The Early Medieval West: Confessions & Beowulf

Study questions for both included below.

Confessions, by St. Augustine:

Read Book 8, Chapters 10-12 , which is about searching for/finding faith. St. Augustine lived at a time when the old era was dying, and a new, Christian order was beginning in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

Study Questions (discussed in class)

  1. In Confessions, how does Augustine seem to characterize human senses and understanding? Does he think they should be trusted? Does he think that people, of their own volition, have the ability to differentiate between "good" and "bad"?
  2. Where and how does God fit into Augustine's scheme of human decision making? How does he seem to feel about mankind's worldly pursuits and constructions?
  3. How might a philosophical discussion between Augustine and Epicurus (Letter to Menoeceus) go? Would they agree? Why or why not?
  4. Do Augustine's religious convictions seem more in line with antiquity (ancient, classical Greece and Rome) or the medieval period? What fits? What doesn't? Why?
  5. Given what we've read and discussed about late Roman historical and cultural events, how do you think Augustine's religious outlook reflects the realities of life in later fourth/early fifth century A.D. Rome? Why do you think he advocates the way he does?


Read chapters 1-12 (Through Grendel's death).

Beowulf is an epic poem of early Christian Britain, originating around the 8th c. AD. While this version is Anglo-Saxon, the story is based on much older northern European folklore. Like several of the other epics we've dealt with, it was first transmitted through oral tradition. The poem evidences a turning point in western civilization, in combining Christian values and the old pagan fascination with good vs. evil, as well as the exploration of heroic fragility (remember, for example, Gilgamesh's eventual failure to ultimately triumph over death; it could be argued that the eponymous hero, Beowulf, suffers the same kind of anticlimactic fate).

Study Questions (discussed in class)

  1. Beowulf is known as an early medieval piece, but in some ways it doesn't seem very medieval at all. Which elements (including language) in our segments of Beowulf strike you as particularly pagan (compare with Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, &c.)? Which elements appear to be obvious Christian additions, made later? Do the elements seem to contribute toward a cohesive whole, or do they seem somewhat at odds to you?
  2. How is Beowulf an epic hero in the tradition established by Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Aeneas? How is he different? Is his quest very different? How about the "monsters" he encounters? Are they different?