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

By Eric Jager | Go to book overview

to warn against the rhetorical arts of the old Serpent still lurking in the native vegetation.

Another problem of rhetoric and the Fall emerged later in the context of moral treatises and handbooks written for an increasingly literate laity.Medieval moralists liked to evoke seduction scenarios based on the Fall for the benefit of their readers, especially women. But moralists could go only so far in detailing what such seductions might involve, verbally and otherwise, as anticipated by Augustine in his temptation/conversion story, which mutes the sensual suggestions of his "mistresses." Medieval moralists were similarly aware that a too-detailed account of sin could itself lead into temptation, thus defeating their own purpose.Medieval penitential literature confronts the related problem that confession brings men and women not only into close quarters but also onto dangerous topics. Evoking a patristic emblem for fallen rhetoric, moralists urged their readers to "strip off" the "fig leaves" of self-excusing words and to confess themselves "nakedly"—but not too nakedly, lest the confession arouse either themselves or the priest.

Finally, secular poets writing in the vernacular also inherited certain problems of rhetoric and the Fall.Some poets were obviously concerned that the laity, in reading books of their own, might abuse texts in specifically rhetorical ways. In perhaps the most famous medieval example, Dante links Paolo and Francesca to Adam and Eve, offering a palinode to readers and authors alike about the seductive power of literary rhetoric.Furthermore, the very rise of a vernacular secular literature raised anew the old question of whether such rhetorical art was of a piece with the "weaving" of words inaugurated in the Garden.Even as a typological emblem, the tree in Augustine's garden points toward the autotelic potential of language, a rhetoric and poetics of the self. 116. Increasingly worldly, sensual, and self-preoccupied, the secular literature of the later Middle Ages often seems to play and revel in the very shade of the Tree of Eloquence that patristic culture regarded with such suspicion.

____________________
116.
See Freccero, " The Fig Tree and the Laurel."

-142-

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