Rhetoric, literary theory, and practical criticism [Ronald L. Martinez]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Ronald L. Martinez

Tratto da: Dante in Context

Editore: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Anno: 2015

Pagine: 286-287


1. Allegory/allegoresis

Allegory, to which fleeting mention has already been made, was a technique of both composition (allegoria) and of interpretation (allegoresis). In the Middle Ages allegory was understood as verbal expression in which ‘one thing is said, another is signified’. Especially influential was Isidore of Seville’ (c 560-636) definition of allegory as alieniloquium, ‘other’ speech (Etymologiae., xxxvii, 22). Allegory was thus present in just about all the literature read and composed during the period, and had its theoretical roots in Hellenistic literary criticism and then in early Scriptural exegesis. Origen’s (c.185-254) threefold division of the Bible into historical, moral, and spiritual senses was developed by Jerome (c.347-420) and Augustine into a ‘figural’ or ‘typological’ system, whereby the historical events and the descriptions of the created universe evoked in Scripture signified divine truths (Christ is foreshadowed by the Old Testament patriarchs; the Red Sea ‘prefigures’ the spilling of His blood on the cross). Scriptural allegory was predicated on a providential idea of reality as events ordained and things made by God (ir factis), and not simply on things said, as in human speech and writing (i verbis). John Cassian (c.360-435) equated the Bibles historical dimension with its literal sense or lictera (letter) — Jerusalem was the city in Judaca — while the allegorical, mystical, and spiritual senses were arranged in a tripartite scheme that expressed historical and spiritual development. Thus Jerusalem signified the community of the faithful (allegorical sense proper, the faith established by Christ); the human soul (tropological sense, expressing moral choice); and finally, Paradise, the celestial city (spiritual or anagogical sense, the reward and home of the blessed). In the later Middle Ages students apprehended this scheme thanks to a mnemonic attributed to the philosopher Augustine of Dacia (d. 1282): ‘The letter indicates the deed; allegory what you should believe; the moral how you should behave; anagogy where you soul is heading'. Ever since the fourteenth century (see Chapter 30), readers of the Commedia have debated whether or not Dante wished his ‘divine’ poem to be interpreted according to this scheme. If this were indeed the case, then its application to his masterpiece would constitute yet another aspect of the Commedia’s originality, since human writing was normally read according to the twofold ir verbis system. Thus the lictera was equated with the literal fictional or historical dimension of the text, while its allegorical sense was generally associated with its ethical and didactic values.
Given its structural prominence in religious and secular texts ranging from Prudentius (348—c.405) Psychomachia (Conflict of the Soul, namely the battle between the vices and the virtues) to the Roman de la rose, personification, or prosopopeia, which both antiquity and the Middle Ages deemed not to be allegory but a rhetorical figure, continues to be treated by modern scholars as typical of medieval allegory generally. Although medieval readers and writers were able to distinguish between different types of allegorical composition and interpretation, in practice the nomenclature and uses of allegory were freely transposed. Thus, allegoria was employed to refer to Biblical exegesis, to fictions using personifications, and to the moralizations of fables and secular works, as well as to riddles and emblems — essentially, to any text in which ‘one thing is said, another signified’. Furthermore, a panoply of other Latin terms was synonymous with allegoria: enigma, figura (figure), forma (form), imago (image), mysterium (mystery), parabola (parable), sententia (meaning), sacramentum (sacrament), signum (sign), symbolum (symbol), typus (type), umbra (shadow), and velamen (veil). The proliferation of terminology is a mark of the centrality in medieval culture of interpretation — no ‘authoritative’ text whether religious or secular was left bereft of commentary — and of critical reflection — the commentaries, especially in their accessus, as has been noted, were a major source of ideas on the practice and theory of literature. Understood broadly, allegory is a testament to the creative and hermeneutic sophistication of the Middle Ages, which found its culmination in Dante writing and literary theoretical considerations.

Date: 2022-09-21