Period Introduction Overview

Circling the MediterraneanIndia's Classical AgeMedieval Chinese LiteratureJapan's Classical Age

Circling the Mediterranean

  1. From antiquity to the Middle Ages (ending in the fifteenth century or so), the Mediterranean Sea enabled the exchange of goods and ideas from diverse cultures that included Europe, North Africa, and the Near and Middle East.
  2. Despite the fact that early scholars generally understood the "European" and "Islamic" worlds of the Middle Ages to be quite distinct and often at odds with one another, we now see great variation within each of these worlds along with intimate links between them.
  3. People of the Middle Ages rarely referred to themselves as "European"; rather they identified themselves with more specific cultural groups, like "Normans" or "English."
  4. The literary traditions of pre-Renaissance Europe were by no means derived from ancient Greek and Roman traditions alone. Rather, they were influenced by Arabic and Persian traditions as well. The fact of this cultural mixing stands in contrast to common misconceptions of a pure European heritage derived just from Western literary and philosophical traditions.

Christianity and Platonism

  1. Between the years 100 and 400 C.E. the Roman Empire saw the rise of various brands of Christianity (and Judaism) that organized themselves around different religious principles; these emerging belief systems included elements of the relatively new Christian gospel but also included earlier Greek traditions as well.
  2. In 382 Saint Jerome was commissioned to produce a Bible that was written in Latin. This became known as the Vulgate (or "commonly used") version, and it helped to codify the various brands of Christian belief into a more unified, single doctrine.
  3. Emerging Christianity rejected much of the importance that earlier Roman culture had placed on the arts, except where art could be used to glorify God, as in religious painting, hymn, and liturgical music.
  4. Christianity, though it was just one of a number of competing religious sects, ultimately became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the fourth century.
  5. The Roman Empire under Constantine stretched so widely that it had two recognized capitals: Rome in the West and Byzantium (renamed Constantinople, after emperor Constantine) in the East.
  6. The diaspora, or "scattering," of Jews from Jerusalem in 70 C.E. would provide the basis for an archetypal mythic figure—the wandering Jew—that would inform many later literary traditions. For example, works as contemporary (and as famous) as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein revisit the figure of the wandering Jew. So too might Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales (NAWOL, Volume B).

The Spread of Islam

  1. The dissemination of the Qur'an by Muhammad and his followers in the seventh century had a profound effect on cultures of the Mediterranean.
  2. Islamic rule grew rapidly and by 750 C.E. ranged from areas of Spain in the West to India in the East.
  3. Islam fashioned itself in conformity with dictates in the Qur'an and the exemplary life lived by its prophet, Muhammad.
  4. However, Islamic cultures were not uniformly identical across the empire.
  5. The most important religious division within the Islamic empire was between Sunni and Shi'a.
  6. Religious divisions were accompanied by political divisions in medieval Islam; this led to their being a number of political and religious "centers" such as Damascus (Syria), Baghdad (Iraq), and Cairo (Egypt). Despite variations among Islamic cultures, they all shared Arabic as a common language, which helped to enable an exchange of ideas.
  7. The early Islamic empire fell to Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. The Mongols, however, converted to Islam. They too would eventually fall when the Ottoman Empire consolidated its power in the eastern Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.
  8. One particularly rich source of literary and mythological influence on early Islam was Persia (modern-day Iran, though the Persian Empire stretched well beyond this). Persian influence continued into the Ottoman Empire, which held Persian art and language in high esteem.
  9. Early Islamic literature, especially under Persian influence, provides examples of sophisticated narrative techniques that remain common today, such as the frame narrative (or frame tale) in which a story, or a series of stories, is told within the "frame" of another story. The Thousand and One Nights is an excellent example (NAWOL, Volume B): a Persian king has bitterly decided that all women are unfaithful and has married, but subsequently executed the next morning, a succession of virgins; his latest wife, Shahrazad, postpones her own death by beginning a new tale each night—the "thousand and one" tales within the frame; the king wants to hear how each tale turns out so he lets Shahrazad live.

The Invention of the West

  1. Early Islamic writers did not equate "the West" with Christian Europe. This identification, which is common today, did not emerge until the late Middle Ages.
  2. Early Christian Europe relied almost exclusively on Latin as the language of science, the arts, politics, and religion. It was not until the twelfth century that local, or vernacular languages, became more commonly used for anything but daily conversation.
  3. The medieval Christian Crusades, beginning in 1095, solidified the identity of "Christian Europe" in opposition to perceived, non-Christian enemies: Muslims and Jews.
  4. The simplistic opposition of Christian versus non-Christian has had horrible historic consequence, and it permeated the Christian literature of the Middle Ages.
  5. Central to medieval Western literature became the figure of the knight (and, more specifically, the crusading knight). His public deeds were epic and chivalrous, his private deeds romantic and gentlemanly.
  6. Late medieval literature began to be written in vernacular languages (i.e., those other than Latin, such as Italian, English, and French). However, many authors of the medieval period still held the legacy of Roman culture and literature to be deeply important. This foreshadows what would become a defining characteristic of the next literary age—the Renaissance—,which was named for the so-called re-birth of Greek and Roman literary and philosophical ideas.