Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The insects and the miller / The krycket & þe greshope

From the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.

(oops! as I was writing this, Jeffrey was writing a post himself, which you should read NOW).

Here's a macaronic, presumably late 15th-century poem from Peniarth MS 356b, which I ran across yesterday in Robbins' Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (2nd. ed), p. 104.

The krycket & þe greshope wentyn here to fy3ght,
With helme and haburyone all redy dy3ght;
The flee bare þe baner as a du3ty kny3th,
The cherubud trumpyt with all hys my3th.
Salamandraque cicada domitatum perereterunt,
Galiaque cum lorica presto se parauerunt;
Musca vexillum portabat vt miles egregius,
Scarabius buccinauit totis suis viribus.
The hare seyte a-pon þe hyll & chappynd here schone,
And swere by the knappes wich were þer a-pon,
That scho wowld not ryse ne gon
Tyll sche se xx howndes and a won.
Lepus super montem se ipsum collocauit,
Et suos sotulares laquitissinauit,
Et per laquitissos ipsequen iurauit
De lustro surgere nec ire voluit
quousque vigenti canis vnum videret.
Þe myler sedet o-pon the hull
and all þe hennes off the town drew hym tyll;
The mylner sayd, 'schew, henne, schew!
I may not schake my bage for you.'
Molendinarius super montem sedebat,
gallinarum ville ad se copia currebat;
Molendinarius inquit, 'sco, galina, sco!
Meum saccum pro uobis vrcillare non possum.'
I love this little poem, written in the end--I think--of a grammar, and therefore, perhaps, intended for children (at least per Nicholas Orme, "The Culture of Children in Medieval England," Past & Present 148 (1995): 48-88 [82]).

I couldn't tell you much more than what you see here. Crickets and Grasshoppers go together, as in this children's natural history, or in this recent nature poem by Dan Beachy-Quick ("The poetry of the earth never ceases / Ceasing" &c., which edit I'm chagrined to have to be reminded, is a play on a little poem by a not-exactly-minor poet by the name of John Keats, as David Hadbawnik had to remind me), and also in scripture, Leviticus 11:22, although not in any version of the Bible, so far as I know, that would have been known in fifteenth-century Wales (Vulgate here; Wycliffite here, for example).

In the absence of any criticism, in the absence of being able to consult the manuscript online, and therefore in the absence of much of the needed cultural context, what can we do with this poem? On twitter, I called it "A great little macaronic poem of manuscript marginalia come to life" (a point, minus the "great," already made by Douglas Gray), and that might be enough, alone.

If we want to take this as a children's poem, and still respect it for all that (and why not?), and if we want to take this as a kind of nursery rhyme, with many of the features of the genre, we might observe the close relationship of children and insects, the very small, and the nervous (the hare awaiting the 21 dogs). Children work at a different time than we adults (presuming on my audience!), and a different scale. They're more vulnerable, smaller, faster, with time moving more slowly (my birthday comes around so quickly these days). My wife recently introduced me to Delmore Schwartz's "Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers," whose first line is just that, and whose entirety you really, really need to read if you don't already know it.

We might take this little poem, in its bizarre resistance to interpretation, as just that, a stranger.

Or we might do more with it, paying attention to its language, form (why the five-line stanza in the middle?), and vocabulary. What, if anything, would you do with it?

(on children and animals, see Jeffrey's ancient blog post, since turned into an article, most recently reprinted here. And for more on Villard de Honnecourt, see Haylie Swenson's essay in postmedieval 4.3)


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I love the cadences of the poem, and how the two temporalities you speak about are embedded perhaps in the jauntiness of the English and the rather languid Latin ("Salamandraque cicada domitatum perereterunt" takes its own sweet time to unfold, while "The krycket & þe greshope wentyn here to fy3ght" has a beautiful brusqueness or matter-of-factness to it). It's intercutting of languages is beautifully done, and reminds me so much of many books I've read my own kids over the years, with its zooming in and out of various scales and its love of all things silly (and its love of making even Latin a language for some serious play).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

For "it's" read "its." I need an editor, full time.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And PS its Latin as a serious language disrupted by play reminds me of Goliardic verse.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Karl: This poem is a FANTASTIC find and (as you might guess) I'm incredibly interested in its bilingual character and the use of animal-narratives or fictive animal-worlding as a mode of (dual) language instruction for children. [And I'm also thinking about thread after my posting re: bilingual animal-sound wordlists a while ago: ] In this poem the use of simple grammatical structures in Latin stanzas (each preceded by a ME "crib") reminds me more of Aesop's fables as vehicles for language instruction -- but as JJC notes there is a kind of cultural "work" that thinking-through-animals performs beyond "mere" language instruction too.

It feels to me that the socialization process in this poem is coded as male (since boys would typically be the ones learning Latin) -- the text relates some of the chivalric rituals of battle (stanza 1 and 2), obliquely suggests hunting (stanza 2 and 3), and ends with sort of comic moment of rest from (masculine?) agricultural labor (stanza 4 and 5).

So I'd really want to think more about the *bilingual* character of this poem and what else the diglossia achieves on the socialization-of-young-humans front. The general sense of the ME seems to correspond with the Latin, and while wobbly rhyme adds structure to the stanzas in each language. There is, as JJC suggests, a play on fictive "scales" here -- and as you suggest the *pacing* of the ME and Latin differ in ways that might register with youth and age. To put the issue of "scale" another way, I see this poem as conceptually moving "up" a chain of being: first a ground-level POV of tiny creatures, a hill traversed by a nervous hare (and approaching dogs), and then a hill occupied by a confident human (miller). What I find most remarkable here is how the code-switching ME/Latin verse seems to thematize what a kind of *perspectival* code-switching too -- that is, the stanzas not only oscillate between linguistic registers but also toggle between nonhuman and human perspectives. i.e., the hare episode is apparently from the animal's point of view but the miller episode is from the human's. And the linguistic register of the Latin stanzas playfully runs *counter* to this upward-moving scale/progression: the first Latin stanza recalls "elevated" epic battle scenes, but then the final Latin stanza is decidedly "grounded" and rustic. Still sorting out what I think about this, but it seems to me that the diglossia in this poem -- unintentionally or not -- creates the ludic intermediate zone: it shakes up hierarchies as much as it asserts them.

Jonathan Hsy said...

PS. Stanzas are mis-numbered in my comment above but it should be clear which ones I'm referring to!