Documente online.
Username / Parola inexistente
  Zona de administrare documente. Fisierele tale  
Am uitat parola x Creaza cont nou
  Home Exploreaza

Volume 2 - 1985



Prophecy I:Viking Child Trainer
Bandler - Frogs into Princes
Volume 2 - 1985

Volume 2 · 1985

Essays in Medieval Studies

page 182

Pseudo-Dionysius' Metaphysics of Darkness and Chartres Cathedral

Laurence J. James

It is a given among art historians that Abbot Suger of St. Denis Abbey, just outside Paris, was a seminal figure for Gothic art and architecture.1 Most would agree with the late Erwin Panofsky that Suger translated the light metaphysics of Pseudo-Dionysius and Johannes Scotus into the abbey church,2 and that the church had many imitators all over France.

Abbot Suger left us poems by which his intention [to do what Panofsky says he did] can be established.3 However, it seems to have passed notice that what one intends and what one accomplishes are often quite different things. Anyone who has been to St. Denis Abbey church knows that most of the light in the sanctuary is dependent upon the clerestory windows, which were not set in until the 13th century. In other words, if Suger was father to the idea4 which culminates in lantern churches, the idea comes round again, after his death, to produce what his words suggest; but what his words suggest did not exist, could not have existed, in the monument during his lifetime.

There is a danger in taking any one feature of a given age and attempting to maintain that the feature is characteristic or typical of the whole. There was, after all, a certain light metaphysics in Christian thought since the Gospel according to St. John. And, whatever light's value as a symbol, it is

page 183

insufficient to explain the occasion for combining various Gothic elements into an aesthetic system.5

Pseudo-Dionysius was introduced to the West in the 6th Century.6 Pope St. Martin honored him at the synod of the Lateran, in 649,7 and his writings came to be venerated as sacred.8 In the course of time, Pseudo-Dionysius was associated with St. Denis, the founder of the Gallic Church.9 Sometime between 830 and 835, Abbot Hilduin of St. Denis caused the Vita Dionysii to be written in such a way as to "prove" that St. Denis and St. Dionysius the Areopagite were the same man.10 It became a crime the equivalent to treason to deny it in France. Dionysius the Areopagite was probably a fifth century Syrian monk whose work is little more than "a superficially Christianized version of Proclus."11

Despite their great influence, Dionysius' works are few; what he said about aesthetics can be put into even fewer paragraphs. His longest statement is from On the Divine Names, chapter IV, paragraph 7, quoted here in toto:

This Good is described by the Sacred Writers as Beautiful and as Beauty, as Love or Beloved, and by all other Divine titles which befit Its beautifying and gracious fairness. Now there is a distinction between the titles "beautiful" and "Beauty" applied to the all-embracing Cause. For we universally distinguish these two titles as meaning respectively the qualities shared and the objects which share therein. We give the

page 184

name of "Beautiful" to that which shares in the quality of beauty, and we give the name of "Beauty" to that common quality by which all beautiful things are beautiful. But the Super-Essential Beautiful is called "Beauty" because of the quality which It imparts to all things severally according to their nature, and because It is the cause of the harmony and splendor in all things flashing forth upon them all, like light, the beautifying communications of its originating ray; and because It summons all things to fare until Itself (from whence It hath the name of "Fairness") and because It draws all things together in a state of mutual interpenetration. And It is called "Beautiful, because It is All-Beautiful and more than Beautiful, and is eternally, unvaryingly, unchangeably Beautiful; incapable of birth or death or growth or decay; and not beautiful in one part and foul in another; nor yet beautiful in one place and not in another (as if it were beautiful for some and not beautiful for others); nay, on the contrary, It is, in Itself, and by Itself, uniquely and eternally Beautiful, and from beforehand It contains in a transcendent manner the originating beauty of everything that is beautiful. For in the simple and supernatural nature belonging to the world of beautiful things, all beauty and all that is beautiful hath

page 185

its unique and pre-existent Cause. From this Beautiful all things possess their existence, each kind being beautiful in its own manner, and the Beautiful causes the harmonies and sympathies and communities of all things. And by the Beautiful causes the harmonies and sympathies and communities of all things. And by the Beautiful all things are united together and the Beautiful is the beginning of all things, as being the Creative Cause which moves the world and holds all things in existence by their yearning for their own Beauty. And It is the Goal of all things, and their Beloved. as being their Final Cause (for 'tis the desire of the Beautiful that brings them all into existence), and It is their Exemplar from which they derive their definite limits; and hence the Beautiful is the same as the Good, inasmuch as all things, in all causation, desire the Beautiful and Good; nor is there anything in the world but hath a share in the Beautiful and Good, for Non-Existence is itself beautiful and good when, by the Negation of all Attributes, it is ascribed Super-Essentially to God. This One Good and Beautiful is in Its oneness the Cause of all the many beautiful and good things. Hence comes the bare existence of all things, and hence their unions, their differentiations, their identities, their differences, their similarities,

page 186

their dissimilarities, their communions of opposite things, the unconfused distinctions of their interpenetrating elements; the providences of the Superiors, the interdependence of the Coordinates, the responses of the Inferiors, the states of permanence wherein all keep their own identity. And hence again the inter-communion of all things according to the power of each; their harmonies and sympathies (which do not merge them) and the cordinations of the whole universe; the mixture of elements therein and the indestructible lineaments of things; the ceaseless succession of the recreative process in Minds and Souls and in Bodies; for all have rest and movement in That Which, above all rest and all movement, grounds each one in its own natural laws and moves each one to its own proper movement.12

Dionysius characteristically speaks as a dedicated, deliberate obscurantist, which leaves what he says open to various interpretations. For example, he speaks of Non-existence as being beautiful and good "when, by the Negation of all Attributes, it is ascribed Super-Essentially to God "and this Non-existence is a higher state than that which is reflected in the light of material things.

Given the monistic aesthetic system which Dionysius established in the foregoing, it would be difficult to have imitative art, since

page 187

such art, being reflective of material existence, would necessarily be but the shadow of a shadow. As such, it would be morally untenable. It could only be "good," if it participates with the Beautiful/Good in reflecting Itself.

Though the Beautiful/Good is an impersonal principle, we are nevertheless to see Dionysius (who may have been a Monophysite) as "Christian." In his system of thought, the Beautiful/Good can reveal Itself to whomever It will. If, therefore, Dionysius was a Monophysite, it would be strange that he could think of making an image of God-as-Christ; nevertheless, using Dionysian thought, it is possible, whether he did or not, and:

... in sensible images, if the painter looks without interruption at the archetypal form, neither distracted by any other visible thing or splitting his attention toward anything else, then he will, so to speak, duplicate the person painted, and will show the true in the similitude, the archetype in the image, the one in the other, except for their different essences (or natures)."13

It is this that gives the Byzantine aesthetic system a foundation; such statements as this were gratefully received by the Eastern Church, as a means of bolstering the veneration of icons.

In the disputed Epistle X, Dionysius says: "... visible things are images of

page 188

invisible things."14 And in Celestial Hierarchy III, he says: "phenomenal beauties become images of invisible beauty."15 That is essentially the same thought.

It is true that in the Middle Ages various western thinkers held light to be an attribute of God, and a sign of His working, because light, like God, can penetrate substances without breaking them.16 Hence, what is called the lux continua of Gothic architecture is a conscious control of the condition, quality, and distribution of light within Gothic structures, to give interiors a distinctive ethos. However, that "continuous light" does not exist in all Gothic churches.

Gothic churches in France, with the notable exception of the preaching churches of the Cistercians, were basically the same. They consist of ribbed vaults, stained glass windows, pierced walls so high they require buttressing, and the chevet.17

The flying buttresses are not mere aesthetic inventions; they may be looked upon as sculptural only in their decorative rib quality; their purpose was to take the stress of walls raised very high to permit huge windows, to admit more and more light. That is why the High Gothic lantern churches are seen as the culmination of the form-class begun by attempting to recreate Dionysian light metaphysics in architectural monuments. In lantern churches the walls are virtually eradicated.

page 189

It should not be supposed that a linked solution to a problem necessarily signifies the same answer. Emile Male, the French art historian, said all French cathedrals, except Chartres, "seemed intended to throw into relief some particular truth or doctrine ... "18 Chartres, he said, is "the whole thought of the Middle Ages made visible."19 There are estimated to be 10,000 statues outside the cathedral. That is all the more remarkable when one sees the interior which is barren, except for the aesthetically out-of-place Baroque altar. And, while some speak of the "brilliance of Chartres,"20 that brilliance resides high up in the clerestories, where pencil-width edges of light-bearing glass sparkle in the gloom. In the nave itself, there is what has been called "a somber twilight."21

This twilight creates a relative myopia, which lasts for at least an hour after one has come inside. One can make things out, but not distinctly. What light there is, is strained through the famous cobalt blue and red windows, colors which, curiously enough, give the least visual acuity.22

Like other cathedrals', the windows at Chartres are enormous, and consist of twin lancets surmounted by an elaborate rose. There may be more than one hundred and forty-three windows all told, each forty-feet high;23 and though this form is repeated at Amiens, Paris, Auxerre, Reims, and Ourscamp,24 and though the ground plan at Chartres has no closer proximity to a standard plan than the cathedrals of Paris and Reims,25 the same effects are not obtained in the other

page 190

cathedrals. At Chartres, everything is perceived in a diffused, pervasive coloristic darkness.26 And, in the ambulatoire of Notre Dame de Paris, even on a sunny day, one can scarcely see his hand before his face.

