BMCR 1993.01.11

1993.01.11, Judith W. George, Venantius Fortunatus: A Latin Poet in Merovingian Gaul

, Venantius Fortunatus, a Latin poet in Merovingian Gaul. Fortunatus, Venantius Honorius Clementianus, approximately 540-approximately 600. Works. Selections.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. xiii, 234 pages : illustrations, map ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198148982.

Writing in the late eighth century, nearly 200 years after the poet’s death, Paul the Deacon could still celebrate Venantius Fortunatus as the apex vatum, admired for his “renowned intelligence, quick wit, and delightful expression.”1 Later critics have not always shared this high estimate of Fortunatus’s poetry, objecting not only to his style, but also to his choice of themes and to his very role as a poet, especially as a court poet for rival elements of the Merovingian royal family. In this book, a revised 1985 Edinburgh Ph.D. thesis, Judith W. George seeks to examine Fortunatus’s “role and technique” as a poet (p. 2), and in so doing to defend his reputation from charges of triviality, insincerity, and the betrayal of patrons and friends. In particular, G. wishes to analyze the poet’s place in the transmission of the Latin literary tradition, evaluate his style, purpose, and competence, and investigate the occasions and patrons of his poems (p. 3). This is a worthy program of inquiry, especially for a poet whose work received its last full-length investigation in 1927. 2 G. has chosen, however, to limit her investigation to Fortunatus’s secular occasional poetry, explaining that “his ecclesiastical works [stem] from different traditions and [illuminate] different developments” (p. 3). Unfortunately, in leaving aside Fortunatus’s hymns and other Christian poems, the book ignores a crucial dimension of his role not just as a poet, but as the bearer of a Christianized Romanitas that was as much “in demand” (p. 16) by Franks and Gallo-Romans as were secular traditions of epithalamium, consolation, and panegyric. In fact, Christian themes and occasions are so frequent in Fortunatus that G. cannot avoid treating them at some length, for instance in Poem 3.9, Ad Felicem episcopum de pascha (pp. 120-23, 188-93). Since she ends up discussing a considerable number of Christian poems anyway, G. should perhaps have focused from the start on Fortunatus’s entire corpus of verse.

The book is divided into eight chapters with a brief introduction. Chapter 1 surveys Fortunatus’s life and career and describes the Merovingian context in which he composed the bulk of his verse. The next three chapters adopt a generic approach to his poetry: chapters 2 and 3 discuss verse panegyric and encomium while chapter 4 examines epitaphs and poems of consolation. Chapters 5-7 are organized not by genre, but by patron, and analyze poems addressed to Merovingian bishops, noblemen, and noblewomen, respectively. The final chapter summarizes G.’s view of Fortunatus’s development as a “poet and person” (p. 179) from his arrival in Gaul in 566 to his mature career in the late 580s and 590s. The book also contains an abridged genealogy of the Merovingians, a map of Gaul and western Europe, an index of poems discussed, a general index, and three appendices: a text and translation of six poems (3.9, 5.3, 8.7, 8.10, Appendix 31, and 9.1), a discussion of the collection and publication of Fortunatus’ poems, and an extended note on the date of Fortunatus’ ordination as a priest.

G. consistently employs the same method of analysis throughout the book, discussing selected poems in the fashion of a commentator. She first explains the date, occasion, and setting of each poem, comments on its addressee, and analyzes its themes in a section by section summary. She then shows how a given poem illuminates Fortunatus’s role and technique as a poet by demonstrating, for instance, his politically skilful use of language, his connections to high-ranking officials, or his services to patrons. One of the best demonstrations of this method is the discussion of Poem 9.1, Fortunatus’s panegyric to king Chilperic. This was delivered in 580 on the occasion of a public confrontation between the king and bishop Gregory of Tours over allegations that the bishop had accused queen Fredegund of adultery with bishop Bertram of Bordeaux. While much previous discussion of the panegyric has focused on the false question of Fortunatus’s sincerity (because of his close friendship with Gregory and his previous panegyrics to Chilperic’s brothers and bitter rivals Charibert and Sigibert), G. rightly points out the prescriptions for proper royal behavior and “formula for rapprochement” (p. 55) implicitly contained in the poet’s seemingly unmixed praise. In going somewhat beyond Peter Godman’s similarly conceived discussion of the same poem in Poets and Emperors (Oxford, 1987), G. advances our understanding of Fortunatus’s success as a poet in the treacherous world of Merovingian politics. In this and other sections of the book, G. focuses attention on the complex web of obligations and relationships in which Fortunatus involved himself by his writing, and shows how the poet’s versatility and skill continued to provide him with opportunities for patronage and friendship in the midst of rapidly changing political circumstances.

