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Metge, Bernat. Book of Fortune and Prudence. Trans. and ed. David Barnett. Barcelona: Barcino and Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2011. 87pp. ISBN 978-1-855662-285

This is the latest in a handsomely produced series of English translations of texts from medieval Catalan-speaking realms published jointly by Tamesis and Editorial Barcino. Previous volumes include translations of Ausiàs March, Ramon Muntaner, Francesc Eiximenis, The Book of Sent Soví, and Ramon Llull. David Barnett’s translation of Metge’s Libre de Fortuna i Prudència (hereafter [End Page 358] LFP), together with Richard Vernier’s translation of Metge’s Lo Somni (The Dream of Bernat Metge [Farnham, Surrey UK: Ashgate, 2002), means that we now have the major works of this key literary and historical figure of the late fourteenth century available for readers of English. The challenging ambiguities and apparent contradictions inherent in both works by this sophisticated Catalan courtier have long deserved a wider familiarity among students of the later Middle Ages and this wider familiarity may, in turn, lead us to new understandings of these works. The works of Metge are also key to a lively and ongoing debate over whether there was, or was not, something we might call “Catalan Humanism”.

The LFP dates its own narrative to 1 May, 1381, and was probably written not long thereafter. Like his Somni of 1399, the Libre de Fortuna i Prudència is Metge’s attempt to come to terms with a reversal of fortune, in this case, as Barnett suggests in his Introduction (following Lluís Cabré in his recent edition of the LFP [Barcelona: Barcino, 2010]), the all-too familiar sounding Barcelona banking crisis of the early 1380s and the economic difficulties that it precipitated. Unlike the Somni, which is in prose, the LFP is written in paired octosyllables, the popular noves rimdades form. In 1200 lines it recounts an involuntary sea voyage by the protagonist Bernat to an allegorical island where he encounters first Fortune and then Prudence (and her suite of maidens: the Seven Liberal Arts). The encounter with the foul old lady Fortune is not a pleasant one and, although Lady Fortune offers Bernat everything he could possibly want, he believes she would just take it away again and continues to curse her until she hurls him from her castle. Prudence soon arrives to succor him and tries to convince him that Fortune, too, is a part of God’s plan. Bernat remains skeptical of Prudence’s arguments until the end and does not get a chance to respond to Prudence’s final “most convincing” assertion that “Fortune is always on the side (“està / en la mà”; ll. 1133–34) of anyone who has good sense and natural reasoning” (85). But she pronounces him “cured” and, after a kiss from Prudence and each of the seven maidens, Bernat is transported back to the beach in Barcelona where, as will occur again in the prose Somni of 1399, the protagonist seems not to have learned the lessons of his own adventure: his primary concern is that people in Barcelona will see him out alone so late (or so early), without the trappings of wealth, and so will think the less of him.

David Barnett’s 20-page introduction to Metge is excellent, clearly setting out for English readers the life and the importance of Metge, introducing his other [End Page 359] works, and providing a helpful synopsis of the LFP. Barnett’s primary focus in this part of the Introduction, and in the notes to his translation, is on the sources of Metge’s text, the most immediate being Boethius; the Elegia of Henry of Settimello; Alain de Lille’s Anticlaudianus; and the Roman de la Rose (20). The notes guide us helpfully in identifying which of these sources is being invoked at particular moments in the text. It is likely, as well, that a work like Guillem de Torroella’s Faula, also in noves rimades, provided the frame of the allegorical sea voyage (24–25). The Introduction and notes also serve to situate the text in its time and place and offer helpful historical and cultural information. The Introduction could serve as a good general introduction to Metge and his oeuvre for readers of English.

The prose translation reads smoothly in English. The translator has sought to produce a translation that at once follows “the original closely enough for the translation to be of use for those seeking help when reading the Catalan” and also offers “those unfamiliar with Catalan a readable and faithful rendering of Metge’s original”. These are both worthy –but not necessarily compatible– goals for any translator, and the balance clearly tips in Barnett’s translation toward the latter goal. One reason that the translation falls short of the first of these two goals is, of course, that the text is not precisely in Catalan, a fact that Barnett does not seem to acknowledge at any point. Like most other lyric and narrative verse written in Catalonia in the fourteenth century, the LFP is written in a “hybrid” blend of Occitan and Catalan. According to Cabré (pp. 73–78), this feature of the LFP cannot be ascribed to Occitanizing scribes alone: some Occitanisms most likely go back to Metge’s original text.

The prose translation is readable and accurate. It should give readers a good sense of the text, especially of the philosophical arguments at the heart of it. At times, the translation becomes, perhaps, too periphrastic and, in doing so, deprives the reader of some of the more vivid aspects of Metge’s writing. Thus, in the opening lines, where the protagonist is complaining “car lo món és descominal, / que als uns dóna e als altres toll” (ll. 10–12), Barnett deprives the world of agency and the text of action, so important in a text about the ups and downs of fortune, in favor of a static, passive view: “the world is an unjust place where some have plenty and others are deprived” (31). One can find similar quibbles throughout, but, as I’ve said, the translation is generally clear and accurate and one hopes it will encourage readers to turn to the original text. [End Page 360]

Concerning the text, the scholarly reader would like a bit more information on the nature and provenance of the edition found here. In the discussion of “Manuscripts” in the Introduction, Barnett simply states that “The first of these two manuscripts [=Biblioteca de Catalunya Ms. 8 (=Cançoner Vega-Aguiló, vol. 2), designated H by editors of Metge] is used as the base text for the edition in this translation” (12). But the passive verb makes it impossible to know whether it “is used” by Barnett or by someone else for this purpose. Barnett does not take credit for the edition at any point, so far as I can tell, only for the introduction and translation. This is made still more confusing by the statement that “the translation is based on Lluís Cabré’s 2010 edition of Libre de Fortuna i Prudència” (27). But this is not the edition reproduced in the book itself, so only the translation is based on this edition. It does appear that this edition has been steered in the direction of modern Catalan orthography, perhaps as part of the translator’s goal to make the text a support for the study of Catalan. Since one of the likely places in which this translation might be used is in the graduate classroom at institutions that do not have an advanced Catalan program, a slightly fuller description of the provenance of the text would have been helpful and served, additionally, as a useful exemplum for budding editors of medieval texts.

In sum, this is an important and generally well-executed contribution toward bringing this challenging writer of fourteenth-century Catalonia to readers of English. Barnett is to be congratulated on the excellent introduction and notes as well as on the highly readable translation. The editors of the series should be congratulated, too, on bringing us this attractive collection that, one hopes, will help to bring the literary life of the medieval Crown of Aragon to the larger audience it has long deserved. [End Page 361]

John Dagenais
University of California, Los Angeles