Sunday, January 04, 2009

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know III: Within

For this installment, I finally blog the piece that actually inspired the series! It was this poem I had in mind, but then I ran into the Worcester Fragment and was thinking a lot about it and so blogged that instead, and then I've spent the last several months on the beast, in which Worcester Frag A makes an appearance, and voila...the first two installments in the series were done. So here I return to a piece of literature that I dearly love and want to return to and write on.

More than 20 years ago now I had opportunity to take part in a course called Medieval Latin Poetry. I was already at that point thinking about grad schools and being a medievalist and how to go about that. The professor for the course advised me not to do it through a Classics dept, which was what I was thinking at the time. Anyway, one of the poems we read that semester was this one, what I personally call the Within poem, after the main character in the tale. It is technically called De quodam piscatore quem ballena absorbuit, About a Certain Fisherman Whom a Whale Swallowed.

The poem is written by a French monk named Letaldus in the late 10th century. Letaldus is a well known figure, attached to abbeys Le Mans and Micy. He entered the latter c. 960-970 (making him a contemporary of Aelfric by the way). He is best known for a series of hagiographical pieces, the first written between 970-980, the Miracula S. Maximini. In this work, he wove together a story out of previous lives of Maxminus and Carolingian era documents regarding the foundation of the house at Micy and told his story in such a way as to try to wrest Micy from the control of the bishops of Orleans. Some of his works are available here. He also wrote a life of Martin of Vertou, on St. Junianus, a heroic poem titled Versus de eversione monasterii Glomnensis, and other works. Overall his career is marked by concerns for monastic rights over against bishops and secular lords and the cult of saints and saints' lives, often using the latter to say something about the former. He even led a rebellion of sorts against Robert of Blois that Abbo of Fleury disdained calling Letaldus the "head" of the stiinking affair. It was unsuccessful.

In the midst of all this politicking and attempts to establish monastic rights in France, Letaldus writes this tale about a fisherman swallowed by a whale. The story is a fairly simple one: an English fisherman named Within from Rochester sets about his business one day in his coracle. Its a routine day of fishing in the channel, until that is Within and his coracle are swallowed by a whale. For four days and five nights the poor fisherman tries to free himself, eventually setting fire to his boat and grabbing his sword, he kills the whale. The whale washes up miraculously near Rochester, and the villagers come out to get a free meal of whale meat. Within cries out to the townspeople, and they think the whale is possessed of a demon, flee, and fetch the priest. The priest comes, performs an exorcism, and then Within is allowed to tell his story. In the scene when the priest is trying to figure out what's up, he asks who is within and the answer is "Within" which naturally causes all sorts of confusion and misunderstanding. Once all is straightened out, the townspeople free Within by cutting the whale open, and the fisherman emerges bald, blind, and his fingernails protrude, the skin having been eaten away in the whale's belly. But he shortly recovers his hair, sight, and skin and returns to a normal life.

Its a charming, graceful little poem. 208 dactylic hexameters tell the story. Its a mock heroic epic and alludes to the Aeneid and other Latin epics frequently, as well as the obvious Jonah connections. Letaldus creates then a "high literary" tale reserved usually for high matters, kings, national importance etc, and in stead applies all that "high literary" toolbox to a humble fisherman with the unlikely name Within from Rochester. The disjunction and the obvious Old English pun on the name create the humor in the piece that the author claims to have heard.

The audience is obviously one familiar with both oral traditions and stories and with the Bible and Latin epics. Not only told in dactylic hexameters and referring to Latin epic, Letaldus also employs leonine rhymes in imitation of oral poetry.

The poem survived in two manuscripts: one a twelfth century and the other an eleventh century. The 12th century manuscript was destroyed in a fire in 1940. In the 11th century, the piece survives after a copy of Bede's Ecclesiastical History. It's a lovely little poem. In my next post, I'll outline some of the things I've been thinking about it. Well, the PEAA awards need to be compiled first, then a return to Within!


Anonymous said...

That sounds fascinating! Letaldus is one of my "I wish I could split a bottle of wine with this person" figures, along with Eriguena and Gerbert of Rheims. What a career, and what a time to have it!

Anonymous said... is very pleasant to read. The article is very professionally written. I enjoyed reading keep it that way.

medievalkarl said...

Huh, this is hilarious. I accidentally ran across Ziolkowski's 1984 Viator article on this while scanning Valerie Flint's Antipodes article, and after reading, I tracked down what's been done on it since '84. Which led me here (and to your follow up post).

Cool. This poem looks GREAT.

I'm guessing a lot of the older sources Ziolkowski cites are available on google books.

theswain said...

Thanks Karl! I have 2 or 3 ideas in process for this poem and it really is a great little piece.