Friday, June 14, 2019


Charles Delattre, Emmanuelle Valette, Jean-François Cottier, Stavroula Kefallonitis, Mickaël Ribreau and Joëlle Soler (ed.), Pragmatique du commentaire. Mondes anciens, mondes lointains. Antiquité et sciences humaines (ASH), 4. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018. Pp. 350. ISBN 9782503577234. €95,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Ute Tischer, Leipzig University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The present volume claims to belong to a long philological tradition of scholarship on commentaries, a tradition that takes its own methods and approaches as the objects of its study, as the editors Charles Delattre and Emmanuelle Valette state in their introduction (pp. 25–26). In the last few decades, this interest in ancient commentaries, their forms and functions, their practices and rhetorical strategies, and how they are reflected in their modern counterparts has steadily grown and resulted in a number of influential volumes.1 Delattre and Valette contribute to this field in their own original way by providing a comparative and anthropological approach in this volume, one that focuses on the 'pragmatics' of commenting and writing commentaries. As a result, the works examined (not all of which are commentaries in the traditional sense) are presented as products of a discursive practice, an 'activité lettrée' (Jacob, p. 9), which implies certain social contexts, material conditions and communicative goals.

Though not destined to provide a systematic and exhaustive account, the book sheds light on this vast and heterogeneous field in an impressive and stimulating way. It grew out of a series of colloquia, which provided its methodological and thematic framework and were held in Paris in 2011– 13 under the heading of 'Commenter, expliquer, paraphraser. Enjeux historiques et anthropologiques des pratiques de commentaire dans le monde antique et au-delà'. This background suggests not only a long and intensive engagement with the topic and the collaboration of many participants, but also a perspective that, while starting from ancient commentary traditions, transcends both epoch and culture.

The positive effects of this interdisciplinary collaboration can be felt throughout the entire book. The papers included are all of high academic quality and written by experts in the respective fields. Most of them sharpen the reader's awareness of the basic conditions and functionalities that influence and define commentaries, as well as the act of commenting in general. It is a particular achievement of the editors that the individual topics and papers are very well introduced and interconnected. Delattre and Valette have made this field accessible in such a way that a non-expert reader will also substantially benefit from reading through the individual contributions.

There are two introductory pieces—an essay by Christian Jacob (pp. 7–23) and an introduction by Delattre and Valette (pp. 25–43)—followed by thirteen articles in French, which are organised into six sections. Next, a collection of abstracts, all in French and English, helps non-francophone readers to find their way through the volume. At the end, an apparatus of no fewer than four indices (rerum, fontium et auctorum, nominum, and locorum) makes it easy to explore cross-connections and thematic points of contact between the single chapters.

The introductory parts fulfil the difficult task of showing how each of the essays explores the same universal cultural practice from a different angle. In his Préface, Christian Jacob assembles an instructive collection of questions and topics for a comprehensive study of commenting practises from a synchronic or diachronic perspective. The Introduction that follows by Delattre and Valette draws awareness to the many connecting lines that can be drawn between the individual papers: the ambiguous position of the commentary in respect to genre, author and subject; the importance of orality and social context; the interrelation of form and purpose; and the material preconditions and their impact on reading habits and the use of commentaries.

The reader is then well prepared for the individual essays that deal with different types of commentaries (e.g., the commentarii of Aulus Gellius, authored lemmatized commentaries, scholia, an anonymous verse commentary, homilies and travel descriptions), on different topics and types of texts (e.g., philosophy, medicine, the Bible, and poetry), and from different times and cultures (e.g., classical and Late Antiquity, the Middle ages, Renaissance, modern times, from pagan, Jewish and Christian contexts, and post-war Japan).

However, given that the 'pragmatics of commentary' is the volume's general topic, the editors decided against a chronological or generic arrangement. Instead, they managed the diversity of the papers by arranging groups of two (or three, in one case) under a common heading, thus highlighting contextual aspects of producing and using commentaries as well as commenting as a kind of communication. Six topics or perspectives of commenting are outlined, namely terms, concepts and semantic field ('Commentaire : Des mots, des objets, des pratiques'; Valette, Pietrobelli), the way commentaries are constructed and at the same time construct their objects ('Fabriquer un texte, un genre, un auteur'; Briand, Pierre, de Boissieu), the scope and boundaries set for producers and users of commentaries ('Un espace de la contrainte ?'; Meyer, Zucker), social and didactic contexts ('Lettrés à la chaîne'; Cambron-Goulet, Leroy), genre and rhetoric ('Commentaire en chaire'; Bady, Ribreau), and finally commenting as a kind of literary attitude not limited to specific genres or objects ('Parcours savants'; Delattre, Soler).

As it is not possible within the given space to review all of the contributions with their different objectives in detail, I confine myself to highlighting two examples of interesting connecting lines between them. The first interlinks a number of participants who start their explorations from texts, which at first glance seem to be located more on the margins of the topic. This applies, for example, to the inspiring studies by Valette and Pietrobelli, who survey the scattered testimonies for terms like commentarius, commentarii (Valette) and hypomnema (Pietrobelli), in order to find their common notion, which is summarised by Emmanuelle Valette as 'un certain rapport à l'écriture, à la mémoire et au temps' (p. 48). Having this attitude in mind, one can easily see a comparable approach in the periegetic works of Pausanias and Egeria, described by Delattre and Soler as a kind of 'spatially organised commentary' (Delattre, p. 317). Again, the aspect of attitude is discussed by Rabbin David Meyer, who deals with the tradition and layout of Jewish biblical and Talmudic commentaries, showing how the digital age influences the use of commentaries as a social and spiritual practice.

The two chapters written by Maxime Pierre and Michel de Boissieu might be taken as a second example of a convincing cross-connection. Pierre describes how the commentary tradition on Horace's poetry developed the term ode as a generic marker and as a result constructed the Horatian carmina as a separate genre. This is answered by Michel de Boissieu's paper on a modern Japanese short story, which parodies the attitude of the commentator, thereby re-constructing (and re-interpreting) not only the commented object, a traditional fairy tale, but also the commentator himself as a literary character. Both articles therefore deal with the topic of constructing genres and authors by commenting on them, revealing this as an important effect of 'leaving comments' on a given object.

In summary, readers are left with a clearly positive impression, and there is hardly anything which could be objected to. To be sure, some areas that one may have expected are left out (for example, the Homeric and Virgilian exegesis).2 However, this might be due to the unpredictable preferences and publishing decisions of seminar participants. Perhaps for the same reason, the volume comes across as a very French undertaking involving only French contributors. This reviewer, at least, takes this as a sign of the dynamic landscape of cultural and comparative studies in France, which clearly provides an excellent background for the present study on a topic that still awaits more research of this sort.

Authors and titles

Jacob, Christian: Préface : Quand lire, c'est faire. pp. 7–23.
Delattre, Charles; Valette, Emmanuelle: Introduction. pp. 25–43.
Valette, Emmanuelle: Commentarii et commentaire - de Cicéron à Aulu Gelle. pp. 47–80.
Pietrobelli, Antoine: Le commentaire comme exercice spirituel chez Galien. pp. 81–110.
Briand, Michel: Le texte et le commentaire comme montages : les citations dans les scholies anciennes à Pindare. pp. 113–135.
Pierre, Maxime: Quand les commentaires font le genre : les Carmina d'Horace et l'invention de l' « ode » . pp. 137–156.
Boissieu, Michel de: Le Mont crépitant commenté par Dazai Osamu. pp. 157–170.
Meyer, David Rabbin: Les évolutions récentes des formats des commentaires bibliques et talmudiques. Entre nécessité et dangers. pp. 173–200.
Zucker, Arnaud: De la servitude volontaire du commentateur… à Aristote. pp. 201–223.
Cambron-Goulet, Mathilde: Commentaire et convivialité chez Marinus. pp. 227–244.
Leroy, Sylvain: Le Liber prefigurationum Christi et Ecclesie : un commentaire de la Bible en hexamètres dactyliques. pp. 245–261.
Bady, Guillaume: Genres et factures des textes exégétiques attribués à Jean Chrysostome. pp. 265–289.
Ribreau, Mickaël: Quand le texte parle. Prosopopée et commentaire chez Augustin. pp. 291–309.
Delattre, Charles: Périégèse et exégèse : l'exemple de Pausanias. pp. 313–344.
Soler, Joëlle: Peut-on considérer les premiers pèlerinages chrétiens comme des formes de commentaires ? Voyage et exégèse chez Égérie et Paula. pp. 345–367.


1.   Important collective studies include, among others, Most, Glenn. W. (Ed.) (1999): Commentaries - Kommentare. Göttingen; Gibson, Roy K.; Shuttleworth Kraus, Christina (Eds.) (2002): The classical commentary. Histories, practices, theory. Leiden; Geerlings, Wilhelm; Schulze, Christian (Eds.) (2002/2004): Der Kommentar in Antike und Mittelalter. Beiträge zu seiner Erforschung. Leiden, Boston, Köln, 2 vols.; Enenkel, Karl A. E. (Ed.) (2014): Transformations of the classics via early modern commentaries. Leiden; Shuttleworth Kraus, Christina; Stray, Christopher (Eds.) (2016): Classical commentaries. Explorations in a scholarly genre. Oxford.
2.   On pp. 42–43 the editors remark that some papers on poetic commentaries held during the seminar now form part of a special Issue of Rursus (2016), see

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