Literary Miscellanea, Medieval History

Literary Miscellanea: The West’s Debt to the Middle Ages

Johannes Fried, professor emeritus of Frankfurt University, authored a massive introduction to the Middle Ages called (unsurprisingly) The Middle Ages. It was translated into English by Peter Lewis in 2015 and published by Harvard University Press. If you are interested in medieval European history this is the book for you. His thesis is that the Middle Ages has been unjustly characterized as “The Dark Ages”. In truth, technological developments, new political theories, and religious and philosophical movements paved the way for the Renaissance.

The passage I am sharing with you today is about the West’s debt to the court of Charlemagne (Charles I), the son of Pepin the Short and the most celebrated leader of the Carolingian Empire. In the book blogging world we often overlook scribes and translators despite the enormous contributions they have made to preserving culture and nourishing reform movements.

In the late 8th century, there was a crisis in literary knowledge. Fried explains why and describes how Charlemagne addressed this crisis:

Officially, the comprehensive educational program of antiquity was never abandoned; nevertheless, the efficiency of the “private” education system, which was not in “public” hands – not least because of Christian misgivings about its pagan orientation – had declined sharply in the dark centuries of the Early Middle Ages, when sources were few and far between. Certainly, the Merovingian kings must have had a comparatively good literary education; the entire system had not collapsed by any means. And yet, there was no denying that knowledge and skills had dwindled and atrophied. Only under the Carolingian king Pepin and above all his illustrious son did a decisive move in the opposite direction begin. Here and there, ancient manuscripts with pertinent texts were still to be found, but it was a laborious task tracking them down, and then they required patient copying work to save them and once more disseminate the learning they contained. Despite the claims of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Roman antiquity is only visible to us nowadays through the lens of this early medieval interest, and the efforts of these Carolingian conservators.

As a rule, the material from which these old volumes were made was the comparatively cheap but less durable papyrus. Following the slump of scribal activity and papyrus production, the consequences were catastrophic. Even by the Early Middle Ages, the stocks of papyrus were in decline; in the late eleventh century, only the papal chancellery still had quantities of this writing material. The rest of the Western world had to make a virtue of necessity and switch over to the more expensive but more durable vellum. Apart from a very few exceptions, virtually no papyrus roll with a scholarly text has survived down the ages. Fire, water, rot, and mice took a heavy toll on the vital transfer of knowledge. The results can be quantified in terms of sheer numbers: of the sometimes enormous ancient libraries containing as many as an estimated one million books, absolutely nothing survives. If the contemporaries of the Carolingians had not undertaken a systematic search for ancient texts and manuscripts with an eye to copying them, and if they hadn’t used durable vellum in the process, most of the works of ancient, especially Latin, scholarship and literature would have been lost forever. No Cicero, no Quintilian, no Virgil, no Horace, no Ars amatoria, no Gallic Wars would have survived, let alone any of the ancient Christian authors. Charlemagne’s thirst for knowledge effectively saved these texts, indeed the whole of the Latin educational program of the Liberal Arts and their handbooks of the Mechanical Arts, as well as the unique splendor of Roman literature. In the absence of this, the late medieval Renaissance is unthinkable (52-53).

If there has ever been a reason to support humanistic studies, this is it!

Church, Medieval History

Review of Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks

What was it about?

Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks is a creative nonfiction work about the life of the 12th century mystic, abbess, and now saint Hildegard of Bingen. The 12th century was a very important time in the history of Western Europe and the Latin church. Scholasticism emerged at the end of the 11th century and conflicted with the older monastic theologies. The powerful and famed cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux founded monasteries, mentored a pope (Eugene III), and was influential in the careers of numerous religious and theologians. Universities also started popping up in major cities. Kings fought against the pope for more independence and power over their people.

Hildegard started her life as an anchorite at the age of 8 or 12, under the direction of a girl only 4 years her senior Jutta of Sponheim. She had visions from a young age but kept them hidden for many years at the abbey of Disibodenburg. When she finally revealed them, Jutta had already died and Hildegard had been made abbess of a community of noble sisters. Over the next several decades, she founded a monastery (Rupertsburg), composed chants, and authored several books covering topics ranging from medicine to spirituality. Because she was mostly illiterate, her books were written and edited by her secretaries Volmar and (later) Guibert of Gembloux. Hildegard was not afraid to write to the Archbishop of Mainz or the pope to get what she wanted. Well-researched and in straightfoward language, Fiona Maddocks tells the story of one of the most powerful and controversial women in history – only canonized a saint in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.

What did I think of it?

I am usually not a fan of creative nonfiction. I prefer academic works because they have a clear thesis and are peer-reviewed. But Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age lacked the enthusiasm I often encounter in creative nonfiction. It is not a hagiography in either the religious or the secular sense. Hildegard is portrayed with her faults and is nothing like the way she has been portrayed by feminists or New Age writers such as Matthew Fox. She was powerful but also quite conservative – holding some views that would be considered today as unacceptable in any circle. My favorite parts of the biography were the passages from Hildegard’s books and letters. I also appreciated Maddock’s commentaries about the authenticity of the source material.

