Medieval Literary Theory (6008 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago)
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Literary theory accounts for the nature of written discourse and the methods of interpreting it. It seeks to articulate the principles underlying phenomena like language, style, genre, authorship, linguistic truth, and fiction. In the Middle Ages, or the millennium stretching between 500 and 1500 CE, no single discourse or discipline was responsible for literary theory, nor did the Middle Ages have a term exactly equivalent to what “literary theory” means in literary studies today. Nonetheless, the thinkers and writers working in Western Christendom regularly investigated and debated the workings of written language. They did so as part of varied intellectual undertakings that ranged from interpreting sacred scripture to reconsidering pagan myths, and from making manuscripts to teaching children to read. As historians of medieval thought, we may be tempted to delimit medieval literary theory to the systematic treatises composed for medieval schools and universities. But the theorization of literature also took place in less academic and less expository frameworks. Medieval poems and fictional narratives often included self-conscious reflections on their own meaning-making, and the layout of just one manuscript page could testify to broader notions of textuality undergirding the scribe’s work. The practical know-how entailed in the everyday activities of medieval literacy—in reading texts, listening to them, copying, translating, commissioning, or composing them—possessed its own theoretical significance. Such activities manifested specific ideas of what literature could be and do.

The following sections address three overlapping domains in which literary theory was articulated, contested, and redefined over the Middle Ages. The first is in the elementary schoolroom, where all literate education began with the artes sermocinales, or “language arts”. The second is the domain of philosophy, understood as medieval thinkers’ reception and transformation of the legacies of Plato and Aristotle. The third is the domain of literary making, where paratexts, narrative genres, and poetic commonplaces could serve as tools for self-theorization and reflection on the nature of written discourse and its interpretation.

Before considering each of these domains in turn, it may be useful to summarize the most widespread and distinctive principles of literary theory in the Middle Ages. For medieval readers, the fundamental task of written discourse was to transmit and renew previous insights, in a process known as translatio studii, or the “transfer of learning.” Literary ingenuity thus inhered in the selection of traditional materials and their artful presentation and adaptation. The Latin language, a language that throughout the Middle Ages was learned in school rather than as a native tongue, served as the theoretical paradigm for language and literacy more generally. The institutional, cultural, historical, and religious authority of Latin affected how medieval literature would be defined and imagined, and it set the terms for late-medieval debates about vernacular literacy, or writing in regional languages. Finally, medieval hermeneutics privileged the semantic plenitude of canonical texts over any strict separation between authorial intent and readers’ activity. In other words, no one worried much about recapturing only and exactly what the original writer meant, nor about a single literal sense. The interpretive heterogeneity that medieval thinkers drew out of traditional materials was sanctioned and legitimated by those texts’ polysemous, even encyclopedic, nature. The meaning a text communicated in a particular situation was not a simple property of its words but the result of an interpretive act.

Below, individual themes are treated only briefly, but the concluding list of “references” directs readers to further resources.

The “Language Arts”: Grammar and Rhetoric

In the Middle Ages, literate education was understood to begin with the artes sermocinales, those bodies of learning that concerned discourse and verbal expression, which the Middle Ages inherited from Roman schools. The “language arts” of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (or logic) played the role of initiating students into skills of interpretation, composition, and reasoning. Together, these subjects constituted the trivium, or “meeting of three roads”, which had to be mastered before advancing to other disciplines like arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, law, medicine, and theology. Grammar (grammatica) and rhetoric (rhetorica) fit our modern sense of “the literary” more closely than dialectic. They concern texts’ style and meaning, while dialectic has more to do with evaluating the truth of propositions and the logical relations among things rather than words. Nonetheless, all three artes sermocinales rested on the idea that language and rationality were ultimately unified, as in the foundational Greek notion of logos. In the early Middle Ages, the “language arts” were largely confined to monasteries, but they became increasingly widespread as cathedral schools proliferated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, to meet institutional demand for literate clerics and bureaucrats. Compared to modern levels of literacy, a relatively small proportion of medieval Europeans learned to read. However, those who did were introduced to a common set of pedagogical principles and texts, which gave coherence to medieval literate culture and the literary theory generated from it.

Grammar, or the discipline of language’s correct usage, was the first subject taught in schools. It was considered the gateway to all subsequent learning; as the twelfth-century scholar John of Salisbury wrote, “grammar prepares the mind to understand everything that can be taught in words” (Metalogicon ch. 21, trans. Copeland and Sluiter: 501). In studying grammar, students learned to pronounce, construe, interpret, and use Latin properly, and such knowledge, rather than being left behind after childhood, became the general matrix for education.

Grammatical knowledge fell into two broad categories, influentially deemed “the study of correct speech” (recte loquendi scientia) and “the interpretation of the poets” (poetarum enarratio) by the classical rhetorician Quintilian (Orator’s Education 1.4, trans. Russell, I.102-103). Comprehensive handbooks—with their intellectual basis in Donatus’ Ars grammatica (c.350) and Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae (c. 500)—systematically described the right workings of the Latin language. Such guides not only taught students how to parse parts of speech; they also inculcated a theory of language that elevated writing above speech, Latin above the vernacular, and a traditional literary canon above recent writings (Irvine with Thomson, 30). The second broad category of medieval grammar was exegesis, developed from classical practices of commenting on poetry. Exegesis could take the form of brief glosses to clarify individual phrases, which often appeared in the margins of a manuscript page or between lines of text. Exegesis also occurred as long-form, continuous interpretation, copied alongside a work or as a freestanding text. In the Middle Ages, exegesis was crucial to readers’ encounters both with secular poetry and sacred scripture, and procedures used for one were sometimes transferred to the other. For instance, “prologues to the authors” (accessus ad auctores) were an element of late-classical commentaries on secular literature. A well-known example was Servius’ commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid (c.400). By the eleventh century, biblical exegetes regularly used this prologue form in their commentaries on the Bible. It spurred theologians to reflect on topics like the literary style of sacred scripture and the contributions of individual human authors (Minnis 1984).

Rhetoric, or the study of how to persuade and move audiences with discourse, had been at the center of Roman academic culture—but in the Middle Ages, classical oratory lost the civic role it had played in Rome. Rhetoric nonetheless persisted in the ongoing reception of foundational rhetorical texts like Cicero’s De Inventione, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and Horace’s Ars poetica. All three were copied and glossed throughout the Middle Ages, and they influenced how literature was understood. For instance, De Inventione posited five sequential stages in the creation of artful discourse: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Medieval thinkers and writers adapted and redeployed these steps to account for the nature of literary production. The Rhetorica ad Herennium included a list of sixty-four literary figures that was frequently copied on its own. It became a canonical resource for readers and writers seeking to comprehend the many possibilities that defined literary style (Murphy 2008: 65). Medieval teachers also wrote rhetorics of their own, or prescriptive treatises on composition. Six different medieval Latin “arts of poetry” (artes poetriae) are known from the Middle Ages, written by school masters between 1175 and 1280. The most popular of these, the Poetria nova by Geoffrey of Vinsauf, survives in an impressive 200 manuscripts, often with its own accompanying commentary (Woods 2010). The specialized medieval activities of preaching and of epistolary communication gave rise to their own prescriptive rhetorics. More than 200 distinct “arts of preaching” (artes praedicandi) and 300 “arts of letter-writing” (artes dictaminis) were produced in the Middle Ages (Murphy 2008: 43). These how-to guides constituted a decidedly practical genre of literary theory, articulating the underlying principles that facilitated effective literary production. 

