Category Archives: Mediaeval

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

Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.

Leo in Ferrara and Florence in the 1400s

Pope Eugenius IV – he probably owned a manuscript of Leo, too

I recently submitted the manuscript of my book about manuscripts of Leo the Great. As I was revising it from thesis version to book version, I couldn’t help but notice those manuscripts whose owners or scribes we can name. There are several potentially interesting leads one could follow — Lanfranc of Canterbury, William of Malmesbury, the early network of Cistercians — but the one that stood out to me this time was from the millennium after Leo’s episcopate — not merely a large number of fifteenth-century manuscripts, but manuscripts that belonged to Basilios Bessarion, Nicholas of Cusa (Kues), Domenico Capranica, and Juan de Torquemada.

These men were all cardinals.

The first two are the most famous today. Bessarion was a ‘convert’ from the Greek side to the Latin side in the debates over unification that *almost* succeeded in the 1430s and 40s. Nicholas of Cusa (from Kues in Germany) is a famous humanist, theologian, and writer on matters to do with church constitution; he was originally on the side of a group devoted to having a series of church councils with higher authority than the pope (so-called conciliarists), but he also ‘converted’ to the papal side.

Capranica was also a humanist and theologian, this time from Italy. The Spaniard Juan de Torquemada’s name may be familiar because of his nephew, Tomás de Torquemada, first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition and model for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in the parable told by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.

You are probably now very excited (ha). Well, besides being cardinals, these men were all at the church council that started at Ferrara in 1438 and then, because of the unhealthy conditions there, moved to Florence in 1439. In fact, Capranica’s copy of Leo’s sermons and letters was written while he was in Ferrara early in 1438. Nicholas of Cusa owned a manuscript of the sermons and letters and another of the sermons that also contained some of his own works written in his own hand. Moreover, I am given to understand that Nicholas quotes Leo throughout his writings.

You may now wonder what went on at Ferrara-Florence that I find the interest in Leo of these cardinals significant. Well, this council is momentous for two reasons, and it really depends who teaches you about it. When I was first taught about this council in my Master’s degree, it was in the context of a class about councils generally (mostly western), and by a scholar who’s interest was Early Modern. We learned about Ferrara-Florence and its opposition to the rival Council of Basel that had been officially ended by Eugenius IV but that decided to depose him and keep rolling, anyway. The people in Basel are termed ‘conciliarists’ in ecclesiastical history, and there is often subtext in talking about that they are (imagined to be) a group that could have held Reformation at bay if only they hadn’t mishandled Eugenius.

The second time I learned about this council was in a class on Byzantine Theology, and the main thrust was its attempt(s) at reunion with the Eastern churches, the debate on filioque, and why it ultimately failed.

Bessarion represents a Greek who came over to the Latin side, Nicholas a conciliarist who went over to the papal side.

There are two ways one is likely to consider this quartet of cardinals and their books of Leo, and both are probably right.

First: They are drawn to Leo because he supports things they support. At these general councils, it was important to have antiquity on your side. Leo the Great is the first bishop of Rome to put forth an articulate theology of Petrine primacy. Exactly what you want in debates with conciliarists and Greeks! Moreover, he was on explicitly good terms with the Emperors Marcian and Leo I, so that’s good when talking to the Greeks. Just look how Marcian treated him! (Well, maybe not too closely — some of the letters are less reverent than others.) Moreover, it is clear that the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon is not gaining traction until Leo gives his approval — evidence (one can imagine the argument) that popes are higher than councils. He also rules on various matters of faith and life that the Latin, papal side was in favour of.

Second: Having read Leo, someone like Nicholas finds some persuasive arguments for papal primacy. Having read Leo, someone like Bessarion believes that the unity of the church hinges on papal-imperial cooperation.

Both are probably true, to some extent. Your interests shape which authors you are pointed to. Someone probably told Capranica that Leo was worth a read, so he had a copy made while at the council. And the books you read shape what you believe.

And so, 998 years after he was elected to the apostolic see of St Peter, Leo found an interested and engaged readership as the history of the church marched on.

Looking back at books of 2018

In 2018, I finished reading 56 books that were not picture/story books or board books. I do not know how many picture/story books and board books I read. My son owns 49 board books; I have read all of them multiple times this year. Of the non-board book picture/story books, I read 36, but we have more that I did not read. And there are the library books, books at other people’s houses, books at churches that I read along the way.

As usual, a book that I completed means that I finished the entirety of that which is bound between two covers. Some are books that I started before 2018. And many texts and books were read that were not read in toto. For example, none of Leo the Great’s letters are here because I did not read any of them bound together as a single volume. And many articles, poems, and other non-books were read.

The first book I completed was The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by R. C. Blockley. This is the introductory volume, not the texts with translation.

The final book I completed was volume one of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Claudian, ed. and trans. Maurice Platnauer.

Of the 56 books of 2018, here are the stats by category/genre:

  • Ancient texts in translation: 11, of which 3 were ‘patristic’
  • Ancient texts in the original: 1 — Horace, Epistles, Book 1, with commentary by Roland Mayer
  • Medieval texts in translation: 3, unless we count Pseudo-Dionysius and Justinian as medieval, then subtract two from ‘ancient’ and ‘patristic’, then add them to medieval.
  • Scholarly works about ancient subjects: 5
  • Scholarly works about medieval subjects: 6
  • Other history: 2 (The Mammoth Book of Pirates and Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree)
  • Works about Christian theology/spirituality not already counted: 9
  • Memoirs: 1 (Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean)
  • Novels: 10 (this includes The Silmarillion to make life easier)
  • Young-adult novels (already counted in the 10): 3
  • Historical Fiction: 1 adult (Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy), 2 YA
  • Books of non-ancient, non-medieval poetry: 1 (Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti)
  • Graphic Novels: 1 (Infinity War by Jim Starlin)
  • Souvenir guide books: 3 (+ a book about the Mildenhall Treasure already classed as ‘scholarly works about ancient subjects)
  • Books in German: 1 (Patzold, Steffen. 2015. Gefälschtes Recht aus dem Frühmittelalter: Untersuchungen zur Herstellung und Überlieferung der pseudoisidorischen Dekretalen. Heidelberg.)
  • Plays: 2 (Euripides’ Bacchae and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)
  • Books that defy my classifications; 1 (Pieces from a Broken Land by Victoria Fifield; memoir? art? both.)
  • Books written by friends: 4 (including the above, 2 books by another friend, one of which is not yet in print, the other of which is Dayspring MacLeod, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, and Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity)

I turned 35 this year. The 35th book I finished was Mayer’s commentary on Horace, Epistles, Book I.

There are fifty-two weeks in a year. The fifty-second book I finished was The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville. I read another history of monasticism, The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters. Melville’s is better in my opinion, but Peters’ is probably better for normal people.

Half of 56 is 28. The 28th book was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid, Book VI — I really, really liked it.

The rereads were The Lord of the Rings, read as three volumes (so counted as three books) and A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I also reread the Aeneid, but this was my first time reading Frederick Ahl’s translation and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI.

The most-read author was J. R. R. Tolkien (4) followed by Andrew Louth (2) and Dayspring MacLeod (2).

This was the year I finally read The Silmarillion and Pride and Prejudice.

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.

Why read the Aeneid of Virgil?

Arms and the man I sing

I recently finished my fourth English reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, this time in the translation of Frederick Ahl with an excellent introduction by the late Elaine Fantham (Fantham taught me Latin verse in my MA at Toronto, and I have enormous esteem for her work and great affection for her person).

As with the Iliad, there are good extrinsic reasons to read Virgil’s great epic — all post-Virgilian Latin verse, especially epic, for one thing. Even Ovid’s Amores — a magnificent series of elegiac love poetry — are haunted by Virgil, beginning with the word arma. Also, Dante (whom I also love) and Milton (Milton also has some Lucan in him — and Lucan is, in many ways, the anti-Virgil). Or if, like me, you’re a Bernini fan:

Someone somewhere once called the Aeneid the epic poem of Europe. We are all, for good or ill, wrapped up in the great European cultural project, from Homer to Star Trek. The Aeneid permeates much of this, and not only poetry, but philosophy at least as early as Seneca, theology in Augustine, and the visual arts. Oh, and Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. As I said about The Iliad:

not reading [it] means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life

Other reasons? So many. Here are three.

First, duty. This is perhaps a reason to read the Aeneid today. Over and over and over again in the Aeneid, the titular hero is ‘pius Aeneas’ — falsely rendered ‘pious’. Ahl goes for ‘righteous’, Heaney for ‘filled with devotion’. Aeneas, for all his faults (we’ll get to those), is a man who knows what his destiny is (okay, most of us don’t have gods and ghosts helping us out in that regard), and he does what is necessary to that end. He single-mindedly seeks to do his duty to his fate.

He is also a devoted son, father, husband — he seeks to do his duty to Anchises, his father, whom he carries away from Troy in spite of Anchises’ protestations. He also brings his son Iulus/Ascanius. He wishes to bring his wife Creusa, but she is slain in the god-rendered destruction of Troy.

Aeneas fulfils his duty to the gods. He brings with him his household gods from Troy to give them a new home. He performs sacrifices to the gods. He fulfils vows to the gods. He also fulfis his duty to the dead by giving them proper burial when possible.

In an age where we shirk duty when possible and do whatever we please, perhaps we could learn from Aeneas?

But — well, then there’s the second reason. Ambiguity. Is pius Aeneas always pious? Think of his own aristeia, the needless slaughter of so many Latins. The killing of his great foe. His manipulation and abandonment of Dido. Aeneas can be a violent, dangerous man. Not all of the killing in this poem is just, and some of the unjust killing is on the part of Aeneas, pius or not.

This is part of why I love this poem. Maybe we need to think about duty. But Virgil doesn’t avoid the muck. Death. War. Violence. Betrayal. These are the stuff of the crooked ways of humans. And his great, beautiful, heart-wrenching poetry draws you and pulls you. It’s an amazing poem — people like me want to find ‘morals’ to the story: Devoted Aeneas! But Virgil says, ‘Oh, but — violent Aeneas, angry Aeneas, shameless Aeneas, woman-abandoning Aeneas…’

Both Aeneases are real. That’s part of the beauty of the poem.

And so the third: The Aeneid is beautiful in Latin, beautiful in a good English translation. If you are Latin-less, get Fagles (Penguin) or Ahl (Oxford). Read it in verse — Dryden, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve not read C. Day Lewis’s. Death can be beautiful when narrated by the greatest poet of the Latin language. Storms at sea can grip you. Even catalogues of Romans take on something beyond expected glory when rendered in dactylic hexameter.

There is power in Virgil’s verse. I find this hard to put into words, which probably makes me a bad critic. But maybe beauty isn’t quite right as the third reason. This is a magnificent, complex poem, referring backwards and forwards to itself. The action and the set descriptions are carefully paced to keep your interest. The relationship to Homer is there at first sight, and suddenly more complex at fourth read. Read the Aeneid because it is … wondrous.

I have a friend who hates the term ‘instant classic’. Nothing, she says, is an instant classic. Well, Virgil was. He was taught in schools almost as soon as he existed. Already, his contemporaries had to find new things to do. This poem could not be ignored by Ovid. Lucan, in his choice of the grotesque horror of civil war, had to do something completely different, composing verse in the shadow the great Virgil.

The Aeneid is a rich, powerful, complex, beautiful poem about destiny, about duty, and about the ambiguities of life as lived by mortals who are trying to do their duty and fulfil their destinies. Read it. Then read it again.

#philologywillsavetheworld

Also: check out my post about The Odyssey!