Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.03.08


Keith Sidwell, Reading Medieval Latin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. 398, xviii. $24.95. ISBN 0-521-44747-X.


Reviewed by Penelope Rainey, Germantown Friends School, PRGFS@e-world.com.

Keith Sidwell promises his readers a selection of Medieval Latin readings that will give a relatively unskilled Latinist a sound introduction to Medieval Latin from the beginnings of "Christian Latin" to the twelfth-century Renaissance. He states in his Introduction: "The texts have been selected for their intrinsic interest and for the way they illustrate important aspects of medieval culture, history, philosophy, religion, literature or language." Sidwell's book in fact offers his readers even more than he promises. His impressive knowledge of numerous aspects of medieval studies, his lively sense of human interest, and his enjoyment of the humorous make Reading Medieval Latin an illuminating and stimulating study of the Middle Ages.

Sidwell's book is divided into four parts, each with five sections. He has used his authoritative knowledge of the period to choose and organize text selections that will effectively instruct students of Medieval Latin and culture. Part one ("The foundations of Christian Latin") includes texts illustrating the culture in which Medieval Latin developed and the sources that influenced its writers; it presents writings on the topics of education, liturgy and divine office, the Bible, the church fathers, and the new Christian genres. Part two presents Latin texts written between c. 500 and 1000 (sections on Hiberno-Latin, Anglo-Latin and continental Latin, as well as the Carolingian and Ottonian Renaissances). Parts three and four offer extensive selections of Latin texts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries; here, the sections include such topics as "The Norman Conquest," "The 'investiture contest'," "The First Crusade" and "The schools and the scholastic method," and both parts present sections on "Philosophy and Theology." The book includes a full list of sources for the texts, carefully chosen plans and maps (a favorite will be the plan of Canterbury cathedral with the routes of Becket and of his murderers traced through the building), an excellent Grammar of medieval Latin, an Orthography section, a short but useful Vocabulary of words not found in the medium-sized Cassell's dictionary or words with new meanings or spellings in LL or ML. There is, regrettably, no index. However, each part, each section, and each text selection has an excellent introductory explanation and a note on recent bibliography, and each selection has full grammatical notes to assist the intermediate student, or any student not well acquainted with Medieval Latin. The passages -- many of them easy, some quite difficult -- are not arranged in order of difficulty; the more difficult are more fully annotated.

Sidwell's selections form a fascinating introduction to medieval life and thought -- in many places he opens for us a window into the medieval mind. He has carefully presented recurrent themes and issues so that teachers of courses on medieval history, philosophy, religious thought, or literature can use RML as an accompanying text. An historian will be pleased to find the tensions between new Irish monasticism and the Merovingian state and its bishops presented in such texts as a Merovingian law downgrading a bishop for obtaining his bishopric improperly; Gregory of Tours' description of an extremely grasping Merovingian bishop; and a letter in which St. Columbanus refuses to appear before the Frankish bishops because he wishes to avoid all chance of any contentiousness: Ego autem ad vos ire non ausus sum, ne forte contenderem praesens contra apostoli dictum dicentis Noli verbis contendere.... These tensions between church and state in the medieval period can be traced, in their varying forms, through the 'investiture contest', the struggle between Henry II and Becket, and a very well-chosen selection of an illuminating incident in the contest between Frederick Barbarossa and the papacy. Teachers and students of medieval philosophy will appreciate that beliefs concerning the Trinity can be traced from accounts in St. Augustine and an early Irish hymn Altus Prosator to an excerpt from Abelard. Those with special interests in religious thought and experience will find throughout the book excerpts describing miracles and martyrdoms and eulogizing the values of virginity.

Sidwell has made a distinct effort to include aspects of medieval life that are not the most readily accessible in medieval writing. For instance, he has found two fascinating (brief) discussions of peasants: John of Salisbury defends them as the essential feet without which the "body politic" cannot move, while Andreas Capellanus declares it is unwise to teach them about love lest they be distracted from their essential work in the fields -- and in any case their love-making is like that of animals. He has unearthed some references to medieval business life: the epitaph of the 7th century businessman Agapius and Jocelin of Brakelond's account of a dispute between the monastery of St. Edmund's Bury and a local notable -- we clearly see the business aspect of church life and receive a vivid picture of the feisty and impetuous abbot. However, Sidwell might have included the modus Liebinc from the Cambridge Songs, a funny sequence on a medieval merchant and his erring wife. Women writers also make regular appearances: Egeria who visited Jerusalem in ca. 380, and the 8th century Hygeburg of Heidenheim (it is unfortunate that these two ladies wrote such very bad Latin); well-chosen scenes from a play of Hrotsvitha (oddly, Sidwell withholds its name from us); and finally, from the high Middle Ages, Heloise and Hildegard of Bingen, a very interesting contrasting pair.

Sidwell's approach has special strengths. Fascinated by the developments in Latin language and Latin literature during the Middle Ages, he explains with great clarity how the reading of the Scriptures influenced the nature of Medieval Latin. His introductory comments contain felicitous descriptions of, for instance, Irish Latin, or why it was particularly hard to write good Latin in tenth-century Italy. He is excellent on how new ways of life and thought developed new forms of literature, and he includes a very varied range of styles and genres.

Sidwell also seems to be particularly interested in history and historical writing. Repeatedly, he gives us selections that are apt: an eye-witness account of Pope Urban II preaching the First Crusade; a description of the crowning of Otto I that is a gold mine for political beliefs and customs in tenth century Germany; excellent accounts of medieval fighting. Overall, Sidwell has given us a very complete picture of the medieval church: annotated excerpts from monastic rules and accounts of the liturgy; selections from the Old and New Testaments whose themes recur in selections later in the book; examples of sermons and Biblical commentary; medieval mysticism and rationalism. His selections on the confrontation between Frederick Barbarossa and the legates of Pope Hadrian IV at Besancon present a fascinating account of a political power struggle: Frederick complains bitterly over a picture in the Lateran palace of the emperor Lothair depicted as a papal vassal, while the pope's legates redefine the meaning of beneficium on Frederick's insistence.

Above all, this book is fun. Sidwell's sense of humor and perception of what will engage the reader is always acute. Does he want to give us an example of early medieval allegorical writing? His excerpt from Prudentius' Psychomachia is a description of Luxury, drunken and revelling, battling Sobriety. An example of 11th century narrative poetry? We get a lively account of the ridiculous (and miraculous) way Ruodlieb catches fish. A miracle-working saint? St. Columba dominates the Loch Ness monster. A tragic love story? Sidwell's selections from Abelard's Historia Calamitatum and Heloise's letters are about the best that could be made.

Faults are few. Errata are almost non-existent (e.g., an omission of words in a comment on p. 37, a nominative identified as an accusative on p. 79, "contains" wrongly used on p. 226, a refrain printed in an unclear way on p. 290, a misprint of repet on p. 298). The description of the parts of the Mass might be expanded for students who all too often know nothing about Catholicism. Some excerpts seem too short to be meaningful as they stand: Hildegard of Bingen's lyrics on p. 290, Abelard's Trinity analogy, part ii, on p. 305. In the grammatical notes on the individual selections, Sidwell exhibits a reluctance to use the traditional terminology to distinguish different grammatical relationships; "x looks forward to y" is his favorite phrase for a wide range of constructions. Precise terminology helps students distinguish, and therefore translate accurately, different types of grammatical construction. Also, the reader might appreciate more assistance in the notes with difficult or rare vocabulary. The only major complaint, perhaps, will come from lovers of medieval poetry: there are too few examples of medieval lyric. One of Sidwell's criteria for the selection of passages was the avoidance of passages already anthologized. However, considering the importance of religious music in the period, four examples of religious song are far too few. Why not include samples of the hymns or religious lyrics of St. Peter Damian, Adam of St. Victor, or Abelard? To omit completely any example of the remarkable 9th century lyrics of Gottschalk seems strange. Sidwell includes three short, amusing lyrics from the Carmina Burana; but to give no example of the moral-satiric lyrics or the more complex medieval love songs seems a mistake.

Reading Medieval Latin was originally designed as a continuation of Reading Latin (Cambridge, l986), in order to create a complete Latin course that would take beginners from Classical Latin through to the Middle Ages. This volume as it now appears is far more than a "beginner's" textbook in Medieval Latin. In its own right it is a valuable anthology that encapsulates many aspects of the medieval world and offers its readers much guidance for further study. Reading Medieval Latin will become an essential tool for teachers and an instructive, stimulating, and enjoyable volume for students.