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Learned Mythography: Plato and Martianus Capella

Abstract and Keywords

Latin mythographic tradition came to fruition in the twelfth century. Medieval mythography assumed the universe of Plato's Timaeus as its implicit context. Within this cosmic framework, the Olympian gods of the classical poets coexisted with a host of personifications, philosophical concepts, natural forces, or attributes of the divine, giving rise to the tradition of “learned” mythography. From the Timaeus, the middle Ages learned a distinctively Platonic conception of myth and its function: myths need not be borrowed from the poets, but can be created for a philosophical purpose to translate the truths of intellect into sensible terms. Thus, the poetic and philosophical uses of myth were perceived as largely complementary. The text most immediately responsible for ensuring that perception was the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii of Martianus Capella. The De nuptiis is a manual of the Liberal Arts in which cosmology and mythology are precisely correlated, and mythographical analysis involves no more than translation from one set of terms to the other. Under Martianus's influence, the Olympian gods, the Muses, and other mythical beings descended to the medieval schools invested with a rich orthodoxy of cosmological, pedagogical, and ethical associations.

Keywords: Plato, mythography, cosmology, Martianus Capella, Timaeus

Perhaps the first thing to be said about medieval mythography is that it assumed as its implicit context the universe of Plato's Timaeus. Within this cosmic framework the Olympian gods of the classical poets coexisted with a host of personifications, philosophical concepts, natural forces, or attributes of the divine, giving rise to the tradition of “learned” mythography which emerged in late Carolingian commentary on Martianus Capella and Boethius, and culminated in the allegorical poems of Bernardus Silvestris and Alan of Lille. Classical poetry, too, was read against this background: The Aeneid modeled the ascent to Neoplatonist wisdom, and the Metamorphoses, centerpiece of the aetas ovidiana, was introduced to the twelfth century as embodying the Platonist cosmological tradition.

This chapter will be concerned mainly with the twelfth century, when the Latin mythographic tradition came to fruition. Thereafter the living tradition survived only in vernacular poetry, and Latin mythography was largely reduced to compendia of standardized allegorizations of myth which no longer bore any significant relation either to ancient poetry or to contemporary poetic practice.

(p. 336) Learned Mythography: Plato and Martianus Capella

With the rise of philosophy in ancient Greece, “the idea emerged that the soul is somehow akin to the stars and the sky, while the divine enters into more and more direct relations with the cosmos” (Burkert 1985, 199). The definitive representation of this view was the Timaeus, the one Platonic dialogue known to early medieval Europe. In Plato's cosmogony cosmos and man are living, rational beings, each informed by a divine soul. The “gods” are heavenly bodies distinct from the Olympian gods, though they will be fused allegorically by Hellenistic writers, as in the Stoic cosmology outlined, with frequent reference to mythology, in Cicero's De natura deorum. Stoic mythography and the synthesizing labors of Neoplatonist scholars carried forward the ancient tradition of reading the myths of Homer and Hesiod allegorically as vehicles of profound knowledge (Buffière 1956, 9–31; Pépin 1958, 85–124). Calcidius, to whose partial translation and commentary medieval scholars owed their knowledge of the Timaeus, refers several times to Homer's scientific knowledge (Lamberton 1986, 250–56). Vergil is similarly idealized in Macrobius's Saturnalia and the commentary of Servius. Servius's exposition of the “deep learning” of Aeneid 6 and Macrobius's commentary on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis (c. 430) established the Neoplatonic myth of the soul—its divine origin, its descent into the “prison” of the body, its post-bodily return to the realm of the undying—as a fundamental theme of great literature. Macrobius's definition of the narratio fabulosa in his commentary on the Somnium Scipionis solemnized the mythical ancestry and deeds of the gods as presenting sacred truths in allegorical form (sub pio figmentorum velamine), while dismissing as beneath consideration tales which show the gods guilty of wickedness or immorality (Commentarii 1.2.10–11). This distinction between profoundly meaningful and merely impious myth was perhaps an act of deference to the famous strictures of Plato's Socrates (Republic 377–82); it was not strictly observed by Macrobius himself, and would prove difficult to maintain.

The Timaeus defines the scope of serious mythography and many of its major themes. The dialogue is continually cited in Macrobius's commentary on the Somnium Scipionis. A brilliant poetic distillation of the Timaean cosmology is the centerpiece of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (3, metr. 9), and this poem was frequently glossed in the early medieval period (Troncarelli 1981). From the Timaeus, as mediated by these auctores, the Middle Ages learned a distinctively Platonic conception of myth and its function: myths need not be borrowed from the poets, but can be created for a philosophical purpose “to translate the truths of intellect into sensible terms” (Pépin 1958, 118–21).

Thus the poetic and “philosophical” uses of myth were perceived as largely complementary. But before proceeding to the medieval period we must consider the text most immediately responsible for ensuring that perception, the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii of Martianus Capella (late fifth century).

(p. 337) The De nuptiis is a manual of the Liberal Arts prefaced by an allegorical narrative of the quest of Mercury, or eloquence, for a bride; the election of Philology, or earthly knowledge, as his mate; and the preparation of the bride for marriage through an initiation into divine wisdom. The overarching theme, announced in the opening poetic address to Hymen, is marriage, understood as including the interaction of the agents of cosmic order, and the correspondences between the paradigms and symbolic languages of earthly knowledge and the universal principles they express. A host of classical deities are encountered and described in terms of their attributes and cosmic functions. Philology's ascent to knowledge of the causes of things, and ultimately to a vision of “that truth which exists by virtue of powers beyond existence” (De nuptiis 2.206), provides the occasion for a thorough review of the organization of knowledge and its relation to the order of the universe.

Martianus's self-consciously learned style is seasoned with a pedantic humor which, without excluding moments of real beauty and religious feeling, prevents our taking its mystical aspect too seriously. It is the work of a teacher, and might be described as commentary turned inside-out. The theme of human life as an intellectual and spiritual journey, for Macrobius and earlier Neoplatonists latent in virtually all epic poetry, itself becomes Martianus's “fabulous narrative,” and his treatment of the gods is similarly schematic. Cosmology and mythology are precisely correlated, and mythographical analysis involves no more than translation from one set of terms to the other. Under Martianus's influence, the Olympian gods, the Muses, and other mythical beings would descend to the medieval schools invested with a rich orthodoxy of cosmological, pedagogical, and ethical associations.

