Salve, mater Salvatoris: honoring the great woman in medieval Europe

In twelfth-century Europe, Christians were intensely devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Within “a prevailing climate of fevered Marianism,” the Christ of Christianity, like so many other men, became merely a nominal leading figure:

the cult of the Virgin had assumed such proportions and evoked so much fervour that the figure of the Mother Of Christ began to eclipse that of her Son {Jesus} and of all the apostles and saints. It might seem almost true to say that, in the later Middle Ages, the central object of the popular cult was in actual fact the Virgin Mary, exalted to the rank of Queen of Heaven, crowned with the twelve stars, and invested with all those human and tender attributes in which the early Church had first clothed the figure of the Saviour. [1]

Adam of Saint Victor’s early twelfth-century liturgical hymn (sequence) “Hail, O mother of our Savior {Salve, mater Salvatoris}” exemplifies intense devotion to Mary and its implications for men.

Mary, mother of Jesus, dominating little men

“Hail, O mother of our Savior” brings together many figures of Mary, including some that directly relate to men’s sexuality. The sequence begins in praise of Mary as an appropriate medium for bringing a savior to humanity:

Hail, mother of our Savior,
chosen vessel, honored vessel,
vessel of heavenly grace,
vessel foreseen from eternity,
noble vessel, vessel chiseled
by Wisdom’s hand!

{ Salve, mater Salvatoris,
vas electum, vas honoris,
vas caelestis gratiae,
ab aeterno vas provisum,
vas insigne, vas excisum
manu sapientiae! } [2]

The vessel in which Mary carried Christ to the world was literally her womb. Mary was a very special woman. But what about ordinary men? The next stanza separates Mary from disparaged masculine sexuality:

Hail, holy parent of the Word,
blossom from thorn, lacking thorn,
thorn tree’s glory and its flower:
we are the thorn tree, we suffer
bloodstains from our sins’ thorn-pricking;
you, however, know no thorn.

{ Salve, Verbi sacra parens,
flos de spina, spina carens,
flos, spineti gloria;
nos spinetum, nos peccati
spina sumus cruentati,
sed tu spinae nescia. }

The virgin Mary knowing no thorn identifies a thorn with a man’s penis.[3] The bloody sins of thorn-pricking are men’s sexual sins, especially in relation to virgin women. These sins are also women’s, since men get blamed for women’s sexual sins. Mary, like all women, had an ancestral thorn tree of fathers. But Mary, unlike any other mother before artificial insemination, thornlessly blossomed into pregnancy. Thorns typically evoke pain, yet ordinary women commonly delight in being subject to thorn-pricking. As this Latin Christian sequence and many other poetic texts make clear, men’s penises have an image problem.

The penis’s image problem is associated with devaluing men’s work. Historically, men have in net transferred a significant share of their laboriously earned resources to women. Moreover, men historically have done heavy work in agricultural fields — work such as plowing. “Hail, O mother of our Savior” devalues that men’s work:

You are a humble valley,
earth unsuited to the plow,
yet earth that brought forth fruit.
Blossom of the field,
singular lily of the valley,
Christ from you came forth.

{ Tu convallis humilis,
terra non arabilis
quae fructum parturiit,
flos campi, convallium
singulare lilium,
Christus ex te prodiit. } [4]

Men typically must labor to have an agricultural field produce fruit. Moreover, plowing is a common figure for men’s sexual work. Here, the virgin Mary produces the greatest fruit, Christ, without men’s agricultural or sexual work. Mary, as the sequence states explicitly, was a “singular lily of the valley.” In our age of ignorance and bigotry, many single women believe that they are most fruitful without men. Thought leaders have gone as far as to suggest that men aren’t necessary. Not surprisingly, the share of sexless marriages has risen as the share of agriculture in the economy has fallen.

Mary provides a model of women’s privilege that has extended far beyond her specific Christian life. Within the public life of today’s decaying democracies, Mary is Everywoman:

Singular is the palm you bear,
none on earth can be your equal,
none in heaven’s court above;
you, the praise of humankind,
are privileged with virtues
more than all the rest.

As the sun outshines the moon,
and the moon in turn the stars,
so is Mary worthier
than all creatures everywhere.
Light that knows no eclipse
is the virgin’s chastity.
Her immortal caring
is a never-failing ardor.

