The Wandering Scholars

I’m reading a book written in the 20s at the moment, a kind of literary criticism and history about the Goliards. The writer — Helen Waddell — writes like a waterfall, says little (that I can use), and what she DOES often says in Latin. The writing carries you along like a raft on a river at high flow, and when you get to the end of the page, you don’t know what you read. It’s a kind of verbal feast but wow. Not helping me. Here’s a random example…

O admirabile Venus idolum

and still more significant in promise, the alba of the Vatican MS. of St. Martial of Limoges. The alba is more precious for its Provencal burden than for other merit: it still holds to Predentius, and the cry might be to waken faithful souls rather than sleeping lovers, the enemy in ambush the Enemy of souls rather than the jealous guardian. But in its own exquisit phrase,

“Dawn is near: she leans across the dark sea.”

Interestingly, she’s EXPLAINING poetry that makes more sense than she does. I’m through three of the chapters and so far the book says, Chapter One, “The Goliards (and the entire church!) was influenced by secular Latin poetry more than they like to acknowledge.” Chapter Two, “There was a transitional moment when the Church tried shaking off the sensual (if not libidinous) secular influence, but they really couldn’t do it. They got some lovely lines, though.” And Chapter Three, “A group rebelled against the church rather quietly and wrote poetry intending to mimic Church verses. Mostly this was in Latin, but after a while, they began writing in their own languages. There are some quite nice things in Middle High German.”

The most comprehensible thing to me in the first chapter were two lines of Dante in Italian. This was after a small flash flood of Latin that had left me dumbfounded, so Dante was a relief. I actually thought, “Hey, I can read that!” As the book progresses into territory I know (the Irish monks and scholars, Columbanus and Gall) I feel a lot better, but wonder why no one ever made me read Virgil? What have I missed?

The thing is, she LOVES this stuff, just plain LOVES it. She gushes like a, oh, I already said that.

She, herself, is an interesting woman, and I wish I could have known her. She was born in China; her parents missionaries. So far she has compared some lines of some poems to some lines of some poems by the Chinese poet, Pai Chuyi. I know his story and his work, so for me that was a log to hold onto in this torrent of words. She must have had incredible linguistic abilities, too.

In a way, she seems to be the Jackson Pollack of thought, but I know it was a different world in 1927 when she wrote this book. People read differently and many had a classical education. And my needs as a writer? Facts. But I know facts are scanty for life in the 10 – 13th centuries, it’s just that I have this THING of showing how NOT dark the “Dark” Ages were. Maybe they’re dark because the people and their lives are buried under time’s detritus and we (too easily?) accepted a random Italian painter’s definition of the Renaissance? (My opinion…)

The book is good exercise for my lazy brain. I keep imagining these young disenchanted clerics and their “amoral” lives, the moment they stopped writing their irreverent verses in Latin and started writing in (that bastard!) Italian and (that barbaric language) German. I imagine them going, “Fuck this!” (which I wanted to write in Latin but Google Translate is NOT helpful giving me — as Latin synonyms a range of NON-synonyms such as “Fortuna”).

But maybe it wasn’t like that…

13 thoughts on “The Wandering Scholars

  1. I love love LOVE the Medieval period and books about it or set in it. One of my all-time favorite novels, which I’ve read 3 times now, is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It is full of Latin passages, sometimes quite long ones. I keep promising myself that one of these days I’m going to read it again and use an online translator to figure out what those passages say, but I keep not committing to the time it’ll take to do it. This is the 2nd post of yours referencing the Goliards. They sound really fascinating. I need to see if I can find anything on them around here. Or I could just wait for your book!

    • Even though I wrote it, I have to recommend Martin of Gfenn. You will like it. If you email me your address, I’ll send you one. 🙂

      I love Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose is wonderful. So much more was going on in those centuries than mainstream media (ha ha) tell us.

      • I’m grateful for the offer but don’t want to take your work for free, so I have a counterproposal. How about if I buy Martin of Gfenn off Amazon, you send me a signed copy, then I mail my copy to you?

              • That sounds like a heck of a bargain. I’ll talk to The Boss tonight. I doubt she’ll tell me no, so as soon as she gives me the thumbs-up, I’ll email you my address. Thanks again! It’s been a while since I read a book set in the Medieval period. I read one of the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael last year. It was okay but wasn’t quite what I was looking for, just formula fiction mystery. Have you ever read Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda? For me, it’s up there with TNotR & Baudolino.

                • I don’t know when the change happened but I am now — as Umberto Eco described himself — a writer not a reader.

                  I watched some episodes of Cadfael and read about the series. It’s described as “meticulous” but it isn’t. 10th century? Leprosy had barely emerged in Europe, it was never an epidemic and, until the big plague of the 14th century, was as often viewed as an opportunity to do good, and lepers often viewed as being closer to god (as nearer death) more often than they were viewedas a curse and a danger. Vastly oversimplifies the whole period — I think she relies on Sir Walter Scott, not primary sources of the 10th century. Still, it’s entertaining. I don’t think when she wrote the series the recent discoveries by paleohistorians had revealed what they have, but, at the same time, primary sources pretty much establish the true role of the actual medieval leper. I’m kind pedantic in this, I guess. 😉 But it’s the kind of pedantry no one will be insulted by because it’s so arcane.

                  Here’s a complete introduction to MOG (and my pedantry) for when you’re really bored. It’s a paper I gave in 2013.


  2. Good description of a book I wouldn’t bother to finish. Unless it’s straight history, I have no patience for books that don’t say anything. Life is getting too short.

    • This book says a lot. It’s just from a different time and pre-supposes different knowledge on the part of its audience. She spends 3 chapters making sure the reader has context and that context is pretty incomprehensible to most readers today, even educated ones. It’s really a pity. 😦

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