C. S. Lewis on the Medieval Mind

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature for a Zoom reading club at Samford University. It is based on his course lectures given at Oxford. I had expected a somewhat boring discussion of one obscure manuscript after another. But the book went in a different, highly engaging direction.

The Medieval Model

Lewis spends much of his time in describing the general mindset and methodology of the medieval writers, what Lewis terms their “Model”, to give us the necessary background for understanding and appreciating medieval literature. This helped me to better understand how people were thinking back in the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 A.D.). Obviously, the particulars of their model of the universe were incorrect. But having a comprehensive model of reality which worked at the time helped to ground them, so they did not experience the sort of alienation which characterizes our age. 

Medieval and early Renaissance authors did not generally just make things up. They very much relied on whatever Greek and Roman texts they had from pre-Middle Ages or early Middle Ages, which included a mix of philosophical/scientific (e.g. Platonic, Aristotelean, neo-Platonic), historical, and mythological treatises. In the medieval model of the universe (which was pieced together from readings of pre-500 A.D. authors), things below the orbit of the moon were contingent and corruptible and somewhat unpredictable. This was the realm of which we would call “nature”.

From the moon upward, was a more exalted realm, where the seven visible “planets”, which included the moon and sun, was each carried on its own transparent sphere. And also there was a sphere holding the stars. All these concentric spheres moved regularly (with some complications) and predictably.  Beyond that was the “prime mobile” sphere, invisible to us, which gave motion to all the other spheres within it.  God is the “Unmoved Mover” who gives motion to everything else.

Above the moon the space was filled with rarefied “aether”, instead of the thick, sometimes noxious air down closer to earth. Up there, it was always light, not dark, as we now think of “space”. (They understood the darkness seen when we look up at night as simply the relatively narrow shadow cast by the earth; everyplace else in the heavens was bathed in light).  The heavens rang with the beautiful “music of the spheres”, and was inhabited only by good, incorruptible beings such as angels and the stars and planets, and, of course, God. Any daemons or other evil spirits were down in the thick air closer to earth, below the level of the moon.

The planets (which included the sun and moon) and the stars were perhaps not fully conscious beings, but they were not dead lumps of rock and gas. They were, in some sense, intelligent beings who were happy doing what they were made for as they danced their patterns in the heavens over and over again. They had effects or “influences” on the affairs of men. The moon could make people a little crazy, Venus called forth romance, Mars promoted warring passions, and so on. This influencing was not some kind of creepy, occult operation, but just the way things are, a more or less natural principle like gravity. 

Some people could take this to a fatalistic determinism. The more judicious thinkers held that, while the planets and stars did indeed exert such influences, humans could and should exercise their reason and free will to resist being driven solely by such propensities. This nuanced notion carries down into Shakespeare, writing around 1600: “Men are at some time master of our fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar)

Feeling at Home in the Universe

Medieval folks were aware that the universe was really, really huge. The earth was a tiny speck compared to the whole universe. However, the universe was finite, not infinite. That meant when they looked up, it was like looking up into a huge towering cathedral, not into empty space. So they would not experience what Pascal referred to as the frightening infinite dark empty silences of space. Also, they were looking up at a realm which was essentially happy and orderly, with each planet and star fulfilling its proper destiny.

I will close with a set of excerpts which convey their sense of being at home within a well-functioning universe and also their feeling of relatively seamless continuity with many previous centuries of interesting and often honorable human history. Their technology of plows drawn by oxen and of wars fought with swords and shields was not too different from the physical world of ancient Greece and Rome, and their culture of honor was likewise similar. I italicized some phrases which seemed particularly illuminating:

“Because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, containing within itself an ordered variety. Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one and a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The great ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.
…This explains why all sense of the pathless, the baffling, and the utterly alien – all agoraphobia – is so markedly absent from medieval poetry when it leads us, as so often, into the sky. ”  

“Thanks to his deficiency in the sense of period, that packed and gorgeous past [i.e. of classical myth and history] was [i.e. seemed or felt] far more immediate to him in the dark and bestial past could ever be to a Lecky or a Wells [i.e. modern science or science fiction of cave men, etc.]. It differed from the present only by being better. Hector was like any other knight, only braver. The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own armours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need to be neither proud nor lonely.”

“Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination…. Every particular fact and story became more interesting and more pleasurable if, by being properly fitted in, it carried one’s mind back to the Model as a whole.”

     “If I am right, the man of genius then found himself in a situation very different from that of his modern successor. Such a man today often, perhaps usually, feels himself confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know, or a reality that has no significance… It is for him, by his own sensibility, to discover a meaning, or, out of his own subjectivity, to give a meaning – or at least a shape – to what in itself had neither. But the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance.”

“I doubt they would have understood our demand for originality… [Why would one want to] spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve? The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of property. Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking? The modern artist often does not think the riches is there. He is the alchemist who must turn base metal into gold.”

[Abridged from  C. S. Lewis on the Medieval Mind , which includes literature references]

One thought on “C. S. Lewis on the Medieval Mind

  1. Joy September 29, 2020 / 12:25 pm

    It does sound cozy. If you wonder why the industrial revolution didn’t come earlier, maybe this helps explain what occupied the mind that is not dreaming up steam power and gears.


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