But the merits of this study are overshadowed by a number of weaknesses. One problem is the virtual absence from the bibliography and notes of works published after the completion of the thesis in 1985. It is perhaps understandable that G. does not cite her own articles on Fortunatus, 3 since they are largely reprinted in her monograph, but it is surprising that she omits P. Wareman, “Theudechildis Regina,”Classica et Mediaevalia 37 (1986), 199-201, in her discussion of the identity of the Theudechild(s) of Poems 4.25 and 6.3 (p. 160, n. 39). Likewise surprising is the omission of Michael Roberts, “The Use of Myth in Latin Epithalamia,”TAPA 119 (1989), 321-48, which relates directly to G.’s analysis of Fortunatus’s epithalamium for Sigibert and Brunhild (pp. 154-57). Furthermore, G.’s views on Poem 5.5 (pp. 127-29), which praises bishop Avitus of Clermont for his forced conversion of Jews, would have profited from Walter Goffart, “The Conversions of Avitus of Clermont, and Similar Passages in Gregory of Tours,” in “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity, ed. J. Neusner and E. S. Frerichs (Chico, Calif., 1985), pp. 473-97. Nor is Edward James, The Franks (Oxford, 1988) listed among the general studies of the Franks in the introduction (p. 6, n. 7), a work that would have saved G. from oversimplification of the confrontation between Clovis and Syagrius in 486. For a book that appears to have been completed in January 1990 (p. v), the absence of these and other references is disconcerting and conveys the impression, whether correctly or not, that the thesis was not much revised for publication. G. should also have been more careful about citing those studies she did consult. Her lengthy discussion of Fortunatus’ life and work in chapter 1 (pp. 18-34) shows numerous close similarities in language and argument to Brian Brennan, “The career of Venantius Fortunatus,”Traditio 41 (1985), 49-78. G. does refer to Brennan’s 1983 Ph.D. thesis on Venantius 4 in three notes to this section (nn. 128, 147, 170), and to his article on Radegund in a fourth note (n. 155); she also thanks Brennan in her acknowledgements. None of these statements, however, comes close to suggesting the extent to which G. appears to have quoted, paraphrased, and paralleled Brennan’s argument in this chapter. At the very least one expects specific acknowledgement of this apparent indebtedness.

A further problem with the book lies in its unsuccessful attempt to combine literary and historical approaches to the problem of Fortunatus’ role and technique as a poet. G.’s introduction suggests a much more wide-ranging discussion of Fortunatus’s poetry than the book actually delivers. Many readers will be disappointed by an approach that routinely discusses the themes and to some extent the sources and imagery of Fortunatus’s writing, but rarely refers to its style, meter, or diction, or engages in close analysis of individual passages. Even the book’s generic chapters, to my mind its most successful, often seem thinly textured in comparison with other recent generic approaches, for instance Gregson Davis’s splendid Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Lyric Discourse (Berkeley, 1991).

The book’s effort to set Fortunatus within his historical context also falls short. Even when the G.’s historical interpretations are not arguably incorrect, they often fail to capture the full complexity of events and personalities. I would have thought, for instance, that no historian of late Roman Gaul could any longer write that “[Clovis’s] baptism took place in Reims, on Christmas Day, 496” (p. 7), without at least mentioning the considerable doubts raised in the past thirty years about the place and date of that event. It is also not likely that Clovis’s Christian orthodoxy had much or any role to play in the politics of his conquests (p. 7). 5 Furthermore, references to Gallo-Romans and Franks as “racial groups” (pp. 16, 44) do not suggest much understanding of the processes of cultural mixing and ethnogenesis that formed these heterogeneous peoples. The author is also not fully informed about Merovingian ecclesiastical history. A misreading of Gregory of Tours, Historiae IX. 40, appears to be responsible for her belief that bishop Caesarius of Arles and his sister Caesaria were still alive when queen Radegund visited the city in c. 570 (p. 164); in fact the bishop had by then been dead for more than a quarter century, and his sister for almost fifty years. 6 G. also seems unaware (p. 164, n. 60) that the Caesaria who wrote to Radegund was not the bishop’s sister, Caesaria (the Elder), but another relative, Caesaria (the Younger), who died in c. 559. It is this Caesaria to whom G. means to refer on p. 170. 7 For a more accurate guide to the prosopography and historical background of Fortunatus’s poems, one must still turn to Brian Brennan’s work of the last decade.

Despite its flaws, G.’s book does make a contribution to the literature on Fortunatus. Non-specialists will find its survey of Fortunatus’s secular (and to some extent Christian) poetry useful as a point de départ. Latinless readers will welcome the six poems translated in the appendix, although they may wish that G. had provided translations of all thirty four poems discussed in the book. And specialists may find it worthwhile to examine G.’s commentary on individual poems. 8

  • [1] “Ingenio clarus, sensu celer, ore suavis,” Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum II. 13. ed. L. Bethmann and G. Waitz, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores Rerum Langobardicarum et Italicarum (Hanover, 1878), 80. [2] D. Tardi, Fortunat: Étude sur un dernier représentant de la poésie latine dans la Gaule mérovingienne (Paris, 1927). [3] “Variations on Themes of Consolation in the Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus,”Eranos 86 (1988), 53-66, and “Poet as Politician : Venantius Fortunatus’ Panegyric to King Chilperic,”Journal of Medieval History 15 (1989), 5-18. [4] B. Brennan, “Bishops and Community in the Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus” (Melbourne, 1983). [5] For a full discussion of both points, see I. N. Wood, “Gregory of Tours and Clovis,”Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire 63 (1985), 249-72. [6] On the problem of Radegund’s visit to Arles and her adoption of Caesarius’s Regula virginum for her monastery in Poitiers, see A. de Vogüé and J. Courreau (edd.), Césaire d’Arles. Oeuvres monastiques, vol. 1, Oeuvres pour les moniales, Sources Chrétiennes 345 (Paris, 1988), 443-57. [7] ibid., 456-57. [8] I would like to express my thanks to Frank Mantello and John Petruccione for commenting on a draft of this review.