Tropologies is the first book-length study to elaborate the medieval and early modern theory of the tropological, or moral, sense of scripture. Ryan McDermott argues that tropology is not only a way to interpret the Bible but also a theory of literary and ethical Invention. The “tropological imperative” demands that words be turned into works—books as well as deeds. Beginning with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, then treating monuments of exegesis such as the Glossa ordinaria and Nicholas of Lyra, as well as theorists including Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and others, Tropologies reveals the unwritten history of a major hermeneutical theory and inventive practice. Late medieval and early Reformation writers adapted tropological theory to invent new biblical poetry and drama that would invite readers to participate in salvation history by inventing their own new works. Tropologies reinterprets a wide range of medieval and early modern texts and performances—including the Patience-Poet, Piers Plowman, Chaucer, the York and Coventry cycle plays, and the literary circles of the reformist King Edward VI—to argue that “tropological invention” provided a robust alternative to rhetorical theories of literary production.
In this groundbreaking revision of literary history, the Bible and biblical hermeneutics, commonly understood as sources of tumultuous discord, turn out to provide principles of continuity and mutuality across the Reformation’s temporal and confessional rifts. Each chapter pursues an argument about poetic and dramatic form, linking questions of style and aesthetics to exegetical theory and theology. Because Tropologies attends to the flux of exegetical theory and practice across a watershed period of intellectual history, it is able to register subtle shifts in literary production, fine-tuning our sense of how literature and religion mutually and dynamically informed and reformed each other.
“This is an original book. It draws confidently on a wide range of medieval critical and scholarly work, as well as on a cogent body of contemporary theory and theology. It not only moves easily and eloquently between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries but also delves back into the ‘tropological’ Christian thought of the previous thousand years.” — Nicolette Zeeman, University of Cambridge
“This is a major book, which takes us back to a body of well-known vernacular texts and asks us to look at them in an entirely new light. Students of the history of Christian thought and of Middle English literature alike will want to pay careful attention to Tropologies as it traces the close connections between medieval biblical exegesis and vernacular poetics and demonstrates the extent of their interdependence. McDermott’s concern is with literary and religious history, bringing often brilliant new insights to the study of the relationship of Latin and vernacular, the effects of the Reformation on the practice of ‘thinking with Scripture,’ and the poems and plays that lie at the center of his analysis. In another sense, however, Tropologies is itself an exercise in tropological exegesis, obliging us to confront basic questions about the ethical demands of writing, reading, and living in time. It will be widely read and broadly influential.” — Nicholas Watson, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature, Harvard University
“Tropologies: Ethics and Invention in England, c. 1350–1600 is a work of great and generous ambition, of intelligence both sharp and warm. It takes with equal seriousness the concerns of literary scholarship in our present and the concerns of biblical exegesis in the medieval and Reformation past, and shows how brightly they illuminate each other. At once irenic and challenging, this is a book that needs seriously to be reckoned with." — Steven Justice, Chancellor’s Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley
“Ryan McDermott offers an impressive new study on biblical interpretation with Tropologies. He pushes us to consider, to an extent heretofore not done, the importance of the tropological mode of biblical interpretation, which is an approach to finding ethical meaning in biblical passages (even or especially those without explicit moral messages), not only for the late medieval and early modern periods, but also in present day biblical studies.” — Reading Religion