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Medieval Themes and Topics: Some Interesting and Essential Stuff

The Four Humours*:

A traditional theory of physiology in which the state of health--and by extension the state of mind, or character--depended upon a balance among the four elemental fluids: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. These were closely allied with the four elements (air, fire, water, and earth). Their correspondence is described as follows:

hot and moisthot and drycold and moistcold and dry
(amorous, happy, generous)(violent, vengeful)(dull, pale, cowardly)(gluttonous, lazy, sentimental)

The "humours" gave off vapors which ascended to the brain; an individual's personal characteristics (physical, mental, moral) were explained by his or her "temperament," or the state of theat person's "humours." The perfect temperament resulted when no one of these humours dominated. By 1600 it was common to use "humour" as a means of classifying characters; knowledge of the humours is not only important to understanding later medieval work, but essential to interpreting Elizabethan drama, especially the late-16th century genre known as the "comedy of humours" (cf. Ben Jonson). Finally, an illustrative quotation from the final lines of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (V.v.74-76), in which Antony eulogizes Brutus:
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man!"
* See C. Hugh Holman, ed., A Handbook to Literature, 4th ed. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill), 1980, p. 220.


A technique of literature in which the events of a narrative obviously and consistently refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena. Another way to think of it is as an extended metaphor. For example, we commonly refer to the "journey" of life; Dante, however, begins with this notion and expands it into an epic-length poem.

Fourfold Allegorical Interpretation:

  1. Literal (historical)-what story actually says ("Litera gesta docet")
  2. Typological (allegorical)-illustrates truths ("Allegoria quod credas")
  3. Moral (tropological)-conversion of soul, what should be done ("Moralia quod agas")
  4. Anagogical (eschatological)-deals with "4 last things (Heaven, Hell, Death & Judgment)," eternity ("Quo tendas anagogica")
for example: Exodus read on the 4 levels would include
  1. The actual crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrews
  2. reading the Hebrews as a "type" of the soul redeemed by Christ
  3. reading the crossing of the sea as a lesson: that humans are all sinful and must leave wicked habits and cross over to God, with His help
  4. reading the whole passage as illustrative of the way God's universe is ordered, all leading out of evil and upward into Heaven

Two Kinds of Love:

  1. uti ("use," directed; love of things in the world for their relation to God)
  2. frui ("enjoyment," intransitive; love of something for its own sake; idolatrous)
In 1.22, Augustine points out that God alone is the true object of enjoyment; all other things in human experience are merely to be used in service of the soul's return to God.

The Seven Liberal Arts:

    1. Trivium: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic
    2. Quadrivium: Geometry, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Music

"Les Trois Matières" of Medieval Romance:

  1. "Matière de Rome": Classical material; Troy, Thebes, Alexander legends.
  2. "Matière de France": Charlemagne cycles (derived fromChanson de Roland, etc.)
  3. "Matière de Bretagne": Celtic myth and legend; primarily Arthurian