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© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV ISBN 978 90 04 21432 3

LEIDEN 

 BOSTON
2012
Brill’s Companion to Greek and
Latin Epyllion and Its Reception
Edited by
Manuel Baumbach and Silvio Bär
© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV ISBN 978 90 04 21432 3
CONTENTS
A Short Introduction to the Ancient Epyllion  ....................................... ix
Manuel Baumbach & Silvio Bär
Contributors  ..................................................................................................... xvii
Abbreviations  ................................................................................................... xxv
PART 1
HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE TERM AND
CONCEPT OF THE EPYLLION
Before the Epyllion: Concepts and Texts  ................................................ 3
Virgilio Masciadri
On the Origins of the Modern Term “Epyllion”: Some Revisions
to a Chapter in the History of Classical Scholarship  ...................... 29
Stefan Tilg
Catullus 64: The Perfect Epyllion?  ............................................................. 55
Gail Trimble
PART 2
THE ARCHAIC AND PRE-HELLENISTIC PERIOD
The Songs of Demodocus: Compression and Extension in Greek
Narrative Poetry  ......................................................................................... 83
Richard Hunter
Demodokos’ Song of Ares and Aphrodite in Homer’s Odyssey
(8.266–366): An Epyllion? Agonistic Performativity and
Cultural Metapoetics  ................................................................................ 111
Anton Bierl
vi contents
© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV ISBN 978 90 04 21432 3
Borderline Experiences with Genre: The Homeric Hymn to
Aphrodite between Epic, Hymn and Epyllic Poetry  ........................ 135
Manuel Baumbach
Rhapsodic Hymns and Epyllia  .................................................................... 149
Ivana Petrovic
A Proto-Epyllion? The Pseudo-Hesiodic Shield and The Poetics of
Deferral  ......................................................................................................... 177
Peter Bing
PART 3
THE HELLENISTIC PERIOD
Pindaric Narrative Technique in the Hellenistic Epyllion  ................. 201
Christine Luz
The Hecale and Hellenistic Conceptions of Short Hexameter
Narratives  ..................................................................................................... 221
Kathryn Gutzwiller
Miniaturizing the Huge: Hercules on a Small Scale
(Theocritus Idylls 13 and 24)  ................................................................... 245
Benjamin Acosta-Hughes
Herakles in Bits and Pieces: Id. 25 in the Corpus Theocriteum  ......... 259
Thomas A. Schmitz
Achilles at Scyros, and One of His Fans: The Epithalamium of
Achilles and Deidameia (Buc. Gr. 157–158 Gow)  ............................... 283
Marco Fantuzzi
PART 4
THE LATE ROMAN REPUBLIC AND THE AUGUSTAN PERIOD
“Εἰς ἔπη καὶ ἐλεγείας ἀνάγειν”: The Erotika Pathemata of
Parthenius of Nicaea  ................................................................................. 309
Jacqueline J.H. Klooster
contents vii
© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV ISBN 978 90 04 21432 3
A Virgo Infelix: Calvus’ Io vis-à-vis Other Cow-And-Bull Stories  ...... 333
Regina Höschele
The Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as Orpheus’ Epyllion  .... 355
Ulrich Eigler
PART 5
THE IMPERIAL PERIOD
The Fast and the Furious: Triphiodorus’ Reception of Homer
in the Capture of Troy  ............................................................................... 371
Vincent Tomasso
Musaeus, Hero and Leander: Between Epic and Novel  ....................... 411
Nicola Nina Dümmler
“Museum of Words”:

Christodorus, the Art of Ekphrasis and the
Epyllic Genre  ............................................................................................... 447
Silvio Bär
The Motif of the Rape of Europa: Intertextuality and Absurdity
of the Myth in Epyllion and Epic Insets  ............................................. 473
Peter Kuhlmann
PART 6
THE MIDDLE AGES AND BEYOND
“Epyllion” or “Short Epic” in the Latin Literature of the
Middle Ages?  ............................................................................................... 493
Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann & Peter Stotz
Short Mythological Epic in Neo-Latin Literature  ................................. 519
Martin Korenjak
Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter: A Lallans Epyllion?  ............................. 537
Ewen L. Bowie
viii contents
© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV ISBN 978 90 04 21432 3
Bibliography  ..................................................................................................... 563
General Index  ................................................................................................... 597
Index Locorum  ................................................................................................ 617
Index of Selected Greek Words  .................................................................. 639
© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV ISBN 978 90 04 21432 3
PART 6
THE MIDDLE AGES AND BEYOND
© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV ISBN 978 90 04 21432 3
“EPYLLION” OR “SHORT EPIC” IN THE LATIN LITERATURE OF THE
MIDDLE AGES?
Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann & Peter Stotz
1. Introduction
As the epyllion is defined through its relation to and its distinction from
the epic, it is not easy to answer the question whether there exists a group
of texts in the Latin Middle Ages that ought to be referred to as “epyl-
lia.” We cannot discuss short epic poetry without first addressing the epic
itself, but defining the epic adequately for the Latin Middle Ages poses
special problems due to the mediaeval poets’ free way of dealing with
various literary traditions. Let us begin by surveying the forms of narrative
poetry at large in the Middle Ages in order to obtain a basis for further
discussion. Subsequently we shall present some attempts to delimit epic
poetry within such a corpus, and shall thereby encounter the specific kind
of difficulties in defining genres within the mediaeval Latin literature.
Eventually, returning to the original question, we shall study when and
in what contexts a concept “epyllion” was hitherto used in the study of
mediaeval Latin literature, and whether such a designation can be useful
and adequate to the texts.
2. Narrative Poetry in Mediaeval Latin Literature
In order to get a survey of the corpus of texts including epic and short epic
poetic forms, it is best to start by using just two very general character-
istics: as regards the content we are first concerned with narrative texts;
secondly, regarding the form, they are to be written in verse. Let us remark
that it is preferable to use verse in general as criterion, not exclusively
metric hexameters, as there is also narrative poetry in the Middle Ages
in distichs or even in rhythmic (i.e. in non-quantitative) verse without
this peculiarity being accompanied with any other ones regarding lan-
guage, style, or content.1 These two criteria, however, are not yet capable
1 From the twelfth century onward, probably due to Ovidian influence, the distich starts
to gain ground in narrative poetry, cf. the observations in Schmidt (2001) 451. For biblical
poetry in rhythmic (i.e. non-quantitative) forms compare Kartschoke (1975) 229–270.
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by themselves to establish a definition of mediaeval epics; they merely
delimit a working corpus of texts out of which presumably epic genres
may be crystallised. For the classification of the texts according to crite-
ria of content we follow two summary articles by Peter Christian Jacob-
sen and Jan Ziolkowski,2 both of whom use a general concept of epics,
whereas other authors use much more strict criteria of definition.3 As we
wish to present here merely a short approximate outline, we shall men-
tion only a few groups of texts usually subsumed under the heading “epic
poetry.” For all of these cases one ought to investigate in depth whether
they indeed form coherent groups, and, if so, what texts belong to them.
We shall use their common designations, such as “beast epic” or “Bible
epic.” The precise demarcations of these groups are controversial, as is, to
some degree, even their belonging to epics in general; hence we shall refer
to “hagiographic epics” only if we intend poems that would be recognised
as epics even by the proponents of a narrow definition of epics, but to
“hagiographic poetry” if we intend texts from our entire corpus.4
If we derive our concepts of what epics are from antique literature,
we shall find the first mediaeval epics only in the twelfth/thirteenth
century: a time when epics orient themselves by antique pagan models
both regarding their form and their content.5 One of these poems, Wal-
ter of Châtillon’s (*1230/40) Alexandreis, was even able to compete with
antique epics as school text in the late Middle Ages.6 Such a complete
recourse to antique models emerges only late and was to remain rare.
