BMCR 2005.09.59

Response: Roggen on Aveline on Roggen

Response to 2004.04.07

Response by

First of all, I wish to thank Dr. John Aveline for his thorough review of my book, Intellectual play – word and picture: a study of Nils Thomasson’s Latin rebus book “Cestus sapphicus”; I really appreciate it. In particular, I am delighted that Aveline says he wants to present Nils Thomasson’s rebus book, Cestus sapphicus (CS) to his students — as an example of how Latin could be used. I am also grateful to Aveline for valuable observations, for instance that Thomasson employs unusual nouns to the same effect as proper names, to give him greater flexibility to create rebuses.

However, there are some questions that I would like to discuss. Let me begin with Aesculapium. Aveline writes:

206: Concerning the passage from CS“AESCULAPIUM ) notat aerem & hujus filiam Hygiea id est bonam valetudinem” R changes filiam to filia for a better reading. This does not really provide a better reading. R takes Aesculapius and filia as subjects of notat, but Aesculapius is already ungrammatical in this context so that changing filiam does not really improve matters. Better to take filiam as the object of notat and read as “the word Aesculapius denotes air and his daughter, Hygiea, that is, good health.”

The problematic passage is found in Thomasson’s commentary on the first verse of stanza 27: “Huic tenax qv nacta patrem Aescul{apium}” (where apium is represented by the picture of a parsley plant), and in translation “Let she whose father is Aesculapius hold him tight”. Thus, Aesculapius’ daughter is mentioned in the poem, but in a way that calls for an explanation, and, as I read the commentary, Nils Thomasson explains the meaning of the daughter — namely Hygiea, good health. My answer to Aveline’s assertion that Aesculapius (Aesculapium) is ungrammatical is that Thomasson quotes the lemmata in the form they have in the poem; in this case, “Aesculapium”.

The explanation for the form “Vergilius” in my “Register of names II” (names used in Cestus sapphicus) is that I use the form from Thomasson’s book. I state this principle in the introduction to the register, on p. 510.

Concerning the core of the work, the rebus poem, there seems to be some misunderstanding. Taken as a whole, this is not a wedding poem, as Aveline says, but a poem on marriage. In the commentary on stanza 25, Thomasson gives the information that stanzas 25-27 were originally a wedding poem to a certain Thomas Trulsson. Consequently, we know from Thomasson himself that the genre of wedding rebus existed in Norway; this is not a conclusion I draw from the later German example, as Aveline says. Rather, my argument is that it is likely that the genre existed in Germany at the time when Thomasson was a student there in the 1620s — but in German, not in Latin; we have Thomasson’s word for it that to his knowledge no one had attempted anything similar in Latin. I have demonstrated that wedding riddles existed in Germany at the time, and that rebuses were common, e.g., in the propaganda during the Thirty Years’ War.

Aveline’s conclusion made me happy: that my book opens a number of avenues to further inquiry. However, he finds that the book “is far too divided up into subsections”, and that the “overall effect is one of extreme choppiness”. I can understand Aveline’s point of view; nevertheless, I would like to explain the reason as I see it why my book turned out this way.

My first problem when working on CS, a many-faceted work, which no scholar before me had read, was the struggle to comprehend. There was a rebus poem in Latin. There was a poem printed together with the author’s very learned commentaries, with hundreds of references to ancient and contemporary literature. There was a comparatively brief poem, published with the author’s plan ( dispositio) of the contents in the form of a logical table — possibly in Ramist fashion.1 There was a set of rebus rules which I found theoretically very advanced,2 but with no influence whatsoever on the development of the genre, since apparently the book was not distributed outside a small circle in Denmark-Norway (in addition to the hereditary prince and later King Christian V). There was a dedicatory introduction in the form of a very learned essay on the subject of scholars’ need to relax. To this one may add some historical and biographical complications related to the introduction of absolute monarchy in Denmark-Norway and Thomasson’s political activity. For me, this created a need to search for parallels, and to establish a context; that is, a need for empirical work: to identify the literary works referred to, to study the contemporary use of logic in various fields, including poetry, to study the practice of rebuses and related genres, and so on. The results are presented systematically, in an attempt to contextualize CS and its elements. I see that the subsections are very brief, and I agree with Aveline that I might have carried on further with some of the discussions that I raise, “especially at the end of chapters”. In addition to the empirical work, I also present some results of a more theoretical and methodological character: a classification of three types of rebuses, according to the word-picture relationship (pp. 78 f); a definition of reference to sources, as basis for the treatment of the sources quantitatively (pp. 215 f); a model of CS, where each of its elements is given a certain position according to its relationship to the core of the work, namely the rebus poem (pp. 83 f).

My major discussion comes at the end of Part I, and I see now that even this part has very brief subsections. Nevertheless, I am able to answer the two important questions for the understanding of CS that I asked in my introduction. First, related to the author’s claim: Is CS what we may call an original work? My answer is yes. I have found absolutely no parallel to CS. And concerning the rebus poem, of which the author says that he does not know anything like it in Latin, he seems to be right.3 The second question is: What is the genre of CS? And I conclude that it can be described most precisely as learned entertainment.


1. Ramist, named after Petrus Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée, 1515-72), the controversial professor of logic at the University of Paris who was killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

2. My evaluation has been confirmed by the Italian Rebus Association, Associazione Rebusistica Italiana in a power point presentation (to be published).

3. Margolin does not bring examples of Latin rebuses, in Histoire du rébus (= Jean Céard and Jean-Claude Margolin: Rébus de la Renaissance, vol. 1, Paris 1986). Nor did Dick Higgins know CS; he explicitly says that he has not found any pieces from Norway. ( Pattern Poetry. Guide to an Unknown Literature, Albany 1987, p. 93). CS is, however, mentioned (as the only example of the genre of Neo-Latin rebus) in Josef IJsewijn and Dirk Sacré: Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, Part II, Leuven 1998, p. 130: “Rebus poems in Latin are rare. A marvellous example comes from Norway…”. I had personally shown CS to IJsewijn when he visited Oslo in 1993, and he took great interest in it and had never seen anything like it.