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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Mirror

The Mirror, Mirrour or Speculum was a popular title for a multitude of works in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and, in this blog, I speculate on the origin and development of the genre. It is obvious from the context of all these works that the mirror had symbolic associations for readers and writers and as a title it is more than just another example of the happy habit of ancient authors of choosing anodyne novelties for their titles (for which wait for another blog or see, for instance, Aulus Gellius in the preface of Attic Nights where he discusses, among others, Honeycombs, Horns of Amalthea, Meadows, Nosegays and Quilts)

Not only were mirrors an ubiquitous choice of title but they were also frequently employed instruments at critical moments in many literary works of the age. For the former, we can think of Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Majus, the Great Mirror, from the 13th century, the most comprehensive of the medieval encyclopedias which had some 9,885 chapters (excluding the 4th book now known to be written by a later author) and covered most of the knowledge of the time. There was the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Mirror of Human Salvation from the early 14th century. Each page of the book illustrates a scene from the New Testament and its type or prefiguration in the Old Testament. This was so popular that it was translated into many vernacular European languages and over 300 manuscript copies survive as well as many printed editions.

The Speculum Stultorum, Mirror of Fools from the 12th century by Nigel Whitacre was the first of a long line of medieval and Renaissance texts on foolishness, which climaxed with Brant's famous Ship of Fools. A fool at the time was more than just stupid; there was always, in the meaning of the word, the undertone that he was a sinner, a Christian back-slider. There were many, many others: the Speculum Astronomiae, the Mirror of Astronomy, from the 13th century was actually a handbook of astrology, Caxton's Mirrour of the World, a compilation of contemporary information on earthquakes and volcanoes, The Mirrour for Magistrates, published in 1559, the story of some of the more unfortunate characters of English history and the Duodecim Specula, subtitled, Twelve Mirrors with which to see God, an emblem book by Jan David of 1610.

As for mirrors within literature, there was the threefold mirror in the Anticlaudianus by Alain de Lille, the mirror of Narcissus in the Roman de la Rose, Leah's mirror in the Commedia and mirrors play an important role in the Pelerinage de la vie humaine by Deguileville and Langland's Piers Plowman.

So what is all this about? What is the common thread to these ubiquitous mirrors?

The Christian tradition goes back to the beginning, to St. Augustine and to the Bible. There is the famous passage in I Corinthians 13,12 which, in the King James version, is translated as 'we now see through a glass darkly' which, actually, does not do justice to either of the two key words ' a glass' which in the Vulgate is 'speculum' and darkly is 'in enigmate'. Thus a more meaningful translation would be 'we now see ourselves in a mirror as an enigma'. Those who wish to take this passage further can refer to St. Augustine's brilliant exposition of it in his De Trinitate XV. Augustine was actually into mirrors and much of the Christian tradition on the subject goes back to his Speculum de Scriptura Sacra, a compilation of passages from the Bible, another work entitled just Speculum which was a rule book for monastic life later adapted by St. Benedict and the Speculum Peccatoris, the Mirror of Sin, which may not be authentic.

In the secular tradition, we can go back to Plato where, in the Republic, he holds up the poets to scorn since they see the world at second or even third hand, as through a mirror and thus do not tell of the reality of things. Nevertheless, despite Plato's strictures, posterity saw the figure of a mirror as accurately depicting the nature of the symbol, that is 'to show the world what it is and ... to point out what it should be.'

The mirror was thus akin to the dream and the vision. It was, first, an instrument of self-reflection. Socrates advised that everyman should look at himself in the mirror every morning and consider his nature and his opportunities. But the mirror meant more than self-examination and this was the paradox. Not only can you see yourself in the mirror but you can see the world beyond yourself through the glass. The mirror as a vision of self can be be false. As the Ovide Moralise puts it 'let him understand by Narcisus those who delight madly, senselessly, the haughty, the presumptuous, who misuse temporal goods, who see themselves and take delight in the false mirrors of the world' (quoted from Steven Kruger's Dreaming in the Middle Ages Cambridge 1992). But if it is not abused, the mirror can lead on to greater knowledge, knowledge of this world as in the Speculum Majus and, thereafter, knowledge of God himself.