The Darkest Ages

[Lecky's History of European Morals was one of MT's favorite books. According to Albert Bigelow Paine, he first read it in 1873. It was a minor source for Huck Finn, and a major source for The Prince and the Pauper. Along with Lecky's History of England in the Eighteenth Century, it was an important influence on Connecticut Yankee. As Harold Aspiz pointed out, MT made use of both Lecky's facts and Lecky's ideas. The first excerpt below reflects the way MT depended on Lecky for historical facts. It is the passage MT is referring to in the note at the end of CHAPTER XXII when he says: "All the details concerning the hermits, in this chapter, are from Lecky, but greatly modified." (One modification, of course, was the way MT moved Lecky's ascetics from the deserts of Egypt to Arthurian England. By clicking on the link icon, you can put Lecky's and MT's prose side-by-side, and see how else he modified the source.) One specific fact in this selection -- about the drying up of a well -- also supplied MT with the idea for Hank's "miracle" at the Valley of Holiness.

[In addition, MT was deeply attracted to Lecky's ideas about the past, progress and the human race. The second excerpt below begins with a brief passage in which Lecky defines what he means by a "natural history" of morals, then gives a longer example of the way Lecky's study depicts the development of society across the centuries. Calling the seventh century in which Connecticut Yankee is set "the darkest period of the dark ages," Lecky repeatedly condemns the "superstitious torpor" and "blind credulity" of medieval religion. MT agreed enthusiastically with Lecky's attack. For example, when Lecky contrasted the Roman ideals of "self reliance" and "independence" with the "cardinal or rudimentary virtues in the Christian character" -- "humility, obedience, gentleness, patience, resignation" -- MT wrote in the margin of his copy of European Morals, "Christianity then did not raise up the slave, but degraded all conditions of men to the slave's level." He then has his Connecticut Yankee say that "an Established Church is an established slave pen."

[For Lecky, the great agent of change is capitalism -- or, as he calls it, the "industrial spirit." Much of his book (like Connecticut Yankee) defines the differences between a benighted past and an enlightened present, though there is room for ambivalence in his account. The passage excerpted here, for example, discusses what is gained and lost when the medieval habit of reverence is replaced by modern, scientific, democratic skepticism and self-reliance. Although Hank Morgan of course remains a devout believer in the values he brings with him from modern America, by the end of his "Tale of the Lost Land" some readers find themselves, like Lecky, thinking about losses as well as gains.]

From History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne,
by William Edward Hartpole Lecky
(New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1869)

from Volume II, Chapter 4
The Saints of the Desert

There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind, of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates or Cato. For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded as the highest proof of excellence. St. Jerome declares, with a thrill of admiration, how he had seen a monk, who for thirty years had lived exclusively on a small portion of barley bread and of muddy water; another, who lived in a hole and never eat more than five figs for his daily repast; a third, who cut his hair only on Easter Sunday, who never washed his clothes, who never changed his tunic till it fell to pieces, who starved himself till his eyes grew dim, and his skin "like a pumice stone,"and whose merits, shown by these austerities, Homer himself would be unable to recount. For six months, it is said, St. Macarius of Alexandria slept in a marsh, and exposed his body naked to the stings of venomous flies. He was accustomed to carry about with him eighty pounds of iron. His disciple, St. Eusebius, carried one hundred and fifty pounds of iron, and lived for three years in a dried-up well. St. Sabinus would only eat corn that had become rotten by remaining for a month in water. St. Besarion spent forty days and nights in the middle of thorn-bushes, and for forty years never lay down when he slept, which last penance was also during fifteen years practised by St. Pachomius. Some saints, like St. Marcian, restricted themselves to one meal a day, so small that they continually suffered the pangs of hunger. Of one of them it is related that his daily food was six ounces of bread and a few herbs; that he was never seen to recline on a mat or bed, or even, to place his limbs easily for sleep; but that sometimes, from excess of weariness, his eyes would close at his meals, and the food would drop into his mouth. Other saints, however, eat only every second day; while many, if we could believe the monkish historian, abstained for whole weeks from all nourishment. St. Macarius of Alexandria is said during an entire week to have never lain down, or eaten anything but a few uncooked herbs on Sunday. Of another famous saint, named John, it is asserted that for three whole years he stood in prayer, leaning upon a rock; that during all that time he never sat or lay down, and that his only nourishment was the Sacrament, which was brought him on Sundays. Some of the hermits lived in deserted dens of wild beasts, others in dried-up wells, while others found a congenial resting-place among the tombs. Some disdained all clothes, and crawled abroad like the wild beasts, covered only by their matted hair. In Mesopotamia, and part of Syria, there existed a sect known by the name of "Grazers," who never lived under a roof, who eat neither flesh nor bread, but who spent their time for ever on the mountain side, and eat grass like cattle. The cleanliness of the body was regarded as a pollution of the soul, and the saints who were most admired had become one hideous mass of clotted filth. St. Athanasius relates with enthusiasm how St. Antony, the patriarch of monachism, had never, in extreme old age, been guilty of washing his feet. The less constant St. Poemen fell into this habit for the first time when a very old man, and, with a glimmering of common sense, defended himself against the astonished monks by saying that he had "learnt to kill not his body, but his passions." St. Abraham the hermit, however, who lived for fifty years after his conversion, rigidly refused from that date to wash either his face or his feet. He was, it is said, a person of singular beauty, and his biographer somewhat strangely remarks, that "his face reflected the purity of his soul." St. Ammon had never seen himself naked. A famous virgin named Silvia, though she was sixty years old, and though bodily sickness was a consequence of her habits, resolutely refused, on religious principles, to wash any part of her body except her fingers. St. Euphraxia joined a convent of one hundred and thirty nuns, who never washed their feet, and who shuddered at the mention of a bath. An anchorite once imagined that he was mocked by an illusion of the devil, as he saw gliding before him through the desert a naked creature black with filth and years of exposure, and with white hair floating to the wind. It was a once beautiful woman, St. Mary of Egypt, who had thus, during forty-seven years, been expiating her sins. The occasional decadence of the monks into habits of decency was a subject of much reproach. "Our fathers," said the abbot Alexander, looking mournfully back to the past, "never washed their faces, but we frequent the public baths." It was related of one monastery in the desert, that the monks suffered greatly from want of water to drink; but at the prayer of the abbot Theodosius, a copious stream was produced. But soon some monks, tempted by the abundant supply, diverged from their old austerity, and persuaded the abbot to avail himself of the stream for the construction of the bath. The bath was made. Once, and once only, did the monks enjoy their ablutions, when the stream ceased to flow. Prayers, tears, and fastings were in vain. A whole year passed. At last the abbot destroyed the bath, which was the object of the Divine displeasure, and the waters flowed afresh. But of all the evidences of the loathsome excesses to which this spirit was carried, the life of St. Simeon Stylites is probably the most remarkable. It would be difficult to conceive a more horrible or disgusting picture than is given of the penances by which that saint commenced his ascetic career. He had bound a rope around him so that it became imbedded in his flesh, which putrefied around it. "A horrible stench, intolerable to the bystanders, exhaled from his body, and worms dropped from him whenever he moved, and they filled his bed." Sometimes he left the monastery and slept in a dry well, inhabited, it is said, by daemons.He built successively three pillars, the last being sixty feet high, and scarcely two cubits in circumference, and on this pillar, during thirty years, he remained exposed to every change of climate, ceaselessly and rapidly bending his body in prayer almost to the level of his feet. A spectator attempted to number these rapid motions, but desisted from weariness when he had counted 1,244. For a whole year, we are told, St. Simeon stood upon one leg, the other being covered with hideous ulcers, while his biographer was commissioned to stand by his side, to pick up the worms that fell from his body, and to replace them in the sores, the saint saying to the worm, "Eat what God has given you." From every quarter pilgrims of every degree thronged to do him homage. A crowd of prelates followed him to the grave. A brilliant star is said to have shone miraculously over his pillar; the general voice of mankind pronounced him to be the highest model of a Christian saint, and several other anchorites imitated or emulated his penances.

from Volume I, Chapter 1
The Natural History of Morals

The proposition for which I am contending is simply that there is such a thing as a natural history of morals, a defined and regular order, in which our moral feelings are unfolded; or, in other words, that there are certain groups of virtues which spring spontaneously out of the circumstances and mental conditions of an uncivilised people, and that there are others which are the normal and appropriate products of civilisation.
This change [to "industrial habits" of "forethought"] is but one of several influences which, as civilisation advances, diminish the spirit of reverence among mankind. Reverence is one of those feelings which, in utilitarian systems, would occupy at best a very ambiguous position; for it is extremely questionable whether the great evils that have grown out of it in the form of religious superstition and persecution and political servitude have not made it a source of more unhappiness than happiness. Yet, however doubtful may be its position if estimated by its bearing on happiness and on progress, there are few persons who are not conscious that no character can attain a supreme degree of excellence in which a reverential spirit is wanting. Of all the forms of moral goodness it is that to which the epithet beautiful may be most emphatically applied. Yet the habits of advancing civilisation are, if I mistake not, inimical to its growth. For reverence grows out of a sense of constant dependence. It is fostered by that condition of religious thought in which men believe that each incident that befalls them is directly and specially ordained, and when every event is therefore fraught with a moral import. It is fostered by that condition of scientific knowledge in which every portentous natural phenomenon is supposed to be the result of a direct divine interposition, and awakens in consequence emotions of humility and awe. It is fostered in that state of political life when loyalty or reverence for the sovereign is the dominating passion, when an aristocracy, branching forth from the throne, spreads habits of deference and subordination through every village, when a revolutionary, a democratic, and a sceptical spirit are alike unknown. Every great change, either of belief or circumstance, brings with it a change of emotions. The self-assertion of liberty, the levelling of democracy, the dissecting-knife of criticism, the economical revolutions that reduce the relations of classes to simple contracts, the agglomeration of population, and the facilities of locomotion that sever so many ancient ties, are all incompatible with the type of virtue which existed before the power of tradition was broken, and when the chastity of faith was yet unstained. Benevolence, uprightness, enterprise, intellectual honesty, a love of freedom, and a hatred of superstition are multiplying around us, but we look in vain for that most beautiful character of the past, so distrustful of self, and so trustful of others, so rich in self-denial and modesty, so simple, so earnest, and so devout, which even when, Ixion-like, it bestowed its affections upon a cloud, made its very illusions the source of some of the purest virtues of our nature. In a few minds, the contemplation of the sublime order of nature produces a reverential feeling, but to the great majority of mankind it is an incontestable though mournful fact, that the discovery of controlling and unchanging law deprives phenomena of their moral significance, and nearly all the social and political spheres in which reverence was fostered have passed away. Its most beautiful displays are not in nations like the Americans or the modern French, who have thrown themselves most fully into the tendencies of this age, but rather in secluded regions like Styria or the Tyrol. Its artistic expression is found in no work of modern genius, but in the medieval cathedral, which, mellowed but not impaired by time, still gazes on us in its deathless beauty through the centuries of the past. A superstitious age, like every other phase of human history, has its distinctive virtues, which must necessarily decline before a new stage of progress can be attained.

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