The medieval achievement was so magnificent that it stands with the loftiest moments of human history…
The most complete ordering of medieval life was found in its religious point of view and practice, in its Christian “cult.” Expressed by myriad symbolic forms, that cult affirmed repeatedly the eternal significance of salvation for every moment in human life. In the dimension of space, that cult found expression in medieval architecture, especially in the cathedral or episcopal chair, which dominated all other churches in the diocese. These churches, in their turn, carried forward the blessed work, sanctifying space itself by spreading cemeteries, chapels and wayside crosses over the land. The very land became hallowed by the presence of the Church at large. Each church building itself, through the supernatural rite of consecration, symbolized and enfolded the whole of Creation. Every part of a church building from the direction of its main axis to its most minute appointments was invested with a divine meaning which fused the cosmic picture of the world with the course of sacred history into a symbolic whole. The countless figures of the saints and the stories of salvation were everywhere carved in wood, emblazoned in color and glorified by the art of stained glass. In the very fullness of its being, the world of the spirit stood before the eyes of the people.
This same sacred world was evoked by the seasons of the ecclesiastical year and by the constant succession of days made holy by the Church. The rotation of the sun was linked by the Church with the sacred rhythm proper to its own life; to the cycle of the seasons and of annual change, it joined the life of Christ—sol salutis. Thus, the Church moved forward gathering all things into an inexhaustible unity. The world of time was further enriched in spirit when the Church added the feasts of the saints—whose lives dramatized the work of salvation—to the feasts celebrating the life of Christ Himself. Re-enacted year in year out in the liturgy of each and every church in Christendom, this symbolic rendering of time became the very rhythm of temporal life. Every event of life for a man or for his family—birth, marriage, death, labor and rest, the advent of the seasons, the passing of the weeks, the deeds of the day—each of them breathed the rhythm of the ecclesiastical year. That rhythm had become one with the single moment and with the span of man’s life even to his last extremity.
As well as expressing itself in space and time Christian cult brought to literature a sacred symbolism. The highest and most authoritative literary expression was found in the Pontifical and rituals, in the Mass books and breviaries. For the people, Christian cult was embodied in the widely popular “house books” of the Legenda Aurea [or The Golden Legends].
Universal in scope the symbolism created by the Christian cult of medieval man thus covered and permeated the whole of being. Life was seen as a rich and diversified hierarchy; every class in society and all things in nature had their beginning and their origin and their fulfillment, their departure and their return. Every least and greatest thing in being was led back to its source in eternity.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is perhaps the most powerful embodiment of this medieval sense of the unity of all things in being. Written at the end of the high Medieval Ages, at the very moment when the medieval spirit had begun to ebb, the Divine Comedy stands alone. The medieval drama seen against the background of impending darkness was loved the more by Dante. In his pages, it shines with a transfigured beauty.
Unless we free ourselves of the evaluations made by the minds of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment we cannot really understand the Middle Ages. The judgments then leveled were made under the pressure of a polemic which has succeeded in distorting the truth even to our own day. Equally distorted was the glorified Middle Ages of the Romantics who gave the period a frankly “canonical” character it never possessed. The excessive enthusiasm of the Romantics has prevented many a man from arriving at a balanced view of medieval Christendom.
From our present standpoint, the Middle Ages can readily be turned into a mixture of primitive simplicity and fantastic imagination, into a fusion of naked force and base servility. But this picture has nothing to do with historical truth. There is only one standard by which any epoch can be fairly judged: In view of its own peculiar circumstances, to what extent did it allow for the development of human dignity? The medieval achievement was so magnificent that it stands with the loftiest moments of human history.
The Middle Ages were filled with a sense of religion which was as deep as it was rich, as strong as it was delicate, as firm in its grasp of principles as it was original and fertile in their concrete expression. From cloister and monastery, there shone a religious light whose strength cannot be overestimated. We cannot exaggerate the impact which was made upon the corporate consciousness by the ever-fresh stream of worshippers, penitents, and mystics which poured forth from the springs of medieval piety. From all these sources of faith tumbled the waters of religious experience, wisdom, and certitude which constantly freshened and quickened every class and degree of society.
Medieval man thirsted for the truth. No other society, with the possible exception of that which bore the culture of classical China, has invested the man of learning with the dignity and importance given him by the Middle Ages. The medieval passion for understanding, however, had nothing in common with our modem enthusiasm for the techniques of scientific investigation. Medieval man was interested neither in pursuing nature and history empirically nor in mastering reality theoretically. He chose to plunge into truth by way of meditation; then he drew from his meditations the spiritual laws governing all reality.
The essay was originally published in The End of the Modern World by Romano Guardini (220 pages, The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2001). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.