Medieval Poetry and Natural Philosophy
This book brings together two subjects that are generally kept apart, both in popular thought and by academic disciplines: love and physics. They are usually imagined as "non-overlapping magisteria," to repurpose a phrase coined by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Each occupies its own sphere and is assumed to obey different laws. Love concerns the human; physics the nonhuman, from subatomic particles to the motions of the universe. This distinction rests on an even deeper assumption about the division between, on the one hand, the ineffable flux of conscious inner life and, on the other, a world of material objects existing somewhere "out there." Theoretical segregation is reinforced on the level of praxis, since research and expertise in these fields are certified by a far-flung group of professionals: physicists, astronomers, and topological mathematicians as opposed to fiction writers, psychologists, and the operators of online dating services.
Yet for medieval writers, both popular and academic, these domains not only overlapped, but they were also thought to operate according to the same principles. Nature Speaks argues that for a significant group of writers popular in late medieval England—Geoffrey Chaucer being only the most well-known today—natural philosophy and the academic controversies it generated were not just a source of learned allusion but also the most obvious place to look when trying, as writers must, to transform the world into words. Unlike today's largely mathematical discipline, medieval natural philosophy—what we call "physics"—was primarily a textual endeavor; like medieval poetry, it was a set of interpretive practices that sought to divide up the material world, making it more amenable to human view. Medieval poets and natural philosophers thus shared a vocabulary and, more important, an orienting set of questions about the moral authority of the natural world and the writer's ability to claim this authority when representing his or her own experience.
The medieval category of Aristotelian philosophy was a vast one that encompassed not just ethics, politics, and religion but also physics, chemistry, and psychology along with the foundational arts of rhetoric, logic, and grammar. This book focuses on just one part of this heterogeneous body of learning: academic debates over what in Middle English was often called simply "philosophie"—a term that, as I argue below, frequently denoted natural rather than moral philosophy. I trace how a certain strain of vernacular literary production responded to the shifting fortunes of Aristotle's scientific writings, writings that formed the core of the arts curriculum from the thirteenth century forward. While these writings were central to university education, parts of these texts were viewed with suspicion and were repeatedly condemned by ecclesiastical authorities who discouraged discussion of their potentially controversial contents. Such censure did not prevent either clerics or poets from arguing over nature's proper authority in popular writings. By showing philosophy's reach, this book offers a corrective to the critical tendency to treat a recognizably courtly poet such as Chaucer in isolation from that other Chaucer, well known to his early readers as the author of the Treatise on the Astrolabe, a text whose numerous fifteenth-century manuscript witnesses are second only to those of the Canterbury Tales. Another example of this shared context would be the incendiary conjuncture of love and physics that gives rise to many Chaucerian dream visions, including the House of Fame and the Parliament of Fowls. While counterintuitive to modern readers, this affinity makes sense in the context of one of the most significant events in the history of medieval science: the Parisian Condemnation of 1277. This condemnation prohibited discussion of certain philosophical and theological tenets within the arts faculty, a prohibition driven in part by hostility toward those aspects of Aristotelian science that were seen to promote rationalism at the expense of revelation. This same document also condemned Andreas Capellanus's De amore, a treatise that brought natural reason to bear on the arts of love and that influenced vernacular poets from Jean de Meun to Chaucer and beyond. While no single influence can explain the variety of genres and styles in which a poet such as Chaucer wrote, the extent of his dependence on university scientific learning, long marginal to the main currents of Chaucer criticism, has only recently begun to be more precisely formulated and more fully understood.
In identifying how a set of scientific debates affected aesthetic practice, this book's methodology identifies several topics that have not previously been explored together as central to the literary history of late medieval Britain. These topics include: the difficulty of defining the autonomy of material and natural causes in a providential world; the transmission of scientia from East to West with its attendant danger of pagan "contamination"; and the relation of learned university philosophy to its more popular forms. Each of these subjects involves questions of mimesis and representation that were caught up in the controversy over the extent to which truths about the natural world could ever lead one to spiritual truths. Repeated skirmishes over Aristotle's science pitted an increasingly rationalistic natural philosophy against an orthodox theology suspicious of applying physical reasoning to metaphysical questions. This book argues that the controversial reception of this science fundamentally changed the kinds of poetic accounts of the world that could be offered in its wake.
Alongside the vernacular poetry of Jean de Meun, Guillaume de Deguileville, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Lydgate, my analysis takes up texts that move conspicuously, perhaps even promiscuously, among Latin and the vernaculars of late medieval Britain. They include: encyclopedias such as the Imago mundi (Image du monde) and De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things); classical vitae of pagan philosophers such as those collected in the Dits moraulx des philosophes; popular scientific treatises such as the Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy that derived, however distantly, from Aristotle's libri naturales; spuria such as De pomo sive de morte Aristotilis (The Apple or Aristotle's Death) that nonetheless were read alongside those Aristotelian texts that made up the arts curriculum; and ecclesiastic polemic that argued over the viability of applying natural philosophical principles to sacred texts or sacramental culture.
This story of intermixed genres and audiences is a late medieval one, for it was in this period that nature began to speak in the two distinct voices that we still hear today: a "transcendent" one, associated with Neoplatonic and Augustinian writers who saw nature as inscrutable and to varying degrees detached from the human world, and an "immanent" one, associated with Aristotelian and Thomist writers who believed that the regular teleological processes observable in nature could not only reveal aspects of the divine plan but also teach us something about ourselves. The Romantic embrace of the sublime—that mix of awe and terror in the face of nature's otherness—is an obvious heir of the transcendent vision; Darwinism—with sexual reproduction replacing God as final cause—is imagined by some historians of science to be a latter-day version of the immanent model. Returning to medieval models of nature provides another vantage point from which to view our present-day confusion about who (if anyone) gets to speak in nature's name. Though plotted along the axes of scholastic culture, vernacular science, and popular allegorical poetry, this book seeks to intervene in current debates over what it is that our society calls upon nature either to license or to disallow.
A return to medieval nature is particularly apposite, moreover, when "posthumanist" critique has cast suspicion on any voice issuing from nature, since that voice has so often been a surrogate for our own. At a time when there is significant skepticism over the humanist project of representing nature, it is important to turn again to the prehumanist past in order to understand as clearly as possible why speaking in nature's voice was imagined as desirable and, in some cases, necessary to both the moral and scientific progress of society. Medieval writers, while generally acknowledging human exceptionalism, actively questioned the boundaries of the human with respect to other categories of being, a set of boundaries most often contested in discussions of will and inclination. The frameworks of those discussions, so foreign in many ways to our own, shed light on the assumptions of modern critics who, in doing away with all forms of ontological hierarchy, are left with the difficulty of explaining regular processes of growth and change that a pre-experimental science had explained through Aristotelian concepts of teleology and taxonomy. Like their counterparts in today's debates, medieval philosophers also imagined the human as intimately connected to the nonhuman world. By examining the nature of these connections, we clarify the governing terms under which we and our medieval predecessors have been willing to "hear" nature speak, even if today we prefer analogies of networks and rhizomes to the ladders and mirrors favored by the thinkers of the Middle Ages. In this introduction, I lay out the terms of engagement whereby love and physics meet in the medieval period, investigating several terms pivotal in both popular and learned discussions of nature, including "philosophy," "experience," "authority," and "inclination." In order to outline this shared vocabulary as well as the areas of concern common to both natural philosophy and poetry, I will consider a few representative moments in which the larger cultural forces that I study are seen to act in explicit ways.
"Philosophie": Popular Literature and Academic Natural Philosophy
C. S. Lewis's influential and magisterial book The Discarded Image asks why it was that medieval writers so often added extended disquisitions on the natural world to works that were ostensibly about something else altogether: the discussion of bad weather and rainbows in the Roman de la Rose, the description of planetary influence in Henryson's Testament of Cresseid, or the recitation of animal lore in the Kingis Quair. In several elegant and concise chapters, Lewis outlines the types of natural knowledge that medieval writers regularly availed themselves of: classical dream theory; the cosmological models of the Chartrian Neoplatonists; Boethian understandings of providence; bestiaries and lapidaries; Aristotelian accounts of the partitive soul and the body in which it was housed; and the academic framework of the seven liberal arts, which attempted to stitch together these disparate scientiae. Such knowledge is imagined as the "backcloth" to most medieval literature, and Lewis designates it simply as "the Model" throughout the book. On Lewis's account, the Model is an integrated Weltbild constructed out of pagan and Christian sources all subordinated to a theological framework wherein each part of the cosmos is imagined in relation to its place in the divine plan. The scaffolding of this Model is composed of sources ranging from the Somnium Scipionis, Statius, and Macrobius to Augustine, Boethius, and Albertus Magnus. From the outset, Lewis anticipates a reader who is skeptical of the extent to which academic science could influence popular poetry; such a reader may be given to ask: "But how far down the intellectual scale did this Model of yours penetrate? Are you not offering as background for literature things which were really known only to a few experts?" (20). While Lewis argues that this influence was manifestly evident on popular writers, by the book's end, he is still asking whether these ubiquitous scientific passages constitute "digressions" and, if not, what possible explanation could be offered for them. In describing the frequency with which such passages appear, Lewis wryly observes: "One gets the impression that medieval people, like Professor Tolkien's Hobbits, enjoyed books which told them what they already knew" (200). All pleasantry aside, Lewis concludes, in a moving and eloquent passage, that medieval writers included such descriptive passages because they were enamored of the ways in which the world around them reflected the grand design and harmonized with their own sense of moral well-being:
The Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance. And that in two senses; as having "significant form" (it is an admirable design) and as a manifestation of the wisdom and goodness that created it. There was no question of waking it into beauty or life. . . . The achieved perfection was already there. The only difficulty was to make an adequate response.
This, if accepted, will perhaps go far to explain some characteristics of medieval literature. (204)
Lewis's description does persuasively explain why such scientific passages appear in certain theological writings, particularly those associated with the Neoplatonism of the Victorines and Chartrians. It is less useful, however, in the case of Dante or Chaucer, writers whose works, while blending extended description of the natural world with more orthodox religious sentiment, nevertheless point to the irregular patches in the admirable design. Nor does Lewis explain the diversity of textual practices that we find in writers who attempt to position the natural world in relation to human reason. Lewis's conclusion about the harmony of the human and cosmic expresses his assumptions, stated at the book's opening, about the relation that obtains between science and literature:
The Middle Ages, like most ages, were full of change and controversy. Schools of thought rose, contended, and fell. My account of what I call the Medieval Model ignores all this: ignores even the great change from a predominantly Platonic to a predominantly Aristotelian outlook and the direct conflict between Nominalists and Realists. It does so because these things, however important for the historian of thought, have hardly any effect on the literary level. The Model, as regards those elements in it which poets and artists could utilise, remained stable. (13)
This passage limits contact between academic and extra-academic textual communities, and would thus have likely appeal to that skeptical reader Lewis imagines elsewhere. The rest of the book is predicated on the two important claims outlined in this passage. First, that the natural world, as understood by poets, remained stable throughout the medieval period. Second, that poets and artists extracted from the Model only useful facts about the natural world, remaining unaware of, or indifferent to, academic debates surrounding the status of such "facts." By excluding at the outset any arguments over science from his consideration, any "change and controversy," Lewis unsurprisingly finds consensus in poetic representations of the material world and little influence of academic debates on vernacular poetics.
But when we read medieval poetry alongside natural philosophy, we find different answers to Lewis's questions. Far from being steadfastly unaffected by academic understandings of the natural world, many medieval poets were conversant with, even fluent in, these debates. Many demonstrated a critical awareness of the theological stakes of these disagreements over how the natural world could potentially signify and expressed this knowledge in their poetry. Scientific passages appear with such frequency and, to a modern reader, in such unexpected places not because there was broad consensus among writers who enjoyed the luxury of reminding readers of "what they already knew," but because writers frequently disagreed with one another on basic issues about how to represent the world around them and what such representations might mean. Such passages were ubiquitous because the conflict between the transcendent and immanent models of nature was, almost everywhere, a profound one: individual writers needed to make clear their own positions and align themselves with a particular tradition of looking at the natural world.
Physical science was not mere ornament for vernacular poets, but a crucial frame of reference within which they questioned received literary authority and their place in this inherited tradition. Instead of possessing a single stable and homogeneous Model, medieval writers experimented with several competing models, a competition that was attributable, at least in part, to the shift from Neoplatonic understandings of a divinely inspired cosmos to the Aristotelian natural philosophy that was adopted by universities in the thirteenth century. Such competing views of the world roused strong emotions in their respective partisans. And, while there was certainly overlap between these ways of looking at nature, late medieval vernacular poets regularly drew attention to, and moralized, the gaps between them.
It is no coincidence that the twelfth-century "discovery of nature," to use M.-D. Chenu's phrase, coincides with the blossoming of integumental allegory in the works of writers such as Bernard Silvestris and Alan of Lille. Later vernacular poets associated this model of transcendent nature with a particular allegorical practice, a generative intersection that sparked their own experiments with a personified nature. All of these experiments expressed, to varying degrees, skepticism about the viability of this alliance in the wake of the increasing predominance of Aristotelian science. As Kevin Brownlee, Rita Copeland, and others have argued, this innovative use of vernacular allegory can be traced to Jean de Meun's continuation of the Roman de la Rose, a poem that arguably had the most significant impact on the popular writers who followed. The Rose, along with the writers influenced by it, portrayed human desire in the context of an obdurate material world that could not be transcended at all times. They sought to understand how the human will works in such a world, and to what extent the physical domain could be a source of knowledge or even moral legitimacy.
Nature Speaks examines how thirteenth-century scientific controversy contributed to the formation of this philosophical allegorical practice, a practice that sought to model how the human will relates to the material world in which it made its way. The book argues that Aristotelian physics and vernacular poetry could not help but use the same metaphors to make meaning out of the material world, precisely because it was these metaphors that allowed them to compare nonhuman processes to human ones.
Aristotle and his medieval commentators imagined inanimate matter moving according to principles of will and volition that we moderns locate only within consciousness. For Aristotle, a rock thrown into the air returns to the ground on account of a natural motion that always seeks to return to its "home" in the center of the earth (unless otherwise constrained). Just so, an acorn becomes an oak because it is the nature of the seed's potential matter to strive after its final, actualized form in the mature tree. While nature, according to Aristotle, "does not deliberate," it does behave in ways uncannily similar to the human world of volitional acts. The innovation of medieval theologians was to apply the Aristotelian doctrine of natural motion to the human will, a subject about which Aristotle had relatively little to say. According to Aquinas, the human rational appetite naturally loves the good and directs its movements toward this end. In the Summa theologiae, Aquinas models his idea of the motions of the will on a model of causation taken from Aristotle's Physics 2.2, which discusses sailing as the "end" that governs shipbuilding:
Et cum omne agens agat propter finem, . . . principium hujus motionis est ex fine. Et inde est quod ars ad quam pertinet finis movet suo imperio artem ad quam pertinet id quod est ad finem; sicut gubernatoria ars imperat navifactivae, ut in Physic. dicitur. Bonum autem in communi, quod habet rationem finis, est objectum voluntatis; et ideo ex hac parte voluntas movet alias potentias animae ad suos actus.
(Since every agent acts on account of an end, . . . the motion originates from that. Hence the paramount influence of the end on the means. Our interest in the first fuels our interest in the second; as Aristotle remarks, the art of sailing governs the art of shipbuilding. Now being good in general, has the meaning of being the purpose and the end. It is the will's object. Consequently, in this respect, the will moves the other powers of the soul to their acts.)
Just as the physical construction of the ship is guided by the builder's idea of the ship, so too the moral man's behavior is directed by an idea of the good. The motions of the will and the motions of material things, therefore, both obey similar teleological laws, laws whose implications are argued over in quodlibetal disputes as well as in allegorical dream visions.
This drama of inclination, whether played out in the soul or in the world, was a specifically topological one, where ethics was, in part, a function of place. Yet there was unease over the extent to which natural and human inclinations were either innate or operated according to precisely the same principles. This book argues that a model of inclination governing both people and things was of equal concern to scholastic writers and to vernacular poets such as Jean de Meun, Guillaume de Deguileville, Chaucer, and Lydgate, all of whom demonstrate a manifest interest in what Chaucer calls, in the House of Fame, "kyndely enclynyng." While these writers disagreed about the extent to which inclination controlled physical objects, human dispositions, and spiritual trajectories, they all imagined the traffic between the human and nonhuman worlds as two-way. For these writers, nature's teleological workings made it capable of conveying the same kind of sentence, or moral lesson, that poetry could convey. It was this understanding of human-scaled, end-directed movement in nature that would be lost in the early modern period as natural philosophers decried the Aristotelian tendency to discern "desire" in the inanimate world and Renaissance poets began to abandon the personification allegory as the primary tool for explaining the relation of spiritual to material worlds.
In comparison with their modern counterparts, medieval poets and natural philosophers understood the category of nature in largely similar ways and shared a common set of epistemological tools with which they investigated it. As Kathryn L. Lynch argues in her study Chaucer's Philosophical Visions, "medieval readers would no more have divided poetry from philosophy than they would have made art exclusive of morality." For both poets and philosophers, nature was not something that existed "out there" apart from the human; instead, nature always had to be framed in human terms before it could be seen and assessed. Framing nature involved the careful calibration of present experience against past authority, whether that of Aristotle or of the Bible. Medieval scientific observation was not empirical in the modern sense, as the historian of science Edward Grant reminds us, since Aristotelianism placed a major emphasis on "the commonsense reliance of daily experience" and "more or less unguided observation." Because this broad category of experience encompassed both observed and unobserved events, or even events impossible to observe, it was quite usual in the fourteenth century for scientific investigation to rely on the thought experiment as well as concrete sensory data. Past authority could be invoked to buttress either type of "observation." The thought experiment in medieval physics was, according to the historian of philosophy Peter King, primarily a textual interrogation of observed phenomena. Jean Buridan argued for his theory of impetus, not on the basis of watching actual rocks being thrown, but by rereading book 4 of Aristotle's Physics and then imagining counterexamples to it. The spinning of a blacksmith's wheel or a child's top, Buridan argues, challenges Aristotle's explanation of violent motion as the result of air rushing in to fill a void left by an accelerating object.
