10 October 2018

Montini and Modesty in Martyrdom

As we contemplate the impending canonisation of Blessed Montini, my undisciplined mind has started to meander among some of the more recondite goodies which the mox-Sanctus is responsible for having introduced into the Liturgy ...

Since I am a classicist, certain lines in S Ambrose's Hymn about S Agnes, brought into the Liturgia Horarum by Dom Lentini's coetus, drifted into my memory ... lines which might cause other Classicist readers the momentary puzzlement engendered by an obscure feeling of familiarity. Yes, you have read something like this in 'profane' Classical poetry.

The hymn contains the lines

Nam veste se totam tegens
terram genu flexo petit
lapsu verecundo cadens.
[ For, covering herself completely with her garment she made for ground with bended knee, falling with a modest fall.]

In the back of my mind was the thought that it sounded like Euripides and probably came from the Iphigeneia in Aulide (where Agamemnon secures a wind to get his fleet to Troy so that Helen can be retrieved, by the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia). But a reading through the Messenger Speech near the end of that play proved the falsity of my suspicion. I sat stymied, until the Muse who looks after Liturgical bloggers (who she?) slipped into my mind the name Polyxena. Yupp! There it is in Euripides' Hecuba (so I was right about the author). Polyxena was a Trojan princess, loved by Achilles, who, after the Fall of Troy (and death of Achilles) was sacrificed upon his tomb, so that, so to speak, he got her in the end ...

Then the Pierian Lady vouchsafed me a second flash of enlightenment: it's also to be found in the Metamorphoses of the Greatest Latin Poet, Ovid. There you have the same three ideas: she covered herself; she fell to the ground on her knee; she fell in a way that did not betray her modesty.
Euripides: katheisa pros gaian gonu ... thneskousa homos pollen pronoian eikhen euskhemon pesein, kruptousa ha kruptein ommata arsenon khreon.
Ovid: illa super terram defecto poplite labens pertulit intrepidos ad fata novissima vultus; tum quoque cura fuit partes velare tegendas, cum caderet, castique decus servare pudoris.

Given the fact that each of these lubricious authors kept a frivolous tongue fairly consistently in a wicked cheek, I suspect that each is amusing himself with a little dry irony at the idea that a girl who was being poleaxed might be preoccupied with the need to prevent the chaps from getting a glimpse of her knees (Euripides had already enjoyed a bit of a schoolboy snigger, surely, in making Talthybios, a few lines earlier, praise Polyxena by saying that she had better breasts than a statue).

Entertainingly, the 'reformers' who provided the texts of the Hymns for the Liturgia Horarum missed out four lines, explaining that they did so because the lines 'nimis insistunt in praedicando pudore' [they go a bit too far in preaching modesty]. What a lovely and revealing (!) Sixties assumption: the idea that going on too much about sexual continence is a mistake*!

One wonders if the 'reformers' ' studies and libraries provided generous views from their windows of the immodest Sixties garments worn by the floozies (lupae, as we and pope Benedict might call them) in the Roman streets outside. It would explain how Bugnini - whom I picture as a man modestly garbed in the Apron of the Craft and with his mind set on weightier considerations than knees - got away with so much liturgical dishonesty.

*Originally the text went

nam veste se totam tegit,
curam pudoris praestitit
ne quis retectam cerneret.
in morte vivebat pudor;
vultumque texerat manu,
terram genu flexo petit
lapsu verecundo cadens.

Perhaps vultum texerat would have made the Saint sound too Islamic. French gendarmes might have arrested her.


Oliver Nicholson said...

S. Ambrose certainly has plenty to say about S. Agnes in De Virginibus I, but are you sure that this hymn is by him. Dr. Homes Dudden of Pembroke does not include it in his list of unimpeachably Ambrosian ditties.

Joshua said...

There is a story from the formerly Dominican parish of Holy Name, Wahroonga, about an Irish black friar getting up to preach, beginning with the words "The miniskirt" - he explained that the matrons of the parish had prevailed upon him to 'say something' about it, so he did: "I think it's beautiful". Apparently those ladies of the parish until then inclined to wear that attractive garment rather hastily reversed their decisions!

Banshee said...

Anybody who has played sports or done strenuous work in a skirt knows about planning how to fall in an unrevealing manner.

Including men who do medieval reenactment, in some cases. (There are a whole series of jokes about men learning the techniques to deal with flowing garments.) Usually a man's concern is more for the garment's safety than for the onlookers' blushes; but it is still probably something that he thinks about, because otherwise there would be more jokes about unintentional exposure.

Joshua said...

Cistercians didn't wear undergarments, as those items were thought to press against the privy parts and thus stimulate carnal desires; but this led to an unfortunate incident: the King of England and his retinue was passing along a country road, and all had to make way - in his haste, a Cistercian fell over, exposing his backside, whereupon a prelate in the royal party exclaimed in Latin what may be rendered in English as "Cursed be the Order that bares the arse!"