The Transnational Impact of Latin Theatre from the Early Modern Netherlands

Transnational Drama and Contemporary Commentaries – Spiegel’s Commentary on Reuchlin’s Henno

Jan Bloemendal

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Commentaries on Terence – In the Shadow of Donatus

In postclassical times, the fourth-century Latin grammarian Aelius Donatus wrote several mostly philological and rhetorical commentaries on, among other texts, the comedies of Terence, which were part of the educational curriculum and enjoyed an immense popularity. In the Middle Ages these commentaries were more or less forgotten. In the mid-ninth century the French Benedictine abbot Lupus of Ferrières mentioned the commentary on Terence in a letter to Pope Benedict. The oldest manuscript extant stems from the eleventh century, and was found in Fleury (France). However, only in the fifteenth century the commentary became more famous. In 1433 the Sicilian humanist Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459) rediscovered a manuscript of these commentaries in Mainz, while he was attending the Council of Basel (1431-1449). He was one of the humanists hunting for manuscripts, who borrowed, copied and never returned them. He also had a manuscript from Chartres copied. Thus, three manuscripts came to Italy: the copy of the Mainz manuscript, the Mainz manuscript itself, and a copy of the Chartres manuscript. These codices contained commentaries on five of the six extant plays of Terence. The commentary on the Heautontimorumenos was lost. The newly invented printing of books with moveable type facilitated the spread of the commentaries, to begin with a Venetian edition of 1476. In it, the humanist Johannes Calphurnius of Brixen (Tirol, 1443-1503) added his own annotations on the latter play in imitation of Donatus’ format, and on the other plays. This and other editions contained the commentaries, as well as a life of Terence, and two treatises: De fabula, ascribed to Evanthius, and Excerpta de comoedia, ascribed to Donatus himself, that were also included in the medieval manuscripts. The commentaries inspired others also to write annotations on Terence. Among them was the French philologist and theologian Guido Iuvenalis (d. 1507). A tradition of commentaries on Terence developed, culminating in Terentius cum quinque commentis, videlicet Donatis, Guidonis, Calphurnii, Ascensii et Servii (Venice, Lazarus de Soardis, 1504 and other editions). One of the most famous editions was the 1493 edition published by Johann Trechsel in Lyon which contained the commentaries by Donatus and Guido Juvenalis, as well as 160 woodcuts. The reason for writing such commentaries was the fact that Terence was highly popular in humanist education and his plays were studied, read and staged across Europe for teaching and learning Latin conversation. For publishers, an annotated edition of Terence was a safe investment. Thus, the commentary tradition became a transnational phenomenon.

Jacob Spiegel’s commentary on Reuchlin’s Henno (1512), title page.

Commentaries on Contemporary Dramas – Out of the Shadow of Donatus

This Terentian commentary tradition also advanced the writing of commentaries on other, newly written plays that were inspired by the form and style of these commentaries on Terence. The plays – of Terence, Plautus and Seneca, as well as those early modern ones written in Latin that drew their inspiration from them – were staged every now and then. However, before a performance, they used to be read and studied in the classroom, for which such annotations or commentaries were written. There are several of them, some of which crossed geographical and linguistic borders. In Spain the master of grammar at the university of Toledo Alexius Vanegas published a commentary on Petrus Papaeus’ comedy Samarites (1542), written in the southern part of the Low Countries; in Paris the theologian and schoolmaster Gabriel Prateolus commented upon Guilielmus Gnapheus’ Acolastus (1554), written in the northern part of the Low Countries; in London the priest and royal tutor John Palsgrave translated the same play adding commentary notes (The Comedy of Acolastus, 1540);and the German historian and minister Georg Pflüger wrote annotations to the six Latin comedies by Nicodemus Frischlin (1612), who also lived in the German lands.

Not only comedies were commented upon, also tragedies, most of them written in the style of Seneca. The traveller, poet and translator George Sandys translated Hugo Grotius’ Christus patiens into English and added annotations (1640), and twelve years later the translator Francis Goldsmith did the same with Grotius’ Sophompaneas (1652). As late as 1734 an annotated German translation of the Christus patiens appeared in Leipzig made by the Wittenburg professor of medicine Daniel Wilhelm Triller. These were all commentaries on biblical plays, but most of them remained grammatical and philological – treating the plays as Terentian comedies from which students could learn Latin conversation and often indicating borrowings from Terence or Plautus, or as Senecan dramas, although Sandys’ and Goldsmith’s annotations have a more theological character.

All these commentaries served as text books for students, or rather, as manuals and aids for teachers. Thus, they had pedagogical aims, but they were also an imitation of the commentaries of Donatus and others on Terence, or later commentaries on the tragedies written by or ascribed to the Latin philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Such a commentary attributed a ‘classical’ status to the play. This status was often enhanced by marginalia (or shoulder notes) which were an aid for typesetters to compose indexes, but also steered the reading of early modern readers. They were common in early modern editions of classical texts. This bibliographical code not only contributed to the classical status of the text commented upon, but also to the commentary itself.

Commentaries on Comedies by Johann Reuchlin – Simler and Spiegel

Perhaps biblical plays were commented upon most, because they were read most. However, they were not exclusively ‘in the picture’. The German Hebraist and playwright Johannes Reuchlin wrote two farcical comedies. He may have been inspired to do this during his studies in Italy, where comedies had been written. His acquaintance and rector of the Latin school of Pforzheim Georg Simler wrote a commentary (1507) on his comedy Sergius (1504). The latter publication most probably inspired the humanist and jurist Jacob Spiegel to do the same for Reuchlin’s Scenica progymnasmata, also called Henno (1498), after one of the main characters. Editions of the comedy with this commentary, of which a research group of the Ruhr-University Bochum is preparing a critical edition, were issued in 1512 and 1519 with the Tübingen publisher Thomas Anshelm.

As said, Jacob Spiegel commented upon Reuchlin’s Henno, a farce on a farmer, a farmer’s wife, a servant, an astrologer and a lawyer, cheating one another and being cheated. But ‘all’s well that ends well’: the cheating slave is allowed to marry the farmer’s daughter and the money he stole serves as a dowry. At the same time, the play is a defence of humanist schooling and a depiction of the world changing from a rural to a capitalist-urban economy. Spiegel had special affinity with this play, since he was one of the boy actors at the first performance in 1497. As such, all this seems to be a quite local affair. He wrote a peculiar commentary, in which he wished to give the users as much information about as much as topics as he could. For instance, after the play, Reuchlin printed a text in the vein of the didascalia to the Terence editions, in which he listed the actors – all students or future students of Heidelberg university. Spiegel adds a long annotation on the question with how many syllables the names of Iacobus, Iosephus and Ioannes should be pronounced (is the ‘I’ a consonant or a vowel), discussing the same for the name of Jesus, etc., all of which deviates far from the text itself. Often he quotes from works of classical – Roman – antiquity. Everywhere in his commentary, he gives many quotations of recent other works, such as the famous Dictionarium latinum of Ambrogio Calepino (1502) and Pietro Crinito’s De honesta disciplina (1504). Not only in quoting these works, but also other ones, he shows a knowledge of international, particularly of Italian, humanism, citing and quoting, for instance, the poets and philologists Ermolao Barbaro and Angelo Poliziano; he also knows work by the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. Furthermore, the jurist Spiegel uses legal works such as the Digesta of Justinian. He even quotes to such an extent that often his own invention becomes almost invisible.

Local and Transnational

The writing of such commentaries makes clear that most of the commentaries crossed borders; for instance, plays from the Low Countries received commentaries in France and Spain, and commentated translations in Germany and England. Not in every case we know well if this was through personal contacts between humanists or their networks, or because plays themselves were so popular. In the case of Acolastus, we do know that the play itself was very popular and saw some fifty editions during the sixteenth century and numerous performances, across all Europe.

Spiegel’s commentary on Reuchlin’s Henno (1512), fol. xliiiivo

On the other hand the commentaries seemed to remain very local, and Spiegel wrote his commentary on a play he knew by himself, written by an author he knew very well, and both were living for while in the same city. But even in this case, the commentary itself is transnational, since the works of, among others, Italian and French humanists are mentioned and quoted. Spiegel had ties with Italy, like Reuchlin himself had. These kinds of commentaries also make once the more clear the position some of the Neo-Latin plays had in the school curricula. Either the position of a play was actually so fixed, that it was worthwhile writing a commentary on it, or the commentator wished to give it such a position, so that writing a commentary could put the play commented upon on an important place in the repertoire. In both cases, the commentary gave the comedy or tragedy treated a classical status as a repertoire text, comparable to that of Terence or Seneca. All in all, such commentaries were a transnational phenomenon, showing how texts circulated and received new meanings in new contexts.

Some References

Jan Bloemendal, ‘In the Shadow of Donatus: Observations on Terence and Some of his Early Modern Commentators’, in Karl Enenkel and Henk Nellen (eds.), Neo-Latin Commentaries and the Management of Knowledge in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period (1400-1700) (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2013) Supplementa Humanistica Lovaniensia 33, pp. 295-323.

Jan Bloemendal, ‘Une comédie biblique des Pays-Bas publiée en France: L’édition commentée de l’Acolastus (Guilielmus Gnapheus, 1529) par Gabriel Dupreau (Paris, 1554)’, in Mathieu Ferrand (ed.), Le théâtre néo-latin en France (Geneva: Droz, 2020), pp. 159-71.

Gerald Dörner (ed.), Reuchlin und Italien (Stuttgart: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1999) Pforzheimer Reuchlinschriften, 7.

James A. Parente, Jr., ‘Empowering Readers: Humanism, Politics, and Money in Early Modern German Drama’, in Manfred P. Fleischer (ed.), The Harvest of Humanism in Central Europe: Essays in Honor of Lewis W. Spitz (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1992), pp. 263-80.

Michael D. Reeve, ‘Aelius Donatus’, in Leighton D. Reynolds (ed.), Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 153-56.

Donatus’ commentaries on Terence can be found here:

Spiegel’s commentary on Reuchlin’s Scenica progymnasmata (ed. 1512) can be found here: