Top Five Foundational Books for Medieval Studies
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I am a medievalist at the University of Oregon, and this coming Fall, I am participating in a small seminar/article workshop. In discussing the plan of action, our two (fantastic) mentors/guides suggested that we come up with an annotated bibliography of the sources we'd used for the papers and about five works we think all medievalists--no matter what time period they cover--should be familiar with. I have my own preferences, but it's an interesting idea and I wanted to see what everyone else thought. I think some of mine are a bit too narrow in focus, and they mostly center on Britain because I am in the English department. The ones I've come up with so far (subject to change) are:
The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis
Mohammed and Charlemagne, Henri Pirenne
The Making of the Middle Ages, R.W. Southern
Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer
The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor
What say you?
What a wonderful project! I've put your books on my personal to-be-read list and will eagerly await more suggestions.
I note that all five of the works you suggest are by modern historians. Aren't there some books, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, that are also must-reading for medievalists? Or should that be a separate category?
A general book on the history of the plague might be called for, since without the plague, Western Civilization would have evolved differently. The only one that comes to my mind is In the Wake of the Plague by the aforementioned Norman Cantor but I'm sure there are better books out there.
Along the same lines, The Decameron by Boccaccio is a must read for all disciplines, not only for it plague based frame story but also because large pieces of Western Literature were plagiarized from here.
Wow, what a challenging question. I'm in graduate school studying medieval history right now, so it's a good challenge for me to try to answer this. However, how the question is answered is really going to depend on your criteria. Works "all medievalists should be familiar with".... Are we looking for the best in current scholarship, for the most important foundational studies, or for the big classics? I suppose that all medievalists should be familiar with Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne, but only because we should know why it's wrong. No one believes the infamous "Pirenne thesis" any more. (If you aren't familiar with the topic, Pirenne suggested that the reason the "Dark Ages" were "dark" is because the wars started by Muslim conquests stopped trade in the Mediterranean. However, scholars have since realized that the Dark Ages weren't really as dark as we once thought, and there is very little evidence that trade decreased in this period - the most famous refutation of the Pirenne thesis is Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the origins of Europe (touchstone doesn't work), but literally hundreds of articles and books have been written that discount Pirenne). C.S. Lewis's book is a classic, and an enjoyable read, but it's also really outdated - scholars just don't agree with Lewis any more. They're both still very important works, but when you read them in graduate school, it's only so that you can understand why everyone now disagrees with them. That's not to say that medievalists shouldn't know about them, but it is to say that they aren't the most current theories.
I'll have to do some more thinking to come up with a list of 5 books all medievalists should know about, and I'll have to think really hard about whether I should only choose books that are current, or if classic books that are no longer current should also count..... And margad brings up a good point - should we just include modern books, or should we include medieval ones? I think they belong on two separate lists.....
This is an interesting topic. From a somewhat more middle-aged point of view, sometimes we need to read classic works because despite being 'wrong' in their central point or thesis they are often deeply illuminating as well. Also, theories tend to rise and ebb and nonetheless some insight remains.
Just to be clear, I mean to be agreeing with Gwendydd while distinguishing between what is 'safe' to read as a graduate student and what might be more nourishing over the long term. The latter may be harder to discern for a decade or two.
Good points, all. My list was just a starting point, and I think that even if I do include classics that are wrong, I should probably just include one--probably Lewis's.
As for Boccaccio and Chaucer, those would definitely be different categories. What I was asking about was secondary sources, but now it's gotten me to thinking about primary sources, too. So let's break it into two questions (with full knowledge that five primary sources is most likely an unanswerable question, but let's pretend for a little while).
Beowulf (Chickering's facing-page edition, if we're being really specific)
Canterbury Tales (Riverside Chaucer) or The Decameron
Morte D'arthur (Vinaver's two-volume edition)
The Divine Comedy
Roman de la Rose
Does anyone have a copy of Inventing the Middle Ages handy? I seem to remember it being a good overview of many of the works whose shadows loomed large over Medieval studies.
