PEOPLE ONCE MORE DARED TO BE HAPPY JUST BECAUSE THEY WERE ALIVE. THEY TRIED TO SAVE THE REMAINS OF THE OLDER AND MORE AGREEABLE CIVILISATION OF ROME AND GREECE AND THEY WERE SO PROUD OF THEIR ACHIEVEMENTS THAT THEY SPOKE OF A RENAISSANCE OR RE-BIRTH OF CIVILISATION
 THE Renaissance was not a political or religious movement.
It was a state of mind.
The men of the Renaissance continued to be the obedient
sons of the mother church. They were subjects of kings and
emperors and dukes and murmured not.
But their outlook upon life was changed. They began to
wear different clothes—to speak a different language—to live
different lives in different houses.
They no longer concentrated all their thoughts and their
efforts upon the blessed existence that awaited them in Heaven.
They tried to establish their Paradise upon this planet, and,
truth to tell, they succeeded in a remarkable degree.
I have quite often warned you against the danger that
lies in historical dates. People take them too literally. They
think of the Middle Ages as a period of darkness and
ignor-  ance. "Click," says the clock, and the Renaissance begins and
cities and palaces are flooded with the bright sunlight of an
eager intellectual curiosity.
As a matter of fact, it is quite impossible to draw such
sharp lines. The thirteenth century belonged most decidedly
to the Middle Ages. All historians agree upon that. But was
it a time of darkness and stagnation merely? By no means.
People were tremendously alive. Great states were being
founded. Large centres of commerce were being developed.
High above the turretted towers of the castle and the peaked
roof of the town-hall, rose the slender spire of the newly built
Gothic cathedral. Everywhere the world was in motion. The
high and mighty gentlemen of the city-hall, who had just become
conscious of their own strength (by way of their recently
acquired riches) were struggling for more power with their
feudal masters. The members of the guilds who had just become
aware of the important fact that "numbers count" were
fighting the high and mighty gentlemen of the city-hall. The
king and his shrewd advisers went fishing in these troubled
waters and caught many a shining bass of profit which they
proceeded to cook and eat before the noses of the surprised and
disappointed councillors and guild brethren.
To enliven the scenery during the long hours of evening
when the badly lighted streets did not invite further political
and economic dispute, the Troubadours and Minnesingers told
their stories and sang their songs of romance and adventure
and heroism and loyalty to all fair women. Meanwhile youth,
impatient of the slowness of progress, flocked to the universities,
and thereby hangs a story.
The Middle Ages were "internationally minded." That
sounds difficult, but wait until I explain it to you. We modern
people are "nationally minded." We are Americans or Englishmen
or Frenchmen or Italians and speak English or French
or Italian and go to English and French and Italian universities,
unless we want to specialise in some particular branch
of learning which is only taught elsewhere, and then we learn
 another language and go to Munich or Madrid or Moscow.
But the people of the thirteenth or fourteenth century rarely
talked of themselves as Englishmen or Frenchmen or Italians.
They said, "I am a citizen of Sheffield or Bordeaux or Genoa."
Because they all belonged to one and the same church they felt
a certain bond of brotherhood. And as all educated men could
speak Latin, they possessed an international language which
removed the stupid language barriers which have grown up
in modern Europe and which place the small nations at such
an enormous disadvantage. Just as an example, take the case
of Erasmus, the great preacher of tolerance and laughter, who
wrote his books in the sixteenth century. He was the native
of a small Dutch village. He wrote in Latin and all the world
was his audience. If he were alive to-day, he would write in
Dutch. Then only five or six million people would be able to
read him. To be understood by the rest of Europe and America,
his publishers would be obliged to translate his books into
twenty different languages. That would cost a lot of money
and most likely the publishers would never take the trouble
or the risk.
