Category Archives: Mediaeval

Posts relating to the mediaeval/Byzantine world(s).

Some reasons to read Beowulf

Here are just a few reasons why you might want to read Beowulf. First, it is a famous example of literature from the Early Middle Ages. Second, it represents English-language literature in its infancy. Third, it has had impacted modern literature since its rediscovery.

The Early Middle Ages, although politically fractured and certainly with a lower standard of living than the Later Roman Empire or the High Middle Ages, are a period of great creativity and transformation within western Europe, as the post-Roman world resettles itself into something new. Beowulf is, in many ways, indicative of the Early Middle Ages. Culturally, the Early Middle Ages see the introduction of literacy and Christianity to more and more ‘barbarians’—the English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, various continental Germanic peoples, Danes, and more. As a poem about the pagan past being told from a Christian perspective, Beowulf encapsulates the early medieval world, not simply by showing us aspects of Anglo-Saxon society (the beerhall with the lord bestowing gifts upon his thegns—the world of Sutton Hoo), but of European society more broadly (the transformation of barbarian pagans into literate Christians).

Beowulf is one of the earliest long-form English poems. It shows, in a certain way, the foundations of English literature. This is a lofty claim; Beowulf certainly exerted no direct influence on Chaucer, who certainly had closer English poets as well as French and Latin literature to hand. Nonetheless, Beowulf was written in the English vernacular, composed from the stuff of the oral legends that existed as part of the cultural inheritance the English brought with them from the Continent. Its intrinsic interest, then, is that it is a so-called ‘primary’ epic, such as Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, and The Song of Roland, as opposed to Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Dante, or Ariosto. It depicts a pre-literate, warrior society, yet is itself cast in a beautiful, lyric form. Beowulf carries with it not just daring adventure and heroism, but also the hope of heaven and high ideals of loyalty and honour. These are ideals that are known to capture the hearts and minds of most people. Reading Beowulf shows us English poetry when England was barely English.

Finally, Beowulf has a strong influence on modern literature and art. Like most, if not all, early medieval vernacular literature, it lay dormant for many years. But nationalism, romanticism, and the rise of vernacular philology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that this Old English epic has found new life, being ushered back into the canon of English-language classics. Immediately, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, Oxford’s first Professor of Anglo-Saxon and critic of Beowulf comes to mind—especially since the publication of his translation with notes in 2014. It is widely known that Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf in crafting his fantasies, and The Hobbit in particular. From my own experience, many young people have been ushered into classic literature through the twofold gateway of Tolkien and Lewis. Beowulf also inspired the later portions of Eaters of the Dead (filmed as 1999’s The 13th Warrior) when Michael Crichton takes the story beyond Ibn Fadlan’s surviving narrative.

Furthermore, modern adaptations have made Beowulf a known entity, but—like the famous Victorian trio of horror stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—very little read. It has been unfaithfully adapted multiple times for the cinema, as well as a more faithful animated version with the voice talents of Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes. In print, John Gardner has given us Grendel, telling the tale from the perspective of the monster, and Gareth Hinds produced a vivid and captivating graphic novel. One of my favourite adaptations of Beowulf is the stilt play! There has also been an anthology of short fiction about the character inspired by the epic.

So, if you take C S Lewis’s advice and read an old book after every new book, why not pick up Beowulf next time? I’ve read and recommend the translations of Liuzza, Crossley-Holland, and Tolkien, but I expect Heaney’s is more than worth your time.

The neverending story of Leo’s manuscripts

I recently asked a senior academic who’s been helping me out to order two library catalogues through interlibrary loans for me (working at the uOttawa library gives me some privileges as an alumnus, but not ILLs). I remarked that I keep finding more manuscripts of Leo’s letters.

His response was that it may never end.

My ever-growing list of Leo manuscripts is the result of new catalogues with proper indices being published, new and old databases running well, and me having access to old catalogues. I suspect that those manuscripts necessary for editing the text of Leo’s letters were already identified when I finished my Ph.D. dissertation in 2015.

