Ruys, Juanita Feros, ed., What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods.
In his Epistle 94, Seneca writes that advice is important 'because nature does not teach what ought to be done in every specific circumstance.' Following this theme, a conscious choice was made in this volume to focus not on a specific period or place but on the longue duree of didactic literature, and to include a variety of sources, provided that they were 'created, transmitted, or received' with a design 'to teach, instruct, advise, edify, inculcate morals, or modify and regulate behaviour' (p. 5).
Juanita Feros Ruys' introduction serves as a programmatic foundation and guide to the volume. Ruys locates didacticism at the intersection of authorial intent, transmission and reception by the audience, and poses a series of questions centred on the creation of meaning in the didactic process. Correspondingly, the volume emphasizes the social context of teaching, the role of gender and the intimate aspects of the exchange of knowledge.
The essays are divided into five thematic sections. The first, 'Constructing Didactic Intent and Persona', opens with Steven J. Williams' study of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets, which reveals both the flexibility and limitations of a well-known medieval didactic text. Kathleen Olive introduces a fascinating example of the zibaldone genre of Italian middle-class didactic literature, in this case a commonplace book of religious, classical and vernacular extracts and personal advice set against (mostly) Florentine architectural topography and pride. In focusing on the migrant nature of Christine de Pizan's authorial voice, Louise D'Arcens explores the layers of authority, objectivity and didactic force that come with an outsider's status--and finds in this 'neglected weapon in her literary armoury' a source of authorial and didactic strength.
'Children and Families', the second section of the volume, moves the emphasis to the intimacy of the household. Maria Nenarokova's essay on Vladimir Monomakh's Instruction is an exploration of theological, political and moral characteristics of an ideal Christian ruler in a didactic text that also allows for an attempted reconstruction of its impact. Juanita Feros Ruys uses parental advice to children as a foundation to suggest the movement toward a greater acceptance of personal experience as a didactic method, and offers a revision of the accepted relationship between gender and teaching by example. Catherine England's essay is a study of the pragmatic Florentine approach to education where children were viewed as a precious commodity whose education was expected to secure successful continuation of family lines.
The third section, 'Women, Teaching, Gender', stands out both by its length and by the centrality of its themes to the volume's core aims. Stavroula Constantinou's contribution looks at the interplay of rhetoric and exemplarity in the didactic performance of female Byzantine saints using texts written by their followers as testimony of their success. Albrecht Classen examines views on marriage and gender relations in the works of Thomasin von Zerclaere and Hugo von Trimberg, and discovers a considerable degree of equality and respect for women within an otherwise predictably patriarchal discourse. Julie Hotchin offers a nuanced study of male perspectives on governing cloistered women, supported by the personal experience of an author of a manual for male ecclesiastics. Ursula Potter deftly shows that the true embodiment of a particular male ideal of woman is a 'flat, emblematic character' (p. 281), enough of a foundation for Shakespeare to create vivid characters as its antithesis. Alexandra Barratt carries forward the theme of female captivity to male models of behaviour in her survey of translations of literature made into English for the use of women.
The section titled 'Literacy, Piety, Heresy, Control' begins with John O. Ward's insightful analysis of a text located midway between oral and written culture where he captures some of the richness of allusions and non-textual clues that made up the full context of medieval didactic process. Jason Taliadoros uses an anti-heretical polemic written by Master Vacarius to his friend Hugo Speroni as the foundation for a fascinating exploration of high-level didacticism missing its mark. Philippa Bright's 'Anglo-Latin Collections of the Gesta Romanorum and their role in the Cure of Souls', provides both an analysis of the characteristics peculiar to the Anglo-Latin gesta collections and an interpretation of their possible function as a tool to reassert the authority of the church during a climate of reform. Anne Scott discusses the assumptions of readers' literacy and local and other knowledge made by Robert Mannyng in his moral-didactic treatise Handlyng Synne.
In the last section, 'Classical tradition and Early-Modern Didactic', Frances Muecke and Robert Forgacs study the continuities between medieval and humanistic didactic tradition in a sixteenth-century didactic poem on music by Philomathes. Anthony Miller, quarrying three Renaissance manuals of metallurgy and mining for their mentalites, uncovers a rejection of the belief in fallen nature, an embrace of human crafts and confidence among the moderns in being superior to the ancients. Emma Gee explores didactic astronomical works for references to competing classical models of universe during the Copernican Revolution. Finally, Yasmin Haskell reconstructs indirect traces of Lucretian themes in the didactic work of Tommaso Ceva.
Rather than a systematic survey, the book is a florilegium of didactic approaches and ideas on didacticism from which analogous, comparable and even contradictory ones can be chosen. The sources, spread over a wide period and ranging from well known to idiosyncratic private compositions, allow for a colourful and eye-opening introduction to the vastness of didactic literature. Such a diffusion of focus may be distracting, but it implicitly confirms the premises outlined in the introductory chapter referring to the creation of meaning in medieval didactic literature.
Several themes, not limited to any particular section, stand out. The emphasis on gender, one of the strongest aspects of the book, is a refreshing turn from traditional male-dominated histories of education and of intellectual currents. Other well developed themes include the formation of didactic meaning, the role of literacy and its role in the didactic process, the interplay of authority and experience, the anchoring of didacticism in a familiar topography and the potential for failure in the didactic interchange. On the theoretical level the volume is a confirmation of the importance of the work of C. Stephen Jaeger and Thomas Haye, among others.
Although the working definition of didactic literature limits the sources somewhat, the didacticism that emerges is still a large, shape-shifting creature. In a few cases observations would profit by being framed in a broader, multidisciplinary context or by being more integrated with the introductory questions, and thus made more relevant and meaningful to a wider audience. For instance, after reading the analysis of Monomakh's Instruction I was left wondering to what extent the idealized vitae of rulers can be used as a measure of didactic effectiveness. Another unanswered question, quite compatible with the thesis of the book, had to do with the extent to which the confused and confusing topography of Codex Rustici could be read as an intersection of personal mnemonic places and morally relevant knowledge. The limitations, however, are minor in comparison to the contribution of this strong volume.
What Nature Does not Teach complements gaps left in works of intellectual history and history of education. Apart from being a valuable addition to a medievalist's reading list it will be of interest to students of general history, education and gender studies.