Architrenius and the life of a 12th-century scholar

One of the biggest weepers of medieval fiction must have been Architrenius, the protagonist of the 12th-century Norman satirist John of Hauville’s poem with the same name. Architrenius means ‘the Arch-weeper’, and one thing he laments is the miserable condition of the scholar of the time. Architrenius went in search of Nature and self-understanding, but his allegorical odyssey took him on detours to Paris and the ends of the Earth, in a satyrical nostos bestrewn with temptations and puzzles. A cynical Job, Architrenius’ tears serve only to mock fun at the world around, deploying an impressive knowledge of the classical world and the liberal arts, wondering at the suffering scholars must endure in their humanistic pursuit.

Written around the 1180s, the poem is made up of eight books, but book 3 is perhaps the most exciting as it describes a day in the life of a Parisian scholar. It is a portrait which has more in common with a Bohemian artist than with the image most of us preserve of a medieval litteratus. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.

I have included an extended passage from W. Wetherbee’s translation below (Johannes de Hauvilla, Architrenius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 62-79).

27 manuscripts of the Architrenius have been identified. These are the opening lines from a British Library manuscript that I’ve recently looked at, Royal MS 15 C V (4th quarter of the 13th century, my photo). The earliest known manuscript is Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 157

Chapter 1. The wretched life of the scholar

But this people, though all but gods in their Phoebean wisdom, reap little reward; the seed they sow is blown about by hostile whirlwinds. Architrenius weeps to behold the ranks of Pallas all but exhausted by heir misfortunes. Philosophers blessed with wisdom are beaten down by the cruel lash of unrelenting Fate. For all their great merit, they obtain no favor from the wealthy. Their very zeal for study prolongs their days of misfortune, hastens the onset of old age despite their years, and drives them to abandon their youth to this early schooling in age. For poverty deprives them of the joys of life, and Fortune’s listless hand provides only a bare sustenance. Evils rash upon them from every quarter. The empty belly is endlessly infested by raging hunger, all grace of body is laid waste and the face grows lean. Hunger substitutes its pallor for the snowy white which Nature had bestowed, and traces lines of rust on the inflamed eyes; every spark of brightness is extinguished in the seared face; the blighted lilies of the cheeks and the roses of the lips grow withered, the whiteness of the neck is defiled by spots of dirt, and the face assumes the ghastly appearance of death. Since the task of the comb has been abandoned, the hair bristles; random confusion makes it stray into an upward path. Untouched by any grooming hand it grows stiff with dirt; the locks struggle in battle among themselves, and the discord is not reduced to peace by the fingers that might unsnarl the tangled hair.

Chapter 2. How poverty does away with artful grooming

Poverty takes no pleasure in tilling the hair by applying the furrow­ing comb, and so defining a path for the straying locks. When a poor man is faint with hunger he does not know the delights of being neatly groomed-one who feels no inclination to pleasure repudiates the hairdresser’s art, content with that bodily grace which Nature provides. His graver concern is with the struggle to fend off hunger, the besetting Fury of all those whose lips taste Thetis, while their minds grow drunk on the arts of Phoebus.

Chapter 3. Their threadbare clothes

Are there minds of such rocklike hardness (and what is harder than rock?) that the plight of this shaggy horde of logicians would not sway them? Who would not abandon severity and open his heart in floods of tender weeping at the spectacle of the philosopher’s ignominious fortune?

The cloak in which he covers himself is ravaged by time. Its fringe is more the work of age than of craft. This it is that has torn the garment, this and the labor of enduring all the duties this one garment is compelled to perform. Condemned as it is to such a variety of uses, it can never gain a day of rest by any amount of effort. This same cloak sighs at the buffetings of the wind which the night brings with it, and protests at the blasts of Boreas; whispers gently in the soft eastern breezes, smiles happily at the touch of Zephyrus’ gentle breath, and is reduced to tears by the rainy wind from the south. Assailed by so many ills, its threads are too soon sundered by the shears of old age, and if any trace of style remains, it is all on the surface; the wintry chill within is veiled by the springlike appearance of the garment. Poverty is less painful when concealed in a rich enclosure; so long as the garment deceives the eye, a Codrus may outwardly proclaim himself a Croesus.

Chapter 6. The scholar’s bed

After the sober cheer of the meager feast, when the appetite has been curbed in a way which forestalls satiety before hunger has been cut by half, the thin pallet is burdened by the weight of a meal of coarse stew, that pallet than which the floor itself is scarcely lower, so that the ground, as hard as iron, almost breaks one’s bones. Here the embattled bastard heir of Aristotle toils, while the lamp devours his eyesight. Pale from study, his eyes made weary by the light of the oil lamp, he is yet eager for both; weary as he is, and with eyes and mind in need of sleep, he imposes nocturnal vigils on each of them, until the eye of the watchful lamp becomes blurred, and strains his ow n blurred vision.

Chapter 7. His nights of study

Thus he applies the light of eye and mind to his books, attaches his elbow to the page and his hand to his ear, and ponders what the wisdom of modern and ancient times has produced. He gulps with eyes and mind all those streams that the foot of Pegasus caused to issue forth from the Castalian cave, drinking now with the eye, now the mind, now both together, yet more with the former than the latter. Now he boils down what he has read in the furnace of thought, and consigns it, securely bound, to the vault of memory; now he passes over things which, having been skimmed less attentively, did not delight or engage him, and so were not deemed worthy to enter the storehouse of the mind. At one moment he glides smoothly on open and level ground which asks little of the mind as it creeps ahead. At another he gnaws in intense concentration at a knotty passage which resists his efforts and ensnares the understanding that seeks to spread its wings. He exerts the utmost power of his mind, until his eyes grow inflamed with concentration, then buries his head in his arms and ponders at length how to clear the steep path and break open the hostile doors that deny him access. Repeatedly he returns his eye to the page, with finger and mind pointing the way, and strives until dawn to clear away the shadows. The corner of his eye becomes wrinkled; one bushy eyebrow strikes against the other; his burning, furrowed brow contracts into a series of ridges; the bridge of his nose, wrinkled by concentration, contracts; and pursed Ups express the effort of the panting mind. He strives to advance with his whole being, pours forth long-drawn sighs and groans as the barriers are broken, brings the hot blood to his face, and puts forth his uttermost effort, while his eyes blaze in frenzy. At last the swift thrusts of insight and knowledge force a way and he is free to survey the steep path he has climbed. Now he bids the heavens yield to him, and explores the vast sphere by which the universe is enclosed – if that which no circling path can encompass may properly he called a sphere.


Chapter 8

He observes that the etherial sphere moves in a direct path, and that the planets move obliquely in an opposite direction; that those stars which an imperfect understanding has termed “fixed” are borne in an orbit parallel to that of the sun. He discovers what form, what order, what underlying natural principle or force diverts the orbit of a “wandering” planet, and what musical bonds ensure the parallel courses of fixed stars – laws which a power unchanging through time, a day embracing all the years, has ordained, a power that is itself unmoved, and maintains all things in an unchanging order. Now he draws circles and spheres, in his mind and in the sand, and proves that a rectangle has four times the area of a circle when formed with sides whose lengths correspond to the circumference and the diameter of the circle. Now a heroic feat of concentration reveals to his dazed mind that the surface area of a sphere is four times that of the plane of its circumference. Now he strives to refine more precisely the formulas of Euclid, and proves that a line cannot be divided according to the ratio of extreme and mean; and that the diagonal which divides a rectangle into two equal parts must be incommensurable with the side of the rectangle, or else be at once an even and an uneven number. Now he scrutinizes the wonders of rhetoric, and discovers how Orpheus’ eloquent lyre made harsh things grow soft, by what power the Thracian’s charming words caused the oaks to break ranks. He learns how it came to pass that a people grew contemptuous of this life, willingly took up arms to wage deadly war against themselves, and thrust the deadly sword into their own torn bodies; for Hegesias spoke repeatedly to them of the hardships of the world and the perils of lingering in this life, concluding that the gift of Lachesis must be repudiated, that the world is a place of sickness, an ocean of pain, a sea of wickedness, a maelstrom of slaughter, a pit of decay, a foul swamp of vice. Now he probes to where the annals of truth lie hidden, and plucks forth from the dark shadows both what will always be true and what is always false: that no one body is amplified by more dimensions than any other body; not even one grain of sand can exceed another in this respect. Now he directs his probing mind to the cradle of grammar, and traces the proper ways of connecting words, studying constructions in which two nominatives are bound together in a transitive relation, just as a contrary rule joins a word in an oblique case to a nominative without such a transitive link.