However, I just discovered another ninth-century codex today, hitherto unknown to me: Vat. Reg. lat. 423. This manuscript contains material from Gallic councils (Gaul = France geographically), the Concordia canonum of Cresconius, and then two of Leo’s letters, Epp. 14 and 7, followed by a letter of Damian of Pavia, then fragments of Priscian the grammarian. It has also, it turns out, been digitised.

For your viewing pleasure, folio 62v where Leo begins:

But the story of transmitting Leo’s letters has never simply been about establishing the text (it has been that, of course). It has also been about discovering who owned, copied, and read the letters, where and when. Maybe sometimes even why. It is about the journey of texts from Leo’s utterance to his notarius to printers in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era.

For example, I am going to have to revisit the Council of Florence, for besides manuscripts belonging to Bessarion, Nicholas of Cusa, Juan de Torquemada, and Domenico Capranica, I have also discovered the copy made for Pope Eugenius IV himself! Vat. lat. 1326, also digitised.

This manuscript is exciting not only because of the ownership but also because it contains a collection of Leo’s letters I did not know about, and there are two more manuscripts of that collection, one of which was made for Angelo Capranica, also a cardinal, brother of Domenico! This is Vat. lat. 1328, another digitised manuscript.

Moreover, more careful examination of library catalogues has ferreted out copies of Leo belonging to Popes Nicholas V (successor to Eugenius IV) and Paul II (a couple popes later). These Renaissance popes at least owned copies of Leo. I imagine Eugenius IV, if not the others about whom I know little, actually read him, based on said pope’s activities.

I have found a few more eleventh-century manuscripts, as well as some homiliaries that contain the Tome (Ep. 28 to Flavian) amongst the homilies.

One final victory was identifying a manuscript whose shelfmark as recorded by the last editors of Leo in 1753 (brothers by the name of Ballerini) seems no longer to exist — Vat. Chig.C.VII.212, a sixteenth-century copy of Leo’s letters with acts of the Council of Chalcedon as compiled and translated by Rusticus a millennium earlier. Despite its late date, this manuscript may be worth investigating because of how few manuscripts of Rusticus exist.

Eventually, I may quit hunting these manuscripts. As I say, most of what I’ve found in the past week or so will not affect my edition. But they affect the story! And I love the story.

The Virgilian tradition

The famous 3rd-century mosaic of Virgil from the Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia

Some time ago, back when I was a Master’s student, I wrote a little piece called You Should Read the Iliad, and then another called simply The Odyssey. I finally wrote my third in the series, Why read the Aeneid of Virgil? in July of 2018. Having written about the Age of Augustus, and how we who study later Rome also know earlier Rome, my mind keeps circling back to the Virgilian tradition, a vast literary heritage that begins as soon as Virgil’s work is produced. Virgil is an instant classic, as seen in Propertius 2.34.59-66:

My pleasure to languish with yesterday’s garlands,
Whom the sure-aiming god touched to the bone;
For Virgil the power to tell of Actium’s shores
In Phoebus’ guard and Caesar’s gallant ships,
Who now wakes to life the arms of Troy’s Aeneas
And walls cast down on Lavinian shores.
Surrender, writers of Rome, surrender, Greeks!
Something greater than the Iliad is born.
-Trans. A. J. Boyle, ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid’, in his own Roman Epic, p. 79

For Late Antiquity, Virgil is the single most important Latin poet. This is true not only for the obvious writers, such as Servius with his commentary on Virgil, or Macrobius’ Saturnalia, nor only for the poets — Virgilian intertexts are inevitable in Claudian — but even for those men dubbed ‘Fathers of the Church’ — Virgilian quotations and allusions abound in Augustine of Hippo. I’ve not read much Jerome yet, but I suspect the same will prove true. This use of Virgil as a source of wisdom is a Latin parallel of how Greeks treated Homer.

The Virgilian tradition, then, is vast . I have beside me The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years by Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam. It is 1024 pages long, not including the endmatter. Here are some highlights …

The Virgilian Middle Ages

The explicit intertext, signalled in its title, of Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (1182) is the invective of Claudian. Yet here we also find various Virgilian intertexts, not to mention an explicit naming of Virgil.

Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide (1100s), makes use of Dido and Aeneas.

But the most famous medieval reader of Virgil is the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno has Virgil as guide not only of the character Dante in the poem but of the poet Dante who wrote the poem.

Where else to turn in the 1000-year medieval reception of Virgil? Well, at the very least Petrarch (1304-74), whose works are littered with Virgil, and Chaucer, particularly The House of Fame which draws on Virgil’s own personification of Fama in Aeneid 4.

The Early Modern Virgil

For the early modern era as for the Middle Ages, Virgil was very much a powerful presence, in both Latin and vernacular literature, such as the Portuguese Lusiads by Camões, the Italian Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato, and in English, Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It should come as no great shock that various aspects of the Virgilian tradition are also in Ariosto, Orlando Furioso. Besides his ongoing use of epic similes and set-piece descriptions (ecphrasis in the singular, ecphraseis in the plural), Ariosto has a number of scenes modelled on or inspired by Virgil. Early in the epic, for example, Bradamant is dropped into a cave by a mortal enemy of her family. The cave turns out to be Merlin’s tomb, and a sorceress dwells there, who proceeds to show Bradamant the parade of her descendants — including Ariosto’s patron, whom Ariosto compares to Augustus, saying that he even has his own Virgil! (Quite the boast.)

Virgil Today

Sometimes it may feel like the ancient Classics have fallen on hard times. But new translations of the Aeneid keep appearing, including the potent translation of Book VI by Seamus Heaney. Moreover, epic retellings find their ways onto our shelves, if less often onto our screens — I think particularly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterful novel Lavinia.

One potential reception of Virgil that is, in fact, disputed, is Battlestar Galactica, which both Peggy Heller and Charlotte Higgins argue has Virgilian elements. Chris Jones’ arguments against the two are not entirely convincing. Intertextuality is not the same as adaptation; Ronald D. Moore could very well have had some basic Virgilian-Aeneid structures in mind without creating a perfect sci-fi adaptation. I like the idea, that is, of Virgil as intertext, if not as inspiration or source for BSG. It would, in fact, be entirely fitting for the poet whose masterpiece is in many ways the ultimate intertext of both Homeric epics and the Latin epic of Ennius to be used as an intertext for TV shows today.

What I want to see in the Virgilian tradition is a good graphic novel — Roy Thomas gave us The Iliad and Odyssey for Marvel; Gareth Hinds, after a splendid Beowulf, has also given us The Iliad and Odyssey. Could one of them give us the Aeneid as well? Please? (I know nothing about Agrimbau and Sosa’s — is it worthy?)

Study Later Latin!

Codex Amiatinus, portrait of Ezra (Cassiodorus?), folio 5r (c. 700, based on older Italian Bible)

One of the many interesting facts found in Jürgen Leonhardt, Latin: Story of a World Language (read my review), is that about 80% of surviving ancient Latin texts are from the late 200s to the mid-500s. The sheer quantity of texts, then, makes Later Latin literature appealing, doesn’t it?

The other 20% of surviving ancient Latin texts cover about 500 years of literary history — those are the Latin texts we are all most likely to study: Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others, including those fragmentary poets of the Republic such as Ennius.

When you think about those who study English literature,  not only do these Latin classics not add up to a very large quantity of texts in comparison, they are also among the most studied texts in the world. Everyone who ever studied Latin with seriousness, whether a Ciceronian so harshly criticised by Erasmus, Erasmus himself, or, say, Aelred of Rievaulx, read Cicero.

So we should keep reading Cicero (there’s more to that argument, but that’s for later).

But Cicero has been analysed, edited, commented upon, translated, and so forth a lot.

Leo the Great, on the other hand, has 23 letters that have received no edition since 1753, and I am contemplating writing the first commentary on the whole corpus of letters.

