BMCR 1996.03.10

1996.3.10, Baswell, Virgil in Medieval England

, Virgil in medieval England : figuring the Aeneid from the twelfth century to Chaucer. Cambridge studies in medieval literature ; 24. : Cambridge University Press, 1995. xviii, 438 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780521462945

The margin of a book is a space that tempts the reader, a space where the reader, even when he knows he should not, expresses participation in the text. Such participation, cramped by a sense that such activity is a violation, may be in shorthand, or it may take the form of fuller commentary in which laudation, invective, anger, puzzlement, or any other emotion plays a part. When the margins become too small, and the impulse becomes strong enough, the reader will move from the margin to a larger format. And when the text in question is seen as “not just an instance of inimitable verbal power, but also a source of historical truth” (4), and that across cultural, linguistic and religious boundaries, then the margins will create an interest almost independent of the text to which they belonged. “Whether acknowledging Virgil’s centrality or challenging his truth and his faith,” writes Christopher Baswell (5), “medieval writers repeatedly if unwillingly and even unconsciously find themselves writing in his margins. It is to such margins, literal and metaphorical, that this book addresses itself.” This dense and learned book ostensibly restricts itself to one corner of the reception of Virgil, to the study of marginalia to manuscripts, and other evidence “from out the Northern island,” as Tennyson would put it, but it in fact demonstrates how connected and thorough is the reading of Virgil in late antique and medieval Europe: Servius, Macrobius, Fulgentius and other earlier Virgilians deeply permeate and participate in B.’s localized traditions.

B.’s aim is to use the evidence of this period to identify and discuss “three dominant visions of the Aeneid“: allegorization, which is traditionally seen as deriving chiefly from Fulgentius’ view of the poem as a reflection of the progress of spiritual man; the poem’s connection with popular vernacular histories—the romance Aeneid, which focuses on the women with whom Aeneas is connected, above all Dido; and a “pedagogical” vision, achieved by grammatical and rhetorical approaches, and connected with the schools, whose aim is the restoration of the historical conditions of the poem. The evidence from actual manuscripts is confined to two of these visions, allegorization and pedagogy: chapter 2 treats pedagogy via annotations in the 12th century manuscript of Virgil, Oxford, All Souls College 82 (AS82); chapter 3, spiritual and scientific allegoresis as it is found in Cambridge, Peterhouse College 158 (P158); chapter 4, moral allegoresis as found in London, British Library Additional 27304 (BL Add. 27304). Chapter 5 shifts the focus away from these two visions to vernacular adaptation, specifically to the 12th century Anglo-Norman Roman d’ Eneas; while chapter 6 (“Writing the reading of Virgil’), in a sense is explores the accumulation of the preceding 200 pages and the reception of this reception in Chaucer’s House of Fame and The Legend of Good Women. B. has produced a work of cultural history, revealing in its explorations, and ranging widely in the areas of philology, palaeography, history, literary criticism and theory. His eclecticism will be refreshing to those who tire of monolithic theoretical and practical approaches to cultural and literary history.

Chapter 1 (“Auctor to Auctoritas“) distinguishes the reception to be found in MSS from that to be found in other media, specifically works which branch out and create new Virgils. The chapter is an excellent synthesis and summary of numerous works from late antiquity into the middle ages ( centones, sortes, Dictys and Dares, etc.). He also studies the darker Aeneas, particularly in relation to Dido, who is frequently depicted as chaste, and in the process he looks (21-30) at the visual reception, to be recovered from MS illustrations. The illustrations do what (transmission of) the text cannot easily manage: they interpret and alter, particularly in the focus on Dido’s erotic state (25) and her tragedy, and shifts “which challenge Virgil’s primary emphasis on male heroism” (25)—though this may be an underreading of Virgil: the seeds of the vernacular Dido and Aeneas are there in Virgil for many readers. And some illustrations constitute a form of contamination, for instance when the Carthaginians lament the death of Dido, a scene not in Virgil, though reported in the Roman d’ Eneas and the Histoire ancienne. Vernacular priorities move into learned, Latin manuscript, affecting or “contesting” its textual focus. These priorities include an emphasis on women, and B. argues (27-8) that illustrations foregrounding Dido in the opening of the Eneas are to be seen as competing with the Aeneas who is prominent in Aeneid illustrations. If I have a criticism of this, it is that B. tends, as throughout, to have to isolate and monumentalize the “the preoccupations of the central Latin text,” which the vernacular tradition challenges and with which it competes. But those preoccupations are the results of readings, not to be simply identified with the original text, which already contains the seeds for subversion, seeds waiting to be nurtured by the hermeneutic enterprise of the vernacular. Dido has, after all, seemed fairly “central” to many readers of Virgil, not just to those of medieval Romance! B.’s insistence on the pervasive polemic of the Virgil tradition is salutary, and it will perhaps be reassuring for classicists to recognize that such polemic is not confined to the late 20th century, but is a condition of Virgilian exegesis.

Chapter 2 (“Pedagogical exegesis of Virgil in medieval England: Oxford, All Souls College 82”) explores the layers of commentary that may be teased out of the marginalia of this 12th century MS. In B.’s analysis AS 82 functions as a link back to Servius and ahead to Italian humanism, and it shows a deep interest in allegory, ethical questions, and other pedagogical concerns inherited from the Servian tradition, and still very much alive. Good use is made of Robert Kaster’s “superb new study” ( Guardians of Language [Berkeley 1989]), particularly in the contextualizing of Servius’ pedagogy in issues of social prestige and power. B. distinguishes at least three levels of interlinear or marginal commentary, from the single-word gloss up to larger exegetical commentary, and extending from the twelfth to the late fourteenth century. He well brings out a sense of Virgil flourishing as a text for the classroom. The “higher” level of commentary represents an “historically oriented reading of a high order,” particularly in its interest in the relationship between Virgil and Augustus: here we find refutation of the anti-Aeneas tradition that has such a healthy life in the vernacular treatments, and a strong sense of adherence to the Servian orthodox pedagogical position that the Aeneid‘s function is to praise Augustus.

Chapter 3 (“Spiritual allegory, platonizing cosmology, and the Boetian Aeneid in medieval England: Cambridge Peterhouse College 158″) and Chapter 4 (“Moral allegory and the Aeneid in the time of Chaucer: London, BL Additional 27304″) examine the range of allegorical readings that find a place in the MS annotations, and that will become part of the literary reception of Virgil. In some very dense pages, B. attempts to fill in the hiatus between the allegorical preoccupations of Fulgentius and Bernard Silvestris and their manifestations in Dante and Chaucer. He looks at the development from gloss to commentum, which brings with it the increasing involvement of the reader and his attempt to domesticate the auctor. The phenomenon of allegorical reading is alien to our rationalism, and presupposes a strongly philosophical and Christian way of reading, which has not been much in vogue for some centuries, so it is salutary to have such a thorough demonstration of the pervasiveness of such reading.

Chapter 5 (“The Romance Aeneid,” [50 large pages]) begins the more consistently hermeneutic part of the book, in which themes such as the demands of the feminine will and the interests of trade emerge to challenge the aristocratic values of the Aeneid. B. is somewhat tendentious in his claim that Lavinia “exists only as a name in Virgil’s Aeneid” (211 “ignored in its Virgilian source”). She may do little more but blush, but that blush and the mystery both of its cause and effect, have created a great deal of critical discussion. He claims that the Roman d’Eneas recreates Lavine as an Ovidian student of Amors—a possibility, although one looks for a little more evidence for “competition between Ovid and Virgil in the Eneas“. B. suggests that this metaphor may be seen as the Latinless woman’s attempt to express her erotic will via the vernacular, which competes on its own terms (vernacular) with the male-dominated Latin epic. At the same time, in Pierre de Saintes’ Latin poem “Viribus, arte, minis” and the common part it played with marginalia in the education of the young Henry II, we find the traditional Aeneas being reconstructed for traditional hierarchical functions. This presupposes, although B. does not really believe in such a thing, a monolithic, “Augustan” Virgilian Aeneid, which is undercut by the subversive tradition. The truth is, again, that the seeds of subversion are there from the beginning. In the section “Containing Dido” the interests of empire are opposed to those of the subversive female will, with the mandatory stabilizing of the Virgilian version, whose “Dido is ultimately silenced in ashes.” The vernacular tradition is made to start with Ovid’s Dido, who however has her roots in the Virgilian one after all. And the view that only the extra-Virgilian tradition exhibits “private erotic and mortal longing which literally brackets the Virgilian” ignores (for instance) Apollonius’ Medea and Catullus’ Ariadne (never mentioned), of whom Virgil’s Dido is a reworking, and whose concerns, like those of Virgil’s Dido are private, erotic and very mortal (katasterism notwithstanding). At pp. 200-210 New Historicists will find interest in the treatment of Turnus, Camille, Pallas, Evander, and in the way that contemporary concerns (trading, law) enter into the rewriting.

Chapter 6 (“Writing the reading of Virgil: Chaucerian authorities in the House of Fame and The Legend of Good Women” [another 50 page chapter]) well establishes the complexity of the state of Virgil for a late medieval reader such as Chaucer). We seem to be in the realm of the contemporary reader (222): “Chaucer’s narrator in the House of Fame records the experience of working through an ancient and prestigious text overloaded with almost irreconcilable meanings and challenged by a growing body of alternate versions. The question becomes whether a just interpretation of Virgil’s text, and a just knowledge of the past, are possible at all.” He sees a progression from the House of Fame to the Legend of Good Women from “bewildered readership to a self-authenticating and self-canonizing authority;” this sounds neat, but it does not convincingly emerge from the discussion. Pp. 223-30 explore Aeneas and Geffrey (the Chaucerian narrator) as “hermeneutic heroes” each engaged in the attempt to “read,” particularly to read the ecphrases of their poems. B. has a fine sense of intertextual engagement. The major conclusion of this chapter in effect presents us with a large ring composition, by suggesting that the three visions of Virgil detected in the manuscript marginalia become the three preoccupations of the Chaucerian texts, thereby suggesting the unity of the Virgilian activity in these years, whether in Latin pedagogy or vernacular poetic composition. It may be so, but the evidence presented is not fully convincing.

A final brief chapter looks to the transition from medieval reception to that of the Renaissance. There are also, as earlier, some good observations on polemic and Virgilian criticism, again useful reading for those who think polemics have ever been far from discussions of Virgil. The style can be leisurely (121 “intriguing note at Aeneid 6, lines 724 and following”; i.e. “cf. on Aen. 6.724 ff.”), the book is very well produced (though cf,. 268 ‘paeon’), and although its hermeneutic stance will not convince all, it opens up a fascinating world to which access is far from easy for the student of Virgilian reception. Whatever one’s ultimate view of the literary function of the vernacular redactions, or the sophistication of the critical thinking behind the marginalia, B. shows well that Virgil was alive and well in the British Isles in the high and later Middle Ages, as he abundantly establishes the flourishing interest, as evidenced through transmission and accretion of scholia, through commentaries, through the syntheses of the Roman d’Eneas and the works of Chaucer.