In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Latin Arts of Poetry and Prose

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Manuscripts
  • Authors of the Treatises
  • Classroom Pedagogy
  • Pupil Progress
  • Classbooks and Other Anthology Manuscripts
  • The Commentary Tradition

Medieval Studies Medieval Latin Arts of Poetry and Prose
Douglas Kelly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0274


Modern scholarship on the medieval Latin arts of poetry and prose has focused on a number of treatises written in the 12th and 13th centuries: Matthew of Vendôme’s Ars versificatoria; Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria nova, Documentum, and Summa de coloribus; Gervase of Melkley’s Ars versificaria or poetica; John of Garland’s Parisiana Poetria; and Eberhard the German’s Laborintus. Other documents have received attention as well, notably commentaries and glosses. The art of composition in both verse and prose also evolved as new conceptions of the art emerged. In the 13th century, Latin translations and commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics led to revisions of the Horatian art in the 14th century; treatises that reflect this development begin with the anonymous Long Documentum, renamed Tria sunt, and Mathias of Linköping’s Poetria, based on instruction Mathias received while studying at the University of Paris. The traditional conception of the art of poetry was derived from rhetorical treatises attributed to Cicero, notably the De inventione and the Rhetorica ad Herennium. The medieval treatises adapted a traditional order of parts in rhetoric: topical invention, disposition based on natural chronological order or artificial rearrangement of the chronological order, amplification and abbreviation using figures and tropes common in ornamentation, and eventually Aristotelian notions of imagination as a poetic faculty. Inclusion of these parts indicates the scope and level of instruction in the treatises. Accordingly, the study and practice of poetic composition in classrooms progressed from elementary composition and study to imitation of exemplary masterpieces. Such instruction fit well into the stages in medieval pedagogy from grammar, rhetoric, and logic on to arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, and beyond to philosophy and theology. The scope of the art on these virtually graded levels of instruction led to study, interpretation, imitation, and, ultimately, emulation of perceived ancient and medieval masterpieces like Virgil’s Aeneid, Horace’s lyrics, Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia, and Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus and De planctu Naturae, among others. Introductions to specific works (accessus ad auctores) include model works that exemplify the art’s evolution from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages. Classbooks and other anthologies collected poems and passages for study and imitation on the student level. Finally, the Latin art found its way into some treatises written for vernacular languages. These diverse documents—commentaries, model works, accessus, classbooks and anthologies, authorial statements inserted into their own writings, vernacular treatises, and other documents—enhance our understanding of medieval poetics.

General Overviews

The following studies locate the arts of poetry and prose in a European perspective. They generally treat most of the topics in the other sections in this bibliography, including the cultural environment of the arts and sciences that make up the trivium and quadrivium as well as higher disciplines from Antiquity to the dawn of the Renaissance. Bagni 1968, Kelly 1991, Klopsch 1980, and Purcell 1996 treat the art of poetry and prose as set out in the major 12th- and 13th-century treatises. Cizek 1994 and Copeland and Sluiter 2009 offer surveys of the art of poetry and prose from Antiquity through the Middle Ages. Minnis and Scott 1988 treat the commentary tradition in medieval Europe. De Bruyne 1998 treats aesthetic theory in the Middle Ages. Murphy 1974 and Woods 2010 emphasize the treatises’ place in late antique and medieval grammar, rhetoric, and other arts and sciences, as well as in diverse pedagogical milieus.

  • Bagni, Paolo. La Costituzione della poesia delle artes del XII–XIII secolo. Bologna, Italy: Zanichelli, 1968.

    Studies the arts of poetry and prose, especially in relation to instruction in grammar and rhetoric, as well as to poetic literature, philosophy, and theology. Includes a survey of the treatises by Matthew, Geoffrey, Eberhard, and John of Garland. The final chapter contrasts topics that characterize the poetic art: unity, sameness, and variety; impropriety and elegance; decorum; and contingency and structure.

  • Cizek, Alexandru N. Imitatio et tractatio: Die literarisch-rhetorischen Grundlagen der Nachahmung in Antike und Mittelalter. Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110948165

    A wide-ranging, in-depth study of imitation in treatment of antecedent matter (imitatio and tractatio) from Antiquity to the later Middle Ages. Part One discusses definitions of and the scope of these procedures as well as classical versus mannerist styles. Part Two treats amplification and abbreviation and their diversity. Part Three takes up tractatio in school exercises; epideictic as praise and blame is an important feature of this instruction.

  • Copeland, Rita, and Ineke Sluiter, eds. Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300–1475. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Very useful survey of language instruction from Late Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages. Part Four on the teaching of grammar and rhetoric includes an introduction to and translation of selected passages from Matthew’s Ars versificatoria, Geoffrey’s Poetria nova, Gervase’s Ars versificaria, John’s Parisiana Poetria, and the anonymous Tria sunt, along with other related sources.

  • De Bruyne, Edgar. Etudes d’esthétique médiévale suivi de L’Esthétique du Moyen Age. 2 vols. Paris: Michel, 1998.

    Treats aesthetic theory in the Latin Middle Ages, connecting two originally independent publications by De Bruyne. On literary theory in particular, and the arts of poetry and prose, see “La Théorie littéraire” (Vol. 1, pp. 216–242 and 384–419, and Vol. 2, pp. 611–626 and 650–651). The Esthetics of the Middle Ages, translated by Eileen B. Hennessy (New York: F. Ungar, 1969) is an English translation based on an abridged version of Etudes d’esthétique médiévale.

  • Kelly, Douglas. The Arts of Poetry and Prose. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1991.

    Defines the arts of poetry and prose as a medieval genre, followed by a depiction of their evolution in scope, their innovations, and their influence on Latin and vernacular poetics. Includes an extensive bibliography up to about 1990, and desiderata for future research.

  • Klopsch, Paul. Einführung in die Dichtungslehren des lateinischen Mittelalters. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980.

    Part One surveys the art of poetry and prose in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, contrasting pagan and Christian teaching and authors. Part Two examines more closely medieval pedagogy based on accessus ad auctores and the medieval poetic treatises, with special attention to Geoffrey’s Poetria nova.

  • Minnis, A. J., and A. B. Scott. Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c. 1100–c. 1375: The Commentary Tradition. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

    Survey of the commentary tradition, illustrated by representative texts. In separate chapters, shows in largely chronological order the evolution of the poetic tradition during the High and Late Middle Ages. Includes some treatises on vernacular poetics.

  • Murphy, James J. Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

    A wide-ranging survey of the art of rhetoric in the Middle Ages; chapter 4, “Ars poetriae: Preceptive Grammar, or the Rhetoric of Verse-Writing,” treats the arts of poetry and prose as treatises on preceptive grammar and verse composition.

  • Purcell, William M. “Ars Poetriae”: Rhetorical and Grammatical Invention at the Margin of Literacy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

    A careful study of the adoption and adaptation of ancient grammar and rhetoric in the treatises on the medieval arts of poetry and prose of the 12th and 13th centuries.

  • Woods, Marjorie Curry. Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010.

    An essential study of the Poetria nova, including commentaries and glosses. Chapter 1 treats the scope of Geoffrey’s treatise and its medieval pedagogical environments. Succeeding chapters focus on its use as a school text, as an early Humanist text in Italy, as a university text in central Europe and England, and in 17th-century commentaries. An important catalogue of manuscripts and commentaries concludes this study.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.