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.

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

Although his style is not overly difficult compared to some poets, Philip Larkin is a difficult poet to read. His vision of life is dark, depressing, and unremittingly cynical, although he does employ a comical tone at times to tackle what he sees as the absurdity of life. His poetry presents ordinary experiences drained of their traditional meanings. The speakers of his poems often look back at the past and see only unfulfilled lives, while they wait for death.

In the poem “Church Going” we have a speaker who travels daily to a church that is slowly losing all its religious meaning in modernity as more and more people turn away from religion, yet there is an irony in the poem that he keeps returning to this now meaningless place in search of something that he can’t quite articulate. In the last stanza the poem tells us that he keeps returning to this “serious house on a serious earth” in order to fill “a hunger in himself to be more serious.” Although the church and its theology that it represents no longer has deeper meaning for this speaker, it stands in as a symbol for all that’s missing in his life. In other words, he doesn’t want religion and can’t believe in it anymore, yet he can’t stop searching for a deeper meaning to give his life some purpose. It stands as a symbol of his search for meaning, even as it is slowly losing its meaning. The church “was proper to grow wise in,/If only that so many dead lie round.” This final line of the poem is a major theme that appears throughout Larkin’s other poems. The only real truth, the only destiny we have as human beings, is that we will die in the end. The cynical tone implies that the true wisdom offered in church isn’t religion itself, but the recognition of our fate. Many of Larkin’s other poems explore death and imply that it is the very fact that we will die that makes all experiences meaningless.

If the future frightens him because of impending death, the past doesn’t fill him with nostalgia either, only regrets for an unlived and wasted life. From “I Remember, I Remember”:

“ ’Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort.”

Whereas many writers would look back at their childhood with nostalgia for some lost golden years, Larkin often speaks of his childhood in his poetry as wasted time and makes it sound unhappy.

Indeed in one of his most famous poems, “This Be The Verse” he even questions the role parents play, not raising us to be virtuous or making us happy well-adjusted individuals, but corrupting us with their faults:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”

The vision of the poem extends further, suggesting one generation gives only misery to the next generation in an endless cycle, which leaves the speaker to conclude that a person shouldn’t have kids.

A strong sense of regret pervades these poems. Consider for example these lines from the poem, “Toads”:

“Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on.”

Larkin writes poems about speakers with unfulfilled dreams. They sometimes imagine a different kind of life, but they cannot give up the comfy boring middle-class lifestyle in the end. Larkin, however, in his poem “Toads Revisited” also isn’t afraid to show the imaginary life longed for in the original poem also has its faults.

Utopia by Thomas More (trans. Paul Turner)

In this slim book, Thomas More wrote a work that lent its name to an entire sub-genre of fiction. This is not to say More created the first piece of literature that could be called utopian. Many ancient works, such as the Garden of Eden from the Bible to pick one example, have dreamt of a perfect society where worry is nonexistent and all our needs are met. In the work, More writes himself as a character recalling a diplomatic mission where he met a sailor named Raphael. During this time More, along with some lawyers, and Cardinals begin a discussion about the societal ills plaguing England. As a world traveler, Raphael has seen many different societies and cultures with unique ways of life and offers his views on how to fix the endemic problem of thieves. He goes so far as to criticize the entire economic system of capitalism. Later, Raphael tells More about Utopia, a land that organizes it society along communist lines.

As my introduction discusses the satires of Lucian were a major influence on the text. However, Raphael’s description of the lives and society found in Utopia are reminiscent of Plato’s discussions in The Republic when he outlines his ideal society run by philosopher-kings. Yet for all the ways the text looks back at the past for influence, it is amazing how modern its ideas feel. During the discussion about how to deal with the growing problem of thieves, Raphael condemns the death penalty for such a minor offense. Raphael suggests that people who become thieves are just desperate and have no other means of securing their needs. The rich, in this case nobles, have created a situation where they cannot attain jobs. One of the English lawyers disagrees with him.

“There’s adequate provision for that already . . . There are plenty of trades open to them. There’s always work on the land. They could easily earn an honest living if they wanted to, but they deliberately choose to be criminals (22).”

The lawyers reply could be a stereotypical conservative’s response to a discussion about welfare or criminals today. The lawyer presents the idea that all those commoners turned thieves could find a job if they wanted, but choose not to. However, Raphael points out that it is the rich nobility’s greedy policies, such as converting arable land to pasture for their sheep, which creates job loss in the first place. Raphael advocates slavery for thievery instead of a death sentence. It is an uncomfortable defense of slavery and a difficult proposition for a modern reader.  Basically criminals would be slaves and work on projects for the public good. Although he does state some will be given freedom for good behavior.

