The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 13 (August 2010)  |   Issue Editor: Larry Swain

Four Poems by Theodulf of Orleans

Jeff Sypeck

University of Maryland University College, Adelphi, MD

© 2010 by Jeff Sypeck. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  Four Latin poems by Theodulf of Orleans (d. 821) translated into rhyming English verse.


§1.  A Visigothic refugee from Islamic Spain, Theodulf was a beacon of brilliance at Charlemagne's court. Armed with extensive classical and patristic learning, he weeded errors out of the Latin Bible; he probably wrote the Libri Carolini, the lengthy Carolingian response to the Second Council of Nicea; and in 798 he served as a missus dominicus, or judicial investigator, in the south of France. At the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne appointed him bishop of Orleans and abbot of Fleury, but in 818, four years after Charlemagne's death, he was implicated in a plot against the new emperor, Louis the Pious. Deprived of his bishopric, Theodulf spent his remaining years strenuously protesting his innocence, sometimes in verse, from the monasteries of Angers and Le Mans.

§2.  Theodulf's surviving poems, around 70 in all, are the work of a witty, erudite bishop whose muse was rarely fettered by such inhibiting factors as humility.1 His satire on court life gushes with praise for the royal family but eviscerates the poet's rivals, especially a pedantic Irishman and a lumbering Frankish magnate. Another long poem offers Christian advice for judges who may be tempted by bribes, and later, cryptic verses about battles between flocks of birds show a talent for political allegory. Theodulf's voice lingers in the modern Christian liturgy, too: His hymn "Gloria, laus et honor" remained popular during subsequent centuries and is still sung on Palm Sunday.2 The context in which Theodulf wrote and shared his poems is a subject of much speculation. He and his fellow Carolingian intellectuals clearly wrote to amuse and edify each other, so some works may have circulated privately, while others were likely recited or performed at the court.3

§3.  Twelve centuries ago, Theodulf vied with Alcuin, the Northumbrian-born abbot of Tours, for the distinction of being the greatest early Carolingian poet. Today, the judgment usually falls in Theodulf's favor, largely for his ability to embody both the classical and the Christian. Even so, the old bishop is better known for his wit than for any inherent warmth. The four short works of light verse translated below, therefore, hint at a more approachable Theodulf, a poet whose humor could sometimes be fanciful rather than baldly satiric.

§4.  Theodulf's adherence to classical forms lent his verse an air of ancient dignity. Although the meter of much medieval Latin poetry was determined, as in modern English poetry, by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, medieval Latin poetry based specifically on classical models was quantitative rather than accentual. In quantitative poetry, the length of vowels—literally, the quantity of each vowel, either long or short—determines the meter. In accentual verse, a dactyl consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; in quantitative verse, a dactyl consists of a long vowel followed by two short vowels.

§5.  Theodulf favored the dactyl and was especially fond of the elegiac couplet, which pairs a line of dactylic hexameter with a line of dactylic pentameter to form a self-contained conceptual unit. He was at ease with a wide range of classical literary and rhetorical devices, including alliteration and leonine rhyme, which occurs when a syllable halfway through a line rhymes with the syllable at the end of the line.4

§6.  Medieval verse based on classical forms is tricky for a translator. In rendering these four poems, I have not tried to concoct an accentual equivalent of Theodulf's quantitative verse. Instead, I acknowledge the medieval respect for form by rendering three of these four poems in rhymed accentual couplets, which are often associated with light verse in modern English but which also, in the 21st century, feel suitably old-fashioned. I have also indulged, as did Theodulf, in alliteration while trying to echo, faintly, his penchant for leonine rhyme.

§7.  As Theodulf is said to have been "influenced by the anima cortese of Virgil, the candor of Ovid, [and] the urbanitas and humanitas of Horace" (Wilkinson 1955, 374–375), the bishop himself would no doubt insist, as do I, that any failure of these poems to amuse is the fault of the translator alone.

Above a Bar5

§8.  At the end of the eighth century, Alcuin wrote a letter to Theodulf hailing the bishop of Orleans as the "father of vineyards" and deploying biblical allusions, by turns fanciful and desperate, to entice Theodulf to send him wine: "Although that which strengthens [i.e., bread] may be lacking, perhaps that which gladdens is not, for our hope rests in the bountiful wine of the cellars of Orleans, not in a dried-up fig tree."6 Alcuin insists that no lesser authority than Christ has ordered wine to be sent from Orleans to Tours, and he cites the Gospel of Luke to emphasize his preference: "Remember, do not put new wine in old skins. 'No one, drinking old wine, desires the new, for he says: "The old is better."'"

