The consolation and living magic of old poetry

img_7861“Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War”
British Library, 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

An exhibition just opened in London, at the British Library, which is by all accounts sublime and has been stunning colleagues who work in medieval English literature and history, and many other lovers of all things beautiful and old.

It is unlikely that I will be able to see it; I live on the other side of the world and have a very short break at the end of the year, what with exams going up to the 18th of December and their marking to a couple of days after that, and the new term starting immediately after New Year’s Day.

I will try to imagine it, and one of the best things about the medievalist internet is that imagining stupendous exhibitions is helped by generous people who talk about them—reviews, commentary, discussion, pictures—online, especially in places like #MedievalTwitter. If you are on the same continent, or within half a day’s travel (Moscow, Istanbul, New York) it is obvious that you should go and see. And, of course, report back to add to virtual visitors’ imaginative experiences: the Twitter tag is #BLAngloSaxons.


I’m not someone who works in this area of Medieval Studies, and I am not English. I often have rather strong reactions around and about medieval English literary and other—cultural, intellectual, scientific, technological, social, political, etc.—history: for example, against its arrogation of “medieval” with the assumption or implication that any other medievalism needs to add a qualifying adjective and it doesn’t. This may be a blithe innocence, all the more injurious for its lack of thought, of awareness, of consideration. My most frequent strong reaction isn’t that one, though; it is a feeling of care: for a knowledge and fellow knowledge-workers who are increasingly under attack in an attempt at invasion, conquest, occupation, colonisation, and (historical, cultural, epistemic) erasure by appalling right-wingers; in the name of simplistic origin stories, “Western Civilisation,” gung-ho heroes and heroics, “Christian Values,” nationalism, and other recent modern fictions and suburban myths.

From the point of view of an outsider like me, whose work and interests are in areas that border on the outer fringes of early English cultural matters, this exhibition and its subject have three points of fascination, of flow and confluence. That is what this essay is about.


(Being about medieval matters and being online, this is a multimedia essay. There will be images, and they won’t always be immediately relevant. There will be tangents, parentheses and apostrophe, and notes and a tackily tacked-on appendix; though these won’t be as multidimensionally part of the page as they would be on a codex folio. It would be fun to play with WordPress CSS so as to add something like the requisite layers of gloss, musical notation, commentary, border decoration, and marginalia that enrich a manuscript. For it is this that makes a manuscript a richer and more luminous and illuminated medium; as much as it is the multi-coloured rubrication, the decorated capitals and inhabited and historiated initials, and illuminations themselves. There is a suggested musical accompaniment, to the reader to decide whether as contrafactum or continuation: PJ Harvey, Dry (1992). Playlists of the full album are in the usual places online, and the image below links to one. While free online sharing is a valuable accessible introduction, if you like something please do think of supporting an artist by buying their works, and if you can’t, then support our public libraries by borrowing music from them and keeping them alive and free.)


It’s always good to see celebrations of Irish history and culture, contributing—through the so-called “soft power” of influence—to others’ cultures and to making the world a more civilised place. Take for example the earliest written records of this oldest English vernacular, the exquisite Cædmon’s Hymn (late 7th c.). Why this makes my heart sing: not because the Irish invented English literature as well as Western Civilisation (we all know that’s just the whisky talking), but because it is a wonderful thing to see how far back Anglo-Irish relations go, to-ing and fro-ing on the currents, and how their deep roots are poetic ones.


And this is why #medievaltwitter is amongst the finest public scholarship, breaking barriers of academia, building #bridgesnotwalls, bringing “outsiders” in


I’m a multilingual person whose main job is teaching a foreign language. I love multilingual manuscripts, including manuscripts that might seem to be just in one language (ex. Latin) and yet preserve multilingual and multicultural elements. Some superficially Latin texts are actually more than that. For example, some contain glosses: along with Old Irish glosses, and (in these and other vernaculars) multilingual and macaronic texts, some of the oldest extant early Old English texts are of and about language, and for learning and preserving languages. You’ll note, looking at early (and later) glosses, that they’re interlinear even in periods when other manuscripts use columns and mappings across two or more columns. If you are, like me, teaching languages: think about this. I think it’s quite an important point.

An interlinear (usually superscript) gloss maintains the status and primacy of the original text, rather than placing two languages side by side as equals. An interlinear gloss respects its original: it is placed in commentary and side-bar conversation, not cutting it off or cutting through it, or excising a phrase or single word for transplantation into a lexicon. Interlinearity preserves context, and thus also sense. If you’re learning a new language, you’ll not only be passively using dictionaries, lexicons, and glossaries; you should be actively making your own. If a textbook provides one—as for example our current FREN 101 textbook does—that is in the simple form of a word-list, chapter by chapter: that is in my view the best kind of glossary, as you can then return to the text and add examples and context for each word (in the space after it), and add translations as superscript interlinear glosses; perhaps also adding further notes and appending sticky post-it notes and so on. These textual layers will be in your own hand, using your book like a manuscript codex, a dynamic living work of many hands.

(In another multimedia layer, this essay will occasionally be punctuated by screenshots from the Wikipedia. It’s for rapid rough reference, and in support of freely accessible knowledge as we move into celebrating Open Access Week. If you see something that bothers you, you can change it. The Wikiverse has—nay, is—the potential for all of us to be superheroes with superpowers.)


One last thing about multilingualism and translation: discussion continues as to whether the Romance vernacular part of the Strasburg Oaths, taught to many of us for a long time as The First Text In French, is closer to being a proto-Occitan than a proto-French. This text is not a poem, but has some poetic characteristics as it is a record of a promisory speech act that magically changed a world, through creating a diplomatic alliance.


The main early period for manuscript production for written texts in both Old English and Old Occitan is the late 10th to early 11th centuries CE. These texts tend to be of a poetic sort, and they include poetry by and about women. In the case of Occitan, our current contender (since 1984) for the illustrious title of The Earliest Text is about, probably for, and maybe by women. For both languages, the oldest texts involve riddling and diddling, word-play and incantatory magic, vernacularity in all its senses, and translation. Translation, in these early as in other later medieval examples, can be a transformation from non-written cultural practices; and, being as it is the bridge from metamorphosis to metaphor, translation is another ludic magic.

The same caveat applies to Occitan and English as to all older material objects. Time and crumbling means that much has been lost. War and pillaging and looting, theft and sale, and other appropriations and ravages of later descendants mean that we don’t know how much more has been destroyed and how much is invisible, sleeping beauties and once and future kings lying dormant in private collections. We don’t know how representative what we have is of a culture, or rather, of a cultural landscape or a multicultural world; nor how representative it was ever intended to be, or in what way. This kind of awareness and wariness might mean that literary approaches are the most useful way to try to make sense of these unknowns while understanding the limits of their knowability, doing so imaginatively but while keeping one’s feet on the ground; like reading any representational and non-representational word-art, any poetry or fiction of any time.

The first very old Occitan texts that I read were the Fleury Alba and the Boecis. They are connected by the Abbey of Fleury, in Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire: Benedictine, a 7th c. foundation, and with connections to the Carolingian renaissance and to the Irish-European monastic network. These two manuscripts would be from a time when Fleury’s library and scriptorium were internationally renowned for their greatness, excellence, and innovation (if you’ll forgive my renovating some adjectives much-abused by institutional marketing and PR departments), and from around the time—or time of influence—of Abbo (active later 10th c., prevents the end of the world in 1000, dies in 1004) who is an important cross-channel go-between linking the continental and the insular (if you’ll forgive my side-stepping carefully around the minefields of English and French nationalist pride). A time and an intellectual and artistic culture that are fundamentally international and transnational, flowing and cross-flowing in multiple directions, of confluence and conflation, drawing on influences and sources across generations. Connections speak across manuscripts and their perceived divisions, as determined by modern scholarship and its over-determination of temporal periodization and of nation and national boundaries. The most immediately striking connections are visual and in border zones themselves: in spaces that modern texts would prefer stay empty and silent, at beginnings and endings, in the lines separating text from non-text—space, image—including the ornamentation of letters, and—helping the transition from one page to the next, rather than hindering passage—through the margins. Illuminated ages, and age of interlace.

The second of these texts, the Boecis, is a partial translation (narrow and broad sense) of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and has the significant addition of a detailed ekphrastic description of Philosophy’s gown, which has a ladder on it and birds flying up and around the ladder. The image haunted me through my PhD and I sometimes dream about it. Here’s the Boecis..

I first met the Fleury Alba when I was reading lots of Paul Zumthor; during that period of doctoral work, in the stage where you’re reading everything by everyone ever, which—if you’re in a literate and/or historical area—can all too easily go astray and awry. I was lucky and, albeit generally foolish and wildly undisciplined, somehow managed. I don’t know how; it was a flow state period.

But I digress.

Here is some manuscript.


