Meister Eckhart vs. the Church Essay

Meister Eckhart vs. the Church

 

Introduction

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“It is God’s nature to be without a nature. To think of His goodness, or wisdom, or power is to hide the essence of Him…” — So said the 13th-century Dominican monk, university professor, and revolutionary spiritual master, Meister Eckhart.[1] Towards the end of his life, the Vatican had charged him with heresy. Today, Meister Eckhart is considered by scholars and seekers alike to be one of the greatest mystics within the whole of Christian tradition, if not the greatest. Yet during his own time and life, he continually kept his church and religion astir because of his often blunt, theologically incorrect pronouncements. This was only to be expected, though. For Meister Eckhart was not just brilliant, he was a total genius, a Shakespeare or Isaac Newton of mysticism, while the Catholic church was a benighted place steeped in rigid dogma and empty theology. The conflict was inevitable.

 

That such a radical genius as Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328) was ever born on this earth and was part of humanity is in itself a great wonder. He was an original thinker and a mind without an equal. But the fact that he was even allowed to live and teach in an age when the autocratic Medieval Church reigned supreme is nothing less than astounding. Meister Eckhart was not excommunicated, nor was he, though inconclusively tried for heresy, ever declared to be a heretic during his lifetime. It is inconceivable how the Church could tolerate even one word from this man whose thinking was so utterly divergent from its own. John’s gospel says, “The Light shineth in the darkness, but the darkness knoweth it not.” Most fortunately, the Church did not sooner realize what a towering beacon of light Meister Eckhart really was, or else it would have tried harder to quench that light and restore the familiar comfortable darkness.

 

The Mystical Context of Fourteenth Century Germany

 

Although Eckhart was one of the profoundest of original thinkers, by no means was he an isolated instance of mystical flowering in the Church-dominated Medieval Europe. On the contrary, Germany of that epoch was rife with mysticism. The fourteenth century in Germany was actually known as the “century of heresy.”[2] Virtually no centers of higher learning existed in Germany until the fourteenth century, and therefore it was necessary for German thinkers to go to Italy and France to be educated. Thus, among other things, the mystic traditions of Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophies — which had spread into France and Italy through Arabic Spain — gradually found their way into Germany. In those dark ages, the writings of Greek and Roman cultures were preserved in Arabic translations, which had been significantly responsible for initiating the Age of Renaissance in Europe in the mid 14th century. The Rhineland was already becoming a haven for freethinkers and mystics. In fact, the region had earlier produced indigenous but powerful mysticism in the form of so-called Frauenmystik (Women Mystics), which most prominently included the figure of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 -1179). Her Book of Divine Works includes the memorable image of creation as an act of God making countless mirrors in which to behold Himself.[3]

 

The Inquisition Scene in Medieval Europe

 

Medieval Inquisition, which did not however go to the extreme lengths of the latter-day Spanish Inquisition in persecuting heretics, was created in the thirteenth century to investigate and punish those suspected of heresy in each particular diocese. At its peak, between 1249 and 1257, about 21 people were sentenced to “secular arm” for execution, i.e. to be burnt at stake, while 230 other people were sent to prison. Unlike the witch-hunting and pyromania that characterized the Spanish Inquisition, ninety percent of the sentences at this time merely dealt with mild church-related penances, such as fasting, pilgrimage, increased attendance at Mass, and so on. On average, out of the remaining ten percent heretics, about nine were given prison sentences and one was handed the death sentence. Had Meister Eckhart been convicted of heresy, he would have most probably received a mild prison sentence. This is because Eckhart had a formidable reputation as a scholar and preacher. Further, during his trial, although he took a defiant stance against his accusers, he shrewdly eschewed pertinacity and showed willingness to recant and submit to the authority of the church.

 

The heresy and inquisition scene in the Medieval Europe was complicated by the intense rivalries that originated between the Dominicans and Franciscans. Members of one order might use the Inquisition to get rid of members of the other order to gain an upper hand. The majority of Inquisitors, however, tended to belong to Eckhart’s own Dominican order. The most notorious of the Dominican Inquisitors was Conrad of Marburg who spread terror through his cruel ways.

