Wednesday 31 August 2011

As I gaed doun Glenmoriston

This is a 'Song of the North' by Sir Harold Boulton (1859-1935), who also wrote the lyrics to 'The Skye Boat Song'. The dialect shouldn't present too many problems, I hope...

As I gaed doun Glenmoriston,
Where waters meet about Alteerie,
I saw my lassie milkin' kye
Wi' skilfu' hand and sang sae cheerie.
The wind that stirred her gowden hair
Blew saftly frae the hill at even,
And like a moorland flower she looked
That lichtly lifts its head to heaven.

Frae that sweet hour her name I'd breathe
Wi' nocht but clouds and hills to hear me,
And when the warld to rest was laid
I'd watch for dawn and wish her near me,
Till one by one the stars were gone,
The moorcock to his mate called clearly,
And daylicht glinted on the burn
Where red-deer cross at mornin' early.

The years are lang, the wark is sair,
And life is afttimes wae and wearie,
Yet Foyer's flood shall cease to fall
Ere my love fail unto my dearie.
I loved her then, I love her now,
And cauld wad be the warld without her,
The croodlin' bairnies at her knee
And licht o' mither's love about her.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Health and Joy Be With You

Here's another sweet Scotch song by John Stuart Blackie. In Songs of the North it has the heading 'Health and Joy be with you', with the Gaelic title 'Gu ma slan a chi mi', and consists of these three verses:

1. Health and joy be with you,
My bonnie nut-brown maid,
With tresses richly flowing,
With virgin grace arrayed;
Thy voice to me is music
When heavy I may be,
It heals my heart's deep sorrow
To speak a word with thee.

2. In sadness I am rocking
This night upon the sea.
For troubled is my slumber
When thy smile is far from me ;
On thee I'm ever thinking,
Thy face is ever near,
And if I may not find thee
Then death alone is dear.

3. Before we heaved our anchor
Their evil speech began.
That you no more should see me
The false and faithless man ;
Droop not thy head, my darling.
My heart is all thine own,
No power on earth can part us
But cruel death alone.

So simple, and yet so lovely!

I found another version in this e-book of The Selected Poems of John Stuart Blackie, which has some more verses and a different phrasing for some of the lines. To my taste (probably influenced by blind loyalty to Songs of the North), the shorter version is superior, but verses 3 and 4 are delightful:

1. May health and joy be with you,
My bonnie nut-brown maid,
With your dress so trim and tidy
And your hair of bonnie braid.
Thy voice to me is music
When heavy I may be,
And it heals my heart's deep sorrow
To speak a word with thee.

2. 'Tis in sadness that I'm rocking
This night upon the sea.
Right scanty is my slumber
When thy smile is far from me;
'Tis on thee that I am thinking,
'Tis thy face that I behold.
And if I may not find thee
May I lie beneath the mould.

3. Thine eyes are like the blaeberry
Full and fresh upon the brae;
Thy cheeks blush like the rowans
On a mellow autumn day.
If the gossips say I hate thee,
'Tis an ugly lie they tell,
Each day's a year to me since
I left my lovely Nell.

4. They said that I did leave thee
To feed on lovelier cheer,
That I turned my back upon thee
For thy kiss was no more dear;
O never heed their tattle,
My bonnie, bonnie lass.
Thy breath to me is sweeter
Than the dew upon the grass.

5. Before we heaved our anchor
Their evil speech began.
That you no more should see me
The false and faithless man;
Droop not thy head, my darling.
My heart is all thine own,
No power from thee can part me
But cruel death alone.

6. There are story-telling people
In the world, great and small,
Their heart it swells with poison,
And their mouth it droppeth gall;
Ev'n let them spin their lies now,
They'll see the thing that's true,
When the minister shall speak the word
That maketh one of two.

7. The knot of love that binds us
Is tied full sure and tight;
What matters if they wrong me.
When I know that I am right?
There's many a rich curmudgeon
Frets his heart with bitter spleen;
But I can live, and love, and laugh,
Although my purse be lean.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Oxford Poetry

Who knew? C. S. Lewis wrote a poem called 'Oxford'. Like most of his published poetry, it was written before his conversion to Christianity, and published in 1919. He took his degree at Oxford in 1920, after his undergraduate studies were interrupted by service in World War I.


