“It had great thinkers, great rulers, great teachers, great poets, great artists, great moralists and great workmen. It could not be called the material age in any special degree. It was equally poetic, political, industrial, artistic, practical, intellectual, and devotional. There was one common creed, one ritual, one worship, one sacred language, one Church, a single code of manners, a uniform scheme of society, a common system of education, an accepted type of beauty, a universal art, one common order of ideas — including intellect, moral duty, action and the soul. It may be doubted if that has happened in Europe ever since.”
A book of many surprises is Dr. James J. Walsh’s The Thirteenth the Greatest of Centuries, especially for the “progressive” age that we are caught up in. What would today’s “equal righters” do if they realized that the quality of men’s actions improve when women are virtuous and deserving of admiration.
Let us consider this question: Where did the poets of England, Germany, and France, who told their romantic tales in verse, find an audience, if not among the women? Doesn’t this reflect the cultural character of the women of the time — and isn’t it a tribute to their intelligence and education?
Since it may be difficult for the uninformed to see how the Thirteenth Century lives up to what the above title claims for it, a look at that century’s accomplishments will help.
The Gothic Cathedrals produced during this time have never been equalled. Even the minutest details were beautiful-the handcrafts, the iron-works: gates and railings, down to the very hinges and locks. The chalices and sacred vessels were simply made, and very practical. The needlework of the vestments was in keeping with this ideal. Even the brass inscriptions on the gravestones bells, and the like, were fascinating. The crowning adornment of the Cathedral, of course, was its beautiful stained-glass windows. No one knows where the craftsmen of that day learned the secret of this kind of glassmaking and coloring, and artists of our time have spent years trying to duplicate the art, but have never been able to equal it.
Part of the wonder of these windows is that they were not done in any central location, but rather on the premises of the Cathedrals themselves by the people from the towns close by. Also, each city that had a Cathedral employed its own people to do the craft works. As a result, between the different localities, a spirit of healthy competition developed. This led to guilds for the workingman, which fostered initiative and a balanced sense of pride in one’s work. From the guilds developed the greatest group of technical schools the world has ever known.
A movement among the guildsmen led to the writing of the famous Magna Carta. We must, of course, inject here that the noblemen and Churchmen of the preceding century did help to bring forth this famous document, but it was brought into blossom during this great century. All of this, in turn, led to political as well as legal rights, with monarch and subject bound by law, and the tyrant’s whim no longer holding sway. [Editor’s note: We take exception to the notion, presupposed here, that the “tyrant’s whim” commonly held sway in medieval society. The Magna Carta codified in writing the English political tradition, which was not a tradition of tyranny. With the rise of modern states and statecraft — even going back to the days of King John — the novel ideas of statism arose, and monarchs (like today’s presidents of liberal democracies) illicitly amassed power in the hands of the central government, violating the sound Catholic political traditions of subsidiarity. In most respects, medieval society was freer than the socialist democracy we presently find ourselves in (November, 2009).]
Beautiful poetry and literature come from this century. Not a country in civilized Europe was without its contribution: in Spain, the Cid; in England, the King Arthur legends; in Germany, the Meistersingers who Christianized old German legends, which proved to be a precious heritage for posterity. In France, the trouveres were accomplishing much the same work as the groups in Germany. In Italy it was the troubadours. But the prince of the Italian poets, of course, was Dante. You might say his work was the fitting grande finale of an age of tremendous literary enlightenment.
The author brings out the fact that with the dawn of the Thirteenth Century we see the birth of the Universities and their gradual development into the institutions of learning that we have today. The liberal arts provided training for the human intellect: languages, logic, man’s relation to God and the universe, philosophy, medicine, training of physicians, law, and much more. Medical schools attracted students from all over the world. Some of their teachers and writers have been renowned in medical history ever since. And it is the first pope of the Thirteenth Century-Pope Innocent III-who established the city hospital as we know it today.
The art of printing began some 150 years after the Thirteenth Century came to a close, so one would think that the idea of lending libraries would have been unknown then. But, not so! A Diocesan Council held in Paris in 1212 recalled the duty of religious to lend such books as they had, with a guarantee of return, to those who would make good use of them. The Council even declared that the lending of books was one of the works of mercy. In most of the abbeys around Paris there were considerable libraries of hand-written books available to the public.
Some of the greatest philosophers, saints, and kings came from the Thirteenth Century-Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Albert the Great, Saint Francis of Assisi, King Saint Louis of France. It is very obvious that the Church occupied the major place in the life of that time.
There is no doubt that, by reading this book, a Catholic will renew his devotion to the Catholic Faith. With all these facts to consider, is it any wonder then that this period of history should be called The Thirteenth the Greatest of Centuries?
I hope I have convinced you; but if not, I am sure that, upon reading Mr. Walsh’s The Thirteenth the Greatest of Centuries, you will see that his title can withstand any challenge that is based on fact, not prejudice.