Monday, 30 July 2012

Christianity and Some Vikings

This is a really sweet story:

A Viking longship has returned to the banks of the River Tyne to say thank you to the north-east of England for bringing Christianity to Norway 1,000 years ago.
Hundreds of young Norwegians arrived in Newcastle on Sunday, as part of a community project working alongside more than 70 churches in the region.
The last time the Vikings were in the region in the 1400s it was to invade and pillage. This time, they are saying thank you for their Christian Heritage, birthed and enabled from the city.
Kay Morten Aarskog, from the organisation Youth With a Mission in Norway, sailed on the ship into the river.
He said: "When the Vikings came here back in the old days, they brought with them the Christian Gospel when they came back to Norway.
"We are giving a formal thank you on behalf of the Norwegian people to your ancestors and the people living in the North East now."
During the Olympics, about 300 Christians aged between 15 and 70 will be serving in churches around the North East, hosting events, children's clubs and social action projects.
Mr Aarskog said: "I have been interested in looking at what did happen when the Christian Gospel came to Norway, how did it change our nation and how did it change the people living in Norway?
"So we set out with this Viking ship project, coming over here with lots of young people to say thank you and as a way also to explore the history and the heritage we share together.
"It is [faith] declining in churches everywhere really, but at the same time we see a young generation that is interested in truth and really seeking to believe in and something to put their hopes in.
"This is why we believe that looking at what gave Europe hope 1,000 years ago, just might be what can give Europe hope today."

The initiative is thoroughly admirable, and it's impressive to see that these young people value the role England played in the conversion of Scandinavia. The relationship between the English and Norwegian churches is a long and interesting story, and it wasn't only the north-east which contributed to the evangelisation of Norway ("birthed and enabled from the city" is the BBC reporter's error; Newcastle itself had nothing to do with this). The conversion of Scandinavia was a long process and apparently a long-term aim of English kings and churchmen, which took well over a hundred years to come to fruition. It started roughly around the time of the English king Athelstan, who provided support to the conversion efforts of Hakon, Norway's first Christian king - but they weren't very successful, and it was only under Olaf Tryggvason, around the turn of the first millennium, that Christianity made much progress in Norway.

Olaf Tryggvason had been converted and baptised in England, and took English priests with him to Norway to Christianise the country. King Ethelred the Unready deserves a fair bit of credit for this (in fact, it's arguably the most successful project poor Ethelred was ever involved in) - when Olaf was baptised in England in 994, Ethelred was his baptismal sponsor. The cleric who baptised Olaf was the future St Ælfheah, which I always think makes Ælfheah's ultimate fate (death at the hands of Vikings) more poignant.

Olaf and the English priests had a reasonable amount of success in Christianising Norway, partly because Olaf believed in the 'conversion at sword-point' model of evangelisation (not, I imagine, what those nice young Norwegian Christians in Newcastle are planning to emulate!).

So, anyway, all good stuff and worthy of being remembered. Unfortunately, the BBC's contribution to this is to get the date of the Viking Age wrong - by a whole 500 years. That's quite impressive! "The last time the Vikings were in the region in the 1400s it was to invade and pillage" - well, no, but nice try. The very, very last time was in 1151 (a mini-occupation of the Farne islands by the Norwegian king, not a big deal except that they ate too many of the inhabitants' sheep); there was a little at the end of the twelfth century; and there was the attempted invasion of Harald Hardrada in 1066. But the period of 'invasion and pillage' in Northumbria and longships striking fear into hearts, etc., is earlier: 800s-900s.

(Also, of course, there were plenty of Norwegians in the region throughout the medieval period, since they came to trade and settle in England, just like people from neighbouring countries have done throughout history, and there was lots of contact between the Norwegian and English churches, too.)

I suppose it would be a bit much to expect our national news reporter to employ someone who knows the general shape of English history, but it would be nice if they could manage to locate events within the correct half-millennium.


The Independent's report is much better, though this opening paragraph is a little iffy:


It has been nearly 1,000 years since the last Viking longship made its way up the River Tyne. In those days the sight of the dreaded Norse was enough to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who witnessed them, their arrival the sure prelude to another bout of rape, pillage and fire.

I'm only being picky when I say it's actually nearer 1200 years since a Viking ship went up the Tyne; Harald Hardrada and all subsequent Vikings arrived further south, in the Humber. But I can forgive that ;) They also provide this summary of Viking activity in England:


772 AD Charlemagne's Saxon wars begin; these are often cited as the cause of Viking expansion by peoples inhabiting areas of Scandanavia that now cover Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
793 A raid on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne leads to monks being killed and the sacking of the monastery. Northumbrian scholar Alcuin wrote: "The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets."
866 Vikings from Denmark launch their invasion of England.
986 Leif Ericson reaches Greenland, becoming the first European to colonise North America. Other Viking leaders conquered parts of France and Russia, as well as trading in Spain and Turkey.
1030 Battle of Stikestad signifies end of the Viking Age in Norway with the death of King Olaf II, who was later made a Saint by Pope Alexander III.
1066 Vikings led by Harald Hardrada defeated at Stamford Bridge in East Yorkshire.

All true enough - but don't you think that in a summary of Vikings in England, you might want to make mention of the two decades when the whole of England was ruled by a Viking king? You know, Cnut - the one with the waves? More relevant to the point than Leif Ericson, I should have thought. But hey, they didn't get the dates wrong by four centuries, so that's a massive plus.

Evening in the Village


Evenen in the Village

Now the light o' the west is a-turn'd to gloom,
An' the men be at hwome vrom ground;
An' the bells be a-zendén all down the Coombe
From tower, their mwoansome sound.
An' the wind is still,
An' the house-dogs do bark,
An' the rooks be a-vled to the elems high an' dark,
An' the water do roar at mill.

An' the flickerén light drough the window-peäne
Vrom the candle's dull fleäme do shoot,
An' young Jemmy the smith is a-gone down leäne,
A-plaÿén his shrill-vaiced flute.
An' the miller's man,
Do zit down at his ease
On the seat that is under the cluster o' trees,
Wi' his pipe an' his cider can.



This is another William Barnes poem (as if you couldn't tell!). I was struggling to imagine exactly how this Dorset dialect would sound, so I went to the British Library's sound archive and found this lovely recording of a Dorset farmer made in 1956; he was born in 1871 and Barnes died in 1886, so I guess this is not far off. And the life he describes is pure Thomas Hardy (because this is Hardy's Wessex, of course) - listen to what he says about how much cider people used to drink!

I just love the BL sound archive - it's such a treasure-trove of fascinating things! And the Survey of English Dialects is so interesting. I imagine some of my international readers will never have heard many of these accents, since you'd never hear them on TV and so many are disappearing. The most distinctive ones belong to people born at the end of the nineteenth century, like our Dorset farmer. I especially love listening to the different accents of southern England: in Suffolk this year I was fascinated to hear a young gardener who sounded pretty much exactly like this, and if you're lucky in Oxford you can still overhear people who sound like this, a lovely Oxfordshire accent (listen to how they say 'excited' and 'let us pray'). And here's a thick Crowland accent (I love how he says 'Peterborough') and a shepherd from Hampshire (a voice straight out of Jane Austen country!); here's a Kentish one from near Canterbury - the name of which the speaker pronounce something like 'Cannerberry', which I don't think I've ever heard anyone say today. And the woman from the Isle of Wight is interesting linguistically (listen for her pronouns) but very moving, too.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Within the woodlands, flowery gladed

After the dream-world of yesterday's Stevenson poem - a peaceful garden, all cultivated lawns and marble statuary, very definitely nature tamed by man - here's an idyll which is a little more rural:




Within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed,
By the oak trees' mossy moot;
The shining grass blades, timber-shaded,
Now do quiver under foot;
And birds do whistle overhead,
And water's bubbling in its bed;
And there for me the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

When leaves, that lately were a-springing,
Now do fade within the copse,
And painted birds do hush their singing
Up upon the timber tops;
And brown leaved fruit's a-turning red,
In cloudless sunshine overhead,
With fruit for me the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Let other folk make money faster;
In the air of darkened towns;
I don't dread a peevish master.
Though no man may heed my frowns
I be free to go abroad,
Or take again my home-ward road,
To where for me the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.


