Plato, Mathematician and Myth-Maker

Pisano, Giovanni, 1240?-1320?. c.1284. Siena Duomo: det.: Plato. Place: Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Siena, Italy).

The Republic, The Symposium, The Phaedrus, The Apology, and The Phaedo––these are just a few of the works of Plato that were not widely available throughout most of the Middle Ages. No extended depiction of the most just city in the Republic. No discussion of love in The Symposium and The Phaedrus. No self-defense for Socrates at his trial as found in The Apology, and no final dialogue before his suicide as found in The Phaedo. For lovers of great texts, especially Plato, such news can be shocking. What kind of Plato does a person know if they don’t have these key works? How much of Socrates’ life and Plato’s philosophy could even be known? These are the questions that many medieval scholars of the Latin Platonist tradition have dedicated their lives and careers to answering, and the answers can be quite surprising.

One aspect of this research that ought to be appreciated by the wider reading public (outside of the narrow confines of medievalists) is that Plato’s Timaeus wasthe most widely available Platonic work throughout most of the Middle Ages. In fact, examining the text of the Timaeus and why itwas such one of the few Platonic texts preserved reveals how peculiarly modern our current canon of Platonic literature is.

What we value in Plato was not necessarily what late antique or medieval readers valued, and yet, their ability to read well meant that they understood a lot more than might be supposed. An attention to the reception history of Plato’s Timaeus can give modern readers of Plato a better appreciation for the importance of both mathematics and poetry in Platonic philosophy.

The Timaeus is Plato’s work on the origins of the universe. It begins with a dialogue between Timaeus, Socrates, Hermocrates, and Critias, in which Socrates expresses a desire for a “moving image” of the city they had been talking about the day before. The summary of the previous day’s discussion appears to bear some resemblance to the conversation found in the Republic although scholars are divided over whether this summary perfectly matches the Republic that we now possess. Regardless of its accuracy, this summary would have been the closest a medieval reader would have had to a taste of the Republic. The opening dialogue covers all sorts of fascinating topics from Solon’s visit to Egypt, oral culture, the mythic origins of writing, and the myth of Atlantis, but the bulk of the work features a narration about the origins of the universe recounted by the Pythagorean, Timaeus.

The Timaeus was received in the Middle Ages through three main channels of Latin translations: the translation of Calcidius (which ends at 53b), the translation of Cicero (available but not widely used or even known, which ends at 42b), and the excerpts from the Ciceronian translation of the Timaeus that can be found in Augustine’s City of God. Although it does not contain the whole text of the Timaeus, Calcidius’ translation is much more complete than Cicero’s: rather than giving merely the speech of Timaeus like Cicero’s translation does, it includes the opening dialogue (even though the commentary itself ignores it).

Most modern Plato scholars would probably not choose The Timaeus as theone and only work they could save from destruction for all time. But, a better understanding of who Calcidius was and why he wrote the commentary on the Timaeus suggests that the preservation of the Timaeus in the Latin West was not an accident of fate. Rather, the results of Gretchen Reydams-Schills’ lifelong study of Calcidius give a plausible reason for why Calcidius’ commentary may have been the Platonic work of choice for many late antique philosophers.

Reydams-Schils argues that Calcidius wrote his commentary as an introduction to the Platonic corpus, essentially reversing the Middle Platonic curriculum, which traditionally ended with the Timaeus. One major piece of evidence for this theory is that Calcidius’ commentary often reserves discussion of harder philosophical concepts for the end of the commentary.Furthermore, unlike the Neoplatonists, Calcidius did not read the Timaeus synoptically and believed strongly in the importance of sequential reading of the Platonic corpus. In Calcidus’ Platonic curriculum, the Timaeus came first with its teachings on natural justice, then the Republic with its teaching of positive justice, and finally, the Parmenides came with its teaching of the forms and intelligible realities. Calcidius believed that a thorough understanding of mathematics was necessary for understanding of almost all of the Platonic works, which is why his commentary on the Timaeus turns out to be something like a crash course in Pythagorean mathematics.

Thus, although the Timaeus was one of the only Platonic works available throughout the early Middle Ages, Calcidius’ commentary gave readers some introduction to the entire Platonic corpus as well as a great deal of Pythagorean mathematics. Perhaps there might be good reason for a philosopher to save The Timaeus (especially a copy with Calcidius’ commentary)from a burning building!

Plato; Chalcidius (translation). Timaeus. Manuscript. Place: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, <a href=’’></a>.

Medievalists who study the textual reception of the various translations of The Timaeus have been able to identify a shift in kinds of interest in Plato over time. The primary Latin translation of the Timaeus used until the eleventh century was Cicero’s. Medieval scholars used to assume that the revival of Calcidius began with the twelfth century Platonists, but Anna Somfai has demonstrated that the proliferation of copies of Calcidius’ text and commentary began in the eleventh century when championed by Lanfranc of Bec (c.1050). The late twelfth-century actually experienced a decline of copying the Timaeus as interests shifted towards other texts.

What motivated the eleventh-century interest in Calcidius appears to have been the mathematical content of the Calcidian commentary because, by the Carolingian period, much of the actual content of the quadrivial arts had been lost, and scholars in the Middle Ages attempted to piece together what scraps of it remained from a variety of sources. Calcidius’ commentary on the Timaeus appears to have been particularly valued as a source text for the quadrivial (or mathematical) arts. As my two previous MI blogs have explored here and here, medieval thinkers in the traditional liberal arts tradition recognized that the quadrivial arts were the foundation for philosophical thought, even if they had few textual sources for actually studying them.

And although some of the interest in the kinds of mathematics found in the Timaeus and Calcidius’ commentary may have declined after the twelfth century, it was by no means lost completely. As David Albertson has demonstrated, the mathematical interest in Plato found in the work of the twelfth-century scholar, Thierry of Chartres, would eventually be picked up by the fifteenth-century scholar, Nicholas of Cusa, and many scholars have noted resonances of Cusa’s quadrivial agenda in the thinking of Leibniz, the founder of calculus:

It seems that God, when he bestowed these two sciences [arithmetic and algebra] on humankind, wanted to warn us that a much greater secret lay hidden in our intellect, of which these were but shadows. (Leibniz as quoted by Albertson, p.2)

Bernardus Silvester. Liber fortunae, also known as Experimentarius.. Manuscript. Place: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, <a href=’’></a>.

Even though the interest in scribal copying of the Timaeus seems to have declined somewhat by the twelfth-century, another kind of imitatio or translatio studii was being enacted by a different kind of scholar, Bernard Silvestris. He wrote a prosi-metric telling of the creation of the world that emulates Plato’s Timaeus. The title of his work, Cosmographia, roughly translates as “universe writing,” and Bernard delivered an oral performance of itbefore Pope Eugenius III in 1147. Bernard’s creative retelling of the Timaeus poetically depicts the role of imitation in the divine creation of the world in the form of “divine writing.” Performatively, the Cosmographia demonstrates that this divine writing is then imitated by poets in the form of human writing. In other words, Bernard values Plato’s Timaeus here not merely for its insights into mathematics or even the structure of the universe, but also what this mathematics in the universe implies about the mimetic nature of poetry itself.

As many literary scholars have demonstrated, much of the European literary tradition follows suit in seeing the value of Timaean Platonism for the production of literature. This interest can be seen in such diverse authors as Alan of Lille, Chrétien de Troyes, and Dante.

While I would personally be loath to give up the access to the Platonic corpus that I possess, the medieval reception of the Timaeus constantly pushes me to reconsider how I am reading that corpus. Having a large corpus of texts actually places an onus on the modern reader to ask the question of where to place the textual emphasis: Which texts of Plato should be considered central (and which ones periphery) and why? For example, should Plato’s Republic be considered his last word on poets and poetry? What would happen if Plato’s Timaeus were given more weight?

C.S. Lewis once wrote in his introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

These words about reading the great books can also apply to reading the old books as they were read by past readers. Understanding medieval readings of Plato might very well be a good counterweight to modern presuppositions about who Plato was and what he was about. How might the idea of Plato as both a mathematician and myth-maker transform our modern understanding of Platonism and its history?

Lesley-Anne Dyer Williams is a Professor for Memoria College’s Masters of Arts in Great Books program and graduated with her doctorate from the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute in 2012. She was also the founding director Liberal Arts Guild at LeTourneau University. Her research focuses upon twelfth-century Platonism and poetry, especially Thierry of Chartres and Bernard Silvestris.

