A friend recently guided me to a volume of a series which I haven’t looked at for many a year, Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. Perhaps the timing was providential, since we are seeing many of the foundations of civilization under attack by demonically goaded ideological fools, mostly ignorant of the past.
In Vol. 4: “The Age of Faith”, Durant has a section on the revival of Latin. There is a poem in this section which is worthy of attention.
Hildebert of Lavardin (1055? – 1133) is probably not close to the top of your reading list these days. I must say that Hildebert has got game.
Here is Durant. We have just read a poem by Peter Damian. Now…
To Peter Damian poetry was an incident; to Hildebert of Lavardin (1055?-1133), Archbishop of Tours, it was a passion that fought his faith for his soul. Probably from the Berenger of Tours who had studied under Fulbert at Chartres he imbibed a love for the Latin classics. After many tribulations he journeyed to Rome, not sure which he sought more – papal benediction or a sight of the scenes endeared to him by his reading. He was touched by the grandeur and decay of the old capital, and expressed his feelings in classic elegiac form:
Par tibi, Roma, nihil, cum sis prope tota ruina;
quam magni fueris integra fracta doces.
Longa tuos fastus aetas destruxit, et arces
Caesaris et superum templa palude iacent.
Ille labor, labor ille ruit quem dirus Araxes
et stantem tremuit et cecidisse dolet ….
Non tamen annorum series, non flamma, nec ensis
ad plenum potuit hoc abolere decus.*
Here for a moment a medieval poet used the Latin language as nobly as Virgil himself. But once a Christian, always a Christian. Hildebert found more comfort in Jesus and Mary than in Jupiter and Minerva; and in a later poem he impeccably dismissed the ancient shrines:
Gratior haec iactura mihi successibus illis;
maior sum pauper divite, stante iacens.
Plus aquilis vexilla crucis, plus Caesare Petrus,
plus cinctis ducibus vulgus inerme dedit.
Stans domui terras, infernum diruta pulso;
corpora stans, animas fracta iacensque rego.
Tunc miserae plebi, modo principibus tenebrarum
impero; tunc urbes, nunc mea regna polus.†
Not since Fortunatus had any Latin penned such poetry.
Not bad, huh? Perhaps some of you would like to take a crack at these. I’ll put the translations by Durant below, but I change the type to white, so that you can work on the Latin on your own. Don’t peek… unless you don’t know Latin.
Meanwhile, here in this 12th c. MSS of De ciuitate Dei, is an action shot of Hildebert. The irritated scribe is about to throw something at a mouse or rat (or maybe a cat?) which is nibbling on his cheese. Notice that a bowl is in mid-air falling off the table.
In the manuscript Hildebert is writing we read:
Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat. … Most wicked mouse, you often provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!
* “Equal to you, O Rome! there is nothing, even when you are almost a ruin; how great you were when whole, broken you teach us. Long time has destroyed your pride, and the citadels of Caesar sink in the marshes with the temples of the gods. That work, that mighty work lies low which the dire barbarian trembled to see standing and mourns to see fallen …. But no lapse of years, no fire, no sword can all destroy this glory.”
† (Rome speaks:) “Sweeter to me this defeat than those victories; greater am I poor than when rich, greater prone than standing; more than the eagles has the standard of the cross given me, more Peter than Caesar, more a weaponless crowd than commanders girt with arms. Standing I mastered nations; ruined I strike the depths of the earth; standing I ruled bodies, broken and prostrate I rule souls. Then I commanded a miserable populace, now the princes of darkness; then cities were my realm, now the sky.”