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  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: January 2011

7 - Twelfth-century allegory: philosophy and imagination

from Part II: - Philosophy, theology, and poetry 200 to 1200


Plato as a gentile counterpart to a Hebrew prophet, speaking a figural language . . . A rudimentary plea by a disorderly Prime Matter, providentially answered by the divine Mind . . . The divine words of Scripture not to be treated literally regarding the origin of Eve, who was created not from Adam but through the operation of nature . . . The figure of Nature herself circuitously complaining about the deviant grammar of fallen human nature . . . The whole Metamorphoses as an extended metaphor for the transformation of the soul . . .I

The transfiguration of allegory in twelfth-century Europe is so breathtaking that it can scarcely be framed in the conventional categories of an overview. It might be well to begin even a selective outline with an “inner view,” a self-conscious account of the language of allegory from a commentary written in the twelfth century. However partial and schematic, the passage displays a revealing moment at which an allegorical commentary turns into a metacommentary on allegory itself.

Names and natures

The general context of the passage – a fragmentary but extensive interpretation of the Aeneid – may well originate early in the century, although its exact date and the name of its author are not known.2 It is sometimes thought that the interpreter is Bernard Silvestris, the composer of the mid-twelfthcentury Cosmographia, one of the most spectacular cosmic narratives before the Mutabilitie Cantos of the English Renaissance. Whatever its provenance, the commentary is one of the most elaborate allegorical interpretations of an ancient poem (outside the poetry of Scripture) that survives from any time until the twelfth century itself.

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