But the Christian unease with the figmenta poetarum, coupled with an
unimpaired admiration for the literary achievements of antiquity and a
desire to transmit the Christian message in a literarily sophisticated form
2 Jacobsen (1986); Ziolkowski (1996).
3 Cf. below, pp. 496–503.
4 Even such a differentiation is not easy; hence most authors discussing these groups
of texts prefer to recur to the more general notions. This can be well observed for poetry
on biblical themes where a vivid discussion took place: earlier scholars denied its belong-
ing to the genre “epic” altogether; as in the famous dictum of Curtius (1948) 457: “Das
Bibelepos ist während seiner ganzen Lebenszeit—von Juvencus bis Klopstock—eine
hybride und innerlich unwahre Gattung gewesen, ein genre faux.” Authors like Herzog,
Kartschoke and Smolak have appealed against this verdict. Nonetheless, especially the
two latter scholars, also discussing mediaeval works, refer to texts where the influence of
epics is becoming more limited. They also designate the whole set of such texts as biblical
poetry ( Bibeldichtung).
5 Tilliette (1985) showed in his discussion of the Virgilian influence on twelfth century
epics that the poets tend to refer explicitly to Virgil as their model but nevertheless orient
themselves, with regards to language and form, more by imperial and late antique epics.
6 Colker (1978) xix–xx.


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to the educated, soon gave rise to a recasting of Christian contents in
the language and style of antique epics, and to the use of antique liter-
ary strategies to convey them. The Christian epics of late antiquity were
ground-breaking.7 Among them was the allegorical poetry of Prudentius
(349 to at least 405) whose Psychomachia was specially favoured in the
entire Middle Ages. In the twelfth century such models were taken up
again. The replacement of pagan heroes with Christian ones proved espe-
cially successful: in Iuvencus’ poetic retelling of the Gospels, Christianity’s
founder Jesus Christ acquires the role of an epic hero. Other biblical themes
were also adapted poetically early on, beginning with Arator’s De actibus
apostolorum. The conviction that some biblical books had been written in
hexameters in the original text, thus prefiguring the pagan literary form,
may have encouraged such epic transposition.8 After late antiquity the
tradition of retelling biblical stories as epics becomes productive again
in the twelfth century.9 There is a very wide spectrum: texts comprising
rich exegetical material and therefore only partly narrative, such as Petrus
Riga’s († 1209) Aurora, allegorical descriptions of the history of redemption
as in Eupolemius’ (around 1100) poem, as well as epic rewritings of indi-
vidual biblical books. This last group is especially common, containing on
the one hand widely read texts like Matthew of Vendôme’s Tobias, and on
the other hand rarities like Willetrudis’ Versus de Susanna, one of the few
late mediaeval Latin works written by a woman.
There is another possibility to reoccupy the role of the epic hero within
a Christian context: a saint may assume this role. Saint Martin of Tours
(c.336[?]–397) is the first saint to be honoured in such a way; he also
inspired other new literary genres, such as the biographic dialogue with
Sulpicius Severus († after 406). Paulinus of Périgueux (fifth century) in
turn narrates his live in De vita sancti Martini libri sex, itself based on Sulp-
icius’ work. Right from the beginning hagiographic poetry has many an
affinity to biblical poetry;10 in both groups the relation to a prose model
leads to a vast variety regarding form and content. Within hagiographic
poetry there are versifications that stay so close to their narrative model
7 For late antique Christian epics cf. Thraede (1962), Kirsch (1989) and Herzog (1989)
328–340, besides Kartschoke (1975) 30–124 and Herzog (1975).
8 Cf. Vitali (2005) and Ziolkowski (2007) 189 and n. 52.
9 In Carolingian times there are mainly short metric or rhythmic verse paraphrases, cf.
Kartschoke (1975) 229–270; for biblical epics in the twelfth century, cf. Schmidt (2001). A
good survey of different forms and traditions within biblical poetry from late antiquity to
early modern times can be found in Smolak (2001).
10 Cf. Labarre (1998) 82–88; Zarini (2006) 182–183; Goullet (2008) 72–73.
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that they look heterogeneous (e.g. by giving a list of miracles), whereas
others leave off narration altogether. As to be expected, such epics usu-
ally focus on one hero, but there are also some poems in which stories
about different saints follow one another, such as in Flodoard of Reims’
(893/894–966) De triumphis Christi. A genre “hagiographic epics” thus
poses similar problems of definition like biblical epics.11
Another widespread type of narrative poetry depicts historical events.
During the entire Middle Ages there are a large number of historical poems
usually concerned with contemporary or recent events; among them we
find poems that follow antique models in respect to language and style,
but also ones whose form treads new paths. Some of these are fictitious in
their content, what Jacobsen calls “romances in verse” (Versromane); among
them Waltharius (ninth? tenth? century) and Odo of Magdeburg’s Ernestus
(composed 1212/18) based on Germanic lore. But one ought to keep in mind
that such stories may be taken to be historical, i.e. as memories of long
past events; thus these texts may be reckoned to the group of historical
epics, albeit on its fringes. Definitively fictitious, on the other hand, are high
mediaeval texts based on fairy tales and fables. Here, too, we observe a wide
spectrum from poetic reworking of a fairy tale motive, like in the Asinarius
(around 1200) or in the Rapularius (beginning of the thirteenth century) to
a creative amalgamation of various themes and motifs like in the Ruodlieb
(2nd half of the eleventh century)12 or the numerous specimens of so-called
“beast epics” combining fable motifs with social satire.
Apart from these, there are also many cases with inversions to be called
parodistic in the widest sense: where the role of the hero is taken by a
lowly person, e.g. in Letaldus of Micy’s (c.950–c.1010) Within piscator, or
ones in which a trivial theme is presented in elaborate style.
3. What is an Epic Poem in Mediaeval Latin Literature?
The endeavour to bring order into this multifaceted corpus poses a variety
of problems, first among them how to define epics in general. Hitherto,
11 Hummel (2006) emphasises the epic character of hagiographic poetry. A thorough
discussion for the demarcation of hagiographic epics may be found in Kirsch (2004) vol. 1,
esp. 6–14. Cf. also below, pp. 510–511.
12 This early poem is exceptional in many respects, for instance its free transformation
of various kinds of stories around its human hero; but it was hardly acknowledged in the
Middle Ages and remained without effect. For more about poems with fairy tale and droll
story motives, see below, pp. 507–510.


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there have been but few studies on the definition of the concept “epics”
that have taken into account the entire corpus. They belong to one of
two possible approaches: in the first one, a concept of epics is distilled
out of different literary traditions which is then used to differentiate true
epics from neighbouring groups within the corpus of mediaeval narrative
poetry. Schaller,13 Tyssens,14 and Martínez Pastor,15 among others, follow
such an approach. A second group of scholars starts its inquiry with the
mediaeval Latin texts and then strives to develop a concept of epics cover-
ing all narrative poetry. Of course, these scholars also need a preconcep-
tion of what epics are, but they tend to keep it very general. Ziolkowski
and Jacobsen16 belong to this group; an article by Fidel Rädle17 concerned
in general with definitions of genres in mediaeval Latin literature is also
relevant here.
Among the first group, Dieter Schaller deals especially thoroughly with
the question of defining and classifying mediaeval Latin epics; he does so
in three articles. In his first contribution he chides the common applica-
tion of a wide notion of epics in the discussion of Latin poetry in the
Middle Ages and advocates a narrow definition based on Virgil. He jus-
tifies such a basis with the function as a role model the Aeneid had in
the Middle Ages, and rejects the idea that the content of a poem should
be considered for its genre, as, according to Schaller, the content per-
tains to the history of narrative motifs only, not to the determination of
genres. He also rejects a definition of epics as heroic poetry, for Aeneas
was not always regarded as a hero in the Middle Ages. Consequently he
excludes biblical epics and hagiographic epics—defined as heroic poetry
with Christian heroes—as genres. Based on the Aeneid Schaller speci-
fies four basic characteristics for an epic: (i) uniformity of the content,
(ii) “considerable amount of text, laid out amply as suited for the genre,”18
(iii) belonging to the genus mixtum, i.e. alternation between dialogue,
report, and narration, and (iv) the use of special stylistic devices (com-
parisons and similes, catalogues, excursus, lyric parentheses). Schaller is
of course aware that there exist works in the Middle Ages that combine
elements from various genres and from various models, but he considers
13 Schaller (1987); id. (1989); id. (1993).
14 Tyssens (1988).
15 Martínez Pastor (2005).
16 Cf. our n. 2 above.
17 Rädle (1997).
18 “erhebliche[r] Textumfang, Anlage in gattungsspezifischer Breite,” Schaller (1987)
96–97 (291–292).
