Monday, August 31, 2009



As a kind of side track to the FIlm conversation.
( I should confess I find him fascinating. The relationship with Heloise I always thought was a minor issue that wasn't that interesting. Oh well.)

If he has any role in History it’s as “the invincible arguer” (the phrase is Kenneth Clark’s). At a time when faith and a willingness to bow to authority were all that was required, no matter how daft they seemed, along comes Abelard and argues that reason must be used to support faith. (Come to think of it, the Bernard’s still rule the world.Or at least the educiational one).

The one thing he couldn’t do was avoid an argument. Castrated, publically humiliated at the council of Soisson, and in no position to do anything but keep his mouth shut and attempt invisibility, he still managed to offend almost everyone, including those looking after him, by worrying away at the truth.

There’s a debate about when our idea of “individuality” first appears in European art and literature. The 11/12th century being one candidate. Abelard appears as an individual, not because of the letters, but because of the Historia Calamitatum and only because the genre cracks under the pressure of the story the writer is telling.

He claims that:

“Since therefore I was wholly enslaved to pride and lechery, God’s grace provided a remedy for both these evils, though not one of my choosing; first for my lechery by depriving me of those organs with which I practised it, and then for the pride which had grown in my through my learning-for in the words of the Apostle “Knowledge breeds conceit’-when I was humiliated by the burning of the book of which I was so proud.”

So there are to be two stories: the story a relationship (lechery) and the story of a scholar’s pride in his own reason.

His version of their relationship can be read then not as a honest confession of the facts but as his conscription of the events to fit his stated moral and narrative design. When he decides to seduce someone (and the decision is presented in those terms) he first describes Heloise as ;” In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme.” He then writes:

“I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at the time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love”. Which I think puts the mockers on the idea that this is a great love story. It’s either painfully honest in its arrogance…if you have decided it’s time to seduce someone, why settle for less than the most intelligent best looking woman available ?…or it could be read it as simply the topos of pride coming before the fall?

His castration and separation from Heloise are his first punishment (for the sin of lechery) and he accepts it in keeping with the overall aim of the Historia.

It’s the second castration that breaks the plan and gives us a sense of Abelard as a man. He can tell the story of his affair with Heloise to fit the pattern; he is proud and vain; he seduces her; he is punished. But he cannot subdue his outrage at his treatment at the council of Soissons to his stated purpose. Accused of Heresy he attended the council ready to argue his case. And the stacked “jury’ knew that no one was going to win an argument with Abelard. So they basically castrated him again: his book was burnt and to prove he was a good Christian he was forced to read the creed. He wasn’t allowed to state his case in his own words; he was forced to read a formula. For a man whose career had been based on the essential role of individual reason in support of faith, and on his ability to verbalise that reasoning in public, it must have been terrible.

He was outraged. You can still hear it. He may have set out to write about his punishment for pride, but you don’t show that by proving the Judge was theologically unsound, or comment after the council:

“all the grief and indignation , the blushes for shame, the agony of despair I suffered then I cannot put into words. I compared my present plight with my physical suffering in the past and judged myself the unhappiest of men. My former betrayal seemed small in comparison with the wrongs I now had to endure and I wept much more for the injury done to my reputation than for the damage to my body, for that I had bought upon myself though my own fault, but this open violence [the burning of his book] had come upon me only because of the purity of my intentions and love of our Faith which had compelled me to write”.

That last, long sentence, doesn’t sound like someone accepting a justifiable punishment to me?

(I can’t read Latin so quotes are taken from Betty Radice’s translation. I also know that it’s quite possible that both the Historia and the letters are forgeries…)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Medieval films continued

My thanks to Linda M. Davies for pointing out that both the story of Abelard and Heloise and "The Song of Roland" have been filmed.

The first is called "Stealing Heaven" and stars someone called Derek de Lint as Abelard.

