I have used a medieval saying as my tag line since the mid-1990s. If you ever received an email from me, you have seen it.
Vaille Que Vaille Lors se Verras
“One goes as one goes, then one shall see”
Here is the story.
In 1996, I attended an exhibit of Medieval tapestries at the Detroit Institute of Arts: “Woven Splendor: Five Centuries of European Tapestry in the Detroit Institute of Arts.” One of the pieces caught my attention.
It is called “Millefleurs Tapestry with the Arms of the Brachet and other Families of Orleans, Blois, and Anjou,” probably designed in France and woven in the southern Netherlands, ca. 1500-20, wool & silk, 9’6″ x 10’1. It was probably created to honor the joining of the families whose heralds are represented around the borders and in the center.
On the exhibition wall, near the tapestry, was a translation for the saying that appears around the edges: “Vaille Que Vaille Lors se Verra”
Dr. Alan Phipps Darr, DIA curator, translated it as: “One goes as one goes, then one shall see.”
This saying hit me like a ton of bricks because it captures well the way I think I live in the world. So starting from 1996, I have used this 500 year-old saying as the signature for my e-mail. I know a bit more about the little that is known about this tapestry, but there is no existing context except the study of tapestries in order to try and make sense of them.
Something we do not know, and never will, is what the meaning of this “Vaille Que Vaille Lors se Verra” inscription meant to people of ca. 1500 who commissioned it. Indeed, no one can even be sure of the translation, itself. Early 16th C dictionaries do not exist, and if there was any sort of cultural context in which the saying might have been used, then the sense of what was being communicated is simply unknowable.
I posed this translation question to one of the smartest guys I know, English Professor Eric Rabkin at the University of Michigan. His reply:
If “Vaille Que Vaille Lors se Verras” means “One goes as one goes, then one shall see,” that suggests (a) the speaker’s agency and (b) the speaker’s ability to reflect on his situation and learn from it. “What will be will be” deflates the speaker’s agency, suggesting an essential fatalism. My sense is that the original meant, “[It] is worth what [it] is worth [then, after it has occurred] one shall see [judge].” That suggests to me something in between: what will happen is fated, but what we think about it is not. But as for getting this really right, I’m afraid that all my friends who were fluent in 16th century French died years ago.
I’m OK with Eric’s translation, too. But I’m sticking with Darr’s.
In 2013, I commissioned a 48×48” reproduction of the tapestry, done in silk by weavers in China.
The rest of this story is a “what if?”
The following artwork is a complete invention. I was imagining the page of Illuminated Manuscript on which the medieval saying was discovered. I designed this piece in order to mash up a bunch of ideas and motifs that do not usually appear together.
The woman represents Science, emerging from the tree of knowledge, but constantly under attack by the enemies of reason, such as ignorance, fear, and religious zeal. She is gesturing to the sword of wisdom, in which you see the all-seeing eye of observation. She is anchored to the real world by the roots of knowledge, and lives in the earthly realm of winds and seasons that appear in the four corners of the world.
Surrounding the sword of wisdom is the saying attributed to Sir Francis Bacon “Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est” (And thus knowledge itself is power).
Wrapped around Science is one of the foundational philosophies of science: Occam’s Razor:”Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate” (One should not multiply entities beyond necessity), from William of Occam.
Science is beset by a wolf (evil, the natural enemy who preys on the sheep, hypocrisy); a ferret (wariness and mistrust, the meaning of the name ferret is little thief); a rat (fear, mistrust, and unethical behavior); and a boar (they dig up and reveal, representing the power of evil that is trying to uproot and destroy).
The sheep, of course, are the flock of Christ.
Along the border, one finds a fox (cleverness, cunning, intelligence, observation), a spider (resourceful, clever, creative), an owl (wisdom, true sight, enlightenment, change, vigilance), a goat (practical wisdom and diplomacy), a raven (Introspection, Self-knowledge, courage, wisdom, truth), and a turtle (endurance, strength, stability, longevity).
Thanks to the incredible artist, Gerhard, for bringing this to life.