This is Ralph Vaughan Williams' setting of a text by the dialect poet William Barnes. The original is actually titled 'My Orcha'd in Linden Lea':


'Ithin the woodlands, flow'ry gleaded,
By the woak tree's mossy moot,
The sheenen grass bleades, timber-sheaded,
Now do quiver under voot;
An' birds do whissle auver head,
An' water's bubblen in its bed,
An' ther vor me the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

When leaves that leately wer a-springen
Now do feade 'ithin the copse,
An' painted birds do hush ther zingen
Up upon the timber's tops;
An' brown-leav'd fruit's a-turnen red,
In cloudless zunsheen, auver head,
Wi' fruit vor me the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Let other vo'k meake money vaster
In the air o' dark-room'd towns,
I don't dread a peevish measter;
Though noo man do heed my frowns,
I be free to goo abrode,
Or teake agean my hwomeward road
To where vor me the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.



I posted another poem by William Barnes last year, 'The Castle Ruins', which is also charming (and worth the effort it takes to decipher the dialect!). But the star of 'Linden Lea' is Vaughan Williams' setting, of course; I love how the piano accompaniment just takes off in the last verse!

The vocalist in the video above is Ian Bostridge, who does it wonderfully - but this version is a vintage delight:




I was thinking about 'Linden Lea' partly because of what's been in the news and on everyone's lips in Britain today: the Olympics, and particularly last night's opening ceremony. It seems to have been a roaring success, but for me it is a reminder of how alien so much of modern culture has become to me. The whole thing - the noise, the crowds, the vast expense of money, the glorification of all that's urban and modern and new; and what comes with it, the media chatter, the exaltation of corporate culture, the endless flood of opinion and comment, the Twitter-shallow level of discussion and thought - I'm afraid I don't understand how anyone can like it. The story of Britain that ceremony told isn't a story I recognise; it's not a story I believe to be true, based on my own knowledge of history and literature. It's a myth for a country that no longer learns its own history, and based on the favourable commentary of my acquaintances on facebook, it's a myth which is very popular. That's fine; I understand the need for myths and shared narratives, and there's no requirement for them to be accurate. But it's so very far from my own imaginative world - and so I begin to wonder, how did I get so separated from my contemporaries and the world we have to live in?

I don't have a sense of superiority about it; this alienation from all the modern world values is not going to work out well for me, since this way lies discontentment, failure in the eyes of the world, and loneliness. I don't care about failure, and I can work on learning contentment; it's the loneliness that's worst, the sense of being isolated from the people around you, and with a few blessed exceptions I've been used to that all my life. How do these people think? How can I form relationships with them, or talk to them about anything, when they don't care about what matters to me, and I don't understand what matters to them? My outlook on this is not ideological, but purely selfish - let other folks make money faster, and do whatever they like, as long as there are one or two people willing to share my mental world with me! I don't ask for much in the way of imaginative sympathy: one person to employ me and one to love me, and I wouldn't need anything else (and the employer is optional). Honestly, my mental world is a very nice place: it basically looks like this blog, all poetry and pretty pictures, with a bit of amateur etymology thrown in. Why don't more people want to live there rather than in the noisy flashy Olympic world? I don't get it.

Anyway, I've been daydreaming about escape: away from the town and the tourists to a world that makes more sense, that has a place for me. And so it's comforting to think that for all one's tendency to assume it's a modern problem, William Barnes felt exactly the same way a hundred years ago; that's what 'Linden Lea' is all about. For this reason, I'll probably be posting some more literary idylls in the next few days. In the meantime, if anyone would like to join me in a cottage in the woods, with no television and no internet, for the duration of the Olympics, that would be great...

Friday, 27 July 2012

"White placid marble gods should keep / Good watch in every shadowy lawn"

This is a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson about what poetry could be - 'had I the power that have the will'. There's something immensely peaceful and gentle about the vision he describes, which makes me think he achieved his goal more nearly than he believed. This is the garden I imagine when I'm reading it (well, actually I imagine the magical garden from The Enchanted Castle, but Goodnestone is the closest I've ever been to that in real life):




Had I the power that have the will,
The enfeebled will - a modern curse -
This book of mine should blossom still
A perfect garden-ground of verse.

White placid marble gods should keep
Good watch in every shadowy lawn;
And from clean, easy-breathing sleep
The birds should waken me at dawn.

- A fairy garden; - none the less
Throughout these gracious paths of mine
All day there should be free access
For stricken hearts and lives that pine;

And by the folded lawns all day -
No idle gods for such a land -
All active Love should take its way
With active Labour hand in hand.



Arthur Hughes, 'Caedmon's Awakening'

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Medieval Prayers to a Guardian Angel

Today I came across the interesting idea that devotion to guardian angels may have been a particularly English piety in the Middle Ages. R. W. Southern notes in Saint Anselm and his Biographer that the majority of medieval examples for prayers to guardian angels come from England, ranging from the 9th to the 15th century. One early English example is provided by the Canterbury monk and historian Eadmer: late in life, perhaps in the 1120s, Eadmer wrote a meditation on the subject of his guardian angel, describing how he had once greatly desired to know his angel's name and how it had been revealed to him. Speaking of the period when he was in exile from England with Anselm (some time between 1097-1107), he says:
I was one of the servants and companions of [Anselm's] journey, and being far from my native soil and from my compatriots and friends, I often sat alone and turned over in my mind many things, some of them transitory and temporal, and some - but much more rarely - eternal. At times the enormity of my sins overcame me, and I sighed with confusion and wondered at the long-suffering patience and goodness of God. It seemed to me that I saw Him depute some good guardian to defend me from the attacks of the evil demons... Meditating often about this, I desired greatly to know the name of my guardian, so that I could, when possible, honour his memory with some act of devotion. One night I fell asleep with this thought and behold, someone stood by me saying my prayer was heard, and that I might know without doubt that the name I desired to know was Gabriel.
R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm and his Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought 1059-c.1130 (Cambridge, 1966), p.297.

I would love to know how Eadmer might have talked about his guardian angel in his native tongue, but for vernacular English prayers on the same subject we have to look a little later. Here's a fifteenth-century one, headed 'To the gud angell':

O angell dere, wher-euer I goo,
Me that am comytted to thyne awarde,
Saue, defende, & govern also,
That in hewyn with the be my reward.

Clense my sowle from syn þat I haue do,
& vertuously me wysse to godward!
Shyld me from þe fende evermo,
& fro the paynes of hell so hard.

O thou cumly angell, so gud & clere,
þat ever art abydyng with me;
Thowgh I may nother the se nor here,
Yet devoutely with trist I pray to the.

My body & sowle thou kepe in fere,
With soden deth departid þat they not be!
For þat ys thyn offes, both fere & nere,
In every place wher ever I be.

O blessid angell, to me so dere,
Messangere of God Almyght,
Govern my dedis & thowght in fere,
To þe plesaunce of God, both day & nyght.

This comes from Oxford, Balliol College MS. 354. I was interested to see that the poem doesn't actually use the phrase 'guardian angel', although that clearly is the relationship envisaged - a single angel whose 'office' is to guide and guard one particular individual. So I looked up 'guardian angel' in the OED to see how old the phrase is in English. The earliest instance it cites for the phrase is from John Donne's 'The Relique' ('Difference of sex no more we knew/ than our guardian angels do'); the first certain instance of the phrase in the sense intended by the Middle English poem is from 1760. That's pretty late for a concept which is so ancient. I couldn't find an Old English phrase which exactly parallels the term, although Ælfric says in his sermon about angels that Micel wurðscipe is cristenra manna, þæt gehwilc hæbbe fram his acennednysse him betæhtne engel to hyrdrædene 'It is a great honour for Christians that each person, from birth, has an angel assigned to him as a guardian'. Hyrde (as in our shepherd, cowherd) is a common OE word for guardian, so perhaps that's the closest we can get to an Old English term.

A later medieval name seems to have been 'good angel', as this poem's heading suggests - though the Middle English Dictionary also offers 'familiar angel' as a medieval expression, which is pretty great. (I can't resist observing that the Old Norse word for a guardian angel (in the Christian sense) seems to be exactly the same as the word for a familiar spirit (in the pagan sense) - fylgja. Those familiar spirits, in the Poetic Edda and in the sagas, can take the form of animals, troll-women or giantesses, and scary valkyrie-like female spirits - so what that tells you about what medieval Scandinavians thought guardian angels were, I don't know...)

Here's a translation of the poem above:

'To the good angel'

O angel dear, wherever I go,
Me that am committed to thy guard,
Save, defend, and govern also,
That in heaven with thee be my reward.

Cleanse my soul from sin that I have done,
And virtuously guide me to God-ward.
Shield me from the fiend evermore,
And from the pains of hell so hard.

O thou comely angel, so good and dear,
That ever art abiding with me,
Though I may not thee see or hear,
Yet devoutly with trust I pray to thee.

My body & soul keep thou in fere, [both together]
That by sudden death they may not parted be;
For that is thine office, both far & near,
In every place, wherever I may be.

O blessed angel, to me so dear,
Messenger of God Almight,
Govern my deeds and thoughts in fere,
To please my God, both day and night.

This features a particularly appealing Middle English grammatical construction: 'to God-ward', meaning 'towards God'.


Here's another prayer to a guardian angel, from a fifteenth-century prayer book (BL, Harley 2445):

O Gloriouse angell, to whom our blessyd lord of his most mercyfull grace hath taken me to kepe: to thee, I, synful creature, crye and calle, with hertely mynde, besechyng the ever to be singuler comfort to me in all my nede. Suffer me never to be over come with tentacyon or synful dede, but helpe me, that by grace I may ever in virtuous livynge procede. At the hour of my deth be present, that my gostly enemy in me have noo power. And after bryng me to the blysse, where ever with the I may lyve and prayse our Saviour. Amen.

[O glorious angel, to whom our blessed Lord in his most merciful grace hath entrusted me for protection, to thee, I, sinful creature, cry and call with a sincere mind, beseeching thee ever to be a special comfort to me in all my need. Permit me never to be overcome by temptation or sinful deeds, but help me, that by grace I may ever proceed in virtuous living. Be present at the hour of my death, that my spiritual enemy may have no power over me, and afterwards bring me to the bliss where I may live and praise our Saviour forever with thee. Amen.]

Angels from Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk

And another from the same manuscript (I found them both in this book):

A, good Curtyes aungell ordyned to my governale, I knowe wele my feblenes and my unkonnyng. Also wel I wote that strength have I none to do Goddes servyce, but only of his grace, and of your besy kepyng. The connynge I have cometh no thynge of me, but what God wyll sende me be your good entysynge. Now good gracyous aungell, I aske you lowely mercy, for lytell hede I have takyn of your good besynes, but now I thanke you as I can, with full herte besechyng you that ye kepe me truely this day, and evermore, slepynge and wakyng with syker defenyng and your holy techeynge. Defend me and kepe me from bodely hermes, defende me and kepe me from goostly perelys, to goddes worchippe and savyng of my soule. Teche me and wysshe me my wyttes for to dyspende, most to goddes worchipe and pleasynge, fede me with devocyon and savour of goostly swetnes, conforte me whan nede is ayenst my ghoostly enemes, and suffice me not to lese thi grace that ys grantyd me, but of your worthy offyce kepe me in goddes servyce to my lyves hende. And after the passynge of the body, presente my soule unto the mercyfull god: for though I fall alday by myn owne freelte, thou I take in wyttnes that ever I hope in mercy. Gladly wolde I worship the and i myght to you : lykyng therefore god to worship for you, thou also in hym after his holy techeyng, I thank hym with holy prayer.

[Ah, good courteous angel ordained for my protection, I know well my feebleness and my ignorance. Also well I know that I have no strength to do God's service, except only by his grace, and by your busy care. The knowledge I have comes in no way from me, except what God chooses to send me at your good entreaty. Now good gracious angel, I ask you humbly for mercy, for I have taken little heed of your good busyness, but now I thank you as I can, with full heart beseeching you that ye keep me truly this day, and evermore, sleeping and waking, with sure defending and your holy teaching. Defend me and keep me from bodily harms, defend me and keep me from spiritual perils, for the worship of God and the salvation of my soul. Teach me and guide me how to use my wits for the greatest honour and pleasure of God, feed me with devotion and savour of spiritual sweetness, comfort me when there is need against my spiritual enemies, and permit me not to lose the grace that is granted me, but by your worthy office keep me in God's service to my life's end. And after the passing of the body, present my soul unto merciful God: for though I fall every day by my own frailty, thou I take in witness that I ever hope in mercy. Gladly would I honour thee, if I might, to thy satisfaction; therefore to honour God for you, and thou also in him according to his holy teaching, I thank him with holy prayer.]

A fifteenth-century lady prays to her guardian angel, from Royal 2 A XVIII

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A Recipe for Happiness: Be Merry and Endure

A sixteenth-century song with advice on how to live a happy life - or at least a trouble-free one:

He is wise, so most I goo,
That can be mery and suffer woo.


Be mery and suffer, as I the vise,
Wherever thow sytt or rise;
Be well ware whom thow dispise;
Thou shalt kysse who is thy foo.

Beware to whom thou spek thy will,
For thy speche may greve the ill;
Here and see, and goo than still;
But well is he that can do soo.

Many a man holdyth hym so stowght
Whatsoever he thynk, he seyth it owt;
But if he loke well abowt,
His tonge may be his most foo.

'Be mery,' now is all my songe;
The wise man tawght both old and yonge;
'Who can suffer and hold his tonge,
He may be mery and nothyng woo.'

Yff any man displese the owght,
Suffer with a mery thowght;
Let care away, and greve the nowght,
And shake thy lappe, and let it go.

Here's a literal translation of the song:

He is a wise man, as I may go, who can be merry and endure pain.

Be merry and endure, I advise you, wherever you sit or rise [i.e. wherever you are]; be very careful whom you scorn, for you may be forced to associate with someone who has been your enemy.

Be careful to whom you speak your mind, for your words may come to cause you harm; listen and watch, and keep quiet. Well is it for him who can do this!

Many a man holds himself so proud that whatever he thinks, he says it straight out; but if he look carefully about himself, he may find his tongue his greatest foe.

"Be merry," now is all my song. The wise man taught to both old and young: "Whoever can endure and hold his tongue, he may be merry and never sorrow."

If anyone displease you in any way, endure it with merry thoughts; let care go, and do not trouble yourself, and shake your lap,  and let it go.

As may I go is an emphatic oath meaning 'certainly, for sure', along the lines of something like 'as I live and breathe', and a lap is the skirt of a garment, so to 'shake your lap' is just a careless gesture, like turning on your heel, or shaking the dust off your feet.

The words of this song are preserved, without music, in a sixteenth-century manuscript which belonged to a London grocer named Richard Hill. It's his commonplace book, containing a large number of carols in English, French and Latin, and also (to quote the Oxford Book of Carols) "commercial entries, tables of weights, prices, dates of fairs, medical and cooking recipes (including a 'medicen for a dog that is poysent', and 'a good medycyne for a cutt' which begins 'Take a pynte of good ale'), a form for making letters of attorney, a list of diaper table-cloths, &c., for the mayor's annual feast at the Guildhall, rules for purchase of land, the bread assize, a treaty on wine, dates of his children, pious ejaculations and reflections, notes on the breaking in of horses, the 'crafte to brewe bere', forms for business letters in English and French, riddles, puzzles, with many humorous and satirical verses". Hill was a man of diverse interests! The Christmas carols in the manuscript include versions of some now-famous ones (the Corpus Christi Carol, the Boar's Head Carol, 'The Holly and the Ivy', 'Tyrle, Tyrlow') as well as some of my more obscure favourites, such as 'A little child there is ybore', 'A babe is born all of a may', 'Tidings true', 'This endris night' and 'In Bethlehem, that fair city'. Richard Hill had excellent taste in carols - and just as well, or some of these songs might have been completely lost to history. The manuscript was discovered in the mid-19th century, hidden behind a bookcase, and is now Oxford, Balliol College 354 - you can see images of it (though it's not much to look at!) here.

This song belongs to a little sub-genre of late medieval verse, poems of cynical advice whose attitude could perhaps be summarised as 'the world is always going to be unjust, cruel and deceitful, so you might as well enjoy yourself'. Especially typical is the advice to hold your tongue and stay out of trouble by keeping your thoughts to yourself. It's a kind of secular, jaded version of the musings on earthly transience which form such an important strain in medieval poetry - exemplified by poems like 'This world fareth as a fantasy' or 'All earthly joy returns to pain', which take a more philosophical approach to the same essential theme of the untrustworthiness of the world. The general idea is pithily encapsulated in a couplet by the Scottish poet William Dunbar, from a roughly contemporary poem:

Man, please thy maker and be merry
And set not by this world a cherry.

