Posted: 28 Jul 2015 12:31 PM PDT
The Valencian knight Jordi de Sant Jordi was at court in Naples (which he had personally participated in the Crown of Aragon's campaign to annex) on May 30th 1423 when Francesco Sforza in a sneak attack took the city which was hopelessly unprepared to defend itself against such a force. In the attack, Sforza also took prisoner a number of Catalonian, Valencian and Aragonese nobility, including Jordi de Sant Jordi, and (if the latter is to be believed) demanded outrageous ransom for them.
The imprisonment, which lasted a little over a month, occasioned the composition of the Catalan poem translated here, to which later tradition has given the title of El Presoner "The Prisoner." It is in the mode of a rather sophisticated rhetorical attempt to manipulate (or guilt-trip) King Alfons into paying the ransom as quickly as possible. Whether it reached the king before Sant Jordi's expeditious release, and what the king himself thought of it, one can only guess. Sant Jordi was probably no older than his mid 20s when he wrote this poem, and would die a year or so later.
The poem still reads well today (or at least to me) despite the almost complete disconnect of culture and ethics, and the airs it may seem to put on from a modern perspective. It is in a heavily Occitanized Catalan (the sort of stylized register that the Romantics and High Modernists have conned us into calling "artificial") which was at a considerable remove from the language of normal prose, let alone natural speech. I've tried to account for (if not recapture) some of the flavor with a light tone of archaization in some places, though hopefully not so as to make it seem a period piece. For a note on Occitanization see after my translation.
By Jordi de Sant Jordi (15th cent.)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Deprived of friends, of lord, of good and fief
A foreign stranger in strange foreign lands,
Afar from all good things, fatigued with grief,
My thought and will detained in hostile hands,
I find myself a wicked power's prey
And see none who show care to me in shame.
I'm under guard, cramped, chained, kept locked away
With nothing save my sorry luck to blame.
I who've seen times when naught pleased me on earth,
Must be content with this my source of tears,
Finding in lighter manacles more worth
Than beautiful brocades of bygone years,
And I see Fortune's force has raised her banner
On me, that I should fall in such degree.
But I care not, since I have served with honor
With all the good men in my company.
For I'm consoled that I fell prisoner
In service to my lord with all my might,
Defeated by superior force in war
And not by lack of valor as a knight,
I'm consoled that I made their victory
Cost so excruciating an expense,
Yet wish to die of sorrow when I see
The world so reconciled with the offense.
My other woes cause nothing of dismay
Next to the one that so dements the heart
And drives me to abandon hope each day:
I have seen nothing yet to help us start
Making arrangements for our liberation,
And as I think upon the ransom pay
Sforza demands, with no negotiation,
My virtue and my strength slowly decay.
Therefore now nothing that I know or see
Can give me valor against fear of death,
Save God Himself, my rock of verity,
Who fortifies the heart that keeps His faith,
And King Alfons our generous Sovereign
Who will come to my aid with noble hand
And from the evil he has placed us in
Deliver me, who serve at his command.
Virtuous King! My natural lord and good!
We captives now beseech of you no more
Than to remember that your royal blood
Never failed those who fought for it in war.
Random Note On Occitan and Occitanized Catalan:
The degree to which San Jordi's poetry was influenced by Occitan (to the point of including case-endings, using the Occitan form for verbs as basic as "to be" when the Catalan words would work just as well metrically, and ) is not in the least remarkable.
If Latin was was the language of literacy, religion, philosophy and law, then Occitan, the Romance language original to a large swathe of what is today southern France, was the preeminent language of vernacular lyric culture throughout the high middle ages in much of the western Romance-speaking world before slowly fading from prestige the aftermath of the Albigensian crusades which decimated Occitan culture and obliterated much of the feudal basis by which the Occitan troubadour tradition had been sustained, helped along no doubt by the rise of cities with a new urban bourgeoisie in competition with the old nobility. Today, political developments leading to centuries of linguistic persecution and even linguistic shame, have left Occitan an endangered minority language, surviving among about half a million speakers of widely divergent dialects in southern France, and which could very well become extinct (outside a pocket in Spain) over the course of the 21st century without a radical shift in French language policy. Yet at its high point in the 11th-13th centuries, native-speakers of such disparate media as Italian, Sicilian, Castilian and French all composed verse in Occitan.
The diffusion of Occitan lyric culture in Romance-speaking medieval Europe can be gauged from the following: in Italy, the earliest attested poetry written in a Romance language is by an Italian (Pier de la Cavarana) for an Italian audience (calling on his countrymen to take arms against the German emperor) yet the language is not Italian but Occitan. Poetry in local Italian Romance was only to come later, and when it did it was heavily inspired by the Occitan tradition. Indeed the only passage in the Divine Comedy that is in a language other than Italian is in the Purgatorio where Dante has the Occitan poet Arnaut Daniel speaking in Occitan verse.
Catalan poetry emerged from, and in interaction with, the Occitan tradition as did the Italian traditions only even more so. In the case of Catalan and Occitan, the two were so similar to one another (and so recently diverged from one another without ever losing contact) that they could blend both in usage and perception to a considerable degree, especially during periods of socio-political convergence between the two sides of the Pyrenees. The two do differ in non-trivial ways, of course, beyond having different phonological reflexes for Latin etyma. For example, medieval Occitan has case-endings for nouns and adjectives (as does the medieval northern French of the same period) whereas medieval Catalan does not, and some Catalan troubadours composing in Occitan clearly had a shaky grasp of case-endings. Yet the degree to which speakers of Catalan before the 13th century thought of the language they spoke as "a language that is not Occitan" is debatable at best. Modern Arabic illustrates to what degree the vehicle of literary culture can differ from the that of spontaneous spoken discourse (including the presence of case endings in the former and their absence in the latter) without speakers ever experiencing the two as anything more than very different versions or registers of the same language.
The influence of Occitan lyric culture thus loomed especially large in Catalan letters even as active knowledge of Occitan per se began to wane. And a heavily Occitanized version of Catalan came to be ever more the normative vehicle for lyric verse well into the 15th century right up until Jordi de Sant Jordi's time, at which point we find AusiÃ s March writing, with a suddenness appropriate to his character, in what is not so much "pure" vernacular Valencian Catalan as it is a heavily de-Occitanized Catalan verse that draws on the spoken language of the elite nobility and the chancery standard of the Crown of Aragon, but which keeps some other features of the inherited tradition, most notably the regular scrambling of normal word-order, a feature whose decipherment is much less burdensome to the reader when the nouns and adjectives show case agreement as they do in Occitan, or Hindi for that matter.
Deserts d'amics, de bÃ©ns e de senyor,
en estrany lloc i en estranya contrada,
lluny de tot bÃ©, fart d'enuig e tristor,
ma voluntad e pensa caitivada,
me trob del tot en mal poder sotsmÃ¨s
no vei algÃº que de mi s'haja cura,
e soi guardats, enclÃ²s, ferrats e pres,
de quÃ¨Â·n fau grat a ma trista ventura.
Eu hai vist temps que noÂ·m plasia res,
araÂ·m content de Ã§Ã² quiÂ·m fai tristura,
e los grillons lleugers ara preu mÃ©s
que en temps passat la bella brodadura.
Fortuna vei qu'ha mostrat son poder
sus mÃ©, volent queÂ·n tal punt vengut sia,
perÃ² noÂ·m cur, pus hai fait mon dever
amb tots los bons queÂ·m trob en companyia.
Car prenc conhort de com soi presoner
per mon senyor servint tant com podia,
d'armes sobrat e per major poder,
no per defaut gens de cavalleria.
E prenc conhort qu'hom no poc conquerir
honor en res sens que treball no senta,
mas d'altra part cuid de tristor morir
com vei queÂ·l mÃ³n dels revers se contenta.
Tots aquests mals noÂ·m sÃ³n res de sofrir
en esguard d'u qui al cor me destenta
eÂ·m fai tot jorn d'esperanÃ§a partir,
com no vei res queÂ·ns avanÃ§ d'una 'spenta
en acunÃ§ar nostre deslliurament,
e mÃ©s com vei Ã§o queÂ·ns demana SforÃ§a
que no sofir algÃº raonament,
de quÃ¨ llangueix ma virtut e ma forÃ§a.
PerquÃ© no sai ni vei res al present
queÂ·m puixa dar en valor d'una 'scorÃ§a,
mas DÃ©u tot sol, de qui prenc fundament
e de qui fiu, eÂ·b qui mon cor s'esforÃ§a;
e d'altra part, del bon rei liberal
quiÂ·m socorrÃ per gentilesa granda,
lo quiÂ·ns ha mÃ¨s del tot en aquest mal,
queÂ·ll meÂ·n traurÃ , car soi jus sa comanda.
Rei virtuÃ³s, mon senyor natural!
Tots al present noÂ·us fem altra demanda
mas queÂ·us record que vostra sang reial
mai defallÃ al qui fos de sa banda.