Posts Tagged ‘Medieval’

Sir Gawain, again

September 4, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber & Faber, 2007) [c.1400]
ix + 114 p.

This is a poem that I love, and, in addition to a Middle English version, I’ve a few different translations in my collection, most notably that of Tolkien. Arguably one doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want, a translation, the original being adequately accessible to any reader willing to put in a little elbow grease, but I heard good things about this translation by Simon Armitage, and sometimes one just doesn’t have any elbow grease ready at hand.

Armitage has retained the basic poetic element of the original: an alliterative line with three (and sometimes four) stresses. When three, the three alliterate, but when four he sometimes opts to include two alliterative pairs. Consider, for example, this short passage taken from one of the hunting episodes:

On the bugles they blew three bellowing notes
to a din of baying and barking, and the dogs
which chased or wandered were chastened by whip. (ll.1141-3)

The first line has three stresses in the pattern aaa, but the second has two pairs in the pattern abba, and the third again has two pairs but in the pattern abab. Occasionally, as I said, he hits all four stresses with the same sound (“trussing and trying all the trammel and tack” (l.1129)), but these are exceptional.

Alliterative poetry is wonderful to read aloud, and I read this aloud to myself as much as I could — or as much as my saintly wife would tolerate in the wee hours while she was trying to sleep. Sometimes the ear picks up the stresses not evident to the eye, as in a line like: “A man quite capable, it occurred to Gawain” (l.848).

A novelty of Armitage’s version is that he has broken the poem up into short segments, almost all of which are short enough to fit on a single page, and has, at the end of each page, interrupted the regular scheme of stresses with a set of four short lines, each having two alliterative stresses, and sometimes rhyming. For example, here is the passage in which Gawain, whose cowardice and unfaithfulness have been unmasked by the Green Knight, gives voice to his regret:

Then he grabbed the girdle and ungathered its knot
and flung it in fury at the man in front.
‘My downfall and undoing, let the devil take it.
Dread of the death-blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot
the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows.
As I feared, I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed, said Gawain.

‘Such terrible mistakes,
and I shall bear the blame.
But tell me what it takes
to clear my clouded name. (ll.2376-88)

I found that I grew very fond of these little envoi as I read; they provided a punchy variation in the rhythm that kept me interested.

Although I did, for the most part, enjoy reading this translation very much, I found it sometimes lapsed into colloquialisms that I found jarring. Granted, this is not grand, solemn poetry like Beowulf, but still I cringed a little at passages like this one, spoken by the Green Knight as he lays down his shocking challenge to Arthur’s court:

“I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?
Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon? (ll.290-2)

The point is arguable; the Green Knight is a lively, uncouth character who might, I grant, speak in this way, if only to ruffle Arthurian feathers.

Armitage has also translated the same poet’s magnificent poem Pearl, and I’m curious about it. It is one of the most technically virtuosic poems in the English tradition, and I’m wondering how Armitage grapples with those challenges. Perhaps I’ll read it — in a year and a day.

The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

Gloria in profundis Deo

April 2, 2017

In the world of early music, where manuscripts are often bereft of temporal markings, dynamic markings, and even pitch indications, a certain amount of creative interpretation is an inescapable part of any performance. But there’s interpretation and interpretation: sometimes musicians come along with a bold challenge to the received wisdom about how the music of a particular time and place should sound.

Case in point: Graindelavoix give us a version of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame that is frankly bizarre: pitches slide all over the place, the timbre is rough and unpolished, and ornamentation, inspired, it sounds, by Middle Eastern and Arabic singing, pervades all.

This embedded video contains a full performance of the Mass, with propers, but I’m queuing it up to the Gloria, which lasts for about 6 minutes. I’m mostly thrilled by the bass in this ensemble, who is some kind of monster: listen, for example, to the notes he sings at “Jesu Christe” (about 2-1/2 minutes in, and again at about 4 minutes in). Amazing.

I’m honestly not sure if I like what they’re doing — it comes close to being an early-music freak-show — but I do like that they emphasize how little we really know about how this music sounded to those who first wrote and performed it. And I definitely like that bass.

If you don’t know how this Mass usually sounds, here is a fairly typical reading of the same section.

The Book of Margery Kempe

October 6, 2016

The Book of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [c.1420]
336 p.

