Sunday, March 20, 2016


Michael Fontaine, Joannes Burmeister, Aulularia and Other Inversions of Plautus. Bibliotheca Latinitatis Novae. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2015. Pp. 380. ISBN 9789462700086. €75.00.

Reviewed by Fred Franko, Hollins University (

Version at BMCR home site


Joshua and Euclio walk into a bar and…wait…what?

Joannes Burmeister (1576-1638) was a Lutheran pastor and sometime poet in a rustic village of Schleswig-Holstein who renovated scripts of Plautus by grafting into them a corresponding biblical story. His no longer extant Mater- Virgo offered perhaps his boldest experiment, combining Plautus' Amphitruo with the story of Jesus' nativity, using Mary in place of Alcumena, the Holy Spirit for Jupiter, Joseph for Amphitryon, and so forth. His Aulularia, the main text in this edition, interweaves material from the relatively obscure story of the temple robber Achan found in Joshua. While Burmeister's plans for a Susanna blending Casina with an episode in Daniel may never have been published, his lost Asinaria, which merged that play with the story of Saul betrothing his daughter to David in exchange for 200 Philistine foreskins, surely begs for someone to recreate and stage it.

Burmeister's work provides a remarkable example of how an early modern thinker grappled with acceptable processes of reception and adaptation. He neither bowdlerizes Plautus nor freely composes in the style of Roman comedy, as some of his contemporaries did with Terence, in an attempt to make risqué Roman scripts palatable for Christian school curricula. Instead, Burmeister retains roughly 80% of Plautus' words in their original order and meter, interlacing biblical material and thereby charging the words with fresh and unexpected reverberations. Burmeister calls his scripts "inversions" (inversiones, invertere), a term not found in Plautus but reminiscent of Plautus' own boast to renovate Greek scripts (vortit barbare). Burmeister does not pervert Plautus, he converts him, as he himself punningly boasts: Non ut scholis explodam Plauti ethnicam Latinitatem, sed ut illi coniungam entheam pietatem ("My intention is not to expurgate Plautus's heathenly Latin for school use, but to wed heavenly piety to it"). Fontaine unpacks the implicit ideological process as follows: "Just as baptism converts a man from his old and errant ways to new, while leaving his identity and sense of self intact, Burmeister baptized bawdy ancient Roman epigrams and comedies, converting them from pagan to biblical texts, while leaving their characteristic form intact." (p.2). While biblical stories provide the intertext, contemporary events of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) provide a subtext, at least for Aulularia (1629), whose preface alludes to Burmeister's fleeing his village when marauding soldiers ransacked his church. To us, the alloy of Achan and Aulularia via warfare and sacrilege sounds strange, as do anachronistic allusions to gunners and bombardiers in Bronze Age Canaan. But to Burmeister's readers or audience, the allusions were ripped from the headlines of 1627, and such amalgamations of topical and cultural references might remind us of how Plautus partially Romanizes Menander, or what any cinematic mash-up does to its source materials.

Mater-Virgo left no traces in literary history until two German scholars excerpted and commented on it in 1886, with the last known copy of the script lost during World War II. While searching for that text, Fontaine discovered Aulularia in Copenhagen in 2010. Given that Burmeister's Latin reveals an "incorrigible punster" who "exceeded even Plautus himself in his love of wordplay" (p.10), Burmeister is perhaps lucky to have found Fontaine as his editor. Fontaine's facility with detecting and explicating puns and other wordplay, as demonstrated in his book Funny Words in Plautine Comedy, makes for lively reading. For example, an analysis of references to the aforementioned Asinaria and foreskins wryly states: "Most divergences are trivial, though two arouse interest…" (p.59). Baroque Spielerei delighted in puns, riddles, and anagrams. For example, numerous three-word epigraphs begin with J (or I), B, L, which serve as an authorial stamp for Joannes Burmeister Lunaeburgius. One such epigraph in Aulularia indicates the rich polyvalence of Burmeister's wordcraft: Jugulantis Bellonae Lorica / Invidet Bonis Latibula means both "Murderess Bellona's Cuirass Refuses Property (bona) any Place of Concealment" and "Murderess Bellona's Cuirass Refuses the Good (boni) all Refuge." The former translation refers to the play's plot, the latter to Burmeister's personal exile. Fontaine does well to preserve as much wordplay as possible in his English translations and to footnote instances when he cannot.

The book begins with a discussion of Burmeister's Latinity, perhaps as a prologue to entice curious and skeptical readers. Printing the openings to Mater-Virgo and Aulularia alongside their Plautine originals demonstrates how seamlessly Burmeister's inversions interweave verbatim, punning, and biblical strands. Next follows a brief biography of Burmeister and a survey of his known works, the bulk of which concentrates on salient features of Aulularia. Readers might wish to examine the extant text and translation of Aulularia along with Fontaine's analysis before confronting the speculative discussions and reconstructions of the lost plays. The edition of Aulularia and Mater-Virgo follows modern standards rather than retaining sometimes quirky punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. Quite helpfully, Fontaine gives corresponding line numbers from Leo's Loeb edition and pertinent biblical citations with the Latin and Douay-Rheims translation rather than just chapter and verse. Facing pages translate all Latin and German into straightforward, idiomatic, and somewhat free English.1 The choice to retain the oaths "by Hercules" and "by Pollux" alongside invocations of Yahweh maintains the syncretism at a most basic level.

The edition of Mater-Virgo reconstructs the text from testimonia, arguments in rhymed German verse, scene synopses in German, the shepherds' song in German, and a scant 92 lines of Latin text quoted verbatim by the witnesses of 1886. Basing his discussion on the model of Aulularia and the report that Burmeister retained most of Plautus' lines intact ("meist sich an das Original anschliessend," p.217), Fontaine gives reasonable and ample—some might say excessive—supplements to the opening speech of Gabriel/Mercury in italics, duly noting that the restorations are speculative. Unfortunately, the lines about transforming a tragedy into a tragicomedy, which no doubt offered the author the opportunity to meditate on the poetics of mixing genres, have not survived.

Burmeister's meter is "flawless according to the standards by which it was known in his day" (p.85), with the proviso that early modern Latin often scanned i and u as vowels or consonants according to the needs of the verse. Some iambic senarii, however, "limp" in the penultimate foot and resemble the prose of Isidore with internal rhyme as, for example, Aulularia 52: cum dicto adduco equum. / hic pendeat, ita est aequum. Such lines, which Fontaine dubs "Isidorian iambics," might repay future study. The edition adds ictus marks where scansion is counterintuitive.

Although Burmeister was a literary rather than a dramatic artist, he did at least contemplate staging, as evidenced by his remark that three scenes of Mater-Virgo could be inserted or deleted pro actoris arbitrio ("as the manager-director pleases," pp.236-7) and the injunction that classroom audiences should refrain from passing notes (p.217 n.83). The script of Aulularia appears stageworthy, and Fontaine has tested the piece with staged readings rather than a full production. Sometimes the translation appears aimed more towards the performable than the literal. For example, at Aulularia 197, when Salmon approaches Achan to ask for Rahab the prostitute's hand in marriage, Achan exclaims: aurum subolet harpagatum, which Fontaine renders as "My gold's been hooked, I just know it," forgoing the reference to smell perhaps to double down on the allusion to a hooker. The editor's stage directions make explicit features embedded in the script, but one need not agree with all the adverbs that impose particular choices of staging and characterization.2

This very handsomely produced book concludes with a brief bibliography, general index, an index locorum biblicorum and, getting the last word, an index jocorum. But no joke: Fontaine's clean, thorough, and user-friendly edition of a newly discovered script cribbed from Plautus should be an essential acquisition for university libraries with holdings in classical tradition and reception.


1.   Infelicities are rare but perhaps playable in performance (e.g. the oddly literal nonce formation "you snook-around" for circumspectatrix at Aulularia 40).
2.   For an example from that same passage, the stage direction for line 178 has Salmon "(advancing with outstretched hand)," which correctly anticipates line 193 ("I don't give a cordial handshake…"). But the stage directions of "(gingerly)" and "(cheerily)," though adequate for a reader, might be disregarded by the performer.

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