Friday, 22 January 2016

St Wendreda and the Danish Conquest

St Wendreda, March

January 22 is the feast of St Wendreda, an obscure East Anglian saint about whom very little is known. Her name suggests she was an Anglo-Saxon woman, but that's pretty much as far as we can get. She is associated with the town of March, to the north-west of Ely, where she may have been head of some kind of community; the church in March is dedicated to her, the only church to bear that dedication. If she can be identified with the St Mindred to whom a well is dedicated at Exning, she may be connected to St Etheldreda of Ely and the East Anglian royal house, and if so she would have lived in the late seventh or early eighth century - or she may not, in which case she didn't. She doesn't appear in any medieval calendars, so January 22 may not have been her original feast-day, if she had one; but they celebrate her on this day at Ely Cathedral, and that's good enough for me.

Although so very little is known about St Wendreda, there is one fact about her which is actually very topical this year, the 1000th anniversary of the Danish Conquest of England. During the reign of King Æthelred, probably in the first decade of the eleventh century, the relics of St Wendreda were acquired from March by the abbot of Ely and placed in a gold shrine in the abbey church. At that time, as you will know if you've been following my series of posts on the anniversary of the Danish Conquest, England was under sustained attack from a number of Viking armies, the most successful of which was led by the Danish king Svein Forkbeard. In 1013 Svein drove Æthelred into exile and became king of England, but died after a few months, the victim (later legend said) of the vengeful spirit of St Edmund of East Anglia. After the deaths of Svein and Æthelred the war was carried on by their sons, Cnut and Edmund Ironside, who fought a succession of battles across the south of England in 1016.

When Edmund Ironside met Cnut's army for the last time, on 18 October 1016, at a place in Essex called Assandun, the monks of Ely carried the relics of St Wendreda to the battlefield in the hope they would bring divine aid to the English side. In the years leading up to 1016 East Anglia and its powerful monasteries had put up a spirited defence against the Danes (as they were to do against the Normans, a few decades later). Ely provided support to the East Anglian army who fought against the Danes at Maldon in 991, and after the battle it was the monks of Ely who recovered Ealdorman Byrhtnoth’s body from the battlefield and buried him; it may well have been a monk of Ely or a neighbouring monastery who composed the Old English poem which commemorates the Battle of Maldon, which has made Byrhtnoth and his men a symbol of Anglo-Saxon resistance against the Vikings. Another casualty of the Danes, Byrhtnoth’s son-in-law Oswig, killed in battle at Ringmere in 1010, was probably buried at Ely too. So it's not surprising that the monks of Ely took their relics and their prayers to help Edmund Ironside at Assandun (especially as the battle may have been fought near to one of the abbey's Essex estates). They were not the only monks on the battlefield: the abbot of Ramsey Abbey, Wulfsige, was there too, as was his predecessor Eadnoth, Bishop of Dorchester. Both were killed in the battle, along with eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode, 'all the nobility of the English nation', as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it. The twelfth-century Liber Eliensis, our source for this information, calls Eadnoth a martyr, and says he was cut down by the Danes as he was saying Mass on the battlefield.

If St Wendreda's relics had managed to save England from conquest, she might not today be quite such an obscure saint. But unfortunately (or not, depending on your view) the relics were unsuccessful, and the English were defeated. Not only did Cnut win the battle - and six weeks later, on the death of Edmund Ironside, the whole kingdom of England - but he also captured Wendreda's relics: the Liber Eliensis says that the Ely monks believed Cnut took the relics from the battlefield and subsequently gave them away to Canterbury. It's hard not to think Cnut had bigger things on his mind at the time, what with having just conquered a kingdom and all, so perhaps he doesn't personally deserve the blame for this, but it might conceivably have been intended to punish Ely for its longstanding opposition to the Danes.

Cnut eventually managed to establish a good relationship with Ely, even being inspired to compose a spontaneous song - so says the Liber Eliensis - on a visit to the monastery:

Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely
ða Cnut ching reu ðer by.
Roweþ cnites noer the lant
and here we þes muneches sæng.

[Merry sang the monks in Ely
When Cnut the king rowed by;
Row, men, near the land
And let us hear these monks sing.]


But he never returned the relics of St Wendreda.


The relics did eventually come back to March, some three centuries after Cnut's time, but their whereabouts are now unknown. If the name of St Wendreda is familiar today, it's not for her own sake but because of the fabulous church in March which bears her name. The church is famous for its stunning medieval roof, which is adorned with squadrons of angels - 120 of them, winging their way across the beams.


It's an astonishing sight. Above is a not very good picture of it I took in haste a few months ago, but have a look at this site for more and lovelier photographs. St Wendreda's intervention didn't do much for the Angles at Assandun, but her angels are above reproach.


(Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

'Learn to love as I love thee'


Learn to love as I love thee.
In all my limbs thou mayest see
How sore they quake for cold;
For thee I suffer all this woe,
Love me, sweet, and no mo; [no other]
To thee me take and hold.

Jesu, sweet son dear,
In poor bed thou liest now here,
And that grieveth me sore.
For thy cradle is a bier,
Ox and ass are thy fere, [companions]
Weep may I therefore!

Jesu, sweet, be not wroth;
I have neither scrap nor cloth
Thee in for to fold;
I have but a piece of a lappe, [the skirt of a garment]
Therefore lay thy feet to my pap
And keep thee from the cold.

Cold thee taketh, I may well see;
For love of man it must be
For thee to suffer woe;
For better it is thou suffer this
Than man should lose heaven's bliss.
Thou must ransom him thereto.

Since it must be that thou be dead
To save man from the fiend,
Thy sweet will be done.
But let me not stay here too long:
After thy death me underfonge [receive]
To live for evermore. Amen.

One last Christmas poem, on the eve of the Epiphany. This is a version in modern spelling of a fourteenth-century poem (the original can be found here) which imagines a dialogue between Mary and the infant Christ. It comes from a manuscript which belonged to a friar called John of Grimestone (the manuscript is now Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates Lib. 18.7.21; the first three verses also appear in British Library, Harley 7322). His manuscript, which dates to 1372, is a collection of preaching materials, containing a large amount of English verse and including several tender poems about the baby Christ: 'Lullay little child, rest thee a throwe' is especially lovely, as are 'As I lay upon a night' and this lullaby carol. Although it focuses on Christ's death rather than his birth, Grimestone's 'Love me brought' also has some parallels to this poem.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for Middle English lullaby carols, especially ones in which the baby and his mother talk about his future, the suffering both will face before his work on earth is completed. I always feel - perhaps this is excessively literal of me - that these poems are more fitting reading for the weeks after Christmas than for the day itself. They look forward, turning the reader's attention from Christ's birth to his future life, while being careful always to evoke the naturalistic details of their setting in his first newborn days: makeshift cradle, anxious mother, a baby to be fed, wrapped, soothed, sung to. They are sweet and gentle but tinged with sadness, the vulnerability of the child and his mother's fears piercing any sentimentality with a sharp dart of cold realism. This one is not a lullaby, though the lulling ls of its first line might bring the sound to mind, but the speaker of all except the first verse is Mary; the fact that the verses are all dialogue makes it possible for the reader to take on her voice, to feel and to plead with her. 'Learn to love as I love thee', she, and we, are told.

BL Royal 2 A XXII, f. 13v (The 'Westminster Psalter', c.1200)

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Some Carols for Christmas Eve

A monk and nun playing music (BL Royal 2 B VII, f.177)

Advent is gone, Christmas is come;
Be we merry now, all and some!
He is not wise that will be dumb
In ortu Regis omnium.

Farewell, Advent, Christmas is come!
Farewell from us both all and some!

So says James Ryman, friar of Canterbury and carol collector extraordinaire, in a witty fifteenth-century carol celebrating the end of Advent - a welcome moment indeed for friars who had spent the season fasting! Friars, monks and clerics gave us some of the best-loved medieval carols, and they certainly earned their merriment. To obey Ryman's urging, here's a collection of links to a few especially merry medieval carols you might like to read or listen to today.



First, I've just written a guest post for Corymbus on the subject of a fifteenth-century carol which begins:

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

In Bethlehem, in that fair city,
A child was born of a maiden free,
That shall a lord and prince be,
A solis ortus cardine.

Read about it here, and listen to this joyous modern setting by Elizabeth Maconchy:




A few years ago I wrote a post about the fifteenth-century carol 'Good day, Sir Christemas!' This year the composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad was commissioned to write a new carol for the BBC Music Magazine and decided to set my translation of the text. Read about it here and here, and listen to the carol here! It's so wonderful that new songs are still being created from these medieval texts - in this case, from a carol enjoyed (probably) by the monks of fifteenth-century Worcester.



Hey, ay, hey, ay,
Make we merry as we may!

Now is Yule come with gentyll cheer; [excellent fun]
In mirth and games he has no peer,
In every land where he comes near
Is mirth and games, I dare well say.

Now is come a messenger
Of your lord, Sir New Year,
Bids us all be merry here
And make us merry as we may.

Therefore every man that is here
Sing a carol in his manner;
If he knows none, we shall him lere [teach]
So that we be merry alway.

This comes from a carol of 1500, threatening dire things to those who refuse to sing carols at Christmas!



Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel!

Out of your sleep arise and wake,
For God mankind now hath i-take
All of a maid without any make.
Of all women she beareth the bell...

Now blessed brother, grant us grace,
On doomsday to see thy face,
And in thy court to have a place,
That we may there sing 'nowel'.

From one of the loveliest fifteenth-century carols.



Here's a singing shepherd to encourage us to sing:

Can I not sing but 'Hoy,'
When the jolly shepherd made so much joy?


The shepherd upon a hill he sat;
He had on him his tabard and his hat,
His tar-box, his pipe, and his flagat; [bundle]
His name was called Jolly, Jolly Wat,
For he was a good shepherd's boy.
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.



Puer natus to us was sent,
To bliss us bought, from bale us blent,
And else to woe we had ywent,
Both all and some.

Another carol from the Selden carol book.



And, of course: 'Welcome, Yule!'

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Rex Pacifice, O thou true and thou peaceful one

Christ in glory (BL Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v, 10th century, Winchester)

The antiphon for 20 December is 'O clavis David', and you can read the beautiful Old English poetic version of that antiphon here; it speaks of Christ as se þe locan healdeð, lif ontyneð, 'he who guards the locks, who opens life', who will 'become for us a source of strength in spirit, and enfold our feeble knowledge in splendour'. But, as I promised in my last post, here's one of the sections of the same poem inspired by a less commonly-used antiphon: this is based on 'O rex pacifice' (lines 214-274 of the Old English poem):

Eala þu soða ond þu sibsuma
ealra cyninga cyning, Crist ælmihtig,
hu þu ær wære eallum geworden
worulde þrymmum mid þinne wuldorfæder
cild acenned þurh his cræft ond meaht!
Nis ænig nu eorl under lyfte,
secg searoþoncol, to þæs swiðe gleaw
þe þæt asecgan mæge sundbuendum,
areccan mid ryhte, hu þe rodera weard
æt frymðe genom him to freobearne.
þæt wæs þara þinga þe her þeoda cynn
gefrugnen mid folcum æt fruman ærest
geworden under wolcnum, þæt witig god,
lifes ordfruma, leoht ond þystro
gedælde dryhtlice, ond him wæs domes geweald,
ond þa wisan abead weoroda ealdor:
"Nu sie geworden forþ a to widan feore
leoht, lixende gefea, lifgendra gehwam
þe in cneorissum cende weorðen."
Ond þa sona gelomp, þa hit swa sceolde,
leoma leohtade leoda mægþum,
torht mid tunglum, æfter þon tida bigong.
Sylfa sette þæt þu sunu wære
efeneardigende mid þinne engan frean
ærþon oht þisses æfre gewurde.
þu eart seo snyttro þe þas sidan gesceaft
mid þi waldende worhtes ealle.

