Introduction: Words in the Absence of Things

  • Eileen C. Sweeney
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


It was not an arbitrary choice when Peter Lombard ordered the subjects of theology in his Sentences according to Augustine’s distinction between signs and things. “All teaching,” Augustine writes in the opening lines of De doctrina Christiana, “has to do with signs or things.”1 But since, as Augustine notes, “things are learned by signs,” the knowledge of signs is the first and most crucial of the academic disciplines.2 Peter Lombard simply renders canonical the centrality of signs and language that had already occurred in practice in the Latin west. Before the dissemination of the complete Aristotelian corpus, language was for the medieval world its technology and its science, and God its most important and problematic object. The threefold function of the redeemed language Augustine struggles to create in the Confessions, De doctrina Christiana, and other works is to express the nature of God as ultimate reality, to persuade God to bring about union with him, and to move others to accept that reality and to convert their lives accordingly. In De doctrina, Augustine “transcends his own classical education,” completely reforming the education program for Christians by laying out the legitimate uses of a redeemed language.3 Hence, the sciences of words—logic, grammar, and rhetoric—are developed and their power harnessed in order to name God, interpret scripture, argue in support of Christian doctrine, and ultimately reach God in prayer and meditation.


Literary Work Twelfth Century Ultimate Reality Christian Doctrine Technical Vocabulary 
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  1. 3.
    Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), p. 264.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    See Eileen Sweeney, “Hugh of St. Victor: The Augustinian Tradition of Sacred and Secular Reading Revised,” in Reading and Wisdom: The De doctrina Christiana of Augustine in the Middle Ages, Edward D. English, ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), pp. 70–73.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    Eugene Vance, “Saint Augustine: Language as Temporality,” in Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), p. 34.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Cf. Willimien Otten, From Paradise and Paradigm: A Study of Twelfth-Century Humanism (Leiden: E.–J. Brill, 2004), pp. 1–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 12.
    Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003) and Otten, Paradise to Paradigm. Both works were published after this manuscript was essentially complete; I have nonetheless tried to reflect on and make reference to their work.Google Scholar

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© Eileen C. Sweeney 2006

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  • Eileen C. Sweeney

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