Archive for ‘Theodulf’


“We are, we are, we are but your children…”

A couple years ago, I thought I’d closed the book on Charlemagne, but current events will forever conspire to take me back to dear old Francia—like this story from today’s New York Times:

New Year’s Surprise: 4,000 Dead Blackbirds

Times Square had the ball drop, and Brasstown, N.C., had its descending possum. But no place had a New Year’s Eve as unusual — and downright disturbing — as Beebe, Ark.

About 10 p.m. Friday, thousands of red-winged blackbirds began falling out of the sky over this town about 35 miles northeast of Little Rock. They landed on roofs, roads, front lawns and backyards, turning the ground nearly black and scaring anyone who happened to be outside.

“One of them almost hit my best friend in the head,” said Christy Stephens, who was standing outside among the smoking crowd at a New Year’s Eve party. “We went inside after that.”

Noting that there’s nothing new under the Arkansas sun, Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard points out that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions a massive avian death-fest in A.D. 671. He’s right—but let’s also not forget Theodulf of Orleans and his very odd poem, “The Battle of the Birds.”

Readers of this blog know Theodulf as a witty poet who served as bishop of Orleans during the reign of Charlemagne. In his later years, the old Goth was implicated in a plot against Louis the Pious, and he spent his exile pleading his innocence and composing a lengthy poetic epistle to Moduin, bishop of Autun. In what appears to be a murky personal and political allegory (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 563-569), Theodulf dwells first on a weird story about a dry river and then spins two yarns about flocks of birds that clash like ancient armies.

In verse rich with allusions to classical warfare, Theodulf describes the birds dispatching envoys back and forth and then rushing to slaughter each other like Romans and Phoenicians. Here’s what Theodulf claims an eyewitness, Gerard, told his informant, Pascasius, about the aftermath:

Glans cadit autumno veluti de stipite querna,
Maturum et folium iam veniente gelu,
Non aliter avium moriens exercitus illic
Decidit et magna strage replevit humum.
Nam teres aestivis impletur ut area granis,
Campus ita extincta sic ave plenus erat.
A borea in boream veniens pars parva reversa est;
Tota in utraque cohors parte perempta iacet.
Res sonat ista, venit populus factumque stupescunt,
Mirantur variae membra iacentis avis.
Ipse Tolosana praesul quoque venit ab urbe
Mancio; plebs rogat, haec ales an esca fiat.
“Inlictis spretis, licitas adsumite,” dixit.
Plaustra onerant avibus, in sua quisque redit.

(Here’s my own quick translation)

As autumn acorns drop from oaken branch
And old leaves yield before the coming frost,
In no contrary way that troop of birds
Did fall, and such great slaughter filled the earth.
Like summer grain on polished threshing floors,
The battlefield was strewn with slaughtered birds.
A few that flew from north were northward turned;
On either side, a cohort lay, all dead.

The word went out. The folk drew round, amazed,
And marveled where lay limbs of different birds;
The bishop of Toulouse came from the town.
“Are wingéd omens edible?” they asked.
“Leave what’s proscribed, take what’s allowed,” said he.
Their wagons packed with birds, they headed home.

There’s no evidence that Theodulf’s third-hand anecdote was based in reality, nor is it the source for the pseudo-Charlemagnian quip, “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky.” Alas, in this case, medieval precedent isn’t very instructive. My only hope is that the good people of Beebe, Arkansas, will seek advice from someone other than their local bishop when they ponder the edibility of creatures that plummet en masse from the sky.

“Turn the clock to zero, honey…”

[This post originally ran two years ago, but repeating it feels like a fine way to welcome 2011.]

From time to time, I dig through the poetry of Theodulf, ninth-century bishop of Orleans, looking for nuggets to translate. Theodulf was a wit, so I’ve had fun making modern English versions of his Latin verses about pilgrimages, libations, wildlife, stolen horses, and children’s dreams. But what, I wondered, could Theodulf do for me on New Year’s Day?

I shouldn’t have worried; the old Goth didn’t let me down. In the middle of a dull poem about faith, hope, and charity (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 466-467), I found four lovely lines of Latin, and I plucked ’em:

Nam pia dona spei tereti signatur in ovo,
Tegmine obumbratum quod vehit intus habens:
Ut pullum ova tegunt, sic spem praesentia celant,
Hic patet exutus, illa futura parat.

With the reckless optimism of a Leyendecker baby, I give you this translation:

To see the blessed gift of hope, behold
The egg that keeps a secret in its shell:
The present, hiding hope, conceals it well;
The future cracks it: tiny wings unfold.

Those of you who read Latin are shaking your heads at this rather free rendering. So be it! It’s a new year! Old habits limp to their graves, ashamed! Besides, I did some research and found that these four lines have been translated repeatedly throughout the centuries, often by poets who took far greater liberties than I did.

For example, here’s a little-known translation by Langston Hughes:

THEODULF AT THE 125th ST. DINER

The sunny side
An egg supplied
Upon t’morrow gambled.
It hides in a shell
That poached it well
And never got it scrambled.
The present keeps our dreams deferred.
The future hatches: out pops a bird.

And here—dear reader, I was as astonished to discover it as you surely are—is a translation of Theodulf by none other than T.S. Eliot:

PERTELOTE SENESCENS

The sea-birds race inland from the storm
Above the subtile chicken seeking quiet in the barn
Where she dares not hope
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“—
But for the egg:
The shell conceals our tatterdemalion past—
The shell incubates our necessitous future
—and hope becomes a farmer
With shards of egg in his desquamative palm
Forgetting the recrudescent monotony of the plow, straining
To hear the eager peeping in the straw.

My translation isn’t looking quite so loose now, is it?

On behalf of Theodulf, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and a room full of imaginary chickens, I wish you a happy and recklessly hopeful new year.

“Turn the clock to zero, honey…”

From time to time, I dig through the poetry of Theodulf, ninth-century bishop of Orleans, looking for nuggets to translate. Theodulf was a wit, so I’ve had fun making modern English versions of his Latin verses about pilgrimages, libations, wildlife, stolen horses, and children’s dreams. But what, I wondered, could Theodulf do for me on New Year’s Day?

I shouldn’t have worried; the old Goth didn’t let me down. In the middle of a dull poem about faith, hope, and charity (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 466-467), I found four lovely lines of Latin, and I plucked ’em:

Nam pia dona spei tereti signatur in ovo,
Tegmine obumbratum quod vehit intus habens:
Ut pullum ova tegunt, sic spem praesentia celant,
Hic patet exutus, illa futura parat.

With the reckless optimism of a Leyendecker baby, I give you this translation:

To see the blessed gift of hope, behold
The egg that keeps a secret in its shell:
The present, hiding hope, conceals it well;
The future cracks it: tiny wings unfold.

Those of you who read Latin are shaking your heads at this rather free rendering of the original. So be it! It’s a new year! Old habits limp to their graves, ashamed! Besides, I did some research and found that these four Latin lines have been translated repeatedly throughout the centuries, often by poets who took far greater liberties than I did.

For example, here’s a little-known translation by Langston Hughes:

THEODULF AT THE 125th ST. DINER

The sunny side
An egg supplied
Upon t’morrow gambled.
It hides in a shell
That poached it well
And never got it scrambled.
The present keeps our dreams deferred.
The future hatches: out pops a bird.

And here—dear reader, I was as astonished to discover it as you surely are—is a translation of Theodulf by none other than T.S. Eliot:

PERTELOTE SENESCENS

The sea-birds race inland from the storm
Above the subtile chicken seeking quiet in the barn
Where she dares not hope
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“—
But for the egg:
The shell conceals our tatterdemalion past—
The shell incubates our necessitous future
—and hope becomes a farmer
With shards of egg in his desquamative palm
Forgetting the recrudescent monotony of the plow, straining
To hear the eager peeping in the straw.

My translation isn’t looking quite so loose now, is it?

On behalf of Theodulf, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and a room full of imaginary chickens, I wish you a happy and recklessly hopeful new year.

“Keeping versed and on my feet…”

As Today in Literature reminds us, yesterday, April 18, was the day Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury. Appropriately, my block was packed with pilgrims passing to and fro, some of them heading to the zoo, the hooly blisful pandas for to seke, others hiking up the hill to our friendly neighborhood Gothic cathedral.

The cathedral grounds were in full bloom today: camera-toting tourists, elderly couples asleep in the grass, wedding parties, flirting lovers, romping puppies, children fleeing bees, even bagpipers, as if to lead us grandly out of town. Beauty intermingled with chaos; Chaucer no doubt would approve.

But not every medieval poet took the path of the pilgrim for granted. Writing six centuries before Chaucer, that old wit Theodulf, bishop of Orleans during the reign of Charlemagne, rolled his eyes at peregrinatory pretensions:

Qui Romam Roma, Turonum Turonove catervas
Ire, redire cupis cernere scande, vide.
Hinc sata spectabis, vites et claustra ferarum;
Flumina, prata, vias, pomiferumque nemus.
Haec dum conspicies, dum plurima grata videbis,
Auctoris horum sis memor ipse dei.

Here, inspired by an afternoon on the green alongside the Bishop’s Garden, is a shamefully loose translation:

You clamor for the crowd, for something more;
So take your tour of Rome, and roam to Tours.
The tender crops are all we gather here,
By berries, brooks, and barns, and byways clear.
So go—for if you stay, you’ll just recall
In simple sights the one who made it all.

I know! Spring fever is my only defense. The tulips made me do it.

In denying the pilgrimage instinct, Theodulf fought, with snide futility, the tide of human nature. Geoffrey Chaucer better understood his fellow man—in fact, I think Geoffrey better understood a great many other truths as well—but Theodulf was right about one thing: Some days, whatever it is you’re looking for, that unnamed source of fulfillment and beauty which seems like it ought to be elsewhere, may turn up outside your own door.

“It was dark as I drove the point home…”

When he paced the scriptorium and scowled at the monks, inspecting their handiwork, eyeing their script, he couldn’t have foreseen where their books would end up. Twelve centuries later, one of their most enlightening creations is stored away at the British Library: a Bible created under the watchful eye of Theodulf, abbot of Fleury and bishop of Orleans at the turn of the ninth century.

If his poetry is any indication, Theodulf was not a very sentimental man. A veritable connoisseur of verse warfare, the Visigothic refugee from Islamic Spain depicted himself as a masterful wit. He baited Frankish nobles with Latin insults they couldn’t understand. He blasted the poetry of an Irish competitor by criticizing his pronunciation, declaring him “an abomination” and announcing that “c” was the “letter of salvation” because it rescued Scottus, “Irishman,” from becoming sottus, “idiot.” Schooled in theology, trained in the law, Theodulf was brilliant. He made sure posterity knew it.

Theodulf couldn’t abide the impulses of pilgrims. He frowned on the veneration of icons. He would have rolled his eyes at the sight of museum-goers gawking at sacred objects simply because of their age. Multa scis et nulla sapis, he would have scolded them: “You know so much, and you understand nothing.”

But at the British Library, on the one decorated page of the “Theodulf Bible,” is evidence, maybe, of the bishop’s softer side. Facing a page of shockingly tiny script, the canon table doesn’t have a Northern European look to it. At the top, unmissable, are the horseshoe arches associated with Islamic Spain. They’re held aloft by five colorful columns, which aren’t decorated with the usual Romanesque doodads or acanthus-leaf designs. Steps, squiggles, and scroll-like details wind their way up each tall and slender column. They wouldn’t look out of place in an Andalusian mosque. Naturally, there’s not a single human figure in sight.

The scribe, of course, could have come from anywhere in Europe. We can’t dust the folios for the fingerprints of a scholar some twelve centuries dead. Theodulf himself—a bishop, an abbot, a counselor to kings—may never have touched that particular leaf.

But it is charming to imagine Theodulf, the great Carolingian sophisticate, recalling a scene from his own distant youth—impressions, clear ones, of places he would never see again, a streetscape of long-lost neighbors whose souls he continued to pray for—and then leaning over the shoulder of a nervous scribe, eager to tell him: “Here. These are the arches. It’s how I remember them. I want you to paint them exactly this way.”

What would Theodulf make of this speculation, this effort to spy on his medieval mind? If the bishop were as blustery as he portrayed himself, he’d have reacted like his rivals in poetic combat, attonitus, tremulus, furibundus, anhelus—”frantic, trembling, raging, panting.” But as an intellectual, a scholar who did his best to build a better Bible, Theodulf surely would have chuckled. In his heyday, he compared his colleagues to scurrying ants. He slandered them as drunkards, he made fun of their weight, and he dubbed all his rivals intemperate fools. The bishop ended his satiric poems with Christian pleas for forgiveness—but he knew full well that few of his hapless targets could truly reply in kind.

Theodulf loved a good joke—or so we imagine, based on some fragments in very old books. If we want to strip the man of his historical dignity, wrongly portray him as a sentimental sap, rebaptize the sharp-tongued Goth in mawkish, imaginary tears, we can. He can’t stop us.

Theodulf’s poems were a plea for someone to spar with, but now the joke is on him. For once, the great wit doesn’t get the final word. Let’s hope the bishop is laughing; at last, he found a worthy foe in time.

“One more drop of poison and you’ll dream of foreign lands.”

Theodulf was an oenophile, as the below translation makes clear. Had I a router and any discernible woodworking skill, I’d make this poem into a little plaque and market it as home decor. (Take that, “Footprints” prayer!)

I was tempted to translate the second word in the title as “drinkatorium.” Theodulf might have liked that.

SUPER PROPINATORIUM

Qui latices quondam vini convertit in usum,
Et fontis speciem fecit habere meri,
Ipse piis manibus benedicat pocula nostra,
Et laetum faciat nosmet habere diem.

ABOVE A BAR

May He who water changed to needful wine
And vintage drink from vessels bade to pour
With hands so holy bless our cups once more,
And grant our day be joyful and divine.

“Jumpin’ fences, dodgin’ trees, and tryin’ to get away…”

Since it’s turning into “Theodulf Week” here on Quid Plura?, I thought I’d make another hasty translation from the poetic corpus of the bishop of Orleans.

Back in June, I wrote about the fox I keep seeing here in my neighborhood. I enjoy spotting this critter, but Theodulf’s poem about an incident at the monastery of Charroux reminds me that what I consider an example of amusing urban fauna is a creature that often infuriated medieval people.

As with my other exercises in Theodulfiana, this is a loose translation, and I’ve only rendered the core anecdote. I’ve left out both the beginning—a brief ode to the monastery—and the little benediction at the end. I’m sure I haven’t done justice to Theodulf’s tone. He’d no doubt scold me for that, were he not twelve centuries dead.

CONCERNING A LITTLE FOX THAT SEIZED A HEN

A fox there was; that thief was wont to steal
The food the brothers needed for their meal.
The thousand-colored beast with outstretched wing
She gobbled in her jaws, that wicked thing.
The monks abiding there had scarcely guessed
The nature of this chaos-bringing pest—
Until that hen she stole, perchance to eat,
Thus making clear the way of her deceit.
Her burden made her sluggish, they could see:
She lingered deep within their alder-tree—
She lingered there, forlorn in her deceit,
For every pathway led to her defeat.
The chicken’s head she’d swallowed—but, in fact,
Its every other limb remained intact,
And you, the trickster’s foot, were on a bough
No higher than a hedge; it did allow
Her rightmost paw to touch a trace of wall
Whose stones were stacked so steeply and so tall.
Thus hung the wretched thief, that wicked pest;
She flailed her neck and thrashed her head, distressed.
The faithful monks erupted in delight:
They saw God’s wondrous portents in this sight.

“Put it all down to chemistry…”

Yesterday, I posted one of the more humorous poems of Theodulf of Orleans. Here’s another one, loosely translated from quantitative meter into rhyming couplets. Those of you with kids may get a kick out of it.

DELUSA EXPECTATIO

Grande habet initium cum res vilissima dictu,
Tunc gignis murem, magne elephante, brevem.
Sic patri quidam retulit sua somnia natus,
Depromens animo frivola dicta suo:
“O pater, in somnis dicam quae mira videbam,
Moverunt animum talia visa meum.
Bos dabat humanas nostras hac nocte loquelas,
Ille loquebatur, nos stupebamus,” ait.
Tum pater attonitus rem sic inquirit ab illo:
“Dic, quod dicebat,” intulit ille: “Nihil.”

DELUDED EXPECTATION

When momentous beginnings mere trifles espouse,
Then you, mighty elephant, bring forth a mouse.
A son told his father his dreams; thus he heard
What fell from his thoughts, every frivolous word:
“Father, I’ll say what I see in my mind.
The most troubling visions in sleep do I find:
An ox who could speak I encountered tonight.
He talked! We were rather amazed at the sight.”
Inquired the father, “What news did he bring?”
Answering him, he replied, “Not a thing.”

“There were plants and birds and rocks and things…”

While I was writing Becoming Charlemagne, I spent a fair amount of time skimming the works of Theodulf of Orleans, the witty bishop who left behind a significant corpus of poetry. Most of his longer works about religious doctrine are a bit boring for the modern reader and way beyond my ability to parse, but a few of his shorter poems are gems—and a pleasure to translate.

Here’s one such poem, first in the original Latin, and then in my own translation (in rhymed couplets, an arbitrarily chosen form).

DE EQUO PERDITO

Saepe dat ingenium quod vis conferre negabat.
Compos et arte est, qui viribus impos erat.
Ereptum furto castrensi in turbine quidam.
Accipe, qua miles arte recepit equum.
Orbus equo fit, preco ciet hae compita voce:
“Quisquis habet nostrum, reddere certet equum.
Sin alias, tanta faciam ratione coactus,
Quod noster Roma fecit in urbe pater.”
Res movet haec omnes, et equum fur sivit abire.
Dum sua vel populi damna pavenda timet.
Hunc herus ut reperit, gaudet potiturque reperto,
Gratanturque illi, quis metus ante fuit.
Inde rogant, quid equo fuerat facturus adempto,
Vel quid in urbe suus egerit ante pater.
“Sellae,” ait, “adiunctis collo revehendo lupatis
Sarcinulisque aliis ibat onustus inops.
Nil quod pungat habens, calcaria calce reportans,
Olim eques, inde redit ad sua tecta pedes.
Hunc imitatus ego fecissem talia tristis,
Ni foret iste mihi, crede, repertus equus.”

CONCERNING A LOST HORSE

Brains can defend you where brawn can’t assist;
Often a weakling on wits can subsist.
So hear how a soldier, employing no force,
In his encampment retrieved his lost horse.
He stood at the crossroads and made this decree:
“If you stole my horse, then return it to me!
For if you should fail, I’ll be forced to proceed
Like my father before me in Rome—so take heed!”
The men all grew nervous; the thief felt remorse:
Fearing for all, he returned the man’s horse.
The owner rejoiced; celebration was made
By all of the men who had been so afraid.
At last they inquired of him, every one,
Just what it was that his father had done.
“His bridle, his saddle, his old traveling-sack
He flung ’round his neck, the poor man, and walked back.
So useless his spurs; on his heels they stayed put.
Once a great horseman, he came home on foot.
Believe me, I almost pursued his sad course:
I’d have done the same thing had I not found my horse.”