Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
16.02.38, Minnis, From Eden to Eternity

The Medieval Review

16.02.38, Minnis, From Eden to Eternity

How did medieval thinkers, specifically the scholastics, interpret four verses from Genesis (1.26-29) concerning the sixth day of Creation to generate ideas about the nature of the Earthly Paradise (Eden) and the role of Adam and his relationship to Eve and the rest of the natural world? Furthermore, how did their interpretations of these verses contribute to formulations about Heaven after the General Resurrection?

Alastair Minnis's book presents an overview of the debates on these matters, which fall into three categories--each covered by a separate chapter--including the nature of the body in Eden in chapter 1, the nature of power relationships in Eden in chapter 2 and the nature of death and the post-Resurrection body in chapter 3. A final section, "Coda: Between Paradises" concludes the volume.

This book covers the period from the 1220s to 1564--from when Peter Lombard's compilation of the Libri Quatuor Sententiarum or Four Books of Sentences replaced the Bible as the theology textbook at the University of Paris (1223-1227) to John Calvin's death. While concentrating primarily on Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, this book often extends beyond these boundaries to include Augustine on the one hand and even John Milton on the other. Other, often non-scholastic, voices include Hildegard of Bingen, Alexander of Hales, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Richard of Middleton, Giles of Rome, Bonagratia of Bergamo, William of Ockham, Richard FitzRalph, Brigit of Sweden, the Pearl Poet, Christine de Pizan and Martin Luther--to name only a dozen.

Minnis examines a number of quaestiones or dubitationes and sententiae to show how "late medieval scholars sought the origins of their humanity in Eden" (73), where they also sought to uncover the nature of their eternal reward. Although the topics comprise a very small subset of issues explored in the Four Books of Sentences, Minnis, by manifestly presenting them, reveals a great deal about scholastic thinking concerning the body and soul of humankind.

The actual questions resonate back and forth among the chapters, because issues debated about Eden in the first two chapters impact ideas about Paradise in the third chapter and vice versa. I will, therefore, present my comments thematically rather than sequentially chapter by chapter.

Was Adam's soul created before his body? Was his soul different from those of Eve and their children? Was Eve's soul created from Adam's? Were Adam and Eve vegetarians? In Eden would all children have been male, since this was the superior sex? Will women be resurrected as men? Will black people be resurrected as white people?

To modern sensibilities the questions go beyond the often-mocked, but in fact post-medieval, example of risible inquiry--"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" What about post-Resurrection hair and fingernails (excessive bodily material)? And what about missing limbs (deficient bodily material)? But Minnis assures the reader: "I have not invented any of these questions; they were all framed and debated with utter seriousness and considerable emotion" (118).

In chapter 3, "Death and the Paradise Beyond," Minnis demonstrates how the scholastics tended to agree on the form of the resurrected body--at the perfect age of between 30 and 33, in perfect health, without any impairments but with individual differentiation--and how they debated issues such as whether (male) genitalia will be included, and if so, will semen be included as well. In post-Resurrection Heaven, the body's five senses--themselves subjected to rigid hierarchical classification--were posited as functioning in a perfected mode. But that, Minnis observes, created a conundrum for the scholastics, since the things that stimulate our senses will not accompany us into that afterlife, because, except for humankind, all of creation will be superfluous. To provide us with knowledge of God, he created everything else in the universe, and once we gain that knowledge after the Resurrection, all else will be gone: trees and flowers, bread and wine, song and dance, cats and dogs. Without anything to sense, are the senses superfluous in an eternity where superfluity, as well as inefficiency and faultiness, are contrary to perfection? Not only will the natural world be superfluous, but some scholastics reasoned that even human attachments--to mothers and daughters, lovers and friends--will be severed. Others saw this as perhaps too severe and reasoned that united with our companions we might somehow worship more fully.

Concerns about the body in Heaven, covered in chapter 3, reflected unease about the body in Eden as revealed in debates about urination, defecation, carnal lust, pleasure, procreation and death, which are discussed in chapter 1. As Minnis writes, "Beyond such talk of shit, bad smells, and semen, lay major anxieties concerning how much the human body has in common with the bodies of animals and the concomitant desire to affirm man's superior position as 'the noblest of animals'" (35). These concerns also dictate a certain attitude toward our postlapsarian world where, according to scholastic reasoning, duty justifies activities that might otherwise be seen as animal-like gratification of lusts and appetites. Thus sex and eating become procreation and nourishment.

In chapter 2, "Power in Paradise," among other topics, Minnis deals with the role of women and their exclusion from power. He specifically connects past and present here, as he does in several places, although for the most part he lets the texts, or his paraphrasing of them, speak for themselves. He clearly identifies "the late medieval exclusion of women from the priesthood [as] being a primary objective of the canonical materials [he has] been paraphrasing" (105). Gender inequality predates the Fall in Aquinas' formulas for the natural generation of man and the creation of woman "singularly" for her role in procreation (96). Eve is made in the image of God, but to a lesser extent: equal in soul, but not in body, with only male bodies having Bonaventure's requisite "sacramental symbolism" (106). Minnis sums it up thus: "Adam's dominance over Eve was thereby conceptualized in a way which has had a long and invidious legacy" (114). Aquinas formulates the "domestic" or "civil" subjection of woman as being for "their advantage and benefit," as opposed to slavery, "in which the ruler manages the subject for his own advantage" (98). Dominion arises, Augustine claimed, "from a dutiful concern for others." Minnis notes: "The ruling class has its origins in Eden" (126).

In chapter 2, conclusions about women lead to similar conclusions about lesser males--those with defects or simply unequal men, i.e., those not Adam himself--as well as children and animals. The material on non-human animals is one of the most interesting parts of this book, not least of all because our better understanding of animals is relatively new--the result of the last seven or eight decades of research into the mental and emotional lives and moral status of animals. Even if we only look as far back as Christine de Pizan, assertions about the equality of women (counterbalancing the more grandiose assertions about the superiority of men) are not new. Animals, on the other hand, are still generally regarded as inferior creation solely for the use and pleasure of humans. According to scholastic discourse, they have no souls and live only through their bodies. Minnis acknowledges the "contemporary debate concerning the ethical treatment of animals," but it is "beyond the scope of the present book" (92) to delve further.

For the scholastics the purpose of animals is to teach humanity about the Creator, but their very presence in Eden creates problems. Were the animals in Eden vegetarians? If they were carnivores, what did they eat? If it was other animals, then was there death in Eden? How could animals die if they had not sinned? For the scholastics, however, was animal death a punishment as it was for humankind, since animals have no free will? Of course, animals would not go to heaven. As Bonaventure contended, there would just be too many of them to fit (147).

An undercurrent throughout the volume is the tension between the literal (material/corporal) and the figurative (spiritual). This is an intrinsic aspect of Biblical exegesis, and it is interesting to see how the scholastics navigate this in their attempts to concretize the resurrected body in the spiritual realm of eternity: or how, as Aquinas writes, "when bodies rematerialize, metaphors materialize" (328). Minnis explores the scholastic disparity between nature as perfect--what we expect in Heaven--and nature as developing (Eden), with the addition of nature as imperfect in our postlapsarian world: the path from "becoming" to "being," process vs. status, interrupted by the miserable detour to our present condition.

The progress from the unperfected human in Eden to a perfected self after the General Resurrection is complicated by the schoolmen's inescapable aversion to the body and its functions. This pervasive and crucial bias leads Minnis to a divergence from some of the ideas embraced by scholars like Carolyn Bynum. He sees among the scholastics a "distrust of physicality"(229), not a sense of the "body [as] the carrier or expression of...individuality" (228). On the subject of pain, he also questions Elaine Scarry's assertion regarding the "incompatibility of pain and the world," noting that in medieval theologies pain was "systematically justified, and assigned a secure place within larger structures" (328).

Given the method and discourse of the scholastics, or "professional theologians" as Minnis sometimes calls them, it is not surprising that their conclusions are legion and disparate, and Minnis's presentation reminds us that concord is elusive. This system of logic and reason was aimed at dialectic and debate, and unanimity on points of knowledge was not principally the purpose. Minnis's offering reveals that despite such a scientific, rational approach, the method seldom produced consistent results.

In general Minnis presents and paraphrases the texts without further analysis. When, however, he presents the via imaginativa as an alternate approach to the more manly, intellectual and rational via intellectualis, he does scrutinize the relationship between these different ways through a small offering of medieval texts, including The Pearl and Giovanni Boccaccio's fourteenth eclogue, Olympia, showing how some literary works displayed the influence of scholastic thinking concerning the otherworld. He also points out that medieval otherworld vision literature like the Visio Tnugdali often appears to be largely unshaped by the thinking of the scholastics. He characterizes this particular vision as "demotic" in nature. Clearly, however, its author was interested in a very different set of quaestiones: the way to salvation as opposed to the components of the resurrected body. In contrast to scholastic disputation, medieval vision literature in general concerns not the patria (a term used throughout to denote post-Resurrection Heaven), but the immediate fate of souls after the Particular Judgment. Indeed, medieval speculation about the otherworlds is various, and the schoolmen represent only one line of thought--the line specifically followed here.

When the schoolmen run to the end of their answers, after applying all their reason and logic, Minnis exposes the safety exits they employ. For Aquinas, the fault lies in us and our own knowledge: "if the science cannot explain what we know will happen...then the science must be wrong" (206). Bonaventure, like Origen, takes refuge in warning against considering either Paradise or the Bible too literally (219). For others, when confronted with an impossible, contradictory or frustrating proposition, where good order, balance and appropriateness will not answer, miracle or "divine power" (55) can be the only way out of the conundrum. Henry of Ghent, in attempting to explain how there might be vocal praise in Heaven without the necessary air to carry sound, tries for naturalistic explanations but is forced to move on to miraculous explanations and finally closes by remarking that "whoever is unsatisfied with his treatment should work out for himself whatever will please him" (204). Nicholas Oresme thought that divine power was often required for true understanding: "without a revelation from God, even the greatest philosophers who ever lived were ignorant of many things and were mistaken and erred many times" (216). But Oresme is an exception in other ways. Regarding his views on marriage, for instance, Minnis writes: "Oresme is more idealistic, which is hardly surprising given that he is writing largely for an audience of layfolk, for whom marriage was a regular life choice, in contrast with those celibate clerics who were the authors and audiences of and for most of the texts discussed in this book" (97).

Toward the end of the scholastic period, we find a growing rumble in the ranks. Phronesis in John Wyclif's Trialogus, "is marked by a frank admission of the impossibility of achieving certainty in many matters concerning the Last Things" (201). This is matched by Wyclif's own stated impatience with "those who indulge their curiosity 'about that which God wills that we remain so ignorant'" (236). Calvin characterizes them as "men puffed up with vain science...[who] leave not a corner of heaven untouched by their speculations" (236).

Minnis's book is well edited and beautifully produced, including 32 color plates of medieval images of Eden and the Last Judgment, among others relevant to the text. The volume includes a rich set of notes, a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, an index of proper names (authors and anonymous works) and one of biblical citations. The density of ideas in the volume would warrant a subject index. An e-book version is available which, with its search capabilities, would be more useful than the print version with its limited index.

This book provides a focused review of debates specific to medieval otherworlds, for example, on the nature of the Beatific Vision (225-227). The questions and their answers also impact other medieval debates, such as Franciscan poverty (common property vs. private property and use vs. ownership, 120) and the sacrament of marriage (48). This book will be particularly useful for those engaged in medieval ecocriticism and sensory studies for its succinct overview of scholastic thought on an array of germane topics. It will be invaluable for anyone wishing an overview of some medieval antecedents for current hierarchical and exceptionalist thinking, such as sexism, classism, misogynism, racism and speciesism. Minnis has written a book both fascinating and often disturbing that helps us understand the significance of the questions and the legacy of the answers from medieval professional theologians.