While this might all sound like deep philosophical pondering, the work is often funny and satirical. During the early discussions about England’s social ills, the reader gets to see that the people in court around the Cardinal are all sycophants. They constantly reject Raphael’s strange ideas as being ridiculous, until the Cardinal agrees with them.

“This, from the Cardinal, was enough to make everyone wildly in favour of an idea which nobody had taken seriously when I produced it. They were particularly keen on the bit about vagrants, since that was his own contribution (32).”

The next part involves the character Thomas More trying to convince Raphael to join a court and provide his sound advice to a ruler. Raphael explains to Thomas More the character why he won’t.

“There’s no room at Court for philosophy (41).”


Most kings would rather fight wars, fleece money from their population, and subvert justice in their own favor than listen to good advice and govern their subjects well. In other words, most kings are corrupt. So good advice would be a waste of time.

The central problem of society is the inequality of wealth.

“I don’t see how you can ever get any real justice or prosperity, so long as there’s private property, and everything’s judged in terms of money . . . I’m quite convinced that you’ll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property (44-45).”


How seriously should we take this work? I don’t think More is asking us to adopt Utopian society wholesale or even Communism. Instead by creating an imaginary society based on these principles called Utopia, More envisions a better world than the Europe of  his day. He is not necessarily saying his current society needs to become Utopia, but rather he wants the reader too contrast his social institutions of his or her own society against this imaginary “perfect” one. It is a reminder that the societies we are born into are not perfect. The work forces the reader to consider the faults in his or her own society by comparing it to an imaginary one and consider ways of improving it without necessarily demanding we follow any particular prescription.

The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

“I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.” – On Democritus and Heraclitus


In the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne borrows the ideas of ancient writers as a guide for his own original and sometimes very modern thoughts. Despite extensively quoting writers from the past, he gives a prominent place to his own thoughts rather than the authority and opinions of others. As the essays declare numerous times his main subject is himself: his thoughts on various matters, his habits, his abilities and weaknesses, which he employs as a way of exploring the human experience more generally. He never leaves the impression he is trying to persuade you that his own views represent the ultimate truth on matters, but rather his style comes across as a man sharing his private thoughts and opinions in a conversation with an intimate friend, while acknowledging those friends might feel differently and come to different conclusions. The essays cover a wide variety of subjects related to philosophy, society, politics, education, exploration, and the self. The one constant for Montaigne is a world dominated by human variability. Montaigne grew up in an age where civil wars over religion were occurring in his country and Europe was exploring the Americas. These historical events serve as a backdrop and sometimes even the main topic of some of his essays.


An important topic for Montaigne is education. Montaigne questions the value of rote learning of facts and suggests the true purpose of education should be to develop our virtue and judgement. One might view him as an early proponent of critical thinking.


“A good education changes a boy’s judgement and morals.” – On Presumption.


Montaigne suggests that philosophy, since its primary concern is how to live, is the most important subject a child can study. Learning should not be just memorizing dates and being able to recite every last rule of grammar, but rather it should be connected to how we ought to live our lives. In the essay “On books” he elaborates on this point by saying he prefers cultivating knowledge of himself rather than spending his time acquiring factual knowledge. However, he is not suggesting we should merely navel gaze and ignore books altogether. In that same essay, he discusses the books of poetry, philosophy, and history that he found most profitable to exploring his own ideas, feelings, and nature. Books that fit into areas that we would typically call the Humanities assist us in exploring ourselves, our own values, experiences, and ideas. The Great Books can teach us to value ourselves properly by seeing our strengths and shortcomings.

“If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.” – On Practice.

Montaigne offers a justification for reading the Great Books and the study of history by suggesting that they help us understand ourselves and provide an honest assessment about our own character. They help us see our own place in the world and make us realize the world does not revolve around us. They help us measure our own ideas and experiences to those of the past.

He also has thoughts about pedagogy. A student should not passively read a philosophical dialogue, but share their own views on the arguments and ideas presented, much like what he is doing in the essays. In his attack on rhetoric and grammar as the foundations of education, he also defends the virtues of straightforward speech, while not quite dismissing rhetoric all together. He accepts that there is some value in possessing a great ability with words. The problem is that too often writers hide behind pretty rhetoric and flourishes, while lacking any real substance and content, and uncritical people are easily fooled into accepting bad ideas being masked behind the pretty language.

All of this leads to one of Montaigne’s other big concerns: the importance of virtue. One of the main methods of making ourselves virtuous is cultivating knowledge of ourselves. We have to be careful of caring too much about what other people think of us. Our happiness should not depend on things outside ourselves and thus outside of our control such as property, our relationships, and even good health. We should judge men by their inner qualities, not their rank or wealth or fine clothing. Those things are matters of fortune and superficial outer appearance; just as you would judge a horse by how fast it can run, not how luxurious its saddle might be. Solitude and tranquility are not found by fleeing society and the company of other people, but through the careful cultivation of reason and wisdom. We need to use reason and wisdom to control the vices and fears of our own mind; only then can we achieve tranquility.

