Monday 28 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

Perhaps it's a little late, but Christmas doesn't end on the 25th, you know. In the true medieval spirit of festival and octave, this is a Christmas post. And here's one of my favourite Christmas sermons:

John Donne's sermon at St Paul's for the evening of Christmas Day, 1624.

The air is not so full of motes, of atoms, as the Church is of mercies; and as we can suck in no part of air, but we take in those motes, those atoms; so here in the congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that whole breath and air is made of mercy. But we call not upon you from this text, to consider God's ordinary mercy, that which he exhibits to all in the ministry of his Church, nor his miraculous mercy, his extraordinary deliverances of states and churches; but we call upon particular consciences, by occasion of this text, to call to mind God's occasional mercies to them; such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies.

A man wakes at midnight full of unclean thoughts, and he hears a passing Bell; this is an occasional mercy, if he call that his own knell, and consider how unfit he was to be called out of the world then, how unready to receive that voice, "Fool, this night they shall fetch away thy soul." The adulterer, whose eye waits for the twilight, goes forth, and casts his eyes upon forbidden houses, and would enter, and sees a Lord have mercy upon us upon the door; this is an occasional mercy, if this bring him to know that they who lie sick of the plague within, pass through a furnace, but by God's grace, to heaven; and he without, carries his own furnace to hell, his lustful loins to everlasting perdition. What an occasional mercy had Balaam, when his ass catechised him: What an occasional mercy had one thief, when the other catechised him so, "Art not thou afraid, being under the same condemnation?" What an occasional mercy had all they that saw that, when the Devil himself fought for the name of Jesus, and wounded the sons of Sceva for exorcising in the name of Jesus, with that indignation, with that increpation, "Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are ye?"

If I should declare what God hath done (done occasionally) for my soul, where he instructed me for fear of falling, where he raised me when I was fallen, perchance you would rather fix your thoughts upon my illnesses and wonder at that, than at God's goodness, and glorify him in that; rather wonder at my sins, than at his mercies, rather consider how ill a man I was, than how good a God he is. If I should inquire upon what occasion God elected me, and writ my name in the book of life, I should sooner be afraid that it were not so, than find a reason why it should be so. God made sun and moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons. But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies. In paradise, the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is always Autumn, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never says you should have come yesterday, he never says you must again tomorrow, but today if you will hear his voice, today he will hear you.

If some king of the earth have so large an extent of dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgment together: He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied till now - now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries. All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Advent, 13: Gaudete

As a lamentable result of the double darkness into which most Catholic musicians have been born - fear of Latin, and ignorance of the Propers of the Mass - many of them are entirely unable to explain why this, the Third Sunday in Advent, is called 'Gaudete Sunday'.

"Gaudete" means "Rejoice" - that's the sum of their knowledge. So they tend to plan music which involves the word "rejoice" in some way, the foolproof "word-association" method of liturgical planning which works all the rest of the year. Unfortunately, on Gaudete Sunday there is a pitfall which it is very easy to fall into:


That's Steeleye Span, singing the medieval carol 'Gaudete, Christus est natus'. Church musicians, fondly remembering the Steeleye Span phase of their 1960s youth (and there's nothing wrong with that, I like Steeleye Span myself... outside church), jump on this carol as the perfect thing to sing on Gaudete Sunday.

So do you see the pitfall, right there in the title? Indeed. It has "Gaudete" in there, which sounds right - but should we really be singing that "Christ is born" on the Third Sunday in Advent?

No. We shouldn't.

The name 'Gaudete Sunday', like many of the traditional names for Sundays in the Church's year, comes from the first words of the Introit:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestrae innotescant apud Deum.

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all men; the Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious for anything, but in all manner of prayer, let your requests be made known unto God."

It's not difficult to see why this is more appropriate for Advent - 'the Lord is at hand!' - than a carol which rejoices in the birth of Christ. The reason this is so often forgotten is that most churches no longer sing the Introit. Which is a shame, because - listen to it!:

It goes against everything in me to be advising against the use of a medieval carol in any context, let alone discouraging the use of Latin in church, but nonetheless: 'Gaudete' is an inappropriate song to sing this Sunday. Don't do it. Save the carol, which is lovely, for Christmas, and do your bit to keep Advent as the distinctive season it really is.

Oh, and: rejoice! The Lord is at hand...

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Advent, 8: The Immaculate Conception

Of one that is so fair and bright
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the day is light,
Parens et puella:
I cry to thee, thou see to me;
Lady, pray thy Son for me
Tam pia,
That I may come to thee,

All this world was forlore
Eva peccatrice,
Till our Lord was y-bore
De te genetrice.
With "Ave" it went away
Darkest night, and comes the day
The well springeth out of thee.

Lady, flower of alle thing,
Rosa sine spina,
Thou bare Jesu, Heaven's King,
Gratia divina:
Of all thou bear'st the prize,
Lady, queen of paradise
Maid mild, mother es

Monday 7 December 2009

Advent, 7

On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.

For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Advent, 6

Dwell in our hearts, O Savior blest;
so shall thine advent's dawn
'twixt us and thee, our bosom-guest,
be but the veil withdrawn.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Advent, 5

Of a rose, a lovely rose

Of a rose is all my song.

Listeneth, lordings, both elde and yinge,
How this rose began to springe;
Such a rose to my likinge
In all this world know I never none.

The angel came from heaven's tower
To greet Mary with great honour,
And said she should bear the flower
That should break the fiend's bond.

The flower sprung in high Bethlem,
That is both bright and schene.
The rose is Mary, heaven's queen;
Out of her bosom the blossom sprung.

Friday 4 December 2009

Advent, 4: The flower

There is a flower sprung of a tree
The root therof 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 blissful branch this flower on grew
Was Mary mild that bare Jesu.
A flower of grace,
Against all sorrow it is solace.

The seed thereof was Goddes sond,*
That God himself sowed with his hand
In Bethlem in that holy land.
Amidst her herbere there he her fond.*
This blissful flower
Sprang never but in Mary's bower.

When Gabriel this maid met
With Ave Maria he her gret
Between them two this flower was set,
And kept was, no man should wit;
But on a day
In Bethlem it con spread and spray.*

* of God's sending

* in her garden there he found her
* began to bloom

Thursday 3 December 2009

Advent, 3: Medicine

Myn herte of deedes was fordred
For synne that I have my flesh fed
And followed all my tyme,
I know not whither I shall be led
When I lye on deathes bed
In joy or into pyne.
On a lady myn hope is,
Mother and virgin;
We shall in to heaven's bliss
Through her medicine.

Better is her medicine
Than any mead or any wine
Her herbs smelleth sweet.
From Caithness into Dublin
Is there no leech so fine
Our sorrows to bete.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Advent, 2: The knot was knit

'Ecce ancilla domini'
Seid tho virgin withouten vice;
When Gabriell hur gret graciously,
That holy pinakell preved of price,
'Of thee schall springe a full swete spice'.
Then seid the meydon full mildely,
'And sithen I am of so litill of price,
Ecce ancilla domini'.


When tho angell was vanesched awey,
Sche stode al in hur thoght,
And to herself sche can sey,
'All God's will schall be wroght;
For he is well of all witte,
As witnesses well his story.'
At that word knot was knitte:
'Ecce ancilla domini'.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Advent, 1

There is no rose of such vertu
As is the rose that bare Jesu.

For in this rose contained was
Heaven and earth in little space
Res miranda.

By that rose we may well see
There be one God in persons three,
Pares forma.

The angels sungen the shepherds to
Gloria in excelsis deo.

Leave we all this worldly mirth
And follow we this joyful birth.

Sunday 29 November 2009

The First Sunday of Advent

Although this is only the first Sunday of Advent, Oxford has all its Christmas events and carol services this week. This is fun, but also a tiny bit of a shame because it means we kind of miss out Advent, my favourite liturgical season. This is how Advent begins for me:

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Ne irascaris Domine, ne ultra memineris iniquitatis: ecce civitas Sancti facta est deserta, Sion deserta facta est: Ierusalem desolata est: domus sanctificationis tuac et gloriae tuae, ubi laudaverunt te patres nostri.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Peccavimus, et facti sumus tamquam immundus nos, et cecidimus quasi folium universi; et iniquitates nostrae quasi ventus abstulerunt nos: abscondisti faciem tuam a nobis, et allisisti nos in manu iniquitatis nostrae.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Vide, Domini, afflictionem populi tui, et mitte quem missurus es, emitte Agnum dominatorem terrae, de Petra deserti montem filiae Sion: ut auferat ipse iugum captivatis nostrae.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Consolamini, consolamini, popule meus: cito veniet salus tua:. quare moerore consumeris, quia innovavit te dolor? Salvabo te, noli timere: ego enim sum Dominus Deus, tuus, Sanctus Israel, Redemptor tuus.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Academia: A Sob Story

I wish it were possible to be an academic without having to talk to other academics.

You may not know it, but that’s a shocking confession. The model of academic life as a solitary process of research and thought, resulting in a paper or a book which contributes to scholarly debate when other people read it and write about it, is increasingly being replaced by an emphasis on networking, cooperation, dialogue, and talk, talk, talk.

To me, it’s exhausting.

I’m the kind of person who has never really understood the expression "easier said than done". I’m an introvert, who finds talking to other people an effort at the best of times, and talking about myself is a particular nightmare. I can write about myself for ever, but speaking out loud and being required to explain or justify myself verbally on the spot wears me out. Just about everything, for me, is "easier done than said" – the saying requires all kinds of self-evaluation and struggles to choose the right word and the right expression, whereas the doing gives you a finished product, which speaks for itself. The most difficult thing I’ve so far found about being in academia is that you are often required to speak about what you’re doing, as well as just doing it. I know this is entirely reasonable: supervisors need progress reports, scholars want to know what’s going on in their field, the academic community as a whole is supposed to benefit from conference papers and seminars and networking. I understand all this.

That doesn't stop me hating it, though. When I have to explain what I’m doing, I always want to say “let me get on with it, and I’ll show you when I’m done”. Seminars irritate me, because talking is so much less precise than writing – people make up questions just to be polite, whether they care about the answer or not; the speaker has to fudge an answer, whether they have one or not; everyone has to pretend it’s an enlightening scholarly experience rather than a faintly awkward fumble. That’s assuming everyone is of genuine goodwill, of course; most of the time there’s a lot of bitchiness and arrogance and exhibitionism going on as well. People want to show off or to humiliate someone else, to draw attention to their own work and belittle everyone else’s. This is true in informal as well as formal situations among other academics, I’ve found – it’s worse, actually, at a drinks party than at a seminar, because people feel free to look down their noses at each other. Ambition and pride are the academic’s besetting sins.

You would think if there was one corner of the world where it was safe to be an introvert, academia would be it! Apparently not. It does make me glad for the collegiate system, though, because the problem is less pronounced when interacting with people from other disciplines; English students are, I think, particularly ready to show off, and anyway you can’t really show off to people who are experts in another field. Talking to a mathematician or a classicist or a chemist is humbling without being humiliating: I respect their expertise in an area I don’t understand, and they respect mine. I’m not in competition with them the way other English scholars seem to think they are with me.

This is all by way of explaining to myself why I’m not at a seminar right now. I have to go to these events regularly, and I dutifully do so – but I hate them, and usually come back loathing myself and everyone in the world. I went to Evensong instead.

Friday 20 November 2009

The Song of Jonah in the Whale's Belly

I heard this on Radio 3's superb 'Words and Music' this week, and didn't think much about it except that it had some attractive rhymes; then somehow it got stuck in my head, and so I'm going to post it although I have nothing to say about it. I don't even really know why I like it. But I do, and whoever chose it for a programme on the theme of 'Solitude' was a genius.

And happy feastday of St Edmund! Did you know he's the patron saint of wolves? I find this bizarre. Why do wolves even need a patron saint? I wonder who the patron saint of whales is.

Not St David, I guess.


