Friday 18 June 2021

A Fine Song of Love


The past is another country and it may take a lot of research and imagination to recreate its multilayered richness of sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. Visiting the Chiltern Open Air Museum a few years ago, I found myself shouting to be heard over the almost unbearable thunder of iron-rimmed cartwheels rolling over cobbles. I’d had no idea carts made so much noise – and that was a single, large, four-wheeled wagon pulled by a single horse.  Hard to imagine the din around the warehouses of London Docks in the 1880s.  

Music goes beyond natural sound, however. Music is a cultural construct, full of meaning: it reflects, interprets and to a large extent creates the manners and desires of its own time. It's natural to refer to music as we construct history. Swing-time, jazz, rock and roll, punk, reggae, hip-hop, grime – all tell something about the decades in which they flourish. Impossible to imagine the sixties without the Beatles or the Kinks. The same must be true for the deeper past. I once thrilled to a British Museum reconstruction of a Roman trumpet call, and what about the prehistoric bone flutes that were played in caves like Lascaux? (And why were they played, and for whose attention? The dead? Earth spirits?)

My children’s novel Dark Angels (HarperCollins) is set on the Welsh borders in the 1190s, and features a flawed heroic figure, Lord Hugo de La Motte Rouge, Norman warlord and ex-crusader who believes his dead wife may – just may – not be dead after all even though seven years have passed since he buried her. She may have been spirited away by the elf-folk and taken into the tunnels under the hill. In which case, there is a chance he could rescue her.

There are a quite a few 12th century legends on this mysterious subject, the idea of a lost lover re-encountered in some fairy land of the dead. Walter Map, a courtier at the court of Henry II, tells the story of a Breton knight who rescued his dead-and-buried wife when, months later, he saw her whirling in a fairy dance. And Sir Orfeo, the 13th century retelling of the Orpheus myth, most likely ultimately dates from this time, translated from a Breton lai into Middle English  and it has a happy ending.

So there I was with the idea that my knight Lord Hugo would be a sort of Orpheus figure. Therefore he needed to be musical. Now the Breton lais are lengthy stories in verse: they were performed by minstrels who probably chanted them with a musical prelude and interludes. And of course the 12th and 13th centuries were also the time of the troubadours of southern France whose songs were primarily songs of fin’ amour – of romantic love in high society.

Garden of Pleasure, Harley 4425, 15th C. 
It’s been suggested that the notion, even the emotion of romantic love was created by the troubadours: a product of the hot-house urges of often very young noblemen and noblewomen living in close proximity in small castles, with nothing much to do spending time together every day, with sex strictly off-limits, since marriage was a formal affair of property and alliances arranged by their elders. And this new music arose, a music of youth, full of expressions of forbidden desire: subversive, exciting, dangerous, fashionable.

Many troubadours were high-born men and women, whose songs were usually performed for them by a joglar or jongleur, a professional singer. Still, it seemed to me possible that my own Lord Hugo might on occasion be prevailed upon to sing his own songs – especially if he thought that doing so might help him win back his wife from the dead land.   

So I listened to troubadour songs. Here's an anonymous 13th century song performed by Arnaud Lachambre; it's known by its first line: 'Voulez vous que je vous chante?' I made a free translation of it to get myself in the mood for writing songs for Lord Hugo.

Volez vous que je vous chante             Would you like me to sing to you
Un son d’amours avenant?                 A fine song of love?                          
Vilain nel fist mie,                                By no peasant was it made,               
Ainz le fist un chevalier                       But a gentle knight who lay
Sous l’ombre d’un olivier                    With his sweetheart in his arms
Entre les bras s’amie.                          In an olive tree’s shade.

Chemisete avoit de lin                         She wore a linen chemise,
Et blanc peliçon hermin                       A pelisse of white ermine –
Et bliaut de soie                                   Of silk was her dress,
Chauces ot de jaglolai                         Her stockings were of iris leaves
Et solers de flours de mai                    And slippers of mayflowers
Estroitement chauçade                         Her feet to caress.

Ceinturete avoit de feuille                   Her girdle was of leaves
Que verdist quant li tens meuille,       Which grow green when it rains,
D’or est boutonade                             Her buttons of gold so fine,
L’aumosniere estoit d’amour              Her purse was a gift of love
Li pendant furent de flours                  And it hung from flowery chains
Par amours fu donade.                       As it were a lovers’ shrine.

Et chevauchoit une mule                     And she rode on a mule,
D’argent ert la ferruere                       The saddle was of gold,
La sele ert dorade;                              All silver were its shoes.
Sus la croupe par derriers                  To provide her with shade, 
Avoit plante trois rosiers                     On the crupper behind her
Pour faire li ombrage.                         Three rose-bushes grew.

Si s’en va aval la pree                         As she passed through the fields
Chevaliers l’ont encontree                  She met gentle knights
Beau l’on saluade:                              Who demanded courteously:
“Belle, dont estes vous nee?”             “Fair one, where were you born?”
“De France sui la louee,                     “From France am I come,
De plus haut parage.”                         And of high family.”

“Li rossignol est mon pere                 “The nightingale is my father
Qui chant sor la ramee                       Who sings from the branches
El plus haut boscage.                          Of the forest’s highest tree.
La seraine est mon mere                     The mermaid is my mother
Qui chante en la mer sale                   Who sings her sweet notes
Li plus haut rivage.”                           By the banks of the salt sea.”

“Belle, bon fussiez vous nee!              “Fair one, well were you born!          
Bien estes emparentee                         Well fathered, well mothered
Et de haut parage.                               And of high family.
Pleüst á Dieu nostre pere                    Now would God only grant
Que vous ne fussiez donee                   That you might be given
A femme esposade.”                            In marriage to me!”

Could a song be more sensual, the object of desire more dangerous? The lady in this chanson is a headily-erotic blend of wildwood flowers, songs and the fairy world, and that purse which hangs from her girdle on flowery chains ‘like a lover’s shrine’ is certainly a symbol Freud would have recognised. No wonder the young knights acknowledge her ‘high degree’ and long for her hand in marriage. It’s enough to turn their parents’ hair grey.  

Lady out riding, 16th C, by Gerard Horenbout  
Troubadour songs often use images such as the coming of the green leaves in spring and the song of the nightingale, to express the pain and delight and longing of love. Here’s Guillem de Peiteus, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, comparing love to a hawthorn branch:

As for our love, you must know how
Love goes – it’s like the hawthorn bough
That on the living tree stands, shaking
All night beneath the freezing rain
Till next day, when the warm sun, waking,
Spreads through green leaves and boughs again.

(Tr. W. D. Snodgrass.)

In the end I wrote this for Hugo to sing of his love:

When all the spring is bursting and blossoming,
And the hedges white with blossom like a breaking wave,
That’s when my heart is bursting with love-longing
For the girl who pierced it, for that sweet wound she gave.

And I hear the nightingale singing in the forest –
Singing for love in the forest: “Come to me, I am alone…
Better to suffer love’s pain for a single kiss
Than live for a hundred years with a heart of stone.”

It’s Hugo’s love and pain that drives the plot of Dark Angels and I needed the plangent, beautiful music of the 13th century to get it right.


1 comment:

  1. Really interesting! One of my books is set in 1300 and this seems very relevant!