This autobiography, the earliest in English, was dictated to scribes (for Margery could neither read nor write) in the first decades of the fifteenth century. In it, Margery describes her spiritual life and her travels, and gives portraits of English life at the time.

Her writing has about it that same refreshing candidness and lack of pretension that I found in the writing of Julian of Norwich (whom Margery met on at least one occasion). She refers to herself as “that creature” much of the time, and is as matter-of-fact about the storms of her soul and the voices she hears as she is about weather and the hazards of travel.

Much of the book is devoted to Margery’s descriptions of her remarkably vivid spiritual experience. She reports having spoken with numerous saints — sometimes St Peter, sometimes St Paul, sometimes St Katherine or some other — with Our Lady, with Our Lord himself, and even with the Holy Trinity. She had an especially strong devotion to Christ’s Passion, and is regularly reduced to tears at the very thought of his suffering. Indeed, these plentiful tears, which she took as a special gift from God (“tears with love are the greatest gift that God may give on earth”), were also a recurring source of tension in Margery’s social circles, and I came to feel a certain affection for them. Again and again she describes how she was overcome with grief and cried out in great sorrow, with copious tears, abundant tears, astonishing tears, unquenchable tears, while those around her gazed with incomprehension or derided with scorn. “Some said it was a wicked spirit tormented her; some said it was an illness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some cursed her; some wished she was in the harbour; some wished she was on the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as he thought.” Margery was aware of the disdain, but, it seems, she remained grateful, for her tears “never came without surpassingly great sweetness of devotion and high contemplation”.

For me, among the most interesting parts of the book were those that described her travels. She made several pilgrimages, including journeys to Santiago, Jerusalem, and Rome. Late in life she volunteered to accompany a young widow from England to Germany. Her accounts are of great interest, partly for their details about the uncertainties of travel at that time, and partly for the descriptions of the places she went and the people she met.

The Book of Margery Kempe is not an immortal classic. It owes at least part of its fame to the mere fact of its survival (in a single manuscript, I note, which can be viewed online courtesy the British Library). I said above that Margery described her spiritual life in the down-to-earth manner in which one discusses the weather, and, as with descriptions of weather, a little goes a long way. But it was genuinely fascinating to read of her travels, to imagine her visiting places that I myself have visited, and to learn, through her, something of the attitudes and character of her contemporaries.


[Heavenly music]
One night, as this creature lay in bed with her husband, she heard a melodious sound so sweet and delectable that she thought she had been in paradise. And immediately she jumped out of bed and said, “Alas that ever I sinned! It is full merry in heaven.” This melody was so sweet that it surpassed all the melody that might be heard in this world, without any comparison, and it caused this creature when she afterwards heard any mirth or melody to shed very plentiful and abundant tears of high devotion, with great sobbings and sighings for the bliss of heaven, not fearing the shames and contempt of this wretched world. And ever after her being drawn towards God in this way, she kept in mind the joy and melody that there was in heaven, so much so that she could not very well restrain herself from speaking of it. For when she was in company with any people she would often say, “It is full merry in heaven!”

[God speaks to his daughter Margery]
“Daughter, you are as sure of the love of God, as God is God. Your soul is more sure of the love of God than of your own body, for your soul will part from your body, but God shall never part from your soul, for they are united together without end. Therefore, daughter, you have as great a reason to be merry as any lady in this world; and if you know, daughter, how much you please me when you willingly allow me to speak in you, you would never do otherwise, for this is a holy life and the time is very well spent. For, daughter, this life pleases me more than wearing the coat of mail for penance, or the hair-shirt, or fasting on bread and water; for if you said a thousand paternosters every day you would not please me as much as you do when you are in silence and allow me to speak to your soul.”

Das Nibelungenlied

September 13, 2016

Das Nibelungenlied
Translated from the Middle High German by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 2006) [c.1200]
375 p.

The Germanic tradition of stories about the Nibelungs was familiar to me only through Wagner, but for some time I had wished to acquaint myself with the medieval roots of the legendarium, and at long last I arrived at this Song of the Nibelungs, which is one of the chief glories of that tradition. It was written by we know not whom, and we know not when (but probably around the year 1200).

I first noticed that although the story shares a number of characters with Wagner’s version — Sifried, Brunhild, Hagen, and Gunter, principally — the story as a whole bears no resemblance to Wagner’s, not even in the sections about those shared characters. But in adapting the story for his own purposes Wagner seems to have been in good company, for there is a rich and complex manuscript tradition testifying to the malleability and creativity with which medieval culture treated these tales. The translator, Burton Raffel, does not explain why it was this version of the story which he chose to translate, and I rather wish he had.

The basic arc of the story concerns two royal marriages which, poisoned by jealous pride and suspicion, erupt into violence that eventually leads to the downfall of all. Surprisingly (for those coming to the story from Wagner) there are no gods in the cast, and, although there are cursory references to Christianity here and there — the characters hear Mass in the morning, for instance — the poem as a whole shows little interest in religion, and is far from pious in spirit. There are a few magical elements around the edges, as when one character hears a prophecy from fountain sprites, but otherwise the tale is grounded in the political and interpersonal world of its characters.

I almost wrote that it is grounded in “realism”, but that would not be quite right. The knights at the center of this story — Sifried, Volker, Gunter, Hagen, Rudigor, and a few others — are heroes of legend, which means they fight with superhuman strength, slaying dozens or hundreds of adversaries with ease. The women are surpassingly beautiful. Everyone is impossibly polite: indeed, a significant part of the poem is devoted to the niceties of courtly etiquette, with page after page devoted to the elaborate ceremonies of court: gift-giving, welcomes, and feasts. The author seems to relish the intricacy and formality of these encounters, and the reader — the happy reader, at any rate — will relish them too.

The poem is not all please and thank-you, however. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, and death stalks through these stanzas. The poet’s dramatic strategy is to tell us in advance that things are going to turn out badly, and this is effective, for we as readers are then alert to missteps in courtly protocols and intimations of interpersonal friction:

The king’s attendants hurried \, about, making the royal /
palace fit for a visit \, from eagerly awaited, /
deeply beloved guests. \, Everyone was joyful, /
ready to welcome those \, their king had invited, who would try to destroy him.

(I note with some dismay that when formatted in WordPress the lines are too long for the available space. Slashes inserted to indicate the ends of lines.)

At its most violent, the poem can be quite gruesome. Here the Burgundian prince Giselher speaks following an extended battle against the Huns:

“We can’t afford bodies \, lying under foot. /
Before the Huns can claim \, victory in battle, /
we’ll get to chop them up \, again, which makes me happy. /
And I intend,” said he, \, “to have as good a time as I can.”

“Now that’s the kind of ruler \, I like having,” Hagen /
said. “Only a real \, warrior talks that way, /
gives you the kind of advice \, my prince has given today. /
All you Burgundy men \, should rejoice. That’s all I have to say!”

They did as the prince advised, \, and carried seven thousand /
bodies out the door \, of the hall. Then they dropped /
the corpses down the stairs, \, and left them where they stopped /
rolling. The dead men’s families \, wept and cried, and wrung their hands.

Some of the wounded men \, were still alive, at the start, /
and could have been completely \, healed, if cared for. The jarring /
fall had killed them, every \, single one. Their friends /
and families wailed in sorrow \, for such a bitter, painful end.”

It is worth noting that Giselher and Hagen are not the villains of the piece, but instead something like its heroes. In fact it’s not so easy to say just who the heroes are: everyone has faults, and everyone pays for those faults in the end. To my mind Sifried comes closest to being an unequivocal hero, but (***spoiler alert***) he is killed off in the early going, the victim of jealousy born of misunderstanding. His wife Krimhild is the wronged party who seeks revenge, which might, on a warrior’s code, be the honourable course, but she too is vindictive beyond measure. The poem is morally complex.


The original poem is written in quatrains consisting of rhyming couplets: AABB. Each line is divided into two halves, with each half-line having three (or, in the case of the last half-line of each quatrain, three or four) stresses. Raffel has tried to preserve this structure in his translation, but inevitably compromises were necessary. He has strictly preserved the metrical scheme, as is evident from the passages cited above. He claims to have usually preserved rhyme as well, but to my ear the rhymes are often only approximate, and as I read I was almost never aware of them.

Even with those efforts to preserve the poetry of the original, I confess I often found the translation very “prosy”. Here’s a sample stanza, plucked more or less at random:

Whatever other warriors \, did and were able to do, /
Dancwart and Hagen and many \, courageous, accomplished knights, /
however heroic they were, \, princess, it still remains true /
their deeds were nothing at all \, compared to noble Sifried’s might.

