The Monk of Montaudon is a singularly curious figure in the history of medieval music. Possibly also known as Pèire de Vic, he was a noble who became a Benedictine monk around 1180, but who seems to have enjoyed deviating from monastic duties and activities. In fact, he suffered the fate that often befell younger male children of noble families who could not inherit their father’s lands and titles: he was offered to a monastery. Such sons had no say in the matter and were understandably resentful.
Despite his enforced monastic vocation (or maybe even because of it), he showed a remarkable talent for vernacular poetry and music in the troubadour genre. Indeed, his work attracted the attention of the nobility and even led to patronage by some of his aristocratic admirers. The gifts they showered on him allowed him to benefit his monastery so much that he was released from his regular duties to serve King Alfonso II of Aragon (presumably to keep all that good money rolling in). This is what his biography relates, but the truth may be that he just left the order and re-entered the secular world. One of his poems mentions that he had “abandoned God for flesh.”
While much of his writing is in the usual troubadour poetic forms of the time, his big claim to fame was his satirical songs and use of the form known as the enueg, or “annoyance,” song. These gleefully sarcastic works are essentially long lists of things that he apparently got riled up about, in a seemingly random and nonsensical order. For example, he writes in Be m’enueia (“I find annoying, do you hear me?”):
I can’t stand a long wait,
Or meat when it’s badly cooked or tough,
Or a priest who lies and perjures himself
Or an old whore who is past it
And—by Saint Delmas—I don’t like
A base man who enjoys too much comfort;
And running when there’s ice on the road,
Or fleeing, armed on horseback
Annoys me, as does hearing dicing maligned.
This goes on for nine verses; you get the idea. Among his other satirical works are two poems describing a debate in heaven between icons and painted ladies (i.e., practitioners of the world’s oldest profession) over who has the right to use facial paint and for how long:
Another time I was at a meeting in Heaven, by chance
The statues were complaining about ladies who paint themselves
I saw them complaining to God about women who improve their complexions
And make their skin shine with paint that should be used on icons.
After much deliberation, God observes that such makeup attracts unwanted attention:
Monk, this painting makes them endure many blows down below
And do you think it pleases them when men make them bend over?
The Monk replies that he “cannot fill their holes” but asks that God spare one lady in particular, Elise of Montfort, who never used makeup or offended icons.
In the second song, St. Peter and St. Lawrence finally set the amount of time that each group (ladies and icons) is allowed to paint themselves, which is quite decent of them. However the ladies have no intention of going along with these new guidelines:
Never were Saint Peter or Saint Lawrence
Obeyed in this matter of the agreement which they caused to be made
With these old women who have longer tusks than a wild boar.
They’ve done worse—haven’t you heard—
They’ve sent up the price of saffron so much
That as far away as Palestine the pilgrims have been talking about it:
I must indeed lodge a complaint about this.
We often think of the Middle Ages as a stuffy, repressed time of heavy censorship and the silencing of ideas and joy, and yes of course, there were many instances of such things. But the mere fact that this kind of poetry could be written—by a monk who got away with it no less—shows that, at least in southern France, there was a more tolerant society willing to poke fun at things and be irreverent. It was a society that would soon meet a brutal and tragic end.