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The Humblest Sparrow

The Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus

Michael Roberts

Publication Year: 2009

The Humblest Sparrow is a superbly illuminating study of one of the major Latin poets of late antiquity. Every chapter is marked by a thorough, accurate, and up to date knowledge of the historical and material setting of the Merovingian upper classes. As a deep treatment of Fortunatus' poetry, this book will surely appeal to readers with a serious interest in the Latin verse of late antiquity. ---William Klingshirn, Catholic University of America In The Humblest Sparrow, Michael Roberts illuminates the poetry of the sixth-century bishop and poet Venantius Fortunatus. Often regarded as an important transitional figure, Fortunatus wrote poetry that is seen to bridge the late classical and earlier medieval periods. Written in Latin, his poems combined the influences of classical Latin poets with a medieval tone, giving him a special place in literary history. Yet while interest has been growing in the early Merovingian period, and while the writing of Fortunatus' patron Gregory of Tours has been well studied, Fortunatus himself has often been neglected. This neglect is remedied by this in-depth study, which will appeal to scholars of late antique, early Christian, and medieval Latin poetry. Roberts divides Fortunatus' poetry into three main groups: poetry of praise, hagiographical poetry, and personal poetry. In addition to providing a general survey, Roberts discusses in detail many individual poems and proposes a number of theses on the nature, function, relation to social and linguistic context, and survival of Fortunatus' poetry, as well as the image of the poet created by his work. Michael Roberts is Robert Rich Professor of Latin at Wesleyan University. Jacket illustration: L. Alma Tadema, Venantius Fortunatus Reading his Poems to Radegonda VI AD 555. (Courtesy of Dordrecht, Dordrechts Museum.) Also of Interest Abandoned Women: Rewriting the Classics in Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer, by Suzanne Hagedorn The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton, by J. Christopher Warner Early Modern Autobiography: Theories, Genres, Practices, edited by Ronald Bedford, Lloyd Davis, and Philippa Kelly

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

My work on Venantius Fortunatus began an embarrassingly long time ago with a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1991–92. I am grateful for the endowment’s support and for the hospitality of Cambridge University, where I spent the time of my fellowship. ...


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-4

Early in his career the Dutch-born artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, then living in Antwerp, produced a series of paintings of Merovingian historical scenes. Among these was his Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radegonda (1862). The poet is shown sitting on a raised couch declaiming his verse to an attentive ...

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Chapter One: Windows of Order: The Epitaph Made New

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pp. 5-37

Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus (to give him his full name) was born, probably some time in the 530s, in Duplavis (modern Valdobbiadene) near Treviso in northern Italy and received the literary education traditional in late antiquity in the schools of Ravenna.1 Two poems only survive from his ...

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Chapter Two Strategies of Praising: Metaphors of Eminence

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pp. 38-102

Praise poetry aims to throw into relief the qualities and preeminence of the person to be praised. Different occasions will dictate different emphases and varying levels of intent, but in every case the poet will seek to celebrate the lofty status and beneficent influence of his subject. Beyond the categories and topoi learned ...

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Chapter Three Strategies of Praising: Bishops and Ceremonies

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pp. 103-164

Fortunatus’ praise poetry presents an ordered, hierarchical world, in which social harmony derives from and reflects credit on the powerful: bishop in the ecclesiastical world, royalty and high officials in the secular. Two basic rhetorical practices underpin his panegyric methods, figures of substitution and figures of enumeration. ...

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Chapter Four Situating the Saints, Narrating the Saints, Imagining Martin

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pp. 165-243

In Gregory of Tours’ Histories secular events, the history of the Merovingian kings and the potentes of their realms, run side by side and are often intertwined with ecclesiastical and hagiographical material describing the role of the saints in the contemporary church. But his treatment of these two aspects ...

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Chapter Five To Absent Friends: Verse Correspondence and Personal Poetry

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pp. 244-319

From his first arrival in Gaul Fortunatus assiduously cultivated the patronage and often the friendship of influential figures in the Merovingian kingdoms. Beginning with the important contacts he made in the Austrasian kingdom of Sigibert on his arrival at Metz, he subsequently journeyed to Paris, and then ...

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pp. 320-330

Venantius Fortunatus’ body of poetry marks a watershed in Latin literary history. His writing is clearly indebted to traditions of verse composition in late antiquity, yet it is in important respects unlike anything written previously in that period. After him there is no significant poet in Francia for two centuries or so, ...


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pp. 331-344

Text Editions Used

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pp. 345-346

Index Locorum

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pp. 347-358

General Index

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pp. 359-364

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025206
E-ISBN-10: 0472025201
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472116836
Print-ISBN-10: 0472116835

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 1 B&W photograph
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 643805566
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Humblest Sparrow

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Subject Headings

  • Fortunatus, Venantius Honorius Clementianus, ca. 540-ca. 600 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Christian poetry, Latin -- History and criticism.
  • Christianity and literature -- Rome.
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