Mayhem in the Margins

April is National Poetry Month.

This hilarious article about medieval monks and marginalia is a distant yet familiar reminder about the hard work that writing involves. No matter the language, time period, or culture, the act of writing has always involved sitting and using the hands in some way. They wrote with a quill, a fountain pen, while we type with our fingers, although one can argue that in modern cultures we know that we can thumb our way through communication the way a Sumerian used a stylus on his tablet. He fell into the Euphrates River on his worst day, possibly munched on by an crocodile, whereas we mindlessly thumb our next email in shorthand on sidewalks and into intersections to get killed by traffic. Those before us wrote on parchment, while we write on electrons sent over the ether. There was a day when we men sat and copied out books by hand. If that seems archaic, you’ll enjoy this old tv commercial.

In our world of extremes and of anachronistic thinking we expect ancient manuscripts to have Dan Brown mysteries encoded in the illuminations or that there will be some arcane Umberto Eco mystery behind them. I’m sure that legions of fans think that the sexy outfit that Xena wore had been all the rage in ancient Greece or that all the Spartan warriors had abs of bronze. Sometimes a poem is just a poem. As the professor in Dead Poet’s Society says, it is about being a member of the human race and contributing our verse before we are meals for worms.

The article about the medieval monks opened up with a thoroughly modern (and sustaining) image of the writer: “bored data entry workers of their day.” Substitute Call Center desk jockey or latte-foam specialist by day and writer by night. To be accurate, medieval monks were copyists; but is it not a tiny act of rebellion to discover some semblance of creativity, an act of scriptorial defiance in the marginalia across the Ages? Think of the books that you have read in print or on your Kindle that had errors. They were errors and not a joke from the person who made you the copy of the book that you were reading. There is a difference between a genuine error and dastardly snickering. The closest we get is the odd thrill of buying a used book and discovering through underlining and notes that the previous owner saw things in the text that we might not ourselves, or finding a love letter. I recently bought a copy of a book of Rilke’s poems to discover, upon opening it, an inscription and a letter written in German by a woman whom I had actually met once because she had been dating one of my professors. What are the odds? The inscription and letter were not to my professor.

I digress…It is likely that an error in a printed text today is nothing more than an unintended marring in the transmigration of text from Microsoft Word to Adobe PDF to some desktop-publisher application in a workshop. The “rogue agent” in your spy adventure has suddenly become the “rouge agent.” Dyslexia and the risible — the unwritten doctoral dissertation.

But as the article demonstrated, the medieval person, our monkish scribe, probably suffered in his dank scriptorum with the Lindisfarnian winds howling outside his walls. He probably had a bad back, splinters in his ass, poor eyesight, wasn’t union, and, in the end, probably lost most of his eyesight due to poor lighting. Cue in the voice of the departed Andy Rooney: ‘ They don’t make candles the way they used to and in my day we crushed our own beetles for that color ink and that was when vermillion meant something. We chased our own sheep to make our own parchment and nobody complained about it.’

Medieval monks were not beyond having a little ribald fun while they copied out books for wealthy clients. Think books are expensive today? You can understand how revolutionary the printing press was when Gutenberg had created his around 1440. The first printing press in America was in Mexico City (1536) and the first in the United States was at Harvard College (1638).

I guess people have this idea that the average medieval person lived a short, brutish life, prayed all the time, smelled horrible, and were extremely superstitious. Well, they didn’t live as long as we do. In fact, most people did not live to beyond forty until the beginning of the twentieth century. Good old War and Disease killed off most people. That accounts for two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, although ‘Disease’ went by the fancy name of ‘Pestilence’ then. Sounds more authoritative and medieval, doesn’t it? The development of literacy in the modern age is another shocking story.

Let us ignore our preconceived and equally ignorant ideas of what distinguished ‘medieval’ from ‘modern’ and address poetry, since April is National Poetry Month. It has always bothered me that Poetry is perceived as an elitist form of written expression rather than just fun with words and structures. I recall somewhere in one of my Norton Anthologies, on one of the pages thinner than onion skin and readable only with an electron microscope, that poetry had something to do with elevated emotion and used elevated diction…blah…blah. But even when Wordsworth had tried to return poetry to the common man, his statement still sounded like poetry was uncommon: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful human emotions recollected in tranquility.” Cough. As an aside, Wordsworth would visit his friends, sit in their parlor, and check to see if they had a volume of his poems in their library and if they did he’d pull it off the shelf and read it to himself; and if they did not, he pulled out his own copy. Can we say Ego?

