Best known for two pioneering books on the medieval art of memory and meditative practice, Mary Carruthers is one of the most accomplished medieval scholars of our time. In her thought-provoking new book, based on a series of seminars given at All Souls College, Oxford, Carruthers develops some of the themes of her earlier work while opening up significant new directions. She seeks to recover the largely forgotten sense of the dignified place that medieval culture assigned to aesthetic experience apart from the dominant moral and theological ideologies of the time, ideologies that she rightly insists have been duplicated by many modern scholars, who often assume that the aesthetic function of medieval literature, art, architecture, and music must have been intended to serve higher religious purposes. As the author cautions, “[i]n medieval thought, ‘aesthetic’ meant ‘knowledge acquired through sensory experiences.’” Yet she rightly insists that just because “medieval thought has no concept of ‘the aesthetic’ in the modern sense,” that does not mean “the creation and experiencing of human artefacts was for them therefore indistinguishable from any other sort of human appetite or need.” The problem, therefore, is how to find out what aesthetic experience was like for medieval people, who lacked the modern belief in the value of art for art’s sake. As she explains, her “method . . . is an old-fashioned one, that of historical philology and lexical examination.” Her “task is that of a lexical archeologist, seeking the strata from which the building blocks of later theory were quarried.” Thus a core feature of her study is to excavate the meanings of a number of key aesthetic terms in medieval texts, chiefly in Latin but with additional examples drawn from a number of vernacular languages. In some ways her approach resembles that of an older history of ideas, though she insists that her topic is “the experience of beauty (not the idea of beauty” (author’s italics), a claim to which I will return.
The book comprises an introduction and six chapters. Rather than developing an extended sequential argument, Carruthers offers a series of studies that could almost be read independently, in keeping with the book’s earlier life as a lecture series. A brief review can only offer a sense of some main topics of this erudite and well-documented series of studies. The book, as Carruthers explains in her introduction (“Making Sense”), “begin[s] from the premise that medieval aesthetic experience is bound into human sensation and that human knowledge is sense-derived, the agents of which are all corporeal.” Her topic, in other words, is not “the theology of Beauty.” Although she admires the classic work of Edgar De Bruyne on medieval aesthetics, she finds that his focus on the Neoplatonic idea that divine and human creations or artefacts reflect God has led to “a criticism of medieval arts that has become over-theologized and over-moralized.” Instead, she argues that we shouldn’t treat “all medieval literature” and other artefacts as though they are essentially sermons in fancy dress. We should therefore ask of a medieval artifact “not ‘What is it (and what does it represent?)’ but ‘What is it doing (and what is it asking us to do)?’” Her approach is thus based on rhetorical analysis, and few scholars are as well-equipped as Carruthers for such a task. All medieval aesthetic artefacts, not just verbal compositions, may be read as acts of persuasion to “confident belief” (fides) involving three agents: the creator/performer, the composition or artefact, and the audience, who forms judgments. As she convincingly demonstrates throughout the book, many modern scholars have gone wrong when analyzing medieval culture by ignoring at least one element of the triad (see for example her remarks about the New Criticism [p. 171]).
Chapter 1, “Artful Play,” explores the “ludic play space” of medieval art. Carruthers is critical of Johan Huizinga, whose classic study Homo Ludens advocated a complete separation of ludic space from the ordinary world. She is also critical of theories of medieval “carnival” derived from Bakhtin, whose analysis she rightly insists does not accurately reflect medieval class divisions. Instead, she connects medieval play with the medical theory of four humors in a discussion that ranges from the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa to Dante (throughout the book the chronological range of her references is truly astonishing). To illustrate her rhetorical approach to aesthetics, she includes a tour de force analysis of the sensory experience produced by the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood. Similarly, she analyzes the carefully crafted Latin prose of Abbot Suger’s famous discussion of his renovations to the church of St.-Denis in Paris to show that his description focuses on his sensory experience of beauty in the church. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of how art, including painting, may be understood as rhetorical persuasion: even non-verbal representational art seeks to lead the viewer to confident belief.
Chapter 2, “Sensory Complexion and Style,” begins with a claim that lies at the heart of the shift away from Christian Neoplatonism in her revisionary account: medieval “aesthetic vocabulary . . . derives primarily from the discourse of rhetoric.” She takes us through the Aristotelian psychology of sensation as developed by Aquinas, who offers a multisensory account of aesthetic experience located in the “sensitive” soul. The relation between the medieval notion of “intention,” which involves a movement towards something by desire, and the will is used to explain how sensory perceptions that are stored in memory as mental images carry with them “the delight and desire with which we attended to them in the first place.” Works of art have built into them the intentio auctoris (intention of the creator) and lead the reader or perceiver through a kind of “journey” through the work, which is guided by its rhetorical ductus (‘paths’) toward its intended end. Style thus provides an active agency that leads the reader through the work. After analyzing the importance of antithesis in Augustine’s thinking about style and licit pleasures, Carruthers draws an example from Dante to illustrate how stylistic agency “directly changes human bodies simply because our sensations affect us.” The chapter closes with two sections: the first on the relations among morality, pleasure, and obscurity as a stylistic game, the second on Aquinas’s thinking about the pleasures offered by play. Her rhetorical analysis of a letter by Augustine to an imperial governor in Hippo is especially rewarding, though her statement that the genre of letter-writing was not discussed in ancient rhetorical manuals overlooks the exceptional case of Demetrius, On Style, despite her familiarity with his work. Her close analysis of the “lush stylistic variety” of Bernard of Clairvaux’s prose demonstrates that he is not as “puritanical” about aesthetic pleasure as he is often thought to be. Similarly, she excavates from Aquinas’s commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics surprising evidence that the scholastic philosopher was not always as severe a critic of aesthetic pleasure as usually assumed; rather, he recognized an aesthetic realm of harmless pleasures that are “disinterested” in something close to the Kantian sense.
Chapter 3, “Taking the Bitter with the Sweet,” reworks ideas Carruthers previously developed in an article on sweetness in 2006. However, the implications of sweetness become even clearer in her fuller study of medieval aesthetics. The two key words analyzed in the chapter are dulcis and suavis (‘sweet,’ ‘pleasant’); the importance of these two nearly synonymous words to rhetorical tradition is manifest in the root sense of sweetness in the verb (per)suadeo (‘to persuade’). In ancient and medieval thought, persuasion and medicine are closely related, since health, both individual and social, is attained by restoring balances between opposite qualities, just as a rhetorician weighs contraries and appeals to the senses. The chapter also explores the theological concept of dulcedo Dei (‘the sweetness of the Lord') and the sensory, experiential matrix of sapientia (with a root sense of knowledge that may be tasted or, as Carruthers provocatively translates the word, “intelligent belief based upon experience of the world”). Like many of the words she studies, dulcis/suavis were understood as morally ambiguous in the Middle Ages, since not all forms of sensory pleasure were viewed as good. Yet these terms remained indispensable. Indeed, ever since its beginning in ancient Greece, “rhetoric enjoyed (and still does) much the same morally ambivalent reputation that sweetness itself did.” The final section of the chapter (subtitled “Sweet Reason”) emphasizes the rational components of sweetness to counter the received understanding of what modern scholars describe as “affective piety” (especially associated with Cistercian and Franciscan spirituality), which emphasized sensory experiences leading to strong emotional responses. She supports her point with examples that include the Middle English Harley Lyrics, Augustine, and the sixth-century hymn Pange lingua by Venantius Fortunatus.
Chapter 4, “Taste and Good Taste,” builds on the previous chapter to explore more broadly the link between medieval aesthetics and notions of taste. Given the centrality of “taste” in eighteenth-century aesthetics, the chapter should be of special interest to students of early modern aesthetic theory. Once again, medicine (especially dietetics) and rhetoric are closely intertwined in her analysis. Key words studied in this chapter include honestus and decorum, which carry both social and aesthetic significance. After reporting her initial puzzlement upon encountering a fifteenth-century English contract that required “honest fynyals” to ornament a building, she teases out the aesthetic implications of this surprising adjective by taking the reader through Cicero and Quintilian, solving the puzzle by showing that an “honest finial” is both “fitting” (dignus, honestus) and “beneficial” (utilis). She concludes, “the post-medieval concept of Taste plays much the same role that honestus did in judgements about ornament and style before the 18th century.” The final section of the chapter returns to the topic of sapientia (‘tasty wisdom’), taking the reader through medical and theological texts to demonstrate how medieval meditational practices involved taste (gustus) in something close to a literal sense, though one of her translations from the Latin perhaps distorts the original point by a twelfth-century monastic writer, who begins a sentence “Lectio quasi solidum cibum ori apponit” (my emphasis); Carruthers translates, “Reading puts into the mouth a kind of solid food” (my emphasis). But her claim that “actual eating” is described in the passage and “is no mere metaphor” is not quite supported by the text, since here quasi means “as it were,” not “a kind of.”
Chapter 5, “Varietas,” examines an important medieval aesthetic value that is difficult to translate, containing the sense of both variety and variegated. Once again her mastery of Roman rhetorical handbooks reveals that the stylistic concept is more complicated than we might assume. The chapter includes a lively discussion of medieval laughter that mixes the serious with the playful, and goes on to analyze the aesthetic intentions behind the medieval fondness for curious monstrosities. To this reviewer, one of the highlights of the book is her discussion of what she calls “polyfocality,” the way in which complex medieval artefacts, including churches, illuminated manuscripts, motets, and “open” narrative forms, cannot be comprehended by the human mind all at once but are instead designed to guide perceptions from one sensory detail to another in a “non-hierarchal” aesthetic experience. Just as the mixed architectural style of Hagia Sophia violated classical canons of harmony and order, the mixture in the Incarnation “of human and divine was scandalous foolishness” to Greek and Roman pagans “not just conceptually but also because it abused antique aesthetic experience, a decorum based on dignitas,” an arresting insight.
The final chapter, “Ordinary Beauty,” takes up a topic that the author acknowledges may seem curiously absent from her earlier chapters: beauty. As Carruthers explains, she wanted to postpone discussing beauty directly to drive home the point that medieval aesthetics were based on natural, biologically based “human sensory experiences.” Augustine thus uses the word pulchritudo (‘beauty’) to name God, she observes, because “even divine beauty is apprehended by human beings through vigorous sensations” that are found “in the person apprehending it.” Returning to two concepts elucidated earlier, Carruthers reprises the complex medieval understandings of intentio and stylistic ductus to emphasize how “medieval art moves, not only emotionally but directionally” and “conveys one to some (other) place or . . . feeling or sensation.” Favorite medieval strategies for producing aesthetic experiences are “miniaturization and magnification” (the aesthetics of Julian of Norwich’s image of the world as a hazelnut is included among her examples of the former). Another tour de force occurs when Carruthers analyzes a passage from the Middle English poem Cleanness to illustrate the aesthetic principle of grandeur in “small wonders.” Later in the chapter she submits a number of synonyms for “beautiful” to lexical analysis (pulcher, venustus, formosus, speciosus), emphasizing a common thread connecting these terms, which often refer to surface qualities of “ordinary beauty.” Especially insightful is the connection she draws between delightful surfaces and the enigmatic challenges of medieval trompe l’œil art, such as faux marble masonry columns in a French church intended “to persuade us to believe with confidence in the architectural suitability of this place.” The chapter concludes with a “coda” devoted to Bonaventure’s brief De reductione artium ad theologiam (On a return of the arts curriculum to theology), “one of the very few theoretical treatments of human art considered substantially on its own terms” from the Middle Ages. “Artists do not imitate the doctrine of Incarnation by expressing it directly,” she insists, “but in the ways their art assumes and demonstrates some of its process.” However much she wants to overcome Neoplatonizing tendencies of modern scholars like De Bruyne and Umberto Eco, it seems to me that here she concedes that there is room for a kind of Neoplatonic explanation, after all. Similarly, when she quotes Bonaventure’s statement, “the illumination of mechanical art is a way [via] to the illumination of sacred Scripture,” it is difficult to share her confident belief that he “never claims that the artefact . . . imitates the theology of Incarnation.” Indeed, the polemical thrust of the entire book seems limited by an unwarranted assumption that one must choose between a Neoplatonic and a rhetorical understanding of beauty in the Middle Ages. Surely both orientations coexisted among the elite classes of educated men, especially clerics, from whose writings she draws nearly all of her evidence. Even if she sometimes overstates her case, however, her emphasis on the rhetorical doctrines of style as an underappreciated source for understanding medieval aesthetics is salutary and should inspire future studies.
My only other reservation about the book, whose erudition and intellectual power are remarkable, is that a more accurate title would have been Ideas about the Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages. Indeed, although the book offers many compelling analyses of the relation between sensation and medieval artefacts, for the most part the author (necessarily) draws on the ideas about beauty and related aesthetic concepts offered by elite (almost exclusively male) clerical culture. Unfortunately, the surviving sources must remain silent about what the experience of beauty might have been like for the vast majority of medieval people when they entered a church or gazed at the setting sun after a long day’s work. Indeed, as the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and others demonstrates, aesthetic tastes and the experience of beauty in the modern world are class-based. There is no reason to think otherwise for the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, Carruthers remains one of the most astute interpreters of learned medieval Latin and vernacular culture of our time, and for that we owe her a debt of gratitude. The book is also remarkably well produced: I noticed only a handful of insignificant proofreading errors in English and Latin. At a time of rapidly deteriorating standards of copy-editing among scholarly presses, the author and her publisher deserve praise for such a carefully produced, aesthetically pleasing volume, which is now available in paperback.
The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages. By Mary Carruthers. Oxford University Press, 2013.