But if a cloud should obscure what he seeks to grasp, resisting the dulled keenness of his mind, so that his eager rush up the steep path is is slowed, and difficulty makes him fall back in despair, he merely makes a mental note, or perhaps quickly jots it down, but allows to remain closed what tomorrow’s greater Wisdom may be able to unfold. In such brief thoughts and jottings, too, he records obscure matters which may become accessible to his mind through the master’s exposition, when golden Aurora, Phoebus’ charioteer, has put the stars to flight with her purple lash.

Chapter 9. The sleep of a scholar exhausted by study

Toiling at such tasks, by lamplight and by the light of learning, he grows faint with exhaustion, yet burns with eager love to make Minerva wholly his own. Only when Phoebus has arisen from the low-lying Antipodes, and drawn within a few paces of the horizon, does peaceful sleep first spread its gentle mist over his eyes. Now he holds his pen and other tools with slack fingers, while the open book receives the weight of his drooping head. But even in the peace of slumber the unceasing labor of the student finds no peace. Care remains wakeful even in the midst of sleep, and the sleeper’s anxious mind is still proposing books and projects to itself. This abiding anxiety never succumbs to sleep; instead the preoccupations that had earlier kept him awake return, and the vast amount of work to be done presents itself like a Hydra of troubles to his restless cogitations.

Chapter 12. The scholar prepares to set out for school

And so he shakes his head and looks around, his face and hair alike in a state of confusion. He sweeps back his uncovered hair with the comb of his fingers, dries his lips still moist from sleep, on the edge of his tunic, and groans with a mouth still panting from his night-time labors. He clears his eyes, still swimming with dross, and with his hand frees them from the tangled lashes that still keep them in shadow, and while his gaze moves quickly forth in all directions, he gropes for words worthy of the hour. Eager to arrive at school before his master, he fears that the other has arrived already, that he has already sounded the horn for the daily lesson, and is now proffering a second round of Cirrhaean libations. He curses his body for succumbing to fatigue; indignation evokes a sneer of bitter anger, and he spews forth the complaints that swell his burning bosom, lamentations that bring him at last to the point of tears.

Chapter 14. The scholar’s journey to school

In the same way the soldier of Phoebus, exerting feet and mind to the utmost, hastens to the precincts of Minerva, the sanctuary of learning, continually glancing at the horizon as he proceeds, spanning the horizon with his eyes, and the earth with his feet. He gauges with his eye how much of the upper sky Aurora has set aflame with her glowing purple mantle, and with his mind how far the line of Libra has withdrawn from Phoebus, and thereby determines how long it will be before the Sun shows forth from amid the swell of Thetis – the starting point of the philosopher’s day.

Chapter 15. His behavior in the presence of the Master

Having arrived where gentle Pallas arms Apollo’s host, and the mind prepares to exert itself in the gymnasium of study, he stirs up the fire of apprehension, musters his powers of mind, sharpens his wits, and gives himself wholly to the perceptions of his attentive mind. He drinks in the master’s words with open ear and mind, hastily gathering up the words that fall all about him, while eyes and mind remain alertly focused on the teacher, and the attentive ear performs the marriage of the eager mind with its beloved Minerva. It is for her that the Venus of study makes him thirst and yearn, for her that he pants with a desire other and greater than that of Cupid, devoting to her all his energy and the entire day, until the world grows dewy again at Phoebus’ setting, and the withdrawal of his fires restores to the stars their own proper day, while Vesper and the departing sun open the portals of darkness and

close those of daylight.

Chapter 16. Some sympathy for scholars and their harsh lot

Such are the burdens of study, such the mass of evils heaped upon the philosopher, that the monsters’ roars would fall silent in compassion with him; Sciron’s rocks would dissolve in friendly weeping; kindly feelings would suddenly seize the horses of Diomede, and the human blood on the altars of Busiris be washed away by tears; Sinis’ bowed trees would recoil no longer; Sulla’s dungeons would burst their iron fetters;  Nero would become less sodden in drink and spare his victims; the bull of Phalaris bellow in pity, and Cinna and Spartacus be joined in a bond of peace. The jaws of the Stygian dog would dare to fall silent; Cocytus’ waters would reverse their flow and brim with tears of another kind; the plain of Phlegethon would burn with a milder fire.

What savagery would not give over its harshness for their sake? The Labyrinth would release such a Theseus though he had no thread to aid him; Charybdis would grow mild, calm her tormented waters, and cease to destroy ships; Scylla would cease howling and utter peaceful murmurs, and a milder Syrtis, as free of access as the open sea, would heap up harmless shoals around its shallows.

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