The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Dark Ages
ONE Sunday morning in the year 1922 I stood for an hour closely packed in a crowd of Bulgar peasants. We were at the frontier railway depot, at six in the morning. It was the festival of some ancient saint as well as a Sunday; and from the Serb side hundreds of peasants were crossing into their native Bulgaria for a day. They were mostly women, in spotless white linen and gaudily embroidered vests and skirts. Even the few men were sober, at that hour. But … I looked into the scores of pairs of eyes all round me and wondered. They were the eyes of their cattle, lit by a dull gleam, a dawn, of human kindliness and intelligence; and in their depths one could see or surmise slumbering passions which cattle never know.
From depot to depot along the slow route the train emptied and refilled with such crowds. As the hours passed, the gait of men grew unsteadier and their raucous voices louder, and laughter of the women rang out over the idle fields.
For lunch I had to pass through their third-class coach. A burly assistant literally rammed a narrow way for me through the swelting mass. They were too happy to grumble. One man had a big drum on the train. They were packed four to the square yard. the aroma of strong native wine clung like a mist. The bovine eyes now shown with animal vitality. The gaping, roaring mouths of the men, the faint pretense of reserve in the women’s laughter, the mutual glances of the little girls, told the nature of the jokes that were thundered above the babel.
On the previous Sunday I had been in Vienna: one of the loveliest, most captivating, most urbane and refined cities on the globe. In a week I had passed back from 1922 to 922 or thereabouts: from modern times to the Middle Ages.
There has been a queer movement of civilization in the course of time. Once all civilization flourished round the Mediterranean Sea. The “Mediterranean Race” was the great race. Beyond the Alps, beyond the Danube, were mere barbarians. They seemed as unlikely as the Negroes south of the Sahara ever to build cities and write philosophies. But civilization passed to “the great white race,” and round the Mediterranean were only beggarly remnants of the ancient peoples, as idly contemplating the ruins of their former greatness as the sheep and goats that browsed amongst the marble columns.
Worn-out stocks, you may say: exhausted national germ-plasms, and so on. Those are words: “wind of words and nothing more,” as the realistic old Romans used to say. The outstanding characteristic of those masses of peasants of southern Europe is their immense vitality. They work from sun-up to sun-down. The orgy of a festival is an orgy of vitality bursting loose on rare holidays from the year’s slavery. Their sex-virility is stupendous. Their anger, slumbering under an habitual kindliness, flames like an explosive. They love war. Shake out the old flag, let the bugle peal, and they will leap to the ranks.
And it is not mere animal vitality. No country now is wholly medieval. The Serbs have myriads of schools. The Bulgars and Greeks reduce the illiteracy of their people. Spain has to move and drag its priests with it. Italy is being modernized even in the south. And the people are apt pupils.
I would rather consider them here as nearly all of them were the Middle Ages lingering in the nineteenth century.
Here it is enough to remind the reader of two facts. The first is that the happiness of these ignorant peasants, these survivors of the Middle Ages, is but a momentary burst of laughter in a long and mirthless day. They are happy — happy in this robust way — on a few days in the year. It is so long before the next festival comes. Let us crowd what we can into the day. Twelve hours for the heart to rejoice in, and then … You see them next day emerge from the stinking cottages in the gray dawn, the girl of twelve spinning with the distaff as she goes to guard the cows all day, the young mother, perhaps yoked with the ass to a plow such as Mayas used in Yucatan two thousand years ago.
But there is a second and more precise test. Let us take, as I proposed, the Europe of the middle of the nineteenth century, when, the chief cities apart, the Middle Ages still lingered in the south and the modern spirit ruled in central and northern parts. And, remember, it is in the south that nature makes her most generous contributions to human happiness. There the roses bloom and grow all the year, and the skies have a glorious azure, and the sun rarely hides.
Well, look back on this contrast of modern and medieval in the Europe of the last century. South of parallel 45, the rough dividing line of the modern and the medieval, you have enormously more disease, suffering, crime, bloodshed, poverty, utter ignorance of the art of living, and insecurity of life and health than north of it. The statistics of mortality, especially infant mortality, in the south are ghastly. Mothers hear their eight or ten children, meanwhile performing the work of three servants, and bury four or five. Disease is like a legion of devils that God cannot, or will not, check. The knife flies from its sheath daily, and the widow and children mourn. Happy, are they?
That is the Middle Ages: a stretch of a thousand years during which crime, vice, violence, drunkenness, disease, mortality, brutality, exploitation, and injustice were immeasurably worse than in the preceding or in our own time. Hourly we repeat the division of time into two parts, B.C, and A.D., and millions still think that B.C. means Benighted Chaos and A.D. means Age of Delight. In history we divide time into three parts, Ancient Times, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times; and we consider the Middle Ages (as we ought to say) a period of dark and turbulent semi-barbarism lying between two phases of civilization, ancient paganism and modern paganism.
What redeeming features will even the apologist find in the Middle Ages? First — and almost last — medieval art: those glorious cathedrals that you go to Europe to see, those illuminated missals, those wonderful tapestries, those exquisite paintings, those feats of color and form. These artistic achievements are very real and important. They make one hesitate to call the second half of the Middle Ages barbaric: in the first half they did not yet exist. To understand aright their relation to medieval life in general and Christianity in particular we have to devote a special chapter to them. And we find that they must certainly not be put to the credit of religion.
What is there besides the art? The guilds of craftsmen? These affected only a tiny minority of the workers, were pagan in origin, and were fiercely resisted by the Church until it found them irrepressible. What else is there? Nothing. The rest is misery, suffering, exploitation by priest and noble, appalling superstition, utter lawlessness, dense ignorance.
Moreover, let us be quite clear what we mean by the Middle Ages. Roughly we mean from about 500 A.D. when paganism and the Roman Empire were extinct, to about 1500 or 1600 A.D. The first half of this period, say from about 500 to 1100, we call the Dark Ages.
We have, however, first to decide very conscientiously whether the Church was responsible for the Dark Ages, and the question at once arises if the degradation of Europe was not due to a force, the downpour of northern barbarians, the action of which it took the Church several centuries to correct.
Now it is quite true that these Goths, Vandals, and other Teutonic tribes destroyed the Roman civilization. It may seem to the inexpert an extraordinary thing that barbarians from the forests of Germany could thus overrun the mightiest empire of antiquity, but it is not surprising. For centuries these tribes had been multiplying and pressing against the northern barriers. Rome was now too weak to hold the barriers. The Huns from Asia had fallen upon the Germans and driven them furiously south. Then the news spread over the north of the sunny lands and glorious loot of the south, and fresh tribes came down. One must not imagine the onset of the Teutons as an event of the year, or even of a few decades, There were centuries of migration.
In the fifth century they completely wrecked the fabric of the Roman Empire. It is one of the greater ironies of life that this coincided with the general enforcement of Christianity. The naive young person, of any age, preacher or listener, who dreams of Europe rising in the moral scale when it “embraced Christianity,” knows as much about history as the New Zealand young lady I once heard explaining Relativity to her husband and saying that “Euclid had based his system on Newton.” The general acceptance (under pressure) of Christianity was inevitably followed by moral chaos, because it coincided with the downfall of civilization.
Then you find no fault with Christianity, the apologist will say, completely reversing his position, because it was not the cause of the degradation of Europe, the rise of serfdom, the destruction of the schools, the subjection of woman, etc.
Broad views are often good, and often dangerous. You must at least know the details. The first detail is that these “barbarians” were not so barbaric as some imagine. At the beginning of the second century, when the Romans were sober under the excellent Stoic emperors, the great historian Tacitus wrote a work on “The Morals of the Germans”: meaning the Teutonic tribes of the north generally. The purpose of that book was to shame the Romans by holding up to them the superior idealism of the Teutons! It is, of course, exaggerated; but there is truth in it. The northerners had law and some fine ideals.
The second detail is that they were Christians. The chief Germanic tribes which poured over Italy, Gaul, and Spain in the fifth century had already accepted Christianity; and few Christians have such superstitious awe of the power of priests and bishops as converted barbarians.
And the third and most important detail is that these “barbarians” gave proof after proof that they were ready to accept civilization. Numbers of them had risen to the highest positions in the Roman army and state even before the fifth century. Tradition has given the Vandals, who overran Spain and Africa, so terrible a reputation that we use their name still for destroyers or semi- barbarians. In most respects they were as bad as their reputation, but the leading authority on the Teutonic peoples, Dr. Hodgkin (“Italy and Her Invaders,” an eight-volume work which the reader should consult for details), calls them “an army of Puritans.” In fact, the fifth-century priest Salvianus represents both Goths and Vandals as stern Puritans shocked by the immorality of the Christians of the empire. He tells us that when the Vandals took Christian Carthage, they set about a purification of morals which disturbed the inhabitants far more than the loss of political freedom did. … And within two centuries of their adoption of Christianity these Germanic peoples, whose pagan ideals had kept them chaste for ages, were more flagrantly immoral than the Romans had been.
Lastly, the Teutons, the new masters of Europe and pupils of the Church, in several places inaugurated a new civilization by blending their old law and ideals with the Roman; and in every single case they had no assistance from the Church, but were hampered and ultimately thwarted by the clergy.
No, the barbarians are not responsible for the Dark Ages. They brought with them an appreciation of law and some high ideals. They required only direction. A strong king such as Theodoric or Charlemagne (both deaf to the clergy) could civilize them in a few years. The Church, which controlled them all, gave them no lead whatever in the direction of civilization. It was not a civilizing force. It was a fairy tale about another world blended with money- loving priestcraft. The Church is deeply and terribly responsible for the Dark Ages, for the suspension of the evolution of civilization for a thousand years. Today there would be — as will be the condition in a few centuries — no war, little or no poverty, no ignorance, no crime, and infinitely more happiness, if the Christian church had been a civilizing force.
By the end of the fourth century Christianity was established. The world was now Christian, and I would advise any serious inquirer to find for himself what happened. If he cannot read the original Latin authorities, he has two learned works, which cover the period: the Protestant historian Dean Milman’s “History of Latin Christianity,” and the “History of European Morals” of Mr. Lecky: a Rationalist, but a man who says all that can justly be said, and much more, in favor of Christianity.
These two historians agree entirely that Europe passed into a state of moral chaos. The Dean is at first disturbed when he approaches the period, and he piously reflects that “the evil was too profoundly stated in the habits of the Roman world to submit to the control of religion.” But Milman was too candid a scholar to maintain that insincere position. The evil was new, not inherited from the pagans, and it grew worse and worse as the world moved farther away from paganism.
For the fifth century our one authority is the priest Salvianus. In a Latin work “On the Providence of God” he very frankly describes the morals of the Christian world in which he lives, and he explicitly says that there has been a very considerable deterioration of morals since pagan days. He writes, for instance (iii, 9): “Besides a very few who avoid evil, what is almost the whole body of Christians but a sink of iniquity? How many in the Church will you find that are not drunkards or adulterers or fornicators or gamblers or robbers or murderers — or all together?” Rhetorical exaggeration, you will say: we know what these censors of morals are. But if Seneca or some other Stoic had written about the pagans of his time, you would ask me to take it literally. In any case, please understand the situation. You tell me that the morals of Europe improved after the triumph of Christianity, and the only authority, a Christian authority, that you can quote as to the general morals of Europe in the fifth century says precisely the opposite. The letters of the contemporary Pope Leo I support Salvianus.
Well, you may say, at least Christianity abolished the brutal games of the amphitheater. Does not Lecky say: “There is scarcely any other single reform important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian Church”? It is another lamentable instance of Lecky’s habit of presenting bouquets that are not merited. It is quite absurd to magnify the suppression of the games into one of the greatest of moral reforms, and it is wholly misleading to say that “the Christian Church” suppressed them.
