From Classical Rome to the English Renaissance: The Development of Christian Culture Portrayed in Four Recent Books


Brother Anthony (안선재)


Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200 - 1000, Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell. 2003. 625 pages. ISBN 0-631-22137-9 (hbk) 0-631-22138-7 (pbk)

R. W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell

Volume 1: Foundations. 1995. xxi, 330 pages. ISBN 0-631-19111-9 (hbk) 0-63120527-6 (pbk)

Volume 2: The Heroic Age. 2000. 228 pages. ISBN 0-631-19112-7 (hbk) 0-631-220798-8 (pbk)

James Simpson, 1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution. Oxford University Press. 2003. 661 pages. ISBN 0-19-818261-9 (hbk) 0-19-926553-4 (pbk)

Dee Dyas, Images of Faith in English Literature 700 – 1500: An Introduction. London: Longman, 1997. 332 pages. ISBN 0-582-30192-0 (hbk) 0-582-30191-2 (pbk)


It can reasonably be claimed that medieval and renaissance European literature cannot be properly understood without a considerable knowledge of not only its historical and intellectual contexts but above all its religious backgrounds and history, the evolutions of the forms of life, teaching and worship which the Christian Church practiced at the time each work was written. Religion and literature interact with one another in subtle and complex ways, and both evolve with changes in society in the course of history.

Each of these recently published books offers rich sources of new information and insight, and is well worth reading, although the last in the list is aimed at a much wider, less specialized audience than the others. Each will be of particular interest to those reading works of medieval and renaissance literature and wishing to learn more about the development and transformations of religion and thought in the world in which that literature arose. And each of them is a sign of a considerable transformation in recent scholarship. It is certain, after all, that mistaken stereotypes of historical backgrounds will lead to misreadings of literary works; while rereadings of history serve to encourage rereadings of the literary works inherited from history.

Peter Brown is Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. His main area of study is that known as Late Antiquity, the period of transition from the Roman Empire to the early Middle Ages. In 1996 he published the first edition of The Rise of Western Christendom, and it was hailed as an authoritative work. Yet only six years later, the author felt that so much new research had been published, with such far-reaching consequences for the overall picture, that he produced this radically revised Second Edition. The result is a work of amazing scope. First, in time it sheds dazzling light on every aspect of the eight hundred years that used to be designated with the negative term “The Dark Ages.” Second, it evokes the spread of Christian faith not only to the western and northern limits of Europe but to the deserts of the Middle East where it soon found itself challenged by the Islam that could hardly have arisen without it. Inevitably, in 488 pages of text, it can only present a mosaic of details but its 44 pages of Bibliography suggest clearly how firmly it is based in modern scholarship.

The first millennium of Christian history may seem far away, yet many of the questions confronting today’s world about the way in which faith relates to culture were equally significant then. In particular, anyone interested in the historical development of Christian culture will need to read this book. Its first merit is to extend its scope beyond the frontiers of western Europe. Too often, the modern world sees only a partial, distorted picture of Christian history. The generally familiar, outdated narrative focuses almost entirely on the fortunes of the regions that later came to be known as France and England, from the names of the Germanic groups that took control of them. Once the integrated structure of the Roman Empire collapsed in Western Europe after the capture of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, by the Huns in 453, by the Vandals in 455, with Christian faith later spreading from England to Germany, a unified Western Europe was foreshadowed under Charlemagne before the evolution of an international culture known as the Gothic in the Middle Ages. Italy then returns to the picture as source of the Renaissance, before the cultural division between South and North known as the Reformation prepares for the westward expansion of a now divided religious tradition, south-western Europe introducing its Catholicism to South America while northern Europe produced the largely Protestant society of North America.

Today, if educated people in Korea, the United States or Western Europe are asked “When did the Roman Empire end?” they will mostly still refer to Edward Gibbon’s vision and locate the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” somewhere after 400. Almost no-one even thinks to mention the uninterrupted continuity of the main Roman Empire, that well before Alaric entered Rome in 410 had turned its back on Italy and was firmly centered in New Rome, Constantinople. To the east of Italy, the Roman Empire, though much weakened, cannot be said to have ended until May 29, 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. It is amazing what an iron curtain exists in people’s perceptions of Europe, to make them discount completely a full thousand years of Christian, Roman culture simply because it expressed itself in Greek and (later) Slavonic instead of Latin and (later) Germanic.

The story of the untroubled continuity of a high, sophisticated culture in the Eastern Empire seems to be less appealing to modern minds than the traditional account of western European history, according to which the collapse of Rome was caused by “Barbarian Hordes” who were then left in sole control of the world, except for small islands of religious, Christian culture within the walls of monasteries. Out of these monasteries, the most familiar historical narrative tells, emerged missionaries armed with books, who brought the message of Christian civilization to rough, hairy barbarians who knew nothing beyond their own intensely traditional, ethnic cultures.

The main importance of Brown’s work is the way in which it challenges this kind of stereotype of older history, and also the way in which it reminds us of how little we reflect on what we think we know. Many of my students still seem to believe that the entire Middle Ages was a Dark Age, in part perhaps because the religious culture was entirely Catholic. A lot of people too readily believe that Imperial Rome was marked by a high level of literary and artistic culture, which simply vanished with the collapse of the Empire. There have also been a number of historians in recent decades who have claimed that the cities around the Mediterranean continued to prosper until the Arab conquest of Carthage of 698, to such an extent that the fall of Rome and the collapse of the empire’s structures in the west made almost no real difference. According to them, it was the arrival of the Arabs that provoked the displacement of the center from Rome to Aachen with the rise of Charlemagne. This, Brown points out, has now been disproved by archeology. The population of Rome passed from 500,000 to 50,000 in the century after 450 and every indication suggests that by the year 600 the whole of the former western Empire was in complete economic collapse.

There is, he points out, nothing to link this collapse with the “barbarian” invasions. Rather, it suggests that the later Roman Empire with its well-organized collection of taxes and the large-scale redistribution of the wealth thus created through the support given to the armies, the governing classes, and the cities, constituted an economic system that was bound to experience a general economic collapse once its center and the structures depending on it stopped functioning. Once the city of Rome ceased being the center of a steady flow of wealth and active power, there was nothing left to hold everything together, no dynamic hub around which everything was articulated and unified. As a result, in Italy and Spain, Northern Africa, Gaul and Britain people quite suddenly found themselves left to their own devices; responsibility for every aspect of government was tossed into their laps at the immediate, local level with no clearly defined source of authority above.

It is probably significant that almost nobody today recalls that the last emperor of the west, ironically named Romulus Augustulus, only resigned in 476. By that time, the process of regional fragmentation was complete. It took its most extreme form in Britain, where the withdrawal of the Roman army and the collapse of the economic system seems to have led people very quickly to abandon urban life completely. Brown puts it very simply: “the economy of the entire island of Britain (and, on suspects, of other areas of western Europe) rapidly lost its sophisticated Roman face. Britain slipped back into conditions more brutally simplified even than the Iron Age societies which had preceded the coming of the Romans. ... The towns stood largely empty, without coins and without extensive trade even in objects as simple to produce and to move around as pottery. Former luxury villas were turned into farmhouses.” (126) This collapse, which used to be attributed to the invasions of Saxons and other “barbarians” is now seen to have been the event which provided a context in which they were able to gradually penetrate, profiting from the chaos in which local warlords, still more or less Christian and with a veneer of Roman culture, fought each other for control of a hillside or two.

Brown reminds us that from the time of Constantine the later Roman empire in the west saw the rise of a new social class, most easily termed an “aristocracy,” living in luxurious villas on huge estates and asserting their power by an almost imperial lifestyle that changed little when they became Christians. Parallel to this, but in the cities, the last century of the Empire saw the development of a new power structure that was soon to prove of immense significance in many regions, the Christian clergy around their bishop. The bridge between these two groups, in Gaul at least, was provided by the monastic life.

In the history of Christianity, no institution has been more influential than the monastery. Brown reminds us how the first monks represented a new, charismatic, radical form of Christianity that arose in the countrysides of Egypt and Syria at a time when the urban Christians were living over-comfortable Roman lives. In 270, the year in which Constantine was born, Anthony went out into the desert where, by 310, his asceticism and triumphant battles with demons had become famous. Around him and other such “hermits” the first monastic communities formed. Urban Christians across the Empire had begun to sense that their affluent life-styles in “the World” were far from what the Gospels demanded. As soon as Anthony died in 356, the book telling the story of his heroic life appeared and was soon translated into Latin. As Brown says, “Seldom had codices containing the history of obscure foreigners provoked such moral landslides in the lives of influential Romans.” (82) In 386, a year before his baptism, the as yet unconverted Augustine was deeply impressed by news of the lives of the monks.

