The Transnational Impact of Latin Theatre from the Early Modern Netherlands

Tracking Textual Similarities within Neo-Latin Drama Networks – LREC 2022 Conference: Paper accepted at poster sessionTracking Textual Similarities within Neo-Latin Drama Networks

Our TransLatin team had a paper accepted at the LREC 2022 conference in Marseille!

Soon in the Conference’s proceedings.

Here you can read the paper’s abstract:

This paper describes the first experiments towards tracking the complex and international network of text reuse within the Early Modern (XV-XVII centuries) community of Neo-Latin humanists. Our research, conducted within the framework of the TransLatin project, aims at gaining more evidence on the topic of textual similarities and semi-conscious reuse of literary models. It consists of two experiments conveyed through two main research fields (Information Retrieval and Stylometry), as a means to a better understanding of the complex and subtle literary mechanisms underlying the drama production of Modern Age authors and their transnational network of relations. The experiments led to the construction of networks of works and authors that fashion different patterns of similarity and models of evolution and interaction between texts.

And here you can listen and watch to a video recording made for the conference Poster session:

Workshop: Biblical Drama in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present Day

Organisers: Dr Dinah Wouters (Amsterdam), Sarah Fengler (Oxford)

Liturgical drama in the Middle Ages starts by adapting the most cherished texts of European culture: Scripture. Once introduced as a common practice of dramatising the Bible, European drama kept producing scriptural plays. While there was a strong German tradition of medieval mystery plays, the history of biblical drama is by no means limited to the German cultural sphere. New formats and modes of biblical drama developed through the centuries and in different language areas: from French mystery plays, humanist sacred comedies and tragedies, Jesuit Bible drama, and Spanish Golden Age autos sacramentales through to neoclassical biblical tragedy, biblical Trauerspiele in the German Empfindsamkeit, and scriptural plays in English Romanticism. Furthermore, there was a rediscovery of the so-called cycle plays during the nineteenth century, and even today biblical narratives are still being staged, from modern and postmodern biblical plays through to Broadway and movies. A large number of writers from various eras debated the question of how Scripture can be dramatised, including Hugo Grotius, Jean Racine, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Voltaire, George Gordon Byron, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, to name but a few.

In this workshop, we want to explore the continuities, (in)consistencies, and break lines in the history of European biblical drama. Our objective is to come closer to a diachronic, transnational, and comparative perspective on biblical drama as a literary genre.


09.00-09.30 Arrival with coffee and tea

09.30-09.45 Opening words


One of the key challenges with the diverse texts collected into the asynchronous structure we call ‘the Bible’, is that these scriptures are fundamentally ‘holey’ as well as holy.  By nature of their compilation, form and function, they present us with holes in the text, holes in the narrative, and holes in characterisation.  Such holes seem to frustrate the process of dramatization, in which divine stories and beings must be given body, direction and story.  Meanwhile, the mere act of staging scripture entails its own issues of embodiment, threatening to expose the aching gap between venerated or divine figures and the bodies representing them.  Yet for generations of those seeking to dramatize scripture, both scriptural and physical ‘holes’ have also presented opportunities: gaps through which contemporary concerns might be expressed, explored, rationalised and raised in protest.  This is particularly the case in the staging of narratives involving women, whose scriptural origins tend to be even more ‘holey’ than those of male figures.  Using English-language case studies from the medieval, early modern and modern periods, this paper examines how playmakers across time have grappled with gaps, and used them to give voice and body to ideas about gender and how we choose whose stories are told.

10.45-12.15 Panel 1 (chair: Dinah Wouters)

Written by several authors, the 45 mysteries that were compiled in the fifteenth century in an opus referred to as Le mistere du Viel Testament are not merely an “encyclopedia of sacred knowledge, traditions and legends,” as labeled by their modern editors. They are also an important source for understanding the history of emotions in medieval and early modern times. Yet, despite the fact that literary research on the subject has developed greatly over the past years, influenced by the discipline of history of emotions, biblical adaptations in general, and biblical drama in particular, remain quite neglected. Scriptural narratives left enormous lacunas regarding the psychological outcomes of the events experienced by the biblical protagonists. Like any genre of biblical literary adaptation, the different mysteries contained in Le mistere thus provided fertile soil for speculative amplifications about such emotional states. Authors and dramaturges alike could “recontextualize” the psychological implications of any biblical episode in their contemporary setting, and, quite judgmentally, direct the audience toward a supervised formation of their emotions. Such texts thus played a double role, simultaneously constructing the emotional discourse and evaluating it, instructing the audience whether to accept or reject it. In my presentation, I would like to demonstrate the means by which such biblical adaptations acted as an agent to disciplining emotions, according to this double role. Aspiring particularly towards the theorization of the specific contribution of the biblical mystery play to the emotive discourses, I will show the similarities and differences between the mysteries and other genres that perform this literalization of the imagined emotional consequences of the biblical material, such as devotional and didactic texts and parodies.

