In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ovid in the Middle Ages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Finding Guides and Descriptions of Texts
  • Medieval Biographies of Ovid

Medieval Studies Ovid in the Middle Ages
Jamie C. Fumo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0224


This article focuses on the academic study of, and literary engagement with, Ovid’s works in the medieval period, from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Long regarded as a poor cousin to Renaissance humanism, the medieval academic commentary tradition on Ovid’s texts has emerged as a fertile area of study. The preservation and circulation of Ovid manuscripts in medieval monasteries and centers of learning, the varied uses to which Ovid’s texts were put, and the range of exegetical strategies beyond allegory have all attracted vigorous critical attention in recent decades. Major advances have been made in locating and documenting manuscript witnesses, in developing taxonomies of commentaries, and in better understanding how Ovid’s texts were processed by medieval readers. Although much work remains to be done, researchers today can benefit from progress made in tracing the textual distribution of manuscripts and from major new installments in the critical editing of Ovidian commentaries. The field of Ovidian commentary is vast and requires specialized skills to navigate; at the same time, the rich territory of Ovidian adaptation in imaginative literature crosses disciplines in demanding ways. This article charts a path for the researcher by highlighting important scholarly tools and guides to the medieval Ovid. It also presents details of the subfield of medieval biographies of Ovid and vernacular literary Ovidianism. Finally, the article surveys research on scholastic techniques and contexts pertaining to Ovid, and provides detailed information regarding specific commentaries. Principles of selectivity in such a large research area preclude treatment of the transmission of individual Ovidian myths, to which numerous studies have been devoted, and of literary responses beyond western Europe. Editions and critical studies have been selected to represent the shape of each subfield, and for their value in directing the researcher to further resources.

General Overviews

The books listed in this section offer a number of different points of entry into research on Ovid in the Middle Ages. Born 1934 is a still useful expository overview that emphasizes the role of allegory in the medieval study of Ovid. Rand 1963 provides a general introduction to Ovid’s varied roles in medieval culture. A diachronic account that provides more scholarly detail is found in Robathan 1973. Demats 1973 emphasizes Ovid’s importance to the interpretive history of fable, with particular attention to French tradition. Barkan 1986 brings a richly interdisciplinary perspective to the hermeneutic engagement with Ovidian metamorphosis in medieval culture. More recent overviews tend to eschew diachronic history in favor of a syncretic approach. Dimmick 2002, for example, synthesizes medieval understandings of Ovid’s biography with evidence from commentaries and vernacular poetry to position Ovid as integral to medieval struggles with auctoritas. Hexter 2002 turns to less studied textual evidence to characterize the appeal of the Ovidian perspective for medieval writers. Fyler 2009 provides a helpful introduction to salient medieval vernacular responses to Ovid.

  • Barkan, Leonard. The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis & the Pursuit of Paganism. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

    Wide-ranging interdisciplinary history of the idea of metamorphosis as an aesthetic and philosophical concept. Chapter 3 is a nuanced introduction to the hermeneutic processing of Ovid in the Middle Ages through euhemeristic, allegorical, cosmological, and other lenses.

  • Born, Lester K. “Ovid and Allegory.” Speculum 9.4 (1934): 362–379.

    DOI: 10.2307/2850220

    Influential early discussion of medieval moralizations of Ovid’s works and the construction of Ovid as ethicus. Provides an expository orientation in the major landmarks of Ovidian allegoresis from the 12th to the 14th century, with brief attention to the technique’s survival into the Renaissance.

  • Demats, Paule. Fabula: Trois études de mythographie antique et médiévale. Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz, 1973.

    Positions the medieval Ovid within a survey of commentary on fable from antiquity through the Middle Ages, delineating the distinct techniques of mythographic and grammatical interpretation. Particularly valuable for highlighting the appeal of mutatio to Platonic-Christian commentators, and positioning the Ovide moralisé as an exercise in creative amplificatio.

  • Dimmick, Jeremy. “Ovid in the Middle Ages: Authority and Poetry.” In The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Edited by Philip Hardie, 264–287. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521772818.018

    Salient and layered account of the medieval Ovid as a problematic locus of auctoritas. Considers how Ovid’s biography and poetic persona were rendered consistent with medieval Christian discourse, thus encouraging medieval commentators and vernacular poets to exploit hermeneutic multiplicity.

  • Fyler, John M. “The Medieval Ovid.” In A Companion to Ovid. Edited by Peter E. Knox, 411–422. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444310627.ch29

    Focuses on Ovid’s association with the matters of love and transformation in order to succinctly define the signature Ovidianism of three major medieval vernacular authors (Jean de Meun, Dante, and Chaucer). Useful for scholars seeking a grounding in matters of broad stylistic influence as well as documentable patterns of borrowing.

  • Hexter, Ralph. “Ovid in the Middle Ages: Exile, Mythographer, Lover.” In Brill’s Companion to Ovid. Edited by Barbara Weiden Boyd, 413–442. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2002.

    A wide-ranging survey of the most impactful aspects of Ovid’s poetic personality for the Middle Ages: the exilic voice, the compilator of myth, and the amatory poet. Fruitfully traces the Ovidian perspective thus defined in lesser-studied creative and scholastic materials, largely Latin, from the medieval period.

  • Rand, Edward Kennard. Ovid and His Influence. New York: Cooper Square, 1963.

    Originally published in 1925. Early general study with a substantial section on Ovid in the Middle Ages. Reliance on broad brushstrokes to characterize literary relationships limits its value, but still functions as a basic introduction to Ovid’s impact on various dimensions of medieval culture. Usefully delineates Ovid’s medieval roles as Ethicus, Theologus, Medicus, and Magus.

  • Robathan, Dorothy M. “Ovid in the Middle Ages.” In Ovid. Edited by J. W. Binns, 191–209. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

    A balanced account of the continued and varied uses of Ovid’s works from the late imperial period to the cusp of the Renaissance. Helpfully introduces the evidence from school tradition and vernacular poetry, broadly contextualizing the aetas Ovidiana through a diachronic account of Ovid’s medieval appropriation.

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