Daniel J. Pinti

title.none: Astell, Job, Boethius and Epic Truth

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.016 95.05.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel J. Pinti, New Mexico State University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Astell, Ann. Job, Boethius and Epic Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. Pp. xv + 240. $32.95. ISBN: ISBN 0801429110.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.16

Astell, Ann. Job, Boethius and Epic Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. Pp. xv + 240. $32.95. ISBN: ISBN 0801429110.

Reviewed by:

Daniel J. Pinti
New Mexico State University

In this admirably ambitious study Ann Astell addresses the complicated issues involved in the study of medieval secondary epic, and offers a far-reaching, stimulating, and largely successful analysis of "the Boethian and Joban mediation of the classical epic tradition in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance" (21). What this mediation entails, of course, is 1) the reader's abandoning of purely formal concerns when defining the epic genre and 2) the recognition of the allegorical "truth" about human moral and spiritual existence to be found hidden under the form of conventional epics and revealed in many works that fall outside of our conventional "Homer-Virgil-(Dante)-Milton" genealogy of epic. Along with rooting her study in medieval exegetical commentary traditions (notably Gregory the Great and Aquinas), Astell builds forthrightly and smartly on certain key scholarly works that have addressed specific texts in her study in somewhat more focussed fashion: Lawrence L. Besserman's The Legend of Job in the Middle Ages, Seth Lerer's Boethius and Dialogue: Literary Method in the Consolation of Philosophy, and Barbara K. Lewalski's Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of "Paradise Regained", among others. What Astell adds to this scholarship is the synthesis of a complex body of material in an impressively lucid way, and readings of texts that extend beyond the expected range of the subject in question. While Astell's readings of medieval commentary and literary texts are occasionally too concise to be fully convincing, she has nevertheless authored a book that should prove interesting and valuable to literary scholars in both medieval and Renaissance studies. The book falls rather neatly into two parts. The first part includes an introduction, which presents an overview of the medieval reading (through Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Bede, and Rabanus Maurus) of the Book of Job as a "biblical counterpart to the epics of antiquity," along with an argument for Boethius's Consolation"stand[ing] as a major conduit for the continuation of the classical epic tradition in the Middle Ages" (11). Chapter 1, "Allegories of Logos and Eros, goes on to argue how Boethius' Consolation and Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii join two lines of allegorical reading in antiquity: one emphasizing logos, "the intellectual [and universal] discovery of the causes of things," the other emphasizing eros, "the moral [and personal] application of truth" (21; cf. 29). "Boethius and Epic Truth," the second chapter, argues for the epic truth written into the Consolation as a heroic growth and journeying toward self-knowledge, while Chapter 3, "Job and Heroic Virtue," delineates how medieval exegetes read Job not only as typologically linked to Christ but also as heroic in his steadfastness, his embodiment of sapientiaand fortitudo. Chapter 4 begins the second part of the book, the reading of medieval and Renaissance texts in light of this tradition of epic truth mediated through Job and Boethius. "Hagiographic Romance" discusses the Old English version of the Passio Sancti Eustacii Martyris along with Chaucer's Clerk's Tale and Man of Law's Tale as "legenda . . . [which] mediate in turn between the books of Job and Boethius, using Boethius' Consolation intertextually to qualify the world of (mis)fortune and human pain; Job to typify the realm of moral constancy, providential design, and happy endings" (97-8). Astell is especially astute in her analysis of the Man of Law's Tale and its satiric interplay of prayer (the discursive mode associated with Constance) and apostrophe (the mode associated with the tale's narrator), what the author characterizes as "the pathetic outcry of Job merge[d] with the apostrophic weeping of the Boethian prisoner" (126). Chapter 5 then outlines the rewriting of the Consolation "as a salvific love story in which the suffering hero advances from and through a passionate love of creatures to the love of the Creator" (127) by examining Abelard, Dante, and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Chapter 6, "Ghostly Chivalry," moves back to a predominantly Joban paradigm, first recapitulating the history of medieval chivalry in terms of the changing readings of the spiritual warfare of Job as "(1) opponent of Satan, (2) crusader against malefactors, (3) penitent self-conqueror, and (4) victor over despair" (159), and then offering readings of works as wide-ranging as Aelfric's version of Sulpicius Severus' Vita Sancti Martini to Book 1 of Spenser's Faerie Queene. The final chapter, "The Miltonic Trilogy," argues that each of "Milton's major poems"--Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, and Paradise Lost--reads and imitates Job in a radically different way" (188) and that each, moreover, recalls Boethius' Consolatio in its own unique way. The chapter culminates in an examination of the influence of the medieval consolatio tradition on the final two books of Paradise Lost. A brief conclusion summarizes the book's argument and also reveals explicitly just how thoroughgoing is the dialogue between Astell's book and such classics of medieval romance criticism as W. P. Ker's Epic and Romance. Astell's book is not without its quirks and intriguing lacunae. Because of the book's tremendous scope, the sheer breadth and variety of the literary works it takes up, at times certain readings will have an almost reductio ad absurdum feel to them. The mere four pages of Chapter 4 chronicling "Dante's Boethian Beatrice," for instance, discuss not only Dante's Vita Nuova but also Inferno 5, Purgatorio 2, and Purgatorio 30-33; moreover, they do so largely through plot summary and include at least one outright misreading of the text in question: the claim that Francesca "names Boethius Dante's teacher" in Inferno V.121-23. The notably longer analysis of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde in the same chapter is marked by greater perspicacity but also by a tendency to ignore criticism on the Troilus appearing since 1980 or so (Wetherbee's Chaucer and the Poets is an exception, along with a few others, to this rule). And although they perhaps lie outside the stated scope of Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth, certain works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance might well have merited at least some mention in Astell's study if only for purposes of contrast. The absence, for example, of any discussion of Boccaccio's Teseida bespeaks Astell's overestimation of what she sees as medieval writers' almost complete disinterest in the formal characteristics of classical epic. (Astell's claim that "as a literary kind, recognizable by distinctive formal features, 'epic' was unknown in the Middle Ages" [17] seems to go too far.) But this is all to ask even more of a book that already does a great deal, and does it very well. Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth is an engaging summary of an immense body of material, valuable both as an overview of the Joban-Boethian tradition and a source for some perceptive and thought-provoking readings of individual texts, and useful in its insights on the question of the relation between medieval epic and romance and the common threads of "epic truth" woven through medieval "heroic poetry." With its thorough historicizing of this branch of medieval literary history, Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth should find a respected place in the scholarly corpus surrounding two complex matters that even today are often hindered by simplistic old saws: the medieval reception of the literary traditions of antiquity, and the Renaissance reception of the literary traditions of the Middle Ages.