05.05.01, Bouchard, Every Valley Shall Be Exalted

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James Ginther

The Medieval Review baj9928.0505.001


Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Every Valley Shall Be Exalted: The Discourse of Opposites in Twelfth-Century Thought. Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 171. ISBN: 0-8014-4058-0.

Reviewed by:

James Ginther
St Louis Unversity

Any time I try to lead students thought a medieval text like the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, it is always a struggle to get them to read the arguments pro and contra before considering Thomas's own solution. The eagerness to run ahead is fueled primarily by the assumption that the "scholastic project" of Aquinas is solely focused on resolving apparent contradictions, to the extent that the opposing arguments have only rhetorical value. However, when they do take the time to reflect on the initial arguments posed at the beginning of a scholastic article, they are surprised to discover that a theologian from the schools did not always take one position over another, but will often blend the two opposing arguments, or even concede that each position holds some truth value. Discursive argument is sometimes about resolution, but sometimes it is composed of the harmony of discordant concepts, a concordance that is contingent upon the validity of each opposite.

Bouchard wants to impress on her reader that in the minds of medieval thinkers, artists and leaders there was a desire to construct an account of reality that embraced the truth of opposites. This point of departure is of critical importance: the discourse of opposites concerns a construction of reality (7-8), which may on the surface sound like a wholesale capitulation to an arbitrary post-modernism. However, Bouchard then proceeds with the assumption that while the account of reality may be artificial (in the classical meaning of the word), the components are objectively real--at least from the perspective of the medieval individuals that she brings into focus.

Bouchard begins by explaining that this discourse of opposites is not some medieval form of "ying-yang," where the world hangs between two opposing forces. Nor is her study an enquiry into some cultural notion of a "double truth." Rather, it is an attempt to grapple with the classical and medieval proposition that the created world is composed of elements that are in direct opposition to one another. Moreover, these discourses of opposites do not focus on the moral purity or superiority of one thing over its opposite (such as good over evil), but instead they embrace the validity of both things in opposition. Embodiment, as understood in Christian thought, is the formal and material source for this contrary thinking. The "truth of human nature"--to cite a scholastic phrase of the thirteenth century--is composed of a material body and an immaterial soul. One cannot attain a complete account of humanity by denying the material in favor of the spiritual or vice versa. This use of contraries seeps into a context larger than philosophical and theological argument. The author aims to demonstrate that it is threaded through the very fabric of twelfth-century French thought and culture.

Bouchard explores this theme in five areas: scholasticism (28-56), literature (57-75), monastic conversion (76-93), conflict resolution (94-112), and gender (113-144). In each instance, she has chosen her sources carefully for it would have been easy to develop the argument by means of anecdotal evidence. Bouchard circumnavigates this problem by examining seminal works, that is, texts that would have a wide influence on their immediate readers as well as readers of subsequent decades (and centuries). What also makes this an admirable work is the breadth of the analysis. Bouchard has well embraced the intent of medieval studies, wherein a variety of disciplines (both in terms of their canons and methodologies) can come together to present a more complex, but still coherent, picture of the medieval world. This admirable trait renders a major challenge to any reviewer, who in a perfect world should be as conversant in each discipline as the author. I confess immediately to my viator status in such a world. Hence, while I found the chapter on romance and epic literature compelling, I can offer very little in terms of constructive criticism. I can, however, offer some assessment of the other four areas she broaches.

Bouchard's general strategy is to identify opposites that have universal acceptance and then demonstrate how both function within a set of arguments or social relationships. Within biblical commentary, for example, she considers how the exposition of texts concerning humility and poverty do not necessarily demand a complete abdication of material wealth and social status (32-36). Herein lies an irony of the medieval experience: if the apex of religious experience was the wholesale rejection of worldly values, such as wealth and social honors, why did monastic and ecclesiastical leaders treat peasants--the poor--with such contempt? Did not the life of a peasant exemplify ascetic practice? Bouchard's answer considers the dilemma not as fodder for irony, but instead as a focal point for discursive opposites. Poverty may indeed be a spiritual discipline, but an impoverished life did not necessarily strengthen one's spirituality. Rather, poverty--to be an effective religious experience--must always be voluntary, and so even a peasant's life could be rife with pride. As equally important, a commitment to the Christian virtue of humility did not mean that a good Christian could not scale the heights of nobility and honors; instead, those who are to be the "greatest among you shall be your servant" were defined in terms of merit. One could have a humble prince, who because of his Christian merit would be the servant of all. In this light, the papal assertion of being the servus servorum was not a case of a rhetorical sleight-of-hand nor of a tongue-in-cheek claim that some have suggested, but rather a forthright insistence that humility did not preclude claims to superiority.

Bouchard revisits this theme of humility and social status when considering the issue of conversion (76-93). Her argument is straightforward and simple: renunciation, especially in cases of noble conversion, did not lead to any rejection or denunciation of the worldly life as a possible form of Christian existence. Those who reflected on conversion, and here we encounter primarily the writings of Orderic Vitalis, Guibert of Nogent and Bernard of Clairveaux, embraced a somewhat contradictory account of the Christian life: while there is something eminently noble in the renunciation of the aristocratic life, it did not mean that the wealth and social status of knights, counts, dukes and princes were ignoble. "Noble conversion denied the aristocratic life as its opposite," Bouchard writes, "and yet monasticism required the constant support of those living that very way of life it reflected in inverse" (81). The thrust here, however, is not to consider the monastic tolerance of the nobility as some form of pragmatic realism, but rather as a genuine view that the Christian life itself could be composed of opposites. Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in Bernard's encomium for the Knights Templar (84-86). They are the new knighthood but also a monastic order and somehow, in contrast to over a millennium of monastic thought, the life of prayer can be congruent with bloodshed and violence. Many scholars over the centuries have found Bernard's arguments to be jarring if not disjunctive, and yet if considered as part of a larger commitment to a discourse of opposites, there is a coherency to his thought.

