History of the Church: Later Middle Ages - Notre Dame

Towns and Universities

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I. Towns and Guilds.

The story of the growth of towns and of the civic republics, which was so marked a feature of European history from the twelfth century to the fifteenth century, hardly belongs to the history of the Church. But as the Church has to deal with men as she finds them, and as so many of the characteristic institutions of the period owe their existence to this new power in the political world, it will not be possible to pass the matter over in silence.

Towns had been numerous and flourishing in Roman times. They were mostly due to the military colonies planted along the lines of the great roads, and were free and self-governing. But the Teutonic invaders, accustomed to a roving life, would not submit to being confined in cities, and they set up their homesteads in the open country. As we have seen, these grew into fortresses, whence every lord warred upon his neighbours. But this feudal warfare, added to the invasions of the troubled ninth and tenth centuries, drew the people together for the sake of protection and mutual support. A royal dwelling, the seat of a bishop, a river confluence with its facilities for trade, or a monastery with its immunity from war, formed the nucleus, and slowly but surely the town grew. Increasing peril called for fortifications, and a wall of defence would be thrown around the clustered dwellings. The townsfolk at first consisted of the same two classes to be found outside the city walls—the freeman and the serf. The former gradually developed into the trader or the merchant, the latter into the craftsman or artisan. But they were on the same footing as the country folk, being regarded as vassals, absolutely at the mercy of the lord, lay or ecclesiastical, in whose domain the town lay.

The first step towards independence was usually the erection of a belfry, whose bell in a moment of common danger would call together the towns folk or the scattered population outside. Thus a rude form of militia was established, whose duty was the protection of the rights of the townsfolk. The next step in advance was the result of the dependence of the lord on his vassals for service and money. These lords, being most of them feudal vassals themselves, had to meet the demands of their own suzerains for subsidies, and had no resource but to get the same from their sub-vassals. But the banded town vassals soon learned their power, and would refuse to grant the money unless in exchange for some coveted privilege. Such would be exemption from certain taxes, the right of holding markets, or of gathering rents, or of imposing tolls. These favours would be conceded willingly or by constraint, as the case might be, and were embodied in charters. From the moment the first was gained, complete freedom was only a matter of time. The struggle between the lord and the vassal town was often long and fierce, but the process went surely on, the burghers gradually emancipating themselves from the power of the nobles.

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As their freedom increased and commerce brought prosperity, a body of men would be chosen to act as intermediary between the lord and the town. Thus the office of magistrate, mayor, sheriff, councillor, and treasurer came into existence, and the elements of early town life were fairly started. The name commune came into use for these free cities in the eleventh century. In Germany, the Franconian emperors founded many towns as a set-off to the power of their turbulent feudal vassals, and a period of strife between the nobles and the towns was inaugurated, Naturally, the victories of the cities were greatest where the sovereign had least power, hence the marvellous development of the maritime towns on the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and the Baltic.

During the fourteenth and succeeding centuries, the southern cities grew into republics, subjecting the neighbouring territory to their sway and establishing their authority over tributary towns. Such republics were Venice, Florence, and Padua on the plain of Lombardy. Marseilles, Amalfi, and Barcelona long contended with these and with Constantinople for the mastery of the Mediterranean. The Crusades gave the palm for a time to Venice.

On the northern seas, the great trading cities united into a league (Hansa), having Lubeck as its commercial centre, at least ninety marts entering into the confederation. From London and Antwerp, on opposite sides of the sea, to Novgorod in Russia, a chain of maritime or fluviatile merchant-towns kept the whole trade of Northern Europe under the control of the Hansa.

Foremost in promoting the growth of towns, and through them the development of the middle classes, were the great medieval institutions, known as guilds. As trade increased and the Crusades brought new products into Europe, new industries were taken in hand. Merchants in wool, or silk, or sugar, or gems, banded together for protection in their special trade. The workers in similar industries did the same. Thus arose guilds or confederations of men having interests in common, and the whole population of towns was enrolled in one or another, according to their employment. Occasionally all the guilds of a town would form a league in opposition to some formidable enemy—either the neighbouring ruler or a rival city. But at first each band was distinct, though two great classes were marked, the Merchants' Guilds commanding the money and the trade, and the Crafts' Guilds embodying the art and the produce. In course of time the latter overpowered the former.

Each guild had its own body of officers, its halls of meeting, its rules and customs. Admission to the Crafts' Guild was as important an epoch in the life of a youthful artisan of the Middle Ages as was that of a high-born lad to the honours of knighthood. He, too, had past a term of training, called in his case an apprenticeship, during which, under the care of a past master, he had learned his trade. This period over, he became a guildsman, a free citizen, could earn money, and if gifted or enterprising he could push himself on to the rank of master. The guild, however, was responsible for its members. Not only was the quality of the craftsman's work looked into, but his moral conduct was observed: an unskilful or an ill-conducted artisan was always liable to be expelled from his guild—a serious misfortune, as the guild officials monopolized all produce, found markets for the goods, and regulated all the conditions of sale.

Every medieval institution had its religious side; it could not have existed without it in days when men, whatever their failings, had an intense realization of the worth of their souls. There was then no line marking off political and social life from religion, but every walk in life was elevated by some supernatural thought and consecrated by the Church's blessing. So each guild had its patron saint, its feast-day, its charitable objects, its own chaplain, and, if not its own church, at least a guild chapel. For instance, in the magnificent cathedral of Antwerp, whose six aisles run parallel to a glorious nave of majestic proportions, there still exist no less than seventy guild chapels. The statue of the patron saint occupied a canopied niche on one of the great columns, and an enclosed space marked off the property of each confederation. Their patronal feast was celebrated with great pomp. Confession, Communion, Mass heard in common, often one for the living members and one for the dead, would begin the festival. A repast in common marked the day, alms were collected for the support of the sick, the widows, and the orphans. The education of the guildsmen's children was not forgotten. The guild always provided for the funerals of its members and for Masses for the dead. On solemn occasions all the guilds marched in procession, headed by their splendid banners or gonfalons. These were heavy with the gorgeous embroidery of the period, and glittering with gems. The summit of the pole bore a massive silver statue of the patron saint. Round the foot of the statue were hung the medals won by its members in the various competitions which gave impetus to the work of the guilds. When Edward III. of England received the homage of the Flemish burghers as their suzerain, in place of Philip of France, whom they considered perjured, the guilds defiled before him, and in token of alliance the king laid his hand on each great banner as it was lowered before him.

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It is probable that artisans never worked under more favourable conditions than those the medieval guild afforded them. It is certain that the handicrafts were never carried to greater perfection. The characteristics of all work dating from these centuries are boldness of conception, durability of material, solidity in structure, and exquisite delicacy of finish. One example of such work must suffice—that offered by the study of some great cathedral of the Middle Ages. With the growth of the towns, the crafts passed beyond the precincts of the monasteries, where they had had their earliest home. To the monks all the most ancient ecclesiastical buildings are due; but now the task of providing each city with its church naturally fell to the bishop. Thus we have a long series of episcopal builders, among whom Albertus Magnus, the Dominican, Richard Poor of Salisbury, and William of Wykeham hold no insignificant place. These master-builders had at their command the services of the Grafts' Guilds, and the churches they erected are universally acknowledged to be the most perfect ecclesiastical structures ever raised.

Architecture developed rapidly, especially in France, Belgium, and England, each nation adopting the same general idea, but imprinting something characteristic on the prevailing style. The name Gothic has been applied to the architecture of the Middle Ages, the most marked of its features being the pointed or ogival arch. No sketch could do justice to these glorious structures, their conception was so magnificent, their details so harmonious. Boldly beautiful, every line speaks of the faith which inspired the whole, of the devotion which laid genius and patient toil at the feet of the Lord who dwelt within, and whose most sacred mysteries are recalled by the very form of the edifice in its whole and in its parts. Thus the church was a treasury of doctrine, of moral teaching, of art, and of science. Its plan was a cross, its spire pointed silently but eloquently from the earth to the sky above; its windows full of storied glass, and its multitude of frescoes, kept the sacred pictures of the Scriptures or of the lives of God's saints before the minds of men. Its commanding form, towering over the clustered dwellings around, was more than a type of what the faith was in medieval times. It was absolutely the centre of each man's life. There every phase of his existence was blessed by God's ministers, and in his will he pointed out the spot where he should lie, the shrine before which candles should be burned or Masses be said for his soul's health; or he provided for a chantry to be erected and an endowment chartered that Masses might be offered for him and his to the end of time.

