Piers Plowman by William Langland (edited by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd).

Piers Plowman is a Christian allegorical poem written in Middle English alliterative verse. It is one of the most important English vernacular works to be written along with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Three different variants of the work exist known as the A-Text, the B-Text, and the C-text. The biggest differences between the versions:

  • the B-text adds additional visions (chapters) to the ones found in the A-Text
  • the allegorical character giving speeches in certain sections change between the different versions (such as Conscience preaching in the A-Text to the Seven Deadly Sins, while Reason is the preacher during this same part in the B-text)
  • sometimes certain allegorical figures are not included at all (Wrath is absent from the A-Text during the above-mentioned scene, but is present in the B-text)
  • the C-Text adds an autobiographical section tacked onto one of the visions.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of the B-text translated into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson. The work follows a Christian dreamer named Will, identified sometimes with William Langland himself, who searches for answers to his existential questions concerning theological, spiritual, and ethical issues. He has different dreams or visions that occur across twenty chapters called “Passus,” which in Latin means “Step,” implying that the work involves a journey as he discovers the answers to these questions. It is a very different sort of journey than the one found in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is another Christian allegory from a later literary time period. Bunyan’s work externalizes the allegorical elements as part of an adventurous quest plot that isn’t much different from the basic plot structure one might find in a modern epic fantasy, while Piers Plowman consists mostly of dialogues in which Will, the dreamer, puts troublesome spiritual questions to various allegorical figures who offer loquacious answers. The “journey” in this work is an internal one with an inconclusive finale. It reads a lot like Plato’s dialogues and nothing like an adventure story. Another somewhat unique characteristic of the work is its positive portrayal of the lower classes often missing from other medieval works. The poem melds religious allegory about salvation and ethical living with social satire of medieval society.

The poem opens with Will falling asleep beneath a tree and having his first vision in which he views a tower on a hill where Truth resides (God), a terrible dungeon below (hell), and “a faire felde ful of folke (2)” between them consisting of all sorts of people in society from the highest to the lowest. This middle ground represents the world and how people navigate its mazes to end up either in the Tower (heaven) or in the dungeon (hell). A woman arrives who introduces herself as the Church and desires that Will should enter the Tower where Truth resides. She goes on to elaborate on the nature of Truth and God, focusing on divine love and the importance of giving charity to the poor. Will desires to learn not only Truth, but also how he can determine what is false. Lady Church tells him to look to his left side where he sees her many enemies: False, Favel, and the beautifully dressed Lady Meed. Favel represents lying or deceit. Lady Meed symbolizes reward and profit. False and Favel with the help of Simony and Civil try to bribe various officials in order to marry Meed to Falseness. Eventually the King learns about all this bribery happening in his realm through the assistance of his adviser, Conscience (who not only represents moral conscience in the modern sense, but also consciousness in general) and orders the arrest of all these villains.

In custody, King wants Meed to marry Conscience, but he refuses to marry her due to her past sins. Meanwhile in custody, she is busy corrupting the king’s officials left and right with all her bribery. Conscience says he’ll only consider the marriage if Reason agrees. Reason arrives and convinces the king to reject the idea of such a marriage. This turns the King against Meed. Reason offers the advice that the best and most just kingdoms are those ruled by Reason. By having the king turn against Meed on the advice of Reason and hearing a sermon on how a just kingdom is ruled by reason, this scene serves as a social commentary on the rightful role of kings. Kings who rule by Reason and put the interests of the realm first tend to be good rulers, while those who put their own greed and self-interests first, as represented by Meed, end up corrupting the whole realm through their bad rule. These bad kings have married their conscience, their primary guide to ethical concerns, to Meed (their desire for reward and profit) and have failed to consult their reason.

Reason follows this success with the king by going out and giving a sermon to the entire populace. The Allegorical Seven Sins appear and each repent before Reason their various offenses, often involving colorful stories related to their specific natures. It is in this vision that we first meet Piers Plowman who offers his own sermon about the way to Truth and how a humble workman like himself tries to live by the principles of simplicity, faith in God, and helping others. Piers convinces the pilgrims to help him plow the fields and promises them as much food as they need as a reward for their assistance. At first many agree, but over time many of the people grow lazy and stop helping. Piers complains about Waster, an allegorical figure that represents those who waste and do nothing productive for their fellow man. Piers asks Hunger to punish Waster with hunger. He then asks Hunger what should be done about beggars. Hunger tells Piers that it is the way of the righteous to help beggars and the poor who genuinely cannot work or help themselves. The text suggests through this juxtaposition between Wasters and the needy that the difference between them lies in that Wasters can work, but choose laziness, and therefore steal vital resources from true beggars who genuinely need the charity of others because they’re incapable of working.
After this vision, Will returns to the world in desperate search of Do Well as the key to his salvation. Unable to find him in the world, Will has another dream where he encounters a larger version of himself named Thought. Thought explains to him that Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best are three virtues found in anyone who is meek, mild, truthful, and willing to do his or her fair share of work and keep only what he or she has earned. In other words, he is the opposite of the proud, greedy, and intemperate person.

“Do-Wel, my [dere], is to don as lawe techeth,
To love [and to lowe thee and no lyf to greve;
Ac to love and to lene], leve me, that is Do-Bet;
To yiven and to yemen bothe Yonge and olde,
To helen and to helpen, is Do-Best of alle (138).”

To Do Well is to follow God’s laws, to act humbly, behave towards others with love, and harm no other person. In an excerpt taken from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that is included in the Norton Critical Edition, Donaldson describes the poem’s presentation of Do-Well as a secular person who lives his life according to Christian precepts, Do-Better as the contemplative man who spends his time helping others and engaging in charity, and Do-Best is like a Bishop or Priest who challenges the wicked and ministers to the good (499). Donaldson goes on to suggest that Piers Plowman serves as one of the central figures of the poem precisely because he “transition[s] from Do-Well to Do-Better (499)” and eventually to Do-Best in the final sections of the poem.

Here they turn to Wit to find out where Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best live. Wit tells them that Do Better is Do Well’s daughter and serves as a lady-in-waiting to Anima (soul). They all let Do Best guide them as their Bishop. In this castle is a constable named Inwit (understanding and rational capacity) whose sons Sir See-Well, Sir Say-Well, Sir Hear-Well, Sir Work-Well-With-Your-Hands, and Sir Godfrey Go-Well protect the safety of Anima. Kind has made a castle where Do Well and Anima reside. Kind is one of the allegorical identities of God in the poem. Wit describes what sort of being Kind is and how He tries to take care of all souls and give them what they need. This discourse ends on a discussion of the correct nature of marriage, which is not one based in the desire to gain money or land or one that involves partners of drastically different ages, but equal partners who marry out of love.
After this discourse, Wit’s wife, Dame Study, arrives and castigates him for wasting his wisdom on fools and mockers who will not be able to appreciate them. She attacks the wealthy as mockers of religion who often talk blasphemous and superficially about God. She views Will’s desire to know the difference between Do Well and Do Better as the equivalent of questioning God and His purposes, apprehensive of his motives. At the direction of Wit, the dreamer humbles himself before Dame Study. She softens before his humility and decides to help him after all by acquainting him with her cousin, Clergy, and his wife, Scripture.


Will comes to fear that he will never save his soul without more theological knowledge. Scripture teaches him that great learning and wisdom doesn’t save men. Many well-educated clerks and officials of the church will end up in hell for their abuses of their office, while many lowly uneducated men will be saved. Pure faith is superior to a deep knowledge of theology. Often the lowest and most ignorant are the first in heaven as the Bible teaches. True faith doesn’t require learning and quoting scripture from heart, but love of God, fellow Christians, and even one’s enemies.

“For every Cristene creature shulde be kynde til other,
And sithen hethen to helpe in hope of amendement.
God hoteth bothe heigh and lowe that no man hurte other (158).”


At this point, Will enters a dream within a dream in which the Flesh and all its seeming pleasures tries to seduce him. As he listens to their seductive speeches, Old Age arrives and warns him that fortune and pleasure who speak such lovely words now will abandon him in time. Recklessness then appears to try and convince dreamer to ignore the warnings of Old Age.

Will has a vision of nature and animals where he comes to realize all animals are guided by Reason, except humanity. He tries to rebuke Reason for not guiding them, but Reason criticizes Will for interfering in the order of things of which he cannot judge properly (repeating Adam’s sin of wanting the wisdom of God), so Reason refuses to instruct him further.

In the next vision, Will witnesses a dinner being partaken by Conscience, Clergy, and Patience. He sits at a side table with Patience eating mediocre food, while at the head of the main table is a hypocritical friar eating all kinds of delicacies. They put some questions to the friar who offers memorized and academic answers to their theological questions, while the poem hints at the friar’s hypocrisy by knowing the answers, but not living by them. During the dinner, Conscience decides to join Patience on a pilgrimage into the world to develop his spiritual self through direct experience as opposed to the theoretical book learning that Clergy offers.

On this journey, Conscience and Patience meet Hawkins the Active Man. This man is all about appearance, wanting to appear the smartest, greatest, holiest, and best of men. He is all talk, pretends to be holy, but is really a sinner and prideful. His sins appear as dirt and specks on his outer coat. Such a man eventually ends up in a state of despair, unable to live by the church’s creed and falling so far into sin that a deep sense of hopelessness pervades him from the fear that his sins have grown too great for salvation. In response to being criticized for his dirty clothes, Hawkin’s claims that he cannot ever seem to get his clothes spotless; every time he cleans it via confession and contrition it gets dirty soon after.  At one point, he even blames his wife for the dirty state of his clothes (echoing Adam blaming Eve for convincing him to eat the forbidden fruit). In response to Hawkins, Patience preaches moderation (the opposite of the “active life.”). The poem reiterates that the world is corrupt and participating in it only leads to sin. In order to achieve heaven, Christians must hate this world. Patience goes on to explain how the poor have an advantage with the Seven Deadly sins compared to the rich. It cannot affect the poor as strongly because their desires and means to engage in these sins are restricted.

Will has a new dream in which he converses with Anima (the soul) who describes her many forms. Sometimes Anima takes the form of Mens (capacity for knowing), Memoria (remembrance), Reason, Sensus (empathy/feeling for others), Conscience, Amor (when the soul loves God and others), Spiritus (when freed from the flesh). Will’s desire to know everything is a sin and similar to the pride of Lucifer – only God knows everything. This is emphasized by the way many of the allegorical figures rebuke him throughout the various parts of the poem for his questions and how he’s often not content with the answers he does receive from them.

Will has a vision of Piers Plowman who has erected three polls to protect this tree from “the worlde [which] is a wyked wynde to hem the wolden treuthe” (274). Satan wishes to take all its fruits for himself. We are told that this tree was planted in a garden by God. The tree metaphor for the Truth and Charity draws on the Garden of Eden story from the Bible and highlights the theme found in other parts of the poem that knowledge is often bad, whereas it’s charity, simplicity, and faith that lead one to God.

Pier’s tree equals Truth and grows in a soil of goodness. The three polls symbolize: the Power of God, Wisdom of God, and Grace and the Holy Spirt respectively. In another metaphor, Piers Plowman, in the roll of a priestly figure and thus representing his ascension to the symbolic role of Do-Best tills the soil of Truth with his oxen: Luke, Mark, Matthew, and John. Following them are four horses to harrow: Austin, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome that use the harrows, Old Testament and New Testament, to help plant seeds in men’s souls. These seeds they wish to plant are the Spirit of Prudence, the Spirit of Temperance, the Spirit of Fortitude, and the Spirit of Justice.


In another vision, Will watches as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to joust with Satan in order to overcome Death and win the fruits back from Piers Plowman’s tree. The poem retells the story of the Crucifixion. After Jesus’s death, Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness debate the meaning of the light that hangs over hell. Then the harrowing of Hell occurs when Jesus arrives to save the Old Testament figures from eternal damnation and their demonic tormentors.

The final dream is an apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of Conscience besieged by the Antichrist and his army of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the sins injure the men inside Conscience’s fortress, the wounded grow weary with the slow, harsh, and difficult cures that the parish priests offer, turning to a friar who promises to offer a quicker and easier salvation for a hefty fee. Conscience believes the friar is a liar betraying the Christians who want an easier path towards salvation. The text’s earlier criticisms of the greedy and parasitic monastic orders culminate in this final vision in which it is implied that Christian society and salvation itself is threatened by the presence of these corrupt Friars.

The Lais of Marie De France (trans. Glynn S.Burgess and Keith Busby)

Marie de France may have been the half-sister of King Henry II. She may have been born in France and wrote her tales in England. Our knowledge of Marie is limited and the authorship of these tales is often debated. As the introduction of my edition states, “We can assert with conviction that at least one poet by the name of Marie was writing in the second half of the twelfth century, but it is equally certain that the author who composed the lays . . . was not called Marie de France (7).” In other words, it may be that some anonymous author wrote these works and they have become associated with her name over time. Although these lays are technically poetry, in translation they read like an early form of the short story.

In “Guigemar,” a knight known for his prowess in battle and lack of interest in women is cursed after being wounded during a hunt. His victim, a talking animal, warns Guigemar that his wound will not heal until he knows love. Soon after, he ends up on a mysterious ship that takes him to a tower where an elderly lord has locked up his young and beautiful wife. The knight and the young lady fall in love with each other. They get separated after their love affair gets discovered by the elderly lord, but before they do they exchange tokens in order to recognize each other in the future if they ever meet again and eventually they do.

In “Equitan,” a powerful king falls in love with his vassal’s wife. She agrees to have a love affair with him. They plan to kill her husband by throwing him into a boiling tub of water, but the vassal discovers their plot and ends up throwing them into the boiling water instead as a punishment for their treachery.

In “Le Fresne,” a noble woman insults the honor of her guest pregnant with twins by claiming that twins can only be conceived by sleeping with two men. Shortly after, the accuser herself becomes pregnant with twins and her words rebound against her. So to save her honor, she has a servant take one of the children away to an abbey. The girl becomes known as Le Fresne and after growing up she becomes a lover to a powerful Lord named Gurun.  After some time, his vassals chastise him for his love affair and want him to marry a proper lady. Le Fresne resigns herself to give up her lover. However, it turns out the lady they find to marry Gurun is actually her twin sister. Through some tokens of recognition, they all discover the truth and Le Fresne now able to establish her identity as the sister of the highborn lady gets to marry Gurun.

In “Bisclavret,” a noblewoman wheedles out of her husband the secret reason why he disappears every few nights. It turns out every few nights he transforms into a werewolf. He informs her it is his clothes that allow him to return to his human form again. The wife decides that she “no longer wished to lie with him (69)” and steals his clothes so he is unable to resume his human form. Then she takes another knight for her lover. During a hunt, the king realizes the werewolf he is hunting acts sentient like a human and decides to take him back to his castle as a cherished pet. After summoning his vassals, the wife and her new lover arrive at court and the werewolf attacks them. Through torture they discover from the truth from the lady about the werewolf. They restore his clothes and he resumes human form.

In “Lanval,” the knight of the same name is selected by a rich and mysterious lady to be her lover with the catch that if he ever tells anyone about her he will never see her again. After Lanval’s fame rises, the Queen falls in love with him and tries to seduce him, but he rejects her advances and insults her with the beauty of his secret lover. Angry at this insult, the Queen accuses Lanval of trying to seduce her and the King puts him on trial for his life. In a fit of depression, Lanval is prepared to die, assuming he will never see his beloved again since he broke her rule and spoke about her, but the lady arrives at the king’s court in order to save his life and prove the truth of his words.

In “Les Deus Amanz,” a knight takes on a challenge to win his beloved by carrying her up a mountain. She tries to assist him by getting a family member to provide him with a restorative potion. However, he forgets the potion during the task and dies in the process.

In “Yonec,” a jealous old man locks his young beautiful wife in a tower. A bird comes to the window and transforms into a knight who becomes her lover in secret. Soon the old man discovers their affairs and places traps around the window. The knight is fatally injured by these traps. The woman jumps out of the window chasing after her injured husband, manages to survive her fall, and follows the path of blood to her lover’s kingdom. He prophesies that their child with take revenge on her husband. She has her lover’s child and her husband raises the child thinking it is his own. When the child learns the truth he takes revenge on his stepfather and then inherits his dead father’s kingdom.

In “Laustic,” a married lady who loves a knight from afar wakes up every night just to get a glimpse of her lover. The suspicion husband realizes what she is doing and kills a nightingale that the lady uses as her excuse for staying up so late.

In “Milun,” a knight has an illicit affair with a woman and gets her pregnant. They send the baby away. Eventually the child grows up and becomes a renowned knight. He fights his father in a tournament where they discover each other’s identities.

In “Chaitivel,” a woman falls in love with four knights and cannot choose between them. Three of them die in a tournament. The lady takes care of the surviving knight who is severely injured. Unfortunately, he is now impotent. She tells him she wants to compose a lay about the tragedy of the three dead men, but he tells her the real tragedy is his since he survived and gets the chance to talk with her all the time, but his injuries prevent him from physical love with her.

In “Chevrefoil,” King Mark banishes his nephew, Tristram, after rumors that he loves the Queen. In his banishment, the Queen finds him and reveals her love for Tristram. King Mark regrets banishing him and Tristram returns to his service.

In “Eliduc,” false rumors causes a king to banish the knight Eliduc. His wife has him promise to stay faithful to her in his exile. He goes to another kingdom and serves a different king besieged by enemies. Eliduc shines in battle and wins an honored place with this other king. The king’s daughter falls in love with him. After some reluctance, he becomes her lover. The original king that banished Eliduc calls him back. Eliduc returns to his wife, but is extremely unhappy to lose his new lover. After winning the war for his original liege, he returns back to the other kingdom and takes the princess back with him to his homeland. On the way, a storm threatens their ship and a servant in fear that they have offended God reveals to the princess that Eludic is married. This knowledge with her seasickness causes her to feint and Eludic believes she is dead. He makes plans to bury her. After becoming suspicious of her husband’s behavior, the wife discovers the existence of the lover and learns that she isn’t dead. She witnesses a weasel use a plant to restore another weasel. She then takes this plant and uses it to restore the princess. The wife agrees to take a vows in order to leave Eludic free to marry his true love.


These stories are extremely short. Some no longer than two pages. The minimalism of the characters and the occasional magical element (like the talking animal that curses Guigemar, the hawk-knight in Yonec and the werewolf in Bisclavret) gives these tales an atmosphere similar to those of a fairy tale. Even when the tales give a particular locale, the world it presents feels like a generic medieval kingdom that could be anywhere and is highly idealized.

These stories reflect the values of the nobility. This can be seen in that all the main characters and most of the characters through the tales are knights, kings, lords, and princesses; the peasantry are almost entirely absent from the idealized medieval world of these stories. The shortness of the tales doesn’t leave much time for character development; instead, the characters are described by generic and idealized qualities such as their valor, how beautiful or handsome they appear, and generous behavior towards others. The exploration of the values of courtly love features in all the stories. The love depicted in these tales feels artificial and forced; the characters usually just meet, share a few words, and just fall in love with each other without much development. Although sometimes the tales suggest that a princess falls in love with a particular knight due to his prowess in battle and he falls for her due to her unmatched beauty. The underlying logic of these stories is that since he is the best knight in the area, therefore he deserves the most beautiful and noblest born of the ladies. In stories like “Equitan,” we have characters punished not so much for their infidelity, but their disloyalty to their vassal. After all, if feudalism is a political and social system built on loyalty, it would follow that disloyalty undermines the entire system. “Eliduc” takes the logic of both these ideas to its furthest conclusion in that Eliduc is often torn between loyalties. Should he serve his original king when he is called back to assist him after swearing his service to the new king for a year? Should he break his promise to his wife and become the princess’s lover? The system of feudalism and the ideal of noble behavior can form quite a tangled web of allegiances. Here is an academic website that provides even more information on Marie De France and has links to online translations different than the ones I used.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is considered one of the first sensation novels and a mystery. With that said, if you prefer to maintain the mystery for yourself, which is one of the joys of reading this novel you may not wish to read further in this post as it will contain spoilers.


On his way to accepting a position as drawing-master down at Limmeridge House, Walter Hartright encounters the mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. Walter little realizes how this one fateful night will embroil him in an extraordinary mystery and conspiracy. At Limmeridge House, he begins to teach the talkative and strong-willed Ms. Marian Halcombe and the beautiful, quiet, naïve Ms. Laura Fairlie, half-sisters to each other, only to fall in love with Laura. She returns Walter’s feelings, but unfortunately is already arranged to be married to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde, which were the final wishes of her father on his death-bed. Soon an anonymous letter arrives for Laura describing Sir Percival Glyde as a heartless monster and warning her against marrying him. After some inquiry in town, it is discovered that the letter comes from the woman in white. Ms. Halcombe and Walter also learn from old letters of the late Mrs. Fairlie that the woman is named Anne Catherick and has once been to Limmeridge House. Walter speaks to Anne and finds out it was Sir Percival Glyde that locked her up in the asylum, but before they can find out the reason why Catherick flees in fear. It turns out that the Sir Percival sent her to an asylum because he believes Anne knows a terrible secret that could ruin him. The impending marriage sends Hartright to the Americas to forget his troubled emotions over Laura and Laura ends up in a loveless marriage that will lead to a conspiracy to steal her inheritance. Sir Percival Glyde marries Laura for her money to help pay off major debts. Once married Sir Percival’s friend, the cunning Count Fosco along with his wife who happens to be Laura’s aunt, come to stay at Blackwater Park, the estate of Sir Percival. Much of the novel is spent with Ms. Halcombe analyzing the behavior of these two men and attempting to outwit them in their conspiracies against her and Laura. Eventually the right opportunity comes and Count Fosco manages to switch Anne Catherick who strongly resemble Laura Fairlie with Laura Fairlie. Anne dies under the identity of Laura Fairlie, which allows the two men to inherit Laura’s money, while it is Laura who ends up in the madhouse as Anne Catherick. Ms. Halcombe rescues her sister from the asylum and Walter Hartright returns from the Americas and assists them in unraveling the conspiracy and restoring Laura’s identity as a living person.


The novel reveals the limits and problems of the law. Laura’s uncle, Mr. Fairlie who is an invalid and hates to be bothered with responsibilities, shows an unwillingness to fight for the best possible marriage settlement for Laura at the advice of his lawyer. Laura is at the whims of her male uncle’s decisions. If he had accepted the lawyers suggestion to not include her entire inheritance in the marriage settlement should Laura die it is likely the conspiracy against his niece never would have occurred. Likewise, the law has no recourse to prove the conspiracy perpetuated on Laura without the hard-gained evidence gathered by Walter Hartright. Even Percival Glyde’s secret which involved him forging information about his parent’s marriage in a registry at a church in order to inherit his titles and estates fails to be discovered by the means of the law. On the other hand, it is the laws of society that lead Sir Percival to forge the information in the first place. He is in fact the son of the previous Baronet and his lover, but because they were never legally married he isn’t entitled to his father’s estate according to society’s law. This arbitrary rule of society that his parents must be married for him to inherit shows the inadequacy of the law. It isn’t the law that brings Count Fosco to justice, but an assassin serving the secret society that he betrayed; in other words, vigilante justice, the very opposite of the law. The novel then shows the many ways the law fails to bring justice on various crucial issues.

Count Fosco is a challenge to the Victorian assumption that the arts and literature morally improve a person. He is as cultivated in the arts and in the sciences as one can be during this time period and claims to be sensitive to others emotions and feelings (a man of sentiment), yet he questions morality and virtue, and displaying a willingness to kill, ruin, or destroy anyone who gets in the way of his own interests. He not only shows us this, but tells us he is will punish anyone who threatens his interests. He also makes a speech before the two lady’s against virtue. Sir Percival represents a very different type of evil. He is all anger, tyranny, and resentment towards others, unable to control his emotions, yet hesitant to go as far as Fosco and kill others, preferring to control them through intimidation. As Fosco reveals in his letter that appears towards the end of the book, if Sir Percival had just taken his advice to have Mr. Hartright murdered and had recommitted Laura to the asylum they never would’ve been outwitted in the end.

Eventually Percival Glyde and Count Fosco do get their comeuppance. Percival dies in a fire after accidentally locking himself in the vestry when trying to destroy the forgery that he made all those years ago in attempt to remove the evidence against himself. Count Fosco is murdered in Paris for betraying a political brotherhood he once belonged to as a younger man in Italy. Walter attributes their demises, along with the necessary and accidental discoveries he makes along the way that help him solve the many mysteries in the book and restore Laura’s good name, to divine providence. This directly repudiates the Count’s philosophy against virtue that he makes in his speech. On the other hand, Laura marries Sir Percival and rejects Walter out of virtue (honoring her father’s wishes as opposed to her own “selfish” desires). She even reveals to Sir Percival that she will marry him, but doesn’t love him as her heart belongs to another. This admission is the virtuous thing to do, which of course only leads to Sir Percival’s resentment and is used by him as an emotional weapon against her. Insistence on virtue then causes the characters many problems. The story then at least partially affirms some of the Count’s arguments against virtue, even if it also rejects it overall. Perhaps Collins is suggesting too much virtue can be just as dangerous and just as much a character flaw as rejecting it completely. Another possibility is that Collins is implying that good and virtuous people might suffer from those who feel no such compunctions in the short term, but eventually justice and the divine plan rewards those who remain good and virtuous no matter what problems life throws at them.

2016 Reading Year in Review

Works Read in 2016

  • Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe
  • Tamburlaine the Great Part I by Christopher Marlowe
  • Tamburlaine the Great Part II by Christopher Marlowe
  • Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
  • The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe
  • Edward II by Christopher Marlowe
  • The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
  • The Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
  • The Faerie Queene Part I by Edmund Spenser
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus
  • The Essays by Michel de Montaigne
  • Utopia by Thomas More
  • Collected Poems by Philip Larkin
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (re-read)
  • Lemoncello’s Library Olympics
  • The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  • The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor.

This year I read 21 books (one of them was a re-read). There was a strong focus on Renaissance Literature (Marlowe, Spenser, Erasmus, Montaigne, More, and Boccaccio could count as a Medieval-transition figure). I also read a handful of children’s novels as part of my job as a school librarian. I ended the year with the phenomenal overview of the Middle Ages by Norman Cantor.

One of my goals in the past couple of years was to improve my math skills, which I made some good ground (re-learned precaculus, learned introdoctory statistics, and was beginning the early chapters of Calculus), but somewhere in the last six months my practice became infrequent and I lost a lot of what I gained. I plan to revitalize the effort in working on my math skills in 2017.

My work this year has inspired me to keep reading in Medieval and Renaissance History and Literature, but I don’t want to ignore more recent classics (19th and 20th century works). So I might try to rotate them into my reading plans.

I also wanted to add more psychology nonfiction in the vein of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which was an excellent book and the one work on psychology EVERYONE should read!


The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor

Norman F. Cantor’s book is a good introduction to the Middle Ages, focusing more on the ideas and institutions than political events. The Medieval period covers roughly 300 AD to 1500 AD. Norman F. Cantor argues the origins of its societal power structures go back to Ancient Mesopotamia in which the first ruling aristocratic class took power and nominated from among themselves a theocratic king. Although taking many different forms during different time periods, in general, this aristocratic class controlled the majority of the wealth, power, and land until the 1700s.

From Rome, the Middle Ages got their laws, philosophical ideas, education model, and the Bible. Roman law served as the basis for much of Western Europe’s laws. The Middle Ages also inherited ideas from Platonism, Aristotle, Stoicism, and the Bible via Christianity. The Roman education system was based heavily in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. It was designed to perpetuate the values, ideas, and lifestyles of the aristocratic elite.  The goal was to train aristocrats for power and government by shaping their values and training them for the linguistic-oriented law.

The Middle Ages were born from the fall of the Roman Empire. Cantor suggest the Roman Empire fell due to severe population shortages caused by outbreak of diseases. This population shortage affected Rome’s ability to field troops for the Roman Legions and also damaged the economy by killing off workers, merchants, and people to participate in trade. The understaffed army, which already consisted of many German mercenaries rather than native Romans, struggled to defend the vast frontier from the hordes of Germanic barbarians. Prior to all this, Roman society already had a weak industrial economy that relied too heavily on slavery. The nations within the Roman Empire felt resentment over high taxes, while receiving little in return from the Empire. Meanwhile, the aristocracy who lived off the work of others and avoided the military had an education that was designed to let them govern in an already existing system, but such an education failed to give them the tools to deal with the economic and social problems of their day. Likewise, the rise of Christianity and its organizational structure of Popes, bishops, and priests attracted many of the best and brightest from the Roman upper classes with the prospects of new career opportunities, while stealing their talent from the Roman government.

The soon-to-be Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge led to Christianity becoming mainstream in the Roman Empire. The Emperor’s acceptance of Christianity led to one of the major conflicts of the Middle Ages: “the relationship between the church and the Christian monarchy (55).”  Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea in which priests from throughout the Empire began to develop the Church’s official dogma. One issue the council attempted to deal with was the Arian controversy, a Greek-inspired philosophy founded in Alexandria by a priest named Arius, which put forth the idea that there was a difference between God and Christ, and one was inferior to the other. This stood in opposition to the doctrine that they were one and the same. Another heresy of this time was Donatism, an argument revolving around whether morally sinful priests could administer the sacraments. The official position of the Church was that the sacramental rites adhered in the office of the priest and didn’t depend on the individual character of the priest himself. Constantine also founded the city of Constantinople as a new Christian Rome in the East.

The Emperors following Constantine suppressed heretical forms of Christianity and began to attack Rome’s traditional paganism. Gratian removed the altar of Victory from the Roman Senate and eliminated the state subsidy of pagan priests. Theodosius made paganism illegal in the Roman Empire. These Christian Emperors granted the church exemptions from taxes and allowed them to hold their own law courts. By getting these advantages the church had the resources to survive the Germanic invasions and the destruction of Roman society. It is through the church that the knowledge of the Latin world would be brought into the Middle Ages.

The church fathers played a key role in developing the theology and role of the church. The three most important church fathers were St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. Jerome is most famous for his translation of the Bible into Latin, transforming Near Eastern concepts into Latin concepts. St. Ambrose had a governing role, which he used as the model for later medieval churchman as effective administrators. He also influenced the church’s views about love and marriage, suggesting virginity was ideal and women were too flawed to be given power in the church. He set a precedent in church and state relationships when he refused the sacraments to Theodosius after they quarreled over rebuilding a synagogue that Christian mobs had destroyed. Through this event, he established a line between church and state in which morality and religion were the concerns of the church and outside the control of the Emperor. He also argued that the church cannot tolerate incorrect beliefs, eliminating religious and moral pluralism.  St. Augustine went even further with this idea and argued that the City of God was different than state power. Governments should protect us as best they can in the earthly realm, but real good cannot be found through the government. Real good is religious and striving for heaven in the human heart. It is internal, not external. We should not look to governments and earthly matters for happiness and salvation. He also put forward an idea of linear history (Judaism) instead of cyclical history (Roman and Greek) that implied history is progressing rather than repeating. He influenced the early medieval education system, which kept classical ideas in the form of distilled summaries known as compendia and encyclopedias rather than reading the original works. Augustine’s idea influenced Gelasian Theory, which argued that church and state had separate spheres, but that the authority of the church was legislative and thus the executive state answered to the church. The Gelasian doctrine sowed the seeds of the later power struggles between Popes and Kings.

The German tribes who invaded the Roman Empire were a society of warriors who followed powerful chiefs to gain food and spoils for their service. The Germans had no sense of a state as an institution, but their loyalty was to individual chiefs. This was the opposite of Roman attitudes who had a strong conception of a Roman state. German law was not based on an abstract conception of justice, but rather the system was based on paying penalties of gold to avoid blood feud (private acts of revenge between families). When an assailant was uncertain, trials consisted not of evidence-based inquiry, but trial by ordeal and swearing of oaths.  Early medieval society had to rebuild from this “crude level” of society and political thought.

The Visigoths migrated to Rome in response to the Hun’s migrations in 370. They initially just wanted quality land to settle, but when they requested better land from the Empire and were ignored, Alaric sacked Rome in 410. They did no real damage to Rome, but instead held it hostage. Eventually the Visigoths settled in Gaul (Spain and France). The Visigoth’s action showed the other Germanic tribes that Rome wasn’t invincible. The terrifying and warlike Vandals sieged North Africa during the time of St. Augustine. The Ostrogoths invaded Italy and under Theodoric they formed an Ostrogothic Kingdom in Rome, which continued Roman society and culture. However, conspiracies fomented by the Byzantine Empire turned the end of Theodoric’s reign violent. One such victim of this violence was Boethius, a leading church scholar of his time and philosopher known for The Consolation of Philosophy. The Franks under Clovis I conquered France. Unlike Theodoric and the Ostrogoths, the Franks felt “hostility toward Roman civilization (112),” although they did adopt the Latin dialect spoken by the conquered Gallo-Romans in Gaul. Clovis I founded the Merovingian line of Kings after conquering most of modern France and a portion of southwest Germany. This territory was too big for the political institutions of the time and by the 7th century the provincial aristocracy who originally began as royal official sent out to help control these far off regions had taken most of the political power for themselves. The Merovingian Kings divided their land among all their heirs, which led to multiple kings in different areas of France and intense infighting.

As the West fell to barbarism, the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, maintained the traditions of Roman society. It had its highest point under Justinian’s rule, which featured the construction of the monumental Hagia Sophia and the Justinian Code (a code of all Roman law), which eventually formed the backbone of most legal systems in Europe. Right at its height, however, the Byzantine Empire faced a massive decline due to Justinian’s ambitions to win back Italy from the Ostrogoths. The decades of fighting during this 6th century war led to the de-urbanization of Italy’s major cities and ruined Italy economically until the 10th century. It led to the decline of Rome, Italy, and the Byzantine Empire as the cultural and economic hub of Europe. By the time Heraclius I (610 – 641) took power in the Byzantine Empire, he was forced to allow the Bulgar and Slavic people to settle the Balkans and parts of Greece, retaining only Constantinople and some surrounding territory under direct imperial control.

The spread of Islam occurred precisely when the Persian and Byzantine Empires were too weak to defend themselves. The Moslem invasions had major Impacts on the intellectual development of Medieval Europe, preserving Aristotle and other Greek and Roman works lost to the west, as well as bringing new scientific and mathematical ideas. They also became the major economic power, taking control of international trade all over Western Europe.

Monasticism played a major role in the intellectual redevelopment of Western Europe. Its origins stem from the Christian desire to separate from the material world. St. Benedict took the basic religious impulse of the earlier desert fathers who would retreat into the Egyptian desert to live an ascetic lifestyle, but shifted this private hermitic lifestyle into a communal monastic life. St. Benedict founded the Benedictine order of monks who wore black habits and lived in self-sufficient communities in which the monks were economically and politically independent from the world so they could concentrate on the spiritual concerns. These communities would elect an abbot who was in charge over the lives of all the other monastic brothers. The communities had strict rules focused on controlling human desires, but St. Benedict understood that complete asceticism was hard and so the monks still got two solid meals a day, and there was no self-flagellation or hairshirts required. The Benedictine Order founded schools, libraries, and scriptoria and functioned as the major educational institutions in the early Middle Ages. They preserved many classical texts. Cantor estimates “90 percent of the literate men between 600 and 1100 received their instruction in a monastic school (153).” As their role in society grew, rulers and nobility rewarded them with vast manors and they become advisers to kings.

It was Pepin II who invited Anglo-Saxon monks to France in order to convert the Frisians as a way of expanding Carolingian power. The Carolingians had replaced the inept Merovingian dynasty in France. St. Boniface took the lead in this effort and converted the Germanic tribes of France. As the Carolingians had overthrown the rightful rulers, Pepin III turned to the Pope to justify his rule. In turn, this served the Pope’s desire to substantiate previous Papal ideology. The Pope wanted to be seen as the leader of a Christian Europe in which kings gained their authority from the Pope. He supported this argument with a forged document known as the Donation of Constantine (supposedly from the time of the Emperor Constantine, but really forged in the 750s as a justification for the ideal relationship between Pope and ruler). In consequence, it brought the return of theocratic monarchy into Europe. This backfired on the papacy’s desire to consolidate its power and authority with the rise of Pepin’s son, Charlemagne (768 – 814).

Charlemagne was one of the greatest kings of early medieval Europe. He unified France and conquered parts of Germany. Charlemagne was a true political leader that Europe had not seen in ages. The historical period between 750 to 900 shows a significant increase in written documentary evidence compared to the 6th and 7th century of the Merovingian kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon monk Alciun assisted Charlemagne in the expansion of monastic schools, libraries, and scriptoria. Alciun even led a small group of scholars at court who would create their own Latin poetry. The Carolingian dynasty oversaw improvements in type script, the creation of silver currency, improvement of Germanic courts by including a group of sworn men to share their views on cases (which would later be imported by the Normans during their conquest of England and serve as the basis for the English jury), issued documents on ecclesiastical and governmental matter, military reforms that switched military service from free peasants to the better trained and better equipped single knight on cavalry, and created a system of control over the provincial nobility that involved random government inspections by representatives of his court. Unfortunately, his heirs weren’t capable soldiers and failed to command the respect of the provincial nobility with its cultural beliefs in the old Germanic warrior-kings. The arrival of the Vikings and the Carolingians inability to deal with them dealt another blow to the dynasty. The church had pinned its hopes on the Franks and the Carolingian dynasty as the revival of a new unified Christian Europe in which a theocratic king would bring peace, justice, and prosperity with the advice of the clergy. Instead the failure of the Carolingian dynasty led to the rise of the feudal organization of society with the provincial lords taking power.

The Feudalism that arose at this time was a system that encompassed all of life: political, economic, ecclesiastical, and cultural. It involved Lords who controlled large estates and ruled over a peasant class that were required to work the lord’s land for a piece of land of his own to farm. The Lord had power over free-man soldiers and had governmental and legal authority. The control over free-man soldiers led to the vassal system in which higher nobility would give important lower vassals their own plots of land in exchange for loyalty and service. In many cases, they, too, would give away a portion of their land. In 987, the Carolingian’s lost the royal title to Hugh Capet.

The Capetian line would hold the French crown until the 14th century, but early kings had little governmental power and couldn’t control the mostly independent nobility. The strongest of these independent aristocrats were the Dukes of Normandy. Normandy was the most powerful feudal duchy in Western Europe between 980 and 1050. The Dukes used a number of strategies to solidify their power. They supported the Capetian rise to the kingship in exchange for relief from royal interference as they solidified their own position in their duchy. They provided monasteries with vast resources, while they also vassalized their church clergy and in turn this provided the duke with a large enough army of knights to challenge lay nobility within their dominions. The advantage of clergy vassals was that it provided them with effective administrators, while their children couldn’t inherit land or office, so church vassals had no dynastic self-interest like the lay nobility. Eventually the Dukes of Normandy attained enough control over the church that they could even control who gained a bishropic by not allowing candidates their land who didn’t have their approval. They used this power to bring lower nobility in line. William II (1035 – 1087) beat his enemies and was liege lord of all other vassals in the duchy of Normandy. Eventually William turned to England and gained the English throne, ending the Anglo-Saxon line of kings during the Battle of Hastings. The Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror turned Anglo-Saxon England from one of most backwards states in Europe into one of the most powerful by expanding Royal bureaucracy and institutions with extensive system of state records (as evidenced by the Domesday book) and advanced forms of taxation, such as the introduction of Scutage, which allowed feudal lords to provide money instead of knights for feudal service. It also introduced French culture into English society.

The 11th century witnessed new technology such as the horse collar and stirrup, watermills for grinding grain, and extended clearing of wooden lands and swamps, as well as use of field rotation (a few fields would go unused each year to restore ground fertility), which led to increased food supply and population growth. By 1050 Western Europe experienced the rise of medieval cities and bourgeoisie merchants and craftsmen. It also saw a rise in a new lay piety. Asceticism returned in Northern Italy in response to the great wealth of the 11th century, especially among the Benedictine monks. They viewed the Benedictine monks with their vast wealth as having betrayed the ideals of monastic life. This led to the Gregorian Reform Movement and the investiture controversy, which was “a turning point in medieval civilization (246).” Hildebrand who would become Gregory VII published the Dictatus Papae that advocated that the church was founded by God, universal papal authority, and exclusive power over Bishops appointments and removals. He further argued that the Pope could only be judged by God and all true Catholics have to agree with Pope. The goals the Gregorian Reform Movement were to assert the freedom of church from state authority, get rid of the concept of theocratic kingship, and reestablish the Pope’s authority over all secular rulers. Most churchman at this time felt annoyed by papal interference as they had been largely independent and often had powerful political roles with their secular rulers. Meanwhile, the rulers felt annoyed that the Pope was claiming supremacy over them and their political affairs. Henry IV of Germany challenged Pope Gregory VII over church appointments. Pope Gregory VII successfully excommunicated him and convinced the German nobility who were looking for a pretext to challenge Henry’s power to use the principles of elective monarchy to elect a new ruler. Henry IV had to humble himself before the Pope to keep his throne. The ultimate outcome led to the weakening of the German monarchy, allowing the fragmentary semi-autonomous German states to arise. It also showed the power the Pope could play in secular affairs.

Another important role the church played in medieval history was to initiate the Crusades. These were a series of religious war against the Muslims. The Seljuk Turks conquered the Arab Middle East and the nomadic Berbers took control of Moslem Spain. The consequence of these events was that political authority was assumed by religious fanatics who cared little about the philosophical and scientific progress that was occurring in the Muslim world and led to its intellectual decline. The Seljuk Turks also managed to defeat Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Alexius Comnenus turned to the Pope for help in defending Constantinople. Cantor has this to say about the popular image of the Crusades versus its reality:

 “The only event of the eleventh century known to the average graduate of American universities would be the first crusade of 1095, which he would visualize in terms of gigantic warriors dressed in burnished plate armor and riding magnificent steeds, following the standards of the cross to victory over the swarthy hordes of pusillanimous Arabs. No aspect of this picture is quite accurate. The average stature of the late eleventh-century knight, because of insufficient nourishment in infancy and a generally bad diet and medicine, was not above five feet three inches. The Knights of the first crusade still, for the most part, wore chain mail rather than plate armor, which did not come into general use until the latter part of the twelfth century. Their horses, by modern standards or even by those of the thirteenth century, were distinctly puny; it was increased crossbreeding with the superior Arab strains that improved the western breed in the following two centuries. It is true that the knights of the first crusade followed the cross, but by no means entirely for religious purposes. Finally, the Arabs were every bit as valiant and skilled in combat as were the western knights, and it was the internal political weakness of the Islamic world, not the personal inadequacies of the Arab warriors, that accounted for the success of the first crusade (289).”

The crusaders triumphed due to Muslim political “disunity.” The 1st Crusade occurred in 1095. Pope Urban II goal for the Crusade was to reunite Christendom after the divisiveness of Gregorian Reforms, increase Papal prestige, end the East and West church schism, and provide land for landless knights. The outcome of the first Crusade was the formation of a Latin kingdom in Palestine, which slowly declined and crumbled over the subsequent crusades. The knights in the Middle Eastern gained a new cultural tolerance that challenged many of their stereotypes about other cultures and religions as they mingled with their Muslim neighbors. There was a 2nd Crusade in 1144, a 3rd Crusade in 1190, a 4th Crusade in 1204, in which Latin forces conquered Byzantium rather than fought against Muslims.


The 12th century saw the formation of the European legal system as the Northern Italian scholars began to study Justinian’s code. This led to the rise of professional lawyers trained at the university. The first universities appeared during this time. Much of the academic study was centered on commentaries of the Bible and the Justinian code. Aristotle was reintroduced into Europe. Previously only his work on logic had been available. Latin translations were made in Spain, Sicily, and Provence from Arabic sources with assistance of Moslems and Jews. In France, the magnificent Gothic architecture appeared. With all this learning came in an increase in literary output. Although most writers were still churchmen, this is the first appearance of secular writing in the Middle Ages, as well as extensive writings in the vernacular languages. This was the age of chivalry as the values of the aristocracy as primarily a warrior class was replaced with ideas of courtly love and a new sentimentality. Important literature of this time were Arthurian Romances such as those by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram Von Eschenbach, the Chanson de geste such as the Song of Roland, and troubadour poetry. Another important writer and thinker of this time was Abelard. Abelard showed a new recognition of individuality and attempted to deal with the philosophical problem of universals. His work undermined the Platonic thought that dominated the early Middle Ages, moving away from ideal representative types for unique characters of individuals. Abelard was tried for heresy by St. Bernard who himself represented the new piety. Bernard was a leading figure in the development of the Virgin Mary cult and one of the heads of the rise of emotional Christianity of the 12th century. He argued that the ultimate religious experience could occur only when one desires to be one with God so much that said person loses all interest in corporeal matter and enters a “contemplative ecstasy.” His religion was less about rituals and more about a particular state of mind. His ideas emphasized individual morality over the corrupt church hierarchy. This attitude lead to 12th and 14th century heresies.

“By raising the puritan saint above the ministers of Christ and by his presumptuous moral judgement of the priesthood as instruments of Antichrist, he enunciated the doctrines that were to form the common ethos of the popular heresies. Bernard gave to medieval Catholicism a new emotional dimension that enriched and revitalized it, but at the same time he must be regarded as the gravedigger of sacerdotal authority (343).”

The once important Benedictine community were no longer the leaders of education, no longer had important role in politics, having been replaced by university trained clerks, and rulers no longer need their knights for military service as money from feudal taxes and scutage was enough to hire mercenaries, nor were they the center of religious devotion as the cathedral and parish clergy had taken back those roles. Their extensive wealth also lost them social approval. This led to many new monastic orders.  One such order known as the Cistercian order wore white habits, advocated asceticism, and wanted to escape society. They focused on acquiring frontier lands from rulers to accomplish this goal. Other orders that arose during the 13th century was the Franciscan and Dominican Friars (who advocated asceticism, but with a strong emphasis on public welfare).  This period also featured the rise of heresies, which channeled the new piety, and those frustrated with moral corruption among the clergy. The Waldensians in North Italy (Proto-Protestants, antisacerdotal, antisacrament, and Donatist) believed the church was not an institution, but a “spiritual fellowship of saintly men and women who had experienced divine love and grace (388).” Other heresies included the Cathari and Albigensian heresy.

The rise of Capetian power in France begins with Louis VII (1137 – 1180) divorce from Eleanor of Aquitaine. Through his marriage to her, Louis had acquired huge sections of France, and with her remarriage to Henry II of England, the English now controlled these territories. However, the French nobility started to turn to royal court in order to receive neutral judgements in disputes with each other. At this point, the nobles had equal power to each other so they couldn’t dominate each other militarily to solve those arguments. The royal court was seen as a way of solving certain disagreements without resolving to inconclusive military action. The nobility also feared Henry II’s control over large portions of France as a factor that could unbalance their own independent power. So Louis’s divorce from Eleanor might have lost him land, but it led to his nominal vassals at least turning to him for judgements in their affairs.  Philip II Augustus (1180 – 1223) introduced a new system of officials with administrative, judicial, and financial authority. These clerks trained in the university were sent out by the royal government had no roots in the region and whose income and status depended solely on their position. Slowly as the kings gained authority over new territory, this administrative system was extended to these new feudal territories. Likewise, Philip II gained Normandy and other Northern France territories to his realm after taking them from the ineffectual King John of England. The last strategy the Capetians used to strengthen their position was to ally themselves with the Pope. It was Innocent III who called for an inquisition in Southern France to deal with heresy, which brought Southern France under Capetian power. The suppression of the Albigensian hersey became a pretext for the French King to bring Southern France under royal authority.

