Monday 31 January 2011

Mice in little wagons

If you have ever wondered how young boys entertained themselves in the twelfth century, the contemporary Yorkshire chronicler William of Newburgh gives a clue. In his list of the many sins of Roger, archbishop of York, comes this:

"Instead of selecting persons of eminence, with whom (as though with jewels) the church of York had formerly glittered, he conferred benefices on striplings, or even boys still under discipline of their masters, better calculated from their age to build up childish houses, to yoke mice in little wagons, to play together indiscriminately, and to ride on it long reed, than to sustain the character of dignitaries in the church."

I'm afraid I can't elucidiate what 'to ride on it long reed' means, and google doesn't help. Any ideas?

Saturday 29 January 2011

Cries like dead letters

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves but worse.

Friday 28 January 2011

A January Carol

This is sort of technically a Christmas carol, but in The Oxford Book of Carols it's designated a carol for 'January and February', and frankly these months are so in need of a bit of brightness that it's right they should have their own carol. The third verse is the key, but the whole thing fits very appropriately in this inbetween season of the year: speaking of Christ's birth but with a focus on the conquest of death, it looks back to Christmas and forward to Easter at the same time. It makes a difference to read (or sing) a line like "Gladness and salvation... came on Christmas Day" when Christmas Day was a month ago, rather than on the day itself. I often feel it's a shame that Christmas is the subject of so much superb art and poetry and music and yet we only get to enjoy it for a few days (twelve at the most!). There's enough beauty and theology in one collection of carols to occupy the mind and heart for a whole year - for many years - and we rush through them so fast. For this reason, though it isn't yet Candlemas - the traditional end of the Christmas season - I'm happy to have a carol like this one to keep me going.

In case you can't tell, it's dark and cold right now. But the days get longer, and light wins in the end.

The words to this carol are by J. M. Neale, and you can see the sheet music for the tune here- it's from the sixteenth-century manuscript compilation Piae Cantiones.  I couldn't find a recording on youtube, but there's a kind of improvisation on it here which is very nice.

1. Earth to-day rejoices,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Death can hurt no more;
And celestial voices,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Tell that sin is o'er.
David's sling destroys the foe:
Samson lays the temple low:
War and strife are done,
God and man are one.

2. Reconciliation,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Peace that lasts for aye;
Gladness and salvation,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Came on Christmas Day.
Gideon's Fleece is wet with dew:
Solomon is crown'd anew:
War and strife are done.
God and man are one.

3. Though the cold grows stronger,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Though the world loves night;
Yet the days grow longer,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Christ is born, our Light.
Now the Dial's type is learnt:
Burns the Bush that is not burnt:
War and strife are done;
God and man are one.

Thursday 27 January 2011

The Sense of England

A passage from Henry James' 1890 novel The Tragic Muse. The protagonist is thinking about his ancestral estate; I do like the phrase "the respectable centuries":

'There was another admonition almost equally sure to descend upon his spirit during a stroll in a summer hour about the grand abbey; to sink into it as the light lingered on the rough red walls and the local accent of the children sounded soft in the churchyard. It was simply the sense of England—a sort of apprehended revelation of his country. The dim annals of the place appeared to be in the air (foundations baffingly early, a great monastic life, wars of the Roses, with battles and blood in the streets, and then the long quietude of the respectable centuries, all cornfields and magistrates and vicars) and these things were connected with an emotion that arose from the green country, the rich land so infinitely lived in, and laid on him a hand that was too ghostly to press and yet somehow too urgent to be light. It produced a throb that he could not have spoken of, it was so deep, and that was half imagination and half responsibility.'

Wednesday 26 January 2011

St Eysteinn

So, who knows anything interesting about the Norwegian bishop St Eysteinn, whose feast day is today? I do!

'Interesting' is relative, I suppose. But anyway, it's more interesting than anything in his wikipedia article...

My interesting fact is that Eysteinn was one of Thomas Becket's earliest fans - everyone was a fan of Thomas Becket in the 1180s, but Eysteinn took it pretty far. He was Archbishop of Nidaros from 1161, and he corresponded with Becket while the latter was Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas Becket wrote a lot of letters - he corresponded with everybody! - but there were strong links between the English and Norwegian churches in this period, and Becket's murder in 1170 made almost as big an impression in Scandinavia as it did in England.*  Eysteinn was Archbishop at a period of civil war in Norway, and his support for King Magnus against the rival Sverre brought him into trouble. After a number of battles, Magnus was driven out of the country in 1180, and Eysteinn had to flee to England (pronouncing excommunication on Sverri as he did so).

