Paradoxes of Incarnation: Medieval Allegory Revisited

In defense of allegory.

By John FarrellNovember 26, 2017

Paradoxes of Incarnation: Medieval Allegory Revisited

Allegory and Enchantment by Jason Crawford. Oxford University Press. 256 pages.

THE LAST FEW CENTURIES of literary history have not been kind to the genre of allegory. “Allegory,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in the early 19th century, “is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses.” To make sense of allegory at all, the reader, in this view, has to bypass the concrete details of the story in order to extract the meanings behind them. The events and descriptions of allegorical narratives, the flesh and blood experience of the story, are simply remnants, mere husks, once the kernels of truth have been removed.

Most modern critics, following Coleridge, have associated allegory with the culture of the middle ages, with its dogmatic certainties in religion, its abstruse idealism, and its penchant for metaphysical system-building. Since the attack on scholastic philosophy by Francis Bacon, the 17th-century prophet of science, medieval thinkers and writers have been relentlessly portrayed as eager to abandon the real world for a heaven of fancied abstractions, vast webs of significance spun from besotted brains. From the modern point of view, the medieval world picture came to look like a great structure of delusions buoyed up by empty words.

Scholars of early modern literature have long resisted this caricature of medieval culture, including its view of allegory, but Jason Crawford, in his new book Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics, has responded to the modern critique in a particularly interesting way. With enormous erudition and argumentative subtlety, Crawford shows that the tension between abstract truth and concrete experience that prompted modern critics to reject allegory was not a late-arriving concern prompted by medieval naïveté. It was, rather, a problem confronted from the genre’s very beginning by the medieval practitioners of allegory themselves. This problem is deeply connected with the fundamental philosophical issue of how the mental and physical realms relate to each other as it was articulated by Plato, whose formulation of it was, Crawford contends, the originating philosophical basis of allegorical imagination. Few scholars have succeeded so nicely in connecting a literary genre with its animating intellectual tensions.

The relevance of the issue of allegory to Christianity is obvious. It points directly toward what Crawford calls the “paradoxes of incarnation,” a phrase that suggests that the mystery of the “Word made flesh,” Christ’s descent into the real world, provides no easy answer to the question at the heart of allegory: can a body “both mean and live”? Literary critics of the 18th century, in reframing allegory as nothing more than a literary genre operating without claim to realistic narrative force, attempted to defuse the questions allegory was originally designed to explore by removing the competition between literal and figurative meaning. When Thomas Hughes, the Augustan editor of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), “reinvents allegory,” as Crawford puts it, he does so by “draining all meaning out of its narrative matter and into its moral sense.” The problem of representing mental and spiritual reality in the material terms of a single story has simply disappeared.

Having saved allegory from the charge of philosophical and literary vapidity by exploring its ancient origins, Crawford goes on to explore the workings of the genre in four major English writers — William Langland, John Skelton, Edmund Spenser, and John Bunyan — whose works span the period between the 14th and the 17th centuries now referred to by scholars as Early Modern. Crawford reminds us that allegory emerged from a culture that could still believe in inspired sources of wisdom and informing spirits. Medieval writers could still dream of a conversation with Boethius’s Lady Philosophy or an encounter with the saintly soul of Dante’s Beatrice. They could also believe in false spiritual teachers, demons of deception and fraud. They stood between Christ and Antichrist. Dramatizing the search for wisdom and truth involved getting in touch with the proper sources of spiritual knowledge while also recognizing and escaping from demonic influence.

The writers of the great early modern allegories were engaged not only in projects of enchantment, Crawford argues, but also of disenchantment. They were seeking to validate their own spiritual authority but also to struggle with and discredit false authorities, both human and supernatural. We associate the discrediting of false gods and the “disenchantment of the world” (as Max Weber called it) with modern culture, but Crawford reminds us that polemical disenchantment was a key part of literary and philosophical narrative going all the way back, once again, to Plato. He also shows us what a risky project disenchantment can be: how it can lead to alienation, “historical weariness,” despair, and “emergent forms of paranoia.”

If Crawford puts us back in touch with the spiritual dilemmas that gave dynamism to medieval and early modern allegory, he also insightfully resituates the genre within its treacherous political settings. Crawford presents William Langland, the 14th-century author of Piers Plowman, not as the promulgator of a confident spiritual orthodoxy but as an alienated consciousness vulnerable to “incipient paranoia, a tendency to suspect that every institution, person, faculty, term, and text he meets on his way must somehow be either deluded or lying about the nature of truth.” Similarly, John Skelton’s The Bowge of Court (1499) presents Tudor courtly culture as part of an “an age of intelligence and of counterintelligence, of insurgents, disguises, ciphers, and spies.”

For the Elizabethan allegorist Edmund Spenser, to be “faithful, in the context of such conspiracies — of Jesuit infiltrators, inauthentic conformists, alluring heresies, and false assurances — requires elaborate tactics of inquisition.” And the adaptability of allegorical form to the challenges of the modern spiritual scene becomes most striking in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), by the dissenting Restoration preacher John Bunyan: a man of faith trapped in a world of non-believers, a world that has been evacuated of spiritual meaning. “No sacrament, no object, no institution, no king or queen, no place, and no cosmic order,” Crawford tells us, “can serve, in his fiction, as a channel or container of God’s order.” All Bunyan has left is the truth of the Holy Book, a state of isolation that is truly frightening.

Crawford’s beautifully written study shows in economical fashion that “our metaphors of enchantment and disenchantment have genealogies older than early modernity” and that, when it comes to key issues like the relation of eternal truth to historical time, there is a “dense network of continuities between the medieval and the modern.” In doing so, Crawford reframes the concept of modernity itself, making it into a kind of intellectual mode that emerges whenever authors are struggling between the need to tap spiritual sources and the need to challenge or discredit them. The change in perspective Crawford proposes is an ambitious, even a disorienting one. “Modernity,” in his view, no longer serves to mark the historical departure from medieval imagination but becomes merely another expression of its native dynamics. The medieval and the putatively modern offer two versions of the same intellectual crisis. Given this framework, the significance for modernity of the Protestant Reformation as a self-conscious rejection of Catholic thinking becomes less salient than in familiar accounts such as, for instance, Anthony Kemp’s in The Estrangement of the Past (1991), which presents a seamless transition between the Protestant and the modern suspicion of authority.

Not all scholars will be willing to give up the historically specific division between medieval and modern that Crawford’s account requires, and some will resist Crawford’s willingness to trace modern paranoia as far back as the 14th century. But Crawford’s stress on the problematics of incarnation at the root of medieval allegory has provocative implications for our understanding of the succeeding culture of Enlightenment. It resonates strongly with Blanford Parker’s portrayal of the Enlightenment attack on medieval imagination in The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson (1998), where the suppression of medieval genres is shown to be a carefully crafted program of repression of the medieval forms of imagination. The negative and even paranoid potential in early modern allegory, as Crawford portrays it, displays striking affinities with Restoration and 18th-century satire, which proved to be the last refuge of allegorical resources like personification and hidden reference. Satire may have definitively replaced allegory as the main didactic genre in post-17th-century literature, but by stressing the potential for alienation and disenchantment in allegory, Crawford narrows the distance between The Faerie Queene, its burlesque imitation in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1684), and the mock-allegorical chaos of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (1728), ruled over not by Lady Philosophy but by Anarchy and Dulness. This challenging study will leave readers thinking long and hard about the tension between truth-telling and story-telling and how we define our relation to the past.


John Farrell is Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy.

LARB Contributor

John Farrell is professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy.


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