Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Viking Ghost Story

Halloween is one of the few 'holidays' I don't really get; it was never a part of my childhood, and while I enjoy a good seasonal ritual as much as anyone, Halloween in its modern form does nothing for me. I don't tend to enjoy ghost stories unless they involve the ghosts of Saxon archbishops or supremely spooky ballads ('The Wife of Usher's Well' and 'The Unquiet Grave' are my favourites.) However, I do make an exception for the ghosts of Old Norse literature, because they're just so awesome, and the stories have a certain dazzling glamour all of their own. And so (breaking all my own rules about not co-opting medieval literature for modern holidays) can I take this opportunity to interest you in an Old Norse ghost story anyway? Yes? Excellent.

There are several varieties of ghost in Old Norse literature, but one common type is the dead person who goes on living within their burial-mound, sometimes wandering out to cause trouble for the neighbourhood, but mostly just dwelling there and doing whatever it is ghosts do (often, singing). In one particularly unforgettable scene in Njáls saga, two characters are walking past the burial-mound of Gunnar, one of the saga's heroes; the moon is shining brightly, with clouds blowing across it now and then, and all of a sudden they see the mound is open, and the dead man Gunnar has turned onto his side and is looking at the moon. He looks very joyful, the saga says, but he sings a verse which persuades the other characters they have to avenge his death...

Anyway, that's not today's ghost story. This one appears in a text called Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, and is the story of a fearless young woman who dresses up as a man and goes into her own father's burial-mound to retrieve the magical sword which was buried with him. She rouses her father's ghost, and they have a conversation in verse, and it's all deliciously eerie.

The story begins with the magical sword, which is named Tyrfing. The saga tells us that Tyrfing was made by dwarves, and every time it was drawn a light shone from it that was like a ray of the sun. This sword could never be held unsheathed without causing the death of a man, and it always had to be sheathed with the blood still warm upon it. Whatever the sword wounded would certainly die, and the man who carried it in battle would always be victorious if he struck a blow with it. This sword belonged to a viking named Angantýr, who inherited it from his father; but he and his eleven brothers, all berserkers and warriors of great power and strength, were killed together in battle and buried in a mound on the island of Samsey.

And then begins the story of Angantýr's daughter Hervör, born after her father's death, who grows up to be a warrior, Viking, and fearless grave-plunderer. The following is my rather loose translation of the saga, but a closer one can be found in The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, trans. Christopher Tolkien (London, 1960), downloadable here. In the Old Norse almost all the dialogue is in verse, so it's set out like that here.


[Angantýr's wife] was pregnant, and gave birth to a very beautiful girl. She was sprinkled with water and named Hervör. She was brought up by the jarl [her grandfather], and she had the strength of a man; as soon as she could do anything for herself she trained herself with the bow and shield and sword more than with sewing and weaving. She more often caused trouble than good, and when that was forbidden to her she ran away to the woods and attacked people to rob them. When the jarl heard about this highwayman he went with his men and seized Hervör and brought her home with him. After that she lived in his house for a while.

It happened one day that Hervör was standing outside near a group of slaves, and she treated them badly, as she did everyone. Then one of them said to her, "All you ever want is to cause trouble, Hervör, and trouble's all that can be expected from you. The jarl forbids everyone from telling you about your parentage, because he's ashamed that you should know it - the lowest slave slept with his daughter, and you're their child."

Hervör was furious at these words, and she went at once to the jarl, and said:

I can take no pride in our famous name,
though my mother found favour with Fródmar.
I thought I had a hero for a father;
now I'm told he tended the pigs!

The jarl answered:

A lie has been told to you, with no truth:
your father was counted glorious among men.
The hall of Angantýr, covered with earth, [i.e. his burial-mound]
stands on Sámsey’s southern border.

Hervör said:

I am eager to go, foster-father,
to seek my departed kinsmen;
they must have great riches,
which I shall gain for myself, if I survive.

I will swiftly wrap around my hair
a linen cloth before I depart;
much rests on this, that by the morning
a shirt and cloak be prepared for me.

Hervör spoke to her mother, and said:

Wisest of women, as quickly as you can
equip me in all ways as you would your son.
The truth is brought to me in dreams alone;
I can have no rest here now.

After that she made preparations to go away by herself. She took the equipment and weapons of a man and went to a place where there were some vikings, and she travelled with them for a while, calling herself Hervarðr. After a short time she became leader of the group, and when they came to Sámsey she demanded to go up onto the island, saying that there would be treasure in the burial-mounds. All the sailors argued against it, saying that such evil creatures walked there by day that it was worse in the daytime than other places were at night. But she got her way, and the anchor was dropped. Hervarðr got into a boat and rowed to the shore. She landed in Munarvág as the sun was setting, and met a man who was tending his flock. He said:

Who is coming all alone to the island?
Quickly, go and find lodgings!

She answered:

I will not go and find lodgings,
since I know none of the island-dwellers;
but swiftly tell me before we part,
where is the mound named for Hjörvarðr? [one of her father's brothers]

Then the shepherd said:

Do not ask that; you are not wise!
Friend of vikings, you are in danger.
Let us go as fast as our feet can carry us;
out in the open lies terror for men.

She answered:

Let us not fear the roar of the grave-fires,
though all the island be burning with flame.
We should not be afraid of such men;
let us talk further.

He said:

I think him a fool who goes onward,
a man all alone in the darkening night;
fires are flickering, mounds are opening,
field and fen are burning – run faster!

He ran off home to the farm, and so they parted. Now she saw where on the island the treasure-fires were burning, and she went in that direction without fear, though all the mounds stood in her path. She walked through the fires as if they were no more than mist, until she came to the berserkers' barrow-mound.

Norse legend had it that ghostly treasure-fire burned inside and around burial-mounds, showing where gold was hidden.

Then she spoke:

Wake, Angantýr, Hervör wakes you,
child of Sváfa, your only daughter!
Give me from the barrow the sharp-edged blade
forged by the dwarves for Sigrlami.

Hervarðr, Hjörvarðr, Hrani, Angantýr!
I waken you all from the roots of the tree,
with helm and mailcoat, sharp-edged sword,
shield and war-gear and blood-stained spear.

Almost to dust are Arngrím’s sons,
men eager for evil, turned in the mound,
if not one of Eyfura’s sons
will speak to me in Munarvág.

Hervarðr, Hjörvarðr, Hrani, Angantýr!
May it seem to you all inside your ribs
as if you mouldered away in mounds of ants,
unless you fetch the sword which Dvalin forged!
It is not fitting for ghosts to bear precious weapons.

Then Angantýr answered her:

Hervör, daughter, why are you calling?
You are going to a fate full of evils.
You have gone mad and senseless,
wild in your wits; you awaken dead men!

It was no father or kinsman laid me in the grave;
they kept Tyrfing, the two who survived;
and only one wielded it after.

Hervör answered:

You are not telling the truth!
May the gods let you rest safe in your barrow
if you do not have Tyrfing with you;
but you are unwilling to give the heirloom
to your only child.

Then the barrow-mound opened, and it was as if the whole mound were fire and flame. Angantýr spoke again:

Hel’s gate is lifted, the mounds are opening,
all the isle is on fire before you;
now it is terrible to look around you –
flee, girl, to your ships, if you can!

She answered:

There is no fire burning by night
that can make me fear your corpse-flames;
this girl's courage will not falter,
though she see a ghost stand at the grave-door.

Then Angantýr said:

I tell you, Hervör, what will happen:
- hear what I say, prince’s daughter -
you may believe that Tyrfing, girl,
will be the ruin of all your family.

You will have a son who in later days
will bear Tyrfing and trust his strength;
he will be known to his people as Heiðrek,
born the strongest beneath the sun’s curtain. [i.e. the sky]

Then Hervör said:

I thought myself a mortal
before I came seeking your hall;
give me from the mound the piercer of mailcoats,
destroyer of shields, Hjálmar's bane.

