Monday, 26 May 2014

St Augustine, Apostle of the English, Britain's day-star


Sein Austin bro3te Cristendom þus to Engelonde,
Wel a3te we is day holde 3if we were wel understonde.
His day is toward þe ende of May, for þulke day he wende
Out of þis live to Jesu Crist þat after him þo sende...
Nou bidde we 3erne Seint Austin þat to Cristendom us bro3te
þat we to þe joie come to wan oure Louerd us bo3te.

(St Augustine brought Christianity to England;
Well ought we to keep his feast-day, if we well understand.
His day falls towards the end of May, for on that day he journeyed
Out of this to life to Jesus Christ, who sent for him then...
Now let us pray gladly to St Augustine, who to Christendom us brought
That we may to that joy come to which our Lord us bought.]

May 26, as this Middle English Life of Seint Austin (in the South English Legendary) tells us, is the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury. St Augustine, 'apostle of the English', first archbishop of Canterbury, led the mission sent by Gregory the Great from Rome to convert the English, and died on 26 May in 604. In this post are some extracts from medieval texts dealing with St Augustine, from throughout the medieval period - just a small sample, illustrating the central place of Augustine's mission in the story of English Christianity.

Augustine landing in Thanet (from St Augustine's, Ramsgate)

It was Bede, of course, who established the narrative of St Augustine's mission from Rome as fundamental to the English church's understanding of its own history and identity, and the influence his telling of this origin story had on later medieval writers can hardly be overestimated. So it's with Bede that we must begin, in Book I of the Historia ecclesiastica (chapter 25):

Augustine, thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed Father Gregory, returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain. The powerful Ethelbert was at that time king of Kent; he had extended his dominions as far as the great river Humber, by which the Southern Saxons are divided from the Northern.

On the east of Kent is the large Isle of Thanet containing, according to the English way of reckoning, 600 families, divided from the other land by the river Wantsum, which is about three furlongs over, and fordable only in two places, for both ends of it run into the sea. In this island landed the servant of our Lord, Augustine, and his companions, being, as is reported, nearly forty men.

They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, taken interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Ethelbert, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.

The traditional site of St Augustine's landing, Pegwell Bay, Thanet

The king, having heard this, ordered them to stay in that island where they had landed, and that they should be furnished with all necessaries, till he should consider what to do with them. For he had before heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha; whom he had received from her parents, upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the Bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith.

Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.
Preaching to Ethelbert
When he had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present the word of life, the king answered thus: ­ "Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."

Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is reported that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah."
Processing to Canterbury
As soon as they entered the dwelling­-place assigned them they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church; applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.

There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, used to pray. In this they first began to meet, to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach, and to baptize, till the king, being converted to the faith, allowed them to preach openly, and build or repair churches in all places.
This is the church of St Martin, the oldest church in England still in use (for more images see this post).

When he, among the rest, induced by the unspotted life of these holy men, and their delightful promises, which, by many miracles, they proved to be most certain, believed and was baptized, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to associate themselves, by believing, to the unity of the church of Christ. Their conversion the king so far encouraged, as that he compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow­-citizens in the heavenly kingdom.

For he had learned from his instructors and leaders to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his preachers a settled residence in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of different kinds as were necessary for their subsistence.
When Augustine died in 604 he was buried in the monastery he had established in Canterbury, which became known by his name. For more on St Augustine's, its glorious history and evocative ruins, see this post.

Site of Augustine's tomb in the ruins of St Augustine's

More than two centuries after Bede, this is how the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric describes Augustine's arrival (in his sermon on St Gregory, which can be found here):

On ðam dagum rixode Æþelbyrht cyning on Cantwarebyrig riclice, and his rice wæs astreht fram ðære micclan ea Humbre oð suð sæ. Augustinus hæfde genumen wealhstodas of Francena rice, swa swa Gregorius him bebead, and he, ðurh ðæra wealhstoda muð, þam cyninge and his leode Godes word bodade: hu se mildheorta Hælend, mid his agenre ðrowunge, þysne scyldigan middaneard alysde, and geleaffullum mannum heofonan rices infær geopenode. Þa andwyrde se cyning Æðelbriht Augustine, and cwæð, þæt he fægere word and behat him cydde, and cwæð, þæt he ne mihte swa hrædlice þone ealdan gewunan ðe he mid Angelcynne heold forlætan; cwæð þæt he moste freolice ða heofonlican lare his leode bodian, and þæt he him and his geferan bigleofan ðenian wolde; and forgeaf him ða wununge on Cantwarebyrig, seo wæs ealles his rices heafod-burh.

Ongann ða Augustinus mid his munecum to geefenlæcenne þæra apostola lif, mid singalum gebedum and wæccan and fæstenum Gode ðeowigende, and lifes word þam ðe hi mihton bodigende, ealle middaneardlice ðing swa swa ælfremede forhogigende; ða þing ana þe hi to bigleofan behofedon underfonde, be ðam ðe hi tæhton sylfe lybbende, and for ðære soðfæstnysse ðe hi bodedon gearowe wæron ehtnysse to ðoligenne, and deaðe sweltan, gif hi ðorfton.

Hwæt ða gelyfdon forwel menige, and on Godes naman gefullode wurdon, wundrigende þære bilewitnysse heora unscæððigan lifes, and swetnysse heora heofonlican lare. Ða æt nextan gelustfullode ðam cyninge Æðelbrihte heora clæne lif and heora wynsume behat, þa soðlice wurdon mid manegum tacnum geseðde; and he ða gelyfende wearð gefullod, and micclum ða cristenan gearwurðode, and swa swa heofonlice ceaster-gewaran lufode: nolde swa-ðæh nænne to cristendome geneadian, forðan ðe he ofaxode æt ðam lareowum his hæle, þæt Cristes ðeowdom ne sceal beon geneadad, ac sylfwilles. Ongunnon ða dæghwomlice forwel menige efstan to gehyrenne ða halgan bodunge, and forleton heora hæðenscipe, and hi sylfe geðeoddon Cristes gelaðunge, on hine gelyfende…

Augustinus gesette æfter ðisum biscopas of his geferum gehwilcum burgum on Engla ðeode, and hi on Godes geleafan ðeonde ðurhwunodon oð ðisum dægðerlicum dæge.
This follows Bede so closely that I won't translate it (I just thought you might like to see the story in Old English!) but the final sentence here reads "After this, Augustine established from among his companions bishops over all the cities of the English people, and they have continued flourishing in the faith of God up to this present day". This sense of unbroken continuity is central to later interpretations of Augustine, as we shall see again.

Augustine establishing a church

Here's Augustine being given a starring role in the Old English poem known as the Menologium, where he is the only saint buried in Britain to be so honoured:

þætte drihten nam
in oðer leoht Augustinus,
bliðne on breostum, þæs þe he on Brytene her
eaðmode him eorlas funde
to godes willan, swa him se gleawa bebead
Gregorius. Ne hyrde ic guman a fyrn
ænigne ær æfre bringan
ofer sealtne mere selran lare,
bisceop bremran. Nu on Brytene rest
on Cantwarum cynestole neah,
mynstre mærum.

[On 26 May] the Lord took
into the other light Augustine,
joyful in heart, he who here in Britain
humbly brought men
to the will of God, as the wise one bid him,
Gregory. I never heard of such a man before,
of anyone who ever brought
such splendid teaching across the salt sea,
brilliant bishop! Now he rests in Britain,
in Kent, near the throne,
in the glorious monastery.

Goscelin's 'Translation of St Augustine' (BL Cotton Vespasian B XX, f. 95v)

The following is a hymn to St Augustine which may have been composed in Winchester in the late tenth or early eleventh century (text and translation from Hymns of the Anglo-Saxon Church, ed. Inge B. Milfull (Cambridge, 1996), pp.320-1):

Caelestis aule nobiles
mundique recti principis
concorditer ferant deo
laudum trophea precluo,

qui maxima clementia
genus humanum tartara
terendo vite reddidit
&, ut hanc sciret, indidit.

Apostolos nam colligit,
Gregorius de quis venit,
qui filium dat Anglicis
Augustinum fanaticis,

non de carnali semine,
sed spiritali vimine,
emisit, ut Cristi decus
conferret acris plebibus.

Quod ut perægit omnibus
deo iuvante nisibus,
vocatur ex tholis poli,
ut colletetur angelis.

Hinc te precamur, artifex
opime rerum, supplices,
ut huius ore militis
tuis tuum des servulis.

Sit glorie nitor patri,
sit filio lux & iugis,
sit procedenti flamini
ab his venustas luminis.

Let the nobles of the celestial court and of the true prince of the world offer unanimously praises in honour of his victory to the most glorious God,
who in his surpassing mercy brought the human race back to life and taught it to know that life, when he crushed Hell.
For he gathers apostles to himself. From these Gregory is descended, who gives his son Augustine to the idolatrous English;
he sent out his son, not by the seed of the flesh, but by spiritual growth, to bring the glory of Christ to fierce nations.
As soon as he has carried that out with all effort and with the help of God, he is summoned from the vaults of heaven to share there the joy of the angels.
Therefore we suppliants pray to you, excellent maker of created things, to give your humble servants what is yours according to the speech of this your soldier.
Glory and splendour be to the Father and perpetual light be to the Son. Glowing beauty be to the Spirit that proceeds from them.

Antiphon to Gregory and Augustine, from late 11th-century Canterbury (BL Egerton 874, f. 69v)

In the eleventh century and afterwards, various miracle-stories became attached to Augustine of a rather more colourful nature than the sober histories of Bede and his imitators. The most lively - yes, that seems the best word! - is told for us by the chronicler of the Middle English Brut (from here):

When Seynt Austyne come ferst into Engeland, he arryuede in þe Ile of Tenet, and so passede fourth, & come vnto Kaunterbery, and þere soiournede. And Kyng Adelbright of Kent, þat was of þe lynage of Engist, faire vnderfong seynt Austyn & his felowes wiþ michel honour, & ham fonde al þat ham nedede; & ferþermore he 3af ham a faire place þat now is callede þe Abbay of seynt Austynus, in whiche place he liþ himself shrinede. This Kyng Adelbright was a gode man, and wiþ godewel herde seynt Austynus predicaciouns, and 3af him leue to preche þrou3 al his lande of Kent, to tourne & to conuerte to him al þe peple þat he mi3t. Hit bifelle so afterwarde, þrou3 Goddes grace, þat in litel tyme þe kyng himself was conuertede to Gode, and all his peple of his lande was baptisede. And in the menewhile þat þe peple turnede ham to God, seynt Austyn come to Rochestre, and þere prechede Goddes worde. þe paynemys þerfor him scornede, and caste on him righe tailes, so þat al his mantel was hongede ful of righe tailes; and for more despite þai caste oppon him þe guttes of ryghe & of ffisshe; wherfore þe gode man seynt Austyn was sore agreuede, and prayede to God þat alle þe childerne þat shulde bene borne afterwarde in þat citee of Rouchestre moste haue tailes.

[When St Augustine first came to England he arrived in the Isle of Thanet, and from there passed on and came to Canterbury, and remained there. And King Ethelbert of Kent, who was of the lineage of Hengist, graciously received St Augustine and his companions with great honour, and supplied them with all that was necessary to them; and furthermore he gave them a noble place which is now called the Abbey of St Augustine's, in which place he himself lies enshrined. This King Ethelbert was a good man, and with good will heard St Augustine's preaching, and gave him leave to preach throughout his kingdom of Kent, and bring and convert to him all the people he could. It afterwards happened, by God's grace, that in a short time the king himself was converted to God, and all the people of his kingdom were baptised. And when the people were being converted to God, St Augustine came to Rochester, and there preached the word of God. The pagans scorned him for that, and threw ray-tails at him, so that his mantle was all hanging with ray-tails; and for even greater humiliation they threw on him the guts of rays and fish. And at that the good man St Augustine was very angry, and prayed to God that all the children who were to be born thereafter in the city of Rochester should have tails.]

And that's why the people of Rochester have tails! (In other sources the same story is told about Dorchester in Dorset, about Kent generally, or about all Englishmen; take your pick of calumnies...)

Augustine preaching (Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford)

Another miracle story attributed to Augustine appears in a late medieval poem attributed to Lydgate; it's too long to quote here, but it involves St Augustine exorcising a tithe-dodging ghost, and you can read it here. Let's instead close with the section of this poem which extols the glory of St Augustine, Britain's 'day-star':

I meene Austyn that was fro Rome sent,
By Seyn Gregory in to this regioun,
Graciously arryued up in Kent,
Famous in vertu, of gret perfeccioun;
His liff was lyk his predicacioun,
As he tauht, sothely so he wrouhte:
By his moost hooly conversacioun.
Into this lond the feith of Crist he brouhte.

