Archives for posts with tag: 13th century

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.

marco polo

So you know Marco Polo the Venetian? The story goes Marco Polo told this French guy all about his travels while he was in prison in Genoa. The first manuscript of The Travels of Marco Polo is 13th century and was written in Old French. Anyway, one of the little stories[1] he heard was from his brothers Nicolas and Maffeo when they were in Jordan. They heard about these Christians who had a flame in their temple that was so popular people came from miles around to light their lamps with it because it was Holy light, etc. – sort of like a relic. When the Magi (or, the Three Kings) went to visit baby Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were to test the prophet. If the prophet chose the gold he was only an earthly king and if he chose the myrrh he was a physician – but if he chose the frankincense he was truly a prophet. Well, it turns out the baby Jesus accepted all three gifts and gave them a little box in return.

On their way home the Magi opened the little box to see what was inside. It was a little stone – meant to symbolize their faith in Christ – steadfast, like a rock, etc. Well, that symbolic meaning went straight over their heads and they thought it was a stupid gift so they threw the stone in a well. At that moment, a huge blast of fire came from the heavens, hitting the stone, and setting it alight. It has been burning ever since. So that’s why people come to visit the temple.

Now, I can’t tell whether this temple was a major pilgrimage spot in 13th century Jordan or if some rural village was just enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame while Nicolas and Maffeo Polo were passing through. It is interesting though, that in the Medieval World stories were written to embellish Biblical sources. A couple of interesting ones are the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament and The Three Kings of Cologne. The latter is kind of like a “Further Adventures and exploits of the Three Kings.” It’s a text with a strong Christian message told in the style of a medieval travel narrative. The Three Kings’ characters are fleshed out in this text. We know their names, where they’re from, and what they do after visiting the baby Jesus besides not returning to King Herod and going home by another route – but more importantly, the text gives you an idea of how the author thought various Temples and newly formed sects responded to the news of the Christ’s birth.

Though the little box and fiery stone gift from baby Jesus is not mentioned in the The Three Kings of Cologne, the text mentions that their gifts were meant to test the baby Jesus.[2] The text does mention, however, another “relic” collected from the nativity, adding that cringe-worthy touch of anti-Jewish sentiment found in most Medieval Christian texts written for a popular audience.

After the Kings traveled around, relating their tale of having seen the Christ, Mary grew frightened that the Jews would come and get her, so she went underground (literally) into a dark cave and waited there until things calmed down a little:

“þer bygan to wex a grete fame of oure lady and of her childe and of þes .iij. kyngis alle aboute. wherfore oure lady for drede of þe Iwes fledde oute of þat litil hows þat crist was bore in, and went in to an oþir derke Cave vndir erþe: and þere sche abode with her childe til þe tyme of her Purificacioun.”[3]

madona de la late

Madonna Suckling the Child, in Venetian vernacular known as the Madona de la late, panel, 13th-14th century. Venice, Museo di S. Marco. Image: Venice: Art & Architecture, Könemann.

While Mary was in that cave she sat on a stone and nursed the baby Jesus. Some of her breast milk sprayed on that stone. Sometime later, the cave was turned into a chapel and became a pilgrimage spot. It still had that stone and it still had milk too. If the stone was scraped with a knife, it would spray some of Mary’s breast milk. Just imagine going to a pilgrimage spot and hearing the guide say, “And Behold the everlasting milk still flows! For a small donation you can take a few drops!” That’s not the only mention of stones and the baby Jesus in Three Kings. More detail is given about the star they saw that signified the Christ was born. Its edges resembled that of a cornerstone.

So, according to The Three Kings of Cologne, after they described the star to people, it was pretty fashionable to put it on all the temples that had decided to follow Jesus. So I guess they did get the metaphor after all – you know, Jesus being like a stone at a strong building’s foundation.

[1] My telling of this tale is loosely adapted from Yule-Cordier’s edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

[2] Makes me think of the Dalai Lama choosing his glasses!

[3] John of Hildeshesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne: an early English translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”, ed. C. Horstmann. available online

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.

Siegfried and Kriemhild in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

Siegfried meets Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen (image: cineoutsider)

What is it about family visits that make them unnecessarily complicated? Is it the distance that we need to travel? The hassle of taking time off from work? Or is it the meal planning and that special trip to the grocery store? How about the housework?

Somehow family visits require more preparation than any other type of visit. There’s more stress, situations have the tendency to become more emotional than usual, and there is often at least one elephant in every room.

It isn’t always like that – but it happens often enough in our minds that we brace ourselves to deal with it. When family visits go well, there are tremendous sighs of relief. Everyone is overjoyed and we promise in all sincerity to stay in better touch as we say our good-byes.

So, since the drama of the gods mirrors our own drama – and vice versa – it should be of no surprise to us that family visits have the tendency to turn the lives of epic heroes upside down as well. This happens to Sifried in Das Nibelungenlied, a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German.

In the story, Sifried (Sigurd from Norse Myth) marries Krimhild and brings her back with him to his castle in the Netherlands.[1]

Though Krimhild misses her homeland of Burgundy on the Rhine, she is very happy to be Sifried’s queen in the Netherlands. After several months pass, Sifried and Krimhild receive a message from Krimhild’s parents: they want the newlyweds to come home for the holidays this year.

Sifried initially reacts to this perfectly reasonable and normal request in the exact same way we might find ourselves reacting – albeit in epic proportions:

Sifried summoned his friends     to help him decide what he ought to do.

He asked for their advice:        should he go to the Rhine?
“My good friend Gunter, and all    his family too, would like me
to attend a celebration.    And I would be eager to go
if only Burgundy     were closer, and not so long a ride.

“And if they ask that Krimhild also     come as their welcome guest.
Counsel me, my dearest      friends. How will she get there?
If they asked me to fight a war,     battling in thirty lands,
they’d find Sifried ready    and willing to help them with eager hands.”[2]

In Sifried’s mind, it would be logistically easier to wage war in thirty lands! He’s a seasoned warrior who can win any dispute on the battlefield, so it’s only natural that preparations for a family visit begin with a strategic planning session. Sifried’s friends suggest a way for him to visit his Burgundian in-laws in style:

The bold warriors answered:    “we think you ought to attend.
Take this journey. That        is our best advice. Ride
with a thousand knights and let them     escort you down the Rhine.
That will ensure your honor    from the very moment you arrive.”[3]

There are many complicated things at play here: awkwardness in dealing with family, Sifried’s need to keep up his regal appearance, uncertainty in customs – but what I find the most amusing is his initial reaction.

He moans about the distance to travel as we might do when we know full well that we’d gladly take a 20-hour flight to a destination for a vacation on our own – or in Sifried’s case, wage a war across thirty lands. What is it about family – the people we love more and share more memories with than anyone else – that complicates visits?

I wonder if the 13th century audience laughed during this part of the poem, “Even Sifried the dragon slayer freaks out at the thought of a family visit!” But, fortunately for us, this is where our similarities with Sifried end. The visit is an especially bad one for poor Sifried: it ruins his marriage and he tragically dies.

We’re lucky that we don’t have too many things in common with this epic hero…


[1] We last saw Sifried in an earlier post courting Krimhild in Burgundy. There, he earned the respect of Krimhild’s father with his talent for winning wars.

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 757-759, p.106

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 760, p.107

Winters are hard. It’s not quite winter yet, but many of its signs are already here. When I leave for work it’s dark and when I get back home it’s still dark. Philadelphia had its first snow this past Monday. It didn’t really do much, but it was snow. So, when the cold wind blows full force while I’m waiting for the bus, it’s hard to think about much else – except, of course, how miserable people must have been during winter in the medieval world!

Those poor folks probably spent nearly every waking minute of their entire life in moderate to severe physical discomfort.

