The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 3 The Archpoet, 12th-Century Gangsta

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The Archpoet, 12th-Century Gangsta

The 12th century was an intellectual Wild West. Lying at the very heart of the Dark Ages, it was a time of academic explosion and theological daring that spectacularly collapsed under the weight of its own chutzpah. Popes battled antipopes while kings built empires upon the rubble. Pierre Abélard, the greatest mind of his era, was gang-jumped and castrated for having despoiled the virtue of young Heloise d’Argenteuil. And amidst all the carnage and jumble, one court poet had a hell of a good time getting drunk, writing verse, making money, and calling Rome to account for its hypocrisy. We know him only as The Archpoet.

Yes, that is objectively the coolest name of anybody we’re going to be visiting in this series, but beyond that we know precious little about him. His entire fame rests on a mere ten surviving poems, including two featured in that treasury of medieval bawdiness, the Carmina Burana. But those ten poems show us a side of the Dark Ages that belies the standard history of Europe.

Let’s face it, we like our Dark Ages… well, dark. We want them populated by a shadowy Catholic Church that brooked no dissent, and a people cowed to subservience by the dictates of God and Rome. It’s an often true picture of the half millennium separating the fall of Rome from the first stirrings and whirrings of the Renaissance, but by accepting it as comprehensive we lose out on some truly delightful pockets of humanist resistance, such as the wondrous drunken ravings of our new friend The Archpoet.

What we know is that he worked for an Archbishop in the service of Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor whose army criss-crossed Europe in a terribly romantic but over-ambitious plan to re-establish the Roman Empire with Frederick as its ruler, and the pope a merely useful employee of the state. The dates of his life (1130-1165) are pure educated guesswork based on some contextual clues in the handful of surviving poems we have. For that matter, everything we know about him comes from those poems, so let’s dig in.

The most famous is poem X, the “Confession” narrative, but my favorite for sheer nerve is the first.  It begins with all the standard moves one would expect of a medieval poet:

Poetarum seductos fabulis
Veritatis instruxit regulis,
Signis multis atque miraculis
Fidem veram dedit incredulis.

To men seduced by the fables of poets
Jesus taught truth and the laws,
By many signs and miracles
He gave true faith to unbelievers.

The usual, right? There follow stanzas upon stanzas in a similar vein, until the Archpoet cunningly turns the topic to Christian charity, and in particular the type of charity owed by a wealthy man, such as the patron to whom the poem is addressed, to a poor man, such as the poet himself. Having greased the wheels of holy charity, he lets loose with his own mock apologetic story:

Vitam meum vobis enucleo,
Paupertatem meam non taceo:
Sic sum pauper et sic indigeo,
Quod tam siti quam fame pereo.

Non sum nequam, nullum decipio:
Uno tantum laboro vi(c/t)io:
Nam libenter semper accipio
Et plus mihi quam fratri cupio.

Let me lay out my life story,
and I won’t conceal my poverty:
So poor am I and in such need,
That I am quite dying of thirst and hunger.

But I’m not worthless, nor do I deceive:
I give injury in only one way:
For I always accept generosity with pleasure
And prefer getting more than my brother.

But why does he need such generosity?  Well,

Nobis vero mundo fruentibus
Vinum bonum saepe bibentibus,
Sine vino deficientibus,
Nummos multos pro largis sumptibus.

For myself, having savored the world’s delights
And having often drunk good wine
(For without wine I grow weak and useless),
Let God grant me much money to wipe out my debts.

Wine, poetry, sex, and sumptuous fur cloaks: as you read through the Archpoet’s work, these are the things he sinks his heart into writing about, while the references to religion and to his patron’s intelligence and prowess are just so many flattering devices to help get him more wine, sex, and sumptuous fur cloaks. The call to holy obedience can’t stand against the call to live, and, in spite of his assurances that with a little more money he’ll change his ways and set out on the path of humility, each new poem sees him broke again and more in love with good wine and good poetry than ever. (In poem IV he flat out says that he can out-write Ovid if he’s drunk enough).

Moving from his own love of pleasure and good company to the wider world, the Archpoet surveys the religious landscape, and rails against the flagrant hypocrisy of the papacy and its priests:

Doleo, cum video leccatores multos
Penitus inutiles penitusque stultos,
Nulla prorsus animi ratione fultos
Sericis et variis indumentis cultos.

Pereat hypocrisis omnium parcorum!

I grieve, when I see the many parasites (priests)
Entirely useless and even more stupid,
Supported by no ability to reason
Worshiping in their expensive silk robes.

Let them perish, these hypocrites who hoard their wealth!

And the Archpoet wasn’t alone in the 12th century. Abélard’s Sic et Non was a catalogue of mutually contradictory statements by Church fathers. The poetry of Hugh Primas was as critical of the Catholic Church as the Archpoet’s. Frederick Barbarossa lent his support to three different antipopes when Pope Alexander III wouldn’t submit to his will. In France, the University of Paris was founded mid-century with departments of medicine, art, and law alongside theology. The pulsing curiosity of the human race was everywhere quickening, spurring intellectuals to think dangerously, kings to act boldly, and poets to live by the dictates of their nature, rather than the abstract precepts of the flagrantly corrupt religious classes.

It couldn’t last, and didn’t.

When and precisely how our poet died amidst the rush and swell of this mini-Renaissance we can’t know. All that remains, then, is to write the epitaph of our blearily heroic poet. Luckily, he wrote his own:

Meum est propositum in taberna mori,
Ut sint vina proxima morientis ori.
Tunc cantabunt letius angelorum chori:
“Sit deus propitious huic potatori.”

It’s a pretty sure bet I’ll die in a tavern,
And may wine be near my lips upon dying.
Then will the chorus of angels merrily sing:
“May God have mercy on this drunkard.”

Further Reading

You can find all ten of The Archpoet’s existing poems online in Latin here. The most famous of those, poem X, exists in several English translations available on the Internet, but that is not the case for the other nine, which is why all of the translations above are my own. If you can’t (or don’t wanna) read Latin and you have way more money than I, Fleur Babcock has a collection of the poetry of Hugh Primas and the Archpoet in a dual Latin-English format which is well spoken of.