Saturday, 27 September 2008


I'm currently reading Barbara Newman's Frauenlob's Song of Songs: A Medieval German Poet and his Masterpiece. (This is for fun: the current non-fun book is German for Reading Knowledge. I've got to the stage where I really have to read German to cut it as a Celticist.)

Frauenlob, or 'Praise of Ladies', (c. 1260-1318) was the stage-name of Heinrich von Meissen, a spectacularly skilled minstrel. His masterpiece is a 500-line poem in 20 stanzas called the Marienleich, a long, ecstatic paean of praise to the Virgin Mary.

Newman - one of the world's most outstanding medieval scholars - has a professional interest in the manifold ways in which feminine imagery was deployed in medieval literature, musical, theology and devotion. Frauenlob's astonishing poem is a superb text for such a scholar to work on; as Newman says in the preface, 'To understand the Marienleich...we must first remember and then forget everything we thought we knew about the medieval cult of the Virgin, for the poem is at once a brilliant consummation of a preexisting genre, the Marienlob (or 'Marian praise'), and a theological and philosophical statement that goes far beyond anything that mainstream devotion, or indeed orthodox theology, had yet conceived.' She provides a text, translation, and a wonderfully lucid commentary, as well as a rich and broad introduction to the poet and his contexts. The book is also accompanied by an hour-long CD of the Marienleich being performed by the Ensemble Sequentia.

The imagery used to praise the Virgin in the poem is drawn from the Sapiential books of the Old Testament, in which God's personified, feminine Wisdom praises herself, but also from the secular lyricism of courtly love, the imagery of 'Natura' in medieval philosophy, the lush, erotic sweetness of Song of Songs and its allegorising commentaries, and the Book of Revelation. It betokens an enormous depth of learning on the part of the poet.

It is also a profoundly perfumed, iridescent work, in which Mary comes for all intents and purposes to be represented as a Christian Goddess, the eternal partner of the Trinity itself. Near the midpoint of the poem, the heavenly Lady declares Ich got, sie got, er got, 'I [am] God, they [are] God, he [is] God', presumably referring to herself, the Trinity, and her son. Later in the poem, she is explicitly said to possess both a human and a divine nature, like Christ. The proclamation of Mary's divinity is wildly heterodox, '[n]o matter how thoroughly divinized the medieval Virgin was in practice', as Newman says. Frauenlob's Marienleich is therefore a fascinating document suggesting how far Marian hyperdulia might stray into latria in the mind of one of her most enraptured devotees at the turn of the 14th century. Below you'll find stanzas 9 and 11 of this wonderful poem; I recommend the book highly.

* * *

I am the great and chosen Lady,
my will is ripe, my desire is mighty.
For fervent love I must unbar
the lattice of my cloister door -
my love all passionate drew near.
His hand caressed me, wet with dew -
O taste of honey through and through!
I ate the comb
and drank the foam
then came back home.
My God, such bliss!
What's the harm in this?

I the weasel bore the ermine
that bit the snake. With moring dew
I split the hard rock of the curse.
My divining rod, unforked,
crushed the heads of hell's black vermin.
When the palm tree of the Cross
saw me, it reddened without dye.
Speak, wise Adam, noble friend,
and tell how I
have come to end
your ancient blight -
I the Maid, by a mother's right.

11. The smith from the high country
hurled his hammer in my womb
and forged seven sacraments.
I carried him who carries earth and sky
and yet am still a maid.
He lay in me and left me without labor.
Most certainly
I slept with Three -
till I grew pregant with God's goodness,
pierced by sweetness upon sweetness.
My ancient lover kissed me,
let this be said:
I gazed at him and made him young -
then all the heavenly hosts were glad.
(The proud Maid's praises must be sung -
let none take it ill!)
He said my breasts were sweeter than wine
and drank his fill -
my Beloved is mine.

How intimate he was with me,
locked in my little room!
Who will lead me to the lily dell
where my courtly lover hid so well?
I am the high court's chamber
where they heard the case of Eva's fall -
I, the echo hall.
Dear friends, remember:
in the music of my dawn, I awoke exalted song;
from ancient night I bring the morn.
I am the Grail
that healed the noble king's great woe.
With my milk I nursed the hero
from the violet vale:
he gave me the antlers of a deer
to drive the curse out of the tent.
I pierced the ancient punishment
with awls, and broke the Fall's
inveterate snare.

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