Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


The most interesting social movement in our time is undoubtedly that of the arts and crafts. Its central idea is to lift the workmen up above the mere machine that he is likely to become, as the result of the monotonous occupation at some trade that requires him only to do a constantly repeated series of acts, or direct one little portion of machinery and so kills the soul in him. Of course, the other idea that a generation of workmen shall be created, who will be able to make beautiful things for the use of the household as well as the adornment of the house is another principal purpose. Too many people have mistaken this entirely secondary aim of the movement for its primary end. It is because of the effect upon the workman himself of the effort to use his intellect in the designing, his taste in the arrangement, and his artisan skill for the execution of beautiful things, that the arts and crafts movement has its appeal to the generality of mankind.

The success of the movement promises to do more to solve social problems than all the socialistic agitation that is at present causing so much dismay in some quarters and raising so many hopes that are destined to be disappointed in the hearts of the laboring classes. The solution of the problem of social unrest is to be found, not in creating new wants for people and giving them additional wages that will still further stimulate their desire to have many things that will continue to be in spite of increased wages beyond their means, but rather to give them such an interest in their life work that their principal source of pleasure is to be found in their occupation. Unfortunately work has come to be looked upon as a drudgery and as men must spend the greater portion of their lives, at least the vast majority of them must, in doing something that will enable them to make a living, it is clear that unhappiness and discontent will still continue. Blessed is the man who has found his work, blessed is the man to whom his work appeals with so much interest that he goes from it with a longing to be able to finish what he has been at, and comes back to it with a prospect that now he shall be able to accomplish what time and perhaps fatigue would not allow him to proceed with the day before.

This is the best feature of the promises held out by the arts and crafts movement, that men shall be interested in the work they do. This may seem to some people an unrealizable idea and a poetic aspiration rather than a possible actuality. A little study of what was accomplished in this line during the Thirteenth Century, will surely prove even to the most skeptical how much of success is capable of being realized in this matter. The men who worked around the Cathedrals were given opportunities to express themselves and the best that was in them as no class of workmen before or since have ever had the opportunity. Every single portion of the Cathedral was to be made as beautiful as the mind of man could conceive, his taste could plan and his hands could achieve. As a consequence the carpenter had the chance to express himself in the woodwork, the village blacksmith the opportunity to display his skill in such small ironwork as the hinges or the latch for the door and every workman felt called upon to do the best that was in him.

It is easy to understand under these circumstances with what interest the men must have applied themselves to their tasks. They were, as a rule, the designers as well as the executors of the work assigned them. They planned and executed in the rough and tried, then modified and adapted, until finally as we know of most of the Cathedrals, their finished product was as nearly perfect in most particulars as it is ordinarily given to man to achieve. Their aim above all was to make such a combination of utility with beauty of line yet simplicity of finish, as would make their work worthy counterparts of all the other portions of the Cathedral. The sense of competition must have stirred men to the very depths of their souls and yet it was not the heartless rivalry that crushes when it succeeds, but the inspiring emulation that makes one do as well as or better than others, though not necessarily in such a way as to belittle others' efforts by contrast or humble them by triumph. In these old medieval days England used to be called Merrie England and it is easy to understand that workmen would be profoundly merry at heart, when they had the consciousness of accomplishing such good work. Men must have almost tardily quitted their labor in the evening while they hoped and strove te accomplish something that would be worthy of the magnificent building in which so many of their fellow workmen were achieving triumphs of handicraftsmanship. Each went home to rest for the night, but also to dream over what he might be able to do and awoke in the morning with the thought that possibly to-day would see some noteworthy result. This represents the ideal of the workman's life. He has an interest quite apart from the mere making of money. The picture of the modern workman by contrast looks vain and sordid. The vast majority of our workmen labor merely because they must make enough money to-day, in order that they may be able to buy rood enough so as to get strength to work to-morrow. Of interest there is very little. Day after day there is the task of providing for self and others. Only this and nothing more. Is it any wonder that there should be social unrest and discontentment? How can workmen be merry unless with the artificial stimulus of strong drink, when there is nothing for them to look forward to except days and weeks and years of labor succeeding one another remorselessly, and with no surcease until Nature puts in her effective demand for rest, or the inevitable end comes.

