Lecture 6/7. The horrible 14th century
Topics this hour:
- Ruusbroec and the 14th century
- Society during the 14th century
- The church during the 14th century
- Ruusbroec's response to his time
Ruusbroec and the 14th century
Last week we've gotten acquainted a littlebit with John of Ruusbroec (1293-1381), by means of the report that brother Geraert had written about him. I hope that you all now will have a picture of the course of Ruusbroec's life: first he has a position as priest and chaplain at the church of St. Gudula in Brussels; when he is 50 years old, he and Jan Hinckaert and Wouter Rademaker move to Groenendaal ('Green Valley'); and some years later they take the rule of Augustine and become monks. And from that moment on, their movement starts to grow more and more.
Today I will discuss the period in which Ruusbroec lived. What is happening in society and what are the religious developments in the 14th century; to what extent is Ruusbroec a child of his time and to what extent does he react to events that happen during his lifetime? I also will follow up on last week's question: what intention did Ruusbroec have with his Middle Dutch writings?
The Carthusian monk brother Geraert wrote in his report that there was a need of education in 'Diets' in those days, because of several misleadingnesses and inconsistencies that had arisen. I will come back to that at the end of this hour.
Society during the 14th century
The first subject this hour will be the time in which Ruusbroec lived: the social and religious circumstances of his time. Ruusbroec lives and writes in the fourteenth century. His life spans from 1293 until 1381, so he witnessed almost the entire century.
And the 14th century is nothing like the 12th or the 13th century. You will remember that the 12th century is a time of growth, prosperity - economically, culturally and religiously. The cities are growing, the first universities are founded, and at the court clerks start to write down literature in the vernacular. With regard to Christianity, the pope is at the zenith of his power during the 12th and 13th century, also secular power. The monasteries are growing and are becoming increasingly more rich. That leads to a countermovement: during the 12th century that poverty-movement arises, with a strong focus on an inward oriented sprituality, affectively felt religion; especially influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux.
The 13th century is in almost every respect a continuation of the 12th century. The ideal of poverty remains popular (remember the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Cistercians and outside the monasteries the beguines). The participation of women in religious movements is growing, both within and outside the monasteries; and in those circles it are women who start to write about religion in the regional language. Still essential during the 13th century are inward orientation and affective experienced faith.
The 14th century, Ruusbroec's century, I can describe in short as a disastrous century. It's a horrible century; it's sometimes called: the insane 14th century. Well, what are all these terrible events that are taking place in the 14th century?
The Hundred Years' War,
battle of Crécy, Chronicle of Froissart, 1346.
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* First of all: for more than hundred years the Hundred Years' War between England and France drags on. Flanders gets caught in the crossfire (turmoil, insecurity, unsafety). That lasts from 1337-1453.
* Secondly: within many European countries a struggle for power arises. Also in Flanders and Brabant the traditional rulers, like kings, nobility, earls and dukes on the one hand, and the cities (the growing cities) with their local government and guilds on the other hand, get entangled in a power struggle. So a struggle for power between the nobility and the cities.
* Thirdly: several times the harvests completely fail, which results in hunger, starvation, famines - especially in the years 1315-1317. The consequence is an unstable economy.
* And to make matters even worse, fourth of all, Europe is hit several times by epidemics of the plague, especially in the years 1347-1351. Millions of people die in those years in Europe due to the plague (the Black Death), about a third of the population.
* All these things result in immense social unrest, commonly known are the peasant's revolts: in Flanders in 1332, in France in 1358 and in England in 1381. This is usually depicted as farmers with hayforks and pitchforks (because only the nobility was allowed to possess weapons, they had the monopoly on the use of force). The immediate cause of these peasant's revolts was the increasing tax burden, imposed by the nobility - they were impoverished by the bad economy, but had to finance at the same time a very expensive warfare.
The 14th century
- Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)
- power struggle nobility - cities
- famines (1315-1317)
- the plague (1347-1351)
- peasant's revolts (1332, 1358, 1381)
During the worst famines, Ruusbroec was 22 years old, it's just a few years before he will be ordained to priesthood. At the start of the Hundred Years' War, Ruusbroec is 44 years old, he is still chaplain at the church of St. Gudula in Brussels. During the Black Death, the plague, he is around 55, he already lives in Groenendaal, in the Sonian Forest.
Plague sufferers in an Italian infirmary
with monks as caretakers.
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The church during the 14th century
Dispute about the ideal of poverty
But the 14th century is not only a turbulent time for society. Also the Catholic Church is struggling during this century. First of all, there is a conflict with the Franciscans or greyfriars. They are living according to the ideal of poverty, completely without possessions. But in the opinion of the church, this is too extreme and in 1323 the pope declares that the idea that Christ was living without possessions, is heretical.
Of course this is immensely disruptive for all the groups that live according to the ideal of poverty since the 12th and 13th century, like the beguines. It also leads to the fact that the Franciscans become more critical towards the church and start to question the power that the church wields. So this a hughe area of religious tension during the 14th century (e.g. Umberto Eco wrote about this in The name of the rose). But note: the church didn't disaprove of living in poverty, but the idea that Christ lived in poverty became heretical - and with that an important foundation supporting the ideal of poverty is removed.
The Western Schism (1387-1417)
Later in this 14th century an even bigger and more fundamental problem arises within the church. During the 13th century the pope has gained very much power. Around 1300 however, a conflict rises between the pope of that time (Boniface VIII) and the French king (Philip IV the Fair). This conflict ran so high, that the pope excommunicated the king, after which the king attacked the pope with a millitary force.
In 1303 this pope died (of natural causes, by the way) and his successor is a Frenchman, pope Clement V, who does a very strange thing. He relocates the papel court from Rome to Avignon! That's really weird, because the pope is in fact the bishop of Rome. But anyway, the pope moves to the south of France, the city of Avignon, and chums up with the French king. Also all of his successors remain in Avignon and this situation lasts till 1377. Around that time, the pope gets into conflict with the monarchs of Germany, who disapprove of the fact that the pope lives all the way in Avignon, and the pope of that time (Gregory XI) returns to Rome.
But that's in fact the moment when things go really terribly wrong. In 1378 a new pope has to be chosen and that is the Neapolitan Urban VI. But immediately a disagreement arises between this pope and his cardinals, so they choose an antipope: Clement VII, an Italian. Clement takes up his residence in Avignon. So from 1378 onward, there are two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. This is the beginning of the Western Schism (the division of the Western church). This Schism will last for 40 years, from 1378 till 1417.
The moment the first pope takes up his residence in Avignon, Ruusbroec is only 16 years old. And he lived to just see the start of the Western Schism, during the last three years of his life, since he was 85 years old (1378 till 1381). It's not something that will have put him in a cheerful or hopeful mood...
Papal palace in Avignon
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Breach between believing and thinking
So during this Western Schism there is one pope in Avignon, elected by the cardinals; and one pope in Rome, who has a fight with the cardinals. Both popes repeatedly are succeeded. But this Schism is sometimes regarded as a symbol for a much more profound and more fundamental schism / division that takes place during the 14th century (the near end of the Middle Ages). A breach arises between believing and thinking.
As you will remember, of earlier lectures, during the Middle Ages thinking is soaked with religion, belief is the foundation of thinking. Knowledge, ken (then called artes, a predecessor of science, you could say) is steeped in belief during the Middle Ages - remember the medieval cosmology or the artes-literature, the philosophy of nature (see the hand-out 'Artes liberales' below).
But during the 14th century, this changes. Thinkers of the 14th century, like Duns Scotus (Franciscan, around 1300) and William of Ockham (Franciscan, 1288-1347), start to distinguish that what faith teaches us, from that what one can prove. And that is something completely new! So from the 14th century onward, thinking, philosophy, the natural sciences, are separated from belief. This leads to the first form of science on the one hand and theology on the other hand.
This can be regarded as early developments that during the Enlightenment (from ca. 1650 onward) become the most important principles of Western culture, science, philosophy, democracy - Western thinking. As long as religious ideas form the basis of science, of thinking, it's not possible this thinking is able to evolve, it is stuck in convictions that were thought to be true centuries before, by people of possibly less developed cultures, like the bronze age or the iron age.
Only when thinking and believing are separated, science can lead to progress. During the next lecture we will see that even Ruusbroec, although he is an incredible profound and precise thinker, is stuck in religious convictions of his time and far before his time - and therefore isn't able to elaborate his vision in freedom, it derails, stagnates (showing that as soon as people start to think that what they believe is 'the truth', thinking will come to a standstill).
Since the antiquity there were three groups of subjects a pupil could choose to study: the 'liberal arts' (artes liberales: language and calculating), the 'mecha