Tuesday, 31 December 2013

'Make we merry as we may!'

Feasting in January (BL Royal 2 B VII, f. 71v)

A boisterous, rollicking medieval carol for the New Year.

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

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

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

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

Whosoever makes heavy chere, [is solemn and mopey]
Were he never to me so dear,
In a ditch I would he were
To dry his clothes till it were day!

Mend the fire and make good cheer!
Fill the cup, Sir Butler!
Let every man drink to his fere! [companion]
Thus ends my carol: with care away!

Janus drinking, from a calendar for January (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 1)

This carol comes from British Library Additional 14997, a manuscript which contains poems, charms and medical recipes in Welsh, English and Latin. This carol bears the very precise date '1500'; it's been set to music by John Rutter, and you can listen to his arrangement here. The unmodernised version is:

Hay, ay, hay, ay,
Make we mere as we may!

Now ys Yole comyn with gentyll chere;
Of merthe and gomyn he has no pere,
In euery londe where he comys nere
Is merthe and gomyn, I dar wel say.

Now ys comyn a messyngere
Of yore lorde, Ser Nu Yere,
Byddes us all be mere here
And make us mere as we may.

Therefore euery mon that ys here
Synge a caroll on hys manere;
Yf he con non we schall hym lere
So that we be mere allway.

Whosoeuer makes heve chere
Were he neuer to me dere,
In a dyche I wolde he were
To dry hys clothys tyll hyt were day!

Mende the fyre and make gud chere!
Fyll the cuppe, ser boteler!
Let euery mon drynke to hys fere!
Thys endes my carol with care away.

'Care away!' Good advice. As a more famous medieval carol enjoins, 'be merry and glad this good New Year'! (It's from this manuscript, and the unmodernised text can be found here.)

What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year.


'Lift up your hearts and be glad
In Christ's birth,' the angel bade;
Say each to other, if any be sad:
What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year.

Now the king of heaven his birth hath take,
Joy and mirth we ought to make.
Say each to other, for his sake:
What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year.

I tell you all with heart so free,
Right welcome ye be to me.
Be glad and merry for charity.
What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year.

The goodman of this place in fere [company]
You to be merry he prayeth you here;
And with good heart he doth to you say:
What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year.


Sunday, 29 December 2013

St Thomas Becket, 'Holy Thomas of heoueriche'

Thomas Becket at Nackington, Kent

Archbishop Thomas Becket, murdered before his altar in Canterbury Cathedral late in the winter afternoon of 29 December 1170, quickly became one of the most popular saints in medieval England. He was not the first archbishop of Canterbury to die by violence, nor would he be the last, but unlike St Alphege, martyred after long captivity in a Viking camp amidst the Greenwich marshes, or Simon Sudbury, killed by an angry mob on Tower Hill, Thomas died within his own church, in the middle of Vespers, and his sudden and dramatic death captured the imagination. There are a number of ways of measuring a saint's popularity, and along with the speed of his canonisation (just two years after his death), the proliferation of depictions of his martyrdom, and the evidence of the many pilgrims like Chaucer's who 'from every shires ende / Of Engelond to Caunterbury... wende, the hooly blisful martir for to seke', we can see tokens of St Thomas' impact in the number of surviving vernacular poems about him. I've previously posted four different songs about St Thomas:

'Listeneth, lordings, both great and small, I shall you tell a wonder tale'
 
'Saint Thomas honour we, through whose blood Holy Church is made free'

'I pray you, sirs, all in fere, worship St Thomas, this holy martyr'

'As stories write and specify'

But there are still more, and today I'll post two of them. They are especially to be treasured, because memorials of Thomas Becket were targeted for suppression at the Reformation, as this British Library blogpost explains; everything we have of Thomas Becket in art or in song has survived against the odds.

The murder of St Thomas

So this is 'Clangat tuba, martir Thoma':

Clangat tuba, martir Thoma,
ut libera sit Cristi vinea.

Oute of the chaffe was pured this corn
And else the church had ben forlorne;
To Godes grange now were thow borne,
O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma.

In London was bore this martir sothely;
Of Caunterbury hadde he primacy,
To whom we syng deuotely:
O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma, O martir Thoma.

This means:

Let the trumpet resound, Thomas the martyr,
so that the vine of Christ may be free.

Out of the chaff was sifted this corn
And else the church had been forlorn;
To God's grange now wert thou borne, [i.e. carried]
O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas.

In London was born this martyr, truly;
He held the primacy of Canterbury,
To whom we sing devoutly:
O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas, O martyr Thomas.

The song appears in the late fifteenth-century Ritson Manuscript, BL Additional 5665, together with a large number of other English carols and songs (there's a list here). The imagery of the wheat and the chaff which occurs in this song echoes the Sarum liturgy for St Thomas' Day, which describes Thomas' murder in these terms: 'sic itaque granum frumenti oppresit palea' ('thus the chaff overwhelms the grain of the fields') and 'iacet granum oppressum palea' ('the grain lies overwhelmed by the chaff'; for the medieval liturgies in honour of St Thomas, see this book). But the song proclaims that the grain will be sifted from the chaff, and will spring up to glory, when carried to God's 'grange' (that is, granary). The imagery is developed still further in the song 'Saint Thomas honour we', which contains the lines:

The corn is cast down, the chaff lies low:
The king in his ost is overthrown:
The tiller on the ground his brayn hath sown;
As Christ said to him at Pontigny,
'My church with thy blood hallowed shall be.'


There is wordplay here on the word 'brayn', which refers both to grain (like bran) and to the fact (which I vividly recall learning on a primary-school trip to Canterbury Cathedral!) that Thomas' brains were scattered across the ground by his murderers. 'Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.'


Just because I like it, this is 'Saint Thomas honour we' (words here):



An earlier poem about St Thomas survives in a manuscript of the second half of the thirteenth century (Jesus College Oxford MS. 29).

Haly thomas of heoueriche
alle apostles eueliche,
þe martyrs þe vnderstone
godfullyche in heore honde.
Selcuþ dude vre dryhtin,
þat he water wende to win;
þu ert help in engelaunde
vre stephne vnderstonde.
þu ert froure among monkunne,
help vs nv of vre sunne. Amen.

This series of rhyming couplets is older than the other poems by more than a century, and the language is noticeably more archaic; words like dryhtin 'Lord', selcuþ 'miracle' and froure 'comfort' belong to the traditional diction of Old English religious writing, which survived the Norman Conquest but was not to survive into Modern English. This would be my rendering:

Holy Thomas of the heavenly kingdom,
equal to all the apostles,
the martyrs receive thee
graciously in their hands.
Our Lord performed a miracle,
when he turned water to wine.
Thou art our help in England,
hear our prayers.
Thou art comforter among mankind,
help us now from our sins. Amen.


Here's the fifteenth-century carol 'Listeneth, lordings' (unmodernised text here):

A, a, a, a,
Now the Church rejoices.


Listen, lords, both great and small,
I shall you tell a wondrous tale,
How Holy Church was brought in bale [into sorrow]
By a great wrong.

The greatest cleric in all this land,
Of Canterbury, you understand,
Slain he was with wicked hand,
By the power of the devil.

Knights came from Henry the king,
Wicked men, without lying;
There they did a terrible thing,
Raging in madness.

They sought for him all about,
Within the palace and without;
Of Jesu Christ had they no thought
In their wickedness.

They opened their mouths very wide:
To Thomas they spoke in their great pride,
'Here, traitor, thou shalt abide,
To suffer the pain of death.

Thomas answered with mild chere, [in a meek manner]
'If ye will me slay in this manner,
Let them go, all those who are here,
Without injury.'

Before his altar he kneeled down;
There they began to cut off his crown;
They stirred the brains up and down;
He hoped for the joys of heaven.

The tormentors began their work;
With deadly wounds they began to hurt.
Thomas died in Mother Church
Attaining to heaven.

