Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century: The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres

Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century: The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres

by Winthrop Wetherbee


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ISBN-13: 9780691619903
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1827
Pages: 306
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.20(d)

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Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century

The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres

By Winthrop Wetherbee


Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06219-8



1. The Twelfth-Century Renaissance

In his Dialogus super auctores, composed in the early twelfth century, Conrad of Hirsau warns his students about reading Ovid. The Fasti and the Ex Ponto, he says, contain tolerable ma tter, but the Metamorphoses present problems. At times Ovid seems to have deviated into sense in the poem: the "quisquis fuit ille deorum" of the opening cosmogony, like the Athenian altar "to the unknown God" of Acts 17, suggests a dim awareness of a deity who is one and supreme. But the work as a whole is idolatrous. It tells of men transformed into beasts and stones and birds, and so denies that rationality which proves man to be made in God's image.

Toward the end of the twelfth century Arnulf of Orleans, introducing his commentary on the Metamorphoses, gives a different account of the poem. Far from making light of the power of reason, he says, Ovid has attempted "so to describe mutability that we may understand by it not simply those changes which take place around us, altering material things for good or ill, but those also which take place inwardly, in the soul." By these means, Arnulf tells us, Ovid seeks "to recall us from error to a recognition of the true creator."

To explain this spiritual theme, and the correspondence of internal change with cosmic mutability on which it depends, Arnulf describes the two basic movements of the soul: an irrational tendency which imitates the wanderings of the planets, and a rational countermovement like that of the stable firmament; for the firmament governs the planets just as the rational principle should govern the irrational and sensual. This tension in the soul accounts for a broad opposition between spiritual and earthly tendencies of will which the Metamorphoses depict through fable. In showing transformations from one state of being to another, Ovid stresses continually "the stability of heavenly things and the changeableness of things on earth." And so, Arnulf concludes, the poem is of great value in providing an "erudicio divinorum habita ex mutacione temporalium."

In principle at least, Conrad and the tradition of monastic study which he represents cannot allow Ovid's masterpiece a higher status than that of a handy collection of stories and a model of Latin style. Arnulf is clearly more willing to assess the poem on what he takes to be its own terms. He respects the poet's intuitions and brings a broad range of learning to the task of extracting his deeper meaning. He clearly sees the utilitas of the Metamorphoses as involving much more than its value as a compendium, or a source of exemplary lessons in moral conduct, the highest function that Conrad will allow any pagan author.

But the very different approaches of the two commentators are determined by historical factors as well as differences of intention. Arnulf's interpretation reflects important intellectual developments which had taken place between Conrad's time and his own. His assumption that Ovid's fables are the figural embodiment of philosophical insights, his ready recourse to the structure of the universe for an illustration of the principles of Ovid's psychology, and the close association he suggests between the perception of cosmic order and the "cognitio veri creatoris," all show him responsive to the influence of the "twelfth-century renaissance," with its rediscovery of man and the natural world. An important feature of this rediscovery was a new humanism, a new conception of the value to be derived from the study of the ancient auctores; and it was typified by a firm trust in the quasipoetic cosmology of Plato's Timaeus as a source of insight into the meaning of man's cosmic relations. The capacious intellectual framework within which Arnulf places his author and the rich thematic implications, moral and psychological, of the poetic erudicio which he finds in the Metamorphoses, are of the essence of twelfth-century humanism, and they are the critical counterpart to a new seriousness of spirit and breadth of scope which the poets of the schools, writing in emulation of the auctores, had begun to exhibit a generation or so before Arnulf wrote.

It is with these developments and their implications for medieval poetry in general that this book is primarily concerned, and the purpose of this chapter is to sketch the intellectual history of the shift in attitude which I have illustrated by comparing Conrad and Arnulf. I will try to show how the cosmology to which Arnulf alludes was developed in twelfth-century thought, and how it came to hold a special significance for the interpretation of poetry, even such subtle and elusive poetry as Ovid's. We will see, in this and the following chapter, how mythical and psychological analyses of human life were related to this Platonic model, and how, in the course of the century, there emerged a new recognition of the nature and value of imaginative literature as a source of knowledge about God and man.

It goes without saying that these events of literary history are part of a broader movement. The widening of intellectual horizons in the twelfth century was made possible in the first place by social changes. The settling of the Normans in England and Sicily, the flourishing of French feudalism, the expansion of the governmental structure of the Church, all contributed to the demand for lawyers and statesmen, clear thinkers and effective writers, so that facilities for training such men assumed a new importance. This in turn gave rise to a new emphasis on the study of the classical authors, who had never lost their place in education as models of correctness and eloquence. The conquest of Sicily and the reconquest of Spain brought the La tin world into contact with Greek and Arab science and philosophy, an encounter which did much to stimulate the twelfth century's concern with cosmology and metaphysics.

The "renaissance" thus effected was by no means cohesive, and its influence was far from universal: literary studies, under the pressure of practical necessity, declined all too easily to the level of the ars dictaminis, whose students, with a few noble exceptions, paid lip-service to the high principles of ancient rhetoric while devoting themselves to letter-writing. The influence of the pioneering transmitters of Greek and Arab lore was slow and haphazard, due perhaps to their wandering in search of new texts and intellectual adventures, and revealed itself as much in a widespread fascination with astrology and divination as in the development of a rational view of nature. But it is plain enough that the early twelfth century saw the emergence of a stable and largely self-sufficient intellectual culture. Social stability and increasing commerce provided new leisure for the pursuit of knowledge and channels for its diffusion; the libraries and curricula of the schools expanded; disputation and scholarship became a way of life. The union of eloquentia and scientia, the arts of expression and the sciences of the quadrivium, became a commonplace in educational thought, and their pursuit was increasingly accepted as valuable in itself, rather than simply as a preparation for traditional religious studies. This last point demands special emphasis, for the concession of a certain intrinsic value to learning and philosophy prepared the way, as we will see, for the elevation of poetry to a similar dignity.

The development of a richer and more humane conception of secular learning and a serious interest in the order and meaning of the natural world is paralleled by certain features of twelfth-century spiritual thought. The relations between the human psyche and its macrocosmic environment were a theme for mystical vision and spiritual exercise as well as scientific investigation, and thinkers so diverse as Guillaume de St. Thierry, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Adelhard of Bath show a common concern to curb human curiositas, the aimless love of earthly multiplicity, by posing an alternative, structured vision accessible through intuition of a reality underlying the visibilia of nature. For the contemplative, a mystical awareness of cosmic symbolism could perform a function strikingly analogous to that of "scientific" Platonism in the speculation of the philosophers. Otto Von Simson, tracing the development of Gothic architecture at St-Denis and Chartres, has shown how Platonist cosmology and Neopla tonist mysticism conspired with Augustinian musical and mathematical theory to produce an architecture in which cosmic and anagogical vision were synthesized in the form of the sanctuary itself.

This capacity for synthesis is a great achievement of the twelfth century, a manifestation of that "mentalité symbolique" whose intellectual history has been written by M. D. Chenu. Noting the growing importance of figurative expression, metaphor and symbol, in the articulation of religious ideas, Chenu sees it as reflecting a pervasive sense of "the mysterious kinship between the physical world and the realm of the sacred." Natural objects are increasingly regarded as expressive of a higher presence operative in and through them, and the response takes forms so diverse as the debate over universals, a new interest in medicine and astrology, and exploratory ventures into the psychology of love. The universe is seen in terms of the cosmic eroticism of hermetic tradition, or the emanationism of the pseudo-Dionysius; man is the center of creation, the hub of the intellectualized cosmos of scientific Platonism, or he is an alien, all but lost in the dense symbolic undergrowth of Arthurian romance.

All these views reflect in some degree a cooperation of imaginative thought and expression with religious vision. They point to a higher world accessible, as Chenu remarks, by a "transposition," a metaphorical reading of the sensible world. "Such symbolic transposition," he goes on, "was the admirable means of penetrating the mysterious material density of things — natural objects or historical personages, biblical or profane — and of getting 'through the shell, to the savory kernel of truth.' Poetry was in the service of wisdom — of philosophical or theological wisdom."

Chenu is speaking broadly here; by "poetry" he means only the recourse to allegory in a general sense, and so he uses the terms "symbol" and "metaphor" almost interchangeably. But in the twelfth century, as Chenu also observes, there was a new tendency to distinguish between these two modes of figura, and they came to serve two more or less distinct approaches to the relations between the sensible world and transcendent reality. The relationship between these two approaches, which I have found it convenient to label the "rationalist" and the "symbolic," will be a major concern of this chapter.

Metaphor was a fundamental tool of those rationalist philosophers who sought knowledge of God from the study of the structure of the universe and the complex laws, causes, and analogies by which it is linked with the human mind. Symbolism, on the other hand, lent itself to an "anagogical," an open-ended, and ultimately mystical view, closely related to the traditions of biblical exegesis, but tending increasingly to embrace the natural world as well, under the influence of a renewed interest in the cosmic sacramentalism of the pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Eriugena. In this view naturalia were of value to the extent that they could be seen as directly reflective of God.

