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  • What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods
  • Tomas Zahora
Ruys, Juanita Feros, ed., What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods (Disputatio, 15), Turnhout, Brepols, 2007; hardback; pp. xiv, 530; 3 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. €90.00; ISBN 9782503525969.

In his Epistle 94, Seneca writes that advice is important 'because nature does not teach what ought to be done in every specific circumstance.' Following this theme, a conscious choice was made in this volume to focus not on a specific period or place but on the longue durée of didactic literature, and to include a variety of sources, provided that they were 'created, transmitted, or received' with a design 'to teach, instruct, advise, edify, inculcate morals, or modify and regulate behaviour' (p. 5).

Juanita Feros Ruys' introduction serves as a programmatic foundation and guide to the volume. Ruys locates didacticism at the intersection of authorial intent, transmission and reception by the audience, and poses a series of questions centred on the creation of meaning in the didactic process. Correspondingly, the volume emphasizes the social context of teaching, the role of gender and the intimate aspects of the exchange of knowledge.

The essays are divided into five thematic sections. The first, 'Constructing Didactic Intent and Persona', opens with Steven J. Williams' study of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets, which reveals both the flexibility and limitations of a well-known medieval didactic text. Kathleen Olive introduces a fascinating example of the zibaldone genre of Italian middle-class didactic literature, in this case a commonplace book of religious, classical and vernacular extracts and personal advice set against (mostly) Florentine architectural topography and pride. In focusing on the migrant nature of Christine de [End Page 243] Pizan's authorial voice, Louise D'Arcens explores the layers of authority, objectivity and didactic force that come with an outsider's status – and finds in this 'neglected weapon in her literary armoury' a source of authorial and didactic strength.

'Children and Families', the second section of the volume, moves the emphasis to the intimacy of the household. Maria Nenarokova's essay on Vladimir Monomakh's Instruction is an exploration of theological, political and moral characteristics of an ideal Christian ruler in a didactic text that also allows for an attempted reconstruction of its impact. Juanita Feros Ruys uses parental advice to children as a foundation to suggest the movement toward a greater acceptance of personal experience as a didactic method, and offers a revision of the accepted relationship between gender and teaching by example. Catherine England's essay is a study of the pragmatic Florentine approach to education where children were viewed as a precious commodity whose education was expected to secure successful continuation of family lines.

The third section, 'Women, Teaching, Gender', stands out both by its length and by the centrality of its themes to the volume's core aims. Stavroula Constantinou's contribution looks at the interplay of rhetoric and exemplarity in the didactic performance of female Byzantine saints using texts written by their followers as testimony of their success. Albrecht Classen examines views on marriage and gender relations in the works of Thomasin von Zerclaere and Hugo von Trimberg, and discovers a considerable degree of equality and respect for women within an otherwise predictably patriarchal discourse. Julie Hotchin offers a nuanced study of male perspectives on governing cloistered women, supported by the personal experience of an author of a manual for male ecclesiastics. Ursula Potter deftly shows that the true embodiment of a particular male ideal of woman is a 'flat, emblematic character' (p. 281), enough of a foundation for Shakespeare to create vivid characters as its antithesis. Alexandra Barratt carries forward the theme of female captivity to male models of behaviour in her survey of translations of literature made into English for the use of women.

The section titled 'Literacy, Piety, Heresy, Control' begins with John O. Ward's insightful analysis of a text located midway between oral and written culture where he captures some of the richness of allusions and non-textual clues that made up the full context of medieval didactic...


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