The author of the most influential of the Latin rhetorical handbooks of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Geoffrey of Vinsauf is the best single source for students of medieval literary theory. Long obscure, read primarily by scholars interested in Chaucer or Dante, he has often been dismissed as a dull prescriber of hackwork formulae. On the contrary, though, the modern reader may find his concepts often strikingly anticipate recent critical speculation, and his poetic practice at its best dazzles with ingenuity and experimentation.
Though little is known of Geoffrey’s life, what facts we have vividly suggest his milieu: the cosmopolitan world of Latin culture in the high Middle Ages. He seems to have been born in England, probably of Norman parents; he studied and then taught in various countries, likely including France and Italy as well as Britain. His name is said to derive from his authorship of a treatise on viticulture.
His most significant and well-authenticated works are the Poetria Nova, written aound 1210, and the Documentum de modo et arte dictandi et versificandi, probably written somewhat later. The content of these two texts is for a good part identical, though their style differs. The Poetria is in hexameter verse and contains full poetic examples as well as much playful wit, while the Documentum, more like a textbook, is in prose with much shorter, more direct exposition and abbreviated examples. Both are prescriptive manuals which seek to instruct the reader in effective techniques and methods, including sections on how to begin a poem, how to conclude it, and what ornamentation (such as figures of speech) the poet should select.
A number of other texts have been attributed to Geoffrey with less certainty, among them a lost work on letter-writing, and English rhetoric (excerpted from the two principal works), several poems, and an essay on law.
To understand Geoffrey’s approach to literary questions and his critical vocabulary it is necessary to appreciate the role of rhetoric in European education. First formalized in ancient Greece to develop oratorical skills for the law-court and the assembly, rhetoric provided the basis for most elaborations of literary theory from Plato and Aristotle through Cicero and Horace and, through this classical tradition, into the Middle Ages and beyond. Though certain incongruities were inevitable when the same discipline was applied to philosophy, poetry, and propaganda, there was little substantial challenge to the rhetorical approach until the Romantic theory of the late eighteenth century. Though other forms of criticism existed from antiquity onwards – antiquarianism, impressionism, or truth-seeking, for instance, rhetoric was the field that sought to explain the artful use of words, and thus of literature.
Geoffrey’s very title nicely encapsulates his relation to the great tradition. He nods toward Horace (whose Epistola ad Pisonem, often called the Ars Poetica, was a touchstone) and the Rhetorica ad Herennium (also known as the Rhetorica nova) while, at the same time, his Poetria Nova aims at supplanting these authorities and establishing a new code. not total “freedom,” which would be codeless and thus chaotic. The same ambivalent attitude toward convention is evident throughout his theory and practice.
After an opening which is a tour de force of rhetorical wit, Geoffrey proceeds to discuss invention and how to begin a poem. He then takes up the widely misunderstood medieval topics of amplification and abbreviation, and concludes with a list of colores or figures of speech and thought.
Manly’s important article on “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians,” while focusing on a critical and neglected area of study, spread the idea that Geoffrey was a burden, a pedant peddling unreadable verbal fripperies, and insisting on the mindless adherence to obsolete models. In reality, though, he sought to systematize the capability for literary language to bear meaning. His concern was always to refresh and renew usage to lend new meaning to old words and to create new expressions to convey thoughts never before fit into language.
This attitude is manifested in Geoffrey’s advice on narrative strategy: begin anywhere but the beginning. What may seem a frivolous counsel of novelty as an end in itself is really a way of encoding more content into the text. A story that conforms to linear time will seem “natural,” whereas distortions of sequence compel the reader to interpret.
In the same way the lengthy catalogues of figures of speech which may seem wholly adventitious or merely decorative are in fact empirical inventories of possibility. Every trope is a way of wringing new semantic value out of cliches and other shop-worn expressions. Such broadly conceived devices as translatio (or metaphor) and transsumptio (metalepsis or transformation) can guide the author toward the mot juste. It is true that Geoffrey’s predilection for novelty underlies his countenancing such daring moves as selecting intentionally inappropriate epithets and cultivating paradox.
But in theory at least, such choices cannot serve whimsy or decoration. For Geoffrey there exists a pretext or archetypus of the work in the author’s conception, and all efforts in composition are directed toward realizing this idea. Though Geoffrey does stress the pleasure of the aesthetic text when he uses metaphors such as the cook or the magician for the author, he nonetheless clearly declares that ornament is trivial without the weight of meaning. The text, he argues, resembles a well-ordered feudal household in which every element plays an essential part in the functioning of the whole.
Geoffrey’s text is part of the sophistic tradition that casts doubt on the adequacy of language. Whereas some among the ancients had trusted in the ability of words to represent reality and thus in the manipulation of language as a heuristic tool for discovering truth, the sophists were suspicious of referentiality while exploiting the resources of language to their very limits. When Christianity with its dogma of revelation largely supplanting the philosopher’s quest for truth, language still retained among the scholastics its reputation as a useful tool for supporting scriptural truth. For rhetoricians like Geoffrey language is always technical – a means toward the expression of something already complete in conception rather than a means of discovery in itself.
The immense popularity of Geoffrey’s work is evident in the fact that over two hundred manuscripts of the Nova Poetria are extant. Chaucer parodies Geoffrey in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and translated him in Troilus and Criseyde. Dante and many other poets are clearly aware of his prescriptions, and the rhetorical criticism of which he was the outstanding exemplar for his age continued to dominate European literature for centuries. Along with the other Latin rhetoricians, Matthew of Vendôme and John of Garland, he formulated a vision of literature that served an entire era. Long neglected as dry and boring, his work seems in many ways contemporary today.
His historical importance is beyond doubt; he is worthy of rediscovery not only for the considerable illumination he throws on other medieval poets but for the assumptions and implications that underlie his dicta. His nuanced understanding of tradition and innovation contrasts with the fundamentally Romantic preference for the new so prevalent now. He realized that it is only against a background of convention and the substantial cultural common ground required for shared conventions that the artful poet can play, twisting language and reader expectations and thought and thus convey beauty and produce new ideas and insight while refreshing old words. The simplistic moral thematics of the exempla are not present in Geoffrey; rather his view is consistent in many points with modern artists and critics. Geoffrey seeks to maximize the semantic load of every word while regarding the signifier as ambiguous and contingent. Thus the word comes round by analogy to resemble lived experience, artificial and accidental though both may be, not by an imperfect mimesis, but as a parallel construction, as a metaphor.