A professor of mine recently said that one of the curiosities of history, for which he has never found a satisfying explanation, is why the 12th century seems to have been the century in which Love seemed to dominate the themes of innumerable treatises, and the minds of innumerable geniuses. This, he claimed, was not only true in some particular sphere, like western civilization, but was a global phenomenon – treatises on Love were written by Buddhists in China, Christians in Europe, Muslims in the middle east, and so on. Never were so many sermons written on the Canticle of Canticles. Love, it seemed, dominated the human conversation in nearly every corner of the world. Let us accept it as uncontroversial, for the sake of argument, that the 12th century really was characterized by this noticeable emphasis on Love. It may be going too far to say that ‘everyone’ was ‘always’ writing and thinking about love in this century, but somehow the curious proliferation of literature and emphasis on the topic of love stands in need of explanation. What kind of explanation could there be?
Perhaps we can give a theological, eschatological and romantic answer to this question. We might begin by appealing to the sense of ‘providence’ which seems to be irreducibly part of the human experience. That is certainly a feature of individual human experience (the sense that one’s life is a story being directed by an unknown author), and perhaps it can lead us to acknowledge the fuller Christian idea that God is authoring and ordering all of history. If so, then the 12th century’s being the ‘century’ of love may be something like a playful hint which God writes into the story of history (his-story). It is a hint insofar as it evidences a kind of ordering of history like a story, while not providing any trace of a good alternative explanation for the historical ‘coincidence’ it occasions. In doing so, it also hints in a deeper way at God’s Love for us; he nudges us ever so slightly with evidences like these. Nobody can see the ‘big picture’ until the story reaches its end, but we can all see, to greater and lesser extents, that the story is a story. What comes along with a recognition that history is providentially ordered by God is that God is providentially concerned with us. This is a rather romantic view of history, but it is significant that it is also a very Christian view of history. G.K. Chesterton said that Christianity introduced the concept of ‘romance’ into the world, and I suspect that he was on to something.
Once we accept to see history in this romantic fashion, we can venture to go one step further and say a word about the theology of history it reflects. How would it enrich our eschatology to understand the 12th century through the lens of a “Theology of History” like St. Augustine’s or St. Bonaventure’s? Certainly that atmosphere set the stage, in Bonaventure’s theology, for the ‘sixth day’ of Genesis and of Revelation to begin (if memory serves). Bonaventure even identified St. Francis of Assisi as the angel standing in the sun (Rev. 19:17). What, then, would it mean for our Theology of history today, if we were to adopt something like his model? Of course the ideal reflected in St. Bonaventure is salvageable, as his Theology of History was intended to be dynamic enough that it would never make too bold a prediction or be disappointed by the passage of time, and yet it allowed one to comprehend history according to a theological narrative laid out in the Scriptural scheme of ‘six’ days, with a corresponding seventh. I think the temptation would be to interpret the 12th century, and St. Bonaventure’s subsequent and elaborate Theology of History, as a type foreshadowing the very same narrative period St. Bonaventure read into it. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the 12th century produced St. Francis of Assisi himself, the prototypical Alter Christus (literally, the first formally canonized saint). Indeed, it cannot be coincidence that this was the century in which the world was given a saint whose very name, even today, elicits a sense of reverence and love among all Christians, Catholic or not, and among all people in the world more widely. All this is worthy of reflection.
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.