The Medieval Review 15.04.12

Robson, Art, and C. T. Hadavas. A Medieval Latin Miscellany: An Intermediate Reader. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. Pp. 230. $12.30 (paperback). ISBN: 9781491030349 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Matthew Ponesse
Ohio Dominican University

Instruction in medieval Latin is seldom available to students at the intermediate undergraduate or advanced high school level. Students who approach this subject as an independent enterprise are often equipped with little more than a narrow list of authors and the notion that the medieval Latin is distinguished only by the inability of medieval writers to adhere to classical norms. Students fortunate enough to take formal instruction in medieval Latin are often held captive to the interests and specialties of their instructors, exposed only to a select genre or chronology of medieval Latin texts and not given comprehensive overview of the subject. The difficulties associated with teaching and learning medieval Latin at the intermediate level (i.e. typically after at least two semesters of rudimentary instruction in Latin grammar) have prompted the publication of several anthologies over the years, most notably K.P. Harrington's Medieval Latin and Keith Sidwell's Reading Medieval Latin. Both offer an extensive selection of medieval Latin texts representing a diverse range of authors, genres, and historical and social contexts. These anthologies also do well to introduce students to the ongoing development of Latin in the post-classical age, providing notes and commentary on the identifiable characteristics of medieval Latin.

Robson and Hadavas' A Medieval Latin Miscellany is the most recent addition to this under-resourced subject. The volume is published on the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, a division of Inc., which provides publishing tools and distribution services to authors on a pay-to-print basis. Included in this service are professional printing and binding, marketing services, ISBN cataloging, and royalty-earning options.

The editors of the volume anticipate some potential criticisms in the introduction by stating that their only criteria in the selection of works was to include those which they personally found appealing and which provided a representative sample of storytelling at the intermediate level. In other words, the editors did not seek to produce a comprehensive anthology of medieval Latin texts. Instead, they have gathered extensive selections from seven literary works deemed amusing and considered appropriate for students advancing to the independent reading of Latin texts. The editors also indicate that two of the seven sources (viz., Jerome's Vita Hilarionis and Poggio's Facetiae) were not composed in the chronological framework of the Middle Ages, but rather during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Renaissance, respectively. The editors justify these selections by noting the influence of Jerome's writings on later generations of medieval authors, and by explaining that Poggio's Facetiae can be seen as a Renaissance counterpart to the Fables of Odo of Cheriton, a medieval text included in the volume. Lastly, the editors stress that readability was of paramount concern in their presentation of texts. Whereas Harrington and Sidwell draw attention to the idiosyncrasies of medieval writers, the editors of A Medieval Latin Miscellany do not elaborate on the peculiarities of medieval Latin vocabulary, orthography, or grammar. The reader must infer that such explanation would impede or distract from the successful reading of the text.

The volume is divided into seven chapters, each introducing the text of a single Latin source. The sources themselves are arranged chronologically, from the earliest to the most recent. Excerpts from Jerome's Vita Hilarionis detail the more fanciful miracle sequences from Hilarion's life, including a race in which the horses of a Christian charioteer overcome those ensorcelled by a magician, a conversation between Hilarion and a possessed camel, his victory over an enormous snake ravaging a a town in Dalmatia, and the daring theft and translation of the saint's incorruptible body. With the exception of a brief description of St. Antony's monastic community, the editors pass over the more mundane details of the saint's ascetic life, leaving the reader with an episodic account that is quite detached from the subject and purpose of Jerome's work.

This editorial treatment contrasts greatly with that of the second source in the volume: an abridgment of Letaldus of Micy's Within Piscator. While this poem in classic hexameter has been reduced to half of its original 208 lines, the editors include the most essential parts of the late tenth-century take on the biblical Jonah tale: how Within, a fisherman from a southern British town, is swallowed by a whale while out fishing; how after overcoming his despair he manages to escape by lighting a fire and by cutting up the aggravated beast with a sword from within; and finally, how this second Jonah returns to Rochester and reunites with his family.

The third text is a medieval account of the fabled meeting between Alexander the Great and Thaelestris, Queen of the Amazons. Composed prior to the twelfth century as an epistolary exchange, the text describes Alexander's passage through the Caspian Gates, his conquest of King Porus' realm, and his diplomatic relations with the Amazon Queen. Through their correspondence, the reader is able to assess the respective positions of each leader and appreciate how, at least initially, neither is able to compromise or back down from the possibility of war. In the end, Alexander is impressed with the queen's resolve and grudgingly accepts a modest tribute in exchange for peace.

The next two sources are metrical versions of popular fables composed sometime at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The first, Asinarius, tells the story of a prince who was born in the form of a donkey. Unaware of his strange appearance, the prince is raised in the royal household and learns to play beautiful music. After seeing his reflection in a pool of water, however, he flees his homeland, travels the world, and is given entrance into a foreign kingdom after the porter persuades the king to listen to the prince's beautiful lute-playing. Although a guest, the prince insists that his place is at the table of the king and informs his host that he wishes to marry the princess. The king agrees to this request, but sets a servant to watch over the couple on their wedding night. The servant observes that the prince is able to remove his donkey skin, becoming a handsome youth, pleasing in appearance to the princess. The next night the king, himself, stands watch and burns the prince's donkey skin when the couple are asleep. Although the prince is distressed at this loss, the king persuades him to stay by offering him half of his kingdom.

The second fable is Rapularius, a story about two military brothers, one so poor that he is reduced to farming the land and the other with wealth and fame. The poor brother is surprised to find that one of the turnips growing in his garden is out-pacing the others. In fact, it continues to grow so large that it barely fits in a cart. Realizing that he would not receive much money if he were to sell it, and believing it to be less tasty than the smaller turnips, he decides to offer it to the king as a gift. The king receives it gladly, is sympathetic to poor soldier's misfortunes, and lavishes so much wealth on him that he becomes more wealthy than his famous brother. This brother, in turn, becomes jealous and seeks to find favor with the king by lavishing him with rich presents. The king, who did not have anything more valuable to grant in return, decides to give him the great turnip, an act which so angers the second brother that he begins to plot the death of his now successful sibling. He and his conspirators lure the brother into a trap, tie him up in a bag, and hang him from a tree, but before they can carry out his murder they are scared away by the approach of a rider. The rider turns out to be a naïve traveling scholar, who in the end is duped into trading places with the trapped brother.

The penultimate source is a collection of fables compiled by Odo of Cheriton in the early thirteenth century. Unlike Asinarius and Rapularius, these fables are quite short, written in prose, and are often followed by a moral appended to the end of the story. Included in this collection are "The Stork and the Wolf," "The Cat who Became a Monk," "The House Mouse and the Country Mouse," "The Fox who Confessed his Sins to a Rooster," "The Drunk Mouse and the Cat," "The Arrogant Frog," "The Stork and the Snake," "The Athenian Philosopher," "The Fly and the Ant," and "The Nightingale and the Archer."

The final, and most lengthy text, is a selection of humorous jokes and tales from the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, a fifteenth-century scholar attached to the Roman curia. An early humanist known for his rhetorical treatises, polemical works, letters, and social critiques, Poggio became most popular for his collection of indecent tales, written in the very pure and sophisticated Latin of Renaissance Italy, but containing numerous scatological references, sexually graphic descriptions, scandalous satirical accounts of monks, philosophers, and nobles, and embarrassing scenarios involving many of his notable contemporaries. The selections include "The foolish man who thought his wife had two vaginas," "The priest who buried a small dog on consecrated ground," "The one-eyed pauper who tried to buy grain," "The man who begged his sick wife for forgiveness," "The young girl who accused her husband of having a small penis," "The preacher who preferred ten maidens to a single wife," "The man who carried a plow on his back," "The hermit who had sex with many wives," and "The priest who faked his own confession."

This brief synopsis of texts highlights the greatest attribute of A Medieval Latin Miscellany: the ability of the volume to arouse curiosity and sustain the interest of the reader. Each source is captivating in its own right and touches on many aspects of medieval life and culture that would be inherently interesting to those whose experience is limited to the classical tradition. If the editors include only literary sources that are perhaps overly fanciful, outlandish, and irreverent, they do so to enhance the reading experience and not to misrepresent the realities of life in the Middle Ages. Introductions to each text often provide useful information to support and augment comprehension, including discussions on meter, rhetoric, literary allusion, and narrative structure. The notes appended to the Latin passages provide immediate translations of unfamiliar terminology, word forms, and grammatical constructions, a clear indication that the editors have prioritized the successful reading of the text over full immersion into the medieval world of knowledge. Interested readers can pursue topics of interest by utilizing the bibliographics provided in each chapter, which not only contain references to critical editions and scholarly works, but also, more general treatments on the subject matter.

The Miscellany suffers greatly, however, by its lack of balance and consistency. With only seven different texts in the entire volume, the disparity in each source's length cannot be ignored. For instance, Vita Hilarionis comprises only seven full pages of Latin text and notes, Within Piscator nine, and Alexander seven; compare this with Asinarius at twenty-four pages, Rapularius at twenty, Odo of Cheriton's Fables at sixteen, and Poggio's Facetiae at fifty-two. The volume purports to be a Miscellany, but does not offer much in the way of a diverse reading experience. It is well known to instructors of Latin that time spent in the continued reading of a single source is not commensurate with progress in attaining Latin fluency. It is necessary to introduce students to a variety of different texts in an effort stretch a student's reading ability and maximize the learning experience. The editors of Miscellany could have done better in this regard; surely, they could have included more selections from Jerome, Alexander, or Odo of Cheriton? If not, were there no other interesting and engaging literary sources that they could have included in the volume, not to mention sources culled from other genres of medieval Latin writing? One gets the impression that the editors ultimately ran out of steam and attempted to furnish a complete volume simply by adding to the last source. If the editors were hard pressed to defend the inclusion of Poggio's Facetiae as a medieval source, they might have considered supplementing with a different text.

The sources in the volume also differ greatly in level of difficulty. The Fables of Odo of Cheriton are the most accessible to the intermediate student, laid out in simple prose and containing basic vocabulary and little grammatical complexity. Poggio's Facetiae, on the other hand, reflect the Latin of Renaissance humanists, who sought to return ad fontes and emulate the beauty and skill of masters such as Cicero and Virgil, while at the same time inventing a new scholastic mode of expression to frame the intellectual pursuits of their day. Such a range in the quality of Latin texts would not be a problem in an anthology with numerous selections, but the relatively small number of texts in Miscellany and the prominence of Poggio's Facetiae calls into question the suitability of the volume for intermediate instruction.

The volume also lacks balance in the content and quality of the introductions and notes. Some introductions, for instance those prefacing the Vita Hilarionis, Alexander, and the Fables of Odo of Cheriton, comprise only one or two pages of commentary on a work's historical and literary context. The introductions to Rapulariusand Asinarius, however, each provide over ten pages of dense literary criticism on such diverse topics as narrative structure, the changing roles of dramatis personae, the metaphorical subtext of the protagonist's journey, and themes of exile, voyeurism, sexual maturity, and elective social status. The academic quality of the discussion is not necessarily in doubt, but one wonders whether the senior high school student or college freshman will appreciate the following representative observation:

"At this point in the 'play' one would expect wedding bells to sound soon. Here they do not because the structure is performative fable. Accordingly, causation is at times oblique, character definition illustrative shorthand, and a double of character and events normative. E.g. The conclusion of segment one needs to be repeated in segment two; in each case the prince says, 'I must leave this happy kingdom where I am well regarded.' At a contemporary level of storytelling this seems impossible because we are accustomed to a personal, psychological lens for causal structure. Here, however, context is paramount: absolute cognatic primogeniture dictates royal events. At a personal level the royals of every generation are happy with this given because it or its variants were devised for them." (Asinarius, 47-48)

In this and numerous other paragraphs the editors seem to forget their intended audience. Even so, such displays of intellectual braggadocio are not uncommon in introductions--in fact, are even a mainstay of medieval Latin literature--and will not offend most instructors and interested students. That such commentary often finds its way into the notes, however, is not only distracting to the reader but unduly proscriptive and heavy-handed.

In a medieval Latin reader, the editorial notes are second in importance only to the presentation of the Latin text itself. As mentioned above, the editors follow each Latin excerpt with an apparatus containing unfamiliar vocabulary and translations of unusual grammatical constructions. They also use this space to provide other vital information, such as narrative details that have been left out in the process of abridgment, clarifications of textual ambiguities, and notes on literary allusions, rhetorical devices, and historical references. These editorial decisions are guided by the principle of readability, that is to say, the inclusion of information that brings a student most quickly to the successful comprehension of the text. Lamentably, the editors often inject interpretive commentary into the apparatus that impedes this goal and limits the ability of the student to arrive at his or her own understanding of the passage. Comprehension is not encouraged, but enforced.

Lastly, the volume suffers from formatting issues and typographical errors that mostly likely would have been corrected had the work been reviewed by a professional copyeditor. The editorial apparatus is particularly difficult to use, since it is not keyed to any lines numbers in the Latin text. What is more, the Latin in the apparatus appears in its most basic form (often a single principal part) with no other grammatical information provided (e.g., part of speech or gender of noun). Clearly, the editors either expect readers to be sufficiently proficient in basic Latin that they they have no need for additional grammatical details, or they consider grammatical explanations unnecessarily distracting and obstructive to the reading process. Whichever the case, it is quite likely that the reader of A Medieval Latin Miscellany will need to consult a separate dictionary on occasion, thwarting the general purpose of the volume.

Typographical errors abound and are too numerous to list; particular mention must be made of a paragraph that is included verbatim in the introduction to two separate chapters (on pp. 45 & 81).

The cover design and layout were produced by means of on-line editing tools and templates, and lack the professional finish that would come from an academic publishing house. And the typography, which varies in an attempt to distinguish between different types of text presented in each chapter (rubrics, introductory material, bibliographies, Latin text, notes), is distracting and visually unappealing, as it too frequently alternates in font size, line spacing, and emphasis.

In sum, A Medieval Latin Miscellany is a niche text that serves the interest of students not attempting to learn medieval Latin, but rather looking for a collection of engaging sources outside the classical tradition. The volume is hampered by inconsistencies in its conceptual framework and editorial policies, and would have benefited greatly had it gone through the rigors of peer review and publication by an academic press.

Copyright (c) 2015 Matthew Ponesse

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login