§9.  Theodulf's epigram about wine is not a reply to Alcuin, but it does contrast sharply with Alcuin's irreverent letter. Theodulf, usually the wit, is here disarmingly sincere, offering only a straightforward allusion to the miracle at Cana alongside possible echoes of oenological references in the De Laudibus Dei of fifth-century Christian poet Blossius Aemilius Dracontius (Alexandrenko 1970, 282).

§10.  Translation:

May He who water changed to needful wine
And vintage drink from vessels bade to pour
With hands so holy bless our cups once more,
And grant our day be joyful and divine.

Deluded Expectation7

§11.  Praised by modern scholars as the rare early Carolingian with solid knowledge of Ovid (Godman 1985, 8), Theodulf borrows nearly the entire sixth line of this short poem from Ovid's Amores III.5.2, in which a young lover seeks an interpretation of his dream about a bull, a heifer, and a crow.

§12.  Medieval audiences, already familiar with fables about talking animals, perhaps expected a beast reminiscent of the symbol of St. Luke the Evangelist to utter words of wisdom. Well aware that humor results from subverted expectations, Theodulf instead composes the most perfunctory dream vision in all of medieval literature.

§13.  Translation:

When momentous beginnings mere trifles espouse,
Then you, mighty elephant, bring forth a mouse.
A son told his father his dreams; thus he heard
What fell from his thoughts, every frivolous word:
"Father, I'll say what I see in my mind.
The most troubling visions in sleep do I find:
An ox who could speak I encountered tonight.
He talked! We were rather amazed at the sight."
Inquired the father, "What news did he bring?"
Answering him, he replied, "Not a thing."

A Lost Horse8

§14.  Readers who know Theodulf as a Christian intellectual prone to sophisticated satire and a heavy moral tone will find this poem a pleasant surprise. Largely unencumbered by biblical or classical allusions, "A Lost Horse" hinges on a gimmick that was probably already hoary by Theodulf's day. Such a durable joke translates well across ages and cultures: Alexandrenko (1970, 277 n1) notes that this poem closely resembles "The Threat," an 1885 short story by Anton Chekhov.

§15.  Translation:

Brains can defend you where brawn can't assist;
Often a weakling on wits can subsist.
So hear how a soldier, employing no force,
In his encampment retrieved his lost horse.
He stood at the crossroads and made this decree:
"If you stole my horse, then return it to me!
For if you should fail, I'll be forced to proceed
Like my father before me in Rome—so take heed!"
The men all grew nervous; the thief felt remorse:
Fearing for all, he returned the man's horse.
The owner rejoiced; celebration was made
By all of the men who'd been greatly afraid.
At last they inquired of him, every one,
Just what it was that his father had done.
"His bridle, his saddle, his old traveling-sack
He flung 'round his neck, the poor man, and walked back.
So useless his spurs; on his heels they stayed put.
Once a great horseman, he came home on foot.
Believe me, I almost pursued his sad course:
I'd have done the same thing had I not found my horse."

The Little Fox that Seized a Hen9

§16.  Medieval poets liked to treat animals fancifully or allegorically, but this poem about a stymied fox in a monastery garden enjoys a rare immediacy, not only because of its memorable descriptions but also because Theodulf lets his readers infer any moral for themselves. The fox's predicament lends itself to a Christian interpretation: Foxes in medieval saints' lives are often compelled to return stolen hens before dying (Ziolkowski 1993, 54).

§17.  Some of Theodulf's diction here may have been influenced by Christian poets of Late Antiquity such as Prudentius, Calpurnius, and Venantius Fortunatus (Alexandrenko 1970, 274), but the most vivid allusion is Vergilian: Describing the hen's "thousand-colored" wings, Theodulf adds a dash of mock-epic bathos by recalling the Aeneid IV.701, in which Iris trails a thousand colors as she flies to earth to end Dido's misery.

§18.  More mundanely, this poem may be a response to a fable by Alcuin about a fox and a rooster. A similarity in their opening lines suggests that the two poems were recited in tandem at Charlemagne's court (Ziolkowski 1993, 53).

§19.  This translation omits the first eighteen lines, which commemorate Count Rotharius and his wife, Euphrasia, for founding the monastery of Charroux, where Theodulf claims this incident took place.

§20.  Translation:

A fox there was; that thief was wont to steal
The sources of the brothers' every meal.
The thousand-colored beast with outstretched wing
She gobbled in her jaws, that wicked thing.
The monks abiding there had scarcely guessed
The nature of this chaos-bringing pest—
Until that hen she stole, perchance to eat,
Thus making clear the way of her deceit.
Her burden made her sluggish, they could see:
She lingered deep within their alder-tree—
She lingered there, forlorn in her deceit,
For every pathway led to her defeat.
The chicken's head she'd swallowed—but, in fact,
Its every other limb remained intact,
And you, the trickster's foot, were on a bough
No higher than a hedge; it did allow
Her rightmost paw to touch a trace of wall
Whose stones were stacked so steeply and so tall.
Thus hung the wretched thief, that wicked pest;
She flailed her neck and thrashed her head, distressed.
The faithful monks erupted in delight:
They saw God's wondrous portents in this sight.
Now steal away, demonic, sinful thief!
Angel, come; bring merciful relief.
Let concord reign, let darts of hate subside,
And in this place let faith and hope abide.
May God, repelling woe, bestow His wealth;
Feed their minds, O Christ, and grant them health.


1.   For the only translation of Theodulf's entire poetic corpus into a modern language, see Alexandrenko 1970.  [Back]

2.   For more about "Gloria, laus et honor," see Wright 2000, 353–354, and Deanesly 1969, 61. For studies of Theodulf's poetry as social and political commentary, see Greeley 2000, and Godman 1987, 68–77.  [Back]

3.   For an overview of the Latin poetry of the early Carolingians, see Garrison 1994.  [Back]

4.   For a useful summary of Theodulf's prosody with examples and references, see Alexandrenko 1970, 30–34.  [Back]

5.   Theodulf, "Super Propinatorium," in Dümmler 1881, 556. For a literal translation of this poem, see Alexandrenko 1970, 284.  [Back]

6.   Alcuin, Epistola 192, in Dümmler 1895, 318–319. The allusion to the fig tree refers to Matthew 21:19. The subsequent mention of old wine in new skins cites Luke 5:37–39. The translation of the excerpt from Alcuin's letter is my own.  [Back]

7.   Theodulf, "Delusa Expectatio," in Dümmler 1881, 525–526. For a literal translation of this poem, see Alexandrenko 1970, 219–220.  [Back]

8.   Theodulf, "De Equo Perdito," in Dümmler 1881, 551–552. For a prose translation of this poem, see Alexandrenko 1970, 277–278. For a translation in verse, see Godman 1985, 167–168.  [Back]

9.   Theodulf, "De Vulpecula Involante Gallinam," in Dümmler 1881, 550–551. For literal translations of this poem, see Alexandrenko 1970, 274–276, and Ziolkowski 1993, 268. Ziolkowski (1990, 29–31) also contrasts Theodulf's "De Vulpecula" with Alcuin's poem about a wolf and cites similar poems from subsequent centuries.  [Back]

Works Cited

Alexandrenko, Nikolai A. 1970. The poetry of Theodulf of Orleans: a translation and critical study. D. diss., Tulane University.  [Back]

Deanesly, Margaret. 1969. A history of the medieval church, 590–1500. York: Routledge.  [Back]

Dümmler, Ernst, ed. 1881. Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini I.. Berlin: Weidmann.  [Back]

———, ed. 1895. Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Epistolae Karolini Aevi II. Berlin: Weidmann.  [Back]

Garrison, Mary. 1994. The emergence of Carolingian Latin literature and the court of Charlemagne (780–814). In Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, ed. Rosamond McKitterick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.  [Back]

———. 1987. Poets and emperors: Frankish politics and Carolingian poetry . Oxford: Clarendon Press.  [Back]

Greeley, June-Ann. 2000. Social commentary in the prose and poetry of Theodulf of Orleans: a study in Carolingian humanism. D. diss., Fordham University.  [Back]

Wilkinson, L.P. 1955. Ovid Recalled. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

Wright, Craig. 2000. The Palm Sunday Procession in medieval Chartres. In The divine office in the Latin Middle Ages: methodology and source studies, regional developments, hagiography: written in honor of Professor Ruth Steiner, ed. Margot Elsbeth Fassler and Rebecca Anne Baltzer, 344–371. New York: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1990. Poultry and predators in two poems from the reign of Charlemagne. Denver Quarterly 24:3, 24–32.  [Back]

———. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750–1100. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  [Back]