The 13th century was defined by an increase of social control and expansion of government and legal institutions, a transition from a society of status to one of money, and a long period of peace. The 13th century attempted to systematize all knowledge, which led to extensive use of summaries and encyclopedias. Scholastics dominated the university and these professors produced all the important works on philosophy, law, and science of the time. The universities had become a competitive environment, which was a major factor in refining and challenging previously accepted ideas as one had to challenge the status quo to compete with rival professors in the university. The basic pedagogy involved a professor reading a passage from a text such as Aristotle, the Bible, or the Justinian Code, and then adding his commentary as part of the lecture. Students would work their way through a prescribed program and eventually after a certain length of time of study would earn a Master’s degree. Possessing this degree allowed them to teach at the university. Most students came from families of the burghers or lesser knights. The classics was the basis of study for all students, but the focus wasn’t on the aesthetic or moral qualities of these works. Instead the professors used it to teach dialectic and rhetoric. Students then advanced on to the more important subjects of law, theology, and medicine. This explains the “hostility that the Renaissance humanists frequently expressed toward scholasticism and the universities (442).”

One of the most important thinkers of this time period was Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1272) who wrote the Summa Theologica. The Muslim and Jewish world had struggled to reconcile Aristotelian ideas with their respective religious traditions. Thinkers such Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides attempted to tackle this problem. Aquinas was the Christian world’s attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity and the other church fathers. Aquinas argued that knowledge was built on sensory experience, yet some truths cannot be proved rationality and must be based on faith. Still, you can prove rationally the existence of God and some of his attributes. He used Aristotelian causality to prove God is perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, and free, and the creation ex nihilo. Although his ideas proved a major intellectual turning point, during its day it still had many critics such as St. Bonaventura (1221-1274) who advocated a position based on the Franciscan worldview of religious love and respecting the glory of God. This intellectual period also saw the rise of the first “modern” scientist: Robert Grosseteste (1170 – 1253) and Roger Bacon. There were gains in knowledge in fields such as optics and astronomy.  In the political realm, a baronial rebellion against King John of England led to the creation of Magna Carta, which limited the financial powers of the Angevin monarchy and argued kings should observe the law of the land and must follow rules of due process. The Nobility of the 13th century were more cultured and literate than their 10th century predecessors.  They had a small amount of literacy in which they could write in French, which had become the international language, and read Romances. There lives were dominated by a highly symbolic set of conventions such as the ritual of knighthood where another noble would dub a squire serving in his household as a knight, a code of gentility, and an established system of heraldry. This allowed the nobility to create their own unique habits in which they could reassert their superiority and exclusivity to the rest of society. Due to these expensive habits, much of the landed class was in debt. The long peace of the 13th century decreased the nobility’s role in the military further. Although knights remained central, there was increased use of massed infantry. Other technological revolutions in warfare included the use of the crossbow, which shot bolts that could penetrate knight’s armor, and the longbow, a rapid-fire long-range weapon. However, despite not having many wars to fight, the nobility still maintained a strong place in the military due to tradition. During this period peasants’ lives also changed as many of them were able to work out deals with the indebted nobility that allowed them to become independent farmers.

In the 14th century came the plague, which killed one third of Europe’s population. There was also a “Little Ice Age,” which produced colder, worse winters that decreased the period of the growing season and reduced harvest yields.  The 14th century was one of disease, wars, economic depression, and chaos. There was a labor shortage due to plague. There were many urban and peasant revolts. This was the period of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, which encouraged nationalism and led to the final elimination of English territory in France. The English under Henry V were at first successful and ended up controlling most of Northern France. Eventually they lost this territory and Henry’s weak heirs led to Civil War at home between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal family known as the War of the Roses. This civil war ended with the Battle of Bosworth Field in which Henry VII became the undisputed ruler of England and formed the Tudor dynasty. From the Hundred Years’ War, the French king emerged even more powerful with new sources of taxes (such as the salt tax) and a strong standing army. The 14th century saw a short term increase in the influence of the nobility in military and governmental affairs because of all this chaos. On the other hand, the nobility during this time also saw a weakening of their economic and political power in the long term due to the increase freedom of peasants stemming from all the labor shortages. The Popes of this period became tools of the monarchs. The cardinals that selected the Pope had come to be dominated by acrimonious Roman and French factions. Eventually this led to the election of Pope Clement V and the “Babylonian captivity” when he moved the Papal court from Rome to Avignon. The Popes of Avignon served the interests of the French monarchy. This led further to the “Great schism” where there were two reigning Popes, two colleges of cardinals, and a divided Christian world. The high death rate caused by the plague led to an increase in superstition among the populace, which in turn encouraged the medieval church to sell indulgences as a fund raising for church and as insurance for a person’s soul. The 15th Century saw a new European power with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella that united most of Spain. The Ottaman Empire had conquered Constantinople in 1453, closing off Eastern trade sources from Europe. Portugal and Spain took the lead in finding new trade routes and initiated the Age of Exploration and one of the largest overseas empires in South America. These tough time spurred creative and intellectual thought and gave rise to humanism and the Italian Renaissance.

“The humanist philosophy was wholly compatible with the outlook the Italian upper class. The secular educational system developing in Italian cities was directed toward education in the humanities—that is, in art and letter—to prepare the young man of a good family to take his place in society. The young man’s goal was not to become a highly trained scholar, but to develop the proper social values and the right forms of expression. He was more concerned with ethics than with philosophy or theology. The search for truth was an accepted value, but it was no isolated from secular concerns. Rather, the student was supposed to become a man of affairs, a citizen who took an active part in public matters. With a few notable exceptions, even professional scholars and teachers did not exclude themselves from public life (551).”

This Humanism led to a new focus on the liberal arts. Literature and the Classics were no longer just a precursor to more important studies, but were now the main focus of an education.

The Decameron by Boccaccio (trans. G. H. McWilliam)

Boccaccio’s The Decameron is a late medieval prose work in which a group of seven women and three men desert Florentine society for an idyllic estate. The cause of their retreat from society is a terrible plague that is ravaging the city leading to the breakdown of the traditional rules of society.

“In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city (7).”

After their escape to the countryside, the party decides over the course of ten days to each tell a story as a way of keeping themselves entertained. On most days, the stories have a general theme or topic for the frame-characters.

  • Day 1 has no theme
  • Day 2 are stories about misfortunes with happy endings
  • Day 3 are stories about people who gain or lose an object they desire
  • Day 4 are stories about love that ends unhappily
  • Day 5 are stories about love that ends happily
  • Day 6 are stories that involves clever retorts
  • Day 7 are stories about tricks women play on their husbands
  • Day 8 are stories about people who trick each other
  • Day 9 has no theme.
  • Day 10 are stories about munificent deeds.

As my translator and editor, G. H. McWilliam suggests the characters in the frame-story are symbolic, the seven women representing Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Love, while the three men represent Reason, Anger, and Lust. Likewise, the paradisiacal setting where the group of ten tell their tales symbolizes Eden. In this way, the work has allegorical qualities that fit well with other medieval literature. However, there are stark differences that hint at important social changes. Although the nobility are often the main characters of the stories, middle class merchants also make appearances frequently and play important roles that stand in stark contrast to earlier medieval literature, representing the changing society in which the middle class is becoming more prominent. There is an irreverence towards church figures in the tales, especially friars, while maintaining belief in God and respecting genuine Christian belief in general.

