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Medieval Limericks

December 17, 2010

Apparently it’s something of a Christmas tradition in the medieval department I’m now studying at that, every year, poetic submissions should be solicited from the student and staff bodies on medieval themes. This year it was limericks.

Limericks are right up my alley; it’s the combination of contorted rhyming and dirty punchlines that does it. I submitted the following three, and am happy to report that I won first prize for #3. #2 rated an honourable mention and inquiries as to a) whether it was a real riddle and b) whether it has a clean answer (yes, and yes – see footnote.)

The Middle Ages

The long Middle Ages were racked
With strife and dissension, and packed
With war and upheaval
And horrors medieval –
A lot like the present, in fact.

Very Loose Translation of an Anglo-Saxon Riddle

Here’s a riddle to leave you appalled:
I’m hairy beneath; above, bald;
I’m purple and red
And stand up in the bed;
Women weep at me. What am I called?

Concerning the Pelagian Heresy

A monk by the name of Pelagius
Propounded a doctrine outrageous:
“Perfection’s achievable,
Free will conceivable,
And sin is a choice, not contagious.”

I wanted to write a companion piece about the Arian heresy, but found Arius’ name a lot harder to rhyme. I also wanted to write one in Latin, but gave up; searching for rhymes in a language you don’t really speak is a slow and thankless process, even when they’re as abundant as they are in Latin.


*It’s an onion. Honestly.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    December 17, 2010 10:49 pm

    Marvellous. The grand prize winner is a fine limerick, if rather lost on me owing to the fact that you could have told me Pelagius was an adjective, a small sea fish or a virulent infection and I would have believed you. As to the second, however, I do recognise the ancestry, and I say to you: well played, jolly well played.

  2. December 17, 2010 11:29 pm

    I’m glad you liked them. The onion riddle is one of my favourites (along with the key and the loaf of bread) though I don’t think they put it on the Exeter riddle-sculpture-thingy. Pity.

    Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, holding that humans chose to sin or not (hence free will) and that, in theory, a human who never chose to sin could be perfect in this life. This did not go down well. The last random bits-and-pieces post has a link to the Pelagian Heresy Drinking Song, which explains at a level of detail more comprehensive than the limerick but still rather more concise than Wikipedia.

    I feel I should start using ‘pelagius’ (or possibly alter it to ‘pelagious’ to be more in line with English spelling norms) as an adjective. It would presumably be a synonym for ‘pelagic’ (= pertaining to the open sea; in contrast to ‘littoral’, pertaining to the coastline).

  3. December 18, 2010 12:14 am

    Some very loose translations of Anglo Saxon Riddles and Mediaeval Limericks were in vogue when I was a schoolboy- almost as long ago – but I had no idea such joyfully ‘dirty’ verses were created in antiquity by our ancestors, with a similar sense of hilarity.

  4. December 18, 2010 12:57 am

    It’s rather wonderful, I think, especially given that almost all of the literature from the Anglo-Saxon period was written out by monks, vow of celibacy and all.

    There’s some gloriously dirty stuff that’s survived from the Classical period as well; most famously Catullus 16, but also a lot of artwork and some hilarious graffiti preserved in the ruins of Pompeii.

  5. Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    December 19, 2010 12:22 am

    Oh my god, Wikipedia’s translation is even funnier than Guy Lee’s. “I’ll bugger you and stuff your gobs” seemed like a pretty racy thing to have in a Classical set text, but I love the irritably matter-of-fact tone the nameless Wikipedian translator employs: “I will sodomize you and face-fuck you. I just thought you should know that.”

  6. Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    December 19, 2010 12:23 am

    PS. I think “more comprehensive than a limerick but more concise than Wikipedia” is a yardstick that ought to be getting more use.

  7. December 20, 2010 4:11 pm

    May I?

    A Presbyter who was named Arius
    Wrote heresies many and various
    He insisted the Son
    was no part of the One
    And now his position’s precarious.

  8. December 20, 2010 7:31 pm

    @Seamus: I really like the Wikipedia translation. The matter-of-factness is a good way of rendering a slight grammatical disconnect between the Latin and the English, I think; the Latin future tense is bald and certain in a way that English can’t quite capture, what with not having one. It’s hard to explain.

    @Michael Mock: Bravo! *applause* I’m impressed at your condensation of the key point of Arianism into two lines!

    I hadn’t considered rhymes in -arious, because they don’t work in my accent. I’d pronounce ‘Arius’ with a short A, to rhyme with ‘carry us’ – I suspect I’m being influenced by recently reading bits of Rufinus’ Ecclesiastical History, which usually spells it Arrius – and various, precarious, etc., with a diphthong, the sound in ‘air’.

    I remember way back getting into a discussion about accents on a message board with a mostly US readership, and being completely flabbergasted that there were people there who didn’t pronounce or hear a difference between ‘marry’, ‘merry’, and ‘Mary’. To me with my south of England accent, those are three quite distinct sounds.

