Saturday, 4 July 2015

Welcome!

I was amazed and delighted this morning to discover an article about my blog (specifically this post about Ælfric's homily on the death of St Benedict) in the Telegraph. I've been reading Christopher Howse's column since I was a teenager, and it's long been a kind of model for me in how to write clearly, lyrically, and sensitively about the past - so this really was a thrill.

Anyone who has come here today on that recommendation, you're very welcome! Here are some links you might find helpful. This post explains why and how I blog about medieval texts; I do so in the hope of offering a glimpse at the richness and diversity of England's medieval literature and the many ways it can still delight, amuse, teach and guide. More extracts from the writings of the incomparable tenth-century homilist Ælfric can be found under this tag - representing just a tiny fraction of the work of this incredibly prolific, thoughtful and generous teacher and lucid writer of English prose. Here's a collection of links to posts about Anglo-Saxon literature exploring the cycle of the year, and here's more on the stories of medieval saints from Benedict to Dunstan, Edmund, Anselm, Etheldreda, and more. I hope you find something to interest you!

Friday, 3 July 2015

The Danish Conquest, Part 7: Murder at Oxford

Two years ago, I began a series of posts marking - in real time, as far as possible - the 1000th anniversary of the Danish Conquest of England. This was a lengthy struggle, which resulted in the Danish king Cnut driving the English royal family into exile and ruling England from 1016-1035. During those decades England was part of a great pan-Scandinavian empire, but this period in English history is relatively little known, especially by comparison with the Norman Conquest which took place half a century later. I considered some reasons why that might be so here. This series of posts is an attempt to trace the long and fascinating story of battles, invasions, shifting allegiances, murders, marriages, and betrayals, as recorded in the history and poetry of the time. Links to all the posts in the series so far can be found here.

If you're new to my blog, you may not have been aware of this series, because it's been more than a year since the last installment - not because I forgot about the project (honest) but because there was a long hiatus in hostilities between the spring of 1014 and the summer of 1015. Let's recap: Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark, invaded England in the summer of 1013, after a targeted and swift-moving campaign which involved making alliances with some key players among the English nobility. (This will become important in a moment.) By the end of the year Svein had driven the English king, Æthelred, into exile. But Svein's reign in England lasted less than two months: he died suddenly in February 1014, and Æthelred returned from exile, making a bargain with the witan that he would rule England more justly than he had before. Within a few months he had managed to force the Danish army, now led by Svein's young son Cnut, back to Denmark. Last summer, we saw Cnut sailing away with a final gesture of unpleasant defiance: returning the English hostages who had been given to his father with their hands, ears and noses cut off. A number of Danish ships under the command of the formidable Viking leader Thorkell the Tall stayed in England, still taking large payments of money from Æthelred, but apparently not giving their full allegiance to either the English or the Danish king.

Between Michaelmas 1014 and the summer of 1015, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our most detailed narrative source, doesn't tell us what was going on in England. The gap itself is interesting. One of the advantages of this kind of real-time project, attempting to follow events more or less in the sequence that they happened, is that you are forced to notice gaps and pauses as much as events, the absence as well as the presence of information. Writing a narrative of any historical period, we mostly have little choice but to skip over the times for which we don't have any details; but a year is a long time, and a lot can happen. What was Æthelred doing? Was he consolidating his position, 'ruling more justly than before'? Was he holding fire on his internal enemies, waiting to strike? We can't really know.

But in summer 1015, while Cnut was still in Denmark, things started to get tense in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) says:

On þissum geare wæs þæt mycele gemot on Oxonaforda. 7 þær Eadric ealdorman beswac Sigeferð 7 Morcær þa yldestan þægenas into Seofonburgum. bepæhte hi into his bure. 7 hi man þær inne ofsloh ungerisenlice. 7 se cyng þa genam eall heora æhta. 7 het nimon Sigeferðes lafe 7 gebringon binnon Mealdelmes byrig. Þa æfter litlum fece ferde Eadmund æðeling to. 7 genam þæt wif ofer þes cynges willan. 7 heafde him to wife. Ða toforan natiuitas sancte Mariæ ferde se æðeling wæston norð into Fifburgum. 7 gerad sona ealle Sigeferðes are 7 Morcares. 7 þæt folc eall him tobeah.

[In this year was the great assembly at Oxford, and there Eadric the ealdorman betrayed Sigeferth and Morcar, the foremost thegns in the Seven Boroughs; he lured them into his chamber, and in there they were dishonorably murdered. And the king then took all their possessions, and ordered Sigeferth's widow to be seized and brought to Malmesbury. Then after a little while Edmund the atheling journeyed there, and took the woman against the king's will, and married her. Then before the Nativity of St Mary the atheling journeyed from the west, north into the Five Boroughs and rode at once into all Sigeferth and Morcar's territory, and the people all submitted to him.]

This is the English aristocracy in chaos. A 'great assembly' held at Oxford was probably an attempt at peace-keeping, reunification of Æthelred's kingdom after it had fallen piecemeal (and not always reluctantly) to the Danes two years before. In the Anglo-Saxon period Oxford was (strange as it is to think of!) border-territory, on the frontier between Wessex and Mercia - formerly independent kingdoms, all part of 'England' by the eleventh century, but ruled by different interests and with some sense of regional identity, nonetheless. Lying at the meeting-place of roads and rivers, Oxford was a key strategic location; two years earlier, it had been the first town in the south to submit to Svein, by force, after the north had declared allegiance to him. Perhaps the assembly of 1015 was held in Oxford as a kind of neutral territory, a symbolic gesture to bring the north and south together in a reunited country under the restored king. But it didn't work out that way.

A map of Saxon Oxford, from this site

'Eadric the ealdorman', better known as Eadric streona, was one of Æthelred's closest advisors, and he may well have been acting on the king's orders when he secretly and treacherously murdered Sigeferth and Morcar, the most powerful thegns in the Midlands (they ruled a territory based around the 'Five Boroughs' of Lincoln, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, and Stamford). In 1013 the Five Boroughs had submitted to Svein very quickly, and Sigeferth and Morcar had not only led the submission to the Danes but probably arranged for their kinswoman Ælfgifu of Northampton to marry Cnut. After this defection it seems that Æthelred did not trust them, and perhaps this summary killing at the Oxford assembly was delayed punishment for their rejection of the English king - who had promised on his return that he would 'forgive all injuries against him', and didn't.

To murder anyone under the guise of hospitality in this way was a particularly shocking act. Æthelred may have rid himself of two potential enemies, but he created another, and a more dangerous: his own son, Edmund Ironside, who now openly rebelled against his father. Edmund married Sigeferth's widow and reclaimed the territory of the murdered thegns from the king, building himself a power-base in the Midlands. Sigeferth and Morcar may have been Edmund's friends and allies - they had apparently been close to his brother Æthelstan, who had recently died and left them bequests in his will. After the early death of his elder brother in 1014, Edmund was Æthelred's oldest surviving son and the person best placed to inherit the throne. This break between the king and the atheling was a serious crisis.

Sigeferth's widow, the woman here seized and imprisoned and taken and married ('against the king's will' - was it against hers?) is named by a later source as Ealdgyth. We know nothing more about her, but she was probably the mother of Edmund Ironside's two sons, who spent almost all their short lives in exile after fleeing England in 1016; but one of them was the father of St Margaret of Scotland, through whose descendents the line of the Anglo-Saxon kings was grafted back into the royal family tree after the Norman Conquest. So this marriage, hasty and controversial as it was, may have left a long legacy.

