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Wandering Scholars (the Order Vagorum)

Thought for sure I had posted this story before to our board. How I do miss Kat's memory of our proceedings. More than once I've told her she should be working for M16, her memory for proceedings is an institution in itself. While she recovers, I've had to search long and hard. Finally realizing story not to be found here. What I was remembering, it seems, was a long ago on line presentation on the subject of the Goliard poets of the European Middle Ages. So this story is for Kat.

My subject is not as arcane as one might at first think, and for two reasons. Anyone who has listened to, viscerally responded to Carl Orff's cantata, "Carmina Burana," first performed in Frankfurt, Germany, 1937, already has introduction to the Goliards, the poets to whom he gave music and voice. Anyone still persuaded that Medieval Europe was a wholly Christianized setting is not just wrong, but singularly wrong and lacking in their reading of the record. The pagan spirit was always alive, thriving, well, and busting on the outskirts of Church (and State) control.

I begin my story here. In 1803 Napolean's French Republic armies, with their secular motivations, were sweeping through Western Europe. They didn't only take over political capitols, they confiscated Church property. In that year they occupied Bavaria. There they occupied a Benedictine monastary, dispelling its monks. In its library they found a curious manuscript. It was an under-the-counter book with poetry going back to the 12th and 13th Centuries. Something kept from monastic, public view. Pretty lusty stuff it was, and bawdy, and lascivious, and critical of Church authority. Poetry lost to Europe for maybe 600 years? That's what Orff drew upon in his 20th C. orchestral classic.

Second step to my story. The Goliard poets, the Wandering Scholars, the Order Vagorum, the Medieval Latin Lyricists, all the same folk. When Latin was still a universal language in the Western sphere, copyists working from monastery to monestary worked in the language. Actually a habit that kept in practice until the 12th Century writers began working in their respective vernacular languages. So these wandering scholars, working in Latin, when they turned to lyric poetry still worked in it. This is kind of key. Goliardic verse amounts to the last great flowering of lyric poetry in Latin.

But let me back up. The Wandering Scholars had been in operation since the last days of the Roman Empire, maybe 500 A.D. Again, they were scribes and copyists working from monastary to monastery to monastery copying out in Latin, not just religious but Classical texts. It amounted to an industry actually. Viewed as scribes and copyists, a bunch of them, being literary, were also poets in love with Latin, it being the Francaise Lingua of the day. I figure they could not help but finally get seduced by Classical, pre-Christian themes and notions. Their poetry bears out the contention.

Of course such poetry, spanning over hundreds of Christian years, would have about it the sacerdotal. Not sure why but, increasingly, the Pagan instinct crept in to this school of poets and copyists. By the 11th C. they tended to themes involving carnal love, whoring, gaming, the tavern scene, the viscitudes of life on the road, criticisms of church authority, to the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, and to the great Goddess, Fortuna.

At the latest, by the late 12th C., the Goliards were banned from towns. Injunction after injunction was brought against them, in France, Germany, Italy, and England. Wandering scholars, they were viewed as a necessary evil by the Church. Their eventual name, the Goliard poets, reflects both how the Church saw them and how they saw themselves. They were the followers of Golias who himself was the biblical Goliath. Such a follower would be considered a repropbate, an ecclesiastical bad boy, given to the sins of sloth, gluttony, and lust. It is possible that the term was coined by Bernard of Clairvaux who made it his central work to bring down Peter Abelard in the early 12th Century. Abelard, the West's first critical thinker, whose doctrines involving such simple questions as what is real and not real were considered dangerous. But this, I think, would not have earned him, or justified, getting called a Golias. His love songs to Heloise celebrating her beauty in sensual terms, and wideley circulated through the Latin speaking universities of Europe, would have.

