09.08.02, Ruys, ed., What Nature Does Not Teach

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Lisa H. Cooper

The Medieval Review 09.08.02

Ruys, Juanita Feros, ed.. What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods . Disputatio, Vol. 15. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. xiv, 530. ISBN: 978-2-503-52596-9.

Reviewed by:
Lisa H. Cooper
University of Wisconsin

This massive volume of twenty essays in Brepols' relatively new Disputatio series (the first volume of which appeared in 2003) is a welcome contribution to the burgeoning--or rather, re-burgeoning-- study of post-classical, pre-modern literatures of instruction. An area once dominated largely by scholarship on medieval German Fachliteratur, the field gained renewed energy in English- language scholarship over the last fifteen years from the publication of reference works like George R. Keiser's masterful Works of Science and Information, Volume 10 of the revised A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung (Yale University Press, 1998) and the CD-ROM of some 8,500 incipits to Scientific and Medical Writings in Old and Middle English, edited by Linda Ehrsam Voigts and Patricia Deery Kurtz (University of Michigan Press, 2001) and from new editions of previously unedited texts, like those collected in Lister M. Matheson, ed., Popular and Practical Science of Medieval England (Colleagues Press, 1994); it was further spurred by a renewed interest in the literature of conduct, as evidenced by the important collection of essays on Medieval Conduct, edited by Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), whose introduction is a now-standard starting place for any investigation of that large topic. More recently, it has gained both breadth and depth from linguistically-focused studies of practical manuals like that of Irma Taavitsainen and P‰ivi Pahta, eds., Medical and Scientific Writing in Late Medieval English (Cambridge University Press, 2004), further investigations of conduct literature both secular and sacred such as Elizabeth Allen's False Fables and Exemplary Truth in Later Middle English Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Nicole R. Rice's Lay Piety and Religious Discipline in Middle English Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2008), and another volume of essays, Calliope's Classroom: Studies in Didactic Poetry from Antiquity to the Renaissance, ed. Annette Harder et al. (Peeters, 2007).

As the above mini-bibliography demonstrates, and as the useful introduction to the volume under review freely admits, the precise meaning and, perhaps more importantly, the limits of the term "didactic" as it pertains to medieval and early modern textuality are notoriously difficult to define. It is, after all, a truism that virtually every medieval and Renaissance writer subscribed (even if at times only nominally so) to the Horatian dictum that literature ought to be as useful as sweet, with--at least according to our modern tastes--the first part of the equation winning out far more frequently. It is hard to say whether any text written between the fifth and the fifteenth century (and this volume ranges into the eighteenth) could truly be characterized as positively un- didactic; when even the most raucous of French fabliaux can potentially be construed as conveying some sort of social or moral lesson, perhaps nothing at all falls outside the scope of the genre, at least as Feros Ruys here defines it in her opening essay: "a text can be considered didactic if it was created, transmitted, or received as a text designed to teach, instruct, advise, edify, inculcate morals, or modify and regulate behaviour" (5). At the same time, while--and as Feros Ruys notes three pages earlier--the topics covered in premodern didactic texts range "from the moral to the pedagogic, practical, social, religious, and aesthetic" (2), most of the essays in this volume focus, albeit from a variety of interesting perspectives, upon the literature of conduct--written advice about proper behavior in a variety of situations--rather than upon, say, the literature of information (encyclopedias, for example) or of practical instruction (cookbooks, medical treatises), works that, until we better define our terms, might be said to also make up the larger category of "didactic" literature. This is not, however, the position taken by Steven J. Williams, whose essay on the Secret of Secrets opens the first of the volume's five sections, "Constructing Didactic Intent and Persona." For Williams, an authority on this pseudo-Aristotelian work of advice (his larger study on the text's tradition appeared in 2003), the term didactic "refers to moral instruction, and more generally advice as to personal conduct" (43), and this, as he shows by way of an overview of the book's reception--both its codicological history and allusions made to it in other, later works--was largely what the Secret of Secrets was understood to provide by generations of readers. While Williams reads didactic purpose from the side of reception, Kathleen Olive's subsequent essay on the Codex Rustici, a fifteenth-century pilgrimage guide to the Holy Land, instead uncovers the "confused" (her term) intent of the book's author, revealing him as much more invested in celebrating the glories of his native city-- Florence--than in providing a truly useful manual for the Jerusalem visitor. The last essay of the section, by Louise D'Arcens, also focuses on authorial intent by re-examining Christine de Pizan's Italian background as she presents it in her early political writings; D'Arcens argues that what Christine constructs in these works is a "migrant advisory voice" (82) that allows her--a woman, and a foreign one at that--to speak authoritatively to power within her adopted land.

