Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus
A Christian poet of the sixth century, b. between 530 and 540 in Upper Italy, between Ceneda and Treviso
Fortunatus, VENANTIUS HONORIUS CLEMENTIANUS, a Christian poet of the sixth century, b. between 530 and 540 in Upper Italy, between Ceneda and Treviso. He received his literary education at Ravenna. Here he first manifested his poetical ability by a poem celebrating the dedication of a church to St. Andrew by the bishop, Vitalis. He appears to have left Ravenna in 565, crossing the Alps and a part of Southern Germany and reaching in the autumn the banks of the Moselle. The stages of his journey may be traced in his poems. They were: Mainz, where he celebrated the construction of the baptistery and church of St. George (II, 11 and 12), and in which he compliments the bishop, Sidonius (IX, 9); Cologne, where he accepted the hospitality of Bishop Carentinus (III, 14); Trier, where he praises Bishop Nicetius (III, 11) who had built a castle on the Moselle (III, 12); Metz, which he describes (III, 13). He then made a journey on the Moselle, of which he gives a humorous account (VI, 8). But the principal event of his sojourn at Metz was his presentation at the court of King Sigebert, where he arrived at the time of the king’s marriage with Brunehild (566), for which occasion he wrote an epithalamium (VI, 1). Shortly afterwards Brunehild renounced Arianism for Catholicism, and Fortunatus extolled this conversion (VI, la). He won the favor of the courtiers by his eulogies, notably that of Gogo and Duke Lupus, the latter one of the most remarkable men of the time, a real survival, amid barbarian surroundings, of Roman culture and traditions. Fortunatus soon resumed his journey. New poems repaid the hospitality of the Bishops of Verdun (II, 23) and Reims (III, 15); at Soissons he venerated the tomb of St. Medardus (II, 16), and finally arrived at Paris, where he praised the clergy for their zeal in reciting the Divine Office (II, 9). His description of the chanting of the Office on the eve of a feast accompanied by an orchestra is a curious document. He made the acquaintance of King Caribert, whom he compares to Solomon, Trajan, and Fabius, and whose Latin eloquence he praises highly (VI, 2). From Paris he went to Tours, which was probably his original destination, for while at Ravenna he had been been miraculously cured of a disease of the eyes through the intercession of Wt. Martin. He worshipped at the tomb of the saint and gave thanks to the bishop, Euphronius (III, 3), whom he afterwards came to know more intimately.
From Tours Fortunatus went to Poitiers, attracted, no doubt, by the renown of St. Radegunde and her monastery. This circumstance had a decisive influence on the remainder of his life. Radegunde, daughter of the King of Thuringia, had been taken prisoner by Clotaire I, the son of Clovis, after the defeat of her uncle, Hermanfried, and the conquest of her country (531). Hermanfried had slain her father. She became, against her will, the wife of Clotaire. Her brother having been put to death by the Franks, she sought refuge with St. Medardus, Bishop of Vermandois (St. Quentin and Soissons) who caused her to take the veil, and she remained at Poitiers. The monastery of Poitiers was very large and contained about 200 religious. At first they lived without a definite rule, but about 567 Radegunde accepted that of St. Ciesarius of Arles. At this time, which was previous to the death of Caribert (568), she caused the consecration as abbess of her beloved adoptive daughter Agnes. It was at the same period that Fortunatus became the friend of the two women and took up his residence at Poitiers, where he remained till the death of Radegunde, August 13, 587, Agnes, doubtless, having died shortly before. The closest friendship sprang up between them, Fortunatus calling Radegunde his mother and Agnes his sister. It was one of those tender and chaste friendships between ecclesiastics and pious women; similar, for example, to the relations between St. Jerome and the Roman ladies, delicate friendships enhanced by solid piety, confirmed in peace by a mutual love of God, and which do not exclude the charming child’s play usually marking feminine friendship. In this instance it brought about a constant interchange of letters in which the art and grace of Fortunatus found their natural vent. He was an epicure, and there were sent to him from the convent, milk, eggs, dainty dishes) and savory meats in the artistic arrangement of which the cooks of antiquity exercised their ingenuity. He did not allow himself to be outdone and sent to his friends at one time flowers, at another chestnuts in a basket woven by his own hands. The little poems which accompanied them are not included in the works published by Fortunatus himself; it is probable that many of them are lost, no great importance being attached to them. Circumstances provided him with graver subjects which necessitated the production of more serious works. About 568 Radegunde received from Emperor Justin a particle of the True Cross, to which the monastery had been dedicated, and Fortunatus was commissioned to thank the emperor and empress for their gift. This religious event led him to write a series of poems (II, 1-6); two, the “Vexilla Regis Prodeunt” and the “Pange Lingua” (II, 6, 2), have been adopted by the Church. The vigorous movement of these poems shows that Fortunatus was not lacking in strength and seriousness. Two of this series are “figurate” poems, i.e. the letters of each verse, being arranged with due regularity, form artistic designs. It was one of the least happy inventions of this period of literary decadence.
Radegunde was in constant communication with Constantinople, for Amalafried, a cousin whom she dearly loved, had found refuge in the East where he was in the service of the empire. Through Fortunatus Radegunde bewailed the sad lot of her country and her family; this long elegy, full of life and movement, and addressed to Amalafried, is one of the poet’s best and most celebrated works (Appendix, I). Another elegy deplores the premature death of Amalafried (Appendix, 3). The death of Galeswintha was also the occasion for one of those elegies in which Fortunatus shows him at once so profound and so natural. This princess, the sister of Brunehild, was married to Chilperic, and had just been put to death by the order of her husband (569 or 570). Shortly before this Fortunatus had seen her arrive from Spain and pass through Poitiers in a silver chariot, and it was on this occasion she had won the heart of Radegunde. In recalling these things and in his portrayal of the mother of the unhappy young woman and their heart-breaking farewell, he succeeded, despite many rhetorical artifices, in depicting true grief. Other poems written at Poitiers deal with religious subjects. Fortunatus explained to his “sister” Agnes that his love was wholly fraternal (XI, 6), and devoted 400 lines to the praise of virginity (VIII, 3). While abounding in Christian sentiments he develops in a singularly realistic style the inconveniences of marriage, especially the physiological sufferings it imposes upon woman. It is probably an academic theme. Fortunatus also took part in ecclesiastical life, assisting at synods, being invited to the consecration of churches, all of which occasions were made the pretext for verses. He was especially associated with Gregory of Tours, who influenced him to make and publish a collection of his verses, with Leontius of Bordeaux, who sent him many invitations, and with Felix of Nantes, whom he praised, especially for the rectifying of a watercourse (III, 10). Fortunatus was now a celebrated man and a much-sought-for guest. Rendered more free by the death of his friends, he visited the Court of Austrasia, where he was received with greater evidence of regard than on a former occasion when he had arrived from Italy poor and unknown. To this period belongs his account of a journey on the Moselle which is full of graceful details (X, 10). He celebrates the completion of the basilica of Tours in 590 (X, 6), and in 591 the consecration of Plato, the new Bishop of Poitiers, an archdeacon of Gregory (X, 14). His predecessor Maroveus, whose barbarous name indicates that he was a person lacking in culture, had been entirely neglected by the Roman Fortunatus and his refined friends. This date is the last known to us, but some time before the end of the sixth century he succeeded to the See of Poitiers. In the episcopal list of that city he follows Plato and may have become bishop about 600. He was already dead when, shortly after this time, Baudonivia, a nun of the monastery of the Holy Cross, added a second book to Venantius’ life of Radegunde.
The poems of Fortunatus comprise eleven books. The researches of Wilhelm Meyer have established the fact that Fortunatus himself published successively Books I—VIII, about 576; Book IX in 584 or 585; Book X after 591. Book XI seems to be a posthumous collection. A Paris manuscript has happily preserved some poems not found in the eleven-book manuscripts. These poems form an appendix in Leo’s edition. Apart from these occasional poems Fortunatus wrote between 573 and 577 a poem in four books on St. Martin. He follows exactly the account of Sulpicius Severus, but has abridged it to such an extent as to render his own work obscure unless with the aid of Sulpicius Severus. He wrote in rhythmic prose the lives of several saints, St. Albin, Bishop of Angers, St. Hilary and Pascentius, Bishops of Poitiers, St. Marcellus of Paris, St. Germanus of Paris (d. 576), his friend Radegunde, St. Paternus, Bishop of Avranches, and St. Medardus. The poetical merit of Fortunatus should not be over-estimated. Like most poets of this period of extreme decadence, he delights in description, but is incapable of sustaining it; if the piece is lengthy his style runs into mannerisms. His vocabulary is varied but affected, and while his language is sufficiently exact, it is marred by a deliberate obscurity. These defects would render him intolerable had he not written in verse; poetic tradition, Boissier well says, imposed a certain sobriety. The prose prefaces which Fortunatus adds to each of his works exhibit a command of bombastic Latin scarcely inferior to the “Hisperica famina”. His versification is monotonous, and faults of prosody are not rare. By his predilection for the distich he furnished the model for most Carlovingian poetry. Fortunatus, like a true Roman, expresses with delicate sincerity the sentiments of intimacy and tenderness, especially when mournful and anxious. He interprets with success the emotions aroused by the tragic occurrences of surrounding barbarian life, particularly in the hearts of women, too often in those times the victims of brutal passions. In this way, and by his allusions to contemporary events and persons, and his descriptions of churches and works of art, he is the painter of Merovingian society. His entire work is an historical document. Fortunatus has been praised for abstaining from the use of mythological allegory, despite the fact that his epithalamium for Sigebert is a dialogue between Venus and Love. Occasionally one encounters in his works the traditional academic themes, but in general he refrains from these literary ornaments less through disdain than through necessity. Every writer of occasional verse is perforce a realist, e.g. Statius in the “Silvse”, Martial in his epigrams. In his portrayal of the barbarian society of Gaul Fortunatus exhibits the manner in which contemporary Christian thought and life permeated its gross and uncultured environment. Leaving aside the bishops, all of them Gallo-Romans, it is the women of the period, owing to native intuition and mental refinement, who are most sensitive to this Christian culture. They are the first to appreciate delicacy of sentiment and charm of language, even refined novelties of cookery, that art of advanced civilizations and peoples on whose hands time hangs heavily. From this point of view it may be said that the friendship of Fortunatus with Radegunde and Agnes mirrors with great exactness the life of sixth-century Gaul.
The best edition of Fortunatus is that of F. Leo and B. Krusch; the former edited the poems, the latter the prose writings in “Mon. Germ. Hist.: Auct.” (Berlin, 1881-85), IV.