Soon monasteries imitating those of Egypt were being established in Gaul. In 400, a monastery was founded on the island of Lérins that took the young sons of local aristocrats, trained them in prayer and humility, and sent them out to become bishops in the towns of Provence. In 420 and 426, John Cassian, who had come to live in Marseilles after decades in Egypt, wrote two books describing Egyptian monasticism. In 529, Benedict moved to Monte Cassino from Subiaco and there wrote a rule designed to be less impossibly demanding than the heroic austerities of Egypt. By the year 600, Gaul had at least 220 monasteries while Italy counted over 100.

Brown helps us realize how, after the centralized Roman Empire ceased to function, responsibility for what happened to “society” fell on the local aristocrats in rural areas and on the bishops in the cities. While the aristocrats tended to wage war in order to assert their power, the bishops found themselves expected to act as judges, governors, and providers of social services. At the same time, everywhere there was the complicating factor of the non-Roman foreigners. Many, like the Saxons in Britain or the Lombards in Italy, had been present inside the frontiers for a long time. Others came moving in, more or less aggressively, but almost always they rapidly sought to become part of Roman society. The destructive “barbarian” invasions simply did not happen.

The great turning point in the development of European Christianity, and the entire culture associated with it, Brown sees as occurring between 550 and 650, after the old Roman world with its older form of Christianity has ceased to exist. In 550, Cassiodorus moved his library into the monastery he had founded on his large estate at Vivarium in south-eastern Italy, intending that the monks should copy, circulate and expound the great Christian Latin classics at a time when widespread financial collapse meant that Latin was no longer being taught in the cities of Italy. In 590, the Roman aristocrat Gregory became the pope later known as Gregory the Great, who once wrote that “God’s mighty whisper fills the universe, seeking a way into every soul.” In that same year, the Irish missionary monk Columbanus arrived in northern Gaul, bringing the Irish forms of monastic life and spirituality. In 597, Gregory sent a group of Roman missionary monks to Kent, led by Augustine. And while Gregory was pope, in the deserts of Arabia Muhammad began his search for God.

Those three events, Brown suggests, changed forever the face of Christendom. “Between A.D. 550 and 650, Western Christianity finally took on the face which it would wear throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. “Our” Christianity was created in the seventh century and not before (. . .) This mutation did not involve a change of doctrine. It was based, rather, on a profound change in the imagination. The result was nothing less than a new view of sin, of atonement, and of the other world, which, in turn, laid the basis for a distinctive notion of the individual person and of his or her fate after death. These remained central concerns of western Christianity up to the Reformation and beyond. On these issues, western Christians of around the year 700 had begun to think and to feel in a manner that made them closer to us than they were to western Christians of an earlier time.” (220-221)

For those of us with an interest in literary culture, it is important to note that Brown takes the year 600 as marking the final victory of the spoken, rustic “Roman” language derived from Latin over Greek and the previous vernaculars in western North Africa and across all the regions that had once been part of the Roman Empire, except for Britain. Out of it arose Italian, the Spanish languages, Portuguese and the various forms of French. Ironically at just the same moment, as noted above, the pre-Christian, classical Latin language with its related literary tradition was ceasing to be taught. That classical culture, utterly familiar to Augustine and that since the Renaissance has meant so much to Christian humanists, could not survive the disappearance of the city-run schools which produced the highly educated ruling class. “This happened in part because the old alliance between classical culture and the exercise of power was weakened. In the later empire, highly educated civilians had acted, as it were, as a Mandarin class, spread all over the empire. (. . . ) They passed on the commands of rough men – of military emperors and, later, of “barbarian” kings—in acceptable old-fashioned form.” By 600 this system had broken down because young members of aristocratic families realized that they would gain more influence and power by following a military career (they were later to be known as barons and knights) than by studying Latin rhetoric. At the same time, leading Christians like Gregory, who had themselves been educated in the Latin classical tradition, more and more turned away from it as “worldly wisdom.” This is all part of the same great cultural change mentioned above, in which the great concern was what Gregory termed moralitas: “the transformation of the self, through the amendment of sinful habits and the development of “compunction” – a sharp stirring of the heart which fostered the love of God.” (236)

Brown might have stressed more than he does the fact that in 567 a highly educated Italian, Venantius Fortunatus, came to visit northern and western Gaul. He ended his life as Bishop of Poitiers, some time after 600, at about the same time as Gregory the Great. He was  a great master of classical Latin prosody, the author of eleven volumes of occasional verse and as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes, “Venantius may be regarded ‘not as the last of the Romans but as the first of the medieval poets’ (Raby). The technique of his poetry was that of classical antiquity handled with exceptional formal skill, but the emotional and cultural content were imbued with the Christianized spirit of the Middle Ages. He was the first Christian poet to express himself in terms of erotic mysticism.” (1685) In many ways he exemplifies the dramatic new beginning that Brown evokes with great subtlety at the heart of his work. “By the year A.D. 700, Western Christianity had taken on features which would continue from that time until the present day: a highly individualized notion of the soul and a lively concern for its fate in the afterlife; a linking of the Mass to a notion of the “deliverance” of the soul, which opened the way to the medieval doctrine of Purgatory; a widespread emphasis on confession as a remedy for sin; a landscape dotted with prestigious and well-endowed monasteries. Little of this had been there in around the year 500.” (265)

In the mid-20th century, scholars began to talk of a “Carolingian Renaissance” under Charlemagne and Brown stresses that this term is likely to cause misunderstandings, for unlike the later Humanist Renaissance, no interest was shown in the classical writings of ancient Greece and Rome. What the scholars of the time, such as the Englishman Alcuin, wished to claim was that Charles had restored something like the Christian Roman empire of Constantine and Theodosius, the Latin, Christian culture that had produced Jerome and Augustine. “Hence our modern word, “Renaissance,” fails to describe what the Carolingians intended to do. It was not their aim to conjure up the world of “classical” Rome as if from the grave. Their Christian culture did not need to be “reborn” for the simple reason that they did not think that it had died. It just needed to be reasserted. Their chosen term, therefore, was correctio – “correcting, shaping up, getting things in order again.” (439-40) The reason for Alcuin’s anxiety about possible failings in Charlemagne’s Christian culture lay in north-eastern England, where bands of Vikings had begun to plunder the richly adorned churches. He saw those commercially motivated acts as a divine punishment for laxity, the Vikings being sent as a “scourge of God.”

Brown shows, then, first how the aristocrats stopped learning Latin, leaving the care of studying it and using it in administration to the clerks who learned it in the monastery schools. At the same time, almost all educated churchmen were convinced that classical, pagan Latin writings had virtually nothing to offer. Their interest was in the writings of Christian authors such as Augustine, and in the Latin Bible. Near the end of his book, Brown explains why what we know as “literature” reappears first in lands that had not known, or had not retained, the old Roman gods—Iceland, Scandinavia, Ireland, England and Germany. The ruling aristocracy of these lands exercised their authority according to traditions inherited from past centuries, before Christianity came. The Christian kings of all the tribes in Anglia, for example, proudly boasted of their descent from the god Woden; this descent justified their peculiar royal status, that was not dependent on their individual deeds. Likewise in Ireland, the lawyers and poets depended on inspiration by gods, not on mere books. The way in which an earlier Church had rejected the gods of Greece, Rome and the Middle East as false, mere agents of Satan, demons, could not be followed here because authority and tradition were based on them, they were good.

As a result, the gods, their stories and all the traditional social forms related to them remained present after conversion to Christianity. What changed was the transfer of memory from minds to books. The Church brought writing and “it was the clergy who went out of their way to consign to writing – and so have made available to us – all that we know of the pre-Christian narratives, the poetry, and the laws of Ireland, England, Scandinavia, and Germany. They did this, of course, on their own terms. The act of writing, in itself, was an act of discreet censorship. But write they did. And they wrote because knowledge of such things was considered to b essential to law and order and to their own status in society. Those who wrote down the legends and poetry of the pre-Christian past in Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, and Iceland were not grudging recorders, catching in written words the last vestiges of a pagan mythology doomed to extinction by the coming of the Christian Church. The situation was not like that at all. Rather, Christian monks and clergyman should be seen as the last great myth-makers of northern Europe. They transformed a living pagan past, so as to use it in their own Christian present.” (476)

What Brown neglects to stress is the fact that these clerks mostly did not write in Latin but used the vernacular that had until then not been written. The Icelandic and Scandinavian sagas, Beowulf, and much else have only come down to us because of this process. Brown points out that in Germany, Einhard tells us that Charlemagne had ordered “the unwritten laws of all the tribes that came under his rule to be compiled and reduced to writing. He also directed that the age-old, non-Latin poems in which were celebrated the warlike deeds of the kings of ancient times should be written out and preserved” (Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne 29). Alas, Charlemagne’s son grew up in southern France and felt no pride in pagan Germanic epics; the poems did not survive. Much else, too, did not survive. As Brown stresses, Beowulf survives by chance in a single manuscript and assumes that its readers are familiar with some twenty other, related stories that have mostly not survived. Most important, the transformation of tales from the pagan past into tales for a Christian present by Christian clerks was the first sign of the rebirth of “secular” vernacular literature in the heroic chansons de geste and the romances of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Brown’s work offers far more than this. Perhaps the most fascinating parts for many readers will be those devoted to the history of Christianity far to the east, in the Middle East, during and after the rise of Islam. In today’s world it is no longer possible to remain unaware of the origins and history of such a major religious tradition as Islam. In addition, today’s Catholic and Protestant Christians often know far too little of the history of the Eastern Churches, Orthodox and other, which is here evoked with admirable sympathy


Sir Richard Southern, the author of the two volumes so far published of our second title, died aged eighty-eight in February 2001. He was the greatest medieval historian of modern Britain, at least. His main interest was the development of European society and intellectual life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In 1953 he published his best known work, The Making of the Middle Ages. Written while he was recovering from tuberculosis, this book has been translated into twenty-seven languages, no mean achievement for a far-from-easy study of a very obscure period of European history! From 1969 until 1981, he was president of St. John’s College, Oxford. In his retirement he wrote and published his great study of Robert Grosseteste, Robert Grosseteste: the Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe in 1985, followed by the equally remarkable Saint Anselm: a Portrait in a Landscape in 1990. As if that were not enough, in 1995 he published the first volume of Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe: Foundations, which was followed in 1999 by the second volume, The Heroic Age. The third, posthumous volume is promised for the end of 2003.

The first volume is summarized by the publishers as follows: “The first volume describes the beginnings, in the years between about 1100 and 1160, where the main lines of scholastic thought were laid down and its agenda established. It examines the intellectual principles of enquiry and the sources used in developing the whole field of assured knowledge. It seeks to provide an understanding of the new outlook on the world, on the supernatural and on organized Christian society, and to show why this proved so powerful and so attractive to the time. The book explores the social, intellectual and political developments that provided the conditions to create the new system in the great schools of learning in France and Italy.”

The second volume’s summary says: “This volume focuses on the period during which scholars developed the fully-fledged method of absorbing, elaborating, Christianizing and systematizing the whole intellectual deposit of the past to produce a complete body of doctrine about both the natural and supernatural worlds which would be not only rationally unassailable and doctrinally coherent, but also capable of being given practical application in organizing and governing the whole of western Christendom. The book discusses the contributions of individual masters involved in the intellectual project, tracing the progress of the enterprise from its scholastic origins under Anselm of Laon, to the main masters in the schools of Paris during the 1090s to c.1160, including men such as Peter Lombard, Peter Abelard, John of Salisbury and the two Peters of Blois. These scholars created a crucial bond between the schools and organized life of European society. The men educated in the great schools during this time brought their scholastic learning to governmental aims and activities, extending the influence of the schools and their intellectual project to the wider world.”

