Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition

Article excerpt

Hugh White, Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). ix + 278 pp. ISBN 0-19-818730-0. $65.00.

Characterized by meticulous and undogmatic scholarship, Hugh White's book will be an indispensable guide to the contradictoriness of Nature in medieval literature. In fulfilling its aim to 'demonstrate the complexity of the tradition of thought of which Gower and Chaucer were heirs' (P. 7), it also scotches a long-standing myth that medieval culture comfortably harmonized the concept of the natural with the rational and moral. This is hardly a minor matter.

The 'tradition' is found to be haunted by an authoritative 'Ulpianic' definition of natural law as 'what nature has taught all animals', especially about sexual drive (p. 21). How was Nature to be recuperated for morality and reason, if it was an ineluctable instinct towards fornication or polygamy? White shows how the scholastics resorted to a claim that fornication is natural to humans as a genus but not natural to them as a species. Alan of Lille sought to shore up the reasonableness of Nature by shifting responsibility for libido to Venus and Cupid. Further chapters go on to inspect more old ground afresh (what kind of sub-rational force is jean de Meun's Nature?), and they spring surprises, too. Renat le Contrefait (begun 13 19) defensively alleges that Nature's providential sexual design is thwarted by 'bad habits' ('male acoustumance') that humans import into their nature (pp. 169-70).

Chapter vi builds on the author's previous publications to make a classic statement on Gower's sense of Kinde as entrapment in the Confessio. Maturely engaging with the poem's inability to sustain a view of Nature as mediator between the instinctual and rational, White refrains from invoking irony to remove the poet from the problem. …

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