I’ve begun reading the Goliard poetry. The commentary/introduction to the Goliards of the book I’m reading, Wine, Women and Song by John Addington Symonds irked me big time yesterday. It was all Renaissance this Renaissance that and you know, that bugs me. The way historians conventionally talk about the Renaissance you’d think all that just SPRANG out of nothing, that people lived their primitive, un-Roman, grubby little lives until, voilá, Leonardo. The book is around 150 years old, but that notion lingers on.

This historian compared Goliard poetry to Renaissance poetry and, IMO, that requires a time machine. If I were an intellectual living in the 1880s I’d be tempted to look more at INFLUENCE than comparison, but not this guy. I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. An example — at the end of a long and beautiful love poem, the benighted Mr. Symmonds writes:

It would surely be superfluous to point out the fluent elegance of this poem, or to dwell farther upon the astonishing fact that anything so purely Renaissance in tone should have been produced in the twelfth century.

I want to throttle him.

It’s funny to me how we name historical epochs (for our convenience) and then go on as if it were a real thing. “Hey, Leonardo, dude, here’s what I’m thinking. Renaissance? What’s your take on that? Like it? I think it’s a hell of a marketing stragedy for my badass ceiling and sculptures.”

“Mike, leave me alone. I’m writing secrets backwards.”

Yesterday I read this 12th century exhortation to love (remember, these are songs):

No. 8.

Take your pleasure, dance and play,
Each with other while ye may:
Youth is nimble, full of grace;
Age is lame, of tardy pace.

We the wars of love should wage,
Who are yet of tender age;
‘Neath the tents of Venus dwell
All the joys that youth loves well.

Young men kindle heart’s desire;
You may liken them to fire:
Old men frighten love away
With cold frost and dry decay.

For some reason, it reminded me of THIS (written during the Renaissance):

To the Virgins to Make Much of Time
Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former. 

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The Carmina Burana is filled with songs on this theme.

What IF (and this is a revolutionary thought) one thing leads to another?

But I’m not fair to Mr. Symmonds. His job was to open the minds of his readers to the notion that the Middle Ages were NOT a Dark Ages. He used the handholds he had to do this. I’m not exactly the audience for whom he was writing and I bet the audience he hoped to reach got his point which was, “Hey, these are really cool and beautiful songs kind of like all that stuff you like from the Renaissance!”

There are HUNDREDS of Goliard songs. I can’t imagine that they just lurked in dark taverns with iconoclastic young clerics. I’d bet they were EVERYWHERE these wandering scholars went in their, uh, wandering. I bet LOTS of non-wandering scholars — you know, just people? — knew them. I bet they had a larger influence than we know or the Church would not have wanted so badly to stem the tide of disillusioned drunken libidinous clerics wandering Europe, looking for teaching jobs and criticizing the hypocrisy of the church.

The OTHER egregious thing Mr. Symmonds does is compare some of the church-criticizing poetry to the Reformation. Again, that requires a time machine. BUT…WE look at the Reformation as a discrete event in history that sprang up spontaneously (simultaneous to the Renaissance?) but it wasn’t. Symmonds even opens his book with a quotation from Martin Luther. Again, for his Post-Reformation readers, that could strike a chord legitimizing the redemption of the “Dark Ages”.

The British art historian, Waldemar Januszczak, in his series for the BBC The Renaissance Unchained makes a good case (pretty much my case). His argument is that the Renaissance is Papist propaganda designed to combat the Reformation. When I began watching the series a year or so ago, and he made that point, I cheered. I’m not casting aspersions on so-called Renaissance art at all (it’s amazing), but those guys were PAID to paint and sculpt what they did to convey the message the Church wanted them to.

Do I like the songs/poems I’m reading? Not a lot, actually, but what’s behind them is very attractive. A whole world. Reading one spring/love/sex poem after another brought me to poor old Faust on Easter, bewailing his age and all the years he’d spent in study rather than gathering rosebuds.

That roses have thorns is, maybe, the wisdom of old age.

13 thoughts on “Rosebuds

  1. I am lost to poetry. I like some — mostly modern — stuff and although there are some sonnets I’m very fond of — overall, I’m just not a poetry fan. It annoys me and I don’t even know why.

    • Poetry annoys a lot of people. The “poems” in the Carmina Burana were sung. To me that’s another thing completely — basically pop songs of the 12th century. As for me, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without poetry. I love it. When it works, it’s magic.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! I agree with your take. I get frustrated when I see writers writing as though they were there and KNEW the minds of the people living in the time. They didn’t, they weren’t, unless they had a time machine tucked in their back pocket to pull out conveniently, and even then it would be slanted. So brava!

    • We do it in our own time, too. We have our pantheon and we trot them out over and over again even though there were a LOT of other people involved. I understand it, though. History is complicated and distilling it into one or two figures and events makes it a little easier to grasp, as long as we don’t forget that it’s not the whole story.

  3. I believe you. I worked in and around politics for 30 years and the same ideas kept getting recycled on a 10 year cycle. I wonder if I could have lasted a 100 years, whether anything would have changed. It would not surprise me to learn that the ideas advanced in the Middle Ages were recycled again during the Renaissance (but just tarted up a bit).

    PS. Not normally up this late, except for medical equipment malfunctions. At least, I have something interesting to read while I wait to see that it is all sorted. 🙂

  4. serious scholarship here, Martha. And what I most recall after reading this the reminder that words are a way to communicate something, and all are made up, and an approximation that may be close or far to the actual event, sensation, emotion that is being communicated about. I think to some extent that may be part of the magic of poetry, less is more (to mix time periods further), and beyond that, song, where there is the sense of words along with the sense of the music. And of course lots of humor when one realizes how many hymns are repurposed drinking songs.

    I’d never heard of the Goliards–more learning for me. Thanks!

    • When I was at the point where I could (maybe) decide to pursue a PhD on the heels of my MA, my thesis advisor talked me out of it. He was right. He said, “do you want to spend the rest of your life grading student papers?” I was actually all right with that (and did that for 30+ years). When I said, “Sure!” He tried another tack. “You’re a writer; not a scholar.” It isn’t that writing historical fiction doesn’t require scholarship — mine does and thank god I learned those skills — but the application is different.

      To me scholarship is the pursuit of the question, “who were these people?” That was my question for my senior project at CU and my thesis. That question makes me neither a historian or a literature scholar. I think that’s weird. One of my heroes is Barbara Tuchman. I’ve been inspired by her books — especially “A Distant Mirror” and “Stillwell and the American Experience in China.” I love the way she writes history. I also love that she understood herself. The NYT obit for her quoted her: ‘She had neither an academic title nor even a graduate degree. ”It’s what saved me,” she later said. ”If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity”.”

      Nothing against people with advanced degrees, but my prof was perceptive and then, the program kind of threw me out. Not completely (I finished and got my MA) but they saw that I only got two years of financial aid when everyone else I started with got 3. 😀

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