Tuesday 31 January 2012

A Blessing

A poem from Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata sonnet sequence (it's not really called 'A Blessing' but that's how I think of it).

Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona. - Dante
Amor m'addusse in sì gioiosa spene. - Petrarca

O my heart's heart, and you who are to me
More than myself myself, God be with you,
Keep you in strong obedience leal and true
To Him whose noble service setteth free,
Give you all good we see or can foresee,
Make your joys many and your sorrows few,
Bless you in what you bear and what you do,
Yea, perfect you as He would have you be.
So much for you; but what for me, dear friend?
To love you without stint and all I can
Today, tomorrow, world without an end;
To love you much and yet to love you more,
As Jordan at his flood sweeps either shore;
Since woman is the helpmeet made for man.

Ælfric on Candlemas: A Twofold Burgeoning of Awe and Love

The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, BL Add. 49598, f.34v

2 February is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; and since we heard from the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric on the subject of Advent and of Christmas, we can look today at his sermon for this feast. Ælfric doesn't call it Candlemas (although that was the Old English name for the day) but he does refer to the blessing of candles, as well as exploring the significance of the feast. The whole sermon is available here. In the extract I've chosen, Ælfric discusses the meaning of the birds which Mary brought to the temple as an offering.

Seo eadige Maria ða geoffrode hire lac Gode mid þam cilde, swa hit on Godes æ geset wæs. Hit wæs swa geset on þære ealdan æ þurh Godes hæse, þæt ða þe mihton ðurhteon sceoldon bringan anes geares lamb mid heora cylde, Gode to lace, and ane culfran, oþþe ane turtlan. Gif þonne hywlc wif to ðam unspedig wære þæt heo ðas ðing begytan ne mihte, þonne sceolde heo bringan twegen culfran-briddas, oððe twa turtlan.

Þas læssan lac, þæt sind þa fugelas, þe wæron wannspedigra manna lac, wæron for Criste geoffrode. Se Ælmihtiga Godes Sunu wæs swiðe gemyndig ure neoda on eallum ðingum; na þæt an þæt he wolde mann beon for us, ðaða he God wæs, ac eac swylce he wolde beon þearfa for us, ðaða he rice wæs: to ðy þæt he us forgeafe dæl on his rice, and mænsumunge on his godcundnysse. Lamb getacnað unscæððinysse and þa maran godnysse; gif we þonne swa earme beoð þæt we ne magon þa maran godnysse Gode offrian, þonne sceole we him bringan twa turtlan, oþþe twegen culfran-briddas, þæt is twyfealdlic onbryrdnes eges and lufe. On twa wisan bið se man onbryrd: ærest he him ondræt helle wite, and bewepð his synna; syððan he nimð eft lufe to Gode, þonne onginð he to murcnienne, and ðincð him to lang hwænne he beo genumen of ðyses lifes earfoðnyssum, and gebroht to ecere reste.

'The blessed Mary offered her sacrifice to God with the child, as it was appointed in God's law. It was so appointed in the old law, by God's command, that those who could afford it should bring a lamb of one year old with their child, as an offering to God, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove. But if any woman were so poor that she could not obtain those things, then she should bring two young pigeons or two turtle-doves.

This smaller offering was offered for Christ, that is, the birds, which were the offerings of the poor. The Almighty Son of God was very mindful of our needs in all things; not only did he choose to become man for us, though he was God, but he also chose to become needy for us, though he was mighty, so that he might give us a portion in his kingdom and communion with his divinity. A lamb betokens innocence and the greater kind of goodness; but if we are so wretched that we cannot offer to God that greater goodness, then we should bring him two turtle-doves or two young pigeons; that is, a twofold burgeoning of awe and love. A person experiences this burgeoning in two ways: first, he dreads the torments of hell, and mourns for his sins; then afterwards he feels love to God, and he begins to murmur, and it seems to him too long a time until he shall be taken from the afflictions of this life, and brought to eternal rest.'

There's a nice bit of wordplay here: the Old English word I've translated as 'burgeoning' is onbryrdnes, which sounds a little like OE bryd, i.e. 'bird'. I tried to keep the near-pun, but a more literal translation would be 'kindling' or 'inspiration' - he's talking about the feeling which sparks a conversion of the heart towards God. That stirring of love is the smallest and least of offerings, which anyone can give, even if they are not yet capable of greater acts of virtue.

Lytel wæs an lamb, oððe twa turtlan, Gode to bringenne; ac he ne sceawað na þæs mannes lac swa swiðe swa he sceawað his heortan. Nis Gode nan neod ure æhta; ealle ðing sindon his, ægðer ge heofen, ge eorðe, and sæ, and ealle ða ðing ðe on him wuniað: ac he forgeaf eorðlice ðing mannum to brice, and bebead him þæt hi sceoldon mid þam eorðlicum ðingum hine oncnawan þe hi ær forgeaf, na for his neode, ac for mancynnes neode. Gif ðu oncnæwst ðinne Drihten mid ðinum æhtum, be ðinre mæðe, hit fremeð þe sylfum to ðam ecan life: gif ðu hine forgitst, hit hearmað þe sylfum and na Gode, and þu ðolast ðære ecan mede.

God gyrnð þa godnysse ðines modes, and na ðinra æhta. Gif ðu hwæt dest Gode to lofe, mid cystigum mode, þonne geswutelast ðu þa godnysse þines modes mid þære dæede; gif þu ðonne nan god don nelt, Gode to wurðmynte, ðonne geswutelast ðu mid þære uncyste ðine yfelnysse, and seo yfelnys þe fordeð wið God.
'A little thing was a lamb, or two turtle-doves, to bring to God; but God does not consider a man's offering so much as he considers his heart. God has no need of our possessions; all things are his, in heaven, and earth, and sea, and all the things which dwell in them, but he gave earthly things to mankind to enjoy, and commanded them that with those earthly things they should acknowledge him who first gave them, not for his need, but for their need. If you acknowledge your Lord with your possessions, according to your ability, it will help you towards eternal life; if you forget him, it harms you, not God, and you will lose your eternal reward.

God desires the goodness of your mind, not of the things you own. If you do anything for the praise of God with a generous spirit, then you show forth the goodness of your mind by that deed; but if you will do no good to honour God, then by that stinginess you show forth your wickedness, and that wickedness will destroy you with God.'

The Presentation (early 13th century, BL Royal 1 D X, f. 2v)
On ðære ealdan æ is gehwær gesett, þæt God het gelomlice þas fugelas offrian on his lace, for ðære getacnunge þe hi getacniað. Nis nu nanum men alyfed þæt he healde þa ealdan æ lichomlice, ac gehealde gehwa hi gastlice. Culfran sind swiðe unscæððige fugelas, and bilewite, and hi lufiað annysse, and fleoð him floccmælum. Do eac swa se cristena man; beo him unsceaðþig, and bilewite, and lufige annysse, and broðorrædene betwux cristenum mannum; þonne geoffrað he gastlice Gode þa culfran-briddas.

Þa turtlan getacniað clænnysse: hi sind swa geworhte, gif hyra oðer oðerne forlyst, þonne ne secð seo cucu næfre hire oðerne gemacan. Gif ðonne se cristena man swa deð for Godes lufon, þonne geoffrað he ða turtlan on þa betstan wisan. Đas twa fugel-cyn ne singað na, swa swa oðre fugelas, ac hi geomeriað, forðan þe hi getacniað haligra manna geomerunge on ðisum life, swa swa Crist cwæð to his apostolum, “Ge beoð geunrotsode on þisum life, ac eower unrotnys bið awend to ecere blisse.” And eft he cwæð, “Eadige beoð þa þe heora synna bewepa, forðan ðe hi beoð gefrefrode.”

'In the old law it is set down in several places that God often said that birds were to be offered to him in sacrifice, because of the symbol which they signify. It is not now permitted for anyone to keep the old law literally, but everyone should keep it spiritually. Pigeons are very gentle and innocent birds, and they love unity, and fly together in flocks. This is just what the Christian ought to do: he should be gentle, and innocent, and love unity and brotherhood among Christian people, and in this way he offers the young pigeons to God in a spiritual sense.

The turtle-doves represent purity: they are made in such a way that if one of them loses the other, the surviving one never seeks another mate for itself. If a Christian acts in this way for the love of God, then he offers the turtle-doves in the best manner. These two kinds of birds do not sing as other birds do, but murmur, because they represent the mourning of holy men in this life, just as Christ said to his apostles: "You will be sorrowful in this life, but your sorrow will be turned to everlasting bliss." And again he said, "Blessed are they who mourn their sins, for they shall be comforted."'

Seo eadige Maria, and Ioseph, ðæs cildes fostor-fæder, gecyrdon to þære byrig Nazareth mid þam cilde; “and þæt cild weox, and wæs gestrangod, and mid wisdome afylled, and Godes gifu wæs on him wunigende." He weox and wæs gestrangod on þære menniscnysse, and he ne behofode nanes wæstmes ne nanre strangunge on þære godcundnysse. He æt, and dranc, and slep, and weox on gearum, and wæs þeah-hwaeðere eal his lif butan synnum. He nære na man geðuht, gif he mannes life ne lyfode. He wæs mid wisdome afylled, forþan ðe he is himsylf wisdom, and on him wunað eal gefyllednys þære godcundnysse: lichomlice Godes gifu wunude on him...

Wite gehwa eac þæt geset is on cyrclicum þeawum, þæt we sceolon on ðisum dæge beran ure leoht to cyrcan, and lætan hi ðær bletsian: and we sceolon gan siððan mid þam leohte betwux Godes husum, and singan ðone lofsang ðe þærto geset is. Þeah ðe sume men singan ne cunnon, hi beron þeah-hwæðere þæt leoht on heora handum; forðy on ðissum dæge wæs þæt soðe Leoht Crist geboren to þam temple, seðe us alysde fram þystrum, and us gebrincð to þam ecan leohte, seðe leofað and rixað a butan ende. Amen.
'The blessed Mary, and Joseph, the child's foster-father, returned to the city of Nazareth with the child; "and the child grew, and was strengthened, and filled with wisdom, and God's grace was dwelling within him." He grew and was strengthened in human nature, but he needed no growth and no strengthening in his divine nature. He ate, and drank, and slept, and grew in years, and nevertheless lived all his life without sin. He would not have seemed a man, if he had not lived the life of a man. He was filled with wisdom, because he is himself wisdom, and in him dwells the whole fullness of divinity: God's grace dwelt bodily within him...

Be it known also to everyone that it is appointed in the custom of the church that on this day we should carry our lights to church, and let them be blessed there: and that we should go afterwards with that light among the houses of God, and sing the hymn which is appointed for that. Though some people cannot sing, they can nevertheless bear the light in their hands; for on this day was the true Light, Christ, borne to the temple, who redeemed us from darkness and will bring us to that eternal light, who lives and rules for ever without end. Amen.'

Blessing for candles in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Add. 49598, f. 33)

Monday 30 January 2012

On Transience, V: Despise the World

Fortune's wheel in a medieval wall-painting at Rochester Cathedral

Why is the world beloved, that fals is and vein,
Sithen that hise welthes ben uncertein?

Also soone slideth his power away
As doith a brokil pot that freish is and gay.

Truste ye rather to letters writen in th'is
Than to this wretched world, that full of sinne is.

It is fals in his beheste and right disceiveable;
It hath begiled manye men, it is so unstable.

It is rather to beleve the waveringe wind
Than the chaungeable world, that maketh men so blind.

Whether thou slepe othere wake thou shalt finde it fals,
Bothe in his bisynesses and in his lustes als.

Telle me where is Salamon, sumtime a kinge riche?
Or Sampson in his strenkethe, to whom was no man liche?

Or the fair man, Absolon, merveilous in chere?
Or the duke, Jonatas, a well-beloved fere?

Where is become Cesar, that lord was of al?
Or the riche man cloithd in purpur and in pal?

Telle me where is Tullius, in eloquence so swete?
Or Aristotle the philisophre with his wit so grete?

Where ben these worithy that weren here toforen?
Boithe kinges and bishopes her power is all loren.

All these grete princes with her power so hiye
Ben vanished away in twinkeling of an iye.

The joye of this wretched world is a short feeste:
It is likned to a shadewe that abideth leeste.

And yit it draweth man from Heveneriche blis,
And ofte time maketh him to sinne and do amis.

Thou that art but wormes mete, powder and dust,
To enhance thysilf in pride sette not thy lust.

For thou woost not today that thou shalt live tomorewe,
Therfore do thou evere weel, and thanne shalt thou not sorewe.

It were full joyful and swete lordship to have,
If so that lordship miyite a man fro deeth save.

But, for as miche a man muste die at the laste,
It is no worship but a charge lordship to taste.

Calle nothing thine owen, therfore, that thou maist her lese:
That the world hath lent thee, eft he wolde it sese!

Sette thine herte in Heven above and thenke what joye is there,
And thus to despise the world I rede that thou lere.

This is a fifteenth-century English translation of a medieval Latin poem known as 'Cur mundus militat'. The ideas and images of the poem are extremely common, found in countless medieval texts - the world is transient, earthly joy is fickle, even great men die, Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?, and so on. I suppose all we can credit this English poet with are the rhymes, which are sometimes right on the border between genius and tenuous (especially 'writen in th'is/full of sinne is'). Nonetheless, there's a directness about this poem which appeals to me.

Here's a picture of one manuscript of this poem; it survives in numerous manuscripts (there's a list here), which indicates the popularity of this kind of thing in the Middle Ages. You have to admit the poem has a point: if even Tullius (Cicero) and Aristotle are no more, it says, what hope for the rest of us?

The text above is taken from Medieval English Lyrics, ed. R. T. Davies (London, 1978), pp. 173-5. This is my modernised version:

Why is the world beloved, which false is and vain,
When its wealth is so uncertain? [unstable]

As soon slideth its power away
As doth a brittle pot that is fresh and gay.

Trust ye rather to letters written in the ice
Than to this wretched world, that full of sin is.

It is false in its promises and right deceitful;
It hath beguiled many men, it is so unstable.

It is better to believe the wavering wind
Than the changeable world, that maketh men so blind.

Whether thou sleep or wake thou shalt find it false,
Both in its business and in its pleasures als. [also]

Tell me, where is Solomon, at one time a king rich? [great]
Or Samson in his strength, to whom no man was like? [equal]

Or the fair man, Absalom, so beautiful in chere? [appearance]
Or the duke, Jonathan, a well-beloved fere? [friend]

What has become of Caesar, who was lord of all?
Or the rich man clothed in purple and in pall?

Tell me where is Tullius, in eloquence so sweet?
Or Aristotle the philosopher with his wit so great?

Where are these worthies who were here before?
Both kings and bishops, their power is all loren. [lost]

All these great princes with their power so high
Are vanished away in the twinkling of an eye.

The joy of this wretched world is a short feast:
It is likened to a shadow that abideth the least.

And yet it draweth man from heavenly bliss,
And oft-time maketh him to sin and do amiss.

Thou that art but worm's meat, powder and dust,
To enrich thyself in pride set not thy lust.

For thou knowest not today that thou shalt live tomorrow;
Therefore do thou ever well, and then shalt thou not sorrow.

It would be full joyful and sweet lordship to have,
If it could be that lordship might a man from death save.

But, for as much as a man must die at the last,
It is no honour, but a burden, lordship to taste.

Call nothing thine own, therefore, that thou mayest here lose:
What the world hath lent thee, back he will it seize!

Set thine heart in Heaven above and think what joy is there;
And thus to despise the world I advise that thou lere. [learn]

In a similar vein, see the rest of my series 'On Transience':
Where beth they biforen us weren?
Erthe oute of erthe is wondirly wroghte
'Think on yesterday'
'This world fareth as a fantasy'

Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one

A bit more John Donne - one of the Holy Sonnets.

Oh, to vex me, contraryes meet in one:
Inconstancy unnaturally hath begott
A constant habit; that when I would not
I change in vowes, and in devotione.
As humorous is my contritione
As my prophane Love, and as soone forgott:
As ridlingly distemper'd, cold and hott,
As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.
I durst not view heaven yesterday; and to day
In prayers, and flattering speaches I court God:
To morrow I quake with true feare of his rod.
So my devout fitts come and go away
Like a fantistique Ague: save that here
Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare.

Saturday 28 January 2012

John Donne's 'A Hymn to Christ'

Every time I think I know the canon of John Donne all through, I read something that surprises me. I don't know how I missed this one, his 'A Hymn to Christ', written "at the author's last going into Germany".

That journey was apparently in 1619. The editor in that link also calls attention to the double meaning in the lines, "Thou lov'st not, till from loving more, thou free / My soule" - Ann More being the name of Donne's wife, who had died two years previously. Donne famously plays on her name and his own in this poem.

The going overseas theme, and the tension between forced and self-sought separations, rather reminds me of this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, though perhaps that's just me being literalistic. That poem is about Hopkins' exile (as he felt it) in Ireland, the period in which he wrote the so-called 'terrible sonnets'; and there's something terrible about this Donne poem too, in the true sense of the word - he seeks to divorce himself from all other loves in order to find the love of God, to sever himself from every earthly attachment by voluntarily choosing a state he refers to as winter, darkness, everlasting night. It's very bleak, really.

A Hymn to Christ, at the Author's last going into Germany

In what torne ship soever I embarke,
That ship shall be my embleme of thy Arke;
What sea soever swallow mee, that flood
Shall be to mee an embleme of thy blood;
Though thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face; yet through that maske I know those eyes,
Which, though they turne away sometimes,
They never will despise.

I sacrifice this Iland unto thee,
And all whom I lov'd there, and who lov'd mee;
When I have put our seas twixt them and mee,
Put thou thy sea betwixt my sinnes and thee.
As the trees sap doth seeke the root below
In winter, in my winter now I goe,
Where none but thee, th'Eternall root
Of true Love I may know.

Nor thou nor thy religion dost controule,
The amorousnesse of an harmonious Soule,
But thou would'st have that love thy selfe: As thou
Art jealous, Lord, so I am jealous now,
Thou lov'st not, till from loving more, thou free
My soule: Who ever gives, takes libertie:
O, if thou car'st not whom I love
Alas, thou lov'st not mee.

Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All,
On whom those fainter beames of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee
On Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.
Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I goe out of sight:
And to scape stormy dayes, I chuse
An Everlasting night.


Posting this was not just an excuse to include pictures of 'churches with least light' - that was just a bonus (from the top: Canterbury Cathedral, Doddington, Ickham).

Friday 27 January 2012

'That evre spenth and ever is iliche'

Alfred not practising what he preached

A mini-homily from the Middle English debate poem The Owl and the Nightingale, on the dangers of excess and the value of moderation:

Vor hit is soþ, Alvred hit seide,
And me hit mai ine boke rede:
‘Evrich þing mai losen his godhede
Mid unmeþe and mid overdede.’
Mid este þu þe mi3t overquatie,
And overfulle makeþ wlatie;
An evrich mure3þe mai agon
3if me hit halt evre forþ in on,
Bute one, þat is Godes riche,
Þat evre is swete and evre iliche.
Þe3 þu nime evere of þan lepe
Hit is evere ful bi hepe.
Wunder hit is of Godes riche
Þat evre spenþ and ever is iliche.

A rough translation:

For it is true, Alfred said it,
And you can read in books about it:
‘Any thing may its value lose
With immoderation and overuse.’
Of good things you can have too much;
To stuff yourself makes for digust;
And every mirth can pass away
If it all goes on in the same way,
Except for one: the kingdom of God,
Which is ever sweet and ever as good.
Whatever you take from that store,
It only overflows the more.
O marvel of the kingdom of God,
Ever giving, ever just as good!

[More literally: 'Because it is true - Alfred spoke about it, and it can be read in books - "Everything may lose its value through lack of moderation and 'overdoing it'." You can glut yourself with pleasure, and surfeit makes you sick. Every joy can fade if you always go on with it in the same way, except for one: that is the kingdom of God, which is always sweet and always equally good. Even if you kept taking constantly from that basket, it would always be full to overflowing. It is a wondrous feature of the kingdom of God that is ever giving forth, and yet is ever unchanged.']

Thursday 26 January 2012

St Eysteinn (again)

This is a repost from last year - since I recently honoured an Icelandic saint and a Danish one, it's time for a Norwegian to get some credit!

So, who knows anything interesting about the Norwegian archbishop St Eysteinn, whose feast day is today? I do! 'Interesting' is relative, I suppose. But anyway, it's more interesting than anything in that 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 have always been strong links between the English and Norwegian churches, 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 Sverri 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 (excommunicating 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 recorded by the chronicler of that house, Jocelin of Brakelond, who was a monk there during Eysteinn's visit. He probably went to Canterbury too, to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, and most likely he also visited Henry II - who was probably in the mood to be nice to persecuted archbishops, and 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 pretty obvious. The English chronicler William of Newburgh (in Yorkshire) says that Sverri, "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 Sverri, and died peacefully enough in 1188.

These pictures show two scenes from the life of Thomas Becket, from a medieval alabaster altarpiece at Elham, Kent (the top one a modern recreation). Eysteinn would have appreciated them.

The Ideal Scholar

The real Clerk of Oxford

This was the OT reading at Evensong last night (Ecclesiasticus 39.1-10); I suppose we all aspire to be like this! A description of the wise man:

He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables; he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs and is at home with the obscurities of parables. He serves among the great and appears before rulers; he travels in foreign lands and learns what is good and evil in the human lot. He sets his heart on rising early to seek the Lord who made him, and to petition the Most High; he opens his mouth in prayer and asks pardon for his sins.

If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding; he will pour forth words of wisdom of his own and give thanks to the Lord in prayer. The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge, as he meditates on his mysteries. He will show the wisdom of what he has learned, and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant. Many will praise his understanding; it will never be blotted out. His memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations. Nations will speak of his wisdom, and the congregation will proclaim his praise.

"Preserving the sayings of the famous and penetrating the subtleties of parables" is what I try to do around here, even if in practice it really just means helping the googling student with their English homework, or to find some mildly amusing medieval riddles...

Wednesday 25 January 2012

St Anselm and Bertrand Russell and the Proof of God

St Anselm, from this window in Canterbury Cathedral

This is a snippet from one of the most illuminating books ever written about medieval history, R. W. Southern's Saint Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought 1059-c.1130, published in 1966. It's an account of Anselm of Canterbury and the Canterbury monk Eadmer, his close friend and admirer, who wrote Anselm's biography (and many other things besides). This little extract exemplifies, to me, one of the best virtues of traditional scholarship: to have such a broad range of reference that you can make connections across time and space - or, to put it rather inelegantly, to have the power of remembering that every 'yesterday' was some real person's 'today'.

Of Anselm’s ontological proof of God, Southern observes:

"Whether it is true or false, nothing is more surprising than the way in which this proof has united, at least temporarily, men of the most diverse temperaments and outlooks – a tenuous link across vast seas of spiritual difference. Among living philosophers none is perhaps further removed from Anselm in outlook, though perhaps not so far in qualities of mind, than he who remembers:

the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: ‘Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.'
"Leave out Trinity Lane, the tobacco and the ‘Great Scott’ (delightful evocation of an age more remote in spirit than the eleventh century) and substitute Bec, Matins and Deo gratias, and it was just so that the argument came to Anselm in 1078:

Behold, one night during Matins, the grace of God shone in his heart and the matter became clear to his understanding, filling his whole being with immense joy and jubilation."

R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm and his Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought 1059-c.1130 (Cambridge, 1966), p.58.

The philosopher in question is Bertrand Russell, as I would not have known without Google. I do like that Southern felt 1890s Cambridge to be 'more remote in spirit' from 1966 than eleventh-century Normandy; I often feel the same way about the 1960s.

St Anselm on the tomb of Archbishop Henry Chicele in Canterbury Cathedral

Mary Morison

I think we'd better have a little Robert Burns, since it's his birthday (in my time zone). All my exposure to Burns comes from sitting alone at a piano and reading through great big volumes called things like 'Songs of the North', learning to play and sing the songs before I had any idea who Burns was; and so for me he's all about the gentle love songs, and knowledge of the rest of his prolific career came second. So here's a love song - one of my favourites.

One consequence of being self-taught in this haphazard fashion is that I'm ridiculously fussy about the many, many recordings of Burns songs out there in the world, because when you learn to play something entirely in your own way, nothing else ever sounds quite right! But this poem is not quite the same without its tune, and so after sifting through lots of youtube videos I've decided I like this performance.

O Mary, at thy window be,
It is the wish'd, the trysted hour!
Those smiles and glances let me see
That make the miser's treasure poor:
How blythely wad I bide the stoure,
A weary slave frae sun to sun,
Could I the rich reward secure,
The lovely Mary Morison.

Yestreen, when to the trembling string
The dance gaed thro' the lighted ha',
To thee my fancy took its wing,—
I sat, but neither heard nor saw:
Tho' this was fair, and that was braw,
And yon the toast of a' the town,
I sigh'd, and said amang them a',
"Ye are na Mary Morison."

O Mary, canst thou wreck his peace
Wha for thy sake wad gladly dee?
Or canst thou break that heart of his,
Whase only faut is loving thee?
If love for love thou wilt na gie,
At least be pity to me shown;
A thought ungentle canna be
The thought o' Mary Morison.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Random Church Picture: An Angel's Wing

From the east window of the little church of St Catherine's, Kingsdown, designed by Edward Welby Pugin and built in 1866, the church from which these stained-glass apostles also come. You can probably tell it's a Resurrection scene; for some reason these wings make me think not just of birds' wings but of organ pipes...

Sunday 22 January 2012

But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?

This poem goes with Dover Beach, I think - the irresponsive sounding of the sea...

Christina Rossetti

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me:--
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof, bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? What hand thy hand?
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seem'd not so far to seek,
And all the world and I seem'd much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong, and life itself not weak.

O sola magnarum urbium: Various Translations

Lambent light in Canterbury Cathedral

'O sola magnarum urbium' is a Latin hymn by Prudentius (384-c.413), sung at Lauds during the Epiphany season. It's best known in English in the translation by Edward Caswall, 'Bethlehem of noblest cities', but there are lots of other translations; this ever-helpful site lists a number of them, and from that list and elsewhere I've compiled a group. I find it interesting to compare translations of the same hymn, almost all of which, in this case, date from the nineteenth century; you see a number of different styles and approaches to translation, especially to the challenge of rendering the original's compact imagery into the narrow confines of a four-line stanza.

First here's the Latin (from here):

1. O sola magnarum urbium
maior Bethlehem, cui contigit
ducem salutis caelitus
incorporatum gignere.

2. Haec stella, quae solis rotam
vincit decore ac lumine,
venisse terris nuntiat
cum carne terrestri Deum.

3. Videre postquam illum Magi,
eoa promunt munera:
stratique votis offerunt
thus, myrrham, et aurum regium.

4. Regem Deumque annuntiant
thesaurus, et fragrans odor
thuris Sabaei, ac myrrheus
pulvis sepulchrum praedocet.

5. Iesu, tibi sit gloria,
qui apparuisti gentibus,
cum Patre, et almo Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula.

Here's my stab at a literal unpoetic translation:

1. O uniquely-honoured Bethlehem, greater than the great cities, to whom it was given to bring forth from heaven the Lord of salvation in incarnate form.

2. This star, which surpasses the wheel of the sun in beauty and brightness, announces to the nations that God has come, in earthly flesh.

3. The Magi, seeing him, bring forth their Eastern gifts and, kneeling, offer their prayers, incense, myrrh, and royal gold.

4. Gold announces him to be King; the fragrant odour of the incense of Saba, to be God; myrrh foreshadows the dust of the grave.

5. Jesus, who appeared to the Gentiles, glory to Thee, with the Father and the Spirit, world without end.

The basics established, we can move on to something more poetic! Let's start with Caswall, as the most famous rendering:

1. Bethlehem! of noblest cities
None can once with thee compare;
Thou alone the Lord from heaven
Didst for us Incarnate bear.

2. Fairer than the sun at morning
Was the star that told His birth;
To the lands their God announcing,
Hid beneath a form of earth.

3. By its lambent beauty guided,
See the eastern kings appear;
See them bend, their gifts to offer-
Gifts of incense, gold, and myrrh.

4. Solemn things of mystic meaning!-
Incense doth the God disclose;
Gold a royal Child proclaimeth;
Myrrh a future tomb foreshows.

5. Holy Jesu, in Thy brightness
To the Gentile world displayed,
With the Father and the Spirit,
Endless praise to Thee be paid.

My favourite thing about this version is the word 'lambent', which (from the Latin lambere, 'to lick') means 'playing lightly upon or gliding over a surface without burning it, like a ‘tongue of fire’; shining with a soft clear light and without fierce heat' (in the OED's words) and thus, of a star, 'emitting, or suffused with, a soft clear light; softly radiant.' A lovely choice of word!

Another version of Caswall's translation exists, lacking in lambency:

1. Earth has many a noble city;
Bethlehem, thou dost all excel;
Out of thee the Lord from heaven
Came to rule His Israel.

2. Fairer than the sun at morning
Was the star that told His birth,
To the world its God announcing
Seen in fleshly form on earth.

3. Eastern sages at His cradle
Make oblations rich and rare;
See them give, in deep devotion,
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.

4. Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
Incense doth their God disclose,
Gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
Myrrh His sepulchre foreshows.

5. Jesu, whom the Gentiles worshipped
At Thy glad Epiphany,
Unto Thee, with God the Father
And the Spirit, glory be.

Here's another version by the hymnwriter Elizabeth Charles (Mrs Rundle Charles), from her book of hymn translations, Te Deum Laudamus: Christian Life in Song, first published in 1858, p.111:

1. Small among cities, Bethlehem,
Yet far in greatness passing them;
He who shall King and Saviour be,
The Infinite, is born in thee.