Anyway, I thought I’d post a Middle English lyric about winter time. It probably brought a little comfort to the rich people in their chilly castles. Who knows, it just might make us warm too:

Here’s an excellent version performed by The Dufay Collective:

You can follow along on the manuscript below. The text is sung 0:00 – 0:33 and repeated several times ending with a refrain of “soregh and murne and fast.”

miri bodleian

detail of the song as it appears on fol. 001v of Oxford Bodleian Manuscript Rawlinson G. 22 (c. 1225) image: LUNA

Myrie it is while sumer

ylast with fugheles song.

oc nu neheth windes blast

and weder strong. Ei, ei!

what this nicht is long.  and

ich with wel michel wrong

soregh and murne and

fast

Here’s a quick very literal translation to follow it in the Middle English:

Merry it is while summer

lasted and birds sung. (or the bird’s song)

But now the wind’s blast is nigh (or comes close upon us)

And weather strong. Whoa oh

Oh this night is so long. And

I with very much wrong

sorrow and mourn and

fast

The two words that really stand out to me are fugheles and fast. In 14th century Middle English, you usually see fowles instead of fugheles – which I find much easier to pick out as “fowls.” For example, in the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales you have “And smale foweles maken melodye.”

During the warmer months the birds are chirping, there is abundance of food and warmth, however, during the winter we must be more moderate (or fast[1]) and use our store because fresh food is scarce. You have this great contrast of warm/cold, summer/winter, rise/decline, bustling & busy/slow and stagnant, sweet/bitter. Though winter will be long, there’s a kind of harmony in this balance. The suffering is part of a cycle and summer will return.

Things can’t be growing fast and fat all the time. So it might bring some solace to folks freaking out about the fiscal cliff to see our troubled economy as a long dormant period of frosty fields left fallow, waiting to thaw and rise again with renewal and growth? Probably not…


[1] I wrote a little bit about what the Secreta Secratorum says about diet following seasonal cycles in a previous post.

Ramona helps Scott defeat Roxy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (image: copyright Universal Pictures 2010)

I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World this weekend on Ryan‘s recommendation. It is about a guy who meets the girl of his dreams, but to date her he must defeat her seven evil exes in a video game – for real. It was a silly movie, but one that my wife and I enjoyed.

The film borrows elements from many epic storytelling mediums. Sounds appear on the screen as handwritten words just as they do in comic panels. From the 8-bit charm of the Universal Pictures titles sequence to Scott’s “pee bar” that appears on the screen when he needs to urinate, there are little touches to remind us that we are in a video game as well. 

And, of course, Scott plays bass in a new garage rock outfit; the stories in their songs coolly convey their epic struggle to thrive in the music scene. 

Just as epic poetry points to social struggles, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World provides social commentary by addressing the ever uncomfortable and paradoxical popularity of hipster culture.

But a considerable amount of comical symbolism comes from far older sources, borrowed from epic storytelling and even a medieval text. One part in particular recalls a scene from Das Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelgungs). Das Nibelungenlied is a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German. In the poem, Sifried, a prince from the Netherlands, travels to Burgundy to court the woman of his dreams, Krimheld. 

While there, he helps the Burgundian King Gunter defeat the Saxons. King Gunter later decides that the only woman in the world suited to be his wife is Brunhild, an Icelandic queen. 

King Gunter asks Sifried to accompany him to Iceland to “court” Brunhild. Gunter believes that Brunhild is the woman of his dreams, so he attempts to win her hand in marriage. But to do this, he must compete with her in a dangerous game. If he wins the game, he will take Brunhild for his wife. If he loses the game — and no man had ever defeated Brunhild – he will die.

Sifried knows that Gunter cannot possibly win the game, so he quickly devises a plan to help his liege lord win:

They thought to themselves: “This journey    starts to seem like a bad mistake”
No one noticed that noble    Sifried had quietly walked
away from this noisy scene,   gone down to their unguarded ship
and gotten his threefold magic     cloak. Once it was slipped
lightly across his shoulders     he became completely invisible.

And then he hurried back,     joined the crowd of warriors
come to enjoy Brunhild’s    games, in the place she had ordered
made ready. Wrapped in his cloak    he could walk among them, unseen,
surrounded by men who never    suspected his presence, awaiting their queen.[1]

 As Brunhild prepares to throw her first blow, Gunter realizes that he is no match for her:

Quickly, she rolled her sleeves    up her clear white arms,
clasped one hand in her shield,     and then raised her great spear high
in the air. The games were about       to begin. In addition, the look in her eyes
worried Gunter and Sifried.    The king was facing deadly harm.[2]

Sifried comes to the rescue in the nick of time:

 And true enough, without    Sifried’s aid, plainly

Gunter would have been killed.         But Sifried gave the king’s
hand the lightest touch,  making Gunter shrink
away, completely confused. Brunhild was taking careful aim.

“What could have touched my hand?”    Gunter said to himself,
seeing nothing, nor anyone         standing beside him there.
“It’s me, Sifried,” he heard,     “your dearest friend. I’m here
to save you. Have no fear    of the queen, so long as you have my help.

“Quickly, let me have    your shield and let it stay
in my hands. Be careful, do    exactly what I say.
You go through all the motions,    but leave the work to me.”[3]

 When Brunhild’s spear hits the shield, Sifried is hurt, but quickly recovers to return the blow:

Blood came gushing from mighty      Sifried’s mouth. But then
he straightened, wrenched the spear     free of his shield, and threw it,
meant as it was for the king,     hurled it straight at the beautiful
girl with Sifried’s strength          behind it, and back to Brunhild it went.[4]

So, Sifried wins the life-or-death competition for Gunter by moving Gunter’s body and limbs for him. Since Sifried is invisible, no one in the audience can tell that when Gunter leaps, for example, it’s actually Sifried leaping with Gunter on his back. Likewise, when Gunter blocks a blow, it’s really Sifried moving him arms.

The same thing occurs in Scott Pilgrim, albeit played for comic effect — and minus the invisibility part.  One of the evil exes is too much for Scott to handle on several levels, Ramona grabs his fists from behind and helps him win the fight just like Sifried did for Gunter.

It is also an important moment in both stories. Each companion’s true loyalty is shown.

Gunter knew Sifried as a great warrior who fought for fame. He certainly didn’t expect him to fight loyally for him. And for his part, Scott Pilgrim, the hypermodern epic hero, realizes that though he must still fight the evil exes, he and Ramona are already “together.”

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 430-432, p.61

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 451, p.64

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verses 452-454, p.64

[4] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 458, p.65

Nothing quite gets the blood flowing, nay, gushing and splattering, like a medieval storyteller describing life (and especially death) on the battlefield. The best of them, so beautifully vivid and precise are always garnished with the right touch of hyperbole – were they wading in a river of blood up to their ankles or was it up to their knees?

Wink Barnes (played by Ned Eisenberg) is delighted by the gruesome traffic safety film “Blood Flows Red on the Highway” in the 1985 movie Moving Violations (image: copyright 1985 20th Century Fox / SLM Production Group)

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from Burton Raffel’s translation/rendering of the Middle High German 13th century epic poem Das Nibelungenlied.

Sifried (or Sigurd from the Völsung Legends) left the Netherlands for Burgundy to court princess Krimhild. He hung around King Gunter’s hall for a while, spinning his wheels, when, sure enough, some excitement finally came along. The Danish king Ludegast, and the Saxon lord Ludiger joined forces and threatened to destroy the Burgundians unless they agreed to pay them an obscene amount of money. With everyone in the hall shaking in their boots, Sifried smiled at the chance to show his host (and his prospective bride-to-be – via accounts from messengers) his favorite hobby – hacking and slashing!

 

This passage describes Sifried meeting King Ludegast on the battlefield:

 

Sifried struck so hard     against his shining armor

that iron was broken through,      a blow that only brass

-if that-might have blocked,        and blood spattered the grass

and Ludegast was lost,     suffering sharp, deadly harm.[1]

 

This next one shows us exactly what frame of mind Sifried was in when he spotted the Saxon lord Ludiger:

 

None of the Rhineland men    were ever seen behind him.

rivers of red ran             from his blade in a bloody line,

for where his sword came down      helmets cracked with the blow.

And then he saw Ludiger,      marshaling men, row after row.[2]

 

And finally, here is a nice wide angle shot of Sifried convincing King Ludiger to surrender:

 

The two princes battled       on. Gashes sprung

on helmets everywhere,            shields showed gouges long

and wide, still held in heroes’          hands. And all along

the blood of many men’s bodies             came raining down on the thirsty ground.[3]

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 188, p.28

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 205, p.31

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 212, p.32

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