Not bad advice, really.


Image from BL Royal 6 E VII f. 106, illustrating the word fabula, 'speech, talk'. 'Thy speche may greve thee ill...'

Monday, 23 July 2012

"What a place to be in is an old library!"


An extract from Charles Lamb's essay 'Oxford in the Vacation', published in The Essays of Elia in 1823:


'...I am plain Elia - no Selden, nor Archbishop Usher - though at present in the thick of their books, here in the heart of learning, under the shadow of the mighty Bodley.

I can here play the gentleman, enact the student. To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution, nowhere is so pleasant, to while away a few idle weeks at, as one or other of the Universities. Their vacation, too, at this time of the year, falls in so pat with ours. Here I can take my walks unmolested, and fancy myself of what degree or standing I please. I seem admitted ad eundem. I fetch up past opportunities. I can rise at the chapel-bell, and dream that it rings for me. In moods of humility I can be a Sizar, or a Servitor. When the peacock vein rises, I strut a Gentleman Commoner. In graver moments, I proceed Master of Arts. Indeed I do not think I am much unlike that respectable character. I have seen your dim-eyed vergers, and bed-makers in spectacles, drop a bow or a curtsy, as I pass, wisely mistaking me for something of the sort. I go about in black, which favours the notion. Only in Christ Church reverend quadrangle I can be content to pass for nothing short of a Seraphic Doctor.


The walks at these times are so much one's own, - the tall trees of Christ's, the groves of Magdalen! The halls deserted, and with open doors, inviting one to slip in unperceived, and pay a devoir to some Founder, or noble or royal Benefactress (that should have been ours) whose portrait seems to smile upon their over-looked beadsman, and to adopt me for their own. Then, to take a peep in by the way at the butteries, and scullieries, redolent of antique hospitality; the immense caves of kitchens, kitchen fireplaces, cordial recesses; ovens whose first pies were baked four centuries ago; and spits which have cooked for Chaucer! Not the meanest minister among the dishes but is hallowed to me through his imagination, and the Cook goes forth a Manciple.

Antiquity! thou wondrous charm, what art thou? that, being nothing, art everything! When, thou wert, thou wert not antiquity - then thou wert nothing, but hadst a remoter antiquity, as thou calledst it, to look back to with blind veneration; thou thyself being to thyself flat, jejune, modern! What mystery lurks in this retroversion? or what half Januses are we, that cannot look forward with the same idolatry with which we for ever revert! The mighty future is as nothing, being everything! the past is everything, being nothing!

What were thy dark ages? Surely the sun rose as brightly then as now, and man got him to his work in the morning? Why is it we can never hear mention of them without an accompanying feeling, as though a palpable obscure had dimmed the face of things, and that our ancestors wandered to and fro groping!


Above all thy rarities, old Oxenford, what do most arride and solace me, are thy repositories of mouldering learning, thy shelves --

What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers, that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians, were reposing here, as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.

Still less have I curiosity to disturb the elder repose of MSS. Those variae lectiones, so tempting to the more erudite palates, do but disturb and unsettle my faith. I am no Herculanean raker. The credit of the three witnesses might have slept unimpeached for me. I leave these curiosities to Porson, and to G.D. [his friend George Dyer] - whom, by the way, I found busy as a moth over some rotten archive, rummaged out of some seldom-explored press, in a nook at Oriel. With long poring, he is grown almost into a book. He stood as passive as one by the side of the old shelves. I longed to new-coat him in russia, and assign him his place. He might have mustered for a tall Scapula.


D. is assiduous in his visits to these seats of learning... D. is delightful anywhere, but he is at the best in such places as these. He cares not much for Bath. He is out of his element at Buxton, at Scarborough, or Harrowgate. The Cam and the Isis are to him 'better than all the waters of Damascus.' On the Muses' hill he is happy, and good, as one of the Shepherds on the Delectable Mountains; and when he goes about with you to show you the halls and colleges, you think you have with you the Interpreter at the House Beautiful.'



Lamb's picture of an Oxford denuded of its undergraduates resonates with me, as I sit here in the silent, nearly empty Radcliffe Camera (even the shelves are empty; they move books around in the vacation). Today, unlike in 1823, the streets are packed with tourists, but within the corridors of deserted colleges and libraries the sense of being alone with antiquity is very strong. There is no feeling so equally humbling and heartening: to be surrounded by the past, "that, being nothing, art everything".

As I was preparing this post and waiting for the pictures to upload, I got an email advertising an upcoming conference. It's about working with archives - Lamb's winding sheets for the souls of dead scholars. This conference will be "demystifying and demonstrating the skills needed to make new histories"; "[t]oo long associated with settled dust, archival research will be championed as engaged and engaging: a rigorous but permissive field." Too long associated with settled dust! Ouch. Nothing could provide a sharper contrast to Lamb's half-reverent, half-mocking attitude to the scholarship of the past, and his understanding of how quickly the present moment becomes history. It's always a source of amusement to me how terrified modern academia is of appearing to be anything less than modern. You don't have to disparage the past in order to find new ways of talking about it; all academics do by attempting to demystify a field in that way is to create new mysteries - new jargon, ever-more alienating to non-academics, and enacting a kind of shaming towards people who study the past because they love it. As if one could not feel 'engaged' with settled dust!

I can't help feeling that, judging by the numbers of tourists who come to take pictures of Oxford in the vacation, the mystery of ancient libraries and shelves of settled dust possess as much charm for your average person today as they did for Charles Lamb. If academics really want to demystify our arcane and exclusionary fields, we should stop pretending that charm is a bad thing.


Friday, 20 July 2012

In Praise of Story

Frank Dicksee, 'Chivalry'


Come, my beloved, hear from me
Tales of the woods or open sea.
Let our aspiring fancy rise
A wren's flight higher toward the skies;
Or far from cities, brown and bare,
Play at the least in open air.
In all the tales men hear us tell
Still let the unfathomed ocean swell,
Or shallower forest sound abroad
Below the lonely stars of God;
In all, let something still be done,
Still in a corner shine the sun,
Slim-ankled maids be fleet of foot,
Nor man disown the rural flute.
Still let the hero from the start
In honest sweat and beats of heart
Push on along the untrodden road
For some inviolate abode.
Still, O beloved, let me hear
The great bell beating far and near -
The odd, unknown, enchanted gong
That on the road hales men along,
That from the mountain calls afar,
That lures a vessel from a star,
And with a still, aerial sound
Makes all the earth enchanted ground.
Love, and the love of life and act
Dance, live and sing through all our furrowed tract;
Till the great God enamoured gives
To him who reads, to him who lives,
That rare and fair romantic strain
That whoso hears must hear again.


Robert Braithwaite Martineau, 'The Last Chapter'


I love this poem. Who knew more about the 'rare and fair romantic strain' in literature than its author, Robert Louis Stevenson? If you have a little spare time, take a look at Stevenson's thoughts on the genre of romance:

In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thence-forward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye...

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is called romance.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Some Pictures of North Hinksey Church

After posting the poem 'Ferry Hinksey' the other day, I took a walk to the nearby village of North Hinksey to get a good look at its church. I've been to the village before (it has a particularly excellent pub) but not to the church, because it's only open on Tuesdays and Fridays, so you have to pick your time. And here's some pictures of what I found there.

As I mentioned the other day, this bit of Oxford is now disfigured by a fairly ugly industrial estate. So the walk to North Hinksey is not up to much. This was the highlight:


It's a river.

OK, this bit was quite nice:


This path is called 'Ruskin's Ride' or 'Willow Walk' (do you see any willows? Me neither...) because John Ruskin, when he was living in Oxford, used to ride out this way to North Hinksey. I'm getting this from wikipedia, but it seems true. And he organised a group of undergraduates to build a road between North Hinksey and South Hinksey, including, implausibly, a 19-year-old Oscar Wilde. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such a road still doesn't exist...

Anyway, this is what the church of St Lawrence, North Hinksey, looks like:


The stone is a lovely warm colour - Cotswold stone, I suppose. And there's something charming about how higgledy-piggledy the roof is! The church has a good solid stone porch, too:




The porch is kind enough to protect the church door, and its jazzy 12th-century carving:


Not quite as splendid as Iffley, but pretty great nonetheless.


Inside, the church is all fancy and whitewashed, which is probably very practical and certainly helps brighten the place up, but slightly kills the atmosphere. (My love of the Gothic, in both senses of the word, leads me to prefer the damp and dark of Binsey).


That central arch, which at first glance looks like an exciting continuation of our medieval exuberance ('without the concomitant crudities of the period'), is actually Victorian. Not bad, though:


And the door to the rood loft survives, so there's that:


The chancel contains this striking, faintly bossy memorial:


"Reader, look to thy feet: honest and loyal men are sleeping under them. There lies William Fynmore, Fellow of St John's in Oxford, & Batchelor of Law, who in the year of his age 87, and in the year of our Lord 1646, when loyalty and the church fainted, lay down and died...

Reader - prepare to follow."


There's a tiny, deep-set Norman window on one side of the chancel:


And I really liked two small stained glass windows, one above this window and the other directly opposite it - this:


And this:


The first is Eunice teaching her son Timothy, and the second is, I assume, Hope or Faith or something along those lines. Whatever her name, the light was coming in beautifully around her feet:

Link


And that's what I saw at North Hinksey.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I've fallen in love...

with a youtube channel. I've been aware of the music of the amazingly talented Tim Eriksen for a while, but only recently started watching his videos on youtube; they're currently my favourite thing on the internet. I'm not really sure I can explain why, so I'm just going to post a couple of videos and tell you to go and watch the rest...

Ah, but that involves deciding which ones are my favourites, and I can't really do that. But here's a fantastic ballad sung in the snow:


Link
And this:



And this:



And this:



OK, I do know what it is I like - the combination of music and place, especially the natural environment, but also just by a random store made beautiful by sunset, or in an airport (a particularly perfect combination of song and setting, that one!) or in the middle of New York... It's all wonderful and you should watch every one.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Repost: St Kenelm and 'Crabbing the Parson'

A repost from two years ago, concerning an odd little custom from Worcestershire associated with the feast of St Kenelm, 17th July:


The story of St Cynehelm, better known as St Kenelm, is (if any part of it is true) a sad one. According to legend, he was the son of an eighth-century king of Mercia who was murdered at the age of seven by his older sister (some versions say his aunt) who wanted to inherit the kingdom in his place. He was a well-known saint in the Middle Ages, and the place of his burial, Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, was a site of pilgrimage to rival Canterbury. He's even mentioned by Chaucer in the Nun's Priest's Tale, because he famously had a dream warning him of his impending death - Chaucer's learned cockerel Chaunticleer cites Kenelm's story as an example to prove that you ought to pay attention to dreams.

However, this was the bit of lore associated with Kenelm which caught my eye (from wikipedia):

For many years, villagers at Kenelstowe in Worcestershire celebrated St Cynehelm's Day (July 17) with a village fair and the ancient custom of "crabbing the parson" - bombarding the unfortunate cleric with a volley of crab apples.

Well, I was intrigued. Helpful Google led me to a charming book called The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations, by a Mr John Noake, published in 1848. Mr Noake provides the following insight into 'crabbing the parson':

'The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitring the angles of the building, and each "buttress and coign of vantage" behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over. Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.

The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. "Long, long ago," an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm's was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor's wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation ("a guilty conscience needs no accuser") he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson's sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John's head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic ("vomits" they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John's pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, "Two can play at that, master!" and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), "crabbing the parson" has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.'

Monday, 16 July 2012

Ferry Hinksey

'Great Marlow', George Vicat Cole


Ferry Hinksey

Beyond the ferry water
That fast and silent flowed,
She turned, she gazed a moment,
Then took her onward road

Between the winding willows
To a city white with spires:
It seemed a path of pilgrims
To the home of earth's desires.

Blue shade of golden branches
Spread for her journeying,
Till he that lingered lost her
Among the leaves of Spring.



This poem, by Laurence Binyon, is set in a landscape which no longer exists: Ferry Hinksey, a rural area between the city of Oxford and the village of North Hinksey, has been swallowed up by an industrial estate. Somehow that makes the poem, already sweetly poignant, a little more melancholy.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Some Miracles of St Swithun


Swithun at St-Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, Winchester

'St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain na mair.'

Thanks to this little bit of weather-lore, St Swithun, who died in c.863, is one of the few Anglo-Saxon saints most people have heard of. This is a bit odd when you consider how many fascinating Anglo-Saxon saints actually did important and interesting things and get no attention at all, while what we know about Swithun's life could be summarised very quickly:

1) he was Bishop of Winchester
2) he did the usual things Anglo-Saxon bishops did, repairing churches, witnessing charters, etc.
3) he died in c.863.

That's pretty much it. Is any of that as exciting as standing up to Vikings, being taught songs by angels, fighting devils in desolate fens, standing up to a different lot of Vikings, being a wise and holy queen, or defending your followers from unjust attack? I don't really think so. But Swithun's weather-lore makes him more famous than any of those much better-attested saints.

(In fact I love traditional weather-lore and even more Jane Austen's poem about it, but nonetheless, a word for the underrated Anglo-Saxons...)

What Swithun did or didn't do in his life must remain a mystery; his legend concerns what he did after his death. He was buried at Winchester and about a hundred years after his death, when Bishop Æthelwold was engaged in a revival of monastic life at the minster there, miracles were attributed to St Swithun along with dream-visions which claimed to reveal his greatness in the eyes of God. Today I'm going to post some extracts from the story as told by Ælfric, the homilist and hagiographer, writing in English in the 990s. You can read Ælfric's whole text in Old English and in translation online here. Ælfric had been educated under Æthelwold at Winchester, and he gives us a detailed picture of how the cult of Swithun developed at Æthelwold's instigation.

The main problem with St Swithun - the complete absence of evidence for his saintliness - was clear to Ælfric too. This is how he begins his account of Swithun:

On Eadgares dagum ðæs æðelan cynincges
þaþa se cristendom wæs wel ðeonde þurh god
on angel-cynne under ðam ylcan cynincge
þa geswutelode god þone Sanct Swyðun
mid manegum wundrum þæt he mære is.
His dæda næron cuðe ærðan þe hi god sylf cydde
ne we ne fundon on bocum hu se bisceop leofode
on þysre worulde ærðan þe he gewende to criste.
Þæt wæs þæra gymeleast þe on life hine cuþon
þæt hi noldon awritan his weorc and drohtnunge
þam towerdum mannum ðe his mihte ne cuðon
ac god hæfð swa þeah his lif geswutelod
mid swutelum wundrum and syllicum tacnum.
Đes Swyðun wæs bisceop on winceastre
swa þeah ofer hamtun-scire gesælig godes þeowa
and eahta bisceopas wæron betwux him and Sancte Æðelwolde.
nu næs us his lif cuð swa swa we ær cwædon
butan þæt he wæs bebyrged æt his bisceop-stole
be westan þære cyrcan and ofer-worht syððan
oþþæt his wundra geswutelodon his gesælða mid gode.
In the days of the noble king Edgar, when by the grace of God Christianity was thriving among the English people under that king, God revealed St Swithun, showing by many signs that he is glorious. His deeds were not known until God himself made them known, and we do not find written in books in what manner the bishop lived in this world before he went to Christ. Such was the carelessness of those who knew him in life, that they did not write about his deeds and conduct for the benefit of future generations who did not know his virtue; but God nonetheless made known his life with manifest miracles and wonderful tokens. This Swithun was Bishop of Winchester, that is, over Hampshire, a blessed servant of God; there were eight bishops between him and St Æthelwold. Now, as we said before, nothing about his life is known to us, except that he was buried at his episcopal seat, to the west of the church, and a tomb was built over him, until his miracles revealed that he was blessed by God.

So, there you go - it's all attributable to the carelessness of those who knew him. Ælfric goes on to describe how Swithun's existence was revealed, leading to the moving of his body into the cathedral on 15 July, 971:

Þrym gearum ærðan þe se sanct into cyrcan wære gebroht
of ðære stænenan þryh þe stent nu wið-innan
þam niwan geweorce com se arwurða Swyðun
to sumum gelyfedan smyðe on swefne æteowiende
wurðlice geglencged and ðas word him cwæð to:
“Canst þu ðone preost þe is gehaten Eadzige
þe wæs of ealdan mynstre mid ðam oðrum preostum adræfed
for heora unþeawum þurh Æðelwold bisceop?”
Se smið þa andwyrde þam arwurðan Swyðune þus:
“Gefyrn ic hine cuðe, leof, ac he ferde heonon
and ic nat to gewissan hwær he wunað nu.”
Þa cwæð eft se halga wer to ðam ealdan smyðe:
“Witodlice he wunað nu on wincel-cumbe ham-fæst
and ic ðe nu halsige on þæs hælendes naman
þæt ðu him min ærende ardlice abeode
and sege him to soþan þæt Swiðun se bisceop
het þæt he fare to Æðelwolde bisceope
and secge þæt he ge-openige him sylf mine byrgene
and mine ban gebringe binnan ðære cyrcan
forðan þe him is getiþod þæt ic on his timan
beo mannum geswutelod. And se smið him cwæð to,
“La leof, Eadzige nele gelyfan minum wordum.”
Đa cwæð se bisceop eft, “Gange him to minre byrgene
and ateo ane hringan up of ðære þryh
and gif seo hringe him folgað æt þam forman tige,
þonne wat he to soðan þæt ic þe sende to him.
Gif seo hringe nele up þurh his anes tige
þonne ne sceall he nates hwon þinre sage gelyfan.
Sege him eac siððan þæt he sylf geriht-læce
his dæda and þeawas to his drihtnes willan
and efste anmodlice to þam ecan life.
Sege eac eallum mannum þæt sona swa hi
geopeniað mine byrgene þæt hi magon ðær findan
swa deorwurðne hord þæt heora dyre gold
ne bið nahte wurð wið þa fore-sædan maðmas.”

Se halga Swyðun þa ferde fram þam smiðe up
and se smið ne dorste secgan þas gesihðe ænigum menn
nolde beon gesewen unsoðsagul boda.
Hwæt ða se halga wer hine eft gespræc
and git þryddan siðe and swyðe hine þreade
hwi he nolde gehyrsumian his hæsum mid weorce.
Se smið þa æt nextan eode swa ðeah to his byrgene
and genam ane hringan earhlice swa ðeah
and clypode to gode þus cwæðende mid wordum:
“Eala þu drihten god, ealra gesceafta scyppend,
getiða me synfullum þæt ic ateo þas hringan
up of ðysum hlyde, gif se lið her on innan
seðe me spræc to on swæfne þriwa.”
He teah ða þæt isen up swa eaðelice of ðam stane,
swilce hit on sande stode, and he swyðe þæs wundrode.
He ða hit eft sette on þæt ylce þyrl
and þyde mid his fet and hit swa fæste eft stod
þæt nan man ne mihte hit þanon ateon.
þa eode se smið ge-egsod þanon
and gemette on cypincge þæs Eadzies mann
and sæde him gewislice hwæt Swyðun him behead
and bæd hine georne þæt he hit abude him.
He cwæð þæt he hit wolde cyðan his hlaforde
and ne dorste swa ðeah hit secgan æt fruman
ærþan ðe he beþohte þæt him ðearflic nære
þæt he ðæs halgan hæse forhule his hlaforde,
sæde þa be ende-byrdnysse hwæt Swyðun him bebead
þa onscunode se Eadsige Æðelwold þone bisceop
and ealle ða munecas þe on ðam mynstre wæron
for þære ut-dræfe þe he gedyde wið hi
and nolde gehyran þæs halgan bebod
þeah ðe se sanct wære gesib him for worulde.
He gebeah swa þeah binnan twam gearum
to þam ylcan mynstre and munuc wearð þurh god
and þær wunode oðþæt he gewat of life.
Geblætsod is se ealmihtiga god þe ge-eadmed þone modigan
and ða eadmodan ahæfð to healicum geðincþum
and gerihtlæcð þa synfullan and symle hylt ða godan
þe on hine hihtað forðan þe he hælend is.
Three years before the saint was brought into the church from the stone coffin which now stands inside the new building, the venerable Swithun appeared to a certain faithful blacksmith in a dream, richly adorned, and said to him: "Do you know the priest called Eadsige, who, with the other priests, was driven out of the Old Minster by Bishop Æthelwold because of their sinfulness?"

The smith answered venerable Swithun, "I knew him long ago, sir, but he went away from here, and I don't know for certain where he lives now."

Then the holy man spoke again to the old smith: "Truly, he is now settled at Winchcombe, and I command you now, in the Saviour's name, to swiftly tell him my message, and tell him truly that Bishop Swithun orders him to go to Bishop Æthelwold and say that he should open my tomb himself and bring my bones inside the church, because it has been appointed that in his time I should be made known to men."

And the smith said to him, "But, sir, Eadsige will not believe my words."

The bishop said, "Let him go to my tomb and pull a ring out of the coffin, and if the ring comes away at the first try, then he will know for certain that I sent you to him. If the ring will not come away by his effort alone, then he should not put any faith in what you have said. Tell him, also, that he should amend his behaviour and conduct to the will of his Lord, and hasten with a single purpose towards eternal life. And tell everyone that as soon as they have opened my tomb, they will find there a hoard so valuable that their precious gold will be worthless compared to those treasures."

The holy Swithun then left the smith. The smith did not dare to speak of that vision to anyone, not wishing to be thought a liar. But the holy man spoke to him again, and yet a third time, and severely challenged him why he would not obey him and put his commands into action. So the smith went to the tomb, and took hold of a ring on it - though he was terrified - and cried out to God, saying, "O Lord God, Creator of all things, grant to me, a sinful man, that I may be able to pull this ring out of the coffin, if he who has spoken to me three times in a dream lies within here."

He drew the iron out of the stone as easily as if it stood in sand, and he marvelled greatly at that. Then he placed it back in the same hole, and pressed it down with his foot, and it was again attached so fast that no one could pull it away.

The smith, awestruck, went out and found Eadsige's servant in the marketplace, and told him exactly what Swithun had told him, and asked him earnestly to tell it to Eadsige. The man said he would tell his lord, but he did not dare to tell him straight away. Then after a time he realised that it would not be good for him if he concealed the saint's commands from his lord, so he told him all that Swithun had commanded. Eadsige was angry with Bishop Æthelwold and all the monks in the monastery, because they had driven him out, and he would not heed the saint's commands, although that holy man [Æthelwold] was a kinsman of his. But, within two years, he returned to the monastery and became a monk, through God's grace, and lived there until his death. Blessed is Almighty God, who humbles the proud and exalts the humble to a high place, and corrects the sinful and ever protects the good who hope in him, because he is the Saviour.

This is a great story - Swithun as Merlin granting his own sword-in-the-stone moment. After this a number of miraculous cures take place, and Bishop Æthelwold is convinced to follow the command of the vision and bring Swithun inside the cathedral. (It's interesting that this is the exact opposite of the later legend that Swithun insisted on being buried outside the cathedral and showed his displeasure on being brought inside).

