Medieval Works, Miscellaneous

Other stuff I read this year…

I haven’t made too many posts this year. This is mostly because I have very peculiar research interests that I doubt too many followers of Exploring Classics care much about: late medieval and early modern religion and philosophy. I’ve read 33 books this year, but I haven’t written reviews for even half of them. And I don’t think I will. But in case you’re interested, here’s a list of some of my favorites this year in no particular order:

1) The Middle Ages by Johannes Fried (here is an extract)

Image result for the middle ages johannes fried

If you want a good introduction to the Middle Ages, this is it. In a little over 600 pages, Fried covers a lot of ground without being superficial. The author is professor emeritus of medieval history at the University of Frankfurt; he is a leading historian in the field. Most recently, he published a massive introduction to Charlemagne, which I hope to get to soon. The Middle Ages traces major philosophical, religious, artistic, technological, and political movements through the ages. Particular emphasis is on the history of the Germanic lands. England and Scandinavia get scant treatment. The political sections were also admittedly hard to understand because Fried, unfortunately, does not supply us with any maps. Still, this is the best introduction to the Middle Ages I’ve ever encountered. Fried’s thesis is that what we now call the Middle Ages actually paved the way for the 18th century Enlightenment. Medievalists know that Fried is right, but the average reader still thinks of the Middle Ages as barbaric and dark. The Middle Ages is definitely the best book on this time period you will find in the bookstore. Most popular books on the Middle Ages are just plain awful.

2) Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown

Brown’s 1968 biography of the great bishop of Hippo spearheaded modern Augustinian studies. Peter Brown is a big name in Late Antiquity, and this biography is well-written and engrossing. It has been cited by every Augustine scholar since. Augustine is definitely the most influential and controversial Christian thinker in the West. He is responsible for the bitter debates Christians have had in the past 1600 years about original sin, predestination, grace, the human will, and church and state. But it is Augustine the man whom Peter Brown concerns himself with the most. By the end of the book you feel like you’ve known Augustine your whole life. I have never read a greater biography.

3) Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

Image result for confessions augustine maria

Phenomenal work! I especially loved Augustine’s commentary on true vs. false mercy, memory, and the limitations of language to talk about a reality.

O God, most high, most deep, and yet nearer than all else, most hidden yet intimately present, you are not framed of greater and lesser limbs; you are everywhere, whole and entire in every place, but confined to none. In no sense is our bodily form to be attributed to you, yet you have made us in your own image, and lo! here we are, from head to foot set in our place!

My 16 year-old self hated it for its intellectualism and pessimism. But my 24 year-old self loved the brutal honesty and humanity of this autobiography.

4) Archbishop Anselm: Bec Missionary, Canterbury Primate, Patriarch of Another World by Sally N. Vaughn

Image result for archbishop anselm: bec missionary, canterbury

Archbishop Anselm is one of the most recent books in the Archbishops of Canterbury series, and it is written by the living Anselm scholar, Sally Vaughn. While Anselm is mostly known as a scholastic, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury under the 2nd and 3rd Norman kings William Rufus and Henry I. As bishop, he was involved in the 12th century Investiture Controversy. Vaughn has spent decades studying Anselm’s archiepiscopal career. While Richard Southern argued that Anselm was reluctant to assume the office, Vaughn insists that Anselm always desired it. Archbishop Anselm is a masterpiece of historical criticism. Vaughn demonstrates convincingly that what Southern took on face value was actually a trope concealing Anselm’s true intentions. The weakest section of the book is the one on Anselm’s scholastic writings, written mostly while the bishop was in exile. Vaughn fails to consider Anselm’s writings in the context of older thinkers, such as Augustine of Hippo, but that is not Vaughn’s main concern in this book. Much has already been written about Anselm’s theological views. It’s his archiepiscopal career that we know less about, so Vaughn has done us a great service. Never before published letters from Anselm to monks, kings, and popes are also included in Latin and modern English in the appendix.

5) The Friars: The Impact of the Mendicant Orders on Medieval Society by C.H. Lawrence

The Friars by C.H. Lawrence

The title is pretty self-explanatory. This is a brief introduction to the history of the friars from the 13th century to the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Lawrence not only introduces us to the Catholic mendicants, he also discusses the radical preachers in the same time period who were condemned as heretics. Most people don’t realize that Francis of Assisi was not the first preacher of radical poverty. There were literally hundreds in his lifetime. Many were heavily persecuted, such as the Waldensians, Albertines, Humiliati, and Albigensians. The new Franciscans were not embraced with open arms either. Pope John XXII condemned Franciscan poverty as heretical, claiming that Christ and his disciples owned property. William of Ockham, in nominalist fashion, condemned the pope as an anti-pope, was excommunicated, and lived under the protection of the not-so Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (he was excommunicated 4 times!) until his death. Ockham may have been rehabilitated before his death, but his life bore witness to the tension existing in Late Medieval Catholicism on the eve of the Reformation when a whole new wave of radical and magisterial preachers emerged. The friars contributed to the spirituality, intellectual advancements, horrors, and scandals of the late medieval world.

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!

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.