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

By Eric Jager | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Garden of Eloquence

[Whoever] violates the command of God has become naked
and ... wants to cover himself with fig leaves, sewing
together, as it were, insubstantial and shady words which
he interweaves word after word with patched-together
lies in order to make a veil.

—Ambrose

FOR PATRISTIC AUTHORS the Fall was the archetypal seduction through language, especially as embodied in its two episodes of temptation.The Serpent had verbally persuaded Eve to eat of the forbidden tree, and the text hinted that Eve had mimicked her own tempter in similarly persuading Adam.Moreover, after their sin the humans had covered themselves not only with fig leaves but also, when questioned by God, with evasive excuses, a further sign that something had gone wrong with eloquence in the Garden.Finally, all the rhetorical abuses implicated in the Fall could be instructively set against the "divine eloquence" used by God himself, before the Fall, in urging the humans to obey his command and not eat of the forbidden Tree.

Genesis 3 lent itself easily to rhetorical issues, just as it did to doctrinal and hermeneutical ones. Exegetes and poets brought to this text a number of crucial assumptions that vastly enriched the Fall as a scene for matters of eloquence.First, they widely assumed that the Serpent spoke for Satan, Augustine even maintaining that Satan had used the Serpent as his mouthpiece, manipulating its body to make the sounds of speech and to offer a convincing performance to Eve.This notion, accepted by the rest of patristic and medieval tradition, greatly enhanced the Fall as a scenario for rhetorical artifice.Second, patristic authors inferred that Eve felt a desire for the

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