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酒は飲め飲め 飲むならば
日の本一の この槍を
飲みとるほどに 飲むならば
これぞ眞(まこと)の 黒田武士

峰の 嵐か 松風か
たづぬる人の 琴の音か
駒引を止めて 聞くほどに
爪音(つまおと)高き 想夫戀(さうふれん)

Sake wa nome nome nomu naraba
Hi no moto ichi no kono yari wo
Nomitoru hodo ni nomu naraba
Kore zo makoto no kuroda bushi
Mine no arashi ka matsukaze ka
Tazunuru hito no koto no ke ka
Koma o todomete kiku hodo ni
Tsumaoto shiruki soufuren

Drink, drink sake!
If you drink enough, this one spear of Japan will be yours.
If you drink enough, you’re a true Kuroda warrior.
Is it the mountain wind? Or the wind of the pine tree?
Or the sound of the koto from the person I’m searching for?
Pulling up his horse, drawing near, he could hear
The high sound of a plectrum;1 she is yearning for her husband.

Read the rest of this entry »


I am still struggling with some other work, so you may consider this post filler. Behold! A holy saint who I would be inclined to worship:

This is the from the tattoo blog of the artist-slash-photographer-slash-tattooist Dwam. I adore religious imagery, but until I encountered this I had never considered getting tattoos of any…

Regular readers may notice a pattern in my regular translations, or at least an absence: there is no Middle English. Now may well be a good time to admit a deeply shaming secret, one that has haunted my undergraduate career… I have never studied any Middle English. Oh, sure, I know what it is, I have read a few things about pieces written in that intermediary language- but I have never studied Chaucer, or the Pearl poet. Gawain and the Green Knight is the longest piece I have read, and that in translation. On the other hand, I have read some Middle Scots.

Jeff Sypeck‘s translation of The Taill of Rauf Coilyear as The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (2010) has filled that void in my life- a void I was unaware of until he brought this delightful story to the attention of the blogosphere. It is a tale of the great king Charlemagne, his travelling companions lost and scattered by a violent storm, seeking refuge with our humble charcoal-burner, Ralph. The king fails in certain aspects of receiving hospitality and is chastised by his proud host. As Sypeck himself says, it may be  “the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.”

Eventually the emperor manages to return to his journey, encouraging the collier to come visit him in Paris. Of course, our humble protagonist has no idea that Charlemagne is really the king. In the grand tradition of folk-tales the world over wherein great men conceal their identities, he believes that ol’ Karl is merely ‘Wymond the Wardrober”. I am sure you can imagine what happens when Ralph arrives in Paris, and the wacky hijinks that ensue.

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is a translation, but unlike my own mostly-literal works, Sypeck has managed the incredible. With care and an open thesaurus, he has managed to maintain much of both the rhyme scheme and the alliteration of the poem. Furthermore he’s done this without the result sounding either archaic or too ridiculous. More importantly, he has not sacrificed meaning. If only all translations could manage this. For comparison, the first stanza:

In the cheiftyme of Charlis, that chosin chiftane,
Thair fell ane ferlyfull flan within thay fellis wyde
Quhair empreouris and erlis and uther mony ane
Turnit fra Sanct Thomas befoir the Yule tyde.
Thay past unto Paris, thay proudest in pane,
With mony prelatis and princis that was of mekle pryde.
All thay went with the King to his worthy wane;
Ovir the feildis sa fair thay fure be his syde.
All the worthiest went in the morning —

Baith dukis and duchepeiris,
Barrounis and bacheleiris.
Mony stout man steiris

Of town with the King.

And in translation:

In the chiefdom of Charles, by chance it befell
That there struck a strong storm on the slope steep and wide
Where emperors, earls, other men in that dell,
Having turned from Saint Thomas before the Yuletide,
Where passing to Paris, appareled so well,
Those prelates and princes all puffed up with pride
Who willingly went where the king wished to dwell;
Through the fairest of fields did they fare by his side
In the morning, the worthiest, wide of renown,

With dukes and Twelve Peers,
Barons, knights young of years;
Each proudly appears

With the king leaving town.

Probably more important than Sypeck’s skill with Middle Scots is that the Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is genuinely a lot of fun. For all that the high-minded epics of the period are important and worthy, not everyone can sit through the stirring war-poetry of the chansons de geste without eventually getting sick of mail-clad warriors brutalising one another. Ralph is a relatively light-hearted dance through medieval France (if it looks a lot like medieval Scotland) with low humour, king-slapping and the sometimes excessive pride of a low-born man.

Because of my own deficiencies, I am unable to say ‘if you love Middle English poetry, you’ll love this!’ although you probably would. On the other hand, I can say that if you enjoy the lighter side of the middle ages, you will enjoy it. If watching a translator’s skill at work is as interesting for you as for me, Ralph is for you. The poem really is a lot of fun, and Sypeck’s occasional footnote and erudite introduction means that it can be a learning experience. I should know- it was for me.

To purchase this delightful little tale, just head on over to Quid Plura?, where Master Sypeck has set up a variety of methods for purchase. Or, if you have one of those high-tech papyrus scrolls, you can get it for the Kindle at Amazon.

Due to difficulties of copyright, Sypeck’s translation does not have a facing original. Those interested in seeing the poem in the original Middle Scots can do so online thanks to the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages.

Wið Ymbe

Nim eorþan, oferweorp mid þinre swiþran handa under þinum swiþran fet, and cwet:

Fo ic under fot,         funde ic hit.
Hwæt, eorðe mæg         wið ealra wihta gehwilce,
and wið andan         and wið æminde,
and wið þa micelan         mannes tungan.

Forweorp ofer greot, þonne hi swirman, and cweð:

Sitte ge, sigewif,         sigað to eorþan,
Næfre ge wilde         to wuda fleogan!
Beo ge swa gemindige         mines godes,
swa bið manna gehwilc         metes and eþeles.

Bee on Yarrow, Boulder CO (USA)

Against a Swarm of Bees

Take earth, throw it with your right hand under your right foot and say:

I take it under foot; I found it.
Lo! the earth is strong against all kinds of creatures,
and against malice and against forgetfulness
and against the mighty tongue of man.

Throw dirt over them when they swarm, and say:

Sit, O victory-women, sink to the earth,
never flee, wild to the wood!
Be as mindful of my good
as each man is of food and nation.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Wednesday, P.Z Myers will discuss a movie about the Classical mathematician and philosopher Hypatia. I do not know a lot about this woman, although her wikipedia entry seems pretty reasonable. She looks like a fascinating figure; a female scholar who led the neo-Platonist school in Alexandria in the opening years of the fifth century. I hope that, if nothing else, a popular movie will inspire her works and life to be more widely studied. [Is she widely studied already? I’ve never studied the Greek-speaking half of the late empire; the earliest I know about is Justinian.]

I do have some concerns about the movie, as an historian. It appears to be set in A.D 391, and appears to incorporate the destruction of the Library of Alexandra. This, despite the fact that the great Library burned before the birth of Christ. It seems that the movie’s producers are conflating Hypatia’s death with the closing of the pagan temples in 391 AD. This was commanded by the Emperor Theodosius, the first emperor to make Christianity the only state religion- a significant event (although it occured in 380), and one can understand why the writers would wish to fold it into their story. Yet Hypatia died in 415 AD, and did not even become a leader of her school until 400. She is being murdered over two decades early!

I also all but guarantee that there will be some pointless love subplot  in opposition to the fact that Hypatia is agreed by the ancient sources to have refused advances and perished a virgin. I will never understand why moviemakers feel the need to add such things to stories which already possess great emotional depth. Maybe I will be wrong. One can hope.

On the other hand, I hope the manner of her death is toned down. Re-creating a mob of monks flaying her with pottery shards before dismembering her corpse and setting it aflame would be torture porn at its very worst.

EDIT: Armarium Magnum, the author of which appears to be a fellow Australian medievalist, has written a thorough post detailing the historical and philosophical flaws of the movie- as well as telling us where they did the right thing. It is well worth a read.

June 2010
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