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22.06.15 Haynes, The Medieval Classic

22.06.15 Haynes, The Medieval Classic

This immensely learned book aims to fill an “enormous lacuna” in the history of epic poetry by reading medieval Latin epic through the Virgilian commentary tradition, whose allegorical readings of the Aeneid and theories of the epic genre,Haynes argues, were so thoroughly integrated with Virgil’s text for medieval readers that we are now ill-equipped to see Virgilian influence in its entirety without a thorough absorption of its commentaries. Haynes argues convincingly that the Aeneid these poets knew was quite different from today’s in its interpretation and poetic sensibilities: “the ‘complete’ Aeneid of the late twelfth century has become so foreign as to be entirely overlooked as Virgilian at all” (91).

The book divides neatly for scholars with different interests in an argument with such broad implications for the reading of medieval and early modern literature, with short, focused chapters that include extensive reviews of modern critical scholarship. Chapters one, six, and the substantial conclusion are broad, contextualizing Haynes’ argument and showing its applicability for the vernacular traditions and for Latin poetry beyond the epics he treats in this study. Chapters two to five are paired, the first two arguing that the Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lilleand the Architrenius of John of Hauvillederive elements of their structure from contemporary understandings of the Aeneid’s structure, and the second two arguing that the Ylias of Joseph of Exeter and the Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon remake the epic genre in the model of what medieval commentators believed Virgil had intended with his epic. The appendix gives plot summaries of all four epics, particularly useful since Haynes’ detailed arguments about the Anticlaudianus and Architrenius focus on plot and narrative structure.

Chapter one situates Haynes’ argument in scholarly understandings of medieval allegoresis, and juxtaposes this broadly with medieval and early modern critical responses to allegorical and non-allegorical poetry. Haynes points out that contemporary critics of Dante and Jean de Meun recognized the importance of the sixth book of the Aeneid (as allegorized by Bernard Silvestris) for the structure and scope of their poems, and that both poets drew more on medieval Latin epic than has been previously recognized. This chapter briefly introduces the reader to allegorical readings of the Aeneid in its medieval reception and lays the ground for the following chapters.

Chapter two argues that the structure of the first six books of the Anticlaudianus mirrors the allegorized sixth book of the Aeneid, while the last three books mirror the allegorized Aeneid as a whole. What may appear a convoluted and unlikely theory becomes convincing in Haynes’ detailed point-for-point comparison, which points out that the sixth book of the Aeneid was by far the most heavily allegorized by medieval interpreters, and was seen as the heart of Virgil’s philosophical vision. Several ingenious readings follow: Haynes argues that Prudence’s ascent to heaven paradoxically mirrors Aeneas’ descent to the underworld because two alternative allegorical readings existed for medieval readers of Book Six, either that the descent into the underworld represents the philosopher’s contemplation of vice on earth or a travel through the nine spheres of the cosmos towards the Elysian Fields/heaven, with the poet being free to choose between them. Haynes also argues that Alan corrects for medieval critical dissatisfaction with the explanation of metempsychosis at the end of the Aeneid Book Six, which was at odds for medieval readers with Virgil’s proto-Christian wisdom. Thus, he argues, the Anticlaudianus is “a brilliant restructuring of the Aeneid to bring it into line with certain medieval conceptions of what the Aeneid ought to look like.” (70).

Chapter three argues that, like the Anticlaudianus--and indeed in conversation with it during what Haynes argues was concurrent composition--the Architrenius draws its inspiration from allegorizations of Book Six of the Aeneid. However, unlike the Anticlaudianus, it stresses the allegory of philosophical descent through the contemplation of the vices. In this allegorization, particularly in the commentary of Fulgentius, Aeneas takes on the role of a sort of Everyman, on whom, Haynes argues, the clerical protagonist of the Architrenius is modelled, as well as on John of Hauville, the poem’s author. The stages of Architrenius’ journey parallel the shades Aeneas encounters, partly through their allegorization (Dido for lust), and partly through historical parallels (the comparison between Architrenius’ encounter with Gawain and Aeneas’ with Deiphobus is particularly striking). Here too Haynes suggests that the epic’s ending has an element of “fixing” the Aeneid according to medieval sensibilities, with the marriage between Architrenius and Moderation paralleling the prophesied marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia. In this way, John of Hauville’s epic intriguingly anticipates Maffeo Vegio’s thirteenth book of the Aeneid, written three hundred years later, which also “fixes” the Aeneid by supplying this wedding.

