The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature

by Ralph Hexter (ed.), David Townsend (ed.), OUP USA 23 Feb 2012, Hc 672 pages, ISBN 978-0195394016 (£95.00).

Classicists tend to pass over Medieval Latin in silence, a tradition that goes back to Erasmus who was dismissive of anything other than classical Latin literature.  With the current emphasis on the ancient context in the process of language learning, and the modern impulse to connect directly to the ancient world, Latin in the period between Pliny and the present is somehow forgotten.  This is the book to fill in this gap, as we remember that Latin has not come to us directly from Cicero but through a series of intermediaries.  The contributors to this handbook, mainly North American and European, examine the state of scholarship on such authors as Jerome, Augustine, Bede, and Dante.  Some of these may in certain countries be treated as part of the classical canon, although the English-language tradition has been to allocate such works to theology or medieval history.  Yet the Carmina Burana and Hildegard of Bingen have some profile today and their Latin is lively and different and Bede is at least of local interest.  Perhaps classics as a subject should be more involved in this area and extend its range to include more late authors.  The editors tend towards the postmodern in their prose, but most contributors provide palatable accounts of such varied topics as the acquisition of Latin as a foreign language, the sociology of Latinitas and the status of Latin, the role of the mediaeval commentators such as Servius in the transmission of classical texts, the diversity of the mediaeval texts ranging from religious prose to erotic poetry and folk tales, the weird world of medieval spirituality, and sex and gender.  The book is packed with illuminating passages in Latin accompanied by clear and helpful translations, although classically trained Latinists will have to pick up the mediaeval usages for themselves (michi for mihi,  hec for haec and so on).  Students doing religious studies or mediaeval history may find this volume more useful than those doing Latin or Classics, but perhaps they too might find it valuable to consult a few of the chapters, and learn that you can sing the confession of the Archpoet to the tune of Good King Wenceslas.  Teachers may find the sections on the learning of Latin as an acquired language and on the changes in the authoritative voice of Latin in the period particularly thought-provoking.  

John Bulwer