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  • Biblical Epics in Late Antiquity and Anglo-Saxon England: Divina in Laude Voluntas by Patrick McBrine
  • M.J. Toswell (bio)
Patrick McBrine. Biblical Epics in Late Antiquity and Anglo-Saxon England: Divina in Laude Voluntas. University of Toronto Press. xii, 384. $85.00

Patrick McBrine has embarked on a very large two-part project. First, in separate chapters, he presents five major authors of Latin biblical epics from the fourth to the sixth centuries, some of them largely unknown to the field of Anglo-Saxon studies and others imperfectly comprehended, and analyses passages from each poet with remarkable depth and perspicacity. Second, in two massive chapters, he offers detailed analysis of just how important they are as sources and influences on Old English writers such as Aldhelm, Bede, and Alcuin, and on Old English poetic texts, largely Genesis A and B and [End Page 138] Exodus. The result is a very impressive effort, and one that enjoins us all to acknowledge that we are no longer able to nod approvingly as Anglo-Latin texts appear on our horizons. We must greet those texts at the door, invite them to dinner, and lavish them with the hospitality that we owed them a generation ago – procrastination is no longer an option. McBrine is almost tentative in the politeness with which he introduces each of these texts; he analyses selected passages from each in remarkable detail, demonstrating exactly how the late antique author was versifying the relevant passages of the Bible, what words and syntactic usages were added, and which were deleted. He focuses so tightly on the stylistic that he almost leaves aside the larger philosophical issues of why these authors so comfortably interpreted, adapted, and took flight with the Old Latin biblical texts they had at their disposal. McBrine acknowledges that Juvencus and Sedulius are the most important figures with respect to the Anglo-Saxon school curriculum, with Arator coming in as well, but he includes Cyprianus and especially Avitus (for whom I detect significant admiration) for a full analysis of the genre. Prudentius, who did appear in the predecessor work – McBrine's University of Toronto thesis of 2008 entitled "The English Inheritance of Biblical Verse" – is gone except in occasional references, presumably because he did not partake of the massive tradition of versified biblical epics.

These writers were all from continental Europe (Juvencus from Spain, Cyprianus unclear but possibly Gaul, Sedulius, "the Christian Vergil," and Arator from Italy, Avitus from Vienne), and they variously created biblical epics about the Gospels, the Old Testament, all of salvation history, and the Acts. Copies of their works in and from Anglo-Saxon England vary in number and presentation, but McBrine's marshalling of the evidence demonstrates that all were known. He proves his argument that this genre – the late antique biblical epic (mostly using the Vetus latina texts) – comprises highly relevant texts in Anglo-Saxon England. McBrine sees intermediate and proximate sources sometimes where I might see a shared recollection of the Bible, but he is extremely careful with his claims and suggestions. The layout is a bit disconcerting at times, with some translations in the footnotes and others in the text, and the Latin variously in quotation marks and italics, but the eye becomes accustomed, and this must have been a difficult book to format. Some quotations from French are translated, most not, and there are occasional untranslated Latin and even German quotations. This book is not for the unlearned. McBrine's particular strength is close analysis and comparison of Latin texts; he commands a vast knowledge of classical Latin texts, identifying Vergilian echoes at will, but he also moves very comfortably in medieval Latin and especially in Latin prosody. My quibbles are few; I am not convinced of the concept of "tailing alliteration," I wanted an explanation of the "golden line," and Jan Ziolkowski's name is misspelled throughout. But these pale when I read McBrine's superb translations for Arator on the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea – iustas uia, sontibus unda ("a road for the righteous, a wave for the guilty") – or for Avitus on the flood – "the waves that brought [End Page 139] a...


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