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Volume 7 of the Great Events of World History, featuring: DANTE COMPOSES THE "DIVINA COMMEDIA", by Richard Church THIRD ESTATE JOINS IN THE GOVERNMENT OF FRANCE, by Henri Martin WAR OF THE FLEMINGS WITH PHILIP THE FAIR OF FRANCE, by Eyre Crowe FIRST SWISS STRUGGLE FOR LIBERTY, by F. Baker BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN, by Andrew Lang EXTINCTION OF THE ORDER OF KNIGHTS TEMPLARS & THE BURNING OF GRAND MASTER MOLAY, by F.C. Woodhouse & H. Milman JAMES VAN ARTEVELDE LEADS A FLEMISH REVOLT & EDWARD III OF ENGLAND ASSUMES THE TITLE OF KING OF FRANCE, by Francois Guizot BATTLES OF SLUYS AND CRÉCY, by John Froissart MODERN RECOGNITION OF SCENIC BEAUTY & THE CROWNING OF PETRARCH AT ROME, by Jacob Burckhardt RIENZI'S REVOLUTION IN ROME, by R. Lodge BEGINNING AND PROGRESS OF THE RENAISSANCE, by John Symonds THE BLACK DEATH RAVAGES EUROPE, by J. Hecker & Giovanni Boccaccio FIRST TURKISH DOMINION IN EUROPE, by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall CONSPIRACY AND DEATH OF MARINO FALIERI AT VENICE, by Margaret Oliphant CHARLES IV OF GERMANY PUBLISHES HIS GOLDEN BULL, by Robert Comyn INSURRECTION OF THE JACQUERIE IN FRANCE, by John Froissart CONQUESTS OF TIMUR THE TARTAR, by Edward Gibbon DANCING MANIA OF THE MIDDLE AGES, by J. Hecker ELECTION OF ANTIPOPE CLEMENT VII & THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT SCHISM, by Henry Milman GENOESE SURRENDER TO VENETIANS, by Henry Hallam REBELLION OF WAT TYLER, by John Lingard WYCLIFFE TRANSLATES THE BIBLE INTO ENGLISH, by J. Paterson Smyth THE SWISS WIN THEIR INDEPENDENCE, by F. Baker UNION OF DENMARK, SWEDEN, AND NORWAY, by Paul Sinding DEPOSITION OF RICHARD II & HENRY IV BEGINS THE LINE OF LANCASTER, by John Lingard DISCOVERY OF THE CANARY ISLANDS AND THE AFRICAN COAST & THE BEGINNING OF NEGRO SLAVE TRADE, by Arthur Helps COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE, by Richard Lodge TRIAL AND BURNING OF JOHN HUSS & THE HUSSITE WARS, by Richard Trench THE HOUSE OF HOHENZOLLERN ESTABLISHED IN BRANDENBURG, by Thomas Carlyle BATTLE OF AGINCOURT & THE ENGLISH CONQUEST OF FRANCE, by James Gairdner JEANNE D'ARCS VICTORY AT ORLEANS, by Edward Creasy TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF JEANNE D'ARC, by Jules Michelet CHARLES VII ISSUES HIS PRAGMATIC SANCTION, by W.H. Jervis & R.F. Rohrbacher
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DANTE COMPOSES THE “DIVINA COMMEDIA”, by Richard Church
THIRD ESTATE JOINS IN THE GOVERNMENT OF FRANCE, by Henri Martin
WAR OF THE FLEMINGS WITH PHILIP THE FAIR OF FRANCE, by Eyre Crowe
FIRST SWISS STRUGGLE FOR LIBERTY, by F. Baker
BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN, by Andrew Lang
EXTINCTION OF THE ORDER OF KNIGHTS TEMPLARS & THE BURNING OF GRAND MASTER MOLAY, by F.C. Woodhouse & H. Milman
JAMES VAN ARTEVELDE LEADS A FLEMISH REVOLT & EDWARD III OF ENGLAND ASSUMES THE TITLE OF KING OF FRANCE, by Francois Guizot
BATTLES OF SLUYS AND CRÉCY, by John Froissart
MODERN RECOGNITION OF SCENIC BEAUTY & THE CROWNING OF PETRARCH AT ROME, by Jacob Burckhardt
RIENZI’S REVOLUTION IN ROME, by R. Lodge
BEGINNING AND PROGRESS OF THE RENAISSANCE, by John Symonds
THE BLACK DEATH RAVAGES EUROPE, by J. Hecker & Giovanni Boccaccio
FIRST TURKISH DOMINION IN EUROPE, by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall
CONSPIRACY AND DEATH OF MARINO FALIERI AT VENICE, by Margaret Oliphant
CHARLES IV OF GERMANY PUBLISHES HIS GOLDEN BULL, by Robert Comyn
INSURRECTION OF THE JACQUERIE IN FRANCE, by John Froissart
CONQUESTS OF TIMUR THE TARTAR, by Edward Gibbon
DANCING MANIA OF THE MIDDLE AGES, by J. Hecker
ELECTION OF ANTIPOPE CLEMENT VII & THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT SCHISM, by Henry Milman
GENOESE SURRENDER TO VENETIANS, by Henry Hallam
REBELLION OF WAT TYLER, by John Lingard
WYCLIFFE TRANSLATES THE BIBLE INTO ENGLISH, by J. Paterson Smyth
THE SWISS WIN THEIR INDEPENDENCE, by F. Baker
UNION OF DENMARK, SWEDEN, AND NORWAY, by Paul Sinding
DEPOSITION OF RICHARD II & HENRY IV BEGINS THE LINE OF LANCASTER, by John Lingard
DISCOVERY OF THE CANARY ISLANDS AND THE AFRICAN COAST & THE BEGINNING OF NEGRO SLAVE TRADE, by Arthur Helps
COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE, by Richard Lodge
TRIAL AND BURNING OF JOHN HUSS & THE HUSSITE WARS, by Richard Trench
THE HOUSE OF HOHENZOLLERN ESTABLISHED IN BRANDENBURG, by Thomas Carlyle
BATTLE OF AGINCOURT & THE ENGLISH CONQUEST OF FRANCE, by James Gairdner
JEANNE D’ARCS VICTORY AT ORLEANS, by Edward Creasy
TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF JEANNE D’ARC, by Jules Michelet
CHARLES VII ISSUES HIS PRAGMATIC SANCTION, by W.H. Jervis & R.F. Rohrbacher
OUT OF WHAT MAY be called the civil and religious storm-and-stress period through which the Middle passed into the modern age, there came a great literary foregleam of the new life upon which the world was about to enter. From Italy, where the European ferment, both in its political and its spiritual character, mainly centred, came the prophecy of the new day, in a poet’s “vision of the invisible world"—Dante’s Divina Commedia—wherein also the deeper history of the visible world of man was both embodied from the past and in a measure predetermined for the human race.
Dante’s great epic was called by him a comedy because its ending was not tragical, but “happy”; and admiration gave it the epithet “divine.” It is in three parts—Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (paradise). It has been made accessible to English readers in the metrical translations of Carey, Longfellow, Norton, and others, and in the excellent prose version (Inferno) of John Aitken Carlyle, brother of Thomas Carlyle.
Dante (originally Durante) Alighieri was born at Florence in May, 1265, and died at Ravenna September 14, 1321. Both the Divina Commedia and his other great work, the Vita Nuova (the new life), narrate the love—either romantic or passionate—with which he was inspired by Beatrice Portinari, whom he first saw when he was nine years old and Beatrice eight. His whole future life and work are believed to have been determined by this ideal attachment. But an equally noteworthy fact of his literary career is that his works were produced in the midst of party strifes wherein the poet himself was a prominent actor. In the bitter feuds of the Guelfs and Ghibellines he bore the sufferings of failure, persecution, and exile. But above all these trials rose his heroic spirit and the sublime voice of his poems, which became a quickening prophecy, realized in the birth of Italian and of European literature, in the whole movement of the Renaissance, and in the ever-advancing development of the modern world.
Church’s clear-sighted interpretations of the mind and life of Dante, and of the history-making Commedia, attest the importance of including the poet and his work in this record of Great Events.
THE Divina Commedia is one of the landmarks of history. More than a magnificent poem, more than the beginning of a language and the opening of a national literature, more than the inspirer of art and the glory of a great people, it is one of those rare and solemn monuments of the mind’s power which measure and test what it can reach to, which rise up ineffaceably and forever as time goes on marking out its advance by grander divisions than its centuries, and adopted as epochs by the consent of all who come after. It stands with the Iliad and Shakespeare’s plays, with the writings of Aristotle and Plato, with the Novum Organon and the Principia, with Justinian’s Code, with the Parthenon and St. Peter’s. It is the first Christian poem; and it opens European literature, as the Iliad did that of Greece and Rome. And, like the Iliad, it has never become out of date; it accompanies in undiminished freshness the literature which it began.
We approach the history of such works, in which genius seems to have pushed its achievements to a new limit. Their bursting out from nothing, and gradual evolution into substance and shape, cast on the mind a solemn influence. They come too near the fount of being to be followed up without our feeling the shadows which surround it. We cannot but fear, cannot but feel ourselves cut off from this visible and familiar world—as we enter into the cloud. And as with the processes of nature, so it is with those offsprings of man’s mind by which he has added permanently one more great feature to the world, and created a new power which is to act on mankind to the end. The mystery of the inventive and creative faculty, the subtle and incalculable combinations by which it was led to its work, and carried through it, are out of reach of investigating thought. Often the idea recurs of the precariousness of the result; by how little the world might have lost one of its ornaments—by one sharp pang, or one chance meeting, or any other among the countless accidents among which man runs his course. And then the solemn recollection supervenes that powers were formed, and life preserved, and circumstances arranged, and actions controlled, and thus it should be; and the work which man has brooded over, and at last created, is the foster-child too of that “Wisdom which reaches from end to end, strongly and sweetly disposing of all things.”
It does not abate these feelings that we can follow in some cases and to a certain extent the progress of a work. Indeed, the sight of the particular accidents among which it was developed—which belong perhaps to a heterogeneous and wildly discordant order of things, which are out of proportion and out of harmony with it, which do not explain it; which have, as it seems to us, no natural right to be connected with it, to bear on its character, or contribute to its accomplishment; to which we feel, as it were, ashamed to owe what we can least spare, yet on which its forming mind and purpose were dependent, and with which they had to conspire—affects the imagination even more than cases where we see nothing. We are tempted less to musing and wonder by the Iliad, a work without a history, cut off from its past, the sole relic and vestige of its age, unexplained in its origin and perfection, than by the Divina Commedia, destined for the highest ends and most universal sympathy, yet the reflection of a personal history, and issuing seemingly from its chance incidents.
The Divina Commedia is singular among the great works with which it ranks, for its strong stamp of personal character and history. In general we associate little more than the name—not the life—of a great poet with his works; personal interest belongs more usually to greatness in its active than its creative forms. But the whole idea and purpose of the Commedia, as well as its filling up and coloring, are determined by Dante’s peculiar history. The loftiest, perhaps, in its aim and flight of all poems, it is also the most individual; the writer’s own life is chronicled in it, as well as the issues and upshot of all things. It is at once the mirror to all time of the sins and perfections of men, of the judgments and grace of God, and the record, often the only one, of the transient names, and local factions, and obscure ambitions, and forgotten crimes of the poet’s own day; and in that awful company to which he leads us, in the most unearthly of his scenes, we never lose sight of himself. And when this peculiarity sends us to history, it seems as if the poem which was to hold such a place in Christian literature hung upon and grew out of chance events, rather than the deliberate design of its author. History, indeed, here, as generally, is but a feeble exponent of the course of growth in a great mind and great ideas. It shows us early a bent and purpose—the man conscious of power and intending to use it—and then the accidents among which he worked; but how the current of purpose threaded its way among them, how it was thrown back, deflected, deepened by them, we cannot learn from history.
