What shall we do with the Middle Ages?

Published in Medieval and Early Modern English Studies Vol. 15 No.1  (2007)

If we are being realistic, it must be admitted that the question, ‘what shall we / should we / can we / might we do with the middle ages?’ is hardly an urgent or frequently-asked one for most people in this pragmatic, utilitarian and future-oriented present age. And yet, in the world of computer games, at least, the medieval fantastic is reported to be alive and thriving, full of armored knights, dragons, and scantily-dressed maidens in distress. So all is not lost. At the same time, the word ‘medieval’ has recently, by and large, become a colloquial synonym for ‘benighted, obscurantist, unenlightened, barbaric,’ as a Google of ‘positively medieval’ soon shows. It is frequently applied by ‘enlightened’ westerners to the attitudes associated with Islamic fundamentalists, and the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics. If the ‘we’ of the title is restricted to the medievalists of Asia, we might turn the question into: ‘Is there anything at all that we are going to be able to do with the middle ages in the coming years?’ and given the present parlous state of literary studies and the Humanities in most Korean universities, the rather pessimistic overtones are surely fully justified.

I feel inclined to ask, nonetheless, ‘What more might I do with the middle ages than I have so far done?’ There is so much in the middle ages, when you stop and look at it closely. For myself, of course, there is another question: ‘What might I do with the middle ages, now that I am not going to be teaching it any longer?’ Retirement is not necessarily the end of the world, though it must serve as a reminder of the inescapable direction in which one’s life is headed. As George Waller wrote in his best poem:

The soul's dark cottage, batter'd and decay'd,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time hath made:
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view
That stand upon the threshold of the new.

             One of the most remarkable characteristics of the medieval is its creative capacity to provoke repeated reinventions, revivals, renewals, and paradoxically that seems to be linked to the fragile, fragmentary, ruined nature of so much that remains. I know that I would not be true to the personal experiences binding me to the middle ages if I did not recognize the fascination I felt as a child amidst the ruins of Glastonbury, or before the black marble lump in the centre of the quire in Winchester Cathedral said to mark the tomb of William Rufus, the king killed in the New Forest by an arrow nobody had shot. And all around, perched high on stone screens, the mingled remains of Anglo-Saxon kings lay mute in their painted chests. There were chantry chapels where the effigies of dead bishops were spendid but the altars had been smashed and no requiems were sung. Bare ruined quires . . . but with yet enough remaining to spur the imagination. In later years there were visits to the carved wooden screens in Dunster church in Somerset, the extraordinary roodloft in Atherington, the delicate alabaster of the Annunciation in Wells Cathedral, spared because it was set in a tomb, not an altar. To say nothing of the monks’ latrines, still in working order, at Cleve Abbey in Somerset. In my childhood, the ruins and remains of the middle ages were an exotic source of wonder and delight. And since then I have seen sunlight in the windows of Chartres, heard the boys’ choir sing to the Black Virgin of Montserrat, and listened to silence being pierced by the sound of a rushing mountain stream high in the Pyrenees, standing in the cloisters at Saint-Martin-du-Canigou.

             And so in literature, too, I might want first of all to turn again to the theme of ruined monuments. It is a sign of how modern a writer Chaucer was, that he already sensed the power of the fragmentary, and perhaps deliberately left so many of his works unfinished. It is certainly ironic that the most influential and enduring of the great medieval love stories has no named first author and no complete surviving version in which we might read it all as we would wish to. It is Gottfried von Strasburg who offers more of Tristan than any other early version, and narrates it in an infinitely more interesting manner, with a style and tone that have been compared to Chaucer’s, before breaking off at a crucial moment. No one, I think, has ever found pleasure in the exhaustive form of the tale contained in the mutiple, ever-longer versions of the Prose Tristan. Rather, we are obliged to complete our reading of Gottfried by turning to another fragment, the last part of the ruins of the Anglo-Norman Tristan by Thomas of Britain.

             Chrétien de Troyes, too, seems to have delighted in wrecks and ruins. The way in which the text of his Lancelot (Le chevalier de la charrete) ends with an indication by a certain Godefroi de Leigni that Chrétien allowed him to take over and finish the story might almost have been the seed that aroused in later writers the idea of doing something similar in prose; the result was a vast explosion of pages, no matter whether we consider the shorter noncyclic prose Lancelot do Lac (that fills barely more than 1100 pages in the 1980 Kennedy edition) or the much longer Lancelot included in the vast Vulgate Cycle to be the earlier one. Dozens and dozens of manuscripts attest to the immense popularity of this, the initial inspiration for the compilation of the even more interminable Prose Tristan. It is especially hard to know what we can do with this aspect of the middle ages, yet in its day it had its day in a big way. The central climax of the prose Lancelot, the moment where Lancelot’s true friend Galehot enables him and Guinevere to meet and exchange their first kiss, so sealing the ultimate fate of all three, was to become the episode that according to Dante sparked the lust that led to the death and damnation of Paolo and Francesca (Inferno V). Pity for their plight caused Dante to swoon, the only such moment of ambiguous emotion in all his infernal journey. Powerful stuff it was then, with deep roots.

             Yet I am inclined to value more highly the imaginative power of the other ruined skeleton in Chrétien’s closet, the fragment known as Perceval (le conte du Graal). Out of its incompleteness arose the tales relating the mysterious Graal to Joseph of Arimathea and the cup used at the Last Supper, and two particularly appealing works were born—Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal with its intense, bewildering exoticism, that I might like to return to, and the delightful prose La queste del Saint Graal that took its place within the Vulgate cycle, offering a Christian redemption for Lancelot’s sin by endowing him with a son, Galaad, who achieves the Graal quest. The same Cistercian influence then went on to formulate the ultimate triumph of architectonics, in the not-quite-death of Arthur followed by the monastic pre-death conversions of the penitent Lancelot and Guinevere.

             Still, perhaps I would do better to look in other directions, more directly delightful in the sunshine. Europeans who are soon going to retire dream not of Florida but of Provence and Tuscany. The Mediterranean middle ages offers the delights of a musical lyricism of a quintessential kind. I think I ought to read more among the many hundreds of poems by troubadors and trobairitz. Theirs is a large and wonderful corpus, still constantly being rediscovered and renewed by creative reinterpretations in performance, which owes quite a lot of its appeal to the ruined state of the musical notation. To the Provençal troubadors I should add, directly influenced by them and almost equally appealing though often out of sight in northern fogs, the dozens of German Minnesänger with their hundreds of poems, while a direct line leads from the troubadors to Dante’s Vita Nuova, and Petrarch’s Rime Sparsi, by which point the music has vanished. But only northern European arrogance begins the story of music and poetry and love in Provence, as if there was nothing of that kind anywhere before Eleanor of Aquitaine’s grandfather sang his new song.

In today’s polarized world, where Bush has tried to appropriate the incomprehensible crusades without knowing anything about them, it is vital to recall that the middle ages witnessed wonderful examples of harmony and fruitful exchanges between Jews, Christians and at least certain parts of Islam. I feel sorry not to have introduced my students to the name of Ziryab (‘Blackbird’ Abu-al-Hasan Abi ibn-Nafi, c. 789 - 857). I ought to have evoked the journey that brought him from Bagdhad to Cordoba, joked of his legendary connections with toothpaste and asparagus, I certainly should have celebrated the wonderful world of Al Andalus that he did so much to bring into being. That even tempts me to make imaginary journeys to hear his enduring musical heritage, one that combines continuity with revival; ah, I think to myself, to be able to hear orchestras performing nubas in Morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia, or singers learning religious chant in the Sufi lodges in Syria and Lebanon, or hear Judeo-Spanish music, sung in Ladino in communities of Sephardi Jews across the globe, for medieval Andalusian music remains living music in all those places today. From Al Andalus, northern Europe may well have received the curse of rime in verse, and equally most likely it is from there that the rough warriors of southern France were first taught the troubling, wonderful power of the female, and learned to swoon in anguish at the sound of a name. It is a deserved corrective to the poor reputation of the Vandals to recall that their name is most likely the origin of Al (V)Andalus, Andalusia.

