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Lindsay Ann Reid, Ovidian Bibliofictions and the Tudor Book: Metamorphosing Classical Heroines in Late Medieval and Renaissance England
by Syrithe Pugh

Reid, Lindsay Ann. Ovidian Bibliofictions and the Tudor Book: Metamorphosing Classical Heroines in Late Medieval and Renaissance England. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 218 pp. ISBN: 978-1409457350. $104.50 cloth. 

The long and riddling title of this monograph, with its provocative coinage, might suggest that its field is to be a rather abstruse one, discovered in a corner where more familiar territories—Ovidian imitation in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (itself a region normally divided by traditional periodization), and the history of the book—overlap. Reid is careful to disavow any intention of “a systematic survey of Ovidian literary reception,” describing her study instead as “a sampling of postclassical Ovidian repetition and its variations,” focused particularly on “intersections between physical, bibliographical books and metaphysical, metaphorical books,” by which she means the self-reflexive stories literary texts tell about their own materiality, genesis, circulation, and relation to other texts—stories she dubs “bibliofictions” (35). Yet “sampling” here is misleadingly modest, and any suspicion of the narrow or recondite would be misplaced. Reid’s topic is in fact a well-chosen thread, which draws us on, as her argument unfolds, through a great variety of rooms, revealing unsuspected connecting doors, inviting us into areas not much frequented, and altering our understanding of what had seemed familiar.

The journey is intriguing, and Reid displays rich and wide-ranging scholarship. The focus is mainly on Ovid’s Heroides and their influence, but with deft and telling reference to his other works and to recent developments in Ovidian criticism. Medieval and sixteenth-century literature (including early Tudor texts) are handled with equal knowledge and dexterity; lesser-known materials from the querelle des femmes and popular ballads are scrutinized alongside well-known texts by Shakespeare, Daniel and Drayton (with discussion, too, of Isabella Whitney’s Copy of a Letter); the role of “paratexts”—especially woodcut illustrations—receives interesting attention; and the “bibliofictions” through which the authors reflect on their production of the texts and their intertextual relation to earlier literature are set illuminatingly against the material and social conditions of book production and circulation before and after the introduction of print.

The connecting thread which leads us through these regions is Ovid’s self-reflexive fascination with the ambiguous status of the literary text, the play of presence and absence inherent in the written word, which Reid sees as a crucial part of Ovid’s legacy to medieval and Renaissance writers. In Ovid’s distinctively bookish work, reminders of the materiality and ephemerality of the embodied text, like the threat to throw the wax tablets of the Amores at the roadside, to be trampled by passing traffic (I.xii.13-14), alternate with confident assertions that poems are the immaterial and greater part of the poet, who attains immortality as they escape the funeral pyre (Amores I.xv.41-42). The intertextual dynamic by which he constantly reworks earlier literature and myth colors the processes of textual transmission with the simultaneous continuity and change epitomized in his favorite subject, metamorphosis.

The paradox of the text as at once a conveyer of presence and a marker of absence is foregrounded most sharply in the epistolary form, aimed at communion between the letter-writer and the addressee, yet predicated on their physical separation. The form and the paradox were exploited by Ovid both in his Heroides and in his two collections of exile epistles, poems which insist on their own materiality, evoking the imagined scene of writing and drawing attention to physical features of handwriting or tear stains, and yet are simultaneously the conduit for a flight of the mind which transcends physical absence. Haec tibi cum subeant, Ovid writes from exile to his friend Macer in Ex Ponto II.x, absim licet, omnibus annis / ante tuos oculos, ut modo visus, ero. (“When these things come upon you, though I am absent, I shall be be before your eyes through all the years, as if you had just seen me.”) The boundaries transcended by the mythological letter-writers of the Heroides are not only those imposed by geographical distance. Ovid plays with genre and with the temporality of literary history as he gives new, elegiac voice to characters from tragedy and epic, reanimating a cast of characters who are at once conspicuously textual and intertextual, constructed through elaborate interplay with their previous literary incarnations, and yet “take on a life of their own,” appearing as almost a community of self-conscious readers of each others’ stories and writers of their own.

Reid repeatedly refers to the Heroides as “ghostwritten,” and the metaphor of the ghost resonates suggestively with her focus on the incorporeality of the literary text “as an object of imagination,” which, she argues, risks being occluded by the concentration on its material embodiments in criticism inflected by recent developments in book history. She links this incorporeal something to the riddle first posed by F. W. Bateson and often repeated in considerations of the nature of the literary text: “If Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet?” (6). The ghost metaphor itself could be traced to Ovid. Echoing Propertius’s Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit, / luridaque evictos effugit umbra rogos (“Ghosts are something real: death does not end it all, and a wan shade escapes the ruined funeral pyre,” Propertius 4.7.1-2), Ovid often wonders whether “something” (aliquid) escapes the pyre (for instance at Amores III.ix.27-28, Tristia III.iii.59-60, and Tristia IV.x.85-86). As often, this “something” turns out to be poetry itself, as for instance in the fiction of his attempt, on the eve of his departure into an exile he repeatedly figures as death, to burn the Metamorphoses. “These books, my very entrails, I placed on the fierce pyre,” he recalls, (libellos / imposui rapidis viscera nostra rogos, Tristia I.vii.19-20) yet adds laconically “several copies have been made, I believe,” (pluribus exemplis scripta fuisse reor, 24) so that they are not “completely destroyed,” (penitus sublata, 23) and become songs “snatched from their author’s funeral” (de domini funere rapta sui, Tristia I.vii.38).

As Reid traces medieval and Tudor engagement with such aspects of Ovid, several interesting and far-reaching implications emerge. First, she makes a case for a more capacious definition of the Ovidian in the sixteenth century, in which any mention of Ovid’s heroines (for instance in their use as exempla in the querelle literature) may be taken, even in the absence of recognizable and direct imitation, as self-consciously evoking Ovid’s work and the Ovidian tradition. Arguing, through a reading of Skelton, that “Chaucerianism and Ovidianism were indistinct and conceptually intertwined in readers’ imaginations” in the sixteenth century, she calls for an expansion of the category “Ovidian” to embrace imitation of Chaucer too (and for that matter of Petrarch—“all Petrarchism is Ovidianism at one further remove,” she claims) (32-33). It is in this vein that Chaucer’s Criseyde, Churchyard’s Jane Shore and their literary descendants are discussed as “postclassical Ovidian heroine[s],” (72) Ovidian not merely in their subjectivity and amatory situation but in their “obsession with their own metapoetics” (147).

A second implication of the work is its significant contribution to the growing chorus of voices challenging the artificial divide between medieval and Renaissance imposed by traditional periodization. Reid emphasizes continuities between medieval manuscript and early print culture, in techniques of compilation, contextualization, and self-presentation. Her interesting discussions of Wynkyn de Worde’s and John Stow’s sixteenth-century editions of Chaucer demonstrate how, at both ends of the century, Chaucer is conceived as intimately bound up both with Ovid and with the querelle des femmes; she treats the querelle as an “intellectual game” rooted in Ovid’s “explicit taste for revisionism” and in Chaucer’s appreciation and emulation of such Ovidian play, as much as in the rhetorical training of sixteenth-century humanists (54-55).

Her attention to early and mid-sixteenth-century literature, so often overlooked in the service of creating a stark dichotomy between medieval and Elizabethan, also plays a part in this erosion of the traditional periodical divide, and the nature of the thread she chooses to follow through her more broadly defined period reveals a greater sophistication in early Tudor imitation of Ovid than has usually been recognized. Where such imitations have often been slighted as merely “allegorical, moralized, and implicitly jejune,” such works as Skelton’s Boke of Phyllyp Sparrowe and A Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell display an “unabashed Ovidian delight … in their own irreverence and explicit revisionism” quite equal in metapoetical self-awareness to the epyllia of the 1590s (31).

This attention to the sophistication of sixteenth-century engagement with Ovid has implications for the period’s reception of other classical authors too. After all, self-reflexive foregrounding of intertextuality and explicit revisionism, though especially prominent in Ovid, was not his sole preserve in the classical period; rather, it is widely recognized as a central aesthetic value in Alexandrian poetics and the literature of imperial Rome. Some of the concerns which Reid finds highlighted in Ovid’s treatment of his heroines and in those of his medieval and Renaissance imitators were, for instance, arguably derived by Ovid from Virgil. Chaucer’s explicit concern over the defamation of Criseyde, a “textual artefact” knowingly at the mercy of an ongoing literary tradition as she laments “O, rolled shal I been on many a tonge!” (V.1061), is indeed reminiscent of Ovid, as Reid argues. But it also recalls the way in which Virgil slyly registers his own defamation of Dido in the Aeneid, where Jove’s command to Aeneas to abandon his lover is prompted by the slanderous report spread by Fama, a grotesque personification of unreliable speech with traditional attributes of the epic poet. Enjoying the many mouths conventionally wished for by the epic singer, Fama flies by night, spreading the evil rumour everywhere on the lips of men (virum diffundit in ora, Aeneid IV.97), with an echo of the boast of the early Roman epicist Ennius that after his death volito vivus per ora virum (“I shall fly, living, on the lips of men”). Early commentators on the Aeneid noted that Virgil’s poem slandered the historical Dido, who was renowned for her chastity. Macrobius, for example, in the early fifth century, protested that his “fiction of a lascivious Dido, which all the world knows to be false,” has nevertheless been so influential that it “flies everywhere on the lips of men as if it were true” (fabula lascivientis Didonis, quam falsam novit universitas, … pro vero per ora omnium volitet, Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.17.5). His echo of Virgil’s description of Fama highlights the way in which his charge is already implicit in Virgil’s text. Reid glances at Dido and Virgil’s Fama in her accompanying section on Chaucer’s House of Fame, but the Ovidian focus of her already wide-ranging study precludes sustained consideration; her book may suggest paths for others exploring Virgilian reception in the period.

Dido and the Aeneid crop up again when Reid addresses the anonymous mid-sixteenth-century ballad, “The Wandring Prince of Troy” (entered on the Stationers’ Register in 1564-65). Her purpose here is to demonstrate the piece’s debt to the epistle of Dido in Ovid’s Heroides as well as to the Aeneid, drawing attention to its inclusion of a letter written to Aeneas by Dido’s sister. While displacing authorship of the letter from the heroine herself to Anna, the ballad thus maintains Ovid’s epistolary fiction, and vividly replicates the effect of enargeia so often foregrounded in Ovid’s epistles, by which the absent writer is summoned into the presence of the reader, as if ante oculos, before his very eyes: Dido’s “grisly ghost” appears before Aeneas as he reads the letter, and the ballad ends with their conversation. As Reid points out, this moment evokes Aeneas’s last encounter with Dido’s shade in Virgil’s underworld. It is possible, however, that there may also be a more scholarly engagement with Virgil here. Aeneas’s first words to Dido’s shade in the sixth book of the Aeneid are Infelix Dido, verus mihi nuntius ergo / venerat exstinctam, ferroque extrema secutam? (“Unhappy Dido! Was it true, then, the news that came to me, that you had taken your life with the sword?”Aeneid VI.456-57). The lines have puzzled commentators, because Virgil has not given any previous indication that Aeneas has heard of Dido’s fate; Servius suggests in his late classical commentary, often reprinted in Renaissance editions, that we are to understand that Aeneas has received some message earlier, though the narrator has remained silent about it.

The author of “The Wandring Prince of Troy”—and indeed Ovid himself in the Heroides epistle—may be responding to such a suggestion, in an attempt to fill the lacuna in Virgil’s text. The ingenious pedantry of such a motivation is all the more surprising in the context of the ballad’s bold reworking of the end of the story. Once summoned by the reading of the letter, Dido’s ghost announces Aeneas’s death, and together with “a multitude of ugly fiends” conveys his soul “into eternall night,” so that the quite differently motivated descent to (and return from) the underworld in Virgil’s sixth book is utterly transfigured (perhaps implicitly dismissed as false, as in Servius’s gloss to Aeneid VI.893), and the very encounter which posed the conundrum removed. Such a combination of sophistication and playing fast and loose with the classical source would perhaps be startling in the popular and ephemeral form of the broadsheet ballad, but Reid’s description of the playful and self-aware subtleties of sixteenth-century Ovidianism make it seem the more plausible.

There are numerous minor errors, such as plural verb with singular subject, which should have been picked up by the editor, and I do not understand by what process of metamorphosis Skelton’s “Andromach, Hectors wyfe” has been “corrected” to “Andromeda” (19). But this is a fascinating and thought-provoking book, which should be read by anyone interested in classical reception in the period.

Syrithe Pugh
University of Aberdeen

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44.3.63

Cite as:

Syrithe Pugh, "Lindsay Ann Reid, Ovidian Bibliofictions and the Tudor Book: Metamorphosing Classical Heroines in Late Medieval and Renaissance England," Spenser Review 44.3.63 (Winter 2015). Accessed December 11th, 2019.
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