Continued from part one.

The great Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux, circa 1140, gave a series of sermons on Lent. The sixth begins with a quotation by St. Peter, exhorting the faithful, as strangers and travelers, to abstain from carnal desires.[1] Under the title “On the Traveler, Death and the Crucified,” this text distinguishes three degrees of God’s return: the exile experienced in this world by the Christian during his earthly life, his subsequent separation from the earthly world after physical death and, finally, the ravishment to the third heavens by way of the Cross.[2] Two centuries later, another Cistercian, William of Digulleville, seems to inspire himself from St. Bernard’s defined typology. William successively writes three long poems featuring the three types of exile: Pilgrimage of Human Life deals with exile on earth; Pilgrimage of Death evokes travel in the afterlife; and Pilgrimage of the Cross proposes the life of Christ as a model of pilgrimage. In the first poem, the motif that will inspire the Arcana 13 and Mat cards in the Tarot of Marseille appears for the first time. In this text, William personifies Death meeting a pilgrim on the verge of trespassing. At the end of his terrestrial journey, two old women approach the pilgrim, presenting themselves as “old age” and “infirmity” and telling him:

Death sends us to you
To tell you she is coming
And she told us
Not to leave you
As long as we will         
Not have fought you
And brought you down and slain you
She wants you afflicted and “mat” (afflit et mat)
To checkmate you. (te face eschec et mat) [3]

In the last two verses, both “mat” acceptations rhyme, as personified in Death’s own words. Moreover, a few lines further, Death, with a single stroke of her scythe, separates the pilgrim’s soul from his body:

Here death came,
End and term
Of terrible things
Man in this world is exposed
To death as grass in the field
To the scythe, because this is hay
Green today, dry tomorrow.
You have been green long enough
You have had rain and winds
But now you need to be scythed
And ripped apart in two pieces
The door is narrow, body and soul
Cannot go through together.
The soul will go first
Thereafter the body will go
Death let her scythe go
And chased my soul away from my body.[4]

Thus, this text contains both acceptations of the word « mat », the figure of Death using a scythe and the pilgrim in the world. William of Digulleville’s poem was very popular in the 15th century, and many copies of it were made, often illustrated with miniatures.[5]

The Pilgrim and Death, miniature illustrating William of Digulleville’s Pilgrimage of Human Life, second quarter of the 15th century (BnF, MS Français 376).

The Pilgrim and Death, miniature illustrating William of Digulleville’s Pilgrimage of Human Life, before 1416 (Bibliothèque Méjane, Ms. 110).

This is how the image of the pilgrim accompanied by personified Death, often represented as a skeleton holding a scythe, spread widely. It is most likely that the couple arcana 13/Mat of the Tarot of Marseille derives, directly or not, from one of these manuscripts.

However, if Digulleville’s poem does shed light on the link that unites arcana 13 with the Mat, it does not explain many details of the latter card and, first of all, of the Fool’s outfit worn by the character. How did the pilgrim of human life become a fool?

To be continued in part three.

[1] 1 Peter 2 11.

[2] Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Opera, IV, eds. J. Leclercq, H. Rochais, Rome, Editiones cistercienses, 1966, pp. 377-380.

[3] William of Digulleville, Le Pèlerinage de vie humaine, ed. J. J. Stürzinger, Londres, Roxburghe Club, 1893, 13,055-13,064, p. 407. For an introduction to the text, see Paule Amblard, Le Pèlerin de Vie Humaine. Le songe très chrétien de l’abbé Guillaume de Digulleville, Paris, Flammarion, 1998.

[4] William of Digulleville, Le Pèlerinage de vie humaine, cit., pp. 419-421.

[5] Frédéric Duval and Fabienne Pomel (eds.), Guillaume de Digulleville. Les pèlerinages allégoriques, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008, pp. 11-13 ; Joseph Delacotte, Guillaume de Digulleville. Trois Romans-Poèmes du XIVe siècle. Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1932, pp. 22-28.

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