Argument

The following poem is a dramatic monologue in four sections, based on a brief passage in a barbarian legal text. In the sixth-century law code Lex Burgundiorum, an account is given of the widow Aunegild, who betrothed herself to Fredegisil, sword-bearer to King Gundobad, ruler of the Burgundians. Aunegild, soon after receiving the bride-price from her fiancé, began a liaison with another man, Balthamodus.

On the complaint of Fredegisil, both she and her lover Balthamodus were condemned to death, but the Burgundian king commuted their sentences to heavy fines. A severe warning was inserted in the law code, to the effect that this act of mercy would not be repeated in the case of any other woman who dishonored her betrothal vows.

In this poem I add the further details (absent from the Latin text of the incident) that the mercy shown by the king to Aunegild and Balthamodus was due to the intercession of Fredegisil, who asked that the life of his betrothed be spared; and that Aunegild lived the life of a shunned outcast after her release. All else is exactly as the law code tells us. A convenient English edition of the Lex Burgundiorum is that of Katherine Fischer Drew, The Burgundian Code (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949, rpt. 1984).

Stress placement on Burgundian personal names:

AU-ne-gild
Bal-tha-MO-dus
Fre-de-GI-sil
GUN-do-bad

 

I. The Sin

Fredegisil was all wealth and status:
The king’s sword-bearer, with the apparatus
Of courtly manners and a sure entrée
To seats of power. All my friends would say
See how she rises upwards with this marriage!
But Balthamodus—when I saw his carriage
Tall and erect, as lithe and full of grace
As a young deer, and blessed with such a face!
I did not think I’d ever catch his eye
(Poor Balthamodus! So reserved and shy!)
But in the end I had him. Men are weak.
Traps to ensnare them are not far to seek.
I thought: Before this marriage, one brief turn
To dalliance. My first husband made me learn
The rudiments of pleasure, nothing more.
Balthamodus promised such a store
Of love-play that resistance was in vain—
I had to have him, though I might be slain.

 

II. The Accusation

They say if something can go wrong, it will—
Fredegisil learned of it. Until
That moment I could count on his affection.
After that, he broke off our connection
And went for satisfaction to the king.
What could I plead? The bride-price and the ring
Were in my hands; the priest knew what I swore.
There is no space between a wife and whore.
The outcome that I faced could not be plainer:
I had dishonored Gundobad’s retainer,
Not just a man unlucky in his bride—
I would go to the axe for royal pride.
Balthamodus also faced such doom.
We met the night before, in his small room,
Consoled each other with a final kiss
That, more than any other, gave me bliss
Beyond all fleshly acts of love. Fell death
Hovered above us with his wintry breath.

 

III. The Judgment

The court was filled, for interest in our case
Ran fire-fast through Burgundy. My face
Was veiled for shame. My lover stood apart.
Gundobad had anger in his heart
And seemed intent on speedy retribution:
Charges, defense, quick judgment, execution.
I saw my life as over and complete
Till Fredegisil rose up from his seat
And spoke: Dread lord, please hear your servant’s mind.
Although in Aunegild I cannot find
The wife I wanted, let your rigor bend—
To spill her blood will serve no useful end.
The king relented, mulcted us with fees,
Put me and Balthamodus on our knees,
Declared us without honor, and we owed
Release to the mercy Fredegisil showed,
Decreed: To errant fiancées and wives—
All future faithless women forfeit lives!

 

IV. The Punishment

So, we were freed. The consequence that followed?
More than my self-respect, my heart was hollowed.
All friends and family turned to me their backs,
The fines had left me poor, the mute attacks
Of smirking silence and averted eyes
Marked me the sort of woman all despise.
For a few weeks of love’s sublime elation
I pay a lifetime’s savage expiation.
No marriage now. No honor. No esteem.
Balthamodus, were you a mere dream
That tantalized with evanescent joy
As flimsy as some silly childish toy?
You have not come to see me since that day.
I keep to my small cottage, forced to stay
Far distant from the marketplace where crowds
Might laugh at me and jeer. I hope for clouds
To keep the streets in windswept swirls of rain
While I walk friendless as the exiled Cain.

First published in TRINACRIA, Issue #15 (Spring 2016).

 

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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7 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Again, Salemi shows us that the Ars Poetica Nova is not only moral, historical, learned, and refined, but that story has a privileged place.

    Perfectly contained and beautifully crafted in the grand manner, the monologue comes to us almost as the voice of a Holy Soul from Purgatory weaving her story that others be spared the deceits of the passions.

    For those weaned from day one on Rousseau (which would be the vast majority of Americans), Salemi’s masterpiece would appear as a condemnation of “corrupt society” “victimizing” a “sexually liberated” proto-feminist—and Salemi would seem a modern Voltaire writing a new “Affaire Calas” (an early liberal “hit piece” against France’s Christian monarchy).

    But the horror of sin underlying the entire quartet, with its final, striking allusion to Cain, more than sufficiently dispels the error that “man is born good”—the so-called “Enlightenment’s” feeble attempt to evacuate the very reason for the mystery of our Redemption.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, Mr. Mackenzie, you are right. I wanted the poem to be about human frailty and sin, and their consequences in punishment, mercy, or disgrace. Those things are precisely what one finds between the lines of the rather laconic Vulgar Latin text of the Burgundian Code. I also wanted to show that earthly punishment, just like earthly mercy, is not necessarily paralleled in the afterlife, or even in the temporal backwash of our sins. You can be forgiven for your transgressions by your earthly victims (as Gilles de Rais was by the parents of the scores of children he murdered) and still go to the axe. And you can be pardoned by King Gundobald, and still face the disgrace of ostracism. The modern liberal’s idea of “mercy” (i.e. that you simply go scot-free without the slightest consequence for what you have done) is not the Christian idea of mercy. There is always a penalty to be paid, either in this life or in Purgatory.

      I was indeed afraid that the poem would be given some kind of gender-focused reading by the feminist bitchocracy that currently tyrannizes us. No such reading is possible. Both Aunegild and her lover Bathamodus were facing the axe–not for anything relating to “gender,” but because they violated an oath, broke pledged loyalty, and sinned in the eyes of both God and man. Those three realities would be the only operative ones for barbarian Burgundy.

      Reply
      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        And all these elements, the violation of an oath (I am thinking of Lucia’s violation of her betrothal to Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”), the servitude of the soul to the body’s basest impulses, together with that heightened sense of drama your limpid verses convey with perfect ease—these are what made Dante’s Comedy so compelling, La Fontaine’s Fables immortal, and the narratives of Chrétien de Troyes the wonders that they are—and this, I can assure you, adds one more dimension of vitality to our ever expanding notion of the Ars Poetica Nova and its seemingly endless possibilities.

  2. Satyananda Sarangi

    Sir, Greetings !

    Although I had no knowledge of this story’s background, I enjoyed the poetry thoroughly. I have always admired your poems, for you are a huge inspirational figure for young poets like me.
    I still remember the first time I was browsing through TRINACRIA’s submission guidelines in early 2017. It was there where I build up my determination that someday I would be skilled enough to send my poems to the magazine.

    Your principles will continue to guide me through this post modern madness.

    Regards

    Reply
  3. James Sale

    Arresting, compelling, coherent and executed marvellously; yes, these are great poems, and what is so good is that they tell a tale. As someone once said, narrative may be regarded as a primary act of mind, and add to that primary story and its drama, the concision and beauty of pure poetry, and you have real literature. Well done – to be this good requires true dedication and devoted inspiration.

    Reply

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