This volume contains a selection of the major essays written over a period of three decades by a distinguished scholar of eighteenth-century English literature. In each essay, Professor Landa attempts to show how cultural and intellectual assumptions and presuppositions of the age have been assimilated into the literary works.
Originally published in 1980.
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Essays in Medieval Culture
By D. W. Robertson Jr.
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
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I am still of the opinion that "modern aesthetic systems, economic philosophies, or psychological theories," being features of the universe of discourse, and not of the realm of things, do not exist before they are formulated, and that their validity or "truth" is confined to fairly restricted areas of space and time. However, certain details in this essay need correction. I no longer think that charity and cupidity are "opposites," since love is basically a motion of the will toward something and varies in nature with the character of its object. Man's "quest," moreover, is not "eternal." The word levels applied to tropological, allegorical, and anagogical interpretations is convenient but misleading. The meaning ascribed to the primrose in "The Maid of the Moor" is perhaps dubious. The flower mentioned may simply be an early rose. The fact that the song was not relished by a Franciscan Bishop, adduced by opponents of this interpretation, does not convince me that it is "pagan," "lewd," or superstitious. Many Franciscans preferred literal piety.
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BY "Historical Criticism" I understand that kind of literary analysis which seeks to reconstruct the intellectual attitudes and the cultural ideals of a period in order to reach a fuller understanding of its literature. In actual practice not much criticism of this kind has been written. Although die literary historian sometimes ventures into the realm of historical criticism, he is usually preoccupied with purely literary rather than with intellectual traditions. He seeks to establish texts, to date them, to attribute them to the proper authors, and to determine literary sources and influences. The historian of ideas frequently centers his attention on a single thought pattern so that his materials apply to literature either in a very general way or only to isolated passages. And in recent years the literary critic has tended to avoid historical materials altogether, reacting against the accumulation of historical information which sheds no immediate light on the texts he wishes to study. The historical critic, or at least the kind of historical critic I wish to speak of today, has a healthy respect for the work of the literary historian, which is a necessary basis for his own work. Unlike the historian of ideas, who centers on single topics, he attempts to form a workable conception of the intellectual background of a period as a whole, so that the various ideas he has to deal with may be considered in perspective. Meanwhile, he shares the respect of the literary critic for the artistic integrity of the works with which he has to deal, but he looks with some misapprehension on the tendency of the literary critic to regard older literature in the light of modern aesthetic systems, economic philosophies, or psychological theories. He feels that such systems, whatever their value may be, do not exist before they are formulated. In this paper I wish to discuss certain aspects of medieval intellectual history and literary theory and to show that a knowledge of these things contributes to a better understanding of medieval texts. Since this discussion must be presented in a relatively short time, I may be excused for a certain amount of oversimplification.
First of all, medieval literature was produced in a world dominated intellectually by the church. Too frequently, modern historians have tended to deplore this fact rather than to make a sincere effort to understand it. Neither the church nor the doctrine it sought to teach was exactly like anything existing in the world today, for the rigorous Augustinian Christianity of the Middle Ages has been softened and sentimentalized in almost all modern churches. Whatever it may mean to the historian, the dominance of the church in the Middle Ages considerably simplifies the task of the historical critic. Although the period witnessed an enormous theological development, especially after the middle of the twelfth century, certain doctrines remained constant, the common heritage of every civilized individual for more than a thousand years of European history. The most important of these constants is the doctrine of charity. Some knowledge of this doctrine is essential to an understanding either of medieval history in general or of medieval literature in particular. Since the word "charity" has lost most of its old content today, some explanation of it here may be helpful. Charity, briefly, is the New Law which Christ brought so that mankind might be saved. Under the Old Law, which Piers Plowman tears in half to the astonishment of literary historians, salvation was not possible. The New Law does not replace the Old Law, but simply vivifies it, and all of the Old Law is implicit in the New. It may be stated very simply, but like most simple statements it is not easy to understand. Love God and thy neighbor. For most of us, including myself, the love of God is a very difficult concept, and I shall not attempt to explain it except to say that, very roughly, the medieval love of God is the equivalent of a modern faith in the perfectibility of mankind. God, as St. John says, is charity. Love of one's neighbor does not imply love of man for his own sake, but love of man for the sake of God, for his nobility in reason. Man should be loved for his humanity, and this humanity consists of that part of him which distinguishes him from the beasts, his reason. To be human and lovable in the Middle Ages was to be reasonable, for reason is the Image of God in man. It is vain to seek "humanism" of any other kind in medieval literature, except in that written by avowed heretics. To love a man for physical, romantic, or sentimental reasons is to indulge in the opposite of charity.
The opposite of charity is cupidity, the love of one's self or of any other creature — man, woman, child, or inanimate object — for the sake of the creature rather than for the sake of God. Just as charity is the source of all the virtues, cupidity is the source of all the vices and is responsible for the discontents of civilization. The two loves, both of which inflame, and both of which make one humble, are accompanied by two fears. Charity, like wisdom, begins with the fear of the Lord; and the fear of earthly misfortune leads to cupidity and ultimately to despair and damnation. These two loves and their accompanying fears are the criteria by means of which all human actions, individual or social, are to be evaluated. To use a common figure, charity builds the city of Jerusalem, and cupidity builds the city of Babylon. Man is a pilgrim or exile in a Babylonian world who should journey toward the eternal peace of Jerusalem. The world and the things in it are given to him to be used for the purposes of this journey or voyage; they are not to be enjoyed in themselves. Jerusalem was thought of as existing within the human heart, in the church or in society, and in the after life, and the pilgrimage of the spirit had to be made, as Will learns in Piers Plowman, first within one's self. It is frequently said that medieval man kept his eyes directed toward the after life, but this is an exaggeration. He did engage, or propose to engage, on an eternal quest for Jerusalem, but this quest was individual and social as well as other worldly. It is as if in the modern world we were able to discuss the goal of personal effort, of social effort, and of religious effort in a single terminology, and to come to an agreement about the general meaning of that terminology.
This opposition between the two loves, or the two cities, is fundamental to an understanding of medieval Christianity, throughout the thousand years of its history. Naturally, the specific elaborations and applications of this doctrine varied with the course of time, so that the historical critic finds it necessary to consider a given literary work in the light of contemporary theological developments. Thus, for example, the poem known as "The Debate of the Body and the Soul" was written as a part of a concerted effort to popularize the sacrament of Penance, which began with the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. A few books will establish a frame of reference for the most significant aspects of this development. Generally, for the earlier Middle Ages, the most useful works in which widely accepted doctrinal elaborations of charity may be found are the De doctrina christiana of St. Augustine, his Civitas Dei, and the De clericorum institutione of Rabanus Maurus. In addition, the De consolatione of Boethius contains what was throughout the entire course of the Middle Ages the most popular philosophical elaboration of Augustinian doctrine. This work has recently been called "the last purified legacy of the ancient world," but the ancient aspects of the book are merely formal. It is, rather, a section of the preface to the medieval world. Most of this preface was written not by Boethius, but by St. Augustine. For the later Middle Ages the most fundamental work is the Sententiae of Peter Lombard, which was for some four hundred years the standard textbook of theological study. The De sacramentis and the Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor contain many ideas which are highly significant to an understanding of both theological and literary developments. After the middle of the thirteenth century, it is necessary to follow three distinct types of theology: Dominican, Franciscan, and secular. Both the Dominicans and the Franciscans collected and wrote poetry, each order developing its own literary traditions. And the seculars inspired some of the most famous writers of the later Middle Ages, such as Jean de Meun, Chaucer, and the author of Piers Plowman. For Dominican attitudes nothing can replace the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, although this work should not be used as a guidebook to medieval theology generally. Franciscan attitudes are accessible in the works of St. Bonaventura, which are available in a magnificent modern edition. The secular theologians, who should be of special interest to students of English, are poorly represented in modern editions. William of St. Amour, the founder of the late secular tradition, has received little attention from modern scholars, but the quodlibets of one of his successors, Godefroid de Fontaines, are now available in an excellent edition published at Louvain. Meanwhile, the thirteenth century witnessed the growth of a large body of pastoral theology, surviving in records of church councils. Here it is possible to find the abstract principles of theology applied to the concrete realities of everyday life. A new edition of the English councils is now being prepared.
All of this theological activity centered on the study of the Bible, for the ultimate purpose of study of all kinds was either the interpretation of the Sacred text or the application of the principles it contains. Since the Bible was also a model and source book for literature, it is necessary for the historical critic of medieval literature to familiarize himself with the conventions of Scriptural exegesis. A few of the elementary principles may be examined here. In the first place, the Bible was said to teach nothing but charity and to condemn nothing but cupidity. But large portions of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, express the message of charity in an obscure way. When this message is not apparent on the surface, it was thought necessary to resort to interpretation. For the purposes of this task, various techniques were employed, some of them verbal and some of them physical. Names might be interpreted to imply a kind of word play. Thus, "Jerusalem" was said to consist of two elements meaning "City of Peace." Most of the names, both of persons and of places, which appear in the Bible were interpreted in this way, and in addition all the machinery of classical rhetoric was brought to bear on the text. The physical techniques are a little more difficult for us to understand. Numbers were thought to be signs of abstract concepts. Thus, "three" and "nine" are signs of the Trinity; "seven" is the number of life on earth or of the church; "eight" indicates the Resurrection or Christ. Many of the things mentioned in the Bible were thought of as signs of other things. Thus, a lion, not the word "lion," is a sign either of Christ or of Satan. As in this instance, such signs frequently embrace two opposites. A sign, as opposed to a verbal figure, might have tropological, allegorical, or anagogical values — sometimes one of these, sometimes two, and sometimes all three. In other words, a principle stated in signs or implied by a sign might apply to the individual, to society or the church, and to the after life. This procedure is not quite so "mystical" as it sounds. All that is meant by it ultimately is that a given precept or principle may apply equally well within man, within society, or within Heaven or Hell. A good example is afforded by "Jerusalem." Verbally, it means "City of Peace." But since Jerusalem is an actual city as well as a word, it is also a sign. As a sign it indicates the highest kind of human satisfaction, whether in the individual, in society, or in Heaven. The values of a given sign might be numerous. In the first place, a sign may have four levels of meaning. If we include the opposites, there are eight. And some signs might have several basic meanings, so that they imply several sets of eight somewhat different values. Theoretically an object may have as many meanings as it has characteristics in common with other objects in the universe, but practically the better known signs are limited by the contexts in which they appear in Scripture. For purposes of clarity, I shall speak of verbal symbols as "figures" and of physical symbols as "signs." The importance attached to this kind of analysis in the Middle Ages is attested by the fact that the trivium was devoted to the analysis of figures and the quadrivium to the analysis of signs. Medieval encyclopedias, the De universo of Rabanus Maurus, for example, are largely devoted to the exegetical meanings of figures and signs. And in the twelfth century, a number of exegetical dictionaries were published, giving the most common values for figures and signs in the Bible. One of these was written by a poet, Alanus de Insulis.
Much of the Bible was thus thought of as having a "cortex," or level of surface meaning, covering a "nucleus" of truth. The task of the exegete was to strip the cortex away by interpreting the figures and signs, so that the nucleus might be revealed. No one looked upon the obscurity of the Bible as an evil; on the contrary, it was thought to be highly advantageous. First, the determination of the inner meaning required an exercise of the mind which tends to discourage both contempt for the text and laziness. Again, one arrived at the nucleus with something of the pleasure of a discovery. To paraphrase St. Augustine on this point, that which is acquired with difficulty is much more readily and pleasurably retained. Finally, if the great truths of the faith were expressed too openly, the result might be to cast pearls before swine, or to enable the foolish to repeat without understanding. This reasoning is similar to that used in the Bible to explain why Christ spoke to the multitude in parables. These arguments in favor of obscurity, developed by St. Augustine and the early exegetes, are employed by Petrarch at the close of the Middle Ages to defend the obscurity of poetry.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Abbreviations, ix,
Author's Introduction, xi,
Historical Criticism (1950), 3,
The Doctrine of Charity in Medieval Literary Gardens (1951), 21,
Some Medieval Literary Terminology, with Special Reference to Chretien de Troyes (1951) 51,
Some Observations on Method in Literary Studies (1969), 73,
The Allegorist and the Aesthetician, 85,
Certain Theological Conventions in Mannyng's Treatment of the Commandments (1946), 105,
Frequency of Preaching in Thirteenth Century England (1949), 114,
Two Poems from the Carmina Burana (1976), 131,
Five Poems by Marcabru (1954), 151,
The "Partitura Amorosa" of Jean de Savoie (1954), 166,
Chrétien's Cligés and the Ovidian Spirit (1955), 173,
The Idea of Fame in Chrétien's Cligés (1972), 183,
Love Conventions in Marie's Equitan (1953), 202,
The Pearl as a Symbol (1950), 209,
The Heresy of The Pearl (1950), 215,
The Question of Typology and the Wakefield Mactacio Abel (1974), 218,
The Historical Setting of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess (1965), 235,
The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Texts (1968), 257,
Chaucer's Franklin and his Tale (1974), 273,
Some Disputed Chaucerian Terminology (1977), 291,
In Foraminibus Petrae: A Note on Leonardo's "Virgin of the Rocks" (1954), 305,
Sidney's Metaphor of the Ulcer (1941), 308,
A Medievalist Looks at Hamlet, 312,
Pope and Boethius (1964), 332,