Saturday 25 September 2010


I recently went to Wells Cathedral for the first time. Obviously medieval cathedrals are a bit of a specialist subject of mine, but I still constantly underestimate their ability to surprise and amaze.

Wells is so extraordinarily beautiful, I think anyone who lazily uses the word 'medieval' as a synonym for 'backward' or 'barbarous' ought to be forcibly marched there and made to sit and just look at it until they recant.

Photos, with a wonderful carol by Geoffrey Dearmer.

The Builders

Sing all good people gathered,
Your voices raise in song
Within this church that fathered
Our ancient faith so strong,
So tried and wrought to fitness
In scorn of fire and sword;
Sing, as these stones bear witness,
Of men who praised the Lord.

Each rib from pillars springing
A frozen fountain plays
Above the chancel singing
In harmony of praise;
Like tall trees ever growing,
The differing columns stand
To bear the vault down-throwing
The shadow of God's hand.

At all times and unceasing,
Work well and truly done,
In loveliness increasing,
And mellowed here in one.
The towers and piers unshaken,
The vaultings finely groined,
Time in its span hath taken
And in one glory joined.

Of wealth and fame and power
These masons did not know:
'Let's build,' they said, 'a tower,
Square to the winds that blow;
We are not men of culture,
Yet we are here to build
Room for a king's sepulchre
And worthy of our guild.'

So came each beam and rafter,
Each wingèd flight of stone.
Their deathless work lives after,
Their names were never known:*
For beauty did they plead not,
Yet beauty they did win,
And, like a child you heed not,
The grace of Heaven crept in.

Here, for a workman's wages,
This glass so surely stained
Down the long aisle of ages
In glory hath remained.
As brother works with brother,
The glaziers worked to paint
The blue robe of the Mother,
The red robe of a saint.

Proud heads lie here, disowning
All but a drooping Head;
Whole hands worked here, atoning
For open hands that bled;
Full hearts and living voices
A broken Heart proclaim;
Life after death rejoices,
And after silence, fame.

* Although we do know these: William Wynford and Elias of Dereham.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Bringing Everything Together

How did I miss this? It comes from the Pope's address to the Queen on the first day of his visit, in response to her welcoming speech:

"The name of Holyroodhouse, Your Majesty’s official residence in Scotland, recalls the 'Holy Cross' and points to the deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life. The monarchs of England and Scotland have been Christians from very early times and include outstanding saints like Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. As you know, many of them consciously exercised their sovereign duty in the light of the Gospel, and in this way shaped the nation for good at the deepest level. As a result, the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike."

I hadn't read this when I wrote my last two posts, and it's nice to know someone remembers what Holyrood means!

The Queen is descended from Margaret of Scotland through - let me get this right - Margaret's daughter Matilda (also known as Edith), who married Henry I. Margaret was, of course, Edward the Confessor's great-niece, so he's some distant relation too; and I know it's the filthy royalist in me, but I think that's pretty cool.

This seems as a good a place as any to tell a rather sweet story about Matilda/Edith, which I read this summer in a Life of Anselm of Canterbury. There was some controversy at the time around the marriage of Henry and Matilda, because she had been brought up in her aunt's convent, and some people said she had been consecrated as a nun. Nonetheless, Henry saw her and wanted to marry her. So, according to the Life of Anselm, Matilda sought Anselm’s advice about the legitimacy of this. She told him she never chose to wear the veil and only did so because she was afraid of her aunt Christina, the abbess. Christina (Margaret's sister) was the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, so I could well believe she might be a bit scary!

Matilda claimed her aunt made her wear a veil as a young girl only to protect her from the lust of the Normans “which was rampant and at that time ready to assault any woman’s honour”, and when she would throw the veil off Christina would slap and scold her. (!) So she only wore it in her aunt’s presence and when she was alone she would throw it off and stamp on it to vent her anger and hatred of it. She also says that when her father, Malcolm III of Scotland, saw his daughter wearing the veil, he tore it off her head and ripped it up, invoking the hatred of God on the person who had made her wear it!

And so Anselm concluded she had never really been a nun and should be free to marry Henry. Anselm married them himself, and his biographer and biggest fan, Eadmer, concludes that "as Anselm used to say, he had not at that time either the knowledge or the ability to enable him to act more rightly or more justly than he in fact did." In other words, he did his best. It's always been rather tough being Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

On Feasts and Fasts and Ember Days

On the theme of continuity with our medieval past...

Last week, September 14th, was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Holy Rood Day*, to be more medieval. Three days in the week following that feast - the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday - were traditionally Ember Days, set aside as times of fasting and prayer. There are four periods of Ember Days in the year, at the four seasons of the year: the first week in Lent, the week after Whitsun, the September days, and the week following St Lucy's Day in December. Wikipedia offers, without citation, this mnemonic:

"Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie."


The OED derives 'ember' in this usage from the Old English ymbren, which comes ultimately from OE. ymbryne, that is ymb 'about, round' + ryne 'course, running'. (Although our cautious lexicographer adds "It seems however not wholly impossible that the word may have been due to popular etymology working upon some Vulgar Lat. corruption of quatuor tempora". Not wholly impossible, no.). They do not mention the rather sketchy etymology provided by one fifteenth-century writer, John Mirk, an Augustinian canon from Shropshire who wrote in his collection of homilies for festal days, "Þes dayes byn callet Ymbryngdayes..for encheson þat our old faders wolden ete þes dayes kakes bakyn yn þe ymbres". That is, "these days are called Ember-Days because on these days our ancestors used to eat cakes baked in the embers." Well, no, John, but not a bad try.

(In case this makes you wonder: ember in relation to a fire is not related to the Ember Days; it comes from OE æmerge, and the -b- sneaked in there later).

So the word evokes the turning course of the year, and provides an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, the involvement of God in the needs of the different seasons of the year. It's an ancient practice of the church, dating back ultimately to pre-Christian tradition, though now observed only sporadically. What always strikes me about such observances, as indicated by the English names they bear - see also, Lammas and Whitsun - is how thoroughly enmeshed they once were in English life. The collections of quotations about these words in the OED and the Middle English Dictionary don't come from learned works, or even from church calendars: they're from laws, charters, letters, even cookery books - mentioned in passing in the records of everyday life, more to be counted on than dates reckoned in days or months. The cycle of medieval life was a round of feasts and fasts, many of which are now almost forgotten. I'm trying to think my way into them, one by one.

*Sometimes in medieval usage called "Holyrood day in harvest" to distinguish it from the Feast of the Invention of the Cross, in May. The two feasts have now been merged... sigh.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Our Very Own

Over the weekend I was glued to the television coverage of the Pope's visit, most of the time with a huge smile on my face, and often with tears in my eyes. I loved practically every word he said, but I think my favourite part of the whole visit (and there's quite a bit of competition for that title...) was the recognition that was given to Britain's own native saints, who are so often forgotten by modern Catholics. In my experience few Catholics know anything about the saints of these very islands - in my own Catholic education I heard a lot about Thérèse of Lisieux and St Bernadette, but nothing about Margaret of Scotland. The English saints one does hear about are the martyrs of the Reformation, which tends to give the impression that Catholicism in Britain is, and always has been, a persecuted minority religion.

If this is true of Catholics it's even more true of the wider population, and in consequence there is often the impression abroad (and this was very evident from some media criticism of last week's visit) that Catholicism is a foreign religion, alien to Britain and opposed to what is 'really British'. I read one newspaper article last week which talked gaily about how English identity was fundamentally shaped in opposition
to the Catholic Church, a state forged by defining itself as defiantly Protestant and deeply anti-Catholic - and so it has remained "through all four centuries" since, the journalist said, as if that's a long time in the 1500-year history of this country. I think this argument, though it has some truth, would have been a surprise to Alfred the Great.

This lacuna of knowledge concerns me as a Catholic but it concerns me much more as a medievalist, because the myth of "foundationally" Protestant England cuts us off, as a nation, from our entire medieval heritage. Medieval England is Catholic England, and ignorance of that fact - often wilful ignorance, it seems to me - deceives us about our own history.

The Pope's visit, by contrast, brought forth a proliferation of reminders that England has a long, rich, foundational Catholic heritage. It began with a parade on St Ninian's day (even I hadn't heard of him!) and with references to Margaret of Scotland, St Columba, Bede and Aidan. Then the Pope said this at the Beatification of Cardinal Newman:

"England has a long tradition of martyr saints, whose courageous witness has sustained and inspired the Catholic community here for centuries. Yet it is right and fitting that we should recognize today the holiness of a confessor, a son of this nation who, while not called to shed his blood for the Lord, nevertheless bore eloquent witness to him in the course of a long life devoted to the priestly ministry, and especially to preaching, teaching, and writing. He is worthy to take his place in a long line of saints and scholars from these islands, Saint Bede, Saint Hilda, Saint Aelred, Blessed Duns Scotus, to name but a few. In Blessed John Henry, that tradition of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord has borne rich fruit, as a sign of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit deep within the heart of God’s people, bringing forth abundant gifts of holiness."

I was so pleased to hear him name St Hilda! Just to hear her publically ranked, as she deserves to be, among great "saints and scholars", was very exciting, and a corrective, I hope, to lazy arguments about the Church's hatred of women. But my favourite moment along these lines was Friday evening's ecumenical prayer service in Westminster Abbey. There the Pope said in his address:

"I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the Successor of Saint Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor. Edward, King of England, remains a model of Christian witness and an example of that true grandeur to which the Lord summons his disciples in the Scriptures we have just heard: the grandeur of a humility and obedience grounded in Christ’s own example (cf. Phil 2:6-8), the grandeur of a fidelity which does not hesitate to embrace the mystery of the Cross out of undying love for the divine Master and unfailing hope in his promises (cf. Mk 10:43-44)."

He and the Archbishop of Canterbury went on to pray at the shrine of St Edward, who had Westminster Abbey built and consecrated only a week before his death. Edward is, as I have said before, one of my favourite saints, not only a pious and holy man but a deeply sympathetic one, a model of virtue in the face of great personal suffering. Many people have discussed how moving it was to see the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury - successors of Gregory and Augustine, whose initiative first evangelised the English peoples - kneel together in prayer before Edward's shrine. It has been called a historic moment in relations between the Anglican and Catholic churches. The Archbishop, in speaking about Newman's conversation, described the two churches as separated friends. Well, Edward the Confessor is the patron saint of separated spouses: I hope the consequence of their prayers at his shrine might be to bring those who are separated together again.

Edward the Confessor in stained glass at Wells Cathedral.