Friday, 31 May 2013

Waltheof among the Saints


Today is the anniversary of the execution of Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, the most high-profile English victim of the turbulent years which followed the Norman Conquest. When the young earl was beheaded on St Giles' Hill in Winchester (above), early in the morning of 31st May 1076 - a decade after the Battle of Hastings - the best hope of Anglo-Saxon rebellion died with him.

Waltheof was the English-born son of a Danish Viking, a descendant on his mother's side of the ancient line of the earls of Bamburgh, and on his father's side of a bear (no, really). He was born c.1050, into the most powerful family in the north: his formidable father Siward ruled all of England north of the Humber, bringing a bit of Viking awesomeness to Edward the Confessor's feeble reign. But in 1054 Siward's oldest son was killed in battle (against Macbeth) and the following year Siward himself died, leaving the child Waltheof too young to inherit his father's earldom, or anything more than a grand family legend. But Waltheof might reasonably have grown up expecting great things from his future life.

He belonged to an unhappy generation: those who were in their teens at the time of the Norman Conquest, old enough to see what was happening, too young to do anything about it. The varying fates of these young people vividly capture the imagination - an entire generation made exiles, whether they stayed in England or went abroad. Waltheof's close contemporaries include Edgar Ætheling, heir to the kingdom, whose unsettled life forms a sad coda to the greatness of his ancestors among the kings of Wessex; his sisters Margaret, queen and saint, forced into marriage with the king of Scotland, and the forceful Christina, who spent her life as a nun and fiercely protected her sister's daughter from danger; Harold Godwineson's children, who variously became Vikings and runaway nuns; their cousins, Tostig's sons, who ended up as advisers to the king of Norway; Osbern, monk and hagiographer, champion of Anglo-Saxon saints; and more who remain nameless or whose fates are lost to history.

Waltheof, probably too young to fight at Hastings, at first submitted to the Conqueror, but in 1069 he rebelled and took on a Norman army in battle at York, single-handedly cutting down the enemy one by one as the city burned around him. In another age he might have been a famous warrior; he even had an Icelandic skald who composed poetry in his honour (Þorkell Skallason). But his life was to be shaped by political circumstance, not deeds of valour. He made peace with the king, was given his father's former earldom, and even married William's niece (their daughter, long after Waltheof's death, was to marry St Margaret of Scotland's son). The truce did not last: Waltheof joined the Revolt of the Earls in 1075, although the extent of his complicity is not entirely clear. The consequence of this second rebellion, imprisonment for treason and a hurried execution at Winchester after a year in captivity, was controversial; he was the only nobleman executed under William the Conqueror, and to the end he was protesting his repentance with no less a person than Archbishop Lanfranc to vouch for him.

Winchester, from St Giles' Hill

One man's traitor is another man's martyred freedom-fighter, and as soon as Waltheof was dead there were people ready to call him a saint and martyr. He had been a patron of Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire, and the monks were given permission to retrieve his body from Winchester for burial there. Crowland legend later said that as Waltheof knelt before the executioner he began to say the Lord’s Prayer, but was not able to complete it because his voice was interrupted by tears. After his head was cut off, a clear voice completed the prayer in the hearing of all who were present, saying, ‘But deliver us from evil, Amen’.

Crowland Abbey

In the 1090s miracles began to be recorded at Waltheof's tomb; according to one chronicler (Orderic Vitalis) “the news of them gladdened the hearts of the English and the populace came flocking in great numbers to the tomb of their compatriot, knowing from many signs that he was already favoured of God”. The monks of Crowland wrote or commissioned various texts in support of Waltheof's sanctity, many of which can be read online (in Latin) here. His saintly cult never spread far beyond Crowland, but his fame as a warrior reached as far as Scandinavia and Iceland; here's one late Icelandic narrative about his supposed exploits.

Waltheof on the west front of Crowland Abbey

One memorable miracle story from Crowland tells of a vision which the abbot had, one night after he had encountered a Norman monk who denied Waltheof was a saint because “he was a false traitor who had deserved execution as a punishment for his guilt”. Abbot Geoffrey rebuked him, and the monk was soon taken ill and died a few days later. Then Geoffrey had a vision of Waltheof accompanied by the two patron saints of Crowland, the Apostle Bartholomew and Guthlac. He saw that Waltheof's head was once again joined to his body, and the saints acclaimed Waltheof:
[Bartholomew] said, ‘Headless no more’. Guthlac, who was standing at the foot of the coffin, said in reply, ‘That was earl heretofore’, and the apostle completed the verse with the words, ‘Now is king evermore’. When the abbot had heard and recounted these things he gladdened the hearts of the brethren, and glorified God for his unfailing mercy at all times to true believers.
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, ed. and trans. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1969-80), vol.ii, 349-50. The Latin is "Acephalus non est / Comes hic fuit / At modo rex est".

Poor Waltheof! His earldom never brought him much but trouble, and he was never fated to be an earthly king (though it has been suggested he might have had a claim to the English throne, and that was why William was so keen to execute him). But at least the monks of Crowland thought he had a heavenly crown.

The invented arms of Waltheof in the Great Hall at Winchester

Thursday, 30 May 2013

'Retrospect'

In your arms was still delight,
Quiet as a street at night;
And thoughts of you, I do remember,
Were green leaves in a darkened chamber,
Were dark clouds in a moonless sky.
Love, in you, went passing by,
Penetrative, remote, and rare,
Like a bird in the wide air,
And, as the bird, it left no trace
In the heaven of your face.
In your stupidity I found
The sweet hush after a sweet sound.
All about you was the light
That dims the greying end of night;
Desire was the unrisen sun,
Joy the day not yet begun,
With tree whispering to tree,
Without wind, quietly.
Wisdom slept within your hair,
And Long-Suffering was there,
And, in the flowing of your dress,
Undiscerning Tenderness.
And when you thought, it seemed to me,
Infinitely, and like a sea,
About the slight world you had known
Your vast unconsciousness was thrown. . . .

O haven without wave or tide!
Silence, in which all songs have died!
Holy book, where hearts are still!
And home at length under the hill!
O mother quiet, breasts of peace,
Where love itself would faint and cease!
O infinite deep I never knew,
I would come back, come back to you,
Find you, as a pool unstirred,
Kneel down by you, and never a word,
Lay my head, and nothing said,
In your hands, ungarlanded;
And a long watch you would keep;
And I should sleep, and I should sleep!


Like many of Rupert Brooke's love poems, 'Retrospect' is 95% beautiful, 5% horrifically condescending towards the woman he's supposed to be in love with; but in this the beauty just about makes up for the condescension.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Almsgiving of Archbishop Lanfranc


Lanfranc, the first post-Norman-Conquest Archbishop of Canterbury, died on 28 May 1089, after holding that challenging post for nearly twenty years. His achievements were many and various, but they belong more to political and ecclesiastical historians than to literary scholars like me; thus, I won't attempt a summary of his life, but just do the lazy thing and refer you to wikipedia. My interest is in Canterbury history, as ever, and in how one particular Canterbury monk, the historian Eadmer, saw his archbishop. I deal in stories, and this is the story which, for Eadmer, summed up Lanfranc's character:

In his treatment of the brethren of the church of Canterbury, what generosity, what loyalty, what beneficence Father Lanfranc showed may to some extent be gathered from the fact that he could not bear that even any of their parents or brothers should be in want. What may still more surprise you, he made it his practice not to wait to be asked to help, but, tender-hearted as he was, he of his own accord gave now to one and now to another just what would help a needy relative for as long as possible. Yet in so doing he showed always remarkable discernment, weighing up in his own mind the deserts and needs of each. Of all this the following story is an instance.

One of the brethren of the monastery of Canterbury was accustomed to receive from Father Lanfranc thirty shillings every year for the benefit of his mother. On one occasion he was on Lanfranc's instructions given five shillings, part of the thirty, as the money was paid periodically by installments. This money tied up in a cloth he, while talking to his mother, slipped, as he thought, into her hand; but, her mind intent on other things, she did not notice what her son was doing. So the money fell to the ground; and mother and son parted and went their different ways. Afterwards the woman sent a message to her son, anxious to know what had happened to the money which he had promised to bring her. Astonished, he got her to come to him, and hearing what had happened was distressed, not so much at the loss which his mother had suffered but rather from fear that the Archbishop, when this came to his knowledge, would be vexed at his carelessness and be to some extent less kindly disposed towards him. Meanwhile the good Father, coming into the cloister, sat down there as he was accustomed to do. Noticing that the brother was distressed as he returned from talking with his mother, when they were alone, he enquired privately what was the reason for his being so. On being told, with a look of the utmost kindness, as was always his way in dealing with those in trouble, he said, "Is that the cause of your distress, my dearest son? Why, God must purposely have given that money to someone whose need of it was perhaps greater than your mother's. Keep quiet and take care not to say a word about it to anyone. That what has happened may not trouble you in the least, in place of those five shillings I will have seven shillings given to you today for your mother. But, as I have said, see that no one knows of it." Indeed it was his way when giving to give gladly what was to be given and not let anyone tell of the gift or who was the giver.

So much then for his treatment of the monks of the Mother Church of Canterbury. But what poor man ever cried to him and was rejected? Who of all the pilgrims of whatever rank sought his help and did not obtain it? What community of monks or of clergy at any time sent asking for support and did not find the abundance of his generosity exceed their utmost hopes? Of the truth of our words Italy can bear witness and France and Britain, that to this day mourns the death of Lanfranc with sighs of lamentation.
Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet (London, 1964), pp.14-15.

'This day' was the second decade of the twelfth century, some thirty years after Lanfranc's death. It has been suggested, and seems quite possible, that the monk in this story is Eadmer himself; his family lived in Canterbury, and the account is detailed enough to suggest personal involvement.  (In writing about it Eadmer would therefore be flouting Lanfranc's direct request, but he did something similar when disobediently writing Anselm's biography; he presumably thought there was a higher good at issue). The archbishop of Canterbury was also abbot to the cathedral's monks, and while some archbishops did not take this fatherly duty very seriously, Lanfranc clearly did. Eadmer's story nicely illustrates why the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which doesn't have a good word for many people in the weary, war-filled 1080s, recorded Lanfranc's death in these terms:
On þisum geare se arwurða muneca feder 7 frouer Landfranc arcebiscop gewat of þissum life, ac we hopiað þæt he ferde to þæt heofanlice rice. (MS. E, 1089)
[In this year the worthy father and comforter of monks, Archbishop Lanfranc, departed this life, but we trust that he went to the heavenly kingdom.]

frouer is a form of frofor, a lovely Old English word which means 'comfort, support, consolation'; naturally it is often applied to God and not uncommonly collocates with the alliterating 'father', as in the last line of The Wanderer, which urges us to seek frofre to fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð, 'comfort from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability stands'. The foreign archbishop, by his fatherly love for monks, has merited this assimilation into the language of Old English piety.

Lanfranc in a 1959 window in St Anselm's Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral

And his monks were much in need of fatherly care. When the last Anglo-Saxon archbishop, Stigand, was deposed in 1070 and Lanfranc was summoned from Normandy to take his place, he found the monastic community at Canterbury in a parlous state: as if the Norman Conquest was not enough to deal with, a catastrophic fire in 1067 (as predicted by St Dunstan's ghost) had gutted the church and destroyed many of the monastic buildings, leaving nothing standing but the refectory and the monks' dormitory. Conquered, humiliated and in ruins, Canterbury was at probably the lowest point in its history since the arrival of St Augustine. Lanfranc set about rebuilding, Eadmer tells us:

[Lanfranc], when he first came to Canterbury, was appalled to find the church of the Saviour, which he had undertaken to rule, reduced by fire and destruction almost to nothing. But, though the extent of the calamity drove him to despair, he soon recovered himself and with firm determination, postponing all thought of providing for his own convenience, he set urgently to work and completed the building of dwellings needed for the use of the monks... The church, almost the whole of which he in seven years built up from the foundations, he richly adorned with copes, with chasubles, with gold-embroidered dalmatics and tunicles, with stoles and with many other precious ormaments.
Historia Novorum, trans. Bosanquet, pp.13-14.

Rebuilding a church is one thing, but the monastic community had suffered other wounds it was not so easy for Lanfranc to heal. We have good evidence for the state of the community in this period, partly because Lanfranc and his scholarly friends were addicted to letter-writing and to composing biographies of each other (academics never change!), and partly because Lanfranc's Canterbury produced two of post-Conquest England's most observant eyewitnesses: Eadmer and his slightly older contemporary Osbern, who both saw and wrote about life at Canterbury in the period immediately before and after Lanfranc's arrival. Here we have an unusually well-documented microcosm of England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest - a story of trauma, conflict and loss, but also of renewal and productive opportunities for cross-cultural interaction.

At the time of Lanfranc's consecration Eadmer was a boy of perhaps ten years old, a child oblate being educated in the cathedral school; Osbern was probably in his late teens. They remembered the best of pre-Conquest Canterbury - Osbern recalls how as a child he witnessed miracles at St Dunstan's tomb, Eadmer describes in loving detail the many shrines and altars which dignified the cathedral church - and had learned from their elders of the worst: the siege of Canterbury by the Vikings in 1011, the cathedral's troubles under Edward the Confessor. Lanfranc's pontificate was a formative time for both these young Englishmen. Eadmer wrote about it, much later in life, as part of his Historia Novorum, which I've been quoting in this post; Osbern wrote about it shortly after Lanfranc's death in his Miracles of St Dunstan (which Eadmer later rewrote). It's Osbern's account which most clearly gives us a vivid picture of Lanfranc's Canterbury as a community in shock, nervous and on edge, divided by language and cultural allegiance. He tells an extraordinary story about an English monk named Æthelweard who, while serving at a mass presided over by Lanfranc, was possessed by a devil and seized by a bout of violent insanity. Æthelweard clung to the archbishop in terror, in full view of the horrified monks. When he recovered his senses it seemed at first as if the trouble had passed, but the next night at Compline his madness returned, and he disrupted the service and assaulted the prior (an appointee of Lanfranc). He was restrained, but in the dead of night his demonic screams burst out again and he began to attack his brothers with accusations of the secret sins they were concealing, which had been diabolically revealed to him. We're told the devil spoke in French, a language Æthelweard did not know. Lanfranc and the prior were unable to find a cure, but at last an English monk, a devotee of St Dunstan, prayed to the Anglo-Saxon archbishop for help, and Æthelweard was healed.

These disturbing events, and the terror of the monks at witnessing them, are evocatively described: we see Lanfranc trying to preserve calm as tensions bubbling beneath the surface erupt, secret sins are brought to the light of day, monastic silence is disturbed by uncontrollable shrieks of terror. Eadmer later called this episode a 'cruel and savage torment' to witness - strong words for this sober historian. He would have been too young to do much but observe what was happening, but Osbern seems to have been right in the middle of it: in this fevered atmosphere, we know that he committed some infraction of discipline against the prior - one of poor Æthelweard's targets, surely not a coincidence - and was punished by being sent away from the monastery where he had spent his whole life, to study with Anselm at Bec. Anselm was no harsh disciplinarian, and this was probably an exercise of Lanfranc's fatherly care for a troublesome but talented young monk; but it suggests just how difficult things at Canterbury were. Æthelweard's madness and Osbern's exile took place probably in 1075-6, years of revolt within England and threatened invasion from Denmark, in which Lanfranc also had to deal with the rebel Earl Waltheof (who sought Lanfranc's help in reconciling with the king, but was executed in 1076). These were miserable years.

In time Osbern returned to Canterbury and wrote valuable accounts of his beloved Anglo-Saxon saints, Ælfheah and Dunstan (the former commissioned by Lanfranc, after some persuasion by Anselm). Osbern plainly wanted Anglo-Saxon Canterbury to have something to show for itself - saints to be proud of - and so he presented Dunstan in particular as the kind of saint of whom Lanfranc and Anselm would most approve: a reformer of monastic life, who stood up to kings and defended his monks from external threat. (It was Dunstan's intervention, remember, which Osbern says cured Æthelweard's madness.) But Osbern is never effusive about Lanfranc - unlike Eadmer, who has almost nothing but praise for him. This is how Eadmer later assessed Lanfranc's influence:

His teaching and his perseverance resulted in a great increase of religion throughout the whole country and everywhere new monastery buildings were erected, as can be seen today. He was, too, himself the first to set an example to the builders of such houses by building the Church of Christ at Canterbury with all the outbuildings which are within the wall of its close and the wall itself. With what thoughtfulness too, what fatherly care, he aroused the monks living in the precincts of that Church from the life of the world in which he found them all too much engrossed, how he trained them in every way of holy living and, when their numbers increased, with what kindness he watched over them so long as he lived, all this who can ever fully tell? This only will I say here: that, because he wished them to be able to devote themselves continually to the service of God free of want or anxiety, he so brought his tact and perseverance to bear upon the King that the King restored to the Church of Canterbury almost all the lands which, rightfully hers, the Normans had seized when they first possessed themselves of the country and even some others which from one mischance or another had been lost before they came. Of these and countless other good works on which he laboured unceasingly to his life's end, there is indeed no need for me to write, because his works are so evident that they speak for themselves more clearly than any written record... None the less, so sweet is his memory that we have thought it pleasing to enlarge a little on what so far we have but mentioned.
Historia Novorum, trans. Bosanquet, pp.12-34.

Recovery of lands and restoration of the church were two of Lanfranc's gifts to Canterbury; another was his almsgiving, which was considerable. It was the theme of his episcopate, since at his consecration the Biblical verse selected for him (at random, as was customary) was Luke 11:41: 'Be generous to the poor, and all things will be clean for you'. His DNB article notes:

he was believed to have disbursed in alms £500 a year. He provided for the poor on all his manors, but his three principal charitable foundations were at Canterbury itself. In his latter years, when his main expenditure upon Christ Church was completed, he founded outside the north gate of the city the church of St Gregory, the dedication of which reflected his devotion to the pope who had sent St Augustine of Canterbury to Britain. He established there a community of clerks whom he intended to make good the pastoral ministrations in Canterbury, especially burials, which had been curtailed by reason of the expansion of the cathedral monastery, and which were to be provided for the poor without payment. Lanfranc brought to St Gregory's a rich endowment of relics of early archbishops and other saints of the Anglo-Saxon, and especially Kentish, past. Near to it, he built the hospital of St John the Baptist to relieve the sick and aged, and at Harbledown, a short distance to the west of the city, he built a leper hospital of St Nicholas. From his estates he endowed these twin hospitals with £140 yearly.


Harbledown is a little village on the pilgrims' road to Canterbury, later to be memorialised as the last place reached by Chaucer's pilgrims ('a litel toun/Whiche that ycleped is Bobbe-up-and-doun,/Under the Blee, in Caunterbury weye...'). Lanfranc's leper hospital became almshouses, which you can read about here. The church looks like this:


The view from the village:

'His works are so evident that they speak for themselves more clearly than any written record', says Eadmer. Well, perhaps - but I'm glad we have both.

Monday, 27 May 2013

'Let us wander where we will, something kindred greets us still'

An untitled poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.


Swallows travel to and fro,
And the great winds come and go,
And the steady breezes blow,
Bearing perfume, bearing love.
Breezes hasten, swallows fly,
Towered clouds forever ply,
And at noonday, you and I
See the same sunshine above.

Dew and rain fall everywhere,
Harvests ripen, flowers are fair,
And the whole round earth is bare
To the moonshine and the sun;
And the live air, fanned with wings,
Bright with breeze and sunshine, brings
Into contact distant things,
And makes all the countries one.

Let us wander where we will,
Something kindred greets us still;
Something seen on vale or hill
Falls familiar on the heart;
So, at scent or sound or sight,
Severed souls by day and night
Tremble with the same delight -
Tremble, half the world apart.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Medieval Trinity

O, o, o, o, o, o, o, o,
O deus sine termino!

1. O Father without beginning,
O Son and Holy Ghost also,
O three and one without ending,
O deus sine termino.

2. O three persons in one unity
Being but one god and no mo, [more]
One in substance, essence and might,
O deus sine termino.

3. O, which hast made both day and night,
Heaven and earth round like an O
By thy wisdom and endless might,
O deus sine termino.

4. O, which of nought all thing hast wrought,
O verbum in principio,
O, without whom is wrought right nought,
O deus sine termino;

5. O prince of peace, O heavenly king,
O final ender of our woe,
O, whose kingdom hath no ending,
O deus sine termino;

6. O maker of each creature,
O supplanter of our foe,
O son of Mary, virgin pure,
O deus sine termino;

7. We beseech thee with all our might,
Ere we depart this world fro, [from]
Of forgiveness of our delicte [sins]
O deus sine termino;

8. Christ grant us grace, that we come may
To heaven's bliss, when we hence go,
Who died for us on Good Friday
Et regnat sine termino.

One of the points I like to emphasise on this blog is that (contrary to what many people believe who know nothing about the subject) medieval religious literature is often full of creativity, imagination and joy. Here's a perfect example: this is a witty, playful, exuberant medieval carol on the subject of - of all things - the Holy Trinity. I've heard many a solemn, pained sermon on the Trinity, complaining about how difficult it is for us to understand, how it's always been a stumbling block for believers and a trial to the unwary preacher. That's how our age approaches mystery and complexity; but in the fifteenth century, they wrote carols about it. That's how creative medieval religion could be.

The humour does need a little explaining, but that just helps to illustrate why this carol is so clever. The key is that the single letter 'O' in this carol is all of the following:

a) a vocative interjection, appropriate to a prayer
b) a sound commonly found in carol refrains
c) a reduced form of the word 'one'
d) a figure of eternity and infinity, a shape without an end (and thus of God, 'deus sine termino')
e) a representation of the earth, 'round like an o'

...all at the same time. Thus, the refrain 'O deus sine termino' means both 'O, God without end' and 'One God without end'; every phrase which begins 'O' is both an acclamation and a statement - 'O prince of peace' = 'One prince of peace', and so on. This insistent repetition of 'O' is obviously fitting for a song with a refrain which is a whole series of 'O's (the music for this song doesn't survive, but I imagine it to sound a bit like the refrain of No.3 on this album). It begins like any other carol with an 'o' refrain might, and then transforms that sound into its subject, the 'Oneness' of the Trinity. It all works aurally: notice that the centrality of the 'o' is reinforced by the fact that lines 2 and 4 of each verse rhyme on an 'o' sound. But it doesn't only work aurally - verse 3 encourages you to picture the shape of the letter, 'heaven and earth round like an o', and this draws in the idea of 'o' as a representation of infinity, eternity (sine termino), which is helped by the fact that in Middle English the word 'o' can mean 'ever, eternally' (citations here). The carol works on at least five different levels for the eye and ear and imagination; it's just the most perfect combination of theme and literary expression, poetic language at the service of a concept which is beyond words. There's something wonderful about an approach to mystery which rather than disclaiming language ('there's nothing to say about the Trinity') instead tries to make more of it, to heap meaning upon meaning, to delight in ambiguity and possibility and richness.

This carol comes from the collection of carols compiled by the Franciscan friar James Ryman, a manuscript which is now Cambridge University Library MS. Ee 1.12 (I've modernised the spelling, but you can read the original here). There are in fact no fewer than nine different carols in honour of the Trinity in Ryman's collection, although I think this is the best.

It seems fitting to include here a few of the many medieval images of the Trinity which form the visual equivalent to these carols' literary exuberance. Here's one I like very much, from a fifteenth-century English Psalter (Royal 2 B VIII f.101v), roughly contemporary with the carol:


The rays of light and the clasped hands are so beautiful!

From two centuries earlier, another English manuscript (Arundel 157, f. 93):


As you see, one common way of depicting the Trinity is to show two human figures with a dove between them (and sometimes with devils beneath their feet, as here!). In the image below (from Harley 2897, a fifteenth-century French manuscript) the wings of the dove draw them together by touching both their lips:


Here the dove is holding the world, 'round like an o' (Stowe 12 f. 200v):


Several of these images are within the round part of a capital D, for the psalm which begins 'Dixit dominus' ('The Lord said unto my Lord, 'Sit thou at my right hand'...), traditionally interpreted as a reference to the relationship between Father and Son. The figure on the left side of the picture is therefore Christ, as indicated in the images above by a crown of thorns or visible wounds.

There are other ways of depicting the Trinity, though; this is from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript (Harley 603, f.1) and it's not as eye-catching as the others, but take a close look at the tender embrace of Father and Son, and the orb of the world held between them:


From the ever-wonderful Royal 2 B VII, there are two different depictions of the Trinity; one in the style we've already seen (f.233v):


Even the dove has a halo! The other is of a common type depicting the Father holding the crucified Son, a 'Throne of Mercy' image (f. 299):


There are many examples like this, but this bright one is perhaps my favourite (Arundel 302, f.156):


Here the Trinity is joined by the man who paid for the manuscript to be made, an alderman of London named William Melreth (Arundel 109 f. 262v):


And a final superb example (Egerton 2019 f. 203):


(Notice that the background is made up of angels, crowded within the light).

For a non-manuscript example, we can look to the church of Westhall in Suffolk, a treasure-house of late-medieval art, where this carved wooden Trinity is very high up in the roof of the chancel:

The person who carved this did not have a camera with a zoom lens, like me - but he still thought it was worth articulating the folds of drapery and the roundels of the throne, even if no one was going to see it.

And let's finish with this illustration from a English Breviary (Egerton 3035, f.1), not because it's particularly special as depictions of the Trinity go, but because it's always important to be reminded that the artist, and the people who used the book, apparently had no problem with the idea that there might be, side-by-side, a beautiful and profound image of the Trinity and a trumpet-playing man riding a fantastic animal:

Thomas Traherne on the Trinity

From Centuries of Meditations, 2:39-41:

God is not a mixt and compounded Being, so that His Love is one thing and Himself another: but the most pure and simple of all Beings, all Act, and pure Love in the abstract. Being Love therefore itself, by loving He begot His Love. Had He not Loved, He had not been what He now is, The God of Love, the most righteous of all beings, in being infinitely righteous to Himself, and all. But by loving He is infinitely righteous to Himself and all. For He is of Himself, Infinitely Blessed and most Glorious; and all His creatures are of Him, in whom they are infinitely delighted and Blessed and Glorious.

In all Love there is a love begetting, and a love begotten, and a love proceeding: which though they are one in essence subsist nevertheless in three several manners. For love is benevolent affection to another: which is of itself, and by itself relateth to its object. It floweth from itself and resteth in its object. Love proceedeth of necessity from itself, for unless it be of itself it is not Love. Constraint is destructive and opposite to its nature. The Love from which it floweth is the fountain of Love. The Love which streameth from it, is the communication of Love, or Love communicated. The Love which resteth in the object is the Love which streameth to it. So that in all Love, the Trinity is clear. By secret passages without stirring it proceedeth to its object, and is as powerfully present as if it did not proceed at all. The Love that lieth in the bosom of the Lover, being the love that is perceived in the spirit of the Beloved: that is, the same in substance, tho’ in the manner of substance, or subsistence, different. Love in the bosom is the parent of Love, Love in the stream is the effect of Love, Love seen, or dwelling in the object proceedeth from both. Yet are all these, one and the Selfsame Love: though three Loves.

Love in the fountain and Love in the stream are both the same. And therefore are they both equal in Time and Glory. For love communicateth itself: And therefore love in the fountain is the very love communicated to its object. Love in the fountain is love in the stream, and love in the stream equally glorious with love in the fountain. Though it streameth to its object it abideth in the lover, and is the love of the lover.



(A Trinity hymn by Traherne's fellow Brasenose alumnus, Reginald Heber.)

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Two Whitsun Carols

When I need cheering up I often turn to the Oxford Book of Carols, which is to me a 'constant source of happiness and inspiration', as the preface says it aims to be. I did this today and found two Whitsun carols which I want to share with you. They were new compositions for the O.B.C. (in 1928), and they both represent a particular strain of early twentieth-century religious writing which I just adore; I wish I knew how to characterise it.  I welcome adjectives, if you have any.  Whatever you call it, it's clearly associated with the tastes and temperament of the wonderful Percy Dearmer, since the first is his work:

Now sing we of the Paraclete,
The Light, the Beam of God, to greet.

1. When Christ blessed his disciples,
'Ye are my friends,' he said,
'Let not your heart be troubled,
And be ye not afraid;
When he, the Breath of Truth, is come,
To all the truth he'll bring you home,
Though now ye cannot bear it.'
So spoke he unto Christendom,
And promised us the Spirit.

2. Long after rose a prophet
Who hailed the Spirit's day,
And said, 'Men first in terror
As slaves did God obey.
Then came the age when man as son
Could serve, and so God's grace be won:
A third - and we are near it -
Will be of love, all blindness gone,
The freedom of the Spirit.'

3. From slavery and childhood
Man grows to noble youth,
And free the Spirit makes us
To follow after truth:
The power of fraud, and dull pretence,
Vain forms, and fear, is banished hence
Love's crown is ours to wear it;
Through all our faithless impotence
The light shines from the Spirit.

4. Brave thinkers saw the vision,
The story poets wove,
Of truth and grace unhindered,
The eternal Spirit's love:
For he the knowledge science finds,
And he the light in artists' minds,
And his the hero's merit;
All lovely things of all the kinds
Are planets of the Spirit.

That last verse is glorious - 'planets of the Spirit'!  The second verse is apparently a reference to the work of the twelfth-century mystic Joachim of Fiore, about whom I know nothing.  Mine is an ignorant love, as you see.

The second carol was written by Geoffrey Dearmer (son of Percy) for the tune of this French carol, 'Courons à la Fête'.  The tune is delightful but it doesn't go very well with the English words, in my uninformed opinion.  But Geoffrey Dearmer wrote my very favourite carol about medieval architecture (all right, perhaps the only carol about medieval architecture) so I'd forgive him anything.

Winds of God unfailing fill the sunlit sails
Of a great ship sailing where conjecture fails:
Seekers we, and we must discover,
Doubt we not though the chart be hid -
Chart we may not see,
Plotted by the world's great Lover
Down in Galilee;
Captain, prince, and pilot he.

If ye then perceive and if the heart desire,
Shall the mind achieve, and spirit shall aspire;
Then shall man see him, and shall praise him
In the fern, in the sea and cloud,
Every flower and tree
In the sap of life must raise him,
As in Galilee
In the form of man rose he.

His is each profession, every man his priest
Who in work's expression finds his joy increased:
In his Church are the ploughman, sailor,
Merchant, prince, artizan, and clerk,
All whoe'er they be,
Craftsman, thinker, tinker, tailor,
Come to Galilee,
Find a plan, and that is he.

Those who love him wholly need not him confess,
Since their lives must solely him in them express;
He's the goal that man ever searches
How should man see that goal afar?
Each in his degree
That doth love him, of his Church is.
Down in Galilee
Founder of our Church was he.

So lovely!  It's impossible to imagine these carols being sung in any church anywhere (are they?) but I wish they were. In his preface to the book, Percy Dearmer says:

'Perhaps nothing is just now of such importance as to increase the element of joy in religion; people crowd in our churches at the Christmas, Easter, and Harvest Festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity; if carol-books were in continual use, that most Christian and most forgotten element would be vastly increased, in some of its loveliest forms, all through the year.'

Thus speaks the only person in the world capable of writing a joyful carol for Lent! I can't imagine that if he saw the church today he would think the element of joy in religion had substantially increased since 1928; rather the reverse, if anything. There's something immensely quaint about Dearmer's vision of carol-books 'in continual use' - as if carols like this could ever have had a wide audience! - but not about the desire for joy, which we could all do with more of.  Personally, the only place I've really found joy in a church community was in my college chapel at university; the churches I've tried since have been almost aggressively joyless, full of sullen sidesmen, unsmiling priests, and bored congregations.  The priests and parishioners of these churches talk (on the internet) as if they find joy there, so they must have some; perhaps they just hide it away from new visitors.  I'm not a demonstrative person, and I don't ask for much in a church as evidence of joy - only a smile in return for my smile, but I often don't even get that.  It's a shame, because nothing attracts like joy, and nothing is more off-putting (to me, anyway) than the attitude of criticism and negativity with which Christians so often talk about each other and the world at large. The best-kept secret of the religious life is its potential for joy; believers are afraid to talk about it, non-believers sceptical of its very existence - and who can blame them, when Christians are as cynical and cold as the rest of the world? I wish we could all talk a little more about the things we like and a little less about the things we don't; we underrate the attractive power of joy if we don't find a place for it in our religion. Medieval religion was immensely joyful, and it irresistibly draws the heart and the imagination; I spend my life trying to explain this to people for whom the very words 'medieval religion' mean nothing but oppression, restriction and control. So many people have this bizarre idea that medieval religion only permitted joy on the margins, accidentally, when the mean old church wasn't looking, and everything else was scourging and fasting and cruelty - though nothing could be further from the truth! Dan Brown has a lot to answer for, but modern Christians don't help, when we make religion look like something which detracts joy from life rather than increases it. The world is full of sorrow and there's plenty to be sad about; all the more reason to praise what's lovely, to share it and talk about it, to say to people, and to yourself, 'this makes my life a little brighter'. And these carols did that for me today.

Friday, 24 May 2013

A Medieval Morning Prayer

Jesu Lord, blyssed thou be,
For all this nyght thou hast me kepe
From the fend and his poste,
Whether I wake or that I slepe.

In grete deses and dedly synne,
Many one this nyght fallyn has,
That I my selve schuld have fallyn in,
Hadyst thou not kepyd me with thi grace.

Lord, gyffe me grace to thi worschype,
This dey to spend in thi plesanse;
And kepe me fro wyked felyschipe,
And from the fendys comberance.

Jesu, my tunge thou reule all so,
That I not speke bot it be nede,
Hertly to pray fore frend and fo,
And herme no man in word ne dede.

Cryste, gyffe me grace, off mete and drynke
This dey to take mesurably,
In dedly synne that I not synke
Thorow outrage of foule glotony.

Jesu my lord, Jesu my love,
And all that I ame bond unto,
Thi blyssing send fro hevyn above,
And gyffe them grace wele to do.

My gode angell that arte to me send
From God to be my governour,
From all evyll sprytys thou me defend,
And in my desesys to be my socoure.

A man wakes and greets the sun, from the beginning of Prime in a 13th-century English Book of Hours, BL Egerton 1151

This is a fifteenth-century prayer for the morning which appears in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 61.  A detailed study of the manuscript can be found here; as well as prayers and short poems like this one, it contains romances, comic tales and entertaining saints' lives - the popular literature of fifteenth-century England - and probably belonged to a middle-class family in the Midlands.  It's interesting to compare this simple poem to the translation of a morning hymn which I posted a few months ago, 'Our weary limbs refreshed now with rest' (yes, I did reuse the same picture - I love it!); this poem is much more straightforward, and is probably supposed to be an easily remembered personal devotion, intended for a lay audience. The comparison between the two usefully illustrates the range and diversity of late medieval religious writing in the vernacular; the theme is roughly similar, but this poem focuses on acts of private thanksgiving, resolution and petition for the day ahead, and the diction is much more homely.