In many ways, the reasons for reading Southern’s books are the same as for the first. All three volumes tell a story that is simply fundamental for any understanding of the literary and intellectual development of Western Europe. The work of Southern begins almost directly after the end of Brown’s and serves as an admirable though unintended continuation. Brown showed how the economic decline of urban life, followed by increasing insecurity and armed conflicts between different groups brought about the disappearance of Latin culture among the upper ranks of secular society. Schooling in Latin continued only within the church and men who emerged from the local cathedral or monastic schools might either become churchmen or go to serve the kings and great lords as secretaries and legal advisors. During the ninth century, Ireland, Britain and western France experienced destructive invasions by pagans from the north, from Denmark and Norway, later to be known as Vikings. Recovery from the destruction they wrought took time and in England the vernacular virtually replaced Latin for decades, even in legal documents, before rebuilt monasteries began again to be capable of .teaching Latin and producing new copies of fundamental texts.

It is perhaps not possible to explain just how the decline was halted and reversed. Yet it is obvious that by the mid-twelfth century, western Europe had entered into a phase of remarkable expansion, economic and intellectual. It seems to have been accompanied by a rapid increase in population. Some now suggest that wealth first began to grow in the rural areas, benefiting the great landowners, and that the demands of rich lords for more “consumer products” first encouraged the growth of towns as manufacturing centers. From about 1000 onward, in parts of France we find increasingly large and luxuriously appointed castles serving as the homes of aristocrats. By the early twelfth century, large stone churches have begun to appear, including that of the monastery at Cluny with its hundreds of choir monks.

Towns expand, new skills and technologies appear, new questions begin to preoccupy men’s minds. Southern’s first volume begins with the time before and just after 1100, when cathedrals and monasteries in France were mostly very small, usually having a single Master whose task was to provide basic instruction to would-be priests and clerks. Throughout the eleventh century, there was almost always one teacher somewhere in northern France of sufficient note to attract students from other countries. By 1140, the school in Paris already has 12 masters.

Our interest as students and teachers of the interaction of literature, and therefore of written culture, with religion, is bound to center on the way in which the teachers of this particular moment initiated the process by which the institutions later known as ‘universities’ arose and in them the great synthesis later known as Scholasticism arose. From one point of view, Scholasticism was abolished by the new currents of thought and faith introduced at the time of the ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Reformation’ but as Southern says, “it should be recognized that, despite the contempt of intellectuals, a large part of the teaching of the medieval schools continued to influence the thoughts and conduct of the majority of people in western Europe on both sides of the great divide between Roman Catholic and Protestant until the twentieth century, when the long-lasting tincture of scholastic principles which had survived among the great mass of the population of western Europe began to disappear altogether.” (1)

As Southern makes plain in his initial discussion, there is a great misunderstanding about the nature of scholasticism: “The great intellectual achievement of the schools and the works which they produced in the two centuries after 1100, was vastly to extend the area of rational investigation into every branch of human life and cosmic being. The scholastic programme did not indeed seek to exclude the supernatural. Quite the opposite: it required the supernatural as a necessary completion of the natural world. But this extension did not diminish the area of rational investigation: it simply added a further dimension to the complexity and richness of the scene of human life. Modern secular humanists, therefore, even though they differ from their medieval predecessors in excluding the supernatural from their area of enquiry, can still find in the schools of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries their direct ancestors.” (18-19) The revolutionary new direction that the schools followed, almost without realizing it, was an almost complete faith in the capacity of the human mind to understand everything. “I believe that the scholastic development of the period from about 1050 to the end of the thirteenth century represents the first great age of a humanism which is scientific rather than literary in character and aim. (. . .) the scholarly humanism of the early twelfth century should be regarded, not as the first short-lived expression of Renaissance-type humanism, but as the first expression of a scientific humanism which went on developing for two hundred years until it was submerged in a sea of doubts and contradictions in the schools of the early fourteenth century, to reappear with very different pre-suppositions in the scientific developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (. . .) It is this which makes it the great precursor of modern scientific humanism.” (21-2)

Perhaps the finest expression of the importance of the story Southern tells is to be found in the following words: The continuing human power to recognize the grandeur and splendor of the universe, to understand the principles of the organization of nature, and to order human life in accordance with nature, is symptomatic of the survival of human dignity, in however depleted a form, after the Fall. But it is also symptomatic of the continuing dignity of the natural world itself that it is intelligible.” (23) In his wonderfully elegant prose, Southern goes on to show that this great intellectual adventure was initially based in two separate cities. For philosophical and theological thought, the center was Paris. For the application of this vision in society through law, the center was in Italy, at Bologna. Many earlier historians have claimed that there was a “school of Chartres” and much of Southern’s first volume is devoted to his ongoing struggle against this idea.

