Of water, knowledge and bears

Greetings again avid readers. As promised, in this post I will be discussing the relationship between water and knowledge. I have decided that the most interesting way that I can introduce some of the core ideas of my research is to share a few of the ideas that I have been working with of late, and hopefully by doing so I too will improve my understanding.

The 12th century Fons Philosophiae penned by Godfrey of Saint Victor is a particularly evocative example of the ‘confluence’ of water and knowledge within the medieval imagination. This short but sophisticated epistemological treatise describes the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astrology) as a complex of watercourses flowing into the mind. The challenges of scriptural interpretation become the navigation of a river system. Exploring the fundamental analytical tools of the medieval intellectual elite becomes a journey through a system of powerful and flowing rivers in search of a divine fountainhead. Although Godfrey wrote too early to be of direct importance to my thesis as a primary source, he forms a small part of a long tradition of symbolism that I hope to build up a more thorough understanding of over the coming months.

In Medieval Exegesis, the well known scholar Henri De Lubac refers to a common medieval adage that “the Letter teaches events, Allegory what you should believe, Morality teaches what you should do, Anagogy what mark you should be aiming for.” Through these layers of meaning, something of the ‘true nature’ of the world could be revealed to the impoverished intellect of humanity, traumatically divorced from its intimacy with God by the Fall. Interpretation of the Book of God (scripture) and the book of the world (the events and characteristics of the mundane) were motivated by an oft-described ‘thirst’ for knowledge, the key ingredient of salvation.  In this passage, the four ‘senses’ and all their complexities are elegantly expressed through the imagery of water:

“This stream has four different features:

In some parts it can be crossed, in other parts it is deep.

Here it is more pleasing to the taste, sweet and delightful,

Nor does it flow back to the heights from which it has sprung.

When it is more clearly history, it is easy to cross,

Whereas it is hard to swim in the deep waters of allegory,

It is easy to drink the savory waters of morality,

While anagogy is regurgitated and does not stay down.”

I believe that the similarities between water symbolism and the multi-layered nature of medieval epistemology are of great value to us ‘moderns’. Although many people find the idea that everything has many, many simultaneous layers of meaning somewhat alien, we still see many things while gazing into the rippling, changeable surface of water. In a 2005 article entitled Common Senses: Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of Meaning, anthropologist Veronica Strang has this to say of water:

“Water’s diversity is, in some respects, a key to its meanings. Here is an object that is endlessly transmutable, moving readily from one shape to another: from ice to stream, from vapour to rain, from fluid to steam. It has an equally broad range of scales of existence: from droplet to ocean, trickle to flood, cup to lake.”

I see the complexity of water symbolism as a means by which the complexity of medieval thought may be better understood; the goal of my initial thesis chapter exists largely to fulfil this aim. The symbolism of water contains elements that are specific to a given historical context, yet there are also fundamental and universal symbols at work that transcend culture and time. By using themes to which all human beings can relate, symbolism forms a bridge by which the gulf between the present and the past may be traversed, and something new of both the Middle Ages and our own respective cultures may be revealed.

On a more amusing note, I discovered a passage attributed to Giles of Paris (also from the 12th century) in which Giles writes that When your reading gives you the moral sense, Then it is as if your mouth were sucking on a honeycomb…”

This reminded me of a quote from another authority of indisputable character, revealing the depths of my delusional imagination:

PoohBearLg“That buzzing-noise means something. If there’s a buzzing noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee. ….
And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey…..
And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it.” So he began to climb the tree.”

What are you telling us oh sagacious Pooh bear? I’ll leave it up to you to decide dear reader, but I think that Winnie-the-Pooh understands the secrets of knowledge better than all of us 😉




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