Typology and Secular Literature: Some Medieval Problems and Examples [Robert Hollander]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert Hollander

Tratto da: Literary uses of typology : from the late Middle Ages to the present

Editore: Princeton University Press, Princeton

Anno: 1977

Pagine: 3-19

Critics of medieval literature have recently been increasingly involved in the importation of biblical typology to the study of secular literature, Although I am not in the best position to admit my own discomfort with some ol the resulting critical procedures, I am glad to see that others aré beginning to make their discomfori heard. Put in the sim plest terms, the problem has evolved from a total or at least near-total neglect of the typological aspects of secular works to a current situation in which the temptation to claim typology as a meaninglul critical lens has perhaps, though not exhausting or even fulfilling the possibilities of such investigation, on occasion resulted in meaningless claims of the “typological” nature, or structure, or meaning ol secular works. Those of us who work in the “typological mode” are probably increasingly cager to put our investigations into a more orderel form - witness our conterence. At the least, we should like to be able to identify sure and certain cases of sccular borrowing of this single aspect ot biblical exegesis, to assert with at least a minimum of confidence that a given literary phenomenon is “typological” rather than anything else. The wish, it seems to me, is more readily fulfilled than the deed.
At the outset we should be willing to admit that two basic problems will always bedevil us. First, our authors were not always mindful of the sorts of distinctions we claim for them. To lodge this difficulty where it most likely belongs, we must say that writers are not always or even very often as literarily self-conscious as we their critics would like them to be. Further, though critics are often extremely imprecise, it is also true that writers are subject to the same failing. If we can say with reasonable certainty that some metlieval writers "used typology” in secular works, we should also admit that they did not all understand literary adaptations of typology in more than approximately similar ways. Second, and even more damaging, is our own imprecision. At the very least we bring to distant phenomena in evitable distortions of perspective; at the worst we import sloppiness and confusion. Problems of this kind assault all critical enterprises, but perhaps it is worth being reminded ol them - even if schematically - now that we have a new machine in which to jumble our inheritance of the past.

1. A tentative morphology of secular medieval literary adaptations of typology

1.1. Natural typology

Let me begin with a remark made some years ago by Gerhard von Rad, which steps back from scriptural exegesis to consider typology as a natural form of all human thought:

What we are accustomed to understand under the heading of typology is, in a broad sense, by no means a specifically theological concern or, indeed, a peculiarity of ancient Oriental thought. Rather, typological thinking is an elementary function of all human thought and interpretation… And, above all, without this interpretive, analogical sort of thinking there would be no poetry. The poet goes ceaselessly to and fro; he sees the often insignificant, obvious things and recognizes in them ultimate value. In the movements of the elements, the passing of the years and the days, in the most elementary relation. ships of man with man, in simple mechanical performances - in everything regularity reveals itself, in which the smallest as well as the greatest things participate.

One thing seems clear here. Whatever the merit of thus way of thinking about the roots of what we might call “the typological consciousness," it rends to make a conscious and highly developed system of thinking, like Christian typology, a sub-category of an independent kind of human awareness. The human perception of events that seem to occur in a pattern in time has given rise to various theories or doctrines of recurrence, We live - all of us do - with some kind of awareness of recurrence. However, it does little good to confound such theories of recurrence with Christian typology. They may in fact “explain” the “deeper structure” of typological thought. However, to thinkers like Paul, to Augustine, or even to Erasmus, von Rad's formulation would have seemed valueless because it fails to account for the unique and unparalleled nature of Christian exegesis. In the critical deliberations of literary students of Christian typology, natural typology should be kept as clearly as possible to one side. Not because its tenets are wrong, but because they are inapplicabile.

1.2. Historical Recurrence

Both life and literature afford us examples of attempis to create artificial and elaborate correspondences between a past person or event and a prescnt one. These may be undertaken bv (among others) rulers, or painters, or priests, or poets, and are undertaken in order to guarantee the authority or desirability either of themselves or of those they portray. (They may also be undertaken in order to undermine authority or to cause distaste.) In all cases a fairly elaborate demonstration is brought to bear in order to establish the credentials of the newcomer. It is not enough to compare him (or it) to notabile precursors. For, though topographical differences may exist, what is asserted is that y is the continuation of, the direct inheritor of the essential characteristics of, x. This kind of comparing is clearly separable from "natural typology” in a number of respects. The most important of these is that both x and y are highly charged with some kind of significance, different from all others, and the focus of a unique historical process. If y fulfill or continues x, it does so not as the sun comes back in the morning or the leaves come back in the spring, but as a valued and unique person or event establishes itself (or is said to be established) as that which was promised or prophesitd by a unique person or event in the past. Christian typology, it seems clear to me, developed as a particular and more highly articulated application of historical recurrenee. But before turning to our ostensible subject I should like to spend a moment with Vergil.
D.I.M. Drew, in The Allegory of the Aeneid, was, I believe, the first modern Virgilian to appreciate what might seem to us a “typological” structure in The Aeneid. He did so without beneht of clergy: “It is one of [Virgil's] methods to blend together events and scenes oi different dates…, historical facts which, if separated in their actual occurrence by time; are still the steps of one progression." Drew understood that a good deal of Virgilian effort went into the creation of an Aeneas who would clearlv serve as a worthx “prefiguration” (the word is mine, not Drew) of the great Augustus. In short, it would not be a dreadful breach of our post-Auerbachian literary language to say that for Drew Aeneas Augusti figura est. After Drew, many modern Virgilians do in fact understand that many of the scenes and actions of The Aeneid are handled in such a way as to show foreshadowings of Augustan history. It seems to me that if natural typology has little relevance to our deliberatione, historical recurrence, at least as it is employed by Virgil, has a great deal in common with Christian typology. Virgil's operative technique is to create a “historical” Aeneas whose very deeds look forward to and sacramentalize the current itecds of Augustus. In this sense Augustans read of Ageneas’ “defeat” of Dido as the promise of Augustus defeat of Cleopatra at Actium. The process is very like that by which Christians found a mysterium that revealed the evental coming of Jesus in such Old Testament scenes as Isaac's ascent of a hill encumbered by the wood which was to serve as the agency of his sicrifice, or Jonah's extraordinary tree days and nights in the belly of che great fish. Historical recurrence thus closely approximates Christian typology. Be fore I say something about the latter, let me try to make our task more difficult and our morphology more complete.

1.3. Decorative Typology

If, as no doubt occurred thousands of times in the recent past, enthusiasts for the New York Yankees (the very name of their city conforms to some kind of “typological” awareness) debated whether or not Mickey Mantle was the new Joe DiMaggio, we should not, it seems to me, either credit or blame them for being typologists. The example is chosen lightly, but che intent is serious. Let me continue with two medieval examples that pose a similar problem. In an early passage of his Letter to Cangrande, Dante praises his former protector in the following double simile: “As the Queen of the South made for Jerusalem, as Pallas Athena made for Helicon, so sought I Verona." To the modern reader innocent of the ways of typology the passage may seem merely otiosc. To one versed in thc types, then the praise may seem fulsome, the passage's source (in Matthew 12: 41-43, where Jonah is understood to have been a type of Christ) and language are ummistakably typological. It presents, indeed, a small and perfect example ot secular use of typological procedures drawn from the Bible. Further, it is especially Dantesque in thai it joins a moment from biblical history with one from pagan myth, and treats the two together as “historical” precedents of the current situation. But if this is typology, it is surely a forced and perhaps even playful adaptation of the method, and may even depend for its effect upon Cangrande's recognition of the technique as well as of its exaggerated, even strained, employment.
Let me add a second and similar example. In a letter to Niccola Acciaiuoli in 1341, Boccaccio, like Dante intending to flatter, has this to say: “Niccola, if any trust may he placed in those who are miserable, I swear to you by my suffering soul that the departure of Trojan Aeneas was not deeper sorrow to Carthaginian Dido than was yours to me... nor did Penelope long for Ulysses’ return more than I longed for yours." Boccaccio’s typolagical equation, whether it is heartfelt or playful, is perhaps more arresting than Dante's. For his referentiality is entirely pagan. Although it is possible to argue that no specifically Christian typological consideration lies behind Boccaccio piece of business, I think the argument that what one observes here is the Christian method turned into decorative literary convention is the better one. For it is probably correct to assert that in many medieval secular writers typology is, if not a forma mentis, at least a minor habit of mind. Yet that does not require that the modern critic, coming upon such passages as these, should argue from them that the works containing them are therefore to be considered typological in nature, In short, I would argue that in both cases (and in many others) decorative typology is merely a trope, one that may or may not indicate a larger typological interest in a given work, but that in itself confers no typological status on anything outside itself.

