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The Medieval Laboratory

People Once More Dared to Be Happy Just Because They Were Alive. They Tried to Save the Remains of the Older and More Agreeable Civilization of Rome and Greece and They Were So Proud of Their Achievements That They Spoke of a Renaissance or Rebirth of Civilization

The Renaissance was not a political or religious movement. It was a state of mind.

The people of the Renaissance continued to be the obedient children of the mother church. They were subjects of kings and emperors and dukes and murmured not.

But their outlook upon life was changed. They began to wear different clothes—to speak a different language—to live different lives in different houses.

They no longer concentrated all their thoughts and their efforts upon the blessed existence that awaited them in Heaven. They tried to establish their Paradise upon this planet, and, truth to tell, they succeeded in a remarkable degree.

I have quite often warned you against the danger that lies in historical dates. People take them too literally. They think of the Middle Ages as a period of darkness and ignorance. "Click," says the clock, and the Renaissance begins and cities and palaces are flooded with the bright sunlight of an eager intellectual curiosity.

As a matter of fact, it is quite impossible to draw such sharp lines. The thirteenth century belonged most decidedly to the Middle Ages. All historians agree upon that. But was it a time of darkness and stagnation merely? By no means. People were tremendously alive. Great states were being founded. Large centers of commerce were being developed. High above the turretted towers of the castle and the peaked roof of the town hall, rose the slender spire of the newly built Gothic cathedral. Everywhere the world was in motion. The high and mighty gentlemen of the city hall, who had just become conscious of their own strength (by way of their recently acquired riches) were struggling for more power with their feudal masters. The members of the guilds who had just become aware of the important fact that "numbers count" were fighting the high and mighty gentlemen of the city hall. The king and his shrewd advisers went fishing in these troubled waters and caught many a shining bass of profit which they proceeded to cook and eat before the noses of the surprised and disappointed councilors and guild brethren.

To enliven the scenery during the long hours of evening when the badly lighted streets did not invite further political and economic dispute, the Troubadours and Minnesingers told their stories and sang their songs of romance and adventure and heroism and loyalty to all fair women. Meanwhile youth, impatient of the slowness of progress, flocked to the universities, and thereby hangs a story.

The Middle Ages were "internationally minded." That sounds difficult, but wait until I explain it to you. We modern people are "nationally minded." We are Americans or Englishmen or Frenchmen or Italians and speak English or French or Italian and go to English and French and Italian universities, unless we want to specialize in some particular branch of learning which is only taught elsewhere, and then we learn another language and go to Munich or Madrid or Moscow. But the people of the thirteenth or fourteenth century rarely talked of themselves as Englishmen or Frenchmen or Italians. They said, "I am a citizen of Sheffield or Bordeaux or Genoa." Because they all belonged to one and the same church they felt a certain bond of kinship. And as all those educated could speak Latin, they possessed an international language which removed the stupid language barriers which have grown up in modern Europe and which place the small nations at such an enormous disadvantage. Just as an example, take the case of Erasmus, the great preacher of tolerance and laughter, who wrote his books in the sixteenth century. He was the native of a small Dutch village. He wrote in Latin and all the world was his audience. If he were alive today, he would write in Dutch. Then only five or six million people would be able to read him. To be understood by the rest of Europe and America, his publishers would be obliged to translate his books into twenty different languages. That would cost a lot of money and most likely the publishers would never take the trouble or the risk.

Six hundred years ago that could not happen. The greater part of the people were still very ignorant and could not read or write at all. But those who had mastered the difficult art of handling the goose quill belonged to an international republic of letters which spread across the entire continent and which knew of no boundaries and respected no limitations of language or nationality. The universities were the strongholds of this republic. Unlike modern fortifications, they did not follow the frontier. They were to be found wherever a teacher and a few pupils happened to find themselves together. There again the Middle Ages and the Renaissance differed from our own time. Nowadays, when a new university is built, the process (almost invariably) is as follows: Some rich person wants to do something for the community in which they live or a particular religious sect wants to build a school to keep its faithful children under decent supervision, or a state needs doctors and lawyers and teachers. The university begins as a large sum of money which is deposited in a bank. This money is then used to construct buildings and laboratories and dormitories. Finally professional teachers are hired, entrance examinations are held and the university is on the way.

