Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


In generations whose men proved so unending in initiative and so forceful in accomplishment, so commanding in intelligence, so persistent in their purposes, so acute in their searching, so successful in their endeavors, the women of the time could not have been unworthy of them. Some hints of this have been already given, in what has been said about the making of furnishings for the church, especially in the matter of needle-work and the handpainting of various forms of ornaments. There are further intimations in the histories of the time, though unfortunately not very definite information, with regard to even more ambitious accomplishments by the women of the period. There are, for instance, traditions that the designs for some of the Cathedrals and certainly for portions of many of them came from women's hands. It is in the ethical sphere, however, that women accomplished great things during the Thirteenth Century. Their influence stood for what was best and highest in the life of the time and their example encouraged not only their own generation, but many people in many subsequent generations "to look up, not down, to look within, not without" for happiness, and to trust that "God's in his heaven and all's well with the world."

There are a number of women of the time whose names the race will not let die. While if the ordinary person were asked to enumerate the great women of the Thirteenth Century it would be rare to find one able properly to place them, as soon as their names are mentioned, it will be recognized that they succeeded in accomplishing work of such significance that the world is not likely to let the reputation of it perish. Some of these names are household words. The bearers of them have been written of at length in quite recent years in English as well as in other languages. Their work was of the kind that ordinarily stands quite apart from the course of history and so dates are usually not attached to it. It is thought of as a portion of the precious heritage of mankind rather than as belonging to any particular period. Three names occur at once. They are St. Clare of Assisi, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and Queen Blanche of Castile, the mother of St. Louis. To these should be added Queen Berengaria, the sister of Blanche, and the mother of Ferdinand of Castile; Mabel Rich, the London tradesman's wife, the mother of St. Edmund of Canterbury; and Isabella, the famous Countess of Arundel.

The present day interest in St. Francis of Assisi, has brought St. Clare under the lime-light of publicity. There is no doubt at all that her name is well worthy to be mentioned along with his and that she, like him, must be considered one of the strongest and most beautiful characters of all time. She was the daughter of a noble family at Assisi, who, having heard St. Francis preach, became impressed with the idea that she too should have the opportunity to live the simple life that St. Francis pictured. Of course her family opposed her in any such notion. That a daughter of theirs should take up with a wandering preacher, who at that time was looked on not a little askance by the regular religious authorities, and whose rags and poverty made him anything but a proper associate for a young lady of noble birth, could not but seem an impossible idea. Accordingly Clare ran away from home and told Francis that she would never go back and that he must help her to live her life in poverty just as he was doing himself. He sent her to a neighboring convent to be cared for, and also very probahly so as to be assured of her vocation.

After a time a special convent home for Clare and some other young women, who had become enamored with the life of poverty and simplicity was established, and to this Clare's sister Agnes came as a postulant. By this time apparently the family had become reconciled to Clare's absence from home, but they would not stand another daughter following such a foolish example. Accordingly Agnes was removed from the convent by force after a scene which caused the greatest excitement in the little town. It was not long, however, before Agnes returned to the convent and within a few years their mother followed them, and became one of the most fervent members of the little community. The peace and happiness that came with this life of absolute poverty soon attracted many other women and Clare was asked to establish houses at a distance. Gradually the order of Poor Clares, the second order of St. Francis, thus came into existence. When it was necessary to draw up constitutions for the order, Clare showed not only the breadth of her intelligence, but the depth of her knowledge of human nature, and her appreciation of what was absolutely necessary in order to keep her order from degeneration. Against the counsels of all the ecclesiastics of her time, including many cardinals and even a Pope, she insisted on the most absolute poverty as the only basis for the preservation of the spirit of her second order of St. Francis. Her character was well manifested in this contest from which she came out victorious.

Her body has been miraculously preserved and may still be seen at Assisi. Anyone who has seen the strongly set lips and full firm chin of the body in the crypt of San Damiano, can easily understand the strength of purpose and of character of this young woman who moulded a generation to her will. The story is told of her, that once when the Saracens invaded Italy and attacked the convent, she mounted the walls with a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament in her hands, and the marauders turned away in consternation from the stern brave figure that confronted them, and bothered the nuns no more. After St. Francis' death she, more than anyone else, succeeded in maintaining the spirit of the Franciscan order in the way in which St. Francis would have it go. Long after her death a copy of the original rules was found in the fold of her garments and did much to restore the Franciscan life to its primitive simplicity and purpose, so that even after she was no more on earth, she was still the guardian and promoter of St. Francis' work.

