Interview – Discussing the English Translation of the Medieval French Ovide moralisé

Editors and translators K. Sarah-Jane Murray and Matthieu Boyd answer a series of questions on their book The Medieval French Ovide moralisé.

1. What is the Ovide moralisé (OM)?

The OM is an anonymous early-fourteenth-century French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, annotated on the premise that everything in the universe is part of the Christian God’s plan, so that the Greco-Roman myths unknowingly reveal Christian truth. The result is a poem of almost 72,000 lines, perhaps the most important text in the Western tradition that hadn’t had a modern translation until now. (“Modern,” because Pierre Bersuire’s Latin Ovidius Moralizatus and Caxton’s Ovid, translated from a later prose version of the OM, were part of its premodern influence. The first published English translation of Bersuire also came out in 2023, so this is an Ovidian moment!)

2. Why was Ovid’s work appealing to Christian commentators in the 14th century?

Interest in Ovid wasn’t confined to the 14th century, but the OM brought it to a peak by synthesizing two previously distinct processes: a long tradition of mythographical commentary in Latin, and the vernacularization of classical stories (the OM incorporates twelfth-century Old French versions of Narcissus, Piramus and Thisbe, and Philomena). At almost the same time, Dante was doing the same thing with Virgil as his guide through the afterlife in the Divine Comedy, purposefully written in Italian. The OM is not yet as famous as Dante, but now these two vast poems can speak to one another about what it means to be a medieval Christian author interpreting the (pagan) classics.

3. What are the OM’s sources, and what is its attitude to them?

The Metamorphoses gives the text its overall structure, but the stories to be moralized also come from Ovid’s Heroides, Statius, and what the OM calls “Homer,” which includes the Latin Ilias latina and Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The later books of the Metamorphoses cover some of the same ground as Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, and the history of Rome up to Augustus. So by using Ovid, the OM is trying to span pagan narrative “from the first beginning of the world until the coming of Jesus Christ.”

To document all the sources for the moralizations would have been a separate, more-than-book-length project. The 2018 edition of Book 1, by a large French-Swiss team, has over 150 pages of textual notes, which implies some 2250 pages for all 15 books. There would need to be something like Singleton’s commentary on Dante or the Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman. We’re hoping the translation inspires others to join us in exploring more fully the OM’s use of sources.

The OM doesn’t make it easy. At best it cites “Scripture,” not chapter and verse, but whole sections are translated from texts not cited at all. This is seemingly because the author considers that all truth is God’s truth, so it’s not so important—and might even seem prideful or presumptuous—to attribute any of it to individual human interpreters. The OM explicitly presents itself as summing up and surpassing what was done before to interpret Ovid, but its anonymity seems deliberate, to show that this is being done for the greater glory of God. The author asks that his name be recorded in the Book of Life, but doesn’t tell his human readers what it is.

4. How would you characterize the interaction between translation and commentary in the OM?

The OM distinguishes between the stories (fables) and the moralizations, and alternates: “I just told you the story of X. Now I’ll explicate it for you.” The moralizations have up to four levels, corresponding to the levels of scriptural interpretation in theologians like Thomas Aquinas: historical (which here involves a realistic scenario that could have inspired the myths, since the pagan gods and their transformations can’t be taken literally in a Christian worldview), moral, allegorical, and anagogical/eschatological.

Others who advised Christians on reading pagan authors said to mine them for the wisdom they contain (Augustine’s “gold of the Egyptians”) and leave the rest: “Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille,” to quote Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest. The OM sees God’s truth in everything. Correctly interpreted, all of Ovid will yield “fruyt.” So it never backs down from trying to moralize a story, even if that involves massaging the details. For example, sexual violence by a god against a human, something Ovid is notoriously full of, might be read allegorically in terms of the Christian God’s relationship to humanity, so the sexual event has to be reinterpreted as a consensual act of love.

5. In the introduction, you mention that the OM sometimes moralizes details that are not included in its own translation of Ovid. Do the disparities suggest something about the OM’s original audience (its familiarity with the missing details), or do they stand out as a possible annoyance for medieval and modern readers alike?

The OM tells the stories instead of only moralizing them, which suggests an audience that might not already have been reading them in Latin. (The surviving manuscripts are richly illuminated luxury items: this was a text for the aristocracy at least as much as the clergy.) Any oversights would speak to the author’s comfort with the Latin: he wouldn’t have had to look back at his own synopsis all the time to know what he was moralizing. Could this have annoyed his medieval audience? Maybe! We hope our annotations will spare our readers the same annoyance. But medieval readers were also more used to Ovidian references in their environment than we are. As early as the 12th century, for example, a church capital depicts Piramus and Thisbe: this was likely visual code for the dual nature of Christ, as explained in the OM’s moralization.

6. This is the first translation of the OM into any modern language: Why now? What’s one thing you would like modern readers to take away with them?

85 years since Cornelis de Boer’s edition, why wasn’t it already translated? It’s such an obviously important text. But it also presented a daunting challenge. In terms of our careers and training, we got to it as soon as we were able. The OM involves difficult French and difficult theology, and 72,000 lines of it was something else again. Some of the recent scholarship, not to mention the digitization of manuscripts, was enormously helpful, so if it had been done earlier it might have been done worse. Which isn’t to suggest our translation is perfect—only an indispensable first step in really coming to grips with this text. We could anticipate doing a second edition, as our collective understanding progresses.

We want medievalists to understand that the OM matters: that without it, it isn’t possible to fully understand the 14th century and what follows, including English literature like Chaucer, Caxton, and Shakespeare.

The much broader takeaway is expressed by the first line of the OM, which references Romans 15:4, that everything in books in there for our instruction. We hope that even a committed atheist will agree that the OM is important in the history of ideas and that anyone can learn from it, as we can from all the books that have come down to us through time. So what our mutual advisor Karl D. Uitti called “the ancient philological enterprise” has lost none of its value. If scholars were better at communicating the value of this kind of work for finding meaning in our lives, for connecting to a sense of larger purpose, the humanities and language study might be less constantly embattled.

7. What was your approach to the translation? What particular challenges did you encounter or discoveries did you make as a translators? Do you have a favourite line?

After extensive preparatory work by Sarah-Jane, the early drafting was a team project, with contributors assigned to different sections. Then it came down to a dialogue between the two of us as we worked through the entire text line by line, meeting every day on Zoom throughout the pandemic. There were, indeed, particular challenges. The OM uses French to render Latin theological vocabulary and concepts, which sent us to Aquinas, Bonaventure, Aristotle, and others to find translations coherent with the theology of the time. Some moralizations are facilitated by the semantic range of specific French or Latin words: the OM shifts from one meaning in the story to a different one in the moralization while using the exact same word for both, which we couldn’t always translate the same in English. We have some favorite lines in the sense that they involved memorably difficult puzzles. We also remember working through the closing words of Book 15 in the early hours of the morning. There was an uncanny sense of identifying with the final words of the medieval translator, and of embodying the principle of translatio itself: the ongoing dialogue between the past and the present, and the value of community in scholarship.

We’re now developing a companion volume as well as public humanities resources through The Greats Story Lab™ ( Scan this QR code to view a short video teaser on our YouTube channel:

K. SARAH-JANE MURRAY is Associate Professor of Great Texts and Creative Writing in the Honors College at Baylor University. Matthieu Boydis Professor of Literature and Chair of the Department of Literature, Languages, Writing, and Humanities at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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