Reading frogsong

Lecture notes from RMST 221B, WEEK 2 (as image files crashed on Canvas and UBC Blogs site)

  • TOPIC:
    Introduction: starting small with a frog in a poem

    • context: a bigger picture, whole book, intertextual network of books and other knowledge, and ecosystem
    • reading ecosystemically
    Prologues, prefaces, and bodies of knowledge:

    • Marie de France Lais (+ Fables) prologues
    • Michel de Montaigne “To the reader”
    • + (guided reading in Thursday class) I.1, II.18, III. 2 & 8
    • + (online meanderings) bestiaries and other Big Books Of All Knowledge
  • TUESDAY: Introduction to the Marie & Montaigne introductions (Marie, “Prologue”; Montaigne, “To the reader”) and to this world; via frogs
  • THURSDAY: mainly Marie Lais “Prologue” + Montaigne “To the reader,” plus I.1 + excerpts from II.18, III.2, III.8 on what he’s doing and why; keeping frogs and their small stoical wisdom in mind
    • read Marie Lais prologue
    • read Montaigne “To the reader”
    • read Montaigne book I essay 1 and imagine that we are discussing frogs rather than humans
  • TO DO for next week: reading commentary on Canvas (commenting about this week’s Marie and Montaigne readings; one of the bonus readings at the end, an excerpt from the Pancatantra, provides an example of commenting on and discussing reading; there is also more information on Canvas)


  • our communal expectations of frogs (before the projector screen was drawn over them)

Licking and kissing frogs: transform, kill, hallucinate, cure. A variation:

  • Kermit, “It’s not easy being green”: a gateway into one of the major cultural forms going on in the background in the medieval and early modern Romance world (and other times and places): song and poetry.
    • sometimes sung—the Romance languages have words like “chantar, chanter, cantare”—sometimes spoken—“chanted”—and sometimes with musical accompaniment or punctuation; “lyric song” from accompaniment with a lyre / other stringed instrument (which you can also use as a percussion instrument)
    • sometimes more than one voice
    • sometimes alternating or mixing speech, song, instrumental music, solo / duet / more voice, solo / chorus
    • sometimes mostly performed and transmitted live, and in oral culture; sometimes written; sometimes both; sometimes moving from one to another or mixing them up. As with many stories (like some of the fables and lays we’ll see, and like many of Montaigne’s anecdotes) this might be knowledge that goes underground, disappears, is treated as “low” culture or non-culture; but survives as children’s stories, folk tales, old wives’ tales (17th-c. French Charles Perrault and his “Mother Goose Tales”), popular culture.
    • often centred on an “I” who is singing, and often about feelings and things that are hard to describe, to put into words, but where you want to communicate them: to help yourself therapeutically, to share a burden with others, to express something exciting and spread it (especially joy, you would hope…)
    • often to complain or lament: what’s happening in your own life, about other people, about the world around you
    • this Kermit song is one of the best introductions to poetry and song, and—as we’ll see more of on Thursday—to one way of thinking about what Marie de France and Michel de Montaigne are doing with their books. (These are books that are doing many things, and may be read in many ways.)

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  • Marcabru, “Bel m’es qan li rana chanta” (stanza I), Old Occitan, c. 1145 (before Marie):
    • A spring opening: a commonplace in lyric poetry. More light, warmth, new growth, fresh shoots, baby animals. Flowers, fragrance, birds returning from winter migration and singing. The season for love. Green. Fresh but delicate colours: fragile hope.
    • A comic twist: it is frogs who sing sweetly. Not the nightingale—famous for singing sweetly—who is being harsh, shrill, and croaky.
    • Self-expression and emotion, “translated” into images of nature and talking—ranting, later in the poem—about all that is wrong with the world, using a mixture of more-or-less contemporary references in the immediate world (politics, other people who are poets) and allegory (personifications like Proeza: prowess, probity, assorted kinds of goodness)
    • That frog at the beginning won’t return, or at least not obviously; but this beginning sets you up to be thinking about singing from different points of view—frogsong can be beautiful, birdsong can be ugly—and opening up an ironic critical distance, to look at everything around you more critically. That’s also still part of a simpler joke here, situational comedy. (All the best jokes are simple ones. Especially puns.)

