Marcabru: The Cleansing Bowl (From Occitan)

In 1144, in response to the fall of Edessa to ˁImād al-Dīn Zinkī, Pope Eugene III announced the Second Crusade. Three years later in 1147, he formally proclaimed that the Reconquista of Spain was also a Crusade. That year, a troubadour from Gascony named Marcabru composed the song whose lyrics are translated here, full of references to contemporary events. It is the prototypical Crusade Song, and went on to become one of the most popular of Occitan songs in 13th and 14th centuries, acquiring the name of Lo Vèrs Del Lavador "The Cleansing-Bowl Song." So named, because it portrays the Land of Crusade as a lavatorium which cleanses the soul and readies it for Christ. The variety of manuscripts it survives in attests to its popularity.

Marcabru is not a given name. It is the nom de plume (or, more appropriately, nom de neume) of a lyric singer active in the first half of the 12th century. As usual, we know nothing of him except what can be deduced from songs themselves, such as his Gascon background, his connection with the courtly world of Aquitaine and Poitou and his relationships with other troubadours. He does not seem to have been dependent upon a patron for his entire income. He writes with the certainty, rhetorical confidence, and indignation of an orthodox cleric. He was a five-star misogynist, and I think he may be the first man in Europe on record as having called a woman a "cunt" as an insult. He clearly had some especial connection to the church, and was possessed of a wicked sense of humor. In sum, he was (a) one of the most original and powerful of personalities in medieval European poetry and (b) quite a fucking asshole. He was also, despite what "troubadour" has come to mean, not a love poet. He wasn't shy about making it known what he thought of love poets and their (im)morality either.

A lot of people don't, or at least won't, distinguish between poetry they think is good, and poetry they happen to like. I myself find I can't really do without that distinction. The poem here translated, like a lot of Marcabru's verse, is a case in point. It is a good poem and even better song. It is brilliantly executed. The extreme mileage which Marcabru wrings out of the word lavador by repeating it 8 times in the same metrical position in each stanza is powerful. For reasons that I assume are obvious to all but distant posterity or the morbidly obtuse, it is also one I find it impossible to like.

Unlike singers like Jaufré Rudel, it does not seem likely that Marcabru expected (or at least, he didn't want) to have his compositions greatly modified in the course of transmission. Not a text like this, anyway, in which he has a very clear idea of what he wants to convey, and which cannot be intelligibly detached from context in quite the same way the poems of a Jaufré or a Bernart de Ventadorn can be.

Contrary to popular academic delusion, the concept of authorship or of authorial control is not a "modern" construction anymore than the concept of the book. It's more accurate to say that different creators have had different attitudes, and the same creator often had different attitudes depending on context or genre. A textual operator might in some contexts have a conception of their authorship that approaches "our" own, and in others not. The Shakespeare of the plays, for example, was somewhat less "authorial" than the Shakespeare of the sonnets. There is nothing "un-modern" about this. It is still going on. Just not as much in the over-textualized, over-specialized and over-scholasticized realm of what is today conceived of as "literature" where texts are sometimes treated in a way almost as debasing and degrading as sanctity itself. Consider the enormous variety in the extant versions of Pete Yarrow's "Puff the Magic Dragon" which he really really didn't intend to be about Marijuana. Or the legion covers of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah which Cohen himself seldom sang the same way twice. Examples abound in religious life too. Consider the Pulpit Fiction delivered by pastors and priests to their Pewpils, or the flexibility with which the same hymn may adjusted to the needs, spiritual and practical, of different congregations and parishes. More interestingly, TV and Film writers also cannot usually expect to have the same kind of authorship as those who write novels (no matter how much they may often wish they could.) Otherwise "uncredited re-write" would not be a TV buzzword. This is at least part of what lies behind the relatively formulaic, trope-laden and generic nature of a lot of TV drama, where much of the excitement and pleasure comes from recognizing the tropes and then seeing how the show or episode maneuvers around them. There is little practical room for idiosyncrasies such as "authorial vision" in a medium that always has one eye on ratings and budget,  just as a medieval court lyricist in Persia, Provence or Sicily was always wise to keep one eye on their patron's moneybag and another on the smile or scowl of their patron's VIPs. It is when TV-writers do get a more authorial level of control, and have the talent and confidence to exploit it, that a show like The Wire can take on the qualities of a Dickens novel, though sometimes at the cost of the referential fun to be had in playing with the rules in the manner of Sam & Max: Freelance Police.

Still, in the 12th century, it is probably hard to get any closer to a "modern" authorial ethos than a song that begins by saying essentially: "My name is Marcabru. I composed this text as well as the music to it. This is what I have to say."

