In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Latin Commentaries on Classical Myth

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classical Exegesis
  • Classroom Uses
  • Commentary Formats and Transmissions
  • Journals

Medieval Studies Medieval Latin Commentaries on Classical Myth
Amanda Gerber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0281


As the abundance of extant medieval commentaries attests, classical mythology presented several conundrums for medieval audiences. The historical distance between the writers of classical myths and their medieval readers prompted numerous scholars to reframe and even rewrite their sources to ameliorate challenges ranging from complicated classical Latin syntax to theological conflicts between pagan polytheism and Christian monotheism. Despite its polytheism, classical mythology became a source for manifold medieval erudition, beginning with the grammatical studies that introduced students to Latin literacy. Scholars and writers since the beginning of the Christian Middle Ages turned to these myths to gain mastery over Latin, history, natural science, and even ethics. To study these subjects, medieval scholars produced collections of scholastic notes, or commentaries, primarily in Latin. The medieval commentary tradition began in classical antiquity itself. Soon after Virgil wrote his Aeneid, scholars started developing commentaries that prompted audiences both to study and to imitate his works. The Middle Ages inherited some of these commentaries, such as the influential commentaries by Servius on Virgil, which then influenced commentaries on other classical writers of myths, such as Ovid and Statius. The modern study of these diverse medieval materials has recently benefited from the increased availability of digital manuscripts, critical editions, and a few translations, all of which have facilitated more cross-commentary analyses than used to be possible. However, the wide range of interpretive approaches and formats as well as the irregularities of medieval scholastic transmission mean that much more work remains to be done on how medieval audiences accessed classical mythology. This article combines older foundational studies with more recent contributions to represent how modern criticism, like the commentaries it studies, takes many forms.

General Overviews

The length, number, and variability of extant classical commentaries have resulted in few general overviews of the field. The closest the field has to such a study is Minnis and Scott 2003, an anthology of scholarship on authors, including classical poets, who were important to medieval audiences. The absence of a book-length survey of multiple commentaries on classical myths is a noticeable lacuna in modern scholarship. Some general overviews focus on the reception of these commentaries, such as Copeland 2016 and Seznec 1953, which re-create the setting in which medieval commentaries on classical myths thrived. Some of the most detailed overviews focus on specific authors, such as a collection of all modern approaches to Ovid’s medieval reception in Clark, et al. 2011, and an overview of Virgil’s general importance to the Middle Ages in Comparetti 1997. More concise introductions appear in Gillespie 2005 and Wetherbee 2005, which summarize the shifting medieval interests in different classical authors. Reynolds 1983 approaches the same subject in a collection of brief overviews about how different classical Latin texts were transmitted to subsequent ages. The works listed here offer useful starting points for considering how commentaries on classical myths fit into medieval intellectual history.

  • Chance, Jane. Medieval Mythography. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994–2015.

    Vol. 1, From Roman North Africa to the School of Chartres; Vol. 2, From the School of Chartres to the Court at Avignon, 1177–1350; and Vol. 3, The Emergence of Italian Humanism, 1321–1475. A three-volume study on the repression of sexuality in medieval Christian developments of mythography, here defined as the allegorization and moralization of myths. Vol. 1 discusses ancient Stoicism up to the 12th century; Vol. 2 addresses centers of classical learning from the 12th to the 14th centuries; and Vol. 3 begins with humanism. These surveys are broad, making them prone to oversights and oversimplifications, especially in the first volume.

  • Clark, James G., Frank T. Coulson, and Kathryn L. McKinley, eds. Ovid in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    An important essay collection that models different critical approaches to Ovidian reception history. Of particular interest are Clark’s introduction to the field’s terminology and Coulson’s chapter on the Ovidian commentary tradition in France, a chapter that reflects his nonpareil expertise on the subject.

  • Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Translated by E. F. M. Benecke. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

    An updated translation of a study of Virgilian reception first written in Italian in 1872. The first part includes several chapters about scholastic reception and commentaries. Although new discoveries have been made since its original composition, the book remains a classic in studies of Virgil’s medieval reception.

  • Copeland, Rita. “Gloss and Commentary.” In The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature. Edited by Ralph J. Hexter and David Townsend, 171–191. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    A general introduction to the basic terminology used to describe glosses and commentaries. The essay then includes a very brief explanation of how the Thebaid commentary attributed to Lactantius Placidus evolved from a “stand-alone” commentary to marginalia, which then accumulated additions from different readers.

  • Copeland, Rita, ed. The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Vol. 1, 800–1558. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Although devoted in title to English literary reception, this volume includes several helpful background essays about the academic traditions that helped create those literary traditions. Of particular interest are Copeland’s chapters about accessus (or academic introductions) and medieval curricula, Woods’s chapter on medieval pedagogy, and Zeeman’s chapter on mythography.

  • Gillespie, Vincent. “The Study of Classical Authors: From the Twelfth Century to c. 1450.” In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 2, The Middle Ages. Edited by Alastair Minnis and Ian Johnson, 145–235. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    An introduction to western Europe’s general patterns of studying classical authors between the 12th century and 1450. This essay is a good place to start, especially when read alongside Wetherbee 2005.

  • Minnis, Alastair, and A. B. Scott. Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c. 1100-c.1375: The Commentary Tradition. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

    Originally published in 1988. A comprehensive study and anthology of important medieval Latin literary scholarship produced between 1100 and 1375. The book covers classical and scriptural commentaries alike, exposing the often imperceptible divisions between sacred and secular scholarship in the Middle Ages.

  • Reynolds, Leighton Durham, ed. Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

    A general introduction to the manuscript transmission of classical Latin texts. Unlike many other works on the subject, this collection tailors its essays to novices on the subjects of palaeography and textual criticism, which Reynolds organizes alphabetically by classical authors and texts.

  • Seznec, Jean. The Survival of the Pagan Gods. Translated by Barbara F. Sessions. New York: Pantheon, 1953.

    A classic study, first published in French in 1940, of classical reception history, one that provides a continuous narrative about the transmission of mythology from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. The book offers some subsequently contested distinctions between medieval and Renaissance approaches, but it introduces a now standard account of how Renaissance humanism relied on medieval influences.

  • Wetherbee, Winthrop. “The Study of Classical Authors: From Late Antiquity to the Twelfth Century.” In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 2, The Middle Ages. Edited by Alastair Minnis, 99–144. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    A useful introduction to western Europe’s shifting approaches to studying classical authors from the end of antiquity to the 12th century. Ideally used in conjunction with Gillespie 2005.

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