Late medieval poets tested experience in similarly hypothetical, and intertextual, worlds—whether dream visions or frame tales. Such devices, like the natural philosophical thought experiment, allowed them to imagine with, against, or alongside those found in classical auctores. Like Aristotelian scientific treatises, vernacular allegorical poetry attempted to explain the observed phenomena of everyday life with recourse to a dialectical tension between "experience" and "authority." The same dialectical tension found in the works of Roger Bacon and Jean Buridan informs Chaucer's portrayal of the Wife of Bath, Theseus in the Knight's Tale, and the eagle guide of the House of Fame, all characters who balance an understanding of lived life against the authoritative texts that alternately confirm or deny those experiences. Whereas Lewis had assumed a "trickle-down" model of scholastic knowledge into extra-academic writing, a more circulatory model now predominates in medieval literary studies, a model found in work by scholars such as Sarah Kay, Alastair Minnis, and Daniel Heller-Roazen on Jean de Meun, James Simpson on Gower, D. Vance Smith and Katharine Breen on Langland, and Peter Travis on Chaucer. It is this more dynamic model of knowledge production that is discernable in the set of natural problems that this book traces as they move from academic registers to more popular ones and back again, often showing signs of having been modified by their contact with new ideas in these extra-academic settings.
It is not just changing conceptions of "experience" and "authority" that make it difficult to see the overlapping concerns of academic physics and popular poetry; this connection has also been obscured by the shifting meaning of the term "philosophy" itself. The Middle English "philosophie" is a false friend in relation to its modern cognate, since its primary medieval meaning was not the study of human mores but "learning in general." Importantly, its more specialized senses included both natural philosophy and moral philosophy, a breadth of reference no longer available to the Modern English reader. We see evidence of this broader semantic usage in many different kinds of vernacular texts. In his translation of the encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum, the late fourteenth-century writer John Trevisa observes that the differences among several types of shadow can be explained "by consideracioun of philosophie." As the usual translation of the Latin physicam, or the science pertaining to the material world, the term's habitual meaning is also reflected in appearances of the Middle English substantive "Philosophris," a term that translates Physicorum, the usual Latin rubric of Aristotle's Physics. This usage occurs outside of specifically scientific texts as well. In his translation of Ralph (or Ranulf) Higden's universal history, the Polychronicon, John Trevisa differentiates between books of "philosophie" on the one hand (by which he means material science) and books of "ethik, þat is the sciens of þewes," on the other, observing that Aristotle was responsible for many books of both kinds. These divisions were codified in the university arts curriculum that often divided philosophy into natural (earthly things), moral (ethics), and rational (ways of knowing the truth including rhetoric). As the first of the three primary scholastic subdivisions of philosophia, natural philosophy included those disciplines that dealt with change and motion in corruptible things: the material world of humans, animals, plants, and minerals as well as events in the sublunary heavens such as storms and earthquakes. Its domain thus encompassed many topics of intense interest to late medieval poets. Unlike modern disciplinary divisions that habitually divide off the world of material physics from that of human ethics, medieval philosophy encompassed the study of both the human and the nonhuman worlds. When a Middle English reader encountered "philosophie" in one of its more specialized senses, its appearance would be just as likely to summon to mind "physics" as it would "moral philosophy," just as likely to evoke Aristotle's vast body of scientific works on the material world—including On the Heavens, On Animals, On Generation and Corruption, and On Meteorology—as it would the Nicomachean Ethics or the Politics. This more capacious definition explains, in part, why extended natural philosophical "digressions" appear not just in translations of scientific texts or "encyclopedic" poetry (such as that by Dante, Jean de Meun, or Gower) but in medieval genres where it would appear to be less directly relevant to the topic at hand, such as hagiography, sermon literature, and political treatises.
Reintegrating the scientific study of the natural world into our understanding of philosophy makes these narrative choices more intelligible. At the same time, it suggests another context for reading the well-known reception of poets such as Chaucer, who were recognized as "philosophical" by their contemporaries. The link that Chaucer discerned between representational debates in "philosophie" and the representational problems faced by poets is acknowledged by some of his earliest readers, including Thomas Usk and Thomas Hoccleve. Usk, the unsuccessful political partisan, clerk for hire, and sometime Boethian rhetor, praises Chaucer in his Testament of Love as "the noble philosophical poete in Englissh speche." While "philosophical" in this context could possibly mean just "learned," this interpretation is less likely given the fact that, next to Chaucer, Usk is the late medieval poet who was arguably most interested in the laws common to both love and physics. This common interest in "philosophie" was evident to early modern readers as well: it is no coincidence that Usk's Testament was attributed to Chaucer throughout the early modern period and that, in early print editions, it always follows the House of Fame, possibly Chaucer's most conspicuous engagement with models of inclination ultimately derived from Aristotle's science. A few decades after Usk, the poet Hoccleve, bureaucrat and soi-disant protégé of "Maister Chaucer," would ask of his now deceased predecessor: "Who was hier in philosophie to Aristotle, in our tonge, but thow?" Critics have regularly assumed that "philosophie" here means "moral philosophy." However, given Aristotle's late medieval reputation as an authority on the material world and Chaucer's own manifest interest in natural science, it is equally plausible that it is this aspect of Chaucer's learning to which Hoccleve refers. The praise of Usk and Hoccleve likewise calls to mind Chaucer's own invocation of "philosophical Strode" at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, an invocation that seems to function in apposition to that of "moral Gower." While the lawyer Ralph Strode may have been personally acquainted with Chaucer through his London administrative posts, he was also a well-known Thomist philosopher and arts master at Oxford, having written about problems of logic and of the will. This dedication seems particularly fitting, as Troilus takes up the prickly knot of love and necessity that, as I will argue in later chapters, Aristotle had rendered problematic. These moments of philosophical posse making suggest that in addition to the "rhetorical Chaucer," flower of eloquence, the "sententious Chaucer," full of proverbs, the "historial Chaucer," compiler of Trojan history, the poet's legacy also included the "natural philosophical Chaucer," a poet with whom modern critics have less frequently engaged.
This semantic discussion is not intended to deny Chaucer's profound interest in moral philosophy but to recalibrate a tendency to assume that Middle English "philosophie" points us unequivocally toward it in every instance. Neither is it intended to discount the undeniable interchange among rhetoric, moral philosophy, and physics; medieval philosophical writers such as Chaucer are best understood when we understand "philosophy" as pertaining to all three of these areas, while, at the same time, respecting the distinctions that medieval writers themselves drew among them. Previous studies have documented the substantial influence of Aristotle's Rhetoric and the Nicomachean Ethics on vernacular literature in general (and Chaucer in particular). James Simpson's Sciences and the Self, for instance, is a lucidly detailed account of how two very different poets, Alan of Lille and John Gower, imagine the human's cosmic place within broadly didactic frameworks. Both poets participate in a medieval "humanist" politics, with Alan of Lille practicing a more elitist, absolutist version and Gower a more liberal, vernacular one. From the time of Judson Boyce Allen onward, Chaucer's philosophical tendencies have received much critical attention, including two recent, insightful books: Mark Miller's Philosophical Chaucer and Jessica Rosenfeld's Ethics and Enjoyment in Late Medieval Poetry, both of which, in very different ways, explore how medieval literature responds to Aristotelian ethical norms. Miller, in outlining Chaucer's philosophical ethics, argues persuasively that it is less about affirming or denying the truth of particular approaches to the sovereign good and more about Chaucer's dialectical engagement with normative sexual roles as sites of mediation between individual, performed identities and the social pursuit of public and private pleasures. Jessica Rosenfeld has described the rich influence that the translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics had on vernacular love poetry, arguing that Aristotle's conception of happiness (eudaimonia) became a shared ethical problem for scholastic writers and poets alike. Nature Speaks shares with these books an interest in how love became a central topic for late medieval poets, recognizing that it did so because passion and volition configured a set of problems concerning the human's place in the natural order. While the studies that I mention pursue alternately a Foucauldian account of science as the art of self-cultivation or a psychoanalytic account of the self as the site of conflicting internal desires, this book seeks to expand this critical conversation by stressing that the medieval conception of the individual self was also shaped by accounts that ascribed agency to entities in the nonhuman world, accounts originating with Aristotle's natural philosophy.
The argument presented here is that Aristotelian science was an equally significant influence on certain medieval poets, who found in natural philosophical texts sources of formal and generic distinction that, in turn, shaped the literary field. I do not claim that medieval natural philosophy stands apart from ethics or that it alone offers a key to understanding medieval poetics. Rather, I argue that, absent an account of the overlapping concerns of physics and moral philosophy, it is difficult to see clearly the outlines of the human will in its medieval form. For Aristotle and scholastic Aristotelians, physics and metaphysics are continuous territories rather than "non-overlapping magisteria": each operates according to analogous teleological principles, is subject to the same modes of explanation, and employs the tools of dialectic and demonstration to investigate visible and invisible phenomena. The relationship between these two scientiae was a subject of much debate in the late medieval period, but in general scholastics acknowledged that, while the disciplines treated the same subject—the being of substances—metaphysics treats being as it inheres in things, while physics treats the mutability and change to which such being is subject. Both physics and metaphysics equally treat the material and the immaterial. The human soul is properly an object of metaphysics but also of physics, since the movements of its faculties—its dispositions, its passions—are a form of ens mobile, "mobile being." It should be noted that the designation of metaphysics as "first philosophy" is somewhat misleading to modern readers, however, since the latter, according to Thomas Aquinas, is indispensable to the former and must be studied prior to it. Moral and spiritual thought is made possible only through analogy with sensible things. Physics, imagined as encompassing forces of generation and development that were common to the human as well as the nonhuman, to the material as well as the immaterial, was an integral part of scholastic philosophia. Since vernacular poets, like their scholastic counterparts, continually questioned whether or not the human was a part of nature or separate from it, a return to "philosophie" that includes scientific ways of understanding the natural world allows us to focus not just on human subjects (the domain of modern moral philosophy) but on the extent to which the physical environment may also have potentially shaped ethics. This was an urgent question for late medieval scholastics and popular writers alike. This urgency becomes less apparent if we emphasize an ethical metaphysics at the expense of a physicalized ethics. It is the project of this book to show the historical and critical benefits of the latter. In doing so, Nature Speaks joins an ongoing conversation among medievalists who emphasize ontology alongside, or sometimes in preference to, epistemology, critics such as Sarah Kay, D. Vance Smith, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.
Returning to a premodern culture in which "philosophie" meant more than ethics or metaphysics is instructive. Whereas post-Enlightenment ethics are predicated on a break between physical and mental worlds, medieval ethics, by contrast, grew directly out of its physics in a more organic way. Theorists of this break, for example, Bruno Latour and Alasdair MacIntyre, offer different accounts of what was lost when the "premodern" became the "modern." While the emphases and ideological allegiances of these narratives differ, both thinkers agree that Enlightenment empiricism demands the separation of the human from the nonhuman, ethics from the sciences (including physics). But in the pre-Enlightenment culture examined in this book, philosophy is broad enough to render a writer's physics inseparable from his or her ethics; if there is an ambiguity in one, it can often be resolved by a turn to the other. This philosophical ambidexterity is just as significant for scholastics such as Aquinas, Grosseteste, and Bradwardine as it is for vernacular writers such as Jean de Meun and Chaucer. That these poets leave a philosophical legacy of this scope and dynamism is a fact that must remain unexplored as long as we impose on them a rather anachronistic, and likely truncated, view of philosophy in the period. When physics rejoins moral philosophy as a partner rather than just a phenomenal handmaiden or a set of quantifiable extensions, we see more clearly how the theories of material substance a society embraces (or chooses to reject) have a profound influence on the narratives that it can use to explain its own cultural—and not just scientific—values to itself.
In revisiting medieval ideas about how writers represent the natural world, then, this book challenges modern assumptions about what is material, what immaterial; what body, what mind. I demonstrate in the pages that follow an important point about the medieval mixing of love and physics: our difficulty understanding this mixing is due less to the "porousness" between the categories of the human and nonhuman in the premodern age—the argument made by Latour and others attempting to define early modernity—than to the fact that this boundary was policed in different ways and according to different means.
Nowhere are the complexities of this definition of philosophy more evident than in the embodied personification of Nature that would become a staple of both poets and natural philosophers in the late medieval period. Common in classical antiquity was the view that Nature intentionally concealed herself from human sight, because, as Heraclitus says, "Nature loves to hide." For the Stoic Seneca as well as for later Neoplatonic writers such as Martianus Capella and Macrobius, Nature continued to remain aloof, preferring to veil herself and to hide her secrets from prying human eyes. This mutely mythographic Nature is derived from the physics set out in Plato's Timaeus, where the order and beauty of the cosmos is imagined as the intentional design of a divine craftsman, the Demiurge. For late antique writers, "the great secret of nature is thus Nature herself, that is the invisible reason or force, of which the visible world is only the external manifestation." When Nature spoke at all, it was only in riddles.
In contrast to this reticent earlier figure, medieval Nature was decidedly blabby. She spoke in allegorical poetry and in academic treatises, in sophisma and in dream visions. She spoke in Latin and, later, in the vernaculars. She spoke as Lady Nature, as Master Aristotle, as well as through a seemingly endless stream of clerkly ventriloquists, some more reliable than others. And almost always Nature's speech turned to the subject of love. This proclivity can be explained in part by the fact that nature ruled the human as well as the nonhuman realms through those affective bonds described so vividly in Boethius's Consolatio philosophiae. Literary critics have mapped the genealogy of Lady Nature in her role as pronuba and procreatrix, beginning with a series of articles by E. C. Knowlton in the 1920s that cataloged her medieval allegorical appearances in the European vernaculars. George Economou traces the migration of personified Nature from her Latin origins through the twelfth-century cosmologists to later vernacular writers, charting the shifting relation between natural desire and marriage. More recently, Barbara Newman has astutely asked: why would medieval writers return to a pagan personification to express complex philosophical ideas to a contemporary Christian audience? Nature, according to Newman, "is a goddess of the normative," allowing medieval poets to affirm heterosexual desire, but to stand in multiple relations to the warm theological embrace of chastity as superior to married love. Newman's point is an excellent one, and it raises several further questions: how did Nature become a figure for sexual governance? Why was this personified figure taken up in medieval vernacular poetry at the moment that she was, from the late thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries? And, finally, why did she disappear in the early modern period?
To answer these questions, we need to consider the literary genealogy of medieval Lady Nature in the context of the rise of an Aristotelian natural philosophy that sought to expand what could be explained in terms of regular physical processes. The rising authority of Aristotle's scientific works, perhaps the most defining feature of the thirteenth-century arts curriculum, made sightings of Aristotle the man much more common in late medieval textual culture, both learned and popular. Long before the fourteenth-century allegorist Guillaume de Deguileville portrayed Aristotle as the deputy of personified Nature in his fourteenth-century poem, the Pèlerinage de vie humaine (1331; 1355), Aristotle had been imagined as the "rule of nature" in the academic commentary tradition. "Aristotle" later came to name a constellation of ideas in the vernacular about how to read and write about the natural world vis-à-vis the human one; as such, the name marked a philosophical gallimaufry that included Neoplatonic, Stoic, and Boethian ideas about how to understand the place of the human in the material world. This collection of ideas included naturalism, a preference for immanent over transcendent allegory, an iterative relation to past textual authority, and a validation of sensory experience as a useful heuristic for understanding both the visible world and what lay beyond it. All of these ideas were associated with what can loosely be termed an "Aristotelian," as opposed to "Augustinian," interpretation of the Book of Nature.
A further contribution to recent work on medieval allegory, Nature Speaks seeks to understand why giving a body and a voice to nature was seen to be both aesthetically useful and ethically necessary for a certain strain of late medieval poetics. As an embodied abstraction—more properly, prosopopoeia—Lady Nature shares much with other allegorical figures such as Lady Philosophy, Reason, and the personifications of virtues such as Charity and Prudence.
These speaking personifications have been the subject of much modern criticism. It is a truism that medieval speaking personifications are usually female because most abstract nouns in Latin are feminine; however, this gendering gains added significance because, in Michael Camille's pithy phrase, "females embody, whereas men act." Late medieval Nature is a significant exception to this personified passivity, as the studies by Economou and Newman make clear. In his survey of the classical and medieval uses of allegory, Jon Whitman argues that this model of an active Nature appears first in Bernard Silvestris's mid-twelfth century Cosmographia, a dynamic allegory that differed from its classical antecedents by blending late antique interpretative paradigms with Christian spiritual models. Bernard Silvestris's Natura is part of the major transformation of both medieval allegory and the figure of Nature herself. For the first time, she emerges as a chief Christian symbol who acts as a key to understanding the rest of the poem's allegorical system; she also acts as a stand-in for the narrator himself, particularly for the education that he receives as he attempts to interpret the allegorical landscape he encounters.
This book is concerned primarily with the construction and effects of Nature's voice in late medieval vernacular poetry, an allegorical voice that was unusual in that it could be heard regularly in scientific treatises as well as in popular poetry. From the twelfth century onward, nature, defined as alternately a principle of order or an agent of change, was regularly personified by academic writers. We see this tendency in twelfth-century Chartrian Neoplatonists such as William of Conches, who imagined nature as a quasi-divine cheese maker: "first she produces must, then she drags what is sedimentary and heavy in it to the lowest place [of the vat], whatever is light to the top, and what is in between to the middle place. Similarly, she creates, mixed in milk, four substances [i.e., whey, cream, butter, and cheese], which man afterward skillfully separates with the help of nature." We see it in later Aristotelian natural philosophers such as Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253), who observes in an optical treatise that a natural agent works on its object most powerfully when it moves toward it in a straight line, since "nature acts in the briefest possible manner" (natura operatur breviori modo, quo potest). Not just a static set of laws, Nature is herself a lively actor. Late medieval poets expanded this natural philosophical principle into an active moral agent in the allegorical vision. Like other speaking personifications, Nature is a simulated consciousness whose sometimes lengthy monologues, often directed to the narrator, seek to engage the audience in the narrator's ethical dilemma. Even when such allegorical personages are unreliable, as in the case of Jean de Meun's La Vieille or Guillaume de Deguileville's Nature, they still speak from a rhetorically privileged position given the dynamics of direct address.
