Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century: A Study of Bernard Silvester

Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century: A Study of Bernard Silvester

by Brian Stock


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The Cosmographia of Bernard Silvester was the most important literary myth written between Lucretius and Dante. One of the most widely read books of its time, it was known to authors whose interests were as diverse as those of Vincent of Beauvais, Dante, and Chaucer. Bernard offers one of the most profound versions of a familiar theme in medieval literature, that of man as a microcosm of the universe, with nature as the mediating element between God and the world. Brian Stock's exposition includes many passages from the Cosmographia translated for the first time into English. Arising from the central analysis are several more general themes: among them the recreation by twelfth-century humanists of the languages of myth and science as handed down in the classical tradition; the creation of the world and of man, the chief mythical and cosmographical problem of the period; the development of naturalistic allegory; and Bernard's relation to the "new science" introduced from Greek and Arabic sources.

Originally published in 1972.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691619477
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1310
Pages: 356
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century

A Study of Bernard Silvester

By Brian Stock


Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05201-4


Narratio Fabulosa

1. Myth, Model, and Science

BERNARDUS SILVESTRIS of Tours very probably wrote his Cosmographia sometime between 1143 and 1148. Some seven centuries later an edition based upon only two unreliable manuscripts was put into print by C. S. Barach and J. Wrobel. Both immediately after its appearance in the Middle Ages and after its publication in 1876, the encyclopedic myth made a considerable impact on the learned literary scene. The editor of the critical text, André Vernet, has counted dozens of manuscripts, and historians have been able to trace Bernard's influence on a wide variety of medieval and renaissance authors, including Hildegard of Bingen, Vincent of Beauvais, Dante, Chaucer, Nicolas of Cusa, and Boccaccio — whose annotated copy of the work we possess [Plate I], Yet critics have been unable to agree on an interpretation. Abbé Clerval, one of the earliest to study the myth, described it as "un des poemes philosophiques les plus curieux du XIIe siècle," while more recently Fr. Chenu has referred on more than one occasion to its "ambiguity." Perhaps more than any other work of the period, the Cosmographia has been capable of inspiring partisan interpretations. At the same time, all who have studied it agree that it is an important book: under the veil of allegory it presents a synthesis of central doctrines in the medieval and renaissance philosophy of nature, man, and the world.

Although we know little of Bernard's life, contemporary and later witnesses record his success as a teacher of the humanities [Plate II]. Typical of them is Matthew of Vendome, who recalls learning to compose Latin verse under Bernard's supervision at Tours, presumably between 1130 and 1140. Bernard refers to the region of Tours twice in the Cosmographia. He is therefore assumed to have taught there for a period of his life. His only other literary associations are with Chartres. Most medieval copies of the Cosmographia contain a letter of dedication to Thierry, who became Chancellor of Chartres in 1141. Yet, as Poole points out in his summary of the evidence, "there is nothing to suggest that he was ever connected with Chartres" as a student or teacher. Bernard's dedicatory epistle merely asks Thierry for his approval of the Cosmographia before he publishes it under his own name. Hermann of Carinthia, with whom Bernard may have collaborated in the Experimentarius, also sent to Thierry his translation of Ptolemy's Planisphere. Bernard's letter is really only evidence that he attempted to win the favor of a powerful yet liberal figure, widely known for his interest in science and for his occasional defense of unpopular theses. Whether Bernard is connected directly to Chartres or not, however, historians have been essentially correct in interpreting his humanism within its cultural ideals. Bernard belonged very much to the generation of Thierry, William of Conches, Gilbert Porreta, and John of Salisbury. In his mind, as in theirs, an interest in new ideas went hand in hand with a rediscovery and fresh reading of the classics.

The Cosmographia is possibly the most complex literary product of the early twelfth century. As it is clearly a composite form, it may be useful at the outset to isolate the individual elements in it and to discuss them separately. These may then be reunited and the work better appreciated as a whole. In general, two distinct structures are at work. There is both a dramatic myth, enacted by a group of allegorical personifications, and a resulting model of universal order, relating the macro- to the microcosm. In other words, there is both a story of the creation of the world and of man and a resulting design whose parts are analyzed in relation to each other. While it is not always possible or desirable to separate these elements — Noys, for instance, is both an actress in the drama and a principle in the model — a rough division between them allows one to perceive the interplay between form and content and to better comprehend Bernard's dexterity of composition.

First, then, the myth. Bernard prefaced the Cosmographia with an argumentum, but it must be followed with caution. It tells us that "in the first book, called Megacosmus, Natura complains in tears to Noys, God's providence, about the confusion of hyle or prime matter and implores that the worldly order be brought to a more attractive conclusion." The remainder of i.1, written in hexameters (an unusual verse form for Bernard), consists of Nature's complaint: it describes in vivid detail the turmoil of chaos before the harmonious stability of the four elements is established. In i.2, in prose, Noys continues the dialogue with Natura. She agrees in principle to fulfill the request, theorizes about her relation to God, then turns to the practical business of creation, separating the four elements and moulding them into a stable structure for the world's body. After a digression in which Noys, never modest, discourses on her own powers, the world-soul, endelichia, descends in emanation from the heavens. The union of body and soul takes place under Noys's guidance, completing i.2.

Once the body and soul of the universe are "married," its contents unfold before the reader in 1.3 in elegiacs. Noys, who is presumably presiding over this event as well, is nonetheless mentioned in the catalogue of all things in the world. The reader is thus given the impression — maintained throughout the Cosmographia — of astrological determinism operating in co-existence with a certain amount of free will. Bernard sets forth the nine orders of angels, the zodiac, the divisions of the earth, and its contents, including mountains, rivers, trees, fruit, spices, paradises, domestic vegetables, flowers, fish, and birds. When this little encyclopedia is finished, he presents, in i.4, an explanation of how the universe runs. The cosmic globe possesses an eternal source of life-giving power which flows down from the heavens in the form of heat and light. The cosmos itself is eternal, a notion which he defends by uniting, not altogether successfully, material from a number of different sources. In the hierarchy of genii or numina that transmit ideas, principles, and life-forces from above, primacy of place is given to Noys. Then follow mundus, the living creature of the world itself, endelichia, the world-soul, Natura, and imarmene, fate. These are all interrelated in a syncretistic fashion.

Book one may thus be divided into three sections: i.1 and i.2, on creation itself; i.3, on the contents of the universe; and i.4, on the quasi-scientific processes by which the cosmos functions.

In Microcosmus, book two, Noys promises to create man as the summation of her work. In ii.3, she first bids Natura seek out two other goddesses whose help will be indispensable: Urania and Physis. Natura searches for Urania in the heavens and finds her, not too surprisingly, indulging in astrology. Urania agrees to co-operate and explains to Natura some of the difficulties which the individual soul will encounter, as well as the diverse properties it will acquire, in descending to inhabit temporarily the human frame. In ii.5-9, Urania leads Natura on a long journey through the stars. After visiting a mysterious, neoplatonic palace called Tugaton, they descend to earth through the planetary spheres. At ii.9, just below the lunar sphere, they pause at a place called Granusion, where they encounter Physis with her two daughters, Theory and Practice. While Physis conducts what appear to be experiments into the natures and causes of phenomena, Noys arrives on the scene. After delivering an oration on the dignity of man (ii.10), she proceeds to supervise the work of the other three goddesses in creating man as a microcosm (ii.11-12). Physis, now raised to an important role in the drama, first complains about the inherent difficulty of making man from the leftover elements; then, aided by Urania and Natura, she puts man together rather like a mechanical fabrication. In ii.13-14, man, the fabrica Nature frimifotentis, is described in detail, thus providing a literary balance to the poetic unfolding of the megacosmus in i.3.

In general, then, book two may be divided into two major acts, dealing respectively with the astral journey and the creation of man. It is also possible to divide the last act into two scenes, one treating man's actual formation from the elements, the other the manner in which he functions.

This, in brief, is Bernard's myth. Clearly, within it, a model of the universe and of man is envisaged, but, as suggested above, this model is inseparable from the manner in which it is presented. Moreover, within the myth two different types of source material may be distinguished, each contributing in a different way to the ultimate result. The first is the story of creation itself. For this Bernard's chief source was Plato's Timaeus. The second is the philosophical and scientific information that fills out the skeletal model of the Timaeus. For this Bernard turned to a wide group of classical and contemporary authors.

To deal first with Plato: Bernard drew from the Timaeus, which he read in the late third-century translation of Chalcidius, not only many essential ideas, but, more importantly, the conception of myth imbedded in the dialogue. Bernard did not entirely assume, as did Plato, that "the world is only a likeness of the real," but he did clearly support the view that "any account of it can be no more than a 'likely' story." To put the matter slightly differently, there are in the Cosmographia, as in the Timaeus, two senses of myth. In the first, just mentioned, it is assumed that

no account of the material world can ever amount to an exact and self-consistent statement of unchangeable truth. In the second place, the cosmology is cast in the form of a cosmogony, a 'story' of events spread out in time. Plato chooses to describe the universe, not by taking it to pieces in an analysis, but by constructing it and making it grow under our eyes. ... Some have regarded the mythical character of the dialogue as a 'veil of allegory' which can be 'stripped off,' and have imagined that they could state in literal terms the meaning which Plato has chosen to disguise. ... [Yet] there remains an irreducible element of poetry, which refuses to be translated into the language of scientific prose.

Like Plato, Lucretius, and, most appropriately, Manilius, Bernard Silvester is a cosmic poet. The Cosmographia cannot be reduced to a mere summary of the doctrines it contains if its artistic structure is to be left intact. Like the Timaeus, it must be considered an attempt to build a cosmic order before the reader's eyes.

The attitude towards myth in Bernard and his contemporaries will be discussed at greater length in the second part of this chapter. With regard to the model of universal order presented in the Cosmographia, it may be useful at the outset to point out certain broad similarities. Like Plato, Bernard conceived the ordering of the world to be based on the action of a beneficent creator and his vicegerents who were also gods. He saw genesis essentially as a problem of Intelligence (Noys) and Necessity (Natura, Urania, Physis, etc.). Within this framework, he developed some of Plato's favorite themes: the idea of man as a microcosm of the universe, the union of the worldsoul and the earth, the interrelation of motion, time, and eternity, the notion that the soul undergoes a type of education before it enters the body, and, based upon the above, a group of parallels between man's configuration and the world's. Yet, in spite of these obvious points of comparison, the Cosmographia is in some fundamental ways unlike the Timaeus. One reason is that it is based on a translation which breaks off abruptly at 53B, near the beginning of Plato's second account of creation "from a different point of view." Another, more important reason is that Bernard often intermingles Plato's views with those of his interpreters. The latter often reflect attitudes and opinions quite different from Plato himself.

If there is a single characteristic which unites Bernard's other sources besides Plato, it is that they are all encyclopedic. Moreover, they may be thought to represent a stage of cosmological thought which, coming after the mythical cosmogony, attempts to explain in scientific terms what it means. In this sense, their works may be called structural encyclopedias, since the structure of the cosmogony — proceeding from fundamentals like matter and form to the immense diversity of the universe — often lurks just beneath the surface. Chalcidius' Commentary on the Timaeus, perhaps Bernard's major single source, is a good example. The work is an encyclopedic treatise based upon the original and, like it, divided into two major topics, Intelligence (chapters 8-267) and Necessity (268-355). Under these headings however Chalcidius does not construct the universe before the reader's eyes. Rather he takes it apart. His commentary is a comprehensive exposition of the Timaeus, taking each separate theme in the myth as a topic for synthesizing the thought of a number of ancient schools. The reader is thus presented with an entirely different literary form from the original. While based upon the idea of myth, the commentary turns the notion around and presents instead a demythologization. Throughout the Middle Ages, moreover, Chalcidius' commentary was thought to be an indispensable tool for understanding Plato. The two structures, the myth and the demythologization, were accepted as interdependent, resonating parts of a whole. With respect to the Cosmographia, the important point is that Bernard incorporated both the idea of a mythical cosmogony and that of a commentary on it. In the course of telling the story of creation, he explains what creation is all about. At times, in fact, Bernard may be guilty of allowing mythos to be submerged in encyclofedica.

Thus, in addition to drawing on the idea of mythogenesis as in Hesiod, Genesis, Plato, or Ovid, Bernard should be viewed as a structural encyclopedist. There are numerous models on which he may have drawn: Pliny's Natural History ii, the De Mundo of Apuleius, and the De RerumNatura of Isidore or of Bede; commentaries like that of Macrobius on Cicero or Martianus Capella on the seven liberal arts (in which the encyclopedia is presented in allegory as in the Cosmographia); and, perhaps as well, works like the Premnon Physicon of Nemesius of Emesia, in the eleventh-century translation of Alphanus of Salerno, and even the Periphyseon of John Scottus Eriugena. In its general pattern, however, the Cosmographia resembles most closely the structural encyclopedias written in the twelfth century: the anonymous De Constitutione Mundi, the Imago Mundi of Honorius of Autun, the QuestjonesNaturales of Adelard of Bath, and the Philosophia Mundi and Dragmaticon of William of Conches. In all these works, as in the Cosmographia, certain assumptions are made about the division of the sciences or the theory of knowledge. The real world is seen to possess a rational design, the result of cosmogony, which the encyclopedia imitates through the ordering of its facts. The world is not primarily apprehended in its naturalistic diversity — although this is often a strong, balancing undercurrent — but as a logical pattern, a harmonious arrangement of discrete elements. Even in the illustrations which accompany these works, this relationship is maintained. They do not present the world as it really is, but in a schema relating the elements, the humors, the seasons, and man. They are, like the encyclopedias, "symbolic cosmologies" [Plate III A, B, and C].

Bernard's association with the encyclopedists is clear from the term cosmographia, employed as a title in many manuscripts. The term's original meaning was "geography" or "cartography." Isidore of Seville applied it to the five books of Moses, and, in the twelfth century, the usage hovers between that of a mythical cosmogony and a spiritual geography. The relationship may also be demonstrated by comparison with other twelfth-century encyclopedias. In particular, the encyclopedic aspects of the Cosmographia bear a strong resemblance to the Philosophia Mundi of William of Conches, written between 1135 and 1145. Both works begin with fundamentals, William with the Trinity and the four causes of creation (i.1-14), Bernard with a portrait of the original longing of matter for form (i.1-2). The rest of book one of the Philosophia is virtually analogous to most of Megacosmus and the last half of Microcosmus (ii.9-14). William describes the anima mundi, the demons and angels, the elements, and the creation of living things (i.15-23), which correspond roughly to Cosmographia i.2-3 with a premonition of ii.9. Philosophia ii. 1-16, an outline of the upper atmosphere, the stars, the galaxies, and other astronomical topics, is paralled by Cosmographia i.3 and ii.5-8. William's fascinating discussion of planetary motion, the seasons, and the eclipses in the same book seems to have been divided between Cosmographia i.4 and ii.6-8, although here, admittedly, the parallel is much less precise. Philosofhia iii, however, is directly analogous to Cosmographia i.3-4: both treat air, the five zones, and the problem of heat, light, and the sun, to which Bernard gives a more astrological interpretation at ii.6. Finally, Philosophia iv.8-41, treating sex, birth, infancy, man's physical makeup, and the history of the world are paralleled roughly by Cosmographia i.3 and ii.9-14. The only part of Bernard's work that finds no echo in William's is the astral journey of Natura and Urania.


Excerpted from Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century by Brian Stock. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Illustrations, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xi
  • Abbreviations, pg. xv
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • Chapter I. Narratio Fabulosa, pg. 11
  • Chapter II. Nature's Complaint, pg. 63
  • Chapter III. The Creation of the World, pg. 119
  • Chapter IV. The Creation of Man, pg. 163
  • Chapter V. Bernard and Twelfth-Century Naturalism, pg. 227
  • Selected Bibliography, pg. 285
  • Index of Manuscripts, pg. 299
  • Index, pg. 301

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