Curtius, Ernst Robert: The Medieval Bases of Western Thought

[A lecture delivered by Ernst Robert Curtius on July 3, 1949, at the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, at Aspen, Colorado. Published by permission of the Boellingen Foundation, Princeton University]

A European scholar who has dipped into medieval lore cannot but feel deeply grateful fοr the contributions to οur knowledge which have been made in recent times by American scholarship. Yοu have a great institution called the Medieval Academy of America. We have nothing of the kind in Europe. Historians such as Charles Homer Haskins, philologists such as Charles N. Beeson and Edward Kennard Rand, have shed much light οn the Middle Ages. The phenomenon which I might call American medievalism is highly interesting, and one which I should like to study some time. I believe that it has a deep spiritual meaning.

This was borne in οn my mind when I studied those admirable works of Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. It is obvious that Henry Adams was led to northern France by the instinct of his race. He was trying to get at the roots of the civilization to which he belonged. It was an offshoot, as Toynbee would say, of that Westem society which developed in Romanized Europe. From the close of the eleventh century to the first third of the thirteenth, northern France and England were more οε less united politi- cally. From the point of view of cultural history they formed a unity during those one hundred and fifty years. Yοu find prominent Frenchmen in Britain as you find English scholars occupying French episcopal sees. Students and teachers at the great episcopal schools of that glorious twelfth century spoke Latin and French, irrespective of their origin. That is what Henry Adams realized; that is why he undertook his pilgrimage. He went in search of his origins. But there were others who followed the same track.

When America became conscious of herself she strove to acquire the cultural inheritance of Europe. American literature and scholarship can boast of a number of pioneers who, as it were, conquered the European past. Some went to Spain, like Washington Irving οr Ticknor, some to Italy, others to France and Germany. But what strikes me most is this: The American mind might go back to Puritanism or to William Penn, but it lacked that which preceded them; it lacked the Middle Ages. It was in the position of a man who has never known his mother. The American conquest of the Middle Ages has something of that romantic glamor and of that deep sentimental urge which we might expect in a man who should set out to find his lost mother.

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