When reading transcriptions of medieval poetry, it’s easy to forget that they were often heard performed not only in verse, but also in song with musical accompaniment. One wonders which familiar melodies drove the meters of some of Marie de France’s lays or the Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Marie de Champagne had Chrétien collect, collate, preserve, and embellish the Arthurian “chansons.” We cannot say for sure what prompted this commission. Were the stories naturally becoming popular again? Did Marie de Champagne have issue with the older versions of the tales? Was there need of translation from Latin and local languages? Was the arts culture going through – as ours is now – a reboot and remake period?

The subject of most of these tales was courtly love – they were written not only with the court woman in mind, but possibly even for the court woman. Was this a medieval form of real marriage counseling? What advice, suggestions, warnings were meant for the men to hear? What was meant for the women to hear? Was there an attempt to dispel or possibly even confirm relationship stereotypes? To what extent was the need or want for gender discussion part of this literary movement – or are we just assuming there was a deliberate social agenda at all? Was the court leading or directing the literary culture of its day, trying to keep up with it, or both? Was there an underlying social agenda behind the resurgence and popularizing of these tales? Was this a sort of a medieval MeToo (#MedievalToo) movement or just entertainment?


(wish I could claim credit for this, but alas, I cannot. Go internet!)

So the next time I read Guigemar, or, let’s be honest – just about anything from the Lays of Marie de France [(c.1160-1215) – not to be confused with Marie de Champagne (1145-1198)] concerning a cloistered woman or a man and woman trying to work things out in their relationship I’ll wonder if there was a movement happening in England (where Marie de France was writing – Henry II’s court) and France (where Chrétien was writing) that is anything like what we are seeing today.


My son Morgan was flying a little Breton flag around the house recently


Neil Innes appeared at the 44th Annual Fest for Beatles Fans in Jersey City on the Hudson on Saturday, March 10, 2018. He’s known affectionately by Beatles fans as Ron Nasty from the Rutles, and also appearing in Magical Mystery Tour playing the song ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ to accompany the striptease act. He mentioned that he wasn’t contacted by the band Death Cab for Cutie in relation to their tribute in choosing their band name, but he thought it was fair game as he stole the title himself from a pulp fiction paperback cover. After all, Pablo Picasso may have once said, “Good artists copy, Great artists steal.”

Innes played several of his recent songs – some on guitar, others on the ukelele – during his storyteller style performance. His recent songs were refreshing to hear to the backdrop of our current media climate.

It’s good to laugh – very good. Innes ended his show with a couple of verses of ‘Brave Sir Robin’ which brought me chuckles too. Hope the short video up top gives you some laughs.

After the show, I asked him about his involvement in Life of Brian. Innes told me that he played the wild guy in the gladiator scene – “I think I’m going to have a cardiac arrest!” – I never knew that! See the picture below, he brought the scene alive a little for me! I was embarrassed to ask him to do it again for a picture – but he graciously obliged. Anyway, Thanks Mr. Innes!

Innes wished he had been able to be more involved in Life of Brian. He was apparently going to be one of the guards who couldn’t laugh in Caesar’s throne room and who knows what else – but I guess there were some funding issues and filming was delayed. When things started back up he was tied up in a TV contract, so he couldn’t go back for more filming. Oh well – not bad to have your one scene be a classic.

He also told some Bonzo Dog Dooh-Dah Band stories. I think he said he wanted to call it Bonzo Dog Da Da Band – or at least have the name invoke Da Da movement in some way. Da Da is certainly conveyed somehow in the vibe of the band.

They were pulled over somewhere in down home America while on tour in the (early-ish?) 60s and the cop of course thought they were up to no good. “The Heat” – as Innes referred to them in those days didn’t seem to believe they were in a band.

The officer asked if they had any guns or knives and Innes – being English – was shocked, “Oh heavens, no!”
“Well, what do you use to protect yourselves?” to which Vivian Stanshall replied from the backseat, “With good manners!”

You know, some cops would take that as cue to arrest everyone. Wising off to a cop is tricky, but he stopped his line of questioning and waited for their u-haul to catch up so he could inspect it.

When it arrived, he opened up the trailer to see a taxidermied zebra’s ass staring right back at him so he shut the door and told them to move on.

I shouldn’t tell you too many of his stories because he’s playing at the Cutting Room in NYC Tuesday, March 13th and it’s best to hear these things straight from the horse’s mouth – or in this case the Zebra’s ass – but I will leave you with a snap proving that at 73, he’s still giving gladiators cardiac arrests and sticking it to all of the Caesar’s out there! Go Neil! Keep on rocking your uke in the da da world.

innes sticking it to the caesers out there


Former FBI Director James Comey giving testimony at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing 6/8/2017

During James Comey’s Testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee today, Senator Angus King asked Comey if he took the language the President used in the Oval office urging him to hold back or stop investigating Michael Flynn to be a directive. Comey answered illustrating the mood of the scene with a quote that all medievalists find familiar:

“Yes. Yes. It rings in my ears of kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”


Senator Angus King questioning James Comey at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing 6/8/2017

King, thinking along similar lines and amused, replied enthusiastically,

“I was just going to quote that! In 1170 December 29, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ and then the next day he was killed. Thomas à Becket – that’s exactly the same situation. We’re thinking along the same lines.”

It was a short exchange and ended there. Who can say whether it was serendipity, something rehearsed, or simply a reference we’ve all thought in some way or another applies to these “unPresidented” times.

The original Henry II quote varies by source. Some use “meddlesome priest” while others use “turbulent priest.” The actual word was probably troublesome, but if we are using the quote in the context of our current President – we may want to choose a different adjective…

14th century thomas a becket pilgrimage badge

14th century Thomas à Becket pilgrimage badge. Chaucer’s pilgrims may have found one like this in Canterbury. (image: British Museum)

I often have Thomas à Becket in the back of my mind this time of year. Early summer is the best time to read through Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s story collection is framed by a tale of a group of pilgrims representing a sort of cross section of 14th century England making their way on pilgrimage together in early summer to Canterbury to give honor to “the hooly blissful martir” Thomas à Becket and telling tales along the way to pass the time.

I’m a bad Chaucer student this year though. While I was reading Knight’s Tale not too long ago, I haven’t started my annual pass through the full tales – I’ll have to get started “withouten any lenger taryynge.”

Anyway, it was nice to think, “ooh medieval reference” today during yet another reminder of the insanity that is all too commonplace in our country these days.

I’ve had the French children’s song “Dans sa maison un grand cerf” stuck in my head for about a week now.

It’s a song about a stag who, while looking out the window of his house, sees a rabbit coming. The rabbit knocks on the door:

Dans sa maison un grand cerf
Regardait par la fenêtre
Un lapin venir à lui (some say the line is actually l’hui – an old-fashioned word for door)
Et frapper ainsi

The rabbit is being chased by a hunter. He begs the stag to let him in so he won’t be killed:

Cerf, cerf, ouvre-moi
Ou le chasseur me tuera

To which the stag replies, “Rabbit, come inside. Take my hand”:

Lapin, lapin, entre et viens
Me serrer la main

The stag is kind of a king of the forest or noble protector in Western European folklore. The white hart is a symbol of English royalty. In French and English medieval poetry the hunt for the stag (or hart) almost always becomes a spiritual hunt. It changes you forever. Each hunt begins like an ordinary one, but destiny always calls and turns it into a quest.


The Arthurian Romance Erec et Enide by Chrétien de Troyes begins with a hart hunt. King Arthur wishes to revive an old custom of hunting le blanc cerf. Not long into the hunt, Erec encounters a knight, a surly dwarf, and a maiden and before he knows it, he’s on a quest. 

In Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the Dreamer is pulled from his hart hunt by a ‘whelp’ to the Black Knight – thus begins his quest. 

In Marie de France’s Breton Lay Guigemar, a knight fatally wounds a white deer but the arrow ricochets to pierce his own thigh. The deer tells Guigemar that the only thing that will save him from his wound is the love of a woman. 

The examples go on and on…

Is this children’s song about a deer forced to make the split-second decision to let a rabbit in who is running away from a hunter soaked in medieval symbolism? Probably not. But it doesn’t need to be.

Children who sing this song understand on some level why the deer lets the rabbit in. They might not tell us, but they probably understand some of the risk the deer takes too. Do they see the hunter as just the rabbit’s problem? What if the deer just watched from his home and didn’t answer the door or told the rabbit to go away?

Dealing with refugees is not a simple matter – especially on a global scale – and I don’t mean to over-simplify the issue but there is irony in my having this song stuck in my head lately and I’m sure you see it by now.

