Tuesday, August 13, 2019


Michael Roberts, Venantius Fortunatus: Poems. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 46. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. xx, 910. ISBN 9780674974920. $29.95.

Reviewed by Hope Williard, University of Lincoln Library (hwilliard@lincoln.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

The poems of the sixth-century poet Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus sometimes seem to have flown under the radar of the late antique and early medieval studies. Certain poems are well known while the context from which they come, and the collection as a whole, is rarely considered. A full English translation of the poet's work has been a scholarly desideratum for a while (BMCR 2004.10.28). Michael Robert's splendid translation is the first to render all eleven books of Fortunatus' verse into English and will surely bring this text to a wider audience.

Fortunatus was born in northern Italy during the 530s, was educated there, and wrote his earliest poems for Italian friends and patrons, before immigrating to Merovingian Gaul and spending his life and career writing for elite men and women. His collected poems number 270, including two short prose treatises on theological matters, and (depending on how one counts) eight or nine prose letters. Comments in some of the poems, such as 7.10.7–8, indicate that the poet sometimes saw himself as writing epistolary verse. The poems are divided into eleven books, which seem to have been published in stages, and arranged with some care, especially for the first published collection of Books 1–7. Roberts' introduction offers a concise and exceptionally clear overview of the collection, the arrangement of poems within it, the subjects of the poems, and issues of metre, genre, and style.

The translation is of high quality. Roberts notes that, 'Fortunatus' poetry generally displays a delight in verbal play and an alliterative inventiveness that can present challenges for the translator,' (p. xiv) a challenge he succeeds in meeting. His translation is particularly successful in capturing the flashes of gentle humour and wordplay that are hallmarks of Fortunatus' poetry. Among many examples, I would point out the prefatory letter with which the collection opens ('in poetry if not in person' for si non pede, poemate, p 3 and non fatidicum licet exire, sed fatuum , 'not prophetic but pathetic', p. 7) as examples of what is to come. Comparison with an existing translation of 6.8, De coco qui ipsi navem tulit., demonstrates the particular fun and fluidity of Roberts' translation:

When I came to Metz, there the king's cook, an importunate fellow, took from me in my absence both sailors and boat. One who is used to snatching food with a hot hand from the flames cannot refrain from safely stealing a boat from the water. Black of heart, fed on smoke, and stained dark with soot, he has a face that looks like one of his pans; his utensils have coloured his features with grime, his frying pans, kettles, spoons, bowls, and tripods. He doesn't deserve poetry. Let the mark that he bears be in charcoal, and let his filthy appearance mirror his darkness of character. What an indignity, what a serious affront to have happened: the soups of a cook have usurped the rights due to me. The pen did not carry as much weight as the pan, so that I did not have the use of my boat. (Roberts, 6.8.7–20, p. 407)

When we reached Metz, that royal cook, importunate, stole from me in my absence ship and crew. Did he who snatches food from the flames with fiery hand, (10) not know to keep faith on the waters, and to keep his hands off a boat? Black hearted, smoke-fed, soot-dyed; his face is another cooking pot which his own implements have painted a filthy colour - frying pans, pots, bowls, plates, trivets; (15) unworthy of being marked by verse rather than by soot, may his foul image reflect the pitch-black man. The incident was most shameful, the wrong committed is heinous; a cook's broth carried more weight than my rights; a book is not as grand as a bowl, (20) so that I had no part in my own boat. (George, 6.8.7¬–20, p. 53)

Roberts generally makes the most of opportunities to bring out Fortunatus' penchant for alliteration as well as repetition of words and sounds, as in 5.1.5: 'When this bounty came unexpectedly on the billows, I enjoyed gain from the main' Hac inopina fruge delapsa per gurgitem primus iste mihimet venut fructus e fluctibus (p. 283).

Roberts' other goal in translating is 'to produce a readable and accurate version of Fortunatus' Latin, without slavishly following the structure of the Latin where it would produce uncomfortable English' (pp. xviii-xix). This another area in which the translation admirably achieves its aims: poems are rendered into prose with corresponding lines in English and Latin clearly and accurately marked, and departures from precisely mirroring the structure of Fortunatus' verse are sensibly chosen. Latin punctuation does not always exactly match the English but it is usually close and serves to clarify the translation.

The notes to the translation briefly and clearly acknowledge and explain the tangles of obscure or confusing passages (see for example, the discussion of the corruption of the text found in 10.1.13, p. 881). As Roberts states in the introduction, the notes are primarily focused on facilitating reading of the text, rather than advancing discussion of particular points of interpretation or historical context (p. xix). There are points of interest for those using these poems to explore linguistic and historical issues alike, particularly with regard to citations of Scripture in, for example, 2.1 (p. 845) and 2.9 (p. 847). The notes are not flagged in the main text, and readers should keep their ribbon bookmarks in the back in order not to miss valuable points.

Fortunatus specialised in Gelegenheitsgedichten and to fully understand the occasions behind certain poems, readers may wish to consult the more extensive contextual notes provided by Judith George in Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems, and will also want to see the comments Robert's excellent 2009 monograph on Fortunatus, The Humblest Sparrow. Scriptural references are flagged and for background on historical figures readers are referred on to PCBE and PLRE. Episodes shared with or borrowed from other late antique and early medieval authors, particularly Sulpicius Severus and Gregory of Tours, are noted as well. A short, comprehensive bibliography beginning on p. 895 provides a springboard for investigation into further issues, though readers interested in cross references within Fortunatus' works and his textual references to Classical literature may want to refer to two older works of German scholarship not listed in the bibliography.1

The notes also provide a way into the debates over the authenticity of certain poems. Frederich Leo, who made the first critical edition of Fortunatus' poems, argued that 2.15 was not by Fortunatus 'for metrical reasons and because of its untypical content'; Roberts finds this argument 'persuasive' but includes the poem anyway (p. 849). Roberts argues that a figure poem found in a single manuscript, Sangallensis 196, 'is not in the manner of Fortunatus', and omits text and translation (p 84); it is included by in Reydellet's edition and translation as 5a (though left out of his table of contents) with a brief note on the debate over its authenticity.2 The long (360-line) poem In laudem sanctae Mariae, is understandably omitted given its length and the debates over whether it is really by Fortunatus, though it is unfortunate that this omission receives no comment. 3 But these quibbles could in turn be taken as a sign of the translation's excellence—it left this reader eager to read and learn more. In sum, Roberts' translation presents an eminently readable, accurate, and enjoyable English version of Fortunatus' complete poetic works, which will inspire students, scholars, and teachers to take on the challenges and charm of the poet's work.


1.   On cross-references within the poems, Wilhelm Meyer, Der Gelegenheitsdichter Venantius Fortunatus (Berlin, 1901, reprinted in 2012 by Nabu Press) remains highly useful; for a list of textual parallels to Classical literature, see Max Manitius, 'Poetarum priorum loci expressi a Fortunatuo.' MGH AA 4.2 (Berlin, 1885), 137-144.
2.   Marc Reydellet, Venance Fortunat Poèmes, Vol. 1 (Paris, 2002), p. 56.
3.   Reydellet made arguments for its authenticity and included it in his edition and translation, Venance Fortunat Poèmes, Vol. 3 (Paris, 2004).

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