Texts comprising only quotations of somebody else's work are often referred to as plagiarism. Many researchers have also rejected Late Antique Latin cento poetry – cento means patchwork in Latin – as being of no literary merit. However, recent years have seen an increase in interest in cento poetry, and a thesis on Latin from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has now shown that these poems can be both innovative and thought-provoking.
Sara Ehrling has studied two centos made up solely of quotes from Virgil, one of the Romans' leading poets whose works included the epic poem, the Aeneid. The two poems are both wedding poems, one of which was written by Ausonius in the late 4th century, and the other by Luxorius 100 years later.
"My research shows that the poems generally take a different approach to both the genre of wedding poetry and the original text, in other words Virgil's work," says Ehrling. "Ausonius takes his quotes from several different places in Virgil's work, while Luxorius takes many of his from those parts of the Aeneid that describe the love story between Dido, the queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, the Trojan prince."
The love story between Dido and Aeneas ends very badly, while Luxorius' wedding cento has a happy ending. The study of Luxorius' poem shows that the cento can use the original text to suit the poet's own ends.
"In this case the original text is subordinated to the genre. If we go back to the original text it also has a thought-provoking effect in that it clearly shows that the Dido and Aeneas love story can actually be interpreted in positive and wedding-like terms. It suggests that their relationship wasn't entirely bad. As is the case in so many other instances, our perception of a story depends on the level of focus on various details and how it is told."
Ausonius' cento is, in many ways, even more complex than that of Luxorius. The part of the poem that previously attracted most interest from researchers is the end, where sexual intercourse between the bride and groom is depicted in terms of rape. One possible explanation is that the poem was written in competition with other poets and that this paradoxical way of portraying the wedding couple was intended to provide amusement.
"I discovered in my analysis that the sex scene is foreshadowed far earlier in Ausonius' cento," says Ehrling. "From the contexts of the quotes in Virgil's work, it is clear that both the bride and the wedding in general are being depicted in hostile terms below the surface of the text, and that the bride's sexuality is portrayed as threatening throughout the poem."
The idea that the cento should be perceived as a cohesive work comes from Ausonius himself. He describes very carefully the cento as a poetic form, and Ehrling stresses that the most important thing about his description is that the cento should be perceived as a cohesive unit even though it is made up of disconnected elements.
"It's also worth noting that people are still producing cento-like works today," says Ehrling. "In my thesis I discuss the cento's potential for reinterpretation and comedy. By way of example, I use a video clip where Colonel Gaddafi's speech has been edited together with trance music in a cento-like fashion. Just as in Late Antiquity, it seems that this cento-like work could have potential for both reinterpretation and comedy, depending on the reader's interpretation."
The thesis has been successfully defended on May 28, 2011.