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Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus (to give him his full name) was born, probably some time in the 530s, in Duplavis (modern Valdobbiadene) near Treviso in northern Italy and received the literary education traditional in late antiquity in the schools of Ravenna. Two poems only survive from his Italian years, written for Bishop Vitalis of Altinum on the occasion of the dedication of a church Vitalis had built (1.1 and 1.2). But the next ten years of his life, from his arrival in Gaul in 566 until 576, saw his most intense poetic activity. The first seven books of his poems (minus the two Italian poems) date to this period, as does his four-book hagiographical epic on the life of Saint Martin. Fortunatus soon had friends and patrons throughout Francia. His earliest poems are written to or about figures at Sigibert's court or the bishops of Sigibert's Austrasian kingdom. Early in his stay in Gaul he traveled to Paris, where he composed a panegyric for King Charibert, who died in 567, and where he made the acquaintance of Bishop Germanus of Paris, whose life he was to write after the bishop's death in 576.By late 567 or 568 Fortunatus had found his way to Poitiers, where he was to remain, more or less, for the rest of his life. At Poitiers he made the acquaintance of Radegund, Thuringian princess, widow of Chlothar I, founder of the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, holy woman, and saint. As friend and patron, she was to figure largely in Fortunatus' life and poetry until her death in 587.
With Poitiers as base Fortunatus continued to travel and extend his ties of patronage and friendship: south to Aquitaine, where Bishop Leontius of Bordeaux employed his poetic talents, and west to Britanny and Felix, bishop of Nantes. But it was with Gregory, elected bishop of Tours in 573, that he forged the strongest ties and with whom his name is most closely associated. Over thirty poems in the corpus are written to, about, or at the request of Gregory. Fortunatus dedicated his first collection of poems and his Life of Martin to the bishop; the latter also contains a verse preface addressed to Radegund and the abbess of her convent at Poitiers, Agnes. Fortunatus continued to write poetry, though at a reduced rate, for at least sixteen more years. He published a second collection, in two books, probably in 590-91, and two more books appeared post humously. 2 Most of the poems preserved only in a single manuscript of Fortunatus, and published by Leo as an Appendix to his edition, derive from the poet's relations with Radegund. Those that are datable span the range of Fortunatus' poetic career, from the late 560s to late 580s. His last datable poem (10.14) celebrates the ordination of Plato, deacon of Gregory at Tours, as bishop of Poitiers in 591. Plato's episcopate seems to have been short. A few years later he was succeeded by none other than Fortunatus himself. We know next to nothing about the poet's last years. He probably died in the early years of the seventh century.
The majority of Fortunatus' poems contain a large element of praise, whether in the form of the larger royal panegyrics of Charibert and Chilperic and the epithalamium for the wedding of Sigibert and Brunhild or the many smaller-scale celebrations of individual figures prominent in church or state. He drew the subjects of much of his panegyrical poetry from the same group of educated clergy, secular magnates, and court figures who constituted his primary audience. For such figures literary activity and patronage still translated into cultural prestige in sixth-century Gaul. The private pursuit of literature retained the power to confer on its practitioners status in the public realm. Letters from the period, those preserved in the collection of Epistulae Austrasicae as well as the prose letters of Fortunatus included in his poetic corpus, show a highly ornate style after the manner of Sidonius. Such a verbal overload is exactly what we would expect when literary expertise becomes a mark of cultural status. A simple matter-of-fact statement carries little symbolic weight; its purpose is exhausted by the utilitarian communication of its message. On the other hand, the very excess of the ornate style, its extravagant, apparently nonproductive expenditure of verbal resources, is an essential strategy for conferring cultural capital on the parties in such epistolary exchanges. Verse, too, as a highly stylized and culturally prestigious form of discourse, has something of the same symbolic power. Fortunatus, with his poetic fluency acquired in the schools of Ravenna, was a precious resource for the potentes of Merovingian society. He had few, if any, rivals in late sixth-century Francia. Admittedly Fortunatus speaks of a number of his correspondents as writers of poetry. We know too from Gregory of Tours' criticism of it that King Chilperic wrote an ambitious poem in the style of Sedulius (Hist. 5.44 and 6.46; cf. Fortunatus 9.1.110-Chilperic's hymn to St. Medard of Noyon survives). And in this period, verse sepulchral inscriptions continue to be composed. But Fortunatus was in a different situation from his Gallic verse-writing contemporaries. He did not have their status. A stranger in a foreign land, as he describes himself, he was prepared to make his way by devoting his poetic talents to the service of influential patrons in the church and at court. They won credit for their appreciation of his poetry and their celebration in a poem by Fortunatus. The public performance of such praise poems, typically perhaps at a banquet or other set occasion, would constitute a conspicuous display of literary consumption that complemented the message sent by the other trappings of the occasion-if a banquet, for instance, the impressions made by the dinnerware, servants, and architectural setting.
In writing his praise poems Fortunatus had to take into account the audience for the public performance of his poetry. Not everyone would have the high literary sophistication of his most learned patrons. For such an audience the late antique tradition of full-scale epicizing panegyrics, as practiced by Claudian, Sidonius, and Merobaudes, was inappropriate. Fortunatus' one experiment in the tradition of late Latin epideictic poetry, his epithalamium for the marriage of Sigibert and Brunhild, was in all probability the first poem he wrote for a Gallic audience. Following the well-established tradition of late antique epithalamia, he introduces a narrative element with interaction between human and mythological figures. Fortunatus was never to use myth in this way again. In fact, mythological references are rare throughout his corpus. With the exception of standard poetic metonymies, such as Venus for beauty, and Minerva, Arachne, or Daedalus for artistic skill, they occur only in a few poems to his most learned secular correspondents. Beside the three figure poems, a special case, the epithalamium is the only poem written in hexameters besides Fortunatus' hagiographical epic on Saint Martin. It is also the only poem employing more than one meter. (The first twenty-four lines are in elegiacs.) Apparently Fortunatus realized that the formal and semiotic resources of late antique epideictic poetics were only of limited utility in the Merovingian cultural context.
If Fortunatus turned away from the large-scale poetry of display, he equally would have found rhetorical prescriptions for the composition of panegyric, of the kind exemplified by the Greek treatises attributed to Menander, of limited value. They typically envisage a systematically composed formal speech intended for an audience alert to the nuances of panegyrical practice, conditions that could rarely, if ever, be replicated in Merovingian Gaul. Fortunatus is writing works whose primary purpose is praise, but not formal encomia in the rhetorical sense. Since both encomia and the praise poetry of Fortunatus have the same ultimate in tent, the celebration of the subject of the work, it is not surprising that they share some laudatory topoi. But, with the possible exception of the royal panegyrics (6.2 and 9.1), Menandrian precepts are of limited utility in understanding Fortunatus' methods.
In these changed circumstances Fortunatus had to devise new strategies of praising. Most obviously, panegyrical forms must be scaled down to suit the less formal, though still public, contexts in which his poems were often delivered. The challenge was to adapt style and composition to an audience for whom the full resources of the late Roman tradition of epideictic poetry were unsuited. In this and the following two chapters I will pursue the strategies of praising that Fortunatus devised for his Frankish patrons and audience, moving from the simplest to the most ambitious. This process, I think, is most likely to reveal the continuity in Fortunatus' poetic practice as well as the originality of his poetry and the complex interaction in it of discursive traditions (both literary and extra-literary) and broader cultural context.
The situation that confronted Fortunatus finds an analogy in the circumstances of the first century A.D. With the establishment of the principate and its development in the Julio-Claudian and Flavian periods, the opportunity for poets to adopt a public voice was much constrained. In these circumstances, according to Myers (writing of Statius' Silvae), "the private social life of the elite emerges increasingly as an arena for encomiastic poetry, and the publicity potential of the 'minor' genres of epigram and occasional poetry is acknowledged." Statius himself was a professional poet seeking patrons, who brought to Rome special expertise derived from his Neapolitan background and his familiarity with Greek epideictic forms. Despite the very different cultural contexts of first-century Rome and sixth-century Gaul, the situations show striking similarities. Fortunatus, like Statius, possesses special expertise. He too will seek to please his new patrons by forging new forms of praising. In particular, as the quotation from Myers suggests was true also for Statius and his contemporaries, he will explore the possibilities of epigram and occasional poetry. Fortunatus' employment of the epigram, specifically of the sepulchral epigram, will provide a point of departure to study his strategies of praising.
