January 2017 - Blame the Jongleurs.


Blame the Jongleurs.

I might have been a Romantic in my distant youth. My better half says I still inhabit that place where an irregular life, and constricting conventions jarred on a developing soul. The lady is referring to the fact that I have not grown up. That’s partially true. In my earlier life I was considered something of a maverick. Noncomformists were just then coming back into fashion. As far as Romanticism goes, I admit that for a short time I followed an alternative aesthetic. I read ‘Roman de la Rose’ and ‘Le Orlando Furioso’ in my quest for enlightenment. In this I affected a certain enforced poverty, along with a young man’s right of passage by growing a beard. That tended to style me as a Bohemian, but the odour of ‘Chanel Pour Monsieur’ always let my pretensions down. A penchant for ‘Sullivan Powell Turkish Number One’ didn’t help either. But these were only minor aberrations. I suspect I really only aspired to eccentric individualism, and departed this prototype as the teddy-boys departed with Adam Faith, and before the pseuds arrived with the Beatles. It serves the world right. It was in those heady days that I came across the jongleurs, and King Arthur. You’ll know about him, of course. Also Robin Hood, who was a pale imitation of a sixth century paladin, but he filled the same role which had a constant need for heroes that were, of necessity, being killed off at an alarming rate. They were violent times - a necessary aspect of a good Romance. This ancient notoriety was assisted from falling into disrepute by the trouvères, those old poets of Picardy (Picardie). But scoundrels were abundant, and their historical verses purloined by peripatetic jongleurs. As these nomads entertained the barons in their strongholds across the length and breadth of Europe, they were difficult to catch up with. No castle was replete unless furnished with such monologists. Spaces were always available at the table. It’s no surprise. At this time there weren’t any books, or TV’s; only damsels, the jongleurs, and a bit of fighting for amusement. So it was left to these dubious characters with silver tongues to disseminate the historical memories of the people. At first they only had one or two tales to tell, but even in those days a ‘repeat’ was met with dangerous indifference, even fatal if the names didn’t fit the audiences genealogy. Not without wit, and mindful that life was short enough as it was, they created an oral formula for their stories. You could say it was a new twist to an old plot, something that every nowadays writer practices. In reality they only seemed to have changed the names of persons and places. Still, the audience loved it, giving no indication that the jongleurs days were numbered, like roll film cameras. By the twelfth century writing had become fashionable, even if only to look at. But enough souls were semi-bilingual, speaking in the vernacular, whilst also reading in Latin. In no time it was the age of the great Romantics: Boiardo, Ariosto, Boccaccio drawing on a deep well of ideas wrought from the bent nails of medieval and dark age rumours. The same romantic notions rose in our own small island with much earlier writers. We started with Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, then through a long line of scribblers, to Scott and Tennyson. They amused generations with their tales of Merlin, Lancelot and Arthur’s faithless wife who ended up, according to a local legend, drowning in a well at a nunnery in Amesbury, Wiltshire. You see how easily these stories become embellished with hyperbole, and more than a touch of fantasy. Arthur appeared only as fragments in the ninth and tenth centuries. It was not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the Latin and French romances appear, did the writers dress up his present aspect. However, as the motives for these tales is one of duplicity, half created for a rising noble and warrior class, their aspect is of a fluid nature. It had to be designed to satisfy the ego of the court, and altered to fit its aspect. Stories were invented taking previous incidents and events as the primary source, and moulding them into a new structure of people and places. Newspapers are still at it. The fact that abbeys and monks figure so strongly in the age of the jongleurs leads us to the dénouement of this little story, and the Romantic warrior king. Along with the Holy Grail, Arthur’s Excalibur must figure strongly in the pseudo-historical accounts of medieval daring do, epic struggles, and unrequited love. Excalibur, the sword which Arthur drew out of a stone, or was given to him by that beautiful Pre-Raphaelite ‘Lady of the Lake’. You may choose, but I am prepared to wager it was from a stone. More anon. The Welsh and the Irish have their own versions of Excalibur: Caledvwlch and Caladbolg respectively. We’ll give them a miss, and concentrate on the Italian one!

Tuscany is full of surprises. A provocative place, it does terrible things to the senses of a contemporary Romantic. The region positively bulges with incidents that may become distorted, even corrupted, in the service of the scrivener. I cannot say what follows functioned in this way, only that if I were a jongleur looking for a story, this would be it.


San Galgano, was an abbey originally built in the strict French Cistercian Gothic style. Now a ruin, which seems to be the way with styles, it lies on the old road to Massa Marittima, quite off the beaten track. For lover’s of old ruins this church would be reason enough to risk getting lost, for it boasts a skeleton in its cupboard, like most destroyed and abandoned architectural piles. It fell on evil times in the sixteenth century when successive abbots sold off all the lead on the roof, along with the fixtures and fittings. Needless to say, perdition was swift in coming, a disaster from which it didn’t survive. At least, they left the skeleton in the cupboard. The abbey was really only a camp-follower, for on the summit of Montesiepi, the small hill that overlooks the abbey, and accessed by a steep track, you will find a small circular Romanesque chapel known as the ‘Rotunda’. It was conceived as a temple to house the tomb of a young knight, Galgano Guidotti, who had led a frivolous and dissipated life, before he saw the light and became a hermit. This didn’t suit his mother Dionisia, or his betrothed Polissena, let alone his chums in Chiusdino where he was the leading light, and much derided for these foppish motives. In a fit of temper he drove his sword into a stone outside his hut on Monteseipi, and prayed for enlightenment, and the renunciation of war. Things were hotting up between the city states even then. Over time the site became a place of pilgrimage, and shortly after his death in 1181 a mausoleum was erected to shelter his bones. It was consecrated in 1185 by the Bishop of Volterra. The building has seen a rather awkward transformation, being enlarged to accommodate those medieval tourists, the pilgrims and the faithful, who descended on it in their hoards like the ancient Huns who had only just left. However, the exquisite circular interior with its white facade under a circle of alternating red and white rings into the top of the cupola, lies untouched, having sheltered for over eight hundred years, its precious treasure. The sword thrust into a stone.


Excalibur? Probably not, but who’s to say a wandering jongleur didn’t pass this way, and found inspiration for the birth of a good story. So, if you find yourself near Colle Val d’Elsa in Tuscany, you may visit the legend for yourself.