In the latest episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages,” Ben and Will sit down with Dr. Andrea Robiglio, professor of History of Philosophy at KU Leuven. We spoke about the wide world of pre-modern philosophy and the ways in which the field of philosophy is at heart a “vain struggle to define something.” We also discussed the works of Dante Alighieri and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom illustrate the surprising truth that the many of the conceptual practices we take to be modern have deep roots in medieval philosophy and theology.
During our conversation with Dr. Robiglio this month, the sheer range and interdisciplinarity of the professor’s work was staggering. “Interdisciplinary” is something of a buzzword in Medieval Studies at the moment, and it can sometimes result in superficial or imprecise research. But Dr. Robiglio does far more than merely gesture to neighboring fields in his work. He weaves together intensely close readings a la literary studies, in-depth historical analysis, and, of course, precise philosophical insights. We moved from recent historical fiction to early 20th century scholars, from Dante to Umberto Eco and back. His research is a trove of the riches that can be found when one takes a holistic view, pursuing different threads and weaving them together. It seemed natural to us, then, to title this episode “Leaving the Beaten Path.” He may have been more comfortable calling himself a “Pre-modern Philosopher,” but it was clear to us that his integration of Latin and vernacular(s) texts, from a whole host of authors and composers, into an analytical approach that is as ready to embrace the secular as the religious makes him a formidable medievalist.
A recurring theme in our conversation was that of modernity in philosophy. We tend to think of our postmodern world, with its proliferating multiplicities, as a response to the grand theories of modernism. It is a response, we tell ourselves, to modernism’s tendency towards teleology, structures, and hierarchy. But in so many ways, postmodernism is a medieval phenomenon. The Middle Ages, at least in Western Europe, grew among the ruins of the centralized, systematized Roman Empire. Medieval society tended towards localisation, a tangled web of nodes each representing conflicting groups and interests. For Robiglio, it seems that figures like Dante and Thomas Aquinas also resist hierarchy in their writing and draw on a wide range of sometimes conflicting sources. Aquinas was willing to push back against the hegemony of religious thinking and introduce secular philosophy into his work. Perhaps to the point that the distinctions between the two categories start to blur. It’s a remarkably postmodern kind of thinking. As people say, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.
Will Beattie & Ben Pykare Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
On October 14, 1920, the words, “domina, magistra” were spoken by the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University at the first ever graduation day for women. The grammatically feminine gender of these Latin words marked a major twentieth-century transition for university education. Among this first group of women was Dorothy L. Sayers. She was awarded a first-class MA degree in modern languages, a degree that she had earned in its entirety at Somerville College, Oxford University five years before but could not receive at the time merely because she was female. While her degree was in modern languages, at the time, and especially under the influence of the medievalist at Somerville College, Mildred Pope, an undergraduate degree in modern languages would have contained quite a bit of medieval studies, and this influence can be seen throughout her varied career. Whether Dorothy was writing advertisment campaigns for Guiness Beer (she did the Toucan campaign) or Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels or radio dramas on the Life of Christ for the BBC or translating the Song of Roland and Dante’s Commedia, the Middle Ages seems to never be far from her mind.
Perhaps my favorite example from the Lord Peter mystery series occurs merely in her early characterization of Lord Peter in Whose Body? (1923). Dorothy Sayers admitted later than one of her motivations for writing Lord Peter, besides the need to earn money, was a certain kind of wish fulfillment during her own economically uncertain times. She imagines a character who has the means to live a life that she can only dream about. And what does Lord Peter do? He has his man, Bunter secure the purchase of rare books from an auction house while he follows up on a lead for his murder investigation:
“Thanks. I am going to Battersea at once. I want you to attend the sale for me. Don’t lose time—I don’t want to miss the Folio Dante* nor the de Voragine—here you are—see? ‘Golden Legend’—Wynkyn de Worde, 1493—got that?—and, I say, make a special effort for the Caxton folio of the ‘Four Sons of Aymon’—it’s the 1489 folio and unique. Look! I’ve marked the lots I want, and put my outside offer against each. Do your best for me. I shall be back to dinner.”
She even gives a footnote:
Aldine 8vo. of 1502, the Naples folio of 1477—”edizione rarissima,” according to Colomb. This copy has no history, and Mr. Parker’s private belief is that its present owner conveyed it away by stealth from somewhere or other. Lord Peter’s own account is that he “picked it up in a little place in the hills,” when making a walking-tour through Italy.
Notice that this isn’t an example of high-level scholarly influence. It is about the formation of her loves and passions soon after leaving Oxford. When she could fantasize about doing anything with money, she fantasizes about having enough money to buy expensive incunabula of Dante and de Voragine!
In addition to writing mystery novels, one of Dorothy Sayers’ earliest jobs after graduation was working at an advertising firm, the one for which she developed the Guiness Beer campaign. It appears from a paper given years later at a Vacation Course in Education at Oxford in 1947, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” that medieval studies may have given her a unique perspective on the advertising industry. She gave this paper almost twenty years after personally working in advertising (and writing Murder Must Advertise based upon her experience) but only a few years after the end of World War II, when the powers of propaganda in the modern world were first beginning to be fully recognized. With these experiences in mind, she writes:
Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of or unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechancial fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?…Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a “subject” remains a “subject,” divided by water-tight bulkheads from all other “subjects,” so that they experience great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between, let us say, algebra and detective fiction…between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?
Sayers suggests that the susceptibility of modern people to advertising and propaganda may be the result modern education. She even goes so far as to suggest that a return to the medieval trivium might be the best antidote! While realizing her proposal might be laughable, Sayers suggests that the issue is that “modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholars as he goes along” whereas “medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.” The medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric was not really a series of “subjects” but rather a way to train students in the verbal arts, enabling them to then apply those arts to whatever subject they studied. Without this kind of medieval training, the modern person is enslaved to those with the ability to spin words most effectively.
These examples from Whose Body? and “The Lost Tools of Learning” give only a taste of the way Sayers’ undergraduate education in medieval studies shaped her later work. More could be written about resemblances between medieval mystery plays and Sayers’ 12-part BBC radio drama on the life of Christ, The Man Born to Be King (and the way her medieval approach caused major controversy in 1942), not to mention her more serious scholarly pursuits translating The Divine Comedy (1949/1955)and The Song of Roland (1957). More could also be said on her remarks on medieval female brewsters in “Are Women Human?” (1947). What becomes clear, however, when one looks at her varied career is the impact of medieval studies upon the whole. The seeds of medieval studies sown at Oxford seem to have born fruit in her distinctively twentieth-century, modern life, one of the only times in history that a female graduate from Oxford University could be an advertiser, mystery novelist, radio dramatist, amateur educational theorist, and independent scholar.
Lesley-Anne Williams PhD in Medieval Studies (2011) Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 1: Hell. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. London: Penguin Classics, 1950.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 2: Purgatory. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. Penguin Classics, 1955.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 3: Paradise. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds. Twenty-Seventh Printing edition. Harmondsworth Eng.; Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1962.
Moulton, Mo. The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. First edition. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019.
Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Sayers, Dorothy L. The Lost Tools of Learning. Louisville, Kentucky: GLH Publishing, 2016.
Sayers, Dorothy L. The Man Born to Be King: Wade Annotated Edition. Edited by Kathryn Wehr. Annotated edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023.
Sayers, Dorothy L. The Song of Roland. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1957.
Sayers, Dorothy L. Three for Lord Peter Wimsey: Whose Body? Clouds of Witness. Unnatural Death. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
Whyte, Brendan. “Munster’s Monster Meets Dorothy’s Dragon: Lord Peter Wimsey Consults the Cartography of the ‘Cosmographia.’” Globe (Melbourne), no. 91 (2022): 61–74.
The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed. In fact, medieval societies expressed varying levels of tolerance and fluidity depending on circumstances and necessity. Unlike what a simple understanding of the Crusades would imply, Christians and Muslims did not occupy such disparate spheres that sexual relations between them—even those as legitimate as matrimony—were inconceivable. At times, miscegenation was tolerated. Moreover, while attitudes towards sexual relations with the religious ‘other’ remained largely (though not always) negative, the factors that governed these attitudes varied.
