sharing food indicates love in Fortunatus’s poetry

The sixth-century poet and public figure Venantius Fortunatus delighted in sharing food and eating. To his dear friends Radegund of Thuringia and Agnes of the Holy Cross, Fortunatus sent a gift:

As son to mother, as likewise brother to sister,
I bear small gifts with a devoted heart.
Joined to you, one-third of three, I offer three gifts to you two:
sugared fruits fitting for souls so sweet.
But forgive me for the sort of wrapper they’ve got:
let these gifts be carried in a basket of words.

{ Matri natus ego, frater simul ipse sorori
Pectore devoto parvula dona fero.
Tertius unitus tria munera porto duabus:
Tam dulces animas dulcia poma decent.
Sed date nunc veniam mihi quod fano talis habetur:
Munera quae portet, charta canister erit. }[1]

Fortunatus’s gift evidently consisted of three sugared fruits wrapped in paper upon which he wrote this poem. Fortunatus regarded Radegund, the founder of the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, to be like his mother. He regarded Agnes, abbess of that abbey, to be like his sister. The three fruits poignantly represent the sweetness of all three of them being together. The words of Fortunatus’s poem, literally holding tangible fruit, bring them together. Those words are meant to be as humble and love-incarnating as a manger.

Food can of course create personal difficulties. When Fortunatus visited the eminent Frankish noble Mummolenus, he knew Mummolenus to have admirable character:

He therefore satisfies with a rich banquet whoever comes to him.
Just the sight of him was for me as good as a meal.

{ Huc ergo adveniens epulis expletus opimis:
Quem vidisse mihi constitit esse cibum. }[2]

That meal was like a holiday feast:

Large platters were piled high with generous helpings,
and a dish was laden and piled up like a hillside.
On every side reared a mountain, with a sort of valley in between,
a convenient space for a fish to pursue its course.
It swam in a world where oil was water, the dish a grassy
field, and the table took the place of the sea.
Before everything else I was given a delicate fruit
that is called “Persian” in common talk.
He grew weary of giving, but I didn’t grow weary of eating,
as he urged me on with his words, as he pressed on me more food.
Soon my belly suddenly grew large as if I were about to give birth.
I marveled that my stomach had so swelled.
Inside thunderclaps rumbled with varied reports.
East and South winds were churning my belly into turmoil.
Not so is the sand stirred up by the storms of Aeolus,
nor a ship driven adrift on the sea so shivered,
not so inflated by blast of winds are bellows,
instruments the fire-scorched smith uses to service hammers.
One food discharged belches, conflicting with another’s mass,
and within me outside of my will was an uncivil battle.

{ Fercula magna quidem dapibus cumulata benignis,
Ac si colle tumens discus onustus erat.
Undique montis opus, medium quasi vallis habebat,
Quo meliore via piscis agebat iter.
Ille natans oleum pro undis, pro caespite discum
Incoluit, cui pro gurgite mensa fuit.
Attamen ante aliud data sunt mihi mitia poma,
Persica quae vulgi nomine dicta sonant.
Lassavit dando (sed non ego lassor edendo),
Vocibus hinc cogens, hinc tribuendo dapes.
Mox quasi parturiens subito me ventre tetendi,
Admirans uterum sic tumuisse meum.
Intus enim tonitrus vario rumore fremebat;
Viscera conturbans Eurus et Auster erat.
Non sic Aeoliis turbatur harena procellis
Nec vaga per pelagus puppis adacta tremit,
Nec sic inflantur ventorum turbine folles,
Malleolis famulos quos faber ustus habet.
Alter in alterius ructabat mole susurros
Et sine me mecum pugna superba fuit. }

In such a situation, one might hope for the gift of farting. That gift, like the resurrection of Lazarus, should smell of God’s grace.

second-century mosaic of Roman food

One enjoys in food, like in life, godly abundance. Fortunatus recounted:

From all sides a flood of food rushes out.
I can’t go wrong — what first to try?
Silver plate bears a mound of meat,
thick gravy where vegetables are swimming,
marble dish deposits a garden’s brood,
honeyed taste flows over my lips,
saucer-glass swells with the burden of chicken —
removing feathers doesn’t lighten it.
Apples in abundance rush from colorful wicket,
their fragrance, pleasant-flowing, sate me.
An indigo jar gives snowy cups of milk,
so stately come. It knew it was set to please.
Lady and mother, and her child: let the third one,
your servant, speak of these gifts, joined by a godly love.

{ Multiplices epulae concurrunt undique fusae;
Quid prius excipiam, me bonus error habet.
Carnea dona tumens argentea gavata perfert,
Quo nimium pingui iure natabat holus.
Marmoreus defert discus quod gignitur hortis,
Quo mihi mellitus fluxit in ore sapor.
Intumuit pullis vitreo scutella rotatu,
Subductis pinnis quam grave pondus habens!
Plurima de pictis concurrunt poma canistris,
Quorum blandifluus me saturavit odor.
Olla nigella nimis dat candida pocula lactis
Atque superba venit quae placitura fuit.
Haec dominae matri famulans, haec munera natae
Iunctus amore pio tertius ipse loquar. }[3]

Fortunatus relished gifts of food that he received from Radegund and Agnes:

All around me, delicacies raised on grass
fatten me. Eggs appear, and then prunes —
pallid, dark gifts offered in tandem provide
so varied a meal that I worry my gut won’t keep peace.
Too late you ordered me to eat two eggs.
I sucked down four — I wouldn’t lie to you.
May my soul be privileged for all my days
to obey you as I obeyed my gut just now.

{ Hinc me deliciis, illinc me pascitis herbis;
Hinc ova occurrunt, hinc mihi pruna datur.
Candida dona simul praebentur et inde nigella.
Ventre utinam pax sit sic variante cibo!
Me geminis ovis iussistis sero cibari,
Vobis vera loquor, quattuor ipse bibi.
Atque utinam merear cunctis parere diebus
Sic animo, ceu nunc hoc gula iussa facit. }

Radegund and Agnes were leading women religious. Fortunatus aspired to his soul obeying them naturally. In contrast, humans don’t need teaching in the spirit of eating:

I spread myself over jumbled delights that gorged my belly
as I gulped it all down: milk, vegetables, eggs, butter.
Now platters fitted out with new dishes appear,
a polyglot meal, more sweetly pleasant.
Butter was served to me with milk;
its fat recalls where it once had been.

{ Deliciis variis tumido me ventre tetendi,
Omnia sumendo, lac, holus, ova, butur.
Nunc instructa novis epulis mihi fercula dantur,
Et permixta simul dulcius esca placet.
Nam cum lacte mihi posuerunt inde buturum;
Unde prius fuerat, huc revocatur adeps. }

In his fatness Fortunatus would have remembered banquets that his beloved Radegund and Agnes provided. That’s not like being fat from eating bags of Doritos by yourself while watching the news on TV. Fortunatus got fat in a godly way. If you get fat, you should get fat in a godly way, too.

Christian love (agape) feast. Fresco from the early Christian Catacombs of Domitilla

Eating isn’t just about food. It’s about sharing with others. Fotunatus sought to have both food and words with Radegund and Agnes:

By piety’s duty, by the holy one who rules from the stars,
by all that mother loves, your brother himself desires
that when I take food, you say some words.
If you do, I shall be twice satisfied.

{ Per pietatis opus, per qui pius imperat astris,
Per quod mater amat, frater et ipse cupit
Ut, dum nos escam capimus, quodcumque loquaris:
Quod si tu facias, bis satiabor ego. }[4]

Words shared at table need not be serious:

A charming teacher refreshes her friend with words and food
and satisfies him with various delicious jokes.

{ Blanda magistra suum verbis recreavit et escis
Et satiat vario deliciante ioco. }

One seldom chews on words shared at a good meal. Table fellowship increases appetite. Table fellowship is the fundamental fellowship.

Extravagant food isn’t necessary for the joy of sharing a meal. Perhaps because Fortunatus overindulged in food, a doctor ordered him to fast. Radegund and Agnes supported the doctor’s order:

Amid countless feasts you send a fast
and so burn my soul gazing at mounded meals
that the eye covets, but the doctor forbids.
My purring gut is muzzled by his hand on my mouth.
Still, when you offer creamy milk to my lips,
it’s a present that any king would prefer.
I pray now, sister, with good mother, be happy,
for a bounteous table of joy holds us.

