Gernot R. Wieland

title.none: Haye, Das lateinische Lehrgedicht im Mittelalter (Wieland)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.003 98.09.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gernot R. Wieland, University of British Columbia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Haye, Thomas. Das lateinische Lehrgedicht im Mittelalter: Analyse einer Gattung. Mittellateinische Studien und Texte, Vol 22. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pp. viii, 444. $159.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10668-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.03

Haye, Thomas. Das lateinische Lehrgedicht im Mittelalter: Analyse einer Gattung. Mittellateinische Studien und Texte, Vol 22. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pp. viii, 444. $159.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10668-5.

Reviewed by:

Gernot R. Wieland
University of British Columbia

It is probably a commonplace to say that almost all medieval literature is didactic, and one may therefore rightly ask how Haye can possibly determine a genre "Lehrgedicht" (= didactic poem) within the larger didactic poetic corpus of the Middle Ages. He does, and he does so successfully.

Haye does not provide an a priori definition. After an introductory chapter in which he speaks about the difficulty of determining genre ("Gattung"), he examines the literature on "Lehrgedichte," and finds that a lot has been written on classical Greek and Latin didactic poetry, that there is a considerable amount of critical literature on vernacular didactic poems, but very little on medieval Latin "Lehrgedichte." Moreover, whatever literature exists does not examine the genre itself, or at best examines it marginally. He then proceeds to encircle his topic.

Chapter 3 attempts to answer the question whether there are any medieval statements on what a "Lehrgedicht" is? The answer: very few, and even these seem to take the parameters of the genre for granted.

In chapter 4 Haye examines any hints of how the poets themselves understand the genre. The hints are numerous. The medieval poets look back on Vergil's Georgica, Ovid's Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris, and Lucretius' De rerum natura. Conveying an understanding of the rerum causae is one of the prime motivators for writing a didactic poem. Many poets speak of the tension between res, i.e. the subject to be presented and carmen, i.e. the form in which it is presented. Didactic poets rarely want to offer anything innovative. Often they refer to pre- existing prose treatises which they translate into verse. They are aware of the literary quality which they give to the subject they discuss. And they can claim to be telling the truth, a claim writers of fictional material cannot make.

Chapter 5 determines the addressees of the didactic poems. They usually are pupils, sons, or some other close relatives of the author. Many authors are experts in the fields on which they write a didactic poem. The poem therefore becomes an extension of an actually existing teaching situation, and, as Haye argues, are often used in the classroom. Naturally, most poems wish to educate every reader who takes up the book: the original addressee is thus often extended from pupil or son to general lector, without any loss to the portrayed teaching situation.

Chapter 6 deals with the topics didactic poems seek to teach. They range from agriculture (following in the footsteps of the Georgica) to medicine, astronomy, gold mining and smelting, hunting, fishing, grammar, law, the Church calendar in particular and the computus more generally, and all the way to theology -- though theological didactic poems are late and very few. In other words, wherever there is a body of knowledge that can be conveyed, there is a potential topic for a didactic poem. The emphasis is on factual knowledge to be transmitted or on practical tips.

In Chapter 7 Haye discusses the structure of the didactic poems which, unlike narrative poems, do not have a temporal scheme. Didactic poems need to be explicative with an order that can be followed easily. Medical poems often employ the scheme a capite ad calcem, beginning with headaches and ending with embedded toenails. Other poems may proceed per alphabetam or use the principle a minimis ad maiora. Whatever principle of ordering is used, it is obvious, and is frequently emphasized to allow readers easy access to a particular point they may be looking for. Didactic poems, unlike narrative poems, often are not read from beginning to end, but are used as reference works. The structure, Haye argues, thus is very definitely literate. The language, on the other hand, with its imperatives and instructional subjunctives, i.e. with its direct addresses to the pupil/reader is very close to oral since the texts of this genre derive from oral instruction or have been composed with oral instruction in mind. In this chapter Haye also briefly addresses the metric forms of the didactic poems, both quantitative and rhythmic, speaks about pro- and epilogues, and about excursus.

Chapter 8 attempts to find out what light parodies of the didactic poem shed on the "Lehrgedicht." Haye argues that parodies exaggerate the features of the genre to be parodied, and that they are therefore excellent guides to determining those features which were considered typical of the genre. And indeed, the parodies he examines show the same verbal features, the strong reliance on structure, the same addressees, the same desire to convey knowledge -- though where real didactic poems actually transmit knowledge, parodies often only pretend to do so.

Chapter 9 compares and contrasts the didactic poem to other similar poems. This is Haye's best chapter since, in differentiating the didactic poem from similar forms such as mnemonic verses, prosimetrum, moral (didactic) poetry, epic, historiography, biblical poetry, etc., he clarifies the limits of the genre better than any attempt at a definition could. Mnemonic verses convey knowledge at random, and not in the systematic manner of the didactic poem. The prose of the prosimetrum differentiates it clearly from the purely metrical form of the didactic poem; Haye notes several instances in which a prosimetrum was turned into a didactic poem by omission of the prose. Moral (didactic) poetry does not convey a body of knowledge but moral precepts, usually in an associative rather than systematic manner. The epic is narrative, the didactic poem descriptive. Historiographical poems may contain didactic material, but the emphasis in them is again on narrative, not description. Biblical poetry usually does not address the reader as directly as does didactic poetry, and deals with narrative not description. Many of these other genres have similarities to the didactic poem, and several of them are actually changed into didactic poems either by omission of those features that differentiate them from the didactic poem, or by addition of features necessary for a didactic poem.

Chapter 10 examines the evidence manuscripts can provide concerning the genre of the didactic poems. Here Haye looks for manuscripts containing several didactic poems and attempts to find the principles responsible for their compilation. Sometimes, he has to admit, it is pure chance. At other times it may be the author, or the topic, or the genre. The attempt here is valiant, but the principles found are too varied to be of much use.

Chapter 11 looks at the historical development of the genre. Basically, Haye argues, there is no development. The features present in classical antiquity are still present in the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. There are, however, times at which the form was more popular than at others: especially in the period from the 12th century onward the popularity of the didactic poem seems to have soared, and its popularity was retained into the early modern period. Surprisingly, the didactic poems of the early modern period do not distance themselves from those of the Middle Ages, but often imitate and incorporate them.

Chapter 12 is a brief conclusion, not summarizing the features of the didactic poem, but singing the praises of the generic approach to the didactic poem.

Ars longa, vita brevis: the book is long, the review short, and while I have attempted to outline the major features of each chapter, I can obviously not do full justice to all the nuances expressed in the book. Suffice it to say, that Haye has done an excellent job here. His book provides a very clear sense of which poems belong to the genre "Lehrgedicht," and which do not. At the same time, with its encyclopedic sweep it impresses upon us the ubiquity and longevity of that genre. Haye has a very large corpus to work with, and yet he never seems to be overwhelmed by that corpus, nor overwhelms his readers with unnecessary detail. Throughout he remains focussed on the question of the genre of the didactic poem and thus provides a continuous narrative.

The book has a few flaws, though most of them minor. At over 400 pages, it is longer than it needs to be. In an attempt to present all the available evidence for the genre, Haye sometimes draws on vernacular didactic poems. These tend to confirm rather than add to the generic definition and, while interesting in themselves, do not belong to the "Lehrgedichte" announced in the title. When speaking about parodies, Haye presents a vernacular poem as one of the first examples, and thus creates the impression that no parodies worth their name had been written in Latin. In this one instance, the presence of a vernacular didactic poem actually confuses rather than aids the reader. The vernacular material could easily have been omitted, or relegated into a learned appendix, without any loss to the substance of the book.

In his introduction Haye clearly states that he does not wish to write a history of the "Lehrgedicht," but wishes to concentrate on the question of genre. While this ahistorical approach is perfectly acceptable, it should not lead, as it does in a few instances, to the neglect of historical information. Since very few readers would have prior knowledge of authors such as Eilbert of Bremen (p. 62), Otloh of St. Emmeram (p. 64), Hildebert of Lavardin (p. 64), or Alexander of Villedieu (p. 93), it would have been a courtesy to provide at least the dates of their lives, either in parentheses, or along with the bibliography. This historical information would visibly confirm Haye's contention that didactic poetry was written at all periods of the Middle Ages.

In a similar vein: several authors are mentioned in the book, but one looks in vain for them in the bibliography. Specific examples are Marcellus of Side, Aemilius Macer, Nikander (all on p. 146), Egbert of Luettich (p. 261), or Hilarius of Orleans (p. 288), none of whom was considered worthy of inclusion in the bibliography. Some manuscripts fare no better: Cambridge, University Library Mm 2.18 is mentioned on p. 295, n. 196, but not in the index; Cambridge, Trinity College 0.8.24 is mentioned on p. 297, but while it is listed in the index, there is no reference to p. 297. There is a bit of sloppiness here.

Haye presents very little evidence for his contention that didactic poetry was used in the classroom (p. 122). A priori, such a claim seems difficult to accept. Are we to assume that instruction took place in verse? Since many didactic poems are abbreviationes of prose versions, are we to believe that students received only partial instruction in a subject? Many of the didactic poems have an extensive prose commentary attached to them: since many poems clearly needed a prose explanation, how much could students learn from the poems alone? Would not the didactic poems arranged per alphabetam suggest that they were used for reference rather than as textbooks? Clearly more needs to be said on the way "Lehrgedichte" were used.

Considering that one of the major accomplishments of the didactic poets was the fact that they turned prose into verse, Haye's examination of metre (pp. 216-23) is disappointingly short and short on conclusions. Haye does not indicate, for instance, how many poems of the corpus he examines were written in quantitative, and how many in rhythmic metre. Nor does he have anything to say on the relative merits of quantitative and rhythmic poems. Since in rhythmic poetry metre is determined by stress on syllables that are also stressed in prose, while in quantitative poetry metre is determined by the length of syllables, would it not be easier to write didactic poetry in rhythmic metres? Is it coincidence that more didactic poetry is written after the 12th century, i.e. at a time when rhythmic poetry has become prevalent? Nor does Haye examine rhyme, which occurs both within the line (e.g.Supplicat Orfinus rationis arte latinus,/ Ut doceat populos magna Minerva suos, p. 165) and at the end (e.g. Et quia me reputo triplex modo flumen,/ Grecismum, physiologum parvumque volumen, p. 161). Does rhyme have nothing to do with the way the genre presents itself?

But enough of negative criticisms, even if they are mostly minor. The book admirably succeeds in the goal it sets itself, namely to delineate the genre of the didactic poem. At the same time, it also succeeds in arousing interest in a genre that is usually neglected, and in demonstrating the importance of that genre throughout the Middle Ages. Haye's observation that poems of other genres were converted to become didactic poems especially speaks for the medieval attractiveness of the "Lehrgedicht." And since it was so attractive to the Middle Ages, then maybe medievalists should follow in Haye's footsteps and pay more attention to it.