counter-alba: men’s love for women hastens dawning of new day

A woman and man have illicitly spent the night together. Usually a watchman warns them of the dawn’s light. The couple must part to preserve the secrecy of their tryst. One laments that the dawn comes so soon.

About two millennia ago, the great lover Ovid wrote such a dawn song before he was castrated. Ovid addressed the dawn as the traditional Greco-Roman goddess Aurora:

Now over the ocean, come from her aged husband, she rises,
the golden-haired woman, who brings day to the frozen sky.
“Why hurry, Aurora, wait — the birds, your great son’s shades,
must fight to honor their father in annual blood rite.
Now I delight to lie in my love’s soft arms,
with her so sweetly joined to my side.
Now sleep is still easy, and the air is cool,
and the birds sing in full flow from slender throats.
Why hurry — you are unwelcome to young men and women.
Restrain your chariot’s dewy reins with rosy fingers!”

{ Iam super oceanum venit a seniore marito
flava pruinoso quae vehit axe diem.
“Quo properas, Aurora, mane — sic Memnonis umbris
annua sollemni caede parentet avis.
nunc iuvat in teneris dominae iacuisse lacertis;
si quando, lateri nunc bene iuncta meo est.
nunc etiam somni pingues et frigidus aer,
et liquidum tenui gutture cantat avis.
quo properas — ingrata viris, ingrata puellis.
roscida purpurea supprime lora manu! }[1]

Ovid went on to chide the dawn for being eager to flee from her elderly husband Tithonus. Ovid claimed that she would have delayed the first light if she had been in bed with the beautiful young man Cephalus, whom she abducted and raped.[2] Aurora blushed at Ovid’s words. Then dawn came as usual.

In a thirteenth-century Old Occitan dawn song, an elite woman relished spending the night with her lover. She wanted always to possess him:

In an orchard under hawthorn blooms,
a lady held her lover by her side
until the watchman cried he saw the dawn.
O God, O God, the dawn. It comes so soon!

“If only God had wanted, the night would never end
and never would my lover go away,
and the watchman would not see the dawn or day.
O God, O God, the dawn. It comes so soon!

Lovely, sweet lover, let us have a kiss
down in the meadows where the little birds sing.
Let us do it all, despite the jealous one.
O God, O God, the dawn. It comes so soon!

Lovely, sweet lover, let us play another game
in the garden where the little birds sing
until the watchman plays upon his pipe.
O God, O God, the dawn. It comes so soon!

I drank a draft of my lover’s breath
on the breeze that came from far where
he dwells — that man lovely, noble, and lively.”
O God, O God, the dawn. It comes so soon!

The lady is pleasing and graceful.
Many admire her beauty,
but her heart seeks love that is loyal.
O God, O God, the dawn. It comes so soon!

{ En un vergier sotz fuella d’albespi
tenc la dompna son amic costa si,
tro la gayta crida que l’alba vi.
Oy Dieus, oy Dieus, de l’alba! Tan tost ve.

“Plagues a Dieu ja la nueitz non falhis
ni·l mieus amicx lonc de mi no·s partis
ni la gayta jorn ni alba no vis!
Oy Dieus, oy Dieus, de l’alba! Tan tost ve.

Bels dous amicx, baizem nos yeu e vos
aval els pratz, on chanto·ls auzellos,
tot o fassam en despieg del gilos.
Oy Dieus, oy Dieus, de l’alba! Tan tost ve.

Bels dous amicx, fassam un joc novel
yns el jardi, on chanto li auzel,
tro la gaita toque son caramelh.
Oy Dieus, oy Dieus, de l’alba! Tan tost ve.

Per la doss’aura qu’es venguda de lay,
del mieu amic belh e cortes e gay,
del sieu alen ai begut un dous ray.”
Oy Dieus, oy Dieus, de l’alba! Tan tost ve.

La dompna es agradans e plazens,
per sa beutat la gardon mantas gens,
et a son cor en amar leyalmens.
Oy Dieus, oy Dieus, de l’alba! Tan tost ve. }[3[

The “jealous one” is the woman’s husband. She’s cuckolding him. Yet at the same time, “her heart seeks love that is loyal.” Men’s experience of women’s disloyalty historically has prompted men’s sexed protests. But men’s sexed protests have been no more effective in overcoming gender injustices than have been dawn songs in delaying the ordinary dawn.

