Medieval Literacy: A Compendium of Medieval Knowledge with the Guidance of C.S. Lewis

Medieval Literacy: A Compendium of Medieval Knowledge with the Guidance of C.S. Lewis

James Grote
Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 2011. 384 pages, paper, $34.95.

I didn't think I would read this book, but I did. Citing Umberto Eco's aphorism, "There is nothing more wonderful than a list," it is basically a collection of lists of concepts and themes from the medieval West, which, whatever backwardness it may have suffered in other respects, came second to no other civilization in its capacity to categorize.

The book is inspired by, and draws heavily from, C.S. Lewis's work The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. As James Grote points out in his introduction, Lewis regarded himself as a medieval thinker, and in an address at the University of Cambridge said, "I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours [the modern order] . . . Ladies and gentlemen, I read as a native texts that you must read as foreigners" Grote, whose sympathies clearly lie in the same direction, uses Lewis's work among others to give us an overview of medieval thought, ranging from mythology, cosmology, and psychology to logic, philosophy, and theology. While the work is overwhelmingly dedicated to Western Europe, it does contain some material on Eastern traditions as well, including Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

The format is well-suited to the subject. As Grote points out, "Medieval thought favored the condensed form of scholastic manuals. In this regard, Medieval Literacy provides an introduction to things medieval within a format that is definitely medieval"

As Grote indicates, the medieval mind was above all else dedicated to harmony and orderliness in a way that we today find difficult to understand. To take one example, medieval cosmology was clear, orderly, and precise. Unlike the current scientific worldview, which depicts the universe as a sprawling, virtually limitless place in which humanity is only an insignificant speck, the Middle Ages portrayed the cosmos with the earth at the center (as Grote emphasizes, contrary to common belief the medievals knew perfectly well that the earth was spherical), surrounded by the spheres of the planets then known: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, surrounded in turn by the "fixed" celestial sphere, the primum mobile or the "crystalline" sphere, and beyond it the "empyrean" realm in which God and the heavenly hierarchies dwelt. This vision of the universe was most memorably portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy.

But the purpose of this work is more than to provide lists of such things as the nine celestial spheres, the seven liberal arts, Thomas Aquinas's five proofs of the existence of God, or the four causes as delineated by the Middle Ages' favorite philosopher, Aristotle. It is to remind us of what Grote describes as a view of nature in which "nature is neither divine nor eternal, but a product of divine activity. Like a sacrament, creation reveals and conceals God" He contends—as Lewis did—that this worldview can serve as a counteragent to the lifeless, mechanical conception of the universe that we now have.

Medieval Literacy has its faults, as its author readily admits. It for the most part omits discussion of Anglo- Saxon and Norse epics as well as such late medieval authors as Boccaccio and Chaucer. It also fails to discuss medieval Jewish thought except in passing. "Hopefully," the author writes, "a second edition of Medieval Literacy will be able to fill in all of these gaps" It would also be good to have some information about the author himself, since the book bizarrely lacks any biographical note. Despite these omissions, Grote's work remains a fascinating and accessible guide to an age whose literature, thought, and mentality are worth revisiting and perhaps reawakening.

Richard Smoley