1.4. Christian typology

Again let me begin with an example - this time from modern literature.

“Your excellency," [Lebedyev speaks] “have you read in the papers of the murder of the Zhemarin family?" “Yes, answered Myshkin.
“Well, that's [pointing to his nephew, Doktorenko] the actual murderer of the Zhemarin family, there he is.”
“What do you mean, suid Myshkin.
"That is, allegorically speaking, the future second murderer of a future Zhemarin family, if such there be. He is preparing himself for it..."
Everybody laughed.

Here we have a pure and certain example of a literary use of Christian typology. Lebedyev, who likes to interpret the Apocalypse, is obvidusly an adept in typological thought. Until recently, it could be argued, not many literary critics understood exactly what Lebedyey meant by the word “allegorically.” But now that we do, can we say that The Idiot as a whole is in che typological mode? Or must we say only that this particular passage and others like it in the novel are instances of decorative typology? I leave this question unanswered to return to our medievals.
The current assault on secular medieval literature comes far short of asserting that all medieval literary works are significantly typological. Among the individual works that have recently been discussed as being typological, whether in whole or in part, are the following: Prudentius’ Psychomachia, Ambrose's hymns, the Old English Advent, Dante's Vita Nuova and Commedia, The Pearl, and Piers Plowman. In all these works, as well as in some others, what has come to be perceived is that typological exegesis corresponds only to the typological procedures of the work itself - at least that is the claim chat is made. The work may “mean” roughly what we always thought it meant, but what we have now is a clearer sense of its precise mode of signifying - if not in its entirety, at least in its parts. And some of our sense of its meaning is as a result greatly changed. Perhaps one fault of typological criticism is that it tends to fail to point out the changing and even idiosyncratic quality of a given author's use of the technique. For instance, I would argue that this mode stands importantly behind Dante's Vita Nuova, is almost entirely absent from the Convivio, and is importantly present in the text of the Commedia. Further, I would want to distinguish Dante's involvement with typology from that of his two great near-contemporaries, Boccaccio and Petrarch, who hardly ever evince typological concerns in their literary productions. Some further thoughts along these lines will occupy the concluding part of these remarks.

1.5. "Improper" christian typology

Here I do not join forces with those theologians who wish to consider such figures as the priest Melchizedek or Abraham's three hundred eighteen servants as the forced (and false) typological inventions of over-enthusiastic early Fathers, reserving the status of “true types” only to those Old Testament personages or events explicitly referred to in the New Testament. I wish instead to deal with, or at least indicate, some kinds of “improper” typology we find in medieval secular literary texts. For, as I suggest at the outset, writers art not bound to use a convention in ways that we their critics would call logical or orthodox. Two major cases im point occur whenever individuals or events are said to be, or aee treated as, types of an abstract virtue or vice, or else to be significative of an allegorical meaning that is similar to that found in interpretations of parable. I ofter examples from Dante.
In Paradiso 25, 31-33, Beatrice addresses St. James: "Make hope resound unto this height; thou art able, who didst figure it [che... la figuri] as many times as Christ showed greatest favor to the three." The three are Peter, James, and John, who were alone with Jesus at the Transfiguration, in Gethsemane, and at the raising of Jairus’ daughter. James, a historical (indeed biblical) character, is suit to have "figured hope”. This is not “proper" typology. But that it was practiced by Christian exegetes as well as secular writers is made plain by Migne's “Index Allegoriarum." In short, it is “orthodox improper typology."
An example of the second kind of “improper” typology referred to above may also be found in Dante, and also relates to the Transfiguration, which, according to Connivio, 2, 1,5, signifies in its moral sense not that we should be transfigured within (I mean only to suggest an acceptable “orthodox" third sense), but that “in the most secret things we should have little company." Here a sacred text is being treated as though it were a fable that yields an allegorical meaning to the scrutinizer—not as historical event that looks back to a previous historical event (the transfiguration of Moses) and forward to its presence in the heart and mind of the contemporary Christian, and to its final validity in the Last Things or in the fullfillment of Eternity. Here again Dante is the child of the theologians of the Middle Ages, who were often rempted - especially in sermons - to use the third sense loosely rather than strictly, and as an occasion for fairly free moralizing. Of the four senses of medieval exegesis the third was the most fluid, probably because the other three were so evidentiy rooted in a particular time (the Old Testament, the Gospels, Eternity), and the moral or tropological sense, though it referred to the present, tended to ride upon a freer interpretive axis, the embattled soul of the believer.
There is another kind of “improper" typology; it is even more widespread among men of letters and is, for obvious reasons, peculiar to them. Here a fictional being or event is taken as prefigurative or postfigurative of an actual being or event. We may think of Dante's use of mythical or fictional characters as “types” of himsell - e.g., Theseus in Inferno 9, or Glaucus in Paradiso 1. Here the question involves not so much a logically “improper” manipulation of a technique of exegesis, one shared by theologians as well, but a literary importation of the technique. The critic is embarrassed by riches and the difficulty of distinguishing among them. We may think of cases as varied as that of Ulysses tied to the mast (who, for the wilder set of Ovid's interpreters, prefigured Christ on the Cross) and Boccaccio's Fiammetta (who, in several scenes of the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, “postfigures” Seneca's Phaedra). This varied form of literary adaptation of typology is probably the one that has widest currency im the Middle Ages.
This brief and surely incomplete morphology may serve to indicate the sort of distinctions we probably ought to be ready to entertain before setting to work on typological excgesis of medieval secular texts. If the morphology indicates some of our problems, I propose now to examine some examples of what seem to me clear cases of secular uses of Christian typology.

2. Typology in medieval secular Itterature: some examples

2.1. Prudentius

Until recently Prudentius' Psychomachia was considered the very model of a kind of allegorizing that generaliy is understood to have little in common with typology. Such distinguished critics as C.S. Lewis have helped to keep hidden the typological element in Prudentius' most influential work. Even Erich Auerbach, who did more to revive awareness o typology than any other literary critic, explicitly denies the presence of typological techniques in the Psychomachia. Recently H. R. Jauss has established a better way of seting the basic modes ot signifying in that work. And presently a young scholar, Macklin Smith, is revising for publication what I consider to be the finest treatment of Prudentius yet achieved. Let me briefly indicate a small measure of the importance of typology in the Psychomachia. And let us admit that a poem which represents the war in the mind, replete with ladies doing battle, seems an unlikely place to find an entirely figural structure. The first line of the work should long ago have helped us to see what Prudentius was up to. It describes Abraham (when he was still Abram) as “Senex fidelis prima credendi via." The whole of Prudentius' praefatio is in fact an exercise in figural interpretation of Gen. 14-18. But let us examine that first lince: Abram is the first “way of believing” which will be fulfilled in Christ. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, I would assert that any reading of the line which does not understand this typological inference has missed its most salient point. Summarizing the events of Genesis recounted in his praefatio, Prudentius says (lines 50-51): “Haec ad figuram praenotata est linea, / quam nostra recto vita resculpat pede” (translation in full below). Here he reveals the basic allegorical stance of the entire work: We move from the Old Testament figurae through Christ to a tropological sense in our present lives—which is where the “action” of this great conversionary poem takes place. lf l am not believed, perhaps Prudentius may be:

This picture has been drawn beforehand to he a model for pur life to trace qui again with true measure, showing that we must watch in the armour of faithtul hearts, and that every part of our body which is in captivity and enslaved to foul desire must be set free by gathering our forces at home; that we are abundantly rich in servants born in the house if we know through the mystic symbol [figura… mystica] what is the power of three hundred with eighteen more. Then Christ himself, who is the true priest, born of a Father unutterable and once, bringing food for the blessed victors, will enter the humble abode of the pure heart and give it the privilege of entertaining the Trinity; and then the Spirit, embracing in holy marriage the soul that has long been childiess, will make her fertile by the seed eternal, and the dowered bride will become a mother late in life and give the Father household a worthy heir.
Just this much presentation and discussion of the praefatio should, it seems to me, make Prudentius’ typological design clear. In the body of the poem we find that in each of the seven battle scenes that follow there is a historical (i.e. biblical) counterpart to the abstract virtues or vices:

FAITH: one thousand martyrs (Scriprure and Church history)
CHASTITY: Judith, Mary; LIBIDO: Holofernes
PRIDE: Adam, Goliath; HOPE: David
SOBRIETY: Hebrews in the desert, David, Samuel, Jonathan
AVARICE: Judas, Achar

These characters do not function as “types” of Virtues and Vices (cf. the first kind of “improper” typology discussed above) so much as types of the Christian caught in the battle ol conversion to whom Prudentius’ poem is addressed. That is, in his susceptibility to pride, for instance, he is momentarily a new Adam or Goliath, This typological structure continues through the concluding “peace” episodes of the poem as well, until in the final moment of the work Christ, as Sapientia, comes to sit enthroned in the temple of the holy heart. Although this is brief indeed as a discussion of typology in the Psychomachia, it will perhaps suffice to indicate the kind of restoration that is possible when we see this work in its typological perspective.
As a result of recent studies in typology, we now find ourselves with two kinds of students of medieval allegory; the newer typologists alongside the older “wheat and chaff boys." (I need hardly point out that Professor D.W. Robertson, Jr., is probably the world's greatest practitioner in the second school.) What is the relationship between these two kinds of allegory? In the Psychomechia we find them both - typology and personification - in a blend that has not been even approximately understood until very recently. And let us admit that there is a problem in distinguishing not only two kinds of allegory (Dante's “allegory of the poets” and “allegory of the theologians” are labels that are as good as any), but two kinds of modes of detail: iconography and typology. If we find a lady tempting us in a garden in a medieval poem, when is she to be considered an antitype of Eve, and when are we merely to perceive that she should remind us of the moral significance of the Fall? I think that there is no generally applicable answer to that question. On some occasions we shall be able to judge from the context that certain objects or actions in a scene seem iconographic without any figural intent or overtone (cf. the hilarious replay of the Edenic seduction in Boccaccio's First Tale of the Third Day, in which Masetto da Lamporecchio plays the willing Adam to a convent full of Eves). On others we may sense from the context that we are to see before us the new Eve -as when Dante shows us Matelda in the “actual” Garden of Eden as Eve before the Fall. Iconography plays a major role in both scenes. In one it reminds us of what Eve “means” morally. In another it insists - or so I would maintain - that we identify the literary character in such a way that her very existence seems dependent upon that of her model. The distinction is neither easily made nor easily agreed upon.
Let me pursue it a bit further. What I take to be the Robertsonian model for the structuring of significance in medieval texts is the threefold process presented by Hugh of St. Victor in the Didascalion: We move from letter (the grammatical understanding of the words) to sense (the surface meaning of these words) to sententia (the doctrinal content of the words). In such an understanding of how texts mean there is no attempt to distinguish among differing kinds of literal senses. That is, the letter may be “historical” or “parabolic'' - it does not matter, nor is the question considered. Now let me add that I think this Victorine process is frequently all that is needed in order to elucidate the significance of a given passage, or even of entire works. My own current study of the “minor” works of Boccaccio basically involves, in matters of interpretation, nothing more than this strategy. And it seems to be yielding interesting results, results that are in fact altogether Robertsonian. However, it is my contention that some medieval works, though they “make sense” when studied this way, make better sense when we see that they are organized with a further distinetion in mind. In Dante we confront a poet who in fact promulgated such distinctions (in Convivio and the Letter to Cangrande).

2.2. Dante

One of the reasons that the study of Dante is especially fruitful for this discussion, or argument, is that we can observe him working in both traditions. Let us examine his treatment of Marcia and Cato in his Convivio, a work which cares little or nothing for typology. In Convivio 4, 28, Dante discusses lo senio (which I have here gracelessly translated as "senility"), by which term he refers to the end of life, when one looks back gratetully down the road he has come. This is given expression by Lucan, in the second book of the Pharsalia:

When he says that Marcia returned to Cato and besought him to take her back in her old age; for by Marcia is understood the noble soul. And we may comprehend this figure of speech in the following way: Marcia was a virgin, and in this state adolescence is signified; then she married Cato, and in this state youth is signified; then she had children, by which are signified the virtues which are discussed above as being fitting to youth; and then she left Cato and married Hortensius, by which is signified that youth departs in favor of old age; she had children by Hortensius as well, by which are signified the virtues which are discussed above as being fitting to old age. Hortensius died, by which is signified the end of old age; and having become a widow - by which widowhood is signified senility - Marcia returned at the beginning of her widowhood to Cato, by which is signified that the noble soul at the beginning of its senility returns to God. And what earthly man was more worthy of signifying God than Cato? Surely none.

What Dante understands by the verb “to signify” is exactly what Hugh of St. Victor and Professor Robertson understand - the result is sententia, and it does not in fact matter whether we start with historical or fictional persons or events. Indeed, here the historical Cato and Marcia are used to make an allegorical point: they could as well have been created by Guillaume de Lorris.
When we meet Cato in the first canto oi Purgatorio, however, a great deal is changed. He is there presented, if only recently understood, as figura Christi (among other things, he has given up his life for the cause of liberty and is seen as one transfigured in words that are reminiscent of the Gospel account in Matthew 17). If in Dante’s earlier discussion Cato was "worthy of signifying God," he in fact “signified God” because of his philological relationship to Marcia - she “signified” the noble soul, and since that in its "senility"' returns to God, Cato “signified” God. But where is Marcia in Purgatorio 1? She is not there - she is in Limbo. It is not through her or through philological allegoresis that Cato is saved by Dante. Rather, he is perceived by the poet as having been, improbable as it may seem to us, figura Christi (in the Pharsalia of Lucan, which work he describes in the Letter to Cangrande as scriptura paganorum, Dante heard Cato say, “And let my blood ransom the people"). The difference, it seems to me, is enormous. I would go further. Until typological principles of interpretation were applied to Cato, Dante's exaltation of him left his readers batfled.
In Purgatorio 2 Dante meets the freshly arrived soul of Casella, a musician whom he knew in Italy. Casella sings the second of Dante's Convivial Odes to the rapt pilgrims, Dante and Virgil. The vast majority of Dante's commentators find the song either “neutral” or positive in its moral implications. It helps, however, to examine it against Exodus 32; 18. There, when Moses comes down the mountuin only to find the Israelites worshipping the golden calf and singing, he destroys the vain idol. That scene is the model for what Cato does in Purgatorio a when he scatters the pilgrims and sends them on up the mountain to better things. The form of reference is best understood, it seems to me, as being a literary adapration of biblical typology.
In these very few examples I hope I have given support to to the notion that typological investigation of certain works does make a difference. Without it we have done poorly by the Psychomachia and the Commedia, two medieval works that are, by anyone's estimate, of some importance. The difference between allegory of event and allegory of words, which St. Augustine, in Paul's footsteps, established so long ago in De trinitate (15, 9, 15), is still a useful distinction with which to analyze at least some secular literature ot the Middle Ages. The task confronting all students of allegoresis in the secular works of the period involves the initial recognition that there are in fact two rival traditions of allegoresis, and then to try to determine to what degree each is applicable to a given work.

2.3. A Note of Explanation

When I was invited to participate in the conference on typology and literature, I agreed on the condition that an over-burdened schedule allowed me to present an informal talk rather than a paper. The provision was accepted, and the reader now finds reproduced here the result of my deciphering of the notes for that talk.

Date: 2021-12-25