Lawrence Warner

title.none: Dean, The World Grown Old (Warner)

identifier.other: baj9928.9801.009 98.01.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lawrence Warner, University of Pennsylvania,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Dean, James M. The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature. Medieval Academy Books, no. 101. Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1997. Pp. xi, 379. $50.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-915-65104-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.01.09

Dean, James M. The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature. Medieval Academy Books, no. 101. Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1997. Pp. xi, 379. $50.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-915-65104-1.

Reviewed by:

Lawrence Warner
University of Pennsylvania

"We see that the world has now grown old (senuisse iam mundum)," writes Heloise to Abelard, "and that with all other living creatures men too have lost their former natural vigour: and, in the words of the Truth, amongst many or indeed almost all men love itself has grown cold" (quoted in Dean, 63). Heloise's belief that "the cooling of charity" betokens the world's decline articulates a worldview that recurs in many guises throughout medieval thinking: the world is diseased; the last of the six world ages is upon us; the world is upside- down; we are mere dwarfs compared to the moral giants of the days of yore; wandering friars signal Antichrist's imminent arrival. The Book of Genesis, according to this pervasive idea of the world grown old, should be interpreted allegorically as a scenario of decline: upon God's punishment for Adam and Eve's original sin, the world began a decline evidenced by Cain's fratricide and building of the city of man, Lamech's bigamy, the sexual depravities that resulted in the "giants upon the earth" and prompted God to send the Flood, and Nimrod's building of the Tower of Babel and his hunting of men.

In his ambitious and far-reaching study The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature, James Dean seeks "to demonstrate the significance of [this idea] to the structures and themes of late-medieval literature" (1), a goal he abundantly fulfills. The book falls into two distinct but interrelated parts (not identified as such). Part one opens with an introduction that places Dean's study in the tradition of the "history of ideas,"and continues with two chapters that survey the background summarized above. Chapter 1 offers a "morphology" of the subtopics de senectute mundi: the cooling of charity, the nobility of soul, the world upside- down, the golden age, the wasteland, and so forth; chapter 2 collects the allegorical interpretations of Genesis found in patristic and popular late-medieval treatises and histories. The second portion of the book, where Dean's heart lies, examines the ways in which Jean de Meun, Dante, Langland, Gower, and Chaucer employed and altered senectus mundi as a structuring principle.

Chapter 1 shows that "the idea of the world grown old extended into virtually every avenue of inquiry in the Middle Ages" -- literature, history, science -- and that "these various topics and subtopics are interrelated and not discrete, as they have too often been treated in previous studies" (110-11). Although these "subtopics" appear in a separate chapter from that on the allegories of Genesis, in at least one instance these modes of discourse, as well, are interrelated to a larger degree than The World Grown Old indicates. Dean describes the theme of John Ball's Blackheath sermon of 1381 -- "Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span / Wo was thanne a gentilman?" -- as a politicization of the "nobility of soul" motif (102-03), which received ample treatment by Dante, Chaucer, and Gower. Readers must wait until chapter 2's survey of Ham legends (133-34), however, to learn about the innovative use of Genesis in the fifteenth-century Book of Seynt Albans to undermine such arguments as Ball's: "A bonde man or a churle wyll say, 'All we be cummyn of Adam.' So Lucifer with his cumpany may say, 'All we be cummyn of heuyn'" (cited in Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison, 1991), 268 -- Dean's source for the Ham context). Not only would the juxtaposition of these opposing texts have enriched the "nobility of soul" section, but also a fuller treatment of The Book of Seynt Albans would have made clear that Cain and Seth are as important as Ham in its derision of the peasantry. This section should also have cited George McGill Vogt, "Gleanings for the History of a Sentiment: Generositas Virtus, Non Sanguis," JEGP 24 (1925): 102-24, and Albert B. Friedman, "'When Adam Delved...': Contexts of a Historic Proverb," in Larry D. Benson, ed., The Learned and the Lewed (1974), 213-30. Such quibbles aside, these two chapters present in a clear manner massive amounts of material whose importance in medieval literature Dean abundantly demonstrates.

The five chapters and conclusion that constitute the second portion of the book turn to the later medieval writers who "concerned themselves more with the meaning and application of the world grown old than with the simple mechanisms of stages of decay" (324). These chapters are, to varying degrees, argumentative in nature. Chapter 3, on "Jean de Meun and the Critique of Erotic Idealism," for instance, modifies the claims of Robertson, Fleming, Szittya, et al., in arguing that the protagonist of Le Roman de la Rose "fails not just because the human faculty of reason has become flawed and divided since the Fall and not just because he succumbs to lust but also because the world in and through which Amant pursues his love has grown old" (171).

Chapter 4, "Dante and the Uses of Nostalgia: Inferno 14.94-120," asserts that we are to understand Virgil's explanation of the statue of the Old Man of Crete not as an expression of Dante's view of the moral history of mankind, as Giuseppe Mazzotta and others have argued, but instead as a faulty pagan nostalgia that remains blind to the regeneration to arrive upon Christ's Second Coming. "[T]he self-consciously fictive nature of this symbolic presentation calls into question Virgil's poetic, critiques the 'allegory of the poets,' and throws into relief, as a greater reality, Virgil's point of departure: the river Phlegethon" (195). Virgil interprets this river as "tears" which "express nostalgia for the golden past of a now ruined body" (192), but as Dean reminds us, this river expresses nothing in which Christians should place hope: "If we view the waterway as one great system, a continuum, we can see that the nostalgia of the idol- like veglio finds its concluding point in the utterly miserable, hopeless lake where the flow of waters is prevented by the chilling winds from Satan's flapping wings. Such is the end of vain and backward-looking sorrow" (193).

While Dean's call for a fuller recognition of what John Freccero calls "infernal irony" (see 177, 179) is quite compelling and successful, the force of his argument is weakened by his neglect of a crucial episode directly pertinent to his claims. In remarking that the fable of the Old Man "draws us toward fiction as nowhere else in the Inferno" (181) to support his argument that the Old Man of Crete is the poem's fullest representation of the "allegory of the poets" -- what Dante terms "una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna" ("a truth hidden under the beautiful lie") in the Convivio (179) -- Dean should certainly have taken into account Dante's remarks about "quel ver c'ha faccia di menzogna" ("that truth which has the face of a lie") when he is about to narrate his encounter with Geryon (Inf. 16.124f). This episode, which Dante continues by swearing "per le note / di questa comedia" ("by the notes of this Comedy"), is a much more explicitly charged encounter with fictionality (see Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine "Comedy" (1992), 58-67) than is the account of the Old Man of Crete. While this gap does not necessarily undermine Dean's elegant and provocative thesis, there is no question that an engagement with the Geryon episode would have widened the implications of his discussion.

Such lacunae are rarer in the final three chapters on Ricardian literature, the most compelling of which is chapter 5, "Innocence, Untime, and the Agrarian Metaphor in Piers Plowman." This chapter's conceit is that all of the dreamscapes of the (B-text of the) poem -- the field of folk, Westminster, the half-acre, the garden of the soul, the barn of Unity -- "are best understood as variants of the original field of folk.... Hence the felde and its extensions constitute Langland's chief metaphor for the place where momentous human actions occur, whether in society (in relation to one's fellows) or within the soul itself" (203). If the program of the transformations of the felde provides a structural principle, the account of Cain in Wit's invective of B.9, when read in conjunction with Piers's plowing of the half- acre (B.6 and 7), shows that those who populate the various "fields" follow the way either of the bad farmer, Cain, or the good one, Piers. Wit's account of Cain, Dean remarks, draws upon two legends -- first, Eve's conception of Cain "in untime" (that is, a time forbidden by God; on this I would have welcomed Dean's response to M. Teresa Tavormina's Kindly Similitude: Marriage and Family in Piers Plowman (1995), 84 n. 58, which asserts that the analogy to which Dean and others point in fact "is not very strong"), and second, the intermingling of his descendants with those of Seth, which created the giants whose lechery led God to send the Flood. "In his allusions to Cain, Langland draws upon these two well- known legendary accounts of Adam and Eve's life to show that the legacy of Cain ... persists in the modern day, especially in those marriages -- indicative of not doing well -- that produce wasters, friars, pardoners, and their ilk" (212).

The brilliance of Dean's paradigm of the "transformations of the felde" is that it enables us to trace the agrarian motif -- in essence, the decision to plow with Cain or Piers -- throughout the poem, not just in the episode of the half-acre or in Wit's invective. Thus, Dean takes to task those like Derek Pearsall and especially David Aers who would see Piers the Plowman as "an accurate reflection of late- fourteenth-century English farmers" and would take this episode to depict those tensions that led to the Rising of 1381. Dean instead argues that "Langland drew up Piers the Plowman to represent an ideal of the virtuous peasantry" (223), a notion that certainly would have accorded with Langland's own views circa 1379.

But as Dean, editor of the TEAMS volume of Medieval English Political Writings, is well aware, Piers Plowman had a very active life well beyond the completion of the B text: among those contemporaries who used Langland's "idealization" as a representative of the concerns of late-fourteenth-century English agricultural workers was John Ball, whose famous letters inciting peasants to rebel in 1381 mention Piers the Plowman. It is unfortunate that Dean does not refer to either these letters or to the C text of Piers, for it is a commonplace of Langland scholarship that many of the C revisions were prompted by the rebels' appropriation of this figure. In fact, Steven Justice's argument along those lines focuses on precisely the episode Dean takes as his starting point: Wit's diatribe of B.9 (Writing and Rebellion (1994), 102-39 on John Ball's use of B.9; 231-51 on Langland's revisions). Dean cites Justice briefly on a few occasions, but it seems that he had completed work on The World Grown Old before a full engagement with Writing and Rebellion (as further suggested in the next chapter, where Dean draws the same parallel between Gower's Vox Clamantis and Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale (244) as Justice had three years earlier (Writing and Rebellion, 213-18)). Nevertheless, Dean's spirited and engaging contribution to our understanding of the structure and themes of Piers Plowman -- a poem that frequently defies such attempts -- will have an important and lasting impact on Langland studies.

