Walahfrid’s rural rose & lily respond to love and war in Roman elegy

In the first century BGC, the eminent Roman military leader and poet Cornelius Gallus influentially associated love and war in Latin elegy. Gallus’s love elegy celebrated violence against men in war and men’s subordination to women in love. The learned Christian monk Walahfrid Strabo early in the ninth century confronted that oppressive literary legacy with poetically moving, personal love for men. Walahfrid recognized the reality of war and peace in figures of the rose and lily, but he colored both with Christian understanding of love.

Walahfrid grew up among a closely knit community of boys and men. When he was about eight years old, his parents gave him up as an oblate to the male-only Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau in central Europe. Men teachers personally taught Walahfrid all of what was then regarded as important learning.[1] He lived and learned with other boys, young men, and older men. Walahfrid formed warm friendships with them, became thoroughly learned, and developed special talent for writing Latin verse.

Within the historical context of pervasive violence against men, Walahfrid expressed shining love for his male friends. Perhaps drawing understanding from Aristophanes’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, Walahfrid shared a cosmic bond of love with a man friend:

When the brightness of the clear moon shines in the sky,
stand beneath the heavens. Discerning with wonder, watch
how the sky is brightened from the moon’s clear lamp
and with its one brightness embraces dear friends,
divided in body, but linked in mind by love.
If one face cannot look upon the other loving face,
let at least this light be a pledge of our love.
Your faithful friend has transmitted to you these little verses.
If on your part the chain of faith stands firm,
now I pray that you may be well and happy through all the ages.

{ Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub aethere cernens speculamine miro,
Qualiter ex luna splendescat lampade pura
Et splendore suo caros amplectitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltim nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta. }[2]

The light reflected from the moon that brightens the night sky comes from the hidden sun. For the Christian Walahfrid, that’s a figure of God. The mutuality of faith in friendship that Walahfrid invokes at the end might naturally lead to a plea for a return letter.[3] Instead, with Christian charity, Walahfrid prays that his friend will be well and happy forever.

Walahfrid also expressed love for male friends using an expansive understanding of complementarity. Walahfrid wrote to his fellow cleric Liutger:

Like an only son to his mother, like to the earth Phoebus’s light,
like dewdrops to grass, fishes to the seas,
air to birds, murmurings of rivers to the meadow,
so your face, my little boy, is dear to me.
If that could be, which we think can be,
carry yourself to us swiftly, I pray.
Since I have learned that you have halted nearby,
I will find no rest until I see you sooner rather than later.
May the stars, dewdrops, and sand be exceeded in number
by your glory, life, health, and well-being.

{ Unicus ut matri, terris ut lumina Phoebi
Ut ros graminibus, piscibus unda freti,
Aer uti oscinibus, rivorum et murmura pratis.
Sic tua, pusiole, cara mihi facies.
Si fieri possit, fieri quod posse putamus,
Ingere te nostris visibus, oro, celer.
Nam quia te propius didici consistere nobis,
Non requiesco, nisi videro te citius.
Excedat numeros astrorum, roris, harenae,
Gloria, vita, salus atque valere tuum. }[4]

Walahfrid figured men’s friendship with natural complementarities that encompass great differences in form and matter, such as birds and air. Within these natural figures are Christian allusions. The verse “Like an only son to his mother, like to the earth Phoebus’s light {Unicus ut matri, terris ut lumina Phoebi}” explicitly refers to the traditional Greco-Roman god Phoebus Apollo. This verse as a chiasmus associates mother with earth and the unique son with Phoebus. It thus seems to allude to Mary and Jesus. God’s great promise in Hebrew scripture is the blessing of having descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand of the seashore. Walahfrid focuses that macrocosmic blessing on the single person of his beloved friend Liutger. That daring figure draws upon Christian understanding of the maker of heaven and earth being incarnated in the one son Jesus.

In his book About the Cultivation of Gardens {De cultura hortorum}Walahfrid provided advice to boys and men in relation to plants. For boys living in dangerous family circumstances, Walahfrid offered practical counsel:

If ever hostile stepmothers mix sought-out poisons
into your drink, or combine into a treacherous meal
grief-producing aconitine, immediately take a drink
of healthful horehound. It presses against the suspected dangers.

{ Si quando infensae quaesita venena novercae
Potibus inmiscent dapibusve aconita dolosis
Tristia confundunt, extemplo sumpta salubris
Potio marrubii suspecta pericula pressat. }[5]

Like poisoning, rape is a high-profile concern. Young men, like other male primates, naturally know not to rape women. Men don’t need to be taught not to rape. Yet with their burgeoning masculine vitality, young men tend to be too sexually eager. Walahfrid advocated for chastity using a figure of the lily:

Lilies’ exhaled scent imbues the air for many hours,
but if one grinds the shining buds of their snow-white
flowers, it’s over. Amazingly one discovers every scattering
of nectar has quickly disappeared with the act.
Virginity, supported with its blessed fame, shines
in this flower, and as long as no sordid work disturbs
it and the ardor of illicit love doesn’t shatter it,
the lily emits its sweet scent. Yet once the glory of its integrity
falls to the ground, its scent changes into stinking.

{ Longius horum etiam spirans odor imbuit auras,
Sed si quis nivei candentia germina fructus
Triverit, aspersi mirabitur ilicet omnem
Nectaris ille fidem celeri periisse meatu,
Hoc quia virginitas fama subnixa beata
Flore nitet, quam si nullus labor exagitarit
Sordis et illiciti non fregerit ardor amoris,
Flagrat odore suo. Porro si gloria pessum
Integritatis eat, foetor mutabit odorem. }[6]

With earthy appreciation for the physicality of men’s sexual work, Walahfrid condemns the effect of illicit love on relationships between women and men. Licit love is different. Walahfrid understood the eternal importance of gratefully receiving men’s seminal blessing.

Erato, ancient Roman muse of love elegy

With Christian love for men, Walahfrid subtly refigured with flowers the union of love and war in Gallus’s love elegy. Like Tibullus, Walahfrid directed the muse of love poetry to rural activity in contrast to love entangled with war:

For so many wars, so many very famous, great deeds
you have put together memorials with sacred song.
Pious muse Erato of love elegy, scorn not the meager
riches of my greens, describe them in verse through me.

{ Quae tot bellorum, tot famosissima rerum
Magnarum monimenta sacro pia conficis ore,
Exiles, Erato, non dedignare meorum
Divitias holerum versu perstringere mecum. }[7]

Like its oxymoronic phrase “meager riches {exiles divitiae},” this invocation as a whole brings together sharply contrasting themes of epic poetry, Gallus’s love elegy, and gardening. Walahfrid probably didn’t mistake Clio, the muse of history, for Erato, the muse of love elegy. The invocation of Erato occurs in the description of “chervil {cerefolium}.” Walahfrid explicitly calls cerefolium a “Macedonian branch {Macedonia ramus}.” Its name is rooted in the Greek term χαιρέφῠλλον, built from components meaning “to enjoy {χαίρω}” and “leaf {φύλλον}.” While leaves of Gallus’s love elegy represents sufferings in love and war, they’re supposed to be read with pleasure.

Walahfrid’s plant descriptions begin with “sage {salvia}.” Salvia is etymologically rooted in wellness and being saved. Walahfrid, however, associated salvia with a developmental conflict:

But sage endures a civic evil, for the savage child
of the flowers, if not removed, will consume the parent,
and antagonistically kill off the ancient branches.

