A Latin scholar, poet, and biographer, Boccaccio (1313–1375) is most famous today as the author of the Decameron. This compilation of 100 tales, by turns serious, bawdy, and irreverent, purports to be a rendition of the stories told over the course of 10 days by 10 young men and women who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death. Many of the tales are based on older legends, and they frequently reflect the humor of the common people of the era, often at the expense of their spiritual and social betters. Religious authorities were frequent targets of this sort of satire, reflecting their ubiquitous presence in the lives of medieval Europeans, as well as, perhaps, a deep undercurrent of resentment regarding their privileges.
Giovanni Boccaccio, “Putting the Devil Back in Hell” (3.10), from The Decameron: Selected Tales / Decameron: Novelle scelte, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000), 87–93.
In the catastrophe brought on by the assaults on all their borders, some European midieval Christians were forced to devise new means of self-protection. Into this vacuum of governmental authority came new “feudal” relationships between lords and vassals. Over time, these contractual relationships became increasingly regularized. The terms of these relationships can be reconstructed through documents describing the ceremonial and formulaic aspects of feudal obligations.
James Harvey Robinson, Readings in European History, vol. 1 (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1904), 178–180.
The archaeological site of Mapungubwe, first discovered and excavated in the 1930s, spans the borders of present-day South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It was one of the most powerful African Iron Age states, dominating southern Africa from 1070 to 1300 and establishing trade contacts with the Middle East and India. The source of its influence was the gold mined in the territory, fashioned into objects, and then exported far beyond the borders of the kingdom.
University of Pretoria Museums, South Africa, Mapungubwe Collection, copyright University of Pretoria
The Nihon Shoki is the first official history of Japan. It draws on numerous sources, including Chinese histories, clan histories, and the accounts of religious authorities. While it parallels the Kojiki in describing the ancient and mythological origins of Japan, it continues the narrative far beyond the Kojiki into the recent past, specifically the reign of the Empress Jitō (686–697). This particular story concerns the eleventh emperor of Japan, Suinin, but it differs from the Kojiki in certain key details, and probably reflects the values of the eighth century rather than its ostensible setting (the first century CE).
“The Empress and Her Brother Prince Sahobiko,” from Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, ed. Haruo Shirane (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 47–49.
The author of this personal essay was Yi Kyu-bo (1168 – 1241), a poet, essayist, and critic in the Koryo kingdom of Korea. He was also a high-ranking civil servant, who passed the civil-service examination required for government service. The life of Yi Kyu-bo reflects the extent to which Koryo modeled itself on Tang / Song China. Yi Kyu-bo studied and wrote in Chinese, worked in a state organized along Confucian principles, and created literary works that were infused with both Confucian and Daoist principles.
Yi Kyu-bo. “On Demolishing the Earthen Chamber,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 61-62.
In 2013, 63 skeletons were discovered in a tomb at El Castillo de Huarmey, about 175 miles north of Lima, in what would seem to be the first imperial tomb of the Wari culture discovered in modern times. Most of the bodies were female, and wrapped in bundles in a seated position typical of Wari burials. Three of the women appear to have been Wari queens, as they were buried with gold and silver jewelry and brilliantly painted ceramics. However, six of the skeletons were not wrapped in the textiles, but instead positioned on top of the burials. Archaeologists have concluded that these people may have been sacrificed for the benefit of the others.
One of the most brilliant professors and theologians of the European Middle Ages, Peter Abelard (1070–1142) became a star performer in the academic art of “dialectic.” His abilities also earned him many enemies. When he turned his attention to the thorny subject of the Trinity, one of the principal elements of Christian belief, Abelard incurred the wrath of powerful members of the institutional church, of which he, as a professor, was also a part. In his autobiography, The Story of My Misfortunes, Abelard detailed the episodes of envy, backbiting, and stupidity that dogged him throughout his life. He also recalled his affair with Heloise (d. 1163), his former pupil and intellectual equal. The letters they exchanged survive as some of the most passionate and beautiful documents of the period.
The Story of My Misfortunes: The Autobiography of Peter Abélard, trans. Henry Adams Bellows (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 36–44.
Liyongo is the trickster-hero of a several East Africa tales, which were transmitted orally and eventually written down in the nineteenth century. They may have been told as early as the tenth century. They represent the intersection between the Islamicized Swahili culture along the East African coast in what is today Kenya and Tanzania, with the native animist cultures closer to the interior. The conversion of East Africans to Islam began quite early, and by the seventh century there were already Swahili trade centers and ports. However, the animists of the interior continued to practice their beliefs until the modern era.
In this excerpt, Liyongo travels to meet the Sultan of Pate, an island off the coast of Kenya. It is literally a meeting of animist traditions, represented by Liyongo, and Islam, represented by the Sultan.
Alice Werner, The Swahili Saga of Liongo Fumo (1926)
The daughter of a minor noble in the court at Heian-Kyo in central Japan, Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 973–1025) created Japan’s most popular work of fiction and one of the world’s great literary masterpieces. The Genji Monagatori is composed of acute observations of the subtleties of court life, and Murasaki focused particularly on the lives of women at court. Although the tale is ostensibly fictional, it reflects the era in which it was written, as the novelist strove to make the action in it plausible to the reader. In the process, she also crafted a compelling and compulsively readable story.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Royall Tyler (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 2001), “Heart-to-Heart” (Aoi), 178–179.
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is a product of Japan’s Heian period (794–1185). In that era, Japan was greatly influenced by Chinese governmental and cultural forms, which were nativized and adapted to fit the Japanese environment. For example, the extreme centralization and imperial power of the Chinese system were never replicated in Japan. Because Japan consists of islands and faced no great foreign threat at that time, the emperor and the central government ruled in concert with a powerful aristocracy organized along clan lines. In fact, over time a branch of one of the leading aristocratic clans, the northern Fujiwara, succeeded in dominating the emperors and effectively ruling Japan in their place (866–1068). Ultimately, the Fujiwara were outmaneuvered and some imperial autonomy was restored, but nothing approaching the Chinese system ever existed. Similarly, Chinese culture in the forms of written language, the Buddhist religion, and art and architecture exercised a powerful attraction for the Japanese. In the seventh century, the Chinese system of writing was adopted as the first written language in Japan, used for government, laws, records, and histories. Around 900 CE a written, phonetic Japanese script (hiragana) was devised, and a lively literary culture evolved.
As in most other societies before modern times, the aristocratic elite, especially the court notables, dominated Japan politically and culturally. One remarkable feature of Japanese elite culture in this era is the prominent position occupied by a couple of extraordinary women. Although knowledge and use of written Chinese had been largely restricted to men and to male-dominated fields, such as government and law, hiragana was more accessible to aristocratic women, and it was more suitable to the intimate and personal issues—especially marital politics—that played a central role in their lives.
The Tale of Genji is a remarkable work written by a remarkable woman, Murasaki Shikibu, who is so completely identified with this work that she actually earned the name “Murasaki” as a nickname based on the name of the leading female character in Genji. She was born around 973 into a minor branch of the Fujiwara clan, the powerful aristocratic family that dominated politics in Heian Japan from 866 to 1068 CE, and she died sometime after 1031.
The Tale of Genji has been called with some justification the world’s first novel. It is the story of an especially gifted son of an emperor, Genji. In the course of the story, Genji evolves from a sort of courtly playboy who is most concerned with court conquests and politics to a man who finds his greatest pleasure with his wife and who understands the impermanence of this world. For most of the novel, though, he exists in the rarified atmosphere of the higher realms of Heian aristocratic and court life.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Arthur Waley. New York: The Modern Library, (1960): 331, 332–34, 336–37, 338–39, 341–42.