Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Eastern Stories in Boccaccio's Decameron

I've been reading Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron off and on lately, and one of the things I love about my copy (it's the Penguin Classics edition, translated by GH McWilliam) is the constant footnotes. They tell me everything from "yeah, that character was a real person, even though nothing like this actually happened to them" to "this entire story is a folktale of Indian origin." From a folkloristic perspective, that last kind of comment is always fascinating, and makes me want to know more.

The Decameron is part of a rich tradition of collections of stories on various themes, which often borrow from one another and consequently show up in other forms in other places. It turns out a surprising number of the stories originate in Eastern sources. Notable among these is the Panchatantra, a collection of animal fables and other tales written in Sanskrit in the 3rd century BCE; it's sometimes surprising how little the plots changed in the millennium and a half between this origin and the Decameron. Stories from the Panchatantra also appear in other places, notably including the Spanish El Conde Lucanor, the fables of Aesop, and the Thousand and One Nights.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Music for the Romancero

(Last post about romances for at least a little while, I promise.)

The texts in the romancero viejo were probably intended to be sung, or at least singable, exactly like ballads in English. But what were the melodies like?

I must confess, I have no idea, though I have a few tantalizing clues from secondary and tertiary sources. This post is mostly here to solicit the input of people more knowledgeable about early music than I, and to arm them with what knowledge I already have access to in order to help with this question.

Book recommendation: Medieval Folklore

Just thought I'd add a quick note with a recommendation for what is basically the definitive work in the field of medieval folkloristics:

Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

This is an encyclopedic work, grand in scope (it's 445 pages of remarkably small type), with articles giving an overview of a variety of topics in medieval folklore. Emphasis is based on what was most salient to medieval European culture, rather than on what we consider relevant today. For example, the entry on "Hamlet" notes that the familiar spelling is of English Renaissance origin, gives an account of the story of Amleth as told in the Gesta Danorum and mentions a few other sources where accounts of it are found, as well as a few other legends which are broadly similar and may be related; at the very end, there's a one-sentence mention of the Shakespeare play. In addition to the articles on specific topics, there are articles about the folkloric traditions of specific regions, such as "Hungarian tradition," to give an overview of major pieces of folk culture specific to those places.

The book retails for $29.99 US, and is well worth it for the introduction it offers to such a broad range of topics relevant to anyone with an interest in life in the medieval period.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Friday, May 17, 2013

Adapting the Romancero Viejo in English

For such a large and significant body of work, the obscurity of the romancero viejo is perhaps somewhat surprising. To resolve this, I have undertaken the project of translating the entirety of the 1550 Cancionero. I'm far from done, and it's slow going because I am a very poor poet, but I feel this particular ballad tradition merits greater attention beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

While there are several prior translations of the romance del Conde Arnaldos around, and one or two other romances have been translated, so far as I am aware there has only been one substantial effort to adapt them to English-speaking audiences in significant numbers in the past: JG Lockhart's Ancient Spanish Ballads, Historical and Romantic. (The book is available in its entirety from the Internet Archive.)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poetics of the Romancero Viejo

The Spanish romance (pronounced as three syllables, /ro'man.tse/ historically, /ro'man.se/ or /ro'man.θe/ today depending on region) is a type of poem comparable to the English ballad. They appear to have originated in a form derived from chansons de geste and epics, but by the time the true romance form appears (probably in the middle of the 15th century), it is reliably in the form we think of as a romance today: relatively brief lines, constant assonant rhyme, written in a very conversational style.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What folklore is (and isn't)

The precise definition of folklore is a matter of some debate among those who study it, not least because the origins of the discipline very quickly tied the definition to some assumptions which have since been seen to be incorrect. One good modern definition is that it is the study of cultural expressions which are traditional and learned informally. By this standard, folk music is of a different sort from classical music not because it differs in any musicological way - though in the modern era it certainly tends to - but because of how it is transmitted. (One could argue that many of the novel compositions heard within the modern folk revival scene are more accurately folk-inspired rather than genuine folk music.) Folk tales are passed on through the generations and change as they go, as opposed to the consciously artistic presentation of a novel, which is kept and read in its original form.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tennis balls

I'm getting into material culture a little here, but it's in order to better understand popular entertainments. Given that we know something of how historical games in the jeu de paume family were played, what sort of balls were used?

There are two kinds of balls of interest that are still used to this day in modern Valencian pilota games: the pilota de badana, used in the street game of llargues, and the pilota de vaqueta, used in the higher-status raspall. These balls very probably match two of the three types of tennis balls described in Vives' dialogue.

Playing handball

Given that the handball / jeu de paume family was a major sport for noblemen, how was it played?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dialogue XXII - Juan Luis Vives on ball games

Juan Luis Vives was a philosopher and humanist in the 16th century whose works include, among other things, a book of Latin dialogues intended as language practice. Sources like this are excellent for examining folk culture, because the dialogue participants are talking about things from everyday life rather than momentous historic occasions or highbrow literature. In dialogue XXII, the characters discuss the game of sphaericulum ("ball"), and how it's really the same game in France as it is in Valencia (an assertion belied by some of the contrasts mentioned). The game in question is recognizably part of the jeu de paume family.

My Latin is terrible, so what follows is mostly taken from modern Castilian Spanish translation. There's also an English translation from 1908, directly from the Latin.

Ballad of Lady Alda

The lady Alda in Paris waits
She's good Sir Roldán's wife
Three hundred damsels wait with her
To bring joy to her life

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The origins of tennis

References to games of the jeu de paume family (often collectively called "tennis" in English) are abundant, and it appears to have originated not later than the twelfth century in France. (Wikipedia's page on the history of tennis contains an uncited assertion that this in turn derives from a beginning in 6th-century Portugal; while entirely possible, I haven't seen any references that put it anywhere near that early. Then again, rules of games are often passed on orally and could well originate way before the references start being quite so frequent.)


This is a blog about the folk and oral culture of the medieval and early modern periods. Expect to see posts on ballads and songs, folk tales, dancing, games, and more.

Folk culture has been an interest of mine for a very long time, and the primary purpose of this blog is to use the goal of regular updates to push myself to actually do all the awesome research projects I want to do. To that end, expect to see at least one post a week, and hopefully more. Some of them will be short seeds of topics I might explore in greater depth later; others will be more substantive.

Ballad of Count Arnaldos

Who ever had such fortune
By the waters of the sea
As once did Count Arnaldos
On the morn of St. John's feast?
While hunting for his quarry then
His falcon for to feed
He saw a galley coming
That was riding on rough seas
Its anchors were of purest gold
With silken sails and sheets
The mariner who led it came
Singing a melody
His music made a tail wind blow
Yet calmed the surging sea
The fish that swim down in the depths
Came up for air to breathe
The birds that fly in heaven above
On the mast did perch to hear
And then spoke Count Arnaldos
And the words he said were these:
"By God I beg you, mariner
that song to me to teach!"
The mariner replied to him
And such reply gave he:
"Good sir, I only teach that song
To those that sail with me."

 - Anonymous broadsheet, Spain, early 16th c. Translation: Craig B. Daniel, 2009.

The "Romance del Conde Arnaldos" is one of the best-known poems of the "Romancero Viejo," a broadsheet tradition that flourished from the late 15th to late 16th century. Several texts survive; this translation is based on one of the shorter ones. It is likely intended as a religious allegory, with the mariner representing Christ offering the song only if the Count will set aside his life as a powerful noble and follow him.