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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance
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The etymology of allegory is from three Greek words allos, agora and euein. These last two mean ‘marketplace’ and ‘to speak’, and so together to speak openly or in public. Allos means ‘other’ so the whole word combined is negative: to speak in a manner which conceals your real meaning (Fletcher 2). Later Isidore of Seville in his Etymologies gives it its original Latin name – alieniloqium or other speaking.
Aristotle defined allegory as extended metaphor and in this he was followed by Quintilian, one of the fathers of Rhetoric. By the time of the Renaissance, allegory had developed several shades of meaning: in the general sense as a synonym for symbol, as one of the motifs of the symbolic literature that is as the personifications which were described in the iconologies of the time, as a rhetorical figure of speech, as an allegorical story and as a mode of scriptural interpretation.
As a figure of speech, allegory originally had five elements: enigma, proverb, irony, wit, and gryphe (a variant or synonym of enigma). Later gryphe disappeared as a separate category and euphemism, antiphrase and sarcasm were added and these seven became the classic make up of rhetorical allegory accepted throughout the period.
As for the allegorical story, there were from the beginning two main themes: the struggle and the journey. The first of these can be illustrated by Hesiod’s Gigantomachia describing the battle for the creation of the Earth in his Theogony and the Psychomachia, by the Christian poet Prudentius, a facile description of the struggle for the soul between Good and Evil. A subset of the struggle was its verbal equivalent, the dialog, debate or symposium. The first of the epic allegorical journeys was a French work, the Pelerinage de Vie Humaine, the Pilgrimage of Human Life, written by Guillaume de Deguileville between 1331 and 1350 in which Mankind travels through life with his Scarf of Faith and Staff of Hope and the most celebrated in a long line of such stories and almost the last was Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. Numerous other celebrated authors wrote allegorical stories: Statius, Apuleius, Martianus Capella, Bernard Sylvestris, Alain de Lille, Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, Spenser, Swift.
Allegory as one of the four modes of interpretation of Scripture was variously defined over the ages. The most authoritative definition is that of Aquinas (Summa Theologica 1, 1, 10) who equates the allegorical sense to the typological, that is to the prefigurations from the Old Testament of the New Testament actions and sayings of Christ.
See also: Metamorphoses, Epopées