Great Books of the Middle Ages, and How to Read Them

Conservatives often point to lists of so-called “Great Books” as antidotes to the dissolution of the Western tradition. And yet, the most commonly cited of these lists (Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf”) include only a handful of texts from the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the sixteenth century—thus effectively excluding the Middle Ages from the development of Western civilization. But can Western civilization survive without a proper grounding in the great works of the Christian Middle Ages? In a word, no. Without the Christian Middle Ages, we would not be here arguing for the importance of truth, beauty, and goodness at all. If we want to challenge the postmodern critique of modernity, we need to understand the straw man on which modernity constructed itself: the so-called “Dark Ages” in which people were supposedly punished for the exercise of reason in pursuit of truth.

Rachel Fulton Brown

Rachel Fulton BrownRachel Fulton Brown is Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago, where she has taught since 1994. She is the author of From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200, and Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought, as well as co-editor of History in the Comic Mode: Medieval Communities and the Matter of Person, all published by Columbia University Press. She writes for the public on her blog Fencing Bear at Prayer. She has appeared on numerous videos, podcasts, and radio shows over the past several years, talking about her conversion to Catholicism and her role in the culture wars. Her engagements with her colleagues in academia have been recounted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, The New York Times, and First Things.

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