BMCR 2018.05.19

The Lives of Ovid in Seventeenth-Century French Culture. Oxford modern languages and literature monographs

, The Lives of Ovid in Seventeenth-Century French Culture. Oxford modern languages and literature monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xi, 195. ISBN 9780198796770. $85.00.


The plural noun ‘lives’ in the title of this book indicates the heterogeneity of classical reception that is the focus of Helena Taylor’s study on Ovid in early modern France. And the noun is well chosen: in the five chapters of her book the author demonstrates how early modern authors have made use of Ovid’s biography as cultural currency. In different ways, they have assigned to Ovid particular characteristics or ways of life, leading to a wide variety of early modern Ovidii.

Taylor analyses how Ovid’s ‘playful and complex exploration of the boundaries between the biographical and the poetic self’ (p. 30) in his texts actively stimulated the poet’s reception. Furthermore, in her study Taylor efficiently evaluates a wide range of paratextual elements: apart from Ovid’s source texts, the material forms in which these texts have been printed were decisive elements of reception. She has investigated a large variety of sources, the diversity of which is clearly discernible by the many citations in her book. Although it is focussed on seventeenth-century France, its geographical value must not be limited accordingly, and the author includes English translations for all quotations.

In her introduction (p. 3), Taylor acknowledges two guiding paradoxes as starting points for her investigation. First, Ovid as an ancient poet ‘became key to the formulation of aspects of self-consciously “modern” cultural movements’ in the seventeenth-century French debate of the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes : the public discussion of how to approach or to treat ancient culture. This context functions as the book’s main theme. The case studies that constitute most of the book show how subtle and diversified this cultural debate was. It enables the author to address not only general developments, but also detailed and individual instances of how this general theme was part of the early modern French literary writing. Second, Ovid’s relation to Augustus was a way to talk about defiance of early modern royal power at the same time that his mythological works supported the royal image. The central question of this study has been derived from these two paradoxes and investigates how Ovid, as the ancient poet, was an important figure within the genre of galanterie as well as a model of exile for seventeenth-century French authors.

Each chapter addresses ‘a different genre of life-writing’ (p. 141). Chapter one presents an analysis of Ovid’s own biographical accounts in his literary work. It also demonstrates the connected development of his medieval and early modern canonical biographies. Taylor shows what influential role paratexts play in the process of reception, as she discusses the Latin vita and the vernacular vie of Ovid that accompany text editions of his work. Taylor convincingly argues that the vita and vie were not just neutral descriptions of the poet’s life, but also means to frame the book in which they were printed and to position its author within the scholarly tradition. The canonical appropriations of Ovid’s life as displayed in this first chapter are crucial understandings to the succeeding chapters.

The galant development is only a minor aspect of the argument in chapter one. As of chapter two, this topic is more at the centre of attention. Taylor relies on and confirms the conclusions of Marie-Claire Chatelain’s important study, Ovide savant, Ovide galant (2008), showing the broad French shift from a scholarly to a more galant approach to the ancient poet. In her second chapter, Taylor further elaborates on the topic of paratextual influence by investigating the broader range of front matter provided in translated editions of Ovid. She demonstrates that translators used characterisations of the poet to portray their own stylistic objectives and in doing so made Ovid’s life a means to position themselves in contemporary debates on language and translation.

Chapter three – the reworking of a research article (cf. Acknowledgements) – focuses on fictional versions of Ovid’s life in the genre of histoire galante. A detailed analysis of examples of French fiction in this chapter results in a profoundly French scope, which contrasts with the other chapters, where it is easier to transfer conclusions to a broader European perspective. Especially female writers of the histoire galante genre found in Ovid a comprehensible subject because they appropriated Ovid’s portrayal of female characters to reflect on themselves. Besides the mystery surrounding the identity of Ovid’s mistress, a second Ovidian enigma, his banishment, was appropriated by early modern writers, who used it as a means to examine contemporary dynamics of power at court. The reasons that may have caused Ovid’s banishment were prominent canonical aspects of Ovid’s life, as indicated by the humanist tradition of compiling his biography. This enabled the banishment to become a central theme in the early modern appropriations of Ovid. Via the mystery of Ovid’s banishment created by the ancient poet himself in his texts, the genre of histoire galante became a place to question the objectivity of historical narrative.

The theme of exile returns even more profoundly in the fourth chapter, which investigates the case of two French exiles who deliberately identify with their ancient predecessor, even though the character of their banishments from court differs from that of Ovid’s exile from the Roman world. The poet Théophile de Viau, for example, was described as ‘French Ovid’ by his defenders after he had been banished. De Viau himself has used the Ovidian exile as a motif in his works. The mysteries Ovid himself had created by obscuring the circumstances of his banishment have been explained, revealed and used. In this way, Ovid provided a context of discourse between the exile and the one responsible for the banishment. This focus is original: Taylor shows how the topic of exile was a prominent aspect of Ovid’s life in the early modern appropriation process. By doing this, she importantly contributes to our knowledge of Ovidian reception, in which field of study Ovid as a love poet has frequently been the main focus.

The fifth and last chapter turns its focus to another genre of literature: the biographical dictionary. Again, Ovid’s banishment is of most concern. Taylor analyses how the limited knowledge of Ovid’s case reflects a broader early modern view on the limitations of historiography. In relation to literary context, power dynamics, or both, chapters one through four provided case studies in which Taylor shows how contemporary constructs of Ovid’s life serve different purposes in various circumstances. Chapter five, however, is not concerned with the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes or power dynamics, and therefore seems a bit tangential to the book as a whole, especially because Taylor’s discussion is based on eighteenth-century sources. However different these temporal circumstances, the author displays a striking thematic continuity in Ovidian appropriation of the exile as an important topos.

In this study, early modern appropriation of the ancient world is investigated as a construct that is embedded within the tradition of reception, and that is manifested materially in text editions that anticipate contemporary circumstances. Hereby, Taylor discloses the complexity of the appropriation process. She elaborately analyses how the mechanisms of appropriation varied according to contemporaneous demands. For example, an important minor insight of this study concerns Ovid’s eroticism, discussed in chapter two. The association of Ovid with obscenity was an enduring problematic circumstance for his post-classical appropriation. Taylor exposes Ovid nonetheless as a means in the debate of galanterie exactly because of these conflicting appreciations. She clarifies how interpretation of seemingly problematic aspects in early modern context was possible, and therefore helps to explain Ovid’s popularity. This example shows how Taylor’s study is valuable in our understanding of Ovidian reception in general, in addition to the specific early modern French context of her book. For example the fact that many of the print materials that form the research corpus of this book have been printed in the Low Countries indicates that the appropriation mechanisms as investigated by Taylor could just as much be called European as French.

However broad the perspective of Taylor’s discussion, the view on the ancient author’s reception as it results from this book is rather limited. This is something the reader of the book has to be aware of, rather than a point of critique on the study under review. Reading the book might suggest that Ovid’s reception was by definition a way of engaging in contemporary disputes and quarrels. Nevertheless, a great part of the immense print production containing Ovid’s works did not even include, for example, a vita. And these editions were not involved as strongly as Taylor’s cases in representing Ovid with a specifically constructed biography. These editions presented a text on mythology, which was frequently framed as a traditional way of learning morals. This does not affect the value of Taylor’s argument, but emphasises that her specific cases are compelling instances within the widely varying field of reception.

Apart from the aspects already discussed, this study is a valuable contribution to current scholarship from at least two points of view. First, as a case study it analyses the historical Ovid as a valuable part of studying the subtle and at the same time wide-ranging appropriation of this author. Traditionally, investigating the reception of Ovid has frequently been restricted to analysis of his literary oeuvre. Taylor makes clear how strongly the early modern appropriation of this oeuvre may relate to the reception of Ovid as the writer of these texts. Second, this study deepens our insight into book history: by tracing paratextual strategies Taylor demonstrates that paratextual research is a valuable field of interest for classical reception studies. Without explicitly mentioning paratext as a research interest, the author deals with different levels of paratextuality. For example, she construes a process of early modern selection, explanation, and expurgation by paratextual elements (p. 82-3) to present Ovid as ‘female-friendly’, from a male perspective, that is. Women, however, produced their own paratexts: fictional texts about Ovid’s life based on the ancient author’s self-representation, in which Ovid was approached to present their self-conscious roles in society (p. 84-6). The interaction between these different paratextual levels within a literary culture, deliberately used to represent a social conception, is present throughout this book as an important approach to early modern cultural history.

The various research perspectives that the author of this book brings together in her analysis of early modern source material make it of interest to a wide variety of scholars within cultural history: it is an important contribution to Ovidian reception as well as to early-modern French literature and to book history.