languishing for love: medieval women’s songs for beloved men

Mother, I went to see
boats on the bay,
and I’m dying of love.

Boats on the sea,
and I waited for them,
and I’m dying of love.

Boats on the bay,
and I went to wait,
and I’m dying of love.

And I waited for them
but I didn’t find him,
and I’m dying of love.

{ Foi eu, madre, veer
as barcas eno ler
e moiro me d’ amor

As barcas eno mar
e foi las aguardar
e moiro me d’ amor

As barcas eno ler
e foi las atender
e moiro me d’ amor

E foi las aguardar
e non o pud’ achar
e moiro me d’ amor }[1]

An exquisite medieval Latin love song from no later than the eleventh century tells of a woman’s longing for her beloved man. This poem poignantly expresses how much a medieval woman needed her man and wanted to be with him:

Languishing for
love of you,
I arose
at dawn
and made my way
bare-footed
through snow and
through cold,
and searched
the desolate seas
to see if I could find
sails flying in the wind,
or catch sight
of a ship’s prow.

{ Nam languens
amore tuo
consurrexi
diluculo
perrexi-
que pedes nuda
per niues et
per frigora
atque maria
rimabar mesta
si forte uentiuola
uela cernerem,
aut frontem nauis
conspicerem. }[2]

A dawn song typically tells of lovers reluctantly separating after having enjoyed a night together. In this poem, the circumstances are the opposite: the woman gets up at dawn to leave and seek sight of her beloved man. Traveling bare-footed through snow and cold figures the absence of her lover covering her and warming her. Desolate seas churn with his absence. Her yearning to see billowing sails flying in the wind and the prow of her lover’s ship indicates her desire for him to return. It’s also a beautiful figure of her appreciation for his active genitals. She wants to be his port and to encompass him.

Pergaminho Vindel (Vindel parchment): songs of Martin Codax

Galician-Portuguese “songs about a beloved man {cantigas d’amigo},” which were composed between about 1200 and 1350, commonly have a woman yearning for a beloved man out at sea. Martin Codax’s cycle of mid-thirteenth-century cantigas d’amigo shows different aspects of this motif. The woman ardently longs for her beloved man:

Waves of the sea of Vigo
have you seen my boyfriend?
Oh God, will he come soon?

Waves of the swollen sea,
have you seen my darling?
Oh God, will he come soon?

Have you seen my boyfriend,
because of whom I’m sighing?
Oh God, will he come soon?

Have you seen my darling,
for whom I feel great yearning?
Oh God, will he come soon?

{ Ondas do mar de Vigo,
se vistes meu amigo?
e ai Deus, se verrá cedo?

Ondas do mar levado,
se vistes meu amado?
e ai Deus, se verrá cedo?

Se vistes meu amigo?
o por que eu sospiro;
e ai Deus, se verrá cedo?

Se vistes meu amado?
o por que ei gran coidado;
e ai Deus, se verrá cedo? }[3]

The repetition in this poem emphasizes the woman’s longing. The following poem introduces a desired message and the woman’s mother, who historically, but not always, is a restraining character:

Here I have a message
my boyfriend is coming,
and I’ll go, mother, to Vigo.

I have a message here
my darling is coming,
and I’ll go, mother, to Vigo.

My boyfriend is coming,
and he’s safe and sound,
and I’ll go, mother, to Vigo.

My darling is coming,
and he’s sound and safe,
and I’ll go, mother, to Vigo.

{ Mandad’ ei comigo
ca ven meu amigo,
e irei, madr’, a Vigo

Comig’ ei mandado
ca ven meu amado,
e irei, madr’, a Vigo

Ca ven meu amigo
e ven san’ e vivo,
e irei, madr’, a Vigo

Ca ven meu amado
e ven viv’ e sano,
e irei, madr’, a Vigo }[4]

These stanzas alternate boyfriend and darling, so uniting those terms. The variation “safe and sound” with “sound and safe” similarly fuses terms. From the first two stanzas to the second two stanzas, the verse “my boyfriend / darling is coming” moves up from the second verse to the first verse of the stanzas. He’s coming! That’s sufficient reason for insisting, at the end of each stanza, “I’ll go, mother, to Vigo.”

The young woman went to Vigo. She was alone and afraid:

Oh God, if my boyfriend knew now
that I am all alone in Vigo?
and I’m in love.

Oh God, if my darling knew now
that I’m in Vigo all alone?
and I’m in love.

That I am all alone in Vigo,
and don’t have any guards with me,
and I’m in love.

That I’m staying in Vigo all alone
and haven’t brought any guards along,
and I’m in love.

And I don’t have any guards with me,
except my eyes, which cry for me,
and I’m in love.

And I haven’t brought any guards along,
except my eyes, which are both crying,
and I’m in love.

{ Ai Deus, se sab’ ora meu amigo
com’ eu senheira estou en Vigo?
e vou namorada

Ai Deus, se sab’ ora meu amado
com’ eu en Vigo senheira manho?
e vou namorada

Com’ eu senheira estou en Vigo
e nulhas gardas non ei comigo,
e vou namorada

Com’ eu senheira en Vigo manho
e nulhas gardas migo non trago,
e vou namorada

E nulhas gardas non ei comigo
ergas meus olhos que choran migo,
e vou namorada

E nulhas gardas migo non trago
ergas meus olhos que choran ambos,
e vou namorada }[5]

She waited and waited:

Oh waves that I came to see,
can you possibly tell me
why my boyfriend lingers without me?

Oh waves I came to ponder,
can you possibly explain
why my boyfriend lingers without me?

{ Ai ondas que eu vin veer,
se me saberedes dizer
por que tarda meu amigo sen min?

Ai ondas que eu vin mirar,
se me saberedes contar
por que tarda meu amigo sen min? }

The song cycle ends with the waves’ turmoil. Did this woman realize her ennobling love for her beloved man? That’s up to you to decide.

Men’s lives mattered to medieval women. They felt horror for men absent and dying in war. Medieval women didn’t blithely blame with fatuous pretentiousness the patriarchy for war. They recognized men’s gender-disproportionate suffering in war:

Oh Saint James, my famous patron,
lead my boyfriend here to me.
Someone’s bearing flowers across the sea
and I’ll gaze, mother, at the towers of Jaen.

Oh Saint James, patron in whom I trust,
lead my darling here to me.
Someone’s bearing flowers across the sea
and I’ll gaze, mother, at the towers of Jaen.

{ Ai Santiago, padron sabido,
vós mh adugades o meu amigo;
sobre mar ven quen frores d’ amor ten;
mirarei, madre, as torres de Geen

Ai Santiago, padron provado,
vós mh adugades o meu amado;
sobre mar ven quen frores d’ amor ten;
mirarei, madre, as torres de Geen }[7]

While yearning for her beloved man, the woman introspectively honors men’s suffering in war. Jaen is an inland Andalusian city that was the site of sieges and battles between Muslim and Christian armies. Saint James {Santiago}, whose remains have long been venerated at Santiago de Compostela, is a preeminent saint of Spain. He was known by the thirteenth century as “Saint James the Moor-Slayer {Santiago Matamoros}” and was invoked in the Spanish battle cry, “Saint James, seal Spain! {¡Santiago y cierra España!}”[8] She, however, doesn’t want Saint James to urge her beloved man into battle, but to bring him home to her.

The emblem of Saint James is a scallop shell, not a flower. The white lily {fleur-de-lis}, which became a French heraldic symbol, was a flower that Christians associated with chastity. The red rose, in contrast, symbolized Christian martyrdom.[9] Impersonally acknowledging “someone’s bearing flowers across the sea,” the woman seems to be vaguely recognizing red roses and that her beloved man might be dying in battle. Her gaze at the towers of Jaen indicates the horror of war. She prays to Saint James to bring her beloved man home to her from across the sea. Yet at the same time and looking in the opposite direction, she recognizes that he might be dead.

Poetry of women languishing in love while waiting for beloved men to return from across the sea is probably as old as Penelope of the ancient Greek Odyssey. Such poetry will arise again before the seas go dry and the rocks melt with the sun. All that’s needed is women’s love for men.[10]

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Nuno Fernandez Torneol 5, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Mother, I saw sailing {Vi eu, mha madr’, andar}” (B 645, V 246) stanzas 2-5 (of 7), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Rip Cohen should be honored for his enormous sacrifice in working on cantigas de amigo and making much of his work freely available worldwide on the Internet. Here’s this song at Universo Cantigas and at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs. Nuno Fernandez Torneol / Nuno Fernandes Torneol was active in the beginning or middle of the thirteenth century.

All the surviving cantigas de amigo are attributed to men singers. Whether these songs reflect heard or imagined women’s voices isn’t known and matters little. In medieval Europe, women and men knew intimately each other’s voices. The cantigas de amigo are likely authentic representations of women’s voices. That’s what women and men would have most wanted to hear in naturalistic songs of love.

[2] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 14A, “Because languishing {Nam languens},” Latin text (editorial marks elided) and English translation (modified) from Ziolkowski (1994), following Dronke (1965) pp. 275-6. This poem has survived only in the Carmina cantabrigiensia, where it was interpolated into Carmina cantabrigiensia 14 (“Modus Liebinc”) between strophes 3b and 4a. Here’s some poetic analysis of the poem leading to an alternate translation.

