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Ovid Historicized: Magic and Metamorphosis in Alfonso X’s General estoria
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Ovid’s Metamorphoses is both an important and difficult source for the compilers of the General estoria, the extensive universal history produced by Alfonso X in the 1270s. The many and varied stories of the origin of things and of ancient historical figures made the Metamorphoses impossible to ignore even though the presence of pagan gods and magical transformations put it at odds with Christian orthodoxy, which recognized only one transformation, the Eucharist. How could the transformations inflicted by Diana upon Actaeon or Egeria, by Bacchus on Ariadne or the daughters of Minyas, or by Venus on Adonis be considered anything but fables? And how could these characters be considered to be deities with supernatural powers when such belief was an affront to Christian doctrine? Moreover, Ovid was considered a poet, not a historian, by medieval readers and much of the Metamorphoses could not be considered to have actually happened as written. It could not be easily interpreted historically. To make sense of the Metamorphoses, Christian exegetes generally understood the text allegorically as a collection of exemplary tales. While this brought Ovid’s text in line with Christianity, it did not contribute to a historical or literal reading of the Metamorphoses. To be included in a universal history, the stories of the pagan gods had to have happened in some form. They could not be mere exemplary fiction.

To overcome this problem and adapt the Metamorphoses to their history, the Alfonsine compilers turn to Latin commentary of the Metamorphoses and also theories of astral magic to explain the supernatural events that Ovid recounts, at times even conflating magic and exegesis. This is evident in both in their overlapping vocabulary for figurative language and magical transformations, semejança and figura, in their use of magic as an etiological device in Ovidian narratives, and as a technique for reconciling Ovid and the pagan past in general with contemporary Christian culture. The pagan gods are understood euhemeristically, as wise rulers who were considered deities because of their extraordinary knowledge, and the transformations performed by them in the Metamorphoses are understood as acts of magic. This study examines the discursive and logical intersection of theories of magic and textual exegesis in the narrative of the General estoria. The General estoria is to a large degree an “enarratio de los auctores,” (178) as Francisco Rico asserts. However, with the Metamorphoses the compilers do more than simply translate and imitate Latin commentators. Alfonsine exegesis of Ovid appropriates and reshapes Latin commentary tradition, which allegorizes Ovid, to incorporate knowledge of Arabic magical tradition, thereby giving the Metamorphoses historical relevance in harmony with both Christian doctrine and knowledge of the natural world of the time.

Christian commentators sought to neutralize the transformations of the Metamorphoses by casting them as fables, which are brought in line with doctrine as moral allegories, but are also stripped of historical signification. Although the Metamorphoses was a widely read and quoted text in Ovid’s lifetime and in the centuries that followed, the text suffered under Christianity, which was distrustful of the narratives of pagan gods.1 No classical scholia of it exist and it was not part of the lectio divina of monasteries.2 In spite of theological problems, interest in it never waned and Christian readers attempted to adapt it to their religion. Early commentators, such as Fulgentius, sixth-century author of a commentary and paraphrase, as well as the Vatican mythographers, adapt Ovidian myth to Christianity by interpreting the myths as moral fables with allegorical meanings, which provide examples of conduct to be imitated or avoided, but not necessarily information about the past. This became the standard understanding of the Metamorphoses.3 Interest in Ovid and particularly the Metamorphoses increased in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries with numerous Latin commentaries and eventually vernacular adaptations, most notably the Integumenta of John of Garland and the Allegoriae super Ovidii Metamorphosis by Arnulfo of Orleans in Latin, both of which are sources for the General estoria.4 The most ambitious vernacular adaptation is the massive allegorizing Ovide Moralisé produced in France by a Franciscan friar in the mid fourteenth century.

The earliest attempts to give the Metamorphoses a limited historical interpretation involved the...



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