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The Current Questions and Future Prospects of Medieval Latin Studies

Abstract and Keywords

This article explains the current questions and future prospects of medieval Latin literature. Three areas that are arguably of particular importance for medieval Latin literature's further development include: sustained sociolinguistic attention to the fact of Latinity's status as an alienated mode of expression whose artificiality is itself the basis of its flexibility; attention to the awareness specific texts demonstrate of their relation to a metropolitan centre of cultural authority from which the norms of this artificiality are disseminated; and a rigorous critique of the binary by which Latinity and vernacularity are articulated as a stable and mutually exclusive opposition—a critique that necessarily incorporates the legacy of deconstruction but which also must engage postmodern translation theory on issues of intertextual and interlinguistic exchange and the cultural work effected by the act of translation. Latinity as a tool for the focalization of culture is crucial as well to English hagiography of the decades just after the Norman Conquest and the installation of Lanfranc of Bec as Archbishop.

Keywords: medieval Latin literature, sociolinguistic, Latinity, English hagiography, Norman Conquest

Philology as Achievement and Constraint

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the study of medieval Latin literature stands heir to generations of rich philological accomplishment. Editorial projects of massively ambitious scope—some continuing from their inception in the nineteenth century or earlier—produced editions upon which scholars continue to rely, and, even when superseded, upon which subsequent efforts have often been founded. The establishment of reliable critical texts enabled wider-ranging studies—at the same time shaping such studies by providing the sense of a firm scientific foundation upon which further work could build. (Such reciprocities are palpably exemplified by the interactive relations between the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the journal Neues Archiv and its antecedents; between the Acta Sanctorum and Analecta Bollandiana; between the Corpus Christianorum project and Sacris Erudiri.) The accumulated accomplishments of source study connected with these editorial efforts; the establishment of the provenance of individual manuscripts; studies of the transmission and availability of individual classical texts; and the reconstruction of the holdings of specific medieval libraries: all these afford the contemporary reader an unprecedentedly rich understanding of the context of medieval Latin literature. More recently, the creation of searchable digital textual databases has transformed our ability to trace lines of influence at a fine-grained and sophisticated level.

(p. 4) The most monumentally accomplished of these achievements have naturally claimed respect as the least easily replaceable and as least requiring duplication. The consequent bibliographic solidity has encouraged an operative assumption that editorial production at its best remains detached from the implication of editorial process in its own cultural moment; it has militated against the integration of more recent editorial theory, which has called into question the opposition of the text as a stable object of scrutiny in contradistinction to the task of interpretation. The fluidity of vernacular textual circumstances have by contrast had a more substantial impact on the theoretical deliberations of such works’ editors, beginning with Bédier's early twentieth-century challenges to recensionist method, and continuing with models of textual mouvance introduced to medieval editorial theory by Paul Zumthor. A notable recent example of a more eclectic and self-consciously experimental Latinist editorial practice is the Ars Edendi project based at the University of Stockholm (, which views itself as a laboratory for discussion of the manifold problems encountered in presenting texts of anomalous and unruly transmission.

At the same time that a highly successful regimen of editorial work defined the limits of Latin literary studies, medieval Latinity's halting and incomplete disciplinary enfranchisement through most of the twentieth century within the broader field of North American medieval studies carried with it a risk of ossification. Despite intermittent attention to medieval Latin topics under the auspices of the American Philological Association, Departments of Classics, in their overriding preoccupation at the time with virtuosic command of the relatively narrow range of late Republican and early Imperial linguistic and literary norms, hardly offered medieval Latinists a ready affiliation. More focused attention was paid the field under the aegis of the Modern Language Association, beginning with a presidential address delivered in 1908 pleading for the importance of the subject's study (Coffman et al. 1924, 305). The formation of a Committee on Mediaeval Latin Studies, initially constituted under the auspices of the MLA in 1921 but soon reorganized independently in affiliation with the American Council of Learned societies, led in 1925 to the foundation of the Medieval Academy of America (Wenger 1982, 27). Such efforts were born of the best intentions to emphasize the natural and organic cross-fertilization of work on medieval vernacular texts in conjunction with the Latinate cultural matrix out of which they emerged, and on Latin texts in dynamic relation to the always interlinguistic circumstances of their production. But ironically, the hiving off of the field from more diachronically engaged conversation within traditional disciplines enabled the unchallenged subdivision of vernacular medievalism within the MLA along lines of national literatures, thus obscuring the pre-national continua of most medieval literary production. (It might, indeed, be observed that the transnational and metalinguistic character of medieval Latin literature [on which latter, see the essay by Carin Ruff in this volume] must have constituted something of an uncomfortable scandal to nationalistically inclined literary-historical narratives—narratives challenged, to be sure, by both Curtius and Auerbach, but powerful still even in the wake of World War II's demonstration of the bank (p. 5) ruptcy of political and cultural nationalism.) The overriding emphasis upon cultural synthesis in much American medievalism of the early and mid-twentieth century encouraged the conception of medieval Latin not as a site of cultural contestation but as a tool for the preservation of stasis and the erasure of local difference.

Thus many North American medieval Latinists, in notable contrast to the institutional circumstances of German and most other European universities, came to pursue their research at the margins of departments (of English, modern languages, history, religion, or art as well as classics) in which the focus of their studies remained esoteric. Few would have described this situation as desirable. Yet the ensuing isolation encouraged a self-seriousness of mission that neither found itself required to make a case for relevance to the interests of colleagues within one's institution nor was easily deflected from its self-determined agenda by a wider range of competent interlocutors. In short, along with the disadvantages of an often arcane and hieratic status came a liberation from the demands of immediately engaged response to a larger academic community.

Such institutional circumstances explain in part the lag that developed between the concerns of medieval literary studies more broadly and those of medieval Latinists during the last third of the twentieth century. The virtually inexhaustible primary sources available to medieval Latinists afforded the field copious material with which it might have confronted the methodological shifts that revolutionized literary studies beginning in the 1970s, and which by the later 1980s were beginning to reshape the lingua franca of literary medievalism more specifically. The work of such scholars as Kevin Brownlee, Marina Brownlee, Jane Burns, Carolyn Dinshaw, Allen J. Frantzen, Jesse Gellrich, Sarah Kay, Alexandre Leupin, Stephen Nichols, and Lee Patterson, to name only a few, led the importation of a broad range of post-structuralist and materialist approaches into vernacular medieval studies. Such scholars brought to bear the concerns of Derridean deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, the responses of the new French feminisms to psychoanalytic thought, the broad, epistemologically based challenges to social, intellectual, and literary history posed by Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin's mapping of conflicting, dialectically charged generic expectations within a single work, and the debates over concepts of ideology and agency consequent on readings of Foucault and of Louis Althusser—these latter debates being particularly central within American New Historicism and the more Marxist-inflected movement of British cultural materialism. By the mid-1990s, such approaches transformed the intellectual profile of North American medievalism, and the ongoing work of these scholars, together with the initiatives of a subsequent cohort, began to build on these new foundations under less of an apologetic burden. By the end of the century, the theoretical wave had, for all its eclecticism, become something of an interpretive orthodoxy and the foil against which further work has begun to contest the dominance of these now-established approaches and their claims to general applicability.

Medieval Latin studies remained on the whole strikingly innocent of this trajectory. These years saw a few engagements with the new methodologies, for (p. 6) example Gerald Bond's study of the construction of subjectivity in the verse of Baudri of Bourgeuil, articles by the author of the present essay on questions of gender in Walter of Châtillon's Alexandreis and in the hagiography of Goscelin of Canterbury, Bruce Holsinger's work on the sequences of Hildegard of Bingen and on the construction of racialized identity in the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux, Ralph Hexter's work on the sexual heterodoxy of Ovidian reception, a collection of essays on ideologies of gender in twelfth-century Latin literature (Townsend and Taylor 1998), and the attention of scholars including Robert Bartlett, Nancy Partner, and Robert Stein to the ideologies of twelfth-century Latin historiography. Scholars brought theory to bear on the legacy of classical literature (for example, Christopher Baswell and Marilynn Desmond), but with a principal emphasis on vernacular adaptation rather than on the Latin texts, or else addressed to Latin texts questions whose multi-disciplinary dimensions framed their Latinity as incidental to their subject matter (as for example Alexandre Leupin's, Mark Jordan's, and Noah Guynn's approaches to Alan of Lille's diatribe against homoeroticism in the De planctu Naturae, Jordan's reading of Hrotsvit's life of the Cordovan martyr Pelagius, or Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's essays on several hagiographical and historical texts). The impact of current methodologies, with the exception of the reception studies of Hans Robert Jauss, has lagged even further in much Continental medieval Latin scholarship.

In short, medieval Latin studies remained for the most part resolutely grounded in the “old philology” of editorial practice, source study, codicological analysis, and traditional literary history. Such an approach bore rich fruit in, for example, a sustained, tirelessly inquisitive, and deeply erudite investigation of the literary milieu of tenth-century monastic Latinities in the work of Michael Lapidge; a signal account of the historiographical aims of early medieval historiography by Walter Goffart; a superb omnibus companion to medieval Latin studies edited by Frank Mantello and A. G. Rigg; the latter's magisterial history of Anglo-Latin literature; comprehensive accounts of simile and ecphrasis as devices of Latin epic in the work of Fritz Peter Knapp and Christina Ratkowistch, respectively; the proceedings of congresses held in 1988 (Heidelberg), 1993 (Florence), 1998 (Cambridge), 2002 (Santiago de Compostela), and 2006 (Toronto), organized under the auspices of the International Committee for Medieval Latin Studies. It is telling that a survey of the approaches represented by these five latter collections identifies fewer than half a dozen papers that could in any meaningful sense be said to engage hermeneutic methods articulated later than the 1960s.

The aversion to theory has led to a significant loss of opportunity in the field over the last thirty years. An engagement with contemporary debates over ideology and agency might have introjected a new vitality into the prosecution of source study and Toposforschung, had research more often substantively engaged transformations of a citation's illocutionary force in the concrete milieu of specific receptions. (A fine and venerable example of such engagements can in fact be found in the Bedeutungsforschung of Friedrich Ohly and his students.) The failure of the existing literature to recognize the full depth of the achievements of Hrotsvit of (p. 7) Gandersheim dramatically exemplifies the desiderata left unfulfilled by the current state of the field. An overriding emphasis on the normative monastic context and the literary models for Hrotsvit's saints’ lives and dramas as unproblematic documents of hagiographical edification has done little to convey her originality and the subversive, gender-critical potential of her texts (on which see Parsons and Townsend in this volume), precisely because Hrotsvit scholarship has made so little use of theories of the socially and culturally productive instability of the repetitive performance of sanctioned roles. Critics might have come to such a discussion through multiple channels: through deeper engagement with feminist models of mimetic performance derived from the work of Luce Irigaray; through Judith Butler's post-Lacanian description of the Law of gender's self-undermining reliance on endless performative iteration by those subject to it in order to remain in force; through Bourdieu's insistence that cultural capital is generated not for its own sake but in order to contest and remake agency within a concrete cultural formation. Instead, studies of Hrotsvit's Benedictine context have tended to impute an essential conservatism to her project, simultaneously reducing her choice of the dramatic form to a provincial bluestocking's adoption of an imperfectly understood literary convention (Sticca 1970, 1973, 1984). Even feminist studies of her work have tended to emphasize her self-legitimation within an essentially patriarchal literary tradition rather than reading her works as inhabiting a patriarchal tradition in order to subvert it (Wilson 1988; Newman, Stottlemyer, and Wiethaus in Brown et al. 2004). Such a situation contrasts with feminist work on the tradition of devotional literature, where, for example, Linda Georgianna and later Anne Clark Bartlett and Barbara Newman delineated the vividly contested wresting of agency from patriarchal discourses and social structures. The pursuit of Toposforschung and institutional contextualization through positive description, rather than in order to identify sites of discursive contestation, has sidelined the subversive agency of the most important woman writer between the end of antiquity and the twelfth century.

Inadequate theorization of cultural agency also contributes to a pervasive disregard for translation as a scholarly discipline in its own right. The academic marginalization of translation is hardly unique to medieval Latin studies: as Lawrence Venuti has variously observed, it is endemic across most areas of literary specialization and is rooted deeply in ideologies of intellectual property. But just as an undeconstructed binary between editorial practice on the one hand and a contextualized hermeneutic engagement with the text on the other has insulated the editing of medieval Latin texts from focused discussions of cultural negotiation, so also the notion of textual integrity as radically distinguished from reception history has deprivileged the work of making medieval Latin texts accessible to a wider scholarly audience (much less to a general reading public) for whom the original language remains inaccessible. (Concerted attempts at redress have included several series surveyed by Jan Ziolkowski elsewhere in this volume.)

To be sure, the abstention of medieval Latin studies from many of the theoretical engagements of the last thirty-five years might admit some partial (p. 8) justification. The more ludic aspects of deconstructive criticism of the 1980s now seem dated, the protest against the fiction of semiotic stability that they embodied at the time now something of a restatement of the obvious. More to the point, post-structuralist criticism presupposed from its outset linguistic conditions that hardly corresponded to the circumstances of medieval Latinity. As a protest against the orthodoxies of structuralism, the deconstructionist project aimed to expose the scientific certitudes of structuralist linguistics as chimerical, in the face of texts that embodied an illusory epistemological stability. Methods based in objection to an understanding of language as natural and stable within a community of native speakers merely belabored the obvious, in the eyes of many medieval Latinists, in relation to a language native to none of its users from the end of the eighth century on (to follow Roger Wright's and Michel Banniard's hypotheses on the definitive Carolingian split between Latin and Romance, as addressed elsewhere in this handbook by Carin Ruff). The founding premise of Derrida's grammatology—that the always already alienated semiotic slippage of writing is in fact prior in language to the illusory presence and solidity of speech—was arguably so self-evident to students of texts written in a language artificially acquired and self-consciously polished beyond the norms of any oral usage, that from some it elicited impatience rather than engagement. Analyses of epistemic and sociological shifts predicated on the work of Michel Foucault labor under the spectacular over-generalizations about the nature of medieval culture pervasive in his work. Post-structuralism's explosion of traditional philological rigor as an obscurantist myth was spectacularly ill-suited to analysis of a linguistic and literary culture that existed only by virtue of artificially internalized standards, in which the demonstration of semiotic slippage is arguably valid only after one has gotten the grammar right—in short, the culture of grammatica so extensively mapped by Martin Irvine. Ironically, the linguistic ambiguities of medieval vernaculars, particularly Old French, became more fertile ground for the application of post-structuralist method, in part because orthographic variation reflected and amplified the wider continuum of oral usage of a “natural” language—and more extrinsically, in part because scholars of these languages had more immediate institutional cause to engage colleagues in conversations across lines of periodization. The instability of the text as material object, in spite of its projection as a platonic ideal transcending its individual instantiations, is so obvious from the vantage of medieval book production that elaborate demonstrations of the point articulated in the context of post-Enlightenment culture were easily passed over as redundant by those whose work continuously engaged the fluidity of all but the most canonical medieval texts. (Medieval Latinists might have found more widely convincing critiques of editorial practice mounted with a view to the specific circumstances of medieval culture—like those of Paul Zumthor and later of Lee Patterson—had the vernacular focus of such treatments not limited the attention Latinists accorded them.)

And yet ironically, the grounding of pervasive resistance to contemporary theory in a deep respect for the circumstances of medieval Latin culture has itself (p. 9) further marginalized the field's study in the modern academy, precisely since those circumstances constituted the very elements of medieval Latinity's own powerful ideology of presence, continuity, and unifying authority—and so constitute today that ideology's recapitulation in secondary literature. By failing to push beyond the prima facie anachronism of contemporary theory, in order to adapt its insights to the objects of our study, we have risked abnegating analysis of the primary texts, instead merely replicating their conceptual frameworks. (Nancy Partner's appeal in 1996 to the “double discourse” advocated by Georges Devereux, in the course of her reply to objections against the anachronism of Freudian psychoanalysis, offered one trenchant critique of such a “surrender to ideology.”) Instead of taking the foundational circumstances of medieval Latinity as a transparent given of the texts’ semiotic condition, we might choose instead to interrogate them as parameters of the ideological formations that both enabled and circumscribed Latin as a discursive regime. Such an alternative approach might arguably equip us better to articulate the cohesion of our field as distinct, on the one hand, from the ancillary importance of reading competency in medieval Latin as a tool for anyone engaged in research in virtually any medievalist discipline, or on the other, from reliance upon an anachronistic concept of medieval Latin “literature” as a body of texts somehow unproblematically distinct from the vast preponderance of medieval Latin primary texts.

Medieval Latin studies cannot effectively resist further ghettoization by simple derivative adoption of methodologies framed as critiques of post-Enlightenment culture. Medieval Latinists must instead press the circumstances of medieval Latinity as a counterweight to the claims of received hermeneutic paradigms and, as a consequence of that counterweight, must assess and modify methodological orthodoxies. We can hardly afford to remain aloof from current conversations. We must instead inflect those conversations in terms better suited to the analysis of Latinate literary culture. (No better model for such interventions exists than the astute implicit responses of Brian Stock to the claims of postmodernist theory, beginning with his landmark study, The Implications of Literacy.) The field's ongoing vitality depends upon such engagements. Three areas are arguably of particular importance for its further development: sustained sociolinguistic attention to the fact of Latinity's status as an alienated mode of expression whose artificiality is itself the basis of its flexibility, throughout the period, as a tool of cultural agency; building on this, attention to the awareness specific texts demonstrate of their relation to a metropolitan centre of cultural authority from which the norms of this artificiality are disseminated—an approach obviously in dialogue with the interpretive resources of postcolonial theory; and a rigorous critique of the binary by which Latinity and vernacularity are articulated as a stable and mutually exclusive opposition—a critique that necessarily incorporates the legacy of deconstruction but which also must engage postmodern translation theory on issues of intertextual and interlinguistic exchange and the cultural work effected by the act of translation. The remainder of this essay offers a few brief sketches of the possibilities such approaches might offer for the study of specific texts.

(p. 10) The Sociolinguistics of a Universally Acquired Language

A sociolinguistic focus on artificial acquisition as the foundational circumstance of Latinity would allow us to attend to deliberately abstruse texts not as anomalous excrescences consigned to the periphery of our attention, but as works that more properly raise questions of how their linguistic and stylistic markers function in a specific literary milieu—of the cultural work that their specific difficulties perform. The rhetorical pragmatics of their lexical, syntactical, and stylistic choices must necessarily imply a particular relation to a fictive audience suited to their reception. Whether we read such choices as matters of self-consciously articulated intention or not, they embody an agency that both reflects and inflects the culture from which they emerge. By begging with particular intensity an enquiry into these dynamics, such texts invite us to attend to the opacity of Latin not as an accident of eccentrically misplaced erudition or a misprision of readerly competency, but as a central fact—indeed of the necessarily central fact—of Latinity's function in medieval European culture, and the grounding condition that explains its tenacity in the face of the rising possibilities of vernacular alternatives.

By attending to the fictionality of these implied intratextual audiences as prior to the historical audiences the texts eventually reached, or failed to reach, questions of agency can be more fully addressed precisely because the alienation of the speaking subject from the language s/he deploys is the condition upon which all access to Latinate culture explicitly depends. Thus “arcane” texts stand not in opposition to a serviceably accessible Latinity, but as especially palpable reminders of conditions that subtend all medieval Latinity, an apogee of dynamics that govern the nature of medieval culture more generally—including (as Nicholas Watson's essay in this volume argues at greater length) the self-representation of the vernaculars as “natural” modes of expression.

Few texts invite such enquiries more readily than the cluster of monastic Latinities associated with a revived Benedictinism in tenth-century northern France and England. Such works include Frithegod's Breviloquium Vitae Beati Wilfredi (a verse paraphrase in just under 1400 hexameters of its more widely known eighth-century prose source), Abbo of St-Germain's De bello Parisiacae urbis, Lantfred of Winchester's life of St. Swithun, Wulfstan the Cantor's verse adaptation of the latter work, and the varied and eccentrically innovative output of Byrhtferth of Ramsey around the turn of the eleventh century. Scholars of the last twenty-five years, above all Michael Lapidge, have vividly delineated the historical circumstances of the Anglo-Latin literary monuments associated with this movement, which revolved around the careers of a triumvirate of energetic bishops (Oswald, Aethelwold, and Dunstan) closely associated with the West Saxon royal house. Studies have focused especially on the connections between the surviving texts and the monastic foundations created and fostered by these men and their royal patrons and have provided as well meticulous treatments of lexical and syntactic aspects of the texts’ Latinity. But our understanding would be advanced further still by a more finely grained analysis of these texts’ (p. 11) considerable stylistic peculiarities: their irrepressible delight in abstruse vocabulary, their self-conscious participation in a newly revived admiration for the early eighth-century works of Aldhelm, their sometimes excruciatingly elaborate periodic sentence structure, particularly in their showpiece prologues—in relation to the milieux of their immediately intended audience and subsequent receptions down to the twelfth century. The gratuitously elaborate artifice of these texts might suggest an indifference to their dissemination beyond a very narrow readership, and yet they emerged from centers of cultural and political capital to whose aspirations they can hardly be seen as indifferent. The cultural work they originally performed must necessarily have been prosecuted in and through precisely the eccentricities that seem to militate against their easy reception.

If such questions have yet to be adequately addressed, they might be taken up to particularly good advantage in a detailed study of these texts’ reception by later generations of Anglo-Latin writers, especially the hagiographers and historiographers of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, and above all by William of Malmesbury, whose evaluations of his predecessors’ style and reliability make him, in addition to being the most brilliantly original and self-consciously polished stylist of his generation, in some sense the first literary historian of England. William himself has been very well served by superb textual and historical scholarship (William of Malmesbury 1998, 2002; Thomson 1987), and his prime importance as an historical source assures energetic attention to the content of his work. But questions of style in relation to the author's political investments and his transmission and production of cultural capital can be at least as profitably posed in William's case as in that of the monastic writers of the late tenth century. William wrote his magnum opus, the Gesta regum Angliae, on the commission of the wife of Henry I and finished it as a presentation to the Empress Matilda; he produced his surviving hagiographical works for two of the most prominent monastic foundations of his day, each of them deeply concerned to enhance its prestige amidst rapidly shifting dynamics of ecclesiastical influence (William of Malmesbury 2002). Neither William's own stylistic choices nor his assessments of his predecessors remain innocent of the politico-cultural exigencies of his moment. His assessments of his predecessors prosecute shrewd rhetorical strategies for the positioning of his own texts. At no point in William's oeuvre is this more evident than in his account of literary antecedents in the prologues to his lives of Sts. Dunstan and Wulfstan, respectively.

Asser's celebrated and deeply peculiar biography of Alfred of Wessex, a work dating from 893, offers a further example of the always alienated and artificial nature of Latinity as itself contributing powerfully and essentially to an author's prosecution of cultural work. Despite its tenuous survival into modern times, Asser's text was clearly known to several later writers into the twelfth century (Asser 1983, 57). The tactical pragmatics of Asser's Latinity coincide with the moment that the alternative of a “natural” vernacular emerges in Alfred's translation program as an instrument of West Saxon hegemony (Discenza 2001). As a Welshman imported into this milieu, Asser's decision to write in Latin rather than in the aggressively promoted West Saxon of the day anchors a continued space of linguistic and political diversity in the face of an imperial project. It is in some of the most eccentric, (p. 12) “awkward,” and artificial aspects of his text that he most effectively supports the preservation of difference and of resistance to Alfredian claims of unproblematically unitive and unifying authority (Townsend 2008).

Metropolitan Centres and their Peripheries

If Asser offers a third illustration of linguistic alienation as itself the foundational mechanism of Latinity's ongoing efficacy as cultural instrument, he also exemplifies the negotiation of a text's discursive position in relation to a perceived centre of metropolitan cultural authority. Latin serves to relativize the centralizing claims of the Alfredian project precisely because, by locating the text's vantage point “elsewhere,” it defamiliarizes West Saxon specificities: the text positions itself as interpreting these for an implied reader to whom they are potentially foreign. For Asser, this metropolitan centre is itself problematically diffuse: his Latinitas is centered, if anywhere, in an already fragmented Carolingian empire, rather than in Rome. Yet however vaguely that “elsewhere” is located, in relation to it Asser's insular readers—Welsh, West Saxon, and speakers of other English dialects alike—are equally made aware of their peripheral status. Such a strategic location of Latinity bears comparison with other texts, among them one of the earliest surviving Latin works produced in England, the anonymous life of Gregory the Great from Whitby; the works of Hrotsvit; and the hagiography of one of William of Malmesbury's most heavily exploited sources, Osbern of Canterbury.

The anonymous Whitby life of Gregory from near the turn of the eighth century stands prominently in any account as among the earliest substantial monuments of Northumbrian Latin literature, but such attention as it generates usually remains confined to summary descriptions that impute a primitivist status to its anomalous structure and language. Its eccentric narrative structure is generally understood to attest a naive and imperfect acquaintance with hagiographic models the emulation of which already exerted a canonical influence on the form, as amply witnessed by most other surviving Northumbrian saints’ lives. The text's anomalous grammar, especially judged against the syntactical clarity of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, can easily be dismissed as evidence of the author's tenuous education—or else of vicissitudes of textual transmission in the century prior to the one surviving manuscript (Colgrave in Earliest Life 1968, 63–69). An alternative approach might instead read the text's stylistics (including questions of syntax) as negotiating its relation to a metropolitan centre that places the fictive audience in alienated relation to purely local, vernacular culture; and in relation, furthermore, to the gaze of an originary and authoritative metropolitan figure—Gregory himself— encountering the English in Rome for the first time. The close resonances of such an approach with postcolonial analyses of usage have been sketched out (Mehan and Townsend 2001); but a fuller analysis in such a key has yet to be pursued.

(p. 13) In addition to issues of feminist agency in the works of Hrotsvit already touched on above, scholarship would benefit from further historicized attention to her position in a powerful women's community that defined Gandersheim's own geographical specificity in relation to Latinity's metropolitan status, as now embodied in the Ottonian court. Such dynamics figure centrally in the epistles to the sapientes of the Ottonian court that preface the dramas of Book 2, where they emerge as explicitly articulated questions of Latin style as a marker of urbanity:

Plures inveniuntur catholici cuius nos penitus expurgare nequimus facti . qui pro cultioris facundia sermonis . gentilium vanitatem librorum utilitati praeferunt sacrarum scripturarum . Sunt etiam alii sacris inherentes paginis . qui licet alia gentilium spernant . Terentii tamen figmenta frequentius lectitant . et dum dulcedine sermonis delectantur . nefandarum notitia rerum maculantur …

[One finds many catholics (nor can we entirely exonerate ourselves from the charge) who prefer the vanity of pagan books, for the facility of their more refined speech, over the utility of Holy Scripture. Some others, though they cling to the Sacred Page and scorn other productions of the pagans, nevertheless pour constantly over the fictions of Terence; amidst their delight in the sweetness of his speech, they are sullied by the knowledge of his unspeakable subject matter …] (Hrotsvit 2001, 132)

Quia enim attactu vestri favoris atque petitionis harundineo more inclinata . libellum quem tali intentione disposui . sed usque huc pro sui vilitate occultare . quam in palam proferre malui . vobis perscrutandum tradidi . decet ut non minoris diligentia sollicitudinis eum emendando investigetis quam proprii seriem laboris. Et sic tandem ad normam rectitudinis reformatum mihi remittite . quo vestri magisterio premonstrante . in quibus maxime peccassem possim agnoscere.

