Medieval Theory of Authorship

Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages
Minnis, A.J.
Date published: 
January 1988

When first published in 1984, Medieval Theory of Authorship was hailed as a milestone in the study of medieval literary criticism. As a reassessment of the significance of the scholastic contribution to hermeneutics, it argues forcefully, to quote one reviewer, 'for a repositioning of our historical perspective on late medieval textual theory'.

It has often been held that scholasticism destroyed the literary theory which was emerging during the twelfth-century Renaissance, and hence discussion of late-medieval literary works has tended to derive its critical vocabulary from modern, not medieval, theory. The arts of preaching and poetry offer little about the principles and status of literature. 'Is it not better to search again', asks Dr Minnis, 'for a conceptual equipment which is at once historically valid and theoretically illuminating?'

He finds such a range of writings in the glosses and commentaries on the authoritative Latin writers or auctores, studied in the schools and universities in the period 1100 to 1400. In particular, the prologues to these commentaries are valuable repositories of medieval theory of authorship, that is, literary theory centred on the crucial concepts of auctor and auctoritas. Of special significance is Scriptural exegesis, for medieval scholars found the Bible the most difficult text to describe accurately and adequately: as a consequence the literary theory in question received its most elaborate and sophisticated expression in the writings of theologians.

Scholastic literary discourse had a wide influence, its idioms appearing in European vernacular works as well as in Medieval Latin literature. It influenced the attitudes which major writers – including Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Gower and Chaucer – had towards the moral value and stylistic significance of their writings, many aspects of which will have to be reconsidered in the light of this provocative book.