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  • The Wisdom of the Middle Ages by M.K. Kellogg
  • Anthony Smart
M.K. Kellogg. The Wisdom of the Middle Ages. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2016. US $26.00. ISBN 9781633882133.

Writing toward the end of Carolingian dominance and political strength, Notker Balbalus prepared a life of the emperor Charlemagne. Within it, he recounted an episode involving the emperor and two Scots, who had set up shop selling wisdom. Onlookers were intrigued initially, and then con-cerned at the ruckus they were making. News of them even reached the ears of the emperor. He summoned them to his presence and asked them if it were true that they did indeed come selling wisdom. They replied in the affirmative, and the emperor gave them a place to practice their teaching. And thus wisdom was brought back into the world of the political elite. Notker is deliberately suggesting that the period of Carolingian rule under the Emperor Charlemagne brought literature and learning to the fore of political consciousness. The words of D.J.A. Matthew, which Kellogg reacts strongly against in his preface (9), are empty words, for the Middle Ages was a period of great intellectual insight and literary endeavour, and no period more so than the ninth-century Franks who proclaimed themselves the heirs of both Rome and Israel.

It would be tempting to dismiss Michael Kellogg's book, the third in his series investigating the wisdom and learning of the past, as yet another work telling the same stories of the same people based on the same writings; Augustine, Boethius, Dante, etc. This becomes more immediate when both the historical sketch and the opening chapter are disappointing; the former suggests only a superficial understanding of the historical backdrop, and lat-ter is deeply conftised and uncertain. However, with this book, it would be a mistake to do so. A number of criticisms can and should be levelled against the selection process and the depth of analysis offered, but there are chap-ters here that are beautifully written, and present eloquent interpretations of the writers chosen. His treatment of Augustine, for instance, is the best I have read in single chapter form; it not only engages closely with the great Father of the Church, but presents where possible the troubled and worried mind of Augustine as he struggles toward his ultimate conversion. Thus, this is not yet another book on late antique/medieval writers that panders [End Page 334] to an imagined audience and offers scraps from a darkened era; it is instead an eloquent and in parts moving exploration of important figures and the world(s) to which they belong. Not every chapter here works, and not every discussion is as successful or confident as the section on Augustine, but it is a commendable work, let down only by the weighty gaps where important writers and periods have been ignored, to favour more familiar names and writings. This is a great shame, as Kellogg is a highly gifted writer, who, when looking at individuals and their works, brings their realties, their minds, and their emotions to life.

The weakest elements of the book are found at the beginning. The first chapter is poor, and stands in stark opposition to the chapters that follow. Here Kellogg spends far too long attempting to distance Christ the Saviour from what he understands to be the historical Jesus. This does not really fit into the other more nuanced and impassioned sections of the book and presents only a confused and incoherent reaction. There is one element here that is usefUl (57-62), where he presents an articulate discussion of Christ's message and the teaching of St Paul. The rest of it (35-56) is a distracting mess, which would have been better excised from the book.

The second and third chapters are much stronger (63-88; 89-114). Kellogg presents a fluent and sophisticated interpretation of both Augustine and Boethius. The chapter on Augustine recognizes the worry and fear visible in his Confessions and the remarkable intellect seen in The City of God. This is excellent. The chapter on Boethius is eloquent, although there are some issues here, most notably...