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: http://images.amazon.com/images/P/B000009OM1.jpg

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. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780691188744.

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.”

Jacques de Vitry’s Defense of the Beguines

We want to like the prologue to Jacques de Vitry’s hagiography (c. 1216) of thirteenth-century holy woman Marie d’Oignies. It serves as a defense of the beguines: a grassroots movement of pious women inventing new ways of living a religious life alone or in community outside a formal monastic environment. But some of Jacques’ thoughts do not sit well with modern sensibilities:

It is sufficiently demonstrated that [the beguines] clung to the Lord during the destruction of the city of Liege. Those who could not flee to the churches threw themselves into the river and chose to die rather than to incur harm to their chastity. Some jumped into dung-filled sewers and preferred to be snuffed out in stink than to be despoiled of their virginity. Despite all this, the merciful Bridegroom so deigned to look after His brides that not a single one in such a great multitude was found who suffered either death to her body or harm to her chastity. [1]

Exactly what the modern reader wants to hear: it is better for a woman to kill herself than be raped. To the vita’s target audience, however, the beguines’ actions function as proof of their commitment to a religious life outside the formal claustration and celibacy vow of a convent. Their survival is evidence for God’s approval of their way of life.

The vita of Marie, moreover, is not the only time multi-continental bishop, preacher, and very prolific author Jacques talks about a literal leap of faith in service of religious order justification. In one of his Sermones Vulgares, Jacques seeks to exhort crusaders, and especially Templar knights, to spiritual greatness:

I have heard from a certain Templar that at the very beginning of the order, while they were still poor and very fervent in religion, that he himself was coming from the city of Tyre, bringing money and alms which they had received to the city of Acre. He came to a certain place, which has been called ‘Templar’s Leap,’ ever since. For the Saracens had placed an ambush for that noble knight, in a place where on one side there was a sheer cliff and on the other the deepest sea lay below, while the Saracens besieged him from in front and behind on the narrow path. As he had no where to turn, he urged his horse with the spurs, and leapt from the lofty cliff with the horse into the depths of the sea. But the horse – as it pleased the Lord – carried him unharmed to the shore. (trans. Helen Nicholson) [2]

At first, the story appears to be a near-direct parallel to that of the Liege beguines. A Templar, facing violation of his life and mission (delivery of the money, a nice nod to the Templars’ fabled role as “the world’s first international bank”), chooses to jump from high ground into water, a plunge likely to end in his death. In this case, too, God intervenes, and the Templar’s life is preserved.

But on second glance, the Templar’s leap does not mirror the beguines’ actions so much as cast them into stark relief. In his crusade sermon, Jacques relates the knight’s mental process as he leapt off the cliff: he hoped and prayed that God would deliver him safely. The beguines, according to the bishop, hoped only that they would die.

Dyan Elliott has suggested that the story of the Liege beguines, propagated during the Albigensian Crusade against presumed Cathars in France, functions as anti-Cathar polemic. Orthodox martyrs do not die, so lay people who die in service to claimed religion are heretics, not martyrs. [3] Elliott skips over the underlying contention in her discussion of martyrdom, but it is worth drawing out in a discussion of beguines and sanctity. Jacques’ argument only works as anti-heretic polemic if the audience already stipulates the orthodoxy of the beguines. In other words, the vita prologue is a collective hagiography preaching (literally) to the choir, not an argument for an inquisitive audience. I’m more interested, though, in modern revulsion and the theological position Jacques implicitly stakes on a different topic: suicide.

Print of a Beguine in Des dodes dantz of Matthäus Brandis, Lübeck 1489.

Setting aside the views and experiences of women themselves, the rape of religious women was a theologically painful problem for medieval theologians—a problem bound up with suicide from the earliest centuries of Christian theology, thanks to the interplay with the classical tradition and the story of Lucretia. And Jacques and his hagiographical beguines were not necessarily on the right side. Augustine discusses the dilemma at some length in City of God I.16-19, arguing that the virtue of virginity is ultimately a matter of the will; the integrity of the body only reflects the sanctity of the will insofar as the person has control over it. [4] “We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her.” (I.19) He continues on to drive home his point that suicide is a mortal sin, period:

Therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own. (I.18)

The apparent universal survival of the Liege beguines, furthermore, is no magic arrow for Jacques to avoid the problem of actions with a desired outcome of suicide. Medieval doctrine–in point of fact, even Augustine in that same section of City of God–was clear that intention was a crucial factor in determining a sin.

This is where the comparison with the Crusade sermon becomes so revealing. The knight explicitly hopes to survive, even if he knows it is mathematically unlikely. Jacques could have given his hagiographical beguines this way out, but he did not. “Two of the enemy came to her in a boat and intended to commit vile fornication with her. But what can happen to the chaste among lions, to a lamb among wolves, to a dove among eagles? She preferred to sink again into the river than to be violated.” [5] The Liege beguines’ intention is death, or more flatly: their intention is to kill themselves. Despite this fairly flat contradiction of Church doctrine, Jacques intended this scene as an argument for the legitimacy of the beguines’ lifestyle.

The premium that Christianity places on martyrdom has long carried the uncomfortable flip side of where to draw the line between accepting one’s death and making one’s death happen. The rhetorical strategies of Jacques de Vitry in his vita of Marie d’Oignies and his Crusade sermons add an additional gendered dimension onto the dilemma. And in light of Jacques’ goal to promote the beguine movement, a comparison of the two texts suggests that when it came to arguing for orthodoxy, might heterodoxy be the best policy?

Cait Stevenson, PhD.
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

[1] Jacques de Vitry, The Life of Marie d’Oignies, trans. Margot L. King (Peregrina, 1987), 19.

[2] H.J. Nicholson, trans., “Jacques de Vitry: Sermons to a Military Order,” De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History, April 12, 2014.

[3] Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2004), 65.

[4] Augustine, City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (T&T Clark, 1913), digitized here.

[5] Life of Marie d’Oignies, 19.

St. Augustine: Florida’s Medieval City (Part II)

Few people, even Floridians, know about the medieval roots of St. Augustine discussed in my previous blog. In fact, if you’re planning a trip there and you Google “medieval St. Augustine,” you’ll only get results for the city’s Medieval Torture Museum or for the antique Christian philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo.

As readers of this blog know well, though, there is far more to any society, medieval or otherwise, than its methods of policing and punishment. Allow me, then, to take you on a medievalist’s tour of St. Augustine!

Welcome gateway in St. Augustine. Photo by the author.

I recommend beginning at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center. The parking is plentiful (though not free), the air conditioning glorious, and the informational brochures abundant. The VIC also has terrific museum-quality exhibits, including replicas of Spanish sailing ships and plenty of historical documents, explanatory placards, and artifacts. The plaza also houses a notable fountain, a replica of the Fuentos de los Caños de San Francisco (Fountain of the Spouts, in the Avilés neighborhood of San Francisco). St. Augustine’s sister city, Avilés, Spain, also the birthplace of St. Augustine’s founder Pedro Menéndez, gifted the fountain to St. Augustine in 2005. The original Fuentos de los Caños de San Francisco in Avilés was built in the sixteenth century, in the late medieval/early modern transitional period, and will set the medieval mood quite well for you!

Fuente de los caños en Avilés. Photography by Sitomon, posted to Wikimedia Commons.

The Castillo de San Marcos

From the VIC you can walk east to the Castillo de San Marcos (the Fort of St. Mark, managed by the National Park Service). As you’ll see in your visit, the Castillo blends the functions of medieval stronghold and defensive New World frontier fort. 

From the early days of the settlement, this spot held a defensive fort, though the earliest ones—nine in total—were wooden. [1] We know this from a significant map made by Baptisto Boazio, created to accompany a written account of Sir Francis Drake’s 1585 raiding expedition to attempt an upset of Spanish settlements in their new territories.

Close-up view of the Boazio map of St. Augustine, showing a wooden fort at the right, on the site of the present-day Castillo, and the first Spanish settlement at the left, with crop-growing fields at the top and right, and a watchtower, town house, and church to the right of the houses. Image from the Library of Congress.

In September 1585 Drake set out with 29 vessels. He and his crew raided and captured Santiago (Cape Verde), Santo Domingo (modern-day Dominican Republic), Cartagena (modern-day Columbia), and St. Augustine. The illustrations made by Boazio, who either went on the voyage or used information provided by Sir Francis Drake or other sailors, are the first recorded views of each of these locations, and his drawing of St. Augustine is particularly notable as the first recorded view of a European settlement in North America. 

His maps were printed to accompany the written account two sailors kept of that voyage. Captain Walter Bigges began the account and kept it until he died in Cartagena; Lieutenant Croftes continued it after Bigges’s death. [2]

Croftes described St. Augustine’s fort as still in progress, only three or four months old, “all built of timber, the walles being none other but whole mastes or bodies of trees set uppe right and close together in manner of a pale, without any ditch as yet made.”[3] Drake and his company burned the unfinished fort, and the town, to the ground. 

Though the fled survivors returned and rebuilt, much of the town was destroyed again just a few years later in a hurricane of 1599. Finally in 1672, the settlers began construction of a stone fort. Its first stage was finished in 1695 (the second stage ran from 1738–1756). [4]

Contemporary aerial view of Castillo, aerial view of terreplein and bastions. Image from the National Park Service.

Though the structure of the stone fort, made of native coquina, was post-medieval, it served in many ways as a medieval castle, a defense for the town around it and a place for St. Augustinians to shelter when under assault. In 1702, for example, when the British attacked, “about 1,500 soldiers and civilians were packed into the Castillo for 51 days!” [5] 

The courtyard had three freshwater wells, the dry moat and the glacis offered protection from invasion, and both the inner and outer fortress had cannons and other types of munitions for fending off attackers. 

The southwest corner of the fort, showing the Bastion de San Pedro (each of the four angled corners of the fort contains a bastion, and each is named: NE, San Carlos (also the main watch tower); NW, San Pablo; SW, San Pedro; SE, San Agustín). Photo by the author.

A medieval coat of arms appears above both the ravelin (the v-shaped protective installation at the south end) and the sally port (the entrance into the south wall, reached by the drawbridge and protected by the ravelin). As in the city coat of arms that I discussed in Part One, the lions represent the Kingdom of León and the castles the Kingdom of Castile, the crown atop Spain, and the sheep and enclosing chain the medieval Order of the Golden Fleece.

Image of the (replica) stone crest on the ravelin. Image from the NPS virtual tour of the Castillo.

Want to learn more about the fort from the comfort of your browser? Take the great virtual tour offered by NPS and hosted by the University of South Florida Libraries’ Center for Digital Heritage and Geospatial Information!

The City Gate and Walls

Running out from the western side of the Castillo, and reconstructed and visible today, is one of the city’s defensive walls. Like medieval cities, St. Augustine had not only a fortified stronghold but also a city gate and defensive walls. Most of these walls, or lines as the Spanish termed them, are reconstructions, though you will still feel very much like you’re walking through a medieval city when you see them (imagine, for example, the walls and gates of York, one of the most complete medieval walled cities in England.)

The gate and city walls of St. Augustine were not actually erected at its first settlement but in response to the British invasion of 1702. That experience prompted the city to enclose itself afterwards within medieval-style walls. The builders used native materials and constructed the lines as earthworks strengthened with local crushed coquina, or as walls of palm trunks.

St. Augustinians erected four protective lines: the Cubo Line (1704), the Hornabeque (or Hornwork) Line (1706), the Rosario Line (1718–19), and the Mose Wall (1762). [6] Each line also included redoubts (a term that comes from Classical Latin reducere “to lead back” and medieval Latin reductus “secret place” [7]), somewhat similar in concept to the turrets of the Roman-era Hadrian’s Wall in England.) You can visit a reconstructed redoubt, the Santo Domingo Redoubt, at the corner of Orange and Cordova Streets, near the VIC.

The lines of St. Augustine. Original image from NPS, overlaid by the author with colored lines.

Colonial historian Dr. Susan R. Parker describes the construction of the lines:

“Out from the Castillo’s west side went strong earthworks in the style of medieval European walled cities to protect against siege warfare. This wall surrounded the city’s three landward sides and became the physical limits of the colonial city.

[…] ​​Years later, about 1762, the northernmost wall was added to connect with the village of Fort Mose, the settlement established for enslaved persons who escaped from English colonies to Spanish Florida.

The lines were built of soil with coquina sometimes incorporated for strength. To raise the height of the wall, Spanish bayonets and prickly cactus were planted along its top. The walls required endless repair. The biggest threat to the wall were the hooves of free-ranging cattle that pawed away at the berms.

The reproduction Cubo Line that today crosses the grounds of the Castillo depicts a version of that barrier made of palm logs, built about 1808, a century after the first ‘Line.’ The City Gate was incorporated into this wall. The coquina pillars that stand today were built about the same time as the palm-log wall and replaced earlier entryways made of wood.” [8]

The Cubo line runs out of the west side of the fort, and the nineteenth-century version of palms was reconstructed in 1964 by the National Park Service. You can learn all about the materials and construction of this wall from NPS.

You can see more detail of the architecture of the Cubo line in the drawing below from the National Park Service.

Cubo Line Construction. Drawing by the National Park Service showing the proposed location of the replica town wall.

The city gates are part of the Cubo line and lie a short distance from the western fort wall. The existing gates were reconstructed in 1808. 

The reconstructed City Gates, seen from the north. The Cubo line runs on either side of the gate. St. George Street, the entrance into the walled town, runs through these gates. Photo by the author.
Side view of the city gates, from the east, showing the defensive earthworks, entrance bridge of St. George Street, dry moat, and palms. Photo by the author.

The city lines were, in fact, what inspired me to write these blogs on the medieval roots of St. Augustine. Wandering around the old city on one visit a few years ago, I came across a part of the city wall, running between buildings on the northwestern edge and not particularly marked or noted in any way. I stood there for a bit, playing my fingers gently over the coquina and mortar, and thinking about the medieval city walls of York (themselves much reconstructed, like St. Augustine’s), and medieval flint church walls I’d just spent a year examining in the eastern U.K.

These sudden medieval encounters in the everyday world are striking, connecting us with the past physically, and showing us links with our natural environment and its long history of inspiring the construction of protective barriers, homes, and places of worship. Builders in the U.K. from the Romans to the Elizabethans relied on flint, a stone arising from the Chalk Escarpment of eastern coastal (and some of inland) Britain. The masons who made York’s medieval stone walls quarried their materials from the Magnesian Limestone formation in that area. The masons of St. Augustine drew on the native coquina, a limestone formed naturally of compressed and partially-dissolved shells of the coquina clam donax variabilis. St. Augustine’s limestone was quarried from nearby Anastasia Island

Mortared coquina. The signature features of coquina rock—compressed shells of donax variabilis and their partially dissolved limestone—are visible here. Photo by the author.

The Historic City

While only a few reconstructed sections of the lines exist today, you can still enter the historic district of St. Augustine through its city gates, and from there step into a colonial Spanish town. Most of the city’s historic buildings are restored or reconstructed from its colonial era (First Spanish Period, 1565–1763; British Period, 1763–83; Second Spanish Period, 1783–1821) and early American period (after 1821). This lack of surviving older structures has much to do with St. Augustine’s military past: as a key outpost, the city weathered a number of massive attacks on its fort and settlement, such as Drake’s destruction of it in 1585 or the 1702 British attack that left the city burned to the ground again. Both post-Civil War Reconstruction and Henry Flagler’s investment and overhaul of the city in the late-nineteenth century meant the demolishing of many of the older buildings and construction of new ones. 