Lesley-Anne Dyer Williams
Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

For Further Reading:

Albertson, David. Mathematical Theologies: Nicholas of Cusa and the Legacy of Thierry of Chartres. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Baxter, Jason M. The Infinite Beauty of the World: Dante’s Encyclopedia and the Names of God. Peter Lang, 2020.

Bernardus Silvestris. Poetic Works. Edited by Winthrop Wetherbee, vol. 38, Harvard University Press, 2015.

Caiazzo, Irene. “Teaching the Quadrivium in the Twelfth-Century Schools.” A Companion to Twelfth-Century Schools, edited by Cédric Giraud, translated by Ignacio Duran, vol. 88, Brill, 2019, pp. 180–202.

Calcidius. On Plato’s Timaeus. Edited by John Magee, vol. 41, Harvard University Press, 2016.

Chenu, M. D. “The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century.” Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West, translated by Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little, vol. 37, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Dronke, Peter. The Spell of Calcidius: Platonic Concepts and Images in the Medieval West. SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo, 2008.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. Vol 1 and Vol 2. University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Hoenig, Christina. Plato’s Timaeus and the Latin Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Murray, K. Sarah-Jane. From Plato to Lancelot. Syracuse University Press, 2008.

Plato. Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato Translated with Running Commentary. Edited by F. M Cornford, Routledge, 1937.

Reydam-Schils, Gretchen. “Myth and Poetry in the Timaeus.” Plato and the Poets, edited by Pierre Destrée and Fritz-Gregor Herrmann, Brill, 2011.

Reydams-Schils, Gretchen J. Calcidius on Plato’s Timaeus: Greek Philosophy, Latin Reception, and Christian Contexts. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Somfai, Anna. “The Eleventh-Century Shift in the Reception of Plato’s Timaeus and Calcidius’ Commentary.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 65, 2002, pp. 1–21.

Stock, Brian. Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century. Princeton University Press, 1972.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century. Princeton University Press, 1972.

Medieval Rabbits: Ancient Symbolism, English Migration, and Manuscript Marginalia

From its earliest recordings in African, Indian, and Egyptian cultures, the hare, which later became interchangeable with the rabbit, has been recognized as a symbol of generative powers.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the hare symbolized fertility, as well as love and lust. The hare was the favored sacrifice to the gods of love, Aphrodite and Eros.[1] Consumption of the animal’s flesh was thought to enhance the beauty in the eater for several days. The animal’s body was also incorporated into medicines meant to cure conditions connected with sex.

Roman mosaic depicting a hare, dated to the 4th century and discovered in Cirencester, England. The mosaic was excavated in 1971 and is housed at the Corinium Museum. Photo credit: Isobel Wilkes, “Hares in Roman Art”.

Hares and rabbits were known as prolific breeders, but the classical world often exaggerated the creature’s capacity for reproduction. Aristotle, for example, believed the rabbit was capable of superfetation – that is, he thought a pregnant rabbit could become pregnant again, thereby gestating multiple litters at once. These ideas persisted into the Middle Ages, passed down by Aristotle and other philosophers such as Herodotus, as well as Pliny the Elder.

In his Naturalis historia, written during the first century, Pliny the Elder characterizes hares and rabbits as the only animals that superfetate, “rearing one leveret while at the same time carrying in the womb another clothed with hair and another bald and another still an embryo.” He also discusses how wild rabbits laid waste to Spain. Describing their fertility as “beyond counting,” he says that “they bring famine to the Balearic Islands by ravaging the crops.”[2]

England, however, did not share Spain’s poor experience with rabbits. Although hares are indigenous to the British Isles, rabbits are not. They were introduced to England by the Normans in the 13th century and were raised for their meat and fur.[3] They were also kept as pets and were a particular favorite of nuns.[4]

Woman flushes a rabbit from its warren using a ferret or a small dog in the Taymouth Hours, England, c. 1260, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 70v.

Rabbits did not initially thrive in the British climate, and they required careful tending by their owners, who constructed warrens for them. As Mark Bailey explains, “In modern usage the rabbit-warren refers to a piece of waste ground on which wild rabbits burrow, but in the Middle Ages it specifically meant an area of land preserved for the domestic or commercial rearing of game.”[5] These artificial burrows called “pillow-mounds” protected domestic rabbits from the elements and provided a dry, earthen enclosure that supported both survival and breeding.  

Rabbit warren depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40, Lincolnshire, England, British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 176v.