In 1233 he took his maniacal inquisition to the final extreme by accusing one of the highest members of German society – Count Henry of Sayn – of various forms of heretical activity, including such bizarre behavior as riding on turtles. [4]

 

Marburg was eventually murdered by the populace. Another notorious Dominican Inquisitor was Robert the Bugre, who, in one instance in 1239, sentenced 180 heretics to death.[5] After such excesses, Inquisition seemed to lose ground in Germany for the rest of the 13th century and early 14th century. Probably because Eckhart lived and preached in this interim period, he had been overlooked for so long, and was only prosecuted in the last years of his life though his teachings had always stirred up controversy. But inquisition became highly active in the subsequent years. The church cracked down especially on Beguines, the mystical order of semi-religious women, the successors of Hildegard of Bingen, with whom Eckhart himself was particularly closely associated with.

In 1325, assemblies of Beguines were discovered; fifty of them were put to death, always by Episcopal authority. The energetic action of the Archbishop of Cologne was imitated in Westphalia by his colleagues of Muster, Osnabruck, Minden, and Paderborn, and by the Bishop of Metz; in the last-mentioned town several heretics were burnt.[6]

 

A similar fate could have befallen Meister Eckhart, but it did not largely because he did not display obstinacy in clinging to his viewpoint. Strictly speaking, Eckhart was subjected to academic condemnation rather than charged with heresy. As the theologian Godfrey of Fontaines observed, though errors are faults that endanger salvation, they become heresies when defended with pertinacity, which Eckhart prudently avoided doing. In 1320, the council of ten theologians convened by Pope John XXII also noted that a heretic is someone who by his own will obstinately chooses to adhere to his errors.  The Church seemed to be relatively lenient in the case of Eckhart because of the absence of rigidity in his stance. Moreover, Eckhart conveniently passed away during the period of his trial and his views were only condemned posthumously.

 

A brief overview of Eckhart’s essential teaching

 

When I first read – which was more than a half century ago – a little book containing a few of Meister Eckhart’s sermons, they impressed me profoundly, for I never expected that any Christian thinker ancient or modern could or would cherish such daring thoughts as expressed in those sermons… [T]he ideas expounded there closely approached Buddhist thoughts, so closely indeed, that one could stamp them almost definitely as coming out of Buddhist speculations. As far as I can judge, Eckhart seems to be an extraordinary ‘Christian’.[7]

– D.T. Suzuki, renowned Japanese Buddhist scholar

 

This extraordinary Christian was part of a mystical movement started by Dominican preachers, which was rooted in Neoplatonic ideas of Plotinus. Their teachings focused on the spiritual fulfillment for the individual. Eckhart was actively involved in all aspects of the Dominican life in the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth centuries. He studied and taught theology at the University of Paris, served in various academic and administrative posts for the order, and was especially active as a gifted preacher. Although Eckhart wrote theological commentaries, he was essentially a mystic, and was not a system builder like his famed and canonized Dominican predecessor, St. Thomas Aquinas.

 

The key to Eckhart’s doctrine is the ontological argument that only God exists. That is, his philosophy of Being argues that all except God lacks substantial essence. Hence creatures may possess being, but God is Being. Eckhart argues that God is the essence of Being, for if God is the cause of Being, God must transcend Being. Therefore the true nature of God is “knowing” – which is primary. The human capacity of self-reflective consciousness flows from God and participates in God, as the “spark of the soul.” Eckhart is not postulating any abstruse theological doctrine here, but is only giving pointers to very practical spirituality. Once we understand the concepts of “knowing” being God’s nature and awareness being the nature of human soul, everything else Eckhart teaches falls elegantly into place. There is not much here that has to do with Christianity or the Church’s doctrine. In other places where Eckhart uses distinctly Christian terminology, he uses it mostly in a symbolical and allegorical sense, mostly for convenience of understanding and acceptance. Eckhart frequently quotes Christian scriptures, but then he makes his own unique interpretations of them. However, his mysticism can be perfectly well expressed and understood even when completely stripped of all Christian connotations.

 

In practical terms, and mysticism is fundamentally a way of living unlike the organized religions which are mostly belief-systems, Eckhart is saying is that that part in us which can observe, watch, know and witness ourselves and the world around us – our consciousness – is our soul. It is also God. Everything around us is in a constant flux, even our bodies and minds are continually changing; however the principle of consciousness in us that is aware of all these myriad phenomena taking place around it is ever the same. It is a steadily burning light, even in sleep and unconsciousness, although it may be difficult for us to understand since we are identified totally with the mind, and are mostly unaware of the consciousness underlying it. Our consciousness is the ground of our being.[8] It is also the ground of universal being which is God. Hence the nature of God and an individual self-aware creature like a human being is the same. We can further simplify this concept if we equate the self-awareness within us to the ‘seer’ and all that is happening within our minds, bodies and the world around us to the ‘seen’. The ‘seen’ is transient, ever changing, but the ‘seer’ is transcendent, abiding in the perfection of the nature of God. The spiritual path consists of introverting our mind and letting it dwell on the knowing awareness of our being, and away from worldly objects which in normal circumstances engage all of its attention, day in and day out. During such moments of contemplation or meditation we can realize the purity and primacy of our consciousness and its radical distinction from the world of phenomena. Upon such realization, we attain truth and understand our true identity and oneness with God.

 

A “profound yearning for and awareness of the immediate presence of God within human consciousness and ‘in all things'” is the primary characteristic shared not only by Eckhartian circle of mystics but by numerous other spiritual movements of medieval Germany.[9] If this basic common core of Eckhart’s mystical philosophy and various other mystical traditions is grasped, all that Eckhart says can be interpreted without too much difficulty. Eckhart is speaking a completely different language from that of the Church, he is speaking the language of mysticism, and his trenchant utterances reveal truth more directly and daringly than perhaps any other mystic down the ages. There is little in the sayings of Jesus himself in the Bible that matches the mystical tenor of Eckhart and other famous European mystics such as John of Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and Jacob Boehme.  Eckhart’s mystical philosophy was closer in nature to those Christian scriptures called apocrypha, prominent among them being the Gospel According to St. Thomas. But these scriptures were expunged from the canon early on in the history of Christianity and effectively suppressed, so much so that many of these books had to be rediscovered in tattered fragments in archeological diggings in the mid twentieth century.  Though his teachings escaped the fate of oblivion, Eckhart was bound to come in clash with the religious establishment that had little tolerance for any viewpoint but Church-sanctioned orthodoxy.

 

Eckhart’s Trial and Charges

 

Eckhart’s dramatic pronouncements and his enormous popularity and influence among both the religious and the laity inevitably won him many enemies. Some were the result of petty jealousies and spite, but other reflected the growing inquisitional spirit of the time, where any suggestion of heresy must be extirpated and destroyed. In 1323, Eckhart’s own five-year encounter with the inquisitional powers began to gradually unfold. He was called to the cathedral city of Cologne overseen by the man who was to be his undoing: Henry II of Virneburg, the Archbishop of Cologne.

 

Archbishop Henry was well known as an opponent of heresy and closely linked to Pope John XXII, and at odds with the Emperor Lewis of Bavaria, who was excommunicated in 1324. The archbishop was already convinced that heresy was rampant among the Beguines, the group of women who were enamored of Eckhart’s radical teachings, particularly the view of the birth of the Word in the soul without any need of Church’s intermediary role in this process. Henry was on the lookout for a big catch, and Eckhart naturally became his first choice. The friar who boldly preached that “God and I: we ware one” and who described to the unlearned masses a path to salvation that managed to steer clear of the sacraments of Church altogether was exactly what Henry was looking for. Because of Henry, Eckhart would be the first theologian on trial for heresy in the Middle Ages.

From the inquiry previously made against him concerning these matters on the authority of our Venerable Brother Henry, the Archbishop of Cologne, and at last renewed on our authority in the Roman curia, we have discovered, as is evident from the same Eckhart’s confession, that he preached, taught and wrote twenty-six articles having the following content.[10]

 

— So begins the final list of heresy charges against Eckhart, drawn in a papal bull released about a year after his death on March 27, 1329.

