Thursday, 28 February 2013

St Oswald of Worcester: Monastic Reformer, Grandson of a Viking


St Oswald of Worcester (not to be confused with Bede's St Oswald, the seventh-century King of Northumbria) was Archbishop of York from 972-992, and a leading figure in the reform of the Anglo-Saxon church which took place in the second half of the tenth century. He died on 29th February in 992, and leap years being what they are, his feast is usually celebrated on the 28th. I'm interested in him not only for his importance in tenth-century history, but because the story of his family provides a tantalising glimpse at the assimilation of pagan Danish settlers into Anglo-Saxon England.

We don't know anything about Oswald's parents, but his uncle, Oda, was the son of a Viking who had come to England in c.865 in the army led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, Ivar and Ubbe. This was the so-called 'Great Heathen Army', which raided and conquered large parts of England in a series of devastating campaigns lasting nearly fifteen years - the army which killed St Edmund of East Anglia and nearly defeated Alfred the Great. When after numerous battles Alfred at last made peace with them, they didn't return to Scandinavia, but settled in England in what became the Danelaw. Later medieval writers (and modern TV shows) tend to play up the pagan ferocity of this army and its semi-legendary leaders, but however far that may be exaggerated, they certainly were not Christians. But once settled in England they quickly became so, and in one generation some of them were already leading members of the English church - Oswald's uncle Oda went right to the top, and ended up as Archbishop of Canterbury. We have very little information to tell us how this remarkable conversion was brought about, and it's frustrating not to know a bit more about Oda's early life. The story told by his later hagiographers (not really to be relied upon) was that as a young man he defied his pagan father to go and hear Christian preaching, and eventually ran away from home to seek refuge with an English Christian nobleman, who encouraged him to enter the church. But who knows how it really happened? As Archbishop of Canterbury, Oda seems to have made a special effort to support the church in his native East Anglia, perhaps to repair some of the damage his Danish ancestors had done there. After his death in 958 he was known at Canterbury as 'Oda se Goda', 'Oda the Good' (it rhymes in Old English), and commemorated as a saint in his own right.


Under his uncle's patronage, young Oswald was educated at the abbey of Fleury (a great centre of learning, which at the time had the largest library in Europe), and learned there the Benedictine ideals he would later bring to England. He became bishop of Worcester in 961, and introduced Benedictine monks there in place of its secular canons. Together with Dunstan and Æthelwold, and aided by the support of King Edgar, he participated in the reform of English monastic practice which was supposed to bring it more closely in line with the ideals of the Benedictine Rule. Around 972 Oswald was made Archbishop of York but retained the bishopric of Worcester too, and we know much more about what he did in his southern see than his northern one. Like his uncle Oda, he seems to have taken a particular interest in renewing the church in the Danelaw: one of his most lasting achievements was the foundation of Ramsey Abbey, which went on to become one of the great Fenland monasteries. He brought the scholar Abbo of Fleury to Ramsey, and while there, Abbo wrote the first account of the death of St Edmund of East Anglia (based on information obtained from St Dunstan) - which only seems appropriate, considering the life of Oswald's grandfather.


Oswald had a custom of washing the feet of the poor every day in Lent, and died after completing this service, at Worcester, on 29 February 992.


He was buried at Worcester, and was quickly regarded as a saint. Within a few years of his death, a Vita Oswaldi was written by the scholar and scientist Byrhtferth, a monk belonging to Oswald's foundation at Ramsey. Oswald was admired by his post-Conquest successor as Bishop of Worcester, St Wulfstan, who supposedly wept publicly when he found himself tearing down the church Oswald had built. Later Oswald and Wulfstan were regarded as the two chief saints of Worcester, and you can see them together, for instance, flanking the tomb of King John before the high altar of the cathedral.


The stained-glass illustrations of Oswald's life in this post can all be found at Worcester Cathedral, but we can finish with some images which are more authentically Anglo-Saxon: first, monastic foot-washing of the kind Oswald performed, as depicted in the Harley Psalter (BL Harley MS. 603, f.66v). This manuscript was produced at Christ Church, Canterbury, within a few decades of Oswald's death, and here the artist adds to his exemplar two images connected with contemporary Maundy practice: foot-washing, and a king distributing alms.


So this is how we might imagine the scene of Oswald's death; but we come even closer to him with a tenth-century manuscript, BL Harley 2904, which is a Psalter probably made for Oswald's own use. You can leaf through this magnificent book in its entirety here, and see selected images here. After some prefatory prayers, it opens with this wonderful Crucifixion scene:


And opposite it, impressive in a different way, this glorious, intricate initial B:


The text is written throughout in even and beautiful script, and all the initials - at the beginning of each psalm and of every single individual verse - are in gold:




There are some more large initials too (this is f.144):



Since the churches built by Oswald and his fellow reformers no longer survive (most were, like Oswald's church at Worcester, rebuilt or replaced after the Norman Conquest), the books made for Oswald, Dunstan and Æthelwold provide the best remaining glimpse into their world. You might like to compare Oswald's psalter with the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, a gorgeously illustrated book produced for Æthelwold when he was Bishop of Winchester; or with the Bosworth Psalter, probably made for use at Canterbury under the influence of St Dunstan; or with the Glastonbury Classbook, less ornate than the others but remarkable for containing what might be a self-portrait by Dunstan himself, depicted as a little monk kneeling before Christ.

To return to Oswald's psalter, here's part of the Litany at the end of the book (ff.209 and 210v):



Half way down the first column here, two names above that prominent gold 'St Benedict', you can see the name 'Eadmunde' - St Edmund of East Anglia, among the list of martyrs, where the Viking army put him. Oswald's family had come a long way since then.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Ethelbert, King of Kent


24 February is the anniversary of the death in 616 of Ethelbert, king of Kent, one of the most important rulers in Anglo-Saxon history. It was during his reign that Augustine and his companions arrived in England, seeking to convert the land of the Angles (sorry, Gregory - 'angels'). As Bede tells the story, King Ethelbert, though initially sceptical, eventually agreed to be baptised, and gave the Augustinian mission political and material support in their efforts to spread Christianity. Ethelbert thus has a good claim to be the first English Christian king, and that was how the Anglo-Saxon church later saw him. This is how Bede tells of his death (from the Historia Ecclesiastica, Book II, ch.5, as translated here):

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 616, which is the twenty-first year after Augustine and his companions were sent to preach to the English nation, Ethelbert, king of Kent, having most gloriously governed his temporal kingdom fifty-six years, entered into the eternal joys of the kingdom which is heavenly. He was the third of the English kings that had the sovereignty of all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber, and the borders contiguous to the same; but the first of the kings that ascended to the heavenly kingdom...

