Little Quote of the Day: Fetchez la vache

urineBeen quiet around these parts. Here’s a placeholder QOTD to supplement our various posts on heterogeneity and the English past (for example, here and here).

While browsing in a library, I ran across Bernard Ribémont’s modern French translation of Jean Corbechon’s Middle French version of Bartholomew the Englishman’s De proprietatibus rerum. My curiosity did not disappoint me when I wondered what Jean would have to say about England.

We have the usual descriptions of England taken from Bede, but then Jean hits a snag: a wild praise of England as a land so rich that it needs nothing from other lands, a land whose people are generous, honest, fun loving, and then–you can just see him throwing his quill down in disgust–he declares that there’s just too much to summarize and that the work praises England rather too much. It is 1372, after all. He then writes:

… il croit louer son pays et, en fait, il le blâme, car il dit que les Anglais descendent des Géants tout d’abord, puis de Brutus et des Troyens, enfin des Saxons. En disant ainsi, il en fait des bâtards en leur donnant plusieurs pères. Et puis il parle très imparfaitement de cette question, car il oublie la conquête faite par le duc Guillaume et les Normands, qui conquirent l’Angleterre si vaillamment qu’il en reste encore les traces dans les armoiries et les coutumes. Cela ne doit par être oublié, car il y a moins de honte à avoir été conquis par les Français ou les Normands que par les Saxons. (238)

He believes that he is praising his country, and in fact, he is scorning it, because he says that the English descended from giants first of all, then from Brutus and the Trojans, and then finally from the Saxons. In saying so, he makes them bastards by giving them several fathers. Moreover, he speaks very imperfectly on this issue, because he forgets the conquest of Duke William and the Normans, who conquered England so valiantly that there are still traces [of the conquest? of the Normans?] in the heraldry and customs of England. This should not be forgotten because there is less shame in having been conquered by the French or the Normans than by the Saxons.

(image taken from here)

Postscript: ALK just asked me, “Are there medieval accounts of boring people? Like some monk writing about another monk who was really boring.” I had to say that I didn’t know. Any suggestions?


I just noticed that the Ribémont trans lists the original translator as Jean Corbechon; Columbia’s library gives the original as Jean Corbichon. Go figure. Judging by Yale’s holdings, which I just checked, the only printed editions of Corbichon (sp?) are early modern. Can’t figure out easily how to get at Cambridge’s library catalog.

And I think it’s rather hard to come by a modern edition of the Bartholomew, too. I found the 1495 edition of Wynken de Worde (an English translation: Trevisa’s?) through Early English Books Online. Here’s a rough transcription of some of the section on England and a summary of other bits:

And then the Britons “overcame the Gyauntes both wyth crafte & wyth strength & conqueryd the ylonde & callyd the londe Brytayne by the name of Brute that was prynce of the hoste. & in the ylonde hyghte Brytayne as it were an ylonde conqueryd of bruite & tyme wyth armes & wyth myghte (transcription off?). Of thys Bruites offprynge [sic] came kynges. And whoever hathe lykynge to knowe theyr dedes rede the story of Bruite.

And longe tyme after the Saxons wanne the ylonde with many & dyuers harde batayles & stronge & theyr offprynge had possessyon after them of the ylonde & the Brytons were slayne or exylyd. And Saxons departed ylonde amonge theim & gave every provynce a name by the propryte of his owne name and nacion. And therfore they cleppyd the ylonde Anglia by the name of Engelta the quene, the worthyest Duke of Saxons doughter that had the ylonde possessyon after many bataylles.

[then we get Isidore and England from Angulo and being in the corner of the world, and then St Gregory from Bede and the Angels. And then Pliny. And a discussion of the natural resources: many harts and wild beasts, few wolves or none, so therefore many sheep. And then we get the passage that so annoyed Jean, which I took as a screen shot, available here]

Short version of all this: so far as I can determine, I don’t know (yet) why Corbe/ichon presented matters as he did.

Oh, should have made this clear. Brutus is a Trojan in this Middle English version, who comes to Albion (so called from white rocks alongside the sea). Doesn’t say where the giants come from (so no sense here of Des grantz geanz tradition). Also there is in fact nothing about William the Conqueror. Perhaps it’s because Barth is interested (or pretends interest) in only how England got its various names: how it went from Albion, to Britain, to England. William, with such an interest in stressing continuity, never renamed the island, so he doesn’t rate in Barth’s history. That’s just a guess.

And it does seem that Jean thinks of the Normans as French! I can see a reason for this in the 1370s, but it’s still rather funny, given his low opinions of Nordic/Saxon types.

No romans or vikings. But again, it’s sort of hard to get at a complete Latin De proprietatibus. The one I use in my diss is a 1601 edition reprinted by Minerva Press in Frankfurt in 1964. Not ideal, but that might be all there is. However, if anyone knows better than I know (and I’m sure 100s do), Bernard Ribémont does.

There’s been discussion of this matter here before (here and here) that seems to dovetail with what I’m about to say: Corbe/ichon (I keep wanting write it ‘Cornichon’) knows that conquest does not necessarily = extirpation. Conquest can = humiliation (hence the outrage over omitting 1066, since this is the moment when ‘France’ humiliated ‘England’), but there’s also a recognition (?) that inhabiting the land means contamination/interbreeding/however they might have thought it. Brutus and his men could not have utterly destroyed the giants; therefore, they must have interbred with them.

I would say that Corbe/ichon would take this approach because he’s writing in France, where so far as I know there is no tradition of successive genocides and dispersals. He’s necessarily going to have a different reading on the conquest of Britain, then, than British writers.

At the same time, I don’t want to obscure the possibility that Corbe/ichon is simply ‘forgetting’ the history (which he would have known perfectly well from the various Bruts floating around) in order to insult the (14th-century) English as bastards.

Brandon: I like the connections you’re making, but my sense is that Corbe/ichon isn’t doing what Snorri’s doing. Assuming for a moment that there’s a more or less clean break between pagan and Xian, would I be right is saying that the pagan ‘past’ is much closer to Snorri than it is to a late fourteenth-century Frenchman? We might think of the pagan ‘past’ for 14-15c French as a textual past that is also a textual present but in no way a material present. That is, it’s not Gaulish/Celtic/Whatever, but classical, derived not from hoi polloi but from Vergil and Ovid; the textual paganism is not ‘their own,’ i.e., it’s classical mythology. There’s still a kind of anxiety, but it’s all a textual anxiety. So we have a strong Euhemerist tradition in, say, the Ovide Moralise, the Epistre Othea, and so forth, in which they’re talking to other readers, not to possible worshippers. The instances of people taking the classical myths literally, i.e., believing that these classical gods are real, are self-conscious revivals rather than, say, rememberings, as they would have been in Scandinavia. For example, this:

Vilgard at Ravenna c. 970:

“At that time also, mischief not unlike the above appeared at Ravenna. A certain man named Vilgard occupied himself with more eagerness than constancy in literary studies, for it was always the Italian habit to pursue these to the neglect of the other arts. Then one night when, puffed up with pride in the knowledge of his art, he had begun to reveal himself to be more stupid than wise, demons in the likeness of the poets Vergil, Horace, and Juvenal appeared to him, pretending thanks for the loving study which he devoted to the contents of their books and for serving as their happy herald to posterity. They promised him, moreover, that he would soon share their renown. Corrupted by these devilish deceptions, he began pompously to teach many things contrary to holy faith and made the assertion that the words of the poets deserved belief in all instances” (Heresies of the High Middle Ages 73)

Compare this to, say, Scandinavian law codes (the Book of Gragas, the codes discussion by Anne Irene Riisoy, &c.), which make a point of forbidding pagan practices such as placating trolls &c. And these codes date, iirc, from the 12-14th c.. Quite late. In contrast, there’s the anti-pagan material in penitentials on the Continent like Burchard of Worms, but this is (almost?) entirely early 11th c. and earlier. – See more at: