Review of The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages

THE EXPERIENCE OF BEAUTY IN THE MIDDLE AGES. By Mary Carruthers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xii+233. Hard Cover $150.00, ISBN: 9780199590322.

            Most ideas from the Middle Ages are entangled in their views of theology and morality, at least that is how we often perceive it. We approach medieval ideas with the belief that theology was the foundation on which everything else was built. After all, many of the famous thinkers are now deemed saints. Theology was certainly important, but, as Mary Carruthers indicates, it does not follow that theology is the sole source for every idea and experience. Many books about medieval aesthetics have come from the discipline of philosophy, centering on metaphysical theories and distinctions. While careful analysis is part of medieval theories—just think of Aquinas—it is not the only part. In this notable book by Carruthers, we are reminded of this fact. She makes it clear that her book is about style, the experience of beauty. And it is the purely aesthetic excellence of a work, standing on its own terms, that enables any theological messages to come forth.

            Consisting of an introduction and six essays, Carruthers elaborates on the practice of style during the Middle Ages. In so doing, she unveils some elements that are purely aesthetic, though they may be employed in the service of moral or theological discourse. The medieval period is often viewed as a very harsh and serious time. This description is not wholly without warrant, yet Carruthers develops a more complete picture of those times by revealing, in her first chapter, the playful side of medieval artisans. Artisans liked to play games with the audience through their work because play creates a space for “teaching, experimental thinking, and composing.” (p. 23) Socratic irony is the famous antecedent of this playful method. [So, it is not merely silly but rather clever, which requires a certain amount of sophistication.] Sometimes logical games create tensions in the viewer, which cause her to struggle with her opinions and the artist. And these tensions are common in the field of rhetoric, which provides, Carruthers explains, the vocabulary for medieval aesthetics. This seems like an odd claim because….. The contrasting elements, however, do not always have to create tension (at least not in a negative sense); sometimes the mixture is precisely what creates the aesthetic effect in the beholder. But, ultimately, the interplay is supposed to help one move toward the ‘delightful’ and away from the ‘painful’.

A sharp divide does not always separate opposite things. Medieval writers tried to be exact, but there were usually lingering ambiguities. Carruthers highlights this in her discussion of sweetness, which is more complex than we might initially think. Just like too much medicine can poison rather than heal, too much sweet will become bitter. This use of antithesis is not surprising to see in the Middle Ages, since it has been a common trope in rhetoric. While it might be best to have truth conveyed in an eloquent way, it is sometimes necessary to have truthful things gained through a rancorous vehicle.

One of the most intriguing sections of Carruthers’s book is her discussion of taste. We have come to accept the use of ‘taste’ to describe what pleases us (and others). Of course, this leads to disputes about what counts as good or bad taste. But Carruthers focuses more on how taste became the term used for intellectual judgments about the presence (or lack) of beauty. In more detail than I can mention here, she provides a rich history of this development. A longstanding metaphor uses the term ‘chewing’ to stand for reflecting on knowledge. Chewing necessarily involves tasting. Flavors, it was thought, affect our bodies in different ways. So, we require a mixture of flavors in order to be healthy. Like other activities, taste can be cultivated through exercise. And good taste came to be considered as the judgments of honorable people.

Variety is another important value in medieval aesthetics. Likely influenced by Aristotle, variety was viewed as a mean between boring and unruly, rather than as a mere assortment. In fact, a work’s suitableness did not belong to a single element of style but the variety among the elements. Rather than being chaotic, the variety causes the beholder’s gaze to move around the work, eventually settling on where the viewer chooses. Just like changes in the natural world, the variety in art helps to create a more ‘satisfactory harmony’.

After discussing these other characteristic values, Carruthers discusses beauty for the first time in the last chapter. This curious move was done on purpose, however. Talk of beauty has a tendency to drift people into the extraordinary, and in medieval thought maybe even the supernatural. But she wanted to focus on the ordinary and the human. Beauty arrives through intention. The intention is found in the work itself. The work does not simply depict human feelings, but rather it causes those feelings to exist in the beholder. The experience of beauty in art requires a threefold relationship among artist, artwork, and beholder. They are all required to make the experience of beauty. This relationship shows the influence of Aristotle’s agent triad: ethos, logos, and pathos. Though it might connect in some sense with the divine, beauty is very human and very ordinary. After all, beauty requires color, which means there must be a physical surface.

Carruthers has provided a careful history, complete with an analysis of terms, in each of chapters that form pieces of an overall exposition of style in the Middle Ages. While I understand that her specific goal was to discuss the experience of beauty, she could have enhanced her book a little with a few interactions with some theoretical ideas. For example, without much explanation she seems to write off the idea that beauty is (or even could be) a transcendental. This topic should have been given a little more attention, at least to avoid making it sound so marginal, since the transcendentals were discussed and debated by some of the greatest medieval philosophers. They clearly considered it very important, yet she dismisses it in one sentence. Despite this fault, which can easily be attributed to different purposes, Carruthers presents us with a wonderful book that will hopefully push people to look past—at least on occasion—the theological and moral debates and see the human.

Michael R. Spicher, Independent Researcher

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