Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Against the Vices of the Times

The following translation of a ballade, composed in 1386 by the prolific French writer Eustaches Deschamps, a contemporary of Chaucer, is an example of the moralizing use made of the Worthies to contrast the degenerate present with an ideal past.

If it were possible for human nature
To revive those who have turned to ashes,
The worthy Hector, Arthur, and Charlemagne,
Julius Caesar, Godfrey, Alexander,
David, Judas, and Joshua who were willing
To take so much trouble in order to conquer
And to gain honor and renown,
And were they to be brought back to life,
I believe they all would wish to die again
Thus seeing the envy of the world,
And the suffering that everyone here inflicts,
Of coveting, robbing, expropriating, and acquiring,
Of deceiving his neighbor, man or woman,
Of abandoning honor and taking up vices,
Doing evil to the good, and rewarding the wicked,
Doing disservice to the noble and generous heart
But serving and honoring the wicked,
And foolishly waging war against one another;
All the nine worthies would wish to make an end
Thus seeing the envy of the world.
It would seem a wicked thing to them
To compare time present with time past,
When honor was in the world, Sovereign
Knowledge, which made everyone understand
To love the good, and Largesse bestowed
Reward on everyone, in order to uphold valor
And loyalty, to maintain prowess:
Justice and Right held lordship.
It goes otherwise; they would all wish to perish
Thus seeing the envy of the world.


Princes, there is no one, if he has common sense,
And knew the tyranny of the world,
Who would not wish to die directly,
Thus seeing the envy of the world.

I ran across this poem when researching *heroes* for bookclub.  We were reading Anthony  Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.  He decries the modern temptation to denigrate the reputation of all heroes, which tendency was also mentioned by author Eric Metaxas during the Q&A of his lecture on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The painting is by Giacomo Jaquerio (c. 1375 - 1453) an Italian medieval painter.


  1. I don't know who Godfrey is -- will have to look him up.

  2. Sounds like a perennial problem ~

    even long ago the new generation didnt seem to living up to its calling :-(

  3. I'm interested in the inclusion of Julius Caesar, a great man, but far more likely a great bad man than a good one.

    No doubt there are cycles of vice and virtue in society, but more likely we also change in which vices and virtues we emphasize, causing the previous generation to look askance at our new priorities. No generation, of course, gets it quite right.

    Also, for some reason, I immediately became obsessed with the painting you show here and traced it back to its source, which just happens to be a castle a few miles outside Torino.

  4. @Laura, I look forward to your blogging from Italy - a culture so rich in everything!

    Here's a link to Kirk's top ten conservatives whom you may find more amenable to study. It includes a Roman emperor, not Julius.


  5. Whoops!! wrong URL