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them as degenerate.19 Among hagiographic and historical poems as well
as among biblical poetry, only those works with all four characteristics are
to be addressed as epics.
Whilst this first approach of Schaller’s aims at Virgilian epics, the system
he develops in two subsequent studies intended to classify a more varied
corpus of texts.20 He proposes a systematic order for mediaeval Latin liter-
ature based on purely formal and functional criteria. The formal criterion
he proposes is based on a classification of speech-forms taken from the
grammar of Diomedes and further handed down through the Middle Ages,
namely the differentiation between author speech, character speech, and
the already mentioned mixed forms, out of which Schaller elaborated a
further differentiated scale. The functional criterion is the form of presen-
tation. As this is often hard to elicit, Schaller further specifies:
Mit Funktionsbestimmung meinen wir denjenigen Realisationsmodus, den
ein Verfasser seinem literarischen Werk als optimal (offenkundig oder—
gemäß innerer Kriterien und äußerer Testimonien—wahrscheinlich) zuge-
dacht hat.21
An entire scale of possible forms of presentation is proposed: singing—
aided by scenic means, melodically or by Sprechgesang—, recital with or
without preparatory play, reading aloud, individual reading, watching,
playing. With these two criteria, the epic would be assigned as coordi-
nates the speech-form “epic” (i.e. alteration between author and character
speech) on the one hand and “recital, reading aloud” on the other. Accord-
ing to Schaller, this is, however, only a genre abstraction with several sub-
types: the actual epic, the epyllion, and the series of epyllia (Epyllienkette).
The criteria to differentiate these three forms are not explicitly stated.22
The bifurcation into further subgenera continues: the epic on a second
level (the subgenus epic) in turn is differentiated into several species, one
of which will be the epics based on the model of the Aeneid, another repre-
sented by Ruodlieb. The author does not enumerate further instances, but
insists on the necessity to use exclusively formal and functional criteria.
19 Schaller (1987) 97 (292): “Die von der Aeneis abstammende Textfamilie erleidet
im Mittelalter sozusagen Degenerationserscheinungen und Einkreuzungen von anderen
Ge nera. Ein interessantes Beobachtungsfeld ist z.B. die Pseudo-Gattung ‘Bibelepik’: Nur
eine Minderheit ihrer Texte sind wirklich Epen, die anderen sind teils metrische Paraphra-
sen biblischer Bücher, teils ‘ständig von exegetischen Formen durchkreuzt,’ wie Reinhart
Herzog sehr deutlich ausgeführt hat.” The reference is to Herzog (1975) lxiii.
20 Schaller (1989); id. (1993).
21 Schaller (1989) 366 (307).
22 We shall return to this specification of the epyllion below.


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Only on the level of subspecies may one use criteria based on the content
of the text in order to differentiate epics into contemporary historical,
heroic, or beast epics.
Although such a classification scheme looks impressive indeed, it will
be very difficult to be put into practice. Problems start with the highest
level, viz. in the form of presentation: in many cases it is very difficult to
determine the medial forms of reception. Usually there are no testimo-
nies, and even if the author himself or another source does give hints, cau-
tion is advisable: the author may fictively stage a certain form of reception
of his text, and other sources may offer an incomplete picture spatially
and temporally bound to possibly non-representative circumstances.23
Already for the problem of the audience we are in many instances unable
to get beyond guesswork (compare e.g. the enigmatic Ruodlieb), mak-
ing the determination of the form of performance pure speculation. The
problems would multiply if one tried to follow Schaller’s classification into
all of its ramifications. It remains unclear according to what criteria he
divides his species: only one, the Virgilian epic, is considered. Now the
problem of models plays without a doubt an important role in mediaeval
Latin literature, but a stringent separation according to classical models
would only in few cases be feasible, as it is indeed common to combine
characteristics from several models; in some text groups one even orients
oneself by an entire group of model texts, and even in fields where one
model is dominant, mediaeval authors do not follow it as an exclusive and
binding norm but rather as framework for orientation.24
For our present inquiry into the definition of epics, Schaller’s contri-
butions are of importance mainly for their strict separation of a group
of “true epics” from other similar forms by criteria developed according
23 Let us recall the case of a casual reference to a performance of the Pamphilus in
Arnulf of Orléans’ Commentary on Ovid (Roy [1974] 258–260). Arnulf speaks only generally
of “watching” (cernunt), leaving the concrete form of the performance unclear. It seems
bold to postulate a performative practice from this gloss for all the texts we call “elegiac
comedies” since the nineteenth century.
24 Cf. Rädle (1997) who demonstrates in a detailed manner that different criteria and
prerequisites are necessary for different genres. Cf. also Haye (1997a) 15. Cardelle de Hart-
mann (2007) puts into practice a classification of genres according to their models where
this variety is very clearly visible: several models for monastic dialogues and for soliloquies,
entire groups of texts for question-and-answer dialogues, and even forms like the polemi-
cal dialogues which do not define themselves through models at all but rather through
aspects of their contents. Even among epics of Virgilian kind one cannot exclusively speak
of Virgilian influence, as Tilliette showed for some classicizing epics of the twelfth century
(cf. our n. 5 above).
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to models from antiquity. Other authors also discuss such a differentia-
tion: another example can be found in the volume on the epic (L’épopée)
within the series Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental. As the
articles of this volume present the epic poetry of the Middle Ages in its
various languages, a common definition had to be found for all the differ-
ent traditions and thus capable to form a unifying framework. Jean-Marcel
Paquette devoted himself to this task.25 As the antique tradition was not
relevant here, the defining characteristics, as might be expected, turned
out rather differently: epics are heroic poems featuring warlike conflicts
during the phases of a people’s colonisation and settling, and for this they
do not generally strive to be historic reports but fictionalise the events
within a framework of the probable. Although Madeleine Tyssens in her
article on the mediaeval Latin tradition addresses the issue of the exis-
tence of a multitude of epic forms, she ends, based on the common defi-
nition, by distinguishing “true epics” from neighbouring forms—similarly
to Schaller. Recently Marcelo Martínez Pastor tried to find a definition
of the epic fit for both vernacular mediaeval traditions and antiquity.26
For this, he starts from Paquette’s definition and extends it in order to be
able to encompass later texts following the older models. Martínez Pastor
especially emphasises the aspect of fictionalisation. This characteristic is
meant to help to distinguish epic poems from purely historic ones within
the mediaeval tradition. The author exemplifies this with the Waltharius
and the Prefatio de Almaria.
Problems may arise in case of a strict demarcation between epics and
derived forms, as one needs to start from a concept based on one literary
tradition. Mediaeval literature, however, is a hybrid of several literary tra-
ditions: the antique models, central for Schaller, are doubtless very impor-
tant in the field of epics, but the vernacular traditions have also found
their, albeit weaker, echoes. In the studies hitherto discussed, one group
of texts was neglected: the Christian epics of late antiquity. For them
too, we have to face the question whether they are still to be considered
epics at all. An approach based on antiquity will have to deny this at least
partly.27 These authors may indeed only be understood as epic writers if
we assume a wide notion of epics taking into account transformations
within the genre over time. Mediaevalists tend towards this point of view
25 Paquette (1988).
26 Martínez Pastor (2005).
27 As Schaller does. Among older studies this was the common point of view, cf. Herzog
(1975) xxxiii–xxxvi.


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as they are dealing with literatures without strict normalisations. Wolf-
gang Kirsch’s discussion of late antique epics may serve as an example for
this.28 He assumes a dynamic notion of epics: different characteristics of
antique epics were used as orientation by the late antique authors; they
followed so many of them that their audience was capable to understand
their works as continuations of the epic tradition. What precisely was
accepted and what altered or left apart from this tradition depended on
the respective author.