{ Palmam praefers singularem,
nec in terris habes parem,
nec in caeli curia;
laus humani generis
virtutum prae ceteris
habes privilegia.

Sol luna lucidior,
et luna sideribus;
sic Maria dignior
creaturis omnibus.
Lux eclipsim nesciens,
virginis est castitas;
ardor indeficiens
immortalis caritas. }

Education and media institutions have for decades sought to promote women’s self-esteem. Forty is the new thirty. Chastity is the burning ardor of the single woman who sleeps with man after man because she cares for them, or doesn’t. In any case, it’s the men’s fault. She still regards herself as a virgin. You must address her as she says. Everywoman is now like a non-Christian Virgin Mary.

Intense devotion to the Virgin Mary, like intense devotion to Everywoman today, tends to position men as women-servers. The medieval Latin sequence takes care not to endorse female supremacism:

O Mary, star of the sea,
singular in dignity,
above all ranks
are you ranked in heaven above.

Set at the highest pole,
commend us to your son,
so neither the terrors nor deceits
of our enemies cause us to stumble.

Standing ready for battle,
let us be safe under your protection.
May the perverse and crafty
force yield to your power, and
guile yield to your providence.

Jesus, Word of the highest Father,
watch over your mother’s servants,
absolve sinners, save them freely,
and shape us to the glory
of your splendor.

{ O Maria stella maris,
dignitate singularis,
super omnes ordinaris
ordines caelestium.

In supremo sita poli,
nos commenda tuae proli,
ne terrores sive doli
nos supplantent hostium.

In procinctu constituti
te tuente simus tuti,
pervicacis et versuti
tuae cedat vis virtuti,
dolus providentiae.

Iesu, Verbum summi Patris,
serva servos tuae matris,
solve reos, salva gratis,
et nos tuae claritatis
configura gloriae. } [5]

These men are mother’s servants. However, they at least recognize a true father and pray to Jesus, a fully masculine man.[6] Medieval Latin literature didn’t suppress the sighs of oppressed men. It stimulated men’s hearts in a heartless world of violence against men. It prevented gynocentrism from becoming wholly soulless.

Girls and boys in schools today are taught that “the future is female.” Modern science supports that dogma with empirical evidence of the women-are-wonderful effect and studies establishing that women are superior to men in social communication. Yet women dominated social communication in the past, women have long been regarded as wonderful, and human societies have long been resolutely gynocentric. While “the future is female” is merely current unquestionable dogma, that the past and present have been female are widely suppressed facts. To find enlightenment today, students must study medieval Latin songs such as “Hail, O mother of our Savior.”

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Notes:

[1] Raby (1953) p. 365. The immediately preceding quote is from Ziolkowski (2018) vol. 1, p. 128 (section “Cistercians and the Virgin”).  Ziolkowski declared:

Veneration of the Mother of God belonged among the paramount manifestations of Christian practice. To go further, it reigned supreme in that same class.

Id. p. 129. For more extensive discussion of the importance of the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe, Adams (1904), Chapters 6, 10, 13.

[2] Adam of Saint Victor {Adamus Sancti Victoris}, “Hail, O mother of our Savior {Salve, mater Salvatoris},” st. 1, Latin text from Grosfillier (2008), my English translation drawing on that of Mousseau (2013) and Walsh (2012). The Latin text is freely available online in Blume & Bannister (1915) pp. 383-6 (no. 245). Mousseau reports no different between that Latin text and the Latin text of Grosfillier (2008). Mousseau (2008) pp. vii-i, 221-3. Mousseau’s English translation adheres to the literal meaning of the Latin words. Id. p. vii. Walsh’s English translation (with the help of Christopher Husch) faithfully imitates the Latin rhythmic meter, but not the Latin rhyme. Walsh (2012) pp. xxi-ii. My approach has favored accuracy over meter, while attempting to preserve more of the song of the sequence in following Walsh. Subsequent quotes above are from this sequence and have the same sources.

Scholarly work has identified Adam of Saint Victor as Adam Precentor. He wrote religious songs in Paris early in the twelfth century and was associated with the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris. On Adam’s biography, Fassler (1984) and Fassler (2011) pp. 207-10. I use the more common name Adam of Saint Victor to refer to Adam Precentor.

