Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


Three books were more read than any others during the Thirteenth Century, that is, of course, apart from Holy Scriptures, which contrary to the usually accepted notion in this matter, were frequently the subject of study and of almost. daily contact in one way or another by all classes of people. These three books were, Reynard the Fox, that is the series of stories of the animals in which they are used as a cloak for a satire upon man and his ways, called often the Animal Epic; the Golden Legend, which impressed Longfellow so much that he spent many years making what he hoped might prove for the modern world a bit of the self-revelation that this wonderful old medieval book has been for its own and subsequent generations; and, finally, the Romance of the Rose, probably the most read book during the Thirteenth and Fourteenth and most of the Fifteenth centuries in all the countries of Europe. Its popularity can be well appreciated from the fact that, though Chaucer was much read, there are more than three times as many manuscript copies of The Romance of the Rose in existence as of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and it was one of the earliest books to see the light in print.{1}

It has become the fashion in recent years, to take the pains from time to time to find out which are the most read books. The criterion of worth thus set up is not very valuable, for unfortunately for the increase in readers, there has not come a corresponding demand for the best books nor for solid literature. The fact that a book has been the best seller, or the most read for a time, usually stamps it at once as trivial or at most as being of quite momentary interest and not at all likely to endure. It is all the more interesting to find then, that these three most read books of the Thirteenth Century, have not only more than merely academic interest at the present time, but that they are literature in the best sense of the word. They have always been not only a means of helping people to pass the time, the sad office to which the generality of books has been reduced in our time, but a source of inspiration for literary men in many generations since they first became popular.

The story of Reynard the Fox is one of the most profoundly humorous books that was ever written. Its satire was aimed at its own time yet it is never for a moment antiquated for the modern reader. At a time when, owing to the imperfect development of personal rights, it would have been extremely dangerous to satirize as the author does very freely, the rulers, the judges, the nobility, the ecclesiastical authorities and churchmen, and practically all classes of society, the writer, whose name has, unfortunately for the completeness of literary history, not come down to us, succeeded in painting all the foibles of men and pointing out all the differences there are between men's pretensions and their actual accomplishments. All the methods by which the cunning scoundrel could escape justice are exploited. The various modes of escaping punishment by direct and indirect bribery, by pretended repentance and reformation, by cunning appeal to the selfishness of judges, are revealed with the fidelity to detail of a modern muckraker; yet, all of it with a humanly humorous quality which, while it takes away nothing from the completeness of the exposure, removes most of the bitterness that probably would have made the satire fail of its purpose. While every class in the community of the time comes in for satirical allusions, that give us a better idea of how closely the men and the women of the time resembled those of our own, than is to be found in any other single literary work that has been preserved for us from this century, or, indeed, any other, the series of stories seemed to be scarcely more than a collection of fables for children, and probably was read quite unsuspectingly by those who are so unmercifully satirized in it, though doubtless, as is usually noted in such cases, each one may have applied the satire of the story as he saw it to his neighbor and not to himself.

A recent editor has said very well of Reynard the Fox that it is one of the most universal of books in its interest for all classes. Critics have at all times been ready to praise and few if any have found fault. It is one of the books that answers well to what Cardinal Newman declared to be at least the accidental definition of a classic; it pleases in childhood, in youth, in middle age and even in declining years. It is because of the eternal verity of the humanity in the book, that with so much truth Froude writing of Reynard can say: "It is not addressed to a passing mode of folly or of profligacy, but it touches the perennial nature of mankind, laying bare our own sympathies, and tastes, and weaknesses, with as keen and true an edge as when the living world of the old Suabian poet winced under its earliest utterance."

The writer who traced the portraits must be counted one of the great observers of all time. As is the case with so many creative artists of the Thirteenth Century, though this is truer elsewhere than in literature, the author is not known. Perhaps he thought it safer to shroud his identity in friendly obscurity, rather than expose himself to the risks the finding of supposed keys to his satire might occasion. Too much credit must not be given to this explanation, however, though some writers have made material out of it to exploit Church intolerance, which the conditions do not justify. We are not sure who wrote the Arthur Legends, we do not know the author of the Cid, even all-pervasive German scholarship has not settled the problem of the writer of the Nibelungen, and the authorship of the Dies Irae is in doubt, though all of these would be sources ot honor and praise rather than danger. Authors had evidently not as yet become sophisticated to the extent of seeking immortality for their works. They even seem to have been indifferent as to whether their names were associated with them or not. Enough for them apparently to have had the satisfaction of doing, all else seemed futile.