The importance of Martianus as model is clear if we compare the De nuptiis with the Mitologiae of Fulgentius (early sixth century), where the traditional tendency to treat meaning as virtually independent of authorial intention reaches its logical extreme. The Mitologiae offer a series of allegorical readings of myth in which its doctrinal content is expounded in vacuo, without reference to text or system. Moralization, euhemerism, contrived etymologies and vestiges of Stoic and Neoplatonic mythography are presented simply as alternative and occasionally contradictory possibilities, in no order and with no perceptible emphasis. Myth is an occasion for exercises in allegorizing; “meaning” has become wholly independent of context.

Nonetheless the Mitologiae would enjoy great respect and a long life; Fulgentius's glosses provided a repertory of basic prompts for more probing analyses by later commentators, and his exotic vocabulary, with its uncertain grasp of Greek terms and etymologies gleaned from Martianus, Servius, and the scholia, is still alive in the astronomy and divine mythology of the Carmina Burana. Equally long-lived was Fulgentius's Expositio of Vergil, a reading of the first six books of the Aeneid as a progression from birth through youth to the attainment of learning and a knowledge of God and human destiny.

The early medieval centuries produced no real literary criticism. Carolingian court poets compose skillful imitations of Vergil and Ovid, and Theodulf of Orleans (p. 338) discusses the rudiments of mythography (Godman 1985, 168–71), but the glosses of John Scotus Eriugena (810–77) on Martianus's De nuptiis are perhaps the first instance of a medieval reader approaching an ancient text in full awareness, both of the errors to which its pagan Platonism gives rise, and of all that it can nonetheless offer to the Christian scholar. Eriugena saw a profound connection between philosophical and Christian studies: a deliberate and crucial misreading of the Pseudo-Dionysius enabled him to assert that the Liberal Arts are not only fundamental for understanding Scripture, but immanent in human nature and symbolic of Christ (In Ier. coel. 1.540–68; 2.124–58; Roques 1975, 45–98). To gain knowledge of the Arts is to discover divine wisdom latent in oneself. The De nuptiis affirms this, for the immortalizing of Philology represents the return of the soul to its true home through a self-realization made possible by the Arts (Eriugena 1939, 27).

This responsiveness to both Platonism and poetry, and Eriugena's great respect for the ingenium acutissimum of Martianus, appear plainly in his readings of Martianus's mythology. When Martianus, describing the gifts bestowed on Psyche, the human soul, speaks of Sophia-Minerva's gift of the “speculum Aniae” (Uraniae; Shanzer 1986, 73), Eriugena, guided by a dubious Greek etymology and a sensitive appreciation of Martianus's purpose, discovers in the mirror a reflection of “the natural dignity and primordial fountain” of the human soul (Eriugena 1939, 12). Vulcan, whose gift of “unquenchably enduring fires” is balanced against Venus's infusion of the pleasurable itch of lust, becomes, in the light of what Eriugena calls “higher natural theory,” a figure of the ingenium or natural orientation present in all rational beings, which keeps alive the memory of their original dignity and its divine source (Eriugena 1939, 13).

Virtually every feature of Eriugena's engagement with Martianus reappears, along with a renewal of interest in cosmological questions, in the twelfth century. Much has been made of the twelfth-century “renaissance” and the discovery of man and nature by the group of scholars connected in various ways with the cathedral school at Chartres. These scholars pursued their investigations in a scientific spirit and produced new kinds of knowledge, but much of their work remained a kind of literary criticism. The Timaeus, which continued to frame their investigations, was by its own account a literary text, a “likely story” of the nature of things, and engaging it philosophically required penetrating its mythic surface. The ornatus elementorum must be read like a text; the philosophy of nature “involves and embodies a transcendent form of rhetoric” (Cadden 1995, 10).

Study of the Timaeus generated reflection on the role of mythic or figurative elements in other authors, along with “integumental” reading of a broader range of myth. William of Conches, glossing Macrobius, meets head-on that author's strictures on the use of myth in philosophy. Fables of divine violence or sexual intrigue can harbor a “beautiful and honorable” meaning, as he demonstrates by explaining the “true” significance of the myths of Jove and Semele and the castration of Caelus by Saturn. Commenting on Macrobius's association of “fabulous narrative” with religious ceremony, William imagines a pagan priest expounding the meaning of the winnowing-fan in the temple of Bacchus: as Bacchus, dismembered by the (p. 339) Giants and placed in the winnowing-fan, reappeared wholly restored on the third day, so the soul is subjected to a winnowing which purges it of fleshly contamination. William has borrowed from Servius's gloss on the “mystic fan of Iacchus” (Georgics 1.166) and Calcidius's on the fan image in Timaeus 52e; concerned only with the meaning latent in non-Christian myth, he significantly ignores the obvious Christian associations of the violation and resurrection he describes (Dronke 1974, 21–23).

William's glosses on Boethius's Consolation are largely concerned with its psychological complexity. The tone is set in his gloss on the lacerae Camenae of the opening elegy: “They are ‘wounded’ because they tear apart men's hearts and render them inconstant by recalling pleasure or sorrow to the memory, rather than guiding or consoling” (William of Conches 1999, 10). Reading Boethius's lyric of Orpheus and Eurydice (Cons. 3. m. 12), he speaks of “a certain god called a ‘genius’ who is born with each of us… . This genius is our natural desire. It is rightly called Eurydice or ‘judgment regarding good’ because each of us desires what he judges to be good whether it is truly so or not” (William of Conches 1999, 201). But Eurydice is coltish and intractable, and Orpheus, the philosopher, powerless to extricate his mind from its involvement with her, comes to resemble the prisoner of the opening book, whose heart is torn by the faithless Muses of memory and lost joys.

William's confidence in the underlying integrity of what he considers authentic myth enables him to practice a kind of archetypal criticism, in a serious attempt to demonstrate how a particular myth could plausibly generate philosophical meaning. A gloss on the god Hymenaeus, in a fragmentary commentary on Martianus which almost certainly reproduces William's teaching, provides an unusually full illustration of the faith in the integrity of myth that this criticism requires.

The commentator summarizes Hymenaeus's mythical role, then explains the function of the physical hymen. The mythic and the physiological come together in an account of how Hymenaeus prepares for the procreative union of the bridal chamber, and his parents, Bacchus and either “Camena” (as in Martianus's proem) or Venus, are glossed as figures of the desire and “proportionate commingling” necessary to procreation. A comparison of this proportionality to that of the elements, which constitute the universe at large, introduces an extended gloss secundum philosophiam. Here Hymenaeus stands for the larger force that encompasses and informs all mutual loves, identified first as the Boethian love that rules the earth, sea, and heavens, then as the effect of “the holy spirit which infuses a certain ardor of charity into all things,” and finally as the activity of the world soul (Dronke 1974, 114–15).

Whatever implications of Christian pantheism or sexual mysticism such a passage may harbor, its importance is in the plausibility of the chain of associations it forms between Martianus's mythic imagery and what William sees as the true substance of Martianus's narrative. Both the strengths and the limitations of his criticism are reflected in two commentaries clearly written under his influence, and clearly by a single author, on Vergil and Martianus. The earlier of these, ascribed in one late manuscript to Bernardus Silvestris, reads the first six books of the Aeneid as (p. 340) an allegory of “what the human soul, placed for a time in a human body, achieves and undergoes” (Jones and Jones 1977, 3), emphasizing Aeneas's growth in philosophical and spiritual understanding, and reworking Fulgentius's tracing of the hero's passage from youth to maturity in the light of Macrobius's conception of the poet as a Neoplatonist sage. The commentary breaks off as Aeneas and the Sibyl approach Elysium, the point at which, “the visible universe having been traversed, it remains to explore the invisible” (Jones and Jones 1977, 114). His reading of the Aeneid is mainly a compilation from earlier commentators and mythographers, harmonized and occasionally elaborated to conform to his allegory of philosophical education. But like the work of Fulgentius, its interpretative model of the Aeneid enjoyed a long life, and left its mark on the Inferno.

The Martianus commentary explores Martianus's mythic imagery with an intuitive boldness more like William's, and conveys a similar sense of engaging the archetypal aspect of the text, though in a less probing way. The accessus includes a precise distinction between two kinds of involucrum: allegoria, the figural mode proper to Scripture, and integumentum, the mode employed by philosophy. Each harbors a hidden meaning (misterium occultum), and they are two ways of expressing truth (Westra 1986, 45–46). In a gloss on Martianus's opening paean to Hymenaeus, the “sacred bond” of cosmic marriage, whereby the divine unites with mortal life “just as mortal is united with divine in eternity,” is compared to the bond whereby Pollux accepted mortal existence in order to confer immortality on his brother Castor, an act explained in effectively Christian terms: “the god underwent mortal death that he might confer his godhead upon mortality; for spirit dies temporally that flesh may live eternally” (Westra 1986, 64). Glossing Martianus's Vulcan as a figure of human ingenium, the commentator borrows a gloss by William on Vulcan's abortive pursuit of Pallas and develops it in virtually Pauline fashion, making him an image of fallen man, seemingly powerless to realize his aspirations or control his desires, though endowed with the capacity for vision, and perhaps, like the Vulcan of Eriugena's commentaries, subliminally aware of his original dignity and its divine origin (Westra 1986, 156–57). The presiding deities, Jove, Pallas, and Juno are explained as “mystical” (i.e., mythical) representations of pater, nois, and anima mundi, and both groupings are equated, with a directness which recalls the earlier pairing of allegoria and integumentum, to the Persons of the Christian Trinity (Westra 1986, 245–47).

The ease with which the anonymous commentator ignores distinctions between “pagan” and Christian terms, above all that between anima mundi and spiritus sanctus, which had aroused serious controversy when William had seemed to disregard it (Gregory 1955, 150–52), may indicate that commentary of this type was coming to be taken less seriously, regarded as literary rather than philosophical, as the twelfth century moved forward. Similarly reductive, as though adapted for less advanced students, is a comment in the accessus to the commentary which compares Martianus's intentio with Vergil's: “For just as in that poet's work Aeneas is led through the underworld attended by the Sibyl to meet Anchises, so Mercury here traverses the universe attended by Virtue, to reach the court of Jove. So also in the (p. 341) book De Consolatione Boethius ascends through false goods to the summum bonum guided by Philosophy.” (Westra 1986, 47) Thus, the commentator concludes, these three figurae express virtually the same thing, reduced to a single paradigm in a context of quasi-spiritual but essentially pedagogical allegory.

The same tendency is present in the highly sophisticated treatise of the third of the Vatican Mythographers (Bode 1834), the so-called Poetria, attributed to Alberic of London and dated to the later twelfth century, though parts are older and may have been known to William and “Bernardus.” Far more selective and coherent than earlier treatises of its kind, it brings together the myths associated with each of the major classical deities and the heroes Hercules and Perseus. Its review of the classical underworld includes what amounts to a treatise on the soul in the form of a commentary on several passages from Vergil (Poetria 3.6, 8–20), but its focus is almost exclusively literary. It quotes continually from the poets, reviews and compares the views of earlier commentators, and more than any work of the period gives the impression of having been conceived as a companion to the study of poetry. Its influence can be seen in the work of virtually all later mythographers.

The mid-twelfth century also produced a body of Latin poetry “learned” in its use of myth, and at times scarcely intelligible without a knowledge of Martianus and the commentators. One anonymous poet managed to produce a love lyric so faithful to Martianus's praise of Hymenaeus that it scarcely mentions human love:

  • Omnis nexus elementorum
  • legem blandam sentit amorum.
  • sed Hymenaeus eorum
  • iugalem ordinat torum
  • votis allubescens deorum
  • piorum.

[Every joining of the elements knows the sweet bond of love. But Hymen ordains the conjugal bed, favoring the wishes of the kindly gods.] (Carmina Burana 57)

The Metamorphosis Goliae Episcopi (Wright 1841) was written by someone close to the schools of central France in the early 1140s. It shows the ancient gods and prominent magistri of the day convening to celebrate the marriage of Philology and Mercury in a palace created and richly adorned with mythic and cosmological imagery, “totum sub involucro, totum sub figura,” by Vulcan (45–52):

  • Hic sorores pinxerat novem Heliconis,
  • et coelestis circulos omnes regionis;
  • et cum his et aliis eventum Adonis,
  • et Gradivi vincula et suae Dionis.
  • Ista domus locus est universitatis,
  • res et rerum continens forma cum formatis,
  • quas creator optimus, qui praeest creatis,
  • fecit et disposuit, nutu bonitatis.
(p. 342)

[Here Vulcan had depicted the nine sisters of Helicon, and all the spheres of the celestial region, and, amid these and other details, Adonis's fate, and the fettering of Mars and his Dione. This mansion is the seat of the universe, containing things and the forms of things with what is formed from them, which that best creator who exists beyond creation made and disposed as an expression of his goodness.]

