Bernardus Silvestris’ Bold Synthesis

When the Latin scholar, C.S. Barach, was editing the Cosmographia (or De Mundi Universitate), written by Bernardus Silvestris in about 1147, he wondered whether it might have had an influence upon Amaury de Beynes or David de Dinant.[1]  Both of them probably knew Bernardus’ work, and they both probably admired his open acceptance of all sources of truth and his bold attempt to link them all into a Christian synthesis.  Although Bernardus probably made only a minor impact upon the formulation of their ideas, a short study of the bolder speculations in his book may help to paint in some of the background to the development of the Amalricians.  It should, at least, serve to illustrate the greater intellectual freedom that was enjoyed by thinkers in the mid-12th century.

The Cosmographia

The book is in two parts.  The first, Megacosmos, explains the formation of the universe and makes a compendium of what any contemporary student should know about cosmography, astronomy, geography and biology.  The second part, Microcosmos, is narrated as a story, or a quest, in which Nature has to find all the influences and ingredients needed for the creation of humanity.  The first part, in particular, is typical of the standpoint of those Platonist and Hermeticist teachers, who are referred to by W.Wetherbee as the cosmologists of the 12th century,[2] and by earlier historians as the “school of Chartres”, because of their association with Thierry de Chartres.[3]

Bernardus dedicated the Cosmographia to Thierry, addressing him as:

“Thierry, doctor most renowned for true eminence in learning.”[4]

Bernardus went on to ask Thierry to judge the book and suggest corrections, before it was published.  This may have been, in part, a mark of modesty and a scholarly homage to a great teacher; but since Bernardus was due to read his book to the Pope, it may also have expressed a genuine call for his mentor to give it a careful scrutiny.  The book contains what the historian, H. Fichtenau, has called a “thoroughly unbiblical account of the creation”.[5]  Bernardus’ cosmogony fuses, in a most original way, his Biblical understanding of God’s creative work, with the more emanationist ideas that he has gleaned from Eriugena, Plato and Hermes.

The figure of Silva

The book begins with the realisation by the goddess Natura (nature), the main personage in this allegorical drama, that Silva, who represents prime matter (matter without form), yearns to be given forms that can start to make an ordered universe.  Silva neatly illustrates the fusion of philosophical and scriptural authorities.  She is the pre-existent chaos of Genesis chapter 1, the darkness “without form and void” which God will transform in the six days of creation: and so she is described as:

“Silva, intractable, a formless chaos, a hostile coalescence.”[6]

She is also the prime matter (hyle) of Greek science, matter without form:

“Nature’s most ancient manifestation, the inexhaustible womb of generation, the primary basis of formal existence, the matter of all bodies, the foundation of substance.”[7]

She is probably called Silva (the Latin word for the forest, the wilds) in recognition of the semantic origin of the Greek word hyle from the word for the primeval forest wilderness.[8]

Noys, the Divine Mind

Natura goes to her mother, Noys, to ask for Silva to be given form (in other words, for the universe to be created).  Noys is the mind of God, containing all the divine ideas, or patterns, of everything which could be created.

“This Noys, then, is the intellect of supreme and all-powerful God […] in her are the images of unfailing life, the eternal likenesses, the intelligible universe.”[9]

 Noys is the Word of God of the opening verses of the Gospel according to John:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. […]  All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life.”[10]

It may be difficult for a Christian to see the creative Word, the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, figured as a female mother goddess of divine wisdom, Sophia or Sapientia; but Bernardus is not afraid to do it.  On the first page, he makes Natura address Noys by the name of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva:

            “O Noys, supreme image of unfailing life, God born of God, substance of truth, issue of eternal deliberation, my true Minerva.”[11]

Bernardus does, however, seem to become aware, during the composition of this book, that he may suffer the criticism that his figures are insufficiently Christian.  In the concluding chapter of the Megacosmos, summarising what has gone before, he gives a more theologically acceptable picture of God the Creator:

“For the primary substance (usia), eternal permanence, simplicity fecund of plurality, one, unique, complete in and of itself, is the nature of God, whose infinitude of being and majesty no limit can circumscribe.”[12]

This is a carefully crafted sentence, mixing terminology from Eriugena and the Asclepius[13] with the vocabulary of transcendence of contemporary worship.  The creative Word of God is then described without any references to goddesses of wisdom:

“From this inaccessible light a radiant splendour shone forth – the image, or perhaps I may call it a face inscribed with the image, of the Father.  This is the wisdom of God, conceived and nourished by the living fountains of eternity.  From this wisdom arises the deliberation, from deliberation the will, and from the divine will the shaping of cosmic life.”[14]

Endelechia, a cosmic soul, working to perfect all creatures

Having achieved the first and most fundamental objective, of putting the chaos of Silva into order, by separating all matter into its four basic elements, fire, air, water and earth, Noys needs to produce, – before any creature can be created, – a cosmic soul, which will imprint divine commands upon all created being.  From Noys emanates

“the life, illumination and soul of creation, Endelechia. […]  Her shining substance appeared just like a steadily flowing fountain.”[15]

She is described as an intelligible sphere, which is not visible or tangible, but is all-pervading (which sounds like a world-soul); and she is a “vitalising spark” (which sounds like a life-force).[16]

She is called Endelechia (following Chalcidius[17]) because she is the perfection of all creatures in their own kind.  Since she is present in everything as spirit, her activity is unrestricted in the heavens, but she is much less powerful when she is in the densely material bodies of this world.[18]  Bernardus does not give any hint that he wants Endelechia to be compared to the Holy Spirit, and the opportunity to make her act as the Holy Spirit within humanity in the Microcosmos is not taken.  Indeed Endelechia is hardly mentioned in the second book; – although that may be because the Microcosmos may never have been completed: it just quietly fizzles out after the lesson on anatomy.  There is no final summary, no resounding rhetoric about humanity’s place in the universe, as might be expected.[19]

The eternal recurrence of cyclical time

The universe is seen as a complete chain of being, in which everything has its part to play, to which nothing can be added, and from which nothing can be removed.

“For the universe is a continuum, a chain in which nothing is out of order or broken off.  Thus roundness, the perfect form, determines its shape.”[20]

It is a perfect sphere, because it is both complete and unending.  It is also appropriate that it is circular, because of its position in a cyclical eternity.

The universe is constantly changing, but in repeating cycles, so that its existence seems to be eternal.  Just as there is a constant movement from unity to multiplicity and back to unity, so

“setting out from eternity, time returns again to the bosom of eternity, wearied by its long journey.  From oneness it issues into number, and from unmoving into movement […] and it moves through these channels in a perpetual ebb and flow. […]  The point at which its journeys end is the point from which they are renewed. […]  By virtue of this necessity of returning upon itself, time may be seen to be rooted in eternity, and eternity to be expressed in time.”[21]

This is a bold speculation, as it hardly fits into the usual Biblical view of universal history, from creation through fall and redemption to the final judgement.  However, when he writes that:

“All that is moved is subject to time, but it is from eternity that all contained in the vastness of time is born, and into eternity that all is to be resolved,”[22]

it is not quite clear whether or not this refers to a final end, after all these cycles of creation and re-creation.  If so, it may compare to Eriugena’s fourth division of nature, when all things have returned into the unity of God.  Even so, it is far removed from the expectations of most contemporary churchmen.

The femaleness of God the Creator

The Megacosmos ends with a summary of the creative hierarchy of emanations immediately beneath the supreme God or, to express it in another way, the hierarchy of allegorical figures symbolising different attributes of God.  Noys,

“forever pregnant of the divine will,”[23]

passes the divine forms to Endelechia, the world soul, so that they can be impressed upon Silva, prime matter, under the supervision of Natura, who is fashioning Silva into bodies, while also keeping an eye on Imarmene, the goddess of fate (who represents the chain of cause and effect, of action and consequence).[24]

This imaginative divine hierarchy is extraordinary.  All five figures are female, because that makes good philosophical sense to Bernardus.  All the figures are engaged in the creation of the natural universe.  They could, therefore, be seen as parts of the female aspect of God as nature, eternity and being, rather than the male aspect of God as the fount of morality, the universal lawgiver and final judge.

In the last chapter of the Megacosmos, Bernardus does moderate his enthusiasm for his symbolic goddesses of the natural creation; but he does not attempt to replace them, to fit in with the very masculine Christian vocabulary of divinity, of God as Lord and Christ as King, and the male Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

As far as is known, he did not incur any criticism over this work.  There is no record that Pope Eugenius III gave him any trouble.[25]  This may be taken as a sign that the Church was more open to new ways of expressing faith in the middle of the century than it was by its end.  It was also a consequence of Bernardus’ genius, because he wrote it as a poetic myth, partly in prose and partly in verse.  It was not theology, it was literature.

That was just as well, because in his attempt to harmonise the Bible with Plato and Hermes, philosophy seems to have outweighed theology by quite a few pounds.  I find such an alteration to the usual balance, at this period, to be very refreshing.  So, no doubt, did the students, who were flocking to Paris by the end of the century, eager to push their studies to the limits of contemporary knowledge.

Given such openness, inclusiveness and piety in their Platonist background, it may not be so surprising that, – as the levels of intellectual debate deepened in the schools of Paris, – Amaury and David continued to suppose that men of goodwill could give expression to new ideas, as long as they were faithful to Christ.



[1] C.S.Barach in the introduction pp.xix-xxi to Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia (S.6).
[2] W.Wetherbee: Philosophy, Cosmology… (B.58) p.21.
[3] Thierry was known at first as Thierry le Breton or as Thierry le Maître (the master).  He became the chancellor of the Cathedral of Chartres in the early 1140s; and from that time on, he was called Thierry de Chartres: R.W.Southern: Platonism, Scholastic Method… (B.60) p.26; P.Dronke: Thierry… (B.61) pp. 358-9.
[4] Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia, tr. W.Wetherbee (B.63) p.65; ed. Barach & Wrobel (S.6) p.5.
[5] H.Fichtenau: Heretics and Scholars… (B.9) p.186.
[6] Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.1: transl. (B.63) p.67; ed. (S.6) pp.7-8.
[7] ibid. Book 1, chap.2: tr. p.70; ed. pp.9-11.
[8] H.Fichtenau: Heretics and Scholars… (B.9) p.187.  (I wonder whether Bernardus Silvestris may also be having some fun, giving a more philosophically imposing connection to his own name.)
[9] Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.2: tr. p.73; ed. p.13.
[10] John 1: 1-4.
[11] Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.1: tr. p.67; ed. p.7.
[12] ibid. Book 1, chap.4: tr. p.87; ed. pp.29-30.
[13] Usia comes from Periphyseon, book 1; “eternal permanence” from Asclepius, 41.
[14] Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.4: tr. (B.63) p.87; ed. (S.6) pp.29-30.  The last sentence echoes Asclepius, 26, according to W.Wetherbee.
[15] ibid. Book 1, chap.2; tr. p.74; ed. pp.13-14.
[16] ibid. Book 1, chap.2: tr. p.74; ed. p.14: “fomes vivificus.”
[17] The translator of, and commentator on, Plato’s Timaeus.  See W.Wetherbee’s introduction to his translation of the Cosmographia (B.63) p.40, for the figure of Endelechia.
[18] Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.2: tr. p.75; ed. pp.14-15.
[19] Did he only read Book 1 to the Pope, and then die before Book 2 could be completed?  Or was he, perhaps, advised not to get involved in imaginative speculation about the theological position of man?  Did he, therefore, decide not to finish Book 2?  Since the book has no concluding paragraph of any kind, the first guess is more likely to be nearer to the truth.
[20] ibid. Book 1, chap.4: tr. p.89; ed. p.31.
[21] Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia, Book 1, chap.4: translated by W.Wetherbee (B.63) pp.89-90; text (S.6) pp.31-32.  This seems to compare, in some respects, to the modern theory, that the universe begins with a big bang, expands as far as possible, and then contracts to a super-dense singularity, ready for the next big bang.
[22] ibid. Book 1, chap.4: tr. p.90; ed. p.32.  This is, incidentally, one of the sentences, which is identical in the Cosmographia and in the De VI Rerum Principiis, which will need to be mentioned again in connection with the dating of an early Latin alchemical book in the section entitled THE LADDER OF ASCENSION: see W.Wetherbee’s notes to his translation, p.155, n.144.
[23] ibid. Book 1, chap.4: tr. p.90; ed. p.32: a phrase from the Asclepius, 20.
[24] ibid. Book 1, chap.4: tr. p.90; ed. p.32. According to W.Wetherbee, in the introduction to his translation p.39, the figure of Imarmene is “lifted more or less bodily from the Asclepius”.
[25] Perhaps Bernardus was lucky: Pope Eugenius III (1145-53) was a well-educated Cistercian.

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