Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.15

Ralph J. Hexter, David Townsend (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature. Oxford Handbooks.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xix, 636.  ISBN 9780195394016.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Corey J. Zwikstra, Washburn University (


The Latin Middle Ages were vast, and any book about them must be highly selective. The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature is a welcome and accessible addition to scholarship on the subject. The collection aims for a broad audience, not just Latinists and medievalists, and encourages looking at medieval Latin ideologically and interpretively, rather than descriptively. The book is organized into seven thematic sections, containing twenty-eight chapters, and the editors intentionally avoid traditional arrangement by period, genre, and author. Contributors are international. Since space constraints preclude discussion of individual contributions, this review will characterize sections and note salient features.

In a short Preface, the editors give the rationale for the book and advance their hopeful agenda: to represent the complexity of medieval Latin studies and its potential for the future, and to make the field more relevant within a wider scholarly community through post-structuralist approaches that have caught on elsewhere but not yet in medieval Latin studies. Part I, “Framing the Field: Problematics and Provocations,” contains a chapter by each editor and continues the argument of the Preface for a reconceptualized and thus revitalized medieval Latin studies, as well as a reconceived corpus (not canon) of medieval Latin literature. Together the Preface and Part I contextualize the contributions to follow.

Part II, “Latinity as Cultural Capital,” focuses on the Latin language from the perspectives of sociolinguistics, cultural studies, post-colonialism, and translation theory, areas championed by editor Townsend in Part I. In the Middle Ages, Latin was learned as a foreign language and used as a metalanguage for itself and vernacular languages. Its status and authority were sometimes challenged on various fronts, e.g., its function as a language of translation, or its competition with Arabic.

Part III, “Manuscript Culture and the Materiality of Latin Texts,” views Latin textuality through the lens of readers and reader reception, describing styles of reading and annotating texts, and locating reading communities within localized geographies of knowledge.

The sometimes technical Part IV, “Styles and Genre,” explores how medieval Latin found expression in a wide and fluid range of styles and genres, often variously intertextual with Latin or vernacular texts. Styles of poetry or prose, or some combination of the two, were influenced contextually by genre, subject matter, and audience. A single author or text may use multiple styles. Therefore no such thing as a distinctive medieval Latin style exists.

Part V, “Systems of Knowledge,” describes the diverse educational and scholarly preoccupation with the liberal arts, mythography, and exegesis in the Middle Ages. Medieval writers adapted inherited texts and traditions to meet their particular and changing purposes.

Part VI, “Medieval Latin and the Fashioning of the Self,” along with Part V, continues to explore medieval Latin education, in both monastic and cathedral schools, focusing on methods and ends rather than texts or traditions. Medieval education was moral and ethical, as well as intellectual. The section moves from education to issues of gender and sexuality. The most theory-leaning part of the book, the chapters on gender and sexuality, parade the ghosts of Bakhtin, Foucault, and others. In medieval texts, genre expectations create expectations of gender. Medieval people were more, and more variously, concerned with sex than we think. Like medieval sexuality, medieval spirituality is a malleable discursive practice, rather than a static entity. And like education, spirituality could serve a regulating function, though in practice individuals exhibited variety. A classification-driven chapter on medieval Latin modes of self-writing concludes this section.

Part VII, “Periodizations,” begins with a timely, conscientious look at how late antiquity troubles easy narratives of periodization but offers insight into medieval textuality and Latinity. On the other side of the Middle Ages, renaissances and revivals receive sustained attention. Such renewals as happened in the ninth and twelfth centuries informed the intellectual foundations of medieval Latin culture. The section ends with two important chapters on the reception of Latin texts in the age of print. Only select medieval Latin texts were widely printed, and most of these are absent from modern canons of medieval Latin literature. Indeed, the modern marginalization of medieval Latin (bemoaned by the editors in the Preface and Part I) finds its origins in exclusionary early printing habits. When medieval Latin texts do get noticed in the nineteenth century, it is usually through corrupt editions based on poor early modern printed texts. Since then, medieval Latin texts have been little better served by translations, especially into English. This is largely for commercial reasons and is especially unfortunate today since the broadest entry point into medieval Latin literature is through English translations.

The book concludes with a chronology of all Latin authors mentioned, a substantial but incomplete index of personal names and titles, and a (too) select index of topics and places.

Throughout the book the chapters are consistently readable and of high quality, with copious Latin quotations all translated into English. Few contributions are dense or jargony. Most in some way rightly emphasize the variety of medieval Latin literature, as well as the diversity of those who wrote, read, and used it. Almost all contain guides to further reading that help readers navigate the lengthy accompanying bibliographies, usefully separated into primary and secondary resources. It is nice to see so many primary sources cited. While the chapters cohere well thematically, one may note a few deficiencies.

Much of the collection reads more like an anthology than a handbook. Readers will, of course, define these genres differently. But in a handbook I expect general surveys and overviews of fundamental subjects and skills within the discipline: medieval Latin grammar, textual criticism, bibliography, and research tools and methods. One tires of anthologies masquerading as handbooks (or companions), in which authors indulge interests more specific than are warranted. That the contributions are essays, not entries, perhaps lessens the value of the collection as a handbook. Those seeking the kind of guidance provided by a traditional handbook will most profitably start with chapters 1-2, 4, 9, 10-12, 17, 19, and 27-28.

I would have liked to see authors and texts from the earlier medieval period better represented. Perhaps necessarily, given the surviving material, the book focuses on texts from about 1100 onward. A more equal balance might have been achieved by further attention to Anglo-Latin texts from Anglo-Saxon England or to Hiberno-Latin texts from early medieval Ireland.

Certain chapters (e.g., 13 and 17) have frequent self-citations, indicating that more Latinists need to do work in these areas. The contributors also regularly mention unedited manuscripts, or manuscripts needing to be re-edited, among other suggestions for future work. Students in particular should seek out and follow up on these suggestions and opportunities.

Overall, the book satisfactorily, though not perfectly, fills a need and is not redundant with existing publications. Non- specialized books on medieval Latin subjects are few: the dearth of translations of medieval Latin that Ziolkowski laments (chapter 28) unfortunately holds true more broadly of accessible work on the subject. The collection will assist medievalists interested in literature, history, or culture. Classicists will find much of it enlightening. Teachers of advanced courses on medieval literature could assign parts of it productively. While the book is a welcome resource for students and scholars, I do not expect it will revitalize the field as the editors hope, though it may be read profitably and stimulate further scholarship. The reading lists alone are a valuable scholarly resource.

The production value is high, though the cost will be prohibitive for most individuals. The book is well edited, especially given the challenges presented by so much Latin.1


1.   There are some typographical errors: for instance, “O’Keefe” for “O’Keeffe” (p. 23), “St. Mathew” for “St. Matthew” (p. 158), “affect” for “effect” (p. 281), “as” for “has” (p. 523), errant quotation marks (p. 537), and several non- alphabetical arrangements (e.g., “Busby,” p. 212) or unitalicized book titles (e.g., Wetherbee’s, p. 334) in the bibliographies. But these are expected and not so numerous or serious as to provide distraction.

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