sardonic literature necessary complement to romantic medievalism

tumbeor as juggler

We are living without enlightenment in an age of romantic medievalism. Popular tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table compete as cultural parodies with the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction being awarded in 2012 to a book that presents a parodic version of our Dark Ages. Women today aspire to be slut-walking whores and demand to be honored as highly as Mary Magdalen. Even worse, an eminent director of porn films implicitly cited the medieval poem Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame {The Tumbler of Notre Dame} to justify depicting a prostitute providing sexual pleasure to a man.[1] Our time is out of joint. We need enlightenment now to set it right.

Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame as children's literature

Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame deserves its cultural salience. It has survived in Latin and Old French versions from no later than the mid-thirteenth century. The poem tells of a courtly entertainer {ioculator / tumbeor}. He was one of the finest tumblers of his day — not a highly trained tumbler of women, but a courtly acrobat who performed amazing feats to entertain courtly elite.[2] But he became dissatisfied with his worldly success. He joined conversi — men who had gone their own way apart from the gynocentric world — in the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux. Like other conversi, he lacked the elite Latin education that the nascent University of Paris provided. He couldn’t chant and pray in Latin, nor understand the special gestural language that monks used with the authority of Saint Jerome. The monks ridiculed him for not being able to express devotion to God as they did.

The entertainer-conversus felt that he had no means fit to honor God. Yet he frequently spent time alone with a statue of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God in Christian understanding, in the dark crypt of the abbey. In medieval gynocentric society, Mary was greatly honored as the preeminent Christian disciple and the most influential mediator between humans and God. The entertainer sought to please her privately as best as he knew. He was “graceful, noble, and handsome {beaus et gens et bien formez}” and had a strong, firm body like a “young male goat {cavreçon}.” He began by undressing for her. Then he tumbled, performing elaborate, physically demanding bodily contortions. Impassioned, he performed as best as he could:

Lady, do not despise your servant,
for I serve you for your pleasure.
Lady, you are the mountain of pleasure
that reconciles all the world.

{ Dame, ne despisiés vo serf,
Car jo vo serf por vostre joie.
Dame, vos estes la monjoie
Ki racense trestot le mont. } [3]

When he finished, he lay back exhausted, bathed in sweat. Yet he adhered to the medieval doctrine of obligatory spousal love:

For if I can, I shall come again,
At each hour I shall try
To serve you well, however it be,
You are so beautiful, and that pleases me.

{ Car, se je puis, je revenrai.
A cascune ore vos volrai
Si bien servir, qui qu’il en poist,
Se bel vos est et il me loist. }

One day, the abbot and a monk, secretly watching, saw the statute of Mary come to life, descend from the pedestal of the immaculate woman, and comfort the sweaty lover after his exhausting performance. They recognized that the entertainer honored God and knew God in a way that they didn’t. He, however, rightly feared social persecution for what he did. When the entertainer-conversus died, Mary fought off demons who wrongly thought that they owned such men. She brought him to heaven.

The diction of the medieval poem evokes the protagonist’s masculine sexuality. The poem described him as a minstrel {menestrel} and a tumbler {tumbeor}. The Old French menestrel is rooted in the Latin word for servant, minister. The original, ancient understanding of chivalry emphasized men’s sexual service to women. The Old French tumbeor is a noun formed from the verb meaning “to tumble.” That verb today has the informal meaning of “to have sex with” via an obvious physical metaphor. That metaphorical usage is attested in an artful English text written about 1603:

Quoth she, before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed. [4]

The Middle English verb tumben includes the meaning “to fall.” Drawing upon the association of Middle English with obscenities, the French-speaking courts of Norman England readily could have given the Old French tumbeor an informal meaning of “one who has sex.” Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame uses the verbs tumer and baler. The former has roots in the Latin tumēre (“to swell”), while the latter in the Latin ballāre (“to shake”). Within the relatively broad freedom of expression in the medieval world, a man interacting sexually with a revered female image is plausible.[5]

…To this day
I covet no other’s rite or talent, knowing how I may,
by the simple sending of myself,
deserve her. [6]

