William Manchester’s book, A World Lit only by Fire, well exemplifies the general modern attitude to the “Dark” Middle Ages. The Dark Ages represented only a brief and regrettable period in the world’s inevitable march to change, progress, and the Enlightenment of the modern world. Under influence of the light of reason, modern man learned, or at least believed he learned, that God was dead, that man was only a cosmic accident (or according to Loren Eiseley, a cosmic orphan) in a random universe. Enlightened as he became, he cast off the chains of traditional morality and his silly, quaint ideas of good and evil. He learned to be tolerant, that truth and ethics were relative, and that what was true for him need not be true for someone else. The history of his most enlightened century, the twentieth, showed the effects of these beliefs, with two world wars, several genocides, rampant abortion, and its use in culling the weak from society by killing unborn children likely to be handicapped later in life. If this is the world lit by the sun of science and progress, one cannot but wonder at the darkness of a world “lit only by fire.”
When one asks why the Middle Ages were dark, one is typically told of their dreariness, of the fasts and vigils, the fire and brimstone, the intolerance, oppression of the human spirit all combined with narrow dogmatism of a faith unenlightened by science and reason.
Yet, when I look at the Medieval Christian world, I find that this picture is simply not true. As Chesterton said, the modern world was right to go by the facts, it was simply not considering the facts. Turning to the Middle Ages, I found a world lit, maybe by fire, but it was fire of a certain kind. I found a world of epic and romance, troubadours, tales, religion and ritual, chivalry, soaring cathedrals, faith, and reason. In brief, I find the world of Sts. Francis and Thomas Aquinas. In Francis, one had the fasts and vigils, but also a joy and gaiety almost too big for the world to hold. But the world could hold it, because it was a bigger world. Moderns, little understanding Francis, will insist on seeing him as a proto nature worshiper, and his Christianity as little more than an unfortunate and unnecessary tag-on. But in reality he loved the world because to him it was a sign-book of the love of its Maker. It was a larger world. A tree was not only a tree, but something that showed the spiritual value of suffering (since when pruned, it grew back even better the next year). Likewise to St. Patrick, a clover was not just a cover, but a sign of the Trinity, while to thousands of medieval preachers, sex was not only sex, but a sign of Christ’s union with His Church.
In Thomas Aquinas too, one sees the fasts and vigils, but also a mind thoroughly willing to consider the most modern science and philosophy. Willing to tell the conservatives that they need not fear reason, to tell the liberals that they need not fear faith, and to tell them both with a courtesy and reason with which they could hardly argue.
The modern secular humanist boasts of his love of humanity, but St. Francis really loved humanity. He embraced both the poor and the leper and all men who came to him. The modern secular humanist boasts of being on the side of science and reason (at least until science and reason are no longer on his side ). Thomas really was on the side of science and reason, but he was on the side of something else too. Like Francis, Bonaventure, Dominic, and others he saw the world as lit by a kind of fire, the same fire that lit him. That was the love of his divine master, for love of whom Francis was permitted to receive his wounds, and for love of whom, Aquinas, when offered by his Lord a reward for his writings, replied only, “I will have Thyself.” That was the world of medieval Christianity; it is the world Christianity today offers, if only we are enough “lit by fire” to see it.