Alanus de Insulis

Alanus de Insulis
(Alain of Lille, Alanus ab Insulis, Alain of Ryssel)
(ca. 1116–ca. 1202)
   Alanus was one of the leading intellectuals of his time. We hardly know anything about his biography, but we can be certain that he was born in Lille ca. 1116, studied in Paris ca. 1136 (perhaps also in Tours and Chartres), taught at Paris and Montpellier, participated in the Third Lateran Council in 1179, and later joined the Cistercian monastery of Citeaux, where he eventually died ca. 1202 or 1203. Between 1160 and 1165 he wrote his treatises Regulae caelestis iuris and Summa quoniam homines. His true masterpieces, however, through which he exerted profound influence on poets and philosophers alike throughout the subsequent centuries, were his Planctus naturae and the Anticlaudianus, the first composed by the end of the 1160s, the latter composed around 1184. Subsequently, perhaps while he lived in southern France, he also wrote a number of theological treatises: Ars fidei catholicoe, Contra haereticos, Summa quadripartita adversus huius temporis haereticos, and Distinctiones, all exploring the most difficult question for the church: How to deal with heretics and infidels, especially the Muslims and Jews, and the Cathars and Waldensians.
   Alanus’s contemporaries and posterity harbored great respect for his intellect and called him either Doctor Universalis, Poeta Magnus, or simply Magnus. He was admired for his impressive knowledge of the liberal arts, philosophy, theology, and classical and contemporary literature. Alanus gained most respect for his Planctus naturae (The Plaint of Nature), in which he deplored man’s deviation from the natural course, hence man’s turn away from the path of virtue and morality; and his Anticlaudianus, in which he projected the principles of how to create the foundation for a new, religiously inspired human existence. The latter consisted of an encyclopedic summary of all learned knowledge available at that time. Alanus also composed a curious poem, Vix nodosum, in which he advocated the love for a virgin over an adulterous relationship with a married woman. Among other critical studies, Alanus also wrote De incarnatione Christi, which discusses man’s inability to comprehend the divine secrets of Christ’s incarnation; De natura hominis fluxa et caduca, on the semiotic symbolism and temporality of this world; and the Liber parabolarum, a collection of elegiacs consisting of proverb-like statements about the contradictory nature of human life. Alanus deeply admired Plato’s teachings, but he was also familiar with Aristotle and BOETHIUS. His philosophy is characterized by a certain degree of syncretism, reflected in his tendency to combine mystical with philosophical and rational thought that relied on the logical development of all human understanding and belief systems. Following Boethius, Alanus argued that the entire Christian religion can be confirmed through mathematical-philosophical principles. The large number of manuscript copies of Alanus’s works demonstrate the enormous popularity that he enjoyed throughout the intellectual world of the Middle Ages. The Vix nodosum is extant in 27, the Planctus in 133, and the Anticlaudianus in 110 manuscripts. In the 15th century, Alanus’s texts were also among the earliest to be printed.We have one very early edition each (ca. 1460) from his Vix nodosum and his Planctus, and four editions of his Anticlaudianus. Amazingly his rather plain Liber parabolarum was printed in at least 29 editions. This vast dissemination of Alanus’s texts far into the early modern age is explained chiefly by their use as school textbooks, many of which contain extensive interlinear and marginal glosses by their readers. Some of the bestknown 13th-century commentators on Alanus’s works were Radulphus of Longchamp, William of Auxerre, Otho of Sankt Blasien, Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, and John of Garland.
   Alanus’s Planctus naturae shows many significant parallels with Matthew of Vendôme’s Ars versificatoria, the most influential 12th-century textbook for rhetoric and poetry.Walther of Châtillon, in his Latin Alexandreis, was one of the first to adapt the allegorical imagery from Alanus’s Planctus, followed by John of Hauvilla in his Architrenius (12th century), and Adam de la Bassé (late 13th century).Not only French and Italian, but also English and German vernacular poets, not to mention the vast number of Latin writers, demonstrate the deep influence which Alanus’s rhetorical, didactic, and aesthetic ideals and concepts, especially of nature as an allegorical figure, exerted on them. GOTTFRIED VON STRASSBURG, DANTE ALIGHIERI, and JEAN DE MEUN (13th century), as well as Geoffrey CHAUCER and Hans Sachs (14th and 16th centuries) are some of the most important witnesses of Alanus’s influence throughout the ages.
   ■ Alanus de Insulis. Anticlaudianus. Translated by James J. Sheridan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1973.
   ■ ———.Anticlaudianus. Edited by R. Bossuat. Paris: J. Vrin, 1955.
   ■ ———. Plaint of Nature. Translated by James J. Sheridan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980.
   ■ Evans, G. R. Alan of Lille: The Frontiers of Theology in the Later Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
   ■ Häring, Nikolaus M., ed. De Planctu Naturae. Studi Medievali, 3rd series, 19 (1978), 797–879.
   ■ Trout, John M. The Voyage of Prudence: The World View of Alan of Lille.Washington,D.C.: University Press of America, 1973.
   ■ White,Hugh.Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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