It is this particular aspect of personified Nature to which this study turns its attention as we consider her major appearances in vernacular poetry. On a phenomenological level, we might compare Nature's mode of represented allegorical speech to what happens in the modern theater: while the audience is not the direct addressee of the actors on stage, we are nonetheless caught up in in the moral urgency of the action due to proximity and presence. It is through a similar pretense of simulated immediacy—the reader or hearer being hailed by the speaking abstraction—that allegorical address excites intentional ethical engagement on the part of the audience. Our own implicit textual presence (self-consciously mediated through the poetic ego) makes us party to the philosophical arguments on display. While modern poststructuralist critics have been critical of such appeals to presence (particularly to voice as a guarantor of presence), medieval poets found the fiction of allegorical presence, along with its accompanying voice, necessary for the ethical ends they wished to pursue.
In thinking through such tendencies, my work follows the lead of Barbara Johnson who has perceptively explored the politics of voice by asking what it means to treat a theory as an animate being. In a series of important books, Johnson argues that "the throwing of voice, the giving of animation" has identifiable material effects. In her essay "Women and Allegory" Johnson explores what happens when an abstraction such as "theory" gets embodied and subsequently impressed into the service of an institution such as the Royal Academy, one whose job it was to teach theory to young artists as they set out to copy a feminized Nature. A female Theory is much like a female Nature insofar as both raise the question of whether the abstraction is found ("out there" in the world) or made (through consensus and "universal opinion"). Allegorized Theory, according to Johnson, is not "a literal representation of a woman" but rather "an enabling figure for the production of male artists." As we will see in this book, speaking for medieval Nature enabled male poets and natural philosophers to speak against previous authorities on an array of aesthetic, scientific, and theological issues.
Giving a voice to nature was thus more than a progymnasmatic exercise. If voice is often imagined as an agent of subjectivity—one that stands in metonymically for a self—the voice of medieval Nature is especially complex as it seems to issue from multiple places simultaneously. Nature moves between being an "it"—a set of impersonal, immaterial inclinations that determine the sublunary world—and being a "she"—an autonomous agent capable of sometimes capricious activity. In this ambiguity, we see how the figure of Nature spatializes a particular set of problems around embodiment common to both poetry and natural philosophy. If patristic writers imagined allegory as a mode of mediation between the human and the divine—Gregory the Great had memorably compared allegory to a machine that lifts the soul up to God—so too medieval poets used the figure of Nature to articulate how to close a distance that was imagined to be both spiritual and ontological. In lending abstract concepts a concrete form, allegory was a master trope that seemed to engage in a kind of substantial, formal alchemy. For natural philosophers and theologians, nature similarly came to stand in for a set of concerns over how the material world was potentially shaped by the immaterial forces that governed it and, perhaps most important, for how the physical body stood in relation to the soul that guided it.
Nature makes such problems visible across an array of textual genres, and, in both poetry and physics, personified Nature functions as a site of ontological mediation, a place where material things get converted into immaterial ideas and vice versa. This tropological mutuality stands in contrast to the more common modern model of allegory that often envisions this transformation as a unidirectional, universalizing movement. A transcendentalizing discourse, allegory is often seen to serve not just abstraction but philosophical idealism, to bestow a discursive body on an immaterial concept in order to press it into a regime of signification. On this account, allegorical figures, vehicles for transcendental subjectivity, aid individuals in their quest to overcome what is experienced as a necessary opposition between self and the world around the self, between, in medieval terms, the microcosm and the macrocosm. Accounts such as these have encouraged literary critics to study the relation of allegory to metaphysics. Attention to the medieval personification of Nature, by contrast, invites us to conceptualize the relation of allegory to physics, a physics that hypothesizes a passable boundary between self and world. As a "spatialized" moral abstraction, Natura was a fitting tropological counterpart to the "placialized" ethics that characterized Aristotelian thought.
This aspect of Nature's personification—her ability convert the tangible into the intangible and then convert it back again—may be responsible for her ubiquity in late medieval poetry, as poets came to see her as a particularly useful (or, in some cases, particularly dangerous) topos. If linguistic iterability is the precondition for the legibility of any sign, the reappearance of medieval Lady Nature suggests a need to redefine her poetic powers in relation to changing academic understandings of her philosophical potency. Vernacular poets self-consciously referred back to her earlier incarnations, whether it is Chaucer's invocation of Alan of Lille's Nature in the Parliament of Fowls or Guillaume de Deguileville's subtle yet pointed repurposing of Alan's epithets for Nature in his Pèlerinage de vie humaine. Given this genealogy, when allegorized Nature speaks, we must listen not just to what she says but to what she fails to say, since her strategic silences sometimes speak louder than her words.
The Physics of Love
When medieval Nature spoke, it was not always in the personified voice of the vicaria dei or even in that of her own deputy, Aristotle. Sometimes it was in the clerkly voice of the narrator, as in the opening of the "General Prologue" of the Canterbury Tales or in the encyclopedic passages of John Gower's Confessio Amantis. Sometimes Nature even spoke through one of her own creatures. Talking animals—another version of prosopopeia—may strike the modern reader as embarrassing at best or the height of coercive anthropomorphism at worst. Yet medieval poets used these personifications to raise questions about where the human stood in relation to a nonhuman world that was rarely imagined as silent or inert. The animal voice was particularly useful for exploring the problem of human exceptionalism in relation to love and sexual governance: to what extent is the human ruled by the same "prikke," or natural appetite, that governs the wakeful birds at the opening of the Canterbury Tales? The answer to this question lay as much in the domain of physics as it did in the realm of psychology, since these natural inclinations were thought to work on all physical substances in a similar manner. A talking animal is therefore an ideal spokesperson to foreground the problem of what inclinations are truly shared among the various steps of the scala naturae. To take just one example, Chaucer's House of Fame (ca. 1380) purports to document how a poet acquires knowledge of love about which to write. Yet the structure of the House of Fame seems to undermine the project that it sets in place, jumping from a discussion of, first, the love of Dido for Aeneas, then, the logistics of how sound travels, and, finally, the fickleness of fame with respect to the reception of the classical past. One of the most notoriously perplexing passages in an admittedly perplexing poem is the unexpected appearance of the garrulous eagle guide in the middle of the dream vision, a moment where science is self-consciously vernacularized through the trope of prosopopeia.
As Chaucer's most relentless partisan of "experience," the pedantic eagle of the House of Fame serves as perhaps the best vantage point in Chaucer's canon from which to understand the competing claims of experience and authority that lie at the heart of academic natural philosophical practice and Chaucer's poetic project. Sent by Jupiter to remedy the poet's lack of inspiration, the eagle laments that the eponymous narrator "Geoffrey" has run out of poetic matere: he has neither
Of Loves folk yf they be glade,
Ne of noght elles that God made.
(644-46)The poem's announced project then is to give the poet not just news of human passions but also to provide him with information about the rest of the created world, a joining of courtly discourse with physical science that appears in many of Chaucer's poems. When the giant bird swoops down on the petrified narrator, terror soon gives way to monosyllabic amazement in the face of the eagle's scholastic exposition of how such "tydynges" travel to their intended destination, the House of Fame. A stalwart adherent to the exigencies of proof and experience, Chaucer's eagle launches into a lengthy explanation of the basics of Aristotelian sound theory—a monologue over 150 lines long containing many of the natural philosophical buzzwords of the day, including "proof," "experience," and "kynde." Consequently, the narrator finds himself, not another Ganymede swept up to serve Jupiter's pleasure, but rather a university student trapped in a protracted exposition of Aristotelian laws of motion. After explaining how bodies seek their own elemental places on account of natural inclination, the eagle offers an analogy of how sound waves travel by multiplying in the air:
Now herkene wel, for-why I wille
Tellen the a proper skille
And a worthy demonstracion
In myn ymagynacion.
Geffrey, thou wost ryght wel this,
That every kyndely thyng that is
Hath a kyndely stede ther he
May best in hyt conserved be;
Unto which place every thyng
Thorgh his kyndely enclynyng
Moveth for to come to
Whan that hyt is awey therfro.
The eagle's phrase "demonstracion in myn imagynacioun" is the Middle English equivalent of the scholastic demonstration secundum imaginationem
. The eagle's language here invokes not imagination in its role in faculty psychology, but instead the usual rhetorical formula that introduces the scholastic thought experiment, an alternative version of experience that buttresses the arguments he will later denominate as "proof by experience." The fourteenth-century rise in the argument secundum imaginationem
was, according to Edward Grant, directly attributable to late thirteenth-century controversy over Aristotelian science that encouraged natural philosophers and theologians to imagine worlds in which God's absolute power could produce any variety of effects short of a logical contradiction. The eagle's thought experiment imagines how the matere
of love reaches the House of Fame by explaining the material science behind it: invisible sound waves act like their visible counterparts, as when a pebble is tossed into water. In the case of broken air, sound rises because it lacks its natural place in the heavens. The eagle's monologue offers a syllogistic understanding of (first) how all things seek their desired places in the physical world in order to understand (next) why sound travels toward the House of Fame in order (finally) for the poet to acquire "tidings" of which he can write. In this scheme, the House of Fame is a place that directed the movements of both sound as elemental air and the humans who came into contact with it. It functions as a spatialized cause demonstrating the Aristotelian power of place that so interested medieval philosophers and poets alike.
