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Verse Style

Abstract and Keywords

This tendency to dismantle verse is evidence of the decidedly artificial character of metrical versification in the Middle Ages, whose rules are then made even more rigid by theorists: thus, through a process of hypercorrection, purists do not hesitate to banish all use of elision, or to recommend a monotone system of breaks overwhelmingly dominated by the penthemimeral caesura. The overall effect of these rules is that word order becomes mechanical. Rigidification is due as well to the almost universal adoption of dactylic verse by medieval metrical poets. The poetic style of the Middle Ages is therefore the site of a subtle dialectic between self and other. Emblematic of this idea is the first example of the medieval revival of epic, a poem composed around 800 to celebrate Charlemagne, known as Paderborn epos or Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa. In the twelfth century, the renewal of poetic forms of expression is accompanied by an equally new ambition for poetry to announce itself as the unique bearer of the truth—in other words, as something other than an elegant and delightful repetition of content that could be expressed in prose.

Keywords: Verse, Middle Ages, medieval metrical poets, epic, Charlemagne, poetry

Translated by Emily Blakelock

Does verse style exist in medieval Latin literature? As strange as this question seems, it is legitimate for two main reasons. The first is linked to the singular linguistic status of medieval Latin. From the time when Latin ceases to be a mother tongue (a progressive process), its nature as a learned language paradoxically confers great freedom upon its most competent users. Liberated from the demands of simplicity and immediacy associated with everyday usage, they can give freer rein to the whims of invention, to the dazzling qualities of artifice in both prose and verse. For example, the two versions of the Life of St. Christopher, one in hexameters and one in prose, composed just before the year 1000 by Walter of Speyer (Walter of Speyer 1937), both employ scholarly, complex, and obscure language, replete with the play of homophones, internal rhymes, and parallelisms also found abundantly in eleventh-century narrative chronicles and formally related to writing techniques used in the lyric poetry of the same period (Bourgain 2002).

The second reason the identification of typical poetic modes of expression is not a simple process is related to content rather than to form. As we have just suggested in the case of Walter of Speyer's double Vita et passio Sancti Christophori (and hagiographic literature offers many other examples), the same theme can be developed in an equally effective way in both prose and verse (Dolbeau 2002, 128–32). This suggests that, strictly speaking, there is no exclusive province reserved for poetry, and more explicitly that poetry has the right to treat any possible subject in verse. Compared to the categories inherited from Hegel's Aesthetics, which posit (p. 240) only epic, lyric, or dramatic poetry, there is something disconcerting about seeing verse treat subjects like Latin grammar (Alexander of Villedieu, Eberhard of Bethune), botany (Walahfrid Strabo), pharmacopeia (the Macer floridus), mineralogy (Marbod's lapidary), pedagogy (Abelard, Carmen ad Astrolabium), the history of ideas (John of Salisbury, Entheticus maior), and so on. Frederick J. E. Raby's classic volumes on medieval Latin poetry (1953 and 1957) thus record an astonishing diversity of linguistic objects under the single title of “poetry.”

Indeed, grammatical instruction passed down from the teachers of late antiquity continues to contrast prose, prosa, which is defined etymologically as “that which goes forwards (proru[i]t), which follows a continuous forward motion,” with verse, versus, “that which turns back on itself (revertitur), which doubles back to the margin of the page” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 1.38.1, 1.39.2). But does this opposition describe a reality other than the obvious one of codicological layout (Bourgain 1989)? It is uncertain that medieval authors could rely on precepts as reassuring as the one Molière's “bourgeois gentilhomme” learns from his philosophy master, for whom “all which is not verse is prose,” and vice versa. Instead, a system with multiple terms is outlined in the artes dictaminis which begin to flourish in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Following a trajectory begun by Bede the Venerable in his De arte metrica, they usually enumerate three forms of dictamen, understanding this term to mean “writing governed by the rules of art,” rather than the more frequent, but stricter, definition “epistolary writing.” Defined in this way, dictamen can be prosaicum, metricum, or rythmicum (see Conrad of Hirsau's Dialogus super auctores for a twelfth-century definition, and for the thirteenth century see Bene of Florence's Candelabrum). The last two correspond to what we would call “verse” or “poetry,” but are subject to different methods of composition: dictamen metricum follows the rules of classical versification, which is based on the opposition between long and short syllables, and their organization into feet, while the dictamen rythmicum is based on the number of syllables, the regular occurrence of tonic accent, and to a lesser extent on rhyme, consonantia dictionum [sounding similar] or similiter desinens [with a similar ending] (Norberg 1958, 87–94). Some Italian theorists of the thirteenth century will add prosimetricum and prosirythmicum to these two models, which designate prose which is so measured and rhythmical that it resembles poetry without actually being poetry, rather than the alternation of prose and metrical or rhythmic poetry, as is often assumed (Turcan-Verkerk 2003, 136–56). And what can be said of the psalm versicles, which St. Jerome calls versus, or of the primitive Notkerian sequence, which modern editions print in verse format, but which contains no metrical or accentual regularity because of the extent to which the verse is subordinated to the music to which it is set, the modulation of the alleluia? (See Boynton and Fassler in this volume.)

The purpose of these preliminary remarks is to emphasize the diverse and fluid character of medieval Latin poetry. It would certainly be presumptuous to attempt to situate it in a framework of universal and constraining stylistic rules. Our goal here is only to make some sense of this diversity, and to identify a few major characteristics of a corpus with such vast and uncertain limits. With this in mind, we will (p. 241) follow a path from the concrete to the abstract, from the role of form to its intended effects, from the aural resonance of words to their spiritual resonance.

The Constraints of Form

Starting in the third or fourth century, the system which had formed the basis of Latin versification, a system of phonetic opposition between long and short syllables, begins to weaken: in his apocalyptic epic entitled Carmen de duobus populis, the Syrian writer Commodian (second half of the third century), a native speaker of a Semitic language, is completely indifferent to it, and only preserves the recurrence of the six marked beats, or ictus, of hexameter. It is curious to note that in the ninth century, in a similar eschatological context, Paul Alvarus of Cordoba will give the name versus heroici to hexameters that are equally awkward (Norberg 1958, 10). From the end of the fourth century, there is a marked divide between scholarly usage and direct aural perception, at least in some areas of the Roman Empire: according to Augustine, “Afrae aures de correptione vocalium vel productione non iudicant” [African ears do not discern the shortening or lengthening of vowels] (De doctrina Christiana 4.10.24), and the disciple to whom he teaches pronunciation in his dialogue De musica admits ignorance of the quantity of syllables (“syllabarum longarum vel brevium cognitionem non habeo,” 3.3.5), while in Cicero's day, even the uneducated public was well aware of syllabic quantity and would copiously heckle any actor who pronounced a short syllable as long, or vice versa (De oratore 3.196). By the beginning of the Middle Ages, this process is complete: even the most educated are deaf to the music of antique verse. Ennodius, bishop of Pavia at the beginning of the sixth century and one of his day's most sophisticated and erudite writers of Latin, trusts his eyes, not his ears, to guarantee the metrical accuracy of his poetry: “non enim possunt esse solidata versuum vestigia luminis officio destituta” [the workings of verse cannot be assured if the function of the eye is absent] (Polara 1995, 64–65).

Yet metrical poetry continues to be produced. The prestige attached to a form perfected by illustrious classical models surely plays a role in explaining its continued popularity. But the persistent success of the poetic formats and genres transmitted by the Latin tradition can also be explained by the inertia of educational institutions. The school of the grammaticus (which should be translated “teacher of literature”) is the descendant of Late Antique schools, and is characterized by a remarkably stable curriculum, in which the work of the poets predominates, and by great consistency in its pedagogical methods. The exercise of lectio, the glossed reading of classical auctores and their Christian imitators, is at its foundation. This can be amplified by the exercise of imitation: in the Ottonian empire, the most gifted students are set the task of transposing the life of a venerated saint into verse, as a final record of the end of their studies (like the metrical Vita et passio Sancti (p. 242) Christophori by Walter of Speyer, for example) (Dolbeau 2002, 136–37). The music of verse is no longer perceived intuitively and becomes the subject of a technical apprenticeship. Manuals for prosody, starting with those of ancient grammarians like Sacerdos or Servius, number by the dozens throughout the Middle Ages (Leonhardt 1989, 196–235). Theory can also be demonstrated through practical examples: numerous prosodic florilegia survive in which the verses of the auctores serve as models for the analysis of syllabic quantity and of the respective patterns of various metrical feet. In manuscripts, these last are often underlined with diacritical marks, like commas, which separate the feet between words or even in the middle of a word. In the same spirit, an author like Aldhelm, in his De metris et enigmatibus ac pedum regulis (ca. 700), describes Juvenal's verse “Omenta? ut video nullum discrimen habendum est” (Juvenal, Saturae 13.118) in the following way: “scanditur omen spondeus, tautvide dactilus per sinalipham, onul spondeus, lumdis spondeus, crimenha dactilus, bendum est spondeus per sinalipham” [omen should be scanned a spondee, t(a)utvide a dactyl with a synalepha, onul a spondee, lumdis a spondee, crimenha a dactyl, bendum(e)st a spondee with a synalepha] (Aldhelm, De metris 9).

This tendency to dismantle verse is evidence of the decidedly artificial character of metrical versification in the Middle Ages, whose rules are then made even more rigid by theorists: thus, through a process of hypercorrection, purists do not hesitate to banish all use of elision, or to recommend a monotone system of breaks overwhelmingly dominated by the penthemimeral caesura (after the first syllable of the third foot) (Orlandi 1988, 161–65). The overall effect of these rules is that word order becomes mechanical. Rigidification is due as well to the almost universal adoption of dactylic verse by medieval metrical poets. With very few exceptions, such as the Sapphic stanza, only a few virtuosos write Aeolic verse. Dactylic hexameter and pentameter, moreover, are badly suited to Latin phonetics, being in origin an importation from the Greek tradition. Their triumph manifests itself in the invasion of seemingly formulaic expressions into medieval Latin poetry, or at least into the poetry that claims to derive from classical models.

But this judgment would benefit from a more nuanced perspective. At a very modest level of competence are the hagiographic Legends of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, who is more inspired when she takes on the task of composing drama in rhythmical prose. The hexameters of the Legends are riddled with words like itaque, etenim, porro, quoque, empty of any semantic significance, but intended to provide the short syllables that are indispensable for the construction of dactyls (Leotta 1995, 208–9). At the other extreme, some of Hildebert of Lavardin's epigrams (ca. 1100) are so well-crafted that they were long considered to be the work of Late Antique poets, and were classed as such in the editions of the Anthologia latina until the end of the nineteenth century; critics remain hesitant about the date of the Bucolics, written by the mysterious Marcus Valerius in either the sixth or twelfth century (Dolbeau 1987, 167–68). Most commonly, classicizing medieval poetry, like the Christian epic of the fifth or sixth century, which is its chief inspiration, gives the impression of a patchwork since it is woven from remembrances, be they conscious or unconscious, of (p. 243) formulas borrowed from classical models. Its masterpiece, the Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon, thus contains, according to the meticulous accounting of its editor Marvin Colker, a classically inspired junctura in almost half its verses (Walter of Châtillon 1978).

In both medieval and classical literary theory, imitatio is a virtue. Nevertheless, it is threatened by the risk of sterility and servility, especially when under the severe constraints just mentioned. This is probably one of the factors which pushed medieval poets to explore an alternative solution, that of rythmus, which, as opposed to the metrum, is based entirely on the judgment of the ear, since its chief organizational principle is the regular tonic accent of the words (to be distinguished from the metrical ictus), and secondarily consonance at the ends of periods, assonance or rhyme. The processes by which metrical versification evolved into a rhythmic system are complex, and are the subject of extremely technical analyses by specialists (Burger 1957, 82–106; Norberg 1958, 87–135). We will illustrate them with a simple example, that of the hymn classified as “Ambrosian.”

It was in dramatic circumstances, as reported by Augustine in his Confessiones (9.7.15), that Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, perfected the use of the liturgical hymn in 386. This poetry arises from a religious observance marked by a threefold character: musical, doctrinal, and communal, with the goal of affirming the morals and faith of its hearers. To this end, he employs a very simple metrical structure, one almost never used in pagan poetry, that of iambic dimeter, the succession of four iambs each composed of one short and one long syllable, with the stress on the ictus, or marked beat of the long syllable. These verses are grouped into quatrains, according to a model destined to become canonical. Here is an example of an Ambrosian stanza:

  • Aeterne rerum conditor
  • Noctem diemque qui regis
  • Et temporum das tempora
  • Ut alleves fastidium.
  • [Eternal creator of all things,
  • who rules both night and day,
  • and gives time its meaning,
  • to lift our hardship.] (Raby 1961, 8)

Ambrose was a very cultured man, and the meter of these verses is perfectly correct, both in the arrangement of long and short syllables and the placement of the ictus. But one can also observe that this structure usually allows the “natural” tonic accent of the words to coincide with the metrical ictus (aetErne rErum cOnditor), a phenomenon rare in dactylic poetry. Ambrose's verse is more easily imprinted on the memory and heart of an audience with little literary education because it is closer to the structure of everyday language. And this audience was quick to interpret Ambrose's perfect iambic dimeters as proparoxytonic octosyllables, accented on the antepenultimate syllable. Already in 475, bishop Auspicius of Toul writes: (p. 244)

  • Magnas caelesti domino
  • Rependo corde gratias
  • quod te Tullensi proxime
  • Magnum in urbe vidimus.
  • [I offer from my heart great thanks
  • to the celestial Lord
  • that I saw your greatness
  • in the city of Toul.] (Raby 1961, 43)

Perhaps he thought he was composing an Ambrosian stanza, but his metrically flawed verses bear no relation to iambic dimeter (Norberg 1958, 106–9).

This same process will cause the various metrical schemes to evolve to form “verses” (even if some theorists hesitate to give this name to rhythmic periods) characterized first by their number of syllables, second, by the accent which falls on their last word, as either proparoxytonic or paroxytonic (on the third-last or second-last syllable, respectively). In any case, it is certain that rhythmic versification is the child, albeit the bastard child, of metrical versification. Some models are particularly fruitful, especially iambic and trochaic verses, which are considered the closest to ordinary spoken language: these are the verses of dramatic dialogue, comic or tragic (Nougaret 1956, 60–63). Should the “learned” metrum be considered the opposite of a rythmus which is termed “popular”? Certainly not. Their difference lies in their usage and function. If metrical poetry, in the image of its classical models, is intended for individual reading—an assertion we will refine shortly—rhythmical poetry spreads through oral, musical, and communal means. This is true of liturgical poetry (addressed by Susan Boynton and Margot Fassler elsewhere in this volume), which is preserved in tens of thousands of witnesses, but also of its parodies, the most complete collection of which is the famous Carmina Burana (not to mention battle songs, attested by very old examples). But for every inexpert poet who wields hexameters heavily and awkwardly, there is a virtuoso of rhythmical verse. Among such adepts, Adam of St. Victor's liturgical sequences wed an absolute mastery of word order and sound to a deep doctrinal significance. He writes thus about divine love:

  • Lumen carum, lumen clarum
  • internarum tenebrarum
  • effugas caliginem.
  • Per te mundi sunt mundati,
  • tu peccatum, tu peccati
  • destruis rubiginem.
  • [Dear light, clear light
  • you drive out the fog
  • of inner darkness.
  • Through you the good are purified,
  • You banish both sin and its stain.] (Adam of St. Victor 2008, 335)

The play on sound that characterizes this stanza, with its repetition of lumen, the paronomasia of carum-clarum, the etymological figure mundi—mundati, the (p. 245) polyptoton peccatum—peccati, the richness of the rhymes (caliginem—rubiginem), including internal rhymes (internarum tenebrarum), overall make up a work in which each phoneme has weight, reminding us that medieval poetry, even Latin poetry, is most of all carried by the breath and the voice (see Grosfillier's detailed commentary on this text, Adam of St. Victor 2008, 642–48). This literature, like its vernacular sibling, is an oral literature.

Such orality applies even to medieval Latin poetry's most “written” forms. We have several witnesses to the fact that metrical poetry was also intended to be recited. Baudri of Bourgueil (ca. 1100) concludes his massive encyclopedic poem (almost 700 distichs of unusually great difficulty) with the injunction, addressed to the bearer of these verses, “reddat recitetque” [let him recite and declaim] them to their recipient, the countess Adela of Blois (Tilliette 2002, 43). Some treatises on the art of poetry, like Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova, give advice (which is itself difficult to interpret) on how to articulate these declamations aloud. There are even musical notations associated with excerpts of the classical epics of Virgil, Lucan, and Statius (Ziokowski 2007, 1–37).

It is in this spirit that medieval culture will treat traditional versification with a fair amount of disrespect (an attitude the Renaissance will in turn prohibit), imagining forms that can almost be considered to be halfway between the metrum and the rythmus. Assonance, starting in the sixth century, then rhyme, from the ninth century, punctuate rhythmical verses more and more frequently. But even hexameter will begin to admit rhyme under the form called “leonine verse,” which uses consonance between the word placed at the penthemimeral caesura of the verse and that which ends it. This practice, attested sporadically since the Carolingian era (as in Gottschalk of Orbais's poem for Ratramnus), comes increasingly into vogue by the turn of the twelfth century, as in the work of Marbod, the first author of a medieval ars poetica, De ornamentis verborum (Marbod 1998). It has the effect of dividing verses into two asymmetrical parts of 5–7 and 8–10 syllables respectively, linked by their last syllables, which assimilates their vocal effect to that of rhythmical poetry. This effect is even more marked as poets begin to imagine more complex systems that combine internal and final rhymes. The most spectacular example is the poem De contemptu mundi (Bernard of Cluny 2009), composed in the mid-twelfth century. Each of its 2,966 hexameters not only links the end of the second and fourth foot with a rhyme, often a disyllabic one, but also the last syllables of two successive verses:

  • Aurea tempora primaque robora praeterierunt
  • Aurea gens fuit et simul haec ruit, illa ruerunt.
  • Flebilis incipit aurea, suscipit aurea metas
  • Transiit ocius et studium prius et prior aetas
  • [The golden age and early vigour have passed by
  • The golden race thrived, and just like them, fell away.
  • Gold begins to be mourned, gold comes to an end;
  • Earlier customs and the previous age have both slipped away so quickly.]
  • (De contemptu mundi 2.1–4)

(p. 246) It is hardly necessary to outline the other devices that reinforce this obsessive cadence, like the paronomasia aurea—area, the polyptota ruit—ruerunt and prius—prior, the etymological figure incipit—suscipit. Verses like this, called tripertiti dactylici because they are divided into three parts and are composed only of dactyls, resolutely shatter the mold of classical hexameter, whose system of breaks is totally annihilated. These verses are diametrically opposed to the fluidity of Ovid's verses. Still, do they trespass against the language itself? The morphology of Latin, which places heavily marked grammatical inflexions at the ends of words and which very often tends towards suffixal derivation, authorizes this approach. And the poet can adapt it to his topic: the heavy hammering of rhymes can underline the gravity of the message, parallelisms can emphasize its obviousness, or constant repetition with variations can drive home its urgency. Thus, in a preface with a lofty tone, Bernard claims to have put beauty (decor) at the service of efficiency (utilitas). His contemporary audience must have agreed with him, since the manuscript tradition of De contemptu mundi bears evidence of its wide distribution.

In a lighter register, poetry is a favorite site for plays on the words, graphemes, and phonemes that constitute it: acrostics, palindromes, vers rapportés (which can be read vertically), retrograde verses (which can be read both forwards and backwards), echo effects like that which reproduces the first hemistich of a hexameter in the second hemistich of a pentameter (this is epanalepsis, so dear to Sedulius Scottus), or concatenation (the repetition of the end of one verse at the beginning of another). These are highly characteristic of the art of writing in the Middle Ages. We will cite only one extreme example of this playful use of language from the Ecloga de calvis [praise of bald men] by the poet Hucbald of St. Amand, who was also one of the greatest medieval music theorists. His 136 hexameters contain only words that start with the letter C, the first initial of the poem's dedicatee, the emperor Charles the Bald (Carolus Calvus):

  • Carmina, clarisonae, calvis cantate, Camenae.
  • Comere condigno conabor carmine calvos,
  • Contra cirrosi crines confundere colli…
  • [Muses, sing a boisterous song for bald men.
  • I will try to adorn bald heads with a fitting song,
  • and, conversely, to muss the hair of those with ample curls…]
  • (Ecloga de calvis 4–6)

We will soon see that what seems at first glance to be word-fueled intoxication has other causes. We will content ourselves in the meanwhile with invoking a few less staggering examples of the pleasure the ear takes in the musicality of words. The first of the late twelfth-century poetry manuals, the Ars versificatoria by Matthew of Vendôme (ca. 1175), advocates a sharp return to classicism. To that end, it condemns all use of rhyme as pointless and puerile, most likely because it is not attested by the classical tradition. Matthew devotes no less than one whole book of his manual to the choice of words, and underlines the poetic effect of long, sonorous adjectives ending in -alis (p. 247) (effugialis, favoralis, exsequialis,…), -osus (officiosus, imperiosus, deliciosus,…), -ivus (responsivus, incentivus, petitivus,…), -atus (illaqueatus, orbiculatus, primiciatus,…), -aris (articularis, exemplaris,…), and also of comparatives in -ior ( floridior, sordidior, cognitior,…), at the same time forbidding the use of short atonal adverbs and conjunctions (porro, quoque, itaque,…) (Matthew of Vendôme 1988, 140–50). One can see parallels with Dante, who, in De vulgari eloquentia (2.7.6), praises those resounding polysyllables which confer harmony upon speech, speranza, gravitate, alleviato, impassibilità, beneventuratissimo, inanimatissimamente.… Even the poetic work that appears to be the pinnacle of classicizing medieval Latin verse, Walter of Châtillon's Alexandreis, which was destined to replace the Aeneid as a canonical text in the schools of the thirteenth century, makes constant (and not very Virgilian) use of poetic devices that depend on the impact of resonance and homophony, such as paronomasia and polyptoton, while it is otherwise reminiscent of the traditional epic formula (Tilliette 2008, 269–74). In short, even if the melody of hexameter, which was once carried by the ictus and the alternation of long and short syllables, has been lost, poetry has not completely abandoned the realm of the voice.

Intertextual Games

The poetic style of the Middle Ages is therefore the site of a subtle dialectic between self and other. Emblematic of this idea is the first example of the medieval revival of epic, a poem composed around 800 to celebrate Charlemagne, known as Paderborn epos [the epic of Paderborn] or Karolus Magnus et Leo papa [Charlemagne and Pope Leo] (Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa 1881). One of the extant fragments depicts the future emperor presiding over the construction of his new capital at Aix-la-Chapelle. It does so in the form of a very faithful paraphrase of the passage in Book 1 of the Aeneid in which Virgil depicts the Tyrians in the midst of building Carthage, and the poet does not hesitate, following his model, to equip the Germanic city with a theatre, and even a port, contrary to all geographic reality. Must we view this as evidence of foolish naϯveté, or of the medieval poet's slavish devotion to his source? Certainly not. When describing the “second Rome” which is Aix, the anonymous poet found in his literary memory, and more precisely in the most prestigious work of Latin literature, an image of the ideal city, the only one worthy to embody Charlemagne's ambition of building a local counterpart to the city of God. Compared to this ambition, the mediocre demands of “realism” have no importance. It is even possible that the poet was conscious that Virgil had done the same thing, providing his imaginary Carthage with the splendors of Augustus's Rome.

The same poet describes a deer hunt led by the king in which Charles proves his mastery of the noble sport par excellence, and perhaps by extension his ability to beat back the enemies of the faith, who are symbolized by the black, hairy, and ferocious beast. The model for this passage does not come from the Aeneid but from (p. 248) Book 3 of Venantius Fortunatus's hagiographic epic devoted to the life and miracles of St. Martin, written around 575. In it, we see the bishop of Tours, using only the power of charisma, save a hare that is being pursued over the fields by a band of horsemen and their pack of furious hounds. Here, we witness a semantic inversion along with the word for word repetition of quite a few expressions. The tenderness of Martin, the Roman saint, is contrasted with Charlemagne's Germanic bravery: on one side lies a domesticated rural landscape and a small inoffensive animal, on the other, the thickets of the vast forest which still covers pagan Europe, and a wild and dangerous beast. These depictions are highly indicative of the ideals of two different eras and of two opposite figures of Christian heroism, the bishop who protects the weak, who is a peacemaker and missionary, and the warrior who yearns to conquer Evil. A powerful contrast emerges from these intertextual echoes.

Thus the practice of literary imitation arises from anything but a timid and lazy attitude. Although our own post-Romantic era tends to prize originality above all else, medieval poets were only following in the footsteps of their classical predecessors: after all, Terence's comedies, Virgil's Bucolics, and Horace's Odes are nothing other than fantastic re-creations of the works of Menander, Theocritus, and Pindar, respectively, fully Roman despite their translation from Greek, and fully responsive to the expectations of their audience. In the same way, the selection of prized models by medieval poets and their various methods of using these models reflect their aesthetics. According to an old cliché, not totally deprived of relevance, the history of medieval Latin poetry can be divided into three periods, each one characterized by a favorite author whose work gives it its “color.” The Carolingian era, engaged in the praise of the sovereign and his exploits and prone to the didactic, is the aetas virgiliana [age of Virgil]; the monastic movement of the tenth and eleventh century will appropriate the mistrust of the world found in Horace and other satirists such as Terence, Persius, and Juvenal (aetas horatiana); the renaissance of the twelfth century, which revives love poetry and a kind of naturalism, prizes the reading of Ovid (aetas ovidiana) (Traube 1911, 113). This narrative is corroborated by reception history: according to extant manuscripts, the peaks in popularity of the three classical poets correspond to the periods assigned to them. All the same, we must take a nuanced view of such a summary periodization. When Ovid was rediscovered, appreciation of Virgil and Horace did not cease. Each writer, according to his temperament, the affinity he feels with various models, the literary genre he writes or the audience he seeks, takes his inspiration wherever he finds it. Rather than basing our argument on dangerous historical generalizations, we would instead propose a phenomenology (rather than a typology) of intertextual encounters and their stylistic consequences.

As we have already shown, the first and most widespread technique of imitation is unattributed word-for-word citation. Since we have already described this practice, we will not dwell on it. An effect of education, it often arises out of a more or less conscious remembrance, and occurs most often in parts of the verse where lexical choices are limited by the demands of prosody: in hexameter, the first foot or the last two feet. Many authors have begun a verse with the words Me miserum, and (p. 249) finished another with lumina solis or lumina somno without having the slightest awareness that they are citing Ovid on one hand, Virgil on the other (see Schumann 1979–83 for a collection of these formulas and the data provided in Mastandrea and Tessarolo 2010). Such borrowings confer an antique patina on a medieval text, ornamenting it with “gems drawn from a quarry of precious stones” (Vinay 1978, 481), which make the poem sparkle, just as antique gems and cameos were mounted on reliquaries that preserved the bodily remains of saints—and on this subject, it is surely not a coincidence that the lives of saints make up a substantial part of the poetry written in epic verse between the ninth and twelfth century. More intentional borrowings can also coincide with sense, as is the case with the most learned and competent poets. Baudri of Bourgueil, whose inspiration is extremely varied, thus makes use of the Bucolics and Georgics of Virgil, and to a lesser extent Horace's Satire 2.6, in the poem De sufficientia votorum suorum [On the fulfilment of his desires] (Carm. 126), which praises the charms of a country retreat, while his description of the battle of Hastings is a veritable cento of selections from the Aeneid, Lucan's Pharsalia, and Statius's Thebaid. And the brilliant mid-thirteenth-century poet Henry of Avranches starts his metrical lives of saints Oswald and Hugh of Lincoln, which are intended to extol the former's thaumaturgical power and the latter's victorious battles against the devil, with the words In nova fert animus and Arma virumque cano, the respective incipits of the Metamorphoses and the Aeneid.

The mimetic ability of medieval poets can inspire them towards pastiche. The Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon makes no secret of its aim to rival the Aeneid. In fact, it contains a description of a shield, that of Darius (Alex. 2.494–539), which corresponds to that of Aeneas's shield (Aen. 8), and, in a considerable extension of an episode barely mentioned in the poem's historical source, Quintus Curtius, the daring exploits of two young Macedonian warriors, Symmachus and Nicanor (Alex. 10.77–147), whose story parallels that of Nisus and Euryalus in Aeneid 9. The poet even includes a descent to the underworld, that of the goddess Nature (Alex. 10.6–162). Still more faithful to his favorite poet, Baudri of Bourgueil rewrites Ovid's Heroides 16 and 17 (the exchange of letters between Paris and Helen) in his own style. These are not merely brilliant exercises in style: the reuse of ancient forms carries with it meaningful contemporary concerns. By pretending to walk in the footsteps of Virgil, Walter of Châtillon radically reorients the historical and human message of the original: while the iconography of Aeneas's shield heralded the future glories of Rome, that of Darius's shield prefigures the crumbling of the Persian empire, and while Aeneas's descent to the underworld ended with a grandiose vision of the triumphs of Augustus, that of Nature announces the inglorious death of Alexander, a symbol of the fleeting and provisional character of all earthly glory. It is no accident that Walter, by dividing his poem into ten books like the Pharsalia and not twelve like the Aeneid, places himself under the authority of Lucan, the anti-Virgil, who makes men and their passions the mere toys of the whims of Fortune. Baudri writes in a lighter register, but reveals equal poetic mastery. His Helen is certainly not the impish coquette described by Ovid, but instead bears a certain resemblance to the distant lady praised by the troubadours. It is not so much (p. 250) that the medieval poet was a bad reader. On the contrary, he fully understood the Roman poet's humor, which was based on the anachronistic transposition of Achaean heroes into a sphere that is in no way epic. The proof lies in another pair of epistles composed by Baudri, but this time the protagonists are the author himself and a young nun named Constance. The spiritual friendship that seems to be the focus of this probably fictitious correspondence disguises an obscene undertone, emphasized by ample Ovidian references (Tilliette 1992, 148–57).

With this example, we slide from pastiche to parody. The ironic relationship between medieval poems and the authoritative texts that are their source seems to have been a dominant characteristic of that great era of Latin literature, the renaissance of the twelfth century. Goliardic poetry offers innumerable examples. The flavor is already there in the mid-ninth-century work of the Irish master Sedulius Scottus. His poem 41 recounts in epic style the plight of a ram torn to pieces by a hound—and therefore, from the poet's perspective, the loss of a promising Irish stew—drawing equally from the battle scenes of the Aeneid and the account of Christ's passion through the precise use of textual allusions. A burlesque, or even carnivalesque, dimension tends to emerge, especially in beast poetry, and most of all in the main work of this genre, an epic in seven books called Ysengrimus (ca. 1150). With an understanding of the epic genre as certain and masterful as that of Walter of Châtillon, the author retells the (often obscene and scatological) tales of the struggle between the wolf and the fox, thus killing two birds with one stone, since he mocks both the corrupt clerics symbolized by these animals and the principles of the noblest of genres. (On Ysengrimus and its connections to vernacular literatures, see Murdoch in this volume.)

In the case of rewriting, the author does not limit himself to the use of an arsenal of formulas or a stylistic model, but decides to remake an entire work. This can take place in various ways. A good example of stylistic transformation is the Iliad by the English poet Joseph of Exeter (ca. 1180). His epic in six books is an exact paraphrase of a text which adopts the blandest and flattest writing style in all of Latin literature, the Historia destructionis Troiae by Dares the Phrygian, but Joseph's verses are laden with gaudy rhetorical devices (Sedgwick 1930, 49–59). On the other hand, a thematic transformation occurs when a text is faithful to the letter, but opposed to the spirit, of its model. The scenes composed by Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (d. 975) for the edification of her sisters echo the comedies of Terence, but the delights of sacred love stand in for the poisons of profane love. Less renowned but even more astonishing, Metellus of Tegernsee (d. 1160), a worthy predecessor of Jorge Luis Borges's Pierre Menard, takes up the characters, situations and structure of Virgil's ten eclogues in his Quirinalia, but for the purpose of celebrating the miracles of St. Quirin, the protector of his monastery (Metellus 1988).

We will close this catalogue with a discussion of transposition, which aims to adapt a canonical work to the tastes and requirements of the present day. Around the year 1210, the very title of Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova proclaims his intention to dethrone Horace's Ars poetica, or Poetria vetus. Both works are written in hexameters, thus giving verse itself the task of enunciating the rules of poetic (p. 251) composition—otherwise they seem to have as little in common as James Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey. But a closer analysis can uncover very precise replies in Geoffrey's work to the questions which, according to the grammar teachers of the twelfth century, are raised by Horace's rambling and seemingly disordered reflections. Geoffrey's goal is to found an authentically Christian poetics, a marked break with the great classical models. As is often the case, theory here comes after practice, and Geoffrey is only reassembling and synthesizing the (often very novel) poetic experiments to which the renaissance of the twelfth century is devoted. So what is this new poetics and this new poetry?

The Poetic Turning Point of the First Half of the Twelfth Century

Geoffrey of Vinsauf was perhaps not wrong in reclaiming “novelty” for the poetic writing of his time. Over the two generations from 1130 to 1180, medieval Latin poetry produced its greatest masterpieces: the comedies of Vitalis of Blois, the Ysengrimus, Peter Riga's biblical paraphrase Aurora, the Alexandreis by Walter of Châtillon and the Iliad by Joseph of Exeter, Alan of Lille's philosophical allegory Anticlaudianus, and, in rhythmic poetry, the liturgical work of Adam of Saint Victor and the satirical and erotic works of Hugh the Primate, the Archpoet, Walter of Châtillon, and Peter of Blois. For all their variety, these authors share their decided break from classical style. Whatever models continue to be invoked and used—Plautus for Vitalis of Blois, Lucan and Claudian for Walter of Châtillon, Prudentius for Alan of Lille…—the era of imitation is entirely in the past. Poetry is now exploring new stylistic territory.

The poetry of the Carolingian era and the two centuries following stays faithful, for the most part, to the methods of late antique Christian poetry, which consisted of reappropriating words and formulas from canonical works to express original content. The fullest expression of this ideal was the cento, the prime example of which was provided by the biblical paraphrase the noblewoman Faltonia Proba confected in the mid-fourth century out of hexameters drawn from the works of Virgil. (On centos and other features of late antique poetics, see Formisano in this volume.) Without going too far into the practice of literary vampirism, the Christian poets of late antiquity, Juvencus, Sedulius, Avitus, and Arator, scatter many expressions lifted from classical authors throughout their versified adaptations of the holy books, which thus appear as embedded citations: the description of the storm calmed by Christ in Juvencus's Evangelica historia (2.25–42), for example, owes much to that of the gale Juno inflicts on the Trojans in the first book of the Aeneid. These authors, who are little remembered today, constitute the core of poetic culture for the writers of the Carolingian era even more than the pagan classics: they (p. 252) are at the top of the lists of auctores drawn up by Alcuin and Theodulph, the two most talented poets of Charlemagne's court, well before Virgil, Ovid, or Terence (Glauche 1970, 10–37). Late antique Christian epics comprise four-fifths of Cambridge University manuscript Gg. 5.35, copied in the eleventh century for use in the classroom and most famous for containing the Carmina Cantabrigiensia (Rigg and Wieland 1970).

Inspired by these models, the Latin poetry of the early Middle Ages fully justifies the architectural terminology of reuse we have used to describe it. But to reuse does not mean to copy. In the same way that Eginhard, the architect of the palace at Aix-la-Chapelle, builds an entirely medieval monument using columns, marble, and capitals the emperor has had brought from Rome, the author of the Paderborn epos (which, indeed, others would like to identify as the same Eginhard) constructs, using citations drawn from Virgil, Venantius Fortunatus, and perhaps the Byzantine Latin poet Corippus, a strikingly original portrait of a king, combining the traits of Augustus, St. Martin, and the Greek emperor Justin (Ratkowitsch 1997, 17–59). Writers of the Carolingian renaissance and their successors thus sought to “medievalize” Latin poetry, though they were not always conscious of doing so.

But remarkably, by the same means they were also able to “classicize” oral traditions whose origin lies in folklore. We will treat only two examples. The Waltharius, in my opinion written in the ninth century, records a tale linked to the cycle of the Nibelungen, whose first attestations in German do not predate 1200. Nevertheless, it is told in well-crafted heroic verses that are literally stuffed with implied citations of the Aeneid, Statius's Thebaid, and Prudentius's Psychomachia. This choice of models is far from random: Statius's poem serves to describe the ferocious clash of two worlds in the form of successive duels, that of Prudentius explains the battle between Virtue and Vice, and Virgil's masterpiece helps the poet to fill out the psychological portrait of his hero, a fugitive like Aeneas, and like him a melancholy and pensive warrior (Vinay 1978, 458–73). The other example is the Ecbasis captivi, composed in the second half of the eleventh century. This is an animal epic which elaborates considerably on the famous fable of the sick lion and transposes it humorously into the context of monastic culture. This text is studded with citations of Horace, drawn mostly from the Satires and Epistles, which aim to confer a moral and didactic value on a folk tale that is very old and attested almost everywhere. This is further suggested by the full title of the work, Ecbasis cuiusdam captivi per tropologiam—tropology, in the vocabulary of exegesis, is the moral sense of a work (Quint 1988, 125–39). The borrowing of epic formulas appears to be the main stylistic trait of Latin poetry as it was written until about 1100. Yet this practice does not preclude originality. One might well say that the poetry of Baudri, abbott of Bourgueil between 1079 and 1107, is extremely personal in nature, even though it is a sort of massive expansion of the syntagma musa jocosa, which he borrows from his favorite author, Ovid (Bond 1986; Tilliette 1994, 73–101).

But Baudri, with his strict fidelity to the aesthetic principles we have just described, seems to have been behind his times. His culture, acquired or developed in the monastery, is traditional in its inspiration. The urban cathedral schools that were vigor (p. 253) ously blossoming at that time were developing new models for writing. Marbod, a pupil at Angers and a friend of Baudri's, is the first to recommend the systematic use of rhetorical figures in poetic discourse in his brief treatise De ornamentis verborum. To be sure, Latin poetry had not been indifferent to the seductions of the decorative style ever since the works of Ovid, Lucan, and Statius. From about 1100 onwards, this becomes a matter not simply of taste, but of instruction: the poetic value of a work seems to be measured according to the density of the figures it contains. Poems composed this way renounce the practice, common from the late antique period onward, of unacknowledged or disguised borrowing of juncturae or clausulae from classical phraseology in favor of rules governing artistic, or mannered, writing. In a manner characteristic of the attitude of the “renaissance of the twelfth century,” there seems to be a conscious rupture with classical models, which poets now feel capable of rivaling, going much further than their predecessors along the path they began. After Marbod, the great artes poeticae of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, that of Matthew of Vendôme and even more so that of Geoffrey of Vinsauf (ca. 1210), will take on the task of formulating poetic doctrine and submitting poetry to the laws of persuasive discourse (Faral 1924, 55–98). Before trying to understand their intention in doing this, we must first examine the stylistic effects of their teaching.

It is possible to identify two characteristic traits of the poetic writing of this era (Tilliette 2006, 78–86). Following the treatises which recommend them, we will call them zeugma and transsumptio, although in other systems both these terms can have other meanings. The first, called by Matthew zeugma, with its variant hypozeuxis, pertains to word order and has the effect of disarticulating syntax. It consists in making a series of juxtaposed subjects, verbs, and complements, often in threes, so that the first subject is associated with the first verb and the first complement, the second subject with the second verb and complement, and so on. Matthew of Vendôme has a specific interest in this rhetorical device, which seems for him to represent the touchstone of poetic expression, since he devotes the first pages of the Ars versificatoria to describing it. Moving from theory to practice, he provides some particularly scintillating examples in his poem Tobias, a paraphrase of the biblical book of Tobias in elegiac distichs, a work that, starting in the thirteenth century, was very often included in the libri catoniani, collections of school texts for young students. The following verses speak for themselves:

  • Odit [sc. Tobias], amat, reprobat, probat, execratur, adorat
  • Crimina, iura, nefas, fas, simulacra, Deum;
  • Fas, simulacra, Deum probat, execratur, adorat;
  • Odit, amat, reprobat crimina, iura, nefas.
  • Seminat, auget, alit, exterminat, arguit, arcet
  • Dogmata, iura, decus, scismata, probra, dolos;
  • Scismata, probra, dolos, exterminat, arguit, arcet;
  • Seminat, auget, alit dogmata, iura, decus.
  • [He (Tobias) hates, loves, condemns, approves, loathes, worships
  • crimes, laws, sins, morality, idols, God;
  • (p. 254)
  • He approves, loathes, worships morality, idols, God;
  • he hates, loves, condemns crimes, laws, sins.
  • He preaches, honors, cherishes, banishes, denounces, prevents
  • doctrines, laws, virtue, schisms, disgraceful acts, deceit;
  • He banishes, denounces, prevents schisms, disgraceful acts, deceit;
  • He preaches, honors, cherishes doctrines, laws, virtue.]
  • (Tobias 89–96)

An example like this borders on caricature. However, it is important to note that the most popular—to judge from the abundant manuscript tradition—biblical epic of the Middle Ages, Aurora, composed around 1200 by Peter Riga, makes very frequent use of this literary device.

Transsumptio could be translated “a semantic transfer or displacement” and communicates poets’ taste for metaphorical language. It is theorized in the Ars poetica composed by Gervase of Melkley around 1210. (This grammarian was the pupil of John of Hauville, the author of the allegorical epic Architrenius, one of the best examples of ornatus difficilis [difficult ornamentation], a device characterized by the use of tropes.) It was the literary doctrine of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that made metaphor the poetic figure of speech par excellence, which it remains even today. A particularly original feature of the poetic language of this time is that it gives the verb, not the noun, the role of creating an image. While in prose its grammatical role is merely to establish the relationship between the subject and predicate, here it has a substantive value. These verbs of action, which are often transitive, from the first conjugation, and are sometimes neologisms, shed a new light on their subject and complement in the absence of any semantic relationship, shifting the attention of the reader and refocusing all of the suggestive power of the sentence onto themselves. Matthew of Vendôme gives no fewer than 61 examples in Book 2 of his Ars versificatoria. For example:

  • Intumulat pallor divitis oris opes
  • [Pallor buries the treasure of a rich complexion]
  • (Matthew of Vendôme 1988, 157)

(In short, the face in question blanches: the ugliness of such a physiological reaction, according to medieval aesthetic standards, which prize a florid complexion, is emphasized by the implied image of a miser who buries his treasure) or:

  • Fimbriat egregium lingua maligna decus
  • [A malicious tongue fringes glorious honor]
  • (Matthew of Vendôme 1988, 159)

If I understand it correctly, this means that malicious gossip stays peripheral to glory, at its margins, and is incapable of attacking its true heart, though it may appear to do so. These very compact expressions clearly defy translation.

We will now attempt to hypothesize the historical reasons for the phenomenon we have named “the poetic turning point,” suggesting that one writer, perhaps (p. 255) involuntarily, played a decisive role in the success of the linguistic traits we have just identified. Hildebert of Lavardin (1056–1133), pupil at and then bishop of Le Mans, eventually becoming the archbishop of Tours and highly respected for his moral treatises, letters, and sermons, was also considered to be the prince of poets of his time. Just as his letter collection provides a model for later collections and serves as a reference for the practice of the art of prose, so his poems, dispersed in numerous anthologies, elicit so much admiration and imitation that to this day it is difficult to establish a precise canon of his work. In contrast to his contemporary and compatriot Baudri of Bourgueil, ever faithful to the late antique aesthetic of reuse, Hildebert seems to have acquired a taste for linguistic experimentation and a marked predilection for zeugma and transsumptio. The beginning of his famous elegy De exilio suo provides a splendid example of the first device:

  • Nuper eram locuples multisque beatus amicis.
  • Et risere diu fata secunda michi.
  • Larga Ceres, deus Archadie Bachusque replebant
  • Horrea, tecta, penum, farre, bidente, mero.
  • (Hildebert of Lavardin 1969, carmen 22.1–4)
  • [Once I was rich and blessed with many friends;
  • for a long time the Fates smiled favorably upon me.
  • Generous Ceres, the god of Arcadia and Bacchus filled up
  • my granaries, my barns, my cellar, with wheat, with livestock, with wine.]

(Of course we are to interpret “Ceres filled my granaries with wheat, the god of Arcadia [sc. Pan, patron deity of shepherds] filled my barns with livestock, and Bacchus filled my cellar with wine.”)

