I suppose there are those who would say that it makes little sense to study the past: what’s done is done. But I am not one of those people. I think we study the past in order to better understand the present and anticipate the future. Indeed, I have had a special interest in the Medieval period for many years, not because I would like to have lived then, but because I am astonished by the depth of medieval faith and the character of a people who stand in such sharp contrast to most “civilized” people I am aware of. Like so many “uncivilized” people today they seem to have been so much happier than we are, despite their many privations. I have referred in previous blogs to Henry Adams who visited Mont Saint Michel and Chartres for several months and studied the two remarkable cathedrals at great length, reading copiously in the literature of the era, in order to better understand the age in which they were built. He also thought it would help him better understand the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the age in which he lived. In his discussion of Chartres, for example, he remarks, almost in passing, about the depth of commitment the people made who built the great cathedrals:
“According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to estimates made in 1840, more than . . . a thousand million dollars [in 1840 dollars!], and this covered only the great churches of that century. The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000, and almost every parish in France had rebuilt its church in stone; to this day France is strewed with the ruins of this architecture, and yet the still preserved churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries alone, the churches that belong to the romanesque and transition periods, are numbered by hundreds until they reach well into the thousands.. . . Just as the French of the nineteenth century invested their surplus capital in a railway system in the belief that they would make money by it in this life, in the thirteenth century they trusted their money to the Queen of Heaven because of their belief in her power to repay it with interest in the life to come.”
The juxtaposition of ideas in these sentences provokes considerable thought, as does so much of what Adams had to say. To begin with, the devotion to an idea in the medieval period is astonishing and dwarfs anything Adams had witnessed in his lifetime — even the building of the French railway system! And when it comes to expenditure of our precious treasure today, the only possible comparison would be the immense amount of money we spend on what we like to call “defense.” This suggests that our age exhibits less hope and greater fear than either the age of Henry Adams or the age of the great cathedrals, the age in which Christianity was most influential.
It is an easy inference to say that the birth of industrial capitalism killed Christian belief, for all intents and purposes. But this may be a bit simplistic. Surely, the conviction that a railway system and steam power could take us all to the promised land was widespread in Adams’ day, as is the deeply held belief in our own day that the billions of dollars we spend on the military will keep us safe and happy. Those beliefs have assuredly helped turn people’s attention away from the Christian belief in life after death to life here and now. However, those beliefs pale in contrast with those of the people who had so little in the way of material goods and yet were willing to devote their lives to making the great cathedrals — most of the people who helped build them not living long enough to see them completed. And just consider the staggering numbers of cathedrals built in the period Adams alludes to and the countless number of people who must have been involved in that building — especially considering that they had to haul solid granite boulders of immense size and weight from a quarry five miles outside of Chartres to the top of a hill where the cathedral was built and then raise them to a height of 370′ just to construct the towers at the West entrance! We really have nothing to compare it with in our age, not even putting men on the moon — which very few of us were involved with. And the fact is that most of the things we would point to proudly as accomplishments of modern men and women would reveal beneath the surface the motive of profit and personal gain; so, if we hesitate to claim that capitalism killed Christianity, we can safely say it helped render it irrelevant.
Be that as it may, the contrast that interested Adams most is that between “ignorance fortified by a certain element of nineteenth century indifference which refuses to be interested in what it cannot understand [and] the thirteenth century which cared little to comprehend anything except the incomprehensible.” Dare I suggest that we share that nineteenth century ignorance born of indifference while at the same time we refuse to recognize our ignorance and arrogantly insist that that there is nothing we cannot comprehend? What Adams found most unsettling, however, was the absence in his age of “the good faith, the depth of feeling, the intensity of conviction” that he found everywhere he looked in 11th and 12th century Europe. Seekers who have attempted to ferret out truths about subsequent ages have tended to echo Adams’ concerns.
In any event, it was certainly the case that most, if not all, of those working on the cathedrals in the twelfth and thirteenth century were convinced that their efforts would buy them a shorter period in Purgatory and almost certainly an eternity in heaven with the saints and others who shared their views. Thus, while we might want to question their motives, we must remember that the church taught in those times that those who did good deeds in order to get into Heaven would be disappointed. Motive was all: the motive was to do good for its own sake, not for the sake of a reward. The brilliant Henry Adams, who had the childlike gift of being able to transport himself back to another age, is convinced that those who worked on Chartres had only one motive: to create a palace for the Queen of Heaven.
Thus, while we might resist the temptation to draw hasty conclusions about industrial capitalism and the demise of Christianity, once we begin to explore even a brief passage such as this one, we see layers of thought that take us much deeper into an understanding of our age in contrast with that of those ordinary, and extraordinary, (unsophisticated) people so many years ago. People have not changed that much, but the focus of their lives has changed dramatically. While they prepared to defend themselves from attackers, virtually all of those who peopled Europe in the medieval period devoted themselves and their fortunes to the building of monuments to glorify God; we spend our worldly wealth to build weapons of war while we seek longer and more pleasant lives. We do not come off well in such a study of contrasts, since for all of what we call “progress” we are far behind in so many ways those who were dedicated to something outside themselves, who shared a living faith in something greater than themselves and an abiding hope in a better day to come.