Many very disparate traditions and influences coalesce in mediaeval
Latin literature: there are vernacular traditions, antique pagan and late
antique Christian models. The mediaeval authors deal freely with the spe-
cial characteristics of genres they find in their models: they combine them
or change them and adapt them to their new needs. It is such diachronic
change and synchronic variety that motivate a flexible concept of epics
for mediaeval Latin literature, like the ones Jacobsen or Ziolkowski use in
their surveys we encountered above. They both include all forms of narra-
tive poetry, as we have done in the first section. Although neither of them
formulates this so distinctly, the only obligatory characteristic seems to be
that the narratives need to be presented in verse; not even the hexametric
form seems to be considered a necessary prerequisite as we occasionally
find in both surveys rhythmic poems as well. As both authors’ task was to
survey a vast panorama, and a systematic classification would thus have
been hardly feasible, their approach seems adequate to their task.
Fidel Rädle observes several highly relevant points regarding epics in
an article that deals with the general problem of defining genres.29 He
points out the continuity of this genre, which can be explained mainly
by two factors. Christian epicists demonstrated how the genre could be
christianised, thus rendering it capable to adapt to the new Christian con-
text of literary production; apart from this, the epic was protected by its
use in school as both pagan (Virgil, Statius, Lucan) and Christian epicists
(Iuvencus, Sedulius, Arator) belonged to the school canon. Because of this
context of reception it was mainly the epic language and style that was
imitated. So it is the specific language that keeps the genre together despite
28 Kirsch (1979) thoroughly discusses the problem of determining and following the
changes of a genre through time. He uses the same approach in his monograph on Latin
epics of the fourth century (Kirsch [2004] vol. 1). Herzog (1975) and Kartschoke (1975) also
distance themselves from a concept of epics gained from antiquity and then extended to
be valid diachronically; thus they gain a much more differentiated appraisal of the epic
tradition.
29 Rädle (1997).
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its varying topics.30 Nonetheless matters of content are also important:
in accord with the self-conception of Christian epicists, bio-bibliographic
works and mediaeval manuscript catalogues tend to present pagan and
Christian epics apart. Thus both groups were considered connected but
as susceptible to separation from each other. Apart from such a tradition-
alist point of view, we still do also find innovation: Rädle mentions the
Ysengrimus—the first beast epic (mid-twelfth century)—as an example
for a large narrative poem that does not follow the epic tradition regard-
ing its content or its style.
In contrast to our first group of authors, these latter ones opt for a flexi-
ble classification taking change into account and leaving room for derived
forms or new designs to fit in. But even behind a flexible classification,
trouble may lurk. One inevitably loses stringency by taking into account
the variance among intermediate forms, nay, the borders of a genre may
become determining and challenge the original notion defining the genre.
Biblical epics are such a case: the contours of the narration tend to get
blurred by elements of another form of dealing with biblical texts: exege-
sis. What made these texts look like epics, a consistent narration and a
typical epic style, may disappear altogether, so that we are hardly still
entitled to call them epics. Within hagiographic epic we encounter sim-
ilar problems: some of these poems assimilate all kinds of information
bestowing them a nearly encyclopaedic character, apparently for their use
in school. Sigebert of Gembloux’s (c.1028/29–1112) Passio Thebeorum31 is
such an example.
Another problem emerges from the common practice of transforming
prose texts into verse: some subsequently versified texts comprise a new
presentation of a subject, so to speak cast it into a new form in order to
satisfy a new poetic conception; in other cases they are mere paraphrase
in verse remaining very close to their model. Let us exemplify this with
two samples from Hrotsvit’s hagiographic poetry: Although the Theophilus
is based on a prose model it is still an independent poem with a consis-
tent plot around the central figure of Theophilus. The Ascensio, on the
other hand, consists of two long speeches which are connected by a barely
developed plot. It remains easily visible that it is based on a sermon and
might thus be called a versified sermon.
30 Tilliette (1985) 123 n. 11 also emphasises the role of language and style for the deter-
mination of genres.
31 Licht (2005) 95–97; in general on the connections between hagiographic poetry and
school, cf. Goullet (2008).


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So there is no simple answer to the question of what mediaeval epics
are and what constitutes them as such. Indeed, such an answer cannot
be found by merely theoretical reflection; specific problems only emerge
when studying a large corpus of texts. In the case of Latin literature of
the Middle Ages any discussion must find a compromise between two
extremes: a taxonomy that neglects large parts of literary production and
a mere inventory hardly able to demarcate different groups.
4. A Genre “Epyllion” in the Latin Literature of the Middle Ages?
In the foregoing section we have pointed out the difficulties in defining
mediaeval Latin epics and indicated the coordinates within which a dis-
cussion on such genres must be situated. Thus we have gained a frame-
work to discuss whether a specific group of texts within the mediaeval
Latin literature may be described adequately by the designation “epyl-
lion.” For this we start from the corpus of texts we called narrative poetry
and will discuss the problems for each of its thematic groups. Several
considerations seem to justify such an approach: aspects of content may
not be confined to the study of narrative motifs as they play an impor-
tant role for the determination of genres for mediaeval Latin texts, indeed
there are even genres that are to be defined mainly by considerations of
their content.32 The topic of a work is an indicator of what tradition the
text associates itself with, which makes it an important factor in our dis-
cussion, as formal characteristics like length, the existence of a unifying
plot, or style do not always bear much weight within the literary tradi-
tion mediaeval Latin authors mean to continue. We have seen that even
authors using a restrictive concept of epics acknowledge the existence
of groups defined according to their content, albeit they may not regard
them as epics or as subgroups within epic poetry. Among these groups
we shall probe whether a concept “epyllion” has been defined or used in
scholarship, and then we shall discuss the adequacy of such a concept.
Before tackling the discussion of the mediaeval texts, it seems advis-
able to take a look at the definition of the “epyllion” within late antique
literature, for mediaeval authors, as mentioned above, have often used
these, especially the Christian epicists, as their models. In late antiquity
the typically epic length (epische Breite) loses ground and we observe a
32 D’Angelo (1990) advocates in his reply to Schaller an approach including consider-
ations on topic, reception and the historical context of a work. Cf. also below, our n. 41.
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tendency towards shorter epics.33 This is why Severin Koster argues for
a differentiation of short epics (Kleinepen) from epyllia, since these latter
ones exhibit also other features apart from their shortness, such as an
erotic topic, or a structure featuring a main story and parentheses that
differ in their topic. Koster believes that the epyllion as it was used among
Alexandrine poets was no more recognisable as a genre of its own in late
antiquity.
One specific use of a concept “epyllion” within the study of mediae-
val Latin literature has already been introduced: among Schaller’s three
subgenera epic, epyllion, and series of epyllia in his article “Das mittel-
alterliche Epos.” There it is implied that he uses the unity of the plot
and the size of the text as differentiating characteristics, though he does
not express this explicitly. In another study of his, while discussing the
genus mixtum—i.e. texts that mix author speech and character speech—,
Schaller proposes a new systematic:
Naturalmente il genus mixtum racchiude tutta una serie di sottogeneri, che
si distinguono tra loro prima di tutto in base all’estensione del testo: il sot-
togenere delle forme brevi (che comprende diversi tipi [species] di poesia
narrativa, come ad esempio i canti eroici, la poesia encomiastica e la poesia
di argomento storico-contemporaneo), un sottogenere intermedio rappre-
sentato dall’epica-breve (l’epillio) ed infine le forme lunghe (serie o catene
di epilli, l’epos, il romanzo).34
Thus the entire narrative poetry is here first broadly classified according
to its length. The epyllion figures among those of intermediate length and
is no subgenus of the epic anymore, but rather contrasts with it on the
one hand and with epic poetry of even shorter length on the other. As
no examples are given, it remains unclear whether Schaller also acknowl-
edges other criteria; the question where the limits of the text size are to
be drawn is not addressed either.
Two criteria have now been used whose adequacy to differentiate
genres within narrative poetry must be further discussed: the unity of the
plot and the length of the text.
The first criterion, the unity of the plot (even in case of several strands),
differentiates the epic from the “series of epyllia.” This term is very rarely
used in mediaeval Latin philology; Schaller uses it to refer to one text only:
Hugh of Mâcon’s Gesta militum, a text Jacobsen addresses as a “collective
33 Koster (2002) 32; Kirsch (2004) vol. 1, 7.
34 Schaller (1993) 14.


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poem of Ovidian stance,”35 whereas he speaks of a collective poem (Sam-
melgedicht) in the case of Aldhelm’s De virginitate.36 Ewald Könsgen and
Karoline Harthun do not address the Gesta militum as a series of epyllia
either.37 The resistance against this term in mediaeval Latin philology may
be due to the fact that its understanding tends to imply an episode-like
structure against the usual epic normal form with a unitary plot. These
criteria, however, are only valid for a concept derived from pagan epics,
whereas many narrative poems in the Middle Ages do not, or not exclu-
sively, follow such models; instead they follow much more often Christian
epicists, and it is a typical characteristic of these late antique epics in gen-
eral that episodes tend to be of greater importance.38 A strict differentia-
tion according to this criterion seems thus unpromising for all genres with
a tendency to follow late antique models, such as biblical epics, hagio-
graphic epics, or allegoric epics.
The other criterion, the criterion of length, is used to a varying degree
in scholarly debate. It is of importance for texts either in the Virgilian or
in the vernacular tradition, because of their characteristic epische Breite.
A good example for this is the Waltharius, expanding topics from Ger-
manic heroic songs but nevertheless with a palpably Virgilian influence.
Due to its shortness, it was casually called an epyllion by Peter Dronke.
Alois Wolf picks this up and points out its similarity with antique epyllia
with one major restriction:39
Vom Umfang her ist der Waltharius mit seinen 1456 Hexametern kein
Großepos. Peter Dronke bezeichnet das Werk—mehr nebenbei—als ein
Epyllion. In den Epyllien der alexandrinischen und dann der augusteischen
Zeit pflegten sich poetae docti in raffinierten kürzeren Hexameterepen, in
denen geschickt auswählend auf alte Sagenstoffe zurückgegriffen wurde,
einer sachkundigen Hörerschaft zu empfehlen. Wenn man den Waltha-
rius in diese Tradition stellen dürfte, ergäbe sich für den Rang, den die
volkssprachliche mittelalterliche Heldensage einnehmen konnte, ein inter-
essanter Befund.
The last sentence seems of special importance to us, for it makes clear
that the concept “epyllion” posits the Waltharius in a certain context, thus
35 “Kollektivgedicht ovidischer Prägung,” Jacobsen (1986) 2079.
36 Jacobsen (1986) 2078.
37 Könsgen (1990) 1, 3–4 and 48–52 shows the manifold elements from various models
and genres Hugh incorporates into his work. Harthun (2005) 27–31 equally emphasises the
many references towards various genres.
38 Kirsch (1979) 40–41.
39 Dronke (1977); Wolf (1995) 316–317.
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suggesting a conscious reception of antique epyllia. Epyllia like Catullus’
Carmen 64 or the pseudo-Virgilian Ciris or Culex were hardly known
during the Middle Ages; they exerted no influence on mediaeval Latin
writing.40 Epyllia integrated into larger poems, as Koster suspects in the
cases of the Aeneid or the Metamorphoses, were not recognisable as such
in the Middle Ages.
Historic poems need to be discussed together with the classicizing ones;
they pose a problem of demarcation. In the Middle Ages it was common
to pick up historic topics; many of these poems exhibit a marked influ-
ence of antique tradition, while others depart strongly from all antique
models; some are even rhythmical poems. A demarcation between his-
toric epics and other poems with historic content seems necessary. The
first group should also contain texts that are historic in a broader sense,
i.e. poems with antique or legendary content. There are several reasonable
suggestions for dividing criteria: their fictionalisation (Martínez Pastor) or
their language and style (Rädle, Tilliette)41 ought to determine whether
a work is to be understood as epic poetry or not. Ziolkowski proposes
that explicit reference to the epic tradition in language and style, and also
through narrative elements like the description of single combats, must
decide whether a historic poem is to belong to the epic genre,42 but he
also recommends severing a group within historical epics comprising only
one episode and of sufficient shortness. Such poems belong in the same
group as other short narrative poems on mocking or folk-tale topics:43
Space permits only fleeting mention of epyllia, narrative poems that elabo-
rate single episodes from the heroic past and resemble epics in theme, tone,
and descriptive technique. A representative epyllion on a historical topic is
the Rhythmus pisanus (291 rhythmic verses in 72 tetrastichic strophes) on
the victory of 1087 over African pirates; an epyllion on a folktale is Letald of
Micy’s De quodam piscatore quem ballena absorbuit (second half of the tenth
40 The poem De cane by Thierry de Saint-Trond († 1107) is an exception, a parodistic
planctus on the death of a dog suggesting influence from the Culex. It is, however, not laid
out as a parody but as an epigram and clearly refers to the antique tradition of dirges for
the death of animals. Cf. for this Préaux (1978).
41 Tilliette (1985) 123 n. 11. Rädle (1997) 231–232 refers not only to epics but all genres
“im fiktionalen Bereich.” In contrast, the affiliation for texts concerned with realia (such
as technical or pragmatic texts) is determined by their content.
42 “The epoch of Charlemagne and his inheritors was rich in hexameter compositions
that employed epic language and conventions”; “[the Gesta Berengarii] achieves its own
validity within epic tradition through classical allusions, similes, and descriptions of single
combats” (Ziolkowski [1996] 549).
43 Ziolkowski (1996) 551.


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century). A related genre is mock epic, which burlesques epic by treating a
trivial topic in epic style.
We face two questions here: first we need to determine whether such short
poems in epic form but of short length ought to be considered a separate
group within epic poetry. Only then can we tackle the question whether
folk-tale or mocking poetry may also be counted among it and whether
“epyllion” would be an adequate name for this group. It seems to us that
the first question is clearly to be answered in the negative, as these shorter
epics do not exhibit any other common characteristics except their short-
ness separating them from other, longer epics. Their shortness seems to
be accidental; it does not constitute a unity among these texts as a group
to be separated from epics.44 Typically Schaller, who uses text size as a
characteristic on a higher level, classifies the Waltharius without further
discussion among the subspecies of Virgilian epics. Here flexibility ought
to be preferred against systematic rigidity, thus these poems are rather to
be considered as a kind of marginal group within the group of epic poetry.
If we wish to emphasise their conspicuous shortness, a denomination like
historical short epics (historische Kleinepen or even kleinepische Gedichte)
seems more suitable, as it stresses their marginal character without sepa-
rating what belongs together.
The differences between historical short epics and folk-tale or mock
poems are profound enough to justify their separation into two groups.
The former’s content is based on a more or less fictionalised episode from
the history of an ethnic group; this is also true for legendary contents
which, as we have hinted at, may have been understood as historical; folk-
tale and mock epics on the other hand belong to the genre of fiction or, in
case of anecdote-like stories, they are told for their didactic value in one’s
personal life, not as part of the collective social memory of a people. So,
while the short epic poems may be considered a marginal form of epics,
folk-tale and mock poems pose a hitherto unresolved problem of clas-
sification, which is reflected in their erratic classification. The Asinarius,
for example, a poem about a folk-tale theme, is casually called a “folk-
tale epyllion” by Benedikt Konrad Vollmann in a review;45 its editor Karl
Langosch, however, calls this kind of poems “folk-tale epics” containing
44 Tilliette (1985) 123–124, also denies explicitly in his study of the epics of the twelfth
century that shortness be taken as a characteristic for an exclusion from the epic genre.
45 Vollmann (2008) 112 (“Märchenepyllion”).
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“beast, mock, and folk-tale poems.”46 Inasmuch as other authors attempt
a classification of such texts, they tend to connect them to the so-called
elegiac comedies, poems in elegiac distichs containing both narrative and
dialogue elements whose content involves amorous entanglements with
a happy ending.47 There is one important difference between this mock
poetry and the Within piscator referred to by Ziolkowski: the latter refers
explicitly to the epic tradition; it is neither a versified folk-tale nor a mock
poem but much rather an epic parody, thus belonging to a group that is
undoubtedly small but of great importance for our present discussion.
Epic parodies like the Within piscator, the Altercatio nani et leporis, or
De Lombardo et lumaca display characteristic plots, scenes and stylistic
devices from epics, explicitly referring to known characters and authors
from antique epics. The main characters produce the comic effect: instead
of heroes we find animals, fairy tale characters, and simple or even ludi-
crous people. The determination of their genre depends on one further
question, viz. whether parody is to be considered a style within a genre
(Schreibweise) or a genre in itself.48 Among mediaeval Latin scholars the
opinion dominates that the parodistic element is a style of writing partly
prevalent in sections of larger texts, partly characterising entire texts.49
The varied parodistic texts from the Latin Middle Ages do indeed hardly
exhibit similarities among themselves that would justify their treatment
as one genre “parody.” Rather they have to be classified with the different
genres they parody. Their parodistic technique itself gains its wit from this
46 Langosch (1956) 361–362. He calls the Asinarius “Verserzählung,” “Versnovelle” or sim-
ply “Dichtung” (Langosch [1978]). Worstbrock (1989) 1000 calls the mock poem Rapularius
“Verserzählung,” Vollmann (1999) 80 characterises the Unibos as “Schwankmärenkette.”
47 Giovini (2006) 67–68 remains in his characterisation of the Asinarius within the
sphere of “commedia elegiaca” and fairy tales. Similarly Birgit Gansweidt (1995) speaks in
case of this poem about “einer den Elegienkomödien nahestehenden Verserzählung.”
48 Kuester (
3
2004) 558 observes: “Während die traditionelle Definition die P[arodie]
eher als Gattung sieht, ist P[arodie] für die Vertreter des intertextuellen Ansatzes eine
Schreibweise.” We shall not enter this discussion further as the differentiation is largely
dependent on the epoch in question, presenting itself differently for modernity and antiq-
uity in respect to the Middle Ages. A good summary can be found in Müller (1994) 31–44.
49 Cf. Rädle (1993), Haye (1997b) and, specifically for epics, Tilliette (2000). Although
Bayless (1996) 1–10 does not discuss the problem of the genre explicitly, she considers
parodies of literary genres (not of concrete texts) as a form of “social parody.” Repeatedly
she refers to several parodistic subgroups getting their names from the genre they parody:
“mock epics,” “parodistic lyrical poetry” (both p. 7), “biblical parody,” “mock saints’ lives,”
“liturgical parody” (all p. 9). Günter Bernt’s article “Parodie” is in the same line. Lehmann
(
2
1963) does not discuss the question but classifies the texts according to their content
and their tone as “kritisierende, streitende und triumphierende” and “heitere, erheiternde,
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very intertextual confrontation towards the genre they parody.50 It thus
joins the parodies to the parodied genre and at the same time severs them
as a special subgroup from their genres. Among the texts we discussed,
their relationship towards the epic is obvious. These epic parodies are
short, but, in contrast to the historic epics, this shortness is here not acci-
dental but a characteristic trait of parodistic writing:
Da Parodien einen erheblichen Konstruktionsaufwand erfordern, handelt
es sich bei ihnen in der Regel um kurze Texte, in denen man zahlreiche
Merkmale der jeweils reflektierten Gattung auf engstem Raum konzentriert
findet.51
Both their shortness and their playful handling of the epic tradition
recalls Alexandrian epics. The editor of Within piscator, Ferruccio Bertini,
emphasises this similarity. Although he uses differing and general appel-
lations for this text such as poema, poemetto, componimento poetico, or
pezzo pseudoepico, at the end he says:
Ci sono tutti gli elementi, io credo, per poter definire Letaldo un ‘Calli-
maco del X secolo’ e per assimilare il Within piscator a un epillio del genere
dell’Ecale.52
Nota bene: Bertini does not postulate a direct reception of Callimachus
but only means to stress the parallels between the two authors, especially
in the relationship of their texts to epic poetry. Ziolkowski also addresses
the Within piscator as an epyllion although the other epic parodies are for
him “mock epics.” In the case of epic parody, the name “epyllion” was care-
fully chosen by these scholars and is indeed justifiable. Only one objec-
tion against it may be raised, but it is a serious one: the word “epyllion”
evokes a connection to the antique tradition which is clearly not given.
The authors of these epic parodies consciously refer to the antique epic
tradition and not to the antique epyllion they did not know of. Tilliette,
while discussing the elements of parody in the Latin epics of the Middle
Ages, calls these poems “poèmes heroï-comiques”; a notion that arose in
the eighteenth century mainly among French but occasionally also Ger-
man literary scholars denoting parodistic epics of all epochs.53
50 Parodies of single texts are rare in the Latin literature of the Middle Ages.
51 Haye (1997b) 291. On the shortness as a characteristic trait of parodies, cf. also Gen-
ette (1982) 48–58.
52 Bertini (1995) xvii (cf. there n. 1).
53 This name is thus also in use for works of other epochs, cf. Genette (1982) 179–192;
Wünsch (1999). Tilliette (2000) 58 uses the name “epyllion” for the Ram poem by Sedulius
Scottus but he merely means to stress the shortness of the text by this.
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Not all parodies refer unambiguously to one genre. Here we observe
again a common mediaeval trait of writing: an author may combine char-
acteristics of several models or literary traditions, thus creating a work that
eludes classification. An example for this is the poem by Sedulius Scottus
in which he describes the death of a ram. This poem has variously been
classified as a beast fairy tale, a beast story, an epicedium, a mock epic nar-
rative containing planctus and epitaphium, and as an epyllion. Ziolkowski,
while summarising the discussion on the poem’s genre, concludes:
From each new consideration of the poem, a new name for its genre has
resulted. Paradoxically, the lack of consensus about the genre of ‘The Ram’
pays the highest conceivable compliment to its originality. Sedulius tapped
so many poetic resources and emulated or simulated so many types of
poetry that ‘The Ram’ defies quick pigeonholing . . .
‘The Ram’ is all that it has been called—a parody, a mock-epic, an epyl-
lion, and more—but above all, it is the highly individual creation of Sedulius
Scottus.54
Such a mixture of various characteristics may remain an exception or, in
case it is emulated by other authors, it may establish a new literary form.
This happens in the High Middle Ages with texts that combine fable and
epic as a means to create socio-critical satires: the beast epics. Among
them we find a poem whose structure is reminiscent of Catullus’ epyllion
(c. 64): the Ecbasis captivi, one of the oldest representatives in this group,
telling of the flight of a calf, its capture by the wolf and its rescue by a
variegated band of animals. Within this framework story there is another
one: the story of the lion’s court day. Despite this similarity to the best
known epyllion of Latin literature, its two stories are usually severed as
“interior” and “exterior” fable (Innenfabel and Außenfabel ). Due to the
double meaning of the word fabula, as plot and as story with animals as
main characters, these names are both succinct and appropriate as both
meanings fit the Ecbasis captivi well.
As allegoric epic, biblical and hagiographic poetry all arose out of late
antique Christian epics; they may in conclusion be discussed together
here. Especially hagiographic poems are often short; nevertheless, the
name “epyllion” was hitherto hardly used for them. Wolfgang Kirsch in his
study on hagiographic epics emphasises that the size of a poem is a relative
quantity: according to the scale of older epics the hagiographic ones rarely
exceed one book, but such a short size, he continues, is not conspicuous
54 Ziolkowski (1993) 70; 79.


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in the context of early mediaeval literature. He rejects the unity of the plot
as a criterion of whether or not a poem ought to be counted among epics,
as the content itself may force the authors to relate it in an episode-like
manner.55 Among Schaller’s criteria—explicitly referred to—he acknowl-
edges the alternation between author speech and character speech, and
the use of special stylistic devices; apart from these he stresses the use of
hexameters and identifies special traits of language based on epic models
as demarcating criteria. The existence of a prose model does not matter
for this author, as he believes paraphrasing to be a technical device and
not a genre characteristic.56
Kirsch is conscious of the difficulties of demarcating hagiographic epics;
he emphasises the keenness to experiment among mediaeval authors,
which leads to the adaption of traits of other genres creating a large
marginal area for the genre of hagiographic epics. As we clearly see, the
discussion here is centred on some characteristics stemming from epic
tradition. Size and unity of the plot do not, however, figure among these,
as hagiographic texts tend to be very variable in their size and to exhibit
an episodic way of recounting dictated by their prose models. Among
the works in this group some devices are used that ought to be called
parodistic from a technical point of view—subtle style for base content, a
simple man’s heroic deeds—, but not from a point of view of their sense:
here there is no playing or criticising, rather the saint’s hidden grandeur
is emphasised, the ennobling of the humble to heroism.57
5. Summary
We have argued for a wide understanding of the concept epic, includ-
ing contemporary topics and poetic forms from late antique Christianity,
55 Zarini (2006) 179–180 diverges, using the length of the Vita Martini by Paulinus of
Périgueux as the first criterion that makes it an epic. In contrast, he opines, Paulinus of
Nola’s poems on Felix ought to be considered epyllia due to their shortness. Although this
article only discusses works by these two authors, it is still a good example to show that
the word “epyllion” is often used to denote simply a short epic without further reflection
on the problem of genres. Examples for this are legion; a listing would hardly be profitable
as the concept is in these cases neither defined nor questioned.
56 Goullet (2005) also regards the réécriture more as a way of writing than a genre
characteristic. The techniques of paraphrasing in late antiquity have been exhaustively
discussed, cf. esp. Herzog (1975) 52–154; Kartschoke (1975) 78–120; Roberts (1985) 37–59;
Labarre (1998) 71–88.
57 Cf. for this Rädle (1993) 174–176.
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as well as others emerging only in the Middle Ages. The demarcation of
these groups remains an unresolved issue that needs further discussion;
this is why we have to pose the question whether a concept “epyllion” can
be of use at all. In general we have seen that such a concept is but rarely
defined in the scholarly discussions of mediaeval Latin literature; mostly
it is just casually employed in order to characterise an epic poem of short
size (and without a disposition in books). But precisely the short size is all
but irrelevant in the definition of the epic in the Middle Ages, as on the
one hand the mediaeval texts tend to be modelled on late antique epics
where the epic length is irrelevant, and on the other hand no significant
differences within groups of texts are perceptible between shorter and
longer texts. Therefore the use of the texts’ length as a strict defining crite-
rion would be forced onto the texts. Indeed, it seems in general ill-advised
in the Middle Ages to postulate necessary and exclusive characteristics for
genres: mediaeval authors tend to interact rather freely with their models
and literary traditions, and we ourselves ought to describe them with a
flexible classification in turn. When wishing to speak of short epic poems,
a denomination like “short epic” (Kurzepik) stressing the texts’ primary
affiliation with the epic genre seems preferable. Similarly the episodical
character which gave rise to the category “series of epyllia” in contrast
to the epic of antiquity does not play a major role in our corpus. Short-
ness seems to be constitutive in only one group of the texts we took into
account, viz. the parodistic epic. Both their shortness and their parodis-
tic nature justify the appellation “epyllion,” which, in fact, is occasionally
used for these texts. Nevertheless one significant argument speaks against
the use of this notion in mediaeval literature: it suggests reception and
a conscious reprise of the antique epyllion, which was unknown in the
Middle Ages. The topic is far from being a trifle as continuity and innova-
tion are closely interwoven in mediaeval Latin literature; thus scrutinizing
which literary traditions were continued and which were rejected is nec-
essary for understanding the history of literature and the interpretation
of the individual texts.
A Short Corollarium
Now, one might of course extend the question, hereby leaving the name
and concept “epyllion” fully aside, and inquire where and to what extent
dactylic verse was used in the mediaeval Latin literature to convey short
narratives with antique-pagan, especially mythological, topics: texts


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that might at best—purely from their external characteristics, without
insinuating any kind of genetic continuity—be compatible with the bun-
dle of criteria used to hold this genre’s precarious existence together. As
the adoption of antique literature and its subsequent productive further
adaption pervades poetic creativity in the Middle Ages (especially so in
the High Middle Ages) like a basso continuo, one might be tempted to
expect a high yield from such an inquiry. Still within the multifaceted
spectrum of literary forms, only few specimens can be ascertained that
would fit here without coercion and without reservation. Let us discuss
a few examples.
Most such texts belong to the High Middle Ages, an epoch where an
especially thorough and productive reception of the literary heritage of
pagan antiquity was taking place, but we may already adduce a relevant
example dating back to the tenth century: the anonymous Gesta Apollonii,
a poem in 792 leonine hexameters recounting the first half of the Apol-
lonius romance. In imitation of the scheme of the competition between
poets, the narration is partitioned formally between two characters, Saxo
and Strabo, but this happens in a rather mechanical manner without
expressing two different points of view.58
In the twelfth century mainly in the region of the Loire in France, a
period of intense and lively reception of antiquity flourished. Among the
best known of its poets figures Hugh Primas of Orléans (from 1093/94 to
c.1160). He revives the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in one of his poems
of which 52 artfully rimed hexameters have survived. The second half of
the preserved text comprises a long speech of Orpheus to Pluto trying to
convince him to release Eurydice as both of them were due to be back in
the netherworld anyway; an ample suasoria.59
The anonymous poem incipit Carmine qui gaudes et in usu carminis
audes deals with the same narrative in thirty distichs. The main theme
here is the power of Orpheus’ song against the sombre forces of the neth-
erworld, listed individually. They are, as it were, transformed and Orpheus
is able to regain Eurydice. This unambitious poem belonging to school
literature is rather to be addressed as a kind of reflection than an actual
narrative.60
58 Schaller/Könsgen (1977/2005) no. 1487/14268; edited by Dümmler (1884). It is unclear
whether originally the entire narrative had been put into verse or not; at least some verses
seem to be missing at the end of the known text.
59 Walther (
2
1969) no. 13493; Meyer (1970) 45–48, no. 3.
60 Bulst (1975) 11–12 (cf. 24).
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A narrative complex often dealt with by authors of the High and Late
Middle Ages is the Tale of Troy.61 Voluminous Latin epics like Joseph
Iscanus’ (= Joseph of Exeter’s, † after 1193) Ylias or Albert of Stade’s
(† prob. after 1265) Troilus, remain out of consideration. But there are
some poems of moderate size giving expression to a particular aspect of
this legend. Let us start with Simon Aurea Capra’s (mid-twelfth-century)
Ylias, a short depiction of the Trojan War in distichs followed by the
Aeneas narrative so to speak as a second book. Three or even four dif-
ferent versions of the text are in existence, the last and most voluminous
comprising 994 verses.62 This schoolmaster-like pedagogic poem is an
example of an approach we meet often in the Middle Ages: an antique
theme finds resonance in a manageably sized poem as a kind of compact
imparting of knowledge; shortness is here part of the agenda and occa-
sionally the poets are indeed very proud of it.63
Somewhat earlier (c.1100/1130) we find the influential artistic elegy
Pergama flere volo Grecis fato data solo. Therein not only the events are
recounted—from a Trojan point of view—but in the face of the misery of
the town, a mournful retrospective of its former splendour is developed,
and one character, Hecuba, bewails its fate.64
Of a similar character and indeed influenced by this latter text is the
elegiac Troy epitome Viribus, arte, minis Danaum clara (sic?) Troia ruinis,
a poem in distichs presenting in its 124 verses both the Trojan and the
Aeneas theme. This poem was written by Petrus Sanctonensis (Petrus of
Saintes) possibly around AD 1140.65
Equally in elegiac metre, though not elegiac in tone, is Fervet amore
Paris, also summarising the Trojan and the Aeneid theme: mythological
information is here presented in a very concise, virtually epigrammatic
style. One could even call it an example of mnemonic poetry. This text
with many a borrowing from the two previously discussed ones was writ-
ten around 1150/60 apparently by Petrus Riga (c.1130–1209), canonicus at
Reims and famous for his Aurora, a Bible paraphrase in verse.66
61 A short survey with further bibliographical references: Wollin (2004) 393–395.
62 Manitius (1931) 645–646; see above all: Stohlmann (1976).
63 Cf. Curtius (1948) 479–485, especially 484 on short adaptations of antique themes in
the twelfth century.
64 Walther (
2
1969) no. 13985; Carmina Burana no. 101, ed. Vollmann (1987) 370–379 (see
also 1080–1081); cf. Wollin (2004) 395–396.
65 Walther (
2
1969) no. 20582; Manitius (1931) 647; Wollin (2004) 395.
66 Walther (
2
1969) no. 6462; Carmina Burana no. 102, ed. Vollmann (1987) 378–387 (see
also 1081–1082); fundamental: Wollin (2004), including a new edition of two versions of
the text in parallel.


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We may further compare two more poems by the already mentioned
Hugh Primas. One of them, incipit Urbs erat illustris, quam belli clade
bilustris, relates a plaint from a contemporary’s point of view on Troy’s
fall, by contrasting the former glory with the “present” wretched state.
Lack of piety and of manners are said to be the reasons for the downfall.
The poem hints that one character (possibly Ulysses) utters this plaint at
a banquet, as Aeneas related the Tale of Troy at a banquet in Carthage
(Aeneid Books 2 and 3).67
In the other of these two poems of Hugh’s, Post rabiem rixe redeunte
bilustris Ulixe, “Ulixes” and T(e)iresias face each other. In the tenth year of
his Odyssey, the hero asks the seer at Thebes whether he will be granted
to return home and how his family fares. The poet knew this motive from
Horace’s Sermones 2.5. Like in the introductory verses there, here the com-
pletely impecunious hero is worried how to get the riches needed to suc-
cour his harried wife. While Horace uses his allusion to this episode as
an introduction to his giving ironic instructions on legacy hunting, Hugh
moulds this theme on a serious level where the Ulixes character repre-
sents the self-styling author asking for remuneration, or indeed begging
for it.68
A mediaeval poet might also take a fully developed antique Latin
account of an episode within the Trojan War as a starting point for imi-
tation. So Ovid’s copious depiction of the argument between Ajax and
Ulysses over the dead Achilles’ arms by a long speech of the two contes-
tants each69 twice allured a mediaeval poet to a similar creation (probably
in the twelfth century): one of them remains rather close to the Ovidian
model though he shortens it significantly, the other one disengages fur-
ther from his model while interlacing sundry considerations of his own.70
The retrospect to Ovid is close to ubiquitous in the High Middle Ages,
the aetas Ovidiana. Thus there are repeated attempts of new adaptations
of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. We cannot go into this topic more
deeply here; let us just observe that first we encounter freer adaptations,
whereas later texts seek again a rapprochement to the antique author.71
67 Walther (
2
1969) no. 19715; Meyer (1970) 61–63, no. 9. Meyer surmises that this poem,
together with poem 10 (right afterwards), formed a larger poetic complex on Troy, though
it is unclear whether it was ever completed.
68 Walther (
2
1969) no. 14338; Meyer (1970) 64–70, no. 10 (see also 101–104); cf. Gwara
(1992).
69 Ov. Met. 12.604–628 and 13.1–398.
70 Walther (
2
1969) no. 9560/20217; edited by Schmidt (1964); cf. Walther (
2
1984) 91–93
and 266–267.
71 For all details see Smolak (1992).
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But not only the author of the Metamorphoses but also the one of the
Ars amatoria was an inspiration: a first-person narrative with the title De
nuncio sagaci (also Ovidius puellarum) about an amorous adventure has
survived in a fragmentary form (377 hexameters). Some three quarters of
it are character speeches or dialogues; it seems to have been composed in
the twelfth century in France.72
In the cross-talk between Ajax and Ulysses referred to above, we have
already met an example of the richly developed genre of debate poetry
where differing points of view are expressed with a lively exchange
between the speakers. There are, however, only few texts in this genre
that deal with antique mythological topics, but there are some narrations
based on fictitious situations of conflict, like in the controversiae on law-
court themes in ancient Rome. The Versus de geminis languentibus, incipit
Roma duos habuit, versify a pseudo-Quintilian declamation in 76 hexam-
eters. Identical twins fall ill, and the doctors are helpless, so they advise to
kill one of the two in order to find the cause of the illness in his dissection
and save the other one. The father agrees, and the surviving boy is cured,
but the mother takes her husband to court.73
The poem Mathematicus (“The Astrologer”) or Patricida harks back to
another declamatio. A famous writer, Bernard Silvestris († prob. after 1159)
displays a tragic story in 854 verses (distichs): parents receive a prophecy
that their future son will kill his father. The child is to be killed, but the
mother has it nurtured in secret. Because of his military prowess against
the Carthaginians the king of Rome consigns him eventually the govern-
mental power. After his parents disclose themselves to him, he decides
to anticipate his fate by committing suicide. A deliberation in the Senate
then ensues; the conclusion remains unclear.74
During the High Middle Ages the notions comedia and tragedia were
known although no clear conception of their scenic nature was available.
Thus in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a major number of comediae
or droll stories in verse (elegiac distichs) were created, often comprising
large portions of character speech but of a generally narrative nature—
one of them, the De nuncio sagaci was mentioned above. Narrative trage-
diae on the other hand, are much rarer. Apart from the aforementioned
Mathematicus, the narrative in verse De Affra et Flavio may be booked
72 Walther (
2
1969) no. 18787; Manitius (1931) 1031–1032; Edition: Lieberz (1980).
73 Walther (
2
1969) no. 16848; edition: Werner (
2
1905) 55–58, no. 137. Ps.-Quint. Decl. 8.
74 Walther (
2
1969) no. 17506; Manitius (1931) 861–863; editions: d’Alessandro (1994) and
Prelog/Heim/Kießlich (1993). Ps.-Quint. Decl. 4.


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here: Affra’s husband brings her to court for alleged adultery during his
absence. She is banned to an island together with their little son; she kills
him and eats him there. When she returns, she sues her husband, who is
found guilty, but in the end the woman incriminates herself and seeks
death.75
This story’s cruelty is possibly even exceeded by the narrative of the
Due lotrices, incipit Quasdam turma ducum firmas obsederat arces. In 126
hexameters the poem recounts a siege of a castle with sixty men and
two washerwomen, each of whom serves half of them—also sexually—,
within. As the group arrangement is violated, a bloodbath ensues. This
nasty piece still deserves our attention as it was constructed by the author
of one of the most important poetics of the High Middle Ages, John of Gar-
land (prob. c.1195–shortly after 1272), in order to give a concrete example
for the notion tragedia according to the meagre knowledge then available
for this empty space within the system of genres.76
Thus, there are some texts that could be described with the questionable
concept “epyllion” if necessary and if one takes into account some merely
external criteria. Nonetheless, most of the many and variegated creations
that arose from a productive poetic adaptation of antique mythology and
poetry, many of them of high quality, would not fit into such a category.
What riches of personal experience, evocative reflections, creative visuali-
sation, and experimenting with new and trend-setting forms is contained
in the thousands of texts that will not fit such a mould! Besides, this result
confirms the rule of thumb, ever and again proving well-founded, that
on the one hand many a topic from pagan Roman antiquity is reused in
a fruitful manner, and, on the other hand, a broad spectrum of ancient
literary forms is imitated—but hardly ever both together.
Bibliography: Primary Texts
Bertini (1994): Ferruccio Bertini (ed.), Tragedie latine del XII e XIII secolo, Genoa.
—— (1995): id. (ed., tr., comm.), Letaldo di Micy. Within piscator, Florence.
Bonvicino (1994): Raffaella Bonvicino (ed., tr., comm.), ‘Due Lotrices’ di Giovanni di Garlan-
dia, in: Bertini (1994) 271–327.
Bulst (1975): Walther Bulst (ed., comm.), Carmina Leodiensia, Heidelberg.
Colker (1978): Marvin L. Colker (ed.), Galteri de Castellione Alexandreis, Padua.
d’Alessandro (1994): Teresa d’Alessandro (ed., tr., comm.), Mathematicus sive Patricida di
Bernardo Silvestre, in: Bertini (1994) 7–159.
75 Walther (
2
1969) no. 3176; Manitius (1931) 1023–1024; edition: Landi (1994).
76 Edition: Bonvicino (1994).
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