Anyway, here’s a version of this chanson d’enfance by the Patapons, maybe it will get stuck in your head too:



Things are going to slide

Slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing

Nothing you can measure anymore


I saw Elstree 1976 with a friend at the film space PhilaMOCA on Friday night. They only had two showings and the very low attendance surprised me – could have been lack of promotion but Star Wars fans can usually find out about these kinds of things…

In any case, it was a pleasure to have a private screening of a very interesting film. The film gets its title from a film studio in London called Elstree where many interior scenes from Star Wars (and some from Empire) were shot. In 1976 London, casting agencies were filling bit parts and extras for “another sci-fi film” that became what we know today as Star Wars.

Elstree 1976 provides brief but very fascinating oral histories of a half dozen actors who thought they were doing just another week’s work for the casting office only later to realize that the project became Star Wars.

Some of the people who appeared in the film just wandered into a casting call by following flyers in Soho while others were career actors.

The film explores how the experience affected and continues to affect their lives – for better or worse. It also affords us a glimpse into a very different time in filmmaking and prompts us to wonder why and how Star Wars changed every aspect of not only the sci-fi genre, but movie-making in general.

In all honesty I could watch an 8-part series of one hour episodes of this kind of stuff the way director John Spira put it together.

The film uses very few copyrighted images and footage of the film shown is a handful of frames looped together like cinema quality moving gifs.

There are also very short interludes of slightly moving stills of recreated hallway shots of bored Stormtroopers but they do not seem like “dramatizations” – they simply keep the color palette consistent for the film and seem to convey the “no big deal” attitude that perhaps contributed significantly to Star Wars masterfully achieving its “lived-in” look.

The attention to detail will surprise even those who have memorized Star Wars – for example, we get to know some lady in the Cantina who looks like she wandered off the set of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We learn that the guy who stumbled into the role of the “you don’t need to see any identification” Sandtrooper also found himself in John & Yoko’s Bed-in in the Amsterdam Hilton. The guy who played Greedo thought George Lucas was a grip or an assistant and asked him bring him a coffee when he came to audition.

gold leader

And, of course, there’s a part about a Y-wing fighter reading his lines that will forever change the way you watch that scene.

Elstree 1976 breaks Star Wars down to what it is – storytelling.

I watched the film with the hopes of being a fly on the wall in Elstree studios in 1976 – and the production stories are all very interesting don’t get me wrong about that – but after the film, my friend and I ended up talking more about the actors’ lives after Star Wars than Star Wars itself.


Everyone who grew up on Star Wars should watch this documentary at some point. It would be something very nice to watch on a Sunday afternoon.

It happened again. The Tuesday before last was a cold winter day and as the bus started moving I heard a familiar rolling sound. It stopped between my feet: the pearl.

pearl 2

It’s become a little running joke with myself that whenever I see a lost fake pearl earring I think of the poem Pearl. It’s like it’s telling me it’s time to read Pearl again – one part serendipity, one part superstition.

Pearl is a medieval narrative poem thought to be written by the same unknown poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness. For this reason scholars often call this poet the “Pearl poet” or the “Gawain poet.” All four of the poems attributed to the Pearl poet are written in the same Northern dialect of Middle English, so you get some interesting Old Norse-sounding words like burne and tulk[1] which may at first seem foreign to Chaucer readers.

It’s a dream vision poem – a popular genre, particularly in 13th and 14th century England and France. Other examples of the dream vision poem are Roman de la Rose (a sort of medieval version of A Christmas Carol except with sex), Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and, of course, Piers Plowman.

Pearl deals with the grief we suffer from personal loss. The troubled narrator (described as a joyless jeweler) doesn’t say specifically what kind of loss he’s suffered – but it seems to point to the loss of a child. In any case, he’s very distraught. He compares his loss to a pearl, one that – literally, figuratively, or both – slipped from his hand[2] and rolled into a garden. The narrator has no hope of ever recovering his precious pearl in the physical world.

A “Pearl maiden” character appears and guides the narrator through the dream vision and “treats” him in a way very similar to that of Lady Philosophy from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, however, the “treatment” administered by the Pearl maiden is that of Christian doctrine.

