Reading · Teaching

The Modern Medieval Commentary

It’s summer, and I’m shaking things up again.

Fall semester is right around the corner, and I’m sitting here reading medieval commentaries and having Eureka! moments.

I regularly teach excerpts from Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio—the passages where he delineates the different kinds of true and false dreams one can have–and I’m wondering why it hasn’t occurred to me before that it’s a useful genre.

The medieval commentary tradition is a wonderful thing, really. There are many commentators like Macrobius—well-educated, well-intended, and busy saving the works of antiquity from oblivion. Macrobius uses the Roman orator Cicero’s text as a vehicle to collect or “compile” classical knowledge and package it for a Christian audience.

The text of the Dream of Scipio is included, of course, all eight pages of it, and then the Commentary of Macrobius adds upwards of 150 pages. It’s very medieval of him.

He collects other information in order to help explain the Dream. Scholars have spilt considerable ink deciding what texts he used as source material for which passages, but the point here is that he did. He used other texts to understand this one. He gathered outside information to clarify the context and associate the content with other, comparable texts. He isolated passages and looked closely at them, using all his faculties and all his resources to do justice to the subtleties of the text.

In short, he did literary criticism. But he did it in a medieval way.

Medieval authors valued authoritative texts. When I teach Chaucer, we talk about how he repurposed old tales for his Canterbury Tales rather than making things up ex nihilo. Originality meant going back to origins, not being novel. So a commentator would do that very important medieval writing task of compiling materials and putting them in conversation with one another to learn new truths. A compilator was not an auctor, an established authority and the root of our modern ”author,” but the job was vitally important nonetheless. A compiler made it possible for readers to gain fuller understanding of the auctor. A compiler opened doors, shone light, brought clarity, and most importantly, inspired the reader to deeper appreciation of the text.

This is where I’m headed in the fall.

I’m not going to make my students write hundred-page theses explaining flash fiction, but I am going to introduce them to the process and purpose and pleasure of the commentary.

In a modern classroom, a commentary may include annotations, summaries of parallel or illuminating texts, historical context, analysis of language and style, and may very well include illustrations or other visual elements. I’m thinking it will be a notebook devoted to a single text that students work on all term—an interactive account of their experience reading their chosen text.

I can already imagine them knocking my socks off.

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