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Mark Kauntze, Authority and Imitation: A Study of the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris
by Justin Anthony Stover

Kauntze, Mark. Authority and Imitation: A Study of the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris. Mittellateinische Studien und Texte 47. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2014. 223 pp. ISBN 978-9004 256910. $135.00 cloth.

This is a good book: competent, rigorous, and original. Kauntze investigates the background, life, works, and reception of an important and difficult twelfth-century author, Bernard Silvestris. Though he is widely cited in surveys of the literature of the period, approaching Bernard himself remains a formidable challenge. Kauntze eases the reader into the complex world of the early twelfth-century schools, where Calcidius, Macrobius and Martianus are some of the chief authorities, and intellectual inquiry often takes the form of sprawling comprehensive commentaries on these texts. The result is a Bernard who is a product of his time but endowed with an independence and originality that cannot be reduced to his milieu.

The first chapter examines Bernard and the “School of Tours.” Of the important intellectual centers of the eleventh and twelfth century, Tours remains one of the most obscure, particularly when compared to Paris, Chartres (though this is controversial), and Orleans. Kauntze marshals the available evidence for literary pursuits in Tours by examining the authors known to reside there—Hildebert of Tours foremost among them—and the surviving manuscripts from Tours from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. In this chapter, he also delves into the vexed question of Bernardine Echtheitskritik, defending briefly the attribution of the commentaries on the Aeneid and Martianus, and that of the Mathematicus at greater length.

The next two chapters form the heart of the book: an examination of Bernard’s masterpiece, the Cosmographia. Chapter 2 explores the “science” in the text, an unstable term which Kauntze uses for the quadrivium and the disciplines aggregated under the related term physica, along with medicine and (predictive) astrology—and for this last point he investigates the Mathematicus and the De gemellis as well. For readers new to the field, Kauntze provides a solid account of some of the more difficult issues in Bernard: the cosmogony, the World Soul, elemental cosmology, etc. At the same time, for specialists, he provides sound insights into some of the more arcane aspects of these questions, such as the role of fate in the Mathematicus, which he argues points to “the limitations of the scientific knowledge promised by the Cosmographia” (88). This is an interesting point, and far more satisfactory to me at least, than some interpretations of the poem offered by others.

The third chapter explores the theology of the Cosmographia. For almost a century, this topic has been one of the central points of contention in the interpretation of the work, between, at first, such distinguished scholars as Étienne Gilson and E. R. Curtius. Is the work essentially pagan with a thin Christian veneer? Or is it essentially Christian, dressed up in the trappings of ancient cosmology? This debate is in one sense a proxy for a larger debate about the status of the early twelfth-century schools. Was it really a free-wheeling time of philosophical speculation untrammelled by the dogmatic strictures of later scholasticism, or was it all—Bernard, Thierry, William of Conches, and their ilk included—a fundamentally Christian intellectual world, which differed more in genre than doctrine from the scholastics of the later twelfth century? Kauntze does not take a firm stand on one side or the other of this question. He does hold, for example, that the Incarnation takes a central place in Bernardus’ catalogue of events foretold in the stars (I.3.31-58), while granting the idea that it was an event foreseeable through astrological means is doctrinally controversial. He may be right in understanding this as Bernard’s extension of typological exegesis to the natural world (128). On the other hand, he perhaps slightly overstates the significance of the “ecclesiastical censorship” (131) of philosophical theology after the condemnation of Abelard. Surely that condemnation had more to do with Abelard’s own character and career than the specifics of his doctrines; William of St. Thierry’s attempted sequel against William of Conches went nowhere, and there is little evidence that Thierry or Bernardus were ever held suspect. The real scandal of the theology of the Cosmographia is that it is only problematic to modern scholars, not Medieval readers, as Kauntze himself shows (91).

The fourth chapter, “Bernard’s Readers,” is the most innovative part of the book, a foray into territory mostly unexplored. It is well-known that the Cosmographia is one of the relatively few twelfth-century works that continued to find readers and imitators throughout the following centuries. But the actual physical conditions under which later generations read Bernard—that is to say, in particular manuscripts with texts and associated paratexts—has never been properly investigated. Kauntze explores a corpus of twenty three manuscripts of the Comsographia, many of them having in common a set of about one hundred and fifty glosses and annotations. The earliest witness to this standard gloss comes from the late twelfth century. Kauntze wonders if some of the glosses might predate 1150, on the strength of a gloss about the composition of the stars which seems to be quoted by the De sex rerum principiis (138) which was written around 1150. More evidence would be needed to support this claim, particularly because the doctrine in question seems to be something of a commonplace (cf. John of Salisbury, Policraticus 2.19, admittedly without reference to the Chaldeans). I think it is much more likely that both the gloss and the author of the De sex rerum principiis are individual witnesses to the study of Bernard’s text in the middle and late twelfth century.