Just trying to add a touchstone that wouldn't load in #4: Mohammed, Charlemagne & the origins of Europe: archaeology and the Pirenne thesis by Richard Hodges. Interesting, it still won't load...
Other books to consider are:
The Waning of the Middle Ages, by John Huizinga
The King's Two Bodies by Ernst Kantorwitz
Hmmm... No Titles want to load.
(Edited for spelling...)
I don't know. I think I disagree for a few reasons. I don't think the Exeter Book is a work per se. It's a collection of works that happened to be bound together.
How would unsolvable riddles, chronicles, Deor, or the Wanderer be considered foundational? How are any of them more important to medieval studies than the contents of the Nowell Codex: Beowulf and Judith (not to mention some of Alfred's translations and travel writing)?
A book I might recommend on education in the Middle Ages is The Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages by David L Wagner. There are major essays on each of the seven: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic (logic), (the first three are the trivium), arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (last four are the quadrivium).
For a deep look at Southern France in the 14th century, there is Montaillou, the promised land of error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. This deals with The Cathars and their persecution, but a lot of daily life was revealed in the trials of the heretics. But this, I think, could only be a secondary text.
The stuff of Charlemagne and Islam is the stuff of the "Matter of France". How Europe and the West deals with Empire and how it deals with Islam are still relevant topics today. I guess the The Song of Roland is the premier epic out of the time.
Then there is the more romantic "Matter of Britain" dealing with the history and legends surrounding King Arthur.
I have been following Norman Cantor's short list of 14 titles from his Civilization of the Middle Ages which will "make you well-informed on the subject..around the faculty lunch table." They are as follows:
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo
Richard Krautheimer, Rom Profile of a City, 312-1308
George Duby, Early Growth of the European Economy
John Marenbon, Early Medieval Philosophy
Pierre Riche, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne
Marc Bloch, Feudal Society
Johnathan Riley-Smith, A Short History of the Crusades
R. W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages
Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket
David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought
Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State
Jeffrey Richards, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages
E. LeRoy Ladurie, Montaillou
Donald Howard, Chaucer
It does seem that one should have a good understanding of each period and the issues involved during that time. I am reading Bede's Ecclesiastical History and find it amazing how much travel and activity were going on (at least in the Church) in the depths of the "dark ages" in 700AD. Reading characteristic original sources such as Bede or Gregory of Tours gives you a good sense of the period.
In defense of the Exeter Book, you are right, t does contains things that just happened to be bound together. What makes it such a great resource is that it not only has ubi sunt themed poetry but town records. It has agricultural records and treasury records, both of which are indespensable resources when you talk about trading and economics in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Beowulf is frequently read in high school, a time where many great works can be ruined by well meaning, but misguided teaching. If you start teaching the Exeter book, no one has preconceived notions about the work and can start learning about pre-1066 England with a clean slate.
I see your point re the Exeter Book, and I guess my argument--were I to pursue it--would lead me into the perilous world of what is "literature" and what is not. I think that ubi sunt elegies are important, but I don't think ag. records and exchequer rolls are literature. But, like I said, I'm not prepared to support that statement with anything more than pointing to traditional genres to define "literature." I guess it depends on how postmodern one is.
Do you mean teaching the EB in high schools or in medieval studies programs in college? I wasn't sure from your post.
Is The King's Two Bodies about the body politic? That might be very interesting! Is it focused on Britain or the Continent (or both)?
Is Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages a history of the medieval period or a history of medievalism? I haven't read it, but I have heard about it, and I thought that's what I'd heard. Anyone know?
Cantor's "Inventing the Middle Ages" is about modern medievalists - it's a very amusing read as Cantor voices strong opinions on some of his colleagues or predecessors. However, I found the account very subjective and it is in my view not a good introduction to the Middle Ages nor an essential read.
# 18, yes prehensel, Kantorowicz' book is about the medieval->early modern monarchist 'body politic'. It is a study of how (ultimately) Christian concepts and sensibilities were superimposed on political ones. In the epilogue he allows that in pagan times one could find something similar to this process but asserts that the medieval-Christian episode ultimately derives from biblical sources. It has been decades since I've read this but I believe he is interested in both the Continent and Britain.
#20 - udo, I think I better clarify my suggestion about checking out Inventing the Middle Ages.
You're absolutely right that it really doesn't qualify as a foundational book in Medieval Studies. I was thinking more that if anyone had a copy handy, it would be a good resource to find out which writers Cantor believes were important modern Medievalists. Just off the top of my head, I remember that Cantor mentions John Huizinga, Ernst Kantorwitz and Marc Bloch, all of whom have been mentioned in this thread. I think I should have been more clear about why I brought it up. Sorry about that.
I know that you've already suggested one book by C.S. Lewis, and we wouldn't want to stack the deck, but I think The Discarded Image ought to be considered. It knocked my socks off when I read it. Not only is it beautifully written, but nearly every page was illuminated by fascinating insights.
The subject of the book, for those who don't know, is medieval science and its relationship to literature of the period.
I want to second #15 (mcstatton) on the value and enjoyment of reading a primary narrative source like Bede or Einhard. And oh my, I've only read six of the fourteen books I need ... smile
Hi twarcorbies, You are right - the authors that Cantor mentions are all quite influental medievalists. If I remember correctly he has also a chapters on Southern and Percy Ernst Schramm. Schramm had a strange career - he was the official staff diarist of the German High Command during WWII and witness at the Nuremberg trial. Cantor does a lot of Schramm-bashing in his chapter "The Nazi Twins". Schramm published several books and many essays on medieval political symbolism and ritual such as coronation rituals etc. Almost none of those works are listed (yet) on LT - probably because they have not been translated into English.
I'm not sure what - to look at the original question by prehensel a 'foundational book' is? Responses have suggested both medieval works and commentaries and histories.
In the first category William Langland should be included The vision of Piers Plowman is an important source for, among other things, the study of poverty in C14th England.
In terms of commentaries Jacques Le Goff is currently editing The Making of Europe series which has produced twenty studies of various aspects of Medieval Europe, as well as his own Medieval Civilization 400-1500 & The Birth of Europe both translated from the French.
Norman Cohn who died last month, 1915-2007 wrote a number of key commentaries on the Middle Ages. The best known is The pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages, 1957 - and still in print.
Emily, in theory I think you are correct with one caveat: over a life lived, each of those things is a Work with a capital W. However, in the narrow confines of the question posed, I would have to say that each "work" would need to remain a book. Unless you have been educated, you cannot gaze on an illuminated manuscript with more than a base longing and an easy appreciation for something you consider beautiful. Understanding the symbolism included as well as the historical, religious, and political implications are key to a full appreciation. With a little knowledge and the same document it is as though your mind were illuminated. Iconography is a dim shadow of itself without understanding. A stained glass window as art is one thing, a stained glass window as a teaching tool is nothing without some sort of instruction to accompany; and in the case of the stated purpose, basic education is most definitely the object.
And as a side note to your last plea, we have to study these things specifically because it is the 21st century. We are not fully appreciative of medieval thought, design, architecture, art, religion until we study them. We do not think as they thought.
33Beauregard First Message
I would approach the problem a bit differently (and will thus be an apple to your original orange query)! NOT in order of importance, if the major themes of the Middle Ages are: a) the economic/social structure, b) disease/famine, c) alterity, the view and treatment of those not incorporated into the society, d) religion in all its aspects, and e) war, then I think the choices might be a bit different.
As to war, I simply do not know of any really good book dealing with it as a subject, rather than as a specific event. (There are several good new books out on Roman warfare, but that's a bit early.) For the other listings, I might suggest the following: Mark Cohen, Under Crescent & Cross; Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger; Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death; Laura Gowing, Common Bodies (Hanawalt's books are also excellent); Valerie Flint, The Rise of Magic; Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium; Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex; Bill Jordan, The Great Famine (it has some tedious spots but is invaluable). I would also recommend a book just out, Alexandra Cuffel, Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic. This by no means covers the topics, but at least it gets you a bit of distance from literature, although I am surprised that no one has mentioned Tasso and the other late medieval romances.
Anyway, cheers. Beauregard
Of course, you could always read the five books with King Alfred thought were essential for all people in his time:
Gregory's Regula Pastoralis and Dialogues
Orosius's History against the Pagans
Augustine's Confessions and City of God and Soliloquies
Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Of course, that leaves out Beowulf
Dante's Divine Comedy
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or Troilus & Cresaide
Marie de France and Chretien de Troyes Arthurian
Boccacio's Decameron and Tessiad
Andreas Cappellanus Art of Courtly Love
and Guillame de Loris and Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose
Augustine really has to be in there, too
Actually, this could be fun: divide and subdivide --
David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity
Paul Strohm, Social Chaucer, Hochon's Arrow
Robertson, A Preface to Chaucer
Donaldson Speaking of Chaucer
Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics
Patterson, Lee Chaucer and the Subject of History
Mann, Jill Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire
Whoops! that is seven. Five is just impossible.
Wonderful selections. The only one I can't recommend is the CS Lewis, but only because I haven't read it :)
Additions I would consider:
The Historians Craft by Marc Bloch.
The Birth of the Western Economy by Robert Latouche
Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World by Robert Lopez.
I'd have to re-scan the above two to be able to see which one was better.
Edited to add Women in the Middle Ages by the brother Gies. Not because their book is good; but exactly the opposite. Their book on medieval women is exemplary of what historians should NOT do.
Sigh... I love this thread. It has added about 50 books to my mental TBR list.
Some more, I didn't see yet:
Robert Bartlett: The making of Europe
Michael McCormick: Origins of the European economy
Robert S. Lopez: The commercial revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350
Edwin S. Hunt & James M. Murray: A history of Business in Medieval Europe
Norman Cohn: Europe's inner demons
R.I. Moore: The formation of a persecuting society
Jonathan Riley-Smith: The Crusades: A History(among others by Riley Smith)
Donald E. Queller: The Fourth Crusade
books by Thomas F. Madden
When I was in grad school (medieval history), we had a list of 38 books for our "major field" written exams. And then there were the individual lists developed for our specialization fields. No five books, or 10 or 15 or even 20 are really going to "cover" the Middle Ages.
But here are five books I think are really useful in getting at some things I find crucial, particularly for those ways in which medieval people really weren't like us. I couldn't do without any of these books:
Marc Bloch, Feudal Society. More than 60 years old, but still brilliant.
Herbert Grundmann, Religious Movements of the Middle Ages. Ditto.
Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
Walter Ullmann, Medieval Political Thought
Christopher Dawson, Making of Europe
There are many other books that I use a lot -- books by Jacques Le Goff, Joseph Strayer, R. I. Moore, Richard Southern, Jean Gimpel -- but I couldn't really function without those five. Or without my Dictionary of Popes or my Dictionary of Saints.
Nobody's mentioned Wolfram von Eschenbach 's Parzival as a primary source, which has to be the most humanistic of all the Arthurian romances.
And what about Murasaki's Tale of Genji -- surely medieval, if not Western, and the first world novel.
C.S. Lewis 's Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love may be a bit outdated but I agree that the insights are invaluable.
On a side note, Menocal 's Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (The Middle Ages Series) is a much needed corrective for the Euro-centric vision of medieval studies -- and Pirenne.
This is a fantastic thread... I studies medieval history for a few years but had to give it up, and recently decided to devote more spare time to it. So I am looking for a good base of information.
