Dr John Fleming talks about the Middle Ages and the modern world, part 1


I had the distinct pleasure of talking to Dr. Fleming this afternoon.

A couple of years ago I started auditing Dr. Fleming’s class on Chaucer and found out that Dr Fleming is the premier American scholar on Chaucer, for good reason. Unfortunately I had to drop out of the class for reasons outside my control, but the next Fall I enrolled again in his class, which was the last semester that he taught that class.

You can listen to the podcast

After the introduction, here’s the interview:
F: Today’s theme will be, what do we learn from the Middle Ages? The reason I thought of this theme is not only because of talking to you, but also because the first blockbuster movie of the year, The 300, is about the battle of Thermopylae among the Spartans and the Persians and that was one battle that was remembered very much throughtout the literature of the Middle Ages, was it?
JF: Well yes, and no. The Western Middle Ages which I studied, that is, the Latin speaking Middle Ages lost sight of Greek during the fairly early period, so they did not have direct access for many centuries to those classical historians, Thucidides and others, that modern scholars do study; But there was a large cultural memory and a general idea that Christendom was surrounded either by bleakness or by positive enemies, and of course with the rise of Islam that became a very real thing, so to that extent people were aware that there had been great victories by our forefathers that we had to somehow live up to.

F: On the Earlier Middle Ages, I’ve heard a lot about the Dark Ages and now the theme has changed to the Earlier Middle Ages, and I found out from reading in your class and other places that many of the things we think of as modern, were created during that period, such as cloth manufacturing, banking, mail delivery. So what makes the Dark Ages dark? Was it the cycle of invasions they had all the time?
JF: Well, what made the Dark Ages dark was Edward Gibbon in the 18th Century, that is, the particular view that you get in his famous book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, [which] glorifies the ancient empire and thinks that there’s a kind of hiatus between the arrival of Christianity and the Rennaissance in the 14-15th century.

Of course, when we use the term “the Middle Ages” it’s notoriously elastic, it runs for a thousand years, from say, the time of St Augustine on the cusp on the 4-5th centuries down to the time of Erasmus at the end of the 15th century. So that thousand-year period covers a vast geographical area – just talking about the Western Middle Ages we’re talking about the whole of Europe… but among other things that developed was the concept of the modern state. Our own great historian, Joseph Strayer has among his most widely read books a book about The Medieval Origins of the Modern State.

Another institution uniquely developed during this period is the University. There really is there nothing else in the world, in other cultures, exactly like the Western university, and it was developed during the period of the 12th and 13th centuries.

F: And the University is what saved the Ancient world for us?
JF: Absolutely. At least in this sense, the precursor of the University was the monastic school.

Christianity, as you of course know, is a text-based religion. It has to study and preserve the Bible and its commentaries, and for many long centuries the chief occupation of monastic life… was reading the Bible, commenting on the Bible, explaining the Bible, and in order to do this, they felt that they had to have access to the whole body of Classical Latin literature.

One of St Augustine’s very famous books, De Doctrina Christiana, On Christian Doctrine, tries to explain that if you’re going to study the Bible you’ve got to know, for example, what the words in the Bible mean. This is actually not very bad advice for some modern Christians. You have to understand how they exist within a historical context, you have to know what were the animals of the ancient Near East, and things like that. So it is that kind of scholarly motive that led them to read the Classics. And there’s not a single major Latin text, not Ovid, not Virgil, that had not been saved for us by these monastic scribes. That’s the point of that popular book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.

F And if I remember correctly, St. Augustine emphasized reason as a means of getting closer to God.
JF: Absolutely. We’re used to the idea that there’s some great divide or conflict between faith and reason. This idea, in a sense, grew in the Late Middle Agesn when Thomas Aquinas and other great theologians of that period had to deal with the rediscovery in the Latin West of Aristotle and a system of moral theology that seemed to be totally independent of the Christian revelation.

But, say, for Augustine, and for most of the early fathers of the Church, there was no conflict between faith and reason because faith seemed, on the basis of their empirical experience, a reasonable proposition. So, although Augustine would never do what Thomas Aquinas did, which is to sit down and in academic fashion try to prove the existence of God, you find in the Confessions and elsewhere lines of argument that basically are doing the same thing: argument by design. Some of this is highly relevant to theological controversy even today.

Part 2
Part 3


4 Responses to “Dr John Fleming talks about the Middle Ages and the modern world, part 1”

  1. boinky Says:

    Interesting. But his comment about “Christiantity being a text based religion” is not true if you are referring to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which were and come to think of it still are the churches of the majority of Christians.
    Catholicism spread via story: Art, music, plays, fiestas. These stories were often “grafted” onto the pagan stories, which were “baptised” to give them Christian meaning.
    Orthodoxy was transmitted via liturgy and prayer.
    Yes, the greatest minds used texts–and logic, and the Bible–, but the way most people (who were illiterate) learned the stories was by…storytelling

  2. Fausta Says:

    That is a very interesting observation, and it reminds me of a biography of St Augustine by Gary Wills that I read a few years ago. In it he mentions the reasons why Constantine the Great called for the Council of Nicaea (which predates St Augustine) in order to bring about a unified liturgy.

  3. Layla Gonzalez Says:

    I finally got here albeit a day late! I truly enjoyed your interview with Dr.Fleming. What a great mini-education.

    Thanks Fausta!

  4. Fausta’s Blog » Blog Archive » It’s A Wonderful Bailout Says:

    [...] in my podcast last year (my favorite interview so far, which I transcribed in its entirety – parts one, two and three) once wrote, One of very few movies I remember from my childhood appeared right [...]