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image of Jesus Christ
image of Heloise
image of St. Francis

Course Topics

This course covers a wide range of medieval Latin writings, over a period of time stretching over a thousand years. We will be reading fables and stories, personal letters, biography, encyclopedias, and even a medieval play. Since we will be studying a different author every week, it is a good idea to keep in mind the broad outlines of the course, which I will try to explain briefly here.

The Latin Vulgate. We will begin with Jerome's translation of the Bible, called the "Vulgate" (Biblia vulgata). First, we will look at the birth of Moses and his meeting with God in the midst of a burning bush, and then we will turn to the story of Samson and Delilah. After reading these two stories from the Hebrew Bible, we will look at some New Testament material: some parables of Jesus, and the story of his crucifixion.

From Jerome to Augustine. Jerome and Augustine were both crucial figures for the history of the Latin Church in the 4th century C.E., just before the final collapse of the Roman Empire. Both Jerome and Augustine had a classical Latin education. Jerome, however, chose to take up the "common" style of writing, the "vulgate" Latin spoken by the general public. Augustine, on the other hand, wrote in a style of Latin that matches the complexity and difficulty of any classical Latin prose author. You will read Augustine's account of his conversion to Christianity in the Confessiones, and some sections of his encyclopedic masterpiece, De civitate dei.

The transmission of Roman knowledge. After the fall of the Roman empire, the intellectual traditions of Greece and Rome broke down almost completely. The Latin language endured, but the libraries and schools of the Roman world were gone. In an early "renaissance" of learning, the emperor Charlemagne encouraged the monks and scholars in his expanding kingdom to attempt to compile new encyclopedias containing what knowledge had survived from the ancient world. We will read selections from the 9th century encyclopedia of Hrabanus Maurus along with selections from the Physiologus, a collection of lore and legend about the animal kingdom. Both Hrabanus Maurus and the Physiologus use a style of writing that is called allegory. Allegory is probably the single most important style of writing in the MIddle Ages. In fact, allegory is not so much a style of writing but a style of thinking. It is based on symbols and hidden meanings. Some students today love allegory, and some find it completely bizarre. Be prepared!

Medieval biography and legends. Just before Spring Break (yeah!) we will reach the Legenda Aurea, a collection of lives of the saints, where we will read some selections from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. From biography we will move to legend, turning to a selection from the incredibly popular Gesta Romanorum ("Deeds of the Romans"), which contains stories about real and imaginary Roman emperors. The emperor we will read about is an imaginary one: Jovinianus, a victim of stolen identity (yes, they had legends of stolen identity even before there were credit cards!)

Popular stories. We are very lucky that many monks and preachers of the Middle Ages collected popular stories to use in their sermons, recording all manner of jokes and fables in writing. We will read selections from several different collections of Aesop's Fables, along with the adventures of Reynard the Fox (who was basically the Bugs Bunny of the Middle Ages).

Women's writing. We will end the course by looking at some examples of women's writing in the Middle Ages. To do this, we will go back to the 4th century C.E., the age of Augustine and Jerome: this is when the noble woman Egeria wrote a first-person account of her travels in Egypt and Israel. We will then move to the 10th century, and read a medieval Latin play, Dulcitius, which was written by the German nun Hrotsvitha. The semester will wind up in the early 12th century, when we will read one of the tortured letters that Heloise wrote to her one-time lover, the French philosopher Peter Abelard.

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM