12.02.15, Feiss, On Love

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review 12.02.15

Feiss, Hugh, OSB. On Love: A Selection of Works of Hugh, Adam, Achard, Richard, and Godfrey of St. Victor. Victorine Texts in Translation, 2. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2011. Pp. 391. ISBN: 978-2-503-53459-6.

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

As part of the global and ongoing effort to make more medieval texts available in English (or other) translation, Hugh Feiss has put together a marvelous collection of central texts composed at the Abbey of St. Victor at Paris during the twelfth century. Although specifically theological-spiritual in nature, these medieval authors, Hugh, Adam, Achard, Richard, and Godfrey of St. Victor developed a truly amazing discourse on love and even sexuality as a metaphorical basis for their quest for God. This is not really new, of course, and has been observed a number of times in the past, but under the guidance of Feiss he and a group of collaborators have translated some of the most significant texts into English. Feiss himself did Hugh of St. Victor's The Praise of the Bridegroom, followed by Vanessa Butterfield's translation of Hugh's On the Substance of Love, Franklin T. Harkins's translation of Hugh's On the Praise of Charity, Butterfield's translation of Hugh's What Truly Should Be Love, Feiss's translation of Hugh's Soliloquy on the Betrothal-Gift of the Soul, Juliet Mousseau's translation of Adam of St. Victor's Sequences on Love, Feiss's translation of Achard of St. Victor's Sermon Five: On the Sunday of the Palm Branches, Andrew B. Kraebel's translation of Richard of St. Victor's On the Four Degrees of Violent Love, and Feiss's translation of Godfrey of St. Victor's Microcosm, chapters 203-227.

The book begins, however, with a lengthy introduction by Feiss in which he discusses in a meticulous fashion the spiritual experiences expressed by those twelfth-century theologians. The central theme was love, here understood, no doubt, meaning love for God, but without loving one's neighbor, as all the authors underscored, the divine love could not be aspired. In Feiss's own words: "Loving one's neighbor, loving God, and loving love are intimately connected. Without loving God, it is impossible to love one's neighbor as one should love onself, that is, so that one's neighbor may reign with Christ. Those who love each other in order to have God truly love themselves; and so, in order to love themselves, they love God. Love of neighbor encompasses care of soul and body" (58). As Hugh of St. Victor emphasized, above all, life itself could be defined by love in all of its manifestations, and so it does not come as a surprise that he and the other authors even resorted to sexual images of love, at least as one of the stages to gain God's love.

Feiss draws extensively from the translations offered in this book, and we can easily follow the argument with the help of a rich reference system. But there is a certain degree of repetitiveness both in the primary texts and in the introductory comments, so when we learn that "Love is a theme that pervades Richard's extensive writings on Christian life" (83). Of course, that is the major thrust of all those Victorine writings, as the title of this book indicates right away.

Each translation is accompanied by a solid introduction, in which we learn about the scriptural sources, the exegetical tradition, narrative strategies, and about the edition/s of the original text/s. What is missing almost everywhere are dates. We know, of course, that all those sermons or tracts were composed in the twelfth century, but readers would have been served better if more specific information had been provided, whether about the authors themselves (origin, biography, works, etc.) or about the abbey itself in its historical development. Only Butterfield adds some dates concerning other works by Hugh. Many times the comments in the individual introductions repeat what the primary text mentions anyway, and what is confirmed in footnotes by the translators. This is not to say that these introductory comments might be redundant, but instead of offering more critical perspectives, we get summaries and repetitions. The same strategy becomes apparent in the framing of the book with a bibliography at the beginning (informing us primarily about the works indicated by abbreviations) and at the end (certainly more comprehensive), but both lists include many of the same titles.

The volume concludes with an index of scripture references, an index of ancient and medieval authors, an index of classical authors, an index of early and medieval Christian authors plus their works, and a subject index (strangely, without any reference to, for example, copulation, sex/sexuality, betrothal, or childbirth; hence excluding particularly those subjects that make these spiritual texts so interesting and valuable for any scholar outside of the narrow constraints of theological literature).

Despite some of this criticism, this is a most welcome volume with intriguing and powerful texts that shed new light on the broader discourse of love in the twelfth century.

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Author Biography

Albrecht Classen

University of Arizona