We know that the schemata for cathedrals was worked out by theologians, and that the majority o 18218k1019s f Gothic theologians held (with Dionysius the Areopagite) that the Ineffable can be expressed in concrete form. However, at Chartres, there developed a brand of hybrid Platonism which characterized human understanding and truth in such a way that it became difficult to distinguish between a mystical experience and an intellectual perception.27

If intellectual perceptions and mystical experience become indistinguishable, one can live in the mind, and thereby experience God. Dionysius may also be the source for this. In Mystical Theology II.1, he speaks of rising to that Void, where God is utterly Alone, as

... ascending upwards from particular to universal conceptions, we strip off all qualities in order that we may attain a naked knowledge of the Unknowing ... that we may begin to see that super-essential Darkness which is hidden by the light that is in existent things.28

There is an interesting reference in one of the sermons of John of Salisbury, bishop of Chartres from 1176 until his death in 1180, in which he speaks against those Scholastics who

page 191

doubt everything, "... even their own senses and their memory."29 It may be that the bishop was speaking against sanctions held by his own monks; it is impossible to tell in context. However, we do know that later medieval mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, under what they said was the influence of Dionsyius the Areopagite, referred to God as "the Great Nihil."30

Mystical Theology II.1 begins by saying:

Unto this darkness which is beyond Light, we pray that we may come and may attain unto vision through the loss of sight and knowledge, and that in ceasing thus to see or to know that is beyond all perception and all understanding (for this emptying of our faculties is true sight and true knowledge) and that we may offer Him that which transcends all things the praises of a transcendent hymnody....31

That is: giving up sight and knowing physical realities, or things of this world, we rise (intellectually? spiritually?) to the plane of Darkness where God is Alone, where subject and object disappear,32 as we become like God:

... in proper truth we do but use the elements and syllables and phrases and written terms and words as an aid to our sense; inasmuch as when our soul is moved by spiritual energies unto spiritual things, our

page 192

senses, together with the thing which they perceive are superfluous when our soul, becoming God-like meets in the blind embraces of an incomprehensible union the rays of unapproachable light.33

What we perceive, even at that level of existence, is not God, Who is similar to Himself and to nothing else, but the greatest possible similitude. And what is the difference between "seeing" the Rays of unapproachable Light, while locked in the blind embraces of the union with them, and being on that plane of super-essential divine Darkness which is hidden by the meritricious gaudiness of the lights of created things? None. One is rendered sightless by both. The two concepts are used complementarily. What we perceive is not God, but His effects: Rays of light in the first instance, and the thick Darkness-Beyond-Being in the second.

Extramission, Plato's theory of optics,34 is the source of Dionysian light metaphysics; but the light of physical things hides God from us, as we have seen. By shedding that light, we can rise to that Darkness where God is Alone.

If the theologians at Chartres were attracted to the notion that there is no difference between mystical experience and intellectual perception, does it not seem likely that they would have tried to find a way to make that mystical experience and the material world of their cathedral merge? Since they chose to use glass which gives the least visual acuity, and since they could have had clear

page 193

glass, which was also available, and since a myopic condition which lasts for an hour or more results from their color choice, does it not seem likely that the coloristic darkness is purposeful? But, if purposeful, what is its meaning?

It could be analogous to the stripping away of the senses that Dionysius discusses. However, there is another possibility, which is to be found in examining the windows themselves, the only source of what little light is admitted into the cathedral at Chartres.

Of the sixteen twin lancet formations, eight rosettes show an image of Christ, blessing. He appears in two of the windows in exactly identical form.35 Since the rosettes themselves are symbolic of the Virgin Mary, does it not seem possible that Christ is to be seen as literally within His Mother's symbol; or to put it another way: Christ is symbolically present within His mother, not yet born.

The cathedral itself has nine doors, three on the west, three on the north, and three on the south, or three times three, a mystical number signifying perfection. Hence, what one enters at Chartres is an earthly example of the Heavenly Jerusalem. From the time of Fulbert, in the llth century, scholars of Chartres identified the Heavenly Jerusalem as the Bride of Christ, whom they regarded as the Virgin Mary.36

Therefore, it is possible to interpret the interior of Chartres' cathedral as the interior of the Virgin herself, the womb of the Mother of God. The light which falls into that space,

page 194

in at least eight instances, is Christ Himself, blessing.

Millard Meiss, in discussing paintings of the Northern Renaissance painter Jan van Eyck, gives a similar interpretation.37 He describes van Eyck's painting The Virgin in the Church as the first document we possess other than the buildings themselves, by which we can demonstrate "the actual appearance of a Gothic cathedral."38 The difficulty, of course, was to show the coloristic darkness as well as the elements of the architecture. How could one have the darkness, and show the building?

In The Virgin in the Church, there is no stained glass. However, the nave of the church is in unrelieved gloom. The Virgin is shown as a hieratic form; the infant Jesus is shown as an embryonic figure, ill-formed. Behind the Virgin, there are two pools of light. Meiss has demonstrated that those two pools of light are intended to be symbolical references to the two natures of Christ, God and Man. In 1499 a copyist "corrected" Van Eyck, by painting in stained glass windows, to give a reason for the gloom, but he did away with the two pools of light. Jan Gossart made a copy. He also removed the light pools, but he shows two lighted candles at the entrance to the rood screen; thus, while he may not have understood the meaning of the two lights, he restored the symbols.

Van Eyck created a conscious retardaire, a copy of something from another age; in it, he creates an archeologically correct version of a thirteenth century statue of the Virgin.39

page 195

Was he expressing something which he perceived of the darkness in the nave of some Gothic church? Probably. He was also expressing Christ both post partum, or perhaps only embryonic, and present at His own Annunciation, as the two lights shining into the belly of the nave; likewise, the Virgin herself is shown both present in a hieratic form, and present as the structure into which the light of the Annunciation is shining. Hence, Van Eyck's church is the Virgin.

Can we conclusively demonstrate that what Van Eyck saw and what you are being asked to see at Chartres are the same thing? Unfortunately, we cannot. We can only raise possibilities, not probabilities. However, res ipsa loquitur is a principle recognized in law. That neither the paintings nor the cathedral have a continuous light, that the light in the paintings is a demonstration of the theological Principles of the artist and the same is true at the cathedral, that the darkness in the paintings is intentional and is doubtless so at the cathedral, since it has been possible to make changes to allow more light to enter at any time since the 13th century40 since both the paintings and the cathedral are barren, except for the light which is shining in darkness, there are enough similarities to gain a conviction, if only on circumstantial evidence.

Appearance is not to be dismissed as subjective. Whatever the cathedral's symbolic reference, since one cannot distinctly see anything within the cathedral at Chartres for the length of a mass, and apparently one is not intended to see clearly, the scholastics at

page 196

Chartres may have intended this to be an analogue for the Dionysian metaphysics of darkness, by forcing us to strip off the qualities of sight and of knowledge. We experience what the Germans call a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total art experience, being immersed in the art object, so that in this instance, we experience something of that "super-essential Darkness which is hidden by the light that is in existent things."

page 204


Abbot Suger, On the Abbey Church of St. Dennis and Its Art Treasures, ed., trans., and annotated, Erwin Panofsky. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948.

Aubert, Marcel. The Art of the High Gothic Era, trans. Peter George. New York: Greystone Press, 1966.

Baldass, Ludwig. Jan van Eyck. London: Phaidon Press, n.d.

Baumgardt, David. Great Western Mystics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Coulton, G. G. Five Centuries of Religion. Cambridge: The University Press, 1929, I.

Crombie, A. C. Medieval and Early Modern Science, I. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953; Doubleday and Co., 1959.

Dierick, Alfons. The Stained Glass of Chartres. Berne: Hallwag, Ltd., n.d.

Dionysiaca. Paris: Desclee de Brouwer & Cie, Editeurs, 1937.

Dionysii Areopagitae, Omnia Opera. Patrologia Graeca. Ed. J. P. Migne. Parisiorum: Seu Petit-Montrouge, 1857, III.

Dionysius the Areopagite. The Divine Names

page 205

and the Mystical Theology, trans. C. E. Rolt. London: S P.C.K , 1920, rpt. 1940.

---. De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, 1.2. trans. Ernst Kitzinger, "The Cult of the Images Before Iconoclasm," The Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 8. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

---. De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia. IV. 3, trans. Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz. History of Aesthetics, II, The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1970.