Despite their modern reputation as pests, rabbit populations were primarily confined to privately owned warrens in medieval England. They were not considered vermin but, rather, valuable commodities, and they were protected by law. Poachers were a problem, as were the rabbit’s natural predators, which included the fox, stoat, weasel, polecat, and wildcat.

Hunter approaches a rabbit warren with his dog in the Rutland Psalter, c. 1260, England, British Library, Add MS 62925, f. 57v.

Yet in medieval English literature, rabbits retain their symbolic association with reproduction, as exemplified by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, a Middle English poem dated to the mid-14th century. Set in a garden during springtime, the poem centers a congregation of birds that meets to select their mates and explores themes related to love and marriage, as well as breeding.

Rabbits, or “conyes,” are depicted at play amidst the gathering of birds:  

On every bough the briddes herde I singe,
With voys of aungel in hir armonye,
Som besyed hem hir briddes forth to bringe;
The litel conyes to hir pley gonne hye. (Chaucer 190-93)[6]

I heard the birds on every branch singing
Like the voice of an angel in their harmony,
Some had their young beside them;
The little rabbits were busy at their play. (my translation)

Now virtually obsolete, the term coney was used in medieval England to differentiate an adult rabbit from a younger one. Deriving from the pun made possible by the Latin word for rabbit, cuniculus, and the Latin word for the female genitalia, cunnus, the term was also used as sexual slang in the medieval period and well beyond.[7] Essentially, coney, or cunny, was a crass term that referred to the vulva or vagina, to a woman or women, or to sexual intercourse.[8]

Bestiary rabbit catalogued under the Latin name cuniculus in the Liber de natura rerum, c. 13th century, France, Bibliothèque Municipale de Valenciennes, MS 320, f. 58r.

Despite its long-standing sexual symbolism, the rabbit was simultaneously imparted with sacred symbolism in the Middle Ages. In England, the rabbit became a symbol of purity when portrayed alongside the Virgin Mary. The animal also functioned as a symbol of salvation. As David Stocker and Margarita Stocker explain, “their sacred meaning is not as divorced from their profane meaning (libidinousness) as may at first appear. One the one hand, their symbolism of lust and fertility refers to the carnal body; on the other, their symbolism of salvation and resurrection refers to the ‘body of this death’ from which the soul is saved.”[9]

Indeed, the theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine, writing between 397 and 400 CE, connects the rabbit with Christianity, further attesting to how the animal’s sexual and spiritual symbolism culturally coexisted. Discussing the rabbit in relation to salvation, Saint Augustine renders the creature a symbol of cowardice. He describes the rabbit as “a small and weak animal” that is “cowardly” and then draws a parallel between the rabbit and the fearful man: “In that which he fears, man is a rabbit.”[10] Later in the Middle Ages, the rabbit “denoted a soldier who burrowed underground or someone who fled from his pursuers.”[11]

Perhaps the rabbit’s connection with cowardice, then, provides some insight into the images depicting bunnies as antagonistic and often murderous beasts in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Immortalized on screen by Monty Python’s Rabbit of Caerbannog and more recently popularized on social media, the rabbit adopts many forms and runs rampant across the pages of manuscripts from England and Europe.

Rabbit strikes a knight with a lance in the Breviary of Renaud, c. 1302-05, France, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 107, f. 141v.

Rabbits spar with knights, wield axes at kings, and lay siege to castles. They ride snails with human faces and carry hounds on their shoulders into battle. They beat, they behead, they hang, they flay. Ranging from delightfully strange to strangely sadistic, the images of rabbits enacting violence reveal a world turned topsy-turvy through their reversal of expectations.

Rabbit beheads a man with a sword—the final image in a series of five that features rabbits hunting, capturing, and killing a man—in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1340s, London, England, British Library, MS 10 E IV, f. 61v.

But medieval bunnies are not all bad. In bestiaries, they pose timidly in their portraits or express fear as they flee from hunting dogs. They frequently adorn decorative borders sans weapons and sometimes appear surprisingly realistic, as in the stunning illumination from the Cocharelli Codex below.

Pair of hares in the Cocharelli Codex, c. 1330-40, Genoa, Italy, British Library, Add MS 28841, f. 6v.

