Seeing Through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory



During the later Middle Ages, new optical theories were introduced that located the power of sight not in the seeing subject, but in the passive object of vision. This shift had a powerful impact not only on medieval science but also on theories of knowledge, and this changing relationship of vision and knowledge was a crucial element in late medieval religious devotion. In Seeing through the Veil, Suzanne Conklin Akbari examines several late medieval allegories in the context of contemporary paradigm shifts in scientific and philosophical theories of vision.

After a survey on the genre of allegory and an overview of medieval optical theories, Akbari delves into more detailed studies of several medieval literary works, including the Roman de la Rose, Dante's Vita Nuova, Convivio, and Commedia, and Chaucer's dream visions and Canterbury Tales. The final chapter, 'Division and Darkness,' centres on the legacy of allegory in the fifteenth century. Offering a new interdisciplinary, synthetic approach to late medieval intellectual history and to major works within the medieval literary canon, Seeing through the Veil will be an essential resource to the study of medieval literature and culture, as well as philosophy, history of art, and history of science.

Table of Contents

Illumination and Language

The Multiplication of Forms

Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la rose

Jean de Meun's Roman de la rose

Dante's Vita nuova and Convivio

Dante's Commedia

Chaucer's Dream Visions

Chaucer's Personification and Vestigial Allegory in the Canterbury Tales

Division and Darkness

Available from University of Toronto Press.


“Akbari’s fine scholarship is based on an acute sensitivity to medieval literature, across several languages, and by an unusually detailed knowledge of perspectiva. Such expertise unearths resonances and allusions that others have missed.”

— Peter Brown, Speculum

“This learned, stimulating, and uncommonly well-written book pursues an essentially new approach to medieval literary allegory through the application of medieval optical theory.”

— John V. Fleming, STudies in the Age of Chaucer

“A model of technical writing at its best, Seeing through the Veil reveals the unsuspected richness of medieval scientific thought for the literary critic. Akbari's complex, subtle readings should interest anyone who cares about allegory or visuality.”

— Barbara Newman, History and Philosophy of Life Sciences

“An extensive and thought-provoking treatment on the part of Akbari of the connections between changing medieval understandings of the relationship between optics, allegory, and knowledge.”

— Norman Klassen, Medium Aevum