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  • What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods
  • Moira Fitzgibbons
What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods. Edited by Juanita Feros Ruys. Disputatio, 15. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2008. Pp. xii + 527; 3 illustrations. $107.60.

Given the breadth of the category “didactic literature” and the wide-ranging disciplinary, geographical, and chronological scope of this volume, it would have been all too easy for this anthology to fly apart at the seams. The book is bound together, however, by its contributors’ consistent engagement with important questions posed by Ruys in her introduction. Does a firm boundary separate instruction from entertainment? Do secular and religious didactic writers employ the same strategies? Can we ever be sure how this material was taught, and how audiences received it? Richly varied in its responses, What Nature Does Not Teach highlights the stakes involved when writers take it upon themselves to tell others what to do.

The volume’s thematic organization helps readers discern useful points of connection among disparate texts. Following Ruys’s introduction, the book begins with several essays considering “Constructing Didactic Intent and Persona.” Steven J. Williams draws upon contemporary commentary, patterns of textual appropriation, and codicological evidence to argue that medieval readers regarded the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets as a source of guidance rather than merely as a miscellany. Of course, the content of the instruction found in some texts can be less than straightforward. As Kathleen Olive’s essay vividly demonstrates, the fifteenth-century Italian author of the Codex Rustici spends more time teaching his readers about Florentine architectural triumphs than about his ostensible subject, pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Even writers who carefully craft their didactic voices often change their tactics over the course of their careers. Louise D’Arcens skillfully traces the varying ways Christine de Pizan invokes her Italian heritage in her efforts to function as a “self-fashioned advisor” to French audiences (p. 82). In all three essays, the didactic mode emerges not as an assumption of a single authoritative position, but as a dynamic process involving a variety of self-representations.

The complications involved in parental pedagogy come to the forefront in “Children and Families,” the next section of the anthology. Each essay within this section emphasizes that present-day ideas concerning “natural” bonds between parents and children do not necessarily apply to every cultural context. Maria Nenarokova’s analysis makes clear that within the Instruction written by the Great Prince of Kiev Vladimir Monomakh (ca. 1053–1125) to his sons, political realities and theological precepts loom larger than personal ties. Similarly, the legislation, [End Page 250] letters, and treatises explored by Catherine England indicate that writers in Renaissance Florence attached importance to children primarily as embodiments of a family’s patrimony and as potentially productive contributors to the adult world. Focusing on rhetorical strategies, Ruys investigates the sources of authority drawn upon by medieval and early-modern writers when addressing their children. Although modern readers might assume as a matter of course that parents would extensively discuss their own experiences with their children, Ruys demonstrates that many writers—particularly women—do so only sparingly, supporting their recommendations with written authorities instead.

Several social questions raised by Ruys’s essay receive fuller treatment in the volume’s next section, “Women, Teaching, Gender.” Alexandra Barratt’s contribution, “English Translations of Didactic Literature for Women to 1550,” surveys a wide range of texts designed for women, including religious rules, liturgical works, and mystical treatises. In many instances, Barratt concludes, both medieval and early-modern women constituted a “captive audience” for the lessons deemed suitable for them by male writers (p. 299). Controlling female sexuality was often the heart of the matter, as detailed by Ursula Potter in her discussion of Juan Luis Vives’s sixteenth-century work, The Instruction of a Christian Woman. Potter suggests, however, that several Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, incorporated Vives’s ideas within their plays in order to argue against them. Other essays within this section also find evidence of counterpoints to misogyny. Stravroula Constantinou’s “Women Teachers in Early Byzantine Hagiography,” for instance, describes several narratives which...


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