Richard K. Emmerson

title.none: Jager, The Tempter's Voice

identifier.other: baj9928.9405.007 94.05.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard K. Emmerson, Western Washington University.

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Jager, Eric. The Tempter's Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. xvii + 336; 7 illustrations. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-8014-2753-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.05.07

Jager, Eric. The Tempter's Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. xvii + 336; 7 illustrations. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-8014-2753-3.

Reviewed by:

Richard K. Emmerson
Western Washington University.

This thoughtful, carefully argued, and well-written book studies "the Fall as a central medieval myth about language, particularly about doctrine, hermeneutics, and eloquence" (9). It is organized into two large sections, the first, "Augustine's Garden," concentrating on the development of the patristic interpretation of the Fall as evident in commentaries on the first three chapters of Genesis; and the second, "The Medieval Garden," investigating the continuity and manipulation of patristic notions in later vernacular literature. Jager is a master of organization, almost compulsive in the symmetry he achieves throughout the book: an epilogue on "Signs of the Fall: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernism," balances his wide-ranging introduction; the three chapters in part two reflect the three in part one; and all six chapters divided into topically arranged units are tied together by short concluding sections that recapitulate their introductions and arguments and point to future chapters.

The first three chapters focus almost exclusively on Augustine, although attention is also paid to Ambrose and Avitus of Vienne, whose Poematum de spiritalis historiae gestis is the first Latin poetic treatment of the Fall. Chapter 1, "The School of Paradise," shows how Augustine and his contemporaries developed the notion of the garden as school to promote a patriarchal hierarchy in which the truth was spoken by God to Adam and then through Adam to Eve, whereas false teaching reversed the hierarchy, rising from the serpent through Eve to Adam. This became a central paradigm in matters of doctrine—especially anti-heretical polemic—and church authority. The second chapter, "The Genesis of Hermeneutics," traces how for Augustine the Fall became "the primal scene for the human culture of signs" (53), and how for the developing Christian church "the historical Fall came to be nothing less than the felix culpa of hermeneutics" (97). The last chapter of the first section, "The Garden of Eloquence," focuses on how the Fall served as a central event in patristic discussions of the seductive power of language, of verbal persuasion, rhetorical deception, and the abuse of eloquence. These chapters do not discover anything startingly new. For many medievalists, who have long recognized Augustine's pivotal role in the development of medieval thought, much in them will be quite familiar. But, in my estimation, these chapters are the single best discussion of these crucial issues now available and will be of tremendous value for another generation of medievalists.

The last three chapters address the medieval reception of these issues as evident in four works of vernacular literature. Chapter 4, "The Old English Epic of the Fall," focuses on the anonymous ninth-century poem in Old English, Genesis B. Its intriguing argument suggests that the poem "equates the Fall with fallible oral-mnemonic tradition by dramatizing that such a tradition is vulnerable to error and misrepresentation" (156). The next chapter, "The Seducer and the Daughter of Eve," focuses on two works written for women, the early thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse, long studied by scholars tracing the development of Middle English prose; and the later fourteenth-century French manual, Livre du Chevalier, written by a nobleman for his daughters. Both chapters follow nicely from and reflect the Augustinian paradigm so carefully examined in the first three chapters, since both deal with religious or didactic works that either retell the story of the Fall or explicitly cite it as an exemplum for their audiences.

The last chapter, "The Carnal Letter in Chaucer's Earthly Paradise" seems less at home in the second part, since it does not explicitly consider the first three chapters of Genesis. Instead, it moves the argument from a somber and thoroughly religious tradition to a comic secular tale, Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale." As a step into The Canterbury Tales one might have expected even a brief reading of "The Nun's Priest's Tale" and its famous citation and ambiguous mistranslation of In principio, mulier est hominis confusio. Instead, the chapter seems almost to jump outside the tightly structured argument of the book. Despite its richness, therefore, its central argument, that "the tale satirizes Augustine's garden by treating the Fall as a fabliau and by combining the typology of Genesis 3 with an ancient comic narrative, the pear tree story" (241), will probably remain a matter of critical debate, since it could lead to a somewhat reductionist reading of this brilliant tale. Nevertheless, this chapter, the book's longest, is in many ways the most adventurous and rewarding. Interestingly, it is also the chapter that most resembles the so-called exegetical criticism pioneered by D. W. Robertson in the fifties and sixties in juxtaposing a late fourth-century Augustinian religious exegetical pattern with a late fourteenth-century Chaucerian secular poetic narrative.

