There’s this guy on my connecting bus who usually tells me stories about UFO cover-up conspiracies and sci-fi violence. His name is Marvin and he looks kind of like Barack Obama but he can’t stand Barack Obama’s administration – particularly its policy on drone strikes. He loves talking about how our life on earth will end: space aliens will suddenly appear one day and blow our planet to smithereens. Resistance is futile.

I’m never sure if he shares his actual beliefs, his sense of humor, or some combination of the two. He’s a hard worker who prefers to work alone and he loves to talk your ear off either about sports or space aliens – and since I’m useless with sports talk, space aliens it is.

My usual contributions to Marvin’s one-way conversations are smiles and nods and the occasional “is that so?” – I gave up trying to challenge his beliefs when he got really fired up one day trying to convince me that all Muslims are evil. So now I just listen to his stories which are usually his descriptions of violent scenes from the latest DVD he’s borrowed from the library.

Yesterday he was on about werewolves so he told me about an actual account of a werewolf the size of a cow who terrorized rural France in the 1700’s, devouring somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 men, women, and children until a hunter shot him dead with a silver bullet: La Bête du Gévaudan.

La Bete du Gevaudan ravages a women

An 18th century print of the Beast of Gévaudan ravaging a woman. I love old drawings of vicious creatures. (source: wikipedia)

There’s a film about it called Brotherhood of the Wolf. I vaguely remember this film coming out but I never saw it. Marvin says it’s good, but the story focuses mainly on the political challenges of gathering support to hunt the beast. He also warned me that the beast part is corny – some dumb robot or something – so it’s not the best place to see the beast. If you want to see the beast, you should check your local library. Marvin claimed to have borrowed a very rare book from the Free Library of Philadelphia once that had photographs of its carcass.

La Bête du Gévaudan reminded me of Bisclavret, a Breton story told by Marie de France. I didn’t have much time to tell the story, but I shared the gist of it:

There’s a werewolf tale from 12th century France set in a region in the Northwest called Brittany. It all starts with a noble named Bisclavret. Now, Bisclavret spends several nights away from home each week. No one knows for sure where he goes – not even his wife. This bothers his wife as you can well imagine, so one day she finally asks her husband to tell her where he goes. He confesses that he has been keeping a terrible secret from her for years that he cannot bear to tell her. She assures him that she loves him so dearly and that whatever it is, no matter how terrible, knowing it will only make their love stronger. So moved is Bisclavret by his wife’s display of her undying devotion to him that he finally decides to share his terrible secret with her: Each week he goes deep into the woods until he reaches an abandoned chapel. There, he takes off his clothes, and shortly after he hides them nearby, he turns into a werewolf and goes out terrorizing the countryside.

After a few days, he returns to the chapel and retrieves his clothes. He puts them back on and returns to his normal life as a man. He does this each week. The wife is horrified by Bisclavret’s terrible secret. It wasn’t at all the secret she was expecting to hear. Not knowing how to respond, she asks her husband which abandoned chapel he uses. Bisclavret pleads with her, promising that if she lets him keep just this one secret, he will never keep anything else secret from her as long as they live. She presses him for it though, so he finally gives it up.

Well, it turns out the wife had a paramour and since they had been trying to figure out a way to get it together for years, she plots with her lover to have him fetch her husband’s clothes. The lusty bachelor goes out and takes the noble husband’s clothes and brings them back to the wife, who hides them among her things.

A couple days later Bisclavret returns to the chapel but his clothes are nowhere to be found. You can imagine how he howled when he discovered he would be trapped in wolf form for the rest of his days.

Just then, Marvin has an epiphany, “I’ll bet it’s that same sucker and they finally got him!”

Bisclavret befriends the king

Bisclavret befriends the king (source: wikipedia)

Well, there’s another whole half of the story! Here’s how it ends according to Marie de France: Bisclavret manages to befriend a king and they devise a way to get his clothes back. The unfaithful wife and her paramour are then cursed with a deformity that will stay in their bloodline, afflicting their offspring for all eternity… but today I’ll go with Marvin’s ending of this tale – unless, of course, he’s since found a way to tie it to drone strikes and the space alien apocalypse.

Ok, I’m going to try to make it through this post about descriptions of eunuchs in medieval poetry without consulting Chaucer. He’s dying to share his freshest double-entendres with us about these gentle natured folk, but we should let some other poets have their turn at first crack for this cliché.

In the 14th century dream vision poem Pearl, the poet has the dreamer use the words “meek and mild” to describe the Pearl maiden:

Moteles may, so meke and mylde[1] Moteless maiden so meek and mild[2]

nightingale

Medieval poets often used the words “meek and mild” to describe the Virgin Mary and pious women in general in religious poems to the point of cliché. Here’s an example from The Thrush and the Nightingale, a late 13th century debate poem where two birds argue over the reputation of women. The thrush attacks women while the nightingale defends them:

O fowel, thi mouth the haueth ishend

Thour wam wel at this world iwend,

Of a maide meke and milde

Of hire sprong that holi bern

That boren wes in Bedlehem[3]

Your words have now confounded you!

Through whom was all this world made new?

A maiden meek and mild

Who bore in Bethlehem a Son.

I was amused the other day to see the words “meek and mild” used for comedic purpose to describe eunuchs in The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. The Metrical Paraphrase is an entertaining 14th century text that has all sorts of amusing asides that we associate with good medieval storytelling. I like imagining English court audiences feasting on encores of these lively versions of classic Bible Stories. Was it the only version of the Bible available in the vernacular? If it was, they sure were lucky!

We tend to think that the dark ages were darker than they actually were and that everyone – save those at the top of the church and select nobles – knew next to nothing about the Bible besides, say, bits of the nativity, Noah’s Flood, and the crucifixion before the Wycliffe Bible went into circulation. Well, they did have The Metrical Paraphrase. Now, I wouldn’t call The Metrical Paraphrase a scholarly translation of the Old Testament, but it is certainly a translation in the sense that most medieval “translations” are more akin to what we would call a retelling. The Metrical Paraphrase is just that – a retelling. The poet’s retelling is surprisingly faithful to Scripture and embellished with amusing asides[4]  and the occasional description of things in the story that would be foreign to his medieval audience.

Esther and Ahasuerus

One example of an amusing aside in the Metrical Paraphrase occurs in the poet’s description of Queen Vashti’s chamber in The Book of Esther. The poet makes sure to point out that the eunuchs – the only men allowed to be in the room with her – are “meek and mild”:

 and thei were ordand in ther yowth
that hei myght do no manly dede,
Bot ever more meke and myld of mouth
servandes als maydyns for ther mede[5]

Poor guys. They were “ordained” in their youth that they might “do no manly deed.” Instead, they act as servants for the maidens, their voices “meek and mild” just like those of the angels in heaven or the Vienna Choir Boys.

After all, it’s their spiritual example-setting and deep scriptural knowledge that puts these eunuchs in the unique position of being the only men besides King Ahasuerus[6] who are allowed inside the king’s harem, right? The cliché of the eunuch being the only male permitted in the chamber with a lord’s object of desire is one that is often used to describe villains in medieval poetry. In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, for example, the only person permitted to see the maiden who is kept as a prisoner by her jealous husband besides the husband is a eunuch.

Marie de France initially introduces the eunuch without pointing out what distinguishes him physically from other men:

Uns vielz prestre blans e floritz

Guardout la clef de cel postiz[7]

An old priest with hoary-white hair

guarded the key to the gate…[8]

guigemar l255

Lines 255-56 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

But before moving on with the story, she can’t help but add:

Les plus bas members out perduz:

Altrement ne fust pas creüz

…he had lost his lowest members,

otherwise he would not have been trusted.

guigemar l257

Lines 257-58 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

This is typical Marie de France embellishment. We can hear her delivering the line out of the side of her mouth. The line about how the old priest had lost his “lowest members” is presented so matter-of-factly that if she were called out for obscenity, I can just hear her indignant reply, “Well that’s how he WAS.”

In both The Middle English Metrical Esther and Guigemar, the eunuch is described in places where women live a life in confinement and in both stories these women become liberated. In the book of Esther, Vashti is powerless. She is confined to a room with her maids and the eunuchs and the moment she refuses one of the king’s biddings, she loses her title as queen. This role is replaced by Esther, a woman who empowers herself. Not only do we see Esther enjoying the freedom of being able to talk in private with Mordecai, but she deposes a political enemy in the king’s court and also manages to convince the king to change one of his decrees which, in turn, saves the lives of her people. In Guigemar, the maiden is released from her prison by Guigemar and the magic boat. In both stories the eunuch appears in scenes that describe a woman being ruled by her husband and in both of these situations there is the image of a castrated man – the very absence of sexuality! Are both of these poets trying to say that wherever we find an oppressed woman we will also find a castrated man?


[1] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) v.961. available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/stanbury-pearl

[2] References to Pearl and The Thrush and the Nightingale in Modern English translation are taken from Medieval English Verse, trans. Brian Stone (Harmondsworth, 1964).

[3] The Thrush and the Nightingale in Middle English from Bodleian MS Digby 86 (Wessex Parallel Web Texts) l.169-73. available online: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~wpwt/digby86/thrushtxt.htm

[4] So I couldn’t resist. Here’s something from Chaucer: Compare this to the Host Harry Bailey’s winning criteria for the tale-telling competition in The Canterbury Tales – “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas / Shal have a soper at oure aller cost.” Is Chaucer suggesting that secular tales could provide moral substance as well as entertainment value by presenting them in a way that was already popular in his day for religious works such as the Metrical Paraphrase, Patience (Story of Jonah told by the Pearl Poet in contemporary 14th century setting) and the Mystery Plays even if the moral substance piece isn’t always from the Christian tradition?

[5] The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011), l.16529-32. Available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/livingston-middle-english-metrical-paraphrase-of-the-old-testament

[6] It’s interesting to note that the religion of King Ahasuerus (“Assuere” in Middle English) is ambiguous in The Metrical Paraphrase‘s Esther (“Hester” in Middle English). He’s a Persian king who – we assume – does not worship the Hebrew God, however, since the story takes place in what appears to be a contemporary English court setting complete with nobles and knights, the king is described more like a misguided Christian king than an infidel. Also, though the heroine Esther is Jewish, she is presented sympathetically as a character in the Christian tradition despite the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval England.

[7] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[8] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

The bad thing about reading medieval dream vision poetry is it’s not a good source of material for Today’s Medieval Bloodfest posts. So I grabbed my sword and spear, had the crew rig the dragon-prowed longboat, hoisted sail to a favorable wind, and went raiding in the Icelandic Sagas. Within minutes we incurred the wrath of the King of Norway – twice! (well, the first time was a misunderstanding due to slander from two of our own kin, but the second time pride and drink got the best of us and our blades at Atloy – so we really deserved that one!)

Outlawed, we headed to the Baltic and plundered and burned all of the cottages along the coast of Courland. After that, we headed to England because word was out King Athelstan was building an army to take Northumbria back from King Olaf. Kings pay in red golden rings!

hurstwic axe application

Two members of Hurstwic, a Viking Age living history group, demonstrate Viking combat at Higgins Armory Museum. Original URL

The game they played over there in England – capture the flag – was a little boring and slow to start, so we decided to show them how we play it in Norway:

Thorolf began fighting so furiously that he threw his shield over his back, grabbed his spear with both hands and charged forward, hacking and thrusting to either side. Men leapt out of the way all around, but he killed many of them. He cleared a path to Earl Hring’s standard, and there was no holding him back. He killed Earl Hring’s standard-bearer and chopped down the pole. Then he drove the spear through the earl’s coat of mail, into his chest and through his body so that it came out between his shoulder blades, lifted him up on it above his head and thrust the end into the ground. [1]

Weapons paused mid-swing as necks craned to see what Thorolf would do next:

Everyone saw how the earl died on the spear, both his own men and his enemies. Then Thorolf drew his sword and hacked to either side, and his men attacked. Many British and Scots were killed then, and others turned and fled.[2]

And that’s how King Athelstan reclaimed Northumbria for England. True Story.

To hear the rest of the tale of this legendary battle and to see how we were richly rewarded for our services to the King of England, you’ve got to read Egil’s Saga.


[1] Egil’s Saga, The Sagas of Icelanders, trans. Bernard Scudder, (New York, 2001), 86.

[2] Egil’s Saga, 87.

On a winter morning earlier this year, I was reading Pearl on the 27 bus. I was headed to the mall to make a connection with the 98 bus so I could get to work – my regular morning commute. On a good day, the connection isn’t too long, but it’s usually long enough to justify taking a little walk if the weather’s not too bad. So as I walked around the parking lot, passing time until the Norristown 98 bus arrived, I noticed a little pearl on the ground:

pearl

My secret pearl without a spot was sighted in the parking lot near the bus depot at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

Some little pearl, from the earlobe of a joyless jeweler, “to ground away it shot.”[1] On the street the pearl “went tumbling wide,”[2] rolling through a few loose strands of tumbleweave and past a cigarette butt, stopping in a patch of weathered asphalt. I wondered if the owner of the cheap plastic pearl earring purchased from Forever 21 was in a marvelous dream vision at that very moment, having just reached “a cliff of crystal bright, With resplendent rays all aureoled.”[3] The person who lost this precious cheap plastic earring was either arguing the finer points of Fortune with the maiden child or already in fellowship with the Lamb of God. Perhaps they’d already learned to let go of their little pearl.