It would be idle to say that these men who knew how to make the beautiful things for these cathedrals were not conscious of the perfection of the work that they were accomplishing. The very fact that each in his own line was achieving such beautiful results must have stamped him as thoroughly capable of appreciating the work of others. The source of pleasure that there must have been therefore, in some twenty towns in England alone, to see their Cathedral approaching completion, must have been of itself a joy far beyond anything we can imagine as possible for the workmen of the present day. The interest in it was supreme and was only heightened by the fact that it was being done by relatives and friends and brother workmen, even though they might be rivals, and that whatever was done was redounding first to the glory of the Lord to whom they turned with so much confidence in these ages of faith, and secondly, and there was scarcely less satisfaction in the thought, to the reputation of their native town and their fellow-townsmen.

This is the feature of the life of the lower classes in the Thirteenth Century which most deserves to be studied in our time. We hear much of people being kept in ignorance and in servitude. Men who talk this way know nothing at all of the lives of the towns of the Middle Ages and are able to appreciate not even in the slightest degree the wonderful system ot education, that made life so much fuller of possibilities for intellectual development for all classes and for happiness in life, than any other period of which we know. This phase of the Thirteenth Century is at once the most interesting, the most significant for future generations, and the most important in its lessons for all time.

We have been following up thus far the exemplification in the Thirteenth Century of John Ruskin's saying, that if you wish to get at the real significance of the achievements of a period in history, you must read the book of its deeds, the book of its arts and the book of its words. We have been turning over a few of the pages of the book of the deeds of the Thirteenth Century in studying the history of the establishment of the universities and of the method and content of university teaching. After all the only deeds that ought to count in the history of mankind are those that are done for men -- that have accomplished something for the uplift of mankind. History is unfortunately occupied with deeds of many other kinds, and it is perhaps the saddest blot on our modern education, that it is mainly the history of deeds that have been destructive of man, of human happiness and in only too many cases of human rights and human liberties, that are supposed to be most worthy of the study of the rising generation. History as written for schools is to a great extent a satire on efforts for social progress.

We shall continue the study of the book of the deeds of the Thirteenth Century and its most interesting and important chapter, that of the education of the masses. We shall find in what was accomplished in educating the people of the Thirteenth Century, the model of the form of education which in spite of our self-complacency does not exist, but must come in our time, if our education is to fulfil its real purpose. Perhaps the most interesting phase of this question of the education of the masses will be the fact that in studying this book of the deeds, we shall have also to study once more the book of the arts of the Thirteenth Century. All their best accomplishment was linked with achievement and progress in art. Yet it was from the masses that the large number of artist-artisans of workmen with the true artistic spirit came, who in this time in nearly every part of Europe, created masterpieces of art in every department which have since been the admiration of the world.

We may say at once that the opportunity for the education of the masses was furnished in connection with the Cathedrals. In the light of what we read in these great stone books, it is a constant source of surprise that the Church should be said to have been opposed to education. Reinach in his Story of Art throughout the Ages says:

"The Church was not only rich and powerful in the Middle Ages; it dominated and directed all the manifestations of human activity. There was practically no art but the art it encouraged, the art it needed to construct and adorn its buildings, carve its ivories and its reliquaries, and paint its glass and its missals. Foremost among the arts it fostered was architecture, which never played so important a part in any other society. Even now, when we enter a Romanesque or Gothic church, we are impressed by the might of that vast force of which it is the manifestation, a force which shaped the destinies of Europe for a thousand years."

It was as the result of this demand for art that the technical schools naturally developed around the Cathedrals. To take the example of England alone, during the Thirteenth Century some twenty cathedrals were erected in various parts of the country. Most of these were built in what we would now call small towns, indeed some of them would be considered scarcely more than villages. There were no large cities, in praise be it spoken, during the Thirteenth Century, and it must not be forgotten that the whole population of England at the beginning of the century was scarcely more than two millions of people and did not reach three millions even at the end of it. Every rood of ground did not perhaps maintain its man, but every part of England had its quota of population so that there could not be many crowded centers. Even London probably at no time during the century had more than twenty-five thousand inhabitants and Oxford during the palmiest days ot the University was perhaps the most populous place in the land.

There was a rivalry in the building of Cathedrals, and as the main portion of the buildings were erected in the short space of a single century, a feeling of intense competition was rife so that there was very little possibility of procuring workmen from other towns. Each town had to create not only its cathedral but the workmen who would finish it in all its details. When we consider that a Cathedral like Salisbury was practically completed in the short space of about twenty-five years, it becomes extremely difficult to understand just how this little town succeeded in apparently accomplishing the impossible. It has often been said that artists cannot be obtained merely because of a demand for them and that they are the slow creation of rather capricious nature. It is only another way of saying that the artist is born, not made. Nature then must have been in a particularly fruitful mood and tense during the Thirteenth Century, for there is no doubt at all of the wonderful artistic beauty of the details of these Gothic cathedrals. While nature's beneficence meant much, however, the training ot the century probably meant even more and the special form of popular education which developed well deserves the attention of all other generations.

