Without hair, without skin

The early summer is a season for nostalgia, and though I claim to be a man of the thirteenth century, I find myself dwelling in the twelfth — with Hugh Primas, the French poet, who shared the coffee with me on balconata this morning. The surname is something ludicrous he appended to himself, like a silly hat. He was first among none, except perhaps a little batch of poets on the road; an ordained secular, but rather dodgy Catholic; a Kerouac of the 1140s.

Those were the days, when France in all her cathedral splendour was poor and suffered famines somewhere almost every year. A major function of the Church in cities was caring for the homeless — blundering in from the countryside, wherever crops had failed. But caring also for the learned, the wandering scholars, making their pilgrimages to the college centres of Chartres, Reims, Tours, Paris, Bourges, or to the famous letter-writing school at Orléans, rich with discussion of poetic theory.

News travelled the roads in those days as this, including the scandals that the poets satirized. The virtues of humility and obedience were everywhere promoted, and flouted, too; justice and honesty available, ditto — but always at a price, chiefly to their dispensers. They had spineless bishops, just as we do; the rich had trophy wives, as faithless as ours; they had smug “beautiful people,” with stalkers; there were homosexual subcultures, only half in the closet; and sexual crimes in the highest places; they had corrupt self-serving bureaucrats, and simoniac clergy; they had disaffected youff. People drank a lot. You don’t need newspapers for this: it was all in the poems, and in poets like Hugh, and others liquidly bilingual in chant-musical Latin and the manfully accentuated vulgar tongues.

They had everything to make ourselves at home in the 1140s — even some indoor plumbing, after a fashion, and the midday racket of commerce in the towns. But along with the background poverty — a bit like India from the hippie traveller days — they had also breathtaking visions of Christ, and heroic aspirations to Heaven, that we don’t much see any more.

I think that I might settle for the poverty alone, for food to the hungry tastes better than to the full, and life is more vivid in the heat and cold. In my rather free and inept paraphrase:

Poor cloak, without hair, without skin,
Be my guard against storm and north wind,
My shield against the piercing cold,
Let the two of us make our stand, bold …

But the cloak replies, that with nor fur nor wool, it cannot stop a javelin.

(“We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win,” as John Berryman used to say, in the days when he was still grinning sometimes.)

Coffee with Hugh Primas, and Peter of Blois, brought together in one tome of the Dumbarton Oaks series by the Harvard University Press (2010). That series of delicious brown books, properly stitched on smooth cream paper, makes up for a lot of nonsense at Harvard, and may I recommend that my wealthier gentle readers go buy them all before the winter sets in. (Then please, send the change to me.)