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Windows on a medieval world: medieval piety as reflected in the lapidary literature of the Middle Ages
By Richard A. Beinert
Master’s Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2003
Abstract: The lapidary literature of the Middle Ages has been overlooked as a source for the study of medieval Christian piety. These stone-lists, which expounded the magical and medicinal powers of stones, enjoyed a broad circulation throughout Europe both as Latin scientific writings as well as popular vernacular medicinal and religious texts. Recent scholarship in medieval lapidary has tended to marginalize the texts, treating them either as naive prolegomena to modern scientific studies or as examples of an undercurrent of fabulous or pagan life. Investigations in the manuscript sources and distribution of the lapidary texts, however, show that the medieval lapidary was a popular, creative, and widely used genre of literature throughout European civilization. Scientific writers sought to explain the formation and various virtues of stones within the Aristotelian framework of medieval scholarship. Encyclopedic lapidaries were also used in the university and royal court alike. Theological reflections within the literature claim divine authorship for the powers and virtues of stones as framed within the medieval doctrine of exemplarism. The vernacular language lapidary texts also give indication of the contours and characteristics of the popular piety of the unlettered masses. Given this broad spectrum of medieval society which is reflected within the lapidary texts, the lapidary literature of the Middle Ages is a veritable ‘treasure chest’ for the student of medieval religious life, offering a panoramic view of the religious piety – both scholarly and popular – of medieval European civilization.
Introduction: Peter Kitson, in his study of Anglo-Saxon lapidary texts, writes “jewels have always fascinated man. They have been admired simply for their beauty-their depth of colour and their different propensities for catching and reflecting light. The combination of these qualities, rare in nature, has encouraged the attribution to them of many magical and medical powers.” In the Middle Ages, from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, this fascination in stones and their powers exploded throughout European society as evidenced by the significant corpus of extant lapidary literature from every corner and strata of European civilization. Yet modern studies of these lapidary texts have not taken their historical provenance fully into consideration. As such, the corpus oflapidary literature has not been studied to the full potential of what it can offer modem students of the Middle Ages. Given the broad cultural fascination with stones, and the broad social and linguistic distribution of the lapidary texts, medieval lapidary traditions present a unique literary phenomenon that offer a rare window on medieval European culture and society, providing modem students of the Middle Ages an unparalleled vantage point from which they may view the entire breadth of medieval culture and society.