Sunday, 5 August 2018

'Game and glee'

It's the 5th August, which seems like a good excuse to revisit a topic I wrote about some years ago: the fun and games of medieval Lincolnshire. The connection is the Lincolnshire folk song 'Brigg Fair', made famous by Percy Grainger, which begins like this:

It was on the fifth of August, the weather hot and fair,
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, for love I was inclined.

I got up with the lark in the morning with my heart full of glee,
Expecting there to meet my dear, long time I wished to see.

The Brigg of the song is a small town in North Lincolnshire, which ever since the thirteenth century has been the site of a popular fair at this time of year. The song was collected by Percy Grainger at Brigg in 1905, from local singer Joseph Taylor, who sang it like this:



Thanks in part to arrangements by Grainger and Delius, 'Brigg Fair' became one of the best-loved songs in the English folk tradition - here's a history of all its different versions. Perhaps because it's so short (though people who sing it usually add a few more verses) and it has such a lovely tune, it's a little treasure: a brief burst of joy, like the trill of a lark in the morning, from a heart full of 'glee'.

The word 'glee' is what I like most about this song, and this is where we start winding our way back towards the medieval.  It's a lovely word with an interesting history. Obviously here it means 'happiness, excitement', and the OED's definition of glee in this sense is charming: 'mirth, joy, rejoicing; a lively feeling of delight caused by special circumstances and finding expression in appropriate gestures and looks'. In Old and Middle English it's chiefly a poetic word, meaning primarily 'entertainment, pleasure, sport', and especially 'musical entertainment, music, melody' (which is how we get musical glees and glee clubs). Anglo-Saxon poets sang 'glees' (gleow) with their harps, and a common Middle English word for 'minstrel' is gleeman.

I have a fondness for words which begin with gl-; just think how many beautiful ones there are: gleam, glitter, glory, glimmer, glimpse, gladsome, glamour, glade, glance, glass, glaze, glean, glebe, gleed, glen, glide, glint, glisten, gloaming, glossy... That's a list of some of the most poetic words in the English language, and you could write a post about any one of them. But today it's glee. Take a look at the Middle English Dictionary entry for glee, which should give you a sense of the scope of the word. It's not just my own taste which makes me comment on the words which alliterate with glee; it frequently appears in alliterative phrases in medieval poetry. To quote just a few from the MED entry, we have the expression ne gladieth me no gle 'it brings me no joy', and Christ being called mi gleo & mi gledunge 'my joy and my gladness', as well as the very common game and glee 'fun and merriment' (more of that in a moment...). And another comes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, describing Christmas festivities: Much glam and gle glent up þerinne, 'much revelry and fun sprung up there'.

Glam (with a long a, not as if short for glamorous) comes from Old Norse glaumr, 'noisy merriment', which is cognate with the Old English gleam, 'joy, revelry'. And with this we come back to Brigg, site of the fair and folk song: for Brigg's full name historically is Glanford Brigg, and one possible etymology for Glanford is gleam + ford, meaning 'ford where sports/festivals are held' (plus Old Norse bryggja, 'jetty, quay'). The fair of the folk song dates back to the thirteenth century, but if this etymology is correct it sounds like Brigg was a good place for partying even in the Anglo-Saxon period. And one feature of such fairs and entertainments, in medieval literature, is that young people go there to meet their lovers and have all kinds of glee with them. The hero of 'Brigg Fair' is in a proud tradition.

Like many (many, many) towns and villages in Lincolnshire, Brigg has an Old Norse name, the legacy of Scandinavian settlement in the area in the Anglo-Saxon period. Brigg is about twenty miles from Grimsby, and so when thinking about Brigg Fair I can't help being reminded of medieval Lincolnshire's premier sportsman, the young Danish prince-in-exile Havelok of Grimsby. (For a summary of Havelok's story see this post, and for much more discussion read my book!) Havelok, a gentle giant with near-superhuman strength, works hard and plays hard, and being good at games is a big part of his story. The poem Havelok tells how - when famine forces him to leave his foster family in Grimsby - young Havelok goes to Lincoln and starts working as a kitchen-boy in Lincoln Castle. While there, he labours at all kinds of strenuous manual tasks but also takes his part in the games and sports of the town:

For thanne he weren alle samen
At Lincolne at the gamen,
And the erles men woren al thore,
Than was Havelok bi the shuldren more
Than the meste that ther kam:
In armes him noman nam
That he doune sone ne caste.
Havelok stod over hem als a mast;
Als he was heie, als he was long,
He was bothe stark and strong -
In Engelond non hise per
Of strengthe that evere kam him ner.

[For when they were all together at Lincoln at the games, and the earl's men were all there, Havelok was a shoulder taller than the biggest of them; no one could wrestle with him whom he couldn't quickly overthrow. Havelok stood over them like a mast; just as he was tall and well-grown, he was strong and powerful too - there was no equal to him in strength throughout England.]

The kinds of games he's good at are very much the rough-and-tumble sports of ordinary boys, not knightly pursuits like swordplay and jousting - wrestling and stone-throwing competitions are more Havelok's style.

Wrestlers in the Luttrell Psalter, which is also from 14th-century Lincolnshire (BL Add MS 42130, f. 62)

The poem goes on:

Als he was strong, so was he softe;
They a man him misdede ofte,
Neveremore he him misseyde,
Ne hond on him with yvele leyde.
Of bodi was he mayden clene;
Nevere yete in game, ne in grene,
With hire ne wolde he leyke ne lye,
No more than it were a strie.

[But just as he was strong, so he was gentle: even if someone often treated him badly, he never spoke against him or laid a hand upon him with ill intent. In body he was as chaste as a maiden - he would never amuse himself with a woman or lie with her for sexual dealings and passions, any more than he would with a witch.]

If you're wondering what chastity has to do with anything, well, that brings us back to game and glee. There's some game-related wordplay in the last three lines here: game is frequently used in Middle English to refer to (as the MED puts it) 'amorous play, love-making, esp. sexual intercourse', and that's the primary meaning here - but since it comes in the middle of an episode about Havelok's prowess in athletic sports, the pun is that although he's good at games like wrestling and stone-casting, he doesn't engage in 'games with women'. Nevere yete in game, ne in grene primarily means 'neither in sexual dealings nor amorous passions' but could also conceivably mean 'neither at the games nor on the green' (games take place on greens; lots of things happen on greens in Havelok). The wordplay is continued in the next line with leyke, which means 'play' in both the sexual and non-sexual senses. The point I think is that public games and fairs were notoriously occasions when licentious behaviour reigned: at a similar event three centuries previously, down in Warwickshire, the future St Wulfstan of Worcester - a teenage sprinter - experienced serious sexual temptation when a girl tried to seduce him. Apparently medieval English girls really loved athletes... The snappiest medieval description of this phenomenon comes in a snippet from a song quoted (disapprovingly) in a thirteenth-century sermon as evidence of the kind of thing sung by light-minded women:

Atte wrestling my lemman I ches,
And atte ston-kasting I him for-les.

[At the wrestling I chose my lover, and at the stone-casting I lost [or possibly left] him.]

Is this a stone-casting competition in progress? Maybe... (BL Add MS 42130, f. 198)

And Havelok fits into this pattern too. Having established that Havelok is a) very good at sport b) too virtuous for the other kind of sport, the poem then describes how nonetheless, without meaning to, he wins himself a wife with his sporting prowess. A neat bit of irony! The wicked usurper Godrich, who has stolen the kingdom of England from its rightful queen Goldburh, comes with his men to Lincoln for a parliament, and as young men do, they start a spontaneous game of kick-about football wrestling:

And fel it so that yungemen,
Wel abouten nine or ten,
Bigunnen the for to layke.
Thider komen bothe stronge and wayke,
Thider komen lesse and more
That in the boru thanne weren thore -
Chaunpiouns and starke laddes,
Bondemen with here gaddes,
Als he comen fro the plow.
There was sembling inow;
For it ne was non horse-knave,
Tho thei sholden in honde have,
That he ne kam thider, the leyk to se.
Biforn here fet thanne lay a tre,
And pulten with a mikel ston
The starke laddes, ful god won.
The ston was mikel and ek gret,
And al so hevi so a neth;
Grundstalwyrthe man he sholde be
That mouthe liften it to his kne;
Was ther neyther clerc ne prest,
That mithe liften it to his brest.
Therwit putten the chaumpiouns
That thider comen with the barouns.
Hwo so mithe putten thore
Biforn another an inch or more,
Wore he yung, wore he hold,
He was for a kempe told.
Al so the stoden and ofte stareden,
The chaumpiouns and ek the ladden,
And he maden mikel strout
Abouten the altherbeste but,
Havelok stod and lokede thertil,
And of puttingge he was ful wil,
For nevere yete ne saw he or
Putten the stone or thanne thor.
Hise mayster bad him gon therto -
Als he couthe therwith do.
Tho hise mayster it him bad,
He was of him sore adrad.
Therto he stirte sone anon,
And kipte up that hevi ston
That he sholde putten withe;
He putte at the firste sithe,
Over alle that ther wore
Twelve fote and sumdel more.
The chaumpiouns that put sowen;
Shuldreden he ilc other and lowen.
Wolden he nomore to putting gange,
But seyde, "Thee dwellen her to longe!"
This selkouth mithe nouth ben hyd:
Ful sone it was ful loude kid
Of Havelok, hw he warp the ston
Over the laddes everilkon,
Hw he was fayr, hw he was long,
Hw he was with, hw he was strong;
Thoruth England yede the speche,
Hw he was strong and ek meke;
In the castel, up in the halle,
The knithes speken therof alle,
So that Godrich it herde wel:
The speken of Havelok, everi del.

[And so it happened that some young men, about nine or ten of them, began to play at sports. The strong and weak came there, the humble and the great, all who were in the town - champions and strong lads and peasants with their cattle-goads who had just come from the plough. It was a big gathering, for there was no stable-boy who should have been at his post who didn't come to see the games. Before their feet was a log [to mark the foul-line], and the strong lads, a good number of them, threw a big stone. The stone was big and huge, and heavy as an ox - he would have to be a very strong man who could lift it even to his knee. There was no clerk or priest who could lift it as high as his breast. With this the contenders who had come there with the noblemen played at shot-put. Whoever could throw the stone further than the next man, by an inch or more, was considered an outstanding performer, whether he was young or old.

As they were watching and comparing the performances, the athletes and the boys, and having a debate about which was the best of the throws, Havelok stood by and watched. He knew nothing about shot-put, because he had never seen stone-casting before that day. His master told him to go and see how well he could do. Although his master ordered him, he doubted himself; but he quickly stirred himself and picked up the heavy stone he had to throw. The first time he putted it, he threw it twelve feet further than anyone else, and a bit more. The athletes who saw that throw elbowed each other and laughed; they didn't want to play any more, and said, "You've been here too long!" This marvel could not be concealed: it was soon widely known about Havelok, how he threw the stone further than every one of the other lads - and how he was fair, how he was tall, how he was broad, how he was strong. The story went throughout England, how he was strong and humble too. In the castle, in the hall, the knights all spoke of it, and so Godrich heard all about this story of Havelok.]

This is such a vividly realised scene - especially the lads good-humouredly elbowing each other as they realise that they don't have a chance against Havelok. You can just see them laughing: 'All right boys, we're off home!' This scene embodies what really makes Havelok special, and makes it almost like the literary equivalent of the Luttrell Psalter: glimpses of working-class life, drawn with affection and humour, and with a basic level of respect for that life and its pursuits and values which is as unusual in elite culture today as it was in the fourteenth century. (On this point I recommend Tom Shippey's discussion of the 'lads' in this scene in his recent book Laughing Shall I Die.)

This stone-throwing game is actually a crucial plot point in the poem, because the direct result is that Godrich, who thinks Havelok is a strong but stupid peasant (though he is actually the exiled son of the king of Denmark), decides to marry Havelok to the young princess whom Godrich is keeping prisoner. And so Havelok gets himself a girl at the games after all.

It also seems to have been one of the key features of the Havelok story in popular legend, and the huge stone thrown by Havelok was one of the tourist attractions of medieval Lincoln. The 14th-century writer Robert Mannyng claims that in his time:

Men sais in Lyncoln castelle ligges ȝit a stone
þat Hauelok kast wele forbi euerilkone.
& ȝit þe chapelle standes þer he weddid his wife,
Goldeburgh, þe kynges douhter, þat saw is ȝit rife.

(People say that in Lincoln Castle there still lies a stone,
the very same one which Havelok threw,
and there stands the chapel where he married his wife,
Goldburh, the king's daughter; the story is still well known.)

I was in Lincoln Castle last week and there is, sadly, no such stone to be seen today (just a copy of Magna Carta, and a pretty fabulous view of the cathedral), but the central green of the castle offers plenty of space for game and glee.

Inside Lincoln Castle

Pleasingly, one of the OED citations for the sense of glee meaning 'entertainment, play, sport' is from Havelok. This is from the passage at the end of the poem which describes the celebrations after Havelok's coronation, and it shows you just what the poet thought was necessary for a good party:

Hwan he was king, þer mouthe men se
Þe moste ioie þat mouhte be:
Buttinge with sharpe speres,
Skirming with taleuaces þat men beres,
Wrastling with laddes, putting of ston,
Harping and piping, ful god won,
Leyk of mine, of hasard ok,
Romanz reding on þe bok;
Þer mouthe men here þe gestes singe,
Þe gleymen on þe tabour dinge;
Þer mouhte men se þe boles beyte,
And þe bores, with hundes teyte;
Þo mouthe men se eueril gleu,
Þer mouthe men se hw grim greu;
Was neuere yete ioie more
In al þis werd, þan þo was þore.

[When he was king, there were the greatest rejoicings you could imagine: butting with sharp spears, fencing with shields carried by men, lads wrestling, putting stones, lots of harping and piping, games of backgammon and dice, reading romances from books; there one could hear tales sung, minstrels beating the drum, and boars being baited. There one might see every kind of glee, there one might see how the excitement grew. There had never before been so much rejoicing in the whole world as there was that day.]

So every kind of glee, and note also the gleymen, 'glee-men', the minstrels, helping to provide it. This is a royal entertainment but it's really just a description of the jolly times of medieval Lincolnshire writ large. It sounds fun (except the boar-baiting!) - worth getting up 'with the lark in the morning' for that!

Gratuitous picture of Lincoln Cathedral, from the castle walls

Friday, 13 July 2018

'The jewel of the sky, the sun at its hottest'

Birds in a tree, from the Eadwine Psalter Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f. 275v

It's very hot at the moment. That's my only reason and excuse for posting some extracts of summer poetry from the Old English poem The Phoenix, in which an Anglo-Saxon poet who must have been a bit of a sun-worshipper comes up with a dazzling array of metaphors for the 'candle of the heavens' which burns so fiercely above us.

