Four years ago, I started examining elements from classical stories in the imagery of the Voynich manuscript. This regularly led me towards Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is after all one of our most important sources for Greco-Roman mythology. However, in my enthusiasm as a fledgling Voynich researcher, there was one element I hardly payed any attention to: what was Ovid’s place in the Middle Ages? The first part of this post will try to answer this question. In the second part, I will focus on one specific set of stories, those involving Hercules. This will be important for the next post, expected some time next week.

The present post is purely meant as background information and won’t touch on any VM links yet.

Note: I postponed publishing this post for quite some time because I have been writing about Christian symbolism, so a sudden switch to Classical myth might be confusing. But works like the Metamorphoses were perfectly acceptable (and popular) within a medieval Christian framework, since the characters were reinterpreted as embodiments of virtues. Moreover, they are found in different sections: Biblical in the “large plants”-section, mythological in certain folios of the “small plants”. In short, different VM sections integrate symbols from different popular works.

1. Ovid in the Middle Ages

The kinds of metamorphoses happening in Greco-Roman myth were, if taken literally, problematic for a Medieval audience: only God could perform such transformations, and it would be blasphemous to claim that they really took place without His intervention. But we know from the vast amount of surviving manuscripts that the Metamorphoses were widely appreciated in the Middle Ages. Clark (2011) writes that perhaps even more so than Virgil, Seneca and Cicero, it was Ovid “who provided the greatest number and diversity of Europeans with their most memorable encounter with the classical world.”

While Ovid was hardly known during the early Middle Ages, by the 9th century he came back to the foreground. The earliest surviving commentary on the Metamorphoses dates from the late 11th century (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 4610). A 12th century catalogue of the cathedral priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, lists four codices of the Metamorphoses. Ovid became so prominent that German philologist Ludwig Traube (1861-1907) coined the term Aetas Ovidiana for the 12th and 13 centuries. Later scholars like William S. Anderson expand this period to the entire late Middle Ages, into 15th century humanism and the first printed works.

One of the main ways Ovid’s works entered public consciousness was through monastic and secular schools. The Metamorphoses and other works were studied and imitated for their Latin grammar and poetic style. Not much has changed since then: in my own high school Latin classes I also translated parts of the Metamorphoses, learning about the unfortunate love of the nymph Echo for a man who could only admire himself.

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1903).

From the 14th century on, popular works like the Ovide Moralisé expanded the readership, allowing literate layfolk to become familiar with Ovid’s themes and poetic style. These works tell the myths of the Metamorphoses, but at the same time make explicit the moral allegorical meaning of each tale.

Just as an example, let us see how the Ovide Moralisé explains the story of Philomela. First, the myth is told with the main plot lines intact (in this case, it borrows from Chretien de Trois’ Philomene). Procne is married to Tereus, the king of Thrace. She desires to see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sets sail to bring her. When Tereus sees Philomela, he is overcome with lust and rapes her. And so on.

After telling the story, the Ovide Moralisé  clearly and explicitly details how it should be interpreted: “Now I will tell you the allegory | That this fable signifies” (source). Each character stands for a concept. Procne is the human soul, who desires earthly pleasure (Philomela) and Tereus is the body which succumbs to these pleasures, thereby damning the soul. The myth is told, and then the relevance for the medieval reader is explained.

Much more can be said about the reception of Ovid in the middle ages, but for our purpose it is sufficient to say that literate individuals were likely to know the stories of the Metamorphoses in some form. If not in the original Latin popularized in schools, then at least as part of an allegorizing interpretation.

2. Hercules and the Twelve Labours in the Middle Ages

Since my oncoming Voynich post will deal with the Labours of Hercules, let us first have a look at his position in the Middle Ages. Of course, he is mentioned throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses (especially book 9), which, as we established, was well-known. But there are other sources for the Twelve Labours as well.

Hercules was one of the most popular mythological figures in Antiquity, but Classical sources differ about the order and nature of the tasks set to the demigod. The list we consider standard nowadays is present in a few works like Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, but medieval manuscripts with this text are scarce. Homer only explicitly mentions how Hercules was ordered to bring Cerberus out of the underworld. Many writers refer to Hercules’ feats and other adventures, but don’t mention the concept of twelve labors in a specific order.

The twelve canonical labours were not a universally known concept in the Middle Ages either, but Hercules himself was a popular hero with medieval writers. A tragic figure and often a symbol of overcoming hardship. Or an example of the ideal nobleman, an embodiment of virtue and courage. Collections of stories and deeds associated with Hercules are numerous, without the need for an ordered list of twelve. For example, the story of Hercules and Hesione was popular because it was easily converted to medieval expectations, but it is not part of the labours; each author has his own order and selection of stories, depending on his goals and audience.

Still, the idea that Hercules performed a large number of tasks was clearly known to medieval authors. At the court of Alfonso X, the labours were included in the General Estoria. And Chaucer takes his inspiration from Boethius, whose work he translated. In the Monk’s Tale, the labours are listed briefly:

He slew and tore off the skin of the lion;
He laid down the boast of the Centaurs;
He slew the Harpies, the fierce cruel birds;
He seized the golden apples of the dragon;
He dragged Cerberus, the hound, out of Hell;
He slew the cruel tyrant Busirus
And made his horses eat him, flesh and bone;
He slew the fiery venomous serpent;
He broke one of Achelous’ two horns;
And he slew Cacus in a cave of stone;
He slew the giant Antheus the strong;
He slew the grisly boar, and that very quickly;
And long bore the heaven on his neck.


Chaucer lists twelve tasks, but a few of them differ from the standard list. The Girdle is missing, while Atlas is added. Busirus is conflated with the eighth labour, where Hercules fed a different cruel king to his carnivorous horses.

Medieval texts specifically about the labors existed as well. Both within the first quarter of the 15th century, Coluccio Salutati wrote De Laboribus Herculis (1406) and Enrique de Villena Los Doze Trabajos de Hercules (1417). Both authors independently moralize the stories after presenting them, but Salutati focuses more on matters of humanistic interest. Morreale [1] notes that Villena drew from Boethius, but also Virgil, Lucan, Ovid and Seneca – all widely read poets in the Middle Ages. And Salutati’s “startlingly inclusive book, remains to this day unexcelled as a collection of Latin poetic and mythographic material on Hercules”.

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Hercules with his bow and club, Ovide Moralisé, MS Thott 399 (15thC)

Manuscript illustrations of Hercules are numerous and varied. In this 13th century example he “kills another giant”:

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BNF fr 20125

It is interesting to see how the above manuscript, a history of the ancient world, effortlessly combines illustrations of Genesis and Noah’s ark with jousting knights and evocations of Greco-Roman giganticide. They are all allowed in the encyclopedia.

Or here, controlling Cerberus while his companions fight demons, in Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen (c. 1410-c. 1414):

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Sidenote: the beast bottom left looks like it may be a far cousin of the VM “scorpion”.

The appearance of Hercules in medieval manuscripts varies. Sometimes he is a knight in full armor. Or a rather generic medieval man, as in the 13th century example above. Sometimes, the image is close to what we would expect: a club-wielding warrior or archer wearing an animal skin.

Below is an example from the wonderful 14th century manuscript Royal MS 6 E IX, of which the “illumination has been attributed to Pacino di Bonaguida, a follower of Giotto, active in Florence c. 1300-c. 1350.” I add a Jesus from the same manuscript for good measure:

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And finally, a detail from the June calendare page from Add MS 18850, the Bedford Hours (1410-1430), probably produced for a member of the French royal family. This roundel shows the marriage of Hercules and Hebe. See this blog post from the British Library for some more background on this image.

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James G. Clark, Frank T. Coulson, Kathryn L. McKinley. Ovid in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, Jul 28, 2011

[1] Morreale, Margherita. “Coluccio Salutati’s ‘De Laboribus Herculis’ (1406) and Enrique De Villena’s ‘Los Doze Trabajos De Hercules’ (1417).” Studies in Philology, vol. 51, no. 2, 1954, pp. 95–106. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Mar. 2020.

An interesting note from the Wiki on Enrique de Villena:

Although a Treatise on Astrology is wrongly attributed to Villena, it is said that he devoted much of his time to the studies of alchemy, astrology, philosophy and mathematics. This led to his widespread reputation as a necromancer. Like Roger Bacon and other figures, he was reputed to have constructed a brazen head able to answer his questions.[1] Upon Villena’s death in 1434, the king ordered Bishop Lope de Barrientos to investigate his library. Barrientos had many of Villena’s books burned, strengthening the public’s assumption that he was involved in witchcraft.