Although the killer coney and the cowardly knight have become a familiar motif, it is not a reflection of the rabbit population ransacking the English countryside, as some might be inclined to suspect. After all, wild rabbits did not become abundant until centuries later. But whether turning the world upside down or nestled benignly within a manuscript border, rabbits in medieval marginalia undoubtedly showcase their multifacetednous as a cultural symbol.

Emily McLemore
Ph.D. in English

[1] Claude K. Abraham, “Myth and Symbol: The Rabbit in Medieval France,” Studies in Philology, vol. 60, no. 4 (1963), pp. 589-597, at 589.

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Loeb Classical Library, at 153.

[3] Mark Bailey, “The Rabbit and the Medieval East Anglian Economy,” The Agricultural History Review, vol. 36, no. 1 (1988), pp. 1-20, at 1.

[4] Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets, Boydell Press (2012), pp. 14.

[5] Bailey, 2.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls,

[7] Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press (1973), pp. 135.

[8] cunny, n. Oxford English Dictionary.

[9] David Stocker and Margarita Stocker, “Sacred Profanity: The Theology of Rabbit Breeding and the Symbolic Landscape of the Warren,” World Archaeology, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 265-72, at 270.

[10] Stocker and Stocker, 271.

[11] Rowland, 135.

Poetry as a Quadrivial Art?

That ‘Poetry is the cradle of philosophy’ is axiomatic”

(John of Salisbury, Metalogicon I.22).

Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?) (French, active about 1450 – 1485), Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, Google Art Project.

It is a truth generally acknowledged that in the Middle Ages a liberal arts education consisted of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy). Poetry –what we might call “literature”– was primarily taught by grammarians and rhetoricians in the Middle Ages. Literary scholars, like Rita Copeland and Marjorie Woods, have therefore been very motivated to study exactly what the language disciplines of Grammar and Rhetoric entailed and precisely how they were taught in order to have a better sense of what the study of literature must have looked like in this period. Their works are indispensable for the study of medieval literature and truly are the bulk of where instruction in poetics lay in the Middle Ages. And yet, once cannot stop there.

Knowing exactly where to put poetry was something that clearly bothered many medieval philosophers. While today we might assume that poetry would clearly be associated with the Trivium, or the arts dedicated to words, specifically grammar and rhetoric, certain medieval thinkers located it within logic and also the Quadrivium, or the arts of number. Understanding why can help us to understand the multi-faceted way in which the medieval mind approached poetry in particular and the literary arts more generally.

Étienne Colaud, “John of Salisbury teaching philosophy,” frontispiece miniature of the Policraticus by John of Salisbury, BnF  Ms.1145, folio 3 recto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the twelfth century when there were major curricular changes afoot in schools and universities, John of Salisbury maintained that poetry belonged to the art of grammar although it was closely allied with rhetoric. “Art,” writes John of Salisbury, “is a system that reason has devised in order to expedite, by its own short cut, our ability to do things within our natural capacities. Reason neither provides nor professes to provide the accomplishment of the impossible;” Instead, reason pursues the possible by means of an efficient plan, what the Greeks would call a methodon (Metalogicon I.11, p.33). As J.J. Murphy writes in the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. II: The Middle Ages:

In medieval terminology the Latin word ars (plural: artes) denoted a body of principles relating to a specific activity such as painting, music, preaching, or writing. By extension the term was also used for a written treatise on the subject of a particular art […] The term ‘art’ or ars when applied to such a treatise indicates a discussion of what the ancient Greeks would have called techné ––‘technique’ or ‘craft’ –– rather than an abstract or theoretical discussion of a subject (p.42).

The practitioner of an art is therefore called an artifex or craftsman, and the study of the art consisted of both the intrinsic principles for practice and the extrinsic practice of the art itself.[1] When art is understood in this way, craftsmen generally agree that the person able to produce art is more skilled that the person skilled at conveying the principles underlying art. While poetry was clearly a craft that required a practitioner to study a method of practice, it was by no means clear where it ought to fit in the medieval curriculum of the arts.

John of Salisbury reports that some people thought poetry should be its own subject (shockingly!) because so much of it is clearly a “product of nature’s workshop” (Metalogicon I.18). The close tie between poetry and nature formed the basis of their argument, but John of Salisbury warns pragmatically that if poetry is removed from grammar, “its mother and the nurse of its study,” the study of poetry could be “dropped from the roll of liberal studies.” In other words, everyone studies grammar, which in those days often included a careful study of works like Virgil’s Aeneid. If poetry became its own subject, people might not take it at all!