In its two-part structure the book foregrounds one methodological feature of exegetical criticism that has been most often and regularly questioned by its opponents: its establishment of a "medieval" paradigm largely on the basis of Augustinian commentary and its desire to interpret later vernacular and secular literature within the boundaries of this paradigm. The book does occasionally cite some intermediate figures to mediate the Augustinian tradition: Alcuin and Bede, for example, in the chapter on Genesis B, Aelred of Rievaulx and Bernard of Clairvaux in chapter 5, and Abelard and Heloise and even Dante's Paolo and Francesca in the discussion of Chaucer. But, to a large extent, Jager represents the tradition as set early and essentially in place and steady in the later Middle Ages despite the passage of a thousand years and the movement from Milan and Hippo to France and England. In the fourteenth century it is available, for example, to be developed by a father for moral purposes or to be satirized by a comic poet. That despite this methodological assumption the argument of The Tempter's Voiceremains compelling suggests that although it has become a commonplace of recent scholarship to disregard—even to disparage—exegetical criticism, a modified and nondogmatic version of this approach remains fruitful and productive of original and insightful results. Thus in his introduction, even while critiquing Robertson, Jager acknowledges the "valuable service" performed by exegetical criticism "in drawing attention to the truly important (though hardly all-explaining) place of the Fall as a medieval paradigm" (7).

Jager does distinguish his argument from a dogmatic exegetical reading of medieval literature by drawing generously from poststructuralist theory. In a telling move, for example, he cites Geoffrey Hartman's Saving the Text to correct Robertson on Augustine (100, n. 1)! Jager also draws upon feminist theory, which results in readings more sensitive to issues of gender and sexuality often ignored by earlier exegetical critics. In his discussion of Avitus, for example, he notes that the "Serpent is expressly masculine, and the phallic significance of its 'outstretched neck' soon becomes manifest in relation to Eve's eroticized ear" (117). This combination of more traditional exegetical concerns with the theorical insights provided by contemporary theorists is a most welcome development in medieval studies. Jager is clearly not the first medievalist to learn from such theory; poststructuralist theory regularly informs, for example, the essays published by Exemplaria and was used to good effect earlier in Jesse Gellrich's The Idea of the Book in the Middle Ages: Language, Theory, Mythology, and Fiction (1985) and Eugene Vance's Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (1986), both clearly influencing Jager. Yet Jager's study is one of the best in weaving patristic ideology and more traditional critical studies of medieval literature together with poststructuralist theory into a seemless web. Unlike some other studies in which the theorists seem to be tacked on for effect, The Tempter's Voice reflects a mature command of their arguments. Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, as well Burke and Ricoeur, are all cited to illumine the argument, not to make it more opaque. I even yearned to hear from other theorists—for example, Eco—whose insights into medieval semiotics and hermeneutics would further strengthen Jager's argument.

One way in which the book reflects poststructuralist concern with the prison house of language is its emphasis on the Fall as first and foremost a linguistic event. In contrast to Robertson, who "tended to emphasize the visual attraction of the forbidden fruit while discounting the Serpent's tempting words" (7), Jager stresses the temptation of the ear rather than of the eye. Sometimes this leads to awkwardness, for example in dealing with the Ancrene Wisse, which clearly emphasizes the visual temptation of Eve (203). And sometimes the emphasis seems to overwhelm the literary text and appropriate all, as in the conclusion to the chapter on Chaucer: "The Merchant's Tale uses the carnal letter as an emblem for the literary text of which it forms a part, implicating the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's writings as a whole, even all of literature, in the problems of language and the Fall" (295). Nevertheless, Jager's shift in focus is salutary since it clearly provides an aural and linguistic balance to the more visual and iconography emphasis of earlier scholarship on the Fall and its place in medieval literature. It is unfortunate, though, that whereas the book reflects a greater awareness of linguistic issues and a sophisticated handling of poststructuralist theory, its use of visual evidence is minimal and quite naive. To a large extent, the book's illustrations are unnecessary, appearing unexpectedly, almost without comment, and usually simply to picture a relatively unimportant aspect of the discussion. The art is not always related or appropriate to the argument, is never analyzed, and in some cases the visual complicates rather than supports the argument. This is the one aspect of the book that has not been worked out and seems tacked on. But this is the book's only disappointment. Otherwise, it is lucid and compelling, an example of traditional scholarship genuinely informed by contemporary theory and focusing on important and timely issues central to the study of medieval literature in the nineties.