Eventhough they were incited by Classical themes, for their inspiration they drew more on the immediacy of life, both its tenderness and its passions. One editor puts it this way: "The joy of spring, to us largely a literary convention, was a genuine experience to people of the Middle Ages, whether they lived in town or country, in monastery or shepherd's hut. The coming of the new year (in March) brought a rapture of deliverance...when the smell of earth was sweet, and when musty houses could be thrown open to the air, purged of winter's filth, and freshly garnished." (Whicher)

One note on Goliardic verse. As mentioned already it was the last great flowering of lyric poetry in Latin. But these poets did not work according to the rules and measures of Classical prosody. They did not rely on the rule of quantitative versification that turns on the arbitrary value assigned to vowls declared either open or closed, short or long, and that can only be used in certain relationships to each other. "A new living poetry in Latin was being created by Christian poets, who in the course of several centuries of experimentation had brought Latin verse back to the natural patterns of accentual or rhythmic meter accompanied by sonorous and often intricate rhymes." (Whicher) Nothing short of extraordinary.

Ending where I began, with Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Discovering the poetry, committing it to music, amounted to a religious experience for him. He threw out everything he had composed before then. He would make another cantata, this time drawing on the lyric poetry of Catullus, calling it Carmina Catulli, but I think not to the same affect. And consider the place and the year of its premier performance. Frankfurt, Germany 1937. Nazis Germany. I've often thought it a rebellious act against the authority of a state controlled society. A seditious act insisting on love, passion, and the individual.


I've looked on line for a link giving examples of Goliardic verse but with no success. I'll type to the screen 2 poems. The first is the poem that became Carl Orff's signature song.

O Fortuna

O Fortuna, most contrary,
Of changing never chary,
       Now small, now great,
       Appears your state,
Just like the moon you vary.

The life your servants suffer
Makes wits grow sharper, tougher,
       Through games of chance
       Which must enhance
Both easy times and rougher.

Lo, penury of power
May greet us any hour:
        Your wheel revolves
        And all disolves
Like ice beneath a shower.

O Lady Luck, alluring
But faithless in securing
        The wealth we prize
        From me likewise
You hide, your face obscuring.

I've bet my shirt and lost,
My hopes of bliss are crossed;
         And, lose or gain,
         I still remain
Hard up - but hang the cost!

My pounding pulses crave
One smile for me, your slave...
         Friends, keep with me
         And weep with me:
She favors not the brave.

The next poem has been attributed to Peter Abelard, a love song addressing Heloise.

My Flora's Mine

I make no plaint that she was hard to woo;
Already I have gained my wages due,
The rich reward that fully satisfies.
Now when my Flora gives me greeting
With speaking eyebrows over sparkling eyes,
My thoughts leap forward to a lover's meeting
And all the joys thereof:
I glory in our love.

It was a lucky fate that prompted me
When to her maiden chamber I was led;
Judge how auspicious Venus chanced to be,
For there lay Flora in her naked bed.
Her dainty skin gleaned ivory white,
Her bosom shone with light excelling,
Twin aureoles seemed to hover bright
Just where the buds were swelling.

Her moist delicious virgin breast
By tender flanks were bounded;
So sound she slept, not fearing harm,
Her body felt without alarm
The light caress I gave her,
So I proceeded, under favor,
To scan below that slender waist
The navel like a dimple placed,
The belly gently rounded.

O had Jove seen what I have seen,
He too would feel his ardor keen
And try his old disguises on:
As when he rained in Danea's bower,
Pouring himself in that sweet shower;
Or when he played the bullish part
To get Europa in his power;
Or this one might rejoice his heart
If he resumed the swan.

So maybe a third one, another poem Orff drew on.

Roast Swan Song

Aforetime, by the waters wan,
This lovely body I put on:
In life I was a stately swan.

Ah Me! Ah me!
Now browned and basted thoroughly.

The cook now turns me round and turns me.
The hurrying waiter next concerns me,
But oh, this fire, how fierce it burns me!

Ah me! Ah me!

Would I might glide, my plumage fluffing,
On pools to feel the cool wind soughing,
Rather than burst with pepper stuffing.

Ah me! Ah me!

Once I was whiter than the snow,
The fairest bird that earth could show;
Now I'm blacker than the crow.

Ah me! Ah me!

Here I am dished upon the platter.
I cannot fly. Oh, what's the matter?
Lights flash, teeth clash - I fear the latter.


Last edited by Terreson, Jun/6/2014, 4:02 pm
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