Trajan, Hector, Chaucer.

Plenty of interesting stuff in this passage from Barbara Newman’s LRB review (archived) of Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England, by D. Vance Smith:

Dying can be terminable or interminable. An unfinished death is the theme of two medieval legends, one based on the other, about the thorny problem of righteous pagans. Dante was not the first to wrestle with the injustice of good men (women never came up) who were sentenced to hell for the mere crime of dying before Christ. Although he declined for the sake of dramatic pathos to save Virgil, he did save several other pagans, including the emperor Trajan. An old legend told how Pope Gregory the Great, by weeping over the just emperor’s damnation, secured the extraordinary favour of bringing him back to life long enough to convert and be saved – though God exacted a heavy toll by consigning the pope to ill health as long as he lived. In Piers Plowman, Langland gives the legend a different spin: his Trajan insists that ‘not the prayers of a pope’ but his ‘pure truth’ saved him, not surprisingly in a poem where faith without works is dead. More problematic is Trajan’s memorable opening line: ‘Ye, baw for bokes!’ Ambivalence about the value of learning shadows Langland’s whole sprawling enterprise, but Trajan makes an odd spokesman for untutored virtue. Not only does he go on to cite multiple books, including the Gospel: as Smith points out, he is also ‘the bibliophobic evil twin of the historical Trajan’, who built the greatest library in the Roman Empire. As late as the sixth century it was still used for public readings of the Aeneid.

Trajan’s legend inspired a uniquely English tale of the same type. In Saint Erkenwald, an alliterative poem that some have ascribed to the author of Pearl, the righteous pagan is a mysterious judge whose perfectly preserved body, clad in his robes of state, is discovered deep in the crypt of St Paul’s during building works. Erkenwald, a seventh-century bishop of London, emulates Pope Gregory’s miracle by awakening the judge and baptising him with his tears. Remarkably, his soul’s salvation is accomplished at the very moment his body crumbles into dust, as a death held in suspension for centuries is completed. But Smith concentrates on an earlier moment in the text. Like a medieval tomb, the judge’s crypt is embellished with ‘bright gold’ letters as inviolate as his body itself. Yet their language is dead beyond recall. Not a single cleric can decipher these ‘runish’ characters – an adjective that evokes the half-magical, pre-Roman script of England. The discovery of the corpse inspires a frantic search through the archives – a scene both poignant and comic – for it seems impossible that no record of such a distinguished man survives. But all is vain. In the late 14th century, when this poem was written, Erkenwald’s tomb stood behind the high altar of St Paul’s, visible from all sides. His vivid memory stands in sharp contrast to the judge’s obscurity, just as the failure of historical memory in the poem plays up the cathedral’s public role as its preserver, with its extensive records and historical inscriptions. More than a place of worship, a cathedral was the beating heart of the body politic, linking the past to present and future.

To reflect publicly on death was also to brood on what medieval writers called the translatio imperii et studii – the transfer of political power and cultural glory from one realm to another. Although that phrase could be used in triumphalist ways, it savours primarily of mourning: where now are the glories of Athens, of Augustan Rome, of Arthur, of Charlemagne? For much of Europe but especially Britain, the operative Old World was Troy, from which its eponymous founder Brutus had sailed long ago. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, another work by the Pearl poet, begins and ends with allusions to the Trojan War. Chaucer set his Troilus and Criseyde in the doomed city, and Lydgate memorialised Chaucer, as well as the distant past, in his massive Troy Book. Knowing Homer only through epitomes, the West followed Virgil in tracing its origins from the losing side. All its peoples sprang from exiles, its new polities arising in the wake of historical catastrophe. At a time when London was unofficially styled New Troy, Lydgate produced an astonishing meditation on death around what Smith calls the ‘exquisite corpse’ of Hector, alluding to the surrealist word game. Expanding on his Latin source (the 13th-century Guido delle Colonne), Lydgate describes the Trojans’ elaborate embalming of their dead hero. Seated like Jeremy Bentham in the middle of a temple, Hector’s corpse preserves a simulacrum of life because of a special ‘liquor’ made to flow continually through his body, using a system of artificial channels extending from a hole in his head down to a pool at his feet. Through this ‘subtylite’ his corpse appears not ‘horrible’ but ‘lifly’.

Smith is surely right to see this grotesque moment as a metonym. ‘The calamity of Hector’s death is like the calamity of the death of a language, or at least of a style’ – Chaucer’s. His reputation stood so high that his 15th-century followers, Hoccleve and Lydgate especially, represented his death at 57 as the death of Poetry itself, of all vernacular eloquence, unless they could preserve it, like Hector’s corpse, with the elixir of their own aureate style. Lydgate has often been accused of pastiche, but his project might be better understood as a kind of chantry chapel in verse, mingling eulogies and elegies for the dead poet with echoes of his style. Hoccleve too maintains that Death in slaying Chaucer did ‘harm irreparable’ to all England. Yet it has no power ‘his name [to] slee’ so long as ‘bookes of his ornat endytyng’ [composition] continue to illumine the land. Modern Chaucerians are often nonplussed to learn that what the next generation admired most was not his comedy, irony or generic range, but his ornate Latinate style. In gilding the vernacular lily still more, 15th-century Chaucerians came perilously close to killing it. Their efforts recall what C.S. Lewis (writing in Latin) once accused Renaissance humanists of doing: destroying Latin as a living language by smothering it in classical affectations, even as they boasted of its revival.

Of course “baw for bokes” is great (“baw” = bah, phooey); I’m also very fond of the name Erkenwald (normatively spelled Earconwald, which is more scholarly and less fun). And I was familiar with the phrase translatio imperii (see this post), but the “et studii” addition was new to me, as was “New Troy” for London.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    “New Troy” for London

    Geoffrey (of Monmouth, rather than Chaucer) is of course to blame, as he is for much else …

    I note that Isidore of Seville, though duly deriving “Britain” from “brutus”, explains it as referring to the fact that the British are bruti “stupid.” You can see where he’s coming from …
    (after all, we needed the Romans to explain to us about “children” …)

  2. I find it strange that people now seem so convinced that the author of “Pearl” was the Gawain Poet. Yes, the language indicates that the two works clearly were composed in the same spatiotemporal setting, but that was already pretty evident from the fact that they appear in the same manuscript. In terms of content, they seem to me to be quite different. “Pearl” is apologia, clearly composed by somebody who fancies himself* an orthodox theologian, which is very different from the folkloric approach of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    * Definitely a him.

  3. Do you also consider the Iliad and Odyssey to have different authorship?

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Come now! Everybody knows that the Odyssey was written by Nausicaa …

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    With the space the asterisk makes I originally read that as ‘clearly composed by somebody who fancies himself’, which is sadly true of quite a lot of writing.

    ‘Baw’ and ‘boke’ are both mildly rude words in Scotland, although the combination doesn’t quite make sense. I’m guessing it’s something more like ‘bookis’, anyway.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Trajan? I hadn’t the foggiest idea.

    Do you also consider the Iliad and Odyssey to have different authorship?

    The current count of Homers.

  7. I don’t have any particular opinion about whether The Iliad and The Odyssey were composed by the same person. John Cowan has previously suggested that a single author is statistically unlikely. On the other hand, we know that the tradition of attributing them to a single author goes back to the golden age of Athens at the latest—which is hundreds of years after they composed, but that’s less than a gap between the date of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Today. As with Sir Gawain and Saint Erkenwald, there is linguistic evidence that the The Iliad and The Odyssey were created at approximately the same time and in approximately the same place. However, it is probably impossible to say definitively whether there was really a single blind bard in Ionia who compiled both The Iliad and The Odyssey.

    We know, from accounts by commentators in the Classical period, that there were multiple verse epics in circulation at that time. There were at least three major topic areas—the Trojan Cycle, the Theban Cycle, and the exploits of Herakles—and probably plenty of works based on less popular myths at well. However, only two of those epics have survived—at least in part, presumably, because they were considered the best (or among the best) of the bunch.* It is certainly conceivable that the two epics that were the best, taken as works of literature, could have been created by a single, particularly gifted poet. Or at any rate, parts of them might have been composed by the same person; while The Iliad seems fairly cohesive, The Odyssey shows signs of being a composite work.

    * We also know that many Greeks considered the accounts of the Theban wars—perhaps because they pitted Achaeans against other Achaeans, rather than foreigners—more important than the stories about the Trojan War. However, the verse versions of those stories seem to have compared unfavorably with The Iliad and The Odyssey. The survival of those two Trojan epics probably gives a very slanted impression of what legends the ancient Greeks were actually most interested in. Similarly, the the survival of the widely admired play Oedipus the King tends to slant how we think of the Theban Cycle today; the stories of Oedipus and his immediate family were probably fairly minor pieces of the Theban Cycle, compared with the tales of the Seven Against Thebes and then the Epigones.

  8. > The Iliad seems fairly cohesive, The Odyssey shows signs of being a composite work.

    That’s my impression also, FWIW.

  9. David Marjanović says

    while The Iliad seems fairly cohesive, The Odyssey shows signs of being a composite work.

    Not the other way around? Given the link I posted and the linguistic diversity of the Iliad but apparently not the Odyssey, I could see a single person compiling and redacting the Iliad and composing the Odyssey – and of course that idea has been floated before, too.

  10. David Marjanović: Surely you know that they are oral traditions codified much later unto writing?

  11. Rodger Cunningham says

    Surely you know that they are oral traditions codified much later unto writing?

