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Alastair Minnis, From Eden to Eternity
by Helen Barr

Minnis, Alastair. From Eden to Eternity: Creations of Paradise in the Later Middle Ages. U of Pennsylvania P, 2016. x + 358 pp. ISBN: 978-0812247237. $60.00 cloth.

I could not put this book down. From start to finish this is a wonderfully engaging study of how biblical accounts of Eden and eternity furnished early writers and artists with an extraordinarily capacious space through which to think and to argue. Combining the deepest erudition with lively discussion, Alastair Minnis opens up a compelling area of Medieval scholarship. He shows how thinking about paradise enabled Medieval and Early Modern minds not simply to wonder what Eden might have been like, but to use “rational conjectures” (John Wyclif’s formulation), and vibrant imagination to work their way through questions about the relationships between the Garden of Eden, the post-lapsarian world, and the world yet to come.

After an introductory exploration of how Eden was created, three rich and supple chapters explore the body, power in paradise, and the relationship between death and the paradise beyond. A poignant coda examines how writers and artists justified asking questions about what happens between paradises and the value of asking those questions in the first place. The book is richly illustrated with colorful plates which include Books of Hours, theological commentary, altarpieces, and vernacular texts in English, French and Italian.

When Medieval theologians debated “just about any form of human activity before the Fall, they were talking about what might have been rather than what actually had been at an actual historical moment” (1-2). Uncertainty about how long Adam and Eve lived in paradise opened up a rich hermeneutic space to contest ongoing contemporary issues. If Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise on the day in which Eve was created then how did this affect the institution of marriage and the nature of sexual desire? If Eden were a garden of delights, did this license thinking about sex in a state of innocence as a source of pleasure rather than sin, or did the notion of pleasure have to undergo refinement? If Adam had engaged in sexual intercourse with Eve before the fall, what happened to Eve’s body? If she remained in a state of innocent integrity, didn’t that upset the special privilege and status of the perpetually virginal body of the Virgin Mary? Augustine had suggested that Adam’s seed could have been introduced into Eve’s womb without loss of integrity. Bonaventura worries away at the implications of his forebear’s suggestion. He glosses sine ulla corruption (corruption of integrity) to mean not just the physical opening of the womb but also the experience of pain and filthy pleasure. The latter two conditions were features of the fallen world which did not apply to the Virgin Mary whose conception of Christ was a miracle contrary to nature. If any commingling had occurred between Adam and Eve, they would have followed the regular course of nature (5).

This is but one of many examples in which Minnis brings all his expertise in Medieval hermeneutics to bear on some thrilling debates. How did thinkers read the bible; not just corporaliter or spiritualiter, but what did they do with apparent inconsistencies and gaps?  For instance, if Adam were created from “the slime of the earth” (de limo terrae, Genesis 2.7) then how did that affect his status? Schoolmen were quick to rescue their forefather by explaining that slime was a mixture of all the elements of the world and therefore man remained, according to Aristotle, “the most honourable of God’s creatures” (28). Minnis also traces a beautifully nuanced account of how theologians wrestled with Genesis’s account of Eve’s creation (accompanied by discussion of some equally beautiful plates). Aquinas’s discussion of multiplicatio, a process whereby nature is enhanced rather as Christ fed the multitude from five loaves and two fishes, provides an especially ingenious answer. As so often in this book, however, a question apparently answered leads only to another question to be asked. Bonaventura ponders whether Eve’s creation was a miracle, and hence above nature, and if so was the material of the rib the only material God used, and if so, what was its substance (29-30)?

The Edenic body gave rise to intense speculation. How do you reconcile the bodies of innocent parents with the bodies that they will have become? For instance, did Adam and Eve defecate and urinate in Eden? One of the many things that this book does so well is to illuminate the ways that Medieval theology was vibrantly imaginative in raising issues which, once contemplated, expand and expand in the head. Hard to argue that Adam and Eve were spared these bodily functions, but ingenious work on senses and matter rescues the scatology. Bonaventura reassures that purgation would not have been accompanied by stench and filthiness as in the post-lapsarian world. Aquinas, less convincingly, concedes that some purgation would be necessary but God would have arranged for it to have been done decently. How, he does not disclose.

The discussion of how dominion and power was exercised in Eden is no less fascinating. Unsurprisingly, relations between Adam and Eve feature prominently (Ockham’s vehement denial that Adam lorded it alone in Eden is especially intriguing [121-25]), but perhaps the most freshly fascinating part of this second chapter is the discussion of how Adam exercised dominion over animals and the vegetable world. If Adam and Eve were supposed to be vegetarians then how did that affect their being given mastery over the animals? Presumably they didn’t eat them? But did the animals eat each other, thereby bringing death into paradise? Hieronymus Bosch shows us that they did: his Garden of Earthly Delights features a large cat with a lizard in its jaws (Plate 4b). What was the purpose of animals in paradise if they were not there for food; and of plants if there was no need for cultivation? Why were stinking beasts such as fleas and reptiles present? Drawing on a huge range of Medieval writers through the Counter-reformation up to the twentieth century, Minnis explores some of the answers. Grosseteste, for instance, found it hard to countenance degenerate species such as lice and worms in Eden, still less in paradise (89), whereas Peter Comestor argued that all corruptible beasts were the results of the contamination of the Fall, by which time, Adam had lost his dominion over the animals (89-90). C.S. Lewis, we learn, opined in his discussion of animal pain, that domestic pets might have some place in eternity because of the association with their owner’s immortality. Except for newts.

