The idea of the Labyrinth

  • The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages

by Penelope Reed Doob

Ancient and medieval labyrinths embody paradox, according to Penelope Reed Doob. Their structure allows a double perspective—the baffling, fragmented prospect confronting the maze-treader within, and the comprehensive vision available to those without. Mazes simultaneously assert order and chaos, artistry and confusion, articulated clarity and bewildering complexity, perfected pattern and hesitant process. In this handsomely illustrated book, Doob reconstructs from a variety of literary and visual sources the idea of the labyrinth from the classical period through the Middle Ages.

Doob first examines several complementary traditions of the maze topos, showing how ancient historical and geographical writings generate metaphors in which the labyrinth signifies admirable complexity, while poetic texts tend to suggest that the labyrinth is a sign of moral duplicity. She then describes two common models of the labyrinth and explores their formal implications: the unicursal model, with no false turnings, found almost universally in the visual arts; and the multicursal model, with blind alleys and dead ends, characteristic of literary texts. This paradigmatic clash between the labyrinths of art and of literature becomes a key to the metaphorical potential of the maze, as Doob’s examination of a vast array of materials from the classical period through the Middle Ages suggests. She concludes with linked readings of four “labyrinths of words”: Virgil’s Aeneid, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Chaucer’s House of Fame, each of which plays with and transforms received ideas of the labyrinth as well as reflecting and responding to aspects of the texts that influenced it.

Doob not only provides fresh theoretical and historical perspectives on the labyrinth tradition, but also portrays a complex medieval aesthetic that helps us to approach structurally elaborate early works. Readers in such fields as Classical literature, Medieval Studies, Renaissance Studies, comparative literature, literary theory, art history, and intellectual history will welcome this wide-ranging and illuminating book. Read here

Introduction: Charting the Maze Introduction: Charting the Maze (pp. 1-14) Anicent and medieval labyrinths or mazes (the words have different etymologies but mean the same thing) are characteristically double. They are full of ambiguity, their circuitous design prescribes a constant doubling back, and they fall into two distinct but related structural categories. They presume a double perspective: maze-treaders, whose vision ahead and behind is severely constricted and fragmented, suffer confusion, whereas maze-viewers who see the pattern whole, from above or in a diagram, are dazzled by its complex artistry.

  • CHAPTER ONE The Literary Witness: Labyrinths in Pliny, Virgil, and Ovid By the time of juvenal (ca. 60-131 A. D.), “that thingummy in the Labyrinth” and “the flying carpenter” who built it were the stock in trade of hack poets, and references to the labyrinth and its associated myth abound in classical literature. Of the many writers who treated the subject, three are particularly important, not merely because of their stature in their own age but also because they defined the labyrinth for early Christian and medieval writers, establishing a rich storehouse of labyrinthine characteristics and associations and laying the groundwork for the literal and metaphorical mazes of later literature.
  • CHAPTER TWO The Labyrinth as Significant Form: Two Paradigms Chapter 1 examined the major classical texts that defined and transmitted the physical facts and narrative implications of the labyrinth to later ages. A recurrent theme in that discussion was the maze’s inherent duality as the embodiment of simultaneous artistry and confusion, order and chaos, product and process, depending on the observer’s (or the writer’s) point of view. So far, we have looked at the principle of labyrinthine duality chiefly as it manifests itself within the written tradition, although allusions have been made to the contrasting witness of the visual arts. Now it is time to expand our understanding
  • CHAPTER THREE A Taxonomy of Metaphorical Labyrinths In chapter 1, the literary tradition of the labyrinth defined by Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny suggested the inherent and convertible duality of the maze as monument of admirable artistic complexity and cause of subjective confusion. Chapter 2 approached labyrinthine duality from a complementary perspective, using the conflict between two persistent paradigms, the multicursal maze of literature and the unicursal maze of art, as a means to identify the essential characteristics and formal implications of classical and medieval mazes. These essential characteristics define the maze as a complicated artistic structure with a circuitous and ambiguous design whose confusing toils are intended.
  • CHAPTER FOUR Etymologies and Verbal Implications As Part One examined the idea of the labyrinth in classical and early Christian times, exploring typically labyrinthine dualities, establishing the maze’s essential characteristics, and surveying the range of metaphors generated by those characteristics, so Part Two traces the labyrinth’s medieval metamorphoses from Isidore of Seville (560-636) to the late fifteenth century. As in Part One, the discussion here is thematic and selective rather than chronological or all-inclusive: there is no significant, temporally linked development of the labyrinth within the period, and listing every labyrinth reference would be tedious even if it were possible.
  • CHAPTER FIVE Mazes in Medieval Art and Architecture In the medieval period even more than in classical and early Christian times, the idea of the labyrinth depends on visual as well as verbal witnesses. Interrelationships between art and the written word can vary greatly. The two witnesses may be virtually independent in status if not in inspiration: an unnamed turf-maze adorns an English field, for instance, or an account of the Cretan myth exists in manuscript with no illuminations and no clear indebtedness to any visual model. Frequently, however, the visual and the verbal interact.
  • CHAPTER SIX Moral Labyrinths in Medieval Literature the medieval visual arts typically stress the artistic labor involved in the domus daedali as an artifact in bono, many literary texts, influenced by the context of the Cretan myth, take the labor intus completely or partially in malo. The labyrinth becomes preeminently a temptation to moral error, an emblem of the world as an almost inextricable occasion of sin. Medieval meanings of error, reflected in vernacular cognates, suggest many pejorative possibilities, all of which we will encounter: instability and incertitude; sin; madness ; false opinion or culpable ignorance; heresy ; a straying from the right path.
  • CHAPTER SEVEN Textual Labyrinths: Toward a Labyrinthine Aesthetic .The previous chapter looked at labyrinths in medieval texts; now we turn to a broader subject: the text, and the complex intellectual processes related to its creation and reception, as labyrinth. The essential qualities of the labyrinth, defined in Chapter 2, remain the basis of these speculations on the inherent labyrinthicity of much medieval literature and literary theory. A text that is wellconstructed according to medieval theories of rhetoric is, as we will see, often very like a maze: it is an ornate, highly complicated work of art, elegantly ordered by interwoven parts comprising an admirable whole.
    • In Part Three, we rise above the labor of reconstructing the idea of the labyrinth to more expansive regions and trace the grand tradition oflabyrinthine texts from Virgil’s Aeneid through Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Dante’s Divine Comedy to Chaucer’s House of Fame. Each of these texts reflects and redefines the received idea of the labyrinth, transmitting it, enriched, to later ages and particularly to later authors in the continuous tradition here represented: Boethius knew Virgil, Dante followed boldly in the footsteps of both Virgil and Boethius, and Chaucer apologetically rewrote Virgil, Boethius, and Dante in the House of Fame.
    • CHAPTER EIGHT Virgil’s Aeneid The Aeneid, one of the most influential works of western literature, is the earliest major example of truly labyrinthine literature : it includes explicit images of the maze and references to its myth, employs a labyrinthine narrative structure, and embodies themes associated with the idea of the labyrinth (as defined in previous chapters).¹ Although the importance of the labyrinth in Books 5 and 6 has not gone unnoticed,² the full extent and significance of labyrinthine imagery and ideas in the Aeneid have not yet been explored.
    • CHAPTER NINE Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy If Virgil bequeathed to the Middle Ages a pessimistic pagan example of the highest labyrinthine artistry, the Christian Boe thius, working in the labyrinthine tradition of the classical and early Christian authors considered in Chapter , used the received idea of the labyrinth in an optimistic theodicy demonstrating that what appears to be a labyrinthine world of random confusion and injustice is in fact, with the proper perspective, a manifestation of the cosmic order created by divine providence.
  • CHAPTER TEN Dante’sDivine Comedy The literature of Christian conversion is labyrinthine by nature : converts, whose very name implies a purposeful change in direction, turn from false ways to true ones and from a disoriented, blind pursuit of false goods to an often circuitous quest for the right goal, in light of which previous paths seem chaotic and futile. Conversion and persistence in the new path come by grace, not solely by will or intellect, so converts must have supernatural aid. Their way may be twisted by error and complicated by impediments, delays, and backslidings; converts must retrace their steps to avoid danger.
  • CHAPTER ELEVEN Chaucer’s House of Fame Fame This book has examined many examples of labyrinthine literature: works that discuss labyrinths, explore their metaphorical potential, use them as central images, or entail a labyrinthine experience by hero, narrator, and reader. We have seen how three masterpieces-Virgil’s Aeneid, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and Dante’s Divine Comedy—represent a self-consciously continuous expression of the idea of the labyrinth in western literature. Chaucer’s House of Fame is slighter than its three self-avowed labyrinthine models, but this sparkling tour de force may be the most comprehensive (if not comprehensible) and creative culmination imaginable of the medieval labyrinth tradition, and hence a fitting…
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The Labyrinthos Archive

  • Founded by Jeff and Kimberly Saward in 2000, Labyrinthos provides a resource for the study of mazes and labyrinths. With an extensive photographic & illustration library and archive, we offer professional maze and labyrinth consultation and services for researchers, designers, students, writers & publishers. We endeavour to help you navigate your way thought this labyrinthine subject, whatever your specific path. see website
  • Labyrinthos also publishes Caerdroia – the Journal of Mazes & Labyrinths, founded in 1980 by Jeff Saward. The world’s only specialist journal researching and documenting the history, development and distribution of mazes and labyrinths, from the earliest rock carvings and artefacts to modern puzzle mazes of ever increasing complexity.

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