Thursday, 19 March 2015

'Drede not, Josephe, sonne of David'

The marriage of Mary and Joseph (BL Add. 49999, f. 10v)

For the feast of St Joseph, here are two fifteenth-century poems (or carols) on a popular medieval theme: Joseph's doubts about Mary's miraculous pregnancy. This theme may be most familiar today from The Cherry Tree Carol, but there are many versions and different forms of the legend, elaborated from the story as briefly told in Matthew 1:18-25. My favourite is probably the exquisite 'Marvel not, Joseph', with which the two poems in this post both have something in common. There's also a wonderful Old English poem which imagines an anguished but tender dialogue between the couple, and folk songs on the subject continued to be popular long after the medieval period.

The text of both of these poems is taken from Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), pp. 162-4.

'Awake, Joseph, awake, awake,
And to Marie thy way thou take.'

Josephe wolde haue fled fro that mayde,
Not for noo synne ne for offence,
But to abyde he was affrayde
In here so good and pure presence
Extans virgo concipiens,
The mysterie for cause he knew
In her of so full grete vertue.

'With her,' he seide, 'why shulde I dwell?
Than I of degre she is more,
And in vertue she doth excelle:
I wille deperte from her therefore.'
But God, that hath alle grace in store,
Sent an aungell, that was full bright,
Vnto Joseph vpon a nyght.

And vnto hym that aungell seide:
'Drede not, Josephe, sonne of Dauid,
To take Marie thy wyfe, that mayde,
For why the chielde that she goth with,
Is Goddes sonne: be not afrayde.
Long tyme before Scripture hath sayde,
That a pure mayde shulde bere a chield
To save mankyende, that was exield.'

Joseph arose and went full right
Vnto Marie, that mayden myelde,
And thurgh vertue of God Almyght
He founde that mayden grete with chielde;
And yet she had hym not begielde,
For why Jhesus, the Sonne of Right,
Fro blis into her wombe did light.

Beholde, how Eve, that woman wielde,
Hath borne hir frute in care and woo,
But virgyne Marie, moder myelde,
Hath borne her frute, but nothing soo;
For she hath borne Criste and no moo
For to defende vs fro the feende
And geve vs blisse withouten ende.

The frute of deth Eve gave to vs,
But that pure mayde and moder dere
Gave vs the frute of lyfe, Jhesus,
Wherfore next God she hath no pere
Aboue in blisse ne in erthe here,
For why her sete is next the trone
Of God, that is bothe iii and One.

This text comes from the extensive manuscript of carols (now Cambridge University Library MS. Ee 1.12) which was compiled by the Canterbury Franciscan James Ryman in the last decade of the fifteenth century. I've posted carols from this manuscript several times in the past, most recently 'Behold and see'. This carol has some particularly appealing touches: it's sweet (if distinctly unbiblical!) that Joseph wants to leave Mary because she's too good for him, a characterisation which forms an interesting contrast to the angry Joseph of some of the mystery plays. And what a lovely phrase 'God, that hath all grace in store' is.

'Awake, Joseph, awake, awake,
And to Mary thy way thou take.'

Joseph would have fled from that maid,
Not for no sin nor for offence,
But to abide he was afraid
In her so good and pure presence;
Extans virgo concipiens,
Because the mystery he knew
In her of such great virtue.

'With her,' he said, 'why should I dwell?
Than I of degree she is more,
And in virtue she doth excel:
I will depart from her therefore.'
But God, that hath all grace in store,
Sent an angel, who was full bright,
Unto Joseph upon a night.

And unto him that angel said:
'Dread not, Joseph, son of David,
To take Mary thy wife, that maid,
For the child that she goth with,
Is God's Son: be not afraid.
Long time before Scripture hath said,
That a pure maid should bear a child
To save mankind, that was exiled.'

Joseph arose and went full right
Unto Mary, that maiden mild,
And through virtue of God Almight
He found that maiden great with child;
And yet she had him not beguiled, [tricked]
For Jesus, the Son of Right,
From bliss into her womb did light.

Behold, how Eve, that woman wild,
Hath borne her fruit in care and woe,
But virgin Mary, mother mild,
Hath borne her fruit, and nothing so;
For she hath borne Christ and no mo [other]
For to defend us from the fiend
And give us bliss without an end.

The fruit of death Eve gave to us,
But that pure maid and mother dear
Gave us the fruit of life, Jesus,
Wherefore next God she hath no peer
Above in bliss nor in earth here,
For her seat is next the throne
Of God, that is both three and one.

Joseph is taunted by his neighbours, and asks Mary about her pregnancy (BL Add. 47682, f.12)

Our second carol (from BL Add. 20059) has a similar refrain to 'Marvel not, Joseph', but it is doesn't tell the story of Joseph or his dilemma; instead it takes his bemusement, and the injunction to him not to 'marvel', as a starting-point for a discussion of mystery, reason and faith. It's a reminder that Joseph in these stories, confused and impulsive and so very human, is a stand-in for the audience, wondering how to make sense of a miracle so far beyond mortal understanding.

M[er]vell nothyng, Joseph, that Mary be with child;
She hath conceyved vere God and man and yet she undefiled.

Conceyved man, how may that be by reason broght abowte?
By gode reason above all reasons, hit may be withouten dowte;
For God made man aboue all reasons of slyme erthe most wyld;
Wherfore, Joseph, marvell not thaghe Mary be withe chyld.

Mary was bothe wyf and mother, and she a verrey mayde,
And conceyved God, our brother, as prophettes before hade saide.
Sithe God made reason, why may not reason of his werkes be begyld?
Wherfore, Joseph, mervell not though Mary be with chyld.

The erthe, ayer, sonne, and mone, fyre, water, and euery sterr
Is gode reason that above all reasons shuld passe our reasons ferr.
To reason with hym that made reason our reasons are but wyld,
Wherfore, Joseph, mervell not though Mary be with child.

The hye and holy sacrament in verrey forme of bred
Is God and man, flesshe and blode, he that was quyck and ded.
Did reason this dede? Nay, nay; reason is ferr begylde;
His is gode reason above all reasons, Mary to be with child.

God, angell, soole, and devyll lett all clerks determyne;
By reason the be, but what the be reason cannot defyne.
Then serve the fyrst, and save the thrydde; the forte let be resyled,
And mervell no more, but fast beleve Mary was maide with chyld.

Richard Greene notes that what he calls 'the pedantic play on the word 'reason'' in this carol may echo fifteenth-century controversies surrounding the writings of Reginald Pecock, but whatever its origins I confess to quite enjoying this poem's pedantic tone; I've no objections to clever quibbling, and this has a kind of beguiling playfulness in its pedantry (if such a thing is possible!). Here's a modernised version:

Marvel nothing, Joseph, that Mary be with child;
She hath conceived very God and man and yet is undefiled.

'Conceived man'; how may that be by reason brought about?
By good reason above all reasons, it may be without a doubt;
For God made man above all reasons, of slimy earth most wild;
Wherefore, Joseph, marvel not though Mary be with child.

Mary was both wife and mother, and she a very maid,
And conceived God, our brother, as prophets before had said.
Since God made reason, why may not reason of his works be beguiled?
Wherefore, Joseph, marvel not though Mary be with child.

The earth, air, sun, and moon, fire, water, and every star
Is good reason that above all reasons should pass our reasons far.
To reason with him that made reason our reasons are but wild,
Wherefore, Joseph, marvel not though Mary be with child.

The high and holy sacrament in very form of bread
Is God and man, flesh and blood, he that was quick and dead.
Did reason this deed? Nay, nay; reason is far beguiled;
His is good reason above all reasons, Mary to be with child.

God, angel, soul, and devil let all clerks determine;
By reason they be, but what they be reason cannot define.
Then serve the first, and save the third; let the fourth be resiled,
And marvel no more, but fast believe Mary was maid with child.

An angel appears to Joseph, and he begs Mary's forgiveness (BL Add. 47682, f.12)

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