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.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

'Our Lady's Lay'

Annunciation, c.1310 (BL Royal MS 15 D II, f.3)

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, 'Lady Day'. As I explored last year, the medieval church considered 25 March to be the single most important date in history, at once the beginning and the end of Christ's life on earth: it was the date of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the eighth day of Creation, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the sacrifice of Isaac, all profoundly meaningful events in the carefully-crafted divine story of salvation history. Its resonances reached even unto Middle Earth, as Tolkien aligned the downfall of the Ring to this most auspicious of dates.

Here's a lovely little poem about the Annunciation by William Herebert, the early 14th-century friar and poet. It's a poetic retelling of the Gospel for this feast, Luke 1:26-38, and in Herebert's manuscript is headed 'Evangelium: Missus est angelus Gabriel'. It begins with a brief prologue:

Prologus:
Seynt Luke, in hys godspel, bryngeth ous to munde
Hou Godes Sone of hevene com tok oure kunde,
And sayth who was messager and of whom ysend,
Into whuch lond, to what wymman, and yn whuch toun alend.
Of Luk leche, oure levedy prest, lofsom in apryse,
Lustneth lythe oure levedy lay that gynth in thisse wyse.

Missus est:
Ysend was thaungel Gabriel vrom God the Trinite
Into the lond of Galilee, to Nazareth cite,
To a mayde that hedde o mon ykald Joseph to spouse,
That was of grete kunne, of kyng Davides house.
The mayde to whom Gabriel ysend was on hye,
He rediliche to wysse ynemned was Marie.
And when thaungel was in-wend to speke wyth the mayde,
Hendeliche he grette hyre on thys wyse and sayde:
"Hayle be thou, vol of grace, oure Loverd ys wyth the;
Among alle wymmen thou yblessed be."
When he thys herde, a was ystured in thaungles spekynge,
And inwardlyche thouthte whuch was thys gretynge.
Thenne sayde thaungel bryht, "Marye, dred thou nouht.
Thou havest yvounde grace tovore God ysouht.
Lo, in the conceyve thou shalt and sone bere,
Whom thou shalt 'Jesu' nemnen, that Englys ys 'helere.'
Thes shal be muchel, and nemned 'worth,' the alre hextes Sone,'
And oure Loverd hym shal ȝeve hey stoede vor to wone.
Hys oune vadres see, David, and he shal be regnynge
In Jacobes house wythouten ey endynge,
And hys kyneryche shal boen aylastinge."
Thenne spak Marie to thaungel anon,
"Hou may thys ben? vor knoulechyng have ich of no wepmon."
Thaungel hyre onsuerede and sayde to ryhte,
"The Holy Gost vrom bouenuorth in the shal alihte,
And the shal byshadewen the alre hextes myhte.
And lo ther Elyzabeth, thy cosyne on the heelde,
Haveth conceyved ane sone in dawes of hyre eelde,
Vor nothyng impossible nys to God that al may welde."
Thenne spak Marye and mekelyche sayde,
"Lo me her alredy my Lordes hondmayde.
To me be do, vollyche also, ase thou rather saydest."

Who so nule nouht lye that maketh trewe asay,
Of oure levedy Marie thys ys seynt Lukes lay,
To hevene he make ous stye at oure endeday. Amen.

This poem twice identifies itself as a 'lay' - first 'Our Lady's lay', then 'St Luke's lay'. In Middle English this would suggest a song to be sung with accompaniment, which makes this poem a little different from Herebert's other translations. The poem actually does read like a song, with a real musical quality and a smoothness to the rhythm and rhyme which are only apparent when you read it aloud - so here's a recording of it, which aims to convey at least a little of its melodious sound. And a translation:

Prologue:
Saint Luke, in his gospel, brings to our mind
How God's Son from heaven came and took our kind; [nature]
And says who was messenger and from whom he was sent,
Into which land, to what woman, and to which town he came.
By Luke the physician, our Lady's priest, praiseworthy in renown,
Listen with pleasure to our Lady's lay that begins in this manner.

Sent was...
Sent was the angel Gabriel from God the Trinity
Into the land of Galilee, to Nazareth city,
To a maid who had a man called Joseph to spouse, [i.e. as her betrothed]
Who was of great kin, of king David's house.
The maid to whom Gabriel sent was from on high,
He knew very truly was named Mary.
And when the angel had come in to speak with the maid,
Courteously he greeted her in this way and said:
"Hail be thou, full of grace, our Lord is with thee;
Among all women thou blessed be."
When she this heard, she was stirred at the angel's speaking,
And inwardly wondered what was this greeting.
Then said the angel bright, "Mary, dread thou not.
Thou hast found grace before God.
Lo, in thee conceive thou shalt and a son bear,
Whom thou shalt 'Jesu' name, that in English is 'healer.'
Who shall be great, and named 'worth,' 'the Son of the most high,'
And our Lord shall give him a high place to dwell:
His own father's seat, David, and he shall be reigning
In Jacob's house forever without ending,
And his kingdom shall be everlasting."
Then spake Mary to the angel anon,
"How may this be? for knowledge have I of no man."
The angel answered her and said aright,
"The Holy Ghost from above in thee shall alight,
And thee shall beshadow the highest one's might;
And lo, Elizabeth, thy cousin in grace,
Hath conceived a son in the days of her old age,
For nothing impossible is to God who governs all."
Then spake Mary and meekly said,
"Behold me here all ready, my Lord's handmaid.
To me be done, fully also, as thou hast said before."

Whoever tells no lies, proves to tell the truth,
Of our lady Mary this is Saint Luke's lay,
To heaven may she make us rise at our end-day. Amen.

The song-like quality of this poem made me wonder whether Herebert had heard the popular song on the same subject, 'Angelus ad virginem' - according to Chaucer, at least one 'clerk' of fourteenth-century Oxford was accustomed to sing that song for his own amusement, 'so sweetly that the chamber rang'. But this poem is worlds away from the naughty young clerk of the Miller's Tale, and stays much closer to the Biblical text than the other song does. The only real addition, apart from the introduction and conclusion, is an English translation for the name 'Jesus': 'that in English is healer'. In Old English 'healer' (Hælend), meaning 'saviour', was very commonly used in place of the name Jesus - Ælfric, for instance, does this almost all the time (here's a good example). This occurs in Middle English, too, though less frequently, so Herebert's audience probably would have been well acquainted with this interpretation of the name.

There are a few other grace notes, adding little touches of loveliness to the familiar story. Particularly elegant are the two lines which aim to catch the ear of the hearer, and say 'listen to this!':

Of Luk leche, oure levedy prest, lofsom in apryse,
Lustneth lythe oure levedy lay that gynth in thisse wyse.

By Luke the physician, our Lady's priest, praiseworthy in renown,
Listen with pleasure to our Lady's lay that begins in this manner.

There's some nice play here on pairs of similar-sounding words, heavy with alliteration - Luke and leche (i.e. 'physician', since St Luke was traditionally said to be a doctor); priest and apryse ('price', renown); lady and lay (a little Dylan-esque, that); and lustneth ('listen') and lythe, which means something like 'gladly, with delight'. That last word suggests, I think, that the whole experience of listening to this poem is simply meant to be pleasurable. It's not really trying to do anything clever with this well-known story, but purely intending to make it pleasant, pretty, 'lovesome' to hear - food for glad and loving meditation. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Poetry of William Herebert: 'Thou wommon boute fere'

I've written a piece for this week's Catholic Herald on the medieval poet William Herebert:

In early 14th-century Oxford, surrounded by some of the foremost theologians of medieval Europe, a Franciscan friar named William Herebert was writing a precious little collection of poems.

Herebert’s name is not well known today, but his poems, beautiful and distinctive in their own right, also represent an important milestone for English Catholicism: he was one of the first people to turn the Latin hymns of the Church into English poetry.

Read the rest here. I've posted a number of William Herebert's poems on this blog before, and they can be found under this tag - I particularly recommend 'The kynges baneres beth forth ylad', 'Wele, herying and worshipe', and 'Hail, Lady, sea-star bright'.