Imagination is crucial for perceiving alternatives to entrenched social injustices. In the vibrantly diverse and expressively uninhibited thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese songs, a woman speaker reversed the convention of dawn songs:

I remain lonely without my lover,
and even my eyes cannot rest,
and I pray for light with every breath.
God refuses me this favor.
But with my lover were I spending the night,
now with me would already be light.

When I and my lover slept together,
before I knew the night was gone,
but now the night goes on and on.
The light lags, the new day lags.
But with my lover were I spending the night,
now with me would already be light.

And so as I have perceived,
when I have my lamp and my lord,
soon comes the light, unpleasing to me.
The night’s hours now go and come and grow.
But with my lover were I spending the night,
now with me would already be light.

I prayed more than a hundred Our Fathers
for the one who died on the true cross,
that he might quickly bring me light.
Advent nights are all he shows.
But with my lover were I spending the night,
now with me would already be light.

{ Sen meu amigo manh’eu senlheira
e sol non dormen estes olhos meus
e, quant’eu posso, peç’a luz a Deus
e non mi a dá per nulha maneira.
Mais, se masesse con meu amigo,
a luz agora sería migo.

Quand’eu con meu amigo dormía,
a noite non durava nulha ren,
e ora dur’a noit’e vai e ven,
non ven a luz, nen pareç’o día.
Mais, se masesse con meu amigo,
a luz agora sería migo.

E, segundo, com’a mí parece,
comigo man meu lum’e meu senhor,
ven log’a luz, de que non hei sabor,
e ora vai a noit’e ven e crece.
Mais se masesse con meu amigo,
a luz agora sería migo.

Pater nostrus rez’eu máis de cento
por aquel que morreu na vera cruz,
que el mi mostre mui cedo a luz,
mais mostra-mi as noites d’avento.
Mais, se masesse con meu amigo,
a luz agora sería migo. }[4]

This song assumes the listener’s appreciation for dawn songs and the Christian Gospel. The woman speaker, yearning for her lover, fails to understand fully incarnating life. Advent nights are the longest nights in the European calendar. Yet Advent nights lead to Christmas. According to the Christian Gospel, Jesus Christ declared:

I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.

{ ἐγὼ φῶς εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἐλήλυθα ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ μὴ μείνῃ }[5]

The fourth-century Roman governor and poet Prudentius figured light as a new day of Christian life:

We lay curled up long enough.
Profound forgetfulness
has pressed, has weighed, has buried
our minds wandering in meaningless dreams.

Those things are worthless frauds indeed
that we sought, like sleepers,
for worldly glory.
Let us wake up! Here is truth.

Gold, pleasure, joy,
wealth, esteem, success
— bad things that fill us with conceit —
when morning comes, they are all nothing.

You, Christ, dispel our sleep,
you, break the chains of night,
you, get rid of the old sin,
pour in the light that is new.

{ sat convolutis artubus
sensum profunda oblivio
pressit, gravavit, obruit
vanis vagantem somniis.

sunt nempe falsa et frivola
quae mundiali gloria
ceu dormientes, egimus:
vigilemus, hic est veritas.

aurum, voluptas, gaudium,
opes, honores, prospera,
quaecumque nos inflant mala:
fit mane, nil sunt omnia.

tu, Christe, somnum dissice,
tu rumpe noctis vincula,
tu solve peccatum vetus
novumque lumen ingere! }[6]

From a Christian perspective, whether or not the woman of the thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese song is with her lover doesn’t matter. If she knew Christ, the light of the world would already be with her.

From a Christian perspective, the incarnation of the fully masculine man Jesus points to the fullness of joy.  Jesus witnessed to love made in human flesh:

Lament of courtly love that cannot be shown —
such you always sang before the dawn rose,
the bitter after the sweet.
He who has received
love and a woman’s greeting where
they had to part from one another —
he heard much advice from you then,
when the morning star
arose. Watchman, now be silent.
Sing no more of that!

Whoever is or was accustomed
to recline with his beloved
without being hidden from spies —
he need not, for fear of morning,
rush and strive to get away.
He can stay there awaiting the day.
He need not be guided out in peril of his life.
One’s own trusted, tender wife
can give such love as this.

