Posts Tagged ‘Medieval’

Aucassin and Nicolette

February 3, 2019

Aucassin and Nicolette
Anonymous
Translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon
(Folio Society, 1947) [c.1200]
60 p.

In the annals of medieval love lore you have your Tristans and your Yseults, you have your Lancelots and Guineveres, your Romeos and your Juliets and your Dantes and your Beatrices — and you have Aucassin and Nicolette? I confess that, until I stumbled upon them recently, I’d never heard of this pair. Their love is one for which, naturally, the course does not run smooth, and the basic problem is obvious enough:

Here they sing.

Aucassin was of Beaucaire;
His was the fine castle there;
But on slender Nicolette
Past man’s moving is he set,
Whom his father doth refuse;
Menace did his mother use:

“Out upon thee, foolish boy!
Nicolette is but a toy,
Castaway from Carthagen,
Bought a slave of heathen men.
If for marrying thou be,
Take a wife of high degree!”

“Mother, I will none but her.
Hath she not the gentle air,
Grace of limb, and beauty bright?
I am snared in her delight.
If I love her ’tis but meet,
So passing sweet!”

What follows is a kind of medieval singspiel, in which verse songs alternate with prose narration. This form has been dubbed a chantefable (literally, a sing-say), and the category has been invented specifically for Aucassin and Nicolette, which is our sole surviving medieval example of what was presumably a genre.

It is a delightful creation, plump with good humour and full of energy. It is a celebration of the medieval ideal of “courteous love”, and a fresh, cleansing wind blows through it. Love has captured Aucassin’s heart, and he prefers his beloved to honour, to wealth, to glory — even to the salvation of his soul. In this sense, he is the “foolish boy” his mother decries, but his devotion is so strong that it inspires him to great deeds of another sort, and to heroic virtues of another order. His love, in fact, renders him worthy to be the hero of a medieval romance.

The story is packed with oddities. In one episode Aucassin finds himself at a castle where the king lies in child-bed and the queen rides forth to battle. Joining the fight, he discovers that they fight not with swords, but with crab-apples, cheeses, and mushrooms. In another, Nicolette stumbles in the forest upon a group of rustics enjoying a pastoral picnic, almost as though the Forest of Arden had been transplanted to France.

A number of English translations have been made. I tried out three (by Lang, Mason, and Bourdillon) before settling on the last. All were made about a century ago, and all are afflicted to some degree by maladroit archaisms. Bourdillon seemed to be the least egregious offender, but even his version contains its fair share of “honoured wight”s and “gramercy”s, such that I had liefer die than suffer another. This is a work ripe for a fresh look by an enterprising translator of Old French. But, despite these troubles, I enjoyed the book, and arrived in good spirits at the happy ending:

Towards him to her feet leapt she.
Aucassin, when he did see,
Both his arms to her he holds,
Gently to his bosom folds,
Kisses her on eyes and face.
So they left him the night’s space,
Till the morrow’s morning-tide
Aucassin took her to bride,
Made her Lady of Beaucaire.
Many days they then did fare,
And their pleasure did enjoy.
Now has Aucassin his joy,
Nicolette too the same way.
Here endeth our song-and-say;
I know no further.

The book, which is quite short, is available at the Gutenberg project.

Adams: Mont St Michel and Chartres

December 20, 2018

Mont St Michel and Chartres
Henry Adams
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [1904]
xli + 398 p.

I went to Chartres on my first trip to France. It was a short train ride from Paris; I remember passing through the Versailles train station en route and caring not a whit for it; my heart was set further down that track. It was a slightly overcast day; perhaps I had hoped to see Chartres draped in an overhanging blue mantle, and so was slightly, very slightly, disappointed as I approached. I met the famous English guide, Malcolm Miller, who has been giving tours there for decades. My dominant memories are of a dimmed, vaulting interior and glory all around.

Henry Adams also saw Chartres, and loved it. He made it, along with the great Mont St Michel, the launching point for this extended imaginative engagement with the art and culture, mostly French, of the 12th and 13th centuries. It is not a book of “art history”, though there is a good deal of art and history in it; it is not a book of theology, though it cannot avoid grappling with some. It is instead something less common: a very personal encounter with great artistic achievements, in which Adams makes a serious attempt to feel his way back into the past:

One needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.

Mont St Michel he values chiefly as an achievement that brought the political, artistic and religious aspirations of its time into a compelling unity:

The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy, almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony.

He emphasizes the masculine character of the Mount, presided over by the warrior St Michael and expressing rugged strength in its form. Chartres, on the other hand, expresses the feminine spirit, being the special domain of Our Lady and expressing her tastes. The Virgin of Chartres

was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence eternally final. This church was built for her in this spirit of simple-minded, practical, utilitarian faith,—in this singleness of thought, exactly as a little girl sets up a doll-house for her favourite blonde doll. Unless you can go back to your dolls, you are out of place here. If you can go back to them, and get rid for one small hour of the weight of custom, you shall see Chartres in glory.

Chartres, too, by expressing the Virgin’s glory, expressed the ideals of the time, for she was at the center of that society in a manner that transcended the usual social and political divisions. All disputants, on whatever question, were united in honouring her with “good faith, depth of feeling, and intensity of conviction” as the exemplar of human perfection:

The Virgin still remained and remains the most intensely and the most widely and the most personally felt, of all characters, divine or human or imaginary, that ever existed among men.

Adams takes the time to inspect in detail the structure and decorative programme of the church, meditating upon the rose windows, the portals — west, north, and south — and of course the famous twelfth-century stained glass. (When reading these sections it helped greatly to consult a coffee-table book with pictures of the scenes under discussion; there are pictures in this Penguin edition, but of inadequate quality and too few.) It is clear that he thinks Chartres is the greatest architectural achievement of the time — in fact, he goes further and dubs the smaller of its two spires “the most perfect piece of architecture in the world”.

Although the book’s title would lead one to believe that it is focused entirely on these two great buildings, in fact they account for only half the length of the book. Adams moves on, in the same playful and inquisitive spirit, to a consideration of the literature of the time, and to its intellectual and religious life.

Among works of literature he values especially Le Roman de la Rose, Le Chanson de Roland, the songs of Adam de la Halle, and the wonderful collection of legends Les Miracles de la Vierge. Of these, I especially enjoyed his ruminations on the song of Roland, which I myself have written briefly about, but with far less success. Equally excellent is his appreciation of the religious poetry of Adam of St Victor — most of it, again, in honour of the Virgin — which he praises for its simplicity of spirit and technical excellence.

Later chapters of the book set up a contest, within medieval culture, between the intellectual engagement with faith — represented by Abelard and Aquinas — and an emotional, instinctive approach to the sacred — represented by Bernard of Clairvaux and, in a rare voyage outside France, Francis of Assisi. I didn’t find these sections entirely successful, in part because it wasn’t clear to me that Adams really knew what he was talking about. (For instance, while I would never claim to be a gatekeeper to authentic Thomism, I have read a good deal of and about St Thomas, and I could hardly recognize him in Adams’ portrait.)

Indeed, this might be a general criticism to levy against the book as a whole. It is clearly the work of an amateur (and was, in fact, originally published privately in an edition of only 100 copies, to be shared with friends). His oft-repeated, self-depreciating references to his substitution of imagination for expertise — “what we want is not dates but taste” — might be intended to defuse such criticisms. He needn’t have worried overmuch, for he was obviously a man of intelligence and sensitivity, and the lapses in judgment or errors as to fact must be relatively few.

I will, say, however, that I found his prose to have a certain lugubrious quality; the same complaint put me off his other great book some years ago.

Every so often I read a book that I feel I might, under different circumstances, or given more talent, have written, or tried to write, myself. This is such a book for me; not that I think I could have done it nearly so well, but I’d have liked to try.

***

[The evangelical power of Chartres]
Any one can feel it who will only consent to feel like a child. Sitting here any Sunday afternoon, while the voices of the children of the maitrise are chanting in the choir,—your mind held in the grasp of the strong lines and shadows of the architecture; your eyes flooded with the autumn tones of the glass; your ears drowned with the purity of the voices; one sense reacting upon another until sensation reaches the limit of its range,—you, or any other lost soul, could, if you cared to look and listen, feel a sense beyond the human ready to reveal a sense divine that would make that world once more intelligible, and would bring the Virgin to life again, in all the depths of feeling which she shows here,—in lines, vaults, chapels, colours, legends, chants,— more eloquent than the prayer-book, and more beautiful than the autumn sunlight; and any one willing to try could feel it like the child, reading new thought without end into the art he has studied a hundred times; but what is still more convincing, he could, at will, in an instant, shatter the whole art by calling into it a single motive of his own.

[The unity of medieval architecture]
The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final. Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the fleche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line.

[The synthesis of Aquinas’ thought]
An economic civilization troubles itself about the universe much as a hive of honey-bees troubles about the ocean, only as a region to be avoided. The hive of Saint Thomas sheltered God and man, mind and matter, the universe and the atom, the one and the multiple, within the walls of an harmonious home.

[The 11th century]
The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy, and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry, colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its women were worth all the rest.

Pearl

August 11, 2018

Pearl
Anonymous
Translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber and Faber, 2016) [c.1350]
xviii + 103 p.

It is a wonderful poem: intimate and affecting, and, at the same time, showcasing the most dazzling virtuosity.

