David Townsend

title.none: Chance, Medieval Mythography, Vol. 2 (David Townsend )

identifier.other: baj9928.0112.004 01.12.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Townsend , University of Toronto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Chance, Jane. Medieval Mythography, Vol. 2: From the Schools of Chartres to the Court of Avignon, 1177-1350. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Pp. xvi, 514. 85.00. ISBN: 0-813-01795-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.12.04

Chance, Jane. Medieval Mythography, Vol. 2: From the Schools of Chartres to the Court of Avignon, 1177-1350. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Pp. xvi, 514. 85.00. ISBN: 0-813-01795-5.

Reviewed by:

David Townsend
University of Toronto

The second of Jane Chance's projected three volumes on medieval mythography begins with Arnulf of Orleans' commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses (ca. 1180) and ends with the Ovidius Moralizatus of Pierre Bersuire. Along the way, Chance backtracks a little in order to treat the fragmentary verse mythography of Baudri of Bourgeuil (d. 1130); she then goes on to address the anonymous mythography extant in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 221, and the so-called Third Vatican Mythographer, generally identified at present as Alberic of London, both roughly contemporary with Arnulf. Subsequent chapters treat commentaries by Alexander Neckam and Geoffrey of Vitry on Martianus Capella and on Claudian's De raptu Proserpinae, respectively; John of Garland's obscure and laconic Integumenta super Ovidii Metamorphosin, from the 1230's; and the work of the fourteenth-century Oxford scholars Nicholas Trivet, John Ridewall, and Robert Holkot.

Throughout her introduction and seven chapters, Chance consistently relates the propagation of mythographical learning to the period's wider intellectual history and the latter's institutional correlatives. She takes pains not to allow her account to degenerate into a mere catalogue of repeated borrowings, cross-references, and often minor innovations. It is thus that she prefaces her treatment of Arnulf's Ovid commentaries with a substantial introductory section on "Generation, Metamorphosis, and the Condemnation of 1277". In these opening pages, she addresses High Scholasticism's preoccupation with the nature of generation and corruption, occasioned by the reception in the Latin West of Aristotle's Libri naturales. Her suggestion is attractive and immediately plausible that the rise of the Ovidian commentary as a mythographic genre in this period speaks directly to contemporary philosophical preoccupations. "Until the [Parisian episcopal] Condemnation of 1277," she writes, "mythography, or more specifically, mythographic commentary on Ovid, had been harnessed by the pull of Aristotelianism and might therefore be expected to reflect in its own trajectory some manifestation of these ideas." (49) She goes on, at the end of her initial chapter on Arnulf, to suggest that commentary on the letter of pagan myth would later serve as a site of resistance to the chill effect of the Condemnation: "Writing on Ovid, as this study will demonstrate, provided an underground way to discuss Aristotelian concepts of generation and individual difference." (96)

Later chapters make similar claims for the correlation of mythography in the fourteenth century with shifting philosophical currents, and especially with the growing predominance of nominalist philosophy and the theological movements often associated with it. Chance links the Oxford Dominican Robert Holkot's use of mythological exempla in his 1330's commentary on the Minor Prophets to "what has been termed his 'left-wing nominalism,' also perceived as the beginning of Luther's theology and Protestant reform by some scholars". (308) She begins her final chapter on Pierre Bersuire with the observation, "By the middle of the fourteenth century scholars had gone underground--under their texts, so to speak--to play out the meaning of new ideas often too dangerous to espouse or even embrace publicly. In some cases even this mythographic subterfuge, this escape from the real, led to actual charges of heresy, as in the case of the fourteenth- century friar Pierre Bersuire." (320) Chance thus goes well beyond claiming that mythographical commentary demonstrably flows out of the more substantive intellectual currents of its time: she argues for the genre as a primary vehicle for innovative ideas, particularly under the pressure of repressive institutional forces.

At the same time, Chance gestures, albeit often less explicitly, to the resonances of her texts with the preoccupations of contemporary literary theory, and especially with issues of gender difference and subjectivity. Very close to the beginning of her introduction, Chance cites an essay by Judith Butler on the constitution and determination of subjectivity by the structures of power and the subject's always partial escapes from those dynamics. She draws this circle closed in her last chapter by thematizing Pierre Bersuire's treatment of the castration of Saturn, and finally in the last paragraph of the book, referring back to Butler, by asserting that Bersuire aimed in the Ovidius moralizatus "to expose and therefore to ameliorate what to him must have been morally, socially, politically, and theologically indefensible--the castration of the patriarchy". (376)

One cannot but be impressed by the scope of this book's ambitions--namely, to survey the daunting range of primary texts produced in the nearly two hundred years covered by the volume; to distinguish those works from one another, despite their intertextually dependent detail, according to the shifting intellectual currents of their time; and further to coordinate that thematics, once established, with the hermeneutic preoccupations of our own scholarly moment. The book evinces breadth and creative scholarly imagination. Others may agree with the present reader that the volume's reach sometimes exceeds this very considerable grasp. Such shortcomings will be the more visible to the reasonably informed academic reader precisely because he or she is led to expect a very great deal of light to be shed on the subject.