It presents a broken and mysterious picture. A boy of quick and enthusiastic temper grows up into youth in a dream of love. The lady of his mystic passion dies early. He dreams of her still, not as a wonder of earth, but as a saint in paradise, and relieves his heart in an autobiography, a strange and perplexing work of fiction—quaint and subtle enough for a metaphysical conceit; but, on the other hand, with far too much of genuine and deep feeling. It is a first essay; he closes it abruptly as if dissatisfied with his work, but with the resolution of raising at a future day a worthy monument to the memory of her whom he has lost. It is the promise and purpose of a great work. But a prosaic change seems to come over his half-ideal character. The lover becomes the student—the student of the thirteenth century—struggling painfully against difficulties, eager and hot after knowledge, wasting eyesight and stinting sleep, subtle, inquisitive, active-minded and sanguine, but omnivorous, overflowing with dialectical forms, loose in premise and ostentatiously rigid in syllogism, fettered by the refinements of half-awakened taste and the mannerisms of the Provençals.
Boethius and Cicero and the mass of mixed learning within his reach are accepted as the consolation of his human griefs; he is filled with the passion of universal knowledge, and the desire to communicate it. Philosophy has become the lady of his soul—to write allegorical poems in her honor, and to comment on them with all the apparatus of his learning in prose, his mode of celebrating her. Further, he marries; it is said, not happily. The antiquaries, too, have disturbed romance by discovering that Beatrice also was married some years before her death. He appears, as time goes on, as a burgher of Florence, the father of a family, a politician, an envoy, a magistrate, a partisan, taking his full share in the quarrels of the day.
Beatrice reappears—shadowy, melting at times into symbol and figure—but far too living and real, addressed with too intense and natural feeling, to be the mere personification of anything. The lady of the philosophical Canzoni has vanished. The student’s dream has been broken, as the boy’s had been; and the earnestness of the man, enlightened by sorrow, overleaping the student’s formalities and abstractions, reverted in sympathy to the earnestness of the boy, and brooded once more on that saint in paradise, whose presence and memory had once been so soothing, and who now seemed a real link between him and that stable country “where the angels are in peace.” Round her image, the reflection of purity and truth and forbearing love, was grouped that confused scene of trouble and effort, of failure and success, which the poet saw round him; round her image it arranged itself in awful order—and that image, not a metaphysical abstraction, but the living memory, freshened by sorrow, and seen through the softening and hallowing vista of years, of Beatrice Portinari—no figment of imagination, but God’s creature and servant. A childish love, dissipated by heavy sorrow—a boyish resolution, made in a moment of feeling, interrupted, though it would be hazardous to say, in Dante’s case, laid aside, for apparently more manly studies, gave the idea and suggested the form of the “sacred poem of earth and heaven.”
And the occasion of this startling unfolding of the poetic gift, of this passage of a soft and dreamy boy into the keenest, boldest, sternest of poets, the free and mighty leader of European song, was, what is not ordinarily held to be a source of poetical inspiration—the political life. The boy had sensibility, high aspirations, and a versatile and passionate nature; the student added to this energy, various learning, gifts of language, and noble ideas on the capacities and ends of man. But it was the factions of Florence which made Dante a great poet.
The connection of these feuds with Dante’s poem has given to the Middle-Age history of Italy an interest of which it is not undeserving in itself, full as it is of curious exhibitions of character and contrivance, but to which politically it cannot lay claim, amid the social phenomena, so far grander in scale and purpose and more felicitous in issue, of other western nations. It is remarkable for keeping up an antique phase, which, in spite of modern arrangements, it has not yet lost. It is a history of cities. In ancient history all that is most memorable and instructive gathers round cities; civilization and empire were concentrated within walls; and it baffled the ancient mind to conceive how power should be possessed and wielded by numbers larger than might be collected in a single market-place. The Roman Empire, indeed, aimed at being one in its administration and law; and it was not a nation nor were its provinces nations, yet everywhere but in Italy it prepared them for becoming nations. And while everywhere else parts were uniting and union was becoming organization—and neither geographical remoteness nor unwieldiness of number nor local interests and differences were untractable obstacles to that spirit of fusion which was at once the ambition of the few and the instinct of the many; and cities, even where most powerful, had become the centres of the attracting and joining forces, knots in the political network—while this was going on more or less happily throughout the rest of Europe, in Italy the ancient classic idea lingered in its simplicity, its narrowness and jealousy, wherever there was any political activity. The history of Southern Italy, indeed, is mainly a foreign one—the history of modern Rome merges in that of the papacy; but Northern Italy has a history of its own, and that is a history of separate and independent cities—points of reciprocal and indestructible repulsion, and within, theatres of action where the blind tendencies and traditions of classes and parties weighed little on the freedom of individual character, and citizens could watch and measure and study one another with the minuteness of private life.
Dante, like any other literary celebrity of the time, was not less from the custom of the day than from his own purpose a public man. He took his place among his fellow-citizens; he went out to war with them; he fought, it is said, among the skirmishers at the great Guelf victory at Campaldino; to qualify himself for office in the democracy, he enrolled himself in one of the guilds of the people, and was matriculated in the “art” of the apothecaries; he served the state as its agent abroad; he went on important missions to the cities and courts of Italyaccording to a Florentine tradition, which enumerates fourteen distinct embassies, even to Hungary and France. In the memorable year of jubilee, 1300, he was one of the priors of the Republic. There is no shrinking from fellowship and coöperation and conflict with the keen or bold men of the market-place and council hall, in that mind of exquisite and, as drawn by itself, exaggerated sensibility. The doings and characters of men, the workings of society, the fortunes of Italy, were watched and thought of with as deep an interest as the courses of the stars, and read in the real spectacle of life with as profound emotion as in the miraculous page of Vergil; and no scholar ever read Vergil with such feeling—no astronomer ever watched the stars with more eager inquisitiveness. The whole man opens to the world around him; all affections and powers, soul and sense, diligently and thoughtfully directed and trained, with free and concurrent and equal energy, with distinct yet harmonious purposes, seek out their respective and appropriate objects, moral, intellectual, natural, spiritual, in that admirable scene and hard field where man is placed to labor and love, to be exercised, proved, and judged.
The outlines of this part of Dante’s history are so well known that it is not necessary to dwell on them; and more than the outlines we know not. The family quarrels came to a head, issued in parties, and the parties took names; they borrowed them from two rival factions in a neighboring town, Pistoia, whose feud was imported into Florence; and the Guelfs became divided into the Black Guelfs, who were led by the Donati, and the White Guelfs, who sided with Cerchi. It is still professed to be but a family feud, confined to the great houses; but they were too powerful and Florence too small for it not to affect the whole Republic. The middle classes and the artisans looked on, and for a time not without satisfaction, at the strife of the great men; but it grew evident that one party must crush the other and become dominant in Florence; and of the two, the Cerchi and their White adherents were less formidable to the democracy than the unscrupulous and overbearing Donati, with their military renown and lordly tastes; proud not merely of being nobles, but Guelf nobles; always loyal champions, once the martyrs, and now the hereditary assertors, of the great Guelfcause. The Cerchi, with less character and less zeal, but rich, liberal, and showy, and with more of rough kindness and vulgar good-nature for the common people, were more popular in Guelf Florence than the Parte Guelfa; and, of course, the Ghibellines wished them well.
Both the contemporary historians of Florence lead us to think that they might have been the governors and guides of the Republic—if they had chosen, and had known how; and both, though condemning the two parties equally, seem to have thought that this would have been the best result for the state. But the accounts of both, though they are very different writers, agree in their scorn of the leaders of the White Guelfs. They were upstarts, purse-proud, vain, and coarse-minded; and they dared to aspire to an ambition which they were too dull and too cowardly to pursue, when the game was in their hands. They wished to rule; but when they might, they were afraid. The commons were on their side, the moderate men, the party of law, the lovers of republican government, and for the most part the magistrates; but they shrank from their fortune, “more from cowardice than from goodness, because they exceedingly feared their adversaries.” Boniface VIII had no prepossessions in Florence, except for energy and an open hand; the side which was most popular he would have accepted and backed. But he said, “Io non voglio perdere gli uomini perle femminelle.”If the Black party furnished types for the grosser or fiercer forms of wickedness in the poet’s hell, the White party surely were the originals of that picture of stupid and cowardly selfishness, in the miserable crowd who moan and are buffeted in the vestibule of the Pit, mingled with the angels who dared neither to rebel nor be faithful, but “were for themselves”; and whoever it may be who is singled out in the setta dei cattivi, for deeper and special scorn—he,
“Che fece per vilta il gran rifinto,”
the idea was derived from the Cerchi in Florence.
Of his subsequent life, history tells us little more than the general character. He acted for a time in concert with the expelled party, when they attempted to force their way back to Florence; he gave them up at last in scorn and despair; but he never returned to Florence. And he found no new home for the rest of his days. Nineteen years, from his exile to his death, he was a wanderer. The character is stamped on his writings. History, tradition, documents, all scanty or dim, do but disclose him to us at different points, appearing here and there, we are not told how or why. One old record, discovered by antiquarian industry, shows him in a village church near Florence, planning with the Cerchi and the White party an attack on the Black Guelfs. In another, he appears in the Val di Magra, making peace between its small potentates; in another, as the inhabitant of a certain street in Padua. The traditions of some remote spots about Italy still connect his name with a ruined tower, a mountain glen, a cell in a convent. In the recollections of the following generation, his solemn and melancholy form mingled reluctantly, and for a while, in the brilliant court of the Scaligers; and scared the women, as a visitant of the other world, as he passed by their doors in the streets of Verona. Rumor brings him to the West—with probability to Paris, more doubtfully to Oxford. But little that is certain can be made out about the places where he was honored and admired, and, it may be, not always a welcome guest, till we find him sheltered, cherished, and then laid at last to rest, by the lords of Ravenna. There he still rests, in a small, solitary chapel, built, not by a Florentine, but a Venetian. Florence, “that mother of little love,” asked for his bones, but rightly asked in vain. His place of repose is better in those remote and forsaken streets “by the shore of the Adrian Sea,” hard by the last relics of the Roman Empire—the mausoleum of the children of Theodosius, and the mosaics of Justinian—than among the assembled dead of St. Croce, or amid the magnificence of Santa Maria del Fiore.
The Commedia, at the first glance, shows the traces of its author’s life. It is the work of a wanderer. The very form in which it is cast is that of a journey, difficult, toilsome, perilous, and full of change. It is more than a working out of that touching phraseology of the Middle Ages in which “the way” was the technical theological expression for this mortal life; and “viator” meant man in his state of trial, as “comprehensor” meant man made perfect, having attained to his heavenly country. It is more than merely this. The writer’s mind is full of the recollections and definite images of his various journeys. The permanent scenery of the inferno and purgatorio, very variously and distinctly marked, is that of travel. The descent down the sides of the Pit, and the ascent of the Sacred Mountain, show one familiar with such scenes—one who had climbed painfully in perilous passes, and grown dizzy on the brink of narrow ledges over sea or torrent. It is scenery from the gorges of the Alps and Apennines, or the terraces and precipices of the Riviera. Local reminiscences abound. The severed rocks of the Adige Valley—the waterfall of St. Benedetto; the crags of Pietra-pana and St. Leo, which overlook the plains of Lucca and Ravenna; the “fair river” that flows among the poplars between Chiaveri and Sestri; the marble quarries of Carrara; the “rough and desert ways between Lerici and Turbia,” and whose towery cliffs, going sheer into the deep sea at Noli, which travellers on the Corniche road some thirty years ago may yet remember with fear. Mountain experience furnished that picture of the traveller caught in an Alpine mist and gradually climbing above it; seeing the vapors grow thin, and the sun’s orb appear faintly through them; and issuing at last into sunshine on the mountain top, while the light of sunset was lost already on the shores below:
“Ai raggi, morti gia’ bassi lidi,”
or that image of the cold dull shadow over the torrent, beneath the Alpine fir:
“Un’ ombra smortaQual sotto foglie verdi e rami nigriSovra suoi freddi rivi, l’Alpe porta;”
or of the large snowflakes falling without wind among the mountains:
“d’un cader lentoPiovean di fuoco dilatate faldeCome di neve in Alpe senza vento.”
