A Medieval Story for Valentine’s Day, Bonne & Charles

The general word on the Internet is the first Valentine card was sent in 1415. It’s not accurate and it’s not true. The particular Valentine was written in mid-February of 1416; it was on vellum, not card stock; it’s not the first Valentine card; and no one knows if it was sent.

Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was in London, England, wrote the Valentine that all of the Internet declares, and that fact is true. He had a wife, Bonne, who was in Paris, France or somewhere in France. If it was sent to her, it traveled a far distance on foot and on horseback and on ship. Pagan Valentine’s Day had been celebrated in Western Europe for centuries, and romantic, oftimes coded erotic, messages, had been exchanged for about 100 years by then between educated men and women who ran in the same crowd and lived in close proximity. So much for general information on the Internet…More specific information was found on special websites dealing with Medieval times.

Here’s what I found:

It is possible that Charles was lonesome for Bonne, while he was in London. He had just been captured (on October 25, 1415 specifically) by the English on French soil and was being held prisoner in London or in the London countryside. Charles was one of the lucky ones. Just about every other French aristocrat was killed in the Battle of Agincourt during the 100 Year War between the English and the French for land in France dowered to Eleanor of Aquitaine (former Queen of France) when she married Henry II, the English King. Charles and Bonne hadn’t been married long, about 5 years by 1415. He had been soldiering a lot during those five years, so they didn’t see much of each other. A 100 Year War preoccupies a lot of generations of men folk.

There are three curious things, though, about these two you should know: (1) It was an arranged marriage whose purpose was to avoid further bloodshed between their families; (2) Bonne was 11 when she was engaged to Charles, who was 16; and (3) his father-in-law, Bonne’s father, had assassinated Charles’ father, Louis.

Maybe they loved each other; maybe not. I don’t even know if they ever lived together as man and wife, for she was only 11 when they married, 16 at the time he wrote the verse. In any event, Charles penned a poem on Valentine’s Day in 1416 and it has been retained for almost 600 years.
You may not know that a Duke is a Prince, and noble, highborn prisoners were prized when captured in battle. They were ‘cash cows,’ held for ransom by the opposition, until their families could raise and pay the money for their release. At that time, although most men folk fought for the French King, France wasn’t exactly a country, then, and the King didn’t assume any responsibility for ransoming his patriotic nobles or aristocrats. (No one cared much for non-nobles or non-aristocrats, except their families. But, they were never captured and held for ransom. More often than not, they were killed. They’re the enormous body counts in battles of old, the serfs and servants.) This ransom was up to the noble or aristocratic prisoner’s family, if they wanted their relative back home. (And they did want their men folk back.) His ransom in today’s money could be as much as $500,000 ($US). The actual amount in Medieval English crowns was 150,000 crowns. This sounds like an enormous sum. What with the French losing the war, their King’s reoccurring madness, Joan of Arc’s triumph, then ignominy, a subsequent economic depression, the Black Plague, and Charles’ family having to pay his upkeep all those years, (plus lots of other things) it took his family 25 years to get the money and treaty agreement together to turn him over.

Bonne died while Charles was held prisoner in England, and they had no children. (She falls from the written record because she did not produce progeny, and no one knows exactly when she died or where she was when she died. Actually, no one is exactly sure where she was living and with whom while she was married to her incarcerated husband, Charles. It’s probable she was transferred to Charles’ family estate at the time of the betrothal and raised by Charles’ family until the wedding, remaining there until she died. There’s one more tidbit about poor Bonne, and that is this: Bonne may not have been her name. It’s really an adjective in Old French, and merely means “good girl.”)

A manuscript of the poem is in the British Library. I don’t know if it’s the original. It’s named by the scribe, Harley, in the archive, and scribes’ copies were often rewritten and rewritten and passed around for years and years amongst wealthy families. If it is the original, it was not unusual for scribes to assist in Valentines, for they made a living writing fancy script and making pretty pictures. (Apparently, Charles’ family sent him enough money to pay the scribe, so he didn’t live too badly while he was held prisoner.) How the manuscript got to the British Library after 600 years was by bequest, but I was unable to check out the provenance. The BL was willing to describe the manuscript: There’s a Cupid image and a 3-part verse. The verse is in Old French, not English. There is no version of the poem on the Internet.

I was able to find a description by A.E.B. Coldiron, who says it’s an appeal to Cupid with Charles as a servant of Cupid (Lust imagery, I think.) but no one is named and there is no heading. Charles says he admires this person (Bonne?) and despairs of seeing her again. He is frustrated (which is what all noble men were required to express in Chivalric code), but Coldiron doesn’t say what he’s frustrated about. He promises to be faithful and praises her beauty, virtue, and honor. He may describe intimate moments they’ve shared, a custom in Valentines, but I suspect not. She was simply too young to have been expected to cohabit with her groom and when she was old enough to cohabit, he was away fighting battles, then captured.

A non-academic source has published the following verse on a website, http://www.homespunpeddler.com and has attributed this verse to Charles in a collection called “Romantic Valentines.” It doesn’t read anything like Coldiron’s description, so I doubt if it’s the one he wrote to Bonne. I offer it to you, so you know what a translated from Medieval French into modern English 15th century Valentine would read like.

“Wilt thou be mine? dear Love, reply

— Sweetly consent or else deny.
Whisper softly, none shall know,
Wilt thou be mine, Love?

— aye or no?
Spite of Fortune,
we may be Happy by one word from thee.
Life flies swiftly —
ere it go Wilt thou be mine, Love?

— aye or no?”

Frankly, the above verse is not that terrific, is it? I would call it doggerel. Maybe something is lost in the translation. If not, I think he could have done better. He had a lot of time on his hands.

I’d like to believe that Charles and Bonne did love each other, but don’t know for certain. (The glimmer of hope I entertain that Charles loved Bonne is an anecdote about him reading a love poem he composed to her at their wedding ceremony. Some scholars believe he was showing off his poem prowess, but some scholars are without a scrap of romance in their souls.) Things were different six hundred years ago: love and marriage didn’t intersect amongst nobility and aristocrats. Children were pawns and shuffled around to do smart things for their families. Duty to family superceded love and children dutifully married other children. Romance was in the chivalrous code, hence, unrequited. Sexual congress was for procreation, a duty, and family lineage promulgation was its purpose. Lust was with wrenches, when they could be found. If Bonne and Charles loved each other, it’s a sad story of 2 children from good families. If they didn’t love each other, it’s a jailhouse reverie of a young man who burns. I don’t want to leave you on either note. So, I’ll go for this: go get some vellum (stretched goat skin), pen a personal message of your feelings to your love, make it pretty and fancy all over, and hand it to your love. Maybe your message will be memorialized until 2605, when someone like me comes around to figure what happened then.

Destination Wilderness: Wanderlust

When was the last time you let yourself swirl? When was the last time you gave in to pleasure? When was the last time you let your imagination run wild? When was the last time you dreamt? When was the last time you discovered? When was the last time you tasted ecstasy? If all your answers were a long time ago and you want to experience all these sensations at once, try wanderlust and go backpacking: Feel what you feel and you won’t regret a moment!

Ibn-e-Batuta wasn’t just a famed traveler and scholar but also a very eloquent scribe for no one has ever described travelling more exquisitely and expansively, as he did, over 700 years ago. He said ‘Travelling: it leaves you speechless (and) then, turns you into a storyteller!’.

And that is it! Travelling is more than an experience: it’s a phenomenon that a very select few get to taste in its virgin sense; and those who do get to drink from its exotic wells, will rarely settle for anything else. Read anyone accomplished and you’ll find how travel inspired their stories; or read the revered Sufi sage, Rumi, and hear him say that travel brings power and love back to your life.

It is sad to see our generation missing out on this passion and thereby, denying themselves opportunities of a lifetime. Despite the incredible globalization and infrastructural leaps abounding all around us, only a handful of us will ever choose to step foot on foreign shores or even locally remote areas.

We, as a society, have let ourselves get engulfed by paranoia – of the unknown, of economic sustenance and of physical security – and these qualms are depriving millions of experiencing places, moments and lives beyond the realm(s) that we know of. Wouldn’t it be ironic, today, to have your birthplace and tombstone, within a ten mile radius?