 

The first article. When someone once asked him why God had not created the world earlier, he answered then, as he does now, that God could not have created the world earlier, because a thing cannot act before it exists, and so as soon as God existed he created the world.

 

The second article. Also, it can be granted that the world has existed from eternity.

 

God exists in a dimension where there is no change or time. God simply ‘is’. The ‘isness” of the world is called God. By definition, “isness” cannot come into existence or go out of existence. Obviously, Eckhart must have taught that the world has always existed and will always exist. Though this view would fall in perfect accord with Eastern philosophies, it is completely a strange concept to Judeo-Christian traditions of the West which believe in the utterly ridiculous notion that the creation began about six thousand years ago. However, for the question what had God been doing for all eternity of time prior to 4004 BC, they do not have any answer. It is indeed strange that when perhaps ninety percent of Eckhart’s teachings, amounting to thousands of lines, obviously contravene the doctrine of the Church, only twenty-six contentious points were selected in the final heresy charge. The rest of the articles follow the same trend, we will examine a few important ones here.

The tenth article. We shall all be transformed totally into God and changed into him. In the same way, when in the sacrament bread is changed into Christ’s Body, ? am so changed into him that he makes me his one existence, and not just similar.

 

This is the essential goal of all mysticism, to become one with God, to become God. In fact, strictly speaking, one does not “become” God, a person simply realizes the inner essence of his or her being which has always been God.

The eleventh article. Whatever God the Father gave to his Only-Begotten Son in human nature, he gave all this to me. ? except nothing, neither union, nor sanctity; but he gave the whole to me, just as he did to him.

 

When Jesus said, “I am the way and the Truth,” he did not mean that he was the way and the truth but that the “I” – the conscious self-awareness of a human being — is the way and the truth. Eckhart’s statement unequivocally undermines the most central foundation of the Christian religion, namely the exclusive Godhood of Jesus Christ. Eckhart is saying there is nothing special about Jesus Christ, if he was the “only-begotten” son, then so am I, and so is every human being that is endowed with self-awareness. Eckhart is brutally direct, he leaves no room for reinterpreting his teachings in a way more acceptable to the Church, and therefore he has no scope of defending himself except by showing willingness to accept the alleged erroneousness of his views, just in the way Galileo would do a few centuries later. After admitting that it is the sun that revolves around the earth and not the other round just as the Bible taught, Galileo rather defiantly asserted that simply because he says the earth does not move around the sun it would not stop moving around the sun. Eckhart took a very similar stance. While he admits he could be in the wrong, he also accuses his accusers of stupidity and shallowness of understanding.

The fourteenth article. A good man ought so to conform his will to the divine will that he should will whatever God wills. Since God in some way wills for me to have sinned, ? should not will that ? had not committed sins; and this is true penitence.

 

This is acceptance of God’s creation in its totality and acknowledging the infinite wisdom of Lord. If there is sin and evil in this world, then it would not have existed without God willing it. Therefore it has some meaning. For a true seeker, the negative side of things should be as acceptable as the positive side, including one’s own shortcomings. True penitence, according to Eckhart, is when we are able to accept God’s creation in toto, sin, darkness, evil and all. This may sound very anti-progressive, because if we were to accept everything as it is, then we would imagine that the impetus to change and self-improvement would be lost. However, this is not so. Acceptance takes away the friction between us and ourselves, us and existence, and us and God. When the mind thus attains to a profound state of peace, it comes in contact with inner energies that naturally impel us on the way to progress, change and good. But then we would only become instruments in executing the divine will. This is what Eckhart is talking about.

 

Of the twenty articles charged against him, the first fifteen were deemed “certainly heretical.” The remaining eleven articles were only “suspect of heresy.” Interestingly, however, the three articles twenty through twenty two have exactly the same purport, outright heretical, as that of the eleventh article we have discussed above.

The twenty-second article. The Father gives birth to me his Son and the same Son. Everything that God performs is one; therefore he gives me, his Son, birth without any distinction.

