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Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 2, October 1995
pp. 413-415 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0063

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Philosophy and Literature 19.2 (1995) 413-415

Book Review

Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages

Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages, by Rita Copeland; xiv & 295 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, $64.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.

In this deeply learned book, Rita Copeland studies the history of rhetoric and grammar and their shifting roles in the history of translation, commentary, and interpretation from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages. Copeland examines the ideological nexus of history, authority, and power in which commentary and vernacular translation function. "Vernacular writing," she says, can "authorize itself by taking over the function of academic discourse" (p. 8). Her book then traces the history of this "authorization" and this "dis-placement" of Latin sources by the increasingly academically privileged vernacular. All in all, Copeland tells the story of how medieval literary culture articulated its translatio studii by confronting and preserving its Classical inheritance and also developing a role for the vernacular as an active, creative agent in the production of authoritative works.

Ultimately "rhetoric" is the star of Copeland's book, and in essence she is telling its Roman and medieval life stories. By "rhetoric" we are to understand critical academic language that points toward ethics and practical action. Throughout the Middle Ages every modification or appropriation of critical tools expands the role of commentary and adds new forms of interpretive invention to the translation process. As Copeland puts it, "The medieval practice of translation as a form of appropriation and substitution will be conditioned, as in Roman contexts, by rhetorical theories of invention" (p. 36).

The hermeneutical costar is grammar, for as part of the complex appropriation of classical practice, medieval readers recoup the "debased" Roman category of grammar, so that by the time of Martianus Capella it can "claim for itself the whole compass of literary activity" (p. 56). As grammar expands its power, so does rhetoric, a civic Roman art which gets "revalued in terms of service to theology" (p. 59). Medieval commentary now "assumes the character of rhetorical performance" (p. 86) and takes on a "primary productive character," as it "continually refashions the [studied] text for changing conditions of understanding" (p. 64). What is emerging from all these developments is a medieval translation theory -- and practice -- which is informed by both academic and practical, ethical goals, that is, a hermeneutics forged by the link of grammar and rhetoric.

The rest of the book studies the shifting status and the evolving role of the vernacular in this medieval hermeneutical drama. Copeland addresses the Ovide moralisé and the French translations of the Consolatio, and then Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and Gower's Confessio Amantis. We witness here how vernacular products take on authority by "inventing themselves" through authoritative discourse. In Gower's Confessio we see the fusion of hermeneutics and rhetoric; the poem uses academic modes of discourse in the service of ethics or action. We thus see that by the late Middle Ages vernacular literature plays an authoritative role in the medieval translatio studii, as Gower seeks to "open the institution of learning to the widest possible audience and thereby empower it as a persuasive tool, leading to knowledge of the good" (p. 220). Overall, Copeland has told the story of the "leveling" of academic and vernacular discourse, so that the later, while not dispelling or overthrowing the former, can claim access to its traditional authority.

Copeland's prose is Latinate, at times pedantic and, at times, just plain Latin; reading the book can be a wearing experience. But it is all part of a history she knows in remarkable detail, a history that lies behind many assumptions we have about medieval ethical poetics. To have presented this history is a major scholarly feat. Copeland allows us to see medieval authors as both products and producers of methods of appropriation, imitation, conquest, and preservation -- all strategies for "translating" the past and creating a present that can leave its intellectual mark on the future. One might now want to employ Copeland's history of classical and medieval hermeneutics as a tool for examining our own, contemporary academic rhetorics and for analyzing the "state of...


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