The Latin term cento derives from Greek κέντρων (gen. κέντρωνος), meaning "'to plant slips' (of trees)". A later word in Greek, κεντρόνη, means "patchwork garment". According to Hugh Gerard Evelyn-White, "A cento is therefore a poem composed of odd fragments".
The cento originated in the 3rd or 4th century C.E. The first known cento is the Medea by Hosidius Geta, composed out of Virgilian lines, according to Tertullian. However, an earlier cento might be present in Irenaeus's late-2nd century work Adversus Haereses. He either cites or composes a cento as a demonstration of how heretical Christians modify canonical Gospels.
Ausonius (310–395) is the only poet from Antiquity to comment on the form and content of the Virgilian cento; his statements are afterward regarded as authoritative. The pieces, he says, may be taken either from the same poet, or from several. The individual fragments of poetry used should be no shorter than one half-line (one hemistich) and no longer than a full line and a half. In accordance with these rules, he made a cento from Virgil, the Cento Nuptialis.
Faltonia Betitia Proba wrote a Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, in which she details the life of Jesus and deeds of the Old and New Testaments; it was written entirely in centos taken from Virgil.
The Politics of Justus Lipsius (Politicorum Libri Sex, 1589) consists only of centos, there being nothing of his own but conjunctions and particles. Etienne de Pleure did the same as Proba in Sacra Aeneis (1618). Alexander Ross did the same thing in his Virgilii Evangelisantis Christiados (1634), his most celebrated work of poetry.
The following is a sample from the cento Sacra Aeneis (1618), by Etienne de Pleure, on the adoration of the Magi. The lines of Vergil used, from his Aeneid and Georgics, are indicated on the left (e.g. 6.255 points to book 6, line 255); or, if changed in the middle of a line, an asterisk separates the new quotation with its source indicated on the right.
Adoratio Magorum (Gospel of Matthew 2) Aeneid 6.255 Ecce autem primi sub lumina solis, et ortus, Aeneid 2.694 Stella facem ducens multa cum luce cucurrit : Aeneid 5.526 Signavitque Viam * coeli in regione serena. Aeneid 8.528. Aeneid 8.330 Tum Reges * (credo quia sit divinitus illis Georgics 9.415. Georgics 1.416. Ingenium, et rerum fato prudentia major) Aeneid 7.98. Externi veniunt * quae cuique est copia laeti Aeneid 5.100 Aeneid 3.464. Dona dehinc auro gravia, * Regumque Parentem. Aeneid 6.548. Georgics 1.418. Mutavere vias, * perfectis ordine votis : Aeneid 10.548. Aeneid 6.16. Insuetum per iter, * spatia in sua quisque recessit. Aeneid 12.126.
The following is an example in English, taken from The Dictionary of Wordplay (2001) by Dave Morice:
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. .
- Ausonius, Decimus Magnus (1919). "Book XVII: A Nuptial Cento". In Hugh Gerard Evelyn-White (ed.). Ausonius: Books I-XVII. Loeb Classical Library. W. Heinemann. pp. 371–97. ISBN 9780674991279. Retrieved 13 February 2015. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Tertullian, De Prescriptione Haereticorum 39
- AH 1.9.4: 4. Then, again, collecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there [in Scripture], they twist them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense. In so doing, they act like those who bring forward any kind of hypothesis they fancy, and then endeavour to support them out of the poems of Homer, so that the ignorant imagine that Homer actually composed the verses bearing upon that hypothesis, which has, in fact, been but newly constructed; and many others are led so far by the regularly formed sequence of the verses, as to doubt whether Homer may not have composed them. Of this kind is the following passage, where one, describing Hercules as having been sent by Eurystheus to the dog in the infernal regions, does so by means of these Homeric verses—for there can be no objection to our citing these by way of illustration, since the same sort of attempt appears in both:— "Thus saying, there sent forth from his house deeply groaning."— Od., x. 76. "The hero Hercules conversant with mighty deeds."— Od., xxi. 26. "Eurystheus, the son of Sthenelus, descended from Perseus."— Il., xix. 123. "That he might bring from Erebus the dog of gloomy Pluto."— Il., viii. 368. "And he advanced like a mountain-bred lion confident of strength."— Od., vi. 130. "Rapidly through the city, while all his friends followed." — Il., xxiv. 327. "Both maidens, and youths, and much-enduring old men."— Od., xi. 38. "Mourning for him bitterly as one going forward to death." — Il., xxiv. 328. "But Mercury and the blue-eyed Minerva conducted him."— Od., xi. 626. "For she knew the mind of her brother, how it laboured with grief."— Il., ii. 409. Now, what simple-minded man, I ask, would not be led away by such verses as these to think that Homer actually framed them so with reference to the subject indicated? But he who is acquainted with the Homeric writings will recognise the verses indeed, but not the subject to which they are applied (Against Heresies Book I, Chapter 9).)
- McGill, Scott (2005). Virgil Recomposed : The Mythological and Secular Centos in Antiquity: The Mythological and Secular Centos in Antiquity. Oxford UP. pp. 2–5. ISBN 9780198039105.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "Cento". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. 1 (1st ed.). James and John Knapton, et al. p. 180.
- Gero von Wilpert. Sachwörterbuch der Literatur. A. Kröner. 1959. p 81.
- J Christopher Warner. The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch To Milton. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-11518-9. 2005. P 136.