The original of Reynard the Fox was probably written in the Netherlands, though it may be somewhat difficult for the modern mind to associate so much of wit acd humor with the Dutchmen of the Middle Ages. It arose there about the time that the Cid came into vogue in Spain, the Arthur Legends were being put into shape in England, and the Nibelungen reaching its ultimate form in Germany. Reynard thus fills up the geographical chart of contemporary literary effort for the' Thirteenth Century, since France and Italy come in for their share in other forms of literature, and no country is missing from the story of successful, enduring accomplishment in letters. It was written from so close to the heart of Nature, that it makes a most interesting gift book even for the Twentieth Century child, and yet will be read with probably even more pleasure by the parents. With good reason another recent editor has thus summed up the catholicity of its appeal to all. generations:

"This book belongs to the rare class which is equally delightful to children and to their elders. In this regard it may be compared to 'Gulliver's Travels,' 'Don Quixote' and 'Pilgrim's Progress.' For wit and shrewd satire and for pure drollery both in situations and descriptions, it is unsurpassed. The animals are not men dressed up in the skin of beasts, but are throughout true to their characters, and are not only strongly realized but consistently drawn, albeit in so simple and captivating a way that the subtle art of the narrator is quite hidden, and one is aware only of reading an absorbingly interesting and witty tale." To have a place beside Gulliver, the old Spanish Knight and Christian, shows the estimation in which the book is held by those who are best acquainted with it.

The work is probably best known through the version of it which has come to us from the greatest of German poets, Goethe, whose Reineke Fuchs has perhaps had more sympathetic readers and a wider audience than any other of Goethe's works. The very fact that so deeply intellectual a literary man should have considered it worth his while to devote his time to making a modern version of it, shows not only the estimation in which he held it, but also affords excellent testimony to its worth as literature, for Goethe, unlike most poets, was a fine literary critic, and one who above all knew the reasons for the esthetic faith that was in him. Animal stories in every age, however, have been imitations of it much more than is usually imagined. While the author probably obtained the hint for his work from some of the old-time fables as they came to him by tradition, though we have no reason to think that AEsop was familiar to him and many for thinking the Greek fabulist was not, he added so much to this simple literary mode, transformed it so thoroughly from child's literature to world literature, that the main merit of modern animal stories must be attributed to him. Uncle Remus and the many compilations of this kind that have been popular in our own generation, owe much more to the animal Epic than might be thought possible by one not familiar with the original Thirteenth Century work.

Every language has a translation of the Animal Epic and most of the generations since have been interested and amused by the quaint conceits, which enable the author to picture so undisguisedly, men and women under animal garb. It discloses better than any other specimen of the literature of the time that men and women do not change even in the course of centuries, and that in the heart of the Middle Ages a wise observer could see the foibles of humanity just as they exist at the present time. Any one who thinks that evolution after seven centuries should have changed men somewhat in their ethical aspects, at least, made their aspirations higher and their tendencies less commonplace, not to say less degenerative, should read one of the old versions of Reynard the Fox and be convinced that men and women in the Thirteenth Century were quite the same as we are familiar with them at the present moment.

The second of the most read books of the century is the famous Legenda Aurea or, as it has been called in English, the Golden Legend, written by Jacobus de Voragine, the distinguished Dominican preacher and writer (born during the first half of the Thirteenth Century, died just at its close), who, after rising to the higher grades in his own order, became the Archbishop of Genoa. His work at once sprang into popular favor and continued to be perhaps the most widely read book, with the exception of the Holy Scriptures, during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries. It was one of the earliest books printed in Italy, the first edition appearing about 1570, and it is evident that it was considered that its widespread popularity would not only reimburse the publisher, but would help the nascent art of printing by bringing it to the attention of a great many people. Its subject is very different from that of the modern most read books; librarians do not often have to supply lives of Saints nowadays, though some similarities of material with that of books now much in demand help to account for its vogue.

Jacobus de Voragine's work consisted of the lives of the greater Saints of the Church since the time of Christ, and detailed especially the wonderful things that happened in their lives, some of which of course were mythical and all of them. containing marvelous stories. This gave prominence to many legends that have continued to maintain their hold upon the popular imagination ever since. With all this adventitious interest, however, the book contained a solid fund of information with regard to the lives of the Saints, and besides it taught the precious lessons of unselfishness and the care for others of the men who had come to be greeted by the title of Saint. The work must have done not a little to stir up the faith, enliven the charity, and build up the characters of the people of the time, and certainly has fewer objections than most popular reading at any period of the world's history. For young folks the wonderful legends afforded excellent and absolutely innocuous exercise of the functions of the imagination quite as well as our own modern wonder books or fairy tales, while the stories themselves presented many descriptive portions out of which subjects for decorative purposes could readily be obtained. It must be set down as another typical distinction of the Thirteenth Century and an addition to its greatness, that it should have made the Golden Legend popular and thus preserved it for future generations, who became deeply interested in it, as in most of the other precious heritages they received from this great original century.

The third of the most read books of the century, The Romance of the Rose, is not so well known except by scholars. as is the Animal Epic or perhaps even the Golden Legend. Anyone who wants to understand the burden of the time, however, and who wishes to put himself in the mood and the tense to comprehend not only the other literature of the era, and in this must be included even Dante, but also the social, educational, and even scientific movements of the period, must become familiar with it. It has been well said that a knowledge and study of the three most read books of the century, those which we have named, will afford a far clearer insight into the daily life and the spirit working within the people for whom they were written, than the annals of the wars or political struggles that were waged during the same period between kings and nobles. For this clearer insight a knowledge of the Romance of the Rose is more important than of the others. It provides a better introduction to the customs and habits, the manners of thought and of action, the literary and educational interests of the people of the Thirteenth Century, than any mere history, however detailed, could. In this respect it resembles Homer who, as Froude declares, has given us a better idea of Greek life than a whole encyclopedia of classified information would have done. The intimate life stories of no other periods in history are so well illustrated, nor so readily to be comprehended, as those of Homer and the authors of the medieval Romaunt.

The Romance of the Rose continued to be for more than two centuries the most read book in Europe. Every one with any pretense to scholarship or to literary taste in any European country considered it necessary to be familiar with it, and without exaggeration what Lowell once declared with regard to Don Quixote, that it would be considered a mark of lack of culture to miss a reference to it in any country in Europe, might well have been repeated during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries of the Romance of the Rose. It has in recent years been put into very suitable English dress by Mr. F. S. Ellis and published among the Temple Classics, thus placing it within easy reach of English readers. Mr. Ellis must certainly be considered a suitable judge of the interest there is in the work. He spent several years in translating its two and twenty thousand six hundred and eight lines and yet considers that few books deserve as much attention as this typical Thirteenth Century allegory. He says:

"The charge of dulness once made against this highly imaginative and brilliant book, successive English writers, until quite recent times have been content to accept the verdict, though Professor Morley and others have of late ably repelled the charge. If further testimony were necessary as to the falsity of the accusation, and the opinion of one who has found a grateful pastime in translating it might be considered of any weight, he would not hesitate to traverse the attribution of dulness, and to assert that it is a poem of extreme interest, written as to the first part with delicate fancy, sweet appreciation of natural beauty, clear insight, and skilful invention, while J. de Meun's continuation is distinguished by vigor, brilliant invention, and close observation of human nature. The Thirteenth Century lives before us."

The Rose is written on a lofty plane of literary value, and the fact that it was so popular, speaks well for the taste of the times and for the enthusiasm of the people for the more serious forms of literature. Not that the Romance of the Rose is a very serious book itself, but if we compare it with the popular publications which barely touch the realities of life in the modern time, it will seem eminently serious. In spite of the years that have elapsed since its original publication it has not lost all its interest, even for a casual reader, and especially for one whose principal study is mankind in its varying environment down the ages, for it presents a very interesting picture of men and their ways in this wonderful century. Here, as in the stories of Reynard the Fox, one is brought face to face with the fact that men and women have not changed and that the peccadillos of our own generation have their history in the Middle Ages also. Take, for instance, the question of the too great love of money which is now the subject of so much writing and sermonizing. One might think that at least this was modern. Here, however, is what the author of the Romance of the Rose has to say about it:

Three cruel vengeances pursue
These miserable wretches who
Hoard up their worthless wealth: great toil
Is theirs to win it; then their spoil
They fear to lose; and lastly, grieve
Most bitterly that they must leave
Their hoards behind them. Cursed they die
Who living, lived but wretchedly;
For no man, if he lack of love,
Hath peace below or joy above.
If those who heap up wealth would show
Fair love to others, they would go
Through life beloved, and thus would reign
Sweet happy days. If they were fain,
Who hold so much of good to shower around
Their bounty unto those they found
In need thereof, and nobly lent
Their money, free from measurement
Of usury (yet gave it not
To idle gangrel men), I wot
That then throughout the land were seen
No pauper carl or starveling quean.
But lust of wealth doth so abase
Man's heart, that even love's sweet grace
Bows down before it; men but love
Their neighbors that their love may prove
A profit, and both bought and sold
Are friendships at the price of gold.
Nay, shameless women set to hire
Their bodies, heedless of hell-fire;

