Book Review: Uncertain Knowledge: Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages (Denery, Gosh, & Zeeman, eds.)—Review by Jordan Loveridge

Dallas G. Denery II, Kantik Ghosh, and Nicolette Zeeman, eds. Uncertain Knowledge: Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2014. viii +345 pp. $96. ISBN: 978-2-503-54776-3.

The medieval period was a time of advancement and change in a variety of disciplines: science, logic, and rhetoric all faced challenges and innovations that altered how fundamental concepts such as perception, cognition, certainty, and truth were understood. Uncertain Knowledge positions itself as an interdisciplinary attempt to examine epistemological uncertainty within a variety of contexts, but most specifically within scholastic and vernacular thought. Certainty, the editors argue, was far from ubiquitous, and to better understand medieval thought we must first recognize and accept uncertainty where we find it. To such ends, the various chapters set out to examine uncertainty in a variety of texts, situations, and disciplines. Uncertain Knowledge offers a broad, thorough, and accessible—if not always unified—exploration of epistemological uncertainty within the period, and should be useful to scholars working in rhetoric, philosophy, and literary studies.

Given the collection’s interdisciplinary approach, each chapter focuses on a variety of topics. Rhetoric, logic and dialectic recur often, especially as they intersect with other fields. In “Living with Uncertainty: Reactions to Aristotle’s Rhetoric in the Later Middle Ages,” Rita Copeland (University of Pennsylvania) explores the role of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, noting that at the time of its reintegration into medieval intellectual culture, there was no suitable framework available to understand it as a rhetoric, causing the text to be understood in terms of other disciplines, such as ethics and politics. The rhetorical tradition of medieval Europe stems largely from Roman models, which are more practical in their focus. Such models emphasize general composing and speaking advice while also integrating discussions of morality. Aristotle’s text, on the other hand, represents a more philosophic tradition, and its introduction was unsettling for rhetoric and associated disciplines. Commentators such as Giles of Rome (d.1316) attempted to reconcile these differences by associating rhetoric with politics, dialectic, and ethics. At the same time, however, Giles strives to define rhetoric as distinct. Yet throughout his corpus, he slowly begins to favor the position of Aristotle over Cicero. In short, Copeland argues, the reintegration of Aristotle’s Rhetoric into medieval intellectual culture was fundamentally unsettling not only for rhetoric but also for disciplines such as politics and ethics.

The influence of Aristotle is another commonality within the collection. In the first chapter, “Uncertainty and Deception in the Medieval and Early Modern Court,” Dallas G. Denery II (Bowdoin College) performs a cross-historical analysis of Early Modern anxieties about the uncertain and John of Salisbury’s (d.1180) Policraticus. For Denery, “the origins of European modernity depend in large part on how people reacted to the spectre of uncertainty and scepticism,” reactions he contrasts with Salisbury’s own (15). Early Modern scholars turned away from Aristotelian first principles and prudential wisdom, moving instead toward dialectic. Denery deftly illustrates this claim through copia, referring to the works of Castiglione, Machiavelli, Pierre Charron, and John of Salisbury. Salisbury recommends that we make decisions based on our available knowledge and the attendant probabilities, for him an exercise in logic and rhetoric. In contrast to the later scholastics, John of Salisbury questions moral and ethical norms and ultimately appears more an Early Modern than perhaps previously thought. Denery’s comparisons with later writers help to contextualize Salisbury’s relationship to rhetoric and political thought in the period, and his focus on Aristotle helps establish a unifying thread for many other chapters in the collection.

Aristotle’s works also created uncertainty within other intellectual frameworks. In “New Standards for Certainty: Early Receptions of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics,” Eileen C. Sweeney (Boston College) argues for the (perhaps problematic or unfortunate) impact of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics on early scholasticism. The result, she suggests, is a two-tier system of knowledge based in Aristotelian concepts of scientific certainty: “scientific as opposed to other, lesser forms of knowledge” (38). She illustrates her argument with references to Robert Grosseteste (d.1283) and Roger Bacon (d.1292), though her discussion of the Posterior Analytics itself is very limited. For Grosseteste, disciplines are ranked hierarchically, with some closer to divine truth and thus more certain: the study of the soul, for instance, is more certain than study of the body. Nevertheless, Grosseteste ultimately embraces “uncertainty as a necessary stage in the acquisition of scientific knowledge” (43). Bacon furthers this belief, assigning uncertainty the base condition until true demonstration is achieved through sensory experience. Thus, while Copeland’s chapter deals with uncertainty in definition, Sweeney deals with uncertainty in the face of natural and metaphysical questions.

