The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C. S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1964)
I knew I was out of my league here by page 23, when I read, "Plato's Republic, as everyone knows, ends with an account of the after-life...." No, I didn't know that. Neither 13 years of public education at well-respected schools, nor a college degree (University of Rochester, mathematics), nor growing up in a well-educated family (albeit with an emphasis on engineering and science), nor my own voluminous reading, led me to read anything, anything at all, by Plato. That I had even heard of him is thanks to Lewis's own Narnia books, wherein Professor Kirke exclaims, often enough to be memorable, "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at those schools!"
Not much, apparently.
And generally not anything that Lewis would recognize as absolutely essential for one to be considered an educated man. What did they teach me at those schools? (I console myself, slightly, with the knowledge that Lewis couldn't handle mathematics. At all.)
But here's the funny thing: I still enjoyed reading the book, and have had my eyes opened to a little of the beauty, intelligence, and nobility of the Middle Ages, which modern culture thinks of simply as "dark." (And yet, and yet ... even George Lucas chose knights and swords and chivalry to tell his great futuristic story.)
It's a short book (not much over 200 small pages, and surprisingly easy to read despite Lewis's frequent use of terms in Latin, Greek, French, and Middle English, and his assumption that the reader is familiar with books that few of us have ever heard of, much less read. Don't let that throw you off; it's well worth reading.
One cannot hope to understand medieval literature, Lewis insists, without an appreciation for "the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe." (p. 11) Viewing Medieval works with a Modern mindset guarantees misunderstandings and wrong interpretations. The Discarded Image gives even woefully under-educated readers like me a few clues as to what we have been missing.
Not that you'll get those clues from my quotations, but here are some things that particularly struck me.
Despite what we enlightened moderns think of our backward ancestors,
The insignificance (by cosmic standards) of the Earth [was] as much a commonplace to the medieval, as to the modern, thinker." (p. 26)
In a prolonged war the troops on both sides may imitate one another's methods and catch one another's epidemics; they may even occasionally fraternise. So in this period [when Christianity was replacing Paganism]. The conflict between the old and the new religion was often bitter, and both sides were ready to use coercion when they dared. But at the same time the influence of the one upon the other was very great. During these centuries much that was of Pagan origin was built irremovably into the Model. It is characteristic of the age that more than one of the works I shall mention has sometimes raised a doubt whether its author was Pagan or Christian. (pp. 45-46)
No one who had read of Fortuna as [Boethius] treats her could forget her for long. His work, here Stoical and Christian alike, in full harmony with the Book of Job and with certain Dominical sayings, is one of the most vigorous defences ever written against the view, common to vulgar Pagans and vulgar Christians alike, which "comforts cruel men" by interpreting variations of human prosperity as divine rewards and punishments, or at least wishing that they were. It is an enemy hard to kill. (p. 82)
Note that Lewis died the year Joel Osteen was born....
Beyond the Stellatum there is a sphere called the First Movable or Primum Mobile. This, since it carries no luminous body, gives no evidence of itself to our senses; its existence was inferred to account for the motions of all the others. (p. 96, emphasis mine)
A technique scientists have been employing ever since!
The dimensions of the medieval universe are not, even now ... generally realized.... The reader of this book will already know that Earth was, by cosmic standards, a point—it had no appreciable magnitude. The stars, as the Somnium Scipionis had taught, were larger than it. Isidore in the sixth century knows that the Sun is larger, and the Moon smaller than the Earth, ... Maimonides in the twelfth maintains that every star is ninety times as big, Roger Bacon in the thirteenth simply that the least star is "bigger" than she. As to estimates of distance, we are fortunate in having the testimony of a thoroughly popular work, the South English Legendary: better evidence than any learned production could be for the Model as it existed in the imagination of ordinary people. We are there told that if a man could travel upwards at the rate of "forty mile and yet som del mo" a day, he would not have reached the Stellatum ... in 8000 years.
[These facts] become valuable only in so far as they enable us to enter more fully into the consciousness of our ancestors by realising how such a universe must have affected those who believed in it. The recipe for such realisation is not the study of books. You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement. As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is vertiginous. And the fact that the height of the stars in the medieval astronomy is very small compared with their distance in the modern, will turn out not to have the kind of importance you anticipated. For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same. ... The really important difference is that the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite. And one unexpected result of this is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt. In our universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything—and so what? ... To look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest—trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. (pp. 97-99)
While the moral and emotional consequences of the cosmic dimensions were emphasised, the visual consequences were sometimes ignored. ... [Modern men] have grown up from childhood under the influence of pictures that aimed at the maximum of illusion and strictly observed the laws of perspective. We are mistaken if we suppose that mere commonsense, without any such training, will enable men to see an imaginary scene, or even to see the world they are living in, as we all see it today. Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. ... Nature, for Chaucer, is all foreground; we never get a landscape. And neither poets nor artists were much interested in the strict illusionism of later periods. The relative size of objects in the visible arts is determined more by the emphasis the artist wishes to lay upon them than by their sizes in the real world or by their distance. Whatever details we are meant to see will be shown whether they would really be visible or not. ... Of the medieval and even the Elizabethan imagination in general ... we may say that in dealing with even foreground objects, it is vivid as regards colour and action, but seldom works consistently to scale. We meet giants and dwarfs, but we never really discover their exact size. Gulliver was a great novelty. (pp. 100-102)
Aquinas treats the question [of astrological determinism] very clearly. On the physical side the influence of the spheres is unquestioned. Celestial bodies affect terrestrial bodies, including those of men. And by affecting our bodies they can, but need not, affect our reason and our will. They can, because our higher faculties certainly receive something ... from our lower. They need not, because any alteration of our imaginative power produced in this way generates, not a necessity, but only a propensity, to act thus or thus. The propensity can be resisted; hence the wise man will over-rule the stars. But more often it will not be resisted, for most men are not wise; hence, like actuarial predictions, astrological predictions about the behaviour of large masses of men will often be verified. (pp. 103-104)
The erroneous notion that the medievals were Flatearthers was common enough till recently. ... One [possible source] is that medieval maps, such as the great thirteenth-century mappemounde in Hereford cathedral, represent the Earth as a circle, which is what men would do if they believed it to be a disc. But what would men do if, knowing it was a globe and wishing to represent it in two dimensions, they had not yet mastered the late and difficult art of projection? ... A glance at the Hereford mappemounde suggests that thirteenth-century Englishmen were almost totally ignorant of geography. But they cannot have been anything like so ignorant as the cartographer appears to be. For one thing the British Isles themselves are one of the most ludicrously erroneous parts of his map. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of those who looked at it when it was new, must at least have known that Scotland and England were not separate islands. ... And secondly, medieval man was by no means a static animal. Kings, armies, prelates, diplomats, merchants, and wandering scholars were continually on the move. Thanks to the popularity of pilgrimages even women, and women of the middle class, went far afield.... I doubt whether the maker of the mappemounde would have been at all disquieted to learn that many an illiterate sea-captain knew enough to refute his map in a dozen places. ... The cartographer wished to make a rich jewel embodying the noble art of cosmography, with the Earthly Paradise marked as an island at the extreme Eastern edge (the East is at the top in this as in other medieval maps) and Jerusalem appropriately in the center. Sailors themselves may have looked at it with admiration and delight. They were not going to steer by it. (pp. 142-144)
Marco Polo's great Travels (1295) is easily accessible and should be on everyone's shelves. (p. 145)
Sigh. A couple of thousand books on our shelves and not one of them is Marco Polo's.
I am inclined to think that most of those who read "historical" works about Troy, Alexander, Arthur, or Charlemagne, believed their matter to be in the main true. But I feel much more certain that they did not believe it to be false. I feel surest of all that the question of belief or disbelief was seldom uppermost in their minds. ... Everyone "knew"—as we all "know" how the ostrich hides her head in the sand—that the past contained Nine Worthies: three Pagans (Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar); three Jews (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus); and three Christians (Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon). Everyone "knew" we were descended from the Trojans—as we all "know" how Alfred burned the cakes and Nelson put the telescope to his blind eye. As the spaces above us were filled with daemons, angels, influences, and intelligences, so the centuries behind us were filled with shining and ordered figures, with the deeds of Hector and Roland, with the spendours of Charlemagne, Arthur, Priam, and Solomon. It must be remembered throughout that the texts we should now call historical differed in outlook and narrative texture from those we should call fictions far less than a modern "history" differs from a modern novel. Medieval historians dealt hardly at all with the impersonal. Social or economic conditions and national characteristics come in only by accident or when they are required to explain something in the narrative. The chronicles, like the legends, are about individuals; their valour or villainy, their memorable sayings, their good or bad luck. (pp. 181-182)
I thought that in an age when books were few and the intellectual appetite sharp-set, any knowledge might be welcome in any context. But this does not explain why the authors so gladly present knowledge which most of their audience must have possessed. One gets the impression that medieval people, like Professor Tolkien's Hobbits, enjoyed books which told them what they already knew. (p. 200)
It has lately been shown that many Renaissance pictures which were once thought purely fanciful are loaded, and almost overloaded, with philosophy.
The book-author unit, basic for modern criticism, must often be abandoned when we are dealing with medieval literature. Some books ... must be regarded more as we regard those cathedrals where work of many different periods is mixed and produces a total effect, admirable indeed but never foreseen nor intended by any one of the successive builders. ... It would have been impossible for men to work in this way if they had had anything like our conception of literary property. But it would also have been impossible unless their idea of literature had differed from ours on a deeper level. Far from feigning originality, as a modern plagiarist would, they are apt to conceal it. ... They are anxious to convince others, perhaps to half-convince themselves, that they are not merely "making things up." For the aim is not self-expression or "creation"; it is to hand on the "historical" matter worthily; not worthily of your own genius or of the poetic art but of the matter itself. (pp. 210-211)