BMCR 1992.01.05

The “Vulgate” Commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses

, The "Vulgate" Commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1991. Pp. 148. ISBN 9780888444707

Since the inception of the Toronto Medieval Latin Texts series in 1972, titles have continued to appear on an unpredictable schedule, sometimes two in one year, sometimes with gaps of two or three years in between. But the texts, which range from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and the Rule of St. Benedict to Boccaccio’s Genealogiae Deorum, are always useful and welcome when they do appear. The present volume, The “Vulgate” Commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, edited by Frank T. Coulson, is no exception. A great deal of cultural history can be written from the study of commentaries alone, and Ovid in his Metamorphoses offers the universe and the whole range of humanity as a subject for commentary.

In his Introduction, Coulson sketches the history of commentary on the Metamorphoses from late antiquity to mid-thirteenth century, the date of the composition of the “Vulgate” commentary. He then presents a sample, tantalizingly brief but well selected, of texts from this “Vulgate” commentary, together with their interlinear glosses and marginal notes: Book 1, lines 1-150, from Creation through the Four Ages, an obvious and indispensable choice; and Book 10, lines 1-77, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which displays Ovid at his best. Another good reason for the choice of the story of Orpheus is that the students for whom the series is designed, when they thirst for more, can readily turn from this reading to J. B. Friedman’s Orpheus in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970) and to J. Warden’s Orpheus: The Metamorphoses of a Myth (Toronto, 1982).

A. G. Rigg, the general editor of the series, emphasizes in his Preface that the editions it includes are usually based on one manuscript only, and that manuscript orthography and syntax are carefully preserved. He does not go into any detail on why this should be considered a desirable procedure when the editions do not, in fact, claim to serve to any degree as paleographical studies. In the case of the present text, the only information we are given about the manuscript (Selestat 92) singled out to represent the tradition from among the seventeen extant is that it was written in the thirteenth century. We are not told the basis for the dating, nor anything about the character of the hand, abbreviations, the material or dimensions of the manuscript, margins, binding, pagination, ornamentation, present condition, whether anything is known of its history, or whether it contains any other texts. Beyond a few words to the effect that Selestat 92 preserves a reliable text of the “Vulgate” commentary (with no argument for this assertion specified) and that it has not suffered much from later correcting hands, we are left with the impression that the choice might as well be a purely arbitrary one.

In presenting his text, Coulson states that he follows modern conventions for punctuation and capitalization. This is a praiseworthy decision, since these editions are explicitly intended for students in university courses and curricula, but obviously not specifically for those who are students of paleography. On the matter of abbreviations, he tells us only that he has silently expanded words and lemmata abbreviated in the manuscript. Again, fine, for the same reason. But what then is the point of preserving the orthography of the manuscript, even to an alleged distinction between u and v ? What is the orthography of an expanded abbreviation? In the present text (p. 95) the editor prints gracia, but in quoting the same passage in his Introduction (p. 13) he prints gratia. (There may be something other than mere spelling variation here. The quotation is of a passage from the Alexandreis of Walter of Chatillon. The text in the Commentary reads cui where Coulson’s Introduction reads, with Walter, tibi.)

A serious problem in the text as presented here is the layout. In the manuscript the text of Ovid, with numerous interlinear glosses, occupies the center of each page and is completely surrounded by the marginal comments. Coulson has made a valiant attempt to enable us to reconstruct approximately the position of each comment by his own system of marginalia. His explanation of this reminds me of nothing so much as the instructions that accompany hardware for which “some assembly is required.” His statement concludes: “The positions of the marginal comments, which are very scattered, are indicated as precisely as possible by folio numbers that include column designations; the designation ‘3rcl’ points to folio 3 recto, column c, left subcolumn; ‘3rabc’ indicates that the comment is in the top or bottom margin, spanning all three columns.” Granted that this challenge to the editor’s expository powers is great, and that a reader more determined than I may be able to utilize his layout successfully, I simply gave up, as many other readers, I am sure, are likely to do.

The inclusion of a facsimile page or two of the manuscript, or even of a modest diagram, would have been very serviceable here, and surely the failure to provide them can have little to do with economy. The layout as it is now is wasteful, with text and glosses on the left-hand pages, and related commentary facing them on the right-hand pages (often the reverse of the placement in the manuscript). The result is that where there is a great deal of commentary, the text page is practically empty. Page 96, for example, contains one line of Ovid with the rest of the page blank (furthermore the same line has to be repeated on page 98, as the commentary runs over). The reverse applies where there is little commentary. Page 137 contains a total of about forty words of commentary on two lines, and, for the other lines on the facing page, the observation, “No marginal commentary,” repeated five times.

But ultimately what will matter most is the utility of the medieval text presented here for its intended audience of today’s students. Let us hope that it falls into the hands of a great many of them. I mean not only students of medieval culture, but those in classical Latin courses in Ovid as well.

The Accessus (roughly, Introduction) prefixed to the text is an unusually interesting one. Its author rejects the typical pattern formulated by Servius ( poetae vita, titulus operis, qualitas carminis, scribentis intentio, numerus librorum, ordo librorum, explanatio), and proposes instead to limit his topics to three: