C S Lewis explains how to study the Middle Ages

What follows are excerpts from a letter from C S Lewis to a friend of his, in which he explains (in answer to his friend’s query) how he himself learned about the Middle Ages–and how his friend might wish to pursue that study. Because these are notes for my own use, I have at a couple of points simply inserted into the running text, in square brackets, footnotes I found useful:

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. II

This is the letter to his nun friend, Sister Madeleva: Magdalen College, Oxford, June 7th 1934, which contains his suggested program of study of the Middle Ages. p. 140ff:

[n. 14, 140: “Sister M. Madeleva CSC (1887 – 1964), a member of the Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Cross, was a teacher of English at St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. While staying in Oxford during Trinity Term 1934, she attended Lewis’s lectures on medieval poetry, and had a particular interest in the lecture devoted to Boethius. Besides lending Sister Madeleva his notebooks giving details of the works mentioned in his lectures, L invited her to visit him in Magdalen. On her return to Notre Dame in 1934, Sister Madeleva was made President of St Mary’s College, a post she held until her retirement in 1961. Here numerous books include [a list follows including studies on Chaucer and the Pearl poem, indicating a continued interest in medieval studies]. . . .”]

“The [141] history of my lecture is this. After having worked for some years on my own subject (which is the medieval allegory), I found that I had accumulated a certain amount of general information which, tho far from being very recondite, was more than the ordinary student in the school could gather for himself. I then conceived the idea of my ‘prolegomena’. [n. 15, p. 141: “During the Trinity Term of 1934 (22 April – 16 June) L gave a series of lectures entitled ‘Prolegomena to the Study of Medieval Poetry’, later adapted into The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964). For a detailed list of L’s lectures see Walter Hooper, ‘The Lectures of C. S. Lewis in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge’, Christian Scholar’s Review, XXVII, no. 4 (Summer 1998), pp. 436 – 53.”]”

“There were however several gaps in the general knowledge which I had accidentally got. To fill these up I adopted the simple method of going through Skeat’s notes on Chaucer and Langland [n. 16, p. 141: “Walter William Skeat, The Chaucer Canon (1900). William Langland (c. 1330 – c. 1386) is the author of Piers Plowman, which L discussed in The Allegory of Love, ch. 4, pp. 158 – 61.”], and other similar things, and followed these up to their sources when they touched on matters that seemed to me important. This led me sometimes to books I already knew, often to new ones. This process explains why I inevitably appear more learned than I am. E.g. my quotations from Vincent of Beauvais [n. points us to Discarded Image, p. 84 for a learned quotation from that figure] don’t mean that I turned from a long reading of Beauvais to illustrate Chaucer, but that I turned from Chaucer to find explanations in Vincent. In fine, the process is inductive for the most part of my lecture: tho’ on allegory, courtly love, and (sometimes) in philosophy, it is deductive – i.e. I start from the authors I quote. I elaborate this point because, if you are thinking of doing the same kind of thing (i.e. telling people what they ought to know as the prius of a study of medieval vernacular poets) I think you would be wise to work in the same way – starting from the texts you want to explain. You will soon find of course that you are working the other way at the same time, that you can correct current explanations, or see things to explain [142] where the ordinary editors see nothing. . . .” (141 – 142)

“You will observe [in the notebooks he had loaned her, from his creation of the lectures] that I begin with classical authors. This is a point I would press on anyone dealing with the middle ages, that the first essential is to read the relevant classics over and over: the key to everything – allegory, courtly love etc – is there. After that the two things to know really well are the Divine Comedy and the Romance of the Rose. The student who has really digested these [*I don’t claim to be such a person myself!], with good commentaries, and who also knows the Classics and the Bible (including the apocryphal New Testament) has the game in his hands, and can defeat over and over again those who have simply burrowed in obscure parts of the actual middle ages.” (142)

“Of scholastic philosophy and theology you probably know much more than I do. If by any chance you don’t, stick to Gilson [n. 19, p. 142: “Etienne Gilson (1884 – 1978), French authority on medieval philosophy, is the author of La Philosophie au Moyen Age (1922), Moral Values and the Moral Life: The System of St Thomas Aquinas, trans. Leo Richard Ward (1931), and many other works.”] as a guide and beware of the people (Maritain in your Church, and T. S. Eliot of mine) who are at present running what they call ‘neo-scholasticism’ as a fad.” (142; note the repetition of the claim about neo-scholasticism, Maritain, and Eliot from another letter, above)

“Remember (this has been all important to me) that what you want to know about the Middle Ages will often not be in a book on the Middle Ages, but in the early chapters of some history of general philosophy or science. The accounts of your period in such books will, of course, usually be patronizing and ill-informed, but it will mention dates and authors whom you can follow up and thus put you in the way of writing a true account for yourself.” (143)

4 responses to “C S Lewis explains how to study the Middle Ages

  1. Thank you for posting this information. I enjoy medieval studies, but I have only a fairly basic understanding of it from undergrad, and am always curious what someone will suggest as a starting point.

  2. Came across your blog today and very glad I did!

    This is a very interesting letter. You noted coming across Lewis’ warning on Maritain and Eliot in another letter as well. I’m curious, do you have a sense of what was animating Lewis’ admonition?

    • Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

      Here is the earlier letter, complete with a couple of footnotes. You’ll see that the only substantive reason Lewis gives in the following for his objection to “neo-scholasticism” is that it threatens to make Christianity a “high brow” thing. I suspect this is the usual objection to scholasticism in general, and neo-scholasticism as a particular case: it dwells too much on minutiae suited only to scholars. (This would rub against Lewis’s strong emphasis on Mere Christianity communicated clearly to the masses.) I happen to disagree strongly–particularly in the area of moral theology, where I think the fine distinctions of Aquinas in fact give us a tremendous array of diagnostic tools with which to look into our own souls. This is especially evident in Thomas’s treatment of the seven capital vices (see my earlier posts here from a week or two ago of notes taken at the Calvin College Seven Deadly Sins seminar.

      To Dom Bede Griffiths: Rostrevor, Co. Down [4 April 1934] – this is in Letters II, 133ff

      “[I]t is only since I have become a Christian that I have learned really to value the elements of truth in Paganism and Idealism. I wished to value [134] them in the old days; now I really do. Don’t suppose that I ever thought myself that certain elements of pantheism were incompatible with Christianity or with Catholicism.” (133 – 4)

      “What I did think—and still do think—was that an influential school of thought both in your church and mine—were very antagonistic to Idealism [n. 6, p. 134: “Idealism in this context is a metaphysical theory about the nature of reality, maintaining that matter does not exist in its own right but is related to the contents of our minds. Thus, all objects, even the world, are mental creations. In SBJ, ch. 13, L explained the place of Idealism in his conversion, describing how he reached the point where he accepted Idealism and admitted ‘that the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos.’”], and in fact were availing themselves of a general secular reaction against 19th century thought, to run something which they call Neo-Scholasticism [n. 7, 134: “Scholasticism was originally a teaching device developed in the schools and universities of Western Europe from the end of the eleventh century and largely associated with the methods of three major philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. It proceeded by questioning ancient and authoritative texts. A favoured method was to draw up lists of contradictory statements in the texts, applying to them the rules of logic in order to reveal their underlying agreement. Its purpose was to get to the inner truth of things to which the texts bore witness. The method flourished until the sixteenth century when it came under attack from humanist scholars. An attempt to restore scholasticism began in Rome about 1830. The most important of several theologians who wanted to extend this ‘neo-Scholasticism’ to the universal Church was Pope Leo XIII; in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), he recommended that scholasticism be the only philosophy and theology used in Catholic seminaries. The Pope enjoined the study of St Thomas Aquinas on all theology students as a clear, systematic philosophy capable of defending Christian tradition from contemporary attack.”] as the cure for all our evils. The people I mean are led by Maritain [n. 8, 134; “Jacques Maritain (1882 – 1973), French philosopher. Following his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1906 he turned to the study of St Thomas Aquinas whose philosophy he sought to relate to modern culture. He held professorial chairs at the Institut Catholique in Paris, 1914 – 33, the Institute for Medieval Studies in Toronto, 1933 – 45, and Princeton University, 1948 – 52.”] on your side and by T. S. Eliot on ours. Perhaps I over-rate their importance. I hope I do, for I confess there is no section of religious opinion with which I feel less sympathy. Indeed I consider that it is no overstatement to say that your Church and mine are, at the moment, closest to each other where each is at its worst. God forgive me if I do them wrong, but there are some of this set who seem to me to be anxious to make of the Christian faith itself one more of their high brow fads. Then their ignorance! As if there [135] ever was any such thing as ‘scholasticism’ as a doctrine! But enough of this.” (134 – 5)

      • Thanks for posting that letter. I agree with your assessment and have found Lewis’ antipathy toward Eliot surprising since, as I understand them, they appear to have a good bit in common. My wife recently drew my attention to a passage in Alan Jacob’s The Narnian which may be of interest:

        “Lewis’ dislike of Eliot verged on the pathological and seems to have been based largely on misunderstanding: until late in his life he did not grasp the depth and seriousness of Eliot’s conversion to Christianity, which occurred several years before Lewis’ own, nor did he see how many of his beliefs about culture and ethics Eliot shared. (Lewis’s The Abolition of Man and Eliot’s Notes Toward a Definition of Culture and The Idea of a Christian Society are nearly contemporaneous works of cultural criticism that walk a long, long way along the same road.) Almost certainly these misunderstandings were based on sheer ignorance: though Lewis read and responded quite negatively to some of Eliot’s literary criticism, it is not clear that he knew any of the poetry — though he makes contemptuous reference to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in books and letters and calls The Waste Land and ‘infernal’ poem in a 1935 letter …”

        From pages 158-159

        Thanks again.

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