Engines of Thought: Allegory and Experimentation, 1200-1500


Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowships




Histories of allegory tend to find an ethical lesson in its decline: allegorical representation ultimately lost ground to mimesis because it was less able to represent the ordinary lives of ordinary people with seriousness and fidelity. In contrast, this project argues that in the period 1200-1500 allegory was a privileged mode of expanding access to ideas and texts that had previously been reserved for a clerical elite. Allegories in the later Middle Ages thus enabled new forms of literacy and, indeed, the rise of the vernacular. Allegory can even be said to constitute its own vernacular, in the sense that it furnished a symbolic language capable of defining a new, and newly inclusive, moral order.