When I read C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, I took notes about which books would help me recover a medieval mind in our late modern world. According to Lewis, “There was nothing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up.”
This impulse [to systematize] is equally at work in what seem to us their silliest pedantries and in their most sublime achievements. In the latter we see the tranquil, indefatigable, exultant energy of passionately systematic minds bringing huge masses of heterogeneous material into unity. The perfect examples are the Summa of Aquinas and Dante’s Divine Comedy; as unified and ordered as the Parthenon or the Oedipus Rex, as crowded and varied as a London terminus on a bank holiday.
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There are perhaps no sources so necessary for a student of medieval literature to know as the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid.
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Boethius (480-524) is, after Plotinus, the greatest author of the seminal period, and his De Consolatione Philosophiae was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin. It was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, and Greek; into French by Jean de Meung; into English by Alfred, Chaucer, Elizabeth I, and others. Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.
Recommended editions of the books mentioned above:
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa of the Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of the Summa Theologica. Edited by Peter Kreeft.
- Dante, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Translated by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander.
- Vergil, The Aeneid. Translated by Sarah Ruden.
- Ovid, The Metamorphoses. Translated by Charles Martin.
- Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by David R. Slavitt.