Source Translation: An Early Medieval Love Letter

Apparently when I said ‘tomorrow’ I meant ‘on Saturday’; I would have written this up when I got back from Mons yesterday, but I was distracted by some jousting. What this means is that this week is that it’s some more source translation. A few days ago, I was speaking with some friends about work (I have remarkably few other topics of conversation) and the question of love and marriage came up. There have been a few other things I’ve written about this, and these duly came up; but this raised a question which always gets brought up with these things: how far was marriage transactional?

In response, I mentioned one of my favourite little medieval texts, the only surviving early medieval love letter, preserved in the Formulae Salicae Merkelianae, written probably in the ninth century:

No. 47: Letter to a fiancée [i.e., specifically to a female recipient].

To my sweetest and dearest in everything, my honey-sweet girlfriend [insert name here], I, in God’s name [insert name here], with dearest love and unceasing desire for you whom I miss so much. I send you through this letter greetings for as much joy as is contained within the fullness of our hearts, greetings which walk amidst the clouds and which the Sun and his Moon bring to you. When I go to bed, you are ever on my mind; and when I sleep, I dream always of you. Stay well in the day and sleep well at night. Always keep your boyfriend in mind, and do not forget him, for I do not forget you (*). Come up with a clever way, and I’ll one more acquire, through what kind of trickery we’ll fulfil our desire (**).

Codex Manesse 071v Kristan von Hamle.jpg
A cunning plan! (source)

May He who reigns in Heaven and oversees the whole world lead you into my arms (***) before I die.

(This is a great greeting for two young people; the one sends it to the other and neither gets tired of it (****).)

So, what can I say about this? Well, on a personal level I can tell you that, contrary to what’s advertised, it doesn’t actually work as a Valentine’s Day card; but in terms more relevant to our theme, it illustrates much the same thing as some of the dowry charters I’ve written about before: that, however transactional it might have been in real life, it was expected that relationships be cloaked with what is evidently a close relation of the modern language of romantic affection, right down to the same endearments – ‘honey-sweet’ (melliflua) has been translated an adjective here, but could just as easily have been rendered as a noun; or, in other words, ‘hi, honey!’

Particularly interesting is that it’s in a formulary collection. Scholars have recently become more and more interested in formularies, or collections of form letters, and one of the reasons for this is that they contain lots of things that don’t otherwise survive, such as, indeed, love letters. Its inclusion in a formulary implies that there was demand we can’t otherwise see. This is perhaps due to the predominance in written culture of male celibates… What is a little frustrating is the way the nuances are lost. It’s not completely clear whether the tone of this letter is simply ‘I miss you’ or the more passive-aggressive ‘why don’t you write me?’. I’ve chosen to render it in the first way, but it could well be the second, which has interesting implications; not least that there were other letters of a more straightforward kind, of which this is a slightly acidic sub-variation.

I’ll admit, though, either way it’s not as attractive as talking about Vikings

(Short one today b/c I’m on a train back to the UK for a week; this also means there won’t be a post next week at all.)

 

(*) OK, a more literal translation here is ‘I don’t do that to you’, but that sounds much pissier in English than in Latin…

(**) This actually is a literal translation, insofar as the metre’s off and one of the words doesn’t quite rhyme, even if you assume that the MS’ altero is supposed to be alterum (as other scholars have, I’m not spitballing here).

(***) Lit, ‘give you into my hands’, but that’s a lot more ‘cartoonishly villainous’ than ‘sweetly romantic’.

(****) That last bit is odd; in Latin it’s neminem sufficit, which literally means ‘it suffices no-one’. My initially guess was that the whole sentence was a marginal annotation from a disgruntled youth, but as it turns out the MS is online, and nope, it’s in the text. This phrase in the translation is based off a French translation I found with a quick Google…

New Medieval Podcast, and Sexual Frustration

So, this week Twitter (@ralphtorta, ladies and gents *winks*) informed me that those good folks over at King’s College London have launched a new podcast dealing with medieval matters. So I went and had a look, and, what do you know, it was pretty interesting:

http://www.on-soap.com/medieval-history-for-fun-and-profit-1/2017/4/29/episode-1-sex

Leaving aside the inherent oddness of hearing my elders and betters having an extended discussion about dildo use and manufacture, there are a couple of things this podcast raises I thought it would be worth talking about.

The first is a question which comes up towards the end of the episode. The idea behind the show is that they answer question sent in by the audience, and this week it’s ‘did medieval people know other kinds of sex?’. That question itself is framed in a rather eyebrow-raising way (what’s the non-other kind of sex?), but it leads our erstwhile presenters to ask: why do people frame the Middle Ages as being sexually naïve?

Their answer is about Church control over lay sex lives. People think that the Middle Ages consisted of people who don’t have sex telling people who do how to have it, and thus, boom, (or indeed not boom), sexual desert. And sure, that’s probably part of it, but I think there’s a little more that can be said here.

I call it ‘Rearview Mirror Syndrome’. When dealing with stuff outside living memory (nowadays, say, before the turn of the twentieth century), everything becomes an undifferentiated ‘past’, so Victorian and Tudor and Norman pasts get mixed up and amalgamated. Sure, this might not happen at the level of the most basic aesthetics – you won’t see William the Conqueror portrayed in a top hat – but that’s about as far as it goes. Hence why people think that medieval people burned witches at the stake (it’s really an Early Modern phenomenon), for instance.

Exhibit A. (source)

 

This usually works backwards, because most people know (or think they know) more about the Tudor and Stuart periods than the Middle Ages and about Victorian times than the Tudors and Stuarts. Hence, you get a kind of foreshortening effect.

In this case, I think that there’s a train of thought going ‘the Victorians were unutterably prudish about sex, thus the past was as well, and thus the Middle Ages also covered up their legs and had sex through a hole in the bedsheet’: as in the case of witch burnings, people perceive all the past as being the same. Indeed, whilst it would be hard to argue that it’s the most profound job of historians in interacting with the public, one of our most basic tasks is, I would argue, just to remind people that past societies were chronologically varied. At the very least, this way we might get more interesting movies out of it…

(and yes, I will be reviewing the new King Arthur film. Stay tuned…)

The other point this podcast raised for me (wahey) was a question I’ve been asking for a long time. How did medieval people, and in my case specifically tenth- and eleventh-century people, have sex? It’s noticeable that for the most part, the presenters talk about canon law sources and what they prohibit (as memorialised in the by-now world-famous medieval sex flowchart:)

(source)

What this doesn’t tell us about, though, is quotidian sex. This is more important than it sounds, especially if you think about queens. One way a queen is supposed to be important, to have influence at court, is that she has the ear of the king during some pretty intimate moments; and it makes a fairly major difference here whether one envisages royal sex as a bit of perfunctory thrusting or a full evening of candles-and-rose-petals-and-sensual-massages.

Thietmar of Merseburg has a story about Henry the Fowler getting drunk and forcing himself upon his protesting wife St. Matilda. This is interesting for a couple of reasons, not least insofar it indicates that lack of consent to sex was seen as a real problem and a real evil (as Thietmar tells the story, the wickedness of the act allowed the Devil to enter Henry’s semen, impregnating St. Matilda with a baby who would go on to be a prominent and persistent rebel against royal authority); but also because it may, at least to my reading, indicate that this was seen as unusual, and that sex would usually be a more tender affair. Of course, there isn’t anything like enough evidence to tell, at least as far as I know; and there’s also the problem that sex is always particularly charged in medieval histories. Still, it’s one of those things that’s self-evidently sufficiently important to more than just the history of sexual practice that one would like to know…