English: Arabic translation of Aristotle’s Poetics by Abu Bishr Matta
Français : Poétique (Aristote) en arabe – Abu Bishr Matta
العربية: فن الشعر لأرسطوطاليس نقل أبي بشر متى – من مخطوطة باريس ٢٣٤٦

Some philosophers thought that poetry actually belonged to the subject of logic. These people were especially concerned about how to classify Aristotle’s Poetics. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle had written a group of works (one might even say lecture notes) on logic when teaching at the Lyceum. His followers, the Peripatetics, classified these works as the Organon, meaning instrument or tool, because they saw them as instrumental in preparing for the study of philosophy. The Latin West had only select works from the Organon until their increased contact with Arabic philosophers like Avicenna, who wrote a commentary on the Poetics. Following the Greek commentators on Aristotle, most of the Arabic (and subsequently Latin scholastic) commentators saw Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics as the seventh and eighth works of Aristotle’s Organon. In their zeal, therefore, to comment on the entirety of the Organon, some Latin scholastic commentators, like Herman the German, viewed poetics as a part of Logic.

As surprising as it might be to think that poetry should be considered primarily within the context of “logic,” there is strong evidence that poetry was also studied within the context of the quadrivium. And yet, many medieval thinkers, the Pythagorean believed that number lay at the root of creation itself. For example, Dante writes in the Convivio when commenting on the beauty of a canzone:

All of you who cannot perceive the meaning of this canzone, do not reject it on that account, but consider its beauty: considerable for the way it is constructed, which is the concern of the grammarians; the ordering of its discourse, which is the concern of the rhetoricians; and for the metrical numbering of its parts, which is the concern of poets. (II.xi.9–10)

The key word to focus upon here is numbering. Familiarity with the Commedia and its frequent references to the starsis enough to convince a reader that one aspect of the numbering that Dante had in mind was the medieval discipline of astronomy, but there is also good reason to think that Dante had music in mind. Some of this evidence is textual…the numerous references to music in the Purgatorio and Paradiso…, but some of this evidence can be found in Boethius.

The standard textbook for the teaching of music theory in the Middle Ages was Boethius’ Fundamentals of Music, and until 1255, it was not uncommon for most educated men , including Dante, who undertook a liberal arts education to have at least some instruction in the subject.[2] As a result, even 11th and 12th c. philosophers like Anselm and Peter Abelard wrote sacred poetry and song. In this book, Boethius speaks of poetry as a subset of one kind of music.

Boethius begins his work on music with a philosophical justification for its study. Citing Plato and Pythagoras, he observes that music is so deeply engrained in human nature that from a young age it has the power to move human souls, transform their character, and even affect their health and sense of well-being (I.1.180–185). He explains that this phenomenon should leave us with no doubt that “the order of our soul and body seems to be related somehow through those same ratios by which subsequent argument will demonstrate sets of pitches, suitable for melody, are joined together and united” (I.1.186). Since “music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired,” then “the power of the intellect ought to be summoned so that this art, innate through nature, may be mastered, comprehended through knowledge” (I.187). In this way, Boethius justifies the study of music because it reflects something about the fundamental nature of the human soul.

English: “King David, Lady Music and musicians”. In manuscript “De institutione musica”. Boetius.
Español: “El Rey David, la Señora Música y los músicos”. Del manuscrito “De institutione musica”. Boecio.
Date       Original: 1941 – 1942. Copy upload: 2010.Source:

In this work, Boethius identifies three kinds of music––cosmic, human, and instrumental. This categorization implies that the human response to music is rooted in the nature of not only the human soul but of the cosmos (I.2). Cosmic music, or the music of the spheres, is the harmonious sound produced when the stars in their courses and the diversity of seasons move swiftly together in harmonious union (1.2.187–188). Human music does not concern the music produced by humans. Rather, it is the music found in the harmony of soul and body in a human being. Boethius describes this music as “a careful tuning of low and high pitches as though producing one consonance” (I.2.189). It unites not only the rational and animal parts of the soul, but the parts of the body and the body’s union with soul. Boethius promises to speak about this subject later, but he never returns to it.  Instrumental music, for Boethius, includes the harmonious sounds produced by tension of strengths, human breath, percussion, etc. (I.2.189). This kind of music is what most people today associate with music, but Boethius’ understands this music to operate according to the same mathematical principles of both cosmic and human music. This mathematical concordance explains the reasons for music’s profound effect on the human soul.