Literary sources and medieval chronicles reveal a complexity of attitudes and concerns. Lynn Ramey, in her 2001 work Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature, has explored medieval attitudes towards miscegenation as expressed in Frankish literature.[i] A genre of romance literature, called Chansons de Geste, that became popular in the Frankish world between 1150 and 1250, reveal anxieties over interfaith marriage in Western Christendom. This genre of literature reveals racial biases against Muslims, but at the same time, present models of marriage between Muslims and Christians that accommodate these biases. A recurring component in these poems is the scene of baptism: a symbolic enactment of washing away the spiritual dirtiness of the previous faith to embrace the purity of Christianity. But the dirtiness is more than spiritual. These texts reveal the concern over biological inheritance from the Muslim spouse in interfaith marriages. In her article, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,”Lynn Ramey explores reproductive anxieties that texts such as King of Tars reveal, and argues that there was serious apprehension over whether the offspring of an interfaith marriages would be healthy. She traces these fears to Aristotelean, Galenic, and Hippocratic models of reproduction that Christendom had inherited. Ramey suggests that religious traits were perceived as biological and inheritable, and most importantly, undesirable. In the King of Tars, for instance, a marriage alliance between a “Saracen” king and a Christian princess leads to the birth of a defective offspring. However, the conversion of the Muslim king to Christianity corrects the offspring’s birth defects. Christian features, therefore, were desirable while Muslim ones were not. Thus, religion determined biology. King of Tars, she argues, offers conversion as a suitable means of eliminating undesirable traits. Thus, the “dark” Saracen king turns “white” upon conversion and the “blob” of an offspring becomes a beautiful boy following his baptism.[ii]
In the poem, King of Tars, the desired inheritable physical traits are achieved upon conversion. However, in other poems, there is less certainty over the mutability of physical traits. In these poems, assimilation is permissible only when the Muslim fulfils two major criteria: he or she fits the Christian standard of beauty and he or she willingly converts to Christianity. The Capture of Orange, composed around 1150, for instance, narrates the tale of a Crusader knight, William of Toulouse who falls in love with the beautiful and noble-hearted, yet, religiously “misled” Saracen queen, Orable of Orange. In the poem, the Crusaders describe the physical beauty and sexual appeal of the ‘Saracen’ queen in the following terms:
King Teebo’s wife, so fair of hair and head: You’ll never find her peer for loveliness In Christendom or any Pagan realm! Such tenderness! Such slender hips and legs, And falcon’s eyes, so bright and so intense! Alas for youth and beauty so misled In ignorance of God and His largesse! How fine a place she’d make a Christian bed For somebody who’d save her soul from hell![iii]
Orable, therefore, fulfils the Christian beauty standard by being ‘fair of hair and head’, and following the capture of Orange and the defeat of King Teebo, she converts willingly to Christianity in order to marry William. Similar to The Capture of Orange wherein the Muslim woman weds a Christian Knight, the Aye of Avignon, composed around 1190, features a noble-hearted Muslim King who is willing to leave his faith and his land behind in order to wed a Christian woman. Again, in this poem the Muslim man is honorable but, most importantly, handsome:
KING GANOR WAS as gracious and kind as he was bold. In one hand he was holding a pilgrim-staff of oak, But took off from the other a glove with stitches sewn. The graceful hand beneath it was long, and pale as snow, And, on its little finger, displayed a ring of gold.[iv]
Ramey points out that medieval romances read like legal treatises on marriage, recommending assimilation of those parts of Muslim culture that were perceived as non-threatening in Western Christendom and “othering” those aspects that were. The dark skin, for example, was alleged to be a physical sign of barbarism. However, the internal virtues of patience, tolerance and courage in a “Saracen were grudgingly admired.”[v]
These poems, thus, seek to balance the Christian penetration of Muslim culture by absorbing valuable traits of the latter while at the same time emphasizing the ultimate victory of the former. For instance, in King Ganor’s case, he is not required to change his name; while in the case of the queen in Capture of Orange, she is baptized as ‘Guibourc.’ The latter expresses the symbolic victory of Christianity over Islam through the male penetration of the female: the Christian knight acquires a Muslim wife by baptizing her. Moreover, since inheritance of name, title, and the honors associated thereof was paternal in Western Christendom, changing the woman’s name presented no problem. Further, there is little unease when a woman sheds her name upon marriage. On the other hand, all the desirable achievements associated with King Ganor’s name could not be inherited by his sons had his name changed. This would likely create cause for concern in the medieval imagination. Moreover, a man shedding his name stirs unease not quite on the same level as but somewhat similar to castration. The idea is that a man is cuckolded or less manly when he changes too much for his wife. So, the change has to be just enough to establish the superiority of Christianity, but not so much that it establishes the dominance of the woman over the man. Consequently, King Ganor’s name stays the same despite his baptism. Chansons de Geste, thus, present a fictional playing field where medieval anxieties over miscegenation are revealed and resolved.
Anxieties over biological inheritance is apparent not only in literature but also in the laws of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215. Canon 50, for example, prohibits marriages to the fourth degree of kinship. The reason provided for this restriction is a biological one: “The number four agrees well with the prohibition concerning bodily union about which the Apostle says, that the husband does not rule over his body, but the wife does; and the wife does not rule over her body, but the husband does; for there are four humours in the body, which is composed of the four elements.”[vi] But, it is not merely biological inheritance that is addressed in the Fourth Lateran Council. Canon 68 discloses concerns about impurity incurred due to intermixing. This Canon mandates that Jews and Saracens should dress differently from Christians:
A difference of dress distinguishes Jews or Saracens from Christians in some provinces, but in others a certain confusion has developed so that they are indistinguishable. Whence it sometimes happens that by mistake Christians join with Jewish or Saracen women, and Jews or Saracens with Christian women. In order that the offence of such a damnable mixing may not spread further, under the excuse of a mistake of this kind, we decree that such persons of either sex, in every Christian province and at all times, are to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress.[vii]
This decree suggests that it was difficult to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians which allows for free mixing between the two groups. While this Canon expresses the concern that uninhibited ‘mixings’ often led to sexual relations, it might also reveal apprehension about the exchange of ideas and practices between Christians and non-Christians. Hence the insistence that other religious communities dress differently so as to contain all types of mingling or at the very least make such interactions in plain view and, by extension, manageable.
The apprehension over exchange of ideas and practices is obvious in Canon 70, which prohibits new converts from retaining any remnants of their old faith: “Certain people who have come voluntarily to the waters of sacred baptism, as we learnt, do not wholly cast off the old person in order to put on the new more perfectly. For, in keeping remnants of their former rite, they upset the decorum of the Christian religion by such a mixing.”[viii] This canon points to a phenomenon that was probably occurring in Christendom, that is, of non-Christians converting to Christianity as a means to achieve goals other than a genuine acceptance of a new faith and, therefore, converts did not necessarily shed the customs and traditions of their previous faith. Moreover, even if there was genuine intent, a combination of factors such as habit, comfort, and social pressure may have caused them to revert to the practices of their former tradition. The problem that the Canon addresses is not a biological one, but that of maintaining religious decorum while receiving converts from other faiths and traditions.
Literature in Western Christendom reveals an anxiety about biological inheritance in a mixed marriage. These anxieties appear to stem from the idea that religion was inheritable. Along the same lines, these poems permit assimilation of only those Muslims who fulfil Christian standards of beauty. In other words, in order for the Muslim to be assimilated, he or she should either already have the physical attributes of a “Christian” or conform to those attributes upon baptism. Biological inheritance is a concern in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 as well. However, the principal focus of these decrees is the maintenance of religious homogeneity and decorum.
The most fascinating feature about the study of medieval miscegenation is the extent to which these negative yet complex attitudes persist in the modern world. Clearly, even today there is unease and concern about marrying a person of a different race or culture. While the idea of having sexual relations outside racial categories may sound appealing, the extent of difference—physical or otherwise—that individuals are willing to tolerate may not be substantial enough to allow such relationships to succeed. Whether it is sexual purity or biological inheritance or religious decorum that was the concern during the Crusades or whether it is the extent of difference individuals tolerate in modern day culture, miscegenation stirred and continues to stir complex attitudes in ancient and medieval as well as modern societies.
Ambika Natarajan Visiting Lecturer and Research Associate UM-DAE Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences
[i] Lynn Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York: Routledge, 2001).
[ii] Lynn Ramey, “Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance,” in Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse, ed. Jerold C. Frakes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2011), 1-20.
[iii] “The Capture of Orange,” in Heroines of the French Epic: A Second Selection of Chansons de Geste, trans. Michael Newth (Hungerford: D.S Brewer, 2014), 17.