  • Context and background: this is a printed edition (Simon Gaunt, Ruth Harvey, & Linda Paterson, Marcabru: A Critical Edition: 2000), but like other poems from this culture the poem is in 13th-14th c. hand-written manuscripts. These are collections of Old Occitan poetry, often organised by poet and/or sometimes thematically, sometimes chronologically as far as that is known or imagined. Mostly no images but just words (readers are made to work, imagining); called “chansonniers / canzoniere”, songbooks.
  • It’s a poetry that’s often sung, or performed as spoken word art (like slam poetry), and may have musical accompaniment for part or all of a poem; how exactly that worked is often unknown. Some poems are known to have been sung to the tune of another poem (sometimes for comic effect), and some (about 10% of the corpus) have musical notation.
  • The language, Old Occitan, is related to modern French, Italian, and Spanish; it’s very closely related to modern Catalan. It’s a linguistic group rather than a single fixed language: the most famous dialect or language (depending on definitions) in the group is probably Provençal, and the whole group was called that for a long time. Modern forms of Occitan still exist, though endangered. In the period around about the 10th-15th c. CE, this language is used in what is nowadays the southern half of France—from Poitiers to Lyon and the Alps—and into north-west Italy, and into the Pyrenees and north-east Spain, and the Balearic Islands. It’s a “koine”—a collection of mutually-intercomprehensible linguistic forms—and along with Latin is a/the most important language for writing poetry during this period. There are about 2500 poems, inc. about 1000 about some combination of spring and love, about 500 satirical sirventes like this poem today, and about 500 debate-poems. There’s also writing in other genres—such as shorter and longer stories—and, like in other languages of this time, about other things: history, science, medicine, religion, law.
  • This language is one of the earliest documented recorded literary vernacular languages (that is, a spoken living language, vs. Latin) in this part of the world: back to the 9th century. The earliest Romance vernacular texts (8th—9th c.?) are multilingual poems from Spain (+ Arabic and/or Hebrew) in a Romance language that’s an older relative of this one; there’s another older relative in a multilingual poem (Latin and a proto-Romance) from near the Occitan/French language-line, similar date; and some of the earliest texts from northern France (8th-9th c.) are in a proto-French that’s related. Linguistic matters become clearer from the 11th century onwards, and there’s lots of writing—in distinct older forms of Occitan, Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish—by the 12th and 13th c. That is: forms of these languages that are clear ancestors of their current form, rather than being close relatives (ex. Romanian) or within the same big family (ex. Bulgarian, Swedish, Persian).
  • Associated terms: “Troubadour”— from “trobar,” to find; a rich word about “finding” in extended senses of composition, making sense of things, understanding, reasoning (“razo” and “raçon,” like in this poem, are connected)—and “Provençal”; one form of Occitan was, and is, used in Provence, in the south of France on the Mediterranean coast. Old Occitan refers to itself as “roman” (as opposed to “lati[n]”), “proensal” (with resonances of “Proeza” in our poem), “lemosi” (from the area around Limoges), and by the early 14th c. as the language of “oc” or “occitana”
  • Lots of cultural connections with local (multilingual) and neighbour languages—older forms of French, Italian, Spanish, classical Arabic, Hebrew—and, through trade and war and diplomatic relations and royal marriages and court networks, with northern Europe—so, with older forms of English, German, Polish, etc.—and with north and west Africa, Mali, Ethiopia, the Near and Middle East, Persia, India, China: around the Mediterranean Sea and along the Silk Road.
  • Manuscripts like this one are written after the time of first composition; the Occitan-speaking half of France is invaded and conquered by (northern) France in the early 13th c., bringing death and exile (Italy, Spain) and attempted cultural annihilation and ethnocide (Albigensian Crusade). Many manuscripts have been lost and destroyed, and some are incomplete.
  • An example of an incomplete manuscript for this poem WITH A CUTE PICTURE OF A FROG: chansonnier R, which has room for adding music.
  • The very rough historical background above gives some context for why, writing to preserve and continue a culture, both grumbling and springtime are important: resistance, resilience, hope, rebirth … a.k.a. “renaissance.” Renaissance appears in poetry in many places and times, not just any single “the” Renaissance for a specific country.