Six hundred years ago that could not happen. The greater
part of the people were still very ignorant and could not read
or write at all. But those who had mastered the difficult art
of handling the goose-quill belonged to an international republic
of letters which spread across the entire continent and which
knew of no boundaries and respected no limitations of language
or nationality. The universities were the strongholds of
this republic. Unlike modern fortifications, they did not follow
the frontier. They were to be found wherever a teacher
and a few pupils happened to find themselves together. There
again the Middle Ages and the Renaissance differed from our
own time. Nowadays, when a new university is built, the
process (almost invariably) is as follows: Some rich man
wants to do something for the community in which he lives or
a particular religious sect wants to build a school to keep its
faithful children under decent supervision, or a state needs
doc-  tors and lawyers and teachers. The university begins as a
large sum of money which is deposited in a bank. This money
is then used to construct buildings and laboratories and dormitories.
Finally professional teachers are hired, entrance examinations
are held and the university is on the way.
But in the Middle Ages things were done differently. A wise man
said to himself, "I have discovered a great truth. I must impart my
knowledge to others." And he began to preach his wisdom
wherever and whenever he could get a few people to listen to him,
like a modern soap-box orator. If he was an interesting speaker, the
crowd came and stayed. If he was dull, they shrugged their shoulders
and continued their way.
THE MEDIAEVAL LABORATORY
By and by certain young men began to come regularly to hear
the words of wisdom of this great teacher. They brought copybooks
with them and a little bottle of ink and a goose quill and
wrote down what seemed to be important. One day it rained.
The teacher and his pupils retired to an empty basement or
the room of the "Professor." The learned man sat in his chair
and the boys sat on the floor. That was the beginning of the
University, the "universitas," a corporation of professors and
students during the Middle Ages, when the "teacher" counted
for everything and the building in which he taught counted for
As an example, let me tell you of something that happened
in the ninth century. In the town of Salerno near Naples there
were a number of excellent physicians. They attracted people
 desirous of learning the medical profession and for almost a
thousand years (until 1817) there was a university of Salerno
which taught the wisdom of Hippocrates, the great Greek doctor
who had practiced his art in ancient Hellas in the fifth
century before the birth of Christ.
Then there was Abelard, the young priest from Brittany,
who early in the twelfth century began to lecture on theology
and logic in Paris. Thousands of eager young men flocked
to the French city to hear him. Other priests who disagreed
with him stepped forward to explain their point of view. Paris
was soon filled with a clamouring multitude of Englishmen and
Germans and Italians and students from Sweden and Hungary
and around the old cathedral which stood on a little island in
the Seine there grew the famous University of Paris.
In Bologna in Italy, a monk by the name of Gratian had
compiled a text-book for those whose business it was to know
the laws of the church. Young priests and many laymen then
came from all over Europe to hear Gratian explain his ideas.
To protect themselves against the landlords and the innkeepers
and the boarding-house ladies of the city, they formed a corporation
(or University) and behold the beginning of the university
Next there was a quarrel in the University of Paris. We do
not know what caused it, but a number of disgruntled teachers
together with their pupils crossed the channel and found a
hospitable home in a little village on the Thames called Oxford,
and in this way the famous University of Oxford came into
being. In the same way, in the year 1222, there had been a split
in the University of Bologna. The discontented teachers (again
followed by their pupils) had
 moved to Padua and their proud city
thenceforward boasted of a university of its own. And so it went
from Valladolid in Spain to Cracow in distant Poland and from
Poitiers in France to Rostock in Germany.
It is quite true that much of the teaching done by these
early professors would sound absurd to our ears, trained to
listen to logarithms and geometrical theorems. The point
however, which I want to make is this—the Middle Ages and
especially the thirteenth century were not a time when the
world stood entirely still. Among the younger generation,
there was life, there was enthusiasm, and there was a restless
if somewhat bashful asking of questions. And out of this
turmoil grew the Renaissance.
But just before the curtain went down upon the last scene
of the Mediaeval world, a solitary figure crossed the stage, of
whom you ought to know more than his mere name. This
man was called Dante. He was the son of a Florentine lawyer
who belonged to the Alighieri family and he saw the light of
day in the year 1265. He grew up in the city of his ancestors
while Giotto was painting his stories of the life of St. Francis
of Assisi upon the walls of the Church of the Holy Cross, but
often when he went to school, his frightened eyes would see the
puddles of blood which told of the terrible and endless warfare
that raged forever between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines,
the followers of the Pope and the adherents of the Emperors.
When he grew up, he became a Guelph, because his father
had been one before him, just as an American boy might become
a Democrat or a Republican, simply because his father
had happened to be a Democrat or a Republican. But after a
few years, Dante saw that Italy, unless united under a single
head, threatened to perish as a victim of the disordered jealousies
of a thousand little cities. Then he became a Ghibelline.
He looked for help beyond the Alps. He hoped that a
mighty emperor might come and re-establish unity and order.
Alas! he hoped in vain. The Ghibellines were driven out of
Florence in the year 1302. From that time on until the day
of his death amidst the dreary ruins of Ravenna, in the year
1321, Dante was a homeless wanderer, eating the bread of
 charity at the table of rich patrons whose names would have
sunk into the deepest pit of oblivion but for this single fact,
that they had been kind to a poet in his misery. During the
many years of exile, Dante felt compelled to justify himself
and his actions when he had been a political leader in his
home-town, and when he had spent his days walking along
the banks of the Arno that he might catch a glimpse of the
lovely Beatrice Portinari, who died the wife of another man, a
dozen years before the Ghibelline disaster.
He had failed in the ambitions of his career. He had
faithfully served the town of his birth and before a corrupt
court he had been accused of stealing the public funds and
had been condemned to be burned alive should he venture
back within the realm of the city of Florence. To clear
himself before his own conscience and before his contemporaries,
Dante then created an Imaginary World and with great
detail he described the circumstances which had led to
his defeat and depicted the hopeless condition of greed and lust
and hatred which had turned his fair and beloved Italy into a
battlefield for the pitiless mercenaries of wicked and selfish
He tells us how on the Thursday before Easter of the year
1300 he had lost his way in a dense forest and how he found
his path barred by a leopard and a lion and a wolf. He gave
himself up for lost when a white figure appeared amidst the
 trees. It was Virgil, the Roman poet and philosopher, sent
upon his errand of mercy by the Blessed Virgin and by Beatrice,
who from high Heaven watched over the fate of her
true lover. Virgil then takes Dante through Purgatory and
through Hell. Deeper and deeper the path leads them until
they reach the lowest pit where Lucifer himself stands frozen
into the eternal ice surrounded by the most terrible of sinners,
traitors and liars and those who have achieved fame and
success by lies and by deceit. But before the two wanderers
have reached this terrible spot, Dante has met all those who
in some way or other have played a role in the history of his
beloved city. Emperors and Popes, dashing knights and
whining usurers, they are all there, doomed to eternal punishment
or awaiting the day of deliverance, when they shall
leave Purgatory for Heaven.
It is a curious story. It is a handbook of everything the
people of the thirteenth century did and felt and feared and
prayed for. Through it all moves the figure of the lonely
Florentine exile, forever followed by the shadow of his own
And behold! when the gates of death were closing upon
the sad poet of the Middle Ages, the portals of life swung
open to the child who was to be the first of the men of the
Renaissance. That was Francesco Petrarca, the son of the
notary public of the little town of Arezzo.
Francesco's father had belonged to the same political party
as Dante. He too had been exiled and thus it happened that
Petrarca (or Petrarch, as we call him) was born away from
Florence. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Montpellier
in France that he might become a lawyer like his father. But
the boy did not want to be a jurist. He hated the law. He
wanted to be a scholar and a poet—and because he wanted to
be a scholar and a poet beyond everything else, he became one,
as people of a strong will are apt to do. He made long
voyages, copying manuscripts in Flanders and in the cloisters
along the Rhine and in Paris and Liege and finally in Rome.
Then he went to live in a lonely valley of the wild mountains
 of Vaucluse, and there he studied and wrote and soon he had
become so famous for his verse and for his learning that both
the University of Paris and the king of Naples invited him
to come and teach their students and subjects. On the way
to his new job, he was obliged to pass through Rome. The
people had heard of his fame as an editor of half-forgotten
Roman authors. They decided to honour him and in the
ancient forum of the Imperial City, Petrarch was crowned with
the laurel wreath of the Poet.
From that moment on, his life was an endless career of
honour and appreciation. He wrote the things which people
wanted most to hear. They were tired of theological
disputations. Poor Dante could wander through hell as much as
he wanted. But Petrarch wrote of love and of nature and the
sun and never mentioned those gloomy things which seemed
to have been the stock in trade of the last generation. And
when Petrarch came to a city, all the people flocked out to
meet him and he was received like a conquering hero. If he
happened to bring his young friend Boccaccio, the story teller,
with him, so much the better. They were both men of their
time, full of curiosity, willing to read everything once, digging
in forgotten and musty libraries that they might find still another
manuscript of Virgil or Ovid or Lucretius or any of the
other old Latin poets. They were good Christians. Of course
they were! Everyone was. But no need of going around with
a long face and wearing a dirty coat just because some day
or other you were going to die. Life was good. People were
meant to be happy. You desired proof of this? Very well.
Take a spade and dig into the soil. What did you find?
Beautiful old statues. Beautiful old vases. Ruins of ancient
buildings. All these things were made by the people of the
greatest empire that ever existed. They ruled all the world
for a thousand years. They were strong and rich and handsome
(just look at that bust of the Emperor Augustus!). Of
course, they were not Christians and they would never be
able to enter Heaven. At best they would spend their days
in purgatory, where Dante had just paid them a visit.
 But who cared? To have lived in a world like that of
ancient Rome was heaven enough for any mortal being. And
anyway, we live but once. Let us be happy and cheerful for
the mere joy of existence.
Such, in short, was the spirit that had begun to fill the
narrow and crooked streets of the many little Italian cities.
You know what we mean by the "bicycle craze" or the
"automobile craze." Some one invents a bicycle. People who
for hundreds of thousands of years have moved slowly and
painfully from one place to another go "crazy" over the prospect
of rolling rapidly and easily over hill and dale. Then
a clever mechanic makes the first automobile. No longer is it
necessary to pedal and pedal and pedal. You just sit and
let little drops of gasoline do the work for you. Then everybody
wants an automobile. Everybody talks about
Rolls-Royces and Flivvers and carburetors and mileage and oil. Explorers
penetrate into the hearts of unknown countries that
they may find new supplies of gas. Forests arise in Sumatra
and in the Congo to supply us with rubber. Rubber and oil
become so valuable that people fight wars for their possession.
The whole world is "automobile mad" and little children can
say "car" before they learn to whisper "papa" and "mamma."
In the fourteenth century, the Italian people went crazy
about the newly discovered beauties of the buried world of
Rome. Soon their enthusiasm was shared by all the people of
western Europe. The finding of an unknown manuscript became
the excuse for a civic holiday. The man who wrote a
grammar became as popular as the fellow who nowadays invents
a new spark-plug. The humanist, the scholar who devoted his
time and his energies to a study of "homo" or mankind (instead
of wasting his hours upon fruitless theological investigations),
that man was regarded with greater honour and a deeper respect
than was ever bestowed upon a hero who had just conquered
all the Cannibal Islands.
