Friday, 23 June 2017

'Lighter and brighter than the radiance of the sun in summer'

Midsummer sunset

It's Midsummer Eve, and here's a medieval midsummer metaphor, from the Book of Privy Counseling.

He is a blisful man that may fynde this onyng wisdom and that may abounde in his goostly worching with this lovely sleight and prudence of spirit, in offring up of his owne blynde feling of his owne beyng, alle corious kunnyng of clergie and of kynde fer put bak. The purchasing of this goostly wisdom and this sleigh worching is betir than the getyng of golde or of silver. By the which gold and silver is moraly understonden al other bodely and goostly knowyng, the whiche is getyn bi corious seching and worching in oure kyndely wittis...

[T]he frute of this worching is highe goostly wisdom, sodenly and frely riftid of the spirit inly in itself and unformid, ful fer fro fantasie, inpossible to be streinid or to falle under the worching of naturele witte. The which naturele witte, be it never so sotyl ne so holy, may be clepid in comparison of this bot feynid foly formyd in fantome, as fer fro the verrey sothfastnes whan the goostly sonne schinith as is the derknes of the moneschine in a mist at midwinters night fro the brightnesse of the sonnebeme in the clerest tyme of midsomer day.

It reminded me of this, from the Old English Boethius:

Se þe æfter rihte mid gerece wille
inweardlice æfter spyrian
swa deoplice, þæt hit todrifan ne mæg
monna ænig, ne amerran huru
ænig eorðlic ðincg, he ærest sceal
secan on him selfum þæt he sume hwile
ymbutan hine æror sohte.
Sece þæt siððan on his sefan innan,
and forlæte an, swa he oftost mæge,
ælcne ymbhogan ðy him unnet sie,
and gesamnige, swa he swiðost mæge,
ealle to þæm anum his ingeðonc,
gesecge his mode þæt hit mæg findan
eall on him innan þæt hit oftost nu
ymbutan hit ealneg seceð,
gooda æghwylc. He ongit siððan
yfel and unnet eal þæt he hæfde
on his incofan æror lange
efne swa sweotole swa he on þa sunnan mæg
eagum andweardum on locian,
and he eac ongit his ingeþonc
leohtre and berhtre þonne se leoma sie
sunnan on sumera, þonne swegles gim,
hador heofontungol, hlutrost scineð.
Forðæm þæs lichoman leahtras and hefignes
and þa unþeawas eallunga ne magon
of mode ation monna ænegum
rihtwisnesse, ðeah nu rinca hwæm
þæs lichoman leahtras and hefignes
and unþeawas oft bysigen
monna modsefan, mæst and swiðost
mid þære yflan oforgiotolnesse,
mid gedwolmiste dreorigne sefan
fortihð mod foran monna gehwelces,
þæt hit swa beorhte ne mot blican and scinan
swa hit wolde, gif hit geweald ahte.
þeah bið sum corn sædes gehealden
symle on ðære saule soðfæstnesse,
þenden gadertang wunað gast on lice.
Ðæs sædes corn bið symle aweaht
mid ascunga, eac siððan mid
goodre lare, gif hit growan sceal.
Hu mæg ænig man andsware findan
ðinga æniges, þegen mid gesceade,
þeah hine rinca hwilc rihtwislice
æfter frigne gif he awuht nafað
on his modsefan mycles ne lytles
rihtwisnesse ne geradscipes?
Nis þeah ænig man þætte ealles swa
þæs geradscipes swa bereafod sie
þæt he andsware ænige ne cunne
findan on ferhðe, gif he frugnen bið.
Forðæm hit is riht spell þæt us reahte gio
ald uðwita, ure Platon;
he cwæð þætte æghwilc ungemyndig
rihtwisnesse hine hræðe sceolde
eft gewendan into sinum
modes gemynde; he mæg siððan
on his runcofan rihtwisnesse
findan on ferhte fæste gehydde
mid gedræfnesse dogora gehwilce
modes sines mæst and swiðost,
and mid hefinesse his lichoman,
and mid þæm bisgum þe on breostum styreð
mon on mode mæla gehwylce.

He who wishes to search in an ordered way
for the right, inwardly,
so deeply that no man may drive it out,
nor any earthly thing at all
corrupt it, he shall first
seek within himself that which for a time
he had once sought outside himself.
He must seek then in his mind within,
and utterly forsake, as often as he can,
every anxiety which is useless to him,
and gather, as much as he can,
all into one his inner thought;
say to his mind that it can discover
all within itself which it is now so often
always seeking outside itself:
every good. He will then perceive
all the harmful and useless things which he had long kept
within his inner chamber,
just as clearly as he may look upon the sun
with his present eyes;
and he will also perceive his inner thought,
lighter and brighter than the radiance
of the sun in summer, when the jewel of the sky,
serene star of the heavens, shines most brightly.
For the sins and heaviness of the body
and all its bad ways cannot
take from any human mind
reason, although now for every being
the sins and heaviness of the body
and its bad ways often trouble
the mind of man, greatly and cruelly,
with the evil of forgetfulness,
draw a mist of error over the sorrowful spirit,
the mind of every man,
so that it cannot blaze and shine
as brightly as it wants to, if it had the power.
But there will always be
a seed-corn of truth held within the soul
as long as the spirit and body live entwined together.
This seed-corn will always be quickened
by asking, and then by
good teaching, if it is to grow.
How may any man find an answer
for anything, a person with reason,
though a man might ask him about it
properly, if he has nothing
of wisdom or counsel in his mind,
great or small?
There is no man so entirely bereft of reason
that he cannot find any answer
in his mind, if he is questioned.
For it is a true speech which the ancient philosopher,
our Plato, long ago told us:
he said that anyone forgetful of reason
should swiftly turn within his own mind's memory;
in his secret chamber he will find reason,
hidden fast within his mind
amid the turbulence of his spirit
every day, greatly and cruelly,
and amid the heaviness of his body
and amid the cares which in the heart disturb
a man in his mind at all times.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Emma and her Encomium


My latest column for History Today, on the Encomium Emmae Reginae, is now online - here's a taste:

A marriage took place 1,000 years ago this summer which began one of the most intriguing partnerships in medieval history. In 1017 the young Danish king Cnut, who had conquered England just a few months earlier, summoned Emma, widow of his former enemy, King Æthelred, and married her...

Emma played an influential role during Cnut’s reign, survived him and remained a formidable force in English politics until her own death in 1052. This alone makes her a fascinating figure, unique in being the queen of two very different kings of England and mother of two more. Just as remarkable is that she also commissioned her own history of the events she had lived through, making her perhaps the first woman in England to participate so actively in the writing of history.

Read the rest here. The manuscript of the Encomium which contains the frontispiece of Emma and her sons, and the gorgeous dragon initial above, can be viewed online in its entirety on the British Library website.

'Highest of all kings'

'Aeterne rex altissime', with English gloss, in an Anglo-Saxon hymnal

For the Sunday after the Ascension, here's a fourteenth-century English version of the Ascension hymn 'Aeterne rex altissime', by the Franciscan friar William Herebert.

Kyng hexst of alle kynges, that havest non endynge,
Buggere of Cristenemen that beth of ryth levynge,
Thorou thee deth ys fordon and brouth to th'endinge,
And gyven ys ous the overe hond of graces findinge.
Thou styinge op to trone in thy Fadres ryhthond,
Havest, Jesu, fonge mythte that never shaft ne fond.
For hevene and erthe and helle, and al that thrinne ben,
To thee shullen bouwen hem and benden here knen.
Aungles that in hevene beth quaketh for wondringe,
That abouten dedlich mon seth so gret chaunginge,
For flesh sunneth and flesh beteth and flesh ys God regninge.
Thou, Crist, be oure blisse and oure glading,
That wythoute misse in hevene hast wonyng,
That al thys ylke myddelerd havest to yemyng,
And al thys wordles joye hast in forhowyng.
Therefore we byddeth thee oure gultes thou deface,
And oure hertes rer to thee thorouh thy grete grace.
That when thou shalt ferlich comen ous to deme,
Comen yne cloude bryth wyth blowinde beme,
From the pyne of helle, Jesu, thou ous yeme.
And yeld the lorene crounes, God we to thee reme.
Loverd that bove the sterre steye, to thee be wele and blisse,
Wyth the Fader and Holy Gost, ever boute misse. Amen.

That is:

King highest of all kings, who hast no ending,
Redeemer of Christians who are of right living,
Through thee death is destroyed and brought to its ending,
And given to us is the upper hand of grace's finding. [i.e. 'the triumph of grace'!]
Thou, rising up to the throne at thy Father's right hand,
Hast, Jesu, received power such as created things never had.
For heaven and earth and hell, and all that therein be,
To thee shall bow and bend the knee.
Angels in heaven quake for wondering,
Who in mortal man see such great changing:
For flesh sins and flesh atones and flesh is God reigning.
Thou, Christ, be our bliss and our gladdening,
Who without doubt in heaven hast dwelling,
Who all this middle-earth hast in keeping,
And all this world's joy hast in thy guarding.
Therefore we pray thee our sins to deface, [blot out, obliterate]
And our hearts raise up to thee through thy great grace.
So that when thou shalt come wondrously to judge us,
Come in clouds bright with trumpets blowing,
From the pains of hell, Jesu, thou wilt protect us,
And restore our lost crowns, God, we cry to thee.
Lord who rose above the stars, to thee be joy and bliss,
With the Father and Holy Ghost, ever without end. Amen.

The original Latin hymn is anonymous, first recorded in the ninth century, and its best-known modern English translation is probably J. M. Neale's 'Eternal Monarch, king most high'. William Herebert, as usual, stays closer to the Latin than modern translators tend to do, though it's interesting to compare his version of the memorable fourth verse to Neale's:

Yea, angels tremble when they see
how changed is our humanity;
that flesh hath purged what flesh had stained,
and God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.

Aungles that in hevene beth quaketh for wondringe,
That abouten dedlich mon seth so gret chaunginge,
For flesh sunneth and flesh beteth and flesh ys God regninge.

Herebert has added to his source a lovely phrase in the second-to-last line: 'Loverd that bove the sterre steye...' I discussed the verb steye in my last post about Herebert, where I talked about it meaning 'ascend' but with connotations of active, powerful movement (like mounting horses and climbing trees), and I said it's a verb which connects Good Friday (when Christ 'steye' upon the cross) and the Ascension. And so it does here, alliteratively: Christ steye above the stars.

The end of the Latin hymn gives a vivid picture of Christ, who ascended into the heavens, returning at Doomsday in a sunset sky: 'when you come to shine forth from your reddening cloud of judgement...' Herebert renders this:

when thou shalt ferlich comen ous to deme,
Comen yne cloudebryth wyth blowinde beme...

'ferlich' is a difficult word to translate into Modern English; it suggests something marvellous and wonderful (in the literal sense of 'causing wonder'), but also terrible and strange. 'Blowing beme' literally refers to blasting trumpets but also evokes rushing winds and beams of light - a world-shaking image of an apocalyptic sky.

Like this, maybe

The imagery in this hymn is cosmic, majestic, mythic: angels quake, the heavens open, and a god who wore human flesh manifests a power beyond any that created things could ever attain ('mythte that never shaft ne fond'). It's impressive stuff. Ascension Day seems to be one of those feasts which the modern imagination struggles to deal with: preachers get embarrassed (I heard a few this week!), and feel the need to start their sermons with an apologetic disclaimer to demonstrate how modern and sophisticated they are: 'well, of course we know that heaven isn't 'up in the sky', and so of course we (unlike childish people in the olden days) know it's silly to talk about Jesus going up. It makes him sound like a rocket, haha!'

This seems to me pretty unimaginative (and, as always, unfair to people in the 'olden days', by which they usually mean the bad old Middle Ages). It's a bit sad, really, for a preacher to have so little poetry in their soul that when they think of the heavens they can only think 'rocket, haha!' As if the skies offer no other objects of mystery and wonder, no images and themes to feed the imagination. Are the starry heights and thunderous clouds of this hymn, for instance, really any less potent symbols of power and majesty for us than they were for William Herebert or the ninth-century author? Here last night, after a week of heat, the clouds amassed for a summer storm, and broke in a sudden torrent of drenching rain which was breathtaking in its force. Be as modern and sophisticated as you like; at such moments you're still subject to the power of the heavens. And as for the stars - well, if you stop feeling wonder at the stars I can't really imagine what would amaze you...

I wrote on Thursday about two more powerful 'skyey influences' which medieval writers connected with the Ascension: the sun which climbs high in the summer sky (the Ascension is 'the sun rising', as this twelfth-century image has it); and Christ as a bird, as imagined by an Anglo-Saxon poet. This isn't just a nice pretty image - it's one of majesty, liberty, and command. Gerard Manley Hopkins put it even better than Cynewulf, in his poem addressed 'to Christ our Lord':

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume...

'The achieve of, the mastery of the thing.' On Ascension Day, I happened to find myself reading about another legendary hero who 'took to flight': Weland, the great smith of Anglo-Saxon and Norse legend. The story of Weland seems to have been widely known in Anglo-Saxon England, and he is referenced in several Old English poems; he is a fierce, frightening figure, but one of great skill and power, the forger of legendary swords and armour. One of the most famous moments in his legend tells how he was captured and imprisoned on an island, forced to work for his captor, but escaped by making for himself a suit of wings and flying away to freedom. A number of stone carvings from northern England, probably dating from the ninth to tenth centuries, appear to show Weland in his feather-suit.


