Lady Life

A short bit of translation, to celebrate #WhanThatAprilleDay18. At the foot of the page is a much modernized version of an extract from the alliterative poem Death and Liffe, a depiction of the arrival of Lady Life. This poem presents a debate between Lady Life and Dame Death, two figures whom the narrator sees in a dream vision at the heads of two opposing armies. The poem survives in a corrupted late copy, and so the translation below both relies on editorial reconstruction and has a fair bit of freedom in trying to arrive at something readable.

The Hague, KB, 76 E 13, Le séjour de deuil pour la mort de Philippe de Commines (France, 1512)

In this bit of Britain we are hoping, desperately, for some signs of spring after a long cold hard winter, and so there is something irresistible to me right now about the portrait of Lady Life stepping over the countryside and bringing it all back to life. It seemed a more cheerful prospect for translation than the amazingly macabre portrait of Dame Death. I also rather like the image of Life and Death, as personifications embodied as truly powerful woman, marching onto the scene like some allegorical version of Patty Jenkins’s Amazons.

There is, though, much that makes me feel uneasy about the conventions on which this portrait relies. The narrator’s eye eroticizes Lady Life, revelling in the conventional beauty of the stereotypical noble lady. Life is presented as whiteness, nobility, wealth, courtesy, those who consume and enjoy rather than those who produce and labour. This is allegory, but allegory written for and from a particular social perspective. The poet might know in the abstract that life is what unites us all, but the life he registers is a narrow one.

There might be a little more to it than that, though nothing which should make us feel less uneasy. For all the comfort and delights of Life and her entourage (just the things to appeal to the usual voyeur/wannabee of the medieval dream vision), Death is able to kill fifteen hundred of Life’s followers at a stroke. Death does not pay any attention to social status or privilege. Only when Death oversteps her limits in the debate, claiming to have killed Christ himself, can Life claim victory in the debate by recounting the events of the Crucifixion and the Harrowing of Hell. Lady Life thus personifies not merely natural procreation and the things that make life worth living, but also spiritual salvation and eternal life. That might not console all of us, admittedly, but, when #WhanThatAprilleDay falls on an Easter Sunday, it is at least apt. And, in these strange times when it is so hard to stay cheerful, what matters most is, I am sure, camaraderie, care, and kindness to all, the things that make life worth living. Anyway, on a day that celebrates medieval texts in ‘alle their joyes and sorrowes and richesse’ (as @LeVostreGC has it), here is a little piece from Death and Liffe, good and bad.

She came, making her way just as she should, with a high-class entourage,
Walking on bright covers threaded with pure gold,
On sumptuous embroideries spread out on the grass,
Covering the ground before that beauty where she walked.
Her face was brighter than the bright sun,
The blush on her cheeks redder than the rose on the branch,
Mouth smiling benignly, her glances amused,
Ever laughing for love, as if she just wanted to play.
And, as she went by the riverbank, each one of the boughs
Bowed to that lady and presented their branches;
Blossoms and buds breathed very sweetly;
Flowers bloomed where she stepped across the meadow,
And the faded grass greened again in a flash.
Noisy birds sang unfaltering in the branches
And all the wild creatures in the wood rejoiced.
Kings bent their knees, acknowledging that lady,
And all the princes in the crowd and the proud dukes,
Barons and knights, all of them bowed very low;
All offered to please her, rich and poor.
She welcomed them most respectfully with the kindest words,
Men and women, birds and beasts.
That beautiful woman standing there
Was perfectly dressed in a gown and cloak
Of the loveliest green that anyone ever wore,
For not even an expert could describe the fabric,
And she the most graceful creature ever to set foot on earth,
My wits are too dull to judge her attractions
And no one could guesstimate the price of her jewellery.
The neckline of her gown was cut rather low
So that one could see her divine cleavage
With a bare neck that lit up the place like the rays of the sun;
All the consecrated kings with their glittering gold
Could not afford the very broach which buckled her cloak,
And the crown on her head was created by angels,
With a sceptre of amazing gems set in her hand —
There she stands, just lovely to look at.
Her entourage were all full of fun,
Happy men with faces as bright as the sun:
Sir Comfort, who feeds men in the hall,
Sir Expectation and Sir Nice Things, both big guys,
Sir Life and Sir Liking and Sir Love also,
Sir Refinement and Sir Elegance, full of good manners,
And Sir Honour ruling over all at her command,
Fearless and brave, her right hand man I think;
She had well-respected ladies in her household:
Madame Happiness and Madame Generosity and Madame Kindness,
Conversation and Fun, two very sweet girls,
They seemed full of beauty and joy.
There was all kinds of entertainment to see,
Whoever had the talent to put on a show;
Men and beasts and birds in the leaves —
Even the fishes of the stream were pleased to see her;
Birds twittered with their beaks as joyfully as they could.
Such happiness seemed extraordinary: I was starstruck.

2 thoughts on “Lady Life

  1. Remarkable that you can actually identify some of the birds on the lady’s robe: magpies and pheasants and popinjays for sure — perhaps others as well — white doves? and the birds with white rings around their necks. I wonder how late the copy is. Isn’t this rather unusual in late medieval depictions (though of course one can always pick out owls and such)? I see pansy and columbine, too, but that’s not surprising.

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