---. Epistle X, trans. Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz. History of Aesthetics, II. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1970.

Eliot, Alexander. Sight and Insight. New York: McDowell-Oblensky, Inc., 1959.

Fletcher, Banister. A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, 16th ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958. 18th ed., rev. J. C. Palmes New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.

Hatecoeur, Louis. Mystique et Architecture Symbolisme du Cercle et de la Coupole. Paris: A. et J. Picard et Cie, 1954.

Henderson, George. Chartres. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1968.

page 206

Johnson, James Rosser. The Radiance of Chartres. Columbia University Studies in Art History and Archeology, No. 4. New York: Random House, 1964.

Krautheimer, Richard. "Introduction to an Iconography of Medieval Architecture.'" Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 5, 1942.

LaCroix, Paul. The Arts in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1964.

Ladnet, Gerhart B. "The Image Concept," The Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 7. Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1957.

Lethaby, William R. Medieval Art. London: Duckworth and Co., 1904.

Male, Emile. Religious Art, From the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century. New York: Harper and Brothers, Harper Torchbooks, 1941.

Meister Eckhart, A Modern Translation. Trans. Raymond Bernard Blakey. New York: Harper and Brothers, Harper Torchbooks, 1941.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Panofsky, Erwin. Abbot Suger, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and Its Art Treasures. Ed., trans., and annotated,

page 207

Erwin Panofsky. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946; rpt. 1948.

Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origin and Character, I. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

---. "The Friedsam Annunciation and the Problems of the Ghent Altarpiece," Art Bulletin, 17, No. 4, 1935. ---. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. New York: Meridian Books, 1971. ---. Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksells, Harper Torchbooks, 1960.

Pieper, Joseph. Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.

Plato, The Symposium. Trans. B. Jowett; intro. Louis R. Loomis. New York: W. J. Black, 1942.

Reutersward, Patrik. "What Color is Divine Light," Light from Aten to Laser, Art News Annual, 35. Ed. Thomas B. Hess and John Ashberry. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1969.

page 208

Rolt, C. E. "Introduction," The Divine Names and the Mystical Theology. London: S.P.C.K., 1920, rpt. 1940.

Rouse, Richard H. and Mary A. "John of Salisbury and the Doctrine of Tyrannicide," Speculum, xlii, No. 3, 1967, p. 697.

Schaefer, Erwin. "The Origin of the Two-Tower Facade in Romanesque Architecture," The Art Bulletin, xxvii, No. 2, (1945), 85.

Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. History of Aesthetics, II. Ed. C. Barret. Trans. R. M. Montgomery. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1970.

Taylor, Alfred E. Platonism and Its Influence. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1963.

Van der Muelen, Jan. "A Logos Creator at Chartres and Its Copy," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 29, 1966, p. 98.

Weatherbee, Winthrop. Platonism and Poetry, the Literary Influence of the School of Chartres. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

page 197


1. Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renancences in Western Art (Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksells, Harper Torchbooks, 1960), p. 187; and Emile Male, Religious Art, From the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949, rpt., 10th ed., Noonday Press, 1972), n. trans., p. 9.

2. Panofsky, Ibid.

3. Nobile claret opus, sed opus quod nobile claret Clarificet mentes, ut eanut per lumina vera Ad verum lumen, ubi Christus janua vera ... and Pars nova posterior dum jungitum anterior, Aula micat medio clarificate suo. Claret enim claris quod clare concopulatur, Et quod perfundit lux nova, claret opus Nobile, quod constat actum sub tempore nostro, Que suggerus eram, ne duce dum fieret.

4. He may have accomplished this "inadvertently"; Whitney Stoddard, Art and Architecture in Medieval France (Middletown, Conn: Wesley University Press, Harper Icon Books, 1966), p. 101.

5. Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, (New York: Medidian Books, 1971), p. 20, says there is a genuine "cause and effect" relation between Gothic architecture as an artifact and the Scholastic method as a method. He cannot be correct in emphasizing light metaphysics, if the above is true.

page 198

6. Un Sainte, Gregoire le Grand, qui fin du sixieme annonce a l'Occident les ecrits d'un Denys presente par les Grecs comme le membre de l'Areopage converti par Saint Paul. Dionysiaca, (Paris: desclee e Brouwer & Cie, Editeurs, 1937), p. lxv.

7. Ibid.

8. Cinquante ans plus tard, c'est un Pape et un Saint, qui fonde solennell ement l'autorite doctrinale se Denys et cree son magistere. A trois reprises, au synode de Latran en 649, Denys est a l'honneur, sur les levres du Pontife Romain. Ibid., p. lxvii. This synod established Dionysius' authority as "uncontested" (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross, (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 403).

9. Josef Pieper, quoting Hegel, Samtliche Werke, ed. H. Glockner, vol. 19, p. 199; from Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p 48.

10. Richard Krautheimer, Studies in East Christian, Medieval and Renasissance Art, (New York: New York University Press, 1969), p. 245, n. 87; G. G. Coulton agrees, "... somewhere around 830 ... this identification was crystallized into a dogma"; Studies in Medieval Thought (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1940), p. 61.

11. Krautheimer, Ibid.

12. Alfred E. Taylor, Platonism and Its Influence (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1963), p. 19.

page 199

13. Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology, trans. C. E. Rolt (London: S.P.C.K., 1920, rpt. 1940), pp. 95-98; for the Greek version, Dionysius the Areopagite, Omnia Opera, "De Divinis Nominibus," Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, (Parisiorum: Seu Petit-montrouge, 1857).

14. Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, IV. 3, quoted from Gerhart B. Ladner, in "The Image Concept," Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 7 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 13.

15. Dionysius the Areopagite, quoted from Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, II, ed. C. Barrett; translator, R. M. Montgomery (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1970), p. 34.

16. Marcel Aubert, The Art of the High Gothic Era, trans. Peter George (New York: Greystone Press, 1966), p. 28.

17. Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), p. 500.

18. Male, Religious Art, Ibid., p. 94.

19. Ibid., p. 93.

20. James Rosser Johnson, The Radiance of Chartres, Columbia University Studies in Art History and Archeology, No. 4 (New York: Random House, 1964) pursued the idea to book-length; however, he also noted the

page 200

relative mopia (see p. 19). George Henderson, while praising the clarity of the minds which constructed Chartres, indicated he wished they had permitted one to study it in a "better light" ("Gothic," Style and Civilization, ed. John Fleming and Hugh Honour, (Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1967), p. 151).

21. Patrick Reutersward, "What Color is Divine Light?" Light: from Aten to Laser, Art News Annual XXV, ed. Thomas B. Hess and John Ashberry (New York: MacMillian Co., 1969), p. 109; he suggests: "to enter the cathedral of Chartres on a sunny day is an unforgettable experience. At first one experiences only darkness."

22. Johnson, p. 19.

23. Paul LaCroix, The Arts in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1964), p. 258; however, Alfons Dierick, The Stained Glass of Chartres, (Berne: Hallwag, Ltd., N.D.) p. 8, says there are one hundred and seventy-three.

24. William R. Lethaby, Medieval Art, rev. David Talbot Rice (New York: Greenwood Press, 1950), p. 130.

25. Hetwin Schaefer, "The Origin of the Two-Tower Facade in Romanesque Architecture," The Art Bulletin 27, No. 2 (1945), p. 85.

26. Alexander Eliot, Sight and Insight (New York: McDowell-Oblensky, Inc., 1959),

page 201

suggests that looking from the nave into the clerestory windows at Chartres is analogous to looking at "a dark night sky lighted by constellations." (p. 183).

27. Winthrop Weatherbee, Platonism and Poetry, the Literary Influence of the School of Chartres, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 60.

28. Rolt; see n. 13.

29. Richard H. and Mary A. Rouse, "John of Salisbury and the Doctrine of Tyrannicide," Speculum, 42, No. 3 (1967), p. 697.

30. David Baumgardt, Great Western Mystics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), p. 46; Meister Eckhart, A Modern Translation, trans. Raymond Bernard Blakney (New York: Harper and Brothers, Harper Torchbooks, 1941), pp. xi, 185, and 231.

31. Rolt; see n. 13.

32. Louis Hatecoeur in Mystique et Architecture Symbolisme Cercel et de la Coupole (Paris: Editions A. et J. Picard et Cie, 1954), says: "Cette doctrine de l'ignorance infinie, de la nuee divine se retrouve chez tous les mystiques ... Plotin et son ecole, Origene, Evagrius, Gregoire de Nysee, et le Pseudo-Denys" (p. 177).

33. Rolt, Mystical Theology II.1, p. 103.

34. A. C. Crombie, Medieval and Early Modern Science, I (Cambridge: Harvard

page 202

University Press, 1953; Doubleday and Co., revised, 1959), p. 14} Plato, "The Timaeus," trans. R. G. Bury, The Loeb Classical Library, VII, ed. T. E. Page (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), Section 46, paragraphs B/C.

35. Jan van der Meulen, "A Logos Creator at Chartres and Its Copy," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 29 (1966) p. 98, n. 41.

36. Henderson, "Gothic," p. 74. Hatecoeur suggests the first attachment to the idea of the church as Heavenly Jerusalem is: "D'apres la mystique de saint Maximin le Confesseur" (p. 229. n.2).

37. Millard Meiss, "Light as Form and Symbol in Some Fifteenth Century Paintings," The Art Bulletin, 17, No. 3 (1945).

38. Meiss, p. 180; Ludwig Baldass, Jan van Eyck, (London: Phaidon Press, n.d., 1951) says van Eyck's use of light in The Virgin in the Church allows him to "give correct values to everything" (p. 28).

39. 39Meiss, p. 181, indicates that he is not certain the statue is from the 13th century, just that it is "of an earlier style." However, Panofsky, in "The Friedsam Annunciation," Art Bulletin, 17, No. 4 (1935), p. 449, is certain this painting is one in which van Eyck "felt his way to an almost archaeologically correct ... thirteenth century Gothic...."

page 203

40. The clerestory windows were all set between 1200 and 1240. (Alfons Dierick, The Stained Glass Windows of Chartres, p. 9).

Essays in Medieval Studies 2

page 209

Thomas's Doctrine of Woman and Thirteenth-Century Thought

Richard J. McGowan

While we may legitimately expect great thinkers to swim against the currents of their times, we can hardly expect them to swim up waterfalls. This metaphor fits the great thirteenth-century thinker Thomas Aquinas on the thirteenth-century's "obvious truth" that women are inferior to men. We can hardly expect his doctrine of woman to hold other than what it holds: Woman is the imperfectus sexus1 and morally inferior to man.2 In these claims, Thomas agrees with his contemporaries, and with the two most influential predecessors of the thirteenth-century intellectual milieu, Augustine and Aristotle.

But if Thomas's doctrine of woman holds that woman is metaphysically and morally inferior to man, his path to the idea of woman's inferiority differs significantly from the paths of Augustine and Aristotle as well as his contemporaries. Thomas's view of woman is neither a restatement of Aristotelian philosophy nor, as Boerresen maintains, "to be found in the reflections of Augustine, from whom he differs little on this subject."3 I will show, even if briefly, the difference between Thomas and Augustine on woman and note the pivotal importance of thirteenth-century biology for Thomas's treatment of woman. His dependence on close empirical observations as the foundation of his thoughts, while leading him to conclusions we find unacceptable, announces a new method-

page 210

ology for understanding human spirituality. Thomas's importance to the scientific tradition marks his method as more powerful than even he could imagine.

Thomas and the Augustinian Heritage

Thomas's philosophical anthropology differs so dramatically from Augustine's that Thomas cannot but help to have a different doctrine of woman. For Thomas, a human being is not a rational soul using an earthly and mortal body, but a hoc aliquid of body and soul, a body and soul unity. Thomas asserts that the soul is a forma materiae, a form of matter, not a forma in materia, a form in matter.4 The body and soul are intimately joined; the soul does not use the body as a tool. The soul is neither the mover in the moved,5 nor does it exist as a sailor in a ship.6 A human being is not two different kinds of things mixed together somehow. In maintaining that the rational soul is immediately and intimately united to the body, Thomas feels he has protected the unity of being human. But in protecting the unity of a human being Thomas has done something more: he has advanced a position quite different from anything Augustine's philosophical anthropology holds.

Augustine's celebrated definition of a human being holds that a human being is a rationalis anima utens corpore, a "rational soul using a body. "7 If a human being is a rational soul using a mortal and earthly body, then the soul and body do not seem to be a hoc aliquid, a "one object," and the soul and

page 211

body are not immediately united. Thus, Augustine places a greater distance between the soul and body than Thomas does. This greater distance, in turn, enables Augustine to maintain that man and woman are spiritually equal, but bodily unequal. His discussion, in The Trinity, of the human being as an imago Dei, an image of God, shows us as much.

Augustine's remarks in book twelve of The Trinity reveals his position that the body does not bear upon human spirituality and spirituality is sexless. Of Ephesians 4:238 and Colossians 3:109 Augustine says that

not according to the body, nor according to every part of the soul, but according to the rational mind, where the love of God is able to be, is a person made to the image of the one who created the person.10

The body has no bearing on a person's status as an image of God. Augustine is most adamant about the non-corporeal character of human spirituality: "Not only is it shown by truest reason, but also the authority of the Apostle declares, that not according to the body is a person made to the image of God, but according to the rational mind."11

Augustine adds later that where a person is renewed to the image of God, "there a person is made to the image of God, where no sex is."12 As images of God and spiritual creatures, being human admits of no sexual distinction. Conversely, we must realize that for Augustine, sexuality is wholly corporeal. The distance he thinks exists between the

page 212

body and soul enables him to make this separation. For Augustine, a person is a rational soul using an earthly body, the latter of which is male or female. Hence, if Augustine asserts woman's inferiority, which he does,13 that inferiority must be confined only to man and woman in their bodily aspects since that is the only place a sexual distinction occurs. The quality of the body does not bear upon the quality of the soul in Augustine's philosophical anthropology.

Thomas thinks differently. If the soul is a form of matter, not a form in matter, the body will bear upon the quality of the soul and the soul will reflect the body. That the body has an impact upon the quality of the soul is itself a product of the fundamental Thomistic principle that a form can be received only to the extent that the matter allows its reception: "in matter better disposed, the form more nobly participates."14 Thomas says of being human that "by as much as the body will have been better composed, it receives a more noble soul."15 In Thomas's philosophical anthropology, the body is a limiting factor in being human. While souls are of the same species and are the same form, they can exist and operate only to the extent that the body enables them to exist and operate.

Here we have a rather important point of departure by Thomas from Augustine. Augustine speaks as though the body has no bearing on the spiritual aspects of being human. Thomas's philosophical anthropology holds that the body bears greatly upon the quality of the soul. Thomas even goes so far

page 213

as to say that there is a gradus inter virum et mulierem,16 a grade between man and woman, where the imago Dei is concerned, and that not in all beings having an image is the image found equally."17 For Thomas, then, knowledge of the body becomes both important and necessary for an understanding of the soul and the human being. But the knowledge of the body which Thomas relies upon for his understanding of being human is the biology of the thirteenth-century. That biology, besides being heavily Aristotelian, posits very different reproductive roles for man and woman. That biology, in short, is quite mistaken.

Thomas's Understanding of Bodily Imperfection and the Birth of Women

Thomas thinks that woman is materially deficient with respect to man. When discussing the birth of children in the state of innocence, Thomas explicitly asks 'whether children would have been born with a perfect body regarding strength and stature and sex immediately after birth.'18 Thomas refers here to a person's sex as a perfection of the body and acids that in Paradise, not only was woman bodily imperfect, but that "woman, even with respect to her soul, was less perfect than man.'19 We might wonder why women would even be born in the state of innocence, where no defect of natural operation would have been present20 but Thomas anticipates precisely this question. He explicitly says women would have been born in the state of innocence, meaning that woman is perfect somehow.

page 214

Yet, that Thomas thinks women would have been born in the first state is of small consolation to woman's perfection, for Thomas also thinks woman is somehow occasionata, accidentally born and not fully intended by nature. He says that "although woman is beside the intention of a particular nature, which occurs in semen, intending offspring to follow in perfect likeness to the generator, she is not beside the intention of universal nature because without woman, generation is impossible."21 What Thomas means by this statement is that women are born when the father, the form-inducer,22 fails to produce what the father's reproductive power sets out to produce, namely, male offspring. Women, thinks Thomas, are born when something goes awry.

Thomas cites Aristotle's The Generation of Animals 4, 1 in showing this. He states that a woman is produced when "the semen of the man is unable to prevail over the matter of the woman as [the semen] sets the matter in its most developed arrangement and brings the matter into the perfect sex."23 This inability on the part of man's semen means that the process of embryonic development, such as Thomas understands it, stops short of the process's ultimate goal, namely, the birth of a member of the perfect sex. Thomas refers to the inability of man' s semen as an impotentia,24 a weakness, with all the connotations "weakness" has.

Any understanding of the impotentia itself turns on the reproductive biology Thomas commits himself to. In Thomas's account of reproduction, man and woman have completely

page 215

different roles and make completely different kinds of contributions to the offspring. Thomas believes that in the act of generation, man provides an active power in the semen that will shape the matter that the mother provides. The man's semen and the woman's matter join together so that the active power of the man's semen can cause the offspring to gain its form. He says

The power to produce offspring is not passive in the semen of the man, as we say wood and stones are the house in potency, for in such a way that power is in the menstruum of the woman, but it is an active power, as we say the form of the house in the mind of the maker is the form of the house in potency.25

The man, according to Thomas, contributes to the offspring actively and the woman passively. He says that "in all perfect living things in which there is the distinction of sex, the female is the patient and supplier of matter and the male is the agent and inducer of form, as is said in 15 de Animalibus.'26 In twentieth-century words, the thought is this: the father is the only parent who brings to the offspring anything of genetic importance. In thirteenth-century words, the idea is that only the father passes human nature to offspring.

Thus, Thomas can maintain, with Aristotle, that "a person is more like the father than the mother, since from the father the person receives the form and from the

page 216

mother, the matter."27 And on these grounds, Thomas can say of children that "the father is to be loved more than the mother. The mother and father are loved as principles of natural origin. The father, however, is a more excellent reason for origin than the mother."28 The father's role in reproduction, if Thomas is correct, is more important for the child's existence as the kind of being the child is. Her role in reproduction and the manner of her birth marks woman as bodily inferior to man, in Thomas' s account. Upon the bodily inferiority, though, Thomas bases other conclusions about the sexes.

Some Consequences of Woman's Bodily Inferiority in Thomas's Thought

Since Thomas's philosophical anthropology holds that the quality of the body has an impact upon the quality of the soul, and that the soul is subsistent and intellectual, he is led into claiming that women, by nature, are subject to male authority. He says that "because nature is diverse in diverse beings, so according to nature there are diverse beings that rule and are ruled; for in one way a free person rules the slave and a male, the female, and a man, the boy."29 By nature, men are fit to rule women, claims Thomas. This claim is not merely descriptive of the relative perfection of man and woman, but also prescriptive regarding good social order. Thomas says that "good order would have been lacking in the human multitude if some were not governed by others who are wiser. And thus, from such a subjection woman is

page 217

naturally subject to man."30 But if women are subject to men, women should not speak publicly in church as teachers or priests, or so Thomas reasons. Thomas argues that teaching and persuading are not activities that subjects perform.31

Woman, owing to her material deficiencies, is less wise than man, and should not be priests, says Thomas. Further, Thomas says, on the grounds of woman's lesser wisdom, raising children requires a father more than a mother. When he explains why marriages should last the lifetime of the husband and wife, Thomas says that the task of raising children requires a long time and that 'a woman alone does not suffice, but more is required in the work of the man, in whom there is more perfect reason for instructing and greater strength for punishing."32

And not only do men have more perfect reason, but men are more capable of acting on the basis of their reason, according to Thomas. Women are easily led about by their passions.33 Thus Thomas agrees with Aristotle that men and women do not have the same ethical standards. Women, they think, are morally weak propter imperfectionem corporalis naturae, on account of the imperfection of their corporal nature.34 Thomas claims not only a metaphysical or constitutional inferiority for woman, but also a moral inferiority attached to that alleged constitutional inferiority. Thomas thinks woman, owing to her allegedly imperfect body, is the imperfectus sexus: she is spiritually and morally man's inferior.

page 218

Thomas's Doctrine of Woman and Thirteenth-Century Thought

In that Thomas's doctrine of woman holds that woman is imperfect with respect to man, his thought in this area is quite ordinary for the thirteenth century. In its conclusions about woman, Thomas's thought hardly stands out from Aristotle's and Augustine's. In many ways, his doctrine of woman represents the typical, somewhat unenlightened, patriarchal point of view. Yet, Thomas's doctrine of woman represents a divergence from thirteenth-century traditions while at the same disclosing what the thirteenth century mind must have thought.

The idea that the soul is a material form reflecting the body is an Aristotelian thought. The idea that the soul is spiritual and subsistent is an Augustinian thought. What Thomas managed to do in his heavily Augustinian environment was to fashion a philosophical anthropology that holds that the soul is a material form, but subsistent and spiritual, too. In holding this, he enables his doctrine of woman to part company with Augustine's and Aristotle's doctrines. In holding that the soul is a material form yet subsistent, Thomas gives great impetus to understanding the body as a means to understanding what it means to be human. Biological knowledge is pivotal in understanding man and woman not merely in their corporeal aspects, but in their spiritual aspects as well. Sexuality, in short, can not be put exclusively in terms of the body and, paradoxically, biological knowledge becomes more important in understanding human beings. Thomas's emphasis on biological

page 219

knowledge is breathtaking, set, as it is, in a theologically oriented century.

Thomas solves the problem of gaining biological knowledge by assenting to a reproductive theory in which man and woman have wholly different roles. Thomas's doctrine of woman shows this as well as showing how heavily Aristotelian that biology is. While Thomas constantly refers us to something which Aristotle says, he does not rely on Aristotle's writing for a foundation of biological knowledge. Instead, he turns to Aristotle for corroboration of biological truths. Thomas seems to accept a body of knowledge independent of Aristotle's work, asserting that these facts are so and that that is why Aristotle makes the claims he makes.35 May we conclude that Aristotle's biology was the accepted biology of the thirteenth-century thinkers, but that Thomas and others are unaware of the source of that biology? I am satisfied that that is indeed the case, though that thesis demands more thorough investigation.

And what are we to make of the ostensibly extraordinary woman, the one who is equal or superior to man? Does Thomas and do others overlook these women in formulating a doctrine of woman that states woman's imperfection? If Thomas does this, his doctrine of woman is, at best an a priori construct by an educated intelligent man. Furthermore, if Thomas does this, he would be contradicting his own system's demand to understand the body by empirical observation. In fact, Thomas does not overlook the evidence of "strong and brave women,"36 women who

page 220

would disprove the rule that woman is the imperfectus sexus. Thomas handles this evidence by saying that what is small is counted as if nothing,37 so these ostensibly rare women need not be taken into account when formulating generalizations about women. The question of whether Thomas, or any thirteenth-century thinker, has any idea of a universal scientific law must be asked here. On the face of it, Thomas's doctrine of woman seems to have no conception of a universal scientific law. Here again I would counsel further examination.

Finally, I wish to conclude with what I consider to be the most important, and, by now, obvious point about Thomas's doctrine of woman as well as thirteenth-century thought. We must concede that medieval thought treats woman as imperfect and inferior. But we do not have to concede that Thomas's thought on woman or the thought of the Middle Ages is a product of hysteria, bias, or prejudice. Thomas's doctrine of woman is a doctrine formulated rationally upon the limited information available to him. Contemporary thinkers, especially feminists, among whom I number myself, have a tendency to treat too harshly any person who espouses a position at odds with accepted contemporary thought.

Doctrines like Thomas's are labeled misogynous and dismissed. However, if we take the time to investigate a doctrine of woman like Thomas's, we would find that such a doctrine, while wrong in many ways, can still be admired for the way it is put together. As contemporary thinkers, we should reserve judgment on the person and qualify the

page 221

harshness of our criticism. If contemporary thinkers, especially feminists, do this, the Middle Ages in all its richness will be more nearly within the grasp of our understanding.

page 222


1. Summa Theologica (ST) III, q. 31, a. 4, obj. 1 and ad 1, Parma Opera Omnia vols. 1-25 (New York, New York: Misurgia, 1948), 4:137 "Sexus enim masculinus est nobilior quam sexus femineus." See also In II Sent., d. 21, q, 2, a. 1, ad 2 and d. 18, q. 1, a. 1, sed contra. All translations are mine.

2. In II Sent., d. 22, q. 1, a. 3, obj. 2; 6:580. "Infirmitas peccatum excusat. Sed mulier infirmior viro." See also ST II-II, q. 156, a. 1, ad 1.

3. Kari Elisabeth Boerresen, Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, trans. Charles H. Talbot (Washington U. Press of Amer., 1981), p. xvii.

4. In II Sent., d. 1, q. 2, a. 4, ad 3; 6:399. "Essentia animae rationalis immediate unitur corpori sicut forma materiae."

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. De moribus ecclesiae catholicae et de moribus Manichaeorum I, 27, 52; Migne's Patrologia Latina (PL) 32, 1332. "Homo igitur, ut homini apparet, animo rationalis est mortali atque terreno utens corpore."

8. Eph. 4:23: "Be renewed in the spirit of your minds."

9. Col. 3:10: "You have put on the new nature which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."

page 223

10. De Trin. XII, 7, 12; PL 42, 1004-5. "... non secundum corpus, neque secundum quamlibet animi partem, sed secundum rationalem mentem, ubi potest esse agnitio Dei, hominem factum ad imaginem ejus qui creavit eum."

11. Ibid.; PL 42, 1004. "Sicut enim non solum veracissimo ratio, sed etiam ipsius Apostoli declaret auctoriats, non secundum formam corporis homo factus est ad imaginem Dei, sed secundum rationalem mentem."

12. Ibid. "... ibi factus est homo ad imaginem Dei, ubi sexus nullus est."

13. Augustine refers to man as the melior sexus and woman as the sexus infirmior in De conjugiis adulterinis II, 20, 21; PL 40, 486.

14. In II Sent., d. 32, q. 2, a. 3, ad 1; 6: 683. "... secundum quod in materia melius disposita dignius forma participatur."

15. Ibid., sol.; 6:683. "... ut quanto corpus melius complexionatum fuerit, nobiliorem animam sortiatur."

16. Ibid., d. 16, q. 1, a. 3, sed contra; 6:525.

17. Ibid. "... et ita non in omnibus habentibus imaginem imago aequaliter invenitur."

18. Ibid., d. 20, q. 2, a. 1; 6:564. "Utrum in statu innocentiae homines habuissent omnem perfectionem corpus quo ad virtutem et staturam et sexum, statim post nativitatem."

page 224

19. Ibid., d. 21, q. 2, a. 1, ad 2; 6:572. "... et ideo mulier, etiam quantum ad animam, viro imperfectior erat."

20. Ibid., d. 20, q. 2, a. 1, obj. 1; 6:564. "... in primo statu nullus defectus naturalis operationis fuisset."

21. Ibid., ad 1; 6:565. "... quamvis mulier sit praeter intentionem naturae particularis, quae agit in hoc semine, intendens prolem adducere in perfectam similitudinem generantis, non tamen est praeter intentionem naturae universalis ... quia sine femine non posset esse generatio."

22. The form of a human being, its soul, comes directly from God, but the alleged generating parent, the father, predisposes the soul's reception. See In II Sent., d. 31, q. 1, a. 2, ad 4; 6:673: "... anima autem ex mari, non ita quod anima rationalis traducatur, sed quia in semine est virtus formitiva ... organizatur corpus et praeparatur ad receptionem animae rationalis" ("the soul is from the man, not that the rational soul is transmitted [by him] but because in the semen is the formative power which ... organizes and prepares the body for the reception of the rational soul"). Thus, for Thomas, only the father passes human nature to the offspring.

23. Ibid., d. 20, q. 2, a. 1, ad 2; 6:565. "... generatio mulieris contingit, ut in 18 de Animalibus (sive 4 de Gener Anim., cap. 1) dicitur, ex hoc quod semen viri non potest vincere super matetiam mulieris, ut digerat ipsam ultima digestione, et in perfectum sexum adducat."

page 225

24. See In II Sent., d. 20, q. 2, a. 1, ad 2.

25. Ibid., d. 18, q. 2, a. 3, sol.; 6:550. "Haec autem potentia non est passiva in semine maris sicut dicimus ligna et lapides esse in potentia domus (sic enim est potentia in menstruo mulieris), sed est potentia activa, sicut dicimus formam domus in mente artificis esse potentia domus.

26. Ibid., d. 20, q. 1, a. 2, sol.; 6:563. "... in omnibus enim viventibus perfectis in quibus est sexus distinctio, femina se habet ut patiens et materiam ministrans, et mas se habet ut agens et formam inducens, ut in 15 de Animalibus dicitur."

27. Ibid., d. 30, q. 2, a. 2, ad 5; 5:667. "Philosophus ostendit in 5 Metaphysica (text. 53)), dicens: 'magis homo est de genere patris sui quam matris, cum a patre formam recipiat et a matre materiam.'"

28. ST II-II, q. 26, a. 10, resp.; 3:109. "Sed, per se loquendo, pater magis est amandus quam mater. Amantur enim pater et mater ut principia quaedem naturalis originis. Pater autem habet excellentiorem rationem principii quam mater."

29. Politicorum Aristotelis I, lectio X; 21:398. "Et quia natura diversificatur in diversis; ideo secundum naturam sunt diversa quae principantur et subjiciuntur. Alio enim modo homo liber principatur suo servo, et masculus feminae et vir puero."

page 226

30. ST I, q. 92, a. 1, ad 2; 1:363. "Defuisset enim bonum ordinis in humana multitudine, si quidam per alios sapientores gubernati non fuissent. Et sic ex tali subjectione naturaliter femina subjecta est viro." Of course, the subjection of woman to man is, in Thomas's view, for woman's own benefit.

31. ST II-II, q. 177, a. 2, resp.; 3:595. On why women should not speak in church, Thomas writes: "Primo quidem et principaliter propter conditionem feminei sexus, quo debet esse subditus viro."

32. Summa Contra Gentiles III, 122, 8; 5:260. "Ad hoc autem mulier sola non sufficit, sed magis in hoc requiritur opus maris in quo est et ratio perfectior ad instruendum et virtus potentior ad castigandum."

33. See Pol. Arist. I, lectio X and Ethicorum ad Nicomachum Aristotelis VII, lectio 5.

34. Eth. ad Nic Arist. VII, lectio 5; 21:237.

35. See. e.g., see nn. 26 and 27.

36. Ibid., XII, lectio 5; 21:237. "raro inveniuntur mulieres sapientes et fortes." See also ST II-II, q. 156, a. 1, ad 1.

37. ST II-II, q. 156, a. 1, ad 1; 3:525. "... id quod est parvum vel debile, reputantur quasi nullum."

Essays in Medieval Studies 2

page 227

Christian Europe and Mongol Asia:

First Medieval Intercultural Contact Between East and West

Gregory Guzman

Between approximately 400 and 1000 A.D., Christian Europe was an isolated and inward looking civilization due to an almost continuing series of invasions by Germans, Huns, Muslims, Avars, Vikings, and Magyars. Western Europe represented a civilization on the defensive a civilization fighting for her life. But after a century or two of peace and prosperity, Christian Europe's population and self-confidence grew; Europe was soon on the offensive in Spain, the Western Mediterranean, and the Crusades in the Middle East. Western Europe thus began to enter into the large Asian world of which she knew little or nothing at all.

Medieval Europe was especially ignorant of the Far East of Asia beyond the Muslim Middle East. The Christian West still accepted many old classical myths and legends about far off places and peoples and still tried to find a Biblical explanation and/or niche for everything and everyone. Muslim defeats in the East at the hands of the Kara-Khitans and later the Mongols were attributed to the legendary Christian priest-king, Prester John, and later to his son, King David. Thus Christian Europe was slowly becoming aware, in a vague and hazy way, of the peoples and activities of Central and East Asia. But in this early stage, the West was not receiving an entirely accurate view. At first Western Europe viewed the Mongols as enemies of

page 228

Islam, and thus as friends of all Christians. However, this early Western hope and expected friendship soon changed to fear and terror, as the Mongols conquered all of Christian Russia by 1240. The Mongols were too cruel and too vicious to the Russian Christians to be either Prester John or his son, King David.

In 1241, the Mongols entered Poland and Hungary in full force about 150,000 strong. Most Western Christians were stunned and shocked as this highly mobile and well-organized Mongol army quickly and decisively defeated the Poles and Germans at Leignitz and the Hungarians and Cumans at Mohi. All of Western Europe was open to the Mongols as no united Christian military force existed to oppose them on the battlefield. Western Christians were awe-struck by the Mongols' great numbers, their speed, and their cruelty; the Western Europeans were literally in a state of shock and disbelief, as they awaited the Mongols' next move.

The Mongols' sudden withdrawal from Europe was as unexpected as their dramatic attack. Their return to the East was considered a miracle by many Western Christians. The Mongol pullback was traditionally attributed to the death of Ogodei Khan in 1241 and the resulting need for the Mongol princes, especially Batu (the leader of this western invasion and Khan of the Golden Horde), to return to Mongolia for the election of a new Great Khan. This view has been rejected by historians as Batu never went back to Karakorum, the Mongol capital. Batu took his military forces to Eastern Russia in order to influence the upcoming election of his hated

page 229

enemy and cousin, Guyuk. Batu failed as Guyuk was elected Great Khan. Modern scholars now believe that the Mongols left Christian Europe because there was not enough grass for the numerous horses and herds of these steppe nomads and because they had decided that wooded and mountainous Europe was not worth conquering.

While the West did not know why the Mongols left in 1242, most Europeans believed that they would return. Many Christians viewed the Mongol invasion as punishment for sin and possibly the beginning of the End of the World. The latter belief carried additional weight when the devastating Mongol invasion was added to the Fall of Jerusalem in 1244 and the ongoing life and death struggle between the papacy and Emperor Frederick II.

The first phase of East-West relations between Mongol Asia and Christian Europe revolves around Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254). As the nominal leader of Western Civilization, Pope Innocent IV was the first to take action. The Mongol threat was one of the three major items (along with the deposition of Emperor Frederick II and the call for a new Crusade) on the agenda of the 1245 Council of Lyons.

Innocent IV was a far-sighted leader who realized the danger of a renewed Mongol attack on divided and unprepared Europe. Lacking military power, Innocent IV could only employ diplomacy. Thus he decided to send papal envoys to the Mongols to find out who they were and what their intentions were, and to hopefully convert them to Western Christianity in the process. As his envoys, he selected

page 230

mendicant friars as they were active and dynamic preachers, teachers, and missionaries. Pope Innocent IV sent four separate embassies to preach and gather information in 1245. The two Franciscan and two Dominican missions all carried religious and diplomatic letters addressed to various Mongol leaders and military commanders. The papal letters asked Mongol intentions, told them to stop killing and slaughtering people (especially Christians), and urged them to accept baptism. The papacy thus favored peace and harmony with the Mongols via diplomacy and conversion.

