Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

Here's the full A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (about 1.3 MBytes; Word format; includes notes on some of its limits)

Middle Ages, The.

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

An awkward phrase used in English-other languages (Latin, Italian, French, German, Spanish, etc.) say "the Middle Age" - for the period between Ancient and Modern times. As the stages of transition are themselves lengthy, the chronology is not fixed; especially since the criteria marking the beginning of Modern times are extremely unsatisfactory. Roundly, the Middle Age is dated from 450 (or 500) to 1550 (or 1600). The first section (450-1050 or 1100) is the Dark Age [see] - a term which no responsible Rationalist writer has ever extended to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The whole chronological scheme is profoundly unsatisfactory, but our concern here is to endeavour to reach an impartial estimate of the period 1050-1550, the better part of the Middle Age. That it witnessed great achievements, notably in art and commerce, and an advance immeasurably greater than had been made in the previous 500 years, is a platitude of history; and that its chronicle contains the names of large numbers of good men or very able men, like every other period of history, It is superfluous to state. But Catholic writers, taking advantage of the leniency to their Church which they have secured in so much writing of modern history, now claim that it was libelled by the historians of the last century; they even claim sometimes that it was the finest epoch of civilization. We have therefore found it necessary in the present work to state the critical facts in scores of articles, and from a summary of these we may here form a discriminating estimate. It is equally important to ascertain to what extent either good or bad features of the period were due to the Church, which kept in check by brutal violence the constantly recurring revolt against it and had such power over the race as no other religion ever had.
      Apart from Modernist conceptions of art, no one questions the grandeur of the mediaeval artistic achievement, but it has been shown [Architecture; Art; Cathedrals; etc.] that to attribute this to the inspiration of religion is a poor fallacy, which the great majority of modern experts pointedly reject. It was due to the very human exaltation which always occurs - compare the periods of great art in Egypt, China, Greece, and Persia - when a people passes from a long period of stringency or demoralization to one of rapidly expanding wealth; and it was as great in profane as in sacred production. In regard to the intellectual achievement which is next lauded, we must carefully discriminate. The period opened with a feverish school-movement [Abelard; Education; Universities; etc.] which, from its appearance in the South of France and from historical testimony [Arabs; Gerbert; etc.], we easily trace to the magnificent intellectual life which had already lit Moslem Spain for more than a century. But the Church destroyed the early freedom of discussion in the movement, actively checked [Bacon; Cecco d'Ascoli; Copernicus; Galileo; Vesalius; etc.] that cultivation of science which was its most promising feature, and, apart from the development of law and medical schools, which was required for practical purposes, converted nearly the whole into a sterile and arid activity that merely consecrated the worst powers and practices of the hierarchy. Literature grew in spite of the Church, but the amount of genuine religious literature was extraordinarily small in comparison with the vast literature of the Age of Chivalry [see] and the Renaissance [see] which was contemptuous of religion and most licentious from the Christian point of view. Progress in law is the third achievement pressed upon us. We have to remember the appalling lawlessness of the Dark Age, which had to be remedied, the rapid growth of a body of lay lawyers which the improvement of social and economic conditions necessitated, and the eagerness of kings and cities to take over the administration of law from churchmen when, as now occurred, heavy fines were substituted for ordeals, duels, and mutilations. But the net gain was far less than a really great age would have achieved. Law remained in many respects barbaric [see Crime; law; Justice; Torture] until the Rationalist and humanitarian attack upon it began in the eighteenth century with Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws and Beccaria's Treatise on Crimes. The immense advance in wealth, banking (in spite of Church Law), commerce, industry, civic forms, and in some respects manners and modes of living, had obviously nothing to do with religion.
      On the other hand, the influence of so dominant a religion ought to have been felt primarily in morals, and here the very extensive literature of the period is consistent and decisive. Both in individual and social morals the Middle Age is one of the worst in civilized history, apart from the recognized periods of a collapse of civilization. Precisely that virtue which the Church most stringently enjoined - sexual virtue - was flouted by the great majority in every class, and at least as flagrantly as in the worst periods of history, although these had no dominant creed and ecclesiastical caste enjoining chastity. Alexandria under the Ptolemies, or Rome under Nero, Caracalla, and Elagabal, had had no Church living on the teaching of a Christ. And the situation was the more revolting because those whose task it was to enforce such teaching - large numbers of the Popes, cardinals, and bishops and the general body of the innumerable priests, monks, and nuns - were as bad as the laity. Even the new friars [see] degenerated within a generation. Probably no thesis here stated will seem to many - such is our modern literature - more startling, but the facts, and the agreement of all the leading authorities on them, are given in a large number of articles in this work. [See especially Baths; Celibacy; Chivalry; Feast of Fools; Liber Gomorrhaicus; Marriage; Monasticism; Papacy; Prostitution Renaissance; Roman Church.] The Crusades [see] were very far from being eruptions of piety and virtue, and mediaeval chivalry is a myth in the most blatant contradiction to the facts. On the social-moral side the record is almost as bad. The really religious Popes, such as Gregory VII [see] and Innocent III [see], were indifferent to social welfare, and sacrificed it repeatedly in securing the power of the Church; the other Popes were either sensual and selfish or absorbed in maintaining the power of the Church and the docility of the people. The serfs [see] were emancipated owing to economic and political developments, but they continued in a state of abject dependence on arbitrary and cruel masters, and lived like animals; and they were at least four-fifths of the people of Europe. All authorities agree that the princes, nobles, knights, and their ladies acknowledged no rights in any class below their own and robbed and tortured burghers as well as peasants. Justice [see] was the second great virtue of the Christian code; and injustice was the second rampant vice of Christendom. Moreover, the Church itself set up new and appalling injustices, such as the death-sentence and horrible suffering for honest opinions, torture for other ecclesiastical offences, the gross tribunals of the Inquisition, and a terrible exploitation of the ignorant people to support priests and monks who were generally corrupt. No one can sum up that extraordinary age in a phrase, but that this is a correct broad characterization of it will be found by collating the hundreds of authorities cited in the above articles. Modern American attempts to give a different estimate, under Catholic pressure, consist of an exclusive and greatly exaggerated presentation of the few good features which are connected with religion, or a fallacious emphasis on secular developments which no one ever questioned, while the evil features are ignored. [i>See Christianity and Dark Age for literature.] A later article on the Thirteenth Century will examine the facts in regard to what Catholic historians describe as "the most beautiful" part of the Middle Age; and for the "beautiful characters" of the period see the observations under the titles Religion and Character and Saints.

 

Return to Joseph McCabe Selection

Back to Table of Contents

Scanning, HTML Rae West. First upload 98-06-15