In the duchy of Quelqueparte there lay, in the later days of the great King Philip Augustus, the barony of St. Aliquis. Perhaps you may have trouble in finding any such places upon the maps of Mediæval France. In that case, I must tell you that they did not lie so far from Burgundy, Champagne, and Blois that the duke and his vassal, the baron, could not have many brave feuds with the seigneurs of those principalities, nor so far from Paris that peddlers and pilgrims could not come hence or go thither pretty often, nor the baron of St. Aliquis sometimes journey to the king's court, to do his loyal devoir to his high suzerain, or to divert himself with many lordly pleasures.
About A.D. 1220, when King Philip Augustus was near his end, there was exceptional peace in northern France, and conditions around St. Aliquis were entirely normal. We purpose, therefore (with the help of Our Lady, of holy St. Aliquis himself, and perhaps also of that very discreet fée Queen Morgue, "the wife of Julius Cæsar and the mother of King Oberon"), to visit the aforesaid barony as it existed at that time. We shall look around us unseen by the inhabitants, but able to ask many questions and to get pertinent answers. Thereby shall we gather much knowledge, and that, too, not about St. Aliquis only; for this little world by itself is a cross-section, as it were, of a great part of France; nay, of all feudal Europe.
It is fortunate that we are suffered, when we make this return journey to the Middle Ages, to arrive not long after the year 1200. A century or two earlier one might have found conditions decidedly more crude, semi-barbarous, disgusting; one would have indeed been tempted to doubt whether from so lawless and uncultivated a world any progressive civilization could really develop. On the other hand, had we postponed the excursion until, say, A.D. 1400, we would have found a society already becoming sophisticated and to no slight extent modernized. The true mediæval flavor would have been partially lost. But A.D. 1220 represents the epoch when the spirit of the Middle Ages had reached its full development. The world was still full of ignorance, squalor, and violence, yet there were now plenty of signs of a nobler day. France was still scattered with feudal castles and tales of baronial ruthlessness abounded, but the rise of the royal power and the growth of the chartered communal towns were promising a new political era. The bulk of the people were still illiterate peasants, and many of the nobility even felt very awkward when fumbling over books; but the monasteries had never been so full of worthy activities and of very genuine learning. Thousands of scholars were trudging to the University of Paris; and meantime, even in the more starving towns were rising Gothic churches and cathedrals, combining in their soaring fabrics not merely the results of supreme architectural genius, but a wealth of masterpieces of sculpture and of colored glass which were to draw visitors of later days from the very ends of the earth.
The crusading fervor had somewhat waned, but around the castles there were still elderly knights who had once followed Richard the Lion Hearted or Philip Augustus upon the great Third Crusade to Palestine, likewise a good many younger cavaliers who had shared the military glory and moral disgrace of the Fourth Crusade, which had ended not with the recovery of Jerusalem, but the sack and seizure of Christian Constantinople. At Rome the great and magnanimous Pope Innocent III had hardly ceased to reign (1216); while the founders of the remarkable Friar movement—that new style of monasticism which was to carry the message of the Church closer to the people—St. Francis, the apostle of love, and St. Dominic, the apostle of learning, were still alive and active. The world, therefore, was looking forward. The Middle Ages were close to apogee.