Tuesday, 8 July 2014

St Wihtburh and the Miracle on Holkham Beach

Wihtburh (Fritton, Norfolk)

Today I'd like to introduce you to a miracle performed by St Wihtburh, an Anglo-Saxon saint who was celebrated (in the few places where she was celebrated) on 8 July. Wihtburh lived in East Anglia in the first half of the eighth century, and according to legend she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and youngest sister of St Æthelthryth (Etheldreda) of Ely - although this may be only legend, since Wihtburh is not mentioned in Bede's otherwise well-informed account of Etheldreda and her family. Wihtburh's claim to sanctity was that she founded a monastery at Dereham in Norfolk, with the miraculous aid of deer who fed her workmen with milk as the monastery was being built - hence the deer in the stained-glass window above. Tradition said that she died on 17 March 743 (though this date is too late, if she really was Etheldreda's sister), and her body was later removed to Ely, where she was commemorated along with her saintly sisters. By 'removed', it would be more accurate to say 'stolen'; in fact that's what today's feast commemorates, because on 8 July 974 Abbot Byrhtnoth of Ely and a group of his monks purloined the relics of Wihtburh from Dereham despite fierce resistance from the townspeople, and spirited them away to Ely.

(This is a perfect example of what I was saying yesterday about translation feasts being hard to justify! But such pious thefts are a literary trope in translation narratives, and what this one probably tells us is that Abbot Byrhtnoth, who had led the refoundation of Ely as a Benedictine monastery, was gathering saints and relics for his community; and that he had decided to focus its interests on the saints linked to St Etheldreda, who included, besides Wihtburh, Etheldreda's sister Seaxburh, niece Eormenhild, great-niece Wærburh, and half-sisters Æthelburh and Sæthryth. The abbot's theft still seems to be rankling with whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry for Wihtburh, though; old grudges die hard in Norfolk...)

Anyway, the miracle-story I want to post today relates to Wihtburh's childhood, and is supposed to have taken place at Holkham, on the northern coast of Norfolk. It's told in a Vita S. Wihtburge composed at Ely in the early twelfth century, which is edited and translated by Rosalind Love in The Hagiography of the Female Saints of Ely (Oxford, 2004), pp.54-93 (this extract at pp.87-91):

[Wihtburh] was sent with her nurse to be brought up by the seaside, in a village on her father’s lands, called Holkham... While she was dwelling in that hamlet with her nurse and tutors, one day, as children are wont to do, she went to play with her friends on the dry parts of the sand. Although it is usual for boisterous games to be encouraged, she stood out from the crowd in her blessed innocence, was sweeter and gentler than the others, and joyfully and exultantly urged her companions to be nicer in their playing, and with a gentle manner summoning them altogether as they shouted one to another, she began to address them with sweetly coaxing voice, speaking, so I believe, in the spirit of God: ‘Let us go, my dear friends, to the nearby shore, to gather up the smaller pebbles which together with the sand are tossed out of the sea into high piles by the regular beating to and fro of the waves, because it may be that they assemble themselves together and gather themselves into a heap ready for building-work, just as if a church is to be constructed there.' When they heard this they quickly rushed up, happy and ready, eagerly they presented themselves all set for fetching and carrying. And when one by one they threw down in the middle all the pieces which they had each brought separately, however big it was, the whole heap, just as is the nature of pebbles, scattered all over the place. But that small quantity which the only virgin of the Lord, Wihtburh, brought, when she produced it, began to swell and multiply and at the same time to be reduced to one solid mass. At this her companions were turned to shock and amazement, and nodding to one another they haughtily turned to spite and envy against her, and by repeatedly kicking the mass with their heels tried to turn it back, and attempted to scatter into its former constituent parts the pile that had heaped into one and was now solidified. When she saw this she reached out her hand, made the sign of the cross, and called upon the Lord's name in the words of her own language, and by the power of the holy cross imprinted upon it, the heaped-up pile, as it had already begun to, stayed forever as if rooted and grounded. St Wihtburh did this every time her little companions gathered to play, as a true presage of future things...

[Every time this happened] they left those hardened masses there, but returning the next day found them shifted far away on to the top of a hill, in a very high place, well away from the stormy waves, placed a distance from the watery plain which is regularly made treacherous by the coming and going of the sea-tide, and this seems to offer a safe journey without fear to those who come near.

Her nurse prophesies that a church will one day be built on this miraculously-formed mound of pebbles, and her words came to pass: later a church was built there "which is called in English Withburgsstowe, where those stones are kept as a testimony to the event." The church at Holkham was (and still is) dedicated to St Wihtburh, the only church in England to bear that dedication.

