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Chapter V. The Middle Ages

1. The Decay of Classical Rhetorical Tradition

The seven liberal arts of mediaeval education carried the blending almost to the absorption of poetic by rhetoric, and the debasement of rhetoric itself to a consideration of style alone.

As for poetic, it had no distinct place except in the analyses of the grammaticus, who from classical times had prepared boys for the schools of rhetoric partly by analyzing with them the style of admirable passages. These passages were commonly taken from the poets, whose art was thus considered mainly as an art of words and applied to the art of the orator. Consequently, as a result of this tradition, poetic in the middle ages was commonly grouped with grammar or with rhetoric, although Isidore includes it in his section on theology.[108]

The rhetorical treatises of the middle ages exhibit two phases. On the one hand the earlier post-classical treatises composed by Martianus Capella, Cassiodorus, and Isidore, all inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin, are fairly close to the classical tradition of Quintilian. Their weakness consists not in that they restricted rhetoric to style, but in that their whole treatment of rhetorical theory was compact, arid, and schematic. The second phase of mediaeval rhetoric is characteristic of a geographical position more remote from the center of classical culture. Thus it is in the rhetorical treatises of England and Germany in the middle ages that rhetoric was to the greatest extent restricted to a consideration of style. Illustrative of this tendency is the fact that the only surviving rhetorical work by the Venerable Bede is a treatise on the rhetorical figures.

But although the conventional study of rhetoric in such condensed treatment as that of the sections in Martianus, Isidore, or Cassiodorus, was definitely intrenched in the educational system of the seven liberal arts, it had no vitality. In the first place these treatises gave only the dry husks of rhetoric, the conventional analyses, the stock definitions. In the second place rhetoric was little applied. The political life of western Europe centered in the camp, not in the forum. The classical tradition of trial by a large jury, as the Areopagus or the Centumviri, had given place to trial before the regal or manorial court. Thus rhetoric dried up and lost whatever reality it had possessed in imperial Rome.

But if the middle ages had no opportunity to apply rhetoric in its function of persuasion in communal affairs, they did have real need of an art of writing letters and of preparing lay or ecclesiastical documents, such as contracts, wills, and records, and of preaching sermons. Thus in the teaching of the schools, as well as in practice, the oration gave place to the epistle and dictamen. “Dictare” was to write letters or prepare documents. And the rhetorical treatise or “ ars rhetorica” often yielded to the “ars prosandi,” or the “ ars dictandi.”[109]

A characteristic treatise of this sort is the Poetria of the Englishman John of Garland (c. 1270). In his introductory chapter John explains that he has divided the subject into seven parts:

  First is explained the theory of invention; then the manner of selecting 
  material; third, the arrangement and the manner of ornamentation; next, 
  the parts of a dictamen; fifth, the faults in all kinds of composition 
  (dictandi); sixth is arranged a treatise concerning rhetorical ornament 
  as necessary in meter as in prose, namely, the figures of speech and the 
  abbreviation and amplification of the material; seventh and last are 
  subjoined examples of courtly correspondence and scholastic dictamen, 
  pleasantly composed in verse and rhythms, and in diverse meters.[110]

Under the head of invention John gives definitions, several examples of good letters, a long list of proverbs under appropriate captions so that the letter writer can quickly find the one to fit his context, and an “elegiac, bucolic, ethic love poem” in fifty leonine verses, accompanied by an inevitable allegorical interpretation.[111] Then he comes to selection. Tully, he admits, puts arrangement after invention, “but,” he pleads, “in writing letters and documents poetically the art of selection after that of invention is useful.”[112] For he thinks of selection only as the selection of words. A writer, he says, should select his words and images according to the persons addressed. The court should be addressed in the grand style; the city, in the middle style; and the country, in the mean style.[113] One should arrange in three columns in a note-book the words and comparisons appropriate to each style so that the material will be handy when he wishes to write a letter. These principles John illustrates with leonine verses and ecclesiastical epistles. Under arrangement he says that all material must be so arranged as to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then there are nine ways to begin a poem and nine ways to begin a dictamen or epistle. Next he states that there are six parts to an oration: “exordium, narracio, peticio, confirmacio, confutacio, conclusio.”[114] As an example of this division of the oration into parts he quotes a long poem which persuades its reader to take up the cross. Still under the general head of arrangement John explains the ten ways of amplifying material. The tenth, “interpretacio,” he illustrates by telling a joke, and then amplifying it into a little comedy. “Comedy,” he says, “is a jocose poem beginning in sadness and ending in joy: a tragedy is a poem composed in the grand style beginning in joy and ending in grief.”[115] Next follow the six metrical faults, the faults of salutations in letters, a classification of the different kinds of poems, and further talk on different styles in writing. His sixth chapter, on ornament in meter and prose, presents what he has up to this left unsaid about style. It includes a list of fifty-seven figures of speech (colores verborum) and eighteen figures of thought ( colores sententiarum). This is logically followed by the ten attributes of man. The seventh and final chapter gives a long narrative poem of the horrific variety as an example of tragedy and several letters as examples of dictamen.

Such a digest shows better than any generalization a complete confusion of poetic and rhetoric. Poems were to be written according to the formulae of orations; allegory throve. Infinite pains were to be expended on the worthless niceties of conceited metrical structure and rhetorical figures. Garland has neither real poetic nor real rhetoric.

2. Rhetoric as Aureate Language

As to the late middle ages rhetoric had come to mean to all intents nothing more than style, it is frequently personified in picturesque mediaeval allegory, never as being engaged in any useful occupation, but as adding beauty, color, or charm to life. In the Anticlaudianus of Alanus de Insulis, Rhetoric is represented as painting and gilding the pole of the Chariot of Prudence.[116] In the rhymed compendium of universal knowledge which its author, Thomasin von Zirclaria, justly calls Der Wälsche Gast, for learning was indeed a foreign guest in thirteenth century Germany, rhetoric appears in a similar rôle. “Rhetoric,” says Thomasin, “clothes our speech with beautiful colors,”[117] and he gives as his authority, “Tulljus, Quintiljan, Sidônjus,” although Apollinaris Sidonius seems to be the only one of the trio he had ever read.[118] This theory lived to a vigorous old age. Palmieri, in his Della Vita Civile (1435), defines rhetoric as “the theory of speaking ornamentally.”[119] And Lydgate traces all the beauty of rhetoric to Calliope, “that with thyn hony swete sugrest tongis of rethoricyens.”[120]

The most complete example, however, of the mediaeval restriction of rhetoric to style, and of the absorption of poetic by rhetoric is afforded by Lydgate in his Court of Sapyence. The passages which refer to rhetoric are given in full because they can otherwise be consulted only in the Caxton edition of 1481 or in the black letter copy printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1510.[121]

Introductory verses.

  O Clyo lady moost facundyous 
  O ravysshynge delyte of eloquence 
  O gylted goddes gaye and gloryous 
  Enspyred with the percynge influence 
  Of delycate hevenly complacence 
  Within my mouth let dystyll of thy shoures 
  And forge my tonge to gladde myn auditoures.

  Myn ignoraunce whome clouded hath eclyppes 
  With thy pure bemes illumynyne all aboute 
  Thy blessyd brethe let refleyre in my lyppes 
  And with the dewe of heven thou them degoute 
  So that my mouth may blowe an encense oute 
  The redolent dulcour aromatyke 
  Of thy deputed lusty rhetoryke.

The section of rhetoric.

  Dame Rethoryke moder of eloquence 
  Moost elegaunt moost pure and gloryous 
  With lust delyte, blysse, honour and reverence 
  Within her parlour fresshe and precyous 
  Was set a quene, whose speche delycyous 
  Her audytours gan to all Joye converte 
  Eche worde of her myght ravysshe every herte.

  And many clerke had lust her for to here 
  Her speche to them was parfyte sustenance 
  Eche worde of her depured was so clere 
  And illumyned with so parfyte pleasaunce 
  That heven it was to here her beauperlaunce 
  Her termes gay as facunde soverayne 
  Catephaton in no poynt myght dystane.

  She taught them the crafte of endytynge 
  Whiche vyces ben that sholde avoyded be 
  Whiche ben the coulours gay of that connynge 
  Theyr dyfference and eke theyr properte 
  Eche thynge endyte how it sholde poynted be 
  Dystynctyon she gan clare and dyscusse 
  Whiche is Coma Colym perydus.

  Who so thynketh my wrytynge dull and blont 
  And wolde conceyve the colours purperate 
  Of Rethoryke, go he to tria sunt 
  And to Galfryde the poete laureate 
  To Janneus a clerke of grete estate 
  Within the fyrst parte of his gramer boke 
  Of this mater there groundely may he loke.

  In Tullius also moost eloquent 
  The chosen spouse unto this lady free 
  His gylted craft and gloyre in content 
  Gay thynges I made eke, yf than lust to see 
  Go loke the Code also the dygestes thre 
  The bookes of lawe and of physyke good 
  Of ornate speche there spryngeth up the flood.

  In prose and metre of all kynde ywys 
  This lady blyssed had lust for to playe 
  With her was blesens Richarde pophys 
  Farrose pystyls clere lusty fresshe and gay 
  With maters vere poetes in good array 
  Ovyde, Omer, Vyrgyll, Lucan, Orace 
  Alane, Bernarde, Prudentius and Stace.

Throughout this passage rhetoric is never mentioned in any other context than one of pleasure to the ear of the auditor. Of the three aims of rhetoric which Cicero had phrased as docere, delectare, et movere, only the delectare remains in the rhetoric of Lydgate. From his initial invocation to Clio, in which he prays that his style be illuminated with the aromatic sweetness of her rhetoric, to the passage in which he refers to his own writings for examples of ornate speech Lydgate never refers to the logic or the structure of persuasive public speech. Rhetoric, in Lydgate, is not used in its classical sense, but as being synonymous with ornate language—style. Here and here only does Lydgate discuss any part of rhetoric in its classical implications. When, in his poem, he discusses the craft of writing as including “coulours gay,” he refers to the figures of classical rhetoric—Cicero's “colores verborum.” And when he refers to the “coma, colum, perydus,” he is harking back to the classical divisions of the rhythmical members of a sentence: the “comma, colon, et periodus.” In the classical treatises on rhetoric this division of “elocutio” or style into two parts: (1) figures of speech and language, and (2) rhythmical movement of the sentence, is universal. Lydgate's rhetoric is thus a development of only one element of classical rhetoric—style.

But Lydgate's rhetoric was not only restricted to style; it was expanded to include the style of the poets as well as that of the prose writers, as the last stanza shows. If Lydgate thought poetry to include anything more than this style, he does not say so.

Lydgate does not present an isolated case of this meaning of rhetoric. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in England the term rhetoric and its related words regularly connoted skill in diction. A rhetor was one who was a master of style.[122] Henryson, for instance, calls rhetoric sweet, and Dunbar, ornate.[123] Chaucer admired Petrarch for his “rethorike sweete” which illumined the poetry of Italy,[124] and was himself in turn loved by Lydgate as the “nobler rethor poete of brytagne,”[125] who is called “floure of rethoryk in Englisshe tong,” by John Walton.[126] According to James I both Gower and Chaucer sat on the steps of rhetoric,[127] while Lyndesay includes Lydgate in the number and asserts that all three rang the bell of rhetoric.[128] Bokenham calls Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate the “first rethoryens”;[129] and as late as 1590, Chaucer and Lydgate are called “The first that ever elumined our language with flowers of rethorick eloquence.”[130] The entire period was thus in substantial agreement that rhetoric was honeyed speech exhibited at its best in the works of the poets.

The best example of this view of rhetoric is furnished by Stephen Hawes in his delectable educational allegory of the seven liberal arts which he calls The Pastime of Pleasure (1506). He begins, of course, with an apology for

  Thys lytle boke, opprest wyth rudenes 
  Without rethorycke or coloure crafty; 
  Nothinge I am experte in poetry 
  As the monke of Bury, floure of eloquence.[131]

And in another place, again addressing Lydgate, he exclaims:

  O mayster Lydgate, the most dulcet sprynge 
  Of famous rethoryke, wyth balade ryall.[132]

The poem records the experiences of Grande Amour, who, accompanied by two greyhounds, seeks knowledge. After visiting Grammar and Logic in their rooms, he goes upstairs to see Dame Rhetoric. Rhetoric sits in a chamber gaily glorified and strewn with flowers. She is very large, finely gowned and garlanded with laurel. About her are mirrors and the fragrant fumes of incense. Grande Amour asks her to paint his tongue with the royal flowers of delicate odors, that he may gladden his auditors and “moralize his literal senses.” She pretends to understand him, but when he asks her what rhetoric is,

  Rethoryke, she sayde, was founde by reason 
  Man for to governe wel and prudently; 
  His wordes to ordre his speche to purify.[133]

It has five parts,—and so on. The introduction, however, to the beflowered dwelling place of the fair lady and the request of Grande Amour to have his tongue perfumed are much more characteristic of the temper of the age than are the professed reasons for the origin of rhetoric. Rhetoric in their hearts they felt to be gay paint and sweet smells.

Hawes's five parts have the same names as the five parts of classical rhetoric.[134] The first part of rhetoric, he says, is “Invencyon,” the classical inventio. It is derived from the “V inward wittes,” discernment, fantasy, imagination, judgment, and memory. Anyone, however, who is familiar with the inventio of classical rhetoric, concerned as it is with exploring subject matter, will be at a loss to see the connection with Hawes. In fact the whole chapter, and the one following, are devoted not to rhetoric, but to the theory of poetical composition, and explanation of the allegorical conception of the end of poetry, and a defense of the poets against detractors. The classical term inventio is thus lifted over bodily, with both change and extension in meaning, from rhetoric to poetic.

In the chapter on Disposicion, instead of discussing the arrangement of a speech, Hawes devotes most of his space to praise of the rhetoricians because they turned the guidance of the drifting barge, the world, over to competent pilots, the kings. Here, perhaps, Hawes is using the word rhetorician more closely than usual in its classical sense. He may even have known that the fact of kingship had robbed rhetoric of its purpose. At any rate, his Disposicion is like the classical dispositio only in name, and again it is transferred from rhetoric to poetic.

Pronunciation (pronuntiatio), or delivery, of course applies to either poets or orators. But whereas classical writers applied it to the orator's use of voice and gesture, Hawes applies it only to the poet's reading aloud. He recommends that when a poet reads his verses, he should make his voice dolorous in bewailing a woeful tragedy, and his countenance glad in joyful matter. It is important, however, that the reading poet be not boisterous or unmannered. Let him be moderate, gentle, and seemly. The final section, that on memory, comes closer to its classical sense than does any other. Here the mnemonic system of “places,” supposedly invented by Simonides, is explained obscurely. Even more obscure is its applicability to Hawes's subject.

It is noteworthy that the chapter on Elocution (elocutio), or style, far outweighs all the others in scope and bulk. Of the 108 seven-line stanzas which Hawes devotes to rhetoric, 20 praise the poets; 7 define rhetoric; 13 explain inventio; 12, dispositio ; 40, elocutio; 8, pronuntiatio; and 8, memoria. “Elocusyon,” says Hawes, “exorneth the mater.”

  The golden rethoryke is good refeccion 
  And to the reader ryght consolation.[135]

Rhetoric and style, to Hawes and his contemporaries, mean the same thing. Both have to do, in Hawes's own language, with choosing aromatic words, dulcet speech, sweetness, delight; they are redolent of incense; they gleam like carbuncles in the darkness; they are painted in hard gold. But beyond these picturesque generalizations there is little trace in Hawes of any discussion of style such as one would find in a classical treatise. A few figures of speech are mentioned, but not dwelt upon. Hawes consistently confines himself to poetry. Tully, the only orator mentioned, shares a line with Virgil. The main concern is with the devices used by the poets to cloak truth under the veil of allegory. Rhetoric is an adjunct of the poet.

       my mayster Lydgate veryfyde 
  The depured rethoryke in Englysh language; 
  To make our tongue so clerely puryfyed 
  That the vyle termes should nothing arage 
  As like a pye to chatter in a cage, 
  But for to speke with rethoryke formally.[136]

In a word, the whole traditional division of rhetoric is transferred to poetry, and at the same time both rhetoric and poetic are limited to the single part which they have in common—diction. The style cultivated by this focus is ornamental and elaborate. If Lydgate or Hawes had believed that rhetoric included more than aureate language, surely the scope of their treatises would have afforded them opportunity to correct this impression. Each of them is endeavoring to present a compendium of universal knowledge according to the conventional analysis of the seven liberal arts. Illustrative details might be omitted, but not important sections of the subject matter.

The meanings of words change, and with such changes we have no quarrel. It is important, however, that we should know what the English middle ages meant by rhetoric if we are to appreciate how powerful was the tradition of the middle ages and in what direction it influenced the literary criticism of the English renaissance. To resume, the middle ages thought of poetry as being composed of two elements: a profitable subject matter (doctrina), and style (eloquentia ). The profitable subject matter was theoretically supplied by the allegory. This will be discussed in the second part of this study, as historically being a phase of critical discussions of the purpose of poetry. The English middle ages, as has been shown, considered style synonymous with rhetoric.