It tells the story of a man who has lost his spotless pearl — whom, we soon learn, was his daughter, who died when just two years old. He, in sorrow, falls asleep and, in that sleep, dreams that he sees her, now grown, from across an impassable river. They talk; she comforts and corrects him, teaching him about the soul’s journey beyond this life, and about the heavenly kingdom in which she now dwells. He, eventually overcome at his longing to be with her again, dashes into the river, whereupon he awakens.

It is a heart-breaking poem. His sorrow and his longing are so vividly conveyed. I felt it before I was a father myself; I feel it more now. It is a consoling poem too. The counsel his dream-daughter offers him is not sentimental; it is, as it were, doctrine clear and solid as a pearl. It is an encouraging poem, building to a glorious vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the abode of the blessed, with twelve gates of pearl. And then that vision, in an instant, dissipates, taken from him by his own wilfulness.

The poem has the elegant and intricate structure of a Bach fugue. Let me try to describe it.

There are 101 stanzas, each of 12 lines, for a total length of 1212 lines — a thematically important number, for the heavenly Jerusalem to which the poem aspires is itself suffused with the number 12. Each stanza follows a strict rhyme scheme.

In addition to the rhymes, each line also follows the alliterative stress patterns of Old English poetry, with three or four stressed, alliterative syllables. Thus we have poetry at the level of each line, with lines linked together by rhyme into stanzas.

But the stanzas too are linked, grouped into sets of 5, with each group having a keyword which appears in the first and last lines of each stanza. And the groups of stanzas are also linked, for the first line of the first stanza in each group links to the keyword of the previous set of stanzas. In this way the groups of stanzas are threaded together to create a kind of poetic daisy chain.

Let me illustrate this daisy chaining with an example from Simon Armitage’s translation. The first set of 5 stanzas uses the keyword “spot”. Thus the first and last lines of the first few stanzas are:

[1] Beautiful pearl that would please a prince
[…]
for that priceless pearl without a spot.

[2] And in that spot where it sprang from me
[…]
my precious pearl without a spot.

[3] Spices must thrive and spread in that spot
[…]
from that precious pearl without a spot.

This continues until stanza 6, which introduces the second group. The first line continues with the keyword of the first group, but the last line gives us the new keyword: “ornament”.

[6] Suddenly my spirit rose from that spot
[…]
weave cloth so exquisite in ornament.

[7] Ornamenting the hills to every side
[…]
outshone by opulent ornament.

And so on. When we reach the last group of stanzas in the poem, we discover that their keyword is “pleasing/pleasure”:

[100] Had I put His pleasure before my own
[…]
or propose to spoil a Prince’s pleasure.

[101] To please the Prince and join Him in peace
[…]
and beautiful pearls, pleasing to him. Amen. Amen.

Casting an eye back up at stanza 1, we see that the first line echoes this same keyword, thereby giving the poem as a whole a circular shape, like a pearl. It is, truly, a most beautifully crafted poem.

I have read other translations, and I have also struggled myself through the Middle English original — which, being written in a dialect spoken outside London, is considerably more challenging for modern readers than, say, Chaucer’s poetry. To my knowledge no translator has been able to retain all of the poetic structure of the original, and Armitage is no exception. He chooses to retain the alliterative stresses and the stanzaic patterns, but to forego the rhyme scheme. He gets the small scale structure and the large, but misses the middle. Thus an example stanza reads as follows:

‘Courteous Queen,’ said that lovely creature,
kneeling on the floor, raising her face,
‘Matchless mother and fairest maiden,
fount from which grace and goodness flows.’
Then from her prayers she stood and paused
and in that place she spoke these words:
‘Sir, many seek grace and are granted it here,
but in this domain there are no usurpers.
All heaven belongs to that holy empress,
and earth and hell are within her dominion.
No one will oust her from her high office
for she is the queen of courtesy.

The keyword here is “courtesy”. You can hear the alliteration. The alliterated sound is usually on stressed syllables, which teaches us to how to read the lines. For example, in the penultimate line we alliterate on ‘h’, stressing ‘her’, ‘her’, and ‘high’, which underlines, I think, the dignity and majesty of Our Lady.

This poem is preserved for us in a single manuscript — Cotton Nero A.x. Incredibly, these original pages, complete with illustrations, can be viewed online.

In the end I enjoyed this rendering of the poem, as I enjoyed also Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is handsomely presented by Faber and Faber, with a single stanza on each page, in a sturdy hardback. Recommended.

Brown: Magnus

May 28, 2018

Magnus
George Mackay Brown
(Berlinn, 2018) [1973]
208 p.

Just why it is that the Orkney Islands exercise such an outsized influence on my imagination is hard to say. Maybe it has something to do with their remoteness, dropped in a swath of cold, wild seas, in combination with their proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the familiar terrain of Scotland, which together give them the character of a borderland, not wholly alien, but still distant and mysterious.

George Mackay Brown was a poet and novelist who himself hailed from those islands, and here he novelizes the life of St Magnus Erlendsson, a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney. Magnus is not a conventional saint; he is a powerful man embroiled in a succession dispute in a violent age. There are few scenes of gentleness or cheerful piety; this world is hard and stern. Yet even so, Magnus stands out. In one memorable scene he goes to war in a longship; surrounded by brutal violence on all sides he stands, courageously, reading aloud to the men from the Psalter. But, as Earl, he bears not only his own interests, but also the interests of those who depend upon him for their livelihood, safety, and welfare. This responsibility he cannot escape, and it drives him forward, tragically.

The story is told unconventionally. We never, unless I am mistaken, get very close to Magnus himself. Rather the tale is told by those around him, or those under him: monks, tinkers, farmers. Sometimes the story wanders, following the trials and travels of these other figures in apparent forgetfulness of its main subject. But Magnus is always there, in the background, in fragments of conversation that refer to him, or simply inasmuch as he is responsible for the conditions under which these, his people, live, work, and suffer.

As one might expect from a poet novelist, the writing is superb. Brown is exquisitely sensitive to tone, and he varies it effectively as he switches from scene to scene. For the most part the prose is unadorned, as befits the rough condition of his setting and characters. Here is a passage chosen at random:

Mans the peasant from Revay Hill in Birsay laboured at the rowing bench. His clenched fists made circles. His oar rose and fell. He sweated. His face went from bilgewater to the gulls above the mast, then back again to the swilter and glug of foul water among the bottomboards.

That gives a sense of the style in which much of the book is written, but there are numerous exceptions. The opening chapter is a beautiful description of a bridal party preparing the bride — Magnus’ mother — for her wedding night, a sequence that concludes with a scop composing bridal songs:

Blow out the lamp now. There is a hand at the latch. Now I pray to Christ and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin and to all saints and martyrs that this shape I imagine in my body, this boy, may wear the white coat of innocence always. War to redden it, intrigue to fray it, lust to filthy it, treachery to tear it: these things must be. But I pray that his soul may never be wrapped in the seamless flame of eternal loss. I pray that he may bring his white weave continually, this Magnus, to the waters of grace, and in the hour of his death to the last brightest rinsings of absolution.

A miracle of imaginative fiction is that by it we see the world through the eyes, and with the sensibility, of another, and this whole bridal sequence is an outstanding example of an author allowing us to see and feel how our ancestors saw an intrinsic connection between marriage, sexuality, love, and fertility.

There is another marvellous section in which Magnus prays through the night in a church, meditating at length on the Mass and the nature of sacrifice in religion. It is a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but I recommend it particularly to Catholics, whom I think would appreciate it both aesthetically and spiritually, as I did.

Returning to the tonal variations: at one point the authentic ring of Anglo-Saxon verse can be heard:

I must tell now concerning the jarl Hakon Paul’s son, how he summoned about him an host, and set them in eight war-hungry ships. Then those tryst-men heard a great boast, how that from the meeting in Egil’s Isle but one jarl would fare him home at sunset, and that not Magnus. A death-lust on listening faces about the mast, a weaving of warped words. Sigurd and Sighvat were the blackest mouths in all that hell-parle. Fierce sea stallions trampled the waves.

And, finally, there is one virtuoso example of tonal shift, dramatically placed at the climax of the story, that put me in a state of wondering admiration, not only at how Brown subtly transitioned from medieval to modern times, his setting and characters gradually transforming into something else, creating a literary effect very much like a cinematic dissolve, but also for how his doing so greatly expanded the book’s range and ambition. I’m strongly tempted to write about this in detail, it being, in some real sense, the centrepiece of the novel, but out of consideration for those who might like to read the book and be surprised, I will not.

When I closed the last page of Magnus I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. As it happens, I did not actually do this, but over the intervening weeks it has lingered in my imagination, and I may return to it again before too long.

From the book’s Wikipedia page I have learned that Peter Maxwell Davies adapted this novel into a 1977 opera. I’d like to hear it.

Sir Gawain, again

September 4, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
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
Anonymous
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.

**

Addendum: Reading in Henry Adams’ Mont St Michel and Chartres, which has a wonderful chapter on The Song of Roland, Adams gives us this appraisal:

No modern opera or play ever approached the popularity of the “Chanson.” None has ever expressed with anything like the same completeness the society that produced it. Chanted by every minstrel,—known by heart, from beginning to end, by every man and woman and child, lay or clerical,—translated into every tongue,—more intensely felt, if possible, in Italy and Spain than in Normandy and England,—perhaps most effective, as a work of art, when sung by the Templars in their great castles in the Holy Land,—it is now best felt at Mont-Saint- Michel, and from the first must have been there at home.

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
Anonymous
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.
(1505)

(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.”
(2111-4)

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.
(228)

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.
(1073)

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.