Posts Tagged ‘medieval literature’

Charles of Orleans, due to twenty-five years in captivity in England, mastered the language and idioms to write the most accomplished lyric poetry in English of the time.
And yet, even now, acceptance has been slow to accept him into the canon.


Charles, son of the Duke of Orleans, and Italian mother, Valentina Visconti, daughter of the duke of Milan, was born in 1394. He died in 1465.

As a child of the nobility marriage was a game of influence. His first marriage, aged sixteen ended very sadly as his wife, Isabella of Valois (and widow of English king Richard II) died in childbirth. His second wife, Bonne of Armagnac, died whilst he was hostage.
He married a third time, on his return to France to Marie of Cleves. One son became Louis XII of France.

One story has it that he was discovered – luckily, we might add – still alive and uninjured, under a number bodies, on the field at Agincourt. He was thought a good ransom, and held in England. 
There are stories of people drowning in others’ blood under similar circumstances. 
His imprisonment, along with his younger brother Jean d’Angoulême, was relatively ‘open’, mostly held among people of their own rank, and allowed escorted outside access.,_Duke_of_Orléans

He was eventually released, and allowed to return to his inherited Burgundy estates on condition of a sworn oath to not avenge the killers of his father. Wiki says:
Finally freed on 3 November 1440 by the efforts of his former enemies, Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy, he set foot on French soil again after 25 years, by now a middle aged man at 46 and “speaking better English than French,” according to the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed.


He wrote some five hundred plus lyrics in English, and later, again in French. They are of exemplary quality. 
He was writing in that period between the death of Chaucer, the latter years of John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve, of John Skelton, and the resurgence of writing using Italian models under Sir Thomas Wyatt et al.

His earlier French contemporaries mark the ending of a rather prolific period, with the deaths early in Charles’ career, of the honoured writer Alain Chartier, and the phenomenal Christine de Pizan. 

–      It is not easy at the present to obtain affordable collections of the poems of Charles de Orleans. One I did get hold of was a collection of French poets of the period, is Formal Spring, French Renaissance Poets, by R N Currey (published 1950).
The book lists his immediate contemporaries as Guillaume de Marchault, Eustace Deschamps, Joachim du Bellay, Louise Labé, Marie Stuart (yep, Mary pre-Queen of Scots).

The author certainly has his favourites – Charles de Orleans is dismissed as ‘bourgeois’; Christine de Pizan is represented by one poem, the later Louise Labé is called a follower of Christine de Pizan. His favourite, the one with the largest poem contribution, is Francois Villon. Enough said.

His writing strides between past and future modes of literature, his earlier work continuing the debate form of Alain Chartier (The Curialetc), with his Le Débat Des Hérauts D’armes De France Et D’angleterre: Suivi De The Debate Between The Heralds Of England And France, and then the middle and later work looking onward to the Italian sonnet and lyric form of later English writers.


What has been the problem with his acceptance?
Again, Wiki tells us:
Unfortunately, his acceptance in the English canon has been slow. A. E. B. Coldiron has argued that the problem relates to his “approach to the erotic, his use of puns, wordplay, and rhetorical devices, his formal complexity and experimentation, his stance or voice: all these place him well outside the fifteenth-century literary milieu in which he found himself in England.[4]

Against the sententious background of John Lydgate, the wilder satires of John Skelton, the assured style and accomplished imagery of the poems of Charles of Orleans stand out like bright jewels in a muddy light.

Take, for instance, 

The year has changed his mantle cold                mantle: mateau – coat
of wind, of rain, of bitter air;
and he goes clad in cloth of gold,
of laughing suns and seasons fair;
no bird or beast of wood or wold                                  
but doth with cry or song declare
this year lays down its mantle cold.
All founts, all rivers, seaward rolled,
the pleasant summer livery wear,
with silver studs on livery vair;  
                              vair: common fur in heraldry
the world puts off its raiment old,
the year lays down its mantle cold.

His use of roundels, dance forms, song formats, I suspect some view as frivolous. I would certainly argue against that, there is an atmosphere of lightness here but the poems are always so in order to counteract/interact with his own exile and imprisonment. Each poem is shadowed:
My very gentle Valentine,
Alas, for me you were born too soon,
As I was born too late for you!
May God forgive my jailor
Who has kept me from you this entire year.
I am sick without your love, my dear,

My very gentle Valentine.

And here is a particularly joyful one – compare this with the rather staid verse of his contemporaries :

Young lovers
Greeting the spring

Fling themselves downhill,
Making cobblestones ring
With their wild leaps and arcs,
Like ecstatic sparks
Struck from coal.

What is their brazen goal?

They grab at whatever passes,

So we can hardly hazard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
Raked by brilliant spurs of need,

Young lovers.
It is the surprisingly fresh and contemporary imagery that catches our attention first. There is also a sophistication of emotive expression, that further persuades us to ‘partake of the poem’. 
Although coal was in use by then, its domestic use was rare. As a noble, though, he would have been familiar enough with its properties.

There is a very interesting article on Charles of Orleans, by Mary-Jo Arn: Poetic Form as a Mirror of Meaning (Philological Quarterly, 1999, Number 1, Volume 69)
that argues for an overall structure to the collection of his poetry. ‘Charles of Orleans,’ she writes, ‘following Continental convention, composed in Middle English a type of work that no English poet had yet attempted.

His various poetic forms: roundels, ballads, narrative verse, relate fictional/autobiographical adventures in the Court of Love.

He tells how the supposed author enters the service of the God of Love, and therewith love for a Lady to whom he addresses ballads. This is followed by the death of the Lady, at which the author retires from service and enters the Castle of No Care, supposedly for the rest of his life, to lament the loss. Here he writes nearly one hundred roundels. His heart does not allow him peace, and he wanders, physically and emotionally; he encounters Venus, then Fortune, and once again becomes enamoured. He then writes further of amour. 

‘He’, I write, but there is ‘the poet,’ and ‘the lover’, and both are distinct persons. Mary-Jo Arn calls this form pseudo-biography.

The collection opens with an allegorical section, followed by Part One of eighty-four ballades; section two of nearly one hundred roundels; section three of thirty-seven ballades.

The structure presents the reader with three differing accounts of love. The first section and retirement section produce two very different versions of the same experience, and the last section again a very different approach, to a different set of experiences, presented with comedy, and non-courtly responses from the lady. Courtly idealised love – love of love itself? – is contrasted with the real thing: love of a real woman.

There are some commentators who are not convinced the last section are authentic poems of Charles of Orleans, but suspect that they are copies made of other’s work, and incorporated here, or tacked-on by later compilers. The problem is the change in tone of the last section.
Mary-Jo Arn argues convincingly for overall authorship.

A Selection of Poems

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,
Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,

Your little feet – please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you are far away
To muse on these and thus to ease my pain –
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,

Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains.

So I would beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as before I have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day

By your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,
Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains!

My ghostly father, I confess
First to God and then to you,
That at a window watched by few
I stole a sweet and gentle kiss;

I did this out of avidness –
Now it’s done, what can I do?

My ghostly father, I confess
First to God and then to you:
I shall restore the kiss doubtless 
And give my lover back her due!

And thus to God I make my vow
While always seeking forgiveness.
My ghostly, I confess,
First to God and then to you.

Can we also consider this an early sonnet, I wonder?


One day I asked my heart
In confidence, if he
Had put by any part
Out of our property
When serving Love. Freely
He promised me a true
Account as soon as he
Had looked his papers through.

He promised me this, this heart,
And took his leave of me;
And soon I saw him start 
To rummage freely
Amongst the note books he
Keeps in his desk. I knew

He’d speak immediately
He’d looked his papers through.

I waited, and my heart,
Returning presently
Showed me the books he’d brought,
And I was glad to see
That he had carefully
Entered the facts – so now

I’d know as soon as he
Had looked his papers through.

Such clerical exactitude! The development of the scientific, analytical attitude.
A praise for double-entry bookkeeping?

And so, what do we make of this:

Stephen Le Gout, in the nominative,
Quite recently tried in the optative
Mood to proceed to the copulative,

But failed when it came to the genitive.

Six ducats he placed in the dative
To bring him his love in the vocative –
Stephen Le Gout in the nominative.

He came up against an accusative
Who made of his robe a mere ablative;
From a window whose height was superlative

He jumped, taking blows in the passive: 
Stephen Le Gout, in the nominative.

In his last years he was instrumental in fostering the careers of many writers. In 1455 he attended a performance of Complainte d’Hectorby Georges Chastellain, thereby consolidating the position of the aspiring writer and Burgundian chronicler in literary circles.

