The life of Pope John XXII. is a striking example of the difference between traditional and documentary history. According to the traditions that have gathered around his name, John has been declared by many to be one of the banes of civilization and education in the Middle Ages. A little study of the documents issued by him shows him in quite a different light. He was not only interested in educational matters of every kind, but he was deeply intent, and as far as the Papal power enabled him he succeeded in carrying out his intention, of making education thoroughly effective in every department. It is by a man’s intentions that he must be judged. John meant to do everything for the best. Unfortunately, some of his actions in the matter of the provision of revenues became subject later to abuse. For this it is hard to understand how he should be held responsible. In the meantime, for educators, the study of the actual documents issued by him and their utterly different significance from what might be expected according to the usually accepted notion of his character, cannot but prove a lesson in historical values. It illustrates very well a phase of history that has recently been called to attention.

As we have said, one hundred years ago De Maistre declared that history had been a conspiracy against the truth. At last a universal recognition is coming of the fact that history has been written entirely too much from the personal standpoint of the historian without due reference to contemporary documents and authorities, or with the citation of only such references from these as would support the special contention of the writer. Even the writers of history whose reputation has been highest have suffered from this fault, and the consequence is that on disputed points it is more important to know what party a historian belongs to than what he writes.

Is it not time that at least our educators should cease accepting this old traditional opinion with regard to the times before the reformation so-called, and get at the truth in the matter, or as near it as possible. These educators of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were zealous and earnest beyond cavil. That everyone admits. It is supposed, however, that they were ridiculously ignorant and superstitious. Only those who are themselves ridiculously ignorant and superstitious, for the real meaning of superstition is persistence in accepting a supposed truth that is a survival (superstes) from a previous state of knowledge, after the reasons for its acceptance have been shown to be groundless, will continue to believe this absurd proposition. If the educator of the modern day will only study with the sympathy they deserve, the lives of the earliest educators of modern times, the professors, the officials, and the ecclesiastical authorities as well as the Papal patrons of the universities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, we shall hear no more of the Church during the Middle Ages having been opposed to education, nor to science, nor to any other department of human knowledge.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)


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