Wednesday 29 December 2010

St Thomas Becket

The v day longeth to Sent Thomas,
That as a strong pyllar of brass
Held up the Chyrch, and slayn he was,
For he stod with ryghtwessness.

(From a fifteenth-century carol in Bodleian MS. Eng. Poet. e. 1 which has the refrain Make we myrth / For Chrystes byrth / And syng we Yole tyl Candlemas)

This is the fifth day of the twelve days of Christmas, and since the twelfth century it has belonged to St Thomas Becket, who was killed on this day in 1170. I won't rehearse the whole story; read about it all here. His chaplain's eyewitness account is also worth reading. The martyred Archbishop became one of England's most popular saints, his shrine at Canterbury perhaps the most famous in the country (and not just because of Chaucer's pilgrims!). At Canterbury Cathedral they commemorate his death with an absolutely wonderful celebration of Vespers, during which the death of St Thomas is liturgically re-enacted. The Archbishop was celebrating Vespers when he was interrupted by the four knights acting in the name of Henry II. The service begins in the choir, sung entirely in plainchant, in the presence of the current Archbishop. Then it is interrupted, as on the day of Thomas' death, by a crashing on the doors, and the clerics, choir and congregation process, as Thomas fled, to the site of his martyrdom. Then they go on into the crypt, where his body was taken, and the service concludes with joyful polyphony hailing the martyr's sacrifice.

It's so awesome! I've been for the past two years and am going today as well. For more on the general wonderfulness of Canterbury Cathedral, see this article.

Pictures: two medieval depictions of St Thomas' death, at the top an alabaster altar-piece from the church at Elham, and at the bottom a thirteenth-century wall-painting from the church at Brookland, both in Kent. We like him here in Kent, of course.

Saturday 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

To bliss God bring us, all and some,
Christe, Redemptor omnium

In Bethlehem, that fair city,
Was born a child that was so free,
Lord and prince of high degree,
Jam lucis orto sidere.

Jesu, for the love of thee,
Children were slain in great plenty
In Bethlehem, that fair city,
A solis ortus cardine.

As the sun shineth through the glass,
So Jesu in her body was;
Then him to serve God give us grace,
O lux beata Trinitas.

Now is born our Lord Jesus,
He that made merry all of us;
Then be all merry in this house,
Exultet coelem laudibus.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

O my dear heart

This is a 16th-century lullaby carol, and it's a Scottish translation of a poem by Luther, so we're some way here from the medieval English examples I've recently been posting; but this has become a Christmas standard, in settings by various composers, under the name 'Balulalow'.

Personally, I like it because I particularly love 'my dear heart' as a term of endearment - it's what Aslan calls Lucy in Voyage of the Dawn Treader! ;) It has such a gentle sound, here as in 'Myn Lyking'.

These two verses are an extract from the longer 'Ane Sang of the birth of Christ' from the wonderfully-named Ane Compendious Buik of Godly and Spirituall Sangis, compiled in 1567 by the brothers James, John and Robert Wedderburn.  (You can find the whole poem here).  So if you've ever wondered what medieval Scots looked like, here's an example:

O my deir hert, young Jesus sweit,
Prepare thy creddill in my spreit,
And I sall rocke thee in my hert,
And neuer mair from thee depart.

But I sall praise thee euermoir,
With sangs sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my hert sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow.


O my dear heart, young Jesus sweet,
Prepare thy cradle in my spirit
And I shall rock thee in my heart
And never more be parted from thee.

But I shall praise thee evermore
With songs sweet unto thy glory;
The knees of my heart shall I bow
And sing that true Balulalow. ('Lullaby')

Here's Benjamin Britten's setting from his 'Ceremony of Carols':

Saturday 18 December 2010

On the Dangers of Travelling in Winter

It's snowing in the UK, and my planned journey home is looking a little hazardous. Things were harder in eleventh-century Cambridgeshire, though, where the Fenland was apparently apt to freeze; somewhere like Ely could be completely cut off by impassable ice. I've had a year plagued by weather-related travel problems, but I haven't yet resorted to the method used by King Cnut in this delightful story...

During his reign in England (1016-1035), it was Cnut's custom to spend the Feast of the Purification at Ely Abbey every year. One year the winter was so cold that ice made the marsh surrounding the abbey impassable, but he declared that he was willing to travel on the ice from Soham to Ely by wagon if someone would go ahead of him. Cnut was not one to be daunted by a little bad weather! A twelfth-century history of Ely tells the story, in somewhat dry clerical prose:

It chanced that standing by in the crowd was a certain large and rugged man from the Isle [of Ely], Brihtmær surnamed Budde on account of his bulk, and he promised to go ahead of the king. Without delay the king followed behind in the wagon at a fast pace, while everybody marvelled that he should have attempted such a great act of daring. When he arrived at Ely he joyfully celebrated the festival there according to custom...

The king was accustomed to recount that it had so come about and been granted to him by the Lord that a large and rugged countryman had perceived not the slightest hindrance anywhere along the way, so that he himself also, an able-bodied man of ordinary stature, had been permitted to follow after, unswervingly and without fear. And moreover the king, being generous-minded and munificent, and wishing to reward the man’s effort, made a grant whereby he, together with his land-holding, became entitled to perpetual freedom, which rights persist to this day [c.1175.]
From Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth, trans. Janet Fairweather (Woodbridge, 2005), p.183.

Such a wonderful image: the great king Cnut trying to follow along and keep up in his wagon, as the huge peasant charges ahead across the treacherous ice!

Friday 17 December 2010

'The Voyage of The Dawn Treader', Lewis, and Language: A Rant

I really loved the new Voyage of the Dawn Treader film, having expected to completely hate it. It was one of my favourite books as a child, one of the books which shaped my whole imagination, and very certainly one of the influences which made me a medievalist today. There's no way any adaptation can live up to that kind of love for a book; but even I was impressed by the film, which achieved the (what I would have thought impossible) feat of making a Narnia story more explicitly Christian. All that stuff about evil green mist and temptation and the constant struggle against evil is hardly glanced at in the book, but it actually, implausibly, worked well in the film.

I only had one complaint. So many things grate in modern adaptations of classic books, but the language is always the worst: either film-makers honestly can't tell when they have characters talk anachronistically, or they don't care. One gets used to these things, and most of the audience can't tell either; people in general aren't sensitive to the historical niceties of language. But it especially bothers me in the Narnia films because Lewis was so tenderly, playfully careful to get his levels of discourse right. Of course his English children speak 1940s slang, which was entirely absent from the film (I loved that slang so much as a child, in the early 1990s - it was exotic and fun to me, but I imagine the film-makers assume modern children will find it alienating). Even better, Lewis takes any excuse to let his Narnian characters to speak in a pastiche of medieval or Elizabethan language, especially when they're being official. This is how Oxford professors of English literature get their fun, so it's hardly surprising; and even less surprisingly, none of this makes it into the films.

This is my favourite example, the letter sent by Peter to the usurping king Miraz in Prince Caspian:

"...I will dictate," said Peter. And while the Doctor spread out a parchment and opened his ink-horn and sharpened his pen, Peter leant back with half-closed eyes and recalled to his mind the language in which he had written such things long ago in Narnia's golden age.

"Right," he said at last. "And now, if you are ready, Doctor?"

Doctor Cornelius dipped his pen and waited. Peter dictated as follows:

"Peter, by the gift of Aslan, by election, by prescription, and by conquest, High King over all Kings in Narnia, Emperor of the Lone Islands and Lord of Cair Paravel, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion, to Miraz, Son of Caspian the Eighth, sometime Lord Protector of Narnia and now styling himself King of Narnia, Greeting. Have you got that?"

"Narnia, comma, greeting," muttered the Doctor. "Yes, Sire."

"Then begin a new paragraph," said Peter. "For to prevent the effusion of blood, and for the avoiding all other inconveniences likely to grow from the wars now levied in our realm of Narnia, it is our pleasure to adventure our royal person on behalf of our trusty and well-beloved Caspian in clean wager of battle to prove upon your Lordship's body that the said Caspian is lawful King under us in Narnia, both by our gift and by the laws of the Telmarines, and your Lordship twice guilty of treachery both in withholding the dominion of Narnia from the said Caspian and in the most abhominable, - don't forget to spell it with an H, Doctor - bloody, and unnatural murder of your kindly lord and brother King Caspian Ninth of that name. Wherefore we most heartily provoke, challenge, and defy your Lordship to the said combat and monomachy, and have sent these letters by the hand of our well-beloved and royal brother Edmund, sometime King under us in Narnia, Duke of Lantern Waste and Count of the Western March, Knight of the Noble Order of the Table, to whom we have given full power of determining with your Lordship all the conditions of the said battle. Given at our lodging in Aslan's How this XII day of the month Greenroof in the first year of Caspian Tenth of Narnia.

"That ought to do," said Peter, drawing a deep breath.

This, in a children's book! 'Monomachy' (I had to look that one up) and 'don't forget to spell abhominable with an H'! There's no reason at all to include such scholarly quibbles or such an (to a child) incomprehensible letter, except that I bet Lewis had all the fun in the world writing it. When I was eight years old, I had no idea what this was a pastiche of, or what genre it's self-consciously mimicking, but I thought it was so cool; it was a completely new language to go with the new imaginative world.

Note that even in Narnia, this Tudor stuff is archaic language - 'long ago' to Peter and to Narnia - and it's the language of the Golden Age...

There are some great examples in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because Caspian as king gets to say lots of very kingly things in his best elevated rhetoric - Reepicheep, too, the swaggering Walter Raleigh of the piece. It wasn't in the film and I missed it, but never mind. The only thing I did mind was the language of the spells Lucy reads from the magician's book. Lewis doesn't give the text of these, so they were invented for the film, and goodness, they were awful.

In the film, as in the book, this is an ancient spell-book, with illustrations like a medieval manuscript; and so, like most fictional spells, you might expect a bit of archaic language. The spells invented for the film didn't capture this at all; they were feeble doggerel. Here's a spell Lucy uses to make it snow:

With these words
Your tongue must sew

For all around there
To be snow.

Someone needs to get a dictionary and look up the word 'sew', because here's a rule of poetry for you, guys: just because it rhymes, that doesn't mean it makes sense. This is an illiterate sentence. It's ungrammatical, and it doesn't mean anything! Lewis would be rolling his eyes.

Worse, they replaced a good spell with a terrible one. More than once we hear the spell which most tempts Lucy, the one which will make her beautiful; this is the title:

An infallible spell to make you she,
the beauty you've always wanted to be.

Are you kidding me? What on earth is that?

The spell itself says:

Lashes, lips and complexion
Transform my reflection.

It's hardly inspired, though not quite as bad as "To make you she", which is just atrocious. Was there really no one working on the film capable of noticing that phrase is ungrammatical? And unpoetic? And immensely awkward? Maybe they just didn't point it out, since the director Michael Apted apparently wrote it himself....

But what makes this particularly stupid is that we get a good version of this spell in the book! The first words, at least: "An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals." Come on. That is so many times better than the film version, it's off the chart. You will notice, as any eight-year-old could notice (even without knowing that they did), that with the inflected ending on uttereth and the archaic use of relative pronoun that where today we would say who, and most of all the fairytale diction of beyond the lot of mortals, Lewis has made an appropriately defamiliarised, medieval-sounding spell in very few words. Did they not want a spell that sounded like a spell? They wanted a spell that sounded like a rhyme out of a Christmas cracker? For goodness' sake.

(I think they've even dared to 'correct' - wrongly - Lewis' grammar, by replacing to make beautiful her with to make you she. Lewis was a Professor of English at Cambridge, guys; you think you can do better?)

Anyway, these were my only complaints (almost) about a movie which really could have been a lot worse; but they are symptomatic of a cloth-eared ignorance about language which is prevalent in all media today, and very far from the sensitive, nuanced intelligence of Lewis' original.

I'll only mention one more language peeve. In the last scene, Caspian is tempted to go on to Aslan's country, but realises he has responsibilities to Narnia which he can't abandon. The following dialogue occurs:

Caspian: I will try to be a better king.
Aslan: You already are.

If you don't know how to use the comparatives good, better, best, you really ought not to be writing for films. Anyway, this little bit of nonsense replaces my favourite scene in the book, which is rather lengthy, but wonderful in every part. I've posted the whole thing below. Do note the archaisms of Reepicheep ("You shall not please yourself with adventures as if you were a private person"), Edmund's lampshade-hanging reference to Ulysses, and the difference between the dignified rhetoric of Caspian's first speech and his humble schoolboy language in his last ("give to all these, my shipmates, the rewards I promised them" vs. "might as well have behaved decently for all the good I did with my temper and swagger").

They joined Caspian on the poop and soon all the men were crowded together at the foot of the ladder to hear the King's speech. "Friends," said Caspian, "we have now fulfilled the quest on which you embarked. The seven lords are all accounted for and as Sir Reepicheep has sworn never to return, when you reach Ramandu's Land you will doubtless find the Lords Revilian and Argoz and Mavramorn awake. To you, my Lord Drinian, I entrust this ship, bidding you sail to Narnia with all the speed you may, and above all not to land on the Island of Deathwater. And instruct my regent, the Dwarf Trumpkin, to give to all these, my shipmates, the rewards I promised them. They have been earned well. And if I come not again it is my will that the Regent, and Master Cornelius, and Trufflehunter the Badger, and the Lord Drinian choose a King of Narnia with the consent-"

"But, Sire," interrupted Drinian, "are you abdicating?"

"I am going with Reepicheep to see the World's End," said Caspian.

A low murmur of dismay ran through the sailors.

"We will take the boat," said Caspian. "You will have no need of it in these gentle seas and you must build a new one in Ramandu's island. And now-"

"Caspian," said Edmund suddenly and sternly, "you can't do this."

"Most certainly," said Reepicheep, "his Majesty cannot."

