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VII. The Arts in the Early Middle Ages

Boethius Teaches Arithmetic
Boethius 475-526 AD) teaching a student classical Arithmetic.

Thus far in this course we have observed that the pursuit of wisdom (philosophy) has never been conducted apart from the classical liberal arts curriculum. There have been particular instances where the special mission of a group (e.g., the Apostles) required a special education, but when we investigate the general (or normal) course of study that history’s wisest men have followed, we find the classical liberal arts.

In the last lesson, we concluded with the study of St. Augustine’s re-orientation of the classical liberal arts curriculum for Christian ends. We learned that God added to the classical curriculum the power or grace to not only know the Truth, but to observe it and by that observance to approach new realms of learning that had been previously inaccessible to men. From this point on, we must always keep in mind the “seven steps to Wisdom” that formed the foundation of the Christian philosophy of education.

It is because of the reality of this process that the Classical Liberal Arts Academy takes such pains to introduce not books alone, but a full vision of faith and piety. Students may enter the gate of Wisdom’s kingdom but they will never dine with her until they are properly clothed, and that clothing is virtue. It is for this reason that our universities languish and the traditional branches of learning–theology and philosophy–have become dry and vain pursuits of esoteric trivia. They have been severed from the vine and have died.

In this lesson we will consider the next important page in the history of the classical liberal arts: education in the medieval world.

The “Middle” Ages

Before we begin, we must address some important issues in the study of history. There are many modern prejudices built into our conception of the past that are very difficult for us to free ourselves from. Most of us were educated in modern schools that served a secular or material mission–including Catholic and Protestant schools. In comparison with the classical schools of the past, our schools have almost no use for the history of Christendom or its contributions.

As a result, the history of Christendom is labeled the “middle” age, which identifies the age not for what it was but for what it was not. Some appreciation is given to the ancient and classical world: the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks are familiar to all. Yet from the fall of Rome to the Scientific Revolution, the world is seen to have suffered through a “dark age” in which superstition and religious fanaticism oppressed the truth and held men in captivity. This age ended with the revolt against the Catholic Church (the mother of all evil), the invention of the printing press and the use of the Scientific method. As Catholic Christians, we can easily see the real message here: all is good in world history except for Catholic Christianity.

The medieval world was a dark age not because it was a time of ignorance or immorality, but because historians have cut it out from the history books and denied the knowledge of it to millions of students. Thus, we must work to restore the knowledge of what actually happened in this most significant era of human history. Such a task cannot be accomplished in this course, but it is one that is central to the Classical Liberal Arts Academy’s work in Chronology. Let us consider several men who are rarely studied today: Boethius, Cassiodorus, Charlemagne and Alcuin.

Note: As an example, in a popular Western Civilization textbook, Boethius is mentioned once–in passing–while the role of the bicycle in women’s liberation was judged worthy of a full-page feature!

The Philosophy of the Fathers

Whenever virtuous men feel themselves trapped in what St. Augustine called the “river of human custom”, refreshment may be found in Socrates. His relentless attack on popular notions reassures men that their counter-cultural persuasions flow not from madness but from sober thinking. The heavenly focus and freedom found in Plato’s writings were very attractive to men seeking something more stable that the transient rewards of fame and fashion in the late Roman Empire. We should not be surprised, then, to find the persecuted Church fathers gathered about Plato. However, after the conversion of Constantine, the responsibility of Christian leaders to address earthly concerns inspired interest in the more practical works of Aristotle.

However, those who possessed the library of Aristotle’s writings were the leaders of his school in Athens. In 529 AD, the emperor Justinian ordered the closing of the school and its teachers removed to the East: to Persia and likely into Egypt. The writings of the Philosopher went with them into exile.

Benedict, Boethius & Cassiodorus

As the old Roman Empire declined, civilization moved north and west into Europe. The central figure in this transition was Boethius (480-525 AD). It is important to keep Boethius and St. Benedict together in our minds for they lived at the same time and symbolize the challenge of the Church at the time. In St. Benedict (480-547) we find the concern for the new wealth of the Christian Church and the effort of the pious to be “in the world but not of the world”. In Boethius, we see the concern to preserve the achievements and wisdom of the past as a new age dawns in Europe. Therefore, we must always keep Boethius and Benedict together.

Anyone who reads Boethius today probably reads his famous work: the Consolation of Philosophy. However, being ignorant of the philosophical tradition and the history of the period, the book’s value cannot be justly appraised. (CLAA Praeceptors would appreciate it!) Boethius was a member of an elite Roman family, whose ancestors included both popes and emperors. He stood between two worlds: the declining classical world represented in the Empire and the mysterious new European world that was rumbling to the north.

Fearing that the dawn of the new age might lead men to forget the glories of the past, Boethius managed the work of preserving the classical texts by translating them from Greek into Latin. Boethius translated the available works of Aristotle, Plato and other philosophers to supply the study materials that would be used in Christian schools for the next 700 years. However, we must remember that the works of Aristotle available to Boethius were few.

In addition to his translations, Boethius also wrote several important pieces to improve the classical liberal arts curriculum. He wrote important mathematical works that preserved the classical Arithmetic of Nicomachus, the Geometry of Euclid and the Astronomy of Ptolemy. To these he added his own work De Musica, which is the classic medieval treatment of the art of Music. Thus, all of the seven liberal arts owe their medieval popularity to Boethius. We do well to acknowledge Boethius as the bridge between classical and medieval education. We also do well to see that, as far as learning goes, there is nothing new under the sun.

Note: Considering the contributions made by Boethius, is there any justification for his being left out of a Western Civilization textbook?

Following close behind Boethius was Cassiodorus (490-583 AD) who was, like Boethius, a prominent Roman who held an influential place in Roman politics. After retreating from political life around 540, Cassiodorus imitated St. Benedict and established a monastery of his own. Cassiodorus established a library for his brothers at the monastery and wrote a number of important works on the classical liberal arts and music. What is important to note is that he, like Boethius, labored to preserve and promote the classical liberal arts tradition. There was no attempt to change the traditional system–not even as the Roman Empire fell, as Christianity entered new lands, as wealth came into Christian hands, etc. If one thing was certain in this uncertain period of history, it was the system of learning.

Charlemagne & Alcuin

Note: The name Charlemagne is French for Carolus Magnus, or Charles the Great.

In the late 700s, Western Europe was, by the grace of God, supplied with a good Catholic king: Charlemagne. A great conqueror, Charlemagne filled Europe with Christian culture. As the king’s wealth grew, he gathered the best teachers for himself, his children and those of his nobles. His mission was to prepare an elite nobility, from which he might select the best and most virtuous to administer affairs within his kingdom. It is worth noting that the education chosen by the king was the classical liberal arts.

Among the leaders of Charlemagne’s classical teachers was Alcuin (735-804). Alcuin studied and taught the classical liberal arts, and wrote important texts on Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. Whenever we hear of the cultural achievements of Charlemagne, we must remember that directing many of these pursuits was Alcuin. Alcuin’s work in the palace school included the development of the court’s handwriting, Carolingian Minuscule, which we now associate with medieval literature. Alcuin was also a mathematician and author of a book of mathematical problems for students. Here’s a taste of medieval mathematics:

There were three men, each having an unmarried sister, who needed to cross a river. Each man was desirous of his friend’s sister. Coming to the river, they found only a small boat in which only two persons could cross at a time. How did they cross the river, so that none of the sisters were defiled by the men?

Thus, into the 9th century, Charlemagne carried Christian culture and the classical liberal arts tradition to the outer limits of European civilization. The wealth and power he acquired by conquest did not distract him from the promotion of Christian culture and, most importantly, education. Following the advice of wise Alcuin, Charlemagne earned the title that remains with him to this day: “the father of Europe”. It is his cultural program that most of us think of whenever we speak of medieval Christendom.

The Lost Books

As we said earlier, interest in Aristotle picked up after the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. The writings available were few in number and known to few. We mentioned how the teachers of the school of Aristotle fled to the East around 529 when their school was closed in Athens. The bulk of Aristotle’s works were carried into Persia, but we ought not to confuse Persian society in the 6th century with the Muslim Persia that developed later. The prophet Muhammad was not even born until 570.

We must remember that the Middle East was not isolated from classical civilization. The Persian Wars brought the Persian armies into direct contact with Greek civilization and later, Alexander the Great conquered all of Persia and filled it with Greek culture. Remember, too that Alexander’s teacher was Aristotle.

At the time, Christianity, Judaism, unorthodox Christian sects and eastern religions such as Zoroastrianism were all present in the Middle East. The area as a whole was ruled by the Roman emperor, who was himself a Christian–Justinian. Into this Persia the writings of Aristotle went and they all but disappeared.

While Aristotle had been studied through the translations of Boethius in Europe, much of the Philosopher’s work–even the most important pieces–were unknown. In Persia, Arab scholars had translated the writings of Aristotle and spent many years interpreting the Philosopher’s ideas and teaching these interpretations. Over time, an Arabic Aristotelean tradition developed that went everywhere Muslim culture did. As Muslim culture spread throughout North Africa and into southern Europe, something wonderful happened despite all the hostility between these two groups: the European Christians were supplied with the missing works of Aristotle.

In the 12th century, the works of Aristotle were translated from Greek and Arabic into Latin for the schools of Europe. With this, Christendom conceived and would in a short time give birth to something wonderful. We will learn of this birth and its fruit in our next lesson.