5 Great Boethian Woman Writers

I wrote a post some time ago where I discussed great male Boethian authors. Today, I am looking at five spectacular women writers who were deeply informed by Boethius and merit consideration today, both for literary skill and intellectual acuity. This list is, of course, in no way intended to be exhaustive!

Queen Elizabeth I

Easily the most famous individual on this list, Queen Elizabeth translated The Consolation of Philosophy late in life as a personal devotional practice (though the personal was of course always charged with political in those times). Elizabeth was deeply embroiled in the politically charged controversies of the day – leading as she did the Elizabethan Religious Settlement that helped to establish “Anglican” identity out of the chaotic Church of England. A superb Latinist with a rich devotional life, Elizabeth’s shrewd intellectual powers are on full display in her translation of Boethius’s most famous work. One can readily see how translating the Consolation, a text devoted to finding God in the midst of political turmoil, spoke to the monarch.

Marguerite Porete

Deemed a heretic at first only reluctantly, given how popular she was, Marguerite was eventually burned at the stake when she persisted in defying the council that put her through a lengthy trial. Marguerite’s most famous work, The Mirror of Simple Souls, draws on Boethian imagery in its meditation on the soul’s intimacy with God, integrating the so-called “heresy of the Free Spirit” and Christian mysticism with the philosophical meditations of the Consolation. Although many scholars interpret Marguerite as rejecting Boethian rationalism, arguably she sees a mystical thread in Boethian thought often missed by the scholastic tradition built around him. Much influence is also present from another influential Boethian text, The Romance of the Rose, meditating on the themes of love present in both texts. Writing in Old French, Marguerite witnesses a very different legacy of Boethianism than ordinarily considered – and, however theologically problematic, one which is quite stirringly and beautifully written.

Christine de Pizan

The Margaret Fuller of the 19th century, Christine de Pizan shares with Marguerite the medieval French legacy of Boethian thought. Her controversy is less theological than sociological however: the placement of women in society. Christine draws upon the powerful vindication of women latent in Boethius’s personification of a wise woman, producing personified mentors who help her to meditate on the nature of Christian identity for women in a society where the male perspective tended to dominate, critiquing the stereotypes that limit women’s potential. The Book of the City of Ladies shows a Lady Reason leading Christine to imagine a perfect Christian civilization where women are given their due place in society, while The Treasure of the City of Ladies provides more practical instruction for the pursuit of feminine virtue. Christine is in my opinion a far superior Boethian to her predecessor, Jean de Meun (author of the second and longer part of The Romance of the Rose), and her vivid writing still speaks to our concerns about gender today.

Margaret Drabble

Drabble’s work as a novelist is replete with literary learning, so it is not surprising that Boethius found its way into her repertoire. Her most Boethian novel is The Ice Age, a reflection on the property crisis in the 60s and 70s of Britain, from the perspective of Anthony Keaton, a former BBC producer struggling with fame in a manner Boethius’s discourse on the subject applies, as explicit reference to Boethius throughout shows. (It is reminiscent, for this reason, to the film 24-Hour Party People, which likewise utilizes Boethius heavily while analyzing a major figure in the media from the time, Tony Wilson.) Drabble’s work is a truly fine example of the modern legacy of Boethius.

Jill Paton Walsh

Walsh is herself a creative literary scholar of Dorothy Sayers, a figure also deeply relevant to this list. Dorothy Sayers was a continual proponent of the classic liberal arts, a system which Boethius played no small part in fashioning for the Middle Ages. Walsh completes a series of novels by Sayers surrounding her Sherlock Holmes figure, Lord Peter Wimsey. The drama of her last Lord Wimsey novel, The Last Scholar (a compressed reference to Boethius as the “last of the Romans and first of the scholastics”), concerns the drama of a codex including The Consolation of Philosophy with possible marginalia from King Alfred himself. As Walsh is the suitable figure to carry on the legacy of Sayers, her work with Sayers fittingly concludes with a meditation on the self-reflexive relationship of Boethian thought to the life of the mind in its practical, realistic manifestations.

So there you go – you’ve got a lot of Boethian reading to do!

Overcoming the Earth: The Life and Works of Our Blessed Martyr, Severinus Boethius

Boethius’s feast day is October 23rd, and these remarks commemorate a figure who, once so well known to people of faith, has become obscure to the modern Church. With Hallowtide approaching, it is fitting to reflect on exemplary lives of faith such as that lived by Boethius.

Unlike many medieval saints, Boethius was never ordained, never entered the ministry, and never entered monastic orders. He was a scholar and a politician in early sixth century Rome working under the rule of the Germanic barbarian, King Theodoric. Theodoric recognized the talents of Boethius, and both admired and feared him. He admired Boethius for his learning in the seven liberal arts, the academic curriculum of the time, and for his skill at reconciling differences between politicians of both church and state. Theodoric’s admiration led him to install Boethius as consul of Rome in 510, and he gave the same honor to Boethius’s sons in 522. That same year, Theodoric made Boethius Master of Offices, which gave him executive power over affairs both foreign and domestic.

But Theodoric feared Boethius’s close ties to the Emperor Justinian and the Eastern Church. As an Arian who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, Theodoric feared that Boethius’s attempts to reconcile eastern and western Trinitarian disputes might lead to a Roman rebellion that might seek help from Byzantium to regain independence from Ostrogothic rule. So when the Senate falsely accused Boethius of treason, an accusation that stuck only as a result of political enemies Boethius had made defending the public welfare, Theodoric had Boethius imprisoned on false charges and brutally executed with no trial.

Among other works, Boethius had written five theological tracts for his friend, Pope John I, referred to collectively as the Opuscula Sacra, where Boethius used his training in logic and philosophy to defend the Christian faith. Two of these argued for the rationality of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and one of these includes his formulation of personhood as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” a definition still in use by modern theologians. A third treatise defended the orthodox view of Christ’s nature as God and man, and a fourth explained how the goodness of creation, including human goodness, logically depends upon the goodness of God. The final treatise, On the Catholic Faith, explicates general foundational doctrines for all Christian believers.

However, Boethius wrote his most important work, The Consolation of Philosophy, while imprisoned and on death row. Admitting his despair at the loss of his former life and freedoms, Boethius portrays himself in dialogue with Lady Philosophy, his lifelong object of study. Philosophy reminds him that earthly goods come and go, but the only value of earthly goods is in their power to turn our sights to the Father of Heavenly Lights, from whom comes every good and perfect gift and does not alter like the shifting shadows. He reminds himself and us that nothing in this world can yield satisfaction to our longing for happiness, and seeking after such frail goods will only lead to despair. Philosophy means the Love of Wisdom, and true wisdom resides in conforming our broken desires to the only essential source of happiness: the light of Divine Love which orders all things and grants all earthly gifts their true meaning.

Boethius reminds us that the mind of God is not limited to human perceptions of time and space, that all existence depends on his loving sustenance, for it is in God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Boethius reminds us that our vision can be transformed to understand the world from this God-centered perspective. “Superata tellus sidera donat” – “Overcome the earth, and you will be given the stars,” Lady Philosophy tells the imprisoned Boethius. Despite his prison walls, Boethius remembered that true freedom comes from God, and regardless of station or situation in life, that freedom is available to all who turn from the misery of self-rule, and instead obediently remember that we live in the sight of a just and moral judge who sees all things.

Paradiso

Paradiso (2007)

“…it has come as auxiliary to another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we calle happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated—And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth…” –John Keats

You already know the story I am going to tell you. You have heard this a million times before. In fact, this whole thing may have nothing new or useful for you at all. But it is all I know, all I have to say, and I do not demand that you listen to me. I am simply going to tell you what the truth is. You may not want to hear it, which is fine. But stay with me, if you are brave. Try to stop hiding from the pain of what you know, or nothing here will mean anything to you.

Our planet is called Paradiso, as it has for some years. After the mantra of Nietzsche grew popular, the star-ward gaze was abandoned and we got to calling earth heaven. Holy Science has salvaged our world, welded it like a casket impregnable to grave robbers. Huge bridges, like the cables of a spider’s web, have joined the continents, and Pangea is an apt name of the world-wide nation.

There is no hunger on Paradiso, as Pangea’s official records prove. The machines have pumped the life from the soil, and every human mouth is fed. There is no labor but luxury, for pursuits of the mind are the commandment of Pangea. Everyone is stylized a scholar, and violence is strictly and rigorously forbidden. There are no wars between factions, because Pangea says that every person is equally unique, and all individuality is carefully apportioned by the officials. The differences of the old world, we are taught, only cause pain, so we are relieved of dangerous heritage.

Disease is a fairytale on Paradiso, a story, told by the historians we call physicians. Medicine is kept in museums once known as hospitals. Life is longer now, and they say immortality will be on the market some day soon. The harder we work, the longer we are allowed to live, and Pangea is praised as a perfect government for how well we run its stipulations.

They call the old world Inferno in the texts. A place of horror where people found themselves unable to agree on the simplest beliefs and blood was spilt over things they thought mattered. Now we can be happy, free of their fanaticism. We no longer have to worry about the dangers posed by notions of immaterial truth. We have happiness meticulously manufactured, and the assurances that it is more than enough.

And happy we truly are. No one dies an untimely death, and everyone pursues what they should want. They – we – are blissful, as only ignorance can allow.

I was given the name Faustus, as part of my duty of recalling the infernal days of old. But of course this is not a story about me – it is a story about us, and the Pangean Paradise. For we are a people of peace. The citizens of the disunified Inferno would have been jealous at our widespread, global, organized machine of perfect utility. Pleasure is for nearly every human on Paradiso all that is known; there are no smiles tinted by sadness. Except for those proud few, who bear the sadness which comes with the joy of sacrifice.

Ah, you hoped that I would pass over in silence the secret to Paradiso’s success. I knew you knew what it was. But you almost forget it, absorbed as you are in your delights. This is understandable, and it couldn’t be helped anyway. But I will remind you.

At birth, I was assigned the task of Deliverer. There is a class on Paradiso known as the Champions. The highest of Champions, most honored, are the Heroes. They are the heartbeat, the source, of Pangea’s culture machine. Then there are the Attendants. Finally, there is my class. The Deliverers, we live between. We see and live in two worlds. We see the peace of Paradiso, and we see the small microcosm, the world entirely created by Pangea: Purgatorio. That is the realm of the Heroes.

I will familiarize you again with what merely slipped from your mind, occupied as it is with the meaningful demands of your business. As the Deliverer, I watch every child born into my assigned district. I mark them silently, and according to the criteria, carefully discern who are to be Heroes. I write this down in my personal files, and meet the parents clandestinely. I inform them, and console them with an understanding of the high honor Pangea proscribes.

At the proper age, I take the child from their parents. The Her is taken at its first lie. Usually in Paradiso this is not until very old, for humans are raised to strict codes of behavior. But Heroes are different. Lying is in their genes.

I remember my first Hero. Her lie was reported on a cool Monday morning—not too cool, for weather is carefully supervised—and I arrived to apprehend her at seven thirty a.m. Her lie was that she enjoyed waking early. Her personal diary, recorded orally, testified that early mornings made her unhappy. I took her from her parents at eight fifteen a.m. She was three and a half years old.

I took her to the Attendants. She held her storybook close, scared but brave. Her parents had told her they were proud of her. Their ashen faces told her that they were scared. I felt proud for her fortitude. I know why she is a Hero.

For six months she was prepared in Purgatorio. I am not an Attendant, so I had nothing more to do with her. Pangean code suggests Deliverers watch little or nothing of the process after one or two viewings, although the code is not enforced. After that first time, I seldom ever watched.

The child is put on a healthy but strict diet and put through extensive exercise during those six months. Heroes are expected to be in excellent physical condition. She was no different. At the end of the sixth month she was taken from the outer hall of the Purgatorio, to where the final steps are taken inside.

The child is stripped of outer garments, though left with decency and dignity. All hair is removed, down to each eyelash. Then a careful process removes the thinnest layer of skin across the body. This heightens the sensitivity. The instruments are brought out, and the attendant sets to work. The child is given something to bite on.

Usually the damage to the internal organs and the shock of pain kills the Hero within an hour. The process is necessary. It is the only way to generate enough innocent pain. The sciencists tap into the karma program, and for many years enough pain is generated, and enough energy, to produce relief across Pangea. Paradiso is a land of utter pleasure, thanks to the efforts of our noble Heroes. The machine runs on blood, but thankfully just a little is enough, every once in a while.

You seem upset. The emotion in your eyes seems defensive, as if you wish to remind me of all the lives this makes better. You want to point out that this process causes planet-wide healing. You want to ask, isn’t it reasonable to make the entire world better by means of this occasional, routine sacrifice?

Good, that reaction is as expected. You will make an excellent Attendant, just as the culture machine predicted.

The Bells are Ringing: Available On Amazon

The first part of The Saturn Files, “The Bells are Ringing,” is now available as an ebook through Amazon. The story is the last confession of Gerald Portinari, a public relations officer for the Department of Interstellar Research and Development (the unfortunately acronymed DIRT), who sets out to gather information about mining operations on Saturn’s moons. Jerry finds that he might have more than he bargained for by undertaking the expedition when he catches wind that the space station on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, might be haunted, and learns that Freebooters, a criminal syndicate of space pirates, are sometimes a threat even this far out. All of this has been in the news before, but his journal entry reveals memories that suggest Saturn’s profound secret.

A preview is available on Amazon’s site:

If you get a copy and enjoy the story, I would appreciate your honest review!

“The Bells are Ringing” appeared originally in Of Gods and Globes in 2018. The sequel to “The Bells are Ringing,” called “Overcoming the Earth,” will publish in Of Gods and Globes 2 in the Spring of 2020. A prequel to “Bells” and a novella following “Overcoming the Earth” are also under way, so if you like the story there will be more to come in this sci-fi/fantasy world!