An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (10) Medieval Literature as History (Philology & Erich Auerbach)
An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (10) Medieval Literature as History (Philology & Erich Auerbach)
Good Afternoon, Everybody!
I’m not one to point out a problem and not try to offer a solution, so here’s the bundle: to avoid ripping off or imitating great fantasists of the past (i.e., the “problem”), I think that creators can avoid a lot of the recycled Tolkien-Lewis style of “epic fantasy” out there by — “solution” — returning to the medieval wellsprings from which those Oxford & Cambridge professors drew inspiration: Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Otherwise, many would-be fantasy writers risk simply treading over the same ground that Tolkien and Lewis long ago traveled in the 20th Century, leaving those of us in the 21st century with that slightly dismaying feeling of “haven’t I seen this before?” when reading fantasy novels.
For this series of blogs on the importance of knowing something about medieval literature when writing epic fantasy, I’ve been exploring how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien brought aspects of their enthusiasm for the medieval period into their respective creations of Narnia and Middle Earth. I’ve particularly emphasized these creators’ academic credentials, and today I want to introduce you to the works of Erich Auerbach, an intellectual peer of Lewis and Tolkien, who with Tolkien shared a passion for philology — or, “the study of language in written historical sources.” (Personally, Auerbach’s works had a profound impact on my early training in medieval studies, and remains an important influence whenever I research literary topics in the Middle Ages.)
For my recommendation that would-be epic fantasy writers strive to recreate a “bygone age” that evokes aspects of the period 500-1500, the works of Erich Auerbach (and one of his 18th century influences, Giambattista Vico) can do much in teaching how reading the literature of a certain time can give one a true sense of cultural and historical realities for that time. If you’re trying to write “realistic” fantasy fiction that’s based on an imagined Middle Ages, you could do no better than reading Auerbach, and discovering how each century of the medieval era was reflected in its literature!
Okay, on with a brief recap of Auerbach’s work — in the form of a book review because, frankly, I’ve been on Goodreads for a couple of years and have yet to post one! — and then I’ll make some concluding thoughts afterwards on how Auerbach’s work relates to Tolkien and Lewis. (Please note: all bold emphases are mine … trying to emphasize points to which I’ll return when discussing Auerbach’s critique of Tolkien in a later blog!)
Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (Trans. by Ralph Mannheim. New Foreword by Jan M. Ziolkowski. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. http://www.amazon.com/Auerbach_Literary Language)
Erich Auerbach was born in Berlin, Germany, on November 9, 1892. His family was upper-middle class and Jewish, and Auerbach received an excellent education at the Französisches Gymnasium, which emphasized classical studies and French literature. He earned a law degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1913, and then served in the German Army during World War I. His intellectual interests changed during the course of the war, because in 1921 he received his doctorate in philosophy (with an emphasis on Romance philology) from the University of Greifswald. He served as a librarian in the Prussian State Library from 1923 to 1929, during which time he published his first work, a translation of Giambattista Vico’s Principi di una Scienza Nuova.
In 1929, he was appointed to the chair of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, and it was at that university where he published Dante, Poet of the Secular World (1929); he continued working here until he was dismissed by the Nazis in 1935 because of the race laws that went into effect in Germany. Auerbach fled the country with his wife and son, and he relocated in Turkey, where he began teaching at the University of Istanbul — he remained in this country until 1947, and completed two works during his tenure there: Mimesis (publ. 1946) and Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature (publ. 1949). In 1947, Auerbach moved his family to the United States, where he taught for a brief time at Pennsylvania State University and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; thereafter, in 1950, he was appointed as professor of Romance philology at Yale, where he remained until his death on October 13, 1957.
Mimesis was the work that set forth the thesis that is central to Auerbach’s critical methodology: the proposition that literary texts can be used as means to understand the historical reality of a given time period, because the authors of that time period shape the way that reality is perceived. In Mimesis, Auerbach began with a comparison of passages from Homer’s Odyssey and the Old Testament, and then continued with an assessment that analyzes texts from the Middle Ages through the Modern Era. Auerbach’s final work, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, was published posthumously in Germany in 1958, with an English translation appearing in the United States in 1965. The book was intended, in the author’s words, as a “…supplement to Mimesis” in its approach to the title subject.
In a manner similar to how Tolkien expressed his love of philology, Auerbach’s whole career was devoted to the study of language as a means of understanding historical phenomena because language, as a creation of — and articulation of — human thought in the past, possessed the capacity to serve as a “window” for researchers to entire swaths of history in fields beyond the written or spoken word. In this belief, Auerbach followed Giambattista Vico’s axiom that one could analyze historical periods with reference to contemporaneous human actions within those periods.
Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) was an Italian philosopher who sought to scientifically approach the study of history. Auerbach’s intellectual debt to Vico consisted primarily of three elements: (1) a belief that history is an “intelligible whole”, (2) a belief in Geistesgechichte (or, “spiritual history”) of a people, and, finally, (3) Vico’s belief that the history of past human life can be recaptured by analysis.
For Auerbach, these past human lives were best-captured in looking at the literary achievements of a given age, because the authors of written texts reflected the environment in which they lived. His work in Mimesis concentrated on the philological analysis of literature in relation to history, with careful attention to texts and authors that spanned a time frame from the Old Testament and Homer’s Odyssey to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in the Modern period. In Mimesis, Auerbach’s method was to analyze selected texts by means of critical apparatus that he had developed during his career, which assessed documents by: (1) a recognition of “high, middle, and low” styles that had been identified by literary theorists of antiquity; (2) an application of “figural interpretations” for assessments of how the medieval person understood the Bible; and (3) an analytical concentration on key passages in the literary works, or, rather, a “fragmentary” approach to the texts which sought to induce from the narratives a historical reality that revealed the Geistesgechichte (“history of ideas”) for the people of the time period.
This method of inductive inquiry also characterized Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Auerbach’s intention was to describe the rise of a reading public in the medieval period by assessing four themes: (1) the Christian concept of sermo humilis; (2) Latin prose in the Early Middle Ages; (3) the “rebirth of the sublime” in the Twelfth Century; and (4) the “literary public” that existed from the Augustan Age to around 1300 A.D., the period of Dante Aligheri (1265-1321).
Because this work is a “supplement” to Mimesis, Auerbach believed that he must address a special problem from that work: “…the great hiatus [600-1100 A.D.], the period in which there is no literary public and no generally intelligible literary language.”
The first chapter, “Sermo Humilis,” begins with an examination of the rhetorical style of St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) with reference to the three Ciceronian categories of writing: (1) the “sublime,” which teaches, (2) the “intermediate,” which is used for condemnation or praise, and (3) the “lowly,” which is to persuade. “Sermo” here is the actual means by which the Christian message is transmitted to an audience, while “humilis” is the “low-lying” manner in which Christian oratory and literature began to be presented in order to reach the widest possible audience. Auerbach saw in this term — derived from the Latin humiliates — a literary style designed for a broad audience because of its clarity of language and lack of ornamentation. He saw the sermo humilis as characterizing the language of both the Holy Scriptures and all the Christian literature of Late Antiquity (e.g., the Patristic Literature, sermons, martyrologies) because the simple style can present the “sublime” issues of Christian doctrine in a way that a mass audience can understand (for example, the complex concept of the Incarnation) .
Christian writers never lost this capacity for making clear their message about God, and in the section within this chapter entitled “Excursus: Gloria Passionis,” Auerbach demonstrated how writers treated one aspect of Christian belief (the Passion of Christ’s death) during a five hundred year period. Featured prominently in this section are mystical considerations of the “earthly transcendence” of Christ’s “passio” — a transcendence which Christian writers advocated should be imitated by those of the faith — by St.Ambrose (339-397 A.D.), St. Augustine, the martyrologies of Late Antiquity, and also in the medieval period, in St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s (1090-1153 A.D.) commentary on the Song of Songs and Cistercian mysticism.
The second chapter, “Latin Prose in the Early Middle Ages,” assessed the title topic with an analyses of Boethius (475-525 A.D.), whom Auerbach calls the last “ancient’ author; that is, a writer who explicitly concerned himself with classical philosophy instead of completely Christian subjects. He also assesses writers such as Caesarius of Arles (470-542), Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.), Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.), Gregory of Tours (538-594) and the Carolingian writer, Einhard (770-840).
Auerbach saw Latin literature becoming “medieval” in the first half of the Sixth Century, because the language was more “pragmatic and utilitarian” as it spread into the barbarian provinces of Gaul, Germany and Spain. Auerbach’s account analyzed the texts with an attention to the “sermo humilis” by Christian writers; this topos used to such an extent that the Latin language ceases to develop and flourish as it might have done otherwise. In this case, Auerbach exemplified the process of grammatical and topical “disintegration” very apparent in the work of both Gregory the Great and Gregory of Tours.
Auerbach’s analysis of the language of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues revealed an “…almost childlike, fairy-tale world” that Auerbach saw reflecting some aspects of the popular perception of the time. (Side-note: keep this “fairy tale” aspect in mind; we saw Tolkien’s concern with it in the last blog, and the themes within ancient and medieval folklore recur often in tales of Middle Earth, as well as in Lewis’s Narnia books!) In the latter case, Gregory of Tours rhetorical attempts to reach the masses in a vernacular manner that revealed Christian views — i.e., an to interpret historical actions and current events in Biblical terms — underlay much of the literary changes that began in the Early Middle Ages. In this example, Auerbach observed that the “…narration [became]…an end in itself.”
More precisely, as one commentator on Auerbach observed, “Through his enormously sensitive intuition and the breadth of his vision, Auerbach was able to identify the special contribution of Christianity to the development of Western literature. It was a ‘figural’ view of mankind that conferred transcendent meaning upon ordinary characters and their temporal existence. The story of Christ in the Gospels provided Auerbach an almost sacred source for that revolutionary concept of the human condition.” (Edward W. Amend, “Erich Auerbach.” In Roland Turner ed.,Thinkers of the Twentieth Century. [Chicago: St. James Press, 1987], p. 32.)
Using Christian writing as a touchstone, Auerbach went on to analyze Gregory of Tours’ works, and found that what the Merovingian historian lacked in attention to classical Latin grammatical forms, he more than compensated for both in the originality of his presentations and in his ability to recount the actual “pace of events.” However, the disintegration of the Latin language (which, ironically, Auerbach also saw beginning with Gregory of Tours), reached a crisis by the time of the of Einhard and the Carolingians, a process which does start to reverse itself until the advent of the Ottonians (i.e., 919-1024 A.D., particularly with the work of Gerbert of Aurillac). Auerbach in this section attributed much of the credit to the influences of monastic houses such as Cluny and Gorze, as well as to the Ottonian court itself.
The third chapter, “Camilla, or, the Rebirth of the Sublime,” demonstrated how much of a change took place in Latin literature from antiquity to the medieval period. Auerbach initially compared Virgil’s Aeneid with the poem of an anonymous man in the Plantagenet court of France; in this French poem, Auerbach found an “ornamentation” of style that totally “destroys” what Auerbach calls the “happening [of the event].” The rest of the chapter was devoted to this kind of analysis, measuring medieval poetry (including the chansons de geste), the historiography of the Crusades and of English history that appeared in the Twelfth Century, and the “courtly roman” (novel) against classical models throughout the period until the time of Dante (c. 1300).
For Auerbach, Dante Alighieri’s works represent the highest achievement of late medieval literature, especially in how the poet developed a vernacular language (Italian) to the point where it could present the “sublime” in a competitive manner with the Latin literature of antiquity. This was a watershed moment in the history of literary studies, for Auerbach had identified a crucial transformation. As Frank Kermode observed in a contemporary review : “..[until this high medieval moment] the sublime was confined to religion, and literature was the preserve of the church schools. And this state of affairs continued until love provided the topic of the secular sublime, and the vernacular assumed the power and authority of Latin. This was [in Auerbach’s view], largely the work of Dante… .” (Frank Kermode, “Dante,” New Statesman, Friday, 7 January 1966.)
Auerbach then launched into his fourth chapter, “The Western Public and Its Language,” which basically recounted how the Latin language was transformed into the Romance languages with which we still live today. His attention started in the days of the Principate (i.e., 27 B.C. to 284 A.D.) with the works of Horace, Propertius, and Ovid, and masterfully traced a continuity all the way to Dante, with an analytical line that always focused on a “literary language” that Auerbach differentiated from colloquial language by “…selectivity, homogeneity, and conservatism.” In a breath-taking sweep of historical assessment, Auerbach traced the disintegration of the Roman school system (because of the barbarian invasion of the Fifth Century), but also highlighted how teaching shifted into the province of the Church. He also tended to the business of justifying the title of his book by charting the decline and disappearance of a “literary public,” with special attention given to the fact that the “educated classes” who could participate in a literary tradition simply disappeared from the historical evidence after the late Fifth Century.
