Streams from the Heart

Hello all. I hope everyone is having a very festive holiday season, and that nobody has over indulged in the series of tempting foodstuffs available at this time of the year. I thought that I would put up some of the ideas that i’ve been playing around with for the last couple of weeks for your viewing pleasure.

Before I do that, i’d like to point out the draft of the essay on ‘blogging the Middle Ages’ currently up on Jeffrey Cohen’s In the Middle blog. I have enjoyed reading the series of stories from various medievalist bloggers over the last few weeks about how they got into blogging, what their goals were and where it has taken them. For my part, I have found setting this blog up and posting my ideas ‘to the wall’ a rewarding experience, and it has assisted me in developing my ideas from a very rough proposal model to something a little more sophisticated. My new years resolution as a researcher is to get involved with the wider academic community, and I hope to use this blog as a medium with which to meet new people. So if you’re out there and are reading this, i’d love to hear from you and talk to you about anything pertaining to my work, your work, the weather etc.

In any case, let’s get on with my description of my current ideas, which you will pleased to learn contains….you guessed it…pictures!

This beauty is from the Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights) by Herrad of Landsberg, a German pedagogical treatise from the late 12th century. In it we see the figure of Philosophy enthroned in the center, a fine lady inkeeping with the image described by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. Surrounding her are the seven liberal arts: the Trivium (consisting of Grammar, which ‘speaks’, dialectic, which ‘finds truth’ and rhetoric, which ‘adorns words’) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, the study of the numerical patterns behind the world, Music, the study of the tonal balance of sounds (only later did it become about aesthetic pleasure), Geometry, the measurement of immovable entities and Astronomy, the study of moveable entities such as the stars). The great philosophers Socrates and Plato sit beneath Philosophy in a privileged position, soaking up her gifts. Others also soak up her inspiration at the bottom of the image, writing poetry, theology etc.

The description of the liberal arts as a system of rivers in Godfrey of St. Victor’s Fons Philosophiae – now one of the chief sources for my first chapter – ties with a discussions in an older post about the four senses of Scripture as rivers. Importantly for me, the Trivium and Quadrivium are represented as a four-fold and three-fold stream issuing from the heart of philosophy, the fountainhead of wisdom. I have refocused my chapter to look at the way in which pedagogical descriptions of epistemic tools such as the Seven Arts and the Four Senses use the symbolism of something within nature – the flowing, powerful, mysterious and bountiful force of the river – to comprehend abstractions. One is supposed to revel in the abstraction, for by lacking a worldly and visible form, it exists wholly within the realm of the spirit.
Thus, Philosophy is an abstraction and should be comprehended as such, yet it is fitting to depict it as a beautiful woman in order to make its mysteries comprehensible to the intellect. The same is true of the river, which in this context symbolises the abstract transfer of divine truth from Philosophy to mankind, via the mediation of the Seven Liberal Arts.

On the left is another example of this symbolism in another image – unfortunately I only have this teensy tiny .gif image until I get around to scanning in the bigger image that I have. If anyone out there has a higher quality copy of this image, i’d love to get hold of it!

In this image, Philosophy is once again depicted as queen, and the seven liberal arts are drinking from or absorbing her bounty. This image reminds me of a beautiful image in one of Hildegard of Bingen’s manuscripts (the Scivias if memory serves) in which the Son pours downwards from heaven and the Trinity into the womb of Mary, where a baby can be seen. The imagery shows visually what the poetry of Godfrey the Victorine shows through allegory, that there is a strong symbolic correlation with the abstract notion that divine knowledge pours down from on high (via the epistemological tools of the liberal arts, that allow one to study and interpret the world, and thus by extension God) like a river system. Once again I apologise for presenting you with such a crummy and stunted image, but I promise that I will put up a much bigger one in its place once I source one.

I’ll finish this post off with a passage from the quirky E.A. Synan translation of the fons (whenever I shorten the title, I think of a guy in a leather jacket saying “eyyyyyyyy”).

On The Source of Philosophy and its Species

Fountain clear from mountain peak / from the top is flowing,

Nature made it in those days / when things first were growing;

Living, bubbling, gurgling spring / no lack ever showing,

Cascades down and through the plains / from on high it’s going.

I’ll leave you there. Have a very Merry Christmas! For some medieval themed lulz, read this post from Got Medieval about the somewhat bizarre and amusing story of the REAL St. Nicholas.

Ave atque Vale!


EDIT – 16/2/11 – I found a nice big image of Lady Philosophia and the liberal arts, which is now identified as Pierpont Morgan M.982. Please see here for its page from an exhibit entitled Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages


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