Mothers, clerics, widows and wives,
Worship Thomas all your lives;
For 52 points he lost his life,
Against the king's counsels.


This afternoon I'll be attending Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral in commemoration of St Thomas and of the service of Vespers which was so violently interrupted by the four knights acting in the name of Henry II. Every year the events of this fateful evening are liturgically re-enacted. It's a particularly dramatic service: it begins in the lighted choir, in the presence of the current Archbishop, and the opening of Vespers is sung in plainchant. Then it is interrupted, as on the day of Thomas' death, by a crashing on the doors. Bearing lighted candles, the clerics, choir and congregation process, as Thomas fled, to the site of his martyrdom below, and pause for a moment. Then all move into the crypt, where his body was taken, and the service concludes with joyful polyphony in honour of the martyr, still by candlelight. A few years ago I took some photographs of the darkened cathedral after this service, which you can see here. On this occasion the cathedral is always crowded with people; who would have thought on that December evening in 1170, or when Henry VIII was doing his best to ensure Thomas was forgotten, that this would be possible?


Since I grew up near Canterbury I feel a personal interest in St Thomas, and I encounter him in many of the churches I visit in Kent. Here are a few pictures from my collection. Above is a medieval wall-painting of Thomas' murder from Brookland, Kent. and here's one of the earliest depictions of St Thomas, from Godmersham:


From an altarpiece at Elham, Kent:


And from Canterbury Cathedral:


A decapitated statue of St Thomas on the outside of the cathedral:


Pilgrims to St Thomas' shrine:


And the site of Thomas' tomb, destroyed at the Reformation, and now marked by a candle:

Friday, 27 December 2013

He said, 'Ba, bay', she said, 'Lullay'


This is an interesting fifteenth-century carol in a favourite genre of mine: the infant Christ tells his mother about his future life.

'Ah, my dear, ah, my dear Son,'
Said Mary, 'Ah, my dear;
Ah, my dear, ah, my dear Son,'
Said Mary, 'Ah, my dear;
Kiss thy mother, Jesu,
Kiss thy mother, Jesu,
With a laughing cheer.’ [a happy, smiling face]

1. This endris night, [the other night]
About midnight,
As I lay down to sleep,
I heard a may [maid]
Sing lullay;
For poverty she sore did weep.
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

2. Sore she sought,
But found she naught
To wrap her son Jesu from cold;
Joseph said, 'Belif, [indeed]
Sweet wife,
Tell me what ye would, [what you want]
Heartily I you pray.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

3. She said, 'Sweet spouse,
It seems grievous
My child should lie in hay,
Since he is king
And made all thing,
And now is poorest in array.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

4. 'Here he is
Who bears the prize
In all things he has wrought;
To wrap my bairn
For some clothes I yearn,
But get them I could not,
This Yule's Day.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

5. 'Mother dear,
Amend your cheer,'
Thus says her son Jesu her till; [to]
'Although I be
In poor degree,
It is my Father's will.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

6. 'A crown of thorn
For souls forlorn
Upon my head I must wear,
And to a tree
So nailed be,
That pains they will me dere; [cause me]
I must assay.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

7. 'The truest shall fall
Of the apostles all
Unto you, mother, alone to dwell;
While I call
From the fiend's thrall
Adam out of hell
To joy verray.' [truly]
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

8. She said, 'Sweet son,
When shall this be
That ye shall suffer all this woe?'
'Mother free,
All shall ye see
At thirty years and two;
It is no nay.' [there is no contradicting it]
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

9. 'Son, I you ask,
When shall you rise?
'Mother, verray,
Upon the third day
After Judas has me said contray.’ [spoken against me]
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

10. 'I shall up ascend
That ye may see,
To my Father's right hand,
In bliss to be,
And so shall ye,
To wear a crown garland
In bliss for ay.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

11. 'Sing me e'er
My mother dear,
With sweet voice, I you pray;
Weep no more,
Ye grieve me for
Your mourning in this way.
Sing or say lullay.’
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

The first line of this carol shows it to be related to other carols which present similar visions of the Virgin and Child; one begins 'This endris night I saw a sight, a star as bright as day', another 'This ender night I saw a sight, a maid a cradle keep'. It seems to have been a popular theme in the fifteenth century, and it's worth exploring why. Part of the appeal of this genre of carols lies in the intrinsic prettiness of the subject - a mother playing with her baby, singing to him, and fretting over whether he's warm enough (a reasonable concern for a baby born in a stable, but also probably something new mothers have been worrying about since the dawn of time!). The echoing of the baby's babble, 'ba ba', entwined with the mother's 'Lullay' and the refrain 'ah, my dear, ah, my dear son', produces a sound-picture which almost transcends language - a tender lullaby more like wordless crooning than a song.

But even if you are allergic to such prettiness, as I know some people are, there's something more serious in this carol and its related examples. When Joseph fails to comfort Mary as she weeps for their poverty, the baby speaks up to reassure her in a distinctly uncomforting way: he tells her of the sufferings he will undergo, the crown of thorns, the cross, and his eventual triumph. At this point, from a sweetly simple lullaby, the refrain becomes a jarring, disquieting contrast to the body of the text: how can a baby who still babbles 'ba, ba' speak these confident, articulate words? The repetition of the refrain keeps us circling back to this paradox, and it begins to change its meaning: as the poem goes on, and the truth is made known to her, Mary's 'ah, my dear son' becomes a lament, not a lullaby.

This kind of shifting in meaning and role reversal is central to this group of poems, and to their interest in knowledge, language and paradoxical relationships. The child who is comforted by his mother's singing becomes the comforter; from her worries about finding clothes to wrap him in, we move to his promise to crown her with a garland in heaven; in the 'a star as bright as day' variant, Mary addresses her child as 'my son, my brother, father dear'. Looking forward to the Crucifixion makes the contrasts deeply poignant, a literary equivalent of the deliberate parallel developed in late medieval art between the Pietà and the Nativity scene: a mother with her helpless child on her lap (as in the medieval reredos at Yarnton, or in this brutal poem).

Beyond these subtle explorations of the mystery of the Incarnation, there's a more general context of human experience, which is encapsulated in the two poems 'Lullay little child, rest thee a throwe' and 'Lullay, little child, why weepest thou so sore?' Both of these poems are addressed to a crying child, and reflect on the idea that the baby's cry, unknowingly, is a kind of lament for the sorrow that will come to the child as it grows up. The first poem is about Christ's sufferings, but the second is about any child - all of us. The idea of a Christ-child, God in a baby, is a great mystery, but every baby is a mystery - what do they think about, or feel, which they cannot express in words? What motivates their determined little actions? Each baby is a whole and unique person wrapped in a tiny, speechless body, like Christ's 'glorious, yet contracted light, wrapt in night's mantle', 'the Son of Almighty God, whom the heavens could not encompass, laid in a narrow manger'; and unlike the infant Christ, neither they nor their parents know what their fate will be.

The slightly later 'Quid petis, o fili' (words here), which is from the sixteenth century, draws on this tradition, including the baby's 'ba ba':



Below is the unmodernised text of British Library MS. Harley 2380 (a manuscript of medical recipes, with this one carol and a few other English poems), with the burden taken from another copy of the carol in BL Additional MS. 5465, where it has music set for three voices.

‘A, my dere, a, my dere Son,’
Seyd Mary, ‘A, my dere;
A, my dere, a, my dere Son’
Seyd Mary, ‘A, my dere;
Kys thy moder, Jhesu,
Kys thy moder, Jhesu,
With a lawghyng chere.’


1. This endres nyght,
About mydnyght,
As I me lay for to sclepe,
I hard a may
Syng lullay;
For powaret sor scow wrypt.
He sayd, ‘Ba, bay;’
Sco sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

2. Sar sco soght,
Bot fand sco nought
To hap hyre son Jhesu fro cold;
Josef sayd, ‘Belif,
Scuet wyfe,
Tell me wat ye wald,
Hartly I you pray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Scho sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

3. Scho sayd, ‘Scuett spows,
Me thynk greuus
[M]y child sud lig in hay,
S[ith] he is Kyng
And mayd al thyng,
And now is powrest in aray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba, bay;’
Scho sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

4. ‘Hire he is
That bers the prys
In all thyng that he as wrowght;
To hap my barn
Som clas I yarn,
Bot wat it I ne rowght,
This Yoles Day.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresche as ros in May.

5. ‘Modere dere,
Amend youre chere,’
Thus says hire son Jhesu hir till;
‘Al of I be
In poure degre,
It is my Fadirs will.’
And sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresche as ros in May.

6. ‘A crown o thorn
For sawllis lorn
Opon my hed me most ned were,
And till a tre
So nayled be,
Thare payns thay wyl me dere.
I mon asay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

7. ‘The trewght sal fal
Hout of the postill hall
Vnto you, modere, alloon to duell;
Qwyll I call
Fro the fends thrall
Adam out of hel
To joy verray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

8. Sco sayd, ‘Swett Son,
Wen sal this be
That ye sal suffire al this w[o]?’
Moder fre,
Al sal ye se
At xxx ye[re] and thuo;
It is no nay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

9. ‘Son, I yow ax,
Qwen sal you ris?
...
‘Moder, verray,
Apon the thyrd day
That Judas has me said contray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

10. ‘I sall vp steiien
That ye ma se,
Apon my Fader ryght hand,
In blis to be,
And so sal ye,
To were a croune garland
In blis for hay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as [ros] in [May].

11. ‘Syng me ere
My moder dere,
Wet souet uois, I you pray;
Wep no mor,
Ye gref me fo[r]
Your mour[n]ing this a way.
Sing ore say lullay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in M[ay].

Virgin and Child (BL Royal 1 D I, f. 272)

Thursday, 26 December 2013

'Sing we Yule til Candlemas'

The red-letter feasts of late December, in a 15th-century calendar (BL Royal 2 B XIV, f. 6v)

As a lover of carols, I'm much in favour of the medieval practice of celebrating Christmas to some degree all through the dark days of January, so today I thought I would post a carol which encourages us to keep singing throughout this season. It runs through not just the twelve days of Christmas but also the forty days of the Christmas season, all the way up to Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification, on February 2. It's a fifteenth-century carol (from Bodleian MS Eng. poet. e. I), and the unmodernised text can be found on this site, which also lists the various feasts mentioned: St Stephen on the 26th, St John on the 27th, the Holy Innocents on the 28th, St Thomas Becket on the 29th (check back soon for more carols about him!), the Circumcision of Christ on January 1st, Epiphany and Candlemas.

Make we mirth
For Christ's birth,
And sing we Yule til Candlemas.

1. The first day of Yule have we in mind,
How God was man born of our kind;
For he the bonds would unbind
Of all our sins and wickedness.

2. The second day we sing of Stephen,
Who stoned was and rose up even
To God whom he saw stand in heaven,
And crowned was for his prowess. [bravery]

3. The third day belongeth to Saint John,
Who was Christ's darling, dearer none,
To whom he entrusted, when he should gone, [when he had to die]
His mother dear for her cleanness. [purity]

4. The fourth day of the children young,
Whom Herod put to death with wrong;
Of Christ they could not tell with tongue,
But with their blood bore him witness.

5. The fifth day belongeth to Saint Thomas,
Who, like a strong pillar of brass,
Held up the church, and slain he was,
Because he stood with righteousness.

6. The eighth day Jesu took his name,
Who saved mankind from sin and shame,
And circumcised was, for no blame,
But as example of meekness.

7. The twelfth day offered to him kings three,
Gold, myrrh, and incense, these gifts free,
For God, and man, and king was he,
Thus worshipped they his worthiness.

8. On the fortieth day came Mary mild,
Unto the temple with her child,
To show herself clean, who never was defiled,
And therewith endeth Christmas.

There are several carols along these lines; last year I posted about 'Welcome Yule', so here's Charles Parry's setting of it (but fair warning - it's irresistibly catchy!):



St Stephen, whose feast is today, has a number of medieval songs about his life and death, including 'St Stephen, the first martyr', 'There was no deathe nor worldlie joie', and a pretty amazing ballad in BL Sloane 2593 ('St Stephen was a clerk'). In this version of the story Stephen is a servant in King Herod's hall who forsakes his master for Christ, at which the cooked bird on the table comes back to life and announces Christ's birth:

1. Saint Stephen was a clerk
In king Herod's hall,
And served him of bread and cloth
As ever king befall.

2. Stephen out of kitchen came
With boar's head in hand
He saw a star was fair and bright,
Over Bethlem stand.

3. He cast down the boar's head,
And went into the hall;
"I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thy works all.

4. "I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thy works all,
There is a child in Bethlem born,
Is better than we all."

5. "What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befall?
Lacketh thee either meat or drink,
In king Herod's hall?"

6. "Lacketh me neither meat nor drink
In king Herod's hall,
There is a child in Bethlem born,
Is better than we all."

7. "What aileth thee, Stephen,
Art thou mad, or begun to braid? [rave]
Lacketh thee either gold or fee,
Or any rich weeds?" [clothes]

8. "Lacketh me neither gold nor fee,
Nor none rich weeds,
There is a child in Bethlem born
Shall help us at our need."

9. "If this is all true, Stephen,
All so true, iwis,
This capon shall crow
That lieth here in my dish.

10. That word was not so soon said,
That word in the hall,
The capon crew, Christus natus est,
Among the lords all.

11. Rise up my tormentors,
By two, and all by one,
And lead Stephen out of town,
And stone him with stone.

12. Took they Stephen,
And stoned him in the way,
And therefore is his even
On Christ's own day.

So you see, if you want to keep singing until Candlemas there's no shortage of things to sing!

The martyrdom of St Stephen (BL Stowe 12, f. 20v)

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

'Hand by hand we shall us take'


Hand by hand we shall us take,
And joy and bliss shall we make,
For the devil of hell man hath forsake,
And God's Son is made our make.

A child is born amongst man,
And in that child was no wam; [sin]
That child is God, that child is man,
And in that child our life began.

Sinful man, be blithe and glad
For your marriage; thy peace is grad [proclaimed]
When Christ was born;
Come to Christ; thy peace is grad;
For thee was his blood shed,
Who were forlorn. [lost]

Sinful man, be blithe and bold,
For heaven is both bought and sold,
Every foot!
Come to Christ; thy peace is told,
For thee he gave a hundredfold
His life to bote. [to redeem you]


This is one of the earliest surviving English carols, dating to the mid-fourteenth century. It actually survives in the middle of a sermon preached by a Franciscan friar; friars, following their founder's example, often used vernacular song in their preaching. This anonymous friar's sermon was on the wedding-feast of the Lamb in Revelations, which perhaps made him think of dance-songs and carolling, and explains the reference to 'your marriage' in the second verse; Christ has come to be our 'make', which means both 'equal' and 'bridegroom'. This carol doesn't have the exuberant merriment of some of its later successors, but it is full of joy nonetheless.

The unmodernised version, from MS. Bodley 26 (via Richard Greene, The Early English Carols, p. 6):

Honnd by honnd we schulle ous take,
And joye and blisse schulle we make,
For the deuel of ele man haght forsake,
And Godes Sone ys maked oure make.

A child is boren amonges man,
And in that child was no wam;
That child ys God, that child is man,
And in that child oure life bygan.

Senful man, be blithe and glad:
For your mariage thy peys ys grad
Wan Crist was boren;
Com to Crist; thy peis ys grad;
For the was hys blod ysched,
That were forloren.

Senful man, be blithe and bold,
For euene ys bothe boght and sold,
Euereche fote.
Com to Crist; thy peys ys told,
For the he yahf a hondrefold
Hys lif to bote.

