Wednesday, 5 April 2000

C.S. Lewis: The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964)

Edition: Cambridge University Press, 1967
Review number: 470

C.S. Lewis introduces us to medieval and Renaissance literature by describing the medieval world view, which he calls the Model. Some parts of this will be familiar to most of those who know something of medieval history, theology or philosophy, or who have read some of the typical literature of the period. However, some of what Lewis has to say was new and illuminating even to someone like myself, fascinated with the medieval period.

The Model can perhaps be seen in its most complete form in Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and Dante's Divine Comedy, but it informs and influences just about every work of literature from the period and continues to resonate until the seventeenth century (Lewis citing many examples of its use by Milton, for example). An explanation is given for the existence of the Model, for the overall shape it took, and for the ways it can be seen in literature (concentrating on the more obscure, more easily misunderstood or more easily overlooked references as far as modern readers are concerned).

Lewis attributes the origins of the Model are attributed to two factors: the medieval passion for orderly classification (he goes so far as to say that the modern invention most likely to be admired by a medieval thinker would be the card index), combined with the reverence for authoritative writing which means that truth was seen in even the most fantastic works of classical poetry. The first trait is in some manner present in all ages; it was one of the founding principles of modern science, for example. But symmetry was sought where it would not be expected by a modern thinker - paralleling the four elements which make up the universe with the four humours inside the body, for example. The second trait is more unusual, and can explain much about medieval culture: the liking for allegorical interpretation, for example, is useful in that it makes it possible to see underlying meanings which agree in works which disagree on the surface but which must both be true as both are authorities.

The elements which make up the Model are very varied in origin, including the Bible, the church fathers, and Greek and Roman philosophers and poets (the Greek ones mainly through Latin translations and digests). To synthesise these contradictory elements was quite an achievement in itself, and that so much supremely great literature could be inspired by it and derived from it a greater one still.

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