Of these years, then, of disappointment and exile the Divina Commedia was the labor and fruit. A story in Boccaccio’s life of Dante, told with some detail, implies, indeed, that it was begun, and some progress made in it, while Dante was yet in Florence—begun in Latin, and he quotes three lines of it—continued afterward in Italian. This is not impossible; indeed, the germ and presage of it may be traced in the Vita Nuova. The idealized saint is there, in all the grace of her pure and noble humbleness, the guide and safeguard of the poet’s soul. She is already in glory with Mary the Queen of Angels. She already beholds the face of the Ever-blessed. And the envoye of the Vita Nuova is the promise of theCommedia. “After this sonnet” (in which he describes how beyond the widest sphere of heaven his love had beheld a lady receiving honor and dazzling by her glory the unaccustomed spirit)—"After this sonnet there appeared to me a marvellous vision, in which I saw things which made me resolve not to speak more of this blessed one until such time as I should be able to indite more worthily of her. And to attain to this, I study to the utmost of my power, as she truly knows. So that it shall be the pleasure of Him, by whom all things live, that my life continue for some years, I hope to say of her that which never hath been said of any woman. And afterward, may it please him, who is the Lord of kindness, that my soul may go to behold the glory of her lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice, who gloriously gazes on the countenance of Him, qui est per omnia secula benedictus.” It would be wantonly violating probability and the unity of a great life to suppose that this purpose, though transformed, was ever forgotten or laid aside. The poet knew not, indeed, what he was promising, what he was pledging himself to—through what years of toil and anguish he would have to seek the light and the power he had asked; in what form his high venture should be realized.
But the Commedia is the work of no light resolve, and we need not be surprised at finding the resolve and the purpose at the outset of the poet’s life. We may freely accept the key supplied by the words of the Vita Nuova. The spell of boyhood is never broken, through the ups and downs of life. His course of thought advances, alters, deepens, but is continuous. From youth to age, from the first glimpse to the perfect work, the same idea abides with him, “even from the flower till the grape was ripe.” It may assume various changes—an image of beauty, a figure of philosophy, a voice from the other world, a type of heavenly wisdom and joy—but still it holds, in self-imposed and willing thraldom, that creative and versatile and tenacious spirit. It was the dream and hope of too deep and strong a mind to fade and come to naught—to be other than the seed of the achievement and crown of life. But with all faith in the star and the freedom of genius, we may doubt whether the prosperous citizen would have done that which was done by the man without a home. Beatrice’s glory might have been sung in grand though barbarous Latin to the literati of the fourteenth century; or a poem of new beauty might have fixed the language and opened the literature of modern Italy; but it could hardly have been the Commedia. That belongs, in its date and its greatness, to the time when sorrow had become the poet’s daily portion and the condition of his life.
But such greatness had to endure its price and its counterpoise. Dante was alone—except in his visionary world, solitary and companionless. The blind Greek had his throng of listeners; the blind Englishman his home and the voices of his daughters; Shakespeare had his free associates of the stage; Goethe, his correspondents, a court, and all Germany to applaud. Not so Dante. The friends of his youth are already in the region of spirits, and meet him there—Casella, Forese; Guido Cavalcanti will soon be with them. In this upper world he thinks and writes as a friendless man—to whom all that he had held dearest was either lost or imbittered; he thinks and writes for himself.
So comprehensive in interest is the Commedia. Any attempt to explain it, by narrowing that interest to politics, philosophy, the moral life, or theology itself, must prove inadequate. Theology strikes the keynote; but history, natural and metaphysical science, poetry, and art, each in their turn join in the harmony, independent, yet ministering to the whole. If from the poem itself we could be for a single moment in doubt of the reality and dominant place of religion in it, the plain-spoken prose of the Convito would show how he placed “the Divine Science, full of all peace, and allowing no strife of opinions and sophisms, for the excellent certainty of its subject, which is God,” is single perfection above all other sciences, “which are, as Solomon speaks, but queens or concubines or maidens; but she is the ‘Dove,’ and the ‘perfect one’—’Dove,’ because without stain of strife; ‘perfect,’ because perfectly she makes us behold the truth, in which our soul stills itself and is at rest.” But the same passage shows likewise how he viewed all human knowledge and human interests, as holding their due place in the hierarchy of wisdom, and among the steps of man’s perfection. No account of the Commedia will prove sufficient which does not keep in view, first of all, the high moral purpose and deep spirit of faith with which it was written, and then the wide liberty of materials and means which the poet allowed himself in working out his design.
Doubtless his writings have a political aspect. The “great Ghibelline poet” is one of Dante’s received synonymes; of his strong political opinions, and the importance he attached to them, there can be no doubt. And he meant his poem to be the vehicle of them, and the record to all ages of the folly and selfishness with which he saw men governed. That he should take the deepest interest in the goings-on of his time is part of his greatness; to suppose that he stopped at them, or that he subordinated to political objects or feelings all the other elements of his poem, is to shrink up that greatness into very narrow limits. Yet this has been done by men of mark and ability, by Italians, by men who read theCommedia in their own mother tongue. It has been maintained as a satisfactory account of it—maintained with great labor and pertinacious ingenuity—that Dante meant nothing more by his poem than the conflicts and ideal triumphs of a political party. The hundred cantos of that vision of the universe are but a manifesto of the Ghibelline propaganda, designed, under the veil of historic images and scenes, to insinuate what it was dangerous to announce; and Beatrice, in all her glory and sweetness, is but a specimen of the jargon and slang of Ghibelline freemasonry. When Italians write thus, they degrade the greatest name of their country to a depth of laborious imbecility, to which the trifling of schoolmen and academicians is as nothing. It is to solve the enigma of Dante’s works by imagining for him a character in which it is hard to say which predominates, the pedant, mountebank, or infidel. After that we may read Voltaire’s sneers with patience, and even enter with gravity on the examination of Father Hardouin’s historic doubts. The fanaticism of an outraged liberalism, produced by centuries of injustice and despotism, is but a poor excuse for such perverse blindness.
Dante was not a Ghibelline, though he longed for the interposition of an imperial power. Historically he did not belong to the Ghibelline party. It is true that he forsook the Guelfs, with whom he had been brought up, and that the White Guelfs, with whom he was expelled from Florence, were at length merged and lost in the Ghibelline party; and he acted with them for a time. But no words can be stronger than those in which he disjoins himself from that “evil and foolish company,” and claims his independence—
“A te fia belloAverti fatto parte per te stesso.”