Most of us blame the West for its unforgiving portrayal of our society, people and culture; and we loathe their media for not showcasing the real country we dwell in and it’s pretty true. However, another stark reality is that this also works backwards. Imagine all our ideas about all places foreign being equally contrary to facts!

There is a whole lot of truth that is out there – waiting to be explored first hand and yet, here we let our hearts and mind rust amidst hearsay. We are criminally putting a scope limitation on our horizons, knowledge and may I say, our dreams and visions! To quote, Saint Augustine, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only a page”.

I could go on and write those typical blog pieces which enumerate a dozen or even scores of reasons to travel but I am looking to strike a different chord here. This is about the very soul of undertaking travel without clinging on to business, educational or other conventional tags: this is about sparking fire in your blood: this is rebellion – in its purest form.

Travelling’s essence is discovery, exploration and experience. This is very different from the mainstream commercial tourism that we see today: this form is more about the journey than the destination: this travel is not about splurge hotels and plush dining but about camping and meeting the unknown: this travel is not about meticulous planning but about letting yourself wander: this is not about finding anything but yourself: this is about getting lost in a sublime immersing experience that comes promised when you prepare to throw caution to the winds.

This sort of travel not only ensues in a completely fresh opportunity to re-discover life around us but this is also going to be surprisingly timeless, inexpensive, easier to plan and yet, it’s going to be a very heartfelt one. All it will ever take is courage and giving in to your first ever expedition. Travel once, with all your heart and this addiction will find its way into the deepest recesses of your heart and soul.

Travelling will allow you to challenge yourself, it teaches some very invaluable lessons to lead a memorable life, it lets in relaxation and celebration, it gives you that much needed escape, it lets you meet the real yourself, it confers upon you new dimensions and perceptions, it fuels an insatiable ambition inside you that is enduringly calm and fulfilling yet passionately electric and finally, it bestows you with freedom!

Haven’t you ever dreamt? Ever noticed where does it all begin from? How do you dream? The first step to dream is more often than not, a flight to another place or setting or environment or situation – and that exactly is how powerful journeys can be!

Humans were bestowed with feet not roots for none of us is exactly meant to stay: It’s not just the mountains that are calling: it is the whole universe calling us to explore and find our own answers. Most unfortunately, it is us who refuse to listen and give in to inertia!

Our society is mostly made up of settlers and you will find a keen sense of lethargy embedded in them but listen to Rumi, he says that when setting out on a journey: do not seek advice from those who have never left home: (and) do not be satisfied with stories or how others have fared: unfold your own myth! And remember that towards the end, you only regret the chances you didn’t take.

I shall again borrow Rumi’s eloquence and expression to sum it all up. “Respond to every call that excites your spirit. Ignore those that make you fearful and sad, that degrade you back towards disease and death!”

And that’s it, we all need to go out there, on our own, for our own and to be of our own! This is when you spread things and fly!

We are not meant to live away in cages and there is no better way of experiencing the climax of free living than packing your backpack and going on your dream voyage that you have been putting on backburner for quite a while now: your time is now: do not let anyone or anything dictate your plans. Go, taste some elixir of adventure; and wherever you choose to go, go with all your heart; and you’ll never be alone!

Rise and shine, everyone!

Drunk on the Sounds of the Spanish Night

I am on a night train headed for Barcelona. I dig the rhythm of the train. It is almost enough to lull me to sleep. There were no more couchettes so I rode in the coach section with all the young college students and backpackers like me who would have to sleep sitting slumped in a seat with the green hills of France rolling by the window.

Its morning when I get to Barcelona. Didn’t get much sleep on the train. Lots of people talking and the rhythm of the train is just enough, soothing enough to relax me and just loud enough to keep me awake. In Barcelona I check into a moderate one star Hotel. It is very clean and modern just very small. But I have my own bathroom and shower and that’s all I really care about. I immediately lie down on the bed, exhausted. I need sleep. There are Spanish construction workers outside my window so I put on my earphones to drown them out. The beat goes on

When I awake it is about five. I have a shower and get dressed and go out. The streets are busy, lined with shops, cafés, and restaurants, bars, hotels, and apartment buildings. I was starving since I had not had breakfast or lunch. I am almost ashamed to admit I ended up at Hard Rock Café but I had promised to buy friends shirts from there anyway so I figured I might as well.

Surprisingly enough it’s packed. I try and find a seat at the bar but no such luck. So I wander around awhile hoping someone will get up to leave. The one good thing about a place like this since its such a tourist attraction you hear so many different languages, not just Spanish, there is Italian, French, German, English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and who knows what else. The new tower of Babel, the Hard Rock Café.

Eventually I grow tired waiting for a seat at the bar so I stop a pretty young Spanish waitress who speaks perfect English and ask if there are any seats in the restaurant? She smiles and I follow her. She brings me the first of two cold beers and then I order some obscure sandwich named after some long dead rock legend. Pre and post sandwich I wrote in my journal and when I wasn’t writing I was listening to the rock music and Billy Idol screaming something about it being a nice day for a white wedding. In between songs I listened to the people, trying to connect the dots.

After the Hard Rock I wandered across the street and into the sun. It was a square like park full of steps, and statues, artwork, people, and pigeons. What we were all doing here together I couldn’t rightly say. The only thing about the artwork and statues was that all the information about them was scribed in Spanish so I was out of luck and just stared. So I walked down another street past more cafés and store fronts and hip clothing outlets. I walked by a hippie couple who made artwork out of aluminum cans, they sat on the sidewalk with their long hair in their eyes selling their creative metal. I walked into a bar playing live music. A young Spanish guy with thick long raven hair sat on a bar stool playing flamenco music. It was cool. He was good. Though most of the customers seemed disinterested. I wandered upstairs as there was an internet café there and checked my mail. Then I wander back down and sit at the bar. I order a John Smith, a smooth Irish beer. The bartender is a beautiful long legged dirty blonde from Australia. I learn that the bar is owned by Australians. Seem to be a lot of English people hanging out here. Now I really begin to dig this Spanish guitar playing music. Its gotten louder or my hearing has tuned in. There seem to be only a few of us in the place who truly appreciate him, the guitarist. Toward the back of the bar are sofas and a big screen TV to watch soccer matches I presume. I order another beer and the hours seem to just roll on. I don’t really talk to anyone but the bartender every now and then. Its strange being here but also perfect and I can imagine if I lived here this is the kind of place I would come after work for a beer. Although I wish there were more Spanish people and less English like me.

The guitarist is then joined by an old Spanish guy in a fisherman’s hat and it seems the guitarist doesn’t really know him but the owner introduces them and seems to say give him a try. This old guy starts bellowing out the most amazing tunes and it’s perfect with the way this younger guy plays his guitar and they aren’t really songs with words I don’t think, more just dirges but you can feel the emotion in his voice! I kept thinking, this is why I came to Spain, moments like this!

After that on my way back to the Hotel I stop at a Starbucks which I haven’t seen or had since my journey began nearly five weeks ago. So I order a café mocha and sit at the bar stool facing the street and pretend to be an artist or just lover of all that is good and beautiful. Its ten O’clock at night and the street is full of people. Where is everyone going? I want to rush out the door and just walk with them, be among them, feed off their energy.

Then two girls came in wearing tight jeans covering their slim legs and little half tops leaving their little navels exposed and dark tans. They sat down next to me. After a few awkward moments where everyone just sipped there drinks the brunette sitting next to me spoke and said she was from Florida and the blonde was from southwestern Spain. They were both very nice. We sat there awhile and talked of our travels. They were leaving tomorrow, the brunette back to Florida, and the blonde home to southwestern Spain. I never did find out how they got to be friends. They finished their cappuccinos and were heading for the Hard Rock Café for dinner. I thought of joining them but then decided I had seen enough of the Hard Rock café. I stumbled back to my Hotel drunk on the sounds and happenings of the Barcelona street night. I still have so much to see, the beach, La Sagrada Familia, and this incredible park designed by the great architect Antonio Gaudi. Tonight as I sleep in my small room I can still hear the flamenco guitar playing in my head and the old mans passionate voice. I can still hear it now.