OT: What is literary truth?

Robyn Starkey rohina at shaw.ca
Fri Jun 6 14:23:36 EDT 2003


> > Speaking as a literary historian of the middle ages, I have to say this is
> > kind of a backwards view. In the middle ages, producers of texts did not
> > make the kinds of distinctions that we do now between fiction and
> > non-fiction. They didn't have a confusion between truth and fact because
>
>I don't seem to have been very clear here - I wasn't trying to disagree with
>what you're saying about the ME at all!  I was trying to say much what you're
>saying in this paragraph, except that I would have said "Until the Middle
>Ages..."

No, see this is exactly the distinction that I wanted to make clear. A lot 
of Medieval texts that people take as "factual" are anything but. For 
instance, Mandeville's travels, which people used to think was some kind of 
factual narrative, turns out to be a compilation and literary production 
from a variety of texts. And it is pretty clear that his readers knew this, 
but it didn't really matter to them.

Mandeville is full of the kind of pseudo-factual stuff. For instance, he 
says, "in the Holy Land, there's a fruit (a banana) which has so absorbed 
the holiness of the lanscape, that when you cut it apart, in any direction, 
you see the figure of a cross". Now, patently, this is not a literal fact 
(go and cut a banana and see), but it SHOULD be true, because it has a good 
deal of meaning. If you are a medieval reader, you have no problem with 
reconciling these two things.

>I also wasn't thinking much in terms of "producers of texts", but more of the
>interpretation of extant texts.

I don't see that there's a difference, actually. Are there differences in 
how you read extant texts and recent ones? I think not.

>You're the mediaevalist - how do you see the 13th Century Church closing its
>doors to Classical philosophy and insisting on the factual interpretation 
>of the
>Bible?  I see it as the first evidence of this truth/fact confusion that I was
>talking about.  (And it wasn't even successful in keeping Aristotle 
>out!  By the
>14th century renaissance, wasn't Aristotle held almost in as high esteem as
>Scripture?)

My point is that they didn't interpret facts like we do. So when they 
insist on factual interpretation, if you look at what is actually 
happening, it isn't anything like what we would define as "fact" and is 
often much more like metaphor. See above banana discussion.

>PS Barnacle Goose??

There are these geese, which supposedly did not hatch from eggs (because no 
one saw their nests), but rather from barnacles. This meant that although 
they *looked* like birds, they were in fact fish, and so could be eaten on 
fast days. Now, there's quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this theory 
was scientifically disproved by observation in the 12th century. However, 
the idea of the barnacle goose persisted in the face of scientific 
evidence. Why? Because a) it was convenient, and b) thelogical milage could 
be made out of it.

Robyn 
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