Like the eponymous narrator "Geoffrey," modern literary critics have often been struck mute by the eagle's syllogistic reasoning. Some have pigeonholed it as light comic relief—a parody of dry scholastic method; others have seen it as an example of crass empiricism to be condemned. Yet the eagle's speech, no matter how long-winded, actually reveals a necessary fact about the narrator's poetic vocation. In order to get new poetic matere, whether of love or anything else, the poet must be schooled as well in how the matter of the created world works. In her foundational reading of this poem, Sheila Delany argues for the importance of the eagle's lecture as evidence of an early stage in the narrator's progression from a reliance on merely empirical knowledge ("experience") to a "leap of faith" that lets him ascend to more divine ways of knowing. On this view, Geoffrey's initial skepticism is shown to be "fideistic," since, in the final accounting, the poem is written "al for our doctrine" as Chaucer's Nun's Priest (echoing Paul) puts it. In this scheme, the eagle represents the "limits of science" that the narrator must transcend. The context of the eagle's speech on sound has been most thoroughly considered by Martin Irvine, who finds similarities between it and Stoic grammatical theory, particularly commentaries on Priscian that discuss vox. While grammatical theory is one possible source for discussions of voice, the eagle's "proof by experience" could also have been taken directly from Thomas Aquinas's well-known and widely circulated commentary on Aristotle's De anima, wherein he treats sound theory in general and voice in particular. Sometimes following Aristotle, sometimes following other commentators such as Boethius, Aquinas rehearses the argument that sound is generated by striking air (the eagle's assertion that "soun ys noght but eyr ybroken," 765) and includes the example of the stone thrown into water as an illustration of the multiplication of sound. Whichever source or sources Chaucer may have drawn upon, none would likely have included what seem to be characteristically Chaucerian additions: that even tiny sounds such as those "piped of a mous" (785) would be subject to such multiplication or that these multiplying circles would begin only the size of a pot lid ("covercle") before widening from shore to shore. It is also important to emphasize that the eagle's speech has thematic and stylistic affinities with the extra-academic dissemination of scientific knowledge found in texts such as the anonymous fourteenth-century Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy, a sometimes convoluted attempt to reconcile physical and cosmic influences with human volition, and Évrart de Conty's early fifteenth-century Le livre des Eschez amoureux moralisés, a poetic commentary that includes, among its abundance of natural philosophical material, a long discussion of the properties of place and natural motion. While we may not assign Chaucer's source with absolute certainty, such a domestication of his scholastic material would certainly be humorous to his contemporary audience. What is also clear is that a learned audience would recognize this argument as one taken from a written commentary tradition—a "proof by experience" penned from the auctorite of old books rather than from the eagle's own personal experience.
The question remains, however: why did Chaucer plunk down a university physics lesson at this particular point in the middle of a poem ostensibly about love, reputation, and the transmission of both through time? Like previous critics such as Delany and Irvine, I understand the eagle's lecture to be concerned with the vagaries of knowledge production itself, an interest shared by scholastic culture and popular literature alike. In focusing on Aristotelian natural philosophy instead of skepticism or rhetoric, however, I shift the poem's center of philosophical gravity by arguing that epistemological concerns are shown to be the result of ontological ones. The eagle's speech looks both backward and forward to the wider problem of how "kyndely enclynyng" may potentially operate or fail to operate in the human world, a set of ideas that are tested out in the rest of the poem. The House of Fame is often considered by critics to be a series of narrative non sequiturs: the first book rehearses the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil and Ovid; the second is primarily taken up with the eagle's physics lesson and the narrator's flight to the House of Fame; while the final book describes Fame's unnatural palace and its inhabitants, including many of Chaucer's most significant classical sources. The reader can easily succumb to a case of literary whiplash due to the constant change of venue.
Despite the seeming disparateness of subject matter, it is the idea of inclination, in the guise of necessity and contingency, that gets tested in each of the three books. By apposition, we are invited to reframe retrospectively the love story of the first book: To what extent is Dido's inclination to love Aeneas predetermined? Aeneas's to leave her? The narrator makes conflicting statements about these dispositions to love. Following his classical sources, the narrator shows us how the actions of both Dido and Aeneas result from Venus's intervention in her son's destiny. If this is the case, how can Dido be blamed by the narrator as a woman who "loved al to sone a gest"(288), who "doth amys / To love hym that unknowen ys" (269-70)? How can Aeneas be condemned as "unkyndely" (295)? The unreliability of the narrator takes a particular form here that we might term "narrative voluntarism"; the narrator asserts that the decisions both to love and to leave were acts of free will, even in the face of classical accounts which show them to be predetermined. Book 1 is less about two incompatible truths—Dido's versus Aeneas's—than it is about the narrator's insistence that both characters possess full agency even as they simultaneously act in accordance with "kynde" (280) and at the behest of the gods (240-44; 427-32).
In scholastic thought, it was inclinatio that was seen to link the appetites of matter with the appetites of men. Inclination had always been a special power for Aristotle: it was the "ability to be moved" that inheres in elemental matter and hence in all bodies formed out of them (including the human). In his discussion in De caelo 4.1 of why light elements such as air ascend and heavy elements such as earth descend, he defines inclination as "the power of being moved naturally in a certain way." Inclination is therefore indispensable for understanding nature more generally because "the inquiry into nature is concerned with movement and these things [i.e., all elemental bodies] have in themselves some spark (as it were) of movement." At its most basic level, this is the framework in which the eagle's discussion of the "kyndely enclynyng" of sound as broken air in the House of Fame should be understood. Moreover, this "ability to be moved" posed several related questions for medieval scholastics: Is inclination the same in humans as in the rest of the nonhuman world? What appetites could potentially incline the will? Is the will itself an inclination? Or does it possess inclinations? As we have seen, the theories of inclination introduced briefly in the Physics and more fully in De caelo would also appear in medieval theological works theorizing the will. In his Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas argued that, in all appetites, love was what moved the subject toward its object or end. As a type of mover, love operates in both the physical and the metaphysical realms:
Now in each one of these appetites, the name love is given to the principle of movement towards the end loved. In the natural appetite the principle of this movement is the appetitive subject's connaturalness [connaturalitas] with the thing to which it tends, and may be called natural love [amor naturalis]: thus the connaturalness of a heavy body for the centre is by reason of its weight and may be called natural love. In like manner the aptitude of the sensitive appetite of the will to some good, that is to say, its very complacency in good, is called sensitive love, or intellectual or rational love [amor sensitvus, vel intellectivus, seu rationalis].
As Paul Hoffman observes, this passage suggests that, for Aquinas, humans are affected by both inclinations in the will (or rational appetite) as well as those in the sensitive appetite. But the implications of this statement are even more radical. Aquinas goes on to say that natural love is not just confined to those things with vegetative souls, "but in all the soul's powers, and also in all the parts of the body and universally in all things" (sed in omnibus potentiis animae, et etiam in omnibus paribus corporis, et universaliter in omnibus rebus). Aquinas's formulation suggests shared appetitive tendencies among all ontological categories. It shows, succinctly, why inclination was the stage on which medieval writers debated problems of both determinism and human exceptionalism. This passage puts its finger on what is at the heart of the problem of House of Fame
(and, more generally, the problem of a personified Nature for the writers considered throughout the rest of the book): what do love and physics have to do with each other? To what extent does the connaturalitas
inherent in persons and things overlap?
The orthodox position was that they do not. The human will is never subject to external influences that may potentially predispose the will to act in a certain way; it operates wholly autonomously. This view was codified in the far-reaching 1277 condemnation that censured, among other tenets of moral and natural philosophy, the Aristotelian view that the human will was potentially subject to outside pressures. This debate over the will did not end in the late thirteenth century, however; the problem of what may or may not incline the human will was the subject of vigorous debate for fourteenth-century theologians such as Scotus, Ockham, and Bradwardine who continued to argue over whether or not the rational intellect could be influenced by what it perceived around it or by wider cosmic influences that drove nonhuman processes of sublunar growth and change. Increasingly, the debate centered on the relative autonomy of the will in a world understood to be strafed by vectors of determining forces, whether imagined as elemental, planetary, or humoral. This model of inclination was thought to be dangerous because it potentially vitiated human free will. If the soul moves in just the same way as rocks or broken air, human choice has very little moral purchase. But conversely, if it is completely autonomous, what guarantees its tending toward the good?
The eagle's speech, placed as it is in the center of the poem, acts as a fulcrum between the problematic visions of determinism and contingency in the other two books. The "kyndely enclyning" episode dramatizes the amor naturalis of sound seeking its aery home, an episode that is sandwiched between two episodes of amor intellectivus. It acts as the hinge between book 1, an episode of pagan determinism misread by the narrator, either through ignorance or willfulness, as a question of the misuse free will, and book 3, which dramatizes Fame's utter contingency as a purveyor of reputation and the sometimes dubious attempts of classical authors to refashion these ad hoc accounts into stable historical narrative. In the last book, Fame, unconstrained by any necessity whatsoever, is free to assign reputation as fairly or unfairly as she sees fit, resulting in the ethical bedlam that is the House of Fame, a world where the links between intention, action, and reputation are shown to be haphazard. "A femynyne creature, / That never formed by Nature / Nas" (1365-67), she is a figure of contingency whose behavior contrasts tellingly with the regular movements of the natural world described at such length by the eagle. Finally, the Trojan writers, Chaucer's own literary antecedents, are shown to behave in a similarly fickle manner. Their conflicting accounts of similar historical events result in nothing but "a ful confus matere" (1517). Like the musicians sitting outside Fame's palace, these Trojan writers attempt to mimic experience in words, "as craft countrefeteth kynde" (1213). Chaucer's poem shows the difficulties of art representing nature and links it with the even more intractable problem of defining a nature that seeks to limit the workings of amor naturalis in the human.
As opaque as its structure may seem to us moderns, the House of Fame's appositive form makes clear that the Chaucerian imaginary was one that delighted in interrupting or suspending the usual teleologies. Chaucer loved the "what if" of the scholastic thought experiment: What would happen if Aeneas did not have to leave Dido, if Rome were not founded, if medieval Londoners (including Geoffrey Chaucer) were not subject to its cultural hegemony, living, as they did, in New Troy? And most important for Chaucer, what happens if writers were not subject to the determining inheritance of classical auctores? In portraying the human world as utterly contingent and the natural world as utterly regular and rule-bound, Chaucer suggests that to make the two realms mutually exclusive, to see the human as exceptional to "kynde" in all ways, runs the risk of creating moral and historical chaos, even as it seems to offer the promise of appealing freedoms, whether literary or theological.
Some of the questions that most interested Chaucer—the nature of necessity and contingency; the position of the human vis-à-vis the nonhuman; the interaction between spirit and matter—were also being debated within the university at a time when theology and natural philosophy had struggled, and largely failed, to find compatible answers to them. In typically Chaucerian fashion, the House of Fame parodies what contemporary scholastics treat in earnest. The eagle's speech is more than just a science joke that is no longer funny, however. This caricature is embedded in a poem that, like academic traditions of natural philosophy, expresses skepticism about past authority, whether it be the authority of Aristotle and Plato or classical poets such as Virgil and Ovid.
In Chaucer's poetry more generally, a reflexive belief in free will or its opposite, determinism, is usually shown to be naive. For Chaucer, the interesting questions appear to be: Where is the middle ground? Up to what point can human and nonhuman behaviors be seen as coextensive? To what extent is the "physics of the will" really physical? Chaucer's poetic engagement with nature and naturalism in the House of Fame is not an argument for Chaucer as a skeptic in the sense that he radically doubted the possibility of knowledge or belief (my argument is not a version of the secularization thesis in either its weak or strong forms). Rather, Chaucer's naturalism suggests that he is one of those medieval authors who, as the philosopher Dominik Perler observes of university writers, could adopt a skeptical method "by presenting arguments that refute a certain conception of knowledge and attempt to introduce a new one." The appositive style of the House of Fame is but one example of Chaucer's skeptical method, a juxtaposition of human and natural models of inclinatio that questions how knowledge of the literary past and the physical present are constituted and coentwined.
No matter what medieval voice nature spoke in, whether personified magistra, learned clerk, or chatty bird, the lessons learned from that speech point us toward what physics and fiction shared in the premodern period: that all ethics have a grounding in physics and that what we believe about how the material world functions largely determines what we believe about how humans make their precarious way in the world often aided only by sensory experience and the authority of old books. When Chaucer displaces these questions about free will and determinism back into pagan antiquity—a rhetorical move he repeats throughout his career—he is responding to the aftershocks of the controversy over Aristotelian philosophy that attempted to prescribe the ways in which "experience" and "authority" could be understood and configured. For Chaucer, the past was the laboratory in which he could measure the binding course of natural processes against the apparent spontaneity of human action. The eagle's speech is therefore not just ornamental scientific allusion, but rather the index of a "climate of opinion," in Alfred North Whitehead's phrase, one that shaped Chaucer's outlook, imbuing problems such as the relation of inclination to free will with urgency while rendering others dull or irrelevant. As I will argue in succeeding chapters, this climate of opinion was one in which poetry and natural philosophy, physics and fiction, spoke to the same issues, raised similar challenges, and even posed comparable dangers. Natural philosophy and poetry were both places from which writers could analyze the ethical implications of representing the material world and of choosing whether to locate the human either within or outside of it. This is not to suggest that scientific literature was the primary impetus behind the vernacular poetry considered throughout this book. Rather, it is to argue that the ways in which a particular group of poets, all interested in the problem of nature, framed ethical problems was part of a larger cultural movement to question the relative value of terms such as "experience," "authority," and "kind." This questioning happened in formal, dialectical terms in arts faculties, but theirs was not the only domain in which this questioning occurred. The project of this book is thus to analyze this climate of opinion, one that made such a shared enterprise evident to Chaucer's early readers but that became less legible with the demise of Aristotelian natural philosophy and the changing aesthetic priorities that marked the early modern period, a time when Aristotle came to be identified more readily in the vernacular as the author of the Rhetoric, the Ethics, and the Poetics rather than the Physics or the other libri naturales.
Plan of the Book
As I have already suggested, the goal of this book is not merely to clarify local representations of nature made by medieval poets (such as Chaucer's avian physicist), or, in a less generous reading, to explain all of the most boring bits of medieval vernacular poetry to modern readers. Neither do I seek a comprehensive account of "medieval nature," for, were such an enterprise feasible, it would surely include, inter alia, the Latin and Anglo-Saxon versions of the Physiologus, say, or Adelard of Bath's Quaestiones naturales. Such texts, written before the full translation of Aristotle's works had transformed the thirteenth-century university, ask very different questions about nature than their later medieval counterparts. In focusing on how medieval poetry allegorized nature from the late thirteenth century to the fifteenth century, this book argues that the rhetorical strategies of these later medieval poets get charged with the polarities of scholastic debate over how the natural environment could potentially signify.
Following the most far-reaching censures of Aristotle's science in Paris and Oxford in the 1270s, debates over natural philosophy shaped the authorial subject positions available to writers, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
Were this book to undertake the narrower task of examining how nature was represented in late medieval British literature, a reader might reasonably expect to find whole chapters on the Gawain-poet, Gower, and Langland, not to mention Robert Henryson and John Metham, writers less well-known today but no less conversant with the language of scholastic science than their predecessors considered here. While there are many narratives about nature in late medieval literature, this book concentrates on the one that issues from Nature's own mouth. I focus on those authors whose poetry self-consciously connects the extended personification of Nature to their own aesthetic projects as well as to academic debates over natural necessity, will, and inclination. In concentrating on four vernacular writers who were all notably popular in England—Jean de Meun, Guillaume de Deguileville, Chaucer, and John Lydgate—the book outlines a genealogy of poets who were not only sensitive to academic debates over the status of material science, but who also wove commentaries on this science into their allegories as a way to speak back to, and at times, intervene in university debates. These poets all engage a specific set of problems, a set that includes: the inclinations inherent in both people and things; the relative value of experience; the charisma of nature; love as a material as well as spiritual force; and conflicting models of natural and theological ideas of necessity. While not exhaustive, such topics are, to borrow a term from natural philosophy, the "substantial forms" that mark out these poets as part of a recognizable literary tradition.
The argument about this tradition offered here is at once literary, historiographical, and more generally philosophical. At its most fundamental, it asks why this habit of allegorizing nature as a person, whether as Magister Aristotle or Lady Nature, flourishes at this particular time and then traces the fortunes of these personified figures over the course of the late medieval period until their disappearance in the early modern period. It is not a coincidence that the efflorescence of personification allegory coincided with a scientific paradigm that analogized the human and the nonhuman in both its physics and its ethics. In seeking to trace the shifting moral authority of nature over this period, the book shows how these allegories respond to intense and local physicotheological pressures, conflicts between those who saw nature's influence in the realm of the human to be consequential and those who would discount it altogether. In these four poets, we are given discrete snapshots of a diachronic debate at particular places and times, taken at an ever-increasing distance from the twelfth-century "birth of nature" and the tradition of Latin integumental allegory that accompanied it. For these later poets, the place of the human was as central a philosophical problem as it was for the academic writers whom they read. This overlapping set of concerns allows us to view the problem of human exceptionalism from a variety of perspectives and to discern the highly textured nature of these discussions, filled with nuanced ontological distinctions and even more surprising cospecies affiliations. It is not just that this popular literature refers us back to a set of scholastic debates that happened elsewhere or earlier (or both). This poetry is not just versified science, a compendium of watered-down academic debates. Rather, the popular and academic debates engage the same basic questions through similar rhetorical strategies. This is why natural philosophy is not just a "context" or "background" for medieval poetry, or in Lewis's phrase, "the Model" against which medieval poets expressed an independent poetic vision. For a certain segment of late medieval writers, how one understood the systemization of the world determined how one could write poetry about it.