Here’s a map:

Here is chansonnier R and the cute frog:

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Here are links to all four manuscripts for this poem (including me grumbling about one that took forever to download), freely available online:

(And here’s more, links to all the 100+ Old Occitan manuscripts that have been digitised (plus some info about basically all of them), for information: )

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Marcabru (II-): Back to our poem, and what happens next when the frog in the first line apparently disappears.

  • we meet assorted humans, mostly bad, and associations with greed, lying, noisiness
  • Proeza, allegorical personifications and allegory, moral and political satire: prowess, probity, worth, value, all things positive
  • where are the frogs? are they the bad noisy people? are they a group lurking in the distance? are they watching us? are we them?
  • cultural baggage and intertextual connections—this text is connected to and echoes other texts—to bring in frog associations (it’s a complex sophisticated poem doing several things simultaneously and subtly, this here is just part of its readings):
    • story 1, of the hare(s) and the frog(s): ex. Aesop 91, Marie Fable 22, Paris Isopet II (Bibliothèque nationale de France MS français 15213, f. 1r—54r (“Isopets/ Ysopets” are collections of fables drawing on Aesop’s ones, Marie de France’s fables are also often called “Ysopet” in their manuscripts ), Jean de La Fontaine (France, 17th c. CE) Fables book II no. 24
    • —> I’ll give you references like these along the way, and will refer to works that are not set readings, but it’s just for reference; this course is in English, and at a 200-level, so there is no expectation that you’ll also learn a bunch of other languages and how to read old manuscripts and so on! One reason why we have no traditional final exam: much of the learning in this course will be adventuring and reading, NOT studying and memorising for repeating information in tests and exams.
    • rain, spring, growth, lament
    • but after the rain it’ll all be sunnier
    • mixed messages / morals / lessons of resignation to surviving by diving underwater and hiding in mud; console yourself because there’s always someone else smaller and more scared than you (Aesop) / there’s nowhere where you can live without fear, troubles, and unhappiness (Marie) / don’t despair, whatever happens, try to forget the bad times and live as well as you can (Isopet) / however scared and cowardly you might be, scare someone smaller than you and feel bigger and braver (La Fontaine). This is a very old story—possibly one of the oldest, adding in supporting evidence from archaeology, anthropology, folklore studies—and in some versions (ex. Caucasus mountains) the hares shift between being hares and being humans, and live in caves, possibly a distant Ice Age antiquity. There’s a lot of “possibly” here, we’re well away from words on pages in books and definite dates.
    • our poem is also a satirical sirventes which is, in one of its origins, a servant-song
    • servants, frogs, and other everyday people: the smallest and weakest, the lowest of the low
    • but all are mixed up together in a collection—be it songbook or fables—that includes and portrays everything and everyone; rich and poor, high and low, all forms of life: see yourself there and learn about others

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  • TO RECAP: frog associations so far:
    • small, scared, easily scared; possibly foolish
    • humble, avoiding others, trying not to be noticed, so as to survive; possibly wise
    • living together sociably but all talking at once and making a discordant noise; another example is Aristophanes’ “frogswan” croaky chorus in The Frogs (Greek, 405 BCE)
  • when frogs try to be more than frogs: the folly of delusions of grandeur:
    • story 2, of the frog who wanted to be an ox and explodes (ex. the Lyon Isopet; Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale Palais des Arts MS 57, La Fontaine book I no. 3) and the Perry index
    • story 3, of the frog who tried to trick a mouse so as to eat her but they’re both eaten by a kite (Aesop 245, Marie Fable 3, Isopet I (6 manuscripts), La Fontaine book IV no. 11)
    • welcome to frogs being foolish and greedy, and to cartoon violence in popular culture

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Marcabru: the middle of the poem

  • (on structural middles in this kind of poetry: they’re important for construction and for meaning; stanzas IX—X are tornadas = short final stanzas outside the main structure of the poem, sometimes added later on, sometimes by other poets continuing a poem)
  • stanzas IV—V and “rama/derama,” a variation on the middle of each of the 8-line stanzas where line 5 is rhymed around “ama” (love): a balance between creation and destruction
    • “rama” (IV) echoing “rana”: a living tree-branch in a stanza (IV) that’s also got a dismembered bird in it (perhaps our grouchy poet is being made even more grouchy with all the cheerful springtime singing and wishes the birds would shut up, especially early in the morning?)
    • ”derama” (V): tearing someone apart, into pieces
  • the very middle, between IV and V: a precious moment of hope
    • food and looking forward to dessert …
    • … but froggy intertextual warning bells about frogs and trees, and frogs and eating
  • here’s a taste of what’s happening, with patterns and sounds and associations and some more balancings of  life/death, creation/destruction …

