A Window on the Middle Ages and Some Famous Clothes

We are delighted to present a guest post today by Prof. Francis Newton, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Duke University. 

I was once lucky enough to spend a year in a tiny, mostly mediaeval village in France. A cultivateur whom I knew, who owned one of the larger farms in town, showed me its fourteenth-century barn (grange) and the fifteenth-century farmhouse, where he lived. In the large hall, in which his predecessor, the mediaeval farmer, and his family had meals and slept (or at least certainly slept in the cold winters of Picardy), beside the great fireplace there was a window, with a solid wooden shutter. But the window did not open onto the out-of-doors. It opened onto the stable just on the other side of the thick stone wall, and in the Middle Ages, in the middle of the night, the goodman of the house, simply by opening this shutter in his hall could look down and check on his valuable stock, the very foundation of the entire household and economy of the estate.

La Grange de Buseaudon (constructed at the end of the fourteenth /start of the fifteenth century)

La Grange de Buseaudon (constructed at the end of the 14th /start of the 15th century)

I thought of that old stone farmhouse when I first looked into Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship. Egbert’s fascinating collection of fables, proverbs, and folk-tales in Latin, never translated into any other language before, in the new text and translation by Robert G. Babcock, opens for us a window onto the peasant culture of countryside, farm, and village of the region of eleventh-century Liège. Egbert’s unique way of teaching boys Latin, by using material from the talk of their own countryside and villages –only in Latin hexameters–, was intended to make the language easier to grasp because the tales and sayings were already familiar to the young in the vernacular speech.   The collection probably was not intended to preserve a rich segment of mediaeval popular culture for readers eleven centuries later. But that is what it does.

Cover of Robert Babcock's recent publication, a translation of Egbert of Liège's The Well-Laden Ship (Harvard, 2013)

Cover of Robert Babcock’s recent publication, a translation of Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship (Harvard, 2013)

Those who have lived in the country will recognize a saying like “A cold May will fill the granaries with corn.” And some of the actual proverbs are familiar to everybody: “Continually rolling stones do not collect moss.” Other proverbs are more familiar in other cultures: “What’s not stolen, the house gives back” is more familiar in Holland (“What the house has lost, the house will find”). Occasionally, in the mix there are quotations from the classics, such as “A drop of water hollows out a stone; a ring is consumed by wear” (Ovid, Ex Ponto 4.10.5).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909) of the well-known fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, which has its roots in medieval storytelling.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909) of the well-known fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. A version of this story is first found in Egbert of Liège’s collection.

Among the hundreds of proverbs and the wealth of tales, the reader is often challenged to understand the application, or moral (often in the earlier part, that is supplied). It is clear that the wolf who swallowed the nightingale represents the greedy man who thinks that what creates a loud sound will be large prey as well. But there is a host of other, endearing, mediaeval crackpots, such as the man who made a moon out of wheat bread; or the coward who was apparently ordered to slaughter the day’s catch of wild beasts but –instead–kissed the bear.   Among these obscure figures, a few famous ones appear. Waltharius of Aquitaine, the hero of the great Latin epic under his name, in the single-hexameter proverb and in the expanded tale, now in old age serves a monastery, whose brothers enjoin him, if he falls among enemies, to surrender all earthly goods –except his pants. In the rousing tale, this is what the aged warrior does, to (it seems) illustrate the principle that the Christian must be prepared to surrender all, save modesty itself; for this Waltharius may fight.   And an even more universal heroic figure makes her first appearance in history in Egbert’s enchanting work. This blog will not reveal how Egbert’s version of Little Red Riding Hood turns out –readers will have to see for themselves– but I can say that the cloak is, deservedly, the focus of the action.

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