An Epic “Hit List”

by Amanda Gerber

Modern literary historians often turn to manuscript margins to uncover evidence of medieval reading practices, especially to uncover the ethical, rhetorical, or allegorical interpretations appended to texts.[1] While examining medieval copies of classical epics, I have observed that, more than any of the aforementioned interpretive paradigms, medieval readers sought the same type of assistance as modern ones: namely, assistance with deciphering classical epics’ difficult syntax, historical contexts, and convoluted character lists. This blog post accounts for one such struggling fifteenth-century reader of Statius’s first-century Achilleid, a reader who devised his own means for tracking the names of and relationships between the poem’s numerous characters.

The reader in question leaves numerous marginal traces of his organizing lists throughout Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis Palatinus 3114, joining a long list of his own; that is, a list of character listologists. Similar attempts to identify character names in related groups appear regularly throughout medieval literature’s margins, including those of vernacular literature. For example, The Assembly of Gods, a fifteenth-century dream allegory begins with a character roll-call that editor Jane  Chance entitles, “The Interpretation of the Names of Gods and Goddesses.”[2] The list consists of twenty-nine lines identifying twenty-nine gods, such as “Pluto God of hell” (6). The fifteenth-century Achilleid reader similarly presents his cast of classical characters into groups that define them; however, he proves to have his own ideas about the possible scope of character lists, stretching the system of classification beyond genealogies and character definitions to present its cast of characters in three separate lists of who killed whom throughout the poem and beyond. To the left of one bracket, the annotator states the name of the historical assassin (such as “Achilles int[er]fecit,” or Achilles killed); to the right of the same bracket, is a complete list of the murdered (such as Hector and Troilus), which the annotator brackets again to point to the word “rege[m],” or king. Some of those listed even seem to be the annotator’s own invention, perhaps indicating those he would like to kill off from his poetic studies. The result is a rather morbid summation of a murderous poem, or an epic “hit list” with few survivors.

[1] A few of the numerous notable works on the topic include Christopher Cannon, “From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet,” PMLA 129.3 (2014): 349-64; Cannon, “The Middle English Writer’s Schoolroom: Fourteenth-Century English Schoolbooks and their Contents,” New Medieval Literatures 11 (2009): 19-38; Rita Copeland, Rhetoric Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Vincent Gillespie, “The Study of Classical Authors: From the Twelfth to c. 1450,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 2: The Middle Ages, edited by Alastair Minnis and Ian Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 145-235; Ralph Hanna, “Literacy, Schooling, Universities,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Culture, edited by Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 172-94; Ralph Hexter, Ovid and Medieval Schooling: Studies in Medieval School Commentaries on Ovid’s Ars amatoria, Epistulae ex Ponto, and Epistulae Heroidum (Munich: Arbeo-Gesellshaft, 1986); Alastair Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988); Minnis, “Quadruplex sensus, multiplex modus: Scriptural Sense and Mode in Medieval Scholastic Exegesis,” in Interpretation and Allegory: Antiquity to the Modern Period, edited by John Whitman (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 229-54; Minnis and A. B. Scott, Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c. 1100-c. 1375: The Commentary Tradition, Rev. edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, Repr. 2003); Winthrop Wetherbee, “The Study of Classical Authors: from Late Antiquity to the Twelfth Century,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by Alastair Minnis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 99-144; Marjorie Curry Woods, Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the ‘Poetria nova’ across Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000); Woods, “Rhetoric, Gener, and Literary Arts: Classical Speeches in the Schoolroom,” New Medieval Literatures (2009): 113-32; Jan Ziolkowski and C. J. Michael, eds. The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[2] Jane Chance, ed. The Assembly of the Gods (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press, 1999). Chance transcribes the text from Cambridge Trinity College Library MS R. 3. 19, ff. 67v-97v.

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