Thursday, October 31, 2013

Memento Mori and the Art of Dying Well

Two generations after the Black Death, a book appeared in Europe which bore the title Ars Moriendi, "the Art of Dying." It is a manual intended both for the dying and those who visit and console them, and it is believed to have been written by a Dominican friar, likely in 1415. A later Ars Moriendi from ca. 1450 consists only of a series of eleven woodcuts illustrating what its compiler regards as the central portion of the longer work, which discusses five temptations which prevent a dying person from escaping their sins and advises on how to overcome them.

These books are, of course, part of a broader tradition of art, literature, and philosophy built around the theme of remembering one's own mortality. The memento mori tradition dates back to antiquity, when Roman generals marching in triumph would be followed by a slave whose task was to remind them that, although they are at the peak of their power and fame today, they are still mortal. In the years following the plague, however, it took on new popularity, and seems to have acquired a new and life-affirming message which makes such art no less relevant in the present day.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Story of a Boy who Set Forth to Learn Fear

A father had two sons. The oldest one was clever and intelligent, and knew how to manage everything, but the youngest one was stupid and could neither understand nor learn anything. When people saw him, they said, "He will be a burden on his father!"

Now when something had to be done, it was always the oldest son who had to do it. However, if the father asked him fetch anything when it was late, or even worse, at night, and if the way led through the churchyard or some other spooky place, he would always answer, "Oh, no, father, I won't go there. It makes me shudder!" For he was afraid.

In the evening by the fire when stories were told that made one's flesh creep, the listeners sometimes said, "Oh, that makes me shudder!" The youngest son would sit in a corner and listen with the others, but he could not imagine what they meant.

"They are always saying, 'It makes me shudder! It makes me shudder!' It does not make me shudder. That too must be a skill that I do not understand."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Recommendation: Beowulf, Ringler trans.

I've been meaning to do book recommendations of interest to medieval folkloristics a little more frequently than the, um, once that has happened so far. So here's one: you should read Beowulf. I mean, of course you should read Beowulf. But there's one thing far better, and that's hearing Beowulf read or recited well.

The poetics of Modern English differ from those of Anglo-Saxon, but in Beowulf: a New Translation for Oral Delivery, Dick Ringler mimics the alliterative style of the original, and does so masterfully.

Fairy Tales, Literary Canon, and Oral Tradition

One of the distinguishing characteristics of folklore is that it is passed from one person to another in toto, rather than by pointing somebody at a canonical form which can be referenced and which is preserved for all to see. But by this standard, some of the best-known and best-loved "traditional" tales today cannot be called folktales at all. I am referring to the fairy tales most familiar from the Brothers Grimm.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Folk Music Devil is Stupid

So there's a thing you might have noticed about the Devil in folk music and sometimes in folktales: he's a little bit on the dim side. So much so, in fact, that he is hard to credit as a fearsome tempter, and in fact cannot possibly function in the role assigned to him by folk religion.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Inter Diabolus et Virgo

Wol ye here a wonder thynge
Betwyxt a mayd and the fovle fende?

The Devil's Nine Questions

If you don't answer my questions nine
Sing ninety-nine and ninety
I'll take you off to Hell alive
And sing I'm the weaver's bonny

Tell me, what is whiter than milk?
Sing ninety nine and ninety
And tell me, what is softer than silk?
And sing I'm the weaver's bonny

Weather Lore from Olaus Magnus the Goth

When the trees flip their leaves, it's about to rain. If the dandelions' balls of seeds are contracted and bunched up in the evening, it will rain the next day. Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. If the bees fly out and do not return to their hive, rain is coming.

Weather superstitions like these are found around the world, especially in temperate zones, and have a long and venerable history. Lately I've been reading through Olaus Magnus' "Description of the Northern Peoples" (1555) and it offers quite a lot of examples from sixteenth-century Scandinavia, both of things the weather foretells (hailstones the size of a calf's head are supposedly an omen of impending death; I assume he means more so than just death by being struck with a colossal ball of ice falling out of the sky on you) and of superstitions for predicting the weather. I haven't yet made it to the books which deal with fauna, so I haven't even read what their behavior has to say about meterological phenomena (but apparently there's a fair bit of that), and I confess when Olaus talks about "circles" and "semblances of the sun" in the sky he is not describing anything familiar to me either by other description or by personal experience, so when he tells us what kind of weather they imply, I have no idea what he is actually talking about. But even if these are ignored, Olaus Magnus is a wealth of information on early modern Scandinavian weather lore.