Mary of Nijmeghen

Mary — or Mariken van Nieumeghen as it is in the original — is a play that shows up in the early sixteenth century. My students read it this week and (among other things) we talked about how one might adapt it to a modern movie and came up with a really good plan. They’re convinced I just use the class to brainstorm writing projects.

Who? Me?!

But they did enjoy learning a lot of new curses (eg. “profligate strumpet”). It’s a Faustian tale — although it predates the “original” Faust — in which a young woman sells her soul to the devil in a moment of weakness and confusion. He doesn’t tempt her with life everlasting, love or riches, but with learning.

The Devil: If you would give your love to me, I would teach you the arts as no one else could: the seven liberal arts, rhetoric, music, logic, grammar, geometry, arithmetic and alchemy [<–substitutes a false one here, it should be astronomy], all of which are most important arts. There is no woman upon earth so proficient in them as I shall make you.

The seven disciplines were the backbone of the original university as founded in the Middle Ages. I like to remind my female students that they would not have been welcome there. Fascinating that this is the temptation for her, though wealth and riches come eventually. She finally repents when she sees a play (how po-mo) but it’s a delight to see the joy and frustration of the writer (believed to be Anna Bijns) come through in the scene in which drunken revelers demand a demonstration of Mary’s rhetorical skill:

O rhetoric, o true and lovely art, I who have always esteemed thee above all, I lament with grief that there are those who hate you and despise you. This is a grief to those who love you. Fie upon those who count you merely folly. Fie upon them who do so, for I wholly despise them. But for those who support you, life is full of hurt and sorrow. Ignorant men are the destruction of art.

They say in the proverb that through art grows the heart, but I say that it is a lying fable, for should some great artist appear, those who are unskilled and know not the first thing about art will make their opinion prevail everywhere, and artists will be reduced to beggary. Always it is the flatterer who is preferred, and always artists suffer such harm, and ignorant men are the destruction of art.

Fie upon all crude, coarse common minds, trying to measure art by your standards: everyone should pay honour to pure art, art which is the ruler of many a pleasant land. Honour be to all who are the promoters of art, fie upon the ignorant who reject art, for this is why I proclaim the rule that ignorant men are the destruction of art.

Prince, I will devote myself to art, and do everything in my power to acquire it. But it is to all lovers of art a sorrow that ignorant men pay so little honour to art.

Clearly it will always be so, but it’s comforting to know that despite the efforts of ignorant men, art continues to thrive even in the midst of our suffering. Translation by Eric Colledge in this excellent collection.