Dronke suggested that “Nam languens” is a Latin version of Old High German folks songs known “friend songs {winileods}.” In a capitulary issued in 789, Charlemagne forbid nuns from writing or sending winileods. Dronke also cited parallels in Tuscan ritornelli and Hispano-Arabic kharjas and declared:

It is clear that at least some of the love-songs in the eleventh-century Cambridge manuscript {Carmina cantabrigiensia} drew inspiration from a living tradition of cantigas de amigo.

Id. pp. 276-7. The Galician-Portuguese corpus of cantigas de amigo date from no earlier than the thirteenth century. Exactly what Dronke was claiming, and the evidence for his claim, isn’t clear. In any case, Latin and vernacular songs have probably always influenced each other.

[3] Martin Codax 1, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Waves of the sea of Vigo {Ondas do mar de Vigo}” (B 1278, N 1, V 884, C 1278), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Universo Cantigas doesn’t currently provide any songs of Martin Codax. Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs., which includes English translations by Richard Zenith for all of Martin Codax’s songs. Martin Codax / Martim Codax apparently was a Galician non-noble singer (joglar) active in the middle or third quarter of the thirteenth century.

Martin Codax’s surviving songs consist of a seven-song cycle about a woman yearning for her beloved who’s away at sea. Martin’s song cycle has survived with musical notation in the Vindel Parchment {Pergaminho Vindel}. These songs, along with songs of King Dinis of Portugal in the Sharrer Parchment {Pergaminho Sharrer}, are the only cantigas d’amigo to survive with music. Martin Codax’s songs have been studied intensively. They have also frequently been performed and recorded.

[4] Martin Codax 2, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Here I have a message {Mandad’ ei comigo}” (B 1279, N 2, V 885), stanzas 1-4 (of 6), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[5] Martin Codax 4, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Oh God, if my boyfriend knew now {Ai Deus, se sab’ ora meu amigo}” (B 1281, N 4, V 887), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at the Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[6] Martin Codax 7, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Oh waves that I came to see {Ai ondas que eu vin veer}” (B 1284, N 7, V 890), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[7] Pai Gomez Charinho 6, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “Oh Saint James, my famous patron {Ai Santiago, padron sabido}” (B 843, V 429), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs. It’s not yet available at Universo Cantigas. Pai Gomez Charinho / Paio Gomes Charinho was a Galician man trobairitz active in the last decades of the thirteenth century.

[8] The literal meaning of the Spanish battle cry “Saint James, close Spain! {¡Santiago y cierra España!}” isn’t fully clear. The word “y” seems to me likely to be functioning as an intensifier like “et” can in medieval Latin. “Close Spain” could mean close off Spain from Muslim invaders, or it could mean close in battle with them. On “Saint James the Moor-Slayer {Santiago Matamoros},” Quinn (2011).

[9] On the Christian symbolism of the lily and the rose, see my post on Walahfrid’s gardening.

[10] Cf. Robert Burns, “A red, red rose.” Drawing upon folk tradition, Burns wrote this song in Scotland in 1794.

[images] (1) Vindel Parchment {Pergaminho Vindel}. Created between 1275 and 1299. Preserved as Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Vindel MS M979. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Recording of Martin Codax’s “Waves of the sea of Vigo {Ondas do mar de Vigo}” by Orquesta de Instrumentos Autóctonos y Nuevas Tecnologías Untref (2016). Via YouTube. (3) Recording of Martin Codax’s “Here I have a message {Mandad’ ei comigo}” by Ensemble Oni Wytars (1992 or earlier). Via YouTube. (4) Recording of Pai Gomez Charinho’s “Oh Saint James, my famous patron {Ai Santiago, padron sabido}” by Ensemble Lauda (Henry Vidal, conducting) from their album Cantigas de Santuarios (2020). Via YouTube. (5) Illustration of “Saint James the Moor-Slayer {Santiago Matamoros}” in an instance of the Codex Calixtinus / pseudo-Calixtinus, Book of Saint James {Liber Sancti Jacobi} / The Pilgrim’s Guide. Detail from folio 120 of Biblioteca Universitaria de Salamanca. Manuscript 2631. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. The original Codex Calixtinus was created about 1140, It is currently preserved in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

References:

Cohen, Rip. 2003. 500 Cantigas d’Amigo. Porto: Campo das Letras.

Cohen, Rip. 2010. The Cantigas d’Amigo: An English Translation. Online. Quotes are based on the 2016 edition.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Quinn, Rebecca C. 2011. “Santiago as Matamoros: Race, Class, And Limpieza de Sangre in a Sixteenth-Century Spanish Manuscript.” The Larrie and Bobbi Weil Undergraduate Research Award Documents, 1. Online.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

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