Latin Literature in Christianity (Sixth to TwentiethCentury)
FREE Catholic Classes
During the Middle Ages the so-called church Latin was to a great extent the language of poetry, and it was only on the advent of the Renaissance that classical Latin revived and flourished in the writings of the neo-Latinists as it does even today though to a more modest extent. To present to the reader an account of Latin poetry in a manner at once methodical and clear is not an easy task; a strict adherence to chronology interferes with clearness of treatment, and an arrangement according to the different kinds of poetry would demand a repeated handling of some of the poets. However, the latter method is preferable because it enables us to trace the historical development of this literature.
A. The Latin Drama
Both in its inception and its subsequent development Latin dramatic poetry displays a peculiar character. "In no domain of literature", says W. Creizenach in the opening sentence of his well-known work on the history of the drama "do the Middle Ages show so complete a suspension of the tradition of classical antiquity as in the drama." Terence was indeed read and taught in the schools of the Middle Ages, but the true dramatic art of the Roman poet was misunderstood. Nowhere do we find evidence that any of his comedies were placed on the stage in schools or elsewhere; for this an adequate conception of classical stagecraft was wanting. The very knowledge of the metres of Terence was lost in the Middle Ages, and, just as the difference between comedy and tragedy was misunderstood, so also the difference between these and other kinds of poetical composition was no longer understood. It is thus clear why we can speak of imitations of the Roman metre only in rare and completely isolated cases, for example, in the case of the nun Hroswitha of Gandersheim in the tenth century. But even she shared the mistaken views of her age concerning the comedies of Terence, having no idea that these works were written for the stage nor indeed any conception of the dramatic art. Her imitations therefore can be regarded only as literary dramas on spiritual subjects, which exercised no influence whatever on the subsequent development of the drama. Two centuries later we find an example of how Plautus fared at the hands of his poetical imitators. The fact that, like Seneca, Plautus is scarcely ever mentioned among the school-texts of the Middle Ages makes it easier to understand how at the close of the twelfth century Vitalis of Blois came to recast the "Amphitruo" and the "Querulus", a later sequel to the "Aulularia", into satirical epic poems.
Help Now >
That the drama might therefore never have developed in the Middle Ages were it not for the effective stimulus supplied by the ecclesiastical liturgy is quite conceivable. Liturgy began by assuming more solemn forms and finally gave rise to the religious drama which was at first naturally composed in the liturgical Latin language, but subsequently degenerated into a mixture of Latin and the vernacular until it finally assumed an entirely vernacular form. The origin of the drama may be traced to the so-called Easter celebrations which came into life when the strictly ecclesiastical liturgy as developed into a dramatic scene by the introduction of hymns and sequences in a dialogue form. A further step in the development was reached when narration in John, xx, 4 sqq., was translated into action and the Apostles Peter and John were represented as hastening to the tomb of the risen Saviour. This form appears in a Paschal celebration at St. Lambrecht and another at Augsburg, both dating back to the twelfth century. This expansion of the Easter celebration by the introduction of scenes participated in by the Apostles spread from Germany over Holland and Italy, but seems to have found a less sympathetic reception in France. The third and final step in the development of the Easter celebrations was the inclusion of the apparition of the risen Christ. Among others a Nuremberg antiphonary of the thirteenth century contains all three scenes, joined together so as to give unity of action, thus possessing the character of a little drama. Of such Paschal celebrations, which still formed a part of the ecclesiastical liturgy, 224 have been already discovered: 159 in Germany, 52 in France, and the remainder in Italy, Spain, and Holland. The taste for dramatic representations, awakened in the people by the Easter celebrations, was fostered by the clergy, and by bringing out the human side of such characters as Pilate, Judas, the Jews, and the soldiers, a true drama was gradually created.
That the Easter plays were originally composed in Latin is proved by numerous still existing examples, such as those of "Benediktbeuren", "Klosterneuburg", and the "Mystery of Tours "; gradually, however, passages in the vernacular were introduced, and finally this alone was made use of. Passion-plays were first produced in connection with the Easter plays but soon developed into independent dramas, generally in the mother-tongue. As late as 1537 the passion-play "Christus Xylonicus" was written in Latin by Barthélemy de Loches of Orléans. As the Easter plays developed from the Easter celebrations, so Christmas plays developed from the ecclesiastical celebrations at Christmas. In these the preparatory season of Advent also was symbolized in the predictions of the Prophets. Similarly the plays of the Three Kings originated in connection with the Feast of the Epiphany ; there the person of Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents are the materials for a very effective drama. It was but natural that all the plays dealing with the Christmas season should be brought together into a connected whole or cycle, beginning with the play of the Shepherds, continuing in that of the Three Kings, and ending with the Massacre of the Innocents. That this combination of plays actually existed we have abundant manuscript evidence, particularly famous is the Freising cycle.
The transition to the so-called eschatological plays -- the climax of the history of the Redemption -- was easy. Two such plays enjoy a special celebrity, "The Wise and Foolish Virgins ", which appeared in France in the twelfth century, and "The Appearance and Disappearance of Antichrist, written by a German poet about 1160. The latter, which is also entitled "The Roman Emperor of the German Nation and Antichrist ", has also been regarded as an Easter play, because the arrival of Antichrist was expected at Easter. The second title agrees better with the contents of the play. The poet, who must have been a learned scholar, drew his inspiration from the politico-religious constitution of the Roman Empire as it existed in the golden period of Frederick Barbarossa, and from the Crusades. This ambitious play with its minute directions for representation is divided into two main actions -- the realization of a Christian world empire under the German nation, and the doings of Antichrist and his final overthrow by the Kingdom of Christ. The unity and conception of the two parts is indicated by the fact that the nations appearing in the first part suggest to the spectator what will be their attitude toward Antichrist. The drama was intended to convey the impression that the German people alone could fulfil the world-wide office of the Roman Empire and that the Church needed such a protector.
The extension of the ecclesiastical plays by the introduction of purely worldly elements led gradually to the disappearance of spiritual influence, the decay of which may also be gathered from the gradual adoption of the vernacular for these plays. While the first bloom of the neo-Latin drama is thus attributable to the influence of the Church, its second era of prosperity was purely secular in character and began with the labours of the so-called Humanists in Italy, who called into life the literary drama. Numerous as they were, we do not meet with a single genuine dramatist among them; still many sporadic attempts at play-writing were made by them. The pagan classics were naturally adopted as model -- Seneca for tragedy as is shown b the plays of Mussato, Loschi, or Dati, and especially the "Progne" of Corraro. On the other hand Plautus and Terence found more numerous imitators, whose works did not degenerate into ribaldry, as is seen from the attempts of Poggio, Beccadelli, Bruni, Fidelfo, etc. These humanistic attempts attained a measure of success in the school drama. A beginning was made with the production of the ancient dramas in the original text; such productions were introduced into the curriculum of the Liège school of the Hieronomites and they are occasionally mentioned at Vienna, Rostock, and Louvain. A permanent school-stage was erected in Strasburg by the Protestant rector John Stunn, who wished that "all the comedies of Plautus and Terence should be produced if possible, within half a year."
The second step in the development was the imitation of the classical drama, which may be traced to Wimpfeling's "Stylpho"; produced for the first time at Heidelberg in 1470, this play was still produced in 1505, a proof of its great popularity. A glorification and defence of classical studies was found in the comedy of "Codrus" by Kerkmeister, master of the Münster grammar school. The contrast between humanistic studies and medieval methods, which does not come into prominence in Wimpfeling's "Stylpho", forms here the main theme. Into the same category falls a comedy by Bebel, demonstrating the superiority of humanistic culture over medieval learning. Into these plays important current events are introduced, such as the war of Charles VII against Naples, the Turkish peril, the political situation after the Battle of Guinegate (1513), etc. The best-known of these dialogue writers were Jacob Locher, Johann von Kitzcher, and Hetwann Schottenius Hessus.
