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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Kenneth Clark's Civilisation 

Chapter 3 



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I am in the Gothic world, the world of chivalry, courtesy and romance; a world in which serious things were done with a sense of play -- where even war and theology could become a sort of game; and when architecture reached a point of extravagance unequalled in history.

After all the great unifying convictions of the twelfth century, High Gothic art can look fantastic and luxurious -- what Marxists call conspicuous waste.

  • And yet these centuries produced some of the greatest spirits in the history of man, amongst them St Francis of Assisi and Dante.

Behind all the fantasy of the Gothic imagination there remained, on two different planes, a sharp sense of reality. Medieval man could see things very clearly, but he believed that these appearances should be considered as nothing more than symbols or tokens of an ideal order, which was the only true reality.

The fantasy strikes us first, and last; and one can see it in the room in the Cluny Museum in Paris hung with a series of tapestries known as The Lady with the Unicorn, one of the most seductive examples of the Gothic spirit. It is poetical, fanciful and profane. Its ostensible subject is the four senses. But its real subject is the power of love which can enlist and subdue all the forces of nature, including those two emblems of lust and ferocity, the unicorn and the lion. They kneel before this embodiment of chastity, and hold up the corners of her cloak. These wild animals have become, in the heraldic sense, her supporters.

And all round this allegorical scene is what the medieval philosophers used to call natura naturans -- nature naturing -- trees, flowers, leaves galore, birds, monkeys, and those rather obvious symbols of nature naturing, rabbits. There is even nature domesticated, a little dog, sitting on a cushion.

  • It is an image of worldly happiness at its most refined, what the French call the douceur de vivre [the "sweetness of life," the "good life"], which is often confused with civilisation.

We have come a long way from the powerful conviction that induced knights and ladies to draw carts of stone up the hill for the building of Chartres Cathedral.

And yet

  • the notion of ideal love, and the irresistible power of gentleness and beauty, which is emblematically conveyed by the homage of these two fierce beasts, can be traced back for three centuries;

we may even begin to look for it in the north portal of Chartres.

This portal was decorated in about the year 1220...

... Of the two or three faculties that have been added to the European mind since the civilisation of Greece and Rome, none seems to me stranger ... than the sentiment of ideal or courtly love.

  • It was entirely unknown to antiquity.

Passion, yes; desire, yes of course; steady affection, yes.

  • But this state of utter subjection to the will of an almost unapproachable woman; this belief that no sacrifice was too great, that a whole lifetime might properly be spent in paying court to some exacting lady or suffering on her behalf -- this would have seemed to the Romans or to the Vikings not only absurd but unbelievable; and yet for hundreds of years it passed unquestioned.

It inspired a vast literature -- from Chretien de Troyes to Shelley -- most of which I find unreadable; and even up to 1945 we still retained a number of chivalrous gestures; we raised our hats to ladies, and let them pass first through doors, and, in America, pushed in their seats at table.

  • And we still subscribed to the fantasy that they were chaste and pure beings, in whose presence we couldn't tell certain stories or pronounce certain words.

Well, that's all over now, but it had a long run, and there was something to be said for it.

How did it begin?

The truth is that nobody knows. Most people think that, with the pointed arch, it came from the east; that pilgrims and crusaders found in the Moslem world a tradition of Persian literature in which women were the subject of extravagant compliment and devotion.

I don't know enough about Persian literature to say if this is true; but I do think the crusades had another, less direct influence on the concept of courtly love.

The lady of a castle must have had a peculiar position with so many unoccupied young men who couldn't spend all their time hunting, and who of course never did a stroke of what we call work; and when the lord was away for a year or two, the lady was left in charge. She took on his functions and received the kind of homage that was accepted in a feudal society; and the wandering knight who visited her did so with the mixture of deference and hope that one gets in the troubadour poems.

The numerous ivory mirror cases and other domestic objects of the fourteenth century support this theory. They are a repertoire of flirtation, and culminate in a scene known as the Siege of the Castle of Love, in which the ladies leaning on the battlements put up a weak defence as young gallants climb up on rope ladders.

The hilarious scenes in Rossini's Comte d'Ory are not as unhistorical as one might suppose. I ought perhaps to add that the idea of marriage doesn't come into the question any more than it would today.

A 'love match' is almost an invention of the late eighteenth century. Medieval marriages were entirely a matter of property, and, as everybody knows, marriage without love means love without marriage.

  • Then I suppose one must admit that the cult of the Virgin had something to do with it. In this context it sounds rather blasphemous, but the fact remains that one often hardly knows if a medieval love lyric is addressed to the poet's mistress or to the Virgin Mary.

The greatest of all writings about ideal love, Dante's Vita Nuova, is a quasi-religious work, and in the end it is Beatrice who introduces Dante to Paradise.

For all these reasons I think it is permissible to associate the cult of ideal love with the ravishing beauty and delicacy that one finds in the madonnas of the thirteenth century...


Editor's note: See a discussion on the development of the "Mary doctrine" at the bottom of the Sensibility page.


... the Duke of Berry's artists were the most perceptive spirits of the age.

  • What do they tell us about civilisation in the late fourteenth century?

First of all, that the delicacy and refinement of the thirteenth century lasted over one hundred years. It survived the Black Death and the Hundred Years War and the economic revolution of the first enclosures, and became completely international...

In the years when the north portal of Chartres was being built, a rich young dandy named Francesco Bernadone suffered a change of heart.

He was, and always remained, the most courteous of men, deeply influenced by French ideals of chivalry. And one day when he had fitted himself up in his best clothes in preparation for some chivalrous campaign, he met a poor gentleman whose need seemed to be greater than his own, and gave him his cloak.

That night he dreamed that he should rebuild the Celestial City. Later he gave away his possessions so liberally that his father, who was a rich businessman in the Italian town of Assisi, was moved to disown him; whereupon Francesco took off his remaining clothes and said that he would possess nothing, absolutely nothing. The Bishop of Assisi hid his nakedness, and afterwards gave him a cloak; and Francesco went off into the woods, singing a French song.

The next three years he spent in abject poverty, looking after lepers, who were very much in evidence in the Middle Ages, and rebuilding with his own hands (for he had taken his dream literally) abandoned churches.

One day at Mass he heard the words 'Carry neither gold nor silver, nor money in your girdle, nor bag, nor two coats, nor sandals, nor staff'.

I suppose he had often heard them before, but this time they spoke directly to his heart. He threw away his staff and his sandals and went out bare-footed onto the hills. In all his actions he took the words of the Gospels literally and he translated them into the language of chivalric poetry and of those jongleur songs that were always on his lips.

  • He said that he had taken poverty for his Lady, and when he achieved some still more drastic act of self-denial, he said that it was to do her a courtesy. It was partly because he saw that wealth corrupts; partly because he felt that it was discourteous to be in the company of anyone poorer than oneself.

From the first everyone recognised that St Francis (as we may now call him) was a religious genius -- the greatest, I believe, that Europe has ever produced; and when, with his first twelve disciples, he managed to gain access to Innocent III, the toughest politician in Europe (who was also a great Christian), the Pope gave him permission to found an order.

It was an extraordinary piece of insight, because St Francis was not only a layman with no theological training, but

  • he and his poor, ragged companions were so excited when they went to see the Pope that they began to dance.

What a picture!

Unfortunately the early painters of the Franciscan legend do not reproduce it. The most convincing illustrations of the story of St Francis are the work of the Sienese painter Sasetta, although he painted so much later, because the chivalric, Gothic tradition lingered on in Siena as nowhere else in Italy, and gave to Sasetta's sprightly images a lyric, even a visionary quality more Franciscan than the ponderous images of Giotto.

But they have more authority, not only because Giotto was working almost a hundred and fifty years nearer to the time of St Francis, but because he, and his circle, were chosen to decorate the great church dedicated to St Francis in Assisi.

And when it comes to the later and -- how shall I say it? less lyrical episodes in the saint's life, Giotto's frescoes have a fullness of humanity that was beyond Sasetta. Where they seem to me to fail is in their image of the saint himself. They make him too grave and commanding.

  • They don't show a spark of the joy that he valued almost as highly as courtesy.

Incidentally we don't know at all what he looked like. The earliest representation which must date from just after his death is (appropriately enough) on a French enamel box. The best known early painting is attributed to the first famous Italian painter, Cimabue. It looks quite convincing, but I'm afraid that it is entirely repainted, and only shows us what the nineteenth century thought St Francis ought to have been like.

  • St Francis died in 1226 at the age of forty-three worn out by his austerities. On his deathbed he asked forgiveness of 'poor brother donkey, my body' for the hardships he had made it suffer.

He had seen his group of humble companions grow into a great institution, and in 1220 he had, with perfect simplicity, relinquished control of the order. He recognised that he was no administrator.

Two years after his death he was canonised and almost immediately his followers began to build a great basilica in his memory... A strange memorial to the little poor man, whose favourite saying was, 'Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests: but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head'.

But of course, St Francis's cult of poverty could not survive him -- it did not even last his lifetime. It was officially rejected by the Church; for the Church had already become part of the international banking system that originated in thirteenth-century Italy.

  • Those of Francis's disciples, called Fraticelli, who clung to his doctrine of poverty were denounced as heretics and burnt at the stake.

And for seven hundred years capitalism has continued to grow to its present monstrous proportions.

It may seem that St Francis has had no influence at all, because even those humane reformers of the nineteenth century who sometimes invoked him did not wish to exalt or sanctify poverty but to abolish it.

And yet his belief that in order to free the spirit we must shed all our earthly goods is the belief that all great religious teachers have had in common eastern and western, without exception. It is an ideal to which, however impossible it may be in practice, the finest spirits will always return.

  • By enacting that truth with such simplicity and grace, St Francis made it part of the European consciousness.

And by freeing himself from the pull of possessions, he achieved a state of mind which gained a new meaning in the late eighteenth century through the philosophy of Rousseau and Wordsworth. It was only because he possessed nothing that St Francis could feel sincerely a brotherhood with all created things, not only living creatures, but brother fire and sister wind...

  • St Francis is a figure of the pure Gothic time -- the time of crusades and castles and the great cathedrals. Although he interpreted it in a curious way, he belonged to the age of chivalry.

Well, however much one loves that world, it must, I think, remain for us today infinitely strange and remote. It is as enchanting, as luminous, as transcendental as the stained glass that is its glory -- and, in the ordinary meaning of the word, as unreal.

  • But already during the lifetime of St Francis another world was growing up, which, for better or worse, is the ancestor of our own, the world of trade and of banking, of cities full of hard-headed men whose aim in life was to grow rich without ceasing to appear respectable.

  • Cities, citizen, civilian, civic life: I suppose that all this ought to have a direct bearing on what we mean by civilisation.

Nineteenth-century historians, who loved word-games of this sort, believed that it had, and even maintained that civilisation began with the Italian republics of the fourteenth century.

  • Well, civilisation as I understand it can be created in a monastery or a court just as well as in a city -- perhaps rather better.

But all the same, the social and economic system that grew up in Italian towns, particularly in Florence in the thirteenth century, had a point.

  • As opposed to the system of chivalry, it was realistic: and the proof is that it has survived.

Industrial and banking conditions in Florence at the time of Dante were surprisingly similar to those that exist in Lombard Street today...



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