(BL Royal 2 B VII, f. 189)

'Be blithe and glad', indeed!  Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Three Christmas Readings

'It came to pass in those days...' (BL Royal 1 A XIV, f.86)

A little while ago I recorded readings of several passages from an Old English translation of the Gospels, and I thought today I might post the three short extracts which relate to Christmas. This translation dates from the end of the tenth century, the version known as the West Saxon Gospels. It's always a rewarding experience to read familiar texts in an unfamiliar language, so I hope you find these interesting - though the recordings aren't perfect, so please be forgiving of any mistakes!

First, the opening of the Gospel of John:



On frymðe wæs Word, and þæt Word wæs mid Gode, and God wæs þæt Word. Þæt wæs on fruman mid Gode. Ealle þing wæron geworhte ðurh hyne; and nan þing næs geworht butan him. Þæt wæs lif þe on him geworht wæs; and þæt lif wæs manna leoht. And þæt leoht lyht on ðystrum; and þystro þæt ne genamon.

Mann wæs fram Gode asend, þæs nama wæs Iohannes. Ðes com to gewitnesse, þæt he gewitnesse cyðde be ðam leohte, þæt ealle menn þurh hyne gelyfdon. Næs he leoht, ac þæt he gewitnesse forð bære be þam leohte. Soð leoht wæs þæt onlyht ælcne cumendne man on þisne middaneard. He wæs on middanearde, and middaneard wæs geworht þurh hine, and middaneard hine ne gecneow. To his agenum he com, and hig hyne ne underfengon. Soðlice swa hwylce swa hyne underfengon, he sealde him anweald þæt hi wæron Godes bearn, þam ðe gelyfað on his naman: ða ne synt acennede of blodum, ne of flæsces willan, ne of weres willan, ac hig synt of Gode acennede. And þæt Word wæs flæsc geworden, and eardode on us, and we gesawon hys wuldor, swylce acennedes wuldor of Fæder, þæt wæs ful mid gyfe and soðfæstnysse.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was that Word. It was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and nothing was made without him. That was life, which was created through him; and that life was the light of men. And the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, that all men through him might believe. He was not the light, but he bore witness to the light. That was the true light, which lightens every man who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world did not know him. To his own he came, and they did not receive him. Truly, as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God, to those who believe in his name; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but were born of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.


And the birth of Christ in Luke 2:1-7:



Soþlice on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam casere Augusto þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod. Þeos tomearcodnes wæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino. And ealle hig eodon, and syndrie ferdon on hyra ceastre. Þa ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareþ: on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides seo is genemned Beþleem (forþam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede), þæt he ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs, and wæs geeacnod. Soðlice wæs geworden, þa hi þar wæron, hire dagas wæron gefyllede þæt heo cende, and heo cende hyre frumcennedan sunu, and hine mid cildclaþum bewand, and hine on binne alede, forþam þe hig næfdon rum on cumena huse.
Truly it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. This tax was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went out, and each travelled to his own city. Then Joseph went from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be taxed with Mary, who was betrothed to him and was pregnant. Truly it happened that while they were there, her days were fulfilled that she should give birth. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Visit of the Shepherds (Luke 2: 8-20):


And hyrdas wæron on þam ylcan rice waciende: and nihtwæccan healdende ofer heora heorda. Þa stod drihtnes engel wiþ hig, and Godes beorhtnes him ymbelscean: and hi him mycelum ege adredon. And se engel him to cwæð: Nelle ge eow adrædan. Soþlice nu ic eow bodie mycelne gefean, se bið eallum folce. Forþam todæg eow ys hælend acenned, se is drihten Crist on Dauides ceastre. And þis tacen eow byð: Ge gemetað an cild hreglum bewunden, and on binne aled. And þa wæs færinga geworden mid þam engle mycelnes heofonlices werydes, God heriendra, and þus cweþendra: Gode sy wuldor on heahnesse and on eorðan sybb mannum godes willan. And hit wæs geworden þa ða englas to heofene ferdon, þa hyrdas him betwynan spræcon and cwædon: Utun faran to beþleem, and geseon þæt word þe geworden is þæt drihten us ætywde. And hig efstende comon, and gemetton Marian and Iosep and þæt cild on binne aled. Þa hi þæt gesawon þa oncneowon hig be þam worde þe him gesæd wæs be þam cilde. And ealle þa ðe gehyrdon wundredon be þam þe him þa hyrdas sædon. Maria geheold ealle þas word on hyre heortan smeagende. Þa gewendon ham þa hyrdas, God wuldriende and heriende on eallum þam ðe hi gehyrdon and gesawon, swa to him gecweden wæs.

And there were shepherds in the same country, awake, and keeping night-watch over their flocks. Then the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the brightness of God shone around them: and they were greatly afraid. And the angel said to them, Do not be afraid. Truly, I now bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For to you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign to you: you shall find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and thus saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will. And it came to pass, when the angels had gone away into heaven, the shepherds spoke to one another and said, Let us go to Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger. And when they had seen that, they understood the words which had been spoken to them about this child. And all those who heard it wondered at the things which the shepherds told them. Mary kept all these words in her heart, thinking about them. Then the shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was said to them.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Virgo Virginum, Eala wifa wynn


In medieval English usage this was the eighth and last of the O Antiphons, 'O Virgo virginum' (lines 71-103 of the Old English Advent lyrics).

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For before you there was none like you, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me?
What you behold is a divine mystery.

Eala wifa wynn geond wuldres þrym,
fæmne freolicast ofer ealne foldan sceat
þæs þe æfre sundbuend secgan hyrdon,
arece us þæt geryne þæt þe of roderum cwom,
hu þu eacnunge æfre onfenge
bearnes þurh gebyrde, ond þone gebedscipe
æfter monwisan mod ne cuðes.
Ne we soðlice swylc ne gefrugnan
in ærdagum æfre gelimpan,
þæt ðu in sundurgiefe swylce befenge,
ne we þære wyrde wenan þurfon
toweard in tide. Huru treow in þe
weorðlicu wunade, nu þu wuldres þrym
bosme gebære, ond no gebrosnad wearð
mægðhad se micla. Swa eal manna bearn
sorgum sawað, swa eft ripað,
cennað to cwealme. Cwæð sio eadge mæg
symle sigores full, sancta Maria:
"Hwæt is þeos wundrung þe ge wafiað,
ond geomrende gehþum mænað,
sunu Solimæ somod his dohtor?
Fricgað þurh fyrwet hu ic fæmnan had,
mund minne geheold, ond eac modor gewearð
mære meotudes suna. Forþan þæt monnum nis
cuð geryne, ac Crist onwrah
in Dauides dyrre mægan
þæt is Euan scyld eal forpynded,
wærgða aworpen, ond gewuldrad is
se heanra had. Hyht is onfangen
þæt nu bletsung mot bæm gemæne,
werum ond wifum, a to worulde forð
in þam uplican engla dreame
mid soðfæder symle wunian."

O joy of women, beyond the glory of heaven,
most noble virgin through all the corners of the earth
of whom sea-dwellers ever heard tell,
explain to us the mystery which came to you from the skies,
how you ever conceived a pregnancy,
the bearing of a baby, when you never knew
bed-companionship according to the ways of men.
Truly, we have not heard of such a thing
ever occurring in former days,
as that you, with special grace, conceived in this way,
nor should we ever expect that event
to occur again in time. Indeed, Truth in you
gloriously dwelt; now you the Glory of heaven
bore in your womb, and your great virginity
was not breached. Just as all the sons of men
sow in sorrow, so do they reap,
bearing children in pain. The blessed maid spoke,
forever full of triumph, holy Mary:
“What is this wondering which amazes you,
son and daughter of Salem, so that, mourning,
you bemoan your grief?
Curiously you ask how I kept my virginity,
held my wholeness, and also became the mother
of the glorious Ruler’s Son. But that mystery is not
made known to men, though Christ revealed
in David’s dear daughter
that the sin of Eve is entirely put aside,
the curse averted, and the humbler sex
is glorified. Hope is conceived,
so that blessing may now with both alike,
with men and women, ever throughout eternity
in the heavenly joy of the angels
with the Father of truth, always dwell.”

Like the antiphon, this poem is imagined as a dialogue between Mary and the women of Jerusalem, but although Mary addresses 'the son and daughter of Salem' the questioner who addresses her is all of 'us': arece us þæt geryne þæt þe of roderum cwom, 'explain to us the mystery which came to you from the skies'. We are 'sea-dwellers', a kenning for mankind which seems to refer to the idea of a sea-voyage as a metaphor for human life, an exile's journey through stormy seas to the firm land of the heavenly home - as in 'The Seafarer', or the end of Christ II:

Nu is þon gelicost swa we on laguflode
ofer cald wæter ceolum liðan
geond sidne sæ, sundhengestum,
flodwudu fergen. Is þæt frecne stream
yða ofermæta þe we her on lacað
geond þas wacan woruld, windge holmas
ofer deop gelad. Wæs se drohtað strong
ærþon we to londe geliden hæfdon
ofer hreone hrycg. þa us help bicwom,
þæt us to hælo hyþe gelædde,
godes gæstsunu, ond us giefe sealde
þæt we oncnawan magun ofer ceoles bord
hwær we sælan sceolon sundhengestas,
ealde yðmearas, ancrum fæste.

Now it is very much like this: as if we were sailing
in ships across cold water, over the sea-waves,
beyond the wide ocean in water-steeds
traversing the floods. The waters are perilous,
the waves immeasurable, amid which we journey here
through this frail world, the stormy oceans,
across the paths of the deep. Dangerous was the life
before we came to land
across the rough waves. Help came to us
that we might be led to a haven of healing,
God's Spirit-Son, and gave us grace
that we might find, by the ship's side,
where we could moor our water-steeds,
our ancient wave-horses securely anchored.

And Mary, for such mariners, is the star of the sea (Old English sæsteorra):

Sæsteorra heo is gecweden, forðan þe se steorra on niht gecyþeð scypliðendum mannum hwyder bið east and west, hwyder suð and norð. Swa þonne wearð þurh ða halgan fæmnan Sancta Marian gecyþed se rihte siðfæt to ðam ecan life þam ðe lange ær sæton on þeostrum and on deaþes scuan and on þam unstillum yðum þære sæ þises middaneardes.

'Sea-star she is called, because a star in the night shows to seafaring men where is east and west, where south and north. And just in this way through the holy maiden St Mary the right path to eternal life was shown to those who long had sat in darkness and in the shadow of death and among the troubled waves of the sea of this world.'

The first part of the poem marvels at the uniqueness of Mary, her difference from other women, but when Mary herself speaks in the second part she emphasises her kinship with all women: 'Christ revealed in David’s dear daughter that the sin of Eve is entirely put aside, the curse averted, and the humbler sex is glorified...' 'Hope is conceived' has just the same double meaning in Old English as in Modern English; the verb is onfon, which means 'to receive' but also 'to conceive a child'. There are a number of places in this poem where Christ is referred to by abstract nouns: he is the 'hope' which is conceived, the 'truth' and the 'glory of heaven' which dwelt in Mary, and the 'blessing' which will dwell with all men and women (werum ond wifum), for ever throughout eternity, in þam uplican engla dreame, 'on high in the joy of the angels'.


The images in this post are of an extraordinary Anglo-Saxon carving, the Wirksworth stone. This coffin lid, found in Wirksworth in Derbyshire and probably made in the seventh century, depicts the life of Christ, including the Annunciation (top) and Mary holding the Christ-child.

'The Time is All Run'

Virgin and Child (c. 1200, BL Royal 2 A XXII, f. 13v)

Today I thought I would revisit a beautiful Advent carol which has been running around my head recently. It has an unusual subject: Mary looking forward with joyful expectation, during her pregnancy, to the birth of her child. She imagines herself singing lullabies to the baby and playing with him, and then, later, hearing him teach the Gospel. She pictures a happy future for herself and her holy baby, but she can only see so far; she does not foresee his suffering, his death, or his resurrection. I don't know of any other carols on this theme, at least not spoken in the voice of the Virgin herself; more common are carols where the infant Christ tells his mother of the future that will befall him, to her surprise and distress (such as 'This endris night' or 'Sing now, mother'). Those are poignant and rather unearthly, but this is a homely, domestic, cheerful kind of scenario - really just a lovely subject all round.

There is a note in the fifteenth-century manuscript (Bodleian Eng. poet. e.1) which suggests this carol was written to fit the tune of a secular song called "Now must I sing". That song has not survived, but might possibly have been about a forsaken woman lamenting that she is pregnant, in which case this carol is a 'translation' of the theme to a joyful, religious context. For the opening, where the narrator wanders alone in the woods and overhears a woman speaking, compare this song of an earlier date.


Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Syng we with myrth:
Cryst is come wel
With us to dwell
By hys most noble byrth.


Under a tre
In sportyng me
Alone by a wod syd
I hard a mayd
That swetly sayd,
"I am with chyld this tyd.

Gracyusly
Conceyvyd have I
The Son of God so swete;
Hys gracyous wyll
I put me tyll
As moder hym to kepe.

Both nyght and day
I wyl hym pray
And her hys lawes taught,
And every dell
Hys trewe gospell
In hys apostles fraught.

Thys goostly case
Dooth me embrace
Withowt dyspyte or moke:
With my derlyng
'Lullay' to syng
And lovely hym to roke.

Withowt dystresse
In grete lyghtnesse
I am both nyght and day;
This hevenly fod
In hys chyldhod
Schal dayly with me play.

Soone must I syng
With rejoycyng
For the tym is all ronne
That I schal chyld
All undefyld
The kyng of hevens sonne."

Richard Greene, ed. A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), pp. 116-17.


A modernised version:

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell!
Sing we with mirth,
Christ is come well
With us to dwell,
By His most noble birth.

Under a tree,
In sporting me
Alone by a wood-side,
I heard a maid
Who sweetly said,
"I am with child this tide.

Graciously
Conceived have I
The Son of God so sweet;
His gracious will
I put me til, [into]
As mother him to keep.

Both night and day,
I will him pray,
And hear his laws be taught,
And every dell
His true gospel
In His apostles fraught. [every part of his true Gospel entrusted to his disciples]

This ghostly case [holy act]
Doth me embrace,
Without despite or mock,
With my darling,
Lullay to sing,
And lovingly him to rock.

Without distress,
In great lightness,
I am both night and day;
This heavenly fode, [infant]
In his childhood,
Shall daily with me play.

Soon must I sing,
With rejoicing,
For the time is all run,
That I shall child,
All undefiled,
The King of heaven's Son."

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell!
Sing we with mirth,

Christ is come well,

With us to dwell,

By His most noble birth.


Virgin and Child (Fordwich, Kent)

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Emmanuel, God mid us

Christ in majesty, BL Harley 76, f. 6

This is the Old English version of 'O Emmanuel' (lines 130-163 of the Advent lyrics).

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver,
the hope of the nations and their saviour,
come to save us, O Lord our God.


Eala gæsta god, hu þu gleawlice
mid noman ryhte nemned wære
Emmanuhel, swa hit engel gecwæð
ærest on Ebresc. þæt is eft gereht,
rume bi gerynum: "Nu is rodera weard,
God sylfa, mid us." Swa þæt gomele gefyrn
ealra cyninga cyning ond þone clænan eac
sacerd soðlice sægdon toweard,
swa se mæra iu, Melchisedech,
gleaw in gæste godþrym onwrah
eces alwaldan. Se wæs æ bringend,
lara lædend, þam longe his
hyhtan hidercyme, swa him gehaten wæs,
þætte sunu meotudes sylfa wolde
gefælsian foldan mægðe,
swylce grundas eac gæstes mægne
siþe gesecan. Nu hie softe þæs
bidon in bendum hwonne bearn godes
cwome to cearigum. Forþon cwædon swa,
suslum geslæhte: "Nu þu sylfa cum,
heofones heahcyning. Bring us hælolif,
werigum witeþeowum, wope forcymenum,
bitrum brynetearum. Is seo bot gelong
eal æt þe anum ...... oferþearfum.
Hæftas hygegeomre hider ...es;
ne læt þe behindan, þonne þu heonan cyrre,
mænigo þus micle, ac þu miltse on us
gecyð cynelice, Crist nergende,
wuldres æþeling, ne læt awyrgde ofer us
onwald agan. Læf us ecne gefean
wuldres þines, þæt þec weorðien,
weoroda wuldorcyning, þa þu geworhtes ær
hondum þinum. þu in heannissum
wunast wideferh mid waldend fæder."


