JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


AND now, for centuries, the Church works continuously, works strenuously, works without once tiring of asking for a truce, at the great task of leavening the mass of barbarism that inundated and swept away the old civilization, and builds upon its ruins the new civilization, the benefits of which we enjoy to-day. Her religious orders guard in their monasteries, with the most jealous solicitude, the ancient classics from the ravages of the barbarian who, not knowing their use, would have destroyed them as useless. Her clergy impose upon him the sweet yoke of the gospel; and by means of the sacraments they dispense to him, the prayers they teach him, and the moral truths they inculcate, they tame his fierce nature, initiate him into the practice of leading a settled and peaceful life, and thus lay the foundation of prosperity and happiness. They establish schools and universities to educate him. The work of refining and enlightening him was slow. Not unfrequently would this child of nature break through all bounds; but when the sea of passion that tore his breast would have subsided, he would return to religion repentant for the deeds of violence of which he was guilty, and religion would heal the wounds of his soul, encourage him in the path of virtue, and teach him to forgive, that he may be forgiven, and to respect his neighbor in person and property. Thus is religion the creator of our modern civilization. Ask not for books or authors while such a sublime work is going on. It is in itself an epic in action. Slavery was abolished;{1} woman was elevated and respected; the hand of vengeance was stayed by "the truce of God"; chivalry was based upon principles of honor and virtue; and "with the virtues of chivalry was associated a new and purer spirit of love; an inspired homage for genuine female worth, which was now revered as the acme of human excellence, and, maintained by religion itself under the image of a Virgin Mother, infused into all hearts a mysterious sense of the purity of love."{2}

The poetry of these ages tells of the spirit by which they were animated. That the Christian spirit was gaining ground, we learn from the popularity, as early as the ninth century, of songs based upon Scriptural subjects.{3} Then, also, began to grow into shape, and float among the people in fragments, those legends which, in the thirteenth century, were embodied in the Nibelungen-lied, in what Heine calls "a language of stone." It is a people's pagan tradition interwoven with Christian sentiments. You scarcely know that the personages are Christian until you come upon a Crimhild and a Brunhild quarrelling for precedence at the church door, or a Monk Ilsan with the incompatible appendages of cowl and sword -- a fact that goes to show the necessity of the stringent decrees of the Provincial Council presided over by St. Boniface, forbidding priests and monks to take up arms even against the Mussulman: and furthermore, adds the Council, "we forbid all bishops, priests, clerics, or monks to hunt in the forests with packs of hounds, sparrow-hawks, or falcons."

But the Nibelungen-lied is a poem of more than national interest. It is another expression of the same old Aryan thought that is the vital principle of the Grecian and Hindu epics, cast in a mould different from either, and tinged with the characteristic traits of the Teuton race. It is another effort to unravel the entanglement of events that arises when generosity and valor, craft and cunning and jealousy meet, act and counteract -- the golden apple of contention in this case, as well as in the Iliad and the Ramayana, being beauty.

In the thirteenth century, at the time this poem received its last touch, the poet was esteemed and patronized, and poetry wielded influence. "Believers," says Tieck, "sang of faith; lovers, of love; knights described knightly actions and battles, and loving, believing knights were their chief audience. The spring, beauty, gayety, were objects that could never tire; great duels and deeds of arms carried away every hearer, the more surely and the stronger they were painted; and as the pillars and dome of the church encircled the flock, so did religion, as the highest, encircle poetry and reality; and every heart in equal love humbled itself before her."{4} Many a grim baron, by poet's song, was moved to muster his serfs and seek the Holy Land. The entreaties of Walther von der Vogelweide assisted the tardy purpose of Frederick II. to undertake a crusade. Many a feud was hushed by the song of peace. The bishop and magistrate of Assisi are in open warfare, when St Francis passes by, singing a beautiful canticle to "his brother the sun"; his earnest, burning words pierce their hearts; their wrath subsides; the poet sings on; they can no longer resist the torrent of inspiration that gushes from his heart; they dissolve into tears and embrace.* The incident is characteristic.

{1} For a detailed account of the attitude of the Church towards slavery from the beginning, see Balmes' European Civilization, chaps. xv.-xix., and the decrees of Councils quoted in the Appendix, pp. 430-432.

{2} A. W. von Schiegel, Lectures on Dramatic Literature, p. 25.

{3} Those known to us are: The Harmony of the Evangelists, in old Saxon, published by Schmeller (Stuttgard, (1830) Krist, or Book of the Evangelists (Königsberg, 1831) The Song of the Samaritan Woman, and a poem on The Last Judgment. To this period also belongs The Legend of St. George.

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