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The Crusades; Monasticism; Feudalism; the Age of Faith and Chivalry. page 3


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The virtues held essential to the knightly character were loyalty, courtesy, and munificence. To break engagements - to the feudal lord, to a lady, or to a friend - was, in the best days of chivalry, social death to the knight who thus became "disloyal" or "recreant." Treachery, the vice of savage as well as of corrupt nations, was the vilest of crimes, and the honourable trust reposed in a knight's word was the source of the release of a captured foe in order that he might return and procure his ransom. A notable instance of fidelity in this respect is that of King John of France, who, having been taken by the Black Prince at Poitiers in 1356, returned to London, and died there in 1364, in John of Gaunt's palace of the Savoy, when he had been unable to procure, in his own country, the great stipulated sum. The courtesy of chivalry brought in warfare an indulgent treatment of prisoners which was scarcely known in ancient days, and the munificence required from a knight included great hospitality to travellers and bountiful aid to men of his own order. The chief privilege of knighthood, in the social sense, was the being a member of a distinct European class of distinguished persons, with rights and dignities independent of any sovereign. Chivalry was of vast use in promoting a sense of honour in every form, and the mediaeval times of history show many instances of the elevation of character thus developed. In lawless days it was of great value to have a class of men, high in position, who were bound by oath to display some of the virtues which are most surely based upon Christian principle. It is needless to say that the morals of chivalry were often far from pure, and that a bad influence was exercised by a spirit of pride and revenge, and by disdain of the arts of peace and industry. Modern society owes much, however, to the spirit engendered by chivalry at its best, and the "gentleman," in the highest sense of the word, is the representative, amidst the vulgarity and unscrupulous conduct of a plutocratic and thoroughly snobbish age, of the high-toned institution of Crusading days.

The feudal system or polity, regarded as a scheme of civil freedom, was of great value. It was not suited to the defence of a great kingdom, or to schemes of conquest, from the short term of service to which vassals were bound, but the very inefficiency of the feudal militia was that which, in all likelihood, saved Europe from the danger of universal monarchy, and allowed several great nations to grow up side by side. The feudal law, involving a spirit of honourable obligation, and the feudal jurisdiction, often including trial by peers or equals, were of great service in promoting a keener feeling and a readier perception of moral as well as of legal distinctions, and in supplying a standard of right. The reciprocal services of lord and vassal gave ample scope for the exercise of a magnanimous and disinterested feeling. The protection of a faithful vassal or the defence of a beneficent suzerain, against powerful aggression, bound upper and lower ranks by the most honourable ties, and this union prevented the destruction of right and privilege, as in Asia, by the hand of power. It was thus, when the people were poor and disunited, and the middle class of modern days had scarcely begun to exist, that a brave and free baronage were able to withstand tyrannical kings, and preserve a liberty to be extended hereafter and handed down to the latest generations. The evil side of feudalism is seen in the private warfare waged between the lords; in the decline, except in England, of the legislative assemblies of popular representatives; and in the oppression exercised by feudal barons strong enough to defy the sovereign.

No account of mediaeval times can be complete without some description of the monastic Orders which played so large a part in the civilisation of the period. While men were engaged in the active outdoor and indoor life of commerce and handicrafts, of warfare with their Christian brethren, or with the Saracens, and of tillage of the soil, hundreds of thousands of their fellows were passing their time, within the walls and on the lands of monasteries, engaged in religious exercises, in the instruction of youth, in the cultivation of the ground, and in other occupations more or less beneficial to mankind. Monachism or monasticism, not confined to Christianity, as the history of Judaism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism shows, had its origin, as a Christian institution, in the ascetic life of the anchorites ("men retired") or hermits (eremites, or "men of the desert") who appeared, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. An aggregation of hermits formed a monastery, and this mode of religious life was first established in the West by Athanasius at Rome and in northern Italy; by St. Augustine in Africa; and by St. Martin of Tours in Gaul, in all eases prior to the 5th century. The first regular Order in western Europe was that of the Benedictines, named after its founder, St. Benedict, an Italian religious reformer of the 6th century. After the life of a hermit in a secluded region for some years, his fame brought followers in great numbers, and he founded many monasteries, including his own special house on Monte Cassino near Naples, which became one of the richest and most celebrated in all Italy. His system of monastic rule was introduced there about a.d. 530, with the object of developing a high order of spiritual character, and this became the common rule of Western monachism. The system included continual residence in the house, under the government of an abbot of supreme authority, and the devotion of time to religious exercises, manual labours, the instruction of youth, and the copying of manuscripts, to the last of which we owe the preservation of some of the most precious literary work of Greece and Rome. These abodes thus became schools of learning, and training-colleges of the clergy. The Cluniacs, who were a branch of the Benedictines, have been already named. The Carthusians (1084) and the Cistercians (1098) were other Benedictine Orders, the latter, founded near Dijon, becoming very wealthy, with hundreds of abbeys spread through Europe.

In the 12th century a remarkable religious movement in the Church extended the original idea and practice of monastic life, mainly directed towards self-sanctification, to a wider sphere of duty embracing the spiritual and temporal necessities of the outer world. Thus arose the famous Franciscans, founded in 1208 by one of the most remarkable men in the religious life of the middle ages, St. Francis of Assisi, near Perugia, in central Italy. After a gay and prodigal, but bountiful career, as regarded the poor, in early manhood, he undertook a life of poverty, begging at the gates of monasteries, discharging menial duties, and going about barefoot, clad only in a coarse brown woollen tunic, girt with a cord of hemp. When he obtained followers and founded his first monastery, he made the vows, as in other cases, pledge the monks to chastity, poverty, and obedience, but the chief stress was laid on poverty, not merely for the members but for the Order. Success of the brethren in preaching brought the solemn approval, in 1216, of Pope Innocent III., and the numbers of the Order, called also Gray Friars, and Minorites or Lesser Brethren, enormously increased before the death of the founder in 1226. They became the source of many other religious institutions, including several Orders of nuns. The Franciscans had among them many men of eminence in theology and philosophy, as Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Alexander of Hales, and Bonaventure; and the wonderful Roger Bacon, who was also a linguist, scientific experimentalist, and skilful mechanician, was one of the same great fraternity. They had many monasteries in England, where the Friars of this mendicant Order did much admirable work in preaching and in the tendance of the sick poor during the 13th century. The rule of poverty was afterwards laid aside, and wealth and power brought degeneration and decay.

The powerful Dominican Order of preaching Friars derives its name from the founder Dominic, a Spanish (Castilian) canon of ascetic life, who became a missionary among Mohammedans and "heretics" of the Christian Church. In the south of France he laboured amongst the Albigenses, a body of sectarian Christians to be hereafter noticed, and in 1215 he founded his society at Toulouse. His work of persuasion became degraded, under the influence of the fanatical Pope Innocent III., into cruel persecution. Before his death in 1221 the Dominicans, devoted to rigid poverty, had 60 houses or monasteries. In England, where the dress of the members gave them the name of "Black Friars," their first foundation was at Oxford. It was the special object of the Dominicans to guard the purity of the faith. The theory of their canonised founder, St. Dominic, was that there was no salvation for the "heretic" in the next world, and that there must be no mercy in this. The Order had a chief part in the work of the detestable "Inquisition," of which they were the managers in Italy, Portugal, and Spain. In theological matters, the Dominicans, numbering amongst their learned "Schoolmen" the famous Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, were the rivals of the Franciscans.

On a general view, the preaching Friars did much to promote the religious influence of the Church, which had declined from the disuse of sermons, the ignorance of parish-priests, and the corrupt life engendered among monastic Orders by the possession of great wealth as landowning corporations. In political matters the sympathies of the wandering and begging brethren were almost wholly with the body of the people against the nobles and the Crown, and, as purveyors of news and arousers of feeling, they played an important part, especially in England, during the 13th and 14th centuries. The good effected by the monks in the "dark ages" comprises the exercise and influence of virtues - such as meekness and self-denial and comprehensive almsgiving - in which the laity were deficient. They were the "relieving-officers" and the physicians of the poor. They were the custodians and copyists, in the library and the scriptorium or writing-room, of the treasures of ancient literature and learning. Extending our view to the mediaeval Church at large, we may claim that she fulfilled a high office on behalf of humanity in the shelter which the precincts of an ecclesiastical building afforded to the fugitive, and in the bold stand which prelates and priests, abbots and priors, often made against the oppressor. The right of "sanctuary" in a consecrated place, akin to the shelter provided in the Jewish "cities of refuge" and in certain temples of ancient Greece, only accorded protection to a criminal for a limited time, until some arrangement could be made or the first heat of resentment were cooled, and the privilege was not granted to any person guilty of sacrilege or of treason. It is obvious that, in comparatively lawless times, the refuge provided by the Church was often a protection to the innocent. The influence of ecclesiastics was also often used in inducing feudal lords, in their days of health, or on their death-beds, to emancipate their serfs.

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Map. Europe during the Cruisade Period.
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