Category Archives: History

Are we reading Virgil backwards? (The headless body of Priam)

Pompey’s head

I have been reading some very good essays on Virgil today, and one fact that my students keep bringing up is that the headless corpse of Priam on the beach is an allusion to Pompey’s headless corpse on the beach of Egypt. This surprised me, since I was fairly certain that Pompey’s headless corpse in Egypt is, in fact, a detail from Lucan, a good century after Virgil, that alludes, therefore, back to Virgil.

So I did a little digging.

The passage of Virgil in question is Aeneid 2.557-8:

iacet ingens litore truncus, / auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.

A great trunk lies on the shore, a head torn from shoulders and a body without a name.

The alluding passage in Lucan (first encountered by me in what is now a distant memory, Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext; I even forget what Hinds says) is Civil War 1.685-6:

hunc ego, fluminea deformis truncus harena / qui iacet, agnosco.

I recognise him, who lies on the river’s sands, a misshapen trunk.

The parallels in the Latin make the allusion to Virgil in Lucan fairly clear. What I wondered was how we came to the inverse allusion — that Virgil’s image of Priam’s corpse is of Pompey’s. I did some digging, and it seems that because Pompey was beheaded at the mouth of the Nile and controlled Asia, and because Priam’s body is on the shore and he also controlled Asia, Virgil is making such an allusion.

According to The Virgil Encyclopedia (from Wiley), under the entry ‘Pompey’, Virgil is alluding to Asinius Pollio here. Unhelpfully, Asinius Pollio’s account of the civil war does not survive.

The first person I know of to say that Virgil is making Priam into Pompey in this passage is Servius, the great late antique commentator on Virgil. Due to his access to things now lost to us, we tend to believe Servius. Servius does not give us a source for his belief that Virgil is implicitly making Priam into Pompey. There is, in fact, nothing in the content of Servius that would make us take this line of reasoning beyond our trust in Servius.

Of course, we want to take this line of reasoning because we are in the age of the ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anti-Augustan’ reading of Virgil, the reading that deeply problematises the killing of Turnus, that puts into the forefront of our reading of Book 6 the facts that the golden bough does not come easily and that Aeneas and the Sybil return to the land of the living through the gate of ivory, the gate designed for false dreams. Or we remember Dido and, along with St Augustine, we weep. We are also the age that notes that the first simile of the epic, comparing Neptune with a statesman who calms mobs with a word, is not actually referring to Augustus, who calmed civil strife with war, and we remember that Neptune was the patron of Pompey and of Antony — the enemies of Caesar and Augustus, respectively.

But what if Servius is wrong, and what if he’s wrong because somehow we’ve read the allusion backwards?

What if, that is, the real allusion has been Lucan all along? What if Virgil is not comparing the headless corpse of Priam to the headless corpse of Pompey? What if Lucan’s allusion has so much power that it has become the Virgilian intertext? Thus, we cannot help but see Priam as Pompey after reading Lucan, even if that was not Virgil’s intention.

Or — what if there’s a detail I’ve missed? Perhaps I’ve missed another Pompey intertext to which Virgil is explicitly alluding. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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True hyperbole

Statue of Ovid and National History Museum, Constanta, by Alexandru Panoiu

As I noted in my recent post about Ovid, he spent the last decade of his life in exile in Tomis, on the Black Sea, Constanța in modern Romania. As noted by Garth Tissol in the introduction to his commentary on book one of the Epistulae ex Ponto (the text I assigned my students), Fitton Brown has argued that Ovid, in fact, never went into exile, and it’s all just a literary fiction.

One of the main reasons it has been argued that Ovid stayed at Rome and wrote the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto as an exercise in poetic wit, has been his use of hyperbole. Tomis is not nearly so bad as Ovid makes it to be. Most people reject Fitton Brown’s argument.

Indeed, it strikes me that Ovid’s hyperbole is, in fact, true. Or rather, it is true to him.