He stayed in England for three years. We don't know exactly where he was all that time, but he spent nine months staying in the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds, from 9 August 1181 onwards - his stay is mentioned by the chronicler of that house, Jocelin of Brakelond, who was a monk there during Eysteinn's visit. (Jocelin calls him 'Augustine', a Latinising of his Norse name, and notes that he received ten shillings a day - which seems like an awful lot! - from the abbey's funds, at the command of the king).  Eysteinn was the author of a Vita of St Olaf, and perhaps brought it to England with him; a copy was preserved at Fountains Abbey.  He probably went to Canterbury too, to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, and most likely he also visited Henry II - Henry (who was perhaps in the mood to be nice to persecuted archbishops) gave him support out of the royal coffers.

The parallel between Becket, who had spent time in exile from England because of his disputes with Henry, and Archbishop Eysteinn was fairly obvious. The English chronicler William of Newburgh finds space in his history for Eysteinn's story; he explains it by saying that Sverre, "having abjured the sacred order, and taken in marriage the daughter of the Gaut-king, wished to be solemnly crowned by the archbishop. But he, since he was a great man and not to be induced by prayers or threats to pour sacred ointment on an execrable head, was driven by Sverri from his fatherland." The English chroniclers had presumably got this information from Eysteinn himself (though one hopes he didn't describe himself as a 'great man'!). It was not Eysteinn's fate to be murdered at his own altar, though; he returned to Norway in 1183, was eventually reconciled with Sverre, and died peacefully enough on this day in 1188.

* This seems as good a place as any to note my favourite piece of evidence for northern veneration for Thomas Becket: the story of the Icelander Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, who caught a narwahl and promised the tusks to St Thomas if the saint helped him bring it in.  His prayer was answered, so he travelled to Canterbury and left the tusks on Thomas’ shrine.  Part of me really hopes they still have a narwahl tusk in a cupboard somewhere in Canterbury Cathedral...

Sunday 23 January 2011

An Evening Hymn

by John Ellerton (1826-1893), whose more famous evening hymn is 'The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended'. The third verse of this one should appeal to anyone who has ever sung in a church choir. Faint, indeed.

Our day of praise is done;
The evening shadows fall;
But pass not from us with the sun,
True Light that lightenest all.

Around the throne on high,
Where night can never be,
The white-robed harpers of the sky
Bring ceaseless hymns to thee.

Too faint our anthems here;
Too soon of praise we tire;
But O the strains, how full and clear,
Of that eternal choir!

Yet, Lord, to thy dear will
If thou attune the heart,
We in thine angels’ music still
May bear our lower part.

’Tis thine each soul to calm,
Each wayward thought reclaim,
And make our life a daily psalm
Of glory to thy name.

A little while, and then
Shall come the glorious end;
And songs of angels and of men
In perfect praise shall blend.

Thursday 20 January 2011

St Agnes' Eve


Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex’d she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress’d
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain;
Clasp’d like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.


Stol’n to this paradise, and so entranced,
Porphyro gazed upon her empty dress,
And listen’d to her breathing, if it chanced
To wake into a slumberous tenderness;
Which when he heard, that minute did he bless,
And breath’d himself: then from the closet crept,
Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,
And over the hush’d carpet, silent, stept,
And ’tween the curtains peep’d, where, lo!—-how fast she slept.


Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
A table, and, half anguish’d, threw thereon
A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet:—-
O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!
The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion,
The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarionet,
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:—-
The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.


And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.


These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light.—-
“And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
“Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
“Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes’ sake,
“Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.”


Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:—-’twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem’d he never, never could redeem
From such a stedfast spell his lady’s eyes;
So mus’d awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.


Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—-
Tumultuous,—-and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy:”
Close to her ear touching the melody;—-
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
He ceased—-she panted quick—-and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.


Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.


“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
“Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
“Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
“And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
“How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
“Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
“Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
“Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
“For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”


Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,—-
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.


’Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
’Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
“Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.—-
“Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
“I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine,
“Though thou forsakest a deceived thing;—-
“A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.”


“My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
“Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
“Thy beauty’s shield, heart-shap’d and vermeil dyed?
“Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
“After so many hours of toil and quest,
“A famish’d pilgrim,—-saved by miracle.
“Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
“Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well
“To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.”


’Hark! ’tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
“Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
“Arise—-arise! the morning is at hand;—-
“The bloated wassaillers will never heed:—-
“Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
“There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—-
“Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
“Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
“For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.”


She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around,
At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears—-
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.—-
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop’d lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
Flutter’d in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.


They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flaggon by his side;
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:—-
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;—-
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.


And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

St Wulfstan of Worcester

19 January is the feast of St Wulfstan of Worcester, vegetarian, anti-slavery campaigner, and eleventh-century bishop. Appointed Bishop of Worcester late in the reign of Edward the Confessor, Wulfstan was one of the few high-ranking English churchmen to keep his position after the Norman Conquest. When he died in 1095 he was the only English bishop left in England, and he was highly respected by Normans and English alike for his personal holiness and, in a way, as a relic of the Saxon church, which was so quickly taken over by Norman customs after the Conquest. For the English historian Eadmer, describing why St Anselm, as Archbishop of Canterbury, consulted Wulfstan about pre-Conquest English customs, Wulfstan was "the one sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people".

Colman, Wulfstan's own chaplain and chancellor, wrote a life of the saint in English, which sadly does not survive; but luckily it was translated into Latin by William of Malmesbury in the 12th century, and so we have a detailed account of his life. The wikipedia article gives all the key facts of his career without giving any of the interesting ones. So here are some of Colman's more memorable stories about him (all quotations are from Michael Swanton's translation of the Latin life in Three Lives of the Last Englishmen):

1. First of all, the story of how he got his name gives a little insight into Anglo-Saxon naming practices. His father was called Æthelstan ('noble stone') and his mother was called Wulfgifu ('gift of the wolf'), so they named their son 'Wulfstan', combining elements from the two names. I suppose 'Æthelgifu' ('noble gift') would have been the other option, but that's a woman's name. Combining bits of other names to make new ones has become popular in recent years, and is often mocked as a ridiculous modern practice, but it was easy for the Anglo-Saxons, because many Germanic names are made of two free-standing elements which can be switched around. Most likely Wulfstan was really named after his very famous uncle, Wulfstan Archbishop of York, who was a prominent homilist, law-maker and advisor to both Kings Æthelred and Cnut - but the combining of names is a nice story.

2. As a child, being educated in the monastery of Peterborough, Wulfstan was taught by a monk named Earnwine, "an expert in writing and painting pictures... He had given the young Wulfstan some books to look after - a sacramentary and a psalter, in which he had illuminated the capital letters with gold. The boy was captivated by the rich decorations, and while his eager eyes explored its beauty, his mind was taking in the meaning of the words. But the teacher, looking to worldly advantage and hoping for larger profit, presented the sacramentary to Cnut, who was king at that time, and the psalter to Emma, the queen. The child was heartbroken at the loss."  This touching story has a happy ending, though.  Wulfstan had a dream in which an angel promised the books would be returned to him, and much later they were: Cnut had sent the books to Cologne as a diplomatic gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, and in the reign of Edward the Confessor they happened to be brought back to England, and were given to Wulfstan as a gift by someone who did not know of his dream. Fetching lost books is a pretty useful saintly attribute!

It would have been a book like this one, the Eadui Psalter

3. Another story tells how as a teenager, back home with his parents, a local girl fell in love with Wulfstan. One day a large group of young people had gathered in a field, competing in races and atheletic games, and Wulfstan won all the honours of the game. "The rural crowd shouted his praises, re-echoing on the ears again and again." (Incidentally, this is a nice insight into how Anglo-Saxon teenagers amused themselves in their free time). Wulfstan, of course, remained humble despite all this praise, so the Devil put it into the mind of the girl "to dance in front of him to the accompaniment of a harp, with lewd gestures and shameless movements such as might gratify the eyes of a lover. And he, whom neither words nor touches had weakened [she had previously been in the habit of squeezing his hand to try and seduce him], now panted with desire, completely reduced by her disarming gestures. He immediately came to his senses, however, and bursting into tears, fled away into some rough undergrowth... There sleep crept over him, and a cloud came down from above, a bright and attractive gleam playing on the eyes of those who saw it spreading out to cover a considerable area, amazing the onlookers." They came and asked Wulfstan to explain what it meant, and he said it was a sign of heavenly love, and that from henceforth he would always be free from sexual temptation. His biographer notes that as an old man he often told these stories about his own life to encourage others - he told the story about his childhood to boys, and this story to young men.

4. Later, as a monk at Worcester, he was praying in the church at night when an old peasant came in and scolded him for being there so late, and challenged him to a fight. Wulfstan - knowing, of course, that it was the Devil in disguise - wrestled with the peasant until he vanished in a puff of smoke. "However, lest he should seem to have achieved nothing, the Devil trampled on the foot of the righteous man with the full weight of inquity, simply piercing it through as if with a red-hot branding iron. Godric, a monk in the same convent, who says he has often seen it... testifies that the wound penetrated to the bone. And I [that is, Colman] knew the boor whose appearance the Enemy assumed. He was certainly an appropriate fellow - with savage strength, monstrous wickedness and hideously deformed face."

The rest of Wulfstan's life was not so beset with trials, although he did perform numerous miracles while he was Bishop of Worcester. The leading men of his day sought his counsel, especially Harold Godwineson, who had a particular esteem for him. After the Conquest, King William also developed a great respect for him, as did Malcolm of Scotland and St Margaret. One of his most notable achievements was to put a stop to the slave trade in Bristol, from where slaves used to be taken for sale in Ireland. Colman has many stories of his personal humility and piety, and I'll finish with this one:

Out of humility, Wulfstan dressed in lamb-skin, avoiding ostentatious clothes. "On one occasion he was benignly reproved by Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances, showering the man with the most witty remarks, among which he asked why he wore lamb-skin, when he could and ought to have sable, beaver or wolf. He replied neatly that Geoffrey and such men practiced in worldly wisdom ought to make use of the pelts of crafty beasts, while he, who partook in no subterfuge, was content with lamb-skin. To which Geoffrey rejoined that Wulfstan might at least dress in catskin. "Believe me," replied Wulfstan, "We praise the Lamb of God more often than the Cat of God!" At these words Geoffrey burst out laughing, quite delighted".

And one final story about dress and appearance. Wulfstan strongly disapproved of men with long hair. Apparently "if any of these yielded [Wulfstan] his head, he would cut away the unrestrained locks with his own hand. For this purpose he had a little knife, with which he used to scrape muck from his nails or dirt off of books... If anyone thought to refuse, he would openly accuse him of softness, openly warn him of misfortune. It would come to pass that those who were ashamed to be what they were born and imitated the flowing tresses of women, would prove no better than women in the defence of their homeland against foreigners. As much became evident with the coming of the Normans that same year. Who can deny it?"

So that's why the English lost at Hastings! Elsewhere William of Malmesbury says exactly the opposite about the English defeat at Hastings - it was the short hair that did it. Interesting theories...

For more about Wulfstan, see this post, and for a visit to Worcester Cathedral, see this one.

Monday 17 January 2011

That Library

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another."

Something made me think of this - the last line, at least. It's from Donne's 'no man is an island' sermon. I think of it often when I'm in a library, especially the Bodleian, which owns a copy of every book published in the UK, and has done since 1610. According to trusty Google, they have more than 11 million books; they get 1000 new items every working day. Can you even begin to imagine how many books that is? I can't. And if I choose to, I can go and read any one of them, but I could never read - never even begin to hope to read - even a tiny fraction of what there is. I like books, and find them fascinating, and so it's a bit depressing to think about all the books I'll never read; but I find people even more fascinating, and so it's even more depressing to think about all the people I will never understand.

This sermon just gives me a little hope that 'never' only means 'not in this world'.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Which knew they by astronomy

The Adoration of the Magi (BL Egerton 1070, f.34v, 15th century)

Come, love we God, of mightes most,
The Father, Son, the Holy Ghost,
Regnante jam in aethera;
The which made man, both more and less,
And create him to his likeness,
O quanta, O quanta sunt haec opera.

The herdsmen came with their off'ring
For to present that pretty thing
Cum summa reverentia.
They gave their gifts that child until;
They were received with full goodwill;
Quam grata, quam grata sunt haec munera!

Three Kinges came from the east country,
Which knew they by astronomy,
Et Balam vaticinia,
They offered him gold, myrrh and sence;
He took them with great diligence:
Quam digna, quam digna est infantia!

They turned again full merrily,
Each came unto his own country:
O Dei mirabilia,
They had heaven's bliss at their ending,
The which God grant us old and younge.
Deo Patri, Deo Patri sit gloria.

This lovely carol for the Epiphany season comes from a manuscript of 1611 which belonged to the Shann family, who lived in Methley, Yorkshire. (The manuscript is now BL Additional MS. 38599.) This poem is headed "A Christmas Carroll maid by Sir Richard Shanne, priest"; the manuscript was mostly written by a Richard Shanne (1561-1627), but the author of this carol might perhaps have been an earlier ancestor of the same name. A paraphrase may help:

1. Come, let us love God, the greatest in power, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, now reigning in the heavens, who made all mankind, great and small, and created man in his likeness; how great are these works!

2. The shepherds came to present their offering to that lovely child with utmost reverence. They gave their gifts to that child and were well received; how welcome are these gifts!

3. Three kings came from the east, finding the way by astronomy and by the prophecy of Balaam. They offered him gold, myrrh and frankincense, and he took them, as was his right; how worthy was that infancy!

4. They returned again full merrily and each came to his own country; O wonderful works of God! At their death they entered into the joy of heaven; may God grant that to us, both old and young. Glory be to God the Father!

Friday 14 January 2011

Round worlds

Another little moment missed out of the recent Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie. I've always loved this.

"But look here," said Eustace, "this is all rot. The world's round - I mean, round like a ball, not like a table."

"Our world is," said Edmund. "But is this?"

"Do you mean to say," asked Caspian, "that you three come from a round world (round like a ball) and you've never told me! It's really too bad of you. Because we have fairy-tales in which there are round worlds and I always loved them. I never believed there were any real ones. But I've always wished there were and I've always longed to live in one. Oh, I'd give anything - I wonder why you can get into our world and we never get into yours? If only I had the chance! It must be exciting to live on a thing like a ball. Have you ever been to the parts where people walk about upside-down?"

Edmund shook his head. "And it isn't like that," he added. "There's nothing particularly exciting about a round world when you're there."

Medieval worlds: an English Mappa Mundi from c.1265, and some globe-trotters from a 14th-century French manuscript.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Canterbury by Candlelight

Some photos taken after the aforementioned service of Vespers in honour of St Thomas Becket (a version of which I now learn you can buy on CD). These aren't particularly good photos, but it's not every day you get to see the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral by candlelight.

Try and imagine those people are monks.

The crypt is the oldest part of the present-day cathedral - it was built at the end of the eleventh century, in the time of St Anselm.

This is the darkest part of the crypt - you can see the window tracery reflected on the pillar:

Opposite that pillar, there's another one (for decorative rather than structural purposes, I hope!) which was part of a Roman building in Thanet.

A decapitated statue, of which the crypt has several - I'm not sure if this was the work of Henry VIII (who ordered all memorials of Thomas Becket to be destroyed) or Cromwell's soldiers (who were for a time quartered in the cathedral):

Candlelight on gilding:

And these were taken on the way out of the crypt; I was trying to capture the light coming through the window onto the pillars of the dark nave:

Sunday 9 January 2011

Hostis Herodes impie: 'By light their way to Light they trod'

The Magi with Herod (BL Royal 1 D X, f. 2)

Herodes, þou wykked fo, wharof ys þy dredinge?
And why art þou so sore agast of Cristes tocominge?
Ne reueth he nouth erthlich god þat maketh ous heuene kynges.

Þe kynges wenden here way and foleweden þe sterre,
And sothfast lyȝth wyth sterre lyth souhten vrom so verre,
And sheuden wel þat he ys God in gold and stor and mirre.

Crist, ycleped heuene lomb, so com to seynt Ion,
And of hym was ywasȝe þat sunne nadde non,
To halewen oure vollouth water, þat sunne hauet uordon.

A newe myhte he cudde þer he was at a feste:
He made vulle wyth shyr water six cannes by þe leste;
Bote þe water turnde into wyn þorou Crystes oune heste.

Wele, Louerd, be myd þe, þat shewedest þe today,
Wyth þe uader and þe holy gost wythouten endeday.

This is a translation of the fifth-century Latin Epiphany hymn 'Hostis Herodes impie' by William Herebert (c.1270-1333). Herebert, a Franciscan friar, lectured in Theology at Oxford between 1317-19, and was a prolific translator of Latin hymns into English verse, often for use in sermons; you can see this hymn written in his own hand here.

The Latin text of the hymn can be found here. Here's a slightly easier version of Herebert's poem:

Herod, thou wicked foe, whereof is thy dreading?
And why art thou so sore aghast at Christ's coming?
He takes not earthly goods away who makes us heavenly kings.

The kings took their way and followed the star,
And true light by star-light they sought from afar,
And showed well that he is God in gold and stor and myrrh.

Christ, called 'heavenly lamb', came so to Saint John,
And by him was washed, who sin had none,
To hallow baptismal water for us whom sin had fordone [ruined].

A new power he showed when he was at a feast:
He had filled with clear water six vats, at the least,
But the water turned into wine through Christ's own behest.

Glory, Lord, be with thee, who showest thyself today,
With the Father and the Holy Ghost, without an ending-day.

Adoration of the Magi (BL Royal 1 D X, f. 2)

For the purposes of comparison, this is J. M. Neale's translation of the same hymn:

How vain the cruel Herod’s fear,
When told that Christ the King is near!
He takes not earthly realms away,
Who gives the realms that ne’er decay.

The Eastern sages saw from far
And followed on His guiding star;
By light their way to Light they trod,
And by their gifts confessed their God.

Within the Jordan’s sacred flood
The heavenly Lamb in meekness stood,
That He to whom no sin was known,
Might cleanse His people from their own.

And oh, what miracle divine,
When water reddened into wine!
He spake the word, and forth it flowed
In streams that nature ne’er bestowed.

All glory, Jesu, be to Thee
For this Thy glad Epiphany:
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Ghost forevermore.

Herebert's first verse is closer to the Latin than Neale's, at least in preserving the question format:

Hostis, Herodes impie,
Christum venire quid times?
Non eripit mortalia,
qui regna dat caelestia.

This is one of those moments where a medieval liturgical text exhibits a startlingly directness and dramatic force; the tone of the question is triumphant, almost mocking, as if to say 'what are you so afraid of, Herod? This king is far too mighty to care what happens to your meagre earthly power...'

Herebert adds to the second verse the names of the different gifts, gold and myrrh and 'stor', an Old English word for incense (the word frankincense did not appear in English until the fifteenth century). You can see that for Herebert, who was originally from the Hereford area, 'star' and 'far' (which he spells 'verre') both rhyme with 'myrrh'.

I posted a later medieval translation of this hymn, in a very different style, here.  It begins:

Thou cruel Herod, thou mortal enemy,
Why art thou afraid of Christ? why dost thou dread
That he will put thee from thy royalty?
The heavenly king for earthly thing no need
May have; he giveth heavenly mede;
He careth not for thy mortal empire;
Why trouble thee against this lord to conspire?

The kings three out of the orient
In their journey to guide and to convey
A star appeared, right in the firmament;
None so bright a path at any time saw they!
So light by light devoutly seek they,
And made acknowledgement in their offering
To mortal man, priest and heavenly king.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Richer by far is the heart’s adoration

I knew that once I started posting Epiphany hymns, I wouldn't be able to stop. This is by Oxford's own Reginald Heber:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all.

Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odours of Edom and offerings divine?
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?

Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us Thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

For some reason - perhaps they have similar tunes - I associate this hymn with the better-known 'O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness'. Personally I prefer 'Brightest and best', mostly because of that wonderfully evocative first verse, and because I always like hymns which have rhetorical questions in them (see also: 'Ye Holy Angels Bright', 'Thy hand O God has guided', 'My song is love unknown'), but also because the distinctive and unusual choice to rhyme all those words ending in -ness is almost too clever to be real. It's a tricky thing to do (I once tried it!) and it's a poetic tour de force, but I find it a little distracting. Nonetheless:

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
with gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
kneel and adore him: the Lord is his Name!

Low at his feet lay thy burden of carefulness,
high on his heart he will bear it for thee,
and comfort thy sorrows, and answer thy prayerfulness,
guiding thy steps as may best for thee be.

Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness
of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine;
for truth in its beauty, and love in its tenderness,
these are the offerings to lay on his shrine.

These, though we bring them in trembling and fearfulness,
he will accept for the Name that is dear;
mornings of joy give for evenings of tearfulness,
trust for our trembling and hope for our fear.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
with gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
kneel and adore him: the Lord is his Name!

John Monsell (1811-1875)

Thursday 6 January 2011

Deep the darkness where we stray

I think it's not possible to write a bad Epiphany hymn. The feast comes ready-made with superbly beautiful imagery - most of all, the star - and the metaphors for the Christian life write themselves. This is a lovely example, a translation of a Welsh carol by the Rev. W. Lloyd. The Oxford Book of Carols has it with a tune by Canon Owen Jones, entitled 'Seren Bethlehem' ('The Star of Bethlehem').

Dark the night lay, wild and dreary
Moaned the wind by Melchior’s tower,
Sad the sage, while pondering weary
O’er the doom of Judah’s power:
When behold, the clouds are parted,
Westward, lo, a light gleams far!
Now his heart’s true quest has started,
For his eyes have seen the star.

Now, Lord Jesus, hear our calling,
Deep the darkness where we stray;
How shall we, mid boulders falling,
Know for thine the rough-hewn way?
Lo, a light shines down to guide us
Where thy saints and angels are!
Now we know thy love beside us,
For our eyes have seen the star.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

In Mary mild his pennon pight

Another carol from the Selden MS, from c.1450. This carol is worth reading for verse 4 alone, and you don't have to know what any of it means to hear what a pleasant sound the rhyme-words make: lysse/gysse/blysse and alight/bright/pight. But a translation follows anyway ;)

"Both all and some" is an odd expression but it just means "all of us".

Refrain: Nowell syng we, both all and some,
Now Rex pacificus ys ycome.

1. Exortum est in love and lysse.
Now Cryst hys gree he gan us gysse,
And with hys body us bought to blysse,
Both all and some.

2. De Fructu ventris of Mary bryht,
Bothe God and man in her alyht,
Out of dysese he dyde us dyht,
Both all and some.

3. Puer natus to us was sent,
To blysse us bouht, fro bale us blent,
And ellys to wo we hadde ywent,
Both all and some.

4. Lux fulgebit with love and lyht,
In Mary milde hys pennon pyht,
In her toke kynde with manly myht,
Both all and some.

5. Gloria Tibi ay and blysse,
God unto hys grace he us wysse,
The rent of heven that we not mysse,
Both all and some.

Let us all sing 'Nowell', now that the King of Peace is come.

1. Love and joy have risen up for us, and now Christ has begun to clothe us with his favour. With his body he won heaven for us all.

2. He is the fruit of the womb of Mary bright: God and man together alighted on her, and brought us all out of misery.

3. A boy was born, sent to us; he won bliss for us, and brought us out of sorrow, otherwise we would all have been condemned to misery.

4. The light will shine out with love and brightness. He pitched his pennant [a knight's colours] in Mary mild, and in her body took on the strength of manhood.

5. Glory and blessing to God for ever. May God guide us with his grace, that we may not lose the right to live in heaven.

Monday 3 January 2011

This Dear Day

A seventeenth-century carol by the English Seneca, Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656).

'Cratch' in verse 2 means 'manger, cradle'; cf. creche.

1. Immortal Babe, who this dear day
Didst change thine Heaven for our clay,
And didst with flesh thy godhead veil,
Eternal Son of God, all hail!

2. Shine, happy star; ye angels, sing
Glory on high to Heaven's King:
Run, shepherds, leave your nightly watch,
See Heaven come down to Bethlehem's cratch.

3. Worship, ye sages of the east,
The King of gods in meanness dress'd.
O blessed maid, smile and adore
The God thy womb and arms have bore.

4. Star, angels, shepherds, and wise sages,
Thou virgin glory of all ages,
Restored frame of Heaven and Earth,
Joy in your dear Redeemer's birth!

Sunday 2 January 2011

Now man is brighter than the sun

Despite what we all pretended at the Mass I've just been to, today is not the Feast of the Epiphany. I refuse to be robbed of four days of Christmas! So here is, not an Epiphany carol, but a Christmas carol:

Refrain: Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel!

1. Out of youre slepe arise and wake,
For God mankind now hathe i-take
All of a maide without any make.
Of all women she berethe the belle.

2. And throwe a maide faire and wis
Now man is made of full grete pris;
Now angeles knelen to manes servis;
And at this time all this bifel.

3. Now man is brighter than the sonne;
Now man in heven an hie shall wonne;
Blessed be God this game is begonne
And his moder emperesse of helle.

4. That ever was thralle, now is he free;
That ever was smalle, now grete is she;
Now shall God deme bothe thee and me
Unto his blisse, if we do well.

5. Now man may to heven wende;
Now heven and erthe to him they bende;
He that was fo now is oure frende.
This is no nay that I you telle.

6. Now blessed brother, graunte us grace,
A domes day to see thy face,
And in thy court to have a place,
That we mow there singe nowel.

This is from the fifteen-century Selden MS, now in the Bodleian Library. Click on the picture above and you can read this very carol! Note the lovely illuminated capital, and see how the red ink rubrics indicate when the refrain is to be sung.

'Beareth the bell' is one of my favourite Middle English expressions. It means 'win the prize', really, though the OED distinguishes between two phrases: "to bear the bell 'to take the first place, to have foremost rank or position, to be the best' and to bear or carry away the bell 'to carry off the prize'. The former phrase refers to the bell worn by the leading cow or sheep (cf. bell-wether) of a drove or flock; the latter, perhaps, to a golden or silver bell sometimes given as the prize in races and other contests; but the two have been confused." It's the first we have in this carol, but the second seems more appropriately chivalric with relation to the Virgin Mary. Think of winning first prize in a beauty contest, or carrying off the prize in a jousting tournament!

The other feature I like is this carol is the emphatic repetition of 'now', twelve times in six verses, and echoed in the refrain 'Nowell'; it really underlines the point of verse 2, that it was at this time that all this happened.

An utterly unpoetic translation into Modern English:

1. Arise and wake out of your sleep, for God has now taken human form of a maiden without any equal [although 'without any make' also means 'without a mate' and thus also 'a virgin']; among all women she wins the prize.

2. And through this fair and wise maiden, mankind now becomes highly valued (/of great worth); now angels kneel at the service of man; and all this happened at this season.

3. Now man is brighter than the sun, now man shall dwell in heaven on high. Blessed be God and His mother, the Empress of Hell, because this joy has begun.

4. Whoever was a slave is now made free; whoever was small and unimportant is now made great. If we act well, God will now judge both you and me worthy of a place in heaven.

5. Now man is able to go to heaven; now heaven and earth bend before God (or before man? I'm not sure). Enemies become friends. There is no contradicting the truth of what I tell you.

6. Now, blessed Brother, grant us the grace to see thy face on Judgement Day, and to have a place in thy court, where we may sing to thee 'Noel'.

Saturday 1 January 2011

A New Year's Day Carol

From some seventeenth-century verses, to be sung to the tune of 'Greensleeves'.

The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is enterèd;
Then let us now our sins downtread,
And joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this day,
And let us now both sport and play.
Hang grief, cast care away!
God send you a happy new year.

The name-day now of Christ we keep,
Who for our sins did often weep.
His hands and feet were wounded deep,
And his blessèd side with a spear.
His head they crowned with thorn,
And at him they did laugh and scorn,
Who for our good was born.
God send us a happy New Year.

And now with New Year’s gifts each friend
Unto each other they do send;
God grant we may all our lives amend,
And that the truth may appear.
Now, like the snake, your skin
Cast off, of evil thoughts and sin,
And so the year begin:
God send you a happy new year!

Verse 2 refers to the fact that long before it was New Year's Day, January 1 was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, also known as the Feast of the Holy Name, because it's the eighth day after Christmas. The Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric (c.955-c.1010) wrote a homily for January 1, in which he discusses Christian and pagan practices of keeping the New Year. Here are some extracts, in my translation (from this book).

We have often heard that people call this day 'year’s day', as the first day in the course of the year, but we do not find any explanation in Christian books as to why this day should be appointed the beginning of the year. The ancient Romans, in heathen days, began the calendar of the year on this day; the Hebrew people began at the spring equinox, the Greeks at the summer solstice, and the Egyptians began the calendar of their year at harvest. Now our calendar begins on this day, according to the Roman practice, not for any holy reason, but because of ancient custom. Some of our service books begin at the Advent of the Lord. However, that is not the beginning of our year; there is no reason for it being this day, although our calendars continue to put it in this place.

It is most rightly thought that the beginning of the year should be appointed to the day when the Almighty Creator fixed the sun, moon and stars and the beginning of all time; that is the day on which the Hebrew people begin the calculation of their year, as the leader Moses wrote in the book of the law. Certainly God spoke to Moses about the months; this month is the beginning of the months, and it is the first in the months of the year. Now the Hebrew people observe the first day of the year on the spring equinox, because on that day the time of the year was appointed. The eighteenth day of the month which we call March, which you call ‘Hlyda’, was the first day of this world. On that day God created light and morning and evening. Then three days went by without time being measured, because the stars were not created until the fourth day. On the fourth day the Almighty created all the stars and the seasons of the year, and said they were to mark days and years. Now the Hebrew people begin their year on the day when all times were created, that is on the fourth day after the creation of the world. The teacher Bede calculates with great accuracy that the day is the 12th calend of April [i.e. 21 March]. On that day we celebrate that holy man Benedict to honour his great virtues. Indeed, the earth also shows by the shoots which are then quickened again that it is the time when the year should most rightly begin, when it was created.

Now foolish men practise divination by many kinds of sorcery on this day, in great error, according to heathen customs contrary to their Christian faith, so that they may lengthen their lives or their health; but in doing that they anger the Almighty Creator. Many people are also so greatly wrapped in error that they plan their journeys according to the moon and their deeds by the days, and will not let blood on a Monday because it is the beginning of the week - but Monday is not the beginning of the week, it is the second; Sunday is foremost in order of creation, in order, and in honour.

Some foolish people also say that there are some kinds of cattle which man should not bless, and say that if they are blessed they go wrong, but are made obedient by cursing, and use God’s grace to injure them with the devil’s curses, without blessing. Every blessing comes from God, and curses from the devil. God made all creation, and the devil cannot create anything; he incites to evil and acts falsely, the origin of sin and deceiver of souls. Any part of creation which seems perverse has been brought low by sin. Holy men often lived in the desert among fierce wolves and lions, among all kinds of animal and serpent, and nothing was able to harm them; they tore horned snakes apart with their bare hands and easily killed great dragons without any harm through the power of God.


Now you observe the days and months with vain sorcery. However, according to nature every bodily creation which earth brings forth is more full and vigorous at the full moon than at the waning; trees which are cut down at the full moon are harder and last longer as timber, most of all if they are sapless. This is no sorcery, but a natural thing, created. So, also, the sea agrees wonderfully with the course of the moon; they are always fellows in waxing and waning, and when the moon daily rises four prican (= fifth of an hour) later, so also the sea always flows four prican later.

Let us set our hope and happiness in the foreknowledge of the Almighty Creator, who established all creation in three things: that is in measure, number and weight. To him be glory and praise for ever world without end. Amen.