The Jeu d’Adam represents the earliest extant script for a drama in French or a vernacular language of England. Although the single extant manuscript, MS Tours 927, dates from the late 12th century and was copied in the Loire valley, it is written in Anglo-Norman dialect, and orthographic evidence suggests that its Occitan-speaking scribe struggled with his earlier copytext’s unfamiliar language.

The play has an episodic structure, dramatizing Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden, followed by Cain’s murder of Abel, and a procession of prophets largely adapted from the Pseudo-Augustinian Sermo contra Judeos, Paganos, et Arianos, which includes a debate between Isaiah and a Jew. The Jeu d’Adam has traditionally been viewed as a ritual drama, emerging from liturgy and the performative ceremonies of church services; my paper explores interconnections between the play and contemporary pedagogical practices, building on Christophe Chaguinian’s study of the manuscript in MS Tours 927 and the Provenance of the Play, which locates the play in the context of a large secular institution, such as a Cathedral school.

I examine the Jeu in relation to Peter Cantor’s tripartite educational schema of lectio, disputatio, and predicatio. This reveals that the play employs lectio and disputatio (which pertain to the building of faith), but avoids resolving learning into predicatio (preaching good conduct). I argue that through this, the playwright opens up to his vernacular audience the behind-the-scenes methods of learning faith usually reserved for Latinate students, teaching his audience how to discover divine truth for themselves, through the figural reading of Scripture. He uses debate-scenes to test these truth-claims, and to problematise ideas of textual authority and literary production. The playwright takes on the role of interpres: translator, mediator, prophet, and teacher, modelling a way of engaging with and discovering truth in Scripture drawn from the twelfth-century classroom.

Female religious communities contributed significantly to the highly efficient transnational cultural networks of the medieval Catholic Church; in terms of circulating images, vernacular texts, and above all Latin texts. Drawing on visual as well as textual medieval documents, some previously unknown to specialists, my current researches explore the decisive, previously under-recognized role of their contributions to the development of the so-called merchant scene of biblical drama, representing Easter Holy Women purchasing spices from one or more generally itinerant healers. Encouraged by highly educated female religious leaders in France, Austria, the central Czech and German-speaking lands and elsewhere, theatrical representations of spice-purchasing Holy Women circulated between religious communities right across Europe. As they did so, they moved ever closer to legitimating women on the religious stage, and to providing it with a deeply moving female counterpart—at the end of Christ’s life—to the male-dominated visit of the spice-bearing Kings who herald its beginning. 

Through their creativity and patronage, female religious leaders were the first to recognize the great significance of the merchant scene for Easter ceremonies. Their influential repurposing and secularization of this brief biblical episode achieved a substantial, popular, dramatic vehicle for explicating the origins of the Easter Holy Womens’ spice containers, and for extending and emphasizing the impact and importance of the Easter story’s Holy Women in biblical drama. Making full use of the powerful transnational cultural networks of the Catholic Church to communicate between their mostly Benedictine communities, the female religious leaders who contributed most significantly towards establishing the merchant scene as a popular, even dominant, element in Easter performances, instrumentally influenced the development of the European religious stage.

12.30-13.30 Lunch


In the Early Modern period, several Biblical stories were popular themes for dramatic productions. The playwrights were Christians themselves and their audiences were similarly Christian, be it in the course of the sixteenth century more confessionalized. Protestant humanists and Jesuit fathers wrote Biblical plays for the educational situation, and chose, for instance, the story of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Esther, Jephthah, stories from the Books of Kings, and parables of the Good Samaritan, the lost sheep, the poor Lazarus and the Rich man, and the Prodigal Son. Also the life and death of Jesus was the subject of some plays. We can deal with these plays as individual dramas, but also as nodes in a network. Authors were inspired by each others’ plays. In this paper, I will explore ways of researching them in  transnational ways. 