Traditionally, then, rhetoric was a generative discipline, teaching how to plan and realize a discourse. By contrast, grammar was analytical and descriptive: it atomized existing texts to clarify their vocabulary, linguistic relationships, and narrative structure. In practice, however, the analytical and generative aspects of the two disciplines blended together. Hermeneutics and invention constantly intertwined. Grammar took over many of the basic functions of rhetoric, and students learned correct usage not only by precept, but also by composition. This is clear, for instance, in students’ encounters with the rhetorical technique of ethopoeia, or impersonation. As Marjorie Curry Woods has shown, schoolboys learned the technique through grammar-school assignments that asked them to compose new speeches for literary characters, especially women in states of emotional agitation—Dido abandoned by Aeneas, or Andromache standing over her slain husband Hector. In this way, budding Latinists brought together their readerly knowledge of canonical characters with their burgeoning skills of Latin composition, to invent new utterances (Woods 2002). The tendency to ground literary creation in textual interpretation runs throughout medieval cultures of literacy, whether secular or sacred. Medieval preachers, for instance, sought to communicate the fundamental truths of divine scripture by putting those truths into new terms, aimed at moving and teaching specific audiences. 

The curriculum of primary texts that students read in grammar school also had important consequences for medieval understandings of literature. A small group of works initiated students into their reading of Latin. The syllabus began with a collection of moralistic proverbs known as the Distichs of Cato and continued with beast fables, epigrams, riddles, satires, and other classical and Christian materials. The more advanced curriculum often included poetry by Virgil, Statius, Lucan, and (after the twelfth century) Ovid as well as Prudentius’ allegorical Psychomachia and parts of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Although the later Middle Ages saw a growing religious emphasis in the curriculum, its classical core was relatively consistent over time and geography and laid the groundwork for a trans-European sense of literature. Christopher Cannon has described this syllabus as “a primer in literary possibility, a collection of forms and techniques that contained and conveyed an idea of what literature was and could be” (Cannon: 14). The curriculum was a condition for what Ernst Robert Curtius has deemed “European literature and the Latin Middle Ages” as well as the topoi or commonplaces that provided common reference points across Latin literary culture (Curtius).

Although the “language arts” were decidedly Latinate pursuits, their influential frameworks were often applied to vernacular writing as well. Troubadour poetry provides a case in point. Troubadours composed and performed lyrics in the vernacular language of Occitan, which was used in what is now the southern half of France as well as in neighboring courts. During the initial and most vibrant period of troubadour activity (c.1160-c.1200), these lyrics developed a sophisticated and self-conscious poetics, though it showed few traces of Latin learning. No independent works theorizing the Occitan language or troubadour poetry survive from the period, although the poets themselves wove a vocabulary of poetic craft into their lyrics, which “represent[ed], on the whole, an independent vernacular tradition” (Gaunt and Marshall: 475). By contrast, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, theoretical writings on Occitan lyric proliferated, and the “single feature common to all [was] their awareness of the terminology of Latin grammar and rhetoric” (Gaunt and Marshall: 482). One theorist, Uc Faidit, even modeled his treatise on the influential grammar textbook Donatus’ Ars minor. The case of Occitan poetry thus exemplifies a complex relation between vernacular poetics, literary theory, and the “language arts”. Vernacular writers were fully capable of reflecting on their own poetic making, and they did so in a distinctive idiom within their compositions. But when the project of theory became more autonomous, standing outside of troubadour literature to explain it, these theoretical texts without exception drew on the intellectual frameworks of Latin literacy, grammar and rhetoric.

Philosophy’s Literary Theory: Responding to Plato and Aristotle

The two most important philosophers of classical antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, exerted a powerful influence on medieval theory. Yet that influence was not straightforward or direct. Instead, it was shaped by the vagaries of textual and linguistic transmission as well as social, institutional, and intellectual developments distinctive to the Middle Ages.

Although very few of Plato’s writings were directly available in the Middle Ages, the exception was the Timaeus, a cosmological account of the formation of the universe by a divine craftsman. This craftsman imitates an unchanging and eternal model as he imposes order on materiality. The Timaeus reached medieval thinkers in a Latin translation and commentary by the philosopher Calcidius, completed around the year 321. While it is not a work of literary theory per se, the Timaeus influenced medieval ideas of figurative language and interpretation and did so in conjunction with other strands of Neoplatonic thought found in the writings of authorities like Augustine (354-430), Macrobius (c.370-430), and Boethius (480-524). In general, Platonism emphasized a transcendent order of being that was partly intelligible in the physical world. True knowledge was a form of recollection, as the soul came closer to its divine origins, or participated in the mind of God. Plato’s use of dialogue, myth, and metaphorical conceit licensed fiction as a means to philosophical truth. For instance, Boethius, in his Consolation of Philosophy, frequently put mythological stories into the mouth of Lady Philosophy, who recounts the labors of Hercules and the misadventures of Orpheus. In this way, Boethius showed that fictions could be used to communicate profound truths.

