BMCR 2022.06.31

Venantius Fortunatus: Vita Sancti Martini, Prologue and Books I-II

, Venantius Fortunatus: Vita Sancti Martini, Prologue and Books I-II. Cambridge classical texts and commentaries. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 584. ISBN 9781108654258 $156.00.


Nauta rudis tumido cum vult dare vela profundo
atque procellosas nescius intrat aquas,
raucisono latrante salo cum perstrepit aequor
et vaga terrifico murmurat unda freto,
exiliens pelagus colles ubi volvit aquosos
planaque dorsa maris mobile rupe tument,
naufragii cumulos rapiens per confraga pontus
qua crepitat rapidus monte natante liquor,
certatim inplicitam quatiunt vada caerula cumbam,
cum liquidi campi pensile transit iter.

When the inexperienced mariner wishes to set sail on the raging deep and enters unskilled the stormy waters, when the billows roar with their salty surge roughly barking and the shifting sea rumbles in terrifying narrows, when the towering main rolls forward watery hills and the sea’s level plateau swells up in a moving cliff, with the ocean carrying off heaps of flotsam through reefs where its swift waters crash with swaying mountains, eagerly the dark waves batter the little boat they have snared as it makes its suspended course on liquid fields. (text and translation: N. M. Kay)

Venantius Fortunatus (6th century CE, Gaul) is a challenging author to translate. Whoever has embarked — to use a metaphor the poet is particularly fond of — on the journey of reading Fortunatus remembers the poet’s long initial sentences,[1] his seas of participles with no conjugated verb to be found, and verse after verse of attributes. Nigel M. Kay has sailed this sea courageously and is offering his readers a splendid text, translation and commentary of the first two of four books of Fortunatus’s grand œuvre, the Vita Sancti Martini (VSM), the versified life of Saint Martin. The VSM, for all its difficulty, is a rewarding read. The treasure trove of Fortunatus contains such gems as his list of predecessors with individualized wordplay on each of their names (VSM I 14–25), a highly crafted metaphorical image of freezing rivers as ‘water cloaking itself in a tunic of frozen water’ as the backdrop to Saint Martin’s famous division of the cloak (I 52–55), or a comic (and remarkably psychological) rendition of the devil trying to convince Martin that he is Christ and evaporating in a fart (II 278–357). It is fun to read Fortunatus. Nigel M. Kay’s edition, with its elegant but faithful translation and helpful but never tedious commentary, opens this enjoyable text to a wider readership and will be a useful tool for generations of scholars to come. But instead of heaping up more vain praise, I shall give a detailed description of the book.

The book is made up of a comprehensive introduction, a newly edited text of the VSM, Books I–II, with a new translation on facing pages. This is followed by a detailed commentary that takes up the largest part. Text, translation and commentary are complemented by an appendix that includes the Epistula ad Gregorium (with translation), the prose Vita Sancti Martini by Sulpicius Severus and Books I-III of the versified version by Paulinus of Périgueux (both without translation). There is an index of ‘Latin words’, ‘select passages’, and ‘names and topics’ discussed in the commentary.

The introduction sketches (1) the poet’s life and his works; (2) discusses the date of composition and the controversy whether the Epistula ad Gregorium is a dedicatory letter; (3) includes a brief but useful introduction to hagiography and epic paraphrase; (4) puts the VSM and the earlier lives of Saint Martin by Sulpicius Severus and Paulinus of Périgueux in context; (5) presents features of Fortunatus’s narrative and literary style; and adduces (6) one subchapter dedicated to literary influences on Fortunatus and his Nachleben; and (7), another to his use of metres. Kay’s new assessment of the epistula merits special attention.

The Epistula ad Gregorium has in earlier editions been treated as dedicatory letter of the VSM, a position already considered untenable by R. Koebner.[2] The same applies to the supposition that the VSM was written in summer at harvest time (in tempore messium). Kay convincingly dismisses this and updates the possible time of composition to as early as the spring of 573, half a year before Gregory’s accession to the See of Tours.

Before the text stand the obligatory descriptions of manuscripts (8) and previous editions (9). Kay uses one additional manuscript in comparison to S. Quesnel:[3] Z (Oxford Bodl. Auct. T. 2.25), and T. Mommsen’s notes on the edition of F. Leo (1881), at the Bodleian library, are fully included in Kay’s apparatus for the first time.

There are some points of interest here. Kay gives a helpful indication about the role of Alcuin and his scriptorium in the dissemination of the VSM in Northern France, the Benelux and Germany. He suggests that there may have been a separate tradition for VSM prol. I represented by FTXZ. Differing from F. Leo and S. Quesnel, he does not see a common sub-archetype before P, FT, X. Rather, he takes it to be probable that N, LBE and SMU have a common sub-archetype in Alcuin’s scriptorium of Corbie, from where also FT, X and Z might originally hail, but in another tradition. Kay’s minute adjustments in the stemma in comparison to Leo and Quesnel are well founded and convincing.

Discussing the editions, Kay explains the particular importance of Brower’s edition of 1603/1617 as the only extant source for the lost codex Treverensis with its alternative version of the epistula ad Gregorium. A highlight of the introduction is Kay’s thoughtful statement of the aim of his edition: ‘to arrive at what Fortunatus intended to write, not even what he did write, since he himself and his scribes made errors, and not what he should have written, had he been I.’

The most important part is, however, clearly Kay’s edition, translation and commentary. Kay’s critical apparatus is aimed at usefulness rather than completeness. He has therefore chosen a much briefer negative apparatus and has dropped readings from different manuscripts whenever they only concern different spellings of the same word. This contributes immensely to the readability of the edition and constitutes no significant loss, as whoever wishes to check the readings omitted here can find them in the editions of Leo and Quesnel.

Kay has looked at all manuscripts again and for the first time included Z. Consequently, his edition is truly a new appraisal of the tradition of the VSM. This is not only due to the partly new material but also to Kay’s sharp re-evaluations of old problems.

In addition to his convincing exclusion of the Epistula ad Gregorium discussed above, one other example must stand-in for many. In the description of the banquet at the court of Magnus Maximus (II 58–121), Fortunatus illustrates the cornucopia of the Empire by lavish lists of food, drink and luxury items,[4] each verse, however, being restricted to one kind of item. II 80 is an exception to this rule with ‘incense’ and ‘Falernian [wines]’ following on ‘an emblem, a gem, a precious stone and embossed metal’ (emblema, gemma, lapis, toreumata, tura, Falerna). The following verse, unfittingly, presents cities and islands in the nominative (Gazaque, Creta, Samos, Cypros, Colofona, Seraptis) and convinced F. Leo to change the position of II 81 to after II 78 where it would, still awkward, follow a list of rivers. Kay finds a convincing solution to this mess through his understanding of the passage as a whole and his recognition of a similar banquet scene in an intertext. The cities are recherché wine regions, also mentioned by Corippus (Iust. III 87ff.), and the first four items are metonymies for exquisite drinking vessels. As some connecting piece must have fallen out, Kay sets cruces around the awkward tura falerna, declares a lacuna after II 80 and translates: ‘<There were> glasses with inlaid medallions, ones of precious gems, ones of precious stone, engraved ones, †incense, Falernian† <holding wines produced by …> and Gaza, Crete, Samos, Cyprus, Colophon, Serapta […].’ Kay has thus convincingly explained this problematic passage for the first time.

