Peak Christianity of the 13th Century

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* Book: Le XIIIieme Siecle. L'apogee de la chretiente. Jacques Le Goff.



Michel Bauwens, 2003:

Jacques Le Goff introduces the idea of a 'second axial age', characterized by a more interiorized religion.

Jacques Le Goff is a great historian of the medieval period, who has amended the previous view of the 'dark ages', a heritage of the Renaissance period.

The book starts with a description of technical progress in agriculture and commerce and industry, leading to a disappearance of the generalized famines (regional ones subsist), higher living conditions, and the rise of a commercial class. The tripartite social organization described by Dumezil and Duby (those who pray, fight, and work), by one of the nobles (both high nobility and lower knighthood). a middle class of freemen, and the indentured farmers; with the clergy now being considered as a separate order.

An ideology of the common good arises, and warlords are no longer commended. The ideal of the 'chevalier devot' is replaced by the ideal if the 'chevalier vertueux'; and the 'preux-homme' by the 'prud'homme', who is devoted to the common good.

Le Goff writes:

"Le pouvoir seigneurial s'affaiblit vis-à- vis du pouvoir public" (royaux ou urbains). Économiquement, les chevaliers s'appauvrissent, mais les grands seigneurs se renforcent, la noblesse de fait devient la noblesse de droit."

Peasants become richer but also more indebted, and a fraction succeeds in becoming owners. In general their feudal duties are diminished. The cities are in the tow of a demographic revolution and rich merchants take power in them. But the social system is very stratified, and there is much less mobility than in the two preceding centuries. It is the time when kings become independent, both from the papacy and from the Empire, but are also themselves subjected to the state, and eventually controlled by assemblies.

The pope though, becomes himself a kind of monarch, with increasing powers and finances, though flanked with a Concilium, as a kind of Parliament. Very significant, an annual confession, i.e. self-examination, replaces the codes of sins and punishments ("qui bouleversent la psychologie et la vie sociale). New devotional cults of Mary (Ave Maria becomes a universal prayer in 1215) and the Rosarium (instituted by the Dominicans) arise. A multipilicity of 'congregations' organizes the believers, and saints proliferate. In the struggle against the Cathars (the Albigeois heresy in southern France), the Inquisition had been unleashed.

The new orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, created a century earlier, continue their expansion and are essentially urban. They were preachers using vernacular languaes, and well trained in languages and theology. Since they were mendicants, they had more time to study and were more involved in people's spiritual lives. The 13th cy is also the century of the universities, which functioned as independent corporations. They inaugurate the scholastic method, which goes beyond exegesis into argued but creative problem-solving and forms a first intelligentisia.

After describing literature (Dante) and science (Roger Bacon), Le Goff describes an emergent crisis in the period of 1270-1330. Technical progress in agriculture stalls, the expansion of arable land stops, and the enclosures start limiting the public lands of the poor peasants. Diminishing returns of the Church case an abandonment of many Gothic projects. Both the Reconquista (Spain) and the Teutonic expansion to the East, reach their limit. Christian Palestine collapses. Commercially, the West has little to offer in return for Eastern spices. After 1270, universities are hit by a series of interdictions, which stifle the intellectual movement. Le Goff stresses that the rationalism and experimentation had already reached limits as well. In 1303, a pan-European famine opens the tragic 14th century. In the 2nd half, increased economic troubles start a series of peasant and urban revolts, as well as of noblemen, announcing a crisis of feudality.

Le Goff concludes:

- "Le temps des synthèses est fini, celui du criticisme, du scepticisme, et de l'éclectisme, s'ouvre. ... Paradoxalement, la ou les seigneurs réussiront une reféodalisation pacifique, en Europe centrale et orientale, les vices de la société féodale se perpétueront. Là où ils auront déchaîné de sanglants conflits, naîtra un monde vraiment moderne." -