But in the Middle Ages things were done differently. A wise man said to himself, "I have discovered a great truth. I must impart my knowledge to others." And he began to preach his wisdom wherever and whenever he could get a few people to listen to him, like a modern soapbox orator. If he was an interesting speaker, the crowd came and stayed. If he was dull, they shrugged their shoulders and continued their way.

By and by certain young men began to come regularly to hear the words of wisdom of this great teacher. They brought copybooks with them and a little bottle of ink and a goose quill and wrote down what seemed to be important. One day it rained. The teacher and his pupils retired to an empty basement or the room of the "Professor." The learned man sat in his chair and the boys sat on the floor. That was the beginning of the University, the "universitas," a corporation of professors and students during the Middle Ages, when the "teacher" counted for everything and the building in which he taught counted for very little.

As an example, let me tell you of something that happened in the ninth century. In the town of Salerno near Naples there were a number of excellent physicians. They attracted people desirous of learning the medical profession and for almost a thousand years (until 1817) there was a university of Salerno which taught the wisdom of Hippocrates, the great Greek doctor who had practiced his art in ancient Hellas in the fifth century before the birth of Christ.

Then there was Abelard, the young priest from Brittany, who early in the twelfth century began to lecture on theology and logic in Paris. Thousands of eager young men flocked to the French city to hear him. Other priests who disagreed with him stepped forward to explain their point of view. Paris was soon filled with a clamouring multitude of Englishmen and Germans and Italians and students from Sweden and Hungary and around the old cathedral which stood on a little island in the Seine there grew the famous University of Paris.
The Renaissance

In Bologna in Italy, a monk by the name of Gratian had compiled a textbook for those whose business it was to know the laws of the church. Young priests and many laymen then came from all over Europe to hear Gratian explain his ideas. To protect themselves against the landlords and the innkeepers and the boarding house ladies of the city, they formed a corporation (or University) and behold the beginning of the university of Bologna.

Next there was a quarrel in the University of Paris. We do not know what caused it, but a number of disgruntled teachers together with their pupils crossed the channel and found a hospitable home in a little village on the Thames called Oxford, and in this way the famous University of Oxford came into being. In the same way, in the year 1222, there had been a split in the University of Bologna. The discontented teachers (again followed by their pupils) had moved to Padua and their proud city thenceforward boasted of a university of its own. And so it went from Valladolid in Spain to Cracow in distant Poland and from Poitiers in France to Rostock in Germany.

It is quite true that much of the teaching done by these early professors would sound absurd to our ears, trained to listen to logarithms and geometrical theorems. The point however, which I want to make is this—the Middle Ages and especially the thirteenth century were not a time when the world stood entirely still. Among the younger generation, there was life, there was enthusiasm, and there was a restless if somewhat bashful asking of questions. And out of this turmoil grew the Renaissance.

But just before the curtain went down upon the last scene of the Medieval world, a solitary figure crossed the stage, of whom you ought to know more than his mere name. This man was called Dante Alighieri. He was the son of a Florentine lawyer who belonged to the Alighieri family and he saw the light of day in the year 1265. He grew up in the city of his ancestors while Giotto was painting his stories of the life of St. Francis of Assisi upon the walls of the Church of the Holy Cross, but often when he went to school, his frightened eyes would see the puddles of blood which told of the terrible and endless warfare that raged forever between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, the followers of the Pope and the adherents of the Emperors.

When he grew up, he became a Guelph, because his father had been one before him, just as an American child might become a Democrat or a Republican, simply because his father had happened to be a Democrat or a Republican. But after a few years, Dante saw that Italy, unless united under a single head, threatened to perish as a victim of the disordered jealousies of a thousand little cities. Then he became a Ghibelline.

He looked for help beyond the Alps. He hoped that a mighty emperor might come and reestablish unity and order. Alas! he hoped in vain. The Ghibellines were driven out of Florence in the year 1302. From that time on until the day of his death amidst the dreary ruins of Ravenna, in the year 1321, Dante was a homeless wanderer, eating the bread of charity at the table of rich patrons whose names would have sunk into the deepest pit of oblivion but for this single fact, that they had been kind to a poet in his misery. During the many years of exile, Dante felt compelled to justify himself and his actions when he had been a political leader in his hometown, and when he had spent his days walking along the banks of the Arno that he might catch a glimpse of the lovely Beatrice Portinari, who died the wife of another man, a dozen years before the Ghibelline disaster.

He had failed in the ambitions of his career. He had faithfully served the town of his birth and before a corrupt court he had been accused of stealing the public funds and had been condemned to be burned alive should he venture back within the realm of the city of Florence. To clear himself before his own conscience and before his contemporaries, Dante then created an Imaginary World and with great detail he described the circumstances which had led to his defeat and depicted the hopeless condition of greed and lust and hatred which had turned his fair and beloved Italy into a battlefield for the pitiless mercenaries of wicked and selfish tyrants.

He tells us how on the Thursday before Easter of the year 1300 he had lost his way in a dense forest and how he found his path barred by a leopard and a lion and a wolf. He gave himself up for lost when a white figure appeared amidst the trees. It was Virgil, the Roman poet and philosopher, sent upon his errand of mercy by the Blessed Virgin and by Beatrice, who from high Heaven watched over the fate of her true lover. Virgil then takes Dante through Purgatory and through Hell. Deeper and deeper the path leads them until they reach the lowest pit where Lucifer himself stands frozen into the eternal ice surrounded by the most terrible of sinners, traitors and liars and those who have achieved fame and success by lies and by deceit. But before the two wanderers have reached this terrible spot, Dante has met all those who in some way or other have played a role in the history of his beloved city. Emperors and Popes, dashing knights and whining usurers, they are all there, doomed to eternal punishment or awaiting the day of deliverance, when they shall leave Purgatory for Heaven.

It is a curious story. It is a handbook of everything the people of the thirteenth century did and felt and feared and prayed for. Through it all moves the figure of the lonely Florentine exile, forever followed by the shadow of his own despair.

And behold! when the gates of death were closing upon the sad poet of the Middle Ages, the portals of life swung open to the child who was to be the first of the men of the Renaissance. That was Francesco Petrarca, the son of the notary public of the little town of Arezzo.

Francesco's father had belonged to the same political party as Dante. He too had been exiled and thus it happened that Petrarca (or Petrarch, as we call him) was born away from Florence. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Montpellier in France that he might become a lawyer like his father. But the boy did not want to be a jurist. He hated the law. He wanted to be a scholar and a poet—and because he wanted to be a scholar and a poet beyond everything else, he became one, as people of a strong will are apt to do. He made long voyages, copying manuscripts in Flanders and in the cloisters along the Rhine and in Paris and Liege and finally in Rome. Then he went to live in a lonely valley of the wild mountains of Vaucluse, and there he studied and wrote and soon he had become so famous for his verse and for his learning that both the University of Paris and the king of Naples invited him to come and teach their students and subjects. On the way to his new job, he was obliged to pass through Rome. The people had heard of his fame as an editor of half-forgotten Roman authors. They decided to honor him and in the ancient forum of the Imperial City, Petrarch was crowned with the laurel wreath of the Poet.

From that moment on, his life was an endless career of honor and appreciation. He wrote the things which people wanted most to hear. They were tired of theological disputations. Poor Dante could wander through hell as much as he wanted. But Petrarch wrote of love and of nature and the sun and never mentioned those gloomy things which seemed to have been the stock in trade of the last generation. And when Petrarch came to a city, all the people flocked out to meet him and he was received like a conquering hero. If he happened to bring his young friend Boccaccio, the story teller, with him, so much the better. They were both men of their time, full of curiosity, willing to read everything once, digging in forgotten and musty libraries that they might find still another manuscript of Virgil or Ovid or Lucretius or any of the other old Latin poets. They were good Christians. Of course they were! Everyone was. But no need of going around with a long face and wearing a dirty coat just because some day or other you were going to die. Life was good. People were meant to be happy. You desired proof of this? Very well. Take a spade and dig into the soil. What did you find? Beautiful old statues. Beautiful old vases. Ruins of ancient buildings. All these things were made by the people of the greatest empire that ever existed. They ruled all the world for a thousand years. They were strong and rich and handsome (just look at that bust of the Emperor Augustus!). Of course, they were not Christians and they would never be able to enter Heaven. At best they would spend their days in purgatory, where Dante had just paid them a visit.

But who cared? To have lived in a world like that of ancient Rome was heaven enough for any mortal being. And anyway, we live but once. Let us be happy and cheerful for the mere joy of existence.