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Not only did architecture flourish, but every craft that could contribute something to the splendour of the Church or the majesty of her ceremonies; sculpture, carving in wood, metal work, glass and fresco painting, mosaic inlays, all were brought to wonderful perfection. Bell-founding made prodigious strides, and bells bore on their legended rims the praises of God or of His saints. Nor must we forget needlework, which in those centuries rose to the dignity of an art. The gorgeous vestments which have escaped destruction at the hands of the sixteenth-century Vandals testify to the loving toil and fertile imagination which female devotion consecrated to the service of the Church during the age of Faith. And, as a fitting complement to so much external beauty in divine worship, Christian poets dedicated the noblest conceptions of their genius to enhancing the glories of the Church's Liturgy. The finest hymns the Church uses date from this period: the "Dies Irae," "Veni, Sancte Spiritus," "Stabat Mater," "Lauda Sion," "Jesu dulcis Memoria," and many others, not to mention the glorious compositions of St. Thomas Aquinas, which are still on the lips of all children of Holy Church.

Thus the cathedral or abbey church, with its gorgeous ceremonial, met every craving of the human heart for beauty, sublimity, poetry, music, and song. The grand pageants of the chief festivals "sent a ray of light and gladness through the lives of the great mass of the people, whose lot is at best full of hardness, dullness, and sorrow, and filled the hearts and minds of medieval lovers of the beautiful with sights and sounds which, unlike many a more modern festive scene, left behind no bitter after-taste of evil to mar the remembered pleasure.

II. Universities and Schools

In the transformation of European society which, during the twelfth and succeeding centuries, took place under the influence of the Church, we have seen how chivalry gradually though surely changed lawless freebooters into Christian warriors; how guilds acted in training craftsmen to habits of steady industry. One other important point has yet to be dealt with, the education of the people, both high and low.

When men ceased to look upon war as the business of life, the craving arose for intellectual culture, and what had hitherto seemed but a monkish accomplishment gradually began to be sought for by all classes alike. The Crusades were very largely instrumental in bringing about this result, as the rough western warrior, when brought into relationship with his eastern enemy, often found himself his inferior in learning and accomplishments. The Crusades, too, brought back into Europe the correct version of Aristotle, whose works were to exercise so powerful an influence on the studies of medieval Europe. Mathematics and medicine, also, were imported into the west, as well as the means of more luxurious living.

All through the history of the Church, we see that the first care of her pastors is to provide learning and teachers for the young. Every monastery had its school, every bishop his seminary, where lads of all ranks, but most frequently those from the peasant classes, were taught. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries these seminaries attained an immense development. Certain among them drew vast numbers of scholars, attracted by the fame of the teaching there given. Such was the monastic school of Bee, of which Lanfranc and St. Anselm were noted teachers. Often the monastic scholars would be sent to join the studies of the seminarists. Sometimes it was the reverse, the monastery had the famous teachers, and all flocked thither. Very early in the existence of such schools lay students would beg to be admitted; the monastery would then often provide them with lodging. But as the numbers grew they overflowed into the town, which before long swarmed with young men clamouring to be taught. Poor, ill-fed, and wretchedly lodged by night, they crowded round their teachers by day, congregating wherever there was space enough to hold them. At first a church porch, a monastic yard, sometimes an open square, would be their lecture-hall. The Pope, or an emperor, or a king, would grant a charter; the school became a university; buildings would be erected, and a regular course of lectures given. When a student wished to gain great proficiency, he would go from one university to another, to study what was best taught in each. Thus, to barbarian invasions there succeeded a migration of thousands of scholastic youths, eager for learning, moving across Europe from one seat of lore to another. Oxford, by no means one of the largest of university cities, had at one time as many as thirty thousand students. Paris had fifty thousand, and so on. Naturally, the events taking place in the world around would have influence over the numbers flocking to any particular university. For instance, the Hundred Years' War between England and France stopped the migration of English scholars to Paris.

The education of St. Louis IX.


A university properly so called offered to all corners tuition in all the sciences. The ordinary course comprised the Seven Liberal Arts, which were also taught in the lesser schools, of which we have still to speak. These arts were grammar, logic, and rhetoric, called the Trivium, which had first to be mastered. Then came the Quadrivium, or geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music. After these were added medicine, law, and theology, and the whole course often concluded with metaphysics, natural history, and languages, Latin being always taught, Greek being a later addition. In the early days of the universities it took twenty years to pass through the complete series of studies; afterwards ten years were supposed to suffice. Each of the chief departments of learning was called a faculty, and its professors had the privilege of granting degrees. No one but the Pope could give this right to a university. The degree was earned by following the complete course prescribed, by a successful examination, and, in the case of the highest, by sustaining a thesis—that is, by defending a given knotty point in the subject professed against the objections of all corners. The degrees were baccalaureus, magister, and doctor. The second and third conferred the licence to teach, and were not, as now, merely a token of acquaintance with the subject. The various degrees were always given with religious ceremonies, often in the church, and by the hands of a bishop.

The whole multitude of scholars, no matter whence they came, could attend the same lectures, since all instructions were given in Latin. Thus a brotherhood of letters grew up which tended to weld together the interests of nations, and to unite men together in a way that nothing else has been able to do, except the Church of God herself, which makes all the faithful the one Body of Christ.

There were two great types among the universities, those moulded on the form established at Bologna, the others following the example of Paris. The former were frequented by men of mature years, who formed themselves into bands or groups, something after the fashion of guilds. They elected the governing body and named the rector or head of the university. Thus the students themselves formed the ruling body, the professors having the teaching only in their hands. In the second or Paris type, the professors were the rulers, sometimes aided by proctors for each nation chosen from among the students. As time went on, colleges began to be formed in the university itself; that is to say, certain bodies of students would gather round their teachers in a dwelling of their own. Magnificent buildings were erected, with church, lecture-halls, and common rooms, as well as suites of smaller apartments, affording lodging to both teachers and taught.

The college system brought more order and regularity into the university, but the general lectures began to be forsaken, each college or group of colleges having its own tutors. Each monastic Order had its own college whither its members were sent to study and obtain their degrees. One very favourite form of charitable work in the Middle Ages was to make provision for the instruction of poor scholars. Colleges were founded and endowed to afford means of education to those who could not pay their own expenses. Some of our most famous English schools—for instance, that of Winchester—owe their existence to the enlightened piety of our Catholic forefathers.

Emperors and kings often granted great privileges to the universities they had founded. This often led to unseemly strife between the students and the townsfolk. Just as often the students would fight among themselves; their nationality, the fame of rival students or of rival teachers, would be enough to turn the streets of a university town into a battle-field. Sometimes the Pope himself had to interfere before order could be restored. Stories of this kind meet us in the lives of all great medieval scholars. Even such men as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Ignatius and his companions had to suffer from the violence of university factions.

The most famous European universities were Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca, and Rome. Bologna, with the Italian universities generally, was famous for civil and canon law; Paris was the great theological university: its most famous college, the Sorbonne, still exists. This college has had a most memorable history; it will be met with more than once in this narrative.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, sixty-five universities gathered together the studious youth of Europe, but by that time they had passed from the hands of the Church to those of the State with unhappy results.

But we must not omit to say that the desire for university training quickened the appetite for learning all over Europe. Every town had its schools, in many of which the seven arts were taught; for the numberless men holding degrees could not all profess in universities, and were glad to teach in lesser schools. Even villages were not without such means of instruction. Chaucer speaks of the "litel stole" to which, "litel boke" in hand, the Jew boy of the Prioress's Tale went singing his "Alma Redemptoris," as one of a class that was familiar to all. Thus, high and low, rich and poor, shared the general ardour for letters, and all found the means at hand of satisfying their desire.

St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas.


Dominicans and Franciscans attended the universities in great numbers. Both Orders soon opened schools, and the fame of the new teachers spread far and wide. So great was their influence that Green says: "The Friars preserved the universities to the Church." This was chiefly seen in the immense strides made in the study of theology, which became the engrossing topic of scholars for upwards of three hundred years. Philosophy, the science of man, as theology is that of God, also took vast developments. Aristotle, the greatest of the old Greek philosophers, had been discredited up to the time of the Crusades, owing to the very faulty translation (the work of the Arabic and Spanish Saracens, Avicenna and Averroes), by which alone he was known in the west. But when the friars taught from the correct version brought by the Crusaders from the east, the subject acquired new lustre, and in the hands of St. Thomas Aquinas became a powerful help to the clear understanding of science in general, and of theology in particular.

Up to this time, treatises on theology had been either simple statements of the Church's teaching, or apologies—that is, discourses in which the Church's doctrines are defended against the attacks of pagans or heretics. But henceforth theology was treated as a science. The relations between the various branches of dogma were studied. The several points were classified, and the method of dealing with each laid down. It was not a question of what the Church's teaching was—no one disputed that—but the "hows and whys" of truths were studied.

Besides the two great branches of theology and philosophy, other allied sciences made great progress. Biblical research assumed wider proportions. English Franciscans produced the first concordance ever drawn up. It was printed in Oxford, and known as the "English Concordance." Oriental languages were studied with a view to Scriptural research, and the natural sciences began to receive attention. Roger Bacon, also a Franciscan, insisted on the necessity of experiments preceding statements when treating of the natural kingdoms, a method which many conceive to have originated centuries later with his more famous namesake, Francis Bacon, the author of the "Novum Organum."

Medieval theologians may be considered as forming two classes—those who studied theology as a science for its own sake, and those who studied it for the sake of advancing in holiness. The former are called Scholastics or Schoolmen, because of their labours taking place in the great university schools; the second were Mystics, mysticism being the science of the spiritual life. The greatest of the Mystics were St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Bernard, and two monks of the monastery of St. Victor, named Hugh and Robert.

St. Thomas and St. Louis


Among Scholastics, no names are so renowned as those belonging to the Mendicant Orders. The Franciscans have Alexander of Hales, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus (all from the British Isles), and the great St. Bonaventure. The Dominicans claim as their special glory Blessed Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, called "the Angelic Doctor," who ranks as the prince of theologians. Pope Leo XIII. named him patron of Catholic schools.

Ecclesiastical history hardly presents a more splendid figure than this mighty genius. Everything about him was framed on magnificent lines. By birth he was allied with the greatest of European sovereigns, Frederic Barbarossa, St. Louis of France, and Ferdinand of Castile, and with the bravest of Christian warriors, the Crusaders Tancred and Bohemond. His own endowments tallied with the noble stock from which he had sprung. Colossal stature, beauty of person, charm of manner, made up his outward man. An intellect as prodigious as it was clear and penetrating was enhanced in its powers by a wonderful purity of soul and love of Divine things. The rapidity of his acquisition of learning, the clearness of his conception, and his wonderful powers of retention made his progress in studies marvellously solid and brilliant.

His vocation was marked by no less grand features. He chose the poverty of a simple friar in the newly-born institute of the Dominicans in preference to the magnificent post of Abbot of Monte Cassino which was offered him, and bore with unflinching courage for upwards of two years a cruel imprisonment, which was inflicted upon him by his father and brothers, who sought thus to turn him from his resolution.

When he was released, not yet nineteen years of age, he began his career of studies at Cologne under the famous Albert the Great. With a humility equal to his marvellous mental powers, he made no show of his learning, which was already remarkable. A paper on which he had written some notes for the help of a fellow-student was taken to B. Albert, who at once saw what a master mind was concealed by the unpretending manner of the saint, and he predicted his future glory. B. Albert was called to Paris in 1245 to teach at the Dominican College of St. James. He took St. Thomas with him as his assistant. The lessons of the youthful teacher were so clear and powerful that he attracted immense crowds of learners. No master was ever more patient and painstaking than the saint whose genius had the uncommon gift of adapting its magnificent proportions to the capacity of the meanest and simplest among his scholars. Progress under him was sure and rapid.

The quarrels to which the students of the university were addicted threatened to put a stop to the lectures of the friars. First there was a terrible struggle between the Parisians and the students. Then there came a tide of abuse against the Mendicant Orders by the professors, who were jealous of their renown. But the patient dignity of the saint and the friars generally, overcame their enemies, whose writings were condemned by the Pope.

At the command of Pope Urban IV., St. Thomas, who had taken his degree of doctor with St. Bonaventure in 1257, had to leave Paris. He was to follow the Papal Court and teach wherever the Pope might be residing. The saint had many other occupations besides his lectures. He was consulted by all on points of difficulty; he was assiduous in preaching and in composing books. A great part of the night was spent by him in prayer.

The most famous book written by St. Thomas Aquinas is his "Summa Theologica," an epitome of the whole of theology, a work which is considered the most magnificent treatise on the dogmas of the Catholic Church that exists. Besides this, he wrote many other works. The "Catena Aurea" is remarkable, as it led to the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi. The Pope wished to reward St. Thomas for this book by making him a bishop. But the saint begged the Pope to command instead that the feast of the Blessed Sacrament should he observed by the whole Church. Pope Clement IV. gladly agreed, and bade St. Thomas write the office for the day. In this work the saint poured forth the treasures of his learning and all the depths of his loving adoration of his Sacramental Lord, in words that to our own time, on Corpus Christi, we sing just as they fell from the heart and pen of this great doctor.

Overwhelmed with ceaseless toil in the schools and in the pulpit, weighed down by many bodily sufferings, St. Thomas yet became more and more absorbed in the contemplation of Divine things. Three times the Pope attempted to make him a bishop, but his distress was so great that the Holy Father desisted. Thus, in spite of his world-wide fame, the saint remained a humble friar, the edification of all, both within and without his convent, by the docile simplicity of his obedience to his superiors and to his Rule.

In 1274 Pope Gregory X. summoned St. Thomas to attend the fourteenth General Council, convened at Lyons. Though reduced to a great state of weakness, the saint set out. His strength failed him on the way, and he was borne to the Cistercian Abbey of Fossa Nuova. The touching details of his last days deserve to be thoughtfully read. With sentiments of the most sublime vet simple piety, Thomas, the greatest mind of the Middle Ages, met his death at the age of fifty. Fifty years later he was canonized.

We have had to note more than once that the military spirit so thoroughly characteristic of medieval times found a vent even in the universities. While the lay students fought out their party quarrels in the streets, or made raids on the townsfolk, the ecclesiastical section in the halls grouped itself into rival schools where sacred subjects were debated with a warmth and, it must be confessed, a passion, hardly surpassed by what went on outside. The gain to the cause of science was great, as the vehement earnestness of the combatants made them ransack heaven and earth for reasons and proofs to uphold their cause, and from the very strife of opinions the clear light of truth shone out with a brighter lustre. But there is another side to the question. Men became accustomed to reason and debate on theological questions of opinion. There was but one step to take before questions touching faith would be drawn into the disputes. Errors in doctrine might and did occasionally result. Added to this, there was a tendency to exaggeration in some of the mystical theologians, such as the German party who called themselves the "Friends of God," whose practices were out of harmony with sound principles. Thus it came about that there was an ever-increasing party of men in the universities, and outside them also, who were disposed to value their own decisions as final, and to criticize everything that did not square with their ideas. Thus was prepared afar off that spirit of revolt against authority which culminated in the Protestant so-called Reformation.

It is difficult to form a correct judgment of the Middle Ages, so strongly marked are both the good and the evil features. The truth seems to be that the vigorous character of our medieval forefathers (lid not permit of half-measures. Their virile energy turned them into magnificent warriors, glorious saints, illustrious scholars, monsters of cruelty, or prodigies of vice, as the case might he. This character seems to have been shared by all classes, for whenever, in the lives of saints or in the stories of wars, one gets a glimpse of the people, they are all of the same stamp. But all, good and bad alike, had an intense realization of the truths of faith; even the heresies of the time show the same feature from its evil side. Hence, when grace touched their hearts, those conversions so startling in their sudden earnestness and their uncompromising self-sacrifice. There may have been half-and-half natures, wavering between the two camps, but if so, they have left no mark on the pages of history, nor does it seem likely that such ever will, unless, perhaps, by toning down the lights and shadows of the ages in which they predominate with the grey hue of mediocrity.

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