The content of the glosses is generally cosmological, touching on the elements, the human soul and body, the angels, and the heavenly bodies. Despite the riotous array of ancients to whom they are attributed—Plato, Xenophon (see below), the Chaldeans, Pythagoras, Homer, Numenius, Ptolemy, Juvenal, and Avienius—most are derived from the standard sources of twelfth-century thought—Calcidius above all, with a stiffening of Macrobius and the “scientific” texts newly translated form the Arabic. More detail identifying the sources of these glosses would have been welcome. For example, the note on the two genii (qtd. 143n48) probably comes from Servius, ad Aen. 6.743, a text used elsewhere in the glosses. The reference to Xenophon’s theory of sight, characterizing the lux interior as dies anime, is indeed mysterious; I wonder if the correct reading is not Xenophanes, who would have been known as a philosophical authority from Calcidius, Augustine, and Macrobius. In this connection, one could adduce other twelfth-century authors who father dogmata on the pre-Socratics, such as Hisdosus, author of a commentary on the generation of the soul in the Timaeus and the author of the De septem septenis, a work emerging from a similar milieu as the De sex rerum principias.

Kauntze then turns to the glosses in Bodl. Laud. misc. 515, which he convincingly attributes to Waltham Abbey, and persuasively argues against Brian Stock’s dismissal of them as unintelligent. The Laudian gloss delves into matters medical (the pharmaceutical qualities of cabbage, for example), philosophical (including a fascinating note on the relationship between ydea generalis and ydea specialis, which deserves further inquiry), astronomical, and theological (such as the gloss on nosciones which seems to clearly relate to late twelfth century scholastic theology). Unfortunately, neither the standard gloss nor the Laudian gloss is presented in full; I at least certainly hope Kauntze goes on to produce an edition of them. The final part of the chapter turns to later readers of the Cosmographia, including Alan of Lille. In this section several pages are devoted to a discussion of the cosmological ideas of Peter Lombard, who, at any rate, was probably not a reader of the Cosmographia.

The book ends with a conclusion which argues that the Cosmographia deserves to be (1) read in its own right as an original contribution to still relevant philosophical questions and (2) treated very seriously as a witness to the momentous intellectual developments of the twelfth century. Opinions may differ on the first, but Kauntze has convincingly defended the second. The volume is rounded off with a synopsis of the text and an excellent census of manuscripts, which should offer a firm foundation for further (urgently needed) textual work.

At points, the editorial control of the volume is a bit unsteady. For example, I.3.335-6 is quoted three times in eight pages (109, 110 and 116), and two of the instances are quoted with different translations, the first time correctly “the first man,” the other two times slightly less so as “man at first.” The translations offered are not always entirely accurate (e.g. mulcebrem ignem on 141 does not mean “fiery light”; in the same passage the emendation to direct speech seems superfluous). In short, though one might quibble with individual points of interpretation or presentation, the volume as a whole is a solid, reliable and bold foray into an important but difficult topic. In this respect, the book serves as a model for monographic treatment of a Medieval Latin author.

1972 was the annus mirabilis of Bernardine studies, with the monographs of Brian Stock and Winthrop Wetherbee both appearing that year. They inaugurated an enormously productive decade, which saw Wetherbee’s translation the next year, Peter Dronke’s Fabula the year following and his edition four years later in 1978, and the Jones and Jones edition of the Aeneid commentary in 1977. Kauntze’s Authority and Imitation appearing in the same year as the new facing translation of Bernard in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library by Wetherbee is an auspicious sign that perhaps Bernard’s star is rising once again.

Justin Anthony Stover
All Souls College
University of Oxford



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Cite as:

Justin Anthony Stover, "Mark Kauntze, Authority and Imitation: A Study of the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris," Spenser Review 45.2.40 (Fall 2015). Accessed March 21st, 2018.
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