As attractive as Chance's assertions are of tight correlations between her texts and the philosophical issues of their day, one might well desire more specificity of evidence. It is one thing, for example, to evoke the rise of a naturalistic Aristotelianism in connection with the development of Ovidian commentary as a mythographic genre, but quite another to trace the specifics of the translation of the Libri naturales and their dissemination in northern France and in England. By the time of Arnulf of Orleans, Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187) had translated De generatione et corruptione from the Arabic, and a translation directly from the Greek had already existed before that. But Chance cannot, as she herself points out (42), offer specifics as to how quickly these versions were widely disseminated, or how likely it is that one or another of her authors had not merely seen one version or another, but fully absorbed the work's contents as an internalized preoccupation. What is left to say, then, is that Arnulf in some details of his commentary "can be seen to parallel or anticipate the rise in the use of Aristotelian ideas in the Ovid commentary". (38) The reader might well want a less tentative delineation of Arnulf's relations to these new ideas.

In her last chapter, similarly, Chance suggests a connection between Pierre Bersuire's mythography and his detention by the bishop of Paris, some time before March 5, 1351: "Did his attention to Ovid's Metamorphoses, which was full of the kind of pagan and erotic stories against which the authoritative St. Augustine had fulminated in De civitate Dei, also contribute to the charges?" (324) Chance offers no support for her speculation, neither a detailed account of the relevant documentary sources, nor any argument as to whether they support her conjecture. They do not appear to do so. The documents simply relate that the bishop's official justified Bersuire's detention, against the objections of the University, on the grounds that he entertained forbidden knowledge smacking of heresy (scientiis prohibitis et malis et sapientibus heresim). Her observation that Bersuire produces no more mythographic commentary after his release--a matter of weeks, it would appear, after he had been arrested-- implies that the trauma of the experience contributed to Bersuire's scholarly retrenchment. But Bersuire was around sixty years old at the time. He had completed a massive Ovid commentary. After his brief imprisonment, he was a secretary to the king of France, and then, with papal authorization, the prior of St-Eloi. He translated Livy into French. Perhaps he was simply otherwise occupied. In any case, his career between 1351 and his death in 1362 offers no hard evidence that the taint of heresy scarred him for life. The episode is arguably little more than a minor skirmish in the ongoing turf war between the University of Paris and the city's bishop. One should perhaps also note that Bersuire was not a friar, as Chance remarks in passing (320), but a Benedictine. This makes a difference in the intellectual politics of Paris in his day.

The single least satisfying chapter of the book is also fortunately the shortest, namely, that devoted to John of Garland's exercise in rhetorical abbreviatio, the Integumenta Ovidii. John's 260 elegiac couplets reduce the stories of Ovid's fifteen books to the briefest allusions, conflated with equally minimalistic interpretative gobbets drawn from the Arnulfian tradition. The popularity of this bizarre work (it often travels in manuscripts of the Metamorphoses, alongside Arnulf's glosses) seems quite plausibly a simple function of the thirteenth-century passion for lapidary mnemonic texts, virtually unintelligible in themselves, but spurring the reader to remember large amounts of material synoptically. It strikes me as peculiar that Chance gives far more space to John's Integumenta than to the immensely popular "Vulgate" Commentary of ca. 1250. (The full edition of this latter text is still in preparation by Frank Coulson. Chance is fully aware of and utilizes Coulson's work, but her attention to the "Vulgate" commentary is relegated to a few passing references.)

Chance's thematic emphasis on the progress of Aristotelian thought in the thirteenth century leads her to make rather heavy weather out of a few details of John's dense, arcane text. She frequently asserts his materialistic Aristotelianism but offers highly questionable evidence for it; she draws in several other instances rather peculiar conclusions from the passages she cites, perhaps under the influence of translations that are themselves open to question. Chance alludes, for example, to the possibility that John ran afoul of Dominican inquisitors (234), but she neither documents nor elaborates on this claim. Later on, she cites the final distich of the poem: "Stella michi niteat occasus nescia, finem/ Dans rebus, finis sit sine fine michi." She goes on to observe, "It may well have been this very coda that, ironically, endangered John's own career within the Church." (250) But she nowhere actually specifies the nature of this danger--for which, as far as I know, there is no evidence in either primary or secondary sources. The translation of the couplet that she provides from a 1929 dissertation is patent nonsense: "Let my star, which makes an end to affairs, shine without setting. Let there be end without end for me." Chance seems to imply--it's not at all clear just what she thinks is edgy about this passage--that John is espousing a kind of Pythagorean belief in the transmigration of souls. The lines are in fact surely a doctrinally comfortable return to the orthodox affectivity of Marian piety that loomed so large in other poems among John's oeuvre. It is fairly clear that John's meaning is more or less as follows: "May the star that knows no setting [viz., Maria, stella maris] shine upon me; may that which marks the end of things be my end [destination] without end."

If the book suffers from such difficulties, the flaws are more visible because the author has led her audience to expect so much. This volume affords the reader a survey of the sometimes bizarre guises donned by the gods of Rome in the Paris of Aquinas and Bonaventure, the Oxford of William Ockham, and the Avignon of Petrarch. It encourages the reader to take mythography seriously as a vehicle of substantive intellectual and institutional concerns. It is by no means the last word on the subject.