  • Intertextuality and context: dismembered tree-parts and snakes
    • story 4, of frogs wanting a king; frogs traditionally noisy and without government, wanting to better themselves by having a king, they pray for one and their prayers are answered: the first king sent down is a log / tree-trunk, the second is a snake. Who then eats them all. (Aesop 66, Marie Fable 18, Isopet I, La Fontaine book III no. 4). Marie change: not a god or God but Destiny. La Fontaine: his frogs start out as a democracy and his second king is a stork.
    • story 5, from the Pancatantra (very old, Sanskrit, 200+ versions in 50+ languages, coming into the Romance world via 6th c. Pehlevi Persian, Syriac, and especially Arabic): a different socio-political tradition where frogs, like any other non-solitary animals, have a king. The frog-king makes a foolish alliance with a snake, ending with the destruction of his people or risking that end of his world, eaten by a snake … who is greedy and always hungry: immoral? amoral? just being a snake?

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Back to the start: moral of today’s lesson: frogs can be wise, and one can try to be like a wise frog.


BONUS BONUS EXTRA READING (which will also start the Thursday class): Kermit, Rainbow Connection


Big books collecting all knowledge, especially in the 12th-14th c. Romance world:


On Tuesday we saw examples of chansonniers, poetry collections. Occitan context: manuscripts from the late 13th-14th c. after cultural annihilation, survival (perhaps frog-like in muddy ponds and under stones in rivers) in exile; thinking about “the middle ages” as a time after beginning and before an end, in a history of plural middles and endings and renaissances.

And we met some books of fables: like the song-books, usually without images: to make you imagine, and as one of the purposes is discussion afterwards, as active and interactive reading.

Books of fables—and some poetry too—are collections of material from numerous sources and kinds of sources: some named, some unnamed, some unnameable. (Marcabru, for example, is probably a nickname or a pseudonym.) In Occitan songbooks: some of the material in the manuscripts is misattributed, some deliberately; there’s continuations (adding extra stanzas), rewriting, making new poems out of rearranging an older one in a different order of stanzas; some poems are new compositions that are parodies, some are “fakes.” Keep fakes and fakery in mind, Montaigne will bring us back to that idea.

Books “talk” to other books and draw on bodies of knowledge and audience communal assembled knowledge and expectations: see the intertextual examples from Tuesday on frogs.


Big books containing everything: universal histories, “mirrors of humanity,” encyclopaedias. Not a new phenomenon: part of a literary continuum (Physiologus, Isidore of Seville, etc.)


Bestiaries overlap with fables and other kinds of writing: descriptions, stories, for educational purposes (with morals and as social and political commentary), sometimes subversively or shockingly.


How do you make a Big Book Of Everything? What do you include, exclude, how, why? Who’s it for: anyone, anywhere, anytime? How do you organise it?

Marie’s Fables is in lots of manuscripts; her Lais in only two, one of which is missing parts (ex. no prologue). The other (BL Harley 978) is a Big Book Of Everything that includes the Fables (+ prologue) and complete extant Lais (+ prologue), amongst a number of things. Marie’s Prologues for her two collections are both asking and answering the question “what’s the point of a collection like this?” A writer has choices: throw you straight in, sink or swim like the frogs, or give some guidance.

Montaigne: what he’s doing in and as one whole book, and as a whole self. Rewritings and continuations (up to the last version of his book, “C” in your text): a living book, changing along the way. “To the reader” is the most important Essays reading for today; I’ll weave in excerpts from some other essays: painting a portrait, as an individual and as an everyman / universal human figure. Have a look at what happens with clothing, disguise, and nakedness; and clothes as a human artifice, what separates from animals, fake skin, and what “culture” might be. (We’ve seen a little about clothes being associated with falseness and hypocrisy in the last three stanzas of the Marcabru poem; we will be talking more about clothing in a later section of the course.)

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