The OF Blog

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

 Ever since I decided a few months ago to return to reading for pleasure, I have been in the process of collecting books in a few series that interest me for historical, poetical, and linguistic reasons.  Below is the first of a half-dozen series of classics from across time and the world, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library.  This series is published by Harvard University Press (which also publishes the Loeb Classical Library, the I Tatti Renaissance Library, and the Murthy Classical Library of India) and is still adding works from the medieval Roman Empire, medieval Western Europe in Latin, and pre-1066 Old English works.

The works I own will be marked in italics; those read will be bold.  I will update this list as new volumes are added.

1.  The Vulgate Bible, Volume I: The Pentateuch (Medieval Latin)

2.  The Arundel Lyrics. The Poems of Hugh Primas (Medieval Latin)

3.  The Beowulf Manuscript (Old English)

4.  The Vulgate Bible, Volume II, Part A: The Historical Books (Medieval Latin)

5.  The Vulgate Bible, Volume II, Part B: The Historical Books (Medieval Latin)

6.  The Rule of Saint Benedict (Medieval Latin)

7.   Old Testament Narratives (Old English)

8.  The Vulgate Bible, Volume III: The Poetical Books (Medieval Latin)

9.  Satires: Sextus Amarcius. Eupolemius (Medieval Latin)

10. Histories, Volume I: Books 1–2, Richer of Saint-Rémi (Medieval Latin)

11.  Histories, Volume II: Books 3–4, Richer of Saint-Rémi (Medieval Latin)

12. Miracle Tales from Byzantium (Byzantine Greek)

13. The Vulgate Bible, Volume IV: The Major Prophetical Books (Medieval Latin)

14. Apocalypse: Pseudo-Methodius. An Alexandrian World Chronicle (Byzantine Greek/Medieval Latin)

15. Old English Shorter Poems, Volume I: Religious and Didactic (Old English)

16. The History: Michael Attaleiates (Byzantine Greek)

17. The Vulgate Bible, Volume V: The Minor Prophetical Books and Maccabees (Medieval Latin)

18. One Hundred Latin Hymns (Medieval Latin)

19. The Old English Boethius (Medieval Latin)

20. The Life of Saint Symeon the New Theologian: Niketas Stethatos (Byzantine Greek)

21. The Vulgate Bible, Volume VI: The New Testament (Medieval Latin)

22. Literary Works:  Alan of Lille (Medieval Latin)

23. The Old English Poems of Cynewulf (Old English)

24. Accounts of Medieval Constantinople:  The Patria (Byzantine Greek)

25. The Well-Laden Ship: Egbert of Liège (Medieval Latin)

26. Ysengrimus (Medieval Latin)

27. Old English Poems of Christ and His Saints (Old English)

28. On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume I (Byzantine Greek)

29. On Difficulties in the Church Fathers:  The Ambigua, Volume II (Byzantine Greek)

30. Saints’ Lives, Volume I: Henry of Avranches (Medieval Latin)

31. Saints’ Lives, Volume II:  Henry of Avranches (Medieval Latin)

32. Old English Shorter Poems, Volume II: Wisdom and Lyric (Old English)

33. The Histories, Volume I: Books 1–5, Laonikos Chalkokondyles (Byzantine Greek)

34. The Histories, Volume II: Books 6-10, Laonikos Chalkokondyles (Byzantine Greek)

35. On the Liturgy, Volume I: Books 1–2, Amalar of Metz (Medieval Latin)

36. On the Liturgy, Volume II: Books 3-4, Amalar of Metz (Medieval Latin)

37. Allegories of the Iliad: John Tzetzes (Byzantine Greek)

38. Poetic Works: Bernardus Silvestris (Medieval Latin)

39. Lives and Miracles:  Gregory of Tours (Medieval Latin)

40. Holy Men of Mount Athos (Byzantine Greek) 

41. On Plato's Timaeus: Calcidius (Byzantine Greek)

42. Old English Psalms (Old English)

43. The Rhetorical Exercises of Nikephoros Basilakes (Byzantine Greek)

44. The Old English History of the World (Old English)

45. Christian Novels from the Menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes (Byzantine Greek)

46. Poems: Venantius Fortunatus (Medieval Latin)

47. The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano (Byzantine Greek)

48. Carmina Burana: Volume I (Medieval Latin)

49. Carmina Burana: Volume II (Medieval Latin) 

50. The Poems of Christopher of Mytilene and John Mauropous (Byzantine Greek)

51. Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad (Medieval Latin)

52. Two Works on Trebizond: Michael Panaretos, Bessarion (Byzantine Greek)

53. Tria sunt: An Art of Poetry and Prose (Medieval Latin)

54. Saints of Ninth- and Tenth-Century Greece (Byzantine Greek)

55. Architrenius: Johannes de Hauvilla (Medieval Latin)

56. Allegories of The Odyssey: John Tzetzes (Byzantine Greek)

57. The History of the Kings of Britain: The First Variant Version (Medieval Latin)

58. Old English Lives of Saints, Volume I: Ælfric (Old English)

59. Old English Lives of Saints, Volume II: Ælfric (Old English)

60. Old English Lives of Saints, Volume III: Ælfric (Old English)

61. On Morals or Concerning Education: Theodore Metochites (Byzantine Greek)

62. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin Poems Ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages (Medieval Latin)

63. Anonymous Old English Lives of Saints (Old English)

64. Homilies: Sophronios of Jerusalem (Byzantine Greek)

65. Parisiana poetria: John of Garland (Medieval Latin)

66. Old English Legal Writings: Wulfstan (Old English)

67. The Byzantine Sinbad: Michael Andreopoulos (Byzantine Greek)

68. Fortune and Misfortune at Saint Gall: Casus sancti Galli, Ekkehard IV (Medieval Latin)

69. The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Old English/Medieval Latin)

70. The Life and Death of Theodore of Stoudios (Byzantine Greek)

71. Writings on Body and Soul: Aelred of Rievaulx (Medieval Latin)

72. The Old English Pastoral Care (Old English)

73. Animal Fables of the Courtly Mediterranean: The Eugenian Recension of Stephanites and Ichnelates (Byzantine Greek)

74. Biblical and Pastoral Poetry: Alcimus Avitus (Medieval Latin)

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Old School Book Porn: Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia, illustrated by George Cochrane

Last year, I contributed to a Kickstarter for a limited-edition illustrated edition of Dante’s most famous work, La Divina Commedia, that would feature illustrations on virtually every single page by illustrator George Cochrane.  I finally received my Anniversary Edition slipcased hardcover earlier this week and while I’m waiting until after I finish reading certain classic epic poems first, I plan on re-reading Dante, this time in the original Italian.  Thought there might be a few people who might be interested in seeing an image from this marvelously-constructed illustrated edition.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad


Regardless of one’s individual beliefs regarding one of the central tenets of Christianity, the execution via crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ, is certainly a story worthy of an epic.  There were for the much of late antiquity and the medieval period, recastings of the Passion in the form of hymns, tractates, and plays.  Yet it was not until the Italian Renaissance of the 14th-16th centuries that greater efforts were made to synthesize Christianity’s greatest story ever told with Greco-Roman dactylic hexameter epic poetry.  The exemplar of this new effort to recombine elements of Christology with themes, motifs, and narrative structures of the early Roman Empire poetry was Marco Girolamo Vida’s Christiad, first published in full in 1536 in Latin.

The Christiad borrows much from Vergil, not just the structure of poetic devices used in his Aeneid but also from the more bucolic Eclogues.  Comprised of six books, the structure of Christiad depends much less on chronological linearity as it does on the introduction of the eternal theme of struggle between the forces of God and those of Satan.  In reading Vida’s descriptions of the legions of hell, I could not help but to be struck by how influential his depictions of the demonic hordes were on Milton’s Paradise Lost, published nearly a century and a half later.  In particular, the invasion of these demons into the bodies of the leaders of the Sanhedrin is chilling in how well he uses the vitriol of Hell’s host to create a vivid contrast between the nobility of Heaven and the baseness of raging, defiled human (amplified by demonic possession) desire for dominion of vice.

This duality easily could have become too didactic to make for an enjoyable read, but Vida adroitly mixes in epic metaphors that, similar to those of Vergil or Homer in their epics, serve to create brief, beautiful asides that do not distract from narrative momentum as much as underscoring what is truly at stake.  However, there are times that the metaphors clang rather than ring out.  One such occasion was a metaphoric comparison of a mob’s clamor to that of a cannonball bursting through.  While to some degree an apt metaphor, this anachronistic description of an event set in the first century did briefly jar me out of the flow of the narrative.

The characters aren’t as well-defined as one might expect from modern literature.  While Vida mostly avoided the repetitious adjectives that Homer in particular would use to establish his warriors, his secondary characters, with the notable exception of Pontus Pilate (who here appears as much more sympathetic to Christ’s plight than he did in the Gospel accounts), are not very memorable.  Although in part necessary due to his fate as a tragic hero, Vida’s Jesus is described more through the speech of others than by any dialogue.  While this is nothing more than a minor annoyance (because the lines themselves are a pleasure to sound out in Latin), it does justify a brief note.

The narrative flows forwards and backwards in time, from Heaven to Hell to Jerusalem and back, in smooth, cascading rhythms.  Vida does an outstanding job capturing the vibe of Vergil’s works, to the point where his Latin is nearly devoid of linguistic innovations that occurred in Ecclesiastical and Medieval Latin.  His hexameters are very polished, with only rare blips like the one I noted above with the metaphor ringing false.  Reading it “aloud” in scansions makes Vida’s accomplishment all the more praiseworthy.

However, there is a latent “but” in this praise.  Vida takes traditional Greco-Latin poetic themes as far as they can go.  And yet, and this is most notable in the final Book VI, the metaphors and similes just pale in comparison to the story Vida wants to tell.  The aftermath of Book V’s crucifixion scene halters, sputters, and just collapses into an overly-extended epilogue that while it does relate the eventual triumph of Christ, it just feels anticlimactic. This reduced narrative power lessened the impact of the whole Christiad for me, moving it from being a near-equal to Milton to something slightly lesser in nature.  That being said, Christiad certainly is one of the finer neo-Latin works of the Italian Renaissance and a work that I would recommend to those who have some background in Latin to read.  For those who aren’t Latinophones, Harvard Univeristy Press’s I Tatti Renaissance Library edition of Christiad does have modern English translation that does capture much of the power of the Latin original.  It certainly is a work that is important even today, even though its influence has waned with the decline of Latin readers.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

What I am Reading: March 2022

 If I’m going to be honest to myself and this blog’s past, at least to some limited degree, it might be of interest to the few readers here what exactly it is that I am currently reading in my autumn reading renaissance (pun intended, as you shall soon see).  I have finished two books already this year and am alternating between several others, due in part to the nature of the readings I am doing.

When I began reading again for pleasure after years of barely reading, I began first by sating my years-long curiosity about literary works from the Eastern Roman/Byzantine era as well as the Italian Renaissance period.  In doing several Wikipedia searches, I discovered that Harvard University Press not only was continuing the century-long Loeb Classical Library, but had also launched three complementary lines of bilingual collections:  Dumbarton Oaks (medieval Roman/Byzantine, Old English, c. 400-1300 Medieval Latin literature); I Tatti Renaissance Library (1300-1550 Renaissance Latin works); and the Murty Classical Library of India (primarily focused on works in several Indo-Aryan works of the past five hundred years or so translated into English, many for the first time).  Out of these libraries (and the Loeb Classical Library), I began alternating poems or sections, relearning my college Latin or learning how to read (Medieval) Greek for the first time.  I found myself bouncing back and forth, enjoying the literary connections that I had begun to make between these works.

First, here are the two books I’ve completed, followed by the ones I anticipate finishing by the end of April:

1.  (Trans. by Denison B. Hull), Digenis Akritas:  The Two-Blood Border Lord (translation only, already reviewed)

2.  (Dumbarton Oaks, v. 14):  Pseudo-Methodius, Apocalypse (medieval Greek/English/Latin; Anonymous, An Alexandrian World Chronicle (6th century Latin/English translation).  I may write more about this in the coming month, if time permits.

Books I’m Currently Reading: 

Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad.  Renaissance Latin epic poetry of the Crucifixion.  Bilingual I Tatti Renaissance Library edition.

Michael Andreopoulos, The Byzantine Sinbad. 11th century Greek version of a pan-Levantine series of tales similar to and yet distinct from The Thousand and One Nights.  Bilingual Dumbarton Oaks edition.

Various, Carmina Burana.  12th and 13th century secular Latin poetry collected from a single surviving manuscript.  Dumbarton Oaks bilingual edition.

Ludovico Ariosto, Latin Poetry.  The 15th/16th century Latin poems that the author of Orlando Furioso had written over the course of his life.  Bilingual I Tatti Renaissance Library edition.

Vergil, Aeneid:  Books I-VI.  The Loeb Classical Library bilingual Latin/English edition.  I’m re-reading Vergil in Latin in preparation for reading an “extension” that was written by Mateo Vegio that’s found in his Short Epics I Tatti Renaissance Library bilingual edition.

I am also working my way slowly through textbooks teaching me the basics of Old English, Old French, and Old Occitan.  Just in the mood these days for discovering these “other” classics and perhaps being one more generational link in the discussion and preservation of these millennium-old works.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Digenis Akritas: The Two-Blood Border Lord (trans. Denison B. Hull)


Praises, trophies, and an ode
To thrice-blest Basil, the Border Lord,
A man most noble and most brave,
Whose strength was a gift to him from God.
He overcame all Syria,
Babylon and all Charziané,
Armenia and Cappadocia,
Amorium and Iconium,
And that great famous castle too,
Though mighty and well fortified,
I mean Ancyra – all of Smyrna,
And conquered lands beside the sea.

Now I’ll disclose to you the deeds 
Which he accomplished in this life:
How he filled valiant fighting men
As well as all the beasts with awe,
Having as help the grace of God,
God’s Mother, the indomitable,
The angels and archangels too,
And the victorious great martyrs,
Both the all-glorious Theodores,
The army leader and recruit.
And noble George of many labors
The miracle-working martyrs’ martyr
Sublime Demetrius, the patron
Of Basil, and the boast and pride
Of him who vanquished all his foes,
The Hagarenes and Ishmaelites
And barbarous Scyths who rage like dogs. (pp. 3-4)

It is almost impossible to begin a discussion of Digenis Akritas without first laying out what it is and what is is not:  It is not an “epic” of the style of Homer and Vergil, although the main character of Basil, the titular two-blood border lord, most certainly possesses epic heroic traits; it had a multi-generational gestation period, derived largely from ninth and tenth century events that were interwoven and mutated over generations of folk tales into the forms it reached when the tales of Basil began to be written down in the last centuries of the Roman/Byzantine Empire; it is a simple tale, or perhaps it’s better to argue that it is rooted more deeply in popular motifs than were the simile-ridden epics of the early Empire period.  Digenis Akritas is perhaps best viewed as sui generis, combining the profound Orthodox beliefs of the people with tales of heroism on the borders of the Empire as it struggled to maintain a firm border in the Tarsus Mountains of Asia Minor against Arab raids for over two centuries after the capture of Jerusalem from the Romans.

Digenis Akritas, like most of its contemporaries, existed for centuries in various forms before being published in Western European vernaculars in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In his Introduction, translator/editor Denison B. Hall discusses in depth the histories of six different Greek texts and one Slavonic text that each captured snippets of Basil’s (and his father, the Emir, before him).  Hall chose to use the Grottaferrata version, discovered in a Greek rite monastery of Grottaferrata near Frascati, Italy in 1879, as the core of this English translation, as it contains the clearest tale of Basil and his father before him from beginning to end.

At first glance, Digenis Akritas is an odd poem.  Unlike the classical epics that begin in media res or like modern stories that begin with the protagonist, this poem devotes the first three of the eight books of the Grottaferrata version to his father, the Emir, and how he came to bring his 12,000 strong soldiers over to the side of the Romans, as well as his conversion to Christianity and further adventures before and just after his son Basil was born. While this might at first glance seem to be grounds for a disjointed and uneven tale, a further examination reveals that the first parts are just as integral to the overall poem as those books devoted to our titular hero.  Recall that Digenis Akritas is in origin a collection of folk tales about the borderlands of the 9th and 10th centuries and that with the spread of these tales, more and more elements were grafted onto the core historical events and personages.  The end result is a poem in which the first three books foreshadow the events of Basil’s time on the eastern frontier, creating a sort of doubling effect that does not confuse the reader as much as provide a reinforcement of thematic elements throughout the entire poem.

The anonymous composer(s) of Digenis Akritas did not employ the dactylic hexameters of classical Greco-Roman epic poetry, but rather utilized a fifteen-syllable “political verse” that depended more on a pattern of unstressed-stressed-unstressed syllables to create a strong, flowing rhythm that did not depend upon rhyme.  The English near-equivalent is ten-syllable verse, which Hull uses to create a fast-paced flow to the poem.  The result is an energetic poem that swiftly flows from metaphor to action and back in a matter of a score of lines.  In addition, the religious elements, namely the complementary nature of heroism and faith, are clear and concise.  Digenis Akritas was intended both to entertain and to reinforce Christian morals and for the most part, it succeeds at blending these two seemingly disparate elements into a whole.

I alluded to the difficulties in categorizing Digenis Akritas above, but it is worth repeating that the value one may find in this poem lies in understanding what it is and what it isn’t.  If you read it expecting motifs and strong similarities to Homer or Vergil, for example, you will be disappointed that it is something else. However, if read as what is possesses in its own right, an entertaining and concise series of tales welded together with few seams exposed, Digenis Akritas certainly is an excellent tale and perhaps is one of the better fictions to emerge from the medieval Roman/Byzantine period.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Praise, Trophies, and an Ode: Rediscovering My Love for the Classics

 For nearly five years, I have read fewer than 10 books a year.  I have ever-expanding job duties now, I completed two ultramarathons (abandoned other at 36.3/50 miles), along with six marathons, before a broken left ankle and grade III ligament tear there shelved me before the pandemic delayed matters still.  If anything, the two-year pandemic left me with even less free time, as I work in the educational wing of a mental healthcare facility.  At one point, I sold or boxed up nearly 80% of my books.  It seemed like reading fiction was in the past.

And yet my love for it never truly went away.  If I had a spare 15 minutes or so, I might scour Wikipedia or Quora or other online forums for information on historical periods/regions I didn't study in depth when I earned my BA and MA in History.  Of particular interest was the later Roman Empire, that which managed to survive until the mid-15th century.  Posthumously called the Byzantine Empire, I had read a few books on it, including John Julius Norwich's popular history.  Yet I found myself every now and then wanting to know more.  What was its literature like?  I found myself distrustful of Gibbons' view of it being decadent and pale imitator of its past.

So I finally did some research into medieval Roman literature and I discovered quite an interesting epic, Digenis Akritas.  Originally a series of related oral poems, by the 12th century it had been transformed into a written epic poem, albeit one with no single authorship and with surviving manuscripts that diverge quite a bit in certain particulars.  I plan on reviewing it in the near future, but for now it will suffice to say that its theme (solitary hero of mixed ethnic background guarding the Euphrates border of the Empire against Arab raids) captured my attention.

From there, I went on a bit of a spending spree and I started to buy volumes from these Harvard University Press series:  Loeb Classical Library (pre-500 AD bilingual Greek and Latin texts); Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (500-1400 Medieval Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon texts); and the I Tatti Renaissance Library.  Although I haven't focused as much on this material during the 2004-2016 period of reviews here, I did take two years of Latin in college and have maintained some fluency in reading the text.  My Greek is negligible at the moment, although I know enough from excerpts in Latin texts to compare it to the English translation and work out the meanings of a few hundred words already.

I chose to return to these languages not because of a sense of cultural superiority, but rather because for a long while I've had this nagging feeling that there is a lot of cultural wealth that is endangered of being lost to irrelevancy.  Before this past month, I was ignorant of the fact that was a Neo-Latin epic poem, the Christiad by Marco Girolamo Vida, that retells the Gospels in hexameter verses of high quality.  Nor was I aware of the late 7th century Greek text, Apocalypse, attributed to Pseudo-Methodius, that perhaps is one of the most influential apocalyptic texts after the New Testament canon had been established over two centuries before.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I suspect that over the next couple of months, usually for an hour or so before bedtime or maybe a couple of hours on weekends, I will work my way through a dozen or more of these texts and commentaries, filling in gaps in my knowledge and giving myself things to consider when it comes to form and topic.  There likely will be some reviews to be written of these works, because I believe it's more important that I write a commentaries on what can be gleaned from these works than marveling over Kickstarter records for authors (not demeaning, just noting that it's not as important in the long run) or commenting on casting choices for TV and movie adaptations of certain novels.  While I might address those topics too in the future, I think for now I'm going to focus on what intrigues me more.

Hopefully, there will be a few of you along for the ride.  It's been too long.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Under (De)Construction…

 Not making any firm declarations just yet (I have a few work projects to complete this month first), but I am beginning to feel the urge to write commentaries and perhaps reviews after nearly five years of near-total silence.  I’m not expecting many (or any, really) to notice if/when I do, but I think it may be something that may act as a positive outlet for me.

We’ll see.  After all, I’m not exactly a spring chicken and in the era of Instagram and GoodReads, I may just be a proverbial dinosaur…

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