{ Inter multiplices epulas ieiunia mittis
Atque meos animos plura videndo cremas.
Respiciunt oculi medicus quod non iubet uti,
Et manus illa vetat quod gula nostra rogat.
Attamen ante aliud cum lactis opima ministras,
Muneribus vincis regia dona tuis.
Nunc cum matre pia gaudens soror esto, precamur,
Nam nos laetitiae mensa benigna tenet. }[5]

A friend and creamy milk is enough for a bounteous table of joy. As Fortunatus believed, “abundant love is seen in a small gift {munus in angustum cernitur amplus amor}.”[6]

A person should not glory in the shame of gluttony, nor make one’s stomach into a god. While Fortunatus greatly loved Radegund and Agnes and the food they gave him, he didn’t literally idolize them.[7] No Epicurean, Fortunatus believed in the soul’s immortality and blessing in bodily penetration. Whatever one believes, sharing food, however much or little, can strengthen human relationships. Sharing food has done so since the beginning of humanity.

group enjoying dinner in Bali, Indonesia

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Venantius Fortunatus, Carmina Appendix 26, Latin text from Roberts (2017), English translation (modified) from Pucci (2010) p. 119. Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition differing little from Roberts’s Latin edition.

[2] Fortunatus, Carmina 7.14, incipit “While I was wearily making my way almost in the darkness of night {Dum mihi fessus iter gradior prope noctis in umbra},” vv. 15-6, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Roberts (2017). Pucci (2010) doesn’t include this poem. The subsequent quote above is similarly sourced from Carmina 7.14, vv. 17-36.

The delicate fruit called “Persian” is a peach. Roberts (2017) p. 870, notes to vv. 23-4. Gowers (1993), which discusses food in classical Latin literature, offers nothing about Fortunatus.

Fortunatus associated with the elite of Gaul. Mummolenus, a native of Soissons in present-day northern France, became an important figure in the court of Sigibert I, the Frankish king of Austrasia. Radegund was a Germanic princess and queen of Thuringia.

[3] Fortunatus, Carmina 11.10, Latin text from Roberts (2017), English translation (modified) from Pucci (2010). Carmina 11.9, incipit “With attentive devotion you bid me always to inform you {Sollicita pietate iubes cognoscere semper},” describes another lavish meal that Fortunatus received, apparently from Agnes. The subsequent two quotes above are Carmina 11.20 and 11.22a, similarly sourced.

[4] Fortunatus, Carmina 11.22, Latin text from Roberts (2017), my English translation. Here I’ve preferred to follow the Latin more closely than the translation in Pucci (2010). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Carmina 11.23a.

[5] Fortunatus, Carmina 11.19, Latin text from Roberts (2017), English translation (modified) from Pucci (2010).

[6] Fortunatus, Carmina 11.24, incipit “If you have not completed what here is called compline {Si non complestis quod hic completa vocatur},” v. 4, Latin text from Roberts (2017), my English translation.

Late in the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon nun Berhtgyth went with her mother Cynehild to Thuringia to proclaim Christianity among non-Christian Germans. Berhtgyth deeply missed the presence of her brother Balthard. She sent him a gift of a ribbon and a short poem. Paralleling Fortunatus, she declared them to be “a little present, although small, still loaded with great love {munuscula, quamvis parva, tamen cum maxima caritate honerata}.” Berhtgyth to Balthard, Latin text and English translation from Maude (2017) p. 20. This letter has survived in Vienna, National Austrian Library, MS. Manuscript 751 (Vienna Codex), written in the middle of the ninth century.

[7] Cf. Philippians 3:18-9. Medieval men were prone to the related failing of gyno-idolatry.

[images] (1) Ancient Roman food. Second-century mosaic from a villa at Tor Marancia, near the Catacombs of Domitilla in Rome. Source photo thanks to Jastrow (2006) and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Christian love (agape) feast. Fresco from the early Christian Catacombs of Domitilla. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Group enjoying dinner in Bali, Indonesia on February 26, 2016. Photo thanks to Withlocals and Wikimedia Commons.


Gowers, Emily. 1993. The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Review by Phyllis Bober.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy. Web-native presentation.

Maude, Kathryn. 2017. “Berhtgyth’s Letters to Balthard.” Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 7. Medieval Texts in Translation 4. 53 (3): 1-24.

Pucci, Michael, trans. 2010. Poems to Friends: Venantius Fortunatus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

2 thoughts on “sharing food indicates love in Fortunatus’s poetry”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *