The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards)

Christine de Pizan is a rare example of a literary woman from the Medieval period. She was raised in the French Court after her Italian father took a job there as an astrologer and physician. There she achieved a high level of education that wouldn’t have been possible in the male-dominated arenas of the Italian City-States. Married at fifteen to a court official and widowed from her happy marriage, she attempted to support herself and her children through her writing.

The Book of the City of Ladies addresses the slander that women are by nature full of vice and evil. Ancient and contemporary writers often accused women of being lewd and unable to control their sexual desires, as being weak and cowardly, as being unfit for government or law, as unintelligent, who brought nothing but unhappiness to their husbands, and were the cause of humanity’s downfall through Eve.

“[J]udging from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators . . .  it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. They all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice (4).”

All of this anti-female discourse found in the great works fills Christine with low self-esteem, self-hated, and loathing of her own sex.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature (5).”

Christine is confronted by the female allegorical figures Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Like much medieval allegorical work, Christine is influenced by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in which Lady Philosophy arrives to comfort Boethius at the dawn of his execution and correct his mistaken views about divine justice. Like Lady Philosophy, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice have come to comfort Christine in her distress, challenge the lies of these male writers, and help her build a City of Ladies for future generations whose walls will defend the virtue of women.

“What more do you want me to tell you, my dear daughter? It seems to me that I have brought sufficient proof of my intention, which was to show you, through reasoning and example, that God has never held, nor now holds, the feminine sex—nor that of men—in reproach (97).”

Reason points out that those who blame Eve for humanity’s Fall ignore the more important contribution of the Virgin Mary who provided humanity’s salvation. Reason acknowledges that there may be some merit in attacking “lewd” women, but writers that do so often go beyond these reasonable boundaries and assume all women are dissolute. Reason tells Christine that these male writers attack women due to their own vices, jealousy, and enjoyment of slander.

In response to the claim that women should have no place in law, government, or dispensing justice, Reason offers many examples of women leaders who were known for their just rule such as Nicaula the Empress of Ethiopia and Fredegund the Queen of France. To counter the point that women are physically weaker, cowardly, and have less strength, Reason notes how nature often makes up for defects in one area by giving an advantage in another. Aristotle was misshapen physically, but had a first-rate mind. Alexander the Great was ugly and sickly, but his courageous heart and virtuous qualities made him a first-rate warrior and leader. Likewise, some strong men, far from being virtuous, have committed such heinous acts during war that they’ve damned their souls and would’ve been better off being born with weak feminine bodies. Reason goes on to list the many women who have demonstrated courage and strength in history. She mentions Semiramis of Nineveh who conquered Babylon, Assyria, Ethiopia, and India. Another exemplar is Queen Thamiramis of the Amazons who defeated the Persian King Cyrus, and then chopped off his head, and threw it into a bucket of blood as ridicule for his never-ending bloodlust. While the Amazon warriors Menalippe and Hippolyta unhorsed Hercules and Theseus in battle, and Penthesilea the Amazon took on whole armies of Greeks to avenge Hector’s death. She could only be stopped when Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, ambushed her with all his forces.

Reason next addresses whether women can be as clever and intelligent as men. The perception that women know less than men arises from lack of equal access to education and that women spend their days running a household rather than participating in a variety of human activities that would require of them and provide them with a broader education. Examples of educated women include Conficia who went to school with her brother and became a famous poet mentioned by both Saint Gregory and Boccaccio. While Proba mastered all seven liberal arts and knew all of Virgil’s works by heart. The Greek Sappho who also gets a mention was not only well-educated, but a celebrated poet. Reason elaborates on this claim further by pointing out that many women have invented new fields and technology. Nicostrata also called Carmentis was the first to institute laws in the Italian lands that would later become Rome. Minerva invented techniques for making armor. Indeed, she was so wise and so skilled that according to Reason the pagans mistook her for a goddess. Ceres invented the science of agriculture and farming, while Isis invented the art of gardening and planting.  The last part of Reason’s discussion involves prudence or the discipline to complete what needs to be done. Here Reason buttresses her argument by offering a gloss on the biblical proverbs. Some of her prudent women include Gaia Cirilla, Queen Dido, Opis, and Lavinia who marries Aeneas in the Aeneid.


Next it is Rectitude’s turn who calls out the foolishness of parents that desire sons over daughters. She argues that sons are more likely to resent their parent’s poverty or desire their parent’s death if their parents happen to be rich in order to inherit property quicker, while daughters tend to be more loyal. Rectitude then gives example of daughters loyal to parents through tough times. Next, Rectitude challenges the stereotype that marriage is filled with unhappiness for men because of controlling, disloyal wives. Indeed, often the opposite is true.

“How many women are there actually, dear friend—and you yourself know—who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens? My God! How many harsh beatings—without cause and without reason—how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help? And consider all the women who die of hunger and grief with a home full of children, while their husbands carouse dissolutely or go on binges in every tavern all over town, and still the poor women are beaten by their husbands when they return, and that is their supper! (119).”

This denunciation against abusive husbands challenges the slander that women make men unhappy in marriage. In reality, it is men who often make women unhappy in marriage.  Still, women often remain loyal to their husbands, despite this mistreatment.

To challenge the claim that women are unfaithful, Rectitude turns to well-known mythological examples such as Dido’s loyalty to Aeneas, Medea’s loyalty to Jason, Thisbe to Pyramus, Hero to Leander, and the Griselda tale, which is such a prototypical tale of constancy in the Middle Ages, that it is retold in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s the Decameron as well. Rectitude tells of Portia who is so loyal to her husband, Brutus, that after he is defeated in battle during the Civil War that follows Julius Caesar’s assassination, she swallows burning coals to commit suicide in solidarity with her deceased spouse.  Rectitude also lists women who helped save their people from destruction or danger such as the biblical figures Mary, Judith, and Queen Esther. Rectitude shows that men are often happier or would be happier if they listened to their wives’ sound advice to keep them out of mischief. One such example is Veturia the wife of Cornelius who convinces her husband not to destroy Rome.

The final allegorical figure is Justice who comes to complete the city. The Virgin Mary is brought to reign as Queen of the City of Ladies. Justice speaks of female saints who suffer and survive many tortures at the hands of tyrannical Roman Emperors and zealous pagans. Christine saves these figures for last because they have the most unimpeachable virtue. She provides countless examples of saintly women who were chosen by God Himself to suffer in His name and convert the pagans. Any male writer who wishes to claim all women are nothing but vice and evil will struggle to rebut the many examples of female saints who represent the most virtuous of people in the Christian worldview and the exact opposite of their claims. Not only is Christine making a statement of who is most deserving to occupy the choicest places of her allegorical city, but seen in terms of a rhetorical strategy she is saving her best arguments for last.
Christine should be viewed as a proto-Feminist who focuses on women’s issues and questions the stereotypes men have of women, yet she is also a product of her times. It is inaccurate to envision her as a feminist in the modern sense fighting for complete liberation from patriarchal society or who supports free love. As Reason says earlier women who live dissolute lives should be criticized; in so far as this reflects Christine’s views, she is not someone who’s going to argue that women should be able to sleep with as many partners as they want. Her ideal women are chaste virgins who devote their lives to God, as shown by her female saints occupying the highest mansions of the City of Ladies, and those who do choose to get married she argues at various points should be subject to their husbands as St. Paul suggests. However, she does call out bad husbands explicitly and doesn’t shy away from challenging male authority when it is wrong or immoral by those same Christian standards. Her devotion to Christianity doesn’t come second to her advocating for women’s rights; the work is a synthesis of the two where the slander of men is wrong in part because women are often good Christians demonstrating virtuous behavior and productive members of society.

