Lately, I feel like I’ve lost some of my connection to the Medieval world. I’m rooted in Honorius, but not in the Middle Ages more broadly. In an attempt to rectify this, and to get through some books that I’ve long had on my to read/to reread list, I’m going to try to read a number of “medieval” books during my free time for the next few months.
For accountability, I’m going to try to post my thoughts on each here.
First up, the Alexandreis, a 12th century epic poem on the life of Alexander the Great by Walter of Chatillon. It’s pretty fun and was rather popular in its day, well worth a read.
Like any good epic poem, the Alexandreis also serves as a primer on geography, and I found Walter’s description of Jerusalem especially beautiful. It was perhaps my favorite passage in the book:
Then over all the fields of Palestinetowers the one Judaea of one God,and at the center of the earth, Jerusalemis set, where, sprung from virgin womb, Life died,nor was a reborn world content to stand,but shuddered, stricken, at the death of God.I.492-7
He therefore sent a force under Parmenionto save a half-dead Tarsus from their flames —Tarsus that was adorned, as Scripture tells,by his illustrious birth through whom faith’s lampshone on nations long blinded by their error.Pure and unsullied, through the city’s midstthere flows the Cignus, drawing its cold streamsfrom bubbling springs. Content with its own waters,receiving none from other falling torrents,it tosses pebbles in its swirl, and sandrolls playfully beneath its swift descent.II.160
Interesting the use of the past tense in both passages, the cities are somehow already adorned by events of centuries later. That the Incarnation’s effects echo backward and forward in time (I picture ripples in a pond after a stone’s been dropped in) is, I think, an underappreciated facet of medieval thought. I’m certain it has interesting implications for their understanding of history, which I’d love to explore one day.
Early on we also run into Zoroas of Memphis, whose story deserves to be recounted at length. Zoroas is quite the impressive figure,
…whom none surpassedin starry lore, or in foreknowledge ofmundane affairs. He knew beneath what starthe fields suffer a dearth, what year bears fruit,the source from which come winter’s snows, what mildnessimpregnates the warm soil in early spring,why summer burns, what grants autumn a robehung round with grapes. He knew whether the circlecan be squared, whether music formscelestial harmonies, and what proportion holdsamong the four elements; what force compelsthe planets on a course against the world,what grades divide them, and which star impedesthe rage of the adverse Old Man, which tempers Mars;how each seeks out its house, which holds its swaywithin this hemisphere. He sought their paths,noted their hours, and all human eventsperceived among the stars. I say too little-all heaven’s vault he held within his breast.And since he presaged fate and coming deathby heaven’s portents, nor could turn asidethe fatal sequence, boldly he pushed throughto meet the Macedonian’s commander.IV.171-193
Alexander is reluctant to kill such a distinguished man,
“Portent that you are, live on,whoever you may be. Do not destroyin death, I pray, the lodging of such arts.O never may my right hand an my swordendeavor to make gory such a brainThe world has use of you. What error, then,drives you in longing towards the Stygian banks,where knowledge never flowers?”IV.209-216
Yet, Zoroas refuses to relent in his attack and is brutally killed, having his legs sliced off at the knee before,
A varied rabble then hacked him to pieces,and set the man again among the stars.IV.225-6
I just find so much fascinating here, the interaction of fate and free will, Zoroas containing within himself “all heaven’s vault”, discerning all human affairs in celestial motion (a sort of semi-sanctioned “white magic” during the Middle Ages), and his death placing him back amidst the stars, a happy cap to a gruesome end.
The tenth book is extremely interesting, and I think I’ll try to dedicate a separate post to it.