Well, I thought that that was a pretty interesting coincidence – but a few days later I spot the little pearl again. This time it’s on the 27 bus by the exit door:

pearl 27

What started as a rare coincidence, I’ve now encountered several times. Just yesterday the 9 bus was detoured because of some construction on Walnut Street, so my wife and I walked East along Latimer or Locust up to Broad to catch the 27 instead. On the sidewalk under one of those walkways they make under the scaffolding when they’re doing work on a building, what do I see but the little pearl again! Finding a pearl on the ground doesn’t seem like something that would happen as often as three times in the same year. Perhaps I need to read Pearl more often because it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of this line:

O may we serve him well, and shine
As precious pearls to his content!

What are some little things that remind you to return to medieval poems?


[1] Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: Verse Translations, trans. Marie Borroff, (New York, 2001), 125.

[2] Pearl, 126.

[3] Pearl, 129.

In Norse Myth there is a minor tale about the marriage of Njörd and Skaði. Njörd was from the sea and Skaði was from the mountains. They met in Asgard – the hall of the Aesir. After they married, they had difficulty agreeing on where they should live together. Skaði wanted to live on her family homestead in the mountains whereas Njörd wanted to live by the sea. After some discussion, they planned to spend nine nights in the mountains and then nine nights by the sea.

So, to the mountains they went for nine days. When they returned to Asgard, Njörd said this:

Mountains I loathed,
no longer than nine
nights did I stay there,
the howling of the wolves seemed ugly to me
compared to the hooping of swans.[1]

image: Daniel Heuclin / www.photoshot.com Original URL

image: Daniel Heuclin / www.photoshot.com Original URL

Next, they spent nine nights by the sea. When they returned to Asgard, Skaði had this to say about the sea:

I could not sleep
by the shore of the sea
for the noise of the mew
that awakened me,
the bird that flew
each dawn from the deep.[2]

swans by a baltic shore at käsmu

Swans by a Baltic shore at Käsmu, Estonia. image: Jon Weaver

 After this, they parted ways. Skaði went up to live in the mountains and Njörd stayed by the sea.

While there’s more to tell about these characters than this episode, this story has always bothered me. I don’t really tell it often. I mean, you can start the story with how Njörd is the god of the sea like Neptune and that sailors and fishermen are constantly concerned with staying on his good side and that they must give him all of the credit for safe voyages and good catches and everything, and that Skaði was the goddess of what it takes to survive hard winters in the mountains. While everyone huddles around a weak fire with their teeth a-chattering, she’s out bow hunting in a snowstorm.

Of course, that wasn’t all Skaði was known for. When the Aesir bound Loki to await Ragnarök, they called in Skaði to help design his eternal punishment. Now, in an old Greek story, the trickster Prometheus was chained to a rock at the top of a mountain where an eagle lived. This eagle loved liver, and he loved it most while his prey struggled to escape his bonds. A terrible and painful punishment for Prometheus indeed, but Skaði wanted Loki to have something that lasted a little longer. If you’ve ever heard of Loki’s binding, you’ll recall that someone “fastened a viper above Loki’s head to drip burning venom on his face.”[3] That was Skaði’s idea.

Loki's Punishment (artist unknown) Original URL

“The Punishment of Loki” James Doyle Penrose (1912) Original URL

How Njörd and Skaði met is interesting too. Skaði came to Asgard prepared to burn it down and kill everyone there as recompense for the death of her father Thjazi – Thjazi is the giant who stole Iðun and her apples – which kept the Aesir young and fit – from Asgard. Though Loki was technically responsible for it – that’s another story – some said the trickster got what was coming to him.

But the Aesir were never ones to leave a blood price unpaid so they gave Skaði an audience and took her demand seriously when she rattled the walls of Asgard with a crude spear. They were moved by her bravery and were so impressed with her skills as an archer that they didn’t dare arrange a competition – simply out of knowing that they would never recover from talk of their defeat. The Aesir decided on a blood price for Thjazi’s death: Skaði could choose any one of the Aesir to be her husband. The only condition was that she must choose her suitor entirely by his feet. She agreed to the deal.

Knowing that Baldr was the most handsome of all of the Aesir, she chose the pair of what she thought were the most handsome feet in Asgard. Because of this, she mistook Njörd for Baldr – I guess good old sand and surf were the best exfoliants then. But even though she meant to select someone else, she quickly grew deeply in love with Njörd as she got to know him.

So it’s this that bothered me: these two gods ended their marriage simply because they couldn’t compromise on a suitable living arrangement. We see it even today. People have different career ambitions or maybe they can’t handle living in certain conditions or sharing money and power in a mutually agreeable way. Perhaps they aren’t willing to live without certain amenities or use resources in a certain way – even if it means staying with the person they married. We can all easily think of many examples of marriages ending due to irreconcilable differences these days. Each of us knows at least several people who have been divorced and often multiple times. In 2009, the numbers showed that roughly 46 percent of American couples’ marriages end in divorce before they reach their 25th wedding anniversary.[4]

I have no idea what the divorce statics were in Asgard, but women could divorce their husbands in Viking Age Iceland.[5] It’s interesting to see an example of divorce in Norse Myth – not necessarily to confirm that it occurred, but to see that it was not a subject considered taboo enough to be left out of a story.

Anyway, as storytellers – should we accept the responsibility of carrying on the skaldic tradition – it is always our choice what to embellish and what to leave out… and what to flat out fabricate for our own purposes. In a version of the tale told by Padraic Colum, Njörd and Skaði stay together. Here’s how he does it:

These two, Niörd and Skadi, went first to live in Niörd’s palace by the sea; but the coming of the sea mew would waken Skadi too early in the morning, and she drew her husband to the mountain top where she was more at home. He would not live long away from the sound of the sea. Back and forward between the mountain and the sea, Skadi and Niörd went.[6]

This version keeps Njörd and Skaði together by taking the steadfast tone typical of Norse Myth and using the nine nights spent at each location to create a situation that is made eternal with perpetual give and take.


[1] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 52.

[2] The Prose Edda, 52.

[3] Douglas “Dag” Rossman, The Northern Path, (Chapel Hill, 2005), 153.

[4] Hope Yen, “Census: Divorces Decline In United States,” Huffinton Post, (18 May 2011). Accessed 07/13/2013. Available online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/18/census-divorces-decline-i_n_863639.html

[5] William R. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age, (Jefferson, 2010), 36.

[6] Padraic Colum, Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover: Mineloa, 1996), 63.

I read this line in Chaucer the other day:

“For whoso list have helyng of his leche
To hym byhoveth first unwrye his wounde” (857-58)[1]

I could have sworn I’d heard it somewhere else before. I assumed it was attributed to Aristotle.

It appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in the scene where Pandarus gets Troilus to reveal the name of the woman he loves. It all starts when Pandarus hears Troilus groaning and wailing all alone in his room. Troilus has all the symptoms of medieval lovesickness: pale complexion, weight loss, shedding uncontrollable tears when a single note of music is heard… you name it, he’s got it. To make matters worse, he’s mocked others for being in love. Now that he has finally been hit by cupid’s arrow, he’s paying dearly for his mockery of Love.

