Learning about Learned Medieval Women with Dr. Megan J. Hall

This week, we’re looking back at an earlier episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” In late 2022, we chatted with Dr. Megan J. Hall, Assistant Director of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. We spoke with her about women’s literacy and learning in medieval England, the trials and tribulations of writing an academic article, and why impromptu bell-ringing can reveal the true value of scholarship.

Studying history can show us the bigger picture. It can help to explain why nation states behave as they do, why complex geopolitical situations emerge, and how entire landscapes have been shaped over time. But it also allows us to connect with the past on a local level. It can show us where we come from. Speaking with Dr. Hall, we were reminded several times that through historical research, people can identify with those who came before. Moments of identity like that can drastically reshape our relationship with the past. Dr. Hall’s meeting with a group of bellringers in rural England is a perfect example. During this surprise encounter, she was able to share her own work with the group and participate in a tradition of bell ringing which has centuries of history. Her work prompted one of the group to ask ‘so, could women read in the Middle Ages?’ Dr. Hall was able to correct a common misconception of women and the possibilities open to them in medieval England. Yes, some women could read! Some books were written specifically for women! This revelation changed the questioner’s view of medieval women, and was a triumphant ‘I knew we could!’ she experienced a moment of solidarity with them.

Dr. Hall’s story, as has been the case for so many of the conversations we’ve had on Meeting on the Middle Ages, is also a reminder of the privilege that medievalists have. We are able to visit museums, archives, libraries, and go beyond the public spaces. We can consult ancient materials. We don’t have to rely on facsimiles (well, sometimes we do). We can work with the original, turning it over in our hands and connecting with its creator. In doing so, we become another link in a chain that has been forged over centuries. With the Ancrenne Wisse it begins with the object’s creator, perhaps the scribe or composer of a manuscript. It binds together dozens of men and women who received the text and used it in their lives. Dr. Hall is part of that chain. And in telling her story, we all become a part of it too.

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Learning to Fear in Two Medieval Fables

Fables often warn by example, with an animal character’s mistakes leading to their death. Grievous errors, the morals further emphasize, can be avoided by a reader who learns from the fable’s message. The two medieval fables discussed below have no deaths within the narrative, only the threat of it. Both feature parent animals—a raven or crow in one, a doe in the other—teaching their children to be cautious of humans, and to pay close attention to their actions. These fables, in which the animal parents and their children have the ability to speak to one another, depict a means of learning to fear that is usually ascribed to humans only: verbal information. (Two other ways of learning fear, which have been studied in a number of species, are through direct conditioning and through observing the behavior of others; the latter is sometimes called “vicarious learning” or “social fear transmission.”)

The two fables in question appear one after the other, in two collections. One version is in a Latin prose collection in the “Romulus” tradition, called the Romulus Anglicus cunctis, edited by Léopold Hervieux from a fifteenth-century manuscript.[1] Another version is found in the Fables attributed to Marie de France.[2] The fable of The Raven and His Chicks, as found in Hervieux’s edition, is below, followed by my translation.

Corvus consedit in arbore quadam secus viam et cum eo Pulli sui. Sedens igitur Pullos quos habebat monebat attencius ut cauti essent. Deambulabat autem homo eadem via, et dixit Corvus ad pullos : Hic est ille, quem nos cavere maxime oportet, et vos, si videritis eum molinantem ad terram, fugite velociter. Cui unus Pullorum respondit : Eciam si se non inclinaverit, appropinquantem fugere volo. Bonum est, inquit pater, et de cetero per te non sollicitabor; sed alios Pullos meos, ut cauti sint, ammonebo.

A raven settled onto a certain tree beside a road, and with him his chicks. While he was sitting, he then carefully advised the chicks that he had, so that they would be cautious. Then a man came walking along the same road, and the raven said to his chicks: This is the one that we need to be the most careful about, and you, if you see him bending to the ground, flee quickly. To which one of the chicks responded: Even if he doesn’t bend over, I intend to flee when he approaches. Good, said the father, and I won’t otherwise worry for you. But my other chicks, I’ll warn them to be cautious.

Raven from Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f. 37r

The implication of the Romulus version of this fable, as I see it, is that it’s good to be on the safe side. While the father had used the example of a human bending over as something to be particularly watchful for, presumably because he could be picking up something to throw at the birds, one of his sons declares that he will flee at the man’s approach regardless, and it is this assertion which dispels his father’s worry for his future safety; it is yet to be seen whether his other offspring will be as cautious.

Marie’s version of The Raven and His Chicks, while it similarly portrays a parent teaching their young to fear humans, ultimately has a much different message about caution. The parent corvid in Marie’s version (a crow rather than a raven) specifies that his son ought to watch out for a man bending over to pick up a stick or a stone, and flee at the sight (lines 5–8).

“If I don’t see him bend over, and he doesn’t have anything in his hand, then do I need to move?” inquires the chick (Si jeo nel vei, fet il, beisser / n[e]’en ses meins rien manïer, / [me] dei jeo dunc[es] remüer, lines 9–11). At this point, the parent declares that he needn’t teach his son anything further, and that he is off to aid his other children. The implication is that the young crow is discerning when it comes to human actions and what they portend, and that he knows to be cautious, but not excessively so. And indeed, animals who regularly encounter human (or non-human) threats must strike a balance between their own safety and the need to find crucial resources such as food.

The raven fable, in the Romulus Anglicus cunctis, is left without a moral. In both the Romulus and Marie’s collection, the raven/crow fable is immediately preceded by the fable of The Hind Instructing Her Fawn. In this fable, a mother deer similarly warns her offspring to be wary of humans, such as the hunter they see nearby. However, rather than simply absorbing her advice, the son talks back, arguing that the hunter must in fact be afraid of them. After all, why else would he be sneaking around and hiding in the bushes? The mother reiterates that the man, and particularly the weapons he bears, are deadly. The moral, in the Romulus, is that “fools don’t foresee harms or dangers and don’t fear them, until they feel them” (Sic stulti dampna vel pericula non prevident nec pertimescunt, donec ea senciunt).[3] The naïve young fawn seems to represent such fools, whereas his wiser mother can more accurately read human behavior and identify threats.

Of course, in real life, a young bird or deer would learn fear from another animal’s sudden change in body language, or their alarm call, or even their scent, not from a verbal explanation. Humans, though, can learn through storytelling. Research in psychology has suggested that children readily learn to fear through verbal information—particularly when the information comes from an adult, rather than a peer.[4] Fables both show and tell, in a sense, when they combine memorable narratives about another’s ill-fated end (or prudent evasion of disaster) with explicit moralizations. These stories are not meant to be taken literally; after all, The Raven and His Chicks isn’t meant to teach young readers that they should run away at the sight of a man bending to the ground to pick up a rock. Rather, readers are prompted to extrapolate from the animal scenario and apply this to more abstruse, though no less real, dangers. Fables teach, perhaps, not simply what to fear, but how to fear.  Fear can be life-saving, but excessive or unnecessary fear can prove maladaptive. As for what might constitute a maladaptive level of fear, the two versions of the raven/crow fable discussed above seem to draw the line in different places; the Romulus version advocates greater wariness than Marie’s version, which suggests that wisdom lies in knowing both when to flee and when not to.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Léopold Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d’Auguste jusqu’à la fin du Moyen Âge, vol. 2 (Paris : Firmin-Didot, 1884), p. 612.

[2] Charles Brucker, ed., Marie de France: Les Fables, édition critique accompagnée d’une introduction, d’une traduction, de notes et d’un glossaire, 2nd ed. (Paris–Louvain: Peeters, 1998), pp. 334-7.

[3] Léopold Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins, vol. 2, p. 612.

[4] A. P. Field et al., “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf: a prospective paradigm to test Rachman’s indirect pathways in children,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 39, 11 (2001): 1259-76. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11686263/

The Anti-Latin Polemic of Metropolitan Ephraim of Kiev

While I think it is true, as I have argued before, that the Greek church never considered the events of 1054 as marking any kind of definitive break with the Latin West, this does not mean that the theological writers at the time ignored the sudden and dramatic juxtaposition of Eastern and Western liturgical, ritual, and cultural practices. Indeed, almost the reverse is true: the decades following 1054 witnessed a flourishing of a genre that has been termed the “Byzantine lists,” essentially short treatises outlining a series of objectionable practices that were common (or were believed by the authors to be common) among Latin Christians. Typically inspired by the letter of Michael Cerularius to Peter of Antioch, which added several complaints about the Latins to a list of issues that were under more active discussion between the two sides in 1054, these lists commonly discussed issues that pertained to liturgical or ritual practice. Greek Christians regularly complained that their Latin confrères did not celebrate baptism correctly, did not fast from the correct foods or with sufficient rigor, and did not sing the word “alleluia” during church services at the correct times of the year, among other problems.

St. Peter of Antioch, detail of the mosaic in the Basilica of San VitaleRavenna, 6th century.

The primary study of the genre as a whole remains Tia Kolbaba’s monograph The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins, published in 2000 [1]. Kolbaba maintains that the composition of these lists was fundamentally a project of Byzantine cultural consciousness, a way of emphasizing (or constructing) the unity, antiquity, and correctness of Eastern Roman practice by way of comparison to the “other,” in this case, the Latins. These lists were intended as emotional appeals to a broad Greek audience, and were somewhat low-brow in both style and content: theologically difficult issues like the filioque are presented side-by-side with complaints that Latin bishops wear silk rather than woolen robes, with no effort to rank the comparative importance of the various complaints.

Given Kolbaba’s argument that these lists of complaints are fundamentally inward looking, focused more on the Eastern Romans than the Western ones, it is especially interesting that one of the earliest examples of the genre was not written within the oikoumene at all, but rather under the political authority of the Kievan Rus’. Ephraim, the metropolitan of Kiev from around 1055 to the early 1060s, was an ethnic Greek recently transplanted in the eastern Slavic territory when he authored a list of twenty-eight distinct complaints against the Latin Christians [2]. Most of these complaints concern topics that are familiar to students of the East-West conflict: the filioque, the use of azymes (unleavened bread) in the celebration of the Eucharist, the practice of fasting on the Sabbath (Saturdays). Indeed, the complaints in Ephraim’s treatise echo the issues raised in the 1054 conflict so completely that he either had received a thorough report of the events or was still personally resident in Constantinople during the time of the Humbertine legation.

Miniatures from the Kiev Psalter, 1397CE.

Ephraim, however, was also cognizant of his new cultural context, and Igor Čičurov, who first printed an edition of the text, points out instances where Ephraim used words or referenced topics that would have been far more familiar to a Slavic audience. For example, Ephraim attributes the sacramental use of azymes to the Vandals, noting that this group of people are now called the “Nemitzioi” (“τῶν νῦν Νεμιτζίων καλοθμένων”) a native Slavic term for Germans (i.e., non-Slavs): “немитции” or “немцы” [3]. Furthermore, Ephraim deviated from his literary model, Michael Cerularius, in accusing the Latins of not giving baptizands the names of saints, but instead the names of various animals (lions, bears, leopards, etc.) [4]. This complaint, Čičurov notes, is not made in any list of complaints against the Latins composed within the Eastern Roman Empire itself. Instead, it is only from the Slavic context, where the practice of retaining a non-Christian name after baptism was common, that this issue was raised [5].

This complaint brings us back to Kolbaba’s thesis, that the so-called Byzantine lists had more to do with policing cultural practice and ritual purity within the Eastern Christian world than in correcting behavior in the West. Constantinopolitan authors of similar works, although they surely would have objected to this naming practice, apparently did not see the need to mention it among their complaints. In Ephraim’s case, however, we see an ethnic Greek confronted with the very foreign (to him) practice of retaining a non-Christian name. His attack on the Latin practice would equally have served as a critique of the princely families of the Rus’ by whom he was surrounded. We are left, in the end, with a strengthening of Kolbaba’s central argument: “[…] the intended audience was not Latin. There are anti-Latin works which were intended to convince Latins, but the lists are not among them” [6] Instead, we should see Ephraim’s work, at least in part, the effort of a Greek clergyman to enforce the norms of Constantinopolitan orthodox theology and practice in the Eastern Christian hinterland.

Nick Kamas
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Tia M. Kolbaba, The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2000). See especially chapter 1, pp. 9-19, for the argument on the purpose and context of the lists.

[2] For some biographical details on Ephraim of Kiev, see Gerhard Podskalsky, Christentum und Theologische Literatur in der Kiever Rus’ (988-1237) (München: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1982), 285-286. Further details, including a helpful bibliography, are in А. В. Назаренко, “Кое-что о Двух Русских Митрополитах XI в. Ефреме Киевском и Ефреме Переяславском” Древняя Русь: Вопросы Медиевистики 75.1 (2019): 87-90.

[3] “Антилатинский Трактат Киевского Митрополита Ефрема (ок. 1054/55-1061/62 гг.) в Составе Греческого Канонического Сборника Vat. Gr. 828,” Вестник ПСТГУ 19.3 (2007): 127. This publication in Russian is a revision of an earlier German article: I. Čičurov, “Ein antilateinischer Traktat des Kiever Metropoliten Ephraim,” Fontes Minores X (Frankfurt am Main, 1998): 319–356. The edition of the Greek text appears only in the German version.

[4] Traktat 18, in Čičurov, “Ein antilateinischer Traktat,” 344.

[5] Чичуров, “Антилатинский Трактат,” 126.

[6] Kolbaba, Byzantine Lists, 28.