Joining the dots. By accident.

What is the connection between a Roman aristocrat, a ninth century abbot and a Shropshire Lad?

Researching the transfer of knowledge can sometimes blow your mind. This week I have been unpicking a convoluted chain of connections which includes all of the above.

A wealthy Christian Roman called Valentinus once commissioned a codex from a well-known calligrapher, Furius Dionysius Philocalus. It was delivered to him in 354 CE and consisted of a calendar with elaborate illustrations for each month together with supporting poetry, as well as other less immediately interesting documents. Philocalus was not the author: his job was to take pre-existing words and possibly pictures and turn them into a high end product fit for a rich home or, perhaps, a generous gift. However, his calligraphic work may well explain the survival of the content of the codex, in particular a distich, a set of 12 hexameters and 12 pentameters on the months of the year. The 354 codex itself is lost, but its artistic merits and intrinsic value helped it to survive long enough for copies to be made. A copy of the pictures and the consular calendar on the page facing the pictures was made in around 1500 and is now in the Austrian National Library (Cod. Vindob. 3146). However, my distich on the months, which was originally attached to the pictures, was not included. For that, we have to go to a ninth century codex which is now known as the Vademecum of Wahlafrid Strabo, once Abbot of Reichenau, (Cod. Sang. 878).

I am currently using Cod. Sang. 878 for Latin practice. The poem was a bit of a challenge and it was only when I went looking for other Latin versions that I discovered the back story. It was not difficult to turn up the pictures from the 1500 copy.06_april

This one is April. The relevant distich is:

Caesarae Veneris mensis, quo floribus arva

Prompta virent, avibus quo sonat omne nemus

Flowers, greenery, birds singing in the woods. Blah blah blah. But this is not what the picture shows.

Apparently, the hexameter was written at the foot of the picture page, the pentameter at the foot of the facing page, which is where the consular ‘fasci’ for the month were written out, in such a way that at least the hexameter would seem to be a caption. A prime site.

But it doesn’t fit the picture. For that, I had to go to the other piece of poetry in the original codex, the testatrich. For example:

Cereus et dextra flammas diffundit odoras

Cereus, flames, incense. A picture of Roman customs for the time of year. Fits perfectly.

But where was the testatrich? And if it wasn’t prominent on the page, is this the original April illustration or a 1500 invention? That, I’m still working on. Because on the way, I discovered A. E. Housman and began to understand a bit about the transfer of knowledge.

I’m ashamed to say I only knew Housman as a poet, although my polymath engineer husband already knew that Housman was a classics don. Housman wrote a paper on exactly my ‘Distich de mensibus’ and it was published in a collection of his works in 2004.[1] It includes a well-researched and well supported Latin transcription, and a one sided (pre Twitter) debate with Mommsen about the phrase ‘iuga celsa retorquet’. And I realised that I was experiencing transfer of knowledge.

How does it work? Philocalus and Valentinus transmitted high end artwork, but in doing so they created a favourable circumstance for the survival and thus transfer of Late Antique knowledge. Wahlafrid Strabo included the poem, shorn of its artistic context, in his personal collection and we do not know whether he deliberately selected just the poem or whether this is how it came to him. We know he was interested in, amongst other things, ideas of time and there is a lot about chronicles in the Vademecum, but he may have simply used the ‘disticha’ as a party piece for his pupils. There is no evidence that he meant the Vademecum to survive him. The ‘disticha’ has thus survived by chance, in a manuscript that Housman describes as ‘a collection of useful odds and ends put together at various times’. The final twist is that Wahlafrid has carried on transferring knowledge: I now know about A. E. Housman’s life as a classics professor. None of this was intentional. There was no syllabus, no reference to a list of canonical works, no plan. Any research project on the topic needs to allow for a lot of serendipity.

[1] The Classical Papers of A E Housman Vol.3 CUP 2004

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