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Taking Notice

by Don Webb

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
1. Matt’s Report
2. Mary’s Report
3. Jed’s Report

2. Mary’s report

“Now,” the professor continues, “tell us about your project, Mary.”

“I’ll take you from the monumental to the faintly ridiculous,” Mary says. “I wanted to solve a literary puzzle that has hung over medieval scholarship for centuries: the meaning of AOI.”

“The meaning of what?!” asks Andrew, incredulously.

“I’m so glad you ask.” Mary feigns a disingenuous smile. “AOI appears frequently in the earliest copy of the Song of Roland. We didn’t know what it meant. We didn’t even know if it was a word.”

“By ‘didn’t’ I suspect you mean you’ve found out,” says Andrew.

“I think so,” responds Mary confidently. “Look.” She starts her own hologram projection, and the class finds itself virtually surrounded by a large crowd in front of a wooden stage.

“This is the equivalent of a county fair. Summertime in the province of Champagne; twelfth century. The capital, Troyes, is a hub on north-south and east-west trade routes. I had no trouble blending in with the crowd; it was full of people from all over northern Europe.”

The hologram shows six performers on the stage. One of them steps to the front, takes a manuscript from a pouch, unfolds it, and begins to recite in a loud voice that reaches to the back of the crowd:

Charles li reis, nostre emperedre magnes,
Set anz toz pleins ad estét en Espaigne...

Mary translates: “‘King Charlemagne, our great emperor, has been in Spain for seven long years...’ That’s a jongleur reciting the poem. Notice what the others are doing.”

She continues to translate along with the recitation: “No wall or city remains to be breached, except Saragossa, which is on a hill. King Marsile holds it, and he does not love God. He serves Mohammed and swears by Apollo.”

On stage, a jongleur has put on a crown with a Christian cross and a fake beard; he has also taken up a scepter and sword. The crowd applauds Charlemagne. Another jongleur puts on a crown with a crescent moon and waves a sword of his own. The crowd jeers at Marsile.

“And now hear the last line of the stanza.”

Ne s’poet guarder que mals ne l’i ataignet!

“‘He can’t escape the harm that will come to him there’. And the last line ends in ‘AOI’. But it’s not said. Watch what happens.”

The actors quickly change the rudimentary stage props to show King Marsile in council. The first reader hands off the script to another, who continues the recitation, scarcely missing a beat.

“There you have it. ‘AOI’ appears to have been an abbreviated stage direction meaning ‘change speakers’.”

“I can see why they’d do that,” Bart remarks. “The readers had to yell if everybody was going to hear them. They’d want to save their voices.”

“And the readers could specialize,” comments Mark, “each reciting for particular sets of characters.”

Thomas has always read footnotes first; he says, “The epic has a signature: Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet. Nobody has known what that line means. Was Turoldus the author or a copyist?”

“There’s no way I can find out without getting noticed,” answers Mary. “I’d have to ask too many questions and go poking around among the likely candidates in recorded history. For what it’s worth, my guess is he’s the author. But what would we gain if we did find out who he was?”

“And what about the literary tradition?” asks the professor.

“Roland and his companion Oliver were well-known names. We’ve been able to confirm that from manuscripts I’ve photocopied. Like Matt, I’ve done some skulking around of my own, but that’s another story. As for the oral tradition, well, we’ll just have do as Matt says: go back and do a lot of listening.”

“What about the battles?” asked Andrew.

“The ninth-century Basque ambush of Charlemagne’s rear guard? I’ll pass that one up, thank you very much,” replies Mary, with a grin. “But this is a twelfth-century audience” — she gestures at the stilled hologram projection — “and they don’t know about it. All they care about is Roland and Charlemagne fighting Saracens. What we see here is Crusader propaganda in action.”

The professor looks surprised. “And you mingled in the crowd and recorded the entire week-long performance without getting noticed? That was very brave of you, Mary. I’m glad you made it home.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Mary answers. “The bigger the crowd and the more inconspicuous you are, the better your chances. I felt pretty safe.”

“Thank you, Mary,” the professor says. “You’ve done a lot more than clarify an obscure term in an old language. You’ve brought a national epic to life by recording a public performance. And it makes the audience’s response very clear. You and Matt have both illustrated a very important function of history: discovering the meaning of the stories that people live by. Good job.”

The class applauds.

* * *

Proceed to Jed’s report...

Copyright © 2010 by Don Webb

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