14.30-15.30 Panel 2 (chair: Rasmus Vangshardt)

Chambers of Rhetoric in Flanders, Brabant and Holland opened themselves up to the new religious ideas, especially in the 1530’s. These were discussed among their members and the Scriptures were read and conversed upon. The results of their reflections were written down and performed in allegorical plays (spelen van sinne), biblical plays, refrains and songs. In this paper particular attention will be paid to how the staging of biblical figures and biblical stories was not only a means to propagate the new ‘evangelical’ ideas among the audience, but also to criticize the persecution of the same by the imperial and ecclesiastical authorities. To that purpose a closer analysis is offered of a play entitled De Bekeeringe Pauli(The Conversion of Paul), which was based upon Acts 9:1-19. Most probably the play was created by the chamber of rhetoric De Goudbloem (Marigold), which was active in Vilvoorde near Brussels. The paper will further illustrate how these ‘politico-religious incorrect’ plays induced the authorities to take increasingly stringent measures against the performance of rhetoricians’ plays in the Low Countries.

In 1565, the Westminster School performed Sapientia Solomonis before Elizabeth I, her council, and her friend Cecilia of Baden, Princess of Sweden. The Westminster School performance text survives in two MS copies and was an adaptation of Sixt Birck’s drama with the same name, which was published in an anthology of biblical drama in Basel, in 1547. The two versions of the play were originally performed with contrasting agendas. Whereas Birck’s aim for Sapientia Solomonis was to facilitate the education of a new generation of humanist citizens, the later adaptation laid its focus on spectacle and splendour to impress its audience and functioned as a vehicle for negotiating Anglo-Swedish political relationships. Performed in England and on the Continent, and operating both as a Humanist school drama as well as a piece of political Tudor court drama, Sapientia Solomonis offers an unique opportunity to study biblical drama in Europe in the mid 1500s. Written and performed in Latin, and with its biblical subject matter, the biblical drama of Sapienta Solomonis was transnational. This study carries out a comparative study between the two versions of the play and places them in their original performance context. Through textual analysis, archival studies, and a performance workshop, this presentation aims to demonstrate that although the Westminster School and Sixt Birck purposed the biblical material differently, a comparative study of the two versions of Sapientia Solomonis highlights the fact that biblical drama transcended national, cultural, and social borders. 

15.30-16.00 Break

16.00-17.00 Panel 3 (chair: Jan Bloemendal)

In the massive corpus of surviving dramas by the Spanish Golden Age playwright Lope de Vega, biblical comedias play a considerable role. This paper compares a rather well-known one, La hermosa Ester (1610), and the less known La creación del mundo (date unknown). The paper will deal with the question of genre – how and why do Lope’s dramatic adaptations of the Old Testament become comedias, specifically? – and then turn to the specific theme of beauty in both plays.

The investigation into the relation between the genre of comedia and the theme of beauty is intended to contribute to the workshop’s question of “biblical drama as a literary genre.” The Spanish Golden Age is often considered a highly aestheticized period of European literature, and the theme and idea of beauty certainly played a dominant role. This paper investigates how Lope’s biblical drama blended the epoch’s fascination of beauty with his own new art of producing comedias and asks the question of how Scripture contributed dramatically to the theatre of the time in this respect.

17.00-18.30 Panel 4 (ONLINE) (chair: Tovi Bibring)

Dans le théâtre de Jean-Luc Lagarce (1957-1995), le retour est à la fois le sujet, l’objet et la manière de l’œuvre.

Le concept de « pays lointain » possède une signification très importante au sein de cet univers dramatique car il représente l’endroit du retour et du non-retour en même temps, le pays des origines et des racines, le tout début de l’existence humaine, la réponse aux raisons de soi, le lieu où le passé gagne encore son actualité, l’endroit magique et unique pour chaque personnage d’où on peut ne pas partir physiquement mais où on aimerait toujours revenir spirituellement. Le « pays lointain » constitue le centre fictionnel et conceptuel d’une grande partie des pièces de ce dramaturge, et surtout du cycle du « fils prodigue ». Ce paradigme archétypal conçoit le retour comme un défi, tant pour celui qui revient que pour ceux qui l’attendent. Dans cette perspective, le retour prend chez Lagarce une dimension tragique car ceux qui sont censés attendre ne peuvent plus vivre leurs vies et restent dans un statisme infini en essayant de ranimer le passé et de raccourcir la période d’attente du retour par le discours circulaire et clos sur le sujet et l’objet unique d’un « fils prodigue ». Ce cycle associe au retour la question, pour celui qui revient, du droit à ne pas dire la vérité, à tricher, en quelque sorte. Revenir est, dès la première réplique des pièces, destiné à être « la partie perdue ».

La parabole biblique du fils prodigue est une parabole de mouvement : le personnage central part, erre ailleurs et revient vers le lieu d’où il est parti. Lagarce renforce cette idée d’action tout en introduisant le nouveau départ du fils après le retour ainsi que par le caractère même du personnage central. La dynamique générale du retour, au sein de cet univers dramatique, confère une valeur spécifique à la répétition des mots et des phrases en lui attribuant les caractéristiques de la reprise. Dans cette perspective, répéter signifie alors revenir en arrière. Chaque pièce de Lagarce crée le mythe de sa propre poétique qui est celle du retour et qui passe par les multiples et diverses répétitions, reprises et corrections. Le fils prodigue de Lagarce est malheureux, vagabond, maudit. Son caractère même est une errance infinie. Car c’est uniquement une telle figure qui pourrait incarner pleinement les traits de son époque contemporaine, lui être emblématique. Ce fils prodigue devient également la métaphore de la parole dans notre époque qui se cherche, qui veut être acceptée et répondre et qui s’enfuit sans finalement jamais réussir.

After 1928, in the second part of his artistic and intellectual life, the french poet, playwright, and biblical scholar Paul Claudel (1868-1955) renounced writing secular plays and used the Bible as his only inspiration: “if drama contains the Bible, Bible creates the drama” and “goes on stage”[1], as writes Hélène de Saint-Aubert about Claudel’s L’Histoire de Tobie et de Sara (1942). In the conferences and articles about his biblical dramas, he often refers to the French mystery play, morality play, and liturgical drama of the Middle Ages, claiming that he continues these traditions. If we read more carefully these works in light of medieval theater, it seems that he does not a continuation, but a recreation after literary forms which are reshaped. Indeed, Claudel talks about medieval genres but there was no such classification at this time: when he pretends to relate L’Annonce faite à Marie to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages and L’Homme et son désir to the tradition of “our old morality plays”[2], he does not so. He creates, hundreds of years later, Medieval Biblical Dramas of his own.

[1] Hélène de Saint-Aubert, Théâtre et exégèse, Genève, Droz, 2014, p. 301 : « si le drame contient la Bible, la Bible engendre le drame » et « monte sur la scène ».

[2] La Danse, juin 1921, cité par Gérald Antoine, Paul Claudel ou l’Enfer du génie, Paris, Laffont, 1988, p. 210 : « On peut dire que de même que L’Annonce faite à Marie se rattachait aux mystères du Moyen Âge, L’Homme et son désir continue la tradition de nos vieilles moralités ».

From the analysis of the film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, setting off from the identification of the author’s conscience with the tragic destiny of the myth of Christ, I examine the metaphysical grounds of his peculiar humanistic and existentialist project: a sacred conception of man as the will that brings forth the creation of the world. My study intends to enhance and interpret Pasolini’s cinematic adaptation of the Gospel as the poetical expression of a tragic universe, in which the Nietzschean reflection that sparked criticism against the Modern Age can be traced. The visual poetics of the film, according to the proposal formulated by Pasolini himself, offers the possibility of developing a dialogue and a meditation on the tragedy of Western modern man: the transmutation of his human condition into a mechanic artifice, the loss of the sacred dimension as the creative subjectivity of his nature, responsible of his own existence. The expression of Pasolini’s tragic consciousness in the movie is incarnated, therefore, in what he calls a “desperate vitality”: the uncontrollable desire to experience life freely, with full intensity, through a projection of the nostalgia for the loss of the sacralized and mysterious sense of man, materialized in a profound pessimism towards the unfolding of a contemporaneity hopelessly detached from the humanist culture.


If you want to register, either to attend the conference in person or to follow the two online presentations, please send an email to and

Virtual exhibition on the Joseph story

We contributed a story to a virtual exhibition on global versions of the Joseph story. Have a look on the Things That Talk website to explore the exhibition made for Stichting Zenobia. In our story, we trace the path of an etching made in Haarlem to a theatre performance held some decades earlier in Amsterdam, and onwards into European theatre history. The story gives an example of the connections between Latin theatre from the Low Countries, printing culture, and European theatre.

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:

Potiphar’s Wife: The Woman without a Name Becomes the Woman with the Many Names

Dinah Wouters

The scene is a familiar one in art history: a harassed Joseph runs away from the naked woman who reaches after him and is just able to get hold of his cloak. Later in the story, which is recounted in the Bible book of Genesis, she will use the cloak as evidence while declaring to her husband that Joseph tried to rape her.

David Colijns, Joseph being harrassed by Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:12), last quarter of the 16th century. Oil on canvas, 146 x 103 cm.

Her name became a synonym for the often-used literary motif of the woman who falsely accuses an innocent man of (attempted) rape. Or rather: her husband’s name, because the woman herself is not named in the Bible. Instead, as so many women in literary history, she became known by the name of her husband, as ‘Potiphar’s wife’.

The story did not just become the prototype for the literary motif but was also retold time and again in its own right, mostly as a part of the larger narrative of Joseph’s life, from the betrayal by his brothers, his time as a slave in Potiphar’s household, to the long years spent in prison after being wrongly accused, ending on the day that he explains Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams and is promoted to vizier of Egypt.

On the early modern stage, the story of Joseph was a favourite from the beginning, thanks to its epic qualities, gripping emotional turns, and morals. More than a hundred different dramas about the subject from the sixteenth and seventeenth century are extant. But how did these texts deal with the fact that one of the protagonists is not named in the source text?

If you start looking at character lists, what strikes you is the great variety in the names that Potiphar’s wife receives. In a preliminary survey of 60 dramas in Latin, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, and English, I found that 22 do not treat the episode with Potiphar’s wife, but the other 48 yield no less than 21 different names for the same character. Once a nameless woman in the Bible, on the stages of early modern Europe Potiphar’s wife becomes a woman known by many names. 

In the TransLatin project, we are working on a database that will gather the texts and metadata of Neo-Latin dramas. Character lists will be part of these data and a good tool for research on a larger scale than the individual dramatic text. I will use the example of Potiphar’s wife to show how the comparison of character names might reveal the traces of networks of influence that connected literati and playwrights across Europe and open up further research.

The Wife

A first group of texts remains loyal to the biblical text and does not give Joseph’s accuser a name at all. This is the case in the fifteenth-century mystery plays such as the Mistère du vieil testament and Les mystères de la Procession de Lille, where she is called ‘la Dame’, and in the Italian Rappresentatione di Giuseppe figiuolo di Giacobbe, where she is ‘la Donna’. In a German Fastnachtspiel from 1608, a genre that likes to work with ‘types’ of characters, she is ‘Potiphars Weib’. Later in the seventeenth century, the famous Jesuit playwright Jacob Bidermann prefers to call her ‘hera’ or ‘mistress’ in Latin, and in a Spanish drama by the Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz she is still ‘la Mujer’.

It is difficult to say whether the choice not to name the female character by these later authors, who are not otherwise very loyal to the biblical story, is an unmarked choice or a choice that marks a difference with other texts. The absence of a name is most striking, however, with two German humanists, Hans von Rüte and Sixt Birck, because they deviate from a norm among German humanists and protestant school authors of the sixteenth century to adopt the name given by the Dutch Neo-Latin playwright Cornelius Crocus: ‘Sephirach’.

A New Standard

It seems that the name ‘Sephirach’ for Potiphar’s wife was coined by Crocus himself. ‘Sephora’ or ‘Zippora’ is a biblical name, one that is carried both by the wife of Moses and by a Hebrew midwife in the book of Exodus. It is thus associated with Egypt but also with the Hebrews. Crocus’ version of the story, focusing on Joseph and Sephirach, became a smashing success: between 1535, when it was first performed, and 1650 it was reprinted 21 times, first in Antwerp, then Cologne, Paris, Strasbourg, Augsburg, Basel, Amsterdam, and Dortmund.

Its influence can easily be gauged not only from its many reprints but also from the occurrence of the name ‘Sephira’ (in various spellings) in other dramas. It was adopted in the German plays by Thiebolt Gart, Peter Jordan, and Jacob Ruf, which all came out in 1540, five years after the publication of Crocus’ play, by the Latin plays of Andreas Diether (1544) and Cornelius Schonaeus (1592), and in Polish by the dramatist Mikołaj Rej (1545).

By 1600, ‘Sephira’ must have felt like the new standard name for Potiphar’s wife. We find it as well in a Latin play by Theodorus Rhodius (1625) and in two Dutch plays, by Jacob Cats (1620) and Jan Tonnis (1638). The play by Cats was translated into German two times and the translators kept the name of Sephyra, like the translator of Crocus did as well (1583). That seems logical, but it highlights the strange choice made by Hans von Rüte, who translated Crocus’ version and added the translation to his own longer play, but who replaces ‘Sephira with ‘Frow’ (‘Woman’/ ‘Wife’). Then again, von Rüte made his translation in 1538, only three years after the publication of Crocus’ play. It would seem that the name ‘Sephira’ was cemented by the publication of three German dramas in 1540. For Rüte, and for Birck, who also still used ‘Fraw’ in 1539, Crocus’ naming was not yet a norm but an individual choice that they chose not to follow.

Georgius Macropedius, like Crocus a playwright from the Netherlands, also wrote a Latin drama about Joseph that was to be popular among later authors, but it seems that his 1544 play came a decade too late to offer an alternative to ‘Sephira’. Macropedius’ Sephira is called ‘Aegla’. Aglaea, in Greek mythology, is one of the Graces and the goddess of beauty. But there is more: it looks like there might be a reference to the Greek mythological counterpart to Potiphar’s wife, Phaedra. Both Euripides’ and Seneca’s dramas about the queen who falls in love with her stepson and falsely accuses him of rape when he rejects her, acted as a major influence on humanist Joseph dramas. Macropedius did not directly adopt her name, but puts on a wordplay with Greek synonyms: both ‘φαιδρός’ and ‘ἀγλαός’ carry the meaning of ‘bright’ and ‘shining’.

Exotic names from the past

Although Crocus’ act of name-giving was most successful and the only one to be followed widely, his play was not the first one to name Potiphar’s wife. The first European playwright to do so was the Italian humanist Pandolfo Collenuccio in 1523. His humanist drama La vita de Iosep figliuolo di Iacob calls her Beronica. A resemblance to the name of St. Veronica seems not to be at play. Rather, it would seem to refer to a name that was carried by a handful of Macedonian queens of Egypt during the Hellenistic period.

Despite the success of his play, no one followed him in this. However, the logic behind the name – to choose something that carries exotic connotations – did have a following. For example, the German theologian and playwright Aegidius Hunnius went with ‘Misraia’, which means ‘Egyptian woman’ in Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Spanish playwright Miguel de Carvajal chose ‘Zenobia’, the name of the famous queen of Palmyra, who is known, ironically enough, for her chastity. He was followed in this by an anonymous Auto de los desposorios de Joseph from a few decades later, but not by another work that is ostentatiously inspired by his play, the Adversa y prospera fortuna de Joseph. The latter rather chooses ‘Mitilene’, which is the birthplace of Sappho, who was at the time best known for her suicidal passion for a young man named Phaon (she was alleged to have thrown herself off the rocks at Mitilene).

After Abraham Bosse, Zenobia, an illustration from Pierre Le Moyne’s ‘La Gallerie des femmes fortes’, ca. 1647. Print, 34.1 × 21.6 cm.

Just as I can only explain Carvajal’s choice of ‘Zenobia’ as a case of exoticism and irony, the name that Martinus Balticus gives to Potiphar’s wife raises some eyebrows as well. ‘Seraphin’, he calls her, which looks like an anagram of ‘Sephira’ but is also very close to Seraphim, the order of angels. The expert on German Joseph dramas Jean Lebeau has tried to explain the choice by suggesting a connection to the Egyptian God Serapis. A name that carries equally positive connotations is Nicodemus Frischlin’s ‘Bithia’. Granted, it is also the mythological name of Scythian women who kill with their one eye, but would probably have been more familiar as the name of the Pharaoh’s daughter who saves and adopts baby Moses. Quite a reversal from Joseph’s seductress!


