15.08.33, Chance, Medieval Mythography, Volume 3

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Carrie Beneš

The Medieval Review 15.08.33

Chance, Jane. Medieval Mythography, Volume 3: The Emergence of Italian Humanism, 1321-1475. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015. pp. xxx, 665. ISBN: 978-0-8130-6012-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Carrie Beneš
New College of Florida
benes@ncf.edu

The study of the classical tradition is a distillation of the idea that history is a constant negotiation between continuity and change: there is an inherent tension between acknowledging the ideas and values of classical culture as authoritative, and recognizing that those ideas and values do not fit one's own circumstances precisely. That inexact fit opens the door to explanation and justification: how did people account for the observable differences between then and now, and what arguments did they advance for why classical culture should still be considered authoritative despite those differences? The three volumes of Jane Chance's Medieval Mythography explore how people in the Middle Ages (c. 433-1475) understood and applied classical myth in and to their own times, defining mythography as "the hermeneutical process of explaining, interpreting, or justifying classical myth through moralization or allegory" (1). Her analysis encompasses not only treatises specifically about the classical gods--such as Giovanni Boccaccio's Genealogie deorum gentilium--but reference works such as encyclopedias, commentaries on classical authors, and works of literature that feature classical figures and themes either allegorically or historically. Having covered From Roman North Africa to the School of Chartres, AD 433-1177 in volume 1 and From the School of Chartres to the Court at Avignon, 1177-1350 in volume 2, Chance characterizes volume 3 as The Emergence of Italian Humanism, 1321-1475.

In her introduction, Chance explains the focus of this third and final volume as falling on "the advent of hybrid mythography as a form of commentary...in vernacular poetry and, alternatively, as restyled and reformatted Latin prose commentary, both forms of which reflect allegorical authorial self-projection" (1). She sees this occurring chiefly in Italian commentators of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and thereby connects the writing of mythography to debates over the use of the vernacular (especially Tuscan) as a literary language and "a burgeoning humanism" that privileges "the individual, the personal and subjective" (3).

Chapter 1, "Toward a Subjective Mythography: Allegorical Figurae and Authorial Self-Projection," introduces and explains Chance's notion of the "hybrid mythography" that defines the authors considered in the rest of the volume. She links this to events in France at the end of the thirteenth century, the more-or-less contemporary condemnations of Aristotelian ideas at the University of Paris in 1277 and the completion of Jean de Meun's portion of Le Roman de la Rose c. 1275. By paralleling the techniques of characterization employed first by Jean de Meun and then, "twenty-odd years later" (12), by Dante Alighieri, Chance segues into the main part of her analysis.

The body of the book contains six chapters focused on the mythographical works of five authors: chapter 2, on Dante, deals with the text and commentary tradition of Inferno (1321 and following), while chapter 3 considers several of Giovanni Boccaccio's mythographical works and commentaries, specifically the Allegoria mitologica (1332-1334), the Genealogie deorum gentilium (c. 1350-1375), and his unfinished commentary on Dante (1373-1374). The next two chapters focus on works by Christine de Pizan, the Epistre d'Othea, c. 1400 (chapter 4) and Cité des Dames of 1405 (chapter 5), with a discursus into Christine's Livre des Fais d'Armes et de Chevalrie (1410) at the end of chapter 5. Chapter 6 considers De laboribus Herculis (1378?-1405) by Coluccio Salutati, and chapter 7, the "Judgment of Aeneas" in Cristoforo Landino's Disputationes Camaldulenses (1475). Chance consciously divides these authors and their works into two categories, contrasting the subversive innovations of vernacular mythographers in the first four chapters (Dante, Boccaccio, Christine) with the traditionalism of the fifteenth-century works treated in her last two chapters (Salutati, Landino). On the level of the individual text, Chance's analyses are frequently engaging: for this reader, her explanation of how Dante inverts the tradition of mythographic commentary to illuminate the self, and how Salutati's "Renaissance" manual of mythography De laboribus Herculis derives directly from the medieval commentary tradition, were especially thought-provoking.

The larger interpretative framework into which Chance attempts to place these separate analyses, however, doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Her overall argument contends, first, that "mythography" is a distinct, coherent genre in medieval literature; and second, that during this period that genre can be characterized as both "Italian" and "humanistic." But while she proffers a fairly general definition of mythography, this nearly 700-page book is not a survey; in fact, it treats only a limited number of works (nine, if you lump the Inferno and its commentaries together). A closer examination suggests that, rather than seeking to explore the many and varied ways in which myth was read, used, and reinterpreted in this period, Chance is really interested in a very specific style of mythography--one based on allegory, popular in the scholarship on Anglo-French literature (Chance's own area of expertise), and exemplified in Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose. Chance's choice of material reflects these interests, so the broad picture she draws of "medieval mythography" is actually quite narrow, and her interests dominate her choice of material in a way that seems to skew her presentation of the general phenomenon. Scholars of Italian literature and history, for example, may have misgivings about her decision to present Christine de Pizan--to whom she devotes an oddly unbalanced two chapters of the book--as a foundational representative of "Italian humanism." (They may also question her decision not to include a chapter on Petrarch.) Inversely, the list of contemporary literary and historical works that include consideration of classical characters or ideas is much larger than the group considered here--for example, contemporary chronicles often include classical gods and goddesses as actors in the more "primeval" parts of their narratives, and some of these incorporate the narratives of classical myth in interesting ways; yet these are not mythographical in the same way that Chance argues that the works considered here are mythographical. Are they not included because they don't fit the pattern she sees, or is the pattern she sees shaped by the narrow perspective provided by her sources? Either way, it seems dangerous to characterize an entire genre based on so limited a dataset.

Last but not least, Chance's effort to present a coherent trajectory of mythographical writing in this period is undermined by her own division of her material into (subversive, innovative) vernacular Trecento authors and (nostalgic, conservative) Latinate Quattrocento authors, despite her attempt to lump them together with claims such as "all the Italian mythographers change and even invert the mythographic tradition in innovative and personal ways" (12).

As these issues of structure and argument might suggest, the book presents itself as having a comprehensive authority that it does not in fact possess. While debunking some traditional stereotypes, it clings to others, such as the "burgeoning humanism" of the fourteenth century (its "democratization" and championing of individual subjectivity, 3) or her reliance on outdated, teleological notions of "modernity" and medieval literature's voyage toward it. While intriguing on a microtextual level, its theorizing tends toward the overgeneralized and glib: at times, it seems like the book's main goal is simply to explain all of Italian humanism as a response to Jean de Meun and Le Roman de la Rose. At the same time, the absence of certain key recent works from the bibliography suggests the unevenness of the research on which Chance's arguments rest, despite the robust impression provided by the book's 114 pages of notes. In sum: this volume is valuable for the insights it provides into how certain major fourteenth- and fifteenth-century authors engaged with medieval traditions of classical scholarship and commentary, but it fails as a comprehensive assessment of "medieval mythography" in the stated period. This is unfortunate, since that is how it bills itself, and--being a monumental work of scholarship by a senior scholar--that is how many will unknowingly receive it.

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