Aside from the rhyme scheme, the frequent use of alliterative verse, and stanza linking, an aspect of the poem I most appreciate is how the Pearl poet contrasts material objects and worldly desires with higher thoughts and places and uses imagery of cleanness, perfection, and roundness in every stanza in a natural way that never seems tedious or forced.

You’d think that after the 25th “spotless” or “round” we’d want to pull our hair out, but he – and I’m really sorry to do this to you – keeps the ball rolling – especially by using alliteration. Check out most especially 945-948 (just read it, even if you’re not used to Middle English – there’s a verse translation in Modern English below to help you get the gist of it):

“The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake / Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote / And as Hys flok is wythouten flake / So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” It’s a beautiful poem and even if it doesn’t touch you spiritually in any way, its masterful constructed and flows like water. I leave you with a passage[3] from Pearl and a detail of the passage on its manuscript.

Here’s where the dreamer “sees” Jerusalem:

“Thys moteles meyny thou cones of mele,
Of thousandes thryght, so gret a route –
A gret ceté, for ye arn fele,
Yow byhod have wythouten doute.
So cumly a pakke of joly juele
Wer evel don schulde lyy theroute;
And by thyse bonkes ther I con gele
I se no bygyng nawhere aboute.
I trowe alone ye lenge and loute
To loke on the glory of thys gracious gote.
If thou has other bygynges stoute,
Now tech me to that myry mote.””That mote thou menes in Judy londe,”
That specyal spyce then to me spakk.
“That is the cyté that the Lombe con fonde
To soffer inne sor for manes sake.
The olde Jerusalem, to understonde,
For there the olde gulte was don to slake.
Bot the nwe that lyght, of Godes sonde,
The apostel in Apocalyppce in theme con take.
The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake
Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote,
And as Hys flok is wythouten flake,
So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” (ll. 925-48)[4]
“These holy virgins in radiant guise,
By thousands thronged in processional –
That city must be of uncommon size
That keeps you together, one and all.
It were not fit such jewels of price
Should lie unsheltered by roof or wall,
Yet where these river-banks arise
I see no building large or small.
Beside this stream celestial
You linger alone, none else in sight;
If you have another house or hall,
Show me that dwelling wholly bright”That wholly blissful, that spice heaven-sent,
Declared, “In Judea’s fair demesne
The city lies, where the Lamb once went
To suffer for man death’s anguish keen.
The old Jerusalem by that is meant,
For there the old guilt was canceled clean,
But the new, in vision prescient,
John saw sent down from God pristine.
The spotless Lamb of gracious mien
Has carried us all to that fair site,
And as in his flock no fleck is seen,
His hallowed halls are wholly bright.” (ll.925-48)[5]

Here’s how the passage appears in the Manuscript Cotton Nero A.x. (art.3)[6]:

pearl 925-936 cotton nero

Lines 925-936 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 051 verso (image source)

pearl 937-948 cotton nero

Lines 937-948 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 052 recto (image source)

[1] Burne and tulk (man/knight) appear in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. James Winny (Ontario, 1992).

[2] Reminds me of that last verse from the Cure song “A Letter to Elise” where the narrator says, “And every time I try to pick it up like falling sand / As fast as I pick it up it runs away through my clutching hands / But there’s nothing else I can really do / There’s nothing else I can really do at all.” The character in this song may need consolation from the Pearl poet after he posts his letter – unless, of course, he and Elise do this all the time.

[3] The Middle English version presented here has modernized spelling so you won’t find any thorns and yoghs. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming “diplomatic” transcription of Pearl edited by Murray McGillivray and Jenna Stook from The Cotton Nero A.x. Project (currently under scholarly review for publication). They are also working on a version of Cleanness (edited by Kenna L. Olsen) as well as Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Murray McGillivray). For more information, check out: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~scriptor/cotton/publications.html

[4] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) available online

[5] Pearl in Modern English translation from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: verse translations, trans. Marie Borroff (New York, 2001).

[6] British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) is the only known manuscript of Pearl – it also contains Cleanness, Patience (or Job), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All four poems are thought to have been written by the same unknown poet.

saul 5

In the 13th century Middle High German epic Das Nibelungenlied, a little name calling escalates into the death of our hero Sifried (Sigurd from the Volsung lengend). That almost happened in Better Call Saul a few weeks ago when two skateboarders unwittingly attempted to con Tuco’s grandmother.

