Virgil in the Basket: A Case Study of Latin Authors in the Middle Ages

By: Madison Sneve

While the Roman Empire may have “fallen” in a political sense, the culture and literary achievements of Rome lived on throughout the Middle Ages and to the modern day. The process of preserving and studying these ancient works is well known as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the Medieval period; however, less attention has been directed to the evolving public and scholarly perception of the authors of these works in the radically different society of the Middle Ages. Considering the legacy of Latin authors in the Middle Ages raises some interesting questions: How did scholars reconcile the pagan nature of the ancient works with their own Christianity? Which figures reached public renown and which remained in scholastic obscurity? How did Medieval peoples project their own ideals onto Latin authors? To explore these questions, let’s examine the case of Virgil, one of the most influential and well-known Roman poets of the Middle Ages and modern times.

The character of Virgil began receiving noteworthy attention by scholars and the public since the time of his death, but from the 4th through 10th centuries, fantastical legends surrounding his life and legacy began to arise.[1]Virgil was known to most Medieval people not only as a poet, but as a sorcerer,prophet, and womanizer. The legend of Virgil the sorcerer was likely the dominant viewpoint of the poet until the Renaissance, and his supposed supernatural abilities were more well known among common people than the literary achievements for which we know Virgil today.[2] In fact, we owe the Anglicized spelling of Virgil’s name to his sorcerous reputation: Vergilius first became “Vergil,”but later the spelling was changed in association with the virgo, the Latin word for “wand.”[3]

Scholars have long debated the origin of Virgil’s reputation for sorcery. Though the exact roots are unclear, the most reasonable source seems to be the Christian association with his 4th Eclogue.[4] In this poem, Virgil speaks of a child who will soon be born, destined to usher in a golden era of humanity. Beginning in the 4th century, Christian scholars interpreted these lines as a prophecy of the birth of Christ, and the Eclogues became widely distributed among most European scholarly circles. Virgil owes his rise to notoriety not to the Aeneid for which we know him today, but to this Christian interpretation. Virgil’s supposed status as a pre-Christian prophet lead to his popular association with magic and fortune-telling; from here, Virgilian legends began to arise.[5]

Scholars generally agree that the next notable progression in Virgil’s rise to infamy was driven by the sortes Vergilianae (Virgilian lots), a method of fortune telling that arose in academic circles in the 5th century.[6]The sortes involved opening a volume of Virgil to a random page and selecting a random line: that line was then interpreted as a fortune or omen. At a surface level, this practice seems to conflict with the strictly Christian mindset of the Middle Ages. However, the sortes Vergilianae likely has its roots in Virgil’s recent reputation as a Christian prophet, and hence the seemingly pagan practice has a Christian origin.[7]

There are dozens of surviving Virgilian legends,most of which were written down, and perhaps countless others that existed only by word of mouth. Some of these stories involve fantastical feats of magical ability, while others involve Virgil’s lust for women, power, and gold. The most well-known and perhaps most absurd of these is known as “Virgil in the Basket.”[8]This story recounts a time when Virgil fell madly in love with the emperor’s daughter. He asked to visit her in her tower, and she agreed to hoist him up in a basket. However, she didn’t reciprocate Virgil’s feelings, and in an effort to embarrass him for his lust, she left him halfway up the tower, stuck in his basket for the entire town to see. Virgil was mocked viciously, and in retaliation he devised a plan to humiliate her. He cursed her to constantly spew fire from her genitals, and he simultaneously extinguished every fire in the city so that the townspeople were forced to light their torches on the flames from her body. This story spread by word of mouth throughout Europe and first preserved in the literary record in the 13th century, inspiring countless later literary and artistic works.[9]

Virgil in his basket, enduring mockery from the townfolk
Virgil’s love interest, cursed to expel fire

The “Virgil in the Basket” story presents the poet as a vengeful and lustful schemer, hardly a paragon of Christian virtue.This story in particular represents the radical shift from Virgil as a prophet of Christ to Virgil as a sorcerer with devilish powers. However, these legends hardly diminished Virgil’s reputation as a Christian figure—the dual character of Virgil was able to peacefully coexist until nearly the Renaissance, when Virgil’s character in Inferno became the dominant characterization of him. This shows that superstition and the supernatural did not conflict with Christian ideals in the Middle Ages but instead fit reasonably within the beliefs of the common person. The role of Christianity in Virgil’s rise to public prominence demonstrates how the overwhelming importance of religion in the lives of scholars and common people alike.

[1]Yassif, Eli. “‘Virgil in the Basket’: Narrative as Hermeneutics in Hebrew Literature of the Middle Ages,” 2. Scriptural Exegesis, 2009.

[2] Ibid., 3-14.

[3] Stok, Fabio. “Virgil between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” 15. International Journal of the Classical Tradition 1, no. 2 (1994).

[4] Ibid., 16-20.

[5] Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, 51.

[6] Comparetti, Domenico, Edward Felix Mendelssohn Benecke, and Robinson Ellis. Vergil in the Middle Ages, 239-256. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1966.

[7] Ibid., 56-59.

[8] Tunison, Joseph Salathiel. Master Virgil: The Author of the Æneid as He Seemed in the Middle Ages,64. Cincinnati: Clarke,1888.

[9] Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times, 239. London: Duckworth, 1998.

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