The Mythographic Art: Classical Fable and the Rise of the Vernacular in Early France and England

The Mythographic Art: Classical Fable and the Rise of the Vernacular in Early France and England

The Mythographic Art: Classical Fable and the Rise of the Vernacular in Early France and England

The Mythographic Art: Classical Fable and the Rise of the Vernacular in Early France and England

Synopsis

Collection of essays examining how Western Europe retrieved, interpreted and domesticated myths from the 12th through to the 15th century. The essays trace the survival of pagan myth in the work of both scholar and poet, and demonstrate the overlay of the vernacular with learned Latin.

Excerpt

Mythography, the explanation of classical mythology that often involves moralization or allegorization, remains unfamiliar even to most medievalists, unless they have worked specifically in the field. and yet it is impossible to forget that many medieval poets must have had at least some access to that tradition in the Middle Ages, given the plethora of mythological images in their poems and the prevalence of schoolbook commentaries incorporating mythographic glosses. Indeed, Richard Hamilton Green ends his influential essay, "Classical Fable and English Poetry in the Fourteenth Century" (presented initially to the English Institute in 1959 and published a year later in a volume edited by Dorothy Bethurum for Columbia University Press, Critical Approaches to Medieval Literature), with a challenge to the modern reader of medieval literature. His challenge consists of two parts. First, How exactly does the medieval poet--for example, Chaucer--use mythological images? and second, What kinds of answers to this question can be found in fourteenth-century mythological treatises and the mythographic tradition from which they derive?

One reason for the importance of this question remains only implicit rather than explicit in Green's statement: the incongruity of a Christian poet's use of pagan myths matches the incongruity of a moral poet's use of immoral and scandalous stories, as were many of the tales of the Roman gods. To look for resolutions of such apparent incongruities in the "olde bokes" of the fourteenth-century mythological tradition, as Professor Green suggests that we do, attempts both a historical and a literary reconstruction of the poetic process at that moment. What we should look for are reasons that poets might safely ignore both the lack of belief and lack of morality in the classical myths they used.

Exactly where--from what "olde bokes"--did Chaucer and other poets of the vernacular derive these classical fables and how much original interpretation did these poets themselves offer? If they substituted their own interpretations for earlier interpretations of these myths, then how, and why? What will their successors make of their treatment?

To begin answering some of these questions, we need first to understand more about the source material for much of their poetic fabulizing--the mythographers and commentators. Then, in response to the second and third questions, while it will not be possible in this book to explain how all medieval and Renaissance writers specifically used the . . .

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