Writing up a Storm


Hello Readers,

I’ve been hard at work writing my thesis and doing various other tasks, including processing journal submissions.

I also went to a very interesting masterclass run last week by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of the Emotions on ‘Interpreting Emotion in Early Modern Objects’. We had some very interesting speakers, several exciting collaborative ‘break out’ sessions and a lavish lunch. This part of the year is very exciting here at UWA, because in early December we now have an ARC (Australian Research Council) symposium on ‘International Medievalism and Popular Culture’ coupled with a Masterclass on Medievalism and Youth Culture, both of which I will be attending. Heady days to be a medievalist in the antipodes!

I am also very much looking forward to a quick five day trip to Sydney in January to take part in Latin Summer School hosted at the University of Sydney. After that I begin a teaching internship for 2012, the details of which i’m sure you’ll glean in future months.

In the meantime, I placate you with a small section from my rough first draft for chapter four of my thesis. Enjoy!

Turbulence and Tranquility within Medieval Thought

In physical as well as cultural terms, the sea is a very different place from the land. Although our bodies are approximately two-thirds water, water is a hostile element that threatens human life. Many ancient texts define the sea through its basic inhospitability to human life, especially in traditions that link the sea to primeval chaos.1

As Steven Mentz suggests, there is a certain menace to the ocean that goes hand in hand with its positive properties. In the section to follow, I will outline some of the specifically medieval moral and cosmological implications of an ocean inimical to human life. Part of this uncertainty lies within the notion of turbulence, the core theme of the wider chapter.

Turbulence took on a series of historically specific nuances within the internal dynamics of medieval cosmological thought. Since, as Michel Serres has demonstrated, the very notion of fluid turbulence emerges from the fundamental necessity of a vibrant, motive cosmos to remain perpetually active, turbulence was in effect a disorder of divine stability emerging from a rupture. Although the eternal empyrean was perfect, static and still and thus not burdened by the vagaries of ad-hoc interaction, the roiling soup of worldly life seething below was bound by its very nature to generate its share of vortices, surges and storms.

The fickle and ever-flowing world was a fitting vision of temporal change for the medieval platonist of the twelfth century, for it placed reliability and solidity squarely within the realm of God and the Forms. The very nature of a changeable world introduced a whirling rush of affairs that distracted one from the unchanging divine, and thus placed the former firmly above it in a form of motive hierarchy. Stable was good, unstable bad. Whole was good, divided was bad. These were the traits of a Neo-Platonic Trinity, a divine concretion against which the whole flowing mess of the temporal cosmos was set in unfavourable comparison.

The moral status of the postlapsarian temporal world was such that the calm and immutability of the superlunary heavens was impossible. Above the sphere of the moon, the stars moved in perfect circles, the aether was unchanging and all was still. This was only fitting, for it was not in the nature of a perfect and eternal being to be inconstant and changeable. The sublunary world had no such consistency, comprised of elemental and hylomorphic flows of matter constantly shifting and reassembling to form the fabric of nature. Furthermore, the sin of Adam and Eve had consigned the human race to dwell in a fickle and laborious world on the sweat of their brow, for the natural world would not aid them, nor would it offer its gifts without struggle. The same was true of water. The perfect calm of stilled waters and the amenability of the rivers, oceans and lakes of a prelapsarian world had given way to the changeability and dangers of a world in flux, governed by cycles of generation and decay.

It is natural for the seeming tranquility of the world, the outer facade of orderliness of solidity, to give way to turbulence. Within medieval allegory, this turbulence is given a distinctly emotional quality: the storm is wrath incarnate. Like a resentful prisoner kept incarcerated by an inattentive jailer, the nature of tranquil water is to burst into action and rage against its imprisonment, as is its nature. Only the laws of God and Nature prevent a second flood, only the becalming effect of spiritual goodness can hope to tame the raging seas of life. If we recall the Serresian image of homeorrhesis as the natural state of flow, then this moral ocean appears as a distinctly discordant entity. Stability is a localised effect, and this can never be otherwise. Eventually there will be a perfect storm for every traveller, and only those with the spiritual skills to navigate the mare vitae can hope to survive.

Although the turbulent moral imagery of oceanic allegory constitutes the object of interest, is is also important to briefly outline the implications of an opposite, laminar, mare pacifica or sea of peace before moving on. Within the tranquil waters of a still and unchanging ocean divorced from the vicissitudes of temporal life, human souls could explore, learn and play like schools of fish. Within such an ocean, quite impossible within a postlapsarian world and yet evocative of salvation, the waters would act as an all-encompassing baptistry, imbued with the force or tonos of Christ the Saviour. Indeed one name for the ocean within early Christian theology was the ‘baptistry of the sun’, blessed by the rays of a salvific star representing Christ ‘the Orient’ rising from the East.2

Let us spread our sails, then, and set out to sea. For Reason, not inexperienced in these waters … shall speed our course: indeed she finds it sweeter to exercise her skill in the hidden straights of the Ocean of divinity than idly to bask in the smooth and open waters where she cannot display her power.3

An image of a becalmed ocean created a striking contrast with the image of the turbulent ocean. In many ways, these two oceans were inversions of each other. The ocean of divinity was a realm of safety and spiritual exploration, whereas the ocean of life was a realm from which one was to escape in order to reach calmer waters. This contrast is explained by Drewer in her comparison of salvific imagery, in this case the image of the soul as a fish swimming in an ocean with which it must interact for good or ill.

Patristic writers hold simultaneously two contradictory views of the qualities associated with the image of the sea and its waters. In a positive sense the sea is viewed as the “living water” in which Christian souls flourish. Tertullian writes in De Baptismo: “We little fish, after the image of our Ichthys Jesus Christ, are born in the water, nor otherwise than swimming in the water are we safe”. At the same time, the waters have purely negative connotations either as the sea of this world, or as the bitter sea of sin. Clement of Alexandria refers to the “hateful wave of a sea of vices” from which the “chaste fishes” are saved. Jerome tells the neophytes that they “by the word of God are lifted out of the abysmal waters of this world like so many fish.4

This counterbalancing and interplay of turbulence and tranquility, of the benign and malevolent qualities of the ocean, formed an image of moral life that was a hybrid of the two.In the section to follow, this chapter will focus more specifically on imagery of the turbulent ocean, the more problematic of the two forms of spiritual and oceanic allegory that appear within medieval discourse. Although I have separated out a particular moral thread within discourse on the ocean in order to present a vision of fluviality, it is important to recall the constant negotiations between stability and motion inherent in the idea of an ocean or, indeed, in any vision of water.

1S. Mentz, ‘Toward a Blue Cultural Studies: The Sea, Maritime Culture, and Early Modern English Literature’, Literature Compass, 6 (2009), pp. 1001-1002.

2P. Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages, C. 200-C. 1150 ; Cambridge Univ Pr, 2003, p. 7.

3John Scotus Eriugena, as cited in B. McGinn, ‘Ocean and Desert as Symbols of Mystical Absorption in the Christian Tradition.’, Journal of Religion, 74 (1994), p. 163.

4L. Drewer, ‘Fisherman and Fish Pond: From the Sea of Sin to the Living Waters’, Art Bulletin, vol.63, no.4 (1981), p. 534.


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