Edmund Ironside and his descendents (BL Royal 14 B VI)

And what was happening in Denmark, all this while? As summer drew on, Cnut was preparing to launch another invasion. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, a Latin account of Cnut's conquest and reign written for his second wife Emma, c.1041, fills in the gap a little on the Danish side. As we saw in my last post, the Encomium tells us that Cnut returned to Denmark and reached a rather awkward agreement with his brother about how they should divide the rule of their father's kingdom. And then Thorkell turned up:
The summer sun was drawing near, and Knutr, having restored the army, hastened to return and avenge his injuries. But as he was strolling round the beaches, he observed a small number of ships out at sea. For Thorkell, remembering what he had done to Sveinn, and that he had also unadvisedly remained in the country without the leave of Knutr, his lord, sought his lord with nine ships and their crews, in order to make it clear to him that he was not acting against his safety in remaining, when he went away. When he arrived, he did not presume to approach the shore unbidden, but casting anchor, he sent messengers, and asked leave to enter the ports. When this was granted, he landed and asked his lord's mercy, and having become with great difficulty reconciled to him, he gave an oath of fidelity, to the effect that he would serve him continuously and faithfully. He remained with him more than a whole month, and urged him to return to England, saying that he could easily overcome people whose country was known far and wide to both of them. In particular, he said that he had left thirty ships in England with a most faithful army, who would receive them with honour when they came, and would conduct them through the whole extent of the country.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), p. 19.

The Encomium is not to be taken entirely at face value, but I rather like this little vignette of Cnut walking along the beach, spotting ships out at sea, and then waiting on the shore to receive Thorkell's hesitant embassy. (Scenes of landing are always interesting; this one makes me think of Beowulf getting a wary welcome when he lands on the coast of Denmark.) Anyway, let's take the author's word for it that Thorkell came and urged Cnut to return to England and said 'we can easily beat the English, because we know the terrain!' So Cnut readied his ships, over which the Encomium waxes lyrical:

Then the king said farewell to his mother and brother, and returned to the area of the winding coast, where he had already assembled the fair spectacle of two hundred ships. For here was so great a quantity of arms, that one of those ships would have very abundantly supplied weapons, if they had been lacking to all the rest. Furthermore, there were there so many kinds of shields, that you would have believed that troops of all nations were present. So great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays among them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the dragons burning with pure gold, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

And so the force which has been described, having unfastened the anchors and ropes from the shore, boarded the lofty ships and put to sea, and swept the waves with such impetus, that you would have thought that they were flying over the water in winged ships, which hardly creaked, heavy as the sea was.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, trans. Campbell, pp. 19-21.

There's poetic licence here, but perhaps not too much; anyone who marvelled at the huge reconstructed ship in the British Museum's recent Vikings exhibition can imagine how impressive Cnut's fleet must have been.


Those winged ships flying across the water caught the imagination of Cnut's poets, too; here's how a poem addressed to Cnut (composed probably in the 1020s) describes his voyage to England:

Hratt lítt gamall, lýtir
lǫgreiðar, framm skeiðum;
fórat fylkir œri
folksveimuðr, þér heiman;
Hilmir, bjótt ok hættir
harðbrynjuð skip kynjum;
reiðr hafðir þú rauðar
randir, Knútr, fyr landi...

Vǫð blés of þér, vísi;
vestr settir þú flesta
- kunnt gørðir þú þannig
þitt nafn - í haf stafna.

Óttarr svarti, Knútsdrápa, ed. Matthew Townend, in Diana Whaley, ed., Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages I (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), Part 2, p.

That is:
Sea-chariot's destroyer, you launched ships at a young age; no younger ruler than you, O warrior, ever set out from home! Prince, you prepared hard-armoured ships, and were wondrously brave; in your rage, Cnut, you raised red shields before the land... Captain, the sail billowed above you; many prows you sent west across the sea. Thus you made your name known!

In the next post, we'll see what happened when those ships reached land. But as a foretaste, here's an extract from another poem composed for Cnut, this time by Sigvatr Þórðarson - this is what Æthelred and Edmund Ironside had to look forward to.

Ok Ellu bak,
at, lét, hinns sat,
Ívarr ara,
Jórvík, skorit.

Ok senn sonu
sló, hvern ok þó,
Aðalráðs eða
út flæmði Knútr.

Sigvatr Þórðarson, Knútsdrápa, ed. Matthew Townend in Whaley, Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, pp. 651-2.

That is:
And Ivar, who dwelt at York, had Ælla's back cut with an eagle; and Cnut soon struck down or drove out the sons of Æthelred, every single one.

This is a reference to one of the most famous Vikings of them all: Ivar 'the Boneless', son of Ragnar Lothbrok. In compliment to Cnut, the poet Sigvatr here brings together two Danish triumphs over English kings which took place almost exactly 150 years apart. In 867 Ivar and his brothers killed Ælla, king of Northumbria, and conquered northern England - a famous victory, and even in the eleventh century the stuff of evocative legend. Ivar's was a name to conjure with, a great Viking predecessor for a young Danish king to follow. Ivar and his brother were most famous in English history as the killers of St Edmund of East Anglia - and in 1015 St Edmund's namesake, Edmund Ironside, was about to encounter the Vikings for the first time.

Ivar's fleet, as imagined by a 15th-century English manuscript (BL Harley 2278, f. 47v)

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Sun and the Seed-Corn


Following on from this recent post about Anglo-Saxon wisdom literature, here are two extracts from the 'Metres of Boethius', a sequence of Old English poems based on the metrical sections of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. This is Metre 3.

Eala, on hu grimmum and hu grundleasum
seaðe swinceð þæt sweorcende mod,
þonne hit þa strongan stormas beatað
weoruldbisgunga, þonne hit winnende
his agen leoht an forlæteð,
and mid uua forgit þone ecan gefean,
ðringð on þa ðiostro ðisse worulde,
sorgum geswenced. Swa is þissum nu
mode gelumpen, nu hit mare ne wat
for gode godes buton gnornunge
fremdre worulde. Him is frofre ðearf.

O, in how fearsome and how fathomless
a mire struggles the darkening mind,
when the stern storms of worldly trouble
beat against it! Then, battling on,
it loses its own light,
and in grief forgets the eternal joy,
driven on into the darkness of this world,
oppressed by sorrow. So now it is
for this mind, now it knows no more
of God's goods but grieving
in an unwelcoming world. It needs comfort.


Here's the section on which this is based; the Old English is briefer and simpler, and somehow more poignant to me for that reason. My translation can't capture how much the sound of the poetry contributes to this picture of a mind growing dark, squelched by sorrow, sinking into a bottomless pit: the sweorcende mod, sorgum geswenced. Say out loud the word gnornunge - couldn't you guess without being told that it means 'grieving, lamenting'?

By contrast, here's the OE Metre 22, for which compare this.

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.

This is complex and intricate and hard to translate - hard for me, and hard for the Anglo-Saxon poet, I would think. But Old English poetry had many ways of talking about the processes of the mind and the memory, and they get a good workout here. This is sophisticated psychological and philosophical reasoning, and it draws on Old English poetic diction as well as on Boethius and 'our Plato': there's a characteristic kenning for the mind, runcofan, 'secret chamber' ('chamber of secrets'?) as well as the usual vocabulary of mod and ferþ and sefa - the mind, spirit, heart, soul. And although the metaphor may be Boethius', the lines about the sun contain two beautifully Anglo-Saxon kennings:

and he eac ongit his ingeþonc
leohtre and berhtre þonne se leoma sie
sunnan on sumera, þonne swegles gim,
hador heofontungol, hlutrost scineð.

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.

Yesterday in Oxford the sun was blazing down, sunnan on sumera at its very brightest, hottest, most all-embracing. Can the mind, sinking in so fearsome and fathomless a mire, really learn to be brighter even than that?

Monday, 29 June 2015

'Each man ought himself to know'

Some life advice from the late fourteenth century.

1. In a pistel þat Poul wrouȝt,
I fond hit writen, & seide riht þis:
Vche cristne creature knowen himself ouȝt
His oune vessel, and soþ hit is.
Nere help of him þat vs deore bouȝt,
We weoren bore to luytel blis;
Whon al þi gode dedes beþ þorw-souȝt,
Seche, and þou schalt fynden amis.
Eueri mon scholde iknowen his,
And þat is luitel, as I trowe;
To teche vs self, crist vs wis;
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

2. Knowe þi-self what þou ware,
Whon þou were of þi moder born,
Ho was þi moder þat þe bare,
And ho was þi fader þer-bi-foren;
Knowe hou þei beþ forþ fare;
So schaltou þeiȝ þou hed sworen.
Knowe þou come hider wiþ care;
Þou nost neuer ȝif þou byde til morn;
Hou lihtly þou maiȝt be forlorn,
But þou þi sinne schriue & schowe;
ffor lond or kiþ, catel or corn,
Vche mon oute him-self to knowe.

3. Knowe þi lyf; hit may not last,
But as a blast blouh out þi breth;
Tote, and bi a noþer mon tast;
Riht as a glentand glem hit geth.
What is al þat forþ is past?
Hit fareþ as a fuir of heth.
Þis worldes good awey wol wast,
For synnes seeknesse þi soule sleþ.
And þat is a ful delful deþ,
To saue þi soule and þou be slowe,
Wiþ þi Maystrie medel þi meþ,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

4. Ȝif þou þi-self knowe con,
Sit doun, and tac countures rounde,
Seþþe furst þou monnes wit bi-gon
Hou ofte sunne þe haþ ibounde.
And for vch a synne lei þou doun on,
Til þou þi synnes haue isouȝt vp sounde;
Counte þi goode dedes euerichon,
Abyd þer a while and stunte a stounde;
And ȝif þou fele þe siker and sounde,
Þonk þou þi god, as þou wel owe;
And ȝif þou art in sunne ibounde
Amende þe, and þi-self knowe.

5. Knowe what god haþ for þe do:
Made þe after his oune liknes;
Seþþe, he com from heuene also,
And diȝede for þe wiþ gret distres.
For þe he soffrede boþe pyne and wo;
Knowe þou him and alle his:
Who-so greueþ him is worþi to go
To helle-fuir, but he hit redres,
And he be demed bi rihtfulnes;
But his grace is so wyde isowe,
From his wraþþe I rede vs bles,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

6. Knowe þi-self þat þou schalt dye,
But what tyme, þou nost neuer whenne;
Wiþ a twynklyng of an eiȝe,
Eueri day þou hiȝest þe henne;
Þi fleschly foode þe wermes wol fye:
Vche cristen mon ouȝte þis to kenne.
Loke aboute and wel a-spye,
Þis world doþ bote bi-traye menne;
And beo war of þe fuir þat euer schal brenne,
And þenk þou regnest her but a þrowe;
Heuene-blisse þou schal haue þenne,
For vche mon ouȝte him self to knowe.

7. Knowe þi flesch, þat wol rote;
ffor certes, þou maiȝt not longe endure;
And nedes dye, hennes þou mote,
Þei þou haue kyngdam and empyre.
And sone þou schalt beo forgote;
So schal souereyn, so schal syre.
Hose leeueþ not þis, I trouwe he dote,
For eueri mok most in-to myre.
Preye we to god vr soules enspire,
Or we ben logged in erþe lowe,
Heuene to haue to vr huire;
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

8. Knowe þi kuynde creatoure,
Knowe what he for þe dide;
Knowe þis worldly honoure,
Hou sone þat hit is forþ islyde.
Ende of ioye is her doloure;
Strengþe stont vs in no stide,
But longyng & beoing in laboure;
Vr bost, vr brag is sone ouerbide.
Arthur and Ector þat we dredde,
Deth haþ leid hem wonderly lowe.
Amende þe, mon, euene forþ mide,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

9. Þi concience schal þe saue and deme
Wheþer þat þou beo ille or good;
Grope aboute, and tak good ȝeme,
Þer maiȝt þou wite, but þou beo wood,
Þer schalt þou þe same seone.
Aske merci wiþ mylde mood,
Amende þe, þou wot what I mene.
Vche creatur þat beres bon and blood,
Preye we to god þat dyed on rode,
Ar vre breþ beo out iblowe,
Þat cristes face mai ben vr foode,
For vche mon ouȝte him self to knowe.

This poem survives in two manuscripts, two important collections of Middle English verse: the Vernon manuscript and the Simeon manuscript. Here's an image of part of it in the latter (BL Add. MS 22283, f.129v):


A translation (N.B. the epistle quoted at the beginning is 1 Thessalonians 4):

1. In an epistle which Paul made,
I found it written, and it said just this:
'Each Christian creature ought to know
His own vessel' - and true it is.
If not for help from him who us dearly bought,
We were born to little bliss;
When your good deeds are looked all through,
Seek, and you shall find amiss.
Every man should know what is his,
And that is little, as I believe;
To teach ourselves, Christ us guide;
For each man ought himself to know.

2. Know yourself, what you were
When you were of your mother born,
Who was your mother who you bore,
And who your father was before;
Know how they have departed;
So shall you, though you've sworn you won't.
Know that you came here with sorrow;
You never know if you will stay till morrow.
How easily you may be lost,
Unless your sins you confess and show!
Despite land or lineage, chattels or corn,
Each man ought himself to know.

3. Know your life; it cannot last,
But as a blast blows out your breath.
Look, but another man will taste;
Like a glancing gleam it is gone.
What is all that forth has passed?
It fares like a fire on the heath.
This world's goods away will waste,
For sin's sickness your soul slays.
And that is a very doleful death,
To save your soul if you are slain.
Temper your strength with moderation;
For each man ought himself to know.

4. If you would learn to know yourself,
Sit down, and take some counters round:
Since first you possessed human sense,
Count how often sin has you bound,
And for each sin lay a counter down,
Until all your sins have been reckoned up.
Count your good deeds, one by one,
Stay there a while, and take your time.
And if you feel healthy and sound,
Thank your God, as you ought to do;
And if you are in sin bound,
Make amends, and know yourself.

5. Know what God has done for you:
He made you after his own likeness;
Then he came himself from heaven,
And died for you, in great distress.
For you he suffered both pain and woe;
Know him, and all that is his:
Whoever angers him deserves to go
To hell-fire, unless he make amends,
If he is judged by right justice.
But his grace is so widely sown,
I say it will protect us from his wrath;
For each man ought himself to know.