O God of spirits, how wisely thou wast
with a rightful name named
Emmanuel, as the angel said
first in Hebrew. That is, interpreted
freely according to its hidden meaning: “Now the heavens' Guardian,
God himself, is with us.” So the men of ancient times
the King of all Kings and the pure
Priest also truly prophesied;
so the glorious Melchisedech of old,
wise in spirit, unveiled the divine majesty
of the eternal All-wielder. He was the bringer of law,
the leader-in of learning, to those who long
had hoped for his coming here, as it had been promised to them,
that the Son of the Lord himself would
purify the people of earth,
and by the strength of his spirit also would journey
to seek the depths. Now they patiently
waited in fetters for when the Son of God
would descend to the desolate. And so they spoke,
weakened by torments: “Come now thyself,
high King of heaven! Bring healing life to us,
weary slaves in prison, overcoming by weeping,
bitter briny tears. The cure for our great need
depends on thee, entirely and alone.
Seek out the sorrowful captives here,
do not leave behind so great a multitude
at thy return to the heavens, but show mercy to us
in kingly manner, Saviour Christ,
Prince of Glory; do not let the accursed ones
possess power over us! Leave to us the eternal joy
of thy glory, so that they may honour thee,
glorious King of hosts, whom once thou
fashioned with thy hands. Thou dwellest on high
for ever with the Ruler and Father.”


This is a substantial elaboration on the antiphon, but it grows from an awareness of that text's scriptural sources. When the title 'Emmanuel' appears in the Bible it comes accompanied by its interpretation, 'God with us', as for instance in St Joseph's dream in Matthew 1, which quotes Isaiah: "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." So an interpretative impulse goes along with this word, and the Old English poet, noting that the name is Hebrew (Ebresc), accordingly turns it into English: God mid us.

This leads to the prophets who spoke of Emmanuel, and all those who lived before Christ's coming. The poem falls precisely, although unobtrusively, into two halves: the exact half-way point, the hinge of the whole poem, falls in the middle of the line bidon in bendum hwonne bearn godes - 'waited in fetters for when the Son of God...'  Just as to a medieval Christian time was sharply divided into 'before' and 'after' Christ's entry into human history (hence the A. D. system of dating, popularised in Anglo-Saxon England by Bede), so the poem is divided into the time of prophecies and the time of their fulfilment, bisected by the moment 'when the Son of God would descend to the desolate'.

In the second half of the poem the prophets are given a voice, speaking for all humanity, and figured as fettered prisoners appealing to the king for clemency. The imagery and language is all of kingship and of law, building on the antiphon's 'rex et legifer', and the vocabulary is typical of Old English Christian poetry: rodera weard 'Guardian of the Heavens', cyninga cyning 'King of Kings', alwealda 'All-Ruler', heofones heahcyning 'heaven's High King'. Christ is the son and heir: sunu meotudes 'Son of the Ruler', bearn godes 'Son of God', and wuldres æþeling 'Prince of Glory'. 'Ætheling' is the ordinary Old English word for 'prince' (as applicable to the sons of King Æthelred as the Son of God); and so Christ is implored to show mercy cynelice, 'in kingly manner'.


The images in this post are from a lavish Gospel-book, made in the first half of the eleventh century, which belonged to the monastery of Bury St Edmunds.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Rex Gentium, Christ the Craftsman

Christ, angels and peoples (BL Harley 603, f. 60v)

This is the first of the antiphons in the Exeter Book (actually the very first poem in that precious manuscript), and the opening is lost. It comprises lines 1-17 of the Advent lyrics.

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti. 

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone who makes both one:
Come and save the human race
which you fashioned from clay.


...cyninge.
ðu eart se weallstan þe ða wyrhtan iu
wiðwurpon to weorce. Wel þe geriseð
þæt þu heafod sie healle mærre,
ond gesomnige side weallas
fæste gefoge, flint unbræcne,
þæt geond eorðb...g eall eagna gesihþe
wundrien to worlde wuldres ealdor.
Gesweotula nu þurh searocræft þin sylfes weorc,
soðfæst, sigorbeorht, ond sona forlæt
weall wið wealle. Nu is þam weorce þearf
þæt se cræftga cume ond se cyning sylfa,
ond þonne gebete, nu gebrosnad is,
hus under hrofe. He þæt hra gescop,
leomo læmena; nu sceal liffrea
þone wergan heap wraþum ahreddan,
earme from egsan, swa he oft dyde.


...the king.
Thou art the corner-stone which the builders long ago
rejected from the building. It is well-fitting for thee
that thou become the headstone of the glorious hall,
and bring together the wide walls
with bonds fixed fast, stone unbroken,
so that throughout the cities of earth the sight of all eyes
may marvel forever at the Lord of glory.
Reveal now through skillful craft thine own work,
steadfast in truth, victory-bright, and all at once leave
wall standing against wall. Now is it needful for this work
that the Craftsman come, and the King himself,
and mend what is now in ruins,
the house beneath its roof. He created that body,
the limbs made of clay; now shall the Lord of life
save the weary multitude from its enemies,
the wretched ones from terror, as he has often done.

'Work' here can be interpreted as both 'deed' and 'building-work', and that double meaning is at the heart of a poem full of subtle wordplay. The first few lines pick up the antiphon's allusion to Psalm 118, 'the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone', but from this point on the Anglo-Saxon poet develops the idea within the context of his own poetic tradition. It forms a remarkable counterpart to two of the best-known Old English poems, also contained in the Exeter Book, 'The Wanderer' and 'The Ruin': both describe the windswept ruins of a great city, walls standing battered by the elements, as a symbol of decay and destruction in the transient human world. This poem, rather beautifully, offers the opposite: Christ as the cornerstone of a firm-fixed wall, as the craftsman who will repair the ruin, and as the lord who will defend it from its enemies.

The hall is a central image of human society in Anglo-Saxon poetry; the classic statement of this idea is Bede's story of the sparrow, where the hall represents everything warm and good about human companionship and the world we know. But as the poem goes on it gradually becomes clear that the ruin to be repaired is not a hall, but the human body. The image of the body as a house is an ancient one, and here the body and the hall are merged into one; we are the 'building-work'. Christ is the heafod of this building - a word which means both 'head-stone' and 'head' in the literal and metaphorical senses. 'The house beneath its roof' is easily transferable to the body, when you remember that hrofe 'roof' could refer to the roof of the mouth or the ceiling of the sky; and also that in Old English feorhhus, 'spirit-house', is a kenning for the body. And hall and body both have 'limbs made of clay', in a lovely moment of ambiguity inspired by the antiphon, which says that man was formed de limo, 'of clay'. Latin limus is cognate with Old English lim, læmen - a building material, as in 'lime and mortar' - which also happens to sound like Old English leomu 'limbs'. So these are leomo læmena, 'limbs of lime', which both a body and a building might truly be said to have.

In the final lines we see Christ defending the hall he has built, like Beowulf keeping night-watch in Heorot while Grendel stalks the moors outside. The 'weary multitude' to be saved is a heap, which means a crowd, people, but also what modern 'heap' does: a pile, as of stones. When the Craftsman comes the human body, reduced to a pile of rubble, is to be built up again into a glorious and unassailable hall.