This poem, which survives in the tenth-century Exeter Book, is based on a Latin source and describes the legend of the regenerating phoenix. As was common in medieval thought about the phoenix, the story is interpreted as an allegory of Christ's resurrection and the rebirth of the redeemed human soul. You can read a translation of the whole poem here (the translation in this post is my own). The phoenix is imagined as living in a natural landscape of glorious beauty, which means the poem itself, to keep pace, becomes elaborately ornamented and richly beautiful in its language. The language of this poem is not easy, but it contains some of the loveliest nature writing in Old English - Anglo-Saxon poets were pretty adept at describing wintry scenes, and could probably compose word-sketches of stormy seas and hail-scarred cliffs in their sleep, but this poet, for a change, gets to do some lovely things with sunshine and leaf-shade and the full-blown radiance of summer.

Smylte is se sigewong; sunbearo lixeð,
wuduholt wynlic. Wæstmas ne dreosað,
beorhte blede, ac þa beamas a
grene stondað, swa him god bibead.
Wintres ond sumeres wudu bið gelice
bledum gehongen; næfre brosniað
leaf under lyfte, ne him lig sceþeð
æfre to ealdre...

Serene is that plain of victory; the sunny grove glows,
the joyous wooded holt. The fruits never fall,
bright branches, but the trees stand
ever green, as God commanded them.
Winter and summer the wood is alike
laden with fruits; no leaf ever withers
beneath the sky, nor does fire harm them
eternally...

This is the earthly paradise of eternal summer, refreshed by sparkling waters, in which the phoenix lives. There, every day, it pays homage to the glory of the sun:

Se sceal þære sunnan sið behealdan
ond ongean cuman godes condelle,
glædum gimme, georne bewitigan,
hwonne up cyme æþelast tungla
ofer yðmere estan lixan,
fæder fyrngeweorc frætwum blican,
torht tacen godes.

He beholds the journey of the sun
and comes to meet God's candle,
eagerly observes the glad jewel
when that noblest of stars rises up
above the waves, shining from the east;
the Father's ancient work glitters with ornaments,
bright token of God.

Look at all those poetic phrases for the sun, packed into just seven lines: God's candle, jewel of gladness, the noblest of stars... I've written before about how another Anglo-Saxon poet used the image of the sun as a jewel, rising to its highest at the summer solstice, to evoke the Son himself, the ascended Christ; and since the phoenix's resurrection analogises Christ's, perhaps that should be in the back of the reader's mind here too. Both might be called the 'Father's ancient work, the bright token of God'.

As the phoenix grows old, it leaves this beautiful homeland to live on earth and makes itself a dwelling-place closer to the human world, at the top of a lofty tree:

Ðær he heanne beam on holtwuda
wunað ond weardað, wyrtum fæstne
under heofunhrofe, þone hatað men
Fenix on foldan, of þæs fugles noman.
Hafað þam treowe forgiefen tirmeahtig cyning,
meotud moncynnes, mine gefræge,
þæt se ana is ealra beama
on eorðwege uplædendra
beorhtast geblowen; ne mæg him bitres wiht
scyldum sceððan, ac gescylded aa
wunað ungewyrded, þenden woruld stondeð.

There he abides and lives within a lofty tree
in the wood, the roots fast fixed
under the roof of the heavens, a tree which people on earth
call 'Phoenix', from that bird's name.
That tree has the King, mighty in glory,
the Measurer of mankind, granted - I have heard -
that alone of all the trees
which lift up their branches upon the earth
it blooms the brightest. No wicked thing
can do it any harm; it is shielded for ever,
abiding untouched, as long as the world stands.

Again there are delicate but deliberate echoes here of Old English Christian poetry, which don't entirely come across in translation: 'heanne beam' ('lofty tree') is a phrase which elsewhere describes the cross, so often imagined in early medieval literature as a lively and living tree. This tree's unique and superior beauty, 'alone of all trees', might remind you of the Crux Fidelis:

Steadfast cross, above all other,
one and only noble tree;
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be.

So too its steadfastness, standing 'as long as the world stands': to stand is the characteristic of the cross, the tree which is the still point of the turning world, the axis of the universe, the world-tree.

The sun in an Anglo-Saxon psalter (BL Harley 603, f.33v)

High in this tree the phoenix builds itself a nest, preparing for the cleansing fire which will be kindled by the blaze of the summer sun:

Ðonne wind ligeð, weder bið fæger,
hluttor heofones gim halig scineð,
beoð wolcen towegen, wætra þryþe
stille stondað, biþ storma gehwylc
aswefed under swegle, suþan bliceð
wedercondel wearm, weorodum lyhteð,
ðonne on þam telgum timbran onginneð,
nest gearwian. Bið him neod micel
þæt he þa yldu ofestum mote
þurh gewittes wylm wendan to life,
feorg geong onfon. Þonne feor ond neah
þa swetestan somnað ond gædrað
wyrta wynsume ond wudubleda
to þam eardstede, æþelstenca gehwone,
wyrta wynsumra, þe wuldorcyning,
fæder frymða gehwæs, ofer foldan gescop
to indryhtum ælda cynne,
swetes under swegle. Þær he sylf biereð
in þæt treow innan torhte frætwe;
þær se wilda fugel in þam westenne
ofer heanne beam hus getimbreð,
wlitig ond wynsum, ond gewicað þær
sylf in þam solere, ond ymbseteð utan
in þam leafsceade lic ond feþre
on healfa gehware halgum stencum
ond þam æþelestum eorþan bledum.
Siteð siþes fus. Þonne swegles gim
on sumeres tid, sunne hatost,
ofer sceadu scineð ond gesceapu dreogeð,
woruld geondwliteð, þonne weorðeð his
hus onhæted þurh hador swegl.
Wyrta wearmiað, willsele stymeð
swetum swæccum, þonne on swole byrneð
þurh fyres feng fugel mid neste...

When the wind dies down, the weather is fair,
the holy gem of the heaven shines brightly,
the clouds are dispersed, the tumult of the waters
grows still, every storm beneath the skies
is calmed, the burning candle of the air
shines from the south, giving light to men,
then he begins to build in the branches,
to prepare a nest. He has a great desire
to be able to swiftly turn from old age
back towards life, through a surge of the spirit,
receive youth again. Then from far and near
he collects and gathers the sweetest spices
to that dwelling-place, every kind of noble fragrance,
pleasant herbs and fruits of the woods,
which the King of Glory,
Father of every beginning, created
across the world for the glory of mankind,
sweet under the skies. There he carries
bright ornaments into that tree;
there the wild bird builds his house
in the wilderness, on the tall tree,
fair and joyous, and there he dwells
alone in that sunny chamber, and on the outside
surrounds himself, body and feathers,
in the shade of the leaves, on every side
with blessed scents and the noblest
fruits of the earth. He sits,
eager for a journey. When in the summer
the jewel of the sky, the sun at its hottest,
shines above the shadows and fulfils its destiny,
gazing far across the world, then his house
is heated by the brilliant radiance.
The herbs are warmed, the beloved hall smokes
with sweet fragrances; then, seized by fire,
the bird burns in the flames within its nest...


Gorgeous stuff. This fire of self-immolation, as well as mirroring Christ's sacrifice, also echoes the seasonal cycle of yearly growth, death, and rebirth: the bird building his nest suggests the spring, it's the height of summer when the fire is kindled, and then comes the harvest:

Þonne bræd weorþeð
eal edniwe eft acenned,
synnum asundrad, sumes onlice
swa mon to ondleofne eorðan wæstmas
on hærfeste ham gelædeð,
wiste wynsume, ær wintres cyme,
on rypes timan, þy læs hi renes scur
awyrde under wolcnum; þær hi wraðe metað,
fodorþege gefean, þonne forst ond snaw
mid ofermægne eorþan þeccað
wintergewædum. Of þam wæstmum sceal
eorla eadwela eft alædan
þurh cornes gecynd, þe ær clæne bið
sæd onsawen. Þonne sunnan glæm
on lenctenne, lifes tacen,
weceð woruldgestreon, þæt þa wæstmas beoð
þurh agne gecynd eft acende,
foldan frætwe. Swa se fugel weorþeð,
gomel æfter gearum, geong edniwe,
flæsce bifongen.

At that time the flesh becomes
born again, entirely renewed,
sundered from sins; somewhat like
how in harvest people carry home
the fruits of the earth for sustenance,
pleasant nourishment, before winter comes,
in the reaping time, lest the showers of rain
destroy them beneath the clouds. There they find sustenance,
joy in feasting, when frost and snow
with overwhelming force wrap the earth
in winter garments. From those fruits
shall spring again the blessed plenty of men,
according to the nature of the corn which first is sown
as pure seed, when the sun's light,
life's sign, in spring
wakes the world's wealth, so that these fruits,
according to their own nature are born again,
the ornaments of the earth. In this way the bird,
old after years, becomes young again,
clad in flesh anew.

As the blazing sun of our present heatwave scorches the ground, drying the leaves to dust and turning the grass yellow, it lays bare to the eye the process this poet is describing: summer turning into harvest, as the year begins to die like the phoenix. It's almost Lammas, after all, and autumn is less than a month away - time to be harvesting.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Immortal Vikings


Three book-related links, if you'll excuse the plug! My latest piece for History Today is now available to read online at this link. It's about the strange and intriguing story of the mysterious 'St Ragner of Northampton' - one of those medieval saint's legends which tells you relatively little about the saint it's commemorating, but is very revealing about the community which honoured the saint. In this case it seems to tell us something about the Scandinavian connections of at least one man living in medieval Northampton, and the developing legend of the fearsome Ragnar Lothbrok, now one of the most famous Vikings of medieval literature.

If you just can't get enough Ragnar Lothbrok (who can?), I also have a story in this month's BBC History Magazine about the Ragnar legend, explaining how the stories about him grew up and how, after their 'rediscovery' in the 17th century, they helped to shape the modern image of the Vikings:


These are topics I discuss at greater length in my book, along with a range of other stories about the Vikings in England - I talked about some of those recently in an interview with History Answers, which you can read here. (That's the last plug!) The story of St Ragner of Northampton is an example of something I particularly wanted to do in the book: to give prominence to these kinds of local traditions, which differ in some interesting ways from the mainstream, popular narrative about the Vikings people are most familiar with today. (Often one derived from those Old Norse sagas and poems 'rediscovered' in the 17th century, which were unknown in medieval England, in that form at least.) It made me newly aware of what a rich history so many of these English towns have - in the book I talk about stories from Northampton, Grimsby, Crowland, Bury St Edmunds, and more, all individual and fascinating in their own ways. They're a precious heritage of legendary history, celebrating the long and venerable stories of these communities across many centuries. What an incredible thing - and the Vikings are only one part of it...

Friday, 8 June 2018

8 June


My book, Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England, is officially published this week - today, in fact, which is (entirely by accident) a significant date. By some strange chance, June 8 more than once saw an important moment in the history of Viking-ruled England...

First, it was the date (probably) of the famous Viking attack on the island monastery of Lindisfarne in 793. This incident was preceded - according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - by the appearance of fiery dragons in the sky, a portent of disaster to come. The Lindisfarne attack has often been treated by later historians as the 'beginning of the Viking Age' (though history isn't really quite as neat as that), and it certainly had an emblematic status even in the Anglo-Saxon period, seeming to mark something new and dangerous. It seems very likely that the date was June 8; however, some manuscripts of the Chronicle say January 8, so whether Anglo-Saxon readers of history would have known the date is a debatable point.

Warriors on the Lindisfarne Stone

230 years later, right at the other end of the Viking Age, England had a Danish king. Cnut had taken the English throne in 1016 after a long and bruising period of warfare, and during his reign he steered a skilful course: presenting himself on the one hand as a model Christian king, pious and just to English and to Danes, and on the other hand as the triumphant heir to all Viking victories over Anglo-Saxon kings. On 8 June in 1023, Cnut participated in an elaborate ceremony to honour St Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered by a Viking army (not led by Cnut) at Greenwich in 1012. During this ceremony Ælfheah's body was returned from London to Canterbury, travelling in state by ship down the Thames. This is how the Chronicle describes the ceremony:

Her Cnut kyning binnan Lundene on sancte Paules mynstre sealde fulle leafe Æðelnoðe arcebiscope 7 Bryhtwine biscope 7 eallon þam Godes þeowum þe heom mid wæron þæt hi moston nyman up of þam byrgene þone arcebiscop sancte Ælfheah, 7 hi þa swa dydon on .vi. idus Iunii. 7 se brema cyng 7 se arcebiscop 7 leodbiscopas 7 eorlas 7 swiðe manege hadode 7 eac læwede feredon on scype his þone halgan lichaman ofer Temese to Suðgeweorke, 7 þær þone halgan martyr þan arcebiscope 7 his geferum betæhton, 7 hi þa mid weorðlican weorode 7 wynsaman dreame hine to Hrofesceastre feredan. Ða on þam þryddan dæge com Imma seo hlæfdie mid hire cynelican bearne Hardacnute, 7 hi þa ealle mid mycclan þrymme 7 blisse 7 lofsange þone halgan arcebiscop into Cantwarebyri feredon.

[In this year, at St Paul’s minster in London, King Cnut gave full permission to Archbishop Æthelnoth, Bishop Brihtwine and all the servants of God who were with them to take up the archbishop St Ælfheah from his tomb, and they did so on 8 June. And the glorious king, the archbishop, the bishops, earls, and a great number of ecclesiastics and lay people carried his holy body by ship across the Thames to Southwark, and there entrusted the holy martyr to the archbishop and his companions. And then, in a distinguished company and with glad rejoicing, they conveyed him to Rochester. Then on the third day Queen Emma came with her royal child Harthacnut, and then they all with great glory and jubilation and songs of praise carried the holy archbishop into Canterbury.]

This was an important moment: a display of reparation for the most high-profile killing of the Danish Conquest, as well as an opportunity for Cnut to cement his relationship with the Anglo-Saxon church. But it was hardly a parade of humility and penance - Cnut was taking upon himself the responsibility of atoning for the acts of a Viking army led by one of his rivals (/closest supporters... they often go together!), and using this as a chance to display his authority. Was the date significant? I suspect the hand of Archbishop Æthelnoth, but we will never know for sure...

