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.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

A Nocturnall Upon St Lucies Day

Continuing from yesterday, and with due apologies for both the depressing and the absurdly unseasonal nature of this, I must post the poem I can't get out of my head:

A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies Day, Being The Shortest Day
John Donne

’Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th’ hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to ought else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death — which word wrongs her —
Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
Were I a man, that I were one,
I needs must know; I should preferre,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; All, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
At this time to the Goat is runne
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Bothe the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur?

This is generally a rather cheerful blog, full of joy and beauty and suchlike, but sometimes we must have a little Hopkins-misery too.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

Them; birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

An Easter Hymn

Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander is sometimes treated as a bit of a joke as a hymnwriter. People who want to make fun of Victorian hymns use her compositions as an example of all that they think is sentimental and cliched about Victorian religion, ignoring or ignorant of the fact that the hymns they're making fun of - especially 'There is a green hill far away' and 'All things bright and beautiful' - were written for children, not sophisticated adults like themselves. Sadly, I have even heard the odd college chaplain say this.

(The clue, if you were wondering, is in the title of the book in which those works were first published - Hymns for Little Children. Not much of a riddle, is it?)

Anyway, whatever you may think of those hymns, she wrote some which are certainly good. I like this one, and since it's still the Easter season, I feel able to post it.

There's even an Oxford connection, since her husband William Alexander, Archbishop of Armagh, was educated at Brasenose - one of the better colleges...

He is risen, he is risen!
Tell it out with joyful voice:
he has burst his three days' prison;
let the whole wide earth rejoice:
death is conquered, man is free,
Christ has won the victory.

Come, ye sad and fearful-hearted,
with glad smile and radiant brow!
Lent's long shadows have departed;
Jesus' woes are over now,
and the passion that he bore--
sin and pain can vex no more.

Come, with high and holy hymning,
hail our Lord's triumphant day;
not one darksome cloud is dimming
yonder glorious morning ray,
breaking o'er the purple east,
symbol of our Easter feast.

He is risen, he is risen!
He hath opened heaven's gate:
we are free from sin's dark prison,
risen to a holier state;
and a brighter Easter beam
on our longing eyes shall stream.

The Crucifixion scene is from Canterbury Cathedral. Technically I suppose it's not appropriate for a Resurrection hymn, but it is so very colourful...

Tuesday 12 May 2009


Caffe Nero, Oxford High St, 4pm.

Undergraduate #1, casually: How's your day been?
Undergraduate #2, equally casually: I realised I don't understand the second half of Plato's Republic. You?

Saturday 9 May 2009


This is the collect for the fourth Sunday after Easter in the Book of Common Prayer. Can you believe that this masterpiece of elegance and precision is just one sentence?

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise, that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thursday 7 May 2009


This is from a collection called 'The Oxford Year' by James Williams, about whom I know nothing except that he was at Lincoln College some time in the early twentieth century.


What city boasts herself the peer of thee,
Dear Oxford, when the mist of morning clings
Round Magdalen elms, or when the even flings
Her rosy robe on river, hill, and lea ?
The spirit of the summer rises free
From winter sleep and spreads her silver wings,
The sunny sky holds dreams of nobler things,
Dreams drifting helmless on a fairy sea!
In the green distance smites through cloister doors
The swift and rhythmic throb of racing oars,
The shout of victory and of defeat.
Oxford is Oxford most when May is May,
And Cherwell oarsmen pluck them hawthorn spray
From trees unpruned that shelter stripling wheat.

Wednesday 6 May 2009


As promised, let's go on a virtual visit to Barfreston and its extraordinary Norman carvings. Barfreston is a tiny place - as far as I could see, the entire village consisted of the church, a (friendly and welcoming) pub, and sheep.

The church is a funny little shape, as you can see:

It doesn't have a tower - the bell is in a handy nearby yew tree. Essentially the church is made up of two box-like sheds, but the external decoration is stunning. The south door is my favourite. I included the majestic tympanum of Christ enthroned in my post about Patrixbourne, but it's really the surrounding carvings which are so special.

Here's the whole thing:

A detail from the central panel - angels and gryphons:

The arch has three bands - the innermost carved with foliage, then one of beasts, and the outermost shows figures from 12th-century rural life. It's such a characteristically medieval style of decoration, reminiscent of the illustrations you find in manuscripts and churches throughout the period. This ploughman reminds me of nothing so much as Piers Plowman:

And this Norman knight is exquisite:

Now for the animals. Often in medieval illustrations, there's a tendency to show animals engaging in human activities, or reversing the natural hierarchy of predator and prey - like the famous image from the Macclesfield Psalter of a little man being chased by a giant flatfish (!) or the postcard they sell in the Bodleian showing a manuscript illustration of rabbits hunting humans (who are hiding in a tree to escape). Along the same lines, this carving shows a monkey, riding a goat, with a captured rabbit slung over its shoulder:

We have these drinking animals, who look positively diabolical:

An animal playing a harp, and one doing gymnastics (well, dancing, I suppose):

And some musicians. I can't identify the instruments myself, but you can see the one in the middle is playing some kind of stringed instrument, while the monkey or whatever next to him is playing some version of the pan pipes:

We also have some representational animals, of the kind familiar from bestiaries, where the characteristics of the animal traditionally symbolise a certain concept or figure - such as the pelican or the phoenix as Christ. This is a porcupine, which was believed to steal grapes by carrying them away on its spines; it thus represents the devil, who steals souls away from Christ. It's the cutest devil ever, don't you think?

That's just the south door. More from Barfreston another day.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Sunday Lyric

Steadfast Cross, inmong all other,
Thou art a tree mikel of price;
In branch and flower such another
I ne wot in wood nor ris.
Sweet be the nails, and sweet be the tree,
And sweeter be the burden that hangs upon thee.

I ne wot.... - I do not know in wood or thicket

This is a fourteenth-century translation (in modernised spelling) of the Crux Fidelis, a verse of the hymn Pange Lingua which is sung on Good Friday. In Latin:

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

Saturday 2 May 2009

The fourth of Faber's sonnets.

'College Garden'

Sacred to early morn and evening hours,
Another chapel reared for other prayers,
And full of gifts, smells after noon-day showers,
When bright-eyed birds look out from leafy bowers,
And natural perfumes shed on midnight airs,
And bells and old church clocks and holy towers,
All heavenly images that cluster round.
The rose, and pink acacia, and green vine
Over the fretted wall together twine,
With creepers fair and many, woven up,
When Autumn comes, into a tapestry,
Richly discoloured, and inlaid for me
With golden thoughts, drunk from the dewy cup
Of morns and evenings spent in that dear ground!

May Morning

As someone with a semi-professional interest in English folk customs, I have an unhealthy tendency to idealise them. I love Morris dancing (see the picture on the side of the page!) and mummers' plays, and folk song, and the seasonal traditions which mark spring and harvest and winter. Now you know and I know that a lot of those traditions have been recovered and to an extent reinvented in the past few centuries, and hardly any of them are as genuinely antique as we would like to think (or as some sites on the internet would lead you to believe!). It's easy to want them to be not only old but pure, unsullied by artfulness or self-awareness; so it's helpful sometimes to be reminded that every tradition is only ever enacted by human beings, and if it's done with too much reverence, or without a sense of humour, the tradition is liable to become artificial and false. The custom of hundreds of people gathering on Magdalen Bridge at dawn on the first day of May to listen to madrigals and welcome in the spring is a beautiful - and truly ancient - tradition. I'm grateful to be reminded every year, nonetheless, that lots of people there are drunk and noisy, that the sound system is never quite perfect, and that getting up at 4 in the morning ruins you for the rest of the day! Those imperfections are part of the tradition too.