Unforgotten Books: Wandering Scholars


My COVID19 reading has just included, after more years than I care to remember, a re-reading of Helen Waddell's The Wandering Scholars. My copy is a Pelican paperback from 1954, one of Penguin's postwar nonfiction series with blue borders around a no-nonsense white front cover, price 2/6, two shillings and sixpence. On the fly-leaf is my name in blue ink, in my father's handwriting; I guess he gave it to me when I was at school. The pages are yellowing now, and their edges sometimes flake off under my fingers; this pelican wasn't built to last. The text is the sixth edition, from 1932. First edition only five years earlier - the book was unexpectedly popular.


The Wandering Scholars is not about scholarship, it's about poetry. Specifically, it's a history of the Latin-language, secular lyric poetry of the European middle ages. Latin was then the international language of the church, law, scholarship and diplomacy - and of a mostly forgotten bunch of poets.


The book has all the charm of an enthusiast's despatch home about her discoveries in far-flung, dusty archives. Helen was fired up so much that she published a book of translations too, called Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. Not only that, she wrote a romantic novel about one of the poets, Peter Abelard, which became a best-seller in the 1930s. I've got those books too, I was so warmed by her fire.


The Wandering Scholars is not just salvage scholarship, it's a praise song, written in a shifting, allusive style that's sometimes brisk, sometimes turgid, sometimes witty and sometimes lyrical itself.  Helen scattered translations of the poems (and sometimes fragments of originals) through the text, a large part of the book's appeal.  She made confident rankings: who was a great man, who was a lesser, what was a great poem and what was not (top two: Dum Diane vitrea and Dies irae). She even staged in the text a competition for the best drinking song in the world (won by Mihi est propositum). She was a hands-on researcher, but her book was a literary composition more than a technical history. It presupposed a reader with a little Latin, some Christianity, and quite a bit of European history - enough to get scholarly jokes about the Trinity or passing allusions to Gregory the Great. Evidently in 1920s England, there were enough readers like that.


Helen wasn't the first to trawl these archives. She was able to rely on printed editions of important sources, especially the famous Carmina Burana (a manuscript from the monastery of Benediktbeuern in Bavaria, with an amazing collection of earthy and jovial poems in Latin and German, apparently transcribed by three monks).


What Helen did, basically, was to weave them into a mighty story, from the fall of the Roman empire to the thirteenth century, when vernacular languages began to take over. Her tale has two great heroes: the outrageous philosopher Abelard (whose lyrics have been lost, but whose story survives), and the witty, cynical and technically brilliant Archpoet (whose name has been lost, but whose lyrics survive). The tale has a collective hero too, the subversive subculture of the vagantes, the wandering scholars themselves: the Beat Generation of the middle ages, enthusiasts for sex, booze, travel and laughter. Heavily disapproved by the church, to which they replied with cutting satire.


I wondered at some absences. There was some lusty stuff being written in Arabic at this time; did none of it waft across the water? Mediaeval Europe had a patriarchal gender order, certainly, so the priests, bishops and vagantes were all blokes; but were no women writing secular verse? Hildegard von Bingen (or the nuns writing under their Abbess's name) wrote religious poetry and music, heavy-duty spirituality and medical texts; no recreational verse? Did the brilliant Héloise not have a try? Maybe they did, but so many of the surviving poems are anonymous...


I can't say I'm an enthusiast for Helen Waddell's translations. They are loaded with thee and thou, nay, unto and hither. Pseudo-archaic, like other scholarly translators of her generation; yet written in the same decades as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Still, translation is hard in any style, I shouldn't complain. Not when I've been warmed again by this fire.


Try Dum Diane vitrea and Dies irae, if you don't know them: both are wonderful poems. And try Mihi est propositum. Who knows, it could be the best drinking song in the world.

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