Monday, November 23, 2015

Mot i out paines et ahans

Aigues Mortes, France

The title of this post is line 1638 of Béroul's Le Roman de Tristan, a 12th century French poem of the earlier tale from Cornwall that recounts the passion and trials of Tristan and Yseut. My friends on Facebook know that I recently read the English version of Joseph Bédier's compilation of the Tristan cycle and went to two performances of Tristan & Yseult at the Aux Dog Theatre here in Albuquerque, their adaptation with permission of the Kneehigh Players' drama on this theme.  "Kneehigh Theatre is an international touring theatre company founded by Mike Shepherd and based in Cornwall, England." A Cornish company presenting an originally Cornish tale so that it speaks to contemporary audiences, even winding by proxy through Albuquerque, seems to bring it all full circle.

Coming full circle, or spiraling back, is the germ of this post.  I am no longer middle-aged (my 70th birthday gallops toward me), but I am a medievalist.  It seems this is an important assertion to make at this point in my life.  Let me share some background for this statement.

In autumn 1967 I spent a semester abroad in France, living for two months with the Urvoy family.  I was blessed to do some traveling with them.  One place we visited was Aigues Mortes, pictured above.  The fortified city was built by Louis IX (San Luis Rey de Francia) and his son.  It is from this town that St Louis departed for the Seventh and Eighth Crusades.  We also visited St-Guilhem-le-Desert, where St Guilhem of Gellone built a monastery.  There were other sites we saw as well, but I believe those visits created some vital link between me and a period of history that is often ignored.

A great deal of classical education in the Western centers of higher learning has traditionally focused on the classics.  British university education seemed to operate from the supposition that a man (yes, male) who was steeped in Greek and Latin literature would be well equipped to govern whatever post of the empire needed governing.  Many of us have at least some sense of the Greece of Athens and its competition in Sparta and Persia, of late republican Rome and the rise of the Caesars.  We speak of the Fall of Rome in the fifth century and then it gets mushy until the Renaissance.  Feudalism, chivalry, and crusades float around in there and we use the terribly misleading term "Dark Ages," as though all knowledge, art, and civilization had vanished for centuries.

For Protestants in the USA, church history seems to have an immense gap between the last-written books of the New Testament and Martin Luther.  My love-hate relationship with the Roman Catholic Church fostered in me a desire to know more about the intervening years.  I never became a Roman Catholic, though I will wear the title "Catholic" quite happily (and you are encouraged to make that an upper-case C).  I seemed to become more curious about this period while in Baptist seminary and audited a course at my alma mater, Pomona College, on "Paris 1200."  It was a rich inter-disciplinary exploration of a period and place in history in terms of politics, sociology, education, religion, science, arts, and literature.  By then I was hooked.

 The Baptism of Clovis

I graduated from seminary and went to UCLA to begin a doctoral program in early and medieval church history.  My historical focus was ample enough.  I especially enjoy the millennium from about 100 BCE to 900 CE, but I could hang in until at least the fall of Constantinople, 29 May 1453.  After two years of classwork, for which I remain grateful, it became evident that I do not have the right character for original research or for burrowing into something to the point that only three people on the planet can really understand what I am doing.  So I dropped out and never became a professor of church history.  What I became, and remain, is a sort of "academic manqué," someone who never wants to stop learning and teaching but never teaches (or at least has not yet) in the context of an educational institution. I like popularizing knowledge, making it available to people and helping myself and others see the relevance of the rich traditions we have inherited.

At UCLA I took an awesome survey of church history with Dr Gerhard Ladner, of blessed memory, a true old-school European gentleman, top-notch scholar, and gracious instructor.  I studied historical sources (manuscripts, numismatics, archaeology, etc.), hagiography, Old French language and literature, Reformation history (yes, I dabbled that late).  For my hagiography course--which treats the lives of saints--I explored the triple strand around Guilhem, mentioned above.  There was an historical duke of Aquitaine of that name.  There is a character in the chansons de geste known as Guillaume d'Orange, one of Charlemagne's great warriors, who helped drive back the Saracens.  There is St Guilhem who renounced his worldly power and became a Benedictine monk.  These three strands overlap and untangling them and sifting out our modern ideal of "who he really was and what really happened," is tricky indeed.  Myself, I just enjoy all three layers and I have invoked the intercessions of Guilhem many times.  A few years ago I felt moved to write an icon and wondered which saint it should be.  Since I had no icons of Guilhem, I chose him.  Or he chose me.  As it turned out, the paper from the hagiography class surfaced and his feast day arrived as I was in the process of writing the icon.  It hangs at the head of my stairs and I feel he still watches over me.  In my bedroom is a tacky plastic crucifix on a simple wood cross that I purchased at St-Guilhem-le-Desert.  It hangs over the door.

The death of Roland

I have read the Chanson de Roland at least twice (in Old French with help from modern French translation) and I have read some of the cycle of William of Orange. I have retained a shelf of books about (or in) medieval French throughout the four decades since dropping out of UCLA.  That is how I could lay my hands on a copy of Béroul's Tristan so easily.  It was published in 1972 and I had to have purchased it no later than 1974.  A week ago I opened it up to discover that I had to cut open the pages.  Been a while since I had to do that!

Through The Great Courses I have listened to a number of lectures over the past few years.  They are awesome while driving.  I have listened to lectures on the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Greek tragedy, Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World, Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition, four different series on  Shakespeare, the material around King Arthur, Dante's Divine Comedy (twice), Late Antiquity, Russian Literature, and currently "Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal" (covering roughly 1300-1500).  There have been a few others and I have several more waiting to be listened to.

The material from late antiquity and the middle ages has pointed me to the several shelves of books in my library, including those in Old French.  I have wanted to read or reread these volumes before shuffling off this mortal coil, and perhaps the time to do is in the immediate future.  UNM sometimes offers courses in the Graal tradition and other medieval topics.  I wonder what I might tempt them to do.

Incipit of Mark's Gospel,
Lindisfarne Gospels

As vicar of St Cuthbert's in Oakland, I could not wait to visit Durham and various parts of Northumberland associated with Cuthbert and other saints during the Northumbrian flowering of sanctity and artistic creativity in the 7th-9th centuries.  I got to visit Saxon and Norman churches, historic sites, pray at the tombs of Cuthbert and Bede, and see the Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Library.  Cuthbert, like Guilhem, has touched my life on many occasions.  By the way, when Bill and I were in Florence I came across a relic of Guilhem.  If I did not know Latin, I may have missed it.

Why have I composed this lengthy narration?  Because so much that touched my life when I was 15-28 years old seems to be touching my life again.  I am back in school, taking six units every semester at UNM.  My goal was to beef up knowledge of languages I only knew slightly (Italian, Russian, German) and essentially enjoy coursework in languages and literature. Now I am wondering about a return to French, my undergraduate major, exploring works again from the perspective of an elder instead of as a youth. (I forgot to mention earlier that when I started at Pomona my desire was to major in comparative literature; the chair and embodiment of that field retired shortly after I arrived so I switched to French.)

In my senior years I find myself returning to passions I have had all my life.  These were MY passions, not goals set by others or that I set in the illusion that I was doing right by others.  It is about allowing my authentic self to flower. Who knows, I may even find a niche or two in which to teach.

In case you were wondering (please say you were): Mot i out paines et ahans = He had many pains and sorrows.

Sant Guilhem, Sancte Cuthberte, Sancte Beda, orate pro me.

--the BB

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