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Juanita Feros Ruys (ed.), What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods (Brepols, 2008)

Juanita Feros Ruys (ed.), What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-2-503-52596-9. xii+527 pp. Hbk. EUR 90.00.

Reviewed by Lawrence M. Clopper

[1]  The title of the book derives from an interchange between Seneca and another philosopher who had argued that precepts are useless. In defense of practical teaching Seneca responded that ‘advice-giving is of the greatest importance because Nature does not teach what ought to be done in every specific circumstance’ and, given the vagaries of human life, ‘a little prodding of the memory by the application of advice can be most beneficial: advice is a kind of exhortation.’

[2]  This collection of essays provides analyses of a broad range of texts that treat what Nature does not teach and raises questions abut the genre: ‘what is didactic literature … how does it function, did it function as intended, and how are the didactic voice and didactic persona fashioned?’ (3). The contributors’ opinions suggest they think all texts from the medieval and early period are didactic. For this volume ‘a text can be considered didactic if it was created, transmitted, or received as a text designed to teach, instruct, advise, edify, inculcate morals, or modify and regulate behaviour’ (5).

[3]  The volume is divided into sections to respond to fundamental questions about what didactic texts are, to whom they were addressed, what their effect was, and so forth. I note each of the sections and provide comments on essays within each section.

I. ‘Constructing Didactic Intent and Persona.’

[4]  Steven J. Williams, ‘The Pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets as a Didactic Text.’ Williams uses the purported letter from Aristotle to Alexander to examine the basic premises upon which the volume and its inquiry stands: what is a didactic text, how do we know it is a didactic text, how is it used, what is the didactic message, and so forth. The essay is particularly useful in demonstrating how the questions in accessus ad auctores can be used by modern readers to interrogate a medieval text; as such, it examines the fundamental concerns of the volume as a whole.

[5]  This section also contains Kathleen Olive, ‘Preaching and Teaching: The Codex Rustici as Confused Pilgrimage Tale’ and Louise D’Arcens, ‘ “Nee en Ytale”: Christine de Pizan’s Migrant Didactic Voice.’

II. ‘Children and Families.’

[6]  Juanita Feros Ruys, ‘Didactic ‘I’s and the Voice of Experience in Advice from Medieval and Early-Modern Parents to Their Children.’ Ruys characterizes the ‘I’ of early didactic texts as authoritarian rather then arising from the adviser’s experience, a voice that collected wisdom from the auctores, traditional precept, and example (chiefly biblical). She proposes that a shift from authority to experience ‘is part of a larger story of an epistemological revolution that took place in the course of the Middle Ages.’ (129). She considers texts written by a number of fathers and mothers to their children: Dhuoda, Abelard (his Carmen for his son), St. Louis (advice in two texts for his son and for his daughter), Geoffrey de la Tour-Landry, Anne of France, and James VI of Scotland (I of England). This chronological series of texts suggests the move from auctoritas to experience.  At the end of the essay Ruys raises the questions of why there was a ‘curious reluctance’ among early modern women ‘to embrace fully the notion of experience as an authorizing didactic strategy’ whereas male writers did.  Ruys suggests several reasons for this disparity:  in private letters to children women use experience more frequently; in speaking publicly, they may have adapted traditional male strategies as authorizing voices. In addition there may have been concerns from publishers that women’s advice be couched in more masculine terms. In her  conclusion Ruys notes that ‘teaching by experience … is not ‘natural’ but social’ and as a pedagogical mode it appears slowly. Gradually such  instruction comes to authorize parenthood as a didactic locus that allows parents to teach from their own experience.

[7] T his section also contains Maria Nenarokova, ‘Vladimir Monomakh’s Instruction: An Old Russian Pedagogic Treatise’ and Catherine England, ‘ “The world must be peopled”: Children and Their Context in Renaissance Florence.’

III. ‘Women, Teaching, Gender.’

[8]  Alexandra Barratt, ‘English Translations of Didactic Literature for Women to 1550.’ Barratt arranges her texts by category but the assemblage as a whole has a historical trajectory similar to that traced by Ruys. The earliest translations are commentaries on the Benedictine Rule in which a male commentary is redirected to women (10th c.), though later ones are written with women in mind (13th c.). There were biblical translations such as Rolle’s Psalter for Margaret Kirkeby, a recluse; devotional texts that ‘range from the most basically catechetical to the sublimely contemplative’ (the Diologo of St Catherine translated as the Orcherd of Syon, and texts by Henry Suso and David of Augsberg). There were the saints’ lives of John Capgrave and others, the Lady Margaret Beaufort’s contribution to Caxton’s Imitatio Christi, and The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, the earliest secular text to be translated.  Barratt concludes by observing that not only did these translations serve a ‘niche market’ but a ‘captive audience.’ The male authors retained their superiority by referring to their audiences as sisters and daughters who requested the translation, the implication being that the translator has superior and authoritative knowledge. She describes this situation as a ‘gender power game’ in which men acculturate women to their appropriate roles. Barratt concludes that ‘translation for women evolves but undergoes no dramatic transformation as the Middle Ages morphs into the early modern period.’

[9]  This section also contains Stavroula Constantinou, ‘Women Teachers in Early Byzantine Hagiography,’ Albrecht Classen, ‘Thomasin von Zerclaere’s Der Welsche Gast and Hugo von Trimberg’s Der Renner: Two Middle High German Didactic Writers Focus on Gender Relations,’ Julie Hotchin, ‘Guidance for Men Who Minister to Women in the Liber de reformatione monasterorium of Johannes Busch,’ and Ursula Potter, ‘Elizabethan Drama and The Instruction of a Christian Woman by Juan Luis Vives.’

IV: ‘Literacy, Piety, Heresy, Control.’

[10]  Anne M. Scott, ‘ “For lewed men y yndyr toke on englyssh tonge to make this boke”: Handlyng Synne and English Didactic Writing for the Laity.’ Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne is an adaptation of William of Waddington’s Manuel des pechiez but differs from its source by being directed, according to the Prologue, to the laity who can read English or understand what is read to them thereby forming a textual community that is assumed to have sufficient understanding of faith that Mannyng can engage it in theological and moral issues. Waddington’s text is addressed to the clergy who may use the material in sermons to instruct their parishioners in the essential teachings of the church according to the syllabi of Lateran IV and Archbishop John Pecham. Scott argues that although Mannyng states at the beginning that his targeted audience is the laity, there are other indications in the text of his interest in addressing the clergy as well. His instruction on theological and doctrinal issues includes sections on baptism, Limbo, whether Jews can be saved, the difference between baptism and confirmation, the forbidden degrees of spiritual relationships and, most important, the doctrine of the Real Presence. Mannyng introduced thirteen tales not in his source, nine of which are unique to Handlyng Synne. These tales are marked by brevity, an anecdotal tone and lively dialogue. They are placed in English locations and focus on local types of English people in order to make them more immediate to his audience.

[11]  Philippa Bright, ‘Anglo-Latin Collections of the Gesta Romanorum and Their Role in the Cure of Souls.’ Bright examines the Anglo-Latin Gesta against the continental versions.  She notes a number of differences between the two traditions: the Anglo-Latin versions, for example, strive for greater verisimilitude by the use of familiar names and places, by providing reasons for events and actions and by incorporating a greater degree of dialogue among the principal figures. The changes in these versions, but also their manuscript contexts, suggest several purposes and audiences for the collections. The greater number appears intended to assist preachers and clerics in the cure of souls and the education of the laity in theological matters. Other versions appear in codices for devotional reading and a few seem intended for court circles where they may have been read as histories.

[12]  This section also contains John O. Ward, ‘Lawrence of Amalfi and the Boundary between the Oral and the Written in Eleventh-Century Europe,’ and Jason Taliadoros, ‘Master Vacarius, Speroni, and Heresy: Law and Theology as Didactic Literature in the Twelfth Century.’

[13]  Section V, ‘The Classical Tradition and Early-Modern Didactic,’ contains essays by Frances Muecke and Robert Forgacs, ‘ “Dulces discet ab arte sonos”: The Latin Didactic Poem on Music of Philomathes (Vienna, 1512),’ Anthony Miller, ‘Vindicating Vulcan: Renaissance Manuals of Mining and Metallurgy,’ Emma Gee, ‘Astronomy and Philosophical Orientation in Classical and Renaissance Didatic Poetry,’ and Yasmin Haskell, ‘Sleeping with the Enemy: Tommaso Ceva’s Use and Abuse of Lucretius in the Philosophia novo-antiqua (Milan, 1704).’

[14]  In her Preface Ruys notes the initial response of a colleague invited to participate in the project who wanted to be convinced that the symposium would be ‘more interesting than it sounds.’ The essays in this volume demonstrate that ‘didactic literature’ should not be thought of as dry and dull but often lively and entertaining as such texts would need to be if they were to be efficacious.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      Indiana University,  December 2009


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