Chapter 6, on John Gower's narratives, focuses on the dialectic between the corporate "world grown old" and the individual's agency in that decline, the former seen in the Vox Clamantis's presentation of the Rising of 1381 as evidence that the world is upside-down, the latter constituting a major theme of the Confessio Amantis. This chapter, too, would have benefited from a consideration of Justice's pages on the Vox Clamantis, but it is still full of keen insights, especially in its discussions of Gower's use of Nebuchadnezzar's dream (255-59) and of the revelation at the end of the Confessio Amantis that Amans is no young lover but actually, like the world itself, old and feeble (266- 69). "Taken as a whole," Dean concludes, "Gower's three major narratives constitute something like a sermo ad status or an anatomy de senectute mundi" (p. 270).

As in the case of the chapter on Gower, "Chaucer and the Decay of Virtue" confronts a writer who, in poems ranging from the Boethian lyric "The Former Age" to the bawdy Wife of Bath's Prologue, employed various subtopics of the world grown old to a great many ends. The first part shows the extent to which Chaucer's short lyrics articulate the worldview de senectute mundi, but it is in his treatment of the Canterbury Tales that Dean can really show how his topic should determine our understanding of late medieval literature. According to this chapter, Chaucer establishes two poles of women (the virgin/whore or Eve/Mary dichotomy, though Dean does not label it as such) that demonstrate that the world has grown old. One pole is represented by Alison of Bath, a thoroughly modern woman whose gap from the mulier fortis of Proverb 31.10-13 "provides one index of the moral slide from the alleged ages of virtuous women to Chaucer's day" (283). The discussions of marriage, especially by the Clerk and Harry Bailly, "seem to corroborate the Wife's unfortunate characterization of modern wedlock" (299). The other pole comprises the Tales' virtuous women: St. Cecelia, Custance, and Grisilde. It is telling, Chaucer's (male) narrators emphasize, that these women belong to a bygone era that cannot be reclaimed in our own world grown old.

In this chapter Dean addresses issues of interest to almost all Chaucerians -- marriage, the relationships between the frame and the tales, the Wife of Bath, Chaucer's view of history -- in a context that will certainly provoke many readers to return to their well-worn opinions with fresh ideas. The one major issue on the whole neglected is: why women? Throughout this book Dean goes to great lengths to show that late-medieval writers looked to the past, especially to the primeval history recounted in Genesis, in their depictions of the world grown old. Yet not even Dean's survey of legends of Adam and Eve in chapter 2 (117-20) prepares us for the Chaucerian version, in which both the world's former strength and its current decay are embodied in female behavior. Gender issues have been at the center of Chaucer studies for over a decade now, yet despite their obvious pertinence to Dean's thesis they barely register here.

The World Grown Old is handsomely produced, featuring a very helpful apparatus (5 figures, 2 tables, footnotes at the bottom of the page, full bibliography, an almost exhaustive index). One oversight in the index is the failure to include the Gower chapter's discussion of Wisdom 11:21, on God's ordination of "alle thingis in mesure, and in noumbre, and in wei3te" (263), a Biblical text that features prominently in medieval English and Latinate thinking not only about God's creation, but more specifically about architecture, literature, and even the friars (as in Piers Plowman. I found Dean's decision to quote the Bible in the Wycliffite version throughout the book misguided, not only because it is jarring to encounter Middle English in a discussion of Augustine or Dante, but also because doing so has the effect of normalizing the issue of scriptural translation, whose charged nature is well presented in Dean's edition of chapter 15 of the prologue of the Wycliffite Bible in Medieval English Political Writings, 68-74. Indeed, such debates frequently invoked the "world grown old": Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris from 1395, likens such translation to the division that took place at Babel (Joannis Gersonii Operum Omnia, ed. du Pin [1706], 1:105).

While treatment of senectus mundi in such political, social, and religious realms would have been welcome, such an undertaking would perhaps entail another book; the one Dean has instead offered succeeds on almost every front. Indeed, in addition to its vigorous collection of materials and innovative readings of late-medieval literature, one of this volume's most important achievements is that it will undoubtedly prompt re- assessments of major issues across the spectrum of medieval studies, whether they be the intellectual context of Langland's revisions, the role of women in the Canterbury Tales, or the program of vernacularization. In an era when so many self- proclaimed arbiters of scholarship, however misguided, find literary studies too narrow and politicized, it is refreshing to find a book of such acumen, breadth, and generosity. James Dean has provided a major service not only to medievalists, but also to anyone invested in keeping history and ideas, not to mention scholarly standards, from growing old.