In the midst of this intellectual upheaval, an event occurred
which greatly favoured the study of the ancient philosophers
and authors. The Turks were renewing their attacks upon
 Europe. Constantinople, capital of the last remnant of the
original Roman Empire, was hard pressed. In the year 1393
the Emperor, Manuel Paleologue, sent Emmanuel Chrysoloras
to western Europe to explain the desperate state of old Byzantium
and to ask for aid. This aid never came. The Roman
Catholic world was more than willing to see the Greek Catholic
world go to the punishment that awaited such wicked heretics.
But however indifferent western Europe might be to the fate
of the Byzantines, they were greatly interested in the ancient
Greeks whose colonists had founded the city on the Bosphorus
ten centuries after the Trojan war. They wanted to learn
Greek that they might read Aristotle and Homer and Plato.
They wanted to learn it very badly, but they had no books and
no grammars and no teachers. The magistrates of Florence
heard of the visit of Chrysoloras. The people of their city
were "crazy to learn Greek." Would he please come and
teach them? He would, and behold! the first professor of
Greek teaching alpha, beta, gamma to hundreds of eager young
men, begging their way to the city of the Arno, living in stables
and in dingy attics that they might learn how to decline the verb
and enter into the companionship of
Sophocles and Homer.
Meanwhile in the universities, the old schoolmen, teaching
their ancient theology and their antiquated logic; explaining
the hidden mysteries of the old Testament and discussing the
strange science of their Greek-Arabic-Spanish-Latin edition of
Aristotle, looked on in dismay and horror. Next, they turned
angry. This thing was going too far. The young men were
deserting the lecture halls of the established universities to
go and listen to some wild-eyed "humanist" with his newfangled
notions about a "reborn civilization."
They went to the authorities. They complained. But one
cannot force an unwilling horse to drink and one cannot
make unwilling ears listen to something which does not really
interest them. The schoolmen were losing ground rapidly. Here
and there they scored a short victory. They combined forces
with those fanatics who hated to see other people enjoy a
 happiness which was foreign to their own souls. In Florence,
the centre of the Great Rebirth, a terrible fight was fought
between the old order and the new. A Dominican monk, sour
of face and bitter in his hatred of beauty, was the leader of
the mediaeval rear-guard. He fought a valiant battle. Day
after day he thundered his warnings of God's holy wrath
through the wide halls of Santa Maria del Fiore. "Repent,"
he cried, "repent of your godlessness, of your joy in things
that are not holy!" He began to hear voices and to see flaming
swords that flashed through the sky. He preached to the
little children that they might not fall into the errors of these
ways which were leading their fathers to perdition. He organised
companies of boy-scouts, devoted to the service of the
great God whose prophet he claimed to be. In a sudden moment
of frenzy, the frightened people promised to do penance
for their wicked love of beauty and pleasure. They carried
their books and their statues and their paintings to the market
place and celebrated a wild "carnival of the vanities" with holy
singing and most unholy dancing, while Savonarola applied his
torch to the accumulated treasures.
But when the ashes cooled down, the people began to realise
what they had lost. This terrible fanatic had made them destroy
that which they had come to love above all things. They
turned against him, Savonarola was thrown into jail. He was
tortured. But he refused to repent for anything he had done.
He was an honest man. He had tried to live a holy life. He
had willingly destroyed those who deliberately refused to
share his own point of view. It had been his duty to eradicate
evil wherever he found it. A love of heathenish books and
heathenish beauty in the eyes of this faithful son of the Church,
had been an evil. But he stood alone. He had fought the
battle of a time that was dead and gone. The Pope in Rome
never moved a finger to save him. On the contrary, he approved
of his "faithful Florentines" when they dragged Savonarola
to the gallows, hanged him and burned his body amidst
the cheerful howling and yelling of the mob.
It was a sad ending, but quite inevitable. Savonarola
 would have been a great man in the eleventh century. In the
fifteenth century he was merely the leader of a lost cause.
For better or worse, the Middle Ages had come to an end when
the Pope had turned humanist and when the Vatican became
the most important museum of Roman and Greek antiquities.