Middle Irish translation of Statius’s Thebaid: a study in reception
Briggs, Mariamne May
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This thesis is a study of the reception of Statius’s Thebaid (c. AD 92) in the Middle Irish prose translation, which is believed to have been written in the twelfth century AD. The Irish vernacular translation of the Thebaid is part of a larger body of Classical literature translated and adapted in medieval Ireland. In this thesis I examine how this text fits into this wider medieval Irish literary corpus, its relationship to the Thebaid’s manuscript tradition, and its associated commentary tradition. This thesis also explores the literary practices that the Irish author employed in developing the Middle Irish Thebaid. There are six chapters to this study. The Middle Irish Thebaid is frequently referred to in modern scholarship as Togail na Tebe (‘The Destruction of Thebes’) following the title of George Calder’s 1922 edition of the text. In the first chapter, I use evidence from manuscripts, manuscript catalogues and the reviews of Calder’s edition to demonstrate that this title was Calder’s own creation and explore how this has informed approaches to the narrative in modern literary criticism. The second chapter focuses on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries manuscript contexts in which the Middle Irish Thebaid survives. I explore the implications of the text’s context for reading the vernacular translation of the Thebaid and I consider evidence that suggests the text was not static during the Middle Ages, but subject to additions, revisions and errors by the scribes who copied it. In the third chapter I focus on the inclusion of an historical prologue at the outset of the translation. This prologue details the foundation of Thebes by Cadmus and Oedipus’s history. I explore how the removal of Statius’s proem and the addition of the prologue may demonstrate the historical interests of the medieval Irish author of the text and consider how the prologue forms an accessus to the narrative. I examine the possible source material for the prologue through close readings of the Cadmus and Oedipus narratives and I argue that the development of this prologue can be seen to link the text to the Thebaid’s manuscript tradition. In discussing the Oedipus legend in the Irish translation, I also explore the possibility that this narrative was influence by the Old Irish tale Aided Óenfir Aife (‘The Death of Aífe’s Only Son’). The fourth chapter investigates further the Middle Irish Thebaid’s links to the manuscript tradition of Statius’s Thebaid with a discussion of the commentary material used to interpret and translate Statius’s epic in the Irish vernacular. I analyse connections to Lactantius Placidus’s late antique commentary on the Thebaid and mythographic sources, such as Hyginus’s Fabulae and the Vatican Mythographers. I argue that the translator’s technique of using additional source material to translate and interpret the Thebaid demonstrates his engagement with the grammatical art of interpreting the poets (enarratio poetarum). In the fifth chapter I explore how the author of the Middle Irish Thebaid approached aspects of Statius’s epic style on a macro and micro level. At a macro level I consider sections of the Thebaid which the author of the Irish translation chose to omit or abbreviate, such as the poet’s narratorial apostrophes and speeches. At a micro level I explore the translator’s treatment of Statius’s names, such as Greek patronymics and the identification of deities. This chapter also looks at how the author of the Middle Irish Thebaid used literary techniques from native Irish literature to develop details in the translation narrative. The sixth chapter is an investigation into the translation and development of similes in the Middle Irish Thebaid. In this section I survey the similes in the Irish vernacular narrative and make comparison to those to Statius’s epic. I discuss the various methodologies used by the translator to interpret the poet’s similes. I provide a series of case studies exploring the Irish translator’s techniques and consider the influence that similes from narratives such as Togail Troí and Táin Bό Cúailnge may have had on the translation. I also explore how native medieval Irish literature may have helped inspire the development of new similes in the Middle Irish Thebaid. Overall, this thesis is designed to build upon recent studies of classical literature in medieval Ireland, to highlight how rich the Middle Irish Thebaid is as a literary narrative and to demonstrate how fruitful close readings of the text can be for exploring the medieval translator’s art.