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"On the Road of the Text: Using Ductus to Teach Medieval Literature”

by Dr. Sean Gordon Lewis, Mount St. Mary's University

(December 2017 Issue / PDF)

Those of us who teach surveys of medieval literature to undergraduates are familiar with the difficulties in teaching so diverse a range of texts and genres. While later periods of literature show various unities in time, place, and language (Romantic literature, under its most strict definition, is the product of only a few intense decades around 1800), Medieval literature spans from the end of the Western Roman Empire until the Reformation, with literature that is both pre- and trans-national, existing in Latin and in dozens of emerging vernacular languages.  Take, for example, the Arthurian legend; it has been transmitted in literary works written in Latin, Welsh, French, English, Old Norse, Italian, Provencal, German, Spanish, and Russian (Wilhelm, vii).  Such a literary paradigm is usually a new one for undergraduates.  An additional challenge is generic expectations: most high school graduates have encountered only modern forms of literature, the novel in particular.  Far fewer of them have encountered medieval genres such as dream visions and biblical paraphrases.[1]   Students who read medieval literature with the expectations of the modern novel will be sorely disappointed, and introducing students to new ways of reading is often the greatest hurdle in teaching medieval literature.

In addition to the challenge of the heterogeneity of the material is the challenge of teaching it to an undergraduate population, in many cases, that has received little writing instruction before college.  Writing on the National Assessment of Educational Process report, Applebee and Langer conclude from their multi-decade study that “many [8th-12th grade] students are not writing a great deal for any of their academic subjects, including English, and most are not writing at any length.  Two-thirds of students in Grade 8, for example, are expected to spend an hour or less on writing for homework each week, and 40% of twelfth graders report never or hardly ever being asked to write a paper of 3 pages or more” (“Existing Data” 28).  In a separate study, the two further found that even what might count as “writing instruction” does not involve mental engagement: “Of the 8,542 separate assignments that we gathered from 138 case study students in these schools . . . only 19% represented extended writing of a paragraph or more; all the rest consisted of fill in the blank and short answer exercises, and copying of information directly from the teacher’s presentation—types of activities that are best described as writing without composing” (“Snapshot” 15).  These latter findings demonstrate that most of our undergraduates have not been taught to link writing with thinking; writing is being taught to them as a mechanical process, not an inventive or communicative one.

To address both of these challenges, I have found that teaching students to approach medieval texts through medieval literary theory has been a great help, since it emphasizes the connections between close reading and thoughtful writing. C.S. Lewis observed in his classic English Literature in the Sixteenth Century:

Nearly all our older poetry was written and read by men to whom the distinction between poetry and rhetoric, in its modern form, would have been meaningless.  The ‘beauties’ which they chiefly regarded in every composition were those which we either dislike or simply do not notice. This change of taste makes an invisible wall between us and them.  Probably all our literary histories . . . are vitiated by our lack of sympathy on this point.  If ever the passion for formal rhetoric returns, the whole story will have be rewritten and many judgments reversed (Lewis 61).

While our own students hardly have a “passion for formal rhetoric” (drawing further attention to the gap in generic expectations between medieval literature and modern literature), contemporary scholars have done excellent work on the subject, demonstrating the extent to which medieval artists across the arts thought about their crafts through the lens of the Trivium: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.  Paul Binksi has demonstrated persuasively that architects of the High Middle Ages were often figured as “doctors” of the liberal arts (Binsky 28-36); Margaret Bent has uncovered the connections between the Trivium and the polyphonic music of the period, noting that “a link between music and the verbal arts is increasingly emphasized in the later Middle Ages” (Bent 53).  Perhaps most impressively, Mary Carruthers has devoted many studies to the rhetorical concept of the ductus, the pathway, of the text as a governing image from the Middle Ages for the process of writing and reading.[2]   I have used this concept in an elective survey of medieval literature, in more specialized courses on Chaucer and Dante, and even in freshmen humanities core courses, both to give students the experience of reading in a period manner, and to highlight the connection between reading and writing, which they can use to progress as writers.

In this essay, I will focus on the course in which I first developed this practice, Beauty and Literature in the Middle Ages, a survey of medieval literature that counted as an English elective at my private, Catholic, liberal arts university.  The course was open to both under- and upper-classmen, and it included students from freshmen through senior year.  The course goals were fairly straightforward for a medieval literature survey:

As a course, English 250 is designed to guide students to:

  1. Develop an understanding of the medieval literary tradition;
  2. Explore medieval aesthetics, applied to specific works of art;
  3. Read, interpret, and discuss great works of medieval literature;
  4. Continue to develop the writing and research skills begun in the core and found throughout the English major.

The second goal, however, was the one I wanted to focus on from the beginning of the course.  We studied a rich range of medieval literature: Anglo-Saxon lyric poetry, excerpts from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Song of Roland, Chrétien des Troyes’ The Knight of the Cart, Marie de France’s Lanval, sermons on the Song of Songs by Bernard of Clairvaux, Macrobius and Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowles, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and excerpts from Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Love.  The course was further supplemented by considerations of medieval visual arts, which included a trip to The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to study their magnificent medieval collection.  To tie all of this material together, and to challenge my students to develop period habits of approaching the texts, we began with several readings on medieval aesthetics, both primary sources (Alanus ab Insulis, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Bonaventure, Aquinas) and secondary sources (Lewis, Eco, and Carruthers).  The last secondary source listed, excerpts from Mary Carruthers’ The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages, was particularly vital for forming the course’s approach to medieval literature and art.

Carruthers introduced us to the terminology used by medieval writers and audiences to describe their aesthetic experiences.  One of Carruthers’ main arguments in her The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages is, “that human arts—verbal, musical, architectural, sculptural, graphic, and the multimedia experiences of liturgies, religious and civic—were composed and experienced on the model of classical rhetoric” (18).  Most useful for our purposes, however, is Carruthers’ attention to the rhetorical vocabulary used by medieval authors to describe the literary experience as a kind of spatio-temporal motion:

The model of journey, itinerary, and path, via, iter, and ductus, moving actively through a work among its internal paths to its goal [is basic in medieval aesthetics].  For all their ‘open’ form, medieval works are not formless; they have within them evident itineraries and courses.  The pilgrims may not get to Canterbury but it is the aim and scope of their journey (though there can be many side trips) (Carruthers 12-13).
Put another way, medieval authors and audiences saw literary texts as journeys: the author crafted a specific path for audiences (both readers and auditors) to follow, with distinct stops along the way.  Each “turn” elicits specific responses in the audience, and makes suggestions for how to use the text.  Poets of the Middle Ages clearly had this journey-image in mind as they composed.  If we turn to the 13th-century Poetria Nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf, we find instructions for how to write poetry that are conceived of explicitly in terms of leading the reader on a journey:
The material’s order may follow two possible courses: at one time it advances along the pathway of art, at another it travels the smooth road of nature.  Nature’s smooth road points the way when “things” and “words” follow the same sequence, and the order of discourse does not depart from the order of occurrence.  The poem travels the pathway of art if a more effective order presents first what was later in time, and defers the appearance of what was actually earlier (II.87-94) . . . [The artistic order is superior.]  The air in this region of art may seem murky and the pathway rugged, the doors locked and the theory itself entangled with knots.  Since that is so, the words that follow will serve as physicians for that disorder.  Scan them well: here you will find a light to dispel the darkness, safe footing to traverse rugged ground, a key to unlock the doors, a finger to loose the knots.  The way is thrown open; guide the reins of your mind as the nature of your course demand (II.104-112).

Geoffrey’s treatise was one of the more famous poetry manuals from the High Middle Ages, and throughout he figures literary works as specific places whose parts allow audiences to travel along artistically-designed pathways.  Focus on literary place further emphasizes the connection between poetics and rhetoric in the Middle Ages: the loci communi from the Ciceronian tradition are literally places one goes to find material for argument.  In the passage above, Geoffrey weds this emphasis on place with an explicit recognition that the journey through the place, its ductus/pathway, is laid out by the artist. 

I found that the advantage of using the concept of ductus to guide undergraduate reading of medieval literature is twofold.  In the first place, it helps students read the works through a period-sensitive rhetorical lens that is straightforward and easily understood. Even without formal training in classical rhetoric, students can imagine literary works as journeys, encountering new places and characters as the ductus of the work leads the reader on, and attending to their own responses.  Furthermore, for instructors interested in giving students an introduction to critical theory (and my upperclassmen, at least, were getting this in other classes at the time), the concept of ductus neatly harmonizes Structuralism and Reader-Response Criticism: the overall “shape” of the work is important, but it is important because of the cues it gives the reader for experience and reflection.  This method is really about textual “interface”: how the text has been designed for the reader to use in specific ways.  While it does not allow students to appreciate every feature of a rhetorically-grounded medieval aesthetic, it at least allows them to begin cultivating period-specific approaches to the material.  In the second place, it is flexible enough to be applied to a great variety of medieval literary works, and we were able to use it as a common principle as we journeyed through space, time, and language in the syllabus. 

After our readings in medieval literary theory, we turned to our Anglos-Saxon section of the course.  To get us into the habit of approaching medieval literature from the perspective of ductus, I assigned an essay early on whose prompt required this kind of reading:

ENGL 250: Beauty and Literature in the Middle Ages
Dr. Lewis
Essay 1 Prompt

Part of the goal of this course is to give you a taste of medieval literature on its own aesthetic terms.  Speaking of the rhetorical nature of medieval literature, Mary Carruthers says: “In the presence of any artifact, our first question could then be not ‘What is it (and what does it represent)?’ but ‘What is it doing (and what is it asking us to do)?’” (The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013], 14.) While it would be hard to recreate the exact experience of hearing a scop declaim a poem in a mead-hall, we can engage in a rhetorical analysis of medieval poetry, attending to what the poem is doing and asking us to do

In modern terms, reader-response criticism (at its best) is a branch of rhetorical criticism that focuses on the response of a reader at different phases of encountering a poetic text: the structure of the poem gives the reader “cues” for how to think, feel, or imagine over the course of the poetic experience.  The critic divides the poem into these different cues, and explains how the cues call for specific (although sometimes ambiguous) responses from the audience.

For this essay, you will analyze your responses to one of the Anglo-Saxon poems read in this course.  Begin by choosing a poem (possibly the one you enjoyed the most).  Next, read through the poem slowly, aloud; you may even have a friend read it for you.  As you go through the poem, jot down your responses to different parts of the poem: in the beginning, through the middle, and into the end.  Through what emotions or images does the poet lead you?  What words or phrases stand out at different points?  Having taken down a “journal” of your response, consider the pattern (ductus) of the poetic journey you have been on: what seems to be the underlying order of the phases of this journey?  What specific experiences does the poem give you, and what do those experiences prompt you to do?

A sample, algebraic thesis statement for this essay would be: “[The poem] gives the reader an experience of [Z] by taking her through [Y], [X], [W], and ultimately [V], suggesting that the reader [do or realize something].”  That’s clunky; you should be able to come up with far more elegant theses and thesis statements.  But if you wanted a model, there you go: what is the experience? what are the parts of the experience (i.e., how does the poem create that experience)?  why is that experience significant?

This prompt yielded many strong responses, but one essay on “The Dream of the Rood” was particularly noteworthy, since it elegantly divided the poem into its constituent rhetorical “moments”: the time before the cross begins to speak, the narrative the cross gives of its history, and the cross’s injunction to the dreamer to spread its message.  In her essay, this student analyzed how the poem was meant to be used by original audiences through the journey from point to point: its rhetorical end is fundamentally evangelical in its orientation.  The audience experiences what the cross experiences vicariously, and just as the Rood was transformed by its experiences, so the audience is to be transformed.  The final commission, then, transforms the audience from passive readers and listeners into active participants in the cross’s mission.  While the poem does take its audience on an interior, spiritual journey, the ductus of “The Dream of the Rood” can also be mapped in space: the poem takes its audience on a journey from Golgotha to Anglo-Saxon England, culminating in a devotional response.  What I found most impressive in this analysis was the fact that Mary Carruthers gives a reading of “The Dream of the Rood” (Carruthers 35-39) that is quite similar to what this student produced; we had not read that section of her book for the course, yet this student developed a sufficiently sensitive rhetorical lens to reach conclusions similar to those of a major medievalist.  I shared this response and some other strong ones with the class, and we took inspiration from them to practice this way of reading the other works studied in the course.  Three that yielded particularly fascinating conclusions were The Song of Roland, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and Pearl, and our experiences of journeying through them with attention to their respective ductus will be recounted in the following sections.

The Song of Roland: More Reflective than A Poem with Human Bisection Should Be

Our course moved from Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman literature, including one of its most famous examples, The Song of Roland. For many undergraduates, The Song of Roland is a hard text with which to sympathize because of its obvious bias, apparent glorification of war, and its tendency towards exaggeration.  While Homer’s Iliad treats both Greeks and Trojans with respect and pity, The Song of Roland has a clear agenda of praising the Franks and dispraising the Pagans/Muslims.  That conflation is a telling one; the author clearly knew very little about Islam, claiming that the Muslims worship multiple gods: Apollo, Tergavant, and Muhammed (laisses 194-5).  They clearly have statues of these three “gods” in the city of Saragossa, since they desecrate them in anger after losing to Charlemagne (laisse 187): “[They] fling Muhammad into a ditch / Where pigs and dogs bite and trample him” (2509-91).   The conflation of all things non-Christian into a pagan mishmash (devout Muslims would never dream of worshipping Mohammed as a god or making an image of him!) betrays a lack of understanding that already makes us skeptical of the text: the text makes no attempt to humanize or even understand the enemy.  Since God is on the Frankish side (laisse 269), the enemy has two choices: convert to Christianity and become a subject of Charlemagne, or die (laisse 272).  In the world of The Song of Roland, the Christian Franks can do no wrong, and all of their wars (with their body counts in the thousands) are self-evidently just. This glorification of war, often through highly exaggerated features, is also apt to arouse hostility in modern readers: on the battlefield, we are treated to scenes of super-human prowess, including several bisections of human beings (usually at the hand of Roland: laisses 104, 107, 141), which are treated as glorious, rousing events.  Having no pity for the enemy, the text can rejoice in their violent deaths and the downfall of their city.  Grief for the Franks, however, knows no such bounds, and 100,000 Franks faint from grief at finding the corpse of Roland (211.2932).  In our far more diverse world, one might be tempted to dismiss The Song of Roland as a mere relic of past Eurocentric pride, the beginnings of a nationalism that would ultimately have disastrous consequences.

When one approaches The Song of Roland in terms of its ductus, with considerations for its initial audience, however, the text suddenly gains layers of complexity that it may not, at first blush, appear to be present.  The poem is written in a highly paratactic structure: scenes are juxtaposed or repeated, and the reader must be far more active in working out the significances of these juxtapositions.  Structurally, then, The Song of Roland may seem rather disorganized initially, but when the reader pays more active attention to what the structure does to the reader, patterns begin to appear.  Specifically, we noticed a pattern of moving the reader to evaluate, then reevaluate characters, and unnerving moments of realism that prompt the audience to recognize the horror and sorrow of war, a prompt that tempers to a surprising degree the glorification of the Franks.

In the first place, it is striking how frequently The Song of Roland calls on its audience to make explicit judgments of character.  Calling for the audience to render a verdict is not, of course, unusual in medieval literature,[3] and the central debate between Oliver and Roland over whether Roland should blow his horn (laisses 83-86) is the turning-point in the text.  What my class and I found remarkable, however, was the way in which the text requires the audience to reevaluate central characters.  For instance, it is clear from the beginning that Roland is the hero of the poem (even though he dies halfway through it).  He is the one who first raises doubts over the authenticity of King Marsile’s claims that he will convert to Christianity and swear fealty to Charlemagne (laisse 14), showing prudence in evaluating the enemy; the Saracens/Saragossans admit to wanting simply to get Charlemagne out of Spain through this promise, though it will likely cost the lives of Saragossan children sent to Charlemagne as hostages (laisses 3-4).  A few stanzas later, however, Roland’s friend Oliver counsels against sending Roland to parlay with Saragossa:

“My lord barons, whom can we send
To the Saracen who holds Saragossa?”
Roland replies: “I am prepared to go.”
“You certainly will not,” said Count Oliver.
“Your temperament is most hostile and fierce,
I am afraid you might pick a quarrel.” (18.252-57)

This detail is important: rather than seeing Roland simply as an heroic figure, the text demands that we reevaluate his motives and actions: Roland would be an imprudent choice as a diplomat because his tendency will always be to fight.  In this regard, Oliver has pointed out a potential flaw in his character.  Is this text, however, leading us to consider Roland’s hostility as a flaw?  Soon after this scene, Roland’s character comes up again during Ganelon’s embassy to Saragossa and his betrayal (laisse 27-52).  While Ganelon betrays his stepson Roland for personal reasons, rather than political (278.3758-60), he convinces the Saragossans to attack the Frankish rearguard on the notion that if they kill Roland, Charlemagne will stop his warfare: “Whatever happens, Roland will not escape. / The you will have performed a noble act of chivalry; / You will have no more war as long as you live” (44.593-5).  The Saracens know that Roland is a “dangerous man” (30.392), so these later details appear to confirm Oliver’s assessment of his character.  In the context of the poem, however, what might be initially taken as a character flaw is shown to be strength: at least in the world of this poem, unrelenting hostility to the enemy might be a virtue.  Yet the text returns to Oliver’s critique of Roland: Oliver counsels Roland to call for aid at the outset of the ambush, but Roland refuses to do so out of pride: “God forbid that / My kinsmen should incur reproach because of me / Or that the fair land of France should fall into disrepute” (84.1062-64).  When Roland finally decides to blow his horn, Oliphaunt, as the Franks are being slaughtered on the field, Oliver does not mince words: “Companion, you have been the cause of it. / For a true vassal’s act, in its wisdom, avoids folly; / Caution is better than great zeal.  Franks are dead because of your recklessness; / Charles will never again receive our service” (131.1723-27).  The ductus of the poem calls on the audience not merely to evaluate, but to reevaluate their responses to the story, revealing that judgments made on the poem’s protagonist are complex, shifting, and often ambiguous.

This reevaluation is also important when attending to the actual depictions of the Saracens.  While the text certainly does not provide sympathy for the villains of the story, attending to the responses elicited reveals that the audience is being called at least to admire or respect them.  Most of The Song of Roland fails to address the reader directly, but at the beginning of the final battle between Charlemagne and Baligant, Emir of Bablyon, we find: “If only you had seen the knights from Arabia, / The men of Occian, of Argoille and Bascle! They strike fine blows with their spears, / But the Franks have no intention of fleeing” (258.3473-4).  In an odd moment of direct address, we are called to feel admiration for the enemy.  Baligant is a particular person of note; in laisse 231, after his blazon, the text opines: “O God, what a noble baron, if only he were Christian!” (231.3164). Even the enemy can be impressive, and, tellingly, this formula is reused when talking about Ganelon, the most villainous character in the poem: “If [Ganelon] were loyal he would be the perfect baron” (279.3764).  Since loyalty is central to the identity of a vassal, this may be a wry condemnation of Genelon during his trial, but comparing it to the reevaluation the audience is called to engage in with regards to the Emir, the matter becomes more complex: the poem is recognizing that human excellence may be present even in those who are irredeemable in other regards.  While the enemy remains the enemy, the text moves us away from simple demonization to a kind of respect.

This pattern of reevaluation of characters to draw out their complexities is tied, quite profoundly, to what my class found to be the central ductus of the poem: a journey through battle in order to reevaluate war in all of its complexity.  Battle scenes make up roughly 45% of The Song of Roland (laisses 93-161; 215-71; and 285-93), and during these scenes there is plenty of Francophilic cheering for gory deeds at the hands of Charlemagne’s forces.  Before these battles, however, the text cultivates a sense of dread over what is to come.  From early on, there is a note of doom and fatality.  At the beginning of the debate among Charlemagne and his lords over how to respond to Marsile’s embassy, we hear, “Now begins the council which turned to grief” (12.179); the fatal end is clear almost from the very beginning of the work.  Before the attack at Rencesvals, the audience is enjoined to pity the helplessness of the Franks, “Four hundred thousand [Saracens] await the break of day.  O God, how sad!  The Franks know nothing of it!” (55.715-16), and we see in Charlemagne’s prophetic dreams the fatal outcome of the upcoming battle (laisses 56 and 57).

While the battles themselves portray various deeds as heroic, the text does not shy away from painfully accurate details about the battlefield.  During the long battle scenes, there is a sense of “pathlessness”: Franks are killed, Saracens are killed, there is exultation over wins, and lamentation for fallen friends, mixed together.  Linear temporality is not always clear in the battles, as in the case of Archbishop Turpin, who is “struck down” in laisse 151 (“Pierced through the body by four spears,” 151.2084).  The audience could be forgiven for considering him dead immediately, though in later laisses he is shown to be clinging to life, fighting and comforting the dying Roland, dying himself only in laisse 167, 16 laisses after being “struck down.”  Violence itself is sometimes glorified, but the effects of violence on the human body are horrifically detailed.  As he dies, Oliver first begins to lose his sight (149.1991), and mistakenly attacks Roland, thinking him an enemy; in the next laisse, his vision and hearing completely depart before he dies.  The heroic Turpin does not escape a horrible death: “Count Roland sees the archbishop on the ground; / He sees his entrails spilled and lying around his body. / Beneath his brow his brains flow forth” (167.2246-48).  Roland himself feels the unsavory sensation of losing his brains as he dies: “Through his ears his brains are seeping” (168.2260).  The ugliness of war is painted in clear colors, and even though Charlemagne’s wars are asserted to be right and just, the ending of the poem is quite telling.  Charlemagne receives yet another message in a dream, this time from the Archangel Gabriel:

Saint Gabriel came to him in God’s name:
“Charles, summon your imperial armies.
You will invade the land of Bire,
And help King Vivien in Imphe,
The city which the pagans have besieged.
The Christians call upon you and cry out for you.”
The emperor had no wish to go.
“God,” said the king, “how wearisome my life is!”
He weeps and tugs at his white beard. (298.3993-4001).

In the world of the poem, there can be no doubt over the justice and nobility of this last call to war: it comes directly from an angel.  Yet Charlemagne’s response is one of sorrow and despair.  While critics point to The Song of Roland as the first French epic, when one attends to the journey on which the reader is taken, the work appears to be more of a tragedy.  Charlemagne is fated, called by heaven, to wage war for Christendom, even though these wars come at an immense emotional and personal cost.  At the end of the Song, there is no exultation, only grief, which is shared by the audience, sympathizing with Charlemagne’s plight.

Why, though, would an audience want to go through this process of reevaluation, battlefield violence, and grief? To answer this question, we dwelt on the character of the original audience.  According to our translator and editor, Glyn Burgess, The Song of Roland has been most frequently dated to 1098-1100: exactly around the time of the First Crusade (8).  The original audience for the poem (and perhaps even the unknown poet) were most likely, then, Anglo-Norman veterans of this Crusade.  This fact helps explain the complex relation to the enemy in this work, the simultaneous admiration for valor in the enemy with the unflinching faith in the justness of one’s own cause.  The text is also clearly meant to be interactive with the audience. The earliest surviving manuscript, Digby 23, has marginal marks, “AOI,” that appear throughout the text; while there is no consensus on what exactly they mean, most scholars agree that they are performance directions.  The performative nature of the work also accounts for the odd shifts between present and past tense: though the performer is narrating a story from the past, he puts the audience “in the action,” as it were. While my students were initially a bit disquieted by the persistent scenes of gory violence in The Song of Roland, when asked to put themselves in the place of a former Crusader, the point of the violence became clear.  Not only might an original Norman listener be reminded of past glory on the battlefield; by journeying through the touching death scenes of Oliver and Roland, and Charlemagne’s lament over the fallen, a medieval listener would have had the opportunity of reliving past pain on the battlefield, weeping over fallen friends, and experiencing a kind of therapeutic emotional release.  By attending to the effect of the poetic journey as a whole, as well as to specific stops along the way, The Song of Roland revealed itself as an aid in dealing with the weariness of those who have survived hard combat.

The Book of the Duchess: The Use of Books and Playing Dumb

The third section of my course covered Middle English literature, and one of the first works we read was Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess.  Jamie Claire Fumo gives a wonderful overview of decades of criticism surrounding this work in her Making Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess: Textuality and Reception, and the critical heritage has been overwhelmingly enamored with the question of what The Book of the Duchess is: To what extent is it Chaucer finding his voice as a poet?  Into what genre should we put it?  What traces of history and biography are found in its lines?  Is it a representation of Chaucer’s conscious or unconscious mind?  Fumo masterfully analyzes the “nodes” around which these critical questions circle, giving an account of the text that is unparalleled.  From the perspective of teaching The Book of the Duchess, however, I found that a better question for my class was not what the text is, but what the text does: on what road do we travel as we make our way through it?  The results were fascinating.  Not only did we discuss the ways in which the text highlights the use of literature, but also how the ductus of the work produces a different journey in the original audience than it does in subsequent audiences, but how these journeys ultimately stress the importance of attending to other people, not oneself, to attain a healthful state of being.

The use of literature comes to the forefront when we accompany the narrator of the poem on his own journey.  The chronic insomnia the narrator describes at the beginning of the work (lasting eight years, 37) is of an extreme type, unnatural (“agaynes kynde,” 16), and leading to depression: “Al is ylyche good to me— / Joye or sorowe, wherso hyt be— /  For I have felynge in nothing” (9-11).  The plight of the narrator received much sympathy from my student-readers, and they found it fascinating that the narrator seeks a remedy for his illness by reading a book of Romance:  “And in this bok were written fables / That clerkes had in olde tyme, / And other poetes, put in rime / To rede and for to be in minde, / While men loved the lawe of kinde.” (52-56).  That last phrase is quite significant for the narrator’s subsequent journey: the stories in this book are from a time characterized by love of the law of nature, a time that contrasts directly the unnatural quality of the speaker’s own sickness.  At this point in the journey, my class expected him either to find a specific remedy (like a medicine) or simply use the act of reading to get sleepy (something that all of us had experienced).

What followed, of course, was more complicated: the ductus of the text leads us into a story-within-a-story, journeying through the narrator’s consciousness as he reads the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone (60-214).  The narrator’s version of the story (unlike the one found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) simply ends with the death of Alcyone (214), and the speaker appropriately responds with pity for the couple (97).  What he takes away from the story, however, is a direct plan for how to overcome his problem:

Whan I had red thys tale wel
And overlooked hyt everydel,
Me thoghte wonder yf hit were so,
For I had never herd speke or tho
Of noo goddess that koude make
Men to slepe, ne for to wake,
For I ne knew never god but oon.
And in my game I sayde anoon
(And yet me lyst right evel to pleye)
Rather then that y shulde deye
Thorgh defaute of slepynge thus,
I wolde yive thilke Morpheus,
Or hys goddess, dame Juno,
Or som wight ells, I ne roghte who—
“To make me slepe and have som reste
I wil yive hym the alderbeste
Yifte that ever he abod hys lyve.
And here on warde, right now as blyve,
Yif he wol make me slepe a lyte,
Of down and pure dowves white
I wil yive hym a fether-bed” (231-5)

The mild humor at the speaker’s Christianity aside (the idea of more than one god appears new to him, and he takes it at face value!), the passage is an excellent, if somewhat naïve, example of using the text: the speaker has an unnatural problem; he reads a book from the days when natural law was observed; and he does what he finds there.  For a reader familiar with Ovid, of course, there is some irony: in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone ends with a metamorphosis of the couple into birds, a decidedly unnatural conclusion.[4]   Nevertheless, the wonder of the speaker’s plan is that it actually works: “I hadde unneth that word ysayd / Ryght thus as I have told hyt yow, / That sodeynly, I nyste ow, / Such a lust anoon me took / To slepe that right upon my book / Y fil aslepe” (270-75).  The narrator’s journey through his own book led to a direct application, though one that may not appear to be the central point of The Book of the Duchess

Sleep itself is not the ultimate end of the work; the narrator’s journey through the time and space of his dream is what ultimately helps him return to a state of health.  I pointed out that the curious nature and use of dreams are represented in the fable read by the speaker through the detail of the apparition of Morpheus to Halcyone.  At Juno’s behest, Morpheus “took up the dreynte body” (195) of Ceyx and brought it to the foot of her bed (199).  At this point, Morpheus impersonates the dead man: “My swete wyf . . . I am but ded.  Ye shul me never on lyve yse. / But, goode swete herte, that ye / Bury my body, for such a tyde / Ye mowe hyt fynde the see besyde” (201, 204-208).  At a literal level, Morpheus is lying here; he is not, in fact, Ceyx; the facts of the case, however, are true.  What are we to make of this mixture of truth and falsity?  When read alongside the speaker’s dream, this detail shows itself to be a reflection on the nature of dreams: dreams are not reality, but they do reveal and affect reality.  This distinction was important to keep in mind as we continued to journey with the narrator through his own dream.

The rambling track of the narrator’s dream impressed my students for its verisimilitude of actual dream-states (and verisimilitude is not a typical requirement of medieval aesthetics), forming an important contrast both to the logical progression in the opening frame of the poem as well as the narrator’s conversation with the Man in Black.  The speaker awakes, naked in bed (293) on a May morning (291-2), to the overwhelming ruckus of birdsong (294-320).  Appropriately enough, the chamber in which he awakens is a kind of book: its stained-glass windows show the Troy story (322-331), and the walls are painted with the Romance of the Rose, “bothe texte and glose” (333).  The chamber becomes a fascinating stopping-point between the ductus of The Book of the Duchess as a whole and the specific ductus of the dream, highlighting the interactive quality of the book.  The verisimilitude of the whole experience was first noticed by a student who pointed out that there was a logical gap in the text: the speaker is naked at the beginning of the dream, but when he hears a hunt outside, he immediately takes part: “Anoon right whan I herde that, / How that they wolde on-huntynge goon, / I was right glad, and up anoon / Took my hors, and forth I wente / Out of my chamber” (354-58).  The narrator goes from naked in a bed to outside mounted on a horse in barely a breath.  My student felt the experience of dreaming alongside the narrator: this sort of jump is common in dreams, though not, we presume, in waking life.  A similarly dreamlike gap is felt in the hunt itself: barely have we learned that it is the hunt of “emperor Octovyen,” than the hart eludes the hunters (381-2) and the narrator decides to follow a puppy (“A whelp, that fauned me as I stood,” 389) to a “floury grene” (398).  Again, the odd ductus of this section was a fine example of Chaucer plotting his path in a way that accords with the experience of dreaming.

Though his path to the flowery green was by an odd and abrupt dream-ductus, we recognized that the narrator had actually arrived at the goal of his journey through the descriptions of the physical space.  Of the green, the narrator says:

For hit was, on to beholde,
As thought the erthe envye wolde
To be gayer than the heven,
To have moo flourse, swiche seven,
As in the welken sterres bee
Hy had forget the povertee
That winter, thorgh his colde morwes,
Had mad hyt suffer, and his sorwes;
All was forgeten, and that was sene,
For al the woode was waxen greene (405-414)

The class connected this flourishing nature back to the unnatural state of the narrator at the beginning of the story.  This place is a depiction of nature flourishing as it should, a direct contrast to the narrator’s state at the beginning of the text, and all pervious suffering “was forgeten.”  The other sign of this place being the real goal of the narrator comes from the fact that here the path of the poem turns from the speaker to the Man in Black, whose conversation with the narrator will take up most of the rest of the poem (445-1310).  Up to this point in the work, the audience has followed the speaker on his path from unnatural sickness to therapeutic sleep in which he returns to a natural order; from here on out, the audience will follow the ductus of the Man in Black.

Our experience of travelling alongside the narrator led us to develop an answer to one of the central questions in the second half of this poem: why does the speaker seem so oblivious to the cause of the Man in Black’s sorrow?  The speaker immediately perceives that something is amiss “What ayleth hym to sitten her?” (449), and he hears the man recite a complaint to himself (464) whose theme is clear:

I have of sorwe so gret won
That joye gete I never non,
Now that I see my lady bryght, 
Which I have loved with al my myght,
Is fro me ded and ys agoon (475-9)
The audience knows from the beginning that the Man in Black is mourning over his dead lady.  Despite this fairly clear etiology, the narrator desires to know the cause of the Man in Black’s sorrow in order that he might help him heal:
Me thynketh in gret sorowe I yow see;
But certes, sire, yif that yee
Wolde ought discure me youre woo,
I wolde, as wys God help me soo,
Amende hyt, yif I kan or may.
Ye mowe preve hyt be assay;
For, by my troughte, to make yow hool
I wol do al my power hool.
And telleth me of your sorwes smerte;
Paraunter hyt may ese youre herte,
That semeth ful sek under your syde (547-57)
This is a fascinating turning point in our journey through the text.  The Book of the Duchess began with our focus on the sickness of the narrator and his attempts to heal himself through reading and sleep.  At this point, however, the narrator focuses the illness of another, offering to try to help heal the Man in Black.  Our class decided that the narrator, himself now healed, turned his attention to attempting to heal this noble stranger.  In this reading, the narrator’s ignorance is an attempt to move the Man in Black from generic, figured sorrow to the point of dealing with his wife’s death in its plain reality.  The first explanation the Man in Black gives for his grief is rambling and repetitive, variously focusing on his own sorrow (597), his disordered state (499-615), and how false Fortune has been (616-650), but is ultimately governed by a metaphor: Fortune has beaten him in chess, taking away one of his pieces (presumably the queen) (652-664).  The narrator responds to this metaphor literally: “But ther is no man alyve her / Wolde for a fers make this woo!” (740-1).  The Man in Black corrects him: “Thou wost ful lytel what thou menest; / I have lost more than thow wenest” (743-4), and invites him to sit down (749) and listen to another explanation.  The second explanation is much more ordered, beginning with the Man’s imperfect understanding of Love in his youth (760-804), and narrating the story of how he first met his lady (805-56).  He then digresses into an account of her many excellences, physical, spiritual, and mental (857-1041).  The ductus of this catalogue weaves these three categories together, such that it feels like an authentic reminiscence, one excellence calling to mind another, as in praise of her eloquence (925-38) blending into a meditation on the physical beauty of her neck and throat (939-49).  After getting lost in the excellences of his lady, the Man in Black identifies her as his wife: “For certes she was, that swete wif, / My suffisaunce, my lust, my lyf” (1037-8).  This account is apparently not specific enough for the narrator: “Wolde ye tel me the maneree / To hire which was your first speche— / Therof I wold yow beseche— / And how she knewe first your thought, / Whether ye loved hir or noght?” (1130-34). The move here is from praise of the lady in broad (perhaps overwrought) terms to remembering their actual relationship: the specifics of how it was formed.  The speaker is also still operating under the supposition that he does not realize that the man’s wife is dead:
“Yee!” sede he, “thow nost what thow menest;
I have lost more than thou wenest”
“What lo sys that?” quod I thoo;
“Nyl she not love yow? Ys hyt soo?
Or have ye oght doon amys,
That she hath left yow? Ys hyt this?” (1137-42)
It strains credulity to think that at this point the narrator still would not understand that the lady is dead, but the Man in Black acquiesces to his request, giving a far more intimate portrayal of their courtship, in which she initially rejected him (1243). After a year (1258), his second attempt to woo her was successful (1273), which the Man likens to resurrection (1278).  By the man’s account, their marriage was a happy one:
In al my yowthe, in al chaunce,
She took me in hir governaunce.
Therwyth she was always so trewe
Our joye was ever ylyche newe;
Oure hertes wern so evene a payre
That never nas that oon contraire
To that other for no woo.
For sothe, ylyche they suffred thoo
Oo blysse and eke oo sorwe bothe;
Ylyche they were bothe glad and wrothe;
Al was us oon, withoute were.
And thus we lyved ful many a yere
So wel I kan nat telle how. (1285-97)

They lived (past tense) in such perfect harmony that the Man in Black considers the origin of this harmony a mystery: he cannot tell how they lived so perfect a life together.

At this point, the Speaker reiterates his apparent misunderstanding of the state of affairs, leading to the most rapid exchange in the poem:

“Sir,” quod I, “where is she now?”
“Now?” quod he, and stynte anoon.
Therwith he wax as ded as stoon
And seyde, “Allas, that I was bore!
That was the los that here-before
I tolde the that I hadde lorn.
Bethenke how I seyde here-beforn,
‘Thow wost ful lytel what thow menest;
I have lost more than thow wenest.’
God wot, allas! Ryght that was she!”
“Allas, sir, how? What may that be?”
She ys ded!” “Nay!” “Yis, be my trouthe!”
“Is that youre los? Be god, hyt ys routhe!” (1297-1310)

After this climactic utterance, the poem ends rapidly, only 24 lines later, indicating that whatever point the dialogue had has reached an end.  Our discussion centered on the way in which the speaker’s apparent ignorance led the Man in Black on his own ductus through his grief, moving from mediated representations of his own sorrow to stark admittance of the reality: “She ys ded!” 

In doing so, the narrator has moved the Man in Black from a focus on himself (attendant to his own sorrow) to a focus on the specifics of his dead wife; this parallels the journey we saw the narrator himself take, from focus on his own unhealthy condition to concern for another, moved by pity.  Both characters are initially wrapped up in themselves to an unnatural and unhealthful degree: by the ductus of stories, however, both turn their focus to others.  The turning point of the speaker’s journey is when he begins to attend to the Man in Black, and the turning point of the Man in Black’s journey is his motion from his own sorrow and abstracted praise for his wife to remembering his lady as an actual human, dealing with the reality, exterior to his own feelings, that she is dead.  If we have been attentive to the journey we have just taken, the suddenness of the ending is less of a surprise: just as the speaker got what he needed out of his text, so has the Man in Black and the audience, and no further denouement is required.

A final consideration that came out of our analysis is that our general identification with the unnamed narrator is different than the kind of identification that would have occurred in the poem’s original audience, but the ends are similar.  Fumo notes, “There is no real doubt that BD memorializes the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, named ‘White’ in the poem, from plague in 1368, and that the dream-protagonist, the Man in Black, is a poetic correlative of Blanche’s husband, John of Gaunt” (18-19).  John of Gaunt presumably would have recognized himself in the Man in Black, and the overall point of the work would be the ductus along which the Man in Black is taken, giving him gentle consolation: his beloved wife is gone, but the memories of the specifics of what made her special and what made their marriage happy linger (a strongly humanistic, not religious, consolation).  We should not consider this audience only, however, since The Book of the Duchess was circulated to be read by further audiences, surviving in three manuscripts (the Oxford group).  For a reader who is not John of Gaunt, the overall journey of the narrator and its relation to the Man in Black’s narrative is more important; by the time the narrator meets the Man in Black, the reader has established a connection with the narrator that is not quite replicated in the Man in Black’s passages.  So while the end point of the journey is similar—consolation and a turn from the self to others—which of the two journeys is the main one depends on the audience, accounting well for the bipartite structure of the poem.

Pearl: The Iter is an Endless Round

Of all of the works read in the course, Pearl was the one that most impressed my students, since its ductus transcended and transformed what they had taken to be the experience of journey through medieval literature; the unique ductus of Pearl caused us to rethink the potential ways in which the audience can journey through a literary work, and how the text suggests we interface with it.  In Pearl, the audience travels with the dreamer on his journey from grief to consolation; in this sense, the experience is similar to The Book of the DuchessPearl, however, crafts its path to allow the reader not only to travel vicariously through the dreamer, but also to experience the mental process of revelation: unlike in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, Pearl gives the audience no privileged knowledge at the beginning, specifically the knowledge of the nature of Pearl and her relationship to the dreamer. The text thus gives its readers the experience of progressive revelation regarding some of the most basic features of the work, an analogue to the religious enlightenment the dreamer is experiencing.  More importantly, however, careful attention to the ductus of the text reveals a cyclical journey gives the audience the experience of meditation, and enjoins them to engage in such religious devotion.[5]  

While the relationship between Chaucer’s Man in Black and Blanche was clear from the moment these characters were encountered, the relationship between the dreamer in Pearl and Pearl is one that the reader only grows to understand gradually, and the work gives cues that intentionally mislead the audience.  The text leads readers directly into confusion in order to give them the experience of revelation.  While the opening lines of Pearl appear to be an apostrophe to a “gemme” (6), a physical pearl, before the end of the first stanza, the text directs the readers to interpret this pearl as a metaphor for a person: “Alas! I lost her in garden near” (S1); “Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere” (9).  The gendered pronoun “her” indicates that the lost person is female, and the class initially assumed that she was the dreamer’s lover.  The text actively supports this misidentification for almost half of the poem.  Even from the first stanza, we hear the speaker say, “I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear” (S1); “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere” (11), and it is hard not to read the second stanza as an elegy over a dead woman: “Yea, many a thought in mind did spring / To think that her radiance in clay should rot. / O mould! Thou marrest a lovely thing, / My pearl, mine own, without a spot” (Stanza 2); “For sothe ther fleten to me fele, / To thence hir color so clad in clot.  O moul, thou marres a myry juele, / My privy perle wythouten spotte” (21-24).  The speaker falls into a dream over Pearl’s grave (S5/S6; 59-62), and when he encounters Pearl in his vision, she is dressed like a queen (S17-19; 193-228).  Pearl’s appearance and demeanor (“Her countenance grave for duke or earl” [S18]; “Her semblaunt sade for doc other erle” [211]) caused us to gloss over two very important textual details.  In the first place, Pearl is referred to as a “child” in Tolkien’s text (S14); the original text is even more willfully ambiguous, modifying “faunt” with “a mayden of menske” (a noble maiden), preserving the image of her as an adult, even though the text clearly indicates that she is a child.  It was only on rereading this passage later on that we realized our error. Additionally, the poem expresses the connection between the speaker and Pearl in familial terms: “Than aunt or niece more near to me” (S20); “Ho was me nerre then aunte or nece” (233).  What is a closer relationship than aunt or niece?—That of parents and children.[6]   The romantic overtones from the beginning allow readers to miss these important cues, and these cues are further glossed over by features of their conversation.  Pearl’s rebuke of the speaker (S21; 265-76) recalls Beatrice’s rebuke to Dante the Pilgrim in Purgatorio 30-31, suggesting a relationship of courtly love.  The speaker continues to speak to her as though they were lovers, saying “When we parted, too, at one we were” (S32); “And, quen we departed, we wern at on” (378), something that a person normally only says about a lover, and though Pearl refers to her “young and tender years” (S35); “I was ful yong and tender of age” (412), these would not be out of place in describing a young adult woman.  For the first 40 stanzas of our journey, then, we were imagining Pearl as a young woman, the dead lover of the speaker.           

Stanza 41 reverses this image completely, and forces readers to reconsider everything they have thought thus far, since at this point we finally learn that Pearl was less than two years old at the time of her death:

Two years you lived not on earth with me,
And God you could not please, nor pray
With Pater and Creed upon your knee—
And made a queen that very day!
I cannot believe . . . (S41)
[Thou lyfed not two yer in oure thede;
Thou cowthes never God nauther plese ne pray,
Ne never nawther pater ne crede—
And quen mad on the first day!
I may not traw . . . (483-86)

My students were resistant to learning the truth of this situation, initially pointing out that the “two years” could simply refer to the time they were married; the text, however, is unambiguous on this point: Pearl died before she could pray even the most basic prayers.  This disorientation nearly halfway through the poem is vital because it allows the reader to experience similar confusion and revelation to the confusion and revelation experienced by the dreamer.  Pearl is a poem about correcting misconceptions. Particularly for readers of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Dante’s Commedia (two of Pearl’s most important sources and analogues), the revelation that the speaker receives from Pearl is rather ordinary and expected: Pearl is happy in heaven, so the dreamer should not mourn over her, but bear the remainder of his life with patience and devotion.  The master-stroke of Pearl, however, is coupling this fairly standard correction with the correction of the audience’s own misinterpretation of one of the most basic features of the plot.

This turning-point in the poem additionally re-orients our journey from one within the poem to a journey outside of the poem, which has vital implications for how the poem is to be used.  Immediately after the revelation of Pearl’s age, Pearl seeks to correct her father’s misconceptions by paraphrasing the Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Matthew 20:1-16).  This sets up a new path through which we journey: a journey through the Bible.  Pearl also draws liberally from the Book of Revelation in describing the features of the New Jerusalem (S82-94; 1033-1128) and the Lamb (S95-96; 1129-1152).  During the second half of Pearl, the audience is not journeying along the path initially laid out by the poem, but rather through paths laid out in the Bible.  This change of path is vital to understand what Pearl moves the audience to do: engage in devotion to the Lamb.  In the earlier stanzas of the poem, we mistook the speaker and Pearl’s relationship for a romantic one; in the second half of the poem, Pearl’s relationship to the Lamb is figured in explicitly romantic and marital terms.  The Lamb is her “truelove” (S68) “lemman” (805), and she is one of his brides (S66; 781-92). The focus of the poem shifts from the love between the speaker and Pearl to love of the Lamb, love that becomes so intense that the speaker tries to cross over the river into the New Jerusalem out of “love longing” (S96); “luf-longyng” (1152), desire that is not directed at Pearl, but at the Lamb and the New Jerusalem.  At the end of the poem, the speaker still loves Pearl, but now focuses on his relationship with Christ: “To please that Prince had I always bent, / Desired no more than was my share, / And loyally been obedient, / As the Pearl me prayed so debonair” (S100); “To that Prynces paye hade I ay bente, / And yerned no more then was me given, / And halden me ther in trwe entent, / As the perle me prayed that was so thryven” (1189-92); “For day and night I have Him known / A God, a Lord, a Friend divine” (S101); “For I haf founden hym, bothe day and naghte, / A God, A Lorde, a frende ful fyin” (1203-4).  By moving off the path of the speaker’s own story to the path of Biblical revelation, the goal of the journey is refocused away from simply reconciling the speaker to the grief of losing Pearl to the journey of loving the Lamb for all eternity.

Eternity is also captured in what Pearl asks us to do with it: reread it in a close, meditative fashion that, for a medieval reader, would ultimately have ended in prayer and affective devotion.  We have seen how the dreamer and Pearl’s relationship is figured so frequently in romantic terms that readers are likely to miss or gloss over important hints at the contrary.  Pearl herself notes that we cannot trust our vision: “Your words from your wits escaping flee: / You believe I live here on this green, / Because you can with eyes me see” (S25); “Thy worde byfore thy wytte con fle. / Thou says thou trawes me in this dene, / Bycawse thou may wyth yyen me se” (294-6), and the form of the poem clearly directs readers to reread it—the end of the ductus points to the beginning of the next one, to reread the poem with new eyes.  The poem directs us to a second ductus through its treatment of link-words: the 101 stanzas of the poem are grouped into 20 sets connected by words that are repeated in the first and last lines; a new set repeats the previous link-word and introduces a new one.  Once the audience becomes used to this pattern, the final line of the poem takes on a new significance, since it links back to the very first line:

With Christ’s sweet blessing and mine own
I then to God it did resign.
May He that in form of bread and wine
By priest upheld each day one sees,      
Us inmates of His house divine
Make precious pearls Himself to please. (101)
[And sythen to God I hit bytaghte
And Krystes dere lessyng and myn,
That in the forme of bred and wyn
The preste uus schewes uch a daye.
He gef uus to be his homly hyne
Ande precious perles unto his pay. (1207-12).]

The last line returns us to the first: “Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye” (1); “Pearl of delight that a prince doth please” (1).  The poem, then, forms an “endeles rounde” (738), encouraging the reader at the end of the journey to walk the journey again with new sight.  What we found most striking about these reading directions was that the “pearl” mentioned in the initial stanza, in a second reading, is actually referring to us.  The speaker prays that God make us precious pearls, so the first lines, on the second journey, become about the audience: “Pearl of delight that a prince doth please / To grace in gold enclosed so clear” (S1); “Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye / To clanly clos in golde so clere;” (1-2).  The audience is to identify with Pearl, and be moved to follow her in devotion to the Lamb.  This is not a message that all 21st-century readers will appreciate on a personal level, but on an artistic level, my students and I were impressed by how our journey through Pearl’s ductus revealed layers of complexity beyond what we had already encountered.[7]

Iter, The Arts, and Writing

I have demonstrated in this essay ways in which developing rhetorically-sensitive, period approaches to medieval literature not only joined together diverse texts, but also revealed insights about the texts and the ways in which they interface with audiences.  Students applied these ways of reading in original research and presentations on topics as diverse as Books of Hours, Cathedrals, and Reliquaries.  Before closing, I would also like to reflect on how this method of period reading interacts both with current trends for developing period eyes and ears in the fine arts, as well as provides a model for helping students improve as writers.  In the first place, encouraging students to engage with medieval literary works using medieval reading practices bears a strong parallel to trends in teaching premodern art and music.  Michael Baxandall’s landmark study Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy alerted Art Historians to the ways in which the original audiences of Italian Renaissance paintings would have been trained to view paintings, explained through a series of analyses on features of the “period eye.”  Shai Burstyn took inspiration from Baxandall to speak of the importance of “period ear” when approaching music.  Many recent scholars of medieval art have followed Carruthers in linking these developments to the Trivium, given its importance to grammar school and university instruction in the Middle Ages.[8]   

The result of these multi-disciplinary studies was an exercise I gave freshmen in a required core humanities course that deals with medieval History, Art, and Literature.  We have a chapel on our campus that is built in a roughly medieval style, so this exercise worked particularly well as a “field trip,” but it could easily be adapted for study of art and architecture in the classroom, and I did model the exercise in class before we turned our attention to the chapel.

WCIV 102: Origins of the West
Dr. Lewis
The Trivium and the Basilica

            In our Origins of the West Reader, we encounter a very basic introduction to ecclesiastical architecture: the Romanesque and Gothic styles, the constituent parts of a Western church, and some of the elements found in medieval churches.  We also learned a bit about the liberal arts studied in the medieval university: the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music).  We will pull both of these introductions together and apply them to our very own Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception through a bit of field work.
Scholarship over the past decade has thoroughly documented that master architects and artists in the Middle Ages thought about their arts through the lens of the Trivium: the Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric of visual arts and edifices. While I would love to go into a detailed treatment of Latin grammar, scholastic logic, and the hundreds of figures of medieval rhetoric (I’m not being sarcastic; I really would), consider this basic breakdown:

Grammar: What are the individual parts of the building?
Logic: How are these parts related to one another into a whole?
Rhetoric: What impression is made on the viewer?  What kind of experience does it give a person who encounters it?

You have been divided into four groups.  Each group is to consider the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a specific part of the Basilica; the goal of each group is to give a reading of your part.  Whatever part to which you are assigned, different members of the group can work in different directions.  You may begin with rhetoric—what impression does your section make on you?  The task is then to determine how specific parts and their arrangement into a whole cause that impression.  You may also begin with grammar: first catalogue the discrete parts, then move to their arrangement, and end with an estimation of the effect of the whole. Perhaps some of you can begin with rhetoric, others with grammar—are there differences that emerge?

For a method:

  1. Spend around 5 minutes simply studying your part of the Basilica.  Your goal is to give an exhaustive account of all of the parts, the whole, and the effect.  If your space includes visual art (which it probably will), identify which figures/events are recounted.  If you have questions that you all cannot answer, please ask me.
  2. Spend around 3 minutes comparing your studies and synthesizing them into a reading of your part.
  3. We will then share your findings and see if we, as a class, can come to a better understanding of the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of our main chapel.

The Four Groups Are:

Façade, Campanile, and Exterior: Consider the external grammar, logic, and rhetoric of the Basilica. This will necessarily include the experience of viewing the outside from several different angles, as well as its placement in relation to other parts of the campus and the mountain.  From the outside, does our basilica appear more Romanesque or more Gothic?


Nave and Aisles: Consider the grammar, logic, and rhetoric from the narthex right up to the transept.  Note the number and nature of bays, the nature of the blind-story and the clerestory, the persons and events represented through stained glass (as well as how they are ordered), and the experience of walking the nave and the aisles.


Transept and Dome: Consider the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of both the transept and dome, paying special attention to all of the symbols and persons depicted, as well as their significance in relation to one another and to the viewer.  Pay special attention to the two rose windows.


Apse and Choir Loft: Consider the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of the apse, as well as the choir loft.  Please note: you all are at a slight disadvantage, since you should not enter the sanctuary or the choir loft.  But you can still observe the apse and loft from the pews in the transept.  Pay attention to the symbols and persons depicted, as well as their significance in relation to one another and to the viewer.

I ran this exercise with four different sections of freshmen, two honors sections, two non-honors sections.  Regardless of the students’ abilities, they all found this exercise one of the most engaging of the semester, many of them commenting on it in evaluations.  Particularly for an audience of first-year students, cultivating medieval ways of interacting with visual arts was easier than cultivating medieval ways of interacting with literature, since we did not have to deal with problems in reading deficiencies or learning disabilities in quite the same way.  Students were alerted to new ways of interacting with a building many of them had visited frequently, attesting to the lasting pedagogical power of reading for ductus.

To return to a concern noted at the beginning of this essay, teaching students to read in this manner, a manner that ultimately comes from medieval rhetoric and poetics, is successful in getting students to think about their own writing in these terms.  If students begin to think about written discourse in terms of the ductus the author lays out, by which readers are to make their journeys through the text, it is a relatively small step to begin challenging students to write with attention to the journey they are laying out for their readers.  I have found that students who come to college with strong writing skills most often respond to writing instruction that allows them flexibility and freedom: I challenge these students to engage in the exercises found in the Classical Progymnasmata and the Schemes and Topics of Rhetoric.[9]  Students who arrive with various deficiencies, however, tend to respond best to careful structure: spelling out for students exactly what they should have in each paragraph.  For these students, I have taken to writing very detailed prompts that sometimes move sentence-by-sentence.  Here is an example from an essay prompt in a required freshman humanities course:

Introduction Paragraph:
First sentence: Open with a question or an image to grab the reader’s attention.
Middle sentences: Lead the reader from that initial sentence to the subject of your essay
Final sentence: End with your thesis statement, a single, declarative sentence that gives your thesis and introduces your reader to the main reason for holding your thesis: “Out of all of the works read for this course, the Aeneid is the most important for contemporary readers, since it depicts the kind of commitment needed to build a stable society.”

In giving these instructions, I stressed that these rhetorical moves are not simply arbitrary rules invented by their picky professor: instead, these rhetorical moves are the kinds of moves expected by readers: the signposts along the way of the argument.  Building the path of one’s argument corresponds to cognitive steps the reader has to take in following the argument’s ductus.  It is surprising how many students have never considered the ways in which peers and teachers interface with their writing; if they have become habituated to medieval rhetorical reading strategies, however, it is far easier for the instructor to apply these strategies to writing instruction.  In the freshman course in which I applied these methods, many students commented on how much they liked my prompts, and how these prompts helped them in writing in their other courses.  While different disciplines have different expectations for written work, any reader may expect a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a clear pathway on which they may walk, following the ductus of the essay’s argument, laid out for them by a careful and intelligent writer.


[1] A vital reading for medieval generic expectations is Hans Robert Jauss’ Toward an Aesthetic of Reception; in future iterations of my course, I plan on giving excerpts from his third chapter, “Theory of Genres in Medieval Literature.”

[2] For this course, I focused on Carruthers’ Beauty and Literature in the Middle Ages, but two articles of hers also informed my teaching, “Moving Images in the Mind’s Eye” (The Mind’s Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages) and “The concept of ductus, Or journeying through a work of art” (Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages).

[3] A very helpful study on medieval debate poetry and its aesthetic expectations is Thomas L. Reed’s Middle English Debate Poetry and the Aesthetics of Irresolution.

[4] Chaucer certainly was familiar with Ovid; see K.P. Clarke, Chaucer and Italian Textuality,  and John F. Miller and Carole E. Newlands,  “Ovid in Chaucer and Gower.”

[5] In citing Pearl, I have provided first Tolkien’s translation with stanza number (he omits line numbers), followed by the original text with its line numbers.

[6] After the revelation of Pearl’s age, my class struggled with the gender of the dreamer; they had assumed that the dreamer was male when they thought Pearl was an adult woman, but upon learning of her age, some wanted to read the speaker as her mother.  I would love for this to be the case, but a few features of the text weigh against this reading.  In the first place, the Boethius/Lady Philosophy and Dante/Beatrice analogues set a fairly strong pattern for a male/female set.  Furthermore, Pearl paraphrases the parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46), in which the jeweler is gendered as “he”, using terms that recall the speaker’s words at the beginning of the poem: “This pearl immaculate purchased dear / The jeweler gave all his goods to gain / Is like the realm of heaven’s sphere: / So said the Lord of land and main; / For it is flawless, clean and clear, / Endlessly round, doth joy contain / And is shared by all the righteous here” (S62); “This makelles perle, that boght is dere, / The joueler gef fore alle hys god, / Is lyke the reme of hevenesse clere; / So sayde the Fader of folde and flode. / For hit is wemles, clene, and clere, / And endeles rounde,  and blythe of mode, / And commune to alle that ryghtwys were” (733-39).  For these reasons, it has been assumed that the dreamer is Pearl’s father.  Given the revelatory nature of the poem, however, we may need to rethink this assumption.  What would this journey look like if it is through the perspective of a grieving mother?

[7] As a final note on Pearl, this work highlighted more strongly than other the complexities of textual interface in framing the journey of the reader.  We used J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation in the Del Ray edition (with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo).  Tolkien seeks to copy the mis-en-page of Cotton Nero A.X, the manuscript in which Pearl is found: while he numbers the stanzas, he gives no line numbers; in a poem so numerically complex, this presentation is a bit of a stumbling-block to realizing the full richness of the text.  The Pearl-poet crafts sets of stanzas (always five per set, with the exception of set 15, which contains six, lines 841-912).  Most modern editions of the poem (including J.J. Anderson’s, which I used to read along in the original Middle English), make clear separations between these sets, numbering them.  Tolkien simply has the first letter of a new set printed in bold.  This choice mimics Cotton Nero A.X, the original manuscript, which gives rubricated capitals at the beginning of each set, not numbers.  There is, however, a clear difference between a much larger, red letter and a slightly darker, slightly larger bolded letter: without my correction of Tolkien’s text, my students would not have been able to attend to the patterns of stanzas.  These patterns are important, since the “extra” stanza is the turning point in which the speaker asks Pearl for further information about the New Jerusalem and the Lamb, which, as we have seen, is vital for the experience of the text.  Furthermore, the extra stanza allows the poem to have precisely 1212 lines, which recalls the 144,000 Brides of the Lamb (S66): 12(12)=144.  This experience disclosed an important limitation in reading medieval literature through these rhetorical terms: students may miss aspects of the experience due to features of the editions used.  In future iterations of this course, I will pay more attention to checking editorial presentation against the manuscript tradition, in order to improve our ability to journey through the text as the text was originally presented.

[8] In addition to the studies previously noted, see Paul Crossley, “Ductus and memoria: Chartres cathedral and the workings of rhetoric,” Anne-Marie Bouché, “Vox Imagninis: Anomaly and Enigma in Romanesque Art,” and Katherine Tachau, “Seeing as Action and Passion in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.”

[9] Two good sources for these exercises are George A. Kennedy, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric and Corbett and Connors’ Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student.

Works Cited

Applebee, Arthur N. and Judith A. Langer.  “The State of Writing Instruction in America’s Schools:
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Binski, Paul.  “ ‘Working by words alone’: The architect, scholasticism and rhetoric in thirteenth-
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Bouché, Anne-Maire.  “Vox Imaginis: Anomaly and Enigma in Romanesque Art.” The Mind’s Eye:
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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo. Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Del Ray, 1975.

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