It is well that there are palaces of peace
And discipline and dreaming and desire,
Lest we forget our heritage and cease
The Spirit’s work—to hunger and aspire:

Lest we forget that we were born divine,
Now tangled in red battle’s animal net,
Murder the work and lust the anodyne,
Pains of the beast ‘gainst bestial solace set.

But this shall never be: to us remains
One city that has nothing of the beast,
That was not built for gross, material gains,
Sharp, wolfish power or empire’s glutted feast.

We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.

She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold—barred against despair.

Friday 26 August 2011

Kipling's 'The Land'

This is another Kipling poem which came to my attention through the A Folk Song A Day project, where the Peter Bellamy arrangement was brilliantly sung (in its entirety!) a few weeks ago by Jon Boden. Like 'Puck's Song', this poem illustrates Kipling's interest in the continuity of the English landscape through two thousand years of history, with the nice addition here of the continuity of English people, too. I know someone just like Hobden!

The only thing I don't understand about this poem is why Kipling chose 'Ogier the Dane' to be his archetypal Saxon settler - Ogier the Dane was a romance hero belonging to the Charlemagne legend, and not Saxon (or even Danish) at all; he didn't have any connections to Sussex, where this poem is set. You might have expected someone like Hengist and Horsa, the legendary founders of Kent - Ogier is out by about three centuries. It's a strange choice! But the use of William of Warenne, the first post-Conquest lord of Sussex, makes up for it. I wonder if William, when he wasn't being outsmarted by Hereward the Wake, really did ride round rainy Sussex fields with his baliff...

The Land

When Julius Fabricius, Sub-Prefect of the Weald,
In the days of Diocletian owned our Lower River-field,
He called to him Hobdenius--a Briton of the Clay,
Saying: 'What about that River-piece for layin' in to hay?'

And the aged Hobden answered: 'I remember as a lad
My father told your father that she wanted dreenin' bad.
An' the more that you neeglect her the less you'll get her clean.
Have it jest as you've a mind to, but, if I was you, I'd dreen.'

So they drained it long and crossways in the lavish Roman style.
Still we find among the river-drift their flakes of ancient tile,
And in drouthy middle August, when the bones of meadows show,
We can trace the lines they followed sixteen hundred years ago.

Then Julius Fabricius died as even Prefects do,
And after certain centuries, Imperial Rome died too.
Then did robbers enter Britain from across the Northern main
And our Lower River-field was won by Ogier the Dane.

Well could Ogier work his war-boat--well could Ogier wield his brand--
Much he knew of foaming waters--not so much of farming land.
So he called to him a Hobden of the old unaltered blood.
Saying: 'What about that River-bit, she doesn't look no good?'

And that aged Hobden answered: ''Tain't for me to interfere,
But I've known that bit o' meadow now for five and fifty year.
Have it jest as you've a mind to, but I've proved it time on time,
If you want to change her nature you have got to give her lime!'

Ogier sent his wains to Lewes, twenty hours' solemn walk,
And drew back great abundance of the cool, grey, healing chalk.
And old Hobden spread it broadcast, never heeding what was in't;
Which is why in cleaning ditches, now and then we find a flint.

Ogier died. His sons grew English. Anglo-Saxon was their name,
Till out of blossomed Normandy another pirate came;
For Duke William conquered England and divided with his men,
And our Lower River-field he gave to William of Warenne.

But the Brook (you know her habit) rose one rainy Autumn night
And tore down sodden flitches of the bank to left and right.
So, said William to his Bailiff as they rode their dripping rounds:
'Hob, what about that River-bit--the Brook's got up no bounds?'

And that aged Hobden answered: ''Tain't my business to advise,
But ye might ha' known 'twould happen from the way the valley lies.
When ye can't hold back the water you must try and save the sile.
Hev it jest as you've a mind to, but, if I was you, I'd spile!'

They spiled along the water-course with trunks of willow-trees
And planks of elms behind 'em and immortal oaken knees.
And when the spates of Autumn whirl the gravel-beds away
You can see their faithful fragments iron-hard in iron clay.

* * * * *

Georgii Quinti Anno Sexto, I, who own the River-field,
Am fortified with title-deeds, attested, signed and sealed,
Guaranteeing me, my assigns, my executors and heirs
All sorts of powers and profits which--are neither mine nor theirs.

I have rights of chase and warren, as my dignity requires.
I can fish--but Hobden tickles. I can shoot--but Hobden wires.
I repair, but he reopens, certain gaps which, men allege,
Have been used by every Hobden since a Hobden swapped a hedge.

Shall I dog his morning progress o'er the track-betraying dew?
Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew?
Confiscate his evening faggot into which the conies ran,
And summons him to judgment? I would sooner summons Pan.

His dead are in the churchyard--thirty generations laid.
Their names went down in Domesday Book when Domesday Book was made.
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies,
Would I lose his large sound council, miss his keen amending eyes.
He is bailiff, woodman, wheelwright, field-surveyor, engineer,
And if flagrantly a poacher--'tain't for me to interfere.

'Hob, what about that River-bit?' I turn to him again
With Fabricius and Ogier and William of Warenne.
'Hev it jest as you've a mind to, but'--and so he takes command.
For whoever pays the taxes old Mus' Hobden owns the land.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Brown-haired maiden

In the collection of 'random things I like' which is pretty much what this blog is composed of, there has so far been one large omission. I've sometimes posted about folk songs and ballads, which I love, and which I would probably be studying right now if there were any way to prove their medieval roots (mostly there isn't). However, I also have a very soft spot in my heart for what you might call Victorian 'faux-folk' (fauk?) songs - especially the so-called 'Scotch songs' which had a big surge in popularity in the 19th century, as part of the general enthusiasm for Scotland which was nurtured by Queen Victoria's fondness for the country and the popularity of Burns, Sir Walter Scott, etc.

The most famous of these 'Scotch songs' are compositions like The Skye Boat Song or Annie Laurie, which, although they may have been based on traditional songs, were essentially new compositions written in the idiom of Scottish folk song. I own a couple of wonderful books full of this stuff, with titles like The Lyric Gems of Scotland (available to read online here) and Songs of the North. Many are sentimental and some are silly; but the best have a particular quality of dignified tenderness which is utterly lacking from popular culture today. One of the many ways in which the Victorians were better than us.

Here's one I especially like. Songs of the North only tells me that it was translated from the Gaelic (from a song(?) called 'Gruagach Dhonn') by 'Professor Blackie', i.e. John Stuart Blackie (1809-1895), poet and classical scholar. I'm pretty sure the tune in the book is a simplified version of this one (oddly), but I can't explain how or why... This is the sum total of my knowledge of this song.

Brown-haired maiden

Brown-haired maiden, fresh and fair,
Blithe and bright with lightsome air,
Tuesday when I trysted thee
All the week was worth to me.

Brown-haired maid with witching smile,
Full of love and free from guile,
Softly 'neath the hawthorn tree
Came thy whispered troth to me.

Young were we when first fond love
Found us in the hazel grove;
Sweet thy kisses were to me
And thy voice was melody.

God be with thee, brown-haired maid,
In the sunshine or the shade;
Every Tuesday saved for thee
Brings a year of bliss to me.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Repost: For St Bartholomew's Day

St Guthlac, the Mercian soldier-turned-hermit who founded the abbey of Crowland in Lincolnshire, arrived at his marshy, devil-haunted hermitage on St Bartholomew's Day, 24th August, 699 AD. Thereafter he chose St Bartholomew as his patron, and said that the apostle defended him from the demons who were constantly besieging his Fenland hideaway. Bartholomew even gave him a whip to beat off the demons; a fact apparently long remembered at Fishtoft in Lincolnshire.

(it seems that Bartholomew is thought to be the same person as Nathaniel from this great story, by the way)

And here's a repeat of something I posted a few months ago in relation to Crowland and St Bartholomew:

From the Chronicle of Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire, this is a notable cost-cutting initiative by Abbot John Wisbech, who died in 1476:

"He it was who first wisely abolished that ancient or rather that corrupt custom of giving knives to every visitor on St Bartholomew’s day. By this both abbot and convent rejoice in being free for ever from heavy and needless expenses."

St Bartholomew, who was one of Crowland's dedicatory saints, suffered martyrdom by being flayed alive, and so one of his attributes is a knife. I guess people were given them as souvenirs? Sounds like it would get pretty expensive - and a bit of a health and safety issue too.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Searching my heart for all that touches you,/ I find there only love and love's goodwill

E drizzeremo gli occhi al Primo Amore. - Dante
Ma trovo peso non da le mie braccia. - Petrarca

If I could trust mine own self with your fate,
Shall I not rather trust it in God's hand?
Without Whose Will one lily doth not stand,
Nor sparrow fall at his appointed date;
Who numbereth the innumerable sand,
Who weighs the wind and water with a weight,
To Whom the world is neither small nor great,
Whose knowledge foreknew every plan we plann'd.
Searching my heart for all that touches you,
I find there only love and love's goodwill
Helpless to help and impotent to do,
Of understanding dull, of sight most dim;
And therefore I commend you back to Him
Whose love your love's capacity can fill.

Monday 15 August 2011

Medieval Seal Inscriptions

I was reading about medieval seals today and for some reason thought these inscriptions were kind of cool:

"Seals which say they keep secrets are quite common. For example, a matrix of jasper reads: CLAUSA SECRETA TEGO ('I cover closed secrets'); a silver one reads: FRANGE LEGE LECTA TEGE ('Break. Read. Cover what is read'); a gold and sapphire signet ring reads: TECTA LEGE LECTA TEGE ('Read what is covered. Cover what is read.'). These matrixes date from the thirteenth century and probably belonged to women. An undertaking to keep secrets was appropriate for sealing up a personal letter..."

M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (Oxford, 1993), p.314.

I'm going to start putting 'tecta lege lecta tege' on all my letters! Here is the seal-ring in question. It has also been found on a seal of Bardney abbey.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Alphege, the Siege of Canterbury, and a Vikingfest

As I mentioned when I last posted about Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, back in April, this year and next mark 1000 years since the Viking siege of Canterbury and the archbishop's subsequent murder. I learned today that Canterbury Heritage Museum is planning to commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of the siege in September 1011 with a Viking City Trail and other exciting activities.

As someone who has often nurtured her love of Vikings at the little 'write your name in runes' section of said museum (admittedly, for the first time at the age of 19), this makes me happy. I love the name 'Vikingfest'. And words cannot express how much I want one of those 'Viking certificates'.

(The BBC article where I learned this says there will also be lectures and events at the cathedral, but I can't find any information about that yet.)

The siege of Canterbury is not one of those events which shows the Vikings in a very good light. In my post about Alphege I gave the English version of events from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which laments, with very untypical passion and poetic grief, how the chief city of English Christendom was reduced to pitiable wretchedness by the 1011 siege; of all the blows to English morale in the difficult period of Ethelred's reign, when Viking attacks seemed unstoppable and the official response ineffectual, the siege of Canterbury was one of the very worst. The disaster was capped by the murder of Archbishop Alphege by a mob of drunken Vikings the following year, after he had been kept for seven months in captivity.

This fits very well with the conventional view of Viking brutality, and it is no criticism of the Canterbury commemoration to say that this is the version of events which it seems chiefly to recall. However, there is a Viking version of events too, and it's rather interesting and deserves to be better known.

In 1011, England was under attack from a number of different groups of Vikings, working loosely in alliance with each other but led by different and independent-minded men. Among these were Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark and ruler of Norway, with his son Cnut; Thorkell 'the Tall', a powerful Danish nobleman; and Olaf Haraldson, who, although a descendant of the kings of Norway with a claim to the Norwegian throne, was at this time a landless young man making his way in the world by plundering the coasts of Denmark and England.

Svein and Thorkell had been raiding on and off in England for the past twenty years; since King Ethelred's policy (ever since the Battle of Maldon) was to pay ever-increasing amounts of Danegeld to buy them off, this was a fairly profitable activity. It is, however, possible that Svein always had ambitions to be king of England (there had been Viking rulers in England before, especially in the north and east, and he may have thought he had just as much right to those areas, which had a substantial population of Danish settlers, as Ethelred of Wessex did). We should also recall that Ethelred had been guilty of his own atrocity against the Danes - what we might today call an act of ethnic cleansing - with the St Brice's Day massacre, in which Svein's own sister and her family may have been killed.

Svein and Cnut don't concern us here, at least for the moment. But at some point in c.1010 Thorkell and Olaf went into partnership together, and raided and fought several battles in East Anglia. The following summer, they laid siege to Canterbury.

