- Speculative Grammar and Stoic Language Theory in Medieval Allegorical Narrative from Prudentius to Alan of Lille
Nearly three decades have passed since John Rist exhorted his fellow scholars to clarify the influence of philosophy on Christian literature. He believed that such a project would result in a rewriting of the intellectual history of the fourth century. Rist neglected to add that such an investigation would also improve our understanding of the Christian poets themselves. Prudentius's poetry and allegorical stance has been read through the lens of intellectual history, including the history of Epicureanism, Platonism, and Christian theology (in my The Roman Self in Late Antiquity, for example). In the same spirit, Jeffrey Bardzell argues that writers from Prudentius to Alan de Lille can be better understood by attending to the influence of Stoic ideas on their poetry. That is, Stoic linguistic theory as transmitted through the ancient grammatical tradition influenced medieval allegorical narrative and, in particular, was determinative for the nature of allegorical signification. While Bardzell's supporting arguments are challenged by the fact that no writings on Stoic grammar survive, nevertheless the project is worthwhile and, in the end, compelling because Bardzell encourages us to see the allegorical works of Prudentius and Alan de Lille as constituents of a coherent literary history, whose allegories can be understood according to the history of ideas.
In chapter 1, Bardzell attempts to support his claim that there is "a baseline compatibility between Stoic language theory and allegory as a narrative mode" (12). Bardzell argues that Stoic linguistics and logic significantly influenced ancient grammarians, who indirectly transmitted several of these ideas to medieval philosophy and poetry. Stoic language theory had three components: the utterance, the lekton, and the thing in the world. The utterance is the signifier, which refers directly to a thing; what is signified, the lekton (i.e., what gets said), expresses the thing as it is disposed in the world. For the Stoics, language does reflect reality. In combination, Stoic linguistics and Stoic logic focus on how things are disposed in the world; in other words, how things, facts, and states of affairs relate to each other to form a context that is reality. Bardzell concludes that the allegories of Prudentius and Alan de Lille have in common this integrative and holistic [End Page 482] approach to language, thought and reality. The key concepts in Bardzell's approach are the logical tools of extension and intension. Since a lekton's meaning depends on the context (its intension), an object in a passage means something different from its status as a thing (extension). Allegory can be understood to operate under such a context-dependent scheme.
In chapter 2, Bardzell applies this reading of Stoic logic and ancient grammar theory to the allegory of the Psychomachia. Specifically, Bardzell argues that "allegorical abstraction can be seen as a mode of communication in which intension overwhelms extension so that the aspect of or disposition through which an object enters the facts is more important than the object itself " (41). So, a virtue such as Piety is "the disposition of a body as it acts in the world" (41), and the thing or body itself has little if any meaning in this type of scheme. Thus, for Bardzell Prudentian virtues are lekta, neither mere utterances nor things but the expression of the relationship between the two that references a set of facts or state of affairs. Bardzell is at his best not in his interpretations of the individual episodes of the Psychomachia but in his analysis of how Stoic readings illuminate the Psychomachia's allegorical stance. For example, from the Abraham story Bardzell concludes that the Psychomachia is an epistemological poem that trains the reader to infer sacred or ethical patterns according to the idea that bodies (virtues and vices) are good or bad as they are disposed in facts and events. And further, Bardzell argues from his analysis of the image of rent robes in Alan (also seen in Prudentius and Boethius...