Smooth Criminals: Blandishments, Satire, and Communicative Trickery in the Middle Ages, Kalamazoo, MI May 9-12, 2013

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Special Session, 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies
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Medieval Christians were ambivalent about rhetoric. In 'De doctrina christiana,' Augustine describes an unknown poet's idolatrous tribute to the god Neptune with an allusion to Luke 15:16: "Within its pleasing covering, this husk rattles sonorous little gems; but it is the nourishment of pigs, not of men" ("Haec siliqua intra dulce tectorium sonantes lapillos quatit; non est autem hominum sed porcorum cibus"). Augustine's mixed metaphor conflates aural, visual, and gustatory pleasure, and emphasizes language's potential for empty sensuality. He suggests that the smooth or pleasing surface of poetic language may conceal proper meaning or deceptively cover over a void in spiritual truth. The suggestion that language has a physical effect on human senses is inscribed in the very word "blandishment," from the Latin "blandio, blandire"—"to caress or coax," and related to "blandus"—"smooth or soft."
While warnings against the dangers and misuses of "smooth" rhetoric were widely repeated throughout the Middle Ages, religious and secular authors alike were attentive to the potential utility of rhetorical finesse. Augustine stressed the ability of eloquent speech to "instruct, delight, and move." Poets seeking reward and favor composed elaborate panegyrics in honor of popes, bishops, and kings. However, the objects of poetic praise could easily become the targets of verbal mockery when patronage relations soured or when political circumstances changed. Medieval authors such as Gerald of Wales, John Gower, and Thomas Hoccleve were skilled practitioners of encomiastic and satiric modes; their writings give witness to the indistinct boundaries between flattery, advice, didacticism, and critique in medieval literary and historical discourses. This panel aims to explore shifting medieval attitudes towards rhetoric; we are especially interested in the ways medieval authors used rhetoric to both shore up and tear down individual relationships and social hierarchies in subtle and evasive ways.

Examples of potential paper topics may include, but are no means limited to:

· Rhetorical deflection and double talk
· Patronage and flattery
· Panegyric and the support of order
· Satire and counsel
· Verbal fondling in courtly literature
· Visual puns and tromp l'oeil
· Superficiality and substance
· Functional literature vs. "jesting trifles"

Abstract submissions for 20-minute presentations must be submitted by September 15th; please send an e-mail attachment to Joel Anderson at