Ovid’s Medea in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (12th December)

Medea crashes Jason’s wedding party. Source: Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 37v.

To jump right into discussing the various ways Medea was fashioned and re-fashioned throughout the Middle Ages is tempting but ultimately a shallow and unfulfilling approach. To read her medieval versions without understanding the social, religious and cultural background that generated them is not to read her at all.[1]

Over the course of a long history that stretches back to Greek mythology, there have been many versions of Medea, all overlapping with and building upon each other. Predominantly, it is as the archetypal murderous mother that she is most often remembered, but this is not the only label she has borne. Treacherous daughter, murderous sister, enchantress, potioneer, and wronged wife are also titles she has counted among her own.

The daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis and a granddaughter of the sun-god, Helios, Medea fell in love with the hero, Jason, helping him to outwit her father and steal the Golden Fleece. It is Jason’s betrayal of her love for him that prompts the extreme acts of infanticidal revenge that made her name synonymous with ‘wickedness itself’.[2] However, this betrayal also paves the way for the depiction of a more sensitive, emotional Medea that writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer capitalised upon to recast her in a more fitting, less threatening, manner.

Whatever else she may be, Medea is indisputably a cause of fear. In the medieval period, she became particularly menacing to an English audience in period that was undergoing seismic social and cultural shift. Her actions capture the attention of writers through the ages, almost reluctantly so. The Elizabethan poet and playwright, Thomas Achelley, dismissed the transgressive behaviours of Medea and her ilke as the actions of “ethnicke examples”, emphasising the distance between her and the women of Protestant England – the implication being women should be grateful for this distance.[3] And yet, for all Achelley dismisses Medea as unimportant, he and others are incapable of leaving her alone. Her narrative is not one that easily allows the author / reader to move on, being as reluctant to let go as Medea herself was over Jason. Beyond the apparent end of her own tale, Medea crosses over into roles in the tales of other characters. In the Metamorphoses, for instance, she reappears at the beginning of the Theseus narrative as the wicked stepmother, trying to arrange Theseus’ poisoning to guarantee the furtherance of her own son’s prospects.

She is the subject of plays by Euripides and Seneca (which survive) and one by Ovid (which does not), but as access to surviving Greek tragedies was limited through the medieval and early modern period, it is Ovid’s version of her, found in Book VII of the Metamorphoses and Heroides XII, that is most important to her medieval and early modern presence. This month, we will be looking at two translations of the Medea narrative in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Chaucer’s retelling within The Legend of Good Women; and the very end of William Caxton’s The History of Jason.

This months texts:

  1. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, reis. 2008), ll. 1-402.
  2. Ovid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567, J. F. Nims, trans. A. Golding (Paul Dry Books, Inc, new edn. 2000), ll. 1-513.
  3. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea’, The Legend of Good Womenin The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1580-1679.
  4. William Caxton, History of Jason, John Munro (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1908), ll. 19-40.

The Latin poet Publius Ovidius Naso – Ovid – was born in 43 BC and was the only one of the great Latin poets to see the beginning of the Christian era. Ovid is one of the most influential poets in Western literature, and the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses, counting approximately 250 stories and spanning from the first chaotic moments of creation to the rise of Rome, is his most ambitious work. Ovid was banished from Rome in 8 AD for immorality before the Metamorphoses was completed, and issues of speech and silencing run through the tales like a thread, always reminding the reader of their storyteller’s unjust exile to Tomis. Almost twenty percent of the tales Ovid tells recount silencing of a kind and speech loss has long been identified by scholars as a key aspect of the transformations.[4]

Arthur Golding was born in Essex in 1536, and although he dropped out of university during the reign of Queen Mary, he read the classics thoroughly as a young man and their translations from the Latin and French became his life’s work. His 1567 translation of the Metamorphoseswas the first to translate directly from Latin into English, and it rapidly became the standard Ovid in English, remembered now as “Shakespeare’s Ovid”. Its popularity inspired a wave of Elizabethan translations of Ovid’s works, and its significance to the English literary canon was seemingly confirmed, when in 1915, Ezra Pound deemed it, “The most beautiful book in the language”. Golding also produced numerous volumes of John Calvin’s sermons and treatises, a translation of Caesar’s Commentaries, an account of a 1573 murder that took place in London, and an account of the London earthquake of 1580.

Of all the women in The Legend of Good Women, it is Medea who gets the shortest shrift. Her tale is not even given its own space, instead compressed into one alongside Hypsipyle (her predecessor in Jason’s affections). The entire episode spans a mere 310 lines and at barely one hundred lines, Medea’s legend is reduced to a footnote in what is essentially ‘The Legend of Jason’. The passionate, emotional Medea who Ovid first depicts in the Metamorphoses debating so hard with herself as she is torn between her familial duty and her overpowering love for Jason is absent in Chaucer’s retelling.

