The Wandering Scholars, by Helen Waddell

Second paragraph of third chapter (a long one, spread across two pages, which is why the footnote numbers are repeated):

It is true that thanks to the dangers and squalors of the [tenth] century, invasion, rebellion and faction, there is no longer, at any rate in France and England, an educated society. One misses the voluminous correspondence of the ninth century, of Alcuin and his Venerable Fowl, of Hrabanus Maurus, of Servatus Lupus, hoarding manuscripts like a magpie and clamouring like Petrarch for more. There is scholarship, but it is not present diffusedly. Bruno, young brother of Otto the Great and Archbishop of Cologne, does his best to maintain a school of the humanities there, and summoned to it an Irish bishop from Trier to teach Greek; there are colonies of Greek and Irish monks at Toul and at Verdun.1 From Toul, indeed, or rather from a monastery prison in Toul, comes the odd little tale of the calf that ran away, and his adventures with the wolf and the hedgehog and the lion and the otter—the first rough draft of the Roman de Renard. The writer of it says frankly that he himself had misspent his youth nor plied his book, and the calf is his vagrant self, and that is why the metre is so clumsy.2 At Glastonbury, Dunstan was brought up by Irish scholars (William of Malmesbury pauses to reflect on their continuing reputation in music and geometry, though their Latinity—he writes in the twelfth century—is no longer so pure as it was).3 Begging letters addressed to his successor from Liege prove that the fire still burns there. One clerk with humility and confusion of metaphor pleads that as an unworthy pup he had licked up sufficient crumbs from under the bishop's table (Notker of Liege was a sound scholar) to qualify him to enter the English apiary as an obedient bee;1 and another, about a journey and a loan of money and a borrowed horse, bears out the Vicar of Wakefield's experience that the conjunction of a scholar and a horse is not always fortunate.2 The light never quite goes out; though Gerbert in quest of it flickers across Europe like a will-o'-the-wisp.
1 Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, i. 503, 505.
2 Ecbasis Captivi (Grimm and Schmcller, Lateinische Gedichte des X and XI Jahrhunderts).
3 Vita S. Dunstani, i. 4 (Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan, pp. 256-7).
1 Vita S. Dunstani, i. 4 (Stubbs, Memorials of St Dunstan, p. 387).
2 Ib. p. 390.

This was the book that made the reputation of Helen Waddell, the medievalist from my own corner of County Down. It's a study of the lyrical tradition of poetry in the Middle Ages in Europe, tracing influences across geographies and cultures. I found the writing very dense; written very chattily as if these were all people whose reputations we already knew, with minimal context and footnotes mostly to works available only in well-equipped university libraries. I'm really surprised that it did so well on publication in 1927; perhaps the readers of the 1920s were more au fait with early medieval literature than I am.

Still there are some fascinating details in there. It's always interesting to be reminded of the career of Gerbert of Aurillac, which is crying out for an accessible biographical treatment, either factual or fictional. The same goes for the murky story of the Viking Siegfried (or Sifrid, as Waddell calls him). There's the mysterious figure of the Archpoet. And more locally it's interesting to see Liège popping up as an important centre of culture.

She supplies a lot of translations of the lyrics, to which she brings her own good ear for a phrase; here's the Archpoet's Estuans Interius, as set to music by Carl Orff in the Carmina Burana a few years later, with the original text (which fairly bounces along) and Helen's translation.

Estuans interius
ira vehementi
in amaritudine
loquor mee menti:
factus de materia,
cinis elementi
similis sum folio,
de quo ludunt venti.

Cum sit enim proprium
viro sapienti
supra petram ponere
sedem fundamenti,
stultus ego comparor
fluvio labenti,
sub eodem tramite
nunquam permanenti.

Feror ego veluti
sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aeris
vaga fertur avis;
non me tenent vincula,
non me tenet clavis,
quero mihi similes
et adiungor pravis.

Mihi cordis gravitas
res videtur gravis;
iocis est amabilis
dulciorque favis;
quicquid Venus imperat,
labor est suavis,
que nunquam in cordibus
habitat ignavis.

Via lata gradior
more iuventutis
inplicor et vitiis
immemor virtutis,
voluptatis avidus
magis quam salutis,
mortuus in anima
curam gero cutis.

Seething over inwardly
   With fierce indignation,
In my bitterness of soul,
   Hear my declaration.
I am of one element,
   Levity my matter,
Like enough a withered leaf
   For the winds to scatter.

Since it is the property
   Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
   It is evident
That I am a fool, since I
   Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
   Transient for ever.

Hither, thither, masterless
   Ship upon the sea,
Wandering through the ways of air,
   Go the birds like me.
Bound am I by ne'er a bond,
   Prisoner to no key,
Questing go I for my kind,
   Find depravity.

Never yet could I endure
   Soberness and sadness,
Jests I love and sweeter than
   Honey find I gladness.
Whatsoever Venus bids
   Is a joy excelling,
Never in an evil heart
   Did she make her dwelling.

Down the broad way do I go,
   Young and unregretting,
Wrap me in my vices up,
   Virtue all forgetting,
Greedier for all delight
   Than heaven to enter in:
Since the soul is in me dead,
   Better save the skin.

I'm glad I have read this at last, and I'll put some of Helen Waddell's other works on my reading list now. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2018. Next on that pile is 84k by Claire North.

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