6. Know yourself, that you shall die,
But at what time, you never can know when;
With a twinkling of an eye,
Every day you are hastening from hence;
The worms will make food of your flesh.
Each Christian man ought to know this.
Look about and consider well:
This world does but men betray;
And beware of the fire that shall burn for ever,
And think that you reign here but a short while.
Heaven's bliss you shall have then,
For each man ought himself to know.

7. Know your flesh, which will decay;
For certainly, you cannot long endure;
And must needs die, and go from here,
Though you have kingdoms and empires.
And soon you shall be all forgotten -
So shall sovereign, so shall sire.
Who believes this not, he is a fool:
All muck goes back into the mire.
Pray we to God our souls to inspire,
Lest we be stuck on earth so low,
Heaven to have as our reward,
For each man ought himself to know.

8. Know your loving Creator,
Know what he did for you;
Know this worldly honour,
How quickly it slides away.
The end of joy is sorrow here;
Strength will stay us in no stead,
For all our longing and our labour,
Our pomp and power all pass by.
Arthur and Hector whom we feared,
Death has laid them wondrous low.
Make amends, man, and right now,
For each man ought himself to know.

9. Your conscience shall you save and judge
Whether you be evil or good;
Consider it well, and take good care,
Wherever you may look, unless you're mad,
There you will see.
Ask mercy with a mild spirit.
Amend yourself; you know my meaning.
Each creature who bears bone and blood,
Pray we to God who died on the rood,
Before our breath is all blown out,
That Christ's face may be our support,
For each man ought himself to know.

Although this poem is perhaps not Middle English verse at its most sophisticated, it has some things to recommend it. There are several neat phrases made memorable by alliteration: we are told that life is like a 'glancing gleam', consisting of 'longing and being in labour' - while 'all muck goes back into the mire' is a particularly strongly-worded version of 'you are dust, and to dust you shall return'! The poem has a distinctive form and subject-matter which it shares with a number of poems in the same two manuscripts - I've posted several examples before, including 'In a church where I did kneel', 'Think on yesterday' and 'In summer before the Ascension'. They're poems of counsel and advice, urging the reader to consider the brevity of life and the ubiquity of human failings, and suggesting possibilities for amendment.

I'm sure there are some modern readers who find this form of moralising off-putting, very medieval-in-the-bad-sense, but I'll admit that I find this poem strangely reassuring. Of course 'know yourself' is excellent counsel, at all times and in all places - more prevalent perhaps even than the English poet knew. It is so old-fashioned as to be utterly timeless, and if you think the medieval poet is a little prolix in making his point, he is at least more concise and memorable than some modern counsellors giving the same advice. (Can you believe there's a Wikihow for 'How to Know Thyself'? It should just suggest reading this poem instead...)

The strategy for learning to know yourself here is, of course, overtly Christian, advising you to think about your good and bad deeds, but its approach to life is refreshingly straightforward and generally applicable: be glad if things are good, amend what you have done amiss, and everything will be fine. You might not much like the idea of tallying up sins with 'counters round', but it does offer an optimistic take on the human possibility for improvement and the chances of forgiveness and a fresh start - more perhaps than we allow ourselves today. The poem's suggestion of round 'counters' as a way of gaining self-knowledge reminded me with amusement of this self-assessment tool for researchers, which is designed to show you all the things you're supposed to be and do in order to become a successful academic. Although it's intended to be helpful, and many people doubtless find it so, as a form of self-reflection it utterly defeats me - it just makes me want to cry. I don't necessarily doubt my ability to acquire any or all of the skills listed, but I despair at being able to prove that fact to someone else's satisfaction. Is everything one does in life to be evaluated solely as evidence of skills to be demonstrated to a potential employer (even, absurdly, 'self-reflection' itself)? That Wheel of Inhuman Perfection is of a piece with all the formal education I've ever had - as a child of the 1990s, education was nothing but mark-schemes, and 'don't learn that, it won't be on the exam', and 'make sure you use the exact keywords or you won't get the points'. I went along with all that, dutifully ticked all the boxes - and all I ever really learned (by accident) is that no success will ever be enough to earn you approval or happiness or peace of mind. One of the most insidious effects of my current job situation is that the more I worry about my career, the more difficult it becomes to remember that my career is not my self, and to try and believe there's more to the value of my life than can ever be put on my CV. A career-focused view of life, especially in academia, insists that everything you do must be constantly up for evaluation, by people who don't really value you (or anyone) at all; I've learned, and wish I had realised sooner, how much this daily erodes my own sense of what's important and what I'm allowed to value about myself. It actively works against true self-knowledge by teaching you that you are only worthwhile in as far as you meet someone else's impossible standards.

Once it might have been the job of educators to challenge that limited view of human life, to insist on exploring the consequences of the obvious truth that 'this world does but men betray' - to teach that rather than striving for money, success, or power, you might be happier if you try to know yourself and focus on what's really important. But that's not what schools and universities do any more. The goal of all my school's fussy box-ticking was not really to teach us anything, just to prepare us to get a job - but even with the best career in the world, still 'this world's goods away will waste'. Medieval schools might have been pretty tough, but at least they didn't teach children that the value of their life lay in how many exams they could pass. The reason this poem reads a bit like a list of cliches is that the ideas it promotes were ubiquitous in medieval literature, as a glance at just a few examples will demonstrate; medieval 'clerks' brought up on The Consolation of Philosophy and similar texts had such messages inculcated in them from their earliest schooldays. 'Know this worldly honour, how quickly it slides away...' By comparison with their modern equivalent, such doom-laden lessons seem (perhaps paradoxically) tremendously humane, generous, and wise. Sit down with your little counters, 'stay there a while and take your time', and learn to understand the true value of your actions - learn how to be a good person, not just a successful one. It encourages reflection, patience, and compassion towards yourself and others, and the insistent focus on the idea that 'you reign here but a short while' is a reminder to focus on what's important, to consider what really matters in the end - which is not, for most of us, going to be any great achievement or worldly success, but our relationships with others, and the good we manage to do in the little time we have. Primary school children in this country now have lessons in mindfulness, to help them cope with the stress of constant assessment; perhaps we should do the medieval thing, and teach them Boethius instead.

Know where you came from, what you really are, and where you are eventually going. What more do you need? This triad is more pithily expressed in the wonderful Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore?:

Child, if betidith that thou ssalt thriue and the,
Thench thou were ifostred vp thi moder kne.
Euer hab mund in thi hert of thos thinges thre:
Whan thou commist, what thou art and what ssal com of the.

Child, if it should happen that thou shalt thrive and thee [flourish]
Think how thou wert fostered at thy mother's knee.
Ever have mind in thy heart of these things three:
Whence thou comest, what thou art, and what shall become of thee.

'Whence, what, whither': the best advice you'll ever get.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

'Swa swa se dægsteorra gæð beforan ðære sunnan'

The Birth of John the Baptist (BL Additional 49598, f.92v)

Þænne wuldres þegn
ymb þreotyne, þeodnes dyrling,
Iohannes in geardagan wearð acenned,
tyn nihtum eac; we þa tiid healdað
on midne sumor mycles on æþelum.

Then after thirteen and ten nights [i.e. on 24th June]
the thegn of glory, the Prince's darling,
John, was born in days of old;
we keep that feast at Midsummer, with much honour.

- The Old English Menologium

On this Midsummer feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, here's an extract from Ælfric's homily for the day. It can be read in full here.

