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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Filed under Learning Matters in the Medieval World

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