The title (first line) of the sequence, “Salve, mater salvatoris,” is literally translated as “Hail, mother of the Savior.” The sequence is commonly known according to a looser translation of that line, “Hail, O mother of our Savior.” I’ve used the latter form in referring to the sequence.

A list of manuscripts containing the sequence is available via Cantus. For an older Latin text and English translation, Wrangham (1881) vol. 2, pp. 218-25 (no. 73). Also readily available online is reasonably good Latin text and a poor-quality English translation. Another online English translation attempts to preserve the Latin rhyme and thus produces miserable English poetry. The best way to appreciate the poetry of the Latin original is simply to read it as best you can, even if you understand no Latin. Here’s a sung performance of the Latin sequence.

The liturgical hymn “Hail, O mother of our Savior” is more precisely called a sequence. A sequence is music traditionally song before the Gospel in the Christian Mass. For more information on sequences as liturgical music, see the Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia. Those who refer to a sequence as a hymn risk incurring the ire of learned specialists in medieval music. Within the liturgical calendar, “Hail, O mother of our Savior” occurs in the Mass of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on September 8.

[3] The thorn as a figure for the penis is attested elsewhere in medieval Latin literature. For example:

The thorny bushes bloom
with dancing flowers
that signify Venus, because the thorn pricks
and the flower offers blandishments.

{ vernant spinae floribus
micantibus,
signantibus
Venerem, quia spina pungit, flos blanditur. }

Carmina Burana 68, “The pale star of Saturn, as Mercury sparkles {Saturni sidus lividum Mercurio micante},” 2.8-8, Latin text and English trans. from Traill (2018).

[4] Wrangham evocatively translated “terra non arabilis” as “soil that never felt the plow.” Wrangham (1881) v. 2, p. 221. Soil that has been plowed has been vitally important for the perpetuation and development of human civilization.

[5] Here I’ve split each stanza into two stanzas to make the poetry more accessible to ordinary readers today.

[6] Avoiding totalitarian gynocentrism, Adam of Saint Victor’s sequences centered on Mary commonly end with a plea to Jesus or God the Father. See “O Mary, star of the sea {O Maria, stella maris},” “Let us give solemn thanks of this day {Gratulemur in hac die},” “Hail, singular virgin, mother of our salvation {Ave, virgo singularis / mater nostri salutaris},” and “Hail, singular virgin, / portal of life, star of the sea {Ave, virgo singularis, / porta vitae, stella maris}.” Cf. “Let us adorn the temple of the heart {Templum cordis adornemus}” (for the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feb. 2). All these sequences are in Mousseau (2013).

Adam even went as far as to balance single motherhood with single fatherhood:

Made mother without a father,
she bore in time
the Word of the Father without mother.

{ Verbum patris sine matrre
facta mater sine patre
genuit in tempore. }

“Hail, singular virgin, / portal of life, star of the sea {Ave, virgo singularis, / porta vitae, stella maris}” st. 10, Latin text and English translation Mousseau (2013) pp. 156-7. Today, single fatherhood is much less recognized, and acute anti-men sex discrimination prevails in child custody rulings.

[image] The Virgin of Mercy (Mary the mother of Jesus dominating little men). Painting (tempera on oak panel), made about 1480. Preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest, Hungary). Image via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Adams, Henry. 1904. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

Blume, Clemens, and Henry Bannister. 1915. Liturgische prosen des überrgangsatiles und der zweiten epoche insbesondere di dem Adam von Sankt Victor zugeschrieben. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi 54. Leipzig: Reisland.

Fassler, Margot E. 1984. “Who Was Adam of St. Victor? The Evidence of the Sequence Manuscripts.” Journal of the American Musicological Society. 37 (2): 233-269.

Fassler, Margot. 2011. Gothic song: Victorine sequences and Augustinian reform in twelfth-century Paris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grosfillier, Jean. 2008. Les séquences d’Adam de Saint-Victor: étude littéraire (poétique et rhétorique), textes et traductions, commentaires. Turnhout: Brepols.

Mousseau, Juliet, trans. 2013. Adam of Saint-Victor. Sequences. Leuven: Peeters.

Raby, Frederic James Edward. 1953. A History of Christian-Latin Poetry: from the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages. 2nd Ed. (1st ed, 1927). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Walsh, Peter G., ed. and trans., with Christopher Husch. 2012. One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wrangham, Digby S., ed. and trans. 1881. The Liturgical Poetry of Adam of St. Victor: From the Text of Gautier. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co. Vols. 1, 2, 3.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2018. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Volume 1: The Middle Ages. Worldwide: OpenBook Publishers.

Adam of Saint Victor and Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame

Virgin Mary statue in Monasterio de San Jerónimo, Granada

In the more liberal and less repressive circumstances of medieval Europe, men understood that they could serve women with their bodies as well as their minds. Medieval men had poignant examples of both types of woman-serving. Early in twelfth-century Paris, Adam of Saint Victor composed rhythmic Latin hymns to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus. About a century later, a tumbler engaged in vigorous physical activity to please Mary. Men deserve freedom to engage in one, both, or neither of these forms of woman-serving while at the same time having their own intrinsic human dignity and worth respected and appreciated.

Deeply devoted to Mary, Adam of Saint Victor directed his extraordinary literary skills to honoring her. According to a story preserved in a text written early in the thirteenth century, Mary herself acknowledged Adam’s intellectual effort:

The venerable Master Adam, canon of Saint Victor’s in Paris, was composing the sequence Salve mater Salvatoris. When he had just written another strophe of rhythmic poetry, namely:

Hail Mother of piety
And noble resting place
of the entire Trinity

the glorious Virgin appeared to him. As if repaying him for the homage he had paid to her, she beseechingly bowed her head in the highest humility to him while he was thinking.

{ Unde venerabilis magister Adam, canonicus sancti Victoris Parisiis, cum in dictanda sequentia Salve mater Saluatoris, illum rhythmi versiculum edidisset, videlicet:

Salve mater pietatis,
Et totius Trinitatis
Nobile triclinium

Gloriosa virgo apparens ei, & quasi pro honoris laude satisfaciens, cogitanti eidem supplex altissimae humilitatis verticem inclinauit. } [1]

These events took place in the crypt of the Abbey of Saint Victor. To commemorate these events, a statue of the Virgin Mary, with her head bowed, was erected there. Adam of Saint Victor is an impressive role model for men serving women with verbal sophistication.

While not all men have brilliant verbal skills, every man has the wonderful endowment of a distinctively masculine body. The Old French story Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame {The Tumbler of Notre Dame}, probably from early in the thirteenth century, tells of a monk alone in the crypt of the Abbey of Clairvaux.[2] He lacked any of the learning of Adam of Saint Victor. However, this monk was “graceful, noble, and handsome {beaus et gens et bien formez}.” Moreover, he had a strong, firm body like a “young male goat {cavreçon}.” He sought to delight Mary with his near-naked body in action:

He removed his cloak and undressed
and put before the altar his removed clothes.

And there he stood with his body undressed;
he is well outfitted and equipped.

Then he begins to turn flips for her,
low and small and high and great,
first frontwards, then backwards.
Then he gets on his knees

Then he jumps and leaps and celebrates.
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,
and puts his hand before his face
and dances quite graciously

Then he falls with his feet in the air
and comes and goes on his two hands,
so that no more of him touches the ground,
and he dances with his feet and weeps with his eyes.

{ Se cape oste, si se despoille,
Delés l’autel met se despoille,

Si est en pur le cors remés,
Il s’est bien chains et achesmés.

Lors il comenche a faire saus
Bas et petis et grans et haus,
Primes desor et puis desos,
Puis se remet sor ses genos

Lors tume et saut et fait grant feste,
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
Et met devant sen front se main,
Et bale trop mignotement

Lors tume les piés contremont
Et va sor ses deus mains et vient,
Que de plus a terre n’aveint;
Bale des piés et des eus plore. } [3]

The man performed long and hard until he was exhausted and covered in sweat. Then the statue of Mary came to life. Holding a white cloth, Mary bent down to her tumbler-monk:

She fans her minstrel with it,
very gently before the altar.
The noble, merciful lady,
his neck, his body, and his face,
fans to refresh him.
She interposes herself well to help him;
the lady well does it unrestrainedly.

{ S’en avente sen menestrel
Mout doucement devant l’autel.
Li france dame deboinaire
Le col, le cors et le viaire
Li avente por refroidier:
Bien s’entremet de lui aidier:
Li dame bien s’i abandone }

She appreciated his bodily service, and she in turn served him bodily and boldly. That’s the mutuality central to the medieval understanding of marital love. Men today are socially constructed as criminals or consumers. Intimate mutuality between women and men depends on men understanding that they are fully human beings who have physical capabilities that women want. Men can physically serve women well according to the traditional understanding of chivalry.

Virgin Mary feeding Romanos the Melodist

Adam of Saint Victor and the tumbler receiving supernatural appreciation for their woman-serving differs significantly from common stories of apparitions, divine interventions, and statues coming to life. Consider, for example, the story of the Virgin Mary feeding Romanos the Melodist. On a sixth-century Christmas Eve at the Marian shrine in Blachernae, just outside the city walls of Constantinople, the Virgin Mary appeared to a hoarse-voiced young Syrian man. She held aloft a scroll containing writing and told him to swallow it. The man followed her command. Then he mounted the ambo of the church and sang the hymn “The Virgin today gives birth.” That man subsequently became known as the great Byzantine hymnist Romanos the Melodist.[4] In this story, the Virgin Mary created Romanos’s talent. She didn’t respond in appreciation for his performance. Adam of Saint Victor and the tumbler, in contrast, exemplify men in distinctive ways taking up their burden of performance and receiving extraordinary female gratitude for their efforts. Compared to the story of Romanos the Melodist, the stories of Adam of Saint Victor and the tumbler are more important examples of men’s actions and the female gratitude that men deserve.[5]

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Notes:

[1] Thomas of Cantimpré {Thomas Cantipratensis}, The Universal Goodness of Bees {Bonum universale de apibus} 2.29, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly to be more literal) from Fassler (1984) p. 233. Fassler’s source for the Latin text is a 1627 printing at Douai (p. 279) (downloadable version). Bonum universale de apibus allegorizes bees and collects various stories to serve preaching moral instruction. It was a widely distributed work that has survived in at least 116 manuscripts. This story was omitted in a recent French edition of Bonum universale de apibus. See Berlioz, Collomb & Polo de Beaulieu (2001).

Thomas of Cantimpré, who lived from 1201 to 1272, was a highly learned Dominican cleric, professor, and encyclopedist. Between 1237 and 1240, he lived at the Dominican studium of St. James in Paris. He frequently visited the Abbey of Saint Victor. Fassler (1984) p. 233. The story of the Virgin bowing to Adam of Saint Victor was thus almost surely known by 1240. On the later history of erecting a sculpture to memorialize the story, Gautier (1858) vol. 2, p. 200.

Cleric-scholars mourned their lack of bodily action. Yet they weren’t foolish enough to assume that they could do and have it all.

[2] Ziolkowski (2018) is a monumental work covering this story, its reception to the present, the challenges today of appreciating medieval humanism and medieval enlightenment, and the still-unfulfilled promise of a medieval renaissance. Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame was written no latter than 1268, probably in Picardy at the northern tip of France. Some scholars speculate that Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame was written about 1200, while a detailed analysis suggests that it was written in the third decade of the thirteenth century. Id. vol. 1, ch. 1, especially notes to the Section “Picardy.” Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame thus may have been written about the time that Thomas of Cantimpré heard the story about the Virgin Mary bowing to Adam of Saint Victor.

[3] Le Tumbeor Nostre Dame ll. 137-8, 144-5, 163-6, 171-2, 175-83, 198-201, Old French text and English translation from Wilkie (1979) (with my changes in the translation to follow the Old French more closely). Bretel (2003) is the preferable critical edition. but it’s not readily available to me now. It doesn’t differ greatly from Wilkie’s text. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. ll. 427-33. The best translation is now Ziolkowski (2022) pp. 13-29.

Adam de la Halle’s late-thirteenth-century The Play of Robin and Marion {Le Jeu de Robin et Marion / Li gieus de Robin et de Marion} includes a song section (vv. 183-211) in which Robin performs a variety of dances at Marion’s request. Like the tumbler-monk, Robin displayed physical virtuosity to a beloved woman. In contrast, Virginia Hamilton Adair’s poem “The Chapel at Mountain State Mental Hospital,” first published in 1998, humorously recasts the tumbler-monk as “Jean, the cartwheel queen of Mountain State.” While wearing a dress and no underwear, Jean performs a cartwheel for a congregation. For text and discussion, Ziolkowski (2022) pp. 328-31. Adair’s poem is less relevant to ordinary, intimate relations between women and men.

Dance styles seemed to have been associated with particular medieval cities. The parish clerk Absolon, ostentatious cultured, danced according to the school of Oxford:

In twenty ways he could trip and dance
following the school of Oxford then,
and with his legs kick to and fro

{ In twenty manere koude he trippe and daunce
After the scole of Oxenforde tho,
And with his legges casten to and fro }

Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, The Miller’s Tale, vv. 3328-30, Middle English text from Harvard Chaucer website, my modernized English.

[4] Arentzen (2017) pp. 1-3, drawing on the biographical sources in Grosdidier de Matons (1977) pp. 159-98. Cf. Ezekiel 2:8-3:2, Revelations 10:9-10. The Menologion of Basil II, created about 1000, depicts this story. So the story dates from no later than about 1000.

[5] To understand the contemporary importance of this literary history, consider a recent performance of George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University. He put forth in the New York Times a lengthy, tedious opinion piece entitled “#IAmSexist.” His performance showed no understanding of the reality of violence, or of gender injustice generally. His attempt at woman-serving was so bad that a woman reader responded, “I think you’re making fun of me.” She, probably like most readers, couldn’t bear to endure Yancy’s performance to its end.

[images] (1) Sculpture (detail) of the Virgin Mary in the Monasterio de San Jerónimo, Granada, Spain. Source image thanks to Jebulon via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The Virgin Mary giving Romanos the Melodist a scroll to eat. Illumination from MS Vatican gr.1613. f. 78. The author of this painting has been dead for more than 900 years. The Vatican Library preserves this manuscript presumably for the common good. However, it “reserves all rights” to their image of this Christian cultural treasure. That action seems to me to be lacking in Christian generosity. Moreover, according to Wikimedia Commons’s expert and influential interpretation of U.S. copyright law, the Vatican doesn’t hold the right to prevent copying of this image and derivative works in the U.S. Here’s a version on Wikimedia Commons. I also judge my use of the image above to be consistent with fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law.

References:

Arentzen, Thomas. 2017. The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Berlioz, Jacques, Pascal Collomb, and Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu. 2001. “La face cachée de Thomas de Cantimpré: Compléments à une traduction française récente du Bonum universale de apibus.” Archives D’histoire Doctrinale Et Littéraire Du Moyen Âge. 68 (1): 73-94.

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

Fassler, Margot E. 1984. “Who Was Adam of St. Victor? The Evidence of the Sequence Manuscripts.” Journal of the American Musicological Society. 37 (2): 233-269.

Gautier, Léon. 1858. Œuvres poétiques d’Adam de S. Victor, précédées d’un essai sur sa vie et ses ouvrages. Première édition complète. Paris.

Grosdidier de Matons, José. 1977. Romanos le Mélode et les Origines de la Poésie Religieuse à Byzance. Paris: Éditions Beauchesne.

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

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2018. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Vol. 1: The Middle Ages, Vol. 2: Medieval Meets Medievalism, Vol. 3: The American Middle Ages, Vol. 4: Picture That: Making a Show of the Jongleur, Vol. 5: Tumbling into the Twentieth Century, Vol. 6: War and Peace, Sex and Violence. Worldwide: OpenBook Publishers.

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

epic to ordinary: heaven and earth in Christian Latin hymns

Jesus riffling book pages in Mary's lap

The Christian Gospels conflate traditional Greco-Roman distinctions of epic and ordinary. The Gospel story of Lazarus epitomizes that extraordinary mixing. Christian Latin hymns followed the Gospels in bringing heaven to earth. Heaven in earthy incarnation characterizes the Christian way of salvation.

“Let every age now recognize {Agnoscat omne saeculum},” a hymn probably written in the sixth century for the celebration of Christmas, brings together the epic and the ordinary, heaven and earth:

So Mary in her womb conceived
by seed bestowed by faithful word;
him whom a world does not sustain
a young girl’s belly now contains.

A manger’s confines he endured
who was author of light itself;
he with the father formed the sky,
he his mother’s swaddling donned.

{ Maria ventre concepit
verbi fidelis semine;
quem totus orbs non baiulat
portant puellae viscera.

Praesepe poni pertulit
qui lucis auctor exstitit;
cum patre caelos condidit,
sub matre pannos induit. } [1]

The poet doesn’t shy from referring to a man’s semen in figuring conception and to Mary’s specific belly. Yet the poet also refers to Jesus with an epic image associated with Alexander the Great. Jesus who with God the father formed the sky, with its sun and moon, covers his little moon with swaddling clothes he received from his earthly mother. Heaven has come to earth in a truly earthy way.

The hymn “How blessed was that bed of straw {Quam beatum stratum}” similarly brings together the epic and the ordinary. In twelfth-century France, Heloise of the Paraclete’s ex-lover Peter worked for her to write this hymn for her to use at work on Christmas as a career woman. This hymn celebrates the once-common practice of a woman giving birth and living with her husband, even in impoverished circumstances. Yet the woman Mary, a virgin married to her husband Joseph, gives birth to an extraordinary child:

How blessed was
that bed of straw, on which
rested the flank
of that virgin so great,
on which was laid
that baby at his birth,
in whose small palm
the heavens are enclosed.

In silken cloths
all other queens always
with utmost pain
give birth to their children;
this blessed couch
made out of worthless straw
had no sense
of any pain at all.

For the nurture
of the children of kings,
the breasts of wet nurses
are commandeered;
this child was reared
upon a virgin’s milk;
the virgin bore him
with hymen intact.

{ Quam beatum
stratum hoc straminis,
tantae latus
quod pressit virginis,
quo parvulus
mascens excipitur
cuius palmo
caelum concluditur.

In sericis
reginae ceterae
summo solent
dolore parere;
vilis strati
beatus lectulus
omnis fuit
doloris nescius.

Regum satis
in alimonia
sunt subacta
nutricum ubera.
Educatur
lacte virgineo,
virgo clauso
quem fudit utero. } [2]

The baby who can enclose the heavens in the palm of his hand is born onto a bed of straw. Epic, tragedy, and other high literature typically concerns kings and queens. This baby boy and his mother weren’t like other kings and queens. A king as a baby wouldn’t even suckle at his mother’s breast. A courtier might lose his head for referring to a queen’s hymen. Yet Christians celebrated the human bodily reality of Jesus and Mary.

False piety has distorted understanding of Christianity. Dante’s gyno-idolatry is less Christian than Boccaccio’s outrageously earthy humanism. The conclusion of the Romance of the Rose offers profound Christian moral instruction. Ancient Latin Christian hymns appreciated men’s sexuality. So too should all Christians. And not just all Christians, but all the world.

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Notes:

[1] “Let every age now recognize {Agnoscat omne saeculum},” st. 3, 5, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Walsh (2012) pp. 234-5. Here’s the full Latin text. This hymn has been attributed to Venantius Fortunatus, but it doesn’t appear in his collected works. The hymn doesn’t appear in the Old or New Hymnal. Walsh regards its attribution Venantius Fortunatus as only an “attractive possibility.” Id. p. 465. The hymn’s similarity in content and style to Fortunatus’s hymns make it likely that it was composed in the sixth century.

[2] Peter Abelard, “How blessed was that bed of straw {Quam beatum stratum}” st. 1-3, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Walsh (2012) pp. 288-9. Abelard used the rhetorical technique known as synoeciosis. Raby declared:

Abélard stands in a special position as a hymn writer, as he stands alone as a philosopher. He broke away from tradition, and left no successors. The hymns bear the mark of an original genius, and would have attracted attention apart from the immense fame of their author.

Raby (1953) p. 326.

The Latin term alimonia that Abelard used above means “nourishment” or nurturing food and drink. In modern English, the term “alimony,” like “child support,” is used as a misleading term for state-mandated financial payments that depend mainly on the payer’s income at the time of the order, not the payee’s need for nourishment or loving parental support. These financial obligations are vastly disproportionately imposed on men through systemic anti-men sex discrimination.

[image] Jesus, in the lap of Mary, riffling the pages of her book. Excerpt from oil-on-panel painting known as the Durán Madonna. Made by Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden between 1435 and 1438. Preserved under accession number P02722 in the Prado National Museum (Madrid, Spain).

References:

Raby, Frederic James Edward. 1953. A History of Christian-Latin Poetry: from the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages. 2nd Ed. (1st ed, 1927). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walsh, Peter G., ed. and trans., with Christopher Husch. 2012. One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.