“Your pen poured forth good words”

Hello All,

Today I am pleased, for I have recently completed a thesis chapter draft, entitled (at the moment) “Your pen poured forth good words”: The Material Imagery of Water in the twelfth-century Ars Rhetorica.

Since this task is what has largely been occupying my time, I haven’t much else to say right now. As a result, I have decided to post a section of my intro to give you a taste of what I have been working on. I do this in the hope that it will give me some new ideas and that someone will offer feedback if they have anything that they would like to add. The following extract is from an introductory section on ‘Natural Properties within Rhetorical Meaning’.  Pretty rough stuff, but I hope you like it.




The traits of the Chain of Being, from angel to earthworm, drew upon the balance of elements within the composition of bodies. The objects within natural order all interacted through their peculiar qualities. The element of water, together with its co-elements fire, earth and air, gave matter its peculiar being, dictating its shape, disposition and role in relation to other forms of matter. Always existing virtually in its pure form within all composites, from the very first day of its creation, water and its fellows mixed in the elementata, forming increasingly complex entities. Water was an abstraction of matter, created as the purest, simplest, and most divine form of matter. Created by the vis naturae or ‘power of nature’ embodied by God at the beginning, the elements enabled the ordered, structured and hierarchical cosmos imagined by Christian thought. Moreover, these elements provided insight into the nature of God, for by understanding the initial or primeval causes of ‘things’, one could know more of their divine cause or origin.1

Through a shared bond, the composite parts of medieval cosmology created a synergy of meaning that was both metaphysically and scientifically understood. For Evelyn Edson and Emilie Savage-Smith, “elemental combinations led, in the medieval mind, to numerous correspondences—another characteristic of the universe, that all is connected.”2 By using a human faculty, in this case the power of language, to draw upon the meaningful and unique qualities of entities within nature, the human being could tap into the fundamental traits of nature.

This point is well illustrated in the Catholicon, a 13th century dictionary compiled by Joannes Balbus that, although slightly later than the period covered by this chapter, provides an ideal example. Given that the Catholicon was still in use in the 15th century when it became on of the first incunabula (1460 in Mainz), it is not unreasonable to assume that it drew on preceding influences. Moreover, Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter have traced many of its concepts to classical grammarians such as Priscian. 3 John, in describing the structure of grammatical structure at the beginning of his text, sketches out a lengthy rhetorical and mnemonic image of a hydrological cycle.

When discussing Priscian’s description of the parts of speech, John claims that the ‘accidents’ of a part of speech such as a noun (gender, number, case etc.) are not part of the species or primitive category of grammar, but are derivatives (derivativa) or as we might understand them, subsets. He makes use of figurative rhetoric to argue that this structure is to be taken metaphorically (transsumptive):

For “primitive” is taken from a spring [fons] where water coming through hidden channels first [primus] appears. “Derivative” is taken from the stream [rivus] that flows forth [de] from the spring itself. Hence just as a stream can be deduced from another stream, so one derivative originates from another. But spring and streams [rivi] flow down to produce a river [flumen]. For all rivers come out of the sea, and finally return to the sea. And the sea does not overflow [redundat]. Similarly, all sentences [orationes] take their origin from grammar, and they return to the same, and yet grammar is not redundant [redundat].4

The dynamics of nature offer a veritable treasure trove of inspiration for imagination. In the case of Joannes Balbus, the structure of speech and grammar took on the qualities of a river system and its qualities, a metaphor, a mnemonic and a rhetorical use of of water. Speech had long been associated with a ‘flow’ of eloquence, tying the pouring of words from the mouth with the enriching flow of a river. Plato’s Timaeus, a text much read, glossed and commented upon in the twelfth century, stated this notion more explicitly:

Our makers fitted the mouth out with teeth, a tongue, and lips in their current arrangement, to accommodate both what is necessary and what is best: they designed the mouth as the entry passage for what is necessary and as the exit for what is best: for all that comes in and provides nourishment for the body is necessary, while that stream of speech that flows out through the mouth, that instrument of intelligence, is the fairest and best of all streams.5

The art of rhetoric –the adornment of this ‘best of all streams’– appears as a naturally flowing image. It is therefore unsurprising that this fluid faculty, be it a flow of words from the mouth or a written report of these words, should lend itself to a fluid narration of thought. If human beings –be they contemporary or medieval– come to think in fluid terms, then the thematic qualities of their narration of ideas undergo a shift towards liquidity.

1 For ‘things,’ read in English: extant entities, creations of matter (res).

2E. Edson, and E. Savage-Smith, Medieval Views of the Cosmos ; Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2004, p. 13.

3R. Copeland and I. Sluiter, Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300 -1475 ; Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 360-361.

4Joannes Balbus’ Catholicon, in R. Copeland and I. Sluiter, Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300 -1475 ; Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 361.

5D. J. Zeyl (ed) Timaeus ; Hackett Publishing, 2000, 75e, p. 70.


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