I may, with a bit of luck, be in the process of arranging to write a Very Short Introduction to Ovid, and I’ve been thinking hard about the structure of a book that has to encapsulate a lot of texts, and the most scintillating of authors, in a “very short” format. In particular, how to capture Ovid’s afterlife, the huge impact he has had on more recent literature and art, is a poser. I’m pondering at this stage a chronological approach, the “aetas Ovidiana” of the 12th and 13th Century followed by the Renaissance followed by modernity, perhaps. But I still need to decide how to do all that in just a few thousand words.
Well, here’s an Ovidian motif with a medieval afterlife, in one case surprising and hard to explain; while in the other, I think, Ovid meets his medieval match. Amores 2.4 sees Ovid deploring his own mendosi mores, his reprehensible character and lifestyle: there is no woman in Rome he doesn’t fancy, as he explains at some length and in some detail: nam desunt vires ad me mihi iusque regendum;/auferor ut rapida concita puppis aqua./non est certa meos quae forma invitet amores—/centum sunt causae, cur ego semper amem (7-10), “I haven’t the strength or will to control myself;/ I am swept away like a ship driven by fast-moving water./ There is no particular beauty that provokes my love:/ I have a hundred reasons to be constantly in love!”
One such irresistible reason, at 31-2, is a woman who dances seductively: ut taceam de me, qui causa tangor ab omni,/illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit! “To say nothing of me, as I am affected by everything,/ put Hippolytus in my place and he’ll turn into Priapus!”
It is a very naughty, very brilliant example of the wit that Ovid is famous for; not perhaps easily defensible in the current day and age. Hippolytus is the archetype of sexual self-restraint, as seen in Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus and various Phaedras; while Priapus looks like this:
Priapus was a kind of over-sexed scarecrow, associated with gardens and orchards: his physical appearance represented an implicit threat to anyone rash enough to try to steal the fruit he protected.
This makes what follows odd, to say the least. In around the thirteenth century someone in Constantinople translated Ovid’s erotic poems, the Amores, Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris, into Greek. The translator may well have been the most famous Byzantine translator of Latin poetry, Maximus Planudes, monk and humanist, best known for his anthology of Greek epigrams: Planudes’ translation activities tend to be associated with the movement to unite the eastern and western Churches, itself related to the hope that help might be forthcoming from the Christian West to defend the city against the Muslim Turks. We do not any longer have that original Greek translation, but we do have excerpts from it in a kind of commonplace book containing morally improving excerpts from a range of ancient authors. The notion of Ovid as morally improving would strike the emperor Augustus as odd, for starters, but the excerptor does generally, sometimes by quite extreme means, manage to keep it clean. Amor, “love”, is translated as τόδε τὸ πρᾶγμα, “this topic”, the puella, the target of sexual interest, becomes an inoffensive φίλος, “(male) friend,” and oscula ferre, “kiss,” turns into προσειπεῖν, “talk to.” E. J. Kenney, to whose article (“A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27) I owe these examples, comments: “always at the elbow of this medieval Podsnap [the excerptor] was the spectre of the Young Person. Just as his brethren of the West allegorised Ovid to make him respectable, so this Greek monk, as he must have been, proceeded to purge Ovid of his regrettable lasciviousness by drastic methods” (225).
Sometimes, though, it appears that the excerptor-monk lost concentration, and Amores 2.4.32 is a case in point: most unexpectedly, we find illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit literally translated into Greek for the edification of those Byzantine schoolboys: ἐκεῖσε θὲς τὸν Ἱππόλυτον, καὶ Πρίαπος ἔσται. A shocking dereliction on the part of the monk in question, as I hardly need to emphasise.
Over in Western Europe there were indeed comparable efforts to make Ovid respectable, often involving the allegorizing of the myths of the Metamorphoses. But another approach was taken by the Archpoet (Archipoeta in Latin), an anonymous poet whose pseudonym was apparently derived from his patron, Rainald of Dassel, both Archbishop of Cologne and Archchancellor of Italy. The Archpoet’s masterpiece, his “Confession”, is perhaps the most famous of medieval Latin lyrics, and it’s directly inspired by Ovid, Amores 2.4.
The poem can be dated to 1162 or more likely late 1163, when Rainald, a close adviser of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as well as a promoter of classical learning, spent time in the north Italian city of Pavia during an embassy to the Pope: Pavia, as we shall see, is where the Archpoet implies that he is delivering his confession. Picking up on Ovid’s word confiteor (3), “I confess,” a word that Christianity had vastly enriched in meaning, the Archpoet delivers a textbook Christian confession: “confession, contrition, purpose of amendment, imposition of penance, and absolution” (Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana, 67; cf. H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta, 139). Everything has changed in Latin poetry: the lines are short and rhymed, the rhythms simplified and accentual, the Old and New Testaments compete with Ovid as the target of allusion. Yet somehow, at least for as long as the Archpoet is confessing his sins, the essence of Ovid has been successfully transplanted to the Holy Roman Empire (2-3):
Cum sit enim proprium viro sapienti
supra petram ponere sedem fundamenti,
stultus ego comparor fluvio labenti
sub eodem aere nunquam permanenti.
Feror ego veluti sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aeris vaga fertur avis.
non me tenent vincula, non me tenet clavis,
quero mei similes et adiungor pravis.
For though it be proper for a wise man
To set his foundations upon a rock,
I in my idiocy am like a flowing river
Never staying still under the same sky.
I am borne along like a sailor without a ship
As a wandering bird is carried through the paths of the air.
Chains do not hold me, nor a key:
I seek like-minded people, and my friends are the depraved.
There are striking parallels between the classical and medieval poet: both are manipulating some well-established and highly artificial poetic conventions, the goliardic persona of the morally wayward vagabond in the Archpoet’s case, and the morally dubious elegiac lover in Ovid’s; important to both also is a claim to youth, and the irresponsibility stereotypically associated with it. In addition, each poet is deploying a verse form that embodies their assumed persona, the trochaic Vagantenstrophe or goliardic measure in the Confession, and the elegiac couplet in Ovid’s Amores.
But it’s Hippolytus we are concerned with, and the Archpoet’s answer to Ovid’s Hippolytus/Priapus witticism brilliantly exploits the city in which he finds himself. Pavia had a dubious reputation, according to a proverb quoted by Landulf of Milan in his Historia Mediolanensis (3.1): Mediolanum in clericis, Papia in deliciis, Roma in aedificiis, Ravenna in ecclesiis, “Milan for clerics, Pavia for pleasures, Rome for buildings, Ravenna for churches.” Or as the Archpoet puts it (8-9),
Quis in igne positus igne non uratur?
quis Papie demorans castus habeatur,
ubi Venus digito iuvenes venatur,
oculis illaqueat, facie predatur?
Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie,
non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die:
Veneris in thalamos ducunt omnes vie;
non est in tot turribus turris Alethie.
Who when placed in the fire is not burned?
Who spending time in Pavia may be considered chaste
where Venus hunts young men with her finger,
traps them with her eyes, ensnaring them with her face?
Place Hippolytus in Pavia today,
He won’t be Hippolytus tomorrow:
all roads lead to the bedchambers of Venus;
Amongs all those towers there is no tower of Truth.
(Pavia was famous, as S. Gimignano is today, for its towers.)
An unfortunate colleague of mine met me on the airport bus over the summer. I was off to Cartagena for a jolly, and he to Pavia to give a paper. When I did what I felt compelled to do and warned him of the threat to his immortal soul posed by that city, he told me I was the second Classicist in a week to quote the Archpoet’s couplet at him when he mentioned where he was going.
But how could I resist? In Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie/ non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die the Archpoet fulfilled his boast at 18.4: Nasonem post calicem carmine preibo, “After a glass I shall surpass Naso in song.” But he surpasses Ovid in a more profound sense too, perhaps. Some scholars doubt the genuineness of the contrition that the poet-persona claims to feel at the end of this confession, feeling that his vices have been recounted with too much gusto for us really to accept that (23) iam virtutes diligo, vitiis irascor,/ renovatus animo spritu renascor;/ quasi modo genitus novo lacte pascor,/ ne sit meum amplius vanitatis vas cor, “Now I love virtues and loathe vices,/ renewed in the mind I am reborn in the spirit;/ like a new-born I feed on fresh milk:/ may my heart no longer be a vessel of vanity.” “The main body of the Confession is more of a defense than a confession,” suggests S. Shurtleff. But I suppose it seems to me that one cannot adequately repent one’s sins without first fully acknowledging them; and anyway that’s to take the exercise a bit too literally. Certainly, as the poet promises to reform, classical allusion gives way to scriptural. The Latin model is displaced by the biblical.
Are we focusing too much on the Ovidian sins the Archpoet admits to, then, and too little on his remorse? Is this in fact the most important respect in which the Archpoet has improved on Ovid, by capping the unresolved immorality of the pagan Roman with the Christian promise of redemption?
Some things I’ve been reading:
P. G. Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana (1976);
H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta (1958);
E. J. Kenney, “A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27;
P. Godman, The Archpoet and Medieval Culture (2014);
K. Langosch, Die Lieder des Archipoeta (1965);
F. Adcock, Hugh Primas and the Archpoet (1994), with an introduction by P. Dronke;
P. Dronke, “The Archpoet and the Classics,” in P. Dronke, Sources of Inspiration (1997), 83-99;
J. Hamacher, “Die ‘Vagantenbeichte’ und ihre Quellen,” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 18 (1983), 160-7;
S. B. Kugeas, “Maximos Planudes und Juvenal,” Philologus 73 (1914), 318-319;
J. Herrin, Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire (2007);
S. Shurtleff, “The Archpoet as poet, persona and self: the problem of individuality in the Confession,” Philological Quarterly 73 (1994), 373-84.