From their point of view, this was a triumph. Later, when Olaf Haraldson was king of Norway, his court poets celebrated all the victories he had won in England, Denmark, Sweden and Normandy, and among them praised Olaf for his victory at Canterbury. Here's a verse from a poem named Víkingarvísur, by the court-poet Sigvatr Þórðarson (you can read a little about Sigvatr here, and the Old Norse text is from the skaldic project):

Veitk, at víga mœtir
Vinðum háttr inn átta
- styrkr gekk vǫrðr at virki
verðungar - styr gerði.
Sinn mǫ́ttut bœ banna
borg Kantara - sorgar
mart fekksk prúðum Pǫrtum -
portgreifar Óleifi.

In red is the name 'Canterbury'! Skaldic verse is a horrible thing to translate, but here's my best shot:

I know that the warrior, a terror to the Wends, fought an eighth battle at the stronghold. Mightily advanced the guardian of the warriors! The city-guardians could not defend the town of Canterbury from Olaf. Much sorrow befell the proud Portar [a name for the English, the origin of which is obscure].

A verse about Canterbury also appears in a poem called Hǫfuðlausn by another of Olaf's court-poets, Óttarr svarti (Óttarr the black):

Atgǫngu vant, yngvi,
ætt siklinga mikla,
blíðr hilmir, tókt breiða
borg Kantara of morgin.
Lék við rǫnn af ríki
- rétt, bragna konr, gagni -
(aldar frák at aldri)
eldr ok reykr, (of beldir).


Lord, you made a great onslaught on the race of the kings [i.e. on the English]. Gracious warrior, you took broad Canterbury in the morning! Among the houses fire and smoke played fiercely. I have heard that you destroyed the lives of men; you triumphed there, kinsman of kings!

From the Vikings' point of view, then, the siege of Canterbury was a triumph - and why not? But the murder of Alphege was something very different. The archbishop was held captive at Greenwich by Thorkell's men, but his execution (he was stoned to death with animal-bones and ox-skulls) apparently took place spontaneously, not on Thorkell's orders. If Thorkell did order it, he soon repented; apparently as a result of this, he and Olaf both shortly afterwards went into alliance with King Ethelred, and agreed to help the English king against Svein and Cnut. (Their mutual dislike of Svein probably didn't hurt, but such defections were not unprecedented; twenty years earlier, the Norwegian Viking Olaf Tryggvason - he who was probably the leader of the Vikings at Maldon, no less - had also gone over to Ethelred, converted to Christianity, and been baptised by Alphege himself).

Olaf Haraldson kept his promise not to attack England again; he went back to Norway and won control of the kingdom, only to be killed in battle by his own people in 1030. He was known as a devout Christian king and on his death he, too, was considered a saint and martyr - he's the patron saint of Norway, in fact. So there's one part of the Viking story: the destroyer of Canterbury became a saint!

After Ethelred's death, Thorkell went back into alliance with Cnut, who was by that time king of Denmark and England. And did Cnut, the greatest of all Viking kings, triumph in the Vikings' destruction of Canterbury? He did not. Instead, he arranged for Alphege's body to be taken back from London to Canterbury in 1023, with great honour; and thus, said a later chronicler, "he sought to correct everything wherein either himself or his predecessors had done amiss, that the stain of unrighteousness might be wiped out as well before God as before men".

So there's another bit of the story: it's partly thanks to Cnut that Canterbury can celebrate Alphege at all.

See also:
Anselm and Alphege
Stained Glass of Canterbury

I dream of you to wake

O ombre vane, fuor che ne l'aspetto! - Dante
Immaginata guida la conduce. - Petrarca

I dream of you to wake: would that I might
Dream of you and not wake but slumber on;
Nor find with dreams the dear companion gone,
As summer ended summer birds take flight.
In happy dreams I hold you full in sight,
I blush again who waking look so wan;
Brighter than sunniest day that ever shone,
In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.
Thus only in a dream we are at one,
Thus only in a dream we give and take
The faith that maketh rich who take or give;
If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,
Though there be nothing new beneath the sun.

Thursday 11 August 2011

"O heart, I do not dare go empty-hearted"

Today I'm in the mood for a random Rupert Brooke poem. This is called 'The Busy Heart'. He was good at list poems (as in this lovely poem) - who was it who said that "the greatest of poems is an inventory"? Chesterton, I think, though I can't remember in what connection. Rupert Brooke and various jazz songs convinced me that he was on to something.

The Busy Heart

Now that we've done our best and worst, and parted,
I would fill my mind with thoughts that will not rend.
(O heart, I do not dare go empty-hearted)
I'll think of Love in books, Love without end;
Women with child, content; and old men sleeping;
And wet strong ploughlands, scarred for certain grain;
And babes that weep, and so forget their weeping;
And the young heavens, forgetful after rain;
And evening hush, broken by homing wings;
And Song's nobility, and Wisdom holy,
That live, we dead. I would think of a thousand things,
Lovely and durable, and taste them slowly,
One after one, like tasting a sweet food.
I have need to busy my heart with quietude.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

August 10: Battle of Maldon Day

Today is the anniversary of a battle which inspired one of the greatest English poems. In 991, exactly 1020 years ago, a group of Viking raiders were met by the men of Essex at the mouth of the River Blackwater, near Maldon. After a fierce battle, the English, led by Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, were comprehensively defeated and many, including Byrhtnoth himself, were killed.

It was a humiliation for the Anglo-Saxons, and like some other British military humiliations, it produced excellent poetry. The fragmentary Old English poem known simply as 'The Battle of Maldon' extols the heroic resistance of the Essex men. The Vikings were there to demand money with threats of violence - this had become a profitable tactic for them, and many towns and villages in England, unable to fight back, gave in to their increasingly extortionate demands (after the defeat at Maldon, it became official royal policy - the first payment of the Danegeld). The poem has it that the Vikings send a messenger to the English army demanding tribute, but Byhrtnoth replies angrily, "We will give you spears as tribute!" He challenges them to fight, and allows them to cross the estuary to a better place for the battle (a tactical error, the result either of high courage or of overweening arrogance, depending on whose translation of the OE word 'ofermod' you believe). Battle commences, and Byrhtnoth is soon killed, dying with a prayer on his lips. The most moving section of the poem commemorates the bravery of the men who refuse to flee the battle after their lord is killed; in true heroic fashion, they declare they would rather die with him than live with dishonour. One old retainer makes this famous speech:

"Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.
Her lið ure ealdor eall forheawen,
god on greote. A mæg gnornian
se ðe nu fram þis wigplegan wendan þenceð.
Ic eom frod feores; fram ic ne wille,
ac ic me be healfe minum hlaforde,
be swa leofan men, licgan þence."

"Thought must be the harder, heart the keener
Spirit must be the greater, as our might lessens.
There lies our leader all cut down,
A good man, on the ground. May he regret it forever
Who now thinks to flee from this battle-play.
I am old in years - I will not go from here,
But by the side of my lord,
By the man so beloved, I intend to lie."

It was an old-fashioned attitude even in the tenth century, the language of heroic poetry and not of real life; but at least one poet thought it noble.

An Ely chronicler, writing some two hundred years later, recorded how Byrhtnoth was still honoured as a local hero. He tells a story about how Ely provided hospitality for the English army on their way to Maldon, claiming that Byrhtnoth had previously tried to have his men accommodated at Ramsey Abbey. There the monks offered him food for himself and seven of his men, but in reply, the Ely writer claims, "he is said to have made the elegantly phrased response: 'Let the lord Abbot know that I will not dine alone without the men you refer to, because I cannot fight alone without them'. Very much in the spirit of the poem! Luckily the monks of Ely were more generous.

After his death, his widow Æthelflæd was supposed to have made and given to Ely a wall-hanging embroidered with her husband's deeds - perhaps something along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry?

Gratuitous picture of Bayeux Tapestry. English spears.

So you see, the Anglo-Saxons had their problems with looters too.

Monday 8 August 2011

What Medieval Clergy Ate

If you were ever curious to know how medieval clergy sustained themselves, this is a contemporary description of the food allowance for the twelve canons of the church of Waltham, Essex, when it was refounded in the middle of the eleventh century:

"Each canon's portion was divided up each week as follows: from Saturday to Saturday, each day two loaves of the purest white bread, a third loaf not so white, these three loaves when divided carefully being certainly sufficient for six persons at one meal. Six bowls of ale were quite sufficient for ten persons at one meal. Every ordinary day there were six dishes of food, each one of a different kind, but on feast days of primary importance each man had three pittances of fod, two of feast days of secondary importance, and one on feast days of third rank of importance.

There were the following additional allowances for each of the canons: from Michaelmas to the beginning of Lent a choice of twelve blackbirds, two plovers, two partridges, or one pheasant. For the rest of the year they could have either geese or chickens. At the main festivals of the year, namely Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the two feast days of the Holy Cross [the patronal feast of the house], each canon was allowed wine and mead."

The Waltham Chronicle: an account of the discovery of our holy cross at Montacute and its conveyance to Waltham, ed. and trans. Leslie Watkiss and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1994), p.31.

This gives one a new understanding of the term 'feast day'! Out of this allowance the canons could give alms, and some of them probably supported families; marriage of canons was a controversial subject at this period, not technically permitted but widely tolerated. Even so, this amount of food has been described by one historian of the religious orders as "gargantuan"...

Sunday 7 August 2011

A Medieval Love Poem: Now wold I fayne

This poem - or really, song - is from the fifteenth century, and is ascribed to an otherwise unknown poet named 'A. Godwhen'. (That name, however, sounds like a pseudonym, echoing the sigh of an impatient lover: 'Ah God, when?')

Now wold I fayne some myrthis make,
All oneli for my ladys sake,
And hit wold be;
But now I am so ferre from hir,
Hit will nat be.

Thogh I be long out of your sight,
I am your man both day and night,
And so will be.
Wherfor wold God as I love hir,
That she lovid me!

When she is mery, then am I glad;
When she is sory, than am I sad;
And cause whi:
For he livith nat that lovith hir
As well as I.

She sayth that she hath seen hit wreten,
That seldyn seen is soon for-yeten;
Hit is nat so:
For in good feith, save oneli hir,
I love no moo.

Wherfor I pray both night and day.
That she may cast care away,
And leve in rest;
And ever more whersoever she be,
To love hir best.

And I to hir for to be trew,
And never chaung her for noon new,
Unto myne end;
And that I may in hir servise
For evyr amend.

In modern spelling:

Now would I fain some mirths make,
All only for my lady's sake,
When her I see;
But now I am so far from her
It will not be.

['I would be glad to make some entertainments for my lady's sake only, whenever I see her; but since I am now so far from her, that cannot be']

Though I be far out of her sight,
I am her man both day and night,
And so will be.
Therefore would [that] as I love her
She loved me!

When she is merry, then am I glad;
When she is sorry, then am I sad;
And cause why: [this is the reason why]
For he liveth not that loveth her
As well as I.

She sayeth that she hath seen it written
That seldom seen is soon forgotten;
It is not so,
For in good faith, save only her,
I love no more. [no other]

Wherefore I pray both night and day
That she may cast all care away,
And live in rest, [i.e. peace]
And evermore wherever she be
To love me best.

And I to her for to be true,
And never change her for no new [no other]
Unto mine end,
And that I may in her service
For ever amend.

Friday 5 August 2011

Oswald of Northumbria; Bamburgh; Being Born in a Barn

Today is the feast-day of Oswald, king of Northumbria in the seventh century, and one of England's greatest kings; he was something of a favourite hero to the Venerable Bede, and so we know rather a lot about him. An account of his life is available in the usual places. He was a popular saint throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, something of a native Emperor Constantine, promoting Christianity not only by the sword but by the preaching of good bishops: a Christian convert himself, he brought St Aidan from Ireland to spread the Christian faith to the Northumbria people.

(My favourite detail of Bede's story about their work together is that Oswald used to act as interpreter when Aidan preached, translating from Irish to English; Oswald himself had learned Irish as a young man in exile.)

His capital was at Bamburgh, which today has a castle which looks like this:

And a view like this:
(Those are St Cuthbert's Farne Islands out to sea.)

At Bamburgh his incorrupt right arm was once preserved as a relic; Bede explains how this came about:

[I]t is reported, that when he was once sitting at dinner, on the holy day of Easter, with the aforesaid bishop [Aidan], and a silver dish full of dainties before him, and they were just ready to bless the bread, the servant, whom he had appointed to relieve the poor, came in on a sudden, and told the king that a great multitude of needy persons from all parts were sitting in the streets begging some alms of the king; he immediately ordered the meat set before him to be carried to the poor, and the dish to be cut in pieces and divided among them. At which sight, the bishop who sat by him, much taken with such an act of piety, laid hold of his right hand, and said, "May this hand never perish." Which fell out according to his prayer, for his arm and hand, being cut off from his body, when he was slain in battle, remain entire and uncorrupted to this day, and are kept in a silver case, as revered relics, in St. Peter's church in the royal city.
Oswald was killed on the 5th August, 642, in battle against the pagan king Penda of Mercia. Bede claims that it was proverbial that he died in prayer: the proverb was "Lord, have mercy on their souls, said Oswald, as he fell to the ground." The site where his blood fell was considered to be holy, and Bede describes how "many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, did much good with it to their friends who were sick. This custom came so much into use, that the earth being carried away by degrees, there remained a hole as deep as the height of a man." Many people were miraculously cured by this holy ground.

Oswald's relics were removed first to Bardney in Lincolnshire and then to Gloucester. Bede tells of the translation to Bardney, but it apparently entered local folklore; excuse me while I repost myself, from last October:

Do you come from Bardney?

Apparently this is a well-known saying in Lincolnshire, used to tell someone they've left a door open (compare, I suppose, 'Were you born in a barn?'). The supposed origin of the phrase is rather strange:

Bardney is a village a few miles east of Lincoln. It was the site of an Anglo-Saxon abbey, and in 679 Osthryth, queen of Mercia, wanted to transfer the bones of her uncle St Oswald to Bardney. The monks, showing a surprising degree of incipient regionalism, refused to accept the relics on the grounds that Oswald, when king of Northumbria, had conquered Lindsey (the Anglo-Saxon kingdom comprising part of modern-day Lincolnshire).

The monks shut the abbey gates against St Oswald's bones and refused to allow the coffin in, but during the night a pillar of light shone out above the body (a common motif; a similar pillar helped reveal the location of the body of Edward the Martyr). The monks, recognising a miracle when they saw one, realised that Oswald really was a saint and they had been wrong to leave him outside, so after that they always left their gates wide open (some say, removed them altogether). Hence the saying.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Some things I learned today

One of the nice things about scholarly research is when the eye wanders to the article next to the article you're supposed to be reading, and you think, 'oh, I'll just have a little look at that...'. I particularly can't resist articles with titles like 'Some Folk Beliefs of the Fens' (by Enid M. Porter, Folklore (1958), 112-122), from which today I learned the following:

Fenmen washed their feet as seldom as possible, believing that washing would impair their strength. Relatives of a deceased husband or father took it as a compliment when told by the one who had prepared the body for burial, that 'she had never seen dirtier feet' - for this implied that the man had been exceptionally strong right up to his death. For the same reason, toenails were seldom cut, nor, in Burwell Fen, was the hair cut more often than once a year, at Reach Fair.

Further, on the subject of the herb yarrow:

To ensure that a baby grew up to be of contented and cheerful disposition, a bunch of yarrow was often tied to its cradle... Cattle were kept docile if they grazed in fields where plenty of yarrow grew.

Yarrow was a well-known love herb in the Fens. The flower, if cut on St Swithin's Day and put into a pillow, would bring great happiness to lovers who slept on it. Women wore bunches of yarrow when in the company of those whose attentions they wished to attract. If a girl wished to bring a young man to the point of proposing marriage, she would go out at midnight, when the moon was full, and walk bare-footed in a patch of yarrow. Then, with eyes closed, she would pick some of the flowers. On her return to the house, she placed them under her bed or in a drawer. The next morning she looked anxiously to see if the dew were still on the flowers, for if so, this meant she would have her wish. If not, the ritual was repeated at the next full moon.

To keep a witch from entering the house, yarrow strewn on the threshold was thought to be effective. If, however, her entry could not be prevented, her powers for evil were nullified if she was made to sit on a cushion stuffed with yarrow.
Imagine trying to induce a witch to sit on a particular cushion...

And finally, a gruesome contraceptive:
One belief was that, if a woman held the hand of a dead man for two minutes, she would not have a child during the next two years.