By Cait Stevenson
We all know that for a book to get noticed it needs a catchy title. Apparently, in the Middle Ages authors could think of some really great titles too! Here are ten of the best.
Flowing Light of the Godhead
This is the typical English translation for the sprawling work of mystical theology written by Mechthild of Magdeburg, a thirteenth-century independent holy woman. Mechthild uses imagery even more striking than the title, which she says came from the same source. According to the introduction, God told her to call the book A Light of My Godhood Flowing into All the Hearts of Those Who Live Without Falsehood. Her Latin translators took “without falsehood” as, essentially, “People of the Truth.” With any of these titles in any language, I think I’ll allow it.
The Excursion of the One Who Longs to Penetrate the Horizons
At the Norman court in Sicily, Muhammad al-Idrisi sadly had to watch his poetic title become the Kitab al-Rujer or Tabula Rogeriana: Roger’s Book. This is Idrisi’s geographic magnum opus, the book that takes the armchair traveler to the very edges of the known world.
Hildegard of Bingen’s second visionary treatise sounds like a bad self-help book, yes. …Until you crack it open and realize it is a massive, multi-pronged vision of purgatory playing out over the entire surface of the Earth, in clouds of dire punishments and some of the best personifications of sins in medieval literature.
That’s when you want to switch to the alternate translation of the title: Book of the Rewards of Life.
Garden of Delights
The English translation of Hortus deliciarum is a lovely name for a wonderful book, there’s no question. It was written and beautifully illustrated by abbess Herrad of Hohenburg and the sisters of her convent in the twelfth century, and it was an encyclopedia including songs that were rather revolutionary for their time. The title is, dare I say, delightful. But don’t you wish that just for one day, we could call it The Garden of Deliciousness?
A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling
Really, medieval England? Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta gives us this title, and all you can come up with is The Book of John Mandeville?
Is it cheating to put a book fully intended to be funny and fun on this list? Not if it’s an eleventh-century anthology of stories and advice written by legal scholar, Islamic historian, and preacher al-Khatib al-Baghdadi…and modelled after a collection of hadith.
The Hanging Poems
This is an important collection of early Arabic poetry—yes, Arabic, not Islamic. They were preserved in order to shed light on the dialect and era of Arabic used in the Qur’an. It’s not clear in what sense the title means by “hanging,” so I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Sunday Sermons Sufficiently Useful to All Priests, Which Are Called “Sleep Securely” or “Sleep Without Care” Because without Great Effort, They Can Be Easily Learned and Preached to the People
The title already answers your question: is this book essentially a cheat sheet so priests won’t have to pull all-nighters? Yes, yes it is.
(Okay, technically medieval preaching from sermon books was more complicated than that. The Dormi secure, as it is called, is in Latin, which means the preacher would have to translate it into the vernacular, and then add their own little stories called “exempla” to illustrate the various points. So we’re probably talking more than a few all-nighters anyway.)
My mind desperately wants this to be a sci-fi novel, or perhaps a book written by an American white male in the 21st century that purports to say Important Things About the Human Condition and will naturally win all the book awards. But no, it’s by ibn Rushd (Averroes), and it argues that the philosophy of Aristotle can and should be used by scholars of Islamic law.
Lights Lofty of Form to Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids
I promise this is not an “educational” TV documentary. I promise there are no aliens. This thirteenth-century book is Abu Jafar al-Idrisi’s rigorous investigation of ancient Egypt and its role in medieval Muslims’ imagination, and it has been called the most advanced Egyptological work until modern times.
Really. I promise.
Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. Click here to read more from Cait.
Top Image: British Library MS Additional 11639 f. 116