Medieval Allegory: A Historiographical Consideration [Marcia L. Colish]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Marcia L. Colish

Tratto da: CLIO. A Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History

Numero: IV

Anno: 1975

Pagine: 341-355

Allegory, whether as a figure of speech, a mode of exegesis, a stylistic strategy, or as a theory of literature in itself, has stimulated a good deal of interest in recent years among literary critics specializing in the Middle Ages. A host of schools and counter-schools of interpretation has grown up in 20th century literary scholarship, with rival armies of critics arming themselves with rival conceptions of allegory in medieval literature as a means of defending the claims of one literary theory over against another. Medieval allegory is also of considerable interest to the intellectual historian. But the historian is inclined to address himself to this subject with a different set of concerns in mind. For the medieval historian, literature is a historical datum, one index, among others, of the intellectual currents of the period. The literary theories and stylistic devices used by medieval authors, allegory included, are hence worth studying for the information they yield about the sources which medieval thinkers drew upon and the uses to which they put them. On another level, medieval allegory is of interest to the historian for historiographical reasons. For allegory in the Middle Ages has served as a touchstone of the attitudes which modern commentators have taken toward medieval civilization as a whole. It is this second aspect of medieval allegory that I intend to discuss in this essay.
Any treatment of medieval allegory as a device for charting the shifting currents of medieval historiography across the centuries in so brief a scope as this must, perforce, be illustrative and suggestive rather than exhaustive or definitive. In selecting examples I have tried to concentrate on those that have been significant and influential. The symbol-minded propensities of the Middle Ages have been noted frequently and have played a central role in historiographical evaluations of the Middle Ages. At the same time, the degree to which a given school of thought applauds or deplores the Middle Ages affects its evaluation of medieval allegory. The dominant interpretations of medieval allegory since the 18th century have been two in number—the classical bias, in its Enlightenment form, and the Romantic bias, as it applies to figurative modes of thought and expression. Both of these schools of thought apply anachronistic and often tendentious canons of taste to medieval allegory and neither of them has viewed medieval allegory with unmitigated enthusiasm. Yet both have remained influential in the 20th century. There has also been a revisionist school in the 20th century. The revisionists have tried to avoid the pitfalls of the Enlightenment and Romantic biasses and have adopted a more generous appreciation of medieval allegory which seeks to place it within the context of medieval thought. The efforts of the revisionists have not met with unmixed success, however, partly because of their lack of knowledge of medieval culture outside the literary sphere and partly because of their tendency toward oversimplification or one-sidedness.
The first major assessment of medieval allegory in modern times was made in the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers were consistently hostile toward medieval allegory, an attitude which was a function of their hostility to the Middle Ages itself. They viewed the Middle Ages as an era enchained by superstition and irrationalism. Medieval thinkers, they held, had distorted and misunderstood the classical tradition, a tradition prized by the Enlightenment as a weapon they could’ turn against that hated contemporary vestige of the medieval past, the Christian church. The philosophes abhorred with a zeal rooted in odium philosophicum the medieval preoccupation with transcendent supernatural realities, a taste served and reinforced by allegoresis and a taste symptomatic of the uncritical and irrational character of both the Middle Ages and Christianity itself. It is striking in this regard that, to the extent that the philosophes were aware of the allegorical exegesis of pagan theology in classical antiquity, they applauded it as a praiseworthy effort to “demythologize” the ancient gods, while at the same time they condemned medieval allegoresis as a nefarious programme of deliberate obfuscation. It was the allegorical mentality, they argued, which promoted the medieval era’s appalling ignorance of natural science; and it was this same allegorical strategy which had enabled the clergy—medieval and modern—to manipulate, mystify, and terrorize the faithful.