Anyway, here's Michael Drayton:

The Song of Jonah in the Whale's Belly

In grief and anguish of my heart, my voice I did extend,
Unto the Lord, and he therto, a willing eare did lend :
Even from the deep and darkest pit, & the infernall lake,
To me he hath bow'd down his eare, for his great mercies sake.
For thou into the middest, of surging seas so deepe
Hast cast me foorth : whose bottom is, so low & woondrous steep.
Whose mighty wallowing waves, which from the floods do flow,
Have with their power up swallowed me, & overwhelm'd me tho.
Then said I, loe, I am exilde, from presence of thy face,
Yet wil I once againe behold, thy house and dwelling place.
The waters have encompast me, the floods inclosde me round,
The weeds have sore encombred me, which in the seas abound.
Unto the valeyes down I went, beneath the hils which stand,
The earth hath there environ'd me, with force of al the land.
Yet hast thou stil preserved me, from al these dangers here,
And brought my life out of the pit, oh Lord my God so deare.
My soule consuming thus with care, I praied unto the Lord,
And he from out his holie place, heard me with one accord.
Who to vain lieng vanities doth whollie him betake,
Doth erre also, Gods mercie he doth utterly forsake.
But I wil offer unto him the sacrifice of praise,
And pay my vowes, ascribing thanks unto the Lord alwaies.

Michael Drayton (1563-1631), in lovely Elizabethan spelling from here. Read it aloud. It's awesome.

OK, I looked it up. The patron saint of whales is Brendan the Navigator. The illustration on that page shows why...

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Pine Trees and the Sky: Evening

I'd watched the sorrow of the evening sky,
And smelt the sea, and earth, and the warm clover,
And heard the waves, and the seagull's mocking cry.

And in them all was only the old cry,
That song they always sing -- - "The best is over!
You may remember now, and think, and sigh,
O silly lover!"
And I was tired and sick that all was over,
And because I,
For all my thinking, never could recover
One moment of the good hours that were over.
And I was sorry and sick, and wished to die.

Then from the sad west turning wearily,
I saw the pines against the white north sky,
Very beautiful, and still, and bending over
Their sharp black heads against a quiet sky.
And there was peace in them; and I
Was happy, and forgot to play the lover,
And laughed, and did no longer wish to die;
Being glad of you, O pine-trees and the sky!
Rupert Brooke

Sunday 15 November 2009

On 'Medieval Spirituality'

Apart from the occasional excitement about a new movie adaptation of Beowulf - each one less accurate and more cringeworthy than the last! - it's rare to find references to Anglo-Saxon literature anywhere in the mainstream media. As far as the world at large is concerned, Beowulf is the sum total of the poetry produced in these islands between the Roman occupation and the birth of Chaucer. This is sad but understandable - Anglo-Saxon poetry isn't easy - and probably something to be grateful for, when you consider how the media makes a mess of any academic subject it touches (this is why I turn off the Today programme at 8.55, before the 'turning complex subjects into nonsense' segment).

There is one exception to this news blackout of the medieval period, but you only tend to encounter it if you frequent certain Christian circles (both in the CofE and the Catholic Church). That is 'medieval spirituality'.

Now, this kind of 'medieval spirituality' includes the following:

- labyrinths
- Julian of Norwich (that is, 'Mother Julian')
- the Cloud of Unknowing, or bits of it, anyway
- 'Celtic' artwork (it's 'Celtic' even if it's based on Anglo-Saxon designs, because the Celts are more spiritual)

It does not include the following:

- medieval Biblical translation, Biblical poetry, or scriptural art of any kind
- monastic or religious life
- medieval devotion to the Eucharist and the sacrament of confession
- the role of the Church in the political, cultural and social life of the nation
- saints
- devotion to the Virgin Mary

It does not take more than five minutes' acquaintance with English medieval literature to realise that the second list is far more representative of the spirituality of the Middle Ages than the first. If anything from the second list is mentioned, that's 'medieval' in the bad sense - when 'medieval' is synonymous with 'fascist'.

There's nothing wrong with this popular conception of 'medieval spirituality', except that it's inaccurate; academics can't insist on inserting facts into other people's spiritual lives. If people like this kind of thing, that's fine. But it does lead to a limited and decidedly soft-left-friendly view of medieval religion.

This brings me to this morning's Sunday Worship programme on Radio 4. I am fond of this programme: it is sometimes sublime (last week's edition, which interviewed serving soldiers about their faith, was excellent) and always well-meaning. This morning fell into the 'well-meaning' category. It was a celebration of environmental theology, from a gathering of 'the Alliance of Religions and Conservation', so it included pieces of music and readings from numerous religious traditions.

One of these was from the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Dream of the Rood'. Now, whoever arranged the programme was obviously keen to present the various readings in some kind of appropriate cultural context. An Indian story was chanted, in the original language, to the background of drums; an Arabic story was read in Persian and English at the same time; Psalm 148 was sung in Hebrew.

'The Dream of the Rood' was sung, in a free modern English translation, in the manner of an African spiritual.

See the difference? I want to emphasise that I don't have a problem with this as an idea. It was sung well, and it's nice to hear anyone making use of 'The Dream of the Rood' in a creative way! But the treatment of this poem, as against the other texts used, was striking. The Indian, Arabic and Jewish texts were recognised as coming from distinctive cultural traditions which were preserved in the way they were performed. Anglo-Saxon England? Nowhere to be heard. The other texts were read in their original languages; not a word of the Old English poem was presented. I find it hard to believe that Old English is any more or less accessible to hear than Hebrew or Persian for the average listener.

Would it have killed them to find a vaguely medieval-sounding harp, or something?

I'm sure this bizarre act of cultural appropriation was not intentional. It's an example of our society's ignorance about medieval culture. The same ignorance is at the root of the 'medieval spirituality' industry, which cherry-picks acceptably vague bits and pieces of medieval religion (not the gory bits, just the bits where 'all will be well', and somehow there are hazelnuts involved), packages them up, and sells them on prayer-cards in the backs of churches. It's also a form of cultural cringe, which sees Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England as dark and primitive and not exotic enough. Even when you're using an Anglo-Saxon poem for your diverse and multicultural radio programme, it's not worth trying to convey a sense of Anglo-Saxon context for the words (which is very specific and important for the DOTR, as it happens). Medieval is not one of the cultures in 'multicultural'.

