15.08.62, Kauntze, Authority and Imitation

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Jay Diehl

The Medieval Review 15.08.62

Kauntze, Mark. Authority and Imitation: A Study of the Cosmographia of Bernard Silvestris. Mittellateinische Studien und Texte, 47. Leiden: Brill, 2014. pp. x, 223. ISBN: 9789004256910 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jay Diehl
Long Island University Post

The Cosmographia of Bernard Silvestris, a Platonizing allegory of creation produced in the middle of the twelfth century, is a text that defies easy categorization. As Mark Kauntze points out at the start of the third chapter of his excellent study of the text, the Cosmographia is sufficiently elusive that Étienne Gilson could claim it as an essentially Christian work of theology, akin to a hexameral commentary, while Ernst Robert Curtius could argue that it was the work of a humanist who was far more interested in pagan philosophy and literature than Christian doctrine. One of the signature accomplishments of Kauntze's study is its demonstration that such hermeneutic diversity is not only the product of the diverging concerns of modern scholars, but also the very effect that Bernard Silvestris intended the text to have upon its readers.

Kauntze arrives at this conclusion by taking what he terms an integrated approach to the Cosmographia. Simultaneously literary, philosophical, scientific, and theological, the text can be contextualized among any number of important developments of the twelfth century. Kauntze, however, argues that the position of the Cosmographia in twelfth-century intellectual culture can best be understood through a reading that accounts for all of these aspects of the text simultaneously. Through such an approach, Kauntze argues, it becomes possible to discern how Bernard Silvestris combined literary techniques and ideas to produce a text that responded to contemporary concerns about the links between science and theology. This is an ambitious task for a book containing only four compact chapters (and, in fact, much of the book's stated aims are accomplished in its two central chapters). Kauntze accomplishes his goal by focusing his analysis tightly around the two titular concepts: authority and imitation. Both are familiar enough concepts in the study of medieval culture and there is nothing particularly novel in noting that the Cosmographia is constructed by appropriating the forms and ideas of ancient auctores and reworking them to suit contemporary concerns and sensibilities. Still, examining the ways in which Bernard played with his sources proves a fruitful way for Kauntze to show how Bernard brought together an array of ideas and literary tactics to reflect on the state of twelfth-century philosophy and theology.

The first chapter examines Bernard Silvestris' immediate scholastic context. Bernard has long been associated primarily with the school of Chartres--albeit only in the looser sense of a "school of thought"--on account of his interest in Platonic cosmology and the fact that he dedicated the Cosmographia to Thierry of Chartres. Rather than rehashing that story, Kauntze tries to reconstruct Bernard's intellectual landscape by turning to the school where he is actually known to have taught: Tours. It is a welcome line of inquiry, although hampered somewhat by fragmentary sources. Still, Kauntze mines the available sources carefully, in particular an important manuscript in the Bibliothèque municipale of Tours that contains several declamatory poems. Kauntze concludes that scholars at Tours had a particular interest in using poetic imitatio for the exploration of philosophical ideas, a tradition which the Cosmographia follows.

Chapters two and three present Kauntze's reading of the Cosmographia itself. Chapter two focuses on the role of scientific thought in the text, placing it in the context of both the general revival of natural philosophy in the twelfth century and the literary models that Bernard Silvestris was adopting. This chapter argues that the importance of the scientific content of the Cosmographia lies not in the novelty of its approach, but rather in how the text combined its imitation of ancient authorities with current ideas about natural philosophy so as to offer a particular understanding of the role of natural science in a fallen world. Demonstrating this point turns out to be no easy task and involves a winding and sometimes dense discussion. Kauntze begins by comparing the Cosmographia to Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, one of its key authoritative models, pointing out that while the two texts share the theme of knowledge as a redemptive activity, the Cosmographia eschews the broad treatment of all the arts found in De nuptiis in favor of a narrower focus on knowledge and the study of nature. Bernard wove his idea of redemptive knowledge together with a revised Platonic cosmology that invested three goddesses--Urania, Natura, and Physis--with creative powers, through which Bernard drew new interests in medicine and astrology into his text. From this mixture, Bernard synthesized an idea that echoes one found in Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae, that reflection on nature is a route to ameliorative self-knowledge. Bernard also reworked this idea; unlike Boethius, who offers contemplative knowledge as a redemptive force in a fallen world, Bernard identified the practical knowledge of medicine and astrology as a useful stabilizing force in a world of disordered turmoil (represented by the allegorical figure Silva) and a route to realizing the tranquility of the heavens.

Chapter three turns to the theologizing tendencies of the Cosmographia. As with the previous chapter, Kauntze argues that the theology of the text can only be appreciated by examining the ways in which Bernard interpreted and imitated ancient auctores. But the imitation Bernard practiced here was of a very particular form, one which allowed him to enter into debates about connections and continuities between Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Such debates had long hinged on the notion of an integumentum, a covering under which pagan texts were concealed, although they nevertheless possessed Christian truth. According to Kauntze, Bernard transformed the idea of an integumentum from a hermeneutic tactic to a principle of composition, creating a text that self-consciously deployed the sort of polysemous language Christian commentators believed pagan auctores to have possessed. The result was a text that hinted at correspondences between Greek philosophy and Christian theology without ever stating them openly. In a way, then, the text represented a step back from the more explicit attempts of Thierry of Chartres and William of Conches to align pagan philosophy with Christian truth. Such attempts had already led some commentators to conclude that natural philosophy was inappropriately encroaching upon theology. Kauntze does suggest that the Cosmographia represents a reaction to those critics. But he is careful to point out that Bernard's deliberately figurative language was not so much a means of evading criticism and censorship as it was a mechanism for drawing his readers into greater reflection upon the nature of creation and the potential reconcilability of pagan and Christian accounts of it. Kauntze offers three examples from the Cosmographia where Bernard evokes potential continuities between Greek philosophy and Christian theology: the Trinity, hinted at by several triads in the text; the Fall, evoked by the grove referred to as Gramison and a discussion of physiological causes for mankind's inferior condition; and the Incarnation, referred to in a passage the explores the possibility of links between astrology and Christian history.

The fourth chapter is a study of the reception of the Cosmographia in France and England, focusing primarily on glosses found in manuscripts of the Cosmographia and later imitations of the text, particularly Alan of Lille's De planctu naturae. The first part of the chapter discusses a collection of some 150 glosses that are common to most manuscripts containing a complete copy of the Cosmographia. Many of these identify ideas or passages of the Cosmographia with ancient authorities, such as Plato and Pythagoras, which Kauntze takes to mean that the readers of Bernard's work also viewed it as a work of authority. A second section deals with a collection of glosses found in a single manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Laud misc. 515), which may be associated with Waltham Abbey in Essex. Unlike the simple topical glosses found in other manuscripts, the "Laudian gloss" includes lexical information; glosses that help explain the geographical, natural, and historical references in the Cosmographia; and notes that offer interpretations of Bernard's allegory. A final section compares the Cosmographia with the works of later scholars, namely Alan of Lille and Peter Lombard. Kauntze's comparison of Bernard's work with the De planctu naturae of Alan of Lille reveals a shift from scientific to ethical concerns in allegorical poetry. Comparison of the Cosmographia with the work of Peter Lombard reveals a shift in intellectual method, whereby poetic myth was displaced by the systematizing tendencies of university schoolmasters, who favored straightforward language over allusions and allegory as a means of intellectual inquiry. As a result, a text such as the Cosmographia ceased to be a vehicle for inquiry into the nature of mankind and the cosmos and was relegated instead to an exemplar for rhetoric and composition.

Overall, the final chapter is the least satisfying of the four. Although it contains interesting material in its own right, the arguments it offers about the reception of the Cosmographia are more abstract than the in-depth discussions of the text itself and the chapter does much less to advance the claims of the book as a whole. Partially, this is because the glosses, which must have required considerable time and effort to reconstruct, seem to offer less scope for penetrating analysis than the text itself. Still, after the remarkable discussions of the Cosmographia offered in previous chapters, the last chapter cannot help but feel like an afterword of sorts. The fact that its strongest conclusion explains why the intellectual program of the Cosmographia failed to resonate with scholars of the thirteenth century does little to dispel this sense.

However, this anticlimax hardly matters when weighed against the accomplishments of the book as a whole. Kauntze offers a nuanced and convincing reading of the Cosmographia that provides important insights into its place within the broader vistas of twelfth-century intellectual culture and, in so doing, helps illuminate the ways in which literary imitatio could serve as a vehicle for reflection upon the most complex intellectual problems of the day.

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