Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Poetry of William Herebert: 'Thou wommon boute fere'

I've written a piece for this week's Catholic Herald on the medieval poet William Herebert:

In early 14th-century Oxford, surrounded by some of the foremost theologians of medieval Europe, a Franciscan friar named William Herebert was writing a precious little collection of poems.

Herebert’s name is not well known today, but his poems, beautiful and distinctive in their own right, also represent an important milestone for English Catholicism: he was one of the first people to turn the Latin hymns of the Church into English poetry.

Read the rest here. I've posted a number of William Herebert's poems on this blog before, and they can be found under this tag - I particularly recommend 'The kynges baneres beth forth ylad', 'Wele, herying and worshipe', and 'Hail, Lady, sea-star bright'.

As I was writing this piece it occurred to me that 2017 happens to be the closest we can get to an anniversary for Herebert: we don't know his exact dates of birth or death (c.1270 to c.1333 is the usual guess), but we do know that he became master of the Franciscan house in Oxford around 1317. This 700-year anniversary seems as good a date to mark as any - and as regular readers will know, I enjoy a good anniversary. So I've decided that over the course of this year I'll post the rest of Herebert's poems here, with translations, and maybe a few audio recordings too - like many Middle English poets, his verses are often better heard than read on the page. A few of Herebert's poems can be found in anthologies of Middle English verse, and there's one edition of his English poems which is available online, but that edition (while very useful) contains no translations or glossing to help the reader unfamiliar with Herebert's rather tricky dialect. I'll do my best to make his poems more accessible, and to highlight some of the qualities which make them so appealing.

Virgin and Child (All Souls, Oxford)

To get us started, here's one of Herebert's longer poems, one of the few which has no known source.

Thou wommon boute fere
Thin owne fader bere!
Gret wonder this was
That on wommon was moder
To fader and hire brother,
So never other nas.

Thou my suster and moder
And thy sone my brother,
Who shulde thenne drede?
Whoso haveth the king to broder
And eek the quene to moder
Well aughte for to spede.

Dame, suster and moder,
Say thy sone, my brother,
That is domesmon,
That for thee that him bere,
To me be debonere;
My robe he haveth opon.

Sethe he my robe tok,
Also ich finde in bok,
He is to me ibounde;
And helpe he wole, ich wot,
For love the chartre wrot,
The enke orn of his wounde.

Ich take to witnessinge
The spere and the crowninge,
The nailes and the rode,
That he that is so cunde
This ever haveth in munde,
That boughte us with his blode.

When thou yeve him my wede,
Dame, help at the nede;
Ich wot thou might fol well,
That for no wreched gult
Ich be to helle ipult,
To thee ich make apel.

Now, Dame, ich thee biseche,
At thilke day of wreche
Be by thy sones trone,
When sunne shall ben sought
In werk, in word, in thought,
And spek for me thou one.

When ich mot nede apere
For mine gultes here
Tofore the domesmon,
Suster, be ther my fere
And make him debonere
That my robe haveth opon.

For habbe ich thee and him
That markes berth with him,
That charite him tok,
The woundes all blody,
The toknes of mercy,
Ase techeth Holy Bok,
Tharf me nothing drede;
Sathan shall nout spede
With wrenches ne with crok.
Amen.

Here's a translation of the poem (but I like Herebert's use of 'dame' for 'lady', so I've kept that...):

Thou woman without compare,
[Who didst] thine own father bear!
Great wonder this was,
That one woman was mother
To father and her brother,
Such another never was.

Thou my sister and mother,
And thy son my brother;
Who then should dread?
Whoever has the king for brother
And the queen for mother
Well ought to succeed.

Dame, sister and mother,
Say to thy son, my brother,
Who is domesman, [judge]
That for thee who him did bear
To me be debonair; [merciful and gracious]
My robe he hath upon.

Since he my robe took,
As I find in book, [i.e. the Bible]
He is to me bound.
And help he will, I wot, [I know]
For love the charter wrote,
The ink ran from his wounds.

I take to witnessing
The spear and the crowning, [i.e. with thorns]
The nails and the rood,
That he that is so kind [benevolent in nature]
Have ever this in mind,
Who bought us with his blood.

Since thou gave him my weed, [clothing]
Dame, help at the need.
I know thou may full well,
That for no wretched guilt
I may be to hell ypult; [thrust]
To thee I make appeal.

Now, Dame, I thee beseech,
At that day of wreche [Judgement Day]
Be by thy son's throne,
When sins shall be sought [searched through]
In work, in word, in thought,
And speak for me, thou alone.

When I must needs appear
For mine sins here
Before the domesman,
Sister, be there my fere [companion]
And make him debonair
That my robe hath upon.