Enlightenment thinkers assessed medieval allegory with even-handed acrimony, whether as a poetic practice or as an exegetical technique. The Deists and other anti-Christian polemicists, like Anthony Collins, John Toland, and Matthew Tindal, attacked the allegorical interpretation of the Bible as a means of attacking the authority of the New Testament. If the authority of the New Testament depends on its literal fulfillment of the prophesies of the Old Testament, they reasoned, and if these prophesies had not come true literally, then the credibility of the New Testament and the Christian religion would be destroyed. A literal proof was alone admissable. Allegorical interpretation is so ludicrous, fanciful, and opaque, they argued, that it can be used to prove anything; the exegete who depends on it is an unvarnished sophist. The one medieval poet thought worthy of comment by the philosophes- was Dante—Dante scholarship being a growth industry even in the unsympathetic 18th century. The Divine Comedy received short shrift because of its Christian content and its allegorical style. Voltaire, who wrote two essays on Dante, describes the Inferno as a “bizarre mixture of Christianity and paganism,” and, while admitting that the poet had written a few good lines here and there, he judged the Comedy as a mishmash of childish fictions and absurd allegories. Medieval allegory, whether as a form of poetic expression or as a means of interpreting texts, was seen by the Enlightenment as an index of the medieval inability to grasp the torch of reason which classical antiquity had extended to it. Christian obscurantism was the cause of this benighted attitude. The efforts of the philosophes to ecraser l’infame in their own day inspired their distaste for its manifestations and allegorical accoutrements in the medieval era.
The Enlightenment opposition to medieval allegory reflects the view that medieval allegory is unclassical, that medieval allegory is Christian, and that medieval allegory is therefore to be deplored. As I have noted, 18th-century writers were not entirely ignorant of the fact that allegory existed in classical as well as medieval times. But the Enlightenment definition of ‘classical’ was normative, not descriptive. It excluded all features of classical civilization which did not square with the rationalist bias of the 18th century. It is true, of course, that since the 18th century what might be called the “irrational” side of classical culture has become more widely known, as scholars have studied the mystery cults, the personal religions, the fatalism, the world-weariness, the ecstatic and mystical aspects of antiquity. A great deal has also become known about the classical roots of medieval allegory, from the pre-Socratic allegoresis of Homer and Hesiod to the Latin allegoresis of Vergil, and its carryover into Hellenistic Judaism and Patristic Christianity. The roots of medieval typology in rabbinical Judaism have also been explored. The mixture of these exegetical techniques in the history of medieval exegesis has also been given extensive treatment.
In the face of this new fund of information, it may come as a surprise to learn that the 20th-century continuators of the Enlightenment critique of medieval allegory have managed to keep on convincing themselves that “classical” and “rational” are synonymous and that medieval allegory represents a sharp, and of course regrettable, departure from the classical tradition. Yet such is the case. Two examples will have to suffice. The first is R. R. Bolgar, whose work, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries, published in 1958 as a standard handbook, reveals the author’s bias in the very title—the idea that the classical tradition can have none but a beneficial influence. Bolgar sees the Middle Ages as a necessary evil, its chief virtue being that it copied classical manuscripts, preserving them for readers in other periods more capable of appreciating them. Typical of the medieval tendency to misunderstand the classics and typical of its childish and illogical Christian mentality is the medieval love of allegory. In referring to medieval allegory Bolgar repeatedly uses such terms as “pseudo-rational,” “irrational,” and “half-instructed,” with “mumbo-jumbo” and “nonsense” thrown in for variety. Lest the point escape the reader, Bolgar defines allegorical interpretation as ‘the purposeful deformation of literary material whose content for some reason or other does not meet with the author’s approval.” It is instructive to note, however, that he does not regard allegory used as a universal solvent as a deformation when it is so used by ancient or Renaissance writers.
With some alterations the classicist bias has even been perpetuated by scholars in the vanguard of the 20th-century revision of the erstwhile view of the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages.” Such a scholar is Henry Osborn Taylor, one of the most influential historians in this school. In a series of four lengthy books published in the first third of this century, Taylor developed the then revolutionary thesis of a continuous and cumulative absorption of the classical tradition from antiquity, across the Middle Ages, up through the 16th century, without benefit of Dark Ages or Renaissances. While Taylor thus approved of the Middle Ages as a period which had absorbed and transmitted classicism, a tradition for which he confesses his partiality, he also distinguishes clearly between the classical mind and the medieval mind. Greek and Roman man was self-reliant, at home in the world, guided by the norms of decorum, moderation, and urbanity. Medieval man, on the other hand, was dependent on God and the supernatural; he was emotional; and he “had no clear-eyed perception of the visible world. What he saw he looked upon as a symbol; what he heard he understood as an allegory… The contrast between the mediaeval and the classic Greek and Roman types seems absolute.” The allegorical imagination of the Middle Ages, to which Taylor annexes what is still more distasteful to him, its sacramental theology, reflects strongly the nonclassical and unattractive side of its culture. Taylor applies a host of disparaging terms to medieval allegory and deplores its pervasiveness, lamenting that it was used ‘obtrusively, conventionally, ad nauseam. Dante, otherwise dignified as “The Medieval Synthesis,” frankly grates on Taylor’s nerves, his poetry growing less appealing the more allegorical it gets. Taylor is aware of the fact that medieval allegory derives from classical allegory. He tries to handle this problem by defining it out of existence. Classical allegory, since it does not conform to Taylor’s rationalistic conception of classicism, is not really classical. It is properly medieval. In his autobiography, Taylor tells us that he learned to stop worrying and love medieval men, ‘these great believing children all” . In this case, lovable as he may be, the child clearly does not possess the eye of truth.
On that note, let me pass on to the second major school of medieval allegory scholarship, Romanticism. The Romantic school is much less consistently unsympathetic to allegory than the classical school, and it concerns itself more directly with the literary uses of allegory. In so doing, however, it has by no means avoided anachronism. The basic Romantic contribution has been to pose a sharp distinction between allegory and symbolism. The names given to these two sorts of figures are apt to vary, but their characteristics remain the same. Symbol, for the Romantic critic, has a natural relation to what it signifies. It is a spontaneous, even an unconscious mode of expressing a profoundly felt natural or psychological reality. Symbol takes a figurative or mythic form because of the depth of its content; its form of expression is superior to discursive logical statements. Symbol is aesthetically a Good Thing. Allegory, on the other hand, is seen as having a conventional relation to what it signifies. It is a fictive device which is largely decorative in an extrinsic way, although it may also serve a didactic function in a niggling pedantic fashion. Allegory is distinctly inferior to symbol as an aesthetic strategy.
The original source for this contrast between symbol and allegory is the German Romanticism of the early 19th century. F. W. J. Schelling, in an essay on Dante published in 1803, outlines the distinction and then tries to apply it to the Divine Comedy. He has trouble doing this. He cannot see the characters in the Comedy as purely symbolic, objective signs because he does not see Dante’s moral universe as objectively real, not even for critical purposes. He cannot see them as purely allegorical, or conventional signs either, because he is aware of the fact that they have a historical existence apart from the text of the Comedy. Schelling likes Dante, and does not want to place him in an anomalous middle ground between allegory and symbolism. He ends by classifying Dante as a symbolical, and therefore praiseworthy, poet. The realities which Dante renders symbolically are not, for Schelling, the theological and moral truths of Christianity, but the qualities of Dante’s own times and people. Thus, Schelling’s Dante is modern, not medieval; he substitutes for the Christian myth a new mythological content, the Zeitgeist and the Volksgeist.
The Romantic notion that figurative language which expresses reality is a good, and modern thing while figurative language of a purely conventional sort is a bad, and medieval thing recurs in that rich Romantic source of mid-19th-century anti-medievalism, Jacob Burckhardt’s essay on the Italian Renaissance. Initially dismayed to find allegory in the literature and the public festivals of the Italian Renaissance, Burckhardt quickly rallies. Arguing that medieval allegories are conventional, independent of the things they signify, clumsy, obscure, and inappropriate, he contrasts them with Renaissance allegories, which are marked by intelligibility, coherence, and good taste, traits which point inescapably to the superiority of the Italian Renaissance Zeitgeist over the Middle Ages.
While the Volksgeist and the Zeitgeist have been relatively quiescent in 20th-century criticism, commentators influenced by Romanticism have none the less perpetuated the distinction between natural and conventional allegory, sometimes on a purely literary basis and sometimes reinforced by the insights of psychoanalysis. One insight they have rarely taken to their bosom, however, is the fact that classical and medieval writers did not draw the distinctions posed by Romantic criticism in their definitions of allegory, symbol, and related terms. Still, the distinction survives. A straightforward literary example is C. S. Lewis. In his influential book, The Allegory of Love, Lewis crisply contrasts objective symbolism with conventional allegory. “The difference between the two can hardly be exaggerated,” he notes. “The allegorist leaves the given. . .to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given to find that which is more real.” One basically wants to read the medieval poets symbolically, since symbolism is more poetic than allegory. But one has to read them allegorically, says Lewis, for that, regrettably enough, is the way they wrote. A second literary variant on the Romantic theme is the idea that poetry is essentially a lyric expression of inner realities and emotions, while allegory is mere decoration or burdensome doctrina, a view which has been aplied to the Divine Comedy by Benedetto Croce and his followers despite its manifest inability to make sense of the poem.
The psychoanalytic reformulation of the Romantic distinction between symbol and allegory tends to upgrade the Middle Ages quite dramatically, for its proponents see the period as rich with figurative expressions which have objective psychological correlatives. The model for this re-evaluation has generally been the Jungian collective unconscipus, as in the pioneering work of H. Flanders Dunbar. Freud has had his effect, too, even on critics who are basically unsympathetic to allegory. How can one deny the intellectual respectability of personified abstractions as such when they can be seen as cognates of those impeccably blue-blooded abstractions, the Ego, Super-Ego, and Id? The most recent book on medieval allegory, Paul Piehler's The Visionary Landscape, published in 1971, carries the theme still farther. Piehler's “visionary allegory” is our old friend, Romantic symbolism, complete with medical diploma, ‘a profound and far-reaching exploration of the human psyche,” which performed for the Middle Ages the function of psychic redemption along the lines of modern psychotherapy. It is joyful news indeed to know that if neurosis ever strikes one can avoid a long and costly psychoanalysis by reading Prudentius instead.
Both the Enlightenment and Romantic schools and their 20th-century continuators have been guilty of anachronistic distortions of medieval allegory, and the current wave of revisionism, concerned with relocating medieval literature in the context of medieval thought, has sought to right the balance. There are, to be sure, a number of 20th-century revisionists who have succeeded in their goal. I shall draw my examples from Dante criticism. A great deal has been written on the question of whether the “allegory of the poets” set forth by Dante in his Letter to Can Grande represents a departure from the position on poetic allegory which he had taken earlier in his Convivio. There, he had posited a distinction between poetic allegory and the four-fold allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures used by the theologians. In the Letter to Can Grande, however, he abandons this distinction, instructing the reader to interpret the Divine Comedy in the light of the allegory of the theologians. The earliest 14th-century commentators on the Comedy acknowledge the fact that Dante has applied the allegory of the theologians to the poem as a principle of construction. The same point has recently been attested by the greatest modern authority on medieval Scriptural exegesis. On the basis of this information, several scholars have concluded that it is reasonable to take the contemporary evidence seriously, and to apply what Dante said about the Comedy to the Comedy.
