For us in the twentieth century it is most difficult to appreciate the intellectual ferment and the flourishing culture that so characterized the brilliant thirteenth century. It was the age of the scintillating universities of Paris, Toulouse, Montpelier, Oxford, Cambridge, Salerno, Bologna, Salamanca; of scholastic philosophy and Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon; of epics and romances: the Nibelungenlied, the Cid, Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, the Romance of the Rose, the trouveres and the troubadours in Provence, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. It witnessed the flowering of a luminous spiritual growth: St. Francis of Assisi, O.F.M. (1181-1226) and St. Clare of the Second Order Franciscans (1193-1253); the theological giants but first saints: St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P. (1225-1274), St. Albert the Great, O.P. (1206-1280), St. Bonaventure, O.F.M. (1221-1274); St. Louis IX, King of France (1214-1297) and St. Margaret, a peasant of Cortona, Italy (1247-1297); St. Dominic, O.P. (1170-1221) and St. Nicholas of Tolentine, O.S.A. (1245-1305); St. Clare of Montefalco, O.S.A. (1268-1308); St. Antony of Padua of Portugal (1195-1231) and St. Raymond of Pennafort, O.P. from Spain (1175-1275). The heavy Romanesque architecture had seen itself surpassed by the soaring Gothic Cathedrals of Chartres, St. Denis, Notre Dame, and Bourges whose stained glass windows have never been equaled. Bishops and kings, knights and peasants forever render homage to the heavenly court in the glorious rosettes and multi-colored windows of Sainte Chapelle and Chartres. The sonorous Gregorian Chant resounded from a thousand-choir stalls with the solemn Dies Irae and the triumphant Te Deum.
The world has rolled on to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Age of Realism and the Commercial Revolution, down to our own day of high technology and nuclear power, instant communication and all pervasive administration – and sensitiveness to human rights.
It is only with a sustained effort that one can re-create the Weltanschauung of the Middle Ages at its height. Particularly is it demanding to realize that a previous culture quite as lustrous as our own viewed religion as an integral part of their civilization; that the thirteenth century represented only a milestone in the continuing evolution of institutions and law, neither retrogressing on the one hand, nor anticipating on the other the improvements achieved by later centuries.
Albert Shannon, The Medieval Inquisition (1991)