Troilus and Criseyde book 1 from Kelmscott Chaucer

An illustration of Troilus seeing Criseyde for the first time at the temple from the Kelmscott Chaucer

Pandarus asks Troilus why he is so upset. Well, it’s Chaucer, so it’s more like, “HEY! What’s all this racket in here for?!? Why the sad face, huh? Has the war got you down?” The story takes place during the Trojan War, so there’s a joke about Troilus getting too thin from worrying so much about the war with the Greeks. Pandarus quickly realizes that Troilus has fallen in love for the first time and that he is suffering from lovesickness. Pandarus tries to get Troilus to reveal the name of the woman he loves. The last point Pandarus makes in attempt to get Troilus to reveal the name of his sweetheart is, “Whoever wants to have his doctor’s help must first uncover his wound.”

Well, while reading it again and wondering where I’d heard it before, I had an epiphany. Not just any epiphany, but the kind of epiphany you get when you’re reading Boethius. How could I have forgotten?

Sure enough, it’s in Boethius:

Si operam medicantis exspectas, oportet vulnus detegas[2] “If you want a doctor’s help, you must uncover your wound.”[3]

Boethius

Pandarus giving Troilus philosophical “treatment” reminded me of Lady Philosophy consoling Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy. It’s not a coincidence because Chaucer was not only familiar with Boethius, he was also familiar with that particular line. Here’s how the line appears In Boece, Chaucer’s translation (or version) of Consolation:

“If thou abidest after helpe of thy leche, the behoueth discouer thy wounde”[4]

It’s the very same line that Chaucer put in Troilus and Criseyde – it’s just in a different person.

Why did Chaucer use this line in Troilus and Criseyde? Chaucer wasn’t the first poet to tell the story of Troilus and Criseyde. Did he copy it from another version? Boccaccio’s version of the story (IL FILOSTRATO) is thought to be one of Chaucer’s sources. The language is similar and early in Boccaccio’s tale Troilus covers his “love wound” after seeing Criseyde for the first time at the temple:

“Imagining that neither travail nor sighing for such a lady could be ill spent and that his desire, were it ever known by any, would be greatly praised, and hence his suffering, if discovered, less blamed, the light-hearted youth debated with himself, all unaware of his coming woe. Wherefore, bent on pursuing his love, he took purpose to act discreetly, deciding first to hide the desire born in his amorous mind from every friend and servant, unless forced to reveal it.”[5]

Choosing not to reveal his desire for Criseyde to anyone turned out to later be the source of his woe and it would be the perfect thing to follow up later in the story with the need to “uncover the wound.”

The love consolation speech scene is set up for the line, but Pandarus doesn’t speak it in Boccacio’s version. It’s not in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s French version either.[6] These two texts are thought to have been Chaucer’s sources for the tale. Since no evidence points to another borrowed source, this embellishment of adding a line from Boethius is one Chaucer made himself.

Now, Boethius’ source is said to be Homer’s Iliad[7]– which makes Chaucer’s use in Troilus and Criseyde a little more interesting because the story is set during the Trojan War. Adding elements of Homer helps the story emulate the Troy tales genre and gives it “classical authenticity.”

In Homer, it’s:
“What sorrow has come upon your heart? Speak out;
hide it not in your mind, that we both may know”
[8]

It appears in The Iliad shortly after an assembly called to end Apollo’s plague is broken up by heated disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles is upset – to put it lightly – so after storming out in tears, he walks down to the ocean to sort out his feelings. While he’s there he asks his mother Thetis, a sea nymph, for help:

“[Achilles] sat down on the shore of the grey sea, looking forth over the wine-dark deep.
Earnestly he prayed to his dear mother with hands outstretched: “Mother, since you bore me,
though to so brief a span of life, honour surely ought the Olympian to have given into my hands, Zeus who thunders on high; but now he has honoured me not a bit. Truly the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon has dishonoured me: for he has taken and keeps my prize through his own arrogant act.” So he spoke, weeping, and his lady mother heard him, as she sat in the depths of the sea beside the old man, her father. And speedily she came forth from the grey sea like a mist, and sat down before him, as he wept, and she stroked him with her hand, and spoke to him, and called him by name: “My child, why do you weep? What sorrow has come upon your heart? Speak out; hide it not in your mind, that we both may know.”
[9]

thetis

Homer’s description of Thetis’ arrival has an ethereal quality to it. You can read the scene literally with Thetis materializing from the ocean mist and Achilles sitting there, but you could just as easily describe it as a dream vision.[10] Homer’s scene is interchangeable with Consolation. Achilles can be exchanged for Boethius as easily as Achilles’ predicament for Boethius’ prison, or Achilles’ mother Thetis as Lady Philosophy. Thetis’ first line, “Hide it not in your mind, that we both may know” appears in Consolation as “uncover the wound.”

Both Boccaccio and Chaucer parody the classical reference in their Troilus stories in a way that pokes fun at the dream vision cliché while providing the audience with a crash-course in classical wit and wisdom.

It is clear to the audience that the visitors are not celestial in both Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s stories, but the visitors may very well seem that way to Troilus, who is in a tormented, almost delusional state of mind when his guests visit him. Boccaccio uses a boy as the “doctor” while Chaucer makes his character older to balance the humor he injects with sober wisdom.

Chaucer adds this classical reference from Boethius to make his medieval story seem like it’s actually set during the Trojan War. This subtle detail is meant to invoke the classical genre but it also gives Chaucer an opportunity to give a nod to and further develop the style of one of his favorite poets of all time – Boethius.

That’s enough about Chaucer for now. I’m off to finish reading Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.


[1] Troilus and Criseyde in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), verses 857-58.

[2] Boethius in Latin from De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. Claudio Moreschini (2005).

[3] Boethius in English from The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (Englewood Cliffs, 1962), book one, prose 4.

[4] Chaucer, Boece, Chaucer According to William Caxton: Minor poems and Boece 1478, (Lawrence, 1978), 47.

[5] Boccacio, Il Filostrato, The Story of Troilus, trans. R.K. Gordon, (Toronto, 1978), 35.

[6] Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Le Roman de Troie, The Story of Troilus, trans. R.K. Gordon, (Toronto, 1978).

[7] Consolation of Philosophy, ed. Richard Green; La Consolation de Philosophie, ed. Éric Vanpeteghem.

[8] Homer, Iliad, trans. A.T. Murray (Cambridge, 1924), Book one, line 363. Available online: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0134%3Abook%3D1%3Acard%3D345

[9] Iliad, Book one, lines 349-63.

[10] Piers Plowman – one of the most famous medieval works in the dream vision genre occurs by a body of water. It all starts when the dreamer gazes into a brook: “Me byfel a ferly, of fairy me thought: / I was weary forwabdred and went me to reste / Under a brode bank bi a bornes side, / And as I lay and lened and loked in the waters / I slombred in a slepyng, it sweyved so merye. / Thanne ganne I to meten a merveilouse swevene / That I was in a wildernesse, wist I never were…” Piers Plowman, ed. Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd, (New York, 2006), lines 6-12.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur was released last month.  I had no idea Christopher Tolkien was even working on this project. It was a surprise because I thought Sigurd and Gudrun was the last we’d see of resurrected Tolkien poetry composed in the Alliterative style.

tolkien reading some old poetry

But I guess there’s plenty more in the vaults. The recent release of a Tolkien telling of Morte D’Arthur reminded me that I had yet to read the Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Arthurs – so I decided that now’s as good a time as any.

The first thing that struck me (besides lamenting that “breme as a bore”[1] – one of the Stanzaic Arthur poet’s favorite clichés – will never be a popular expression in my lifetime) was how Lancelot comes to wear the lady’s sleeve at the tournament in Winchester.

Lancelot announces that he will not attend Arthur’s tournament in Winchester because he’s feeling sick. Ever since Lancelot returned from the Quest for the Holy Grail, Agravain’s been trying to catch Lancelot in bed with Guinevere. Agravain, of course, thinks Lancelot is feigning sickness simply to stay behind and get physical with Guinevere. It turns out that Lancelot doesn’t hang around Castle Camelot as long as Agravain thought he would. Instead, our knight du lac travels by night and attends the tournament in disguise and fights so valiantly there that he almost dies in combat but that’s another story.

On the way to the tournament Lancelot stays with some guy who has armor he can borrow, allowing him to appear anonymously in the tournament. The guy has a daughter who complicates the situation of Lancelot’s love interest.

Now here’s where the French and the English versions differ. Lancelot’s interaction with the daughter is a little different in the Middle English Stanzaic than it appears in the French Vulgate cycle.[2] Here’s how the scene plays out in the French version:

That day Lancelot remained there and was served and provided with everything that nobleman could desire. The people in his lodging kept asking him who he was, but they were unable to find out anything. However, his squire spoke to the vavasour’s daughter, who was very beautiful and pressed him hard to reveal who his lord was; and when he saw her great beauty, he did not wish to refuse utterly, because that would have seemed an unmannerly thing to do, but said: “I cannot reveal everything to you, because I should probably incur my master’s anger, but I will certainly tell you all I can without harming myself. In fact he is the finest knight in the world…” (verse 13)[3]

Everyone, especially this girl, knows that that means, “Lancelot – that’s right – Lancelot is staying in your house!”

Then the girl went straight to Lancelot, knelt before him, and said:

“Noble knight, grant me a gift by the faith you owe to whatever you love most in the world.”

When Lancelot saw such a beautiful and charming girl on her knees before him, he was embarrassed and said:

“Please get up. Be sure there is nothing in the world within my power that I should not do in answer to your request, because you have asked me in such solemn terms.”

She got up and said, “My Lord, I thank you. Do you know what you have granted me? You have promised to wear my right sleeve on your helmet at the tournament instead of a plume, and to bear arms through love for me.”

When Lancelot heard this request he was annoyed; nevertheless he did not  dare to refuse it because he had already promised. However, he was very regretful about having granted what she asked, because he realized that if the queen found out about it, she would be angry with him that, as far as he could see, he would never find his peace with her. (verse 14)[4]

 

Here’s how the scene appears in the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur:

Th’erl had a doughter that was him dere;
Mikel Laucelot she beheld;
Her rode was red as blossom on brere
Or flowr that springeth in the feld;
Glad she was to sit him ner,
The noble knight under sheld;
Weeping was her moste cheer,
So mikel on him her herte gan helde. (Verses  177-84)[5]

The maiden with cheeks as red as a rose is so taken by Lancelot’s sight that she cannot look upon him without weeping. It of course incorporates soft and delicate flower imagery that penetrates with a painful prick like the point of cupid’s bow or a thorn on a rose or a… you get it.

He sat him down for the maiden’s sake
Upon her bedde there she lay
Courtaisly to her he spake
For to comfort that faire may.
In her armes she gan him take
And these words gan she say:
“Sir, but yif that ye it make,
Save my life no leche may.”(Verses 192-200)[6]

Reading this today summons images of girls screaming louder than the Beatles’ amplifiers in the 1960s or fans passing out at Michael Jackson concerts in the 1980s. One could almost imagine the wall of this maiden’s room covered with pictures of the Knights of the Round Table clipped from issues of Tiger beat magazine. There is little doubt that this maiden is as much a fan of Lancelot as these girls were of The Beatles.

girls screaming at a beatles concert

Girls screaming at a Beatles performance in the Richard Lester film A Hard Day’s Night. Image copyright 1964 United Artists/MGM Holdings

Her blushing and swooning is a typical medieval description of love sickness. “Save my life no leche may” basically means that even a doctor cannot cure her of her love sickness. For its effect on men, see Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale when Arcite and Palamoun fall deeply in love with Emelye from simply seeing her gather flowers in the garden during the month of May from their prison window. Yes, it was that easy to get lovesickness in a Chaucer story. Arcite’s lovesickness caused by Emelye is so severe that it dramatically changes him when he is banished from Athens and forced to live with Perotheus in Thebes:

…lene he wex and drye as is a shaft;
His eyen holwe, and grisly to biholde,
His hewe fallow and pale as asshen colde,
And solitaire he was and evere alone,
And waillynge al the nyght, making his mone;
And if he herde song or instrument,
Thanne we wolde wepe, he myghte nat be stent.
So feble eek were his spiritz, and so lowe,
And chaunged so, that no man koude knowe
His speche nor his voys, though men it herde.
And in his geere for al the world he ferde,
Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye,
Engendered of humour malencolik,
Biforen, in his celle fantastik. (ll. 1362-76)[7]

Yes, he grew as thin and dry as a dried stalk. His face changed so much that no one he knew could recognize him anymore. He moaned and wailed all night and whenever he heard the sound of someone playing a musical instrument, he would cry so hard that no one could stop his tears. Chaucer ties his exaggerated description of lovesickness as it often appears in Heroic poetry together with some medical terminology suggesting that it could actually be a passage from a medical treatise. Everything can be said in the same breath by Chaucer…

Perhaps knowing she will suffer the same fate as Arcite for her love of a knight, the maiden in the Arthurian story asks Lancelot to at least display a token of her love when he fights in the tournament:

“Sithe I of thee ne may have more,
As thou art hardy knight and free,
In the tournament that thou wolde bere
Some sign of mine that men might see.”
“Lady, thy sleeve thou shalt of-shere;
I will it take for the love of thee;
So did I never no ladies ere,
But one that most hath loved me.”(Verses 201-08)[8]
 

The Stanzaic Arthur omits the scene with the maiden asking the squire Lancelot’s identity. Also, in the French version, the maiden specifically asks Lancelot to wear her sleeve, not just “some sign.”

In the French version, the maiden uses the manners of courtly love to her advantage by making Lancelot promise to grant her wish knowing that his code forbids him from rejecting her request – even if he doesn’t know what it is. This differs from the English version, where Lancelot offers to wear her sleeve.

The whole part about Lancelot’s annoyance with the matter and worrying about it complicating his relationship with Guinevere is omitted from the English version. It’s not a question of trimming down the length of the scene, because the English poet embellishes the scene in his own way to give a description of love sickness. Instead, deciding not to point out to the audience that Lancelot’s wearing the sleeve may create a problem with Guinevere, the English poet tells us something interesting about his audience. It suggests that the audience is well-versed in literature and intelligent enough to draw that conclusion on their own. It also allows for surprise which may mean that there was an audience growing tired of the storytelling styles that prevented the audience from experiencing surprises for themselves.

While it often serves the purpose of bringing a circular balance to their work, medieval poets are notorious for using foreshadowing to such an extent that the stories seems to contain no surprises for the audience whatsoever. The English version, at least in this scene, allows an engaged audience to formulate their own questions and see for themselves how the drama unfolds.

I prefer to have some of both. Medieval court audiences may have as well. There’s something to be said for the poet who holds the audience’s hand, giving clues, and sharing observations. The audience shares the experience with the poet – they are going on the journey together and seeing the same sights at the same time. It takes a tremendous amount of faith in the audience for the poet to allow them to draw their own conclusions about the drama and the meaning of the work. It may also suggest that the public recitation of poetry was meant to be interactive rather than just silently absorbed – or simply a new way for a dining court audience to enjoy a telling of an old poem.


[1] Fierce (or wild) as a boar. (O.E. valiant). Another cliché the poet uses every chance he gets is “withouten lees” – which passed the gulf to Modern English literally as, “Without lies.” It doesn’t have the same the ring to it, but it’s understood. What are some of the expressions storytellers use in place of “breme as bore” or “withouten lees” today?

[2] Mort du Roi Artu – the early 13th century French version. In this post I’m using the edition: The Death of King Arthur, Trans. James Cable, (London: Penguin, 1971).

[3] The Death of King Arthur, 29.

[4] The Death of King Arthur, 30.

[5] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974), 8.

[6] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 8.

[7] Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), 264.

[8] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 9.

Spring is not quite in full swing, but some of its signs are here. We haven’t had below-freezing temperatures in Philadelphia for nearly a week and the wind is becoming a little less harsh. The daffodils have come up and are just about to bloom.

daffodils

So, now that the Sun has entered Aries (the zodiac constellation of the Ram), let’s take a look at what time it is. According to the Secreta Secretorum:

“Ver bigynneth whan þe soone entrith into the signe of þe Ram, and dewrith foure skore dayes and xiij, and xviij hours, and the fourthe part of an houre, that is, from the xiij day of marche vnto the xiij daye of Iune. In veer the tyme is so hote, þe wyndis risen, the snowe meltith. Ryvers aforsen hem to renne and waxen hoote, the humydite of the erthe mountith into the croppe of alle growing thingis, and makith trees and herbes to leve and flowre, þe medis waxen grene, the sedis risen, and cornes waxen, and flouris taken coloure; fowlis clothen them alle newe and bigynne to synge, trees are fulle of leves and floures, and the erthe alle grene; bestis engender, and all thingis take might, the lond is in beute clad with flouris of diuerse cloures, and alle growing thingis are than her bewte.” [1]

The sun warms the wind and the snow melts. Rivers and streams that were dry and stagnant for months loosen up and bend and flow. Moisture in the ground rises up and nourishes the roots. Seeds sprout, dead grass is replaced with green grass. Birds get new colorful feathers and sing as the trees adorn themselves with fresh leaves.

Doesn’t this description remind you of the lines Chaucer used to open The Canterbury Tales?

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken meloldye,
That sleepen al the nyght with open yë…” (v.1-10)[2]

Chaucer tells us that it is spring by using the same method of astrological calculation as Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum tells us that spring is the time that the sun is in Aries. Chaucer mentions that the sun’s position is in Aries the Ram, “the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne.” The Canterbury Tales starts in the middle of spring, when the sun has ran half its course through Aries the Ram.

Chaucer mentions the same natural signs of spring: birds chirping and seeds sprouting but instead of using a literal and scientific description of the wind like we have in Secreta Secretorum, “þe wyndis risen, the snowe meltith,” Chaucer personifies the wind by using Zephyrus, the west wind. Chaucer then tells us that it’s the perfect time for people to get outdoors and go on walking pilgrimages: “(So priketh them nature in hir corages) / Thanne longen folk to goon pilgrimages.”

It’s sunny outside and all the birds are trying to find mates so they can have sex. Now, aren’t you in the mood to go on a religious pilgrimage?

well, now that Chaucer’s got us on the subject of active and healthy lifestyles, let’s turn back to Secreta Secretorum to see what this medieval mirror for princes says about good things to do during spring to keep fit:

“Prime temps, that is, veer, is hoot and moyste; in this time sterith mannys blood and spredith into alle the membris of þe body, and the body makith it intemperate complexioun. In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kyndes and eggis, soure letuse þat men call carlokis, and gettis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete thinges that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer.”[3]

So, as the cows and chickens eat fresh green grass, it’s a good time to have eggs, chicken, and milk. Bitter greens, like dandelion these days, grow first, so we should eat them. It’s a time to flush the body of toxins by sweat-inducing physical activity, bloodletting, and eating food with laxative properties. The idea here is that while nature flushes itself out with warm wind and rain, it renews and repairs itself with new growth. So too do our bodies during this time.

This concept of spring as a period of flushing toxins was not limited to esoteric thought in the medieval west. In Chinese medicine, the liver, which is an organ that plays an important role in digestion and detoxification, has been associated with spring for over one thousand years.[4] In a Kung Fu manual that incorporates Taoist alchemy, the liver’s association with spring is mentioned: “The liver is the viscus which stands at the head of the three months of spring…The form of the liver is that of a dragon; it stores up the soul; it resembles a banging bottle-gourd of a whitish brown colour; it is placed below the heart, a little nearer the back; the right has four lobes, the left three lobes; its pulse emerges from the end of the thumb. The liver is the mother of the heart and the son of the kidneys.” [5] The old manual continues with an exercise that should be performed during spring to assist the liver with its natural function: “To repair and nourish it, during the first half of the three months, one must sit facing the east, knock the teeth 3 times, shut the breath and inspire 9 times; breathe the south air,—take in 9 mouthfuls and swallow 9 times…This will cure obstruction of the liver from vicious wind and poisonous air, and prevent disease from developing. These exercises must be incessantly attended to morning and evening in the spring, without intermitting even one day; and, with the heart set upon it, the cure is complete.”

Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s hail the coming of spring and get brand new attitudes! Up for a walk?


[1] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 27.

[2] The General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[3] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[4] Five Animal Sports Qigong: Medical Qigong Exercises for Health, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, YMAA, 2008.