Swithun in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f.97v)

The miracles continue, and Swithun appears again in a vision to chastise lazy monks:

Æþelwold þa se arwurða and se eadiga bisceop
þe on ðam dagum wæs on winceastre bisceop
bead his munecum eallum þe on ðam mynstre wunodon
þæt hi ealle eodon endemes to cyrcan
and mid sange heredon þæs sanctes mærða
and god mærsodon swa on þam mæran halgan
swa oft swa ænig wan-hal mann wurde gehæled.
Þa dydon hi sona swa and sungon þone lofsang
oðþæt heora laðode eallum þæt hi swa oft arisan
hwilon þrywa on niht hwilon feower syðum
to singenne þone lofsang þonne hi slapan sceoldon
and forleton ealle endemes þone sang
forðam þe se bisceop wæs bysig mid þam cynincge
and nyste butan hi sungon þone lof-sang forð on.
Hwæt ða se halga Swyðun sylf com on swefne
wundorlice geglencged to sumum godan menn and cwæð,
“Gang nu to ealdan mynstre and þam munecum sege
þæt gode swyðe oflicað heora ceorung and slæwð
þæt hi dæg-hwamlice geseoð drihtnes wundra mid him
and hi nellað herian þone hælend mid sange
swa swa se bisceop behead þam gebroðrum to donne
and sege gif hi nellað þone sang gelæstan
þonne geswicað eac sona ða wundra
and gif hi þone lofsang willað æt þam wundrum singan
swa oft swa wanhale menn þær wurðað gerihte
þonne wurðaþ mid him wundra swa fela
þæt nan man ne mæg gemunan on life
þæt ænig man gesawe swylce wundra ahwær.”
þa awæcnode se wer of þam wynsuman slæpe
and swyðe be-sargode þæt he geseon ne moste
ne nan læncg brucan þæs beorhtan leohtes
þe he mid swiðune hæfde ða gesewen.
He aras swaðeah and swiðe hraðe ferde
to Æþelwolde bisceope and him eall þis sæde.
Æþelwold þa asende sona to þam munecum
of cyninges hyrede and cwæð þæt hi sceoldon
þone lof-sang singan swa swa he ge-set hæfde
and se þe hit forsawe sceolde hit mid fæstene
seofon niht on an swarlice gebetan.
Hi hit heoldon þa syððan symle on ge-wunon
swa swa we gesawon sylfe for oft
and þone sang we sungon unseldon mid heom.
Æthelwold, the venerable and blessed bishop, who in those days was Bishop of Winchester, commanded all his monks who lived in the Minster that every time a sick person was healed they should all go in procession to the church, and praise in song the merits of the saint and glorify God because of the saint's holiness. They began to do this straightaway, and sang the song of praise, until it grew tiresome for them to have to get up so often - sometimes three times a night, sometimes four - to sing the Te Deum, when they could have been asleep. At last they all left off singing the hymn, because the bishop was busy with the king, and did not know that they had ceased their custom of singing.

But then St Swithun himself appeared to a certain good man in a dream, richly attired, and said, "Go to the Old Minster, and say to the monks that God is greatly displeased by their grumbling and sloth, that every day they see the miracles of God performed among them, but they do not want to praise the Saviour with hymns as the bishop commanded the brothers to do. Tell them that if they do not sing the hymn, the miracles will soon cease; but if they sing the Te Deum for the miracles, as often as sick people are healed there, then so many wonders will be performed among them that no one alive will be able to remember when any man saw such wonders anywhere."

The man woke up from his sweet sleep, and mourned that he could no longer see and enjoy the beautiful light which he had seen accompanying Swithun. Nonetheless he got up and quickly went to Bishop Æthelwold, and told him all this. Æthelwold straightaway sent a message from the king's court to the monks, and said that they should sing the Te Deum just as he had set down for them, and that anyone who neglected to do this should heavily atone for it by fasting for seven nights continuously. Afterwards they always kept this custom, as we have very often seen for ourselves - and we have often sung that hymn with them.
I do enjoy a good 'lazy monks' story. And that final sentence is Ælfric reminding us of his own personal connection with Winchester, of which he was justly proud.

St Swithun in BL Stowe 12 f. 273v. I have no idea what's going on here...

More miracles take place:

Is swa ðeah to witenne þæt we ne moton us gebiddan
swa to godes halgum swa swa to gode sylfum
forðan þe he is ana god ofer ealle þincg
Ac we sceolon biddan soðlice þa halgan
þæt hi us þingion to þam þrym-wealdendum gode
seþe is heora hlaford þæt he helpe us.
Hwilon wacodon menn swa swa hit gewunelic is
ofer an dead lic and ðær wæs sum dysig mann
plegol ungemetlice and to þam mannum cwæð
swylce for plegan þæt he Swyðun wære:
“Ge magon to soðum witan þæt ic Swyðun eom
seðe wundra wyrð and ic wille þæt ge beran
eower leoht to me and licgað on cneowum
and ic eow forgife þæt þæt ge gyrnende beoð.”
He woffode ða swa lange mid wordum dyslice
oðþæt he feoll geswogen swylce he sawl-leas wære
and hine man bær ham to his bædde sona
and he læg swa lange his lifes orwene.
His magas ða æt nextan þone mann feredon
to þam halgan Swiþune and he sylf andette
his dyslican word þe he dyrstiglice sprae
and bæd him forgifnysse and he wearð þa gehæled
swa þæt he hal eode ham mid his magum.
Is eac to witenne þæt menn unwislice doð
þa ðe dwollice plegað æt deadra manna lice
and ælce fulnysse þær forð-teoð mid plegan
þonne hi sceoldon swyðor be-sargian þone deadan
and ondrædan him sylfum þæs deaðes tocyme
and biddan for his sawle butan gewede georne.
Sume menn eac drincað æt deadra manna lice
ofer ealle þa niht swiðe unrihtlice
and gremiað god mid heora gegaf-spræce.
þonne nan gebeorscype ne gebyrað æt lice
ac halige gebedu þær gebyriað swiþor.
It is important to know that we must not pray to God's saints in the same way as to God Himself, because He alone is God above all things; but we should truly ask the saints to intercede for us with Almighty God, who is their Lord, that he may help us. On one occasion, men were keeping vigil by a dead body, as is the custom, and there was a foolish man who was joking around in an immoderate way. As a joke, he spoke to the other men as if he were St Swithun, saying, "Know in truth that I am Swithun, who performs miracles! I want you to carry your candles to me, and kneel before me, and I will grant you what you desire." In this way he blasphemed for a long time with foolish words, until he fell silenced, as if he were lifeless.

They carried him home to his bed straight away, and he lay there for a long time, despairing of his life. At last the man's kinsmen carried him to Saint Swithun, and he confessed the foolish words which he had presumptously spoken and begged for forgiveness from him; he was healed, and went home with his kinsmen in perfect health. It should be known that people act very unwisely when they joke around like fools at the bodies of dead men, and bring foul behaviour there in their sport, when they should rather be mourning for the dead man, dreading the coming of death for themselves, and earnestly praying for his soul without any senseless behaviour. Some men sinfully drink the whole night over the body of a dead man, and anger God with their foolish speech; no beer-drinking is appropriate at a wake, but rather holy prayers are fitting there...

This is an intriguing insight into Anglo-Saxon funeral customs!  Another particularly evocative vision:

Sum eald þegn wæs eac on wihtlande untrum
swa þæt he læg bæddryda sume nigon gear
and of ðam bedde ne mihte buton hine man bære.
Him comon þa on swefne to twegen scinende halgan
and heton hine yrnan ardlice mid him.
þa cwæð se adliga, “hu mæg ic yrnan mid eow
þonne ic ne aras of þysum bedde ana
nu for nigon gearum butan oþres mannes fylste?”
þa cwædon þa halgan, “þu cymst to ðære stowe
gif ðu færst mid us nu ðær þær ðu under-fehst þine hæle.”
He wearð þa swyðe fægen and wolde faran mid heom
ac þaþa he ne mihte heom mid syðian.
þa flugon hi geond þa lyft and feredon þone adligan
oðþæt hi becomon to sumum ænlicum felda fægre geblowen .
and þær wæs an cyrce of scinendum golde
and of gymstanum standende on þam felda
and se halga Swiðun on scinendum mæsse-reafe
stod æt ðam weofode swylce he wolde mæssian.
Swyðun cwæð þa sona to þam seocan menn,
“ic secge ðe broðor þu ne scealt heonon-forð
nanon menn yfel don ne nanne man wyrigan
ne nænne man tælan ne teonful beon
ne ðu man-slagum ne geðwærlæce ne manfullum reaferum
ne ðeofum þa ne olæce ne yfeldædum ne ge-ðwærlæce
ac swiðor gehelp swa þu selost mæge
wan-hafolum mannum mid þinum agenum spedum
and þu swa þurh godes mihte sylf bist gehæled.”
Se adliga þa ðohte þæt he yfel nolde don
buton þam anum þe him ær yfel dyde
and ðam wolde don wel þe him wel dyde ær.
þa wiste se halga Swiðun hu his heorte smeade
and cwæð bliðelice him to, “Broðor, ic þe secge,
ne do þu swa þu smeadest, þæt ðu derige ænigum
þeah ðe he derige ðe ac þinum drihtne ge-efenlæc
se ðe nolde wyrian þa ðe hine dydon to cwale
and het his folgeras þæt hi for heora fyondum ge-bædon.
Eac cwæð Paulus se apostol to eallum cristenum mannum
gif ðinum fynd hingrige fed hine mid mettum
oððe gif him þyrste ðu do him drincan.”
þa cwæð se bedryda to ðam bisceope eft,
“La leof, sege me hwæt þu sy manna
nu ðu manna heortan miht swa asmeagen.”
þa cwæð se halga Swyðun, “ic eom seþe nu niwan com,”
swylce he cwæde swa, “ic wæs geswutelod nu niwan.”
þa cwæð se bædryda to ðam bisceope eft,
“hu eart ðu gehaten?” And se halga him cwæð to,
“þonne ðu cymst to winceastre þu wast minne naman.”
Se man wearð þa gebroht to his bedde eft sona
and awoc of slæpe and sæde his wife
ealle ða ge-sihðe þe he gesewen hæfde.
þa cwæð þæt wif him to þæt hit wære Swyðun
se ðe hine lærde mid þære halgan lare
and þone ðe he geseah on ðære cyrcan swa fægerne.
Heo cwæð ða to þam were, “hit wære nu full good
þæt ðe man bære to cyrcan and þu bæde þone halgan
þæt he ðe gehælde þurh his halgan ge-earnunga.”
Hine man bær ða sona of ðam bedde to cyrcan
binnan withlande and he wearð gehæled sona
þurh þone ælmihtigan god for Swyðunes ge-earnungum
and eode him ða ham hal on his fotum
seðe ær wæs geboren on bære to cyrcan.
He ferde eac siððan to winceastre for-raðe
and cydde Aðelwolde þam arwurþan bisceope
hu he wearð gehæled þurh þone halgan Swiþun
and Landferð se ofer-sæwisca hit gesette on læden.
A certain old thane in the Isle of Wight was very ill, so that he lay bedridden for some nine years, and could not leave the bed unless he was being carried by someone. To him in a dream came two shining holy ones, and told him to run swiftly with them. The sick man said, "How can I run with you, when I have not risen from this bed alone, without help from someone else, for nine years now?" The holy ones said, "If you go with us now, you will come to the place where you will receive your health."

He was very glad, and wanted to go with them. Since he could not walk with them, they flew through the air, and carried the sick man until they came to a solitary field, fair with flowers, and in the field there stood a church, made of shining gold and precious stones; and St. Swithun, in bright vestments, stood before the altar, as if about to say Mass. Swithun straightaway said to the sick man, "Brother, I tell you, henceforth you must not do evil to anyone, nor curse anyone, nor speak evil of anyone, nor be spiteful, nor take part in killings, nor conspire with wicked robbers and thieves, nor join in evil deeds, but rather, to the best of your ability, help the needy with your goods; and you shall be healed by the power of God."

Then the sick man thought to himself that he did not wish to do evil, except to those who had done evil to him, and that he wished to act well to those who had acted well to him. But St. Swithun knew how he was reasoning in his heart, and said merrily to him, "Brother, I tell you, do not do as you are thinking - that you can harm a man as he harms you! Instead, imitate your Lord, who would not curse those who put him to death, and commanded his followers to pray for their enemies. In the same way, the Apostle Paul said to all Christians, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food, and if he is thirsty, give him something to drink."

Then the bedridden man said to the bishop, "Sir, tell me what kind of man you are, that you can read the hearts of men in this way!"

St Swithun said, "I am he who has newly arrived" - as if he had said, "I have now recently been made known."

The bedridden man said to the bishop, "What is your name?"

The saint said to him, "When you get to Winchester, you will know my name."

The man was then at once brought back to his bed, and he awoke from sleep and told his wife all about the vision he had seen. His wife told him it was Swithun who had instructed him with holy teaching, and whom he had seen so glorious at the church. She said to her husband, "Now it would be best if you are carried to church, and pray to the saint for him to heal you through his holy merits."

At once they carried him from his bed to a church in the Isle of Wight, and he was instantly healed by Almighty God, through the merits of Swithun; he went home, healed, on his feet, who had been borne on a bier to the church. Then afterwards he went very quickly to Winchester, and told the venerable bishop Æthelwold how he had been healed by St Swithun, and Landferth, the foreigner, set it down in Latin...

A manuscript of the text Ælfric is referring to here, Landferth's Life and Miracles of Swithun (BL Royal C VII, f. 2)

That last is my favourite of the numerous miracles of healing in this story; I think it's because it took place on the Isle of Wight, and the vision of the flowery field is so memorable! Ælfric concludes:

Ne mage we awritan ne mid wordum asecgan
ealle þa wundra þe se halga wer Swiðun
þurh god gefremode on ðæs folces gesihþe
ge on gehæftum mannum ge on unhalum mannum
mannum to swutelunge þæt hi sylfe magon
godes rice geearnian mid godum weorcum
swa swa Swiþun dyde þe nu scinð þurh wundra.
Seo ealde cyrce wæs eall behangen mid criccum
and mid creopera sceamelum fram ende oð oþerne
on ægðrum wage þe ðær wurdon gehælede
and man ne mihte swa ðeah macian hi healfe up.
þyllice tacna cyþað þæt crist is ælmihtig god
þe his halgan geswutelode þurh swylce wel-dæda...
We habbað nu gesæd be Swiðune þus sceortlice
and we secgað to soðan þæt se tima wæs gesælig
and wynsum on angel-cynne þaþa Eadgar cynincg
þone cristen-dom ge-fyrtðrode and fela munuclifa arærde
and his cynerice wæs wunigende on sibbe
swa þæt man ne gehyrde gif ænig scyp-here wære
buton agenre leode þe ðis land heoldon
and ealle ða cyningas þe on þysum iglande wæron
cumera and scotta comon to Eadgare
hwilon anes dæges eahta cyningas
and hi ealle gebugon to Eadgares wissunge.
þaer-to-eacan wæron swilce wundra gefremode
þurh þone halgan Swyðun . swa swa we sædon ær
and swa lange swa we leofodon þær wurdon gelome wundra.
On ðam timan wæron eac wurð-fulle bisceopas
Dunstan se anræda æt ðam erce-stole
and Aþelwold se arwurða and oðre gehwylce
ac Dunstan and Aþelwold wæron drihtne gecorene
and hi swyðost manodon menn to godes willan
and ælc god arærdon gode to cwemednysse
þæt geswuteliað þa wundra þe god wyrcð þurh hi.
We cannot write, nor recount in words, all the miracles that the holy man Swithun performed, by the power of God, in the sight of the people, for prisoners in chains and for sick people, to show to everyone that they themselves may earn the kingdom of heaven by good works, just as Swithun did, who is now made glorious by his miracles. The old church was hung all round with the crutches and stools of cripples who had been healed there, from one end to the other on either wall - and even so they could not put half of them up. Such tokens declare that Christ is Almighty God, who revealed his saint by such good deeds...

We have now spoken thus briefly of Swithun. We say, truly, that time was a blessed and happy one in England, when King Edgar fostered Christianity and built many monasteries, and his kingdom ever continued in peace, so that no fleet was heard of, except that of the people who ruled this land. All the kings of the Welsh and Scots in this island came to Edgar in one day - that was eight kings - and they all submitted themselves to Edgar's rule. And, moreover, many miracles were performed through St Swithun, as we have said, and as long as we have lived frequent wonders have been done in that place. At that time there were worthy bishops, Dunstan the resolute, in the archbishopric, and Æthelwold the venerable, and others like them; Dunstan and Æthelwold were chosen of God, and they, most of all, exhorted men to do God's will, and advanced everything good, to the pleasure of God, as is testified by the miracles which God works through them.

This last paragraph is a reminder of the fraught times in which Ælfric was writing: the last decade of the tenth century, the reign of King Æthelred, when England was being repeatedly attacked by Viking fleets. (Hence his reference to the happy time when 'no fleet was heard of'.) The reign of King Edgar, guided by Archbishop Dunstan and Bishop Æthelwold, was to Ælfric a golden age of peace and prosperity, such as had collapsed under Edgar's unfortunate son Æthelred. A general lack of holiness and good counsel is Ælfric's diagnosis for the problems of his time, and he looks back to the example of Edgar, Dunstan and Æthelwold as an implicit rebuke to the king and bishops of his own days.

I think he might have been disappointed to know that a thousand years later, Swithun's fame far outshines any of the other three...

The replacement for the destroyed tomb of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral