09.12.08, Harf-Lancner et al., eds., Ovide Métamorphosé

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Tracy Adams

The Medieval Review 09.12.08

Harf-Lancner, Laurence, Laurence Mathey-Maille and Michelle Szkilnik, eds.. Ovide métamorphosé - Les lecteurs médiévaux d'Ovide. Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2009. Pp. 238. ISBN: 978-2-87854-442-8.

Reviewed by:
Tracy Adams
School of European Languages and Literatures, University of Auckland

This collection of essays treating the reception of Ovid during the Middle Ages resulted from a series of seminars presented at the Centre d'Études du Moyen Âge at Paris III in 2005-2007. The twelve individual pieces demonstrate meticulous and often innovative scholarship of the highest quality. In particular, the essays on the Ovide moralisé represent important contributions to the question of how Ovid's medieval readers received this part of his corpus.

However, as a collection, the work demonstrates some strange infelicities. The title, Ovide métamorphosé: les lecteurs médiévaux d'Ovide, specifies no regional limitations, suggesting that the readers of Ovid in question represent reading communities from different parts of medieval Europe. The prologue reinforces the expectation, stating that the "réception médiévale d'Ovide constitue...un champ d'investigation que le présent volume...se propose d'explorer." And yet, with the exception of few brief asides in the first essay of the collection, the essays focus entirely upon French reception. This focus, of course, is entirely appropriate. However, it seems presumptuous to present a set of essays on medieval French readers of Ovid as if they represented all medieval readers. Also strange is the omission of some crucial medieval French readers of Ovid from those considered in the volume. Surely such a study should at least acknowledge the composers of contes and romans who derived their conceptions of love from the poet. Part of the problem lies in the way the collection has been organized. As the prologue explains, the volume is divided into two sections, the first devoted to essays on reception of the Ovidius minor, that is, the Amores; the Ars amatoria; and the Remedia amoris; and the Heroïdes; the second to essays on reception of the Ovidius major, that is, the Metamorphoses. But for composers of contes and romans, Ovid straddled the two sections of the volume: he was both the Magister amoris of the love writings and the Neoplatonic philosopher (a status awarded him on the basis of the cosmology of the first book of the Metamorphoses). Their Ovid was an authority on love as a serious problem, a force of nature capable of modification, although ultimately irresistible. Other readers missing from the collection are those whose Ovid was an ironic or satirical poet, that is, the love master studied in the schoolroom who also haunts the Roman de la Rose. The figure's importance would seem to warrant him an essay. His absence explains the lack of any reference to Alistair Minnis's work, Magister Amoris, which seems surprising in a work on Ovidian reception in France.

Still, if the collection as a whole falls short of the promise of its title, the individual essays have much to offer. Part one, "Ovidius minor: réécritures poétiques," contains five essays offering a wide variety of examples of reception of the poet's early poetic production. Taken together, the essays provide insight into the array of means by which medieval readers sought to appropriate and control Ovid's love poetry.

Simone Viarre's essay, "Une survie multiforme: Ovide de l'Antiquité à l'aetas ovidiana," opens the section. In fact, Viarre frames her piece as a preamble to the collection as a whole, although the editors have placed it within the first section, perhaps because the imbalance between the two sections--four essays for the minor Ovid versus seven for the major--would have seemed too great otherwise. Viarre begins by observing that a collaborative project in the form of a dictionary or encyclopaedia on the Ovids of the Middle Ages would be useful for systematizing research on the poet's reception, a research area that to date has been approached very much piecemeal. A handful of surveys exist, for example, those of Dronke, Rand, Munari, and, more recently, Holzberg and Hardie, but that these do not give scholars a full and accurate sense of the relative significance of the different medieval readings of the poet. Viarre's own important study, La survie d'Ovide dans la littérature scientifique des XIIe et XIIIe siècles of 1966, arose in response to the emphasis among modern scholars upon the medieval Ovidian love doctor at the expense of his scientific persona. Viarre then offers a brief survey of the poet's nachleben in Latin literature through the thirteenth century.

In the second essay, "Maîtriser Ovide: exemple d'un traduction de l'Ars amatoria à la fin du Moyen Âge," Deborah McGrady approaches the change in attitude perceptible towards the writings of the Magister amoris from the thirteenth century by means of the Middle French translation of the Ars amatoria, known as the L'art d'amour en prose. The translation is broken into segments by glosses which are inserted directly into the text. This challenges Ovid's authority in interesting ways, as McGrady demonstrates: indeed, the poet's own words are finally effaced by the weight of the reasoning of the medieval redactor. Although Ovidian predominance was diminishing in the schools during the thirteenth century, the fascination that the poet exerted upon medieval readers held strong. However, an increasing need to "master" him makes itself felt in heavily commented works like the Ovide moralisé and the one that McGrady analyses.

Christine de Pizan refers with striking frequency to Ovid, writes Anne Paupert in "'Poute si soubtil' ou 'grand deceveur:' Christine de Pizan lectrice d'Ovide." As Paupert explains, Christine makes use of both the minor and major Ovid, the first primarily as a foil in her defenses of women and in her didactic works, the second as a model to whom she relates in complex ways. Focusing on references to the minor Ovid, Paupert notes that Christine condemns the Ars amatoria and Remedia amoris for misogyny and general indecency in a wide variety of the works that she composed between 1399-1405. But Ovid was also criticized by clerics for these same crimes. Paupert thus asks whether Christine's criticism is singular, concluding that hers is acuter than even that of Gerson, who, after all, accepted the poet's status as authority. Perhaps the reason for this is that Christine read the Ars amatoria in the glossed translation (analysed by McGrady in the preceding chapter) present in the libraries of the Dukes of Burgundy and Bourbon. This translation is significantly more misogynistic than the original.

In "Du manuscript à l'imprimé: Les XXI epistres d'Ovide d'Octovien de Saint-Gelais," Cynthia Brown examines the relationship among some printed versions of the Heroïdes--one in Latin without notes, another in Latin but annotated, and others in French--to consider the different reading publics attracted by the work. In 1499, Michel Le Noir printed a Latin version without notes (itself based upon a version printed by his associate, Pierre Levet in 1490). Le Noir never reprinted this version, but in 1500 printed the translation into French of the work composed by Octavian de Saint-Gelais for Charles VIII. This version, which enjoyed numerous re-editions, offers its readers a series of woodblock pictures and promotes Le Noir through its paratextual apparatus. As for the annotated Latin version, published by Josse Bade in Lyon in 1500, it targeted students and was re-edited many times. Brown also examines other printed versions of the Heroïdes, demonstrating that certain were prepared as hybrid manuscript-printed works for very wealthy clients. The study demonstrates not only the wide range of readers of the work, but also some of the rivalries among French printers of the early 1500s as they sought to attract different reading communities.

Maud Moussy examines the interesting phenomenon of a Piramus and Thisbe story inserted into Jean Malkaraume's Bible in her essay, "La moralisation du mythe: Pyrame et Thisbé dans la Bible de Jean de Malkaraume." The tragic story of the two young lovers, drawn from book 4 of the Metamorphoses and translated into French around 1160, is located in the last part of this three-part compilation which contains the Old Testament up through the death of Moses; the Roman de Troie; and a gallery of different pairs of characters serving as exempla. As Moussy observes, although attaching Genesis to histories in this way was common enough, Malkaraume's particular version is extreme in the attention it accords profane works. But the framework offered by the Bible encourages multi-level allegorical interpretations of the profane works situated within the work. In the wide variety of interpretive connections such a schema sets up, Moussy sees a foreshadowing of the allegorical program of the Ovide moralisé.

The seven essays of the second section of the collection, "Ovidius major: Les Métamorphoses et l'Ovide moralisé," each of a density at which I can only hint in this review, form a collection of scholarship on the Ovide moralisé from some of the most influential critics working upon the subject.

In the first essay of the second section, "L'Ovide moralisé: de l'expérience de mes lectures à quelques propositions actuelles," Marc-René Jung adds his recent thoughts to a theory he proposed first in 1994. This theory holds that the moralisations of Ovid's translated text represent sermons which parallel the translations of the individual stories. It also holds that the additions present in the translations--both borrowings from other classical writers translated by the author and from contemporary French texts--were inserted deliberately because they served the moralisations. Jung includes in this essay a table of the principle additions to all 15 books of Ovid's work. But to his earlier reflections, he adds a new proposition, based upon the glosses of the prologue to one of the oldest manuscripts of the Ovide moralisé. These glosses, which Jung believes to have been composed by someone other than the author, draw upon Macrobius, among others, to lay out the theory of triple interpretation. This theory, as presented in the glosses, represents for Jung a way of reading Ovid that can be seen as an alternative to that implied by the author, that is, to the sermons that parallel Ovid's stories.

Marylène Possamaï-Perez's essay resumes some of the arguments presented in her important study of the Ovide moralisé of 2006. In "L'Ovide moralisé, monument de l'âge gothique," Possamaï-Perez imagines an erudite Franciscan encountering Ovid's Metamorphoses. The depiction he discovers there of a world in constant fluctuation finds an echo in his own thought, and he decides to translate the work to make it available for other friars for use in sermons. He does this, constructing an entire pedagogy of mutation in his work. The project in its totality imitates the conversion demanded of the readers; in the early books, they are guided quite explicitly with careful instructions to interpretation, which become scarcer as they progress through the book.

In "Allégorie et interprétation dans L'Ovide moralisé," Armand Strubel considers what lies behind the work's apparently arbitrary allegorizations, to which even the medieval author's copious meta-language explaining how to interpret the stories fails to lend coherence. Strubel identifies the most striking aspect of the work as the accumulation of possible interpretations, often contradictory, which are offered for the various stories, seemingly without any hierarchical principle. But Strubel sees the work as a crucial to the development of allegory. Previously restricted to a small circle of clerics, allegorical interpretation was now available to a larger group of readers whose subjectivity and creativity were encouraged as they carried out their readings.

Bernard Ribémont adds another layer of hypothetical readers of Ovid in "La 'cosmogonie' de l'Ovide moralisé ou l'art d'un commentaire." In response to arguments that the work is predominantly Franciscan, he demonstrates that the prologue, with its cosmogony, reflects Chartrian thought closely; nothing he finds there can be correlated with Franciscan thought alone. Indeed, he believes that the Ovide moralisé can also be inserted into the tradition of encyclopaedic compilation. The glosses to the prologue (referred to by Strubel) justifying the project as a whole are also characteristic of encyclopaedic works, and, in both of these cases, they bespeak clerical anxiety. In this context, he proposes two distinct types of readers of the work, those who like Christine de Pizan use the work as a repository of knowledge and clerics. For Ribémont, then, the prologue presents the Ovidian text as a work to be moralized at the same time as it inscribes the work in a tradition wherein knowledge is neutralized, its potential left intact, for further use.

The essay of Sarah-Jane Murray, "Le dépassement de la tragédie dans l'Ovide moralisé," proposes that the first two books of the work form a unit that can be read as the story of the Fall, followed by a message of hope and reconciliation culminating in an image of Christ Incarnate. This unit, in turn, can be seen as a foreshadowing of the project of the work in its entirety, which is to lead the reader towards salvation. The first book of the Metamorphoses traces the degeneration of the world through successively unhappier ages. The Christian interpretation of the Ovide moralisé works well within the schema conceived by the author. Ovid's second book, however, required some transformation to enable a positive interpretation. The author thus put the story of Coronis murdered by Apollo for infidelity at the very center of the book, stressing the girl's repentance, to make her into a figure of the human soul. The final scene of Ovid's work, the rape of Europa by Jupiter, is then interpreted as Christ's descent to earth in human form. Without changing the structure of the two books in any major ways, the author entirely transformed their meaning.

Jean-Yves Tilliette focuses upon the last book of the Ovide moralisé, which with its long discourse of Pythagoras on vegetarianism and metempsychosis, both of which involve mutation, has often been interpreted as an auto-commentary of the work as a whole. His essay, "Ovide et son moralisatuer au miroir de Pythagore. Figures de l'auteur dans l'Ovide moralisé," examines whether the final book of the medieval work serves a similar function. He concludes that like Ovid, the medieval author, identifies himself with Pythagoras. But the content of the discourse is transformed for Christian use. A long insertion on man as microcosm reverses the premise of Ovid's work, that the universe is randomly fluctuating, to present instead a universe ruled by divine providence.

The final essay of the section, "La narration iconographique dans l'Ovide moralisé de Lyon (BM Ms. 742)" by Julia Starobinksi, studies how the iconographic cycle of this manuscript was composed. The text, abridged to include only the first level of interpretation, is illustrated by a series of 57 images. The relationship between these images and the works' 60 rubrics can be divided into three types. The first includes rubrics and images which are in perfect accord, although in certain cases the image adds supplementary information. Second, some of the images reflect the rubrics only partially, sometimes by omitting events mentioned in the rubrics, sometimes by significant additions. Third, abstract notions expressed in the rubrics are converted into concrete images. The illuminator must have read the text, because the rubrics do not provide information to have produced the images. Starobinsky concludes that because of the overwhelming number of images that illustrate the fables as opposed to their moralization the work as a whole demonstrates a reorientation away from religious interpretation towards the profane.

The collection's framing apparatus--the introductory essay and the division of the collection--does the individual pieces a serious injustice by missing the opportunity for a serious reflection on the state of the scholarship. However, the quality of the essays insures that the collection will be an important contribution to the study of Ovidian reception in medieval France.

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Author Biography

Tracy Adams

School of European Languages and Literatures, University of Auckland