King Ethelbert died on the 24th day of the month of February, twenty-one years after he had received the faith, and was buried in St. Martin's porch within the church of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, where also lies his queen, Bertha. Among other benefits which he conferred upon the nation, he also, by the advice of wise persons, introduced judicial decrees, after the Roman model; which, being written in English, are still kept and observed by them. [And were still being observed long after Bede's time]. Among which, he in the first place set down what satisfaction should be given by those who should steal anything belonging to the church, the bishop, or the other clergy, resolving to give protection to those whose doctrine he had embraced.

I posted the earlier part of Bede's account of Ethelbert's conversion here, and of what came after his death here (hint: bad things for the church). As a native of East Kent and a fan of Anglo-Saxon saints (and in particular, influential queens like Ethelbert's wife Bertha), this whole story is a favourite of mine. I like collecting modern depictions of Ethelbert and Bertha - it's always interesting to see how later artists imagine and present Anglo-Saxon people, and I've previously posted about such depictions at Minster-in-Thanet, Pugin's church in Ramsgate, St Martin's (the church where Bertha worshipped), and Canterbury Cathedral, as well as about the ruins of St Augustine's Abbey, where Ethelbert and Bertha are buried.

Today I want to post some photographs of the most up-to-date of all of these modern depictions.  Between St Augustine's and the Cathedral lies an area of Canterbury known as Lady Wootton's Green:



In 2006, statues of Ethelbert and Bertha were installed here by the Canterbury Commemoration Society (who are now planning to erect a statue of Chaucer in the middle of the city - featuring some, well, surprising faces among the Canterbury pilgrims - so that's something to look forward to!). The figures are the work of sculptor Stephen Melton. Here's Ethelbert:


And here's Bertha:


The idea is that this scene depicts Ethelbert coming to greet Bertha and tell her of the arrival of Augustine and his monks, as she returns from worship at St Martin's Church. (The towers behind her are the gatehouse of St Augustine's Abbey, now part of the King's School). It's very impressive how much research has gone into their clothing and accessories - they're exactly accurate for the period, status and cultural allegiances of Ethelbert and Bertha. Bertha is wearing a Frankish costume based on items found in a sixth-century grave at St Denis, Paris (possibly the grave of Aregund, wife of Chlothar I):


Bertha was a Frankish princess, who was already a Christian before she married the pagan Ethelbert. Some of the jewellery she's wearing will be immediately familiar to anyone who has studied Anglo-Saxon art - for instance, she has a Kentish disc-brooch:


Specifically, she's wearing the splendid Kingston brooch, which was found in a grave in a village near Canterbury, and is one of the largest and most impressive examples of its type. Its glorious gold and garnets, and the exceptionally fine workmanship, are a vivid reminder of the wealth and power of Kent in this period. Her necklace with the cross, appropriate for a Christian queen, is based closely on this one, found at Desborough in Northamptonshire (now in the British Museum). She also has a leather-bound prayer book:


Ethelbert's accoutrements are based on those found at Sutton Hoo:




Compare the Sutton Hoo buckle and purse-lid. If the king buried with these treasures at Sutton Hoo is, as is often suggested, Rædwald of East Anglia, he was closely connected to Ethelbert: Bede tells us that Rædwald was for a time under Ethelbert's overlordship, and accepted baptism at Ethelbert's court (although he soon apostatised on his return to East Anglia). Rædwald's protégé Edwin of Northumbria married Ethelbert's daughter Ethelburh. So Sutton Hoo is just the right place to seek inspiration for Ethelbert's clothing, and this attention to detail is really lovely to see.


For a contrast, here are some more Ethelberts from my collection of pictures, not all of which exhibit a similar concern for Anglo-Saxon accuracy! This is from the ceiling of a chapel in Westminster Cathedral:


I don't know what Ethelbert's supposed to be wearing here, but it is pretty.  Another, from the cloisters at Worcester Cathedral (nice detail on the armour of the man in the foreground, but I suspect it has no real-life parallels!):


More interesting armour at Reculver in Kent:


I've never seen a shield which looked so much like a flower... Opposite this Ethelbert is a depiction of Bertha from the 1970s (?):


The modern church at Reculver replaces one founded in the seventh century on a Kentish royal estate, which was built within the remains of a Roman shore fort. That church has since fallen victim to coastal erosion; as the sea grew closer it was abandoned, and was partially pulled down at the beginning of the nineteenth century. All that remains of it are the two towers of the twelfth-century building, a local landmark which can be seen across the fields from the new church:



Close-up they look like this:



Some later kings of Kent were buried here, but their tombs have long since disappeared.

To return to depictions of Ethelbert, here are some pictures from the church of St Peter and St Paul in the little village of Worth in East Kent:



These are from the Victorian reredos in the medieval church, which is a sweet, funny-shaped thing like a cottage in a fairy-tale:




Right at the back was Ethelbert, in the dark, and so for once I broke my rule of not using flash for photographs and took this bright golden picture:


Bede might have agreed that all this gold seems appropriate for the first English king to wear both an earthly and a heavenly crown.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Prayer for the Evening

In manus tuas. Lord, I bitake in to thine hondes, and in to thine hondis of thine halwen, in this nyght my soule and my bodi, myne bretheren and myne sustren, myne frendes, myne cosines, myne kynrede, my goode dedes doares, and alle cristen folk: kepe vs, lord, this nyght, bi the medes and the prayeres of the blessede mayde marie, and of alle halwen, fram vices and couertises, fram sinnes and fram the fendes fondinges, and fram the sodayn deth, and the peynes of helle. Alyghte myne herte of the holi gost, and of thin holi grace: and make me for to ben more bouxom to thi comaundemens, and let me neuere more ben be departed fro the: so be it.


This is a medieval night prayer, preserved in a fourteenth-century manuscript from East Anglia.  Despite its simplicity it has a striking beauty, produced by the rhythmic effect of its calm, measured repetition: fram vices and couertises, fram sinnes and fram the fendes fondinges, and fram the sodayn deth...  It's a style which reached its pinnacle in the elegant collects of the Book of Common Prayer.  And there are some items of vocabulary which delight the ear, too: 'good-deed-doers' as a very literal Englishing of benefactors is perhaps my favourite, but I'm always pleased to see buxom in its original meaning of obedient.

A translation:

Into thy hands. Lord, I commit into thy hands, and into the hands of thy saints, in this night my soul and my body, my brothers and my sisters, my friends, my relations, my family, my benefactors, and all Christian people: protect us, Lord, this night, by the merits and the prayers of the blessed maiden Mary, and of all saints, from vices and desires, from sins and from the fiend's temptations, and from sudden death, and the pains of hell. Illuminate my heart with the Holy Ghost, and with thy holy grace: and make me to be more obedient to thy commandments, and let me never more be parted from thee: Amen.

Two men preparing for bed, from an illustration at the beginning of prayers for Compline,


For more translations of hymns and prayers for the night, see also:

Te lucis ante terminum: Various Translations
Christe qui lux es et dies
'I dwell, laid up in Safety's nest'
'Hail, gladdening light'
Rerum, Deus, tenax vigor

This is a setting of the Compline responsory 'In manus tuas' by John Sheppard (c.1515-1558):

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Miracle of Wulfric of Haselbury

Wulfric of Haselbury, who died on this day in 1154 or 1155, was an anchorite who lived in a cell attached to the church in the Somerset village of Haselbury Plucknett. He was noted for his miracles of healing and prophecy, and though he was never canonised, pilgrims were still travelling to his shrine at the time of the Reformation; tales about Wulfric were collected in oral tradition in Somerset as late as 1900.

He's of particular interest because not long after his death a detailed account of his life was written by the prior of Forde Abbey, full of information about the life of a twelfth-century anchorite in a medieval village. There's a useful translation of the Life of Wulfric which you can peek at on Amazon here, but the first reference to Wulfric is by Henry of Huntingdon, who was a contemporary of Wulfric (they were born probably in the same decade, and died possibly in the same year, 1154). After recounting the miracles of a number of earlier English saints, Henry brings his record right up to date by telling the story of how Wulfric

always wore a hauberk next to his flesh to subdue his turbulent passions, and begged a new one from his earthly lord, since his own was almost worn out and torn in pieces by his sweat. He put on the new one, but was enraged at its length, because it might be seen below his garment. So he snatched up the shears and cut the soldered iron rings at the bottom in the opening of the sleeves, as if it were linen cloth. The servant of God applied the shears a second time, in case there was any unevenness, cutting it through without delay or difficulty. Seeing this, his lord was filled with immeasurable joy and sank down at the holy man's feet. The man of the Lord was embarrassed, pulled him upright, and swore him not to tell anyone what he had seen. But it could not be kept secret. For many religious devotees rejoiced to have rings from the holy hauberk, and the famous story has travelled everywhere through all parts of the kingdom. I would not have included this miracle in this cautious and carefully researched work, except that Pope St Gregory gives the narrative of father Benedict and other saints, partly from what he had heard from a fellow monk and partly from other extremely reliable witnesses. The story of Wulfric is attested by those who have seen parts of the hauberk, or visited his delightful presence, or heard his desirable speech, or have freely sought out the religious life and taken it up themselves, and it is also spread among all the people and is commonly known everywhere.
 Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 1996), p.697.

Miraculous scissors which could cut through metal would come in handy...

The lord mentioned in Henry's story is Wulfric's patron, William FitzWalter, who owned the village where Wulfric was born, Compton in Somerset. Wulfric was born of English parents in c.1090, and ordained as a priest at a young age; at first he lived a worldly life, hawking and hunting, but when he experienced a religious conversion and decided to become a hermit, William FitzWalter placed him at Haselbury and supported him thereafter. Being a hermit with a Norman lord as your patron was not a bad career choice for an Englishman in the twelfth century. One very telling story in the Life of Wulfric describes how Wulfric heals a mute man so that he is all of a sudden miraculously able to speak, in both English and French. Brihtric, the English priest of Haselbury, and usually a good friend to Wulfric, is furious: he rails at Wulfric that he has helped this man to speak two languages, even though, after all their years of mutual assistance, he's never helped Brihtric speak French, and so Brihtric is embarrassed when he goes before the French-speaking bishop and is unable to talk to him. A very interesting spotlight on linguistic relations in twelfth-century Somerset.

BL Egerton 3668, f. 134v, the opening of the book in which Henry talks about St Wulfric 

Monday, 18 February 2013

Thole a little

Louerd, þu clepedest me
an ich nagt ne ansuarede þe
Bute wordes scloe and sclepie:
'þole yet! þole a litel!'
Bute 'yiet' and 'yiet' was endelis,
and 'þole a litel' a long wey is.

This is a haunting little verse from the early fourteenth century, a translation of a passage from St Augustine's Confessions (Book 8, chapter 5):
Non erat quid responderem tibi ueritate conuictus dicenti mihi, 'Surge qui dormis & exurgea mortuis & illuminabit tibi Christus.' Nisi uerba lenta & sompnolenta, 'modo, ecce modo; sine paululum.' Sed 'modo & modo' non habebant modum, & 'sine paululum' in longum ibat.

Nor had I any thing to answer Thee calling to me, 'Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light' [Eph. v.14]. I had nothing to answer but dull and drowsy words, 'Presently, presently', 'wait a little.' But 'presently, presently,' had no present, and my 'little while' went on for a long while.
The Latin passage precedes the English poem in the sole manuscript (Oxford, New College MS. 88), in the form quoted. The wordplay in the Latin is on modo ('presently', in the translation), but in the English poem it's on the word þole. The lazy person tells God 'þole a litel!', meaning 'wait a bit, be patient'; the OED says that 'thole a while' is still an expression in some northern English dialects (though its latest citation is from 1896). But, as the MED entry helps to illustrate, þole also means 'endure, undergo', and so the last line of the poem hints at the sorrow which awaits this dilatory soul, whose lazy response to God to 'wait a while' turns into a never-ending delay.

'Suffer' has a similar double meaning, and so the poem might be translated:

Lord, you called me
But I never answered thee
Except with words slow and sleepy:
'Suffer yet, suffer a little!'
But 'yet' and 'yet' was endless,
And 'suffer a little' a long way is.

Once this poem is stuck in your head, it will never leave; it's not a bad reminder not to put things off!

Two images illustrating Accidia (Sloth) in BL Royal 6 E VI, f. 37v

Saturday, 16 February 2013

'O might those sighs and tears return again'

O might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourned in vain.
In mine idolatry what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste! what griefs my heart did rent!
That sufferance was my sin, now I repent;
'Cause I did suffer, I must suffer pain.
Th' hydroptic drunkard, and night-scouting thief,
The itchy lecher, and self-tickling proud
Have the remembrance of past joys, for relief
Of coming ills. To poor me is allowed
No ease; for long, yet vehement grief hath been
The effect and cause, the punishment and sin.


