Monthly Archives: May 2014

Mything the point?

I’ve been reading Levi Strauss’ “Myth and Meaning”.  Its subtitle is “Cracking the Code of Culture” which speaks to my condition, as it were, because I see education as primarily the transmission of culture, in the middle ages as in the 21st century.  And it’s apparently concise and accessible.  The main tenet is that, since all societies, even those we are tempted to describe as ‘primitive’, seek to find an understanding of the world around them, myth can be seen as a precursor of science as a way of accounting for the phenomena of nature.  So far, so good.  I was brought up to believe that thunder was just the angels having coal delivered.  [God knows how you reassure chilcren now that the rumble of the coal into the coal shed is a thing of the past.]  Only much later did I progress to meteorology.

But closer inspection leads to questions.

I’m interested in what he thinks myths are.  ‘Myth is narrative made coherent’ he says.  This apparent tautology he justifies by reference to collections of myths which have been given coherence by anthropologists who tidy up the bits of narrative they gather from their informants, regardless of whether or not the ‘original’ myth was in itself coherent.  But where is the line between ‘myth’ and ‘memory’ and ‘folk tales’? Does not myth have to have some kind of formal status, perhaps something like social memory?  Which would exclude my angelic coalmen.  If you collate a lot of folk tales, are they myths in themselves or only when they become part of an established oral tradition?  But is Levi Strauss simply warning his listeners against the seductive power of a good story, whether true or not?

Interesting also is the link between myth and science.  Most historiographical discussions of ‘myth’ seem to contrast it with ‘history’, a good example being the foundation myths of many monastic communities. But if we reflect on this, much medieval thought switches easily from history to science.  Genesis is both.  The concept of God’s plan, ‘working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’ is not just a history myth, but also very much a description of all natural phenomena.

More later…



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What’s the Latin for Thrush?

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Untimely ripped from Alcuin’s breasts.

Just finished deciphering Alcuin’s letter to Dodo, in Colin Chase’s edition.

I was struck by the vividness of the rhetoric, which led me to agree with Chase as to the ‘permanent and didactic purpose’ of the letters. Perhaps there was a real Dodo, who knows, but Alcuin certainly went to a lot of trouble to bring home to him the dangers of the path he was taking, which does support the idea that it was more than a one off letter to save a former student.

Not only is the letter ‘topped and tailed’ with clever set pieces – a pun on Dodo’s name and a poetic depiction of the joys awaiting the sinner who repents – but the letter is full of well developed imagery and rhetorical devices.

Always assuming I’ve got it right, the opening is quite startling.  It is very visual, very physical and, to our eyes, most inappropriate for a teacher pupil relationship.  The image is that of Alcuin not as a teacher, not as a father, but as a mother.  ‘Nec bene lactatus raptus est ab uberibus meis’ makes the allegorical relationship very clear.  It requires of us a real effort to appreciate the relevance of this image for the relationship as Alcuin saw it.  The teacher feeds the pupil, but not just with ordinary food, but with milk from his breasts, recalling perhaps the Pelican feeding its young with blood from its breast. The ideal seems to be that this continues until the pupil is able to take solid food, until such time as he is weaned and thus able to obtain his own spiritual sustenance.  Things have gone wrong because Dido has been parted from his teacher before being this process was completed and is thus not fully protected against the temptations of the world. Dido is therefore not blamed – a very modern response – which opens the way for Alcuin to advise and Dodo to accept this advice.  A rhetorical device, certainly, but an interesting insight into what medieval education was about.  We are not talking here about knowledge of sacred texts but about being imprinted with the manner of being a monk as part of a loving relationship with a parental figure.  That this intuitive process is expressed in elaborate rhetorical language has a certain irony, as does the fact that the language used illustrates very clearly the difference between ‘grammatica’ and ‘rhetorica’.  This is not neutral  language.

Alcuin moves on to more very visual images, devices and biblical references to now as illustration of the risks Dido is running by his behaviour.  He builds up from reference to pains that Dodo should be bale to identify with to ‘totum corpus aeterno crucietur incendio’, from today’s delights of the flesh in terms of food and drink to the image of food rotting and stinking: ‘stercus’. The series of rhetorical questions in lines 55-60 demand to be spoken aloud, as do the repeated pairs beginning ‘in pietate et penitentia’ in lines 47ff.

Permanent, certainly and for us too, didactic.  On to the next letter!

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