Tuesday 22 February 2011

Westron Wynde

Westron wynde, when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can rayne?
Cryst yf my love were in my armys,
And I yn my bed agayne!

Words and music from a Tudor part-book, used as the cantus firmus for a Mass by the sixteenth-century English composer John Taverner, organist of Christ Church, Oxford, and resident of Boston, Lincolnshire (two of my favourite places). Odd choice for a Mass, but that's the sixteenth century for you: crazy.

Friday 18 February 2011

The Battle of the Fish

Matthew Paris explains natural phenomena:

'Although other great and unheard-of wonders happened in this year [1240], we have thought it worth our while to mention in this work one more remarkable than the rest. As it is the nature of the sea to vomit up on dry land the dead bodies thrown into it, about eleven whales, besides other marine monsters, were cast up on the seacoast of England, dead, as if they had been injured in some kind of struggle — not, however, by the attacks or skill of man. The sailors and old people, dwelling near the coast, who had seen the wonders of the deep when following their vocation in the vast waters, and trafficking to distant countries, declared that there had been an unusual battle amongst the fishes, beasts, and monsters of the deep, which by wounding and gnawing each other, had caused death to several; and those which had been killed had been cast ashore.

One of the fishes, a monster of prodigious size, made its way into the Thames, and with difficulty passed uninjured between the pillars of the bridge; it was carried as far as a manor of the king's called Mortlake, where it was followed by a number of sailors, and at length killed, after a great deal of trouble, by innumerable blows of spears. Of this event, a certain versifier jestingly remarked:

Venerat ad funus Thetidis de piscibus unus,
Quern rex Neptunus misit quasi nobile munos.'

[To Thetis' funeral came a monster fish.
By Neptune sent to make a glorious dish.]

These days it would probably be attributed to global warming.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Danish Pride

Never thought I'd see the day when Gorm the Old got his name in The Sun... that's really quite freaky. I wonder where they got that wussy picture of Cnut, though.

Friday 11 February 2011

Give me my self, and take your self again

By Michael Drayton (1563-1631).

You not alone, when you are still alone,
O God, from you that I could private be!
Since you one were, I never since was one;
Since you in me, my self since out of me,
Transported from my self into your being;
Though either distant, present yet to either,
Senseless with too much joy, each other seeing,
And only absent when we are together.
Give me my self and take your self again,
Devise some means but how I may forsake you;
So much is mine that doth with you remain,
That, taking what is mine, with me I take you;
You do bewitch me; O, that I could fly
From my self you, or from your own self I.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Waken thou with me

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Ignorance and the Church of England

Here's something to make you want to cry.

"The Church of England has voted to use more accessible language during baptisms to help it connect better with congregations, especially non church-goers. Members attending the Church’s General Synod, or parliament, in London, agreed that the Liturgical Commission should provide supplementary material to help prevent the eyes of worshippers “glazing over” during important parts of the service.

The Reverend Tim Stratford, from Liverpool, said on Wednesday his motion was "not a request for christenings without Christianity." Quite the opposite. "I am not asking for the language of Steven Gerrard," he said, referring to the Liverpool and England soccer star. "Just references that could be understood by the majority."
Stratford said many people today did not have enough background in the Bible to understand the images used in the current baptism services. This was "not a plea for a prayer in Scouse, but for a prayer that the majority of non-theologically-versed Britons would understand." He gave the following as an example of what he called "problematic sentences":

Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit."

Wait - those are your 'problematic sentences'? You're telling me that there are people who come to present their children for baptism who don't understand the simplest references to
a) one of the most famous stories in the Bible and
b) the Resurrection of Christ
even when presented in language which is so plain as to be almost banal? And the Church of England, instead of realising that maybe this shows how atrociously they have failed to educate the souls in their charge, decides to just take out the Biblical references? That may be one of the most patronising things I've ever heard. Generations of people with no formal education have learned the basics of the faith well enough to understand the baptism service - and today's Christians aren't even to be expected to try. Modern Christians are too stupid to understand the symbolism of baptism, so we should just pretend there isn't any (while at the same time making snobbish jokes about the Scouse dialect, of course).

This, right here, is why the Church of England is dying. You hear a lot of drivel from Anglican vicars about how paternalistic their Victorian forebears were, but no Victorian clergyman would have ever been so elitist and patronising as to think his flock should not be expected to understand just a little of the Biblical basis for baptism! And as for the medieval era (you know, that time when no one knew the Bible, because the nasty clergy hid it from them?) - well, illiterate tradesmen put on plays about the story of Moses and Pharoah, a story which is today supposed to be beyond the comprehension of ordinary Christians.

Never mind, it gave Rowan Williams an opportunity to make a self-deprecating joke: "I find myself very much in sympathy with this motion. Like most of those who have spoken, I too, have a sense of the wordiness of what we have and a slight feeling of eyes glazing over. It is not, I think, solely as a result of my delivery."

St Anselm would be so proud.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Anglo-Saxon Executions

This is a weird one. As told to William of Malmesbury, with reference to a miracle performed by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury:

Dunstan "was able to lighten the woes of his sons by great miracles. One of these I have not seen in writing, though I recently heard it narrated by a monk of Christ Church. A thief, condemned to fall to his death, called on the aid of St Dunstan; his eyes already blindfolded, he was pushed away by his executioners and leapt into the chasm, but without coming to any harm. The blessed Dunstan spoke with him in person there, and removed his bandages. The poor man, heartened by this help, found his way along rough paths to higher ground; an invisible hand on his back supported him as he clung to the cliff-face, and prevented him slipping backwards". (p.15, i.20)

This is "apparently the earliest reference to the customary local mode of execution called ‘infalisation’, according to which felons were thrown from a cliff called Sharpeness at Dover" (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom, vol.II, p.33).

Hardcore Kentish justice!

Friday 4 February 2011


The Collect for the week of the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany:

O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright; Grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

By the way, do read about St Gilbert of Sempringham today - he may not have raised geese from the dead or slain Vikings, but he was a pretty amazing man (a Lincolnshire saint! the only English founder of a religious order! imprisoned for aiding Thomas Becket! and, um... Robert Mannyng was a Gilbertine. All good reasons to be interested in St Gilbert.)

Thursday 3 February 2011

Bad ways to die

On this day, 997 years ago:

1014: 'After many cruel atrocities, which he perpetrated both in England and in other lands, the tyrant Swein filled up the measure of his damnation by daring to demand enormous tribute from the town where the incorrupt body of the precious martyr Edmund lay, a thing no one had dared to do before... He very frequently threatened that if it were not speedily paid he would destroy utterly the martyr's church, and he would torture the clergy in various ways. In addition, he frequently disparaged the martyr himself in many ways - he dared to say that he had no sanctity - and, because there were no bounds to his malice, divine vengeance did not allow the blasphemer to live any longer.

At last, when the evening was approaching of the day on which, at the general assembly which he held at Gainsborough, he repeated the same threats, at a time when he was surrounded by Danish troops crowded together, he alone saw St Edmund, armed, coming towards him. When he had seen him, he was terrified and began to shout very noisily, saying "Help, fellow-warriors, help! St Edmund is coming to kill me!" And while he was saying this he was run through fiercely by the saint with a spear, and fell from the stallion on which he sat, and, tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death on 3 February.'

John of Worcester, trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, p.477

Poor Svein! I mean, I know St Edmund was brutally murdered by Vikings, but this seems a bit harsh.

St Werburh and The Goose

Werburh (Ely Cathedral)

Today is the feast of St Werburh of Chester, a seventh-century nun and a junior member of an illustrious family of Anglo-Saxon royal female saints. Werburh was the great-niece of St Etheldreda of Ely and her sisters, and was just one of numerous women in her family who founded monasteries, entered religious life, and were later venerated as saints. Etheldreda's sister St Seaxburh married a king of Kent, Seaxburh's daughter St Eormenhild married a king of Mercia, and Werburh was Eormenhild's daughter. So Werburh was related to three of the most important royal dynasties in seventh-century England: Kent and East Anglia, which had been Christian for several generations, and the newly-converted Mercia. Her genealogy is given in the 'List of saints' resting-places' in BL Stowe 944 (f.36):

'Then St Eormenhild, daughter of Eorcenbyrht and Seaxburh, was given in marriage to be King Wulfhere's queen. He was the son of Penda, king of Mercia, and in their time the Mercian people received baptism. Their daughter was St Werburh the holy virgin, and she was buried in the minster which is called Hanbury, and now rests in the city of Chester.'

Werburh's most memorable miracle involves her resurrecting a cooked goose. The story is told by a number of authorities, but since Henry of Huntingdon happens to be by my hand, here's his version:

St Werburg lies at Chester, about whom, among the many things said of her, one is outstanding and unheard of, which I cannot avoid mentioning. For it is written that a large flock of wild geese were destroying her growing corn by feeding on it: she had them confined in a certain house, as if they were domestic geese. In the morning, when she called them, ready to send them out, she saw that one was missing. On enquiry, she heard that it had been eaten by the servants.

"Bring me," she said, "the feathers and bones of the bird that has been eaten."

When they were brought to her, this bride of the high God commanded that it should be whole and should live. And it was done. Then she instructed the geese, which were cheering and crying out at the return of their lost companion, that no other of their kind must ever, in all eternity, enter that field. They all departed in safety. And what the virgin commanded has been observed up to the present day.

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.693-5.

St Werburh's geese (from wikipedia)

This story always reminds me of Thor and his goats, but it's a not uncommon form of saintly power. Werburh's distant cousin St Mildrid is also associated with geese, and other Anglo-Saxon saints who had a particular way with birds (though not with resurrecting them, as far as I know) include St Hilda (reverenced by the sea-birds of Whitby),St Cuthbert (fond of Eider ducks) and St Oswald (had a pet raven).

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Candlemas and The Carol of King Cnut

This post features a combination of two favourite themes of this blog: Christmas carols, and King Cnut. But it also celebrates Candlemas. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I posted about a story of Cnut's visit to Ely Abbey, where the king had to follow a peasant across the ice in a cart when the fens proved impassable by boat. According to the twelfth-century history of the abbey, Cnut was in the habit of visiting Ely to celebrate the Feast of the Purification, aka Candlemas, aka today. If you will go visiting Fenland abbeys in February, you get weather problems - but sometimes Cnut actually made it to Ely. And on one occasion he wrote a song about it! Well, not really. I mean, he probably didn't write it. But there is a song, and it's one of the earliest songs in Middle English, and there's a lovely story about it.

Here's the story:

"King Cnut was making his way to Ely by boat, accompanied by Emma, his queen, and the nobles of the kingdom, desiring to celebrate solemnly there, in accordance with custom, the Purification of St Mary, starting from which date the abbots of Ely are accustomed to hold, in their turn, their position of service in the royal court. When they were approaching the land, the king rose up in the middle of his men and directed the boatmen to make for the little port at full speed, and then ordered them to pull the boat forward more slowly as it came in. As he turned his eyes towards the church which stood out at a distance, situated as it was at the top of a rocky eminence, he heard the sound of sweet music echoing on all sides, and, with ears alert, began to drink in the melody more fully the closer he approached. For he realised that it was the monks singing psalms in the monastery and chanting clearly the Divine Hours. He urged the others who were present in the boats to come round about him and sing, joining him in jubilation. Expressing with his own mouth his joyfulness of heart, he composed aloud a song in English the beginning of which runs as follows:

Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely
ða Cnut ching reu ðer by.
Roweþ cnites noer the lant
and here we þes muneches sæng.

[Merry sang the monks in Ely
When Cnut the king rowed by;
'Row, men, near the land
And let us hear these monks sing.']

This and the remaining parts that follow are up to this day sung publicly by choirs and remembered in proverbs. The king, while tossing this around [in his mind], did not rest from singing piously and decorously in concert with the venerable confraternity, until he reached land."

Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, trans. Janet Fairweather (Woodbridge, 2005) pp.181-2.

I love this story. Scandinavian kings are always composing verses in the Icelandic sagas - so if Harald Hardrada could compose skaldic verse just before the battle of Stamford Bridge (Harold Godwineson, too), why couldn't the multi-talented Cnut compose a little song in honour of his favourite monks, overflowing with joy at the beauty of their chanting? I wish he had, but sadly, he didn't. It probably dates closer to the time the Liber Eliensis was written (the late twelfth century) than to Cnut's lifetime (this visit would have taken place in the 1020s) but it's still:

a) a very early Middle English poem
b) a sweet little song in its own right
c) associated with Cnut

And since that happened at Candlemas I choose to think of 2 February additionally as 'Cnut Day' or 'The Anniversary of the First Middle English Carol' or whatever you like.

I can't remember where I got this picture so I apologise for not knowing the source - but it makes me laugh every time I look at it...

As you can see, it isn't a Christmas carol (or really a religious song at all), but a 19th-century Dean of Ely, Charles William Stubbs, decided to turn it into one. Thus he wrote 'The Carol of King Cnut', which was set to music first by T. Tertius Noble (see below) and again by Benjamin Britten as part of his 'Christ's Nativity' carol series. In honour of the last day of the Christmas season, then, enjoy a last carol, courtesy of Ely, Dean Stubbs, and King Cnut:

O merry rang the hymn
Across the fenlands dim;
O joy the day!
When Cnut the king sailed by,
O row my men, more nigh
And hear that holy cry,
Sing Gloria!

From Ely Minster then
Rang out across the fen
O Gloria!
The good monks' merry song
That rolled its aisles among,
And echoed far and long :
Sing joy the day!

It was the Christmas morn
Whereon the child was born
(O joy the day!)
On lily banks among
Where fragrant flowers do throng
For maiden posies sprung?
Ah nay! ah nay!

It was the winter cold
Whereon the tale was told
(O joy the day!)
What hap did then befall
To men and women all
From that poor cattle stall,
O Gloria!

The shepherds in a row
Knelt by the cradle low,
O joy the day!
And told the angel song
They heard, their sheep among,
When all the heavenly throng
Sang gloria!

Glory to God on high,
Who bringeth men anigh,
O Gloria!
And war's black death did ban,
And peace on earth began
And Christ the Word made man!
Sing joy the day!

Sing joy, my masters, sing,
And let the welkin ring,
O Gloria!
And Nowell! Nowell! cry
The Child is King most High
O sovran victory!
Sing joy the day!

You can listen to Benjamin Britten's lively setting of 'The Carol of King Cnut' here.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Simple with giving

This is my all-time favourite love poem, by Edwin Muir.

The Confirmation

Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face
I in my mind had waited for this long,
Seeing the false and searching for the true,
Then found you as a traveller finds a place
Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong
Valleys and rocks and twisting roads. But you,
What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste,
A well of water in a country dry,
Or anything that's honest and good, an eye
That makes the whole world seem bright. Your open heart,
Simple with giving, gives the primal deed,
The first good world, the blossom, the blowing seed,
The hearth, the steadfast land, the wandering sea.
Not beautiful or rare in every part
But like yourself, as they were meant to be.

People can get used to anything

My favourite bit of this passage, a fairly standard medieval interpretation of a metereological phenomenon, is the last line. "Oh, yes, the sky kept turning red, but we weren't that bothered when it happened a third time..."

This took place during Richard I's captivity in Austria, 1192-3; it was written by the Yorkshire chronicler William of Newburgh.

'About the first watch of the night, the intermediate region of the sky between north and east grew so red that it appeared to blaze, as it were; though there was not the slightest cloud, and the stars were brightly shining; and these, too, were so tinged with fiery redness, and streaked with white stripes, that they seemed to twinkle with a kind of blood-stained light. After this dreadful appearance had possessed the eyes and minds of the beholders with astonishment throughout all the borders of England for nearly the space of two hours, by degrees gently vanishing it disappeared, leaving much conjecture concerning it. And in the month of February in the following year [1193], while the king of England was yet detained in Germany, and the news of his captivity was not generally known in England, a portent very similar appeared throughout England, in the same region of the sky, soon after midnight, when the religious orders were chanting their customary praises to God. We know that persons in different provinces were so terrified by the reflection of this tremendous redness on their glass windows, that many of them, supposing that some accidental fire had happened in the adjoining houses, left their chanting, and, marking the dreadful portent, returned to their psalmody… And indeed, in the same year, when the king's detention had now become prolonged in Germany and his speedy release was expected, on the fourth of the nones of November [2 Nov.], before daybreak, the selfsame token appearing for the third time in the same region of the sky, terrified (but in a less degree) the minds of the beholders; for now they were accustomed to it, though it was the cause of increased conjecture and suspicion.'