    Much later than what? I’m attracted to David’s hypothesis. Epic (Ramayana, Son-Jara, etc.) is typically a genre of early literacy. The Iliad looks to be largely pasted together from earlier oral lays by someone seeing what he can do with this new invention, writing. (Maugre Parry and Lord, each Homeric poem is over twice as long as the longest verified purely oral lay.) The Odyssey, maybe composed by the same person some forty years later, has a lot more original-looking composition in it and reflects an older man’s interests.

  12. Languagehat says

    Just a quick note to let you know that I have lost internet connection and won’t have it till tomorrow morning when the tech people come to fix it (knock wood). Fortunately, no comments seem to be in moderation; if a comment of yours is held up, it’ll have to wait. Carry on!

  13. right, Hat is going to be offline till tomorrow.
    Shall we have some fun?

  14. David Marjanović says

    Surely you know that they are oral traditions codified much later unto writing?

    Yes. I don’t think writing is necessary for this kind of compilation and redaction.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Shall we have some fun?

    Nationalism and… what’s the opposite of anarchy? Orderliness?

  16. The contents of the Homeric epics show no knowledge of even the existence of writing (except in a few seemingly fixed form insults).

    The flip side of that is that the Classical Greeks seem to have been unaware that there was a period in which written Greek had completely disappeared. So they assumed that the Mycenaeans had used Phoenician-derived alphabet similar to their own.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Shall we have some fun?

    Kʋsaas ye:

    Baas kae ka nwamis di’e pɔɔg.
    (“There are no dogs and monkeys have taken over the farm.”)

  18. Stu Clayton says

    The Kusaal sayings that have come up here are as exotic and pithy as many desuetudinous German sayings, of which I have booksfull.

    The world needs The Animal Wisdom of Kusaal and German. Chaucer would have approved:

    Einmal gebockt ist nicht gelammt.

    One tup does not a lambkin make.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Keep on truckin’ …

  20. Trond Engen says

    Hat: Just a quick note to let you know that I have lost internet connection

    And all this time I thought you were writing about Russian literature from America.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Einmal gebockt ist nicht gelammt.

    I didn’t know that one, and verbing weirds language. “One elementary instance of rebellion/stubbornness doesn’t amount to giving birth to a lamb”…? Could express the opposite sentiment to temps de grève, tant de rêves

  22. Stu Clayton says

    bocken = do what the Bock does = tup.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Oh, the Schafbock. I see.

  24. Two unrelated comments:

    I remember learning springbok from a educational audiotape narrated from the point of view of a (heavily-accented) indigenous African hunter. I was rather surprised to discover, a few years later, that it was an entirely Germanic word.

    Years later, in college, some people somehow got into a discussion of whether Othello and Desdemona were having sex before they were married. Jeremy Hylton (the first person to make the compete works of Shakespeare available on the World-Wide Web) quoted Iago from act 1, scene 1:

    Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
    Is topping your white ewe.

    Somebody suggested that it was perhaps meant “just meant metaphorically,” and I remember Hylton’s reply: “Maybe it was just topping.”

  25. January First-of-May says

    The flip side of that is that the Classical Greeks seem to have been unaware that there was a period in which written Greek had completely disappeared. So they assumed that the Mycenaeans had used Phoenician-derived alphabet similar to their own.

    AFAIK the Cypriot syllabary is usually thought to have directly and continuously derived from either Linear B itself or a close relative. I’m not sure if it survived into the Classical period, though, and for that matter whether it was actually used for writing Greek all along (as opposed to Eteocypriot or whatever).

    That said, AFAIK by the 7th/6th century BC approximately all of the Greeks’ neighbours (aside from Egypt and Mesopotamia, neither of which were particularly close) were (already/still) using Phoenician-derived alphabets, and consequently it probably made some sense to project this situation indefinitely into the past.

  26. David Marjanović says

    I’m not sure if it survived into the Classical period

    In short, yes.

  27. Q. Were The Iliad and The Odyssey composed by the same person?

    A. The Iliad was but The Odyssey was not.

  28. Hey, everybody, I’m back! Glad to see nobody’s smashed the mirrors and broken the chairs and tables.

  29. Welcome back! Go ahead, sit in that armchair! (teehee.)

  30. @January First-of-May: You’re right. I had forgotten about the Cypriots, who maintained literacy through the entire Greek Dark Age. I imagine the the mainland Greeks, who believed their culture hero Cadmus had brought writing from Phoenicia in the early Heroic Age, were not very familiar with the Cypriot syllabary.

  31. John Repsher says

    One of my college greek professors was appalled at what the mental furniture must be of anyone who doubted that the same author wrote both the Iliad and Odyssey.

  32. Your professor was easily appalled.

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