If the sophisticated complexities of fin’amors have their roots in a singer’s journey from Bagdhad to Cordoba, I might want to try to follow almost that same itinerary from Persia to Al Andalus in my belated triangulation of another, more challenging, dimension of the middle ages. Modern dwarf that I am, I need to remember just how many giants’ shoulders I am standing on. It’s giants pretty much all the way down, we might say. Ibn Sina, better known as Avicenna (980 – 1037), lived in what was then Persia, wrote more than 450 books, and without him it is hard to imagine how the western European study of medicine and philosophy could have developed. He had memorized the Qur’an by the age of 7, and read Aristotle’s Metaphysics 40 times in his early teens before he felt he had understood it. His Canon of Medicine, translated into Latin in the 12th century, was still being taught in northern Europe in 1650, while his own Metaphysics (book 4 of the Kitab-al-Shifa, Book of Healing), translated into Latin in Spain around 1150, had an enormous impact on western philosophy. He is, after all, considered to have been ‘the greatest metaphysician of the first millennium AD’ and ‘Aquinas never wholly shook off Avicenna’s influence’ (Kenny 189, 195)


Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes (1126 – 1198), was born at the other end of the Mediterranean, in Cordoba, and he shared Avicenna’s enthusiasm for Aristotle. Because of his work in translating Aristotle into Arabic and writing commentaries on him, Aquinas and his contemporaries simply referred to him as ‘the Commentator.’ He is placed by Dante in Limbo among the pagan philosophers in "the place that favor owes to fame." His contemporary, the Jewish thinker Moses ben Maimon known as Maimonides (1138-1204), was likewise born in Cordoba, likewise admired Aristotle deeply, and likewsie died in exile in North Africa. Late in life, he wrote a treatise in Arabic, Guide of the Perplexed, to discuss the seeming contradictions between philosophy and faith, in which he advocated a strongly apophatic, negative approach. But his importance is not simply the enormous influence he had on 13th-century Christian European thinkers; even now, he remains the thinker most widely debated and discussed among modern Jewish scholars. His synagogue still stands in Cordoba, unused for want of Jews in Spain since 1492. Great figures, indeed!

At the end of this lengthy Spanish visit, it is perhaps with relief that I feel able to dispense myself from any obligation to read the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, rejoicing in my self-authorized ignorance. Yet Cambridge University Press have just published a new translation, as if to blame me for my lack of due diligence. Worse still, my prospective re-visitation of the middle ages is going to have to recognize, set at the heart of the intertwining galaxy of persons and texts, ruins and remains, one singularity, a black hole that I am at a loss how to deal with. Aquinas and his Summa are unlike any other writer and text, or at least the reputation and role of the Summa seem to suggest that it deserves immense respect, though perhaps in some portions of today’s academia Aquinas might simply be labelled a long-dead white male and so disposed of. The most immediate thought that comes is how challenged we ‘professional medievalists’ are in having the possibility, offered by Cambridge University Press, of buying the full 60 volumes, a total of 14,716 pages, bilingual Latin and English, for only $1800. For how can one speak of the middle ages, claim to be informed of this period and its remains, without knowing the Summa? But we all know that whatever once gets drawn into a black hole ends up squashed and never able escape.

If I edge past that danger, postponing the joys of Scholasticism for a later time, for Eternity, perhaps, when 100,000 pages are as one, what am I to do with all those heroic tales I ought to read and reread? La Chanson de Roland and so many other chansons de geste, all of them in multiple versions and tongues, El Cid, the Nibelungenlied, the Icelandic sagas? And that is only looking backward to the early years, while the culmination of the middle ages still lies ahead, and Huizinga was wrong to call it a waning or autumn, although our own ageing processes are surely both. From the English point of view, certainly, I have not even started my journey yet, and before I can reach English ground with old friend Chaucer there would be a need to delve again and deeper into works by some familiar Italian names—Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. After all, as Derek Pearsall reminded us in the TLS of January 12, 2007, “Chaucer is not in any significant way English, not could he be in his time. He is a great European poet. The sooner we understand this, and follow his example, and forget the aberrations of nationhood and empire, the better.” (13) And what point is there if in England I only focus on Chaucer, the Gawain Poet, Langland, and Malory, anxiously hoping that no one will ask me to spend time plowing Lydgate’s acres or the 130 other medieval texts in EETS editions sitting in my bookshelves, unread? Which brings me back to the question: What shall I do? How can I possibly do justice to the claims on my attention of Abelard and Bonaventura, of Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham? Yet I feel lazy; I think I would rather spend time exploring the music of ars antiqua and ars nova, the poems and music of Guillaume de Machaut.


There are so many extraordinary people eager to enlighten me in ageing. Who should I choose as companions in my decline? It’s a topic for a convivial, nightlong discussion, a kind of medievalists’ ‘Desert-Island Disks.’ I see four potentially outstanding figures: Anselm (1033 – 1109) with Cur Deus Homo, Ramon Llull (1232 – 1315) with his hundreds of volumes, love of dialogue and horror of crusading violence, and, because those are rather staid and serious figures, I might also need some drinking sessions with the slightly disreputable François Villon (1431 - 1474), who asked the most essential question of all: "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” But to learn humility, I shall mostly need to spend time with Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) whose De docta ignorancia provides a most healthy corrective to any who might be so foolish as to think they really know something. Knowing that I do not know, in the Apophatic Way, is the only worthwhile manner of knowing anything, recognizing that the only hope of salvation lies in the coexistence of everything and nothing.

So the written texts transmitted from the middle ages fade into silence, and in their place I can at last evoke other, more vital surviving delights. Two vast visual worlds, that need no special skills in language or paleography, spring at once to mind: the illustrations and decorations found in thousands of medieval manuscripts, and the stained glass of countless churches. In my youth, for several months I had a key that allowed me to take a small 15th-century illuminated book of hours from the manuscript cupboard in our college library and delight visitors with its delicate paintings. Nowadays all we need is time to click into thousands of pictures from manuscripts available on the Internet, where the visibility is often much better than in the original. Stained glass, though, is another matter, and despite the wonderful pictures at the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi and other Internet sites, there is no substitute for the direct experience of sunlight falling through the windows in Chartres Cathedral or the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, in Canterbury Cathedral or York Minster, in the churches of Strasburg or Augsburg, to mention just a handful of places.

             Now, belatedly, I come to the most extraordinary and widely appealing aspect of the middle ages, the developed visual arts of sculpture and painting. The porches at Chartres are outstanding in the quality of their surviving sculptures, though little remains of the painted interiors. But of all the arts, it is painting that rules the roost in the eyes of the general public, and Italy is its home. The stylized conventions of Byzantine and late Roman models served for a time, but in the later 13th century painters whose names we struggle to recall, such as Duccio and Cimabue, then in the 14th century Giotto, Daddi, Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini, began to produce the works that revolutionized the way the west depicted the human figure. The Italian 15th century (Quattrocento) is already known as the ‘early’ or ‘classical Renaissance,’ yet for us it is still part of the medieval. In Florence, there was a reaction against the decorative Gothic styles, seen in the 1420s in the paintings of Masaccio, the sculptures of Donatello, and the architecture of Brunelleschi. The foundations of the art of the Renaissance are to be traced to the works of those three medieval men.

Its rapid development was encouraged by the development of humanism and scientific enquiry, and by the lavish patronage of increasingly wealthy and powerful families such as the Medici in Florence and the Visconti and Sforzas in Milan. The flowering of this late medieval ‘Early Renaissance’ can be seen in the paintings of Uccello, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, and Botticelli. In the mid- and late 15th century, northern European artists such as Rogier van der Weyden and Memling were an important influence on Italian artists and so the fertile middle ages gave birth to Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Meanwhile, in Venice, we find the great masters, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, who influenced Albrecht Dürer, and just after them came Titian.

Now Venice, particularly the remains of medieval, Gothic Venice, was one of the fundamental sources of inspiration for John Ruskin (1819-1900), who visited it eleven times. And he was the main inspiration for the founders of British Socialism and the Labor Party, as well as of most aspects of the Gothic Revival in architecture and the almost worldwide Arts and Crafts Movement that derived from it. If we are going to do anything ‘with’ the middle ages, as opposed to simply undertake some sentimental journey round its remaining ruins, we should revisit the creative responses to our question furnished in the 19th century by John Ruskin, and perhaps more fully by William Morris (1834 – 1896), and their followers. Because both of these extraordinary men, and those around them in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Guild of St George, the Christian Socialists, found the source of their vision in a quality of life, of humanity, that they recognized in the middle ages and felt was lacking in their own time.

Ruskin wrote in Unto This Last (1860), “There is no wealth but life, life, including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration. That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” Ruskin’s youthful experience of the beauty of the arts of the midle ages was enough to open his eyes to the ugliness and ecological dangers of industrialization. One of his most famous essays is entitled On the Nature of Gothic—The Function of the Workman in Art, so if he and Morris could find in the medieval, the Gothic, a direct, Eutopian inspiration for their social, artistic and human vision in the so different, industrialized 19th century, it cannot be enough for me to view the middle ages as supplying esthetically attractive materials for a leisurely program of retirement activities.


It is true that we today are less than ever inclined to look for Utopias in the past; the Victorians professed an optimistic faith in Progress, we know, and ironically Ruskin suffered for having dared challenge it. But today the educated, privileged classes of western humanity, at least, seem inclined to reject such notions while still anticipating ever better times ahead, more luxury, more pleasure, more of everything. The past has been reduced to ‘heritage,’ the picturesque sites that are visited during outings in the course of leisure activities, a post-card from the past. Yet the wrecks and massy bastions built by creative imaginations in centuries past have more than once awakened creative energy in a very different present, hope for the future.

Of course, we cannot today simply become followers of Ruskin and Morris. Much has changed and they probably cannot directly be our guides in our search for vision today, although we should not forget that Gandhi was deeply affected by Unto This Last, and made it a fundamental part of his own prophetic vision of a humane, sharing, egalitarian society. As a result, since no one today is much inclined to look for inspiration from the past, I wonder if there is any hope at all of finding an answer to the question, “What can the middle ages mean for us?” It would need to mean something very important, as it did for Ruskin and Morris; that something ought to be life-changing, a vision radical enough to yield a intensely positive way of living, working, and being. If it is only seen as a specialized academic domain, a form of documentary archeology, then it will have no meaning beyond itself, no value for humanity as a whole.

Value for today’s humanity is the important criterion. It ought not to be necessary to say here that the hosts of grave questions facing humanity at this present moment are so vast, so challenging, so urgent that it is almost impossible to know where to start: 10 children are dying every minute as a result of malnutrition, many through diseases contracted by drinking polluted water; nearly 20% of all the people in the world have no safe drinking-water supply; in today’s world 300 million young adults are chronically unemployed or underemployed. Destruction of the natural environment for economic gain means that vertebrate species’ populations across the globe declined by 33% in the 33 years from 1970 to 2003. There will be no fish left in the oceans 50 years hence. Everyone now knows the potentially disastrous effect of global warming, caused by the polluting effect of the greenhouse gases we emit, carbon dioxide especially. It is now widely agreed, and was strongly argued in the Stern Report published at the end of October 2006, that global carbon emissions have to be reduced by at least 80% by 2050. Since each passenger on a return flight between Seoul and the United States is responsible for releasing at least 2 tonnes of carbon into the upper atmosphere, it is inconceivable that current levels of air travel can be allowed in future. International conferences will quite soon have to be conducted entirely through the Internet.

The real meaning of all this is unimaginable and some politicians are trying to pretend it will all go away if they smile hard enough and lie long enough. Actually we medievalists should perhaps be happy; the societies of the future might very well be obliged to live at levels of energy consumption comparable with those of the middle ages. That sounds bleak, yet the record of the extraordinary literary, intellectual and artistic creativity of the middle ages which we have briefly evoked, contrasted with the sterile, repetitive, mindless uniformity of so much in today’s post-industrial, plastic culture, opens the doors to a great optimism. It might well be true that “Less is more” and that, returning to a far simpler style of life, no longer globe-trotting from beach to golf course, humanity will once again produce great beauty with less technology in a more compassionate, communitarian society, not entirely unlike that (perhaps largely fictional) middle ages that appealed so strongly to Ruskin and Morris. The alternative is too dreadful to contemplate.

It would be good to end in hopeful beauty. I think the best way is to evoke the image of the most significant medieval man of all, Saint Francis of Assisi; his message has been gravely compromised by sentimentality but at the heart of it is a clear call to poverty in simplicity, joy and compassion, compassion practiced toward all creation, including the birds, animals and fish. He knew that people fear the natural world, with its wolves and viruses, and are also tempted to exploit it destructively, hunting and wantonly killing birds and animals for no reason, catching fish until there are none left to catch. In a famous mural, Giotto shows him barefoot, gently blessing the birds, and in them the whole living world. So that is what I would say we can learn from the middle ages: that the only meaningful way of life for a human being is to seek, in all poverty, to become a source of joy and blessing, of hope and life, for the whole of creation. Nothing else matters.