The Medieval Review 17.06.23

Jones, Christopher A and Scott G. Bruce, eds. The Relatio metrica de duobus ducibus: A Twelfth-Century Cluniac Poem on Prayer for the Dead. Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin, 10. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. Pp. xi, 216. €85.00 (hardback). ISBN: ISBN: 978-2-503-56827-0. (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Justin Lake
Texas A&M University

The Relatio metrica de duobus ducibusis a Latin poem of 827 hexameters (all rhyming, and mostly leonine) written by an anonymous Cluniac monk in the mid-twelfth century, and surviving in only one manuscript (Charleville-Mézières, Médiathèque Voyelles, MS 190). The poem is a more elaborate retelling of an earlier prose exemplum that survives in both a longer and an abridged version. Briefly, Ostorgius, the tyrant of Sicily, invades the island of Sardinia, which is ruled over by the pious Eusebius, and captures a town that Eusebius has set aside for works of charity and votive masses for the dead. In despair at how to retake the town, Eusebius is aided by a mysterious army of white-clad warriors, who drive out Ostorgius. They subsequently reveal themselves to be dead souls liberated from purgative torment through the prayers and masses instituted by Eusebius. In this tenth volume of the Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin, Christopher Jones and Scott Bruce provide the first edition and translation of the Relatio, together with a comprehensive introduction, commentary, and semi-critical edition of the longer prose version.

In the introduction the authors link the spread of the legend of Ostorgius and Eusebius to the growth of the cult of the dead at Cluny. This development is typically associated with Abbot Odilo (994-1049), who established the Feast of All Souls on November 2 as a day set aside for intercessory prayer on behalf of the faithful departed. As the authors demonstrate in their introduction, however, there is evidence to suggest that it was actually Odilo's predecessor Maiolus (954-994) who was the first to promote the cult of the dead at Cluny. Of particular importance in this regard is the sudden proliferation of charters from Maiolus's abbacy that specifically mention prayers pro remedio animae in return for donations to the abbey. A second piece of evidence is the Relatio itself, which in both the prose and poetic versions is presented as being an eyewitness account from Maiolus, who is said to have been seized by Ostorgius while undertaking a visitation of Cluniac houses in Sardinia. There is no evidence that Maiolus ever undertook such a tour, but as the authors point out in their introduction, the fictional captivity of Maiolus in the Relatio may well be based on his actual capture at the hands of the Saracens of La Garde-Freinet in 972. It is possible, therefore, that the story of Maiolus and the two dukes was already circulating as an oral tradition in Cluniac circles in the eleventh century. The impetus for committing it to writing in the twelfth century, the authors suggest, may have been the preaching of Peter of Bruys, whose heretical teachings included an attack on the efficacy of prayers for the dead. The Relatio testifies to the benefits of intercessory prayer in its opening lines: "Here will be told a certain wonder to illustrate what goods are achieved by masses, by gifts offered to the needy, and by devout observance of prayer; and to illustrate that it is right to persevere in those acts so that peace may be granted to the dead, their punishment be lightened" (77). When Maiolus commences his narrative of the story of the two dukes, he delivers a similar pronouncement: "if we celebrate masses for them, if we tearfully intercede for them often, then the fire is quenched, the pitch is made less painful, and any other torment afflicting those who are to be pained but eventually reclaimed subsides" (81). Thereafter the value of masses and prayer as a means of hastening the purgation of the dead is repeatedly stressed. Duke Eusebius's generosity to the poor and decision to institute masses for the souls of the dead are described at great length, and a scriptural locus classicus for the practice of redeeming the souls of the dead (namely, 2 Maccabees 12.39-46, where Judas Maccabeus sends 2,000 silver drachmas to Jerusalem as a sin offering for the idolatry of certain Jews who had been slain in battle carrying tokens of the "idols of Jamnia") is adduced. "From this," the poet writes, "arises the hope that atonement occurs after death for any person to whom some slight failing has clung, so long as there is no very great one" (91). The poet is at pains to point out, however, that major sins cannot be purged away: culparum purgatio fit modicarum, / non immensorum scelerum vel flagitiorum (92). Sodomy, murder, perjury, usury, rape, theft, and the giving of evil counsel cannot be atoned for after death. Though modern readers will no doubt be quick to locate souls being subjected to temporary punishment (and thus capable of benefiting from intercessory prayer) in purgatory rather than hell, no such distinction is made in the poem, where neither the type of punishment nor its location differentiates those being purged from the damned, but rather the nature of sin and the duration of the soul's suffering.

After a long introductory section devoted to a defense of the utility of intercessory prayer for the dead, the poet moves on to the central narrative. The tyrant Ostorgius, whom Maiolus condemns for his greed, impiety, and failure to extend mercy to the poor and oppressed, captures the Sardinian city of Duke Eusebius and seizes Maiolus in the process. Duke Eusebius laments that Ostorgius's treachery is a condign punishment for his own moral failings--unlike the prose version, the Relatio presents Eusebius as having done much that he must atone for--and vows to sacrifice his own life in an effort to recover his city. At this point a ghostly army of 60,000 men clad in white approaches Eusebius's forces; upon questioning, they are revealed to be a heavenly army sent by Christ to take control of Eusebius's troops. When Ostorgius in turn sends four messengers to question the newly arrived forces, they warn him to restore everything he has seized from Eusebius twofold and return to Sicily. After the departure of Ostorgius's army, the heavenly warriors reveal their true identity to Eusebius: they are dead men whom masses and alms for the poor have redeemed from their suffering. The poem concludes with a defense of the historicity of the story against the possible objection that an army of incorporeal spirits would not have been visible to the human eye. Drawing on the prose exemplum, the poet notes that God caused horses and chariots of fire to appear before Elisha and his servant Gehazi when the Syrian king Benadad tried to seize the prophet at Dothan (2 Kings 6:8-18).

Although the poem is based on the longer prose recension, it departs from and expands on its model in a number of areas. Maiolus plays a much more significant role in the poem, for example, which seems clearly to have been intended for a Cluniac audience. The specific torments of the dead and their purgative function receive considerably more attention in the Relatio, as well. And in the poem Eusebius's institution of masses and prayers for the dead is not simply a pious act but arises from his need to repent and atone for past sins. In a long speech wholly absent from the prose text Eusebius castigates his own failings and encourages himself to use the trappings of knighthood to fight for the poor and the weak, and to wage war for Jesus: Nobis nil gerimus; tamen sibi bella subimus; / felix conflictus pro Iesu, Mars benedictus! (98). The editors persuasively link these sentiments with the elaboration of a new ideology of knighthood around the time of the First Crusade and in the early twelfth century.

Although the manuscript of the Relatio does not reveal the name of the poet, the editors ascribe the authorship of the poem to a certain Bernardus scriba (to be distinguished from Bernard of Cluny, who was nonetheless a major influence on the Relatio), who wrote several short poems appended to copies of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae and the De excidio Troiae historia attributed to Dares the Phrygian. The editors helpfully include a list of all known compositions by Bernardus as a preliminary to a future edition and study of his works. There is also a detailed metrical analysis of Bernardus's surviving poems by Christopher Jones, to go along with an equally in-depth section on the Relatio's metrics.

The translation by Christopher Jones is a truly impressive achievement. The poem is dense and often crabbed, as the poet tries, with varying degrees of success, to force his material onto the Procrustean bed of Leonine hexameters. Jones helpfully expands the Latin whenever necessary and brings admirable clarity to the poem. The result is a text that is eminently readable in English and can at the same time serve as a guide to the Latin for those switching back and forth. The commentary is devoted primarily to the sources and poetic antecedents of the Relatio, and contains useful notes on such obscure Latin words as mortificina, tucceta, and scutulatus. One occasionally wishes that Jones and Bruce had devoted more space to other topics in the commentary, but the introduction is so thorough that they may have felt it unnecessary to duplicate this material in the commentary. In sum, the editors have produced a work of lasting value that will be particularly welcome to those interested in Medieval Latin poetry, the Cluniac order, and the development of ideas about purgatory and intercessory prayer in the Middle Ages. The dual-language edition with introduction and commentary is an unrivaled medium for the presentation of Medieval Latin texts, and it is to be hoped that many more studies of this sort will be forthcoming in the Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin.

Copyright (c) 2017 Justin Lake

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