theory of the millennium, it naturally died away when the seasons proceeded in the eleventh century with their usual regularity. A far more remarkable and permanent superstition was the appeal to Heaven in judicial controversies, whether through the means of combat or of ordeal. The principle of these was the same; but in the former it was mingled with feelings independent of religion,—the natural dictates of resentment in a brave man unjustly accused, and the sympathy of a warlike people with the display of skill and intrepidity. These, in course of time, almost obliterated the primary character of judicial combat, and ultimately changed it into the modern duel, in which assuredly there is no mixture of superstition. But in the various tests of innocence which were called ordeals, this stood undisguised and unqualified. It is not necessary to describe what is so well known—the ceremonies of trial by handling hot iron, by plunging the arm into boiling fluids, by floating or sinking in cold water, or by swallowing a piece of consecrated bread. It is observable that as the interference of Heaven was relied upon as a matter of course, it seems to have been reckoned nearly indifferent whether such a test were adopted as must, humanly considered, absolve all the guilty, or one that must convict all the innocent. The ordeals of hot iron or water were however more commonly used; and it has been a perplexing question by what dexterity these tremendous proofs were eluded. They seem at least to have placed the decision of all judicial controversies in the hands of the clergy, who must have known the secret, whatever that might be, of satisfying the spectators that an accused person had held a mass of burning iron with impunity. For several centuries this mode of investigation was in great repute, though not without opposition from some eminent bishops. It does discredit to the memory of Charlemagne that he was one of its warmest advocates. But the judicial combat, which indeed might be reckoned one species of ordeal, gradually put an end to the rest; and as the Church acquired better notions of law and a code of her own, she strenuously exerted herself against all these barbarous superstitions….  3
  At the same time it must be admitted that the evils of superstition in the Middle Ages, though separately considered very serious, are not to be weighed against the benefits of the religion with which they were so mingled. In the original principles of monastic orders, and the rules by which they ought at least to have been governed, there was a character of meekness, self-denial, and charity that could not wholly be effaced. These virtues, rather than justice and veracity, were inculcated by the religious ethics of the Middle Ages; and in the relief of indigence, it may upon the whole be asserted that the monks did not fall short of their profession. This eleemosynary spirit, indeed, remarkably distinguishes both Christianity and Mohammedanism from the moral systems of Greece and Rome, which were very deficient in general humanity and sympathy with suffering. Nor do we find in any single instance during ancient times, if I mistake not, those public institutions for the alleviation of human miseries which have long been scattered over every part of Europe. The virtues of the monks assumed a still higher character when they stood forward as protectors of the oppressed. By an established law, founded on very ancient superstition, the precincts of a church afforded sanctuary to accused persons. Under a due administration of justice this privilege would have been simply and constantly mischievous, as we properly consider it to be in those countries where it still subsists. But in the rapine and tumult of the Middle Ages, the right of sanctuary might as often be a shield to innocence as an immunity to crime. We can hardly regret, in reflecting on the desolating violence which prevailed, that there should have been some green spots in the wilderness where the feeble and the persecuted could find refuge. How must this right have enhanced the veneration for religious institutions! How gladly must the victims of internal warfare have turned their eyes from the baronial castle, the dread and scourge of the neighborhood, to those venerable walls within which not even the clamor of arms could be heard to disturb the chant of holy men and the sacred service of the altar!  4
 
 
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