With her Christian beliefs in mind, Christine adopts a euhemerist model to handle her pagan mythological references. This view of mythology argues that the figures of myth are real historical figures, usually great men and women, whose actual history has become exaggerated, obscured, and transformed over time into myth. When she mentions Uranus and Vesta, they are no longer the progenitor sky and earth deities, but Uranus is reduced to “an extremely powerful man in Greece (95).” Saturn is not the King of the Titans anymore, but rather he is the King of Crete. Christine applies these assumptions with many other classical gods and goddess, claiming they were humans whose wisdom or excessive virtue led the pagans to incorrectly believe they were gods. In this vein, Rectitude talks about the ten sibyls. It was a medieval belief that one of the sibyls prophesied Jesus and spoke out against paganism. This bring us to an important point in Christine’s literary strategy. She wants to be able to use ancient sources steeped in paganism, but obviously can’t use them wholesale due to Christian social mores. So in the case of the sibyls she turns them into proto-Christians and in the case of the pagan deities she uses a euhemeristic understanding of mythology to make these exemplars more palatable to a Christian audience and reconcilable to her monotheistic beliefs.

This leaves us with the City itself, which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice help build with their arguments. The walls and structures of the city are built out of all the virtuous qualities the women of history, literature, the Bible, and mythology have shown. By erecting the city on these arguments, they are designed to protect women from future slander.


The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (trans. Betty Radice and M. T. Clanchy).

In his first letter, titled “Historia Calamitatum”, Abelard tells an anonymous friend the story of his tragic early life. He was born on the borders of Brittany to noble parents. As the eldest son, he stood to inherit lands and a castle, but his father also encouraged his children in their learning, which led Abelard to abandon military life for the life of learning.

“I renounced the glory of military life, made over my inheritance and rights of the eldest son to my brothers, and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to be educated in the lap of Minerva (3).”

He went to Paris to learn dialectic under William of Champeaux, but after disputing with him on some points of philosophy his former teacher became an enemy. In many ways, the life of a scholar and teacher was far more treacherous than the military life. The world Abelard describes in his letter was one of cut-throat competition where a teacher’s reputation could make or break them. After falling out with William, Abelard goes off to setup a rival school. The more William and others denigrate him, the better his reputation becomes and the more students he gains.


After studying and teaching philosophy, particularly Aristotelian logic, Abelard decides to go off to study Scripture with Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with the better known St. Anselm), who was the preeminent scholar of the Bible in his day. Abelard finds Anselm unintelligent and not very insightful, often being unable to answer simple questions and leaving his students more confused about a particular point than when they began. Some of his students start speaking poorly of him to Anselm, especially after Abelard decides to start skipping lecture. On a challenge from his fellow students, Abelard writes his own lecture on a particularly difficult passage of Ezekiel. Everyone is so impressed with his interpretation that he soon gains the ire of Anselm too. However, this backfires as well and soon gains him students who want his Biblical interpretations.

It’s at the height of this worldly success when he first meets Heloise.

“In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her most renowned throughout the realm. I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at the time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love (10).”

Abelard convinces her uncle to hire him as her private tutor. They have a secret passionate love affair. She gets pregnant. Abelard takes her away into his own country to deliver the baby. This, of course, means the uncle learns of the affair.  He tries to appease the uncle by marrying Heloise, but hoped to keep the marriage a secret so it doesn’t damage his reputation. Heloise tries to convince him that this is a bad idea and won’t really satisfy her uncle who feels his honor has been damaged. Once they are married the uncle reveals their union to everyone and constantly berates Heloise. Abelard sends her to a convent, which leads the uncle and her family to believe he is preparing to divorce her. Angered by this final insult, they break into his house by bribing a servant and castrate him.



Humiliated and mutilated, Abelard retires to a monastery, which at first welcomes a man of his reputation, but once he starts criticizing some of their evil habits they begin to resent and hate him as well. He writes his first major book on scripture. Heloise goes off and becomes a nun for real at exhortations of Abelard. Meanwhile his intellectual rivals convince higher officials that the book is heretical and this causes him to be summoned to a trial. During his first trial of heresy, they struggle to find any evidence in his book that could be deemed heretical and are about to let him go with no charges, but his rivals at the last second convince the heads of the trial to punish him anyway. They misrepresent his views about the trinity, force him to recant views he doesn’t hold, and then burn his book.


Abelard returns to the monastery where everyone hates him. The monks trump up charges against based on some comments about the origins of the French Church and plan to bring him to justice before the king. He flees to the protection of Count Theobald, a powerful neighboring lord, whose strength is equal to the king’s. He then retires to the wilderness where his students follow him. They help him build a monastery to house his school, which he calls the Paraclete. Shortly after, he gains a post as an abbot at St. Gildas. The unruly monks hate his strict rules and try to poison him.

He gives the Paraclete to Heloise and her nuns as their new convent once their old one was confiscated.

Abelard views his early intellectual successes as sinful pride and leads to his carnal lust. He believes God punished his pride and lust through his subsequent castration and having his books burnt at the first heresy trial. At the end of his letter, he explains that he views his tribulations as tests from God. The Bible shows that this is the nature of the world and all these misfortunes that have befallen him are part of God’s plan.

After being out contact with Heloise for many years, they begin writing letters to each other again. In this letter, written by Heloise, we get to hear her take on the events Abelard has recounted of their past life together. Despite her high position as an abbess in charge of nuns, she says her time with him as his lover was the highest point of her life and she still loves him more than anyone.

“In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet – they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers (68).”

She still lusts for him even after these many years. She seems to regret the course of events their lives have taken. She knows she should repent, but she still longs for the past.

Abelard in his next letter responds that their entrance into religious life should be seen as divine mercy rather than as divine punishment. God gave them the opportunity to use their intellectual gifts for the good of the faith and not spoil it on selfish concerns. In an obvious rationalization, Abelard argues that this tragic event was actually a good event when you look back on it from a different lens.

Seeming ready to move forward, Heloise wants guidance on the proper way to run a convent according to religious principles. She enquires about the history of nuns. She points out that there are many who join the monastic orders who aren’t prepared to live by their rules.

Abelard writes a letter that discusses how monasteries and convents should be properly run. His letters are often peppered with copious examples from the Bible and quotations from the church fathers as well as the occasional reference to Ovid and Cicero. He turns to these sources for the origin of the nuns and monks and using these sources he makes a strong argument for women playing an important role in the Church.

Unsurprisingly, Abelard couldn’t keep himself out of controversy and soon ended up in a second heresy trial at Sens in 1140 led by Bernard of Clairvaux.  Peter the Venerable, the abbot of the powerful Cluny monastery, took him in Abelard and supported him in his final years. Along with the letters between Abelard and Heloise, the collection also includes a brief set of correspondence between Peter the Venerable and Heloise concerning Abelard.

“He was engaged on such holy occupations when the Visitor of the Gospels came to find him, and found him awake, not asleep like so many; found him truly awake, and summoned him to the wedding of eternal life . . . For he brought with him a lamp full of oil, that is, a conscience filled with the testimony of his saintly life. As the time came for him to pay the common debt of humanity, the sickness from which he suffered worsened and quickly brought him to his last hour (222).”

We find out from their letters that after his Abelard’s death, Peter the Venerable transported Abelard’s body to Heloise and her nuns and that Peter granted him absolution for his sins.

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 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.

La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri (trans. Mark Musa)

“So long a time has Love kept me a slave
And in his lordship fully seasoned me,
That even though at first I felt him harsh,
Now tender is his power in my heart”

Before The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote La Vita Nuova (the New Life). The work combines prose with poetry (sonnets, canzones, and ballads). Dante is writing in the tradition of courtly love, but develops the genre further. One big innovation is that he wrote the work in the Italian vernacular rather than in Latin. Beatrice is not merely the beloved woman, but he raises her to a divine figure, foreshadowing her place as Dante’s guide in heaven in his masterpiece the Divine Comedy. From a modern perspective, Dante’s love seems odd. He admires Beatrice, her beauty, but it never leads him to try to consummate his love. In her physical beauty and virtuous qualities, he finds access to the divine realm of heaven, transforming the courtly love poetry into an almost religious experience.

The prose narrative covers from the time he first sees Beatrice from afar to her death. By placing the poetry in between a prose narrative, he structures the work and gives a context to the poetry. These are not just random poems about a loved one, but different events involving his meetings with Beatrice throughout the city give rise to particular poems.

