Ovid in the Middle Ages

Ovid in the Middle Ages             

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 B.C. -- A.D. 17), the most sophisticated Roman poet of the Augustan age, composed works  that were extensively copied, imitated, translated, and allegorized during the Middle Ages. Although his tragedy, Medaea, and perhaps an exercise in the Gothic language are lost, Ovid's writings have been well preserved by monastic copyists. The surviving text of the largely mythological miracles narrated in the Metamorphoses is based on three eleventh-century manuscripts. The brilliant early erotic elegiacs of the Amores, Ars amatoria, and the Remedia amoris are preserved in copies from the ninth and tenth centuries. For the romantic heroines' legends of the Heroides, there are texts from the ninth and twelfth centuries and a fragment from the eleventh. The catalog of Roman festivals in the Fasti is attested by two copies of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Ovid's poetical complaints from exile appear in the Tristia, for which there exists a tenth-century fragment and an eleventh-century copy, and in the Epistulae ex Ponto, preserved in a fragment of the sixth century and three manuscripts of the twelfth. Finally, Ovid's minor works, De medicamine faciei, the Nux, Ibis, Halieuticon, and the Consolatio ad Liviam, are witnessed by copies from the ninth of the fifteenth centuries.

For his rhetorical employment of the elegiac couplet and mythological subject matter in the service of love, Ovid served as the model par excellence for Latin verse throughout the Middle Ages. Among the scholars who came from all over Western Europe to the court and royal school of Charlemagne were such poets as Modoin, bishop of Autun (815, d. 840/843), who took the name "Naso" and celebrated Charles as the new Augustus. Modoin was in turn complimented by Florus, deacon of Lyon (d. ca. 860), in a long epistle borrowing from most of Ovid's works. This court devotion to Ovid was continued in the French cathedral schools by such poets as Godfrey of Rheims (d. 1095), who composed a long elegiac and allusive description of a beautiful lady. Such elegiac matter is combined with biblical learning in the work of Hildebert of Lavardin (d. 1133), but the peak of secularization can be seen in the poems of Baudri of Bourgueil, archbishop of Dol from 1107 to 1130, whose two epistles--"Florus to Ovid" and "Ovid to Florus"--are sophisticated school exercises based on the Tristia.

In the twelfth century--called the aetas Ovidiana--a new literary genus, the comodia or versified tale, appears in the cathedral schools. The best example of these plain elegiac Latin narratives with happy endings if the Pamphilus, in which Venus instructs a you in the craft of Love and a repulsive crone acts as go-between. In the twelfth-century poetical debate The Love-Council of Remiremont, Ovid becomes simply a name to conjure with. There, nuns assemble to decide whether knights or clerks are better lovers; first the gospel of Ovid is read, and then the presiding lady, cardinalis domina, puts the question to the assembly, which debates the issue and finds for the clerks and anathematizes all others. Ovid also influenced the goliardic poets of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, being linked with Hugh Primas of Orleans as one of the champions of Grammar. One of their poems typically urges the medieval Ovid's moral usefulness:

Auctoris intentio restar condemnare
amores illicitos, fatuos culpare
et recte ferventium mentes commendare:
utilitas nostra sit iustum pignis amare.

Similarly, the lyrics of the Carmina burana (thirteenth century), while certainly not rhetorical exercises in elegiacs, reveal in their easy use of mythology in behalf of love their own mastery of Ovid. Another work from the period is the pseudo-Ovidian tale De vetula (between 1222 and 1266/1268), which presents Ovid as a Christian convert.

Western vernacular poetry also reveals Ovid's prodigious influence. The complex medieval conception of romantic love, for example, contains a heavy Ovidian component, centering on the mutuality and transforming power of the erotic experience. Such stories as those of Echo and Narcissus, Philomela, and Pyramus and Thisbe appear in Old French, German, and Netherlandish versions, and later in such works as L'amorosa Fiammetta of Boccaccio, The Legend of Good Women of Chaucer, for whom Ovid as "Venus Clerk," and the Confessio Amantis of John Gower. This vernacular Ovidian vogue passed undiminished into Renaissance poetry and art.


Although the Latin elegiac comedies were not translated, they do appear in the same contexts as the vernacular adaptations, along with the fabliaux. Chretien de Troyes translated the Ars amatoria, and, though the work is lost, its influence is apparent in his Arthurian romances. Four other French translations of the Ars do survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; three versions of the Remedia, one from the early thirteenth century, a second one ca. 1300, and the third ca. 1380; and two of the Heroides, from the fifteenth century. Lactantius Placidus made a prose paraphrase of the Metamorphoses in the pre-Carolingian period. Albert von Halberstadt translated the Metamorphoses into German (probably 1210--1220), the first complete translation into German, and perhaps into any European vernacular, of one of the major works of classical literature. The Metamorphoses also appears in two anonymous French translations and was elaborated into the Ovide moralise's 70,000 verses of Christianizing moralization, reflecting the vigor of Latin commentary on the poem throughout the Middle Ages.

The medieval allegorical tradition of exegesis is indebted to Ovid, beginning with a lost poetic-mystical commentary of Manegold of Lautenbach (eleventh century) and extending through the glosses of John of Garland, Arnulf of Orleans (perhaps himself the author of comoediae), Pierre Bersuire, and Giovanni del Virgilio, to such late uses as John Calderia's Concordances in the fifteenth century. This stable tradition consists of narrative summaries that tend to become more realistic as the commentaries based on them become more explicitly Christian with the passage of time. Such glosses both influenced the vernacular poets and allowed friars like John Ridevall (fl. early 1300s) to provide, in his Fulgentius metaphoralis, a handbook for preachers that made  examples of virtue and vice out of the erotic urbanity of Ovid's verse. Thus, by the end of the Middle Ages, Ovid was available in varieties ranging from faithful transcriptions of elegiac distiches, through vernacular adaptations that placed him in the courtly company of loyal lovers, to pious glosses of his bare plots.

   Richard A. Dwyer