These new standards of truth discussed by Sweeney were increasingly tied to sensation, yet the senses do not always provide accurate information. In “How Is it Possible to Believe Falsely? John Buridan, the Vetula, and the Psychology of Error,” Christophe Grellard (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) addresses belief and error in regard to sensation and reasoning. Heavily influenced by Aristotle, many scholastics developed theories of knowledge in which “truth” was both the preferred and natural state for humanity. Such an epistemology treats error as a result of lack of access to truth, and Grellard attempts to analyze what this might mean for the layperson. The best expression of such a problem comes from the writings of John Buridan (d.1361), who addressed error and belief through the concept of doxa, or common belief/opinion. Doxa, and the errors it might lead to, are embodied in the vetula, or the little old woman. Buridan treats the vetula as a stand in for vernacular reasoning. The vetula “possess a credulity testifying to pure faith, but one that is always susceptible to superstition and even heresy” which allows the figure to highlight errors in reasoning or judgment (93). Thus, the vetula can be either “an example of common sense… [or] as an example of credulity due to her intellectual weakness” (101). However, rather than dismiss the reasoning of women, or ridicule it, Buridan attempts to understand and rationalize their reasoning within a framework based in common knowledge.

Other chapters offer more direct treatments of knowledge and sensation. In “Can We Trust our Senses? Fourteenth-Century Debates on Sensory Illusions,” Dominik Perler (Princeton University) addresses unreliable sensation and illusion through an analysis of Walter Chatton (d.1343) and William of Ockham (d.1347), arguing that their treatment of illusions suggests they integrated them within their existing theories of naturalism, denying the possibility of skepticism. For Chatton, Perler argues, false statements about a material object do not deny its material realities. Perler’s discussion here is detailed and thorough, offering an easily understandable summation of various medieval theories of vision and representation.

In “Uncertainty in the Study of the Bible,” Lesley Smith (Harris Manchester College) offers a look at uncertainty within Biblical exegesis. Smith’s analysis reveals that many commentators sought to understand even incidental details of Biblical stories in highly rationalized ways, without the need to suggest one dogmatic interpretation. Smith’s chapter directly confronts epistemological uncertainty, and represents a turning point within this collection that marks an increased attention to vernacular texts. A similar focus can be seen in Karen Sullivan’s (Bard College) chapter, “On Recognizing the Limits of Our Understanding: Medieval Debates about Merlin and Marvels,” which focuses on the relationship between Merlin and “marvels” and unexplained phenomenon. For Sullivan, Merlin is a way of representing “intellectual humility” and the testing of the limits of knowledge. Helen Swift’s (St. Hilda’s College) subsequent chapter, “The Merits of Not Knowing: The Paradox of ‘Espoir certain’ in Late Medieval French Narrative Poetry,” focuses on the uncertainty of love within French poetry, arguing that many French love poems are defined by the presence of uncertainty that comes along with romantic love. However, the presence of uncertainty is not used merely as a romantic commonplace, but rather as a method of exploring the nature of knowledge and knowing within poetic form. These chapters mark a turn from philosophical and rhetorical texts towards Biblical exegesis and vernacular literature.

The next chapter marks a return to issues of logic and philosophy. In “Philosophy in Parts: Jean de Meun, Chaucer, and Lydgate,” Nicolette Zeeman (King’s College) explores the subordinate element within medieval systems of belief, and how certain authors afforded those subordinated elements primacy. Quoting Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Zeeman notes that she frequently identifies—and proudly so—as lower in a sexual hierarchy than any virgin. While conforming to Pauline doctrine, the Wife of Bath is also simultaneously subverting said doctrine. Zeeman then extends similar arguments to the works of Jean de Meun (d.1305) and Lydgate (d.1451), referring to them as “philosophical, critical, and ironic poets” (217). Ultimately, she suggests that these poets were likely self-consciously engaging scholastic contemporaries. In her conclusion, Zeeman deftly ties together many of the intellectual threads running through the collection, making her chapter an essential read within the collection.

In “Vernacular Opinions,” Mishtooni Bose (Christ College) explores the writings of Christine de Pizan (d.1430) and Reginald Pecock (d.1395) for their treatment of opinion. Where certainty exists, opinion cannot, and in recognizing so, these authors highlight social and historical changes in both religion and thought. In highlighting the productive and inventive qualities of uncertainty, both authors challenge existing systems of knowledge with their own vernacular visions of knowledge, opinion, and invention.

Kantik Ghosh’s (Trinity College) chapter, “Logic, Scepticism, and ‘Heresy’ in Early Fifteenth-Century Europe: Oxford, Vienna, Constance,” explores the vernacularization of university intellectual practices, and the effects of the accompanying critiques on established institutions made in a now expanded public arena. Vernacular intellectual practices, Ghosh suggests, critiqued many established institutions, such as universities, by labeling them “sects” of heretics. These vernacular practices speak to an essential difference in epistemology when compared to scholastic thought. For instance, Wycliffite texts generally did not see uncertainty as a prerequisite to truth, “but rather as symptomatic of the fundamentally misguided nature of intellectual inquiry … in academia” (264). The shift in vernacular thought represented by these texts changed the ways in which universities operated and in which academic freedom might be conceived. These changes extended also to more public accusations and academic disputations. The category of heresy was more frequently applied to philosophical debate, and vernacular controversies began to show more and more influence from the practices of universities, even as they were being denounced.

Ghosh’s contribution leads nicely into Hester Goodenough Gelber’s (Stanford University) chapter, “Laughter and Deception: Holcot and Chaucer Remain Cheerful,” on uncertainty in Chaucer’s (d.1400) work. Examining the Clerk’s and Nun’s Priest’s tales, Gelber suggests that these stories express an anxiety about the role of deception in daily and religious life. Changes in intellectual culture led to a questioning of the stability of God’s covenant with humanity; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gelber argues, take up this challenge of faith in interesting ways. Uncertainty and the realities of a post-lapsarian mortal state are key to these tales’ humor. The Clerk, for instance, occupies an intermediary position between a highly fallible bully and an instrument of God. Similarly, the Nun’s Priest asks the reader to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and take what they will as the moral of the tale. In its attention to vernacular literary culture, Gelber’s chapter is a fitting continuation of themes in this section of the collection, in the sense that it continues to explore the role of questioning and uncertainty outside of universities and other official contexts.

In the final chapter, “Medieval Bêtise: Internal Senses and Second Skins in Richard de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amours,” Sarah Kay (New York University) returns to discussions of the senses and sensation. Drawing on the work of Derrida,[1] Kay examines Richard de Fournival’s (d.1260) Bestiaire d’amours as a philosophical work that explores the senses as both a commonality and difference between the human and the animal. The illustrations and other textual features are evidence, Kay argues, of Richard de Fournival’s engagement with Aristotelian theories of sense perception; both emphasize those features that humans hold in common with other animals. While the animals in bestiaries traditionally offer symbolic and allegorical meanings to be interpreted within Christian doctrine, Richard de Fournival associates animals with more secular situations, such as instances of courtly love. In doing so, he minimizes the differences (and blurs the boundaries) between human and animal. Kay’s contribution ultimately offers a rather loose definition of what constitutes “uncertain knowledge,” but this may in fact be the perfect way to end such a collection.

Overall, given the collection’s focus on epistemology, logic, and rhetoric, it would make an excellent choice for a student of philosophy, rhetoric, or general intellectual history. Likewise, the later sections focusing on vernacular literature and poetry would be highly recommended for literary critics and historians. Both the table of contents and introduction do an excellent job of indicating which chapters will be most useful to readers in particularly fields, though many of the contributions focus on a number of topics. Regardless of one’s scholarly interests, however, Uncertain Knowledge represents an impressive and interdisciplinary attempt to uncover a wide variety of modes of truth, doubt, and belief in the medieval period.

Jordan Loveridge

Jordan Loveridge is a PhD student at Arizona State University, where he specializes in the history of rhetoric. His recent work focuses on classical and medieval rhetorical theory’s influence on practices of communication that shaped moral and civic behavior outside of elite circles.


[1] Specifically, Kay references Derrida’s L’Animal que donc je suis. She refers to the English translation: Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28.2 (Winter 2002): 369-418.

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