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