In some ways Weland, though a hero, is very far from being a Christ figure: he murders his captor's sons and fashions goblets from their skulls, and he rapes his captor's daughter before he flies away. His power of flight comes from his skill as a smith, his ingenuity in being able to engineer wings (he doesn't transform himself into a bird, as some of the Norse gods, for instance, do - he remains human, though with magical skill). And yet, on the Franks Casket, made in Anglo-Saxon England in the early eighth century, a scene from Weland's story is placed next to one of Christ being adored by the Magi:


There are birds in both scenes; on the left-hand side, birds are being strangled so that Weland can make his wings from their feathers. Does this juxtaposition suggest a contrast or a parallel between Weland and Christ, a focus on how they are alike, or how they are different? No one can answer that for sure, though it's often noted that in Old English Christ, like Weland, is sometimes called a 'smith' or a 'smith's son' (because he was a carpenter). The juxtaposition brings out the common mythic element in both stories - the man human and yet more than human, skilful and of fearsome power, a creature of the skies as well as of the earth. To a modern eye, seeing a very well-known Biblical story in the context of Weland's strange and disturbing tale makes the familiar suddenly unfamiliar, marvellous, in the sense of something too powerful and terrible to comprehend - what Herebert calls ferlich.

The idea that gods dwell in the heights, in the sky and on the mountains, is one of the most ancient religious impulses. It's hardly difficult to see a connection between that and Christ's Ascension, and going on about 'rockets, haha!' feels like a deliberate attempt not to see it. Those silly people of the olden days found poetry in the feast rather more easily than their clever modern descendants do: in Ascension Day folklore there was 'a strong connection between the day and all things pertaining to the sky, such as clouds, rain, and birds' (Roud). Rain which fell on Ascension Day was said to be blessed - 'neither eaves' drip nor tree-drip, but straight from the sky'. The day was connected with holy water in other ways, including the custom of well-dressing and visiting sacred springs. This expresses a sense that the heavens and the earth are interconnected at the most essential level - as of course they are, whether you think of that power as physical or spiritual or both. The kind of preacher who apologises for Ascension Day is likely to call that faith superstitious, but it's infinitely grander, really, than a worldview which finds no wonder in the heavens. We are earthbound, tied to this sublunary world and its many sorrows - but this is one day when the imagination can soar to the sky.

Anglo-Saxon carving of the Ascension (Wirksworth, Derbyshire)

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ascension Day and the Death of Bede

Bede (Norwich Cathedral)

Today is the feast of the Ascension, and it is also the feast of Bede, Anglo-Saxon England's greatest scholar and historian. Bede died on Ascension Day in 735, which that year fell on 26 May. His feast is usually celebrated on 25 May (to avoid a clash with the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, who also died on the 26th), which means that today, for once, it falls at the very same moment in the church's year as it did in 735. This is a lovely coincidence (or occasional mercy, rather) because the feast of the Ascension and the words of its liturgy were in Bede's mind, and on his lips, as he lay dying. We know this because a moving account of Bede's death was recorded by a monk named Cuthbert, a former pupil of Bede's and later abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Cuthbert was present at Bede's deathbed, and this is how he describes his death.

For nearly a fortnight before the Feast of our Lord's Resurrection he was troubled by weakness and breathed with great difficulty, although he suffered little pain. Thenceforward until Ascension Day he remained cheerful and happy, giving thanks to God each hour day and night. He gave daily lessons to us his students, and spent the rest of the day in singing the psalms so far as his strength allowed. He passed the whole night in joyful prayer and thanksgiving to God, except when slumber overcame him; but directly he awoke, he continued to meditate on spiritual themes, and never failed to thank God with hands outstretched. I can truthfully affirm that I have never seen or heard of anyone who gave thanks so unceasingly to the living God as he.

O truly blessed man! He used to repeat the saying of the holy Apostle Paul, 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God', and many other sayings from holy scripture, and in this manner he used to arouse our souls by the consideration of our last hour. Being well-versed in our native songs, he described to us the dread departure of the soul from the body by a verse in our own tongue, which translated means: 'Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers - before his soul departs hence - what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing'.

This English poem is known as 'Bede's Death Song', and this is how it is preserved in Old English (in the Northumbrian dialect, probably unfamiliar even to those of us familiar with Old English!):

Fore them neidfaerae naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.

Cuthbert goes on:
To comfort both us and himself, he also used to sing antiphons, one of which is 'O King of glory, Lord of might, who on this day ascended in triumph above all heavens, do not leave us orphaned, but send to us the Spirit of truth, the promise of the Father. Alleluia'. And when he reached the words 'do not leave us orphaned', he broke into tears and wept much. An hour later he began to repeat what he had begun and so continued all day, so that we who heard him sorrowed and wept with him...

During these days, in addition to the daily instruction that he gave us and his recitation of the psalter, he was working to complete two books worthy of mention. For he translated the Gospel of Saint John into our own language for the benefit of the Church of God as far as the words 'but what are these among so many'. He also made some extracts from the works of Bishop Isidore... On the Tuesday before our Lord's Ascension his breathing became increasingly laboured, and his feet began to swell. Despite this he continued cheerfully to teach and dictate all day, saying from time to time, 'Learn quickly. I do not know how long I can continue, for my Lord may call me in a short while.' It seemed to us that he might well be aware of the time of his departure, and he spent that night without sleeping, giving thanks to God.

When dawn broke on Wednesday, he told us to write diligently what we had begun, and we did this until Terce. After Terce we walked in procession with the relics of the saints as the custom of the day required, but one of us remained with him, who said, 'There is still one chapter missing in the book that you have been dictating; but it seems hard that I should trouble you any further.' 'It is no trouble,' he answered: 'Take your pen and sharpen it, and write quickly.' And he did so.

But at None he said to me, 'I have a few articles of value in my casket, such as pepper, linen and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of the monastery, so that I may distribute among them the gifts that God has given me.' In great distress I did as he bid me. And when they arrived, he spoke to each of them in turn, requesting and reminding them diligently to offer Masses and prayers for him. They readily promised to do so, and all were sad and wept, grieving above all else at his statement that they must not expect to see his face much longer in this world. But they were heartened when he said, 'If it be the will of my Maker, the time has come when I shall be freed from the body and return to Him who created me out of nothing when I had no being. I have had a long life, and the merciful Judge has ordered it graciously. The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.'

He also told us many other edifying things, and passed his last day happily until evening. Then the same lad, named Wilbert, said again: 'Dear master, there is one sentence still unfinished.' 'Very well,' he replied: 'write it down.' After a short while the lad said, 'Now it is finished.' 'You have spoken truly,' he replied: 'It is well finished. Now raise my head in your hands, for it would give me great joy to sit facing the holy place where I used to pray, so that I may sit and call on my Father.' And thus, on the floor of his cell, he chanted 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit' to its ending, and breathed his last.

We may confidently believe that as he had devoted himself with such ardour to the praises of God here on earth, his soul was borne by the angels to the longed-for joys of Heaven. And all who saw and heard of the death of our father Bede declared that they had never known anyone end his days in such deep devotion and peace.

Translated in A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, rev. R. E. Latham (London, 1974), pp. 18-20 (paragraphs added).

The antiphon at which Bede broke down in tears is 'O rex gloriae', sung on the feast of the Ascension, which alludes to Christ's words to his disciples: 'If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth... I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.'


The English translation of John's Gospel which Bede was working on at his death has not survived, and nor have any of Bede's other English writings (it's not clear whether his 'Death Song' was of his own composition, or if he is quoting a poem he knew). But a century or so after Bede's death, an Anglo-Saxon poet composed a poem on the Ascension which must be one of the greatest poems ever written on that subject. I quoted it at length here, but this is my favourite part:

Swa se fæla fugel flyges cunnode;
hwilum engla eard up gesohte,
modig meahtum strang, þone maran ham,
hwilum he to eorþan eft gestylde,
þurh gæstes giefe grundsceat sohte,
wende to worulde. Bi þon se witga song:
'He wæs upp hafen engla fæðmum
in his þa miclan meahta spede,
heah ond halig, ofer heofona þrym.'
...Wæs se siexta hlyp,
haliges hyhtplega, þa he to heofonum astag
on his ealdcyððe. þa wæs engla þreat
on þa halgan tid hleahtre bliþe
wynnum geworden. Gesawan wuldres þrym,
æþelinga ord, eðles neosan,
beorhtra bolda. þa wearð burgwarum
eadgum ece gefea æþelinges plega.


So the beautiful bird ventured into flight.
Now he sought the home of the angels,
that glorious country, bold and strong in might;
now he swung back to earth again,
sought the ground by grace of the Spirit,
returned to the world. Of this the prophet sang:
'He was lifted up in the arms of angels
in the great abundance of his powers,
high and holy, above the glory of the heavens.'
...The sixth leap,
the Holy One's hope-play, was when he ascended to heaven
into his former home. Then the throng of angels
in that holy tide was made merry with laughter,
rapt with joy. They saw the glory of majesty,
first of princes, seek out his homeland,
the bright mansions. After that the blessed city-dwellers
endlessly delighted in the Prince's play.

In Europe, the Ascension is the feast of summer skies. With Ælfric, who encourages us to 'behold the sun', we stand gazing into the heavens, which at this time of year are (sometimes) a glorious, fathomless blue; and like Christ at the Ascension, the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky as the solstice draws near. Birds, back for the summer, wheel and soar through the air. This week a flock of swifts have returned to the street where I live; in the long light evenings they swoop and swing through the sky, quicker than thought, sheer energy and life and unfettered freedom. That's how this Anglo-Saxon poet imagined Christ.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

'He stey opon the rode'

 
Two short fourteenth-century poems for Eastertide, from William Herebert. This single couplet is an English rendering of the verse 'Crucem sanctam subiit':

He stey opon the rode, that barst helle clos;
Ygurd he was wyth strengthe, the thrydde day aros.

He climbed upon the rood, who burst hell's clos, [enclosure, stronghold]
Girded he was with strength, on the third day arose.

Perhaps the most interesting word here is the verb stey (stien), which I've translated as 'climbed', though it can refer to various kinds of upward movement. It's a dynamic way of describing Christ's ascent of the cross; in medieval poetry of the Crucifixion, that ascent is often (at least, more commonly than today) imagined as an active, energetic movement - Christ springing to mount the cross, rather than passively being lifted up by the hands of others. Herebert's word stey comes from the Old English gestigan, which is the verb used in the same context in the Dream of the Rood: there the cross says of the 'young warrior' gestah he on gealgan heanne, 'he mounted on the high gallows'.

It's a verb which connects Easter and the Ascension, another moment when Christ stey upwards. I don't think we have a word today which quite covers the various meanings of stien - 'ascend' just doesn't do it, since it's altogether too decorous for a word which also refers to mounting horses and scrambling up trees. This is a word for Christ the warrior, going into battle, with the cross imagined as both his weapon and his steed. ('What is he, this lordling, that cometh from the fight...')

This energetic figure recalls Gregory the Great's spirited picture of Christ as the lover in the Song of Songs, who comes 'leaping' towards his beloved:
Hence it is that Solomon has put into the mouth of the Church the words: Behold, He cometh! leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills. These hills are his lofty and noble achievements. “Behold, He cometh leaping upon the mountains.”

When He came to redeem us, He came, if I may so say, in leaps. My dearly beloved brethren, would you know what His leaps were? From heaven he leapt into the womb of the Virgin, from the womb into the manger, from the manger on to the Cross, from the Cross into the grave, and from the grave up to heaven.
The Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf turned this image into English poetry, in his poem on the Ascension:

Bi þon Salomon song, sunu Dauiþes,
giedda gearosnottor gæstgerynum,
waldend werþeoda, ond þæt word acwæð:
"Cuð þæt geweorðeð, þætte cyning engla,
meotud meahtum swið, munt gestylleð,
gehleapeð hea dune, hyllas ond cnollas
bewrið mid his wuldre, woruld alyseð,
ealle eorðbuend, þurh þone æþelan styll."
Wæs se forma hlyp þa he on fæmnan astag,
mægeð unmæle, ond þær mennisc hiw
onfeng butan firenum þæt to frofre gewearð
eallum eorðwarum. Wæs se oþer stiell
bearnes gebyrda, þa he in binne wæs
in cildes hiw claþum bewunden,
ealra þrymma þrym. Wæs se þridda hlyp
rodorcyninges ræs þa he on rode astag,
fæder, frofre gæst. Wæs se feorða stiell
in byrgenne, þa he þone beam ofgeaf,
foldærne fæst. Wæs se fifta hlyp
þa he hellwarena heap forbygde
in cwicsusle, cyning inne gebond
feonda foresprecan, fyrnum teagum,
gromhydigne, þær he gen ligeð
in carcerne clommum gefæstnad,
synnum gesæled. Wæs se siexta hlyp,
haliges hyhtplega, þa he to heofonum astag
on his ealdcyððe.

Of this Solomon sang, son of David,
in spiritual mysteries, wise in songs,
ruler of nations, and spoke these words:
“This shall be made known: that the King of angels,
the Lord mighty in strength, will come springing upon the mountain,
leaping the high uplands; hills and downs
he will garland with his glory, and redeem the world,
all earth's inhabitants, by that glorious leap.”
The first leap was when he descended into a woman,
an unblemished virgin, and there took human form
without sin; that became a comfort
to all earth's dwellers. The second bound
was the birth of the boy, when he was in the manger,
wrapped in cloth in the form of a child,
the glory of all glories. The third leap
was the heavenly King's rush when he climbed upon the cross,
Father, Comforting Spirit. The fourth bound
was into the tomb, when he relinquished the tree,
safe in the sepulchre. The fifth leap
when he humbled the host of hell's inhabitants
in living torment; the King bound within
the advocate of the fiends in fetters of fire,
the malignant one, where he still lies
fastened with chains in prison,
bound by sins. The sixth leap,
the Holy One's joyous play, was when he ascended to heaven
into his former home.

rodorcyninges ræs þa he on rode astag  - 'the heavenly King's rush when he climbed upon the cross'. All these verbs of rushing and leaping and bounding are absolutely full of vigour and vitality, as if Christ is the embodiment of life itself - a force of sheer energy, which cannot be contained by any tomb or any clos. They remind me too of those medieval depictions of the Resurrection where Christ has one foot in the tomb and one out - 'bursting from the spiced tomb'...

Christ leaps from the tomb towards Mary (BL Egerton 2781, f. 171)

Along similar lines, here's Herebert's version of the hymn 'Jesu nostra redemptio':

Jesu, oure raunsoun, love, and longynge,
Louerd God almyhti, Wrouhte of alle thinge:
Flesh thou nome and mon bicome in times endinge.
What milsfolnesse awalde thee that oure sunnes bere,
So bitter deth to tholien, from sunne us for t'arere?
Helle cles thou thorledest and bouhtest thine of bondes;
Wyht gret nobleye thou opsteye to thy Fader ryhthonde.
Thylke mylse nede thee t'awelde oure wyckenesse
Wyth thy mercy, and ful us ay wyth thy nebshaftes blisse.
Thou be nou oure ioie, that shalt ben oure mede,
And oure wele ay be in thee, that shalt us wyth thee nede.

Jesu, our ransom, love, and longing,
Lord God almighty, Maker of all things:
Flesh you took and man became at time’s ending.
What compassion so overcame you that you bore our sins,
Such bitter death to suffer, to raise us up from sin?
Hell's stronghold you broke, and saved your own from bondage;
With great majesty you rose up to your Father’s right hand.
By that same compassion, overcome our wickedness
With your mercy, and fill us ever with the bliss of your face.
Be now our joy, you who shall be our reward,
And may our bliss be ever in you, who will keep us with you.

'Jesu nostra redemptio', with an English gloss, in an Anglo-Saxon hymnal

Thursday, 13 April 2017

'My folk, what have I done to thee?

'Popule meus', in a 13th-century manuscript, BL Add. 18031, f. 174

One of the most dramatic and powerful parts of the traditional Good Friday liturgy is the Improperia, the 'Reproaches' in which Christ is imagined speaking from the cross. Recalling numerous key events of Old Testament history, the text contrasts these moments of God's love and protection of his people with the suffering inflicted on him during his Passion. The Improperia are dramatic in every sense, adopting the voice of Christ as he reproaches his people and draws a series of contrasts between past and present: what he has done for mankind, contrasted with the pain they are now causing him to suffer. Here's the Latin text, and here's a recording of it being sung; in Latin and in translation it's been set by various composers, and this version is one familiar to me.

There are several medieval English translations of this text, which form a sub-genre of a very extensive tradition of poems in which Christ addresses mankind from the cross. ('Unkynde man, give heed to me' is a typical example of that genre.) Perhaps the most memorable of these appeals occurs in the middle of the dramatic re-enactment of the Crucifixion in the York Plays. In this play Christ speaks only twice, silent as he is nailed to the cross; but when he is lifted up he speaks a complete twelve-line verse, calling on 'Al men that walkis by waye or strete' to witness his suffering. In the streets of medieval York, where these plays were performed, these words would be spoken directly to the audience and passersby - just as in the Good Friday liturgy Christ's 'reproaches' are intended to transcend their historical context to speak to every congregation, every soul.

The following poetic translation of the Improperia is by William Herebert, and dates to the early 14th century. The poet-preacher John of Grimestone also wrote a version of this text a few decades later.

My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

For from Egypte ich ladde thee,
Thou me ledest to rode tree.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Thorou wyldernesse ich ladde thee,
And fourty yer bihedde thee,
And aungeles bred ich yaf to thee,
And into reste ich brouhte thee.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

What more shulde ich haven ydon
That thou ne havest nouth underfon?
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich thee fedde and shrudde thee,
And thou wyth eysyl drinkst to me
And wyth spere styngest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich Egypte beth for thee
And here tem yshlou for thee.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich delede the see for thee,
And dreynte Pharaon for thee,
And thou to princes sullest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

In bem of cloude ich ladde thee,
And to Pylat thou ledest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Wyth aungeles mete ich fedde thee,
And thou bufetest and scourgest me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Of the ston ich dronk to thee,
And thou wyth galle drincst to me.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Kynges of Chanaan ich for thee bet,
And thou betest myn heved wyth red.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich gaf thee croune of kynedom,
And thou me gyfst a croune of thorn.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

Ich muchel worshype dede to the,
And thou me hongest on rode tree.
My folk, what habbe I do thee?
Other in what thyng toened thee?
Gyn nouthe and onswere thou me.

BL Arundel 83, f. 116v (early 14th century)

Here's a (lightly) modernised version of Herebert's poem.

My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

For from Egypt I led thee;
Thou leadest me to rood-tree.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

Through the wilderness I led thee,
And forty years I cared for thee,
And angels' bread I gave to thee,
And into rest I brought thee.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

What more should I have done
That thou hast not underfon? [received]
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I thee fed and clothed thee,
And thou givest vinegar for drink to me
And with spear stingest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I Egypt scourged for thee
And their offspring slew for thee.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I divided the sea for thee,
And drowned Pharaoh for thee,
And thou to princes sellest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

With beam of cloud I led thee,
And to Pilate thou leadest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

With angels' meat I fed thee,
And thou buffetest and scourgest me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

From the stone I gave drink to thee,
And thou with gall givest drink to me.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

Kings of Canaan I for thee beat,
And thou beatest my head with a reed.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I gave thee a crown of kingdom [i.e. kingship],
And thou me givest a crown of thorn.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

I great honour gave to thee,
And thou me hangest on rood-tree.
My folk, what have I done to thee?
Or in what thing angered thee?
Speak now, and answer me.

As you can see, Herebert manages to make almost every line of his poem rhyme on either 'me' or 'thee', to highlight the simple but stark contrast which lies at the heart of this text: God's love and man's cruelty. This is a poetic device Herebert has taken from the refrain of the Latin text and carried through into the verses (which don't rhyme in the Latin):

Popule meus, quid feci tibi?
Aut in quo contristavi te?
Responde mihi.

Herebert makes several of his verses rhyme on these same pronouns and the same thematic contrast between the actions of Christ and 'his folk': mihi and tibi, me and thee. Since for Herebert 'I' would also be pronounced more like 'ee', the sound and contrast are there in the repeated refrain too: My folk, what habbe I do thee? Irony is the key to this poem, and it's all in those pronouns.

For another poem by William Herebert for Holy Week, see the wonderful 'What is he, this lordling, which cometh from the fight?'

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

'Between March and April'


What a magical time of year this is. In my beautiful part of England, the cusp of March and April is just the moment when spring is really bursting forth (the vernal equinox traditionally being not the beginning but the midpoint of spring, of course...). The tentative shoots of Candlemas, at the beginning of February, have by Lady Day become fields of spring flowers and branches rich with blossom. So here's a medieval spring poem which is exactly perfect for this time of year. It's from the early fourteenth century (one of the Harley lyrics), so is pretty much contemporary with the poem in my last post - but in praise of a more flesh-and-blood lady!

Betwene Mersh and Averil
When spray beginneth to springe,
The lutel foul hath hire wil
On hire lud to singe.
Ich libbe in love-longinge
For semlokest of alle thynge.
He may me blisse bringe;
Ich am in hire baundoun.
An hendy hap Ich habbe yhent!
Ichot from hevene it is me sent.
From alle wimmen my love is lent
And light on Alisoun.

On hew hire her is fair ynogh,
Hire browe browne, hire eye blake;
With lossum chere he on me logh,
With middel small and well ymake.
Bote he me wolle to hire take
For to ben hire owen make,
Longe to liven Ichulle forsake
And feye fallen adoun.
An hendy hap Ich habbe yhent!
Ichot from hevene it is me sent;
From alle wimmen my love is lent
And light on Alisoun.

Nightes when I wende and wake –
Forthi mine wonges waxeth won –
Levedy, all for thine sake,
Longinge is ylent me on.
In world nis non so witer mon
That all hire bounte telle con:
Hire swire is whittore than the swon,
And fairest may in toune.
An hendy hap Ich habbe yhent!
Ichot from hevene it is me sent;
From alle wimmen my love is lent
And light on Alisoun.

Ich am for wowing all forwake,
Wery so water in wore,
Lest eny reve me my make
Ychabbe yyirned yore.
Betere is tholien while sore
Than mournen evermore.
Geynest under gore,
Herkne to my roun!
An hendy hap Ich habbe yhent!
Ichot from hevene it is me sent;
From alle wimmen my love is lent
And light on Alisoun.

'When the spray begins to spring...'

A translation:

Between March and April
When the spray begins to spring,
The little bird fulfils her will [desire]
With her voice to sing.
I live in love-longing
For the loveliest of all things.
She may me bliss bring;
I am in her baundoun. [power]
A happy fate I have yhent! [found]
I know from heaven it is to me sent.
From all women my love is lent [taken away]
And alighted on Alisoun.

In hue her hair is fair indeed,
Her brows brown, her eyes black;
With lovely face she laughed upon me
With waist small and well-made.
Unless she will to her me take
For to be her own make, [partner]
Long to live I will forsake,
And dead I will fall down.
A happy fate I have yhent!
I know from heaven it is to me sent.
From all women my love is lent
And alighted on Alisoun.

At nights when I turn and wake –
For that reason my cheeks grow wan –
Lady, all for thine sake,
Longing me has come upon.
In world there is not so wise a man
That all her goodness tell can.
Her neck is whiter than the swan,
The fairest maid in town.
A happy fate I have yhent!
I know from heaven it is to me sent.
From all women my love is lent
And alighted on Alisoun.

I am for wooing all forwake, [worn out]
Weary as turbulent water,
Lest anyone should my lover take,
Whom I have yearned for so long.
Better for a while to suffer sore
Than to mourn evermore.
Geynest under gore, [kindest of women]
Hearken to my roun! [song]
A happy fate I have yhent!
I know from heaven it is to me sent
From all women my love is lent
And alighted on Alisoun.