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.
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  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”.
Manuscript illustrations of Hercules are numerous and varied. In this 13th century example he “kills another giant”:
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):
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:
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.
James G. Clark, Frank T. Coulson, Kathryn L. McKinley. Ovid in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, Jul 28, 2011
 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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4173089. 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. 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.
Wait, I thought that it was common knowledge that Ovid was very popular during the Middle Ages and more so during the early Renaissance and early Modern Era. I think I already mentioned that his Metamorphoses were much beloved by alchemists and occultists from the XV-XVI centuries.
In facts, in your introduction you miss one thing: medieval Europeans were obsessed with Christianity, quite right, but also with the legacy of Rome, one thing that is too often forgotten. They idealised everything that was Roman, including Roman literature. It is not strange that they liked pagan things (literature, philosophy etc.), even though filtered through their Christian thought.
By the way, he is probably the main literary source or inspiration for Dante’s Comedy: all the transformation (“contrapasso”) theme spread throughout the poem is based on the Metamorphoses and the author is quite clear about that. In Inferno XXV, Dante explicitly challenged Ovid’s poetry (“taccia Ovidio…”). While Ovid’s myths were popular, he was also known as a master of language, a literary genius. That is why I proposed that the woman with the ring in the VM is another Ovid’s citation.
Yeah, but not everybody knows these things, so I thought it would be useful to give a very general introduction. One thing I didn’t know is the extent to which he was used in classrooms, which would have led to a very intimate knowledge of his works.
Another aspect I omitted entirely is his huge influence as the poet of love.
I think that the missing element is the fact that during the Middle Ages there were two deeply rooted myths (I mean myth as an epic idea): the universal Religion (Catholic means universal) and the universal Empire (that is the Empire of Rome). That is why Virgil is usually ranked above Ovid (even by Dante who knowingly copied Ovid), even though medieval Europeans admired Ovid’s literary skill and loved, even more than they liked to admit, his lewd stories: Virgil was the poet of the highest ideals, because he celebrated the birth of the Empire (through the Aeneid) and, according to them, predicted the coming of Jesus.
The importance of the Empire and its legacy both in Western and Eastern Europe is criminally overlooked by those who casually talk about the Middle Ages and think that it was all about crazy monks and blockheads.
Ironically Virgil became markedly more popular than Ovid only in modern times, when Ovid’s love stories were regarded as too shallow and vulgar to be good poetry. On the other hand, medieval people, who, commonly, are mistakenly viewed just as obtuse bigots, loved them.
Opinions about how we should perceive the Middle Ages are usually a reaction to another opinion, a sling going back and forth. Boys come to history class with an idealized vision of courtly knights, so their teacher takes it upon himself to stress the harsh realities of the era. I believe that from this dynamic stems the general belief that the Middle Ages were not such a great time.
And now we often see a reaction to this thought, with people pointing out the virtues of the era, as you do. But like with everything, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I personally prefer the texts of classical authors and the more “secular” medieval legends over those texts too heavily inspired by a culture of The Book. Many Medieval text are a (from a modern point of view) circular biblical exercise that may have had a huge influence on medieval audiences but offer little to the modern reader. Some of the texts I studied in Middle Dutch classes boiled down to something like this: “I will now show that this statement is true. It is in the Bible. Therefore, it is true.” But of course there are fascinating medieval texts as well.
Anyway, my reasons for writing this post were the following:
* I fear that some readers may be confused by my oncoming switch from Jesus to Hercules. Anticipating criticism along those lines, I wanted to show already that they can perfectly go hand in hand (I even included an example from a manuscript that illustrates both figures).
* I wanted to learn more about what exactly was known, read and written during the Middle Ages about Hercules, in preparation for a next post.
* I had a post in draft about Ovid in the Middle Ages, ended up awkwardly merging both posts.
I found it important to established that it’s not far-fetched to assume medieval familiarity with Hercules, if not with the general population then at least in learned circles.