·      Works by or about Charles d’Orléans at Internet Archive

Of all The Lais of Marie de France, Bisclavret has aroused much controversy.

Bisclavret, an early werewolf story, has gained comments as a misogynistic tale.
In Bisclavret the married king Bisclavret regularly absents himself several days a week from his castle. Eventually his wife gets him to unveil his secret, in a time honoured fashion that goes at least back the Bible. He reveals that he turns into a wolf; that as long as his clothes remain he can change back. His wife then steals his clothes so he cannot change back, and once the king is declared missing, marries her new suitor.
The deception is unmasked, king restored, and wife and new suitor/king suitably done away with. 

How are we to read Bisclavret?
This is deception of the worst kind: the loving embrace that then reveals one’s vulnerabilities to the world, as it were.
Is this tale a prime example of the misogyny of the time, and especially of Church attitudes? We cannot read well the signs of older cultural models.
As Dutch historian Johan Huizinga asserts in an excellent essay in Men and Ideas, the marriage of convenience was very much the model for nobles and people of rank. Woman were commodities, because vehicles for succession through child-bearing; in the case of lack of issue, as we see in other tales, the man would be advised Put your wife aside, choose another to ensure an heir – because, of course, it was always the woman who could not conceive.
I do suspect it was well-known that it was as much the man’s inability; this would never be stated in public, or the public place of text. The flip-side to this is, if a woman is so positioned with a man with doubtful proclivities, as in Bisclavret, the woman could be just as likely to ‘Put the man aside’ and find a mate better suited. And with all the elements of supplanting that goes with this. 

One of the key writers on these topics, Johan Huizinga, also commented: It is manifest that the political and military history of the last centuries of the Middle Ages as described by Froissart, Monstrelet, Chastellain… reveals very little chivalry and a great deal of covetousness, cruelty, cold calculation, well-understood self-interest, and diplomatic subtlety. The reality of history seems constantly to disavow the fanciful ideal of chivalry (Chivalric Ideals in the Middle Ages). In Equitan the relationship of the seneschal and his wife perhaps fell under these last designations. That she is described in the text by Equitan, as a lady who needs love: the marriage, as most of the period was one of convenience and arrangement 

We cannot, I suspect, judge Bisclavret’s wife by any standards than what we know of those of the time. It probably was not actually accepted practice for the wife to do this, and hence its appearance in this tale: we glimpse something perhaps of Marie de France’s originality in her choice of content here. In this tale could we say then that the dynamic is in the discord between the reality of the mores of the time, and those of the chivalric mores some attempted to re-introduce? Is this the source of the dynamic of the Lais as a whole: discord and the search for harmony? We see the novelty and great success of Marie de France in writing about amour courtois against this background. This new perspective does seem to be the gestalt behind Marie de France writing-up, and presenting these Lais. 

If we apply Huizinga’s assertion we can perhaps see a more contemporaneous interpretation that gives an alternative reading.
We dabble here with intentionality: how can we gauge Marie de France’s intentionality in this tale? When we look again at Equitan we see how the writer valued romantic love above the mores of her time, we see in the central part of the tale, the ‘heart’ of the tale where the story was leading, and from where the consequences derive, how the constancy of the affair between Equitan and the seneschal’s wife was lauded: in all that time he neither took another lover nor neglected her, that he was willing to kill for her so they could take up an honourable relationship in marriage. But is there anything in here that shows her ‘bucking the trend’, rather than producing a romantic fantasy? In the tale of Equitan we hear the wife’s fears and doubts, and they are indeed given full expression: they match the king’s for intensity and responsible awareness. She is no member of the ‘lower orders’ struck dumb, abashed or overawed by being feted by the king; she is her own woman, and well aware of the responsibilities of her and, later we see, his position. So, yes, I think we do see here cause for reading intentionality in the Tales. 

The Song Weigher, The Complete Poems of Egill Skallagrimsson. By Ian Crockatt, Arc Publications, 2017

Egill Skallagrimsson, writes Ian Crockatt in his Introduction, was the most original, imaginative and technically brilliant of the old Norse skalds.

