Embodied cognition, Latin pedagogy, and the rhetorical foundations of medieval vernacular poetry

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2015-05

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Garbacz, Robert Scott

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Abstract

This dissertation uses the insights of recent cognitive science to illuminate narrative and rhetorical strategies in the Eclogue of Theodolus, a Latin debate poem, and its French and English literary descendants. The Eclogue was wildly popular in classrooms throughout the Middle Ages and modeled for students ways to respond to stories with counter-stories, demonstrating rhetorical virtuosity by transforming images, words, and ideas. In doing so, it prepared the way for vernacular literary production. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on the ways the Eclogue’s narrative rhetoric, and particularly its imagery, was processedby medieval students using mental capacities recently revealed by modern cognitive linguistics and neuroscience. In the Eclogue, a character representing Christian truth triumphs over one representing pagan falsehood precisely through her ability to transform the cognitive and affective effects of the work’s visual and spatial rhetoric. Yet if the Eclogue emphasizes Christian superiority, the early French Roman d’Enéas deploys a similar specular rhetoric for a less respectable purpose. Lush descriptions of funeral monuments lure the reader away from what is otherwise the text’s central concern: legitimizing the French political order. These chapters show both the sophistication of medieval imagery and the discourses deployed to limit its power. Chapters 3 and 4 consider medieval theories of cognition. Chapter 3 focuses on the Owl and the Nightingale, a debate poem generally considered the first great work of Middle English literature. This poem undercuts the Eclogue’s lofty rhetoric by presenting myopic protagonists whose avian nature (in keeping with Neo-Aristotelian theory) is most clearly shown in their stubborn emphasis on their desires to live and kill. Similarly earthbound in its orientation is Chaucer’s House of Fame. This work, which begins with a survey of scholastic cognitive science and which offers a climactic ekphrasis in which the Eclogue takes a prominent place, offers both a deeply skeptical account of the ability of embodied humans to know the truth and a tour de force of medieval narrative rhetoric. Taken together, these discussions offer a survey of the power of medieval images on medieval brains and unearth a significant force in medieval intellectual culture.

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