The second volume is then mainly devoted to detailed studies of the great teachers and writers who formulated the fundamental ideas of the great synthetic system that finally crumbled under the weight of its own discoveries, some familiar and some not. Following the life and works of such men as Hugh of Saint Victor, Abelard, Peter Lombard, John of Salisbury and two men with the same name, Peter of Blois, Southern shows how knowledge about God, mankind, and nature was systematized and made the basis of a coherent vision that determined how the Church and secular society were to be governed in harmony with Christian faith. To the men of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it seemed that an answer might to found to every question men might ask. Southern only lightly suggests how in the end there appeared more and more questions to which answers could not be found and this finally brought the system into disrepute.

His main claim, and it must speak to us since it combines the religious and the literary, is that “Thomas Aquinas and Dante are the two greatest interpreters of the scholastic tradition in which human beings are given a fully intelligible place in a universe in which order has been extracted from disorder. (. . .) (According to Dante) in the natural order, reason rules and makes the universe intelligible; and reason also certifies the human need to seek eternal satisfaction in the realm beyond reason. Reason, therefore, testifies both to the autonomy of nature and to the necessity for that which above nature. This is the humanism of the medieval schools. It is as far removed from the élitism of Renaissance humanism as it is from the godlessness of modern secular humanism; but whether we consider its inherent grandeur or its influence on the future, it has a good claim to be considered the most important kind of humanism Europe has ever produced.” (44) Southern writes, of course, as a deeply convinced Christian.

Yet despite the greatness and enduring reputation of Dante, Southern locates the first rejection of the scholastic method in Italy, in the fourteenth century, with Petrarch the first leader of the revolt: “there emerged a new kind of humanism which was concerned, not with exploring an ever-growing area of systematic intelligibility and of general well-being, but with the perfecting of individual sensibility among a social élite. Petrarch, who above all stood for this new kind of humanism in the mid-fourteenth century, looked back with disillusionment at the achievements of the last two centuries. (. . . ) The hopes of the past had to be buried. But such hopes are never buried with simple, quiet resignation: they have to be buried with scorn and derision, and a certain sense of betrayal. Hence the change of mood which set in during the middle of the fourteenth century gradually hardened during the next two centuries into a fixed belief that the clerical schools of what came contemptuously to be envisaged as a trough between two periods of civilization – and therefore dismissively called the Middle Ages—with their formalized procedures and legalistic distinctions, were not simply the agents of a great failure, but the promoters of a great deception.” (55-6)

Southern concludes his initial summary with words that help prepare for the third volume: “the way was open for the cultivation of sensibility and personal virtue, and the nostalgic vision of an ancient Utopia revealed in classical literature. Instead of the confident and progressive scholastic humanism of the central Middle Ages. the new humanism retreated into the individual, and consequently into the aristocracy of privileged individuals and the constellation of scholars and artists whom they supported. The aristocracy replaced the clergy as the guardians of culture; and literature and observation replaced systematic theology and science.” (56)


James Simpson, currently Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the Univeristy of Cambridge, was invited to write a volume for a new “Oxford English Literary History” that would replace the old Volume 3 of the previous “Oxford History of English Literature” series, C. S. Lewis’s “The Renaissance.” Only Simpson’s volume covers the years 1350 – 1547 and thus includes most of the major writers of Middle English literature, while stopping in 1547 before such “Renaissance” writers as Spenser or Sidney were born. Underlying and justifying this selection of dates is an awareness of a need to locate transformations of what we call “literature” within the processes of social history. In earlier times, until quite late in the twentieth century, people were happy to divide literary history into a series of clearly distinct “periods” established on the basis of stylistic, aesthetic differences. Few questions were asked about the way in which one period ceased and another began. This is no longer possible and everyone now who reads any history knows that the periods of revolution and transition are turning points, not divides, so that both the “before” and the “after” need to be considered together.

Simpson has selected 1350 as his starting point because it marks “a newly articulate vernacularity with which the cultural revolution of the 1350s had to contend. And the death of Henry VIII in 1547 marked the beginning of a vertiginously volatile period of cultural change.” (2) He explains: “The chronological choice of this volume is made in the conviction that we stand to learn a great deal more about both the terms ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ by recognizing the historical interests that have defined the terms themselves to date. Periodic boundaries are not, so this book argues, great natural crevasses (. . .) As the terms within which we think historically, we should also recognize that they are themselves historically produced.” (3)

At the heart of Simpson’s book is a constant anguish. He is himself a medieval scholar, deeply versed in and attached to the literary and cultural legacy of those centuries. Yet in 1542, an Act was passed by the English Parliament that made it illegal for anyone to read any work of literature produced before 1540 except for the works of Chaucer and Gower. At the same time, the King’s servants had systematically begun to destroy the art of centuries accumulated in the churches, while the manuscripts, secular and religious, that had made up the libraries of the monasteries and cathedrals were discarded as so much rubbish. This entire process was at one level the outcome of a gradual polarization, which he describes, but at another level it was the result of a single factor, Henry VIII’s determination to be the single source of all law, and for that to abolish the past. The radical iconoclasm of these years, vandalism on a scale that is too painful to contemplate, is hard to understand in an age of cultural tourism, when large sums are spent repairing the ruins of the abbeys Henry destroyed. Therefore Simpson introduces a fundamental distinction between the terms “reformist” and “revolutionary.”

Simpson pursues the history of writing and reading literature through this tormented period in a series of chapters, the earlier ones devoted to “secular” literature: “The energies of John Lydgate,” then broad thematic coverage of the tragic, the elegiac, the political and the comic. These are followed by discussions of writing about the Church, religious, devotional life, and the Bible as such. Finally he covers drama. Each chapter covers a great variety of works, familiar and unfamiliar, displaying enormous erudition. Most interesting is the gradual emergence of a repeated pattern. As Simpson writes in his final Envoi: “the central perception of this book is as follows: concentrations of power that simplify institutional structures also simplify and centralize cultural practice, by stressing central control, historical novelty, and unity produced from the top down.” (558) He perceives in the literature written before the Henrician revolution a diversity and a freedom that he terms ‘reformist “by way of accentuating its inherently self-regulating energies. By contrast, ‘cultural revolution’ has been used to imply the wide range of cultural practices characteristic of those moments (. . .) in which power is suddenly centralized.” (559) Most challenging, he stresses: “long traditions praise both ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Reformation’ as moments, or as a moment, of liberation. This books is clearly skeptical of that case.” There is a clear, dramatic and not obviously positive break between the rich diversity that flourished in the relative freedom of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the rigidly codified, controlled and censored writing of the early modern period that began with Henry’s revolution.


After three such challenging, innovative and scholarly books, the fourth title may come as a relief, since it is written for a wide audience, students or teachers, needing help in understanding the religious background to the literary works of the pre-modern period. Dee Dyas is one of the founding members of the Christianity in the Humanities Project. The Project was born several years ago from a growing awareness that modern students in Britain and elsewhere lack knowledge of the relevant religious background for the study of art history, literature and history. This applies as much to the English Civil War, or Milton and Mansfield Park as to medieval studies, but the project concentrates on the medieval area. Actually, though universally acknowledged, the seemingly obvious prob­lem is a complex one, culturally, pedagogi­cally and ethically. Without some ways of giving students access to Chris­tian background, many texts will either silently be dropped from student choice or from the syllabus, or teachers find themselves teaching them through perspectives that avoid their religious elements.

This volume, in the very useful Longman Medieval and Renaissance Library, begins with three chapters devoted to the Christianity of pre-conquest England and its literature – on Beowulf, the elegies, the saints, and King Alfred. The remaining chapters, on Middle English writers, cover Langland and Chaucer, the mystics, the religious lyrics, the Pearl Poet, and the dramas. There are a series of brief sections offering extremely useful introductory accounts of the early Church, the Bible, the faith, worship and organization of the Church. Nowadays it is no longer possible to pretend that English students have received an education in basic Christianity; our Korean students are in the same situation and it might be helpful if this volume were translated into Korean. It could prove extremely helpful.