The Tempter's Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature

By Eric Jager | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The Serpent asked the first question in the world.

—The Venerable Bede

THE STORY OF Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is one of the oldest and most enduring myths of Western culture.Since ancient times the third chapter of Genesis has seen countless interpretations and has served numerous ideological ends.During the first four Christian centuries, and for another ten medieval centuries, European civilization found—or founded—in the "Fall," among other things, a powerful myth about language.Patristic ideas about language and the Fall, and the lively medieval response to these ideas in learned and popular writings, form the subject of this book.My aim is to explore how biblical commentators, moralists, and poets used the Fall to address practical and theoretical problems of language relating to literature, knowledge, power, society, and eros.

In making Genesis 3 central to Christian theology, patristic authorities such as Augustine turned the Fall into not only a prime example for social and moral issues of the day but also a kind of primal scene for language, a garden of signs having far-reaching significance for discourse in the church and society. i. Medieval authors further developed the Garden as a ground for language theory and a stage for practical problems of language.There were other biblical stories about language, of course, most notably the confusion of tongues at Babel (Gen. II). However, while Babel was important to medieval language theory, this later crisis of the word, this "second Fall," did not emerge as a major literary topos until after the Renaissance, with the decline of Latin as a "universal" language and

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i.
On the Fall as a paradigm for moral and social issues in the early church, see Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent ( New York, 1988); and Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity ( New York, 1988).

-i-

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