Of course, modification did occur, because that is the nature both of the oral transmission by which this song was no doubt first disseminated, and of the manuscript culture which produced the extant versions. The poem is beset with many manuscript problems, in part because topical details tended to get elided over time as the song was adapted for new audiences increasingly removed from 12th century public life of Aquitaine and Poitou. But to some degree it is also because scribes in later centuries seem to have had a particularly hard time understanding it completely, and attempted to correct the text so as to produce something more intelligible. Marcabru could shift among all sorts of linguistic registers, from the solemnly liturgical to the plainly colloquial (as he does here), to the unabashedly obscene (elsewhere he calls a woman a cunt, and describes a man who gets a "hard-on for superfucking.") A lot of his language is at the margins of, and occasionally completely outside, the relatively restricted traditional lyric lexicon of later singers. The texts we have include (or, sometimes, seem to have included) a number of words found nowhere else in Medieval Occitan. Most of these are intelligible as compound coinages or transparent derivations, but some have otherwise unattested roots and are completely opaque. It is not surprising that copyists working outside Occitania had trouble with them.  

Gaunt, Harvey and Paterson did an admirable job of handling this in their Marcabru: A Critical Edition and I take their main edition of this poem as my base text. That they take manuscript a1 so seriously makes their work invaluable. (Given how much that book costs, I am glad to get my money's worth out of it.) I have in a number of places gone a different way from them, usually where I thought the other option made for a cooler poem or where I found their reasoning implausible. Sometimes this is minor (e.g. at line 60 where I read crims instead of their critz) and at others not so much (see my note on felpidor.) With this poem, translation issues are more or less inseparable from text-critical issues. As I cannot treat them separately, it didn't seem sensible to provide text-critical notes in Modern Occitan.

The music to this song survives, and deserves comment in its own right. Now, while I do play an instrument, and have for most of my life, I will be the first to admit that I don't know music like I know poetry. I certainly don't know musical history like I know literary history, and I don't know music theory beyond a few college courses and chance readings. So what I say below has more to do with extra-musical considerations.

This song has been recorded many times in the modern era. Many of them are fine virtuosic performances. They are often operatically brilliant, and give the impression of being sung from a church choir. But this is not to be sung from the choir. It is sung from the pulpit, and meant to urge men into battle.

For that, a rhythmic punch is needed. The only rendition of this song that I have come across which at all captures the flavor I hear in my head is Eduardo Paniagua's (you can hear it here). Recording this piece myself was quite out of the question. I don't have near the vocal training or range to be able to perform it. It's one of the most exacting pieces in the troubadour repertoire. It's not surprising that Marcabru was so proud of his melody that he went to the trouble of signing the music the only way he could, in the lyrics themselves.

I've constructed my translation in such a way that it can be sung, if one wishes.

The Cleansing Bowl: A Crusade Song
By Marcabru
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

PAX IN NOMINE DOMINI  
Hear Marcabru's own melody 
  And here says he:
In loving mercy to our souls,
The Lord God in eternity  
Has granted us a washing bowl 
Like none, save that beyond the sea 
In Holy Armageddon's Land. 
I sing of this one close at hand. 

When day begins and when day ends   
I say it's right to rinse and cleanse. 
  By common sense 
Each man can bathe where waters roll,   
Each must, while hale and hearty still 
Go to the waters of that bowl 
And there be truly cured of ill, 
And if we die before we go 
We'll not dwell high but burn below.  

But want of faith and wanton greed 
Keep youth away from friends in need 
  It's sad indeed 
That everyone so rares to roll 
Their dice where Hell's the only prize.   
Be off then to the cleansing bowl 
Before you've sealed your mouth and eyes.  
Nobody gets so fat from pride 
Satan can't grasp him when he's died. 

For the Lord who knows all that was 
And all that will exist or does 
  Has promised us 
An emperor's crowning aureole. 
Its beauty will show all we are, 
For bright above the cleansing bowl  
It will outshine the morning star 
If we avenge the way they maim  
God in Damascus and in Spain. 

In the long bloody line of Cain, 
First man of wickedness and bane, 
  Many profane 
And shirk the Lord their lips extol.      
His true friends will be recognized.  
It is the virtue of that bowl  
That all who go there share in Christ. 
Lets drive the heathen scum away 
Who still believe what augurs say. 

While self-indulgent liquor-mouths, 
Fire-squatting punks, food-glutting louts 
 And slouchabouts  
Stay wimping in their septic hole,   
God aims to try the sound and bold  
By cauldron of his cleansing bowl.   
Others keep watch of the household,   
Dig gardens with their little knives  
And I will shame them all their lives.  

In Spain I know Marquis Raimón  
And Templar Knights of Solomon   
  Now bear alone
The cross of pagans' boastful yowl 
So young men wallow in disgrace.  
Denouncement from that bloody bowl   
Pours over every captain's face:   
Broke failures, gutless with the sword,  
Who have no love for joy or sport.  

God damn degenerates of France  
Who shirk the work that God demands.  
  I know how it stands.
Antioch! Here Poitou unconsoled  
And Guyenne mourn the great and bold.  
God, take into Thy holy Bowl  
And lay to rest Lord Baldwin's soul   
And here Poitiers and Niort be safe  
In that Lord who defied the grave.    
Vèrs del Lavador 
Marcabru


Pax in nomine domini 
Fetz Marcabruṉs los motz e·l soṉ  
  Auiatz que di
Com nos a fach per sa dolçor 
Lo senhorius celestials 
Probèt de nos uṉ lavador 
Qu'anc fòr oltramar noṉ fo tals 
En de lai enves Josafatz 
E d'aquest de çai vos conòrt 

Lavar de ser e de matiṉ 
Nos deuriam segon rasoṉ 
  Ièu·s o afi
Chascuṉs a de lavar lesor  
Dementre qu'el es sáṉs e sals 
Deurí' anar al lavador 
Que·ns es verai medicinals 
E si ans anam a la mòrt  
D'aut' estatg' aurem alberc bas  

Mas Escarsetatz e Noṉ-Fes 
Part Joven de soṉ companhoṉ 
  Aquell dòls es 
Que tuch vòlon lai li plusor 
Dont lo gazanhs èr infernals 
S'ans noṉ correm al lavador 
Qu'aiam la boca ni·ls uòlh claus   
No·n i a uṉ d'orguòlh tant gras 
Qu'al morir noṉ tròb contrafòrt 

Que·l sénher que sap tot quant es 
E sap tot quant èr e qu'anc fo 
  Nos a promes 
Coron' e nom d'emperador   
E·l beltatz sera sabençals 
Qu'e cell luiran al lavador 
Plus que l'estella gausinhals 
Amb çò que venguem Dièu del tòrt 
Que·l fan çai e lai ves Domas  

Probèt del linhatge Caïṉ 
Del premairan ome felhoṉ, 
  A tants aici  
Qu'us a Dieu noṉ pòrta honor 
Veirem qui l'èr amics corals 
Qu'amb la vertut del lavador 
Nos sera Jesus comunals 
E tornem los garçoṉs atras 
Qu'en agurs crézon et en sòrt 

E·lh luxuriós cornavíṉ 
Coita-disnar, buffa-tisoṉ 
  Crup'-en-camíṉ 
Remandran ar' e·l felpidor 
E Dieus vòl los arditz e·ls sals 
Assaiar a soṉ lavador 
E cilh gacharan los ostals 
E plantaran lor coltre en l'òrt 
Çò per qu'ièu a lor anta·ls chas 

En Espanha, sai, lo marqués 
E cilh del temple Salamoṉ 
  Sófron lo pes
E·l fais de l'orguòlh paianor 
Per que jovens cuòlh àvol laus 
E·l crims per aquell lavador 
vir' e versa sobre·ls chaptals 
Frach-falhitz de proesa las 
Que non amon jòi ni depòrt 

Desnaturat son li Francés 
Si del afar Dieu dison noṉ 
  Qu'ièu sai com es.
Antiòca! Pretz amb valor 
Çai plora Guian' e Peitaus  
Dièus lo comte a soṉ lavador  
L'arma condug' e meta en paus  
E çai gart Peitièus e Niòrt  
Lo sénher que resors del vas  

Audio of me reciting this poem in Old Occitan



Notes on Text and Translation:

Stanza 1:

Pax In Nomine Domini. The Latin line reads "peace in the name of the Lord" and echoes (but does not reproduce) certain passages from the Bible and liturgy.   

Armageddon's Land. The Occitan passage says the vale of Jehosaphat. Jehosaphat was where it was imagined the battle at the end of days would take place. So too in modern English, Armageddon (Heb. Har Megiddo, "Megiddo Mountain") is associated both with Holy Levantine Geography and with apocalyptic conflict. But note the context of Jehosaphat's appearance in the book of Joel for more profound parallels involving cleansing and streams. See in particular on this point A.H. Schutz' "Marcabru and Jehosaphat" in Romance Notes, Vol. 1, No. 1.