Angantýr answered:

Hjálmar's bane lies beneath my shoulders,
encircled all around with fire;
I know no woman alive in the world
who would dare hold this sword in her hand.

Hervör said:

I will hold and take in my hand
the sharp-edged sword, if I may obtain it.
I have no fear of the burning fire;
the flame grows less as I look at it.

Angantýr answered:

You are foolish, Hervör, in your brave spirit,
to rush into the fire with open eyes!
Instead I will give you the sword from the barrow;
young girl, I cannot refuse you.

Hervör answered:

You do well in this, son of vikings,
to give to me the sword from the barrow.
Prince, I count it better to have this
than to hold all Norway beneath my hand.

Angantýr spoke:

You are wretched in your words, miserable woman!
You do not see that you should not rejoice:
you may believe that Tyrfing, girl,
will be the ruin of all your family.

Hervör spoke:

I will take my way to the wave-horses, [i.e. ships]
a prince’s daughter now happy in heart;
I do not care, companion of kings,
how my sons may fare hereafter.

Angantýr spoke:

For a long time you shall hold and keep
Hjálmar's bane safe in the sheath.
Do not touch the edges: poison is in both,
worse than evil and bringer of doom to men.

Fare well, daughter! Gladly would I give you
twelve men’s lives – believe what I tell you! –
the great strength and endurance
the sons of Arngrím left behind them.

And Hervör said:

May you all lie unharmed in the barrow!
I am eager to be away.
I seemed to myself to be set between worlds,
when all about me the grave-fires burned.

Hervör went down to the shore, and when the dawn came she saw that the ships had gone; the vikings had taken fright when they heard the thunder and saw the fires on the island.


'There is no fire burning by night that can make me fear your corpse-flames; this girl's courage will not falter, though she see a ghost stand at the grave-door...' 'I seemed to myself to be set between worlds, when all about me the grave-fires burned...'  Now there's a ghost story for you! The fearlessness of Hervör makes it somehow more eerie than if she were frightened; there's a sense that in her determination to pass beyond this world she has been transformed into something other than human, a creature even the ghost fears. Her willingness to curse the ghosts of her slain father and uncles if they won't give her the sword is... impressively dedicated. But it will not surprise you to learn that the ghost's prediction of disaster for Hervör and her sons comes to pass; you can read about what happens next here.

Entering burial-mounds to gain their treasure is a fairly common motif in both Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon literature (think of Beowulf); barrows and burial-mounds are features of the landscape which are both visible reminders of the dead and portals to another world, the abode of ghosts and dragons. As well as appearing in stories like Hervarar saga, they also feature in legends told about historical figures, including one which connects the terrifying Viking Ivar the Boneless to the Norman Conquest of England (which I wrote about here).

Burial mound at Sutton Hoo, from wikipedia

Inexplicably, few artists seem to have depicted the story of Hervör, so the illustrations in this post are Arthur Rackham's Brynhildr (another awakened inhabitant of a fiery earth-mound), and then mist after sunset on Oxford's own version of the Barrow-downs, Port Meadow. And finally, of course, one of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, which more than anywhere else I've ever been conveys the atmospheric power of this kind of landscape. Legend has it that the owner of the estate at Sutton Hoo decided to excavate the land after being told of a sighting of ghostly warriors riding around the mounds. That was in 1939; people have not stopped telling ghost stories about burial-mounds, or entering them in search of treasure.

Monday, 29 October 2012

'Page after page of jewels of mystical literature glow with this intimate and impassioned love...'

This morning I've been admiring the work of someone who is uploading the entirety of the Cloud of Unknowing on youtube - quite an undertaking!  The text is Evelyn Underhill's 1922 'translation' of the Cloud, which is not really a translation at all - it's very close indeed to the Middle English (a strategy I thoroughly approve of).  Find it here, and enjoy.

While we're on the subject of medieval mystics, I don't think I've yet linked here to my own reading of a short extract from Julian of Norwich - which is definitely in Middle English, or as close as I could manage...  It's not brilliant, but somebody might find it interesting.

And this related video is good too: 'The mystic is "in love with the Absolute" not in any idle or sentimental manner, but in that deep and vital sense which presses forward at all costs and through all dangers towards union with the object beloved...'

Sunday, 28 October 2012

'O dull cold northern sky'

Robert Louis Stevenson, in autumnal mood.



O dull cold northern sky,
O brawling sabbath bells,
O feebly twittering Autumn bird that tells
The year is like to die!

O still, spoiled trees, O city ways,
O sun desired in vain,
O dread presentiment of coming rain
That cloys the sullen days!

Thee, heart of mine, I greet.
In what hard mountain pass
Striv'st thou? In what importunate morass
Sink now thy weary feet?

Thou run'st a hopeless race
To win despair. No crown
Awaits success, but leaden gods look down
On thee, with evil face.

And those that would befriend
And cherish thy defeat,
With angry welcome shall turn sour the sweet
Home-coming of the end.

Yea, those that offer praise
To idleness, shall yet
Insult thee, coming glorious in the sweat
Of honourable ways.

Sunday Music

I was charmed to come across this video yesterday:






I posted about Sam Lee's version of 'Puck's Song' a while ago, and you can now hear it on youtube here. Do read the Guardian article which accompanies the video, too, if only to be reminded of the tantalising strangeness of 'The Bitter Withy' - a folk song based on a medieval legend based on apocryphal gospels about the childhood of Christ (did you follow that?  It's explained better here).

Gypsy songs are close to my heart, because my father's father (whom I never met) was from a Romany family.  He was born in a caravan in a field in Buckinghamshire, as all his family were, as far as I can trace; he settled down in a house for a while when he married my grandmother, but disappeared into the night when his youngest child was four years old, never to return.  Thus, all I know about his family comes from my own research with birth certificates and census records - although they did their best to avoid such things! - rather than personal knowledge.  I can't think very kindly of him for the way he left his wife and children, but nonetheless there's a part of me that yearns after all things gypsy, and wonders what in me would be different without that genetic strain.  In almost every way my life couldn't be more different from my grandfather's: just about the only thing I know about his character is that although he was illiterate, he used to carry a newspaper around under his arm; and now here's me, a creature of books and libraries, essentially a professional reader.  His family had been travelling around the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire countryside for generations - how bizarre it would have seemed to them that their grandchildren should be studying at Oxford University, not camping at the gates but inside the walls.

Anyway, that video reminded me about this:



The singer is Sheila Smith, a gypsy girl who was seven years old when this was recorded in 1952.  It's just extraordinary.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

'Like hills at noon or sunlight on a tree'

This is Rupert Brooke's 'The Charm'. You can decide for yourself whether this, or this, or this, represents the best of his 'sleeping lover' poems...



The Charm
November, 1909


In darkness the loud sea makes moan;
And earth is shaken, and all evils creep
About her ways. Oh, now to know you sleep!
Out of the whirling blinding moil, alone,
Out of the slow grim fight,
One thought to wing -- to you, asleep,
In some cool room that's open to the night
Lying half-forward, breathing quietly,
One white hand on the white
Unrumpled sheet, and the ever-moving hair
Quiet and still at length!...
Your magic and your beauty and your strength,
Like hills at noon or sunlight on a tree,
Sleeping prevail in earth and air.
In the sweet gloom above the brown and white
Night benedictions hover; and the winds of night
Move gently round the room, and watch you there.
And through the dreadful hours
The trees and waters and the hills have kept
The sacred vigil while you slept,
And lay a way of dew and flowers
Where your feet, your morning feet, shall tread.
And still the darkness ebbs about your bed.
Quiet, and strange, and loving-kind, you sleep.
And holy joy about the earth is shed;
And holiness upon the deep.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Alfred the Great, and Wantage Parish Church - or not


Today is the anniversary of the death in 899 of Alfred the Great, one of the most attractive figures of Anglo-Saxon history.  There are all sorts of reasons to love Alfred, 'England's darling' (as he was called by the twelfth century): defender of his kingdom against the Vikings, law-maker, pioneer of the navy, patron of the church - all that good stuff.  But I like him most for his educational and literary interests.  Any competent king might win battles and make good laws - but how many rulers devote themselves, in the middle of wartime, to the education of their people?  To summarise, Alfred believed that learning in England was in a poor state after the depredations of Viking attacks, and there were too few educated people to hold up literacy in the church and society at large.  He approached this problem by inviting foreign scholars to come and help him revive learning in England, and he arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English: the first fifty Psalms, Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History; he also encouraged the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  He believed these were the books 'most necessary for all men to know', and he wanted people to be able to read them in the vernacular.  Let's hear from Alfred in his own words:

[M]ē cōm swīðe oft gemynd, hwelce wiotan īu wǣron giond Angelcynn, ǣgðer ge godcundra hāda ge woruldcundra; ond hū gesǣliglīca tīda ðā wǣron giond Angelcynn; ond hū ðā kyningas ðe ðone onwald hæfdon ðæs folces on ðām dagum Gode ond his ǣrendwrecum hērsumedon; ond hū hīe ǣgðer ge hiora sibbe ge ge hiora siodo ge hiora onweald innanbordes gehīoldon, ond ēac ūt hiora ēðel gerȳmdon; ond hū him ðā spēow ǣgðer ge mid wīge ge mid wīsdōme; ond ēac ðā godcundan hādas hū giorne hīe wǣron ǣgðer ge ymb lāre ge ymb liornunga, ge ymb ealle ðā ðīowotdōmas ðe hīe Gode dōn scoldon; ond hū man ūtanbordes wīsdōm ond lāre hieder on lond sōhte, ond hū wē hīe nū sceoldan ūte begietan, gif wē hīe habban sceoldan. Swǣ clǣne hīo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swīðe fēawa wǣron behionan Humbre ðe hiora ðēninga cūðen understondan on Englisc oððe furðum ān ǣrendgewrit of Lǣdene on Englisc āreccan; ond ic wēne ðætte nōht monige begiondan Humbre nǣren. Swǣ fēawa hiora wǣron ðæt ic furðum ānne ānlēne ne mæg geðencean be sūðan Temese, ðā ðā ic tō rīce fēng...

Ðā ic ðā ðis eall gemunde, ðā gemunde ic ēac hū ic geseah, ǣr ðǣm ðe hit eall forhergod wǣre ond forbærned, hū ðā ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stōdon māðma ond bōca gefylda, ond ēac micel menigeo Godes ðīowa, ond ðā swīðe lȳtle fiorme ðāra bōca wiston, for ðǣm ðe hīe hiora nānwuht ongietan, ne meahton, for ðǣm ðe hīe nǣron on hiora agen geðīode āwritene. Swelce hīe cwǣðen: 'Ūre ieldran, ðā ðe ðās stōwa ǣr hīoldon, hīe lufodon wīsdōm, ond ðurh ðone hīe begēaton welan, ond ūs lǣfdon. Hēr mon mæg gīet gesīon hiora swæð, ac wē him ne cunnon æfter spyrigean, ond for ðǣm wē habbað nū ǣgðer forlǣten ge ðone welcan ge ðone wīsdōm, for ðǣm ðe wē noldon tō ðǣm spore mid ūre mōde onlūtan.'

Ðā ic ðā ðis eall gemunde, ðā wundrade ic swīðe swīðe ðāra gōdena wiotona ðe gīu wǣron giond Angelcynn, ond ðā bēc ealla be fullan geliornod hæfdon, ðæt hīe hiora ðā nǣnne dǣl noldon on hiora āgen geðīode wendan. Ac ic ðā sōna eft mē selfum andwyrde, ond cwæð: 'Hīe ne wēndon þætte ǣfre menn sceoldon swǣ rēccelēase weorðan, ond sīo lār swǣ oðfeallan; for ðǣre wilnunga hīe hit forlēton, ond woldon ðæt hēr ðȳ māra wīsdōm on londe wǣre ðȳ wē mā geðēoda cūðon.'

Ðā gemunde ic hū sīo ǣ wæs ǣrest on Ebrēisc geðīode funden, ond eft, ðā hīe Crēacas geliornoden, ðā wendon hīe hīe on hiora āgen geðīode ealle, ond ēac ealle ōðre bēc. Ond eft Lǣdenware swǣ same, siððan hīe hīe geliornodon, hīe hīe wendon ealla ðurh wīse wealhstōdas on hiora āgen geðīode. Ond ēac ealla ōðra Crīstena ðīoda sumne dǣl hiora on hiora āgen geðīode wendon. For ðȳ mē ðyncð betre, gif īow swǣ ðyncð, ðæt wē ēac suma bēc, ðā ðe nīedbeðearfosta sīen eallum monnum tō wiotonne, ðæt wē ðā on ðæt geðīode wenden ðe wē ealle gecnāwan mægen...

Ða ic ða gemunde hu sio lar Lædengeðiodes ær ðissum āfeallen wæs giond Angelcynn, ond ðēah monige cūðon Englisc gewrit ārǣdan, ðā ongan ic ongemang ōðrum mislīcum ond manigfealdum bisgum ðisses kynerīces ðā bōc wendan on Englisc ðe is genemned on Lǣden 'Pastoralis,' ond on Englisc 'Hierdebōc,' hwīlum word be worde, hwīlum angit of angiete...


And in my own words:

It very often comes into my mind what wise men there once were among the English people, both in sacred and secular states of life, and what a blessed time that was then among the English: how the kings who held power over the people in those days obeyed God and his ministers, and how they maintained peace, morality and power within their borders, and also extended their kingdom beyond them, and how they prospered both by war and by wisdom; and also of those in holy orders, how enthusiastic they were about both teaching and learning, and about all the acts of service that they ought to do for God; and how men from abroad sought wisdom and instruction here in this land, and how we now have to get them from abroad if we want to have them.  Learning had so completely declined among the English that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their services in English, or could translate a letter from Latin into English; and I think there were not many beyond the Humber, either. There were so few of them that I cannot even think of a single one south of the Thames, at the time when I became king...

When I remembered all this, then I also remembered how I had seen, before it was all ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books, and there were also a great many of God's servants; they got very little benefit from those books, for they did not understand anything in them, and could not, because they were not written in their own language.  It was as if they said: 'Our elders, who once held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us.  Here one may still see their footprints, but we cannot follow after them; and so we have now lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not bend down our minds to study their tracks.'

When I remembered all this, then I wondered very much that the good and wise men who there formerly were throughout England, who had learned all those books to the full, did not translate any of them into their own language. But I answered myself at once, and said: 'They did not think that people would ever become so careless, or that learning would decay so much; they chose not to do it, thinking that there would be more wisdom in the country, the more languages we knew.'

Then I remembered how the Law was first established in the Hebrew language, and afterwards, when the Greeks learned it, they translated it all into their own language, and also all the other books [of the Bible].  And later in the same way the Romans, when they had learned them, translated them all through wise interpreters into their own language; and all other Christian peoples have also translated some part of them into their own language.  Therefore it seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we too translate certain books - those which are most necessary for all men to know - into the language we can all understand...

When I remembered how knowledge of Latin had formerly decayed throughout England, and yet many knew how to read written English, then I began among the other sundry and manifold cares of this kingdom to translate into English the book that is called in Latin 'Pastoralis', and in English "Shepherd-book," sometimes word for word, and sometimes sense for sense...


And there you have it - an explanation of the advantages of translation and a programme for the production of vernacular literature.


To pay homage to Alfred I thought today I'd pay a visit to the town of Wantage, which is where he was born.  It's not that far from Oxford, and I've never been before.  In Alfred's time it was the site of a royal palace, and it stands near the ancient tracks of the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, in the Vale of the White Horse.  These paths and the white horse were ancient long before Alfred was born, or before he learned to memorise English poetry at his mother's knee.

Today Wantage is a small market town, and there's not much to see there, so the aim of my visit was to see the parish church.  (There seemed a good chance of Alfred-themed stained glass).  But this was where the expedition, so perfectly planned, fell down.  Attempting to learn from my last disastrous church expedition to Headington Quarry, where the church website said the church would be open when it wasn't, and I waited around in the rain for an hour until it was, I absolutely scoured the Wantage church website for opening times.  'Open daily', it said, with a service at noon lasting an hour; so I thought, I'll aim to arrive at 1pm, and that will give me plenty of time to look round.  Oh, foolish me.  You see, the church website expected me to psychically divine that 'open daily' actually means 'open for two hours every morning, and locked every afternoon'.  And so, after my expensive and chilly bus ride from Oxford, this is what awaited me in Wantage when I arrived at 1pm:



Open between 10.30 and 12.30!  I could have cried; when you're standing in front of a locked door it starts to feel like a rather pointed metaphor.  I took a picture of the sign because, well, there was nothing else to take a picture of, and its solidity infuriated me.  When they were having this sign planned and professionally made, didn't it occur to anyone to say, 'you know, if you're not standing right outside the church door this information isn't available - maybe we should put it on our website...'?  It's this kind of thing that makes me think churches don't really want to interact with the public, since they've given no thought to how strangers might first encounter them.  (I've recently been doing some work writing the website of a small charity, so I've been thinking about these things).  Of course churches can open and close at whatever hours they please, but what's the harm in providing clear and accurate information about the hours they're open?  To do otherwise, when people might be travelling some distance to visit, is just thoughtless and inconsiderate.

Anyway, this is what the outside of the church looks like:


The churchyard was leafy and autumnal, but it was raining, so I didn't linger.


It's pretty, but would have been prettier in the sunshine.  Experiences like this make me think I should really stop trying to write my own church-visiting posts, and become one of those blogs which just copies and pastes photos and text from Wikipedia; at least you can do that from the comfort of a warm, dry room!

As I said, there's really nothing to see in Wantage apart from the church; the site of the Saxon palace hasn't been conclusively identified, and although there's a nice little brook running through the town, it's not much fun in the rain.  There's a town museum where, in desperation, I whiled away a few minutes, only to find myself being annoyed by signs like this:



'The only king in British history to be called 'Great''?  Um, no...

And really, that was it.  My trip to Wantage proved to be a complete waste of time and money.  The most interesting thing I saw was the statue of Alfred in the Market Place, which looks like this:


With the inscription:


But, you know, there's a bigger statue of Alfred in Winchester and Winchester actually wants visitors, so if you're looking for Alfred-related destinations I suggest you go there instead.


 Alfred looks out over Wantage.  Probably in disapproval.



To end on a more positive note - because I do love Alfred, truly - let me link to this post from last December about various Alfred-related things I saw in Winchester; and encourage you to read Chesterton's long poem on Alfred, if you haven't before ('The Ballad of the White Horse', which can be found here); and also draw your attention to this series of short essays currently running on Radio 3, all biographies of notable Anglo-Saxon people.  I stumbled across the programme on St Cuthbert last night by chance, but will be catching up on the rest of the series over the weekend - the essays have been written by the great and good of the Anglo-Saxon academic world, and so promise all to be as well-written as Cuthbert's was...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Forget Fortune

[I've had this post sitting in my drafts folder for a few weeks, and hadn't got around to posting it - then, when I remembered that today is the commemoration of Boethius, widely regarded in the Middle Ages as the world's leading expert on Fate and Fortune, I realised this post would be appropriate.  So here it is.]


One of the most common google searches which brings people to this blog is 'medieval wheel of fortune', and they get this post, a fifteenth-century poem in which the lovelorn speaker begs Fortune to turn her famous wheel and let him/her have joy again.  It's a good poem, but the appeal to Fortune is conventional and perhaps a little overly mannered; so I like to believe that it was out of irritation with this poetic conceit that the song in today's post was born.  'Forget about Fortune', says the singer, 'God is on my side!'  It's meant to be a fairly cheerful sentiment, I think, and not as smug as that paraphrase makes it sound.

It's a sixteenth-century song which survives in the same printed book as this more famous one, Wynkyn de Worde's 1530 Twenty Songs (Bassus).  You can see images of the book here, with this song starting on the right-hand page of the third picture, K1 e1 004. I don't know much about medieval music notation, but the bass part looks pretty fun...

The phrase 'Auxilium meum a Domino' means 'my help comes from the Lord' and occurs in a number of contexts, including for instance the second verse of this psalm.


In youth, in age, both in wealth and woe,
Auxilium meum a Domino.

Though poets feign that Fortune by her chance
And her free will doth oppress and advance,
Fortune doth miss her will and liberty.
Then trust to Virtue; let Fortune go!
Auxilium meum a Domino.

Of grace divine, with heavenly assistance,
If Virtue do remain, Virtue alway
When she list, may call Fortune's chance again.
What [care] I then, though Fortune be my foe?
Auxilium meum a Domino.


[Literally:

In youth, in age, in suceess and in sorrow, my help comes from the Lord.

Though poets pretend that Fortune, by her use of chance and at her own will, forces people down and raises them up, Fortune misunderstands the extent of her power and freedom.  So trust to Virtue; forget about Fortune!  My help comes from the Lord.

By the power of divine grace and with heavenly assistance, if Virtue continues to be present, Virtue can always override Fortune's chances when she chooses.  What care I then, though Fortune be my foe?  My help comes from the Lord.]

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Thoughts at Evensong

Yesterday I decided to go to Christ Church Cathedral for Evensong; on St Frideswide's day it seemed the place to be.  It was dark, the grey end of a drizzling kind of day, and I couldn't help thinking of John Donne: 'Churches are best for prayer that have least light'.  Before the service, I went to pay a visit to St Frideswide:


Someone had decorated the lower part of the shrine with lilies, carnations, and a bed of aromatic rosemary stalks, all green and white.  I was just about able to take photographs of the lower part of the Burne-Jones window before it got too dark, including the ones I posted yesterday and also this, which was too frivolous for the other post:


These ducks appear in the scene of Frideswide fleeing to Binsey.  Above them, Frideswide is desperately clinging to a tree (or something; it was a bit too dark to tell), but the ducks pursue their merry way down the Thames.

I had gone hoping to hear a hymn called 'Frideswide, our patron', which is sung to the tune 'Thine be the glory', and which the internet had told me was quite something to experience; however, for some reason we did not sing that.  Instead we sang this hymn, to this stirring tune:

In our day of thanksgiving one psalm let us offer
For the saints who before us have found their reward;
When the shadow of death fell upon them, we sorrowed,
But now we rejoice that they rest in the Lord.

In the morning of life, and at noon, and at even,
He called them away from our worship below;
But not till His love, at the font and the altar,
Had girt them with grace for the way they should go.

These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,
And dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;
Yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,
And still they were seeking the city of God.

Sing praise, then, for all who here sought and here found Him,
Whose journey is ended, whose perils are past;
They believed in the Light; and its glory is round them,
Where the clouds of earth’s sorrows are lifted at last.


The words are by William Henry Draper (1855-1933), who also wrote this Lenten hymn.  I wasn't entirely sure about it when I first saw the words, but they grew on me as I sang; verse 3 is particularly nice, and could not have been more appropriate within those walls.  Of course the stones of today's Christ Church, though they have echoed Frideswide's praises for centuries, were never beheld by the eyes of the saint herself; but the ground she walked on can't be far away from the cathedral.  I liked the last two lines of verse 2, as well; 'girt with grace' is a felicitious phrase, which had me pondering the verb to gird - the suggestion is of the ceremony by which a knight receives his sword before the altar, but also something more nebulous (literally) because to be girded is to be 'surrounded' by grace as if by a cloud of witnesses.  And I thought about a garth, etymologically related to the verb, a word which came from Old Norse into northern English: enclosed ground, 'a garden walled around', and the green space within a cloister which in Oxford we now call a quad, of which Christ Church has such a splendid example.  A girded garth can be a little garden or all the space of the known world, the Miðgarð in which we all live; that's the 'dear ground' St Frideswide trod.

Then the choir sang this anthem by Orlando Gibbons:



Almighty and everlasting God,
mercifully look upon our infirmities,
and in all our dangers and necessities
stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.


I've heard this anthem many times, and sung it not a few, but it moved me last night in a way it never has before. The choirboys were tremulous on their high notes, and sounded more than usually childish as they came in with 'and in all our dangers and necessities'; somehow this makes it all the more plaintive, as on our behalf they put forth a prayer they are too young to understand.  The words (a collect from the Book of Common Prayer) are very simple; they ask for everything and nothing, for all one could wish a merciful God would do for people he loved, and all one ought not perhaps really to hope for.

I can't decide how to finish this post or remember what the point of starting it was, but I hope you enjoyed the music, anyway.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Feast of St Frideswide

St Frideswide in the church of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford
(with Christ Church cathedral behind her)


Today is the feast of another in the long line of Anglo-Saxon royal nun-saints: St Frideswide, who died on 19 October in the year 727.  Frideswide is the patron of Oxford, both city and university, and her shrine is here in Christ Church Cathedral, which stands on the site of the medieval priory which bore her name.  In outline her story is a familiar one: as legend has it, she was the daughter of a Mercian king, who chose the religious life but was sought in marriage by a wicked king named Algar; she fled his advances to a forest near Binsey, where she discovered the treacle-well, and was hidden there until Algar was killed by falling off his horse just outside the city gates and breaking his neck.

There was a superstition in the Middle Ages which said that because of Algar's fate, no king had entered the city of Oxford from the time of Frideswide until Henry III defied the ban in 1263; this is not literally true, at least of the pre-Conquest kings, but I suppose it might be true of the post-Conquest ones (the royal palace of Beaumont, near where the Ashmolean now stands, was outside the city walls).  This part of the legend is an interesting counterpart to the stories of Norman barons fleeing St Etheldreda, and Cnut being so afraid of St Edith; why, you might ask yourself, were such noblemen supposed to be at risk from the supernatural powers of these dead saintly women?

Anyway, in honour of St Frideswide I thought I would post a Middle English verse account of her life.  It comes from the same stable as the jolly little Middle English life of St Benedict which I posted in July; they're both from the 14th-century collection of vernacular saints' lives known as the South English Legendary.  There are actually two versions of St Frideswide's life in that collection, and this is the shorter one (you can find the shorter one here and the longer one here).  I must warn you in starting: from an artistic point of view, this poem really isn't very good.  You won't hear me say that about most of the medieval texts I post here, because a) I only post things I think are good and b) I like to encourage people to see the best in medieval poems which are not generally thought to be worth much artistically; most of the short lyric poems I post here, for instance, are not considered the best of the genre, but I think they have a lot of merit and are sadly underrated by scholars.  That is not the case with this Life of St Frideswide!  It's not meant to be high art: it's a pacy, memorable tale, recounting the most important moments in Frideswide's life and not attempting to be particularly clever about it.  But it is quite fun.  To preserve that quality, I've put it into a modernised doggerel form below the ME text; the uneven metre and even some of the dodgy word order are also found in the original.  Enjoy!

St Frideswide at Christ Church, Oxford, in a window 
 roughly contemporary with this poem.  She's surrounded by what look like 
grinning pumpkins, but I assure you those aren't part of the story...


Seint Fretheswyde, that holy mayde, was of Englonde;
Atte Oxenford heo was ybore, as ich understonde.
Hir fader hete Kyng Dydan, and Sefreth hete the quene -
This were hire eldren, that hure gotten hem bytwene.
Fretheswyd, hure yonge doughter, to lettre hii setten in youthe;
So wel heo spedde in six monnthes that heo hure Sauter couthe.
Swythe wel heo was byloved, of hey and of lowe;
Alle hii hadde joie of hure that couthen hure knowe.
Of the hard here was hure nexte wede.
The meste mete that heo ete was worten and barly brede,
And the cold welle water - that was hure drynke.
Now wold a knyghtes doughter grete hoker of suche sondes thynke!
The maide bysoght hure fadere to make hure nonne
In Seint Marie churche, that he hadde er bygonne.
Hire fadere was the furste man that lete the churche rere
That bereth the nam now of that mayde that lyth yschryned ther.
The king was glad of this chyld, that to clene lyf drowe.
He sende after a byschop anon hasteliche ynowe
Of Lyncolne that was tho - Edgar was his name -
To maken his doughter nonne ne thoght hym no schame.
The byschop for the kynges heste thuder he cam hymsulf
And schar hure in the nonnerie with hire felawes twelve.
A nyght, as this mayde was huresulf alon,
In hire bedes with hire sustren slepen everechon,
The fende hadde envye therof to hire goudhede
And thoght myd som gynne of goud lyf hure lede.
To hire he cam hire to fonde, in one mannes lyche
In goldbeten clothes that semed swythe ryche.
"My derworth mayde," he sede, "ne thynke thee noght to longe.
Tyme hit is for thy travayle that thou thy mede afonge.
Ich am thulke that thou byst to: take now goud hede.
Honoure me here, and for thy servyse ich croune thee to mede."
The fende hadde in his heved an croune of rede golde;
Another he that mayde bede, yif heo hym honoury wolde.
"Fare fram me, thou foule fende with thyn byheste!"
Heo made the croys, and he fley awey with noyse and grete cheste.
In the holy nonnerie so longe heo lyved ther
That hure fadere and hure modere both ded were.
Algar hete the king after the king Dydan;
He was king at Oxenford ychose - a wonder luther man.
He ofsende Fretheswyth, to habben hure to wyve.
Heo sede heo was to God ywedded, to hold by hure lyve.
The forward that heo hadde ymade, heo sede heo nolde breke;
If heo dude, wel heo wyste God wold be awreke.
"A foule," heo sede, "ich were the hey King of Hevene forsake
For gyfte other for anythyng, and thee His hyne take."
The messageres with grete strengthe wolden hure habbe ynome
And don the maide byfor the king anon to hym come.
Alle that weren ther woxen starc blynde;
Bynome hem was the myght the mayde for to fynde!
The borgeys of Oxenford sore were agaste,
And this holy maide for this men hii beden atte laste,
That heo thorw Godes grace geve hem here syght;
And thennes to the king passe that hii mosten habbe myght.
Anon hii hadden here syght thorw hire bysechyng;
Thannes hii wende, and al that cas hii toldyn the king.
The king therfor hym made wroth tho he herd this,
And in grete wrath swor his oth that he wold hire seche, ywys;
And that he hure habbe wolde. Faste he gan to yelpe
And swor that hure wocchecrafte scholde hure lyte helpe.
An angel that sulf nyght to that mayde cam
And bad hire oute of the kinges syght wende, that was so grame.
The levedy wende by nyght fram hure sustren tho
With somme that heo with hure toke - tweyne, witthoute mo.
To Temese heo yede and fonde a bote al preste, thorw Godes sonde,
And therin heo fonde an angel that broght hem to the londe.
For dred of the king heo wende, as God hit wolde,
Ne dorste heo come at non toune, to dwelle at non holde.
In a wode that Benesy yclyped ys al day
Thre wynter in an hole woned, that seylde me hure say.
A mayde that seve yere ne myght nothing yse
Cam to hure in the wode, and felle adoun a kne.
Hure eyghen that holy mayde wysche with water of hure honde,
And as hole as any fysche that maide gan up stonde.
The king hym cam to Oxenford, wroth and eke wode,
And thoght to do the mayde other than goud.
So sone so he to toune cam, he thoghte for to fyght
And habbe this maide Fretheswythe with strengthe agenryght.
He enquered ware heo was. Me told hym sone that cas:
That heo in the wode of Benysye preveliche yhydde was.
The king rod toward the wode with hauke and with racche,
For to enserchy after this mayde yf he myght cache.
Tho this maide this yherd, anon heo bygan to fle
Priveliche toward Oxenford, that non scholde hure se;
So that heo was underyute that heo was fleynde.
After hure me wende faste; the king rod ernyng.
The mayde scaped into the toune, as hit was Godes grace.
The kinges hors spornde witthoute the gate in a wel faire place
And felle and brake the kinges necke; and that he gan awynne.
Nas ther non of his men tho that derst come withinne.
The maide holde hure ther in pes fram alle hure fon.
Glad was that myght with hure speke other to hure gon.
Of hure holy lyf me told fer and eke nere,
Into alle Englonde that me wyste nas yholde hure pere.
A wel swythe wondere cas byfelle oppon a day
Up a fyscher that in a bote with his felawes aslepe lay.
He bygan to ravien as he awoke of slepe.
Up among his felawes, wod he gan to lepe,
So that on that ther was among hem alle he slowe;
And wan he was afalle, with his teth on hym he gnowe.
Alle that myght to hym come on hym setten honde,
And uneth with muche pyne hii teyghede hym and bonde.
Al hii wer busie that foule goste to lede
Toward that holy mayde, that heo for hym bede.
The maide fourmed that croys tofor on his heved;
The bounden body felle adoune, as hit were ded.
The maide hete unbynd hym anon in al wyse,
And suth hym a Godes name hole and sounde to aryse.
Hol and sounde the man aros and hered God almyght
And that mayde that hym delyvered of that foule wyght.
As heo yede a day in the toune, a mysel heo mette.
To hure the mysel felle adoune, and on knes hure grette,
And bysoght that lady that heo hym cusse scholde.
Heo custe hym, and he was hole, ryght as God hit wolde.
Fele miracles by hure lyve of hure weren ycude,
And suth after hure deth; hii neren noght yhud.
Heo wend out of this world a morwe up Lukes day.
Now God ous bringe to the blysse that He broght that may!  Amen.


St Frideswide and ox in the church of (guess what!) St Frideswide, Oxford


And now the translation (the interspersed images are from the Burne-Jones window in Christ Church Cathedral depicting the life of Frideswide):


Saint Frideswide, that holy maid, came from England;
At Oxford she was born, as I understand.
Her father was King Dydan, and Safrida was his queen -
These were her parents, who begot her them between.
Frideswide, their young daughter, they set to learning in her youth:
So well she sped that in six months she knew the Psalter through.
Most dearly was she loved, by high and by low;
All took great joy in her who ever did her know.
Of a rough hairshirt was her inmost clothing made;
The best food that she ate was herbs and barley-bread,
And the cold well water was her only drink;
These days a knight's daughter would scorn of such things think!

The maid asked her father to make her a nun
In the church of Saint Mary, which he had himself begun.
Her father was the first man who did that church begin
Which bears the name now of the maid, who lies enshrined within.
The king was glad of this child, who wanted a pure life:
At once he sent for the bishop, as fast as he could write,
Who was bishop of Lincoln then - Edgar was his name -
To make his daughter a nun; to him it was no shame!
The bishop at the king's request came then at once himself
And sheared her in the nunnery, with her companions twelve.

[sheared, i.e. had her hair ceremonially cut short - the female equivalent of the tonsure]


Then one night, when this maid was by herself alone,
In her bed, beside her sisters, sleeping every one,
The Devil took to hating her for her holy life,
And planned he would deceive her, by some trick he would devise.
He then appeared, to tempt her, in likeness of a man,
In precious clothes of beaten gold, and to speak he then began:
"My dearest girl," he said to her, "don't worry here too long:
It's time you were rewarded for the labour you have done.
I am the one you worship; pay heed to me now,
Honour me, and for your service your reward will be a crown."
The Fiend had there upon his head a crown of red gold;
Another he held out to that maid, if she him honour would.
"Away from me, you wicked fiend, with your promises!"
She signed the cross, and away he flew with noise and much distress.


In this holy nunnery so long she lived there
That at last her father and mother both dead were.
Algar was the king who succeeded king Dydan;
He was chosen king at Oxford - a cruel and wicked man.
He sent at once for Frideswide, to have her as his wife.
She said she was betrothed to God, and would be all her life.
The promise she had made, she swore she'd never break;
If she did, she knew full well God would his vengeance take.
She said, "I would be a fool the King of Heaven to forsake,
And you would be another, if you did his handmaid take."
The messengers with their great strength would have seized her as one
And forced the maid against her will before the king to come;
But then all of them were suddenly struck blind,
And all at once they lost the power this holy maid to find!
The citizens of Oxford were sorely aghast,
And for these men to the holy maid they prayed at last,
That she through the grace of God might give them back their sight,
So that from there back to the king travel again they might.
At once they had their sight back, through her beseeching,
And from there they went, and told all this to the king.
The king became angry when he heard all this,
And in wrath he swore an oath he would seek her, iwis,
And he would have her.  Furiously he began to rave
And swore that her witchcraft would no more her save!

An angel to the holy maid appeared on that same night
And bid her flee as best she could the furious king's might.
The lady fled by night from her sisters all;
Only a few she took with her - two of them, no more.
To the Thames she went and found a boat waiting, by God's plan,
And therein she found an angel who took them to the land.
For dread of the king she fled that place, as God it did provide,
But dared not go to any town, nor in any house hide.
As best she might she hid herself in a wood called Binsey
Three winters in a cave she lived, where no one could her see.

A maiden who for seven years nothing could see
Came to her within the wood, and fell down upon her knee:
Her eyes the holy maiden washed with water in her hands
And as whole as any fish the maid again did stand.

[apparently 'as healthy as a fish' was a genuine Middle English saying.  That seems impossibly ridiculous, but it is true, and google suggests it exists in other languages today...]


The king then came to Oxford, furious, almost mad,
And planned to do to the maiden something very bad.
As soon as he came to the city, he thought that he would fight
And seize this maiden Frideswide by strength, against the right.
He asked where she had gone, and was told that she had fled:
That she in the wood of Binsey had in secret hid.
The king rode towards the wood with hawks and hunting-hounds,
To seek the holy maid and get her in his hands.
When the maiden heard this, she soon began to flee
To Oxford very secretly, where no one could her see;
But as she fled they spotted her, and pursued her very fast;
After her they all galloped, the king was not the last.
The maiden escaped into the town, by God's grace.
The king's horse stumbled outside the gate in a level place
And fell, and broke the king's neck; and that was all he won!
Then none of his men dared within the city come.
The maiden remained within in peace, protected from her foe;
Glad was anyone who could speak with her or to her go.
Of her holy life they all spoke, far and near,
Throughout all England was no one thought her peer.

A very great wonder happened another day,
To a fisherman who, with his friends, in a boat sleeping lay.
He began to rave when he awoke from sleep,
And there among his companions he madly began to leap,
So that he seized one of his friends and suddenly him slew,
And when he had killed him, with his teeth he began to chew.
All those who could reach him, on him they set their hands,
And barely, with much labour, they got him tied and bound.
All their thought was to take the man to that holy maid
That she might cure the man possessed, if she for him prayed.
The maid marked the cross on the top of his head;
The bound body fell down, as if it were dead.
The maid had him unbound at once, in every wise,
And bid him, in God's name, whole and sound to rise.
Whole and sound the man arose and praised God in heaven
And the maid who released him from that wicked devil.

As she walked one day in the town, a leper she did meet;
At her feet the leper fell, and humbly did her greet.
He prayed to the lady, that her kiss might him heal;
She kissed him, and he was cured, just as God willed.
During her life it was well-known, the miracles she did,
And also after her death; they ought not to be hid!
She left this world on the morn that followed St Luke's day,
May God bring us to the bliss he prepared for that maid!  Amen.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

St Edward the Confessor, Optometrist

Edward the Confessor (St Peter's church, Edensor, Derbyshire)

Today is the feast of Edward the Confessor, about whom I've posted many times before, so here's a favourite miracle-story about Edward which - perhaps surprisingly - credits this most problematic of Anglo-Saxon kings with a playful sense of humour. It's recorded by the anonymous author of the eleventh-century Vita Edwardi Regis, the first Life of St Edward. Despite its title this text is only partly about Edward himself; it was written for his wife Eadgyth, daughter of Earl Godwine, and is as much about her father and brothers (much more dynamic and interesting characters than Edward!) as it is about her husband. It's worth reading if you ever get the chance: it's the closest thing we'll ever get to the perspective of Queen Eadgyth herself on her extraordinary family. There are character sketches of Harold and Tostig - Harold, patient and wise, 'a second Judas Maccabeus, a true friend of his race and country', but 'rather too generous with oaths (alas!)', Tostig liberal, pious, powerful in his self-restraint, and with 'bold and inflexible constancy of mind', both distinctly handsome and very brave. There's also an intriguing insight into Cnut's relationship with Godwine ('revered by all Englishmen as a father', apparently) and an interesting description of Eadgyth herself. Plus a bit about Edward the Confessor, if you like that sort of thing.

Anyway, here's the miracle. A blind man has just come to King Edward to be healed, and has been sent water from the saint's morning ablutions. He claims the touch of it has cured him, but Edward wants to check and make sure:

The king, therefore, with pious curiosity, came unto him in the chapel, and, calling him to him, inquired whether he could indeed see. This the man began to affirm and gave thanks to God. To test the truth of the words, however, the king, as pure as a dove, stretched forth the palm of his hand, and asked for an account of his action. "You are stretching out your hand, O my lord king," the man replied.

Once more the king, sticking his forefinger and middle finger like a pair of horns before the man’s face, asked what he did. And the man answered what he saw. Also, a third time, the king, grasping his beard in his hand, again asked what he did. And the man furnished correctly the information that was sought. Then the king considered that he had been sufficiently examined.

The Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, ed. and trans. Frank Barlow (Oxford, 1992), p.95.

Our precise author rather obscures the humour of this story with his dry delivery, but it is, I think, meant to be at least a little amusing. The 'how many fingers am I holding up' method of testing miracles!

Anglo-Norman Life of Edward (BL Additional 70513, f.55v)

I still have a fondness for the Old Norse leek story, though....

Edward in a 14th-century genealogical roll (BL Royal 14 B VI)

Friday, 12 October 2012

When broom bears apples and hemlock bears honey

This is a poem or song from a fifteenth-century manuscript of songs and carols, which includes among many others this carol of the Virgin Mary, and the Annunciation carol 'Tidings true'.  Today's poem is on a very conventional theme, the untrustworthiness of the world (for variations of which, see this set of posts), but this is a particularly neat expression of the idea.


Wold God that men might sene
Hertes whan they bene,
For thinges that bene untrew.
If it be as I wene,
Thing that semeth grene
Is ofte faded of hew.

[Would to God that men could see hearts as they really are, as things that are untrue; for if it is as I believe, things that seem fresh and green are often faded in hue.]

Will is tak for reson;
Trew love is full geson;
No man sett be shame.
Trost is full of treson;
Eche man oderes cheson;
No man him seilfe will blame.

[Self-will is mistaken for reason; true love is very scarce, and no one cares for shame. Trust is full of treason; every man accuses someone else, but no one will accuse himself.]

This warlde is variabell;
Nothing therein is stable,
Asay now who so will.
Sin it is so mutable,
How shuld me be stable?
It may not be thorow skill.

[This world is variable; nothing therein is stable, let anyone test it who will! Since it is so mutable, how can anyone be secure? Reason says this cannot be.]

Whan brome will appelles bere,
And humloke hony in fere,
Than seke rest in lond.
With men is no pees;
Ne rest in hart is, no lese,
With few be see and sond.

[When a broom-bush bears apples, and hemlock bears honey, then look for rest in this world. Among men is no peace, and rest in heart belongs to few, truly, by sea or by shore.]

Sithen there is no rest,
I hold it for the best,
God to be our frend,
He that is our Lord,
Deliver us out with his word,
And graunt us a good ende!

[Since there is no rest, I hold it for the best to take God as our friend. May he who is our Lord deliver us by his word, and grant us a good end!]


This poem's attitude to 'rest' reminds me of George Herbert's 'The Pulley':


When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

'It is not sufficient therefore for us to study the most excellent things unless we do it in the most excellent of manners'

10 October is Thomas Traherne Day, in my world.  I've posted lots of my favourite sections from Centuries of Meditations before, but I feel like C. S. Lewis did about this book - "I could go on quoting it forever".  So today I'll restrict myself to one extract, but also suggest that you go and listen to this reading of another superb passage.

Credenhill in Herefordshire, where Traherne was parish priest

Having been at the University, and received there the taste and tincture of another education, I saw that there were things in this world of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination. There I saw that Logic, Ethics, Physics, Metaphysics, Geometry, Astronomy, Poesy, Medicine, Grammar, Music, Rhetoric, all kinds of Arts, Trades, and Mechanisms that adorned the world pertained to felicity; at least there I saw those things, which afterwards I knew to pertain unto it: and was delighted in it. There I saw into the nature of the Sea, the Heavens, the Sun, the Moon and Stars, the Elements, Minerals, and Vegetables. All which appeared like the King's Daughter, all glorious within; and those things which my nurses, and parents, should have talked of there were taught unto me.

Nevertheless some things were defective too. There was never a tutor that did professly teach Felicity, though that be the mistress of all other sciences. Nor did any of us study these things but as aliena, which we ought to have studied as our enjoyments. We studied to inform our knowledge, but knew not for what end we so studied. And for lack of aiming at a certain end we erred in the manner. Howbeit there we received all those seeds of knowledge that were afterwards improved; and our souls were awakened to a discerning of their faculties, and exercise of their powers.

The manner is in everything of greatest concernment. Whatever good thing we do, neither can we please God, unless we do it well: nor can He please us, what ever good He does, unless He do it well. Should He give us the most perfect things in Heaven and Earth to make us happy, and not give them to us in the best of all possible manners, He would but displease us; and it were impossible for Him to make us happy. It is not sufficient therefore for us to study the most excellent things unless we do it in the most excellent of manners. And what that is, it is impossible to find, till we are guided thereunto by the most excellent end, with a desire of which I flagrantly burned.

The best of all possible ends is the Glory of God, but happiness was that I thirsted after. And yet I did not err, for the Glory of God is to make us happy. Which can never be done but by giving us most excellent natures and satisfying those natures: by creating all treasures of infinite value, and giving them to us in an infinite manner, to wit, both in the best that to omnipotence was possible. This led me to enquire whether all things were excellent, and of perfect value, and whether they were mine in propriety?

It is the Glory of God to give all things to us in the best of all possible manners. To study things therefore under the double notion of interest and treasure, is to study all things in the best of all possible manners. Because in studying so we enquire after God's Glory, and our own happiness. And indeed enter into the way that leadeth to all contentments, joys, and satisfactions, to all praises triumphs and thanksgivings, to all virtues, beauties, adorations and graces, to all dominion, exaltation, wisdom, and glory, to all Holiness, Union, and Communication with God, to all patience, and courage and blessedness, which it is impossible to meet any other way. So that to study objects for ostentation, vain knowledge or curiosity is fruitless impertinence, tho' God Himself and Angels be the object. But to study that which will oblige us to love Him, and feed us with nobility and goodness toward men, that is blessed. And so is it to study that which will lead us to the Temple of Wisdom, and seat us in the Throne of Glory.

Many men study the same things which have not the taste of, nor delight in them. And their palates vary according to the ends at which they aim. He that studies polity, men and manners, merely that he may know how to behave himself, and get honour in this world, has not that delight in his studies as he that contemplates these things that he might see the ways of God among them, and walk in communion with Him. The attainments of the one are narrow, the other grows a celestial King of all Kingdoms. Kings minister unto him, temples are his own, thrones are his peculiar treasure. Governments, officers, magistrates and courts of judicature are his delights, in a way ineffable, and a manner inconceivable to the other's imagination. He that knows the secrets of nature with Albertus Magnus, or the motions of the heavens with Galileo, or the cosmography of the moon with Hevelius, or the body of man with Galen, or the nature of diseases with Hippocrates, or the harmonies in melody with Orpheus, or of poesy with Homer, or of Grammar with Lilly, or of whatever else with the greatest artist; he is nothing, if he knows them merely for talk or idle speculation, or transient and external use. But he that knows them for value, and knows them his own shall profit infinitely.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

'Nobody Comes'

I'm posting this Thomas Hardy poem today because it was written on 9th October, 1924.  It's always strange to be reminded that Hardy lived into the world of motor-cars and telegraph-wires; for some contemporary colour, you might like to listen to this as you read the poem.



Nobody Comes

Tree-leaves labour up and down,
And through them the fainting light
Succumbs to the crawl of night.
Outside in the road the telegraph wire
To the town from the darkening land
Intones to travellers like a spectral lyre
Swept by a spectral hand.

A car comes up, with lamps full-glare,
That flash upon a tree:
It has nothing to do with me,
And whangs along in a world of its own,
Leaving a blacker air;
And mute by the gate I stand again alone,
And nobody pulls up there.

Monday, 8 October 2012

A Harvest Hymn, and me


1. To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise
in hymns of adoration,
to thee bring sacrifice of praise
with shouts of exultation.
Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,
the hills with joy are ringing,
the valleys stand so thick with corn
that even they are singing.

2. And now, on this our festal day,
thy bounteous hand confessing,
Upon thine altar, Lord, we lay
the first fruits of thy blessing.
By thee the souls of men are fed
with gifts of grace supernal;
thou, who dost give us earthly bread,
give us the bread eternal.

3. We bear the burden of the day,
and often toil seems dreary;
but labour ends with sunset ray,
and rest comes for the weary.
May we, the angel reaping over,
stand at the last accepted,
Christ's golden sheaves, forevermore
to garners bright elected.

4. O blessèd is that land of God
where saints abide forever,
where golden fields spread fair and broad,
where flows the crystal river;
the strains of all its holy throng
with ours today are blending;
thrice blessèd is that harvest song
which never hath an ending.





It's harvest festival season, and this is my favourite harvest hymn. It's by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), who also wrote my favourite Epiphany hymn. The reason I like this hymn - and all Dix's hymns, in fact, even 'Alleluia, sing to Jesus' - is that they have a hint of uncertainty amid the joy, an acknowledgement that faith is not easy, even as they then offer comfort for that fact.  Pictures of spiritual perfection, even in hymn form, tend to 'make me sick and wicked'; a little doubt can sometimes be more helpful.  Here the shadow is over verse 3: 'We bear the burden of the day, / and often toil seems dreary' (dreary with its older stronger meaning), and the hesitation of the petition in the last four lines of that verse.  'May we stand at the last accepted'; amidst all the goldenness and the shouts of exultation, that's a rather tentative wish.

I made myself sad the other day, reading In Memoriam and this poem and thinking about fruitlessness.  I've just finished my DPhil thesis, which is obviously very exciting for me; it's the greatest fruit my life so far has to offer - greater certainly than the cans of baked beans we used to take to harvest festivals at school.  And yet if one is realistic, it isn't much in the scheme of things, compared to the other kinds of fruit one might have borne after 26 years of life.  In the eyes of the world, yes, perhaps it's worthwhile, and to me personally, very much so - but to God?  I honestly don't know whether or not it's an acceptable first-fruit, as once I thought it might have been.  Sometimes I think so; and then I remember how few offerings or prayers of mine have ever proved acceptable to that great silence, and everything starts to seem pointless and futile and all very much like 'my prime of youth is but a frost of cares', as if it would have been better never to have started at life than to fail so hopelessly.  I know, I know that's ridiculous (as, indeed, you are probably thinking), because Tichborne was facing execution when he wrote that poem, and I'm just someone who doesn't know what to do with her life and is not really sure that it matters what she does; the situations are hardly comparable.  But even so, I can't shake the feeling.  Everything feels futile when you have the threat hanging over you that whatever you do might count for nothing in the end (not 'at the last accepted'...).  When I submitted my thesis, my friends were very nice about it, but many of them innocently asked the question which stings: 'So, what's next?'  Or, as it sounded to my ears: we're bored with this accomplishment already; what else have you got?  This is how it's been with every achievement of my life, from the day I learned to read until the day I submitted my DPhil: nothing is ever enough.  People always want more from you than you can give, and God, especially, is never satisfied.  I think this was the first lesson I ever learned about God, because if you go to a Catholic school and are even a little bit naturally clever you will hear rather a lot about the parable of the talents and how 'from he who has been given much, much will be demanded', and before you are old enough to know exactly what it is you've been given or what you're supposed to do with it, you will have learned that God is never really going to be happy with how you use your 'talents'.  And when those talents incline to the scholarly it's all the worse, because as we know, intellectual endeavour is all very well, but it's nothing compared to love (we can all recite this bit by heart, right?) and accomplishments of any kind, however earnestly and diligently pursued and won, don't compensate in the end for not having loved or been loved in the ways that count.

I'm good at loving, but not at bearing fruit out of my loves.  I've only loved in the ways that don't count, as I remember when I see on facebook my schoolfriends getting engaged and having babies; such fruits of a useful life are better than a tin of harvest festival baked beans too, and there's no question that those fruits are acceptable to God.  That makes it sound like I'm just jealous of them, and I am, bitterly, heart-wrenchingly jealous, but it isn't only that - we all have to bear some kind of fruit in our lives, and it's much harder to do that if you're not good at making people love you.  I've never been good at making people like me.  I have qualities which in some people are found lovable, but in me simply are not, for reasons I don't entirely understand; and however much you may love, if you are not lovable then your love doesn't bear fruit.  If you produce something - a novel, or a thesis, or a blog - without having that magic quality that makes people feel they can like and trust and connect with you as they read it, how can it bear fruit?  I don't have that quality, and I'm not sure it's something one can learn.  Everything I've ever written, everything I've ever seriously done or attempted, has been born of love, and I've tried to serve the things and people I love honestly and faithfully and well; but because I'm not lovable my love stops with me, and is fruitless, and not enough.

So I wish I was good at something useful or valuable, as my friends are good at making others love them - as other people are good at making their lives worthwhile.  I wish I had anything to offer or anything to say that people wanted to hear.  And most of all I wish I knew what I ought to do with my stupid life, and that it mattered to anyone either way.

I don't know why I write posts like this; I'm always ashamed of them after I hit 'publish'.  They're silly, and don't do any good.  But I can't tell anyone in real life - and what else is the internet for but narcissism?  In any case I suppose harvest is the right time to think about these things; and Dix's hymn helps a bit, though I don't know why.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

'O life as futile, then, as frail!'

Today is the 120th anniversary of the death of Alfred Tennyson, and this is the section of In Memoriam which that fact made me think of.



LIV
Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.


LV
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.


LVI
'So careful of the type?' but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, `A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

'Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.' And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law—
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.


LVII
Peace; come away: the song of woe
Is after all an earthly song:
Peace; come away: we do him wrong
To sing so wildly: let us go.

Come; let us go: your cheeks are pale;
But half my life I leave behind:
Methinks my friend is richly shrined;
But I shall pass; my work will fail.

Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look'd with human eyes.

I hear it now, and o'er and o'er,
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And 'Ave, Ave, Ave,' said,
'Adieu, adieu,' for evermore.