Maddocks does not attempt to analyze Hildegard’s visions, which would seem to be a great weakness since Hildegard is famous for her visions, but Maddocks is a Classic Music critic for the Observer, so she probably does not have the theological background to do justice to Hildegard’s visions. The sections about medicine and sexuality are so amusing. Our understanding of these fields have definitely improved a lot in the past 800 years. I have admired Hildegard of Bingen for so many years and remember being excited when she was canonized in 2012. I am glad her story is being told, and I look forward to reading soon her most important book of visions Scivias. I currently own a Hildegard of Bingen reader that I dip in and out of. Even if you are not religiously inclined, you will enjoy Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. It gives a good overview of her  life and thought.

Medieval History

Some Great Resources on Medieval History

Medieval-waterwheelI love Medieval history. If you have been following my blog, this is no great secret. But, thus far, I have only shared with you literature that treats the Middle Ages.

Below are listed two courses on the Middle Ages. Both are free courses found online at LearnersTV ( The professor is Sally N. Vaughn from the University of Houston, and the lectures seem to have been recorded in the early 2000s.

The Flowering of the Middle Ages – “Professor Sally Vaughn discusses about various aspects of the Middle Ages from the perspectives of different disciplines such as history, English, French, Spanish, philosophy, music, art history, engineering, architecture, and law…”

The VikingsProfessor Sally Vaughn discusses History, culture, and religion of Vikings from their Indo-European roots and migration to Scandinavia through their invasions of Europe, excursions to North America, and trade with the Byzantine and Muslim worlds, state-building and impact on world history…….”

I started watching these lectures last Monday, and they are very well done. There are a few primary sources that I have come across so far in these courses. I look forward to reading at least the first volume of The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy – probably not all 13!

Primary Sources

A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent

The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy (13 volumes!) by Orderic Vitalis


I thought to share because there are some great lectures online and works in the public domain concerning Medieval history.


Crusades, Medieval History

Review of Sacred Violence by Jill Claster

From Wikipedia. The Eastern Mediterranean after the Third Crusade (c. 1200)
From Wikipedia. The Eastern Mediterranean after the Third Crusade (c. 1200)

Early this month, I went on another of my book hunts at the university library. I found a history book on the Crusades, and after making sure that the Amazon reviews were mostly positive, I checked out Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East 1095-1396 by Jill N. Claster, professor emerita at New York University. Sacred Violence (2009) mostly covers the six crusades but ends with a discussion of other European wars that are frequently considered crusades by Medieval scholars. After reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe last month, I naturally became interested in the crusades. In particular, I wanted to know more about King Richard I of England (also known as Richard Coeur de Lion, or Richard the Lionhearted).

About King Richard I

Here is a summary of what Sacred Violence has to say about the life and legacy of King Richard I:

Richard I was crowned king of England in September 1189, during the Third Crusades. After the death of his father, Henry II, the newly crowned King Richard left England and set off for the Holy Land with the French King Philip II Augustus. Financing all the crusades was a costly undertaking. Henry II and Philip II had imposed crusade taxes on all their people, save knights and the clergy. After building a navy and touring Europe, King Richard finally left for the East. Along the way, the English king got into a shipwreck and had his supplies stolen by the Cypriots. So, Richard conquered Cyprus. Acquiring Cyprus helped the crusaders send supplies easily to the Holy Land. Richard and Philip then sailed to Acre and besieged it. The Ayyubid Emperor Saladin agreed to give Acre to the two European kings under certain conditions which Philip and Richard accepted. But, when Saladin did not fulfill his end of the deal, Richard hanged 2700 Turks.

Richard next set off for Jerusalem. He wanted to take it but because his supplies were limited, he did not. Richard I and Saladin signed a treaty whereby Christians could travel and live in Jerusalem for almost 3.5 years.  All coastal cities were given to the Franks, but Ascalon was under Muslim rule. Without Ascalon, the Christian capital was now at Acre. The Third Crusades came to an end.

Richard returned home in October 1192, but was captured and made prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Once he was released, Richard fought against Philip II . He was shot by an arrow and died on April 6, 1199. Richard the Lionhearted became a legendary figure in England. A statue was erected in his honor in the nineteenth century. Although Richard killed thousands of Turks, he has gone down in history as a man of great courage and determination.

What did I think about it?

Sacred Violence is a very balanced account of the crusades. It is well-written and beautiful. The many photos of Medieval artwork enhance the text. Dr. Claster refers to and quotes a few important medieval chroniclers, including Fulcher of Chartres and William of Tyre. Claster shows how crusading ideology changed over time from a purely religious endeavor to one that was more politically motivated. It is interesting to note that, after the end of the sixth crusade, many Templars were burned at the stake for their sins. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a great preacher of the crusades. He formed the Templars, influenced papal decrees, and inspired Church councils. I plan to read his book, In Praise of the New Knighthood in April or May. Reading Sacred Violence is at once enjoyable and disturbing. Written for undergraduates, it is not pedantic. It is a fantastic contribution to medieval and crusade scholarship.

Favorite Quote

[Taken from Volume III of Sir Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades]: “The triumphs of the crusades were triumphs of faith. But faith without wisdom is a dangerous thing…There was so much courage and so little honor, so much devotion and so little understanding.”