Medieval Literature, Poetry

Christine de Pisan’s Letter of Othea to Hector

Image result for letter from othea

Christine de Pisan’s Epître Othéa (Trans. The Letter of Othea to Hector) is a late 14th century allegorical reading of different Ovidian tales. A Greek goddess named Othea writes to Hector to give him advice. Hector was a great warrior in Greek mythology, but in the Epître Othéa, he represents the ideal Christian. Othea is Jesus Christ who gives Hector all of the gifts he needs for salvation. Christine not only writes Othea’s letter, she also supplies the reader with a gloss and an allegorical interpretation of the poem. The gloss is a “plain” reading of Othea’s advice. Hector is taught how to be a courtly knight. But the allegorical interpretation places the Greek and Roman myths in a Christian context. Christine uses these pagan stories to teach the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and to warn against the seven deadly sins.

One example will suffice.

In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Pygmalion falls in love with a statue he made of a woman named Galathea. He pleads Venus to transform Galathea into a flesh-and-blood woman. After Venus grants his wish, Pygmalion marries the former statue and fathers a child with her. Christine admits in her gloss that there are many possible interpretations to this story, but she favors the one in which Pygmalion is a vain man who has forgotten his knightly duties. He has abandoned his duties for a woman who is deaf to his complaints. Christine does not think that the woman was ever a real statue, but that Galathea was like a statue because she made no demands. Pygmalion was satisfied with this statue-like woman, but a courtly lover should not forget his knightly duties. In all of the glosses, Christine interprets the men as courtly lovers and knights (like Lancelot or Tristram).

The allegorical interpretation that follows the gloss reads Pygmalion as a representation of the sin of lechery. Sexual gluttony was strongly condemned by St. Jerome. In 2 Peter, the person who dies without spots or blemishes on his soul merits heaven.

In the Middle Ages, passages from the Bible were glossed by theological experts (ie. monastics and scholastics). The glosses borrowed from the writings of the Church Fathers to explain the meaning of certain biblical passages. Allegorical interpretations tried to find the spiritual meaning underneath the “carnal” or “plain” meaning of the stories. This allegorical hermeneutic was borrowed from the Platonists and Neo-Platonists, who believed that the external image was merely a window to a greater spiritual meaning. Origen of Alexandria is said to be the Father of this approach to the Bible. Later Christian leaders adopted and modified his interpretations. My favorite allegorical commentary comes from St. Augustine of Hippo. It’s on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Enjoy!’s-commentary-on-the-good-samaritan

Christine’s poem is also interesting because she assumes that wisdom exists in the writings of the pagans. The Middle Ages is known today as an age of intolerance, and there was certainly a lot of intolerance. But until very recently, Christian intellectuals believed that pagan myth and philosophy could be valuable to Christians. Christine writes in the preface to the Epître Othée that the pagans may have lacked divine grace, but their writings contained a lot of wisdom. Without grace, however, the pagans only had a carnal view of the world. They told stories that were true, but they interpreted the truth carnally. They didn’t have the grace to interpret their myths in the context of the Christian Gospel. Medieval intellectuals often engaged positively with the writings of non-Christians.

Finally, Christine’s poem is a celebration of female wisdom. The goddess’ gifts represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit or even the Holy Spirit himself. The Epître Othée is, therefore, also a proto-feminist work addressed to Christine’s misogynistic opponents.

Medieval Literature, Poetry

The Romance of the Rose: Intro/Overview

Image result for romance of the roseLe Roman de la Rose (Trans. The Romance of the Rose) is a nearly 22000 line poem written in the 13th century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. While Guillaume is the author of only the first 4000 lines, he introduces the dream narrative that Jean develops for the final 18000 lines. The Romance of the Rose was second only to the Bible in popularity in the late Middle Ages. References to the poem are found in Dante, Boccacio, and Chaucer.

The plot is quite simple. A lover recounts a dream he had as a young man. In the dream, the lover enters a garden, falls in love with a forbidden rose bud, is banished for his infraction, but finally reunites with the rose bud through the help of Venus and her army. Along the way, the lover-protagonist (Amant), encounters dozens of speech characters (Reason, Shame, Friend, Jealousy, etc) who either help or hinder Amant’s mission. Some characters such as Reason, Friend, False-Seeming, and Nature give long speeches addressing love, marriage, and the use of language.

Should Amant pursue his rose? Does reason play a role in courtly love? What language is appropriate for a lover to use?

While Jean resumes Guillaume’s story, he seems to have a very different vision of love than Guillaume. While Guillaume’s Amant is concerned with courtliness, Jean’s lover is difficult to pin down. The speech characters in Jean’s section problematize Guillaume’s narrative because they seem to promote uncourtly behavior. Often, they parrot misogynistic tropes found in the Fabliaux tradition. Friend, False-Seeming, and Genius spend hundreds of lines insulting women and warning men about female deception, but they don’t seem to have a problem with husbandly infidelity. Indeed, Friend insists that men should hide their mistresses from their emotional and needy wives.

And then there’s the question of authorship. Who’s speaking? Guillaume? Jean? Amant? If the latter, is the lover-protagonist necessarily in agreement with the views of the author? Sometimes the lover-protagonist and the author are one and the same, but at other times (especially in the Jean section), the author is clearly different from the narrator.

Needless to say, The Romance of the Rose was a highly controversial poem in the late Middle Ages. While the poem seems to emulate the structure of 13th century scholastic dialectics (“for” and “against” arguments presented side-by-side and in debate with one another), 15th century humanists assumed a straightforward reading of the text. Christine de Pisan at the beginning of the century wrote a series of letters and treatises condemning the apparent misogyny and obscenity in the poem. She was responding to the humanist fans of the Rose, many of whom considered Jean to be a great and holy theologian (!). Christine’s critics were appalled that a woman would even dare disagree with a group of theologians. But Christine had no tolerance for the misogyny celebrated by defenders of the Rose. Christine’s greatest supporter was Jean Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris and a famous reformer-theologian.

I have just begun reading Christine’s letters in opposition to certain readings of the Rose. So far, I am quite impressed. I will have more to say about her argument once I have finished reading the entire collection of letters surrounding the Rose debate.

Anonymous, Medieval Literature, Poetry

Review of The Crowning of Louis

What was it about?

The Crowning of Louis: A New Translation of the Old French Verse Epic is an epic poem of the William of Orange Cycle, translated from the Old French by the independent researcher Nirmal Dass.Written around 1130, Le Couronnement de Louis recounts Count William Shortnose’s many battles in defense of Pope Hadrian I and King Louis the Pious. Count William, like Roland of The Song of Roland, is a great warrior who protects the young king-elect Louis from traitors who wish to take the throne. At the same time, the Saracens seek to overthrow the papacy and win Rome. This epic poem is chock full of insults and bloody battles fought int the name of God and King.

What did I think of it?

The Crowning of Louis is an obscure epic poem that I borrowed from my university’s research library. While there is nothing outstanding about the story itself, I definitely enjoyed the poem. I started reading it at a coffee shop, but I had to leave after reading the first few pages because I couldn’t stop laughing. So many scenes read like something from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In one battle scene, King William lops off his opponent’s limbs, but, out of mercy, doesn’t kill him. Instead, William and the king embrace each other and depart in peace only to meet again later on horseback! Clearly, the poet had amnesia. The pope’s first challenger, King Galafrez, refers to the Bishop of Rome as the “great lord of the large hat” (vs. 475). King Galafrez promises him, “I shall roast you over coals in a hearth/ Till your liver falls on the heap of coals” (vs. 542-543). The humor is sky high. If you like Medieval battles, you will enjoy The Crowning of Louis. Unfortunately, there are no new copies available online. However, there are some cheap, used copies available on Amazon. It’s amazing what the characters are willing to do in the name of God.

Favorite Quote

All of Rome then cried out in one loud voice,
Along with the Pope, who shook with great dread:
“Saint Peter, lord, protect now your champion.
If he dies, you will be badly reproached.
In your church, where I now presently live,
I shall not sing Mass or read the lessons.” (vs. 1060-1065)


Anonymous, Medieval Literature, Poems, Poetry

Review of Beowulf

beowulfWhat is it about?

Here is what Goodreads has to say about Beowulf:

Beowulf is the greatest surviving work of literature in Old English, unparalleled in its epic grandeur and scope. It tells the story of the heroic Beowulf and of his battles, first with the monster Grendel, who has laid waste to the great hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, then with Grendel’s avenging mother, and finally with a dragon that threatens to devastate his homeland. Through its blend of myth and history, Beowulf vividly evokes a twilight world in which men and supernatural forces live side by side. And it celebrates the endurance of the human spirit in a transient world.”

What did I think about it?

Beowulf is an amazing warrior. He is fearless and powerful. Originally from the Kingdom of the Geats, Beowulf arrives at the Danish King Hrothgar’s mead house, Heoroth, one morning to defeat Grendel who has terrorized Hrothgar’s men for years. Beowulf helps Hrothgar because the latter helped end a feud between Beowulf’s father and the Wylfings.

My favorite character in the poem was Hrothgar because he is so kind and wise. He imparts fatherly wisdom to the young Beowulf, and is very generous in his gift giving. He sets a fantastic example for Beowulf to follow. In fact, in many passages, Hrothgar is described in the same biblical language used to describe Jesus.

I read the Penguin Classics version of Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander (2003). I thought the translation was beautiful and the notes at the back of the text were very helpful in understanding the history of the relationship between the Geats and the Danes. Major themes in the poem are the inevitability of death and the virtue of generosity.

Favorite Quote

[Hrothgar to Beowulf]: “Learn from this, Beowulf:/study openhandedness! It is for your ears that I relate/this,/and I am old in winters” [1720-1722].



Anonymous, Crusades, Medieval Literature, Philosophy, Poems, Poetry

Review of La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland)

What was it about?

The Franks under Charlemagne (King Charles) have conquered all of Spain except Saragosse. Saragosse is still under Saracen rule. The Saracen King Marsile, realizing that Charlemagne’ army is so much more powerful than his own, decides to defeat the Franks through deception. Marsile informs Charlemagne that he would like to get baptized. He claims that he is interested in becoming Christian and will give all of Spain to the Franks. After consulting his knights, Charlemagne decides to accept Marsile’s offer. Charles’ nephew, Roland, is a brave and loyal warrior. But, he is also prideful. His pride has resulted in many wars between the Christians and the Muslims. Roland nominates his godfather Ganelon to convey Charlemagne’s response to Marsile. Ganelon accepts the baton and the glove from Charlemagne, but he comes up with a plan to kill Roland. He betrays the Franks by allying with Marsile. He tells Marsile that if Roland is killed, the Franks will no longer fight the Saracens because Charlemagne is powerless without his nephew. Marsile sends word to Charlemagne that he will follow Charles to Aix where he will become Christian. Charles leaves behind Roland, the twelve pairs, and thousands of other knights to protect his Spanish territories. Without warning, Charlemagne’s rearguard is attacked by the Saracens.

What did I think about it?

How can one claim to know anything about the Crusades without having read The Song of Roland? True, it is fictional. But, the story was written in the 12th century, during the First Crusade. It served as war propaganda. If only for that reason, La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) should be read for its historical relevance. Roland is the ideal knight. He is willing to die for his God and his king.

The Song of Roland rewards a reader who understands and can identify Christian imagery. Charlemagne is a very wise and saintly figure. This 200 year old man with a long white beard is definitely an impressive character. Roland, Ganelon, ad Olivier are not one-dimensional. This is difficult to accomplish in a poem but the author succeeded in creating complex characters. However, the battles drag on for 50-100 pages each. Although I know that the repetitions in the poem serve to underline tension in the story, these repetitions (especially in the battle scenes) can be irritating at times. Because of the extremely boring final battle scene , I give the book 4 stars. But this rating should not dissuade you from reading this epic poem. Anyone interested in Medieval Europe should read The Song of Roland. It is comparable in fame to Homer’s Odyssey.

Courtly Love, Medieval Literature, Poems, R-V, Thomas

Review of Le Roman de Tristan (The Romance of Tristan and Yseut) by Thomas

Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper
Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper

Last month, I finished reading the Thomas version of the story of Tristan and Yseut. Le Roman de Tristan is a medieval courtly love poem written en octasyllabes (each line has eight syllables and the poem has an AABB rhyme scheme). Because I have great difficulty reading old French, I read a modern French version of it. There are quite a few Medieval versions of this story, but I read the Thomas version. For all you French speakers out there, there is also a popular condensed version of this story, called Tristan et Iseut by Joseph Bédier.

What was it about?

Tristan, an Arthurian knight, is in love with Yseut, the wife of King Marc. Tristan also happens to be Marc’s nephew. This is a classic courtly love poem because a noble (a knight) falls in love with one who is nobler than him (a queen). King Marc asks Tristan to bring Yseut to his kingdom so that he can marry her. But on the boat, Tristan and Yseut drink a love potion, and they instantly fall in love for each other. Of course, such a love is forbidden in the kingdom, so after tricking King Marc into sleeping with his wife’s maidservant so that Tristan can sleep with Yseut, Tristan leaves the kingdom and marries another woman named Yseut. He marries this Yseut aux Blanches Mains (Yseut of the white hands), because she has the same name as the queen and is beautiful. Tristan, assuming that the queen is enjoying her life with the king, marries this other Yseut because he wants to understand marital love. However after the marriage, he refuses to have sexual intercourse with his wife because he suddenly feels guilty for having cheated on his lover. Therefore, as a sacrifice for the queen, he sleeps next to Yseut aux Blanches Mains but doesn’t touch her. Dissatisfied with his present life, Tristan returns to Marc’s kingdom, in hopes of finding the queen.

What did I think about it?

I think we can all agree that Le Roman de Tristan has a pretty weird plot. The values of loyalty and sacrifice are turned on their heads. Tristan’s loyalty to a married woman prevents him from fulfilling his marital duties, and Thomas doesn’t seem to think that this is wrong.  In fact, Thomas intervenes frequently in defense of this illicit affair. Because passages have been lost in history, the story jumps around, and it is difficult to keep straight the two Yseuts and the two Tristans (yes, there are two Tristans as well). You really have to suspend all judgment when you read this poem because deus ex machina is the call of the day. While I think that there were better courtly love poems written in the Middle Ages such as Le Chevalier de la Charette by Chrétien de Troyes, I enjoyed reading this poem because of the characters of Yseut aux Blanches Mains and the maidservant Brangien. Both women, though neglected and/or used by their superiors, find ways to challenge the oppressive systems in which they find themselves.