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In Praise of Everyone

Posted On July 11, 2017 | 11:42 am | by baileyt | Permalink
The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library adds two new volumes

We’re excited to announce the publication of two new volumes in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series: the Latin Poems of Venantius Fortunatus, and a selection of six Christian novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes. Both texts, in full English translation for the first time, trace the lives of political and religious figures, with special attention to women testing the gender boundaries of their societies.

Christian Novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes, edited and translated by Stratis Papaioannou, director of the program of medieval studies at Brown University, brings together six narratives that were not so much written by Metaphrastes as heavily revised and standardized.

The contemporary fame of Symeon Metaphrastes was difficult to match. As Papaioannou attests in his introduction, more than seven hundred surviving manuscripts contain different segments of the tenth-century Menologion, and even four hundred years after his death, pilgrims flocked to Constantinople to visit Metaphrastes’s relics.

Metaphrastes—whose name refers to his mastery of the practice of metaphrasis, the rewriting, in a rhetorical register, of preexisting stories and texts—owes his popularity in part to the political and ideological significance of his literary project. Papaioannou explains that “Metaphrastes’s Menologion fits well into a period when the Byzantine ruling elite encouraged efforts to reorganize and essentially reinvent the early Byzantine tradition for ideological purposes, for internal consumption as well as for cultural export.” The standardizing of religious narratives—likely done in a workshop, with various assistants laboring under style guidelines—served the broader imperial project.

Biographically, little is known about Symeon Metaphrastes. It seems likely that references in the historical literature placing him, later in life, as a high-level functionary in the imperial court are largely accurate; drafting the ten-volume Menologion would have required the powerful patronage that such a position afforded. Otherwise, Metaphrastes comes down to us as a bundle of stylistic quirks—a careful attention to rhythm and wordplay, vivid descriptions that lean melodramatic—on full display in the six Christian novels excerpted in the present volume.

But what is a Christian novel? The “Christian” part of the equation, as Papaioannou sees it, is self-evident in a collection of hagiographical texts, where “the reader is confronted with [Christianity] at every turn of the page.” The applicability of “novel,” he says, derives first from the fictional nature of the subjects—they are largely imaginary, not historical—and, more importantly, from traits like rhetorical forms and narrative patterns that link Metaphrastes’s tales to the late antique Greek novel. Beyond this, the six chosen tales share an interest in the lives of rebellious women who push back against the bounds of social expectations. For instance, Saint Ioustina, one of the protagonists of the first novel in the collection, ignores familial and societal pressures to pursue her commitment to the Christian faith. When, already sworn to the nunnery, she is abducted by her spurned suitor Aglaïdas and a gang of ruffians, the following scene plays out:

As soon as news of this outrageous daring spread in the city and to the household of [Ioustina’s] mother, many strong men, armed with weapons, rushed to meet the brigands. With their appearance alone, they made those appalling abductors flee out of sight—not so much because they yielded to force but rather because they were driven powerfully away by the shame of the deed. Yet Aglaïdas (as his passion was more violent than any feeling of shame) cared neither for the swords nor the crowd nor anything else; instead, he embraced the maiden and was ready to suffer anything rather than be separated from her. Ioustina became instantly like Joseph, that most chaste and most courageous man; holding the sign of the cross before her like a weapon—not against Aglaïdas, but rather against the one who was stealthily attempting to wage war against her through him—, she immediately repelled and pushed back that abominable man. She also poured all sorts of curses upon him and rained blows and spittle upon his face that deserved it.

Like a scene from an old western, the anecdote combines melodrama and acts of derring-do; Ioustina becomes a scrappy heroine, both brave and wise, sensing the presence of greater evil behind the deeds of Aglaïdas.

The Poems of Venantius Fortunatus, edited and translated by Michael Roberts, the Robert Rich Professor of Latin at Wesleyan University, are similarly focused on the lives of individuals. Born in Italy around the year 530, Fortunatus’s poetry, preserved in twelve books collected in this volume, nevertheless found its true subject in the people of his adoptive homeland, Gaul. His poems, varying dramatically in length, take many forms, most frequently panegyrics to the virtues of ecclesiastical or political figures.

Fortunatus often ordered the poems in each book by the status of their subjects; Book III, as Roberts points out, moves along a steady declivity from bishops to deacons. Yet Fortunatus does experiment from time to time with a broader set of subjects. He often praises the buildings about him—especially when doing so is an effective way of praising the buildings’ owners. A poem on Vitalis, Bishop of Ravenna, begins with a sturdy description of a church: “The mighty church is aglow, finished with panels of metal, where without any night day is always present. With its perpetual light the very site bids welcome to God, that he may lovingly enter his home with gracious step.” Of the fourteen poems concerned with Leontius of Bordeaux, Roberts writes, three are dedicated to “describing villas owned by the bishop and the landscape in which they are set,” which conveys “a sense of the status of the villa owner and the order and prosperity his episcopal oversight provides.”

Like the Menologion, the Poems sometimes concern themselves with rebellious women. Fortunatus dedicates a group of poems to the women of the Convent of the Holy Cross in Poitiers—notably, its founder, Radegund, Thuringian princess and erstwhile wife of Chlothar I. Radegund, a friend to both Fortunatus and his mentor and patron Gregory of Tours, is celebrated in early poems as a royal ascetic; in later poems, Fortunatus explores his more intimate personal relationship with her.

Roberts notes that the poems also have their comic moments, displaying a humor that “typically . . . derives from the poet’s supposed appetite for food and drink.” Singling out a scene in which Fortunatus attends a “lavish banquet provided by Mummolenus, an important figure at Sigibert’s court,” Roberts writes of how “Fortunatus suffers an attack of indigestion that he compares, in Virgilian language, to a storm at sea or the blast of a bellows.” The passage, imaginative and rife with overstatement and ironic solemnity, is a sterling example of self-deprecating humor:

Large platters were piled high with generous helpings; the dish was laden and piled up like a hillside. A mountain reared on every side, with a kind of valley in the middle, a convenient space for a fish to pursue its course. It swam in a world where oil was water, where the dish was turf, and the table took the place of the sea. Before anything else, though, I was presented with delicate fruit that bear the name “Persian” in common parlance. He grew weary with the giving (but I did not grow weary of eating), as he urged me on with his words, pressing on me more food. Soon enough my belly suddenly grew large as if I was about to give birth, and I marveled that my stomach had so swelled in size. Inside thunderclaps sounded with varied reports; east wind and south were throwing my belly into turmoil. Not so is the sand stirred up by the storms of Aeolus nor a ship driven adrift on the sea so shivered, not so are bellows inflated by the blast of winds, the instruments the fire-scorched smith uses to service his hammers.

Accustomed to describing others, Fortunatus eschews self-reflection in depicting himself. He finds convivial foibles and a dash of absurdity, nothing too laudable. And yet, the beauty of the language, the playfulness of the register, and the ease with which he slips into it—the pleasure taken in writing, the adroitness of the execution—are a song of praise in their own right.