Helen Waddell – The Wandering Scholars

I bought this book in 2015, read it, and enjoyed the whistling it made as it flew over my head. I had another crack at it this summer, getting halfway through before my holidays ended and I had to go back to Florence. Rightly or wrongly, I chose to leave it behind. So imagine my surprise when I found a copy in the second-hand shelves of the Paperback Exchange, Florence’s Anglo-American bookshop. I did a double take: had I donated it to them? Having established that I had not, I decided it was worth parting with fifty centesimi to wrap up that little summer project.

Image credit: Penguin

Well, it’s now a wrap, which probably puts me in a select company. I estimate that I am one of the few people alive today to have read The Wandering Scholars, one of even fewer to have read it twice, and possibly the only person to have read two different copies of it. There are reasons for this. The Wandering Scholars was written by a Wandering Scholar, or rather a scholar with a wandering mind. Forget Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway: if someone asked me to explain ‘stream-of-consciousness’, I would press one of my two copies upon them.

For one thing, never have I seen such dense name-dropping; in fact, I would like to see the book that cited more proper nouns across 240 pages. Thankfully, some of these names are as memorable as Master Konrad Unckebunck (p.145), which is the least of the battinesses in a book that touches on “the happy spirits who went to mass at St Rémy on Maundy Thursday in procession, each clerk leading a herring on a string, the object being to step on the herring of the man in front, while guarding your own herring from the assaults of the man behind.” Naturally, this diverts us from the serious stuff:

Latin verse composition had always, of course, been taught. Charlemagne bent his great brows on the young dandies of the palace school who failed to produce tolerable verse, and Hrabanus Maurus came to Alcuin at Tours to study metres.

Alcuin (of York) I had heard of, thanks to a recent episode of the BBC’s In Our Time. Otherwise, the paragraph baffled me as much as the herring did. Who were these young dandies? What was the palace school, and what was intolerable about the verse they produced? Once past that, we learn that the early medieval period saw such a spondaise explosion that “by the end of the twelfth century, the writing of rhyming verse was absolutely forbidden to the members of the Cistercian Order: its associations were too dangerous.” Not all verse, crucially, but verse with rhyme, which was alien to classical Latin poetry. No wonder it disquieted the church, and not just because it was new. As the late Geoffrey Hill wrote, “Eros is so palpably present in rhyming verse that it seems like a parody of itself.”

It’s worth saying, at this point, that The Wandering Scholars is less about scholars and scholasticism than about poets and poetry. But it’s also worth saying that the distinction between the two was, if you’ll pardon the pun, academic. Our bards nowadays, especially those in the top jobs, are pretty unscholarly, while most of our scholars wouldn’t be seen dead writing verse. Waddell has no such qualms. She hails the “humorous breadth” and “very adroit rhyming” of one Berengarius the heretic, but really the praise is all hers, the translator:

The Abbot John, in stature small,
   But not in godly graces,
Spake thus unto his elder friend
   – Both lived in desert places –

‘I wish,’ said he, ‘to live secure
   As angels do in heaven:
No food to eat, no garment wear
   Whereon men’s hands have striven.’

His senior said ‘Be not too rash,
   Brother, I counsel you,
For you may find you’ve bitten off
   More than your teeth can chew.’

But he – ‘Who goes not to the war
   Nor falls, nor wins the fight,’
He spake, and to remoter wilds
   Naked, went out of sight.

 ……………………..

John had his bed without, and bore
   The chills of night contrary,
And thus did penance rather more
   Than was quite voluntary.

The camp, forced contrary/voluntary rhyme underlines the farcery of John’s self-mortification. Eventually, he too sees the vanity in it.

Cured of his folly, he’ll let him
   An angel be who can,
Himself he finds it hard enough
   To be a decent man.

But when the original poetry is more serious – be it in Latin or one of those misty, mysterious languages from the old Midi – Waddell translates it with a real grace. Not just the poetry, either: in her hands, medieval Latin prose becomes as distinct and as vivid as her own:

St Peter Damian is hot against the monks who challenge the grammarians at their own idle game, and bandy vanities with seculars as if it were the din of a fair, but Damian himself was in his youth a passionate classicist. ‘Once was Cicero music in my ears, the songs of the poets beguiled me, the philosophers shone upon me with their golden phrases, the sirens enchanted my soul nigh unto death. The Law and the Prophets, Gospel and Epistle, the whole glorious speech of Christ and His servants, seemed to me a poor thing and empty.’

Those final, chilling words remind us just how much was at stake for the medieval man or woman of letters. It’s one of Waddell’s constant themes: the soul torn between art and God, between the Catechism and learning for its own sake – and sometimes, for the sake of one-upmanship. A certain Gunzo of Novara is appointed tutor to the family of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, and on the way stops at the Swiss abbey of St Gall. “It was bitterly cold; Gunzo had almost to be lifted from his horse…and unfortunately, his wits perhaps still sluggish with cold, blundered into an accusative instead of an ablative. And Ekkehard, the scholasticus, heard.” The next day, naturally, it was all over the cloisters.

No publishing house would ever go near The Wandering Scholars now. Despite belonging to Penguin’s Pelican imprint, which anticipated Oxford’s ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series, Waddell was writing for the fifty most well-read individuals in the country. But however fuzzily the rest of us will remember it, we will be cured of any prejudice against the so-called Dark Ages – indeed, we might forget just how dark they could be, with only the most fleeting of references to the murderous Albigensian persecution under St Dominic. Waddell’s medieval world is one where almost nobody is burned or hanged or dies in childbirth. But however nasty, brutish, short life really was back then, she reminds us that people – lettered people, at least – strove to enrich their souls as well as save them.

by Harry Cochrane

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