Fluent Fountains

fontana-maggiore-perugia-umbria1Hello there readers, I hope that everyone had a pleasant of productive week (and hopefully both). After a relatively unproductive last few days, I have a few thoughts that I would like to share. Looking back on my recent notes, I have noticed a series of common tropes emerging pertaining to the ‘fountain’ as a figurative representation of the hidden but emerging source of divine knowledge. Although the image of the fountain is a familiar facet of medieval epistemology, it believe that it is of particular interest, and therefore deserves closer scrutiny. In this post, I will read the history of the spring within the garden of Eden as a representation of human salvation history by means of a little smash-and-grab exegesis.

In Genesis 2:10, God caused a river to come out of Eden in order to water the face of the world. The abundance of this fountain enriched the landscape and made the land fertile, blessing Adam and Eve in their paradise. At this point, humanity exists in a privileged position, close to their creator, without suffering and without knowledge of good or evil. In this state, the waters of paradise flow abundantly, providing nourishment to Adam and Eve without toil and feeding the bountiful vegetation of the garden. Humanity and nature existed in harmony, but , as Augustine of Hippo points out in this passage from his literal interpretation of Genesis, this was not to last:

“A very proper question, however, is what this spring might be that was capable of watering the face of the whole earth. If it existed at that time, after all, and has since been blocked up of has dried up, we have to look for the reason. Now, I mean, we see that there is no such spring by which the whole face of the earth is watered. So perhaps the sinfulness of mankind also earned this punishment, to have the vast and lavish flow of that spring cut off and the lands deprived of such ready-made fertility, thus adding to the hard labour of their inhabitants.”

By making this link, Augustine’s exegesis lays bare the moral layer of scripture, equating the spring of paradise with divine bounty. With the Fall of Adam and Eve from grace, the spring is blocked, the fountainhead hidden. Humanity is introduced to the notion of thirst, a common companion to discussions of knowledge, in which the mind of the writer craves the nourishment of understanding. The transition from paradise to wasteland is both a literal exile from a garden, and a moral exile from the consoling source of knowledge. In the 12th century, Bruno of Segni described the Incarnation as a figurative re-opening of the hidden spring, interpreting Psalm 74 as a figurative representation of the incarnate Word breaking open the blocked fountain of scripture:

“You have cleft open springs and brooks. Springs and Brooks are understood to be the books of law and the prophets and both testaments. These springs were closed and stopped up. But the Lord opened up their water courses, and broke open the tight-­fitting fetters that bound them, and bade an abundance of waters to flow from them”

Christ has been described several times in my secondary source material as an epistemological key, his crucifixion opening the lock placed on revelation after the Fall, and allowing the knowledge to flow freely once more. Although nothing I have described is well known to students of Medieval thought and exegetic technique, I am increasingly convinced that the symbolism of water and the symbolism of knowledge were fundamentally linked within the medieval imagination, and that our understanding of both water and knowledge may be greatly expanded by exploring this link.

I am sure that everyone who has studied the Middle Ages can think of an example of this pervasive symbolism appearing in their primary source material. For me, the prevalence of miraculous springs comes to mind: famous collections of Vitae such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Church or Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend are absolutely packed full of these references. This seems entirely appropriate, for what is the life of a Saint if not a wellspring of moral knowledge, created (often quite deliberately) to impart a moral lesson to the reader? Alas, the ‘fountain’ of my mind runs dry, but I shall return once the flow of my ideas has been restored, and new and outrageous puns have been invented.

Next time I write, I will discuss the moralization of classical mythology and literature within the medieval imagination, and the incorporation of works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Odyssey (and the water contained therein) into Christian morality.

Live long and prosper,


*NOTE* – 13/1/10

There is a chapter in “Magical Fountains in Middle English Romance” in The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Brill: 2009) that should prove to be very interesting.

*NOTE* – 23/4/10

Hello to all of you looking up the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia, of which I have a picture on this post. Yes it is a beautiful fountain, and perhaps my post might make you think of it a little differently.


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