Dante, by the Divina Commedia, was the restorer of seriousness in literature. He was so by the magnitude and pretensions of his work, and by the earnestness of its spirit. He first broke through the prescription which had confined great works to the Latin, and the faithless prejudices which, in the language of society, could see powers fitted for no higher task than that of expressing, in curiously diversified forms, its most ordinary feelings. But he did much more. Literature was going astray in its tone, while growing in importance; the Commedia checked it. The Provençal and Italian poetry was, with the exception of some pieces of political satire, almost exclusively amatory, in the most fantastic and affected fashion. In expression, it had not even the merit of being natural; in purpose, it was trifling; in the spirit which it encouraged, it was something worse. Doubtless it brought a degree of refinement with it, but it was refinement purchased at a high price, by intellectual distortion and moral insensibility. But this was not all. The brilliant age of Frederick II, for such it was, was deeply mined by religious unbelief. However strange this charge first sounds against the thirteenth century, no one can look at all closely into its history, at least in Italy, without seeing that the idea of infidelity—not heresy, but infidelity—was quite a familiar one; and that, side by side with the theology of Aquinas and Bonaventura, there was working among those who influenced fashion and opinion, among the great men, and the men to whom learning was a profession, a spirit of scepticism and irreligion almost monstrous for its time, which found its countenance in Frederick’s refined and enlightened court. The genius of the great doctors might have kept in safety the Latin schools, but not the free and home thoughts which found utterance in the language of the people, if the solemn beauty of the Italian Commedia had not seized on all minds. It would have been an evil thing for Italian, perhaps for European, literature if the siren tales of the Decameron had not been the first to occupy the ears with the charms of a new language.
Dante’s all-surveying, all-embracing mind was worthy to open the grand procession of modern poets. He had chosen his subject in a region remote from popular thought—too awful for it, too abstruse. He had accepted frankly the dogmatic limits of the Church, and thrown himself with even enthusiastic faith into her reasonings, at once so bold and so undoubting—her spirit of certainty, and her deep contemplations on the unseen and infinite. And in literature, he had taken as guides and models, above all criticism and all appeal, the classical writers. But with his mind full of the deep and intricate questions of metaphysics and theology, and his poetical taste always owing allegiance to Vergil, Ovid, and Statius—keen and subtle as a schoolman—as much an idolater of old heathen art and grandeur as the men of the Renaissance—his eye is yet as open to the delicacies of character, to the variety of external nature, to the wonders of the physical world—his interest in them as diversified and fresh, his impressions as sharp and distinct, his rendering of them as free and true and forcible, as little weakened or confused by imitation or by conventional words, his language as elastic and as completely under his command, his choice of poetic materials as unrestricted and original, as if he had been born in days which claim as their own such freedom and such keen discriminative sense of what is real in feeling and image—as if he had never felt the attractions of a crabbed problem of scholastic logic, or bowed before the mellow grace of the Latins. It may be said, indeed, that the time was not yet come when the classics could be really understood and appreciated; and this is true, perhaps fortunate. But admiring them with a kind of devotion, and showing not seldom that he had caught their spirit, he never attempts to copy them. His poetry in form and material is all his own. He asserted the poet’s claim to borrow from all science, and from every phase of nature, the associations and images which he wants; and he showed that those images and associations did not lose their poetry by being expressed with the most literal reality.
AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF the fourteenth century, when the power of Philip IV of France (surnamed the “Fair") was at its height, contentions arose between him and Pope Boniface VIII over the taxation of the clergy, and the right of nomination to vacant bishoprics and benefices within the dominions of the French King.
Affairs reached a crisis when Philip laid claim to the county of Melgueil, which the Bishop of Maguelonne held in fief from the holy see. Boniface provoked Philip by a chiding bull, and added to the provocation by sending to the King, as negotiator in their differences, Bernard de Saisset, whom the Pope, in spite of the King, had created Bishop of Pamiers.
This tactless prelate made matters worse by an arrogant attitude, and afterward spoke of the King, who received him in sombre silence, as “that debaser of coinage, that proud and dumb image that knows nothing but to stare at people without saying anything.”
Ignoring his ambassadorial privileges, Philip had him arrested and imprisoned as a French subject, on a charge of treason, heresy, and blasphemy, and sent his chancellor, Peter Flotte, and William de Nogaret, to the Pope, to demand the prelate’s degradation and deprivation of his see.
The Pope, who meanwhile had launched his famous “Ausculta, fili,” bull, received Philip’s ambassadors, but their interview was marked by a violent scene: “My power!” exclaimed the Pope, “the spiritual power embraces and includes the temporal power!”
“So be it!” replied Flotte, “but your power is verbal; that of the King, real.”
To deliberate on the remedies for the abuses of which he deemed the King guilty, the Pope summoned all the superior clergy of France to an assembly at Rome.
PHILIP and his council resolved to fight the enemy with its own weapons, to enlist public opinion on their side, and to shelter themselves behind a great national manifestation; the three estates of France were convoked at Notre Dame in Paris, the 10th of April, 1302, to take cognizance of the differences between the King and the Pope. For the first time since the establishment of the kingdom of France, the town deputies were called to sit in a body in a national assembly, alongside of prelates and barons; this great event was the official acknowledgment of the middle class as the “Third Estate,” and attested that henceforth the villages, the towns, the communities formed a collective entity, a political order.
It is a singular thing that the first states-general was freely convoked by the most despotic of the kings of the Middle Ages, and that he had the idea to seek in them moral power and support.