When Tuco discovers this, he hogties the skateboarders and takes them out to the desert to execute them. Saul Goodman – who at this point in the story is still known as Jimmy McGill – provides legal defense for the skateboarders in an adhoc desert courtroom where the judge is a psychotic drug kingpin and the jury is comprised of the kingpin’s goons.

saul 3

Though he seems willing to drop charges on the con, there is another offense that Tuco is not willing to forget: the two offenders called his grandmother a “Biznatch.” He seeks the death penalty for this one.

Smoothing Tuco over with lines like, “You’re tough – but you’re fair – You’re all about justice,” Saul eventually barters the punishment down from death to a broken leg. In the end, everyone feels the punishment fits the crime.

saul 4

Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and Tuco (Raymond Cruz) negotiate in Better Call Saul. image copyright 2015 AMC, High Bridge Productions, Sony Pictures Television

Unfortunately for Sifried, Saul Goodman wasn’t around to counsel King Gunter when his wife Brunhild demanded justice after Sifried’s wife Krimhild called her a whore. Instead of Saul, Gunter had Hagen of Troneg who convinced his king that Sifried’s death was the only penalty that fit the crime.

It all started when Brunhild quarreled with Krimhild for daring to walk into church before her, “No maid in waiting is allowed to walk in front of a great king’s very own lady.”[1]

Krimhild doesn’t let this insult go without a comeback:

Krimhild quickly answered     (easily as angry):

“You’d be better much off   holding your tongue. Your shame

Is selling your beautiful body   to acquire a lady’s name.

How can a whore transform     herself a queen, when she’s been so shamed?[2]

(this odd spacing is intentional and is explained at the end of the post)

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s why Krimhild said such a thing to Brunhild:

King Gunter isn’t the fittest man, but he set his eyes on the Icelandic queen Brunhild. To marry Brunhild you had to beat her in several physical challenges – boulder throwing, spear-throwing, stuff like that. If you lose, you die – but if you win, you get to marry Brunhild. There was no way King Gunter could defeat Brunhild in the games so, wearing a cloak of invisibility, Sifried helps Gunter defeat Brunhild. I wrote about this episode in a previous post.

Gunter gets to marry Brunhild, but as you can imagine she quickly realizes that he’s not the gladiator he seemed during the games. On their wedding night, Brunhild refuses sex and instead ties Gunter up and makes him spend the night hanging from the ceiling.

The next day when Sifried asks Gunter how his first night in the sack with Brunhild was, the humiliated king asks Sifried for his help. Sifried appears the second night – and with that cloak of invisibility – breaks Brunhild like a wild horse. Once she yields to him, he takes her belt and ring and lets King Gunter take over.

The belt was a magic belt of Nineveh silk. It was the source of Brunhild’s superhuman strength. And as for the red golden ring- could it be the cursed ring of Fafinir’s horde?

Brunhild looks at Krimhild and realizes she’s telling the truth:

“She’s wearing, now, the silken             belt I lost, and my red-

Gold ring is on her finger.             I’d wish I’d never been born,

My king, and live eternally       sorry, unless you restore

My honor, free me from   this utterly gross and ghastly slander.”[3]

King Gunter summons Sifried to tell his side of the story. Sifried tells Gunter that he never boasted to anyone that he had Brunhild’s body before the king had slept with her. Gunter frees Sifried of all charges. Just before leaving, Sifried adds:

“Men should make certain,”      heroic Sifried went on,

“that women’s tongues are checked,   kept from wagging loose.

You control your wife,     and will try my best to make sure

Of mine.[4] I’m thoroughly          ashamed of such disgraceful behavior.”[5]

Seeing Brunhild unsatisfied with Gunter’s resolution, Hagen of Troneg convinces King Gunter that the only way to resolve this problem is to kill Sifried:

The king listened to evil      Hagen, his trusted man

Burgundy’s faithless knights    set to work

Worthy warriors preparing     hidden betrayal and death

So just two women quarreled       but many heroes would breathe their last.[6]

And so Sifried’s fate was decided just like that – he would be killed in a “hunting accident.” Justice would be served in hidden betrayal. Though King Gunter gave one verdict out in the open, the final verdict given in private was very different.

One wouldn’t expect the final judgment of a psychotic meth dealer on one of his enemies to be fairer than one decided on by a king with the help of his wise advisors, yet it is.

Both of the penalties these powerful men imposed were intended to protect the honor of a woman who was very dear to each of them. For Gunter, it was his wife Brunhild; for Tuco it was his grandmother. Their method, however, couldn’t be any more different.

After receiving their punishment of one broken leg each, the skateboarders are free to go. Tuco agreed to a penalty and stuck with it. Though he is an emotionally unstable gangster who might kill someone for much less, we are somehow confident that he will keep his word.

This is not the case for Sifried though – the king who publicly told him his charge was dropped will – minutes later – turn around and privately condemn him to death. Why is Tuco the character we can trust to be fair and just? It must have been the sleazy, yet strangely ethical lawyer – Sifried failed to call one.


A note about the spacing in Burton Raffel’s English translation/rendering: The spacing is to preserve the half-lines of the quatrains. Raffel explains, “Each line is divided, visually as well as metrically, into two half-lines. The first seven half-lines of each quatrain (that is, the first three and a half lines) have three metrical feet; the last half-line usually, but not always has, has four feet. I have followed this pattern very closely.”[7] He also notes that the quatrains in Das Nibelungenlied are not always end-stopped. Using the quatrain above (Raffel’s 876 – the final quatrain of Adventure 14) let’s look at manuscript C of Nibelungenlied.

nibelung last quatrain of adventure 14 C manuscript

detail of Das Nibelungenlied quatrain 876 from manuscript C. image source

Notice the marks indicating the half-lines. In this quatrain they appear after übel, man, untriuwe, an, erfünde, erkorn, bâgen, and verlorn.

To see them a little easier, first look at the transcribed version below. An early 20th century editor[8] preserved the half-lines of the quatrain in his transcription.

876 ed Friedrich Zarncke

The half-lines can look a little odd in Modern English translation in instances where the idea conveyed doesn’t seem to naturally elicit a pause. There’s a strange intoxicating rhythm to the poetry though. Try reading it aloud – but not just one quatrain, otherwise it won’t work – it should be an entire scene – or better yet, a full adventure. I can’t quite describe it – but reading it aloud like that somehow brings you deeper into the poem. Strange to say, but it’s enchanting. These half-lines are not exclusive to narrative poetry in Middle High German. They are used in Saxon poetry and Old Norse poetry as well. Popular examples are Beowulf and the Elder Edda.

[1] Raffel, p. 117, quatrain 838.

[2] Raffel, p.117, quatrain 839.

[3] Raffel, p. 119, quatrain 854.

[4] This reminds me of a rock myth that took place in front of Kurt Cobain’s tent at the 1992 MTV music awards as told by Kurt Cobain at Nirvana’s Portland Meadows show in September 1992:

“You know, yesterday umm… my wife and I were sitting in front of our tent at the MTV Music Awards – we were having lunch – and Axl Rose walked by us. And we yelled at Axl – we said, ‘Axl! Will you be the godfather of our child?’ And he said – he stopped, he turned around – he pointed his finger at my wife […] and so he said to my wife, ‘You better shut up bitch. Don’t pitch me any shit tonight.’ […] and he said, ‘You better keep your wife’s mouth shut – you embarrass everybody. You embarrass your wife, you embarrass your old man, you embarrass me.’ [… ] I was shaking and I said… I told my wife to ‘SHUT UP BITCH!’”

[5] Raffel, p. 120-1, quatrain 862.

[6] Raffel, p. 122, quatrain 876.

[7] Raffel, p. 333.

[8] Das Niebelungenlied, ed. Friedrich Zarncke (Niemeyer, 1905) available online.

edit: 11/11/2016. Removed Spoiler alert for Season 1, ep.2 of Better Call Saul from the top of the post.

boethius alfred the great self help bookI love reading medieval self-help books (or “mirrors for princes” – as scholars call them) like Secreta Secratorum and The Consolation of Philosophy. Both are great, but the one I spend the most time with is Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. My interest in Chaucer led me to Boethius since Consolation is one of Chaucer’s favorite touchstones. Once you read Boethius (or Boece, as he is called in Middle English texts) you’ll forever see flashes of his guiding philosophy in Chaucer’s poetry.  In any case, Boethius quickly became a friend in my own spiritual journey. My wife Jessica and I even used a passage from The Consolation of Philosophy in our wedding ceremony. And no, it wasn’t a “medieval-themed” wedding THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

Reading Boethius in modern English translation alone, however, does not satisfy the medievalist. We look to “the versions they used” and while we might not always find them, there are other versions that give us ideas of how Boethius was appreciated in the medieval world. Chaucer translated a version himself into English but he was not the first to do so. An Old English version[1] is attributed to Alfred the Great, the 9th century Saxon king of England. How involved Alfred actually was in its composition will likely never be known, but we know that he placed great value on the text and at least commissioned its production.

