Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis: Epic and the Problem of Historical Understanding (M.K. Lafferty)

M.K. Lafferty. Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis: Epic and the Problem of Historical Understanding (PJML 2)

Walter of Châtillon, the twelfth-century Latin Poet now famed for his satirical lyrics, acquired international renown in the Middle Ages for his epic on Alexander the Great, the Alexandreis. This work did for the Middle Ages what Vergil had done for the Romans, proving the ability of the moderni to rival the ancients in learning and the arts. The Alexandreis immediately joined the Aeneid in the medieval paideia and was read in school rooms throughout Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The Alexandreis enters into the twelfth-century debate about education. The intellectual world was rapidly changing, as the schools became specialized and professionalized, threatening the hitherto secure position of the liberal arts and Latin literature in the educational curriculum. At the same time, translations from Arabic and Greek, not only of the works of Aristotle, but also of Arabic philosophers, had begun to alter the concerns and methodologies of Western scholars. Theologians increasingly used Hebrew commentaries in their studies of the Hebrew Scriptures. The awareness of the intellectual achievements both of the ancients and of highly-civilized non-Christian contemporary cultures had reached a new peak. This influx from other cultures created a veritable Babel of works and ideas for twelfth-century intellectuals to digest and assimilate into the Latin world view and historiography of the West. Walter makes the difficulties of understanding other languages and cultures, both past and the present, a major theme in his Alexandreis. Walter’s exploration of the problems of interpretating, not only languages, but also of the texts, philosophies, religions and literatures of the past is the subject of this study.

Maura K. Lafferty studied Classics at Wellesey College, the University of North Carolina and has received her PhD in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. She has published on Walter of Chatillon’s lyrics, especially the Alexandreis, and on medieval manuscripts of classical epic. She is now teaching Classics at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine).