Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.33

Victoria Moul (ed.), A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xxviii, 488.  ISBN 9781107029293.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Floris B. Verhaart, Queen’s University Belfast (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Recent years have witnessed a sudden surge in the number of works whose purpose it is to offer readers a reference work for and introduction to Neo-Latin studies. These are the publication of both The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (2015), edited by Sarah Knight and Stefan Tilg, and Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Neo-Latin World (2014, 2 vols), edited by Philip Ford, Jan Bloemendal, and Charles Fantazzi. To these titles can now be added A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature, edited by Victoria Moul. A senior lecturer in Latin Language and Literature at King’s College London, Moul has been an important voice in the fields of classics and Neo-Latin studies both because of her work on the early modern reception of Latin and Greek poetry—especially lyric—and Latin literature in Renaissance and early modern Europe.

It has been the orthodoxy for a long time in overviews of Neo-Latin literature and culture to use genre as a central organising principle. The reason is very pragmatic. As Moul writes in her introduction, early modern authors reveal a marked interest in the distinctions and definitions of different genres and one of the first steps any student who encounters a new early modern text will take is to (roughly) establish its genre on the basis, for example, of the text’s metre and subject (p. 5). Such an approach should, of course, come with a caveat since some neo-Latin works are very hard to categorise. Thomas More’s Utopia, for example, could be justifiably defined as a dialogue, satire, or prose fiction. We therefore find it discussed in three different chapters in Moul’s volume. The same focus on genre can be found as early as Paul van Tieghem’s enthusiastic, but rather positivist survey in “La littérature latine de la Renaissance”, first published in Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance in 1944, as well as the first proper reference work of the field: the Companion of Neo-Latin Studies, first published in 1977 by Jozef Ijsewijn and later expanded by Ijsewijn and Dirk Sacré (1990- 1998, 2 vols). Ijsewijn is still seen as one of the founding fathers of present-day Neo-Latin studies and it is thefore no surprise that the second edition of the Companion is an important point of reference for Brill’s Encyclopedia, as well as The Oxford Handbook (TOH) and this new Guide to Neo-Latin Literature (NLL). Given the relatively recent publication of a handbook and an encyclopedia on roughly the same topic one might be inclined to ask if this guide has anything relevant to add to the field of Neo-Latin studies. The fact that many contributors to Moul’s volume were also involved in the two other publications makes asking such a question more understandable. The chapters on oratory in both TOH and NLL have even been written by the same person, Marc van der Poel.

The purpose of each of the essays in NLL is to introduce readers to a particular aspect, in most cases a genre, of neo-Latin literature. Therefore, instead of discussing all 23 essays separately, I will discuss the characteristics and emphases in this volume on the basis of particular examples and show how this sets the volume apart from earlier publications. For a full overview of the volume’s chapters, please see below in the table of contents.

I will start with the question of relevance. According to this reviewer the answer to this question should be an emphatic “yes”. As the editors of TOH write in their introduction their volume is “more compact than the Encyclopaedia, while placing a more concerted emphasis on cultural and historical than does [A Guide to] Neo-Latin Literature.” Indeed, TOH consists of three parts, of which only the first part Language and Genre (pp.13-214) deals with the different genres of Neo-Latin literature, while the second part (Cultural Contexts) and third part (Countries and Regions) focus on aspects of Latin culture—such as education, religious identity, and social status—and geographic context respectively. NLL consists of four parts. The first part (pp.15-80) is called Ideas and Assumptions and discusses the intellectual and cultural context of Latin literature from the Renaissance and Early Modern period. The backbone of the volume is followed by the two following parts, Poetry and drama (pp. 81-234) and Prose (pp. 235-376). The final part (pp. 307-407), Working with Neo-Latin Literature, deals with practical matters such as the editing of neo-Latin texts.

The lion’s share of NLL is therefore devoted to discussions of different genres. In some cases, this is also reflected in a slightly further distinction of genres than we find in this volume than in TOH. Whereas in the latter, we find essays on satire, narrative poetry, and fiction, in Moul’s volume this has been further distinguished into verse and prose satire, didactic poetry and epic, and shorter and longer prose fiction.

The narrower focus in Moul’s volume on literary texts allows for a much more detailed treatment and textual analysis than one would find in the other two publications and where the Encyclopaedia and TOH aim at giving a broad introduction to the kinds of issues on which neo-Latinists work, the format of NLL gives us a more intimate glimpse of the neo-Latinist at work. I will take the difference between Marc Van der Poel’s contributions on oratory to both volumes as an example. In the essay we find in TOH, there is a section on “Renaissance Manuals of Rhetoric” in which we get a brief overview of the main handbooks written on Latin eloquence during the early modern period, such as the Oratoriarum institutionum libri sex (1606) by Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577-1649) and the main trends that can be perceived in these works. This is followed by sections on the role played by eloquence played in the educational programme of the humanists and in Renaissance culture as a whole. What is lacking, however, is a close reading of particular passages from neo-Latin texts. We do encounter this in Van der Poel’s essay in NLL. Here we find a couple of introductory remarks about the Quattrocento humanists who stood at the basis of humanistic oratory and the place of eloquence in Renaissance society, followed by a discussion of examples of neo-Latin eloquence through an analysis of passages from among others the Oratio in laudem philosophiae et reliquarum artium (1476) by Rudolph Agricola (1444-84) and Lorenzo Valla’s (1407-57) oration at the opening of the academic year in 1455. These passages are then subjected to a stylistic analysis in which Van der Poel concludes that Agricola’s style as “florid” and “grandiloquent” while Valla’s is much more “succinct” (p. 279). Van der Poel also gives an example of analysis on the level of collections as he discusses a posthumous collection of ten speeches written by Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1535). Van der Poel uses the instance of this collection to demonstrate the rich variety of many epideictic orations, as it contains a funeral oration, two academic orations, and speeches delivered when Agrippa was the city orator and legal adviser of Metz (pp. 281-2).