If one wants to know how much of happiness there came to her in life one should read the famous passage which describes her visit to St. Francis, and how she and he with sisters and brothers around them broke bread together, with a sweetness that was beyond human. The passage is to be found in the "Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi" which was written within a century after the occurrences described. It recalls nothing so much as the story of the disciples at Emaus and is worthy to he thought of beside the Scripture story. {1}

What Saint Clare accomplished as her life work was the making of a new vocation for women. There are always a certain number of women who look for peace and quiet rather than the struggle for existence. For these the older monasteries did not supply a place unless they were of the wealthier class as a rule. Among the Poor Clares women of all classes were received. In this way a great practical lesson in equality was taught. Women did not have to marry, perhaps unsuitable, often even objectionable men, simply in order to have a mode of life. They could join one of these communities and though in absolute poverty, with many hours each day devoted to meditation and prayer, had time to give to beautiful needlework, to painting and book illumination, and to other feminine occupations; and might thus pass long, happy lives, apart from the bustle of the strenuous time. Italy at this time, it must be recalled, was a seething cauldron of political and military strife. Wars were waged, and struggles of all kinds engaged in for precedence and power. These women got away from this unfortunate state of affairs. Occasionally in times of pestilence, when they were specially needed, as happened at least once in Saint Clare's life, they took care of the ailing and lent their convent as a hospital. Above all they stood in the eyes of their generation for chosen people who saw things differently from others. They taught the great lesson of not caring too much for the things of this world and of not living one's life in order to get admiration though usually envy comes, nor idle praise for qualities they either do not possess or that are not worthy of notice. They showed people the real value of this life by its reflection upon the other. Many a man turned aside from ambitious schemes that would have injured others, because of the kindly influence of these unselfish women and because of the memory of a sister, or an aunt whose sacrificing life was thus a rebuke to his foolish selfishness. Other women learned something of the vanity of human things by learning to value the character of these Poor Clares and realizing how much of happiness came to them from the accomplishment of their simple duties. Professor Osler said, in his lecture on Science and Immortality, of these self-forgetting ones: -- "The serene faith of Socrates with the cup of Hemlock at his lips, the heroic devotion of a St. Francis or a St. Teresa, but more often for each one of us the beautiful life of some good woman whose --

Eyes are homes of silent prayer, . . . . . Whose loves in higher love endure,

do more to keep alive among the Laodiceans a belief in immortality than all the preaching in the land." This is what St. Clare accomplished for her own generation and her influence is still a great living force in the world.

What especially should attract the attention of the modern time is the perfect basis of equality on which the Franciscan and Dominican orders of men and of women were organized. Each community had the opportunity to elect its own superiors. The rules were practically the same for the first (for men) and the second (for women) order of St. Francis, except that while the first order were supposed to live on alms collected by begging from door to door, this menial obligation was not imposed upon the women, who were expected to be supported by alms brought to their convents by the faithful, and by the labor of their own hands. This equality of men and women in the monastic establishments became widespread after the Thirteenth Century and made itself felt in the social order of the time as a factor for feminine uplift. Undoubtedly Saint Clare's work in the foundation of the second order of St. Francis must be held responsible to no small degree for this. Before her death, there were half a dozen scions of royal families in various parts of Europe who had become members of her order, and literally hundreds of the daughters of the nobility, many of them of high rank, had put off their dignity and position in the world, to become poor daughters of Saint Clare. They did so for the peace and the happiness of the vocation, and the opportunity to seek their souls and live their lives in their own quiet way, which her convents afforded them.

After Saint Clare, the best known woman of the Thirteenth Century is undoubtedly Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, of whom the world knows some pretty legends, while the serious historian recognizes that she was the first settlement worker of history. As a child she wandered down from the castle walls in which she lived and saw the poor in their suffering. She felt so much for them that she stripped herself of most of her garments and finally even of her shoes in order to clothe them. When she was taken to task for this, she said that she had suffered whatever inconvenience there was in it only for a few minutes while the poor had suffered all their lives. She became the wife of the Duke of Thuringia, and there were three years of ideal happiness with her husband and her children. When he went away on the Crusade she gave herself up to the care of the poor. When he died, though she was only twenty, and according to tradition one of the handsomest women of her time, she devoted herself still more to her poor and even went to live among them. She tried to teach them, as do the settlement workers of the modern time, something of the true significance of life, to bring them to realize to some degree at least, that so many of the things they so vainly desire are not worth thinking about, but that happiness consists in lopping off one's desires rather than trying vainly, as it must ever be, to satisfy them. It is no wonder that throughout all Germany she came to be called "the dear St. Elizabeth." Literally thousands of women since her time have turned to read the story of her beautiful devotion to charity, and have been incited by her example to do more and more for the poor around them. Those who know it only through Kingsley's, "The Saint's Tragedy," though this is disfigured by many failures to understand parts of her career and her environment, can scarcely fail to realize that hers was one of the world's sublimely beautiful characters. All she attempted in the thorny paths of charity was accomplished in such a practical way that the amount of good done was almost incalculable. The simple recital of what she did as it has often been told, is the story of a great individuality that impressed itself deeply upon its generation and left the example of a precious life to act as a leaven for good in the midst of the social fermentations of succeeding generations.

Yet Elizabeth succeeded in accomplishing all this in spite of the fact that she was born the daughter of a king and married the reigning prince of one of the most important ducal houses in Germany. One would expect to find that her life had been long, so many traditions have gathered around her name. She was twenty when her husband died, and she survived him only four years. Literally she had accomplished a long space in a short time and her generation in raising in her honor the charming Gothic Cathedral at Marburg, one of the most beautiful in Germany, was honoring itself nobly as well as her. It is the greatest monument to a woman in all the world.

The next great woman of the century also belonged to a reigning family and is for obvious historical reasons better known, perhaps, than her Saint contemporaries. This was Blanche, daughter of the King of Castile, but intimately related to the English royal family. Married to Louis VIII of France she is known principally as the mother of Louis IX. She ruled France for many years while her boy was a minor and when he came to the age, when he might ordinarily assume the reins of government, he voluntarily permitted his mother to continue her regency for some time longer. France was probably happier under her than under any ruler that the country has ever had with the possible exception of her son Louis. She succeeded in suppressing to a great extent the quarrels so common among the nobility, she strengthened and centralized the power of the crown, she began the correction of abuses in the administration of justice which her son was to complete so well, she organized charity in various ways, and the court was an example to the kingdom of simple dignified life, without any abuse of power, or wealth, or passion. No wonder that when Louis went on the Crusade, he left his mother to reign in his stead confident that all would go well. If one needed a demonstration that women can rule well there is an excellent example in the life of Blanche.

Personally she seems to have had not only an amiable but a deeply intellectual character. She encouraged education and beautiful book-making and the Gothic architecture which was developing in France so wonderfully during her period. Of course she also worshipped her boy Louis, but how much her motherly tenderness was tempered with the most beautiful Christian feeling can be understood from the famous expression attributed to her on good authority, that she "would rather see her boy dead at her feet, than have him commit a mortal offense against his God or his neighbor." One might almost say that it is no wonder that Louis became a saint. As a matter of fact he attributed to his mother whatever of goodness there was in himself. There is a touch of humanity in the picture, however, a trait that shows, that Blanche was a woman, though it is a fault which draws our sympathy to her even more surely than if she were the type of perfection she might have been without it. She did not get on well with her daughter-in-law and one of the trials of Louis' life, as we have said, was to keep the scales evenly balanced between his mother and his wife, both of whom he loved very dearly. After Blanche's life there could be no doubt that a woman, when given the opportunity, can manage men and administer government quite as well as any masculine member of the races and the Thirteenth Century had given another example of its power to bring out what was best in its fortunate children.

One of the most interesting women of the Thirteenth Century was neither a Saint nor a member of the nobility, but only the wife of a simple London merchant. This was Mabel Rich, the mother of Saint Edmund of Canterbury. Edmund is one of the striking men of a supreme century. He had been a student at Paris, and later a professor at Oxford. Then, he became the treasurer of the Cathedral at Salisbury about the time when, not a little through his influence, that magnificent edifice was receiving the form which was to make it one of the world's great churches for all time. Later he was the Archbishop of Canterbury and while defending the rights of his church and his people, came under the ban of Henry III, and spent most of the latter years of his life in exile on the continent. Edmund insisted that he owed more to his mother than to any other single factor in life. With her two boys, aged ten and fourteen, Mabel Rich was left to care for the worldly concerns of the household as well as for their education. When they were twelve and sixteen, with many misgivings she sent them off to the University of Paris to get their education. Edmund tells how besides packing their linen very carefully she also packed a hairshirt for each of them, which they were to wear occasionally according to their promise to her, to remind them that they must not look for ease and comfort in life, above all must not yield to sensual pleasures, but must be ready to suffer many little troubles voluntarily, in order that they might be able to resist temptation when severer trials came. Mabel Rich believed in discipline, as a factor in education, and thought that character was formed by habits of fortitude in resisting petty annoyances until, finally, even serious troubles were easy to bear.

Both of her sons proved worthy of her maternal solicitude. Edmund tells how the poor around her home in London blessed her for her charity. All during his life the thought of his mother was uppermost in his mind, and in the immortality that has been given his name, because of the utter forgetfulness of self which characterized his life, his mother has been associated. Unfortunately details are lacking that would show us something of the manner of living of this strong woman of the people, but we know enough to make us realize that she was a fine type of the Christian mother, memory of whose goodness means more not only for her children but for all those who come in contact with her, than all the sermons and pious exhortations that they hear, and often, such is the way of human nature, even than the divine commandments or the personal conscience of those whom she loves.

There were noble women among the gentlewomen of England at this time too, and though space will not let us dwell on them, at least, one must be mentioned. This is the famous Isabella, Countess of Arundel, who with a dignity which, Matthew Paris says, was more than that of woman, reproached Henry III (1252), when he sought to browbeat her. She made bold to tell the king, "You govern neither us nor yourself well." On this the king, with a sneer and a grin, said with a loud voice, "Ho, ho, my lady countess, have the noblemen of England granted you a charter and struck a bargain with you to become their spokeswoman because of your eloquence ?" She answered, "My liege, the nobles have made no charter, but you and your father have made a charter, and you have sworn to observe it inviolably, and yet many times have you extorted money from your subjects and have not kept your word. Where are the liberties of England, often reduced to writing, so often granted, so often again denied ?"{2}

The question of womanly occupations apart from their household duties will be of great interest to our generation.

A hint of one form of woman's occupation has already been given in discussing the needlework done for the Cathedrals and especially the Cope of Ascoli. It must not be forgotten that this was the age not alone of Cathedrals but also of monasteries and of convents. In all of these convents every effort was made to have whatever was associated with the religious ceremonial as beautiful as possible. Hence it was that needlework rose to a height of accomplishment such as has never been reached since according to the best authorities, and many examples of it have come down to us to confirm such an opinion. This needlework was done not only for religious purposes, however, but also as presents for Kings and Queens and the nobility, and such presents proved to be exemplars of artistic beauty that must have helped to raise the taste of the time. This was essentially woman's work, and in their distant castles the women of the households of the nobility occupied themselves with it to much better effect than their sisters of the modern time with the grievous burden of their so-called social duties.

Miss Bateson{3} has given a pretty, yet piquant picture of woman at these occupations. She says: -- "There are not wanting Thirteenth Century satires to tell the usual story of female levities, and of female devotion to the needle, to German work and pierced work, Saracen work and combed work, cutout work and wool-work, and a multitude of other "works" to which the clue seems to be now wholly lost. Whilst the women are thus engaged, the one who knows most reads to them, the others listen attentively, and do not sleep as they do at mass, 'pur la prise de vanite dont ont grant leesce (joy).' The 'opus anglicum' consisted of chain-stitch in circles, with hollows, made by a heated iron rod, to represent shadows. A cope of this work was made by Rose de Burford at Edward II's order, and sent to Rome. One, known as the Syon cope, passed into the possession of the nuns of Syon, Isleworth, and can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Another form of woman's work that came to prominence during the century was the service in hospitals. While the records of the hospitals of the Holy Ghost, which under Innocent Third's fostering care spread so widely throughout Europe in this century, are mainly occupied with the institutions of the Brothers of the Holy Ghost, there were many hospitals under the care of women, and indeed there was an almost universally accepted idea, that women patients and obstetrical cases should be cared for by women rather than men. It is easy to make little of the hospitals of this time but any such thought will be the result of ignorance rather than of any serious attempt to know what was actually accomplished. The sisters' hospitals soon usurped the most prominent place in the life of the time and during succeeding centuries gradually replaced those which had been originally under the control of men. It was recognized that nursing was a much more suitable occupation for the gentler sex and that there were many less abuses than when men were employed. The success of these hospitals in gradually eradicating leprosy and in keeping down the death-rate from St. Anthony's fire, or erysipelas, shows how capable they were of accomplishing great humanitarian work.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the story of woman's position during the Thirteenth Century is that at the Italian universities at least, co-education was not only admitted in principle but also in practice, and many women were in attendance at the universities. In the West of Europe this feature did not exist. It is a startling comment on how comparatively trivial a thing may change the course of history, that the lamentable Heloise and Abelard incident at the University of Paris during the Twelfth Century, precluded all subsequent possibility of the admission of women students to the University of Paris. Oxford, it will be remembered, was formed by the withdrawal of students from the University of Paris, and the same tradition was maintained. Cambridge was a granddaughter of the University of Paris and the French and Spanish universities must all be considered as standing in the relation of its direct descendants. The unfortunate experience at Paris shaped the policy as to the co-education of the sexes for all these. It would have been too much to expect that university authorities would take the risks which had been so clearly demonstrated even with regard to a distinguished professor, and so co-education was excluded.

It is not easy to say what proportion of women there were in attendance at the university of Bologna during the Thirteenth. Century. Apparently it should not be difficult to take the lists of the matriculates as far as they have been preserved and by a little calculation obtain rather exact figures. Italy, like most of the Latin countries, differs from the Teutonic regions in not being quite so exact in the distribution of names to the different sexes, that the first name inevitably determines whether the individual is male or female. It is not an unusual thing even at the present day for a man to have as a first name in Italy, or France, or Spain, the equivalent of our name Mary. On the other hand, not a few girls are called by men's names and without the feminine termination which is so distinctive among the English speaking peoples. In the olden times this was still more the case. Until very recently at least, if not now, every child born in Venice was given two names at its baptism -- Maria and Giovanni -- in honor of the two great patron saints of the city and then the parents might add further names if they so desired. A matriculation list of the University of Bologna then, tells very little that is absolute with regard to the sex of the matriculates.

All that we know for sure is that there were women students at the University of Bologna apparently from the beginning of the Thirteenth Century, and that some of them secured the distinction of being made Professors. Of one of these there is a pretty legend told, which seems to illustrate the fact that charming young women of profound intellectual qualities did not lose the characteristic modesty and thoughtfulness for others of their sex, because of their elevation to university professorship. This young woman, Maria di Novella, when only twenty-five became the Professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna. According to tradition she was very pretty and as is usual in life was not unaware of that happy accident. She feared that her good looks might disturb the thoughts of her students during her lessons and accordingly she delivered her lectures from behind a curtain. The story may, of course, be only a myth. One of the best woman educators that I know once said to me, that if the tradition with regard to her beauty were true, then she doubted the rest of the story, but then women are not always the best judges of the actions of other women and especially is this true when there is question of a grave and learned elderly woman passing judgment on a young and handsome professor of mathematics.

The Italians became so much impressed with the advisability of permitting women to study at the universities, that a certain amount of co-education has existed all down the centuries in Italy and not a century has passed since the Thirteenth, which has not chronicled the presence of at least one distinguished woman professor at some Italian university. Indeed it was doubtless the traditional position of tolerance in this matter that made it seem quite natural for women, when the Renaissance period came around, to take their places beside their brothers and their cousins in the schools where the new learning was being taught.

It may be rather difficult for some to understand how with this opening wedge for the higher education of women well placed, the real opportunity for widespread feminine education should only have come in our own time. This last idea, however, which would represent ours as the only generation which has given women adequate opportunities for intellectual development, is one of those self-complacent bits of flattery of ourselves and our own period that is so irritatingly characteristic of recent times. There have been at least three times in the world's history before our own when as many women as wanted them, in the class most interested in educational matters, were given the opportunities for the higher education. As a matter of fact whenever there have been novelties introduced into educational systems, women have demanded and quite naturally -- since, "What a good woman wants," said a modern saint, "is the will of God" -- have obtained the privilege of sharing the educational opportunities of the time. This was true in Charlemagne's time when the women of the court attended the lectures in the traveling palace school the great Charles founded and fostered. It was true four centuries later, as we have seen, when a great change in educational methods was introduced with the foundation of the universities. It was exemplified again when the "New Learning" came in and the study of the classics took the place of the long hours spent in scholastic disputation, that had previously occupied so much university attention. In our own time it was the introduction of the study of the social sciences particularly, with the consequent appearance of many novelties in the educational curriculum, that once more was the signal for women asking and quite naturally obtaining educational privileges.

Each of the previous experiences in the matter of feminine education has been followed by a considerable period during which there was a distinct incuriousness on the part of women in educational matters. Of course that is only an analogy and though history is worth studying, only because the lessons of the past are the warnings of the future, yet this does not foretell a lessening of feminine interest in educational matters, after a few generations of experience of its vanity to make up to them for the precious special privileges of their nature, the proper enjoyment and exercise of which it is so likely to hamper. It would be interesting to know just why feminine education, after a period of efflorescence during the Thirteenth Century, retrograded during the next century. There have been some ungallant explanations offered, which we mention merely because of their historical interest but without any hint of their having any real significance in the matter.

A distinguished German educational authority has called attention to the fact that a well-known prepared food, for which Bologna is famous, is first heard of about the time that the higher education for women came into vogue at the Italian universities. Towards the end of the same century a special kind of pudding, since bearing the name of its native city, Bologna, which might very well have taken the place of an ordinary dessert, also began to come into prominence. This German writer suggests then, that possibly the serving of meals consisting of these forms of prepared food, which did not require much household drudgery and did not necessitate the bending over the kitchen range or whatever took its place in those days, may have led the men to grumble about the effects of the higher education. After all, he adds, though the women get whatever they want, when they ask for it seriously, if it proves after a time that the men do not want them to have it, then women lose interest and care for it no longer. This, of course, must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, though it illus trates certain phases of the domestic life of the time as well as affording a possible glimpse into the inner circle of the family life.

The real story of woman's intellectual position in the century is to be found in its literature. How deep was the general culture of the women of the Thirteenth Century, in Italy at least, can be judged from the Sonnets of Dante and his friends to their loved ones at the end of this century. Some of the most beautiful poetry that was ever written was inspired by these women and like the law of hydrostatics, it is one of the rules of the history of poetry, that inspiration never rises higher than its source and that poetry addressed to women is always the best index of the estimation in which they are held, the reflection of the highest qualities of the objects to which it is addressed. Anyone who reads certain of the sonnets of Dante, or of his friends Guido Cavalcanti or Gino da Pistoia or Dante da Maiano, will find ready assurance of the high state of culture and of intellectual refinement that must have existed among the women to whom they were dedicated. This same form of reasoning will apply also with regard to the women of the South of France to whom the Troubadours addressed their poetry; to those of the north of France who were greeted by the Trouvères; and those of the south of Germany for whom the Minnesingers tuned their lyres and invoked the Muses to enable them to sing their praises properly. It would seem sometimes to be forgotten that poetry generally is written much more for women than for men. Everyone realizes that for one man who has read Tennyson's "Idyls of the King" there are probably five women to whom they have been a source of delight. When we think of the Thirteenth Century as not affording opportunities of intellectual culture for its women, we should ask ourselves where then did the Meistersingers and the poets of England, Germany and France who told their romantic tales in verse find an audience, if it was not among the women. The stories selected by the Meistersingers are just those which proved so popular to feminine readers of Tennyson in the Nineteenth Century, and the chosen subjects of interest in the stories show that men and women have not changed much during the intervening centuries. The literature of any period reflects the interest of the women in it and, as interest is itself an index of intellectual development, Thirteenth Century literature must be taken as the vivid reflection of the cultural character of the women of the time, and this is of itself the highest possible tribute to their intelligence and education.

On the other hand the best possible testimony to the estimation of women during the Thirteenth Century, is to be found in the attitude of the men of the generations towards them, as it is clearly to be seen in the literature of the time. In the Holy Graal, the Cid, the Minnesingers and the Meistersingers, woman occupies the higher place in life and it is recognized that she is the highest incentive to good, unfortunately also sometimes to evil, but always the best reward that men can have for their exertions in a great cause. The supreme tribute to woman comes at the end of the century in Dante's apotheosis of her in the Divine Comedy. In this it is a woman who inspires, a woman who leads, a woman who is the reward of man s aspirations, and though the symbolism may be traced to philosophy, the influence of an actual woman in it all is sure beyond all doubt. Nor must it be thought that it was merely in this highest flight of his imagination that this greatest of poets expressed such lofty sentiments with regard to women. Anyone who thinks this does not know Dante's minor poems, which contain to women in the flesh and above all to one of them, the most wonderful tributes that have ever been paid to woman. Take this one of his sonnets for instance.

So gentle and so fair she seems to be,
  My Lady, when she others doth salute,
  That every tongue becomes, all trembling, mute,
And every eye is half afraid to see;
She goes her way and hears men's praises free,
  Clothed in a garb of kindness, meek and low,
  And seems as if from heaven she came, to show
Upon the earth a wondrous mystery:
To one who looks on her she seems so kind,
  That through the eye a sweetness fills the heart,
  Which only he can know who doth it try.
And through her face there breatheth from her mind
  A spirit sweet and full of Love's true art,
Which to the soul saith, as it cometh, "Sigh."

It will be noted that though this contains the highest possible praise of the woman whom he loved, it has not a single reference to any of her physical perfections, or indeed to any of those charms that poets usually sing. We have already called attention to this, that it is not the beauty of her face or her figure that has attracted him, but the charm of her character, which all others must admire -- which even women do not envy, it is so beautiful -- that constitutes the supreme reason for Dante's admiration. Nor must it be thought that this is a unique example of Dante's attitude in this matter; on the contrary, it is the constant type of his expression of feeling. The succeeding sonnet in his collection is probably quite as beautiful as the first quoted, and yet is couched in similar terms. It will be found in the chapter on Dante the Poet. Need we say more to prove that the women of the century were worthy of the men and of the supreme time in which they lived; that they were the fit intellectual companions of perhaps the greatest generation of men that ever lived?

{1} When came the day ordained by Francis, Saint Clare with one companion passed forth from out the convent and with the companions of Saint Francis to bear her company came unto Saint Mary of the Angels, and devoutly saluted the Virgin Mary before her altar, where she had been shorn and veiled; so they conducted her to see the house, until such time as the hour for breaking bread was come. And in the meantime Saint Francis let make ready the table on the bare ground, as he was wont to do. And the hour of breaking bread being come, they set themselves down together, Saint Francis and Saint Clare, and one of the companions of Saint Francis with the companion of Saint Clare, and all the other companions took each his place at the table with all humility. And at the first dish, Saint Francis began to speak of God so sweetly, so sublimely and so wondrously, that the fulness of Divine grace came down on them, and they all were wrapt in God. And as they were thus wrapt, with eyes and hands uplift to heaven, the folk of Assisi and Bettona and the country round about, saw that Saint Mary of the Angels, and all the House, and the wood that was just hard by the house, were burning brightly, and it seemed as it were a great fire that filled the church and the House and the whole wood together: for the which cause the folk of Assisi ran thither in great haste to quench the flames, believing of a truth that the whole place was all on fire. But coming closer up to the House and finding no fire at all, they entered within and found Saint Francis and Saint Clare and all their company in contemplation rapt in God and sitting around that humble board. Whereby of a truth they understood that this had been a heavenly flame and no earthly one at all, which God had let appear miraculously, for to show and signify the fire of love divine wherewith the souls of those holy brothers and holy nuns were all aflame; wherefor they got them gone with great consolation in their hearts and with holy edifying. Then after some long space, Saint Francis and Saint Clare, together with all the others, returning to themselves again and feeling of good comfort from the spiritual food took little heed of the food of the body.

{2} Medieval England, English Feudal Society, from the Norman Conquest to the Middle of the Fourteenth Century, by Mary Bateson.

{3} Ibidem.

<< ======= >>