From about the year 380 the Church ruled the consciences of the Roman emperors, and got mighty privileges and wealth for itself; but it never suggested to them to suppress the games. No Christian emperor had the courage or even the inclination to frown on the games as Marcus Aurelius had done. The new generation of Christian Romans had exactly the same passion for these brutal shows as the pagan Romans had had. The Emperor Constantine had given an obscure decree against the games in one province of his empire, and it was never enforced even there. The fanatically Christian Emperor Theodosius, docile to every whisper from the bishops, compelled his prisoners to fight as gladiators.
In the year 404, long after the complete triumph of Christianity, the gladiatorial games were proceeding as usual in the Roman amphitheater when the monk Telemachus flung himself into the arena to protest. All honor to the monk — he was stoned to death by the Christian spectators — but he is not “the Christian Church.” Until then the Church had made no protest, nor do we find any ecclesiastical assembly or prominent ecclesiastic condemning the games, until the end of the seventh century. The combats of man against man were abandoned — of Church pressure there is no trace — but fights with beasts long continued; and Lecky quaintly confesses that “the difficulty of procuring wild animals” had much to do with the abandonment of these. But as the Church of the Middle Ages blessed and smiled upon the almost equally deadly combats of knights, and allowed the duel to survive to modern times, its apologists would do well to talk less about the gladiatorial games.
Europe sank steadily into the deepest and foulest bog of the Dark Ages, the tenth century, which historians call the Iron Age: largely, one imagines, on account of the appallingly free use of the knife and the sword.
For the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries we have a very scanty literature. Gregory of Tours, who throws such lurid light on the fifth and sixth centuries, died in 594. For the next half century we have only a very thin and meager monkish chronicle, which tells the same dark story, and then there is not a scrap of reliable history for a hundred years. Europe was sunk in the crassest ignorance and superstition. Our only indications of the moral condition are Papal documents (written in such barbarous Latin that one can scarcely read them), acts of councils, letters of bishops, and scraps of monastic chronicles. These all tell a consistent story. Take the letters to Rome from Germany of St. Boniface. He writes to the Pope (ep. xlix): “Today for the most part in our episcopal cities the seats are assigned to greedy laymen or adulterous clerics or wenchers, to enjoy the material benefits of them.” All the contemporary information we have tells the same story of gluttonous, drunken, and corrupt clergy and monks, of murders and mutilations, of a densely ignorant and coarse population.
And just here the reader will find a useful illustration of the two ways of writing history, the Catholic and the historical. The seventh century, the most ignorant and one of the grossest of all, has supplied more than eight hundred saints to the Roman calendar! Writing the life of one of these, Cardinal Pitra says:
The finest title of the seventh century to vindication is the great number of saints it produced — no other century was so glorified except the age of the martyrs, the number of whom is known to God alone. Each year has its harvest, each day its group. … If, then, it pleases God and Christ to scatter these splendors of the saints so bountifully upon a century, what does it matter that history and human glory think so little of it?
That is, of course, all that the Catholic reads about the early Middle Ages. On these eight hundred “self-tormenters” of a century which is too gross to write its own history he bases his claim that Christianity purified the world.
But if we have no work adequately reflecting the life of the clergy and the people in this seventh century, we have ample evidence (in Gregory of Tours and the letters of Gregory the Great) that it opened with as dark, violent, and vicious a population as had ever existed in Europe: we have the chronicle of Fredigarius extending that picture as far as 642: and, when the literary blank ends in the eighth century, we find Christendom in exactly the same condition of universal vice and violence. It is grimly significant that the chair of Peter itself was filled by no less than twenty- one Popes in succession in the one hundred years after the death of Gregory.
In the year 896 there was witnessed in Rome a scene which fitly inaugurated one hundred and fifty years of such degradation as has never fallen upon any other religious organization in history. Stephen VI became Pope, after a bloody contest of the various factions. He ordered the body of one of his predecessors, Formosus, who had been several weeks buried, to be brought to the Papal palace. The stinking corpse was clothed in the pontifical garments and propped in the throne. The august representative of Christ and the Holy Ghost, the channel of God’s mercy to the human race, gathered his “cardinals” (the name was already in use) and bishops round the ghastly object, and they vented upon it a fury such as one would hardly expect savages to show to a corpse. In the end they cut three fingers from the right hand of the putrid body, and flung it into the Tiber.
If paganism, if any pagan civilization, can show the remotest parallel to that trial of the corpse of Pope Formosus, it has, apparently, not yet been discovered by any Catholic apologist. Here, moreover, we have the highest and most official representatives of what was understood to be the highest thing in Christendom, quite openly and officially perpetrating this orgy of barbarism. If that was Rome and the Papacy at the end of the ninth century, what was likely to be the condition of Europe in general?
And it was only the beginning. In the very next year Pope Stephen quarreled with his own supporters. They thrust him into a dungeon and strangled him. Six Popes succeeded each other in the next eight years, and, while history has no record of the end of most of them, we can surmise it. In 904 the most turbulent of all the fighting bishops cut his way, literally, to the chair of Peter, and the “Church of God,” as the Catholic calls it, became for thirty years a Pornocracy, or “government by whores.” My Catholic reader will shrink from the word, but it is from the most respected and most learned of Catholic historians that I borrow it.
Cardinal Baronius, who uses it placidly, notes in his “Annals,” of the year 912, that Pope Sergius III, who had been the moving spirit in the trial of the body of Formosus and had murdered two Popes at least to get the “holy see” for himself, was the lover of that most powerful, most noble, and most shameless whore, Theodora.” Father Pagi, Mansi, the Benedictine editors of the Pope’s letters, and even recent Catholic writers like Mgr. Duchesne and Canon W. Barry (“The Papal Monarchy”) admit that the evidence is irresistible; and I have shown in my “Crises in the History of the Papacy” that the difficulties raised by one or two more recent Catholic writers are frivolous.
Theodora, wife of one of the highest nobles of Rome, was of such loose morals that the chief writers of her time call her “a whore,” and two Popes, Sergius III and John X, were amongst her lovers. Her equally beautiful and equally unscrupulous daughter Marozia also is called “a whore,” and Pope Sergius III was so notoriously the lover of the daughter as well as of the mother that the “Pontifical Book” itself, the official Papal chronicle, describes Pope John XI as “son of Sergius III” (by Marozia). These whores” governed the Papacy and Rome for thirty years. Our chief source of information about them is the contemporary Bishop Liutprand, whose outspoken statements are sufficiently supported by two monkish chroniclers and the official Papal calendar.
Rome was more generally corrupt than it had been in the days of the insane Nero or the feeble-minded Elagabal; and this corruption was intimately connected with the general illiteracy. It is on record that at this time some of these members of the highest Roman nobility could not write their own names; how many could we do not know. It is useless to ask us to consider these vices as relics of paganism, when we know that from being a generally literate city, and in its higher class a very refined and cultivated city, Rome under the Popes had sunk to an illiteracy that has no parallel elsewhere in the history of civilization.
The history of European morals has still to be written. Lecky’s work is not a systematic chronological exposition, and it ends with the appearance of Charlemagne. But in this and other books I give sufficient evidence for the reader to form an opinion; and I show that all the great historians agree in that opinion. Pagan Greece and Rome had been comparable with ourselves in character and conduct. With the triumph of Christianity and the fall of Rome, Europe sank steadily age by age until it reached the unprecedented degradation of the Iron Age.
By the twelfth century Europe was slightly reducing its ignorance. “The Church had given it schools,” the apologist says; which really means that the few schools which a few bishops (not the Church) gave it had been expanded by the rising tide of the secular life of the time. Civic and economic development was beginning to re-civilize Europe. Exactly, says my friend the apologist. At last the Church had mastered the chaos which the barbarians had caused, and law, order, education, art, civic life, guilds … oh, everything good was springing up under its beneficent influence.
But let us look at the facts. What was the Church actually doing at this time to enlighten the people? At Laon the chief treasures shown to the public were some milk and hair of the Virgin Mary. There was a crystal lid to the golden case and you could — for a consideration — see the precious whitish fluid and the hair with your own eyes. This was Laon’s set-off to the rival attraction at Soissons, a neighboring town, which had secured one of the milk- teeth shed by the infant Jesus.
There seems to have been enough milk of the Virgin — some of it was still exhibited in Spanish churches in the nineteenth century — preserved in Europe to feed a few calves. There was hair enough to make a mattress. There were sufficient pieces of “the true cross” to make a boat. There were teeth of Christ enough to outfit a dentist (one monastery, at Charroux, had the complete set.) There were so many sets of baby-linen of the infant Jesus, in Italy, France and Spain, that one could have opened a shop with them. One of the greatest churches in Rome had Christ’s manger- cradle. Seven churches had his authentic umbilical cord, and a number of churches had his foreskin (removed at circumcision and kept as a souvenir by Mary). One church had the miraculous imprint of his little bottom on a stone on which he had sat. Mary herself had left enough wedding rings, shoes, stockings, shirts, girdles, etc., to fill a museum. You can, if you are good, see one of her shifts still in Chartres cathedral; though in this coarser age of ours it is called a “veil.” One church had Aaron’s rod. Six churches had the six heads cut off John the Baptist … Every one of these things was, remember, in its origin, a cynical, blasphemous swindle; and Rome was the great trading center. All the wriggling of all the G.K. Chestertons and all the Jesuits and Paulists in America will not obscure that. Each of those objects was at first launched upon the world with deliberate mendacity. Honor and honesty were as rare as chastity in Christianized Europe and as rare in the Church as in the “world.” To talk of those ages as “spiritual” and ours as “materialistic” … One is almost disposed to ask for an application to the clergy of the law about obtaining money under false pretenses.
The overwhelming majority of the population of Christendom were serfs. One must bear in mind always that there was in those ages nothing remotely like the industrial population of modern times. Craftsmen were few. Home-labor supplied most of a family’s wants, and they were very modest. There are no statistics, of course, but I would hazard the statement that about ninety percent of the people of Christendom were serfs.
It is by these that we must judge the Middle Ages; not by the nobles (unscrupulous exploiters, most of them), or velvet-clad burghers and merchants, or even the guildsmen. And their life was horrible. The most optimistic of expert works on them is Rogers’ “Six Centuries of Work and Wages,” but I have shown from his own learned pages that the life of the enormous mass of the people was filthy, miserable, and vile. He rightly speaks of “the inconceivably filthy habits of the people” and their “very few holidays.” They worked, from dawn to sunset, on three hundred and eight days a year. Their meat was salt — and the salt was poisonous — during half the year. Their hovels were bare, dismal, disease-breeding kennels. Their daughters, or plump young wives, were free to any abbot or lord or servant of such. They were tied to the soil, in monotonous small villages, and had to risk their lives at any moment in the lord’s quarrels or the king’s wars.
There were not three million people in England during the beautiful thirteenth century, and it took four centuries for this population to double. With modern conditions of health a population, not restrained by birth control, would double in much less than fifty years. The carnage in the ages of faith was appalling, and the suffering of those who survived was beyond our comprehension. One epidemic, the Black Death, killed twenty-five million in two years. Such epidemics swept mercilessly from one end to the other of helpless Europe. Naturally, at the end of such a pestilence of famine, labor was scarce and was better paid — those are the periods which the optimist quotes — which meant more money for the church, the lords, the brigands, and the quacks and impostors and exploiters generally.
That was the wonderful thirteenth century, the flower of the Middle Ages. Try to picture to yourself the life of nine people out of ten in Christendom at that time. Cut out those pictures of occasional saints or scholars, or silk-robed merchants and gay tournaments. Follow the life of the man working from dawn to sunset, then returning to a sty, the floor unpaved, the cesspool and mud-heap at the door, the filthy interior without the cheapest comfort or adornment. Imagine the woman bearing her seven or eight children in it, doing twice the work of the poorest modern woman, brutally treated by most husbands; a cow … And the same gossipy and crassly superstitious little village round her from cradle to grave, the scold’s bridle or the ducking-stool if she dare assert herself, the suspicion of witchcraft if she wondered if the gentle Jesus did really arrange all this, the sudden departure of the man for war, the famine drawing on with fiendish slowness, the plague spreading over the countryside. And there you have a true picture of the thirteenth century.