Reading Alfred the Great’s version, you’re instantly struck by its heroic language. The quick prologue Alfred provides smacks of the opening lines of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and Green Knight. In Alfred’s version Boethius is a Christian man who fights for justice to save his people from the evil tyrant Theodoric.

After the spirited prologue, however, the narrative becomes – more or less – the one we recognize from Consolation.

Something interesting about the Saxon version of Boethius attributed to Alfred the Great, though, is that the character Lady Philosophy is called Wisdom (and sometimes Reason). Her character is also masculine rather than feminine, but aside from that we are not given any other physical characteristics.

Boethius isn’t “visited” by Lady Philosophy in reality or dream vision in the Saxon version. It is as if the “Wisdom” and “Reason” dialogue with the “mind” occurs in the character’s head whereas in Consolation Lady Philosophy (also referred to as a physician) appears and “treats” Boethius.

Also, the “muses” Lady Philosophy chases away are simply referred to as “worldly pursuits” in the Saxon version as opposed to a greater pursuit: striving to know – but not being arrogant enough to think one can “possess entirely” – wisdom.

Consolation presents a philosophy that is somewhat universal, but the Saxon version manages to be even more universal in a way. It isn’t watered down to the extent of a message from Joel Olsteen, for example, but the concepts are presented in a disarming way that complements Christian thought and could help a medieval reader in much the same way a Joel Olsteen book would help someone today.

Comparing Boethius to Joel Olsteen may seem inappropriate to some medievalists, but I’ll bet Boethius was more accessible than Aquinas (or even Dante) among contemporary medieval readers. The method is also surprisingly similar to modern psychoanalysis and behavior change through self-awareness.

In addition to the text’s teaching and guiding philosophy that is meant to complement Christian thought, something makes the king who promoted the text seem revolutionary for his time. In Alfred’s version, the hero Boethius is a senator who feels his leader is not morally fit to govern his people so he seeks to remove him from power. A king who promotes this kind of hero is telling his subjects that rulers are to be held at the highest moral standard and are obligated to share wisdom and book-learning with their people. And if they don’t – any one of their subjects should remove them from positions of power. That sounds a lot more like democracy than feudalism!

[1] King Alfred’s Anglo Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae, trans. Samuel Fox (London, 1864) available online

14th century illustration of Moses being found from Golden Haggadah (image source: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/hagadah/accessible/images/page8full.jpg)

14th century illustration from Golden Haggadah of Moses being found (image source)

In Exodus, the narrator uses only three verses[1] to take the baby Moses from being handed to a Hebrew wet nurse to becoming a young adult. The story moves very quickly. After Moses is saved from the river by Pharoah’s daughter, we fast-forward to him as a young adult just in time for the scene where he kills the Egyptian. This period of baby Moses’ life is given much more attention in a 14th century version from The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament than it is in Exodus.

First there’s this whole scene about how Moses refused to drink milk from any woman but his own mother and then there’s this interesting scene where Moses as a small child is brought into the royal chamber to see Pharoah. Moses’ foster-grandfather is delighted to see the bouncing boy and like every proud relative wanting to put on a show of the little guy’s brightness and good manners, he puts his crown on the young lad’s head for a Kodak moment. But little Moses, instead of sitting on Pharoah’s lap adorably modeling the big crown on his tiny head, puts the crown beneath his feet and tramples it:

“Betwyx hys schankes he sett hym right
and lappyd hym to hym for grett lufe.
And for he was so worthy a wyght,
Hys pertenes he toght forto prove.
His crown of gold, full fayr and bryght,
that barne hed sett he above.
And sone was schewyd in ther syght
a wonder case forto controve:
That child full lyghtlt lete,
the crown kast he downe,
And fylyd yt with his fete
forto breke yt full bowne.”
(ll. 1549-1560)[2]