Personally I like the Short Oxford History books on various periods and locations (for example: Italy in the Early Middle Ages: 476-1000 (Short Oxford History of Italy). I haven't seen them here in this list (maybe they are a bit too specific for a general introduction) but I would love to know what you think... Johan Huizinga and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie are already on my list, and more are being added through this toppic, great!
Even though it's a bit dated (first published 1924 if I'm not mistaken), I do think every medievalist should still read The Waning of the Middle Ages.
I was able to narrow my list down to ten, with difficulty.
Two Lives Of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker The Stammerer
Chronicles Of The Crusades by Joinville and Villehardouin
Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous
The Song Of Roland by Anonymous
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso*
Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto*
Arab Historians Of The Crusades by Francesco Gabrieli
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf
*renaissance epics based on the medieval period.
Well, at least you include Southern. I'm not familiar with the Pirenne book, but it's earlier than my main focus(12th and 13th century HRE and Scandinavia).
I don't know about The King's Two Bodies, which I somehow haven't gotten around to, but if you read his bio of Fredrick II, you need to read one like Abulafia's to balance the romanticised view of him. (Fred is MY emperor! 8-)
And isn't Huizinga also a bit outdated?
Yes, Huizinga is dated - but like Burckhardt it's a classic, and if you're interested in late medieval culture (especially Burgundian) it still has much to offer.
Beowulf in high school can destroy it for many students, because it's usually done using some outdated translation by someone who often only knows it from translation, not the original, and spends just enough time on it to make it boring.
Oh, yes! Bunke's Courtly Culture is so good that after ILLing it, I bought my own copy 8-)
> 49 : Yeah, plus it's usually by translators more interested in linguistics than either history or literature.
This is an old thread but I've been meaning to put in my contribution for a while now. I've thought about what makes a good book and when it comes down to it, if it's a contemporary source it needs to be hugely influential. If it's secondary it has to be about an extremely important - almost essential - topic, and above all it has to be well footnoted and have a very good bibliography so the book can lead you to others. Anyway, here are my five with a brief explanation:
The City of God Against the Pagans by Augustine of Hippo - The Church was the single most influential organization throughout the Middle Ages and this is the single most important work as far as influencing religious thought - at least until Aquinas. Get an edition that's well annotated and has a good introduction discussing why it was written.
The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg - The best book I've read regarding how intellectual thought evolved over the Medieval Period.
The Origins of the European Economy by Michael McCormick - While it only covers the period to 900 it's a monumental undertaking regarding trade, social and economic interactions and exchange systems.
A History of the Byzantine State and Society by Warren Treadgold - Have to have at least one work on the Eastern Empire and just because it's newer and has access to more recent scholarship (and more current footnotes and bibliography) I'll go with this over Ostrogorsky.
Now comes the hard part - getting that "The Fifth Book" at the exclusion of all others. My candidates include Brundage's Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, Malcolm Lambert's Medieval Heresy (can't touchstone this for some reason), Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom which, despite its title is NOT about the evolution of religion, Riley-Smith's book on the Crusades and several books I haven't read - Michael Clanchy's From Memory to Written Record is supposed to be good and details how society evolved from oral to written and a good book on the renaissance or even the Reformation (I have one by Cameron) would sure be useful - plus we haven't even gotten to warfare. For a primary source, Aquinas' Summa is monumentally influential, as was Dante. And I've just finished - and loved - Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages.
Ultimately though, using my original criteria, Book number 5 is Susan Reynolds' Fiefs and Vassals. There are so many widely held and very wrong beliefs about social structures in the Medieval period and this is a good starting point at learning about them. Plus it's meticulously researched and footnoted.
So there are my 5.
52:Is there actually a half decent medieval military history? The sources I've come across basically shrugg and say that there isn't anything good.
Best overview I've read is Contamine's War in the Middle Ages. And it's pretty general. The better ones all deal with a specific, narrow period and geographic area/king/leader. Bachrach's Early Carolingian Warfare, Rogers' War Cruel and Sharp: English Strategy Under Edward III and Michael Prestwich's Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience are three examples I'm familiar with.
There were about as many ways of fighting/conducting war as there were Kings over the 1500 years - hard to write anything useful that covers the whole period.
>47 erilarlo: I actually loved The King's Two Bodies. I took a course in "Medieval Politics" and it was my favorite out of all the other books we read.
I agree with cemanuel that Fiefs and Vassals is a must read for presenting an alternate view of the system a lot of people take for granted.
I have From Memory to Written Record and although I remember it being useful at the time, I don't remember much about it.
The Black Death by Philip Ziegler is a good supplement to In the Wake of the Plague
I'd like to revive this thread. Google search brought me here, and it's the liveliest, most helpful discussion I've found. Sadly, it's also quite old. So, if anyone spots this, and in particular professional medievalists, have the last eight years or so seen anything come into print that belongs here? Or anything with narrower focus that's excellent enough to warrant mention?
>59 theoria: You mean the Le Goff who claimed to write the definitive history of The Birth of Purgatory, only to completely ignore the women who developed its earliest and most lively accounts? (Hildegard described it in extensive detail decades before Le Goff managed to find the first male writer to do so.)
While the Frenchmen have their place in the scholarship, it must be a circumscribed place that recognizes how utterly distorted their visions of the Middle Ages were.
See this other thread for an additional set of recommendations: https://www.librarything.com/topic/128770
And a good list to peruse would be the winners of the Medieval Academy's Haskins Medals: http://www.librarything.com/bookaward/Haskins+Medal
>60 nathanielcampbell: "While the Frenchmen have their place in the scholarship, it must be a circumscribed place that recognizes how utterly distorted their visions of the Middle Ages were."
Historians don't share your opinion, which is obviously biased.
Amin Maalouf's "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" provides a different perspective on the crusades. Besides being an entertaining book, it is very much relevant to current events.
Here is my list, mostly of EARLY Medieval to Mid-Late periods, with some pre-history up top.
1. The Farfarers, Farley Mowat
2. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, HR Ellis Davidson
3. The Battle That Stopped Rome, Peter S. Wells
4. The Origins of the English People, Beram Saklatvala
5. Barbarians to Angels, Peter S. Wells
6. Rome in the Dark Ages, Peter Llewellyn
7. Gateway to the Middle Ages: Monastacism, Eleanor Shipley Duckett
8. A History of Gaul, Fr. Funck-Brentano
9. St. Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman
10. Alfred the Great, Eleanor Shipley Duckett
11. Death and Life in the Tenth Century, Eleanor Shipley Duckett
12. Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England, Compton Reeves
13. The Age of Arthur, John Morris
This last one I list spuriously. It was widely discredited on its release, and somewhat damaged the reputation of Prof. Morris as a serious scholar, but it is a very fascinating book. Its most serious sin is taking all its medieval sources somewhat seriously as he formulates a larger tapestry and inference of the reign of a historical Arthur. More recent writers of their respective times, Peter S. Wells and Farley Mowat among them (two of the best) also offer imaginative pictures interspersed with their scholarly material.
Absolutely no reader of Medieval History should be without one of the sturdiest and long-lasting voices of history:
14. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
I generally stay away from "large picture" books about Medieval Times because that designation itself contains so much. Nobody would conflate Dryden's England with Austen's or Trollope's, yet those authors are closer historically than Bede and Langland.
There is another book I have ordered, on its way called "The Discovery of Middle Earth," which is not about Tolkien, but about the Celtic cosmology.
The Making of Textual Culture : 'Grammatica' and Literary Theory, 350-1100
by Martin Irvine; 1994, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press ; 604 pp., illustrated, with endnotes, bibliography and an index of names and authors
from Irvine, at page 126,
* (Servius Marius Honoratus)
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