[5] Kung-Fu, or Tauist Medical Gymnastics, John Dudgeon, 1895. Available online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/kfu/index.htm

A week or so ago a reporter on a radio show mentioned that in Homer’s Odyssey Penelope agreed to marry whoever could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it through a dozen iron axe heads. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus leaves his kingdom in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. His people wait for him to return, but as years pass with no word from their king, many of his subjects become gluttons. They spend their time and energy consuming royal resources and having incessant orgies. As the reserves of royal wine start to run dry, they bicker among themselves and plot not only to take the throne from their king Odysseus, but his wife Penelope as well.

Odysseus hears of the rampant corruption in his court and returns to Ithaca disguised as an old man. He watches and waits for the right time to reclaim his rightful seat on the throne. Finally, a perfect time to reveal his identity and crush his opposition arises: Penelope announces that whoever can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot through 12 iron axe heads may have her hand in marriage.

archer

Detail of Archer from 22v of Manuscript Codex Schürstab (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 54) (Nürnberg, about 1472) image: e-codices

There is initial suspense when Telenachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, tries to win the competition. Though he has a hereditary claim to the throne and is worthy in a way, his winning the competition would create a tragically Oedipal scene. After Telenachus’ unsuccessful attempt, one of the lusty suitors, Leiodes son of Oinops, tries his hand at stringing Odysseus’ bow but “his hands were weak and unused to hard work, they therefore soon grew tired.”[1] Antinoos suggests warming the bow and greasing it up with lard to make is easier to bend. The audience holds their breath with squinted eyes, wrestling to find a comfortable spot on their seat as they worry that the villains may win by cheating.

At last, as the story goes, no one could do it except Odysseus. He strings the bow like an old bard automatically replaces a broken string on his lyre without skipping a beat. Odysseus then loads an arrow, draws back the string, and releases his missile like a bored teenager would pull and release the plunger of a pinball machine. Our hero shoots through all twelve axe heads with his first shot and boy does the king make heads roll after that!

kevin shoots up his school

Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) shoots up his school in Lynne Ramsay’s film We Need to Talk About Kevin (image copyright: 2011 BBC Films)

The next day, as I continued my way through Das Nibelungenlied on the bus, I ran across a passage that made me recall Odysseus’ bow and how he was the only one who could string it. Just before the scene where the hero Sifried is murdered in Das Nibelungenlied, the poet takes the time to describe the exceptional quality of Sifried’s hunting gear. The poet mentions that no man could bend Sifried’s bow but him:

“… And the huge bow he used
could not be bent by hand, except by him. Winding it
slowly back with a winch   was all that anyone else could do.”
[2]

Homer and the Nibelungenlied poet use the motif of the bow that could not be bent by anyone but the hero for different effect in their epic tales. Homer uses it to show the audience that his hero has no peer in strength and strategy and that his sovereignty should have never been a contest. Everyone in the audience knows that Odysseus is still awesome and that he is the rightful ruler of Ithaca. The Nibelungenlied poet uses the bow in the opposite way. He uses it to take his hero, who is already at the at the pinnacle of greatness, to an even higher point to make his fall all the more tragic. It’s like he rubs salt in a wound before it is even cut. Despite the fact that Sifried is so uniquely powerful that no one in the world but him is strong enough to use his bow, his greatest friends and allies will still betray him.

The bow in Homer’s Odyssey gives us a reason to cheer for his hero Odysseus, but Sifried’s bow gives us a reason to cry for the fallen hero of Das Nibelungenlied – just as a skald wants us to cry for Baldur when he tells us Norse Myth. While Odysseus’ bow allows the hero to bring justice back to Ithaca, Sifried’s bow reminds us that justice must be served. With Sifried gone and an audience hungry for justice, Sifried’s widow Krimhild seeks revenge…


[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 953, p.133

Westvleteren XII

Westvleteren XII – a Trappist beer that scored a perfect 100 on Beer Advocate last year. Six-packs sold for as much as $85 US (image: www.beercrank.ca)

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois has been making headlines during the last few months for sharing his predictable stance on the issue of gay marriage. He has an interesting surname. I was hoping that Vingt-Trois (twenty-three in English) was descended from a long line of Trappist monks, his ancestor named after a famous batch of beer that fetched such a nice price at market that they were able to buy back their monastery from the bank – but it’s actually a little more interesting than that: One of the Cardinal’s ancestors was, as the story goes, left on a doorstep on the 23rd day of the month.

A baby being named after how, where, or when it is found is a Christian tradition dating back to a story from the Old Testament when the children of Israel lived in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves:

Slaves
Hebrews born to serve, to the pharaoh
Heed
To his every word, live in fear[1]

Each time some invaders showed up to conquer Egypt, the children of Israel fought against Pharaoh. So, in an attempt to assimilate them, he offered them the hardest and most important jobs in the service of the Sun God: farming and brick and mortar. They helped Egypt exceed its luxurious food security goals and even solved Pharaoh’s treasure storage problems. The children of Israel planned and dug an irrigation system so that when the Nile flooded according to the stars, they made efficient use of its water and grew healthy crops in great abundance. Pharaoh used the ingenuity of the children of Israel to devise ways to haul massive, good quality stones from remote quarries. They built structures so large and sturdy that they can still be seen today from space. In fact, there are still some people around who believe the work was done by aliens!

When the treasure cities of Pithom and Ramsees were finally built for Pharaoh, he was very pleased, but the children of Israel did not take pride and glory in their work or embrace the Egyptian way of life. They wouldn’t walk like an Egyptian, talk like an Egyptian, or even wear Egyptian clothing. They wouldn’t pray to cats and jackals or even people with crocodile heads. They didn’t even eat Egyptian food even though they helped grow it. Well, since they weren’t interested in becoming Egyptian, Pharaoh tried oppressing them in hopes that they would leave, but the more he oppressed them, the more their numbers grew. In a final attempt to rid Egypt of the children of Israel once and for all, Pharaoh made a new law for the Hebrews:  “Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.”[2]

Shortly after this unusually cruel and utterly uncivilized law came into effect, a Hebrew woman from the house of Levi gave birth to a son. Now, it doesn’t take an alchemist to know that if a baby is thrown into a river it will drown. This woman didn’t want her neighbors to think she was stupid – or worse, a bad mother – so, to avoid bringing shame to the house of Levi, she cast him into the river her own way: “she got a rush basket for him, made it watertight with pitch and tar, laid him in it, and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. The child’s sister stood some distance away to see what would happen to him.”[3]

Moses Breviary of Chertsey Abbey

14th century illustration in an illuminated ‘S’ from Breviary of Chertsey Abbey (Bodlein MS. Lat. Liturgy. d. 42, fol. 006r) (image: LUNA)

Well, as it turned out, Pharaoh’s daughter was taking a walk with her maids that day and she noticed the basket by the riverbank. She ordered one of her maids to go down and get the baby and bring it back to her. When it was opened, Pharaoh’s daughter saw the baby crying and “she was moved with pity for it.”[4] She realized it was a Hebrew baby. At this moment, the baby’s sister stepped up and asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and fetch you one of the Hebrew women to act as a wet-nurse for the child?”[5] Pharaoh’s daughter told her to do so and she brought the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter agreed to pay the woman to nurse the baby for her as long as she brought the child to her when the nursing was done. Now, it was against the law to let a Hebrew baby boy live, but we all know that a father (even if he is Pharaoh) can never tell his daughter no. When the baby was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter, she decided to raise the child as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter called the baby Moses[6] because she “drew him out of the river.”[7]

In Marie de France’s Breton lay Le Fraisne (Le Frêne), the heroine received her name in a very similar way as Moses. She was called Fraisne because she was found as a baby in an ash tree outside an abbey.

Though Marie de France’s Lays were written in the 12th century, they may have been quite popular for a couple hundred years, because a 14th century version in Middle English survives in the Aunchinleck Manuscript.[8]  Here is the scene from this Middle English telling where Le Fraisne is named:

And for it was in an asche yfounde,
Sche cleped it Frain in that stounde.
(The Freyns of the “asche” is a freyn   
After the language of Breteyn;
Forthe Le Frein men clepeth this lay   
More than Asche in ich cuntray). (v.229-234)[9]

The reasons why these babies were left out and found are a little different in these two stories but also strikingly similar. In Le Fraisne’s case, it all starts with two rich, noble, and courteous knights who were neighbors. They married around the same time and when the first knight’s wife gave birth to twins, he sent a messenger to tell his friend the good news. Now, the knight who received the message had a wife who was envious, arrogant, and prone to lying. When she heard the news she laughed out loud in a mocking tone and said, “I can’t believe your friend would announce embarrassing news in such a proud way! You know what they say about twins, right? It means two men were involved! Your friend is announcing to the entire land that he is a cuckold!”

Needless to say, the knight was embarrassed and instantly rebuked his wife, “I can’t believe you would say such a thing about my fellow knight and his wife. They are the most respectable people we know!”

The messenger and the servants heard what the knight’s wife said and told everyone they knew what happened. The story spread like wildfire through the entire Breton countryside and before a week had even passed, she was the most hated and despised noble in Brittany.

Well, the same year, the knight’s wife got pregnant and wouldn’t you know it, she gave birth to twins. Now the knight’s neighbor gets his revenge! As you can imagine, the knight’s wife is devastated. She resolves to kill one of the babies. She would prefer to ask for God’s forgiveness than to suffer the humiliation of everyone hearing that poetic justice had been served. The lady’s maid begs not to kill the baby. She promises her lady that she will take the baby to a monastery, leave it anonymously, and never speak of it again to anyone for as long as she lives. The lady agrees and wraps the baby in fine linen and drapes a fine piece of brocaded fabric her husband brought back from Constantinople over the baby. She also ties a golden ring that held a large precious stone to the baby’s arm with a piece of ribbon:

Le Fraisne v121-134 from Harley 978

Detail of Le Fraisne lines 121-134 (transcribed below) from Harley 978 (13th century) f. 128v (image: British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

En un chief de mult bon cheinsilenvolupent l’enfant gentil

e desus un paile roe

sis sire li ot aporté

de Constentinoble u il fu

unques si bon n’orent veü

a une piece d’un suen laz

un gros anel li lie al braz

de fin or I aveit une unce

el chasten out une jagunce

la verge en tur esteit letree

la u la meschine iert trovee

bien sacent tuit veraiement

qu’ele est nee de bone gent. (v.121-134)[10]

Elles enveloppent l’enfant de noble naissance dans une fine toile de linet la recouvrent d’une soierie ornée de rosacesque le seigneur avait rapportée à sa femme d’un séjour de Constantinople:on n’avait jamais vu si belle étoffe!La mere attaché au bras de l’enfant,avec un de ses lacets, un gros anneaud’or pur d’une once:Le chaton portrait une hyacintheet une inscription courait autour de l’anneau.Ainsi quand on trouvera la petite fille,Tout le monde pourra être sure

qu’elle est de bonne famille.[11] (v.121-134)

They wrapped the noble child in a cloth of fine linen and then placed over her the finest piece of striped brocade which her husband brought from Constantinople, where he had been. With a piece of her ribbon, the lady attached to the child’s arm a large ring made from an ounce of pure gold, with a ruby set in it and lettering on the band. Wherever she was found, people would then truly know that she was of noble birth.[12]

I love that, a minute ago she was prepared to kill the baby but now she wants whoever finds the baby to know that she comes from a rich and noble family and should be treated with the respect and given the resources rich and noble people are accustomed to receiving.

Anyway, the maid rides out into the night, finds a monastery and places the baby in the branches of an ash tree. When the porter wakes up early the next morning, he sees the brocaded fabric dangling from the tree and when he goes to investigate it, he finds the baby. It’s a baby girl. He brings it to his wife and she nurses the baby. When the baby is done nursing, the porter brings her to the Prioress and tells her all about how he came to find the baby. The Prioress decides to adopt the girl as her niece and she names her Le Fraisne (the ash tree).

Moses and Fraisne are similar in that their births were kept secret, they were found by someone, nursed, adopted by a strong woman (in Moses’ case, Pharaoh’s daughter and in Fraisne’s case, the Prioress), and named based on how they were found.

Moses was in danger of being killed because of Pharaoh’s law and Fraisne was in danger of being killed because her mother was afraid of being humiliated – which is ironic because she’d probably already endured the worst of the public’s ridicule by insulting the knight whose wife had twins.

Elora Danan's birthmark

Elora Danan’s mark from Willow (copyright 1988 Lucasfilm, Imagine Entertainment, MGM. image: rottentomatoes.com)

In George Lucas’ Willow, the evil queen Bavmorda imprisons all of the pregnant women in her realm so she can find and kill a baby girl who is prophesied to end her rule. When the newborn is found with the mark (curiously on the arm which is the same place the ring was fastened to Fraisne), a woman escapes with the baby before the evil queen can kill the her. The woman sends the baby down a river in an ark of rushes. The baby is found by an unlikely hero and the evil queen’s dominion falls. Lucas uses the famous ark of rushes from the Moses story for his tale of a female savior. Now, Fraisne didn’t turn out to be a savior or a great prophetess in Marie de France’s lay, but she does get the chance to be reunited with her mother and she marries the best knight in the land. Marie, though, may have been the first poet to give a girl the chance to play the part of the foundling.


[1] Metallica, “Creeping Death,” Ride the Lightning (Elektra, 1984).

[2] Exodus 1:22, KJV

[3] The Oxford Study Bible Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, Ed. M. Jack Suggs. Katharine Doob Sakenfield, James R. Mueller (New York, 1992), Exodus 2:3-4.

[4] Exodus 2:6

[5] Exodus 2:7

[6] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of The Bible, James Strong, Hebrew word 4872   מֹשֶׁה Môsheh drawing out (of the water), i.e. rescued. (KJV Exodus 2:10, “And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.”)

[7] Exodus 2:10

[8] “Lay Le Freine: Introduction”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freiint.htm

[9] “Lay Le Freine”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freine.htm

[10] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[11] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[12] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999), p.62.

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