“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…”
So begins the first canto of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. It’s perhaps one of the most famous opening lines in all Western literature – strange, perhaps, since it’s in medieval Italian. What’s also strange is that I’ve been immersed in Dante myself for the past couple of weeks, proof perhaps that research can take you in directions you never expected.
The reason for all this Dante is a single line in Ave Dei Patris filia: ‘Ave Jesu tui filii dulcis filia‘, ‘Hail, sweet daughter of your son’. On the face of it this is a classic example of slightly twisted medieval logic. The Virgin Mary is the daughter of God – logically, since we are all children of God. Christ, Mary’s son, also happens to be God. So Mary is the daughter of her son. (She’s also his wife. Let’s not go there.)
The Virgin Mary’s labyrinthine family relations crop up occasionally in medieval hymns, using various different words for ‘daughter’ and ‘son’. One hymn for the Assumption, Sacra mundo fulget dies, has the line ‘Patris mater, nati nata‘: ‘Mother of the father, daughter of the son’. Stellam maris attendamus has the line ‘Tuae prolis filia’, ‘daughter of your offspring’. A common way of wording the concept is that Mary is both mother and daughter of the same being, as in the hymn ‘Te collaudat coelestis curia/ quae mater es et regis filia‘: ‘The court of heaven praises you , who are mother and daughter of the king’. A more famous example, which uses the ‘nata nati‘ motif, is Josquin des Prez ‘s motet Illibata Dei virgo nutrix.
All this is interesting but it doesn’t explain the use of the words ‘filia‘ for ‘daughter’ and ‘filius‘ for ‘son’ in Ave Dei Patris. In fact, the word filius just isn’t used in this context in medieval hymns. Ave Dei Patris isn’t the most original of poems: pretty much every phrase is copied from somewhere else, so I knew that this line must have a direct precedent somewhere.
This is where Dante’s Paradiso comes in. In the last few cantos of the Divine Comedy, Dante, having completed his journey to heaven, finally meets the mystic St Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspires him to reach his final goal, to gaze upon a vision of the enthroned Virgin. Canto 33, the last canto of all, opens with Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin for intercession on Dante’s behalf:
“Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo Figlio,
umile e alta più che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio…”
‘O Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son, Lowliest and loftiest of created stature, Fixed goal to which the eternal counsels run…’
The first line of this canto seems to be an almost exact precedent for the line in Ave Dei Patris.
So how did a tiny fragment of a medieval Italian poem get to England and find its way into an English antiphon text? Well, I’m not certain, but there are a couple of possibilities.
Firstly, it’s extremely unlikely that whoever composed Ave Dei Patris knew Dante’s work in Italian, as there were other translations available in England which, the evidence suggests, were in circulation before the original Italian version became widely available in the early 1520s. Fayrfax died in 1521, so it’s unlikely that he (or anyone else in his lifetime) knew the Comedy in Italian. Catherine of Aragon acquired a copy in Castilian some time after 1515, which was still in Henry VIII’s library at Whitehall in 1542 when an inventory was taken. She was also a fan of Petrarch, and owned two of his works in translation. Could Ave Dei Patris have been written for her – and deliberately included an allusion that she would recognise? It’s possible that it could have been written after 1515, but I suspect not, on those oft-quoted and ever-dodgy ‘stylistic grounds’. It could have been written for her marriage to Henry in 1509, but there’s unfortunately no evidence that Catherine – or indeed anyone at court – knew Dante’s work before 1515, so it’s hard to conclude that Ave Dei Patris was written for her.
There is a more likely possibility, though. Some time around 1416, at the Council of Konstanz, an Italian bishop, Giovanni Bertoldi da Serravalle, wrote a Latin translation and commentary on the Divine Comedy under the guidance of two Englishmen, the Bishop of Salisbury and the Bishop of Bath and Wells. We know this translation circulated in England, because when John Leland carried out his survey of monastic libraries for Henry VIII, he found a copy in Wells Cathedral and another in Duke Humphrey’s Library in Oxford.
And – crucially – the relevant tercet of Serravalle’s translation opens ‘Virgo mater, filia tui filii‘ – using the right words for both ‘daughter’ and ‘son’. The word order is slightly different in Ave Dei Patris, but that doesn’t really matter, because the poem’s lines are constructed in parallel: the genitive noun (or possessive), in this case tui filii, always comes first. This is by far the closest precedent I’ve been able to find for this line of the poem.
Although there’s no evidence that Henry VIII owned Serravalle’s translation, only his Whitehall library was catalogued in 1542, leaving his library at Greenwich untouched. We still don’t know what was in that library – it could easily have included some Dante.
It needn’t have done, however. One person who knew Serravalle’s translation very well was John Whethamstede, the abbot of the Benedictine St Alban’s Abbey from 1420 to 1465.
Whethamstede had travelled extensively in Italy in the 1420s, first serving as a delegate at the Council of Pavia, but he also visited the Vatican. He was a prominent supporter of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the uncle of Henry VI, who donated his copy of Serravalle to Oxford in 1444. He also knew and cited Serravalle himself. Writing under the name of ‘Frumentarius’ or ‘Wheaty’, he produced many selections of extracts from Italian humanist works, including Serravalle’s commentary. He must, therefore, have had ready access to a copy of Serravalle’s work, presumably at St Alban’s. Fifty years later Robert Fayrfax, the first setter of Ave Dei Patris, would be working at St Alban’s Abbey and writing music for its choir. Coincidence? Perhaps not, if Fayrfax had access to books to both Serravalle’s translation and ‘Abbot Wheaty”s collection of extracts in the St Alban’s library.
So what does this show? Well, it’s becoming more possible that Fayrfax wrote the Ave Dei Patris text himself. I’d suspected as much, because of the similarity between this poem and his Lauda vivi Alpha et O. He wouldn’t be the first court composer who was also a poet, and he wouldn’t be the first with an interest in Italian literature either: Gilbert Banaster, master of the choristers for the Chapel Royal in the mid-fifteenth century, was both poet and composer, who even produced a translation of part of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Knowing where the ideas of the poem come from is helping me to build a context for the composition of Ave Dei Patris and leads up to answering the big question: just why was it written?
Alighieri, Dante. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine: Cantica III, Paradise trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds. 2nd edition. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1964).
Botterill, Steven. Dante and the Mystical Tradition: Bernard of Clairvaux in the Commedia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Havely, Nick. Dante’s British Public: Readers and Texts, from the Fourteenth Century to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Hayward, Maria. The 1542 Inventory of Whitehall: The Palace and its Keeper 2 vols. (London: Illuminata Publishers for the Society of Antiquaries of London, 2004).
Starkey, David (ed.) Henry VIII: A European Court in England (London: Collins & Brown in association with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 1991).
Weiss, R. Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century 3rd edition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell & Mott, 1967).