Life is too short to be serious all the time. Our medieval-monk friend might have politely assented in Latin while in the scriptorum or in his nascent Romance language in his cell or simply lifted up his cowl to prove that he was as bare as any of William Wallace’s men. True, we have e.e. cummings and some modern poets doing some fun stuff with verse, but e.e. was not doing anything different than George Herbert in form, though Herbert was a religious poet in content. J.S. Bach himself was just as devoted to his faith, but he had had time to father seven children while frightening geese with all the musical compositions he made with his quill.

Poetry as wooing. Well, I won’t go near the topic of celibacy and the monastic orders. That bonfire has been lit and continues to burn, unfortunately. As we know, poetry has been  “elevated,” but what about poetry just as clever fun?  Is it not Okay to aspire no higher than a gutter? It’s not a bad place. So to present some argument that our medieval monks did more than draw lewd pictures, talking monkeys, and frightening demons, I’d like to introduce one of the oldest poetic forms we have — in English, mind you, for National Poetry Month.

First, the earliest English poetry was written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English. That language is, as you guessed it, a precursor to modern English, the Germanic side of our language in simple terms. The French or Norman influence came into our developing language after 1066. There is a three-way tie, however, as to the “first English poem.” There is Cædmon’s Hymn, Ruthwell Cross and the Franks Casket inscriptions. In other words: devotional text about Genesis, Christ’s Cross as monumental sculpture recounting the crucifixion, and a whalebone with a lot of mythological details. Two out of the three items are religious material, which sounds like a snore, but they are not. The Ruthwell Cross as a poem may qualify as the first hallucinatory and mixed-media poem in the language. The reality is that while there is folklore and plenty of pagan underpinnings to western medieval culture, avoiding Christianity is nearly impossible. It would be like studying Christianity without Christ. But English medieval poetry was not always about monophonic chanting and incense smoke in the background.

Four manuscripts give us all that we have of Anglo-Saxon poetry. 1. The Junius manuscript, also known as the Caedmon manuscript, for the Hymn mentioned above. 2. The Exeter Book, an anthology, and named because it resides in the Exeter Cathedral. 3. The Vercelli Book,which is a mix of poetry and prose; and 4. The Nowell Codex, also a mixture of poetry and prose and know for the most famous Old English poem, Beowulf. Quick aside to those of you who want to hear what Anglo Saxon sounds like: find the recording of the late Professor Jess Bessinger reading Beowulf. The University of Virginia provides the text and sound files of Beowulf. If you want to listen to the poem without text, then visit this page. Anglo Saxon does indeed sound different, but I think most listeners can discern some words shimmering through the verbal texture. The spelling is different but some of the sounds are…familiar.

Now for some fun. The Book of Exeter contains Old English riddles. Copy and pasting the original riddle would do nobody any good, so the translations of the Anglo-Saxon have been pasted in. Read and enjoy the double-entendres and realize that the monks who wrote Latin most of the time could create these  gems in the vernacular language with a sense of humor and high skill. Ecclesiastics had the monopoly on the copying racket, although not all monks knew how to read, which makes me think of that joke about the infinite monkey theorem where one monkey randomly bashes typewriter keys and one day produces the complete Shakespeare. Eventually.

An Anglo Saxon Riddle #1

A small miracle hangs near a man’s thigh,
Full under folds. It is stiff, strong,
Bold, brassy, and pierced in front.
When a young lord lifts his tunic
Over his knees, he wants to greet
With the hard head of this hanging creature
The hole it has long come to fill.

An Anglo Saxon Riddle #2

I am a wonderful help to women,
The hope of something to come. I harm
No citizen except my slayer.
Rooted I stand on a high bed.
I am shaggy below. Sometimes the beautiful
Peasant’s daughter, an eager-armed,
Proud woman grabs my body,
Rushes my red skin, holds me hard,
Claims my head. The curly-haired
Woman who catches me fast will feel
Our meeting. Her eye will be wet.


#1. A key; and yes, keys were different then. I don’t think that they are phallic. I think skeleton key covers it.

#2 An onion.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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