The importance of the marriage is explained, and Philology is crowned. But the ceremony is interrupted by Silenus and a mob of satyrs, who usher in Venus and Cupid. Their appearance raises the question of the place of love in a universe ruled intellectually by Pallas, sponsor of the marriage: Pallas and Venus confront each other, and a dispute breaks out among their supporters. The poet offers four instances of the power of love borrowed from Martianus (161–64; cp. De nupt. 1. 4, 6, 7):

  • Nexibus Cupidinis Psyche detinetur;
  • Mars Nerinae coniugis ignibus torretur,
  • Ianus ab Argyone disiungi veretur,
  • Sol a prole Pronoes diligi meretur.

[Psyche is caught by the snares of Cupid; Mars is inflamed by his bride Nerina; Janus fears to be divided by Argione; Apollo earns the love of the daughter of Providence.]

The following stanza provides a gloss on each (165–68):

  • Psyche per illecebras carnis captivatur;
  • sors in Marte fluctuat, Nereus vagatur;
  • opifex in opere suo gloriatur;
  • quid fiat in posterum Deo scire datur.

[Psyche is captured by fleshly temptation; the fortunes of war shift; Nereus ebbs and flows; the maker rejoices in what he has made; what may one day come to pass is known only to God.]

Psyche's plight is plain enough, and those who know their Martianus will know that Mantike (Prophecy) is the daughter of Providence. But the trite glosses on Mars and “Nereus” are clearly makeshift; the poet did not know what to make of Nerinae coniugis. And the glorification of Janus and Argyone must have puzzled anyone unfamiliar with the “Bernardus Silvestris” commentary on Martianus, where “Janus, ille archetypus mundus, miratur Argionem, miratur sensilem speram” [Janus, the universal archetype, marvels at the sensible (i.e., material) world] (Westra 1986, 123).

We are somehow to understand that Pallas and Venus will engage in a debate. A host of witnesses appear: the great philosophers; ancient poets, each accompanied by his beloved; and contemporary scholars, many of them students or associates of Peter Abelard. But the debate never takes place. Philology laments that Abelard, her beloved protégé, is absent, provoking the schoolmen to inveigh against conniving monks, presumably the Cistercians William and Bernard, who caused Pope Innocent II to forbid Abelard to teach after the Council of Sens (1141). In the final stanzas the gods declare the monks forever banished from the schools.

(p. 343) Awkward and occasionally obscure, the Metamorphosis deals astutely with its mythological material. That Vulcan's divine involucra include his capture of Venus and Mars recalls the glosses of Eriugena, where he counters the force of Venus by preserving the memory of the soul's divine origin and a vestigial impulse to return home. The treatment of the high gods, if more discreet than that of the “Bernardus Silvestris” commentary, conveys a similar sense of transcendent significance: Jove may not be the creator optimus who exists beyond creation (51), though the poet hints that he represents something more than a cosmic power (66), but Pallas is explicitly the mens altissimi divinitatis (73–76), beyond our power to understand.

A lyric from the same period reopens the dispute which the Metamorphosis had left suspended. An opening description of the beauties of spring provokes satyrs to wanton merriment. Contention breaks out, and quickly turns to conflict (Dronke 1968, 367–69):

  • 1b. Nunc contendunt
  • Venus et Minerva.
  • Pugnat Pallas egide
  • proterva;
  • clamat: Iovis me paterne
  • serva!

[1b. Now Venus and Minerva clash. Pallas fights with her fearsome shield. She cries out “Father Jupiter, protect me!” 2a. He thunders, he reveals the Fates, and the decans and the tetrarchs; Arcadian Stilbon leads the Muses, Apollo is troubled. 2b. Ceres, Bacchus, and the son of Rhea help Cytherea's side; at once almost all the goddesses join the battle. 3a. Venus, fierce in war, inflicts countless wounds. She holds sway in heaven and ravages hell. 3b. Diana's host turns tail entirely once Titan is captured, and you, two-faced Janus. 4a. You weep, Goddess Philology, and you, Thalia, weep 4b. at the calamities of Diana. And you laugh, Vulcan, because Pan is chained.]

2a. Tonat, prestat ille Parcas

2b. Iuvant partes Citharee

et decanas et tetrarchas,

Ceres, Bachus, natus

Musas ducit Stilbon Arcas,

Ree, omnes simul fere dee

anxiat Apollo.

adiuvant in bello.

3a. Bello fera dat innumera

3b. Terga dat plane

Venus vulnera;

pompa Diane,

tenet ethera,

capto Titane,

perimit Tartara.

teque, bifrons Iane.

4a. Fles tu, o dia

4b. casus Limitane.


Catenato Pane

flesque, Talia,

rides, Volicane.

Cosmic order, represented by Pallas and Jove, is overthrown; Mercury and the Muses are powerless; Apollo foresees trouble; Philology weeps at the plight of chaste Diana. Venus's triumph seems complete.

(p. 344) In the final lines Pan is chained and Vulcan laughs. Whether we see Pan as simply lust or as the whole of Nature (William of Conches 1999, 109; Mythographus tertius = Bode 1834, 8.2), his capture by Vulcan suggests that Venus's ascendancy will not produce sheer anarchy. But Vulcan's role is ambiguous. As controller of lust, he recalls Vulcan the artist, creator of the cosmic palace of the Metamorphosis Goliae, the tutelary presence of Eriugena and “Bernardus Silvestris.” But he is also Vulcan the husband of Venus, first person of the bourgeois trinity, and in this light his fettering of Pan, like his chaining of Venus and Mars, may remind us that the power of sensuality is capable of eluding his control and mocking his orientative impulse. In a lyric that seems closely related, but makes no mention of Vulcan, essentially the same scene is disrupted by Bacchus, Pan, and their followers, but order is restored by “the King, the Law, opifex archetyporum,” and Mercury and Philology are duly married (Dronke 1968, 369–71).

The response of vernacular poets to the work of the Latin schools appears mainly in their adoption of the rhetorical precepts of the artes poeticae, but the Roman d’Eneas (c. 1160; Eneas 1925–29) incorporates one mythological pattern which recalls the texts we have been considering, centered on the arms forged for Aeneas by Vulcan at the instigation of Venus. As in the Aeneid, Venus gains her request by sexual means, and the poet adds that she has denied herself to Vulcan for seven years, angered by his exposure of her relations with Mars. After a digression to recall this episode, the poet describes the arms themselves, but omits the engraving on the hero's shield, which occupies nearly all of the corresponding passage in Vergil. Instead he tells the story of a standard affixed by Venus to the hero's lance (4524–36):

[It had long been in the possession of Mars, and he had given it to her as a token when first she became his mistress … It was worth a hundred pieces of any other kind of cloth. Pallas had made it in a spirit of rivalry: she worked it with great skill when Arachne had provoked her … And because Arachne produced a superior piece of work, she changed her to a spider.]

The allusions to Ovidian tales which bracket the account of Vulcan's work illustrate the ambiguous relation of Vulcan and Pallas to the action of the Eneas, and, as in the Latin poems, suggest parallel subversions of the qualities associated with the two deities. Vulcan, responding to the losengerie of Venus, succumbs to the sensuality which in his nobler role he aims to control. Pallas, replying in kind to the anvie of Arachne, becomes involved in a web as complex as Arachne's. Their subversion is the Eneas poet's own ironic comment on the pattern of divine rivalry and animosity that overshadows the narrative of the Aeneid, and will be recalled again at the very conclusion of the Vergilian action, when the names of Vulcan and Pallas are again, as if fortuitously, juxtaposed. Eneas discovers the ring of the dead prince Pallas on the hand of Turnus (4523–27):

  • … sailli avant,
  • se l’a feru de maintenant,
  • o le branc que Vulcans forja
  • an prist lo chief: Pallas vanja.
(p. 345)

[He moved forward and struck him down at once. With the sword which Vulcan had forged he cut off his head. Thus he avenged Pallas.]

A possible link between the Eneas and the mythographic complex we have seen in the Metamorphosis Goliae and its lyric pendant is a well-known Streitgedicht clearly influenced by the Metamorphosis, the Altercatio Phyllidis et Florae (Bömer 1919), the first of many poetic debates on the relative merits of knights and clerics as lovers. When the two maidens decide to travel to the court of Cupid and present their dispute for his judgment, Flora, who speaks for the cleric, rides a magnificent stallion, a consummate expression of the creative zeal of Nature, crowned by an ivory saddle carved by Vulcan and adorned by Pallas/Minerva with beautifully woven fabrics (sts. 53–57). Vulcan's carving includes the marriage of Mercury, and the court of Cupid where Phyllis and Flora present their case is clearly modeled on the divine court appropriated from Martianus by the poet of the Metamorphosis. But it seems clear that the standards of the Metamorphosis have been compromised. Vulcan has laid aside the shield of Achilles to fashion Flora's saddle, and Minerva too has abandoned all other pursuits for this work (sts. 56–57). Like the Eneas poet's substitution of the spear and its standard for Vergil's great shield as the centerpiece of the arming of Eneas, this removes us from the world of epic to a lesser, courtly world whose values are treated with a less than tragic irony. At court the maidens find a Cupid surrounded by drunken satyrs and attended by “Graces” who administer his drinking cup; he quickly refers the matter to usus and natura who decide in favor of the cleric.

The Altercatio leaves us at an impossible distance from the world where Vulcan forges the shields of heroes; and the Eneas, too, after its reductive version of the Vergilian finale, wholly abandons its epic model. Within twenty lines Eneas has named his wedding day, and the poem turns to the anxieties of a very Ovidian Lavine, as visible and vocal as her Vergilian counterpart had been silent and remote.

A New Mythology: Nature and Genius

During the later 1140s appeared the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris, a new mythic cosmogony in the spirit of the Timaeus, written in the prosimetrum form of the De nuptiis, and in a richly allusive style which synthesizes Martianus, the Hermetic Asclepius, Eriugena, and other models.

The Cosmographia virtually ignores traditional mythology. The first of its two books, Megacosmus, reaches beyond the gods to reimagine the work of the divine Noys, the shaping of hyle or unformed matter, and the infusion into the created world of its vital principle, endelechia, the anima mundi. In Microcosmus, the second book, Urania, at the behest of Natura, unites a soul provided by Noys to a body fashioned from the four elements by Physis to create man, the lesser universe.

(p. 346) In Bernardus's universe, where Platonic principles have displaced the gods, Nature, ceaselessly concerned with the continuation and well-being of universal life, assumes the role of heroine. The Cosmographia opens with her passionate appeal to Noys on behalf of matter, which yearns to be endowed with form, and her voice echoes many others: in Claudian's De raptu Proserpinae, for example, Jupiter recreates for the gods the ceaseless complaints of Nature at the sorry state of a humankind deprived of agriculture (3.33–45); she recalls as well Vergil's Venus, beseeching Jove to grant rest to her son and his Trojan followers; and the abandoned lovers of Ovid's Heroides. Nature voices a desire which remains constant in the Cosmographia, where human life is both modeled on and starkly contrasted to the orderly cycles of the universe at large, a constant struggle to withstand the effects of passion and error. The complement to Nature is the “Genius” figure, who appears in several forms in the Cosmographia. When Nature ascends through the spheres to seek Urania, who will provide man's soul, she encounters a Genius whose office is to “compose and assign the forms of all creatures,” and it is he who brings them together, uniting natural understanding with the power that imparts both form and, as in Martianus, knowledge of man's divine origin. And at the poem's conclusion the description of the newly created human body includes a vivid account of the work of twin Genii who govern the work of the male genitalia (2.14.157–64):

  • Cum morte invicti pugnant genialibus armis:
  • Naturam reparant, perpetuantque genus.

[They fight unconquered against death with life-giving weapons, renew our nature and perpetuate our kind.]

In Bernardus's new, more existential mythology, Noys, Nature, and Genius effectively displace the Pallas and Vulcan of the Metamorphosis Goliae. In another Streitgedicht, the Altercatio Ganymedis et Helenae (Lenzen 1972), the case is judged in what is still vestigially Martianus's court of Jove, but by new authorities:

  • 12 Iovis in palacio genetrix Natura
  • De secreta cogitat rerum genitura;
  • Ilem multifaria vestiens figura …

[In Jove's palace procreating Nature plans the mysterious generation of things, clothing matter in many different shapes …]

Once the excitement of the Olympian gods at the arrival of the litigants has been calmed, judgment is passed in favor of Nature, Helen and heterosexual, procreative love.

In the De planctu Naturae of Alan of Lille (Häring 1978), the gods return, but only as a topic in the long dialogue of Nature and the unhappy poet, with whose lament over mankind's abandonment of heterosexual love the poem begins. As Nature seeks to explain the proper relation of humanity to the natural order and the human failings which have caused a divorce between them, the poet interrupts to ask why humanity alone should be censured, when poetry shows the gods, too, (p. 347) pursuing homosexual love. After her Macrobian dismissal of such stories has failed to satisfy him, Nature attempts to distinguish Cupid's “original” nature, intimately linked with her own, from a new, perversely cupidinous desire which she can only explain by resorting to the same deceitful mythology she has urged the poet to repudiate, and explaining that Venus has committed adultery with “Antigenius” and given birth to “Jocus,” a perverse counterpart to Cupid.

In the final scene, the true Genius appears; he combines the roles of Bernardus's cosmic and sexual Genii and Nature honors him as her “priest.” Together they recall a time when love was pure, though neither recognizes it as the prelapsarian state of humanity. Genius pronounces excommunication on all who reject the sexual behavior Nature prescribes, but it is clear that the problem is beyond Nature's power to resolve. In Alan's second major poem, the Anticlaudianus, an epic account of the creation of a new man who, with divine aid, renews mankind and restores the natural order, sexual desire is present only as a vice, and the traditional gods are reduced to conventional labels, cited mainly to identify the planets that bear their names.

Aetas Ovidiana

Though other works of Ovid were known in the Carolingian period, the Metamorphoses descended to the Middle Ages unaccompanied by a tradition of ancient scholia, and early manuscripts are very rare (Hexter 1987, 69–78). The charming tenth-century Eclogue of “Theodulus” contains a surprising number of echoes of the Metamorphoses, but the first major step forward is marked by the poetry of Baudri of Bourgueil (1046–1130). (Otter elsewhere in the volume references debate about the date of the Ecloga Theoduli.) Baudri knew the full Ovidian corpus, and is probably the first medieval poet to have attempted to emulate the grandeur of the Metamorphoses. In a long poem addressed to Countess Adela of Blois, the Countess's bedchamber becomes an eleventh-century encyclopedia (Carmen 134). Silken hangings are adorned with an Ovidian account of the creation, panoramas of world history, pagan and biblical, and a lengthy account of the conquest of England by William, the father of Countess Adela. The ceiling displays the order of the heavens, the pavement that of the natural world, and statues of the Liberal Arts as described by Martianus surround the bed. Cumbersome and formulaic, the poem nonetheless includes such Ovidian touches as that whereby the work of embroidering maidens overseen by Adela is imperceptibly transformed into that of cosmic powers governed by the supreme Opifex (103–8). Its very grandiosity reveals a new awareness of the potential capacities of poetry, as it seeks to integrate the role of Ovid the celebrant of urban-courtly culture with a gesture toward the totalizing ambition of the poet of the Metamorphoses.

A second long poem is a series of allegorizings of myth based on Fulgentius's Mitologiae. These are largely pedestrian, but Baudri seems to see in his project (p. 348) something like the program that Marie de France will announce in the Prologue to her Lais (154, 651–52):

  • Credo, uiuit adhuc nobiscum fabula lecta;
  • Viuit enim quidquid fabula significat.

[When a fable is read among us, I believe, it still lives; for whatever the fable signifies gives it life.]

A similar sense of the great tradition emerges in Baudri's one startlingly original allegorization: Fulgentius had glossed “Pegasus” as fons aeternus; Baudri merges the fountain Hippocrene, brought forth by Pegasus's hoof and sacred to the Muses, with the fount of living water offered by Jesus to the Samaritan woman (154, 1075–78):

  • Hec immortales hauserunt flumina uates,
  • Hoc uiuunt magni flumine philosophi.
  • Non patitur uiuos hec unda perire poetas;
  • Hec est quam semper non sitiens sitiat.

[The immortal bards have drunk these waters; it is from this stream that the great philosophers draw life. This spring grants poets an imperishable life. For this one may always thirst yet feel no thirst.]

In southern Germany in the early twelfth century appears perhaps the first critical engagement with Ovid's masterpiece. A commentary evidently based on the teaching of Manegold of Lautenbach introduces the Metamorphoses as the work of a monotheist, explaining Ovid's outward polytheism as a political necessity, and viewing such metamorphoses as Jove's reduction to a lustful bull as signs of his scorn for the pagan gods. Ovid's cosmogony displays the Platonist trinity of “Good” (togaton, i.e., to agathon), “Mind” (Nous), and “World Soul” (anima mundi), and the “better nature” of Metamorphoses 1.21 is “the will of God, the son of god” (Meiser 1885, 50–52). As in even the most sophisticated later commentaries, there is no attempt to engage Ovid's irony; the Metamorphoses aims to instruct by pleasing (“delectare et delectando tamen mores instruere”), and its utilitas is in the many gracefully told fables it makes available.

A single Tegernsee manuscript offers a clerk-poet's carefully anonymous advice to nuns concerning the poet who speaks of the loves of the gods through “the metaphor of changing forms” (Dronke 1968, 232–38, 452–63). This mock-sermon moves from censure of divine lust and its corrupting influence to a reading in which such mystica fabula becomes inspirational: clerks and nuns can emulate the unions of gods and goddesses. (“Cum deliramus, ea numina significamus!” (72) [when we rave, we represent the gods]. The gods’ descents into the world are also meaningful. Jove's begetting of Hercules is treated with a religious solemnity (51–54): Three days were required “that conception might be recognized as more glorious, and heavenly seed be bestowed to creating something so great, such a progeny” (52–54).

