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date: 19 February 2019

(p. xi) Preface

(p. xi) Preface

The Rationale of the Handbook

The study of medieval Latin language and literature—Latin as it was used from roughly 500 to 1500 ce, as documented in a vast body of surviving texts—is a thriving enterprise. Over the nearly 125 years since medieval Latin was first conceived as a distinct discipline, scholars primarily in Europe and North America have made enormous contributions. Since the end of World War II centers for its study have grown in number and importance, and those same decades have seen a remarkable blooming of scholarship in the field. New generations of students bring new interests, leading to the exploration of hitherto underappreciated linkages, fresh perspectives on well-known texts, and first editions and studies of unpublished or hitherto only poorly edited texts. Small but industrious cadres of scholars currently work on medieval Latin language and literature with vigor and growing sophistication. Worldwide there are well-attended conferences. Publication flourishes. New journals join older, established periodicals, and websites and digital archives of texts proliferate. Meanwhile, the funding crises facing the humanities endanger the continuation of even some of the most established and illustrious institutions and enterprises in the field.

This Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature is intended to represent some of the discipline's best current thinking. It does so—and this intentionally—not as a comprehensive summation of recent work, although it certainly exemplifies such developments. Rather, we have conceived and structured the volume to open doors and pose questions, including vexed and difficult ones, rather than to offer settled answers. We have asked authors not to attempt comprehensive “coverage” but rather to present carefully selected examples in illustration of their argument and of the field's unresolved problematics, examples into which they can delve more deeply than is usually possible in handbook surveys. We hope that such an approach will suggest more vividly to readers the field's complexities and in so doing also illustrate directly its future potentials. Vast numbers of texts remain unedited and unpublished. One text is edited here for the first time as an appendix to an essay. (See Hicks, below.) Its inclusion here, perhaps against expectations of the “handbook” as a genre, further emphasizes the necessarily provisional and open-ended work essential to the pursuit of medieval Latin studies.

But while the editio princeps of a Latin text may seem to represent the acme of philological akribeia, we seek to engage an audience by no means restricted to (p. xii) specialists in medieval Latin. Certainly, we believe that scholars and advanced graduate students who have devoted many years to the study of medieval Latin will find much here to engage them, and at times to provoke them, in line with the practice of other handbooks and scholarly encyclopedias that present new information and advance new propositions. At the same time, we have asked our contributors to present their topics in terms accessible and engaging to nonspecialists, including those who do not read Latin (for all passages are translated into English). We particularly imagine that students of the ancient world will be interested to read of the Nachleben of the cultural complexes of the classical period over the arc of succeeding centuries. We hope the book will also serve students of medieval history and of the multiple linguistic and literary traditions—Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic as well as the European vernaculars—in dialogue with Latin in the Middle Ages.

We believe our collection also makes the case for the relevance of the Latin Middle Ages in contemporary contexts that have superseded the familiar national formations of more recent vintage. This might surprise some for whom medieval Latin literature seems obscure and esoteric, consisting of little-known texts of purely historical interest written in a debased form of a language already dead (to acknowledge the calumnies raised over many centuries by humanists and their classicist heirs). To mention just a few points—in summary form that begs expansion and careful nuancing—manuscript-based transmission, with marginal glossing, is more comparable to digital textual formations now in ascendance. The very fact that medieval Latin itself was increasingly a learned “second” language interrupts in instructive ways the assumptions we have about the alignment of spoken and written language (and ethnic and national polities). Without making too strong a claim, the way medieval Latin functioned might prove prophetic for international English—or perhaps for international Chinese—in ways that only time will tell. We believe that many of the essays presented below imply the possibility of such dialogue.

The editors and contributors to the Handbook generally take the view that the very features of medieval Latin language and literature that aroused the distaste of classicists—besides being historical phenomena worth study and analysis in their own right—are in fact surprisingly relevant and familiar to residents of post-modern global society. Medieval Latin was a living language, not a dead one, a language rooted in evolving praxis both written and oral, and, above all, a language used by a heterogeneous population. It was a language carried by soldiers and traders to new lands, changing in the mouths of those who still spoke it (in the earlier medieval centuries) as a first language and even more in the mouths of those who employed it as a second or third tongue. It was a language pressed to describe new things. It was, in short, a language of migration and displacement, of imperialists and subject peoples alike. It was supranational (or perhaps better, pre-national). In some ways and from some perspectives, as we have suggested, it looked like international English today, the second language of many people, a technical language for others. It became a medium for communication between people who had no other common language but for whom it was not a mother tongue. Eventually, the further (p. xiii) development of Latin—one might better say “Latins”—led to the sundering of links between written and spoken forms. (Here one might better compare Chinese, the “same” as written throughout an enormous territory but in spoken forms vastly different and at times not mutually intelligible to speakers from distant regions.) Such historiolinguistic and sociolinguistic perspectives subtend many of the essays that follow.

Below we speak to the sequence and clustering of the twenty-eight essays that comprise the Handbook. Here let us highlight only the fact that we intend our organization of thematically interlocking essays, grouped conceptually, to maximize the volume's potential for dialogue with a broader scholarly community. This community, as we have noted, extends well beyond the core constituency of medieval Latin specialists and those who aspire to that status to embrace medievalists working in vernacular literatures and in collateral disciplines as well as non-medievalists who may be concerned to understand more fully the pre-modern dynamics that survive as a substrate of later European cultural formations. To encourage this kind of broader dialogue, we have sought to foreground those aspects of medieval Latinity that both distinguish it from the field of medieval languages and literatures in general and at the same time stand in illuminative relation to the dynamisms of other fields of medieval cultural expression. Such an approach contrasts with one organized principally according to more predictable primary categories of subject matter, periods, individual genres, or individual authors, approaches already well represented in existing scholarship (access to which is provided primarily in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” with which each essay concludes).

At the core of this agenda lies our conviction that medieval Latin was at once the vehicle of powerful ideologies and a capacious and uniquely charged space of cultural contestation, in which dialectics of (for example) control and resistance, homogenization and diversity, universal and local, learned and popular, played out powerfully and pervasively but in directions too complex to admit of reduction to easy generalization. While such a vision of the field's import has found some noteworthy voice particularly in the last fifteen to twenty years, we believe the field as a whole has still to realize the full potential of such an approach or to communicate it fully enough to the wider scholarly community. The result of such a lacuna in the available scholarship—particularly in the form of a fundamental handbook with such an orientation—has been the ongoing marginalization of medieval Latin, which is too often and too easily viewed as a monologic background to the apparently more dynamic creativity of emerging vernaculars and the cultural formations associated too often exclusively with those vernaculars. The study of medieval Latin literature too often remains, in the minds of scholars, consistently with their disciplinary formation, merely instrumental. At the same time, the status of the vernaculars in medieval culture is falsified to the extent that their interpenetration with Latinity is obscured if not ignored altogether. If the present volume corrects this lingering misprision of medieval cultural dynamics, it will have fulfilled one of our ambitions.

As noted, there are existing and excellent overviews of medieval Latin that approach the field in more conventional ways. We do not mean to be dismissive by (p. xiv) using the word “conventional.” Far from it. Such introductions are immensely valuable resources. To speak only of one essential and relatively recent handbook in English, there is Medieval Latin. An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, edited by F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg.1 Mantello-Rigg (as those in the field invariably call it) is particularly notable for its full coverage of genres and types of literature. There would seem to be particularly little reason to replicate such an organization. Many of our contributors (including the Rigg of Mantello-Rigg) refer to one or more of its eighty chapters in their bibliographies, and students, beginning and advanced, always have access to its even-handed and comprehensive embrace of the field. The present volume does not constitute a supplement to Mantello-Rigg. It offers rather a complementary introduction on very different principles. In other words, we strive for a balance between description and interpretation, a balance that we believe affords the best foundation we could offer readers.

The Organization of the Handbook

We have presented the twenty-eight essays in this Handbook in seven thematic clusters. In Framing the Field: Problematics and Provocations, we set out in two essays of our own the perspectives that inform our work on the volume as a whole. “The Current Questions and Future Prospects of Medieval Latin Studies” acknowledges the signal achievements of the field while advocating a critical engagement with interpretive methodologies that have energized other areas of medieval literary scholarship over the last twenty years. “Canonicity” interrogates the tenuous relevance of that concept to medieval Latin literature. The issue of “canon” is inseparable from the problematics of construing medieval Latin literary history, whose multiple imbrications seem to call for significant reconceptualization.

Next follow the five essays of Latinity as Cultural Capital. Carin Ruff explores the implications of Latin's status as a learned language for all its users, arguing that as a language “differently alive” it offers a unique provocation to metalinguistic reflection and self-awareness. Ryan Szpiech points out the peculiar ambiguity of Latin's claim to linguistic authority, which always carries with it the inherent assumed superiority of Greek and Hebrew as sacred languages and of Arabic as a language of learning, points corroborated by Thomas Burman's essay on Latin as the target language of translation. Karsten Friis-Jensen considers one specific (p. xv) instance of a regional Latinity in his study of Scandinavian authors, while Nicholas Watson probes the founding assumptions of the binary opposition of Latin and the vernacular languages. Each of these essays, in its own way, emphasizes Latinity as an agentive praxis rather than as an unproblematically transparent means of communication.

Manuscript Culture and the Materiality of Latin Texts stresses the dependence of Latin textual culture on the concrete embodiment of the handwritten codex as artifact and material substrate. Andrew Taylor's essay opens this section of the Handbook with a consideration of manuscripts as objects subject to transformation by their successive users (and sometimes, in an all-too-literal sense, their consumers), whose interventions pass beyond accidents of textual transmission to impinge on the substance of the works themselves. Rita Copeland's account of glossing and commentary addresses sanctioned styles of readerly response as at once respectfully ancillary and potentially deconstructive of a text's authority—and indeed of its compositional integrity. Ralph Hexter's essay on the geography of knowledge reverses the common trope of writing as a means of universal dissemination. His treatment insists on the localization of knowledge and literary communities which exist only in the forms enabled by the physical presence of specific and unique manuscripts.

With essays on prose and verse style by Gregory Hays and Jean-Yves Tilliette, respectively, Styles and Genre begins by establishing some of the basic parameters of Latinate readerly expectation. The clarity of such expectations—which to be sure, as both these essays make clear, is never absolute—is overturned by transgressions of generic boundaries, several specific varieties of which are examined in a third contribution by A. G. Rigg, including the ludic splicing of vernacular material into the Latin text. Brian Murdoch takes up at greater length the phenomenon of the Latin text's destabilization through the vagaries of interlinguistic exchange.

The essays in Systems of Knowledge address four ubiquitous matrices of cultural capital in the Latin Middle Ages, namely the liberal arts (Andrew Hicks), mythography (Winthrop Wetherbee), the Bible and biblical allusion (Greti Dinkova-Bruun), and the liturgy (Susan Boynton and Margot Fassler). The first three essays of the cluster might recall the organization of Ernst Robert Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953, translated by Willard Trask, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) in that they stress the centrality of these key topoi for the organization of encyclopedic knowledge across time, location, and a range of genres. Boynton and Fassler emphasize the performative aspects of a system, realized through repetition and voicing. All four essays illustrate how key bodies of knowledge, in their transmission across historical, geographical, and literary divides, function as “discourses” in a Foucaultian sense: that is, as repertories of intellectual possibility that enable and simultaneously circumscribe the parameters of intelligible cultural production.

Five essays gathered under the rubric Medieval Latin and the Fashioning of the Self focus variously on the shaping of subjectivity by the circumstances of medieval Latin literary culture, beginning with Mia Münster-Swendsen's account of (p. xvi) schooling in Latin as a technology of indoctrination. Three essays follow on the ways that Latin texts not only reflect but fundamentally inflect the production of central aspects of the interior self, namely, gender (Sylvia Parsons and David Townsend), sexuality (Larry Scanlon), and spirituality (Anne Clark). Gur Zak turns inside out the ostensible dearth of autobiography in a full-blown modern sense of that term through most of the Middle Ages. He instead frames the development of the genre up through and including Petrarch as a tradition of literary practices that themselves constituted the founding conditions of personal interiority.

The volume closes with five essays that survey and interrogate widely accepted assumptions about periods of continuity and moments of departure in Latin literary history (Periodizations). Each author in his or her own way calls into question the presumed affinities and disjunctions that facilitate more or less standard narratives of influence and innovation while precluding alternative accounts. So, for example, Marco Formisano, in his survey of the late antique, urges that works of the fourth through seventh centuries by authors like Claudian, Ausonius, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, and Isidore, among others, be viewed as already standing across a radical divide from the classical authors and texts which they ostensibly recall. Certainly the new modes of textuality these works explicitly and implicitly advance become the primary lens through which their successors in the Middle Ages look back at all earlier Latinity. Monika Otter cautions explicitly against an uncritical espousal of revival and renaissance as concepts of historical explanation, demonstrating how pervasively they function as instruments of ideology. Ronald Witt expounds substantial continuities between fourteenth-century humanism and its medieval antecedents in literary culture, continuities that belie representations of the humanist movement as a categorical break with the medieval past. Paolo Chiesa offers an account of the uneasy and sometimes belated passage of medieval Latin texts into the medium of print and their eventual transformed emergence in modern critical editions. Finally, Jan Ziolkowski considers the fortunes of Medieval Latin literature in Modern English translation.

Alan of Lille depicted in Anticlaudianus the creation of a novus homo—a new human being. If, like Nature, we could fashion a new scholar of medieval Latin—and it is clear that they are coming into being already—she would control all registers of Latin, from Ciceronian to “vulgar,” and with a skill that would let her read the most difficult of medieval Latin stylistic and linguistic experiments. She would also command Greek (and know Byzantine history and culture intimately), Hebrew, Arabic, and Germanic and Romance vernaculars at the very least. Some would have Scandinavian and Slavic languages as well. She would be conversant not only with secular literary texts but scripture, patristics, and liturgy, as well as scientific and philosophical texts. At the same time, and in complement to these prodigious attainments, she would possess the hermeneutic skills suited to understand each strand of these traditions as well as their intertwinings. She would be adept at the entire instrumentarium of critical theory—literary, social, and historical—that students (p. xvii) of the vernaculars have been perhaps swifter to adapt and adopt. In sum, she—or he, of course—would be, to reference one of the foundational works of the Latin Middle Ages, Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, the true child of Mercury and Philology.

We would like to begin our acknowledgments by thanking Stefan Vranka and the editorial staff of Oxford University Press, New York, for their generous help and unflagging professionalism, and for their good advice and that of the press's anonymous readers. We also thank Hampshire College, the University of California, Davis, and the Center for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, for various essential supports of this project. For their careful and sustained attention to detail and their dedicated, lively engagement, we thank our editorial assistants Jayna Brett in Toronto and Simon Pühler and Dr. Uwe Vagelpohl in Berlin. We are grateful as well to a number of our colleagues who helped us at various stages of the volume's genesis: Suzanne Akbari, Albert Ascoli, Isabelle Cochelin, Maura Lafferty, Maria Rosa Menocal, Danuta Shanzer, and Brian Stock. Finally, we wish to thank our friends for their forbearance as we worked on this project, and especially our husbands, Manfred Kollmeier and Jonathan Silin.


(1.) Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996. This is a massive updating and expansion of the homespun—but pathbreaking and indispensable—handbook put out by Martin McGuire as the Introduction to Medieval Latin Studies: A Syllabus and Bibliographical Guide (1964) and distributed by Catholic University Press. Little of McGuire's original (or, for that matter, its 1977 revision by Hermigild Dressler) remains except the identity of the press.