Zumthor’s “lingustique fantastique” work is from that same period in the early 1980s when the history of very old Occitan literature was being radically revised; that is, revised at its very roots, as new roots came to light. This was the same period, in recent intellectual history, of New Historicism and of other -isms of post-structuralist high theory. That Zumthor work was the first thing that introduced me, back around 2003, to some dizzying ideas about what language and poetry might be doing: changing the world, changing us, playing with us from afar (that “distant mirror”); supernatural alien beings making speculative fictions as time travel machines. I exaggerate; this is an extreme extension of Jakobson and Agamben on poetic language, tainted by too much SF and Ken Campbell. But then again, just as questions remain as to why humans have some anatomical features that serve no mundane functional purpose, why would a language do this … ?


See also:

Paul Zumthor, “Un trompe-l’œil linguistique ? Le refrain de l’aube bilingue de Fleury.” Romania 418-419  (1984):  pp. 171-192.

—. “Archaïsme et fiction : les plus ancients documents de langue ‘romane.’ In La linguistique fantastique, ed. Sylvain Auroux, Jean-Claude Chevalier, Nicole Jacques-Chaquin, Christiane Marchello-Nizia (Paris: Denoël, 1985): 285-99.
This is a historically-important volume, as is the previous item (a longer version of the same), at a historic juncture that’s drawing on and mixing and remixing structuralism, semiotics à la Barthes and Eco, and Romance philology; while New Historicism and Capital T Big Grand Theory are in high form; and there’s movement towards what will be New Philology. Barthes died in 1980. Foucault dies in 1984. Eco’s Semiotics and Philosophy of Language comes out in 1984, mid-way between his great semiotics works of the previous decade and the confrontation with deconstruction of The Limits of Interpretation in 1990; and we’re midway between publication of his medievalist novel Il nome della rosa / The Name of the Rose (1980) and its film version (1986).

Daniel Heller-Roazen, “Des Altérités de la langue. Plurilinguismes poétiques au Moyen Âge.” Littérature 130 (2003): pp. 75-96.

Pierre Bec, “Prétroubadouresque ou paratroubadouresque ? Un antécédent médiéval d’un motif de chanson folklorique. Si j’étais une hirondelle… ” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 47 (2004): pp. 153-162.

It was only very recently that I met what may be the oldest extant Old Occitan writing that we still have. I’m translating a later (12th c. Occitan) saint’s life, into verse in English, and this has been a good excuse for reading and thinking about how other people translate older, ancient, and archaic poetry well. A lovely recent example is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. A classic example, to weave both Old English poetry and Irishness back in, is Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. Both are also examples of old texts that have become canonical; they have unfortunately also become canonical in the canon of right-wing, white supremacist, racist, misogynist, hyper-virile appropriation and abuse.


Translation in live Halloween action

Some of the most beautiful recent translations of Old Occitan poetry are those collaboratively co-composed by William D. Paden and Frances Freeman Paden: Troubadour Poems from the South of France (Cambridge: Brewer, 2007). And it was through their work that I met “Tomida femina,” mid-10th c. (dating as per Bischoff 1984 and the Padens 2007) marginal subversive addition to a mid-9th to 10th c. Latin legal manuscript, Bibliothèque communautaire et interuniversitaire de Clermond-Ferrand MS 201 f. 89v.
That’s what most of the manuscript looks like (minus additions like our poem and “two shorter charms that are less comprehensible and written at least partially in Latin”); the four images that you’ll find on the IRHT Bibliothèque virtuelle des manuscrits médiévaux site are the only more decorative ones, and it is O so tempting to see a connection between their red flowy vegetal fronds and our poem …

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

093D476D-3BAD-4C2A-81C8-5F4F892DEA45The screenshot above and those that follow are from the Paden and Freeman Paden article about their translation, “Swollen Woman, Shifting Canon: A Midwife’s Charm and the Birth of Secular Romance Lyric.” PMLA, Vol. 125, No. 2 (March 2010): pp. 306-321. (Read it online at, scholarly non-commercial purposes only, subject to JSTOR terms of use.)

As it happens, “Tomida femina” pairs nicely with the earlier Cædmon’s Hymn—


—what with having two or three parts to the structure (two main ones connected by a motile transition); recording earlier works of oral word-art transfigured into written literature; being a poem and more than a poem (charm, spell, incantation, prayer, punning figurative teaser) as a work of word-art; and ending with an invocation of the Earth that plants a reader’s feet there in reminder of her earthly nature as a living creature and links all readers, and a material present earth, and an immaterial Earth of all times, binding us together across time and space. Rooted in this poem (the Occitan one, that is) that sprouts subversively upside-down out of the bottom of a page.