 

One cannot imagine, in the first place, how about seven statements in all that have the same essential meaning are presented as separate independent articles. But it is even more baffling that half of them fall into the serious heresy category while the other half fall under the less serious one. If anything, this shows what a total farce this whole condemnation affair wa. Articles sixteen through  nineteen talk about “exterior acts,” or outward actions. The nineteenth article gives the gist:

God loves souls, not the exterior work.

The meaning, again absolutely anti-Christian, is clear enough. God loves souls unconditionally, his blessings go on showering on the sinner and saint alike. Whatever one does or one does not do, or whatever one thinks or believes, makes no difference to the special favor God shows to him or her. Yet, it must be understood that while the worthiness of our actions may not make an iota of difference to God, they would certainly make a difference to us. God’s sun shines on all equally without the least discrimination, but if one locks oneself up in a cold kitchen and feels miserable, then God cannot be held responsible. Therefore, “exterior work” matters in so far as it can determine whether we are dancing under the open sky or rotting in our miserable little sinkholes.

The twenty-third article. God is one in all ways and according to every respect so that he cannot find any multiplicity in himself either in intellect or in reality. Anyone who beholds the number two or who beholds distinction does not behold God, for God is one, outside and beyond number, and is not counted with anything. There follows: ?o distinction can exist or be understood in God himself.

 

Eckhart presents a fantastically sweeping poetic and mystical vision where one God is seen in the endless multiplicity of all the things of the world. There is nothing, or no one, besides the One. It follows: I am that One.

 

In the final article, Eckhart presents a categorically Buddhist notion. No wonder he has today become such a significant bridge between Eastern and Western mystical traditions.[11]

The twenty-sixth article. ALL creatures are one pure nothing. ? do not say that they are a little something or anything, but that they are pure nothing.

 

In fact, Eckhart uses the words “nothing” and “nothingness” quite often in his sermons, as in this famous saying of his: “For by the everlasting truth, as long as you will do God’s will and yearn for eternity and God, you are not really poor, for he is poor who wills nothing, knows nothing, and wants nothing.” However, the word nothing figures only once in the final list of the contentious articles. Eckhart is approaching and explicating the essential fundamentals of his thought that we discussed in the previous section from every possible angle. In the article, it is implied that if God is all that there is, then we individual beings do not exist in separation, we do not have any existence of identity apart from God. The situation is not like I am the tip of the iceberg and God is my depth. Rather, God is all of me. The world has no essence or substance apart form that of God. All that we see and perceive as the world around us is just an illusion or a mirage, it has no real existence.

 

Eckhart’s Defense

 

I am surprised that they do not bring up more objections against what is written in my different works, for it is well known that I have written a hundred things and more that their ignorance neither understands nor grasps.[12]

– Meister Eckhart

 

This was the essential defiant attitude of Eckhart to the 49 articles of heresy that were pitched against him. In 1326, when the inquisition was set up to deeply look into what Eckhart had been teaching, it actually found 150 propositions, in all, which suggested that he might be a ‘pantheist’.  Later, these were brought down to 49 and finally, after his death, to 26 (actually 28, with two extra articles). Eckhart submitted a defense, which is mostly a confession, on the 49 articles that were divided into four groups. The fourth group consisted of articles taken from sermons wrongly ascribed to Eckhart. Therefore he denies them. The rest he accepts: “I hold that they are all true, although many are uncommon and subtle.” At the same time, Eckhart concedes “If there is something false I do not see in them or in my other remarks and writings, I am always ready to yield to a better understanding.” Eckhart goes on to say: I can be in error, but I cannot be a heretic, because the first belongs to the intellect, the second to the will.

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Throughout the defense, Meister takes the stance that the articles “touch the truth, which can be sustained with true and sound understanding.” His judges err, Eckhart says, in believing that everything that they do not understand is an error. “What can I do if somebody does not understand?” Interestingly though, for a good length of his defense, he makes a desperate half-hearted attempt to defend the truth of some of his statements, on purely a logical basis, and using an “insofar as” principle. But his argument comes out as either too technical and abstruse or worse, as pure gobbledygook.

