Word-Play and Political Satire: Solving the Riddle of the Text of Jezebel

By Galloway, Andrew | Medium Aevum, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Word-Play and Political Satire: Solving the Riddle of the Text of Jezebel


Galloway, Andrew, Medium Aevum


The learning and scrutiny that Jan Ziolkowski's book-length edition, translation, and commentary has lavished on the 141-line Latin poem given the modern title Jezebel, after its main, and only named speaker, display a peculiarly enigmatic niche of medieval poetics.(1) Extant in a single, late eleventh- or early twelfth-century copy, the poem -- a debate, which centrally frames the defiant sensuality of the paradigmatic female sinner in Christian culture -- is identifiably from eleventh-century Normandy, probably the episcopal court at Rouen in the early part of the century since it is associated in the manuscript and by style and themes with the Latin satires known to be by Warner of Rouen. But otherwise it remains shrouded in uncertainties of occasion, author, and, especially in its opening lines, original text and meaning.

Ziolkowski's edition compellingly displays the dense allusiveness of this brief poem, most of whose lines include both a brief question by a pious Christian and a tart answer by the blasphemous and obscene Jezebel, who often twists the language of her interlocutor. Ziolkowski includes in his claim for the poem's intellectual and literary subtlety the first seven lines, which are so difficult and miscopied that Peter Dronke, who first brought the poem to general attention, thought them mere pen trials, copied with the rest simply because the first line included Jezebel's name, in a clumsy effort by the `somewhat foolish copyist' to connect Jezebel to the following poem, which Dronke calls Semiramis. Dronke considered this second poem much worthier of close attention: in it, another sexually scandalous woman, this time a figure from classical antiquity who has coupled with Jupiter in the form of a bull, defends her liaison.(2) Ziolkowski retorts that the opening lines of Jezebel are `essential as a preamble ... In them, the author asserts his right to poetic license ... by drawing an analogy between his versifying and the activity of artists and artisans.'(3) And throughout a poem in which Dronke found a monotonously predictable assertion of Jezebel's shamelessness, Ziolkowski finds a series of expanding hermeneutic challenges: `each half line in the poem is a challenge to the hearer or reader, first to intuit its meanings in itself, then to piece together the relationships between it and its matching half line, and finally to place the line as a whole within the context of the lines surrounding it.'(4)

Ziolkowski's hypothesis of an intellectually challenging, unified purpose in the poem is inspiring, and his results broadly confirm his claim. General questions about the entire work still linger, however, regarding its circumstances and significance, even whether and how it was amusing to its original readers.(5) And despite Ziolkowski's textual emendations and speculative explanations, the opening seven lines remain the hardest in the poem. I believe I can restore their text and explain their meaning more plausibly than he has, and can show that they are far more significant for the rest of Jezebel, and even Semiramis, than he or Dronke claim. The arguments for restoring the first four lines are, I believe, very secure; some problems remain in the final lines that require more speculation. My conjectural emendation to explain those lines is perhaps rasher than anything Ziolkowski proposes, but it suggests cogency both for Jezebel as a whole and the poem Semiramis that follows it, for it displays a mordant political satire that encompasses both. If my argument is right, the `foolish copyist' who simply distinguished these poems as Liber Primus and Liber Secundus was making no mistake at all, even though he deliberately effaced the original target of the satire, just as he inadvertently ruined some of the poet's most subtle verbal wit.

I present the opening lines first as they appear in the manuscript as transcribed by Ziolkowski (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, lat. 8121A), then the text with Ziolkowski's emendations, then his translation of his emended text. …

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Word-Play and Political Satire: Solving the Riddle of the Text of Jezebel
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