As an area of investigation, “medieval rhetoric” refers to the discipline taught as rhetoric in the liberal arts curriculum of western Europe, as well as to how that art was adapted to communication practices for secular and ecclesiastical purposes, between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries. Study of medieval rhetoric includes examining the continuance of the classical rhetorical tradition, as it was transmitted from the ancient societies of Greece and Rome, along with the development of rhetorical education and pedagogical practices in composition that fostered the emergence of distinctive medieval discursive genres, which persisted even into the Renaissance. In its scope, medieval rhetoric is necessarily complex and only truly began to be studied on its own terms in the twentieth century, as medieval Latin texts were discovered and made accessible for close examination by scholars investigating the history of rhetoric.
Development Of Scholarly Views Toward Medieval Rhetoric
The study of medieval rhetoric originated in the second half of the nineteenth century with publication of collections of medieval Latin texts not easily classifiable as literary but which shared recognizable rhetorical features (Bennett & Leff 1995, 5). These texts offered evidence of how rhetoric had been taught in the Middle Ages, as part of the trivium of verbal arts that included grammar and dialectic, and how its precepts had been adapted to new communication needs in medieval society, particularly preaching, letter writing, and verse writing. As medieval rhetorical texts were identified, examined, and translated, scholarly views toward medieval rhetoric developed, helping to reveal how the continuity of rhetorical teaching in the Middle Ages had provided a type of cultural coherence in the longest era in the western tradition (Woods 1990, 80).
Early twentieth-century scholarship took its direction from Baldwin’s survey (1928), which represented such texts as blurred with grammar and the art of poetics, and viewed medieval rhetoric merely as instruction in the techniques of stylistic elaboration and ornamentation. Baldwin differentiated it from Aristotelian rhetoric, which he characterized as imparting effectiveness to truth, and labeled it sophistic rhetoric, imparting effectiveness to the speaker. Baldwin concluded that medieval rhetoricians did not advance rhetoric as an art but allowed its classical function of invention to be assimilated into dialectic. For the first half of the twentieth century, Baldwin’s work focused scholarly attention on texts that evidenced this view of medieval rhetoric as sophistic and connected with poetics.
Offering a different view of medieval rhetoric was an important but difficult essay by Richard McKeon (1942). Motivated by an interest in rehabilitating historical connections between rhetoric and philosophy, McKeon considered how medieval rhetoricians conceptualized their art and influenced intellectual developments in logic and theology. According to Bennett and Leff (1995), he identified three lines of conceptualization: rhetorical, based on the works of Cicero and Quintilian; philosophical-theological, based on Augustine; and logical, derived from Aristotle through the work of Boethius.
McKeon traced the development of these conceptualizations across four eras in the history of medieval logic: fifth to tenth centuries (handbooks on dialectic), late tenth to twelfth centuries (“Old Logic”), twelfth through thirteenth centuries (“New Logic”), and late thirteenth through fourteenth centuries (scholastic treatises). Though limited in its treatment of the traditional conceptualization of rhetoric, McKeon’s essay demonstrated the need for a wider scope of investigation of medieval rhetoric and justified a more thorough examination of extant texts.
Medieval Rhetoric And Ciceronian Rhetoric
The impulse for a more thorough investigation of medieval rhetoric was generated by research published in the 1970s by James J. Murphy. Murphy (1974) offered a new approach, one that combined the disciplinary tradition of rhetoric, the rhetorical educational program inherited from Rome, with an expanded, flexible exploration of the manifestation of that tradition in the Middle Ages. Murphy argued that the Roman educational program outlasted the culture that created it and transmitted rhetoric into the Middle Ages as a living tradition of precepts for pragmatic application. From Murphy’s view, rather than a fragmented or degenerative version of the classical tradition, medieval rhetoric demonstrates how its teachers and practitioners adapted the tradition to their own specific discursive or communicative needs, implicitly lending their assent to Cicero’s dictum: “Eloquence is one . . . regardless of the regions of discourse it is diverted into” (Murphy 1974, 363).
Based on the foundation established by Murphy, medieval rhetoric is recognized as essentially Ciceronian in nature. The dominant sources of classical rhetorical precepts were Cicero’s treatise on invention, De inventione, and the anonymous rhetoric to Herennius, Rhetorica ad Herennium, which was attributed to Cicero, along with fragments from Quintilian. Cicero’s treatise on logical topics for arguments, Topica, and Aristotle’s logical works were also influential. In the fourth century, Ciceronian rhetoric of pagan Rome was still widely popular in practice, but by the fifth century, the cultural dominance of Christianity threatened the survival of that tradition. Murphy (1974) marks the beginning of medieval rhetoric in the fifth century with the appearance of two works that secured the continuance of the rhetorical tradition but in different ways.
Writing at the start of the fifth century, St Augustine’s On Christian doctrine argued that defenders of Christianity need rhetorical skill. Illustrating that even Jesus and Paul had used eloquence, he suggested that combining rhetorical eloquence with scriptural authority would better equip preachers to serve the church. The appropriation of Ciceronian rhetoric to the needs of the church assured the preservation of rhetorical texts and established grounds for medieval preaching theory (e.g., in works by Gregory the Great, Rabanus Maurus, and Walafrid Strabo).
Also written at the beginning of the fifth century was the allegorical treatise On the marriage of Philology and Mercury by Martianus Capella. In that work, Capella personified liberal arts from the Roman curriculum as handmaidens for the bride Philology. The first three dealt with words (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric), and the second four with numbers (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music). Lady Rhetoric is portrayed as a warrior-queen, resplendent in her adornment and armament, wielding power over people and armies alike. The popularity of Capella’s work in the Middle Ages preserved the pagan tradition of rhetoric as an art and firmly established its dominance in the medieval liberal arts curriculum. Pedagogical practices continued to include both grammatical training in composition and rhetorical practice in declamation and disputation.
Systematic investigation of medieval rhetoric generally acknowledges two periods of development: an early period of transition (400–1050) and a second, known as the “High Middle Ages” (1050–1400). Works from the transitional period display a shared concern for preserving traditional rhetorical knowledge and typically appear as commentaries (Victorinus, Grillius), as encyclopedic compendia (Cassiodorus Senator, Isidore of Seville), or as treatises rehabilitating traditional precepts for current needs (works by Notker Labeo and Anselm de Besate). The High Middle Ages produced works that exhibit conscious efforts to adapt rhetorical precepts, such as those treating order or arrangement, linguistic correctness and the use of figures, or textual interpretation and elaboration, to medieval problems of composition and disputation.
By mid-eleventh century, the rhetorical tradition gave rise to three medieval discursive arts. Communication needs for composing official letters were met with a new art of letter writing (ars dictaminis), for composing sermons, an art of preaching (ars praedicandi), and for composing verse and didactic literature, an art of poetic (ars poetriae). By the start of the twelfth century, numerous treatises appeared in each of these new rhetorical genres: Ars dictaminis (Hugh of Bologne, Guido Faba, Boncompagno da Signa), ars praedicandi (Alain de Lille, Robert of Basevorn), and ars poetriae (Matthew of Vendome, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, John of Garland, Gervase of Melkley).
As medieval educational practices developed under the dominance of the church, an intellectual movement known as scholasticism also emerged, which Christian scholars found useful for advancing and refuting competing theological arguments. Derived from traditional rhetorical declamatory practice but informed by the logical works of Cicero, Boethius, and Aristotle, scholasticism approached disputation as syllogistic demonstration based upon authoritative scripture or texts. Thus, scholastics tended to place dialectic or logic, used to demonstrate truth, above rhetoric or eloquence, regarded as popularizing ignorance.
Current Issues In The Study Of Medieval Rhetoric
Despite the growth in scholarship since Murphy’s work, many areas of study remain incomplete, such as the continuous tradition of commentary on Ciceronian rhetorical texts (Ward 1995), and medieval rhetoric still tends to be marginalized as a field of study in the history of rhetoric by communication scholars. One reason is the difficulty in working with medieval Latin texts. The other is the tendency to judge medieval rhetoric against an arbitrary classical rhetorical paradigm. Brian Vickers (1988), invoking Baldwin’s earlier view, devoted a whole chapter to a discussion of “medieval fragmentation,” in which medieval rhetoric is judged as fragments of “the genuine classical tradition.” Martin Camargo (2003) has argued that Vickers’ judgment relies upon several mistaken assumptions, the most significant of which accepts as fact only one authentic rhetorical tradition.
George Kennedy (1999) has asserted that throughout its history, rhetoric moves from its primary form to secondary ones, that is, to rhetorical techniques that contribute to the purpose of the speaker or the writer but only indirectly. By his description, most of medieval rhetoric becomes secondary. Marjorie Curry Woods (1990) has demonstrated the problems with Kennedy’s distinction, and argues that the medieval tradition of pedagogical rhetoric offers a new foundation for assessing the western rhetorical tradition as a whole.
- Baldwin, C. S. (1928). Medieval rhetoric and poetics to 1400: Interpreted from representative works. New York: Macmillan.
- Bennett, B. S., & Leff, M. (1995). Introduction: James J. Murphy and the rhetorical tradition. In W. B. Horner & M. Leff (eds.), Rhetoric and pedagogy: Its history, philosophy, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 1–16.
- Camargo, M. (2003). Defining medieval rhetoric. In C. J. Mews, C. J. Nederman, & R. M. Thomson (eds.), Rhetoric and renewal in the Latin west 1100–1540: Essays in honour of John O. Ward. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 21–34.
- Kennedy, G. A. (1999). Classical rhetoric and its Christian and secular tradition from ancient to modern times, 2nd edn. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- McKeon, R. (1942). Rhetoric in the middle ages. Speculum, 17, 1–32.
- Murphy, J. J. (1974). Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A history of rhetorical theory from St Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Murphy, J. J. (ed.) (1978). Medieval eloquence: Studies in the theory and practice of medieval rhetoric. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Murphy, J. J. (1989). Medieval rhetoric: A select bibliography, 2nd edn. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Vickers, B. (1988). In defence of rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Ward, J. O. (1995). Ciceronian rhetoric in treatise, scholion and commentary. Turnhout: Brepols. Rhetoric in the Middle East
- Woods, M. C. (1990). The teaching of writing in medieval Europe. In J. J. Murphy (ed.), A short history of writing instruction from ancient Greece to twentieth-century America. Davis, CA: Hermagoras, pp. 77–94.