For if I have thee and him
Whom the marks beareth on him,
Which charity him took - [the marks which love gave him]
The wounds all bloody,
The tokens of mercy,
As teacheth Holy Book,
Nothing need I dread;
Satan shall not succeed
With wrenches nor with crook. [with tricks or guile]
Amen.

This is a fairly simple poem - deliberately simple, I think, perhaps because it's not a translation of a hymn. It aims to be direct, intimate and devotional, a private and meditative kind of prayer, and so it depends for its effect on repetition and more straightforward diction than Herebert tends to use in his hymn translations. This seems appropriate for a poem which so tenderly explores intimate family relationships, leaning on the kinship created when Mary gave her son 'my robe', the clothing of human flesh. Christ is our brother, he wears our clothes, and so how can he not be 'bound' by the bond of love?

The images here are ones traditional in medieval spirituality, including that striking idea that Christ wrote the 'charter' of human liberation with the ink of his own blood. His sufferings are called to be 'witnesses' to the transaction written upon his body. This is a legal image (fitting for a poem where Christ is not only a brother but domesman, 'judge'), but it's also part of a wider tradition of images drawn from books and book-making, common in medieval devotional writing; these speak, for instance, of Christ writing upon the book of the heart, or compare his body stretched upon the cross to stretched-out parchment on which a message of love is written. It's an image drawn from a literate, documentary, book-filled culture, perhaps inspired by the very ink which flowed from the poet's hands as he wrote these words in his manuscript.


It's a metaphor which would have resonated in early fourteenth-century Oxford. This picture, which the Catholic Herald chose to illustrate my piece, is very appropriate for Herebert, though none of the buildings visible here had been built when he lived in Oxford. This is the view from the tower of St Mary's church in the centre of the city, looking over what's now called Radcliffe Square. In Herebert's day, looking out from St Mary's, you would have seen not the elegant towers and spacious quadrangles of All Souls' but a cluster of small, closely-packed residential halls populated by students and teachers, the forerunners of Oxford's colleges. This street was the centre of the book trade in medieval Oxford, where you would have found the scribes, parchment-makers, bookbinders and copyists, all the people making the books and writing implements which the university relied on.

Various places might claim to be the heart of the University of Oxford, but St Mary's has a particularly good right to that title: it was in this church that the first university library was established (around 1320, during Herebert's time in Oxford, and more than 150 years before the founding of the Bodleian) and in the early days of the university lectures, ceremonies, and graduations took place here. We know that Herebert preached at St Mary's on at least one occasion, since his manuscript of his works contains a sermon to be given there on 9 June 1314, the translation feast of St Edmund of Abingdon.

St Edmund, scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, grew up in Oxford about a century before Herebert was born, and had a strong connection to St Mary's. As a boy St Edmund was educated in a school attached to the church, where he had three miraculous experiences during his childhood (read about them here). On one occasion, a ghostly voice prevented him from running out of the church to play with other boys during Mass. Another time, a stone fell off the church tower while he was listening to a lecture in the churchyard, but Edmund was saved from harm. At twelve years old, Edmund made a vow of chastity which he confirmed by a mystical marriage with the Virgin Mary: he placed a ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin in St Mary's, from which he then found it could not be removed, and wore another ring himself as a token of his vow. These stories associate Oxford's local saint with the physical spaces inside and outside this church, which you can still walk through today even if most of the buildings around them have changed.

By the west door of St Mary's, where St Edmund was nearly hit by a stone...

As a Franciscan, William Herebert's home in Oxford was not here in the heart of the city but on its outskirts, in the parish of St Ebbe's. The Franciscan house there had been founded in 1224, two years before St Francis' death; it was, of course, demolished at the Reformation, and the site now lies underneath a supermarket. (The area is currently being redeveloped, bringing to light some fascinating glimpses into life at medieval Greyfriars.)

For such a deeply traditional university, Oxford has often been uncomfortable with its medieval roots - for a long time after the Reformation, acknowledging any continuity between the university and the scholarly communities of the monks and friars of medieval Oxford was all too dangerously Catholic. The university's humanist origin myth was established at the expense of people like Edmund of Abingdon and William Herebert, and this attitude has not entirely died out; in official publications it's not uncommon to see something like this short piece which makes the 'history of books in Oxford' begin only in 1478, with the first book printed in the city. Books and their readers and writers go back a long way before that, of course. For Herebert in the early fourteenth century, Edmund of Abingdon was already part of Oxford's history; at St Mary's he might have thought, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of Herebert's Oxford contemporary Duns Scotus, 'this air I gather and I release / He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what / He haunted'...

Edmund of Abingdon too has a place in the history of English poetry, since one of the earliest and most popular devotional poems in Middle English survives embedded in one of his Latin works:

Nou goth sonne under wod,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

[Now goes the sun under the wood,
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face;
Now goes the sun under the tree,
I grieve, Mary, for thy son and thee.]

We don't know who wrote this (it's just possible it was St Edmund himself) but it dates to the early thirteenth century, and is a reminder that Herebert, though an innovator in some ways, was following in a very well-established tradition of devotional English poetry. Herebert's poems to the Virgin, including 'Thou wommon boute fere', are very much in that tradition.

St Mary's (source)

The Oxford context for Herebert's work appeals to me for obvious reasons, but it's actually an important one: it challenges several popular stereotypes about the medieval period to find a trained theologian in a university city, in the early fourteenth century, spending his time translating Latin hymns into English verse. Firstly, it's a good example of how seriously medieval preachers took their pastoral duties - forget your lazy dark-ages myths about clerics gabbling away in Latin to maliciously hide religion from the unlearned. (I hope no one who reads this blog believes that nonsense, but it's still regularly promulgated to the public by people who should know better.) Part of Herebert's motivation was evidently that he wanted his congregation to understand the hymns of the church in the vernacular, in their language - which was his language too, though he was also thoroughly conversant in Latin and French. That doesn't even make him particularly unusual or controversial for his day; he was part of a very long tradition of pastoral and homiletic writing in the vernacular going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, representing perhaps the longest unbroken strand of continuity in English literature. And since people still go around saying that Chaucer was the 'Father of English poetry', 'one of the first people to write in English', and all that, it's always good to remember that no, he really wasn't...

I emphasise the Englishness of Herebert's verse in part because there's been a little flurry of writing about 'Englishness' lately. In the rather frantic journalistic search for historical analogies for Brexit, Norman Conquest parallels are all very last year - it's all about the Reformation now. Witness this, and this, and this, all of which depend on the idea that 'English identity' is absolutely and inextricably Protestant, constituted in large part by opposition to the medieval, Catholic, pre-Reformation past. This is hardly a new argument (far from it!) but it's a pretty awful one for all kinds of reasons. Quite apart from the dangers inherent in declaring any particular minority religion or denomination to be not English, it involves repeating popular myths about medieval England and its relationship to the rest of Catholic Europe which most historians stopped even bothering to refute decades ago, so simplistic and caricatured are they. Imagine thinking that for the nine hundred years (!) between the Synod of Whitby and the Reformation, England was 'subservient to Rome' and tied to the 'conformist Continent', only capable of innovation, liberty and creativity once free of those wicked foreigners and their Catholic shackles. It's such an ignorant and old-fashioned view - and a very limited and (ironically) constricting way of talking about how other people might understand their own overlapping ethnic, national and religious identities.

So now seems a good time to celebrate someone like Herebert and his very English Catholicism - his very Catholic Englishness - which was perfectly compatible for him with both scholarly Latin learning and fluency in French and Anglo-Norman literature. His manuscript is trilingual, representing a very catholic (with a small c) range of interests, and revealing the thoughtful creativity of his poetry and the sensitivity of his pastoral care. These make him appealing, but not at all unique; he was a man of his time. He was a product of the lively and dynamic culture of medieval England and Catholic Europe, which educated and nurtured Herebert and many more like him - and which deserves to be taken seriously in its own right, and not just as a prop in a lazy rhetorical argument.

3 comments:

frances pickard said...

Fascinating post - thank you! I teach World History at a Catholic high school and I'll mention this poet and your comments on the early translation of Catholic hymns into English in class.

Anonymous said...

Having met your post at the Herald online by good hap, how delightful to find the enrichment, here, and promise of a series!

The Resurrection poem you quote, there, reminded me of the repeated "ego sum" in St. John 18 (and elsewhere), and (aptly or fancifully) of the repeated "Nam ich" in Ancrene Wisse (pp. 202-03 of Tolkien's ed.), as well - as its knightly imagery does of an exemplum in that book.

Might the 'Arma Christi' references of the fifth stanza of the poem you discuss here - "spere", "crowninge", "nailes", "rode" and also "his blode" - have a glimmer of a Lenten reference, or were their Feasts no part of English calendars of William Herebert's time?

In any case, many thanks, and glad anticipation!

An Old Mertonian

Suzanne said...

Whom the marks beareth on him,
Which charity him took
The wounds all bloody,
The tokens of mercy,...

Perhaps I am reading Herebert incorrectly. It seems to me that his characterization of Jesus' sacrificial death by crucifixion was an active seeking out of the sacrifice to give mercy and redemption to humankind. To me, there is an echo of the Dream of the Rood imagery, from many hundreds of years earlier. This is so different from the contemporary image of a reluctant Jesu that only at the last moment came to "Thy will not my will be done."

Maybe because I live a wide water away from England, I do not understand the image of England as a subservient puppet of Rome. I thought that Henry VIII and his apologists went to great lengths to characterize the kingdom as having a very long tradition of independence from Rome when it came to Church governance and even liturgy.