The Medieval Review 10.10.06

Minnis, Alastair and Ian Johnson. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Volume II: The Middle Ages. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 865. $198 ISBN 978-0-521-30007-0. $49 978-0-521-31718-4.

Reviewed by:

Karl Steel
Brooklyn College
karl.tobias.steel@gmail.com

Briefly, the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: The Middle Ages (hereafter CHLCMA) opens with a consideration of several foundational issues, first treating the study and science of grammar, then the artes of poetry, letter writing, and preaching. This entire section engages with several key issues for literary theory, including the nature of metaphor and varying medieval arguments for the primacy of either oral or written communication. The book's next section contains two chapters on "The Study of Classical Authors," from late Antiquity (Winthrop Wetherbee) to c. 1450 (Vincent Gillespie). The next section, "Textual Psychologies: Imagination, Memory, Pleasure," contains a chapter on "Medieval Imagination and Memory" by Alastair Minnis and a brief one, "The Profits of Pleasure," by Glending Olson. In its last several hundred pages, the volume turns to medieval vernacular critical traditions: chapters here include discussions of Castilian, French, German, Occitan, and Old Norse-Icelandic traditions as well as several native to the British archipelago (Irish, Welsh, English). There is no consideration of the literary practice or theory of Eastern Europe. The penultimate section devotes six chapters to "Latin and Vernacular in Italian Literary Theory." CHLCMA concludes with a chapter by Thomas M. Conley that aims to prove the existence of a thriving native Byzantine literary criticism.

Given the press, the editors, and the expertise of the contributors, the high quality of CHLCMA is unsurprising. It will deservedly be the standard reference for the next several decades. My only real complaints with its contents are its occasional evaluative judgments, which strike me as irrelevant and insufficiently historicized: there is no need for Zygmunt Barański to convince us of Dante's importance, nor to praise Dante for the newness of his insights, unless, of course, Dante's contemporaries or medieval followers themselves praised him similarly: broadly stated, it is modern textuality, not medieval, that praises originality. Nor, for much the same reason, should Simon Gaunt and John Marshall decide which Occitan works evince "decline" (a word used three times in one paragraph on 472-3) and which represent a "vibrant poetic tradition" (473) comprising "many innovative and individualistic figures" (473). Nor, finally, should Winthrop Wetherbee have judged certain medieval translations to be more accurate than others, since, of course, standards of what constitute "accuracy" in translation are precisely what should be historicized in any study of medieval, let alone modern, literary theory.

Several chapters in the CHLCMA struck me as more theoretical than others, for several largely comprise catalogs of the contents of treatises or commentaries without articulating the larger theoretical principles at stake. Standouts among the theoretically minded chapters include Vincent Gillespie's discussion of thirteenth-century efforts to characterize the features and effects unique to poetic language--how it operates through "imaginative syllogisms," for example--and Alastair Minnis's demonstration of how medieval representational and psychological theories establish the notion that poetry moves people more effectively to ethical behavior than do merely rational arguments. Margaret Clunies Ross shows how the Skáldskaparmál, part of Snorri Sturluson's Edda, combines poetics and mythography into a form of literary thinking that may be wholly peculiar to the Middle Ages. And, as Ananya Jahanara Kabir shows in her excellent contribution, few schools of literary criticism, medieval or modern, have been as sophisticated as Anglo-Saxon writing on the interactions between orality and textuality. By contrast, Siegfried Wenzel's chapter on the artes praedicandi describes what is less a literary than a compositional theory.

I would therefore have preferred a chapter on the accessus ad auctores to one on the artes praedicandi. The accessus tradition trains readers in how to interpret, highlights what interpretative issues should matter, and may be identified as a key site for the historical construction of the "author" as a figure of hermeneutic importance. However, my wish for a new chapter on the accessus and for more richly developed discussion of literary theoretical issues must be weighed against CHLCMA's considerable length and also against the difficulty of producing such a monumental compendium of scholarship and scholars. My imagined ideal version of this book would require that several existing chapters be excised, trimmed, or combined. The Byzantine chapter, despite its strengths, might be cut, as CHLCMA provides no evidence that Byzantine literary theory interacted with the traditions the volume describes elsewhere. Zygmunt Barański's chapter on the authorship of the Epistle to Can Grande likewise strikes me as unnecessary. If the Epistle is indeed a late fourteenth-century production, this affects our understanding of the Commedia by freeing it, as Barański suggests, from a misguided "authorial" constraint on its allegory or its "self"-presentation of its genre: the Epistle can be safely filed away as yet another commentary on, rather than by, Dante, and not a very sophisticated one at that. However, Barański's conclusions, necessarily tentative and controversial (and at odds with both Steven Botterill's chapter on Trecento Commedia commentaries and the coda to Barański's own chapter), are out of place in what is, after all, primarily a reference work.

Furthermore, like Akbari and Stella, and in fact like Minnis, who himself notes CHLCMA's omission of "Islamic and Jewish traditions" (11), I would have liked to have seen chapters on literary consciousness in Arabic, Hebrew, and Yiddish writings, or indeed extended consideration of writing by Muslims or Jews in whatever language. Not to treat such works, while giving a chapter to Byzantine criticism, is to perpetuate an all-too-familiar and perhaps anachronistic picture of Medieval Europe and "the West" as either Christian or proto-Christian. Certainly literary theory in Arabic merits a chapter far more than Byzantine criticism does, given Arabic criticism's key role in the development of Occitan lyric and therefore in the development of "Western" literary presentations of subjectivity. A consideration of Hebrew or Yiddish literary criticism might have treated the defense of literary pleasure in the prologue to Melech Artus, a fragmentary Hebrew Arthurian narrative produced in thirteenth-century Italy, in light of contemporary Rabbinic warnings against the reading of vernacular romances.

Even these suggestions do not quite describe my ideal CHLCMA, which would have had fewer "national" or linguistically focused chapters and more on theoretical themes. Certain commonalities in medieval literary theory appear frequently, albeit under different terms. The CHLCMA would have been more useful (though, admittedly, far more difficult to edit!) had each of these commonalities been given its own chapter or subsection. I would have liked to have seen dedicated and comparative discussions of: whether poetic skill originated in the poet's own efforts or training or in divine inspiration, emotional intensity, inherent ability, or even ancestry; how the ability to read, comprehend, and compose esoteric literary writing divided social classes from one another (and indeed how debates over the status of the vernacular were also debates about the social status of writers); whether poetry was true or what kind of truth it could produce; and whether meaning inhered in the work itself, in the exegete, or in their interaction, an issue of particular importance in theories of allegorisis.

A deep and sustained consideration of the latter point would have required a chapter devoted to scriptural exegesis. Minnis himself observes, "far from 'theological thinking' being essentially antithetical to 'literary criticism,' on many occasions it served as a major stimulus" (4). Though he then provides a quick summary of medieval scriptural exegetical theory, and although the topic receives some consideration amidst a discussion of Wycliffite controversies over Biblical translation, I nonetheless still wished for a longer treatment. Such a chapter could have studied the varying responses to the Psalms, which should surely be understood as poetry. As poetry, the Psalms raise questions of authorship, authorial intent, metaphor, the political utility of lyric, and so forth, all longstanding issues in literary theory and all considered deeply, richly, and centrally in medieval commentary traditions. Medieval scriptural exegesis promotes a hermeneutics of strategic polyvalence; it frequently analyzes the topic of authorship, given the human and presumptively divine origin of scriptural texts; it calls for training in textual editing and also for self-consciousness about the limitations and benefits of translation (given that most medieval readers read the Christian Bible in Latin rather than in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). These modes of engagement with literature all intersect with points treated elsewhere in this volume. But unlike the hermeneutics proper for classical or modern secular literature, scriptural exegesis concerns texts believed to be true, not only in a historical or moral sense (though this was the case also), but also in an eternal sense, so much so that a misreading could quite literally be deadly. The uniqueness of this hermeneutic imperative makes such a chapter requisite, while its absence necessarily means that CHLCMA obscures or mischaracterizes the most peculiar features of medieval reading practices.

I must emphasize that the above paragraphs describe my ideal CHLCMA, one that perhaps will emerge several decades from now, and that my criticisms have less to do with the editors than with the press itself, which called for a "Western" and secular emphasis. The present volume must be admired for what it has accomplished within these bounds. It is emphatically necessary for any library, for any historically minded student of literary criticism, and, it should go without saying, for any medievalist with an interest in literature. I know I will use it often throughout my career.