Thoruh al the parties and provynces of the lond,
Of Cristis gospel he gan the seed to sowe,
Unkouth myracles wrouhte with hys hand,
Worshipped he was bothe of hih and lowe;
Withouten pompe grace hath his horn so blowe,
Thoruh his merites that the hevenly soun,
He callid was as it is wel knowe,
Cristes Apostil in Brutis Albioun.

He was Aurora whan Phebus sholde arise,
With his briht beemys on that lond to shyne,
Callyd day-sterre moost glorious to devise;
Our feith was dirkid undir the ecliptic lyne;
Our mysbeleeve he did first enlumyne,
Whan he outsprad the brihte beemys cleere,
Of Cristes lawe by his parfit doctryne,
Thoruh al this land to make his liht appeere.

This was doon by grace or we wer war,
Of tholygoost by the influence,
Whan foure steedys of Phebus goldene char,
List in this regioun holde residence;
Who droff the char to conclude in sentence,
By goostly favour of the nyne speerys,
Til blissed Austyn, by goostly elloquence,
Was trewe Auriga of foure gospelleeris.

Or Austyn cam, we slombryd in dirknesse,
Lyk ydolastres blyndid in our siht.
Of Cristes feith was curteyned the cleernesse,
Tyl Sol justicie list shewe his beemys briht;
Of his mercy to clarefye the liht,
Chace away our cloudy ignoraunce,
The lord of lordys of moost imperial myht,
Tavoyde away our froward mescreaunce.

First fro the Pope that callid was Gregory,
Awstyn was sent; who that list adverte,
Tyme and date be put in memory,
To Cristes feith whan he did us converte,
Our goostly woundys felte as tho gret smerte;
Deed was our soule, our boody eek despised,
Tyl Awstyn made vs cast of cloth and sherte,
In coold watir by hym we wer baptised.

Kyng Ethelbert regnyng that tyme in Kent,
Touchyng the date whan Awstyn cam first doun,
Noumbryd the tyme whan that he was sent,
By Pope Gregory into this regioun,
Yeer of our Lord by computacioun,
Compleet five hundryd fourty and eek nyne,
As cronyclers make mencioun,
In ther bookys fully determyne.

Thus he began by grace of Goddis hond,
Wher God list werche may be noon obstacle,
By his labour was cristened al this lond,
Feith of our lord wex moor cleer than spectacle;
Whan tholygoost made his habitacle
In tho personys that wern in woord and deede,
By Awstyn tournyd, God wrouhte a gret myracle,
To make hem stable in articles of the creede.

This poem was written nearly a thousand years after St Augustine landed in Kent, but the sense of continuity is as strong here as in Bede, and in the Life of St Austin's assertion that Augustine "to Cristendom us bro3te": it was "this land" to which Augustine came; until his coming "we slumbered in darkness", and "by him we were baptised".

Monday, 19 May 2014

An Anglo-Saxon Hymn to St Dunstan

Dunstan, BL Royal 10 A XIII, f. 2v

Today is the feast of St Dunstan, one of the greatest saints of Anglo-Saxon England - statesman, archbishop of Canterbury, scholar, monk, musician, metal-worker, and noted tormenter of devils. The multi-talented Dunstan, who died on 19 May 988, is a fascinating saint for a number of reasons: an influential figure in a formative period for the Anglo-Saxon church and state, adviser to successive kings and credited with a leading role in the tenth-century monastic revival, he was also for centuries after his death a genuinely popular saint in England and beyond. Two years ago I wrote a series of posts with my seven favourite stories about him, starting here (and it was hard to narrow it down to seven!); there you can read about Dunstan's skill in metal-working and music - and magic (alleged) - as well as his various encounters with the devil and posthumous miracles.

This is a hymn to St Dunstan for use on his feast-day, which was probably composed at Canterbury early in the eleventh century.

Ave Dunstane, presulum
sidus decusque splendidum,
lux vera gentis Anglice
et ad deum dux praevie.

Tu spes tuorum maxima,
dulcedo necnon intima
spirans odorum balsama
vitalium melliflua.

Tibi, pater, nos credimus,
quibus te nil iocundius,
ad te manus expandimus,
tibi preces effundimus.

Oves tuas, pastor pie,
passim premunt angustie.
Mucrone gentis barbare
necamur, en, cristicole.

Offer, sacerdos, hostias
Christo precum gratissimas,
quibus placatus criminum
solvat catenas ferreas,

Per quas Anglorum terminis
ecclesiæque filiis
et nationes perfide
pestesque cedant noxiæ.

Per te, pater, spes unica,
per te, proles, pax unica
et spiritus, lux unica
adsit nobis in secula. Amen.

The text comes from Hymns of the Anglo-Saxon Church, ed. Inge B. Milfull (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 317-8. Here's a translation:

Hail Dunstan, star and shining adornment of bishops, true light of the English nation and leader preceding it on its path to God.

You are the greatest hope of your people, and also an innermost sweetness, breathing the honey-sweet fragrance of life-giving balms.

In you, Father, we trust, we to whom nothing is more pleasing than you are. To you we stretch out our hands, to you we pour out our prayers.

Your sheep, holy shepherd, are oppressed by troubles on all sides. See how we Christians are being slaughtered by the swords of the pagan nation!

Offer, O priest, the sacrifice to Christ of most welcome prayers, so that by them he may be appeased and release us from the iron fetters of our transgressions.

Through them may heathen peoples and harmful diseases depart from the lands of the English and the sons of the church.

Through you may the Father, our only hope, through you may the Son, our only peace, and the Spirit, our only light, be with us forever. Amen.

In the manuscript, the 'Durham Hymnal' (Durham Cathedral, B.III.32), this hymn has an Old English gloss, which tells us that Dunstan is, among other things, a 'tungel 7 wlite scinende biscopa' and an 'arfæsta heorde', 'orþiende wyrtbræþa swetnyssa, liflicra hunigswete'. It seems likely that the 'swords of the pagan nation' (swurde þeode hæþenre) mentioned in the fourth verse are neither hypothetical nor hyperbolic; they must be the swords of the Danes, who were pressing close on Canterbury and the whole of England in the first decade of the eleventh century. Archbishop Dunstan had lived through a few decades of respite from Viking attacks on England, but the last years of his life saw a return of raiding along the sea-coast, which was to increase in intensity, and spread further inland, in the years following his death in 988. In those years the first Lives of Dunstan were composed, along with this hymn and a number of prayers to England's newest saint. We could probably picture the monks of Canterbury singing this hymn on St Dunstan's day 1011, not knowing that within a few months the Danish army would occupy and burn the city itself, and capture and kill Archbishop Ælfheah. Ælfheah had been a protégé of St Dunstan, and strenuously promoted his cult at Canterbury, so this hymn may well have been written at his instigation. This context adds great poignancy to the hymn: never had Dunstan's sheep had greater need of their shepherd's prayers.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

A Regina Caeli


The Marian antiphon for the Easter season (which we are still in for a little while longer) is the Regina Caeli, so here's a medieval carol which takes that text as its starting-point. It comes from the fifteenth-century carol-collection of the Canterbury friar James Ryman. I posted another Regina Caeli from that collection last year, and the two have a lot in common: both take a fairly free attitude towards the Latin antiphon, borrowing just the first two lines, 'Queen of heaven, rejoice, for he whom you were merited to bear...' and inverting them to form a macaronic refrain, weaving them through the poem. 