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession” – On Solitude.

We also need to keep in mind that even good forces that are generally helpful such as philosophy, matrimony, virtue, wisdom, etc. can be harmful if taken to excess. In Montaigne’s view traditionally positive practices are only beneficial if they are tempered by moderation. He also suggests that goodness and virtue are related but not the same. Virtue requires difficulty and opposition to one’s own inclinations, while goodness can arise from one’s natural temperament. Reading about virtue and understanding it are not enough. Without practice, reason and education cannot establish habits of mind and behavior. It is important to continually practice what we preach in order to make our ideas and ideals a part of our everyday thoughts and behaviors. There is so many more topics and ideas to be found in Montaigne, but all this variety makes it difficult to cover everything. While not always as entertaining as reading a novel, the essays are definitely thought-provoking.

The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

The Praise of a Folly is a quintessential Renaissance work. In the work, Folly gives an oration about her own importance, claiming that her followers are everywhere in the world, and goes on to document the man ways that folly and hypocrisy features in everyday experience and in various human institutions such as: philosophy, education, politics, poetry, and religion. At the beginning of the work she describes her mythical origins in the vein of Hesiod, claiming to be to child of Plutus (Greed), which suggests allegorically human folly often stems from greed. The Roman satires of Juvenal and Lucan are a strong influence on the work as well as  The Consolation of Philosophy, which features the allegorical figure of Philosophy herself discussing the nature of the world, along with the medieval allegorical traditions, which features allegorical figures that give long orations (i. e. The Romance of the Rose).

While many parts of the work are amusing in its playful and satirical critique of society, there are elements that might irritate a reader.  The work is a bit repetitive. It is difficult to tell if this is a flaw in the writing or Erasmus was attempting to match style to content. Folly rambles and repeats herself, in which the style can be seen as a type of folly itself, the sort of person who rambles without being concise and to the point, as well as the type of person who endlessly repeats their story without realizing they’re repeating themselves.

One critique that is repeated a lot is that against philosophers. In a world built on human folly and the pleasure it brings, who wants to listen to a bunch of pedantic philosophers telling us to ignore human pleasures! The true knowledge of philosophy only brings trouble, annoys other people, and brings no pleasure to the individual. Indeed, so much stoic philosophy is built on putting aside and ignoring human pleasures. Unfortunately, this critique is repeated over and over again.

Folly also critiques princes who believe it is their duty to focus on their own pleasure rather than the good of people.

“They believe they have discharged all the duty of a prince if they hunt every day, keep a stable of fine horses, sell dignities and commanderies, and invent new ways of draining the citizens’ purses and bringing it into their own exchequer; but under such dainty new-found names that though the thing be most unjust in itself, it carries yet some face of equity; adding to this some little sweet’nings that whatever happens, they may be secure of the common people.”

His strongest critiques, however, are reserved for religious institutions of his day. The work with its irreverent tone and critique of medieval theology is cited as a major inspiration for the Reformation. For example, the work tackles the institutions of monks and their variety of orders.

“these are Benedictines, those Bernardines; these Carmelites, those Augustines; these Williamites, and those Jacobines; as if it were not worth the while to be called Christians. And of  these, a great part build so much on their ceremonies and petty traditions of men that they think one heaven is too poor a reward for so great merit, little dreaming that the time will come when Christ, not regarding any of these trifles, will call them to account for His precept of charity.”

Folly suggests that all these monks would rather be called other names associated with their various order than simply Christians, delude themselves that their petty rules and ceremonies associated with each order will somehow merit them a higher place in heaven, and that they are in fact performing many practices and buying into many assumptions that are not in line with Christ’s teachings.

He also tackles theologians, those professional scholars of religion who “are so taken up with these pleasant trifles that they have not so much leisure as to cast the least eye on the Gospel or St. Paul’s epistles.” By Erasmus’ time, theology spent an exorbitant amount of time arguing about minor details that had little relationship to the message of the Gospels. Despite dealing with trifling matters about the secret meaning of Christ’s name or some other esoteric subject, these theologians puffed up their own importance “requir[ing] that their own conclusions, subscribed by two or three Schoolmen, be accounted greater than Solon’s laws and preferred before the papal decretals.” Anything they dislike is dismissed as irreverent or heresy.

In this sense, the work is very modern in its willingness to critique the institutions of its time. It has a critical voice that is different from earlier medieval works. Like Juvenal, Erasmus is willing to question and critique all that is wrong, or at the very least, absurd and ridiculous about society and human affairs