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History of the Middle Ages
GA 51

VIII. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

20 December 1904, Berlin

We are now half-way through the Middle Ages, with the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th centuries before us. This period is important, full of significance, because in it we can study the rise of the great empires. In studying antiquity, too, we learnt of great State-dominions, but they lie so far behind us that a true, historical judgment is difficult. In the Middle Ages, however, we see what is called “empire,” evolving from apparently insignificant causes. For, if an empire is something which has a communal army, a constitution, and courts of justice—there was no such thing in Germany. As late as the 13th and 14th centuries, these regions were still divided into separate, individual territories.

Not until the reign of Henry III (1039–1056), did something occur which was instrumental in uniting the State territories; for this emperor succeeded in combining the individual tribal dukes into a kind of imperial official department. Before, they had taken their supreme position from the special characteristics of the tribe; now they had become Ministers of State—liegemen of the emperor. Gradually an equalisation of the lower vassals took place who, from freemen, became, with the Ministers, liegemen of the emperor. In process of time, they formed what is called the lower nobility, out of which the ranks of knighthood were recruited, the class which played so important a part in the Crusades. Already in the reign of Henry IV, the knights were playing a considerable part.

When Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV, only some of the German princes stood by the emperor; others were under the influence of the pope and elected different rival kings. That fighting was not important; but what is important is that, through these various conflicts, the class of knights acquired special significance. Continual feuds and wars prevailed; brutality continued to increase. The peasant class suffered much from the pillaging expeditions. The last free peasants could no longer hold out, and were swallowed up by the lords and dukes, and these again by the kings. And from this unedifying process we see arise what we know as “empire.”

In this connection there was no difference between secular and spiritual princes; but the difference was great between the secularised clergy and those in the monasteries. The clergy governed by the bishops were mostly uneducated, unable to read and write, and of boorish manners. They made profit out of their feudal tenants. The bishops busied themselves with the administration of their property and were as uneducated as the knights or peasants: nothing of what we may call culture existed. Thus the political situation made it possible to consolidate the Church ever more and more, from Rome.

It was different in the monasteries. Here much work was done, by the men and women. Profound learning was to be met with here; all education of those days proceeded entirely from the monasteries. In this matter they did not allow themselves to be made dependent on the political power of Rome, which was based on the secular ascendency of the clergy. That which emanated from Rome can be judged in quite different ways. A certain struggle had to be carried on against the brutality, against the club law, of the German tribes. Zeal for spiritual assets, the desire to spread the authority of mediaeval thought over the whole world, was what Rome wished for. The more excellent will, at any rate, came from Rome, and not from the German princes. In this sense we must grasp what Gregory VII wanted, when he demanded the celibate state, and what Nicolas II felt, when he could not endure the claim of the secular princes to exercise influence on the appointments to bishoprics: it was an opposition to the growing savagery of the German territories. Thus the wars of Henry IV against the Saxons were not only almost as bloody as the earlier wars of Charlemagne against the same race, but they were waged with a quite exceptional disregard of loyalty and good faith.

Through all these wars, the welfare of the people was more and more disorganised. Out of the storms of the times there arose a deeply religious trait, which became exaggerated to the sentimental emotionalism that I described to you in connection with the year 1000. This religious emotionalism drove the populace to constant pilgrimages to the East.

Originally the Christian religion knew nothing of clinging to any kind of dogma. It depended on the content of ideas, not on the external wording. You have seen in how free a way the Christian idea was developed in Heiland, and how, for his own countrymen, the poet transposed the life of Christ into Old Saxon conditions. He conceived the externals quite freely; they could take place in Germany, just as well as in Palestine.

Under conditions becoming more and more externalised, the outward form of faith had become a vital question for the Church. It could no longer be left to the discretion of the tribes.

As a counterpart of political power, dogma also became firm and rigid.

The princes attempted to make use of the secular power of the Church in their own interests; the episcopal sees were filled by younger brothers, who seemed, either physically of mentally, to be unfit for anything else. Quite gradually conditions altered, and the old epoch merged into the new.

And now appeared the Crusades, which we can understand psychologically from the mood that prevailed in the Middle Ages. As a result of the existing religious emotionalism, it was easy for the pope—through his own agents, such as Peter of Amiens and others—to spur men on to the Crusades. Added to this, a great number of people were now completely destitute. So it was not onl religious motives which contributed to the crusading zeal. More and more freemen had become vassals; others had been obliged to leave their property, and had become vagrants, possessing nothing but what they stood up in.

Among these wanderers, who came from all classed—even from the nobility—there were a great many with nothing to do, who were ready for any enterprise—including the Crusades.

So, we come to understand that a large number of factors were at work: religious emotionalism, rigid dogma and material oppression. How powerfully these causes worked, we see from the fact that the first Crusaded took place, half a million people travelled to the East. The first external impulse was given by the ill-treatment of the numerous pilgrims at the hands of the Saracens. Still, there were deeper causes underlying it.

Men were subjecting themselves to a rigid dogma; and those who do not understand how, in those days, men clung with heart and soul to religion, know nothing of the Middle Ages. A sermon had a kindling influence on the people, if it struck the right chord. Many thought to find salvation through joining the Crusade; others hoped to obtain forgiveness of their sins. Our modern point of view can give us no true picture of this mediaeval phenomenon; here we have to do with many intangible causes.

It is not the causes, but the effects, of the Crusades, which are of special significance. One of these effects became visible very soon, namely a much more intimate exchange between the different countries.

Hitherto, Germany in general had remained almost unknown to the Romance countries; now they were brought close to one another by comradship in arms. Moorish science, too, found a real entrance in this way. Formerly there had been Chairs in the Universities only in Spain, Italy and France; it was not until after the Crusades that they were established in Germany. Now, for the first time the influence of true Science spread from the East. Until now, this had been a completely closed book; and great cultural treasures were preserved in the writings of Greek classical authors. Actually, it was through contact with the East that Science first originated.

The indeterminate influence of religious emotionalism had assumed a definite form; it had become what is called Mediaeval Science. I should like to give you some description of this Science.

In the first place, it developed two ways of thinking, ways which became noticeable in the scientific life of the Middle Ages. The Scholastic mode of thought split into two currents: Realism and Nominalism. It is an apparently abstract subject, but for the Middle Ages, and even for later times, this conflict acquired a deep significance—a theological, as well as a secular, significance.

Scientists are divided into these two camps. Nominalists means those who believed in names; Realists are those who believe in actuality. Realists, in the sense of the Middle Ages, were those who believed in the reality of thought, in a real meaning, to the universe. They assumed that the world has a meaning and did not come into being by chance. From the standpoint of materialism this may seem a foolish point of view; but one who does not regard this thought as an empty flight of fancy, must admit that the idea of a cosmic law, which men seek and find within themselves, has significance also for the world.

The Nominalists were those who did not believe that thoughts are anything real, who saw therein only names given at random, things of no significance. All those who think to see, in what human thinking achieves, mere blind fortuity—those like Kent, and Schopenhauer, who conceives the world as idea—form an outgrowth from mediaeval nominalism.

These currents divided the army of monks into two camps. It is noteworthy that in such weighty matters, the Church exercises no compulsion, and, so far as learning is concerned, calmly affirms that the question may be raised whether the divine Trinity is not also only a name—and that consequently nothing is real. Nevertheless, you see from this the wide freedom of the mediaeval Church. Not until the end of this period do the persecutions of heretics begin; and it is significant that the first inquisitor in Germany, Conrad of Marburg, was assassinated by the populace. It was then that beliefs began to be persecuted. This is an important change of front. How free ecclesiastical thinking had been before, you can see from the great teacher and thinker, Albertus Magnus (1193–1280). He was a man conspicuous for learning, delving deeply into every kind of science; he had mastered ecclesiastical scholarship, Arabian knowledge, natural history and physics. The people regarded him as a magician. Learning and popular superstition exploited by the secularises clergy, jostled each other severely.

Now the cities come to the fore. Here we see the rise of a powerful citizen class. Manufactures flourish, and guilds are formed. NO longer need the artisan stop beneath the oppression of the lords of the manor, as the serfs were wont to do. Soon kings and princes form alliances with the mediaeval cities.

The Emperor Frederic Barbarosa fought for years with the cities of North Italy. A strong feeling of freedom and a sense of definite personal value developed among the citizens. Thus, on the one hand, we see, in the country, religious conviction together with increasing external oppression; and, in the towns, a free citizenship. The citizens were bound, it is true, by a strictly regulated guild organisation; yet that in itself contributed to the freedom of the cities, whereas life in the country was witherin away under club law and brutality. After the Crusades the knights lapsed into an empty court life, leading nowhere. They occupied themselves with feuds, tournaments and passages of arms; their manners became more and more rough. As time went on, the pursuit of love, in particular, assumed most ridiculous forms. Knights who could write poems composed odes to their lady loves; others paid court to them in different ways. Great ignorance was combined with this court life. The men were almost all uneducated; the woman had to be able to read and write. The women occupied a peculiar position; on the one hand, they were idolised; on the other, they were enslaved. A kind of barbarism prevailed, and unbridled life, wherein the ravishing of women was included in the customs of hospitality.

Meanwhile, that which was later called culture, was growing up in the cities. What was happening there, was bound to happen; for new contingencies arise, wherever it is possible to construct in freedom. Real spiritual progress takes place when the industrial life is not cramped. Not that spiritual progress springs from material progress, but true spiritual progress is found where industrial life is not oppressed and confined.

Thus, at this epoch, a rich cultural life made its appearance in the cities; nearly all that has come to us in works of art, in architecture and discoveries, we owe to this period of city culture. It was from such a rich Italian city culture that Dante rose. In Germany, too, we find important intellectual achievements under this influence. True, the first notable poets, such as Wolfram von Eshenbach, Gottfried von Stassburg, etc., were knights; but without the restraint offered by the cities, these achievements would not have been possible. At the same time, when the breath of freedom was blowing in the cities, University life also sprang up. At first, when a German wished to find higher knowledge, he had to go to Italy, France, etc. Now there arose in Germany itself, the first Universities: Prague (1348), Vienna (1365), Heidelberg (1386). Freedom dispersed the mediaeval gloom.

The secularised clergy were entangled, like the princes, in wars of self-interest; and the Church had assumed this characteristic. Following the course of these developments, one realises that the new spiritual current, German mysticism, could only arise in this way—in stark opposition to the secularised clergy. This movement spread particularly along the Rhine, in Cologne, Strassburg and South Germany. To it belonged men like Eckhardt, Tauler, Suso, etc. They had made themselves independent of the Roman clergy, and were therefore declared heretics; life was made difficult for them in every way. A spiritual trait runs through their writings. They had withdrawn into their human heart, in order to come to a clear understanding of themselves. These independent monks spoke to the heart of the people in an extraordinarily edifying way, in a language unintelligible today, unless one reads the writings of a Master Eckhardt or Tauler. The beauty of the language was implanted in it by mysticism, and the contemporary translations far excelled the later ones in beauty of language. This development of the German language was sharply interrupted by Luther, who produced the German Bible in the most pedantic philistine idiom of the period, out of which the modern High German has grown. All this took place in opposition to the clergy. What was wished for at that time has, in many departments, not yet been reached. It es always asserted that Luther's translation of the Bible represented something unprecedented, but you see that far greater heights had been reached before.

We are nearing the time of the Renaissance. The consolidation of relationships, which had been achieved, consisted essentially in ever larger territories coming under the authority of the ruling princes. Also, a considerable part of the mediaeval freedom of the cities was absorbed into the constitution of the great States. Much is said nowadays of the despotism which prevailed at that time. Freedom has, of course, its seamy side; and it is not freedom if a man's freewill is limited by the freewill of others.

In the middle of this mediaeval period, there was opposition in the Universities to the arbitrariness of those in secular power, just as, later, perhaps Fichte alone voiced it. The documents of the mediaeval Universities preserve for us the words of the free spirits of those days. Today, not only the secular government, but Science, too, is State-controlled.

I have sketched this epoch without allotting light and shade, according to the catchwords of the present day. I tried to dwell on the points where real progress was made. If we wish to be free, we must have a heart for those who have striven for freedom before us. We must understand that other ages, too, produced men who set store by freedom.

History is the story of man's evolution to freedom; and in order to understand it we must study the culminating points of all freedom.