{ Sed tolerat civile malum: nam saeva parentem
Progenies florum, fuerit ni dempta, perurit
Et facit antiquos defungier invida ramos. }[8]

That’s a figure for Walahfrid’s literary program with respect to Gallus’s love elegy. His plant descriptions have at their center the lily (description 12) and conclude with the rose (description 33). Like Dante, Walahfrid was a Christian intensely interested in astronomy and numerical calculations.[9] From a Christian perspective, 12 and 33 immediately evoke Christ’s apostles and the Trinity. Walahfrid called upon the muse Erato in describing chervil (description 11), just before describing the lily. Walahfrid associated the lily with peace. He wanted readers to enjoy new leaves in poetry of love and war. His literary civil war is for a new understanding of love and peace.

garden in raised beds

After describing the rose, Walahfrid brought back the lily to join the rose. These two flowers together conclude his garden poetry:

Indeed these two famous types of admirable flowers
signify to the Church highest honors through the ages.
With the blood of martyrs the Church plucks gifts of roses;
lilies she carries in the brightness of shining faith.
O virgin mother, mother with a fruitful womb,
virgin with faith intact, spouse of a nominal spouse,
spouse, dove, queen of the home, faithful lover,
in war pluck roses, seize cheerful lilies in peace.

{ Haec duo namque probabilium genera inclyta florum
Ecclesiae summas signant per saecula palmas,
Sanguine martyrii carpit quae dona rosarum,
Liliaque in fidei gestat candore nitentis.
O mater virgo, fecundo germine mater,
Virgo fide intacta, sponsi de nomine sponsa,
Sponsa, columba, domus regina, fidelis amica,
Bello carpe rosas, laeta arripe lilia pace. }[10]

As has been common throughout its history, the Christian Church is here figured gynocentrically as the Virgin Mary. More distinctively, this passage associates war with martyrdom and peace with the brightness of shining faith. Mary, the preeminent disciple of earthly Christian love, transforms the meaning of war and peace:

To you Mary has come a flower from the royal tree of Jesse,
the one creator and savior from an ancient lineage.
By his words and life Jesus has sanctified lovely lilies.
With his death he colors roses. Peace and combat he left for members
of his church on earth, he having embraced the merit of both,
in both triumphs promising eternal reward.

{ Flos tibi sceptrigero venit generamine Iesse,
Unicus antiquae reparator stirpis et auctor;
Lilia qui verbis vitaque dicavit amoena,
Morte rosas tinguens, pacemque et proelia membris
Liquit in orbe suis, virtutem amplexus utramque.
Premiaque ambobus servans aeterna triumphis. }

The combat that Jesus embraced wasn’t military service on behalf of a worldly leader. Jesus fought by proclaiming the love of God for all, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, embracing the outcast, and consoling the downtrodden. The peace that Jesus left for his followers was the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.[11] Erato, the ancient Roman muse of love elegy, didn’t inspire Walahfrid in writing verses on his garden. Jesus did.

Walahfrid rejected Gallus’s love elegy and its men-devaluing poetry of love as war. Working in his small garden, Walahfrid himself dug up nettles with dirty, callused hands and fertilized the ground with cow manure. He wrote his garden verses “so that small matters would be adorned with vast honor {ut ingenti res parvae ornentur honore}.”[12] Walahfrid knew Ovid’s love elegy well and alluded to it frequently in his own verses. He escaped Gallus’s influence at least in part through his love for men:

I am yours, be mine, so what each has would be the other’s,
thus I am another like you, and you are another me.
By Ovid I put you to oath, my dear, you be well,
and, I beg, eagerly pray to the Lord for me.

{ Sum tuus, esto meus, quod uterque habet alterius sit,
Sic ego tu sim alter, tuque mihi alter ego.
Per nasum coniuro tuum, mi care, valeto,
Et Dominum pro me, quaeso, precare libens. }[13]

Walahfrid had compassion for men’s sufferings in love and would not celebrate men’s deaths in war. He sought to replace Gallus’s love elegy with poetry of love for men and gardening.

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[1] Walahfrid apparently studied grammar, logic, rhetoric, and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). In addition to writing excellent Latin poetry, Walahfrid also wrote biblical commentaries, liturgical history, lives of saints, and edited others’ similar works. On Walahfrid’s scholarly activities and interests, Booker (2005), Stevens (1971), and Stevens (2018).

[2] Walahfrid Strabo, “To a male friend {Ad amicum},” Latin text from Dümmler (1881) vol. 2, p. 403 (carmin 59), my English translation, benefiting from those of Godman (1985) p. 217, Duckett (1962) p. 160, Laistner (1931) p. 330, and Waddell (1929) p. 117. The title “Ad amicum” is from MS. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 869, written in the second half of the ninth century. Godman suggested that “About friendship {De amicitia}” might be more appropriate as a title. Godman (1985) p. 38. On friendship among men in medieval Europe, Fiske (1965) and McGuire (1988).

Writing to Gottschalk of Orbais, Walahfrid wished “to profit from bearing fellowship of your light {lucrari lucisque tuae consortia ferre}.” Walahfrid, “To the monk Gottschalk, who is also Fulgentius {Gotesscalcho monacho, qui et Fulgentius}” (carmin 18) v. 27, Latin text from Dümmler (1881) vol. 2, p. 363 (v. 15), my English translation. Fulgentius was a nickname that Walahfrid gave to Gottschalk. On light in relation to friendship in medieval literature, Fiske (1965) p. 453.

[3] In a letter to the cleric Liutger, Walahfrid makes just such a plea:

If you could visit, that would be enough, if I could see the beloved one.
But otherwise, write anything.

{ Visere si poeteris, sat erit, si videro gratum.
Sin alias, rescribe aliquid }

Walahfrid, “To Liutger the cleric {Ad Liutgerum clericum},” incipit “Dear, you come suddenly, and suddenly dear you also leave {Care venis subito, subito quoque care recedis}” (carmin 32) vv. 7-8, Latin text from Dümmler (1881) vol. 2, p. 385, my English translation, benefiting from translations of Norton (1997) and Laistner (1931) p. 330, both of which translate the complete poem.

[4] Walahfrid, “To Liutger the cleric {Ad Liutgerum clericum},” incipit “With sweet services and a cultivated, welcoming mind {Dulcibus officiis et amica mente colendo}” (carmin 31) vv. 7-16, Latin text from Dümmler (1881) vol. 2, p. 385, my English translation, benefiting from translations of Duckett (1962) p. 160 (part), and Laistner (1931) p. 330 (complete poem).

In a poem to one of his teachers, Walahfrid similarly used a natural simile:

A fish makes use of a river, just as a salamander heat;
thus I, pitiful, seek you — hail, dear master.

{ Piscis uti fluvios, sicut salamandra calorem,
sic te quaero miser, care magister ave. }

Walahfrid, “To master Prudentius {Ad Prudentium magistrum}, incipit “The kindly origin of your name would seize mercifully {Nominis alma tui capiat clementer origo” (carmin 61) vv. 9-10, Latin text from Dümmler (1881) vol. 2, p. 402, my English translation.

Walahfrid expressed loving friendship to men of various ages. Liutger probably was about as old as Walahfrid. Prudentius was considerably older. When Walahfrid was about twenty, he wrote to a subdeacon named Bodo, who was perhaps about fifteen:

Toward all the better may God lead your sense
and to you forever bring great favors.
Shining-blonde dear, farewell, dearest always everywhere,
little shining-blonde boy, shining-blonde little boy.

{ Ad meliora tuos ducat deus omnia sensus
Et tibi perpetuo munera magna ferat.
Candide care vale carissime semper ubique
Pusio candidule, candide pusiole. }

Walahfrid, “To subdeacon Bodo {Ad Bodonem yppodiaconum},” incipit “These Strabo gives to you, dearest boy Bodo {Haec tibi dat Strabo, carissime pusio Bodo}” (carmin 34), vv. 13-6 (final verses of the poem), Latin text from Dümmler (1881) vol. 2, p. 386, my English translation, benefiting from that of Cabaniss (1953) p. 315. Walahfrid was writing from Aachen, where he went to live in 829. Since Walahfrid was born in 808, he was then about twenty. As a subdeacon, Bodo probably was about fifteen. Cabaniss (1953) pp. 316-7. For a translation of the complete letter, id. p. 315.

Fiske observed:

not only was friendship for these men a profoundly religious experience, a hierophany, a theophany at the heart of the Christian mysterium, but also that this is essentially Christian, in the sense that Christianity is the relation of persons in its two great mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation. Human persons, taken up by the Word into Trinitarian life and mutual love, make paradise and heaven understandable and desirable, for, as Aelred says, “What is sweeter than to love and be loved?”

Fiske (1965) p. 458. The referenced quote in full: “Nothing would seem sweeter to me, nothing more agreeable, nothing more practical, than to be loved and to love {nihil mihi dulcius, nihil iucundius, nihil utilius quam amari et amare videretur}.” From Aelred of Rievaulx, On spiritual friendship {De spirituali amicitia} 1, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Aelred of Rievaulx page for online courses by Fr. Luke Dysinger.

[5] Walahfrid Strabo, Book about the Cultivation of Gardens {Liber de cultura hortorum}, also less appropriately known as The Little Garden {Hortulus} (from Ch. 10, Horehound {Marrubium}), Latin text from Dümmler (1881), vol. 2, p. 342, my English translation, benefiting from that of Mitchell (2009), p. 47, and Payne & Blunt (1966) p. 43. In literature throughout the ages, stepmothers are dangerous to stepsons. Subsequent quotes from Walahfrid’s De cultura hortorum are similarly sourced.

Walahfrid dedicated De cultura hortorum to “Grimald, most learned father {Grimaldus pater doctissimus}.” Grimald (Grimald of Weissenburg) taught Walahfrid at Reichenau. The dedication suggests that Grimald was at that time an abbot elsewhere. Grimald was Abbot of St. Gall Monastery from 841 until his death in 872. Walahfrid died in 849. Hence the date of De cultura hortorum is probably about 845.

Walahfrid wrote De cultura hortorum in the hexameter verse of classical epic. Love elegy and epic weren’t rigidly separated genres. Parthenius of Nicaea dedicated his Greek story collection to Cornelius Gallus for use in writing “hexameter and elegiacs.” See note [5] in my post on moral reflection in Parthenius. Walahfrid writing De cultura hortorum in hexameters is best interpreted as underscoring its serious intent and its challenge to Gallus’s love elegy as a genre.

[6] Walahfrid, De cultura hortorum, from Ch. 26, Rose {Rosa}. Walahfrid also has a separate, earlier chapter for lilies, Ch. 15, Lily {Lilium}. Within Walahfrid’s garden, lilies are appropriately planted opposite roses.

[7] Walahfrid, De cultura hortorum, from Ch. 14, Chervil {Cerfolium}. Mitchell noted:

Walafrid may be confusing Erato, the muse of lyric poetry, and therefore of love and erotic poetry, with Clio, the muse of history.

Mitchell (2009) p. 55, n. 7. As argued above, I don’t think so.

[8] Walahfrid, De cultura hortorum, from Ch. 4, Sage {Salvia}. Walahfrid was older and presumably more poetically sophisticated when he wrote De cultura hortorum than when he wrote De imagine Tetrici. The leading scholar of the later poem declared:

The “De imagine Tetrici” is without the slightest doubt one of Walahfriďs masterpieces. It is also one of the most challenging political poems of the Latin Middle Ages. Though obviously modelled on the Vergilian eclogue, the dramatic elements of the poem are much more powerful than they are in the classical genre. There are rapid shifts of scene as well as unexpected transitions between reverie and reality. The imagery of the work is subtle and complex: reversed meaning and irony are everywhere to be suspected.