  9. December 21, 2010 2:48 pm

    Oh, my. I hadn’t considered the effects that accent would have on the rhymes at all. It works just fine in my Generic Educated American accent (I don’t actually share much of the regional accent for Texas, despite living here), but to you it would sound like I’m monkeying with the vowels to make it work. Which, to be fair, I actually would do for a limerick.

  10. December 21, 2010 5:49 pm

    I think dodgy rhyming is eminently excusable in limericks, indeed in most kinds of comic verse – it adds to the fun, really. But I do think it’s interesting how what sounds perfectly natural to one ear comes across as distinctly fishy to another – similarly to how modern performers of Shakespeare have to try and tiptoe around the unintentional comedy of rhyming ‘love’ with ‘move’. They can’t win, really: pronounce the rhyme and it sounds hilariously bad, don’t and it doesn’t rhyme, spoiling the effect.

    I find that limericks are also very fertile ground for monkeying around with spelling, or at least with people’s expectations of spelling. The former:

    A girl who weighed many an oz.
    Used language I dare not pronoz.
    When a fellow unkind
    Pulled her chair out behind
    Just to see (so he claimed) if she’d boz..

    The latter:

    There once was a priest from Dun Laoghaire
    Who stood on his head for the Kyrie.
    When asked why this was,
    He said “It’s because
    Of the latest liturgical theory.”

    Oh, oh, and these (which work best written down, obviously):

    There once was a vicar at Kew
    Who kept a tame cat in a pew.
    He taught it to speak
    Alphabetical Greek,
    But it never got further than μ.

    Said the vicar, “Dear pussy, you know,
    Is this really as far as you go?
    If you only would try,
    Then you might get to π,
    Or even υ or ρ.”

    (The latter is also parochial in that the scansion relies on the British pronunciation of υ as yoop-SYE-lon rather than the one used apparently everywhere else, YOOP-suh-lon.)

  11. December 22, 2010 5:08 am

    I.. um, I repeated my limerick to my wife… and she insisted that I must submit it to the Texas Christian Univerity poetry contest, which has a deadline of Real Soon Now. I hope you know, this is all your fault. Well, mostly your fault. Well, okay, not really your fault at all. But you were still the catalyst, damnit.

    And I am particularly enamored of the first of your selection of “dodgy rhyming” limericks. (That may reflect my ignorance of Greek letters, though – back when I was passibly bilingual, I studied Latin and Spanish and made a passable attempt at French.) As you might suspect, I am also a fan of Tom Lehrer, who also employs a dodgy rhyme or two in the service of his (extremely funny, and surprisingly timeless) songs.

    TCU is Christian by way of the Disciples of Christ, which grew out of the desire to have community Christian services for widely-spread believers with not-entirely-compatible beliefs, back when America was first becoming a… pardon me… “Christian nation”. As a result, they leave a very great deal to the conscience of the individual believer; their go-to quote is “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” This results in a yearly round of Letters to the Editor lamenting the fact that Texas Christian Univerity isn’t Christian enough.

    So actually, I have high hopes that they’ll appreciate this.

  12. December 22, 2010 2:11 pm

    I’m honoured! Do let me know how it fares.

    The Greek letters are, respectively, mu, pi, upsilon and rho – the ancestors of our modern M, P, Y and R. The first limerick is supposed to be a pun on the noises of cats – it never gets further than ‘mew’, geddit? (I didn’t say it was a good pun …) The second one is just showing off on the part of whoever wrote it, I think.

    I love Tom Lehrer. I find he’s a lot like Terry Pratchett in that respect – the ability to make very biting points couched in gloriously silly wordplay. (The electric shock in the comedy clown glove, if you will.) I have too many favourite lyrics of his to list, but “tragic / other adjec (-tives)” in ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’ has to be up there, and so does “philately / Lady Chatterley” from ‘Smut’. And obviously “religion’ll / original” from ‘The Vatican Rag’ …

    I like the TCU motto/statement/thingy, although surely it is itself open to abuse? Being as how one of the problems liberal Christians so often have with the Bible is that it does speak on a lot of controversial subjects, and not in a way that deserves to be emulated – like the edicts about stoning disobedient children to death, and so on. On the other hand, I guess if you respect Christ’s words on the establishment of a new law and the obsolescence of the old, most of the problems of the Old Testament just go away, superseded by the command to love thy neighbour.

    On the subject of ‘Christian enough’, one of the many things wrong with my old university’s Christian Union was that it was massively exclusionary. You could, I guess, make an argument for its excluding non-Christians – though JSoc and ISoc were happy to accept friendly gentiles and non-Muslims – but the union constitution required members to sign their names to a declaration of faith that represented a pretty right-wing version of Christianity, including the requirement to witness (i.e. proselytise). I wasn’t a Christian by the time I went to uni, but back in my URC days, I couldn’t in good conscience have signed it. Neither could the Quaker Christians and probably some other Nonconformists of my acquaintance, and many who I was at uni with didn’t.

    I found it ironic, and sort of funny in the bitterest way, that these people were refusing to join the Christian Union on grounds of conscience. Something is wrong with your vision of a Christian organisation when people’s Christian values won’t permit them to join it.

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