Penn professor edits new book on classical reception in English literature

Ancient Greek and Roman poets have inspired generations of writers who came after them. Now, a new book edited by Rita Copeland, the Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities in the School of Arts & Sciences, offers the most comprehensive account ever written of the reception of classical writing in medieval and early Tudor English literature.

Reception history is a field of literary studies that examines how later periods respond to and assimilate products of earlier literary cultures, building on and around these earlier traditions.

“The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature 1: 800-1558” (“OHCREL”) is the first volume in an Oxford University Press five-volume series devoted to the classical tradition in English literature. “OHCREL” synthesizes existing scholarship and presents new research. An international team of experts collaborated on each of the five volumes.

Copeland, who is also a professor of classical studies, English, and comparative literature, says “OHCREL” is important to the literary canon because it’s the first book to present a long view of classicism in medieval English literature, covering the Anglo-Saxon period, early and later Middle English, and early English humanism.  

“It’s a resource that brings all other resources together to demonstrate how the Middle Ages could use classical antiquity to understand itself and to ask the most profound questions about temporality, history, and cultural distance,” she says.

This book proves how pervasive the classical tradition was during the early and later Middle Ages, a period that has often been viewed—wrongly, Copeland says—as closed off to the classical past.

Two of her colleagues at Penn contributed chapters to “OHCREL.” Emily Steiner, a professor of English, wrote “Alliterative Poetry and the Time of Antiquity,” showing how medieval English poets like William Langland incorporated the classical past into their theological explorations and extended the possibilities of Christian salvation to “good pagans,” such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Cam Grey, an associate professor of classical studies and ancient history, authored “Historiography and Biography from the Time of Gildas to Gerald of Wales,” demonstrating how medieval English writers used ancient Roman historians as literary models to tell the history of the Church and the history of the British peoples.

The volume shows how the classics were experienced in elementary classrooms during the Middle Ages, where young boys learned Latin and classical meters by reciting the emotional speeches of the female characters in classical epics.

It also illustrates how classical works were lovingly copied in monasteries and cathedrals, and conserved in the libraries of religious institutions.

Highlights of the volume include chapters on the reception by English poets—especially Chaucer, Gower, Wyatt, and Surrey—who absorbed and imitated classical authors such as Virgil, Ovid, and Statius.

“Medieval readers [books] remade classical myths and turned them to the purpose of the highest philosophy,” Copeland says.  

“OHCREL” also outlines how the history of Jewish antiquity found a place in medieval English culture through translations and adaptations of the ancient historian Josephus and his “Jewish Wars.”

In addition to editing the volume, Copeland wrote the introduction and three chapters, “The Curricular Classics in the Middle Ages,” “The Trivium and the Classics,” and “Academic Prologues to Authors” that illuminate her research on the reception of the classics in the Middle Ages.