            Although the producer of cosmic and human music is ultimately God, instrumental music must be produced by a human musician. Boethius’ definition of a human musician broadens the horizon within which music itself is narrowly considered today. He identifies three classes of musician: the instrumentalist, the poet, and the rational judger of music (I.34.224).

            The instrumentalist is no greater than a “slave” because one does not need the faculty of reason in order to produce music upon an instrument.

            The second class of poets are presumably higher than slaves, but Boethius remarks that even the poets create songs by instinct rather than reason. One might recall here Lady Philosophy’s attack upon the Muses as “harpies” because their base songs only continued to prolong Boethius’ misery.

            The third class of musician is the one with the ability to judge rhythm, melody, and composition. Since this class exercises reason in their experience of music, they alone should be considered worthy of esteem. This final judgment may seem harsh, but it was a common opinion in his day; Augustine repeats a similar idea in De musica.3 In fact, both men express their love of hearing music with some guilt, even though Augustine insists that music should remain in churches (Conf. 9.6, 14 and 10, 33, 49–50; Consol. I.2 and IV.6.6). In other words, Boethius repeats the infamous attack of Plato on the poets, even though he himself writes poetry in the Consolatio.

            It is startling to consider that Boethius includes both poets and song-writers within the class of musicians. Any time a human being takes the mathematics of sound seriously in the construction of a work of verbal art, they are a musician, whether or not the words constructed are intended for accompaniment with music. Second, Boethius boldy asserts that the ability to judge music is superior to the ability to craft and perform music. Within this model of music, the music theorist and literary critic are both superior to the musician and the poet. The ability to judge is always to be preferred over the ability to craft. In the long war between philosophy and poetry, philosophy always wins.

Whether or not poets like Dante would have agreed with Boethius that the practice of their art was inferior to those who judge art, especially since arts are, by definition, intended to be practiced, it is interesting to consider that medieval poets, as a kind of musician, may have conceived themselves to be craftsman that used the tools of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and music (or the entire quadrivium if one is Boethius or Dante!) to construct their art while looking up at the stars.

Lesley-Anne Dyer Williams
Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius. Fundamentals of Music. Edited by Claude V. Palisca. Translated by Calvin M. Bower. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989.

Copeland, Rita, and Ineke Sluiter. Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300 -1475. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Dante Alighieri. Dante: Convivio. Translated by Andrew Frisardi. New edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Fournier, Michael. “Boethius and the Consolation of the Quadrivium.” Medievalia et Humanistica, no. 34 (2008): 1–21.

John of Salisbury. The Metalogicon. Translated by Daniel D McGarry. Berkeley: Calif. U.P., 1962.

Martianus Capella. Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts. Translated by William Harris Stahl, Richard Johnson, and E.L. Burge. Vol. II: The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. 2 vols. Records of Western Civilization 84. Columbia University Press, 1992.

Minnis, A. J., and A. B Scott, eds. “”Placing the Poetics: Herman the German; An Anonymous Question on the Nature of Poetry.” In Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c.1100–1375: The Commentary Tradition, Revised. Oxford: OUP, 1991.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. The Poetry of Boethius. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Stahl, William Harris, Richard Johnson, and E.L. Burge. Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts. Vol. I: The Quadrivium of Martianus Capella. 2 vols. Records of Civilization, Sources and Studies 84. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Woods, Marjorie Curry. Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria Nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe. 1 edition. Text and Context. Ohio State University Press, 2017.

Woods, Marjorie Curry. Weeping for Dido: The Classics in the Medieval Classroom. 1st ed. Vol. 1. E. H. Gombrich Lecture Series. United States: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Lesley-Anne Dyer Williams is a Professor for Memoria College’s Masters of Arts in Great Books program and graduated with her doctorate from the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute in 2012. She was also the founding director Liberal Arts Guild at LeTourneau University. Her research focuses upon twelfth-century Platonism and poetry, especially Thierry of Chartres and Bernard Silvestris.

[1] Distinctions made by Thierry in the Heptateuchon.

[2] Huglo, “The Study of Ancient Sources of Music Theory in the Medieval University.”