Friday 13 November 2009

Another Rain Poem

A Line-Storm Song
Robert Frost

The line-storm clouds fly tattered and swift.
The road is forlorn all day,
Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift,
And the hoof-prints vanish away.
The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee,
Expend their bloom in vain.
Come over the hills and far with me,
And be my love in the rain.

The birds have less to say for themselves
In the wood-world's torn despair
Than now these numberless years the elves,
Although they are no less there:
All song of the woods is crushed like some
Wild, easily shattered rose.
Come, be my love in the wet woods, come,
Where the boughs rain when it blows.

There is the gale to urge behind
And bruit our singing down,
And the shallow waters aflutter with wind
From which to gather your gown.
What matter if we go clear to the west,
And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
The rain-fresh goldenrod.

Oh, never this whelming east wind swells
But it seems like the sea's return
To the ancient lands where it left the shells
Before the age of the fern;
And it seems like the time when after doubt
Our love came back amain.
Oh, come forth into the storm and rout
And be my love in the rain.

Thursday 12 November 2009

A November Poem

I love Thomas Hardy's novels, and have a more complicated relationship with his poetry - but there are several of his poems I can't help being fond of. This is one of them, and if you could hear the rain dripping from the trees outside my windows at the moment, you would be haunted by it too.

The Division

Rain on the windows, creaking doors,
With blasts that besom the green,
And I am here, and you are there,
And a hundred miles between.

O were it but the weather, dear,
O were it but the miles
That summed up all our severance,
There might be room for smiles.

But that thwart thing betwixt us twain,
Which nothing cleaves or clears,
Is more than distance, dear, or rain,
And longer than the years.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Remembrance Day

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way.

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and Whose staff has led,
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to Thy gracious hand.

Sir John S. Arkwright (1872-1954)

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Rupert Brooke

Thursday 5 November 2009


Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house : and the place where thine honour dwelleth.

Monday 2 November 2009

All Souls

This evening I went to Christ Church for the commemoration of All Souls. The cathedral choir (men's voices only) sang Victoria's Requiem and it was the most sublimely beautiful thing I have ever heard in my life.

The cathedral was dark, cavernous, nearly empty. Several people in the congregation quietly wept. It was glorious, and heart-breaking.

Sunday 1 November 2009

The Cloud of Witnesses

On this All Saints Day, I want to write about one of my favourite saints, Edward the Confessor. I meant to write about him a few weeks ago, on his feast-day, October 13th, but flu got in the way (mine, not his).

It's interesting to consider why some Anglo-Saxon kings were canonised and others weren't. Anyone who was killed violently was an obvious candidate to be a martyr, even if they weren't exactly murdered for their faith; certainly, poor Edmund of East Anglia was killed by those nasty pagan Vikings, but Edward the Martyr was only thirteen when he was murdered, supposedly by his stepmother (the mother of Ethelred the Unready) for political reasons, and he had a reputation for bad temper and rash behaviour, so he is not the most obvious candidate for sanctity.

As Ethelred's son, Edward the Confessor was the nephew of Edward the Martyr, but he was more suited by nature for sainthood than his unfortunate teenage uncle. He was pious and charitable, and since he was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, it is not difficult to understand why post-Conquest kings venerated him. The end of his reign, which led directly to the Norman Conquest, was one of the most important moments in English history, but to understand Edward as a man and a saint it is interesting to consider his early life - before he was a saint, or even a king.

Of course this information comes from various sources, some of which are not as reliable as others, but my excuse for repeating it is that sometimes with medieval history it doesn't actually matter if something is true or not; what matters is that it was said, by someone, for some reason.

Edward was born in about 1003 and spent his childhood in a vulnerable, disintegrating country. His father, King Ethelred, dealt with the persistent scourge of Viking attacks in a number of ways, each as ineffective as the last. His efforts ranged from the feeble (attempts to raise armies who never turned up) to the extremely violent (in the year before Edward was born, he ordered that all the Danes living in England should be killed). His son Edmund Ironside, Edward's older brother, did his best to fight against the invaders, but frequently clashed with his father and disobeyed him. In 1013, Edward and his younger brother Alfred fled with their mother to her homeland of Normandy, while the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, assisted by his son Cnut, besieged London. Ethelred was forced to surrender and join his family in exile.

Edward's family had ruled Wessex for hundreds of years; to be forced out of England must have been a massive humiliation. There was some back-and-forth over the next few years; Sweyn died and Ethelred was invited back, but soon died too; Edward Ironside ruled for a couple of months, but was eventually forced to cede power to Cnut. Edward, Alfred and their mother Emma remained in Normandy throughout this time of uncertainty and change; they must have wondered if they would ever return to England.

Emma was said to despise her feeble husband. She was a formidable woman; maybe she thought she could have done a better job than Ethelred. Edward is supposed to have been on bad terms with his mother - perhaps she thought he was as weak as his father. After Ethelred's death, Cnut married Emma. It was a marriage of political advantage to them both (peace with Normandy was in Cnut's interests) but it also seems to have been a loving marriage, and in the history Emma commissioned of her life, she shows much more affection for her children by Cnut than for her sons by Ethelred. Despite their mother's remarriage, Edward and Alfred remained in Normandy. Cnut can't have wanted them around; he was a shrewd ruler - of three kingdoms! - and knew better than to have potential Anglo-Saxon heirs to the throne hanging around, even if they were also his step-sons.

This convoluted situation is par for the course among medieval royalty, but it still strikes me as intriguing. Edward was potentially heir to a country he hadn't even been in since he was a young teenager, and from across the Channel he must have seen his mother actively working against his interests in favour of her son by Cnut. No wonder they weren't on good terms... He lived in exile like this for 30 years. He probably never thought he would be king of England, let alone patron saint of the kings of England!

Cnut died in 1035 and after brief reigns by his two sons, Edward at last became king in 1042. As well as being patron saint of the kings of England, he is the patron of troubled marriages: in 1043 he married the daughter of one of the powerful noblemen Earl Godwin. Godwin had been suspected of involvement in the brutal murder of Edward's younger brother Alfred and the king's marriage with Edith was an attempt at reconciliation. The reconciliation succeeded; the marriage did not. It was perhaps never even consummated, and the couple lived separately. Meanwhile, antipathy between Edward and his mother continued: he seized her property, and she seems to have encouraged rebellion against him. He ruled for over twenty years, and then came 1066, Harold (who was Godwin's son and Edward's brother-in-law) and William, and the Norman Conquest.