Another hybrid class of drama was the allegorical festival plays, which were fitted out as show-pieces after the fashion of the Italian mask comedies. A brilliant example of this class is the "Ludus Diana" in which Conrad Celtes (1501) panagyrizes the pre-eminence of the emperor in the chase. Similar to that of the festival plays was the development of the so-called moralities in the Netherlands schools of rhetoric. These represented the strife between the good and the bad principles ( virtus et voluptas ) for the soul of man, e.g., Locher's Spectaculum de judicio Paridis" or the well-known dramatized version of the "Choice of Hercules . Side by side with these semi-dramatic plays proceeded the attempts to follow more closely the ancient dramatic form in the school drama with its varied contents. Reuchlin with his three-act comedy, which treats as subject the wonderful skull of Sergius may be regarded as the real founder of the school drama. With "Henno, his second and still more famous drama, the humanistic comedy became naturalized in Germany. The great master of this art is unquestionably George Macropedius (i.e., Langhveldt) with his three farces "Aluta (1535), Andriska" ( 1537), and "Bassarus" (1540). A further development led to the religious school drama, which generally drew its subject-matter from Holy Writ . To further his own objects Luther had counselled the dramatization of Biblical subjects, and tales from the Bible were thus by free treatment of the incidents made to mirror the conditions of the time while containing occasional satirical sallies. Among the numerous writers of this class must be mentioned before all as the pioneer, the Netherlander Wilhelm Graphäus (Willem van de Voltldergroft), who became a Protestant : his much-discussed Acolastus" (the story of the prodigal son), which follows the Protestant tendency of representing the uselessness of good works and justification by faith alone, was reprinted at least forty-seven times in various countries between 1529 and 1585, frequently translated, and produced everywhere.
This species of drama was cultivated by the Catholics also, who introduced greater variety of subject matter by including lives of the saints. Thus Cornelius Crocus wrote a "St. Joseph in Egypt ", Petrus Papeus "[ Good?] Samaritan ", and George Holonius several martyr-plays. The founder of the school drama in Germany was Sixt Birk (Xistus Betulius): his "Susanna", "Judith", and "Eva" have primarily an educative aim, but are coupled with Protestant tendencies. His example was followed by a fair number of imitators: by George Buchanan (1582), a Scotchman, wrote "Jephthe" and "Baptistes" and the bellicose Naogeorgus treats with still more bitterness the differences between Catholics and Protestants in his "Hamanus", "Jeremias", and "Judas Iscariot". Among the polemical dramatists on the Catholic side Cornelius Laurimanus and Andreas Fabricius must be mentioned.
Although the number of the Biblical school dramas was not small, it was far surpassed by the number of the moralities. As has been said, these originated in the Netherlands and it was the Maastricht priest Christian Ischyrius (Sterck), who freely adapted the famous English morality "Everyman". This is the dramatized and widely circulated Ars moriendi and represents the importance of a good preparation for death. The same subject in a somewhat more detailed form is treated by Macropedius in his "Hecastus" (1538). The conclusion of the drama is an exposition of justification by faith in the merits of Christ. This inclination of the Catholic poet towards Luther's teaching found great applause among Protestants, and fostered the development of polemico-satirical sectarian plays, as Naogeorgus's "Mercator" (1539) shows. The Catholic standpoint also found its exposition in the moralities, for example in the Miles Christianus" of Laurimanus (1575), the "Euripus" of the Minorite Levin Brecht, the Pornius" of Hannardus Gamerius the "Evangelicus fluctuans" (1569) of Andreas Fabricius, who had composed his "Religio patiens" three years earlier in the service of the Counter-Reformation. Still more bitter now grew the polemics in the dramas, which borrowed their material from contemporary history. The most notorious of this class is the "Pamachius" of the pope hater Thomas Naogeorgus, who found many imitators.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century materials derived from ancient popular legends and history first came into greater vogue, and gradually led to the Latin historical drama, of which we find numerous examples at the famous representations given at the Strasburg academy under its founder Sturm. This example found ready imitation, especially wherever the influence of the English comedy-writers had made itself felt. In this way Latin drama enjoyed a period of prosperity everywhere until the seventeenth century. The best known dramatic poet of the latter half of the sixteenth century was the unfortunate Nicodemus Frischlin. Examples of every kind of school drama may be found among his works: "Dido" (1581), "Venus" (1584), and "Helvetiogermani" (1588), owe their subjects to the ancient classical period; "Rebecca" (1576), "Susanna (1577), his incomplete Christianized drama of "Ruth", after the manner of Terence, the "Marriage of Cana ", and a Prologue to Joseph" treat Biblical topics; German legend is represented by Hildegardis" the wife of Charlemagne, whose fate is copied from that of St. Geneviève; of a polemico-satirical nature are Priscianus vapulans (1578), a mockery of medieval Latin, and Phasma (1580), in which the sectarian spirit of the age is scourged. A play of an entirely original character is his Julius redivivus": Cicero and Caesar ascend from the lower world to Germany, and express their wonder at German discoveries (gunpowder, printing). All these attempts at a Latin school drama, in so far as they served educational purposes, were most zealously welcomed in the schools of the regular orders (especially those of the Jesuits ), and cultivated with great success. Thus the purely external side of the dramatic art developed from the crudest of beginnings to the brilliant settings of the so-called ludi caesarii . With the suppression of the Society of Jesus the school drama came to a rapid end, and no serious attempt has been since made to revive it and restore it to its former position. However from time to time new plays have been produced both in Europe and America, and the " St. John Damascene ", written by Father Harzheim of the Society of Jesus is worthy to take its place among the best productions of the Jesuit dramatists.
B. Latin Lyrical Poetry
This division of Latin poetry falls naturally into two classes: secular and religious. The former includes the poems of itinerant scholars and the Humanists, the latter hymnody. The development of vagrant scholars ( clerici vagi ) is connected with the foundation of the universities, as students wandered about to visit these newly founded institutions of learning. From the middle of the twelfth century imperial privileges protected these traveling scholars. The majority intended to devote themselves to theology, but comparatively few reached orders. The remainder found their callings as amanuenses or tutors in noble families, or degenerated into loose-living goliards or into wandering scholars who became a veritable plague during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. as they wandered, begging, from place to place, demanded hospitality in monasteries and castles and like the wandering minstrels paid with their songs, jugglery, buffoonery, and tales. Proud of their scholarly attainments, they used Latin in their poetical compositions. and thus arose a special literature, the goliardic poetry. Of this two great collections are still extant, the "Benediktbeuren" collection and the so-called Harleian manuscript (no. 978) at Cambridge. The arrangement of "Carmina burana", as the first publisher, Schmeller, named them, was upon a uniform plan, according to which they were divided into serious comic, and dramatic pieces. Songs celebrate the spring and the winter, in which sentiments of love also find expression, follow one another in great variety. Together with these are pious hymns of enthusiasm for the Crusades or of praise for the Blessed Virgin. We also find the most riotous drinking-songs, often of a loose, erotic nature, nor are diatribes of a satirical nature wanting: these soured and dissolute, though educated, tramps delighted especially in lampoons against the pope, bishops. and nobles, inveighing with bitter sarcasm against the avarice, ambition and incontinence of the clergy. In this Professor Schönbach sees the influence of the Catharists.
Concerning the composers of this extensive literature nothing can be stated with certainty. The poems were in a certain sense regarded as folk-songs, that is as common property and international in the full sense of the word. Some representative poets are indeed mentioned, e.g., Golias, Primas, Archipoeta, but these are merely assumed names. Particularly famous among the poems is the "Confessio Goliae" which was referred to the Archipoeta, and may be regarded as the prototype of the goliardic songs: strophes 12-17 ( Meum est propositam in taberna mori ) are even today sung as a drinking-song in German student circles. The identity of the Archipoeta has been the subject of much investigation, but so far without success. Paris was an important centre of these itinerant poets, particularly in the time of Abelard (1079-1142), and it was probably thence that they derived the name of goliards, Abelard having been called Golias by St. Bernard. From Paris their poetry passed to England and Germany, but in Italy it found little favour. At a later period, when the goliardic songs had become known everywhere, the origin of their title appears to have grown obscure, and thus emerged a Bishop Golias -- a name referred to the Latin gula -- to whom a parody on the Apocalypse and biting satires on the pope were ascribed. There even appeared poets as filius or puer or discipulus de familia Goliae , and frequent mention is made of a goliardic order with the titles of abbot, prior, etc. Apart from their satirical attitude towards ecclesiastical life, the goliards showed their free and at times heretical views in their parodies of religious hymns, their irreverence in adapting ecclesiastical melodies to secular texts. and their use of metaphors and expressions from church hymns in their loose verses.
In outward form the poetry of the goliards resembled the ecclesiastical sequences, rhyme being combined with an easily sung rhythm and the verses being joined into strophes. Singularly rapid in its development, its decay was no less sudden. The cause of its decline is traceable partly to the conditions of the time and partly to the character of the goliardic poets. In a burlesque edict of 1265 the goliards were compared to bats -- neither quadrupeds nor birds. This was indeed a not inapt comparison, for their unfortunate begging rendered them odious to clergy and laity alike. Forgetting their higher educational parts, they found it necessary to ally themselves more and more closely with the strolling players and thus became subject to the ecclesiastical censures repeatedly decreed by synods and councils against these wandering musicians. Thus, regarded virtually as outlaws, they are heard of no more in France after the thirteenth century, although then are referred to in the synods of Germany until the following century. Together with the poets gradually disappeared their songs, and only a few are preserved in the Kommersbücher of the student world. Yet the influence of their poetry on the secular German lyric, and perhaps also on the outer form of religious poetry, was both stimulating and permanent. In this fact lies their principal literary importance and they are valuable as illustrations of the literary culture of the time.
Quite distinct in subject and form is the lyric poetry of the humanistic period, the era of the revival of classical learning. The work of a few scattered poets, it could not attain the popularity won by the goliardic poetry, even had its form not been exclusively imitation of ancient classical versification. From the beginning of the sixteenth century the Catholic humanist, Vida, had been engaged among other works on the composition of odes, elegies, and hymns : he belonged to the poetae urbani of the Medici period of Leo X, many of whom wrote lyrical, in addition to their epical, pieces. Johannes Dantiscus, who died in 1548 as Bishop of Ermland, composed thirty religious hymns after the fashion of the older ones in the Breviary, without any trace of classical imitation. Even the renowned Nicolaus Copernicus composed seven odes embodying the beautiful Christian truths associated with Advent and Christmas. Among the Humanists of France, John Salmon (Salmonius Macrinus) was named the French Horace, and among the numerous other names those of Erixius with his "Carmina" (1519) and Théodore de Bèze with his "Poemata" (1548) deserve special mention. In Belgium and the Netherlands Johannes Secundus (Jan Nicolai Everaerts, d. 1536) was conspicuous as a classical poet. From Holland Latin poetry found an entrance also into the Northern Empire under the patronage of Queen Christina, while even Iceland had its representative in the Protestant Bishop Sveinsson (1605-74), who among other works published a rich collection of poems to the Blessed Virgin in the most varied ancient classical metres.
FREE Catholic Classes Pick a class, you can learn anything
As in the domain of drama, so also in that of lyrical poetry, Humanism showed itself most fruitful in Germany, particularly in connection with the dissemination of the new doctrine of Luther. "Thus among the neo-Latinist poets we meet a large number of preachers, school-rectors, university and grammar school professors who translated the Psalms into Horatian metres, converted ecclesiastical and edifying songs of every type into the most divine ancient strophes, and finally, an immeasurable number of occasional poems, celebrated in verse princes and potentates, religious and secular festivals, the consecration of churches, christenings, marriage, interments, installations, occasions of public rejoicing and calamity" (Baumgartner). The Jesuits were as distinguished for their fruitful activity in the field of lyrical poetry as in the school drama. With Sarbiewski, the Polish Horace, were associated by Urban VIII for the revision of the old hymn in the Breviary Famian Strada, Tarquinius Galuzzi, Hieronymus Petrucci and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. In addition to Balde there were among the German Jesuit poets a notable number of lyricists. Of the many names we may mention Jacob Masen, Nicola Avancini, Adam Widl, and John Bissel, who must be numbered among the best-known imitators of Horace. In the Netherlands, France, Italy, England, Portugal and Spain, their number was not smaller, nor their achievements of less value. For example the Dutch Hosschius ( de Hossche, 1596-1669) excels both Balde and Sarbiewski in purity of language and smoothness of verse. Simon Rettenbacher (163-1706), the Benedictine imitator of Balde, whose lyrics show a true poetic gift, also deserves a place among the neo-Latinist writers of odes. The nineteenth century added but one name to the list of Latin lyricists, that of Leo XIII, whose poems evince an intimate knowledge of ancient classical literature. The other trend of neo-Latinist lyric poetry embraces religious hymnody. "The whole career of ecclesiastical and devotional hymnody from its cradle to the present day may be divided into three natural periods, of which the first is the most important, the second the longest and the third the most insignificant." Such is the division of Latin ecclesiastical hymnody given by the greatest authority, the late Father Guido Dreves formerly a member of the Society of Jesus.
C. The neo-Latin Epic
The epic forms, as is natural, the largest part of our inheritance of Christian Latin poetry. As a lucid treatment according to any regular division of the subject-matter is difficult, we shall content ourselves with a chronological sketch of it. The foundation of the Benedictine Order was in every respect an event of prime importance. The Benedictines advanced the interests of culture, not only to supply the needs of life, but also to embellish it. Thus among the earliest companions of St. Benedict we already find a poet, Marcus of Monte Cassino, who in his distich sang the praises of the deceased founder of his order. During the sixth century, while the foundations of a rich literature were being thus laid the culture formerly so flourishing in Northern Africa had almost died out. The imperial governor, Flavius Cresconius Corippus, and Bishop Verecundus were still regarded as poets of some merit : but the former lacked poetic inspiration, the latter, poetic form. Among the Visigoths in Spain, however, we find true poets, e.g., St. Eugenius II with his version of the Hexaemeron. In Gaul in the sixth century flourished the most celebrated poet of his age, Venantius Fortunatus. Most original is his "Epithalamium" on the marriage of Sigebert I of Austrasia to the Visigothic princess Brunehaut, Christian thought being clothed in ancient mythological forms. About 250 more or less extensive poems of Venantius are extant, including a "Life of St. Martin" in more than two thousand hexameter verses. Most of his composition are occasional poems. In addition to his well-known hymns "Vexilla regis" and "Pange lingua", his elegies treating of the tragical fate of the family of Radegundis found the greatest appreciation. About the same period there sprang up in the British Isles a rich harvest of Latin culture One of the most eminent poets is St. Aldhelm, a scion of the royal house of Wessex: his great work "De laudibus virginum", containing 3000 verses, attained a wide renown which it long enjoyed. The Venerable Bede also cultivated Latin poetry, writing a eulogy of St. Cuthbert in 976 hexameters.
Ireland transmitted the true Faith, together with higher culture, to Germany. The earliest pioneers were Saints Columbanus and Gall: the former is credited with some poems, the latter founded Saint-Gall. The real apostle of Germany, St. Boniface , left behind some hundreds of didactic verses. The seeds sown by this saint flourished and spread under the energetic Charlemagne, who succeeded without neglecting his extensive affairs of state, in making his Court a Round Table of Science and Art, at which Latin was the colloquial speech. The soul of this learned circle was Alcuin, who showed his knowledge of classical antiquity in two great epic poems, the "Life of St. Willibrord " and the history of his native York. In command of language and skill of versification as well as in the number of poems transmitted to posterity, Theodulf the Goth surpassed all members of the Round Table. Movements similar to that at Charlemagne's Court are observed in the contemporary monastic schools of Fulda, Reichenau, and Saint-Gall. It will suffice to mention a few of the chief names from the multitude of poets. Walafrid Strabo's "De visionibus Wettini", containing about 1000 hexameters, is justly regarded as the precursor of Dante's "Divine Comedy". His verses on the equestrian statue of Theodoric, "Versus de imagine tetrici", are of literary importance, because he represents the king as a tyrant hating God and man. Highly interesting also for the art of gardening is his great poem "Hortulus", in which he describes the monastery garden with its various herbs, etc. Contemporary with Walafrid and characterized by the same spirit were the poets Ernoldas, Nigellus, Ermenrich, Sedulius Scottus, etc. As a "real gem from the treasury of old manuscripts " F. Rückert describes the elegy on Hathumod, the first Abbess of Gandersheim written by the Benedictine Father Agius. From the same monk of Corwey we have the poem "On the translation of St. Liborius" and a poetical biography of Charlemagne. A peculiar work was written by Albert Odo of Cluny under the title "Occupatio": it is an epico-didactic poem against pride and debauchery, which he demonstrates to be the chief vices in the history of the world.
The golden age of Saint-Gall begins with the end of the ninth century, after which opens the epoch of the four famous Notkers and the five not less renowned Ekkehards. The first Ekkehard is the author of the well-known "Waltharius" which Ekkehard IV revised. About the time when the "Waltharius" was revised, there appeared another epic poem "Ruodlieb" -- a romance in Latin hexameters by an unknown author, describing the adventurous fate of the hero -- which is unfortunately only partly extant. The name of the poet who in 1175 composed in Latin hexameters the first "animal" epic, "Ecbasis cuius dam captivi per tropologiam", is also unknown. The frame-work of the poem is the story of a monk mho runs away from the monastery but is brought back again under the form of a calf. The "Fable of the Bees" forms the "animal" epic in which the enmity of the wolf and fox is the central point. In the twelfth century this "animal" epic received an extension probably from Magister Nivardus of Flanders under the title "Ysengrimus" or "Renardus vulpes": from the poem thus extended an extract was made later and this is the last product of the animal" epic in the thirteenth century. Like Charlemagne Otto the Great (936-73) sought to make his Court the centre of science, art, and literature. The most brilliant representative of this period is the nun Hroswitha, pupil of the emperor's niece Gerberga. It was in the epic that she achieved her first poetic successes: these were her well-known "Legends", which were followed by two long epic poems in praise of the imperial house (see HROSWITHA) .
The chroniclers and historians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but seldom use verse in their narratives, their stories being intended above all else for strictly historical purposes. Histories in verse however, were not wanting. Thus Flodoard records in legendary fashion almost the whole ecclesiastical history of the first ten centuries. Walter of Speyer wrote during the same period the first Legend of St. Christopher ", and an unknown poet composed "The Epic of the Saxon War" (of Henry IV ). Other poets wrote on the Crusades, Walter of Châtillon even ventured on an "Alexandreis", while Hildebert produced a "Historia Mahumetis" in verse.
The Humanists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are characterized by a closer approach to ancient classical form. Marbod (d. 1123) was a scholarly poet, and left behind a considerable number of legends and didactic aphorisms. His younger contemporary Hildebert of Tours also wrote a fair number of religious poems: more important are the two "Roman Elegies", in which he treats of the remains of ancient Rome and the sufferings of the papal capital under Paschal II. Most artistic in its conception and execution, is his fragment "Liber mathematicus", in which the tragical complications caused by the superstitious fear arising from an unfavourable horoscope are depicted. That the medieval Scholastics could combine theological knowledge with humanistic culture may be seen from the works of the two scholars John of Salisbury and Alanus de Insulis. That the influence of this humanistic culture was unfortunately not always for good, the notorious prurient narratives of Matthew of Vendôme prove. In the days of the goliards there were also poets who depicted in verse contemporary events. Thus the achievements of Barbarossa were sung by no less than three poets.
Humanism attained its full bloom in the era of the Renaissance, which began in Italy. Dante gives strong evidence of this movement, as does even more strongly Francesco Petrarch, whose epic "Africa" enjoyed wide renown. Giovanni Boccaccio , a contemporary of the preceding, belongs rather to Italian literature, although he also cultivated Latin poetry. The humanistic movement found favourable reception and encouragement everywhere. In Florence there sprang up about the Augustinian monk, Luigi Marsigli (d. 1394), a kind of literary academy for the cultivation of ancient literature while in the following century the city of the Medici developed into the literary centre of all Italy. Most representatives of the new movement preserved their close connection with the Church, although a few isolated forerunners of the great revolt of the sixteenth century already made their appearance. The seeds of this religious revolution were sown by the lampoons and libidinous poems of such men as Poggio Bracciolini, Antonio Beccadelli and Lorenzo Valla. Maffeo Vegio on the other hand followed the purely humanistic direction of the true Renaissance ; he added a thirteenth book to Virgil's "Aeneid", making the poem conclude with the death of Aeneas. He also composed poetic versions of the "Death of Astyanax" and "The Golden Fleece", and still later composed a "Life of St. Anthony. An epic eulogizing the elder Hunyadi was begun by the Hungarian Janus Pannonius, but unfortunately left unfinished. A legendary poem of an entirely original character is the "Josephina", written in twelve cantos by John Gerson, the learned chancellor of the University of Paris . It reminds us of a similar poem by Hroswitha, though the apocryphal narratives taken from the so-called Gospel of St. James are marked by greater depth. Humanism was planted in Germany by Petrarch during his residence there as ambassador to Charles IV, with whom he corresponded after his departure. The interest in humanistic studies was also spread by Aeneas Silvius at the Council of Basle.
As in Italy, the movement rapidly developed everywhere, evincing at first a religious tendency but afterwards becoming hostile to the Church. In the century preceding the "Reformation", indeed, the foremost representatives of Humanism remained true to the ancient Faith. Conrad Celtes, although his four Books of "Amores" are a reflection of his dissolute life sang later of Catholic truths and the lives of the saints. Similarly Willibald Pirkheimer (d. 1528) among many others, notwithstanding his satire "Eccius desolatus", remained faithful to the Church. On the other hand Esoban Hessus, Crotus Rubeanus , and above all Ulrich von Hutten espoused the cause of the new doctrine in their highly satirical writings. A somewhat protean character was displayed by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, whose early works include hymns to Christ and the Virgin Mary. "Laus stultitia", a satire on all the estates after the fashion of Brant's "Narrenschiff", was written in seven day to cheer his sick friend, Thomas More. In England especially at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the humanistic movement developed along the same lines as in Germany. The first direction was given to the movement mainly by Thomas More, whose "Utopia" (1515) is world renowned. In Italy the Renaissance movement continued into the sixteenth century. Sadolet's poem on "The Laocoon Group" is known throughout the literary world, while his epic on the heroic death of Caius Curtius is equally finished. Not less famous is Vida's "Christiad": he also wrote didactic poems on "Silk-worms" and "Chess". Among the more important works of this period must also be included Jacopo Sannazaro with his classically finished epic "De partu Virginis", at which he laboured for twenty years. His Naenia" on the death of Christ also merits every praise. The example of Vida and Sannazaro spurred numerous other poets to undertake extensive epical works, of which none attained the excellence of their models.
In other countries also the new literary movement continued, although it produced richer fruit in the field of dramatic and lyric poetry than in epic poetry. The singular attempt of Laurenz Rhodomannus to compose a "Legend of Luther" in opposition to the Catholic legend deserves mention on account of its peculiarity. Among the works of the dramatists we also meet with more or less ambitious attempts at epic verse. This is especially true of the dramatists of the Society of Jesus. J. Masen's "Sarcotis", for example enjoys a certain fame as the proto-type of Milton's "Paradise Lost" and Vondel's "Lucifer". Biedermann and Avancini also composed small epic narratives. Balde produced many epical works, his "Batrachomyomachia" is an allegorical treatment of the Thirty Years' War , and his "Obsequies of Tilly" bring to light many interesting particulars concerning the great general. He also celebrated in verse the heroic death of Dampierre and Bouquois. Not least among his works is his "Urania Victrix". But, instead of accumulating further names, let us bring forward just a few of the more important poems: the "Puer Jesus" of Tommaso Ceva must be placed in the front rank of idyllic compositions; the "Life of Mary" (2086 distichs) of the Brazilian missionary, Venerable Joseph de Anchieta, is a model for similar works. During the nineteenth century the Latin epic more or less centred around the endowment of the rich native of Amsterdam, Jacob Henry Hoeufft, who founded a competitive prize for Latin poetry. Peter Esseiva, a Swiss, is the best-known prize winner: he celebrated in beautiful classical verse and brilliant Latin such modern inventions as the railroad, etc., and also treated strictly religious and light topics (e.g., in "The Flood", "The Grievances of an Old Maid") . Leo XIII was the last writer who wrote short epical poems in addition to his odes. Baumgartner, the author of "Weltliteratur", assigns to Latin Christian poetry the well-merited praise: "It still contains creative suggestions and offers the noblest of intellectual enjoyment."
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.