Godfrey, Medieval Mosaic, A Book of Medieval Latin Readings

A.W. Godfrey, Medieval Mosaic, A Book of Medieval Latin Readings, Bolchazy-Carducci, second edition 2016

A.W. Godfrey, Medieval Mosaic, A Book of Medieval Latin Readings, Bolchazy-Carducci, Illinois USA, second edition 2016, 362 pages (ISBN 978-0-86516-841-1)


This is an expanded version of the book of the same title first published in 2003. It now contains 84 passages, arranged chronologically, from the 2nd to the early 16th century. The passages vary in length from a few lines to three pages; most are a page or a little more. Each passage is accompanied by a short introduction and ‘Vocabulary and Notes’ at the end of the passage. At the beginning of the book there is a short introduction to the main features that distinguish Medieval from Classical Latin (pages xiii-xvii), and ‘A Note on the Structure of Worship in the Roman Church’ (pages xix-xxi), and at the end of the book there is ‘A Select List of Medieval Latin Words’ (pages 357-359). The front cover is attractive and colourful (from a medieval manuscript, though unidentified as far as I can see), and the book is appropriately illustrated with 41 black and white illustrations.

The selection of passages covers a wide range of authors, in both prose and verse. In fact my own collection of texts that I have used with Medieval History students over many years contains quite a large number of the authors in this book, and in many cases I use the self-same passages in my teaching.  Some passages are well known to anyone who has studied Medieval Latin in any depth, and this is to be expected in a book designed for an ‘Intermediate’ level of study. In Godfrey’s selection of passages there is a strong leaning towards specifically Christian literature, and of course there was a lot of it produced in the medieval world. But the historians and chroniclers of the period do not get much coverage, and the travel writers of the 13th to the early 16th century (Odoric of Pordenone, Giovane de Piano Carpini and others), who are eminently readable at this level, are omitted. But there is a vast amount of material available in Medieval Latin, and inevitably tastes vary. I should add that the more secular poets of the 12th-14th centuries are in fact quite well represented.

Other parts of the book, however, I did find less satisfactory. The introductory section entitled ‘Medieval Latin’, though systematically arranged under nouns, pronouns, adjectives etc, is in fact rather an odd collection of grammatical points. Some of the points are indeed common, though the use of an asterisk to indicate these is far from consistent. Some of the points listed are very rare indeed (one might say they were errors resulting from the writer’s limited command of Latin; certainly I have not come across some of them), some are also found in classical authors (‘invicem’ for instance is quite classical); and in some cases one would have hoped for a little more explanation (for instance, what do ‘facio’ and ‘habeo’ with an infinitive actually mean). The ‘Brief Introduction to Medieval Latin Grammar’ by Alison Goddard Elliott, included in K. P. Harrington’s Medieval Latin (University of Chicago 1997), all 56 pages of it, does the job very well, though at some length; if one wants to do this in five pages, then the choice of what to include becomes somewhat arbitrary. I doubt if students will find this particularly useful.

The level of difficulty of the passages does of course vary. Generally they are indeed accessible, with help, to students who have mastered the basics of Latin, though some of the poetry, especially from the earlier periods, will be quite a challenge. It is also perhaps unfortunate that the passage that occurs second in the book is from Tertullian, hardly an easy author, and the selected passage (from De Spectaculis, though sources are never indicated in the book) contains some of Tertullian’s more convoluted thinking. And the typing error in line 15, giving ‘sec’ instead of ‘seu’, does not help. Nor do many of the Notes which follow the passage; there is no attempt to help with Tertullian’s difficult style, and some of the notes simply give a translation where some explanation would not have come amiss, such as ‘quo – when’ (it would have helped to point out that after a noun indicating time the relative pronoun is the normal Latin usage where English would use ‘when’), and ‘licet – although’ with no guidance on how the construction with ‘licet’ works. A student tackling the book from the beginning would find this passage, the second to be read, decidedly off-putting.

I was puzzled about the section of the book entitled A Note on the Structure of Worship in the Roman Church. As far as I could see this section is not referred to elsewhere in the book and its purpose is unclear.

The metre of the verse passages receives only occasional comment. It would have been helpful to know what an anapaestic dimiter (page 88) or a trochaic tetrameter catalectic (page 108) actually is. The change from the classical metres to the stress-based and rhymed later medieval meters, as the knowledge of the classical vowel quantities was lost, was perhaps worthy of comment.

The source of the individual passages is never given (except in a general way on page x), and I think it would have been helpful if they had been. I suppose if the book is used as a collection of unseens to be translated by students, then giving the source of each passage might encourage students to find a translation on the internet. But this would be a very restricted use of the texts, and the possibility of finding the wider context of a text and possibly of studying more of the text than is available in this book would seem to outweigh any misuse of a translation.

But these are mainly minor points; in fact the major problem in the book is I think with the Vocabulary and Notes for each passage. Essentially these sections are too brief, and the choice of items noted seems to be largely random – or at least the criteria for the choice is not immediately clear. The large majority of the items in these sections consist of a bare translation. That is undoubtedly useful for students where a word or phrase is difficult to interpret, but many of the items chosen for translation, such as ‘Dominico die – on Sunday’ (page 95) and ‘praesencia – present’ (page 97) are likely to cause a student fewer problems than many of the more difficult passages, particularly in the poetry sections, that receive no comment. Many of the words translated could surely have easily been found in a dictionary. And in a few cases the translation could be misleading, such as ‘confugientes – they will flee’ (page 105), and is even wrong, such as ‘ad universorum – to all’ (page 263, where ‘ad’ governs ‘noticiam’ in the following line; the correct translation is ‘to the notice of all’). The Vocabulary and Notes for each section could have been profitably expanded to include more comment on the content, style and syntax of the passage, with less space taken up with translation of individual words or phrases. In most texts there is in fact ample space for more detailed explanations.

In summary, the book contains a good selection of Latin texts from medieval authors, and is from this alone a most useful aid for those teaching and learning Medieval Latin. The book is not really suitable for anyone learning without a teacher, but teachers will doubtless add their own commentary to the text to suit their own students – and this indeed they will need to do.


John Thorley

Former President of Euroclassica