Bernard of Chartres (d. after 1124), in his commentary on the Timaeus, seems to have been the first medieval thinker to use the term integumentum, meaning “veil” or “covering”, to characterize the text’s mythic and figurative elements. Bernard’s student William of Conches (c.1080-c.1154) then adopted the term and extended and enriched its significance in his commentaries on Plato, Macrobius, Boethius, and other authors (Wetherbee 2008: 132). Such practices of “integumental reading” were soon expanded to the study of classical authors, giving them a new philosophical seriousness. The model of truth wrapped in poetic fiction was important not only to commentary but also to literary production. The twelfth-century intellectual and poet Bernardus Silvestris composed an original Neoplatonic allegory about the creation of the universe, entitled the Cosmographia. A few decades later, Alan of Lille wrote a pair of allegories under the influence of the Cosmographia, both of which concerned the entanglements of natural, intellectual, and ethical formation. Bernardus’ and Alain’s works were almost immediately regarded as masterpieces and became established as models for subsequent Latin and vernacular literature. The texts’ fantastical events, philosophical ambitions, and interpretive complexity illustrated what medieval poetic invention could achieve.

Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (c. 400) was another late-antique Neoplatonic work that had important consequences for medieval literary theory. Like the Timaeus, it largely addressed the nature of the cosmos as it was revealed through the dream vision of Scipio Aemilianus (as recounted in a section of Cicero’s De re publica). However, Macrobius’ commentary begins by discussing the function of fabula, or fantastic fiction, in philosophical discourse. According to Macrobius, philosophers sometimes make use of stories in their teachings, but they are careful to distinguish among different categories of narrative. The only kind of fabulous narrative (narratio fabulosa) with a valid role to play in philosophy is one that hides truths “beneath a modest veil of allegory” (Ch 2, trans. Stahl: 85). Macrobius further explains that a personified Nature, since she seeks to conceal her mysteries from those who are unworthy, prefers “to have her secrets handled by more prudent individuals through fabulous narratives” (Ch 2; trans. Stahl: 86). Fiction thus acts as a protective covering. Macrobius’ account became a touchstone for medieval discussions of allegory, fictionality, and interpretation.

In the subsequent chapter of his commentary, Macrobius goes on to taxonomize a spectrum of truthful and untruthful dreams, as a prolegomenon to interpreting Scipio’s dream. This juxtaposition between veiled fictions in one chapter and dream theory in the next had a decisive influence on medieval poetry. Poetic dream visions, a popular genre in the high and later Middle Ages, often opened with a mingled discussion of dream interpretation and literary interpretation (Kruger, Dreaming). For instance, the influential thirteenth-century Old French allegory the Roman de la Rose opens with these lines (originally in rhyming couplets):

Many men say that there is nothing in dreams [songes] but fables [fables] and lies [mençonges], but one may have dreams which are not deceitful, whose import becomes clear afterward [après bien aparant]. We may take as witness an author named Macrobius, who did not take dreams as trifles, for he wrote of the vision [avision] which came to King Scipio. (Guillaume de Lorris, trans. Dahlberg: 31)

The narrator goes on to explain that in his twentieth year, he dreamed a beautiful dream, and “Now I wish to tell this dream in rhyme [cel songe rimeer]” (Guillaume de Lorris, trans. Dahlberg: 31). These verses mix the Macrobian themes of dreaming and fiction to foreground the question of whether the text at hand should be regarded as deceitful or revelatory. The poem teasingly returns to the hermeneutic conundrum again and again over its thousands of verses, always delaying an ultimate answer until “afterward”, when all will supposedly be clear. Many other vernacular authors likewise invoked Macrobius’ scrutiny of fiction and dreams to encourage readers to reflect on the indirect status of poetic truth.