The 1971 Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board’s Guidebook notes of the period of demolishment that “The old and storied inevitably gave way to the then new and modern. Many old houses and the remaining sections of the defense lines were uprooted to make way for new buildings. In those days these changes were hailed as a great improvement. Construction wasn’t the only enemy St. Augustine had, however; fire did its share of damage. In 1887 flames swept the Cathedral and much of the north block of the plaza. In 1914 a disastrous fire wiped out many of the buildings in the older section of the city between the city gates and the plaza.” [9] In the 1930s, though, St. Augustine became the focus of historic restoration, with organizing efforts to protect the historic district and return the city to its first Spanish period appearance. This Guidebook contains fascinating information from its time about the history and reconstruction of many of the buildings you can visit today.

Careful attention to the historical restoration process has resulted in a city that still reflects clearly its Spanish heritage. Albert Manucy in his book Sixteenth-Century St. Augustine writes,

“Although none of the first colonial houses of St. Augustine remain, it is clear from the later survivors that they are related to the folk architecture of northern Spain, the home of Pedro Menéndez, the town’s founder. Today in Oviedo and Santander Provinces one can see masonry houses, often with overhead balconies, front the streets. House lots are fenced to serve as corrals and stables. And in the town of Treceño there are houses with roomy ground-floor loggias, open to the yard through an arcade of two or three arches. These same styles can be seen in St. Augustine, and they have been there a long time.” [10]

This “folk architecture” itself was influenced by the medieval era (unfortunately I don’t have space to delve into this topic here.)

You can still see the city’s beginnings, though, in its layout and street plan, which has changed very little from its first formal layout in 1597. When Menendez and his group landed in the area in 1565, they first settled in cacique Seloy’s Timucuan village (the present-day Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park). After 9 months Menéndez and the settlers moved to Anastasia Island, then in 1572 moved back across the bay to the present site of St. Augustine and laid out their town. This town reflects a key feature of Classical and medieval architecture and a hallmark of Spanish urban planning: a plaza (though nascent) on the northern end of the town. To see what that town looked like, let’s step back Boazio’s 1589 map.

Close-up view of the earliest settlement of “wooden houses” with their “most pleasant gardens,” from the Boazio map of St. Augustine. The church is depicted with the letter “O,” at the northeast corner of the town (current-day corner of King and Aviles Streets). “M” is the “town house” and “N” is the watchtower. Image from the Library of Congress.

The legend for the map describes the fourteen-year-old settlement in this way:

“Opidum S. Augustini ligneis aedibus constructum, amoenissimos habuit hortos, utique solo faecundissimo”

(The town of St. Augustine, built of wooden houses, had most pleasant gardens, of course on a most fertile soil”).

Boazio’s engraving, showing Drake’s attack on the town, shows these houses and gardens, laid out to the south of the sixteenth-century fort. 

Croftes describes the scene further, as the troop moved from the coast up the river:

“we might discerne on the other side of the river over against us, a fort [San Juan], which newly had bene built by the Spaniards, and some mile or there about above the fort, was a litle town or village without walls, built of wooden houses, as this Plot [Boazio’s map] here doth plainlie shew.” [11]

Boazio’s map shows a number of buildings, likely with palm- or palmetto-thatched roofs, and well-laid-out gardens. Archeological excavations have also confirmed the presence of a church, Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies), since 1572 (St. Augustine, in fact, was America’s first Catholic parish). Records have confirmed the presence of a governor’s house near the water. 

The open area surrounded by the church, town hall, and watchtower form a rough sort of early plaza, a plaza that was formalized shortly after by the next governor and that still exists today as the Plaza de la Constitucion, in the middle of the colonial halves of the city. 

In their book, Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza, Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Morehead discuss the importance of a central gathering place in city planning the world over, from ancient times to present. They note that “Plazas, or communal open spaces of some kind, have been at the core of every town and city in every culture on every continent.” [12] In the Western European world, the Greeks and Romans engaged in urban planning practices that provided for both sacred space (the Parthenon and Acropolis for Greeks, the Forum and Templum for Romans) and commercial and civic space (the market square). 

About the development of urban planning in the Spanish New World, Wagner et al. write,

“The origins of Spanish urban layouts in the New World can perhaps be traced to urban design principles established by the celebrated Roman architect Vitruvius in the first century BCE; or possibly to ideas being discussed by the urban designers of the Italian Renaissance, especially Alberti; or even to the French bastides of the thirteenth century; or to the need to have a town layout that was expedient for military actions. The official policy of the Spanish Crown to design new towns in a grid or ‘checkerboard square’ pattern emanating from a central open space or plaza did not become official until well into the latter quarter of the first century of Spanish colonization, when grid layouts were finally made official in 1573 during the reign of Phillip II. The document in which these instructions were decreed is known as ‘The Laws of the Indies.’”

The authors note that, though the Laws were explicit and highly prescribed, in reality, settlements typically accommodated both existing native settlements and topographic features. [13]

When the Spanish settlers returned after Drake and his company ended their raiding and headed north to Virginia, they had to rebuild, and put up a new wooden fort as well. Carmelite lay brother Andrés de San Miguel described the refounded settlement in 1595 as being a little over a mile long (“one-half league”), with plenty of water to drink and various crops. Of the buildings he writes, “All of the walls of the houses are of wood and the roofs of palm and the more important ones of plank. The fortress [is] made of wood backed by a rampart.” Further, “The Spaniards make the walls of their houses out of this wood of cypress (sauino) because the part of it that is in the ground does not rot.” [14] The town that Fray Andrés saw was that depicted in a map of ca. 1593, the “de Mestas map,” possibly created by Hernando de Mestas, St. Augustine emissary to Spain.

Map of town, fort, and channel of San Augustin, ca. 1593. Image from University of Florida Digital Collections.

When the new governor of La Florida, Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo, arrived to St. Augustine in 1597, he carried out Phillip II’s new Laws of the Indies and overhauled the layout of the city to that effect, including establishing a marketplace in the plaza. He also moved the governor’s house westward, to the back of the plaza, “probably to have the location of the governor’s office comply with Spanish ordinances that major buildings face the main square (plaza).” [15] The Laws of the Indies blended Classical and medieval urban planning traditions with early modern sensibilities and responded to both the practical requirements of Spanish colonial outposts and the desire for a fresh, new, planned aesthetic for a new age and a New World. 

Méndez de Canzo’s layout for St. Augustine was the one that stuck for the city. Though the town was severely damaged in 1599, first by a fire that burned down the Franciscan monastery at the south end of town, and then by a hurricane that swept away most of the houses and killed many inhabitants, and burned down by the British in 1702, St. Augustinians kept rebuilding on the town layout. [16]

A 1711 map shows the new growth of the town, with the settlement and fort still somewhat distant from each other.

Map of St. Augustine, part of a larger map of Florida and the Carolinas, published about 1711 by Edward Crisp. Image from the Library of Congress.

By the time the British took over St. Augustine as part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, though, the town had expanded northward and reached the area of the castillo. (From 1763-1783 Saint Augustine was a British territory, East Florida, and was its capital. In 1783 Britain gave this territory back to Spain, and in 1819 Spain gave it to the United States. )

Thomas Jefferys’s “Plan of the town and harbour of St. Augustine,” ca. 1762. Image from the Library of Congress.

The church (not the present cathedral) is denoted in the plaza area by a cross. 

John S. Horton, “View of St. Augustine, East Florida,” 1855, showing the plaza as seen from the bay. Image from the Library of Congress.

This 1855 view from the harbor shows how well-developed the plaza had become since Mendez laid it out in 1597.

Plan of the Town of St. Augustine, the Capital of East Florida,” by Thomas Jeffrys, published in William Faden, North American Atlas (1777). The map appeared first under a different title in William Stork, Description of East Florida (1769). Image from Boston Rare Maps Sale Catalogue.

Thomas Jeffrys’s 1769 map (above) shows that by the mid-eighteenth century, St. Augustine had grown to join with the fort, fully achieving de Canzo’s sixteenth-century plan. The Lines encompass the town, with the plaza (here formally noted as “The Parade”) at the center. This plaza was bounded by the Guard House at the harbor to the east, the church at the southwest corner, and the Governor’s House at the west end. The houses still had the “pleasant gardens” and orchards of the settlement’s earlier days. The fort appears at the northeast corner, with the Lines and their redoubts marked. The City Gate appears directly to the west of the fort, with present-day St. George Street running through the gates’ entrance into the walled city. 

In the overlay I’ve done below, you can see how precisely the modern historic district maps onto Jeffrys’s eighteenth-centrury engraving of the town:

The Jeffrys map, with overlay in red by the author.

Remarkably, between this 1769 map and one of today, only a few of the streets have been swallowed up by development. 

Walking through the streets of historic St. Augustine today is a treat for any lover of history. The careful reconstruction, street cobbles, balconies, and low buildings all create an atmosphere that is both medieval, European, and also distinctly Floridian. To see photos of more of the colonial buildings, check out this site

The city claims to have currently “thirty-six buildings of colonial origin and another forty that are reconstructed models of colonial buildings.” Why not take a break from Disney World and visit something of Florida’s medieval history instead? You won’t regret it.

How can you learn more?

Get involved in St. Augustine’s archaeology program as a volunteer!

Read more about the history of St. Augustine from the Florida Museum at the University of Florida

Check out this guide: St. Augustine Under Three Flags: Tourist Guide and History


[1] Albert Manucy, Sixteenth-Century St. Augustine: The People and Their Homes (Gainesville: U P of Florida, 1997), pg. 36.

[2] It was first published in Latin and French in 1588 and then in English in 1589 (in two different editions) as A Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Frances Drakes West Indian Voyage (S.T.C. 3056 and 3057). Side note for lovers of book history: the second English edition of 1589 directs readers where to insert the maps, sold separately, into their copy of the book, and each of the four town maps has additional “textual keys, separately printed on broadside sheets intended to be cut and pasted at the bottoms of the four town maps.”

Mary Frear Keeler notes of the text and maps that “Richard Hakluyt reprinted the Summarie in his Principal Navigations, 3 vols. (London, 1598–1600); 12 vols. (Glasgow, 1903–1905). The engraved maps, printed with texts in three languages to correspond with the editions of the Summarie, are clearly associated with the publication of that narrative, and are referred to on the title page of the Ward edition (1589). A complete set of the Boazio maps is bound with the British Library’s copy of the Summarie (Field edition), numbered G. 6509” (“The Boazio Maps of 1585–86,” Terrae Incognitae 10 (1978): 71–80, at pg. 71).

[3] Croftes, A svmmarie and trve discovrse of Sir Frances Drakes West Indian voyage (London, 1589), p. 32.

[4] “La Ciudad de San Agustín: A European Fighting Presidio in Eighteenth-Century ‘La Florida’,” in Historical Archaeology 38.3, Presidios of the North American Spanish Borderlands (2004): 33-46.

[5] “Courtyard” information card, USF virtual tour of the Castillo.

[6] “La Ciudad de San Agustín,” pp.33-46.

[7] “Redoubt (n.),” Oxford English Dictionary online.

[8] Susan R. Parker, “Wall surrounded St. Augustine in 1700s,” in the St. Augustine Record (Jan 2019).

[9] Pg.4

[10] Pg 5

[11] A Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Frances Drakes West Indian Voyage (London, 1589), pp.30–1.

[12] Logan Wagner et al., Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza: From Primordial Sea to Public Place (Austin: U of Texas P, 2013), pg.41.

[13] Wagner et al, pg.46.

[14] Fray Andrés de San Miguel, An Early Florida Adventure Story, trans. John H. Hann (Gainesville: U P of Florida, 2000), pp.76-7.

[15] Susan Richbourg Parker, “St. Augustine in the Seventeenth-Century: Capital of La Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 92.3 (2014): 554–76, pg.556.

[16] Parker, “St. Augustine in the Seventeenth-Century,” pg.557.