Only in the Twelfth Century does Latin begin to emerge as a literature for another educated circle, the Scholastics (those who sought to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology), and here Auerbach’s attention turned to the work of Peter Abelard (1079-1142), but he also kept attention on what was occurring in the vernacular, as seen in his discussion of the Strasbourg Oaths of 842 (notable because they were recorded simultaneously in the developing vernaculars of the time: German, French, and Latin). He also maintained a tight focus on hagiographic sermons and epic legends that were used to reach the masses in a vernacular manner. The chapter continues an account of the rise of vernacular languages in France, England, Italy, and Germany, ending with an assertion that the Europe of the 20th Century — despite the many vernacular forms of language that Latin took — shared in a common cultural “self-awareness and a will to cultivate its own humanity,” and further, in the same concluding passage:
“...we may venture to speak of a European society and even of a European Hochsprache. What unites them is their common root in antiquity and Christianity. For this combination contains the dialectical force which, even if Europe, like Rome before it, should now lose its power and even cease to exist as such — has prefigured the forms of a common social and cultural life on our planet.”
Auerbach’s statement here that antiquity and Christianity combined in the historical period of Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages focused on the idea of “prefigurement.” Here the J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis fans should take special note, because the idea was one that lay behind much of their academic work, but appeared clearly in the epic fantasies that they wrote! “Prefigurement” is the idea of symbolic representation, especially in the Christian context, and it is immensely important to Auerbach, Tolkien, and Lewis’s understanding of the Latin language and also the history of Western Europe. Tolkien and Auerbach, particularly, believed in the power of philology to reveal historical “truth” about great periods of time, and in this book Auerbach demonstrated a masterpiece application of this principle. Auerbach focused on the dominance of Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, and how that presence changed the very nature of literary expression.
To recap: in Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, Auerbach explained an almost thousand-year change in its title topic first by an analysis of the sermo humilis style of writing that was adopted by Christian writers from the Fifth Century onwards; secondly, he recounted the disintegration of Latin literature in its classical form and the reemergence of a literary language in the Romance vernaculars; third, these off-shoots of Latin began to attain true sophistication with a “sublime” style that appeared in the so-called Twelfth Century Renaissance, and culminated with, fourth, the writings of Dante Alighieri in the late-13th and early-14th Centuries. That increased sophistication of language was achieved because a shift began to occur in the literature that moves from Christianity per se to the incorporation of “love” as a central element in literary works, with Dante Aligheri being the prime example of this shift. Both points are proven by Auerbach by his attention to the historical texts with a lens of figurae in literature — a concept developed in his earlier works — always present.
Beyond the attention to figurae in literature, Auerbach also remained consistent with his analytic method of attending carefully to “fragments” in historical texts as a means of explaining greater historical phenomena. Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages is justifiably “highly recommended reading” for any aspiring medievalist or would-be epic fantasist, for in its pages (and also in Mimesis and all of Auerbach’s work) are conceptual and analytical tools which, with careful application, can immensely aid one’s understanding of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages.
Most importantly for this blog-series’ attempts at urging would-be epic fantasists, many of Auerbach’s beliefs about the relevance of antiquity and the Middle Ages were shared by Tolkien himself, a fellow philologist who incorporated those periods in his academic and world-building. As Christopher Snyder notes in his wonderful biography of Tolkien that I just discovered,
“… [a strand of continuity in Tolkien’s fiction runs from the barbarian age to the fifteenth century] and is what scholars call ‘medievalism,’ a reimagining of the Middle Ages that blends contemporary preoccupations with the historical realities of medieval Europe. Both the medieval and medievalism had an enormous impact on Tolkien in his creation of a secondary world he called Middle-Earth, which itself has now become one of the most famous examples of medievalism. In other words, Tolkien the academic was a medievalist who expanded our knowledge of the Middle Ages, while Tolkien the writer of fiction extended and expanded the scope of medievalism at a time when few people thought the medieval world had anything to teach the modern one.” (Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien, New York: Sterling, 2013; p. 39.)
Auerbach, Tolkien, and Lewis realized that the medieval world had many things to teach us, and with most of the panoply of late antique and medieval literature readily available (and many have free versions), you can start reading the texts these professors did with a simple visit to the library or a click of the cursor!
What are you still doing here? Get on it and start reading some medieval literature!
Thanks for visiting,
Next Time: Erich Auerbach’s Review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Work!