Here's a modernised version, not that it needs much explanation - except that in the last verse spirits is pronounced sprits, as those of you accustomed to singing Tudor church music will readily appreciate ;)  The 'good angel' is a guardian angel, as in these prayers (I found some more to add to that post, and they'll appear here soon).

Jesu Lord, blessed thou be,
For all this night thou hast me kept
From the fiend and his poste, [power]
Whether I waked or slept.

In great disease and deadly sin,
Many a one this night fallen has,
That I myself should have fallen in,
Hadst thou not kept me with thy grace.

Lord, give me grace to thy worship,
This day to spend in thy plesanse; [in a way pleasing to you]
And keep me from wicked fellowship,
And from the fiend's encomberance.

Jesu, my tongue rule thou also,
That I speak not but there be need,
Heartily to pray for friend and foe,
And harm no man in word or deed.

Christ, give me grace, of meat and drink
This day to take measurably,
In deadly sin that I not sink
Through outrage of foul gluttony.

Jesu my lord, Jesu my love,
To all that I am bound unto
Thy blessing send from heaven above,
And give them grace well to do.

My good angel that art to me sent
From God to be my governor,
From all evil spirits thou me defend,
And in my disease to be my succour.

Monday, 20 May 2013

'Not the end: but there's nothing more.'

Home
Edward Thomas

Not the end: but there's nothing more.
Sweet Summer and Winter rude
I have loved, and friendship and love,
The crowd and solitude:

But I know them: I weary not;
But all that they mean I know.
I would go back again home
Now.  Yet how should I go?

This is my grief.  That land,
My home, I have never seen;
No traveller tells of it,
However far he has been.

And could I discover it,
I fear my happiness there,
Or my pain, might be dreams of return
Here, to these things that were.

Remembering ills, though slight
Yet irremediable,
Brings a worse, an impurer pang
Than remembering what was well.

No: I cannot go back,
And would not if I could.
Until blindness come, I must wait
And blink at what is not good.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

'Now Holy Ghost, our true Comforter'


A medieval English translation of the hymn to the Holy Spirit Nunc sancte nobis spiritus, attributed to St Ambrose:

Now holy gost, owr verry counfortowre,
Oon to the fadyr and with sone also;
In tyll owr soule distyll the suet licowre
Of grace, þat wer euer we byde or goo,
Owr soules, lord, þi grace depart not froo,
lest we fall tyll erroure or disioynte
Wyth þi karisme profownde vs and enoynte.

Owr mouth of lavde mak confession;
Owr tvnge also mote speke to þi plesance;
Owr mynd be perfyt meditacione,
Owr wyttes echon with þer sufficance;
Owr strengthes all aftyr þer hole puissance;
Owr charite more flame and in fyre
Owr neghburs all þat bene of gud desyre.

Text from Frank Allen Patterson, ‘Hymnal from MS. Additional 34193 British Museum’, in Medieval Studies in Memory of Gertrude Schoepperle Loomis (New York, 1927), pp.443-488 (476).

This dates to the fifteenth century, and comes from the manuscript of hymn translations from which I've previously posted versions of 'Vox clara ecce intonat', 'Conditor alme siderum', 'Hostis Herodis impie', and others. These translations are very much in a recognisable style of fifteenth-century English poetry, with a tendency to the verbose, and delighting in ornate Latinate diction, sometimes made up on the spot for the purposes of translation - if you can properly call that 'translation'! Having said that, the second verse here, with all those parallel clauses beginning 'our', is entirely the translator's ingenuity; and sometimes he hits on a felicitous phrase, such as 'the sweet licour of grace' (licour = liquid, dew; compare the third line of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales). For something simpler, you might like to look at the Middle English translation of 'Veni creator spiritus' ('Com, Shuppere, Holy Gost') which I posted a little while ago.

A modern version (the second verse will make more sense if you read an implied 'may' before every clause):

Now Holy Ghost, our true Comforter,
One with the Father and with the Son also;
Into our souls distil the sweet licour
Of grace, that wherever we may bide or go,
Our souls, Lord, thy grace may depart not fro; [from]
Lest we fall to error or disjoint [distress, difficulty]
With thy grace fill us and anoint.

Our mouths with praise make confession,
Our tongues also speak to thy content;
Our minds be perfect meditation,
Our wits each [used] to their full extent,
Our strengths all with their whole power;
Our charity more flame out and enfire
Our neighbours all who are of good desire.

The Latin is:

Nunc, Sancte, nobis, Spiritus,
Unum Patri cum Filio,
Dignare promptus ingeri
Nostro refusus pectori.

Os, lingua, mens, sensus, vigor
Confessionem personent.
Flammescat igne caritas,
Accéndat ardor proximos.

And the translation I know best is John Henry Newman's:

Come, Holy Ghost, Who ever One
Art with the Father and the Son;
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls possess
With Thy full flood of holiness.

In will and deed, by heart and tongue,
With all our powers, Thy praise be sung;
And love light up our mortal frame,
Till others catch the living flame.

'Full flood of holiness' is such a wonderful phrase. I like how, poetically speaking, Pentecost is a feast of mixed metaphors - it's really against all the laws of imagery to describe something as wind and fire and a flood of water, because they cancel each other out (like a holy game of 'Rock, Paper, Scissors')! Such are the dangers in speaking of the unspeakable!

Friday, 17 May 2013

'O God, the king of glory'

Before the end of Ascensiontide, there's just time to enjoy this, one of my favourite anthems - Henry Purcell's 'O God, the king of glory' (at 1:10 into the video):



O God, the King of Glory, who hast exalted thine only Son, Jesus Christ, with great triumph into heaven: we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us into the same place where our Saviour Christ is gone before us.

Fields by Waterfalls

Over the years I've posted a number of poems here by the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes (1801-1886) - 'The Castle Ruins', about a happy family outing at Whitsuntide; 'Evening in the Village'; and his best-known poem, 'Linden Lea'.  Today's poem, 'Vields by Watervalls', repeats 'Linden Lea's' flowery-gladed/timber-shaded rhyme, so I think we can assume that was a particular favourite...

I enjoy Barnes' rural idylls, for all their sentimentality, and I'm posting this today because yesterday afternoon, when the world was sparkling after a sudden gush of rain, I caught sight of a patch of buttercups and daisies in long wet grass (as Barnes puts it, 'daisy-whitened, gildcup-brightened'). It was one of those moments when you look at a familiar scene and feel like you've never really seen it before.  Consolation indeed for 'others' wrongs an' slightens'!

For those of you unfamiliar with the Dorset dialect (or Barnes' rendering of it, at least) it will help to know that v = f, z = s, and initial d (in the second line of verse 2) = th.


Vields by Watervalls

When our downcast looks be smileless,
Under others' wrongs an' slightens,
When our daily deeds be guileless,
An' do meet unkind requitens,
You can meake us zome amends
Vor wrongs o' foes, an' slights o' friends;-
O flow'ry-gleaded, timber-sheaded
Vields by flowen watervalls!

Here be softest airs a'blowen
Drough the boughs, wi'zingen drushes,
Up above the streams, a-flowen
Under willows, on by rushes.
Here below the bright-zunned sky
The dew-bespangled flow'rs do dry,
In woody-zided, stream-divided
Vields by flowen watervalls.

Waters, wi' their giddy rollens;
Breezes wi' their playsome wooens;
Here do heal, in soft consolens,
Hearts-a-wrung wi' man's wrong doens.
Day do come to us as gay
As to king ov widest sway,
In deaisy-whiten'd, gil'cup-brightened
Vields by flowen watervalls.

Zome feair buds mid outlive blightens,
Zome sweet hopes mid outlive sorrow,
A'ter days of wrongs an' slightens
There mid break a happy morrow.
We mid have noo ea'thly love;
But God's love-tokens vrom above
Here mid meet us, here mid greet us,
In the vields by watervalls.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A Glow of Colour in a Country Church


Two miles south of Canterbury is a tiny hamlet with the somewhat unappealing (though unimpeachably Anglo-Saxon) name of Nackington. It consists of little more than a church and a few houses, and the church is very small - but it contains a treasure.


Nackington appears in Domesday Book, and early in the twelfth century its church, St Mary's, came into the possession of St Gregory's Priory in Canterbury, Archbishop Lanfranc's new foundation which so annoyed the monks of St Augustine's.  This connection to the city is important, as we will see in a moment.  But first, enjoy the odd shape of this funny up-and-down church, which has nearly fallen down and been rebuilt several times in its history:



Here's the best welcome a church can offer - an unlocked door and a quotation from Julian of Norwich:


'Our courteous Lord willeth that we should be as homely with Him as heart may think or soul may desire. But let us beware that we take not so recklessly this homeliness that we leave courtesy.'


The church is simple on the inside, and I didn't manage to photograph it particularly well, so let's move swiftly on to the church's treasure.  For this we have to go to the north wall of the chancel, beside the altar.  And there we find this:


And this:


These two windows date to the thirteenth century, and are very similar in style to the medieval glass of Canterbury Cathedral; look at these examples for comparison. They've moved around within the church, and were restored in 1935, but otherwise are substantially what they were eight hundred years ago.  I couldn't ascertain whether it's known how and why these windows came here - if they were originally made for the cathedral, or have always been here (different sources suggested various possibilities).  Either way, this is the man who was thirteenth-century Canterbury's saint of the moment, Thomas Becket:


I've posted about other early Kentish depictions of Thomas Becket at Godmersham and Brookland, and this is the cathedral's famous Becket window (which is, incidentally, about three times bigger than Nackington's).


This is just breathtaking in every way - the colours especially, but also the faces and hands.


At Becket's right hand is the penitent Henry II (labelled as such - 'Henricus Rex'):


And an unidentified figure, perhaps another king:


The Becket panel was my favourite, but above it is something hardly less remarkable - the wedding at Cana:

It's interesting to compare this to the same scene at Canterbury Cathedral; only this one has a patterned tablecloth!

The colours are, again, extraordinary; look at the red and blue here:



Above the golden arch which marks out this scene is another unidentified figure, with a book:


The other window has three figures, which seem like the remnant of a more developed composition (a Jesse tree, perhaps?). At the top is a crowned female figure, presumably the Virgin Mary:


Below her the unmistakeable King David, with his harp:


Again you might like to compare the David from Canterbury Cathedral's Jesse tree.  Opposite is Solomon:


Finally, there's this, which is very pretty, but I don't know how old it is:


The colours of these windows are like jewels, and in Canterbury Cathedral, where there are hundreds of them, they dazzle like a king's treasure-house, or like the passage from Isaiah which the cathedral's Stained Glass Studio quotes on their website: 'I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay their foundations with sapphires; and I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.'  You might think that by comparison with that glory, two much smaller windows in a far less impressive setting might lose something of their power.  Somehow the effect was the opposite.  If the riches of the cathedral foreshadow Isaiah's city of God, stumbling across the rubies and sapphires of these windows in a deserted country church, far from the bustling crowds of the ever-busy cathedral, felt like a private and personal discovery - like finding the 'treasure hid in a field'.


One or two more pictures of the little church; here's the bell-tower:


The main altar, and beside it a chapel mostly filled with (stacking chairs and) monuments to the Milles family:




The other windows in the church can't match their medieval companions, though the west window's baby Christ - in a 1920s nightgown! - is endearing:

As is the baby angel above:


There's something 'homely' about all this, not quite in the sense Julian uses that word, but in a way that speaks of the love and care which has gone into preserving this church - even when it was half falling down! - over all the centuries of its life.  The wooden chancel screen is inscribed with the names of the local men who carved it in the early part of last century, and in this book, published in 1800, Nackington church is described as 'kept very neat and in good repair'; and so it is still.  'Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also', and this place has much of both.