The symbolist and rationalist points of view were closely inter-related, and appear at times to be virtually indistinguishable, but it is important to recognize that they were by no means simply complementary. Indeed the differences between them provided the occasion for an ongoing debate which affected every area of twelfth-century thought. The relation of biblical to secular studies underwent profound changes during the century: the Liberal Arts assumed a new importance in the exegesis of sacred texts, while the modes of symbolic interpretation traditionally associated with Scripture were extended to extrabiblical history and the natural world. The development of a theology devoted to seeking the truth of Scripture through the employment of the Arts and the study of nature stimulated serious debate over the extent to which dialectic and secular learning might be allowed to encroach upon the traditional province of exegesis, and the authority of Plato be permitted to coexist with that of Augustine.

A striking instance of the impact of new ideas is the development which has been called "the elimination of time," the displacement of the continually evolving plan of salvation by the self-contained structure of the natural universe as a framework for the analysis and dramatization of spiritual experience. The sort of symbolic thinking I have mentioned as typical of the century is the product of a concern with the nature of spiritual reality, its relation to the visible creation, the opus Sapientiae, and the psychological process involved in its apprehension; what is of ten hard to detect is a clear concern with the temporal orientation of the soul in relation to the Last Things. Eschatology in its traditional forms is challenged in twelfth-century thought by an "anagogy" strongly influenced by, and tending always to verge into Neoplatonism, and it is clear that this development is connected with the age's pervasive interest in cosmology. It reflects, of course, only a shift of emphasis, rather than a deliberate substitution, and its radical implications are to a great extent neutralized in the great theological syntheses of a Hugh of St. Victor or an Alain de Lille, where cosmology and history are presented as complementary manifestations of God's wisdom. But these thinkers too are keenly sensitive to new modes of thought and expression, and indeed, as I shall try to show, a comparison of Hugh with Alain may serve as an index to the effect of these developments in the course of the century. They stand at opposite ends of a period of debate and experimentation which saw the rise and decline of a great movement of humanistic and scientific thought, a movement of which the signs are visible everywhere in Europe, but which has traditionally been most closely identified with the cathedral school at Chartres.

It was apparently at Chartres, during the School's relatively brief flowering, that the scientific and humanist strains of twelfth-century thought received their fullest expression in a curriculum and a philosophy which, solidly grounded in the study of classical authors, sought to embrace the "summa totius philosophiae." This humanist enterprise was uniquely and profoundly important for the subsequent development of medieval poetry, and it is with the fortunes of "Chartrian" ideas, in the twelfth century and after, that this study is mainly concerned. But the special qualities of Chartrian thought and the reasons for its great influence on poetry and poetics will appear more clearly when the work of the School is compared with the more spiritual program of St. Victor as exemplified by Hugh, the most influential of the great Victorine masters. At both schools from an early date the convergence of new currents stimulated a concern for unified and clearly defined educational programs, and the contrast and occasional conflict between them will help us to define important questions about the relation of tradition to progress in the twelfth century. The contrast of Chartrian rationalism with the ultimately traditionalist position of Hugh also serves to explain the gradual discrediting of Chartrian thought and the redirection of the School's influence into the channels of literary study and poetic expression. A survey of these developments will bring us to our main subject, the influence of Chartrian thought on medieval poetry.

2. The School of Chartres

Such topics as the nature and structure of the universe and its relation to the will of God, the value of classical learning, and the relation of ancient philosophy to Christian doctrine were not wholly unfamiliar when they emerged in the twelfth century as the great concerns of Chartrian thought. During the two centuries and more which separate the flowering of Chartres from the great but controversial systematizing of John Scotus Eriugena and the humanist encyclopedism of Remigius of Auxerre there had been grammarians less reluctant than Conrad of Hirsau to concede a humane value to pagan literature. A number of scholars, notably Bovo of Corvey and Adalbold of Utrecht, had striven to define the relation of Plato and Boethius to the Augustinian mainstream of Christian thought. Indeed by the end of the eleventh century interest in secular studies had become sufficiently intense to provoke the polemical reaction of Peter Damian, Manegold of Lautenbach, and others, whose condemnations embraced all the ancients from Plato and Pythagoras to the mad and wanton poets.


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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xi
  • Chronological Table, pg. 1
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER ONE. Twelfth-Century Platonism and the Pursuit of Wisdom, pg. 11
  • CHAPTER TWO. Philosophy and Experience: Boethius, Martianus Capella, and their Twelfth-Century Commentators, pg. 74
  • CHAPTER THREE. The Poetry of the Twelfth-Century Schools, pg. 126
  • CHAPTER FOUR. Form and Inspiration in the Poetry of Bemardus Silvestris, pg. 152
  • CHAPTER FIVE. Nature and Grace: The Allegories of Alain de Lille, pg. 187
  • CHAPTER SIX. The Poetry of the Schools and the Rise of Romance, pg. 220
  • CHAPTER SEVEN. Chartrian Allegory and the World, pg. 242
  • Appendix, pg. 267
  • Bibliography, pg. 273
  • Index, pg. 285

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