It was a great royal occasion, attended not only by the king and queen but by their son, Harthacnut, who was no more than five years old at this point. This is Harthacnut's first appearance in the historical record, and his presence here is probably a public acknowledgement of him as his father's heir (in preference to his older half-brothers, the sons of Cnut's first wife). On this state occasion, the little boy might have been intended to represent a living sign that the Danish dynasty, now firmly ruling England, would continue beyond Cnut's own lifetime.

Cnut watching the translation (St Alphege's, Whitstable)

Such was Harthacnut's first appearance; and his last brings us to our third and final significant June 8th: this time in the year 1042, when Harthacnut - by now king - was attending a wedding party at Lambeth, celebrating a wedding between two of the leading Danish families resident in England.

Her forðferde Harðacnut swa þæt he æt his drince stod, 7 færinga feoll to þære eorðan mid egeslicum anginne, ac hine þa gelæhton þe þærneh wæron, 7 he seoððan nan word ne gecwæð, ac gewat on .vi. Idus Iunii. 7 eall folc geceas þa Eadward, 7 underfengon hine to kyninge eallswa him wel gecynde wæs.
[In this year Harthacnut died, as he stood drinking; he suddenly fell to the earth with a terrible attack, but those who were nearby caught him, and afterwards he never spoke a word but died on 8 June. And all the people then chose Edward, and received him as king, as was his natural right.]

And so died the last Danish king of England, as recorded contemptuously by one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (Though we shouldn't overlook half-Danish Harold Godwineson, whose Scandinavian family links you can read about in my book...). Young Harthacnut 'never did anything kingly as long as he ruled', snipes another chronicler, listing his various iniquities; so at least some people in England were very pleased at his sudden demise. His death was certainly convenient to the supporters of his half-brother, Edward (the future Confessor), and it has sometimes been suggested that he was poisoned at this feast. To me the timing, on that ominous 8 June, does make such a theory alluring, though I don't really think it likely. If you were writing a historical novel, you might make quite a story of it: imagine an Anglo-Saxon sleeper agent, deciding to get rid of the unpopular Danish king by murdering him - poisoning him at a feast, and on the very anniversary of the day Viking ships had first descended with terror on the English coast...

OK, on balance I doubt it - but it's a reminder of how often in history coincidence produces more audacious artistic effects than any novelist would dare to attempt. A medieval historian might instead have seen the hand of Providence, 'the one who has power over times and seasons' (as Beowulf puts it: se geweald hafað sæla ond mæla). Medieval scholars were trained to think in anniversaries, through the yearly cycle of anniversaries which are the feasts of the church's year. Where the human mind thinks in days and years, Providence deals in centuries, and it was a very neat bit of work that the last Danish king of England should die on this day, 249 years after that attack on Lindisfarne - just one year short of a round quarter of a millennium.

Harthacnut's death (CUL MS Ee.3.59)

Monday, 14 May 2018

A Canterbury Tale


My latest column for History Today can now be read online here. It's about the 1944 Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale, a strange and wonderful little masterpiece set in wartime Kent. I feel confident that anyone who likes this blog will enjoy it (if you don't know it already!), and at the moment you can watch it in full on Youtube.

I've been very touched since this piece came out to be contacted by people who want to share with me their love of the film and their personal history with it. People have been telling me how they stumbled across it on TV or discovered it unexpectedly through a revival screening, as long ago as the 1970s or just last year; one person wrote to tell me about seeing it as a child when it was first released in 1944. It's a film which seems to inspire a great deal of love, and to hear about that love, to be warmed by it at second-hand, is an unexpected reward for having written about it!

Love draws forth love, and I'm sure that one reason people love this film so dearly is that it's transparently born of love - particularly love for the countryside and the people of the director's own childhood home (Michael Powell was born in Bekesbourne and went to school in Canterbury, and several of the minor characters are directly based on, or played by, local villagers he knew). It's a film about love, of various kinds: love of home and nature, a poignant love for the lost and the absent, and a love of history which manifests itself in an intensely romantic, almost mystical sense of longing and connection with the past. In fact, the whole plot of the film is driven (this is a little bit of a spoiler!) by one character's desire to share his love of history with others. He goes about it in an obsessive and bizarrely coercive way, but the film argues - and itself superbly demonstrates - that the same goal can be achieved by wooing your audience, rather than bullying them: instead of frightening them or chastising them, invite people in to love what you love. There's no love story in this film - one of the things it was criticised for - but the whole thing is a meditation on love and desire in a way few overtly romantic stories manage to be. Its central metaphor is pilgrimage, specifically medieval pilgrimage; and for medieval writers pilgrimage was above all the journey of the questing heart, the outward embodiment of the soul's restless, yearning desire to love and seek after truth.

I first saw this film as a teenager (a good while before I read The Canterbury Tales!), and for me it formed, as much as it now reflects, my interest in all the things I now write about here: pilgrims and medieval poetry and Canterbury and ancient landscapes and all those kinds of things. All those are constants; but every time you return to a work of art you bring something new to it, and watching A Canterbury Tale again this year I was very struck by something I hadn't particularly noticed before. As well as all the kinds of love which the film movingly depicts, there's a spirit of charity about it, which just at the moment feels rare and refreshing. It's a celebration of the old rural world, yes; but it has love and to spare for everyone, and is full of moments where respect works both ways - where people who come from different backgrounds find something in each other to recognise and admire. It's a clash of cultures film in which no one really clashes, or not for very long. Britain and America, city and country, modern and ancient, young and old - the characters who embody these different ways of life are all just quite nice to each other, really, and end up liking each other, the way people do. To me that feels entirely realistic and a reflection of how most people do act, in their ordinary everyday lives, towards strangers they encounter, but to see it celebrated on screen felt surprising. In some ways that spirit of charity, that search for common ground, feels more old-fashioned than anything else about the film, and as a contrast to our social media world of instant judgement and bad-faith hot takes I found it very moving. The cross-generational encounters touched me the most, because (speaking as someone who is technically a 'millennial') I don't like the current media fashion for talking up the cultural gulfs between old and young, instead of trying to find ways to bridge them; though again the difference is not so much with how people really treat each other other, but with what our culture chooses to highlight and praise, the aggressive behaviour which is rewarded, the stories the media chooses to tell. If it was possible to tell stories of cross-generational empathy in the middle of wartime, so much darker and more dangerous than our own times, I don't really understand why it should be so unfashionable now. But then, I'm the kind of millennial who likes films made in 1944, so I gave up trying to be fashionable long ago...


The plot of this film is famously odd - it wasn't popular when it first came out and got some scathing contemporary reviews. For me this oddness is actually part of what makes it so endearing, as if it somehow transcends such boringly mundane things as narrative logic and a sensibly planned plot. It's like one of those medieval romances where the story is full of absurdities (or so they seem to the modern reader, trained on realist novels), but the final resolution - lovers and families reunited, or the lost resurrected - is so heartbreakingly joyful that it doesn't matter. The intense emotional response produced in the reader, and the beauty of the art itself, both overpower any incoherency of plot; you love the experience of it so much that you simply don't care if it doesn't make rational sense. (If you don't know the kind of medieval romance I mean, the end of The Winter's Tale might be a more familiar example.) Those reunions and resurrections are examples of what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, the moment of deliverance in a fairy-story which is not just a cheap happy ending, but a kind of literary miracle:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
A Canterbury Tale has one of the most powerful moments of eucatastrophe I've ever seen on film; though not quite a fairy-tale, this is a world alive with the possibility of miracles and blessings past hope. One reason the film's ending seemed so odd to its first critics is that - in what is ostensibly a mystery-story - it denies the mystery-story's need for punishment and retribution. Instead its ending is full of blessings; and at the end of a pilgrimage, sin is swallowed up in grace.

The bombed streets of Canterbury, from A Canterbury Tale

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Fates of the Sons of Ragnar


Publication day is fast approaching for my book, Dragon Lords, which explores a range of medieval legends about the Vikings in England. These legends - some well-known, others not at all - offer a kind of alternate history of the Vikings, as they were perceived by medieval English readers and story-tellers long after the end of the Viking Age. How did medieval writers imagine the Vikings intervening in English history, and where, and why? The answers to those questions are sometimes very surprising. I discovered all kinds of wonderful stories in the course of researching this book, and over the coming weeks and months I'll share a few of my favourites here...

Some of these legends were very popular in medieval England, and are widely recorded from across the country - for instance, the story of Havelok, a Danish king of England who (legend said) was brought up in poverty in Grimsby, is attested in a large number of sources and was generally accepted as historical fact. Other stories are recorded in detail, but only from one or two sources - so we know a version of the legend, but can't guess where else, or in what different forms, it might have been known. And then there are some which have to be reconstructed from scattered references and allusions, which attest to widespread interest in and tales told about particular Viking warriors, but don't give us anything like as detailed a story as we would wish to have.

In the last category, the most interesting example is the English legends about the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, one of the best-known Vikings in Old Norse literature - especially famous today, of course, because of Vikings. That show and most modern tellings of the story are based (roughly) on the detailed legends of Ragnar and his many famous sons - Ivar the Boneless, Ubbe, Bjorn Ironside, and all the rest - recorded in medieval Scandinavian sources, texts which mostly date from the twelfth century and later. The historical origins of Ragnar himself are very uncertain, but Ivar and Ubbe and some of the other sons were certainly real people (not necessarily all brothers, nor 'Ragnarssons' in the earliest sources), who invaded, raided, and ruled in Ireland, England and elsewhere during the second half of the ninth century. They made a huge impact at the time, and in later sources they were among the most celebrated warriors of the Viking Age - famous for their notorious cruelty and wickedness as well as for their successful conquests.


England, especially Northumbria, features prominently in the Scandinavian legends about Ragnar and his sons, because it was not only part of the Ragnarssons' area of rule but also the site of Ragnar's death. However, most of the stories you may know about Ragnar - how he got the name 'Lothbrok', his fights against serpents, his succession of warrior wives, his defiant last words as he lay dying in a snake-pit - are only recorded in the Scandinavian texts, and are not found at all in English sources. Medieval English writers do, however, record some different variations of the 'Lothbrok legend', and there are also stories attached to individual sons. It's clear from the surviving evidence that there's a connection between the Scandinavian traditions and the English ones, but we can't be sure exactly what that connection may be; since we're dealing with what was in origin almost certainly a collection of oral traditions, not written down until many years after they were first told, the surviving textual record doesn't necessarily help us to reconstruct where and when these stories developed. (Though there have been various theories!)

One key idea the traditions do have in common is that Ragnar - who is never actually called by that name in English sources, where he's only 'Lothbrok' - was killed, cruelly and perhaps unjustly, in England, and that his sons invaded England to avenge his death. In the book I look in detail at the different versions of this story, and explore what it seems to suggest about how medieval writers in eastern England - particularly East Anglia - interpreted Viking invasion rather differently from the standard view of most medieval historians.

Ivar and Ubbe invading England to avenge Lothbrok, from a 15th-century English manuscript (BL Harley 2278, f. 47v); 
note the names 'Lothbrok', 'Hyngwar' and 'Ubba' in the surrounding text

But just as interesting are the scattered references to the fates of Lothbrok's sons, which connect them with particular places in England in some surprising ways. One of my favourites comes from a brief note, written on the blank leaf of a twelfth-century manuscript of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica - a later writer adding a bit of 'extra history' of which Bede could never have dreamt! The manuscript now belongs to Pembroke College, Cambridge, but it was probably written at Tynemouth Priory, a monastery on the coast of Northumbria which was once a place of great royal connections. Several of the early kings of Northumbria were buried there, and one of the additional notes in the manuscript records information on that subject.

The ruins of Tynemouth Priory (Picture: JohnArmagh)

Other notes, however, deal with the sons of Lothbrok, in English and in Latin. In English we get a little bit of verse:

Yngvar and vbbe beorn wæs þe þridde
loþebrokes sunnes loþe weren criste

Which means 'Ivar and Ubbe, Beorn was the third, Lothbrok’s sons, hateful to Christ.'

That's all - if there was ever more, it's lost! In Norse legend Lothbrok has at least eight sons, sometimes more, but in English sources, as here, he usually has just two or three: most often Ivar and Ubbe, with or without the addition of Beorn (i.e. the equivalent of Bjorn Ironside). There's some alliterative wordplay in this verse on the name Lothbrok and the Middle English word loþe, which means 'hateful' or 'hostile' (both seem possible translations here). Old Norse sources have an elaborate story about the name Lothbrok which interpret it to mean loðbrók, 'shaggy breeches', and explain that Ragnar got that name because he wore woollen breeches coated with tar to defend himself from venom-breathing serpents. This may, however, be a post-hoc interpretation, and scholars have suggested other possible non-serpent-related etymologies for the name (which is not recorded until the late eleventh century, long after the lifetime of the historical Ragnar and his sons). But to medieval English ears, the loth bit must have seemed very appropriate for a Viking so famously loathsome, and this two-line verse is not the only place where the name is interpreted in that way.

In addition to this verse, the Tynemouth manuscript also offers a note in Latin which gives some information on the supposed fates of Ubbe and Beorn. Some English sources are fairly sympathetic towards the sons of Lothbrok, but not here - they are characterised as very wicked, hostile to Christianity, and richly deserving of the punishments which struck them down. Ubbe, we are told, caused terrible devastation and slew many Christians, and was then punished by being killed by God at a place called 'Ubbelawe' in Yorkshire. Ubbelawe is also mentioned by an earlier source (Gaimar's early twelfth-century Estoire des Engleis) which instead locates it in Devon, and says that Ubbelawe was actually the name of Ubbe's burial-mound - the name means Ubbe's hlæw, an Old English word for a burial-mound which is also preserved in names like Cwichelmeshlæw. Anglo-Saxon sources record that one of the brothers of Ivar was indeed killed in battle in Devon in 878; apparently later sources decided (or knew) that brother was Ubbe, and that Ubbelawe was the site of his burial. There have been attempts to identify Ubbelawe with a landmark near Appledore, on the Devon coast, which has now been lost to the sea, but which in the eighteenth century was known as Ubbaston or Whibblestan.

And meanwhile - the Tynemouth manuscript goes on - Beorn attacked a nunnery on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, and violated the nuns there. But he too was suddenly struck down by an act of God, swallowed up by the earth – horse and armour and all – as he was riding at Frindsbury, near Rochester. To this day, the note says, there is a deep fissure in the road at Frindsbury, twenty feet wide, where Beorn was engulfed by the earth, and the water at the bottom of it is always tinged red, as if with Viking blood. (Isn't that amazing!) It's not at all clear where this story might have come from, especially since Tynemouth is a long way from Rochester; in the Scandinavian sources, Bjorn Ironside retired from raiding to live happily ever after as a prosperous king of Sweden - but that's not so satisfying a moral...

So, that's what happened to Ubbe and Beorn. What of Ivar? Ivar's name usually appears in medieval English texts as Inguar or Hinguar, and this explains another story not unlike the one of Beorn, though recorded in a different source. This is a late fourteenth or early fifteenth century collection of texts from Hyde Abbey in Winchester, which says that it was Ubbe who was swallowed up by the earth with his horse while he was riding, and Ivar (Hinguar) was drowned while crossing a ford in Berkshire. The place where he died came to be named after him, Hyngarford – modern Hungerford.

A pretty and peaceful river in Hungerford today...

The name of Hungerford probably, alas, has nothing to do with Ivar; but we might link this supposed etymology to the fact that Hungerford is one of the places known to have celebrated the late-medieval festival of Hocktide, often explained at the time as a commemoration of victory over the Danes. These are both retrospective - and very late - explanations of existing names or customs which account for them by linking them to the Vikings, whom late-medieval writers knew had indeed fought battles in this area of Wessex. Since there were few things medieval writers liked more than speculating about etymology, especially names, it's not surprising that some bright spark spotted a link between Hungerford and Ivar. What's important about these details is not whether they tell us anything about the real Ivar, Ubbe and Beorn - almost certainly not, though you never know! - but what they suggest later medieval writers found interesting about them. Here, it's explaining local names or landscape features by connecting them to famous Vikings, whose names clearly meant something to a contemporary English audience, even without the elaborate legends which were attached to them in Scandinavia.

In recent years, archaeologists have been exploring the possibility that one of the men among the Viking army buried at Repton in Derbyshire may in fact be Ivar the Boneless himself. That's a fascinating idea, and Ivar's death and grave were apparently of as much interest to medieval historians as they are to modern archaeologists, since we have not only this reference to Hungerford but also, more importantly, the Old Norse legend about 'Ivar's howe'. This is the story of Ivar's burial-mound on the coast of Cleveland in Yorkshire, from where the spirit of this fiercest of Vikings posthumously guarded the English coast against invasion. Until, that is, William the Conqueror got wise to this, and went north to burn his bones and break the spell...

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Blostma


The spring has come late this year, but it has come at last. As I was admiring some newly-sprung blossom yesterday (that's it in the picture above), I was reminded of a phrase which comes up again and again in medieval English romance, generally used to praise the beauty of a woman, a particularly handsome young man, or a child: 'bright as blossom on briar'.

This (and variants thereof) is a common simile in Middle English poetry - one of those phrases which is so widespread as to be almost a cliche, and when you've read it enough times you stop noticing it. These kinds of stock phrases are very prevalent in some types of Middle English verse, and later editors have typically been rather hard on them (one editor says contemptuously of this one 'what could be more banal?'); modern critics prefer poets to come up with their own similes, and admire originality over a well-worn phrase. But medieval poets and their readers thought differently. Such phrases - often alliterative, as this one is - are part of a poetic style still very much influenced by the culture of oral poetry, with its time-honed formulae; they're both beautifully adaptable and (like many cliches) popular because they're recognisable and true. Two of my favourites are 'as fain as a fowl on a fair morning' ('as happy as a bird on a bright morning'), and the simile often used in carols to describe the conception of Christ, 'as sun that shineth through the glass...' These may have been cliches in the fourteenth century, but they're fresh to us.

And calling a person 'bright as blossom on briar' is really lovely. 'Bright' seems at first like a throwaway word (it's an all-purpose term of praise in Middle English) but it's perfectly appropriate for blossom: blossom is 'bright' not only because it's often vividly white - or pink-and-white! - but also because it connotes the joy of spring, the brightness of the season of returning warmth and sunshine. The kind of beauty suggested by this phrase is fresh, full of vitality and new life - the beauty of young women, energetic youthful men, and children.


Anyway, it made me think about blossom. Blossom can be found just about everywhere in certain genres of medieval poetry, and I thought I'd collect a few examples together in this post. Blossom is one of those words which has changed very little in form or meaning from Old English, where it's blostma; in Old English it seems to refer to a broader range of flowers than it does now, since any flower could be called blostma - not just the flowers of fruit-bearing trees - but in practice blossom is often used in that extended sense today as well. The OED insists that one ought to distinguish between blossom and bloom (because, you see, blossom 'is more commonly florescence bearing promise of fruit, while ‘bloom’ is florescence thought of as the culminating beauty of the plant. Cherry trees are said to be in blossom, hyacinths in bloom.'). But I suspect many people aren't particularly alert to that distinction, and in any case poets do not always hold themselves bound by rules of botanical accuracy...

Metaphorically speaking, this blogpost is a kind of blossom itself, because the word can also be used to refer to a collection of texts, what we call an anthology. The etymology of the Greek word anthology is 'a gathering of flowers' (as with its Latin equivalent, florilegium), and this metaphor can be found in English too: the Old English version of Augustine's Soliloquies, one of the books translated as part of the education programme instigated by Alfred the Great, refers to its text as blostma and seo gadorung þære blostmena - a gathering of 'blossoms' gleaned from Augustine's thoughts. The image fits with the translator's famous metaphor in his preface, where he says that the act of translating a text is like going to the woods to collect timber, gathering materials for building and coming back laden with branches, yet still seeing 'in every tree' something you need and more than you can carry home. (And so, he says, every reader of a translation ought to go to the woods themselves, and gather materials to build a house of books where they can dwell in peace. With the extracts below, I've given links to the full texts so that you can do this for yourself.)


Let's start with two brief but favourite Anglo-Saxon examples. First, of course, The Seafarer:

Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
fields grow beautiful, the world hastens on;
all these things urge on the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.

In Old English poetry blossom, alliteratively, blowað ('blooms'); so in the Menologium, in May:

...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.


sun-bright days bring summer to town,
with warm weather. Then the meadows
quickly bloom with blossom, and bliss 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.

Those 'manifold' voices suggest, I think, the chatter of birdsong - almost incessant at this time of year, when the sun is shining! The alliterative link between blossom and bliss, seen in the third line here, continued to be a very popular one in English poetry (until bliss started to shift its meaning a little). Just as May is always 'merry', so 'blossom' and 'bliss' go together...


The following little extracts all come from Middle English poems (from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) which celebrate the spring, and its connections with love and fertility - human love is one with all the associated sounds and signs in the natural world.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen and with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayesezes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter woo,
When woderove springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele,
And wlyteth on huere wynter wele,
That al the wode ryngeth.


Spring is come with love to town,
With blossom and with birds' song,
Which brings all this bliss.
Daisies in the dales,
Sweet notes of nightingales;
Every bird sings a song.
The threstlecock is chiding,
All their winter woe is gone
When the woodruff springs.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

(read more)

Ac ich alle blisse mid me bringe:
ech wiȝt is glad for mine þinge,
& blisseþ hit wanne ich cume,
& hiȝteþ aȝen mine kume.

Þe blostme ginneþ springe & sprede,
boþe ine tro & ek on mede.
Þe lilie mid hire faire wlite
wolcumeþ me, þat þu hit wite,
bit me mid hire faire blo
þat ich shulle to hire flo.
Þe rose also mid hire rude,
þat cumeþ ut of þe þorne wode,
bit me þat ich shulle singe
vor hire luue one skentinge.


But I all brightness with me bring:
Each creature's glad at my coming!
They all rejoice when I arrive,
And at my coming all are blithe.
The blossom starts to spring and spread,
Both in the tree and on the mead.
The lily, white and fair as snow,
Welcomes me, as you well know;
And beckons with her pretty eye,
To say that I must to her fly;
The rose, with her complexion red,
Growing from the thorny hedge,
Bids me that I must sing,
For her love, one little thing.

(The speaker/singer is a nightingale; read more here)


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.


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.

(read more)

When the nyhtegale singes,
The wodes waxen grene,
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes
In Averyl, Y wene;
Ant love is to myn herte gon
With one spere so kene,
Nyht ant day my blod hit drynkes
Myn herte deth me tene.


When the nightingale sings
The woods grow green,
Leaf and grass and blossom spring
In April, I believe.
And love is to my heart gone
With a spear so keen,
Night and day my blood it drinks
My heart causes me pain.

(read more)

Then there's the lovely snippet from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where a sprinkle of spring rain suddenly brings forth a burst of blossom:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter
bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

After Christmas comes the crabbed Lent,
Which tests the flesh with fish and simpler food;
But then the weather of the world wages war against winter,
Cold clears away, clouds lift,
Brightly sheds the rain in warm showers
And falls upon fair fields, where flowers appear.
Both the ground and the groves put on green garments;
Birds begin to build, and brightly sing
For delight in the soft summer coming thereafter
To the banks;
And blossoms burgeon into bloom
In rows rich and abundant;
Then notes noble indeed
Are heard in the woods so wild.


For many medieval poets, trees and their springtime flowers also suggested another blossom upon another tree: Christ on the cross. The idea of the cross as a real tree, with roots and leaves and branches and blossoms, was much more prevalent in medieval poetry than it is today, and Christ is often described as its 'blossom' or its 'fruit'. He is a blossom both at the beginning and the end of his life, since he is also the blossom which flowers (through Mary) from the root of Jesse, as this fifteenth-century carol says:

There is a flower sprung of a tree,
The root thereof is called Jesse,
A flower of price;
There is none such in paradise.

This flower is fair and fresh of hue;
It fades never, but ever is new;
The blessed branch where this flower grew
Was Mary mild who bore Jesu,
A flower of grace!
Against all sorrow it is solace.

The seed thereof was of God's sending,
Which God himself sowed with his hand;
In Bethlehem, in that holy land,
Within her bower he there her found.
This blessed flower
Sprang never but in Mary's bower.

When Gabriel this maiden met,
With "Ave, Maria," he her gret [greeted]
Between them two this flower was set,
And was kept, no man should wit, [know]
Til on a day
In Bethlehem, it began to spread and spray.

When that flower began to spread,
And his blossom to bud,
Rich and poor of every seed, [i.e. kind]
They marvelled how this flower might spread,
Until kings three
That blessed flower came to see.

A thirteenth-century Life of St Margaret addresses Christ as brihtest bleo of alle þet eauer weren iborene, blostme iblowen & iboren of meidenes bosum, 'brightest one of all who have ever been born, blossom bloomed and born of a maiden's bosom...' This brings us back to those romance descriptions of a pretty child as 'bright as blossom on briar'; a child, a little sprig of new life from the family tree, is particularly blossom-like.


But Christ is a blossom too upon the cross - an image less familiar to us, and perhaps strange to modern ears. In medieval writing the image of cross-as-tree is almost ubiquitous, perhaps most famous from the 'Crux fidelis':

Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis:
nulla silva talem profert,
fronde, flore, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulces clavos,
dulce pondus sustinet.


Faithful cross, above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweet the wood, and sweet the iron,
and thy load, most sweet is he.

Or in a Middle English translation:

Steddefast Crosse, inmong alle other,
Thou art a tree mikel of prise;
In brawnche and flore swilk another
I ne wot non in wood no ris.
Swete be the nalis, and swete be the tree,
And sweter be the birdin that hangis upon thee.

This tallies with medieval iconography of the Crucifixion, where the cross is so often depicted as a real tree, or even some other kind of plant - like the images of Christ crucified upon a lily which are found in late-medieval art. When poetry of spring and love and blossom and birdsong was so very popular, it's no surprise that these two branches should become entwined, and the love-poetry of blossoming spring should become the love-poetry of Eastertide:

When I se blosmes springe,
And here foules song,
A suete love-longynge
Myn herte thourhout stong,
Al for a love newe
That is so suete and trewe,
That gladieth al my song.
Ich wot al myd iwisse
My joie and eke my blisse
On him is al ylong.

Of Jesu Crist hi synge,
That is so fayr and fre,
Swetest of alle thynge;
His othwe hic oghe wel boe.
Wl fer he me sothte,
Myd hard he me bothte,
Wyth wnde to and three;
Wel sore he was yswnge,
And for me myd spere ystunge,
Ynayled to the tree.


When I see blossoms spring,
And hear the birds' song,
A sweet love-longing
Entirely pierces my heart,
All for a love new
That is so sweet and true,
That gladdens all my song:
I know in truth, iwis,
My joy and all my bliss
On him is all ylong. [is all because of him]

Of Jesu Christ I sing,
Who is so fair and free, [noble]
Sweetest of all thing;
His own ought I well to be.
So far for me he sought,
With suffering he me bought,
With wounds two and three;
Well sore he was swung,
And for me with spear was stung,
Nailed to the tree.

(read more)

Here the springtime blossom recalls to the speaker that other 'tree', with its sweet burden and the 'bliss' its blossom bought. It's a beautiful image but also a paradoxical one: of death and life, joy and sorrow, the most natural of images but also a terrible distortion of the beauty of nature - because a criminal hanging on a tree is a dying man, the furthest thing possible from a springing blossom. 'Allas!' cries Mary, in the York Crucifixion play, as she stands before her son hanging on the Cross, 'that this blossome so bright / Untrewly is tugged to this tree!' Here the conventional image of Christ as blossom becomes powerfully disturbing: tugged means 'attached' - a profoundly unnatural image, blossom 'stuck' to a tree it did not grow from - and its connotations of rough handling fit so painfully with the delicacy and fragility of a blossom.

Christ crucified on a blossoming tree (from St Mary's, Iffley)

But medieval poets loved paradox, especially when it came to Christ's body. Our last example of blossom comes from a devotional prayer intended to be said by a layperson, privately, during Mass at the moment when the Host was lifted up by the priest:

Welcome, Lord, in form of bread!
In thee is both life and death,
Jesus is thy name...

Hail man of most might,
God's Son that art so bright,
Of Mary thou were born.

Hail God, blest thee be,
Hail blossom upon tree,
Heried be thy wonde! (praised be thy wounds)
Hail fruit, hail flower,
Hail be thou, Saviour
Of water and of land.

'Blossom' is just one of numerous images in this poem applied to Christ's body in the Eucharist, but here it's appropriate in several ways. The kind of devotional poetry on the Eucharist likes to dwell on its paradoxes, as a thing which, as another poem has it, 'seems white but is red' and 'is quick though seems dead' (a living thing, though it doesn't look like it). Blossom too is white but full of life, with the vitality of the youthful beauty of those characters of romance with which we began, who are 'bright as blossom on briar'. Conventional image it might be, but it does something beautiful here. The poem, with its short rhyming lines, is intended to be memorable - perhaps once read, it's meant to spring unbidden to the reader's mind as they lift their eyes to gaze upon the Host. And in reverse: to prompt their eyes, when they look upon blossom, to see the body of Christ.