Fifteen Stars in Gower’s Confessio Amantis VII

Gower’s fifteen stars, stones, and herbs are illustrated in a fifteenth-century copy (Pierpont Morgan MS M.126). Here’s a leaf containing passages we took note of in seminar. It’s as good as any for underscoring the vibrancy and interanimation of elements (from the micro to the macro, the nearby and faraway)!

Here is a magnified view of the illustration of Sirius, beryl, and savin:

To learn more, take a look at Tamara O’Callaghan’s chapter in John Gower, Trilingual Poet: Language, Translation, and Tradition, ed. Dutton. She locates the source of such lore (astronomical, lapidary, herbal) in Hermetic and Arabic sources as well as in Dante, and she goes through the illustrations in the Pierpont Morgan MS. A great model of scholarship on vernacular sciences and literary culture.

Infancy of Christ

Here’s the passage I was looking for today in Bartholomaeus Anglicus:

“Al þe membres ben ischape som and som, nouȝ[t] aile at ones. Crist alone was al at ones ischape and distinguid in his modir wombe when he was conseyved þerinne. So seiþ Austyn.” (On the Properties of Things, 6.4 [p.298])

It suggests that what distinguishes the human is the slow, incremental, accidental process of unfolding. Human childhood is an imperfect, even monstrous moment in the life-cycle. Maturity — spiritual or otherwise — is not guaranteed.

Christ evidently did not materialize “som and som.” He was formed all at once!

However, other texts from the same period suggest that the fetal and infantile life of Christ was not so different. As Julie Couch observes, the infancy gospel “imagines the life of a child who possess omnipotence but not the full-fledged identity and focused mission” of an adult Jesus.

For more on this this body of medieval literature see  Julie Nelson Couch, “Misbehaving God: The Case of the Christ Child in MS Laud Misc. 108″ (2006); Mary Dzon, “Joseph and the Amazing Christ-Child of Late-Medieval Legend” (2005); Jacqueline Tasioulas, “Heave and Earth in Little Space”: The Foetal Existence of Christ” (2007); and Kathryn A. Smith, “Accident, play, and invention: three infancy miracles in the Holkham Bible picture book” (2006)


Medieval Vertu and Virtuality

Totipotential cell life (blastomeres) in the fertilized ovum.

As we will observe this week, the general situation of gestation and growth can be understood as a virtual condition, adopting the medieval Latin coinage virtualis (strength, potency, effectiveness), employed in highly specialized senses by the schoolmen, cosmographers, and poets and other wanderers, and taken up recently again by several contemporary thinkers (Spinoza, Deleuze, DeLanda, etc.). The idea remained at a high level of abstraction in scholastic debate, but various associations hovered around the word vertu (in French, Italian, or English), describing concrete scenes of springtime efflorescence, planetary influence, and human generation. At some point we may address the notion in Chaucer’s General Prologue.

As we witness this week, the term crops up repeatedly in discussions of embryology — most famously, in Dante’s “virtute informativa,” which is the power of an organism to reproduce itself by means of an active force inherent in blood that becomes semen, which when it is mingled with female matter in the womb is further shaped by animal force, “virtute attiva,” thereafter receiving a human spirit replete with virtue, “di vertù replete” (Purgatory XXV). Giles of Rome and Bartholomaeus Anglicus among others in the course of their scientific discussions use the terminology expressly in speaking about the seed or soul acting “virtually.”  It would seem to be one of the sites of emergent immmateriality that is materialized at different spatiotemporal scales, and the very mainspring of materiality. The virtual is that which enables matter to attain successive states of animation or vivification, and so cannot be identified exactly with some past or present state, matter or non-matter, but — and here we must interpret for ourselves, straining to find words to express what lies outside of human categories — it is like a dynamic potentiality that penetrates into or through matter.

If you’re at all drawn in by these ideas, see also Massumi’s Parables of the Virtual. 

For a beautiful account of vertu in medieval contexts take a look at Jeffrey J. Cohen’s “An abecedarium for the elementsfrom a recent issue of postmedieval.