Seeing Through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory

University of Toronto Press
Free sample

During the later Middle Ages, new optical theories were introduced that located the power of sight not in the seeing subject, but in the passive object of vision. This shift had a powerful impact not only on medieval science but also on theories of knowledge, and this changing relationship of vision and knowledge was a crucial element in late medieval religious devotion. In Seeing through the Veil, Suzanne Conklin Akbari examines several late medieval allegories in the context of contemporary paradigm shifts in scientific and philosophical theories of vision.

After a survey on the genre of allegory and an overview of medieval optical theories, Akbari delves into more detailed studies of several medieval literary works, including the Roman de la Rose, Dante's Vita Nuova, Convivio, and Commedia, and Chaucer's dream visions and Canterbury Tales. The final chapter, 'Division and Darkness,' centres on the legacy of allegory in the fifteenth century. Offering a new interdisciplinary, synthetic approach to late medieval intellectual history and to major works within the medieval literary canon, Seeing through the Veil will be an essential resource to the study of medieval literature and culture, as well as philosophy, history of art, and history of science.

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About the author

Suzanne Conklin Akbari is a professor in the Department of English and the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.

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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Toronto Press
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Published on
Jan 15, 2015
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Pages
375
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ISBN
9781442667174
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / Medieval
Science / Philosophy & Social Aspects
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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This book tells the story of the early modern astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, which has been regarded by science historians and literary critics alike as the first true example of science fiction. Kepler began writing his complex and heavily-footnoted tale of a fictional Icelandic astronomer as an undergraduate and added to it throughout his life. The Somnium fuses supernatural and scientific models of the cosmos through a satirical defense of Copernicanism that features witches, lunar inhabitants, and a daemon who speaks in the empirical language of modern science. Swinford’s looks at the ways that Kepler’s Somnium is influenced by the cosmic dream, a literary genre that enjoyed considerable popularity among medieval authors, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante, John of Salisbury, Macrobius, and Alan of Lille. He examines the generic conventions of the cosmic dream, also studying the poetic and theological sensibilities underlying the categories of dreams formulated by Macrobius and Artemidorus that were widely used to interpret specific symbols in dreams and to assess their overall reliability.

Swinford develops a key claim about the form of the Somnium as it relates to early science: Kepler relies on a genre that is closely connected to a Ptolemaic, or earth-centered, model of the cosmos as a way of explaining and justifying a model of the cosmos that does not posit the same connections between the individual and the divine that are so important for the Ptolemaic model. In effect, Kepler uses the cosmic dream to describe a universe that cannot lay claim to the same correspondences between an individual’s dream and the order of the cosmos understood within the rules of the genre itself. To that end, Kepler’s Somnium is the first example of science fiction, but the last example of Neoplatonic allegory.

Representations of Muslims have never been more common in the Western imagination than they are today. Building on Orientalist stereotypes constructed over centuries, the figure of the wily Arab has given rise, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, to the "Islamist" terrorist. In Idols in the East, Suzanne Conklin Akbari explores the premodern background of some of the Orientalist types still pervasive in present-day depictions of Muslims—the irascible and irrational Arab, the religiously deviant Islamist—and about how these stereotypes developed over time.

Idols in the East contributes to the recent surge of interest in European encounters with Islam and the Orient in the premodern world. Focusing on the medieval period, Akbari examines a broad range of texts including encyclopedias, maps, medical and astronomical treatises, chansons de geste, romances, and allegories to paint an unusually diverse portrait of medieval culture. Among the texts she considers are The Book of John Mandeville, The Song of Roland, Parzival, and Dante's Divine Comedy. From them she reveals how medieval writers and readers understood and explained the differences they saw between themselves and the Muslim other. Looking forward, Akbari also comes to terms with how these medieval conceptions fit with modern discussions of Orientalism, thus providing an important theoretical link to postcolonial and postimperial scholarship on later periods. Far reaching in its implications and balanced in its judgments, Idols in the East will be of great interest to not only scholars and students of the Middle Ages but also anyone interested in the roots of Orientalism and its tangled relationship to modern racism and anti-Semitism.

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