The Legend of Good Women is thought to have been written between 1380-1387 at the behest of Queen Anne of Bohemia, the consort of Richard II.  It follows Troilus & Criseyde in the chronology of Chaucer’s works (purportedly as an atonement for the wrongs Chaucer-the-poet did to women in general in his portrayal of Criseyde) and is usually regarded as a critical paradox: despite having had great time and effort expended upon it, it was apparently abandoned and is viewed by some as a failure. The Legend survives in twelve manuscripts, and there are two different versions of the prologue.

William Caxton is thought to have been born around 1422. After a period living and working as a merchant in Bruges and observing the development of new printing technology in Cologne, he partnered with a Fleming called Colard Mansion to open his own printing press. Their first publication was an English translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye in 1473, which Caxton himself translated. Upon his return to England, he is credited with opening the first printing press in 1476.

The History of Jason was first published c. 1477 and is Caxton’s English translation of a French romance by Raoul Lefèvre from c.1460. The History of Jason constructs Jason as a typical romance hero, and places a great deal of emphasis upon his previous marriage contract with the Queen Mirro to nullify his bond with Medea. However, once Mirro has died (shot with an arrow through the throat by Patroclus on the orders of King Aeson), the way is opened for Jason and Medea’s reunion.

Topics for discussion
• Thinking about translation, to what extent do the two versions of Ovid’s Medea count as different texts? Where are the differences? Why might these differences exist? Or has little enough changed in the approx. 450 years that they are still recognisably the same text?
• How do the beginnings of the Ovidian Medea and Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Hypsipyle’, set up different expectations for the texts?
• How is Jason portrayed throughout these texts, and how does that influence how we perceive Medea?
• Consider the three different endings these texts present for Medea. Is the ‘Happily Ever After’ Caxton gives Jason and Medea convincing in the light of the other versions of her tale?
• What tensions, fears, and anxieties might the figure of Medea have played upon and incited in the medieval and early modern period?
• Medea is foremost remembered as the mother who killed her sons. How useful are the various labels that have been attached to Medea – ‘murderess, necromancer and sorceress’[5] – when considering her construction as a character?
• What do we think of Medea? Is she a villain? A victim? Is she ever sympathetic?

[1] Siobhan McElduff, ‘The Multiple Medeas of the Middle Ages’, Ramus, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2012), p. 191.
[2] Geoffrey of Vinasuf, as quoted in Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 203
[3]Katherine Heavey, The Early Modern Medea: Medea in English Literature, 1558–1688, p. 1.
[4] Bartolo A. Natoli, Silenced Voices: The Poetics of Speech in Ovid(Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin press, 2017), p. 11.
[5] Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 203.


Medieval Nightingales (11th July)

Peckham's nightingale
Historiated initials from John Peckham’s Philomena, The Hunterian Museum, Special Collections, MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4)

Next meeting: 11th July 2017 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

The long history of the nightingale in European literature spans from Homer to T.S. Eliot, and over the course of this history, the meanings attributed to the bird have varied greatly. The nightingale’s most notable feature is its song and this evolved a myriad of meanings in vernacular literature over the course of the medieval period. The variation in interpretations (which has included springtime, the poet or poetic muse, and romantic or sexual love) has been described by Albert R. Chandler as showing ‘how sentiment and imagination vary with the nationality, epock, and individuality of the writer’. [1]

In The Odyssey, the earliest poetic appearance of the nightingale, the bird’s song is heard as Penelope speaks of the grief that catches her when she is left alone and awake at night. Penelope interprets the nightingale’s song as being that of Pandareus’ daughter, lamenting her son Itylus, whom she killed by mistake. This story then survives in its most complete and well-known form in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as the story of Philomela. The violence of the Ovidian myth has provided one explanation for the nightingale’s song often being described as a lament; however, according to Wendy Pfeffer, the significance of the Philomela myth to the medieval world was limited to ‘bequeath[ing] to medieval Europe the word “Philomela” as a synonym for “luscinia”, the classical Latin word for nightingale.’ [2]

It was not until John Gower’s retelling of the Ovidian myth as part of his Confessio Amantis in the late fourteenth-century that the sisters’ transformation into birds was expanded. Gower interpreted the nightingale’s song once more as a lament, but for a lost virginity rather than a murdered child. His nightingale sings, “O why, O why ne were I yit a maide?” and rejoices in her new avian form, as it means a respite from the shame:

“Ha, nou I am a brid,

Ha, nou mi face mai ben hid:

ThoghI have lost mi Maidenhede,

Schal noman se my chekes red.”

(Confessio Amantis, ll. 5985-8)

Elsewhere, the nightingale appeared often in the lyrics of the Provencal troubadours, though as a motif it was rarely developed upon and in the few lyrics where the bird does have a clearly identifiable function, it is either a messenger or representative of the poet himself. Among the Carmina Burana, there are twenty-one poems in the Benedictbeueren manuscript that reference the nightingale. In these, it is primarily as a harbinger of spring that the bird is recognised, although it also appears as either a symbol of love or an incitement to love. One poem in particular within the Carmina Burana associates the song of the nightingale in the early evening with sexual intercourse, which links to the image of the nightingale as a sexual motif as suggested in The Owl and the Nightingale.

Overview of the texts

  • The Owl and the Nightingale is an anonymous Middle English poem and is the earliest English example of verse contest, featuring a debate between the two birds on their flaws. It survives in two manuscripts, ff. 156-68, Jesus College, Oxford, MS. 29 and ff. 233-46 of British Library M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX, both of which have been dated to the late thirteenth century. The poem itself is thought to date from between 1189 to 1216, this due to the prayer for the soul of King Henry at lines 1091-2: ‘Þat underyat þe king Henri: Jesus his soule do merci!’ Throughout the poem, the birds reference a Nicholas of Guilford as a worthy judge and all-round excellent person and the poem ends with the pair flying to find Nicholas so he can settle their debate once and for all.
  • John Peckham’s Philomena has been called one of the greatest of the thirteenth century. Surviving in over thirty manuscripts, it is the first broadly popular poem known to have used the nightingale to represent the Passion of Christ and represents a culmination of elements taken from both Old French and Latin religious verse. The nightingale is said to represent the Christian soul as it meditates on the history of mankind, from Creation through to Redemption. At each hour, the nightingale sings a different song to relate another piece of Christian history, culminating at the hour of Nones and the Crucifixion when the song reaches its crescendo and the bird dies.
  • Two Nightingale Poems by John Lydgate show two separate attempts at engaging with the religious nightingale tradition. The first, ‘The Nightingale’ is loosely based upon Peckham’s Philomena and while it follows the same seven-part structure of a prologue, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and an epilogue, it differs significantly from Peckham in addressee, interpretation, and conclusion. The second, ‘A Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ is a dream vision, in which an angel instructs the poet-narrator on the true meaning of nightingale’s song. After having thought it symbolic of Venus and Cupid, the angel repeatedly insists, ‘Thyn aduertaence is gouerned wrong’ (l. 57) kand explains the nightingale actually sings in praise of pure love by grieving the suffering of Christ. This second poem ends abruptly and was seemingly abandoned.
  • ‘Laüstic’, a Breton lai by Marie de France, survives only in a single manuscript, known as Harley 978. It is the shortest of the texts we will be looking at and the only European example. The nightingale here represents adulterous love, as a young woman uses the excuse of listening to the song of the nightingale to explain her presence at the window to see her lover. The death of the nightingale at the hands of the cuckolded husband signals the end of the illicit communication between the lovers, and Michelle Freeman has suggested it to symbolise the cutting out of Philomela’s tongue in the Ovidian myth.[3]

Topics for discussion

  • How do we read Lydgate’s efforts to engage with the nightingale tradition? Is he convincing in his arguments? Consistent?
  • In ‘The Nightingale’, Lydgate describes himself as a translator of Peckham’s work. How effectively does he engage with his source material? Can ‘The Nightingale’ be better described as anything other than a translation?
  • Is ‘The Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ what we expect from a dream vision?
  • How do the extracts from ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ portray the nightingale? What themes arise that we don’t see elsewhere?
  • Given the portrayal of the nightingale in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, why might John Peckham have felt the bird suited a religious retelling?
  • How is the nightingale used in ‘Laüstic’? How is this different to the English nightingale traditions seen in the other texts?
  • How relevant are the classical myths in relation to the vernacular nightingale traditions that emerge in the text? Is the recurrence of the name “Philomena” as name for the nightingale significant?
  • Which of the interpretations of the nightingale’s song is most convincing? Do any of them supersede the others?


[1] Albert R. Chandler, ‘The Nightingale in Greek and Latin Poetry’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1934), p.78.

[2] Wendy Pfeffer, The Change of Philomel The Nightingale in Medieval Literature (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1985), p. 2.

[3] Michelle A. Freeman, ‘Marie de France’s Poetics of Silence: The Implications for a Feminine Translatio’, PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5 (1984), p. 869.

Further reading

A Short Analysis of The Owl and the Nightingale