Edward's public role made him a saint, but it's his personal life which makes him a sympathetic figure to me. I suppose one oughtn't to romanticise, but it seems such a sad life: decades of exile, a failure of a father, a mother who married his father's enemy, a murdered brother, a disastrous marriage... Anglo-Saxon life was not easy at the best of times, but Edward's sounds so unsettled and lonely. It's just sad. And yet he was a virtuous and holy man, who showed the power of God in his life, and he was admired and venerated, and miracles were worked through him. When I hear sermons about how saints are difficult for us to relate to because they are always happy and glorified (and I heard two such sermons today), I think about Edward the Confessor and that hymn which says of the saints:

Once they were mourning here below,
And wet their couch with tears;
They wrestled hard, as we do now,
With sins and doubts and fears.

Well, I can relate to that.

Saturday 31 October 2009

Slants of Light

Recently I've been reading a lot of Middle English tail-rhyme romances - the supreme example, to my mind, to support the argument that originality in literature is over-praised. Most of these romances are formulaic, predictable and repetitive, in every aspect from plot to characterisation to vocabulary and imagery, yet they are immensely satisfying to read. Well, I find them immensely satisfying; lots of critics don't agree! But I'm the kind of person who would rather read the Child ballads than the Canterbury Tales, so I have basically no high-brow credentials.

Anyway, there are a very high number of formulaic phrases in the romances, which are often just used to fill out the rhyme, but some of them - pretty much by accident rather than poetic skill - are extremely evocative. I was thinking of this yesterday because I was reading the romance Ipomadon, which is about a bashful knight who does all his fighting in disguise; it's absurdly long, but it has some nice moments. One of the formulae which struck me there is the conventional simile for a woman's beauty: the hero calls his lover "her that is of ble as bright/as sun that shines through glass" (ble = countenance).

This made me think about glass. It's a common phrase to describe women in the romances, and even some of the men - King Horn, for example, has this in the opening picture of its hero:

Fairer nis non thane he was
He was bright so the glas (13-14)

In romances, eyes are often "grey as glass" - grey (that is, blue) eyes being considered the height of beauty. I confess this simile puzzles me a little, because I can't quite imagine how glass can be considered blue; perhaps it helps to remember that medieval glass was distorting, not clear. Is that why sun shining through glass is brighter than ordinary sun?

Medieval glass from Muchelney Abbey, Somerset

Devotional lyrics in praise of the Virgin Mary have their own twist on the 'light/glass' topos. The carol with the refrain "To bliss God bring us all and some, Christe, Redemptor omnium" contains the lines:

As the sunne shineth through the glas,
So Jesu in his mother was.

And another lyric addresses her: "[As] gleam glidis þurh þe glas, of þi bodi born he was". Though a conventional image, it's still a lovely and an elegant one, with the gentle delicacy of this more famous lyric. It's a common formula because it works, every time.

This was all just an excuse to post this picture:

The refectory of Cleeve Abbey, Somerset

Monday 26 October 2009

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great died on 26th October in c. 901; he was only about fifty years old, but he had one of the most remarkable careers of any English king. When he came to the throne in 871, Wessex was the only kingdom in England which was not under the control of the Danes: he repelled the invaders, revolutionised the military defence of his kingdom, founded the English navy... And best of all (from the perspective of those of us who study medieval literature), he embarked on a programme of education which was intended to make it possible for every free-born man in the kingdom (!) to learn to read English, and to have available the books which were most important for them to know. He arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English: the first fifty Psalms, Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the Old English Orosius, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and encouraged the writing of the invaluable historical source which is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Just incredible. The whole face of Old English literature would be different without Alfred.

My favourite passage from his translations comes in Soliloquies, where the process of translation itself is discussed. Anyone who has tried to translate something from one language to another and fretted about being unable to capture the nuances of the original will identify with Alfred's metaphor. He compares the writing of the book to going into the woods to collect materials for building, gathering armfuls of timber, and mourning because he can only carry so much: "on every tree I saw something which I needed at home".

Friday 23 October 2009

To Autumn

I was inspired to post because at this very minute, outside my window, gathering swallows twitter in the skies. There are some poems which are so familiar that one loses sight of how good they really are - lots of Shakespeare sonnets are like that for me - but every single time I read Keats' 'To Autumn', and every time autumn comes around and brings the poem to life, it hits me again what a wonderful piece of work it is.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Saturday 10 October 2009


Today I found a place in Oxford where I've never been before. There are quite a lot of places I've never visited in Oxford (according to the application on facebook which counts how many colleges you've visited, I've only been to 61% of them...) but after five years, it's a list that's getting shorter. However, I was exploring the University Parks today, and I finally found Mesopotamia.

This is a small, unobtrusive strip of land between two stretches of the Cherwell. You have to love the donnish sense of humour which named it 'Mesopotamia', the land between the rivers! It's very narrow - in the photo above, the water starts perhaps a foot out of shot on either side - and today it was deserted, even on a Saturday afternoon. The Parks were so autumnal and so full of nice-looking people, it was like a Richard Curtis film: rugby players shouting and cheering, children playing in the leaves, couples walking hand-in-hand, old women sitting in the sun and talking. Mesopotamia is a little more untidy and a little less pretty, but at least it was peaceful.

Full term starts on Monday. I'm a bit apprehensive about starting my DPhil, but it's always a joy to be back in Oxford, and to see its familiar beauties again.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

A Thought

Is it just me, or is the slang phrase 'what are the haps' pretty much a perfectly acceptable Middle English sentence? Because while in ME 'hap' singular is usually 'luck' or 'chance' (that's OED sense 1), the plural 'happes' often just means 'things that are happening' (see the Middle English Dictionary, 2, if you don't believe me). And that's what it means in the current sense, except now it's gone full circle and is in fact an abbreviation for 'happenings'.

The ME example which made me think of this is from 'William of Palerne'. The werewolf who's getting food for William in the forest goes off to the road and lies in wait to mug any passing travellers: "he went to an hei3 way to whayte sum happes" = to wait for something to happen.

You could imagine Chaucer saying 'what are the happes?', right?

The OED calls 'hap' archaic. Maybe it's time for an update.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

This week...

... is the week A-level results come out. It's been a few years since anybody close to me was worrying about their results, but it's impossible to ignore the event, and the inevitable debate about standards slipping and dumbing down (which is always discussed in articles beginning just this way, and the authors always acknowledge that it's a cliche by now, but you have to have something to talk about in August so they write the article anyway). What puzzles me, as someone who took A-levels (one, two, three, four...) five years ago now, is that there's any debate at all. A-levels aren't just getting easier. They are easy, full stop. Too easy. At some point they'll be so easy that they can't get any easier, and we'll have to find something else to talk about in the summer.

That point is not far away.

I don't think anyone except Government ministers and current A-level students really thinks otherwise. Studying for A-levels consists of learning to hit the targets set out in the mark scheme - if you know the right phrases to use, you will get full marks. It is absolutely as simple as that. The system encourages limited, formulaic thinking; obedience to conventional wisdom and dogma; a simplistic attitude to the world and a scornful attitude to the process of learning. When I was at school, the hopeless state of the education system made me angry; it endangered my chances for the future because I knew that the privately-educated people I would be competing with for university places would have opportunities I couldn't dream of. I was so angry!

Now the whole thing just makes me sad. You only get to go to school once as a teenager - learning about the world, finding out what you care about and what you want to understand. Of course people can go back to learning in later life, but it isn't the same experience, the same time in your life. That seven-year window, that opportunity for real education, is just wasted on mark schemes and target phrases and form-filling and multiple-choice questions. People who are capable of learning to think are only taught to learn how to do exams. They're not even taught to spell so that they can at least appear well-educated. And they work themselves into the ground and study like crazy and panic about their results - and it's all wasted effort, because the knowledge they acquire isn't worth having, and the results don't mean anything. It's all wasted time.

It breaks my heart a little.

Sunday 21 June 2009

West Stourmouth and the Courts of God

Psalm 84

O how amiable are thy dwellings : thou Lord of hosts!

My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord : my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young : even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

Blessed are they that dwell in thy house : they will be always praising thee.

Sunday 14 June 2009


In the past few years, Sunday has become my favourite day of the week. I liked it when I was a child, too - we used to go to church, and then my family would often go out somewhere, and we'd have Sunday lunch together, and watch the Antiques Roadshow, and it was lovely - but there was always the thought of going back to school on Monday hanging over the day. Homework would always have to be done on Sundays, which is enough to spoil any day. It never occurred to me to do all my homework on the Saturday and keep the Sunday free from work, which Christians are after all supposed to do - that just seemed massively impractical. When would you have time for it all? When I came to university and lived with an evangelical Christian who said she never did any work on Sundays, I wondered how she managed, and thought I could never do that - when would the work get done?

Anyway, two years ago I joined my college choir, which sings at Evensong on Sundays. We practise in the afternoon beforehand and have formal hall afterwards, which often goes on until eight or nine. It takes up a large part of the day, and lots of people complain that they don't have time to do it because they have so much work to do. For a few weeks I would try and squeeze in a few hours of work between coming home from church in the morning and going to choir practice, and it did indeed feel rushed and busy. But gradually the ritual of being in the choir - the unchanging succession of practice, the service, drinks, dinner - began to impress itself on me as not a fun way of spending the time, but a proper way of spending a Sunday. I began to feel that I ought to keep Sunday better. So I tried not doing any work in those spare hours, and instead started to read the books I don't have time for in the week, to play music, or to write to friends.

It sounds idle and self-indulgent to spend a whole day without doing work, and I know it's a luxury I'm lucky to have as a student (and a graduate student at that, able to set my own timetable). But it's amazing what a difference it makes to how I approach the remaining days in the week. Sunday is a real day of rest for me now. I look forward to it, and I find that unlike in the days when I would come home from church and get straight back to my regular work, the prayers and hymns I hear at the services I attend impress deeply on my mind and my imagination, undiluted by having to compete with the ordinary concerns of every other day.

Even if it means Saturdays and Mondays are more of a rush, the work gets done somehow. Sundays are free of work, and that means free of worry, too; I force myself to be more trusting, and to concentrate on what really matters, not on the everyday things which nag away at me all the rest of the week. Sunday belongs to God, and not to me.

George Herbert wrote a lovely poem called 'Sunday', which you can find here. These are my two favourite verses:

Sundays the pillars are,
On which heav'n's palace arched lies:
The other days fill up the spare
And hollow room with vanities.
They are the fruitful beds and borders
In God's rich garden: that is bare,
Which parts their ranks and orders.

The Sundays of man's life,
Threaded together on time's string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternal glorious King.
On Sunday heaven's gate stands ope;
Blessings are plentiful and rife,
More plentiful than hope.

Friday 12 June 2009


This has not been a good day. I just handed in four essays and have another two to finish for next week, and I seem to have lost the ability to write in coherent sentences (you have no idea how much trouble I had just with that one). I'm also a little sad that it's almost the last week of term.

However, that does mean it's the Leavers' Service at college on Sunday, in place of the usual Evensong. And we're singing this:

That makes everything better.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

St Margaret of Scotland

One of my particular interests - professionally as well as personally, if the next few years go to plan! - is the Danish conquest of England. I like to call it 'The Conquest' on purpose to be confusing, because most people, like me, only learned at school about one medieval conquest of England - the Norman one (and not much about that, if you went to the same kind of school I did). But in 1016, exactly fifty years before the more famous conquest, England was invaded by the Danish king Cnut, and became part of a great pan-Scandinavian empire including Denmark and Norway. When you think that there had been Scandinavians settling in various parts of the British Isles for two centuries before that - in Ireland, Scotland, and northern England in particular - and you add in The Conquest, it's incredible that this Norse strain in British history has been so generally forgotten in the popular imagination.

St Margaret of Scotland, who is commemorated on June 10th, was a victim of The Conquest. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, who was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England before Cnut, and that makes her the great-niece of my favourite saint, Edward the Confessor (Edmund's half-brother). Edward has an excellent story of his own, which I'll write about another day. He and Edmund were both the sons of Ethelred the Unready, a king of Gordon Brown-like incompetence. For a short time first Ethelred and then Edmund divided the kingdom with Cnut, but they both died in 1016, leaving Cnut as unchallenged king. Cnut then married Ethelred's widow. He was just that hardcore.

Anyway, Margaret's father (also called Edward) was only a baby at this point, and like all the other surviving members of the royal family, he was exiled to the Continent. Logically, he is known as Edward the Exile. He ended up in Hungary, where he grew up and married, and that's where Margaret was born. He had a son, Edgar, too, and another daughter. A pretty rubbish time for the English monarchy, I think you'll agree - Cnut ruled until his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his two sons, and it probably didn't look like there was much chance of Margaret's family getting back their ancestral kingdom.

But then! Edward the Confessor came back from exile and was chosen as king. How? That's a story for another day. Well, he heard that his nephew Edward was still alive, and sent for him and his children to come to England and be his heirs. They came. Unfortunately, Edward (the nephew) died pretty much as soon as he returned - probably murdered. So now Margaret and Edgar were in England, a country they had never seen, but to which Edgar was heir apparent. This was in 1057, when Margaret wasn't much more than ten, and Edgar was even younger. The children spent the next ten years living in England at the court of their great-uncle, who (although he was married) never had any children.

This is the bit of the story I find particularly fascinating (I get a little speculative and historical novel-ish at this point, because there's no evidence about Margaret's childhood). What kind of relationship did Edward and Margaret have? The childless king and the fatherless princess, both former exiles, both future saints, both known for their piety and faith... Did Margaret study his example? What did she learn, in that court, of the fragility of earthly power, of the changes and chances of this fleeting world? And Margaret and her brother were Edward's only surviving family, the only link, through their grandfather, to his long-ago childhood before The Conquest. Is it too fanciful to think he might have talked to her, or to Edgar, about their ancestors, the kings of Wessex, and their failures and their successes?

Probably. This is why I study literature, and not history.

Edward the Confessor died in 1066, when Edgar was only fourteen. Now we come to the other conquest. Briefly, Edgar was too young to rule, so Harold Godwinson, Edward's brother-in-law and perhaps the most powerful man in England but for the king, was chosen as king. William the Conqueror invaded. Harold was killed at Hastings. Etc.

Edgar and Margaret, with their mother, fled the country, and ended up in Scotland, where they were taken under the protection of King Malcolm. Malcolm, probably looking for a connection with the house of Wessex, married Margaret as his second wife. She became a queen and the mother of kings and queens. And here we see an indication that her Anglo-Saxon heritage really did matter: her first four sons were given the names of English kings, Edward (for her father? her great-uncle?), Edmund (her grandfather) , Ethelred (great-grandfather), and Edgar (great-great-grandfather). Her eldest daughter, Edith, bore the name of Edward the Confessor's wife.

What did she learn at Edward's court...?

Margaret lived a devout life, personally pious and a benefactor to the church. She died in 1093 and was canonised in 1250; she is one of the patron saints of Scotland.

Monday 8 June 2009

Hopkins and Langland

Gerard Manley Hopkins died on this day in 1889. Pied Beauty is one of his most delightful (and accessible!) poems of praise. I was thinking of it yesterday when I posted that extract from Piers Plowman - Langland's 'foster forth' reminded me of the penultimate line of this poem. Hopkins certainly read Langland, and was partly indebted to his alliterative verse and to Anglo-Saxon poetry in the development of his own metrical system of sprung rhythm.

I was going to say that Langland would have liked this poem, but he was the ultimate perfectionist, a lover of extremes, who spent his whole life rewriting one enormous poem; it's hard to imagine him finding God in the imperfect. Except that Piers Plowman itself is one of Hopkins' 'dappled things': wordy, repetitive, sometimes muddled and self-contradictory, but illuminated with flashes of some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

How Shall I Sing That Majesty?

We sang this hymn at college Evensong yesterday, to the barnstorming tune Coe Fen. The last verse always makes me a little teary!

How shall I sing that Majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith's light my heart,
inflame it with love's fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

John Mason (1645-1694)

Sunday 7 June 2009

Langland on the Trinity

To my mind, Langland's Piers Plowman is the masterpiece of Middle English literature (yes, better than Chaucer!). On this Trinity Sunday, I've been re-reading a memorable section: his version of some traditional images for the Trinity.

First, God as a hand (my slightly modernised version):

The Father was first as a fist with one finger folding,
Til him loved and list to unloose his finger
And proffered it forth as with a palm to what place it should.
The palm is purely the hand, and proffereth forth the fingers,
To minister and to make that might of hand knoweth;
And betokeneth truly, tell whoso liketh,
The Holy Ghost of heaven - he is as the palm.
The fingers that free be to fold and to serve
Betoken soothly the Son, that sent was til earth,
That touched and tasted at teaching of the palm...
And as the hand holds hard and all thing fast
Through four fingers and a thumb forth with the palm,
Right so the Father and the Son and Saint Spirit the third
Holds all the wide world within them three -
Both wolken and the wind, water and earth,
Heaven and hell and all that there is in.

Then, as a candle:

For to a torch or a taper the Trinity is likened -
As wax and a wick were twined together,
And then a fire flaming forth out of both.
And as wax and wick and warm fire together
Foster forth a flame and a fair leye
So doth the Sire and the Son and also Spiritus Sanctus
Foster forth among folk love and belief,
That alle kynne Christians cleanseth of sins.
And as thou seest some time suddenly a torch,
The blaze thereof blown out, yet burneth the wick...
So is the Holy Ghost God, and grace without mercy
To alle unkynde creatures that covet to destroy
Lele love or life that Our Lord shaped.
And as glowing gledes gladeth not these workmen
That work and wake in winters' nights,
As doth a kex or a candle that caught hath fire and blazeth,
No more doth Sire nor Son nor Seint Spirit together
Grant no grace nor forgiveness of sins
Til the Holy Ghost begin to glow and to blaze;
So that the Holy Ghost gloweth but as a glede
Til that lele love lie on him and blow.
And then flameth he as fire on Father and on Filius
And melteth their might into mercy - as men may see in winter
Icicles in eaves through heat of the sun
Melt in a minute's while to mist and to water,
So grace of the Holy Ghost the great might of the Trinity
Melteth to mercy - to merciful and to none other.

Read it with the Middle English spelling here.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

The Bells

The city has been full of church bells this morning. That happens sometimes, and I can never exactly tell why - is it just practice, or a special occasion? As far as I can tell, this is an entirely ordinary Tuesday morning. But at one moment the bells were ringing from the tower of Lincoln library (formerly All Saints' Church) and at another from Carfax (formerly St Martin's), and from unidentified places all over the city. It was one of those mornings when scraps of poetry swim into the memory: first, Hopkins' description of Oxford as 'bell-swarmèd', then, more distantly, of George Herbert on 'Prayer': 'Church bells beyond the stars heard...' In all that poem's feast of images, I think the one about church bells is my favourite. Like prayer, like remembered poetry, bells say: Look up. Raise your head, and look beyond.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

The Medieval Student

by James Williams

Scotus and a Latin Plato -
Nought our student knew of Greek -
No tobacco, no potato,
Disputations twice a week.

He was quite a rank outsider,
Never had his people up,
Was not cricketer or rider,
Never heard of claret-cup.

Now and then a blood-stained battle
Surging through the frightened town
Drowned the ineffective rattle
Sprung for aid against the gown.

Combat was his recreation,
Combat, and the real thing;
Football is an imitation
Far and feebly following.

When his fight was over, bleeding
Crept he to his fireless hall,
Patient for his chance of reading
Manuscripts misused by all.

When at nine the curfew thundered,
Shivering rose he from his form,
Stamped his feet in vain and wondered
If he ever would be warm.

Beaumont Palace and Bocardo
Northward marked he day by day,
Names that live, for pede tardo
Names in Oxford pass away.

Did his tutor and his lecture
Muddle as they muddle now?
We to-day can but conjecture
If he called a plough a plough.

Bacon of the Opus Majus
Viva’d him an hour perchance
Till his spirit once courageous
Wavered in a troubled trance.

Ockham may have said demurely,
‘Never mind Franciscan tips!’
Howlers of the period surely
Flowed in plenty from his lips.

Life was costly, for the student
Kept examiners in view,
Were he moderately prudent,
If he wanted to be through.

So his Ockham or his Bacon
Primed he well with stoups of ale
That his viva might be taken
Ere the smack of it should fail.

The curfew bell still rings from Christ Church at nine o'clock, though no one takes any notice of it now (it's at 9.05, actually, because Oxford time is five minutes ahead of GMT). Beaumont Palace was the royal palace situated where Beaumont St now is - where the Ashmolean and Worcester College are; Bocardo was the medieval prison, near the church of St Michael at the Northgate. Names in Oxford don't pass away that quickly!

Monday 25 May 2009


I have a lot of work to do in the four weeks before term ends, and it's all quite interesting and about Vikings and so on, but right now I'm taking a break to post about pretty Kent churches. Wickhambreaux is not far from Canterbury and it's a beautiful little place, with a village green and a watermill which I'm a bit in love with, and a house by the green which in my favourite film ever is the symbol of all the loveliness of rural life. So it's kind of an ideal village for me. I'd never been in the church, however, before this Easter. It's fairly ordinary to look at on the outside, though it does have this nice little porch:

Then you go inside, and you see this (click to enlarge, you'll be glad you did!):

It's the most extraordinary window, full of wonderful colours: lilies below and angels above, and Mary in the middle, kneeling before Gabriel. It was installed in 1896, designed by Arild Rosenkrantz. The seven archangels are there: Michael to the right, with Adam and Eve on his shield:

And Gabriel, of course:

The colour of the light in Mary's halo is so gentle and delicate:

There are lilies all across the bottom of the window, glowing white but spotted with scarlet blood, as a reminder of the Crucifixion. When the light strikes the red glass...

I adore lilies. A kind friend gave me some last week, and as is their right they have regally assumed lordship over my room; it is now the abode of the lilies, and they just condescendingly allow me to share their space. I was at a seminar a few days ago where the speaker mentioned illustrations to the Old English poem Genesis which show Lucifer, just before the Fall, holding a lily-sceptre as a symbol of his desire to be king. Apparently this is something Carolingian monarchs may have done; I can well believe it.

There's one bit of medieval glass in the church, too, depicting the popular if rather gruesome subject of the beheading of John the Baptist:

A memorial or two, including this to Alexander Young, a parish priest 'cheerful and easy in himself' (fortunate man!):

And Angels on the roof:

But nothing compares to that window - or even its reflection.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Ascension Day

OK, back to seasonal appropriateness now. Kind of. Because although the Catholic Church in England and Wales no longer celebrates today as Ascension Day, and instead transfers it to Sunday on the principle that it's apparently unreasonable to expect people to go to Mass more than once in a week... despite that, well, today is Ascension Day. It just is. It's 40 days after Easter. You can't play around with that without giving the impression that you don't understand how the church year works, how sacred time and calendar time intersect, or really anything about the human mind at all.

Anyway, here is J.M. Neale's translation of the fifth-century hymn Aeterne Rex altissime. I love the fourth verse in particular.

Eternal Monarch, King most high,
whose blood hath brought redemption nigh,
by whom the death of Death was wrought,
and conquering Grace's battle fought.

Ascending to the throne of might,
and seated at the Father's right,
all power in heaven is Jesus' own,
that here his manhood had not known.

That so, in nature's triple frame,
each heavenly and each earthly name,
and things in hell's abyss abhorred,
may bend the knee and own him Lord.

Yea, angels tremble when they see
how changed is our humanity;
that flesh hath purged what flesh had stained,
and God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.

Be thou our joy and strong defense,
who art our future recompense:
so shall the light that springs from thee
be ours through all eternity.

O risen Christ, ascended Lord,
all praise to thee let earth accord,
who art, while endless ages run,
with Father and with Spirit one.