Even in the case of the “contextual” essays, the focus on a literary analysis and perspective is apparent. An example is Sarah Knight’s contribution on education. Knight is primarily interested in how “Latin poets represented institutional experience and pedagogy” (p. 53). She shows us, for example, how Montaigne’s teacher, the Scottish historian and poet George Buchanan (1506-82), complained how “wretched the state is of those teaching classical literature in Paris” (p. 58), whereas the German reformer Ulrich von Hutten (1488- 1522) was so strongly convinced of the blessings of a humanist education that in a 1517 poem he described students as soldiers “carrying their spoils as if in a Roman triumph” (p. 55).

Some contributions can be clearly related to a specific line of research pursued by the author elsewhere and therefore take the essays beyond a mere introductory level while presenting some very novel insights into the topic at hand. In his essay on “Latin and the Vernacular”, Tom Deneire examines the interplay between these two with the help of the polysystem theory of Itamar Even-Zohar. As Deneire describes in his chapter, polysystem theory starts from the assumption that “literature is a system of signs rather than a conglomerate of disparate elements” and that “it is the functional relations between different signs that produce meaning in the literary system” (p. 38). This is an effective tool in the study of Latin and the vernacular in Renaissance Europe as it helps counter the old- fashioned notion of the relationship between the two in a strictly binary hierarchy. After all, interaction between Latin and the vernacular languages cannot just be seen within one genre or the corpus of one author’s writings, but even within one particular text. An example of the potential insights this approach could lead to, is Deneire’s demonstration how literary quotations in the Dutch vernacular gradually seem to become more acceptable between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (pp. 43-44). This approach to the topic of neo-Latin and the vernacular was also used in Dynamics of Neo-Latin and the Vernacular: Language and Poetics, Translation and Transfer (2014), a volume edited by Deneire, in which polysystem theory also played an important role.

One might be concerned that the focus on “literature” reflects an anachronistic conception of pre-modern texts, since “literary”, “scholarly”, and “scientific” texts were not as clearly defined and distinguished from one another in the Renaissance as they are now. Such criticism, however, would be unfair, as Moul emphatically dismisses such a distinction and has adopted her focus on literature rather to create a division of labour between her own volume and TOH and Brill’s Encyclopaedia (p. 6 n. 17). Perhaps a chapter might have been added entirely devoted to examples of texts that we in the twenty-first century would not categorise as literature, for example, a case study of theological, scholarly, and scientific texts subjected to the same kind of rhetorical and stylistic analysis we find in the rest of the volume. Such texts are, of course, discussed in TOH, but not—as I have tried to demonstrate above—with the same amount of detail and textual analysis. This would have formed an extra argument for those who do not see themselves primarily as neo-Latinists, but specialise in e.g. theology or the history of science that the kind of research neo-Latinists do is important for their fields, too. Such readers might now falsely believe that for them reading TOH is sufficient, despite the fact that NLL has a lot to offer them.

In conclusion, this volume will therefore come as a welcome and up-to-date introduction to the subject that deserves to be used alongside Brill’s Encyclopedia and TOH, by all who are interested in the culture and intellectual life of Renaissance and early modern Europe.

Table of Contents

Introduction (Victoria Moul)

1. Conjuring with the Classics: Neo-Latin Poets and Their Pagan Familiars (Yasmin Haskell)
2. Neo-Latin Literature and the Vernacular (Tom Deneire)
3. How the Young Man Should Study Latin Poetry: Neo-Latin Literature and Early Modern Education (Sarah Knight)
4. The Republic of Letters (Françoise Waquet)

5. Epigram (Robert Cummings)
6. Elegy (L.B.T. Houghton)
7. Lyric (Julia Haig Gaisser)
8. Verse Letters (Gesine Manuwald)
9. Verse Satire (Sari Kivistö)
10. Pastoral (Estelle Haan)
11. Didactic Poetry (Victoria Moul)
12. Epic (Paul Gwynne)
13. Drama (Nigel Griffin)

14. Approaching Neo-Latin Prose as Literature (Terence Turnberg)
15. Epistolary Writing (Jacqueline Glomski)
16. Oratory and Declamation (Marc Van der Poel)
17. Dialogue (Virginia Cox)
18. Shorter Prose Fiction (David Marsh)
19. Longer Prose Fiction (Stefan Tilg)
20. Prose Satire (Joel Relihan)
21. Historiography (Felix Mundt)

22. Using Manuscripts and Early Printed Books (Craig Kallendorf)
23. Editing Neo-Latin Literature (Keith Sidwell)
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