Pharaoh’s advisors are appalled by this blatant scene of Jewish insubordination. They warn Pharaoh of the danger of allowing the Hebrew boy to grow to a man and they scoff at Pharaoh’s allowing him to live so close to the royal family. Pharoah hears nothing of their nonsense though – Moses is a clever little boy but he cannot possibly understand the implication of his action in light of current Egyptian-Jewish political tensions much less the prophecy that a Hebrew man will end Pharoah’s rule. It’s just a cute scene and besides – kids do the darndest things! Another advisor – who the text describes as “a wys man of ther law” – chimes in to defend the little child suggesting they conduct an experiment to test his cleverness. Some hot coals are brought in and presented to the little boy and sure enough Moses tries to put them in his mouth. So there you have it, he’s only a cute little boy who doesn’t yet know to be careful around burning objects.

At this moment Pharoah’s daughter (called Tremouth in The Paraphrase) rushes into the scene and takes the poor child in her arms back to her chamber to comfort him. The narrator reminds us that God always comes to those in need for he who saves shall be saved:

“Loe how sone God hath socur sent;
That He wyll save, be savyd thei sall.”

Why this scene? Was it for comedic purpose? Was it an original embellishment?

Turns out, it’s adapted from a 1st century text by Josephus called Antiquities of the Jews. Here’s the scene as it appears in Antiquities:

Thermuthis therefore perceiving him to be so remarkable a child, adopted him for her son, having no child of her own. And when one time had carried Moses to her father, she showed him to him, and said she thought to make him her successor, if it should please God she should have no legitimate child of her own; and to him, “I have brought up a child who is of a divine form, and of a generous mind; and as I have received him from the bounty of the river, in , I thought proper to adopt him my son, and the heir of thy kingdom.” And she had said this, she put the infant into her father’s hands: so he took him, and hugged him to his breast; and on his daughter’s account, in a pleasant way, put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground, and, in a puerile mood, he wreathed it round, and trod upon his feet, which seemed to bring along with evil presage concerning the kingdom of Egypt. But when the sacred scribe saw this, (he was the person who foretold that his nativity would the dominion of that kingdom low,) he made a violent attempt to kill him; and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, “This, O king! this child is he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and deliver the Egyptians from the fear they are in about him; and deprive the Hebrews of the hope they have of being encouraged by him.” But Thermuthis prevented him, and snatched the child away. And the king was not hasty to slay him, God himself, whose providence protected Moses, inclining the king to spare him.[3]

Besides adding the bit about the hot coal test, the scene was not an embellishment at all by the Paraphrase poet. In fact, it’s a surprisingly accurate translation given his version was put into Middle English verse with a slightly comedic mood. Makes me wonder what other texts the Paraphrase poet used to prepare his version of the Old Testament.

[1] Exodus 2:8-10: Douay-Rheims: http://www.drbo.org/chapter/02002.htm ; KJV: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?version=KJV&search=Exodus%202

[2] References to Exodus from the Metrical Paraphrase are taken from The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011).

[3] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston. Available online: http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/flavius-josephus/antiquities-jews/book-2/chapter-9.html

A Tunanina...

meditations on a life lived between


The Filidhic Literary Blog of Jack Günter

Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Record Shop Shots

What I think about when I'm in one

Eric Weiskott

Associate Professor of English at Boston College


one Englishwoman's work


1,000 years of history in blog-sized bites.

The Baker

Scraps and Glimpses...

Momentum - A Travel Blog

Stories and thoughts from a life in motion

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Early medievalist's thoughts and ponderings, by Jonathan Jarrett

Things Medieval

Shedding light on the Dark Ages one post at a time.

In Thirteenth Century England

Thinking, writing, and teaching high medieval history, by Kathleen Neal

Medieval History Geek

An amateur's blog about Medieval history, books, etc.

leaf and twig

where observation and imagination meet nature in poetry

A Pilgrim in Narnia

a journey through the imaginative worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings

These Vagabond Shoes.

Adventure and Travel on a Shoestring

Blueagain: Film and Lit.

Movies, Books, Flix, and Pulps

My Aleph

Thoughts from an Arabic & IR student about literature and history


observations on politics, sports and life in general

E. C. Ambrose

dark historical fiction, because "pseudo" isn't medieval enough

The Templar Knight

Mysteries of the Knights Templar

No Tome To Lose!

Loving books is one thing. Actually reading them is another...

New Gottland

automata and other splendors

%d bloggers like this: