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Literary Criticism in the Vulgate Commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Frank Coulson

The Vulgate Commentary on the Metamorphoses, composed in the Orleanais about 1250, may be considered the most important study of Ovid’s epic from the high Middle Ages.  Luigi Castiglioni, the discoverer of the Vulgate, claimed for it a seminar role in our understanding of the circulation and study of Ovid from 1100 to 1450, and recent scholarship on the commentary  fully justifies Castiglioni’s claims.  The Vulgate circulated widely in France and Italy (surviving in some 22 manuscripts) and is thought to have been the text through which Dante read his Ovid. The Vulgate approaches the Metamorphoses from multiple perspectives, elucidating for the medieval reader vocabulary, syntax, rhetorical flourishes, mythology, and Roman history.  But perhaps the most interesting feature of the commentary for modern sensibilities is its intense interest in literary aspects of the epic, including detailed discussions of Ovid’s style, his borrowings from earlier writers, the structure of the epic and characterization.

In this paper, I treat one aspect of this literary preoccupation, namely the Vulgate’s elucidation of Ovidian influence on writers of prose and poetry from the 12th-century Renaissance.  The Vulgate examines in particular the works of Alan of Lille, Bartholomeus Anglicus, and (most prominently) Walter of Chatillon to illustrate how these writers used the Metamorphoses as source material.  This borrowing worked on many levels:  sometimes the Vulgate commentator is content to mark scenes from 12th-century poetry which are modelled more generally on the Ovidian original.  In other places, however, the Vulgate commentator reveals a rather intimate and sophisticated appreciation of how the medieval poet employs specific Ovidian allusions (often unusual vocabulary) to draw attention to the rich inter-textual  connection between source text and later model.   Because the Vulgate Commentary remains in manuscript, modern scholars have failed to appreciate fully the extent to which medieval critics were cognizant of Ovid’s wide-ranging influence.

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Medieval Latin Poetry

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