Medieval Status Updates I: Love and Heartache

Posted by: Dirk 9 years, 1 month ago

By Dirk Schoenaers

One of MFLCOF’s main objectives is to retrace the trajectories of French texts and MSS throughout Europe and beyond. Palaeographical and art historical data, along with linguistic features and the occasional scribal colophon provide information about centres of production. Alas, our efforts also confirm that in many cases the first or intended owners stay hidden from sight, which produces significant gaps in the descriptions of our MSS’s travels. In my opinion, however, some of the almost inadvertent scribbles of later readers – even if anonymous, and especially when there is no direct connection to the text – are at least, if not more, exciting. In margins and on guardleaves, brief notes reflect the things that occupied these medieval book-owners in their daily lives.

These short messages are not so different from the status updates we share with the world through social media on a daily basis: posted on a whim, not always easy to erase. One major difference is that these medieval messages were possibly not intended to be carelessly distributed to a wider network of friends, co-workers, people-one-might-have-run-into-once-or-twice and other acquaintances of questionable status. If these MSS were indeed shared by a community of readers, this group would probably have been strictly limited. However, centuries have passed and any such privacy settings have expired. What once must have been a fairly intimate medium, today is in the open domain. And apart from the occasional smudge on the page, their posts prove to be infinitely more interesting than the constant parade of plates of food passing by on Facebook.

Among other things, the medieval margin appears to be the domain of those yearning for love and troubled by heartache. This blogpost will present some cases of medieval readers sending out status updates seemingly referring to their (often worrisome) love lives and will further explore the extent to which these allow us to draw inferences about their emotional status.

Paris, BnF 791

A most striking example dated to the end of the 15th c. is found in Paris BnF 791. This MS was manufactured in the 14th c., probably in Paris. It contains the 'Roman d’Alexandre', the vengeance sequel by Jean le Nevelon, and the 'Voeux du paon'. In the blank space on the final page (f. 167rb) a presumably female reader jotted down the following lines:

Mon bel et gracieux amy,
mauee vous obliee ?

Il est en bonne heure ne,
qui tient sa dame en ung pre,
a lerbe jolye

Flere, loqui, nere Deus statuit in muliere!

Together, these lines may give access to the incertitude of a medieval lover. Her message may be paraphrased as ‘Hey baby, have you forgotten about me? You should be so lucky to hold the love of your life in your arms in a beautiful meadow! To weep, waffle and weave, that’s all women are good for!’

Reading this message, is almost like spying on the message wall of a 21st c. lovesick teenage girl. First, she voices a sense of abandonment, after which she underlines her private emotions with lyrics taken from a contemporary pop song (‘Il est de bonne heure né’), and self-pityingly (or rather defiantly?) concludes her sighs with a widely-used commonplace. I should admit, however, that it has become increasingly unlikely that teenage girls would resort to Latin in order to express their discontent.

Together with ‘Amor fait mult’ and ‘Tant que nostre argent dure’, the folksong ‘il est de bon heure né’ appears in a composition that employs three verbal texts at the same time (cf. Hewitt, Harmonice musices odhecaton A, 1942). On stylistic grounds and references in the primary sources, the music has been attributed to late 15th-c. Burgundian composers as Antoine Busnoys, Jean Japart, and Pierre de la Rue, the latter two of whom were also active in Italy (Milan, Ferrara, and Sienna). The song survives in a number of late 15th- and early 16th-c. MS compilations, copied in (Southern) Germany, at the French royal court and from aristocratic libraries in Florence (Braccesi, Marsili, Medici) and Ferrara (Isabelle d’Esté and Gian Francesco Gonzaga). An overview of the copies is available at the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. The song was also included in the 'Odhecaton', an anthology of songs, predominantly in French, but also in Latin, Italian, and Flemish. The compilation was first published by Ottoviano Petrucci in Venice in 1501; an edition dated to 1504 can be accessed through Gallica.

Unfortunately, the wide dissemination of sources, together with the mobility of the composers, does not allow for further identification of our infatuated reader (although the absence of Italianisms may exclude Italian provenance). It is plausible that she grew up in an affluent family, was (to some extent) versed in Latin and was up to speed with contemporary Francophone musical culture. This profile may be different from what one would expect from the stereotypical medieval girl, even in aristocratic circles. If you would like to hear (an approximate rendering of) the music sounding through her head at the time of writing, you can do so here.

Brussels, KBR 9104-05

More or less comparable is a short note on a flyleaf of Brussels, KBR 9104-05, a Parisian MS of the 'Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César' dated to c. 1320. Written by a (male?) reader in the mid-14th c., the annotation references a slightly more fortunate love story:

A adix ma douce dame chiers
ie uous lace le cuers de mi
adiex me dous loay ami
je le resoy a li chiere

Most probably, these four lines were also taken from contemporary popular song. However, in this instance, it is less clear since the lyrics were copied as one long phrase. The snippet, preserved here almost by accident, presents a dialogue between two lovers taking leave of each other (I thank Jane Gilbert for this suggestion, and the pleasant discussion about these verses):

[Male voice] A adix ma douce dame chiers / Ie uous lace le cuers de mi
[female reply] Adiex me dous loay ami / Je le resoy [a…] li chiere

The translation below attempts to make sense of the (hypothetical) gap in the last line.

Farewell my sweet and lovely lady, I leave you my heart
Farewell my sweet and loyal friend, I receive ?and hold? it dear

The Je chante ung chant database did not yield an exact match for these lyrics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the musical climate of imitation, emulation, reformulation and reply, similar phrases occur in the compositions of anonymous as well as well-known 14th-c. musicians, such as Guillaume Machaut. Until a complete version turns up, I suppose we will have to do with this short preview.

In this case the motivation for sharing may have been slightly less personal. Since the annotator does not provide further context or give a clear indication of his frame of mind, the note – which is possibly just a probatio pennae – may echo a song that the reader particularly liked or, by contrast, one that – much to his dismay – kept playing through his head. In this view, this kind of action is probably better compared to liking a video on youtube or posting it to your wall.

Paris, BnF 747

A final example that deserves mention here is Paris, BnF 747, a Northern French copy of the 'Estoire', 'Merlin', and its 'Suite', dated to c. 1220-1250. On f. 87r, written in the right margin in a 15th-c. hand, we read the following, slightly mutilated quatrain:

Je vous vans [de] /chesne la feu[ille] / - je pry au d[ieu] / damours qui[l] / vueille en v[ostre] /cuer esc(ri)pre [ce] que je pense [et] /nose dyre.

[I offer for sale the leaf of the oak tree / (Reply) I pray the God of Love that he would / write into your heart / what I think but do not dare speak aloud]

In the lower margin of f. 117r., copied in the same hand, is the beginning of a similar message: ‘je uous uans la rose’. Both annotations are ‘ventes d’amour’ or ‘jeux à vendre’, lyrical records of improvisation games, which were extremely popular in well-to-do circles between the 14th and 16th c.

Emma Cayley has characterized the ‘jeu à vendre’ as:

[…] a poetic female-male exchange, in which a lady or a gentleman offered a symbolic flower, bird or object for sale to her/his fe/male interlocutor, and s/he was expected to respond with another line or lines of verse, respecting the rhyme sequence; failure to respond, or repetition, might result in a forfeit being imposed. (Cayley, Debate and Dialogue, p. 39)

As Cayley also notes, one of the most famous authors of these ‘ventes’ or ‘venditions’ was Christine de Pizan. Seventy of her ‘jeux’ have been preserved in manuscript compilations and were published by Maurice Roy in the Oeuvres poétiques (1886). In fact, the note on f. 117 may record the incipit (the ‘offer’) of one of her ‘ventes’, ‘Je vous vens la rose de may’ (n. 37, p. 197) or ‘Je vous vens la rose d’artois’ (n. 51, p. 200).

37. Je vous vens la rose de may

Je vous vens la rose de may
- Oncques en ma vie m’amay
Autant dame ne damoiselle
Que je fais vous, gente pucelle,
Si me retenez a ami,
Car tout avez le cuer de mi.

[I offer for sale the rose of May / (Reply) Never in my life have I loved / As much a lady or a girl / As I do you, noble maid / So take me as your lover/ Because my heart is totally yours]

51. Je vous vens la rose d’Artois

Je vous vens la rose d’Artois
- Amez honneur, soiez courtois,
Bien servez en toute saison,
Et des biens arez a foison.

[I offer for sale the rose of Artois / (Reply) Love honour, be courteous / Serve well at every occasion / and many good things will come to you]

At this point, it is uncertain (if not unlikely) that the ‘vendition’ on f. 87 was originally composed by our annotator, or with a performance in mind. A close cognate of the quatrain, with small variants only in the last line, appears in 'Les adevineaux amoureux', a miscellany of amorous games, which in the printed edition (cf. below) was addressed to chevaliers, escuiers, dames and damoiselles.

Ie vous vens du chesne la feuille
Ie prie au dieu damour quil veille
Dedens vo cuer mettre et escripre
Ce que le mien pense et desire

The 'Adevineaux' survive in three 15th c. manuscripts, two of which (Chantilly, Musée Condé 654 [1572] and Wolfenbuettel, Herzog-Augustbibliothek, 2873 - Augustei 84.07 fo) were illustrated by the so-called Master of the Chattering Hands, and thus can be placed in Bruges, c. 1470-1490. The Chantilly MS usually is dated to c. 1470. The 'Adevineaux' are also extant in two printed editions, published by Colard Mansion at Bruges, c. 1480. In the edited versions, the prologue mentions that ‘le noble et gentil cheualier seigneur de la Marche’ (Olivier de la Marche, 1425-1502) provided ‘aucunes demandes et responses moult honnestes’ to the compilation, without further specifying the extent of his contribution. The rubric in the Chantilly MS refers to ‘venditions en amours jadis trouvees et compillees par gentilz coeurs amoureuz’ (Hassell, Amorous Games, 1974).

The 'Adevineaux' anthology also records the ‘vendition’ of a ruby rose, the ‘offer’ of which in part resembles that in the note on BnF 747, f. 117, again, with a minor variant reading:

Ie vens la rose vermeillette
- Qui bien liroit en se feuillette
Il trouueroit en bonne lettre
Que damoiselle qui bien aime
En grant deduit sa vie maine

[I present for sale the ruby rose / (reply) who reads closely between its leaves / will find clearly spelled out / that those women who love well / spend their lives in great pleasure]

It also seems fair to question the status of the ‘chesne la feuille’ vendition as the record of an actual performance of ‘offer’ and ‘reply’. Whether or not it was copied from the 'Adevineaux' or another anthology does not really matter here. Indeed, the quatrain betrays the influence of Christine de Pizan’s work, or in any event experiments with phrases and conventions that are also found there. Apart from the origin of the leaf offered for sale, the first two lines – including the ‘offer’ and the first part of the ‘reply’– are identical to Christine’s ‘jeu’ n. 11 (p. 190), whereas the conclusion of the answer seems to be indebted to ‘jeu’ n. 5 (p. 188). Compare below (italics mine)

11. Je vous vens du rosier la fueille

Je vous vens du rosier la fueille
- Je pri au dieu d’amours qu’il vueille
Briefment m’ottroier tant de grace
Qu’acquerir puisse vostre grace

[I offer for sale the leaf of the rose bush / (Reply) I pray the God of Love that he would / Shortly grant me enough grace / that I could win your favour]

5. Je vous vens la fleur de mellier

Je vous vens la fleur de mellier
- Sire joly chevalier
Telle pour vous souvent souspire
Qui vous aime et ne l’ose dire

[I offer for sale the flower of the medlar / (Reply) Lord, my beautiful knight / So much and often do I yearn for you / I love you but not dare not tell]

Then again, it may also be too rash to argue that this ‘vente’ was directly influenced by Christine’s compositions. It is probable that in their practical performance, these games were highly formulaic, meaning that sequences of rhymes could be construed as adjacent pairs: a particular rhyming word (e.g. ‘feuille’) may have triggered an appropriate answer (‘Je pri etc.’) taken from tradition. Additionally, given that participants were expected to think on their feet, some rehearsal with pre-prepared examples was probably called for. Quite possibly, this is how Christine’s ‘venditions’ and those recorded in contemporary compilations, among them the slightly later 'Adevineaux', should be understood: as sources of inspiration for those playing the game (cf. also Lazard, Ventes et demandes, p. 136). This would also presume that in practice, the same phrases could recur in different combinations.

Given the difficulty of establishing the exact chronology of the notes in the Estoire-Merlin manuscript and the first appearance of this ‘vente’ in anthologies, it is hard to interpret what exactly is going on here. Did the reader copy a ‘vendition’ from an anthology and also recorded the incipit of another? Was he/she preparing for a future game and trying out a dialogue of ‘sale’ and ‘reply’ which was based on traditional materials, possibly inspired by the examples of Christine de Pizan? In this instance the note on f. 117 may have been an ‘offer’ he/she intended to make, awaiting an appropriate reply at a later occasion. Or did both annotations call to mind the memory of a pleasurable evening? On our Facebook page, Emma Cayley has suggested that the ‘vente’ may have been left in the manuscript for a next reader to see, which could imply that the improvisation game was transferred from the ‘real’ world onto parchment. Such an interpretation would then further corroborate the notion of the MS page as a social medium. At the end of the day, we have to admit most prosaically that we just do not know.That the 15th-c. owner of BnF 747 was aware of the tradition of ‘ventes d’amour’ again places him or her in well-to-do circles that engaged in this kind of social recreation. The production of the 'Adevineaux' MSS and prints may point towards a Burgundian audience in Bruges, but, again, that is not certain.


Rather than telling us something about the emotional lives of these medieval book-owners, their annotations inform us about the cultural contexts in which they moved. Only in the first example do we seem to get some deeper background (‘I feel abandoned’) for the scribbles that follow. Does this mean that the notes in the other two MSS are entirely unrelated to the feelings of the annotators? We cannot tell, but it is very tempting to misinterpret them as the residue of private thought. Given that these brief messages primarily reflect the cultural influences to which our readers were exposed, for the time being, it seems safer to read them as ‘likes’ rather than intimate and emotional status updates.