One of the things that really astonishes me during my past few months in France has been the various localized dialects and regional cultures I have had the opportunity to interact and make exchanges with. Breton, Occitan, and Catalan all have a common link in that they represent communities that are independent of the mainstream narrative. Localized dialect and culture are more valuable to society than national parks, and they require the same preservation in a world that has been “flattened” by globalization. Today, everyone speaks the same “language”. I obviously don’t mean that we all speak English or Latin, but rather, the culture of globalization has flattened the identity of the world, making it one color. We all “search on Google” or “watch Netflix” or “use our apps”. This is a very boring world, and it also presents social dangers. People require identities as a form of expression. Culture isn’t all one. It is composed of many things. If you go to Russia, people are different than in Spain or France. In the globalized world, people are trying to flatten the greatest cultural architecture, created over thousands of years, in the name of “unity”. This “social death” is a tragedy because localized culture is endangered. The solution is to recognize the problem, honor localized culture by appreciating it, and also to resist the globalization method of bulldozing. I for one, don’t think we need to build anew but rather to protect whats already here. I know, that old image of the mom-and-pop shop getting run down by Starbucks is ringing in your head. But this isn’t about buildings anymore. It is about language, culture, and identity. The very heart blood of human experience is at stake. The exchanges and transactions of globalization run down these shrines of culture. This uniformity is more like a disease, in my opinion. Why is it that, in todays world, everywhere you go people say the same thing? There is no variety because we all are “plugged in” to the same old song and dance. It is really important to honor these cultural oasis’s that are untouched by the taint of the mono-narrative. That is why, in my travels, I focused on understanding these “otherworlds” to gain greater insight on the matter.
When I was in Brittany, on the beaches near St. Malo and hiking the forests of Brocéliande, I was able to breathe in the ancient Breton heritage. Scenes of romance from the Arthurian Vulgate and Marie De France’s Breton Lai’s all conjoined with the aesthetics of the land. St. Malo is the sight of one of Marie’s famous lai’s, where two lovers are made to keep their adulteress love a secret after the husband complains of their noise making in the night. The two lovers communicate through a hole in the wall, as they are neighbors. She, thinking quickly, blames the ruckus on a talking bird, who the husband quickly slays and throws at the feet of his wife. Taking in the countryside, sights, and sounds of the Celtic people who inhabit that land was a true gift and treasure I will never forget.
But I don’t want to talk about Northern France any longer, let us go on to the South. In Toulouse, there is a rich heritage of Occitan dialect, a romance language that has several epics to its name. The Song of the Cathar War, for example, catalogs the rich heritage of this language and the historical happenings of the Albigensian Crusade, in which a group of heretics of the Cathar faith was sieged by the French forces under the ordinance of the pope. There is also an Arthurian romance written in Occitan titled Jaufre, which delightfully merges the Occitan dialect with the Celtic romance imagery of the Arthurian Vulgate. In addition, the Troubador poets have put their stamp on the world with some of the most magnificent poetry the world has ever seen. The Troubador Bertrand de Born, for example, was a knight of great prowess. He wrote a number of poems, but thanks to my online source, I can offer you a side by side comparison of one of the stanzas from his poetry:
Here it is in Occitan:
Ben es mortz qui d’amor no sen
Al cor calque dousa sabor!
E que val viure ses amor
Mas per enoi far a la gen
Ja Domnedeus no.m azir tan
Qu’eu ja pois viva jorn ni mes
Pois que d’enoi serai mespres
Ni d’amor non aurai talan.
Now translated into English:
Dead is he, really, who in his heart no longer feels any exquisite taste of love! And which value could have therefore a life devoid of love, just bothering other people? May the Lord not hate me so much that He would let me live one day or one month invaded by boredom and no longer feeling any desire of love!
I think it important to note that the medieval Troubador poets gave very insightful glimpses into a time that is hard to fully grasp. They were the original cartographers of what you may call courtly love. They linked the chivalric ideal of combat to the conquest of love. Today, poets remain fixated on the principles and movements of love, for it is no small topic. These poets were also not without help in this quest. The patroness and Duchess of Aquitaine, known as Elanor, also had a stake in molding knights into courtly, men of gentility and courtesy. Bertrand, however, has more to say on the matter. He goes as far as to show the true knight, rather than the ideal. At a time when knights were constantly striding between three worlds, it was hard to find individual agency. Clerical communities and church doctrine demanded piety from their knights while courtly ladies all demanded them to be true lovers. Some thinkers have correctly linked the ideal of courtly love with spiritual perfection, since the one spotless from sin is, by nature, the most faithful and true lover that could be. Thus, virtue blends the values of courtly love and religious piety, thereby linking the clerical community with the court of love. However, damsels didn’t want their knights to be wearing tonsures. They wanted real men, and so deeds of prowess were inextricably linked with the conquest of love. Fame wasn’t won without deeds of arms, after all. And how could love thrive without jousts and tournaments? Then again, the battle-hardened knight may have been less inclined to courtly courtesy, for he was often “in the sticks” and fighting war rather than courting with ladies and refining his silver tongue. The knightly vocation called them into bloody combat, and they constantly risked their lives for honor, nation, and estate. Bertrand, as an example, really showcases that tension between worlds and his honesty is a relief, especially in a time of idyllic grandocity. That being said, if you want to know of love, look no further. The troubadours were acclaimed the most studious of that ancient art and even challenged Ovid.
