Proba the Prophet: Studies in the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba

University dissertation from University of Gothenburg

Abstract: The present study aims to deepen the critical understanding of the fourth century poet Faltonia Betitia Proba’s Cento and its reception, a text of considerable historical and cultural importance. Not only is it one of few extant Latin texts from antiquity by a woman writer, but it is also one of our oldest Christian Latin poems; it is an early example of cultural amalgamation of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman exegetical and literary traditions in that it is almost exclusively composed with verses from Virgil’s Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues, but narrates key episodes from the Old and New Testament. The first part of the dissertation examines the various constructions of the author ‘Proba’ and their relationships to the reception of the poem. It was not really until the twentieth century that the medieval and early modern representations of the centonist as a learned poet or even as a divinely inspired Sibyl were replaced by a general notion of her as a failed and scorned poet. This metamorphosis corresponds to changing attitudes to her poem in general. The large number of textual testimonies from the eighth to the seventeenth century, and the predominantly positive responses to the Cento during this period, were followed by harsh condemnations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the poem ceased to be regarded as proper literature. A pessimistic narrative emerged, based on speculation rather than historical evidence, saying that ‘the early readers’ rejected the Cento. Strategies to ‘save’ Proba were devised, and she was not seldom presented as a mother, wife and pious Christian. Despite the pervasive polyphonic and ambivalent qualities of her text, it was used as a source to reconstruct the feelings and intentions of the historical person Proba. Readings of this kind are further problematized in the second part of the dissertation, where a series of new interpretations of the Cento are offered. The first chapter of this part explores the configurations of the fictive narrator, whose authorial voice is fashioned as that of a prophet and a confessing believer in the preface, interludes and epilogue. In these ‘extradiegetic’ sections of the narrative, the Virgilian verses and voices are recycled as to form a new Christian confessional and poetic language. The last two chapters explore the hermeneutics that characterize her use of the Virgilian and biblical texts, focusing above all on the typological connections that are established. At one level, the Cento features reenactments of biblical typologies with Old Testament ‘types’ prefiguring New Testament ‘antitypes.’ But it also displays semi-biblical typologies, where characters and events from the Virgilian ‘hypotext’ prefigure the biblical ones represented in the Cento, and these connections are heavily exploited to produce foreshadowing within the narrative.

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