Take out the tabs and carriage returns and — again, judged by my ear — this turns into rather plain prose. It does rhyme, I grant, but it doesn’t sing to me, and I wish it did. Perhaps this can help me explain:

Take out the tabs and carriage \, returns and — again, judged /
by my ear — this \, turns into rather plain /
prose. It does rhyme, \, I grant, but it doesn’t sing /
to me, and I wish it did. \, Perhaps this can help me explain.

That rhymes at least we well as one of Raffel’s typical stanzas, and it has the right stress pattern, but I’d not call it poetry.

Having said that, the stress patterns did sometimes serve as a helpful guide to emphases in the lines. Take this example, for instance:

Then Krimhild’s father-in-law \, approached her, and said to the queen: /
“We ought to be at home. \, Neither of us can feel /
like welcome guests, here \, in Wurms along the Rhine. /
My dear Krimhild, now \, we need to return to my land. It’s time.

In the third line “here” gets a stress, emphasizing that where they are is the problem, and in the fourth line “now” gets a stress, emphasizing the need for immediate action. Were that stanza smeared out into prose, I’m not sure I’d read it in quite the same way.

Despite the difficulties I had with the translation, we English speakers do not have many means by which to get to know this poem, and I am grateful for Raffel’s labours.


Das Nibelungenlied is a great poem, one especially bracing for readers from our culture, for in it we encounter a world quite other than our own, where honour and strength are the leading virtues, and in which courtesy and violence are engaged in a high-stakes contest of wits. It has a cast of characters that is memorable in action and manageable in size, and strong dramatic instincts. In the sweepstakes of medieval Germanic poetry it doesn’t displace Beowulf in my affections, but I did certainly enjoy reading it.

Langland: Piers Plowman

May 13, 2016

Piers Plowman
William Langland
Rendered into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson
(WW Norton, 1990) [c.1380]
288 p.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in medieval literature, enjoying Chaucer and Dante, Chretien de Troyes and Beowulf. Naturally, some works have been more challenging than others, and for a variety of reasons: themes, structure, language. Piers Plowman is as difficult as anything I’ve come across, and then some. I’m tempted to say that there is nothing simple about it.

The work is an allegorical drama in which the main character, Will, wanders through the world populated with a variety of characters — Conscience, Truth, Scripture, all seven of the Deadly Sins, Reason, and so forth — on a journey to discover Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best. The characters offer Will advice, upbraid him, and encourage him on his moral quest, rather like a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is complicated by a series of dream-visions, and even dreams-within-dreams, that add layers of interpretive difficulty to a book already beset with vexatious challenges.

The poem is written in alliterative verse, similar to that written by the Gawain poet. The author (identified, apparently rather tenuously but tenaciously, with William Langland) writes in a dialect of Middle English that is rather different from Chaucer’s more familiar dialect. Here is a passage from the Prologue to illustrate how it reads:

Pilgrymes and palmers · pliȝten hem togidere
To seke seynt Iames · and seyntes in rome
Thei went forth in here wey · with many wise tales
And hadden leue to lye · al here lyf after
I seigh somme that seiden · þei had ysouȝt seyntes
To eche a tale þat þei tolde · here tonge was tempred to lye
More þan to sey soth · it semed bi here speche
Heremites on an heep · with hoked staues
Wenten to walsyngham · and here wenches after
Grete lobyes and longe · that loth were to swynke
Clotheden hem in copis · to ben knowen fram othere
And shopen hem heremites · here ese to haue

It’s not impenetrable, but there are enough unfamiliar words — “pliȝten”, “ysouȝt”, “lobyes”, “swynke” — that progress is slow. I was grateful, therefore, for E. Talbot Donaldson’s translation, which tries to preserve the alliterative verse but updates the language for modern readers. Donaldson is a respected medievalist who has also produced an edition of Beowulf and published a book on Chaucer. His rendering of the passage above reads this way:

Pilgrims and palmers · made pacts with each other
To seek out Saint James · and saints in Rome.
They went on their way · with many wise stories,
And had leave to lie · all their lives after.
I saw some that said · they’d sought after saints:
In every tale they told · their tongues were tuned to lie
More than to tell the truth — such talk was theirs.
A heap of hermits · with hooked staffs
Went off to Walsingham · with their wenches behind them.
Great long lubbers · that don’t like to work
Dressed up in cleric’s dress · to look different from other men
And behaved as they were hermits · to have an easy life.

It’s wordier (as modern English usually is in comparison to Old or Middle), but certainly much easier to follow.

Langland’s style in Piers Plowman is quite unusual. Though this might seem a wild comparison, as I read I kept thinking of Dostoyevsky, not for his interests or his genre (naturally) but just for that unhinged quality, as though the characters are a little wild-eyed, prone to do or say anything. Langland jumps from one thing to the next. He salts his poem liberally with Latin phrases, fragments of Scripture, and quotations from antiquity. He is going somewhere, but unsteadily, with numerous rapid detours. The language is thorny and angular.

I haven’t said anything yet about Piers Plowman, the title character. Will meets him at several points in the poem, always, I believe, in a dream. At various points Will meets him riding into Jerusalem, or in the guise of the Good Samaritan, or offering a pardon for sins. Will speculates that he is Christ in disguise, and, given his characteristics, this seems reasonable to me.

Commentators on Piers Plowman stress its moral seriousness and its satiric edge. Of the former there is ample evidence, for the poem contains many scathing criticisms of Church and society in his day, but of the latter I confess I was able to detect but little. Satire is a tonal matter much of the time, and that’s hard to convey in a translation and hard to detect in an unfamiliar dialect.

In the end, I am pleased to have read the poem, though I confess I did not greatly enjoy it. It is one of those hurdles that anyone wanting an education in medieval literature will have to clear, and it feels good to have cleared it (more or less!), but, unlike Chaucer or Dante or the Gawain poet, I doubt I’ll return to it for pleasure.

El Cid

August 11, 2015

El Cid
Translated from the Spanish by Burton Raffel
(Penguin Classics, 2009) [c.1200]
284 p.

The Cid was an important figure in the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula in the eleventh century. He was a gallant warrior around whom men rallied and about whom legends sprang up. This famous account of his life was written about a hundred years after his death, and it is generally considered to be one of the early masterpieces of Spanish literature.

The poem survives only in damaged manuscripts, so that it is incomplete as it stands. Most notably, there is a significant chunk missing from the beginning, and the ending is also lost. The poem we have opens in media res with the Cid — or, as he is usually called in the poem, my Cid — being exiled from Castile. Turning his lemons to lemonade, he takes the opportunity to make a name for himself in the wide world. The principal arc of the poem’s narrative concerns his roaming forays against Muslim towns, his eventual assault upon and triumph over the great coastal city of Valencia, and his defence of the same against Islamic efforts to dislodge him. Once established, he marries his daughters to some noblemen — who turn out to be strikingly ignoble in their treatment of their wives. The last act of the poem is concerned with the Cid’s revenge upon his scoundrel sons-in-law.

Naturally there is a good deal of military glory on display in the poem, and precious little cross-cultural toleration. In light of recent clashes between the Islamic world and the West, it certainly makes for interesting reading. The poem is unapologetic about the Cid’s ambitions to drive the Muslims out of Spain, but neither does it paint the conflict in the clear black and white that one might expect: Islamic warriors are honoured by the poet if they act bravely and nobly, and Christians — like the aforementioned scoundrel sons-in-law — are denounced if they merit it. But, still, when we read that

Bishop Don Jeronimo, as good a priest as could be,
Swung weapons with both hands: when he’d finished fighting
He could no longer count the Moors he had killed.

we might justifiably wish for a little more peace, love, and understanding.

I don’t want to come across as facetious. There is actually quite a lot of nuance in the text, and a considerable amount of tenderness to balance the violence. On one level the entire poem is a kind of domestic drama in which the Cid is only trying to secure good marriages for his daughters — a kind of cross between Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice. It is jarring to modern sensibilities, but arguably that is part of its appeal.

The truth is that of the major works of medieval literature that I have read — admittedly more or less limited to Chaucer, Dante, Chretien de Troyes, and Beowulf — El Cid is the one I have enjoyed the least. Its political incorrectness was not part of the problem for me — quite the opposite, if anything (I am sorry to say). The translation may be part of the issue, although I admire Raffel’s translations of Chretien de Troyes. Somehow the poem never really came to life for me. The Cid himself seemed a distant figure, dashing and brave, but thin. I worry that the poem’s fame is due more to its mere survival of the ravages of time than to its intrinsic merits. But one should not be overhasty with such judgments, especially when reading in translation.

Incidentally, the word “Cid” is a gloss on the Arabic “sayyid”, meaning, in context, something like “lord”.

Lenten reading: “the sharp dart”

March 6, 2015

He may well be loved, but not thought. By love He can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Therefore, though it may be good sometimes to think particularly about God’s kindness and worth, and though it may be enlightening too, and a part of contemplation, yet in the work now before us it must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you are to step over it resolutely and eagerly, with a devout and kindling love, and try to penetrate that darkness above you. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.

The Cloud of Unknowing.

Medieval philosophy, without any gaps

February 19, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve been listening in on a very interesting long-term podcast series: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, by Peter Adamson. After covering Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy the series has recently reached its 200th episode and has begun to explore medieval philosophy. The podcast is very well done; each episode is about 20 minutes long, with a new episode every week or so.

The “without any gaps” modifier is part of the appeal. For instance, a typical survey of philosophy makes a fairly cursory mention of St. Anselm and his ontological argument for God’s existence; Peter Adamson devoted three or four episodes to exploring various aspects of Anselm’s thought. He also gave a few episodes to the 9th century metaphysician John Scotus Eriugena, who is often skipped entirely. Yet despite this level of detail the podcast is clearly pitched at non-specialists. The discussion is generally clear and often enlivened by an endearingly corny wit. I find it very enjoyable.

I can’t help wondering how far Adamson has charted his course into the future; he makes occasional jokes about the series never actually coming to an end, but the joke has a point. If Anselm gets four episodes, how many will Aquinas get? And Kant?! Well, with a podcast this interesting I can hardly complain.

Children’s books, briefly noted

April 24, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve read a number of children’s books set in medieval Europe. Here are brief notes on several of them:

The Quest of the Grail Knight
Katherine Paterson
(Puffin, 1998) 127 p.

This is a brief re-telling, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach, of the story of Parsifal (Parzival) and his adventures in quest of the Holy Grail. I’ve not read von Eschenbach’s version, but I did note numerous differences from Chretien de Troyes’ earlier version of the story. Paterson’s tale moves quickly, and it told clearly but a little dryly in this unillustrated edition. There is a firm moral center to the story, and a strong Christian element. Suitable for young listeners aged 6 and up, and for somewhat older young readers. 3.5 stars.

Dragon Slayersutcliff-dragonslayer
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Penguin, 1961) 107 p.

A prose re-telling of the Beowulf story. All of the essential plot points are included, and atmospheric touches are added. The writing is strong, with a pleasing directness and raw vigour. Some violence, obviously, but the virtues of loyalty and courage are stressed. The grammar would be challenging for an early reader. Age 8-12? 4.5 stars.

good-mastersGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Voices from a Medieval Village
Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
(Candlewick, 2007) 85 p.

An interesting premise for a book: a series of loosely connected dramatic monologues intended for performance, each in the voice of a child from a medieval English village circa 1225. The monologues (plus two inventive dialogues) run about 2-4 pages each, and were originally written for the author’s own students. The language is solid, and doesn’t avoid obsolete words. There is an earthy quality to the whole. The historical accuracy is reasonable, although I do quarrel with a few of the marginal notes. (Villeins were not quite the same as slaves.) Age 10-16? 4 stars.

The Door in the Wallangeli-door
Marguerite de Angeli
(Yearling, 1949) 128 p.

This Newbery Medal winning book was recommended to me by a friend, and a good recommendation it was. Young Robin falls ill and becomes lame, but is befriended by a monk and taught a trade. Eventually, by a series of courageous and resourceful actions, he is able to save his friends from peril during a seige. The book paints an attractive picture of the Middle Ages. Age 8-12. 4 stars.

gray-adamAdam of the Road
Elizabeth Janet Gray
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
(Viking, 1943) 320 p.

This is a superb adventure story set in thirteenth-century England. Adam is an 11-year old boy, the son of a distinguished minstrel, who aspires to practice the same art. Adam’s beloved dog is stolen and he sets out on a quest to retrieve him, becoming separated from his father in the process. Adam must rely on his own resourcefulness, courage, and wit — and the kindness of strangers — to find his dog and re-unite with his father. The medieval world portrayed here is one of gaiety and gallantry, and the religious character of that society is woven naturally into the story. A splendid book for boys, especially. Winner of the Newbery Medal in the year of its publication.  Age 8-12? 4 stars.


I’ve just now noticed that all of these books were written by women.