The following work was written several years since, simply as an historical study, and with little expectation of its publication. Recent movements in several portions of the great Christian Church seem to indicate, however, that a record of ascetic celibacy, as developed in the past, may not be without interest to those who are watching the tendencies of the present.
So far as I am aware, no work of the kind exists in English literature, and those which have appeared in the Continental languages are almost exclusively of a controversial character. It has been my aim to avoid polemics, and I have therefore sought merely to state facts as I have found them, without regard to their bearing on either side of the questions involved. As those questions have long been the subject of ardent disputation, it has seemed proper to substantiate every statement with a reference to its authority.
The scope of the work is designedly confined to the enforced celibacy of the sacerdotal class. The vast history of monachism has therefore only been touched upon incidentally when it served to throw light upon the rise and progress of religious asceticism. The various celibate communities which have arisen in this country, such as the Dunkers and Shakers, are likewise excluded from the plan of the volume. These limitations occasion me less regret since the appearance of M. de Montalembert’s “Monks of the West” and Mr. W. Hepworth Dixon’s “New America,” in which the student will probably find all that he may require on these subjects.
Besides the controversial importance of the questions connected with Christian asceticism, it has seemed to me that a brief history like the present might perhaps possess interest for the general reader, not only on account of the influence which ecclesiastical celibacy has exerted, directly and indirectly, on the progress of civilization, but also from the occasional glimpse into the interior life of past ages afforded in reviewing the effect upon society of the policy of the church as respects the relations of the sexes. The more ambitious historian, in detailing the intrigues of the court and the vicissitudes of the field, must of necessity neglect the minuter incidents which illustrate the habits, the morals, and the modes of thought of bygone generations. From such materials a monograph like this is constructed, and it may not be unworthy the attention of those who deem that the life of nations does not consist exclusively of political revolutions and military achievements. The Latin church is the great fact which dominates the history of modern civilization. All other agencies which moulded the destinies of mediæval Europe were comparatively isolated or sporadic in their manifestations. Thus in one place we may trace the beneficent influence of commerce at work, in another the turbulent energy of the rising Third Estate; the mortal contests of the feudal powers with each other and with progress are waged in detached and convulsive struggles; chivalry casts only occasional and evanescent flashes of light amid the darkness of military barbarism; literature seeks to gain support from any power which will condescend to lend transitory aid to the plaything of the moment. Nowhere do we see combined effort, nowhere can we detect a pervading impulse, irrespective of locality or of circumstance, save in the imposing machinery of the church establishment. This meets us at every point, and in every age, and in every sphere of action. In the dim solitude of the cloister, the monk is training the minds which are to mould the destinies of the period, while his roof is the refuge of the desolate and the home of the stranger. In the tribunal, the priest is wrestling with the baron, and is extending his more humane and equitable code over a jurisdiction subjected to the caprices of feudal or customary law, as applied by a class of ignorant and arbitrary tyrants. In the royal palace, the hand of the ecclesiastic, visible or invisible, is guiding the helm of state, regulating the policy of nations, and converting the brute force of chivalry into the supple instrument of his will. In Central Europe, lordly prelates, with the temporal power and possessions of the highest princes, joined to the exclusive pretensions of the church, make war and peace, and are sovereign in all but name, owing no allegiance save to Emperors whom they elect and Popes whose cause they share. Far above all, the successor of St. Peter from his pontifical throne claims the whole of Europe as his empire, and dictates terms to kings who crouch under his reproof, or are crushed in the vain effort of rebellion. At the other extremity of society, the humble minister of the altar, with his delegated power over heaven and hell, wields in cottage as in castle an authority hardly less potent, and sways the minds of the faithful with his right to implicit obedience. Even art offers a willing submission to the universal mistress, and seeks the embodiment of its noblest aspirations in the lofty poise of the cathedral spire, the rainbow glories of the painted window, and the stately rhythm of the solemn chant.
This vast fabric of ecclesiastical supremacy presents one of the most curious problems which the world’s history affords. A wide and absolute authority, deriving its force from moral power alone, marshalling no legions of its own in battle array, but permeating everything with its influence, walking unarmed through deadly strife, rising with renewed strength from every prostration, triumphing alike over the savage nature of the barbarian and the enervated apathy of the Roman tributary, blending discordant races and jarring nations into one great brotherhood of subjection—such was the Papal hierarchy, a marvel and a mystery. Well is it personified in Gregory VII., a fugitive from Rome, without a rood of ground to call him master, a rival Pope lording it in the Vatican, a triumphant Emperor vowed to internecine strife, yet issuing his commands as sternly and as proudly to prince and potentate as though he were the unquestioned suzerain of Europe, and listened to as humbly by three-fourths of Christendom. The man wasted away in the struggle; his death was but the accident of time: the church lived on, and marched to inevitable victory.