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Durham University

Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)

Event Archive

The Unruly Matter of Man: Matter and the Human According to the Twelfth-Century Platonists

10th March 2015, 17:30, Learning Centre, Palace Green Library, Professor Mary Franklin-Brown, University of Minnesota

followed by a drinks reception at the Cafe, Palace Green Library.

This event is part of the IMEMS Limits of the Human seminar series for 2014/15. Please note that places are limited and will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. To book click here

Abstract: In the Cosmographia, an imaginative rewriting of Plato’s Timaeus, the twelfth-century poet Bernard Silvester describes the creation of the macrocosm and microcosm, the universe and man (homo), out of primordial matter (Silva). By the time the universe is complete and the creative deities turn to the project of man, however, only scraps of matter are left, which flow through the hands of the goddess Physis. Their malignitas or intractability renders her last task a struggle.

The evil tendency of matter does not derive from the Timaeus, and it is also discordant with the account of creation in Genesis (and, subsequently, the Incarnation). Thus its appearance in the Cosmographia requires comment. Scholars have proposed that the idea may reflect the state of a fallen world, or it may have been inspired by a late antique interpretation of Plato.

In this lecture, I should like to consider matter’s malignitas at more length, focusing on the question of why it expresses itself most fully at the moment when the human body is being formed. Through readings of philosophical and poetic texts of the period, I shall trace the multiplicitous and competing understandings of matter and of the human being’s entanglement in it. 

Mary Franklin-Brown is Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where she teaches the literature, thought, and languages of medieval France (Latin, Old French, Old Occitan, and Catalan). Her study of thirteenth-century encyclopedism and paradigms of knowledge, Reading the World: Encyclopedic Writing of the Scholastic Age (University of Chicago Press, 2012), was awarded the 2013 Harry Levin Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association, and she has published articles on encyclopedism, medieval literary theory, Old French romance, and the troubadours. In 2013–2014, she was the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, Harvard University, where she began a new book on the understanding of the human in the twelfth century.

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