Such, in short, was the spirit that had begun to fill the narrow and crooked streets of the many little Italian cities.

You know what we mean by the "bicycle craze" or the "automobile craze." Some one invents a bicycle. People who for hundreds of thousands of years have moved slowly and painfully from one place to another go "crazy" over the prospect of rolling rapidly and easily over hill and dale. Then a clever mechanic makes the first automobile. No longer is it necessary to pedal and pedal and pedal. You just sit and let little drops of gasoline do the work for you. Then everybody wants an automobile. Everybody talks about Rolls Royces and Flivvers and carburetors and mileage and oil. Explorers penetrate into the hearts of unknown countries that they may find new supplies of gas. Forests arise in Sumatra and in the Congo to supply us with rubber. Rubber and oil become so valuable that people fight wars for their possession. The whole world is "automobile mad" and little children can say "car" before they learn to whisper "papa" and "mamma."

In the fourteenth century, the Italian people went crazy about the newly discovered beauties of the buried world of Rome. Soon their enthusiasm was shared by all the people of western Europe. The finding of an unknown manuscript became the excuse for a civic holiday. The man who wrote a grammar became as popular as the fellow who nowadays invents a new spark plug. The humanist, the scholar who devoted his time and his energies to a study of "homo" or humankind (instead of wasting his hours upon fruitless theological investigations), that man was regarded with greater honor and a deeper respect than was ever bestowed upon a hero who had just conquered all the Cannibal Islands.

In the midst of this intellectual upheaval, an event occurred which greatly favored the study of the ancient philosophers and authors. The Turks were renewing their attacks upon Europe. Constantinople, capital of the last remnant of the original Roman Empire, was hard pressed. In the year 1393 the Emperor, Manuel Paleologue, sent Emmanuel Chrysoloras to western Europe to explain the desperate state of old Byzantium and to ask for aid. This aid never came. The Roman Catholic world was more than willing to see the Greek Catholic world go to the punishment that awaited such wicked heretics. But however indifferent western Europe might be to the fate of the Byzantines, they were greatly interested in the ancient Greeks whose colonists had founded the city on the Bosphorus ten centuries after the Trojan war. They wanted to learn Greek that they might read Aristotle and Homer and Plato. They wanted to learn it very badly, but they had no books and no grammars and no teachers. The magistrates of Florence heard of the visit of Chrysoloras. The people of their city were "crazy to learn Greek." Would he please come and teach them? He would, and behold! the first professor of Greek teaching alpha, beta, gamma to hundreds of eager young men, begging their way to the city of the Arno, living in stables and in dingy attics that they might learn how to decline the verb and enter into the companionship of Sophocles and Homer.

Meanwhile in the universities, the old schoolmasters, teaching their ancient theology and their antiquated logic; explaining the hidden mysteries of the Old Testament and discussing the strange science of their Greek-Arabic-Spanish-Latin edition of Aristotle, looked on in dismay and horror. Next, they turned angry. This thing was going too far. The young men were deserting the lecture halls of the established universities to go and listen to some wild-eyed "humanist" with his newfangled notions about a "reborn civilization."

They went to the authorities. They complained. But one cannot force an unwilling horse to drink and one cannot make unwilling ears listen to something which does not really interest them. The schoolmasters were losing ground rapidly. Here and there they scored a short victory. They combined forces with those fanatics who hated to see other people enjoy a happiness which was foreign to their own souls. In Florence, the center of the Great Rebirth, a terrible fight was fought between the old order and the new. A Dominican monk, sour of face and bitter in his hatred of beauty, was the leader of the medieval rear guard. He fought a valiant battle. Day after day he thundered his warnings of God's holy wrath through the wide halls of Santa Maria del Fiore. "Repent," he cried, "repent of your godlessness, of your joy in things that are not holy!" He began to hear voices and to see flaming swords that flashed through the sky. He preached to the little children that they might not fall into the errors of these ways which were leading their fathers to perdition. He organized companies of boy scouts, devoted to the service of the great God whose prophet he claimed to be. In a sudden moment of frenzy, the frightened people promised to do penance for their wicked love of beauty and pleasure. They carried their books and their statues and their paintings to the market place and celebrated a wild "carnival of the vanities" with holy singing and most unholy dancing, while Savonarola applied his torch to the accumulated treasures.

But when the ashes cooled down, the people began to realise what they had lost. This terrible fanatic had made them destroy that which they had come to love above all things. They turned against him, Savonarola was thrown into jail. He was tortured. But he refused to repent for anything he had done. He was an honest man. He had tried to live a holy life. He had willingly destroyed those who deliberately refused to share his own point of view. It had been his duty to eradicate evil wherever he found it. A love of heathenish books and heathenish beauty in the eyes of this faithful son of the Church, had been an evil. But he stood alone. He had fought the battle of a time that was dead and gone. The Pope in Rome never moved a finger to save him. On the contrary, he approved of his "faithful Florentines" when they dragged Savonarola to the gallows, hanged him and burned his body amidst the cheerful howling and yelling of the mob.

It was a sad ending, but quite inevitable. Savonarola would have been a great man in the eleventh century. In the fifteenth century he was merely the leader of a lost cause. For better or worse, the Middle Ages had come to an end when the Pope had turned humanist and when the Vatican became the most important museum of Roman and Greek antiquities.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the lesson.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


During the Renaissance, people diverted their attentions from Heaven and Hell to beautifying their mortal existence on Earth. Academics, the arts, music, literature, and the sciences flourished. Troubadours sang songs of heroic deeds. The youth studied in great universities. Dante Alighieri is one example of a Renaissance Italian writer. Dante wrote a famed narrative poem, 'The Divine Comedy,' about Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in the afterlife. Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, was a Renaissance author who wrote of love and of nature and the sun. However, not everyone loved the intellectual growth of the Renaissance. Some of the old schoolmasters pushed back against people learning Greek to read Aristotle, Homer, and Plato, even burning books and art in protest. The old schoolmasters and their old ways were eventually defeated. The Middle Ages came to a close when the Pope turned humanist and the Vatican became a museum of Roman and Greek antiquities.


Renaissance: The 14th century revival of classical art, architecture, literature and learning that originated in Italy and spread throughout Europe over the following two centuries.
Guild: A group or association mainly of tradespeople made up of merchants, craftspeople, or artisans for mutual aid, particularly in the Middle Ages.
Troubadour: A traveling composer and performer of songs in medieval Europe.
Minnesinger: In 12th- to 14th-century Germany, a wandering musician, often performing songs of courtly love.
Hippocrates: An Ancient Greek male given name from Ancient Greek, notably borne by Hippocrates of Cos, an Ancient Greek physician, circa 5th century BC, sometimes called the 'father of medicine.'
Guelph: A member of a medieval Italian faction that supported the Pope in a long struggle against the Ghibellines and the German emperors.
Ghibelline: A member of a medieval aristocratic Italian faction that supported the German emperors in a long struggle against the Popes and the Guelphs.
Purgatory: An intermediate state after death in which some of those ultimately destined for Heaven must first undergo purification prior to entering Heaven.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read the lesson, narrate the lesson aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Lesson Picture(s)

  • Study the lesson picture(s) and describe how they relate to the lesson.

Activity 3: Map the Lesson

  • Find Florence on the map of Italy, from where Dante was exiled.

Activity 4: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Coloring   

Click the crayon above. Complete pages 12-13 of 'World History Activities for Fourth Grade.'


Question 1

Which era followed the Middle Ages?
1 / 4

Answer 1

The Renaissance era followed the Middle Ages.
1 / 4

Question 2

What was the setting of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy?
2 / 4

Answer 2

Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in the afterlife were the settings of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.
2 / 4

Question 3

Why was Dante banished from Florence?
3 / 4

Answer 3

Dante switched from supporting the pro-Pope Guelphs to the anti-Pope Ghibellines and was banished for that association.
3 / 4

Question 4

What did the old schoolmasters do to protest people learning Greek and reading Aristotle, Homer, and Plato?
4 / 4

Answer 4

The old schoolmasters protested by burning books, paintings, and statues.
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  1. Which era followed the Middle Ages? The Renaissance era followed the Middle Ages.
  2. What was the setting of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy? Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in the afterlife were the settings of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.
  3. Why was Dante banished from Florence? Dante switched from supporting the pro-Pope Guelphs to the anti-Pope Ghibellines and was banished for that association.
  4. What did the old schoolmasters do to protest people learning Greek and reading Aristotle, Homer, and Plato? The old schoolmasters protested by burning books, paintings, and statues.