Fortunatus published his first collection of poems in seven books in or about 576. As Meyer first pointed out, the collection is organized by the status of the subjects of the poems or their addressees: books 1 to 3 and 5 are to clergy, and on religious matters; books 6 and 7 are to secular addressees. Book 4 is anomalous in this sequence. Devoted entirely to epitaphs, it contains poems to both clergy and laity. But within the book the same principle of organization applies. The first half covers bishops, followed by abbots and minor clergy, the second secular figures, including at the end of the book women. It represents in the range and status of its subjects a microcosm of the collection as a whole. As small-scale poems of praise, the epigrams already show some of the qualities characteristic of Fortunatus' larger corpus. They make an appropriate place to start a study of Fortunatus' poetry and poetics.
Epitaphs characteristically portray an ordered scheme of values in which the dead person passes from a virtuous existence in this world to, in Christian poems, the assurance of a blessed existence in the next. Subjects normally conform to and confirm the expectations and ideology of the society in which they have lived and for which the texts are composed. Whether we are to imagine Fortunatus' poems as inscriptions intended to be recorded in stone or literary compositions designed to commemorate the deceased but not necessarily to mark an actual grave, the poems share many of the properties of true sepulchral inscriptions. Their idiom has much in common with epigraphic poetry; for instance, the phrase in hoc tumulo occurs frequently in sixth-century Gallic inscriptions (ILCV 3550-65) and, with minor variations in the wording, regularly too in Fortunatus' epitaphs, suggesting that at the very least he wanted to write as if for a gravestone. In content, Fortunatus' poems follow broadly similar lines, allowing for variation in detail within the conventional poetic idiom and for differences occasioned by the status, age, or sex of the dead person. But from the perspective of epitaphs Fortunatus' poems are works of some literary ambition and finish. Despite their conventional structure and subject matter, they illustrate Fortunatus' development of epigraphic format and lexicon into a flexible idiom capable of accommodating greater technical and expressive aspirations and a higher degree of stylistic virtuosity than is common in anonymous verse inscriptions.
The first poem in Fortunatus' book of epitaphs is dedicated to Eumerius, bishop of Nantes. He died in 549 and was succeeded by Felix, the poet's friend and patron, and probably son of Eumerius. The poem conforms broadly to the standard Fortunatan epitaph and will furnish a starting point for my discussion of the book as a whole. It is framed by an exordium and conclusion (1-6 and 31-32), which enclose the enumeration of the subject's virtues. The exordium runs as follows:
Quamvis cuncta avido rapiantur ab orbe volatu, attamen extendit vita beata diem, nec damnum de fine capit cui, gloria, vivis, aeternumque locum missus ad astra tenet. Hoc igitur tumulo requiescit Eumerius almo per quem pontificum surgit opimus honor. (4.1.1-6)
[Although all things are snatched from the world in greedy flight, yet a blessed life prolongs a person's days, and the man, for whom, glory, you live, receives no harm from death but enjoys a place in eternity, exalted to the stars. So in this sacred tomb rests Eumerius, by whom the high office of bishops is exalted.]
Such exordia are found occasionally in both pagan and Christian sepulchral poetry. In Fortunatus they are almost universal. The pattern followed here is most common: a sentence phrased as a general truth about the universality, rapidity, or voraciousness of death and its transcendence or defeat by eternal life. Then a couplet giving the dead person's name and identifying his or her grave. Fortunatus employs three major variations. In some cases his exordium takes the form of an address to the reader (4.11, 20, and 21); or he may say that his tears inhibit him from writing (4.7, 4.18-in the case of 4.28 the poem is a substitute for the tears of the bereaved family); finally, when the subject died in old age, Fortunatus writes of the people's wish to reverse nature and die before their bishop (Exocius, 4.6) or queen (Theudechild, 4.25). In four cases the first part of the exordium is omitted and Fortunatus launches directly into giving the name of the dead person and notice of his tomb (4.3, 4.22, 4.23, App. 8).
Excerpted from The Humblest Sparrow by Michael Roberts Copyright © 2009 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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