As I was writing this piece it occurred to me that 2017 happens to be the closest we can get to an anniversary for Herebert: we don't know his exact dates of birth or death (c.1270 to c.1333 is the usual guess), but we do know that he became master of the Franciscan house in Oxford around 1317. This 700-year anniversary seems as good a date to mark as any - and as regular readers will know, I enjoy a good anniversary. So I've decided that over the course of this year I'll post the rest of Herebert's poems here, with translations, and maybe a few audio recordings too - like many Middle English poets, his verses are often better heard than read on the page. A few of Herebert's poems can be found in anthologies of Middle English verse, and there's one edition of his English poems which is available online, but that edition (while very useful) contains no translations or glossing to help the reader unfamiliar with Herebert's rather tricky dialect. I'll do my best to make his poems more accessible, and to highlight some of the qualities which make them so appealing.

Virgin and Child (All Souls, Oxford)

To get us started, here's one of Herebert's longer poems, one of the few which has no known source.

Thou wommon boute fere
Thin owne fader bere!
Gret wonder this was
That on wommon was moder
To fader and hire brother,
So never other nas.

Thou my suster and moder
And thy sone my brother,
Who shulde thenne drede?
Whoso haveth the king to broder
And eek the quene to moder
Well aughte for to spede.

Dame, suster and moder,
Say thy sone, my brother,
That is domesmon,
That for thee that him bere,
To me be debonere;
My robe he haveth opon.

Sethe he my robe tok,
Also ich finde in bok,
He is to me ibounde;
And helpe he wole, ich wot,
For love the chartre wrot,
The enke orn of his wounde.

Ich take to witnessinge
The spere and the crowninge,
The nailes and the rode,
That he that is so cunde
This ever haveth in munde,
That boughte us with his blode.

When thou yeve him my wede,
Dame, help at the nede;
Ich wot thou might fol well,
That for no wreched gult
Ich be to helle ipult,
To thee ich make apel.

Now, Dame, ich thee biseche,
At thilke day of wreche
Be by thy sones trone,
When sunne shall ben sought
In werk, in word, in thought,
And spek for me thou one.

When ich mot nede apere
For mine gultes here
Tofore the domesmon,
Suster, be ther my fere
And make him debonere
That my robe haveth opon.

For habbe ich thee and him
That markes berth with him,
That charite him tok,
The woundes all blody,
The toknes of mercy,
Ase techeth Holy Bok,
Tharf me nothing drede;
Sathan shall nout spede
With wrenches ne with crok.
Amen.

Here's a translation of the poem (but I like Herebert's use of 'dame' for 'lady', so I've kept that...):

Thou woman without compare,
[Who didst] thine own father bear!
Great wonder this was,
That one woman was mother
To father and her brother,
Such another never was.

Thou my sister and mother,
And thy son my brother;
Who then should dread?
Whoever has the king for brother
And the queen for mother
Well ought to succeed.

Dame, sister and mother,
Say to thy son, my brother,
Who is domesman, [judge]
That for thee who him did bear
To me be debonair; [merciful and gracious]
My robe he hath upon.

Since he my robe took,
As I find in book, [i.e. the Bible]
He is to me bound.
And help he will, I wot, [I know]
For love the charter wrote,
The ink ran from his wounds.

I take to witnessing
The spear and the crowning, [i.e. with thorns]
The nails and the rood,
That he that is so kind [benevolent in nature]
Have ever this in mind,
Who bought us with his blood.

Since thou gave him my weed, [clothing]
Dame, help at the need.
I know thou may full well,
That for no wretched guilt
I may be to hell ypult; [thrust]
To thee I make appeal.

Now, Dame, I thee beseech,
At that day of wreche [Judgement Day]
Be by thy son's throne,
When sins shall be sought [searched through]
In work, in word, in thought,
And speak for me, thou alone.

When I must needs appear
For mine sins here
Before the domesman,
Sister, be there my fere [companion]
And make him debonair
That my robe hath upon.

For if I have thee and him
Whom the marks beareth on him,
Which charity him took - [the marks which love gave him]
The wounds all bloody,
The tokens of mercy,
As teacheth Holy Book,
Nothing need I dread;
Satan shall not succeed
With wrenches nor with crook. [with tricks or guile]
Amen.

This is a fairly simple poem - deliberately simple, I think, perhaps because it's not a translation of a hymn. It aims to be direct, intimate and devotional, a private and meditative kind of prayer, and so it depends for its effect on repetition and more straightforward diction than Herebert tends to use in his hymn translations. This seems appropriate for a poem which so tenderly explores intimate family relationships, leaning on the kinship created when Mary gave her son 'my robe', the clothing of human flesh. Christ is our brother, he wears our clothes, and so how can he not be 'bound' by the bond of love?

The images here are ones traditional in medieval spirituality, including that striking idea that Christ wrote the 'charter' of human liberation with the ink of his own blood. His sufferings are called to be 'witnesses' to the transaction written upon his body. This is a legal image (fitting for a poem where Christ is not only a brother but domesman, 'judge'), but it's also part of a wider tradition of images drawn from books and book-making, common in medieval devotional writing; these speak, for instance, of Christ writing upon the book of the heart, or compare his body stretched upon the cross to stretched-out parchment on which a message of love is written. It's an image drawn from a literate, documentary, book-filled culture, perhaps inspired by the very ink which flowed from the poet's hands as he wrote these words in his manuscript.


It's a metaphor which would have resonated in early fourteenth-century Oxford. This picture, which the Catholic Herald chose to illustrate my piece, is very appropriate for Herebert, though none of the buildings visible here had been built when he lived in Oxford. This is the view from the tower of St Mary's church in the centre of the city, looking over what's now called Radcliffe Square. In Herebert's day, looking out from St Mary's, you would have seen not the elegant towers and spacious quadrangles of All Souls' but a cluster of small, closely-packed residential halls populated by students and teachers, the forerunners of Oxford's colleges. This street was the centre of the book trade in medieval Oxford, where you would have found the scribes, parchment-makers, bookbinders and copyists, all the people making the books and writing implements which the university relied on.

Various places might claim to be the heart of the University of Oxford, but St Mary's has a particularly good right to that title: it was in this church that the first university library was established (around 1320, during Herebert's time in Oxford, and more than 150 years before the founding of the Bodleian) and in the early days of the university lectures, ceremonies, and graduations took place here. We know that Herebert preached at St Mary's on at least one occasion, since his manuscript of his works contains a sermon to be given there on 9 June 1314, the translation feast of St Edmund of Abingdon.

St Edmund, scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, grew up in Oxford about a century before Herebert was born, and had a strong connection to St Mary's. As a boy St Edmund was educated in a school attached to the church, where he had three miraculous experiences during his childhood (read about them here). On one occasion, a ghostly voice prevented him from running out of the church to play with other boys during Mass. Another time, a stone fell off the church tower while he was listening to a lecture in the churchyard, but Edmund was saved from harm. At twelve years old, Edmund made a vow of chastity which he confirmed by a mystical marriage with the Virgin Mary: he placed a ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin in St Mary's, from which he then found it could not be removed, and wore another ring himself as a token of his vow. These stories associate Oxford's local saint with the physical spaces inside and outside this church, which you can still walk through today even if most of the buildings around them have changed.

By the west door of St Mary's, where St Edmund was nearly hit by a stone...

As a Franciscan, William Herebert's home in Oxford was not here in the heart of the city but on its outskirts, in the parish of St Ebbe's. The Franciscan house there had been founded in 1224, two years before St Francis' death; it was, of course, demolished at the Reformation, and the site now lies underneath a supermarket. (The area is currently being redeveloped, bringing to light some fascinating glimpses into life at medieval Greyfriars.)

For such a deeply traditional university, Oxford has often been uncomfortable with its medieval roots - for a long time after the Reformation, acknowledging any continuity between the university and the scholarly communities of the monks and friars of medieval Oxford was all too dangerously Catholic. The university's humanist origin myth was established at the expense of people like Edmund of Abingdon and William Herebert, and this attitude has not entirely died out; in official publications it's not uncommon to see something like this short piece which makes the 'history of books in Oxford' begin only in 1478, with the first book printed in the city. Books and their readers and writers go back a long way before that, of course. For Herebert in the early fourteenth century, Edmund of Abingdon was already part of Oxford's history; at St Mary's he might have thought, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of Herebert's Oxford contemporary Duns Scotus, 'this air I gather and I release / He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what / He haunted'...

