Books on reading premodern texts from a modern perspective
March 21, 2016 5:39 AM   Subscribe

How literally should I be interpreting ancient and medieval stories and texts? I gather this is an open question among modern scholars, but I'm having a hard time coming up with any books that deal with it.

I've been in conversation with some academics about how to interpret some of the ancient texts we've been reading on magic and demonology. I'm trying to understand how an ancient audience might have interpreted these texts differently from how I do. For example, were the demons that visited St. Anthony considered literal apparitions, or were they more like metaphorical manifestations of his own personal struggles?

That kind of question is pretty broad, and it's not necessarily answerable. The sense I get is that people are able to talk about this sort of thing, but it's harder to come up with sources to read. The most I've come across is Karen Armstrong stating that these myths were interpreted through a different lens than the empirical one that came about in the 17th century (being both literal truth and metaphorical truth at the same time), but I'm not sure what she's basing that claim on, and anyway I'd like to read more about it myself.

I've started The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis, which has its issues, but which at least attempts to convey some idea of how the medieval person may have understood the world. I'm not sure that it touches on epigraphy, but at least it'll be interesting. I know the risk with any kind of work like this is that it can generalize to a fault (and I know that's one of the complaints of Lewis' work). I've come across other books that deal with things like medieval scholarship (such as R.W. Southern's Medieval Humanism), but I'm not sure if those are going to answer my question or go off in a direction that isn't helpful.

I intentionally stated this question broadly because I don't know how much writing on this is out there. I'm not really a historian, so this isn't my field, and it's possible that I'm missing some foundational texts. Anyway, if any of this makes sense and rings a bell, I'd love to hear what comes to mind.
posted by teponaztli to Religion & Philosophy (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to look into hermeneutics as a way of understanding & engaging with texts. As a form of reading, it dates back to Aristole's On Interpretation but I really know it as way of understanding how to approach (particularly biblical) texts from the medieval period onwards.
posted by kariebookish at 6:33 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Slightly OT: Grendel
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:00 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would be very wary of any approach that involves things like "metaphorical manifestations of his own personal struggles," because that is a purely modern form of interpretation, and it is all too easy to import modern attitudes into the past. As someone who spends a lot of time reading material from past centuries, I find that it's like learning a new language: the more time I spend in (say) 1850s Russia, the more familiar I become with the ways they wrote and thought, insofar as one can intuit thought from expression—but that's the same problem we face interpreting each other today. If people wrote about demons as real, I would say that to them the demons were real; that does not mean that they thought demons were just like themselves, of course. You might read books like We Have Eaten the Forest or The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down to get a sense of how the viewpoints of other cultures can be interpreted by those who do not share them.
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on March 21, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I highly, highly recommend The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter. He is Jewish, and he talks about narrative form in ancient Jewish texts, but his main focus is the Old Testament. A lot of his discussion is about how the ancient audience would have understood a lot of stories to be true AND fictional-- so the history of Israel was true, but the way the story was told would have been told in a certain way to emphasize certain points/perspectives, rather than a literal form of reportage. Really fascinating.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:10 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Anthropologists grapple with questions like this pretty often, e.g. David Graeber on Zande witchcraft and Malagasy charms in this recent essay. Its bibliography probably offers a way back through the anthropological literature, and it's something that often comes up incidental to other studies, e.g. I recall Dan Everett spending some time in his popular memoir on what the Pirahã mean when they say they see and hear spirits. I remember a teacher of mine talking about observing a debate in the Philippine highlands over whether a rock someone had briefly thought was an animal was 'really' a rock or an animal, and the non-literate folks debating the point concluded it had been both. Etc., etc. It's out of my area of expertise, but you might also look up Paul Veyne's book on whether the Greeks believed their own myths and work forward through the sources that cite it on Google Scholar. There's a much wider literature that historicizes epistemology in general and connects it with the invention of literacy, but everything that comes to mind would be a lot to sift through for relevance.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:24 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Not really an historian either, but two texts that helped me clarify my thinking on this while I was writing my doctoral thesis ten years ago were: David Perkins, Is Literary History Possible? and Robert D. Hume, Reconstructing Contexts: The Aims and Principles of Archaeo-Historicism. Also recommending Alter, which we studied in narrative class, and which was just brilliant.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:55 AM on March 22, 2016

Response by poster: These are great, thanks!

I'm actually an anthropology student, so I'm at least familiar with some of these titles, if I haven't read all of them (or if, in the case of the Zande, I've read older works). In general I'm not unfamiliar with studies of belief systems, but part of why I asked the question is that I feel like I'm sort of teasing out meaning on my own using a very broad framework (informed by my sort-of limited experience with the anthropology of religion) that may or may not be in line with the work that scholars have done before me. Or in other words, do you think there's a flaw in approaching this kind of history as an "ethnography of the past" (to borrow a phrase from one of my archaeology professors), and is text analysis a whole different thing for reasons I'm not experienced enough to understand?

I hope that made sense. Anyway, the anthropological works mentioned sound like great and useful books regardless, so I hope that didn't sound dismissive of them - I mean, I can't see how it would be harmful to have a stronger understanding of the anthropology of religion. I guess you could say I'm just not totally confident in how I should be approaching historical texts.
posted by teponaztli at 5:17 PM on March 22, 2016

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