BMCR 2022.09.03

Producing Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ in the early modern Low Countries: paratexts, publishers, editors, readers

, Producing Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' in the early modern Low Countries: paratexts, publishers, editors, readers. Library of the Written Word, 95. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. x, 336. ISBN 9789004462380 $151.00.


John Tholen’s book is a ‘revised and expanded version’ of his 2019 Utrecht dissertation, intended for classists and librarians alike.[1] Tholen has traced 152 editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in the Low Countries between 1500 (or 1477, to be more precise) and 1700, an important period for Ovid’s publishing history. He contends that paratextual elements (title page, front matter, commentaries, indexes) played a significant role in early modern reception of Ovid. Thus, combining book history and reception studies, he analyses the paratextualia of these editions as means to guide readers in their interpretation of Ovid’s poem, with special focus on volumes intended for schools and ‘inexperienced’ readers.

His census includes Latin editions (94 complete and 10 anthologies), as well as translations (45) and bilingual texts (3). The full catalogue is displayed in Appendix 1, which is perhaps the most useful part of the book for those who, like me, work mostly on Ovid’s text. If I counted correctly, Tholen has located about 30 Latin editions not listed by the Nicolaus Heinsius Research Team, which is by itself a remarkable achievement. He also provides a valuable list of extant copies and, if available, of contemporary owners.[2] Less trustworthy is Tholen’s list of 41 ‘lost editions’ identified in early modern sales and auction catalogues, for the existence of at least some of these volumes can certainly be disputed.[3] On the other hand, oddly enough in a book devoted to paratextuality, Tholen’s catalogue fails to record which paratextual elements are present (or lacking) in each edition, their origin (many were repeatedly copied and reprinted, even in different combinations, as it becomes evident in the book) and intended audiences, and which volumes were actually reprints.[4] This would have helped following some of Tholen’s arguments throughout the book and having a more direct and comprehensive grasp of the printing tradition of the Metamorphoses, while facilitating further investigations on the subject.

The introduction establishes the goals and theoretical framework of the book, but also cursorily characterises the greater cultural environment in which the studied Ovidian editions were issued. After that, four chapters analyse specific kinds of paratexts. This layout gives prominence to the various uses of each type, but it often makes it hard to tell with absolute precision which edition (or reedition) is being examined and to have a general overview of each volume’s paratextual pretentions. In fact, the final chapter, in which two case studies are presented, seems clearer and more instructive to me. Therefore, perhaps it would have been more illuminating to present complete studies of some significant editions, whence conclusions were drawn not only on each type of paratextual element, but also on the overall reception of the Metamorphoses during the period analysed. Likewise, although this might go beyond the scope of the book, I would have also appreciated, as indisputable evidence of the editions’ influence a short survey on whether and how any of them actually mediated contemporary literature and art.

The first chapter investigates the title page’s textual and visual design and the different strategies deployed by publishers to create ‘commercial credibility’, since ‘the reliability of an edition was […] no given fact’ (35), and, in this way, position themselves in a market where Ovid was lavishly available. The second chapter largely studies how front matters (preface, dedication and vitae) were used for similar ends, and particularly to legitimise Ovid’s poem as a suitable text for schools and young readers (some mythological content, especially if sexual, violent or gruesome, could be considered harmful for such an audience).

In the first half of the third chapter, Tholen distinguishes three types of commentary (commentarii, underneath or in the margins of the text, especially common for providing reading aids; adnotationes, as an appendix, common for critical notes; and variorum editions), and tries to identify ‘four domains’ of interpretation in them.[5] But, of course, such classifications are not always as clear-cut. In any case, most of the chapter delves deeper into the editorial treatment of ‘dangerous’ passages and the specific guidance that was provided in this regard for unexperienced and allegedly ‘vulnerable’ readers. In the first place, Tholen focuses on Pontanus’s radical approach, pointing out that he excluded ca. 2,400 lines as inappropriate, and comments on the different strategies he used to bridge the gaps (e.g., adding ‘suitable’ prose summaries or even tampering with the original text). Tholen then turns to Farnabius and Rabus and, more specifically, to their handling of the Tereus, Pygmalion and Myrrha episodes. However, with the evidence provided, I find it hard to accept that contextualising these stories within mythographical tradition or commenting on realia or phraseology really works as a smokescreen, as a way to divert attention from obscene content.[6] In my ingenuity, I would rather argue that both strategies are the usual working field of every commentator, while the former might even serve, in a moralising context, to implicitly show that these ‘dangerous’ elements were common in pagan literature and should be taken as such, not as exempla to be followed. In a similar way, the fourth chapter studies how indexes were designed with a particular audience in mind to facilitate access to specific contents, but also to focus attention on certain topics and thus mediate the reader’s interpretation.

The final chapter presents two case studies. First, Tholen globally analyses the various editions containing Heinricus Glareanus and Gisbertus Longolius’s annotations. He shows that the combination of both sets of notes, conceived separately and for a different readership, resulted in a versatile text. On the other hand, Tholen persuasively shows how paratextual elements highlighted the literary value of Van den Vondel’s Dutch version, while emphasising the authority of the translator and Ovid alike. This is followed by a brief concluding chapter that recapitulates the main results of the book, but also introduces new issues that perhaps required a broader treatment, such as the lack of paratextual elements.

To sum up, despite some limitations, Tholen has convincingly shown that paratexts were indeed features that reflected and mediated the early reception of Ovid, especially in schools. But, more importantly, he has incidentally underscored the fact that the ‘material’ history of printed books might have more to tell us about the reception of Classical texts than it is usually acknowledged.


[1] For this reason, almost every quotation, either in Latin or in Dutch, is translated into English. On the other hand, the book has still a strong ‘Thesis-flavour’, because it contains several summaries and repetitions of key ideas. Some of these could certainly be dispensed with, so as to achieve greater readability.

[2] Tholen does not claim that his lists are comprehensive.

[3] For instance, according to Tholen (p. 300), there was a 4-volume edition ad Usum Delphini printed in Leiden in 1689 with ‘interpretat. & notis’ by Daniel Crispini [sic] (O 152). The identification derives, I gather, from the Catalogus librorum in bibliopolio Wetsteniano venalium sub initium MDCXCIX, Amstelaedami [1699], 286: ‘[Ovidii opera] ad Usum Delphini, interpretat. & notis Dan. Crispini 4 vols. 4 Lugd. 1689.’ No doubt, this is Crispinus 4-volume edition in quarto printed in Lyon (not Lugduni Batavorum!) in 1689. On the other hand, I regret that exact bibliographical references for sales and auction catalogues are missing in the book (even if most can be patiently retrieved from Brill’s Book Sales Catalogues Online database).

[4] Certainly, many are reprints or must be closely related to other better-known editions. Nonetheless, interesting facts readily surface. For example, I was surprised to learn that Daniel Heinsius published two different editions in 1629: the famous Elzeviriana in Leiden (O 51) and another one in Amsterdam ‘apud Johannem Jansonium’ [‘apud Johannes Jansonius’ Tholen] (O 50).

[5] I.e., clarification of language (vocabulary and textual criticism), contextualisation of language (rhetoric and intertextuality), clarification of content (realia and storyline) and contextualisation of content (allegory and encyclopaedic information).

[6] There is, I must point out, an obvious contradiction between what is announced as Rabus’s intentions in his commentary on the Myrrha episode (‘nor did they [Farnabius and Rabus] try to divert the reader’s attention’ 147) and what is said later (‘with this grammatical focus, Rabus […] implicitly direct[s] the attention away from […] potentially dangerous content’ 151).