Sunday, 31 March 2013

John Donne's last Easter sermon: 'Devotion is no marginal note, no interlineary gloss, no parenthesis that may be left out'

John Donne gave his last Easter sermon at St Paul's, London, on March 31, 1630.  He preached on the text He is not here, for he is risen, as he said; Come, see the place where the Lord lay, the words spoken in Matthew's Gospel by the angel to the women at the empty tomb.  Donne's sermon discusses a number of aspects of this moment in the gospel, but I've chosen to post just the first section, where he reflects on the devotion of the women and the fact that they sought the tomb 'early in the morning'.  I've also included a passage towards the end of the homily, which echoes two of Donne's most famous works, 'Death be not proud' and Meditation XVII, 'ask not for whom the bell tolls'; John Donne died a year to the day after giving this sermon, on March 31, 1631.

The whole text can be found here.


He is not here, for he is risen, as he said; Come, see the place where the Lord lay.

These are words spoken by the angel of heaven, to certain devout women, who, not yet considering the resurrection of Christ, came with a pious intention to do an office of respect, and civil honour to the body of their Master, which they meant to embalm in the monument where they thought to find it. How great a compass God went in this act of the resurrection! Here was God, the God of life, dead in a grave, and here was a man, a dead man, risen out of the grave; here are angels of heaven employed in so low an office, as to catechise women, and women employed in so high an office, as to catechise the apostles. I chose this verse out of the body of the story of the resurrection, because in this verse the act of Christ's rising, (which we celebrate this day) is expressly mentioned, surrexit enim, for he is risen: which word stands as a candle, that shows itself, and all about it, and will minister occasion of illustrating your understanding, of establishing your faith, of exalting your devotion in some other things about the resurrection, than fall literally within the words of this verse. For, from this verse we must necessarily reflect, both upon the persons (they to whom, and they by whom the words were spoken) and upon the occasion given. I shall not therefore now stand to divide the words into their parts and branches, at my first entering into them, but handle them, as I shall meet them again anon, springing out, and growing up from the body of the story; for the context is our text, and the whole resurrection is the work of the day, though it be virtually, implicitly contracted into this verse, He is not here, for he is risen, as he said; Come, and see the place where the Lord lay.

Our first consideration is upon the persons; and those we find to be angelical women, and evangelical angels: angels made evangelists, to preach the Gospel of the resurrection, and women made angels, (so as John Baptist is called an angel, and so as the seven bishops are called angels) that is, instructors of the church; and to recompense that observation, that never good angel appeared in the likeness of woman, here are good women made angels, that is, messengers, publishers of the greatest mysteries of our religion. For, howsoever some men out of a petulancy and wantonness of wit, and out of the extravagancy of paradoxes, and such singularities, have called the faculties, and abilities of women in question, even in the root thereof, in the reasonable and immortal soul, yet that one thing alone hath been enough to create a doubt, (almost an assurance in the negative) whether St. Ambrose's Commentaries upon the Epistles of St. Paul, be truly his or no, that in that book there is a doubt made, whether the woman were created according to God's image; therefore, because that doubt is made in that book, the book itself is suspected not to have had so great, so grave, so constant an author as St. Ambrose was; no author of gravity, of piety, of conversation in the Scriptures could admit that doubt, whether woman were created in the image of God, that is, in possession of a reasonable and an immortal soul.

The faculties and abilities of the soul appear best in affairs of state, and in ecclesiastical affairs; in matter of government, and in matter of religion; and in neither of these are we without examples of able women. For, for state affairs, and matter of government, our age hath given us such a queen, as scarce any former king hath equalled; and in the Venetian story, I remember, that certain matrons of that city were sent by commission, in quality of ambassadors, to an empress with whom that state had occasion to treat; and in the stories of the Eastern parts of the world, it is said to be in ordinary practice to send women for ambassadors. And then, in matters of religion, women have evermore had a great hand, though sometimes on the left, as well as on the right hand. Sometimes their abundant wealth, sometimes their personal affections to some church-men, sometimes their irregular and indiscreet zeal hath made them great assistants to great heretics; as St. Jerome tells us of Helena to Simon Magus, and so was Lucilia to Donatus, so another to Mahomet, and others to others. But so have they been also great instruments for the advancing of true religion, as St. Paul testifies in their behalf, at Thessalonica, Of the chief women, not a few; great, and many. For many times women have the proxies of greater persons than themselves, in their bosoms; many times women have voices, where they should have none; many times the voices of great men, in the greatest of civil, or ecclesiastical assemblies, have been in the power and disposition of women.

Hence is it, that in the old epistles of the bishops of Rome, when they needed the court, (as, at first they needed courts as much, as they brought courts to need them at last) we find as many letters of those popes to the emperors' wives, and the emperors' mothers, and sisters, and women of other names, and interests in the emperors' favours and affections, as to the emperors themselves. St. Jerome writ many letters to divers holy ladies...

If women have submitted themselves to as good an education as men, God forbid their sex should prejudice them, for being examples to others. Their sex? no, nor their sins neither: for, it is St. Jerome's note, That of all those women, that are named in Christ's pedigree in the Gospel, there is not one, (his only blessed Virgin Mother excepted) upon whom there is not some suspicious note of incontinency. Of such women did Christ vouchsafe to come; He came of woman so, as that he came of nothing but woman; of woman, and not of man. Neither do we read of any woman in the Gospel, that assisted the persecutors of Christ, or furthered his afflictions; even Pilate's wife dissuaded it. Woman, as well as man, was made after the image of God, in the creation; and in the resurrection, when we shall rise such as we were here, her sex shall not diminish her glory: of which, she receives one fair beam, and inchoation in this text, that the purpose of God, is, even by the ministry of angels, communicated to women. But what women? for their preparation, their disposition is in this text too; such women, as were not only devout, but sedulous, diligent, constant, perseverant in their devotion; to such women God communicated himself; which is another consideration in these persons.

As our Saviour Christ was pleased, that one of these women should be celebrated by name, for another act upon him, Mary Magdalen, and that wheresoever his Gospel was preached, her act should be remembered, so the rest, with her, are worthy to be known and celebrated by their names; therefore we consider, Quae, and quales; first who they were, and then what they were, their names first, and then their conditions. There is an historical relation, and observation, That though there be divers kingdoms in Europe, in which the crowns may fall upon women, yet, for some ages, they did not, and when they did, it was much at one time, and all upon women of one name, Mary. It was so with us in England, and in Scotland it was so; so in Denmark, and in Hungary it was so too; all four, Marys. Though regularly women should not preach, yet when these legati a latere, these angels from heaven did give orders to women, and made them apostles to the apostles, the commission was to women of that name, Mary; for, though our expositors dispute whether the blessed Virgin Mary were there then, when this passed at the sepulchre, yet of Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, there can be no doubt. Indeed it is a noble, and a comprehensive name, Mary. It is the name of woman, in general; for, when Adam says of Eve, She shall be called woman, in the Arabic translation, there is this name, She shall be called Mary; and the Arabic is, perchance, a dialect of the Hebrew. But in pure, and original Hebrew, the word signifies exaltation, and whatsoever is best in the kind thereof. This is the name of that sister of Aaron, and Moses, that with her choir of women assisted at that eucharistical sacrifice, that triumphant song of thanksgiving, upon the destruction, the subversion, the summersion of Egypt in the Red Sea. Her name was Miriam; and Miriam and Mary is the same name in women, as Josuah and Jesus is the same name to men. The word denotes greatness, not only in power, but in wisdom, and learning too; and so signifies often prophets and doctors; and so falls fitliest upen these blessed women, who, in that sense, were all made Marys, messengers, apostles to the apostles; in which sense, even those women were made Marys, (that is, messengers of the resurrection) who, no doubt, had other names of their own... That blessing which God gave to these Marys, which was, to know more of Christ, than their former teachers knew, he will also be pleased to give to the greatest of that name amongst us, that she may know more of Christ, than her first teachers knew. And we pass on, from the names, to the conditions of these women.

And first we consider their sedulity; sedulity, that admits no intermission, no interruption, no discontinuance, no tepidity, no indifferency in religious offices. Consider we therefore their sedulity if we can. I say, if we can; because if a man should sit down at a bee-hive, or at an ant-hill, and determine to watch such an ant, or such a bee, in the working thereof, he would find that bee, or that ant so sedulous, so serious, so various, so concurrent with others, so contributary to others, as that he would quickly lose his marks, and his sight of that ant, or that bee; so if we fix our consideration upon these devout women, and the sedulity of their devotion, so as the several evangelists present it unto us, we may easily lose our sight, and hardly know which was which, or, at what time she or she came to the sepulchre. They came in the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn, towards the first day of the week, says St. Matthew: They came very early in the morning, upon the first day of the week, the sun being then risen, says St. Mark; They prepared their spices, and rested the Sabbath, and came early the next day, says St. Luke; They came the first day, when it was yet dark, says St. John. From Friday evening, till Sunday morning, they were sedulous, busy upon this service...

Beloved, true devotion is a serious, a sedulous, an impatient thing. He that said in the Gospel, fast twice a week, was but a Pharisee; he that can reckon his devout actions, is no better; he that can tell how often he hath thought upon God to-day, hath not thought upon him often enough. It is St. Augustine's holy circle, to pray, that we may hear sermons profitably, and to hear sermons that we learn to pray acceptably. Devotion is no marginal note, no interlineary gloss, no parenthesis that may be left out; it is no occasional thing, no conditional thing; 'I will go, if I like the preacher, if the place, if the company, if the weather'; but it is of the body of the text, and lays upon us an obligation of fervour and of continuance. This we have in this example of these, not only evangelical, but evangelistical (preaching) women; and thus much more, that as they were sedulous and diligent after, so they were early, and begun betimes; for, howsoever the evangelists may seem to vary, in the point of time, when they came, they all agree they came early, which is another exaltation of devotion...

Even this woman, Mary Magdalen, be her sin what you will, came early to Christ; early, as soon as he afforded her any light. Christ says, in the person of Wisdom, love them that love me, and they that seek me early shall find me; and a good soul will echo back that return of David, O God, thou art my God, early will I seek thee; my soul thirsteth for thee; my flesh longeth for thee; and double that echo with Esay, With my soul have I desired thee in the night, and with my spirit within me, will I seek thee early.

Now, what is this early seeking of God? First, there is a general rule given by Solomon, Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth; submit thyself to a religious discipline betimes. But then, in that there is a now inserted into that rule of Solomon's, (Remember now thy Creator, in the days of thy youth), there is an intimation, that there is a youth in our age, and an earliness acceptable to God, in every action; we seek him early, if we seek him at the beginning of every undertaking. If I awake at midnight, and embrace God in mine arms, that is, receive God into my thoughts, and pursue those meditations, by such a having had God in my company, I may have frustrated many temptations that would have attempted me, and perchance prevailed upon me, if I had been alone, for solitude is one of the devil's scenes; and, I am afraid there are persons that sin oftener alone, than in company; but that man is not alone that hath God in his sight, in his thought. Thou preventest me with the blessings of goodness, says David to God. I come not early enough to God, if I stay till his blessings in a prosperous fortune prevent me, and lead me to God; I should come before that. The days of affliction have prevented me, says Job. I come not early enough to God, if I stay till his judgments prevent me, and whip me to him; I should come before that. But, if I prevent the night watches, and the dawning of the morning, if in the morning my prayer prevent thee O God, (which is a high expression of Davids, That I should wake before God wakes, and even prevent his preventing grace, before it be declared in any outward act, that day) if before blessing or cross fall upon me, I surrender myself entirely unto thee, and say, Lord here I lie, make thou these sheets my sheets of penance, in inflicting a long sickness, or my winding-sheet, in delivering me over to present death, here I lie, make thou this bed mine altar, and bind me to it in the cords of decrepitness, and bedridness, or throw me off of it into the grave and dust of expectation, here I lie, do thou choose whether I shall see any to-morrow in this world, or begin my eternal day, this night, thy kingdom come, thy will be done; when I seek God, merely for love of him, and his glory, without relation to his benefits or to his corrections, this is that early seeking, which we consider in those blessed women, whose sedulity and earnestness, when they were come, and acceleration and earliness, in their coming, having already considered, pass we now to the ad quid, to what purpose, and with what intention they came, for in that alone, there are divers exaltations of their devotion.

In the first verse of this chapter it is said, They came to see the sepulchre; even to see the sepulchre was an act of love, and every act of love to Christ, is devotion. There is a love that will make one kiss the case of a picture, though it be shut; there is a love that will melt one's bowels, if he do but pass over, or pass by the grave of his dead friend. But their end was not only to see the sepulchre, but to see whether the sepulchre were in such state, as that they might come to their end, which was, To embalm their Master's body.

...

His rising declares him to be the Son of God, who therefore can, and will, and to be that Jesus, an actual Redeemer, and therefore hath already raised us. To what? To that renovation, to that new creation, which is so excellently expressed by Severianus, as makes us sorry we have no more of his; Mutator ordo rerim, The whole frame! and course of nature is changed; Sepulchrum non mortuum, sed mortem devorat, The grave, (now, since Christ's resurrection, and ours in him) does not bury the dead man, but death himself; my bell tolls for death, and my bell rings out for death, and not for me that die; for I live, even in death; but death dies in me, and hath no more power over me.

...

Let nothing therefore that can fall upon thee, despoil thee of the dignity and constancy of a Christian; howsoever thou be severed from those things, which thou makest account do make thee up, severed from a wife by divorce, from a child by death, from goods by fire, or water, from an office by just, or by unjust displeasure (which is the heavier but the happier case), yet never think thyself severed from thy head Christ Jesus, nor from being a lively member of his body. Though thou be a brother of dragons and a companion of owls, though thy harp be turned into mourning, and thine organ into the voice of them that weep, nay, Though the Lord kill thee, yet trust in him. Thy Saviour when he lay dead in the grave, was still the same Lord; thou, when thou art enwrapped, and interred in confusion, art still the same Christian.

...

If these meditations have raised you from the bed of sin, in any holy purpose, this is one of your resurrections, and you have kept your Easter day well. To which, he, whose name is Amen, say Amen, our blessed Saviour Christ Jesus, in the power of his Father, and in the operation of his Spirit.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Lo, lemman sweet

Lo, lemman swete, now may þou se
þat I haue lost my lyf for þe.
What myght I do þe mare?
For-þi I pray þe speciali
þat þou forsake ill company
þat woundes me so sare;

And take myne armes pryuely
& do þam in þi tresory,
In what stede sa þou dwelles,
And, swete lemman, forget þow noght
þat I þi lufe sa dere haue boght,
And I aske þe noght elles.

Christ in majesty, displaying his wounds (BL Arundel 302 f.56)

Like the poem I posted yesterday, this is from the manuscript Cambridge University Dd. 5. 64, III.  Here Christ appeals to the soul as a knight to his lady, imploring her to forsake all others for his sake; he asks her to take his arms into her keeping, as if he were Lancelot and she the lily maid of Astolat tenderly guarding his shield in her chamber.  Here the 'arms' are the 'Arma Christi', the instruments of the Passion, a familiar motif in medieval art and literature.  The image of Christ as knight and lover goes as far back in literature as there have been knights and lovers: one particularly famous example is this passage from Ancrene Wisse, where Christ is imagined as a king who loves and woos a noble lady besieged by her foes in a far-off land.  My favourite example of all is the handsome king and lover (and mother) Christ of 'In a valley of restless mind', patiently enduring the disdain of his lady, chasing away her enemies, and preparing for her a comfortable chamber in his own body.

Lo, sweetheart dear, now may thou see
That I have lost my life for thee.
What might I do thee more?
And so I pray thee especially
That thou forsake ill company
That woundeth me so sore;

And take mine arms prively
And put them in thy treasury,
Wherever thou may dwell;
And, sweetheart dear, forget thou not
That I thy love so dear have bought,
And I ask thee for nothing else.

Arma Christi in BL Harley 211, f.135

Friday, 29 March 2013

Unkynde man, give heed to me


Christ speaks from the cross:

Unkynde man, gif kepe til me
and loke what payne I suffer for þe.
Synful man, on þe I cry,
alanly for þi lufe I dy.
Behalde, þe blode fra me downe rennes,
noght for my gylt, bot for þi synnes.
My hende, my fete, with nayles er fest,
syns & vayns al to-brest.
þe blode owt of my hert-rote,
loke, it falles downe to my fote.
Of al þe payne þat I suffer sare,
with-in my hert it greues me mare
þe vnkyndenes þat I fynd in þe,
þat for þi lufe þus hynged on tre.
Alas, why lufes þou me noght:
and I þi lufe sa dere hase boght?
Bot þou me lufe, þou dose me wrang,
sen I haue loued þe lang.
Twa & thyrty yere & mare
I was for þe in trauel sare,
With hungyr, thirst, hete & calde;
For þi lufe bath boght & salde,
Pyned, nayled & done on tre:
All, man, for þe lufe of þe.
Lufe þou me, als þe wele aw,
And fra syn þou þe draw.
I gyf þe my body with woundes sare,
And þare-to sall I gyf þe mare:
Ouer all þis I-wysse,
In erth mi grace, in heuen my blysse.

Christ crucified on a lily, St Michael at the Northgate, Oxford

This poem is from the manuscript Cambridge University Library Dd. 5. 64. III, which contains a variety of religious and devotional lyrics, including a number by Richard Rolle and his imitators. This one is anonymous, but it's strikingly good; the rhyming couplets are simple, but skilful. Dignified restraint is not often a feature of medieval poetry about the Passion, but this was a poet who knew where to stop.

A (slightly) modernised version follows. I've chosen not to translate the very first word, because unkind has a range of meanings in Middle English which all matter here; the primary sense is not 'unkind' but 'unnatural', as in (from the MED) 'lacking natural affection for or loyalty to one's offspring or kin, indifferent to ties of blood; also, hostile or violent in violation of a blood relationship' or 'ungrateful, unappreciative', 'lacking natural or proper reverence or love for God', 'stubborn, obstinate, intransigent, unwilling to acknowledge God'. That's the kind of idea here.

Unkynde man, give heed to me
And look what pain I suffer for thee.
Sinful man, on thee I cry:
All only for thy love I die.
Behold, the blood from me down runs,
Not for my guilt, but for thy sins.
My hands, my feet, with nails made fast,
Sinews and veins all burst apart.
The blood out of my heart-root -
Look, it falls down to my foot.
Of all the pain that I suffer sore,
Within my heart it grieves me more
The unkindness that I find in thee,
Who for thy love thus hung on the tree.
Alas, why lovest thou me not:
And I thy love so dear have bought?
Unless thou me love, thou dost me wrong,
Since I have loved thee so long.
Two and thirty years and more
I was for thee in travail sore,
With hunger, thirst, heat and cold;
For thy love both bought and sold,
Tormented, nailed and put upon the tree:
All, man, for the love of thee.
Love thou me, as thee well ought,
And from sin thou thee withdraw.
I give thee my body with wounds sore,
And with it shall I give thee more,
Truly, over all of this:
In earth my grace, in heaven my bliss.

 A monk adores Christ, from BL Stowe 12 f. 297v

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Yarnton Reredos


Yarnton is a village near Oxford, which in the eighteenth century had the good fortune to have an antiquarian benefactor: William Fletcher, Mayor of Oxford, who collected a large amount of medieval religious art from churches across Europe and presented it to the church at Yarnton.  The little church is a museum of assorted medieval fragments, mostly stained glass in varying states of completeness, but also a series of 15th-century alabaster panels which Fletcher obtained after they were found during excavations at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.  There were six panels, but only four are now at Yarnton - one is in the British Museum, another at the V&A.  (The British Museum one shows St Catherine of Alexandria, visible here; the V&A may be this or this one, I'm not quite sure).

The four remaining panels have been set under the east window, behind the altar, which makes them difficult both to see and to photograph, but I did my best - they're worth the effort!  Lacking paint and gilding, they don't have the breathtaking quality of the extraordinary alabaster reredos at Haddon Hall, but you can see the ghost of what it might once have been.  English alabaster of this date is just glorious, and in these Passion scenes, deeply moving too.

It's also worth linking here to my (sadly not very good) pictures of a painted reredos in Norwich Cathedral, which shows similar scenes.

The first panel is an Epiphany scene - unseasonal, but I can't resist posting it anyway:


The animals are delightful:


The Virgin stately and, apparently, beturbaned:


One king has politely removed his crown, and holds it on his knee:


The other kings hover in the background:


And St Joseph rests on his staff (compare these manuscript images I posted the other day):



Now to something more appropriate for Holy Week.  The scene of the arrest of Christ is perhaps the best of them all; it's like a ghost of a Giotto fresco:


The interaction between the various heads and arms and weapons is so dramatic, and the grasping hands (which are tiny - each less than a centimetre high) particularly exquisite:


In the same scene at Haddon Hall, Christ is looking away and out of the picture, but here he and Judas are eye-to-eye:


In the lower corner is the high priest's servant, St Peter's sword at his ear:



Just for comparison, a similar scene from BL Egerton 1151, f. 95v, a late 13th-century English manuscript:



The next Yarnton panel depicts Christ carrying the cross:


His ribs and fingers are carefully articulated:


Note the woman holding up a cloth for Christ, and behind him, women clutching their hands in grief:


'A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children...'

On the right, men are holding nails, a hammer and a whip (and again, compare Haddon Hall):


The last scene shows Mary cradling the body of Christ:



The pieta was a fairly new subject in art at this date, and here it dovetails beautifully with the Epiphany scene in the first panel, where Mary proudly holds her son on her lap. It's the visual equivalent of the near-contemporary poem which begins:

Of alle women that ever were borne
That berys childur, abyde and se
How my son liggus me beforne
Upon my kne, takyn fro tre.
Your childur ye dawnse upon your kne
With laghyng, kyssyng, and mery chere:
Behold my childe, beholde now me,
For now liggus ded my dere son, dere!

Monday, 25 March 2013

Glade us maiden, moder milde


Happy New Year! OK, not quite; but it's Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, or at least it would be if it wasn't Holy Week.  It's transferred until April this year, but that needn't stop us enjoying a medieval Annunciation poem today.  I love this sub-genre of poems, of which there are maybe twenty million examples (not an exact approximation) - some particular favourites include 'Ecce ancilla domini' and 'Nu this fules singet'.  I also posted a variety of Annunciation scenes from English manuscripts (of which there are, again, an uncountable number) here.  Today's poem is a translation of the Latin hymn 'Gaude virgo mater Christi, que per aurem concepisti', and it's preserved in a thirteenth-century manuscript from the West Midlands (Trinity College Cambridge MS. 323).

Glade us maiden, moder milde,
Þurru þin herre þu were wid childe;
Gabriel he seide it þe.

Glade us, ful of gode þine,
Þam þu bere buten pine
Wid þe lilie of chastete.

Glade us of iesu þi sone
Þat þolede deit for monis loue;
Þat dehit was, quiic up aros.

Glade us maiden, crist up stey
& in heuene þe i-sey;
He bar him seluen into is clos.

Glade us marie, to Ioye ibrout,
Muche wrchipe crist hau þe i-worut,
In heuene brit in þi paleis;

Þer þat frut of þire wombe
Be i-yefin us forto fonden
In Ioye þat is endeles.

This is not much more than a simple translation, but I do like it.  I've written before above my love for the word 'glad'; I don't entirely understand why the English poet chose to translate 'Gaude' ('rejoice') as 'Gladden us' - that is, why the focus should be on Mary making us rejoice rather than rejoicing herself - but if inaccurate, it works perfectly well.  (Maybe he, like me, found the idea of telling Mary to rejoice one of the odder poetic conventions of religious verse!)  The rhyme-scheme is nice, a little more interwoven than the Latin original.  A modernised version might be:

Glad us, maiden, mother mild; through thine hearing thou wert with child; Gabriel told it to thee.

Glad us, full of thy God, whom thou didst bear without pain, with the lily of chastity.

Glad us with Jesu thy son, who suffered death for love of man, who was dead, and alive rose.

Glad us, maiden: Christ ascended into heaven; in thy sight, he bore himself into his courts.

Glad us Mary, to joy brought - much honour Christ has for thee wrought! - into heaven bright, in thy palace,

Where the fruit of thy womb may be given to us forever, in joy that is endless.

The Latin:

Gaude, virgo mater Christi,
Quae per aurem concepisti,
Gabriele nuntio.
Gaude, quia Deo plena
Peperisti sine poena,
Cum pudoris lilio.
Gaude, quia tui nati
Quem dolebas mortem pati,
Fulget resurrectio.
Gaude Christo ascendente,
Et in coelum te vidente,
Motu fertur proprio.
Gaude que post ipsum scandis,
Et est honor tibi grandis,
In caeli palatio.
Ubi fructus ventris tui,
Nobis detur per te frui,
In perenni gaudio.

Lydgate also wrote a lyric based on this hymn - Be gladde mayde moder of Cryst Ihesu.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Ælfric's Sermon for Palm Sunday

The entry into Jerusalem in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f. 45v)

The Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric, at the end of a sermon for Palm Sunday written at the close of the tenth century, describes to his congregation the ritual they have just performed, and then tells them what to do next:

Se gewuna stent on Godes cyrcan, þurh lareowas geset, þæt gehwær on Godes gelaðunge se sacerd bletsian sceole palm-twigu on ðisum dæge, and hi swa gebletsode ðam folce dælan; and sceolon ða Godes þeowas singan ðone lofsang, þe þæt Iudeisce folc sang togeanes Criste, þaþa he genealæhte his ðrowunge. We geefenlæcað þam geleaffullum of ðam folce mid þisre dæde, forðan ðe hi bæron palm-twigu mid lofsange togeanes þam Hælende. Nu sceole we healdan urne palm, oðþæt se sangere onginne ðone offring-sang, and geoffrian þonne Gode ðone palm, for ðære getacnunge. Palm getacnað syge. Sygefæst wæs Crist þaþa he ðone micclan deofol oferwann, and us generede: and we sceolon beon eac sygefæste þurh Godes mihte, swa þæt we ure unðeawas, and ealle leahtras, and ðone deofol oferwinnan, and us mid godum weorcum geglencgan, and on ende ures lifes betæcan Gode ðone palm, þæt is, ure sige, and ðancian him georne, þæt we, ðurh his fultum, deoful oferwunnon, þæt he us beswican ne mihte.

'It is the custom in God's church, established by its teachers, that everywhere in God's congregation the priest should bless palm-branches on this day, and distribute them, thus blessed, to the people; and God's servants should then sing the hymn which the Jewish people sang before Christ when he was coming to his Passion. We imitate the faithful ones of that people with this deed, for they carried palm-branches with hymns before the Saviour. Now we shall hold our palms until the singer begins the offering-song, and then we shall offer the palm to God because of what it signifies: a palm betokens victory. Christ was victorious when he overcame the mighty devil and rescued us, and we also shall be victorious through God's power, so that we conquer our evil habits, and all sins, and the devil, and adorn ourselves with good works; and at the end of our life we shall deliver the palm to God, that is, our victory, and thank him fervently, that we through his help have conquered the devil, so that he could not deceive us.'

Ælfric's description gives us a vivid picture of his congregation all holding their palm-twigu, just as congregations in churches throughout the world will be doing today. The rest of the sermon interprets the details of the Gospel passage of the day, Christ's entry into Jerusalem; the extract below is from the text here, with my translation.

'The two disciples whom Christ sent to bring the ass betokened the teachers whom God sends to instruct mankind. There were two of them in order to show the characteristics which a teacher ought to have: he should have learning, so that he may wisely instruct God's people in true belief, and he should set a good example to the people by good works; and so with those two things, that is, with learning and with a good example, he should ever draw the people to God's will.

The tied ass and its foal betoken two peoples, the Jewish people and the pagans. I say 'pagans' because in those days all mankind were still living in paganism, except only the Jewish people, who followed the old law at that time. They were 'tied' because all mankind was bound with sins, as the prophet says: "Every man is bound with the ropes of his sins." Then God sent his apostles and their successors to bound mankind, and commanded them to be untied and led to him. How did they untie the ass and the foal? They preached to the people about the true faith and God's commandments, and confirmed their preaching by many miracles. The people then turned from the service of the devil to the worship of Christ, and were freed from all sins through holy baptism, and led to Christ.

An ass is a foolish animal, unclean, and stupid compared with other animals, and strong for carrying burdens. And so were men, before Christ's coming, foolish and unclean, while they served idols and many kinds of sin, and bowed to the images which they had made themselves, and said to them, "Thou art my God." And whatever burden the devil placed on them, they bore. But when Christ came to mankind, he turned our foolishness to wisdom and our uncleanness to pure virtues. The tamed ass betokened the Jewish people, who were tamed under the old law. The wild foal betokened all other people, who were heathen and untamed; but they became tamed and faithful when Christ sent his disciples through the whole world, saying, "Go through all the world, and teach all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and command that they hold all the commands which I have taught you."
The disciples fetch the donkey (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 113v)
The master of the asses asked them why they untied his asses, and in the same way the chief men of every people perversely opposed the preaching of God. But when they saw that the preachers, through God's power, healed the lame and the blind, and gave speech to the dumb, and raised the dead to life, then they could not withstand those miracles, but all at last turned to God. Christ's disciples said, "The Lord needs the asses, and sends for them." They did not say 'our Lord', or 'your Lord', but simply, 'the Lord'; for Christ is Lord of all lords, both of men and of all creatures. They said, "He sends for them." We are exhorted and invited to God's kingdom, but we are not forced. When we are invited, we are untied; and when we are left to our own choice, then is it as though we are sent for. It is God's mercy that we are untied; but if we live rightly, that will be both God's grace and our own zeal. We should constantly pray for the Lord's help, since our own choices have no success unless they are supported by the Almighty.

Christ did not command them to lead to him a proud steed adorned with golden trappings; instead he chose a poor ass to bear him, because he always taught humility, and gave the example himself, saying "Learn from me, for I am meek and very humble, and you shall find rest for your souls." This was prophesied of Christ, and so were all the things which he did before he was born as man...

We will tell you a parable. No man may make himself a king, because the people have the option to choose for king someone who is acceptable to them; but after he has been consecrated as king he has power over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke from their necks. In the same way every man has his own choice, before he sins, whether he will follow the devil's will or withstand it. If he binds himself with the works of the devil, he cannot unbind himself by his own power, unless the Almighty God unbind him with the powerful hand of his mercy. By his own will and his own carelessness he is bound, but through God's mercy he will be unbound, if he merit his liberation from God.
The people who cast their garments under the feet of the ass are the martyrs, who for the faith of Christ gave their own bodies to torments. Some were burned by fire, some drowned in the sea, and killed with various tortures; they gave us an example that we should not, for any persecutions or hardships, forsake our faith and turn away from Christ, any more than they did. Many a man is accounted a Christian in peace, who would very quickly deny Christ if he were sentenced to the fate to which the martyrs were sentenced; his Christianity is not praiseworthy. But a man's Christianity is praiseworthy who will not, for any persecution, turn away from Christ, not for sword, nor for fire, nor for water, nor for hunger, nor for chains, but ever holds to his faith with the praise of God to the end of his life.

Those who cut down the branches of trees and prepared Christ's way with them are the teachers in God's church, who pluck the sayings of the apostles and their successors, and with them direct God's people to the faith of Christ, so that they may be prepared for his way.

The people who walked before Christ, and those who followed him, all sang "Osanna Filio David," that is, in our language, "Hail, Son of David." ['Sy hælo, Dauides Bearne'] Those who walked before Christ are the patriarchs and prophets, who lived before Christ's incarnation; those who went after him are those who turned to Christ after his birth, and daily turn to him. All these sing one hymn, because we and they all hold one faith.
Read the rest here.

The entry into Jerusalem in alabaster, from Haddon Hall

In Old English:

Þa twegen leorning-cnihtas þe Crist sende æfter þam assan, hi getacnodon þa lareowas þe God sende mancynne to lærenne. Twegen hi wæron, for ðære getacnunge þe lareow habban sceal. He sceal habban lare, þæt he mage Godes folc mid wisdome læran to rihtum geleafan, and he sceal mid godum weorcum ðam folce wel bysnian, and swa mid þam twam ðingum, þæt is mid lare and godre bysnunge, þæt læwede folc gebige symle to Godes willan.

Se getigeda assa and his fola getacniað twa folc, þæt is Iudeisc and hæðen: Ic cweðe, hæðen, forði þe eal mennisc wæs ða-gyt wunigende on hæðenscipe, buton þam anum Iudeiscan folce, þe heold þa ealdan æ on ðam timan. Hi wæron getigede, forðan ðe eal mancyn wæs mid synnum bebunden, swa swa se witega cwæð, 'Anra gehwilc manna is gewriðen mid rapum his synna.' Þa sende God his apostolas and heora æftergengan to gebundenum mancynne, and het hi untigan, and to him lædan. Hi untigdon hi ðone assan and þone folan? Hi bodedon ðam folce rihtne geleafan and Godes beboda, and eac mid micclum wundrum heora bodunge getrymdon. Þa abeah þæt folc fram deofles þeowdome to Cristes biggencum, and wæron alysede fram eallum synnum þurh þæt halige fulluht, and to Criste gelædde.

Assa is stunt nyten, and unclæne, and toforan oðrum nytenum ungesceadwis, and byrðen-strang. Swa wæron men, ær Cristes to-cyme, stunte and unclæne, ðaða hí ðeowedon deofolgyldum and mislicum leahtrum, and bugon to þam anlicnyssum þe hi sylfe worhton, and him cwædon to, "Þu eart min God." And swa hwilce byrðene swa him deofol on-besette, þa hí bæron. Ac ðaða Crist com to mancynne, þa awende he ure stuntnysse to geráde, and ure unclænnysse to clænum ðeawum. Se getemeda assa hæfde getacnunge þæs Iudeiscan folces, þe wæs getemed under þære ealdan ǽ. Se wilda fola hæfde getacnunge ealles oðres folces, þe wæs þa-gyt hæðen and ungetemed; ac hí wurdon getemede and geleaffulle þaþa Crist sende his leorning-cnihtas geond ealne middangeard, þus cweðende, "Farað geond ealne middangeard, and lærað ealle ðeoda, and fulliað hí on naman þæs Fæder, and þæs Suna, and þæs Halgan Gastes; and beodað þæt hi healdon ealle ða beboda þe ic eow tæhte."

Þæra assena hlaford axode, hwí hí untigdon his assan? Swa eac ða heafod-men gehwilces leodscipes woldon þwyrlice wiðcweðan Godes bodunge. Ac ðaða hí gesawon þæt þa bydelas gehældon, þurh Godes mihte, healte and blinde, and dumbum spræce forgeafon, and eac ða deadan to life arærdon, þa ne mihton hí wiðstandan þam wundrum, ac bugon ealle endemes to Gode. Cristes leorning-cnihtas cwædon, "Se Hlaford behófað þæra assena, and sent hi eft ongean." Ne cwædon hí na Ure Hlaford, ne Ðin Hlaford, ac forðrihte, Hlaford; forðon ðe Crist is ealra hlaforda Hlaford, ægðer ge manna ge ealra gesceafta. Hi cwædon, "He sent hí eft ongean." We sind gemanode and gelaðode to Godes rice, ac we ne sind na genedde. Þonne we sind gelaðode, þonne sind we untigede; and ðonne we beoð forlætene to urum agenum cyre, þonne bið hit swilce we beon ongean asende. Godes myldheortnys is þæt we untigede syndon; ac gif we rihtlice lybbað, þæt bið ægðer ge Godes gifu ge eac ure agen geornfulnyss. We sceolon symle biddan Drihtnes fultum, forðan ðe ure agen cyre næfð nænne forðgang, buton he beo gefyrðrod þurh þone Ælmihtigan.

Ne het Crist him to lædan modigne stedan mid gyldenum gerædum gefreatewodne, ac þone wacan assan he geceas him to byrðre; forðon þe he tæhte symle eadmodnysse, and ðurh hine sylfne þa bysne sealde, and ðus cwæð, "Leorniað æt me, þæt ic eom liðe and swiðe eadmod, and ge gemetað reste eowrum sawlum." Þis wæs gewitegod be Criste, and ealle ða ðing þe he dyde, ærðan þe he to men geboren wære...

We wyllað secgan eow sum bigspell. Ne mæg nan man hine sylfne to cynge gedon, ac þæt folc hæfð cyre to ceosenne þone to cyninge þe him sylfum licað: ac siððan he to cyninge gehalgod bið, þonne hæfð hé anweald ofer þæt folc, and hí ne magon his geoc of heora swuran asceacan. Swa eac gehwilc man hæfð agenne cyre, ærðam þe hé syngige, hweðer hé wille filian deofles willan, oððe wiðsacan. Þonne gif hé mid deofles weorcum hine sylfne bebint, ðonne ne mæg he mid his agenre mihte hine unbindan, buton se Ælmihtiga God mid strangre handa his mildheortnysse hine unbinde. Agenes willan and agenre gymeleaste he bið gebunden, ac þurh Godes mildheortnysse he bið unbunden, gif he ða alysednysse eft æt Gode geearnað.

Þæt folc ðe heora reaf wurpon under þæs assan fét, þæt sind þa martyras, þe for Cristes geleafan sealdon heora agenne lichaman to tintregum. Sume hi wæron on fyre forbærnde, sume on sǽ adrencte, and mid mislicum pinungum acwealde; and sealdon us bysne þæt we ne sceolon, for nanum ehtnyssum oððe earfoðnyssum, urne geleafan forlætan, and fram Criste bugan, ðe má ðe hí dydon. Menig man is cristen geteald on sibbe, þe wolde swiðe hraðe wiðsacan Criste, gif him man bude þæt man bead þam martyrum: ac his cristendom nis na herigendlic. Ac ðæs mannes cristendom is herigendlic, seðe nele, for nanre ehtnysse, bugan fram Criste, ne for swurde, ne for fyre, ne for wætere, ne for hungre, ne for bendum; ac æfre hylt his geleafan mid Godes hérungum, oð his lifes ende.

Þa ðe ðæra treowa bogas heowon, and mid þam Cristes weig gedæfton, þæt sind þa lareowas on Godes cyrcan, þe plucciað þa cwydas ðæra apostola and heora æftergengena, and mid þam Godes folce gewisiað to Cristes geleafan, þæt hí beon gearwe to his færelde.

Þæt folc ðe Criste beforan stóp, and þæt ðe him fyligde, ealle hí sungon, "Osanna Filio Dauid," þæt is on urum geðeode, "Sy hǽlo Dauides Bearne." Þa ðe Criste beforan stopon, þa sind ða heahfæderas and þa wítegan, ðe wæron ǽr Cristes flæsclicnysse; and ða ðe him bæftan eodon, þæt sind ða ðe æfter Cristes acennednysse to him gebugon, and dæghwamlice bugað: and ealle hí singað ænne lofsang; forðan ðe wé and hí ealle healdað ænne geleafan.

The entry into Jerusalem, BL Royal 2 B VII

Friday, 22 March 2013

'We hunger against hope for that lost heritage'

G. F. Watts, The Happy Warrior

The Age Of A Dream

Imageries of dreams reveal a gracious age:
Black armour, falling lace, and altar lights at morn.
The courtesy of Saints, their gentleness and scorn,
Lights on an earth more fair, than shone from Plato's page:
The courtesy of knights, fair calm and sacred rage:
The courtesy of love, sorrow for love's sake borne.
Vanished, those high conceits! Desolate and forlorn,
We hunger against hope for that lost heritage.

Gone now, the carven work! Ruined, the golden shrine!
No more the glorious organs pour their voice divine;
No more rich frankincense drifts through the Holy Place:
Now from the broken tower, what solemn bell still tolls,
Mourning what piteous death? Answer, O saddened souls!
Who mourn the death of beauty and the death of grace.

J. W. Waterhouse, The Missal

This little piece of wistful medievalism is by Lionel Johnson (1867-1902).  Johnson is a largely forgotten poet now, and his biggest claim to fame - such as it is! - is that he was the one who first introduced Lord Alfred Douglas, his friend at school and university, to Oscar Wilde.  So that's one legacy to literary history; a more substantial one is that he wrote the first critical study of Thomas Hardy's novels, published in 1894, before Hardy had quite finished writing them.  'The Age of A Dream' begins to make sense when we read that Johnson's DNB entry describes his time at Oxford thus:
Oxford reinforced his love of tradition, and, although one finds him beginning to associate not so much with the living as with those who enliven the literary gathering of his imagination, he was not yet the recluse of his later years.
Those later years were unhappy ones: he became an alcoholic, living alone in London, and died at the age of only 35.  The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia entry (he converted to Catholicism in 1891) describes him as follows:

He was a small, frail, young-looking man, with a fine head and brow, quick of foot, gentle of voice, and with manners of grave courtesy. He greatly loved his friends in a markedly spiritual way, always praying for them, absent or present. His sound Catholic principles, his profound scholarship, his artistic sensitiveness, his play of wisdom and humor, his absolute literary honour, with its "passion for perfection" from the first, show nobly in his prose work.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Some St Josephs

St Joseph has always been a popular saint, and in the past I've posted various songs and carols, from the medieval period and later, which tell his story: 'Marvel not, Joseph', 'Righteous Joseph', and 'Joseph being an aged man truly'. But today we will forsake words and music for pretty pictures, in other words, depictions of St Joseph in medieval manuscripts.

As you might expect, there are many, many medieval depictions of St Joseph at various points throughout his life. Chronologically speaking, he first appears at his marriage to Mary, shown here in a fifteenth-century French Book of Hours (Yates Thompson 3, f. 37):


The story of Mary and Joseph's marriage is not in the Gospels, but there are abundant apocryphal tales about it - wikipedia summarises them nicely.  The choice of Joseph as Mary's husband came about in this way: the law said that when Mary reached the age of 14 she had to marry, so the high priest gathered together the male descendants of King David and had them bring rods to the temple.  If one of their rods miraculously burst into flower, that man would be Mary's chosen husband.  And so it happened - I think you can see a flowering rod in Joseph's hand in the picture above (the original is very small, so it's not entirely clear).


The marriage of Mary and Joseph forms part of the mystery play cycles, one example of which you can read here - it's utterly delightful. As this story tells it, neither Mary nor Joseph wants to get married at all - Mary having committed herself to virginity, and Joseph believing himself too old - but Mary agrees to submit to the law, and Joseph is badgered by his relatives into bringing his rod to the temple, complaining all the way about how old and feeble he is.  When the priest declares the miracle of the blossoming rod, Joseph is not impressed:

EPISCOPUS Ah, gracious God in heaven's throne,
Right wonderful thy works be!
Here may we see a marvel one —
A dead stock beareth flowers free!
Joseph, in heart without moan,
Thou mayst be blithe with game and glee!
A maid to wed thou must gone [take]
By this miracle I do well see —
Mary is her name.

JOSEPH What, should I wed? God forbid!
I am an old man, so God me speed!
And with a wife now to live in dread,
It were neither sport nor game.

EPISCOPUS Against God, Joseph, thou mayst not strive!
God wills that thou a wife shouldst have.
This fair maid shall be thy wife —
She is buxum and white as lave. [humble and white as bread]

JOSEPH Ah, should I have her? Ye destroy my life!
Alas, dear God, should I now rave?
An old man may never thrive
With a young wife, so God me save!
Nay, nay, sir, let be!
Should I now in age begin to dote?
If I her chide, she would clout my cote,
Blear my eye and pick out a mote, [nag at me]
And thus oftentimes it is seen.

EPISCOPUS Joseph, now as I thee say,
God hath assigned her to thee.
What God will have done, say thou not nay!
Our Lord God wills that it so be.

JOSEPH Against my God not do I may.

The old man/young wife thing is a common source of humour in medieval literature (think of the Miller's Tale!). Having agreed to it, Joseph and Mary are wedded - with vows whose language you may recognise:

EPISCOPUS Say then after me: “Here I take thee, Mary, to wife;
To have, to hold, as God his will with us will make;
And as long as between us lasteth our life,
To love you as myself, my troth I you betake.”
Mary, will ye have this man,
And him to keep as your life?

MARIA In the tenderest wise, father, as I can,
And with all my wits five.

EPISCOPUS Joseph, with this ring now wed thy wife,
And by her hand now thou her take.

JOSEPH Sir, with this ring, I wed her ryff [at once]
And take here now her for my make. [mate]


Having taken Mary 'to have and to hold', Joseph finds a 'little pretty house' for them to live in.  We all know what happened next; and here's Joseph thinking it all over:


'Marvel not, Joseph, at Mary mild;
Forsake her not, though she be with child...'

Moving on to Nativity scenes, of which there are of course a huge number, here are two of my favourites: first, Joseph adjusting Mary's pillow (Royal 1 D X, f.1v):


And here with an impressive beard, not daunted by the doe-eyed fauna above him (Harley 928, f.3v):


Then another angel tells Joseph to flee into Egypt (Yates Thompson 13, f.95):


Here, both angel and flight are shown in one swift scene (Harley 7026, f.7):


Here, Joseph takes off his night-cap and picks up a bundle (Lansdowne 420, f.9):


There are 'Flight into Egypt' traditional carols too, based on the Infancy narratives - here's a good one, where Herod's men are thwarted by Christ miraculously making a farmer's crop to ripen on the day it was sown, so that the farmer can honestly tell the pursuers "He passed this way when my seeds were being sown!".  Herod's men think that must have been at least three quarters of a year ago, and so give up the pursuit. A handy trick.

Later, Joseph appears in scenes of the Presentation in the Temple, usually carrying his bag of three little birds, and often a candle too (Stowe 12, f.242v):


With a hat, gargoyles and a particularly realistic baby Christ (Royal 2 B VII):


And to close with another from the same manuscript, here an aged Joseph and Mary watch in apprehension as the child Christ, mounted on a little stool, disputes with the doctors in the Temple:


Poor St Joseph; his was not an easy task...

Monday, 18 March 2013

'There is no defence against that arrow, nor any deliverance in that war, nor any safeguard from that charm'

Some Thomas Traherne, from Centuries of Meditations, 1:71-2.


God loved thee with an infinite love, and became by doing so thine infinite treasure. Thou art the end unto whom He liveth. For all the lines of His works and counsels end in thee, and in thy advancement. Wilt not thou become to Him an infinite treasure, by loving Him according to His desert? It is impossible but to love Him that loveth. Love is so amiable that it is irresistible. There is no defence against that arrow, nor any deliverance in that war, nor any safeguard from that charm. Wilt thou not live unto Him? Thou must of necessity live unto something. And what so glorious as His infinite Love? Since therefore, laws are requisite to lead thee, what laws can thy soul desire, than those that guide thee in the most amiable paths to the highest end? By Love alone is God enjoyed, by Love alone delighted in, by Love alone approached or admired. His Nature requires Love, thy nature requires Love. The law of Nature commands thee to Love Him: the Law of His nature, and the Law of thine.

There is in love two strange perfections, that make it infinite in Goodness. It is infinitely diligent in doing good, and it infinitely delighteth in that Goodness. It taketh no pleasure comparable in anything to that it taketh in exalting and blessing. And therefore hath it made thee a comprehension infinite to see all ages, and an affection endless to love all Kingdoms, and a power fathomless to enjoy all Angels. And a thirst insatiable to desire and delight in them. And a never-wearied faculty all-sufficient to love, number, take in, prize, and esteem all the varieties of creatures and their excellencies in all worlds, that thou mayest enjoy them in communion with Him. It is all obligation, that He requires it. What life wouldst thou lead? Wouldst thou love God alone? God alone cannot be beloved. He cannot be loved with a finite love, because He is infinite. Were He beloved alone, His love would be limited. He must be loved in all with an unlimited love, even in all His doings, in all His friends, in all His creatures. Everywhere in all things thou must meet His love. And this the Law of Nature commands. And it is thy glory that thou art fitted for it. His love unto thee is the law and measure of thine unto Him: His love unto all others the law and obligation of thine unto all.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Reaping in Joy

I'm afraid blogging here has been a little slow lately, but I'm hoping that will change over the next few weeks: Passiontide calls to mind an endless stream of wonderful poetry, and I've also been visiting some beautiful places I intend to post about. But in the meantime, since I don't have anything in particular to say, let me share a few pieces of music which I've encountered today.  This morning, in the snow, I went to Christ Church Cathedral. The music was Vaughan Williams' Mass in G Minor (and this is the choir of Christ Church singing it):



And the simple, yet extraordinarily beautiful 'O taste and see', also by Vaughan Williams:



And unexpectedly, and best of all, Henry Purcell's 'Hear my prayer':



I have a very great fondness for this piece because it features at the end of my favourite film of all time, Powell and Pressburger's 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, which is set in the lanes and villages around Canterbury and which begins like this. How could you not love a film which begins with Chaucerian pilgrims?  But the pilgrims in this film are from the twentieth century, brought to Kent by the war: a British soldier, about to be sent overseas, a land-girl mourning the loss of her fiance, and a homesick American GI.  They all unexpectedly find themselves to be pilgrims in search of blessings, and at Canterbury they each find (spoiler alert!) the different miracles they've been searching for.  My favourite character is the British soldier, a cynical young man who trained as a church organist but has given it up to play in a cinema, and with it given up his idealism and faith in anything greater than himself. The most bitter and sardonic of the three, he doesn't believe himself in need of a blessing; but he walks into Canterbury Cathedral at the end of the film, amid the weird, unearthly sounds of choirboys singing 'Hear my prayer', and meets the cathedral organist... and from that moment all his cynicism begins to fall away.

I could talk about A Canterbury Tale all day, but this excellent article really says it better than I could.  Do watch the speech in this clip, though; it encapsulates everything most lovable about this film, and its use of Chaucer, Canterbury and pilgrimage.

As I said, this morning it was snowing heavily - it took everyone by surprise, even the Met Office.  This was Christ Church in the snow, with a flock of black-clad choristers hurrying back to the warmth:


But by this evening, after a day of rain, the sun came out and all the snow was gone as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had arrived.  When it melted, it left puddles and streams everywhere, which seemed particularly appropriate, because the last piece of the musical puzzle from this morning was Psalm 126:

1 When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion : then were we like unto them that dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter : and our tongue with joy.
3 Then said they among the heathen : The Lord hath done great things for them.
4 Yea, the Lord hath done great things for us already : whereof we rejoice.
5 Turn our captivity, O Lord : as the rivers in the south.
6 They that sow in tears : shall reap in joy.
7 He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed : shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him.



And when I hear this psalm I always think of Richard Rolle's interpretation of verse 5:

'That is, as the south wind blowing causes the frozen rivers to be released and to run, so by the Holy Ghost blowing in us we are released from sin, and we run towards heaven; and all our captivity, wherein we were kept captive under the devil, he turns into joy.'

Thursday, 14 March 2013

'Our weary limbs refreshed now with rest'

A man wakes and greets the sun, from the beginning of Prime in a 13th-century 
English Book of Hours, BL Egerton 1151

Our weary limbs refreshed now with rest,
After our sleep we wake and up arise.
Our sluggish bed no longer be our nest;
We dress us, Lord, as we can best devise,
Singing devoutly hymns of service,
Beseeching thee always be us among,
Who now praise thee most heartily in song.

Our tongue praise thee, good Lord, principally,
And in thy laud most joyously resound.
Our heart and our mind, our spirit worldly,
With ardent will thee clasp and envirowne [embrace]
So that no sin may throw our souls down;
All our acts which yet are following, [are still to come]
Begin thou, Lord, and bring to good ending.

Darkness of sin and all obscurity
Give place to light, that it may clearly shine.
The day coming, the night must needs flee;
Suffer no blame our hearts to undermine,
Illumine us, Lord, with light of grace divine,
Removing sin that stole on us by night,
And guide us, Lord, by clearness of thy light.

We pray thee and beseech thee humbly
With heart and will and our sufficans, [ability]
Our sins all to wash away and wrie [cast out]
And grant us be so perfect in creaunce [belief]
That we may thee praise and do thy pleasance [will]
And perfectly give thee laud and praising
With hymns all that we may read or sing.

This is a fifteenth-century English translation of the Office morning hymn 'Somno refectis artubus', from a collection of hymn translations in the manuscript British Library, Additional 34193.  It's a delightful translation - my favourite line is 'our sluggish bed no longer be our nest'!


Here's the text in the original spelling, which I got from Frank Allen Patterson, 'Hymnal from MS. Additional 34193 British Museum', Medieval Studies in Memory of Gertrude Schoepperle Loomis (New York, 1927), pp.443-488:

Owr wery lymes refreschyd now with rest,
Afftyr our slepe we wak and up a rysse;
Owr sluggisshe bed no lengar be owr nest;
We dresse vs, lord, as we can best devise,
Synggyng deyvowtly hympnes off seruice,
Besesechyng þe all wey ben vs a monge,
That preysyne the most hertyly with songe.

Owr twnge the preysse, god lord, principally,
And in thy lawd most noyously reysown;
Owr hert and owr mynd, owr speryt in wordly,
Wyth ardaunt wyll the clype and envirowne
So þat no synne supprise owr sowlys downe;
Owr actes all that yet ben folowyng,
Begynne thow, lord, and bryng to gud endyng.

Darknes of synne and all obscurite,
Yeve place to lyght þat hyt mey clerly shynne;
The dey commyng, þe nyght most nedes flee;
Suffyr no blame owr hertes vndyr myne,
Illumyne vs, lord, with lyght of grace dyvyne,
Reymevyng synne þat stale one vs be nyght,
And gyd vs, loord, be clerness off þi lyght.

We prey the and besechen hvmbylly
Wyth hert and wyll And owr sufficans,
Owr synnes all to wasshe Awey and wrie
And grawnt vs be so perfyt of creaunce,
We mey the preysse and do thy pleasance
And perfytly yeve the lavd and preysyng
Wythe ympnes all þat we mey rede or synge.