Not only is Later Latin relatively understudied: It’s vast! Here’s but a sample of people as they pass into my mind:

Lactantius, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Ausonius, Ambrose, Symmachus, Augustine, Prudentius, Sedulius, Leo I, Innocent I, Celestine I, various other popes, Caesarius of Arles, Peter Chrysologus, Quodvultdeus, Prosper of Aquitaine, Ammianus Marcellinus, Hydatius, Priscian, Donatus, Servius, Macrobius, Claudian, Porfyrius, Boethius, the legal work of Justinian

The list could and does go on. We have poetry of multiple genres (including epic and some experimental stuff), history of multiple genres, biography, letters, sermons, speeches, grammar books, commentaries on classical poets, commentaries on the Bible, theological treatises, philosophical texts, autobiography, monastic rules, and more.

If we extend our dates to around 800, as the much anticipated Cambridge History of Later Latin Literature will, then we also get Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Aldhelm, Bede, some lovely Hiberno-Latin literature, and more!

There’s something for everyone in later Latin literature, and a lot of it remains untranslated, or poorly translated, or only available in expensive translations. So learn some Latin and go read it!

Robert E. Howard and Ariosto

When I was a teenager, I bought a copy of The Essential Conan as a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy book club. This anthology of classic Robert E. Howard Conan stories came complete with a poster of Conan wielding an axe, about to cut off the head of a serpent. Slinking in the background is an almost totally nude woman. Before putting the poster up, I honest-to-goodness cut out a paper dress to put over the mostly naked woman.

So, basically, your average, run-of-the-mill Conan picture.

I was reminded of this poster recently, reading my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian Renaissance epic, Orlando Furioso. The cover depicts Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, mounted on a winged steed (bird? hippogriff? I don’t know yet), lancing a dragon from atop his mount. Angelica is nude:

This is, as I have alluded to above, standard Conan cover material: Naked (or mostly naked) woman being rescued from a monster by a hero with weapons. Ingres might paint fewer muscles, but all the essential elements are there for a cover of Savage Sword of Conan (for example).

This led me to start thinking about Howard and Ariosto. Now, I’m not saying that Robert E. Howard ever read Ariosto (or Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato). I do wonder if maybe he read Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne, which is essentially a synopsis of Boiardo and Ariosto from what I can tell. Nonetheless, Ariosto and sword-and-sorcery fantasy are not as far as apart as you may guess.

Magic swords. Magicians from the East. Magical castles built by demons. Magic rings. Ghosts rising up from rivers. Various monsters.

There are men who fall in love with women so powerfully they will literally hunt them to the ends of the earth. There are men of nobility as well as villains amongst all races.

The cast of Orlando is essentially the same as in Conan, it’s just a different time period.

There are important differences between Howard and Ariosto, though. Howard is into what we would call the weird, etymologically speaking. The chilling, spooky, terrifying. There are dark and ancient evils hiding in the deserts of Howard’s imagination. Things without names. He also believes in the power of steel — it is not a magic sword that can save the day, but bravery and strong steel, even in the face of enchantment. His men are rough and violent, thieves, mercenaries, and the like. Conan is barely a hero, although he can rise to the heroic given the opportunity.

Ariosto’s world, a world of woods, castles, Saracens, and Christians, is different. The darkness is less heavy, and if enchantment is involved, you need enchantment to undo it. There is still nameless and faceless evil. But his men are cleaner and more civilised (if you will), living by a code of chivalry regardless of religion or ethnicity. They can also be straight-up wicked, despite their cleanliness and manners, mind you.

I’m sure that if I were reading Ariosto in Italian I would also find subtler differences than these. And if I read beyond Canto 4.

Most importantly for me right now, what they both have in common is that their stories are rip-roaring fun!

Latin: Story of a World Language by Jurgen Leonhardt

If you are looking for a single volume history of Latin, I recommend this volume by Jürgen Leonhardt. Leonhardt does not spend energy on Indo-European linguistics, and he does not linger on the fragments of old Latin — the story of Latin is far too long for that. The most sizeable portion of the book is the chapter entitled ‘Europe’s Latin Millennium’ — tracing the centuries 800-1800.

Nonetheless, ancient Latin has its place. Indeed, we cannot have Latin as a world language without Latin as the Romans’ language. Leonhardt gives a readable discussion of the ‘classical’ period of Latin literature, the era of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, et al. This era of Late Republican and Early Imperial Latin literature is important for the story of Latin literature because of two major developments. First, this is the era when Latin authors sought not to imitate but to rival Greek authors. Horace does not wish simply to be a Latin lyric poet in the tradition of the Greeks; he seeks to outstrip them. Second, this is the era of linguistic history when the Latin language ceases to change. The Latin of Cicero is syntactically and grammatically the same Latin as Augustine.

This fixing of Latin at this historical moment, a moment when so much enduring literature was written (the two mutually reinforce each other) meant that Latin was able to truly become a world language. The story of Latin when it is no longer connected to the ancient Roman world is the story of the bulk of this book.

Leonhardt’s book is full of interesting facts and important arguments, for which there is not a lot of time in this review. What is most significant, I think, is the argument that Latin in the Middle Ages created the space for vernacular literatures, and there was not originally competition between Latin and the vernacular. A piece of evidence for this mutual coinherence of literary space is the fact that our earliest vernacular literatures — Old English and Old Irish — emerge precisely in places where Latin literacy was maintained. Similarly, in periods when Latin goes through a slump — the 900s, for example — so do vernacular literatures.

The vernacular literatures only start to compete with Latin as the Early Modern period progresses. Even then, the competition is slow. In Italy, for a very long time, they considered Latin the grammatical form of the language for literature and Italian as simply the volgare. Moreover, even if places like England and France were using the vernacular for their court, this has little to do with poets, philosophers, and theologians who want an international audience. While our association of the rise of vernacular literature with the Early Modern world is not entirely off the mark, it is also worth noting that so many famous authors of the time wrote in Latin for a wider distribution, even if a lot of them also wrote in the vernacular: Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Lancelot Andrewes, John Calvin, and many Germans.

In fact, Latin remained the supraregional language within Germany for a very long time due to the fact that many German dialects are mutually incomprehensible. The book includes a very interesting discussion of Bach being hired by the Thomasschule in Leipzig, mostly about the state of Latin teaching and humanism at the time. One simple point, however, is that, although Bach was not considered qualified to teach Latin, he was still able to converse in Latin and answer catechetical questions in his job interview. A very different era from today.

Alongside a consideration of Latin literature and its variety through the ages, this book looks at Latin pedagogy in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and 1800s, and Leonhardt argues that one of the things that helped make Latin less alive in the 1800s is the lack of instruction in spoken, daily Latin but simply the style we all know from our own Latin classes, of memorising paradigms and vocabulary and nothing but the Classics for our reading.

In the book’s close come many challenges for those of us invested in Latin today. It is not enough to say with Harry Mount’s book Amo, Amas, Amat and All That that the best reason to learn Latin today is to be able to read the Latin classics, simply because too few people are interested in the effort required when they can, instead, read A D Melville’s Ovid, Robert Fagles’ Aeneid, David Ferry’s Horace, John Yardley’s Livy. However, given that over 90% of the Latin ever written remains unread and unedited, there is much potential for growth in the field. While Cicero and the turn of the era should remain an essential ingredient of Latin instruction, Leonhardt argues for promoting the riches of medieval and modern Latin as cause for students to become interested.

He also argues that we need to make Latin instruction live again — bring in more conversation, perhaps. Investigate methods from modern languages. Help students do composition exercises related to things other than politics and war. He doesn’t say it in quite these words, but that’s the feel I got.

This book is well worth the read for anyone interested in Latin, even if it’s just nostalgia from having studied it in school in the 1960s.