Tag: Middle Ages

What the Most Famous Love Story of the Middle Ages Can Tell Us About Ourselves

Uncle Fulbert: Abelard, Heloise, and the Culture of Narcissism

It was the love story of the Middle Ages, and one of the greatest love stories of all time.

Abelard, the premier philosopher of the twelfth century and an instrumental force in the rise of the University of Paris, had become attracted to the comely young Heloise, a teenage girl about twenty years his junior, who had already gained a reputation for her learning.

He approached Heloise’s Uncle Fulbert (her guardian) and proposed to live with him and take Heloise under his erudite wing. Fulbert eagerly agreed, proud that his smart niece had been chosen by the leading intellectual light of Europe for special instruction. Fulbert turned Heloise over to Abelard, giving him constant access to her, the right to direct her studies night and day, and even to administer corporal punishment. Under such circumstances, it didn’t take Abelard long to seduce Heloise. They carried on an affair in Fulbert’s house for months, Fulbert blind to it. (Abelard would later write, citing St. Jerome and referring to Fulbert, that a man is invariably the last to know what is going on in his own home; everyone knows what a woman is up to before her father or husband.)

Fulbert eventually learned of the affair and tossed Abelard out of the house. But Abelard had fallen passionately in love with his victim, so they carried on … Read the rest

Pulling Thomas Aquinas Kicking and Screaming into the Twentieth Century

Josef Pieper’s views during the neo-Thomistic movement.

empty street in old town
Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

There are some authors who make you think, “I could read this guy, and just this guy, for the rest of my life. He’d bring me to greater and greater levels of wisdom and understanding.”

For me, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904–1997) is such a writer. He wrote in the Scholastic vein and was squarely within the Catholic neo-Thomistic movement of the mid-twentieth century.

A modernist might think, “How can a person steeped in Thomas Aquinas be relevant? Aquinas lived in the thirteenth-century, which was at least 50 years before Netflix.”

Pieper wrote for that kind of person.

Pieper, like Aquinas, was concerned about the truth: statements that correspond as closely as possible to reality. Truth is relevant to every age, including the modern one, contrary claims of our postmodernist friends notwithstanding. 

Granted, it’s necessary for the reader to take those truths and apply them to her life, to put them into the current cultural milieu. That’s not always easy, but the truths themselves are always relevant.

Fortunately, Pieper himself often put those truths into a modern context for his readers.

In his late twenties, he was fascinated by social problems and began to pursue studies in law and sociology, but it was the era of Nazi Germany. Such studies were, ahem, frowned upon.

So in 1934, he returned to his … Read the rest

Listening to Podcasts at Oxford in 1374 and Kansas in 1974

Why do we love those conversational podcasts?

If you were a student at a medieval university, you listened to lectures.

And listened and listened and listened to lectures, often more than ten hours a day.

But they weren’t like lectures at today’s universities, where hundreds of students sit in a hall and listen to a professor deliver a monologue.

The medieval morning lectures were like that, but come afternoon, the lectures morphed into dialogue. The professor would assert a position, a graduate assistant would field questions or objections posed by undergraduates, and discussion ensued. At the end, the professor would summarize that afternoon’s conversation.

It was the “Scholastic disputation.”

Each session was meant to unfold knowledge gradually, as informed and inquisitive minds rubbed against one another, sharpening each other in the process, like knives rubbing against a whetstone.

Kansas: Early 1970s

The disputation, like everything else Scholastic, evaporated over the centuries and gave way to the mass lecture hall, with one professor doing all the talking.

In the 1970s, three professors at the University of Kansas brought back the disputation.

The three professors were John Senior, Frank Nelick, and Dennis Quinn, and they led the Integrated Humanities Program, a program dedicated to the wild notion of restoring a sense of beauty and poetic knowledge in its students.

The Program had a lot of facets (e.g., waltzes, star-gazing, great books), but its centerpiece may have been … Read the rest

Let’s Celebrate St. Albert

(Although, to be honest, I can’t hear the name “Albert” without thinking about “Fat Albert.”)

November 15th: Feast Day of St. Albert.

I’ve often wondered whether St. Albert was sad when his greatest student, St. Thomas Aquinas, died before him. Together, I think they capture both the true greatness and a kernel of greatness in the Catholic Middle Ages:

True Greatness: Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy is fundamentally the work of an integrated whole, both in the man and a society that allowed such a man to flourish.

Kernel of Greatness: St. Albert’s science heralded the coming of the modern age and its love of science. Despite modern science’s immense and tragic shortcomings, its jaw-dropping accomplishments can’t be denied. Its accomplishments are owed to a medieval culture that respected science, as evidenced in St. Albert.


Mental Floss just uploaded a video that debunks myths about the Middle Ages.

Much of it sucks: it starts with the canard that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. It includes the Orient and indigenous cultures in America. The “Middle Ages” is a European historical reference point, but political correctness requires a reference to the rest of the world. It also celebrates Islam a bit.

But it has some redeeming characteristics. It acknowledges the Middle Ages’ great learning, its establishment of universities, and its interest in the outside (non-European world). … Read the rest

Twelve Aquinas Aphorisms

Simple observations from the medieval poster boy will give you new perspectives

The famous historian Will Durant ranked Thomas Aquinas as the fourth greatest thinker of all time.

When I saw that, I was shocked. Aquinas is the Catholic thinker extraordinaire. He is a canonized saint. His nickname is “The Angelic Doctor.”

Durant wasn’t impressed by such things, to say the least.

An Aside: Will Durant

A quick detour about Will Durant might be helpful to explain why it’s significant that he respected Aquinas so much.

Durant is best known for his monumental 11-volume The Story of Civilization, but he first made his name with the publication of The Story of Philosophy, which became an unlikely bestseller, selling 2,000,000 copies in the 1920s.

The book doesn’t have much Aquinas, and that’s an understatement. Its chapters jump from Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) to Francis Bacon (d. 1626 CE). The 2,000 years in-between receive only nine pages (out of 540). Thinkers like Epictetus, Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas are mentioned only once or not at all.

It’s not surprising. Most of those missed years are conventionally known as the “Middle Ages” and they were in thorough disrepute during much of the twentieth century. If you told someone in the 1920s that you were studying the Middle Ages, she would’ve looked at you like someone would look at you today if you told her you’re studying VHS … Read the rest