Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.28

Marc Reydellet, Venance Fortunat, Poèmes, Tome III: Livres IX-XI, Appendice, In laudem sanctae Mariae.   Paris:  Les belles lettres, 2004.  Pp. 215.  ISBN 2-251-01434-9.  €48.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam, University of Michigan (rvandam@umich.edu)

This volume now completes Marc Reydellet's outstanding Budé edition and translation of Fortunatus' poems. Fortunatus has long been comparatively neglected by scholars of late Roman and Merovingian Gaul. One reason is the wide shadow of his friend Gregory of Tours, whose history of the early Frankish kings has provided both the basic narrative framework and an influential interpretive perspective for sixth-century Gaul. Another factor contributing to the disregard of Fortunatus is the frequent difficulty of reading and translating his poems. Although Fortunatus was deeply familiar with classical poets and often imitated lines from their poems, his own classicizing style verged on the obscure. Although he delivered several verse panegyrics to Frankish kings, his flattery was frequently excessive and even incorrect. And although he hobnobbed with important bishops, his topical allusions were too often vague and merely suggestive. Fortunatus has hence paid a price for challenging the patience and linguistic competence of his modern readers, and his mannered style and presentation have repeatedly left him vulnerable to a misleading characterization as an exemplar of literary decadence.

Gregory himself deeply admired Fortunatus' poems, and he even seems to have hoped that his friend might versify his own collection of stories about the contemporary miracles of St. Martin of Tours. Instead, Fortunatus transformed the earlier writings of Sulpicius Severus about Martin's career as a monk and bishop into an epic poem. As a complement to Reydellet's volumes, Solange Quesnel has recently provided an excellent Budé edition and translation of Fortunatus' extensive "Life of St. Martin" (published in 1996). But Fortunatus did accept Gregory's suggestion to publish several books of his occasional poems. Gregory apparently claimed that he had been "seduced by admiration of these trifling poems" and thought that others should also have the opportunity to read them. Since he was an expert in the art of flattery, Fortunatus was likewise a connoisseur of false modesty. Even though he thought that his poems were still "paltry and rough," he would trust Gregory's judgment.

The first volume of Reydellet's trilogy, containing Books 1-4 of Fortunatus' poems, was published in 1994, the second volume in 1998. These three volumes are apparently designed to be used together. Only the first volume includes an introduction and a bibliography. As a result, short references to modern authors and their publications in the second and third volumes require the bibliography in the first volume for decoding. Only the third volume has indexes, which are limited to the proper names of people, peoples, and places. These volumes hence mark a significant advance in terms of editing and translating Fortunatus' Latin text but a step sideways in terms of providing the fundamental tools for studying his poems. The previous standard edition of Fortunatus' poems was by Frederic Leo, published in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi vol. 4, part 1 (1881). Readers (and future translators) of Fortunatus' poems will still want to consult Leo's edition for its wonderful indexes of grammar and metrics.

This third volume contains Book 9 of the poems, published apparently with Book 8 in 590- 591, and Books 10-11, published posthumously. Along with the poems these books included a few letters and exegetical treatises in prose. According to Reydellet, Fortunatus himself prepared these books for publication, even the last two published after his death. His anthology of eleven books was apparently not complete, however, since an admirer was able to gather more poems into a small supplementary collection now known as the Appendix. Reydellet furthermore accepts Fortunatus as the author of the poem in honor of the Virgin Mary.

The poems in this volume include several of Fortunatus' most important. Some concerned rulers. In the later 560s he composed a verse panegyric for the emperor Justin II, who had sent a relic of the True Cross to Poitiers (Appendix 2). In 580 he delivered a verse panegyric in honor of Chilperic which extolled both the king's military success and his moderation (9.1). Other poems concerned bishops. After Gregory restored the cathedral at Tours, for instance, Fortunatus composed a series of inscriptions to be used as captions to describe the scenes from St. Martin's career which were memorialized in the frescoes on the walls of the church (10.6). Many of the poems in Book 11 illustrated Fortunatus' affectionate relationship with Radegund, a former queen who had become a nun and was now his patron at Poitiers. For all of the poems Reydellet has added footnotes and complementary notes at the back of the volume that comment primarily, and predictably, on problems of translating the odd grammatical constructions and vocabulary.

The publication of Reydellet's and Quesnel's fine volumes ought to spark a revival of interest in Fortunatus among both literary critics and early medieval historians. Older scholarship, even when unacknowledged, remains uncommonly influential. As the introductions and annotation in these Budé volumes make quite clear, the foundation for research on Fortunatus is still Leo's edition and the impressive books of Wilhelm Meyer (1901) and Richard Koebner (1915) which established much of the basic chronology and identified the historical allusions. On the other hand, newer scholarship is not always fully appreciated, and the bibliographies and notes in both Reydellet's and Quesnel's volumes seem curiously unaware of important recent publications, most notably the influential work on saints' cults by English-language scholars and the meticulous literary appreciations of Fortunatus' poems by Michael Roberts. In order to facilitate that ongoing research, Fortunatus deserves at least two more extensive projects. One is another Budé volume that edits and translates his prose lives of saints. The other is a complete and thoroughly annotated English translation of all of Fortunatus' works, verse and prose.

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