Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries?

by Randall B. Smith, appearing in Volume 22

An American physician and native New York Catholic by the name of James Joseph Walsh once published a wonderful little book entitled Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries, in which he extolled the virtues of that bygone era. There were indeed many such virtues, but as the great French philosopher and medievalist Étienne Gilson is reported to have once said about the Middle Ages: “I love studying them, but I’m glad I didn’t have to live in them.” There is also, of course, Edward Arlington Robinson’s famous character from the poem “Miniver Cheevy.” Two stanzas from that poem are especially fun:


Miniver loved the days of old When swords were bright and steeds were prancing; The vision of a warrior bold Would set him dancing.


Miniver cursed the commonplace And eyed a khaki suit with loathing; He missed the mediæval grace Of iron clothing.


Then there is my favorite stanza of all:

Miniver loved the Medici, Albeit he had never seen one; He would have sinned incessantly Could he have been one.


The Medici aren’t exactly “medieval,” but there are plenty who over-romanticize the Renaissance in much the same way people sometimes over-romanticize the Middle Ages.



Saint Thomas Aquinas between Aristotle and Plato, Benozzo Gozzoli, Louvre.

Don’t get me wrong. Like Gilson, I love the Middle Ages. I never tire of studying them, especially those geniuses like Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Thomas and Saint Bonaventure, who were among the finest intellects who ever lived. And yet, by the same token, to be honest, I’m glad I didn’t live then. It’s not merely that I prefer flushing toilets, streets unclogged with mounds of horse and human fecal material, clean water, antibiotics, air-conditioning, the ability to buy dozens and dozens of printed books at will, including all the collected works of both Plato and Aristotle, safety in travel, political stability, the freedom to vote and move about as I wish, and many other creature comforts it would take too long to mention, none of which were available to even the wealthiest medieval king. We think we have problems (and we do), but they’re really just pin-pricks compared to the near-constant onslaught of troubles medieval men and women of the Church had to endure.

Let’s begin with just the political intrigues. I’m always amused when I hear contemporary people say that things “move so much faster” now than they did back in “the olden days.” You get this picture of rustic people, working in their fields patiently, year after year, waiting for something, anything interesting to happen. Everybody moves in slow motion; nothing major changes. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The political intrigues were constant and borders shifted repeatedly. The map of Europe has been relatively stable for decades. You wouldn’t have found anything like that sort of stability during most of the Middle Ages. If you were a “lord,” you could simultaneously be a vassal of another king with regard to certain of your lands, and he could be your vassal with regard to other lands. People’s loyalties were always in question and shifted constantly. And then, of course, there was that very confusing time in the fourteenth century when there were three claimants to be the true pope, none of whom was particularly worthy of the job — and yet the Holy Spirit brought us through in spite of all that.

We sometimes look upon the great instances of medieval sacred architecture and say: “Behold one of the glories of human achievement.” And so they are — in a way. But not entirely. What I suggest we realize is the degree to which the Holy Spirit was able to guide the Church even through the most confusing and troubled times to produce edifices of lasting beauty and importance, churches that have lent dignity and nobility to the towns in which they stand, and which have been a blessing to their citizens for centuries.

Allow me to give just one example of what I mean. Certainly one of the most beautiful and artistically rich of the Gothic churches in Europe is the cathedral dedicated to Our Lady in Chartres, France, roughly seventy miles outside of Paris. On the contemporary scene, one sometimes comes upon rooms filled with odd sculptures and lighted tubes and painted walls that have been given the very serious-sounding name of “an artistic installation.” Whether or not it’s “artistic” is often open to question, but that it has been “installed,” usually in such a manner that it gets in the way of where you want to go, cannot be denied. The point of such “installations,” I am told, is to combine all the various arts in one concentrated space: painting, sculpture, light, music, words. Such installations are meant to bathe your senses. Usually they just offend your sensibilities, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment. What these modern “installations” are attempting to do and usually do very badly, the cathedral church at Chartres does as brilliantly as any piece of art ever created. It is work of art that combines all the arts into one concentrated space. There is the beauty of the music and the spoken word. There is the beauty of the stained glass, the quality of the changing light throughout the day, the sculptures that adorn the columns and capitals. Every part of the cathedral speaks and teaches; it tells the story of salvation history culminating in the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ. You could study the building literally for decades and still not have plumbed the depths of its theological and artistic richness.



The beautiful cathedral of Chartres. The circumstances surrounding its construction were not so edifying. Photo: Randall B. Smith

That’s all fine and good. But now let’s take a look at some of the circumstances surrounding its construction. As one commentator has written: “The cathedral itself was a house divided.” It’s a nice line, but a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” or so the Scriptures (and Abraham Lincoln) tell us. What’s amazing is that with all the division, Chartres continued to rise and still stands today. The basic source of the divisions at Chartres came from conflicts between three distinct sources of authority whose interests often came into conflict: first, the Count of Blois, within whose territory the city of Chartres was located; second, the local bishop of Chartres, whose seat was at the Cathedral, but whose duties would often take him throughout a wide-ranging archdiocese; and finally, third, what is called “the cathedral chapter.” The term “chapter” originally was used for a congregation of monks, but it was extended to include any number of ecclesiastical bodies, including the sort of monks (often called “canons”) who gathered to pray in and lived near most major medieval cathedrals. (Who do you suppose it was who used those “choir” stalls and did the chanting? Not the sort of paid choirs one finds today in “high” Anglican churches.) The Catholic Encyclopedia helpfully explains that:


The chapter can be considered as forming one body with the bishop, in as far as it constitutes his senate and aids him in the government of his diocese; or as forming a body distinct from the bishop, having its own regulations and interests. Viewed under the first aspect the cathedral chapter has the bishop for its head; under the last, it has its own proper superior. Taking the chapter in the strict sense, however, canonists generally declare that the bishop must always be distinguished from it; nor can he be called a member of the chapter. Anciently, the principal dignitary of the chapter was the archdeacon, but from the eleventh century the dean, who was also archpriest, had the internal government of the chapter.


In the case of Chartres, the cathedral chapter was distinct from the bishop and had its own dean. Those of us in the United States are accustomed to stories about conflicts between “church” and “state,” and sometimes even between “lords” and “bishops.” What we are not so accustomed to is hearing stories about conflicts between a bishop and the canons of his cathedral chapter. In the case of Chartres, however, we have conflicts among all three.

One of the sources of friction came from competing jurisdictions. The count (or when he was away, the countess) had authority to collect taxes and enforce his laws in the town of Chartres, but not in the areas directly surrounding the cathedral, where the cathedral chapter had jurisdiction. Not only did the cathedral chapter increasingly draw laborers into their jurisdiction, thereby making them exempt from the count’s taxation, they also had sole authority over the cathedral fairs, a great source of revenue, which were also exempt from the count’s taxation. An additional wrinkle arose from the fact that the count would divide many of these town taxes equally with the bishop. Thus to deny revenue to the count was in part to deny it to the bishop and to the diocese at large. As serfs who had previously been working on the count’s lands and in his fields increasingly moved into the cathedral precincts to work on the building, tensions mounted. A contemporaneous ecclesiastical writer recounts what transpired next:


It happened in the city of Chartres, in October 1210, on a Sunday afternoon, that a great crowd dared to violently attack the home of Guillaume, the dean, and his household because a certain serf of the dean’s had berated and verbally abused one of the town rustics of the countess. When the countess’s marshal and the provost had been summoned by the chapter, even by the king, so that they might repel the furious crowd ... instead they attempted to incite the people. Indeed, a crier was dispatched throughout the city who cried out in the street and by-ways to the mob that they all rush upon the dean’s home with their arms to demolish it.... The dean, as soon as he saw the increasing rage of the mad mob grow, fled to the church.... Many of the sacrilegious crowd were wounded, and some of them succumbed to a merited death.... looting continued at night with light from burning candles.1




Peasant revolt of 1381, called Wat Tyler's Rebellion, London.

Violence erupted regularly in the years after, until in 1249, the provost, or chief administrator of the countess within the town, took as prisoner and subsequently hanged one of the chapter’s serfs. The dean of the chapter demanded that the countess and her provost pay 150 livres in recompense—a “livre,” like a British “pound sterling,” being the equivalent of one pound of silver. The chapter demanded in addition that the provost should be marched naked through the streets of the town to the church, there to be subjected to a public whipping by the canons of the cathedral before the altar of the Virgin Mary. Those who know the story of King Henry II of England’s troubles with Thomas à Beckett will remember that, after Beckett’s murder at the hands of several of Henry’s knights, Henry was similarly forced to strip naked and endure whipping at the hands of the canons at the cathedral of Canterbury. In Chartres, however, two of the countess’s men responded by kidnapping one of the canons and holding him hostage. In response, the dean of the chapter increased the fine from 150 livres to 400 and demanded that the provost undergo three penitential processions and whippings.

The hostilities continued with both parties jockeying for the upper hand, until in 1253--when the count’s men killed two of the chapter’s serfs, and the cathedral’s cantor, Renauld d’Épine was appointed to arbitrate the dispute--Renauld was murdered on the cathedral steps while on his way to matins. At which point, both the bishop and the members of the chapter became so frightened for their safety that they fled Chartres and stayed away for five years, residing first at Mantes, roughly fifty miles north of Chartres, and later in Étampes, some thirty-eight miles to the east.

Only after the chapter’s appeals to the king caused him to take twenty town burghers hostage and force two hundred members of all the trades, the agents of the count, and the people of the town to swear they would do no further harm to the chapter, along with gaining permission from Pope Innocent IV to hold matins at five in the morning because of the insecure condition of the cloister at night, did the chapter and bishop return in 1258. The chapter also gained permission from the king to seal off the area near the cathedral with a fence and lock the gates each night. It was not, shall we say, an entirely edifying or inspiring affair. Not exactly the sort of thing we hope for in our churches and monasteries.

And all this culminated in 1258! Both Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure were teaching in that year as Masters of Theology at Paris, a period often described as “the high Middle Ages”! All this horror and confusion at Chartres was taking place virtually in their backyard; although in that regard, it’s worthwhile remembering that neither Saint Thomas nor Saint Bonaventure would have been allowed to become Masters at the University of Paris at all if it hadn’t been for the intervention of the pope. The lives and careers of the “two great lights” (as they are often called) of the Middle Ages were not at all peaceful or easy ones.

When we think of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages, we can allow ourselves to imagine: “What a blessed age! What a thing it would have been to live then!” While yes, it was a “blessed age,” those who had to survive during those hard and often confusing times might be forgiven for not having always thought so at the time. Perhaps then we could say of the thirteenth century what Dickens says at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities:


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way –in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.


The thirteenth century: Greatest of centuries? Or the Dark Ages? Age of faith? Or age of petty religious squabbling? Well, both actually.

This is undoubtedly an important lesson for us to remember at times such as ours which can often seem far from “blessed” and when the Church seems so often in such sad shape. What monuments will we bequeath to the future? Certainly, there are the writings and reforms of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. People in the future will certainly look back at us and say: “What an amazing time it must have been to live with such popes.” And so it is. Not many ages have been as blessed in this regard as we.

We also enjoy the fruits of the Thomistic revival begun by Pope Leo XIII near the end of the nineteenth century, as well as the recovery of the works of the patristic fathers and doctors of the Church, spurred on by the great ressourcement movement, in which the current pope played an important role. There is also the incomparable achievement of the Second Vatican Council, for those who understand it correctly.

What it seems we won’t leave behind, however, are very many beautiful churches, both because nearly all of our churches are ugly as sin and because they’re not built to last—the latter undoubtedly a blessing considering the former. Although even in this area, there are signs of hope and renewal. One finds them here and there, many of them usefully catalogued in this journal (along with some of the continuing horrors). The existence of this journal, along with the good work it catalogues, shows that there is increasing interest in good churches and that things may be turning around—finally.



Church in East Anglia, England, built when Europe was poor and war was rampant. We can't build churches like this today, when we're as rich as we've ever been. Photo: Randall B. Smith

I am recently back from a trip to England where I spent some time exploring the medieval churches in Norfolk. They are amazing, and I can’t recommend such a road-trip enough. There is one problem, though. There are simply too many of them. Indeed, often one will find a beautiful stone church on one rise or hillock, only to look across the way and see another, just as lovely, on the next rise, no more than four miles away. Most of these churches were built during the early Middle Ages, when the political circumstances in England were decidedly confused, constantly shifting, and life was often enough, to quote a much later statement by Thomas Hobbes: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And yet, they left us to this very day these wonderful churches, any one of which, if you had the chance to worship in it, given the usual alternatives in the U.S., would make you think you’d died and gone to heaven. Granted, they’re all Anglican, but I will say this for our Anglican brethren: they’ve kept the church buildings intact without screwing them up, as has happened so often with the Catholics, who have torn out altars and altar rails, turned their churches sideways, put in orange carpeting, replaced crucifixes with indistinguishable (and ugly) modern art installations, just to mention a few of the many horrors visited upon the great church buildings of the past. You won’t find any of that nonsense in these great eleventh and twelfth-century churches. And for that, I must say to my Anglican brethren, as a Catholic, I am profoundly grateful.

The result of a well-built, beautiful church building is a gift-that-keeps-on-giving to future generations. I am perfectly aware of the state of the faith in Europe. It’s not good. And yet, anyone who studies Church history can tell you, we’ve seen troubled times before, and until Christ’s second coming again at the end of time, we’ll continue to see troubled times in the future. Indeed, each age has its own troubles and confusions: the age of Thomas and Bonaventure had theirs, we have ours. Once the current madness passes, however, those great church buildings will still stand as a monument to the faith and sacrifice of our forebears, and as such can serve as a foundation upon which the next generation can build its renewed faith. The towns and villages that surrounded those churches have long since passed away, but the churches still remain. So too all the disputes and controversies and fads of today will soon enough pass away, but the Church will still remain. What we’ll need then is a place to worship. We might do well to remember that when the Lord said to Saint Francis from the cross: “Francis, rebuild my church,” his first response was to start rebuilding the church in which he was praying: the little, crumbling church of San Damiano. In our day, as in Francis’s, the church is in need of some “rebuilding.” We might similarly do well to begin, as he did, by rebuilding our church buildings.


Church interior in East Anglia, England. Photo: Randall B. Smith

If we can learn from the age that created the great Gothic cathedrals, however, here are some of the elements we will need to bring about better and more beautiful churches in the future. First, we will need a healthy guild of skilled architects and workmen who can continue to work at a high level of excellence even when confusion and quarreling prevails among the officials in the local church community. Second, we will need generous and wise patrons who are willing to pay for excellent building and who refuse to pay a dime for the sort of trash we so often see today. Third, we need a critical mass of faithful parishioners who believe that beautiful churches are still possible and who insist that such buildings be built. As with patrons, it is essential that the faithful not allow their piety to be abused into paying for ugly churches. Finally, and most importantly, we need the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit. Nothing will be more important in such ventures than prayer. If we are to succeed, it will be by the work of the Holy Spirit, or we will not succeed at all.