The poet dwells at length on Ovid's cosmology. Cosmic harmony can draw us away from the erratic and violent world, inspiring pure thoughts of transcendence, (p. 349) yet its vitality infuses our wills with a lustful energy we cannot control. And it is finally this, the uncertainty of our situation amid the complex of cosmic forces, that myth represents:

  • quicquid in hec operantur,
  • Ex quibus omne genus rerum constare videmus,
  • Quod sapis et sentis, quod ab his fit et ex elementis,
  • Hoc opus istorum coitum dixere deorum.

[whatever has influence on those forces through which every kind of created thing has life that you know and feel, that comes to be through them and from the elements—this great work, men said, was the sexual union of the gods.]

Whether we hear in it the ostentatiously cynical magister amoris or an affirmation of the unity between earthly and heavenly love (Dronke 1968, 236), the poem makes plain with remarkable prescience the liability of myth to manipulation by a virtuoso interpreter when the dogmas of traditional criticism are set aside. There will clearly be no reducing the Metamorphoses to a Neoplatonic Bildungsroman, and the Tegernsee poet provides a distant foreshadowing of the subversion of all such projects by Jean de Meun.

These two Ovidiana are isolated phenomena. For most of the twelfth century awareness of the Metamorphoses appears mainly in pseudo-antike school poetry on Ovidian themes, chiefly tales of human lovers (Lehmann 1927; Faral 1936, 115–17). But the poem itself continued to be regarded with a certain mistrust, and seems always to have existed in an uneasy relation to the curriculum of the schools. At length its complexities were subjected to methodical treatment in the Allegoriae super Ovidii Metamorphosin of Arnulf of Orleans (c. 1170; Ghisalberti 1932) and the Integumenta Ovidii of John of Garland (c. 1134; John of Garland 1933).

Arnulf had strong ties to the tradition of William of Conches; his commentary on Lucan deals at length with the philosophical background of the Pharsalia. John, too, though by his time the humanism of the twelfth-century schools had suffered the defeat reported in the Bataille des vii ars of Henri d’Andeli (c. 1240), saw himself as the embattled defender of the literary standards of an earlier time. But by providing Fulgentian guides to the Metamorphoses they effectively neutralized its poetic qualities, and under their influence mythography ceased to be in dialogue with the poetry it was ostensibly intended to explain.

Arnulf's accessus adopts the cosmic analogy of the Timaeus to explain metamorphosis; Ovid's representations of moral elevation or degeneration correspond to “the stability of heavenly things and the changeableness of things on earth” (Ghisalberti 1932, 181). In practice his reading is less coherent. He briefly considers other types of metamorphosis: natural (the combining or dissolution of the elements), “spiritual” (loss or recovery of sanity), and magical. Stories read in these varied terms and those read euhemeristically far outnumber those treated as images of moral transformation. Many interpretations are based, not on Ovid, but on the mythographers, or are drawn from commentary on other authors. Repeatedly, the (p. 350) metamorphosis on which an Ovidian story turns is ignored, rationalized, or reduced to the status of an emblem. Thus Europa was abducted by Jupiter, king of Crete, in a boat named “the Bull” or with a bull painted on its prow; Iphis at first behaved like a woman, but afterwards like a man; sailors took on board not Bacchus, but wine; they were not turned to fish, but became drunk and fell overboard.

John's Integumenta Ovidii provide theoretical discussions of metamorphosis and allegory, a description of the physical universe, and allegorizations of the entire Metamorphoses in 260 terse elegiac couplets. Like Arnulf's Allegoriae (on which they largely depend), the Integumenta begin with gestures toward a Platonist reading, but they too reduce transformation to metaphor and emblem, and give scant attention to the particulars of Ovid's poem. As for Arnulf, the Metamorphoses are reduced to a mythographic compendium.

The allegorizations of Arnulf and John became a standard feature of Metamorphoses manuscripts. They provide much of the allegorical material in the so-called Vulgate commentary compiled in central France around 1250 (Coulson 1987). But they remain something other than commentary, which as Dante says must be either servant or master of its text; Ovid's poem is the mere occasion for their common project.

Arnulf and John brought traditional mythography into wider circulation than ever before, but it would be difficult to show that they significantly influenced literary creation. In the continuation of the Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meun, a shrewd student of twelfth-century humanism, the reduction of mythography to allegory and moral euphemism has become a joke. Raison, seeking to draw the effete lover out of his unproductive preoccupation with amors, refers him to the integumanz aus poetes to explain her reference to the castration of Saturn (Rose 7123–50), but allegory cannot withstand a growing materialism that will dismantle the delicate courtly world of Guillaume de Lorris and muster the forces of desire in full armor. In response to the mythographic dilemma faced by Nature in Alan's De planctu naturae, Jean's Nature will send forth her priest Genius to urge this army forward to besiege the castle that holds the Rose, convinced that in doing so they will be recovering their prelapsarian dignity. Two Ovidian figures represent the poles of the lover's situation: Narcissus, his early adolescent suspension; Pygmalion, the transformative power of active desire which will lead to the winning of the Rose. Both are emblems, but emblems charged with the psychological complexity lacking in the allegories of Arnulf and John.

Dante's use of Ovid, as of classical poetry generally, is remarkably unaffected by the commentary tradition. Metamorphosis is a fundamental and constantly recurring motif in the three cantiche of the Commedia, and Ovid is allowed to be ethically and psychologically profound on his own terms. It is not hard to imagine a commentary on Dante's poem that would actually follow the guidelines of an accessus not unlike that of Arnulf.

The Fulgentius metaforalis of John Ridevall (c. 1330; Ridevall 1926) introduces an important reorientation of mythography in that its explicit purpose is to adapt (p. 351) the Mitologiae of Fulgentius to the purposes of the preacher (Smalley 1960, 110–13). Earlier mythographers, including Fulgentius and the Third Vatican Mythographer, had spoken of the traditional attributes of the gods and goddesses as “painted” by the ancient poets, and Ridevall develops this idea systematically, first identifying the chief Olympian gods with virtues, then compiling their traditional attributes in the form of mnemonic verses, then imagining paintings of the gods that illustrate these attributes, which then become the texts for extended homilies filled with material from Christian authors. Illuminators proved unable to produce satisfactory counterparts to Ridevall's imaginings (Ridevall 1926, pl. 1–15), but later mythographers followed Ridevall in prefacing their treatises with descriptions of the images of the gods.