The Roman province to which he was exiled was called Scythia Minor. Ovid portrays his place of exile as Scythia in the worst possible sense. Ancient Scythia is, essentially, Ukraine. For an idea of what the weather in Scythia can be like, Saskatchewan is the Ukraine of Canada. Ovid’s literary Scythia is a place of unending winter and deep gloom. Think of an Italian in a six-month Saskatchewan winter.

The inhabitants of Ovid’s Scythia are, inevitably, Scythians. Scythians are archetypal barbarians. They are the sort of people who drink wine from their enemies’ skulls. In Ovid, they are always engaged in war. Warfare is so continuous in Ovid’s Scythia, he can’t even plant a garden and is always girded for battle.

We look at Tomis and say, ‘It is not unremitting winter! The weather is not all that bad.’ It is, after all, on the Black Sea coast. The summers are not bad, and the sea has a tempering effect on the winter. This isn’t the Scythian plain.

Moreover, even if there was some battling, it was not all war all the time for an entire decade.

To read Ovid this way is to miss the point.

Why would we read a poet for an accurate, historicist picture of the scientific details of climate and battles? We read him for his artifice, his wit, and his soul. Read the letters from Pontus. Ovid is miserable.

Sure, it may not really be a Gigantomachy as he imagines it. He may not be Ulysses. But it sure feels that way. The winter’s not as bad as in, say, Regina, but it’s still pretty bad for a guy from central Italy. The battles may not be endless, but for someone from Rome in the midst of the Peace of Augustus, one battle is more than enough.

Not only this, but it is the winter of Ovid’s soul that matters, isn’t it? It is the battles waged against his heart and memory. He has been taken against his will to a place he did not wish to go. This is the real heart of the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto.

I do not think anything but hyperbole will bring that across. Who tempers his sorrow with accuracy and reason when lamenting to his friends?

Oh, those Dark Ages again

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

I was out for coffee with a friend on Tuesday, and he mentioned that he’d read somewhere that the ‘Dark Ages’ were a creation of the Enlightenment. I can’t speak to the history of that term exactly, although ‘Middle Ages’ is a term created by the Renaissance. The question does arise as to the aptness or truth of such a name.

First, we have to say that it is by no means apt for the entire Middle Ages. If it is ever useful, it cannot be seen as holding meaning for the period of the later eleventh century and beyond. I find it hard to place Lanfranc and Anselm in a ‘dark age’, let alone Durham Cathedral. The twelve-century Renaissance, with its flowering of Latin poetry, developments in visual arts, the birth of Gothic architecture, the rise and organisation of the universities, the great Cistercian spiritual masters, the early scholastics.

So the Dark Ages must be before that, if they exist.

If any age is ‘dark’, the argument will have to be made about the decline in material comfort and cultural production attendant upon the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Long-distance Mediterranean trade ceased. Cattle got smaller. Pottery got worse. Western European cities grew smaller, as well. Fewer people were literate. There was a lot of small-scale, continual warfare in many places. If — I repeat the conjunction, if — we are looking for the Dark Ages, they will be here.

As soon as I say that, though, I don’t like it. What of Boethius, Venantius Fortunatus, Maximus the Confessor, and Bede for pity’s sake? What of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels? What of the early mediaeval churches still standing in various Italian cities? What of Sutton Hoo?

And what about the Carolingians? Sure, their cultural programme may not have reached as far or long as desired, but lay literacy seems to have increased, along with manuscript production and other artistic goods associated with the Carolingian Renaissance?

Of course, the Carolingians coincide with Viking raids from the North and Saracen (Arab?) raids from the South for western Europe. But even then, political instability and death by the sword are a mainstay for most of European history. The ninth century is a wonderful example of bleakness alongside vitality. Vikings raid Lindisfarne in 793. Alfred commissions the Old English translation of Boethius several decades later.

The realities of history as we know them, and even as they were experienced, should make us eschew such terms as ‘Dark Ages’, because as soon as we have enough knowledge to give life nuance, things aren’t always as dark and bleak as we thought, even if we have to admit that they were sometimes pretty bad.