The discourse of opposites did not simply inhabit the rarified world of theologians and philosophers nor was it solely concomitant with monastic practice. It also had considerable influence on more concrete aspects of society. Bouchard is perhaps best equipped to make the case that conflict resolution depended upon the acceptance of opposites functioning together. Her argument in this chapter is perhaps the most straightforward: resolutions between two parties on the legal battlefield requires a resolution in which both parties win. Even when one side appears to have lost the legal argument, (generous) capitulation was another means in which a party could win the day. The chapter is composed of specific examples that demonstrate this general claim, and it is clear that Bouchard knows the material well. Her case is made stronger by examining conflicts between monasteries and laymen, monasteries and bishops, and nobility amongst themselves.

Bouchard's final chapter focuses on "how the differences between men and women were conceptualized and categorized in the context of the twelfth century's oppositional thinking" (113). Her discussion, while wonderfully summative of the complex literature on gender and society, slightly suffers from one omission. That omission is certainly not in terms of sources, for she returns once again to the environs of biblical commentary before moving onto explaining how chronicles, monastic texts (letters, tractates and prayers) and romance literature demonstrate an almost uniform understanding of the discourse of opposites in the treatment of gender (She perhaps casts her net a little too widely, for her claim of the influence of Plato's Republic on gender construction (118) cannot be supported since this text was unknown during this period). Twelfth-century writers all acknowledge, Bouchard argues, that the feminine is a valid form of human existence. Indeed, the whole process of pro-creation focuses more on the physical contributions of a woman, and that plays a significant role in the understanding of marriage and family in medieval France. This construction of gender also requires theologians in particular to advocate the ontological status of gender, in that God created both male and female ex ortu, and that feminine physicality was not a result of sin. There are certainly physical differences (and Bouchard focuses on how upper-body strength played in medieval gender roles) and indeed there is an accepted inferiority as a result of those differences. However, this perceived inequality between male and female was not built upon an essential deficiency in women. Bouchard is adamant that twelfth-century thinkers did not place men and women in oppositional categories of "spiritual" versus "physical" (119). It is at this point that I think Bouchard has missed an important qualification here. It is not the opposition of physical to spiritual that is at work here--for that discursive opposite must be used in the definition of humanity in general--but rather the opposites of rational and irrational. The masculine, in medieval thought, was considered as more inclined to rationality and the feminine mired in the passions or irrationality--and this state is the result of sin. Now there is a real danger is making this distinction the sole rubric of medieval gender differentiation, but it surely must be embraced to some degree at least since the medieval conception of virtue was itself constructed in a Neo-platonic context where the mind was the vehicle for connecting to the divine. This observation does not negate Bouchard's claims in this chapter, but in fact strengthens her presentation: it further connects the notions of virtue that she touches upon in romance literature with the more theological view of gender (137-143). Furthermore, gender as this kind of discursive opposite provides a better understanding of the emergence of a more affective spirituality that embraces both the roles of mother and father as positive models of piety, and one that valorizes the "gift of tears," for example, as essential to monastic meditation even though this very act was grounded in the passions.

These minor criticisms only bear witness to the importance of Bouchard's study. It is more than possible that this monograph, in conjunction with the studies of Catherine Brown and Sarah Kay, has laid out an important research agenda for future doctoral students and established scholars alike. Her interdisciplinary approach must not only be applauded but imitated. It can also serve as an important monitum for those of us who work in medieval philosophy and theology. While reading this book, I began to think of another study that attempted to broach the same type of topic, Ewert Cousins's Bonaventure and the Coincidence of Opposites (Franciscan Herald Press, 1978). Cousins's study was an attempt to understand an integral theme in Bonaventure's theology, and for him the key was the idea of opposites coinciding in a Christo-centric theology without negating one or the other. His study elicited a tempest in a teapot, where some reviewers thundered against this portrayal. Most objections were couched in philosophical and theological arguments (and some were valid), but the implicit objection was that Cousins had imported the metaphor of coincidental opposites from comparative religion and in particular Eastern cosmology. In retrospect, what Cousins described is nothing more than another medieval "discourse of opposites." The context for this portrayal was therefore far closer to home than Cousins and his interlocutors had ever envisaged. This observation is not a real critique of Cousins (or his detractors), for it would be unfair to hold them accountable for research that had yet to be published. Nonetheless, Bouchard reminds us that medieval thinkers were brilliant minds that were attached to bodies, and that means they were grounded in the culture of the Middle Ages. It might be neater to consider the more pristine world of ideas, but we must never forget that those ideas were discovered and debated in cathedral or university classrooms strewn with straw upon which embodied students sat. The master and the student alike were swayed by cultural elements that were not so esoteric, as much as they persuaded their contemporaries. That relationship should always seep into our interpretation of medieval culture.

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James Ginther

St Louis Unversity