"No indeed," said Drinian.

"Can't?" said Caspian sharply, looking for a moment not unlike his uncle Miraz.

"Begging your Majesty's pardon," said Rynelf from the deck below, "but if one of us did the same it would be called deserting."

"You presume too much on your long service, Rynelf," said Caspian.

"No, Sire! He's perfectly right," said Drinian.

"By the Mane of Aslan," said Caspian, "I had thought you were all my subjects here, not my schoolmasters."

"I'm not," said Edmund, "and I say you can not do this."

"Can't again," said Caspian. "What do you mean?"

"If it please your Majesty, we mean shall not," said Reepicheep with a very low bow. "You are the King of Narnia. You break faith with all your subjects, and especially with Trumpkin, if you do not return. You shall not please yourself with adventures as if you were a private person. And if your Majesty will not hear reason it will be the truest loyalty of every man on board to follow me in disarming and binding you till you come to your senses."

"Quite right," said Edmund. "Like they did with Ulysses when he wanted to go near the Sirens."

Caspian's hand had gone to his sword hilt, when Lucy said, "And you've almost promised Ramandu's daughter to go back."

Caspian paused. "Well, yes. There is that," he said. He stood irresolute for a moment and then shouted out to the ship in general.

"Well, have your way. The quest is ended. We all return. Get the boat up again."

"Sire," said Reepicheep, "we do not all return. I, as I explained before -"

"Silence!" thundered Caspian. "I've been lessoned but I'll not be baited. Will no one silence that Mouse?"

"Your Majesty promised," said Reepicheep, "to be good lord to the Talking Beasts of Narnia."

"Talking beasts, yes," said Caspian. "I said nothing about beasts that never stop talking." And he flung down the ladder in a temper and went into the cabin, slamming the door.

But when the others rejoined him a little later they found him changed; he was white and there were tears in his eyes.

"It's no good," he said. "I might as well have behaved decently for all the good I did with my temper and swagger. Aslan has spoken to me. No - I don't mean he was actually here. He wouldn't fit into the cabin, for one thing. But that gold lion's head on the wall came to life and spoke to me. It was terrible - his eyes. Not that he was at all rough with me - only a bit stern at first. But it was terrible all the same. And he said - he said - oh, I can't bear it. The worst thing he could have said. You're to go on - Reep and Edmund, and Lucy, and Eustace; and I'm to go back. Alone. And at once. And what is the good of anything?"

"Caspian, dear," said Lucy. "You knew we'd have to go back to our own world sooner or later."

"Yes," said Caspian with a sob, "but this is sooner."

"You'll feel better when you get back to Ramandu's Island," said Lucy.

O Sapientia

Christmas is very close now; it's time for the first of the O Antiphons.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Fun Viking Fact of the Day

I never knew this before: why in English King Cnut is sometimes called 'Canute', with two syllables. From E. A. Freeman's monumental Victorian History of the Norman Conquest of England, Vol. I, p. 402, n.1:

"Cnut or Knud, in one syllable, is this King’s true name, and the best Latin form is Cnuto, according to the usual way of Latinizing Scandinavian names. The form Canutus seems to have arisen from Pope Paschal the Second’s inability to say Cnut. The later King Cnut, the supposed martyr, was therefore canonized by him as “Sanctus Canutus”. [Æthelnoth, author of a Life of Saint Cnut,] an English monk settled in Denmark, thinks the lengthening of the name a great honour, and compares it with the change from Abram to Abraham; but he somewhat inconsistently cuts down his own name to Ailnothus."

I don't know if this is true, but it is amusing.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Tuesday 14 December 2010

The Song of the Nuns of Chester

This song comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript containing the Processional of St Mary's, Chester, not the churches which bear that name today but a medieval nunnery of which nothing now survives. This site provides a useful history, although please don't trust the final paragraph, which seems to have been taken from this book and gives an oddly misleading picture of pre-Reformation English carols. The Chester Nuns' Song is not "one of the typical carols of late medieval England"; the idea that secular carols and carols in English belong only to the post-Reformation period, while typical medieval carols were Latin and religious, is patently absurd. Also, although I would have to be more familiar with the manuscript to say for sure, I'm assuming that a song in a Processional has some kind of liturgical context; hence the atypical Latin, I would think.

And don't believe statements you will find elsewhere on the internet which claim this is the earliest English carol; not by a long way! Latin does not automatically equal ancient. Or typically medieval. Sigh.

However, this is a pretty little song, though the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols are right to say it "only loses by translation"; but if you're curious you can find a good translation here. There's not much to say about the poetry, which doesn't seem particularly inspired to me. However, fortunately, and unusually for a medieval carol, the music was preserved along with the words. I could only find this version on youtube, but it's a nice one.

Qui creavit coelum,
Lully, lully, lu,
Nascitur in stabulo
By, by, by, by, by,
Rex qui regit seculum
Lully, lully, lu.

Joseph emit paniculum
Lully, lully, lu,
Mater involvit puerum
By, by, by, by, by,
Et ponit in praesepio
Lully, lully, lu.

Inter animalia
Lully, lully, lu,
Jacent mundi gaudia
By, by, by, by, by,
Dulcis super omnia
Lully, lully, lu.

Lactat mater Domini
Lully, lully, lu,
Osculatur parvulum
By, by, by, by, by,
Et adorat Dominum
Lully, lully, lu.

Roga mater filium
Lully, lully, lu,
Ut det nobis gaudium
By, by, by, by, by,
In perenni gloria
Lully, lully, lu.

In sempiterna saecula
Lully, lully, lu,
In eternum et ultra
By, by, by, by, by,
Det nobis sua gaudia
Lully, lully, lu.

On Crowland

A record of "the first historically attested grave-robbing in England", from the eighth-century Life of St Guthlac:

"There was a mound built of clods of earth which greedy comers to the waste had dug open, in the hope of finding treasure there... and in this Guthlac the man of blessed memory began to dwell, after building a hut over it."

Translated by Bertram Colgrave, Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac (Cambridge, 1956), pp.93-5.

St Guthlac (b.674) was a nobly-born soldier from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, who had repented of his warlike life and become a monk. Seeking a place where he could live as a hermit, he came to the marshy wasteland of the Fens and settled at Crowland (now in Lincolnshire) in 699. He made his hermitage in what was probably an ancient long barrow - though the grave-robbers had been there first.

This cell is traditionally supposed to have been at a site called Anchor Church (or Anchorite) hill, about a quarter of a mile north-east of the site of present-day Crowland Abbey. Until 1866 the site was owned by the Hickling family, whose name may or may not (over the course of 1200 years) be connected to the tribe of Guthlac's ancestors, the Iclingas.

This is what's left of Crowland Abbey now. The poet John Clare, who was born not far away in Helpston, wrote the following rather Gothic sonnet about this glorious ruin:

In sooth, it seems right awful and sublime
To gaze by moonlight on the shattered pile
Of this old Abbey, struggling still with Time,­—
The grey owl hooting from its rents the while;
And tottering stones, as wakened by the sound,
Crumbling from arch and battlement around,
Urging dread echoes from the gloomy aisle,
To sink more silent still. — The very ground
In Desolation’s garment doth appear,
The lapse of age and mystery profound.
We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stones,
On tombs whose sculptures half erased appear,
On rank weeds, battening over human bones,
Till even one’s very shadow seems to fear.

More on Crowland the courteous.

Monday 13 December 2010

Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight

Today is St Lucy's Day, and after a misty morning the sun is now shining brightly - it doesn't look like deepest winter here at all. Nonetheless, this day belongs to one dark poem for me, perhaps the saddest elegy in English and the most complex of all John Donne's riddling poems.

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

’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.

Sunday 12 December 2010

A star as bright as day

This is a beautiful example of the lullaby genre, from the 15th century (or most likely earlier). There are several related versions of this poem in various medieval manuscripts; this one is from Bodleian MS. Eng. Poet. e. 1 (dated between 1460-90), as modernised by the Oxford Book of Carols. You can see an image of one page from the manuscript, though not of this carol, here. The editors of the Oxford Book of Carols set the words to a gentle, lilting 16th-century tune, like this:

"This endris night" means "the other night".

This endris night I saw a sight,
A star as bright as day,
And ever among a maiden sung,
Lullay, by by, lullay.

This lovely lady sat and sang,
And to her child did say,
"My son, my brother, father dear,
Why liest thou thus in hay?
My sweetest bird, 'tis thus required,
Though thou be king veray,
But nevertheless I will not cease
To sing By by, lullay."

The child then spake in his talking,
And to his mother did say,
"Yea, I am known as heaven-king
In crib though I be laid.
For angels bright down to me light;
Thou knowest 'tis no nay.
And for that sight thou may'st delight
To sing, By by, lullay."

"Now, sweet son, since thou art a king,
Why art thou laid in stall?
Why dost not order thy bedding
In some great kinges hall?
Methinks 'tis right that king or knight
Should lie in good array.
And then among, it were no wrong
To sing By by, lullay."

"Mary mother, I am thy child,
Though I be laid in stall;
For lords and dukes shall worship me,
And so shall kingès all.
Ye shall well see that kingès three
Shall come on this twelfth day.
For this behest give me thy breast
And sing, By by, lullay."

"Now tell, sweet son, I thee do pray,
Thou art my love and dear —
How should I keep thee to thy pay,
And make thee glad of cheer?
For all thy will I would fulfill—
Thou knowest well, in fay
And for all this I will thee kiss,
And sing, By by, lullay."

"My dear mother, when time it be,
Take thou me up on loft,
And set me then upon thy knee,
And handle me full soft.
And in thy arm thou hold me warm,
And keep me night and day,
And if I weep, and may not sleep,
Thou sing, By by, lullay.

"Now sweet son, since it is come so,
That all is at thy will,
I pray thee grant to me a boon,
If it be right and skill —
That child or man, who will or can
Be merry on my day,
To bliss thou bring — and I shall sing,
Lullay, by by, lullay."

Saturday 11 December 2010

Why weepest thou so sore?

After reading up on 'Myn Lyking' the other day, I got to thinking about these medieval 'lullaby lyrics', in which the speaker watches the Virgin singing a lullaby to the baby Christ. There are a fair number of them, as it seems to have become an increasingly popular genre over the course of the 14th-15th century.

At the same time, English poets and preachers were beginning to make more use of the Pieta image - Mary holding the body of the dead Christ - and the opportunity for poetic contrast between the two is clear. Often the lullabies have the infant Christ speaking about his future death, or make some other reference to it; and this poem makes a really wonderful use of the opposite idea, as Mary recalls Christ's babyhood while embracing his dead body. Some of the poems step a little close to sentimentality for modern taste, but others are very effective. Over the next few weeks, I want to dig out and post about some of the lullabies (the Pieta lyrics will have to wait until Easter!).

But before I do that, I want to post a twist on the genre. This poem is sometimes called the "Adult Lullaby", and has been recorded under that name, but like the vast majority of medieval poems it originally didn't have a title. It's not an adult lullaby; it's addressed to a crying child, but it's profoundly uncomforting. And yet, it is tender and gentle, and very beautiful. Here it is in Middle English, with my translations, and here's a link to a reading of the poem:

Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore?
Nedis mostou wepe, hit was iyarkid the yore
Euer to lib in sorow, and sich and mourne euere,
As thin eldren did er this while hi aliues wore.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, child lolai, lullow.
Into vncuth world incommen so ertow.

[Lullay, lullay, little child, why do you weep so sadly?  By necessity must you weep: it was prepared for you long ago, that you should ever live in sorrow, and sigh and mourn ever, as your elders did before now, while they were alive.  Lullay, lullay, little child, child lullay, lullow; you have come into an alien world.]

Bestis and thos foules, the fisses in the flode,
And euch schef aliues imakid of bone and blode,
Whan hi commith to the world hi doth ham silf sum gode;
Al bot the wrech brol that is of Adamis blode.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, to kar ertou bemette;
Thou nost noght this worldis wild before the is isette.

[Animals and birds, fishes in the water, and every living creature made of bone and blood - when they come into the world, they do themselves some good, all except the poor wretch who is of Adam's blood.  Lullay, lullay, little child, you are destined to sorrow: you do not know that the world's wilds lie before you!]

Child, if betidith that thou ssalt thriue and the,
Thench thou were ifostred vp thi moder kne.
Euer hab mund in thi hert of thos thinges thre:
Whan thou commist, what thou art and what ssal com of the.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, child lollai, lollai,
With sorow thou com into this world, with sorow ssalt wend awai.

[Child, if it should happen that you should grow and thrive, remember that you were brought up at your mother's knee.  Always recall in your heart these three things: whence you came, what you are, and what shall become of you.  Lullay, lullay, little child, child, lullay, lullow; with sorrow you came into the world, with sorrow you shall leave it.]

Ne tristou to this world, hit is thi ful vo.
The rich he makith pouer, the pore rich also;
Hit turneth wo to wel and ek wel to wo.
Ne trist no man to this world, whil hit turnith so.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, thi fote is in the whele.
Thou nost whoder turne to wo other wele.

[Do not trust to this world, it is entirely your enemy.  It makes the rich poor, and the poor rich also; it turns woe to joy and also joy to woe.  Let no man trust to this world, while it turns so!  Lullay, lullay, little child, your foot is in the wheel; you do not know where it will turn, to woe or joy.]

Child, thou ert a pilgrim in wikidnis ibor,
Thou wandrest in this fals world, thou loke the bifor.
Deth ssal com with a blast vte of a well dim horre
Adamis kin dun to cast, him silf hath ido befor.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, so wo the worth Adam
In the lond of paradis, throgh wikidnes of Satan.

[Child, you are a pilgrim born in wickedness, and you wander in this false world; look before you!  Death will come suddenly with a blast 'out of a well dim horre', to cast down Adam's kin, as he has often done before.  Lullay, lullay, little child, Adam made this woe for you, in the land of Paradise, through the wickedness of Satan.]

Child, thou nert a pilgrim bot an vncuthe gist,
Thi dawes beth itold, thi iurneis beth icast;
Whoder thou salt wend north or est,
Deth the sal betide with bitter bale in brest.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, this wo Adam the wroght,
Whan he of the appil ete and Eue hit him betacht.

[Child, you are not a pilgrim but an unknown guest: your days are counted, your journeys are cast.  Wherever you may go, to the north or east, death will come to you with bitter sorrow at your heart.  Lullay, lullay, little child, Adam wrought this woe for you, when he ate the apple and Eve gave it to him.]

The meaning of 'out of a well dim horre' is not at all clear, and so I haven't tried to translate it.

Friday 10 December 2010

Er, no

Overheard in Oxford:

Blackwells Theology Department, Friday, 4pm. Two young women, apparently students (hopefully not of theology).

First Girl (seeing a book): Oh, Thomas Merton. I've always wondered if that's who Merton College is named after.
Second Girl: Yeah, maybe...


Merton College
Thomas Merton

Thursday 9 December 2010

Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew

A poem by the very lovely Rupert Brooke.

The Great Lover

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men's days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame; -- we have beaconed the world's night.
A city: -- and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor: -- we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love's magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I'll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming. . . .

These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such --
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair's fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year's ferns. . . .
Dear names,
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water's dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body's pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass; --
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass,
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They'll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love's trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
---- Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what's left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers. . . .
But the best I've known,
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
Nothing remains.

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,
Praise you, "All these were lovely"; say, "He loved."

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Accidental Delights of the Scholarly Life

All that's left of Ramsey Abbey - the gatehouse

I just experienced one of those exciting coincidences which sometimes happens as you trawl through academic research. Today I learned for the first time (and this is probably something I should have known before, but we'll let that pass) that in 1068 William the Conqueror sent an embassy to King Sweyn of Denmark, seeking peace. As the nephew of Cnut, Sweyn had a claim to the English throne which was arguably stronger than William's; he was shortly to make good on this by sending a fleet to challenge William, though he was ultimately unsuccessful. Anyway, the interesting point to me (as someone who studies Scandinavian influence in medieval England) is that William took Sweyn's claims seriously enough to seek to make peace with him and forestall an invasion.

This was intriguing enough for my purposes; the Danes were still a real political force in England. Now, I was also interested in the fact that the leader of William's embassy was Æthelsige, abbot of Ramsey. Ramsey (which is now in Cambridgeshire, but at this time, before Cambridge existed, was in Huntingdonshire) was an abbey with strong Scandinavian connections, situated in the former Danelaw. Did William, I wondered, pick Æthelsige because he knew something about the Danes - maybe because he spoke their language? Ramsey is one of those obscure but fascinating Fenland abbeys I spend my time trying to make sense of; they seem to have cultivated a distinctive literary culture which was strongly linked to Denmark and Norway.

But then (and here's the coincidence), guess what happened to Æthelsige on the way back from Denmark? His ship got caught in stormy seas, and he made a promise that if he was saved he would establish the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary in his monastery at Ramsey. That was, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the beginning of the feast in Norman England.

And you know what today is?

She kept the very fountain at her breast

For the Immaculate Conception, my favourite Marian hymn:

Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born,
When she to Bethlem came that happy morn;
How high her raptures then began to swell,
None but her own omniscient Son can tell.

As Eve, when she her fontal sin reviewed,
Wept for herself and all she should include,
Blest Mary with man's Saviour in embrace
Joyed for herself and for all human race.

All saints are by her Son's dear influence blest,
She kept the very fountain at her breast;
The Son adored and nursed by the sweet Maid
A thousandfold of love for love repaid.

Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced;
Near to his throne her Son his Mother placed;
And here below, now she's of heaven possessed,
All generations are to call her blest.

Thomas Ken (1637-1711), Bishop of Bath and Wells

Tuesday 7 December 2010

A Hymn of St Ambrose

Only very doubtfully ascribed, mind you, but any excuse to post it will do.

Rerum, Deus, tenax vigor,
immotus in te permanens,
lucis diurnae tempora
successibus determinans,

Largire clarum vespere,
quo vita numquam decidat,
sed praemium mortis sacrae
perennis instet gloria.

Praesta, Pater piissime,
Patrique compar Unice,
cum Spiritu Paraclito
regnans per omne saeculum.

And, because I can't choose which I like best, here are two beautiful translations:

O God, the world's sustaining force,
Thyself unmoved, all motion's source,
who, from the morn till evening's ray,
dost through its changes guide the day;

O grant us light at eventide,
that life may unimpaired abide,
and that a holy death may be
the door of immortality.

Almighty Father, hear our cry
through Jesus Christ our Lord most high,
who with the Holy Ghost and thee
doth live and reign eternally.

J.M. Neale and the editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1904)

O Strength and Stay upholding all creation,
Who ever dost Thyself unmoved abide;
Yet day by day the light in due gradation
From hour to hour through all its changes guide.

Grant to life’s day a calm unclouded ending,
An eve untouched by shadows of decay,
The brightness of a holy deathbed blending
With dawning glories of the eternal day.

Hear us, O Father, gracious and forgiving,
Through Jesus Christ Thy co-eternal Word,
Who, with the Holy Ghost, by all things living
Now and to endless ages art adored.

J. Ellerton and F. J. A. Hort

As the winter sky darkens...

Sunshine at Canterbury Cathedral. Just because.

Monday 6 December 2010

Myn Lyking

So I know it's only the second week of Advent and it's a bit early for Christmas music, but this is too beautiful to resist:

This is Gustav Holst's setting of 'Lullay, Myn Lyking'. The carol survives in the precious 15th-century manuscript Sloane 2593, which contains many of the best medieval lyrics and carols, including 'Adam lay ybounden', 'I syng of a mayden', 'A babe is born all of a may' and a particularly special Robin Hood ballad.

Here's the carol in Middle English:

Refrain: Lullay, myn lykyng, my dere sone, myn swetyng,
Lullay, my dere herte, myn owyn dere derlyng.

I saw a fayr maydyn syttyn and synge,
Sche lullyd a lytyl chyld, a swete lordyng.

That eche lord is he that made alle thinge,
Of alle lordis he is lord, of alle kynges kyng.

Ther was mekyl melody at that chyldes berthe,
Alle tho wern in hevene blys thei made mekyl merthe.

Aungelebryt thei song that nyt and seydyn to that chyld,
"Blyssid be thou, and so be sche that is bothe mek and myld".

Prey we now to that chyld, and to his moder dere,
Grawnt hem his blyssyng that now makyn chere.

Lullay, myn lykyng, my dere sone, myn swetyng,
Lullay, my dere herte, myn owyn dere derlyng.

The three endearments lykyng, swetyng and derling all essentially mean 'dear little one''; lykyng means something like 'the thing which is pleasing to me', and so myn lykyng is 'the one I delight in, the one who gives me pleasure'.

A translation:

Lullay, my lovely, my dear son, my sweet one,
Lullay, my dear heart, my own dear darling.

I saw a fair maiden sitting and singing,
She lulled a little child, a sweet little lord.

He is the same Lord who made all things,
Of all lords he is Lord, of all kings King.

There was much melody at that child's birth,
All those who were in heavenly bliss made great rejoicing.

Angels bright sang that night and said to that child,
"Blessed be thou, and so be she who is both meek and mild".

Let us pray now to that child, and to his mother dear,
May he grant his blessing to those who are now celebrating.

Sunday 5 December 2010

In Love For Long

I've been in love for long
With what I cannot tell
And will contrive a song
For the intangible
That has no mould or shape,
From which there's no escape.

It's not even a name,
Yet is all constancy;
Tried or untried the same,
It cannot part from me;
A breath, yet as still
As the established hill.

It is not any thing,
And yet all being is;
Being, being, being,
Its burden and its bliss.
How can I ever prove
What it is I love?

This happy happy love
Is sieged with crying sorrows,
Crushed beneath and above
Between todays and morrows;
A little paradise
Held in the world's vice.

And there it is content
And careless as a child,
And in imprisonment
Flourishes sweet and wild:
In wrong, beyond wrong,
All the world's day long.

This love a moment known
For what I do not know
And in a moment gone
Is like the happy doe
That keeps its perfect laws
Between the tiger's paws
And vindicates its cause.

Edwin Muir

Saturday 4 December 2010

Is there anything more horrible than writing applications for grants? It leaves a taste in the mouth like nasty medicine. It's my understanding that writing grant applications makes up a substantial part of life as an academic these days; just one of many reasons why I don't think I could bear to make academia my career.

Here's a palate-cleansing picture, the sweetest and most innocent symbol of childhood Christmas to me:

A spoonful of honey to make the medicine go down.

(From the 1949 Rupert Christmas album)

Thursday 2 December 2010

A Miracle of St Magnus

This brief story from Orkneyinga saga, the twelfth-century history of the Earls of Orkney, is chiefly of importance to me because it shows that medieval Englishmen were praying to a Norse saint. I can't make up my mind whether, as miracle-stories go, it's slightly odd or rather touching. The St Magnus in question is the martyred earl of Orkney Magnus Erlendsson (d.1116/7).

'In England, there were once two men staking money heavily on a game of dice. One of them had lost a great deal, and at last he staked a cargo-boat and everything else that he had, against all that he had lost. The other man was first to throw and got two sixes. The man we are speaking of thought this looked very bad for him, so he made a vow to St Magnus the Earl asking him not to let him lose all his possessions. Then he threw the dice. One of the dice broke and he got two sixes and an ace, so that he won everything at stake; and some time later he gave a lot of money to St Magnus.'

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Really Nothing

It's been snowing today. I'm sick of snow. And I'm glad November is over.

Sunday 28 November 2010

The Crowning of the Year

At the beginning of a particularly wintery Advent, this carol gets the frosty feel just right:

People, look east; the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad; though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
He for fledging-time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch; when night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.

Angels, announce to man and beast
Him who cometh from the east.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

- Eleanor Farjeon

Wednesday 24 November 2010


More stained-glass Anglo-Saxons, this time from my own county of Kent. For some reason I can only find a set of windows from one church, at Minster-in-Thanet, but they're good ones.

You see, St Augustine landed near Minster, at Ebbsfleet, in 597:

And began to evangelise the people of Kent:

I like the axe casually cast aside on the ground in this window. I'm not sure why the building in the top left corner looks so much like Stonehenge - it might be meant to be the Roman fort of Richborough, not far from Ebbsfleet. If it isn't, it should be!

The main reason I like these windows is for this figure:

Bertha, wife of the King of Kent, was already a Christian, and had brought a Frankish bishop with her to England when she married King Ethelbert. With the permission of her pagan husband, she had restored a Roman church in Canterbury before the arrival of Augustine's mission; that's it in her arms, I think. It's St Martin's, the oldest parish church in continuous use in England. Her influence seems to have played an important part in encouraging her husband to accept Christianity.

There she is in the background as Ethelbert is baptised; just beautiful. I think Bertha and St Margaret of Scotland would have found a lot in common.


More stained-glass Anglo-Saxons, though this time the windows are from Northumberland, and some of the people aren't Angles or Saxons at all. First, for instance, St Aidan of Lindisfarne:

This is from the church at the royal castle at Bamburgh, the site of his death; it shows the moment of his death, which took place in 651.

And here we have lots of saints in one spectacular modern window. I think it's from the church of St Ebba in Beadnell, just down the coast from Bamburgh, but I took this picture a few years ago and now can't be sure. But that would explain why St Ebba is so prominent, so...

This is a really delightful composition. I particularly like the bearded Bede, intent on his book, and St Columba's flowing robes.

The saints along the bottom are beautifully done as well, especially Martin on the far right. It's a real gem, hidden away in a tiny church in a barely-there holiday village...

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Our Fathers That Begat Us

There haven't been enough pictures around here recently. And so, in no particular order, here's a collection of some stained-glass Anglo-Saxons, from various churches. The windows are mostly 20th-century, but revivalism is often just as dear to me as the real thing... It's important that this history is commemorated, and in the late 19th/early 20th centuries the English church understood that rather better than it does today.

This is the coronation of King Edgar, from Bath Abbey. Edgar was the first English king to be crowned and consecrated in the way we would understand a coronation ceremony today; but his coronation took place when he had been king (and a very good king, at that) for fourteen years. The ceremony took place at Bath on Whitsunday, 973, and legend has it that Edgar was rowed up the river by six British kings who had submitted to his overlordship:

Hence the ship at the bottom. Note that he's being crowned by St Dunstan.

Here are some more kings, this time from Wells Cathedral. I got rather excited when I saw this window - six Anglo-Saxon kings all in one go!

The text along the bottom reads "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us". The first king at the far left is Ine, king of Wessex between 688-726, who is mostly known for issuing one of the first law codes in Anglo-Saxon history, but who is commemorated at Wells because he founded its first church on the site of the present-day cathedral. The second from left is Egbert, king of Wessex from 802-839, who contributed to the final dominance of Wessex over the kingdom of Mercia (Wells is right in the heart of Wessex; in Mercia, and in Northumbria, and Kent they celebrate different Anglo-Saxon kings...):

Next we have the wonderful Alfred the Great, about whom nothing need be said, and his son Edward the Elder. Note the book and sword which Alfred the warrior-philosopher king is holding. I can't quite work out what it is Edward the Elder has in his hands:

Then Athelstan, the victor of the battle of Brunanburh, a 'warrior king' indeed; and Edgar again.

Alfred appears in a second window at Wells, I think in honour of his being the founder of the British navy:

And of course then there's my own favourite, Edward the Confessor, sharing a window with St Dunstan:

(Not a great photo, unfortunately, but I hope you can see that Edward is holding his emblem, a ring.)

Before we leave Wessex, here's a non-royal Anglo-Saxon: Eilmer the flying monk, from Malmesbury Abbey. Do read the link on him; he's just wonderful. An eleventh-century attempt at human flight!

And also from Malmesbury, St Aldhelm, holding a plan of the monastery he founded (below). Although William of Malmesbury, next to him, isn't actually an Anglo-Saxon (since he lived in the twelfth century and all), it's nice that he should have a place here, since he was the first real scholar of Anglo-Saxon history. I use his work twenty times a day, and can only aspire to be half the historian he was.

Also from Wessex, this is a good St Dunstan (again) at Selworthy, Somerset:

And a rather less good King Alfred, from Aller in the same county:

This commemorates one of the most important events of Alfred's reign, the peace treaty he signed with the Danes in which the Viking leader, Guthrum, agreed to be baptised with Alfred as his godfather. There's an indistinguishable lump of stone in the church which they say might be the font used in that baptism; well, you never know.

That will have to be enough for today; tomorrow, Northumbria and Kent.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Eadmund se eadiga: reprise

A repost from two years ago. I've gone back and corrected the translation, though, because I like to think my Old English has got better in that time, although it's probably got worse ;)

This is a tough day for me, loyalties-wise. On this day in 869, Edmund, King of East Anglia, was killed after refusing to submit to the Danish army who were ravaging his kingdom. Though I blithely say 'killed', I should mention that the (St Sebastian-influenced, but nonetheless widely accepted) story says he was tied to a tree, beaten, shot through with arrows like a hedgehog, and then beheaded. Before long he began to be revered as a martyr (that's what happens when you're killed by something called 'the Great Heathen Army') and got Bury St Edmunds named after him. His death became one of the defining images of Viking aggression, even among (later, Christian) Norse writers.

So today is rather a sad day for those of us who like both Old Norse and Old English, because a lot of the time Vikings wrote really good poetry and fantastic sagas, but then sometimes they also brutally murdered people.

Ælfric's Life of St Edmund is one of the texts most English students at Oxford study for the Old English Mods paper; it functions as a nice typical saint's life for beginners to read, and as a bonus features not only the aforementioned hedgehog parallel, but also Edmund's severed head calling out "here! here!" to the people looking for it. This story is consequently one of the things everyone knows, even non-medievalists. But it's not those colourful details I like best: my favourite part is the little dialogue when Edmund is deciding how to answer the Viking messenger who has come to tell him to submit to Ingvar. He consults with a bishop, who's frightened and says maybe he should just give in. This is how Ælfric describes Edmund's response:

Þa suwode se cynincg and beseah to þære eorþan, and cwæþ þa æt nextan cynelice him to,"Eala þu bisceop, to bysmore synd getawode þas earman landleoda, and me nu leofre wære þæt ic on feohte feolle wið þam þe min folc moste heora eardes brucan."

That is:

Then the king became very quiet and looked at the ground, and at last said to him in a kingly manner: "Alas, bishop, the poor people of this land are shamefully mistreated, and it would now be preferable to me to fall in battle so that my people might continue to enjoy their land."
I love that moment of contemplation - "suwode... and beseah to þære eorþan" - and Ælfric's understated, near-tautological "cynelice". Edmund's concern for his people's welfare is one of his distinctive saintly attributes (he's particularly kind to widows, it says elsewhere). And here's why it's necessary:
And se bisceop cwæþ, "Eala þu leofa cyning, þin folc lið ofslagen, and þu næfst þone fultum þæt þu feohtan mæge, and þas flotmen cumað, and þe cucenne gebindað butan þu mid fleame þinum feore gebeorge, oððe þu þe swa gebeorge þæt þu buge to him." Þa cwæð Eadmund cyning swa swa he ful cene wæs, "þæs ic gewilnige and gewisce mid mode, þæt ic ana ne belife æfter minum leofum þegnum þe on heora bedde wurdon, mid bearnum and wifum, færlice ofslægene fram þysum flotmannum. Næs me næfre gewunelic þæt ic worhte fleames, ac ic wolde swiðor sweltan gif ic þorfte for minum agenum earde, and se ælmihtiga God wat þæt ic nelle abugan fram his biggengum æfre, ne fram his soþan lufe, swelte ic, lybbe ic."

And the bishop said, "Alas, dear king, your people lie slain, and you do not have sufficient forces with which you can fight, and these seamen will come and bind you alive unless you preserve your life by flight, or save yourself by yielding to him."
Then said Edmund the king, very bravely: "This I desire and wish in my mind, that I should not survive alone after my dear thanes, who have been suddenly slain in their beds by these seamen, with their children and their wives. It has never been my custom to flee; I would rather die, if necessary, for my own land; and almighty God knows that I will never turn aside from His worship, nor from His true love, whether I die or live."

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Margaret and Malcolm

Not to start another post 'on this day in...' but: on this day in 1093 St Margaret of Scotland died, just three days after her husband, Malcolm III, was ambushed and killed at Alnwick by the Norman earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray. I'm fond of Margaret of Scotland, by all accounts a good and holy woman who made the best of a very difficult situation. One of the few surviving members of the Anglo-Saxon royal family, she found herself in exile in Scotland after the Norman Conquest, and she was married to Malcolm presumably without having much choice in the matter; but an account of her life by Turgot, Bishop of St Andrews, who knew them both well, speaks touchingly of their relationship:

"By the help of God she made [Malcolm] most attentive to the works of justice, mercy, almsgiving, and other virtues. From her he learnt how to keep the vigils of the night in constant prayer; she instructed him by her exhortation and example how to pray to God with groanings from the heart and abundance of tears. I was astonished, I confess, at this great miracle of God's mercy when I perceived in the king such a steady earnestness in his devotion, and I wondered how it was that there could exist in the heart of a man living in the world such an entire sorrow for sin. There was in him a sort of dread of offending one whose life was so venerable; for he could not but perceive from her conduct that Christ dwelt within her; nay, more, he readily obeyed her wishes and prudent counsels in all things. Whatever she refused, he refused also; whatever pleased her, he also loved for the love of her.

Hence it was that, although he could not read, he would turn over and examine books which she used either for her devotions or her study; and whenever he heard her say that she was fonder of one of them than the others, this one he too used to look at with special affection, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands. Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals, whom he commanded to ornament that volume with gold and gems, and when the work was finished, the king himself used to carry the volume to the queen as a kind proof of his devotion."

And again:

"Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold upon Maundy Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the Queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried, and found guilty."

The whole thing can be read here. Sadly, these lovely stories did not make it into Shakespeare's Macbeth, which deals with a rather earlier period in Malcolm's life...

Saturday 13 November 2010

St Brice's Day

Today, November 13th, is the date of one of the most unpleasant acts of government brutality in Anglo-Saxon history. On St Brice's Day, 1002, King Æthelred ordered "all the Danes who were among the English people" to be killed, apparently because he was afraid of plots against his life by Danes resident in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) is tight-lipped about the events of St Brice's Day, at the end of its account of an eventful year:

Her on þissum geare se cyng gerædde 7 his witan. þæt man sceolde gafol gyldon þam flotan. 7 frið wið hi geniman wið þon þe hi heora yfeles geswican sceoldan. Ða sende se cyng to þam flotan Leofsig ealdorman. 7 he þa þæs cynges worde 7 his witena grið wið hi gesætte. 7 þet hi to metsunge fengon 7 to gafle. 7 hi þa þæt underfengon. 7 him man þa geald .xxiiii. þusend punda. Ða on gemang þysum ofsloh Leofsig ealdorman Æfic þæs cynges heahgerefan. 7 se cyng hine ða geutode of earde. And þa on þam ilcan lengtene com seo hlæfdige Ricardes dohtor hider to lande. On ðam ilcan sumera Ealdulf arcebiscop forðferde. 7 on ðam geare se cyng het ofslean ealle ða Deniscan men þe on Angelcynne wæron on Bricius messedæg. forþon þam cynge wæs gecydd þæt hi woldon hine besyrewian æt his life. 7 syððan ealle his witan. 7 habban syþðan his rice.

[In this year the king and his advisers decided that they should pay tribute to the [Danish] fleet, and make peace with them on condition that they should cease their harmful attacks. Then the king sent Ealdorman Leofsige to the fleet, and at the command of the king and his advisers he arranged that there should be a peace-settlement with them, and they should receive provisions and tribute. They accepted that, and they were paid 24, 000 pounds. Then in the middle of this Leofsige killed Æfic, the king's high-reeve, and the king exiled him from the country. And that same spring the Lady, daughter of Richard [Duke of Normandy], came here to this country. That same summer Archbishop Ealdulf died. And in that year the king ordered to be killed all the Danes who were among the English people, on St Brice's Day, because the king was told that they were plotting to take his life and then those of all his advisers, and after that have his kingdom.]

That's all the Chronicle tells us - the order, and why it was given, but not how and where it was carried out. The armies of the Danish king Svein Forkbeard and other Scandinavian leaders had been raiding England on and off for the past decade, so Æthelred and his advisers were trying a range of solutions - but St Brice's Day did little to help, and probably made things worse. We know from a contemporary source that in Oxford - a border town where the Danish residents were as likely to be traders as Viking warriors - a group of Danes took refuge in St Frideswide's church (on the site of what is now Christ Church Cathedral), and the church was burned down by their pursuers. The order was impractical from the outset, because in the early eleventh century it would have been impossible to kill 'all the Danes among the English'; there were just too many of them, and the order certainly could not have been carried out in the north and east of England, a mixed population with many people of Danish or part-Danish descent (just ten years later this part of England would reject Æthelred and accept Svein Forkbeard as king - can't imagine why!). Perhaps the idea was not really to encourage people to kill their neighbours but to force them to choose sides, to affirm that they were part of the Angelcynn, and not sympathetic to the Danes. Here, as elsewhere, Angelcynn seems intended to be an exclusionary, polemical name for 'the English', defining them in simple opposition to 'the Danes', and leaving those who might have shared lineage or sympathies caught between the two. In practice the order must have been directed at small communities settled within towns like Oxford, which makes it a particularly cruel and ineffective idea - this was the kind of bad counsel which in later medieval tradition got Æthelred his nickname 'Unready' ('ill-advised'). The marriage which took place in that year was not well-omened: 'the Lady' mentioned by the Chronicle, the formidable Emma, came to England to marry Æthelred, and the following year gave birth to his son Edward (the future Confessor) - but she ended up fifteen years later married to her husband's enemy, Cnut. You can see what a chaotic state the English nobility were in from that reference in the Chronicle to Ealdorman Leofsige killing Æfic and being exiled. The atrocities of the Viking Age were not, by any means, all on the Viking side.

Apart from the events in Oxford, it would be difficult to assess the impact of St Brice's Day if it were not for the historian Henry of Huntingdon, writing about 130 years later, reporting what he had heard about that day:

King Ethelred’s pride increased and his faithlessness grew: in a treacherous plot, he ordered all the Danes who were living peacefully in England to be put to death on the same day, namely the feast of St Brice. Concerning this crime, in my childhood I heard very old men say that the king had sent secret letters to every city, according to which the English either maimed all the unsuspecting Danes on the same day and hour with their swords, or, suddenly, at the same moment, captured them and destroyed them by fire.

Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford, 1996), p. 341.

Henry was a child in the 1090s, so the people he heard talk about this during his childhood were (unless they were very old indeed) probably not eyewitnesses, but had perhaps heard about the massacre from their parents. The story sounds exaggerated, but is perhaps more interesting for being so; it suggests that the 'massacre' was remembered in the East Midlands, where Henry grew up, as an event of greater significance than the bald record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would suggest. There are other twelfth-century references to it which give a similar impression: William of Malmesbury tells how the sister of Svein Forkbeard was supposed to have been among those killed, together with her husband and child:

[When Svein invaded England] his chief purpose was to avenge his sister Gunnhild. Gunnhild, who was a woman of some beauty and much character, had come to England with her husband the powerful jarl Pallig, adopted Christianity, and offered herself as a hostage for peace with the Danes. [Æthelred's chief adviser] Eadric in his disastrous fury had ordered her to be beheaded with the other Danes, though she declared plainly that the shedding of her blood would cost all England dear. And for her part, she faced death with presence of mind; she never grew pale at the prospect, nor did she change expression after death, even when her body was drained of blood, though her husband had been killed before her eyes, and her son, a very likely child, pierced by four lances.

Gesta Regum Anglorum, ed. and trans. by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998) p. 301.

There may a grain of truth in this story; Pallig was a Danish warrior who had been recruited to fight for Æthelred and then turned against him in 1001, so Æthelred might well have taken the opportunity of St Brice's Day to kill him. And it's not impossible that he was married to Svein's sister and that they were both killed along with their child in 1002. But Gunnhild's bravery and her prophecy - 'the shedding of her blood would cost all England dear' - are pure legend, and interesting for that reason. Vengeance for such a death is a noble motive for an invasion, and avenging his valiant sister casts Svein in a more positive light than English sources usually do. (And note that the child killed would be his sister's son, a particularly significant relationship in both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian culture and literature.) There are in fact multiple stories from medieval England which say the Danes invaded the country to avenge the death of an innocent family member, and in my view at least some of them originate in a kind of mythologising and justifying of the Danish conquest which went on among those parts of the population sympathetic to Danish rule (whether a later writer like William of Malmesbury intended this by repeating them or not). It's attractive to give a story a human motive like love or revenge - it's part of the process which turns historical events into legend and powerful cultural memory. Gunnhild's bravery on St Brice's Day is the stuff of such legend, and who knows whether Svein and Cnut really thought Æthelred was responsible for her death; but it's a nice irony that some years later, when Cnut married Æthelred's widow, 'the Lady' Emma who came to England in the year of St Brice's Day, they named their daughter Gunnhild.

How a later medieval artist imagined Svein's invasion (BL Harley 2278, f. 98v)