Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The Long Lent and the History of Quarantine


Strange new events call for new vocabulary, and over the last few weeks and months we have all been getting used to some novel and unfamiliar language: self-isolation, social distancing, lockdown. In my own mind, I've taken to calling this whole situation 'the Long Lent' - mostly because it sounds less frightening than 'global pandemic', and makes it seem a little bit less weird and impossible. It's also an apt name in several ways which suit the timing of this strange new reality. In the UK and some other parts of the world, this escalating situation has coincided almost exactly with the progress of Lent; at Ash Wednesday lockdown still seemed only a distant possibility, but by mid-Lent Sunday it was our new life. That life is Lenten in some familiar as well as unfamiliar ways. In a literal sense, of course, the constraints and restrictions we are all facing require the kind of self-denial and patience Lenten fasting is meant to teach; if we are lucky enough in ordinary times to have an abundance of all the food, time and pleasure we can wish for (of course not everybody is) that has changed abruptly in the last few weeks. The sombre themes which Lent demands we reflect on are now our daily preoccupation; texts used every year in the liturgy during Lent - contemplations of mortality and the brevity of life, the lamentations of Jeremiah, Psalm 91 with its promise of being saved from plague and pestilence - seem almost too pointed this year.

Even the suspension of worship in churches, though in some ways unprecedented, has a slightly uncanny Lenten parallel. (The date on which it ceased was also, as pointed out here, an extraordinary coincidence with the single comparable precedent for this in British history.) In Lent the church traditionally forgoes, temporarily fasts, from some aspects of the liturgy: the Alleluia is 'locked' away, as it was expressed in medieval England, to be unlocked again at Easter. During Passiontide, the last fortnight in Lent, statues and crucifixes in church are covered up, hidden and shrouded as a token of the deepening solemnity of the season. Last week, many people could still at least see the inside of churches they love via livestreamed services, but tighter restrictions mean that even that is now forbidden for many; and so Passion Sunday marked the beginning of a period when many churches will be entirely shrouded and invisible for a long time to come. It's a strange coincidence, of the kind a medieval historian, trained to be attuned to the intersections between unfolding human history and the liturgical year, would have found fascinating (and most likely they would have said it was not a coincidence at all).

Since these restrictions will not end for us at Easter, even when Lent is over, this looks to be a very Long Lent indeed. But there's an etymological fitness in the phrase 'Long Lent', too, which means the two words naturally collocate. In English, the original meaning of the word 'Lent' (Old English lencten) was simply 'spring', and though it was subsequently transferred in the Anglo-Saxon period to refer to the church season, the two meanings co-existed for a long time. 'Lent' continued to be the most common word for 'spring' in English until at least the 14th century. In medieval English usage, it's often difficult to distinguish whether any particular use of 'Lent' means 'spring' or specifically 'pre-Easter fast'; the two always coincide, and there wasn't often much need to differentiate. In origin, the etymology of 'Lent' probably derives from the same Germanic root as 'long' and 'lengthen', from the idea of spring as the time when the days are growing longer. Whether poets realised that or not (it wouldn't be hard to guess), the alliteration and aural similarity which links these words means they often appear together in medieval English poetry. For instance, here's a verse from a fourteenth-century springtime poem in praise of the Virgin Mary:

Lentun-dayes, thei ben longe,
And nou weor good tyme to amende
That we beforen han do wronge.
This world nis nothing, as I wende;
In sori tyme my lyf I spend.
This world is fals, and that I feel;
But Marie Moder me amende,
Amis I fare, and nothing wel.

(Lent days, they are long, and now is a good time to make amends for what we have previously done wrong. This world is nothing, I think; I spend my life unhappily. This world is false, and I feel that. Unless Mary mother helps me amend, I fare amiss, and in no way well.)

The suggestion here is that the natural lengthening of days in Lent helps to make them a particularly good time to do penance - not exactly, perhaps, because there are more hours of daylight to do good in, but because Lent/spring is a season of amendment, a time of growth and rebirth in the natural world, when light and life are increasing all around us. The lengthening days of Lent can be taken as a sign of hope for better things, a spur to aim for self-improvement. However, I confess that to me this Lent seems like a time when 'the days are growing longer' in a different way, because at times these formless days seem very long indeed...

A bit of more cheerful blossom

If we delve a bit further into linguistic history, we can see some more interesting connections. Along with adjusting to new vocabulary, we're also hearing much more these days of an older term, quarantine - a word most of us probably already knew, without often having the need to use it. This comes from the medieval Latin quarentena, from quaranta, 'forty', and in medieval Latin it's a measurement, both of length and of time: as a unit of length, the equivalent of English furlong (a length of forty rods), and as a unit of time, a period of forty days.

It's the latter which gives us our modern sense of the word. The history of quarantine as a public health measure dates back to the fourteenth century, when Venetian authorities, hoping to avoid outbreaks of plague, enforced a forty-day period of waiting before ships could enter harbour. In time similar measures were adopted elsewhere, and quarantine became a common word for such periods of isolation, whether or not the period in question was actually forty days long. (The OED helpfully quotes Pepys, writing in 1663, observing of a thirty-day quarantine that it's 'contrary to the import of the word; though in the general acceptation, it signifies now the thing, not the time spent in doing it'.)

However, the word quarantine has a longer history than that, and one which aligns it closely with Lent. A period of forty days is not a random unit of time, but one whose significance in medieval custom was established by important Biblical precedent: in the Old Testament both Moses and Elijah went without food for periods of forty days, sustained only by the power of God, and, of course, Christ fasted in the desert forty days and forty nights. In imitation of these fasts, and especially of Christ in the wilderness, a forty-day period of fasting was established in Christian practice in the fourth century, and gradually became codified as the season of Lent (in Latin Quadragesima, from the same root as quarentena). It matches the other significant periods of forty-day seasons which shape the liturgical year, the forty days between Christmas and Candlemas and between Easter and the Feast of the Ascension. Lent, Easter, and Christmas are each attached to a forty-day quarentena.

The well-established significance of the forty-day period meant that it was a convenient one to use for various purposes in the Middle Ages, long before it became a means of keeping out the plague. Some of the earliest appearances of the word quarantine refer to legal customs which stipulated a fixed forty-day period within which a particular thing had to be done. For instance, there was a law that a woman whose husband had just died was allowed a quarantine: she had the right to continue living in her late husband’s house for forty days, unmolested, while her share of the estate was decided. This right to a 'widow's quarantine' was included in Magna Carta.

Another kind of forty-day quarantine might be a time for fasting, chosen or imposed as a penance. It was a way of imitating the Biblical periods of fasting, but at any time of the year. The fourteenth-century English poet John Gower, writing in French, says that 'He who fasts a single day with you [i.e. Charity] receives a more sure reward than another who fasts a quarantine (un quarantain) without you', suggesting that a fast of one day, faithfully undertaken, is of more virtue than the more extravagant commitment of forty days. There are numerous comparable uses of the term in sources in medieval Latin (quarentena) and in Anglo-Norman (quarantaine), in the centuries before the word began to take on its more restricted present-day meaning.

Interestingly, though often used by English writers when writing in Latin or French, the word quarantine doesn't appear in English in any of these senses until after the medieval period. There are several reasons for this, one being that most legal and ecclesiastical business in the period we're looking at (twelfth-fifteenth centuries) was still conducted or at least recorded in either Latin or French, so an English equivalent for a technical term like the 'widow's quarantine' would not have been necessary. But the other reason is that when speakers of Middle English wanted to talk about a forty-day period of fasting, they would call it a lent - a term which by this time could refer to a fast at any time of year, not only the universal pre-Easter fast. If Gower had been writing in English, he would surely have used the word lent where he says quarantain, just as a contemporary of his writes of a penance being imposed for 'the lengthe of a Lenten' at a non-Lent time of the year. This means that to some degree lent and quarantine are basically synonymous, since both can mean 'a forty-day period of penitential fasting'.

And that brings us to the other link between them, the only sense the word quarantine does have in medieval English, according to the Middle English Dictionary.

By yonde ys a wyldernys of quarentyne,
Wher Cryst wyth fastyng hys body dyd pyne;
In that holy place, as we rede,
The deuyl wold had of stonys bred;
Aboue that wyldernys ryght fer and hy
The fende to Cryst schewyd regna mundi,
And sayde, 'Yf thow wylt me worschyp do
Al these shalt thou haue thy lordschyp to.'

This is the fifteenth-century writer William Wey, describing the region around Jerusalem, which he had visited on pilgrimage in 1456 and subsequently wrote about in his Itineraries. One of the pilgrimage sites one could visit in that region was the desert where Christ fasted, which was named Quarantine, because of the forty-day duration of his fast. (Today, Mount Quarantania.) Margery Kempe went there too, in 1413, to 'the Mownt Qwarentyne ther owyr Lord fastyd fowrty days'; she tells us how difficult she and her party found it to get up the mountain, and how she could not manage it at all until she found a kindly 'Sarazyn' to help her. That mountain, pilgrims were told, was where Christ fasted and was tempted by the devil, as Wey explains:

Beyond is a wilderness of Quarantine,
Where Christ with fasting afflicted his body.
In that holy place, as we read,
The devil demanded to have bread from stones.
Above that wilderness, right far and high,
The devil to Christ showed the kingdom of the world,
And said, 'If you will worship me,
You shall have this in your power.'

That was the fast and self-denial which the practice of Lent was supposed to imitate. And it all took place in Quarantine.

Christ in Quarantine (British Library, Add MS 18851, f. 71, opening the readings for the First Sunday of Lent)

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Stella celi extirpavit

The Virgin Mary in a fourteenth-century manuscript, BL Royal MS 6 E VII Part 2, f. 479

Back in Advent, I revisited the poems of the 15th-century friar James Ryman in order to write this post. I read a number of Ryman's poems which I hadn't really looked at before, and kept a record of those which interested me with an eye to future blogposts. One struck me as unusual, and I took note of it, though I was pretty sure I would never find a suitable occasion to post it here. But that was Advent, and here we are in Lent - the longest Lent of our lives. And this is a prayer for a time of plague.

The heavenly star so bright and clear,
That fed the Lord of indulgence, [mercy]
Hath put away both far and near
Of ghostly death the pestilence, [the plague of spiritual death]
That our parent wrought by offence:
[May] she cease the stars' war and wrath,
That dimmeth us by sharp stroke of death.

O spouse of Christ, mother of grace,
O benign queen of heaven bliss,
Cause us in bliss to have a place,
Whereof the joy shall never miss,
Where next unto God thy throne is,
And for our sin and our misdeed
Let not Satan ay us possess.

This is Ryman's translation of Stella celi extirpavit, a hymn first recorded in manuscripts from 15th-century England, in the decades after the Black Death. This article, which gives a history of the hymn, provides the following text and translation for the most common version of Stella celi (Ryman's is a little different):

Stella celi extirpavit
que lactavit Dominum
mortis pestem, quam plantavit
primus parens hominum.
Ipsa stella nunc dignetur
sydera compescere;
quorum bella plebem cedunt
dire mortis ulcere.
O gloriosa stella maris,
a peste succurre nobis.
Audi nos: nam Filius tuus
nihil negans te honorat
Salva nos, Jesu, pro quibus
virgo mater te orat.

Star of Heaven,
who nourished the Lord
and rooted up the plague of death
which our first parents planted;
may that star now deign
to hold in check the constellations
whose strife grants the people
the ulcers of a terrible death.
O glorious star of the sea,
save us from the plague.
Hear us: for your Son
who honours you denies you nothing.
Jesus, save us, for whom
the Virgin Mother prays to you.

The hymn addresses Mary, asking that since her child did away with the plague of sin which assailed the soul, her prayers will help to end the plague which attacks the body. The specific historical context is clear: the allusion to 'ulcers of a terrible death' is a direct reference to the swellings which were one of the symptoms of the Black Death.

In keeping with scientific thinking of the time, the hymn sees sickness as originating in the alignment of the stars, and so asks for Mary's help as 'star of heaven' - she is imagined as a good star of peace and life who can restrain the malign stars of war and death. Some of the language also draws on traditional imagery of Mary as healer and nourisher, in focusing for instance on her feeding her child (lactavit Dominum). In the image of her 'uprooting' the plant of death, there's perhaps a suggestion too of the well-established medieval association of Mary with life-giving plants, which figure her as a tree who bears the fruit of life, or a doctor who brings healing herbs. Altogether Mary is presented as all that is wholesome and nourishing, a powerful intercessor and a bringer of health and hope.

This text is widely recorded in late medieval sources, both with and without music. As well as Ryman's version, written down in Canterbury at the end of the 15th century, there are two more English poems based on the hymn, attributed to the Bury St Edmunds poet John Lydgate. Here's one of them (in modern spelling; the Middle English is here):

Thou heavenly queen, of grace our lodestar,
With thy chaste milk plenteous of plesaunce [full of grace]
Gave Jesu suck, puttest away the war
Of pestilence, to appease our grievance,
Our well of mercy, our joy, our sufficence,
Flower of virgins, mother of most price, [greatest value]
Racedist up all surfetis of mischance, [eradicated all sinful excess]
That our forefather planted in Paradise.

Thou same star, of stars none so bright,
Celestial star of beauty most sovereign,
To thee we pray, on us cast down thy sight,
Only of mercy that thou not disdain,
Of infected air the mists to restrain,
That by thy gracious most wholesome influence
We have no cause on hasty death to pleyne, [lament]
Which slayeth the people by sword of pestilence.

