Monday, January 14, 2008

Vulgate Verse: out of Egypt

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

Today I'd like to comment on a verse connected with a medieval holiday celebrated on January 14, the "Holiday of the Donkeys," or Festum Asinorum as it was known in Latin. This was a burlesque medieval holiday, prompted by the Bibilcal tradition of the flight into Egypt, as told in the gospel of Matthew. According to Matthew, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt, so they would be safe from the persecutions of Herod. Then, after Herod died, Joseph was visited again by an angel, who told him it was safe to return. You can read more about this at wikipedia.

In Matthew 2:15, there is a "proof-text" which provides some insight as to why Matthew thought this story was important to tell. Ex Aegypto vocavi filium meum, "Out of Egypt I have called my son," are the words that Matthew cites, quoting from the book of the prophet Hosea.

Matthew is the only gospel writer to make reference to the journey to Egypt, and God then summoning Joseph, Mary and Jesus "out of Egypt," fulfilling Hosea's prophecy. Yet the story of the flight into Egypt was widely popular in the Christian tradition, spawning many ancillary legends and tales. (In a previous post, I reported the tradition that the two thieves crucified with Jesus had met him earlier, during the Egyptian sojourn.)

Which brings us to the Festum Asinorum. Chambers' Book of Days, available online (!), provides a great account of this medieval tradition:
Formerly, the Feast of the Ass was celebrated on this day, in commemoration of the 'Flight into Egypt.' Theatrical representations of Scripture history were originally intended to impress religious truths upon the minds of an illiterate people, at a period when books were not, and few could read. But the advantages resulting from this mode of instruction were counterbalanced by the numerous ridiculous ceremonies which they originated. Of these probably none exceeded in grossness of absurdity the Festival of the Ass, as annually performed on the 14th of January.

The escape of the Holy Family into Egypt was represented by a beautiful girl holding a child at her breast, and seated on an ass, splendidly decorated with trappings of gold-embroidered cloth. After having been led in solemn procession through the streets of the city in which the celebration was held, the ass, with its burden, was taken into the principal church, and placed near the high altar, while the various religious services were performed. In place, however, of the usual responses, the people on this occasion imitated the braying of an ass; and, at the conclusion of the service, the priest, instead of the usual benediction, brayed three times, and was answered by a general hee-hawing from the voices of the whole congregation. A hymn, as ridiculous as the ceremony, was sung by a double choir, the people joining in the chorus, and imitating the braying of an ass. Ducange has preserved this burlesque composition, a curious medley of French and mediƦval Latin, which may be translated thus:

From the country of the East,
Came this strong and handsome beast:
This able ass, beyond compare,
Heavy loads and packs to bear.
Now, seignior ass, a noble bray,
Thy beauteous mouth at large display;
Abundant food our hay-lofts yield,
And oats abundant load the field.
Hee-haw! He-haw! He-haw!

True it is, his pace is slow,
Till he feels the quickening blow;
Till he feel the urging goad,
On his hinder part bestowed.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

He was born on Shechem's hill;
In Reuben's vales he fed his fill;
He drank of Jordan's sacred stream,
And gambolled in Bethlehem.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

See that broad majestic ear!
Born he is the yoke to wear:
All his fellows he surpasses!
He's the very lord of asses!
Now, seignior ass, &c.

In leaping he excels the fawn,
The deer, the colts upon the lawn;
Less swift the dromedaries ran,
Boasted of in Midian.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

Gold from Araby the blest,
Seba myrrh, of myrrh the best,
To the church this ass did bring;
We his sturdy labours sing.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

While he draws the loaded wain,
Or many a pack, he don't complain.
With his jaws, a noble pair,
He doth craunch his homely fare.
Now, seignior ass, &c.'

The bearded barley and its stem,
And thistles, yield his fill of them:
He assists to separate,
When it 's threshed, the chaff from wheat.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

'With your belly full of grain,
Bray, most honoured ass, Amen!
Bray out loudly, bray again,
Never mind the old Amen;
Without ceasing, bray again,
Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen!
Hee-haw! He-haw! He-haw!'
For those of you who might know some Latin, I thought I would present the Latin version (with French chorus) which is cited here in translation!
Orientis partibus
Adventavit Asinus,
Pulcher et fortissimus,
Sarcinis aptissimus.
Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez,
Belle bouche rechignez,
Vous aurez du fom assez
Et de l'avoine a' plantez.

Lentus erat pedibus,
Nisi foret baculus
Et eum in clunibus
Pungeret aculeus.
Hez...
Hic in collibus Sichem
Iam nutritus sub Ruben,
Transiit per Iordanem,
Saliit in Bethleem.
Hez...
Ecce magnis auribus
Subiugalis filius,
Asinus egregius,
Asinorum dominus.
Hez...
Saltu vincti hinnulos,
Damas et capreolos,
Super dromedarios
Velox Madianeos.
Hez...
Aurum de Arabia,
Thus et myrrhum de Saba
Tulit in ecclesia
Virtus Asinaria.
Hez...
Dum trahit vehicula
Multa cum sarcinula,
Illius mandibula
Dura terit pabula.
Hez...
Cum aristis hordeum
Comedit et carduum;
Triticum a palea
Segregat in area.
Hez.
Amen, dicas, Asine,
(hic genuflectabatur)
Iam satur de gramine:
Amen, amen itera
Aspernare vetera.
Hez...
So, HEE HAW, everybody! And here is a picture of the flight into Egypt, by the great painter Giotto:

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