Frans van Liere

title.none: Otten, From Paradise to Paradigm (Frans van Liere)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.014 05.08.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Frans van Liere, Calvin College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Otten, Willemien. From Paradise to Paradigm: A Study of Twelfth-Century Humanism. Series: Brill's Studies in Intellectual History, vol. 127. Leiden: Brill, 2004. Pp. xv, 330. $140.00 90-04-14061-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.14

Otten, Willemien. From Paradise to Paradigm: A Study of Twelfth-Century Humanism. Series: Brill's Studies in Intellectual History, vol. 127. Leiden: Brill, 2004. Pp. xv, 330. $140.00 90-04-14061-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Frans van Liere
Calvin College

The title of this book led me to hope that at last I might have a good textbook for my undergraduate course on the twelfth-century renaissance. But unfortunately, this book is well beyond the comprehension level of any senior undergraduate. Otten's circumlocutional style makes for slow reading, and it is not always easy to infer the author's argument from her dense prose. Still, Otten's book does remind us how surprising, how poetically creative, and, above all, how refreshingly humanist the works of the twelfth-century renaissance are, and how much they deserve to be read. The twelfth century abounded with new ideas, rediscovered ancient texts, and expressed a new, optimistic outlook on the human ability to come to intellectual terms with the mysteries of God, Mankind, and the cosmos. Its innovative philosophies were inspired not just by Biblical and Patristic authorities, but also by the heritage of Classical philosophy, most importantly Plato's Timaeus and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy . Willemien Otten's book offers a detailed and sympathetic examination of some of the most important works of this period, most importantly Thierry of Chartres' Tractatus de sex dierum operibus , Alan of Lille's Planctus Naturae , his De Miseria Mundi , and his Anticlaudianus , William of Conches' Dragmaticon , Peter Abelard's Theologia Christiana and Theologia Scholarium , and Bernard Silvestris'Cosmographia and Mathematicus .

Most of these authors have traditionally been associated with the school of Chartres. The notion of this school as an actual place where people were educated has been under discussion ever since Southern published "The schools of Paris and the school of Chartres", in Benson and Constable's 1982 Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century , arguing that most of the scholars associated with this school were, in fact, teaching in Paris, and had only a tenuous connection to Chartres Cathedral. Acknowledging the subsequent scholarly debate, Otten argues that we can still speak of a "school", perhaps not in a geographical sense, but certainly in the sense of a shared philosophical attitude and world view.

What ties these works together is not just their association with the school of Chartres (with the obvious exception of Peter Abelard), but that they all make creative use of the poetic qualities of Biblical and philosophical texts, to speculate about the origin of the universe, God's creation, and Man's place in it. They all deal with the problem of the relationships among God, Man, and Nature. Central in their approach is the use of integementum as an interpretive device. Integementum , in the words of Bernard Silvestris, a "discourse which underneath a layer of fabulous narration closes or covers true meaning" (p. 241), encouraged these authors not only to interpret poetic texts as conveying a veiled philosophical truth, but also to creatively use poetic language to discuss philosophical and theological concepts.

Otten argues that "an important segment of the learned discourse of the Early Middle Ages, in the period connecting the Carolingian to the twelfth-century renaissance, can best be understood by focusing on its broad humanist outlook" (p. 9). Central to this humanist outlook is the realization of human dignity, which is seen as an act of divine restoration of Man's fallen nature. Thus for the authors discussed here, the return to paradise serves as the most apt metaphor for this human self-realization. And since, in their view, God and creation were intrinsically intertwined, this return to paradise was ultimately an act of knowing God, which in medieval philosophy was the ultimate self-realization of Man. This return to paradise was ultimately realized in a philosophical discourse that was essentially poetic in character. Otten argues that towards the end of the century, however, the two modes of discourse, poetic and philosophical, had diverged so much that what was a commonplace in the earlier twelfth century seemed odd, even vaguely heretical, by the end of the century. How the two grew apart is the central theme of this book.

In the second chapter, Otten explores in greater detail the parallel between Nature and Scripture in the writings of Thierry of Chartres and Alain of Lille. This parallel was one of the essential underlying notions of medieval theology, going back to the epistemology of Saint Augustine. Otten examines the larger context of Alain's oft-quoted poem, "Omnis mundi creatura / quasi liber et pictura / nobis est in speculum", and shows that, rather than offering a sacramentalized view of nature, the poem instead offers a Chartrian view of unredeemed Nature, in which both man and the cosmos equally long for Christ's redemption. Nature here is an integementum for the same story of salvation that is presented in Scripture. But Otten also notes that this parallelism, so essential to Chartrian theology, lost its prominence as a theological theme soon after the twelfth century, with the divergence of exegetical practice and natural philosophy.

The third chapter explores William of Conches'Dragmaticon , a Platonist outline of natural philosophy, modeled after Plato's Timaeus . Far removed from the traditional Christian and Biblical cosmology of its time, this text, Otten argues, eventually escaped being deemed heretical (as, for instance, William of Saint Thierry had called it), mainly because of its poetic qualities. Otten compares the text to Primo Levi's Periodic Table , a similar philosophical and poetic attempt to create order in a bewildering universe, and a similar creative attempt to merge scientific, personal, and philosophical convictions in one literary text.

The following two chapters on Abelard seem to stand somewhat apart from the rest of the book. They deal with the question of whether Abelard was a traditionalist or innovative theologian. In an interesting chapter that explores the place of theology in the twelfth-century renaissance, Otten shows that this question may be more on the minds of modern scholars than of Abelard himself. She demonstrates that in his struggle with the problem of human sin, Abelard's theology fits in very well with the Chartrian theme of restoration, despite the obvious differences. In Otten's view, we can see in Abelard the contours of the paradise paradigm beginning to fade, and the parameters being formed for a new language, which relies more on dialectic than on poetry. Despite his affinity with the Chartrians, Abelard seems more of an Aristotelian logician than a Platonist.

Chapters two, three, and five of this book have been published previously, and these chapters constitute the most well written part of this book. The new chapters, however, could have benefitted from a more thorough copy-editing. Odd punctuation and dangling modifiers make author's prose even less lucid. The work of a professional copyeditor certainly could have prevented the author from quoting the same sentence by Primo Levi ('... When reason surrenders, Nazism and Fascism are not far away') twice in rapid succession, once on p. 111 and again, in the same context, on p. 112. Otten's monograph may be a dense and slow read, but her erudition and creative insights make it a welcome addition to the study of twelfth century humanism.