The Franciscan mission of John of Plano Carpini is probably the most interesting and best known of these four early embassies. John was a portly sixty-year-old friar who traveled to Karakorum via Poland and Russia. He covered over 3000 miles in approximately three months and was present at Guyuk's enthronement in 1246. Guyuk sent a written reply to the papal letter carried by Friar John. The Great Khan's return letter was basically a threat that ordered the Pope and the Christian West to submit to Mongol supremacy or else. Guyuk's letter, like all subsequent Mongol letters to Western Christians, was an ultimatum; it stated that it was the will of heaven that the Mongols dominate and rule the earth. The fact that the Mongol armies were always victorious was cited as proof of this claim. Thus the Mongols believed that they had a divine right and mandate to rule the entire world.

Friar John's report to the Pope in 1247 represented the first Western eye-witness account of Mongol Asia. It was a widely read

page 231

account as it was incorporated into Vincent of Beauvais' popular Speculum Historiale. Friar John' s history contained an accurate description of Mongol life and customs, and was especially revealing in Mongol military organization and tactics and how best to oppose them. He was as much a military spy for the Christian West as a religious envoy for Pope Innocent IV.

Thus this first state of East-West relations between Mongol Asia and Christian Europe was not too successful as it became apparent that a deep political-religious gap existed between Mongol Asia and Christian Europe. Since both the Mongol Khan and the Christian Pope regarded himself as God's divinely appointed representative on earth, meaningful dialogue and communication between these two East-West leaders came to a temporary standstill.

After the reign of Pope Innocent IV, the initiative in Europe's relations with the Mongols shifted away from the religious-diplomatic papal policy with its stress on baptism and conversion to the political-military arena once the Western kings and rulers became directly involved in East-West relations. This second phase of intercultural contact between Mongol Asia and Christian Europe centers largely on attempts to establish political-military alliances between the Western Christians and Eastern Mongols against their common Muslim enemies in the Middle East.

King Louis IX of France was the focal point of this first political-military alliance attempt. A Mongol general in the Middle East

page 232

sent two envoys to the crusading Louis IX on the island of Cyprus in 1248. King Louis sent envoys in return. Louis IX was sick, defeated, and a prisoner (after his defeat by the Egyptian Mamluks in the Sixth Crusade, 1248-1250) when a nebulous Mongol response was received. Despite the lack of any concrete alliance, this was an important mission, as it represented a positive Western response to the first suggestion of a Mongol-Christian alliance. Thus it was the opening of a new era in East-West relations. The initiative came from the Mongols the invincible Mongols were approaching the Western Christians for a possible alliance against their common Muslim enemies.

The second stage of the political-military alliance phase of Christian-Mongol relations centers on the activities of the Mongol Khans of Persia. The middle of the thirteenth century saw a major redistribution of power in both Europe and Asia. In Europe the papacy destroyed the Hohenstaufen family and its imperial plans. In the Middle East and Mongol Asia, the power situation was also readjusted significantly. Several major Mongol leaders died Batu in 1256 and Mongke, the fourth Great Kahn, in 1259. The Mongols under Hulegu conquered the Baghdad Caliphate in 1258. The Mongols thus became a major factor in Middle Eastern affairs along with the Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Persians, and Khwarizmians. The Mamluk Turks emerged in Egypt as heretical rebels against the orthodox Caliph at Baghdad. The Mamluks were the only major military obstacle in the way of a complete Mongol takeover of the Muslim Middle East. They are credited with the first defeat

page 233

of the Mongols on the battlefield (at Goliath's Spring in 1260) even if Hulegu's main Mongol army had gone East for the election of a new Great Khan and even if there were only a handful of Mongols at the battle.

While all this was taking place, Hulegu established the Mongol Khanate in Persia; this is usually referred to by the term I1-Khanate which means subject Khanate. Hulegu was opposed by the hostile Mamluk Muslims of Egypt in the West and by the hostile Russian Mongols of the Golden Horde in the North. The Mongols of the Golden Horde had accepted Islam, and thus they opposed Hulegu's attack on the Baghdad Caliphate. This is the major reason Hulegu took his main army north and east in 1260, as the Russian Mongols represented a much more serious threat than Mamluk Egypt.

Caught between his enemies, Hulegu began to view the European Christians as potential allies against his hostile neighbors. At first the Western Christians were not too receptive to the Persian Khan's friendly overtures. They were confused by the hostility of the Golden Horde in Russia and the friendliness of the Il-Khans in Persia, as the Western Christians still viewed all the Mongols as part of one empire. But the rise of the Mamluks in Egypt posed a serious threat to the last few crusader states in the Levant, so the Christians began to see the Mongols of Persia as potential allies against Mamluk Egypt.

Hulegu and his successor khans in Persia again took the initiative and sent a series of envoys and embassies to the popes and

page 234

Western kings; they asked for a political-military alliance against the Mamluks. Many of the Persian Khans had Nestorian Christian wives; the khans were thus assumed to be favorably disposed to Christianity. Since most popes continued to see baptism as a prerequisite for a political-military alliance, the Mongol envoys spread rumors of the various khan's imminent conversions with almost all of their embassies. The three Mongol envoys who appeared before the 1274 Second Council of Lyons dramatically asked to be baptised before that assemblage to create an even more favorable climate for their mission. The Latin sources report that the Western Churchmen recognized this obvious ploy.

As a result of these Mongol embassies, the English King Henry III and his son Edward I planned a joint military attack with the Mongols against the Muslims of Egypt, but the Mamluks seized the military initiative in 1271 and prevented any significant joint activity by these Christian Crusaders and Persian Mongols. From this point onward, the Western kings were no longer eager for a new Crusade, but dialogue and embassies between Western Christians and Persian Mongols continued for the next fifty years due to the Il-Khan initiative.

Actually, the Persian Khan's diplomatic activity peaked under Arghun Khan (1284-1291). He sent four embassies to Christian Europe in less than eight years. His most serious and interesting mission was led by a Christian monk named Rabban Sauma. He was a reverse Marco Polo in the sense that he was a Chinese Uighur who traveled to the

page 235

Middle East and then on to Western Europe as Arghun's ambassador to the popes and kings of England and France in the late 1280's. Rabban Sauma was a Nestorian Christian and was thus an ideal envoy to the Christian West. He wrote an account of his trip to the West and thus provided posterity with a counterpart to the Polo description of China.

At this point, the Christian West was no longer interested in military action to liberate the Holy Land, especially after the Fall of Acre in 1291 the last Crusader State in the Levant. For all practical purposes, the Western crusading spirit died with King Louis IX of France in 1270. The popes and Church, like the Western kings, were unable and unwilling to support military action in the Middle East.

With this shift in Western sentiment, the popes and Western Christians returned to their earlier policy of diplomatic-religious propaganda and missions over the political-military alliance policy of the Western kings and crusaders. The conversion of the Mongols to Christianity had always been the chief aim of the Church since 1245, even though this goal was temporarily overshadowed by the political-military phase of the Western kings. This primacy of conversion and evangelization was evident in all papal letters and bulls. This Western preference for conversion continued to be the dominant theme of East-West relations after 1300, but now the popes and friars looked beyond the Middle Eastern Persian Khanate. They looked to the Far Eastern home of the Mongols; they looked especially to China as it was the largest and

page 236

most powerful khanate of the four parts into which the earlier united Mongol Empire had split.

Papal interest in a Christian mission to the Far East was intensified by the trips of the Polos to China in the late thirteenth century. Through the Polos, Kublai Khan (the last of the five Great Khans) asked for one hundred Christian teachers. Pope Gregory X sent only two Dominican Friars, but both turned back in the Middle East.

The early papal mission to Mongols of China revolves around the activities of John of Monte Corvino. He was eventually appointed the first Christian Archbishop of Peking. John was a Franciscan missionary in Armenia and Persia for years before he returned to Italy in 1289. He confirmed for the papacy the many well-known reports and rumors of Kublai's being friendly to Christians. Pope Nicholas IV decided to send a Franciscan mission to Kublai in China a mission led by friar John of Monte Corvino. He carried the usual religious letters of good will to Eastern political rulers and religious leaders. Friar John took the dangerous two year sea trip from Persia to South China. He arrived in Peking in 1294 one year after Kublai died.

Friar John presented the papal letters to the new Khan. He was granted permission to settle and preach in the capital city as he had status as both a clergyman and a Western ambassador. The Khan's court was primarily Buddhist, but it was tolerant of all other religions. John was given up for dead in the West until the Pope received two letters from

page 237

him in 1306-1307. It was at this time that the pope appointed him Archbishop of Peking and Patriarch of the Orient. These letters were the last friar John wrote to the pope. It was first in 1333 that the pope was informed of John's death five years after it occurred in 1328. The pope responded by sending a friar Nicholas to be the new Archbishop of Peking. His exact fate is unknown, but he never made it to Peking.