The three essays in the volume's second section--"Children and Families"--present an interesting if slightly frustrating mix of the highly specific and the overly general. The first, Maria Nenarokova's study of an early-twelfth-century Russian treatise (the Instruction of Vladimir Monomakh), provides a rare look--at least for the English-speaking reader--at the didactic tradition outside of Western Europe as that tradition took the form of one important ruler's letters to his children, though this reader found problematic the concluding argument, based on a face-value reading of praise in later chronicles, that this parentally produced speculum principis "had a great influence not only on [Monomakh's] descendants, but, through them...on Russian society in general" (128). This contribution pairs well with the third in the section, Catherine England's examination of the way Florentine literature on parenting emphasized the importance of fashioning children so that they might become worthy adult citizens of the polity, but the two are somewhat strangely interrupted by the editor's own contribution, a survey of self-presentation in parental advice texts ranging from the ninth- century "Liber manualis" of Dhuoda to the Basilikon Doron of James VI/I (1603) and other seventeenth-century maternal texts. While the various details explored here are interesting, no justification for the particular collocation of texts under examination is offered, and the conclusions--first, that male writers have more recourse to examples from their own experience, while female authors tend to base their authority to purvey advice upon written auctores, and, second, that overall "personal experience is increasingly recognized...as a valid source of parental didactic authority" (162)-- while clearly correct according to the evidence presented, do not seem especially revelatory.

Gendered pedagogy is explicitly the theme of the third section on "Women, Teaching, Gender." Four of these--Stavroula Constantinou's essay on the teaching techniques of women in Byzantine hagiography, Albrecht Classen's on the representation of marriage and gender relations in the work of two Middle High German writers (Thomasin von Zerclaere and Hugo Von Trimberg), and Julie Hotchin's on the work of another German, Johannes Busch's Liber de reformatione monasteriorum, a fifteenth-century guidebook to male pastoral care of religious women, and finally Alexandra Barratt's survey of "English Translations of Didactic Literature for Women to 1550"--are not so much argumentative as descriptive summaries, well-written overviews that will perhaps be most useful to those unfamiliar with the texts under discussion. A delightfully unexpected argument, however, appears in Ursula Potter's exploration of early modern England's reception of a Spanish conduct book, Juan Luis Vives' The Instruction of a Christian Woman. By turning outside the arena of didactic literature proper to look at the way that English poets and dramatists, including Shakespeare, either implicitly countered or explicitly mocked the Spaniard's lessons, Potter reveals the creativity that sprung from the place "where the past meets the present and where Continental theory meets English social practice" (285).

