The Well-Laden Ship

I spent the morning reading a complex and curious medieval source, Ecbert of Liege’s The Well Laden Ship. I had never heard of this source before, most likely because Robert Gary Babcock’s 2013 translation is the first translation ever done of it. It is a long poem (2,373 lines!) that was intended to teach Latin, but it doesn’t appear to have really caught on (perhaps because, as Babcock notes, it had an “extensive and esoteric vocabulary”), and only one manuscript copy survived.

This source is astonishing. It is full of anecdotes, fables, sayings, wise-cracks, and witticisms, as well as critiques of “modern day” trends. Ecbert appears to have gathered together Biblical stories, folklore, ancient quips and sayings, and later Christian stories. It is a glorious hodgepodge of advice, admonishment, and accumulated wisdom.

Some of the source reads a bit like fortune cookies: “Not every cloud you see threatens rain.” “One does well to distrust a stream, even one that is calm.” Others offer direct moral and educational advice to the students: “Whoever hates his work, surely hated himself first.” “The one who broadcasts all he knows will not be much loved.”

Of course, some of these are instantly understandable, and have lasted across the centuries of human experience: “The steeper the step, the heavier the fall from it.” “I hate a painful nose infection with stopped-up nostrils” and “While the cat’s away, the mouse is seen scurrying about.” But others are distinctly medieval, products of a different, only distantly glimpsed culture. Bawdy jokes abound and a deep shared religiosity infuses the text, as do allusions to an agricultural world and an everyday engagement with animals and the environment (including lots of fish!!!) that most of us no longer experience.

Yet others can push us to see a medieval thought world that most of us don’t imagine—one that pushes against injustice, asks for thoughtful concern for others, and expresses concern for the direction he sees his society trending.

            “When we are inside we often forget the one excluded outside.”

            “Here Money, which encourages evil, corrupts sacred morals. Queen Money, corrupter ofall things, triumphs.”

            “A portion of mankind has learned how to break something, not how to fix it.”

Reading the Well-Laden Ship, I am reminded principally of two other (later) sources. First, the painting Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (based in part on Erasmus’ Adages).

This painting depicts folk sayings alongside more erudite bon mots, all incredibly detailed and lively—who can resist the soldier, “armed to the teeth” “belling the cat”, the roof made of pancakes, or the fisher trying to catch eels by their tails

The other thing that I can’t help thinking about is the Liber Floridus, the encyclopedic agglomeration of natural history, religious history, geography, and local history that I’ve been spending time with on and off for a while now. In this case, it’s not the tone that resonates, but the eclectic nature of both works. They both dip in and out of contemporary, classical, and Biblical knowledge, and both are results of extreme effort, compositional care, and an almost bewildering arrangement of carefully curated randomness.

As for final thoughts?  Eh, I’m off to a campus reception that will hopefully have some nice food, so I’ll go with this one:

“Let another cheese come to me like the one I had recently. When this has been done, you will have me as a true friend.”