The text comes from here.

1. O emperesse, the emperoure,
Quem meruisti portare,
Of heven and erthe hath made the floure:
Regina celi, letare.

2. O quene of grace, the king of blisse,
Quem meruisti portare,
Hath made thy sete next vnto his:
Regina celi, letare.

3. O princesse pure, the prince of peas,
Quem meruisti portare,
Euer thy ioye he doth encreas:
Regina celi, letare.

4. O lady fre, the lorde of alle,
Quem meruisti portare,
Hath made man free, þat was moost thralle:
Regina celi, letare.

5. O swete moder, thy son Ihesus,
Quem meruisti portare,
He rose ayene, that died for vs:
Regina celi, letare.

6. O mayden myelde, thy son so dere,
Quem meruisti portare,
Hath crowned the in blis so clere:
Regina celi, letare.

7. O spowse of Criest, oure sauyoure,
Quem meruisti portare,
Heven and erthe the doth honoure:
Regina celi, letare.

8. O Marie, of thy sonne aske this,
Quem meruisti portare,
That we may dwelle with hym and his:
Regina celi, letare.


Here's a translation:

1. O empress, the emperor,
Whom you were merited to bear,
Of heaven and earth hath made thee the flower:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

2. O queen of grace, the king of bliss,
Whom you were merited to bear,
Hath made thy seat next unto his:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

3. O princess pure, the prince of peace,
Whom you were merited to bear,
Ever thy joy he doth increase:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

4. O lady free, the lord of all,
Whom you were merited to bear,
Hath made man free, who was most in thrall:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

5. O sweet mother, thy son Jesus,
Whom you were merited to bear,
He rose again, who died for us:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

6. O maiden mild, thy son so dear,
Whom you were merited to bear,
Hath crowned thee in bliss so clear:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

7. O spouse of Christ, our Saviour,
Whom you were merited to bear,
Heaven and earth do thee honour:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

8. O Mary, of thy son ask this,
Whom you were merited to bear,
That we may dwell with him and his:
Queen of heaven, rejoice.

This is a finely-balanced poem, elegantly constructed. Each of the first five verses presents us with a pair of evenly-matched titles: emperor and empress, king and queen, prince and princess, lord and lady, mother and son. Notice how perfectly the Latin and English lines fit together: every first line offers a title for Christ to which the relative pronoun of the refrain, quem, can refer, and in every verse the first three lines provide a reason for the fourth line's imperative, lætare. And you hardly notice how well it works, because the effect is so lovely.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Ladder to Heaven

Elijah being taken up to heaven (BL Royal 1 C VII, f.154v)

An extract from Part 6 of Ancrene Wisse, the thirteenth-century book of guidance for anchoresses.
Vilitas & asperitas, vilte & asprete, theos twa, scheome & pine, as Sein Beornard seith, beoth the twa leaddre-steolen the beoth up iriht to heovene; & bitweone theose steolen beoth of alle gode theawes the tindes ifestnet, bi hwucche me climbeth to the blisse of heovene. Forthi thet Davith hefde the twa steolen of this leaddre, thah he king were, he clomb uppard & seide baldeliche to ure Laverd, Vide humilitatem meam & laborem meum & dimitte universa delicta mea. "Bihald," quoth he, "& sih min eadmodnesse & mi swinc, & foryef me mine sunnen alle togederes." Notith wel thes twa word the Davith feieth somet: "swinc" ant "eadmodnesse" - swinc i pine & i wa, i sar & i sorhe; eadmodnesse ayein woh of scheome thet mon dreheth, the is itald unwurth. "Ba theos bihald in me," quoth Davith, Godes deorling. "Ich habbe theos twa leaddre-steolen." Dimitte universa delicta mea. "Leaf," quoth he, "bihinde me & warp awei from me alle mine gultes thet ich, ilihtet of hare hevinesse, lihtliche stihe up to heovene bi theos leaddre."

Theose twa thinges - thet is, wa & scheome ifeiet togederes - beoth Helyes hweoles the weren furene, hit teleth, & beren him up to parais, ther he liveth yetten. Fur is hat ant read. I the heate is understonden euch wa thet eileth flesch; scheome bi the reade. Ah wel mei duhen. Ha beoth her hweolinde, ase hweoles overturneth sone, ne leasteth nane hwile. This ilke is ec bitacnet bi cherubines sweord bivore paraise yeten, the wes of lei & hweolinde & turninde abuten. Ne kimeth nan into parais bute thurh this leitinde sweord, the wes hat ant read, & in Helyes furene hweoles - thet is, thurh sar & thurh scheome, the overturneth tidliche, & agath sone.

Ant nes Godes rode with his deore-wurthe blod irudet ant ireadet, forte schawin on him seolf thet pine & sorhe & sar schulden with scheome beon iheowet? Nis hit iwriten bi him, Factus est obediens patri usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis - thet is, "he wes buhsum his feader, nawt ane to death, ah to death o rode"? Thurh thet he seide earst "death" is pine understonden. Thurh thet he threfter seith "death o the rode" is schendlac bitacnet, for swuch wes Godes death o the deore rode, pinful & schentful over alle othre.