The attempt would seem foolhardy in a prince so little popular as Philip the Fair; but Philip in reality risked nothing, and knew it; the feudality did not possess sufficient union, the people did not have enough force to profit on this occasion against the Crown. Besides, the Pope was more unpopular than the King, and had been so for a much longer time; the nobility, which, since the reign of St. Louis, had coalesced to resist clerical jurisdiction, had not changed in sentiment; as to the people, filled with the remembrance of St. Louis, they loved the King still, better than the Pope, notwithstanding the oppressions of Philip, and besides it was easy to foresee that the mayors, consuls, aldermen, jurats or magistrates, who were to represent their cities in the great assembly at Paris, dazzled with the unaccustomed rôle to which they were called, and desirous to please the King in their personal interest or in that of their towns, would be under the control of the adroit lawyers who were prepared to work on their minds and to direct the debates. The bull, nevertheless, if its exact tenor had been known, might well have produced in many respects a contrary effect to the wishes of the King. The reproaches of Boniface touching the debasement of the coinage and the royal exactions, reproaches which so irritated Philip, might have met with other sentiments from the townsmen. The chancellor, Peter Flotte, foresaw this; he distributed among the public, instead of the original bull, a species of résumé in which he had assembled, in a few lines, in the crudest terms, the most exorbitant pretensions of Boniface, at the same time suppressing everything which touched on the troubles of the nation against the King.
“Boniface, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to Philip, King of the French; fear God and observe his commandments. We want you to know that you are subject to us temporarily as well as spiritually; that the collation of the benefices and the prebends—revenues attached to the canonical positions—do not belong to you in any way; that if you have care of the vacant benefices, it is to reserve their revenue for their successors; that if you have misapplied any of these benefices, we declare that collation invalid and revoke it, declaring as heretics all those who think otherwise.
“Given in the Lateran in the month of December, etc.”
At the same time they caused to be circulated a pretended answer to the pretended bull:
“Philip, by the Grace of God, King of the French, to Boniface, who gives out that he is sovereign pontiff, little or no salutations! May your very great Fatuity know that we are subject to no one as regards temporal power: that the collation of vacant churches and prebends belongs to us by Royal Right; that the incomes belong to us; that the collations made and to be made by us are valid in the past and in the future, and that we will manfully protect their possessors toward and against all. Those who think otherwise we take to be fools and insane.”
This brutal letter was not destined to be sent to its address, but to abase the pontifical dignity, or at least the person of the Pope, in the eyes of the French public. The spirit of the people must have been greatly changed if this end could be thus attained by a means which formerly would have drawn universal indignation on the head of the sacrilegious monarch.
The attack of Philip, on the contrary, was completely effectual. The prelates arrived at the states-general timid, irresolute, neutralized by the difficulties of their position between the King and the Pope; the lords and the townsmen hastened thither irritated against the bull, heated by the violence of the royal answer. The members of the assembly were influenced each by the other according to their arrival; the pungent and wily eloquence of Peter Flotte did the rest. The chancellor, as the first of the great crown officers and the king’s chief justice, opened the states by a long harangue in which, speaking in the name of Philip, he exposed with much force and ingenuity the enterprises of the court of Rome and its wrongs toward the kingdom and the Church.
“The Pope confers the bishoprics and the rectories on strangers and unknown individuals who never become residents. The prelates no longer have benefices to give to nobles whose ancestors founded the churches, and to other lettered persons; from which results also that gifts are no longer given to the churches. The Pope imposes on the churches and benefices pensions, subsidies, exactions of all kinds. The bishops are kept from their ministry, being obliged to go to the holy see to carry presents—always presents. All these abuses have done nothing but increase under the actual pontificate, and increase every day—conditions that can no longer be tolerated. That is why I command you as your master and pray you as your friend to give me counsel and help.”
The Chancellor added that the King had resolved, on his own initiative, to remedy the encroachments that his officers had made on the rights of the Church, and would have done so sooner had he not feared the appearance of submitting to the menaces and orders of the Pope, who pretended to reduce to a condition of vassalage the most noble kingdom of France, which had never been raised but from God. Peter Flotte dwelt especially on this latter argument, and appealed in turn to the interests of the nobility and of the clergy, and to national pride. The fiery Count of Artois arose, and exclaimed that even if the King submitted to the encroachments of the Pope, the nobility would not suffer them, and that the gentry would never acknowledge any temporal superior other than the King. The nobility and the Third Estate confirmed these words by their acclamations, and swore to sacrifice their properties and lives to defend the temporal independence of the kingdom. A Norman advocate, named Dubosc, procurator of the commune of Coutances, accused the Pope, in writing, of heresy for having wanted to despoil the King of the independence of the crown which he held from God. The embarrassment of the clergy was extreme; the members of the Church, fearing to be crushed in the crash between King and Pope, asked time for deliberation; their declaration in the assembly then being held, was insisted upon; already cries arose around them that whoever did not subscribe to the oath would be held as an enemy of the State; they acquiesced, satisfied apparently by an appearance of violence which would serve them for an excuse at Rome. They acknowledged themselves obliged, in common with the other orders, to defend the rights of the King and of the kingdom, whether they held estates from the King or not; then they prayed the King to be allowed to go to the council convoked by the Pope; the King and the barons declared themselves formally opposed.
The three orders then separated, so as to write to the court at Rome each its own side of the affair; the letters of the nobility and of the Third Estate—which as may be imagined were all prepared in advance by the agents of the King, and were only subscribed to and sealed by the assistants—were addressed, not to the Pope, but to the college of cardinals. The despatch of the barons expresses rudely the tortuous and unreasonable enterprises of him who, at present, is at the seat and government of the Church, and declares that neither the nobility nor the universities nor the people require correction or imposition of any trouble, whether by the authority of the Pope or anyone else—unless it be from their sire, the King. This letter is signed, not only by the principal lords of the kingdom, but also by several great barons of the empire.
The epistle of the mayors, aldermen, jurats, consuls, universities, communes, and communities of the towns of the kingdom of France has not been preserved. It is known only, by the answer that the cardinals made, that it was conceived in the same spirit as the letter of the barons. The letter of the clergy is quite in another style: the clerks address their very holy father and very holy sire, the Pope; expose to him the complaints of the King and of the nobility; the necessity in which they find themselves engaged to defend the King’s rights, and the anger of the laity; the imminent rupture of France with the Roman Church—and even of the people with the clergy in general—and conjure the highest prudence of the Pope to conserve the ancient union by revoking the convocation of the ecclesiastical council.
The states-general were dissolved immediately after the unique séance which had so well responded to the desires of the King. The means employed to attain this result were not entirelytirely loyal, nor was public opinion altogether free; it was but slightly enlightened on the grave debates that the authorities affected to submit to it. Nevertheless it was an important matter, this call to the French nation, and it must be acknowledged that the genius of France responded in proclaiming national independence, and in repelling the intervention of the court of Rome in the internal politics of the country.
