It was a long time ago and I never actually did it. However, now I am intrigued by Carol Jackson Robinson’s little essay “Maryfilms” in Designs for Christian Living (reprint, Arouca Press, 2020). In this essay, from 1947, she imagines a deliberately Catholic movie studio making “rectification of history” films on its own reproduction 13th-century-village lot; so I thought, well, why not start rather with the 13th century and work back to the 12th? They seem to be two gems set together in a golden frame of time.
What do I know about the 13th century? Very little. You understand of course I am talking about 13th century Europe, I am talking about the Church, civilization, Christendom. I am talking about the foundations to which we must return, or at least keep in mind until our descendants may return. Hear a few lines from another little essay, Hilaire Belloc’s “The Modern Phase,” from The Great Heresies (first published, 1938):
A man going uphill may be at the same level as another man going down hill; but they are facing different ways and have different destinies. Our world, passing out of the old Paganism of Greece and Rome towards the consummation of Christendom and a Catholic civilization from which we all derive, is the very negation of the same world leaving the light of its ancestral religion and sliding back into the dark.
He happens also to notice three fruits of what he calls “the Modern Attack,” that is, our intellectual, elite, governing world’s loathing of the West and its root, “Christianity” (which Belloc most arrestingly says, “doesn’t exist and never did”: there is only the Catholic Church and heresies, successful or not). Anyway these fruits look lush and obvious to me, eighty years after Belloc published. He says they are, an acceptance of slavery as normal, an acceptance of cruelty as normal, and a denial of human reason itself. I ask you to look at the news cycle of the last fifteen months and tell whether you see the three fruits, clearly pendant and heavy on the tree. I’m thinking of basic outrages like human trafficking at the Mexican border, the Mask on children, the hysteria to stop questions and smother facts about the holy Vaccines.
Which brings us back to those gems set in gold, pardoning the mixed metaphor, the 13th and 12th centuries. I thought I might begin very simply with a list of personalities. It can be fun to see who was alive when, and what they did or if they were present at some great event.
King John (1166-1216) — Magna Carta, 1215. Legend has it, he was so awful no other English king can ever be named John.
St. Francis of Assisi (1181(?)-1226) — gave up his wealth, embraced a leper on the road and had a conversion, perhaps not quite in that order. Hence the Franciscans.
Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) — “stupor mundi,” the wonder of the world — “the first European,” “the first modern ruler.” Royal court at Palermo, Sicily.
King St Louis IX (1214-1270) — French king, builder of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris; died in camp of disease while on crusade in Tunisia. The “Modern Attack” wants to un-name St. Louis, Missouri, from him, because he was judgmental or whatevs.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) — philosopher, theologian, scholar of Aristotle; “the Angelic Doctor.”
King Edward I (1239-1307) — think Braveheart.
Marco Polo (1254-1324) — traveled overland to China with his uncles. People still know that, right?
It’s odd. You can trawl through a Wikipedia article looking for names and dates, choosing Western ones. The Modern Attack, the Revolution, Woke-ness, ongoing West hatred — whatever we call it, it has no reason yet to lie about simple facts of birth and death. Even if we can be pretty sure the Revolution runs Wikipedia. While you are busy picking what you want, you notice that in their fervor to emphasize all things non-Western (“by 1250, the Pensacola culture begins influencing the Coastal Coles Creek culture”) they have practically eliminated women from a thumbnail sketch of history. But I thought we didn’t like marginalizing women? Where is Eleanor of Aquitaine? Where is her granddaughter, Blanche of Castile? Where is St. Clare, friend of Francis of Assisi? Where is Margaret de Quincy, and her friend Eleanor of Provence, queen of England? These two happen to lead us to another friend, Robert Grossteste, intellectual and bishop. That happens. Anyway are we to dismiss women because they were mostly just princesses who got married and had babies? St. Clare did not. A monastery of Poor Clares stands only a few miles from where I live, in the suburban woods. It might be 13th-century Umbria. Hilaire Belloc continues, on the topic of anti-reason,
…the great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction. It merely affirms. It advances like an animal, counting on strength alone. Indeed, it may be remarked in passing that this may well be the cause of its final defeat; for hitherto reason has always overcome its opponents; and man is the master of the beast through reason.
We were going on with 13th-century people. Celebrities, if you like.
Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) — had no problem throwing his weight around Europe; approved the new mendicant orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic.
St. Dominic (1170-1221) — went into the south of France to preach against the heretic Cathars. (Among other things they believed the material world and man were evil and therefore suicide by starvation was commendable.) Founded a school for girls, the seed of the Dominican Order.
St. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) — scholar in all branches of learning, “miracle and wonder of his age;” teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Roger Bacon (1214-1292) — Franciscan friar, scholar of languages and mathematics.
Dante (1265-1321) — The Divine Comedy.
Duccio (c. 1250-1319) — painter
Cimabue (1240-1302) — painter
The reason you want to immerse yourself in this is because the Revolution, in all the dank chambers of its basement mansion, has so darkened man’s view and thinned his oxygen that he can hardly recognize the cathedral of truth still rising on its piers above him. I don’t know how to express it in a way that hasn’t been done before, but here are two ideas as we begin:
The Truth is a Person whom his friends and eyewitnesses saw and testified to, even to their deaths — and he goes on making friendships long after you might expect. And because he is alive, we all of us are not thrown back on our own or the Revolution’s resources; we don’t have to just set trembling jaw, and Stay Strong. We are not alone.
Among the personalities we can add an object. Here is the rose window of the south facade, Chartres Cathedral, finished about 1230. Note the “lancet” windows below the rose, in which we see the four Evangelists — the writers of the Gospels — literally “sitting on the shoulders of giants,” that is, sitting on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophets appropriate to them. At the very lower right is my favorite, Mark carried by Daniel. The center lancet of course is the Virgin holding the Christ child, who is Truth.
Image from The World of Chartres, Jean Favier, photography by Jean Barnard. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.