19.10.10 Singer, Representing Mental Illness in Late Medieval France

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Deborah McGrady

The Medieval Review 19.10.10

Singer, Julie. Representing Mental Illness in Late Medieval France: Machines, Madness, Metaphor. Gallica. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2018. pp. 366. ISBN: 978-1-8438-4512-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Deborah McGrady
University of Virginia
dlm4z@virginia.edu

In her new monograph, Julie Singer provides a compelling and fascinating argument that King Charles VI's lifelong struggle with mental illness caused contemporary writers to radically rethink conventional views of the body politic that had long been represented as a healthy and functioning human body. In light of the king's first bout of madness in 1392, this received metaphor no longer reflected reality, yet rather than dispose of the image, a generation of French writers would reconceptualize its constitution and in the process, give form and expression to the current crisis. Through active engagement not only with political theory but also philosophical, scientific, and medical thought, these writers remediated what Singer identifies as the received "organic" metaphor of the anthropomorphized body politic by fusing it with two related "inorganic" metaphors. These secondary metaphors include the late-medieval comparison of the human mind to a functioning machine, an engin, and contemporary re-readings of Nebuchadnezzar's statue that likened its metallic parts to different social strata. Via these "inorganic" metaphors that blurred the relationship between machines and humans, rust came to signify various forms of dysfunction that threated the body politic, whether speaking of systemic corruption, moral failings, or mental illness. Singer sets out to provide a "culturally contextualized reading" of the metaphor of rust that will make clear the creative capacity of figurative language to provide new avenues of thinking in the realms of political thought, mental dysfunction, and intellectual interiority (1). Such contextualization requires first a reconsideration of early expressions of the body politic because, as Singer elucidates, the metaphors in use and the discussions they inspired are far richer than scholars have previously recognized. To this end, the Introduction and the first three chapters revisit the origins of the body politic metaphor, consider counter-figurative models, and delve into the scientific and medical treatment of rust that prepared the way for this corrosive substance to stand in for social and mental dysfunction. The second half of the book, chapters four and five and the Epilogue, examines fifteenth-century writers' critical engagement with the received body politic metaphor not only to express new ideas about society and the community but to carve out space for the individual psychic experience.

To make legible the creative use of the rust metaphor by fifteenth-century writers, Singer first revisits the scientific, intellectual, and literary sources that gave rise to the figural conceptualization of social and mental dysfunction as corrosive entities. This story begins with the "head" of the body politic, conceived as both the king/leader and, more abstractly, as the site of cognitive and moral-decision making. The study thus opens with a brief overview of medieval theories of the mind as inherited from the Ancients, especially as concerns medical understanding of the functioning brain and mental illness, and the progressive mechanization of the mind to understand the inner workings of mental activity. The comparison of the mind to a machine made of metallic parts inspired metaphors that remain with us today, including the "rusty mind" to explain mental deterioration and the "sharp mind" to speak of quick intellect. Both of these metaphors build on medieval understanding of the causes and remedies of rust well before oxidation was discovered in the eighteenth century, and understanding this pre-history of rust is essential to understanding its figurative significance. Chapter one pursues the infiltration of rust into discussions of mental dysfunction in medieval thought by spotlighting the mechanized terminology that was increasingly favored when speaking of intellectual and moral activity. Addressed here are key terms, such as engin to speak of the mind, cardo or "hinge" to refer to the Cardinal Virtues, and compas to evoke moral orientation. This metallic mechanization of the mind prepared the way for introducing rust as a metaphor for intellectual laziness or ineptitude and, eventually, mental instability. Chapter two pursues this early adoption of the rust metaphor in medieval literature to speak of the moral and intellectual failings of humans in Mirrors for Princes. Singer tracks the passage of this metaphor from Latin into vernacular thanks to the translation activity promoted by Charles VI's father. She focuses on the development of the rust metaphor in two key translations produced for Charles V: Jean Daudin's translation of Vincent of Beauvais's De eruditione filiorum nobilium and Denis Foulechat's translation of John of Salisbury's Policraticus. These works provide important back story for appreciating the association of rust with moral failings as well as the identification of didactic writings as a remedy that could "sharpen the mind," since the medieval solution to removing rust was to scrape it away with the strongest of metals, uncontaminated iron. The next chapter traces the influence of these translated works on contemporary writings but with a focus on how the received metaphor of the body politic was reconceived to address the threat of political and social corruption. To visualize potential dysfunction within the body politic, fourteenth-century writers sometimes transformed the body politic into a monstrous, deformed entity. Nicole Oresme's comparison in his learned treatise, De moneta, of the disproportionate accumulation of wealth by a king to a body with a giant head serves as a vivid example of this strategy. Other contemporary writers favored the story of Nebuchadnezzar's metallic statue over the standard metaphor of the body politic to visualize corruption within a government made up of discrete parts, and as the treatment of the statue in Raoul de Presles's incomplete translation of the Bible and in Guillaume de Machaut's Remede de Fortune makes obvious, it is through these accounts that rust entered into figural discussions of the dysfunctional body politic. Nowhere is this contamination more richly detailed than in Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de l'âme, wherein the rust metaphor becomes a vehicle for anticipating the potential danger caused by disruptive members of society, specifically nobility and the common people, given their association with metals subject to rust (steel and iron, respectively). As the second half of the book makes apparent, this conflation of the body politic metaphor with Nebuchadnezzar's statue will be crucial to understanding fifteenth-century works that deal with the intersection of politics, moral behavior, and mental dysfunction.

The second half of the study turns to the ways in which writers during the reign of Charles VI built on the rich figural constellation that resulted from the mixture of organic and inorganic metaphors for the body politic to now confront the reality of the king's mental illness. Including an impressive number of fifteenth-century French writers, chapter four shows the extent to which rust became the dominant metaphor for understanding the corrosive effects of the king's illness on both political and personal levels. Considered in this chapter are the adoption of this metaphor by Philippe de Mézières, Jean Froissart, Pierre Salmon, Honoré Bovet, Jean Gerson, and Christine de Pizan to address a full range of issues, from the social causes and effects of the king's madness in the context of the body politic to the causes and potential remedies available to heal the king's body. In early literary responses to the king's condition, it is shown that writers drew on previous discussions of the deformed or corrupted state of the body politic to argue that the king's madness was due to the misdeeds and corruption of lesser members of the body politic or to his own moral failings, whereas other works speak more deliberately about rumors that the king was subject to alchemy, sorcery, or poisoning, all conceived as corrupting the king's body and mind with corrosive matter. Each of the close readings provided here depends on recognizing the sometimes subtle allusions to prior metaphoric treatment of the body politic. For instance, Singer draws our attention to the appearance of Nebuchadnezzar's statue when discussing the king's madness in works as varied as those of Froissart, Salmon, and Gerson and, in each instance, Singer shows us the extent to which earlier conflation of the metallic statue with the organic body politic metaphor informs each authors' allusion to the role that immoral behavior plays in the king's current illness. This chapter closes with Christine de Pizan's more personalized reflection on the contaminating effects of the poisoned body politic on her own mental stability, a topic to be more fully developed in the closing chapter, where Alain Chartier repurposes the rust metaphor that previously served to discuss political issues to discuss the very personal suffering the poet blames on the unstable, corrupt, and collapsing state in which he lives. Leaving aside the body politic, this chapter addresses the mechanization of the mind to explore the significance of the "rusty hinge" that Chartier locates in his suffering mind in the Livre d'Esperance. The Epilogue pursues this use of the metaphor in the works of Charles d'Orléans and George Chastelain, where the rust metaphor is repurposed to convey new understandings of mental interiority. Particular attention is given to the link between Chartier's use of the rust metaphor and Charles's memorable description of himself as one tout enroillié de nonchaloir. If earlier fifteenth-century writers found in this metaphor a means for addressing the political crisis faced by the French kingdom and the mental illness striking their king, mid-century poets came to use this figural language to speak of their personal destruction. Rust served not simply to speak of the corrosive influence of the current political and social crisis on the psyche but to give expression to its effects on the individual. Rust came to signify apathy, and its destructive qualities now gave shape to an apolitical and non-medicalized interior self that sets itself outside the body politic.

By the end of this study, the reader has moved through an impressively large corpus of writings that engage with the same figural language and yet, far from recycling the same ideas, these metaphors fulfilled the true meaning of the concept. As Singer points out in the closing section of the Introduction, metaphors are intended to represent far more than word substitution or analogy; instead, at a minimum, they are intended to make thought more tangible, and at their best, they trigger new ways of seeing reality. Herein resides perhaps the most important contribution of this study: over the course of this rich and complex study of the metaphor of rust in late-medieval French literature, Julie Singer has masterfully shown the value in taking figurative language seriously, in recognizing that metaphors can be sites of new and innovative ideas, and that fiction and didactic writings are intended to provoke hard thinking.

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