flower of flowers: beloved woman as loveliest flower

In praising the greatness of God, a psalmist proclaimed:

Give thanks to the God of gods, for his mercy endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his mercy endures forever. [1]

{ הודו לאלהי האלהים כי לעולם חסדו׃

הודו לאדני האדנים כי לעלם חסדו׃ }

The grammatical pattern of phrases like “God of gods” is an ancient specification for superlatives. In Psalms, “God of gods” refers to the one beloved God devoted to his specific people through a covenant like marriage. Men, prone as they are to gyno-idolatry, applied the “God of gods” grammatical pattern to beautiful women. To Meleager of Gadara more than two millennia ago, the exotic and loving young woman Zenophila was “the freshest flower of flowers {ἐν ἄνθεσιν ὥριμον ἄνθος}.”[2]

Some medieval men focused on clever flower-arranging instead of the arduous work of incarnating love on a daily basis. In a panegyric for the sixth-century Merovingian king Childebert II, the Italian poet Venantius Fortunatus described Childebert as:

a flowering flower of flowers, flowing with your flowery flower

{ florum flos florens , florea flore fluens }[3]

That’s flattery. In the context of seeking love, women tend to interpret flattery as a sign of weakness and desperation. The twelfth-century grammarian Serlo of Wilton played a more sophisticated game. He wrote:

A flower to the flower of flowers: “Flower, bloom your flower in moisture.
You are changeless splendor. You offer it to me, you more significant than I.
Spring of true spring, in truth spring, in spring you want
apples to be seen. Flower, you appear! You redden in perspiration. You shine more greatly!”

{ Flos floris flori: “Florem, flos, flore liquori.
Es nitor equalis. Mihi das, mihi plus specialis.
Ver veris veri, vero, ver, vere videri
vis mala. Flos, pares! Spumis rutilas. Mage clares!” }[4]

As a young man, Serlo of Wilton ardently loved women. This poem seems to be an erotic address of a young man (“a flower”) to his beloved young woman (“the flower of flowers”) in intimate embrace. It shows men’s characteristic self-devaluation relative to women, as well as men’s appreciation for women’s sexuality and the beauty of women’s vaginas. Yet this poem isn’t constructed as personal and spontaneous. It presents the words “flower {flos}” and “spring {ver}” serially in the standard grammatical Latin declension of six cases. Such formal verbal play undermines the intensely personal relation of incarnate love.

Flora, Roman goddess of flowers

Perhaps reacting to phrases such as “flower of flowers {flos florum}” and other formalistic uses of flowers in prior love poetry, a medieval poet insisted on the sensuous, incarnate reality of his beloved. She just happened to be named Flora, the same name as the ancient Roman goddess of flowers. But this Flora is as real as smell, sight, and sound:

My flower, pick a flower, because a flower designates love.
For this flower I am a prisoner with excessive love.
Sweetest Flora, always have the scent of this flower
so your beauty will be as lovely as the dawn.
Flora, see the flower, and when you see it, laugh for me!
To the flower speak well. Your voice is a nightingale’s song.
Give kisses to the flower. The flower becomes your red lips.

{ Suscipe, flos, florem, quia flos designat amorem.
Illo de flore nimio sum captus amore.
Hunc florem, Flora dulcissima, semper odora.
Nam velut aurora fiet tua forma decora.
Florem, Flora, vide, quem dum videas, michi ride.
Flori fare bene; tua vox cantus philomenae.
Oscula des flori, rubeo flos convenit ori. }[5]

A flower designates love, but this Flora isn’t just a representation. She’s a flesh-and-blood woman with sensory appeal richer than a glossy picture. This poem ends with an epigram:

The flower in a picture is not a flower but a figure.
One who paints a flower doesn’t paint the flower’s smell.

{ Flos in pictura non est flos, immo figura;
qui pingit florem, non pingit floris odorem. }

The thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose taught this wisdom so that other men would not be as foolish as Pygmalion. This poet, writing prior to the Romance of the Rose, had already learned the difference between a representation of a flower and an actual, beloved person.

woman receiving flowers from a man: illumination for "Suscipe, flos, florem" in the Carmina Burana

The “flower of flowers {flos florum}” can mean something other than abstractly the greatest or best flower. Like “God of gods” in Hebrew scripture, “flower of flowers” can also imply a particular personal relationship. The poem “My flower, pick a flower {Suscipe, flos, florem},” comes close to the phrase “flos florum,” but deliberately avoids it. The flower in this poem is a personally special flower, Flora. She is his flower, and she is as lovely as an actual flower. He wants to be her beloved. She and he are living persons. This poem expresses the Hebrew biblical sense of “God of gods” without using the phrase “flower of flowers {flos florum}.”

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] Psalms 136:2-3. Similar phrases occur in Ezra 7:12, Ezekiel 26:7, Daniel 2:37, 1 Timothy 6:15, and Revelation 17:14, 19:16.

[2] Meleager of Gadara, Greek Anthology 5.144, “Already the white violet flowers {ἤδη λευκόιον θάλλει},” v. 3, ancient Greek text from Paton (1916-18), English translation from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 181. For a review of the “flower of flowers {flos florum}” construction in ancient and medieval literature, but largely excluding the Bible, Donke (1965) vol. 1, pp. 181-92. Expressions such as “flower of flowers {flos florum}” and “rose of roses {rosa rosarum}” became common in hymns in Europe in the twelfth century. Id. p. 186. Dronke emphasized the abstract sense of “flos florum”:

The divine flower is the flower of flowers, uniting all their perfections and fulfilling them in a greater perfection.

Id. p. 184. In Godfrey of Saint-Victor’s twelfth-century sequence, Mary, bitterly lamenting the death of her son Jesus, declared

Flower of flowers, prince of morals,
fount of forgiveness,
how heavy with nails
is your punishment!

{ Flos florum, dux morum,
veniae vena,
quam gravis in clavis
est tibi poena! }

Carmina Burana, 14 additional, “Earlier not knowing lamentation {Planctus ante nescia},” stanza 3a, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). This stanza connects Jesus’s abstract excellence to Jesus specifically being punished with nails on a cross.

[3] Venantius Fortunatus, Songs {Carmina} 5.10, Latin text from Leo (1881) p. 278, my English translation. This poem displays Venatius’s “greatest self-indulgence.” He uses “prosodic ornaments the way desperate amateur fiddlers use vibrato.” Levine (2008) p. 85.

[4] Serlo of Wilton, “A flower to the flower of flowers {Flos floris flori},” Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 505, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem survives on folio 59v of Paris, BnF Latin 6765. It’s poem 19 in Öberg (1965). In v. 3, Öberg reads “ver o ver” rather than Dronke’s “vero ver,” and in v. 4, “vis mea” rather than Dronke’s “vis mala.” Donke’s readings of the Latin text seem to me to make better sense.

Understandings / translations of this poem have varied considerably. It presents a variety of technical difficulties:

the denotative sense of the words dissipates before the verbal play and the poem becomes a weird textbook, declining flowers and spring into an absurdity of words and shifting forms … Such a poem is far more about grammatical forms, the ambiguities of syntax, and the shifting meaning of signs than it is about any objective subject matter.

Moser (2004) p. 156. My sense is that this poem is best read in the context of Serlo’s other love poems.

[5] Carmina Burana 186, “My flower, pick a flower {Suscipe, flos, florem},” vv. 1-7, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). The subsequent quote above is similarly vv. 8-9 (of 9) of “Suscipe, flos, florem.” Here’s the Mediaeval Baebes’ version of this song from their 2014 album Temptation.

[images] (1) Flora, the ancient Roman goddess of flowers. Painted by Jan Matsys in 1559. Preserved in the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Hamburg, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Woman receiving flowers from a man. Illumination for “Suscipe, flos, florem” on folio 72v of the Carmina Burana (München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660).

References:

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

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Honori Clementiani Fortunati presbyteri italici Opera poetica. Berolini: apud Weidmannos.

Levine, Robert. 2008. “Patronage and Erotic Rhetoric in the Sixth Century: The Case of Venantius Fortunatus.” Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. 347: 75-94.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A Cosmos of Desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Öberg, Jan, ed. 1965. Serlon de Wilton: Poèmes Latins. Stockholm: Almqvist och Wiksell.

Paton, W.R., ed and trans. 1916-18. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

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

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