Medieval Philosophy


Around the first century of the common era we moved from ancient clay tablets and papyri, cloth, and parchment scrolls (which suffered more weather and survive in worse repair) to manuscripts, works printed in pages (often on vellum, thin sheepskin), and when contained between two covers, typically made of wood, that is, to what we call codices, but recognize simply as books.  (~~info on one of our oldest manuscripts, the Codex Sinaiticus~~and general info on codices, here~~)  When these manuscripts are richly decorated—most of them were—we call them illuminated manuscripts.  The medieval period may be understood as intimately connected to bookmaking—its legacy is inseparable from the laborious copying of ancient writings and dissemination of texts by monks and nuns.  Such required innovation in language, translation, construction of books, etc.  Under Charlemagne, himself illiterate, the Western world saw the greatest intellectual advance (return to its past glory?) of the middle ages (perhaps second only to the 15th c.‘s invention of the ~~Gutenberg Press~~ in terms of import) with the introduction of the Carolingian Minuscule (~~see here~~and here~~and here~~), a script, called a “book-hand,” that introduced clear uppercase letters, first contained the newly invented lower case letters, added spaces between words, and standardized overall the Roman alphabet.  With this script, books could be reproduced with greater speed and more universally understood.  The technical aspects of books should not be ignored—these elements can actually shed great light on the very content of the works.

~~British Library on Bookbinding~~

Form of Texts:

Beyond the covers and titles, the first little element to hit one is often the epigraph.  This is a short quote or quip, sometimes by the author, but much more commonly a quote of someone else.  Their choice by authors is exceedingly intentional; much should be read into the work from what and how the epigraph reads.  Cf., Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, where Johannes de silentio begins with a quote from Hamann about Tarquinius Superbus, an early King of Rome, (“What Tarquin the Proud said in his garden with the poppy blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger,” p.39 in Hannay trans.) which exemplifies indirect communication and features a father and son.

A preface (Latin, prae-, before, -factum/-fari, spoken or made, borrowed into English through the Old French in the 14th c. where it mean “that opening part of sung devotions”) is written by the book’s author and typically addresses the ‘meta’ dimension of the book: how did it come to be or what gave him or her reason to write it; methods, pedagogy, or aims of the writing.  (One can see these used very frequently in early Greek medical and scientific texts where they state method, but also in philosophical and literary works.)  It may well end with acknowledgements of others who contributed in some way to the book, its coming to be, or to the author and thereby to the book.  They are occasionally signed and dated by the author. 

William Smellie begins the preface to his 18th c. work of natural history with what has become a well-cited remark on the nature and import of prefaces (read “f” as “s”):

  1. “Every Preface, befide occafional or explanatory remarks, fhould contain not only the general defign of the work, but the motives and circumftances which induced the author to write upon that particular fubject.  If this plan had been univerfally obferved, prefaces woulf have exhibited a fhort, but a curious and usfeful, hiftory both of literature and of authors” (William Smellie, The Philosophy of Natural History, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: 1790), v.).

Within Christianity, “preface” also specifically names the introduction to the central part of the Eucharist (the opening “thanksgiving” in which the priest glorifies and thanks God), hence forming the first part of the canon or prayer of consecration.  However, one of the richest prefaces we will read is Descartes’ ‘preface to the reader’ in his Meditations, wherein close scrutiny of the tone tells us more about his work’s content than his introduction.  Such tonal revelations should also be noted in Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works. 

(The preface’s opposite is the postface, which is a piece, typically written by the author, that follows the text; it can be like a conclusion, but typically one that stands at a distance, more a final reflection on the text, or like an appendix, concluding with information or ideas that are supplemental to the work.) 

A foreword is also a reflection upon the book in full (more so than just its content), but is typically written by another person besides the book’s author.  They are almost always signed and dated by the forward-writer.  The term in this meaning only really dates from 1842, perhaps borrowed from the German Vorwort, “preface,” yet meant to designate a difference from preface per se.

An introduction is written by the book’s author, but addresses more closely the actual content within the book (versus reflections upon the nature or genesis or goals of the book).  Such is deemed part of the book, as opposed to a part of the ‘frontmatter.’

In the tradition, a preface comes first (and, if there are multiple prefaces, the newest come first), then a foreword, then the introduction.  Occasionally newer forewords will replace older forewords, but different prefaces will be kept.

Where things become more confusing is in the consideration of prologues, proems/exordiums, etc.

A prologue also is a “before” “word,” (in English, it originates in the early 12th c. from the Latin and Greek prologus) but is in between an authorial or non-authorial reflection upon the text (they may be written by the author, or added later by other writers or editors) and an introduction to the text’s content: it, more so, establishes the setting in full or theme or tone that is before what will be told in the content (sometimes a back story to characters or ideas, sometimes a prehistory, etc., sometimes epigraph-like, sometimes like a soliloquy, medievals enjoyed homilies serving as prologues).  Prologues are perhaps most common in early Greek drama (esp. Euripides but can be traced back to manuscripts from the 5th c. BCE and also in Persian), although early Latin literature generally made them longer and more elaborate, esp. Chaucer’s excessive prologues, instead of one in the beginning, having many before all his stories in Canterbury Tales; Renaissance dramatic works saw fewer prologues and transformed them more to theatrical direct addresses from a character, or actor denuded of character traits, to the audience or reader (at which point they came to serve more like a text’s preface, adding a meta-reflection upon the work itself as a work).

Proems (Greek, pro-, before, -oimos, way or song, often prelude; in English, it roughly originates in the 14th c.) and Exordiums (Latin, “beginning” or “to urge forward,” roughly originates in 16th c.) are the most confused.  Often, a proem is meant synonymous with preface, although just as often serves more like an introduction, even as they are often deemed synonymous to exordiums, which equally blend aspects of the preface and introduction.  Plato’s Phaedrus and Aristotle’s Rhetoric address proems as the prologue-like part of an ideal rhetorical address.  Exordium are more often linked with late antique/medieval dispositios, serving as their first part and blending operations of prefaces and introductions: they come before arguments (the) and often delineate the flow of the argument, although also both reflect upon the purpose of the argument, its style and requirements, and the qualifications of the arguer (like prefaces) and the content itself (like introductions). 

See medieval manuscripts, ~~here~~ and ~~here~~

Styles of Texts:

Confession,” to confess, confessus, comes from the Latin past participle of confiteri, to acknowledge, and is a mode of expression that can be understood as a pubic pronouncement of faith or an admission of guilt where the latter can be religious or civil.  [Confiteri is from com-, together, and fatus, the past participle of fateri, to admit (fari, to say or to speak), thus we see the connection between speaking and confessing.]  Cf., Augustine’s Confessions.

Consolation” is a translation of the Latin consolatio, which is the conjunction of con-, with, and -solari, to soothe.  A consolation is, thus, the comfort received from another during a trying time or after a deep disappointment (although it can also identify the person or thing comforting one).  Cf., Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.

Dialogue” is a conversation (dialogos), a discourse wherein one speaks (-legein) across (dia-) to another.  Cf., Plato, Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Marguerite Porete’s Mirror, etc.

Best illustrated as the mode of conveyance of Socrates/Plato’s elenchos, or method of argumentation that moves back and forth as it progresses forward countering or refuting proposed claims by, typically, validating its conclusion’s opposite, and yet ends in aporia, perplexity, as opposed to some secure comfort of an answer.

Prosimetrum” is an alteration of poetry and prose or prose interspersed with verse, cf., Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.

to be continued ...

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Paying Attention to Texts—literally