Neo-Latin Seizes its Day

A review of Victoria Moul’s edited collection A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature

Victoria Moul (ed.) A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 514pp., $140.

French departments do not lavish attention on the golden era of Moliére and Racine to the exclusion of later French writers. Italian departments do not ignore Montale in the belief that more recent writers pale in comparison to Dante or Petrarch. Indeed, if a critic were to suggest that scholars should focus only on a few early decades of any national literature, from Czech to Chinese, that critic would be considered ignorant or crazed.

Despite this seemingly self-evident proposition, Latinists have historically focused almost exclusively on the decades of Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Catullus and Ovid. They have tagged the slightly later works of Juvenal, Martial and Seneca with the implicitly second-class label of “Silver Age,” and almost universally denigrated the content and style of the subsequent literature of the so-called “Dark Ages.” Most of the post-classical literature of Europe and North Africa has been left in the weeds outside the silos of academia instead of better informing students about Western literature and history.

Despite some signs of changing attitudes, most classicists still do not challenge this worldview that is so deeply engrained in their culture.

For over a century a Protestant academic elite—filled with contempt for Catholicism—disdained study of post-classical Latin literature, precisely because such literature was predominantly Catholic. That disdain reinforced the colossal misperception that Europe hibernated through centuries of “The Dark Ages” until it abruptly and spectacularly awoke with the rediscovery of classical manuscripts by humanists. Overhyped books, like Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, perpetuate that stereotype by largely ignoring the literature and classical scholarship produced during Late Antiquity and the early medieval era.

What the classical establishment has missed includes: the sixth-century surge of classical scholarship and poetry under Theoderic, the strangely innovative poetry of seventh-century Ireland that fascinated James Joyce,  the seventh-century and eighth-century Anglo-Latin poetry that laid important groundwork for the meter, rhyme and mysticism of medieval poetry, and early medieval vision poetry that inspired Dante.  Victoria’ Moul’s anthology A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature focuses on one a critically underexplored era, the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Closed-minded classicist traditionalists who overlook this period that miss the genius of George Buchanan (perhaps our greatest postclassical Latin poet), Casimir Sarbiewski (“the Polish Horace”), Jacob Bidermann (who popularized the Faust tale), along with scores of other worthy writers.


This book starts strongly with the editor’s learned and lively introduction. Moul concisely summarizes the goals of her anthology, along with a wealth of necessary background information on neo-Latin literature. Most importantly, she also makes a strong case for studying neo-Latin; her passion for the subject matter is almost as important as her analysis.

Moul divides the twenty-three essays by widely published scholars into four sections: Ideas and Assumptions; Poetry and Drama; Prose; and Working with Neo-Latin Literature. Unfortunately, the first section starts slowly. Yasmin Haskell’s essay on neo-Latin poets and their pagan familiars never narrows that broad topic enough to make it manageable within the space constraints. Her essay is also disjointed and poorly written in other regards, including a rambling two-page paragraph.

It gets worse with the next essay, Tom Deniere’s “Neo-Latin Literature and the Vernacular,” which collapses under the weight of trendy academic jargon so dense that no actual idea escapes its gravitational force:

…it appears that the very existence of neo-Latin culture as the renowned via media between ancient and modern civilization is not an independent cultural phenomenon, but one linked to a vernacular backdrop that must condition the way this neo-Latin culture could be construed by its practitioners as a second identity.

Hence, one should consider it not only in principle, but also in time, and remain aware that the literary system is always a polysystem, ‘a system of various systems which intersect with each other and partly overlap, using concurrently different options, yet functioning as one structured whole, whose members are interdependent’.

Fortunately, however, what comes next is Sarah Knight’s superb essay on neo-Latin education and early education, which should be required reading for any student of Renaissance literature or history. Françoise Waquet’s “The Republic of Letters” completes this section with a solid analysis of what it meant to be a Renaissance “man of letters.”

The next two sections discuss particular genres of neo-Latin poetry and prose, and the specificity of that mission seems to elevate the quality of the analysis and the writing. Wittiness emerges, as in these lines of respectively L.B.T. Houghton and Julia Haig Gaisser:

The promiscuous end of the spectrum is perhaps best seen in Ludovicio Ariosto’s De diversis amoribus, probably the closest neo-Latin literature gets to Mambo No. 5.

Among his favorite themes were his own place in the poetic tradition and the movement of intellectual accomplishment from Rome to Greece to Germany.

All of the seventeen essays of Sections II and III provide the information that a reader needs in a coherent, well-documented fashion, although some of them make the ironic mistake of overlooking the importance of post-classical Latin literature and scholarship in the years prior to the Renaissance.

At the risk of slighting other worthy essays, I will note some of the highlights of these sections. The appropriately concise essay on the Renaissance epigram by the late Robert Cummings crisply shows how the genre evolved from its classical forerunners; Cummings’ prose is erudite, well-reasoned and crystalline. His two pages on wordplay are particularly rewarding, most notably his discussion of John Owen’s “five-fold anagram of certa, recta, arcet, creta, caret.”

Estelle Haan succeeds with the challenge of making the extension of the pastoral tradition engaging; her discussions of Milton and Petrarch are particularly valuable. Moul also enlivens the dreary subject of didactic poetry, by describing the subject with vivid phrases such as “a seam of neo-Latin poems” (p.184) and thoughtful comments on the influences of Vida’s De arte poetica on poetic education. Stefan Tilg’s essay on longer prose fiction divides into valuable discussions of the satirical novel, the romantic novel, and the utopian novel. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of Gyges Gallus, which includes a discussion of an antecedent to Tolkien’s ring of invisibility. Joel Relihan’s essay on prose satire offers insight on how two of the most enduring neo-Latin classics—More’s Utopia and Erasmus’ Stultitiae Laus –fit into various satirical traditions.

The two essays of Chapter IV, “Working with Neo-Latin Literature,” seem like an afterthought. Craig Kallendorf’s “Using Manuscripts and Early Printed Books” is especially disappointing. The prose is diffuse and the logic flimsy, as in this argument from authority:

Lohe’s edition is in a series sponsored by the Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, which suggests that other works of neo-Latin literature merit similar treatment.

It is also frustrating that Kallendorf describes the Aeneid as “a poem that Virgil left finished at his death”—even though there is longstanding scholarly debate about whether Augustus ordered Virgil’s literary executors to complete the text.

Keith Sidwell’s concluding essay on editing neo-Latin literature is an improvement over Kallendorf’s essay, but it stays on safe ground. I would have liked to have seen more innovative thinking about how the tools of the digital humanities, particularly new generations of search engines, could be used in the future to improve editing and translation of problematic texts.


A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature is part of a growing movement to study neo-Latin literature in the way that scholars study other literature. Joseph Pucci’s Routledge series on Late Antique poetry has translated many key texts into English for the first time. Under the leadership of James Hankins, the expansion of Harvard University Press’ venerable Loeb series with the I Tatti Renaissance Library has become invaluable. Other important recent publications include Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Neo-Latin World and The Oxford Handbook to Neo-Latin.

Despite my minor reservations, A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature is an important acquisition for anyone interested in a largely forgotten fifteen hundred years of literature. The majority of the essays are thorough and thoughtful; classics departments should be getting them into the hands of their students.

A.M. Juster’s translation of and commentary on the elegies of Maximianus will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in December. His translation of John Milton’s Elegiarum Liber will be published in late 2019.