A safe place

I can’t find the secateurs.

This has not mattered all Winter. The garden has been asleep, and it has barely grown a collective inch.

But now Spring is wanton. The cut-throat Pyracantha is reaching out in all directions. But I don’t want to hack it back: only the secateurs have that essential light touch.

We have a place for all our smaller garden tools, wire, garden gloves and so on. It is a drawer in the kitchen. I went to look there in hopes of finding my secateurs. But they weren’t there. That eternal theory, If You Provide A Storage Space For It, It Will Be There: it does have flaws. One is that, clearly, the theory does not apply to secateurs.

If one provides a place for the collection of something, the unexpected can turn up just when you’re not looking for it.

A little time travel, I think.

And space travel: time to stride in those seven-league-boots over to Bavaria, and to change into your several-century-slippers to tiptoe back to 739 AD, when a well-off Bavarian family called Huosifamilie took steps to instigate a monastery. For those with money there was no surer way to ensure one travelled in the right direction in the afterlife.

Every monastery must have its relic: there’s nothing like it to attract pilgrims. Benediktbeuern was delighted to procure a saint’s arm. It was the right arm of St Benedikt, and it arrived in about 800AD, a gift of Karl The Great.

Soon Benediktbeuern became powerful. It boasted a school and a renowned scriptorium where books were copied out with their customary vivid illustration.

The monastery has had its rises and falls. The end of the Hungarian empire saw a decline and most of the monks died; but an indulgent emperor helped it back on its feet. A fire destroyed much of the cloister in 1248. A Thirty Years War saw marauding Swedes ransacking the place and torturing a priest; but it had its own Renaissance.

It took a small French dictator to seriously derail this ancient place. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the monastery’s ‘secularisation’.

For the first time this repository; this comparatively safe harbour; was pillaged. One thousand years of archives, manuscripts and volumes from the library were confiscated and taken to the Bavarian State Library; and a priceless art collection was squandered.

And it was at this point that we hear of a gem which had been sitting on those cornucopic shelves. A bawdy, life-affirming, very Christian, naughty document.

It had not one author, but many. Scribed in 1230, on 119 sheets of parchment, it was called Carmina Burana, or ‘Songs from Beuern’.

The majority of its 250-odd songs, poems and dramatic pieces, some spectacular, some mediocre, were written by Goliards: clergy or their students who wrote mainly in Latin, the lingua franca of the time and place. They come from all over: from England to the Holy Roman Empire.

Holy they are not: at best they satirise the Catholic Church, and at most raunchy they are explicit and pornographic.

But they make a thumping good read.

“In my mind’s wavering balance'” writes one, “wanton love and chastity sway in opposite scales. But I choose what I see, I offer my neck to the yoke; to a yoke so sweet I cross.”

Clergy ain’t what they used to be.

As the poems elucidate: “I am the Abbot of Cockaigne and my counsel is with soaks, and my pleasure is in the order of gamblers and whoever seeks me early in the tavern will leave naked after vespers, and stripped of his clothing he will cry: ‘Wafna, wafna! What have you done, Luck most foul! You have taken away all the joys of our life!’ ”

These are echoes of a time shrouded in shadows. With unequivocal clarity and a little well-chosen Latin, student priests stir us all. It’s bawdy, explicit, raucous and fascinating. There are drinking songs, gaming songs, songs of morals and mockery and more. This is not just one voice, but an immortal chorus singing at us from the 11th and 12th centuries.

And as Spring swaggers over our doorsteps, more gaudy and wanton than ever, lush and green and fertile: as my pyracantha reaches towards the rest of nature with using a code locked deep within its green photoplasmic cells – those thousand-year old words from the old poems conjure up what everyone in this hemisphere is thinking.

“Behold, the welcome and desirable Spring brings back joys. The brightly coloured meadow is in flower. The sun brightens everything. Now let sorrows depart! Summer returns, now the rage of Winter retires.

This season and this work – they are made for each other. Those goliards of long ago expressed everything that is base, bawdy and burgeoning and their words caper drunkenly at the front of my mind as I watch the brash colours unfold in the forest.

But without a place to collect random captivating archives like this – without Benediktbeuern – we would not have them now.

Repositories, small and domestic and significant and renowned: they are often flawed, sometimes by the maccinations of time itself.

But we can’t live without them.

With thanks to Tylatin.org for some cracking translation and explanation: you can find them here


25 thoughts on “A safe place

  1. I am the secateur for my condo association. Doing the mail, correspondence, filing, check deposits – I do as much if not more than the president, vice president and the treasurer being the seceteur. I am going to quit and move and just be a renter instead of a big shot seceteur.

  2. Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    The tendre croppes,…

    Not that there’s anything tendre about a pyracantha. I hope you find the secateurs (a word I learned from Agatha Christie).

    I learn even more from your blog. So much to read, so little time. But I’ve never been good with repositories. My husband provides storage spaces. I hand him things to make sure they get there.

    1. What a very useful husband, Kathy..I always find it’s good to baffle my friends across the world with idiosyncratic terms. That last one was ‘courgette’ which caused general puzzlement. Must look secateurs up in Agatha Christie.

      I think only about 20 of the poems are translated and in general circulation, thanks to Carl Orff who set them to that fabulous music. A translation of about 70 exists, I think. If I had no family to feed and no dog to walk and no ironing pile I’d translate them myself. The magic of the original rarely comes through with all its force.

  3. But what happened to the right arm of St Benedikt?
    Wafna, wafna, I have a pair of secateurs to lend you, over here they’re a smaller size than pruning shears (which live in the garage) and I keep mine in a kitchen drawer too.

    1. Good question, Cindy. Maybe Napoleon put it to good use. I can think of thousands of practical uses for a defunct saint’s arm.
      I wonder if that’s how the Romans laughed?

  4. I have 2 pairs as they take turns to play hide and seek.

    beware the pyracantha, burn the offcuts. dried out those thorns are still extremely painful if you stand on them with bare feet. OOps – you are Brits, bare feet outdoors is not your daily wear.

    Carmina Burana. – how amazing, I’m lazy and never learned about ine source for Orff when he wrote the music.

    Thanks Kate, you keep my horizons expanding 😉

    1. Thanks Sidey 😀 Useful advice re:the pyracantha, and waves of slightly uncharitable envy winging its way across the cyberworld concerning bare feet. We don’t understand that term here. Sandals, we understand. Wellies, maybe.

  5. Oh the loss of secateurs is close to my heart. both my favourites are hiding at the moment (I think I left them at Milly’s but she hasn’t seen them!) and my ratchet ones are not as good… but I still have the loppers and one can do a lot with loppers 🙂

    I love your quotes from the old ‘naughty’ document! So in touch with the realities of life.

  6. Try the pantry for the secateurs, my usual repository for the most unusual of paraphernalia that insists on going awol from its designated hidey hole. Hooray for the Abbot of Cockaigne – what a fellow of noble breast 😉

    1. I quite liked him too, especially the consequences of finding him in the tavern 😀 i shall hasten right now to the pantry to look for my secateurs, thank you for that eminently sensible suggestion. And then I shall hasten to your blog, for I see you have a new post up. Goody.

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