Particular praise is due to Kay’s lucid translations of Fortunatus’s intentionally complicated verse, for the first time in English, preserving its associative style, while being as readable as the original Latin must have been to native speakers. There are translations into other languages that did not achieve this as well as Kay’s has. While the advantage of having an English translation is indisputable, Kay’s translation also stands out through its simplicity and brevity in comparison to Quesnel’s French and Walz’s German one.[5] S. Quesnel’s translation, which is not accompanied by as vast a commentary as Kay’s, often interprets or decides whenever Fortunatus remains ambiguous and tends to normalize the excesses of Fortunatus’ asyndetic style with additional sub-clauses. In the first sentence of the prologue given above, for instance, she translates intrat […] aquas (2) as ‘affronte […] une mer’, which highlights the resistance of the stormy sea that the mariner faces but adds colour to the original wording that is not present in the Latin. Kay’s simple ‘enters […] the […] waters’ is preferable as it does not add any further imaginative load to a text that is already loaded with imagery. The relative brevity of Kay allows his translation to be read more fluently. Brevity of sorts is also the aim of Walz’s German metrical translation. But the metre often drives Walz into even further obscurity of his own, when he has to choose German rare words to fit into the Latin metre and thus renders, for instance, crepitat rapidus […] liquor, (pr. 8) as ‘brandende Dünung verrauscht.’ Kay’s ‘swift waters crash’ is much easier to grasp, even for German readers. Kay’s simple translation allows the reader to understand the whole text and not get lost in its single parts. This makes Kay’s VSM still not an easy but a possible read.

The interpretation comes as a second step that is represented by the vast but well-ordered commentary. The passage II 80–81 may again serve as an example. It takes up three pages and consists of four sections: an overview section overwritten as ‘80–81’, one section about ‘80 Emblema, gemma, lapis, toreumata’, one section about ‘†tura, Falerna†’, and one section ’81 Gazaque, Creta, Samos, Cypros, Colofona, Seraptis’. The overview section gives an outline of the text critical problem, brings comparisons with other texts and introduces Corippus as a new intertext. The three detailed sections give additional information and comparison to other texts or archaeological findings relating to individual lemmata. In the second section for instance, evidence is cited for texts that speak of drinking vessels as decorated with an emblema and additional archaeological evidence of the same is presented. Kay’s overview sections in the commentary are mostly of similar depth as the one described above and could each be the kernel of an individual research paper. The commentary thus works from a wider frame to a closer frame, with the wide frame being well considered and apt to give structure that makes the commentary readable like a monograph.

To conclude this review is a joyful task: Kay’s text, translation and commentary is a masterpiece of philological craftmanship. He makes VSM I–II accessible to the English reading public, scholars and casual readers alike, for the first time. If the author of this splendid book will invest a similar amount of work into VSM III–IV and maybe also in the Carmina, this reviewer would be the happiest sparrow to sing about it with love.


[1] Other outstanding examples of this feature next to the prologue are book I of VSM, covered by Kay, and the letters to Martin of Braga (Carm. V 1 and V 5) and to Syagrius of Autun (Carm. V 6), covered by Ehlen, O. (2011). Venantius-Interpretationen. Rhetorische und generische Transgressionen beim “neuen Orpheus”. Stuttgart. 66–74, 96–99.

[2] Koebner, R. (1915). Venantius Fortunatus, seine Persönlichkeit und seine Stellung in der geistigen Kultur des Merowingerreiches. Leipzig: Teubner. 86, note 1.

[3] Quesnel, S. (2002). Œuvres, 4. Vie de saint Martin. Paris: Les Belles Lettres (1st edition 1996).

[4] M. Roberts has analyzed this passage in great detail: Roberts, M. (1995). “Martin meets Maximus: the meaning of a Late Roman banquet.” Revue d’Études Augustiniennes et Patristiques, 41, 1, 91–111.

[5] Quesnel (2002); Fels, W. (2006). Venantius Fortunatus. Gelegentlich Gedichte. Das lyrische Werk. Die Vita des hl. Martin. Stuttgart: Hiersemann; I have not been able to consult G. Palermo’s Italian translation: Palermo, G. (1985). Venanzio Fortunato. Vita di San Martino di Tours. Rome: Città Nuova.