Maybe it's just because I grew up by the seaside (though not in Norfolk), but I find this a particularly appealing miracle - if nothing else, a childhood miracle story in which the saint is shown actually playing like a child is an unusual and rather sweet thing to see! The whole situation is a charmingly ordinary one: a little girl on the beach with her nurse, all the children playing with the sand and pebbles (with buckets and spades, you might imagine), young Wihtburh trying to get them to play nicely (bossy little thing! but I sympathise) - and then her miracle is not much more than a giant sandcastle which turns into the site of a church! Plus, Holkham Beach is a distinctive and memorable landscape, just the kind of place which deserves a miracle-story of its own - have a look at it on Google Images. Interestingly, the church at Holkham stands on what is probably a man-made earthwork - a noticeable feature in a landscape of flat beaches - so this story about Wihtburh's miraculous mound-building was perhaps meant to explain that feature of the local environment. I wonder similarly about the miraculous 'deer' of Dereham, whether the story might have been an extrapolation from the place-name - it would have to be a late one, since in Old English deor refers to any kind of wild animal, but I think it might just about have been possible in the twelfth century, when the story is first recorded. There are similarities between Withburh's legend and that of St Mildred of Thanet, which also features deer and an aetiological explanation for a local earthwork; the two royal saints were related (somehow; I've lost track of the genealogy!) and there may have been some borrowing of motifs in one direction or the other. It was excellent work on the part of the anonymous Ely hagiographer to give Wihtburh a miracle-story which fits so well with the local landscape and with the role in which he has cast the saint - Etheldreda's baby sister.

(I'm also inclined to enjoy this story because I've recently been re-reading Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain, in which it happens that the young heroine - named Etheldred - puts heart and soul into getting a church built, and thus unconsciously imitates the childhood endeavours of her namesake saint's sister. That's the kind of coincidence which amuses me...)

In later centuries the site of Wihtburh's church was to become famous for a much grander pile of stones: the palatial Holkham Hall. But the church, retaining its unique dedication though much rebuilt, still stands in the grounds of the estate, and you can read about it here.

Wihtburh (second from left on the top row) and her sisters in fifteenth-century English alabaster,
on display in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Translation of St Thomas Becket: 'As storys wryght and specyfy'

The murder of Thomas Becket, BL Stowe 12, f.27v

7 July is one of the two feasts of St Thomas Becket which were celebrated in medieval England, commemorating the date in 1220 when his relics were translated to a splendid tomb behind the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral. This seems as good a reason as any to look at another of the medieval English carols celebrating St Thomas, of which I've previously posted five (!):

'Holy Thomas of heoueriche' and 'Clangat tuba'

'Listeneth, lordings, both great and small, I shall you tell a wonder tale'
 
'Saint Thomas honour we, through whose blood Holy Church is made free'

'I pray you, sirs, all in fere, worship St Thomas, this holy martyr'

And here's a sixth:

Pastor cesus in gregys medio
Pacem emit cruorys precio.

As storys wryght and specyfy,
Sent Thomas, thorow Goddes sond,
Beyng a byschop of Canturbery,
Was martyrd for the ryght of Englond.

Hys moder be blyssyd that hym bar,
And also hys fader that hym begatt,
For war we wel kep fro sorow and care
Thorow the deth of the prelat.

Thys holy mane of God was accept,
For whatsoever that he ded prayd,
Vs frome the daunger conseruyd and kepte.
Of the ransom we xuld haue payd.

To and fyfty poyntes onresonabyll,
Consentyd of byschoppes many on,
Thou wast no[th]yng thereto agreabyll,
Therfor thou sufferyd thi passyon.

Of knytes cruell and also wykyd
Thou sufferyd thi deth with mylde mod;
Wherefor the Chyrch is gloryfyyd
In the schedy[n]g of this blod.

To Cryst therefor lat vs prey,
That for vs deyyd on the rood,
Conserue vs al both nyght and day,
Thorow the schedying of Thomas blood.

This text is from Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), p. 61. The version printed by Wright has an additional English refrain:

Make we joy both more and lesse,
On the dey of Sent Thomas.

The song survives in two manuscripts, Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. e.1 (SC 29734) and British Library Additional MS. 25478. According to Greene, in the Bodleian manuscript this carol is 'defaced by a single stroke through each line' - the result of Henry VIII's 1538 decree that St Thomas should be "rased and put out of all the books", his shrine at Canterbury suppressed and all images of the martyr destroyed. Fortunately, this attempt to obliterate the memory of perhaps the most popular English saint of the Middle Ages did not succeed in robbing us of a huge number of images of St Thomas, or of these fascinating carols.

Here's a translation of the carol; the Latin text of its refrain - 'Pastor cesus in gregis medio, pacem emit cruoris precio' - is the antiphon used at First Vespers of the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas (December 29), and means 'The shepherd, slain in the midst of his flock, purchases peace at the cost of blood'. For more on the liturgies of St Thomas, see Kay Brainerd Slocum, Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket (Toronto, 2004), where the antiphon 'Pastor cesus' can be found at p.169.

Pastor cesus in gregis medio
Pacem emit cruoris precio.

As histories write and plainly say,
Saint Thomas, thorough God's command,
Who was bishop of Canterbury,
Was martyred for the rights of England.

Blessed be his mother who him bore,
And also his father who him begat!
Protected we were from sorrow and care
Through the death of the prelate.

This holy man was heard by God,
Whatever it was for which he prayed:
From that harm he us preserved and kept
Of the ransom we would have paid.

Two and fifty points unreasonable,
Agreed by bishops many a one,
You would not in any way consent to them;
For that you suffered your passion.

