- Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy by Kellie Robertson
Nature speaks to us, all the time. If only we were fluent in her tongue! Modern environmental studies have developed a set of tools to interpret biophysics in their relationship with our subjectivities as human individuals, as scholars, and as citizens of the twenty-first century who both inhabit and transform their environment. But long before 1960s' system theories (and certainly long before so-called 'complexity theory'), the pre-modern mind also had ways of dealing with the limits of our knowledge, and willingly sought out to speak with nature, and to hear her voice speak. Unlike the modern and post-industrial intellect, the enquiry into Nature was a textual enquiry. The image on the book jacket sleeve of Kellie Robertson's book shows one such conversation, as depicted in fourteenth-century Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine (one of the core texts of this book), where Grace Dieu disputes livelily with Nature against a stark background of green foliage and a red curtain with a gold-rimmed square pattern (ideas, perhaps?). Grace Dieu wears blue, and her long-flowing blonde hair cascades from beneath her majestic crown. Nature wears a long red dress, and a white modest veil. But they both are engrossed in the debate, pointing at ideas and arguments with their hands, showing the flow of ideas to one another, and actively engaging in lively conversation. They mirror each other, and they weave a text that both explains them to one another, and constitutes them as subjectivities. Nature speaks, and humans can not only listen, but also learn from it.
At a moment when our relationship with Nature is at a crucial crisis, Kellie Robertson's book explores this fecund medieval link between the language of physics (natural philosophy) and of literature (of love poetry, in particular) in the different personifications of Nature during the late medieval period. With an astonishing knowledge of comparative literature and a masterly command of sources that ranges from Heraclitus to Raymond Williams, Robertson starts by exploring the medieval reception of Aristotle's Physics, and its polymorphic penetration not just in the classroom and the monastery, but also into imaginative literature in both Latin and vernacular sources. In a second section, those concepts are applied to literary representations of a personified Nature in French literature, with specific attention to texts by Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Deguileville. [End Page 241] Robertson reads those core texts in a comparative fashion and as part of a broader textual tradition that includes Latin and vernacular encyclopedic texts, Aristotelian commentaries, philosophical treatises, and polemicists' exchanges in lesser-known genres such as epistles or scholia; and our reading is made all the better thanks to this approach.
Finally, the author turns her attention to the English vernacular tradition, and provides an engaging, indeed fascinating, reading of Chaucer and of Lydgate that combines close reading of the chosen sources with adequate and carefully interwoven cross-referencing of secondary sources.
This is a joy to read. This is also an essential book for scholars of medieval Aristotle and for anyone interested in medieval love poetry. It will provide an arsenal of suggestions and projects for anyone interested in the work of Juan de Mena, of Juan Ruiz (Archpriest of Hita, and author of the Book of Good Love), and Latin love poetry collections such as the Carmina Rivipullensia. And for that, we should be immensely grateful. I know that I am.