Bk 1 xxxv 3-4 De metaplasmus (cont)

ALAIN de (Alan of)  LILLE ( 1117-1202/3)

For Alain of Lille, ‘metaplasm’ was not simply a re-forming, nor a ‘transformation’ but a distortion of the natural (and thus God-given) order.

Alexandre Leupin (mentioned in the previous post) considers Alain’s of Lille’s Plaint of Nature (De planctu naturae) though Wei’s study seems  better to reflect the intention of the medieval author.

  • Ian P. Wei, ‘From Twelfth-Century Schools to Thirteenth-Century Universities: The Disappearance of Biographical and Autobiographical Representations of Scholars’, Speculum 86 (2011) pp.42-78. [PDF]

In  De planctu ,,, Nature complain of, among other things,  how..

– in Wei’s translation:

,,,  For the human race, fallen from its high estate, adopts a highly irregular metaplasm when it inverts the rules of Venus by introducing barbarisms in its arrangement of genders…. (etc.)

Wei comments – correctly – that  “only makes sense if the [grammatical] metaphor is understood….” “… Alan was using the imagery of good and bad grammar to attack homosexual acts ….”  However, Wei then goes on to suggest that Lille’s was as intent on correcting grammar as he was on condemning same-sex relations and this is scarcely borne out by the text, which suggests rather than the preacher is employing a rhetorical (and propagandist) trick: asserting a close parallel between things certain and his own contention.  So rather than “condemning bad grammar, and bad scholarship more generally, as equivalent to [what the author regarded as] sexual perversion” – as Wei suggests – it appears rather that the aim is to impress upon his audience the utter ‘wrongness’ of homosexuality by likening it to the breaking of certain grammatical ‘laws’  which de Lille could be certain had already been constantly and deeply impressed (and not rarely thrashed into)  his audience.

The text suggests rather that far from being intent on criticising poor grammar through use of an extravagant metaphor –  homosexuality – the writer had been wholly intent on  condemning homosexuality. Drawing a parallel between same-sex relations and the  ‘natural laws’  of grammar – which he could assume ingrained in his audience – simply aided the retention of his ideas by association with those already impressed.  It is a well-known technique, often employed in propaganda, to create a parallel between what is certain and what is proposed: an audience will generally then credit the latter with the validity accorded the former.


However, he is correct in associating the Orphic mysteries with Bacchic or Dionysian excesses, and in seeing Orpheus as closely associated with same=sex relations. The two items are conveniently summarised in ‘Mystery Cults in the Greek and Roman World‘, one of the  Met.Museum’s ‘Heilbrun History of Art’ essays.

In Moffat’s earlier translation of De planctu naturae (1904) ‘metaplasm’ is lost:

“Man alone rejects the music of my harp, and raves under the lyre of frenzied Orpheus. For the human race, derogate from its high birth, commits monstrous acts in its union of genders, and perverts the rules of love by a practice of extreme and abnormal irregularity. Thus, too, man, become the tyro of a distorted passion, turns the predicate into direct contraposition, against all rules. Drawing away from power to spell of love aright, he is proved an unlettered sophist”.

  • Alain of Lille [Alanus de lnsulis] and Douglas M. Moffat (trans.),  The complaint of nature, Yale studies in English, v. 36 (1908), Translation of De planctu natura. by Douglas M. Moffat. [Yale studies in English, v. 36] online.
(detail) UPenn MS Codex 615 f.24r

Other manuscript copies of Planctu de Natura in the British Library include Harley MS 866,  Harley MS 3234 and MS Stowe 37.  An early thirteenth-century digitised copy  is offered by the University of Pennsylvania (MS Codex 615) [HERE]

About Alain de Lille and his works, there is a great deal online. The following are added as background to more recent studies. 

  • Winthrop Wetherbee, ‘The Function of Poetry in the ‘De Planctu Nat urae’ of Alain de Lille’, Traditio, Volume 25 (1969) pp. 87-125. (JSTOR)
  • Richard Hamilton Green, ‘Alan of Lille’s De Planctu Naturae’, Speculum, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Oct., 1956), pp. 649-674. (JSTOR)

de Lille’s taking grammar as reflection of moral standing is a recurring theme even in our own time, but Hurley’s statement nicely summarises the usual approach to metaplasm taken by medieval grammarians.

” For the medieval rhetorician, the figure of speech labeled “metaplasm” was invoked to justify departures from normal usage. Insofar as metaplasm was defined as an acceptable modification of a word, particularly in adjusting it to accommodate the strictures of poetic meter, its existence marked off a category of discourse within relatively easily determined limits….”

  • Ann Hurley, ‘Colliding Discourses: John Donne’s “Obsequies to the Lord Harington” and the New Historicism’. Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, New Series / Nouvelle Série, Vol. 18, No. 3 (SUMMER / ÉTÉ 1994), pp. 57-76.An excellent historical overview of metaplasm and other faults as understood by medieval grammarians, is in Heikkinen’s paper.

and see also:

    • Raija Vainio, Latinitas and Barbarisms according to the Roman Grammarians: attitudes towards language in the light of Grammatical examples (1999) p.180.
    • *recommended*  review of the above by Farouk Grewing in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2000.12.15) [HERE]
    • Henry Farrar Linscott, The Latin third declension: a study in metaplasm and syncretism. (PhD thesis) Uni Chicago Press, 1896.

Alain de Lille’s writing becomes the the more dramatic (and somewhat shocking) by contrast with that habit of accommodation. To equate  ‘manliness’ with right grammar is not, however, an original idea in de Lille. Its germ is found in Quintilian’s writing, and only a few lines before the section I quoted from Bk 1.viii in the previous post. In line 9 he writes:

So when Jacques Derrida reprised this idea in his Signéponge (1984) – a study of Francis Ponge’s poetry –  he was not (as contemporary readers supposed) introducing a  “radical method of ‘metaplasm to approach the dilemma of properness and impropriety”  but for reasons of his own reprising De Planctu naturae.
  • Lynn Turner, ‘Poetry, Perversity, and Impropriety – The Companion Species of Francis Ponge’, available through Academia.edu [HERE]


‘Manly Metaplasm’
by Wenceslaus Hollar, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck, etching, mid 17th century

To the normal rule that metaplasm is either tolerated as a poetic necessity, or treated with distaste as barbarism whether in poetry or prose, there is one very notable exception.  Francis Junius considered metaplasm a positively ‘manly’ ornament to writing after he noticed how often one finds metaplasm in Anglo-Saxon verse.  Indeed, seeing this as a characteristic of ‘Germanic’ peoples, he wrote, in the seventeenth century, in a letter to Dougdale: 

… and metaplasm was among those ‘ornaments’.

Junius collected early medieval manuscripts, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones, later giving many given to the Bodleian Library.  Among the treasures is the manuscript now called Bodleian MS Junius XI  –  from which the following illustration comes.


Composite: “dives pictae vestis“. (i) red-and-white embroidery details from a fourteenth century English textile, part of horse trappings, ‘probably made for Edward III’s Court‘ (1330-40). (ii) angel on horseback, detail from the Steeple Aston Cope  (1310-40). Victoria and Albert Museum.

band(s): (i) stamped silver on grey-green leather – edited from binding on a 16thC copy of Isidore’s works. (ii) textured – detail from the silver embroidery on the Steeple Ashton Cope.


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