Definitions and Discussions of Medieval Rhetoric

St Augustine of Hippo in his studio, painting by Vittore Carpaccio

DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

The expression medieval rhetoric refers to the study and practice of rhetoric from approximately 400 CE (with the publication of St. Augustine's On Christian Doctrine) to 1400.

During the Middle Ages, two of the most influential works from the classical period were Cicero's De Inventione (On Invention) and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium (the oldest complete Latin textbook on rhetoric). Aristotle's Rhetoric and Cicero's De Oratore weren't rediscovered by scholars until late in the medieval period.

Nonetheless, says Thomas Conley, "medieval rhetoric was far more than a mere transmission of mummified traditions that were poorly understood by those who transmitted them. The Middle Ages are often represented as stagnant and backward . . ., [but] such a representation fails dismally to do justice to the intellectual complexity and sophistication of medieval rhetorics" (Rhetoric in the European Tradition, 1990).

Periods of Western Rhetoric

Examples and Observations

"It was Cicero's youthful, schematic (and incomplete) treatise De inventione, and not any one of his mature and synthetic theoretical works (or the even fuller account in Quintilian's Institutio oratoria) that became the shaping influence on so much medieval rhetorical teaching. . . . Both the De inventione and the Ad Herennium proved to be excellent, coherent teaching texts. Between them they conveyed complete and concise information about the parts of rhetoric, topical invention, status theory (the issues upon which the case rests), attributes of the person and the act, the parts of a speech, the genres of rhetoric, and stylistic ornamentation. . . . Oratory, as Cicero had known and defined it, had declined steadily during the years of the [Roman] empire under political conditions that did not encourage the forensic and judicial oratory of earlier periods. But rhetorical teaching survived through late antiquity and into the Middle Ages because of its intellectual and cultural prestige, and in the course of its survival it took on other forms and found many other purposes." (Rita Copeland, "Medieval Rhetoric." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. by Thomas O. Sloane. Oxford University Press, 2001)

Applications of Rhetoric in the Middle Ages

"In application, the art of rhetoric contributed during the period from the fourth to the fourteenth century not only to the methods of speaking and writing well, of composing letters and petitions, sermons and prayers, legal documents and briefs, poetry and prose, but to the canons of interpreting laws and scripture, to the dialectical devices of discovery and proof, to the establishment of the scholastic method which was to come into universal use in philosophy and theology, and finally to the formulation of scientific inquiry which was to separate philosophy from theology." (Richard McKeon, "Rhetoric in the Middle Ages." Speculum, January 1942)

The Decline of Classical Rhetoric and the Emergence of Medieval Rhetoric

"There is no single point when classical civilization ends and the Middle Ages begins, nor when the history of classical rhetoric ends. Beginning in the fifth century after Christ in the West and in the sixth century in the East, there was a deterioration of the conditions of civic life that had created and sustained the study and uses of rhetoric throughout antiquity in courts of law and deliberative assemblies. Schools of rhetoric continued to exist, more in the East than in the West, but they were fewer and were only partially replaced by study of rhetoric in some monasteries. The acceptance of classical rhetoric by such influential Christians as Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine in the fourth century significantly contributed to continuation of the tradition, though the functions of the study of rhetoric in the Church were transferred from preparation for public address in law courts and assemblies to knowledge useful in interpreting the Bible, in preaching, and in ecclesiastical disputation." (George A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric. Princeton University Press, 1994)

A Diverse History

"[A]s the history of medieval rhetoric and grammar reveal with special clarity, all the significant original works on discourse which appear in Europe after Rabanus Maurus [c. 780-856] are merely highly selective adaptations of the old bodies of doctrine. The classical texts continue to be copied, but new treatises tend to appropriate for their purposes only those parts of the old lore which are of use to the one art. Thus it is that the medieval arts of discourse have a diverse rather than a unified history. The writers of letters select certain rhetorical doctrines, the preachers of sermons still others . . .. As one modern scholar [Richard McKeon] has said in relation to rhetoric, 'in terms of a single subject matter--such as style, literature, discourse--it has no history during the middle ages.'" (James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from St. Augustine to the Renaissance. University of California Press, 1974)

Three Rhetorical Genres

"[James J.] Murphy [see above] outlined the development of three unique rhetorical genres: ars praedicandi, ars dictaminis, and ars poetriae. Each addressed a specific concern of the era; each applied rhetorical precepts to a situational need. Ars praedicandi provided a method for developing sermons. Ars dictaminis developed precepts for letter writing. Ars poetriae suggested guidelines for composing prose and poetry. Murphy's important work provided the context for smaller, more focused studies of medieval rhetoric." (William M. Purcell, Ars Poetriae: Rhetorical and Grammatical Invention at the Margin of Literacy. University of South Carolina Press, 1996)

The Ciceronian Tradition

"Conventional medieval rhetoric promotes highly formalized, formulaic, and ceremoniously institutionalized forms of discourse.

"The major source of this static richness is Cicero, the magister eloquentiae, known primarily through the many translations of De inventione. Because medieval rhetoric is so extensively committed to Ciceronian patterns of amplification (dilatio) through the flowers, or colores, of figured speaking that decorate (ornare) the composition, it often appears to be a ponderous extension of the sophistic tradition in a moralistic framework." (Peter Auski, Christian Plain Style: The Evolution of a Spiritual Ideal. McGill-Queen's Press, 1995)

A Rhetoric of Forms and Formats

"Medieval rhetoric . . . became, in at least some of its manifestations, a rhetoric of forms and formats. . . . Medieval rhetoric added to ancient systems its own generic rules, which were necessary because documents themselves had come to stand in for the people as well as for the Word that they meant to convey. By following articulated patterns for greeting, informing, and taking leave of the now-distant and temporarily removed 'audience,' the letter, sermon, or saint's life acquired typical (typological) forms." (Susan Miller, Rescuing the Subject: A Critical Introduction to Rhetoric and the Writer. Southern Illinois University Press, 1989)

Christian Adaptations of Roman Rhetoric

"Rhetorical studies traveled with the Romans, but educational practices were not enough to keep rhetoric flourishing. Christianity served to validate and invigorate pagan rhetoric by adapting it to religious ends. Around AD 400, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine), perhaps the most influential book of its time, for he demonstrated how to 'take the gold out of Egypt' to fortify what would become the Christian rhetorical practices of teaching, preaching, and moving (2.40.60).

"The medieval rhetorical tradition, then, evolved within the dual influences of Greco-Roman and Christian belief systems and cultures. Rhetoric was also, of course, informed by the gendered dynamics of medieval English society that isolated nearly everyone from intellectual and rhetorical activities. Medieval culture was wholly and decidedly masculine, yet most men, just like all women, were condemned to class-bound silence. The written word was controlled by clergy, the men of the cloth and the Church, who controlled the flow of knowledge for all men and women." (Cheryl Glenn, Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. Southern Illinois University Press, 1997)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Discussions of Medieval Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Definitions and Discussions of Medieval Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Discussions of Medieval Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).