18.05.24, Robertson, Nature Speaks

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Matteo Scozia

The Medieval Review 18.05.24

Robertson, Kellie. Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: university of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. pp. x, 443. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4865-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Matteo Scozia
Università della Calabria

In his Storia della teologia medievale Giulio d'Onofrio spoke about Christianitas in order to describe the general cultural approach that characterized the entire Latin Western world during the Middle Ages. According to Giulio d'Onofrio, Christianitas did not concern just a religious movement: it permeated every aspect of medieval society. Those geographical places known today under the name of the European Union were kept together by a common cultural identity, i.e., the Christian one, between the sixth and sixteenth centuries. Every discussion used to be permeated by a Christian approach. This assumption can be understood by reading a series of studies on medieval politics, economics, physics, and literature, among which Kellie Robertson's Nature Speaks can be certainly included.

Robertson's book investigates the relations between medieval literature and physics, with the explicit aim of answering the question of "how medieval poetry allegorized nature from the late thirteenth century to the fifteenth century" (30). Prima facie Robertson seems to be trying to connect classical physical theories with something foreign to the academic discussion. However, in reading Robertson's book we are led to consider that medieval physics is a combination of classical approaches (with special regard for the works of Plato and Aristotle) and Christian doctrine. Moreover, during the Middle Ages, Aristotle's works (including his Physics) were manipulated and censured by religious authorities in order to promote an exclusive rational approach for the Christian society. This is certainly the intention behind Tempier's condemnation in 1277, as has been explained by several eminent scholars such as Edward Grant and Roland Hissette, and repeatedly stressed by Robertson within her work. Therefore, when we mention classical physics and its relation with medieval literature, it is important to consider the entire medieval cultural condition and the relevance of Christian doctrine. In this way, we can say that physical theories were considered seriously by medieval authors, in order to write their works.

Medieval poems involving nature followed those physical theories discussed in the academy and influenced by Tempier's condemnation. Therefore, in considering those academic discussions, medieval writers had two different models for discussing nature in their poems. On the one hand, there was a transcendent model based on Platonic, Neoplatonic and Augustinian works and introduced in the academic discussion by the School of Chartres. On the other hand, an immanent approach was proposed arising from the works of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. As explained by Robertson in the first part of her book, these two approaches coexisted during the fourteenth century so that "Aristotelian models of nature did not immediately or decisively replace the Neoplatonic ones prevalent in the preceding century" (32). In order to demonstrate her thesis, Robertson considers four cases, respectively, two from the French context (Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Deguileville) and two from the English one (Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate). Starting from the analysis of these four authors, Robertson tries to demonstrate "that the rhetorical strategies of these later medieval poets get charged with the polarities of scholastic debate over how the natural environment could potentially signify" (30).

Guillaume de Deguileville and John Lydgate represent the two main authors of the "transcendent" approach. Robertson discusses their works, respectively, in the fourth and sixth chapters of her book. In particular, in his Pèlerinage de la vie humaine, Deguileville refuses a rational approach for understanding nature. According to Robertson, "the figure of Nature is another primary node of Deguileville's dissatisfaction with his predecessor's poetic and philosophical vision, and...the Cistercian's rewriting of this allegorical persona reflects continuing fourteenth-century unease over rationalist modes of interpreting nature" (179). In the same way, John Lydgate insists on the idea that natural reason cannot be relied upon for the grasping of metaphysical truths, since it is necessarily tied up with physical nature. Lydgate translated two poems, "Reson and Sensuallyte (a rendering of the anonymous Eschéz d'Amour) and the The Pilgrimage of the Life (a verse version of Deguileville's Pèlerinage de vie humaine)" (35). Lydgate's aim is to convince his reader to take up exegesis rather than natural philosophy in order to understand the workings of nature. According to Robertson, both Lydgate's poems "assert the unequivocal dominance of theology over natural philosophy and critique the ways in which Aristotelian physics had been applied to the construction of ethical systems" (284).

Focusing on the immanent approach, Robertson analyses the works of Jean de Meun and Geoffrey Chaucer, respectively, in the third and fifth chapters. In the Roman de la Rose Jean de Meun "touches on one of the most controversial issues surrounding necessity: whether or not inclinatio and dispositio function in the same way in both the human and nonhuman worlds" (128). Robertson tries to focus on the way in which de Meun introduces into vernacular literature the problem of natural necessity. Geoffrey Chaucer discusses the same topic in his Parliament of Fowls and Physician's Tale. According to Robertson, "in both poems, Chaucer suggests that the problem lies less in the human misuse of free will and more in the contradictions found within a contemporary model of nature that advocates inclination in the natural world but only epiphenomenally in the human" (226).

Robertson concludes her book by offering a quick look into the early modern period. In particular, in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen we can find "Lady Nature's last allegorical stand" (325). According to Robertson, "Spenser looked backward and forward at once: back to the medieval tradition of personification allegory and ahead to the new ways in which popular Protestant writers would envision the powers of nature within a providential eschatology" (325).

I found Robertson's book a very interesting work. In my opinion, this book has the fundamental merit of showing the intrinsic connections between every part of Christianitas. Thanks to this work it possible to understand that theoretical discussions (like those ones concerning Aristotelian and Platonic physics) did not involve just the academy. The four literary cases analyzed by Robertson demonstrate that connection between culture and the academy, and its consequent implications in society. The aforementioned poems had the merit of bringing to the people (i.e,. in the vernacular context) the academic-cultural approach of the Middle Ages. From this perspective, contemporary philosophical investigations about medieval authors are not independent from those concerning literature, politics, anthropology and other aspects of the Middle Ages. For this reason, we have to be grateful to Kellie Robertson for such remarkable and original work regarding the scientific canons. A satisfying bibliography and the use of critical editions complete this work, which I do recommend to every medievalist who focuses on the history of philosophy and literature.

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