BMCR 2021.02.19

Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages

, , , Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020. Pp. xxxiv, 510. ISBN 9780674238381. $35.00.

In this excellent and well-crafted volume, Hexter, Pfuntner and Haynes have performed a great service for all scholars interested in the later tradition of Ovid. The Appendix Ovidiana brings together for the first time 34 Latin poems written from Late Antiquity to the late Middle Ages whose authorship is credited to Ovid in the manuscript tradition but not by modern editors. The title is perhaps a little deceptive in that very few of these poems circulated together during the Middle Ages, as was the case in the so-called Appendix Virgiliana. The resulting collection is perforce rather a grab bag, ranging from the short Words for Pan, which is really a long string of adjectives describing the deity, to the voluminous de Vetula (On the Old Woman), undoubtedly the most famous and widely-read piece in the collection. Some of the poems are already quite well known to scholars of Ovid. Two poems, the Halieutica, here given the title Versus de piscibus et feris, and the Nux, are still attributed to Ovid by some scholars, while the Consolatio ad Liviam is now judged to be an Ovidian imitation dating to the first century. The remarkable range of genre and style displayed in the collection sets a very high bar for our translators, but they have accomplished their task with generally very favorable results.

The Appendix Ovidiana consists of a concise introduction, 34 poems with facing Latin text and English translation, background notes to the poems, textual notes to the Latin text, wherein the translators indicate where they have queried or diverged from the text of the printed editions, and background notes to the English translations. In most instances, the translators work from the best printed text, but in at least one instance (On the Lamb, p. 104) they publish the editio princeps of the poem. In line with the editorial principles of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, no apparatus criticus is provided at the bottom of the Latin text, all textual questions being relegated to the notes at the back of the volume.  Background notes to the translation are also kept to a strict minimum.

The volume opens with a brief but concise introduction which pays homage to Hexter’s comprehensive and insightful study of pseudo-Ovidian texts published in Ovid in the Middle Ages in 2011 (“Shades of Ovid,” pp. 284-309).  The translators acknowledge their debt to this earlier article.  The introduction to the present volume does a very creditable job of situating the 34 poems in relation to their Ovidian models, in elucidating the manuscript circulation of the texts in the Middle Ages, and in setting forth the editorial principles used in establishing the Latin text.

Each of the poems is equipped with explanatory notes entitled “Notes on the Text” and “Notes on the Translations” The first section (Notes on the Text) in general provides the manuscript source for the text, as well as a reference to modern critical editions.  The second section (Notes on the Translations) is very helpful in identifying classical allusions for the reader who lacks extensive background in Classics. I do wonder if at times the translators might have been a little more forthcoming in pointing out Ovidian echoes in the medieval poetry.  For example, on p. 463 the medieval poet’s use of prouagam Io is noted, but no mention is made of the fact that Ovid describes her as profugam at Met. 1.727, nor that Horace in his Ars Poetica recommends she be painted as “vaga” (Ars Poetica, 124).

But most readers of this volume will be interested in the translations themselves. Many of these texts are written in a Latin far removed from Ovid’s elegant hexameters and elegiac couplets. Several poems in the collection (specifically the de Vetula, to which I shall return below) would try the abilities and ingenuity of the finest translator. The sections on eunuchs and gaming from the de Vetula are, in a word, challenging. Our trio of translators have done a good job rendering such exquisitely tortured Latin into readable and easy-to-follow English. On the whole, it seems that the balance falls on the side of a readable text for the scholar who approaches these texts with little Latin or who is using the English translation as a crib to better understand the original. I would also here like to pay tribute to the way in which Latin and English texts have been set up, with both Latin text and English translation closely coordinated to the line numbers printed in the margin.

As one test of the general scholarship and accuracy of the volume, I checked the Latin text of On the Lamb, p. 104 against the manuscript copy (Vatican City, BAV, Chig. H.VI 205, fol. 31r) and I can report that the text seems to be reported with absolute accuracy.

Let us now turn to look more closely at selected sections of translation from the de Vetula to illustrate some of the problems confronting the translators. The end of Book One of the de Vetula (pp. 167-195 of the Appendix Ovidiana) contains an intricate and head-spinning discussion of dice and the vast combinations in which they may fall. I reproduce the Latin text and English translation from pp. 164-5 of the Appendix Ovidiana (De Vetula 1.406-419) to illustrate the amount of care and ingenuity which must have gone into translating the Latin:

“Forte tamen dices quosdam praestare quibusdam
ex numeris, quibus est lusoribus usus, eo quod,
cum decius sit sex laterum sex et numerorum
simplicium, tribus in deciis sunt octo decemque,
quorum non nisi tres possunt deciis superesse.
Hi diversimode variantur, et inde bis octo
compositi numeri nascuntur, non tamen aequae
virtutis, quoniam maiores atque minores
ipsorum raro veniunt mediique frequenter
et reliqui, quanto mediis quavis propiores
tanto praestantes et saepius advenientes;
his punctatura tantum venientibus una,
illis sex, aliis mediocriter inter utrosque,
sic ut sint duo maiores totidemque minores,
una quibus sit punctatura…”

“Yet perhaps you will say that certain of the numbers used by players are superior to others, since, although a die consists of six sides and just six numbers, on three dice there are eighteen, of which only three can be on top of the dice. These vary in different ways, and from these sixteen numbers different compound numbers arise, but not of equal worth, because the higher and lower combinations happen rarely, the middle ones frequently, and as for the rest, the closer they are in any way to the middle ones, the better they are and the more frequently they occur. The higher and lower numbers occur only with one configuration of the dice, the middle ones happen with six, and the rest happen with configurations between these two, such that there are two larger compound numbers and exactly as many smaller ones that have a single configuration of dice.”

The narrator goes on for some twenty more pages discussing not only dice games but chess (p. 179) and rithmachia (p. 183). Pp. 197-209 offer a second example of the ingenuity of the translators. Herein the author of the poem develops a diatribe on eunuchs that encompasses the realms of grammar, mathematics, dialectic, and metaphysics. P. 204 (2.143-155) hones in on why eunuchs must not be priests:

O quicumque deus, cuius templo dominatur
tam deforme pectus cuiusque effeminat aras,
si deus esse potest infortunatus, eorum                     145
infortunatissimus es, pro quo reperiri
non potuit de tot modo milibus integer unus!
Rictus ei, non risus inest, et sacrificari
Deberet certe potius quam sacrificare,
Cui tamen ex superis holocaustum tale placeret,      150
turpe pecus mutilum, quod porca foedius, hirco
fetidius, nisi forte, suas ut liberet aras,
quas miserabiliter ementulus occupat iste,
compensare velit clavumque retundere clavo,
turpe ministerium redimit dum victima turpis.        155

The lines are of interest for several reasons: they contain many Ovidian stylistic conceits and echoes (vv. 147, 148, 149-150), they use proverbial expressions (v. 154, clavum retundere clavo), and one finds the unattested adjective ementulus, which our translators render as “dickless wonder” (perhaps trying to capture in English the effect of this unusual Latin adjective?). Since ementulus is so rare, it might have been helpful in the section on Notes to the Translations to explain its etymology.

In such a wide-ranging volume in which the authors have so successfully made accessible arcane texts to a broad readership, it is perhaps churlish to offer a very few words of criticism.  My one small suggestion, and indeed plea (because I am a paleographer), is to urge literary scholars to use care in citing manuscripts. This may seem like a niggling point, but one should remember that the shelf mark is to the manuscript what the fingerprint is to the detective: without an absolutely accurate one, the scholar may have difficulty finding his text in a library (even in these days of computers, experto crede!) The translators of the Appendix Ovidiana sometimes erroneously report the names of libraries. The Biblioteca comunale Passerini-Landi becomes the Biblioteca communale Passerini-Landi; the Burgerbibliothek in Berne is adorned with an umlaut; the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana becomes the Biblioteca apostolica, and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz becomes simply the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek.  These are venial sins. More importantly, sometimes shelf marks are misrepresented. Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana and the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria should be cited with a double set of shelf marks. For example, at p. 431, the manuscript alluded to in the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria as lat. 157 should be cited as Est. lat. 157 (α.O.6.26), while at p. xxi, Venice, Marciana lat. XII 192 should be cited as Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, lat. XII 192 (=4653).

The volume is handsomely produced. The type chosen is clear and a joy to read (bravo to the editors of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library). Best of all, all this Wissenschaft comes at the bargain price of 35 dollars. This volume marks an important addition to the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. It makes accessible for the first time Latin poems circulating under Ovid’s name from antiquity to the late Middle Ages. It should be on every medievalist’s bookshelf.