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A History of the French Language

By Urban T. Holmes Jr.; Alexander H. Schutz | Go to book overview

V
THE MIDDLE FRENCH PERIOD (1300-1515)

31. CIVILIZATION

Generally speaking, these two hundred years saw the decline of medieval institutions. In 1291 the Saracens recaptured the town of Akka, or Saint-Jean-d'Acre, and the crusaders withdrew for good from the Holy Land. The authority of the papacy was badly shaken by the withdrawal of the popes to Avignon ( 1309-1377) and by the Great Schism of 1378-1417, during which, at one time, there were as many as three popes! Add to this the fact that the wealth and laxity of the clergy became so flagrant that bandits and perjurors could find no better field of activity than under the Church's banners, and it is understandable why thousands of individuals lost their faith. The Church, the greatest force for peace and order during the earlier centuries, no longer held supreme sway. Surely this explains the decay of medieval civilization. The system of thinking was altering also. The schoolmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were realists -- that is, they believed in the real prior existence of the world's plan and of its virtues in the mind of God, before Creation -- and consequently they trusted implicitly in the authority of God and of those inspired by God in the knowledge and conduct of affairs. Beginning with an Englishman, William of Occam ( 1270-1347), this realism was replaced by a nominalism which denied the premises of prior existence.1. This lead to outright materialism and to a distrust in authority. Thus the schools themselves prepared the minds of men for the scepticism of the coming humanists. So pronounced was the increasing lack of faith, in the fifteenth century, that those hundred years are often characterized as the century of Death. The mind of the fifteenth-century man was haunted by the fear of dying, unrelieved by faith in the Great Unknown. This was soon counterbalanced by the paganism of the

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1
First suggested by Roscellinus, in the late eleventh century, who was obliged to recant

-53-

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