Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Winthrop Wetherbee, Bernardus Silvestris, Poetic Works. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 38. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. xlix, 327. ISBN 9780674743786. $29.95.

Reviewed by Justin A. Stover, All Souls College, University of Oxford (

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The name Bernardus Silvestris is no byword among classicists. Nonetheless, students of the classical tradition know him as one of the most capable and allusive of twelfth-century poets and scholars, and perhaps his star is once again on the rise. The lustrum mirabile of Bernardine studies came in the mid-1970s, wherein the year 1972 saw Brian Stock's Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century: A Study of Bernard Sylvester, Winthrop Wetherbee's Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century—his first translation of Bernardus' Cosmographia came the following year—continuing through the monograph of Peter Dronke, Fabula, and his edition of the text of the Cosmographia, and finally including the Jones and Jones edition of the commentary on the Aeneid. But the past two years have likewise been extraordinary, with the first monograph on Bernardus since the 1970s (Mark Kauntze's Authority and Imitation) and another on Bernardus' colleague Thierry of Chartres (Albertson's Mathematical Theologies), and the editio princeps of Thierry's commentary on Boethius' Arithmetica by Irene Caiazzo.1 This new flourishing is crowned by another translation by Wetherbee, this time of the poetic (and prosimetric) works by or attributed to Bernardus.

The volume opens with an introduction, situating Bernardus in the context of "twelfth-century intellectual culture." Wetherbee argues with conviction and clarity that Bernardus' intellectual preoccupations are the same as those of his colleagues and contemporaries—above all Plato's Timaeus—but Bernardus' unique contribution was that he could, "like Plato, create myths of his own" (p. xi). The succeeding sections introduce each of Bernard's works included: the Cosmographia, the Mathematicus, and the two minor poems. Wetherbee analyses Bernard's masterpiece in the three familiar contexts of the Latin Platonism of Macrobius, Calcidius, Martianus and their successors, of Christianity, and of the Latin classics. It is a solid and valuable presentation—not as detailed as his 1972 introduction, but effective as a prolegomenon to the poem for new readers. For the Mathematicus, Wetherbee focuses primarily on the question of determinism and free will. The only complaint one could make is that he does not even allude to the question of Echtheitskritik despite the objections of Ratkowitsch2 and others. The other two poems, however, he admits are only "tentatively attributed to Bernardus." Wetherbee concludes with a consideration of Bernard's legacy, arguing that the master of Tours had become largely eclipsed within a century of his death by his imitator Alan of Lille. While this is largely correct, he does not note the presence of Bernard in medieval commentaries 3; I bring this up not to quibble, but to suggest that as more material becomes available to scholars, we will probably find that Bernard did in fact find more readers in the thirteenth century and later. Further, thanks to Kauntze, we can begin to trace the history of glossing and commenting on the Cosmographia in the later Middle Ages.4

The heart of the book is the Latin text with facing English translations. The text of the Cosmographia is excellent—based on Dronke's 1978 edition, which has long been almost totally unavailable, with sensible comparison against the older edition of Barach and Wrobel, A. Vernet's unpublished edition, and one crucial manuscript. One might take occasional issue with Wetherbee's choices. For example, I am not sure of his adoption of Vernet's notis for Dronke's togis at Meg. 3.371—either reading is an odd epithet for an onion—but Wetherbee modestly defends his choices with sense and balance (see his note ad loc.). I cannot emphasize enough the value of having available a good Latin text of the Cosmographia and the other poems.

The translations are readable and accurate. While those of the Mathematicus and the other two minor poems are new, that of the Cosmographia is a reworking of Wetherbee's earlier translation. The general feel of the new translation is the same as the earlier, and most of the changes are relatively minor and almost always improvements. I count thirteen differences, for example, in the translation of the twenty lines of Micr. 2. In particular, here are the two translations of lines 3-6:

If her ancient origin intruded any trace of rusticity, she banished it, ever submissive to the shaping hand; offering no resistance, she presented herself, coherent and obedient, to the work of Noys, and the formation of creatures.

If her ancient origin intruded any trace of roughness, the shaping hand sought it out everywhere and banished it, until, no longer resisting, Silva presented herself docile and well-disposed to be wrought into the shapes of creatures (Wetherbee 1972, p. 93).

The new rendering corrects one small error, and in general follows the Latin text more closely—a boon, to be sure, for the facing translation format. But comparison is a pedantic exercise. For many, the new translation will be their first entrée to Bernard's poetry, and original or not, it is a triumph. An example from Bernard's catalogue of birds:

The greedy vulture and the quarrelsome kite, degenerates both; the ostrich, denizen and lover of the desert; the finch, singing sweetly of tender love; the chatty parrot, who speaks with our voice; the raven, Delphic bird, who does not recall nests of new offspring abandoned among the leafy branches; the kingfisher and the woodpecker, guardians of shore and forest; the goose, who loves the open waters of the lake; the owl, whom the sun's kindly light makes blind, and the screech owl, chanting doleful tidings in funereal tones. (Meg. 3.471-480)

Bernardus' original is dense, allusive, and learned; in Wetherbee's hands it sings.

