Medieval Wisdom for 2020

Medieval Wisdom for 2020

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By Danièle Cybulskie

Although it’s only half over, 2020 has been a challenging year for us all, with COVID-19 looming over us and taking some of our loved ones from us; with the necessary precautions we must take keeping us isolated and apart; with the difficult work we face together dismantling systemic racism; and with the consistent concerns of the everyday (global and personal) in the background. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

With all of this going on, it may be hard to take a moment to find wisdom and hope in the chaos, but what is both terrible and inspiring is that humans have faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges before and have survived to learn from them. Most of the simplest lessons we pass on to each other are rooted in deep truths that stand the test of time. So, if we need to find hope, why not look to the past?

The Book of the Civilized Man (Urbanus Magnus) is a twelfth-century advice manual credited to Daniel of Beccles which covers everything from how to behave yourself and be a good Christian, to how to best serve your lord in the garderobe. It’s a text both wise and hilarious, and worth a read all on its own. But amongst the very common medieval advice against trusting women or towards being a good servant, Daniel has some very good advice that we could probably take a minute to breathe in this year. So, without further ado, here is some medieval wisdom from Urbanus Magnus to help us in 2020.

On Injustice

If you want to be rude to someone, take a close look at who you are, whom you are speaking to, and what their circumstances are.

A tongue lack bones, yet it breaks bones whenever it is used.

The apples you eat are all shaped by the tree from which they grow.

If fickle Fortune favours you, fortuitous one, do not mock those bereft by her.

It is a compliment when wicked people speak ill of the good.

If anyone threatens those near him with cruel misfortunes, or if someone wicked cruelly holds sway over his neighbours, kicking and clawing, and cultivating wickedness among them, stand up to thwart his evil violence alongside the neighbours.

Do not oppress anyone for sport.


If you are laid low by a weight of illness, consult trustworthy physicians.

When you have consulted them, follow their medical advice.

Spears that you see coming will often miss their targets.

You do not know who has just risen from their sickbeds.

Do not cool hot food with your breath; crumble bread into it and stir it, if you like, with crusts or a spoon.

There should not be any spitting across the table.

If you live in a cloister, do not be an unpleasant companion.

When you get up in the morning, wash your hands in cold water, walk back and forth a little, and stretch your limbs a little. Comb your hair and clean your teeth. These things invigorate the brain and strengthen the other organs.

Enjoy delightful music from time to time. Look for things that are good for you.

An owner does not know what he owns until he no longer owns it.

General Things to Remember

Offer relief to the hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, wandering, and imprisoned in whatever way will set them right.

Most people recognize a friend in the smallest things.

If you are a leader of the people, do not lead the people astray.

A stupid person will stupidly explain his stupid deeds.

Let the end game of your life be transparent.

And Finally… Remember This:

After a hardship, exhausted people often find good fortune overflowing. Hope in unfavourable situations is the most important road to recovery.

Although I’ve organized these my own way, all quotes are from the brilliant The Book of the Civilised Man: An English Translation of the Urbanus Magnus of Daniel of Beccles by Fiona Whelan, Olivia Spenser, and Francesca Petrizzo.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Top Image: Detail from Tree of Virtues and Vices – British Library Additional MS 30024 fol. 2

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