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December 29, 1991|Charles Solomon

THE VOICE OF THE MIDDLE AGES: In Personal Letters 1100-1500, edited by Catherine Moriarty (Peter Bedrick Books: $12.95, illustrated). In the age of instantaneous electronic communications, the importance letter-writing once held, both as a vehicle for personal expression and a rhetorical exercise, has largely been forgotten. The poet Petrarch struck a sadly modern note when he recalled the unprecedented numbers taken by the Black Death: "Time has slipped through our fingers, as they say; our former hopes lie buried with our friends. The year 1348 left us solitary and destitute, for it took from us more than the Indus or the Caspian or the Carpathian Sea could ever cover. Such losses are irreparable; there is no medicine for the wounds their death has left us." Conversely, even in his letters to his beloved Heloise, Peter Abelard always remained a brilliant scholastic: He analyzed every argument by dividing it into categories, and cited the classics and Scriptures to bolster his positions. Moriarty provides concise, intelligent commentaries.

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