The Function of the Epic in Latin Culture: The <i>Waltharius</i> And Carolingian Attitudes Towards Marriage


  • John 0. Ward


When Virgil wrote his Aeneid he was, according to Brooks, Otis, giving new breath and life to a form some 700 years obsolete'!. The present paper surveys the history of the Latin epic in the 1200 years after Virgil's death, and finds the 'obsolete form' still living, and, indeed, enjoying, from the ninth century onwards, a considerable revival, a revival that reached a climax with the so-called and much discussed 'Renaissance of the Twelfth Century'2 How do we explain this phenomenon" Was it a pale, atavistic, anachronistic reflection of the 'unexampled metamorphosis ... accomplished' by Virgil, this 'quite new thing in literature'J, or was it linked with some vital threads in the nco-Latin culture of the central middle ages in western Europe? Was 'epic' the tired product of antiquarian schools in the after-glow of Graeco-Roman culture or a mode of expression that enabled contemporaries to illuminate some of the major problems of their day for a cultivated audience of persons closely involved with the management of current social and political problems') I hope to confirm in what follows the impression that 'epic' remained a vital and frequently practised form of expression for the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, a form of expression suited to the exploration of the largest and most perplexing of contemporary problems. My major illustration will be the late Carolingian poem known as the Waltharius, nd the links that I believe exist between the composition of this poem and the problems late Carolingian bishops were encountering in connection with the new marital legislation and attitudes of the Carolingian church. In brief, I propose that the author of this poem was consciously reshaping older Germanic material to suit new clerical tastes and attitudes. His purpose was partly poetic, to express older Germanic heroic themes in Virgilian hexameters4, that is, to reduce Germanic legend to a pleasurable and entertaining form suited to the new Latin reading classes of the Carolingian Empire, and partly utilitarian, to provide the leading clergy of the day with a form of this legendary material that would suitably underline a view of the relationship between aristocratic men and women that the upper clergy wished to impart -for quite practical reasons -to their lay contemporaries. My elaboration of these ideas will break into two parts. The first deals with the tradition of epic inherited by the middle ages, and, in brief, what they did with it; the second will concentrate on an exploration of the relationship between the Waltharius and the problems the upper clergy were faced with in later Carolingian times.