Ðreora manna gebyrdtide freolsað seo halige gelaðung: ðæs Hælendes, seðe is God and mann, and Iohannes his bydeles, and ðære eadigan Marian his moder. Oðra gecorenra manna, ðe ðurh martyrdom, oððe þurh oðre halige geearnunga, Godes rice geferdon, heora endenextan dæg, seðe hi æfter gefyllednysse ealra earfoðnyssa sigefæste to ðam ecan life acende, we wurðiað him to gebyrdtide; and ðone dæg, ðe hi to ðisum andweardan life acennede wæron, we lætað to gymeleaste, forðan ðe hi comon hider to earfoðnyssum, and costnungum, and mislicum fræcednyssum. Se dæg bið gemyndig Godes ðeowum ðe ða halgan, æfter gewunnenum sige, asende to ecere myrhðe fram eallum gedreccednyssum, and se is heora soðe acennednys; na woplic, swa swa seo ærre, ac blissigendlic to ðam ecum life.

Ac us is to wurðigenne mid micelre gecnyrdnysse Cristes gebyrdtide, ðurh ða us com alysednys. Iohannes is geendung ðære ealdan æ and anginn ðære niwan, swa swa se Hælend be him cwæð, "Seo ealde æ and witegan wæron oð Iohannes to-cyme." Siððan ongann godspel-bodung. Nu for his micclan halignysse is gewurðod his acennednys, swa swa se heah-engel behet his fæder mid ðisum wordum, "Manega blissiað on his gebyrdtide." Maria, Godes cynnestre, nis nanum oðrum gelic, forðan ðe heo is mæden and modor, and ðone abær ðe hi and ealle gesceafta gesceop: is heo forði wel wyrðe þæt hire acennednys arwurðlice gefreolsod sy...

He wæs asend toforan Drihtne, swa swa se dægsteorra gæð beforan ðære sunnan, swa swa bydel ætforan deman, swa swa seo Ealde Gecyðnys ætforan ðære Niwan; forðan ðe seo ealde æ wæs swilce sceadu, and seo Niwe Gecyðnys is soðfæstnys ðurh ðæs Hælendes gife.

Anes geares cild hi wæron, Crist and Iohannes. On ðisum dæge acende seo unwæstmbære moder ðone mæran witegan Iohannem, se is geherod mid þisum wordum, ðurh Cristes muð, "Betwux wifa bearnum ne aras nan mærra man ðonne is Iohannes se Fulluhtere." On middes wintres mæssedæge acende þæt halige mæden Maria þone Heofenlican Æðeling, se nis geteald to wifa bearnum, forðon ðe he is Godes Sunu on ðære Godcundnysse, and Godes and mædenes Bearn ðurh menniscnysse...

Nis butan getacnunge þæt ðæs bydeles acennednys on ðære tide wæs gefremod ðe se woruldlica dæg wanigende bið, and on Drihtnes gebyrdtide weaxende bið. Þas getacnunge onwreah se ylca Iohannes mid ðisum wordum, "Criste gedafenað þæt he weaxe, and me þæt ic wanigende beo." Iohannes wæs hraðor mannum cuð þurh his mærlican drohtnunga, þonne Crist wære, forðan ðe he ne æteowde his godcundan mihte, ærðam ðe he wæs ðritig geara on ðære menniscnysse. Þa wæs he geðuht ðam folce þæt he witega wære, and Iohannes Crist. Hwæt ða Crist geswutelode hine sylfne ðurh miccle tacna, and his hlisa weox geond ealne middangeard, þæt he soð God wæs, seðe wæs ærðan witega geðuht. Iohannes soðlice wæs wanigende on his hlisan, forðan ðe he wearð oncnawen witega, and bydel ðæs Heofonlican Æðelinges, seðe wæs lytle ær Crist geteald mid ungewissum wenan. Þas wanunge getacnað se wanigenda dæg his gebyrd-tide, and se ðeonda dæg ðæs Hælendes acennednysse gebícnað his ðeondan mihte æfter ðære menniscnysse.
'The holy church celebrates the birth-tide of three people: of the Saviour, who is God and man, and of John his herald, and of the blessed Mary his mother. Of other chosen people, who have gone to God's kingdom through martyrdom or other holy merits, we celebrate as their birth-tide their last day, which, after the fulfilment of all their labours, bore them victorious to eternal life; and the day on which they were born to this present life we let pass unheeded, because they came here to hardships and temptations and various dangers. The day is worthy of memory for God's servants which sends his saints, after victory won, from all afflictions to eternal joy, and that is their true birth - not tearful, as the first, but rejoicing in eternal life.

But the birth-tide of Christ is to be celebrated with great care, through which came our redemption. John is the ending of the old law and the beginning of the new; as the Saviour said of him, "The old law and the prophets were till the coming of John." Afterwards began the preaching of the gospel. Now, because of his great holiness, his birth is honoured, as the archangel promised his father with these words, "Many shall rejoice in his birth-tide." Mary, parent of God, is like to none other, for she is maiden and mother, and bore him who created her and all creation: therefore she is most worthy that her birth should be honourably celebrated...

He was sent before the Lord, as the day-star goes before the sun, as the beadle goes before the judge, as the Old Testament before the New; because the old law was like a shadow, and the New Testament is the truth itself, through the grace of the Saviour.

They were the children of one year, Christ and John. On this day the barren mother gave birth to the great prophet John, who is praised in these words from the mouth of Christ: 'Among the children of women there arose none greater than John the Baptist.' On midwinter's day the holy maiden Mary gave birth to the heavenly prince, who is not counted among the children of women, because he is God's Son in his divinity, and God and the Virgin's Son in his humanity...

It is not without meaning that the herald's birth at this season came to pass when the earthly day is waning, and the Lord's birth when it is waxing. This meaning John himself revealed with these words: "It is fitting for Christ that he should increase, and for me that I should decrease." John became known to people, through his famous actions, earlier than Christ was, because he did not reveal his divine power before he had lived thirty years in human nature. So it seemed to the people that he was a prophet, and that John was Christ. But then Christ made himself known through great signs, and his fame waxed throughout all the world, that he was true God, who had previously seemed a prophet. Truly John's fame was waning, because he was recognised as a prophet, and herald of the heavenly Prince, who a little while before was believed to be Christ by uncertain guesses. This waning is betokened by the waning day at the season of his birth, and the increasing day at the Saviour's birth signifies his increasing power according to his human nature.'


This follows the traditional understanding of the relationship between the date of the solstices and the births of Christ and his herald: as Bede (for instance) explains, just as Christ was conceived at the spring equinox and born at the winter solstice, so John was conceived at the autumn equinox and born at the summer solstice. They were, as Ælfric says, anes geares cild, 'the children of one year'. After Midsummer se woruldlica dæg wanigende bið, the earthly day is waning, and it goes on waning until the winter solstice brings Earendel and the birth of the sun.


The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, produced a little earlier in the tenth century than Ælfric's sermon, depicts the birth and naming of John the Baptist (BL Additional 49598, f.92v): above, Elizabeth with the baby; below, Zechariah writes 'His name is John'.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

In Wisdom's Court

Alfred the Great, from Wantage

I've recently begun a new Twitter project, called Old English Wisdom. The idea is to tweet proverbs, maxims, and other miniature bits of wisdom and advice from Old English poetry and prose, anything which falls under a very broad definition of 'wisdom'! Old English literature abounds in such pithy statements, ranging from wry proverbs about mead-drinking and money to practical advice about moderate behaviour, from a warrior's code of conduct to profound reflections on how one acquires wisdom and the benefits it can bring; so there's almost a limitless amount to tweet, and it seemed to me it might be an interesting way to combine the popular fascination with the Old English language (which never ceases to take me by surprise) with an opportunity to post about some texts which are not very well-known. (Who would read the OE 'Precepts' except in bite-size chunks!)

This has involved spending my free time re-acquainting myself with some Old English texts I haven't read in a while. It throws up surprises, not always directly useful for the project, but thought-provoking in other ways; when you go looking for wisdom, you find all kinds of things. This week, for instance, I've been re-reading some of the translations credited to Alfred the Great, who would be the patron saint of Anglo-Saxon wisdom, if it had such a thing. Among all his other achievements as king, Alfred arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English, many of which have interesting things to say about how wisdom is to be gained and used: they include (among other works) Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and Augustine’s Soliloquies. As Alfred's famous Preface to the Pastoral Care explains, he believed that learning in England had gone into serious decline in his own days, and that to restore it would be to repair the 'wealth and the wisdom' of the kingdom both together. 'Consider what punishments came upon us in this world when we neither loved wisdom in any way ourselves, nor passed it on to others,' he says; and his translation project explicitly seeks wisdom as a means of finding a way through such serious worldly troubles as Viking invasion. As a result of all this there's a good bit of myth-making about Alfred's wisdom, and by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period he was already regarded as an image of the wise king, that ever-potent symbol. His very name prepared him to be an expert in ræd ('counsel, advice'), and later in the medieval period he was spuriously credited as the omniscient author of a collection of proverbs, cited in texts like The Owl and the Nightingale as an impeccable authority, England's own Solomon. So I picked him as the face of this Twitter project, as imagined (above) by a statue in Wantage, his birthplace, which offers a very Victorian iteration of the Alfred myth:


So the Alfredian texts were a natural place to go in search of wisdom; and passages which are too long to tweet are probably going to end up on this blog! Here, for instance, is an extract from the Old English translation of Augustine's Soliloquies, which is one of several extended additions to the source (the text is from here, with my translation).
Geðenc nu hweðer awiht mani mann cynges ham sece þær ðær he ðonne on tune byð, oððe hys gemot, oððe hys fird, oððe hweðer ðe ðince þæt hi æalle on anne weig þeder cumen? Ic wene þeah ðæt hi cumen on swiðe manige wegas: sume cumað swiðe feorran and habbað swiðe længe weig and swiðe yfelne and swiðe earfoðferne; sume habbað swiðe langne and swiðe rihtne and swiðe godne; sume habbað swiðne scortne, and þeah wone and nearone and fuulne; sume habbað scordne and smeðne and rihtne, and þeah cumað æalle to anum hlaforde; sume æð, sume uneð, naðer ne hi þeder gelice eaðe cumað, ne hi þer gelice eaðe ne beoð. Sume beoð on maran are and on maran eðnesse þonne sume, sume on læssan, sume ful neah buton, buton þæt an þæt he lufað. Swa hit bið æac be þam wisdome. Ælc þara þe hys wilnað and þe hys geornful byt, he hym mæg cuman to and on hys hyrede wunian and be lybban, þeah hi hym sume near sian, sume fyer; swa-swa ælces cynges hama: beoð sume on bure, sume on healle, sume on odene, sume on carcerne; and lybbað þeah æalle be anes hlafordes are, swa-swa æalle men lybbað under anre sunnan and be hyre leohte geseoð þæt þæt hy geseoð. Sume swiðe scearpe and swiðe swotele lociað; sume unæaðe awiht geseoð; sume beoð stæreblind and nyttiað þeah þare sunnan. Ac swa-swa þeos gesewe sunne ures lichaman æagan onleoht, swa onliht se wisdom ures modes æagan, þæt ys, ure angyt.
Consider now, how many men seek the king's court when he is in town, or at his assembly, or with his army; and do you think that they all come there by the same road? I think, in fact, that they come by many different roads. Some come from afar, and have a very long and very bad and very difficult road. Some have a road which is very long and very direct and very good. Some have a very short road, which is nonetheless dark and narrow and dirty. Some have a short and smooth and direct road. Yet they all come to the same lord, some with ease, some without ease.

They do not come there with equal ease, nor are they equally at ease when they are there. Some are in great honour and in more comfort than others, some in less, some almost without any, except for the one whom he loves. So too it is with wisdom. Every one who desires it and eagerly asks for it may come to it and dwell in its household and live close to it, but some are nearer to it, some further away. So it is in every king's court: some are in the chamber, some in the hall, some on the threshing-floor, some in the jail-cell; yet they all live there by the favour of one lord, just as all people live under one sun and by its light see all that they see. Some see very sharply and clearly, some can only see anything with great difficulty; some are stark blind, yet still enjoy the sun. And just as the visible sun gives light to the eyes of our body, so wisdom gives light to the eyes of our mind, that is, our understanding.

The speaker here is 'Reason', addressing the Augustine persona, who is (perhaps) the Alfred persona too. The funny thing about Alfred later being mythologised as such a great sage is that if we can locate his voice anywhere in his translations it would be as the learner, not the teacher - he is no Solomon, but a humble, anxious searcher after wisdom, who is not at all sure he will find it. Here Reason offers a very apt metaphor to his royal pupil, and and this is an appropriate passage, of course, for a text sponsored by a king: the king in his court is implicitly, flatteringly, compared to the sun and to wisdom itself. His are (royal 'favour', but in a broad and positive sense) extends like the rays of the sun, throughout his household and his estate from private chamber to jail-cell and beyond. It's worth remembering that the maintenance of good roads was the kind of task a responsible medieval king might take an interest in - as Alfred himself did - and so perhaps all the many roads which lead to his court are also under his jurisdiction, under his are, as much as the people travelling on them. The king's roads are the king's responsibility, and they all lead to the same place.

This extended metaphor, lovely as it is, is perhaps a long roundabout way of expressing an idea we might convey with a simple proverb: 'all roads lead to Rome'. But although there are no proverbs in this passage, it draws on the traditional language of wisdom literature; it provides, for instance, three nice examples of the sum... sum... lists which frequently appear in Old English prose and poetry to illustrate the varying states and conditions of human beings, the many different ways they can live and die. I quoted two examples at the end of my last post, lists of the various gifts of human skill. The most famous instance is perhaps this passage in The Wanderer:

Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas.
Woriað þa winsalo, waldend licgað
dreame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,
wlonc bi wealle. Sume wig fornom,
ferede in forðwege, sumne fugel oþbær
ofer heanne holm, sumne se hara wulf
deaðe gedælde, sumne dreorighleor
in eorðscræfe eorl gehydde.

The wise hero must perceive how terrible it will be
when all this world's wealth lies waste,
as now in various places throughout this earth
walls stand blown by the wind,
covered with frost, the buildings snow-swept.
The halls decay, the ruler lies
deprived of joys, the troop all dead,
proud by the wall. Some were taken by war,
carried on their way, one the bird bore off
across the deep sea, one the grey wolf
shared with death, one the sad-faced man
buried in an earthy grave.

A list of all the ways people can die - this is the kind of thing which leads to wisdom literature being frequently cited as one of the aspects of medieval culture which modern audiences find especially challenging, or, worse, especially dull! I've heard this said many times, but I'm not sure it's actually true, and it was partly to test this assumption that I began my little Twitter experiment. The internet has fostered a boom in new kinds of wisdom literature, in the form of 'inspirational quotes'. These sayings walk a fine line between the profound and the banal, and as so often happened with medieval wisdom, they are often spuriously attributed to a famous name who can lend the words a bit of cachet (apparently this phenomenon has a name: 'Churchillian Drift'). It's easy to make fun of this, but it does make me wonder about the relationship between medieval wisdom and modern self-help, and ponder what it is about this genre that academics don't always 'get'. For instance, I recently attended a seminar about the Old English Menologium where a roomful of medievalists were genuinely at a loss to answer the question 'why on earth would anyone write or read a poem like this?'; yet I've found that on this blog, posts about the Menologium (and related poems, wisdom literature about the cycle of the year) regularly attract hundreds more readers than an average post. Almost all those readers, and most of the 700 people who've started following 'Old English Wisdom' in the past three weeks, are not academics or medievalists, nor even people with a literary or academic background. What is it they find so attractive about Anglo-Saxon wisdom poetry? What is the appeal of the obvious statement, the truism, when expressed in language which is both familiar and strange (whether that's because it's in Old English, or because it follows the language and rules of poetry)?

In some ways the answer is obvious. Wisdom of this sort is not theoretical, but eminently practical wisdom: it is meant to console you. The preface to the Old English translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (called in Old English froferboc, 'book of comfort') claims that Alfred translated it amid 'the various and manifold concerns with which he was often busied, both in mind and body'. Boethius' work was immensely popular in the Middle Ages, and it's not hard to understand the appeal of that kind of wisdom in unsettled times to a busy and anxious mind. Reading through these texts again, I find I feel their attraction now as I didn't at other seasons in my life. (Where Alfred had Vikings to trouble him, I have the job market - given the choice, I'd take Vikings every time!) Of course Boethius is much more profound than Twitter's plethora of 'inspirational quotes', but it's a continuum. People seek those, too, because they want or need inspiration, encouragement, guidance, support; however banal these popular sayings may seem, they represent a kind of search for wisdom, and academics disparage such things at their peril. There are many roads to wisdom, and some of them go by very circuitous routes; but þeah cumað æalle to anum hlaforde.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

'We wurðiað þæs Halgan Gastes tocyme': An Anglo-Saxon Sermon for Pentecost

We wurðiað þæs Halgan Gastes tocyme mid lofsangum seofon dagas, forðan ðe he onbryrt ure mod mid seofonfealdre gife, þæt is, mid wisdome and andgyte, mid geðeahte and strencðe, mid ingehyde and arfæstnysse, and he us gefylð mid Godes ege.

We honour the coming of the Holy Ghost with songs of praise for seven days, because he inspires our minds with sevenfold gifts: that is, with wisdom and understanding, with counsel and strength, with knowledge and devotion, and he fills us with awe of God.

This is an extract from a sermon for Pentecost by the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric, written at the end of the tenth century. The sermon, which can be read in full here, covers a lot of ground: Ælfric explains the Old Testament origins of Pentecost and the reason it falls fifty days after Easter; translates into English the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit and subsequent events from the Acts of the Apostles; recaps the story of Babel and the cause of the multiplicity of languages on earth; and finally interprets the symbolism of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and as tongues of flame. It's an ambitious work of teaching and translation, appropriate for the event it commemorates, at which, as he puts it:

eal se halga heap Cristes hyredes wæs sprecende mid eallum gereordum; and eac þæt wunderlicor wæs, ðaða heora an bodade mid anre spræce, ælcum wæs geðuht, ðe ða bodunge gehyrde, swilce he spræce mid his gereorde, wæron hi Ebreisce, oððe Grecisce, oððe Romanisce, oððe Egyptisce, oððe swa hwilcere ðeode swa hi wæron þe ða lare gehyrdon.
'all the holy company of Christ's followers were speaking in all languages, and, what was more wonderful, when one of them preached in one language, it seemed to each who heard the preaching as if he spoke in his own language, whether they were Jews, or Greeks, or Romans, or Egyptians, or whichever nation they were from who heard that teaching.'

Even Anglo-Saxon England.

This is the final section of the homily, which makes a nice companion to this homily for Candlemas - there Ælfric also talks about doves and kindling, but for a different purpose.

Se Halga Gast waes æteowod ofer ða apostolas on fyres hiwe, and ofer Criste, on his fulluhte, on ante culfran anlicnysse. Hwi ofer Criste on culfran hiwe? Hwi ofer Cristes hirede on fyres gelicnysse? On bocum is gerædd be ðam fugelcynne þæt his gecynd is swiðe bilewite, and unscæððig, and gesibsum. Se Hælend is ealles mancynnes dema, ac he ne com na to demenne mancynn, swa swa he sylf cwæð, ac to gehælenne. Gif he ða wolde deman mancynn, ðaða he ærest to middangearde com, hwa wurde þonne gehealden? Ac he nolde mid his to-cyme ða synfullan fordeman, ac wolde to his rice gegaderian. Ærest he wolde us mid liðnysse styran, þæt he siððan mihte on his dome us gehealdan. Forði wæs se Halga Gast on culfran anlicnysse gesewen bufan Criste, forðan ðe he wæs drohtnigende on ðisre worulde mid bilewitnysse, and unscæððignysse, and gesibsumnysse. He ne hrymde, ne he biterwyrde næs, ne he sace ne astyrede, ac forbær manna yfelnysse þurh his liðnysse. Ac se ðe on ðam ærran tocyme liðegode, þam synfullum to gecyrrednysse, se demð stiðne dom þam reccleasum æt þam æfteran tocyme.

Se Halga Gast wæs gesewen on fyrenum tungum bufon ðam apostolon, forðan ðe he dyde þæt hi wæron byrnende on Godes willan, and bodigende ymbe Godes rice. Fyrene tungan hi hæfdon, ðaða hi mid lufe Godes mærða bodedon, þæt ðæra hæðenra manna heortan, ðe cealde wæron þurh geleaflæste and flæsclice gewilnunga, mihton beon ontende to ðam heofenlicum bebodum. Gif se Halga Gast ne lærð þæs mannes mod wiðinnan, on idel beoð þæs bydeles word wiðutan geclypode. Fyres gecynd is þæt hit fornimð swa hwæt swa him gehende bið: swa sceal se lareow don, seðe bið mid ðam Halgan Gaste onbryrd, ærest on him sylfum ælcne leahter adwæscan, and siððan on his underðeoddum.

On culfran anlicnysse and on fyres hiwe wæs Godes Gast æteowod; forðan ðe he deð þæt ða beoð bilewite on unscæððignysse, and byrnende on Godes willan, þe he mid his gife gefylð. Ne bið seo bilewitnys Gode gecweme butan snoternysse, ne seo snoternys butan bilewitnysse; swa swa gecweden is be ðam eadigan Iob, þæt he wæs bilewite and rihtwis. Hwæt bið rihtwisnys butan bilewitnysse? Oððe hwæt bið bilewitnys butan rihtwisnysse? Ac se Halga Gast, ðe tæhð rihtwisnysse and bilewitnysse, sceolde beon æteowod ægðer ge on fyre ge on culfran, forðan ðe he deð þæra manna heortan ðe he onliht mid his gife, þæt hi beoð liðe þurh unscæððignysse, and onælede ðurh lufe and snoternysse. God is, swa swa Paulus cwæð, fornymende fyr. He is unasecgendlic fyr, and ungesewenlic. Be ðam fyre cwæð se Hælend, "Ic com to ði þæt ic wolde sendan fyr on eorðan, and ic wylle þæt hit byrne." He sende ðone Halgan Gast to eorðan, and he mid his blæde onælde eorðlicra manna heortan. Þonne byrnð seo eorðe, þonne ðæs eorðlican mannes heorte bið ontend to Godes lufe, seoðe ær wæs ceald þurh flæsclice lustas.

Nis na se Halga Gast wunigende on his gecynde, swa swa he gesewen wæs, forðan ðe he is ungesewenlic; ac for ðære getacnunge, swa we ær cwædon, he wæs æteowod on culfran, and on fyre. He is gehaten on Greciscum gereorde, Paraclitus, þæt is, Frofor-gast, forði ðe he frefrað þa dreorian, þe heora synna behreowsiað, and sylð him forgyfenysse hiht, and heora unrotan mod geliðegað. He forgyfð synna, and he is se weg to forgyfenysse ealra synna. He sylð his gife ðam ðe he wile. Sumum men he forgifð wisdom and spræce, sumum god ingehyd, sumum micelne geleafan, sumum mihte to gehælenne untruman, sumum witegunge, sumum toscead godra gasta and yfelra; sumum he forgifð mislice gereord, sumum gereccednysse mislicra spræca. Ealle ðas ðing deð se Halga Gast, todælende æghwilcum be ðam ðe him gewyrð; forðam ðe he is Ælmihtig Wyrhta, and swa hraðe swa he þæs mannes mod onliht, he hit awent fram yfele to gode.

'The Holy Ghost appeared over the apostles in the form of fire, and over Christ at his baptism it appeared in the likeness of a dove. Why did it appear over Christ in the form of a dove? Why over Christ’s followers in the likeness of fire? We read in books about that species of bird that its nature is very meek, and innocent, and peaceful. The Saviour is the Judge of all mankind, but he did not come to judge mankind, as he said himself, but to save. If he had chosen to judge mankind then, when he first came to earth, who would have been saved? But he did not want to condemn the sinful by his coming, but wanted to gather them into his kingdom. He wanted to guide us first with gentleness, so that he might afterwards save us at his judgement. This is why the Holy Ghost was seen above Christ in the likeness of a dove, because he was dwelling in this world in meekness, and innocence, and peacefulness. He did not cry out, nor was he inclined to bitterness, nor did he stir up strife, but bore the wickedness of men in his gentleness. But he who at his first coming was gentle, so that the sinful might be converted, will give a stern judgement at his second coming to those who do not heed.

The Holy Ghost was seen as fiery tongues above the apostles, because he caused them to be burning with God’s will and preaching about God's kingdom. Fiery tongues they had when with love they preached the greatness of God, that the hearts of heathen men, which were cold through faithlessness and bodily desires, might be kindled to the heavenly commands. If the Holy Ghost does not teach a man's mind from within, in vain will be the words of the preacher proclaimed without. It is the nature of fire to consume whatever is near to it, and so ought the teacher to do who is inspired by the Holy Ghost: first to extinguish every sin in himself, and afterwards in those under his care.

In the likeness of a dove and in the form of fire God’s Spirit was manifested, for he causes those whom he fills with his grace to be meek in innocence and burning with the will of God. Meekness is not pleasing to God without wisdom, nor wisdom without meekness; as it is said of the blessed Job, 'he was meek and righteous'. What is righteousness without meekness? And what is meekness without righteousness? But the Holy Ghost, who teaches righteousness and meekness, should be manifested both as fire and as a dove, because he causes the hearts of those men whom he enlightens with his grace to be blameless through innocence, and kindled by love and wisdom. As St Paul said, 'God is a consuming fire'. He is a fire unspeakable and invisible. Of that fire, the Saviour said 'I come because I wish to send fire on earth, and I want it to burn.' He sent the Holy Ghost on earth, and he by his inspiration kindled the hearts of earthly men. The earth burns when the heart of an earthly man is kindled to the love of God, which before was cold because of fleshly lusts.

The Holy Ghost does not exist in his nature in the form in which he was seen, because he is invisible; but for the sake of the symbol, as we have described, he appeared as a dove and as fire. In the Greek language he is called Paraclitus, that is, Comforting Spirit [Frofor-gast], because he comforts the sorrowful who repent of their sins, and gives them hope of forgiveness, and lightens their troubled minds. He forgives sins, and he is the way to forgiveness of all sins. He gives his gifts to whomever he will. To some men he gives wisdom and eloquence, to some good knowledge, to some great faith, to some the power to heal the sick, to some the power of prophecy, to some the power to distinguish between good and evil spirits; to some he gives various languages, to some interpretation of various sayings. The Holy Ghost does all these things, distributing to everyone as seems good to him; for he is the Almighty Maker, and as soon as he enlightens the mind of a man, he turns it from evil to good.'

The dove and the flame

The rest of the sermon can be read here. The passage on the gifts given to different individuals by the Holy Spirit, which is based on 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, might be compared to a section in the Old English poem Christ II, ll.664-683:

Sumum wordlaþe wise sendeð
on his modes gemynd þurh his muþes gæst,
æðele ondgiet. Se mæg eal fela
singan ond secgan þam bið snyttru cræft
bifolen on ferðe. Sum mæg fingrum wel
hlude fore hæleþum hearpan stirgan,
gleobeam gretan. Sum mæg godcunde
reccan ryhte æ. Sum mæg ryne tungla
secgan, side gesceaft. Sum mæg searolice
wordcwide writan. Sumum wiges sped
giefeð æt guþe, þonne gargetrum
ofer scildhreadan sceotend sendað,
flacor flangeweorc. Sum mæg fromlice
ofer sealtne sæ sundwudu drifan,
hreran holmþræce. Sum mæg heanne beam
stælgne gestigan. Sum mæg styled sweord,
wæpen gewyrcan. Sum con wonga bigong,
wegas widgielle. Swa se waldend us,
godbearn on grundum, his giefe bryttað.

To one he sends wise speech
into his mind’s thoughts through the breath of his mouth,
fine perception. One whose spirit is given
the power of wisdom can sing and speak
of many things. One can play the harp well
with his hands loudly among men,
strike the instrument of joy. One can tell
of the true divine law. One can speak of the course of the stars,
the vast creation. One can skilfully
write with words. To one is granted success in battle,
when archers send quivering arrows flying
over the shield-walls. One can boldly
drive the ship over the salt sea,
stir the thrashing ocean. One can climb
the tall upright tree. One can wield a weapon,
the hardened sword. One knows the expanse of earth’s plains,
far-flung ways. Thus the Ruler,
God's Son on earth, gives to us his gifts.

This is a mixture of the Biblical and the specifically Anglo-Saxon - climbing trees and sailing ships not being among the gifts listed in Corinthians! There's also a whole Old English poem on this theme known as 'The Gifts of Men', sadly too long to translate here, which adds to this list such varied skills as architecture, swimming, metal-working, looking after horses, tasting wine (!), hunting and hawking, and gymnastics. Anglo-Saxon poetry loves to praise craft and skill, the technical ability and power of thought which goes into making beautiful and useful things, and these poetic lists of 'gifts' paint an appealing picture of a society in which everyone's contribution, from the greatest to the least, is unique and valuable, however mundane it might seem. In the king's hall, in a smith's forge, in a monk's cloister, 'there are many gifts, but the same Spirit'.