Vernacular Poetic Sources for Dante's Use of Allegory [Maria Picchio Simonelli]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Maria Picchio Simonelli

Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Anno: 1975

Numero: 93

Pagine: 131-142

Before venturing into the allegorical complexities of the Divine Comedy, Dante had already tested the rhetorical device of allegory in the first two canzoni of his Convivio: Voi che 'ntendendo il terzo del movete, and Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona. However, when he set his commentary in prose to the lyrics of the Convivio, it was clear to him that he would not be able to begin his explanation of these poetic texts unless he provided a preliminary definition of allegory, as well as of the way he intended to use it. In Convivio II, i, 2-4 Dante explains that since the texts have multiple meanings, he ought to give both a literal and an allegorical explanation of them. The literal meaning, he says, is the one "che non va oltre a cio che suona la parola," that is, "which does not go beyond what is said by the sound of a word"; the allegorical meaning, on the other hand, "e quello che si nasconde sotto il manto," that is, "the one which hides under the cloak" of the poetic fabula and which is "una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna" ("a truth hiding under a beautiful lie"). Immediately after saying this, he feels the need to state more precisely that "veramente li teologi questo senso prendono altrimenti che li poeti" ("actually the theologians and the poets understand this meaning in a different way"). Theological allegory, however, is not important to him, for he does not want to follow the usage of the theologians; rather he intends to follow the usage of the poets.
The purpose of this paper is to explain why Dante felt the need to give such a clear-cut definition of the limits of his allegorical method. I shall also attempt to identify the poets who served as a point of departure for his theoretical statements on this matter.
Since the time of Cicero and Quintilian, allegory had been a component of any rhetorical repertory. The classical conception of allegory, however, was very different from that produced by the Judeo-Christian culture through the practice of Biblical exegesis. According to Cicero and Quintilian, allegory was nothing but an expanded metaphor. Biblical exegesis, on the contrary, entails an allegorical meaning which parallels the historical meaning of the events related in the great book of God. Both meanings convey their own truth: the course of history of the people of Israel is a truthful one inasmuch as we believe in the truth of the spiritual warning given by God himself through the course of history.
The art of the poet is very different from that of God, even though this is an art "che a Dio quasi è nipote." Using this art, the poet can express his particular spiritual truth only by inserting it into a tissue of beautiful lies. The stories of the poets are supposed to be nothing but beautiful stories. It follows that in the allegory "a modo de li poeti" (in the allegory according to the poets) truth can be found at only one level: the level of allegory. The historical level of the narration, that is, the story itself, is a lie. This distinction was supported by the authority of St. Augustine, who in his De Trinitate Dei (XV, IX, 15), had stated quite clearly that the poetical allegory is completely in verbis, while the biblical is non in verbis, sed in facto. The definition given by St. Augustine had traditionally justified the use of allegory in the newly accepted Judeo-Christian meaning. This held true both for the stories produced by new poets and for the interpretation of the poets of antiquity.
In the twelfth century the great flourishing of classical studies, connected in large measure with the school of Chartres, led to an excessive use of the justification offered by St. Augustine. The ancient poets were called ethici and John of Salisbury "tells us that Virgil expresses the truth of philosophy under the guise of fables, and that the Aeneid unfolds, book by book, the story of human life from infancy to old age." Allegorical interpretation of the ancient fables was extended from Virgil to Ovid and the use of allegory as a rhetorical device became fashionable among the poets of the time writing in Latin. In the thirteenth century, however, the polemic against poetical allegory became more and more sharp. One of the main objectors was actually St. Thomas Aquinas. In his seventh Quodlibetata (q. VI, art. 16), St. Thomas clearly stated that the poets should not use allegory: "Fictiones poeticae non sunt ad aliud ordinatae nisi ad significandum; unde talis significatio non supergreditur modum litteralis sensus." Dante's own position may be interpreted as a reply in the spirit of Augustinian thought to this Thomistic verdict.
One may wonder at this point why such a radical change had taken place in Christian thought regarding the use of allegory by the poets. Apparently St. Augustine considered poetry as an instrument for the dissemination of Christian spirituality in a period still dominated by apostolic activity. St. Thomas, on the other hand, was confronted with the secular usage of allegory which did not always comply with the precepts of the Church. At the very moment when St. Thomas was writing his Quodlibetata, the Roman de la Rose reached the acme of its popularity. From a certain point of view the message carried by the Roman de la Rose could be interpreted within the limits of Christian thought, since the theme of Love was one of the main Christian themes. But there was also the possibility of looking at this Roman as a work very distant from the basic conceptions of Christian life as dictated by the Holy Roman Church. St. Thomas had good reason to worry about the wide- spread use of allegory even by those poets who wrote in the vernacular. Allegory had always been the prerogative of scholars as the main critical tool for Biblical exegesis. The new usage of this rhetorical device among vernacular poets represented a relatively new trend connected with the rapid expansion of university culture which, in turn, served as an expression of the spiritual world of the bourgeoisie.
To understand this phenomenon we must remember that the first poetic experiences in the vernacular (regardless of whether the vernacular of oil, that of oc, or that of si was used) were socially conditioned by the audience to which the poets adressed themselves. These audiences had probably reached a high level of sophistication, but certainly they did not possess the technical skill of dealing with the entangling intricacies of Biblical interpretation. Because of this limitation, we must then assume that the readers of secular literature were unable to appreciate a type of poetry which entailed a double reading, that is a reading on two levels of meaning.
The poetry which flourished at the courts of Southern France was dominated by only one theme: that of love. This was a topic which could easily win a public made up of nobles who divided their time between war and love. This applies especially to the lonely ladies, to whom their wandering husbands entrusted an absolute, feudal government during the long years they spent fighting wars. In the poetry of the troubadours they would find their only amusement and well-deserved relaxation. To decipher allegory could hardly be considered either a pleasant game or a useful effort by the members of that society. In fact, Jaufre Rudel, the only poet who, in the first half of the twelfth century, seems to have engaged in allegorical mo- tives, did not gain a large reputation among his contemporaries. In spite of the polished beauty of his poetry, he had very few imitators. Even if we can find an echo of Rudel's work in the later poetry, this would refer- both in the Provencal and in the non-Provencal tradition-to the main theme of amor de lonh, with no reference to that razo en si which Jaufre had theorized as something essential to which any good poet should have had recourse in order to make his own song more valuable. Rudel's song was of such a nature that "plus l'auziretz, mais valra" : the more you will listen to it, the greater its value will be. Only by being heard again and again (we would rather say, by being read and reread, this song, that is, this poem, was eventually to disclose its littera. But Jaufre Rudel represented nothing but a parenthesis in the history of the vernacular poetry of his age.
E. Auerbach's definition of the public as that consumer of poetry who can delimit the boundary-lines of the poetic realm and who establishes the literary taste is still very valuable. In fact, if we shift our attention from the domain of vernacular poetry to that of Latin poetry of the same period, we can see that Latin writers used allegory everywhere throughout Christendom. This can be easily explained if we only consider that the Latin poets of the time ad- dressed themselves to the public of litterati, that is to those readers who had intensive training in reading on a double level and who were thus able to shift their interpretation from the meaning produced per litteram to the meaning produced per significata per litteram (I am using the same terms that Dante used in his thirteenth Epistle).
It is significant that allegory was explicitly used for the first time not in the vernacular of oc, but in the vernacular of oil. This fact can probably be explained by the slow dissemination at lower levels, as through a capillary flux, of the higher culture which origi- nated in the schools of philosophy at Paris, Orleans, or Reims. At any rate, Chretien de Troyes appears to be the first writer in the vernacular who separates a particular sens from the verbal weave of the estoire he is writing. The image of this great poet and storyteller is not only associated with the sophisticated culture of the court of Marie de Champagne, but it also reminds us of the cosmopolitan crowd of rich merchants who flocked to the trade fairs of Troyes or Provins. Somehow those merchants became interested in the cultural diversion represented by the new poetry in the vernacular. I do not mean to say that Chretien de Troyes was directly interested in that audience. His tastes were too aristocratic, and he was too busy trying to entertain the nobles at the court. Nevertheless, we cannot neglect the fact that the crowd at the fairs of Champagne provides a natural setting for many episodes of his stories.
As a matter of fact, the nobility enclosed in the limited circle of the court is the public to which Chretien's elaborate poems are directly addressed. To such a public, by means of his imaginative stories of love and of arms, of heroism to the point of sacrifice, and of joy won with great difficulty, Chretien could have occasion to offer a secret teaching: the sens to which the matière had been shaped and adapted.
The word allegory does not enter the linguistic baggage of Chretien, and this has often led modern criticism astray. Some critics, in attempting to define the work of Chretien, have spoken of "roman à thèse," others of social polemic, and still other critics have referred to Chretien's works as a polemic on courtly love. But Chretien had indicated many times, in a manner more or less explicit his desire to teach how to set up and solve something problematic which would be concealed behind the estoire. The task of the writer is "penser et atandre a bien dire et bien aprandre": the task of the writer is to aim at adequately expressing his thought and to provide an adequate teaching. The beauty of the saying must be accompanied by didactic-moralistic involvement. The reader is required to participate with all his human substance in order that the word might not be lost:

Cuers et oroilles m'apportez,
car parole est tot perdue
s'ele n'est de cuer entendue…

Even here language which strikes one as being Biblical is employed to beg the listeners' attention that they use not only their ears but also their hearts. The weave of the words is to operate in the depths of the heart and the reader must work together with the author: the author offers that secret teaching which the reader must gather and accept.
Biblical language is even more perceptible at the beginning of Perceval:

Ki petit semme petit quelt,
Et qui aunques requeillir velt,
En tel liu sa semence espande
Que Diex a cent doubles li rande;
Car en terre qui riens ne valt,
Bone semence seche et faut.
Chrest'fens semme et fait semence
D’un romans que il encomence…

The writer of the poetic story is like the good sower who carefully chooses the terrain so that the fruits may be abundant, and the seed which is sown is the poetic story. The spiritual truth which Chretien wanted to point out and defend is almost the same throughout his works: perfect love is conjugal love and it is not necessarily inconsistent with the social exigencies of the knight.
Chretien de Troyes was, therefore, the first author to use a secular theme to convey a manifold message and he was also the first to write about it in the vernacular. But the first to use openly the word "allegory" in the vernacular was the anonymous author of De David li prophecie. This occurs in Chretien's time, around 1180, and this religious poem was written in the same oil vernacular:

car an tot ce selonc la letre
ne devez pas vostre sen metre,
car c'est dit por allegorie;
et autre chose senefie
ceste Jherusalem terrestre…

After Chretien and the poet of De David li prophecie, the allegorical technique was to be employed for almost fifty years but only in a religious context. This is the case with the paraphrase of the Psalm Eructavit by Adam de Perseigne, or the naive visions of Raoul de Houdenc, or the complex constructions of Robert Grosseteste and Huon de Mery.
The third decade of the thirteenth century, with the writing of the first part of the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris, offers another magnificent example of allegory in the vernacular possessed of a totally profane meaning. We know very little about Guillaume de Lorris and the reasons why he did not complete his allegorical novel. We know much more about the continuator of the novel, Jean de Meung, who wrote during the last third of the century in a completely different atmosphere. Jean de Meung, while accepting the pattern of images created by Guillaume, deeply modified the meaning, however, inserting philosophical discussions and bearing in mind more of a Summa of contemporary learning than a love story. In fact, Jean de Meung tried to reduce the original profane novel to something which, while not perhaps religious, was no longer entirely profane. The fact is that after the Albigensian crusades and the establishment of the Inquisition Tribunal a novel like that of Guillaume de Lorris was inconceivable.
Jaufre Rudel, Chretien de Troyes, the author of De David li prophecie, Adam de Perseigne, Raoul de Houdenc, Robert Grosseteste, Huon de Mery, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung represented a rich literary tradition in the vernacular to which Dante could refer as a point of departure for his theoretical definition of allegory a modo de li poeti. I do not think that we should look for other ver- nacular sources for Dante's poetical allegory beyond the limits of the social and cultural milieu which I have tried to describe. For instance, the hypothesis of Lebesgue, according to which there was a connection between the teaching of the Cathars and the poetic use of allegory, cannot be accepted. Lebesgue submitted his interpretation in 1908 in his edition of Raoul de Houdenc. It was his opinion that Raoul de Houdenc was the creator of a Catharistic formulaic style. But if we read Raoul de Houdenc's Songe d'Enfer we see that this poet condemns the Bougres, that is, the Cathars, who were to be eaten at the banquet of Beelzebub. It seems to me that this idea could hardly be seen as propaganda in favor of the sect!
One may consider a closer link with the Cathars when examining the allegorical tale Una ciutatz fo, no sai cals by Peire Cardenal. This great Provencal poet of the thirteenth century accused the Roman Church of being corrupt and, what is even more striking, of corrupting Christian souls. But we should not underestimate the fact that, from among the almost one hundred poems which have come down to us, this is the only allegorical poem.
As to the general picture offered by the heretical literature of the period (religious myths, liturgical prayers, propagandistic pamphlets) none of these writings is allegorical. It seems to me that allegory was not the proper instrument for the propaganda of a sect which tried to spread its credo at any social level. To convey their message, the Cathars had no need of allegorical veils; mythical stories were more suitable. Allegory required a listener prepared to grasp a truth inherent in the narrative theme, an implicit but not explicit message. I believe that precisely for this reason allegory reached vernacular poetry relatively late.
Simon de Montfort's crusade against the Albigensians marked the end of an era of relatively free intellectual life in a large part of Medieval Christendom. A different spirit dominated the culture of the following age. One may define it as the spirit of a Counterreformation ante litteram. It is little wonder, therefore, that poetical allegory, of which the Roman Church had always been suspicious and which Dante was to define as "a truth hiding under a beautiful lie," was used henceforth for moralistic and religious purposes only. Against this background we can follow the development of a new tradition which found its climax in the allegorical creations of Dante.
Prior to Dante, two authors who used allegory according to this new post-Crusade conception should be mentioned: Giacomino da Verona and Bonvesin della Riva. Giacomino's themes and images were not too far-removed from those of Raoul de Houdenc. He portrayed d the Celestial Jerusalem "per sempli e per figure" (through examples and similes). To justify his use of poetic allegory Giacomino argued with the great Doctors of the Church who, in his opin- ion, wanted to "avilar," that is, to debase, his poetry:

Mo certe e veritevole si ne sara alguante;
le altre, si com' disi, serà significançe;
donde vui ke leçi en le scripture sante
no le voiai avilar per vostre setiiançe…

These words express an attitude which is still remote from Dante's conceptual precision in defining the terms of his polemic on the use of poetic allegory. Yet Giacomino's statement deserves our attention as a significant literary precedent. Giacomino submits his allegorical method directly to the judgement of Jesus Christ who knows the purity of his heart, for Giacomino's aim is to teach the simple people who have no direct access to the Holy Scriptures.
As to Bonvesin della Riva's Book on the three Scriptures, we must say that it has a much higher significance. Bonvesin was a teacher of grammar. His attempt to raise his North Italian vernacular to the dignity of an "illustrious'' literary medium introduces us to the rhetorical thought of Dante. As to his ideological background, the fact that he belonged to the confraternity of the Umiliati might be regarded as an argument in support of Lebesgue's thesis of a rela- tionship between poetic allegory and heretical or at least heterodox, doctrines. It is true that the Umiliati originally had contacts with the Patarini (Cathars) in Milan and the movement of the Poor in Lyon. But this was no longer true when Bonvesin della Riva carried out his literary activity. At that time, the Umiliati, goaded by the Inquisition and frightened by the stakes of Provence, professed and even flaunted a most rigid orthodoxy. If allegory was to be considered a rhetorical device especially connected with the doctrine of the Cathars, our good friar, the Umiliato Bonvesin della Riva, would certainly have taken care not to use it.
Dante's first use of allegory in the two Canzoni of the Convivio which I cited at the beginning of this paper goes back to the same time when Bonvesin della Riva was experimenting with this contro- versial rhetorical device. This seems to indicate that Dante, in the matter of allegory, was not an innovator. Indeed, too often we look at Dante's work out of its cultural context. Such an approach cannot but lead to distortions and misunderstandings. From the stand-point of allegory as well as many other standpoints, Dante's work appears to be directly connected with a long cultural tradition. In the light of the literary heritage which I have tried to highlight, we may therefore conclude that the vernacular sources for Dante's use of allegory can be singled out in the works of poets belonging to the three main linguistic domains of early Romance literature. Dante was able to reinterpret and renew this rhetorical heritage, thanks to the exceptional stature of his thought which found expression in a literary form hitherto unmatched in European literature of the Middle Ages. Yet it was the tradition itself, as well as the polemics which it engendered concerning the use of allegory by the poets, that made it necessary for Dante to take a position and to provide the clear definition of allegory which we read in Convivio II, i. Unless we take into account all the cultural precedents, we might miss Dante's motivation for writing this crucial chapter.

Date: 2022-12-26