Rhetorical Liquidity

Hello all,

I have recently started to notice a proliferation of water symbolism within the rhetorical stylings of many medieval writers. This intrigues me, because it gives me an idea for a chapter. I will probably have to put it on the back burner for a while, because my Latin probably isn’t up to breaking down medieval rhetoric just yet. Having said that, I have a feeling that, if pulled off with sufficient erudition and panache, this idea could enable one of my best chapters. Rhetorical water symbolism appears in diverse contexts for diverse uses throughout medieval literature and back into the Classical era. Let me give you a taste of what I am talking about.

While reading collection of Saint’s vitae last week entitled Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, I stumbled upon the ‘Life of Saint Benedict, Abbot of Aniane and of Inde’. The prologue to this Saint’s life contains within it an interesting yet typically fawning self-deprecation.

“I was fearful that readers, irritated at what was badly constructed, might seek to correct clumsy composition. They would thus adjudge the content to be ignored, especially since I knew that you were present at the entrance to the sacred hall of the palace, that you thirsted for no drink of boisterous streams, but eagerly drained the flow of wisdom from an unfailing watercourse of the purest fountain. Such reasoning restrained me for the space of a year.”

When the writer says ‘you’, he is referring to his ecclesiastical superior, and comissioner of the vita. If memory serves, the footnote said that the reference to ‘the sacred hall of the palace’ is referring to the enlightened position of the learned patron on the threshold of divine knowledge. However, I am going off memory, and the specifics elude me. This reminded me of a similar styling in the Early Medieval writings of Berengaud that I found in Henri DeLubac’s Medieval Exegesis:

“To you, whom God has given a knowledge of literature, and into whose hands this book has fallen as reading material, i make a solemn appeal that you not cast aside the discourses in this book on account of their ill-framed and rustic style. I beg you rather to imitate him who, with sparkling water, washed a gem that he had found in the dungheap for so long that it was restored to its pristine splendor. Therefore I ask you, moreover, to wash away the filth of my ignorance with the water of your wisdom”.

Rhetorical humility and self-deprecation in medieval writing has always interested me, and I think that this may have given me a way to study it in a context relevant to my research. I remember laughing when I read that one of the scribes involved in the book of Kells introduces himself (in a similar fashion: to his reader) as a ‘Homunculous’ or ‘little man’, and went on to list all of his flaws in encyclopedic detail. A little more modest than another scribe who described himself as ‘master of the scriptorium’, which is about as close to saying you have mad skillz as possible in a Medieval context.

Sometimes, water symbolism is used to describe the mechanics of an argument for dramatic effect.  Since water is an incredibly versatile symbolic entity and well suited to represent thought (a theme that is becoming powerful within my work), these descriptions bring the argument to life. The following comes from the exegetic writings of St. Gregory the Great, in which river symbolism describes the path to Biblical knowledge:

”…he that treats of sacred writ should follow the way of a river, for if a river, as it flows along its channel, meets with open valleys on its side, into these it immediately turns the course of its current, and when they are copiously supplied, presently it pours itself back into its bed. “

In Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, Gaston Bachelard placed great emphasis on the liquidity of words.

“Liquidity is a principle of language; language must be filled with water. As soon as we are able to talk, then, as Tristan Tzara says, “a cloud of impetuous rivers fills the dry mouth.”

Having looked through my notes and found a multitude of fluid rhetorical devices within my primary source material, I believe that this is true. Our words are liquid, our imagination of thought flowing.  Although representations of knowledge are as diverse as those who represent them, water appears time and time again. Within a medieval context this is particularly prevalent, since both the Classical and Biblical traditions are very much concerned with water imagery. Since I have just mentioned the Classics, I think that I will leave you with a favorite extract of mine from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, or ‘On the nature of things’.

Best wishes and take care,


A pool of water of but a finger’s depth,
Which lies between the stones along the pave,
Offers a vision downward into earth
As far, as from the earth o’erspread on high
The gulfs of heaven; that thus thou seemest to view
Clouds down below and heavenly bodies plunged
Wondrously in heaven under earth.

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