This unusual quire contains a miscellany of non-liturgical matter. Its appearance suggests it was completed in stages, not necessarily over a long period of time, not designed in detail from the outset. Three notable features are that it is all written by Scribe 3, all the illustrations are by the Alexis Master and, unlike the rest of the book, there are no stitch marks for curtains over the pictures.
It consists of the Chanson of St Alexis, the earliest surviving piece of French literature, and among the earliest written examples of the French language. Its first three pages are arrestingly written in red and blue ink, but it then reverts to black ink. It is followed by the letter of Pope Gregory the Great, arranged in somewhat cramped fashion on p68. The initials for Alexis and the letter are in different styles, suggesting they were made at different times. There follow three miniatures illustrating the Road to Emmaus. On the first of these, the scribe begins his wrap-around commentary in a complicated sequence of coloured inks. The last folio of the quire is crammed with a discourse on good and evil (p71-72) and David introducing the psalms. The final Emmaus scene (p71) is deliberately placed against the gutter of the page to allow this discourse to wrap around it. This at least shows that the Emmaus scenes, the discourse and the new start of the psalms (p72) were planned at the same time.
The presence of the Alexis Master throughout this quire indicates that it cannot have been made much later than the rest of the book. However, his use of washes instead of full colour for the miniatures perhaps indicates a hierarchy of spiritual values. This technique is being applied to a quire whose contents are particularly personal and relevant to both Christina and Geoffrey.
OLD FRENCH LIFE OF SAINT ALEXIS
Layout of the text
The origins of the poem
Structure of the VSA
Narrative motifs and patterns
Dramatic style of the VSA
The Ending of the Poem
The St Albans Psalter copy (c. 1123) of the Vie de saint Alexis (hereafter VSA) is one of the oldest surviving texts written in Old French. We have two texts (the Strasbourg Oaths and Sequence of Saint Eulalia) from the ninth century, and three (the Jonah fragment, Clermont Passion and Life of Saint Leger) from the tenth century, but they are little more than linguistic curiosities for the examination of philologists. By contrast, the VSA is a work of significant literary merit, and it marks the real beginning of French literature in the Middle Ages. It predates the oldest surviving copy (c. 1150) of the Chanson de Roland, which is interestingly also preserved in an Anglo-Norman manuscript.
It is not surprising then that the VSA should have attracted much scholarly attention. However, the circumstances of its production and the manuscript context in which it occurs have been largely ignored by philologists and literary scholars alike. Editors typically call it either the Hildesheim text, Hildesheim being where it is presently located, or use the siglum L, for Lamspringe, the Benedictine abbey to which the manuscript was taken from England in 1643. Legge (1956: 228) was the first literary specialist to highlight the pioneering work of Goldschmidt (1895) on the St Albans Psalter. More recently, Kendrick (1989) and Camille (1995) have integrated the observations of art historians with those of literary specialists and have looked at the text as a visual as well as a verbal artefact. We are fortunate now to have unprecedented access to high-quality colour images of the Psalter and to see the text as it would have been seen in the twelfth century, not as we are accustomed to see it laid out in modern printed editions, or even as we might see it in black and white facsimile reproductions.
In printed editions, the text of the VSA is laid out as verse, in five-line stanzas. By contrast, in the manuscript, it is written in continuous lines, as if it were prose, but with a capital initial letter as the prominent visual marker of the beginning of each new stanza. The capitals are all the more prominent, because they are not used elsewhere, as a modern writer would use them, for proper names, such as Alexis and Rome. The end of each stanza is marked with a mid-line point, and line ends are also indicated, albeit somewhat sporadically, by a point. Thus, in the first stanza, three of the five line-ends are marked, but in the second stanza only the final line ends with a point. In addition to these visual clues, or cues, which would have helped to orientate the reader/performer, there are aural indications of the verse form which would have been unmistakeable to the listener. Each line has ten syllables with a caesura (pause) after the fourth syllable, this regular rhythm being sometimes slightly varied with the addition of an unstressed ‘e’ after the stressed fourth and tenth syllables. In performance, there would have been a regular rise and fall of the voice, up to the caesura and down to the line end. The lines of each stanza are assonanced, that is to say the final vowel is identical, but the consonants which follow, for example amur (l. 2), prut (l. 3) are not necessarily the same, as they would be in a true rhyme. A new stanza is often signalled by a change in the assonance.
Printed editions may benefit a modern “silent” reader by clarifying the versification visually, but they erase the effects of its coloured calligraphy. Leupin (1989: 44) describes this in a telling phrase as the ‘staging of the writing’. However, what he describes (42) as the ‘alternating red and black lines of the prologue’ (p. 57) are in fact red and blue. Moreover, though he does not observe it, the same alternating pattern continues on the first two pages (pp. 58 and 59) of the poem itself. Whereas the initials of pp.60-68 are alternately red and blue, in contrast to the black which is used for the surrounding text, the pattern on pp. 58 and 59 is more complicated. After the capital B on p. 58, there is first a blue initial and then a red one, but thereafter all the initials are green, making them more easily distinguishable against the red and blue lines of text. There was clearly a functional need for the initials to stand out and signal the beginning of each stanza, but the intricate use of three colours of ink exceeds this immediate need. Moreover, no functional explanation can be found for the alternating red and blue lines of text in the prologue on p. 57, or on pp. 58-9 of the poem where they bear no relationship to line or stanza division. Like the alternating pattern of red, blue and green lines which we see in the captions to the miniatures on p. 57 (and on pp. 69, 71 and 72 which follow the VSA), the various patterns of coloured calligraphy may well have been intended as a sort of visual game, part of the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the work. The ‘plausible moralizing thrust’ which Leupin (1989: 42) detected in the coloured lines of the prologue to the VSA is all the more implausible when we realise that red (the colour of Christ) alternates not with black (the colour of Satan), but with blue.
The prologue is unique to the St Albans Psalter copy of the VSA and is essential to its particular presentation of the text. Yet it was relegated to an appendix by G. Paris in his 1872 critical edition and is absent entirely from the most recent scholarly edition of Perugi (2000). Even when an editor such as Storey (1968) includes it and places it at the beginning of the text, much of its effect is lost when separated from the images which precede it in the manuscript. We should note first of all that the full-page illustration on the left-hand page (p. 56) facing the prologue, shows King David as musician. In this context, it is significant that the prologue describes the Alexis text as a song (‘cancun’), not as a poem. We shall be returning to the question of the ‘performance’ of the text in due course.
The illustrations which precede the prologue on p. 57 are discussed in detail in the commentary on the Alexis quire. Suffice it to say here that the prologue also focusses on the early part of the Alexis story, rather than on his subsequent self-mortification. His upbringing and devout youth are briefly mentioned, as too is his special place in God’s affections, but nothing is said of the circumstances leading up to his marriage. Indeed the prologue does not even explicitly state that he goes away and leaves his bride behind; it merely states that he commends her to the true living Bridegroom, who is described in terms possibly reminiscent of the Nicene Creed as being ‘one sole creator who reigns in the Trinity’. Instead of circumstantial detail, the writer turns to the more general spiritual application of the story, which he recommends as a supreme consolation for all those who live chastely and take delight in virginal marriage. This would naturally include Christina and Geoffrey and all those in holy orders.
Tempting though it may be to suggest that the prologue could have been composed by Geoffrey himself as a coded dedication to Christina, and a reflection on the chaste relationship between the two of them, the language in which it is written presents an obvious difficulty. There are awkwardnesses of expression which a native of France like Geoffrey would surely not have produced. For example, the construction ‘il desirrables icel sul filz angendrat’ is judged by Tyssens (1966: 1174) too unusual to have been written by a native speaker. In any case, as Bullington (1991: 220) points out, the adjective ‘desirrables’ is inappropriate to describe Eufemien who is desirOUS of a son. The poem (l. 456) more appropriately uses ‘desirruse’ to describe the same attitude in the mother. Tyssens (1966: 1170) calculates that nearly half of the words used in the prologue do not appear at all in the poem. Even more significantly, she notes that ‘grace’ (l. 362) and ‘memoire’ (l. 621) have a different meaning when they appear in the poem. The linguistic evidence suggests that the prologue can be neither the work of Geoffrey himself nor the work of the original poet, though of course both the prologue and the poem have been copied by the same hand with, as we have seen, the same pattern of alternating red and blue lines on pp. 57, 58 and 59.
Before we can discuss who might have composed the prologue, at what date and for what purpose, we should consider certain ambiguities in its content and form. Its most conspicuous idiosyncrasy is that it does not name Alexis. Admittedly his name does appear in the first Latin caption above the illustrations, but it is still a strange omission from the French prologue. The writer purports to be introducing the story of the father Eufemien and only by extension the life of his blessed son. The reference to previously heard song and readings about this son is puzzling. It could be taken simply as a reference to other songs and readings about Saint Alexis. Alternatively, it may be a reference to the VSA itself, which the audience may have heard performed in a previous year on the saint’s feastday (see l. 542: ‘For that reason is he honoured on this day’) and is about to hear again. The direct address of presenter to audience is apparent in the use of the first-person plural form ‘we have heard readings and song’, but the prologue cannot simply be described as the presenter’s sales-pitch to his public, for though it may on occasion have been delivered orally, it is here inscribed textually and is therefore addressed to a reader or readers rather than to a group of listeners. The problematic relationship between orality and writing is a central question to which we will return in discussion of the poem itself, but we should remember that in its manuscript context the prologue is addressed not only to a reader, but also to a viewer, and it serves as much as a commentary on the images above it as on the text which follows. As such, the prologue might be directing Christina to identify herself with the bride of Christ, rather than with the imitator of Christ, Alexis himself, though as Camille (1995:388) has observed, it would be possible for Christina to adopt ‘multiple subject-positions’.
The form of the prologue, no less than its content, has given rise to much debate. It is usually described as being in prose, and Woledge and Clive (1964) include it without question in their repertory of early French prose texts. Yet in his edition of the text, Hofmann (1868) highlighted the presence of twenty words ending in an assonance. Tyssens (1966: 1166) noted further that the copyist’s eleven punctuation points all occur immediately after one of these assonanced words. In the poem itself, as we have seen above, punctuation points are used to indicate assonanced line ends, and there seems little doubt that they served a similar function in the prologue. The implication is that the copyist must have been aware of the regular appearance of certain endings. It should be noted, however, that the contrasting coloured initials which indicate the beginning of each new stanza in the poem are conspicuous by their absence from the prologue. Yet a vestigial line structure is apparent aurally not just in the assonances, but also in a recognisable decasyllabic pattern, albeit sometimes formed of elements (4 or 6 syllables) of complete lines. The prologue would seem then to show some similarities with the verse form of the VSA. Yet, as Hofmann (1868) indicated, the assonance pattern in the prologue indicates a grouping of lines into laisses (stanzas of unequal length), rather than regular five-line stanzas.
In view of all the linguistic and formal differences between prologue and poem, it seems highly unlikely that the prologue was composed by the original poet of the VSA who supposedly wrote, as we will discuss below, in Normandy around 1040. The opening words, ‘Here begins ..’, raise an interesting possibility. Though this is a formula found in many rubrics, yet the calligraphic presentation of the prologue with alternating red and blue lines to match the opening of the poem suggests that the copyist saw it as part of the text, not as a separate rubric. The formula is also found in many chansons de geste destined for oral delivery. Tyssens (1966: 1174) suggests, therefore, that whoever was responsible for these lines intended them for oral delivery as part of the performance of the poem. It was by no means unusual for twelfth-century remanieurs to add a prologue of this sort to an older poem. The composer of the Alexis prologue may well have had an aural memory of such prologues, which would have been in epic laisses, when he composed his own. The evident purpose of the prologue would have been to gain the attention of an audience, to whet their appetite with a rapid sketch of the narrative, and to promote the poem, both for its aesthetic attractions (‘pleasing song’) and its uplifting spiritual content. Yet, as we have observed above, the prologue in its written form also addresses the reader/viewer. Whether the St Albans copyist had before him a twelfth-century proto-prologue which he adapted to his intended readership by adding a final recommendation to ‘all those who … take delight in heavenly joys and virginal marriage’, we can but guess. This is the not altogether convincing suggestion of Bullington (1991: 223), but it could equally be the case that the prologue in its entirety is the work of the St Albans copyist or of someone working alongside him, and that it had a dual purpose, depending on whether it was heard in performance or contemplated privately in conjunction with the images.
In his 1872 edition of the VSA, boldly subtitled ‘poème du XIe siècle’, Gaston Paris argued that the St Albans text is a twelfth-century copy by an Anglo-Norman scribe of a lost eleventh-century original composed in Normandy around 1040. It would thus be even earlier than the lost original of the Roland which is generally supposed to date from the second half of the eleventh century. Paris found the language of the VSA to be more developed than that of the Eulalia (ninth century) and Clermont Passion (tenth century), but more archaic than that of the Roland. Comparing the St Albans (L) version of the VSA with that found in A (another twelfth-century manuscript of English origin), he concluded that their similarities were best explained by their common derivation from a lost manuscript, a. He explained the variant readings of P, a thirteenth-century manuscript, by its derivation from another hypothetical lost manuscript, b. Both a and b would derive from yet another lost manuscript, x, which would depend ultimately on the lost Urtext, O, written around 1040.
Most historians of French literature have accepted the arguments which Paris advanced for a lost original of the Alexis, even if they have not concurred entirely with his dating. Some (e.g. Sckommodau, 1963) have suggested on linguistic and ideological grounds that it may postdate the First Crusade of 1095. The art historian Pächt (1960: 142-4), whilst acknowledging that the linguistic arguments lay outside his competence, suggested intriguingly that the Psalter version of the poem may have been the first version in French and may have originated at St Albans. The linguistic evidence that the poem predates the prologue nevertheless remains compelling and has been strengthened by Tyssens’s (1966) study.
Gaston Paris (1872: 43-45) ventured to suggest that the lost Urtext was the work of Tedbalt of Vernon, a canon in Rouen in the mid-eleventh century. This conjecture was based purely on the account of an eleventh-century monk from the abbey of Fontenelle who records that Tedbalt translated various saints’ lives from Latin into French. The resultant songs are described as pleasant with a jingling rhythm (‘rythme tintant’). It is true that such a description might also seem to fit the assonanced form of the Alexis, but this is a very flimsy basis on which to argue a case for Tedbalt as author. In fairness, Paris admits himself that without further evidence we must regard the author as unknown.
Paris chose to take L, the St Albans Psalter copy, as the base manuscript for his edition of the VSA. Its language is the most archaic of the extant manuscripts and he argued on this basis that it was the closest reflection of the lost Urtext. A long line of textual editors have followed his lead in this, but scholarly opinion is nonetheless divided. A lively debate was engaged between Lausberg (1955), who, like Paris, favoured L, and Sckommodau (1954 & 1956) who preferred manuscript A. The most interesting question for our purposes, and one to which we will be returning, is whether the last fifteen stanzas of L, which do not appear in A, represent an addition to the original.
Surprising though it may seem, saints’ lives were enormously popular in the Middle Ages; the survival of some two hundred Old French verse Lives testifies to this. As the prologue to the VSA indicates, they were a source of entertainment (‘pleasant song’) as well as edification. They were written by clerks, for oral delivery to a lay public who looked to the saints as intercessors. The concluding stanza of the St Albans copy of the VSA creates complicity between audience and narrator with its use of the first-person plural form (‘let us remember this holy man’), and allows for audience participation in the closing Pater Noster. It has been suggested in the light of this closing prayer and in the light of line 542 with its reference to the honouring of St Alexis on his feastday, that the poem may have been intended for recitation in church. Goldschmidt (1895) thought that it may have been recited/sung on the occasion of the dedication of the chapel of St Alexis in St Albans Abbey some time between 1115 and 1119. Such a performance would necessarily have predated the copying of L if we accept that it dates from c. 1123. It has been suggested (Mölk, 1978: 342) that the cult of St Alexis, which did not last long at St Albans, was borrowed from the Norman abbey of Bec, which in turn derived it from Monte Cassino. The cult of Alexis in France was apparently propagated, in the absence of relics, purely by literature, originally in the form of the Latin Vita.
As compared to the Latin Vita, which is now widely regarded as its ultimate source (see Rychner (1985: 21-37) who debunks the Latin poem Pater Deus ingenite as source), the Old French VSA concentrates as much, if not more, on the effects which Alexis has on those around him and on the events which occur after his death, as on his life itself. The family’s laments on the discovery of the corpse occupy twenty-two stanzas (ll. 386-495), nearly a fifth of the total poem. Even more strikingly, Alexis is dead in line 332, but there is nearly half of the poem still to come. Vincent (1963:537) has calculated that only 33 stanzas of the poem are devoted to Alexis himself, whereas the family take up 57 stanzas, the people of Rome, the Pope and emperors a further 25 stanzas, and the introduction and conclusion the remainder. The poet was faced with the difficult task of trying to give an appealing, popular account of a singularly unappealing saint who showed an unfeeling, even inhuman, disregard in life for the suffering of others. His solution was to humanize and dramatize the story, as the b version of the Latin Vita had already done in a more limited way (see Pächt, 1960: 133), by concentrating on the grief of the parents and bride, whose lamentations on the death of Alexis form the real climax of the story. At the same time, the French text exalts Alexis by concentrating on the beneficial effects which the saint brought after his death to the community in Rome and in which the audience of the poem may also share.
In contrast to what Rickard (1974: 37) has called the “limping laconism” of the earliest vernacular texts, such as the Sequence of Saint Eulalia and the Life of Saint Leger, the VSA is an engaging, well-paced narrative, enlivened by dramatic speeches and colourful description, for example of the emperors strewing gold and silver before the crowds in a vain attempt to lure them away from the body of Alexis (ll. 526-30). Most surprisingly, the VSA displays a mastery of poetic style, rhetoric and composition which belies the absence of earlier vernacular models, and which can only have been gained from training in the Latin tradition. Curtius (1936) has shown persuasively how the topoi, images, and rhetorical frames of the VSA, are drawn from medieval Latin literature.
The striking mathematical symmetries of the VSA have been analysed in detail by Hatcher (1952), who sees the poem as a triptych, each part concerning itself with a separate identity of Alexis, first as the son of Eufemien, then as the man of God, and finally as saint. The first part, a prelude of ten stanzas, begins by elaborating the well-known topos of ‘Good was the world in the time of the ancients’ (ll. 1-10). After this lament for the decline of Christian virtues in the contemporary world, it then introduces the singularly virtuous son of Eufemien, Alexis. We should note in passing that the VSA as preserved in the St Albans Psalter thus has two introductions, with the so-called prose prologue (p. 57) which points the spiritual application of the poem to a particular audience, supplementing the more general prelude of the poem itself.
Hatcher detects various
symmetries in the text, the most significant of which were probably intentional.
Leaving aside the ten stanzas of introduction and prelude, the narrative
has two main sections; fifty-six are devoted to Alexis as the man of God,
and fifty-six to Alexis as saint, followed by a two-stanza conclusion.
Between the two main sections, a central stanza, number 67, recounts the
death of Alexis, and in the central line of this, line 333, his ascension
to Heaven occurs. Hatcher’s grouping of events into episodes, as
indicated in the table below, is sometimes debatable, but the bipartite
division of the main narrative with the death of Alexis at its centre
We should not be surprised to find this patterning, given that the basic structural pattern of the medieval story was bipartite (see Ryding, 1971). A deliberate intent to shape the narrative in this way would account both for the expansion of events after the death of Alexis, as compared to the account of the Latin Vita, and for the surprising compression of events leading up to his flight from home. Whereas the Latin Vita expands upon the piety of Alexis’s early life, thus giving some preparation for his critical decision to abandon his bride and leave home, the French text concentrates on his secular upbringing before stating abruptly that the marriage is ‘an arrangement he would have preferred nothing of/ So completely are his thoughts fixed on God’ (ll. 49-50). To modern taste, this may seem an extraordinary failure to capitalise on the psychological interest of the story, but, as Ryding (1971: 121-2) points out, it is by no means unusual to find such an unprepared turning-point in medieval narrative.
One of the most striking features of the VSA is the series of binary oppositions at the thematic level which have a clear didactic purpose. These oppositions are intimately related to the bipartite structure of the narrative of which the ascetic life of Alexis on this earth forms the first part, and the recognition and glory which he attains after death, the second. As we have seen, the prelude begins (ll. 1-10) with a contrast between the virtuous past and the decadent present. In his speech to the bride, Alexis points what is to be the dominant thematic opposition of the poem, between the fallacious claims of this earthly life and the truth of the heavenly life (ll. 63-4), between the imperfection of earthly love (l. 68) and the perfection of divine love. This opposition is developed in the motif of joy versus sadness which runs throughout the poem. Thus, in the view of Alexis, true joy is not to be found in this world; its fleeting joy unfailingly ‘turns back into great sorrow’ (l. 70). His viewpoint is contrasted with that of his mother and father whose earthly joy is shattered by his abandoning them to serve God (l. 135), and with the bride for whom his death destroys all hope of joy on this earth (l. 492). The family’s extreme grief on learning of his death is in turn contrasted with the joy of the people and the Pope on recognising their new saint. If the family does not immediately respond to the Pope’s injunction to share in the general joy (ll. 501-5), they do finally turn back to God and the bride attains true heavenly joy when she is united with Alexis in paradise (l. 610).
The contrast between the values of this world and higher spiritual values is underlined by the oppositional associations of the word ‘honur’, quoted in French, because it has been of necessity variously translated in the English version of the text. For Alexis’s father, worldly position is all-important and something which he would dearly wish to have been able to pass on to his son (l. 407). By contrast, for Alexis, there is no lasting honour in this world (l. 69). Indeed, the marks of honour, or recognition, with which the world wishes to favour him, whether at home or abroad, are constantly rejected. He flees from his privileged home and status, he is not tempted from his single-minded devotion to God by any honours which might come to him (l. 164), and he flees from what he sees as the burden of recognition in Alsis when he is identified as the man of God (l. 188). His greatest fear when he then lands in Rome is that his parents may recognise him and seek to burden him again with the worldy dues from which he thought he had escaped. The opposition between the undesirable burden which worldly ‘honur’ represents for Alexis and the positive, albeit thwarted, purpose which it represents for his parents is finally resolved in line 604. As in the case of earthly versus heavenly joy studied above, heavenly values again triumph here. The family turns back to God, their souls are saved, thanks to the saintly Alexis, and their life together is described as ‘honourable’, but honourable in a true and spiritual way, rather than in the way that they had previously conceived it. Meanwhile, Alexis, who had given up all his worldly possessions (stanza 19), is richly and reverently honoured in death, the jewels and gold with which his sarcophagus is adorned (l. 586) being an acceptable expression of popular devotion to and recognition of the saint.
This leads us to another important oppositional motif in the text, recognition versus non-recognition. The first part of the narrative is dominated by repeated instances of failure to recognise Alexis. Thus, in Alsis, the father’s servants fail to see Alexis in the beggar to whom they give alms (stanzas 23-25), and later the sacristan fails, until he is given more specific guidance, to identify him as the man of God (ll. 174-5). Most strikingly, his own family back in Rome repeatedly fail to recognise him; his father does not recognise him when they speak in the street, for seventeen years no-one in the household recognises Alexis in the beggar living under the stairs, and finally no-one can guess who the man of God may be when the voice from the sanctuary sends the Pope and Emperors to look in Eufemien’s house. Ryding (1971: 94-5) points out that the writer has gone to great lengths to ensure that the importance of this motif would not be lost on his audience. By contrast with the Latin Vita, the French text underlines the first instance of non-recognition, repeating three times, in lines 115, 120 and 121, that the servants did not recognise Alexis. As Ryding points out, this scene contributes very little of narrative consequence and is not exploited for its dramatic value. Rather it is elaborated in order to prefigure the thematic importance of non-recognition in the first half of the text. This will contrast with the general recognition and acclaim which Alexis receives after his death. The evident didactic purpose of the writer is to equate non-recognition with the moral blindness of sinners. As the penultimate stanza of the poem (ll. 616-20) states unequivocally, we unfortunate mortals are blind and have lost our senses; it is through this holy man Alexis that we must recover our sight.
is Alexis himself, so long anxious to preserve his anonymity, who deliberately
arranges his ultimate recognition by writing a letter which reveals his
identity. He is careful, however, that the letter should not be made public
until after he is dead (ll. 286-7), and even then will not yield it up
to his father Eufemien who tries to prise it from his grasp (l. 351).
He entrusts it instead to the Pope, who in turn hands it to a clerk who
reads its contents aloud to the assembled people (ll. 371-7). Leupin (1989)
and Cazelles (1989) have both commented on the significance of the written
text, the letter, within the larger written text, the VSA itself, and
on the interaction between orality and textuality within both. The written
text is seen as the repository of truth which is entrusted to the Church.
The laity can only access this truth indirectly when it is delivered orally
to them. This applies both to the letter itself and to the hagiographical
poem as a whole. To conclude, we might see in the refusal of Alexis to
cede the letter to his father Eufemien, a final rejection of the family
ties and earthly values which throughout the poem are set in opposition
to spiritual values. The ability to write, which had been part of Eufemien’s
legacy to his son (ll. 33-4), is here turned by Alexis to a divine purpose,
rather than to the secular service of the emperor for which his father
(l. 35) had destined him.
The modern reader may sometimes find that the action of the VSA proceeds in fits and starts, but in this it is typical of much medieval narrative, for example the Chanson de Roland with its laisses similaires. Instead of the unified linear development of an event, we find a series of trackings backwards and forwards to reframe the same action, resulting in the juxtaposition of seemingly autonomous scenes. Auerbach (1953: 114-5) draws attention to stanzas 12-14 where Alexis takes leave of his bride as a case in point. Thus stanza 13 resumes the situation which had already existed at the beginning of stanza 12, with Alexis and his bride together alone in the chamber, but the action is now carried forward in a different direction. Whereas stanza 12 had concerned itself with the innermost thoughts of Alexis, stanza 13 reports how he begins to address his bride. The reported speech of stanza 13 is then recapitulated in the direct speech of stanza 14. Yet, in a sense, stanza 14 represents a backtracking, since it does not get to the point already reached in stanza 13 with the statement that Alexis is anxious to take his leave. Auerbach considers the whole of the VSA to be composed of a mosaic of such mutually independent scenes, each containing an expressive and decisive gesture, such as Alexis standing looking at the bed (stanza 12), or Alexis speaking to the bride (stanzas 13 and 14). There is evident dramatic potential in these.
A modern reader will also be struck by the alternation of past and present tenses in the narrative. For example, the account of the wedding night is first situated in the past: ‘The boy did not wish to anger his father/ He came into the chamber where his wife was’ (ll. 54-5), but then slips into the present tense for the dramatic moment of crisis, ‘As he sees the bed, he looked at the maiden/ He then remembers his Heavenly Lord’ (ll. 56-7). It should be said that there was a considerable degree of freedom in Old French over the use of tenses, and the present tense was very commonly used to narrate past time. This use of the ‘historic present’ survives to a more limited extent in modern written French, and occurs also in speech, both in French and English, when someone is telling a story. Thus a speaker may begin by locating an event in the past, but then actualise, and in a sense relive it, by slipping into the present, for example “and then he says …” . This tense-shifting is a characteristic of oral delivery which was much exploited by medieval storytellers in order to engage their audience with the quasi-dramatic re-enactment of their tale. Uitti (1973: 50-51) has argued that the tense-shifting in the VSA is an important means by which the poet reinforces the dual perspective of narrator and protagonist within the rhetorical structure of the tale. The narrator confirms his own position by framing the action in the past, whilst at the same time allowing his audience to feel that they are seeing and hearing characters before them in the present.
He also on occasion draws attention to himself as narrator and creates a rapport with his audience by the use of first-person interventions. At the outset he creates a sense of community with the audience by his reference to ‘our ancestors’ (l.5). He also establishes himself as source of authority and mediator for the tale, anticipating the audience’s possible impatience and defending the preamble about Eufemien thus: ‘I am telling you this, because I wish to speak about a son of his’ (l. 15). When the scene shifts with characteristically medieval abruptness from Alexis the beggar in Alsis back to the grieving family in Rome, he points the transition: ‘Now I will return to the father and mother/And to the bride whom he had married’ (ll. 101-2). At the end, he establishes complicity with his audience and underlines his own humanity with the first-person plural exclamation, ‘Alas! Unfortunate mortals! How blind we are!’ (l. 616), before officiating in the closing prayer on behalf of them all. The relationship thus created and sustained between narrator and audience is crucial in ensuring receptiveness for the message of the tale and engagement with its drama.
It is above all, however, the direct speech of the characters themselves in the VSA which encourages the audience to engage with the drama. The lively development of this direct speech constitutes the most notable divergence of the Old French poem from the Latin Vita. Admittedly, Alexis himself speaks only rarely and briefly, and the audience is little encouraged by any of his utterances to identify with a character whose single-minded asceticism sets him apart from common humanity. Despite the poet’s ultimate didactic purpose in privileging the spiritual values of Alexis over the earthbound concerns of the family, nevertheless it is their speech which invites an emotional response from the audience. Their laments, which occur always in the sequence, father, mother and bride, appear on three occasions, first, and very briefly, immediately after the departure of Alexis from home (ll. 106-10), secondly when the servants return from Edessa with the news that they have been unable to find him (ll. 126-55), and finally and most intensely when the corpse of Alexis is discovered (ll. 386-495).
The individual members of the family are sharply delineated by their speech. In his final lament, the father grieves not only for the loss of his heir but for the thwarting of his whole purpose in life which had been to hand on his estate to future generations of the family (ll. 401-20). Even if they know that his values must not be approved, the audience can sympathise with his feelings. The mother’s grief is both more visceral than the father’s and more violently expressed. Her lament on the death of Alexis (ll. 422-65) is a dramatic and highly affective expression of grief and anger, yet the greatest drama lies in the contrast between her furious tone and the more serene and poignant expression of the bride which follows. The bride’s tender expression of frustrated longing for her missing husband, of regret for the physical change which has come over his once handsome form, and of her own constant love for him (ll. 466-95) plays a pivotal role. As Uitti (1973: 58) points out, she takes her place in the series (father, mother, bride), yet at the same time she enjoys a particular relationship with Alexis, which sets her apart from and contrasts her with that series. Unlike the mother who laments that Alexis has not once spoken to her alone in all the time he has dwelt under the stairs (l. 448), the bride was at least favoured with a private homily before he left home in the first place (ll.66-70). How much she understood of the significance of his words, or of his parting gifts to her, is debatable, but when she learns of his death and of his saintly life, she does at last find consolation in following his example and turning to God. Her commitment to serve God (ll. 494-5) changes the tone of the poem in preparation both for Rome’s joyful veneration of the saint and for her own eventual blissful reunion in Heaven with him (ll. 606-8).
In her analysis of the poem, Hatcher (1952: 129) argued that by renouncing his family, Alexis determines all their reactions and reduces them to ‘puppets in a sorrowful drama full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. Yet in dramatic terms, as Vincent (1963: 530) has demonstrated, Alexis is the static figure. It is God, rather than Alexis, who is the prime mover, intervening to make the statue in Alsis identify Alexis as the man of God, and so bring him back to Rome. As for Alexis, once his course is set in God’s service, he does not waver from it (1. 165); ‘He loves God more than all his lineage’ (l. 250). In contrast to the otherworldliness of Alexis and his passive indifference to their suffering, which ‘is as nothing to him’ (l. 245), the family appear as real people, who struggle with their fate. It is their journey through harrowing grief to a painfully learned acceptance of God’s will which lies at the heart of the drama.
Their blindness to God’s purposes occasions much dramatic irony throughout the poem. Eufemien and his wife pray for a child who will be pleasing to God (ll. 24-5). Yet they are unhappy when they get exactly what they had asked for, a son whose thoughts are entirely fixed on God (l. 50). There is deep irony also in the fact that the family see Alexis so often when he is living under their stairs, yet fail to recognise him (stanza 48). He is never so far removed from them as when he is so close by. Most poignant of all is the irony when Alexis appears as a stranger to his father and begs to be given shelter and food ‘for the sake of your son’ (l. 219).
ironic ignorance is the mainspring of the dramatic suspense which arises
when the people of Rome are searching in vain for the man of God who is
to be their salvation. Even when the voice tells them to look in the house
of Eufemien, they still cannot find him, because neither Eufemien nor
any member of his household whom he questions knows who or where this
man of God may be. The order in which events are presented creates further
dramatic irony, since the audience has already been informed of the letter
which Alexis has written on his deathbed (stanzas 56-8) and knows what
a surprise lies in store for Eufemien and the others when the faithful
servant reveals the presence of the dead saint beneath the stairs.
It has been argued
by Sckommodau (1954) and Robertson (1970) that the lost original of the
VSA ended, like the version preserved in manuscript A,
at line 550, and that the last fifteen stanzas of the St Albans version
(and of manuscripts P and V) represent a later addition
to the poem. Carr (1976) has noted an anomalous reference in these final
stanzas to danz Alexis (l. 568). This breaks the otherwise rigid
pattern whereby the dead saint in the second half of the poem is designated
sainz Alexis and the living Alexis in the first part of the poem
danz Alexis. This apparent aberration might lend support to the
view that the last fifteen stanzas were not part of the original poem.
However, most critics prefer to see the St Albans version (L)
as the more faithful reflection of the original, and A with its
110 stanzas as a later abridgment. The most curious feature of the St
Albans version is that it has in effect two conclusions. It includes the
call to penitence and communal prayer ‘Let us pray to God, the Holy
Trinity/ That with God in Heaven together we may reign’ (ll. 549-50),
which serve as a conclusion in manuscript A, but then the narrative
takes off again and is brought to a close by another concluding prayer
in stanza 125. In this respect it is unique. Although the final fifteen
stanzas also appear in manuscripts P and V, they are
not preceded there by the pre-emptive conclusion of lines 541-550. Mölk
(1978: 341) has suggested that the St Albans version with its two conclusions
may represent a contamination of the original poem with the abridged version.
In any case, the precise symmetries which Hatcher (1952) has observed
in the poem are unique to the St Albans version, contaminated or not,
with all its 125 stanzas.
Critics have observed that the main purpose of this closing section is to draw the lay audience into the celebration of the saint’s life. He is held up to them not primarily as a model for imitation, for who but Christ, whom Alexis himself imitates, could spend 34 years forsaking all family ties and meekly suffering indignities (ll. 266-70)? Rather he is seen as an intercessor for the people of Rome in the past, and also for the poet’s audience in the present, and the final communal prayer is fittingly channelled through him. We should also note that it is only in these final fifteen stanzas that the audience hears of the ultimate fate of the family. Most importantly, given the suggested parallels between Christina and the faithful, chaste bride, it is only here (stanza 122) that the bride is said to be reunited in Heaven with Alexis.
It is easy to see
how the dramatic and didactic qualities of the VSA would have
appealed to Geoffrey of Gorron, if indeed it was he who was responsible
for including the text in the St Albans Psalter. We know that he had staged
a religious play about the life of Saint Catherine for a lay audience
in Dunstable before he became a monk at St Albans. We can only speculate
about the manner and circumstances in which the Alexis poem might have
been performed. It may indeed have been recited/sung dramatically in a
liturgical setting, as Bullington (1991: 216) has suggested. What is certain
is that the visual presentation of the text on the page, accompanied not
only by the tinted drawings on p. 57, but also by the Emmaus pictures
on pp. 69-71 which gloss the theme of non-recognition in the poem and
offer parallels with the life of Christina (see the Commentary on the
Alexis quire), is itself dramatic and didactic. The visual message of
the Alexis drawings with the bride at centre- stage is reinforced by the
prologue which, as we have seen, points the spiritual application of the
story to those like Christina of Markyate who ‘take delight in heavenly
joys and virginal marriage’. We might well conclude with Kendrick
(1989: 29) that the mind which framed this presentation was that of a
teacher who wanted to make the text relevant to contemporary lives.
collaboration between History of Art
and Historic Collections
University of Aberdeen - King's College - Aberdeen - AB24 3SW