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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Story of Fortunatus
By Augustin Thierry (1795–1856)
 
From the ‘Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era’

THE FIRST event which signalized the opening of the synod [of Soissons, 580 A.D.] was a literary one: it was the arrival of a long piece of poetry composed by Venantius Fortunatus, and addressed to King Hilperik and to all the bishops assembled at Braine. The singular career which this Italian, the last poet of the aristocratic Gallo-Roman society, had created for himself by his talents and the elegance of his manners, demands here an episodical digression.  1
  Born in the environs of Treviso, and educated at Ravenna, Fortunatus came to Gaul to visit the tomb of St. Martin, in fulfillment of a pious vow; but this journey being in all ways delightful to him, he made no haste to terminate it. After having accomplished his pilgrimage to Tours, he continued to travel from town to town, and was sought and welcomed by all the rich and noble men who still piqued themselves on their refinement and elegance. He traveled all over Gaul, from Mayence to Bordeaux, and from Toulouse to Cologne; visiting on his road the bishops, counts, and dukes, either of Gallic or Frankish origin, and finding in most of them obliging hosts, and often truly kind friends.  2
  Those whom he left, after a stay of a longer or shorter period in their episcopal palaces, their country-houses, or their strong fortresses, kept up a regular correspondence with him from that period; and he replied to their letters by pieces of elegiac poetry, in which he retraced the remembrances and incidents of his journey. To every one he spoke of the natural beauties and monuments of their country: he described the picturesque spots, the rivers and the forests, the culture of the land, the riches of the churches, and the delights of the country-houses. These pictures, sometimes tolerably accurate and sometimes vaguely rhetorical, were mixed up with compliments and flattery. The poet and wit praised the kindness, the hospitality, of the Frankish nobles, not omitting the facility with which they conversed in Latin; and the political talents, the ingenuity, and the knowledge of law and business, which characterized the Gallo-Roman nobles. To praise for the piety of the bishops, and their zeal in building and consecrating new churches, he added approbation of their administrative works for the prosperity, ornament, or safety of towns. He praised one for having restored ancient edifices, a prætorium, a portico, and baths; a second for having turned the course of a river, and dug canals for irrigation; a third for having erected a citadel fortified with towers and machines of war. All this, it must be owned, was marked with signs of extreme literary degeneracy; being written in a style at once pedantic and careless, full of incorrect and distorted expressions and of puerile puns: but setting these aside, it is pleasant to witness the appearance of Venantius Fortunatus rekindling a last spark of intellectual life in Gaul, and to see this stranger becoming a common bond of union between those who, in the midst of a society declining into barbarism, here and there retained the love of literature and mental enjoyments. Of all his friendships, the deepest and most permanent was the one which he formed with a woman,—Radegonda, one of the wives of King Chlother the First, then living retired at Poitiers in a convent which she had herself founded, and where she had taken the veil as a simple nun….  3
  The monastery of Poitiers had already [A.D. 567] attracted the attention of the whole Christian world for more than fifteen years, when Venantius Fortunatus, in his pilgrimage of devotion and pleasure through Gaul, visited it as one of the most remarkable sights which his travels afforded him. He was received there with flattering distinction: the warm reception which the Queen was accustomed to give men of talent and refinement was lavished on him as the most illustrious and amiable of their guests. He saw himself loaded by her and the abbess with care, attentions, and praises. This admiration, reproduced each day under various forms, and distilled, so to speak, into the ear of the poet by two women,—the one older than himself, the other younger,—detained him by ever new charms longer than he had expected. Weeks, months passed, and all delays were exhausted; and when the traveler spoke of setting forth again, Radegonda said to him: “Why should you go? Why not remain with us?” This wish, uttered by friendship, was to Fortunatus a decree of fate: he no longer thought of crossing the Alps, but settled at Poitiers, took orders there, and became a priest of the metropolitan church.  4
  This change of profession facilitated his intercourse with his two friends, whom he called his mother and sister, and it became still more assiduous and intimate than before. Apart from the ordinary necessity of women being governed by a man, there were imperious reasons in the case of the foundress and the abbess of the convent of Poitiers, which demanded a union of attention and firmness only to be met with in a man. The monastery had considerable property, which it was not only necessary to manage, but also to guard with daily vigilance against impositions and robberies. This security was only to be obtained by means of royal diplomas, threats of excommunication from the bishops, and perpetual negotiations with dukes, counts, and judges, who were little anxious to act from duty, but who did a great deal from interest or private friendship. A task like this demanded both address and activity, frequent journeys, visits to the courts of kings, the talent of pleasing powerful men, and of treating with all sorts of people. Fortunatus employed in it all his knowledge of the world and the resources of his mind, with as much success as zeal; he became the counselor, confidential agent, ambassador, steward, and secretary of the Queen and the abbess. His influence, absolute in external matters, was hardly less so on the internal order and arrangements of the house: he was the arbitrator of little quarrels, the moderator of rival passions and feminine spite. All mitigations of the rules, all favors, holidays, and extra repasts, were obtained through his intervention and at his request. He even had, to a certain extent, the direction of consciences; and his advice, sometimes given in verse, always inclined to the least rigid side. Moreover, Fortunatus combined great suppleness of mind with considerable freedom of manners. A Christian chiefly through his imagination, as has been frequently said of the Italians, his orthodoxy was irreproachable; but in his practice of life he was effeminate and sensual. He abandoned himself without restraint to the pleasures of the table; and not only was he always found a jovial guest, a great drinker, and an inspired singer at the banquets given by his rich patrons, both Romans and barbarians, but in imitation of the customs of imperial Rome he sometimes dined alone on several courses. Clever as all women are at retaining and attaching to themselves a friend by the weak points of his character, Radegonda and Agnes rivaled each other in encouraging this gross propensity, in the same way that they flattered in him a less ignoble defect,—that of literary vanity. They sent daily to Fortunatus’s dwelling the best part of the meals of the house; and not content with this, they had dishes which were forbidden them by the rules, dressed for him with all possible care. These were meats of all kinds, seasoned in a thousand different ways, and vegetables dressed with gravy or honey, and served up in dishes of silver, jasper, and crystal. At other times he was invited to take his repast at the convent; and then not only was the entertainment of the most delicate kind, but the ornaments of the dining-room were of a refined coquetry. Wreaths of odoriferous flowers adorned the walls, and rose-leaves covered the table instead of a table-cloth. Wine flowed into beautiful goblets for the guests to whom it was interdicted by no vow; there was almost a reflex of the suppers of Horace or Tibullus in the elegance of this repast, offered to a Christian poet by two recluses dead to the world. The three actors of this singular drama addressed each other by tender names, the meaning of which a heathen would certainly have misunderstood. The names of mother and sister from the lips of the Italian were accompanied by such epithets as these: “my life,” “my light,” “delight of my soul”; and all this was only, in truth, an exalted but chaste friendship, a sort of intellectual love. With regard to the abbess, who was little more than thirty when this liaison began, this intimacy appeared suspicious, and became the subject of scandalous insinuations. The reputation of the priest Fortunatus suffered from them, and he was obliged to defend himself, and to protest that he only felt for Agnes, like a brother, a purely spiritual love, a celestial affection. He did it with dignity, in some verses in which he takes Christ and the Virgin as witnesses of the innocence of his heart.  5
  This man of frivolous and gay disposition, whose maxim was to enjoy the present, and always to look on the bright side of life, was, in his conversations with the daughter of the King of Thuringia, the confidant of deep suffering, of melancholy reminiscences, of which he felt himself incapable. Radegonda had attained the age when the hair begins to whiten, without having forgotten any of the impressions of her early childhood; and at fifty, the memory of the days spent in her own country amidst her friends came to her as fresh and as painful as at the moment of her capture. She often said, “I am a poor captive woman:” she delighted in retracing, even in their smallest details, the scenes of desolation, of murder, and of violence, of which she had been a witness, and partly a victim. After so many years of exile, and notwithstanding a total change of tastes and habits, the remembrance of the parental fireside, and the old family affections, remained to her objects of worship and of love: it was the remnant, the only one she had retained, of the Germanic manners and character. The images of her dead and banished parents never ceased to be present to her, in spite of her new attachments, and the peace of mind she had acquired. There was even something vehement, an almost savage ardor, in her yearnings towards the last remnants of her race, towards the son of her uncle who had taken refuge at Constantinople, towards cousins born in exile and whom she only knew by name. This woman, who, in a strange land, had never been able to love anything which was both Christian and civilized, colored her patriotic regrets with a rude poetry, a reminiscence of national songs which she had formerly heard in the wooden palace of her ancestors, or on the heaths of her country. The traces of them are still visibly, though certainly in a softened degree, to be met with here and there in some pieces of poetry, in which the Italian poet, speaking in the name of the queen of the barbarians, endeavors to render her melancholy confidences in the way that he received them from her:—
          “I have seen women carried into slavery, with bound hands and flowing hair; one walked barefooted in the blood of her husband, the other passed over the corpse of her brother. Each one has had cause for tears; and I, I have wept for all. I have wept for my relations who have died, and I must weep for those who remain alive. When my tears cease to flow, when my sighs are hushed, my sorrow is not silent. When the wind murmurs, I listen if it brings me any news; but no shadow of my relations presents itself to me. A whole world divides me from what I love most. Where are they? I ask it of the wind that whistles; I ask it of the clouds that float by; I wish some bird would come and tell me of them. Ah! if I were not withheld by the sacred walls of this convent, they would see me arrive at the moment when they least expected me. I would set out in bad weather; I would sail joyfully through the tempest. The sailors might tremble, but I should have no fear. If the vessel split, I would fasten myself to a plank, and continue my voyage; and if I could seize no fragment, I would swim to them.”
  6
  Such was the life which Fortunatus had led since the year 567: a life consisting of religion without moroseness, of affection without anxiety, of grave cares, of leisure filled with agreeable trifling. This last and curious example of an attempt at uniting Christian perfection with the social refinements of ancient civilization would have passed away without leaving any trace if the friend of Agnes and Radegonda had not himself, in his poetical works, noted even the smallest phases of the destiny which, with so perfect an instinct of happiness, he had chosen for himself. In them is found inscribed, almost day by day, the history of this society of three persons connected by a strong sympathy,—the love of everything elegant, and the want of lively and intellectual conversation. There are verses on all the little events of which this sweet and monotonous mode of existence was made up: on the pain of separation, the dullness of absence, and the delights of return; on little presents made and received,—on flowers, fruits, and all sorts of dainties, on willow-baskets which the poet amused himself in plaiting with his own hands as gifts for his two friends. There are some on the suppers of the three in the convent, animated by “delicious chats”; and for the solitary repasts in which Fortunatus, whilst eating his utmost, regretted having only one pleasure at a time, and not having his eyes and ears charmed as well. Finally, there were some on the sad and happy days which every year brought round: such as the anniversary of Agnes’s birth; and the first day of Lent, when Radegonda, in obedience to a vow, shut herself up in a cell to pass there the time of that long fast. “Where is my light hidden? Wherefore does she conceal herself from my eyes?” the poet then exclaimed, in a passionate accent which might have been thought profane; and when Easter-day and the end of this long absence arrived, he then, mingling the smiles of a madrigal with the grave reflections of the Christian faith, said to Radegonda: “Thou hast robbed me of my happiness: now it returns to me with thee; thou makest me doubly celebrate this solemn festival.”  7
  To the delights of a tranquillity unique in that century, the Italian emigrant added that of a glory which was no less so; and he was even able to deceive himself as to the duration of the expiring literature of which he was the last and most frivolous representative. The barbarians admired him, and did their best to delight in his witticisms; his slightest works, such as notes written whilst the bearer was waiting, simple distichs improvised at table, spread from hand to hand, were read, copied, and learned by heart; his religious poems and verses addressed to the kings were objects of public expectation. On his arrival in Gaul, he had celebrated the marriage of Sighebert and Brunehilda in the heathen style, and the conversion of the Arian Brunehilda to the Catholic faith in the Christian style. The warlike character of Sighebert, the conqueror of nations beyond the Rhine, was the first theme of his poetical flatteries; later, when settled at Poitiers in the kingdom of Haribert, he wrote the praise of a pacific king in honor of that unwarlike prince. Haribert died in the year 567, and the precarious situation of the town of Poitiers, alternately taken by the kings of Neustria and Austrasia, obliged the poet to observe a prudent silence for a long while; and his tongue became unloosed only on the day on which the city he inhabited appeared to him to have definitely fallen into the power of King Hilperik. He then composed for that king his first panegyric and elegiac verses: this was the piece mentioned above, and the sending of which to Braine gave rise to this long episode.  8
 
 
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