Our trust is fully, and our confidence,
Undespaired in our opinion, [belief]
Against all weathers of corrupt pestilence,
By thy request and mediation,
And by thy Son's glorious Passion,
And remembrance of thy joys all,
Against froward airs causing infection,
Defend us, Lady, when we to thee call.

For as Phoebus chaseth mists black,
Toward midmorrow with his beams clear,
And Lucifer biddith sluggy folk awake, [the sun bids sleepy people wake]
In the orient first, when he doth appear,
Right so mayest thou in thy celestial sphere,
O star of stars, star of most excellence,
Maid and mother, by means of thy prayer, [through the intercession of your prayers]
Save all thy servants from stroke of pestilence.

Neither this poem nor Ryman's make reference to ulcers, as the Latin hymn does; their descriptions of the illness and its cause are (perhaps deliberately) more general than the Latin, more applicable to any outbreak of disease. Lydgate speaks of 'froward airs causing infection' and the unhealthy 'mists' which he asks Mary to clear away like the sun at morning. Ryman's version is less scientific, asking instead for deliverance from the force which 'dimmeth us by sharp stroke of death'. The thought that epidemics 'dim' us, i.e. cast a dark shadow over our lives, is particularly poignant. In their astrological and medical thinking, all versions of this hymn come from a medieval world very foreign to us - and yet for once it feels very near.

'Stella celi' in BL Royal Appendix MS. 58

Several early settings of this hymn survive in 15th-century manuscripts. The oldest is the unearthly setting below by John Cooke, a member of Henry V's household chapel, who went with the king to Agincourt in 1415 and seems to have ended his life as a singer at St Paul's Cathedral. His version of Stella celi is preserved in this manuscript.



From later in the century, there's this setting by Walter Lambe, from the Eton Choirbook:



And there are numerous other attestations of the hymn from England, Portugal and elsewhere, including 15th-century evidence that the hymn was in regular use among students at Oxford - sung at the ringing of the curfew bell on Marian feasts and after Compline in Magdalen College chapel. For a full list, see Christopher Macklin, 'Plague, Performance and the Elusive History of the Stella Celi Extirpavit', Early Music History 29 (2010), 1-31, available online here. Macklin proposes a connection between the hymn and the Franciscan order, who 'were intimately involved in caring for the sick during the Black Death and in subsequent epidemics', and as a result suffered catastrophic mortality rates across Europe. These learned origins would fit with the hymn's specifically astrological and medical approach to the understanding of disease.

But it was not only a hymn for friars and students. In the collection of mystery plays from 15th-century East Anglia known as the 'N-town Plays', there's a reference to this hymn in the play about the Adoration of the Shepherds. The Shepherds sing it as they go to Bethlehem to meet the Christ-child, and though the use of Stella celi is only brief (and a bit surprising - why might a prayer against the plague be thought appropriate here?), the scene is so lovely and so loving that I can't resist quoting at length. We begin when the shepherds have just heard the angels sing 'Gloria in excelsis' and, wonderfully, they're struggling to puzzle out the - to them unfamiliar - Latin words. (Again this is in modern spelling; for the Middle English see this page)

Shepherd 1: Ey, ey, this was a wonder note
That was now sung above the sky!
I have that voice full well, I wot —
They sang “Gle, glo, glory."

Shepherd 2: Nay, so mot y the, so was it nowth! [as I may thrive, it wasn't that!]
I have that song full well inum; [I got it right]
In my wit well it is wrought:
It was “Gle, glo, glas, glum."

Shepherd 3: The song methought it was “Glory."
And afterward, he said us to
There is a child born shall be a prince mighty!
For to seek that child, I rede we go. [I advise we go]

Shepherd 1: The prophecy of Boosdras is speedily sped. [swiftly fulfilled]
Now leyke we hence as that light us lead. [let's go where the light is leading us]
Might we see once that bright on bed,
Our bale it would unbind; [it would relieve our trouble]
We should shudder for no shower.
Busk we us hence to Bethlem borough [let's hurry to Bethlehem]
To see that fair fresh flower,
The maid mild in mind.

Shepherd 2: Let us follow with all our might,
With song and mirth we shall us dight [prepare]
And worship with joy that worthy wight,
That Lord is of mankind.
Let us go forth, fast on hie
And honour that babe worthily
With mirth, song and melody.
Have done! This song begin.

Stage direction, in Latin: 'Then the shepherds will sing Stella celi extirpavit as they go to look for the Christ'

Shepherd 1: Hail, flower of flowers, fairest found!
Hail, pearl, peerless primrose of price!
Hail, bloom on bed! We shall be unbound
With thy bloody wounds and works full wise!
Hail, God greatest! I greet thee on ground!
The greedy devil shall groan grisly as a gryse [like a boar]
When thou winnest this world with thy wide wounds
And puttest man to Paradys with plenty of price! [abundance]
To love thee is my delight.
Hail, flower fair and free,
Light from the Trinity!
Hail, blessed may thou be!
Hail, maiden fairest in sight!

Shepherd 2: Hail, flower over flowers found in frith! [in the woods]
Hail, Christ kind in our kith! [sharing in our nature]
Hail, worker of weal to wonen us with! [doer of good, come to dwell with us]
Hail, winner, iwis,
Hail, former and friend, [creator and friend]
Hail, feller of the fiend,
Hail, clad in our kind!
Hail, Prince of Paradise!

Shepherd 3: Hail, lord over lords who lies full low!
Hail, king over kings, thy kindred to know!
Hail, comely knight, the devil to overthrow!
Hail, flower of all!
Hail, worker to win
Bodies bound in sin!
Hail, in a beasts' bin, [manger]
Bestad in a stall. [laid in a stall]

Joseph: Herds on hill [shepherds from the hills]
Be not still, [silent]
But say your will
To many a man:
How God is born
This merry morn —
That is forlorn
Find he can. [he can find the one who is lost - i.e. like the Good Shepherd]

Shepherd 1: We shall tell
By dale and hill
How Harrower of Hell
Was born this night,
Mirths to mell [to speak joy]
And fiends to quell,
That were so fell
Against his right.

[Having paid homage to the baby, they take their departure.]

Shepherd 2: Farewell, babe and bairn of bliss!
Farewell, Lord that lovely is!
Thee to worship, thy feet I kiss.
On knees to thee I fall,
Thee to worship, I fall on knee.
All this world may joy of thee!
Now farewell, Lord of great pousté! [power]
Yea, farewell king of all.

Shepherd 3: Though I be the last that take my leave,
Yet, fair mullynge, take it not at no grieve. [don't be upset, pretty darling]
Now, fair babe, well may thou cheve! [thrive]
Fair child, now have good day.
Farewell, mine own dear darling:
Iwis, thou art a right fair thing!
Farewell, my Lord and my sweeting!
Farewell, born in poor array.

Mary: Now ye herdsmen, well may ye be;
For your homage and your singing
My son shall quit you in heaven see, [reward you in heaven]
And give you all right good ending.

Though at first not even able to recognise the angels' song, the shepherds are very soon inspired to sing themselves in words of eloquent praise, with tender affection for the 'dear darling' and the 'fair flower' his mother. They are so very sweet towards the baby (kissing his feet!), but they also trust him to overthrow the devil and deliver the whole world from pain. Perhaps that's why they sing Stella celi, a hymn which with extraordinary confidence finds its hope for deliverance from sickness not only in the motion of the stars, but in the most everyday act of love: a mother who by feeding her baby saved the world from disaster.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

'So glorious a gleam, over dale and down'

The Adoration of the Magi, British Library, Add. 18850, f. 24v

Two carols for Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany. The visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus is a very popular subject in medieval carols, perhaps partly because of the appeal of the dramatic details of the Gospel narrative - the urgency of the questing kings, their tense interaction with Herod, the atmosphere of danger in which their search for the child takes place. But it might also be partly because Twelfth Night, as the culmination of the main period of Christmas festivities (though not the official end of the Christmas season, which was Candlemas), would have been a good time for singing carols. In the past I've posted a few examples of Epiphany carols out of the many which survive.

And here are two more which are roughly contemporary with each other, from manuscripts produced in the second half of the fifteenth century. They tell the same story, but in different ways; one makes effective use of dialogue and of melodious repetition, while the other is more interested in the symbolism of the tale, its fulfilment of prophecies, and the central image of the star - that gleam of unearthly brightness which guides the pilgrim-kings to their journey's end.

The beginning of this poem in Cambridge, St John's College, MS. S 54

The first poem comes from a scrappy little manuscript of carols, perhaps originally from East Anglia, which is now in St John's College, Cambridge. You can browse through it here, though it's not much to look at, and pretty difficult to decipher! It shows considerable signs of wear and was clearly more for use than for ornament, perhaps as an aide memoire to communal carol-singing. All the carols it contains were published in this edition, which I've relied on for the text which follows, though I've modernised the spelling and expanded abbreviations. There's no music in the manuscript, but the repeated lines give an unusually strong sense of how beautiful this text might be when sung (anyone fancy setting it to music?). The first verse is especially lovely, I think.

When Christ was born in Bethlehem,
There rose a star as bright as leme [fire, radiance]
That gave so glorious a gleam
Over dale and down,
Over dale and down it sprang and spread.
It made three kings to be adread [afraid]
Into an unchond land it them led [it led them to an unknown country]
Into a town;
They were three kings of great renown.

They came to seek Herod the king
And asked him of all that thing,
And spered after the child so ying [inquired after the child so young]
That should be king,
That should be king of all Jewry.
'We saw a star secyrly [certainly]
Therefore we worship him forthy [for that reason]
That child so ying
Here gold and homage we him bring.'

'Wend ye forth all three in fere, [all three of you go forth together]
And of that child if ye may hear,
That ye will come again in fere
I you beseech,
I you beseech that ye me say
As ye come homeward again in your way
That I myself him worship may,
That child so meek,
On my bare feet I would him seek.'

The kings no longer there abode
But forth to Bethlem then they rode,
And the star before them glode [glided]
Until they were,
Until they were where Jesu lay,
Wounden in a crib of hay;
Them thought it was a poor array.
[line missing]
Of prince of peace that hast no peer.

'Now kneel we down, all three in fere,
And offer to this darling dear
Gold for [aye?] and rekels clear [rekels is an old word for incense]
And myrrh also,
And myrrh also in tokening
That he is very man and king,
Suffering prince over all thing,
One and no mo [other/more]
For holy writ bears witnesses also.'

An angel warned them in their sleep
That they should them for Herod keep [beware of Herod]
They thanked God with devotion deep
And home they went,
And home they went on their journey.
When thereof Herod heard say,
He said 'Alas, and welaway,
For I am shent! [ruined]
This child, he will my kingdom hent!' [seize my royal power]

This Herod was both wode and wroth [mad and furious]
With mickle ire he made his oath
That all the land it should be loath [sorry]
That he was born,
That he was born that should be king.
He did to do a spiteful thing [he caused a spiteful thing to be done]
To slay children both old and ying
In Bethlem born
Within two winters there before.

The children sprongyld on the spears, [struggled]
The mothers wept full bitter tears,
That Herod did them guiltless derys [caused them, innocent, terrible harm]
That fiend so fell,
That fiend so fell, foul must him befall,
That thus these children martyred all.
Unto Mary we gye and call [turn and appeal]
To shield us from the pit of hell
There in bliss well.

My favourite thing about this carol is the first verse, with those lovely alliterative phrases describing the star. After that, I also like the easy shifts between narrative and speech, especially between Herod and the Magi. Herod gets a verse to himself, and a bit of angry expostulation, true to his usual presentation in medieval literature: he's often shown as a blusterer, full of angry words, and that's how he comes across on the stage of medieval mystery plays, where his storming and ranting became proverbial. (That's what Hamlet is referring to when he advises his actors not to overdo their storms of passion, like those who seek to 'out-Herod Herod' on the stage with furious gestures and shouting). He exclaims angrily here, and his words to the three kings briefly sketch a dishonest, insinuating character: his promise 'On my bare feet I would him seek' has the exaggerated touch of a confident liar. The carol seems about to end in a dark place, with his anger and cruelty - until that last turn, 'unto Mary'. Again, it recalls the effect sought in medieval mystery plays, which intercut scenes of Herod's pride, rage and tyranny with the exact opposite, the next stage in the story, at Candlemas: there the earthly power embodied by Herod is shown to be vain, while poverty, patience, innocent love and frail old age encounter a light hidden from the eyes of the powerful.

The Magi doused in starlight, BL Add. 18850, f. 75

Next, another carol from the 1492 collection of James Ryman, Franciscan friar of Canterbury. This too tells the story of the Magi's visit, but through its refrain, and the couplet which is repeated at the end of each stanza, it keeps drawing our attention back to the star, and the day of its appearance - this day.

A star shone bright on Twelfth Day
Over that place where Jesus lay.

On Twelfth Day this star so clear
Brought kings three out of the east
Unto that king, that hath no peer,
In Bethlehem Judah, where he did rest.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Both gold, incense and sweet myrrh tho [then]
All three they gave unto that child,
The which is god and man also,
Born of a virgin undefiled.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

For he was king of majesty,
They gave him gold with great reverence.
For he was god in persons three,
Meekly to him they gave incense.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

For he was man, they gave him than [then]
Myrrh in token that he should die
And be buried for sinful man
And arise again and to bliss stye. [ascend]
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

When their offering all three had made
To Christ, that king and lord of all,
Right soon the star away did fade,
That brightly shone over that hall.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

As they were going in their way,
They met Herod, that mody king. [proud king]
He bade them wit where that child lay, [told them to find out where the child lay]
And come by him and word him bring.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

King Herod fain would them have slain,
But they were warned on a night
They should not go by him again,
By an angel both fair and bright.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

They were full glad, and as he bad
They be gone home another way,
And King Herod was wroth and sad,
That he of them had lost his prey.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Into Egypt Joseph then fled
With the mother and with the child,
Where they abode til he was dead, [they lived until Herod was dead]
And of his will he was beguiled. [and was thwarted of his will]
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

King Herod then in his great wrath
Seeing of them his purpose lorn [seeing his plans for them lost]
Infants full young he put to death
Through all Bethlehem, that there were born.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Then, as the prophet Ysay [Isaiah]
Had prophesied long time before,
A voice was heard in bliss on high
Of great weeping and wailing sore.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Honour to Christ, that now was born,
As prophecy had said before,
To save mankind, that was forlorn,
And to his bliss for to restore.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

The events of the carol are explicitly set on 'Twelfth Day', and if you imagine this carol being sung at Twelfth Night festivities, there's a particular immediacy to the time reference - it was on this day that the star 'did fade' and 'went away / from that sweet place where Jesus lay'. (In a neat touch, the carol itself has twelve verses.) I like that emphasis on departure, as if to suggest that it's not only the star which takes its leave on Twelfth Day, having done its work; it's also the Christmas season itself, and there's a sense of an ending here, a culmination. Just as the star departs from the 'sweet place' of the birth, and the three kings take their departure, and Joseph and Mary flee into Egypt, so we as the readers of this carol are taking our leave of Christmas - with all its sweet joys - on Twelfth Day.

The Magi see the star, BL Add. 18850, f. 75

Sunday, 22 December 2019

'With my darling 'Lullay' to sing'

In the Christmas edition of the Catholic Herald, I've written a short piece about the medieval carol 'Lullay, Myn Lyking' ('I saw a fair maiden'), often heard today in this beautiful setting by Gustav Holst:



Holst wasn't the first to set this medieval text to music, but his setting is very well-loved. In my piece I discuss the link between the carol and the woman in whose book Holst found it, Mary Gertrude Segar - a female Catholic medievalist in the days when such things were rare (not that they're exactly common today). When thinking about the accessibility of medieval English texts like this poem, I'm often struck by the fact that the very audiences for whom they were written were, for a long time, those most directly excluded from the opportunity to read them: think of all those medieval devotional works which were written to be read by Catholic women and men, but which, when they began to be edited in the 19th century, became the property of a scholarly world which neither women nor Catholics were yet allowed to join. The roots of anti-Catholicism in England run deep, and it's a well-known fact that in older scholarship discussion of the medieval church is often profoundly shaped by that prejudice, potently combined with anti-Irish racism, class snobbery, and hostility to Britain's Catholic European neighbours. However much scholarship has (or in some cases hasn't) moved on, that old prejudice has had a wearisome and lasting impact. Many modern popular misconceptions about the practices of the medieval church, whether it's relics, saints, pilgrimage, or beliefs about the church's attitude towards science or Biblical translation, derive in a straight line of descent from 19th- and early 20th-century anti-Catholic polemic - even if they masquerade today as rationalist critique. In that context, all the more reason to remember women like Mary Segar, who must often have encountered such prejudice, and who came to these texts with different eyes.

Some other medieval texts which Holst found in Segar's anthology became his 'Four Songs for Voice and Violin':



I sing of a maiden
That matchless is.
King of all Kings
Was her Son iwis.

He came all so still,
Where His mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass:

He came all so still,
To His mother's bower
As dew in April
That falleth on flower.

He came all so still,
Where His mother lay
As dew in April
That formeth on spray.

Mother and maiden
Was ne'er none but she:
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.

(Segar's modernisation of a 15th-century text)

On a related note, you may also be interested at this season in listening to a recently-uploaded extract from a study-day I led back in the summer, on the subject of 'Mary and the Lives of Medieval Women'. Many medieval artists and writers were deeply interested in exploring Mary's experiences of motherhood, both its joys and its sorrows. In this extract I discuss a number of medieval poems which imagine her feelings at the Annunciation, during her pregnancy, and in the first days after Jesus' birth.



These are poems I've written about before here, and this sweet little 15th-century carol seems particularly fitting with just a few days to go before Christmas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 December 2019

An Advent Carol: O Orient Light

Annunciation (BL Add. 29433, f. 20)

Here's an Advent poem from a collection of carols which was compiled by James Ryman, Franciscan friar of Canterbury, at the very end of the fifteenth century. I've often posted carols from Ryman's extensive collection (his manuscript contains more than 150 carols, all accessible here), and they're suitable for all seasons for the year. Far from being for Christmas alone, medieval carols could be very diverse in their themes, even if you stick, as Ryman does, to sacred rather than secular topics; he does have a good number of Christmas carols, but also includes songs about the Passion, the Virgin Mary, the Trinity, his order's founder St Francis, and general moral themes of death and transience - much more varied than what we would think of as carol fare today. He has carol versions of a number of Latin hymns, such as the Advent hymns Conditor alme siderum and Vox clara, which act as a good example of how these Latin liturgical texts could serve as inspiration for vernacular poetry. And even within his Christmas material, there's considerable variation in tone: some of his carols are light-hearted - the cheeky 'Farewell Advent, Christmas is come!' is a particular highlight - while others are theologically sophisticated ('Behold and see') or poignant and sombre ('Mary hath borne alone').

This one drew my eye for its spirited rhyme scheme - one rhyme per stanza, repeated six times. It's a lively little bit of virtuosity, just for the joy of it. Since the language is pretty straightforward this is in modern spelling; here's a link to the Middle English.

O Christe, rex gentium,
O vita viventium.

O orient light shining most bright,
O son of right, adown thou light [i.e. alight from above]
And by thy might now give us light,
O Christe rex gentium.

O Saviour, most of honour,
Come from thy tower, cease our dolour
Both day and hour waiting succour,
O vita viventium.

O we in pain would, in certain, [i.e. we in pain truly desire]
Thou wouldst refrain, Lord, and restrain
Thine hand again of might and main,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O Jesse root, most sweet and sote, [lovely]
In rind and root most full of bote, [healing]
To us be bote, bound hand and foot,
O vita viventium.

O Assuere, prince without peer,
Come from thy sphere, to us draw near;
Our prayer hear, O Lord most dear,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O corner stone, that makest both one,
Hear our great moan and grant our bone [prayer]
Come down anon, save us each one,
O vita viventium.

O prince of peace, our bond release,
Our woe thou cease, and grant us peace
In bliss endless, that shall not cease,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O king of might and son of right,
O endless light so clear and bright,
Of thee a sight thou us behight, [promised]
O vita viventium.


This poem has no direct source as far as I know. but it seems to be loosely influenced by the O Antiphons, since some of the titles used here for Christ form part of that grouping of texts: Rex Gentium, Oriens, Root of Jesse. The sixth stanza also uses a phrase from the Rex Gentium antiphon, 'cornerstone that makes both one'. The form of the poem, with each verse beginning with an acclamation, 'O...', also echoes the antiphons, though it's an approach Ryman uses quite often elsewhere. In any case, the use of these texts is fairly free; there are several antiphons not alluded to here, they aren't in any particular order, and it took me a while even to spot the connection. There are lots of other things thrown in among them, including other Biblical allusions and a reference to 'Assuere', i.e. the king in the Book of Esther, which medieval Biblical interpreters took to be a story which prefigured the relationship between Mary, God and mankind. An erudite allusion for a carol, you might think, but it crops up pretty often in Ryman's collection!

My favourite verse, I think, is about the Root of Jesse:

O Jesse root, most sweet and sote,
In rind and root most full of bote,
To us be bote, bound hand and foot,
O vita viventium.

Modern interpretations of the O Antiphons seem to struggle a bit with the Root of Jesse image, partly because of hesitation about how it should best be rendered in English (you will sometimes hear instead 'Rod of Jesse' or 'Branch of Jesse' or similar variations, which don't all necessarily evoke 'plant'). I wonder if modern writers find it difficult to imagine a plant which is also a symbol of power, which can 'stand as a sign before the nations' and silence kings, as the antiphon imagines it (him) doing. But medieval poets were much more attuned than we are to religious imagery drawn from nature, including a rich and complex iconography of trees, flowers, and plants, and they were utterly familiar with the idea that plants could be healing, that the natural world was medicine to mankind and thus an analogy for Christ's redemptive work.

And so it is in this verse. 'Sweet and sote' is one of those alliterative doublets medieval English poets were very fond of, both in the Anglo-Saxon period and long after (another example which occurs in the third verse here, 'might and main', is still in use today). As is often the case, the meaning of the two words is almost synonymous; both words here basically mean 'sweet', though the first refers more to flavour and the second to fragrance. The Root of Jesse is imagined as a plant which both tastes and smells delectable, giving forth its sweetness like a breath of air. But it's also a plant which can heal, bringing 'bote'. 'Bote' is a very common word in Middle English religious writing, and it has a broad range of meaning, which Ryman is playing with in these lines, to do with remedy, redemption, and repair. In the first case, 'in rind and root most full of bote', it's the healing power of a plant, as if the Root of Jesse is a health-giving herb from which you can chop up the bark and root and make medicine. In the second case, 'to us be bote', it shifts towards the meaning 'redemption, amends', for those who are 'bound hand and foot' in the captivity of sin. The verse is fully alive to the botanical reality of the word but also to the other metaphorical possibilities it offers, all the different kinds of 'salvation' it can encompass.


The singing of the O Antiphons begins (according to medieval English practice) on 16 December, running up to Christmas Eve. I've written quite a lot here about medieval poems inspired by, translating, or meditating on these rich texts, and Ryman's poem is one more to add to the collection. If you'd like to read some others, here's a Middle English poem based on the antiphons which is roughly contemporary with Ryman, from the late fifteenth century, and two carols of a similar date, based on two of the antiphons. And then there's the much longer, more intricate, more sophisticated meditation on these texts by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet; for an introduction to that glorious poem start here, and work your way back through the series. I promise, there's nothing better you could be reading in the run-up to Christmas...

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Hallowtide

The ossuary at St Leonard's, Hythe

All Souls, and a rainy November day in the season of remembrance. The three-day season of Hallowtide - Hallowe'en, All Saints, All Souls - is medieval in origin, as a time for remembering the dead both known and unknown. Medieval literature is rich in serious, profound meditations on mortality, on death, on transience, and in the later Middle Ages, particularly, the iconography and art of death abound; if you need a memento mori, go to medieval art. Sometimes this art pops up into view around Hallowe'en, when you might see, for instance, images of grinning skulls and 'The Three Living and the Three Dead' offered as seasonal fare on social media. It's useful to remember, however, that in the Middle Ages this interest in death was not really confined to any one season of the year - not even Hallowtide, though certainly it was important then. A few years ago I posted some medieval prayers, in poetry and prose, 'for all Christian souls'; but though appropriate for All Souls they weren't specifically intended for today's commemoration, and could be prayed at any time of the year. In the Middle Ages almost every day was a saint's feast, a day to remember the glorious dead; prayer for the dead was a Christian duty all year round, especially but certainly not only on All Souls' Day; and the whole point of a memento mori is that it reminds you that at any moment you are close to death - not just at Hallowtide.

In a strange way, which no one could have predicted at the beginning of the last century, the cusp of October and November has now become a more intensive season of remembrance, in England at least, than it has been at any time since the Middle Ages. Over the past few decades Hallowe'en has become more popular here than ever before, and has become much more universally linked with death and ghosts than it seems once to have been (i.e. rather than with love-divination and a bit of licensed lawlessness, as it is in much pre-20th century English folklore). It's only in the past century that All Souls' Day, hunted almost to extinction after the Reformation, has experienced a resurgence in the Anglican church, while Catholics are again able to mark it publicly. And most of all, the still relatively new institution of Remembrance Day on November 11, only a century old this year, means that requiems and services of commemoration are to be found all over the country in the first two weeks of November - and everywhere the splash of the red poppy, ancient symbol of death, new descendant of old beliefs about flowers born of blood shed in battle. In many churches All Saints/All Souls and Remembrance Day are kept on two subsequent weekends, more because of practicalities of when services can be held than because anyone has intended to create a fortnight-long season of remembrance - but the effect is that we think more about death at this time of year, and for longer, than our medieval forebears did.


But let me offer one short extract from a Middle English poem, from exactly this time of year, which chimes with the mood of this sombre season. It's from the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I'm often thinking about at the end of October and beginning of November. That's partly because this is a time when I'm sometimes teaching it, and partly because it offers several memorable passages about the changing of the seasons and the relationship between the natural world and the human experience of time. So at New Year, in spring, and in autumn, its poetry comes to mind.

If you don't know the poem, a plot summary can be found here. It opens at Christmas and New Year, when the Green Knight erupts into King Arthur's court and issues a challenge to the knights: to strike him with his axe, and then accept another blow in return after a year and a day. Young Gawain, Arthur's nephew, best and brightest of the knights of Camelot, takes up the challenge out of loyalty to his uncle and king; but he doesn't quite know what he's undertaken, and a year and a day is a long time to think about it. As the intervening period passes between the challenge and its return, the poet gives us a brief description of the swiftly-turning year, closing with autumn:

Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde,
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,
And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony,
And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez,
no fage,
Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage;
Þen þenkkez Gawan ful sone
Of his anious uyage.

[Wrathful winds from the sky wrestle with the sun
The leaves are loosed from the linden and light on the ground,
And all the grass greys that green was before;
Then all ripens and rots that formerly arose;
And thus runs the year in yesterdays many,
And winter wakes again, as the world asks,
in truth,
Until Michaelmas moon was come
With the first pledge of winter,
Then thinks Gawain all too soon
Of his troubling journey.]

'Michaelmas moon' (a phrase only recorded here) might mean either the full moon closest to Michaelmas, 29 September, or conceivably the month which follows Michaelmas, i.e. October. This is the time of year which brings 'winter wage', the pledge of winter. You might think of that as the first chill in the air in an October dusk, or the first time it seems to be getting dark too early, or the first breath of mist in the morning - anything which says that summer is gone, and the cold is coming. The financial connotations of 'wage' also suggest the idea of accounts to be settled, as they often were at Michaelmas - it was a quarter-day, when rents and bills and salaries would be paid. And so it is for Gawain, who was laughingly told by the Green Knight, last Christmas, that he must come and take his 'wages', the return blow, when Christmas comes again. So he too has an account to settle, to which his anxious thoughts are now beginning to turn. The next stanza takes us from 'Michaelmas moon' to All Saints' Day:

Ȝet quyl Al-hal-day with Arþer he lenges;
And he made a fare on þat fest for þe frekez sake,
With much reuel and ryche of þe Rounde Table.
Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies
Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,
Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:
Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.
For aftter mete with mournyng he melez to his eme,
And spekez of his passage...

[Yet until All Hallows' Day with Arthur he lingers,
And Arthur made a feast on that day for the knight's sake,
With much revelling and royal splendour of the Round Table.
Courteous knights and comely ladies
Were heart-sore for love of that man,
But nevertheless, not the less did they speak with mirth:
Many, joyless for the noble one's sake, told jokes all the same.
For after the meal, mourning Gawain goes to his uncle,
And speaks of his journey...]

It's time for him to leave the court, to find the Green Knight's castle and meet what awaits him there. The poet seems to be thinking of Hallowtide here partly as the beginning of the Christmas season, as it seems to have been considered, in a general sense, in some other late medieval texts too (There's one for those of you who regret that 'Christmas starts earlier every year!' A Christmas season which runs from 1 November to February 2...) It's exactly six months after May Day, which is conventionally the beginning of summer in medieval literature, and so it makes sense that this should mark the beginning of winter, the dark half of the year.

Most Arthurian knights go on their adventures in May; Gawain is unusual in having to set out in November. But the November setting resonates with the mood of the poem at this point, where All Hallows marks not only the coming of winter, but a shift in tone, a growing darkness. The year has run round swiftly, in less than forty lines of verse - all too fast for Gawain, who would like the time to pass more slowly. Now we're going to follow Gawain out on his journey, through the bleak cold of November and December in 'the wilderness of the Wirral', and by Christmas Eve he'll be at the Green Knight's castle, facing the test he promised to take a year before. All Hallows brings a change of mood for the whole court, even as they celebrate the season - feasting partly in honour of the day, partly in honour of the knight they all love. They feast in defiance of the fear lurking at their hearts, because they are afraid that Gawain, best of them all, is going away to meet what seems like certain death. It's not surprising that the words 'uyage' ('voyage') and 'passage', used to describe Gawain's journey to meet the Green Knight, are terms often used in Middle English as metaphors for death (as you can see from the Middle English Dictionary entries: viage and passage). Gawain's departure is no light-hearted adventure, no pony-ride in May sunshine, but the first realisation of his mortality; and all through the rest of the poem he's haunted by a growing fear of death, so that it even infests his dreams. The shadow of death has come upon them all.

This seems to chime with the feeling of moving into winter at the beginning of November, with spring a very long away ahead. But for all its wintriness, Gawain is a poem of youth, not age. Most of the action is set during Yule and the 'young year', and the court, even King Arthur himself, are all in the first flower of their youth. Gawain is just a boy, talented knight though he is - deeply principled and, as bright young people often are, intolerant of failure in himself and others. And though he faces death, he doesn't die. Unlike those boys, young soldiers too, for the sake of whose memory Hallowtide converged with Remembrance Day, Gawain gets another chance. He learns from his experience, and begins to mature; he comes through winter to another spring, another renewal of life, another opportunity to do better.

God worshipped by the blessed in heaven 

The same poet who wrote so powerfully in Gawain of the fear of death also wrote perhaps the most moving poem of grief in the English language, Pearl. If Gawain has only just begun to think about death, the central figure in Pearl is intimately acquainted with it: he is mourning the loss of his little daughter, his precious pearl, not two years old when she died. Though his faith tells him that a child so young, so innocent, must be safely treasured now in heaven, he can't reconcile himself to her loss. Grieving beside her grave, he falls asleep and dreams of her: not a child now, but a woman dwelling in the New Jerusalem, one of the brides of the Lamb. Gently, patiently, she tries to explain to him where she is, and how she's come there, and why it might be for the best; but her father struggles with it every step of the way, wrestling with his longing for her, and only gradually and partially being brought to understand. However well she explains, child to father, the Christian teachings about death which his reason has already accepted, the two of them barely speak the same language; he is earth-bound, emotional, his mind fogged by grief, and so very far away from her.

Unlike Gawain, this poem is set in August, in harvest, when the richness of summer is just beginning to ripen to decay - perhaps around the time of the Assumption, the ultimate model of a good and holy death. But its consolatory vision is drawn partly from texts used on All Saints' Day, particularly the Book of Revelation. The significant number twelve, the building block of the heavenly Jerusalem, also provides the structural artistry of this intricately constructed poem. The dreamer's final vision of his daughter is amid 'the multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues':

Ryght as the maynful mone con rys
Er thenne the day-glem dryve al doun,
So sodanly on a wonder wyse
I was war of a prosessyoun.
This noble cité of ryche enpryse
Was sodanly ful, wythouten sommoun,
Of such vergynes in the same gyse
That was my blysful anunder croun.
And coronde wern alle of the same fasoun,
Depaynt in perles and wedes qwyte.
In uchones breste was bounden boun
The blysfyl perle with gret delyt.

With gret delyt thay glod in fere
On golden gates that glent as glasse.
Hundreth thowsandes, I wot ther were,
And alle in sute her livrés wasse;
Tor to knaw the gladdest chere.
The Lombe byfore con proudly passe
Wyth hornes seven of red golde cler.
As praysed perles His wedes wasse.
Towarde the throne thay trone a tras.
Thagh thay wern fele, no pres in plyt,
Bot mylde as maydenes seme at mas
So drov thay forth with gret delyt...

The Lombe delyt, non lyste to wene;
Thagh He were hurt and wounde hade,
In His sembelaunt was never sene,
So wern His glentes gloryous glade.
I loked among His meyny schene,
How thay wyth lyf wern laste and lade.
Then saw I ther my lyttel quene
That I wende had standen by me in sclade.
Lorde, much of mirthe was that ho made
Among her feres that was so quyt!
That syght me gart to thenk to wade
For luf longyng in gret delyt.

That is:

As suddenly as the powerful moon rises
Before the gleam of day has all sunk down,
In a marvellous manner
I became aware of a procession.
This noble city of rich renown
Was suddenly full, unsummoned,
Of virgins dressed in the same guise
As my blissful girl in her crown.
Crowned were they all in the same way,
Adorned with pearls and white garments.
On the breast of each was firmly fastened
The blissful pearl, with great delight.

With great delight they glided together
Down golden streets that gleamed like glass.
Hundreds of thousands, I say there were,
And all alike was their livery.
Hard to know which was the happiest face!
The Lamb before them proudly passed
With seven horns of pure red gold.
Like precious pearls were his garments.
Towards the throne they made their way;
Though they were many, there was no crowding,
But gently as girls go as mass,
So they moved on with great delight...

The delight of the Lamb, none could doubt,
Though he was wounded and bore a scar,
It was not visible in his manner,
So gloriously glad were his looks.
I looked among his bright company,
How they were full and laden with life.
Then I saw there my little queen,
Who I thought had been with me in the valley.
Lord, how much mirth she made
Among her friends, all in white!
That sight made me want to wade [across the stream]
For love-longing in great delight.

All this is from the Book of Revelation, and it faithfully evokes all the strange beauty of that heavenly vision, yet it's the homely touches which are most moving here: the simile of the unexpected vision manifesting like the sudden appearance of the full moon in a sunset sky (when it doesn't seem to rise but is just suddenly there); or the sight of his daughter, 'my little queen', among her white-clad companions like a flock of girls at their First Communion, 'mild as maidens seem at mass'. That sight is his consolation, though it doesn't lessen his grief. His reaction to seeing it is to start towards her, longing for her so much that he's not thinking straight; he tries to cross the river that parts them, and that breaks the dream. He's still alive, still mourning, still working to accept that her death is for the best, and still he can't reach her.

That's the strange doubleness of the Hallowtide season - when the dead seem so near to us, and yet so unimaginably far.

The dreamer and his Pearl reach out to each other, the stream between

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

A little local museum


My latest column for History Today can be read online here. Here's a taste:

If you recognise the type of town museum I mean, you will know just what kind of displays it boasts. There will always be cases of assorted Roman and Anglo-Saxon stuff: tweezers, strings of beads, pins and brooches, anything not quite important enough to be claimed by a bigger museum. There will be stones from a ruined abbey – there is always a ruined abbey somewhere nearby – looking to the untrained eye like mere lumps of rock, until the caption explains where they came from...

There will be recreations of old shops, anything from miniature models to a full-size mock-up, a reminder of the days when the town had a plethora of grocers and ironmongers and haberdashers. The paraphernalia of these trades, laid out and carefully labelled, is as alien to visitors now as tools from an Iron Age grave. Perhaps one of those businesses might have done well enough to be taken over by a multinational and lose its local name, but it lives on in this museum, proud of any local success, which loyally documents its workers’ memories of factory outings and Christmas festivities.


What else? A neat sampler; a collection of model soldiers; taxidermy from a naturalist’s study; farming equipment found in somebody’s garden. Touches of whimsy: a place where schoolchildren (and adults, when no one else is looking) can dress up in a Cavalier’s hat or a Victorian bonnet, laugh at themselves in the mirror, and wonder for a moment what it would be like to wear such a clumsy thing every day.

The everyday – that is the charm of all this. If any of these objects were unusual, they would be kept somewhere else, in some grander museum; they are here precisely because they are common, and it is because they are common that they are precious. A museum like this is a treasure-house of the ordinary, where the material of everyday life is gathered up and cherished. Its Roman pins and workers’ memories tell local versions of a larger story, giving individual life and colour to the abstractions of history.

Read the rest here. Many different visits to many different museums fed into this piece, which has been in my mind for a long time - at least as long ago as 2012, when I wrote this post about a visit to Evesham and its wonderful little museum. More recently, I moved to a town which has a tiny but jam-packed heritage museum, with a gloriously miscellaneous approach which made me feel like I, though a brand-new resident of the place, could become part of its centuries-long story. I love such museums, I wouldn't change a thing about them, and I think any academic who really wants to understand how the public perception of British history is formed should spend some time reflecting on the experience they provide - not just the actual information, but how all the pieces of the puzzle are fitted together. If you're a medievalist who wants to appreciate how the average British person understands the term 'Anglo-Saxon' (just to pick a random example...), you'll get much closer to it by visiting this kind of museum than you will by reading the rants of angry people on the internet. (If you're too far away to visit in person, you might consider following one or two of them on Twitter.) In particular, the service these museums provide in educating school groups - and giving parents with children something to do on a wet afternoon - means they have a formative role in the communication of history to people who may never go on to study the subject further, but who may nonetheless retain a sense of its place in their perception of local and national identity.

Every place matters, and every place has a story to tell. And experiencing that story, somehow, can put things in perspective. When you spend most of your time thinking about just one period of history - even if that period is a thousand years long! - it's refreshing to experience the dizzyingly telescopic effect of visiting this kind of museum. The story of 10,000 years of human habitation in one small landscape, all told within the space of a museum you can visit in less than an hour. A thousand years are but as yesterday - 'the twinkling of an eye and the briefest of moments'.


I could count over the museums of this kind I've visited like a litany, and they would all be simultaneously distinct and yet somewhat akin. Here are a few which have particularly stayed in my mind: Cirencester, with Roman mosaics which have to be seen to be believed; Tamworth, in a castle, where excited children were playing with replica weapons from the Staffordshire Hoard; Ely, where you can learn all about Hereward the Wake and suddenly just feel how cold the Fens would be in winter; Chichester, with its Ozymandias-like fragment of a huge statue which guarded the Roman harbour; the Viking graves and silver hoards of York; Reading's bright and yet strangely moving display of Huntley & Palmer's biscuit tins. And all that surrounds the star items, which is the common and the everyday: the tools, the bits and pieces of working life, the day-to-day domesticity. Most lately I visited the museum which provided the pictures for this post, the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage. There you can travel from the needles of Anglo-Saxon craftswomen to the tools of lost rural industries to a display on the local atomic energy base just by turning your head. Three rooms, more than four thousand years of history - so many days of work, lives of skill and labour, which could be forgotten if they were not respected and honoured here.


Last of all I would list one I mourn, Canterbury Heritage Museum, which closed just last year. That was probably the first such museum I ever visited, on a primary school trip. There you could wander from Roman Canterbury to Rupert the Bear, via a unique little Anglo-Saxon sundial, an early steam locomotive, a model of Canterbury Cathedral with poor William of Sens falling off the scaffolding (can I be remembering that right?), a tapestry about Thomas Becket, a replica of Joseph Conrad's study, and very poignant memories of the city under bombing during World War II. I hope all those precious things are safe and treasured somewhere, even if you can't visit them any more. But it's a reminder that we really do have to cherish these museums while we have them - we'll miss them badly when they're gone.