Wisdom literature and medieval bestsellers
in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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This chapter tracks the fate of a particular category of literature that was popular then and is not now: wisdom literature. Works such as Barlaam and Josaphat, Kalilah and Dimnah, the Book of Secundus and the Seven Sages of Rome were widely read in the pre-modern world in both Arabic and a variety of western European languages. Then gradually, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, they vanished. Modern scholars have generally assumed that readers’ tastes changed. These works are all categorised as ‘wisdom literature’, and modern readers seek entertainment, not wisdom, in their leisure reading. But this account is incomplete, in part because each of these works has a distinct ethical footprint. Barlaam and Josaphat talks about religion and society. Kalilah and Dimnah focuses on the wiles of ministers or those who serve men in power. The Book of Secundus is an analytical wordlist of key terms used to describe the natural world, religion and society. And the Seven Sages of Rome is a tangled knot of sexual mores, investigating the games played by men and women, the tension between older and younger men, and the difficulty of establishing trust between men and women and between the young and the old. This chapter asks what ‘wisdom’ looks like in pre-modern literature, and why modern audiences have stopped reading these works.

Bestsellers and masterpieces

The changing medieval canon

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