This readiness to use the relevant contemporary canons of interpretation has yielded impressive results in the revisionistic analysis of many aspects of the Comedy. The operative principle which has been appropriated from medieval Scriptural exegesis by Dante and which has been recognized by the revisionists is this one. A reader of the Bible may move from a literal understanding of the text to an understanding of its meaning on several symbolic or allegorical levels as well, but he may never abandon the text’s literal meaning as he passes on to its more profound meanings. The correlative of this principle in the Comedy is the idea that human experience is cumulative. The earlier stages of a man’s life and consciousness are not discarded as he grows older and gains new and deeper insights. This point is most clearly reflected in the psychology of Dante, the character in the action, in his relationships with the personages who guide him through the other world. The assimilative quality of Dante’s experience, modelled on the Biblical typology upon which he drew, has been treated perceptively in general terms by Thomas G. Bergin. It has also been explored with a good deal of sensitivity and with a thorough knowledge of medieval history by several scholars who have illuminated the specific reasons why Beatrice , Vergil, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux are important to Dante and why he chose them as his guides. These studies have gone a long way towards the obliteration of the older interpretation of these three personages as one-story abstractions, showing that each of them holds a personal meaning for Dante which is in no sense blotted out or superceded by his or her various symbolic meanings.
The welcome results of the studies just referred to derive from the critics’ willingness to take seriously both the personal idiosyncracies of their chosen author and his contemporary historical context, along with their commitment to the arduous task of acquiring the necessary information in all its breadth. Unfortunately, most of the 20th-century revisionists have not achieved comparable results, falling short of their goal despite their good intentions. One of the main reasons why this latter group have been incompletely successful is that they have fallen prey to the narrowness of vision afflicting other areas of revisionism in medieval studies. In the first flush of their enthusiasm, revisionists tended to focus on unity as a prime characteristic of medieval civilization. Uniformity was the cry, or better yet, synthesis. Whether the synthesis was Aquinas, Dante, or Chartres cathedral, it stood for the whole Middle Ages. Of course, if your main reason for studying medieval culture is to find “background” for an author you are interested in, it is tempting to assume that a unified and synthetic picture of the Middle Ages is accurate. It also saves you a lot of research. Literary revisionists, no less than others, have fallen into the trap of regarding medieval culture as if it were a slab of Velveeta cheese—totally homogeneous, and tasting exactly the same at all points along its length. The resulting tendency toward oversimplification mars works that make otherwise valuable points. Thus, D. W. Robertson’s Preface to Chaucer overemphasizes the hierarchical principal and rules out all but Christian sources for Christian allegory. Thus, an entire school of Dante scholars equate Thomas Aquinas’ views on allegory with medieval poetics as such, and assimilate the Middle Ages to ‘Aquinas like the most unreconstructed pre-Vatican II neo-Thomists. Thus, with equal one-sidedness, J. A. Mazzeo has sought to shift the entire contextual burden of the Divine Comedy to the shoulders of Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Bonaventura. And thus Bernard Huppe’s study of the influence of Augustine’s De doctrina christiana on Old English poetry has neglected other sources of literary theory available to the poets, in particular the school tradition.
This leads me to the final observation I wish to make. It seems to me that in line with the growing efforts of critics to illuminate the medieval backgrounds of their chosen authors, they might well broaden their awareness of the diversities, discontinuities, and sloppy ragged edges of medieval culture. The range of sources of medieval allegorism is wider than they may have thought, and less monolithic. It is not plausible to rely on a few hand-picked theologians and philosophers and to regard them as coterminous with medieval thought. Even the briefest consideration of the history of medieval poetics and rhetoric suggests that there is no one single answer to the question of how medieval men conceived of allegory. The research that has been done so far on this subject indicates that allegory, like other modes of figurative language, was treated according to the canons of rhetoric in the Middle Ages, a tendency reflecting the earlier assimilation of poetics to rhetoric on the part of classical literary theorists. While sharing a common rhetorical orientation, however, some theorists were sophistic and some were anti-sophistic, preferences which generated sharp disagreements about the cognitive value and utility of allegorical figures.
