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Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
by Michael Bryson

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. London: The Bodley Head, 2017. xiii + 419 pp. ISBN: 978-1847922724. £25.00 cloth.

Stephen Greenblatt is an excellent writer who has always known the power inherent in telling a good story. His latest book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, is no exception. In a work that takes the reader from the dawn of Sumeria to Darwin, and from Sinai to Simian dominance rituals in Uganda, Greenblatt spins a tale of amazing historical scope. Adam & Eve (as it will be referred to hereafter in this review) is a journey through intellectual history the likes of which only a confident and eloquent writer can provide, using the story of Adam and Eve as the connective thread that holds everything together.

Chapter one introduces a discussion of human evolution to which the book will return at the end, but in his second through thirteenth chapters, Greenblatt takes the reader on a tour of theological and literary history, centered on the uses and influence of the Adam and Eve story. Chapters two and three take readers to the Hebrew Bible and Sumerian and Babylonian texts like the Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh, emphasizing the influence of these texts (particularly the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu) on the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. Along the way, Greenblatt makes a number of interesting suggestions. For example, in a consideration of the documentary hypothesis of Julius Wellhausen regarding the composition of Genesis (the idea that there are different strands in the text, identified as J, E, D, and P, which a later redactor weaved together into something like the form we experience the text in today), Greenblatt asks ‘why should the perception of such elements frighten us away from the idea of authorship?’ (37). He then goes on to suggest that we look at the authorship of Genesis in a way that he draws from Shakespeare:

When Shakespeare sat down to write King Lear, he had before him Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Harrison’s Historical Description of the Island of Britain, Higgins’s Mirror for Magistrates, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Sidney’s Arcadia, and the anonymous True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters. Close attention reveals fault lines and tension among these sources. Do we think for a moment that Shakespeare was not the author of his great tragedy? Would we ever refer to Shakespeare as ‘the redactor’ of King Lear? (37)

Chapter four moves on to a consideration of a non-canonical text called The Life of Adam and Eve, discovered in 1945 among the cache of texts now referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library. Here Greenblatt notes that ‘Eve is the real hero, for it was she who boldly grasped for herself and for all Humanity the knowledge that the envious Creator had been withholding’ (66). Shades of the much later Paradise Lost by John Milton, which Greenblatt will treat later in his book. Greenblatt then moves on to a consideration of 3rd Century CE Rabbinic thought on Genesis, making the provocative observation that ‘[a]ncient Hebrew […] does not have a ‘royal we’’ (70), suggesting that the first chapter of Genesis places its creator God in a pantheon like those found in ‘the religion of Babylon or Rome’ (70). From here, Greenblatt moves swiftly through references to the Islamic variation of the creation story, then on to the perspectives of the Gnostic thinker Marcion, and the Jewish Neoplatonist Philo, before introducing the figure with whom he will spend the next few chapters: Augustine of Hippo.

As Greenblatt tells the story, Augustine made ‘the story of Adam and Eve the central episode in the drama of human existence’, and in so doing, ‘opened the floodgates to a current of misogyny that swirled for centuries around the figure of the first woman’ (121). For Greenblatt, this leads to the intellectual atmosphere in which Jerome ‘actively disparaged marriage’, and insisted that ‘marriage itself was the Fall’ (123). Greenblatt then takes what he describes as the ‘endless harping on Eve’s sin and defects of all her daughters’ (126), and introduces a famous literary counter-voice: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who stands up for the rights of women and even causes her husband Jankin to burn a copy of ‘the book—Jerome’s Against Jovinian—that chronicled Eve’s wickedness’ (127).

Greenblatt then takes readers through historical extremes of misogyny that even the humor of a Chaucer could not forestall—the witch scares of the 15th century and beyond. Using as his example Heinrich Kramer’s and Jacob Sprenger’s 1487 work Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), Greenblatt ties one of the darkest periods in European history to the Adam and Eve story: ‘[i]nnocent women continued to die for what was imagined to be an innate propensity to evil that was traced all the way back to mother Eve’ (133). And though Greenblatt briefly gives the stage to resistant women and authors such as Arcangelica Tarabotti (whose book Paternal Tyranny was condemned by the Inquisition in 1660), he notes that ‘it was almost impossible completely to erase the curse of Eve’s culpability from within the faith’ (136).

