Medieval Theories of Allegory [John MacQueen]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John MacQueen

Tratto da: Allegory

Editore: Methuen and Co Ltd, London

Anno: 1970

Pagine: 46-58

When the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate (332-63 A.D.) came to the throne in 361, one of the first acts in his campaign against Christianity — by then the official religion of the Empire — was to forbid Christian children the old ‘Greek’ education. The importance attached to this measure shows how far Christians had already adapted classical educational theories and practices to their own purposes. Christian ideas and ideals had not originally been expressed in the categories of Greek and Roman scholarship and philosophy, but to gain attention from the educated classes of the Empire, it had proved necessary for them to be translated into terms which an educated Greek or Roman found easier to accept. The process is already visible in some of the Gospels and Pauline epistles; by the time of Julian, it was far advanced. Julian’s measures, even within his own short reign, proved abortive. The curriculum of the medieval grammar school or university has an unbroken connection with that of the schools which during the Roman Empire had adapted themselves to make use of biblical and patristic, as well as classical, material.
In the Christian grammar school, the process of adaptation was particularly important. The great Latin poets, especially Virgil, Ovid and Statius, remained the most important curriculum authors. Yet it was impossible to understand their poetry without some considerable knowledge of the pagan mythology which the Church regarded as standing totally in opposition to itself. The quarrel between poetry and Christianity in the Middle Ages often resembled the earlier struggle of poetry with philosophy in the time of Plato. In both cases, one possible solution was the concept of myth as allegory. Pagan and Christian mythographers elabor- ated this concept, and their work, which extends in an unbroken chain from the later Empire to the seventeenth century, culminated in the encyclopedic De Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, ‘Concerning the Genealogy of the Pagan Gods’, which Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) compiled towards the end of his life. Ostensibly. the book was a conspectus of classical mythology, but virtually every divinity and demigod whose name is mentioned received some kind of allegorical interpretation. Boccaccio in fact wrote his encyclopedia as a defence of classical studies, and in particular of classical poetry, which he saw as primarily narrative, and primarily concerned with the events and personages of classical mythology. From his point of view, all worthwhile narrative was fable (fabula); it contained, that is to say, a kernel of vital meaning concealed beneath a shell of fictitious and often improbable narrative. The shell of classical poetry consisted of myths about the gods; the kernel was the allegorical meaning which underlay the shell. Classical poetry was Boccaccio's primary concern, but the method of interpretation which he applied might be, and frequently was, used by vernacular poets for their own compositions. The book was widely read in Western Europe, and affected the visual arts, as well as poetry and prose. I quote his definition of fable, and his further subdivision into four classes. (The fourth was probably intended to cover popular narratives which it was difficult to fit into an allegorical scheme.)

A fable is a connected utterance which, under the appearance of fiction, is exemplary or demonstrative, and which reveals its author?s purpose only when the shell of fiction has been removed. And thus, if something savoury is discovered under the veilof fable, the composition of fables will not be a completely useless activity. I believe that fables form a four-fold species; and the first ofthose— i.e. when we represent brute beasts or even inanimate objects, as talking among themselves — altogether lacks, it seems to me, literal truth. In this category, the most important author was Aesop, a Greek to be respected not merely, because he belonged to classical antiquity, but also for his serious moral purpose. And even granted that, for the most part, it is the urban and rural vulgar who make use of him, one must remember that Aristotle, a man of superhuman ability and prince of the Peripatetic philosophers, from time to time did not hesitate to refer to him in his books.
The second species not infrequently gives the superficial appearance of mingling the fabulous with truth, as, for instance, if we describe how the daughters of Minyas, spinning and despising the orgies of Bacchus, were turned into bats, and how the comrades of the sailor Acestis, as a result of their plot to kidnap Bacchus, were turned into fish. From the beginning the most ancient poets, whose task it was to cloak with fictions divine and human affairs alike, have invented such legends. The more sublime among subsequent poets have followed them, and exalted the species, while at the same time one must allow, that a few comic poets have degraded it because they cared more for the applause of the senseless vulgar than for their own reputation.
The third species resembles historical fact rather than fable. Famous poets have used this in many different ways. Writers of epic, no matter to what degree they may appear to write factually, as Virgil, when he describes Aeneas tossed by the storm at sea, and Homer with Ulysses tethered to the mast of the ship, for fear he should succumb to the song of the Sirens, still realize that something far different from their apparent subject is concealed beneath the veil. So also the more reputable comic poets, like Plautus and Terence, have made use of this species in their dialogue, understanding nothing more than the literal meaning of the words, but wishing nevertheless to describe by their art the manners and words of different kinds of men, and at the same time to teach and warn their readers. And as fables of this kind deal with universals, even if the narrative has no actual basis in historical fact, it is still probable, or at least possible. Our accusers have no cause to reject this mode, since our Lord Christ so often made use of it in his parables.
The fourth species possesses absolutely no surface or hidden truth, since it is the invention of silly old women.
(XIV, ix)