TOWARD THE BEGINNING OF the thirteenth century the people of Flanders, whose country had been for centuries a feudal dependency of France, were considerably advanced in wealth and importance. They had become restive under the French rule, and their discontent ripened into settled hostility. Common commercial interests drew them into friendship with England, and in the quarrel between Philip the Fair and Edward I, 1295, concerning Edward’s rule in Guienne (Aquitaine) the Flemings allied themselves with the English King.
In 1297 Philip invaded Flanders and gained several successes against the Flemings, who were feebly aided by King Edward. In 1299 the two kings settled their quarrel, and the Flemings were left to the vengeance of Philip, for in the pacification the court of Flanders was not included. A French army entered the Flemish territory, inflicted two defeats upon the Count’s troops, and received the submission of the Count. Philip annexed Flanders to his crown and appointed a governor over the Flemings. In less than two years they rose in furious revolt. The insurrection began at Bruges, May 18, 1302, when over three thousand Frenchmen in that city were massacred by the insurgents. This massacre was called the “Bruges Matins.” Such an outrage upon the French crown could not but bring upon the Flemings all the forces that Philip was able to muster. The two leading actions of the ensuing war—that at Courtrai, known as the “Battle of the Spurs,” on account of the number of gilt spurs captured by the Flemings, and the engagement at Mons-la-Puelle—are described in the course of the narrative which follows. As a result of the battle of Courtrai the French nobility were nearly destroyed, and Philip found it necessary to recreate his titled bodies.
THE Flemings prepared to resist the storm. They chose Guy of Juliers, grandson of the Count of Flanders, to be their commander. Though a cleric, he did not hesitate to obey the call, in order to avenge his family, so cruelly betrayed by the French King. His brother, made prisoner at Furnes by the Count d’Artois, had perished in that rude Prince’s keeping. His first attempt was to induce the people of Ghent to join the insurrection, but its rich burgesses preferred French rule to that of the Count of Flanders. Bruges, however, was supported by all the lesser and maritime towns of Flanders. Guy of Namur, a son of the Count, who had escaped to Germany, also returned with a body of soldiers from that country, and reassured the Flemings. These surprised one of the ducal manors, in which were five hundred French, and then took Courtrai, occupying the town, but not the castle. It was immediately besieged, as well as that of Cassel, the people of Ypres rallying to the French cause. The French garrison of the town of Courtrai sent pressing messengers for aid, and Robert of Artois marched with seven thousand knights and forty thousand foot, of which one-fourth were archers. The Flemish were but twenty thousand, of which none but the chiefs had horses. Neither was their armor nor their weapons of a perfect kind, the latter being a lance like a boar-spear, or a knotted stick pointed with iron, and called in Flemish a “good day.” The princes of Juliers and Namur posted their combatants on the road which leads from Courtrai to Ghent, behind a canal that communicated with the river Lys. A priest came with the host, but, there being no time to receive the communion, each man took some earth in his mouth. The counts then knighted Pierre Konig and the chiefs of bands, and took their station on foot with the rest.
The French had nine battalions or divisions, their archers or light troops being Lombards or Navarrese and Provençals. These the constable placed foremost, to commence the fight and harass the Flemings by their missiles. But the Count d’Artois overruled this manœuvre, and called it a Lombard trick, reproaching the Constable de Nesle with appreciating the Flemings too highly because of his connection with them. (He had married a daughter of the Count of Flanders.) “If you advance as far as I shall,” replied the Count, “you will go far enough, I warrant.” So saying he put spurs to his horse and led on his knights; on which the Count d’Artois and the French squadrons charged also. This formidable cavalry could not reach the Flemings, but fell one over the other into the canal, which they had not perceived, and which was five fathoms wide and three deep. The Flemish counts, seeing the disorder, instantly passed the canal on either side to take advantage of it, and fell on the discomfited French. The battle was but a massacre. Numbers of the French nobles perished—the Count d’Artois, Godfrey of Brabant and his son, the counts of Eu and of Albemarle, the Constable and his brother, De Tanquerville, Pierre Flotte, the Chancellor, and Jacques de St. Pol—in all some six thousand knights. Louis of Clermont and one or two others escaped, to the damage of their reputation. This battle of Courtrai was fought on July 11, 1302.
Had the war not been one exclusively of defence on the part of the Flemings, or had they had ambitious and adventurous chiefs, such a disaster might have endangered the throne of France. It was the Flemish democracy which had conquered, and its chiefs contented themselves with reducing the remaining cities, and expelling the gentry and rich citizens as of French inclinations. This reaction extended from Flanders into Brabant and Hainault. Philip in the mean time exerted all his activities and resources. Had he been an English king he would have called his parliament together, and have found national support and national supplies. The French King preferred having recourse to a recoinage. In 1294 he had forbidden any persons to keep plate unless they possessed an annual revenue of six thousand livres. He now ordered his bailies to deliver up their plate, and all non-functionaries to send half of theirs. Those who did so received payment in the new coin, and lost one-half thereby. A tax of one-fifth, or 20 per cent., of the annual revenue was levied on the land, and a twentieth was levied on the movable property. In the following year the King found it more advantageous to order that all prelates and barons should, for every five hundred livres of yearly revenue in land, furnish an armed and mounted gentleman for five months’ service, while the non-noble was to furnish and keep up six infantry soldiers (sergens de pied) for every hundred hearths. This decree was a return to feudal military service, occasioned, no doubt, by the general disaffection caused by the raising of the war supplies in money. As if to recompense all classes for the severity of the exaction, Philip published an ordonnance of reform for the protection of both laymen and ecclesiastics from the arbitrary encroachments or interference of his officers.
Having thus set his realm in order, and collected an army of seventy thousand men at Arras, the King marched to meet the Flemings, who in equal force had mustered in the vicinity of Dovai. They kept, as at Courtrai, on the defensive; and the King of France, too cautious to attack them, allowed the whole autumn to pass, and returned to France after a campaign as inefficient as inglorious.
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