This post is something of an announcement and an explanation. Starting this fall, I will be going to Western Michigan University to pursue a degree in Medieval Studies. Specifically, I want to study medieval literature. The middle ages span almost a thousand years of European history. Scholars consider Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written around 524 A.D., to mark the transition from Classical (Greek and Roman) literature to medieval literature. For the next thousand years he was followed by a series of European writers who shared a similar worldview. These include writers like Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch Dante, Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, and Geoffrey Chaucer and pieces of literature such as Beowulf, the Norse sagas, Summa Theologica, The Divine Comedy, most of the Arthurian legends, and the Canterbury Tales. But why medieval studies? The how is a much easier question to answer. I hope, that by answering it, the why will become easier.
It is no secret that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are two of my favorite authors. They were also excellent medieval scholars. After reading much of their work, I was naturally curious to discover the authors who influenced them. I was soon reading medieval works and finding things in them that I liked in the writings of Tolkien and Lewis. For example, I learned that Tolkien based a couple of lines in a poem in The Two Towers on a couple of lines within the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer.’ In ‘The Wanderer’, I discovered the same atmosphere that I appreciated in Tolkien. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis created ex nihilo. Instead, they drew upon a vast literary landscape for their writings. Typical of my nature, I wanted to go to the root, to mine from the same quarries that they had labored at. But besides this, there was another thread at work.
My liberal arts education in college included reading selections from great works of literature. The reading was more or less enjoyable; as enjoyable as can be when your grade depends on your reading. After college, I decided that I didn’t want to stop learning. Instead of reading books about philosophy and history, I would go to the root and give myself a proper classical education. So I started at the beginning with the Iliad and proceeded chronologically through several of Western Civilization’s important literary works. I learned that it is far better to read all of something than to only read a part. I also learned that I enjoyed the challenge and the rich rewards which come from reading this type of literature. Eventually I reached The Divine Comedy. In it Dante took all the classical mythology which I had come to enjoy and wedded it with the Christian faith in which I believed. I was stunned by his ability to work within a strict pattern and at the same time produce incredible beauty. He mirrored the world with its strict physical laws and immense beauty. Dante showed the marriage of intellect and imagination, two things I am very fond of. He demonstrated something that I was only just grasping, that the Good and the Beautiful were one. Besides these, Dante was fully medieval.
Why then medieval studies? Part of this is the question of aesthetics. Why study beauty? Why not business or engineering, i.e. fields that will lead to practical occupations? Here is not the place to respond to that question. Others have answered it better than I ever could. Even Plato offers a few suggestions in his Symposium and The Republic. As for the medievals, they would have thought the need to study beauty to be self-evident, which perhaps shows how much our presuppositions have changed since then.
There are a couple of minor, more practical reasons for my studying medieval literature. One is that I like to write stories. My hope is that by studying these authors and their writings, I myself will become a better writer. Another is that I like to push myself intellectually. Simply attempting a masters degree will do this. Studying medieval literature, I think, will bring an greater challenge. Here I will make a digression which you are free to skip over.
In listening to people talk about the middle ages, I find that many have gotten the completely wrong idea about that period of history. Most everyone has been told the narrative that the middle ages were Europe’s dark ages from which the Renaissance and Enlightenment rescued Western Civilization. Read any piece of medieval literature and you will discover the narrative to be false. Two examples of wrong beliefs about the middle ages will make this more clear.
First, it is common to hear that medieval people believed that the world was flat. Greek astronomers before the birth of Christ knew that the world was round and even achieved a rough estimate of its circumference. Every educated person since then has known that the world is a sphere. During the 1800’s, certain writers romanticized the story of Columbus’s expedition, portraying Columbus as fighting against the ignorance and superstition of the middle ages. The intellectual climate of the 19th and early 20th centuries placed a strong belief in the power of science to improve the human condition. Religion and tradition were considered to be antagonistic to this dream. In a perfect case of wish fulfillment, the story of Columbus battling the superstitious medieval belief in a flat earth was readily accepted as historical fact, all without a scrap of proof. Somehow this legend has lasted a long time, even among fairly educated people. One has only to read to the end of the Inferno to see otherwise. Once Virgil and Dante climb down through the center of the earth, they rotate: feet moving to where the head was and the head to where the feet were, so that they can climb upwards. On the other hand, the medievals did believe that the Sun revolved around the earth, but that is a topic for another discussion.
Second, it is commonly asserted that the Catholic Church caused the middle ages to stay intellectually backwards. On the contrary, the church was the driving force for education in the middle ages. The value the church placed on religious study naturally translated into a value for education in general. In depth study of Scripture necessitates language and critical thinking skills, while preaching requires rhetorical ability. The university was invented by the medieval Catholic Church, with the first beginning in 1088 A.D. in Bologna. All of Europe’s oldest universities were founded during the middle ages. Medieval education drew heavily on the writings of the pagan philosophers of the Classical era, especially Aristotle. This proved to be a great intellectual strength, and an great intellectual weakness. When thinkers eventually began to question long held beliefs, such as the geocentricism affirmed by Aristotle and Ptolemy, the Catholic Church was often unable to separate Aristotle’s philosophy from the core truths of Christianity. Questioning the former was perceived by some as an attack on the latter.
As for the priests who scattered to share the gospel with the pagans tribes, they brought literacy with them wherever they went. Germanic tribes Christianized by these missionaries had a runic alphabet. However, the use they made of it was minuscule in comparison to waves of priests who came armed with the Latin alphabet and vellum manuscripts. Priests founded monasteries in which scribes copied Scripture into native languages, recorded history, and even preserved stories from pagan mythology. These monasteries and convents also served as points of cultural stability during times of warfare and changing political authority. This is not to say that the medieval Catholic Church didn’t have problems. It tried to compete with secular authorities for political power and grew corrupt in the process. During the middle ages, there were many who fiercely criticized the corruption of the church. They only differed from Martin Luther in that they were unwilling to make the break with the Church that he did. Luther may have railed against indulgences, but Chaucer turned the Pardoner (a person who sells indulgences) into one of the most laughable and grotesque characters in all of literature.
Digression over. The medievals had a robust intellectual life. They thought and wrote deeply in an age when it was assumed that God and other spiritual forces played an active role in our world. Studying the middle ages makes one more aware of how our unconscious mindset towards the supernatural has changed since then, even among most Christians.
One of the most difficult parts about explaining my interest in medieval studies is to explain the medieval world as found in medieval writings. I find myself facing the same difficultly C.S. Lewis writes about in Spenser’s Images of Life.
But when such stories are loved at all, they are re-read perhaps more than any others. Re-reading them is like going back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for ….what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere—to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness. It is notoriously difficult to put these tastes into words; and in a similar way the taste for a narrative ‘world’ is difficult to talk about.
How do you communicate the atmosphere of medieval literature? How do you describe the medieval integration of imagination, beauty, and intellect? One could always give them a medieval story to read. But then, most people no longer have the ability to read or enjoy such literature. And could they read it, would they find what you have found in in? It is very much like a special place, a favorite restaurant, vacation destination, or walking path. You may find it special, but that doesn’t mean someone else will.
As I consider this new direction my life is taking, I find myself resonating with Geoffrey Chaucer’s description of the Clerk in his Canterbury Tales. With his description, I will finish this post.
There was also a Clerk from Oxford who had long gone to lectures on logic. His horse was as lean as a rake, and he was not at all fat, I think, but looked hollow-cheeked, and grave likewise. His little outer cloak was threadbare, for he had no worldly skill to beg for his needs, and as yet had gained himself no benefice. He would rather have had at his bed’s head twenty volumes of Aristotle and his philosophy, bound in red or black, than rich robes or a fiddle or gay psaltery. Even though he was a philosopher, he had little gold in his money-box! But all that he could get from his friends he spent on books and learning, and would pray diligently for the souls of who gave it to him to stay at the schools. Of study he took most heed and care. Not a word did he speak more than was needed, and the little he spoke was formal and modest, short and quick, and full of high matter. All that he said tended toward moral virtue. Gladly would he learn and gladly teach.