{ Der helden minne ir klage
du sunge ie gen dem tage,
daz sûre nâch dem süezen,
swer minne und wîplich grüezen
alsô enpfienc,
daz sie sich muosen scheiden:
swaz du dô riete in beiden,
dô ûf gienc
der morgensterne, wahtaer swîc,
dâ von niht langer sienc.

Swer pfliget odr ie gepflac
daz er bî liebe lac
den merkern unverborgen,
der darf niht durch den morgen
dannen streben,
er mac des tages erbeiten:
man darf in niht ûz leiten
ûf sîn leben.
Ein offeniu süeze wirtes wîp
kan solhe minne geben. }[7]

The fleshly love of a married couple and the blessing of children are fundamental figures in Christian understanding. They transmit the Christian sense of God as the light of the world.

The thrill of illicit love has gone from dawns today. One-night trysts, at least before the corona plague, now spark as easily as tinder. Fire, whether small or hellish, doesn’t however provide the Christian light of the world. Men today rightly fear marriage. If you have a wife, relish your daring deed and sleep together past the dawn!

The dawn song, also known as an alba, is a prevalent poetic form historically and world-wide. The Galician-Portuguese counter-alba, with its counter-current of Christian irony, is both conceptually distinctive and personally poignant.[8] Read it to yourself and try to imagine a better way to live.

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[1] Ovid, Loves {Amores} 1.13, Latin text (with my changes to editorial punctuation) from Ehwald’s 1907 Teubner edition via Perseus, English translation adapted from that of A. S. Kline at Poetry in Translation. Here’s a Latin text with some helpful notes and the English translation of May (1930).

The dawn song often goes by different terms in relation to poetry written in different languages. In relation to medieval Occitan songs, a dawn song is called an alba. In Old French, a dawn song is called an aube; in medieval German, a tagelied. On dawn songs through history and around the world, Hatto (1965). On medieval European dawn songs, Saville (1972). This post uses alba and counter-alba as thematic terms independent of language and as synonymous with “dawn song.” “Counter-alba” similarly means “counter-dawn-song.”

[2] On Aurora, also known as Eos, kidnapping and raping Cephalus, see, e.g. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.3.1, 3.18.10-16. More on Aurora / Eos.

[3] Anonymous, “In an orchard under hawthorn blooms {En un vergier sotz fuella d’albespi},” Old Occitan text (BdT 461.113) from Rialto, English translation (with my minor changes) from Paden & Paden (2007) p. 233. This dawn song {alba}, which has the form of a dance song {balada}, probably was written late in the thirteenth century. Id. Rialto supplies an Italian translation. Donalson (2003), “Beneath the high and leafy hawthorn-bow’r,” provides a similar Old Occitan text and an alternate English translation. A. S. Kline at Poetry in Translation also offers an alternate English translation. Here’s a throat-singing musical score for this song.

Among the surviving roughly 2,000 Old Occitan songs are about 18 albas. Of those, Poe classifies two as counter-albas and six as religous albas. Poe (1984) p. 260. Relatively popular among these songs today are Cadenet’s “If I ever was beautiful and worthy {S’anc fui belha ni prezada}” (performance by Paulin Bündgen / Ensemble Céladon; by The Mediaeval Baebes; by Théron, Hbeisch & Dargent) and Giraut de Bornelh’s “Glorious King, true Light and Splendor {Reis glorios, verais lums e clartatz}” (performance by S. Bergeron / La Nef; by Ensemble Céladon). For English translations of other albas, Paden & Paden (2007) and Hatto (1965) pp. 358-79.

[4] Juião Bolseiro, song for a beloved man {cantiga d’amigo}, “I remain lonely without my lover {Sen meu amigo manh’eu senlheira}” (B 1165, V 771), Galician-Portuguese text from Wikisource (close to that of Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas), English translation adapted from that of Zenith (1995) p. 81. For an alternate English translation, Hatto (1965), p. 325. This cantiga dates to 1250-1275. Kurtz (2018).

Laurence Marafante Brancao has made available some classroom notes about this song. Carvalho Peiruque (2015), pp. 1-2, tendentiously misses its sophistication. Resgala Júnior (2018), pp. 93-4, puts forth an anti-meninist interpretation that supports dominant gynocentric ideology. Yet two decades earlier, a scholar perceived the need to declare in the introduction to his scholarly article:

The cantigas d’amigo are clearly not woman-hating broadsides any more than they are succulent dummies devised by men to keep their women quiet.

Ashurst (1998) p. 20.

Two other cantigas d’amigo by Juião Bolseiro are closely associated with “Sen meu amigo manh’eu senlheira.” In his song, “From the night of yesterday they might well have made {Da noite d’eire poderam fazer},” a woman’s voice similarly recounts an endless night alone and a quickly ending night with her lover. For an English translation, Hatto (1965) p. 326. But this cantiga d’amigo lacks the sophisticated, Christian allusions to light in “Sen meu amigo manh’eu senlheira.” Juião Bolseiro, “These nights so long that God made in an austere day {Aquestas noites tam longas que Deus fez em grave dia}” similarly laments that God didn’t make lonely nights as long as the nights that the woman enjoys with her beloved man. These two other dawn songs lack the poignancy and depth of “Sen meu amigo manh’eu senlheira.”

The corpus of medieval Galician-Portuguese songs includes one song close to a conventional alba. It begins:

Rise up, beloved, who on cold mornings sleeps;
love is what all the world’s birds were saying –
I’m a happy soul.

{ Levad’, amigo, que dormides as manhanas frías
tôdalas aves do mundo d’amor dizían.
leda m’and’eu. }

Nuno Fernandes Torneol, cantiga d’amigo, “Levad’, amigo, que dormides as manhanas frias” (B 641, V 242), Galician-Portuguese text (alternate source) and English translation (Zenith) from Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas. For a review of medieval Galician-Portuguese dawn songs in comparative perspective, Lang (1905) pp. 1-6.

Galician-Portuguese dawn songs challenge conceptions of the alba. The watchman has been asserted to play a role “crucial to the alba.” Shapiro (1976) p. 609. The Galician-Portuguese dawn songs don’t mention a watchman. The Old Occitan counter-alba has been characterized as having “a loss of realism in the figure of the lady … a movement from the concrete to the abstract.” Poe (1984) pp. 266-7. However, the woman’s voice in the counter-alba “Sen meu amigo manh’eu senlheira” is realistic and concrete.

[5] John 12:46, ancient Greek text (mGNT) from Blue Letter Bible, English text of the Revised Standard Version. See also, e.g. John 1:5, 8:12.

[6] Prudentius, Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon} 1, “Hymn at Cock-Crow {Hymnus ad galli cantum},” incipit “The bird that ushers in the day {Ales diei nuntius}” stanzas 22-25 (vv. 85-100), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly according to my poetic sense) from O’Daly (2012) pp. 42-3. Here’s a tabular arrangement of the Latin text, a Dutch translation, and three alternate English translations.

[7] Wolfram von Eschenbach, “Lament of courtly love that cannot be shown {Der helden minne ir klage},” medieval German text and English translation (with my minor changes) from Saville (1972) pp. 45-6. For alternate English translations, Hatto (1965), p. 454, and Wilhelm (1990), pp. 210-1. Here’s a modern German translation. Wilhelm (1990) also includes a translation of another dawn song {tagelied} by Wolfram von Eschenbach, “It has raked its talons downward through the clouds {Sîne klâwen durch die wolken sint geslagen}.” All of Wolfram’s tagelied are available with medieval German text and English translation in Hatto (1965) pp. 448-54. Wolfram probably wrote these songs about the beginning of the thirteenth century.

[8] Compared to the Galician-Portuguese counter-alba “Sen meu amigo manh’eu senlheira,” the two surviving Old Occitan counter-albas are less sophisticated and less poignant. One, composed in 1257, begins:

From pleasant
I suffer pain,
such bad
that at night I cannot sleep,
but continually toss and turn
and I long
to see the dawn.

{ Ab plazen
Ai cozen
Mal talen
Tant quel ser no puesc durmir,
Ans torney e vuelf e vir
E dezir
Vezer l’alba }

Guiraut Riquier, “From pleasant {Ab plazen}” (PC 248,3), stanza 1, Old Occitan text and English translation adapted from Hatto (1965) p. 376. For the whole song and an English translation, Donalson (2003), “Pleasant and / amorous.” The last two verses above form a refrain for the subsequent three similar stanzas.