[For since I have handed over to your scrutiny the book that I composed with such an intention— being bent like a reed at the touch of your favor and request, though I would have preferred to keep it hidden in its worthlessness rather than to publish it openly—it is fitting that you should examine and correct it with a diligence no less zealous than the process of my own labor. And so send it back to me eventually revised according to the correct norm, that being instructed by your expertise I may understand in what details I have most offended.] (Hrotsvit 2001, 135)

In the historical poems of Book 3, issues of the location of culture are articulated more obliquely, yet unmistakably, as a transmission of spiritual authority to Gandersheim both directly from Rome and from an imperial authority that has now devolved upon Saxony. Both the Gesta Ottonis and the Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis negotiate the implicit tensions between Saxony's rise to imperial authority and its still-recent status as the rebellious edge of Carolingian Christendom. Most strikingly perhaps, an episode in the Primordia that narrates the revelation of the house's site (lines 185–232) echoes the prophecy of the foundation of Alba Longa in Aeneid 8.36–65, but embodying a nexus of further details that recall other tropes on the narrative pattern found in insular saints’ lives, especially in texts with strong Celtic associations, between the tenth and twelfth centuries (Jankulak 2005). The Primordia's concentration on the house's imperial foundation focuses the metropolitan status transferred within living (p. 14) memory to the Ottonian court more specifically on Gandersheim as a semi-autonomous regional power governed by aristocratic women. Oppositions of centrality to periphery (and of sacrality to profanity) subtend Hrotsvit's account in this episode and pervade her narrative verse more generally.

Latinity as a tool for the focalization of culture is crucial as well to English hagiography of the decades just after the Norman Conquest and the installation of Lanfranc of Bec as Archbishop. A discursive community's urgently problematic negotiation of internal cultural difference is nowhere more palpable than in the vitae of Dunstan and Aelfheah by Osbern, precentor of Christ Church, Canterbury. Despite the centrality of Dunstan's cult to the prestige of the cathedral community and the already well-established hagiographical tradition of the saint—two Latin versions of his biography were already extant—the strong associations of Dunstan's career with the history of the West Saxon royal house must necessarily have underlined the cultural divide between English and Norman monks. At the same time, the eccentric and now-dated Latinity of the earliest biography must have grated on readers accustomed to eleventh-century Continental developments of Latin style toward more classicizing norms. Osbern's second hagiographic subject was Aelfheah, who enjoyed a very tenuous claim to martyrdom on the grounds of his murder in 1012 by Danish invaders when he refused to collude with his captors in securing a ransom. His cult must have seemed shakily grounded indeed to Norman newcomers, and Eadmer narrates a conversation in which the young Anselm resolved Lanfranc's doubts over its legitimacy (Eadmer 1962, 50–54). Osbern in both these hagiographies variously elides pressing questions of English versus Norman usage, oral versus written transmission of tradition, and vernacular English versus Latin into questions of style couched in explicitly Ciceronian rhetorical categories: thus, most palpably, at the end of his prologue to the life of Dunstan, having reviewed the sources available to him (the two previous Latin lives and a now-lost vernacular life), a review of the faults and strengths of each of these sources is finally adjudicated through categories of style, and Lanfranc is addressed not as an ecclesiastical superior but as “totius Latinitatis magistro”—a master of all Latinity:

Alii etsi satis eleganter non tamen satis diligenter, sed quantum ad nocturnum festivitatis officium satis esse judicavere, sermocinandi ad populum modo scripsere. Alii autem dum nimis diligenter, quemadmodum quaeque res acta sit explicare conarentur, elegantiam perdiderunt, atque in illud dicendi genus quod suffultum Romanae princeps eloquentiae vocat, inciderunt, quod facilius taedium legentibus quam aliquod audientibus emolumentum gignere consuevit.

[Some wrote in a popular homiletic mode—though elegantly enough, yet not with enough industry, but only insofar as they judged sufficient for the night office of the feast. Others, while they wrote with excessive industry, to the extent that they attempted to expound everything that took place, lost all elegance and fell into the style called “propped up” by the prince of Roman eloquence—a style that more easily begets boredom in one's readers than it offers any profit to the listening audience.] (Osbern 1874, 69–70)

(p. 15) A full study of Osbern's classicizing stylistics as a captatio benevolentiae to counteract the fragmentation of his audience would not only enhance our understanding of the place of classical learning in English culture of the late eleventh century, it would also contribute to our understanding of the evolving relation of Latin, French, and English in Anglo-Norman culture, a field currently undergoing sweeping reassessment (e.g., Tyler 2009). A focus on the Latin text's active negotiation with the alternative possibilities of the vernacular, so central to the pragmatics of Osbern's response to his linguistic and cultural moment, is essential to a fuller understanding of other Latin texts as well that purport to translate or adapt vernacular materials, whether that claim is plausible despite the loss of the original (as in the case of both Osbern's and William of Malmesbury's lives of Dunstan as well as the latter's biography of Wulfstan), purely fictive (as in the case of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae), or immediately evident in the survival of the vernacular source text—as in the case of Aethelweard's Chronicle, a Latin adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in a form very close to the surviving A-version that bears as well the marks of a close engagement with Bede and an admiration for the works of Aldhelm.

Aethelweard, ealdorman of Wessex and a principal patron of Aelfric of Eynsham's massive program of vernacular translation and homiletic adaptation, wrote his text at the request of a distant cousin, Matilda, abbess of Quedlinburg, sometime soon after 982 (Van Houts 1997). His work's clear dependence on its vernacular source has militated against sustained attention to its own aims and to the mannered, eccentric rhetoric by which it pursues them. Important studies have rehabilitated the peculiarities of Aethelweard's Latinity as the deliberate cultivation of a distinctive prose style (Winterbottom 1967) and established that his reorganization of the paratactic annalistic structure of the vernacular source positions the text in relation to antecedent and contemporary works, most notably Bede's Historia ecclesiastica and Widukind of Corvey's Res gestae Saxonicae (Van Houts 1997). But we would still benefit from a thoroughgoing analysis of Aethelweard's multiple shifts in registers of diction, and of how his departures of form and content might have been received by his Continental narratee or by English readers likely to know the sources themselves, and so to form their own judgments about the implications of such divergences.

Latinity and Vernacularity as a Continuum of Linguistic Register

In contrast to Aethelweard's clear but unacknowledged dependence on a vernacular source, the web of vexed relations between multiple versions, some of them Latin, some vernacular, of widely current texts, throws down a powerful challenge not (p. 16) only to widespread assumptions about how closely Latinity and canonicity map over one another, but also about any putative impermeability of the boundary between Latin and vernacular culture—a topic addressed at length elsewhere in this volume by Brian Murdoch. The complex relations between the multiple Latin versions of the romance of Apollonius of Tyre and their affiliations in turn with proliferating vernacular versions offer a case in point. Of the Latin romance, which may or may not have derived from a lost Greek original, multiple versions survive (Archibald 1991, 182–216). Of the vernacular versions, the earliest is a fragmentary Old English translation extant in a single manuscript of the eleventh century (Apollonius of Tyre 1958). Strikingly, in this version the incest riddle upon which the opening episode of the romance turns is given untranslated and then glossed—yet the gloss does not correspond exactly with the Latin it translates. Such a disjunction raises the question whether a translated text in a broadly Latinate milieu presupposes the opacity of the source language to the target audience (as we often assume of modern translation), or whether translation from but also to medieval Latin functions rather as a change of register within an interlinguistic competence that embraces, for the translator and readers alike, both source and target language. Such a practice would imply a more active intertextual awareness of the source text as a residue behind the translation, and with that more active awareness, the negotiation of a dialogic relationship between alternative versions of a text whose fullness is consequently at any given moment only partially present to the reader. We find in the explicit citation of Latin scripture in the Middle English texts of the Ancrene Wisse another example of a glossing practice where disjunctions between quoted Latin source and incorporated translation heighten the reader's awareness of interpretive gaps that invite a process of active comparative evaluation. The Ancrene Wisse incorporates excerpts from the Vulgate which are then in some cases translated literally, sometimes glossed with exegetical embellishment, and sometimes left entirely untranslated. The variation in practice hardly suggests a reductively functional translation practice as an accommodation of the reader's inadequate Latinity. (Sian Echard's analysis [1998] of the Latin apparatus of Gower's still later Confessio Amantis offers a third example of such dialogization from the vernacular side, suggesting that translation remained a mode of a broader multilingual habitus well beyond the putative eclipse of Latin as a literary language in England.)

Such texts, by importing Latinity into the vernacular, do more than simply gesture toward linguistic diversity; they undermine the self-sufficient authority of either the Latin or the vernacular version. The ghost of Latinity—and of the hermeneutic competencies that are seen as concomitant with Latinity—pervades texts like the Old English Apollonius of Tyre and the equally fluid multilingual textual tradition of the Ancrene Wisse. With the proliferation of new work on the multilingual habitus of specific medieval literary cultures—as in the work of Jocelyn Wogan-Brown and Elizabeth Tyler—we are in a position to see that one of the most vibrantly energizing aspects of a Latinate cultural continuum is precisely this sense of oscillation, this perception that the plenitude of a text's meaning is always only partially present in the utterance, that the text is always haunted by the absence of its (p. 17) Doppelgänger—a gap that invites the active participation of the audience. But if this self-alienated phenomenology instilled into the reading experience of vernacular texts is celebrated variously in a wide range of texts, it also understandably gives rise to a pervasive anxiety, to a sense that the linguistic split consciousness of such a culture is a departure from original linguistic purity and self-presence.

Bede's account of Caedmon in Historia ecclesiastica 4.24 offers a vivid example. Despite Bede's assertion that the vernacular origin of the inspired cowherd's hymn in its absence betters the Latin prose paraphrase that he includes in his text, the episode is arguably driven by such an anxiety. For Bede, the hymn's miraculous origins render ostensibly unexceptionable the binary oppositions that he implies characterize its production—oppositions not only between Latin and vernacular, but between literate and illiterate, inspired and crafted, learned and unlearned, authorized and unauthorized. Bede acknowledges, accepts, and even implicitly celebrates the autonomy of the absent vernacular tradition, but that autonomy simultaneously represents an instability that must be controlled, and the elaborate apparatus that he sets up around the hymn's genesis attests in its own way to the discontents of split linguistic consciousness. Bede's earliest readership consisted of his fellow Northumbrians, yet he casts them rhetorically as denizens of a generalized Latin Christendom, as for example when he glosses proper names like Hefenefeld, the site of Oswald's great battle against his pagan adversaries, as though these require explanation in the acquired tongue of high culture in order to be rendered intelligible (Mehan and Townsend 2001). The Caedmon episode functions similarly as a highly elaborated gloss on a vernacular text already so familiar to Bede's early readers that it crept almost immediately into the margins of Bede's Historia as a spontaneous supplement (O’Brien O’Keefe 1990).

If eighth-century England was a particularly dramatic site for the relative novelty of a bilingual culture, and if that novelty registered as an uneasy recognition that one's own linguistic experience always lay in part abstracted from the present utterance, then we might venture to look for further indices of this frisson in intralinguistic as well as interlinguistic relations. The opus geminatum, the work written in deliberately twinned prose and verse versions explicitly announced, or at least strongly implied, as halves of a single unity (Wieland 1981; Godman 1981) might offer for future work a locus for exploration of this anxiety (and pleasure) of split consciousness. The celebrated precedent for such texts was the pairing of Sedulius's Carmen Paschale and Opus Paschale. It is perhaps misleading to say that the form enjoyed a vogue among early English writers: we have three eighth-century examples. Aldhelm's De virginitate is the first Anglo-Saxon instance of the form. Bede's prose and verse lives of Cuthbert are often adduced as the next important example, but this is complicated by the fact that Bede writes his verse life of Cuthbert not as a companion piece to his prose version, but as an adaptation of an earlier anonymous prose biography of the saint, and his own later prose represents a significant modification of the first prose version, arguably to current political ends (Goffart 1988). Anglo-Latin literature before the long hiatus of the Viking depredations of the early ninth century is nearly bookended by Alcuin's (p. 18) double life of Willibrord—a Carolingian production, but plausibly informed by the insular cultural preoccupations of Charlemagne's schoolmaster (Alcuin 1881 and 1920; Townsend 1995).

The obligatory declaration of unity in the prefaces of these works implies a structural or functional complementarity—the two halves of the work are likened to the walls and roof of a building; or the prose and verse are asserted to serve disparate purposes in different contexts (Wieland 1981, 114–17). But such assertions of unity do not address—nor have modern scholarly assessments seemed inclined to analyze in much detail—the fact that any interpretive crux is likely to spur the reader of these works into intensive cross-referencing to the text's self-declared other half. Aldhelm's verse is hardly the more challenging half of his work—it is a model of simplicity and clarity next to his willfully abstruse and precious prose. But furthermore, any chapter-by-chapter comparison of the prose and verse De virginitate quickly reveals the substantial extent to which the two versions diverge in content as well as in style. Alcuin's laconic verse version of the life of Willibrord often presents little more than an aide-mémoire to anecdotes more fully recounted in the prose, while occasionally the verse conversely supplements the prose in substantial detail (ibid., 117–19).

A fresh look at the phenomenology of reading the opus geminatum, equipped with the tools of deconstructive criticism and a sociolinguistic inflection of postcolonial studies, might open an integrative understanding of a peculiar literary vogue as an expression of paradoxes central to the multilingual milieu that engendered it. Such an approach would begin with the observation that early English opera geminata announce themselves as instantiations of unity and presence, whereas the reader's experience of these texts must necessarily emphasize disparity and absence. The reader of such texts is constantly driven back onto comparison with the twinned work, since the version present before the reader clearly demands supplementation; onto the quandary that the twinned versions of the bifurcated text turn out, upon comparison, not to be saying precisely the same thing at all. The more focused the reader of such texts becomes on establishing the unity of the two parallel texts of an opus geminatum, the more likely she is to unveil not the commonality that unites them, but the divergence that renders their unity problematic, even as it remains a foundational assumption informing one's entire reading practice.

The prosecution of this, and of the other projects suggested above, would mark the participation of medieval Latin studies in a fundamental shift away from the recovery and representation of medieval cultural synthesis towards a heightened focus on the disruptions, conflicts, pluralities, problematically articulated identities, and internal contradictions evident both in the texts and in our present moment of scholarly interpretation. Such a reframing of the field's questions would answer calls issued a generation ago for increased metacritical awareness of the scholar's own ideological investment by Lee Patterson and Allen J. Frantzen in Middle English and Old English studies, respectively. If the lag is partly due to the institutional (p. 19) constraints outlined above, and partly to the skepticism of medieval Latinists towards the espousal of cultural theories imperfectly suited to the circumstances of the objects of our study, it is surely due as well, and perhaps chiefly, to the depth of medieval Latinity's own ideological investment in representing itself as the vehicle of universality: as the Tongue of the Fathers and the means by which, for a thousand years of European culture, the specificities of time, mother tongue, and space were putatively transcended. Medieval Latinity, so conceived, has presented its students with a particularly opaque resistance to their enquiries into its containment of cultural difference and contestation, the fault lines of that containment being so finely grained as they are, and so easily overlooked in the quest for a more foundational comprehension of texts and contexts.

At stake is more than the ongoing vitality of medieval Latin studies per se. There is indeed an argument to be made that the vexed boundaries of the medieval might plausibly be defined, at its inception, by the point when Latin, as the language of high culture, comes to be largely an artificially learned language, in ways traced by Roger Wright and Michel Banniard, and, at its close, by the point when, as an artificially learned language, it ceases to be the undisputed language of high culture. If Western European medieval culture as a whole defined itself around Latinity as its ideological fulcrum, then any understanding of medieval vernacular culture that takes the self-representations of Latinity at face value cannot fully evaluate vernacular texts’ own implication in the same larger ideological structures. A commitment to the study of the instabilities at the Latinate heart of medieval ideologies of presence, unity, and continuity offers the promise of a fuller understanding not only of a central technology of indoctrination, but an enhanced critique of the divide between Latin and vernacular, natural and learned, local and universal, ephemeral and perdurative upon which medieval literary culture's larger signifying systems were founded.

Suggestions for Further Reading

While important studies in the field appear frequently in a range of journals, three periodicals are dedicated specifically to medieval Latin studies: Journal of Medieval Latin, Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch, and Filologia Mediolatina. The proceedings of five International Conferences on Medieval Latin Studies afford a sense of the state of the field over the last twenty-five years. For these, see Berschin (1991), Leonardi (1998), Herren (2002), Diaz y Diaz (2005), and Herren (2008). No extended treatment of the ideological dimension of medieval Latinity exists per se, but questions of medieval Latinity as a technology of cultural and social control and empowerment were early addressed by Ong (1959 and 1962), by Desmond (1994), and in the essays gathered in Townsend and Taylor (1998). The question of Latinity as an ideological mechanism since the sixteenth century is addressed by Waquet (2001).


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