At the hands of knights cruel and wicked,
You suffered your death in humble manner,
And for that the Church is glorified
In the shedding of your blood.

To Christ therefore let us pray,
Who for us died on the Rood,
Preserve us all both night and day,
Through the shedding of Thomas' blood.

The 'fifty-two points' were the list of legislative points to which St Thomas refused to assent because they gave the king too much power over the church. They are regularly mentioned in the carols about the saint, and Richard Greene notes that these 'points' became a subject of contention again at the time of the Reformation:

A curious survival of the tradition of fifty-two points as late as 1532 is found in the petition to Cromwell of William Umpton, one of the grooms of the King's Hall, who had been a prisoner in the Tower for fourteen months, 'loaded with irons'. According to poor Umpton, 'a pardoner of St. Thomas' hospital at Woodstock said that St. Thomas of Canterbury died for 52 points concerning the commonwealth; "which 52 your said orator denied, one excepted for the clergy, and that the said 52 points were a dance called Robin Hood [apparently equivalent to frivolous nonsense]." Then the pardoner asked him if he would compare Robin Hood with St. Thomas before my lord of Lincoln; on which he fortuned to ask the same pardoner why St. Thomas was a saint rather than Robin Hood? For this he was accused of heresy...' (James Gairdner, ed., Letters and Papers... of the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 1880, v. 551). Umpton was ahead of his time, and his petition was fruitless.
Greene, The Early English Carols, p. 370.


This is a depiction of the translation of Thomas Becket in a fourteenth-century Breviary, BL Stowe 12, f. 270 (spot the words 'Pastor cesus' in the right-hand column!). Note the empty space in the rubric beside the initial, where Thomas' name has been removed, so that it now reads 'De translatione sancti... martyr'. The site of Thomas' tomb in Canterbury Cathedral is also now an empty space, its position marked by a candle:


This is the spot behind the high altar which was so carefully selected for Thomas' tomb in 1220 - this part of the cathedral was rebuilt around it, confirming Thomas' place as Canterbury's new foremost saint. It was this spot which was the destination of many thousands of medieval travellers, from Chaucer's pilgrims to (perhaps my favourite of Canterbury's medieval visitors) the Icelander Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, who presented the tusk of a narwahl at Thomas' shrine to thank the saint for a good catch. (Part of me really hopes they still have a narwahl tusk in a cupboard somewhere at Canterbury...)

Given how fiercely Thomas' cult was targeted at the Reformation, we're fortunate that so many tokens of his medieval popularity survive - from the carols to the various images of him I posted here (and many, many more). But the absences are in some ways still more eloquent. This, for instance, is what remains of a roof boss in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral, which depicted the murder of Becket:


A nearby reconstruction shows how it might have looked (based on this, I think):


St Thomas was not the only one to suffer from this particular purge; nearby roof-boss depictions of the murder of St Ælfheah by Vikings and St Dunstan's nose-nipping encounter with the devil were similarly destroyed, making it a clean sweep of Canterbury's best saints.


I find these absences, these scars, moving wherever I encounter them, and a day like today makes me wonder why. Partly it's because they show so vividly how we are cut off from the medieval world in which I (mentally!) spend so much of my time. It can be difficult to explain my interest in medieval saints, and although I usually don't feel the need to defend it - if you didn't like it, you really wouldn't be reading my blog! - I sometimes reflect on the purpose and value of blogging about them for the public. Being interested in medieval saints is completely normal in academia, but it looks very odd outside that context - I sometimes get the impression that people think I'm a religious fanatic for blogging about saints and their feasts, and it's rather wearing to have to explain that you can take something seriously, and think it's important, without necessarily believing it to be true (however you want to interpret 'true').

Translation feasts like today's are particularly tricky to explain to a modern audience. It's easy to be cynical about their original motivation, since the practical benefits are usually so obvious as to make the whole idea seem like nothing more than a money-grab: building a bigger or more prominent tomb to attract and accommodate pilgrims, providing a saint with an extra feast to celebrate (often at a more convenient time of year for travel or liturgical commemoration - as clearly illustrated in the case of Becket, whose December feast, awkwardly close to Christmas, was supplemented by a summer translation one), claiming a saint as belonging to one church rather than a rival, and so on. Some medievalists get very sniffy about the pragmatism of it all, their high-minded idealism clearly offended by the idea of churches trying to make money off their saints. There's a lingering Puritanism in some circles (even within academia, but certainly outside it) which can't quite allow that medieval cults of saints were ever anything but a big con - that the saints of the Middle Ages were mostly a bunch of obscure people who were praised far beyond their merits, credited with patently invented miracles, and lauded in tiresome hagiography, with the aim of extracting money from gullible pilgrims. Some of this is not entirely without foundation, but I tend to feel it's an unhelpful way of discussing this historical situation; gleefully dissecting pious frauds of centuries ago is just not a very interesting way of approaching the past. It's marginally more helpful than some other favourite modern strategies for engaging with medieval saints - laughing at their funny names, for instance, my particular bugbear when it comes to the Anglo-Saxons - but not much. To commemorate these saints' feasts today, and to blog about them, without a religious motive, might seem foolish or naive; why should we mark such dates, if they're just artificial creations? Well, it's partly because an awareness of the liturgical calendar is a simple necessity for understanding many medieval texts; to blog through the year helps me in thinking about my work, and many people really seem to like it. But to me it's also an attempt to take the medieval past seriously on its own terms. At the risk of seeming completely humourless, I'm not a fan of the Horrible Histories-type approach to medieval saints (which was how I was taught about Thomas Becket in school, gullible pilgrims and all); I can't bring myself to laugh at 'funny names' which are stigmatised because a violent conquest made them unfashionable, and I think it's important to remember that however silly a miracle-story may seem to us, it often has behind it a tale of real need or suffering in an age where saints might be a desperate person's only hope. What's more, in many cases (as with St Dunstan and the devil) the absurdities of the legends are meant to be laughed with, not at, if we could only allow ourselves to believe that medieval authors and audiences were capable of understanding fun and irony rather than being merely credulous fools. It's important to me in blogging (and even more so on Twitter, which is full of this stuff) not to be getting laughs out of anything which really mattered to real people, even if those people had unfamiliar names and died hundreds of years ago. It's that attempt to take the past seriously which makes me look like a religious fanatic, I fear!

But if we take translation feasts as an example, trying to understand rather than to condemn or mock, they can tell us fascinating things about the communities who organised them. They can help us trace, for instance, which parts of a community's history were most important to its identity at any point in time, or how a community defined itself against other nearby houses - the translation of Thomas Becket marked the moment when he became Canterbury's most famous saint (as he remains today), surpassing the Anglo-Saxon archbishop-saints, who were still venerated but no longer as culturally useful as they had been for the community in the period immediately following the Norman Conquest (on which see this post on Dunstan and this on Ælfheah). A translation tells us not all that much about the saint whose physical body is its focus, but a great deal about what a saint's memory meant to the people who venerated him or her. What is really commemorated today, then, is not just Thomas Becket but his importance to Canterbury and to the wider world: the fame which brought pilgrims to his shrine, the political charge which made him important enough for his name to be scratched out and his carols cancelled in the sixteenth century, and, yes, the income which built Canterbury Cathedral, a treasure-house of medieval art which still draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year. All this deserves to be remembered - and even blogged about.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

'Se lengsta dæg': The Anglo-Saxon Solstice

The sun on Midsummer Eve
On xii kalendas Iulius byð sunstede, þæt ys on Lyden solstitium and on Englisc midsumor.
Today is the summer solstice, for which the Old English name, provided in the quotation above by Byrhtferth, was sunstede - stede meaning something like 'fixed place, point of standing still' (today might have been called the 'sunstead', if we had held on to this word). Since this year I've been blogging on and off about Anglo-Saxon seasons, from autumn to Advent to spring, I thought today I'd post two Old English descriptions of the summer solstice.

The first comes from the Menologium, a poem composed probably in the second half of the tenth century. The Menologium catalogues the course of the year and the saints' feasts which occur in each month, but it's much more than just a functional list; it combines useful knowledge and Christian learning with the traditional images and language of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I translated part of the section about May, full of flowering meadows and noisy birds, in this post. The section quoted below (ll.106-119) describes the month of June - ærra Liða is the Old English name - as far as June 24th, the feast of John the Baptist and the traditional date of Midsummer Day. It follows on from the section on May - naturally! - and so begins by dating the first of June as the sixth day after the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, May 26th.

Þænne monað bringð
ymb twa and feower tiida lange
ærra Liða us to tune,
Iunius on geard, on þam gim astihð
on heofenas up hyhst on geare,
tungla torhtust, and of tille agrynt,
to sete sigeð. Wyle syððan leng
grund behealdan and gangan lator
ofer foldan wang fægerust leohta,
woruldgesceafta. 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 two and four long days the month brings ærra Liða to town for us, June into the dwellings, in which the jewel climbs up highest in the year into the heavens, the brightest of stars, and descends from its place, sinking to its setting. It likes then to gaze longer upon the earth, the fairest of lights to move more slowly across the fields of the world, the created globe. Then after thirteen and ten nights [i.e. 24th June] the thegn of glory, the Prince's darling, John, was born in days of old; we keep that feast at Midsummer, with great honour.

This is just beautiful. We don't get a word for the solstice here but that's clearly what's being described: the sun climbs to its highest point in the year (hyhst on geare) and from that station (till) sinks again to its setting. gim, 'gem, jewel' is a common poetic name for the sun in Old English - in other poems it is called gimma gladost 'loveliest of jewels', heofenes gim 'the jewel of the heavens', wuldorgim 'glory-jewel'. Here the sun is personified, if I'm reading it correctly; I think the verb wyle must imply desire on the part of the sun, who wants, chooses or likes 'to gaze longer upon the earth' (wyle... leng grund behealdan). It's almost as if the days are longer at the solstice because the sun is lingering above the earth, unwilling to depart, lovingly beholding the world and wanting to travel more slowly across the beautiful summer fields (gangan lator ofer foldan wang).

The Sun in an eleventh-century English manuscript (BL Arundel 60, f.12v)

A less poetic but no less interesting description of the solstice is provided by the tenth-century homilist Ælfric in his De Temporibus Anni, which you can read in translation online here. I'll only quote the bit which is relevant for today, but do go and read the whole thing: it's not very long, and it's fascinating to see how he describes the seasons of the year and the reckoning of time, the nature of the sun, moon and stars, and the operation of the winds and the weather. This text may be intended as a brief and accessible (and vernacular) introduction to the principles of Anglo-Saxon science and calendar-reckoning, based largely on Bede. Of the solstice Ælfric says:
Feower tida sind getealde on anum geare, þæt sind Ver, Estas, Autumnus, Hiemps. Uer is lenctentid, seo hæfð emnihte; Estas is sumor, se hæfð sunstede; Autumnus is hærfest, se hæfð oðre emnihte; Hiemps is winter, se hæfð oðerne sunstede. On ðisum feower tidum yrnð seo sunne geond mislice dælas bufon ðisum ymbhwyrfte 7 þas eorðan getemprað. Soðlice þurh Godes foresceawunge þæt heo symle on anre stowe ne wunige, 7 mid hire hætan middaneardlice wæstmas forbærne; ac heo gæð geond stowa, 7 temprað þa eorðlican wæstmas ægðer ge on wæstme ge on ripunge.

þonne se dæg langað þonne gæð seo sunne norðweard oð þæt heo becymð to ðam tacne þe is gehaten cancer. þær is se sumerlica sunstede, forðan þe heo cyrð þær ongean eft suðweard 7 se dæg ðonne sceortað, oð þæt seo sunne cymð eft suð to ðam winterlicum sunstede, 7 þær ætstent. ðonne heo norðweard bið, þonne macað heo lenctenlice emnihte on middeweardum hire ryne; eft ðonne heo suðor bið, þonne macað heo hærfestlice emnihte. Swa heo suðor bið swa hit swiðor winterlæcð, 7 gæð se winterlica cyle æfter hire; ac ðonne heo eft gewent ongean, ðonne todræfð heo þone winterlican cyle mid hire hatum leoman.

[Four seasons are reckoned in a year, that is, Ver, Estas, Autumnus, Hiems. Ver is spring (lenctentid), which has an equinox; Estas is summer (sumor), which has a solstice; Autumn is autumn (hærfest), which has the other equinox; Hiems is winter (winter), which has the other solstice. In these four seasons the sun runs through various regions around the globe, and makes the earth temperate. Truly it is by God's providence that it does not always remain in one place and burn up the fruits of the earth with its heat; it moves through different places, and tempers the fruits of the earth both in growing and in ripening.

When the day grows longer, the sun goes northwards until it comes to the sign which is called Cancer. The summer solstice is there, because there it turns back again southwards, and then the day grows shorter until the sun comes again south to the winter solstice, and there stands still. When it is moving northwards, it makes the spring equinox in the middle of its course; and when it is moving south, it makes the autumnal equinox. The further south it goes, the closer winter is, and the winter chill follows after it. But when it turns again, then it drives away the winter chill with its hot rays.]


Later he explains how the solstice has different lengths in different parts of the world, from Italy to Iceland, and of England he says:

On Engla lande hæfð se lengsta dæg seofontyne tida. On ðam ylcan earde norðeweardan beoð leohte nihta on sumera, swilce hit ealle niht dagige, swa swa we sylfe foroft gesawon.

[In England the longest day has seventeen hours. In the northern part of that land, the nights in summer are as light as if it were day all night long, as we ourselves have very often seen.]

The sun in an Anglo-Saxon psalter (BL Harley 603, f.33v)

Related: Ælfric's description of the sun in his homily on Rogationtide, and the Old English version of the antiphon 'O Oriens', which falls on the winter solstice.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Midsummer Night


Midsummer Night
John Masefield

Midsummer night had fallen at full moon,
So, being weary of my ancient tale,
I turned into the night,
Up the old trackway leading from the vale.
The downland dimmed before me, dune on dune,
Pale dogrose buds about me shed their scent;
The startled peewits glimmered as they went,
The moonlight made the earth and heaven white;
The heaven and earth together uttered June.

So perfect was the beauty, that the air
Was like immortal presence thrilling all
The downland with deep life:
Presences communed in the white owl's call;
The rampart of the hill-top stood up bare,
High on the windy hill a brightness shone --
I wondered whose, since shepherd-men had gone
Homeward a long time since to food and wife;
Yet brightness shone, as from a lantern there.

Then, as the valley belfries chimed the hour,
I thought: "On summer nights King Arthur's door,
By yonder sarsens shut,
Is said to open to a corridor
Hewn far within the hill to Arthur's bower,
Where he and Gwenivere, with all the tale
Of captains toughened by the weight of mail,
Bide in a hall within the limestone cut:
That is the doorway, this is Arthur's hour."

So, pressing near, behold, a door was wide
Flung open on the steepness of the hill,
Showing a lighted shaft.
A footlift fox was paused upon the sill;
Eyes gleaming green, he fled. I stepped inside.
The passage led within all brightly lit,
Deft limestone hewers' hands had fashioned it.
Behind me (as I thought) the white owl laught.
The lighted way before me was my guide.

Till deep within the hill, I reacht a hail
Lit, but so vast that all aloft was dim.
The chivalry below
Sat at their table stirring not a limb.
Even as frost arrests the waterfall,
So had a power frozen that array,
There at the banquet of the holy day,
Into such stillness that I could not know
If they were dead, or carved, or living all.

Then, entering in, accustomed to the light,
I marked them well: King Arthur, black and keen,
Pale, eager, wise, intense;
Lime-blossom Gwenivere, the red-gold queen;
Ban's son, the kingly, Lancelot the bright;
Gawaine, Bors, Hector; all whom trumpets drew
Up Badon at the falling of the dew:
And over them there brooded the immense
Helper or Spirit with immortal sight.

All was most silent in that carven nave
Save a far water dripping, drop by drop,
In some dark way of time.
Power had brought that Knighthood to a stop,
Not even their ragged banners seemed to wave,
No whisper stirred the muscle of a cheek,
Yet all seemed waiting for the King to speak.
Far, far below I heard the midnight chime,
The valley bells that buried silence clave.

Then at that distant music Arthur stirred;
His scarlet mantle quivered like a wing.
Each, in his golden stall,
Smiling a little, turned towards the King,
Who from his throne of glory spoke this word:--
"Midsummer Night permits us to declare
How Nature's sickle cut us from the air
And made the splendour of our summer fall."
Then one by one they answered as I heard.

KING ARTHUR:
"I was the cause of the disastrous end . . .
I in my early manhood sowed the seed
That made the Kingdom rend.
I begot Modred in my young man's greed.
When the hot blood betrays us, who gives heed?
Morgause and I were lovers for a night,
Not knowing how the fates had made us kin.
So came the sword to smite,
So was the weapon whetted that made bleed:
That young man's loving let the ruin in.

GWENIVERE:
I, Gwenivere the Queen, destroyed the realm;
I, by my love of Lancelot the Bright;
Destiny being strong and mortals weak,
And women loving as the summer night.
When I was seized by Kolgrim Dragon Helm,
Lancelot saved me from the Dragon-beak,
Love for my saviour came to overwhelm.

Too well I loved him, for my only son,
Lacheu, was his, not Arthur's as men thought.
I longed to see my lover's son the King;
But Lacheu, riding into Wales, was caught
By pirates near St. David's and undone .
They killed my Lacheu there.
The primroses of spring,
Red with his blood, were scattered in his hair:
Thereafter nothing mattered to me aught .

Save Lancelot perhaps at bitter whiles,
When the long pain was more than I could stand;
He being Arthur's cousin, was his heir
Till base-born Modred reacht us from the isles.
Thereafter was no comfort anywhere,
But Modred's plottings and my sister's wiles,
And love that lit me ruining the land.

LANCELOT:
I, who am Lancelot, the son of Ban,
King Arthur's cousin, dealt the land the blow
From which the griefs began.
I, who loved Gwenivere, as all men know,
Was primal cause that brought the kingdom low,
For all was peace until that quarrel fell;
Thereafter red destruction followed fast.
The gates of hell
Hedge every daily track by which men go;
My loving flung them open as I passt.

GWENIVACH:
I, who am Princess Gwenivach the Fair,
Compasst the kingdom's ruin by my hate,
The poisonous hate I bare
For Gwenivere, my sister, Arthur's mate.
My mind was as a murderer in wait
Behind a door, on tiptoe, with a knife,
Ready to stab her at the slightest chance,
Stab to the life.
I stabbed her to the heart in her estate;
Disaster was my blow's inheritance.

MODRED:
Not you, with your begettings, father mine;
Not you, my red-gold Queen, adultress proud;
Not you, Sir Lancelot, whom none could beat;
Not you, my princess sweet;
Not one of all you waters was worth wine.
Mine was the hand that smote this royal seat,
Mine was the moving darkness that made cloud;
You were but nerves; I, Modred, was the spine.

You were poor puppets in a master's game;
I, Modred, was the cause of what befell.
I, Modred, Arthur's bastard, schemed and planned;
I, with my single hand,
Gave but a touch, and, lo, the troubles came;
The royalty was ended in the land.
When shut from Heaven, devils create hell:
Those who ignore this shall repent the same.

You were at peace, King Arthur, (cuckold's peace);
Your queen had both her lover and her son;
And I, your bastard by your aunt, was far,
Where Orkney tide-rips jar.
Your kingdom was all golden with increase.
Then your son's killing happened: Modred's star
Rose; I was heir, my bastardy was done;
Or (with more truth) I swore to make it cease.

But coming to your court with double claim
(As son and nephew) to the British crown,
You and the Queen named Lancelot the heir:
A brave man and a rare;
Your cousin King, the cuckoo to your dame,
Whom nobody opposed till I was there.
But I opposed, until I tumbled down
The realm to ruin and the Queen to shame.

GWENIVACH:
And I, your younger sister, whom you slighted,
Loved Modred from the first and took his part.
That made the milk of your sweet fortune sour.
I told you in the tower,
The green-hung tower, by the sunset lighted,
Sunset and moonrise falling the same hour;
Then I declared how Modred had my heart,
That we were lovers, that our troths were plighted.