I sing of this one close at hand: Righteous men needn't even seek the Cleansing Bowl of crusade across the sea, for there's an equally important holy war against the Saracens right here to the south.

Stanza 3:

No-Fes: cannot mean "unbelief" in our sense of the term. The targets of invective here are not actually "pagani" like the infidel Mohammedans, but Christians who are delinquent in their holy duty.

Aquel dòls es: ironizing wordplay. That which causes dòls "grief, pity" is the opposite of the near-homophone dolç "sweet, kindly, a sight for sore eyes." Marcabru may himself have pronounced the respective words as /dɔws/ and /dowts/. Or he may not have distinguished the two at all. Regardless,  the very things which a sybarite like Guilhem de Peitieus might find a source of dolçor are rather cause for dolor to a moralizing man like Marcabru.

Stanza 4:

Sabençal: not attested elsewhere in Old Occitan, though the derivation from sabença "wisdom" is straightforward. It is arrived at by Gaunt et. al through inference from copy bungles, and translated by them as "sapiential." I am a bit reluctant to hang the whole basket on what may be an editorial ghost.

Gausinhal: not attested elsewhere in Old Occitan. The phrase "estela gausinhaus" is taken to mean "morning star" and probably has been since the 14th century. Various Latin etymologies have been proposed to this end that connect it with the time of cock-crow. I'm not entirely convinced. Marcabru has another far more transparent term for morning star. The spirit of the passage makes me inclined to infer some more transparent derivation from gauzir. But since I haven't thought of anything specific beyond vague dissatisfaction, I'll leave it as is with its traditional meaning.

Stanza 5: 

Line of Cain: Cf. St. Augustine's De civitate Dei 14.27, also 15.1, 17 and 18 in which he divides the world of men into two generations: those of Cain who live "according to man" and those of Abel who live "according to God."

Stanza 6:

Luxuriós: this word has been previously translated as "lecherous" "lustful" or even "horny." There is no arguing that this is the general sense of the word in Romance. Things like an Old Occitan medicinal recipe for a femna trop luxuriosa attest clearly to this sense of the word in Occitan by the 14th century. For clerics, the word can only be a moralizing one. It occurs in the troubadour corpus only in Marcabru's lyrics, and in only two songs. Once here, and once in Pos mos coratges esclarzis. Interestingly, in neither case does the context require (or even remotely suggest) lechery or lust in a specifically sexual sense. It will not do to simply assume that it meant for Marcabru what it meant elsewhere and in other contexts. I could be wrong. If so, then let the blame fall on Tricia Postle of Pneuma Ensemble who, after much protesting from me, convinced me that the word in this context really ought to refer to more general indulgence in worldly appetites of all sorts. In Latin, luxuriosus can refer both to sexual vice and to more general sumptuary excess characterized by a "womanish" lack of self-control. I have so translated the word here.

The stanza continues with a series of what appears to be highly colloquial coinages. 


Crup-en-cami here translated as "hearth-squatter, fire-squatter" is evocative of the common image in Occitan and Old French literature of vile or baseborn men as squatting over fires. Another meaning of cami though is "road" and one could defensibly interpret it as "roadside bums" or the like.  

Buffa-tiso means literally "brand-blower" i.e. one who fans the firebrand flames. This may be meant to evoke fodder for the flames of Hell. I didn't know how to deal with this exactly in translation, and so I chose to use "punk" as evocative of the colloquial register. I justify this to myself with the fact that the original meaning of punk is "rotten firewood."

Felpidor/folpidor/felpador: this word is attested nowhere else. It is apparently derived from a verb *felpir/folpir/falpar which is not attested anywhere at all. Later manuscripts tended to revise to something more intelligible (like fera pudor "savage stench") and others shift the surrounding language in ways which look like the copyist was trying to guess the meaning from context, or perhaps trying to find a context that would make the meaning more guessable. There is frankly no way to be sure whether it is even a real word, or just a scribal garbling of something else now unrecoverable. The most straightforward explanation for the word's shape is a nominalization of a verb  cognate to French foupir "crumple up", ultimately from Late Latin faluppa which yeilds various nominal forms in old Oïl dialects such as frepe, ferpe, feupe (whence English frippery.) There have been many, many different attempts to resolve the problem. Here the solution proposed by Gaunt et  al. is basically unconvincing to me, relying as it does a chain of speculations, each of which is plausible on its own but which in sum seem rather tortured. The treatment I find most satisfactory from an artistic standpoint is to take felpidor as a singular oblique noun which is in some important sense the opposite of the lavador. Anna M. Mussons in her article Traduir El Vers Del Lavador in which she surveys the various attempts to solve this problem, has I think hit on precisely the right idea in her own concluding thoughts. Her article is extremely useful and deserves to be read and cited more widely (and probably would be if she hadn't written it in Catalan.)

There are lots of possibilities for what could underlie the first word of aqeil felpidor in manuscript a1. Examples include ans e·l, ar e·l or al vil. 

The final two lines of this stanza are badly garbled. Their original meaning was clearly confusing to later audiences and copyists. The solution given here, which I find eminently compelling, is taken entirely from Gaunt et al.

Stanza 7:

Marquis: the Occitan does not name the specific Marquis involved. But everything suggests that Marcabru could only have had in mind Marquis Raymond (Raimón) Berenguer IV of Barcelona, who conducted a campaign against Tortosa and Lerida in 1148-49.

Templars: the Templars of Solomon played a quite important part in the conquests of Tortosa and Lerida

Stanza 8:

Antioch! This word is probably best left as a disconnected exclamation, a reference to Prince Raymond.

Lines 6-7. A literal translation of Dieus lo comte al sieu lavador l'arma conduga e meta en paus would probably be: "God lead the Count's soul to his Cleansing-place and put to rest" with lo comte taken in a syntactically "dative" role. A lectio facilior — which makes for a more resonant poem, I think — would shift the position of the first word in the second line, thus conduga e meta l'arma en paus. Or even meta s'arma en paus. But there is zero manuscript justification for this.   

The main question is how to understand the lavador here. Many, using an edition with different manuscript choices, have interpreted the lavador as referring to the Shrine of Santiago where Count William (Guilhèm) died on pilgrimage. (In that edition the lines translate as "Lord God, into Thy Cleansing-place lay the soul of the count to rest.") But apart from questions of manuscript variant, and apart the fact that William is probably not the count actually referred to, there seems to me to be something a bit off about Marcabru putting a popular pilgrimage site (i.e. the medieval equivalent of a tourist attraction) in the same league as holy purification by the blades of war. Assuming that the text here is (more or less) what Marcabru sang, then the lavador obviously something that comes after death, and therefore not the same thing as the Cleansing Bowl of the crusade. It appears to refer to a process by which the soul is cleansed and purified before being laid to rest in wait for the Last Judgment. The forerunner of the notion of Purgatory. That said, I have translated the passage by taking a reading from the C manuscript which portrays the Lavador as a place in God's possession. Why? It seemed to make for more satisfying English.

Lord Baldwin: The original, as said above, simply refers to an unnamed Count. Many and perhaps most scholars take it to be William VIII of Poitou. But the references to Templars and the Spanish Marquis make it more likely that the song was composed well over a decade after William's death. The other candidate, then, would be Raymond (Ramón) of Antioch. The presence of the word Antiocha in an ambiguous context makes this more appealing. The problem there is that Raymond of Antioch was styled 'prince' and not 'count', a fact that Marcabru was unlikely to fudge or forget given (a) how close his relationship with the Poitevin court seems to have been and (b) that Comte and Prince are metrically equivalent and one wouldn't even have to change the line at all to fit the latter in. The solution followed by Gaunt et al. is that the count referred to is Raymond's brother, Baldwin (Baldoí) of Marash, who died in 1146 in a battle with Nūr al-Dīn Abū al-Qāsim Maḥmūd, the atabeg of Aleppo. This reasoning is further developed by Linda Paterson in "Syria, Poitou and the Reconquista" in The Second Crusade: Scope and Consequences. There is also the possibility that Comte is a manuscript garbling of something else. I have taken the risk of naming Baldwin in the translation, and have also styled him 'lord' rather than 'count.' I do this because it allows dramatic contrast between the dead lord and the resurrected Lord of the following lines. I can justify this to myself because, in English, it is common enough to style medieval continental counts as 'Lord' and also because "Lord" was a title that was used for Baldwin of Marash himself. (And an earl, the British equivalent of a count, is always styled 'Lord' today.)    

Soul: The word Arma has been taken by others here to mean "soul" as it usually does in dirge verse, and I have so translated it. But there is another sense of the word: "weapon." This latter is more commonly, but not exclusively, found in the plural armas. Moreover, the context itself makes the sense "weapon" impossible for me not to hear as well. It wouldn't be the only or even first poetic treatment of a righteous man's soul as being itself an implement of God's battle with the Evil One(s). Weapons and fists, too, are sanctified by holy combat. Cf. St. John Chrysostom telling the Antiochenes to "sanctify your hand with the blow" by assaulting blasphemers. Only a few sentences after proclamations of Christian meekness, in fact. When convenient, Christian meekness is often held, as it were, at arm's length. 

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