Wisdom from the European Middle Ages

Literary and Didactic Perspectives

by Albrecht Classen (Author)
©2022 Others 390 Pages


This book brings together, in a modern English translation, a selection of relevant medieval texts that are determined by wisdom. Mostly hidden in a literary framework, the messages contained in these excerpts prove to be highly valuable for all people throughout time, addressing ethical, moral, and religious values and ideals. Critical discussions of the meaning of wisdom frame the text anthology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Wisdom – From the Past to Our Future
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgment
  • Petrus/Peter Alfonsi, Disciplina clericalis: A Jewish-Christian Perspective from Early Twelfth-Century Aragón
  • Marie de France, Fables: A Late-Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Voice
  • Der Stricker: A Thirteenth-Century Middle High German Didactic Poet
  • Freidank’s Bescheidenheit: Memorial Didactic Stanzas
  • Gesta Romanorum: A Late Medieval Narrative Compilation: Religious and Philosophical Messages
  • Ulrich Bonerius, The Gemstone: A Swiss Dominican Author Tells Us the Truth
  • Don Juan Manuel: A Fourteenth-Century Castilian Master Poet and Didact
  • Die Historia von den sieben weisen Meistern: und dem Kaiser Diocletianus / The History of the Seven Wise Masters and the Emperor Diocletian: Late Medieval Didactic-Literary Reflections
  • A Burgher’s Son: Friendship within the Literary Discourse
  • Heinrich Kaufringer: A Late Medieval German Poet Reveals the Power of Wisdom
  • Epilogue

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Introduction: Wisdom – From the Past to Our Future

We live in a fast-paced world today in which only the present and the future seem to matter. History at large is losing quickly in academic interest, and in many of the Humanities fields, the pre-modern world does not count much any longer. Anything that used to be valued by our parents or grandparents appears to be out of fashion, and in light of the drum rolls of the modern computer and internet world, ever-growing numbers of people leave the metaphorical archive (memory, culture, heritage) behind and march into a future in which, sadly and ironically, they themselves will probably not matter much and where robots will dominate, subordinating people under their power. The algorithm has replaced the manuscript, and pure mathematical calculations have replaced human wisdom. Do we currently dig our own graves as the human race? Is not our past, the human experience, the key component that makes us human beings?

Fortunately, not everything is lost yet, and we might actually never really face a dramatic crisis or an existential threat to our cultural, intellectual, artistic, or literary identity, as my apocalyptic vision insinuated. The Humanities are not moribund, at least not so fast as some have claimed. There is still enough interest in academic classes and scholarship, in the public, that is, on the book market, and hence among the publishing houses, in the worlds of antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc. to make us confident that we can hope for our continued existence also in the next decades. Of course, the past for its own sake has never really created relevance as such; and history buffs simply pursue a personal hobby, whereas the issue to be taken up here pertains to the relevance and importance of what the past might be able to tell us, assisting us in coming to terms with the challenges of the present and the future.1

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Tragically, even recent events of global importance are in danger of being forgotten, whether WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, the Internment Camps for the Japanese-Americans during WWII, or the collapse of East Germany in 1989, of the Soviet Union in 1990, the creation of many new countries in eastern Europe and in the Middle East subsequent to those events, or countless other developments.

Many current problems in the United States, for instance, whether racism and slavery or the massive drug abuse, the repression of voters’ rights and women’s equality, anti-Semitism, police violence, illegal immigration, or corruption have deep roots and can only be fully addressed if we also keep the historical perspective in mind. Nothing is really lost in history, and everything has a historical dimension. Denial of the Holocaust and the countless other atrocities committed by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler, or of the horrible history of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, for instance, blinds us to our own past and subjects us to the endless repetition of the same mistakes on an individual and a collective level.2 Denial of racism today, though maybe not quite as horrible as the systematic elimination of the European Jewry by the Nazis (genocide), endangers the social fabric of our democratic society, so we must always keep the roots of modern ←8 | 9→phenomena in mind if we want to address them constructively. Racism and gender discrimination have a very long pedigree, alas, and we as medievalists are certainly called upon to engage with them and other -isms as critically as possible.3

Life has never been easy, and we as human beings have always had to struggle hard to cope in this world, both subjectively and objectively. Experience, however, has been one of the key instruments to make things easier or even possible in the first place. What we have learned in the past certainly helps us to address current and future issues. Consequently, education and practice serve crucial functions, make everything more possible, as no one would seriously contest it, although there are also some political and economic forces that seem to prefer if the masses of people remain uneducated, unaware about the historical conditions, and the history of repression and subjugation. The current right-wing hysteria about the teaching of Critical Race Theory actually reflects this ideological opposition to education quite dramatically.4

The critical debate, however, has always focused on the content in education. Is there a canon of literature, of art, philosophy, or religion we can always rely on? How do we select what we teach the young generation? How far back are we willing to go in our quest for valid answers and ideas about the values ←9 | 10→in life? There are, of course, some politicians who would like to dismiss the Humanities altogether so as to transform ‘education’ into a training program for the industry. In such a worldview, people are nothing but functions in a production and money-making system, whereas the ‘fascist’ leader counts for everything. Anyone embracing such a concept of human beings thinks about them only in terms of slavery, and disregards everything that constitutes human existence, which is not limited by physical need. By contrast, our lives are essentially determined by elusive yet deep forces pertaining to love, death, God, and meaning within our community.

