We have now travelled back through thirty generations and 600 years. Although many of the things we take for granted now have not even been thought of for this generation, there are some remarkable similarities. There were no printed books (although images are reproduced using woodcuts), so all books were hand-written and hand-copied. But one of those hand-written books was a self-help manual for women: a theme that has resonances with today. It explored moral dilemmas in a way that would not be out of place in a modern soap opera, and appealed to personal conscience as a way to resolve them.
Christine de Pisan wrote ‘The Treasure of the City of Ladies’ or ‘The book of the three virtues’ in 1405. Here is a page from the book, in which the three virtues (reason, rectitude and justice) won’t let her rest until she starts writing.
She was based at the French court, and the book starts with practical advice for the women there, before moving outwards in ever-increasing circles to include women of the aristocracy, women of the towns and ending with the urban and rural poor.
A moral dilemma for a lady-in-waiting at the court was: what to do if her princess embarks on an adulterous affair? She is torn between loyalty and duty to her princess and the knowledge that this course of action can only end in disaster. Shades of grey were not a feature of this world. There were two available options: virtuous christian behaviour or sin, evil. The punishment for adultery was hanging.
Christine’s advice to the lady-in-waiting whose princess refuses to listen to her is to ask to leave the court, saying she is sick and that it would be best for all if she was out of contact until she recovers.
Elsewhere, Christine advises a serving woman that if her mistress becomes pregnant by someone other than her husband, then the serving woman should announce that she is pregnant, and after the child is born take it as her own. That reminds me of a scene from the US TV soap opera ‘Frazier’, when Roz became pregnant. Frazier’s father declares, ‘When I was young we knew how to do things right. The girl went away to the country to stay with family and came back a few months later with a baby sister or brother!’ Not so different from Christine’s advice.
The context for this was the rigid social structure, with different rules for each rung in the hierarchical ladder. Christine railed against people who stepped out of their allotted role, such as merchants’ wives who dressed like princesses. But because so many had died from the plague and France was in a state of intermittent civil war among its elites, the social structure was weakening. Some people from the lower ranks, especially in the towns, were taking the opportunities for a life other than the one they were born into. Christine was defending a world that was already passing into memory.
Her values came from the teachings of the church. One can see from this book why the church was so influential. It gave people the moral compass to decide between right and wrong, how to proceed and what to avoid. It helped to make sense of the world. Christine targeted the vices of envy and pride as a particular danger for her readers. The princess who is so proud of her situation that she takes it for granted rather than seeing it as a function, a duty. The town-dweller who dresses like the nobility and risks stirring envy in the hearts of others.
The church was also concerned with an unresolved issue that found expression in Prague. The papacy was in crisis, still in the Great Schism, with a pope in France and another in Italy. One of the popes authorised the sale of indulgences to finance a war against a supporter of his opponent. A priest and teacher at the Prague University, Jan Hus, wrote against this, like Luther a century later:
“One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.”
Also like Luther, Hus believed in predestination: a hard christian philosophy based on the idea of an omnipotent deity who has already determined who will be saved and who will be damned. There is nothing we can do to change it: we are either among the elect or we aren’t.
Hus’s ideas gathered wide support in central Europe, to the consternation of the ruling elite.
The Council of Constance was convened in 1414 to bring an end to the papal schism. It also examined the heretical ideas that had found their most recent champion in Prague. Hus was invited to the council with a promise of safe conduct from the king. But he was not one of the nobility, and honour applied only to one’s own rank and above, not to the lower orders. Once he was in Constance, the safe conduct was revoked and he was arrested on the grounds of heresy. He was convicted and burned at the stake in 1415. However, as we have seen, his ideas did not die with him.
There was an alternative to the hardline philosophy of Hus and his followers, or the authoritarian line of the established church. Humanism, a philosophy of education and of life, was finding expression in Italy. There is a refreshing optimism in the writings of humanist teachers and philosophers. They believed they could offer young people a rounded education that would nurture their enquiring minds so that they grew up to be well-adjusted citizens. Subjects to be taught included the study of history, philosophy, language (particularly latin and later, greek), composition in prose and poetry, how to present an argument in speech or writing. Other subjects were astronomy and mathematics. These were seen as human accomplishments: hence the title ‘humanities’ which was invented during this time.
Its inspiration could be traced back to the works of classical Roman and Greek authors, particularly Cicero and later to Plato. Its more recent revival went back to Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante in the preceding two centuries. It was regularly topped up as more and more ancient texts were rediscovered. Contributions were made during this generation by Manuel Chrysoloras (who travelled from Constantinople with yet another unsuccessful delegation asking for help from the west against the encroaching ottoman empire). He was invited to Florence, and travelled around Europe. He translated the works of Homer and Plato into Latin.
For example, here is an extract from a letter written by one of Chrysoloras’ students:
“Our name, our birthplace, are not of our own choice. Progress in learning, on the other hand, as in character, depends largely on ourselves, and brings with it its own abiding reward.” (From Concerning Character. Letter from Petrus Paulus Vergerius to his pupil Ubertino, son of Francesco Carrara, the Lord of Padua, 1404-5). None of the doom and gloom of predestination there.
Another of Chrysoloras’ students, Leonardo Bruni, devised the term ‘Renaissance’ (meaning ‘rebirth’) to describe the times they were living in, and ‘Middle Ages’ for the preceding period where the light of classical learning had not yet been rediscovered. Bruni also wrote a 12-volume history of the Florentine people, which is considered to be the first modern history book.
Thinkers like Bruni and his colleagues influenced the artists, too. Like the scholars, they took their inspiration from the classics, but did not follow them slavishly.
Here is a statue of St George by Donatello. St George looks as if he is ready to step off the plinth and make his own considered decision about what to do next. In comparison to the painting of Christine de Pisan at the top of this page, this statue breathes the air of a different world.