Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages - George Hodges



One of the most dangerous things in the world is money; and equally dangerous is power.

Both power and money are very pleasant possessions, but they tempt people to be selfish. Men who become rich often forget that they have neighbors who are poor; and they who have power are disposed to use it for their own advantage. They live in their comfortable houses, and attend to their own business, and shut their eyes and ears to the hardships of the world. They are tempted to be worse than selfish. Being attired in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day, they forget not their neighbors only, but God also. And this has happened, not only to princes, but to priests; not only to barons, but to bishops, and has made its way into monasteries.

It was very fine for Hildebrand to take the crown of the emperor of Germany, and for Innocent to take the crown of the king of England. It was the honest belief of these popes that if they could thus make themselves the masters of the world they could make it a good world. But such mastery brought with it the perils of power and money, and the great, rich Church fell into selfishness and evil living. The cathedrals and the abbeys were splendid buildings, and the services which took place in them were magnificent with colors and lights and incense, but the ministers who conducted the services and the people who attended them made little effort to make either the world or themselves better. "The time has long passed," said one cardinal to another, "when the Church could say, with Peter, 'Silver and gold have I none.' "  "Yes," replied the other cardinal, "and the time has also passed when the Church could say, 'Rise up and walk.' "

This state of things produced a reaction. There were still great numbers of good people who saw clearly that the true purpose of religion is to help men and women to live aright with God and with their neighbors. The sight of the Church of Christ forsaking its proper work in the world, devoting itself to architecture and music, and living in selfishness and sin, filled them with horror. They hated it. By-and-by the time came when the Church had so far departed from the Christian religion that they felt themselves forced into that great revolution called the Reformation, but, long before that, they cried out, in the name of God, like the old prophets, against a religion which had come to be, in many places, only a combination of idolatry and immorality.

Thus in the south of France, in the neighborhood of the city of Albi, arose the Albigenses.

It is difficult to determine just what these people believed. Almost all that is known about them is contained in the accounts of their enemies. Very likely, they had strange opinions. They were reported to hold, like the Manichees of St. Augustine's day, that there is a bad God as well as a good God. That was their explanation of the wickedness of the world as they saw it. It is certain that they were enemies of the Church, and that their enmity was based on moral grounds. They were good, earnest people who loved righteousness and hated iniquity. They stopped going to church, and held meetings of their own. They went about preaching what seemed to them the true religion. The churches were deserted. The people who desired to live aright joined the Albigenses. The Church sent missionaries, men of that Cistercian Order to which St. Bernard had belonged,—but the missionaries were dignified persons, dressed in splendid clothes, and taking excellent care of themselves, and they were in such contrast with the plain, simple, and devout Albigensian preachers that they made no converts.

At that time, however, a young man was journeying through that part of the country, with open eyes and an understanding heart. Dominic had just been graduated at a Spanish university, and was taking his first look at the world. He was an excellent scholar, of pure and helpful life, and desirous to be of use in the Church. He saw at once that the elegant Cistercians could accomplish nothing. What was needed was a company of men, living as plainly and righteously as the Albigensians, who could preach with all the Albigensian directness and with more wisdom. He saw that the revolt of the people against the Church was caused by the wickedness and weakness of the Church, and that their departures from the creed were caused by errors which clear explanation might correct. The Church must be represented, then, by better men, and the truth must be correctly taught.

The men whom Dominic gathered about him for this excellent purpose became presently a new society called the Dominicans. They brought back into religion the ancient custom of preaching. It had fallen into disuse. Bishops preached, but hardly anybody else; and even the bishops preached little, except in Lent. The purpose of going to church was not to hear a sermon, but to attend a service. The Dominicans were preachers.

St. Dominic


Dominic introduced another new idea into the religion of his time. The Benedictines and the Cistercians lived in monasteries; their ideal was to keep themselves apart form the world. The Dominicans took a new name. Instead of calling themselves "monks," which means men living alone, they called themselves "friars," which means brothers. They lived out-of-doors. They went about among the people.

Dominic's mother had a queer dream one night, in which she saw her son changed into a little black-and-white dog, having a blazing torch in his mouth. The black-and-white part of the dream seemed to come true when the Dominicans chose for their dress a long white cassock, over which they wore a black cloak. But a blazing torch may serve either to give light or to set fire.

The good purpose of Dominic was to enlighten the world. His intention was to advance the cause of truth by the use of reason. The bad world, he thought, would be made better by the persuasion of earnest preaching. This, however, is a slow process, and calls for long patience. Nobody knows what the eloquence of the Dominicans might have done for the Albigenses, because the sermons of Dominic were speedily followed by the sword of Simon de Montfort. The pope proclaimed a crusade against these critics of the Church. An orthodox army was sent against them. The faithful preachers and their good people were murdered,—men, women, and children together,—in the ruins of their burning houses. The blazing torch burned city after city. At last, the Albigenses ceased to raise their protest against the sins of the Church, because scarcely any of them were left alive. Thus the selfish and evil Church met the first determined effort to restore the righteousness of true religion.

And after the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade, came the horrors of the Inquisition. People who denied the faith, or who were suspected of denying the faith, were examined by inquisitors, put to torture, whipped, pinched with hot iron, their legs and arms broken, their skin scraped off, their tongues cut out, their eyes burned in the sockets, and, at last, tied to a stake, the blazing torch set fire to the heap of wood in the midst of which the heretic was fastened. It used to be said that Dominic established the Inquisition. Probably not. It is certain, however, that the bad business of managing it was in the hands of the Dominicans. They addressed themselves to the putting down of heresy. They were the defenders of the faith. They preached, indeed, following the example of their founder. They wrote books. One of them, Thomas Aquinas, was the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages. Everywhere, their churches and houses stood beside the churches and houses of the Franciscans; the Dominicans devoted to orthodoxy, the Franciscans to charity. But they conducted the Inquisition.

Thus the ideals of Dominic were brought to failure. He belongs with Francis, with Wycliffe, and with Wesley in his intention to save the world by preaching; but his preachers proved to be only the heralds of the most infamous of the wars of the Church. He belongs with modern men in his purpose to meet error with the weapons of reason; but the movement which began with reason proceeded to deal with error after a fashion in which reason had no part whatever. It was the chief enemy of reason. Dominic was a good man, whose single aim was to serve God and the Church. He succeeded in bringing a new earnestness into religion. But that which in him was earnestness in his followers was bigotry and cruelty. The virtues of Dominic are obscured by the crimes of the Dominicans.