In the very first poem, Dante captures the intensity of his love, giving us an image of Beatrice eating his flaming heart:

“[Love] woke her then and trembling and obedient
She ate that burning heart out of his hand;
Weeping I saw him then depart from me.”

Far from terrified by this metaphorical cannibalism, the last lines give the sense that he is passionately moved by it. His heart burns from the intensity of his feelings. She has such control over him it as if she has eaten his heart. He weeps when they depart. All of this captures his uncontrolled passion. Love is a force that devours us, rules over us, and controls us against our will.

Dante takes his images even further than this, praising Beatrice in terms of a heavenly figure that is borderline sacrilegious.

“The mind of God receives an angel’s prayer
that says: “My Lord, on earth is seen
A living miracle proceeding from
A soul whose light reaches as far as here.”
Heaven, that lacks its full perfection only
In lacking her, asks for her of its Lord,
And every saint is begging for this favor.

An angel from heaven notices her because her beauty and virtue radiate a light that can be seen even from heaven, despite the distance from earth and heaven itself being a place full of light. Dante doesn’t stop with this hyperbole describing his mistress’s qualities. The final lines add on a more powerful piece of hyperbole. Heaven, which in theory should be perfect by the very fact that it is heaven and the dwelling place of a perfect G-d, is incomplete due to lacking her presence and therefore it is not perfect.

In a different poem, Dante again shows his willingness to use heavenly and borderline impious imagery to elevate his lady.

“Because the light of her humility
Cut through the heavens with such forcefulness,
It made the Lord eternal stop amazed.”

One of Beatrice’s virtues is her humility. Not only is her virtue in this regard praised outright, but Dante suggests that this quality resides in her to such an extent that they make even G-d, an omniscient being, stop in amazement as if taken by surprise that any mortal could possess such virtue.

The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous (trans. A. T. Hatto)

The Nibelungenlied is a medieval German epic often known best for its influence on Richard Wagner’s opera cycle and magnum opus, The Ring of the Nibelung. The poet probably composed his epic sometime between 1195 – 1205 A.D for a medieval German court. The poem itself is not an entirely original creation in that it consists of older tales fused together into a longer work.

The mighty hero Siegfried, heir to the throne of the Netherlands, travels to Burgundy in order to woo the beautiful Kriemhild. To gain access to her, Siegfried befriends King Gunther, her brother, assisting him in fighting off his enemies and winning Queen Brunhild of Iceland to be Gunther’s bride. To win the hand of Queen Brunhild, any suitor must best her in three competitions of strength or forfeit their lives. Gunther lacks the ability to win these trials on his own and relies on Siegfried’s strength.

Siegfried hides himself under a magical cloak, which turns him invisible, and beats Brunhild in her competitions, while Gunther takes credit for the success. They return back to Burgundy where Gunther is married to Brunhild and Siegfried marries Kriemhild. However, Brunhild is disturbed by the fact that Kriemhild, the sister of a king, is being married to someone she believes to be a lowly vassal. She believes this due to Siegfried deceiving her and pretending to be Gunther’s vassal, rather than his equal, back when she first meets them in Iceland.

Brunhild refuses to sleep with Gunther, until she can unravel this mystery about Siegfried’s status. When Gunther attempts to force the issue on his wedding night, Brunhild uses her manly strength to tie him up and leave him hanging on a nail all night long. A miserable Gunther convinces Siegfried to help him the next night. The hero comes in with his invisible cloak, wrestles with Brunhild, until she wastes all her strength, and then Gunther takes his pleasure and consummates the marriage, which robs Brunhild of her manly strength. Before leaving, Siegfried steals Brunhild’s ring and girdle as a token of his victory. After these events, Siegfried departs with Kriemhild back to his kingdom.