It may be said at once that education in our sense of teaching everybody to read and write there was none. There were more students at the universities to the number of the population than in the Twentieth Century as we have seen, but people who were not to devote themselves in after life to book learning, were not burdened with acquisitions of doubtful benefit, which might provide stores of useless information for them, or enable them to while away hours of precious time reading trash, or make them conceited with the thought that because they had absorbed some of the opinions of others on things in general, they had a right to judge of most things under the sun and a few other things besides. The circulation of our newspapers and the records of the books in demand at our libraries, show how much a knowledge of reading means for most of our population. Popular education of this kind may, and does benefit a few, but it works harm to a great many.

Of education in the sense of training the faculties so that the individual might express whatever was in him and especially that he might bring out what was best in him, there was much. Take again the example of England. There was considerably less in population than there is in Greater New York at the present time, yet there was some twenty places altogether in which they were building Cathedrals during this century, that would be monuments of artistic impulse and accomplishment for all future time. Any city in this country would be proud to have any one of these English cathedrals of the Thirteenth Century as the expression of its taste and power to execute. We have tried to imitate them more or less in many places. In order to accomplish our purpose in this matter, though, we deliberately did everything on a much smaller and less ambitious scale than the people of the small English towns of seven centuries ago, and our results do not bear comparison for a moment with theirs, we had to appeal to other parts of the country and even to Europe for architects and designers, and even had to secure the finished products of art from distant places. This too, in spite of the fact that we are seven centuries later and that our education is supposed to be developed to a high extent. If there were twenty places of instruction in Greater New York where architects and artist workers in iron and glass, and metal of all kinds, and wood and stone, were being trained to become such finished artisans as were to be found in twenty different little towns of England in the Thirteenth Century, we should be sure that our manual training schools and our architectural departments of universities and schools of design were wonderfully successful.

When we find this to be true of the England of the Thirteenth Century we can conclude that somehow better opportunities for art education must have been supplied in those times than in our own, and though we do not find the mention or records of formal schools, we must look patiently for the methods of instruction that enabled these generations to accomplish so much. Needless to say such attainments do not come spontaneously in a large number of people, but must be carefully fostered and are the result of that greatest factor in education, environment. It will not be hard to find where the ambitious youth of England even of the workman class found opportunities for technical education of the highest character in these little towns. This was never merely theoretic, though, it was sufficiently grounded in principle to enable men to. solve problems in architecture and engineering, in decorations and artistic arrangement, such as are still sources of anxiety for modern students of these questions.

To take but a single example, it will be readily appreciated that the consideration of the guilds of builders of the Cathedrals as constituting a great technical school, is marvelously emphasized by certain recent observations with regard to architects' and builders' methods in the Cathedrals. There is a passage in Evelyn's Diary in which he describes certain corrections that were introduced into Old St. Paul's Cathedral, London (the Gothic edifice predecessor of the present classical structure), in order to remove appearances of dissymmetry and certain seeming mistakes of construction. This passage was always so misunderstood that editors usually considered it to be defective in some way and as the classical critics always fall back on an imperfect text for insoluble difficulties, so somehow Evelyn was considered as either not having understood what he intended to say, or else the printer failed to put in all the words that he wrote. It was the modern readers, however, not Evelyn nor his printer who were mistaken. Mr. Goodyear of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences has proved by a series of photographs and carefully made observations, that many of the old Gothic Cathedrals have incorporated into them by their builders, optical corrections which correspond to those made by the Greeks in their building in the classical period, which have been the subject of so much admiration to the moderns.

The medieval architects and builders knew nothing of these classical architectural refinements. They learned for themselves by actual experience the necessity for making such optical corrections and then introduced them so carefully, that it is not until the last decade or so that their presence has been realized. It is only by an educational tradition of the greatest value that the use of such a refinement could become as general as Prolessor Goodyear has found it to be. Besides the practical work then, and the actual exercise of craftsmanship and of design which the apprentices obtained from the guild, there was evidently a body of very definite technical information conveyed to them, or at least to certain chosen spirits among them, which carried on precious traditions from place to place. This same state of affairs must of course have existed with regard to stained glass work, the making of bells and especially the finer work in the precious metals. Practical metallurgy must have been studied quite as faithfully as in any modern technical school, at least so far as its practical purposes and application were concerned. Here we have the secret of the technical schools revealed.