I do not want to derail too much the discussion, I understood your intentions and I think that your introductory explanation was due, to avoid misconceptions. However my technical(-scientific) background urges me to point out a central question: the problem of measurement (which is unfortunately poorly understood even in so called technical/scientific environments and this Covid-19 disaster is a tragic example of that).
The fact that many survived written texts, which were produced by a tiny minority, from the Middle Ages are about religion does not mean that the general population was into that kind of stuff. On the contrary, we have big hints that was not the case. The large spoken tradition was probably much closer to the contents of the fabliaux, the minnesang, el Cid, than to some commentary of the Bible. Many people from that age could not read, however they could hear, and we know for certain that public readings, cantastorie and jesters were hugely popular, even if most of them have left nothing (written) to us. So I would not easily draw conclusions about what was common knowledge to the general population from the size and quality of some written tradition.
The same problem, but even bigger, influence so called classical literature. If medieval monks were more into grotesque, lustful stories (well maybe they were, but did not write them on parchment), probably now we could read hundreds of Menippean satires and classical novels. Instead they preferred philosophy, so we have the complete works of Plotinus and only half Satyricon and a few Menippean satires. However one should not conclude that a 3rd century AD baker or wagoner liked to listen to a public reading of the Enneads more than listening to some obscene tale.
Hmm yes, you are right. I guess studying a historical culture’s literature is very often to study the culture of its elite and schooled minority.
What I really wanted to get a better idea of is how reasonable or silly it would be for me to assume familiarity of someone who worked on the VM with the classics.
Koen – sorry to say this but you ought not to state a subjective impression in a way which your readers will suppose means it is a fact beyond reasonable doubt or debate.
We’ve had years of that sort of thing already in this study and it does no service to the manuscript or to those hoping that the imagery might offer a way in to understanding the written part of the text.
At the very least you might consider an old Quaker saying,
‘Consider, Friend, that you may be mistaken’.
One reason I have doubts about your ideas here is that you constantly ignore stylistics. Another is that you treat so vaguely the different ways in which classical figures are moralised in Latin art, nor how their depiction differs across the French, German, Italian, Sicilian, Byzantine, Coptic, English and other artistic traditions. A third is that, having some experience in this field, and now a decade’s acquaintance with Beinecke MS 408 = not to mention having been the first to explain traces of classical forms in the manuscript – I think you are quite mistaken.
There is room for doubt, and room for debate – so please give your views as your views and avoid that lamentable habit seen on other theorists’ sites of using the ‘objective impersonal’ tone to add a spurious impression of factuality to what is not fact.
Again – sorry. And sorry for breaking my resolve that in this time of plague I’d avoid disputation over so trivial a matter as the Voynich manuscript.
Diane – have you read my post at all? It’s not about the VM, just background on textual transmission. The images I added are not there to argue any stylistic parallel, just to provide a very general impression (in no way exhaustive) of the ways Hercules was known and depicted.
I understand your criticism, but it isn’t quite aligned with the contents or purpose of this post 🙂
I should have quoted the sentence which prompted my objection.
“Moreover, they are found in different sections: Biblical in the “large plants”-section, mythological in certain folios of the “small plants”.
If I were to state the results of my own research as if they were from some encyclopaedia entry, I could say, “Nowhere in any folio of the Voynich manuscript does the imagery allude to any episode as depicted in western Christian or Byzantine Christian medieval imagery.”
And though the opposite may be true in Voynichland,
Koen – forgive me. I did read your post, and both my previous comments were written before your reply to the first went up.
Your post isn’t just about the transmission of classical myth in Latin European culture, though. It’s a prelude to your arguing that to find western Christian and classical forms in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is not implausible.
So it is about the Vms, or more exactly your ideas about it.
I suppose if you really believe that those working on the written text will find its plaintext in the Latins’ bible and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, someone might test your theory that way.
Yeah somehow I only saw the first part of your post, it’s alright.
What I mean with those absolute statements is that how I currently view the images, those are my assumptions. But I agree, it is in everyone’s interest to not see such things as facts.
We do all work with certain assumptions that are not absolutely proven.
I said nothing about the written text, I don’t even know if the text is “about” the images. There are some indications for this, but they are far from conclusive and perhaps weaker than we would expect. I don’t even know if the text is text.
And even if I were to suggest that the text describes the hidden layer in the images, I still wouldn’t know which version is used (there are many medieval Ovids, as well as the same stories in other forms).
So many unknowns. But some working hypotheses, that’s fine, we all have to use them. I will be more careful with factual statements.
Koen, you take my breath away. I’ll also try to be more careful about being over-assertive. I suppose it comes down to this – I began the work of research with no other aim than to provide those working on the text with solid information about the images, in the hope this would save their own time being wasted. I had no idea then (2009 to about 2013) of just how fiercely determined were some theorists than any information opposing their theories should be ignored and/or denigrated and I suppose this has created a certain militancy in my own writing as reaction. Again, very best wishes for all in Europe now.
I feel I owe you something more positive than was in my previous comments. If you’ve not yet seen it, you might find much of interest in an old study by Jean Seznec, ‘Survival of the Pagan Gods’ However it is an old study and must be read with caution because it is a mixture of the very good and the totally mistaken. His study of the western (Roman and European) material is very good and still worth reading, but one can’t believe a word he says about the deities, images and beliefs of regions beyond western Europe. (He says, for example, that eastern peoples’ deities are just corrupted versions of classical gods). However, for the western medieval Christian sources, he’s pretty solid,
Although the works of Ovid weren’t widely available in the early fifteenth century, people had many other sources to inform their ideas about figures such as Hercules, and Seznec is pretty thorough in describing them. Hercules would be known to a great many people because moralised astronomy was part of basic education – i.e. basic literacy and in the euhemeristic and moralistic traditions was taken as a ‘prefiguring’ of the biblical Sampson, among other things.
There are many more modern studies of the subject, but most appear as studies of particular medieval works so Seznec is still a good first source.
Hope it helps.
When trying to get an idea of what might be called ‘common knowledge’ among Christians of medieval (pre-Renaissance) Europe, I always think it worth looking first at Isidore’s Etymologies.
I find there are fifteen mentions of him there, and thought the following might interest you as showing how the old deities served in medieval Christian thought as early as the ninth century, and certainly until the late fourteenth century.
“33. They [the classical poets and authors] also imagine certain monstrosities from among irrational living creatures, like Cerberus, the dog of the nether world that has three heads, signifying through him the three ages in which death devours a human being – that is, infancy, youth, and old age. Some think that he is called Cerberus as if the term were GK: kreoboros (“flesh-eating”), that is, devouring flesh.
34. They talk also of Hydra, a serpent with nine heads, which in Latin is called ‘water-snake’ (LAT: excetra), because when one head was cut off (caedere) three would grow back. But in fact Hydra was a place that gushed out water, devastating a nearby city; if one opening in it were closed, many more would burst out. Seeing this, Hercules dried up the area, and thus closed the opening for the water.
35. Indeed hydra means “water” … . Ambrose makes mention of this in a comparison of it with heresies, saying (On Faith 1.4): “For heresy, like a certain hydra in the fables, grew from its own wounds, and as often as it would be cut down, it spread; it should be fed to the fire and will perish in a conflagration.”
There is, online, a complete pdf of the English translation of Isidore’s Etymologies – it was the first translation made in more than 600 years and despite some critical comments from Latinists, it’s a most valuable window into medieval thought and learning, from the 9th-15thC and beyond.
Here’s the link. Preface with the usual hpps
Just a note – I had forgotten your comment on the lizard-like creature’s resembling the Voynich image for November, but will now add a note and link as postscript comment at my blog. I’m also going to be referring to Ovid a bit, but not for his Metamorphoses rather in connection with Cicero and the Aratea.