This is one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets (number III). I often turn to John Donne in Lent, and this poem especially touched me today. It's partly because the first few lines remind me of a dreadful story I read as a child, which I have never been able to forget: it was in an annual from the 1950s, if I remember rightly, and the premise was that the little protagonist, a boy prone to unnecessary tears, is shown by magic that there's a place where all children's tears are stored and measured; you only get a certain number of tears in your lifetime, he's told, so you shouldn't waste them on frivolous things. I'm sure the moralising author who wrote this story was very well-meaning, but when I was seven years old it horrified me - how could you know what was a frivolous thing to cry for? What if you wasted all your tears on something which seemed important at the time, and then later, when you really needed tears, there were none left? (I think this was the dilemma faced by the poor little boy in the story - he couldn't cry when his brother went missing, or something like that). I've since learned that tears are a bottomless well, and there's really not much danger of any of us running out; I hadn't wasted my lifetime's supply by the age of seven. Presumably John Donne knew this too, which makes the first few lines of this poem slightly odd, but the conceit fits the rueful tone of the poem, part self-mocking, part heartfelt grief. It's difficult to judge how serious it is - 'the itchy lecher' and 'self-tickling proud' are wonderfully piquant descriptors, almost a little too clever for someone engaged in pious self-reproach! But witty and sincere are not mutually exclusive for Donne, of course.

I find it particularly interesting that Donne considers his own past sin to have been not lechery but idolatry - a word which comes up elsewhere in his religious poems, referring to his early loves (here's one example).  But these are not just lovers - the 'profane mistresses' of that poem are the 'Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses)' of this one, from which he asks to be divorced.  'All things that are loved here and pass away', from which Lent tries to free us.  Even with John Donne as company, Lent is not my favourite season. I know it's not supposed to be pleasant - but if only there were some way to profit from its holy discontent without adding grief on top of grief!  For one reason or another I've spent quite a few tears over the past year or so, and the thought of all that fruitless weeping, instead of the kind of Lenten repentance which might actually be profitable, is indeed somewhat frightening to contemplate; like Donne (at least as I understand the poem), my repentant sorrow this Lent is mostly for all the sorrow I've wasted on unworthy things.  But then it's just sorrow whichever way you look, and back to George Herbert: 'Alas, my King; can both the way and end be tears?'

When I googled this poem and read a few interpretations of it, I found a number of people said it reminded them of Hopkins' 'I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day'. I couldn't see the connection at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I could see it:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

'Vehement grief hath been / The effect and cause, the punishment and sin.' The worst misery is in having to live with your own worst self.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

'All other love is like the moon'

Now here's a Valentine's Day poem.


1. Al oþer loue is lych þe mone
þat wext and wanet as flour in plein,
as flour þat fayret and fawyt sone,
as day þat scwret and endt in rein.

2. Al oþer loue bigint bi blisse,
in wep and wo mak is hendyng;
no loue þer nis þat oure halle lysse,
bot wat areste in evene kyng.

3. Wos loue ys and eure gren
and eure ful wyth-oute wanyyng;
is loue suetyth wyth-oute tene,
is loue is hendles and a-ring.

4. Al oþer loue y flo for þe;
tel me, tel me, wer þou lyst?
In marie mylde an fre
i schal be founde, ak mor in crist.

5. Crist me founde, nouht y þe, hast;
hald me to þe wiht al þi meyn;
help geld þat mi loue be stedfast,
lest þus sone it turne ageyn.

6. Wan nou hyet myn hert is sor,
y-wys hie spilt myn herte blod:
god canne mi lef, y care na mor -
hyet y hoppe hys wil be god.

7. Allas! what wole y a Rome?
seye y may in lore of loue,
'undo y am by manne dome
bot he me help þat syt a-boue.'


This beautiful poem itself is rather unstable, since it survives, just about, in one manuscript (Eton College MS. 36, Part II) - written in pencil, probably in the fourteenth century, on a page left nearly blank at the end of a completely unrelated text about military principles.  According to the editor Carleton Brown, who transcribed this poem in the 1920s, several of the lines were then almost illegible, and some of the readings don't make much sense - the reference to Rome in verse 7, in particular.

That's earthly mutability for you.


1. All other love is like the moon
That waxes and wanes as flower on plain,
As flower that fades and falls soon,
As day that rushes past and ends in rain.

2. All other love begins with bliss,
In weeping and woe makes its ending;
No other love can be our whole lysse, [joy]
But that which rests in heaven's king,

3. Whose love is... and ever green [there's a word missing in the manuscript]
And ever full, without waning;
His love is sweet without pain,
His love is endless and encompassing.

4. All other love I flee for thee;
Tell me, tell me, where thou liest?
'In Mary, mild and free,
I shall be found, and more in Christ.'

5. Christ me found, not I thee, hast;
Hold me to thee with all thy main;
Help that my love be steadfast,
Lest thus at once it turn again.

6. And now that my heart is sore,
Indeed is spilt my heart's blood:
God knows my life, I care no more -
Yet I hope his will be good.

7. Alas! what can I do in Rome?
Say I may, in lore of love,
'Undone am I by man's doom
Unless helped by him who sits above.'

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

'All earthly joy returns to pain'

An Ash Wednesday poem by the Scottish poet William Dunbar:

Off Lentren in the first mornyng,
Airly as did the day upspring,
Thus sang ane bird with voce upplane:
"All erdly joy returnis in pane.

O man, haif mynd that thow mon pas;
Remembir that thow art bot as
And sall in as return agane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane.

Haif mynd that eild ay followis yowth;
Deth followis lyfe with gaipand mowth,
Devoring fruct and flowring grane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane.

Welth, warldly gloir, and riche array
Ar all bot thornis laid in thy way,
Ourcoverd with flouris laid in ane trane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane.

Come nevir yit May so fresche and grene
Bot Januar come als wod and kene;
Wes nevir sic drowth bot anis come rane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane.

Evirmair unto this warldis joy
As nerrest air succeidis noy;
Thairfoir, quhen joy ma nocht remane,
His verry air succeidis pane.

Heir helth returnis in seiknes,
And mirth returnis in havines,
Toun in desert, forrest in plane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane.

Fredome returnis in wrechitnes,
And trewth returnis in dowbilnes
With fenyeit wirdis to mak men fane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane.

Vertew returnis into vyce,
And honour into avaryce;
With cuvatyce is consciens slane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane.

Sen erdly joy abydis nevir,
Wirk for the joy that lestis evir;
For uder joy is all bot vane:
All erdly joy returnis in pane."


Here's a (lightly) modernised version:

Of Lent upon the first morning,
Early as did the day up spring,
Thus sang a bird with voice so plain:
"All earthly joy returns to pain.

O man, have mind that thou must pass;
Remember that thou art but ash
And shall to ash return again:
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Have mind that age ever follows youth;
Death follows life with gaping mouth,
Devouring fruit and flowering grain:
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Wealth, worldly glory, and rich array
Are all but thorns laid in thy way,
O'er-covered with flowers laid in a train: [trap]
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Came never yet May so fresh and green
But January came again, wild and keen;
There was never drought but once again came rain:
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Evermore, unto this world's joy,
As next thing ever succeeds noy; [trouble]
Therefore, when joy may not remain,
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Here health returns to sickness,
And mirth returns to heaviness,
Town into desert, forest into plain:
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Freedom returns to slavery,
And truth returns to treachery,
With feigned words to make men fain: [to please men]
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Virtue returns again to vice,
And honour into avarice;
With covetousness is conscience slain:
All earthly joy returns to pain.

Since earthly joy abides never,
Work for the joy that lasts forever;
For other joy is all but vain:
All earthly joy returns to pain."


The word 'return' is the keynote of the poem; it recalls the central message of Ash Wednesday, 'Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return'. Dunbar also wrote a poem where that phrase is the refrain:

Memento, homo, quod cinis es:
Think, man, thow art bot erd and as;
Lang heir to dwell nathing thow pres,
For as thow come sa sall thow pas.
Lyk as ane schaddow in ane glas
Hyne glydis all thy tyme that heir is;
Think, thocht thy bodye ware of bras,
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Worthye Hector and Hercules,
Forcye Achill and strong Sampsone,
Alexander of grit nobilnes,
Meik David and fair Absolone
Hes playit thair pairtis, and all are gone
At will of God that all thing steiris:
Think, man, exceptioun thair is none,
Sed tu in cinerem reverteris.

Thocht now thow be maist glaid of cheir,
Fairest and plesandest of port,
Yit may thow be within ane yeir
Ane ugsum, uglye tramort.
And sen thow knawis thy tyme is schort
And in all houre thy lyfe in weir is,
Think, man, amang all uthir sport,
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Thy lustye bewté and thy youth
Sall feid as dois the somer flouris;
Syne sall thee swallow with his mouth
The dragone death that all devouris.
No castell sall thee keip, nor touris,
Bot he sall seik thee with thy feiris.
Thairfore remembir at all houris
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Thocht all this warld thow did posseid,
Nocht eftir death thow sall posses,
Nor with thee tak bot thy guid deid
Quhen thow dois fro this warld thee dres.
So speid thee, man, and thee confes
With humill hart and sobir teiris,
And sadlye in thy hart inpres
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Thocht thow be taklit nevir so sure,
Thow sall in deathis port arryve,
Quhair nocht for tempest may indure
Bot ferslye all to speiris dryve.
Thy Ransonner with woundis fyve
Mak thy plycht anker and thy steiris
To hald thy saule with Him on lyve,
Cum tu in cinerem reverteris.


And a modernised version:

Memento, homo, quod cinis es:
Think, man, thou art but earth and ash;
Long here to dwell do not thou press,
For as thou come, so shall thou pass.
Like as a shadow in the glass
Hence glides all thy time that here is;
Think, though thy body were of brass,
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Worthy Hector and Hercules,
Powerful Achilles and strong Sampson,
Alexander of great nobleness,
Meek David and fair Absolom
Have played their parts, and all are gone
At the will of God that all things steers:
Think, man, exception there is none,
Sed tu in cinerem reverteris.

Though now thou be most glad of cheer,
Fairest and pleasantest of port, [bearing]
Yet may thou be within one year
A loathsome, ugly tramort. [corpse]
And since thou know thy time is short
And in all hours thy life in doubt is,
Think, man, among all other sport,
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Thy lusty beauty and thy youth
Shall fade as do the summer flowers;
Then shall thee swallow with his mouth
The dragon death that all devours.
No castle shall thee keep, nor towers,
But he shall seek thee with thy feiris. [companions]
Therefore remember at all hours
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Though all this world thou did possess,
Naught after death thou shall possess,
Nor with thee take but thy good deeds
When thou must from this world thee dress. [prepare]
So speed thee, man, and thee confess
With humble heart and sober tears,
And solemnly in thy heart impress
Quod tu in cinerem reverteris.

Though thou be rigged never so sure,
Thou shall in death's port arrive,
Where none the tempest may endure
Which fiercely all to pieces drives.
Thy Ransomer with his wounds five
Make thy main anchor and thy stars
To hold thy soul with him in life,
Cum tu in cinerem reverteris.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

White Lent

This is an unusual thing: a cheerful hymn for Lent. It's by Percy Dearmer, and is sung to the tune of this French carol:



1. Now quit your care
And anxious fear and worry;
For schemes are vain
And fretting brings no gain.
To prayer, to prayer!
Bells call and clash and hurry,
In Lent the bells do cry
'Come buy, come buy,
Come buy with love the love most high!'

2. Lent comes in the spring,
And spring is pied with brightness;
The sweetest flowers,
Keen winds, and sun, and showers,
Their health do bring
To make Lent's chastened whiteness;
For life to men brings light
And might, and might,
And might to those whose hearts are right.

3. To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent's goal;
But to be led
To where God's glory flashes,
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

4. For is not this
The fast that I have chosen? -
The prophet spoke -
To shatter every yoke,
Of wickedness
The grievous bands to loosen,
Oppression put to flight,
To fight, to fight,
To fight till every wrong's set right.

5. For righteousness
And peace will show their faces
To those who feed
The hungry in their need,
And wrongs redress,
Who build the old waste places,
And in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine,
Divine it is when all combine!

6. Then shall your light
Break forth as doth the morning;
Your health shall spring,
The friends you make shall bring
God's glory bright,
Your way through life adorning
And love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise,
Arise! and make a paradise!

Verses 3 and 4 draw, of course, on Isaiah 58, which is read on Ash Wednesday.  I very much like the reminder in verse 2 that 'Lent comes in the spring'; this is even more true than it sounds, since, as you may know, the English word 'Lent' comes from Old English lencten, 'spring', a word which may be related to the lengthening of the days. Lent is apt to seem a dark season, at least in my imagination, but when you think of it as synonymous with spring, it all looks brighter (or at least 'pied with brightness', in that insubstantial spring-like way); it seems meant to encompass not only self-denial but the happiness and hope which accompany the season, a time of fresh shoots and new beginnings in every way. I wonder if this was clearer to people in the days when 'Lent' simply meant 'spring'. This is how the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the season, religious discipline and natural renewal closely entwined:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter
bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

After Christmas comes the crabbed Lent,
Which tests the flesh with fish and simpler food;
But then the weather of the world wages war against winter,
Cold clears away, clouds lift,
Brightly sheds the rain in warm showers
And falls upon fair fields, where flowers appear.
Both the ground and the groves put on green garments;
Birds begin to build, and brightly sing
For delight in the soft summer coming thereafter
To the banks;
And blossoms burgeon into bloom
In rows rich and abundant;
Then notes noble indeed
Are heard in the woods so wild.

The OED dates the first appearance of 'spring' in the sense of 'the first season of the year' to as late as 1530 (!); until then, spring was Lent and Lent was spring. One famous medieval poem about spring begins 'Lenten is come with love to town' - and after a 'white Lent', Dearmer says, 'love shall be the prize'.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

'And in thy light shall we see light'

Three verses from Sir Philip Sidney's translation of Psalm 36:

Lord, how the heav'ns thy mercy fills,
Thy truth above the cloudes most hy,
Thy righteousnesse like hugest hills,
Thy judgments like the deepes do ly:
Thy grace with safety man fullfills,
Yea beastes (made safe) thy goodnesse try.

O Lord, how excellent a thing
Thy mercy is, which makes mankind
Trust in the shadow of thy wing,
Who shall in thy house fattnesse find,
And drinck from out thy pleasure spring
Of pleasures past the reach of mind.

For why? the well of life thou art,
And in thy light shall we see light.
O then extend thy loving hart
To them that know thee, and thy might:
O then thy righteousnes impart
To them that be in soules upright.


The same, from the Wycliffite Bible:

Lord, thi merci is in heuene; and thi treuthe is til to cloudis.
Thi riytfulnesse is as the hillis of God; thi domes ben myche depthe of watris.
Lord, thou schalt saue men and beestis; as thou, God, hast multiplied thi merci.
But the sones of men schulen hope in the hilyng of thi wyngis.
Thei schulen be fillid gretli of the plentee of thin hows; and thou schalt yyue drynke to hem with the steef streem of thi likyng.
For the wel of life is at thee; and in thi liyt we schulen se liyt.
Lord, sette forth thi mercy to hem that knowen thee; and thi ryytfulnesse to hem that ben of riytful herte.


And from the Book of Common Prayer (verses 5-10):

Thy mercy, O Lord, reacheth unto the heavens *
and thy faithfulness unto the clouds.
Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains *
thy judgements are like the great deep.
Thou, Lord, shalt save both man and beast; How excellent is thy mercy, O God *
and the children of men shall put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.
They shall be satisfied with the plenteousness of thy house *
and thou shalt give them drink of thy pleasures, as out of the river.
For with thee is the well of life *
and in thy light shall we see light.
O continue forth thy loving-kindness unto them that know thee *
and thy righteousness unto them that are true of heart.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Telling the Truth

1. Þe Mon þat luste to liuen in ese
Or eny worschupe her to ateyne,
His purpos I counte not worþ a pese,
Witterli, but he ordeyne
Þis wikkid world hou he schal plese
Wiþ al his pouwer and his peyne;
Ȝif he schal kepe him from disese,
He mot lerne to flatere and feyne;
Herte and mouþ loke þei ben tweyne,
Þei mowe not ben of on assent;
And ȝit his tonge he mot restreyne,
ffor hos seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.

2. Þus is þe soþe I-kept in close,
And vche mon makeþ touh and queynte
To leue þe tixt and take þe glose;
Eueri word þei coloure and peynte.
Summe þer aren þat wolden suppose
ffor no tresour forte ben teynte:
Let a mon haue not to lose,
He schal fynde frenschipe feynte.
Summe þat semen an Innocent,
Wonder trewe in heore entent,
Þei beoþ agast of eueri pleynt,
ffor hos seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.

3. Þe wikked wone we may warie,
Þat eueri man þus Inward bledes.
Let a lord haue his Corlarie,
he schal wel knowe of al his dedes;
Þauȝ he be next his sacratarie,
Wiþ flaterynge his lord he fedes,
And wiþ sum speche he most him tarie,
And þus wiþ lesynges him he ledes;
To gabben his lord most him nedes,
And wiþ sum blaundise make him blent:
To leosen his offys euere he dredes,
ffor ȝif he þe soþe seiþ, he schal be schent.

4. And al is wrong; þat dar I preue;
ffor let a mon be sore I-wounde,
Hou schulde a leche þis mon releeue,
But ȝif he miȝte ronsake þe wounde?
ffor þauȝ hit smerte and sumdel greue,
Ȝit most he suffre a luitel stounde.
Ȝif he kneuh of his mischeue,
Wiþ salues he miȝte make him sounde.
Were grace at large, þat liþþe i-bounde,
Hap and hele mihte we hent;
Lac of leche wol vs confounde,
ffor hos seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.

5. ffor let a frere in Godes seruise
Þe pereles to þe peple preche,
Of vre misdede and vre quyntise,
Þe trewe tixt to telle and teche;
Þauȝ he beo riht witti and wyse,
Ȝit luytel þonk he schal him reche,
And summe þer ben þat wol him spise,
And bleþely wayte him wiþ sum wreche.
Þis pore prechour þei wolen apeche
At counseyl and at parliment;
But ȝif he kepe him out of heore cleche,
ffor his soþ sawe he schal be schent.

6. Seþþe þe tyme þat god was boren,
Þis world was neuer so vntrewe;
Men recchen neuer to ben for-sworen,
To reuen þat is hem ful duwe;
Þe peynted word þat fel bi-foren,
Be-hynde, hit is anoþer hewe.
Whon Gabriel schal blowe his horn,
His feble fables schul hym rewe:
Þe tonges þat such bargeyn gon brewe,
Hit weore non harm þouȝ þei were brent.
Þus þis gyle is founde vp of newe,
ffor hos seiþ soþ, he schal be schent.

7. Siþen þe soþe dar no mon say,
ffor drede to gete him a fo,
Best I holde hit, in good fay,
Let o day come, anoþer go
And mak as murie as we may,
Til eueri frend parte oþur fro.
I drede hit draweþ to domes-day,
Such saumples we han, and oþer two:
Now knowes a child boþe weole and wo
Þat scholde ben an Innocent,
Whil hit is ȝong, is norissched so;
But hos seiþ soþ, he schal be schent.

8. Þis world wol han his wikked wone,
ffor soþe, hit wol non oþer be;
His cursede cours þat is bi-gonne,
Þer may no mon from hit fle
Þat haþ longe a-mong vs ronne,
His oune defaute mai he not se.
Þe fader trust not to þe sone,
Ne non to oþer in no degre;
ffalshede is called a sotilte
And such a nome hit haþ hent.
Þis lesson lerneþ alle at me:
Ho seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.


This is a poem from the Vernon manuscript, a huge collection of poetry and prose which was produced c.1400 in the West Midlands, and which is one of the most important manuscripts of English verse.  You can read about it here; I've posted two poems from it previously ('This world fareth as a fantasy' and 'Think on yesterday').  Those two wonderful poems are both about the transience and untrustworthiness of the world, urging the reader to consider how fickle and unstable are all earthly things, and mankind most of all.  This theme, a very common one in classical and medieval literature, is rather out of fashion now; our age prizes positivity and living in the moment, and it's somehow considered morbid to think about this sort of subject.  Nonetheless, it's a theme I'm fond of in English medieval texts, from Beowulf and 'The Wanderer' to the various Middle English poems tagged here 'On Transience'; and both the poems linked above are superb reflections on the nature of human existence.  The poem I'm posting today has something in common with those poems (rhyme-scheme and pattern of verses, chiefly) but is not quite as good from a literary point of view, nor are its concerns as philosophical in nature.  This poem is about modern - that is, fourteenth-century - society, and its general lack of honesty and integrity.  Our society is no less deficient in these qualities, and I find this poem's lament, though bitter, strangely comforting; transient or not, the world never changes.

Here's a modernised version of the poem:

1. The man who wants to live at ease
Or any honours here to attain,
His aim I count not worth a pease,
Truly, unless he ordain
This wicked world how he shall please
With all his power and his pain;
If he shall keep himself from dis-ease,
He must learn to flatter and feign;
Heart and mouth, look that they be twain,
They may not be of one assent;
And, too, his tongue he must restrain,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

2. Thus is the truth kept in close,
And each man maketh touh and queynte [takes trouble and effort]
To leave the text and take the gloss;
Every word they colour and paint.
Some there are one would suppose
That by no treasure might be taint: [corrupted]
But let a man have naught to lose,
He shall find their friendship faint.
Some who seem so innocent,
Wondrous true in their intent,
They are aghast at each complaint; [appeal]
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

3. These wicked ways we may warie, [lament]
That every man thus inward bleeds!
Let a lord have his corlarie, [sycophant]
He shall hear well of all his deeds;
When he is in his sacratarie, [secret place]
With flattering his lord he feeds,
And with some speech he must him tarry,
And thus with lying he him leads;
To trick his lord must him needs,
And with some blandish make him blent: [blinded]
To lose his office ever he dreads,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

4. And all is wrong; that dare I prove;
For if a man have a sore wound,
How should a doctor this man relieve,
Unless he can clear out the wound?
For though it smart and a little grieve,
Yet must he endure a little stounde. [while]
If he knows all his mischeve, [what is wrong with him]
With medicine he can make him sound.
Were grace at large, which lies now bound,
Health and happiness we might hent; [enjoy]
Lack of medicine will us confound,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

5. For let a friar in God's service
These wrongs unto the people preach,
Of our misdeeds and our deceits,
The true text to tell and teach;
Though he may be right witty and wise,
Yet little thanks he shall reche, [receive]
And some there are who will him despise,
And gladly harm him with some wreche. [tricks]
This poor preacher they will impeach
At council and at parliament;
Unless he keeps out of their clutch,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

6. Since the time that God was born,
This world was never so untrue;
Men care never to be forsworn,
And take from others what is their due;
The painted word which falls before,
Behind, it shows another hue.
When Gabriel shall blow his horn,
These feeble fables they shall rue:
The tongues which such a fate shall brew,
It would be no harm if they were brent! [burnt]
Thus this guile is found again anew,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

7. Since the truth dareth no man say,
For fear to get himself a foe,
Best I hold it, in good fay, [faith]
Let one day come, another go
And make as merry as we may,
Til every friend part another fro. [from]
I believe it draws to doomsday,
Such signs we see! And others too:
Now knows a child both joy and woe
Who ought to be an innocent;
While it is young, it is nurtured so;
But who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

8. This world will have his wicked wone, [ways]
For truth, it will none other be;
His cursed course now it is begun,
There is no man may from it flee,
Who thus has long among us run;
His own defects he cannot see.
The father cannot trust the son,
No man another, in no degree;
Falsehood is called a subtlety
And such a name it hath hent. [caught, obtained]
This lesson learn all from me:
Who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.


shent, as you may have been able to discern, means 'ruined, destroyed'.

A particularly interesting phrase in this poem occurs in the second verse, about 'leaving the text and taking the gloss'.  If nothing else showed this poem to be a product of the late fourteenth century, that phrase would, because it's a frequent charge levelled at clerics and theologians in the period - accusing them of distorting language in a way that was deceitful, and elevating 'gloss' (that is, interpretation) over 'text'.  There's a useful article on 'glossing as distortion', with multiple contemporary examples, available here.  While the particular context of this phrase is interesting and historically of great significance - think of how this anxiety about interpretation and text became such a key issue in the development of Protestantism - I was struck by a more general point when I read this post last week on one of my favourite blogs.  The post is about Wallace Stevens' poem 'Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself', and it quoted from John Ruskin:

"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.  Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.  To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion -- all in one."   
Modern Painters, Volume III, Part IV, Chapter XVI (1856).

Beyond the immediate religious context of the question of text and gloss, the anxiety over 'painted words' reflects, I think, a similar desire to seek 'not ideas about the thing but the thing itself'; not what people say about truth, but the truth itself.  I wonder what the medieval poet would have said about our society, which is no less obsessed with status and celebrity than his own, no less full of flattery and feigning, and no more aware of its 'sore wound' of endemic falsehood.  In the past few months in Britain we have seen evidence that our politicians, policemen, journalists, NHS managers, bankers and supermarkets are all, regularly and systematically, lying to us - distorting the truth.  We are justifiably angry, but hardly at all surprised.  And why should we be?  Spin and distortion are a part of all our lives; we all engage in this kind of self-promotion, image management.  Admittedly, it's a wide spectrum of guilt which stretches from 'how will this picture make me look on facebook' to the "culture of self-promotion rather than critical analysis and openness" which permitted the deaths of hundreds of people in an NHS hospital; but it is on the same spectrum.  We must make ourselves look strong, successful, intelligent; no one can admit to failure, no one can tell the simple truth.

This has been on my mind recently partly because I've been applying for jobs - a process which involves an astonishing amount of spin and distortion on both sides - and partly because I've been experimenting with Twitter.  Whatever virtues that medium of communication may have, it's clear to me that it is a pre-eminent example of gloss triumphing over text - comment over content, 'ideas about the thing' rather than the thing itself.  It seems impossible to engage with the medium without slipping into mindless self-promotion; whatever the topic of the day is, every person and organisation feels the need to put their spin on it, and rare is the person who can resist a style of posting which works out, essentially, to "here's my comment (or joke or blogpost or promotional special offer) related to whatever it is other people happen to be talking about".  (I've been sucked into this as much as anyone, with my love of 'on this day'-type posts, which is why I want to think this out).  What results is a flurry of comment which skirts around truth; you have one still centre of a fact - a date, a festival, an archaeological discovery - and a maelstrom of thoughts and interpretations and ideas about it, none of them particularly well-thought-through, because the medium demands immediacy - all with the aim of grabbing and clinging onto a share in the conversation, whether you have anything useful to do with that share or not.  Even if the promotion is for a worthy cause (or a blogpost one is particularly proud of!) this can't but be harmful - for what is it but a flight from 'the thing itself', from simply and honestly seeing?

The internet has turned us all into PR men.  One reason I've guarded my anonymity so carefully on this blog is because I never wanted it to be a vehicle of self-promotion; I don't want to be a brand.  The purpose of this blog was always simply to share things - poems, pictures, experiences - and not to take ownership of them, but the more you build up a collection of such things, the more proprietorial you begin to feel.  I want to resist that, even if to do so seems ridiculously unworldly.  I'm glad that most of the people who come here (the random googlers) come for the 'text' and not the 'gloss' - for information, and not for me.  This is a personal blog, a private space within the public arena of the internet, but it's not about me, and I would never want people to read it just because they wanted to know about me - this is why I've never wanted my real-life friends and family to read it (online friends fall into a different category!).  I don't want the things I write about here to reflect on me in any way, positively or negatively; that would make me complicit in appropriating for my own use things which do not belong to me, or to anyone.  This is not about me.

There's a large dose of irony (or hypocrisy, if you prefer) in my talking about this, because this post, like many of my posts, literally contains both text and gloss, and what's more, I've just written three paragraphs of personal 'gloss' which goes far beyond the subject of the medieval poem.  But it's always been my aim here to give primacy to the text (whether that text is poem, picture, historical story, or 'something I have seen'); I never want my glossing to go beyond what is necessary to make an unfamiliar text accessible to an intelligent, curious, non-specialist reader.  This is the best way I know to tell the truth, and I'm writing about it today to remind myself of that.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

On this day

I recently had cause to be reading the Regularis Concordia, a tenth-century code of regulations for monastic usage which is one of the most important documents of the Anglo-Saxon church.  That doesn't make it sound very interesting, but it is, at least if you like Anglo-Saxon monks as much as I do.  The Regularis Concordia is the product of the movement in the tenth-century English church which is usually called the Benedictine Revival - briefly, a move to reinvigorate and reform monasticism in this country in line with continental practice and the original ideals of St Benedict.  It was led by the people I wrote about recently with reference to Worcester Cathedral - Dunstan, Oswald and Æthelwold.  These were the movers behind the Regularis Concordia, which was issued in 970 after a council between King Edgar and the leading churchmen of the day, and which lays out the vision Æthelwold, Dunstan and Oswald had for monastic practice.

Now, there's no reason you should be interested in this unless you study tenth-century religious movements, and if you do you know it all already.  But the reason I want to post the following extract from the Regularis Concordia is not historical, but literary - an imaginative exercise, you might say.  I've become increasingly aware over the last few years of the value of thinking of the past not just as history to be studied but as a sequence of present moments - in one sense, accessible only to the people who have lived through them, but in some way also accessible by imagining oneself back into that specific, unique historical moment in time and place.  Because of my own interests, I usually think of this in a medieval context; Henry of Huntingdon's reflections on 'this is the year which holds the writer' have stayed with me.  This is one reason why I've been so fascinated this year by Eadmer's biography of St Anselm, which offers precise descriptions of many such moments, from direct observation and at second-hand - one day on the road to Hayes in the summer of 1097, for instance, but there are many more.  This is the point at which a historian or a literary critic begins to get a little suspicious, and says, 'But some of these are literary tropes, or standard narrative motifs; how do we know they really happened?'  To which I have no answer except that I think the stories people tell about themselves, and the things they say about the people they knew, are important in many and various ways whether they really happened or not.

And so to Candlemas, February 2, in some Anglo-Saxon monastery towards the end of the tenth century - let's say, Worcester or Canterbury or Winchester in the year 974. We can think ourselves back into this scene because the Regularis Concordia describes it so exactly (and while this is a rule, i.e. a description of the ideal, I hope we can be confident that even if no one else followed it, Dunstan or Æthelwold at least would have done so themselves!):

On the Purification of St Mary candles shall be set out ready in the church to which the brethren are to go to get their lights. On the way thither they shall walk in silence, occupied with the psalms; and all shall be vested in albs if this is possible and if the weather permits. On entering the church, having prayed awhile, they shall say the antiphon and collect in honour of the saint to whom this same church is dedicated. Then the abbot, vested in stole and cope, shall bless the candles, sprinkling them with holy water and incensing them. When the abbot has received his candle from the doorkeeper, the chanting shall begin and the brethren shall receive and light their candles. During the return procession they shall sing the appointed antiphons until they reach the church doors; then, having sung the antiphon Responsum accepit Simeon, with the collect Erudi quaesumus Domine, they shall enter the church singing the respond Cum inducerunt Puerum. Next they shall say the Lord's prayer, and Tierce shall follow; after which, if the brethren were not vested for the procession, they shall vest for the Mass during which they shall hold their lighted candles in their hands until after the Offertory, when they shall offer them to the priest.

The monastic agreement of the monks and nuns of the English nation, trans. Thomas Symons (London, 1953), p.31.

You can picture the scene: the candles, the chant, the monks in their albs (if the weather permits, in this particular moment - think what the English weather can be like in February!). Perhaps Bishop Æthelwold read from this book, the Benedictional made for him, in which you can see the form for the blessing of candles here. Liturgical time enables us to say that it happens 'on this day', in some sense beyond the literal - on this day was Christ borne to the temple, and on this day the monks of Worcester or Canterbury or Winchester went and got their candles and sang their chants, and on this day Ælfric preached about it. And on this day earlier in the century, perhaps in 909, in a wooden church in Glastonbury, Dunstan's own holiness was revealed while he was yet unborn; on that day the crowd with their lighted candles saw a miracle, a miniature Anglo-Saxon version of the presentation in the temple - a greater light kindling a less.