Ten years later, Gunther invites Siegfried and Kriemhild back for a festival at the urgings of Brunhild who is perplexed with the same question of Siegfried’s status. Why have they not seen Siegfried for ten years when he is Gunther’s vassal and thus owes the king service? How can Kriemhild be so content married to a lowly vassal when she is a princess? They accept the invitation and everyone is having a great time. Then Brunhild and Kriemhild start bickering about their husbands and which one is superior. Brunhild taunts Kriemhild that her husband is a vassal, which offends Kriemhild, and leads her to retaliate that Siegfried is the one who took her maidenhood, not Gunther. She offers the ring and girdle that Siegfried stole as proof. In tears, Brunhild accuses Siegfried before Gunther and the rest of the Burgundian court. Siegfried denies having slept with Brunhild and that seems to be the end of it. Nevertheless, Gunther, Hagen, and the rest of Burgundy’s major nobles conspire to kill Siegfried in order to avenge Brunhild’s hurt feelings and lost honor. On the false pretense that he only wants to protect Siegfried in battle, Hagen learns from Kriemhild the location of Siegfried’s vulnerable spot. On a hunting trip, Hagen rams a spear through the vulnerable spot when Siegfried is bending down to get some water and kills him.

After years of mourning and desiring revenge for her husband’s death, Kriemhild gets remarried to King Etzel of Hungary. She bides her time, plots her revenge, and invites King Gunther and his retinue to a festival. Gunther goes in the belief that their reconciliation was sincere and he has nothing to fear, despite Hagen’s warning that it is a bad idea. Once inside the boundaries of her kingdom, Kriemhild tries to have them killed, but the Burgundians manage time and again to fight off thousands of Hungary’s knights. There is mass slaughter with the Burgundians eventually losing all their lives, Kriemhild finally getting revenge on Hagen and Gunther for Siegfried’s death, at the expense of her own life and most of the knights in Hungary.

There are at least two source that the poet brought together to create the first half of his poem, while the second half is based on an older epic, Diu Not. The poet’s achievement was his ability to harmonize the two plots and successfully add some original material of his own creation not found in any older sources (1).  Due to the fusing of different earlier narratives, however, there are a lot of inconsistencies, repetitions, non sequiturs, characters shifting their personalities, and confusing “stage directions” (sometimes it seems like a certain character is in a room, then they magically disappear without the reader being told they left it, only to be called back three paragraphs later), etc. This seems to be a tendency of many ancient narratives, but usually these discrepancies are minor details, and for the most part there is a relatively coherent plot line. Most of these discrepancies seem to be between the first half of the narrative (Siegfried’s death) and the second half (revenge in Hungary). One example that immediately comes to mind is that in the first half of the narrative Gunther comes off as a coward, afraid initially to have Siegfried murdered, unable to win Brunhild with his own strength, unable to even consummate his own marriage without Siegfried’s help, and afraid of the invading armies that Siegfried helps him defeat, etc. Then in the second half, he suddenly becomes a “doughty warrior” and is able to take out thousands of knights on his own! The abilities of Gunther of the first half seems completely different from the Gunther that appears in the second half.

There are many elements that remind one of the ancient heroes of Greek Epic. For example, Siegfried is invulnerable due to his body being washed in the blood of a dragon he slew. His only weak spot is a tiny part on his back, which the blood missed. He is considered the greatest warrior of his time and could easily have defeated all of the Burgundian Knights on his own, despite the fact that in the second half of the narrative they are major heroes in their own right and manage to take on thousands of knight. This is reminiscent of Achilles being one of the greatest warriors and his Achilles’ heel. Gunther is reminiscent of Agamemnon, except he is cowardly in the first half. Hagen plays an advisor role in the first half (to also become an undefeatable warrior in the second), reminding me a bit of Odysseus and Nestor.

Thematically the story warns against the dangers of pride. Siegfried might be the greatest warrior in the world, but he is a proud one. When he first meets the Burgundians he threatens to take their kingdom by force, all by himself. On the hunting trip, which leads to his fatal death, he easily outperforms every other knight attending and kills significantly more animals than them. Even stealing Brunhild’s ring and girdle is a matter of pride. Kriemhild’s inability to keep her mouth shut and bragging about her husband during her verbal squabble with Brunhild is also a matter of pride. Everywhere in the tale, excessive pride leads to nasty consequences.


1) Hatto, Arthur Thomas. “An Introduction to a Second Reading.” The Nibelunglied. Great Britain: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969. 346. Print.