The Medieval Review 10.11.09

Balint, Bridget K. Ordering Chaos: The Self and the Cosmos in Twelfth-Century Latin Prosimetrum. Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts, 3. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. x, 242. $148 hb ISBN 978-90-04-17411-5. .

Reviewed by:

Andy Cain
University of Colorado

Ever since the publication of Charles Homer Haskins' landmark study The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927), the twelfth century has come to be recognized as a discrete period characterized by great achievement and innovation in (among many other areas) Latin literature. In her book, the third installment in Brill's new Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts series, Bridget Balint examines one fascinating development within twelfth-century Latin literary culture, the revival and proliferation of Boethian prosimetra, prose dialogues interspersed with poetry which fuse allegory with philosophical speculation. Why did this genre flourish during this period as it did in no other in the history of western literature, and how do the authors' variations on traditional (i.e. Boethian) prosimetrum reflect contemporary ethical and anthropological concerns? Balint answers these and other related questions in five thematic chapters which offer close analyses of the only five Latin prosimetra of their kind to survive from the twelfth century: Hildebert of Lavardin's De querimonia, Adelard of Bath's De eodem et diverso, Lawrence of Durham's Consolatio de morte amici, Bernardus Silvestris' Cosmographia, and Alan of Lille's De planctu Naturae.

When composing their literary works, medieval Latin writers looked for inspiration to classical and late Roman models, which they imitated-- and, as the case may be, subverted--in varying degrees and ways. The authors of twelfth-century prosimetra looked mainly to the Roman senator Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae, which he penned in 524 in prison prior to his execution for treason. It is framed as a prosimetrical dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who reminds her despairing interlocutor not to place his hope in this transitory world but rather in the absolute and unchangeable goodness of God; the dialogue culminates in Boethius coming to his senses and finding consolation amidst his predicament. Why were twelfth-century prosimetrical writers so drawn to the De consolatione? The first chapter ("The Authority of the Consolation") explores this issue by surveying some aspects of this work's reception from the eighth to twelfth centuries (there is much material indeed from which to draw, for the De consolatione was one of the "best-sellers" of the Latin Middle Ages). As for our five writers, they shared with Boethius a preoccupation with how to resolve, or at least come to terms with, humanity's existential plight (e.g. the presence of suffering in a divinely ordered cosmos). Unlike previous generations of medieval readers, they did not approach this work as a hallowed and supremely authoritative text. As Balint argues, the prevalence in the twelfth century of a more subjective type of accessus ad auctorem that invited readers to evaluate for themselves the message and merits of a given literary work opened up new possibilities of interpretation to our writers. It was this less reverent mode of handling long-venerated texts that empowered them to question and even to reject some of the De consolatione's cherished assumptions and teachings.

In the De consolatione Boethius plays the part of the earnest seeker who, despite his initial non-compliance, is able to re-embark upon the path to wisdom only because in the end he humbly submits to Philosophy's reasoning and authoritative exhortations. This Boethian notion that reason and authority can work together in synergy to produce spiritual enlightenment was no longer sustainable--if indeed it had ever been sustainable--in the more complex world of the twelfth century, where reason and authority (in its patristic, conciliar, and other manifestations) seemed hopelessly at odds with each other more often than not. The second chapter ("The Interlocutors") shows how our writers' cynical awareness of the tension between the Boethian ideal and their contemporary reality is reflected by the ambiguous status of the interlocutors in their dialogic narratives. Their personified abstractions behave less magisterially than Boethius' Philosophy, and they offer less complete and less satisfying answers to the narrators' conundra. For instance, Hildebert's Anima ("Soul") actually assumes characteristics, such as complacency and inconstancy, that make her resemble Boethius' prisoner-persona more than Philosophy, and in the end she is unable successfully to coach Hildebert towards a solution to his original problem.

The third chapter ("Situating the Self") examines the implied relationship in the five prosimetra between the authorial persona (or narrator) and the reader. The twelfth century saw an explosion in interest, unprecedented in the medieval West, in excavating the inner self through introspection. The prosimetrical genre was ideally suited for this pursuit of interiority, not least because its first-person narration enables the conveyance of substantive didactic content in a livelier, more immediate way than other genres of literature. The narrator within the prosimetrical text not only stands for the author himself but also symbolizes the universal "I" (i.e. the reader), who vicariously participates with the author-narrator in the introspective process, such that he takes all of the admonitions directed at the narrator in the text as being applicable to himself. The five Boethian prosimetra, then, were designed in part to serve as guidebooks for the edification of their readers, who joined with the authors themselves in the exercise of collective soul-searching. Yet, by the same token, since they lack one of the key formal features of Boethius' prosimetrum--namely, the establishment of definitive answers to specific questions--, they give readers some latitude in determining the appropriate answer(s) for themselves.

The authors of the five twelfth-century prosimetra engaged in the dialogic process, like Boethius before them had, in the hope of imposing some sense of order on the chaotic world around--and within-- themselves. But they nevertheless found Boethius' philosophical optimism untenable for their own contemporary situation and formulated in its stead a rather bleak vision of a world in which true happiness is illusive and even the quest for knowledge is frustrated by the limitations and flaws of post-lapsarian human nature. Ironically, as Balint points out in the fourth chapter ("Truth and Instability in the Prosimetra"), the very genre that Boethius had used some six centuries earlier as a vehicle for philosophical optimism was taken over by Christian pessimists who doubted the efficacy of reason to solve their internal conflicts. Along these lines, in this chapter Balint closely examines two of the prosimetra, Hildebert's De querimonia and Alan of Lille's De planctu Naturae, to show how the writers' usage of language and selected rhetorical techniques was symptomatic of the growing pessimism in the twelfth century about the relationship between language and truth and the ability to make sense of the self and the cosmos via the medium of the text.

The first four chapters assess in detail the often complicated relation of the twelfth-century prosimetra to their Boethian model. The fifth and final chapter ("Fabulous Philosophizing after 1170") also concerns reception, but here the focus is on the survival of certain techniques of Boethian prosimetrum, especially ones deployed in the five twelfth-century examples that form the core of this study, in Latin and vernacular literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The guided tour includes stops at several literary genres (e.g. prosimetrum and debate poems) and authors (Elias of Thriplow, Petrus Compostellanus, Jean Gerson, Jean de Meun). At its end the chapter comes full circle and returns to our canonical quintet of prosimetrical writers, offering some summary reflections on their intellectual milieu and their connection--certain for Hildebert, Adelard, and Bernard, and possible for Lawrence and Alan--to the contemporary French Cathedral schools (especially the one at Tours).

There are three appendices. The first makes miscellaneous observations about the five writers' incorporation of verse into their prosimetra; it is pointed out, for instance, that they preferred hexameters and elegiac couplets to other verse forms. The second and third appendices provide serviceable English translations of Hildebert's De querimonia and Lawrence's Consolatio de morte amici.

The book has been proofread well, and the list of errata is refreshingly short: for "for then" read "for them" on p. 139, and there is an unnecessary space between "Poetry" and the comma in the reference in n. 70 on p. 162.

This is a very well-written work of scholarship with a clear, tightly argued thesis. Balint is a sophisticated reader of medieval texts, and her book brims with stimulating insights into a branch of Latin literature that has not received quite the mainstream attention that it deserves. The notorious cost-prohibitiveness of Brill titles aside, Balint's book will be an indispensable resource for scholars and advanced students who cultivate interests in Boethian reception, prosimetra, and twelfth-century literature and philosophy.