The Franciscan John of Marignolli led the last documented Christian mission to the Mongol Court in China; his trip was the end of early East-West contact and the end of the medieval Christian mission in China. In 1336 Christian Alan mercenaries serving the Mongol Khan in China wrote and asked the Pope for clergymen to serve their spiritual needs. John of Marignolli was appointed to lead the largest papal embassy sent to Peking. His trip and experiences are known only through his own account. Friar John carried the usual papal religious letters; he had several audiences with the Mongol Khan in Peking in 1342. His large thirty-two man mission spent three years in Peking. He left in 1345 as he sensed the coming unrest that resulted in anti-Mongol violence in 1348 and the eventual overthrow of the Mongol dynasty in China in 1368.

A few words on the impact and consequences of this early Christian Europe-Mongol Asia intercultural contact are in order here. In the first place, it should be noted that there was little lasting European impact on the Mongols and Asians. Hardly any evidence of Western Christian influence and activity exists in Mongol and Chinese sources.

page 238

Most of the information in this study comes from the Latin sources of the West. Furthermore, the united Mongol Empire split into four separate Khanates at first and into more regional units later. The Mongol rulers were soon assimilated into the respective cultures, religions, and civilizations, especially in China and the Middle East. Thus these Mongol rulers were no longer ripe for conversion to Christianity. China in particular returned to her traditional isolation after a century in the larger Mongol World Empire. There was no real Western European impact on China, as Western Christian embassies never went beyond the Mongol ruling elite and their foreign officials they never really entered into contact with the Chinese masses.

In the second place, it can be concluded that Western Europe basically responded to outside Mongol and Asian requests for missionaries, ambassadors and alliances. The European popes and kings seldom took the initial step in dealings and relations with the Mongols and Asians. The Western popes and kings were suspicious of any type of Christian-Mongol relationship or alliance. They felt Mongol unbelievers could not be trusted until after they accepted Christianity. This is the reason most papal letters and bulls were purely religious and spiritual in character and content. Europe was after conversion before alliance, as conversion meant the acceptance of papal leadership as well as Christianity. This early Christian-Mongol contact (both religious-diplomatic and political-military endeavors) ended in the mid-fourteenth century as that is when the Mongols dropped the initiative when the

page 239

Mongol Khans in Persia accepted Islam and when the Mongol dynasty was overthrown in China.

The final conclusion to be drawn is that the papacy played the central role in this early contact between Christian Europe and Mongol Asia. As the nominal leaders of Medieval Europe, the popes guided, directed, and orchestrated the work and activities of the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the kings of France, England, and the Crusader States in the Levant. The popes and the Church failed to achieve their primary objective of converting the Mongols, but there were some noteworthy religious-intellectual results to offset the failure to convert the Asians.

The Europeans began to learn Middle Eastern and Asian languages at least Arabic and Persian if not Mongol and Chinese. This significant advance played an important role in trade and commerce as well as in diplomacy and the exchange of intercultural ideas.

The papacy and the Church became less rigid in dealing with Eastern Christians and infidels. Occasionally the Western Christians agreed to overlook their theological differences with Maronite, Jacobite, and Nestorian Christians, and to present somewhat of a united Christian front against Muslim and Buddhist beliefs. Intellectually this can be viewed as the beginning of the spirit of toleration and ecumenism within Christianity.

Diplomatic exchanges between Christian Europe and Mongol Asia led to the emergence of the first Western eye-witness accounts of

page 240

far-off East Asia. For the first time, Western Europeans were exposed to the true size and scope of the Eurasian landmass; they were exposed to different cultures, beliefs, values, attitudes, and institutions; the papacy and Europe were thus forced out of their narrow religious-geographic perspective; they began to realize that they had to deal with and relate to the non-Christian world with its many different peoples, religions, and cultures. The Europeans gradually assigned the Mongols and other Asians a permanent place in the natural order of things; they no longer tried to force all peoples into a specific Biblical niche or role as they initially did during Europe's narrow Christian view of the world and all people in it. The Westerners realized that they could not refuse to recognize and deal with the rest of the world simply because it was non-Christian that they could not ignore and pretend that all non-Christian peoples and cultures did not exist. Thus the Mongols and Asians were incorporated into the West's intellectual framework in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

This early Christian-Mongol contact is an interesting and important chapter of Medieval and World History.Unfortunately, it is a chapter frequently overlooked by Western historians because the Latin sources are scattered and poorly organized at present. This early East-West contact represented Europe's first interaction with a totally foreign civilization outside the framework of the traditional Mediterranean cultures which emerged from the break-up of the Roman Empire. This early Christian-Mongol contact in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries

page 241

represented Europe's first true intercultural experience and is of critical importance in evaluating and understanding the growth and development of Western intellectual history especially in the emergence of a European world-view of mankind and history. Thus it was not later fifteenth and sixteenth century exposure to foreign cultures and civilizations in the Age of Exploration and Discovery, but this early Mongol contact which ended Europe's geographical isolation, moved Christian Europe toward ecumenism and toleration, and broadened Europe's intellectual horizons.


Beazley, C. Raymond. The Dawn of Modern Geography. 3 vols, Oxford, 1897-1906.

Bezzola, Gian-Andri. Die Mongolen in Abendlandischer Sicht ([220-1270). Ein Beitrage zur Frame Volkerbegegnungen. Bern and Munich, 1974.

Boyle, James A. "The Il-Khans of Persia and the Princes of Europe," in Central Asiatic Journal, XX (1976), 25-40.

Brincken, Anna-Dorothee von den. Die "Nationes christianorum orientalium" im Verstandnis der lateinischen Historiographie von der Mitte des 12. bis in die zweite Halfte des 14. Jahrhunderts. Cologne, 1973.

Dawson, Christopher. The Mongol Mission. Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. New York, 1955.

Grousset, Rene. L'Empire des steppes. Paris, 1939.

Lupprian, Karl-Ernst. Die Beziehungen der Papste zu islamischen und mongolischen Herrschern im 13. Jahrhundert anhand ihres Briefwechsels. Vatican, 1981.

Mosheim, J. L. Historia Tartarorum Ecclesiastica. Helmstadat, 1741.

Moule, A. C. Christians in China before the Year 1550. London, 1930.

page 243

Muldoon, James. Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels: The Church and the Non-Christian World, 1250-1550. Philadelphia, 1979.

Ohsson, C. Movradgea d'. Histoire des Mongols depuis Tchinguiz-khan jusqu'a Timour Bey ou Tameman. 4 vols, La Haye and Amsterdam, 1834-35.

Pelliot, Paul. "Chrétiens d'Asie centrale et d'Extreme-Orient," in T'oung Pao. XV (1914), 623-44.

---. "Les Mongols et la Papauté" in Revue de l'Orient chretien, XXIII (1923), 3-33; XXIV (1924), 225-325; and XXVIII (1931-32), 3-84.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Stanford, 1971.

Richard, Jean. La Papauté et les missions d'Orient au moyen age (XIIIe-XVe siecles). Paris, 1977.

---. "Le début des relations entre la Papauté et les Mongols de Perse," in Journal Asiatique, CCXXXVII ( 1949), 287-93.

---. "Les Mongols et l'Occident: deux siècles de contacts," in 1274 Annee charniere. Mutations et Continuites, pp. 87-96. Paris, 1977.

---. "The Mongols and the Franks." in Journal of Asian History, III (1969), 45-47.

page 244

Saunders, J. J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. New York, 1971.

Sinor, Denis. Introduction a l'etude de l'Euraise centrale. Wiesbaden, 1963.

---. "Le Mongol vu par l'Occident," in 1274 Annee charniere. Mutation et Continuites, pp. 55-72. Paris, 1977.

---. "Les relations entre les Mongols et l'Europe jusqu'à la mort d'Arghoun et de Béla IV," in Cahiers d'histoire mondiale, III (1956), 39-62.

---. "The Mongols and Western Europe," in Kenneth M. Setton, A History of the Crusades, III, pp. 513-44. Madison, 1975.

Slessarev, V. Prester John: The Letter and the Legend. Minneapolis, 1959.

Soranzo, Giovanni. Il Papato, l'Europa cristiana e i Tartari: un secolo di penetrazione occidentale in Asia. Milan, 1930.

Spuler, B. Die Mongolen in Iran. 3rd ed., Berlin, 1968.

Yule, Henry. Cathay and the Way Thither. 4 vols, London, 1913-16.

<P ALIGN="RIGHT>Bradley University

Document Info

Accesari: 1686

Comenteaza documentul:

Nu esti inregistrat
Trebuie sa fii utilizator inregistrat pentru a putea comenta

Creaza cont nou

A fost util?

Daca documentul a fost util si crezi ca merita
sa adaugi un link catre el la tine in site

Copiaza codul
in pagina web a site-ului tau. - coduri postale, contabile, CAEN sau bancare

Politica de confidentialitate

Copyright © Contact (SCRIGROUP Int. 2021 )