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Classical Poetry & a Carolingian Problem: Ermoldus Nigellus (829) and His Adaptation of Exile Poetry in his Verse-Epistle Ad Pippinum Regnum

Carey Fleiner

Sometime after 829, the poet Ermoldus Nigellus composed three poems: two short verse-epistles to Pepin, King of Aquitaine, and a lengthy panegyric dedicated to Louis the Pious, Pepin’s father. All three demonstrate the author’s ready knowledge of Classical and Late Antique poetry, Scripture, and contemporary literary sources that range from pop songs to intellectual works available to a jobbing poet in the court of a sub-king. All three also fold together Nigellus’s grand scheme both to illustrate effusively the might of Louis and his family in the ordo of universal history (both secular and sacred) and, more important, all three advance his own cause – Ermoldus wrote in exile, banished to a remote corner of the kingdom. These poems were his ticket to renewed favour and return to Aquitaine. At first glance, Ermoldus is a magpie and a ‘poetic dead end;’ detractors from the ninth century through to the twenty-first have criticised him for bolting together his poems with imagery and phrases wholesale from both Classical poets and Carolingian; his work has been dismissed for influencing no subsequent poems. This paper will revaluate Ermoldus’s work with his first verse-epistle, Ad Pippinum Regnum as its case study. First, it will discuss Ermoldus’s historical context to demonstrate that the misfire of his elegy is more the result of bad timing rather than necessarily weak compositional skills. Second, it re-evaluates why Nigellus consequently had no literary successors – the poet’s effusive praise of Pepin and his father Louis was better suited amongst the poetry of a generation earlier and fell flat due to the political turmoil and subsequently darker tone adopted by the court poets of the late 820s and 830s.  Finally, this paper will re-evaluate Ermoldus’s skills if not his aims as a poet: what he lacked in talent, he supplanted with creativity and wit.  Much like modern mash-up artists, Ermoldus folds his assemblage of parts carefully into innovative pieces that advance his cause whilst praising his superiors. Nigellus openly models the dialogue in Ad Pippinum after the work of his fellow poets-in-exile, Theodulf of Orleans (750-821) and Theodulf’s own model, the Latin poet Ovid (43BC – c. AD 18).  Although he borrows much from these earlier poets, Ermoldus’s approach is no mere copy and paste exercise. He cleverly adapts words, tone, and imagery to Pepin’s court, using his wit to flatter the king and cleverly to associate local sights, scenes, and political resources and might with those of the Classical world. Nigellus’s timing may have undermined his cause temporarily, but his patchwork quilt of phrases captures the public persona of a working court poet, illustrates the culture of minor court circle in ninth-century Francia, and illuminates the hybrid Classical-Carolingian vigour of his poems. 

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Imitation in Medieval Latin Literature

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