Medieval poets were less insulated from the natural world than we are. They were probably more aware than we are that ice floats in water and that lakes freeze from the surface not the bottom, or that broken rock can heap up to about a forty-four degree angle before falling, or that certain fennel seeds, if ground in a pestle, will improve rye bread. But they would not consider an accumulation of facts like this to be an account of the world in any complete sense. The soul, and its sense of both individuality and connection to God, was surely more important. An allegorical account of a dream would be a better sign of the workings of the universe than, say, a formula for predicting lunar eclipses. In a dream, one may be in direct contact with God, the creator and prime mover of all things.

And to some theological poets, the great creation all around them was not a passive thing, like a sample on a microscope slide. To describe the world was to describe God, at least by inference, and God does not fit into human experience, or human language. This is the problem of divine predication: of making God the subject of some predicate, or of saying that God fits into some category of behaviour. Clearly God is sufficiently different from humans that one cannot ask if God is hungry, or tall, or Brazilian. But perhaps God is also sufficiently unlike us that it is not even meaningful to say that God is humane, or kind, or even good. (Other theologians, of course, would strongly disagree.) Language is not designed for use on God, but unfortunately, it is all we have if we want to tell each other our experience of God.

Alan, or Alain, or Alanus, born in Lille around 1128, had nothing against science: if anything, he was on the rationalist wing of the church. But he also wrote about the theological uses of language. His Anticlaudianus is a cosmological poem, an account of how Nature (on behalf of God but somehow not quite the same as God) creates Man using the seven liberal arts. Alan's cosmos was not stocked with atoms and molecules, but with letters and words. He is not much interested in the physical body, but to him the great mysteries are how that body gains the faculty of reason and conversation. In Book 2, in a passage describing the dress of Grammar – one of the seven – Alan clearly wants Man not only to have the skill of speech, but also to understand why it works:

Here art teaches, reason shows, instruction proclaims why a letter is termed simple and indivisible, why a letter borrows for itself the name “element” or why a letter is usually called “element” by way of metaphor, what formation represents the elements, what names indicate them, what is their total number, what is their right order, what is their pronunciation and what brings all these matters under a definite rule; why the other letters, deprived of even a weak sound, when seeking expression, are mute while the vowel rings clear and gives other letters the breath of expression; what is the explanation of, and what lies behind, the fact that H is not a letter, though it affects a writing-shape, a name and a use, but has only the status of a cipher and maintaining its right to a shape, bears but the shadow of an element.

And the perfect Man, once brought into being, can converse with, or about, God, but only with the greatest skill. This seems a very appropriate point to mention Gabriella Addivinola's book, due out in Legenda later this year - Alan of Lille and Dante: Divine Predication from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century.

cover of Alan of Lille and Dante

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