You could have won our love, had you been wise;
Then, when, as lovers, we confesst and pled
Together with you for a lasting truce.
No blood would have been shed,
April and June had had their natural use,
And autumn come with brimming granaries.
But no; you gave refusal and abuse;
Therefore I smote your lips so harlot-red . . .
The joy of that one buffet never dies.

I see you at this moment, standing still,
White, by the window in that green-hung tower,
Just as I struck you, while your great eyes gleamed.
Till then, I had but seemed . . .
My striking showed you how I longed to kill.
O through what years of insult had I dreamed
For that one stroke in the avenging hour!
The devil of my hatred had her will:
God pity me, fate fell not as I deemed."

So, with lamenting of the ancient woe
They told their playings in the tragic plot,
Until their eyes were bright:
The red-gold beauty wept for Lancelot.
Then the church belfries in the vale below
Chimed the first hour of the year's decay,
And Arthur spoke: "Our hour glides away;
Gone is the dim perfection of the night,
Not yet does any trumpet bid us go.

But when the trumpet summons, we will rise,
We, who are fibres of the country's soul,
We will take horse and come
To purge the blot and make the broken whole;
And make a green abundance seem more wise,
And build the lasting beauty left unbuilt
Because of all the follies of our guilt.
But now the belfry chimes us to be dumb,
Colour is coming in the eastern skies."

Then as those figures lapsed again to stone,
The horses stamped, the cock his challenge flung,
The gold-wrought banners stirred,
The air was trembling from the belfry's tongue.
Above those forms the Helper stood alone,
Shining with hope. But now the dew was falling,
In unseen downland roosts the cocks were calling,
And dogrose petals shaken by a bird
Dropped from the blossomed briar and were strown.

Midsummer Night in Port Meadow

Thursday, 19 June 2014

A Medieval Love Poem: The Heart That Loveth Me

Today I stumbled across a medieval love poem which may, I think, be the most straightforwardly likeable and accessible poem I've ever encountered in that genre. Lots of people find this blog searching for medieval love poems (for practical use, I like to imagine) - so I present this as a gift to you, the Internet.

For weal or woe I will not flee
To love that heart that loveth me.

That heart my heart hath in such grace
That of two hearts one heart make we;
That heart hath brought my heart in case
To love that heart that loveth me.

For one the like unto that heart
Never was, nor is, nor never shall be,
Nor never like cause set this apart
To love that heart that loveth me.

Which cause giveth cause to me and mine
To serve that heart of sovereignty,
And still to sing this latter line:
To love that heart that loveth me.

Whatever I say, whatever I sing,
Whatever I do, that heart shall see
That I shall serve with heart loving
That loving heart that loveth me.

This knot thus knit, who shall untwine,
Since we that knit it do agree
To loose not nor slip, but both incline
To love that heart that loveth me?

Farewell, of hearts that heart most fine,
Farewell, dear heart, heartly to thee,
And keep this heart of mine for thine
As heart for heart, for loving me.

This is a modernised form of a text which survives in one manuscript of c.1500 (Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral Library CCA-DCc-ChCh Letterbook II, 174) and is edited as follows by Richard Greene in The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), p. 271:

For [wele or w]oo I wyll not fle
To love that hart that lovyth me.

That hart my hart hath in suche grace
That of too hartes one hart make we;
That hart hath brought my hart in case
To loue that hart that lovyth me.

For one the lyke vnto that hart
Never was nor ys nor never shall be,
Nor never lyke cavse set this apart
To love that hart that lovyth me.

Whyche cause gyveth cause to me and myne
To serve that hart of suferente,
And styll to syng this later lyne:
To love that hart [that lovyth me.]

Whatever I say, whatever I syng,
Whatever I do, that hart shall se
That I shall serue with hart lovyng
That lovynge hart [that lovyth me.]

Thys knot thus knyt who shall vntwyne,
Syns we that knyt yt do agre
To lose nor slyp, but both enclyne
To love that hart [that lovyth me?]

Farwell, of hartes that hart most fyne,
Farwell, dere hart, hartly to the,
And kepe this hart of myne for thyne
As hart for hart for lovyng me.

When I first read this poem and was doing some preliminary Internet-based research (i.e. googling it to see if anyone else had blogged about it), I found it didn't come up anywhere except, bizarrely, on Yahoo Answers, where someone had posted it - spelling modernised - to ask 'What do you think of this poem?' Yahoo Answers wasn't keen:

To be brutally honest, this sounds like something I could have written in the sixth grade. The rhyming scheme is awkward, as is the the way in which the line "To love that heart that loveth me" is repeated. The old (middle?) English verbs like "loveth" and "giveth" just sound weird in this poem.

Fair enough, Yahoo Answers, and thanks for your opinion (the grade of 6/10 seems a bit harsh, though). But there's much to like about this poem, weird Middle English verbs notwithstanding. Although in most respects a very simple poem - almost certainly the text of a song, although the music doesn't survive - it repays a little attention. For instance, I like how it makes you work to keep up with it, especially in the first verse: each time you hear the word heart you're trying to be alert to which heart is being talked about - otherwise you can't parse the sense of it at all - but at the same time the poem is working against your desire to do that, to unriddle the riddle, because it's trying to get you to accept that since the hearts are one, you can't distinguish them. It wants you to stop trying to keep up - but you can't, because then the poem becomes nonsense. It's mind-bending fun! (It's a bit like the experience of reading 'Earth upon earth', a poem with a very different tone but using much the same device.)

I like how as a result the poem becomes more and more of a tongue-twister as it goes on, until you can almost imagine the singer collapsing at the end from sheer exhaustion - if nothing else, just from the effort of getting through the phrase 'this knot thus knit'. (Say that five times fast.) I like the self-referential wink at the carol form in the third verse: because of love, the singer says, s/he has reason "still to sing this latter line: [second line of the refrain]". I like the metaphor of the knot, which is employed in various interesting ways in Middle English for 'things tightly knit together': a knot can be an intellectual puzzle, an agreement between two parties, a newly-conceived child, a close-packed group of people, the mysterious bond of the Holy Trinity, and, here, two hearts in one. (And other things too: the MED entry for knot makes interesting reading.) I like the clever use of untwine, which primarily continues the knot metaphor and means 'unwind' (so, the knot the lovers have made together can't be undone) but also suggests the similar verb untwinnen which means 'to separate, to part two things'. I like how the poem waits until the last verse to employ the obvious-yet-obligatory pun on heart and heartly: 'Farwell, dere hart, hartly to thee' (hartly means something like 'with all my heart'). And I like the term of endearment 'dear heart', one of my favourites in that category, and a nice use of a conventional and common phrase within a poem which pushes that same convention (heart as metonym) to its absolute limits.

What's not to like about this poem? It's even free of the icky sexual politics which (for me) mar lots of medieval love poetry: this love is mutual and reciprocal - that's the whole point of the poem - and there are no tiresome protestations of misery or unworthiness, etc., etc. There's no way to tell the gender of the singer or the beloved; the only words used to describe the person addressed (suferente, fyne) are gender-neutral, as far as I can see. Two happy, equal lovers, with one heart. What could be better?

Sunday, 8 June 2014

'Com, Shuppere, Holy Gost'


Com, Shuppere, Holy Gost, ofsech oure thouhtes;
Ful wyth grace of hevene heortes that thou wrouhtest.

Thou, that art cleped forspekere and gyft from God ysend,
Welle of lyf, fur, charite, and gostlych oynement,

Thou gyfst the sevene gyftes, thou finger of Godes honde,
Thou makest tonge of fleshe speke leodene of uche londe.

Tend lyht in oure wyttes, in oure heortes love,
Ther oure body is leothewok gyf strengthe from above.

Shyld ous from the feonde, and gyf ous gryth anon,
That we wyten ous from sunne thorou the lodesmon.

Of the Fader and the Sone thou gyf ous knoulechinge,
To leve that of bothe thou ever be lovinge.

Wele to the Fader and to the Sone, that from deth aros,
And also to the Holy Gost ay be worshipe and los.

This is a translation of Veni, Creator Spiritus by the Franciscan William Herebert (d.1333). I posted it some years ago here along with some other translations of the hymn, but I thought I'd give it its own post today. It could be rendered thus:

Come, Creator, Holy Ghost, search our thoughts;
Fill with grace of heaven the hearts which thou hast wrought.

Thou who art called For-speaker and gift from God sent,
Well of life, fire, charity, and spiritual ointment,

Thou givest the seven gifts, thou finger of God's hand,
Thou makest tongues of flesh speak languages of every land.

Kindle light in our wits, in our hearts love,
Where our body is weak, give strength from above.

Shield us from the fiend, and give us peace anon,
That we may defend ourselves from sin through the Guardian.

Of the Father and the Son give us knowledge,
To believe that thou ever art of both praising.

Glory to the Father and to the Son, who from death arose,
And to the Holy Ghost also be ever worship and praise.

One of the pleasures of reading Herebert's translations is how familiar the vocabulary is; that's one of the reasons I like blogging about them, because to me they give a clearer sense than almost any other texts of the line of continuity in English religious writing beginning in the Anglo-Saxon period, and running in some ways up to the present day. There's only a few words here which present any difficulties to a speaker of Modern English: the occasional rare word like leothewok (which means 'pliant in body, weak') and words now obsolete like leodene 'languages', gryth 'peace', los 'praise'. Otherwise there's the odd poetic touch like lodesmon, which is translating Latin ductore and means 'leader, guardian' but also 'steersman, pilot of a ship', and Shuppere, 'Creator' - descended from one of the first words many people learn when studying Old English, 'scyppend'. There's actually an Old English gloss of this hymn which begins Cum, þu scyppend gast - not very different from Herebert.


In fact Herebert, writing seven centuries ago, seems hardly less far away than the world in which this version of the hymn was recorded:


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Social Media for Academics

Today I went to a talk on 'social media for academics'. Apparently, the cardinal rules of academic blogging include:

1) don't create new content.
2) don't care about statistics; it doesn't matter if no one reads your blog, because you should only be doing it to make contact with future job or funding opportunities.

And there was me, thinking it was about the sharing of ideas and knowledge. I've been doing it wrong all these years...