The Autumn of the Middle Ages
The poems of Deschamps overflow with miserable aspersions about life. He is fortunate who has no children because small children are nothing but wails and stinks, trouble and worry. They have to be clothed, given shoes, fed, and are always in danger of falling or hurting themselves. They become sick and die, or else they grow up and turn bad; they are put in jail. Nothing but trouble and disappointment, there is no happiness to reward all the worries, efforts, and expenses of their education. There is no greater misfortune than to have deformed children. The poet has no loving words for them; deformed people have black hearts, he has the scripture say. He who is unmarried is fortunate because it is terrible to live with a bad woman and one has to be constantly afraid of losing a good one. As well as fleeing from misfortune one must shy away from good fortune. In old age the poet sees nothing but evil and disgust, a miserable physical and mental decay, laughable and calamitous. Old age comes early, for woman at thirty, for men at fifty, and sixty is the normal end of their life span. How far one is here from the pure ideality with which Dante described the dignity of the noble elder in his Convivio.
A pious tendency, rarely found in Deschamps, may on occasion elevate reflections on the dread of life, but the basic mood of discouraged failure is always more strongly felt than genuine piety. Serious admonitions to saintliness echo these negative elements more than they reflect a genuine will for sanctification. The irreproachable Jean de Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, writing a treatise for his sister about the superiority of virginity, cites among his arguments a long list of sufferings and pains bound up with marriage. A husband may turn out to be a drunkard, or be extravagant or miserly. But even if he is a solid and good individual there may be a bad harvest, or epidemic, or shipwrecks may rob him of his worldly possessions. How miserable is pregnancy, how many women die in childbirth! Does a nursing mother ever enjoy undisturbed sleep, what about merriment and joy? Her children may turn out to be malformed or disobedient, her husband may die and the widowed mother be left to face a life of worry and poverty.
Daily reality is viewed in terms of the deepest depression whenever the childlike joy of life or blind hedonism gives way to meditation. Where is that more beautiful world for which every age is bound to yearn?
Those yearning for a better life, at all times, have seen three paths to the distant goal before them. The first of these ordinarily leads away from the world: the path of denial. The more beautiful life seems to be attainable only in the world beyond; it will prove to be a deliverance from all earthly concerns. All the attention wasted on the world delays the promised bliss. This path has been followed in every higher culture. Christianity had impressed this struggle on consciousness, both as the purpose of an individual life and as the basis of culture, to such a degree that it almost entirely prevented people from following the second path for a long time.
The second path was that leading to the improvement and perfection of the world itself. The Middle Ages hardly knew this way. To them, the world was as good and as bad as it could be; that is, all arrangements, since God had made them, were good: it was man's sinfulness that made the world miserable. For this age, a conscious striving for the improvement or reform of social and political institutions was not the mainspring of thought and deed. To be virtuous in the practice of one's own profession is the only way to benefit the world, and even given this fact, the real goal is still the other life. Moreover, wherever a new social form is actually created, it is seen in principle as a restoration of good old tradition, or as a fight against abuses by virtue of a deliberate delegation of power from the proper authorities. The conscious creation of structures, thought of as truly new, is rare even in the many-faceted legislative work carried out by the French monarchy after Saint Louis. This work was imitated by the dukes of Burgundy in their hereditary territories, but that those labors actually constituted a development of the organization of the state in the direction of more functional forms is a fact of which they were not yet, or barely, aware. They issued ordinances or created offices because this was in tune with their immediate task of promoting the general welfare, not out of a serious vision on their part of a political future.
Nothing contributed so much to the general mood of tearfulness and pessimism about future times than this lack of a firm determination on the part of all to make the world a better and happier place. This world was not included in the promise of better things to come. To those yearning for something better and yet unwilling to bid farewell to the world and all its splendor, nothing was left but despair; nowhere could they see hope or joy anymore. The world would only endure for a short time and only misery remained for those in it.
Once the path of the positive improvement of the world is taken, a new era is born in which the dread of life can give way to courage and hope. This insight waits until the eighteenth century to appear. The Renaissance owes its energetic affirmation of life to different sorts of satisfactions. It is only the eighteenth century that makes the perfectibility of man and society its chief dogma, and the social struggle of the following century lost only the naivete of its predecessor, not its courage and optimism.
The third path to a better world leads through a land of dreams. It is the most comfortable, but one in which the goal remains at an unchanging distance. If earthly reality is so hopelessly miserable and the denial of the world so difficult, this leaves us to color life with lustrous tones, to live in a dreamland of shining fantasies, and to soften reality in the ecstasy of the ideal. It requires only a simple theme, a single chord, to begin the heart-stirring fugue: a glance at the dreamy bliss of a more beautiful past time suffices, one glimpse of its heroism and its virtue, or just the gay sunshine of life in nature and its enjoyment. All literary culture since antiquity was based on two themes: the heroic and the bucolic. The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries managed nothing more than new variations on the old song.
But is this third path to a better life, this fleeing from harsh reality into a beautiful illusion, only a concern of literary culture? Surely it is more than that. Just as the other two paths, it affects the form and content of communal life; and it affects that life the more strongly the more primitive the culture is.
The impact of the three above-mentioned intellectual attitudes on real life itself differs considerably. The most intimate and consistent contact between the labor of life and the ideal goal is found when the idea points to the improvement and perfection of the world itself. In these instances both man's inspirational strength and his confidence flow into material work. Immediate reality is charged with energy. To follow one's life's calling means striving to attain the ideal of a better world. If you wish, here too a blissful dream is the motivating element. To a certain degree, every culture strives towards the creation of a dream world in reality through the transformation of social forms. But while in the other instances we encounter only a mental transformation, the setting up of imaginary perfections in place of the harsh reality one wants to forget, here the object of the dream is reality itself. The idea is to transform reality, to cleanse and improve it. The world appears to be on the good path towards the ideal, if only people would go on working. The ideal form of life seems to be only slightly distant from the life of labor; there is only a minute tension between reality and the dream. Wherever striving for the highest production and cheapest distribution of goods suffices, where the ideal consists of welfare, freedom, and culture, there are comparatively few demands placed on the art of life. There is no longer any need for men to playact the roles of nobleman or hero, wise man or refined courtier.
The first of these three intellectual attitudes, that of world denial, exercises an entirely different influence on real life. Homesickness for eternal bliss renders us indifferent towards the events and forms of earthly existence, desiring only that virtue be generated and maintained in them. The forms of life and society are left as they are, but one strives to permeate them with transcendent morality. This prevents the turning away from the world from having an entirely negative effect on the earthly community as merely denial and abstinence, but allows it to radiate back on society in the form of godly work and practical charity.
But what is the impact of the third attitude on life? Does the yearning for a better life correspond to a dreamed-of ideal? This attitude changes the forms of life into forms of art. But this path does not express its dream of beauty only in artworks as such: it aims at ennobling life itself with beauty and fills communal life with play and forms. Here are found the highest demands on the personal art of living, demands that only an elite can try to meet with an artful life of play. The imitation of heroes and sages is not for everyone; painting life with either heroic or idyllic colors is an expensive pastime and, as a rule, is only partially successful. The struggle to realize the dream of beauty within the forms of society itself has an aristocratic character in its vitium originis.
Now we have come to the point from which we intend to view the culture of late medieval times: the point of the beautification of aristocratic life with the forms of the ideal—the artistic light of chivalric romanticism spread over life, with the world costumed in the garb of the round table. The tension between the forms of life and reality is extremely high; the light is false and overdone.
The desire for the beautiful life is generally held to be the most characteristic feature of the Renaissance. Then we witness the greatest harmony in satisfying the thirst for beauty, equally in works of art and in life itself. Art served life and life served art as never before. But here the line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is too sharply drawn. The passionate desire to dress life in beauty, the refinement of the art of living, the colorful products of a life lived in imitation of an ideal are much older than the Italian quattrocento. The very motifs of the beautification of life that the Florentines expanded upon are nothing but old medieval forms; Lorenzo de'Medici, even as did Charles the Bold, paid homage to the old knightly ideal as the noble form of life. He even saw in it a model of sorts, its barbarian splendor notwithstanding. Italy discovered new aspects of the beauty of life and gave life a new tone, but the attitude toward life that is usually seen as characteristic of the Renaissance—the striving to transform or even elevate one's own life to a higher level of artistic form—was by no means invented by the Renaissance.
The great divide in the perception of the beauty of life comes much more between the Renaissance and the modern period than between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The turnabout occurs at the point where art and life begin to diverge. It is the point where art begins to be no longer in the midst of life, as a noble part of the joy of life itself, but outside of life as something to be highly venerated, as something to turn to in moments of edification or rest. The old dualism separating God and world has thus returned in another form, that of the separation of art and life. Now a line has been drawn right through the enjoyments offered by life. Henceforth they are separated into two halves—one lower, one higher. For medieval man they were all sinful without exception; now they are all considered permissible, but their ethical evaluation differs according to their greater or lesser degree of spirituality.
The things that can make life enjoyable remain the same. They are, now as before, reading, music, fine arts, travel, the enjoyment of nature, sports, fashion, social vanity (knightly orders, honorary offices, gatherings), and the intoxication of the senses. For the majority, the border between the higher and lower levels seems now to be located between the enjoyment of nature and sports. But this border is not firm. Most likely sport will sooner or later again be counted among the higher enjoyments—at least insofar as it is the art of physical strength and courage. For medieval man the border lay, in the best of cases, right after reading; the enjoyment of reading could only be sanctified through striving for virtue or wisdom. For music and the fine arts, it was their service to faith alone that was recognized as being good. Enjoyment per se was sinful. The Renaissance had managed to free itself from the rejection of all the joy of life as something sinful, but had not yet found a new way of separating the higher and lower enjoyments of life; the Renaissance wanted an unencumbered enjoyment of all of life. The new distinction is the result of the compromise between the Renaissance and Puritanism that is at the base of modern spiritual attitudes. It amounted to a mutual capitulation in which the one side insisted on saving beauty while the other insisted on the condemnation of sin. Strict Puritanism, just as did the Middle Ages, still condemned as basically sinful and worldly the entire sphere of the beautification of life with an exception being made in cases where such efforts assumed expressly religious forms and sanctified themselves through their use in the service of faith. Only after the Puritan worldview lost its intensity did the Renaissance receptiveness to all the joys of life gain ground again; perhaps even more ground than before, because beginning with the eighteenth century there is a tendency to regard the natural per se as an element of the ethically good. Anyone attempting to draw the dividing line between the higher and lower enjoyment of life according to the dictates of ethical consciousness would no longer separate art from sensuous enjoyment, the enjoyment of nature from the cult of the body, the elevated from the natural, but would only separate egotism, lies, and vanity from purity.
Towards the end of the medieval period, even as a new spirit began to stir, there was, in principle, still only the old choice between God and the world: the total rejection of all the splendor and beauty of earthly life or a daring acceptance of it that ran the risk of harming the soul. The beauty of the world became twice as tempting because its sinfulness was recognized; surrendering oneself to it meant, therefore, to enjoy it with unbridled passion. But those who could not do without beauty and yet were unwilling to surrender to the world had no choice but to ennoble beauty. They were able to sanctify the entire sector of art and literature—where admiration constituted the essence of enjoyment—by putting it in the service of faith. And if it was actually the enjoyment of color and line that inspired the connoisseurs of painting and miniatures; the stamp of sinfulness was removed from the enjoyment of these objects because of their sacred subject matter. But what about beauty with a high degree of sinfulness? How could all that, the cult of the body of the knightly sports, courtly life, pride and the avidity for office and honor, and the mesmerizing mystery of love, how could these be made noble and elevated after faith had scorned and condemned them? Here the middle path that led to the land of dreams helped: one dressed everything in the beautiful light of the old fantastic ideals.