Human pleasure, however, is given primacy over religious devotion. In many of the tales, wives choose to cheat on husbands because their husband’s strict religious commitment prevents them from sleeping with their wives and providing them with pleasure. The characters often justify cheating on their overly religious spouses with the idea that life is too short and it’s better to enjoy it while you’re young and you can. This is not the only reason adultery is committed in the stories; sometimes it’s merely a matter of lust, inflamed passions, and love. Love and pleasure is celebrated as an ultimate good, shifting from a focus on achieving salvation and happiness in the afterlife to an emphasis on finding pleasure and joy in this life. Human ingenuity is also celebrated as many of the characters in these stories spend time tricking each other, usually for the purpose of sleeping with someone’s wife or husband. Indeed, with this theme of trickery and cleverness in mind, we should note that there is an entire day dedicated to tales about clever retorts. Adultery is frequent in these stories and can be found on almost every day no matter what the main theme of the stories. All of this is reflective of the backdrop of the plague, which historically not only led to changes in social values, but led to the rise of the Middle Class.


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

During the 1970s most social scientists followed in the path of Ancient Greek Philosophers in their belief that man is a rational being who occasionally slips from time to time due to emotions. Noble prize-winning psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, challenged this view by documenting mistakes in people’s thinking that arose from everyday mental processes rather than emotional factors. In their famous article, “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” that originally appeared in Science, they describe three mental shortcuts our brains naturally take that lead to poor assessment of probabilities.

1) Representative is when a person judges that some connection is more likely due to some imagined essential characteristic or categorical association in their minds. For example, if Steve is described as shy and people are asked to rank the probability that he is a certain profession from a list, studies show most people will rank librarian as the highest likely occupation for Steve even if farmers are more frequent in the overall population. People will ignore the frequency or probability that suggests Steve, a random person selected from a population, is more likely to be a farmer. Instead they will use the irrelevant personal characteristic and draw on the stereotype that librarians are shy to come to their conclusions.

2) Availability bias leads us to judge an event as more or less likely due to how easily we remember or can recall an example. If my uncle won the lottery, I am more likely to overestimate my chances of winning the lottery. If none of the female members of my family have had breast cancer I’m likely to underestimate the prevalence of an average person getting breast cancer. If I see a house burn down with my own eyes down the block I am more likely to believe there is a greater chance my house will burn down than if I read about it in the newspaper.

3) Anchoring and Adjustment Bias involves the way our starting estimate or value “anchors” us when we are given a chance to adjust our estimates. In experiments, people given low starting values for an estimate and another group given a much higher starting value and then asked to adjust to what they think is the correct value will remain closer to the initial value given. The group with the higher value will remain much higher in their estimates when they complete their adjustments and the group given the lower starting value will remain much lower in their estimates, suggesting the initial value given at random affected how far their adjustments went. Their first value “anchors” their adjustments. Basically, we rely too much on the first piece of information we receive.

Other researchers, such as Schwartz, also explored the availability bias. In his experiment, people ranked how assertive they thought they were after they listed either six or twelve particular instances when they were assertive. Paradoxically those who only listed six ranked themselves as more assertive. When you have to list a larger number of instances it becomes less easy to retrieve from memory so it feels like you’re less assertive, despite technically producing more instances and thus more evidence of your assertiveness.
Another example of the availability bias in action can be witnessed in a survey that Slovic and Lichtenstein gave in which participants had to compare two potential causes of death and judge which was more likely. Their results found people misjudged the probability of dying by one cause compared to another. For example, people ranked dying by an accident as more likely than dying by a stroke. In reality, you’re twice as likely to die from a stroke as by an accident. The culprit seems to be media coverage, which leads to an availability bias. By covering automobile accidents more frequently than people dying from strokes it gives the false impression that they occur more often.

In Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, Kahneman expands on this earlier research in order to explain what causes us to make all these mental errors. According to the dual-processing theory expounded in the book, we have two ways of mentally processing the world which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is associated with intuition. It is fast and at times unconscious. It deals with thoughts, impressions, and judgements that occur automatically. It is responsible for noticing simple relations such as a person being taller than another, recognizing that 17 X 24 is a multiplication problem, or navigating from your upstairs bathroom down to your kitchen. The key characteristic is that you don’t need to deliberately think about any of these things. If I see a green shirt or the symbol 4 my brain will register the concept green and four whether I want it to or not. Meanwhile, System 2 is deliberate and slow. It is often associated with rationality, self-control, attention, careful decision-making, and effortful mental activities. It is capable of following rules (such as learning the rules of a new board game you haven’t played before), able to compare advanced characteristics between objects (such as making a list of the pros and cons of a new political policy in comparison to an old one), and allows us to make deliberate choices (such as choosing to eat a healthy salad instead of a donut).

This might sound like the two mental systems are opposed, but in reality they work together. System 1 monitors your daily situation and can solve most of your everyday problems relatively efficiently; it only calls on System 2 when greater mental effort is needed. Likewise, System 2 can reject impressions and judgements formed quickly by System 1. However, in most cases it endorses those initial impressions and this is how we form beliefs. If you ever met someone whose ideas seemed out there and obviously incorrect to you, but when asked to justify those beliefs they were still able to offer long-winded and complicated rationalizations you’ve witnessed an example of System 2 endorsing impressions from System 1. However, before you criticize such a person don’t forget they’re probably thinking the same thing about you and your crazy ideas! You’re just as prone to these same biases.

The problem with System 1 is that it is prone to biases and mistakes. When a situation doesn’t have enough information, System 1 will jump to conclusions and attempt to construct a coherent narrative when none exists. Indeed, instead of judging by the quality and quantity of evidence, System 1 places more weight on how coherent a narrative can be formed. If we fail to find the answer to a harder question, we will substitute an easier question that is similar and answer that. Kahneman coins a term that he repeats often in the book as a defining feature of System 1: WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). System 1 is terrible at considering ideas, interpretations, or perspective outside of its limited consideration. To demonstrate this, Kahneman recalls a study done by his friend and collaborator, Amos Tvserky. In the study, the participants each were given a background scenario about an arrest that occurred in a store after a confrontation between a union organizer and the store manager. In addition to the background material that all participants received, which contained only the facts of the events, one group was given a presentation by only the union’s lawyer, one group was given a presentation by only the store’s lawyer, and another group was given both. The lawyer for the union depicted the arrest as an intimidation tactic against the union, while the lawyer for the store argued the talk was disruptive and the manager was in his rights to have the organizer arrested. Despite knowing they only heard one side of the story, the participants trusted their judgements about the situation more than those who got to hear both sides of the story. By only hearing one side and not the other with a conflicting interpretation of the same events, the information is more coherent and is more easily accepted by System 1. System 1 doesn’t like ambiguity because it interferes with coherence and even though the participants knew there was another side and could’ve easily imagined the other side’s arguments for its actions, the data suggests that is not what we naturally do. Our minds want to take the easy way out.

Our natural mental state is one of cognitive ease; we want to use the least amount of energy and effort to solve the problem. This is why we tend to adopt what’s familiar; it’s easier. Research by Larry Jacoby and others have shown that you can induce people with mental illusions and false ideas (like fake celebrity names that they believe are real) by giving the impression of familiarity. Repetition, even of false ideas, creates a sense of familiarity that System 1 tends to believe uncritically. If something feels familiar, we tend to believe it’s true. Robert Zanjonc, who studied this mere exposure effect by placing random Turkish words in a student newspaper and then sending out questionnaires to students who read the paper found that words that appeared more frequently had higher positive connotations for those students, despite not knowing their meaning and not speaking Turkish. Just being exposed to random words more frequently increased their positive feelings towards those words. Mere exposure increases familiarity, which then increases how positively we feel about them.

Experiments by Roy Baumeister suggest that we have a limited pool of willpower. If we use System 2 to exert good self-control at one moment, we are less likely to control ourselves during the next temptation. Although some new research calls this idea of ego depletion into question (see this: youtube video). Likewise, cognitive overload can also interfere with System 2. Cognitive overload occurs when we try to do too many complex tasks at the same time (like solving a tricky math problem, while switching lanes in heavy traffic). You simply can’t give the necessary mental attention to all these tasks simultaneously.