(By a uncanny coincidence, @rainmaker1973 circulated this video on Twitter while I was finishing writing this essay: “This video taken in Sacre-Coeur, Quebec on October 16, 2018 shows strong winds trying to ‘push’ the trees over: as the force is transferred to the roots, the ground begins to move like it’s ‘breathing’.”)

“Tomida femina” (and its kith and kin) and Cædmon’s Hymn make a connection between communication and compassion—reaching out to someone else for it—and consolation. Each has a middle section that shifts, and moves the reader, into focussing on a change in sounds. While that’s not exactly unexpected in a poem, and it’s as deeply meaningful and fun as always, this shift is also doing something serious and actually practical and useful. In our Occitan example, we go from a tolling to– to the long -o- of donerunt and dolores, and breathing deepens and smooths, and will change in quality with the soothing susipiat. A poem can ease pain and bring healing in many ways, and this one is a fine example: gynaecological materia medica, a prayer and a spell. and a mantra whose chanting or singing will bring relief through concentrating on breathing (so as to speak or sing) and meditating on the pain itself. And it goes further, being a word-artwork that’s a word-magic, bringing relief through contemplating sounds and words, delighting in linguistic play, and the release and relief of laughter.

The poem moves you to concentrate on the pain, and to move with it, and to move it poetically. It flows out of you and into the earth; it is also what binds you to the earth, and a flow out of you that nourishes the earth, while swollen feet do poetic hard work metaphorically and metonymically as roots. Close your eyes and you can hear echoes of every woman-to-plant metamorphosis; open your ears and you’ll hear the waves that shift such mutable beings back and forth from one state to another, human to woody to iron (and its other-worldly properties) to earthy, laughing at artificial boundaries dividing “orders” and “classes” and “kingdoms” animal, vegetable, mineral, other; an old and feminist laughter, femina ludens is the tree-root and spring-source of “Western Civilisation.”

Plant-roots and flowing water: it’s a poem that’s as much about consubstantiation as it is one of metamorphic transubstantiation.

It’s a flow—blood sweat tears water—that lives, like words that dance and all that sparkles and shimmers and shines. A flow that reminds you that you are alive and that reminds you of what it means to be alive; and that grounds you, as a human and a living creature and a part of a whole ecosystem and planet. Fleeting and futile and worthless; yet also of valued welcome precious worth to the flow, to a shared well of wellbeing.

Paden and Freeman Paden draw a comparison between “Tomida femina” and two contemporaries:


Blood, flow, poetry, pain, and labour are for all: all ages, all genders, every rank and social status. It is a poetry of imagination and compassion, of a compassion that helps share the burden of what would otherwise be an isolated and isolating passion. A poetry that creates community in fellow-suffering, shouldering the weight of that cross together,  standing up for one person’s bleeding as a “folly” and “stupidity” that are positive attributes, calling out those who call them and use them as pejoratives and to denigrate (and, in our Old High German examples above, for gaslighting and for erasing the experiences, and existence, of the poor and the low and the weak, of those who labour and are belaboured, of women, of children). Hard and earthy, flowing and connecting by the flow of blood in anything but the ways expected by right-wing appropriators, this is a poetry of work and pain, of full multisensory feeling, of healing and solidarity, of resistance and liberation.

This is a universal poetry of the people, by the people, for the people. This is not a medieval poetry and poetics of lazy leisure, of courtly ennui, of the great and high and mighty, of knights and lords and kings, and occasionally of refined noble ladies (inc. the nicer class of genteel nun). And this isn’t just what Pierre Bec calls “prétroubadouresque” and “paratroubadouresque” poetry, it’s patatroubadouresque. Meta- too, of course, in the way that Zumthor plays around with: a poetry and poetics about playing with poetry and poetics, and play for play’s sake—and with imaginary futures and future readers—as art for art’s sake. But it’s work, and it’s hard, and that’s what makes it worthwhile and gives it worth: in all its haemy irony and adventures in punning riddling speculative-fictioneering visionary joy, be it Old Occitan or Old English or otherwise, including linguistic hybrids and man-made (poet-made) marvellous monsters.

We’re now approaching the end of Dry … and “Fountain” is playing …

The very last word, on the interpretation of this poem and its place at the heart and birth of Occitan literature (and a fundamentally poetic and transnational culture), goes to Paden and Freeman Paden:



Robert Taylor, Bibliographical Guide to the Study of the Troubadours and Old Occitan Literature (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, University of Western Michigan, 2007): pp. 165-179. Retrieved from



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