This volume is divided into three parts. The first is devoted to how nature and natural philosophy are portrayed across the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as cosmographical models were transformed by translations of Greek science. As the role of Aristotelian learning in the thirteenth-century arts curriculum expanded, scholastics such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas sought to integrate this "new" science into Christian theology, to accommodate the ostensibly rule-driven laws of nature to sacramental culture. These Aristotelian models of nature did not immediately or decisively replace the Neoplatonic ones prevalent in the preceding century; instead, they came to exist side by side with them. This coexistence produced a "double tropology" of nature that found the same metaphors used to embody contrasting visions of nature. In the Neoplatonic version, physical entities are an emanation of God's self-contemplation; thus nature is imagined to be working from a transcendent plan whose reality was always located elsewhere. In the Aristotelian version, on the other hand, nature is a series of immanent causes, a serial process that imagined the Creator's hand at work within the earthly design rather than imposing it from without. In this system, a material thing does not just point abstractly to an absent divine signifier; instead, it is connected to the divine plan through its own program of becoming. The first chapter looks at several twelfth- and thirteenth-century tropes—the ladder, the ax, the book—that were regularly adopted to fit alternately transcendent and immanent views of how nature functioned. These figures were, as we will see, adopted by later medieval writers who used them to frame their own ideas about what kinds of meaning making were possible using the tools of the physical world.
These natural metaphors would come to carry more rhetorical weight as controversy over material science and the concomitant dangers of naturalism escalated. By the last quarter of the thirteenth century, how one read Nature's book, climbed her ladder, or wielded her ax came to serve as a barometer for the fluctuating theological pressures that would culminate in the most well-known censure of Aristotelian philosophy: in 1277, the bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, condemned over two hundred heretical propositions in a document that, among its propositions, censured the determinist dangers associated with so-called radical Aristotelianism, reaffirmed the necessity of divine omnipotence, and mandated a return to a more Augustinian model of an unfettered notion of the human will. In this atmosphere, biographical representations of Aristotle himself functioned as a conspicuous place from which to speak about the potential compatibility of Greek science and Christian doctrine. This chapter explores how conflicting accounts of Aristotle's death came to be a proxy for debates over the extent to which knowledge of the physical world could serve as an index to spiritual truth. The philosopher's end is described in a surprisingly wide variety of texts, from academic treatises such as the syncretic De pomo sive de morte Aristotilis to quodlibetal questions treating the philosopher's potential salvation to his representation in more popular genres such as universal histories, encyclopedias, and vernacular poetry. Surveying this field suggests that views on Aristotle's afterlife often served as a referendum on his natural philosophy.
The book's second part looks at how this controversy shaped the representational politics of two French poets, Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Deguileville, writers whose works would significantly determine what personified Nature would come to look like in late medieval England. This pair of writers establishes a vernacular vocabulary for debating what nature means and a standard for measuring the extent to which allegory can be a useful instrument for expressing that meaning. Read together, their very different portrayals of Lady Nature demonstrate that allegorizing nature was not just an aesthetic response to a previous literary tradition but also an engagement with contemporary philosophical tensions over inclination and exceptionalism. In his continuation of the Roman de la Rose, Jean de Meun depicts Lady Nature as obsessed with the interplay between human free will and natural necessity, a connection that, while not central to his twelfth-century cosmological models, was of pressing consequence in the late thirteenth-century Parisian environment in which Jean wrote. His capricious Lady Nature ventriloquizes the utter autonomy of divine choice and argues that a similar contingency is at work in the human will, a model promoted by orthodox theologians such as Bonaventure and affirmed in Tempier's 1277 condemnation. But if Nature now speaks for the freedom of the human will, who is left to speak for the inexorable laws of nature? Jean's poem explores the logical consequences of this paradox, a philosophical experiment whose disturbing results Jean bequeaths to the vernacular poets who followed him.
Writing a half century later, the Cistercian Guillaume de Deguileville portrays Nature in his Pèlerinage de vie humaine as a braying old woman, a stark contrast to the magisterial, if somewhat fickle, Lady Nature of Jean's continuation of the Rose. Deguileville's Nature, incapable of understanding her place in the divine order of things, proves to be a source of error rather than enlightenment. Although Deguileville is usually described as a conservative writer whose allegories promote a literary agenda just as orthodox (and unremarkable) as his theological one, Chapter 4 argues that Deguileville's personification of Nature is quite radical: he intentionally departs from previous allegorical archetypes that located (even qualified) moral authority within nature. For Deguileville, nature cannot be a source of moral value in a world truly governed by grace. Having discarded this model of natural mimesis, Deguileville must now outline a new ethical poetics, one that audaciously presents the poet as the mediator whose works ensure a moral continuity between material and immaterial realms, a continuity previously underwritten by Nature herself.
The writings of Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Deguileville, both immensely popular in late medieval England, offer contrasting visions of how a vernacular poet could describe Nature's rule and, consequently, appropriate her authority. The book's third part examines how these ideas about natural necessity influenced English literary culture, first in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and, a few decades later, in a pair of translations attributed to his self-anointed protégé, John Lydgate. Chaucer's interest in this problem is evident in the two places where he personifies Nature: first, in his early dream vision the Parliament of Fowls and, subsequently, in the Physician's Tale. These two poems may initially appear to have little in common—one a comic beast fable, the other a pagan exemplum involving child sacrifice—but both poems test out the ambivalent effects of a highly contingent Nature, one who presides over a world ruled by the contrary forces of what Chaucer terms "hap" (destiny) and "eleccion" (free will) in the Parliament of Fowls. Chapter 5 argues that both Chaucerian poems deploy the terminology of will and physical inclination that, while polarized by the preceding century's condemnations of Aristotelian science, had continued to be used by fourteenth-century theologians even as they began to suspect that too much contingency could be just as dangerous as too little. In the Parliament of Fowls, the relaxing of Nature's exigency results in the temporary suspension of sexual reproduction, while in the Physician's Tale appeals to natural familial feelings produce a more radical enforcement of chastity, one that issues from imagining divine omnipotence as a model for the freedom of the human will.
Around the same time that Chaucer's eagle guide was advocating for the rule of natural reason in the House of Fame, this principle was becoming the object of orthodox theological suspicion in a debate that was to have far-reaching religious and literary consequences in fifteenth-century Britain. By the end of the fourteenth century, Wycliffite critiques of sacramental culture were perceived to stem, in part, from Aristotelian rationalist leanings, an overdependence on what came to be called "kyndely resoun." As opposed to the situation in France where the translation of Aristotle's scientific treatises had been encouraged (as we see in Nicole Oresme's writings), such large-scale translation of "philosophie" did not occur in England. The English intellectual environment produced not vernacular science but rather mythographic translations that sought to return to earlier allegorical models of nature. Chapter 6 examines two such translations attributed to the Benedictine monk and poet John Lydgate, Reson and Sensuallyte (a rendering of the anonymous Eschéz d'Amours) and the Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (a verse version of Deguileville's Pèlerinage de vie humaine). Both translations revisit the Roman de la Rose and the debates it inspired in order to argue, once again, for the unassailable position of theology over natural philosophy, Diana over Venus. While each translation offers a different hermeneutics of nature, their respective rhetorical strategies suggest that the rationalist stakes were substantially different than they had been when Chaucer was writing just a few decades earlier. In seeking to recover an orthodox model of "kyndely resoun," both translations show just how difficult that enterprise was to become once natural reason had become tainted through association with unorthodoxy.
The book concludes by turning to the question of what early modern readers understood when they heard the voice or, rather, voices of medieval Nature. While it is not the case that the Renaissance witnessed "the death of nature" (as some critics have claimed), this period at least marked the silencing of the personified allegory of Nature as a compelling rhetorical device, a figure who has her last great outing in Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Spenser's personification self-consciously rewrites his medieval inheritance, separating off Nature's poetic moral authority from her role as mutable physis, that engine of natural cyclical change that was formerly the domain of medieval natural philosophy. It is no coincidence that this allegorical Nature disappears from poetry even as Aristotelian physics was gradually dismantled over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time when it becomes progressively more difficult to see the medieval writers discussed here as Aristotle's heirs in "philosophie."
Looking back to a moment where physics and fiction writing were seen as complimentary ways of exploring the natural world, as this book does, allows us to see another consequence of the Renaissance shift away from Aristotle's science. As the Aristotelian drama of inclination gave way to the placeless interaction of mechanical forces and to the declinatio or clinamen—the swerve described by the newly rediscovered Lucretius—natural motivation migrated from something inherent in bodies to something outside of them. The consequence for literary history is that we no longer see late medieval vernacular poetry as participating in one of its most important vocations: weighing sources of inclination in a world where neither the human nor the environment held full sway. In jettisoning Aristotle's natural philosophy but keeping the ethics and the moral philosophy that grew out of it, early modernity sealed the border between love and physics, the humanities and the sciences, the moral Chaucer and the natural philosophical Chaucer. I say this not to romanticize the Aristotelian understanding of the natural world, but to show that our own recasting of the founding distinctions of modernity is itself an artifact of the history it purports to displace. On the broadest level, this book allows us to see what was lost—to literature, to science—during the early modern period when Lady Nature and the natural philosophy she emblematized went out of fashion.