Edmund of Abingdon too has a place in the history of English poetry, since one of the earliest and most popular devotional poems in Middle English survives embedded in one of his Latin works:

Nou goth sonne under wod,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

[Now goes the sun under the wood,
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face;
Now goes the sun under the tree,
I grieve, Mary, for thy son and thee.]

We don't know who wrote this (it's just possible it was St Edmund himself) but it dates to the early thirteenth century, and is a reminder that Herebert, though an innovator in some ways, was following in a very well-established tradition of devotional English poetry. Herebert's poems to the Virgin, including 'Thou wommon boute fere', are very much in that tradition.

St Mary's (source)

The Oxford context for Herebert's work appeals to me for obvious reasons, but it's actually an important one: it challenges several popular stereotypes about the medieval period to find a trained theologian in a university city, in the early fourteenth century, spending his time translating Latin hymns into English verse. Firstly, it's a good example of how seriously medieval preachers took their pastoral duties - forget your lazy dark-ages myths about clerics gabbling away in Latin to maliciously hide religion from the unlearned. (I hope no one who reads this blog believes that nonsense, but it's still regularly promulgated to the public by people who should know better.) Part of Herebert's motivation was evidently that he wanted his congregation to understand the hymns of the church in the vernacular, in their language - which was his language too, though he was also thoroughly conversant in Latin and French. That doesn't even make him particularly unusual or controversial for his day; he was part of a very long tradition of pastoral and homiletic writing in the vernacular going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, representing perhaps the longest unbroken strand of continuity in English literature. And since people still go around saying that Chaucer was the 'Father of English poetry', 'one of the first people to write in English', and all that, it's always good to remember that no, he really wasn't...

I emphasise the Englishness of Herebert's verse in part because there's been a little flurry of writing about 'Englishness' lately. In the rather frantic journalistic search for historical analogies for Brexit, Norman Conquest parallels are all very last year - it's all about the Reformation now. Witness this, and this, and this, all of which depend on the idea that 'English identity' is absolutely and inextricably Protestant, constituted in large part by opposition to the medieval, Catholic, pre-Reformation past. This is hardly a new argument (far from it!) but it's a pretty awful one for all kinds of reasons. Quite apart from the dangers inherent in declaring any particular minority religion or denomination to be not English, it involves repeating popular myths about medieval England and its relationship to the rest of Catholic Europe which most historians stopped even bothering to refute decades ago, so simplistic and caricatured are they. Imagine thinking that for the nine hundred years (!) between the Synod of Whitby and the Reformation, England was 'subservient to Rome' and tied to the 'conformist Continent', only capable of innovation, liberty and creativity once free of those wicked foreigners and their Catholic shackles. It's such an ignorant and old-fashioned view - and a very limited and (ironically) constricting way of talking about how other people might understand their own overlapping ethnic, national and religious identities.

So now seems a good time to celebrate someone like Herebert and his very English Catholicism - his very Catholic Englishness - which was perfectly compatible for him with both scholarly Latin learning and fluency in French and Anglo-Norman literature. His manuscript is trilingual, representing a very catholic (with a small c) range of interests, and revealing the thoughtful creativity of his poetry and the sensitivity of his pastoral care. These make him appealing, but not at all unique; he was a man of his time. He was a product of the lively and dynamic culture of medieval England and Catholic Europe, which educated and nurtured Herebert and many more like him - and which deserves to be taken seriously in its own right, and not just as a prop in a lazy rhetorical argument.

Friday, 17 February 2017

'Whan alle tresors arn tried,' quod she, 'Treuthe is the beste'

‘There I could see winged wonders fly’, by Warwick Goble (1912)

My latest column for History Today is out now, and can be read here. It's about Chaucer's brilliant, dizzying, disturbing poem The House of Fame, and its vision of what we have recently started calling a 'post-truth' world - in which stories spread and circulate regardless of whether they are true or not.

Chaucer then describes an even more disturbing sight, more chaotic and unstable than the House of Fame: one built of twigs, whirling and spinning about at an incredible speed. This house is full of ‘tidings’; a useful Middle English word, which can simply mean news or information, but often has negative overtones of gossip and rumour. Tidings circulate in this house on every subject imaginable and, as they pass from one person to another, they grow in the telling, quickly becoming an inseparable amalgam of false and true. They spread like fire ‘from a spark sprung amiss / until all a city burnt up is’.

