The Poems of Sappho
“someone will remember us / I say /even in another time” – Sappho, fragment 147, translated by Anne Carson
Listen while you read: “Sappho” by Frankie Cosmos
I would be surprised if someone in the class did not also write about Sappho’s poems as texts that have been transmuted by translators, authors, politicians, and clergy over millennia and across cultures; her work epitomizes the “long chain of human activity” that affects media over time, as described in the prompt. Sappho lived from approximately 630-570 BC on the island of Lesbos. Little is known about her life, and information is constantly speculated and contested - and little of it needs to be recounted at the moment. All that one needs to know for now is that she wrote poems to her friends, family, and acquaintances throughout her life; she utilized a type of verse that is now referred to as Sapphic meter; her poems were most likely compiled during her life or shortly after her death, and published in collections of lyric poetry or critical editions of her work throughout late antiquity and the early medieval period. Over the centuries, Sappho became known as the great Poetess, one of the best (if not the best) to exist (Plato even called her the tenth muse).
Texts from antiquity - and even late antiquity - are incredibly rare. Scriptoriums in the medieval period collected older manuscripts either to copy their text or their illustrations, which in turn helped preserve these antique texts - for example, the antique illustrated Terence manuscripts and, most notably, texts such as the Vatican Vergil. The Vatican Vergil from c. 400 AD is one of the oldest surviving texts of the Aeneid and one of the oldest ancient illustrated manuscripts of classical text that historians possess. Considering that Sappho’s poems predate the Vatican Vergil by about a millennium, the fact that they still exist in any capacity is impressive. I think this in itself shows the importance of Sappho’s works - while they only exist in scraps, painstakingly excavated, they still exist for readers to consume and relate to today.
Early Medieval Scriptoriums and Antique Texts
I would like to diverge from Sappho for a moment to discuss the context in which the surviving antique and medieval texts were created. While monks in a scriptorium most likely did not reproduce Sappho’s poems, in particular, I think the discussion of scriptorium practices helps highlight the ways that the provenances of these texts are muddled.
Scriptoriums as centers of both appropriation and change are fascinating, particularly in the early medieval period (~400-900 AD), since Charlemagne encouraged art to flourish while also emulating antique Roman art to assert his legitimacy as Holy Roman Emperor. One can look at illuminated manuscripts from the early medieval period, across different schools (i.e. Reims, Ada, Palace) in Charlemagne’s empire, and notice their similarities. Scholars speculate texts like the Ultrecht Psalter and Ebbo Gospels, wondering whether the same hand made these texts in his individualized style, or if different artists are copying the same model; or, one looks at the portrait of Matthew in the Ebbo Gospels and the portrait of Matthew in the Coronation Gospels and wonders about their origins. Both portraits are working from the same typologies, as the modeling of the evangelist and the props around him are basically identical, although divergences in artistic styles exist (the Ebbo artist draws in a highly energetic, naturalistic, Roman-inspired style). Considering these portraits of Matthew in particular, one might also refer to the Ezra portrait in the Codex Amiatinus from about a century before. All three images are using the same typology and pictorial motifs, which begs the question - did these scriptoriums have one singular model text, or did the artists just copy each other’s copies?
This latter question is highly debated in the world of art history, especially since few texts from the late antique and early medieval periods survive.
I have studied Sappho and early medieval texts in depth, if my intense interest in these topics hasn’t been obvious thus far - but while I was refreshing my memory on some specific facts, I remembered that Sapphic manuscripts existed not only on parchment (most likely reproduced from lost ancient papyrus, centuries after her death), but even on potsherd, or a broken piece of ceramic material. I thought this point was particularly relevant, as it raises the question of how Sappho’s poems were translated onto different media centuries after her death. Readers obviously venerated her poems, as evident in their nearly continuous publishing over approximately 2,500 years; the ways in which they interacted with them adapted over time. I cannot claim anything conclusive about their functions, considering how little exists, but I thought this was a necessary point to bring up before I discuss how sociopolitical contexts changed the consumption of Sappho’s poems.
First of all, the Aeolic dialect that Sappho wrote in was more obscure than others, which deterred and complicated both readers’ and translators’ efforts over time. In Sappho’s Immortal Daughter, Williamson notes how even the ancient author Roman author Apuleius (author of The Golden Ass) commented on the Aeolic dialect’s “strangeness.” Language and translation in the 21st century is still a problem - translations of Sappho’s poems are never the same; they always differ on some great scale. Consider Mary Barnard’s translation of this fragment: “It’s no use / Mother dear, I / can’t finish my weaving / You may / blame Aphrodite / soft as she is / she has almost / killed me with / love for that boy.” One can compare Anne Carson’s translation of the same fragment: “Sweet mother I cannot work the loom / I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite.” Translation of the ancient Greek dialect in itself is difficult, but so many physical gaps also exist; translators must string together fragments as best they can and improvise when necessary. This process is more complex, and Anne Carson describes it really well - I would convey it here, but I left my copy of her book at home, and I cannot find a copy online.
But why aren’t there late antique or medieval manuscripts that include Sappho’s poems, like Vergil’s epic or Terence’s plays? As I’m nearing a 1,000-word count, I’ll cut it short: the unavailability of Sappho’s poems is most likely a result of moralists’ appropriation or complete destruction of her works. Church officials in Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople outright censored and/or condemned her poems for their rather explicit sexual and lesbian content. Tatian, a second-century Syrian Christian writer, called her “a whore who sang about her own licentiousness” as noted in Sappho’s biography written by the Poetry Foundation. Extreme moralists, like Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (4th c.) and Pope Gregory VII (11th c.), ordered that Sappho’s poems were to be burned on a mass scale. Twelth-century Byzantine poet, John Tzetses, wrote, “the passage of time has destroyed Sappho and her works, her lyre and her songs,” as Williamson notes in Sappho’s Immortal Daughters. The fact that the 21st century can even read verses of Sappho’s poems is impressive, and speaks to her legacy as a (queer) poet. The truth, candor, and openness of identity in her works helped them survive in fragments, while also making themselves vulnerable to sociopolitical attack as values shifted over time. The degree to which the fragments have changed from the original texts is theorized, but basically unknown. Unless one of Sappho’s original poems miraculously survived these 2,500 years, no one will be able to comment definitively on this point.
Summing up - few fragments of her works have survived, and even fewer complete poems have survived (I believe two poems exist in full - one about Tithonus, and the other about Aphrodite). Historians and archaeologists have resorted to digging through ancient trash heaps to find fragments of Sappho’s poems - and they have been successful. Moralists over the centuries have appropriated, assimilated, or destroyed aspects of her poems, specifically because of her sexuality; thus, only mutations of her original poems exist. And who is to say that these surviving fragments are anything like the original? What if someone who was copying them made a mistake, or purposefully changed them to fit a sociopolitical agenda?
Simulating the Scriptorium
These last few questions posed, then, finally connect to the lab we did in class, after contextualizing ancient and medieval texts and their copies in what might have been too much depth.
Writing in the simulated scriptoriums was a pretty enlightening experience. While medieval copying in scriptoriums may have been even more difficult and laborious, the act of copying was still difficult. I definitely made several mistakes and omissions, which leads me to conclude that monks and other scriveners most likely did the same. Printing and publishing mistakes, especially with texts this old being produced across 2,500 years of technology, are probable. What 21st-century readers of Sappho consume must be completely different than what she originally wrote in her Greek dialect in ~600 BC, especially considering the vast types of reproductions of her work. The ideas about manuscript production that were brought up in the readings didn’t really affect the knowledge I already had, since I have intensively studied the topic for months. I knew scribes made mistakes, changes, and additions; I knew that translations across various languages can change the original text pretty drastically; I knew how manuscripts were made, about vellum and natural pigments; I knew the production of biblical texts in the medieval period were of the utmost importance and severity. Actually copying out a seemingly illegible text in a dim, candlelit setting added a realistic perspective I didn’t have, though. It helped me synthesize the knowledge I had, which was overall a really fun and fruitful experience.
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