As for the second device, it is the very subject of his sacred epigrams, which attempt to explain the allegorical meanings of Scripture. Indeed, it is not impossible that Matthew of Vendôme, who studied at Tours, met the elderly Hildebert there, or at least that the still-vivid memory of Hildebert served as the inspiration for his Ars versificatoria. Whatever the value of these conjectures, it is clear that the optimistic, contagious humanism of the twelfth century is nevertheless confident enough in its own strengths and methods to free itself from a strict fidelity to the ancients in order to explore new literary horizons.

In Search of the Ineffable

All the same, novelty gets bad press in the Middle Ages. The question is whether a change in taste alone can justify the adoption of a new poetic style. Indeed, one might at first be tempted to attribute the formal innovations we have described to the exhaustion of inspiration: increasingly aging Latin poetry could only offer the (p. 256) allure of an overworked writing style, which gazes complacently back at its own effects, reflecting only itself, as an alternative to the conquering dynamism of the new vernacular literatures, which gradually encroach on its monopoly. (It is worth recalling that the first romans in French are paraphrases of the Thebaϯd and the Aeneid.) But such a hypothesis seems anachronistic, although its premise cannot be utterly set aside. The literature of the time turns up its nose at the notion of art for art's sake. Prefaces and accessus repeat ad nauseam that a work's only raison d’être, and the only standard for judging its success, lies in its intellectual, moral, or spiritual benefit (utilitas) to the reader. From this perspective, what is the benefit that can be drawn from poetic expression?

The answer to this question depends on the intention that motivates the work and the genre to which the work belongs (if the notion of “genre” has any meaning in the Middle Ages), on one hand, and on the other on the degree of stylistic creativity it manifests. This is where we must return to the branching “moment” in our chronology. As we discussed above, the medium of verse can convey all kinds of content in the Latin Middle Ages. Because of this, one can legitimately wonder whether its use denotes any particularly significant intention. In fact, the use of the opus geminum, which was quite widespread in the first centuries of the Middle Ages, seems to suggest that poetry did not have a specific purpose at that time. Without going as far as Ernst Robert Curtius, who affirms that the two narratives in prose and verse are “interchangeable” (Curtius 1953, 147–48), the difference between them can be seen as functional, but not intrinsic. In the preface to his double Vita of St. Willibrord, Alcuin specifies that the prose version is intended for public recitation, while the verse is to serve as a focus for meditation and as an intellectual stimulus for scolastici (Ep. 120). The pedagogical virtue of the verse form is underlined once again in the early thirteenth century, in a gloss to Eberhard of Béthune's Graecismus: the “lucida brevitas [enlightening brevity] of the sermo metricus allows for “levior acceptio” [easier learning] and “memoria firmior” [firmer memorization] of the rules of grammar which are the subject of this poem—a poem that is hardly poetic in our estimation, but which was widely diffused in the schools of the later Middle Ages (Grondeux 2000, 37).

Compared to the claims made by both ancient and modern poets, the ambitions of the verse-makers of the Latin Middle Ages seem modest. Still, in the early Middle Ages, the breath of inspiration can be found in works that demonstrate a form that is the least restrictive and the most novel: the sequence. The gorgeous “sequence of the swan” (inc. Clangam filii, Norberg 1968, 174), composed in the ninth century in the abbey of St. Martial de Limoges, articulates (in language that is both awkward and meticulous) the plaint of a large bird, stranded in darkness on a stormy sea:

  • Angor inter arta
  • gurgitum cacumina,
  • gemens alatizo
  • intuens mortifera,
  • non conscendens supera.

(p. 257) [Trapped between the high crests of the waves, I beat my wings, gasping, I see death all around me, I cannot raise myself towards the heavens.]

The arrival of the scintillating dawn (…venit aurora rutila) will restore his hope and his strength:

  • Ovatizans
  • iam agebatur
  • inter alta
  • et consueta nubium
  • sidera,
  • hilarata
  • ac iucundata
  • nimis facta
  • penetrabatur marium
  • flumina.

[And now, triumphant, he rises between the lofty stars and clouds, where he is at home. Brought to the peak of happiness and joy, he cuts through the waves of the sea.]

With the exception of the final invocation “Regi magno sit gloria!” [Glory to the supreme King!], the poem only depicts the swan's anguished struggle against the harsh elements, and his happiness at reaching the delights of dry land (“amena arida”) at long last. But its form is still liturgical, as is shown by its organization into symmetrical verses and the obsessive rhyming of -a, which echoes the final vowel of the alleluia. And this image, as implied by an understated use of words borrowed from the Bible, refers to a fundamental anthropological reality of the Christian worldview: for Augustine and Gregory the Great, the bird lost over the water symbolizes the exile of the soul in the darkness of sin and the dawn symbolizes its return to the celestial homeland. Far from being a mere stylistic ornament, this metaphor is revealed in fine as the bearer of a message with great spiritual significance. The assiduous reading of sacred texts, especially in the monastic setting, the exploitation of their fruitful imagery by Gregorian-style exegesis, and the simple example of the Psalms all confer a significance and power upon the words of religious poetry that infinitely surpasses their own meaning.

Could this model be applied to other forms of poetic expression? In other words, does the medieval poet see himself as the master of a language which, beyond its performative effects, can communicate better, more completely, or differently than prose? “Qui prosam conferre metro contendit, et antra / Deserti poterit domibus componere regni” [Whoever wishes to compare prose to meter might as well be comparing desert caves to the palaces of kings] writes Henry of Avranches in the mid-thirteenth century (1878, ll. 15–16). And he adds, in even more explicit terms: “Suntque modi duo: prosa—metrum, quibus omnia constant / Que loquitur vel que scribit homo. Sine pondere prosam / et sine mensura profert humana voluntas; / est autem species divina loquendi.” [There are two modes, prose and meter, to (p. 258) which all oral and written expression refers. Prose, deprived of weight and measure, is produced by the human will; but as for meter, it is God's means of expression] (1878, ll. 3–6). However bold and boastful Henry's claim, it suggests that the status of poetry, like that of the poet, has evolved since the early Middle Ages.

Here again the turn of the twelfth century stands as the point of rupture. As Gerald Bond has argued, the spread of written culture among urban elites prompted the formation of “textual communities,” or at least of literate circles which fostered a passion for poetry, especially that of Ovid, which was gradually rediscovered (Bond 1986). These informal groups, like the famous “Loire valley school” (Marbod, Baudri, Hildebert), constitute a propitious environment for the hatching of a new kind of poetic consciousness, even a love of literature for its own sake. Baudri of Bourgueil, above the example of an earlier world, is strikingly self-conscious about his métier, extolling with devoted and touching attention the humble instruments of his craft—his stylus and wax tablets. Significantly, Baudri also endeavored, with the help of the scribes in his monastery, to produce a complete edition of his poetic works, a codex we are lucky to possess since it alone preserves his oeuvre. He even goes so far as to declare: “quicquid volui dicere musa fuit” [everything I wanted to say became poetry] (Carm. 98, 122). Characteristically, he is here paraphrasing a famous verse from Ovid's autobiographical elegy (Trist. 4.10.26).

This pride in being a poet resurfaces a generation later, in the extremely novel stylistic forms created by a compatriot of Baudri's, Hugh of Orléans, who provides himself with a surname, Primas, which says quite a lot about his confidence in his own abilities. The first model for those who would later be called the Goliards, he provides us with an image of himself as a wicked subject, poor and proud, humiliated by Philistines, but sovereign in his inspiration (Hugh of Orléans 1907). He seems to have taught the arts of the trivium. Indeed, it is as a consummate master of grammatical knowledge and a connoisseur of the auctores that he forges his own rhythmical methods out of the remnants of older forms, while putting the cacophonic leonine hexameter, so dear to metrical hagiography, at the service of invective:

  • Pontificum spuma,  fex cleri, sordida spuma,
  • Qui dedit in bruma michi mantellum sine pluma!

[You scum of a prelate, you discard of the clergy, disgusting pustule, who gave me, in the cold, a cloak with no lining!] (2.1–2)

or when he confers a tone of anxious urgency, hammered home by an obsessive chorus of rhymes, upon the peaceful octosyllable of sacred hymns:

  • Dives eram et dilectus
  • inter pares preelectus.
  • Modo curvat me senectus
  • et etate sum confectus.
  • Unde vilis et neglectus
  • a deiectis sum deiectus,
  • quibus rauce sonat pectus,
  • (p. 259)
  • mensa gravis pauper lectus,
  • quis nec amor nec affectus
  • sed horrendus est aspectus.
  • I was rich, I was beloved,
  • preeminent amongst my peers,
  • now I am an old man, hunched
  • and hobbled by old age.
  • Reviled, neglected,
  • rejected with society's rejects,
  • who have creaky lungs,
  • dreary tables and the beds of paupers,
  • they are neither cherished nor loved,
  • but their appearance is horrific. (23.1–10)

It is in the same spirit and using the same stylistic devices that another poet with an equally modest pseudonym, the Archpoet of Cologne, composes vengeful verses, but these are even more steeped in eschatological urgency. Under his pleasant and pleading pen the spirit of poetry, which he claims to extract from wine, becomes a spirit of prophecy—as is clear in the “confession” (inc. Fama, tuba dante sonum, Archipoeta 1958, 54–56) where he makes a parallel between himself and Jonah, the recalcitrant messenger, but also with the typological figure of Christ reincarnated (Cairns 1983). If, as accessus insist, poetry “relates to ethics,” this is certainly the case with the poetry of Hugh Primas and the Archpoet, for beneath their clownish exterior, they only demonstrate the corruption of their vices in order to hold up a mirror to the vices of the hypocrite lecteur.

In the twelfth century, the renewal of poetic forms of expression is accompanied by an equally new ambition for poetry to announce itself as the unique bearer of the truth—in other words, as something other than an elegant and delightful repetition of content that could be expressed in prose. In a nobler and more intellectual register than that of the Goliards, this explanation of the virtues proper to poetic language must, in our opinion, be credited to the masters of the school of Chartres. Following the lessons of Macrobius in his Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, the masters of Chartres decide, in an abruptly forceful move, to apply the interpretive techniques of exegesis, up until now reserved for the elucidation of sacred texts, to the great pagan works. The commentary by Bernard Sylvestris on the first six books of the Aeneid (1977) and the Allegoriae elicited from Ovid's Metamorphoses by Arnulf of Orléans (Ghisalberti 1932) suggest that “fabulous narratives” can cover a second sense, of a scientific, philosophical, or spiritual kind, with an alluring veil. But as soon as poetry earns the right to be the subject of allegorical reading, it also earns the legitimate right to practice allegorical writing, to become the clothing (integumentum, involucrum) of a secret truth (Wetherbee 1972, 28–73 and elsewhere in this volume). The figurative language proper to poetry takes up a project that is not only aesthetic but cognitive in nature—that of revealing objects that are inaccessible in rational discourse. It has been quite well established that the great artes poeticae, especially those (p. 260) of Matthew of Vendôme and Geoffrey of Vinsauf, are steeped in Chartrian thought (Kelly 1991, 57–68). The latter, from the beginning of his Poetria nova, underlines poetry's capacity to bring the superhuman reality of archetypal ideas into the perceptible world. It is surely no accident that he illustrates the poetic function of the figurae verborum and figurae sententiarum of classical rhetoric using examples which attempt to verbally represent the Christian mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption (Tilliette 2000, 135–60).

A few decades earlier, the work of the theologian Alan of Lille, whose allegorical epic entitled Anticlaudianus was destined to serve as an indirect inspiration for Dante's Divina Commedia, had already set this new poetics into practice, putting rhetoric at the service of sense rather than style. Pascale Bourgain (1997) has shown convincingly the way in which the rules that govern poetic expression in the Anticlaudianus, especially the emphasis on metaphor, express the fundamental inadequacy of human language when it comes to naming the essence of things, but nevertheless authorize its ability to communicate some idea of the incomprehensible divine. The editor of the poem, Robert Bossuat, rightly notes that Alan, “familiar with school exercises and the practice of the art of poetry since childhood, … applies certain rhetorical devices with a special insistance, and this repetition perhaps constitutes the essential characteristic of his style” (Alan 1955, 48)—for example expolitio (the accumulation of synonyms), oxymoron, paronomasia, and zeugma. These “artifices” are not free, but must agree with the construction of meaning. Thus, when the heroine of the poem, Wisdom (Fronesis), travels amongst the stars and admires the extraordinary equilibrium of the elements which constitute them (fire and water), oxymorons, which cannot be considered referential to any reality, are most expressive of the prodigious miracle of divine creation:

  • Nec iam natiuos querunt memorare tumultus
  • Quos ligat assensus discors, discordia concors,
  • Pax inimica, fides fantastica…

[They no longer seek to remember the conflicts inherent in their natures, they join in a discordant agreement, a harmonious discord, a warlike peace, an imaginary certitude…] (Anticl. 5.315–17)

Elsewhere (Anticl. 6.412–15), zeugma, repetition, antithesis, and alliteration express the mercy of the Redeemer.

The case of Alan of Lille is perhaps not emblematic. During his time and in the centuries following him, people continue to versify various subjects without necessarily considering themselves poets. Still, it seems that what begins in the twelfth century, and is borne out by the literary theory of the time, is the glorification of poetic function. The Latin Middle Ages, as instructed by Isidore of Seville, remain hesitant for a long time about the identity of the poet, vates. Is he, according to the two competing etymologies Isidore proposes, an artisan, laboring to weave (”viere”) words together, or a visionary carried by the strength of his spirit (“vi mentis”) (Orig. 8.7.3)? The first option seems to have predominated in the early Middle Ages. We would cautiously suggest that a higher conception of poetic (p. 261) speech arose little by little, at least in the most talented authors, from the time of Alan of Lille and the Archpoet. But what was its foundation or its justification? Henry of Avranches, with his characteristic subtle humor, suggests an answer. In the passage cited above, in which he contrasts the prestige of poetic language, defined as divine, with that of prose, he refers to the famous verse in the biblical book of Wisdom (11:21), according to which God has organized everything in mensura et numero et pondere: the world created by God is thus … a metrical (metrum id est mensura) or rhythmical (rithmus id est numerus) poem, and the voice of the poet, because of these same formal constraints imposed upon it, echoes that of the Almighty.

Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is so vast and diverse that it seems advisable to begin with a historical approach, by way of the two magisterial syntheses by the amateur éclairé Frederick J. E. Raby (1953 and 1957). He identifies all of the most important texts and illuminates them with precise critical judgment. Joseph Szövérffy (1992–95), more erudite but less inspiring, provides a rich array of bibliographical information. Among Peter Dronke's numerous works, the collection of articles in Dronke (1984) outlines a sensible yet original approach to the main poetic genres and to some of the major authors. From a technical standpoint, Dag Norberg's work on versification (Norberg 1958) and Edmond Faral's work on poetics (Faral 1924) are still the best authorities. More recent on these two topics are Klopsch (1972) and Klopsch (1980), respectively. Finally, the texts themselves, with good English translations, can be found in the anthologies of Frederick Raby (1961) and Peter Godman (1985).


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                                                                                                                                    (1.) I should especially like to thank Emily Blakelock for her work both on the translation of this essay and on the technical aspects of presentation–JYT