It is after reading a passage like this in a book written in the Thirteenth Century that one feels the full truth of that expression of the greatest of American critics, James Russell Lowell, which so often comes back to mind with regard to the works of this century, that to read a classic is like reading a commentary on the morning paper. When this principle is applied the other way, I suppose it may be said, that when a book written in the long ago sounds as if it were the utterance of some one aroused by the evils round him in our modern life, then it springs from so close to the heart of nature that it is destined to live and have an influence far beyond its own time. The Romance of the Rose, written seven centuries ago, now promises to have renewed youth in the awakening of interest in our Gothic ancestors and their accomplishments, before the over-praised renaissance came to trouble the stream of thought and writing.

Other passages serve to show how completely the old-time poet realized all the abuses of the desire for wealth, and how much it makes men waste their lives over unessentials, instead of trying to make existence worth while for themselves and others. Here is an arraignment of the strenuous life of business every line of which is as true for us as it was for the poet's generation:

'Tis truth (though some 'twill little please)
To hear the trader knows no ease;
For ever in his soul a prey
To anxious care of how he may
Amass more wealth: this mad desire
Doth all his thought and actions fire,
Devising means whereby to stuff
His barns and coffers, for 'enough'
He ne'er can have, but hungreth yet
His neighbors' goods and gold to get.
It is as though for thirst he fain
Would quaff the volume of the Seine
At one full draught, and yet should fail
To find its waters of avail
To quench his longing. What distress,
What anguish, wrath, and bitterness
Devour the wretch! fell rage and spite
Possess his spirit day and night,
And tear his heart; the fear of want
Pursues him like a spectre gaunt.
The more he bath, a wider mouth
He opes, no draught can quench his drouth.

The old poet pictures the happiness of the poor man by contrast, and can in conclusion depict even more pitilessly the real poverty of spirit of the man who "having, struggleth still to get" and never stops to enjoy life itself by helping his fellows:

Light-heart and gay
Goes many a beggar by the way,
But little heeding though his back
Be bent beneath a charcoal sack.
They labor patiently and sing,
And dance, and laugh at whatso thing
Befalls, for havings care they nought,
But feed on scraps and chitlings bought
Beside St. Marcel's, and dispend
Their gains for wassail, then, straight wend
Once more to work, not grumblingly,
But light of heart as bird on tree
Winning their bread without desire
To fleece their neighbors. Nought they tire
Of this their round, but week by week
In mirth and work contentment seek;
Returning when their work is done
Once more to swill the jovial tun.
And he who what he holds esteems
Enough, is rich beyond the dreams
Of many a dreary usurer,
And lives his life-days happier far;
For nought it signifies what gains
The wretched usurer makes, the pains
Of poverty afflict him yet
Who having, struggleth still to get.

The pictures are as true to life at the beginning of the Twentieth Century as they were in the latter half of the Thirteenth. There are little touches of realism in both the pictures, which show at once how acute an observer, how full of humor his appreciation, and yet how sympathetic a writer the author of the Romance was, and at the same time reveal something of the sociological value of his work. It discloses what is so easily concealed under the mask of formal historical writing and tells us of the people rather than of the few great ones among them, or those whom time and chance had made leaders of men. It seems long to read but as a recent translator has said, it represents only the file of a newspaper for eighteen months, and while it talks of quite as trivial things as the modern newspaper, the information is of a kind that is likely to do more good, and prove of more satisfaction, than the passing crimes and scandals that now occupy over-anxious readers.

{1} It was a favorite occupation some few years ago to pick out what were considered the ten best books. Sir John Lubbock first suggested, that it would be an interesting thing to pick out the ten books which if one were to be confined for life, should be thought the most likely to be of enduring interest. If this favorite game were to be played with the selection limited to the authors of a single century, it is reasonably sure that most educated people would pick out the thirteenth centuryc group of ten for their exclusive reading for the rest of life, rather than any other. An experimental list of ten books selected from the thirteenth century writers would include the Cid, the Legends of King Arthur, the Nibelungen Lied, the Romance of the Rose, Reynard the Fox, the Golden Legend, the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, Parsifal or Perceval by Wolfram von Eachenbach, Durandus's Symbolism and Dante. As will readily be appreciated by anyone who knows literature well, these are eminently books of enduring interest. When it is considered that in making this list no call is made upon Icelandic Literature nor Provençal Literature, both of which are of supreme interest, and both reached their maturity at this time, the abounding literary wealth of the century will be understood.

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