The images in this post are from an illustrated psalter produced at Canterbury early in the eleventh century. I chose the illustrations of Psalms 118 ('the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone') and 102 (angels rebuilding the city of Sion).

The Sonne

As a kind of follow-up to my post on 'O Oriens', and as appropriate for the Winter Solstice, this is George Herbert's 'The Sonne'. Metaphysical poets liked this particular felicity of the English language as much as their Anglo-Saxon forebears did.


Let forrain nations of their language boast,
What fine varietie each tongue affords:
I like our language, as our men and coast:
Who cannot dresse it well, want wit, not words.
How neatly doe we give one onely name
To parents issue and the sunnes bright starre!
A sonne is light and fruit; a fruitfull flame
Chasing the fathers dimnesse, carri’d farre
From the first man in th’ East, to fresh and new
Western discov’ries of posteritie.
So in one word our Lords humilitie
We turn upon him in a sense most true:
For what Christ once in humblenesse began,
We him in glorie call, The Sonne of Man.

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Oriens, O Earendel

The sun in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript (BL Arundel 60, f.12v)

This is the Old English version of the Advent antiphon 'O Oriens', addressed to Christ the Dayspring, the rising sun. For background on the Old English poems based on the O Antiphons, see this post.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.


O Dayspring, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended,
ond soðfæsta sunnan leoma,
torht ofer tunglas, þu tida gehwane
of sylfum þe symle inlihtes.
Swa þu, god of gode gearo acenned,
sunu soþan fæder, swegles in wuldre
butan anginne æfre wære,
swa þec nu for þearfum þin agen geweorc
bideð þurh byldo, þæt þu þa beorhtan us
sunnan onsende, ond þe sylf cyme
þæt ðu inleohte þa þe longe ær,
þrosme beþeahte ond in þeostrum her,
sæton sinneahtes; synnum bifealdne
deorc deaþes sceadu dreogan sceoldan.

Nu we hyhtfulle hælo gelyfað
þurh þæt word godes weorodum brungen,
þe on frymðe wæs fæder ælmihtigum
efenece mid god, ond nu eft gewearð
flæsc firena leas, þæt seo fæmne gebær
geomrum to geoce. God wæs mid us
gesewen butan synnum; somod eardedon
mihtig meotudes bearn ond se monnes sunu
geþwære on þeode. We þæs þonc magon
secgan sigedryhtne symle bi gewyrhtum,
þæs þe he hine sylfne us sendan wolde.


O Earendel, brightest of angels,
sent to mankind over middle-earth,
and righteous radiance of the sun,
splendid above all stars, of thine own self
thou ever enlightenest every age.
As thou, God born of God long ago,
Son of the true Father, eternally existed
without beginning in the glory of heaven,
so thine own creation cry with confidence
to thee now for their needs, that thou send
that bright sun to us, and come thyself
to lighten those who long have lived,
surrounded by shadows and darkness, here
in everlasting night; who, shrouded by sins,
have had to endure death's dark shadow.

Now, hope-filled, we look for healing,
brought to the world's people through the word of God,
who was in the beginning with the almighty Father
equally eternal with God, and now became
flesh, free of failings, born of the virgin,
a support to the sorrowful. God was with us,
seen without sin; together dwelt
the mighty Measurer's child and the son of man,
at peace among the people. We may ever address
our thanks to the Lord of victory for his deeds,
because he chose to send himself to us.

The antiphon 'O Oriens' falls on the winter solstice, the turning-point of the year. In the antiphon and in this poem, Christ is figured as the dawn and the returning sun, appearing in the time of greatest darkness, in the depth of the season the Anglo-Saxons called midwinter. In his De temporum ratione, Bede explains the traditional understanding of the relationship between the church year and the equinoxes and solstices:
very many of the Church’s teachers recount... that our Lord was conceived and suffered on the 8th kalends of April [25 March], at the spring equinox, and that he was born at the winter solstice on the 8th kalends of January [25 December]. And again, that the Lord’s blessed precursor and Baptist was conceived at the autumn equinox on the 8th kalends of October [24 September] and born at the summer solstice on the 8th kalends of July [24 June]. To this they add the explanation that it was fitting that the Creator of eternal light should be conceived and born along with the increase of temporal light, and that the herald of penance, who must decrease, should be engendered and born at a time when the light is diminishing.
Bede, The Reckoning of Time, trans. Faith Wallis (Liverpool, 2004), p. 87.

Bede himself thought the solstice should be more accurately dated a few days earlier than this, on 21 December, but he doesn't dispute the central point of the symbolism. It probably would not have occurred to him to do so: to a medieval scientist, the structure of the year reflected deep essential truths about the structure of the universe, ordained by God. That included every detail of the calendar: the four seasons, the twelve months, the equinoxes, solstices, and more. (Two of the most popular, though unhistorical, opinions about the solstice often expressed today - that the church 'stole' the solstice from the pagans, and therefore has no right to celebrate it, or that celebrating the solstice is something only pagans would do, and therefore unchristian - were both foreign to medieval science.) The birth of Christ is celebrated in midwinter, when light is lowest, because he is the rising sun, oriens.

And so, as you might expect, the Old English version of 'O Oriens' glows with words relating to light: beorht 'bright'; leoma 'a ray of light'; torht 'bright'; inlihten 'to enlighten'. The opposite is þrosm and þeostre 'shadows' and 'darkness', sinneaht 'perpetual night', and deorc deaþes sceadu 'death's dark shadow'. Christ is the sun in two senses, of course: he is both soðfæsta sunnan leoma 'radiance of the true sun' and sunu soþan fæder 'son of the true Father'. The poem gives us words for 'sun' (sunne) and 'stars' (tunglas) but the opening address seems to be to the name of a star: Earendel, paralleled in other Germanic languages as a star-name, and here apparently the Morning Star.

Tolkien came across this poem as an undergraduate at Oxford, around 1914, and it gave him the name 'Eärendil' which he was to use in his own mythology. Later in his life he wrote (through a fictional persona) of how encountering the first few lines of this poem produced "a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words." He called these lines "rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology", and explained his understanding of the name's appearance in this poem:

I was struck by the great beauty of this word (or name), entirely coherent with the normal style of A[nglo]-S[axon], but euphonic to a peculiar degree in that pleasing but not 'delectable' language. Also its form strongly suggests that it is in origin a proper name and not a common noun. This is borne out by the obviously related forms in other Germanic languages; from which amid the confusions and debasements of late traditions it at least seems certain that it belonged to astronomical-myth, and was the name of a star or star-group. To my mind the A-S uses seem plainly to indicate that it was a star presaging the dawn (at any rate in the English tradition): that is what we now call Venus: the morning-star as it may be seen rising brilliantly in the dawn, before the actual rising of the Sun. That is at any rate how I took it. Before 1914 I wrote a 'poem' upon Earendel who launched his ship like a bright spark from the havens of the Sun. I adopted him into my mythology - in which he became a prime figure as a mariner, and eventually as a herald star, and a sign of hope to men.

Tolkien's Eärendil became a herald, more akin to John the Baptist (light of the summer solstice) than to Christ (light of the winter solstice), although Christ is clearly the subject of the Old English poem. In The Lord of the Rings, when Sam and Frodo are trapped in the darkness of Shelob's lair, it is the light of Eärendil which comes to their aid:

[A]s he stood, darkness about him and a blackness of despair and anger in his heart, it seemed to him that he saw a light: a light in his mind, almost unbearably bright at first, as a sun-ray to the eyes of one long hidden in a windowless pit... 'Master, master!' cried Sam, and the life and urgency came back into his voice. 'The Lady's gift! The star-glass! A light to you in dark places, she said it was to be. The star-glass!'

'The star-glass?' muttered Frodo, as one answering out of sleep, hardly comprehending. 'Why yes! Why had I forgotten it? A light when all other lights go out! And now indeed light alone can help us.'

Slowly his hand went to his bosom, and slowly he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo's mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded from it until it seemed to shine in the centre of a globe of airy crystal, and the hand that held it sparkled with white fire.

Frodo gazed in wonder at this marvellous gift that he had so long carried, not guessing its full worth and potency. Seldom had he remembered it on the road, until they came to Morgul Vale, and never had he used it for fear of its revealing light. Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.

Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima means 'Hail Earendil, brightest of stars', and is, as Tolkien later put it, "derived at long remove" from the line of the Old English poem: Eala earendel, engla beorhtast. 'Another voice spoke through his' - the voice of an Anglo-Saxon poet.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Clavis David, Secrets and Songs

Christ in Majesty, the Virgin and St Peter (BL Stowe 944, f. 6, c.1030)

We are now in the last days of Advent, the season of the O Antiphons. These ancient antiphons, sung at Vespers in the week before Christmas, still attract a remarkable amount of attention today - and twelve hundred years ago they attracted one Anglo-Saxon poet, who turned them into a series of short poems in English. For the next few days I want to post the Old English poetic versions of the O Antiphons, which are much more than translations of the Latin texts: they are exquisite poetic meditations on the rich imagery of the antiphons, responding to them in subtle and creative ways. In translating them to post here I've been astonished anew by their beauty and interest, and I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I do.

They survive in a manuscript known as the Exeter Book, an anthology of English poetry on all kinds of themes and in all kinds of forms: elegies, saints' lives, riddles, wisdom poetry, philosophical reflections, laments, and many poems which resist classification. The O Antiphons are the first poems in the collection, and they were probably composed some time earlier than the date of the tenth-century manuscript, perhaps around the year 800. They are anonymous, though once attributed by scholars to Cynewulf, and they long suffered from being lumped together with the poems which follow them in the manuscript (which also concern Christ, so you will sometimes find them being called 'Christ I' or 'Christ A'). However, they deserve to be treated, and appreciated, separately and on their own terms, as a collection of individual poems linked by their common source in the O Antiphons.

Last year I posted one of them (O Oriens/O Earendel) but this year I'll post my translations of the antiphons for the next five days. In the manuscript there are twelve in total, some of which correspond to the Greater Antiphons, but the form of the collection as a whole is unique. The first three antiphons (O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse) do not appear, but this may be because the first few leaves of the manuscript are lost. The last four, however, are there: O Clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, and O Emmanuel, as well as an additional eighth antiphon used on December 23 in medieval English (and still in traditional Anglican) usage, O Virgo virginum. English practice therefore had the antiphons one day ahead. (The order in which they will appear here isn't that of the manuscript, as the antiphons are not in the order in which they are used liturgically; today's antiphon comprises lines 18-49 of the poem, which can be found complete here.)

So this is 'O Clavis David'.  Here's the antiphon, for comparison:

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
who opens, and no one can shut,
shuts, and no one can open:
come, and lead the captives from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.)


Eala, þu reccend ond þu riht cyning,
se þe locan healdeð, lif ontyneð,
eadga... upwegas, oþrum forwyrneð
wlitigan wilsiþes, gif his weorc ne deag.
Huru we for þearfe þas word sprecað,
ond m... ...giað þone þe mon gescop
þæt he ne ...ete... ...ceose weorðan
cearfulra þing, þe we in carcerne
sittað sorgende, sunnan wenað,
hwonne us liffrea leoht ontyne,
weorðe ussum mode to mundboran,
ond þæt tydre gewitt tire bewinde,
gedo usic þæs wyrðe, þe he to wuldre forlet,
þa we heanlice hweorfan sceoldan
to þis enge lond, eðle bescyrede.

Forþon secgan mæg, se ðe soð spriceð,
þæt he ahredde, þa forhwyrfed wæs,
frumcyn fira. Wæs seo fæmne geong,
mægð manes leas, þe he him to meder geceas;
þæt wæs geworden butan weres frigum,
þæt þurh bearnes gebyrd bryd eacen wearð.
Nænig efenlic þam, ær ne siþþan,
in worlde gewearð wifes gearnung;
þæt degol wæs, dryhtnes geryne.

Eal giofu gæstlic grundsceat geondspreot;
þær wisna fela wearð inlihted
lare longsume þurh lifes fruman
þe ær under hoðman biholen lægon,
witgena woðsong, þa se waldend cwom,
se þe reorda gehwæs ryne gemiclað
ðara þe geneahhe noman scyppendes
þurh horscne had hergan willað.


O thou Ruler and righteous King,
who guards the locks, who opens life
and the blessed way on high, and to others denies
the bright longed-for path, if their deeds have not earned it;
truly, we speak these words in need,
and entreat that he who made mankind…
[this next line is damaged]
…of sorrowful things, for we in prison
sit sorrowing, hoping for the sun,
for when the Lord of life will open light to us,
become for us a source of strength in spirit,
and enfold our feeble knowledge in splendour,
and make us worthy, that he may admit us to glory,
who have had to come, wretchedly,
into this constraining world, cut off from our homeland.

Therefore may he who speaks the truth say
that he saved us, who had been led astray,
the race of men. It was a young girl,
a maiden free from sin, whom he chose as his mother;
that was accomplished without the love of a man,
that the girl gave birth to a baby, became pregnant.
Nothing equal to this, before or since,
has ever in the world been a woman’s reward;
that was a secret, the Lord’s mystery.

Spiritual grace spread across the ground of all the earth;
there many things were given light,
long-standing lore, through the Lord of life,
which before had lain hidden in shadow,
the resounding song of the prophets, when the Ruler came,
he who magnifies the secret of every speech
of those who earnestly desire to praise the name
of the Creator in eager manner.


This poem takes its main inspiration from the final line of the antiphon: 'those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death'. Its interest is in light and darkness, and in the language of secrecy and hidden things - especially geryne, 'mystery'. (Not to make the Advent Lyrics all about Tolkien - since tomorrow is 'O Earendel' - but I particularly noted the line þæt degol wæs, dryhtnes geryne, 'that was a secret, the Lord's mystery', because degol is the origin of the name Déagol, who was secretly murdered by Sméagol.) The Key of David is to unlock not only the road to heaven, but the secrets concealed on earth. He will give us strength in mode, 'mind, spirit', and tydre gewitt tire bewinde, 'enfold our frail wits in splendour', as if limited human understanding is to be entirely wrapped and wound within limitless divine wisdom. Another Old English poem (Exodus), counselling on the interpretation of the scriptures, uses comparable language in its metaphor of the keys of the spirit:

Gif onlucan wile lifes wealhstod,
beorht in breostum, banhuses weard,
ginfæsten god gæstes cægon,
run bið gerecenod, ræd forð gæð.

If the interpreter of life, the guardian of the body, bright in heart, wishes to unlock ample benefits with the keys of the spirit, the mystery is explained and wisdom comes forth.

Our poet seems to imagine the Key of David working in a similar way.

What is unlocked by the Key is 'light', and in describing mankind as sunnan wenað, 'hoping for the sun', this lyric makes use of the Son/sun wordplay I mentioned recently - probably the earliest surviving example of the device in English poetry. This poem is about the opening of hidden knowledge, and appropriately for a poem, this opening is connected specifically to poetry itself, the bringing to light the truth of the witgena woðsong, 'the prophets' resounding song'. As King David is both prophet and psalm-singer, this takes us back to the opening of the antiphon. The final lines promise that reorda gehwæs ryne, 'the secret of every utterance' will be magnified, and this utterance, the poem itself, is surely included. Thus we, in reading the poem, are encouraged to finish in union with poets and prophets, as 'those who earnestly desire to praise the name of the Creator'.

Rejoicing in the heavenly city (Stowe 944, f. 7)

The images in this post are from the New Minster Liber Vitae, perhaps my favourite Anglo-Saxon manuscript, which was made in Winchester in c.1030.  The massive key in the pictures belongs to St Peter, but it seemed appropriate nevertheless.