In one especially vivid moment, Chaucer describes a false story fighting with a true one to escape out of a window of the house, each crying ‘Let me go first!’. They agree to go around the world as sworn brothers, so closely mingled together that no one will ever be able to separate truth from lie. These tidings are then carried abroad by travellers, sailors and pilgrims - groups in medieval society stereotypically notorious for caring more about a good story than about the facts.

Chaucer’s noisy, dizzying house of rumours will sound familiar to any user of Twitter. What Chaucer understands and brings sharply to life in this poem is that truth is rarely the most important factor in determining whether a story will spread. We are all capricious readers, who respond to and share stories that in some way accord with our own understanding of the world. This idea was a long-standing interest for Chaucer and lies behind The Canterbury Tales, too: as the pilgrims in that poem tell stories to each other, they demonstrate how complex the process of hearing and sharing tales can be. Whether they react to each other’s stories with praise or violent disapproval, the pilgrims are motivated more by their own interests and preoccupations than by the intrinsic value of the story. Once a tale is told, the teller cannot control how its hearers will receive it.
Here are some extracts from The House of Fame (far be it from me to paraphrase Chaucer when he can so eloquently speak for himself!). First the description of the house of rumour:

And ever mo, as swyft as thought,
This queynte hous aboute wente,
That never mo hyt stille stente.
And therout com so gret a noyse
That, had hyt stonden upon Oyse,
Men myghte hyt han herd esely
To Rome, y trowe sikerly...
And on the roof men may yet seen
A thousand holes, and wel moo,
To leten wel the soun out goo.
And be day, in every tyde,
Been al the dores opened wide,
And be nyght echon unshette;
Ne porter ther is noon to lette
No maner tydynges in to pace.
Ne never rest is in that place
That hit nys fild ful of tydynges,
Other loude or of whisprynges;
And over alle the houses angles
Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles
Of werres, of pes, of mariages,
Of reste, of labour, of viages,
Of abood, of deeth, of lyf,
Of love, of hate, acord, of stryf,
Of loos, of lore, and of wynnynges,
Of hele, of seknesse, of bildynges,
Of faire wyndes, and of tempestes,
Of qwalm of folk, and eke of bestes;
Of dyvers transmutacions
Of estats, and eke of regions;
Of trust, of drede, of jelousye,
Of wit, of wynnynge, of folye;
Of plente, and of gret famyne,
Of chepe, of derthe, and of ruyne;
Of good or mys governement,
Of fyr, and of dyvers accident.
And loo, thys hous, of which I write,
Syker be ye, hit nas not lyte,
For hyt was sixty myle of lengthe.
Al was the tymber of no strengthe,
Yet hit is founded to endure
While that hit lyst to Aventure,
That is the moder of tydynges,
As the see of welles and of sprynges;
And hyt was shapen lyk a cage.

That list of 'rounynges and of jangles' is just brilliant. The dreamer's eagle-guide drops him inside the house, where he finds it's full of crowds of people busily whispering to each other and spreading tidings:

And every wight that I saugh there
Rouned everych in others ere
A newe tydynge prively,
Or elles tolde al openly
Ryght thus, and seyde: "Nost not thou
That ys betyd, lo, late or now?"
"No," quod he, "telle me what."
And than he tolde hym this and that,
And swor therto that hit was soth -
"Thus hath he sayd," and "Thus he doth,"
"Thus shal hit be," "Thus herde y seye,"
"That shal be founde," "That dar I leye" -
That al the folk that ys alyve
Ne han the kunnynge to discryve
The thinges that I herde there,
What aloude, and what in ere.
But al the wondermost was this:
Whan oon had herd a thing, ywis,
He com forth ryght to another wight,
And gan him tellen anon-ryght
The same that to him was told,
Or hyt a forlong way was old,
But gan somwhat for to eche
To this tydynge in this speche
More than hit ever was.
And nat so sone departed nas
Tho fro him, that he ne mette
With the thridde; and or he lette
Any stounde, he told him als;
Were the tydynge soth or fals,
Yit wolde he telle hyt natheles,
And evermo with more encres
Than yt was erst. Thus north and south
Wente every tydyng fro mouth to mouth,
And that encresing ever moo,
As fyr ys wont to quyke and goo
From a sparke spronge amys,
Til al a citee brent up ys.
And whan that was ful yspronge,
And woxen more on every tonge
Than ever hit was, hit wente anoon
Up to a wyndowe out to goon;
Or, but hit myghte out there pace,
Hyt gan out crepe at som crevace,
And flygh forth faste for the nones.
And somtyme saugh I thoo at ones
A lesyng and a sad soth sawe,
That gonne of aventure drawe
Out at a wyndowe for to pace;
And, when they metten in that place,
They were achekked bothe two,
And neyther of hem moste out goo
For other, so they gonne crowde,
Til ech of hem gan crien lowde,
"Lat me go first!" "Nay, but let me!
And here I wol ensuren the,
Wyth the nones that thou wolt do so,
That I shal never fro the go,
But be thyn owne sworen brother!
We wil medle us ech with other,
That no man, be they never so wrothe,
Shal han on of us two, but bothe
At ones, al besyde his leve,
Come we a-morwe or on eve,
Be we cried or stille yrouned."
Thus saugh I fals and soth compouned
Togeder fle for oo tydynge.

This piece seems to have struck a chord, for obvious reasons. It seems appropriate that we should turn to Chaucer for comment on such a question: few writers have given more thought to what it means to share a story (or tell a tale), and what that act can reveal about the teller. If social media is like Chaucer's House of Rumour or his Canterbury pilgrimage writ large, it's important to emphasise that for him this is in part a literary question, in the broadest sense: it demonstrates the importance of studying and understanding story, narrative, reading and interpretation, the use of words. All 'tidings' are only words, and so in order to understand them we should learn from thinking about how stories work and where they derive their power.

Sethe the tyme that God was boren,
This world was never so untrewe.
Men recchen never to ben forsworen,
To reuen that is hem ful duwe;
The peynted word that fel biforen,
Behynde, hit is another hewe.
Whon Gabriel schal blowe his horn,
His feble fables schul hym rewe.

Since the time that God was born,
This world was never so untrue;
Men care never to be forsworn -
The time to rue that is full due.
The painted word which falls before,
Behind, it shows another hue.
When Gabriel shall blow his horn,
These feeble fables they shall rue.

So wrote an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer, one of many writers in the late fourteenth century to lament what's been called that era's 'crisis of truth'. (Here's another one). In saying that 'this world has never been so untrue', he means something even more serious than Chaucer does in talking of tidings 'of fals and soth compouned'; at a time when trewthe meant not just factual accuracy but faithfulness, integrity, honour, an 'untrewe' world was a frightening prospect. How much worse would a post-truth one be?

In the opening scenes of Piers Plowman, when the dreamer falls asleep on the Malvern Hills, the very first thing he sees in his dream is a tower on a hill, standing in the east against the sun. It soars high above the 'fair field of folk' which is this world, where all classes of people are busily engaged in 'working and wandering'. That tower, the dreamer later learns, is the dwelling-place of Truth. The figure of Holy Church explains to him that Truth is nothing less than God: father, creator, provider of all good things in the world. The more human beings are like Truth, upright and honest in all their dealings, the more they are like God and his most trustworthy of treasures:

'Whan alle tresors arn tried,' quod she, 'Treuthe is the beste.
I do it on Deus caritas to deme the sothe;
It is as dereworthe a drury as deere God hymselven.
Who is trewe of his tonge and telleth noon oother,
And dooth the werkes therwith and wilneth no man ille,
He is a god by the Gospel, agrounde and olofte,
And ylik to Oure Lord, by Seint Lukes wordes.'

'When all treasures are tried,' said she, 'Truth is the best.
I appeal to [the text] 'God is Love' to prove the truth;
It is as precious a love-gift as dear God himself.
Whoever is true of his tongue and says nothing else,
And acts accordingly and wishes no man ill,
He is god-like, says the Gospel, on earth and in heaven,
And the image of Our Lord, by St Luke's words.'