Neoplatonism’s joining of cosmology and literary theory suggested that both the material world and poetic texts are shaped by concealed truth. Building on this interpretive conviction, Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana argues that symbolic meaning inheres not only in figurative language, but in historical events themselves. Augustine’s foundational work of Christian rhetoric thus brings a model of hermeneutics to material reality, particularly sacred history. Questions of how to parse both the reality recorded in texts and the language of its depiction continued through the Middle Ages. In De schematibus et tropis, the English monk Bede (673-735) continued Augustine’s project by distinguishing “verbal allegory” (allegoria in verbis) in the Bible from “factual allegory” (allegoria in factis) (trans. Copeland and Sluiter: 269). Some passages of the Bible seemed to lack any straightforward literal and historical meaning, and those were to be interpreted as allegory “in words”. Other scriptural passages recounted real historical events that referred beyond themselves, to other historical or spiritual realities; these were allegories “in facts” (Copeland and Sluiter: 36 and 259-260). Subsequent biblical commentators continued to develop this distinction, helping to solidify multiple “levels” of interpretation (literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical), which could systematically yield different theological contents from a single verse. In his Convivio, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri rather audaciously expressed his intention to carry out such theological interpretation on his own lyrics (Convivio Bk 2 Ch 1; see Barański: 579).

Aristotle’s traces in medieval poetry are more subtle than the cosmological narratives, theories of integumental signifying, and dream typologies that characterize the literary Neoplatonism of the Middle Ages. Yet even more directly than that of Plato, Aristotle’s philosophy shaped medieval theories of language and meaning. In the early Middle Ages, these ideas were known primarily through the efforts of Boethius, who translated into Latin Aristotle’s On Interpretation and Categories as well as an introduction to Aristotelian logic by the philosopher Porphyry (c.234-c. 305). These texts became crucial to the development of dialectic (the branch of the trivium concerned with argument and logic), and they also introduced basic analytical divisions into the expression of meaning. According to Aristotle, the phenomenon of language could be broken down into spoken sounds, letters, mental experiences, and, finally, those entities that mental experiences depicted, or the actual things named. These distinctions became fundamental to medieval understandings of cognition and linguistic signification. They are evident in the grammar textbooks of Donatus and Priscian and in Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century encyclopedia Etymologies, an encyclopedic source of classical knowledge that was cited throughout the Middle Ages. 

The recovery of a further set of Aristotelian logical works in the twelfth century fostered the development of new kind of language theory in thirteenth-century universities, known as speculative grammar. Speculative grammarians, or modistae, concentrated on “conceptual, ontological questions that no longer depended on speaking or writing or on the nature, structure, or usage of individual languages” (Copeland and Sluiter: 15). For these scholars, the underlying, universal grammar of ordinary language yielded insights about being and metaphysics. Specific canons of literature and the specialized domain of poetry were unimportant. Modist grammar thus left behind the literary in its pursuit of remarkable speculative intensity in the study of signification. Thirteenth-century universities were also scenes of reception for a body Arabic scholarship on Aristotelian texts that was newly translated into Latin. The systemizations of knowledge carried out by Al-Farabi (c.870-950) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1120-1198), on the authority of Aristotle, designated poetry as a branch of logic. This new classification, in turn, encouraged novel accounts of literature’s purpose, function, and relation to truth in the Latin West.

Meanwhile, the new intellectual prominence of Aristotelian causation among medieval academics led to the modification of the accessus auctores, discussed above. As they evolved, these prologues came to treat their texts under the headings of “efficient cause” (author), “material cause” (subject matter), “formal cause” (literary form), and “final cause” (intention or purpose). These degrees of causality had the effect of facilitating “precise distinctions between different kinds of authorial roles: author, commentator, compiler, scribe” (Copeland 2005: 652). In turn, literary authors began to borrow from these Aristotelian prologues and from the categories they fostered to frame their own authorial activity. For instance, at the outset of the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer casts himself as a mere compiler of preexisting discourses—in this case, the speeches of his invented pilgrims. The pose is a playful means of distributing literary authority as well as elevating the pilgrims’ spoken English to the status of traditional auctores, as their words are transmitted with mock-fidelity to new audiences (see Minnis 1984: 198-203).

Practical Theory: Paratexts, Genres, and Commonplaces

Many of the instances of medieval literary theory discussed above are decidedly academic. They took shape in medieval institutions of Latin learning, whether grammar schools or universities, and they sought to establish an analytical idiom that stood outside works of poetry, to analyze and explain them. As valuable as the “language arts” and medieval philosophies of language remain for reconstructing Latin Christendom’s ideas of writing and interpretation, they do not exhaust the period’s archive of literary reflexivity. Writers and readers, especially those interested in vernacular texts, were often influenced by institutional settings distinct from the schools—establishments like noble households, royal courts, governmental bureaucracies, local parishes, or the merchant circles developing in medieval cities. Those settings could foster their own conceptions of literature, and in many cases, these conceptions were expressed not in treatises or prologues but tacitly, in literary practice. In other words, ideas about the nature of literature were worked out not only in theory’s own genres (commentaries, treatises, and prologues) but in the various ways that medieval people made, and made use of, literature. Writers’ manipulations of genre, form, diction, intertextual allusion, and literary commonplaces could make claims about textual production and interpretation. Similarly, how books were constructed and the varied ways readers used them testified to, and commented on, the literary system in which they were embedded.

Above I mentioned the original troubadours’ disinclination for Latin theorizations of poetry. Instead, their poems relied on metaphors of manual craft, like weaving, or planing and filing, to describe the art of composition (Gaunt and Marshall: 476). In this way, the Occitan poets drew on a vocabulary of making that was independent of the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, and they incorporated this theoretical vocabulary directly into lyric discourse. Similarly, Geoffrey Chaucer seems not to have written any treatises on literary genre or style. Nonetheless, the friction between genres that he stages in the Canterbury Tales—for instance, in the clash between the stately romance of the “Knight’s Tale,” and the ribald fabliau of the Miller—insists that readers grapple with the moral affordances and social determinations of genre. These are two examples among many that illustrate how literary theory was immanent to literary practice. As Nicolette Zeeman has argued, the “full extent of [medieval] literary self-theorization—whether Latin or vernacular—only becomes apparent when we recognize that much of it is expressed in figured or even metaphorical form” (2007: 222).

Among the important sites for practical literary theory in the Middle Ages were the “paratexts” that framed the main body of a poem or story without necessarily being part of it—like its title, dedication, prologue, colophon, rubrics, marginal commentary, illuminations, page layout, and accompanying manuscript contents. The French theorist Gérard Genette coined the term “paratext” in the later twentieth century, but it describes a general phenomenon relevant to medieval manuscript culture as well. Some writers helped create the paratexts for their compositions. For instance, the fourteenth-century French poet and musician Guillaume de Machaut participated in the design of lavish manuscript compilations of his work. Machaut, however, was an exception. In most cases, paratexts were controlled by scribes, compilers, and readers. They expressed the ideas held by those who used and transmitted texts, about how literature should be categorized, interpreted, and enjoyed.

Take, for instance, the very different manuscript traditions for lyric poetry found in continental Europe and in England. Elegantly produced chansonniers, or “song-books”, anthologized the lyric poetry and music by troubadours and French trouvères, whose names and, sometimes, biographies were attached to their compositions. By contrast, Middle English lyrics tended to be haphazardly copied, often in the midst of the other texts, like legal documents or student notes. The overwhelming majority were anonymous. Ardis Butterfield has argued that this “stubbornly undistinguished mass of medieval insular verse” testifies to “a literary corpus that goes beyond any one author’s control: it is a public corpus, a cluster of verbal and musical materials that is (in part) common intellectual property” (2015: 327 and 330). These two manuscript traditions testify to two different conceptions of lyric, as a malleable poetic commons in England and as an artful tradition attached to charismatic author-performers in Occitania and France. In this case and others, paratexts act to theorize literature.

Another site where one discovers practical literary theory at work is that of genre. Genres are recurring text types defined by characteristics like subject matter, social function, and literary form. Competent readers develop a “feel” for genre, or a familiarity with accustomed literary categories and how they inflect the experience of reading. Such familiarity is presumed by writers and activated by their texts. Sometimes genres are made recognizable by specialized terminology. Latin treatises and commentaries sometimes consolidated these terms, but in the case of vernacular literatures, they were often scattered across varied manuscripts and contexts. In an series of important articles, Paul Strohm has reconstructed a lexicon of Middle English narrative terms, including comedie, tragedie, cronicle, ensample, fable, geste, legende, lyf, myracle, passioun, pley, proces, romaunce, spelle, storie, tale, tretys, and visioun. As Strohm explains, the “attempt to understand a generic concept in reference to a particular audience, time, and place has special importance to those of us who believe that the most vital kind of literary history seeks to comprehend the reception of literary works by their contemporary audiences” (1980, 385).

Yet a great deal of thinking about genre took place not through naming or labelling but by manipulating genre conventions. Generic know-how was expressed when a writer anticipated the sensibility of his audience in fashioning a story, or a compiler decided what materials belonged side by side in a manuscript. Any act of communication (a greeting on the street, an insult, a song, a letter) unfolds in relation to past experiences, schematized into models of expression and understanding. But the ubiquity of genre means that writers are constantly playing with expectations and categories. For instance, parody is a key means of theorizing genre. Chaucer’s unfinished “Tale of Sir Thopas” exaggerates the formulaic phrasing, sing-song meter, and swift plotting of Middle English verse romance both to define the genre and to comment on it as a  narrative form within a wider system of expressive possibilities. 

A third locus for discovering “practical” literary theory lies in literary topoi or commonplaces. Collections of conventional “intellectual themes, suitable for development and modification at the orator’s pleasure” were part of the legacy of classical rhetoric (Curtius: 70). Quintilian calls them sedes argumentorum—“the areas in which arguments lurk and from which they have to be drawn out” (Orator’s Education V.20, trans. Russell: II.375). Beyond any formalized collections of commonplaces inherited from antiquity, however, lay their more general role of enabling shared acts of meaning-making. Commonplaces were the familiar figures—even clichés—of a shared literary culture, whether that culture was fed by Latin schoolbooks or by courtly romances. The habituated character of commonplaces made nuanced signification possible: small changes and modulations were sure to be noticed by an audience accustomed to their routinized use. For instance, the unhappy matchmaker Pandarus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde at one point (I.1065-71) ventriloquizes a well-known passage about rhetorical invention from Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria nova, about the necessity of careful planning to construct a house and write poetry (lines 43-45). The metaphor of writer-as-architect had a long history in both Christian discourse and ancient rhetoric (Carruthers: 16-24). Yet the larger narrative context of Troilus and Criseyde undercuts the analogy’s traditional meaning since Pandarus in fact does not foresee the disastrous consequences of his scheme. The poem relies on the conventional nature of the topos to spring its surprise.

While paratexts, genres, and commonplaces tend to be particularly rich resources for discovering medieval theory-in-practice, in truth, almost all the elements of literature—from the smallest details of poetic meter to the largest sweep of narrative structure—could serve as instruments for commenting on the nature of written discourse and the methods of interpreting it. Literary practice, then, was saturated with literary theory. At the same time, literary speculation and systematization also took shape in venues like classrooms and universities, in texts that positioned themselves outside of literature, as commentary, instruction, and explanation. Across these several domains, medieval literary theory reflected on how writing and reading generated meaning as well as the nature, value, and significance of that meaning. 


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Citation: Orlemanski, Julie. "Medieval Literary Theory". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 03 November 2021 [, accessed 24 January 2022.]

707 Medieval Literary Theory 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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