It is no small feat then, that he has taken on this task of rendering the complete poems of Egill Skallagrimsson, in as close a Norse metric as possible.
The oldest, earliest, of the old Norse sagas is Egil’s Saga. As we have it, it is a wholly prose translation. Egill’s poems, scattered throughout, also have this form.
It was Ian Crockatt’s task to render the prose form into the recorded poetic metrics of this consummate writer. Our English cannot reproduce the old Norse sound, nor syntax, and so Ian Crockatt had to call upon his own great skills and expertise to render accessible and understandable, indeed appreciable, all Egill’s poems, in translation.
He has succeeded brilliantly.

Unlike the skald of Ian Crockatt’s previous book in this field, Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw), Egill Skallagrimsson is not a very likable man. He is too red in tooth and… well, sword. He is too intent on his warrior trade, and lacks the leavening of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson’s poems to Ermingerd of Narbonne, his journeys to Jerusalem, his humour, and playfulness.
He does, however, have his own laments for his lost sons, as well as his unstinting praise of friendship, and rare poems of love. The life was not easy for those of more liberal dispositions; these poems chart the ups and downs of the life a warrior led, if he was to survive. And Egill was a survivor.

Egill’s main antagonist in his poems was Erik Bloodaxe (Eirikr Blodox).
He’d actually killed Eirikr’s son at one point, then later, shipwrecked whilst sailing to offer his sword to British Saxon King Adalsteinn, ended up seeking some accommodation in Blodox’s own halls. Understandably, his wife, Gunnhildr, wanted Egill’s head.
He was able to save the day through his reputation.
What reputation?
His reputation as the best, most gifted, inventive, skald of the day.

His ‘accommodation’ was to take the form of suitably outstanding verses for Eirikr’s family. These are the Hofuthlausen – the Head Ransom – of Egill Skallagrimsson.
Such was the value of a skald’s work in-the-day, that it could save a life.
He composed 21 verses for his own head. And obviously lived to tell the tale.
He lived long enough to bemoan the loneliness and neglect of the old warrior’s fate.

His own father was also a highly prized skald.
These verse forms were notoriously complex, involved, tightly controlled, with rules and strictures. But mercifully few were longer than 8 lines in length.
For the Head Ransom he produced a new form, with shorter verses interspersed between the regular length verses, and introducing a greater preponderance of end-rhymed lines. It is suggested that this last embellishment echoed the dominant British form of the period, and so was a gesture towards Eirkir’s British base in England.

For deeper discussion of the verse forms, see my earlier post on Rognvaldr:

If, like me, you are a bit of a metre-geek, you’ll love these.

And so, I had a go, using the dominant Drottkvaett form. Eight six-syllable lines, tied in couplets by alliteration, and each even line with two full rhymes. Trochees tend to be the dominant metre.
A recent trip to London gave me these:

Sea-toadstools, slow-flowing
seep of traffic-halted
jet-black, wet, jellyfish’d
jacks. Belligerent
brolly-bargers billow,
hail-stone and sleet harassed:
the City trawling home
to suburban harbours.

So what about the use of kennings – you know, the allusions to, but not actually naming of, things known to one’s audience?
I actually state in the piece what the subject is, in the second part.
I tried to keep the sea-theme throughout.

A kenning is a compound word, made from a base word for a thing, and its ‘determinant’ ie what modifies that base word. In Icelandic there is also a highly allusive element, usually to an element in another saga, and/or their world of myths and gods.
Kipling’s ‘old grey widow-maker’ for the North Sea, is fairly easy for a British person.
Ian Crockatt lists and explicates the kennings used in the poems in a very useful appendix. He also has an excellent appendix on Verse-Forms. Invaluable.

So I tried this one, in a similar setting. What do my kennings refer to?

Canyons of steel and concrete
caught blue-red rain. It blew
to yelps under yellow lights –
baffled us battling
back through. Don’t be seduced,
strangeness does that. Estrange
sight’s stranger: blood’s seen there,
someone’s hurt; someone’s own.

Or, grimly, ambiguously –

Hail and sleet half the day –
how the light is slighted.
What we see’s how wishing
works its superstitions.
Outside worsens: our take
on the season. Reason’s
tangled with belief. Truth?
We’ve wrecked the weather?


Ok, these are first tries, and I was trying for more subtlety.
There is still so much yet to learn about these verse forms.

I hope I have passed on the spark of these to you.
They are certainly a great way of ‘keeping one’s hand in’ in those times of drought.