The Figure of Minerva in Medieval Literature

Why did Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, appear so frequently in medieval literature? Peter Abelard, Guido delle Colonne, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan, among others, all drew on and developed these images of her in different forms. William Hodapp’s new book explains all!

Want to know more? Look out for the December issue of our Medieval Herald newsletter which will feature a great interview with Professor Hodapp.

This project offers the first literary study of the goddess Minerva in medieval literature. Medieval poets use the goddess as a multi-faceted figure representing distinct aspects of wisdom, each of which derives from a tradition rooted in antique culture and literature. Paying careful attention to the goddess’ appearances not only enriches readings of poetry but also deepens understanding of medieval poetics and classicism.

The Figure of Minerva (Wikimedia)

Minerva, I find, is a multivalent figure. The Roman goddess of strategic warfare, intellectual arts, and practical arts, Minerva is part of the literary and cultural inheritance medieval poets received from antique Rome. Examining a wide range of texts familiar to medieval writers, from classical poems and philosophical treatises to commentaries on auctores and mythographic handbooks, I distinguish a five-fold paradigm of Minerva imagery: redemptress, mistress of the liberal arts, patroness of princes, idol, and Venus’ ally. These distinct facets of the paradigm, or what I call traditions, figure forth equally distinct aspects of wisdom. Within the first three, Minerva primarily represents divine wisdom itself or human intellectual powers used in pursuit of divine wisdom or right living. In these traditions, poets link Minerva with biblical Sapientia and other figures such as Philosophia of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. In the tradition of Minerva as idol, poets depict the goddess within a patristic anti-pagan discourse: here she either represents a demon or human intellectual powers used to pursue worldly or self-centered desires. Finally, her role as Venus’ ally—in light of its Ovidian roots—is perhaps most ambiguous and ultimately comical in a satiric even parodic way as this tradition draws on, and plays off of, the others.

Geoffrey Chaucer (Wikimedia)

Though a range of texts figure into this study, these distinct traditions are especially evident in several fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century English and Scots poems: John Lydgate’s Reson and Sensuallyte and Temple of Glas, the anonymous Court of Sapience and Assembly of Gods, James I’s Kingis Quair, Charles d’Orleans’ Fortunes Stabilnes, William Dunbar’s Golden Targe, Gavin Douglas’ Palice of Honour, John Skelton’s Book of Laurel, and Stephen Hawes’ Example of Vertu and Pastime of Pleasure.

Joining close readings of these poems with readings of other primary texts to clarify the goddess’ roles within the poems, this study focuses on Minerva imagery within the context of medieval classicism, that is, the reception and transformation of antiquity in medieval culture. Examining this multi-faceted imagery of Minerva through close, contextual and intertextual readings of classical and medieval texts invites re-readings of the literary texts examined here. By gaining an understanding Minerva as a poetic figure, we are better able to appreciate her appearance in a given text. Such appreciation ultimately leads, then, to understanding how each unique use of Minerva also interprets and transforms the traditions in which she participates.


This guest post is written by William F. Hodapp who is Professor of English and Coordinator of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minnesota.

The Figure of Minerva in Medieval Literature
by William F. Hodapp
Hardback / 9781843845393 / £45 or $74.25

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