What knocked Aquinas from the pinnacle so quickly?
Riddle: What’s long, hard, and shakes your very soul?
Answer: A terrible week.
We all have ’em. That week, maybe that month or more, when nothing seems to go right. The horrible stretch makes you think, “Man, what am I doing?”
We then respond in some fashion. Maybe we grow determined. Maybe we cue Johnny Paycheck’s Take This Job and Shove It. Maybe we start a side hustle. Maybe we seek therapy or self-medicate with booze or marijuana. Maybe we renew our relationship with God . . . or fall into the hands of a cult leader.
The existential crisis, in other words, often provokes an essential response. . . . something that changes how we define ourselves.
Society is Man Writ Large
Society, Plato noted, is man writ large. If you want to detect historical or even contemporary trends, you can look at yourself and extrapolate to society today and to historical events. Such an approach is limited and merely one tool for understanding, but it’s helpful.
Now picture this.
You lose your job on March 15th. You curtail the household budget severely but then appliances break down. On April 5th, you learn you need a new roof. On April 23rd, your father tells you that his second wife is getting all his money when he dies. You’re sitting on your porch on April 30th, looking at the uncut lawn and your broken mower, and rubbing your forehead, then your beloved wife announces she’s having an affair and is leaving you immediately.
A proper response to all this is, “Ah, f’ it. F’ it, f’ it, f’ it!”
The Fall of Rome
In 1453, Europe said, “fiddlestick it, fiddlestick it, fiddlestick it!”
That was the year Constantinople fell to the Islamic Turks. The Roman Empire had ended. After 2,000 years (let that sink in), Rome was gone.
Europe sat shocked. Everything had been falling apart for the past 150 years.
Then the wife announced she’s banging a Muslim.
The Suffering Sesquicentenary
If you remember that the number 13 is considered unlucky, you can remember this historical fact: The 1300s sucked. Starting in 1309 and moving through 1453, Europe suffered events that shook its existential core, challenging its very definition of itself.
The Babylonian Captivity: In 1309, the Pope moved to Avignon, France, effectively becoming a pawn of the French king, Philip IV, whom Dante properly called “The Plague of France.” This was a big deal. Not only did it shake a strong popular implication or assumption that the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire were providentially joined, but it also displaced Papal finances (e.g., the Vatican’s tenants around Rome stopped sending their rents to the Pope), requiring the Pope to find other means, which led to the financial abuses which led to the Reformation.
The Great Papal Schism: When the Papacy finally returned to Rome in 1377, the next Papal election in 1378 was hotly contested between a candidate who wanted to return to Avignon and one who wanted to stay in Rome. The details are wild and beyond our scope here, but suffice it to say: there were soon two popes, one in France and one in Italy. This was an obvious embarrassment and undermined the legitimacy of the Catholic Church in many people’s eyes.
The Hundred Years’ War: Then there was the series of conflicts that started in 1337 and ended over 100 years later. Large swaths of France were devastated, along with both countries’ finances, which resulted in Edward III of England repudiating in 1343 his debt to bankers in Florence, which ushered in an awful depression.
The Black Death: In 1347, a ship floated into Sicily and no one got off. Authorities investigated, found a bunch of dead and dying guys, then blithely went back to the island to report what they had seen. By 1348, the plague was all over Europe and stayed until 1351, killing at least 30% of the population. And then it went away . . . and came back in 1361, 1369, and then periodically every four to twelve years through the fifteenth century, with each attack averaging 10% mortality. (Note: All dates and percentages are ballparks; no one agrees on any of the details; some historians, for instance, assert the Black Plague was still killing as late as the 1800s).
Other: Throughout all this, the power of the Holy Roman Empire was shrinking, and with it the unity of Christian society as embodied in the Empire. A new brand of philosophical skepticism generated by William of Ockham swept through the universities. Relations between the four Christian Iberian kingdoms — Castile, Aragon, Navarra, and Portugal — gradually deteriorated into open conflict. The Turks, advancing menacingly through the Balkans to Europe’s great fright, inflicted a crushing blow on a formidable pan-European resistance in 1396.
Bad Weather to Good
Go back to my hypothetical April scenario. I picked April for a reason. No matter how bad things seem, May brings beautiful weather and a sense of renewal.
The same was true for Europe. There were still more storms on the way (in particular, the Reformation and the terrible Thirty Years' War), but things started to improve. In 1480, the Russians overthrew the Mongols, ending 200 years of oppression by the Tatars. In 1492, Columbus discovered a new world and the Spanish finished their reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, expelling the last Muslim Moors from Grenada.
And laced throughout these improvements was the Renaissance, the Age of Petrarch, a rejuvenation of hope in humanity. The Renaissance was the calendar month of May in the history of western civilization.
More on that next week.