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Reviewed by:
  • Language and the Declining World in Chaucer, Dante, and Jean de Meun
  • Stephen G. Nichols (bio)
Language and the Declining World in Chaucer, Dante, and Jean de Meun. By John M. Fyler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 318. Cloth $115.00.

Language and the Declining Worldis an ambitious book, ranging from classical and biblical antiquity to the world of Chaucer via Jean de Meun's Roman de la Roseand Dante's oeuvre. To realize so encompassing a program, John Fyler, professor of English at Tufts University, devotes a chapter to each of his principal topics. But the chapter headings—"The Biblical History of Language," "Love and Language in Jean de Meun," "Dante and Chaucer's [End Page 120]Dante," and "The Prison House of Language"—are signposts rather than demarcations segregating the announced subject into tight chronological or thematic domains.

Intentionally so, for Fyler argues that medieval vernacular literature is saturated with allusions to both classical literature and the Bible. He makes the point by indicating the frequent references to Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Aristotle, and Plato—to name but the most obvious—as well as to the Bible, the church fathers, and biblical commentary. Beyond demonstrating the erudition that distinguishes this book, this technique interweaves the skeins of Fyler's thesis. Simply put, he holds that Jean de Meun, Dante, and Chaucer, each in his own way, adopted the theory of veiled or opaque language articulated by Saint Augustine, particularly in De doctrina christiana.

Before the Fall, God communicated perfectly and directly with Adam and Eve. Afterward, language and gesture were required, but these could not convey with certainty the speaker's thought, nor could an interlocutor be assured of understanding meaning or nuance. "The word of God was veiled," and so all language struggled with "the dislocation of consciousness produced by the distance between the inquiring intellect and the object of its search. . . . This veil, the language of sign and symbol, was both the distance of the mind from God and the avenue by which the philosophic searcher might reach him" (2). Whether one believed the veil could ultimately be penetrated or would remain opaque, humans, Augustine argued, must make the effort to understand.

For the next millennium and more, thinkers accepted Augustine's challenge, not least among them, Fyler argues, being Jean de Meun, Dante, and Chaucer. Each of them "makes use of, and significantly adds to, the commentarial and Augustinian traditions. . . . Dante is the most thoroughgoing Augustinian of the three; but Augustine and the tradition of Biblical commentary also had a profound effect on the way Jean de Meun and Chaucer thought about language, as both the tool and the resistant material of their craft" (2).

But the vernacular poets drew on a venerable tradition. From Adam's exercise of naming the animals to the Tower of Babel, the fate of language in Genesis came to be seen as a paradigm of language generally. The model, of course, was that of division, the destruction of unity signaled by the Fall. Authorities from Philo on represent Cain as the original agent of fragmentation, who divided all spheres of human activity from language to land. As the founder of the first city (Gen. 4:17), Cain further divided humans into urban and rural dwellers. For Philo, the city is simply an extension of the linguistic deceit Cain invents in his lying response to God's question [End Page 121]"Where is your brother, Abel?" Noting the implausibility of the idea that Cain "invented" the city, Philo says that Genesis 4:17 must be read allegorically to "mean that Cain resolves to set up his own creed, just as one might set up a city, and that Cain's buildings are demonstrative arguments" (28).

In following the lead of the early fathers, as well as Jewish thinkers like Philo and Josephus, Fyler shifts the typological focus of Genesis from a figural to a linguistic dynamic of revelation. The difference is not trivial. Figural interpretation by definition reinforces the dichotomy between old law and new law wherein the new law both supersedes the old and reveals it as an incomplete, occulted view of universal history. It does...