Over the past few days I have been reading around Medieval mysticism as part of my introductory thesis chapter. Rather than give extracts and / or quotes from said chapter (or worse still reproduce the entire draft here!) I would like to set out one of the things that most immediately struck me over the course of my readings. A reader of the ‘Mirror of Simple Souls’ (c. 1300) or anonymous devotional verse (see below) might not expect the text’s unexpected lack of debauchery or sensual indulgence. If we are to believe the accusations later made against the libertins in the early seventeenth century, or even in the works of Jean Calvin, then one would expect early libertin sects to urge a complete disregard for physical restraint in their writings.
Rouen held an annual competition to find the best improvised poem – a ‘Palinod’ in French – in honour of the Imaculate Conception. In this northern city that would go on to produce the unidentifiable ‘Cordelier’ attacked by Calvin, as well as a small selection of satirical poets in the early seventeenth century, the entrants in one such competition appeared to have a tase for deviating from devotional verse dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Instead, many of the entries contained verses of questionable if not condemnable theological content; a fact that, judging by a pronounced preference for anonymity or pseudonyms (such as Pierre du Val’s rather fitting ‘Rien sans l’esprit’), their authors were all too aware of. It is perhaps unsurprising that this curious gathering of amateur libertin poets should only have lasted, according to material evidence, but two years (1549 and 1550). But were they libertin?
It is true to say that these poems – termed ‘theatre’ only by virtue of the fact that they were performed on a raised platform – are of a libertine nature. The typical occupation with the spirit-flesh dialectic within the framework of divine Grace is omnipresent, and there is a (less) discernable mocking of dogmatic moral codes. But Grace and divine Law always win the day. The bereaved are consoled, the debauched are made to repent, and the balance between Faith and Loose Living (rpresented through allegorical personification) is often so even that the reader is left quite unsure as to which path Man will choose. At no point do we see the direct mockery of Catholicism, or the proud declarations of gastronomic excess to be found in the Latin Goliard poets. For the seeker of early libertins looking for more than exhaultations of the Spirit, this literature may not be the most fertile of grounds.
© Adam Horsley, 8th January 2012