Stephen Mark Carey

title.none: White, Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition (Stephen Mark Carey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.007 02.09.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephen Mark Carey, Emory University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: White, Hugh. Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 277. 65.00. ISBN: 0-198-18730-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.07

White, Hugh. Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 277. 65.00. ISBN: 0-198-18730-0.

Reviewed by:

Stephen Mark Carey
Emory University

This study provides an excellent addition to earlier scholarship from Professor White on Nature and Salvation in Piers Plowman (D.S. Brewer, 1988). Professor White admits that he is not presenting an exhaustive study of Nature in the Middle Ages, but describes his central concern with the question: "Is Nature benign and moral?" (5) White examines conceptions of "Nature" and the "Natural" from Alan of Lille and concomitant traditions, through Latin, French and English traditions up to Chaucer. White describes his endeavor as creating a picture of "what might be thinkable about nature by an educated author in England in the later fourteenth century" (5). Furthermore, White limits his consideration to the terms "natura" and "kynde," but this limitation, as the author notes, by no means leaves one wanting for material. It is important to recall that the title refers to "a tradition" in particular. That tradition is the one informing the work of Gower and Chaucer. The book is well researched, incorporating appropriate scholarship both old and new. The layout, replete with copious footnotes and an ample bibliography, make for a comfortable read and one has no problem following up on the citations. Of course, a work on such a broad topic begs for so many areas of expansion. Nonetheless, this volume does justice to the stated aim and leaves little to criticize. The first three chapters provide an excellent introduction to the concept of Nature in the Middles Ages and should be of interest to a wide range of medievalists or students looking for a starting point. The second half of the book is devoted to Jean de Meun, John Gower, and Chaucer. A brief chapter by chapter description is provided below.

White outlines the differentiated understanding of nature that existed in the Middles Ages and provides a solid refutation of the now, admittedly faded, notion that medieval authors accepted the natural as universally and intrinsically good. In the first chapter, "Academic Natures," White briefly touches on the "Goodness of the Natural" and then quickly proceeds to a discussion of Natural Law. The main focus here is the distinction between human nature and animal nature. On this point, White turns to the definition provided by Ulpian in the Corpus iuris civilis of Justinian which discriminates between the "law of nations," or human law, and a "natural law" common to all animals. This provides for a concept of "natural law" that has nothing to do with human reason and as shown by thirteenth century canonist Azo, stands as "pre-rational and pre-voluntary 'motus'" for human action (29). White returns to the Ulpianic notion of natural law again and again throughout the book. In a section entitled, "The Primacy of Nature-as-Instinct." He draws on Aquinas, Bonaventure, Giles of Rome, William of Auxerre and others, using Middle English translations of the Latin texts when possible. The treatment raises the question as to whether the non-rational can be regarded as more fundamentally natural than reason. Having demonstrated that the patterns of "nature-as genus do not provide a sufficient guide to moral life" (45), White concludes this chapter with the notion that the concept of the "un-natural" does, nonetheless, set limits on behavior.

In Chapter Two, "The Moral Status of the Natural in Middle English Vernacular Writing," White moves into a discussion of ri3te and kynde. Again, White begins by pointing to examples, such as ones from the The Pricke of Conscience or the Cursor Mundi, that present morality as being rooted in "kynde" or the "natural." In a section entitled "Problematic Nature, Kynde and Lechery," he proceeds to demonstrate the opposite and provides examples of "kynde" as the root of immorality. White then discusses the natural as "middle moral term."

"There seems to be some reluctance among moralists and homiletic writers to allow that sin can be the result of natural pressures, but the explicit rejection of this idea suggests that it was in fact current, a suggestion confirmed by the practice of Langland and others. That a plea of naturalness could be entered in mitigation of a sin shows the power of nature as a normative concept: there is a sense that if something is natural it is in some degree acceptable, or at least undepraved" (66). In terms of accountability, White argues that the medieval understanding of nature is unstable on the point of whether of not human being is first rational and then animal or the other way around.

In Chapter Three, "Natura Vicaria Dei," White treats the widely discussed topic of the personified nature as creator and 'mater generationis.' Before confronting the authors affiliated with the so-called School of Chartes, which was central to the dissemination of this tradition, Of course, White begins with the sixth century De conslatione Philosophiae of Boethius, which not only influenced twelfth-century "Chartrians" like Alan of Lille and Bernardus Silvestris but also Jean de Meun, Gower, and Chaucer, the eventual foci of the study. In De conslatione, Boethius' Nature acts as moral force, intent on order and in service of the Rational under God. In the twelfth century, White follows Wetherbee and others and identifies an "emancipation of nature of the realm of the sacred" (76). Fortunately, unlike other recent scholarship on this topic, White does not fail to consider the still very much pertinent scholarship of M.-D. Chenu and Tullio Gregory and maintains, therefore, an awareness that the naturalistic exegesis of Hugh of St. Victor, the 'natural' or literal sense, provided a base for allegorical readings and by no means constituted a total disregard or abandonment of symbolic readings of the natural. White then moves the discussion to the personified nature that we find in the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silverstris. White follows the development of the figure through Alan of Lille's De planctu Naturae and Anticlaudianus and Johannes de Hauvilla's Architrenius. The treatment demonstrates, as White notes that Nature appears to as a creative force in De planctu and Architrenius but this power is more limited and excludes the creation of the soul in Anticlaudianus and the Cosomographia. In all of these works, Nature appears primarily as a force of moral and divine goodness.

In Chapter Four, White focuses on Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose and contends that Nature in the Roman "is something radically different from what she is in Alan of Lille" (111). The argument that follows uncovers a Nature in the Roman who corresponds to the Ulpianic definition of natural law but remains at odds with agreement of "Ratio" and "Natura" that we find in De Planctu. White points out that Meun's Nature is "dessous le ciel," a figure bound to the earth: "Whilst in the De planctu Naturae Alan was prepared to speak of Nature giving human beings both reason and sensuality, here Nature's provision is limited to physical matter and the vegetative and sensitive souls: the rational soul, possession of which distinguishes human beings from the other animals, is understood to be provided directly by god" (126).

White interprets this de-sacralization of Nature as "Meun's challenge to Neoplatonic conceptions" of Nature's moral affinity with the divine. Nature's primary role becomes that of sponsor of the animal in human nature. Her primary role is to promote procreation and in this role she takes Venus as an ally. She is no longer the moral arbiter that we find in Alan's poetry. The figure of Nature in Meun's Roman, as White notes, paints a potentially pessimistic portrait of human existence. Nature, although vicar of God, drives human beings to sinful folly and away from goodness. White contends that both Chaucer and Gower held this pessimistic view. In Chapter 5, "Further French Natures," White traces the reaction to Meun's recasting of Nature in the French vernacular literature. Starting with the attack on the work by Jean Gerson, White follows the influence of the Roman on the Lamentatons of Matheolus, the Livre de leesce of Jean Le Fevre and La Messe des oiseaux of Jean de CondÚ. In a treatment of the Roman de deduis by Gace de la Buigne, White shows a Nature that has become a matron to the vices. Gace's Nature not only a hinders virtue but now also fights against it. Conversely, in works like Les Eches amoureux, and Renart le Contrefait, White identifies attempts to reunite Nature with Reason. Ultimately, White sees, "a turning of the emphasis in the literary tradition away from Nature as the sponsor of procreation to Nature as sponsor of sexual desire" (172). This new emphasis of Nature as stimulator of sexual behavior comes to eclipse the morally positive role of perpetuator of the species.

In Chapter Six, White treats John Gower's English work, Confessio Amantis. White holds Gower's view of Nature to be essentially Ulpianic and his treatment of this Nature supports a darker reading of Confessio Amantis. White sees "[t]he general strategy of Confessio be designed with a view to entertaining claims about the unifiability of aspects of the human being which at first sight might see irreconcilable" (188). However, White also sees "darker suggestions about nature-as-impulse" coexisting with Gower's "idea of the goodness of natural human instinct" (188). White examines the tale of Apollonius and that of Iphis and Iante. He finds Gower presenting Nature, "as both reassuringly moral in her orientations and at the same time worryingly unreliable from a moral point of view" (194). This perspective guides White's reading of the tale of Canace and Machaire. In this story of incest, White finds the "moral pessimism" in "the stress on the ineluctability of the natural pressures to vice" (202) that rule Gower's presentation of nature. Even though White sees an attempt to reconcile Nature and goodness in Venus' lines (CA 8. 2337-49), he insists that pessimism prevails: "Ultimately, in my view, division triumphs: Gower tends to imagine the world in terms of profound antagonism between opposites in which harmonious balancing of claims is not achievable, but in which peace and stability could only be attained by the elimination of the influence of one the opposites, an elimination not in fact likely to occur" (211). White concludes "that Nature and Reason are fundamentally antagonistic, then, is the view of the end of the poem" (217). In Chapter Seven, White sets a more daunting task for himself and attempts to find a similar skepticism in Chaucer. Although he must admit, "that there are contexts in Chaucer...where the natural appears to be offered unsceptically as a moral norm" (254). Nonetheless, White asserts that Nature stands for chaos in Chaucer. In closing, he borrows Arcite's lines from the "Knight's Tale" to support this claim: 'positif lawe and swich decree/ Is broken al day for love in ech degree (CT I. 1167-8)." In a very brief conclusion, White differentiates Chaucer from Gower, in that he finds a certain despair in the former that does not seem to be reconciled by belief in God.

I recommend this volume for scholars of Gower, Chaucer, and Meun but also to anyone interested in the concept of Nature in the Middle Ages.