Reading a manuscript as a whole

Related to my last post of medieval musings, the other important methodological concern that characterised my research this year was not simply paying attention to paratextual elements in manuscripts but to their contents as a whole. It may be a gross oversimplification to say this, but in a great many studies of canon law, there is an ever finer process of definition and cutting away. Thus, someone who studies decretals will look at the first 18 folios of a manuscript and pay no heed to the copy of Gratian to which the decretals are attached. Or someone who does canon law will look at the ‘canon law’ section of a miscellany but not its theological section.

Once again, however, when we put ourselves in the reader’s seat, we cannot look at the manuscripts in this way. When I study Durham’s six glossed copies of Gratian’s Decretum, I am interested in what else I may find. Durham Cathedral Library MS C.III.1, for example, begins with a ‘homemade’ canonical collection with excerpts from a variety of sources, including a papal catalogue, an arbor consanguinitatis, and a decretal collection. And then a glossed copy of Gratian of similar date but a different hand. If these were bound together early, most readers will have had their reading of Gratian shaped by this other material, not just the glosses.

One result, for example, is the emphasis on papal authority that comes from the papal catalogue and the decretal collection. Also, the ongoing controversy in canon law about marriage is cast into sharp relief by the arbor consanguinitatis.

That is just one example.

Another example that my boss told me about two days ago is the fact that, once the Latin translation of John of Damascus De fide orthodoxa is complete, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo finds itself always transmitted with the Damascene. Somehow, people found a resonance between these two documents. Those who read the texts would inevitably be influenced by this editorial decision.

I once queried why notitiae of Roman provinces find their way into canonical collections. The answer is that Carolingians in the ninth century created a system whereby the bishop of the Roman province number Prima in those notitiae was the Primas, the Primate, with certain rights and responsibilities to those below him. So the administrative structure of a long-dead empire was suddenly of great interest, and people copied these texts. If all I did with a manuscript was read the ‘canon law’ material, I would miss this important nuance in the reader’s experience.

Rosamond McKitterick, in History and Memory in the Carolingian World, has argued that by collecting papal letters alongside church councils, the authority of the popes in matters of canon law was reinforced. It makes sense when you read the whole manuscript together, doesn’t it?

Examples abound. This is a useful approach, and it certainly helps one understand some texts when they don’t seem to make sense in any other way.

Manuscripts and readers

I have just over one month left of my year as a mediaevalist, before taking up my new post as Assistant Professor of Latin Literature at UBC in Vancouver. I thought I’d write some blog posts reflecting on this year of mediaeval adventures in Durham as I transition back to Classics and the teaching of Horace, Ovid, Ausonius, Virgil, Lucan, Theocritus (and so forth).

One of the articles I wrote this year was about canon law education before Gratian. Gratian, about whom I’ve blogged before, published, around 1140, what would become the standard textbook for canon law for the rest of the High and Late Middle Ages. Before this, canon law was not really a subject on its own. The cathedral schools and fledgling associations of teachers (masters) called uniuersitates would have touched this material, if at all, as part of training in theology.

Of course, people knew the canons of the church. This is most easily demonstrable in the works of canonists such as Ivo of Chartres (Bishop of Chartres, 1090-1115) or Burchard of Worms (Bishop of Worms, 1000-1025). However, the writings of other bishops also demonstrate an intimate knowledge of church canons and the theology underpinning them. For example, Anselm of Canterbury (Archbp of Canterbury, 1093-1109) demonstrates in his letters a similar use and knowledge of canon law as Ivo in his own letters.

The question arises, how does someone like Anselm or his contemporary, William of St-Calais (Bishop of Durham, 1080-1096), gain his knowledge of canon law in an age before it was being taught as a separate discipline?

The answer: They read books.

The case of William of St-Calais has been demonstrated very well by Mark Philpott, who compared William’s copy of the canon law collection Collectio Lanfranci with Simeon of Durham’s De iniusta vexacione, an account of William’s treatment by King William II ‘Rufus’. Philpott shows that every time Bishop William refers to the canons of the church at the king’s court at Old Sarum in 1088, there are marginal notes in his copy of Collectio Lanfranci.

So the question of how do you learn canon law before Gratian — or even, in many cases, after Gratian — moves our study of education from the classroom to the reading stall. It also takes our study of manuscripts from texts and scribes to readers and marginalia.

As a classicist, I have generally been interested in manuscripts as repositories of texts which can serve as a pathway or a window into the past, leading us back to something similar to an author’s ipsissima verba. As a medievalist, I have considered them in the other direction: How would a reader of this manuscript be influenced by the text?

For example, Durham Cathedral Library B.IV.17 is an early twelfth-century copy of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms. Among the elements of note are marginalia in pencil next to certain of the canons, revealing to us the interests of one of the readers. I noticed that a lot of these markings were towards the beginning, where Burchard deals with the right (or wrong!) behaviour of bishops, and I couldn’t help but think about some of Durham’s bishops who likely transgressed the canons presented here, or about the literal episcopal civil war between William of Ste-Barbe and William Comin in the 1140s, or, later, the disputes between the monks of the cathedral and bishop Antony Bek.

Another feature of this book is the underlining in black ink of the sources of authority in canon law. Here we see, then, a reinforcing of the authority of certain church fathers and of popes in matters of church regulation.

Any reader of this manuscript after the penciller will have noticed these markings, too, and will have had his reading of Burchard transformed as a result.

Many of these same features are also visible in the six Gratian manuscripts I studied this year, except that all the Gratian manuscripts are heavily glossed. Thus, regardless of what someone might have thought about the canons of the church as organised and harmonised by Gratian, that person’s reading of church law will be shifted and transformed by the glosses, automatically interpreted by the glossator. And the reader can add more glosses himself — some of them did.

Another aspect of reading a manuscript is the layout. You can see how these books could have been useful. Burchard and Gratian both lay out their texts with red headings and subheadings (ruber = red, hence rubric). New chapters or books might have a massive historiated initial to signal their existence. Running headings across the top also assist in the navigation of these high mediaeval books.

You may think, ‘But, of course! My copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival has running headings and chapter divisions and page numbers, and even an index of persons!’ Well, remember Collectio Coloniensis from back in 2016? Well, that manuscript is basically a big wall of text (ms Cologne 212):

This is not easy to navigate, I can assure you! The rubric at the bottom is almost all you get in Coloniensis. Most new items get uncial incipits in the same colour rather than a rubricated heading. It can be a real pain!

Consider Durham Cathedral Library, B.IV.17:

Provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

Much easier to read!

There is much more to be said about the reader’s experience in the Middle Ages, but it is an important approach to manuscripts, one worthy of consideration (and I know other scholars work on it!). And one that is useful for classics as well!

Bibliography

Check out Ivo’s works here.

Durham Priory Library Recreated

Cologne’s digitised manuscripts: Codices Electronicae Ecclesiae Coloniensis.

Mark Philpott, ‘”In primis … omnis humanae prudentiae inscius et expers putaretur”: St Anselm’s Knowledge of Canon Law’, in D. E. Luscombe and G. R. Evans, eds, Anselm: Aosta, Bec and Canterbury (Sheffield, 1996), 94-105.

—. ‘The De iniusta vexacione Willelmi episcopi primi and Canon Law in Anglo-Norman Durham’, in David Rollason, Margaret Harvey, and Michael Prestwich, eds, Anglo-Norman Durham 1093-1193 (Woodbridge, 1994), 125-137.

Law As Theology

It is commonplace to say in discussions about medieval canon law that before c. 1140 with Gratian’s Decretum, canon law was not distinct from theology. But nobody does anything about it! So here’s my latest from the Priory Project blog where I discuss how considering canon law as theology might help us come to understand one of Durham’s manuscripts:

Law As Theology: Hypothesising About One Of Durham’s Canon Law Manuscripts

Two Fulgentii for the price of one

In my latest post for the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog, I discuss the insufficiencies of the old Durham Cathedral catalogue and point out the library’s manuscripts with works by Fulgentius. Both of him. Enjoy!

Sorting out your Fulgentii