I won’t get too much into it but another “cultural anomaly” I like to study is that of the Anglo-Norman narrative. During the aftermath of the Norman conquest of the English, they developed a refined literary taste that is not uncommonly correlated to some strange and tasty cheese that no one’s ever had before. Yes, if you read enough, you realize that there are many different flavors of cheese, I mean literature, some rarer than others, much like a wino will tell you that one is very different from the other when all you taste is alcohol. Many of these Anglo-Norman narratives were later developed into middle English poems, often composed in variational regional dialects. This is a great example of interpolation and intellectual exchange. Narratives from the Norman writers were passed down into localized British communities, who reinterpreted them into a new medium and in their own language. Imagine, for example, someone writing a free verse slam poem or a jazz compilation based on a passage from the Illiad, you dig? I’ll let the matter rest to jump on to my main point.
So, why all the writing about old poets? Well, for one, I’m what you call a medievalist. I won’t read anything unless it comes from these guys. Also, I have a very relevant “red flag” to raise on our modern society, which I often scrutinize as a result of what you may call counter-cultural lifestyle. Globalization has demolished these regional artifices for the sake of “conformity”. Let me explain: Global icons are adored like idols, and people have forgotten their own localized culture. So when I met a young kid from Rennes, the capital of Brittany, I asked him if he knew about Arthurian romance. Well, of course he did! However, he also was wearing Nike shoes, an NY Yankees hat and he spoke perfect English. This soft-cultural influence is sort of like an imperial invasion, although it doesn’t include any organized land assault or hurling missiles.
When one roams the southern borders of France, another unique dialect pops up that you may have never heard of. It is called Catalan, which also has a hefty epic in its name titled “Tirant Lo Blanc”. Catalan is a Latin derivative, but if you want to know about chivalry, look no further than the 15th century Tirant Lo Blanc. It is the model used by Cervantes for Don Quijote, though they are two very different texts. The former honors chivalric values while the other mocks them. However, both exemplify a common theme prevalent at the decline of chivalry: grandiosity. The irony of it all is that Tirant, in the epic, is a Breton knight! I think that a place like Brittany, and Breton speakers, may have something in common with the Catalans, just as they both have something in common with those who speak Occitan. These are all regional dialects that have a rich heritage in medieval literature. For one, most people don’t have a clue they exist. Then again, they all seem to be touching on the same subject: that is, courtly love and chivalry. A topic that nobody seems to give a fig for in the modern day, which is why it is an important topic to regenerate in modern minds that have lost a grip on reality by staring at their phone too long. Secondly, these dialects are unique examples of isolated cultural communities that have developed their own alcove of culture. In a globalized world, this is an extreme rarity. Just as the cheese aficionado enjoys both sharp and mild, I tell you, these rare dialect romance texts are worth preserving. They are more worth holding onto than all the gold beneath the Vatican. Don’t tell anyone I know about that, by the way.
However, when I roam the streets of Toulouse today, I don’t hear any Occitan, unfortunately. I would have to go to more remote villages for that. Although, I do hear a lot of Spanish. I do see, however, brand stores that I see when I’m in America. It bores me, honestly. Literature, I tell you, is a source of refinement but also an exchange of dialect and cultural value. When one goes to an art museum he looks at pictures, but he should spend time looking at the people, smelling the air, eating the food and looking at the sky. Are the stars the same? Does the wind blow differently? We are living in a historical continuum and layers of history are built on top of centuries of living. Romances and tragedies are hidden in history, we only know the ones that were documented. Reading literature is like being a sociologist, and when you take the past and plop it on top of the modern era, you get a strange blend of the present.
Living in Northern California, where all one thinks about is the tech boom, I’ve often felt like the sentiment goes something like this: Before the Tech Boom, it was like before the birth of Jesus. It was a land of dinosaurs and fighting jews. No really, it was actually under Spanish dominion for some time. However, nobody cares, as long as they can go to school to become an engineer. Go ahead, become an engineer. I don’t care, as long as it makes you happy. But don’t you dare destroy western literary culture. The biggest quarrel is with modern educators. No liberal arts education, no matter how much you pay, will import Catalan, Occitan or Breton literary curriculums. Why? Undergraduates don’t care about preserving localized literature culture. Yet, curriculum makers ought to take note, this is a big gem that has been hidden. You could educate young people about rich cultural alcoves, refining their cultural taste and making them multi-lingual, a globalized pursuit after all. All this could happen right form the dormitory room.