Imagined Romes

The Ancient City and its Stories in Middle English Poetry

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C. David Benson
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , March
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Mirabilia urbis Romae, a 12th-century Latin prose text, captivated its medieval audience by recounting the lost wonders of ancient Rome. The Mirabilia memorably described the bells adorning the necks of provincial statues in the ancient Capitol, which mysteriously rang out as warning signals if a province ever rebelled. C. David Benson’s study, Imagined Romes, offers insightful source-critical analyses of how Middle English poets drew upon and reimagined texts such as the Mirabilia to fashion their verse evocations of the eternal city, as well as to undertake close exegetical readings of each poet’s character portraits of ancient Rome’s most notable citizens, both pagan and Christian.

The structure of Imagined Romes is crisp and clear, divided into two parts following an Introduction. Part 1 focuses upon two less familiar Middle English poems that describe the material remains of this ancient city: the Stacions of Rome concerned with the merciful abundance of pardons available to pilgrims who visit Rome’s reliquaries and martyr-churches, and the Metrical mirabilia focused on the marvels of ancient pagan Rome, which both fascinated and repelled its Christian author. Part 2 shifts from depictions of the ancient city to famed character-portraits of ancient Romans in John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, and John Lydgate, with characters often exemplifying particular virtues or vices, for example, Lucretia and Tarquin, Virginia and Virginius, Trajan and Gregory, Constance and Cecilia. Oddly, the book lacks a concluding chapter, and as a consequence the threads are drawn together more hastily in the final couple of pages (144-45). This may be partly explicable due to the conscious interweaving of intertextual parallels throughout part 2, as some of the same character’s tales are retold and reimagined by a number of the poets (notably the appalling rape of Lucretia), with each poet offering his own ideological perspective(s), often in a conscious reappraisal of previous Middle English versions.

The richest chapters, theologically, are those focused upon Chaucer (chapter 4) and Langland (chapter 5). Benson offers an insightful exegesis of virtuous Roman women in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Legend of Good Women. Whilst the pagan Roman heroines, Lucretia and Virginia, continue to be regarded by Chaucer as models of civic nobility, who exemplify courage and integrity in accepting death in order to uphold their honor, they remain tragic figures for him in the absence of Christian faith. Neither has the hope of attaining Christian salvation (as a martyr) nor of interceding for the living as a Christian saint (as in the Stacions of Rome) (94). Accordingly, a sharp contrast is drawn between these virtuous pagan Roman heroines and the Christian martyr, St Cecilia, in the Second Nun’s Tale, whose death as a martyr gains her entry to the heavenly city of God in defiance of the transitory power of ancient imperial Rome. As a consequence, Benson’s exegetical study frequently opens-up an eschatological perspective of Middle English poetry on Rome. Chaucer did not draw a crude contrast between a virtuous Christian medieval Rome and a vice-ridden pagan ancient Rome, but instead recalled the ancient age of Christian martyrs at Rome transcending imperial authority, just as the Stacions of Rome trace the sanctity of this pilgrim city to the relics of martyr shrines, all pointing to the true eternal city, the heavenly city of God. This aspect is a prominent strand throughout Imagined Romes, the interplay between ancient city, contemporary medieval city, and (eschatological) heavenly city.

Benson provides a subtle and sensitive exegesis of the Trajan/Gregory episode in William Langland’s Piers Plowman (B-text, passus 11, 11.140-70), having first made a case for limiting Trajan’s speech to just thirty lines (excluding 11.171-318, attributed to personified Rechelesness in the C-text) (103-5). The analysis includes a careful analysis of Langland’s reworking of his source the Legenda aurea which depicts Pope Gregory receiving a positive divine response to his lament that the virtuous pagan Emperor Trajan be spared damnation, in Langland’s rich allegorical reimagining in which Trajan exemplifies truthe and Gregory love. The episode is persuasively shown to be integral to Langland’s theological reflection on the relative weight afforded to divine justice (truthe) and mercy (love) in Piers Plowman, culminating in passus 18, “Christ’s Harrowing of Hell,” in which divine justice and mercy are shown to be combined in this one divine act. Benson’s emphasis upon the fraternal relationship between Trajan and Gregory as “fellow ancient Romans” (119) serves to highlight an aspect that is a best implicit in Piers Plowman, the shared civic affinity of Trajan and Gregory as Roman leaders, but which in and of itself is not the most significant factor in the allegorical richness of their verse portraits (passus 11). In a second edition of this study, it would be interesting if Benson offered an additional interpretation of Trajan’s character. How might Trajan’s character be read if he is regarded as the speaker of the whole of passus 11.140-318 and not merely the initial thirty lines? Might this open-up multiple interpretations of Trajan in the B-text, akin to Lydgate’s multiple, juxtaposed depictions of Lucretia’s character (134-144)?

At times there is a concern in this study to overemphasize the significance of the ancient city of Rome as a motif that binds various characters together in Middle English poetry. Benson acknowledges that Chaucer provides minimal topographical description of the city of Rome, in marked contrast to his exotic depictions of Athens or Troy (80-81), and Langland places little explicit stress on the shared civic affinities of Trajan and Gregory. Benson’s study in fact goes beyond those stated parameters, by exposing a rich theological seam in Middle English poetry in which the ancient and medieval city of Rome interplays with the heavenly city of God, echoing Augustine (128-29).

Imagined Romes resounds with evocative and theologically rich tales of Rome and Romans in Middle English poetry, and will captivate a contemporary literate audience with the marvels of the eternal city, in an analogous fashion to those wondrous bells ringing-out from the Capitoline hill.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Michael Ryan is Senior Lecturer in Theology, University of Roehampton, UK.

Date of Review: 
October 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C. David Benson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Connecticut.


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