Chapters four and five argue that modern understandings of medieval epic that divide the genre between whether its subject is “mythic” or “historical” are fundamentally anachronistic, at odds with how twelfth-century readers and writers understood the genre’s negotiation of the relationship between historia and fabula (historical material and fantasy or fiction). Haynes argues that Ylias and Alexandreis reflect a twelfth-century understanding of the Aeneid as essentially a historical poem, whose divergences from historical truth (which commentators located in its divine apparatus and in its changing or concealing certain “facts” of Aeneas’ historical life) were in deference to Augustus, Virgil’s patron. In consequence, the Ylias can understand itself as patterned on a “real” Virgilian Aeneid prior to external political pressures; its adherence to the Trojan “histories” of Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis is hence paradoxically inspired by the Virgilian commentary tradition. The Alexandreis’s relationship to history also shows the influence of Servian theorizations of Virgilian anachronism. While Servius largely reads Virgil’s divine apparatus as poetic embellishment of historical narrative, Haynes argues, this tendency in the critical tradition actually reflects the evolution of the genre, as late antique epicists largely dispensed with the divine apparatus. In this context, Walter and Joseph’s choice to include an extensive divine apparatus announces--as would have been recognized by their contemporaries--that their epics model themselves after Virgil and Homer, despite the tendency of modern critics to assume that, as they are “historical” epicists, their primary model is Lucan. Haynes’ reading of the gods in the Ylias suggests a knowing double gaze, “as if the narrator of the Ylias is reading an ancient epic along with the medieval reader and commenting on it” (143).

The final, more speculative, chapter continues along these lines. Haynes argues for, essentially, a mode of reading for modern scholars informed by twelfth-century literary theory that more fluidly integrates both historical and allegorical readings.

The conclusion makes a powerful case for the book’s broader applications. In some ways the note it strikes is well worn--it argues that assertions of the fundamental originality of Renaissance classicism arise from a misunderstanding of medieval thought--but its specific case studies are original and striking. The classicism of twelfth-century northern European scholars and the classicism of fourteenth-century Italian humanists, Haynes argues, can both be described in terms of the Virgilian tradition, and many of the ideas of both schools, now classed by both medievalists and early modernists as characteristic of their respective ages, in fact represent a continuous tradition of loyalty to the Virgilian commentary tradition.

The conclusion also makes a stirring call for the importance of understanding the commentary tradition of the Aeneid among readers of medieval literature; the Aeneid’s influence is almost unparalleled, but even so we miss its full extent if we do not appreciate the way medieval readers steeped in its critical reception understood the poem. While this book is wholly convincing in its argument for the necessity of such knowledge, and goes some way to providing it, one wishes that the vicissitudes of academic publishing and the tenure track had allowed for revisions that might have made this a friendlier and more accessible book for the broad range of readers its subject has the potential to interest. The (occasionally somewhat hectoring) surveys of modern scholarship that has failed to recognize the importance of Servian commentary could have been relegated to the footnotes, the quotations from French and German scholars translated into English, the introduction expanded to give a broader sense of the intellectual currents in which these poets moved, and to introduce medieval Virgilian critical commentary for a reader less familiar with medieval Latin epic. Regardless, this book’s breadth and depth of scholarship and ambitious claims make it a must-read for anyone interested in medieval literary theory, classical reception, the epic tradition, Virgil’s afterlives, and later Latin.