The relationship of natural power as exercised in Eden to civil versions of dominion in the post-Eden world was taken up by many writers, especially as part of political commentary on the distribution of power and goods in the contemporary world. Minnis argues that Wyclif seems to have written De civili dominio at the same time as De statu innocencie. Wyclif argues that in the state of innocence, extended to include the lives of Christ, the saints, and even the Elect, goods were held in common and that there was no hierarchy in dominion. He distinguishes between ownership and use. The head or the limbs of another person do not belong to me; rather they are mine in respect of use. “The father of the dog is mine and yet is not my father.” Happily for the reader, Minnis provides his own rather more illuminating analogy: as human beings, we all have legs in common, but each person has their own legs. But if someone runs an errand for me, I benefit from their legs (127). Cutting lucidly through Wyclif’s abstractions, Minnis shows that, in contrast to Aquinas, Wyclif wanted to keep Aristotelian political theory out of Eden to expound his views on the “true church” and to reform orthodox ideas about grace and dominion. Such Eden-promoted thinking led to his condemnation at the Council of Constance in 1415 (126-32).

Minnis’s final chapter on death and the paradise beyond returns to some of the questions about the “what if” of Eden. Once again, the place of animals is especially intriguing. Death was the punishment for sin. Animals could not sin because they do not possess free will. Did this mean that animals were immortal, or were they excluded from heaven because they did not have rational souls? For Aquinas, there was no place for corruptible animal or plant life in the renewal of the universe. As Minnis writes movingly, “the death of the animal is … collateral damage, one might say, of the ultimate damage of the happiness of some humans and the ultimate misery of others (those condemned to hell), a fact of existence which no amount of regret or compassion can mitigate” (147). The existence of those happy humans who will be part of the renewal of the world, was no less problematic, however. Given that it was believed that the body would also rise at the last Judgement, what form would it take? Here, Minnis returns to the nature of the body, and the vexed issues of pleasure, cognition, and sense perception. Given that there was no longer any need for humans to go forth and multiply, what use were genitalia? How much of the body would be resurrected? Was the (by now useless) sperm retained in the male body? Will fat people still be fat? What will have happened to all the hair and nail clippings that a person amasses during their lifetime: “will they rush en masse to become part of the resurrecting body?” (156-7). If the bodies now made glorious exist in glory, what form would that take?

Minnis writes a lucid and compelling account of how poets and theologians figured the redefined power of intellect and cognitive sense perception in the afterlife, especially in relation to radiance. Eternal bliss is brightness. Enhanced sense and intellect will enable humans to perceive the radiance of God. For Aquinas, this is the final nail in the coffin of the animals. They simply cannot compete; everything they can do by serving human beings has been superseded by more brilliant creations which have become more brilliant in the renewed world. To imagine paradise as a spectacular white-out, blanched of the diversity of the natural world, required some tortuous thinking about replacing versions of human pleasure with senses as we know them no longer pertinent. Imaginative analogy explains how the sense of smell will no longer be triggered by corruption: Aquinas, for instance resorts to a comparison between humans and vultures (206). Displaced guilt, perhaps, for excluding animals from paradise.

As in the previous chapters, Minnis moves seamlessly between Latin theological disquisition and vernacular commentary and literary texts. Minnis shows that these learned questions found their way into texts written outside the schoolroom. The Prick of Conscience evokes the final paradise through a hauntingly rhetorical enumeration of absence (165); Dante’s Paradiso negotiates the optics of divine brilliance with sublime poetry (199), and in the immensely popular and widely translated Tundale’s Vision, a cruel nobleman recounts the beauty of the threshold of heaven before he is ejected because he is unworthy to dwell there (171). Alongside discussion of Boccaccio’s Olympia, Minnis reanimates the scholarly affect and shimmering poetry of the Middle English Pearl. His tenderly acute discussion of death and the afterlife in this poem is one of the many highlights of this chapter.

Sometimes, to finish a book with a short coda can leave an emptiness. Not here. Minnis returns to the founding impetus behind asking and attempting to answer all these searingly difficult questions about how the contemplation of eternity makes us think and feel about present life. He examines how theologians wrestled with the value of their speculative rationalizations. Were they the product of utilitas or curiositas akin to pride? Minnis revalorizes speculative theology. What could be dismissed as dour is revealed to be compassionately recuperative. Human life is not obliterated; its worth is recalibrated between paradises. As Minnis movingly concludes: “we should not be strangers to medieval paradises. Or undervalue what was at stake in their creation” (241). 

Helen Barr
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford 


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Cite as:

Helen Barr, "Alastair Minnis, From Eden to Eternity," Spenser Review 46.2.13 (Fall 2016). Accessed March 19th, 2018.
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