I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened by sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.
Wednesday 6 January 2021
Sunday 29 November 2020
I remember once the first time I came into a magnificent or noble dining room, and was left there alone, I rejoiced to see the gold and state and carved imagery, but when all was dead, and there was no motion, I was weary of it, and departed dissatisfied. But afterwards, when I saw it full of lords and ladies, and music and dancing, the place which once seemed not to differ from a solitary den, had now entertainment, and nothing of tediousness but pleasure in it. By which I perceived (upon a reflection made long after) that men and women are when well understood a principal part of our true felicity.‘A principal part of our true felicity’ - I like that so much. What value are any of our treasures - tangible or intangible - if there is no one to enjoy them with? And many places usually full of people are currently standing empty - including churches, on the first Sunday of Advent.
The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.
Monday 2 November 2020
There’s a particular horror in the idea of dying alone, and the fear of a lonely death haunts many of us. But in one or way another, death is always lonely. The grave is a solitary place, and death is a journey you have to undertake alone. Different cultures develop their own ways of lessening the loneliness of the grave, providing those who are grieving with some continuing connection to the dead. In the Christian Church, for the past thousand years, an important season for bridging the gap between the living and the dead has been the twin feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’, on 1 and 2 November.
As the names suggest, both feasts offer the very opposite of solitude: they are opportunities to connect with multitudes, communities, vast companies of the dead. The first day celebrates the saints in heaven, the “cloud of witnesses” and the “great multitude which no man could number”, as they are described in Biblical texts read at this feast; the second day is for everyone else, all the “faithful departed” — an even greater crowd of souls.
By the later Middle Ages, these days formed a coherent and widely observed season of remembrance, known in medieval England as “Hallowtide”. The two days had distinct but related aims: All Saints’ was intended to celebrate the glorious dead and to ask for their prayers, but the purpose of All Souls’ was to pray for the dead, for those in Purgatory who needed the prayers of the living to help them in their passage to heaven. It was a time not only to remember the dead but to look after them, to give them assistance and comfort. On the nights of Hallowtide, church bells rang out to reassure the souls in Purgatory that the living had not forgotten them. It must have been profoundly comforting to the grieving, too, to feel that they could still do something to help those they had lost.
Caring for the dead wasn’t just for Hallowtide, though. In the Middle Ages, looking after the dead was a duty incumbent on believers all year round. Prayer for the dead, known and unknown, was a regular feature of medieval devotion, and was seen as an important act of charity. Believers were encouraged to pray for the souls of those they had known in life — their family, godparents, or benefactors — but also for those whom they had not personally known, but with whom they shared some connection: deceased members of their professional guild, or all the dead buried in their parish church. And they were asked to pray too, as many still do today, for those who had no one else to pray for them. No one was to be left alone in death.
I've written for Unherd about All Souls Day in this year of solitude; read the rest there.
It's struck me so forcefully this year that whatever else you might say about the medieval church, they knew how to deal with death: learning how to face it, and how to talk about it, were seen as skills fundamental for living a good life as a thinking person in this world. For many modern people, the vast medieval literature about death and the rituals and structures for facing it are easily dismissed as superstition; but as we've seen this past year, ignoring the reality of death doesn't tend to make societies less irrational about it. Not wanting to talk about the inevitability of death doesn't make it go away; and if you don't learn to face the fear of death, the fear itself can consume you, and swallow up everything else you hold dear.
Friday 18 September 2020
From my latest column for History Today:
‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’, says the heroine of Jane Austen’s Emma, playfully trying to reassure her ever-anxious father that other people can enjoy amusements he would never himself like. In Austen’s novel Emma is often wrong, but she is certainly right about this. Over the past few months, it has been evident that there are some people for whom the pleasures of their fellow human beings are not only unappealing, but incomprehensible. As our society, like those across the world, has undergone rapid and disorienting changes within a short space of time, many have lost, at least for a period, access to the mundane pleasures that give joy to daily life.
Publicly acknowledging the painful, isolating effects of that disruption has not always been welcome. Whatever the activity – a visit to the pub, going to the beach, or browsing in a shop – the loss and then qualified return of non-essential pastimes caused storms on social media. Many on Twitter hastened to proclaim scornfully that they could not understand why anyone would want to do these things, not just in the middle of a pandemic, but at all. In ordinary times these are harmless pleasures, which many value not just for the sake of the activity but for the people they share it with: social joys of a kind social media cannot replace. Even if they are not to your taste, it is surely possible to hold two thoughts in your mind: that cancelling these activities might be necessary for the greater good, but that people can also justly mourn for their absence and wish for their return.
At the same time, it has been clear that one half of the world cannot understand the other’s troubles, either. The ‘new normal’ which some welcome is, and will continue to be, a real hardship for others. If you have a stable home, a secure source of income and a family situation which makes home-working straightforward, then your experience of this year has been very different from that of anyone who does not have those things. To see some in that fortunate position dismissing others’ struggles has been troubling.
Part of this incomprehension seems to be a lack of imagination. One person admits to finding a certain situation difficult to deal with; another responds by saying: ‘This isn’t a problem for me, so I can’t imagine why it would be for anyone else.’ The phrase ‘can’t imagine’ in such assertions is often a self-satisfied rhetorical tactic, but it is not anything to be proud of. Can we really not imagine why someone in different circumstances might respond differently to the same situation? Or are we simply unwilling to try?
Read the rest here.
Wednesday 12 August 2020
If you were asked to guess the oldest town in Britain, you might not think of Abingdon. But the market town, which lies six miles south of Oxford, claims — and with some justice — to be the “oldest continuously occupied town” in this country. Situated on a loop of the Thames, in a green river valley, Abingdon was a densely-occupied and well-defended settlement by the Iron Age, surrounded by ditches which can still be traced in the plan of the modern town. Throughout the Roman and early Anglo-Saxon periods, the town’s population persisted, and by the tenth century had become the site of an important monastery.
Tourists who come to Oxford from around the world rarely make their way to Abingdon; it’s a working town, not a showplace. Its central shopping area was a casualty of post-war planners, a mass of modern concrete and chain stores; to the north, new housing estates are creeping ever closer to the famous university city. What might have been Abingdon’s chief tourist attraction, its cathedral-like abbey church, was destroyed five centuries ago.
And yet few towns are better proof of just how long and rich the history of apparently ordinary places can be. The two caveats in Abingdon’s claim to longevity (“town”, rather than city, and “in continuous occupation”) are significant, because it’s in these smaller communities — and the remarkable continuity of their institutions and collective lives — that the bedrock of British history lies.
Read the rest, on St Æthelwold and St Edmund of Abingdon, at Unherd.
Tuesday 14 July 2020
I wolde witen of sum wys wiht
Witterly what this world were.
Hit fareth as a foules fliht;
Now is hit henne, now is hit here,
Ne be we never so muche of miht,
Now be we on benche, now be we on bere;
And be we never so war and wiht,
Now be we sek, now beo we fere,
Now is on proud withouten peere,
Now is the selve iset not by;
And whos wol alle thing hertly here,
This world fareth as a fantasy.
The sonnes cours, we may wel kenne,
Aryseth est and geth doun west;
The ryvers into the see thei renne,
And hit is never the more almest.
Wyndes rosscheth her and henne,
In snouȝ and reyn is non arest;
Whon this wol stunte, ho wot or whenne,
But only God on grounde grest?
The eorthe in on is ever prest,
Now bidropped, now al druyȝe;
But uche gome glit forth as a gest,
This world fareth as a fantasye.
Kunredes come, and kunredes gon,
As joyneth generations,
But alle he passeth everichon,
For al heor preparacions.
Sum are forgete clene as bon
Among alle maner nations;
So schul men thenken us nothing on
That now han the ocupacions;
And alle theos disputacions
Idelyche all us ocupye,
For Christ maketh the creacions,
And this world fareth as a fantasye.
Whuch is mon, ho wot, and what,
Whether that he be ought or nought?
Of erthe and eyr groweth up a gnat,
And so doth mon whon al his souht;
Thaugh mon be waxen gret and fat,
Mon melteth awey so deth a mouht.
Monnes miht nis worth a mat,
But nuyȝeth himself and turneth to nought.
Ho wot, save he that al hath wrought,
Wher mon bicometh whon he schal dye?
Ho knoweth bi dede ought bote bi thought?
For this world fareth as a fantasye.
Dyeth mon, and beestes dye,
And al is on ocasion;
And alle o deth, hos bothe drye,
And han on incarnation.
Save that men beoth more sleyghe,
Al is o comparison.
Ho wot ȝif monnes soule styȝe,
And bestes soules synketh doun?
Who knoweth beestes ententioun,
On heor creatour how thei crie,
Save only God that knoweth heore soun?
For this world fareth as a fantasye.
Eche secte hopeth to be save,
Baldely bi heore bileeve;
And echon uppon God heo crave.
Whi schulde God with hem him greve?
Echon trouweth that othur rave,
But alle heo cheoseth God for cheve,
And hope in God echone thei have,
And bi heore wit heore worching preve.
Thus mony maters men don meve,
Sechen heor wittes hou and why;
But Godes merci us alle biheve,
For this world fareth as a fantasye.
For thus men stumble and sere heore witte,
And meveth maters mony and fele;
Summe leeveth on him, sum leveth on hit,
As children leorneth for to spele.
But non seoth non that abit,
Whon stilly deth wol on hym stele.
For he that hext in hevene sit,
He is the help and hope of hele;
For wo is ende of worldes wele,
Eche lyf loke wher that I lye.
This world is fals, fikel and frele,
And fareth but as a fantasye.
Wharto wilne we forte knowe
The poyntes of Godes privete?
More then him lustes forte schowe,
We schulde not knowe in no degre;
And idel bost is forte blowe
A mayster of divinite.
Thenk we lyve in eorthe her lowe,
And God an heigh in mageste;
Of material mortualite
Medle we, and of no more maistrie.
The more we trace the Trinite,
The more we falle in fantasye.
But leve we oure disputisoun,
And leeve on him that al hath wrought;
We mowe not preve bi no resoun
How he was born that al us bought;
But hol in oure ententioun,
Worschipe we him in herte and thought,
For he may turne kuyndes upsedoun,
That alle kuyndes made of nought.
When al our bokes ben forth brouht,
And al our craft of clergye,
And al our wittes ben thorwout sought,
Yit we fareth as a fantasye.
Of fantasye is al our fare,
Olde and yonge and alle ifere.
But make we murie and sle care,
And worschipe we God whil we ben here.
Spende our good and luytel spare,
And eche mon cheries othures cheere.
Thenk how we comen hider al bare;
Our wey wendyng is in a were.
Prey we the prince that hath no pere,
Tac us hol to his merci
And kepe our concience clere,
For this world is but fantasy.
Bi ensaumple men may se,
A gret treo grouweth out of the grounde;
No thing abated the eorthe wol be
Thaugh hit be huge, gret, and rounde.
Riht ther wol rooten the selve tre,
Whon elde hath maad his kuynde aswounde;
Thaugh ther weore rote suche thre,
The eorthe wol not encrece a pounde.
Thus waxeth and wanieth mon, hors, and hounde,
From nought to nought thus henne we highe.
And her we stunteth but a stounde,
For this world is but fantasye.
This is a poem from the end of the 14th century, which survives in two famous manuscripts of that period, the 'Vernon Manuscript' and the 'Simeon Manuscript'. It's a fine and accomplished poem, which draws on well-established medieval tropes and language of the poetry of transience and loss - well-worn, and because ancient, timeless. In places it's specifically indebted to Ecclesiastes: 'Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun... I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.'
Here's a translation.
I want to know from some wise creature
Truly what this world may be.
It is like the flight of a bird:
Now is it hence, now is it here.
And however mighty we may be,
Now we are on the bench, now on the bier;
And be we never so watchful and strong,
Now are we sick, now are we well.
Now is there one proud, without a peer,
Now is the same of no account;
And whoever will all things truly hear,
This world passes as a fantasy.
The sun's course, we may well know,
Rises in the east and goes down in the west;
The rivers run into the sea,
And yet it is never the greater.
Winds rush here and there,
The snow and rain never cease;
How this will stop, who knows, or when,
But only God, greatest in the world?
The earth is ever alike beset,
Now drenched, now dry;
But every man glides away like a guest.
This world passes as a fantasy.
Kindreds come, and kindreds go,
As generations knit together,
But they all pass away, every one,
For all their preparations.
Some are forgotten, clean as bone,
Among all kinds of nations.
So shall people think not at all of us,
Who now have the possession,
And of all the disputes
Which vainly occupy us.
For Christ makes all created things,
And this world passes as a fantasy.
What is man? who knows, and what?
Is he something, or nothing?
Out of earth and air a gnat grows,
And so does man, when the truth is known.
Though a man may grow great and fat,
He melts away just like a moth.
Man's might is not worth a straw,
But it vexes himself and turns to nothing.
Who knows, save he who made all things,
Where man will go when he must die?
Who knows anything by experience, not only by thought?
For this world passes as a fantasy.
Man dies, and beasts die,
And all have one condition
And all one death, however strong they are,
And have one flesh.
Except that men are cunning,
It's all the same thing.
Who knows if the souls of men ascend,
And the souls of beasts sink down?
Who knows the thoughts of beasts,
How they cry out to their creator,
Except for God, who knows their voices?
For this world passes as a fantasy.
Each sect boldly expects to be saved
Because of their faith,
And each one cries out to God.
Why should God trouble himself with them?
Each one believes the others mad,
But all think they have God on their side,
And put their hope in God,
And justify their actions by their clever reasoning.
Thus people start many arguments,
And search their wits to understand how and why,
But God's mercy is necessary for us all,
For this world passes as a fantasy.
For thus men stumble and wither up their wits,
And wrangle over subjects many and various;
Some believe this, some that,
Like children just learning to speak.
But no one holds to anything that will last
When stilly death steals upon him.
For he that sits highest in heaven,
He is the help and hope of health;
For sorrow is the end of worldly joy.
Can anyone tell me that I'm lying?
This world is false, fickle, and frail,
And passes as a fantasy.
Why do we seek to know
The intricacies of God's secrets?
More than it pleases him to show,
We should not know, by any means.
A vain boast is that which is asserted
By a Master of Divinity.
Think that we live low here on the earth,
And God on high in majesty;
In the mortality of material things
We have a share, and no more power than that.
The more we trace out the Trinity,
The more we fall in fantasy.
But let us leave our disputations,
And believe in him who made all things.
We cannot prove by any reason
How he was born, who redeemed us all;
But, whole in our intention,
Let us worship him in heart and thought,
For he may turn nature upside-down,
Who made all nature out of nothing.
When all our books are brought out,
And all our clerkly skill,
And all our wits are sought all through,
We still pass as a fantasy.
Of fantasy is all our faring,
Old and young and all together.
But let us make merry and put by care,
And worship God while we are here;
Spend our goods and spare little,
And let each man encourage another to be cheerful
Think how we came here entirely bare.
Our way wends on, we know not where.
Pray we that the Prince who has no peer
May take us wholly to his mercy,
And keep our conscience clear,
For this world is but fantasy.
By this example you may understand:
A great tree grows out of the ground,
And the earth is not a tiny bit diminished,
Although the tree is tall, big and round.
The tree will still be rooted there
When old age has brought down his kindred;
Though there were three such trees rooted there,
The earth will not be enlarged by any degree.
Thus wax and wane man, horse, and hound,
From nothing to nothing from hence we fly,
And here we stay but a little while;
This world is but fantasy.
One of the clever things about this poem is that it mixes technical vocabulary of medieval reasoning, logic, and philosophy - occasioun, condicion, material mortualite - with blunt, homely images: 'fares like a bird's flight', 'forgotten clean as bone', 'not worth a straw'. It fits with the poem's insistent message about the futility of all human thought, speculation, dispute, argument, and wrangling, set against the inevitable and unavoidable reality of material existence: death.
The most striking example of a technical term is the poem's keynote, the word fantasye. At the time this poem was written, fantasy was a relatively new borrowing into English. The general sense in which it's used in this poem might seem not so far away from how we would use it today - 'something insubstantial and unreal' - but it has a more precise meaning: in medieval psychology, fantasy was the name for the faculty of imagination, the power of conjuring up in the mind thoughts or images of things which are not materially present. You might think of that as a relatively positive (or at least neutral) power, but since it deals with all things unreal, intangible and insubstantial, it can have strongly negative overtones too. As the Middle English Dictionary puts it, it may be 'a projection of deluded or illusory imagination... an appearance not having reality, an apparition, a phantom', and 'a deluded notion or false supposition; an unfounded speculation or suspicion; hence, untruth, a lie'. To the author of this poem, that's all the world is.
This poem has been in my mind lately, partly because I find a bit of medieval wisdom poetry helps a lot when everything is so unrelentingly sad. So many, many good things have gone in the past few months and they're probably never coming back, so it's genuinely useful to be reminded that always and everywhere, 'wo is ende of worldes wele'. Of course. What else is to be expected? Something about this particular poem's emphasis on 'fantasy' also seems an apt way of describing our strange 'new normal', where the virtual world, absent and insubstantial, is supposed to take the place of so many of the forms of tangible human contact we once knew and relied on. The fantasy of the virtual world creates the illusion of bringing people before us, but the moment the screen goes black they vanish into nothingness, much swifter than the flight of a bird. You're still alone in an empty room. And if virtual life isn't that, it's social media, with its hate and anger and violence, lurching from one crisis to the next, full of people utterly unwilling to extend kindness or understanding to strangers when they can shout at them instead. That's fantasye as phantom, nightmare. For me, real-life contact with other human beings is ordinarily what stops all that from becoming overwhelming, and makes it flee away like a bad dream. Often, one little friendly interaction with a stranger on the bus or in a shop has been enough to give me hope that most people aren't really be as awful as they seem on the internet. But that's gone; those harmless interactions are impossible now. Smiling faces are hidden, life's little grace notes of sympathy are silenced, while the howling roar of virtual rage goes on louder than ever. Well, that too isn't really new, but just the same endless wrangling which this poem warns against. 'Each side thinks the others rave'... A horrible new normal all this may be, but there's nothing new under the sun.