After a tour in chapter eight of artistic treatments of Adam and Eve by such figures as Gislebertus and Albrecht Dürer, Greenblatt comes to the next major figure of his book: John Milton. Chapters nine through eleven trace Milton’s life and intellectual development through the lens of the Adam and Eve story, and the poet’s great reworking thereof in Paradise Lost. For Greenblatt, the formative event of Milton’s life and later poetry was ‘the scant month or five weeks that he spent as a newlywed in the summer of 1642 with his young bride, Mary Powell’ (163). This experience, and all the ways in which it went wrong, form the background for Greenblatt’s account of Milton’s prose-writing and political careers, and his eventual composition of Paradise Lost. As Greenblatt has it, Milton believed that everyone of us ‘is the literal heir to […] Adam and Eve,’ because Milton ‘shared Augustine’s conviction that the literal truth of Jesus Christ was bound up with the literal truth of Adam and Eve’ (205). In pursuit of this argument, Greenblatt reads Milton’s Eve generously, as ‘less haunted than [Adam] by a sense of innate imperfection’ (220), suggesting that Milton decisively breaks with the misogynistic traditions of Jerome, Kramer and Sprenger, and the Church in general. As Greenblatt argues, for Milton ‘Adam and Eve had become so real […] that they began to crack open the whole theological apparatus that brought them into being,’ and ‘possessed an insistent, undeniable, literal human presence’ (228).

After a consideration of Isaac La Peyrère’s 1655 text Prae-Adamite (Men Before Adam), which makes naturalistic claims about the Adam and Eve story — ‘the natural death of men […] arises from the nature of man, which is mortal’ (243) — Greenblatt then moves on to an account of Pierre Bayle’s 1697 work, A Historical and Critical Dictionary, which ‘consigned to the rubbish heap legends’ that had built up around the Adam and Eve story (254).

Greenblatt then comes to the third major figure of his book: Charles Darwin. As Greenblatt puts it, ‘Darwinism is not incompatible with belief in God, but it is certainly incompatible with belief in Adam and Eve’ (269). Here, in his fourteenth chapter, Greenblatt brings the literary and theological journey of (and through) Adam and Eve to a close: ‘Paradise was not lost; it had never existed’ (269). Darwin’s work which ‘signaled a shift toward a different conception of human origins’ (281), leads Greenblatt to the observations in his Epilogue, based on encounters in Uganda, with researchers into the social hierarchies among chimpanzees. Two of these, Lanjo and Leona, portrayed (much like Adam and Eve) as rebelling against the norms expected of them, are shown heading off on their own at the end; and just as for Milton’s Adam and Eve, ‘The world was all before them’ (302).

The Rise and Fall of Adam & Eve is a wide-ranging book that will appeal to many readers with its historical scope, and its way of bringing its subject into focus through the human stories of the many figures through whom it traces, and by whom it understands the Adam and Eve story. As has often been noted, Greenblatt is an excellent writer who has a powerful facility for weaving anecdotes and examples into a powerful narrative. But there, in Greenblatt’s powerful writing and story-telling, is both the great strength and the most problematic aspect of his book. Greenblatt tends to let imagination bleed over into narrative certitude, as he weaves speculation into a compellingly-told story.

A few examples will suffice to illustrate the larger pattern. According to Greenblatt, Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of the early Western Church, develops his entire worldview and theological system—including the monumental, and monumentally damaging, concept of original sin—out of a moment of personal embarrassment: ‘One day in 370 CE, a father and his sixteen-year-old son went to the public baths together in the provincial city of Thagaste’, and ‘[a]t some point in their visit, the father may have glimpsed that the boy had an involuntary erection, or simply remarked on his son’s recently sprouted pubic hair’ (81). With that observation, hanging on the extremely thin thread of may, Greenblatt then goes on to a confident exposition of marital problems between Augustine’s father and mother (Patricius and Monica). This brings Greenblatt to a reading of Augustine’s Confessions focusing on Augustine’s treatment of sexuality and lust, which eventually leads the Bishop of Hippo to search for a literal explanation of the story of the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve. ‘The key to this understanding’, writes Greenblatt, ‘had been hidden in Augustine’s experience at the age of sixteen in the bathhouse’ (114). Augustine apparently realized that the ‘stirring moment that delighted [his] father and horrified his mother’ was connected to ‘the moment in which Adam and Eve felt both lust and shame’ (114), and that what was most important was the ‘involuntary character’ of both stirrings. Greenblatt grounds the latter idea—Augustine’s ruminations on the voluntary or involuntary nature of the bodily functions involved in human reproduction—in Augustine’s own later writings. But the problem is not in the geometry Greenblatt builds so much as in the axiom he builds it on. Or rather, the problem is in the appearance that the axiom is designed after-the-fact, as a way of creating a foundation for the attitudes about sexuality that Augustine does clearly express in his later work. It is a form of begging the question—taking the end point and weaving it into the beginning point, as if Augustine’s later work on sexuality and the Adam and Eve story can necessarily be read back onto his youth, and then the now-speculatively-reconstructed youth used to explain the later work.

A second example can be seen in Greenblatt’s treatment of John Balle (or John Ball, as Greenblatt renders the name), the late-14th century English Lollard who is often associated with the Peasant’s Revolt (or Wat Tyler Rebellion) of 1381. Greenblatt tells an oft-repeated (and problematic) story of a ‘revolutionary slogan’ said to have been uttered by Balle: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ (189). The problem is, that it is highly unlikely that Balle ever made the speech from which that line is taken. As Greenblatt himself notes, in a note buried in the back of the book (the volume’s editors evidently decided against making citation of sources obvious for the reader), ‘Ball’s reputed words were noted by his aristocratic enemy, Thomas Walsingham’ (357). However, after introducing—or acknowledging—that note of doubt, Greenblatt moves right back to confident assertion, as he writes of ‘Ball’s reminder of the nature of the first humans’ in his very next sentence. Greenblatt moves quickly past the note of Thomas Walsingham’s status as an aristocrat and as an enemy to Balle, apparently because to give any serious consideration to that status (outside the confines of a single line in a buried endnote) would render it inconvenient, if not impossible, to use the oft-quoted line about Adam and Eve in the furtherance of his own story. But as Juliet Barker has argued, ‘Thomas Walsingham, [was] the most accomplished storyteller of them all’, one who put ‘eloquent, if entirely fictitious, speeches into the mouths of Balle [and his fellow revolutionary] Straw when it suited him,’[1] because he ‘did not scruple to bend facts to fit his own particular brand of proselytizing history’.[2] Barker further notes, ‘Walsingham is the only contemporary source to place Balle at Blackheath’,[3] the location where Balle allegedly made the speech Walsingham attributes to him, and goes on to argue that ‘Walsingham had form where the fabrication of speeches was concerned’.[4] Most notably, Walsingham puts an eloquent public confession into the mouth of Jack Straw as he stood condemned to death after having been tried and convicted before William Walworth (the Mayor of London). But this likely never happened, because ‘we know from a parliamentary petition of 1383-4 that Jack Straw was one of four rebel captains who were summarily executed without due process of law’.[5] All of this makes it highly unlikely that John Balle ever said any such thing as Greenblatt reports him (following the highly suspect Walsingham) as saying.

A third, and final example, is Greenblatt’s treatment of John Milton, specifically the relationship between Milton and his daughters. Greenblatt asserts that Milton’s daughters read to him in multiple languages that he had not bothered to teach them how to understand. As Greenblatt puts it, Milton ‘taught them to recognize and sound out the Greek, Hebrew, and other characters, but he who had so deeply concerned himself with the education of children did not bother to teach his own daughters how to understand what they were reading’ (200). On this occasion, Greenblatt does not even bury a note at the end of the book, but simply makes the assertion and moves on. Milton was a man so particular about languages that he remarks, in his work Of Education, on the proper vs. improper pronunciation of Latin, preferring the Italian style of pronunciation to the English style of the day. The notion that so particular a man would be willing to sit still while his daughters mouthed languages they did not understand, while he attempted to glean both information and poetical value from such performances is far from universally agreed upon. Some biographers of Milton have repeated this notion, but others have regarded it as suspect. William Riley Parker remarks that ‘Mary and Deborah had to read to him […] pronouncing Latin and other foreign words which they understood little, if at all.’[6] Anna Beer argues that there is ‘absolutely no evidence that John Milton educated his daughters in Latin and Greek.’[7] But this picture is based on the single testimony of the later account of an anonymous biographer, later identified by Helen Darbishire as Edward Phillips,[8] Milton’s nephew. The biographer portrayed Mary and Deborah as

condemn’d to the performance of reading, and exactly pronouncing of all the languages of whatever book he should at one time or another think fit to persue; viz. The Hebrew (and I think the Syriac), the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish and French. All which sorts of books to be confined to read, without understanding one word, must needs be a trial of patience, almost beyond endurance: yet it was endured by both for a long time.[9]

The idea that Milton went to the trouble to teach his daughters the Hebrew alphabet, and likely the vowel-notation system of the Masoretes, and the similar-yet-crucially-different Syriac alphabet, and the Greek alphabet, while specifically refusing them the knowledge of the words they learned to pronounce in those alphabets, is difficult to take seriously. More ‘proof’ that Milton did exactly this is often assumed to lie in a proverbial remark attributed to the older Milton many years later by his daughter Deborah: ‘one tongue is enough for a woman’ (200).[10] However, this attribution does not sort well with what Milton’s mid-life contemporaries had to say about him. The anonymous writer of An Answer to a Book Intituled, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce seems to have regarded Milton as, if anything, too demanding of intellectual accomplishment in women, rather than opposed to it:

we believe you count no woman to due conversation accessible, as to you except she can speak Hebrew, Greek, Latine, & French, and dispute against the Canon law as well as you, or at least be able to hold discourse with you.[11]

Now, whether Milton did, or did not, teach his daughters how to understand the words they read for him is not a matter that we can settle with certainty. The evidence we have for or against the idea is sketchy, though the likelihood of such a prodigious feat as the biographer claims to have witnessed is dubious, at best, and some authors, such as David Masson, have regarded the idea as less than wholly credible.[12] The biographer claims to have been a primary witness to a linguistic feat which, given the practical details of what would have been required for Milton’s daughters to actually read to him, without any understanding, in seven languages with different alphabets, some of which read right-to-left while others read left-to-right, would be next to impossible. But Greenblatt repeats the account without crediting his source, even providing the detail that ‘visitors to his house remarked on the strangeness of his daughters’ reading so many languages without comprehension’ (200).

In short, Stephen Greenblatt has written a characteristic book: full of sparkling prose and imaginative insights, and overall, a fascinating introduction to an intellectual history many readers may be only partly versed in, all traced through the familiar characters of Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, in so doing, Greenblatt is sometimes offhand in his treatment of details, picking up and repeating problematic anecdotes that lend themselves to his narrative. Adam & Eve is a book I recommend for its scope, for its prose, and for its often-powerful connections between individual lives and the stories and histories that bind those lives together. But readers should be aware of its tendency to subordinate concerns of accuracy for concerns of narrative power. With that caveat in mind, this is a work many readers will enjoy.

Michael Bryson

California State University, Northridge

[1] Juliet Barker, 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt (Harvard UP, 2014), p.x.

[2] Ibid., p.5.

[3] Ibid., p.215.

[4] Ibid., p.217.

[5] Ibid.

[6] William Riley Parker, Milton: The Life. Ed. Gordon Campbell. Vol 1. (Clarendon Press, 1996), p.606.

[7] Anna Beer, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot. (Bloomsbury, 2008), p.352.

[8] Darbishire notes the uncertainty early in her book, as she ruminates on the possibility that both Edward and John Phillips may have had a hand in the writing: ‘if John Phillips is the author, The Life has fresh value’ (Helen Darbishire, The Early Lives of John Milton. [Constable, 1932], xxi). Parker later identifies Cyriak Skinner as a possible source, and dismisses Edward Phillips as ‘a hasty hack writer’ (1.655) who ‘opportunistically attached an Account of his Life to his own newly translated edition of Milton’s estate papers’ (Jayne Lewis, ‘“His Ears Now Were Eyes to Him”: The Lives of Milton in the Long Restoration’. Milton in the Long Restoration. Eds. Blair Hoxby and Ann Baynes Coiro, [Oxford UP, 2016], p.566.) John Aubrey later notes that Milton seems to have taught his daughter Deborah at least two languages: ‘Deborah was his Amanuensis, he taught her Latin, & to read Greeke: (‘Brief Lives’: Chiefly of Contemporaries, Set Down by John Aubrey, Between the Years 1669 & 1696, Volume 2, [Clarendon Press, 1898], p.64), and Thomas Keightley notes, based on interviews with the then-elderly Deborah in the early eighteenth-century, that she could ‘repeat the beginning of the [Iliad], and of Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ from memory (An Account of the Life, Opinions, and Writings of John Milton. [Chapman and Hall, 1859], p.90).

[9] Darbishire, p.77.

[10] Beer, p.352.

[11] Anonymous, An Answer to a Book Intituled, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. London: 1644, p.16.

[12] David Masson, The Life of John Milton. Vol VI (Peter Smith, 1946), pp.447-48.


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Cite as:

Michael Bryson, "Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve," Spenser Review 48.2.9 (Spring-Summer 2018). Accessed May 19th, 2024.
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