The volume's fourth section--"Literacy, Piety, Heresy, Control"--a section into which Barratt's essay, noted above, might also have fit and to which it serves as a neat transition--is another mix of survey and specificity. John O. Ward's essay is a commentary upon, as well as an edition of, part of a single manuscript containing glosses on an eleventh-century lecture by Lawrence de Amalfi, monk of Monte Cassino, on Cicero's De inventione; as particular as this study is, Ward's concluding comments on the "distinction between 'using' and 'knowing'" of which this school-text gives us a glimpse are extremely interesting, and led this reader to wish that more of the contributors in the first parts of the volume had seen fit to theorize their findings in similar ways. Jason Taliadoros' overview of the twelfth- century English jurist Master Vacarius' attempt to correct his friend Hugo Speroni's heterodoxical views in his Liber contra follows neatly upon Ward's in the way that it demonstrates the "use-value" (my term) of legal and theological discourse in combination--despite the fact that, as Taliadoros notes, Speroni was not convinced by Vacarius' best efforts in this regard and remained entrenched in the anti- sacramental, anti-clerical heresy to which he gave his name. Anne M. Scott's essay on Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne is unique among the essays thus far in the volume in its focus less on the content of this fourteenth-century catechetical handbook than on its style, its "self-conscious use of the English language" (378) in an attempt to reach a newly literate and spiritually ambitious laity. Philippa Bright's study of the Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum collections, made from the side of reception like that of Williams' essay at the start of the volume, points to the important conclusion that these versions of the well-known tales were produced largely as pastoral aides for English clergy, though her concluding argument that these same collections were "instrumental in helping the church to stamp out heresy and to assert religious control over the laity" (424) seems a bit of a stretch.

As the above summaries have perhaps already suggested, What Nature Does Not Teach is a very variegated collection whose contents will prove of more or less interest to readers depending largely on their specific areas of research. This may be one reason that for this reader the volume's last section, "The Classical Tradition and Early- Modern Didactic" seemed the most ground-breaking as well as the most generally appealing: the four essays included here all reach beyond their immediate subject matter to offer broader and thought-provoking analyses of the very idea of the didactic, even while still giving readers an introduction to potentially unfamiliar material as well as a sense of its verbal texture. Frances Muecke and Robert Forgács introduce us to the Musicorum libri quattuor of Philomathes (1512), the "first and only Renaissance Latin didactic poem on music" (429), singling out within it the ways--not always complementary--that its obscure author attempts to function as both teacher and poet at once. Anthony Miller's essay on three sixteenth-century metallurgical manuals (those of Biringuccio, Cellini, and Agricola) goes a long way toward revealing how these texts set about, as his title has it, "vindicating Vulcan"--that is, recuperating the manual art of mining in a humanistic age and finding in it "a new arena for heroism, in enterprise, in understanding, in technological mastery" (451) as well as for authorship (a topic, however, as Miller's notes concede, already beautifully covered elsewhere by Pamela O. Long). Emma Gee's essay on the Renaissance reception of Aratus and Lucretius is to this reader's mind the tour-de-force of the volume; Gee reads deftly across time periods, languages, and genres to show the multiple ways in which astronomy, religion, philosophy, and literary endeavor intersect in both the classical and early modern eras, while also suggesting the stakes involved in such an intersection. Yasmin Haskell, an authority on Jesuit didacticism, concludes the volume with an inter-textual study that follows nicely on Gee's, a study of how the Jesuit Tommaso Ceva both adopted and refuted Lucretius' Stoic philosophy in his 1704 Philosophia Novo-Antiqua.

All of the contributors in this volume as well as its editor are to be commended for the way their essays speak to one another despite their very different subjects--this is often done explicitly in the very thorough footnotes (which Brepols must in turn be commended for continuing, unlike many other presses, to allow), but it is also implicit, and those with the patience to read through the entire volume will find enjoyment in considering the multiple connections between different essays. For most readers, however, and as already noted above, this will be a book primarily to dip into, particularly since its cost will prohibit all but the most well-funded of scholars from purchasing a personal copy. The book is also to be praised as a successful transformation of a conference--originally held at the University of Sydney in 2004--into a volume of essays whose polished contents do not at all betray the presentations that, according to the preface, served as the origin of at least half of them. This origin serves to explain the fact that all but four of the contributors were either educated or teach in Australia; the work they present here should, however, echo far beyond that (for this reader) distant continent.

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Author Biography

Lisa H. Cooper

University of Wisconsin