…Rather, what begets, insofar as it begets and is an active principle, is opposed by relation to what is begotten, the offspring, the son, the created, the made, or what has existence from another….

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However, the very fact that the defendant would need to make long explanations about the true meaning of what he had maintained must have made his views look suspicious, and Eckhart himself must have realized the futility of his argument. In the end, though, he is very clear about what he thinks: “The whole of what was said is false and absurd according to the imagination of my opponents, but it is true according to true understanding.”

 

Eckhart died while the enquiry was still underway. The Pope and a Commission posthumously condemned fifteen of his statements as heretical ‘on the face of things’ or ‘as they sound’ (prout sonant).[13] The remaining eleven were condemned as ‘ill sounding’, or being offensive to pious ears (male sonant). Though the Church conceded that the latter category were merely suspect, and a catholic sense could be construed out of them with many explanations (in reality, that would have been an impossible endeavor), all the articles were equally condemned because they could lead minds of the faithful to a heretical or erroneous interpretation.

 

Consequently, his writing went into underground circulation, but still would inspire thousands of seekers and mystics during the fourteenth century itself. Today, those teachings are as enlightening and ultra-radical as they had been in the Middle ages, pointing the direct way to whoever is ardently seeking truth and God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Ancelet-Hustache, Jeanne.  Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics.  New York : Harper Torch books, 1957

Chilson, Richard. God Awaits You: Based on the Classic Spirituality of Meister Eckhart (30 Days With a Great Spiritual Teacher). Notre Dame, IN : Ave Maria Press, 1996

Colledge, Edmund; McGinn, Bernard; Smith, Houston. Meister Eckhart , Vol. 2: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (Classics of Western Spirituality). Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1981

Evans, Gillian Rosemary.  Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers. London : Routledge, 2002

Guiraud,  Jean.  Medieval Inquisition. New York : Benziger Brothers, 1930

Jeep, John M.. Medieval Germany: An Encyclopedia. London : Routledge, 2001

McGinn,  Bernard, Tobin, Frank J. Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher.  Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1986

Richards, Howard. Life on a Small Planet: A Philosophy of Value. New York : Philosophical Library, 1966

Sheldrake, Philip. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Louisville, Kentucky : Westminster John Knox Press, 2005

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitar?. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. London :  Routledge 2002

Vidmar, John. The Catholic Church Through The Ages: A History. Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 2005

Weeks, Andrew. German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History. Albany, NY : State University of New York, 1993

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Howard Richards. Life on a Small Planet: A Philosophy of Value. (New York : Philosophical Library, 1966) p.158

 
[2] Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache.  Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics.  (New York : Harper Torch books, 1957) p.17
[3] Andrew Weeks. German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History. (Albany, NY : State University of New York, 1993) p.54

 
[4] John M. Jeep. Medieval Germany: An Encyclopedia. (London : Routledge, 2001) p.144
[5] John Vidmar. The Catholic Church Through The Ages: A History. Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 2005) p.148
[6] Jean Guiraud.  Medieval Inquisition. (New York : Benziger Brothers, 1930) p.157
[7] Daisetz Teitar? Suzuki.  Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. (London :  Routledge 2002) p.2
[8] Bernard McGinn, Frank J. Tobin. Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher.  (Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1986) p.9
[9] Philip Sheldrake. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. (Louisville, Kentucky : Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) p. 544

 

 
[10] Edmund Colledge, Bernard McGinn, Houston Smith. Meister Eckhart , Vol. 2: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (Classics of Western Spirituality). (Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1981) p.77
[11] Richard Chilson. God Awaits You: Based on the Classic Spirituality of Meister Eckhart (30 Days With a Great Spiritual Teacher). (Notre Dame, IN : Ave Maria Press, 1996) p.7
[12] Edmund Colledge, Bernard McGinn, Houston Smith. Meister Eckhart , Vol. 2: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (Classics of Western Spirituality). (Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1981) p.72
[13] Gillian Rosemary Evans.  Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers. (London : Routledge, 2002) p.144

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