When I began my master’s degree program in history I quickly discovered that the ancient history professor believed in books. He taught all the best classes–ancient history was my primary interest–and so I saw a lot of him. He would routinely assign twenty books per semester-long class. We would then discuss the ideas and approaches the writers took. He also said that you cannot really understand a civilization without two things: knowing their language, and reading their stories.Language wasn’t my strength. But books? Yes, I could get behind that.
We read Gilgamesh when we studied the ancient Mesopotamian hero, and parts of the Bible, and Greek poetry, and Roman plays. He told us the story of the Roman Triumph, when a victorious general, at the height of his glory and manliness, would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome with the crowd lining the streets in adoration. Occupying the chariot next to him was a slave, who held a gold crown above his head. He would also whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”
There is a time for life, and glory, and triumph. And there is a time for death. Medieval people knew this as well, surrounded by death as they were, from plagues and accidents and wars. They would often show a skull in art, a memento mori. A reminder of death.
A popular poem during this age was “Erthe upon Erthe”, written in Middle English. It was often inscribed on the front or back pages of books.
Earth has been miraculously created out of earth Earth has attained a high position on earth out of nothing Earth has fixed all his thoughts On trying to raise earth to heaven on earth
Earth wants to be an earthly king But earth doesn’t have a clue how on earth to go about it When earth breeds earth and brings his reward home Earth and earth will have to bid each other a tragic farewell
Remember, o man, that you are ashes And into ashes you will return
Earth conquers castles and towers on earth Then says earth to the earth, “All of this belongs to us” When earth has built up his defences on earth That is when earth will really get his come-uppance from earth
Earth is piled up on earth like dirt on dirt He who swans around the earth, glittering like gold As though earth won’t really have to return to earth Will soon find earth indeed becoming earth again, no matter how much he tries to fight it
I really wonder why earth loves earth Or why earth should toil and work for earth’s sake Because when earth is brought to the earth of his grave Earth back in the earth will stink to high heaven
In Middle English:
Erthe out of erthe is wonderly wroghte Erthe hase geten one erthe a dignite of noghte Erthe upon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte
Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge Bot how erthe to erthe shall thinkes he no thinge When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting
Memento, homo, quad cinis es Et in cenerem reverteris
Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, “This es al ourres” When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his barres Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scowrres
Erthe goes upon erthe as molde upon molde He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde Like erthe never more go to erthe sholde And yitt shall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde
Whye erthe lurves erthe, wondere me thinke Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke For when erthe upon erthe has broughte within brinke Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke
You can see from this poem that memento mori was on the anonymous author’s mind. To dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.
We no longer put such morbid thoughts in our book dedications, instead choosing to honor loved ones or mentors. Perhaps, though, we should remember, like that Roman general of old, that one day we, too, will be gone. I try to do so in order to keep from being lulled into the complacence that everyday life brings. It reminds me to work, to create, to write while I still can. Memento mori.
This featured post had originally intended to highlight a collection of history books that bloggers or enthusiasts would find interesting enough to read. After setting aside some favourite books in my home library that I had wished to ‘recommend’, I realized there were far too many. Narrowing them down into author categories I realised one author stood out from the rest. John Julius Norwich. A week ago I had decided to email Lord Norwich as to whether I could interview him with a series of short questions to add a little depth to my write up. To my surprise, I received a reply and before I knew it I was sharing correspondence with a literary great. I explained to him my passion for history and Byzantium and my plan to present questions to him, with his reply being,
“Ask me anything you like. But I warn you, I’m not…