To Really Get Medieval, Go Beyond the Literary

One of the benefits of medieval literature (loosely defined as anything written between 1000-1500 CE) is that you often end up going beyond the traditional ‘literary’. I’ve noticed that a lot of scholarship done on fantasy literature is done by people who originally specialized in medieval. For example, Kathryn Hume has written both The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and Its Critics and Fantasy and Mimesis. Science Fiction is a bit different, since many argues it got its start during the Victorian (or later) period and scholars of those time periods or later are most likely to address it. That does not stop the occasional medievalist from getting involved. If you study medieval books though, you’re likely to come into contact with a lot of other disciplines. While this is true of other times, places, and languages, it’s especially apparent in the study of medieval Europe. If you study the medieval, you will likely run into the following in some way, shape, or form:

Classics, especially Latin: Since Latin was the main language of education and official communication for several centuries, this makes some sense. If you need to read something in its original form, and it’s official, it’ll be in Latin. On the more literary side, since Latin was a big part of education, Roman poets and theorists and philosophers were hugely influential on the Middle Ages, including Virgil, Cicero, and Ovid.  Famous works of ancient Greece like Plato and Aristotle were known mostly through Latin translations (done largely by Middle Eastern scholars), and were similarly influential on literary theory, philosophy, and more.

Religion: The Church (there was only one recognized until about 1517) was a big part of medieval culture throughout Europe. Ideas and issues of faith made their way into poetry, fiction, politics, philosophy, etc. If you need to recognize what the main practices were, who key people were, how the law worked, how education was done, key philosophical practices and argumentative strategies, ad more, you need to have a reasonably good understanding of the medieval Church and faith.

History: Much like religion and faith, history relates to a lot of issues that often get brought into literature, including poetry and fiction. Political goings on often influenced culture, but also everyday life, and if you want to understand and dedication in most any work of medieval literature written by and/or for the upper classes, then you need to know the ruling families and their policies including international relationships and economics.

Science: The history of science is of course much older than the Middle Ages, but science in the modern sense was becoming more publicly recognized beyond the academy and specialist scholars between 1300-1500. If you want to read medieval poetry, a working knowledge of astronomy and astrology is useful to understand a lot of common love poetry phrases and tropes. Science also connects with history and religion, since certain practices and beliefs were sometimes at odds with traditional Church teachings. Alchemy is a medieval example, and later, Galileo and other scientists would run into trouble with Church authorities on account of scientific ideas. There is also the occasional text that includes references to botany or biology or physics or medicine as they were understood at the time.

Material Culture, such as clothing: Descriptions of what people wore, ate, or objects used in everyday life are common in many kinds of written material of the literary sort. Knowledge of clothing for example can help identify if a character is an ordained or lay member of the Church, which could have implications in the narrative. A woman’s clothing or jewelry could give an indication as to her status or her values. There’s even a poem “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” which provides a major source of knowledge of how carpentry might have been done in the 14th-ish century.

Mythology and folklore: As with science, a lot of poetic and fiction tropes come from folklore and mythology. Some of the mythology is from classical sources, but much of the folklore is more localized. Being able to identify a particular character or event in folklore is often handy when trying to understand some of the more fantasy-influenced chivalric romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lanval or Bisclavret, or Sir Orfeo. Poetry requires some similar knowledge, and extends into medicine and magic. The Middle Ages also made a lot of use of proverbs which often have folk elements or origins.

Logic: Logical reasoning and argumentation were a key part of medieval education, and as such poetry and other written works often make use of the rules of Aristotelian logic, which became popular during the 12th century. Religious poems or texts would borrow exegetical techniques which were derived from logic, dialogue was a popular argumentative and teaching tool both in fiction and non-fiction, and university staff and students often themselves were writers of poems and stories, which means that they were likely to include techniques with which they had a lot of familiarity.

Modern Cultural Theory, including gender and queer studies, and media studies: If you go to a large medieval conference that has a more multi-disciplinary focus like Kalamazoo, then you are likely to find a lot of panels that deal with the medieval in video games or films. This type of study goes back to the medievalist connections to fantasy literature, which also connects with mythology and folklore, which also connects with the history of the Church and politics, as well as elements of medieval narrative. Generic medieval Europe is a common setting for a lot of video games for example, and knowing any and all of the above noted can help in understanding some of the finer details of storytelling and world-building that area  part of media studies. On the gender and identity side of things, the Middle Ages to some extent deserves its reputation for stuffiness about such things as sex but only in the official, often religious, sense. In practice, there are records of all sorts, including the literary, that suggest that gender and sexuality were in fact a lot less standardized and strictly practiced as is often presented in modern visions of the medieval.

And that’s not even going into things like bibliography, grammar, rhetoric, and art of all kinds. Knowledge all of these subjects is useful or necessary to really get into medieval literature. They are more traditionally connected with ‘literature’ but particularly for the Middle Ages also constitute a unique branch of knowledge, separate and distinct from the literary applications.

A Medieval Style Writing Class

A few months ago I got a little cranky and frustrated with technical composition proficiencies in some composition-based classes, and I felt the need to get students back to basics of citation, grammar, and style. Being from a medievalist background, I wondered if a good way to accomplish this might not be through the medieval foundation of education in both the arts and sciences, the trivium.  Here now is a course outline that I plan to use next time I teach composition 101, along with the goals and reasons for each assignment.

The medieval trivium is a foundational element in the history of the liberal arts. It features in everything from allegories (ex. De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella) to handbooks (artes poetriae) to textbooks (especially on rhetoric) to pedagogy/philosophy (ex. Metalogicon by John of Salisbury). The three branches are Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic or Logic.  These three subjects have been the foundations of education in much of the modern world.

In spite of this extensive and critical place in history, all 3 subjects have suffered a general decline in how much and often they are directly taught. In a basic intro to composition course at the college level, most students won’t know the distinction between grammatical subject and object (grammar), be able to name the 3 appeals (rhetoric), or the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning (dialectic). Largely, this lack of knowledge is not their fault. This stuff just isn’t taught much anymore; maybe it’s time to bring the trivium back and see if it can help remedy some of the general complaints teachers and employers almost always seem to have nowadays about people’s ability to write and otherwise communicate clearly and effectively.

My current institution works largely on 75 minute class periods, twice a week, for a 16-week semester. Within that timeframe, I envision something like this:

Assignment 1: A review of a movie or book or tv show

Time to completion: 2 and a half weeks

Reason and Purpose: Less intimidating, and allows students to develop skills in summarizing, describing content and stylistic features, and stating opinions.

Branch of the trivium: grammatica. Grammar makes a good starting point both in the modern functional and medieval senses. In the past, classes have liked opening class periods with a series of brief grammatical exercises. I suspect that since formal grammar is not taught as much anymore yet remains an important aspect of good style, students appreciate learning some of the basics, such as parts of speech and correct uses for commas. In the medieval sense, grammatica included things like the parts of speech and usage, but also included figures of speech and arrangement. Eventually, some of these elements would fall under the purview of rhetoric. Early medieval grammar textbooks, such as Donatus’ Ars Maior and Ars Minor, and Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticae, include sections that consider syntax, tropes, and figures of speech, and as such I would include some of these components to help students develop their descriptive and stylistic capabilities.

Assignment 2: A rhetorical analysis of a political speech, based on the 3 appeals and 5 canons

Reason and purpose: Approaching rhetoric through the medium for which the tradition was originally designed makes it easier to understand and work with. I first designed this assignment for fall 2016 which happened to coincide with the presidential election season, which made the subject particularly relevant. For non-political seasons, the assignment could be modified to focus on speeches by politicians currently in office, or historical speeches.

Time to completion: 3 ½ weeks

Branches of the trivium: rhetorica et grammatica.  This assignment could be moved later and include dialectic as well, but knowledge of the rhetorical triangle is useful in upcoming assignments, starting with the appeals in their natural habitat seems to be a good introduction, and adding elements of formal logic, particularly fallacies, alongside the triangle might be too much new information for a lot of early career college students to take in well. From the medieval perspective, the Aristotelian focus here is a little anachronistic, since most handbooks of rhetoric were based more directly on Ciceronian rhetoric. Aristotle was re-discovered late in the medieval era, and this was more in terms of dialectic than rhetoric. That said, Cicero and Quintilian’s focus on the 5 canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) I think would prove a useful addition to the triangle. Figures of speech (figura), which are of particular interest to medieval rhetoricians and grammarians, could provide the further possibility for analysis, since they are also connected to style.

Assignment 3: Personal Narrative with Purpose in which students are asked to present the narrative of a personal experience that illustrates a unique aspect (good or bad) of their community (as they define it) according to the parameters of a magazine article or essay.

Reason and purpose: This assignment serves several functions, including giving students a change of pace from the traditional academic analysis, focusing on concrete language, keeping in mind length restrictions and audience analysis, and developing vocabulary. It also provides the foundation for the companion assignment that follows.

Time to completion: 2 weeks

Branches of the trivium: grammatica et rhetorica. This assignment provides students the chance to actually implement strategies of the trivium so far for themselves, as opposed to identifying and interpreting them in other texts. Quite a few of the early handbooks and textbooks that considered grammatica focused strongly on syntax and style, both of which are necessary here. Students don’t often realize how hard it is to comply with a length restriction rather than a minimum, and in order to deal with the 1,000 word limit they have to employ as strategic language as they can manage in terms of narrative and description. Students also need to consider strategies from rhetorica as well because students have to determine how to tell the story in a way that emphasizes the uniqueness of the community and-or the experience. Rhetoric also comes into play when considering the style and conventions necessary for persuading the audience of a particular publication to stop and read a particular article.

Assignment 3.5: Proposal Letter

Reason and purpose: This assignment serves as a companion to the personal narrative with the added feature of asking students to write using the conventions of the formal proposal letter. Students are to identify a real magazine that might publish their narrative, and find the contact person and their information to send their story to. Students must consider and investigate the magazine audience, and explain what about their text would appeal to that audience.

Time to completion: 1 ½-2 weeks

Branches of the trivium: rhetorica et dialectica

The rhetoric comes from understanding the rhetorical situation and making appeals to the audience, in addition to the first 3 of the canons (invention, arrangement, and style). The dialectic elements is present in the requirement to provide strong reasoning and avoiding fallacies when arguing the benefits of the position (namely, why you should publish my work).

Assignment 4: Researched Proposal in which students define a community issue, explore what has previously been proposed and attempted, and make the case for what they believe is the most promising option.

Reason and purpose: The most basic goal of this assignment is to familiarize students with the conventions and practices of academic research at the university level.  The focus on current, local issues is intended to encourage more creative research, particularly in terms of primary material, including creating surveys, conducting interviews, and exploring local organizations.

Time to completion: 5 weeks

Branches of the trivium: omnes

Dialectic will be a prevalent influence here as students will be expected to work with Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis with both primary and secondary information. They will also have to analyze the reasoning of sources as they encounter different propositions using some of the techniques described in the Organon. This would also be a possible place to introduce syllogism and enthymeme. Rhetoric comes in with the possibility of enthymeme, but also in considering rhetorical situations of the positions they find, as well as their own arguments. Grammatica would be relevant particularly with identifying the auctoritas of sources and working with citations. Organization of the entire project would include both grammatica and rhetorica.

Assignment 5: Revision of Essay 1, 2, or 3 (including 3.5). Students are also be required to explain changes they made in footnotes or marginal comments.

Reason and purpose: Students are asked to reassess a previous piece of writing to encourage them to always look for ways to improve their work, and to emphasize that good writing is a process. In addition to making changes, students have to consider and explain their motives and reason for making each specific change through the notes.

Time to completion: 1 week or whatever is left of the term

Branches of the trivium: omnes

The particulars of working with each branch of the trivium will vary depending on which essay students decide to focus on, but there are some overall elements that all revisions will share.

The common elements of grammatica are the necessity to evaluate and adjust style and structure in the essay, as well as making choices about the structure and level of detail in the explanatory annotations.

The common rhetorical focus in in the contents of the explanations themselves, as students would need to be convincing (ie- detailed and specific) about why a particular improvement was made beyond “it was in the feedback or grade-sheet”.

Finally, with dialectic, no matter which essay is chosen, students would need to be able to identify and explain which changes would be most effective, and provide the reasoning how the changes made represent improvement.