In this collection of fables, religious biography, jokes, and other miscellany, Robson and Hadavas provide for the intermediate undergraduate or advanced high school student a reader that is both well informed and enjoyable. Unlike similar readers by Sidwell, whose work is designed as an introduction to medieval history and culture,1 or Godfrey, whose selections are drawn almost exclusively from the religious,2 this volume finds pleasure as its guiding principle. While instilling in the student a familiarity with the linguistic and thematic elements of the period, the religious and secular writings contained herein are above all fun to read. The text is assembled chronologically and includes selections from Jerome’s Vita Hilarionis, Letaldus of Micy’s Within Piscator, the heroic adventure Alexander the Great Meets Thalestris, Queen of the Amazons, the tall tales Asinarius and Rapularius, Odo of Cheriton’s Fables, and the Facetiae of Poggio.
At this point, the historically minded reader will note that two decidedly non-medieval writers, Jerome and Poggio, bookend this volume. To Jerome’s late classical dating, the authors respond rightly that his work indicates the linguistic and thematic development of Medieval Latin sufficently to make him an important precursor to literature of the period. Poggio, meanwhile, is imagined as Jerome’s often-bawdier counterpart (“the yin to Jerome’s yang”), though Robson and Hadavas readily confess that the real reason for his inclusion is that his Facetiae are “just so much fun” (vii).
Each work and author receives a brief introduction, followed by a list of references for further study. Because works are given as selections, Robson and Hadavas provide transitional paragraphs to ease the disruption between one section and the next. Nor do Robson and Hadavas spare introductions to each new genre. Students unfamiliar with Alexandrian legends and romances are provided the pertinent background prior to engaging the pre-1100 tale in which Alexander the Great meets the queen of the Amazons. Similarly, the Asinarius is prefaced by a note on the universality of fables, occurring “once upon a time” and featuring quidam. The authors also do well to place these stories in their traditions, noting, for example, Greek and Roman precedents for the Asinarius.
The introduction to Letaldus of Micy’s Within Piscator, a tenth century comical tale of an English fisherman who was ironically named Within even before a whale swallowed him whole, contains a short introduction to dactylic hexameter. Although their glosses on hexameter are accurate, Robson and Hadavas provide students no instruction in scansion, which we might naturally expect to accompany an introduction to meter. The case is the same for the elegy of the Asinarius and Rapularius. Students are therefore expected either to receive that instruction elsewhere or to possess such knowledge already.
All in all, this is a fine volume exhibiting few faults. The fact that it lacks an introduction to scansion is a regrettable oversight by the authors, but the stories, likely to be consumed quite eagerly by readers, make up for that loss. The lacuna in readings from Jerome to Letaldus of Micy (fourth to tenth centuries) is forgivable, given that the authors’ aims are pleasure and readability. Errata occuring in glosses, such as “gi/yro” for giro (37), “gi/yrāre” for girāre (57), and “spac/tiando” for spaciando (60), appear to be the product of compatibility issues in word processing. The bibliographic format is somewhat inconsistent, though this poses no real problems.
1. Sidwell, Keith. 1995. Reading Medieval Latin. Cambridge.
2. Godfrey, A. W. 2003. Medieval Mosaic: A Book of Medieval Latin Readings. Wauconda, IL.