Isidore does not seem to have thought well of Virgil, despite quoting him only less often than he quotes the Bible, and nearly twice as often as he quotes Cicero – whose works Isidore, no less than later conservative Italians of Renaissance Italy, considered the model for Latin prose.
Of Isidore’s fifty and more citations from Virgil, the great majority imply traits which Isidore found repellent: corruption of the Word, deceit, conceit, dishonesty, and ambiguity among them. Here, in connection with barbarisms, a verse from the Georgics seems to have come to mind:
Isidore’s distaste is informed not only by his own ideal for Latin usage but at a deeper, if less obvious level, by a conviction that Virgil misused and corrupted Word. For Isidore the Word was life – and Christ the Word incarnate, with the pure word alone the means by which divinity acted in the world, as we saw when considering how orthodox Latin and Byzantine imagery depict the moment of Adam’s creation.[HERE]
Thus, for Isidore any corruption of the ‘word’ – including by the various faults he constantly illustrates with instances in Virgil – is taken as evidence of ignorance at best, but of some moral weakness or active intention to do ill, at worst. For Isidore, (and as Hexter has indicated), grammar is a path to more than proper understanding of correct Latin; adhering to its laws and forms is an active obedience to, and willing cooperation with, the divine Word and its source.
He was, of course, well aware of earlier expressions of distaste and distrust for classical writings.
St.Jerome’s twenty-second epistle, the ‘Letter to Eustochium’ argues with real fervour a direct opposition between Christ and classical authors.
- Jerome’s ‘Letter to Eustochium’. See esp. sections 29 and 30. An English translation [HERE].
In the same context, a comment by Gregory of Tours is often mentioned though so rarely with bibliographic details that I add this direct from Behaut:
- Fordham University has put Brehaut ‘s translation and commentary online, with cautions that a number of Behaut’s ideas and assertions are no longer accepted. [HERE].
Isidore will turn soon turn again to Virgil (Bk 1. xxxiv. De vitiis) and use Virgil’s writing as example for almost every form of fault there is, but perhaps our clearest insight into Isidore’s thinking is a comment in Book X. Here, Virgil is the ‘bard of Mantua’:
‘Aonia’ was the poets’ term for Boeotia, gained by reference to the name (Aon) of a legendary hero from whom the ancient Boeotians [as ‘Aonides’] traced their descent. Other than that he was remembered as a son of Poseidon, we know nothing of him.
Boeotia’s Mount Helicon was home of the Muses, of which there were anciently but three: Melete (meditation), Mneme (memory) and Aeode (song).
They belong to a religion and cosmogony established in Boeotia before the advent of the Mycenaean Greeks, who were to absorb much of it into their own, Olympian, system.
Roman art provides Virgil with only two Muses but in that way he appears in Roman-era mosaics to as far as North Africa, Syria and Britain.
Aonia/Boeotia and its Muses certainly deserved their reputation for making poets. A wiki fandom article (below) names the best known.
Before Alexander destroyed Boetia, it was also known for terracotta figurines made the town of Tanagra. All those we have of undisputed provenance are figures of women or girls and they are as widely admired today as they were in the ancient world.
If some represented the Muses of Helicon, Virgil might quite literally have brought ‘Musae Aonia’ with him to Rome .
- ‘Virgil’s countryside‘ post to the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog (21st. September 2014)
- the current wiki article is worth reading, for its outline of Virgil’s biograph(ies) and other references.
- Fabio Stok, ‘Virgil between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall, 1994), pp. 15-22 (JSTOR)
- To illustrate how views change over time, a recent article for the Catholic Herald includes Virgil among a list of the ten most worthwhile Roman writers. [HERE]
Composite inset: from the ‘Paris Psalter’ Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. gr. 139, f.1v. (12thC England). A classical frontispiece re-worked. Virgil, or possibly Apollo, is now David, composer of Psalms. How we should interpret the Muse is uncertain; perhaps an angel.
Portrait of Isidore – Altarpiece, Cathedral of St.Isidoro, Spain.
Terracotta figurines – all from Tanagra, Boeotia, 4th-3rdC BC.
bands: (1) gold, stamped red leather – detail from binding on BritLib MS Harley 5569, a copy of Manuel Chrysoloras’ Erotemata, a Greek grammar composed for the Italian literari.( 2nd or 3rd quarter of the fifteenth century). (2) edited from a detail in Brit.Lib. MS Add 42130 f.126v.
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