Valentine’s Day Vernacular Poetry Reading

This past 14 February, the Medieval Studies Department hosted their first Valentine’s Day poetry reading. In the spirit of the day, all selections discussed, in some capacity, the nature of love and its effect on the human beings fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to find themselves in its throes. From the pure love of God to the often controversial love felt between human beings, the poems and songs performed provided a wide range of perspectives of a state of being infamous for its eluding a clear definition in any known language.
It is perhaps this very elusiveness that makes the performance of Mohammad Alsidi so apt as the first given of the evening. A masterful player of the Oud, a stringed instrument originating from Ur, Alsidi performed old Aleppan music often played during the day in Sufi circles while conversations and discussion of the scripture and current events were echoing through the courtyards. While the melodies Alsidi played could be accompanied by lyric or chant, he played the pieces as they were taught to him: without vocal accompaniment. Each pluck of a string composed a wordless prayer in praise to God, proclaiming love for Him. Having roots in the region around Aleppo that stretch back nearly two millennia, these melodies, in a myriad of different forms, can be heard wherever Aleppans have strode, from India to Venezuela. Alsidi, himself a native of the region around Aleppo, played these beautiful pieces with a bittersweet tone. These melodies, like so much of Aleppo and, indeed, much of Syria, are being lost in the civil war. These songs, and the hands that can play them and the voices that can sing them, are dying. Alsidi said that he plays in order to have these pieces still heard in the world, so that we might not deafen ourselves to what is being lost while it is still here to be recorded, preserved, and enjoyed.
The next poem was Guido Cavalcanti’s “Voi che per gli occhi mi passaste il core,” delivered by Dr. Susana Barsella. A friend of Dante, Guido presented love as beautiful and uplifting, but ultimately ending in a “language of sighs.” Dr. Emanuel Fiano recited St. Ephrem’s “Hymn III: On Paradise.” Dating to the fourth century, this Syriac piece discussed the choice given to Adam and Eve over whether or not to eat of the forbidden fruit. Needless to say, their story does not end on a happy note: a reasonably consistent theme of this Valentine’s Day celebration. Next was Father Martin Chase’s recitation of lausavisur from the Old Norse Kormáks Saga. Kormák’s Saga, a prose tale with occasional segments of Skaldic song, also presents us with a narrative filled with less Cupid floating through a tranquil grove and more facing the difficulties that come with loving another over a prolonged period of time, albeit under less then mundane circumstances. However, the segment Father Chase read was one toward the beginning of the tale, when the lovers meet for the first time: a happy affair in which Kormákr fell in love at the first sight of Steingerðr’s ankles and feet.
The final three poetic readings were given by Drs. Jocelyn Wogan-Brown, Susanne Hafner, and Andrew Albin. Saying that God might deserve a Valentine’s Day gift too, Dr. Wogan-Brown presented the Old French “Rossignos” of John of Howden. Dating to the 1270s, Dr. Wogan-Brown related that this piece was written in such a way that the audience was meant to participate in its recitation, and the poetic sophistication of the piece itself shows just how intricate and elegant the Old French of England is. Dr. Hafner read “Unter der linden,” by Walther von der Vogelveide. This poem was originally set to music, though the music has been lost. Of the “dawn song” genre, “Unter der linden” presents a woman, rather than a man, reflecting upon a night of shameless sensual indulgence with her lover after he had to flee the next morning. Utilizing a number of overt euphemisms, the poem intentionally walks the line between descent and indecent evocation of a night spent in ecstasy. On that note, Dr. Albin finished the evening with a spirited reading of Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls,” carrying on the theme of love being suspended between fulfillment and denial. This parliament, consisting of numerous and diverse types of birds, eagerly awaiting their dismissal from the assembly so they could fly off with their lovers, undoubtedly reminded all present of the agony of having to fulfill an obligation while one’s true desire lay just within reach. Love may be fulfilling, but no one ever said it would be easy to endure.
The Centre would like to graciously thank all who participated in this inaugural Valentine’s Day poetry reading and those who attended and experienced examples of nearly every kind of human reaction to this eternally problematic notion of love. Here’s hoping we, as humans, never actually manage to figure it out.

The Sounds of Anglo-Norman at Fordham University

This week at the Venerable Blog, we are excited to introduce the audio content newly added to the webpage of the Center’s French of England Project. Through the efforts of Thelma Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, as well as Matthew Schottenfeld, Television Production Manager at Fordham, the Project’s site now hosts nine audio readings of texts in Anglo-Norman, all part of an ongoing collaborative enterprise “to make the French of England audible.” 

french of outremer thumbnail (1)The first five readings were recorded informally, by various voices, during the Reading the French of England Aloud sessions at the Kalamazoo International Congresses of 2012/13. Four others were recorded especially for Fordham’s French of England Project by Professor Emerita Alice Colby-Hall (Cornell University), a leading expert in the pronunciation of the medieval French dialects and of the Anglo-Norman language.  Professor Colby-Hall also provides linguistic commentary. Each entry contains citations of a modern edition and translation, manuscript references, and a link to the external audio file. We encourage you to practice your Anglo-Norman aloud as the text scrolls past, or simply to listen along with us to these clear and instructive readings. The audio readings can be found here, at the French of England Project.

french of outremer thumbnail (1)

British Library Egerton MS 3028 f. 64r

These audio readings are only one aspect of the French of England Project. We also conduct a biweekly Anglo-Norman Reading Group. This semester, it is led by Dr. Thomas O’Donnell of Fordham’s English Department and Dr. Brian Reilly, an Old French specialist in Fordham’s Modern Languages and Literatures Department.Anyone interested in participating in the ANRG should contact the Center for Medieval Studies at medievals@fordham.edu. We will be happy to provide you with the date and time of the next meeting and the material to be discussed.

Our next blog post will discuss the June conference to be held at Fordham University, stemming from the Latin Works of John Wyclif site. Visit Fordham’s searchable database of primary Wyclif texts to brush up before next time!