Ailred was crippled with arthritis in the last years of his life. His condition was so bad that he was dispensed by the General Chapter from the regular monastic routine and lived in hut adjoining the the infirmary. Despite his infirmity, these were productive years when he produced much of his writing. His final work was his Dialogue on the Soul, a genre dating back to the classical past that continued through the Patristic era and enjoyed a vigorous revival in the Twelfth Century. Considering the nature of the soul was a theoretical foundation supporting the rediscovery of interiority, spiritual development–what we could call the psychology of the Twelfth century thinkers in Western Europe. A monk who had written both the Mirror of Charity, reflecting the inner workings of monastic initiation and development and Spiritual Friendship, would certainly be interested in the soul, it’s composition, it’s functioning.
You may well ask how does a man crippled by arthritis write? It might be more accurate to talk about Ailred–or any author of the period–dictating his book to a secretary. We’ve grown up in a literate culture in which reading (aloud or in silence) and writing are part of a unified pedagogy. It can be baffling for us to understand that some people who could read in the Middle Ages didn’t know how to write and some people could verbalize well but depended on people who could form letters clearly and quickly, scribes with a library of contractions and cursive shorthand stored in their brains. A book–the parchment or vellum manuscripts we see in museums today– was quite an investment. Before there was paper, writing wasn’t done first on expensive parchment–sheephide painstakingly prepared–but on wax tablets. A framed wooden board was coated with wax and dictation was scratched into the wax with a stylus. The malleable wax could be smudged to make corrections and changes before the final text was hand-copied onto the parchment or vellum. When the work had been successfully transferred, the wax tablet could be smudged and re-used. Over time, the tablet could be refreshed with new wax. There’s a sustainable system for you! It’s difficult to translate monetary values into our changing currency, but at the end of the Twentieth Century, one scholar described a large manuscript in the Middle Ages as equal to the value of a car in our society. A small monastery of ten monks or nuns with a library of only forty books would be equivalent to a small monastery with forty cars–minus the insurance, maintenance and fuel!
Ailred’s Dialogue on the Soul is composed as a conversation between a monk named John and his Abbot, named (of course) Ailred. John asks about something he’s just read in St. Augustine that has thrown him for a loop. Augustine, following Plotinus, writes that the body is contained by the soul. John always thought that the soul was encompassed by the body; and basically the conversation between John and Ailred discusses what this means and explores some of the implications. In three books (what we might call lengthy chapters) they consider the soul as animation that can be vegetative, animal or rational (in human beings, all three), the unity of the soul and the relationship between the soul and the body. They go on to consider memory, reason and will, introducing a notion of memory that is foreign to our culture. We tend to limit memory as referring to or recollecting the past. Ailred (like Augustine and the ancients) interprets memory like a mirror reflecting reality, both physical and spiritual. Finally they consider the power of imagination in terms of the soul’s perception.
The tone of the dialogue is pedagogical and Ailred simply unfolds the meaning and intent of Augustinian thought. He’s not Socrates drawing thinking out of John’s reason; he doesn’t put all his stock in reason but in faith and the Church’s teaching. But John also asks a specific question about Augustine, so they consider how to interpret Augustine’s thought. What I find so interesting and attractive is that Ailred doesn’t function like a know-it-all and as the dialogue unfolds, John seems to gain confidence and contribute more and more nuanced opinions. They are not equals in knowledge but John is treated like an equal in understanding, a student whose questions are valued. The Latin has a broad vocabulary but a simple and direct manner, exhibiting an unselfconcious, colloquial style. Ailred had not enjoyed an advanced academic education but with the basics he received, he exercised his mind throughout his life and explored deeply what books he had, benefiting from sharing and refining his knowledge in conversation.