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.


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