Tuesday, May 06, 2008

mors deliciarum II

The most interesting version for those seeking evidence of widespread usage of sortes vergilianae into the seventeeth century is Dr. Edward Lake’s. In this version king Charles I was at Oxford during the winter 1642-1643 and while strolling in the Bodleian library, saw a number of students and noblemen, ‘picking at Virgil’. As is pointed out in Hamilton, the sortes can not have been only an arcane and scholarly exercise if also noble undergraduates played with this method of divination. Charles I wishes to try, but asks Falkland to try first, and he received 11.152-159, where Evander addresses his dead son:

Non, haec, o Palla, dederas promissa parenti,
Cautius ut saevio veles te credere Marti.
Haud ignarius eram quantum nova Gloria in armis
Et praedulce decus primo certamine posset.
Primitiae iuvenis miserae bellique propinqui
Dura rudimenta, et nulli exaudita deorum
Vota precesque meae!

The king did not abandon the idea after this inauspicious beginning, but, pricked the book with a pin and thus selected the page (this seems to have been the preferred method of selecting the sortes in seventeenth century England, Aubrey describes it thus; the party that has an earnest desire to be resolved in such an event takes a pinne; and thrusts it between the leaves of one of ye above said bookes.). The king’s pin selected Didos curse of Aeneas, 4.615-620:

At bello audacis populi vexatus et armis,
Finibus extorris, complexu avolsus Iuli
Auxilium imploret videatque indigna suorum
Fnera; nec, cum se sub leges iniquae
Tradiderit, regno aut optata luce fruatur,
Sed cadat ante diem mediaque inhumatus harena.

Naturally, neither king nor nobles took this well, and Charles insisted that the passage be translated, and Abraham Cowley was chosen, rendering this prophetic translation:

By a bold people’s stubborn arms oppressed,
Forced to forsake tha land which he possessed,
Torn from his dearest son, let him in vain
Seek help, and see his friends unjustly slain;
Let him to base, unequal terms submit,
In hopes to save his crown, yet lose both it
And life at once; untimely let him die,
And on an open stage unburied lie

The later events verify these depressing sortes; Falkland died at the battle of Newbury 1643, riding suicidal beyond a hedge covered by the musket fire of the rebels, and the kings destiny is well known.

Anther memoir, by a certain Welwood tells a slightly different story. The undergraduates are not in the this tale, it is Falkland who suggests the sortes, and the king here goes first, and when upset by his lot, Falkland tries his hand at it. Macray adds that no pre-1642 copy has been found in the library to fit the description, ‘nobly printed’ and ‘exquisitely bound’. Since archbishop Sancroft places the incident at Windsor rather than at the Bodleian, it may never have existed.

In a even more differing variation the event takes lace in Paris in 1648, not 1642, and is instigated by Charles’s I son, the future Charles II, as described by John Aubrey. In this story the depressed prince asks the above mentioned poet Cowley to play a hand of cards while awaiting news of the kings fate; Mr. Cowley replied, he did not care to play at Cards; but if his Hignesse pleased, they would use the Sortes Virgilianae (Mr. Cowley always had a Virgil in his pocket). The prince naturally received the same verses as in previous accounts and asked the poet to translate, as his Latin was a bit weak, and Cowley translated. The biographer Aubrey claims to have seen the autograph copy in the poets hand in the 1660.

The version with the prince s the least accredited, but it is interesting that Cowley has such a leading role in it. There is in fact evidence that the poet, ‘contemptous as he was of superstition on most matters’ is said to have used the sortes on other occasion. After the death of Charles I, he was an important member of the Royalist group in Paris, making it natural to place him there in 1648.

However I do not believe that this instance of sortes actually occured, the versions are much to disparate, and rather seem to be used as in the Historia Augusta, to retroactively portent and bring Virgilian solemnity to chaotic situations. Cowley seems to have som hand in this.
The use of sortes here is probably also tied to the status of the executed king as a martyr, he is actually the only post-reformation sint of the Church of England, and as in Historia Augusta other omens abound i the accounts.

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