In sophistic rhetoric, the stress was placed on literary technique. Figures of speech were treated as forms of stylistic decoration that might embellish a work but which had no integral relationship to its message. The writers who perpetuated the sophistic tradition in the medieval schools, especially in the many artes poeticae of the 12th and 13th centuries, concentrated on analyzing the colores rhetorici and on explaining their decorative uses. The sophistic conception of allegory as non-cognitive and as merely decorative also received strong lateral support in the 13th century fréom the scholastic theologians who taught that both poetry and its figurative strategies were devoid of truth. Since the subject matter dealt with by the poets is itself infrarational, they argued, the allegorical figures used by the poets are likewise incapable of signifying truth.
At the same time, the Middle Ages inherited and perpetuated the anti-sophistic tradition of rhetoric. In this tradition, allegories and other figures of speech were treated as means to the end of intellectual and moral instruction. The goal of the anti-sophistic writer was to unite wisdom, virtue, and eloquence. In the service of this aim, allegory might be regarded as a mirror faithfully reflecting the truths it was used to convey or as a fictitious veil, attracting the reader by its beauty, which had to be stripped away by exegesis in order to lay bare the edifying inner core of the author’s message. The medieval heirs of the anti-sophistic tradition adhered to the conviction that allegory had a didactic function, some subscribing to the doctrine of allegory as a fictive veil, a decoy to the reader, while others held that allegorical language possessed a truth content congruent to the truth it was intended to signify.
The diversity of views on allegory among medieval theorists is paralleled, as might be expected, by a great deal of diversity among the medieval poets themselves. Poets throughout the period used allegory in ways reflecting both the sophistic and the anti-sophistic traditions. Numerous examples might be cited, from The Marriage of Mercury and Philology and the Cathemerinon at the beginning of the period to The Battle of the Seven Arts and the Divine Comedy at its end. It might also be useful to remind oneself of the fact that there is plenty of medieval literature which is devoid of allegory altogether, such as the Norse sagas. It is, therefore, a huge oversimplification to assume that allegory can serve somehow as a common denominator in medieval literature or that it invariably means the same thing in those medieval works where it appears. The quest for this sort of ideological consensus in the Middle Ages is a delusion.
Since this is the case, no one avenue of research into the medieval cultural background can suffice to lead the student of medieval literature to a universal answer as he wrestles with the intricacies of allegroical texts. The range of views on literary theory in general and on allegory in particular found in the medieval theologians and philosophers is as broad as it is heterogeneous; no one of them, whether patristic or scholastic, can be assumed automatically to be the auctoritas for a text in question. While modern scholars have devoted much attention to expounding the literary opinions of the theologians and philosophers, they have been less assiduous in studying the medieval school tradition, those dozens of handbooks on grammar, rhetoric, and poetics from antiquity through the Middle Ages. As has been noted, allegory was defined by both ancients and medievals as a rhetorical figure. We know that poetry and rhetoric were conflated in both periods and that anyone in the Middle Ages who aspired to be a poet, save the poets in the oral tradition, studied the ars dictandi as it existed in his day. Yet there has never been a history of rhetorical figures and their changing definitions in the Middle Ages. Literary scholars, as Ernst Robert Curtius has said, want their humanism “purged of all pedagogy.” While its importance is beyond question, the rhetorical tradition is no less variegated in its conceptions of literary theory than the opinions of the philosophers and theologians, and hence it is no more infallible as the sole means of access to medieval allegorical literature. What appears to be needed as an exegetical principle, if a prescription is in order, is neither the superimposition of modern literary attitudes upon the Middle Ages nor analyses based on a few pre-selected medieval models, but the fullest possible reacquisition of the fund of sources, both theoretical and practical, that were available to medieval authors. With these sources at hand, literary scholars may. be able to avoid anachronism and tunnel-vision as they seek to grasp the structures and functions of medieval allegory.

Date: 2022-09-20