Can you even imagine a 1000 year period when the Christian faith marched, morphed, mobilized, and maintained the whole of civilization? When faith was centralized, not marginalized; when Church rebuked tyranny from the State; when the piety of a parish priest could shame the highest ecclesiastical office holders? Such were the Middle Ages. Medieval history has lots of rot, corruption, hypocrisy, pettiness, cruelty, and ugliness. It reminds us that this world is fallen. But Medieval history has lots of grace, restoration, progress, hope, mercy, and beauty. It reminds us of the triumph, slow and unsteady, of the Gospel.
I have loved teaching through the Medieval Humanities course for the third time. (This was actually the fourth time since there was a pre-Humanities class many years ago.) Yet, I always feel more challenged, less prepared, more confused, less chronologically certain in Medieval Humanities than in any other facet of the four year program. (Next year, we do the American Story; after that, the Modern World: Reformation and Revolution; and then the Ancient and Classical World.)
Thankfully, each year through the curriculum clarifies and enhances my understanding. This year has certainly taught me a lot.
Here are the books that the class read over the past school year:
1. Beowulf. I read the Seamus Heaney translation, and I am still unsure whether I like it or the Frederick Rebsamen translation best. One thing for sure, both I and the class really enjoyed this work. We also watched the movie Thirteenth Warrior in conjunction with reading the book.
2. Eusibius’ Church History. We read the translation by Paul Maier. Eusebius is vital to understanding the early era of the church. His writings are disjointed; his methods of research are uncritical; and he makes some great mistakes. But, there is much gold in Eusebius regarding the early history of the church and its leaders. We need to understand the faith of the martyrs and the importance of Constantine. We also read selections from Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity. Gonzalez is a better historian than Eusebius, but only because Eusebius fathered the study of Church History.
3. Augustine’s City of God. We only read from the first 13 books of Augustine this year, roughly half the book. But we did more intensive reading and discussion than ever before. Augustine is defining as a theologian and philosopher. We also read a few (too few) selections from Augustine’s Confessions.
4. The Rule of St. Benedict. This is a marvelous and beautiful handbook of the Benedictine Order. In conjunction with this, we had a very quiet and meditative St. Benedict’s day at school. The students were basically silent and devoted to serving others. In conjunction with this, we read a large selection of Psalms from the Wycliffe translation since the monks read or heard Psalms throughout the day.
5. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. I have long loved teaching and re-reading this book. Cahill surveys the history of the fall of the Roman Empire and the conditions of pre-Christian Ireland. The applications and insights from this book are many. We watched portions of a documentary on Patrick and a movie version of his life, neither of which are really satisfying.
6. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. This was a defining book in Medieval history and scholarship. We read it together in class and discussed the philosophical and theological ideas from it. This was my first time through the entire book, and I loved it.
7. Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English Church. This is where English history begins. This is not an easy book to push through, but it yields quite a bit to understanding how the faith seeps in and changes a nation. In conjunction with this, we studied the old Christian poem “The Seafarer,” Columbanus’ “Boat Song,” and the very first English poem, “Caedmon’s Hymn.” The students memorized Caedmon’s work, and most memorized it in the original Anglo-Saxon. Also, one student, Liz Woll, put the words to music, and it was sung at graduation.
8. Song of Roland. It does not get any better than this in Medieval history and literature. This is a great story of chivalry, knighthood, and war. It also highlights the Medieval conflict between Christian Europe and the Islam.
9. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as translated by J. R. R. Tolkien. This is another defining Medieval story. It upholds the highest ideals of knighthood.
10. Canterbury Tales. We read almost the entire work, and the students read the Prologue up to three times, in some students’ cases, in the original Middle English. This is the best picture of life in Medieval England. It is, as poet John Dryden noted, “God’s plenty.” Everything good, bad, ugly, and beautiful about the era is found here. In conjunction with this, we watched the movie classic Becket, which explains who it was that gave Canterbury its significance as a shrine.
11. From Dante’s Divine Comedy we read Hell, which is often called The Inferno. We read this together. Most of the students had Dorothy Sayers translation, but I used the one by John Ciardi. I only wish we could have continued journeying along with Dante and Virgil through the end of this salvation epic.
12. Morris Bishop’s The Middle Ages. This is a fun and informative history of Medieval Europe. However, it focuses more on social history (knighthood, religion, towns and trade, labor, and architecture) than on political history. I loved this book and look forward to another reading next time around.
We also read selections from Edith Hamilton on Norse mythology, an essay titled “The Six Ages of the Church” by Christopher Dawson, the Book of Acts, and other short selections.
We watched several of the outstanding documentaries by Simon Schama from his History of Great Britain series. We also watched documentaries on the Crusades and King Arthur.
Add to that, the month of December was devoted to practicing and performing a Madrigal Dinner, It was titled “A Gift for the King,” and it was a play, a concert, and a meal that celebrated Advent from a Medieval perspective.
Post Script: Some students read The Lord of the Rings trilogy for both extra credit (partially) and for fun (mostly).