Revisioning Medieval Rhetoric


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  • For 2500 years, rhetoric has flourished. It has been developed, stretched, emaciated, and redeveloped to fit many different purposes through many different time periods. While much has been made of classical, early modern, modern, and postmodern theories of rhetoric, two periods seem strangely silent: the dark and middle ages. Before I dive right in to talking about the rhetoric of the medieval period, I’d like to give a brief overview of the period from about the 5 th century to the 14 th . In her book “Ancient and Medieval Memories,” Janet Coleman provides some insight into why rhetoric seems to disappear abruptly after Late Antiquity. In a world of upheaval, where the Roman empire was falling apart and the fledgling Christian church was just beginning to establish a foothold, there was a wide spread suspicion of all things pagan, especially an art, which if practiced correctly, could convince anyone of the justice of both sides of every issue. However, while several classically trained converts such as Augustine publicly denounced rhetoric, they found it invaluable as a teaching tool. The trick for these rhetors then was to subsume rhetoric into Christian theology. In fact, many doctrines taught by Augustine in his Confessions, De Trinitate, and De Doctrina Christiana can be found in the works of Plato, Cicero, and the neo-Platonist Plotinus. So, while rhetoric did survive, it survived in Christian theology. A few christians such as Cassiodorus maintained collections of ancient works, but through war or neglect, many of these manuscripts disappeared. The manuscripts that did survive seem to be several treatises by Cicero as well as the psuedo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herrenium. These writings along with those of several Christian rhetors such as Augustine and Boethius were to heavily influence the early middle ages. During the later part of the 12 th century, other manuscripts appear to come to light and the influence of the rhetorics of Aristotle and Quintillian begin to be seen. In one of the earlier articles on medieval rhetoric, Richard McKeon defines four major periods of rhetoric and their classical and/or dark ages influences.
  • Revisioning Medieval Rhetoric

    1. 1. Re [ vision ] ing Medieval Rhetoric Kathie Gossett CWS Colloquium 14 November 2002
    2. 2. four periods of medieval rhetoric <ul><li>Period One: the 10 th Century </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Augustine, Cassiodorus, Isidore, and Alcuin </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Period Two: the 11 th through Mid-12 th Centuries </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Augustine, Boethius, and Cicero </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Period Three: the Late 12 th through 13 th Centuries </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Aristotle </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Period Four: the 14 th Century through the Renaissance </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and Boethius </li></ul></ul>
    3. 3. classical rhetorical historiography
    4. 4. medieval rhetorical historiography
    5. 5. re [ vision ] ing medieval rhetoric—part 1 expanding the definition
    6. 6. medieval rhetoric : expanding the definition “ Most of us remain unaware that modern science, some modern history and modern philosophy have inherited from the Renaissance a trivialization of over 1,000 years of previous history. We have accepted that aspects of modernity began during the Renaissance and that preceding centuries were populated by men and women without historical perspective, [and] without philosophical and logical insight . . . Where thinkers in the Renaissance are believed to be like us, medieval thinkers, even when some concede they may be interesting, are not like us” (xvii).
    7. 7. medieval rhetoric : expanding the definition “ . . . If rhetoric is defined in terms of a single subject matter—such as style or literature or discourse—it has no history during the middle ages. . .” (166) “ In application, the art of rhetoric contributed during the period from the fourth to the fourteenth century not only to the methods of speaking and writing well, of composing letters and petitions, sermons and prayers, legal documents and briefs, poetry and prose, but to the canons of interpreting laws and Scripture, to the dialectical devices of discovery and proof, to the establishment of the scholastic method, which was to come into universal use in philosophy and theology, and finally, to the formulation of scientific inquiry, which was to separate philosophy from theology . . . In theory or application, the art of rhetoric was now identified with, now distinguished from, the whole or part not only of grammar, logic, and dialectic but also of sophistic and science, of ‘civil philosophy,’ psychology, law, and literature and, finally, of philosophy as such” (166).
    8. 8. medieval rhetoric : expanding the definition “ . . . Many moderns have concluded that medieval people did not value originality or creativity. We are simply looking in the wrong place. We should instead examine the role of memory in their intellectual and cultural lives, and the values which they attached to it, for there we will get a firmer sense of their understanding of what we now call creative activity. . . In their understanding . . . it was memory that made knowledge into useful experience, and memory that combined these pieces of information-become-experience into what we call ‘ideas’. . .” (I)
    9. 9. re [ vision ] ing medieval rhetoric—part 2 exploring the visual
    10. 10. medieval rhetoric : exploring the visual “ The struggle between icon and alphabet is not, to be sure, anything new, as the history of illuminated manuscripts attests. This complex interaction of word and image never actually vanished; it only fell out of fashion” (34). “ Multimedia hypertext is closer in spirit to the medieval illuminated codex than it is either to the ancient speech or to the modern printed book. In an illuminated manuscript the decorated letters created a subtle space in which verbal text and image were perfectly merged” (110). “ We can also point to much earlier examples of multiple-media displays, such as the medieval illuminated manuscripts that combine text, graphics, and representational images” (51).
    11. 11. medieval rhetoric : exploring the visual “ It is a great value for fixing a memory-image that when we read books, we study to impress on our memory . . . the color, shape, position, and placement of the letters [and] in what location we saw [them] . . . in what color we observed the trace of the letter or the ornamented surface of the parchment. Indeed I consider nothing so useful for stimulating the memory as this . . . Truly such a visual scheme for one’s learning both illuminates the soul when it perceives and knows things, and confirms them in memory.” ~ Hugh of St. Victor (trans. in Carruthers 261-64)
    12. 12. medieval rhetoric : exploring the visual “ Wherefore one best learns by studying from illuminated books, for the different colors bestow remembrance of the different lines and consequently of that thing which one wants to get by heart” (114).
    13. 17. conclusions