Hwa se eaver deieth ine Godd & o Godes rode, theos twa ha mot tholien: scheome for him & pine. Scheome ich cleopie eaver her beon itald unwurth, & beggin as an hearlot, yef neod is, hire liveneth, & beon othres beodesmon - as ye beoth, leove sustren - & tholieth ofte danger of swuch otherhwile the mahte beon ower threal. This is thet eadi scheome thet ich of talie. Pine ne truketh ow nawt. I theos ilke twa thing thet al penitence is in, blissith ow & gleadieth, for ayein theos twa ow beoth twafald blissen iyarket: ayein scheome, menske; ayein pine, delit & reste buten ende. Ysaias: In terra inquit sua duplicia possidebunt. "Ha schulen," seith Ysaie, "in hare ahne lond wealden twavald blisse ayein twavald wa thet ha her dreheth." "In hare ahne lond," seith Ysaie, for alswa as the uvele nabbeth na lot in heovene, ne the gode nabbeth na lot in eorthe. Super epistolam Jacobi: Mali nichil habent in celo; boni vero nichil in terra. In hare ahne lond ha schulen wealden blisse, twafald cunne mede, ayein twavald sorhe, as thah he seide, Ne thunche ham na feorlich, thah ha her tholien as in uncuth lond & in uncuth eard, bituhhen untheode, scheome ba & sorhe, for swa deth moni gentil mon the is uncuth in uncuththe. Me mot ute swinken: ed hame me schal resten, ant nis he a cang cniht the secheth reste i the feht & eise i the place? Milicia est vita hominis super terram. "Al this lif is a feht," as Job witneth. Ah efter this feht her, yef we wel fehteth, menske & reste abit us ed hame in ure ahne lond - thet is, heoveriche.
The famous part of Ancrene Wisse, the bit which students tend to read (and which I've recently been teaching for the first time), is the section which deals with Love: the love of Christ for the soul, and the love which his sacrifice ought to inspire in the heart of the anchoress. I've posted extracts from this section before, as 'Christ the knight', 'Christ the shield', and 'Set the price of your love...'. It's the most accessible part of a complex text, and is deservedly well-known, superb as prose and characteristic of an important strand of medieval theology. (And the author himself says that this is the most important section; love is 'the lady rule', he says, which other rules of life serve.) But there's more to Ancrene Wisse than this, and at times I find myself drawn to the earlier parts of the text, such as this passage, which deals with penance and the value of suffering in human life. Here's my translation of the above:
Vilitas et asperitas, contempt and adversity, these two, shame and suffering, as St Bernard says, are the two uprights of the ladder which is raised up to heaven; and between those uprights the rungs are fastened, made from all good virtues, by which one climbs to the joy of heaven. Because David had the two uprights of this ladder, though he was a king, he climbed upward and boldly said to our Lord, Vide humilitatem meam et laborem meum et dimitte universa delicta mea. "Look," he said, "and see my humility and my labour, and forgive me all my sins." Observe well these two words which David joins together, labour and humility: labour, in pain and in grief, in suffering and in sorrow; humility, in the face of the injury of shame that a man endures who is considered to be worthless. "Behold both of these in me," said David, God’s darling; "I have the two uprights of the ladder." Dimitte universa delicta mea. "Put behind me," he said, "and cast away all my offences from me, so that lightened from their weight I may lightly rise up to heaven by this ladder."

Those two things, that is, pain and shame joined together, are Elijah’s wheels, which were made of fire, it is said, and carried him up to Paradise, where he still lives. Fire is hot and red. By the heat may be understood every pain which afflicts the flesh; by the redness, shame. This will serve the present purpose. Here they are temporary, just as wheels revolve quickly and do not remain in one place for long. The same thing is also betokened by the sword of the cherubim before the gates of Paradise, which was made of flame, wheeling and turning about. No one ever came in to Paradise except through this flaming sword which was hot and red, and through Elijah’s fiery wheels, that is, through suffering and shame, which turn again in time and soon pass away.

And was not God’s cross ruddied and reddened by his precious blood, in order to show that mortification, suffering and sorrow should be coloured with shame? Is it not written about him, Factus est obediens patri usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis, that is, "he was obedient to his father not only to death, but even to death on a cross"? When he said "death" first, it is to be understood as suffering; when afterwards he said "death on a cross", that betokens ignominy; for such was God’s death on the dear cross, painful and shameful above all others.

Whoever dies in God and on God’s cross, these two he must endure, shame and suffering. I call it shame always to be considered worthless here and to beg like a vagabond, if necessary, for your means of living, and to be other people’s bedesman, as you are, dear sisters, and to often endure arrogance at times from people who might be your servants. This is the blessed shame I am talking about. Suffering will never fail you. In these two things in which the whole of penitence consists, rejoice and be glad, because instead of these two a twofold joy is prepared for you: instead of shame, honour; instead of suffering, pleasure and rest without end. Isaiah: In terra inquit sua duplicia possidebunt. "They shall," says Isaiah, "have twofold joy in their own country instead of the twofold pain which they endure here" – in their own country, says Isaiah, because just as wicked men do not have a share in heaven, so good men do not have a share in earth. Super epistolam Jacobi: Mali nichil habent in celo; boni vero nichil in terra. In their own country they shall have joy, two kinds of reward instead of two kinds of grief, as if he said, it is no wonder to them that they suffer both shame and sorrow here, as in a strange land and a strange country among unfamiliar people, for so does many a noble man who is a stranger in a strange place. One must labour abroad; at home one can rest. And is he not a foolish knight who seeks rest in the fight and ease in the field of battle? Milicia est vita hominis super terram. "All this life is a battle", as Job bears witness; but after the battle here, if we fight well, honour and rest await us at home in our own country, that is, the kingdom of heaven.
Ascending the ladder of virtues (BL Arundel 44, f.93v)

The author urges his audience of anchorites to accept pain and humiliation in the eyes of the world as the surest routes to comfort in heaven; whatever you may think of what he's saying, there's no denying he says it beautifully. The difficulty with translating Ancrene Wisse is that it's almost impossible to preserve the wordplay, on which much of the thought-progression turns and builds. This is also part of what makes the text so appealing - something I've been contemplating over the past few weeks, as I try and work out how to convey this to my students. You can take just about any passage from Ancrene Wisse and have fun puzzling out the mechanics of its complex, fluid - on the surface, almost casual - mode of composition. This passage is structured around pairs of words, which appear as synonymous doublets, as complements, or as oppositions: scheome and pine, eadmodnesse and swinc, sar and sorhe, menske and reste. Everything comes in twos, like the twin uprights of the ladder to heaven, as if rung by rung the ladder is being built before our eyes. St Bernard's image of the ladder is only sustained for a few sentences, quickly exchanged for another means of reaching heaven - Elijah's chariot of fire - but it's established a pattern of doubles which structures the rest of the passage: the twin wheels of Elijah's chariot, leading into the more abstract twins of twofold suffering on earth, countered with twofold bliss in heaven.

A simple instance of the text's characteristic wordplay appears in the author's paraphrase of the words of David (from Psalm 25): "Leaf," quoth he, "bihinde me ant warp awei from me alle mine gultes thet ich, ilihtet of hare hevinesse, lihtliche stihe up to heovene." "Leave," he said, "behind me and cast away from me all my sins so that I, lightened from their heaviness, may lightly rise up to heaven." This plays not only on the words lightened and lightly (which, like the modern equivalent, means both 'not heavily' and 'easily') but also on heaviness, which means both 'weight' and 'sorrow', and points forward to its sound-alike opposite, heaven. (This passage reminds me of Eadmer recalling in his Life of St Anselm that "I can never forget how [Anselm] replied to me once when I asked him to bring it to pass that, as he had had me for a companion in his labours here below, so I might share in his reward in Heaven. He said certainly he would willingly and gladly do this - only let me take care not to make myself too heavy for him. As to this, however, if the just Judge should put away his pity in assessing the weight of my sins, my soul would certainly not rise but go headlong into the bottomless pit.")

Another lovely bit of wordplay comes in the passage about the wheels of fire which bore Elijah up to heaven (in 2 Kings) and the sword of the angel before the gates of Eden, hweolinde ant turninde abuten, 'wheeling and turning about'. Bodily pain and humiliation are like these fires, hot and red; but they are hweolinde, wheeling round and passing in time, like hweoles because they only last a short hwile. 'Wheeling' doesn't convey 'temporary' as strongly today as it did for our author, for whom hweole and hwile were nearly homophones, and who had probably been brought up on the image of Fortune's wheel - the ultimate symbol of the passing nature of earthly things - from his earliest schooldays. Anything which is hweolinde is by definition both short-lived (and thus, reassuringly, will not have to be endured for long) and earthly, not heavenly, for it's only on earth that things pass away; but there's a kind of paradox in the fact that it's the wheels of this very same temporary, earthly suffering which carries you to heaven, where joy is eternal.

Like the pairs of words which form the uprights of the ladder - two ideas which complement each other and so allow something to be built between them - paradox is another form of structural 'twinning', whereby two opposites come together to support a third idea, which is the product of both but identical with neither. Such a paradox is the eadi scheome, 'blessed shame', by which humiliation is turned into honour. And I'm especially fond of what happens to the language in the last few sentences quoted here: on earth, the author says, we suffer as in uncuth lond, ant in uncuth eard, bituhhen untheode... for swa deth moni gentil mon the is uncuth in uncuththe; 'as in a strange land and in a strange country, among an unknown people... for so does many a noble man who is a stranger in a strange place'. It's not really possible to convey in translation the power of all those negatives: four times uncuth ('unknown') and once untheode. The echo is of the Biblical idea of 'a stranger in a strange land', but that phrase is too familiar to render the depth of the strangeness here. The alienation is produced by some peculiar tricks of language: untheode (a word only found in this text, according to the MED) is a negation formed from the word theode, 'a people', and eard means 'country' but really 'native country, homeland', so an untheode and an uncuth eard are troubling things indeed. On earth we are in 'not-our-homeland' surrounded by 'not-our-people' - very far from home. And so how is it surprising if life on earth is difficult? Me mot ute swinken: ed hame me schal resten. 'One must labour abroad; at home one can rest.'

Elijah in his chariot (BL Royal 17 E VII f. 166v)

Monday, 12 May 2014

'In a green May unutterably blue'


This is 'The Bluebells', by John Masefield, who died on 12 May 1967.

We stood upon the grass beside the road,
At a wood's fence, to look among the trees.
In windless noon the burning May-time glowed.
Gray, in young green, the beeches stood at ease.
Light speckled in the wood or left it dim:
There lay a blue in which no ship could swim,
Within whose peace no water ever flowed.

Within that pool no shadow ever showed;
Tideless was all that mystery of blue.
Out of eternities man never knew
A living growth man never reaped nor sowed
Snatched in the dim its fitness from the hour
A miracle unspeakable of flower
That tears in the heart's anguish answered to.

How paint it; how describe? None has the power.
It only had the power upon the soul
To consecrate the spirit and the hour,
To light to sudden rapture and console,
Its beauty called a truce: forgave: forgot
All the long horror of man's earthly lot,
A miracle unspeakable of flower
In a green May unutterably blue.

For what, for whom, was all the beauty spread,
This colour, that had power to dissolve
Man's fugitive dismays into resolve
And be a balsam upon hearts that bled?
In all the mile of marvel, what immense
Current of life had power so intense
To wrest such bounty out of sun and soil?
What starved imagination ached to feed?
What harassed heart implored for an assoil?

Who can behold it on this lonely hill,
Here in the one week when the wonder shows,
Here, where old silence waits on the wind's will,
Where, on the track, none but the postman goes,
Where upon mouse or bird the kestrel drops,
Or spotted 'pecker burrowing his bill
Furrows the bark, or the red squirrel hops
Or hunting vixen lifts a questing nose,
What other seer can the beauty thrill?

None, in the day; and, when the beauty dims,
When moonlight makes the still un-leafy tree,
A spell-bound ghost that cannot move his limbs,
What other passer can be here to see?
The new-come night-jar chirring on the branch?
The nightingale exulting in his hymns?
The wood-mice flitting where the moon-beams blanch?
The wind, in the few fir-trees, like a sea
On which the pale owl like a feather swims?

For none of these can such a marvel be.

Has it a source in a forgotten scene?
Is it a mark of vital methods taken,
Of choices made, at turning-points of Fate
Whether to know the Earth or seek the Queen?
Is it but yearly gladness of bonds shaken?
After a prison, an apparent gate?
Or is this miracle of blue and green
A symbolling of what it all may mean,
When the Queen comes and all we dead awaken?


The pictures are of Kentish bluebells - the best kind, of course. I found the poem in The Bluebells and Other Verse, a collection published in 1961; to my surprise (and puzzlement), I found that this book also contains poems by Masefield about Edward the Confessor and, of all things, the medieval legend surrounding the murder of St Ethelbert of Hereford and Ælfthryth of Crowland. Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised: Masefield was interested in a variety of medieval topics, from Arthurian legend (this is my favourite of his Arthurian poems) to the work of Chaucer, to whom he attributed his 'conversion' to poetry as a teenager; he later wrote "Chaucer was the poet, and the Parliament of Fowls the poem of my conversion. I read the Parliament all through one Sunday afternoon, with the feeling that I had been kept out of my inheritance and had suddenly entered upon it, and had found it a new world of wonder and delight. I had never realized, until then, what poetry could be." And as for the Anglo-Saxons, well, Masefield's 'Sea Fever' is entirely in the spirit of the Old English 'Seafarer' (and even shares one of its kennings: hwælweg, 'whale's way').

But to return to Ethelbert and Ælfthryth: the story centres on King Offa's desire to gain the relics of St Guthlac from Crowland, and given the usual interests of this blog, I can't resist posting a few of Masefield's lines about Guthlac (not, let me say, particularly accurate as regards the saint!):

...the great King's kin, Guthlac, of old,
Roved over seas for women, wine and gold,
Grew great and rich, and as his power failed,
Altered his ways, repented and bewailed;
Gave all he had to build what still abide,
The monkish cells at Croyland where he died;
Where his great bones, under the altar, heal
The sick and sore who call him as they kneel.
All-healing, is Saint Guthlac lying dead.
But Croyland was a fief of Ethelred,
Not in the Great King's realm; and the Great King
Counted those bones a spirit-saving thing.
He was of Guthlac's stock, his kinship claimed
Possession of such dust so greatly famed;
Total possession, for he planned to raise
Over that dust, a church that should amaze,
Stone-wrought and carven, painted, bright with gold,
Unparalleled where man inhabits mould,
Above which sweet-chimed bells should call and tell
Angels and men to join to conquer hell . . .
This, in his capital, unbuilt, but planned
To crown his life and glorify his land,
To bring from far and near the countless host
Who seek St Guthlac's help for flesh or ghost,
And make his capital, St Guthlac's Home,
The greatest Christian seat in Christendom.

But Ethelred, the Eastern King denied.
St Guthlac dead should stay where he had died.
No King in Christendom would lightly yield
So great a glory, so supreme a shield.

Q. Ethelred owned no thing of greater worth:
What King in Christendom held holier earth?

A. It seemed the keystone and the cornerstone
Of all the structure Offa sought to own.
Offa throughout his life had had the dream
Of making this land One, himself supreme,
With Guthlac, King and Saint, glory and guard.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A May Miscellany


In May, that moder is of monthes glade,
That fresshe floures, blew and white and rede,
Ben quike agayn, that wynter dede made,
And ful of bawme is fletyng euery mede...

(Troilus and Criseyde, II.50-4)

As Chaucer illustrates for us here, May is the month which receives more attention than any other from medieval poets. (Not to take anything away from April, with its 'shoures soote', its dew, and its nightingales.) As the month for lovers and for roaming abroad in the countryside, 'the mother of months glad' is a time when all kinds of things can happen, from trysts to dream-visions; so here's a collection of descriptions of May from a range of medieval English sources.


It was in the later medieval period that poetic descriptions of May really began to blossom, but we can begin in Anglo-Saxon England with the Menologium, an Old English poem which catalogues the course of the year and the saints' feasts of each month. The section dealing with May (ll.75-95) uses the Old English name of the month, þrymilce, as well as Maius:

Swylce in burh raþe
embe siex niht þæs smicere on gearwum
wudum and wyrtum cymeð wlitig scriðan
þrymilce on tun, þearfe bringeð
Maius micle geond menigeo gehwær.
Swa þi ylcan dæge æþele geferan,
Philippus and Iacob, feorh agefan,
modige magoþegnas for meotudes lufan.
And þæs embe twa niht þætte tæhte god
Elenan eadigre æþelust beama,
on þam þrowode þeoden engla
for manna lufan, meotud on galgan
be fæder leafe. Swylce ymb fyrst wucan
butan anre niht þætte yldum bringð
sigelbeorhte dagas sumor to tune,
wearme gewyderu. Þænne wangas hraðe
blostmum blowað, swylce blis astihð
geond middangeard manigra hada
cwicera cynna, cyninge lof secgað
mænifealdlice, mærne bremað
ælmihtigne.

[Six nights after this, gloriously adorned with woods and plants, þrymilce comes sweeping swiftly into the towns, radiant; mighty May brings blessings everywhere among the multitudes. On the same day those noble companions, Philip and James, brave thegns, gave their lives for love of the Lord, and two nights afterwards God showed blessed Helena the most glorious of trees, on which the Lord of the angels suffered for love of mankind, the Ruler on the gallows by his Father's will. Then after the space of a week, less one night, it brings to men sun-bright days, summer to town, with warm weather. Then the meadows quickly bloom with blossom, and joy mounts up throughout the earth among many kinds of living creatures, who in manifold ways speak the praise of the King, extol the glory of the Almighty.]

A translation of the whole poem can be found here. According to the system of reckoning followed in this poem, just as autumn begins on 7 August, winter on 7 November, and spring on 7 February, summer officially begins on 9 May. Each of the seasons gets a vivid little pen-portrait, and this is summer's, full of blossom, song and 'sun-bright days, with warm weather' (sigelbeorhte dagas... wearme gewyderu). I love how the last lines of this section evoke the voices of the creatures singing in their many different ways (mænifealdlice) - it's almost as noisy as the cacophony of birds and beasts in 'Sumer is icumen in'. The phrase blostmum blowað, too, could easily slip from the Old English poem to the Middle English song without seeming out of place. The coming of May is described with the verb scriðan, which seems to mean 'to move smoothly, to glide'; this verb is used in Old English for clouds, ships, heavenly bodies, and for the passage of time, which moves more smoothly than we can track.


Another May, in the opening of a poem from the early fourteenth century:

In May hit murgeþ when hit dawes:
In dounes wiþ þis dueres plawes,
Ant lef is lyht on lynde;
Blesmes bredeþ on þe bowes,
Al þis wylde wyhtes wowes
So wel ych vnderfynde.
Y not non so freoli flour
Ase ledies þat beþ bryht in bour,
Wiþ loue who mihte hem bynde.
So worly wymmen are by west
One of hem ich herie best
From Irlond into ynde

[In May it's merry when it dawns;
On the downs the animals play,
And leaf is light on linden-tree;
Blossom burgeons on the boughs;
All the wild creatures woo,
As I well perceive.
I know of no flower so fair
As ladies who are bright in their bowers,
If they may be bound with love.
So worthy women are in the west;
One of them I praise as best
From Ireland to India.]

The whole poem is here (it goes on to tell us that 'women are the best thing/which ever made our high heaven's king/- if many of them were not false'. Hmmm.) Again, the most interesting words here are the verbs, tokens of all the many things which are happening in May: dawes, plawes, wowes, bredeþ, and most of all murgeþ, which is from mirien, 'to make merry, to please'. You see that May has been 'merry' for a very long time!


The pleasures of a May dawn were also extolled by Chaucer, who tells us in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women that even he - the ultimate medieval bibliophile - abandons his books at the dawn of a May morning:

And as for me, though that I konne but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yive I feyth and ful credence,
And in myn herte have hem in reverence
So hertely, that ther is game noon
That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
But yt be seldom on the holyday,
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
Farewel my bok and my devocioun!
Now have I thanne eek this condicioun,
That, of al the floures in the mede,
Thanne love I most thise floures white and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysyes in our toun.
To hem have I so gret affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whanne comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up and walkyng in the mede
To seen this flour ayein the sonne sprede,
Whan it upryseth erly by the morwe.
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe.

Daisies (BL Royal 15 E VI f. 2v)

Another May morning inspires one of the greatest dreams in all English literature, at the beginning (of course) of Piers Plowman:

In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.
Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte.
I was wery forwandred and wente me to reste
Under a brood bank by a bourne syde;
And as I lay and lenede and loked on the watres,
I slombred into a slepyng, it sweyed so murye.
Thanne gan I meten a merveillous swevene--
That I was in a wildernesse, wiste I nevere where.
Ac as I biheeld into the eest an heigh to the sonne,
I seigh a tour on a toft trieliche ymaked,
A deep dale bynethe, a dongeon therinne,
With depe diches and derke and dredfulle of sighte.
A fair feeld ful of folk fond I ther bitwene--
Of alle manere of men, the meene and the riche,
Werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh.
Somme putten hem to the plough, pleiden ful selde,
In settynge and sowynge swonken ful harde,
And wonnen that thise wastours with glotonye destruyeth.


'of Fairye me thoghte...' Sleeping out of doors on a May morning does indeed put you in danger of contact with Fairyland, as the heroine of the Middle English romance Sir Orfeo learns to her cost. Queen Herodis makes the mistake of falling asleep under a tree on a hot May day, at the perilous hour of noon:

Bifel so in the comessing of May
When miri and hot is the day,
And oway beth winter schours,
And everi feld is ful of flours,
And blosme breme on everi bough
Over al wexeth miri anought,
This ich quen, Dame Heurodis
Tok to maidens of priis,
And went in an undrentide
To play bi an orchardside,
To se the floures sprede and spring
And to here the foules sing.
Thai sett hem doun al thre
Under a fair ympe-tre,
And wel sone this fair quene
Fel on slepe opon the grene.
The maidens durst hir nought awake,
Bot lete hir ligge and rest take.
So sche slepe til after none,
That undertide was al y-done.
Ac, as sone as sche gan awake,
Sche crid, and lothli bere gan make;
Sche froted hir honden and hir fete,
And crached hir visage - it bled wete -
Hir riche robe hye al to-rett
And was reveyd out of hir wit.

She is driven nearly mad because she has fallen victim to fairies - more powerful in May than any other month - and, summoned by their king, she must go. The rest of the romance concerns her husband's attempts to bring her back, but nothing will ever be the same again.


A happier Maytime meeting occurs in William of Palerne (816-24), where the lovers are unwittingly brought together in a garden:

& whan þe gaye gerles were in-to þe gardin come,
Faire floures þei founde of fele maner hewes,
þat swete were of sauor & to þe si3t gode;
& eche busch ful of briddes þat bliþeliche song,
Boþe þe þrusch & þe þrustele bi xxxti of boþe,
Meleden ful merye in maner of here kinde.
& alle freliche foules þat on þat friþ songe,
For merþe of þat May time þei made moche noyce,
To glade wiþ uch gome þat here gle herde.


Because May is the month for lovers, as Sir Thomas Malory describes in Le Morte d'Arthur:

And thus it passed on from Candlemas until after Easter, that the month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in like wise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May, in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more in that month than in any other month, for divers causes.

For then all herbs and trees renew a man and woman, and likewise lovers call again to their mind old gentleness and old service, and many kind deeds that were forgotten by negligence. For like as winter rasure doth alway arase and deface green summer, so fareth it by unstable love in man and woman. For in many persons there is no stability; for we may see all day, for a little blast of winter's rasure, anon we shall deface and lay apart true love for little or nought, that cost much thing; this is no wisdom nor stability, but it is feebleness of nature and great disworship, whosomever useth this.

Therefore, like as May month flowereth and flourisheth in many gardens, so in like wise let every man of worship flourish his heart in this world, first unto God, and next unto the joy of them that he promised his faith unto; for there was never worshipful man or worshipful woman, but they loved one better than another; and worship in arms may never be foiled, but first reserve the honour to God, and secondly the quarrel must come of thy lady: and such love I call virtuous love.

But nowadays men can not love seven night but they must have all their desires: that love may not endure by reason; for where they be soon accorded and hasty heat, soon it cooleth. Right so fareth love nowadays, soon hot soon cold: this is no stability. But the old love was not so; men and women could love together seven years, and no licours lusts were between them, and then was love, truth, and faithfulness: and lo, in like wise was used love in King Arthur's days.

Wherefore I liken love nowadays unto summer and winter; for like as the one is hot and the other cold, so fareth love nowadays; therefore all ye that be lovers call unto your remembrance the month of May, like as did Queen Guenever, for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.
Lovers in a garden (BL Harley 4431 f.376)

Sunday, 4 May 2014

'For sky, nothing but sky'


The Lofty Sky
Edward Thomas

To-day I want the sky,
The tops of the high hills,
Above the last man's house,
His hedges, and his cows,
Where, if I will, I look
Down even on sheep and rook,
And of all things that move
See buzzards only above:-
Past all trees, past furze
And thorn, where nought deters
The desire of the eye
For sky, nothing but sky.
I sicken of the woods
And all the multitudes
Of hedge-trees. They are no more
Than weeds upon this floor
Of the river of air
Leagues deep, leagues wide, where
I am like a fish that lives
In weeds and mud and gives
What's above him no thought.
I might be a tench for aught
That I can do to-day
Down on the wealden clay.
Even the tench has days
When he floats up and plays
Among the lily leaves
And sees the sky, or grieves
Not if he nothing sees:
While I, I know that trees
Under that lofty sky
Are weeds, fields mud, and I
Would arise and go far
To where the lilies are.


I like Edward Thomas in restless mood. This poem can well be read alongside 'Home', 'Beauty', and most of all 'The Glory': 'Must I be content with discontent / As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?'