As a trope, an incidental rhetorical device or ornament, allegory had already in Roman times been subjected to categorization. A brief analysis, for instance, is to be found in Institutio Oratoria VIII, vi, 44-59 of the Roman writer Quintilian (c. A.D. 37-100) whose work I have already quoted. Quintilian understands the word in a very broad sense, derived from the etymology. Allegory, he observes, presents either (1) one thing in words and another in meaning or else (2) something absolutely opposed to the meaning of the words (aut aliud verbis aliud sensu ostendit aut etiam interim contrarium). Under (1) he discusses the use of metaphor, simile and riddle (cenigra) in a way which bears a direct relation to the modern use of the term ‘allegory’. Under (2) he discusses figures in which the effect is produced by an element of irony, whether it took the form of sarcasm, asteismos, contradiction or proverbs. I shall return later to asteismos, but in general it may be said that ironic figures would not nowadays be regarded as forming part of allegory. Quintilian’s complete doctrine, however, became part of the schoolmaster’s stock in trade. It is found almost unchanged in Etymologiae I, xaxvii, 22-30, part of the section on rhetoric in the encyclopedic work by Isidore of Sevile (c. A.D. 560-636), which so much influenced the Middle Ages.
Biblical allegory was first categorized in terms of differing levels of figurative meaning. John Cassian (c. A.D. 360-435) was apparently the first Latin writer to formulate the familiar four levels — the literal: the allegorical strictly so called, applying the passage to Christ and the Church Militant: the tropological or moral, understanding it of the soul and its virtues: and the anagogical, applying it to the heavenly realities and the Church Triumphant (Collationes, xiv, 8). In a rough way, this parallels the system, quoted at the end of the first chapter, which Sallustius proposed for the interpretation of classical myth. Bede (c. A.D. 673-735) appears to have been the first to assimilate biblical allegory completely to the categories of the classical grammarians and rhetoricians. His De Schematibus et Tropis Sacrae Scripturae, ‘Concerning the Figures and Tropes of Holy Scripture’, written between 691 and 703, demonstrates that the ornaments of classical rhetoric were also to be found in the Old and New Testaments. ‘De Allegoria’, section 12 of the second chapter of the brief treatise, follows the pattern established by Quintilian and Isidore, and discusses allegory in terms of irony, antiphrasis, aenigma, charientismos, paroemia and sarcasm. Those sections we may safely ignore. The last, and from our point of view the most important, sub-section is headed ‘De Asteismo’.
In classical literary theory, asteismos, derived from Greek άστν, ‘town’ (often with particular reference to Athens), meant “wit of an urbane, refined sort’, usually depending on a play of differing or opposed meanings within a word or phrase. The wit of biblical allegory Bede would certainly have attributed to God, the Creator. He would have agreed with the fifteenth century Scottish poet, Robert Henryson (as with the author of Beowulf and the seventeenth century metaphysical poets) that ‘God in all his werkis wittie is’.
Bede discussed the term thus. (In translating, I have been forced to introduce several emendations. The text printed by Giles contains several corrupt readings.)

Asteismos is a trope that has many levels and many applications. It is defined as any saying which lacks rustic directness, and has been sufficiently refined with urbane wit, as for instance, ‘I would they were even cut off which trouble you. One should certainly notice that allegory is sometimes factual, sometimes verbal only. It is factual, for instance, in the scriptural text that Abraham had two sons, the one by abondmaid and the other by a freewoman, as the Apostle expounds it. It is verbal only, as in Isaiah XI, ‘There will come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a flower will grow out of its root. By this is signified that our Lord and Saviour would be born from the line of David by the virgin Mary. Sometimes one and the same thing is allegorically signified factually and verbally; factually, as in Genesis XXXVII, ‘They have sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for thirty pieces of silver’: verbally, as in Zechariah XI, ‘They weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver’. Again, factually, as in I Kings XVI (i.e., I Samuel XVI), ‘Now David was ruddy, and fair of aspect, and Samuel anointed him in the midst of his brothers’; verbally, as in Solomon’s Song V, My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among thousands’. Both of those mystically signify the Mediator between God and men, adorned with wisdom and virtue, but that He was made red by the effusion of his own blood, and that He was anointed by God the father with the oil of gladness in front of his brothers.
Again, verbal or factual allegory figuratively conveys a meaning which in some passages is historical, in others typological, in others tropological (that is, concerned with the conduct of life), in others anagogical (that is, a meaning which leads us upwards to heaven). History serves as a figure for history when the work of the first six or seven days is compared to the same number of ages of this world. Words serve as a figure for history when the saying of the patriarch Jacob in Genesis XLIX — Judah is a lion°s whelp; from the prey, my son, thou art gone up’ etc. — is interpreted in terms of the reign and victories of David. Words serve spiritually as a figure for Christ or the Church when the same saying of the patriarch is faithfully accepted as referring to the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord. Again, a factual allegory designates a tropological, that is a moral, perfection, as in Genesis XXXVII: the coat of many colours which the patriarch Jacob made for his son Joseph is also an indirect representation of the grace of diverse virtues with which God the father has ordained and gives us always to be clad until the end of our life. Verbal allegory signifies the same moral perfection, as in ‘Let your loins be girt and your lamps burning’ etc. Factual allegory expresses an anagogical meaning, that is, one leading to the things above, as in ‘Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, was taken bodily from this world. This is a figurative prophecy of the Sabbath of future blessedness which, after the good works of this world performed in six ages, is reserved for the elect at the end. Verbal allegory points out the same joys of the heavenly life, as in Matthew XXIV, ‘For wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together’ — because where the Mediator between God and men is in body, there certainly even at this instant the souls of the just have been raised to heaven, and when the glory of the Resurrection has been celebrated, their bodies also will be gathered to the same place.
Frequently in one and the same fact or word, the historical sense, together with the mystical concerning Christ or the Church, and tropology and anagogy, are figuratively expressed. Take, for instance, the phrase, ‘the Temple of the Lord”. In terms of history, it is the house which Solomon built: in terms of allegory, it is the body of the Lord, about which John speaks in his second chapter, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Or it is his Church, to whom is said, ‘The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. By tropology it is each of the faithful, to whom is said in I Corinthian III, ‘Know ye not that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is in you?’ By anagogy, it is the mansions of joy above, to which aspired the man who said, ‘Blessed are they who dwell in thy house, O Lord; they will praise thee for ever and ever.” In the same way, with respect to whatis said in Psalm CXLVII, ‘Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise thy God, O Zion. For he hath strengthened the bars of thy gates; he hath blessed thy children within thee’ — it is correct and possible for this to be accepted as referring to the citizens of Jerusalem on earth, the Church of Christ, the elect soul also, and the heavenly fatherland — according, that is, to history, to allegory, to tropology, and to anagogy. We use the word allegory in reference to the Church, following the example of the most learned writer Gregory, who in his Moralia was accustomed to limit the proper use of the word allegory to facts or expressions which were interpretable in terms of Christ or the Church.

Bede’s distinction between verbal and factual allegory is important. Verbal allegory is a trope: it is a use of figurative language to convey prophetic information. Factual allegory is New Testament typology. God, as author of the universe wittily arranges that his creation shall operate at two levels, the immediate and the prophetic. Isaac was Isaac, but he was also a prophecy of Christ. It should also be noted that Bede uses the term allegory to cover all four levels of scriptural interpretation, historical, typological, tropological and anagogical. One might expect the historical to be identical with the literal but Bede justifies his distinetion by such examples as the parallel between the six days of creation and the six ages of the world, or Jacob”s prophecy interpreted as referring to David rather than Christ. For him, in other words, the historical is not necessarily the same as the literal. Bede also indicates that the word allegory may be used in a more limited sense to cover only the second level of ‘spiritual’ meaning the typological — a usage which he defends by the authority of Gregory the Great (c. A.D. 540—Go4) in his influential Expositio in Librum Iob sive Moralium Libri XXV, ‘Exposition of the Book of Job, or Twenty-Five Books of Moral Comment’ — the Moralia as it is usually called. Both usages are to be foundin the later Middle Ages, not infrequently inthe same author. One may quote Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74) in his Summa Theologica I, 10, a passage which also has considerable relevance for Bede’s distinction between verbal and factual allegory:

The author of Holy Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science [of sacred doctrine] has the property that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says, the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says the New Law itself is a figure of future glory. Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are signs of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense.

A few lines later, Aquinas adds, ‘Allegory (i.e. the term) alone stands for the three spiritual senses.’
Of the writers so far quoted in this chapter, Boccaccio certainly had vernacular literature at least in the back of his mind, while neither Bede nor Aquinas would have denied that biblical allegory might be used in vernacular composition. Dante Alighieri (1265— 1321), however, is the first to relate a theory of allegory, closely resembling that advanced by Aquinas, directly to the study of at least some kinds of vernacular literature. His Convivio (c. 1306) is a banquet of knowledge set out by the poet for the benefit of those who are prevented from finding a seat at the table of the blest. The blest are those who have been able to satisfy man’s natural desire for knowledge. The poet does not regard himself as one of their number, but like the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark VII, 27-8, he has gathered crumbs from the table, and thus gained material for his own banquet. ‘The meats of this banquet will be arranged in fourteen courses, that is, fourteen canzoni (odes), whereof both love and virtue are the subject-matter” (Tractate I, i.). The meat however will be accompanied by bread, the prose tractates in which Dante sets out the literal and allegorical meanings of the poems. If the scheme had been completed, Dante intended it to form a compendium of universal knowledge.
Dante’s first canzone appears at the beginning of the second tractate of the Convivio, and is at once followed by a statement of the theory of allegory in vernacular composition:

It is meet for this exposition to be both literal and allegorical. And to make this intelligible, it should be known that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded chiefly in four senses. The first is called literal, and this is that sense which does not go beyond the strict limits of the letter; the second is called allegorical and this is disguised under the cloak of such stories, and is a truth hidden under a beautiful fiction (ed è una veritude ascosa sotto bella menzogna — literally ‘a beautiful lie’. The Platonic Idea of Beauty is as important as the lack of literal truth, and Dante is the first allegorical theorist to emphasize it.) Thus Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made beasts tame, and trees and stones move towards himself; that is to say that the wise man by the instrument of his voice makes cruel heatts grow mild and humble, and those who have not the life of Science and of Art move to his will, while they who have no rational life are as it were like stones. And wherefore this disguise was invented by the wise will be shown in the last Tractate but one. Theologians indeed do not apprehend this sense in the same fashion as poets; but, inasmuch as my intention is to follow here the custom of poets, I will take the allegorical sense after the manner which poets use.
The third sense is called moral; and this sense is that for which teachers ought as they go through writings intently to watch for their own profit and that of their hearers; as in the Gospel when Christ ascended the Mount to be transfigured, we may be watchful of his taking with Himself the three Apostles out of the twelve; whereby morally it may be understood that for the most secret affairs we ought to have few companions.
The fourth sense is called anagogic, that is, above the senses; and this occurs when a writing is spiritually expounded, which even in the literal sense by the things signified likewise gives intimation of higher matters belonging to the eternal glory; as can be seen in that song of the prophet which says that, when the people of Israel went up out of Egypt, Judea was made holy and free. And although it be plain that this is true according to the letter, that which is spiritually understood is not Jess true, namely, that when the soul issues forth from sin she is made holy and free as mistress of herself.
(II, i.)

In the context of the earlier parts of this chapter, it should be obvious that Dante uses the word allegory in the more specialized of the two possible senses. The allegory of the theologians, with which he contrasts that of the poets, is typology — special allegory, as it might be called, in distinction from general allegory, which includes tropology and anagogy together with typology. For typology Dante substitutes something which approximates to the allegorical exposition of classical myth as discussed by Sallustius or Boccaccio. His treatment of Orpheus is at the level which Sallustius would have called psychic, and Sallustius, the reader will remember, regarded physical and psychic myths as particularly suitable for poetry. Dante gives a psychic interpretation of the Lady of the first canzone when he calls her ‘the fairest and most honourable Daughter of the Emperor of the Universe, on whom Pythagoras conferred the name of philosophy’ (II, xvi).
The exclusion of typology nevertheless remains somewhat surprising, more especially when Dante found no difficulty in exemplifying the tropological and anagogical level with biblical references (Mark IX, 2-8: Psalm CXIV). But I confess some inclination to minimize the difficulty. In poetry, after all, mythological allegory is considerably more frequent than typological, and Dante may have felt, at least when he wrote the Convivio, that classical myth met his requirements of ‘truth hidden under a beautiful fiction’ more accurately than any Old Testament incident. It is certainly true that for the elucidation of the canzoni, which form the meat of the Convivio, typological allegory was unnecessary, while mythological was essential. Dante therefore had immediate grounds for including one, but excluding the other.
Dante may have left the Convivio incomplete because his energies were increasingly devoted to the Divina Commedia. In this he did not abandon mythological allegory, as may for instance be seen in the treatment of the giants, Ephialtes and Antaeus, who appear in Inferno XXXI. In religious poetry, however, which attempted a universal theme, the introduction of typology was inevitable, and Dante made allowance for it in the Latin letter which he wrote to Can Grande della Scala on the interpretation of the Divina Commedia, and which repeats, with significant variations, the doctrine and one of the examples quoted in the Conviviorom

The meaning of this work is not of one kind only; rather the work may be described as ‘polysemous’, that is, having several meanings; for the first meaning is that which is conveyed by the letter, and the next is that which is conveyed by what the letter signifies; the former of which is called literal, while the latter is called allegorical, or mysti- cal. And for the better illustration of this method of exposition we may apply it to the following verses: ‘When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanetuary, and Israel his dominion.’ For if we consider the letter alone, the thing signified to us is the going out of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace is signified; if the anagogical, the passing of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory is signified. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may one and all in a general sense be termed allegorical, inasmuch as they are different from the literal and historical; for the word ‘allegory’ is so called from the Greek alleon, which in Latin is alienum or diversum.
This being understood, it is clear that the subject, with regard to which the alternative meanings are brought into play, must be two- fold. And therefore the subject of this work must be considered in the first place from the point of view of the literal meaning, and next from that of the allegorical interpretation. The subject, then, of the whole work, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of souls after death, pure and simple. For on and about that the argument of the whole work turns. If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point of view, the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.

In Purgatorio II, the description of the arrival of the ship of redeemed souls at the foot of Mount Purgatory, Dante made direct allegorical use of the biblical text which he quoted to Can Grande (Psalm CXIV, 1):

Poi come più e più verso noi venne
l’uccel divino, più chiaro appariva;
per che l’occhio da presso nol sostenne,

ma chinail giuso; e quei sen venne a riva
con un vasello snelletto e leggiero,
tanto che l’acqua nulla ne inghiottiva.

Da poppa stava il celestial nocchiero,
tal che parea beato per iscritto;
e più di cento spirti entro sediero

‘In exitu Israel de Egitto,’
cantavan tutti insieme ad una voce,
con quanto di quel salmo è poscia scritto.

(Then as more and more towards us came the bird divine [the angel pilot of the ship], brighter yet he appeared, wherefore mine eye endured him not near: but I bent it down, and he came on to the shore with a vessel so swift and light that the waters nowise drew it in. On the stern stood the celestial pilot, such, that blessedness seemed writ upon him, and more than a hundred spirits sat within. ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’ sang they all together with one voice, with what of that psalm is thereafter written.)
The redeemed souls after death compare themselves to the Israelites after their departure from Egypt; typologically, they celebrate their redemption through Christ; tropologically, their conversion from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace; anagogically, their passage as sanctified souls from the bondage of the corruption of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory. Appropriately, the assumed time within the narrative, is dawn on Easter Day.

Date: 2022-11-14