Tumbeor Nostre Dame, Ms. Ms 3516

Under the increasingly intense sexual repression of late capitalism, Anatole France devalued men’s sexuality with his 1890 prose adaptation of the medieval poem. France made the text less sensual in shifting it from poetry to prose. In addition, he desexualized the medieval protagonist’s intense, full-body performance. France could have translated tumbeor into modern French as ménestrel or danseur. France’s translation instead made the medieval poetic tumbeor into a jongleur. Underscoring that change, the prose jongleur of France’s Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame merely juggled.[7]

Evidently supporting castration culture, Anatole France trivialized men’s sexual concerns. Medieval men protested the devaluation of masculine sexual love. France, in contrast, inserted in Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame a blasphemous parody of medieval literature of men’s sexed protest:

although he {the juggler} had no wife, he did not covet his neighbor’s, for woman is the enemy of strong men, as appears by the history of Samson which is related in the Scriptures.

{ bien qu’il n’eût pas de femme, il ne convoitait pas celle du voisin, parce que la femme est l’ennemie des hommes forts, comme il apparaît par l’histoire de Samson, qui est rapportée dans l’Écriture. } [8]

Not to covert your neighbor’s wife is among the biblical Ten Commandments. In both Jewish and Christian understanding, that commandment concerns fidelity in love, not wariness of an enemy. Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest forthrightly recognized that a young, beautiful woman can dominate even a strong, highly intelligent, or very wealthy man. That reality has no significance in the medieval poem.

France also promoted misunderstanding of biblical and medieval views of women’s bodies. He inserted into his story a description of the monk Marbode’s sculpture of the Virgin Mary:

Marbode represented her seated in a pulpit, with a nimbus around her forehead, the orb of which was in pearls. And he was careful that the folds of her gown should cover the feet of the one of whom the prophet has said, “My beloved is like a closed garden.”

{ Marbode la représentait assise dans une chaire, le front ceint d’un nimbe à orbe perlé, Et il avait soin que les plis de la robe couvrissent les pieds de celle dont le prophète a dit: “Ma bien-aimée est comme un jardin clos.” }

Medieval Christian art depicted Saint Bernard drinking milk from Mary’s bared breast. France mis-contextualized his scriptural reference to the Song of Solomon:

A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed.

{ גַּ֥ן נָע֖וּל אֲחֹתִ֣י כַלָּ֑ה גַּ֥ל נָע֖וּל מַעְיָ֥ן חָתֽוּם } [9]

Medieval Jewish and Christian thinkers understood the Song of Solomon to portray erotic love. The spouse was a virgin before marriage. But she didn’t remain a virgin after marriage. In contrast to the prevalence of sexless marriage today, medieval Christian spouses were obligated to accede to one another’s request for sex, even if they didn’t feel like it. Medieval clerics relished the bodily beauty of beautiful women. At the same time, they weren’t willfully ignorant that women’s sexual allure can lead to many men’s deaths, as happened in the Trojan War. Belief in medieval hostility to sexual intercourse is largely a projection of modern, frigid, sexless scholars.

In later twentieth-century adaptations, medieval humanism and cultural sophistication gave way to profiting from pedaling gynocentrism and simplistic Christianity. In 1908, the opera impresario Oscar Hammerstin shrewdly cast Mary Garden as the juggler in Jules Massenet’s operatic adaptation of the medieval poem. The mainstream media, which has always pandered to women, was then promoting Mary Garden, along with Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt, as strong, independent women celebrities. The result was a commercial success and a further movement away from gender equality. The medieval Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame worked against the long-entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. Yet, apparently out of ignorance and self-interest, Mary Garden declared that “the Jongleur was sexless” and also insisted that a woman should always have that role to play. Dutifully following Mary Garden’s unreasonable diktat, Fred Waring’s television adaption that aired in the U.S. from 1951 to 1953 had a woman playing the lead role.[10]

W. H. Auden’s poetic adaptation, published in 1968, created polished, ironic medievalism from the medieval poem. Auden’s “Ballad of Barnaby” consists of quatrains of iambic tetrameter with an end-rhyme of aabb. One could hardly write more conventional light verse for modern listeners. Underscoring his poetic strategy, Auden began with the line “Listen, good people, and you shall hear.” He thus echoed the first line of the poem that probably the greatest number of U.S. schoolchildren have been forced to memorize: “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere… .” Auden drew upon the original, medieval poem, which didn’t name the protagonist. Anatole France, however, named the protagonist “Barnabé.” That could be interpreted as a Hebraic name somewhat incongruous with a minstrel-turned-monk living in twelfth-century northern France.[11] Auden, however, incorporated that name as “Barnaby.” He probably intended to allude to the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Auden made the poem turn on childish Christianity. Barnaby the tumbler saw two ravens perched on a gallows tree:

“Barnaby,” the first raven began,
“Will one day be as this hanging man”:
“Yes,” said the other, “and we know well
That when that day comes he will go to Hell.” [12]

Barnaby’s conscience struck him with fear of Hell. He thus repented of his old ways and entered a monastery. That’s a poem with the charm of a high-school play. It suggests that being as simple as a child is the way to enter heaven. Most modern readers lack the medieval sophistication to appreciate that view.[13]

The relatively primitive cultures of today’s high-income countries would greatly benefit from rather different medieval literature. The great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini preserved a complementary exemplum passed down in Latin among church officials. This story, explicitly structured as an exemplum, tells of another entertainer {histrio} who publicly proclaimed that he would jump from a tower in Bologna and then fly a thousand paces beyond the walls of the city. His advertised physical feat drew a huge crowd of spectators:

On the appointed day, nearly all the people of Bologna gathered to see the man’s performance. Tortured by sun and hunger, they remained until sunset. All were hanging in soul-filling suspense, staring at the tower, expecting to see a flying man. When he occasionally displayed himself at the top of the tower, he flapped his arms as if to take flight and pretended to launch himself downward. At this the people cheered greatly and with gaping mouths gazed upon the tower.

{ Congregato ad diem constitutum omni ferme Bononiensi populo, sole et fame, usque ad occasum solis, homines ludendo maceravit. Pendebant omnes animi suspensi ad aspectum turris, volatum hominis exspectantes. Cum ille interim in turris cacumine ostenderetur, alasque quateret volaturo similis, seque deorsum projecturum fingeret, erat magna ad haec signa populi acclamatio, patulo ore turrim aspicientis. } [14]

As a performer, this entertainer was probably at least as successful as the tumbler of Notre Dame. He too gave up performing, but with a gesture that tells of a different spirit:

At last, when the sun had set, the entertainer, not wanting to appear to have done nothing, turned his back to them and displayed his bare buttocks to the people. Thus mocked, hungry, and disgusted, all returned home in the dark.

{ Tum histrio, post solis tandem occasum, ne nihil actum videretur, versis ad eos renibus, culum populo ostentavit. Ita illusi omnes, inedia, et taedio confecti, in urbem noctu redierunt. }

These sensation-seeking people were as gullible as those who believe today’s lies about domestic violence. In the Middle Ages, this Latin story exemplified sensational, empty public words and a disgusting public performance.[15] That’s common behavior among attention-seeking adults. This story was a vitally important complement to Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame in sustaining the relatively enlightened culture of the Middle Ages.

At the height of Romance philology’s prestige in France in the 1870s, the medieval Latin fake flier and the Old French holy tumbler were brought together philologically. The exemplum of the fake flyer is entitled in the original Latin Cardinalis Burdigalensis de histrione. That most literally means “The Cardinal of Bordeaux on the actor.” Yet in Paris in 1879, that title was translated as “Story of a juggler related by the Cardinal of Bordeaux.”[16] When Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame was first printed in Paris in 1873, its protagonist was described in modern French as a jongleur.[17] That modern French word translates most directly into English as “juggler.” In Paris in 1879, translating histrio as “juggler” rather than “actor” or “entertainer” connects the medieval Latin exemplum Cardinalis Burdigalensis de histrione to the Old French exemplum Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame. The two exempla provide complementary perspectives on the human spirit. Both are necessary for appreciating the fullness of life.

Today, the decaying cultures of high-income countries need not only romantic medievalism, but also sardonic medieval Latin literature. One of the best such works, Solomon and Marcolf {Dialogus Salomonis et Marcolfi}, is readily available in a superb bi-lingual edition with a highly learned yet easily readable commentary.[18] Two other outstanding sardonic works of medieval Latin literature, The Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum} and Ysengrimus, are less accessible to non-specialists. Even worse, the brilliant and deeply transgressive Lamentations of Little, Little Matheus {Lamentationes Matheoluli} has been tragically marginalized under hate-filled epithets. It still lacks a full English translation. Renaissance and enlightenment will not overcome our dark, ignorant age of romantic medievalism until medieval Latin literature in the fullness of its sophistication and scope once again brings joy and instruction to many.

Marcolf mooning Solomon

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[1] Ziolkowski (2006) p. 185, citing a 1973 interview with Radley Metzger. Metzger, under the name Henry Paris, directed several highly acclaimed pornographic films. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern was the book that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction {sic}.

Five manuscripts of Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame have survived. Here’s information about those manuscripts.

The conventional title of the medieval poem began late in the nineteenth century as Del Tumbeor Nostre-Dame. That’s the title of the scholarly article containing the first modern publication of the poem, Fœrster (1873). An influential critical edition, Lommatzsch (1920), used nearly the same title, Del Tumbeor Nostre Dame. In its best current critical edition, the medieval poem ends in mixture of Latin, Old French, and Italian:

End of the tumbler.
Thus ends the tumbler of Notre-Dame

{ Explicit del tumeor.
Chi fine li tumbeor nostre dame }

Bretel (2003) p. 100, my English translation based mainly on Bretel’s modern French translation. Del is an Old French contraction for de + le. Bretel (2003) and Ziolkowski (2006) give the poem’s title as Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame. I follow their practice as the most authoritative practice.

Ziolkowski (2006) describes itself as “an overview of a book in progress.” That book “will be devoted entirely to the medieval poem and its reception (together with English translations of both the original and Anatole France’s adaptation).” Id. p. 186, n. 1. Leading medieval philologists have worked on Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame for nearly a century and half. Making an additional contribution to that scholarship is a difficult challenge.

Ziolkowski apparently is taking a daring, wide-ranging approach to Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame. His site has a tab for “Juggler Book Project and Museum Exhibit.” He has provided a translation for a new edition of Anatole France’s story.  He’s probably the prime mover behind a reissue of Barbara Cooney’s 1961 adaptation for children, The Little Juggler, as well Juggling the Middle Ages: A Medieval Coloring Book based on Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame. All three books are scheduled for publication in September, 2018. No leading medieval philologist has ever engaged in public outreach of this scope. Update: Ziolkowski is producing a six-volume set, The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are already freely available.

Among Ziolkowski’s most important scholarly works are English translations and learned commentaries on marginalized, transgressive literature of fundamental public significance. See Ziolkowski (1989) and Ziolkowski (2008). Gaston Paris and other leading philologists who have studied Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame haven’t recognized that Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame celebrates masculine sexuality. That theme is deeply transgressive in our modern age of increasingly repressive gynocentrism. But Ziolkowski among leading philologists of the past two centuries is the best capable of bringing to light the subtle, complex linguistic and thematic work of the medieval poem.

Early twentieth-century English translations of Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame are freely available online. See, e.g. Wicksteed (1894), Butler (1898), and Kemp-Welch (1908). For today’s reader, these translations have shortcomings in both readability and fidelity to the medieval text. The most recent English translation, Wilkie (1979), is quite readable and faithful to the medieval text. It too, however, has shortcomings in its base Old French text and in the accuracy of its translation. Ziolkowski’s forthcoming translation will certainly become the preferred translation.

[2] The Latin exemplum is from Tabula exemplorum secundum ordinem alphabeti, no. 87 (under the rubric Gudium {Joy}), quoted in English translation in Ziolkowski (2006) p. 159, and providing ioculator as the Latin behind his English translation “entertainer.”

The tumbler traveled widely, spent a lot of money, and yet accumulated enough to give horses, clothes, and money to the monastery when he entered it. Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame ll.10-5. Highly talented, he had international-class tumbling skills:

He does the vault of Metz over his head.

Then he does for her the French vault
and then the Champagne vault
and then the vault of Spain
and the vaults one does in Brittany
and the vault of Lorraine.
He cares little for his own exertions.
Afterwards he does the Roman vault

{ Le tor de Mes entor la teste.

Après li fait le tor françois,
Et puis le tor de Champenois,
Et puis liu fait le tor d’Espaigne
Et les tors c’on fait en Bretaigne,
Et puis le tor de Loheraine:
De quantqu’il onques puet se paine.
Après li fait le tor romain }

Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame ll. 172, 175-81, Old French text from Bretel (2003), English translation from Wilkie (1979). All subsequent quotes from the poem are sourced similarly, but with my adaptions in light of Bretel’s modern French translation and commentary, and my sense of the poem.

[3] Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame ll. 194-7. Manuscripts vary on l. 197, and the meaning is difficult to interpret. My translation follows the insight of Bretel (2003) pp. 121-2 (n. 27), but avoids his explicit insertion of God into his French translation. The previous two short quotes are from l. 22 {beaus et gens et beien formez} and l. 158 {cavreçon}. The subsequent quote is ll. 245-8.

[4] Shakespeare, Hamlet 4.5.62. This is the earliest citation given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

[5] The tumbeor tumbles and dances to please the Virgin Mary:

In the songs of Neidhart, one of the {thirteenth-century} German minnesingers, leaping dances are associated with sexuality, and the term for leaps (sprünge) may either be a reference to dance steps or a euphemism for sex.

Van Oort (2011) pp. 257-8. Distinctively masculine mystical dance has received relatively little scholarly attention:

Del Tumbeor Nostre Dame has much in common with accounts of sacred performances by female mystics. … In a scholarly dialogue that has focused primarily on female performance, further research on male performers and how their experiences may have been similar to or different from those of female performers would be welcome.

Id. pp. 265, 268.

[6] Nyhart (1973). The quoted words above are the final words of the final stanza of her poem.

[7] Anatole France apparently followed the misleading interpretations of the leading philologists of his time. In La Litterature française au moyen age {French Literature in the Middle Ages}, published in 1888, Gaston Paris called the tumbeor a jongleur. Paris described Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame as having a “delightful and childlike simplicity.” In writing his adaption, France “relied on the thumbnail sketch given by Gaston Paris.” Ziolkowski (2006) provides the relevant excerpt from Paris’s La Litterature française au moyen age (in both English translation, id. p. 165 and the original French, n. 33, id. pp. 189-90). Id. p. 169 summarizes France on his source; id. p. 191, n. 52, cites France’s letter dated May 11, 1890.

Paris was echoing the view of Fœrster (1873). The latter declared:

the story is at once remarkable for its simplicity and its frank naivety. If the subject matter causes one to smile, the childlike innocence, the burning faith, the total renunciation of the world with which the tale is marked, surpass everything that the most pious soul can imagine, and takes the form of utterly charming poetry.

{ elle est remarquable à la fois par sa simplicité et sa candide naïveté. Si le sujet fait sourire en lui-même, l’innocence enfantine, la foi ardente, le renoncement absolu à la vie mondaine dont le récit esi empreint, surpassent tout ce que peut imaginer l’âme la plus pieuse, et prend la forme de la plus charmante poésie. }

Id. p. 316. Wilkie (1979), p. 81, rightly castigates this interpretation. The English translation above is from id., p. 84, n. 5. Henry Adams, an early-twentieth-century historian, more perceptively observed of Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame:

If you cannot feel the colour and quality — the union of naivete and art, the refinement, the infinite delicacy and tenderness — of this little poem, then nothing will matter much to you

Adams (1913) p. 284.

Economists, bureaucrats, and poets have made great claims of professional importance. Philologists, in contrast, carry about a sense of moldy paper and indecipherable scribbles. Yet Gaston Paris and other leading medieval philologists promoted the ideology of courtly love. They contributed greatly in that way to eviscerating love possibilities for many millions of persons and further entrenching gender inequality.

[8] Anatole France, Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame, first published in Le Gaulois in May 10, 1890, republished in 1892 in France’s short-story collection, L’Étui de nacre. I quote the French from the Calmann-Lévy edition (1899); the English translation (adapted non-substantially) is from Henri Pène Du Bois (1896). The subsequent quote from France’s story is similarly sourced.

[9] Song of Solomon 4:12, from Hebrew trans. King James Version of the Bible. The Latin of the Vulgate: Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus. The figure hortus conclusus became a motif in medieval European Christian art.

[10] All the information in the above paragraph is from Ziolkowski (2006) pp. 173-5, 179-80.

[11] Auden reportedly said, “I consulted Anatole France, of course, but worked mostly from a medieval version of the story.” From a New York Times article of May 7, 1969, quoted in Ziolkowski (2006) p. 197, n. 127. Ziolkowski provides erudite speculation on France’s choice of the name Barnabé for the protagonist:

This name might have appealed to him for a few reasons. Barnabas is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, especially in the Acts of the Apostles. His name is glossed as meaning “the son of consolation” (Acts 4:36). Furthermore, apocrypha are ascribed to Barnabas, with the most important being the Gospel of Barnabas. Probably fortuitously, the apocryphal Gospel has a chapter (217) in which Jesus (or really Judas) is dressed as a juggler.

Ziolkowski (2006) p. 171. France wasn’t enough of a scholar even to study the medieval poem himself. Given the ironic aspects of France’s version (discussed above), he may also have chosen the name to evoke Barabbas. Barabbas was an insurrectionist against Roman state power. Pontius Pilate released Barabbas instead of Jesus in accordance with popular demand. Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:18-25, John 18:38-40, 19:14-16. Such a literary allusion is consistent with France’s ironic, belittling approach to popular Catholic piety.

[12] Auden (1969), “Ballad of Barnaby,” ll. 17-20 (fourth stanza). Auden originally wrote this poem as a libretto for a musical performance at the Wykeham Rise School, a girls’ prep school in Connecticut. Auden had high regard for this poem: he apparently arranged for copies of it to be distributed at his memorial service. Ziolkowski (2006) p. 184.

[13] Auden perceptively made the poem’s protagonist a tumbler, not a juggler. Moreover, Auden explicitly referred to the tumbler’s sexual appeal:

His eyes were blue, his figure was trim,
He liked the girls and the girls liked him,
For years he lived a life of vice,
Drinking in taverns and throwing the dice.

“Ballady of Barnaby” ll. 9-12 (stanza 3). Auden recognized a vital sense of the medieval poem.

Both children and sex are prevalent aspects of ordinary life. Yet even as perceptive a literary critic as McDiarmid interpreted Auden’s “Ballad of Barnaby” as “a nostalgic apology for poetry … it is a paradigm of the conversion Auden could never have.” McDiarmid (1990) pp. 3, 6. She opposed the spontaneous and the physical with learning and textual talent:

Their learning puts the monks at several removes from the Deity: Brother Maurice transcribes the words of the Abbot, not the words of God. All these schemes and definitions and decorations constitute deficiencies in a poem that celebrates the spontaneous, the physical, the ignorant. Learned and logical, the monks, like the literate Auden, can observe and describe the Barnabys of the world, but the textuality of their talents will forever create barriers between themselves and divinity.

Id. p. 6. Medieval clerics pondered being a student of Venus versus being a student of Athena. Learning and textual talent don’t preclude appreciating the spontaneous and the physical.

[14] Poggio, Facetiae 50, “The Cardinal of Bordeaux on the actor {Cardinalis Burdigalensis de histrione},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 86-8, my English translation. The subsequent quote is from id. The Cardinal of Bordeaux used the story to characterize the behavior of Pope Gregory XII after he promised to overcome the Schism of 1378.

[15] Mooning authorities, and the related kiss-my-ass gesture of gynocentric dominance, played a significant role in medieval literature. Ancient Egyptians also apparently used the gesture. According to Herodotus, Egyptians annually traveled on the Nile to a festival at Boubastis (alt. spelling, Bubastis) in honor of the cat-headed goddess Bast, whom Herodotus, with good gynocentric sense, misinterpreted to be Artemis. Women in the boat apparently mooned persons on the riverbanks as they traveled by:

The Egyptians come together to celebrate major festivals not just once but many times a year. The most popular festival takes place at the city of Boubastis in honor of Artemis. … Here is what they do on their way to Boubastis. Men sail with women, large crowds of them together in each barge. Throughout the entire journey, some of the women play castanets, some of the men play flutes, and the rest of them, both men and women, clap their hands. Whenever they approach some city along the way to Boubastis, they skirt the shore with their barge, and while some of the women continue as before, others shout at the women of the city, mocking and ridiculing them, and some dance, and still others stand up and lift their robs, exposing themselves. They do this at every city along the river, and when they arrive at Boubastis, they celebrate their holiday by performing huge sacrifices. They consume more grape wine at this festival than at any other time of the year, and according to what the native inhabitants say, there may be as many as 700,000 men and women (but no children) gathered together here.

{ πανηγυρίζουσι δὲ Αἰγύπτιοι οὐκ ἅπαξ τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ, πανηγύρις δὲ συχνάς, μάλιστα μὲν καὶ προθυμότατα ἐς Βούβαστιν πόλιν τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι … ἐς μέν νυν Βούβαστιν πόλιν ἐπεὰν κομίζωνται, ποιεῦσι τοιάδε. πλέουσί τε γὰρ δὴ ἅμα ἄνδρες γυναιξὶ καὶ πολλόν τι πλῆθος ἑκατέρων ἐν ἑκάστῃ βάρι: αἳ μὲν τινὲς τῶν γυναικῶν κρόταλα ἔχουσαι κροταλίζουσι, οἳ δὲ αὐλέουσι κατὰ πάντα τὸν πλόον, αἱ δὲ λοιπαὶ γυναῖκες καὶ ἄνδρες ἀείδουσι καὶ τὰς χεῖρας κροτέουσι. ἐπεὰν δὲ πλέοντες κατά τινα πόλιν ἄλλην γένωνται, ἐγχρίμψαντες τὴν βᾶριν τῇ γῇ ποιεῦσι τοιάδε: αἳ μὲν τινὲς τῶν γυναικῶν ποιεῦσι τά περ εἴρηκα, αἳ δὲ τωθάζουσι βοῶσαι τὰς ἐν τῇ πόλι ταύτῃ γυναῖκας, αἳ δὲ ὀρχέονται, αἳ δὲ ἀνασύρονται ἀνιστάμεναι. ταῦτα παρὰ πᾶσαν πόλιν παραποταμίην ποιεῦσι: ἐπεὰν δὲ ἀπίκωνται ἐς τὴν Βούβαστιν, ὁρτάζουσι μεγάλας ἀνάγοντες θυσίας, καὶ οἶνος ἀμπέλινος ἀναισιμοῦται πλέων ἐν τῇ ὁρτῇ ταύτῃ ἢ ἐν τῷ ἅπαντι ἐνιαυτῷ τῷ ἐπιλοίπῳ. συμφοιτῶσι δέ, ὅ τι ἀνὴρ καὶ γυνή ἐστι πλὴν παιδίων, καὶ ἐς ἑβδομήκοντα μυριάδας, ὡς οἱ ἐπιχώριοι λέγουσι }

Herodotus, Histories 2.60, Greek text from Godley, Loeb Classical Library (1920), English trans. Strassler & Thomas (2007) p. 144. Herodotus’s account implicitly conveys moral concern (“but no children”) and awe (“700,000 men and women”). Such an event would be scarcely permissible within the repressive public ideology now prevalent in the U.S. For further references to the kiss-my-ass gesture and mooning in pre-modern world literature, Jones (1991) Appendices 1 & 2, pp. 170-2.

[16] Poggio (1879) p. 86.

[17] Fœrster (1873) p. 316. The first sentence of Fœrster’s article uses in a general context the modern French words ménestrel, jongleur, and histrion:

We know that the Church, in the Middle Ages, did not consider it beneath her dignity to be engaged with minstrels, jugglers and actors of various kinds.

{ On sait que l’Eglise, au moyen-âge, n’a pas considéré comme au-dessous de sa dignité de s’occuper des ménestrels, des jongleurs et des histrions de divers genres. }

Id. p. 315. Fœrster was Austrian. However, Romania, the journal in which Fœrster’s article was published, was founded in Paris in 1872 by the eminent French philologists Paul Meyer and Gaston Paris. Ziolkowski observed:

Paris {Gaston Paris} was well-connected not only among scholars but also among literary figures of his day, since he hosted many of them at weekly gatherings in his home.

Ziolkowski (2006) pp. 164-5. Fœrster’s article plausibly influenced literary persons in Paris to characterize the tumbeor as a jongleur, and in English translation, a juggler:

The medieval heading that Foerster rightly reported from the manuscript he followed, even as the title of his pathbreaking article, was Del tumbeor Nostre-Dame. When Paris deploys the modern derivative tombeur, he takes considerable pains to gloss it, because in nineteenth-century French it had acquired the unfavorable connotations of “lady’s man.” The three Frenchmen who revised and popularized the thirteenth-century tale all substituted for the questionable noun the term jongleur. This word carried none of the unseemly associations evoked by tombeur but was ambiguous in signifying either broadly “professional entertainer” or particularly “juggler.” Though it could comprehend many meanings, it did not bring to mind right away gymnasts, acrobats, tumblers, or dancers.

Ziolkowski (2022) p. 215.

[18] Ziolkowski (2008).

[images] (1) The tumbeor as a prepubescent juggler. Excerpt from the front cover of Higgins (1917) (with color enhancement and elimination of some photo blemishes); (2) Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame as children’s literature. The title-page opening of Higgins (1917); (3) The tumbeor performs for the Virgin Mary. Illumination accompanying Del tumbeor nostre dame sainte Marie in a thirteenth-century compendium of French poetry. From f. 127, Ms 3516, Bibliothèque de L’Arsenal, Paris, France; (4) Marcolf mooning Solomon. Red vnd widerred Salomonis vnd marcolfy {Rar. 498#Beibd. 1}, Augsburg {14}90, page image 45. Thanks to the Bavarian State Library, Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum / Referat Digitale Bibliothek.


Adams, Henry. 1913. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Auden, W. H., with illustrations by Edward Gorey. 1969. “The Ballad of Barnaby.” New York Review of Books. 13 (11), Dec. 18.

Bretel, Paul, ed. and trans. 2003. Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame. Traductions des Classiques du Moyen Âge, vol. 64. Paris: Honoré Champion.

Butler, Isabel. 1898. Our Lady’s Tumbler: a Tale of Mediaeval France. Boston: Copeland and Day.

Fœrster, Wilhelm. 1873. “Del Tumbeor Nostre-Dame.” Romania. 2 (7): 315-325.

France. Anatole. 1890. Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame. Pp. 93-105 in France, Anatole. 1899. L’Étui de nacre {The Casket of Mother-of-Pearl}. Calmann-Lévy. Translated into English as The Juggler of Notre Dame in Du Bois, Henri Pène. 1896. Tales From a Mother-Of-Pearl Casket. New York: Richmond & Co.

Higgins, Violet Moore. 1917. The Little Juggler and Other French Tales Retold. Whitman Pub. Co.

Jones, Malcolm. 1991. “Marcolf the Trickster in Late Mediaeval Art and Literature or: The Mystery of the Bum in the Oven.” Pp. 139-174 in Gillian Bennett, ed.  Spoken in Jest. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Kemp-Welch, Alice. 1908. Of the tumbler of Our Lady & other miracles. London: Chatto and Windus.

Lommatzch, Erhard, ed. 1920. Del tumbeor Nostre Dame: altfranzösische Marien-legende (um 1200). Berlin: Weidmann.

McDiarmid, Lucy. 1990. Auden’s apologies for poetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nyhart, Nina. 1973, “Our Lady’s Tumbler.” The Virginia Quarterly Review. 49 (4): 555-557.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Strassler, Robert B. and Rosalind Thomas, trans. 2007. The Landmark Herodotus: the histories. New York: Pantheon Books.

Van Oort, Jessica. 2011. “The Minstrel Dances in Good Company: Del Tumbeor Nostre Dame.” Dance Chronicle. 34 (2): 239-275.

Wilkie, Everett C. 1979. “Our Lady’s Tumbler.” Allegorica 4 (1&2): 80-120.

Wicksteed, Philip H. 1894. Our Lady’s Tumbler: a Twelfth Century Legend. Portland, Me: Thomas B. Mosher (edition of 1904).

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1989. Jezebel: a Norman Latin poem of the early eleventh century. New York: P. Lang.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2006. “Juggling the Middle Ages: The Reception of Our Lady’s Tumbler and Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame.” Studies in Medievalism. 15: 157-197.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2022. Reading the Juggler of Notre Dame: Medieval Miracles and Modern Remakings. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

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