All in the Family: Genealogical Lists in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Class. Lat. 9

by Amanda Gerber

Where should one draw the line between a content list for a mythological history and a genealogical tree for one? When created in reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, both include the same names, the same chronological order, and the same interest in organizing events according to the people who enacted them. Several late-medieval manuscript copies of the Metamorphoses include one or both of these myth organizers. The content lists often form vertical lists of character names alongside the incipit (or first line) of each book, whereas the genealogical trees tend to acquire separate folios (or manuscript pages) before or after Ovid’s poem. The genealogies’ separation from the poem make them more of a reference work than the content lists, which, as outlines placed in the margins, tend to function as reading aids. However, one early annotator of a fourteenth-century copy of the Metamorphoses decided to blur these distinctions by placing a series of genealogical trees in the margins of the poem, trees that directly respond to the poem’s contents. Focusing on the trees that Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Class. Lat. 9 attaches to Atalanta’s and Pentheus’s myths, this blog post examines how genealogical references and content lists combine to present lines of descent as the poem’s irreducible, interconnected, and ultimately essential features. The result reframes the Metamorphoses as a mythological history of intertwined names.

Genealogical trees generally consist of ramifying  lists that often become wider the longer the list continues. Some of the genealogical trees in MS Canon. Class. Lat. 9 follow this principle, growing horizontally the further their listed names proceed vertically. The manuscript’s tree annotator even demonstrates his awareness of this standard protocol by planning one such expanding tree without inserting any names into it; that is to say, a series of linked empty ovals spread out the further it descends down the page (f. 105r). Nevertheless, many of the manuscript’s trees do not grow in this way; they often shrink to one line, such as the genealogical tree that prefaces the tale about Atalanta’s race with Hippomenes. The rules for the race against Atalanta stipulate that a man who beats her may marry her, whereas anyone who loses must die. When Hippomenes stands to accept the challenge, he identifies himself by reciting a brief family history. Beside this speech, an early annotator outlines the following list of names in linked, rubricated (or red ink) ovals:

Ypomones (f. 97r)

The list technically repeats everything that Hippomenes says in the narrative: he cites the name of his father, Megareus of Onchestus, and his father’s grandfather, Neptune (X.605–606). The annotator merely extrapolates from Hippomenes’s stated patrilineal credentials, placing them in a genealogical tree, but a tree with only one vertical line of four male descendants. The singular genealogical branch forms one of three rubricated notes on the folio; the other two are a running title of the tale (“Cursus Ipodomes cu[m] Atalante” or “Hippomenes’s race with Atalanta”) and the tale’s most distinct feature (“AVREA POMA” or “golden apple,” which is used to distract Atalanta during the race). Taking its place alongside the golden apple and the race, Hippomenes’s family history becomes an essential feature of the myth itself: that is to say, the one genealogical branch joins the myth’s other key features. However, the annotator’s blending of the myth’s contents with its central character’s genealogy invites another question: What exactly prompted medieval Christian readers’ interest in pagan genealogies?

Hippomenes’s genealogical branch joins a widespread genealogical tradition that began to proliferate during the late Middle Ages, as sacred and secular rulers as well as their followers increasingly sought to delineate lines of rightful succession and inheritance. These delineations of historical legitimacy became an increasing fascination of late-medieval audiences as heirs vied for rights to kingdoms and titles that had been filtered through multiple blood lines.[1] The concern with just descent prompted genealogical trees to emerge across chronicle traditions, but this same concern cannot explain their simultaneous proliferation in late-medieval copies of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which housed a pagan pantheon unclaimed by medieval Christians. Nevertheless, medieval genealogies of pagan mythology still abounded in both tree and prose form, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Gentile Gods. Modern criticism often ties these trees to humanism or universal histories, that is, histories about all cultures and time periods. In this regard, modern scholars liken pagan genealogies to Christian ones, assuming that the latter helped reshape the former in its image.[2] However, in the case of Hippomenes, MS Canon. Class. Lat. 9 treats the genealogy as a feature of the mythic narrative, with its outline even emphasizing the central character’s descent from the god Neptune.

The manuscript’s genealogical trees routinely emphasize the poem’s mythic, rather than historicized, content, presenting more of an interest in connecting the poem’s subjects to each other than to historically justified lines of succession or inheritance. One such tree grows in the margin beside the myth of Pentheus, a king of Thebes who transforms into a wild boar when he denies the divine rights of the new god Bacchus (III.511–733). Beside this narrative appears a genealogical tree of linked, rubricated ovals around black ink names:

f. 29v

The tree includes only two branches, which narrow into the one resulting in Pentheus. Some of this shrinking tree’s names derive from the myth itself: in particular, Cadmus, Pentheus’s grandfather, warns him against binding and dragging Bacchus for being a false god (III.528–71). However, rather than merely repeating the myth, the Pentheus tree fills in some of the gaps in the family history leading up to it. The completed tree neither follows the narrative directly, as the Hippomenes branch did, nor does it create a history for the myth, as Boccaccio does, considering that it even adds the god Mars as one of its progenitors. The tree also does not appear in the place one expects to find it: the tree appears towards the end of the myth, whereas most marginal content lists appear at the beginning of myths, which is also where Ovid’s poem tends to identify its characters’ patrilineal descents. Instead of introducing the character, repeating the narrative, or adding history, the Pentheus tree grows out of the story’s most mythic moment—that is, when Pentheus becomes a boar. In fact, the tree looks like it elaborates on a rubricated annotation beside it: “Pente[us] i[n] apru[m]” [Pentheus into a wild boar]. As such, the tree ends up producing a family history that leads not only to Pentheus’s birth as the son of Agave, but also his rebirth as a wild boar. As part of the final mythic transformation, the completed family history offers a conclusion, rather than an introduction. By concluding the myth, the Pentheus genealogy breaks almost all ties with historicity, and yet it still centers itself around a mythological history of intertwined names.

With his own rendering of genealogical content lists, the annotator of MS Canon. Class. Lat. 9 shifts attention to the names connected to its myths, outlining a narrative history from both the names Ovid cites and the family names that those citations carry with them. The result transforms each myth into a network or collection of myths, which is a goal of medieval prosopography, or collective biographies of what differentiated given groups of people from others.[3] The characteristics that most set Ovid’s mythic characters apart were their ties to divinity and their pagan pasts. Therefore, rather than attempting to remove these differentiating features, a true medieval prosopography would emphasize them—as the Ovidian genealogical trees do. As a result, these genealogical trees have a two-fold impact on Ovid’s poem: they shrink genealogies into content lists; and, in turn, these content lists reframe the poem itself as a prosopography, a collective biography of groups distinguished by their deified inheritances. Thus, rather than Christianizing or historicizing the Metamorphoses, the trees in MS Canon. Class. Lat. 9 emphasize and extend what is already there, elongating the poem’s divine lines of descent to outline the rights of mythic, rather than historic, inheritance. In other words, the genealogical trees of MS Canon. Class. Lat. 9 keep its subjects all in the mythic family.

[1] See for example, Alheydis Plassmann, “The King and His Sons: Henry II’s and Frederick Barbarossa’s Succession Strategies Compared,” in Anglo-Norman Studies, XXXVI: Proceedings of the Battle Conference, edited by David Bates (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2014), 149–66; Bauduin Walckiers, “Ascendances carolingiennes,” Lignages de Bruxelles 48 (2010): 372–408.

[2] See for example, Giuseppe Mazzotta, “Boccaccio: The Mythographer of the City,” in Interpretation and Allegory: Antiquity to the Modern Period, edited by Jon Whitman (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 359–64; and Jane H.M. Taylor, “The Sense of a Beginning: Genealogy and Plenitude in Late Medieval Narrative Cycles,” in Transtextualities: Of Cycles and Cyclicity in Medieval French Literature, edited by Sara Sturm-Maddox and Donald Maddox (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996), 93–123.

[3] In 1980, George Beech helped found the journal Medieval Prosopography, in which he defined prosopography as “collective biography,” meaning “collective or comparative biographical studies of given groups of people set off from the rest of society by office, occupation, social status, and the like.” According to Beech, prosopography’s means of differentiation often aimed to study “social, familial and geographical origins, careers, common interests and ties such as those created by schooling, property holding, marriage, and influence or role in contemporary affairs.” George Beech, “The Scope of Medieval Prosopography,” in Medieval Prosopography 1.1 (1980): 3–7.

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