For the present purpose, we do not need to question once again the relevance of the Humanities globally, which I would identify as a given despite many voices clamoring for its removal out of political concerns5; instead, the bone of contention rests on the strategy of how to select the content of our studies focused on all aspects of human life. We could probably agree that currently the knowledge of English makes it easier for all people on the globe to communicate with each other. But would that make it unnecessary to study any other language and culture from the present or the past? Raising this question automatically means denying it, of course.

We have always needed translators, and this also for obscure and tiny language groups. Literature, if accepted as relevant, exists in virtually all languages and cultures ←10 | 11→across the world, either in oral or in written form. Yet, would the knowledge of Shakespeare be a condicio sine qua non, that is, an absolute must for our education, our culture, or would it be more important to know the works by Goethe, Emily Dickinson, or Gabriel García Márquez? Or should we turn more to philosophical and theological texts to learn, to understand, and to gain deeper insights? Can or should we use a gender or race lens to establish our literary canon? Whatever it might be, the crucial question in education will always pertain to the relevance and meaning of the study object and the question to what extent this object/text/image can convey a message to us today. The past all by itself, even if it is our inheritance, might be void of meaning, unless there are epistemological connections.

The issue at stake is actually not very difficult to understand and to accept. While the public becomes increasingly accustomed to constant entertainment without much intellectual depth, ethics, personal responsibilities, a sense of duties aligned with privileges, or, in short, without honor and ideals, commitment and loyalty, scholars try their hardest to keep the intellectual, spiritual, artistic, and philosophical values from the past alive also for the present generation in the firm belief that the pre-modern world was not all simply negative, primitive, or barbaric. The past was different from the present, yet not completely so, and following Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, we could certainly situate the roots of our own conditions today in the high Middle Ages when feudalism slowly but surely transitioned into a more market- and money-oriented economy. Fajardo-Acosta highlights, for instance, the “increasing centralization, impersonality, and abstraction of political authority,” while Peter Dinzelbacher has alerted us recently to the fact that the twelfth century also witnessed the growing internalization and self-reflection as part of a more intense personality development leading to an innovative concept of identity.6

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There are countless connections between them and us, and yet also many barriers that make it difficult to communicate with the voices in the medieval or early modern sources, as important as those often prove to be. What we need, hence, are translations, not only in linguistic terms, but also in terms of culture, religion, and philosophy in order to maintain the connection to human experience even thousands of years ago. There are many pearls to be picked up, many treasures to be found on the proverbial manure pile of history, as we can regularly read in ancient and medieval fable collections.

Both Marie de France (Fables, ca. 1200) and Ulrich Bonerius (Der Edelstein, ca. 1350) set off with their narratives relating the story of the rooster who finds a pearl amidst all the dirt but dismisses it because it is not food.7 For most people, however, as these and other poets have indicated regularly, going as far back as to the time of the slave author Aesop (ca. 620–564 B.C.E.), the true value lies hidden behind the dirt, the ordinary, the mundane, or the seemingly irrelevant. The dust of time, however, covers the pearl more often than not, so our task today consists of picking up the gem, the pearl, or jewel, cleaning and polishing it and restoring its universal value once again because everything matters what has preceded us today, if perceived from the right angle. Sometimes those experiences seem to have been of small importance, but most of the times they are extremely relevant and help us today to understand the many evils in this world, to comprehend the difficulties in finding directions and purpose, and to figure out what the ultimate meaning of all human life might be.

However, to return to the initial concern one more time, why would we want to or have to engage in such a difficult process? Why would it be worth it? Don’t we have enough knowledge or technical know-how today to solve nearly all issues in human life? Should we not simply aim for the future and equip our students or our children with the necessary technical expertise to enter the professional world of the post-industrial world and beyond? Would it not be enough to know how to operate a machine, a computer, a technical system, or would we actually need more to claim our own humanity? Anyone thinking in those mechanical terms argues in line with monetary concepts only; s/he obviously believes that all life is predicated on holding a job, gaining a good income, and being a productive member of society. Obviously, under such a scenario, neither the visual and auditory arts nor literature, philosophy, history, but then also neither psychology ←12 | 13→nor anthropology, religious studies, etc. would have any value. But would human lives then have any relevance or significance at all?

Those who were responsible for the First and the Second World War obviously did not think so, and there have been countless other military and political leaders ever since who regarded human beings only as figures, as expandable sacrifice for the larger ‘good,’ in their war strategies and economic goals, aiming for absolute dominion in their own country or even continent.8 The study of the Humanities constitutes the very different approach, placing the human being into the center of all efforts, not glorifying it, but working toward its education, improvement, and development.

The absurdity of those brutal and life-defying concepts identifying the human being as an object, not as a subject of its own destiny does not need to be exposed particularly; such approaches are informed by fascist ideology which deliberately denies the lessons of history or manipulates it for its own purposes; it is an ideology which adulates the leader and functionalizes the individual in complete contempt of human rights, values, ideals, and personal concerns. In such a worldview, the country, represented by the leader, counts for all, and the individual only serves as a sacrifice, i.e., as a victim of absolute dictatorship.

To move away from political considerations, let us keep in mind that all of human life is as much conditioned by non-material elements as by material elements. We need food and shelter and pay for this with money, which makes it necessary for us to work. But we also know (believe) that our existence consists of more than only physical processes, such as eating, digesting, sleeping, and working, until we die. Even from an atheistic point of view, it is undeniable that a vast majority of people here on earth embrace some kind of faith in a spiritual dimension. Of course, there might not be a God, but the belief in God is firmly embedded in most of human culture.

There is hence always the quest for meaning, for the spiritual, for the self in its artistic, musical, poetic, or religious manifestation, and this irrespective of the ideological, historical, religious, linguistic, or philosophical framework. Hence, we easily recognize that we as human beings depend fundamentally both on the ←13 | 14→horizontal perspective because we move from birth to death, never to return, and on the vertical perspective, drawing from the past for the future, and vice versa, when we try to recover our heritage as the source of our own identity. Understanding our history, or all history, makes it possible to comprehend the reasons for our actions in the present, which then lays the foundation for future-oriented endeavors. We need as much personal experience as we need historical studies that allow us to comprehend who we are, where we have come from, where we might move forward to, and why we exist in the first place. History means a wide range of issues, including historical documents, literary and artistic works, musical compositions, religious, ethical, and moral reflections in writing, building, and also archeological data.

The present book is dedicated to the quest for wisdom as it was originally developed in a wide variety of medieval texts. Wisdom constitutes one of the roots of the human tree and can be discovered already in the oldest texts that have come down to us from earliest antiquity, whether the Old Testament, i.e., the Hebrew Bible (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Psalms), or the Gilgamesh. Greek philosophy and drama, Roman epic poems, Stoic teachings, and then countless ethical texts from the Middle Ages and beyond present themselves as an amazing treasure store of wisdom. Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (ca. 524) continues to be of global relevance throughout time, teaching us the path toward true happiness behind the material existence.9 Martianus Capella had already outlined in sharp outlines what constituted the proper path toward a solid education both in the trivium and the quadrivium, when he wrote his famous treatise De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (ca. 410–420; On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury).10 For him, as ←14 | 15→for many other thinkers following him, there should not be an artificial dividing line between the sciences and the humanities, as we would call it today, since they all fall into the Liberal Arts. In religious terms, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354–430), produced most important autobiographical writings (Confessiones), theological treatises (De Doctrina Christiana [On Christian Doctrine]; De civitate Dei [The City of God]), and philosophical reflections (De libero arbitrio [On Free Choice of the Will]).11 Wisdom and faith mattered centrally to him, and many other major thinkers and writers followed him and others. We would not necessarily refer back to Augustine in our daily struggles to make sense out of our existence, but we can easily recognize either his ideas or those by Boethius as fundamental for us today in the quest for meaning, spirituality, happiness, and the divine. They certainly expressed themselves in their own idiosyncratic terms, and we often need careful critical analysis to gain a full understanding of their statements, but this is just the same as when we try to understand insights and ideas formulated by a major thinker in a different language today.

The present book is not intended as a gateway to the history of philosophy and theology. Instead, it wants to open portals toward the discourse on wisdom as expressed in many different medieval didactic texts. We could start, of course, with Martianus, Boethius, or Augustine, as mentioned above, but their works are easily accessible and have been studied already from many different perspectives.12 Instead, the emphasis will be on medieval didactic authors, ←15 | 16→many of whom had powerful insights to share. Of course, not every one of their statements might be directly applicable to our own lives today, but the ambition of this anthology aims at demonstrating the extent to which the fundamental questions regarding the relevance of the Humanities can be answered by way of referring to medieval wisdom literature.

We cannot expect to achieve a simple one-to-one translation of the ideas and values expressed by the medieval poets. Adjustments and modifications will be necessary. We will have to learn how to understand the cultural-historical background, the religious and ethical principles governing medieval society, if we want to profit from those insights. But there are certainly also universals, and when we combine both aspects, there is considerable promise to profit profoundly from the insights into human life formulated by medieval didactic authors.

One striking example would be the famous didactic poem “Ich saz ûf eime steine” by Walther von der Vogelweide, the so-called first “Reichsklage” (L. 8,4; I sat on a rock), in which he reflected on the conditions in his society at large.13 There are, as he affirms, three major aspects in all of human life: public esteem, or honor and reputation; money and wealth, and God’s love. Those three aspects can never come together in complete harmony. One can enjoy God’s love and social respect, but then material property would be missing. One can enjoy the possession of honor and money, but then God’s love would be missing; and one can receive God’s love and material possessions, but then there would not be social respect and acknowledgment.

It is, of course, a simplified triangular relationship, but there is certainly some truth to the poet’s observation. Moreover, he ultimately granted the possibility that an individual might be privileged with receiving all three aspects, but only if the external conditions would have become ideal, meaning the removal of violence and the establishment of justice:

fride unde reht sint sêre wunt.

diu driu enhabent geleites niht,

diu zwei enwerden ê gesunt.

[peace and law are badly wounded.

The three things will not be able to travel together

unless the two are first getting healthy.]

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Granted, there are many more social, financial, political, religious, and ideological factors behind all human conditions, and this Middle High German poet might simplify matters too much for the critical analysis of modern concerns. Nevertheless, Walther offers intriguing insights into fundamental ethical and religious conflicts which certainly concern us today as well, irrespective of radically changed political and social frameworks, at least in the western world. After all, honor, justice, freedom, and God’s love are of universal and timeless value. In other words, the question raised here pertains to the individual’s character and social standing within the world and regarding the spiritual existence.

Didactic authors tend to be conservative in their outlook, and that is certainly the case with medieval poets as well. However, when the issue pertains to honesty, friendship, the dangers of the Seven Deadly Sins, generosity and miserliness, loyalty, vanity, and the like, we do not gain much at all from using political categories and concern ourselves with categories such as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal.’ What follows thus does not intend to be the ultimate and final truth in all of human existence, but certainly wants to provide a textual platform to explore what makes human life worth living, protecting us from vice, foolishness, ignorance, and maliciousness, and offering perspectives to lead a better life, as informed by wisdom.

We can be certain that the various poets formulated their ideas on the basis of much learning, either biblical or ethical, i.e., experimentally and through personal study, especially since the discourse on wisdom has very deep roots and continues to grow until the present (and hopefully well into the future). The selection of texts in this volume thus does not claim to present entirely innovative insights and learning. Any well-educated reader will easily recognize resonances from the Old Testament, late antique philosophy, and early medieval theology, among other sources. By way of relying on primarily medieval narratives, however, we gain valuable insight into one of the major stages of the discourse on wisdom closest to us in the twenty-first century and can thus realize easily that many of the modern notions about the pre-modern world are simply based on ignorance and lack of discrimination.

Of course, if we want to identify examples of medieval brutality, misogyny, anti-Judaism, fanaticism, cruelty, and barbarity, we can find them easily.14 And this not only in the Middle Ages, but also in the sixteenth, seventeenth, ←17 | 18→eighteenth, etc. centuries. Is the modern world indeed that much better than its predecessors? If provoked, we could so easily come up with a long list of horrors committed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Racism in the United States continues to be rampant, the Nazis under Hitler committed the infamous Holocaust, and the Russians under Stalin were responsible for their devastating Holodomor, which killed even more people in the Ukraine than in Germany during the twelve long years of the Nazi regime.

Historians must approach their subject matter sine ira et studio, that is, calmly, objectively, and open-mindedly. This book, in particular, is not about the historical truth of the medieval world, which would be a hopelessly intangible topic at any rate. For many cultural, literary, and social historians, however, it has often proven to be a fairly convenient approach by emphasizing the catastrophic, terrifying, vicious, or barbaric aspects in the pre-modern world. Those should not be denied, for sure, but they certainly need to be contextualized and used for our learning today.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 390 pp.

Biographical notes

Albrecht Classen (Author)

Albrecht Classen is University Distinguished Professor of German Studies at The University of Arizona, Tucson. He has currently published 115 scholarly books and ca. 798 articles on a wide range of topics pertaining to medieval and early modern literature and culture. He is the editor of the journals Mediaevistik and Humanities Open Access. I in 2017 he received the rank of Grand Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Three Lions.


Title: Wisdom from the European Middle Ages