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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting the Hostis Herodes impie. I'm reading " Religious Lyrics of The Fourteent Cent." and sometimes can't glean a word or two.

Clerk of Oxford said...

I sympathise - these lyrics can be tricky! Glad you found this helpful.

Barbara Steadman-Allen said...

As a musician looking for an epiphany text, I tried to write another version using yours - which I thought had some fabulous lines I could never improve on:
Herod, cruel enemy, why your fear?
Why so afraid as Christ appears?
Where is the rob when earthly things
Pale, as he makes us heavenly kings?

The eastern kings marvelled at a star they saw
So starlight led to true light's door
Where God the King was honoured thus
By incense, oil and golden gifts.

Jesus, we give you glory for this night
Revealing truth and giving sight;
To God the Father, Spirit, praise
Be yours throughout eternal days"

The struggling lines are easily detected and if I set this to music, a 10 syllable stanza for the first line will be an interesting challenge. It was a great exercise though. Thanks!