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  • Ovid in the Middle Ages ed. by James G. Clark, Frank T. Coulson, and Kathryn L. McKinley
  • Hilary Maddocks
Clark, James G., Frank T. Coulson, and Kathryn L. McKinley, eds, Ovid in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011; hardback; pp. 384; 21 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. 65.00; ISBN 9781107002050.

In the Middle Ages, the poet Publius Ovidius Naso (43BCE-17CE) was the classical author par excellence. His works, in particular the Metamorphoses, were widely read, imitated, glossed, translated, and moralized, and were immensely influential in the monasteries, pulpits, secular schools, and courts of Europe. This excellent collection of essays offers a detailed introduction to the reception and transmission of Ovid from the fall of the Roman Empire to the late fifteenth century.

The distinguished authors give overviews of different aspects of Ovid's influence from several perspectives, including literary criticism, classics, historiography, art history, and queer and gender studies. The different iterations of Ovid's works are discussed in some detail and while most of the contributions are focused on France and England, Ovid's impact in Byzantium, Spain, and Italy is also covered. The Ovid that emerges from these essays, protean and 'incorrigibly plural', enjoyed a wide appeal for a diverse audience.

The school tradition in France from 1180 to 1400 is discussed by Frank T. Coulson in his account of Latin commentaries on the Metamorphosis and the development of an allegorical mode of reading. These include the early literal Orléans tradition and the very influential thirteenth century anonymous Vulgate commentary. The commentaries are characterized by a multiplicity of approaches for different audiences, who it seems, read Ovid's text carefully and in detail.

The Metamorphoses was translated into French and moralized as the Ovide moralisé in the early fourteenth century, possibly at the request of Clémence of Hungary. In the Ovide moralisé, which is the subject of the chapter by Ana Pairet, each fable is paraphrased, glossed, and read as a moral exemplum or [End Page 220] spiritual allegory. This vernacular version was best known at the French court and the weighty volumes, which were six times the length of the Latin original, were also the most extensively illustrated of all manuscripts of Ovid's works. In addition to pointing out the difficulties in establishing the anonymous translator's sources, the author refers to Ovid's innate malleability and the multiplicity of interpretations revealed in the hermeneutic process. The vast illustrative programmes of the Ovide moralisé are further described by Carla Lord in her survey of imagery of the manuscripts of the Metamorphoses and its commentaries. Ovid's amatory works, in particular the Heroides and Ars amatoria were also translated into French, and as Marilynn Desmond argues in her contribution, their erotic discourse contributed to the emergence of an essentially hetero-erotic ethic in medieval literary cultures.

Ovid's works were just as enthusiastically received in England. In his discussion of late medieval monastic use of Ovid, James G. Clark shows that, contrary to accepted views, the monasteries did not abandon the classics after 1200. Recent research has shown that Ovid's works may in fact have grown in importance. Certainly, monks appear to have been the first English scholars to have shown an interest in Bersuire's 1340 Latin moralization of the Metamorphoses, the Ovidium moralizatus, as a source of exempla for their sermons. Siegfried Wenzel analyses the popularity of Ovid in sermons by both mendicant and monastic orders in late medieval England, noting that his works could give 'delight even in the most prosaic of rhetorical enterprises'. The stories of the gods and heroes served the general purpose of 'proof' texts or exempla, and it seems, were intended primarily for a learned audience. That Ovid's impact in England was marked is also demonstrated in the works of Chaucer and Gower, as Kathryn L. McKinley shows. She discusses four Ovidian texts including Gower's Confessio amantis and Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Both authors drew on a range of available texts, including Latin school texts and moralized versions, although Gower seems to have preferred moralized narratives (for example, he identifies the legend of Pyramus...


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