After Ridevall, mythography will be largely directed to the needs of the preacher, and the Fulgentius metaforalis is as utterly dissociated from poetry, ancient or modern, as the Mitologiae of Fulgentius himself. But another significant change occurred with the appearance of a vernacular text, the Ovide moralisé (1316–28; ed. 1915–38), whose 72,000 octosyllables incorporate a full translation of the Metamorphoses and a double commentary, “historical” and allegorical. The poet will not attempt to fully explain every myth (1.53–55):

  • Mes les mutacions des fables
  • qui sont bones et profitables
  • Se Dieus me l’otroie, esclorrai.

[But if God is willing, I will set forth the transformations of the fables, which are good and profitable.]

It is the mutacions, not the fables, which are good and profitable. As told, grossement, by Ovid, the tales are lies, and the failure to recognize them as such is dangerous (15.2525–31, 2552–57). But in the hands of the French poet they prefigure biblical history, the lives of Christ and the Virgin, the Sacraments and Christian doctrine.

But while Ovid's intention as author appears to count for little in the Ovide, basing a work so explicitly Christian in its concerns on a fully rendered pagan text—in effect, giving the Metamorphoses the status of the Hebrew Bible—is an extraordinary gesture. And despite the poet's obligatory dismissal, Ovid's poem is treated with the utmost respect. The translation abbreviates and amplifies, and incorporates myth and legend from other classical and postclassical sources, but it is accurate and often remarkably sensitive in rendering the details of Ovid's metamorphoses: Acteon's human awareness of becoming a stag (3.468–89); Iphis's becoming male in both body and mind (9.3082–95); Lycaon's body adapting to his wolfish character (1.1371–88). When the poet inserts the term martire into his account of the sufferings of an Oedipus or Acteon, or suggests that vertu divine transformed Daphne and saved her from the relentless desire of Apollo, he is not only preparing for the Christian allegory to come, but showing himself aware of Ovid's own deep sympathy with his human characters.

(p. 352) The Ovide is also a remarkable poem in its own right, one whose riches we are only beginning to appreciate. It is rich in borrowings from the romans d’antiquité, Chrétien, and the Roman de la Rose, and reproduces their style as well. Far from a dogged moralist, the Ovide poet is “un veritable conteur” (Possamaϯ-Pérez 2006, 235–56) whose poem is a virtual summa of romance in the classical tradition, an artist who takes pleasure in his art. His portraits of Callisto, Europa, and even Pasiphaë are finely wrought, and he can pursue a narrative for its own sake without regard to its future allegorization: savage Achilles resurfaces as Christ, noble Hector as Satan (12.4092–145; 4184–268).

The poet of the Ovide was almost certainly a Franciscan, and certainly had an audience of preachers in mind (Possamaϯ-Pérez 2006, 726–30). This is clearly the case with the Ovidius moralizatus of Pierre Bersuire (1340, 1350–62; Ghisalberti 1933a), which draws on Ridevall and the Third Vatican Mythographer, and found the initial impetus for its introductory description of the “forms and figures” of the gods in the Africa of Bersuire's friend Petrarch (Africa 3.138–264). In its final form, Bersuire's treatise follows the pattern of the Ovide and acknowledges its indebtedness to the volumen gallicum, though it exhibits none of the French poet's appreciation of the Metamorphoses as poetry, and offers only brief summaries of Ovid's tales as the basis for its allegories.

Bersuire views interpretation as a test of ingenium, what can be “adduced” or “affirmed” (potest allegari) about a text (Hexter 1989, 66–68), and his address to his fellow religious (karissimi) is full of little urgings to exercise a similar inventiveness (“dicas,” “vel si vis dic,” “vel verte folium et dic,” “applica si vis”). His justification for this use of the Metamorphoses is a highly dubious reading of 1 Timothy 4:1 in which “the teachings of demons” become “fables,” enabling him to compare their moralization to the similar treatment of such biblical fables as Jotham's tale of the trees seeking to choose a king in Judges 9 (Ghisalberti 1933a, 87–88).

Bersuire's moralized Ovid circulated widely, and became sufficiently notorious to be banned by the Counter-Reformation Church in 1559 (Gillespie 2005, 206). But the Ovide is the fundamental work. A literary summa, it is also a summa of mythology, and it was so regarded by poets and scholars alike. As such it performed a double task. By providing a full and appreciative rendering of the Metamorphoses, while maintaining a clear distinction between that text and the interpretative mutacion to which he would subject it, the Ovide poet released Ovid's great poem from the commentary tradition of Arnulf and John of Garland. And by making a major classical text the basis for a poetic commentary unprecedented in scope and explicitness of doctrine, with full respect for the ancient text but following the poet's own inspired ingenium, he made mythography available to a range of new purposes.

I have said nothing about the Italian mythographic tradition, which followed a separate path from that of northern Europe. A convenient starting point for considering its development is the work of Giovanni del Virgilio, classical scholar and friend of Dante, who lectured on classical poetry at Bologna in 1322–23 and apparently produced his Allegorie on the Metamorphoses at this time (Ghisalberti 1933b, (p. 353) 4–8). Giovanni employs both prose and verse, borrowing from but often correcting Arnulf and John, frequently substituting his own allegorizations, and interpolating occasional Christian readings. But whatever cultural exchanges may have taken place at the papal court in Avignon, Giovanni's sophisticated commentary, like the works of Dante (with whom Giovanni engaged in a learned correspondence; see Witt in this volume) and the Genealogiae deorum gentilium of Boccaccio, seem to have been virtually unknown outside of Italy. Only in the fifteenth century would the achievements of the trecento cross the Alps.

Suggestions for Further Reading

There exists no comprehensive and reliable history of medieval mythography, but the following specialist studies may provide a general view. Lamberton (1986), primarily concerned with ancient critics of Homer, includes chapters on the Latin tradition and its medieval versions. Demats (1973) studies medieval readings of Ovid as illustrating the development of medieval mythography. On this subject see also Hexter (1987). Dronke (1974) studies the twelfth-century assimilation of ancient theories of myth. On the place of mythography in medieval literary studies, see Wetherbee (2005) and Gillespie (2005).


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