The text and translation are rounded off with the Mathematicus, De gemellis, and De paupere ingrato. The first and third are written in elegiacs. the second in hexameters. All three are based on scenarios from Roman declamation: the Mathematicus on Declamationes maiores 4 of ps-Quintilian, the De gemellis on Declamationes minores 8, and the De paupere ingrato on Controversiae 5.1 of Seneca the Elder. (Wetherbee does not clearly lay this out, not distinguishing between the two different corpora of pseudo-Quintilianic declamation.) All three will be required reading for those interested in the afterlife of Roman declamation. Those interested in the 'matter of Rome' in the Middle Ages will find much of interest in the fabulous Rome of the Mathematicus where a Roman king (!) smashes a Carthaginian army, a king whose mother later addresses him in a speech which invokes Justinian, Cato, and Augustus in the course of three lines (Math. 509-11). The only objection I raise is that the edition should not have printed the supplemental conclusion from the Kraków manuscript, which, as Wetherbee admits (xlix), is certainly not authentic, immediately following the authentic poem, but if necessary in an appendix.

What follows are the notes. These tend to be sparse, in accord with the format of the DOML series. For the Cosmographia, the notes are considerably fewer than those to the 1972 translation, and (understandably) focus more on the Latin sources and less on the interpretation. They also provide consistent reference to discussions elsewhere in the literature.

There are only few slips. The claim that Bernardus read Cato the Elder (p. 298, ad. Micr. 13.9) is almost certainly false. The De agricultura is not found in any manuscript dating from before the late twelfth century, and the earliest manuscript is from Italy. The lexical evidence cited is not probative: collibro is also found in Rufinus' translation of Origen's homilies on Genesis (2.6), as well as in a number of other eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth-century authors,5 while commadeo is indeed only otherwise attested in Cato, but with a different meaning ('to soften thoroughly'), and so probably represents an independent coinage by Bernardus. The note on coloxum (p. 300, ad Micr. 119) would be aided by citing Löfstedt's excellent explanation.6 Memnon was in fact known traditionally for his beauty (cf. p. 303, ad Gem. 21), as one can see from Homer (Od. 11.522); how Bernardus, or whoever wrote the De gemellis, knew this is an interesting question.

The DOML series moves from strength to strength. Like all the other volumes in the series, this book is handsomely produced at a very modest price. Finally having the Latin text of his literary works available, equipped with an elegant translation, will—it is dearly to be hoped—cement Bernardus' well-deserved place in both the classical tradition and medieval Latin literature.


1.   B. Stock, Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century: A Study of Bernard Sylvester (Princeton 1972); W. Wetherbee, Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century: The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres (Princeton 1972); idem, The Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris (New York 1973); Peter Dronke, Fabula: Explorations into the Usage of Myth in Medieval Platonism (Leiden 1974); idem, ed. Cosmographia (Leiden 1978); J. W. and E. F. Jones, eds. Commentum quod dicitur Bernard Silvestris super sex libros Eneidos Virgilii (Lincoln 1977); M. Kauntze, Authority and Imitation: A Study of the Cosmographia of Bernard Silvestris (Leiden 2014); D. Albertson, Mathematical Theologies: Nicholas of Cusa and the Legacy of Thierry of Chartres (Oxford 2014); and I. Caiazzo, ed. Thierry of Chartres. Commentary on the De arithmetica of Boethius (Turnhout 2015).
2.   C. Ratkowitsch, "Astrologie und Selbstmord im Mathematicus: zu einem Gedicht aus dem Umkreis des Bernardus Silvestris," Wiener Studien 112 (1999), 175-229.
3.   See, for example, F. T. Coulson, "Ovid's Metamorphoses in the school tradition of France, 1180-1400: Texts, manuscript traditions, manuscript settings," in J. G. Clark, F. T. Coulson, and K. L. McKinley, eds. Ovid in the Middle Ages (Cambridge 2011), 48-82. BMCR 2012.08.57
4.   Kauntze, Authority and Imitation, esp. 132-154.
5.   Hildeshiem Letters, MGH Epp. Kaiserzeit V, ep. 108; Ralph of Caen, Tancredus 152, and Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, 2.7.17 vers.
6.   B. Löfstedt, "Notizien zur Cosmographia des Bernardus Silvestris,"ALMA 51 (1993) 203-8 at 207-8.

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