The second is called "The Song of Roland" and stars Klaus Kinski as Roland. It would be Kinski without Herzog pushing his many buttons, but still, it would be Kinski.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dr. Johnson on Milton... thoughts on obscurities

This is from Johnson's "Lives of the Most Eminent English poets with Observations on their Poetry". Like Hazlitt's "Lectures on the English Poets" it is still thought provoking (and enjoyable) reading. (Though my copy has no notes and Johnson's habit of throwing out Latin tags which are meaningless to me is a good reminder of how definitions of literate and educated have changed. )

"Paradise lost' is one of those books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look else where for recreation; we desert our master and seek for companions.

There are so many poets alive and dead you could replace Milton with in that paragraph if it stopped at the final semi colon.

The index to the "Lives' is an interesting lesson in the realities of fame and reputation. The "Most Eminent English Poets" include Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Rochester, but also Wentworth Dillon, John Phillips, George Stepney, John Pomfret, and the marvelously named Thomas Sprat amongst many other names I'd never even heard of before, let alone read.

William Walsh is another name I'd never heard before, but the index does say of him "known more by his familiarty with greater men than by anything done or written by himself".

You could probably replace his name in that sentence with many others others as well.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Name a good film made from a medieval story

other than Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Arthurian cycle has taken a miserable hammering, from the banal idiocy of “First Knight’ to the pretentious silliness of “Excalibur”. (It’s true, Uther manages to rape Ygraene without taking off his full body armour….which may explain the lady’s facial expressions). There’s a twee film of Gawain and the Green Knight which conflates it with some of Chretien’s tales and misses the point of the story. I saw it on tv in the 1970s. The reviewer said: the author of the medieval poem is anonymous. If it’s anything like the film that’s totally understandable.

Beowulf has recently been butchered by two very different films (see previous posts.) neither of which seem to have a firm grasp on what’s happening in the poem.
Robin hood has become a smiling bandit leaping around in tights, (and we can discount any film where they describe King John as a Norman.)

Has the Tain ever been filmed? That would be a superb subject for a three part epic.. Deirdre first, then the youth of Cuchulain to lift the mood a little before the The Tain proper. Except it wouldn’t have the furry loveliness of that other pseudo medieval three part epic. It’d be a bitter story about jealousy and greed and all those other adult things that don’t happen much in fantasy world. With the hero doing what medieval heroes do the end.

I’m sure I once saw a very low budget but weirdly excellent Gaelic film of the story of Finn, but this was on late night tv back in the early eighties… there’s also an excellent stop animation series of the Canterbury tales that was doing the rounds recently…but that’s hardly mainstream cinema. El Cid with Charlton Heston is ok though painfully long…and not as good as The War Lord which I don’t think is a medieval story but a story set in the middle ages?

Has the song of Roland ever been filmed?

So…any takers?

Monday, August 10, 2009

maldon 991:the Anglo-Saxon art of defiance #2

Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.

Says it all really.

Rebuffed by the English(see part one) the vikings try to force the causeway but are stopped. The messenger returns. No flowery speeches this time. Let us across and we’ll settle this. Byrthnoth agrees. Then,

Wōdon þā wælwulfas (for wætere ne murnon),
wīċinga werod west ofer Pantan,
ofer scīr wæter scyldas wēgon,
lidmen tō lande linde bǣron.

I know it’s a fantasy of mine, but I can hear the “hateful strangers” wading silently, purposefully, across the bright water. You can feel the rustle and clatter running through the East Saxon lines as the “sailors come to land, bearing shields”

The battle goes wrong for the English. Byrthnoth, who is old enough for a free bus pass, is killed, and our poet says, with characteristic economy:

Hī bugon þā fram beaduwe þe þǣr bēon noldon.
(They turned then from the battle, who did not wish to be there)

Seeing someone riding off on Byrthnoth’s distinctive horse, many think he has fled and run after him. But not all the army flees. Byrthnoth’s closest friends and retainers decide to stay. They have boasted they will not leave their lord, their ring giver, dead on the field, and now they keep their promise. Making good your boast, is a theme that runs through Anglo-Saxon poetry. When Beowulf arrives in heorot he makes his boast that he will kill Grendle, without weapons, knowing the consequences of failure.

The poem orders and tidies. We’re reading about a group of men hacking away like lunatics in an abattoir; but their resolution is shaped by the poem’s formal movement. The narrative breaks down into a series of individual vignettes as each man speaks, then steps forward.

But the old retainer's words are still the most succinct definition of resolution that you could hope for:

"Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.
(Thought shall be sterner, heart harder, courage greater, as our might lessens)
Peter Baker suggests; ...because our might lessens)

Kipling states something similar in a very different poem:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

which may have lead to Pink Floyd’s,

“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”

But there is nothing quiet or desperate about the retainers at Maldon. They are at the point where, as Peter Baker points out, physical ability is now largely irrelevant: they know they are not leaving. They are not “hanging on” because there is nothing to hang on for, what matters to them and to the poet, is the will-power to make good a promise.

In the win win world of negotiate and counsel, I’m sure someone would tell those who fled that it was ok really, they were expressing themselves. The value system that might condemn them is merely historically contingent and culturally defined and therefore not necessarily objective and worth worrying about. In fact the ones at fault are the blind fools who weren't critical enough of the dominant hegemonic discourse to see through the way in which ideology had conditioned and manipulated them to behave like obedient puppies serving the self interest of the ruling elites.

But I think there may be something to be said for holding to a considered line, if you’re willing to accept the consequences.

The problem being to find a line which, after long and serious consideration, might be worth holding.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Maldon 991:the Anglo-Saxon art of defiance #1

Ok, so it's August, any excuse to trot this one out. In August 991 an English army under Ealdorman Byrthnoth was defeated by a Viking army at Maldon in modern Essex. The poem, or what's left of it, describes the defeat. It begins as the English army arrive on the banks of the Pant and line up facing the Vikings who are on an island in the estuary.

The vikings send a messenger over who basically says: we don't need to fight, you just give us treasure and we'll trot back to our ships. Under Aethelred the English had been buying them off. Byrthnoth's reply, or a scrambled version of it, has been in my head since I first read it way back in 1980.

A translation won't catch the bitter humour or the absolute resolution of the reply but anyway. What he says is:

"Gehȳrst þū, sǣlida, hwæt þis folc seġeð?
Hī willað ēow tō gafole gāras syllan
ǣttrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þā hereġeatu þe ēow æt hilde ne dēah.
Brimmanna boda, ābēod eft onġēan:
seġe þīnum lēodum miċċle lāþre spell,
þæt hēr stynt unforcūð eorl mid his werode
þe wile ġealgean ēþel þysne,
Æþelrēdes eard ealdres mīnes
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hǣþene æt hilde! Tō hēanliċ mē þinċeð
þæt ġē mid ūrum sceattum tō scype gangon
unbefohtene, nū ġē þus feor hider
on ūrne eard in becōmon.
Ne sceole ġē swā sōfte sinc ġegangan;
ūs sceal ord and ecg ǣr ġesēman
grim gūðplega ǣr wē gofol syllon."

D’you hear, seafarer, what this folk say? As tribute they will give you spears, poisoned points, old swords, war gear that will avail you little in the battle.
Messenger of the seamen, go back and tell your people a far more hateful message: here stands, undaunted, an earl with his troop, who will defend this homeland, the land of Aethelred and my elders, both folk and fold. Heathens shall fall in battle! It would be shameful if you should go back to your ships with our treasures or come any further into our homeland without a fight. Not so softly will you win our treasure. First point and edge in grim battle play will reconcile us before we will give tribute.

There are some grim jokes that don't translate, but there's something magnificent in the defiance. The OE works aloud (he confesses to trying it on a river bank) alternating between tub thumbing heroism and sly humour.

The viking messenger offers him the easy option and he flatly rejects it. At this stage there is no suggestion that if it does come to a battle he can't win or won't win.

There are times such attitudes need evoking...if merely in private situations that are intolerable; a kind of this far; no further and to hell with the consequences.

Later in the poem, in what is usually described as one of the most succinct expressions of the "heroic ethos' in OE poetry, the choice will be much more limited; the consequences far more obviously grim.

But that for later.