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Gloss and Commentary

ENGL 715.401

Gloss and commentary are the sinews and nerve system of medieval textuality.  But so pervasive are these forms that we often take them for granted, consulting them for the data they can yield up about interpretive trends and future literary production.  In this seminar we will look more closely at the formal, rhetorical, and material history of gloss and commentary, from late antiquity to the later Middle Ages, in Latin and vernacular traditions, in sacred and secular domains.  We will also look briefly at some non-Western fields of sacred commentary: Qur’anic exegesis, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Hebrew bible.  The main topics we will cover can be summarized as follows: terminologies, formats, and character of gloss and commentary; the nature of large free-standing commentaries and examples of learned and literary texts that supported this particular form of critical approach; and interactions between text and commentary that gave rise to important theoretical understandings of letter and sense, literal and figurative (or allegorical) interpretation, authorial intention, and the interpretive control of the commentator.   More particularly we will look at late antique and medieval definitions of gloss and commentary; ideological appropriations through the power of the limited gloss; the mise-en-page of commentaries (interlinear and marginal commentary vs. free-standing); commentators’ prologues (the accessus and its forms); the emergence of catena (or chain) commentaries; and the self-marking of commentators.   What do expositors call their commentaries and how do they name their own roles?  Under what constraints (legal, theological, philological) do commentators labor, and how do they mark those constraints?  What conventions emerge for denoting commentative intertextuality?  What kinds of texts tend to support free-standing commentaries, and under what conditions does a marginal commentary become a free-standing commentary?  What is the relationship between commentary and summa? And finally, how does a successful commentary transform the reception of a literary or sacred text, or an intellectual tradition, and what role does its formal rhetoric play in reshaping the understanding of a text?


We can (and will) cover these topics through glosses and commentaries that have been translated into English (or through English-language studies on them); but students who know Latin and other languages (including medieval vernaculars) can take these questions further into their own fields (and the readings can be adjusted according to individual inclinations).  Non-medievalists are welcome.  Classicists will find much to think about in studying medieval commentaries on classical texts; and early modernists/modernists will find important insights for their own work on the ages of print by studying the technologies of manuscript annotation and transmission.  We will have ample opportunity to look at the importation of gloss and commentary systems into vernacular literatures (primarily English and French).

Course will meet in the Glossberg Seminar Room in Lippincott Library  second floor of VPL.