In general, it is remarkable that very few authors choose a name with explicitly negative connotations. A counterexample, however, is Thomas Brunner, who calls Joseph’s accuser ‘Iezabel’, the wicked queen and wife of Achab. Andreas Rochotius calls her ‘Artemon’, after a bossy, role-reversing female character in Plautus, and Balthasarus Voidius makes a connection with Medea, the mythological sorceress who killed her own children.

Lucas van Leyden, Izebel and king Achab, in the series Kleine serie Vrouwenlisten (Little Series of Women’s Ploys), 1515-1519. Print, 17 x 24 cm.

Joachim Greff, whose German play was published in 1534, a year before that of Crocus, is even more explicit. He gives her the name of ‘Mecha’, which is the Latin word for adulteress and slut. He was followed in this by two plays whose main example seems to lie elsewhere but who do adopt at least the name. First, Bartholomaeus Leschke was mostly following Thiebolt Gart, but it turns out that he preferred the name ‘Moecha’ over Gart’s ‘Sophora’. Second, Josephus Goezius’ play is a loyal imitation of Christian Zyrl (who has ‘Potiphara’), but its character list mentions ‘Potiphara oder Moecha’. Zyrl’s name ‘Potiphara’, in the meantime, attracted not only Adam Puschmann and Goezius, but also Christian Schlayss, even though the latter presents his play as a translation of Hunnius (who had ‘Misraia’). All of these intricate loans take place within the group of German-writing protestants, which goes to show how tight-knitted this sphere of influence was.

Inspiration from Novels and Epics

Sometimes inspiration for the name seems to come from outside theatre. In Nicolas de Montreux’s 1601 Joseph le chaste, the seductress is called Alinde. Only seven years before, the Parisian literary world had been gripped by controversy regarding the first novel of Marie Le Jars de Gournay, the friend and editor of Montaigne. The protagonist of this novel, a Persian princess who is seduced and driven to suicide, carries the name Alinda.

One of the more famous of Potiphar’s wife’s theatrical names, thanks to Joost van den Vondel’s Joseph trilogy, is ‘Iempsar’. It seems that the name is derived from an epic on the story of Joseph by Girolamo Fracastoro, who is most known for his work as an epidemiologist on syphilis. The posthumous publication of this epic in 1555 predated Vondel’s play by 85 years, but attention for it was revived in 1620 through the English translation of the work by Joshua Sylvester, who lived and frequented intellectual circles in the Dutch Republic. Vondel was not the first to use the name ‘Iempsar’ in drama, however. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Polish playwright Simon Simonides had also adopted it from Fracastoro for his Latin Joseph play.

A Spanish play from the late seventeenth century, entitled Los Triunfos de Joseph and (probably falsely) attributed to Calderon, has the name ‘Semsar’, which looks as if it is derived from ‘Iempsar’. Could it be that this name, as if in a game of Chinese whispers, travelled from sixteenth-century Italy to seventeenth-century Dutch literature via an English translation, and ended up at the end of the century in Spain?

Protestant Clusters and Catholic Diversity?

Authors really liked to come up with their own name for a character. Almost a third of the authors that I have looked at prefer to give Potiphar’s wife a name that she never carried before. When you leave out translations, that makes half of these authors. Other examples, which I did not mention, are ‘Gotera’, ‘Nicela’, ‘Demetria’, and ‘Thamna’.

So does that also say something about how much inspiration they take from each other’s plays in general? That is difficult to say at this point in my research, although the fact that mostly protestant authors from German and Dutch-speaking regions band together does seem to indicate so. These are the authors that have been studied most extensively and of whom we know that they were connected and looked at each other for inspiration. Although Crocus was a Catholic, his Latin play influenced two generations of mostly protestant German, Swiss, Dutch, and Polish authors, an influence reflected in their adoption of the name ‘Sephira’. Other smaller clusters among this group are ‘Moecha’ and ‘Potiphera’.

Outside of this group, we mostly find unique names used by authors from other regions (Italy, Spain, France, and England), authors who are mostly Catholic. Is it possible that the Catholic playwrights came to associate the name ‘Sephira’ with Protestant plays and therefore chose their own names, or should we rather read it as a lack of contact? In any case, it seems that the nameless Egyptian woman is a good starting point for exploring the ties between the early modern dramatists who are keen to give her a voice and a name.

Clusters of names. Colours indicate languages: blue for Latin, yellow for German, orange for Dutch, green for French, pink for Spanish, light purple for Italian, and light blue for Polish. Translations are connected via the translated text.