Forþon nis ænig þæs horsc, ne þæs hygecræftig,
þe þin fromcyn mæge fira bearnum
sweotule geseþan. Cum, nu, sigores weard,
meotod moncynnes, ond þine miltse her
arfæst ywe! Us is eallum neod
þæt we þin medrencynn motan cunnan,
ryhtgeryno, nu we areccan ne mægon
þæt fædrencynn fier owihte.
þu þisne middangeard milde geblissa
þurh ðinne hercyme, hælende Crist,
ond þa gyldnan geatu, þe in geardagum
ful longe ær bilocen stodan,
heofona heahfrea, hat ontynan,
ond usic þonne gesece þurh þin sylfes gong
eaðmod to eorþan. Us is þinra arna þearf!
Hafað se awyrgda wulf tostenced,
deor dædscua, dryhten, þin eowde,
wide towrecene, þæt ðu, waldend, ær
blode gebohtes, þæt se bealofulla
hyneð heardlice, ond him on hæft nimeð
ofer usse nioda lust. Forþon we, nergend, þe
biddað geornlice breostgehygdum
þæt þu hrædlice helpe gefremme
wergum wreccan, þæt se wites bona
in helle grund hean gedreose,
ond þin hondgeweorc, hæleþa scyppend,
mote arisan ond on ryht cuman
to þam upcundan æþelan rice,
þonan us ær þurh synlust se swearta gæst
forteah ond fortylde, þæt we, tires wone,
a butan ende sculon ermþu dreogan,
butan þu usic þon ofostlicor, ece dryhten,
æt þam leodsceaþan, lifgende god,
helm alwihta, hreddan wille.


O thou true and thou peaceful one,
king of all kings, almighty Christ,
how you existed before all the world's glory
was made, with your heavenly Father,
conceived as a child through his skill and power!
There is now no man under the sky,
no person clever in thought, so very wise
that he can tell the sea-bound world's dwellers,
rightly relate how the guardian of the heavens
in the beginning took you as his noble son.
That was, of the things which the tribes of men
among peoples here have heard of, the very first
worked beneath the sky: that the wise God,
life's source, light and darkness
divinely parted, and with him was the power.
And the Lord of hosts commanded this:
"Now let there be, from henceforth until eternity,
light, luminous joy to all living things
which will be born in their generations."
And at once it was, when it had to be so:
light lightened the tribes of peoples,
brilliant among the stars, in the course of time.
He himself ordained that you, the Son,
were dwelling as an equal with your solitary Lord
before any of this had ever been done.
You are the wisdom who created
all this wide world with your Ruler.

And so there is none so sharp-witted
nor so skillful in mind that he can
clearly explain to the children of men
your first beginning. Come now, Lord of victories,
Measurer of mankind, and here, steadfast in grace,
manifest your mercy! In us all there is a longing
that we may understand your mother's origins,
the true mystery, since we cannot rightly
any further follow your father's origins.
In mercy gladden this world
by your advent, Saviour Christ,
and the golden gates, which in days gone by
so long stood locked,
order to be opened, heaven's high Lord,
and seek us out by your own coming
humbly to earth. We need your mercy!
The accursed wolf, the beast who walks in darkness,
has destroyed your flock, Lord,
scattered abroad those you, Ruler, once
bought with blood, whom the hate-filled foe
cruelly persecutes and takes into captivity,
against our urgent longing. So we, Saviour,
pray eagerly in the thoughts of our hearts
that you swiftly bring help
to weary exiles, that the tormenting slayer
may be cast low into the depths of hell
and your handiwork, Creator of mankind,
may rise and come by right
to the noble kingdom above,
from which the dark spirit once seduced
and drew us by desire for sin, so that we,
bereft of glory, must for ever endure misery without end,
unless you, with greatest swiftness, everlasting Lord,
from the destroyer of men, living God,
Guardian of all creatures, choose to save us.

God creating the sun, moon and stars (BL Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 3, 11th century, Canterbury)

This follows on from one of the most memorable sections in this remarkable poem: a dialogue between Mary and Joseph, in which they discuss Mary's miraculous pregnancy and its consequences for them both. In that anguished exchange, Joseph describes his fears for Mary, while she worries that she will lose his love; then Mary describes her encounter with the angel, telling how she learned that she would become the mother of God's child. In that section, the opening 'O' is more like a cry of distress than anything else: Mary begins by saying 'Eala Joseph min, Jacobes bearn', 'O my Joseph, son of Jacob...' If you were one of an Anglo-Saxon audience reading or listening to this poem, you would just have seen the most human side of the story of the incarnation: a married couple worrying about how to cope with an unimaginable change in their lives and their relationship.

This moving and personal dialogue is followed by something very different. The story is written now on a cosmic scale; the section based on 'O rex pacifice' addresses Christ as king and ruler, a being born before all the worlds, whose nature is far beyond human understanding. Having just explored Christ's maternal origins (his medrencynn) in the preceding section, this poem now emphasises the impossibility of tracing his paternal origins (his fædrencynn) back through the vastness of time and space. It does what it can, by going back to the beginning of creation and the first command:

Nu sie geworden forþ a to widan feore
leoht, lixende gefea, lifgendra gehwam.


Now let there be, from henceforth until eternity,
light, luminous joy to all living things...

I love how the poet keeps you waiting for the word 'light' here, holding it over to the end of the phrase, and then producing a threefold alliteration on leoht, lixende, lifgendra; it sounds so beautiful spoken aloud. The beginning of light is the beginning of time, æfter þon tida bigong – and further back than that, no one can go. This poem takes pleasure in juxtaposing the limitations of human knowledge against the vastness of God's cræft ond meaht: several times we hear that no one is clever enough – searoþoncol, horsc, or hygecræftig enough – to fully understand this mystery. Here we are sea-dwellers (sundbuend), earth-bound under the sky; but the golden gates which bar the way to the heavens can be opened:

ond þin hondgeweorc, hæleþa scyppend,
mote arisan ond on ryht cuman
to þam upcundan æþelan rice.

and your handiwork, Creator of mankind,
may rise and come by right
to the noble kingdom on high.

God creating the world (BL Royal 1 E VII, f. 1v, 11th century, Canterbury)

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Jerusalem, Vision of Peace

The Virgin and Child (BL Add. 34890, f. 115, 11th century, England)

The last week of Advent is the season of the 'O Antiphons'. These texts, used at Vespers in the days before Christmas, have an enduring attraction, even, it seems, for those who do not usually find liturgical antiphons very interesting. All ways of counting down to Christmas seem to charm us - Advent calendars, Jesse trees, even the increasingly popular misconception, beloved of social media managers, that the 'twelve days of Christmas' refers to a countdown of the days before Christmas (rather than the days after). We get obsessed with marking time, in this darkest and brightest season of the year.

But the O Antiphons are more than a simple countdown. If we count the days through December because we're impatient for Christmas to come, these texts encourage us to explore the source of that impatience, to understand the nature of our own desire. Part of the appeal of the O Antiphons is that they express an urgent longing, and although they are, of course, addressed to Christ, the titles with which they identify him speak more broadly of the kind of things we all desire but can rarely or never find in this world: perfect wisdom, peace, justice, true freedom, light in the darkness, companionship which will never fail us. Whether or not you believe these desires can be fulfilled by the promises of Advent, these songs touch a powerful chord.

Like all human desire, this is fertile ground for poetry. There are multiple surviving medieval poetic responses to the O Antiphons, and in the past I've posted several Middle English poems based on these texts - two poems and two carols. These are interesting, but are far surpassed in quality by the exquisite Anglo-Saxon poetic meditation based on the antiphons, known today as the 'Advent Lyrics' or as Christ I.

This poem survives in the Exeter Book, one of the most important manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon poetry; the manuscript dates to the tenth century, but the poem may be a century or more older. It's the very first poem in the manuscript, and in fact begins mid-sentence because the first leaves of the manuscript are now lost. As it stands, the poem consists of twelve sections, each opening with the Old English equivalent of the antiphons' 'O': Eala. Some of these sections correspond with the seven antiphons which are today the best-known, but the first three (O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse) are missing, and there are several 'extras'. The seven antiphons most widely used have a unity of their own: they are all addressed to Christ, beginning with a title or epithet for him, and taking the form of an appeal directly to him, Come. There were, however, other antiphons used in this season, associated with the O Antiphons but taking a variety of forms: medieval practice was quite diverse on this point, and some are addressed to the Virgin, others to saints (St Thomas the Apostle, the angel Gabriel), while among the antiphons used by the Anglo-Saxon poem, one is a dialogue between Mary and Joseph, another is addressed to the Trinity, another is an exclamation ('O wondrous exchange!') and so on.

The Old English poem is a complex and beautiful composition, theologically and poetically sophisticated, finding a way to unite scriptural imagery with the richness of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. It is, therefore, a joy to translate - though a challenge! In the past I've posted some translations of the sections based on the seven chief antiphons, but I thought this year I might post a few of the 'extra' ones too, just because I wanted to get to grips with translation again. Here are the sections I've posted so far, if you want to catch up (in the order they appear in the poem, which is not the order they appear liturgically):

O rex gentium (lines 1-17)
O clavis David (18-49)
[O Jerusalem (51-70)]
O virgo virginum (71-103)
O Oriens (104-129)
O Emmanuel (130-163)
O Joseph (164-213)

Five more sections follow, and I'll post one of them tomorrow. A translation of the whole poem can be found on this site. Today, I thought I'd post 'O Jerusalem', which, as you can see, appears third in the poem as it stands. The antiphon on which this section is based is: O Hierusalem, civitas Dei summi: leva in circuitu oculos tuos, et vide Dominum tuum, quia iam veniet solvere te a vinculis.

Eala sibbe gesihð, sancta Hierusalem,
cynestola cyst, Cristes burglond,
engla eþelstol, ond þa ane in þe
saule soðfæstra simle gerestað,
wuldrum hremge. Næfre wommes tacn
in þam eardgearde eawed weorþeð,
ac þe firina gehwylc feor abugeð,
wærgðo ond gewinnes. Bist to wuldre full
halgan hyhtes, swa þu gehaten eart.
Sioh nu sylfa þe geond þas sidan gesceaft,
swylce rodores hrof rume geondwlitan
ymb healfa gehwone, hu þec heofones cyning
siðe geseceð, ond sylf cymeð,
nimeð eard in þe, swa hit ær gefyrn
witgan wisfæste wordum sægdon,
cyðdon Cristes gebyrd, cwædon þe to frofre,
burga betlicast. Nu is þæt bearn cymen,
awæcned to wyrpe weorcum Ebrea,
bringeð blisse þe, benda onlyseð
niþum genedde. Nearoþearfe conn,
hu se earma sceal are gebidan.

O vision of peace, holy Jerusalem,
best of royal thrones, Christ's home city,
angels' native dwelling! In you alone
the souls of the righteous rest for eternity,
exulting in glory. Never is a sign of corruption
seen in that dwelling-place,
but every sin stays far away from you,
all evil and strife. You are gloriously full
of holy hope, as your name is.
See now for yourself, across the wide creation,
looking around the spacious roof of the sky
on every side, how the king of the heavens
seeks in quest of you, and comes himself.
He makes his home in you, as it was long ago
foretold in words by wise prophets;
they proclaimed Christ's birth, spoke comfort to you,
best of cities! Now that child is come,
born to relieve the works of the Hebrews,
brings joy to you, unlooses the chains
fastened by evil. The terrible need he knows,
how the wretched one must wait for grace.

God watches over Jerusalem (BL Harley 603, f. 66v, 11th century, Canterbury)

Where other antiphons address Christ, this one watches him. With Jerusalem, it looks from afar and sees him coming, watches him draw closer as he seeks out (geseceð) his city through all the vastness of the heavens. He is coming home, to the city which is called his burglond, eardgeard, the angels' eþelstol - all words which have connotations of 'native dwelling-place'. (The home which is 'an older place than Eden/And a taller town than Rome'.)

The last line here recalls one of the most famous lines of Old English poetry, the opening of The Wanderer, which appears in the same manuscript as this poem:

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd.

Often the solitary one waits for grace,
the mercy of the Lord, although he, sorrowful in heart,
across the ocean's ways must long
stir with his hands the ice-cold sea,
tread the paths of exile. Fate is greatly fixed.

These much-discussed lines are ambiguous, even to their translation: gebideð can mean either 'wait for' or 'experience', and are too has a broad range of meaning, involving 'grace, favour, mercy'. However you interpret are gebidan (and even if, like me, you can't make up your mind), it is an apt characterisation of the season of Advent, a time of waiting for something which has already happened - a coming, or multiple comings, both expected and already experienced. In The Wanderer, the half-line are gebideð opens a poem which movingly traces the difficulty of waiting for comfort, of coping with loss and loneliness and trying to find meaning in the midst of winter. Here, the same words close a poem confident that comfort and joy have come, that winter's fetters will be loosened, that the nearoþearfe, 'pressing, terrible need', will be met.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

'Swa leaf on treowum'


Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoght
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Also hit ner nere, ywys;
That moni mon seith, soth hit ys:
Al goth bote Godes wille:
Alle we shule deye, thah us like ylle.

Al that gren me graueth grene,
Nou hit faleweth al by dene:
Jesu, help that hit be sene
Ant shild us from helle!
For y not whider y shal, ne hou longe her duelle.

The fourteenth-century poem, which I've posted here several times before, must be the most apt poem ever written for the last days of November. This would be a literal translation:

Winter awakens all my sorrow,
Now the leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and mourn sorely
When it comes into my thoughts
Of this world's joy, how it all goes to nothing.

Now it is, and now it is not,
As if it had never been, truly.
What many people say, it is the truth:
All passes but God's will.
We all shall die, though it please us ill.

All the grass which grows up green,
Now it fades all together.
Jesu, help this to be understood,
And shield us from hell!
For I do not know where I shall go, nor how long I shall dwell here.

What cannot be conveyed in translation is the power of the untranslatable negatives, especially 'Nou hit is, and nou hit nys, / Also hit ner nere, ywys', and of some of the turns of language which belie the poem's apparant simplicity. Note especially the phrase waxeth bare: 'waxen' can just mean 'to become', but it usually means specifically to 'grow' (like the moon, which waxes and wanes). But when leaves fall, waxing bare, it's the opposite of growth; it's death and depletion.

Here's the poem in its manuscript, BL Harley MS. 2253, f.75:


The same manuscript also contains (along with many, many other things) the poem 'Now shrinketh rose', which offers another way of responding to the dying of the year. 'Winter wakeneth', despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity and simplicity, comes to my mind every year at this time. The first line calls to mind the association between winter and care which lies behind many evocations of this season in Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially The Wanderer's famous compound wintercearig (also close to untranslatable: 'winter-sorrowful', it means, perhaps 'as sorrowful as winter'). And the poem also evokes that favourite metaphor, life as leaf, which might remind long-term readers of the falling fallowing leaves and men from this post on Anglo-Saxon Autumns.



It's a strange and beautiful thing that the cycle of the year, to which poets have so often turned as a reminder that nothing in life is stable, is in fact one of the great constants in life. Every year November comes, and we turn to this poem and many others like it, and whatever may have changed in our own lives, still the leaves are falling and still poets are drawing the same lessons from them. Whether it's the Anglo-Saxon poets or the fourteenth-century ones or the many exquisite modern examples, poets have been saying this for ever and ever, yet it never grows old - that moni mon seith, soth hit ys. Change is the great constant. An Old English passage I quoted here last month muses on this paradox:

Ðu recst þæt gear and redst þurh þæt gewrixle þara feower tyda, þæt ys, lencten and sumer and herfest and winter; þara wrixlað ælc wyð oððer and hwerfiað, swa þat heora ægðer byð eft emne þat þæt hyt ær wæs, and þær þær hyt ær wes; and swa wrixlað eall tunglai and hwerfiað on þam ylcan wisan, and eft se and ea; on ða ylcan wisan hweorfiað ealle gesceafta. Wrixliað sume þa on oððer wyssan swa þat þa ylcan eft ne cumað þær ðær hy er weron, eallunga swa swa hy er weron, ac cumað oðre for hy, swa swa leaf on treowum, and æpla, græs, and wyrtan, and treoweu foraldiað and forseriað and cumað oððer, grenu wexað, and gearwað, and ripað; for þat hy eft onginnað searian.

You rule the year, and govern it through the turning of the four seasons, that is, spring and summer and autumn and winter. These change places, each with another, and turn so that each of them is again exactly what it was before, and where it was before; and likewise all stars turn and change in the same way, and the sea and rivers too. In this way all created things undergo change. But some change in another way, such that the same thing does not come again where it was before, or exactly as it was before, but another comes in its place; as leaves on the trees, and fruits, grass, and plants and trees grow old and dry, and others come, grow green, and reach maturity, and ripen, and with that begin again to wither.

Today is the last day of the liturgical year; tomorrow, Advent begins. As I delved today into my archive of Advent posts, preparing to bring them out again to meet the eyes of readers old and new, I was reminded of the many ways in which medieval writings on Advent encourage us to engage with time. They urge us to ready ourselves for the coming of an event which has already happened, thousands of years ago; and they direct us to look not just towards the immediate future, as we count down four weeks forwards into our own lives, but towards the eventual future, the Apocalypse, the end of all time. But even as we are thinking about time and change, we are enacting rituals we have gone through many times - hearing the same words, and taking delight in their familiar constancy. As we turn to the same poems every autumn, to learn from well-known words how to think about loss and change, so every Advent we turn to the same readings and songs. We are different, but they are the same; every year we bring different things to them, and take different things away. Because Advent begins the new year, on the first Sunday of Advent we turn the book back to the beginning and start again. You could spend a lifetime reading these texts and never get tired of finding new things in them - a yearly mystery and a yearly joy.

Why not begin with Ælfric's homily for the First Sunday of Advent? 'Þeos tid oð midne winter'

Friday, 27 November 2015

In Defence of 'Monks on the Make': Glastonbury, Lies, and Legends

'The tomb of King Arthur', BL Harley 1766, f. 219

A story has been going around the British media this past week, springing from some new archaeological research which has been conducted at Glastonbury Abbey. This research, a four-year project based at the University of Reading, sounds very interesting: it has explored the early history of a site which has long held a unique place in popular culture in this country, associated as it is with Arthurian legend and with an early, mythical origin for the British church. You can read about the research and some of its findings on the University of Reading website.

This is all great. But the way this story has been reported in the media this week has been troubling me, so I finally gave in to temptation and decided to blog about it. What I intend to do in this post is to look at how this story has been reported, to challenge some of the unquestioned assumptions which are apparent in that reporting, and to suggest some alternative ways in which one might think about medieval monasteries and the legends they told. I want to make it clear that in doing so I’m absolutely not making any criticism of the archaeologists, their research, or how they communicated it; I don’t know enough about the circumstances or the subject to do that, and I’m sure their work is exemplary. (I’m not an archaeologist, nor a specialist on Glastonbury; I also know how easily a message can get distorted as it passes through the hands of journalists and spreads on social media.) I’m not criticising anyone, really, and I don't think anything I say here will be of much interest to academics or specialists. This is for those of you non-specialists - I know lots of you read this blog! - who are interested in history but who can sometimes find the medieval church and its legends bizarre and off-putting.

The main criticism I’ve seen on social media about the way this story has been reported is that some of the reports have suggested that nobody knew – until now!!! – that the stories connecting King Arthur or Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury were myths. (I don’t believe the research is in fact claiming this.) ‘We already knew that’, many people have said – and yes, we certainly did. I suppose there probably are some people who really thought King Arthur was buried at Glastonbury, but I can’t say I’ve ever met one. But let’s put that to one side, because I don’t actually think that’s a big problem here.

The essential fact, on which this research has shed new light, is something many people have known for a long time: substantial parts of the legends associated with Glastonbury were invented in the twelfth century, by the monks, to bolster the prestige of the abbey. The monastery created physical ‘evidence’ to support these stories, in the form of supposed graves and a church built in a particular style, which accompanied texts produced at the abbey making similar claims. It seems that this new research has illuminated how and when that physical evidence was manufactured, and how it has misled some modern archaeologists in their study of the abbey. Interesting stuff. But in the reporting of this, the idea has somehow arisen that knowing how and when this evidence was manufactured means we know why. This is where things become more troublesome. The headlines tell their own story:

Glastonbury legend was 'fabricated by 12th century monks desperate to raise cash'

How Glastonbury Abbey's myths were invented by medieval monks on the make

How medieval monks spin-doctored Glastonbury King Arthur legends

Monks dreamt up myths of King Arthur and a visit by Jesus to raise money and lure pilgrims to Glastonbury, research says

Follow the links, and you'll see these stories contain some telling words and phrases: 'concocted', 'no more than a money-spinner to draw pilgrims', 'forged', 'the monks just made them up', 'doctored', 'taken in by the myths', etc. This pejorative language is very odd. What a lot of pious disapproval for a crime eight centuries old! And of course some commentators, and most of the comments on all these stories, have extrapolated from this that all religions, in every place and culture, are cynical scams to deprive ordinary people of their money and their peace. Ah, for the omniscience of an internet commentator...

Sticking, however, to the medieval, there are two things about this reporting which trouble me:

a) assuming that we know for sure the motive behind the monastery’s actions
b) passing moral judgement on that motive.

Only one possible motive is suggested in any of this reporting: the desire to raise money by attracting ('luring', says one report) pilgrims and visitors. This is, indeed, a very likely motive. Medieval monasteries, like every other kind of institution, needed money to live on. They had mouths to feed, taxes to pay, buildings to maintain, estates to run, and many other demands on their resources; monasteries had an economic and social importance in their communities for which it’s difficult to imagine any modern parallels, and in many areas they were the primary sources of education, healthcare, and support for the poor. Needing to raise money to fund these activities isn’t necessarily a noble or ignoble motive – it’s just what it is. Read some of these reports and you’d think the monks were raising money for the fun of rolling around in piles of gold like Scrooge McDuck; maybe some of them were, but I rather doubt it. So why use such language? I don’t know about you, but when I see a business selling its wares, a charity trying to raise money, or a school running a fundraiser I don’t think or talk in terms of these institutions being ‘on the make’ or ‘filling their coffers’. They’re raising money in order to do the things they do. It’s not a scam (although obviously it might be sometimes); it’s just life.

The moral judgement implied by terms such as ‘money-spinning’ must come, then, from the idea that these monks have deliberately and deceitfully distorted historical fact - 'forged', 'fabricated' and 'doctored' history - in order to raise their money. That’s one reading of the situation. Let me propose some others.

It was not uncommon for monasteries to create, or to enhance, legends about their own history. Glastonbury is an especially visible case, because it claimed such very early origins and such very famous burials, but it's not that unusual. It had form in the area of ‘just making things up’; the abbey was doing it earlier in the twelfth century as well, when the monks invented a different story (or ‘ran another scam’ if you prefer to see it that way), and claimed they had acquired the body of St Dunstan from his burial-place in Canterbury. They almost certainly hadn’t, and they probably deserved the scorn poured on them by a contemporary historian. (That historian, as chief custodian of Canterbury’s own legends, had a right to feel aggrieved by Glastonbury poaching the best of them; I’m not sure why 21st-century journalists seem to share his moral outrage!) You could see this as a sign of a monastery ‘on the make’, or as the act of a community in trouble, rather desperately trying to give itself a bit of security and power amid the turmoil of the twelfth century. The assumption that the driving force behind obtaining prestige in this way is solely financial is much too simplistic; there are other kinds of cultural and social power worth having besides 'cold hard cash'.

But it's reductive, too, to only talk about monasteries inventing legends from a desire for money, power, and influence. In this post about medieval translations of saints' relics, I discussed how such inventions often allowed communities in times of crisis to come to terms with their own history, to find a source of identity and unity in looking back at the past - to tell a story about their history which explained to themselves, and to others, who they were and what they were doing. There are few things more important, in creating a sense of communal identity, than having a strong sense of your roots. For all their power, monasteries could be vulnerable, and at times they didn't have much to defend themselves but their history, in whatever tangible or intangible form that might take - documents and charters, relics, or an association with a powerful saint no one would want to cross. Creating legends about such things, especially at moments of particular stress, is not just PR spin - it's self-preservation, perhaps as much psychological as material. When trouble came to a monastery, as it did to Glastonbury with the fire of 1184, monks might turn to their own legendary history as a source of - yes, of income, but also perhaps of reassurance, a reminder (to outsiders and to members of the community) of how long the abbey had endured and how it might still have a future. If your community, your home, which you knew to be a truly ancient and venerable institution, seemed to be in danger of collapsing around you, you too might well turn to a grand legend which offered the chance of survival. You might forge a charter in support of rights you knew you had but couldn't prove; you might decide it was no longer enough to say Glastonbury had a strong connection to St Dunstan (as it certainly did), and start to claim that it also had his body.

‘Just making something up’ in this context isn’t perhaps admirable, but it seems to me an entirely human response. It's also not simple dishonesty: monks in such situations might well have believed they were telling a small lie in service of a greater truth. Even today historians find - if you can believe it! - that when you communicate with the world beyond your community, you sometimes have to spin your story a little in the service of a higher good. Opinions will always vary on far you can go; today we expect historians to stop short of what we would consider outright forgery, but these questions are not always clear-cut. Such pressures can test even the most scrupulous historian: William of Malmesbury, commissioned to write about the history of Glastonbury in the late 1120s, seems to have found it impossible to come up with something which would simultaneously please his patrons and match what he knew to be true about English history. He failed, and the monks had to adapt his account to produce the history they wanted. Historians, even modern historians, face these pressures all the time; we might think ourselves above trying to please patrons, but academics nonetheless have to deal with being accountable to their funders or employers, and with 'selling' research to the public and the media. Many a medieval hagiographer would understand the challenges that brings.

This may explain why some monks might forge or fabricate history for other motives than sheer greed. But at Glastonbury, and with saints' legends in general, there's something much deeper going on. It's not really appropriate to talk in terms of forgery and faking; we are speaking about legends and myths, and if you approach such narratives as bad or dishonest history, rather than as literature, you will always underestimate their power. This is especially obvious with regard to Arthurian legend, because we can see for ourselves just how potent these myths are even today. In the twelfth century, the legend of King Arthur absolutely took off in England, and became hugely popular almost overnight. (Here's a fairly compact overview, and see also this and this page.) This coincided with an explosion in the volume and variety of historical texts being written in England, in Latin, French, and English, and in many of these texts Arthurian legend became incorporated into the narrative of the pre-Saxon history of Britain; from a strictly historical point of view this was largely spurious, but it was a moment of immense literary vitality and creativity. Not everybody was swept along with the fashion; there are some sceptical and scathing comments from twelfth-century historians about this apparently brand-new history. But these stories had huge appeal, and part of that appeal, we might speculate, was that they occupied an enchanting borderland between history and fantasy: they can be imagined taking place not in some faraway magical kingdom but in this country, on the very ground we walk on, yet so far in the past that they provide space for all kinds of invention.

Whatever the exact details of Glastonbury’s origins, there’s no doubt it really is ancient, and people go there, even today, in part because of the charm of antiquity, the sense of origins lost in the mists of time. The vagueness and the mistiness and the ‘maybe real, maybe not’ are part of its appeal to the imagination. Deliberately designing a church to look older than it is might well be a scam, but it might equally be an attempt at conveying an aura of ancientness, creating an atmosphere which helps your visitors to feel that this is a special, holy, and ancient place. (Note the difference between 'helps your visitors to feel' and 'tricks your visitors into thinking'.) It’s an entirely natural move to associate that specialness with the most popular historical legend of the day, one which was especially beloved by the aristocracy and the educated elite – the social world from which some monks came, and which most monks had to learn to negotiate to some degree. In that world, Arthurian legends were everywhere - and understanding them as legends, as literature, is key.

Legends are not lies. Fiction is not fraud. At root, these are stories, and the most important thing about a story – even a story about events which happened in the past – is not always whether it is true, as in, it actually happened. We all know this, don’t we? Telling a story which you know not to be true is not necessarily lying; whether we call an untrue story a 'lie' depends on all kinds of other factors, which we are quite capable of understanding in our everyday lives. It depends on your intention in telling it, the manner in which you tell it, the way you want your audience to receive it, and the way they actually receive it. If you invent a story which you know is not true, and you want your audience to believe it’s true, that might be what we would call a lie. (But even so, there are circumstances in which we would not consider it lying; when parents tell their children stories about Father Christmas, children believe them, but most people don’t call that 'lying'.) And if you invent a story which the audience won’t believe, which they will recognise as exactly that – a story – that’s not a lie. That’s fiction. It’s fiction even if it deals with history; it is quite possible to tell a story about history because you think it’s a good and powerful story, and not because you think every word of it actually happened.

There are all kinds of grey areas here, even in historical narratives, and medieval views on this were sometimes different from ours; not better or worse, not more or less fraudulent, but different. (The place and status of fiction and legend in twelfth-century histories in particular is a huge subject which I won’t try and summarise here.) So when you come up against a medieval legend which seems to you obviously untrue, pause for a second before you jump to the conclusion that the person who told it was either a liar or a fool. They may have been, but there are many other possibilities - and wouldn't it be fun to exercise a bit more imagination? Honestly, I’m just bored of reading news stories, and historical fiction, which repeat the old lazy story about cynical monks and credulous pilgrims, without making any imaginative attempt to move beyond the cliche. That’s an idea of how monks and pilgrims might have interacted – a modern myth, you might say – which has barely advanced one step in historical analysis from the anti-monastic rhetoric of the sixteenth century. As history, as journalism, and as fiction, it’s just dull, because it’s so limited and so uniform. It assumes that we not only know exactly how the monks (all monks, in every monastery) communicated their stories to visitors, but also how the visitors (all visitors, from every walk of life) received the stories they were told. And we just don’t. We never will. We can imagine all kinds of possibilities, but we don’t know for sure. We have some physical evidence, and we have texts, but that’s not everything – it’s the difference between seeing the set, props and script for a play, and watching it performed.

(Or, to be a little mischievous: it's the difference between reading the plans for the public engagement aspect of the Glastonbury Abbey project, and seeing what the media actually heard when the words 'cash' and 'monks' were mentioned in the same sentence...)

So we could imagine (as most writers seem to) a version of events where a credulous pilgrim comes to visit an abbey and a cynical monk, laughing up his sleeve, spins the pilgrim a ridiculous story, which ends up in the pilgrim gratefully pouring pursefuls of money into the monk’s waiting hands. But at the other extreme, we could also imagine a visitor, a bit bored and wanting a day out, coming to have a look at that new church people have been talking about; he asks about it, and hears a story about King Arthur which it’s quite clear the teller doesn’t really expect him to believe. (I’m imagining a playful telling, the way a friendly room-steward at a National Trust property might play up the story of the house’s resident ghost; you know and she knows that it’s probably just a story, but it’s still a fun thing to tell the visitors.) Or we could imagine an informed visitor who knows more about the abbey than its own monks do, bemusing them by enthusiasm for its legends (I’ve been in that role sometimes!). We could imagine a situation where a very keen monk really really believes in the story, and the visitors laugh, but not unkindly, at his naivety. Or a situation where both monk and visitor half-believe, half-doubt, but enjoy the story anyway. Or where both very sincerely, genuinely believe with all their hearts (because monks were capable of sincerity, you know). There are all kinds of things you can imagine, if you can step away from the cliche.

Any or all or none of these things might have happened. Just at Glastonbury, we’re talking about interactions between hundreds if not thousands of people, from royalty to the lowest classes of society, over the course of more than three centuries. How can you be so sure that you know what everyone was thinking, all that time? Telling stories is one of the most fundamental parts of human experience, and to dismiss all that as deception is just silly. Human beings, even in the supposedly credulous Middle Ages, are entirely capable of enjoying a story without knowing, or even caring, whether it's true or not. If we only told true stories, I don’t think life would be worth living; and if we were required to be 100% sure whether or not a story was true before we were allowed to tell or listen to it, an essential part of human communication would break down. Not only would we have no fiction, but we would not be able to repeat the kinds of stories we all tell, all the time, about our own lives – the kinds of stories which are rarely ever true in every detail but which knit communities together, help us to understand our own experiences, and let us imagine why things are as they are or how they could be better.

Legends are not lies. If you go to Glastonbury today – that strange yet wonderful town, rich in genuine antiquity and utter nonsense and everything in between – you will find some people who wholeheartedly believe in the myths. You’ll also find people who don’t believe in the myths at all, and don’t understand why anyone would want to. But the majority of people will probably fall somewhere between those extremes. They don’t really believe in everything they’ve heard about King Arthur or Joseph of Arimathea, but they like the stories; they enjoy thinking about them, and they get pleasure from being in a place associated with them. Maybe they like to imagine they could be true, but they wouldn’t necessarily like the stories more if they were; their value and their meaning are quite independent of their historical veracity. And to see objects and places which are said to be associated with these stories is a spur to the imagination, a pleasurable or even a moving experience. It contributes to the sense of a place which is special for a reason its visitors can’t, perhaps, quite define or articulate, but which is nonetheless valuable and powerful to them. To be in a special place makes them feel that life means something, that there is a reality beyond the drudgery of the everyday. There is nothing wrong with any of that.

There are so many kinds of desire at play in human behaviour, and most of all in the stories people tell. It might be the job of a historian to work out what truth, if any, lies behind those stories, but it is also our job to try and understand why and how they might be told. Passing moral judgement, busting myths, or gleefully discrediting ancient legends will only take you so far; it will never really help you understand why these legends had so much power. To do that, you have to allow for the role of stories in forming identities and building communities; for the diversity of ways in which people receive the stories they hear; for the place of imagination, play, and the pleasure of narrative. You have to allow for the fact that the past was different from the present, and that medieval writers did not always share our particular idea of what makes good academic history; they weren't wrong, or stupid, just different. Look around you, and you'll see that we all constantly use stories in thinking about the past, and especially in communicating it to others: the news reports I linked to at the beginning of this post are not simply reporting facts but telling a story, complete with motives for which we do not (and never will) have evidence. This story about 'monks on the make' 'filling their coffers' is one particular way of interpreting the evidence we have; it's a story about the medieval past which appeals to modern journalists and to many modern historians, in part because it fits with a certain narrative which for centuries dominated the study of history in Britain - medieval England mired in a corrupt, superstitious Dark Age before the dawning of Reformation light. The 'myth-busting' in fact just reinforces a very old myth. (The similarity in rhetoric between anti-Catholic Victorian historians and secularist Guardian journalists is really quite strange to see.) Often this goes hand-in-hand with a superior, not to say snobbish, attitude towards popular tradition and the gullibility of the general public, who are, it's assumed, too stupid to recognise a legend when they hear one.

But there are other ways to tell the story, based on the exact same evidence. I've suggested a few, and I'm sure you can think of others. If nothing else, we can pay attention to the language we use: what a difference it makes if instead of speaking of histories 'fabricated', 'concocted' and 'forged', we use the language of imagination, story-telling, and creativity.