It is extremely interesting to study the details of the very practical organization by which this great educational movement in the arts and crafts was brought about. It was due entirely to the trades' and merchants' guilds of the time. In the cathedral towns the trades' guilds preponderated in influence. There gathered around each of these cathedrals during the years when work was most active, numbers of workmen engaged at various occupations requiring mechanical skill and long practice at their trade. These workmen were all affiliated with one another and they were gradually organized into trades' unions that had a certain independent existence. There was the guild of the stone workers; the guild of the metal workers -- in some places divided into a guild of iron workers and a guild of gold workers, or workers in precious metals; there was the guild of the wood workers and then of the various other forms of occupation connected with the supplying of finished or unfinished materials for the cathedral. In association with these were established guilds of tailors, bakers, butchers, all affiliated in a merchants' guild which maintained the rights of its members as weal as the artisans' guilds. Some idea of the number and variety of these can be obtained from the list given in the chapter on the Origin of the Drama.

These were the workmen who not only accomplished such brilliant results in art work, but also succeeded in training other workmen so admirably for every line of artistic endeavor.

It is somewhat difficult to understand just how a village carpenter did wood-carving of so exquisite a design and such artistic finish of detail that it has remained a subject of admiration for centuries. It is quite as difficult to understand how one of the village blacksmiths of the time made a handsome gate, that has been the constant admiration of posterity ever since, or designed huge hinges for doors that artists delight to copy, or locks and latches and bolts that are transported to our museums to be looked at with interest, not only because they are antiques, but for the wonderful combination of the beautiful and the useful which they illustrate. We are assured, however, by the Rev. Augustus Jessop, that he has seen in the archives of the old English parishes, some of the receipts for the bills of these village workmen as we would term them, for the making of these beautiful specimens of arts and crafts.

The surprise grows greater when we realize that these beautiful objects were made not alone in one place or even in a few places, but in nearly every town of any size in England and France and Italy and Germany and Spain at various times during the Thirteenth Century, and that at any time a town of considerably less than ten thousand inhabitants seemed to be able to obtain among its own inhabitants, men who could make such works of art not as copies nor in servile imitation of others, but with original ideas of their own, and make them in such perfection that in many cases they have remained the models for future workmen for many centuries. Even the bells for the cathedrals seem to have keen cast in practically all cases in the little town in which they were to be used. It may be added that these bells of the Thirteenth Century represent the highest advances in bell making that have ever been attained and that their form and composition have simply been imitated over and over again since that time. Even the finer precious metal work such as chalices and the various sacred vessels and objects used in the church services, were not obtained from a distance but were made at home.

An article that appeared a few years ago in The Craftsman (Syracuse, N. Y.), a magazine published in the interests of the Arts and Crafts movement, called attention to how much more beautifully the Thirteenth Century workman in the precious metals accomplished his artistic purpose than does the corresponding workman of the present day. A definite comparison was made between some typical chalices of the Thirteenth Century and some prize cups which were made without regard to cost, as rewards for yachting and other competitions in the Twentieth Century. The artist workman of the olden time knew how to combine the beautiful with the useful, to use decoration just enough not to offend good taste, to make the lines of his work eminently artistic and in general to turn out a fine work of art. The modern prize cup is usually made by one of the large firms engaged in such work who employ special designers for the purpose, such designs ordinarily passing through the trained hands of a series of critics before being accepted, and only after this are turned over to the modern skilled workmen to be executed in metal. All this ought to assure the more artistic results; that they do not according to the writer in The Craftsman, demonstrates how much such success is a matter of men and of individual taste rather than of method. We have already called attention to the fact that in needlework and in other arts connected with the provision of church ornaments and garments, the success of the Thirteenth Century workers was quite as great. The Cope of Ascoli considered by experts to be one of the most beautiful bits of needlework ever made is an example of this. Many other examples are to be found in the treasuries of churches and monasteries, in spite of the ravages of time and only too often of intolerant and unfortunate destruction by so-called reformers, who could see no beauty in even the most beautiful things if they ran counter to certain of their religious prejudices.

The training necessary for the production of such beautiful objects of handicraftsmanship was obtained through the guilds themselves. The boy in the small town who thought that he had a liking for a certain trade or craft was received as an apprentice in it. If during the course of a year or more he demonstrated his aptness for his chosen craft, be was allowed fo continue his labor of assisting the workmen in various ways, and indeed very early in the history of the guilds was bound over to some particular workman, who usually supplied him with board and clothing, though with no other remuneration during his years of apprenticeship. After four or five years, always, however, with the understanding that he had shown a definite talent for his chosen trade, he was accepted among the workmen of the lowest grade, the journeymen, who usually went traveling in order to perfect their knowledge of the various methods by which their craft maintained itself and the standard of its workmanship in the different parts of the country.

During these three years of "journeying" a striking development was likely to take place in the mind of the ambitious young workman. His wanderjahre came just at the most susceptible period, sometime between 17 and 25, they continued for three years or more, and the young workman if at all ambitious was likely to see many men and methods and know much of the cities and towns of his country before he returned to his native place. Sometimes these craft-wanderings took him even into France, where he learned methods and secrets so different to those at home.

After these years if he wished to settle down in his native town or in some other, having brought evidence of the accomplishment of his apprenticeship and then of his years as a journeyman, he became an applicant for full membership in the guild to which his years of training had been devoted. He was not admitted, however, until he had presented to the officials of the organization a piece of work showing his skill. This might be only a hinge, or a lock for a door, but on the other hand it might be a design for an important window or a delicate piece of wood or stone-carving. If it was considered worthy of the standard of workmanship of the guild it was declared to be a masterpiece. This is where the fine old English word masterpiece comes from. The workman was then admitted as a master workman and became a full member of the guild.

This membership carried with it a number of other rights besides that of permission to work as a master-workman at full wages whenever the guild was employed. Guilds had certain privileges conferred on them by the towns in which they lived, by the nobles for whom they worked and the ecclesiastical auhorities on whose various church structures they were employed. At the beginning of the Thirteenth Century at least, feudal ideas prevailed to such an extent that no one was supposed to enjoy any rights or privileges except those which had been conferred on him by some authority. Besides the workmen of the same guild were bound together by ties, so that any injury inflicted on one of them was considered to be done to the whole body. When human rights were much less recognized than has come to be the case since, this constituted an important source of protection against many forms of injury and infringement of rights.

Besides the privileges, however, the guild possessed certain other decided advantages which made membership desirable, even though it involved the fulfilment of certain duties. In the various towns in England, after the introduction during the Thirteenth Century of the practice of having mystery plays in the various towns, the guild claimed and obtained the privilege ot giving these at various times during the year. The guild of the goldsmiths would give the performance of one portion of the Old Testament; the guild of the tailors another; the guild of the butchers and so on for each of the trades and crafts still another, so that during the year a whole cycle of the mysteries of the Christian religion in type and in reality were exhibited to the people of each region. Almost needless to say, on such festive occasions, for the plays were given on important feast days, the people from the countryside flocked in to see them and the influence was widespread. What was most important, however, was the influence on those who took part in the plays, of such intimate contact for a prolonged period with the simplicity of style, the sublimity of thought, the concentration of purpose and the effectiveness of expression of the Scriptures and the Scripture narratives even in their dramatized form.

The fact of actually taking part in these performances meant ever so much more than merely viewing them as an outsider. It is doubtless to this intimate relationship with the great truths of Christianity that the profound devotion so characteristic of the accomplishments of the arts and crafts, during the Thirteenth Century, must be to no little extent attributed. Their beautiful work could only have come from men of profoundest faith, but also it could not have come from those who were ignorant of the basis of what they accepted on faith. In other words, there was a mental training with regard to some of the sublimest truths of life and its significance, the creation of a Christian philosophy of life, that made the workman see clearly the great truths of religion and so be able to illustrate them by his handiwork. Education of a higher order than this has never been conceived of, and the very lack of tedious formality in it only made it all the more effectual in action.

Other duties were involved in membership in the guild. All the members were bound to attend church services reguiarly and to perform what is known as their religious duties at periodic intervals, that is, the rule of the guild required them to go to mass on Sundays and holy days, to abstain from manual labor on such days unless there was absolute necessity for it, and to go to confession and communion several times a year. Besides they were bound to contribute to the support of such of their fellow-members as were sick and unable to work or as had been injured. A very interesting phase of this duty toward sick members existed at least in some parts of the country. A workman was supposed to pass one night at certain intervals on his turn, in helping to nurse a fellow-workman who was seriously hurt or who was very ill. It was considered that the family were quite worn out enough with the care of the sick man during the day, and so one of his brother guildsmen came to relieve them of this duty at night. It is a custom that is still maintained in certain country places but which of course has passed out of use entirely in our unsympathetic city life. In a word, there was a thorough education not only in the life work that made for wages and family support, but also in those precious social duties that make for happiness and contentment in life.

<< ======= >>