The other Old Occitan counter-alba is ostentatiously literary. It begins:

In gratitude for the goodness shown
to me by love under whose rule I live,
and in order to lessen my sorrow,
I will write a dawn song with a new tune.
I see the night clear and serene
and hear a bird’s song
which soothes my pain,
seeking and calling upon the new day.
Oh God, what grief
the night makes for me!
So I long for the dawn.

For I swear to you by the holy Gospels
that not Andreas of Paris,
Floris, Tristan, or Amelis,
were ever so faithful to love.
Since I have given my heart to her,
I do not pray an Our Father,
such that before I say “who is in heaven,”
my spirit mourns for lacking her.
Oh God, what grief
the night makes for me!
So I long for the dawn.

{ Per grazir la bon’estrena
d’amor que·m ten en capdelh,
e per aleujar ma pena
vuelh far alb’ab son novelh.
La nuech vey clar’e serena
et aug lo chan d’un auzelh,
en que mos mals se refrena,
don quier lo jorn et apelh!
Dieus, qual enueg,
mi fay la nueg!
Per qu’ieu dezir l’alba.

Qu’ie·us jur pels sans evangelis
que anc Andrieus de Paris,
Floris, Tristans ni Amelis
no fo vas amor tant fis.
depus mon cor li doneris
us pater noster non dis,
ans qu’ieu disses: Qui es in coelis,
fon ab lieys mos esperis.
Dieus! qual enueg
mi fay la nueg!
per qu’ieu dezir l’alba.}

Uc de la Bacalaria, “In gratitude for the goodness shown {Per grazir la bon’estrena}, (PC 449,3), stanzas 1-2, Old Occitan text from Hatto (1965), p. 376, and Donalson (2003), “I am grateful to be given,” my English translation benefiting from those of Hatto and Donalson. For the whole song and an English translation, Donalson (2003), “I am grateful to be given.” The last three verses of this first stanza form a refrain for the subsequent three stanzas. In this early thirteenth-century song, the promise to “write a dawn song with a new tune” functions as a thematic boast that leads into the subsequent literary boasting.

[images] (1) Video recording of Palestrina’s antiphon “Come from Lebanon, my bride {Veni de Libano, sponsa mea}” from the Song of Solomon {Cantica Salomonis} by Palestrina Ensemble Munich, conducted by Venanz Schubert (2013). Cf. Song of Songs 4:8 and Dante, Purgatorio 30:10-12. Via YouTube. (2) Video performance of Corsican polyphony by L’Alba. “This morning, a god came / from high to comfort the terrestrial world {Sta mane un diu hè falatu / à fà e so parte à u mondu terranu}.” Here’s the Corsican song text and French translation. Recording via YouTube.


Ashurst, David. 1998. “Humour in the cantigas d’amigo: Its Nature and Significance.” Portuguese Studies. 14: 20-32.

Carvalho Peiruque, Elisabete. 2015. “Uma cantiga na noite do meu amigo.” Cadernos Do IL (Cadernos do Instituto de Letras, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul). 2 (35): 1-9.

Donalson, James H. 2003. Provinçal Poems. Brindin Press. Online.

Hatto, Arthur Thomas. 1965. Eos: an enquiry into theme of lovers’ meeting and partings at dawn in poetry. The Hague: Mouton.

Kurtz, Guillermo. 2018. “Dating cantigas.” Virtual Center for the Study of Galician-Portuguese Lyric. Online.

Lang, Henry Roseman. 1905. Old Portuguese Songs. Halle a.d.S: Niemeyer.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Catherine Conybeare)

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden, trans. 2007. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Poe, Elizabeth Warren. 1984. “The Three Modalities of the Old Provençal Dawn Song.” Romance Philology. 37 (3): 259-272.

Resgala Júnior, Renato Marcelo. 2018. “Alteridades: gênero, corpo e sexualidade no discurso literário.” Revista Transformar. 12 (1): 86-102.

Saville, Jonathan. 1972. The Medieval Erotic Alba: structure as meaning. New York, London: Columbia University Press.

Shapiro, Marianne. 1976. “The Figure of the Watchman in the Provençal Erotic Alba.” MLN. 91 (4): 607-639.

Wilhelm, James J., ed. 1990. Lyrics of the Middle Ages: an anthology. New York: Garland Publishing.

Zenith, Richard, trans. 1995. 113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Instituto Camões.

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