Herrin (1991) p. 119 (footnotes omitted). De cultura hortorum has been read much more superficially. The readers who have considered it most carefully have been horticulturalists:

They have demonstrated that Walahfrid’s reading in the ancient authorities on this subject was wide and extensive, and that his powers of observation are acute. But De Cultura Hortorum is much more than ‘pure gardening literature’ or a ‘cultural monument to the study of nature’ in ninth-century Reichenau. It is an imaginative work of high order, in which plants and vegetables, care and cultivation of the garden are presented in graphically human terms. The dense and intricate imagery of the passage discussed above {concerning the gourd} is illustrative of Walahfrid’s baroque fantasy, which can unite a profusion of similes and metaphors into a single coherent picture. The technique, judged in terms of exact horticultural information is uneconomical… .

Godman (1985) p. 39 (footnotes omitted). Walahrid’s De cultura hortorum, like his De imagine Tetrici, should be read with great appreciation for his poetic sophistication.

[9] On Dante and numerology, Nasti (2015). On Walahfrid’s interest in numerical computations, Stevens (1971) and Stevens (2018).

A dream-vision precursor to Dante’s Commedia is the Visio Wettini. In 824, the Reichenau monk and teacher Wetti dreamed that angels give him a personalized tour of eternal places of purging and punishment. Heito, a former abbot of Reichenau, wrote a prose version of Wetti’s dream shortly after it occurred. Walahfrid later, perhaps about 826, wrote his verse version. On Heito’s text, Pollard (2010). Pollard has done extraordinary work in editing an new critical edition of Heito’s text. For an English translation and commentary on Walahfrid’s Visio Wettini, Traill (1974). On the reception of both texts, Pollard (2015).

For a narrow analysis of illicit sexuality in the different versions of Visio Wettini, Diem (2016). Diem sought “fluid, negotiated, debated and contested” spaces. Id. p. 386. That’s a banal and tedious academic quest within today’s academic orthodoxy that strictly forbids considering meninist literary criticism. Diem finds that Walahfrid was more generous and forgiving toward men’s same-sex sexual acts than was Heito. That’s consistent with Walahfrid’s broad-minded love for men in contrast to the orientation toward men in Gallus’s love elegy.

[10] Walahfrid, De cultura hortorum, from Ch. 36, Rose {Rosa}. The subsequent quote is also from this chapter. On the shoot from the stump of Jesse, Isaiah 11:1, Matthew 1:1-16, Luke 3:23-38.

The “flower of the lily {fleur-de-lis}” became an important heraldic symbol. French Capetian kings represented themselves with the fleur-de-lis from the first, King Clovis in the fifth century, onward. On the history of the rose and lily as symbols, see note [5] on my post on “women flyting, serious fighting” and Caldwell (2014).

[11] See, e.g. Matthew 14:13-21, John 4:5-43, Luke 24:13-35, Philippians 4:7, and my post on Jesus’s work as a good physician.

[12] Walahfrid, De cultura hortorum, from Ch. 3, The Gardener’s Perservance and Labor’s Fruit {Instantia cultoris et fructus operis}. The quoted verse is the final verse before Walahfrid begins his set of 33 plant descriptions. On Walahfrid’s dirty, callused hands from his work in his garden and his spreading of cow manure, see Ch. 1, On the Cultivation of Gardens {De cultura hortorum}.

[13] Walahfrid, “To the presbyter Probus {Ad Probum presbyterum},” incipit “A gift given to a poet is equivalent to verses and measures {Versibus atque metris par est donare poetam}” (carmin 45), vv. 19-22, Latin text from Dümmler (1881) vol. 2, p. 394, my English translation. In this poem, Walahfrid declares the importance of distinctive tools to distinctive professions, notes the propensity of Irish to travel, and requests Probus to procure some books via an Irishman named Chronmal {Crónmáel}. Dümmler in footnotes documents in this and other of Walahfrid’s poems many allusions to Ovid’s love elegy.

[images] (1) Erato, Roman muse of love elegy. Marble statue from the second century GC. Preserved as accession # Inv. 317 in Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino, Muses Hall. Source image thanks to Jastrow and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s a similar second-century statue of Erato. (2) Raised bed garden of Elmer and Joan Galbi on July 1, 2018, in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Source image thanks to Elmer Galbi.


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