Geoffrey Of Auxerre: On the Apocalypse

The bulk of Geoffrey’s commentary is useful only as an example of medieval Christian exegesis, except, perhaps, for medievalists who specialize in such things: they may be able to identify where Geoffrey breaks new ground (perhaps on God’s foreknowledge and the Elect? 97, 193). For my part, I found only well-neigh interminable flips between rhetorical, grammatical (e.g., 55-56, where he explores the significance of “was” vs. “is” for several paragraphs), literal (77, which can encompass the symbolic), analogical, tropological, etc. analysis, including symbolic analysis of the priestly habit (176), none of which, so far as I could tell, was conducted with an eye towards any systematic argument, all of which made sense only by reference to the ground of medieval Christian doctrine. Understood this way, the duty of the reader becomes, in part, one of tracking what Geoffrey doesn’t discuss: the sacraments; the Eucharist; or any number of issues characteristic of later 12th-century philosophical disputes (however, he does treat the Trinity at times, e.g., 99). We see no reference to Abelard, Geoffrey’s former teacher, nor to the political strife between Thomas Becket and Henry II, in which Geoffrey involved himself (unless we can understand his reference to Jesus’s lordship over earthly rulers as an oblique attack on Henry (38, see also 42, where he writes “kings are anointed only by priests; priests are not anointed by kings)). Nor is there much attention to the the Jews: we have only knee-jerk antisemitism [109; 115; or, if you accept the distinction, anti-Judaism:], references to “true Jews,” and a reference to Anacletus II [the “Jewish Pope”:] that seems to be part of a debate about the supersession of the candelabrum over the menorah (77-78).

So, what do we get? References to the methods of discerning the trustworthiness of dreams (18); comments on the differences on the marriage of priests between the ancient and Greek churches and the twelfth-century Roman church (29); various references to death I find interesting for my own current work (22-23, 40, 57, 73, 86 ff, 109, “one who dies with him also lives with him”; 119, 126, 198); yet more evidence of the contempt of medieval Christianity for nonhuman worldly life (40, or 73, on “God’s superabundant love for humans” and “what does it matter to us, beloved, to be named ‘human’ by humans, and have the true Judge reckon us malicious dogs, filthy swine, greedy ravens, cunning foxes” (114); also 184 and especially 198 on animal skins versus leaves as clothing); a peculiar–so far as I know–attack on the “pagan custom” of naming days after the sun and other heavenly bodies (61-62); an early (?) attestation of vox populi vox Dei (82); a possible trapdooring of Burning to Read with “the more worthily a person receives the lord, the more does he despise himself” (87); and a brief reference to the schoolroom reading of young boys (195, on Avianus’s Fables).

The commentary will be of interest to the general medievalist only in Chapters Fourteen through Eighteen. The name “Jezebel” in Revelations 2:20 catalyzes a discussion of the Waldensians, various fairy and demonic figures (including Melusine), and both a Swan Knight and a Golem story! He assails the Waldensians for their female mendicant preachers, since women should not presume to teach, even at home! [cf. [Book:Menagier de Paris], which contradicts this point:], calling them “parrots,” “busybodies and gossips, shameless, bold, and impudent,” “preacher-whores” (144). He accuses them of attacking the bishop of Arvenica, and why? Only because he threatened them with the power of his Church (144)! Whose fault is it anyway? Few topics exercise Geoffrey’s energy as much as these women, and his own injured misogyny (“For the female sex rather than the male to be convicted of talkativeness and poor choice of words is cheap and common. No wonder that, if on account of its first destructive suggestions, the snake was altogether deprived of speech, the women was in some manner restrained” (144); attentive readers will observe that he immediately mitigates his assault somewhat by praising the BVM’s taciturnity.

In the next chapter, he considers incubi, which are “neither neither male or female” (149, note he does not distinguish between incubi and succubi), and wonders whether they get pleasure from sex or only by ruining human souls (149-50). His first example is a beautiful woman discovered in the sea by a young male swimmer; she doesn’t speak, but she does nod yes when asked if she is a Christian; and, when the young man marries her, she eventually gives birth to a son; but the man is convinced of the unnaturalness of his marriage, and forces his wife tell him her true identity; forced to speak, she flees back into the sea, and, when his son grows, he too abandons terrestrial life forever by swimming after his mother. Geoffrey’s response to his story makes sense only as evidence of the incoherent logic of misogyny: “I wish this Jezabel were less harmful and would remain silent. A demon seems to have appeared in a woman’s form with the command not to speak in order to show the baleful talkativeness of women” (153): but had the water woman remained silent, she would never have revealed her fairy nature!

A swan knight story follows (152), and then the Melusine legend (152-53, where we see the dangers of excessive attention to the dangers of endogamy: marrying Melusine is fine, they argue, because clearly she’s no close relative!), and then, in the next chapter, a kind of Golem legend, in which a dead young cleric is given over to the care of an old woman, who inserts “certain written marks” (163) into slits she makes in his arms; he returns, apparently, to life, sings with the choir again, but never ages or grows; a priest, hearing the singing, knows he hears the voice of the dead, and, when he removes the “the little piece of paper which the wicked old woman had inserted” (164), the boy’s body crumbles to bones and ashes: “thus he showed that this was only a fantasy life that fooled onlookers, and that the boy was dead while he seemed to be alive” (164; readers might recall that other stories of crumbling bodies are also told in Caesar6360638ius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum or indeed in the Vitae Patrum). I wonder at the renewed grief of his parents, once more stricken by their son’s death. Geoffrey follows his Golem story with one about a transvestite zombie monk! (165). I won’t summarize; just see for yourself.

Chapter Eighteen may be an important witness for anti-Cathar preaching: we get accusations of dualism, sexual excess, destruction of the incest prohibition, infanticide, that is, the standard set of charges against heresies and the heterodox since the Romans first attacked the Christians (178-79).

A brief note on the introduction: although the translation was published in 2000, the introduction, I’m hoping, was written 30 years prior, since the bibliography rarely creeps past the early 70s, and it’s polluted with phrases like “Europe, finally free from centuries of invasion, was achieving the self-confidence to develop its own identity. This distinctly European genius &c.”