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!

Anonymous, Medieval Literature, Poetry

Review of The Crowning of Louis

What was it about?

The Crowning of Louis: A New Translation of the Old French Verse Epic is an epic poem of the William of Orange Cycle, translated from the Old French by the independent researcher Nirmal Dass.Written around 1130, Le Couronnement de Louis recounts Count William Shortnose’s many battles in defense of Pope Hadrian I and King Louis the Pious. Count William, like Roland of The Song of Roland, is a great warrior who protects the young king-elect Louis from traitors who wish to take the throne. At the same time, the Saracens seek to overthrow the papacy and win Rome. This epic poem is chock full of insults and bloody battles fought int the name of God and King.

What did I think of it?

The Crowning of Louis is an obscure epic poem that I borrowed from my university’s research library. While there is nothing outstanding about the story itself, I definitely enjoyed the poem. I started reading it at a coffee shop, but I had to leave after reading the first few pages because I couldn’t stop laughing. So many scenes read like something from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In one battle scene, King William lops off his opponent’s limbs, but, out of mercy, doesn’t kill him. Instead, William and the king embrace each other and depart in peace only to meet again later on horseback! Clearly, the poet had amnesia. The pope’s first challenger, King Galafrez, refers to the Bishop of Rome as the “great lord of the large hat” (vs. 475). King Galafrez promises him, “I shall roast you over coals in a hearth/ Till your liver falls on the heap of coals” (vs. 542-543). The humor is sky high. If you like Medieval battles, you will enjoy The Crowning of Louis. Unfortunately, there are no new copies available online. However, there are some cheap, used copies available on Amazon. It’s amazing what the characters are willing to do in the name of God.

Favorite Quote

All of Rome then cried out in one loud voice,
Along with the Pope, who shook with great dread:
“Saint Peter, lord, protect now your champion.
If he dies, you will be badly reproached.
In your church, where I now presently live,
I shall not sing Mass or read the lessons.” (vs. 1060-1065)