OF POETRY AND SONG: PRE-NOSTRADAMUS
Other than in exceptional circumstances it is a firm proposition that every happening thing is the result of its history. But maybe not in a direct line. Michel Nostredame was a man of his times and well-educated in the classics and the epics, these latter having started life as ‘chantées’. Was there music for these? Well, only the words remain. The ‘chansons de geste’, songs of action, carried no musical notation of any kind. If these were once marginally melodic then today we might call them ‘recitation’ or some form of ‘psalming’ or ‘cantillation’. It is on record that a form of ‘song’ popular in Fifteenth Century France was delivered declamatorily. It was long observed, including by Aristotle, that a way of singing by simple ‘licks’ was quite suitable to the ‘recitación hystoires’ about famous personages and traditional tales. Recitative chant perhaps fulfills us a tiny bit beyond the melodic minimalization of strict rhetoric.
Most troubadour manuscript collections were assembled (their songs and poems having spread far and wide) not by professional minstrels but by local singers for distribution to their choirs, often at the initiative of local persons of wealth seeking to recall their favourites as once heard by them. Here was the non-technical equivalent of our music studios where players and poets converge, each informing the other, to be recorded by specialists as best they can on behalf of enthusiasts and copyists.
The troubador songs and poetry, as recorded by the scribe Orderic Vitalis and others from the time of Duke William IX of Aquitaine (Count of Poitiers, d.1126) combined wit with ‘toupet’ or cheek and ‘coquetterie’ or sauciness. It was the storytelling form played-out as art with complex songs of love, politics, lament, satire and even elements of social debate. Minstrels inhabited each social class. The wealthiest/noblest troubadours toured town and city where they were received almost as royalty. Fairs and weddings were assembled around them and those jongleurs who would adapt their songs, joculators who raised the spirit of the crowds and hystriones who acted out their themes. These Rock Stars swept aside the tired Latin pace of the monks. (By the Sixteenth Century Europe even monarchs were expected to display accomplishment at both singing and a musical instrument.)
The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries had introduced lyricality to the ‘langue d’oil’ of Northern France with poems being written down together with musical notations of sorts. Was there ever such a thing as an oral tradition of poetry or was this ever the province of the courteous literary scholar? Well, the Top class – mainly the lyrics of courtly love – and the Pop class, being most everything else, have been assembled into their categories by modern ethnicists and musicologists as there were virtually no such pursuits in the long-distant past. So I guess the written form wins out and the truth about the phonetics we may never know. I suppose it symbolic that the most famous manuscript, the Vallière, is known to academics as W, a letter which hardly existed in OF.
Of course, many written records of chansons were in ‘Oil’ with the added dialect of Picardy in the North. The ‘trouvère’ of Northern France, though, was a reflection of the original Occitanian ‘trobaire’ and his songbooks contained Occitan lyrics collected during the Albigensian Crusade (See the Article NOSTRADAMUS RETROSPECTIVE ON THE ALBIGENSIAN CRUSADE) as well as the subsequent annexations of the South. Pseudo-Occitan lyricism was created in the Kingdom of France yet seemingly in a way that lowered respect for the Languedoc tradition and acted as a filip for the French trouveres.
From the beginning Occitan poetry was assimilated by incorporations, imitations and adaptations into the emergent French of the Kingdom. Troubadour lyrical poetry/poetic lyricism was absorbed and subsumed by gallic-francophone presentations and these became a hit with the HRE in Germany who called the performers ‘meistersingers’. Probably the North was advancing faster toward standard French than deeply multicultural Guien or Septimania or Provence had the heart to do.
The Englishman Palsgrave (d.1554) allowed in his ‘Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse’ (Teach–Yourself–French) that ‘In all this worke, I moost folowe the Parisyens and the countreys that be conteyned betwene the Ryver of Seyne and the Ryver of Loyrre, Which Called the Romayns sometyme Gallia Celtica’ but the fact remains that the original and best speech and song in the troubadour vein came from the Midi in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and mostly in an Occitan dialect. This cultural specificity cannot have escaped the sensibilities of the Southerner Michel de Nostredame.
As is found within the printed Opera Nostradamus there is variance-as-a-constant occurring naturally within the Medieval dialects/languages and an absence of settled methods of spelling or word sequencing, even a sometime offsetting of the regular grammars. This should be understood as an ‘a priori’ by anyone wishing to translate the proto- or pre-natal French into a modern language. The subsequent plurality of possible interpretations has left at least one keen mind wondering whether Michel Nostredame’s OF should be considered simply as what is cased in two dimensions or expanded up somehow into a three-dimensional case for a better experience, like 3-D chess.
Generally, Nostradame’s quatrains were treated by his public as puzzles. The original consumer readings were probably made in front of a circle of extended family listeners. A process of reading aloud followed by individuals singing out interpretative responses could have been met with improvised cross-influencing within the listener group before they returned a verdict or lapsed into that pensive state precipitated by semi-solvable riddles. Or echoing the quatrain in unison like a choir to the choirmaster. Whichever it was, group consensus would have been sought.
This may have occurred at an earlier stage also as Michel read his work aloud initially to his family and friends or to his publisher’s small circle or even when the printshop staff would call one to another in the hasty hubbub of hot-print dictation. Not being ‘rhetoricae pronuntiatio’ nor written down, such improvizations remain inaccessible to us today yet may have amended the contents, incidentally or accidentally.
In a world where it is hammered into us to train our thoughts sequentially and linearly we may miss the nature of the Nostradamus Quatrains, a mixture of inspired order and measured spontaneity which falls between our modern ideas of Poetry and Song, the written and the pronounced, the battened down and the opened up, the metred syllabic and the ‘homophonique royale’ of several themes communicating simultaneously.
(Also see the section SOME POETRY OF MID-SIXTEENTH CENTURY FRANCE in the Article UNDERSTANDING NOSTRADAMUS: KEYING THE ARCH)
(The above brief Article was initially an exercise inspired by a literary piece in French on this subject – with no reference at all to Nostradamus – that now I cannot trace so as to make the proper acknowledgement. Je m’excuse.)