2. That radiant star, which hath the sun
In beauty and in light outshone,
Proclaims that God has come to earth
In mortal flesh, of human birth.

3. The Magi, guided by that star,
Their Eastern offerings bring from far,
Prostrate, with vows, their gifts unfold,
Myrrh, frankincense, and royal gold.

4. Treasures and perfumes rich they bring,
Meet tributes for the God and King;
Embalming frankincense and myrrh
Foretell the mortal sepulchre.

(Prudentius' original has only four verses, without a doxology, which is why this and some other translations only have four). I like this translation; verse 2's "In beauty and in light outshone" nicely preserves the Latin "vincit decore ac lumine", which Caswall does not attempt.

Here's an earlier translation, from this book, The Catholic Harp: containing the morning and evening service of the Catholic Church, embracing a choice collection of masses, litanies, psalms, sacred hymns, anthems, versicles, and motifs, ed. Philip A. Kirk (New York, 1830), p.78:

1. Let other cities strive, which most
Can of their strength or heroes boast;
Beth'lem alone is chosen to be
The seat of heav'n-born majesty.

2. Led by the star, the sages ran
To own their King both God and Man;
And with their incense, myrrh and gold
The mysteries of their vows unfold.

3. To God the censer's smoke ascends;
The gold the sov'reign King attends;
In myrrh the bitter type we see
Of suff''ring and mortality.

4. To Christ who did the Gentiles call,
Be endless glory giv'n by all;
To God the Father we repeat
The same, and to the Paraclete.

The first verse is nice - a less literal but more poetic translation than some of the other examples.

The next translation is by Henry Trend, published in Lyra Messianica: Hymns and Verses on the Life of Christ, Ancient and Modern, with Other Poems, ed. Orby Shipley (London, 1864), pp.161-2:

1. The noblest cities upon earth
Must yield, O Bethlehem, to thee;
'Twas thine to give mysterious Birth
To Christ, the Incarnate Deity.

2. More glorious than the Sun at morn,
Thy Herald-Star its rays unfurled,
Proclaiming that the Babe was born
Whose Power should save a dying world.

3. Drawn by its guiding light from far,
The Sages at His Cradle meet,
With Gold, and Frankincense, and Myrrh
To worship at His sacred Feet.

4. Nor vain their mystic Offering -
The Incense owned the Child as God;
The Gold did homage to the King;
The Myrrh His Death and Burial showed.

I'm not convinced that a star can 'unfurl' its rays, nor exactly sure about the sacred feet...

Here's a good one, by C. E. Maiden and W. Quennell:

1. Earth hath many a mighty city;
Bethlehem, mightier thy renown,
Where the Captain of Salvation,
Christ, the Incarnate Lord, came down.

2. Brighter than the noon-day splendour
Rose the star that shewed His birth,
To the world its God announcing
Came in human flesh to earth.

3. Wise men from the east behold Him,
And their treasured gifts unfold,
Offering Him, in deep devotion,
Frankincense, and myrrh, and gold.

4. For their God the fragrant incense;
Gold, the tribute for a King;
Myrrh, His precious death foreshadowing,
For His sepulchre they bring.

5. Jesu, Lord, Who then to Gentiles
Didst Thy presence manifest,
With the Father and the Spirit,
Glory be to Thee addressed. Amen.

I like the phrase 'Captain of Salvation', an unusual touch.

The next translation is distinguished by the super-classical pre-modern use of 'car' - guaranteed to confuse a modern congregation! - and by the word 'Magians', which is an unusual term for 'magi' but which does date back to at least the Book of Common Prayer (according to the OED). This version is by Richard Mant, Bishop of Down and Connor, in Ancient Hymns, from the Roman Breviary, for Domestick Use (London, 1837), p.42:

1. First of cities, Bethlehem,
Hail, most favour'd! When he came,
Saviour of the human race,
Thee the Godhead deign'd to grace.

2. Brighter than the sun's bright car,
And more glorious was the star,
Which in Thee new-born from high
Told the incarnate Deity.

3. Him what time the Magians saw,
Forth their orient gifts they draw;
Prostrate they with vows unfold
Myrrh, and frankincense, and gold.

4. Frankincense and gold they bring
To announce their God and King;
Spice of aromatic myrrh
To announce his sepulchre.

5. Jesus, let thy name be blest,
To the Gentiles manifest;
To the Father glory be,
With the Spirit, and with Thee!

The final translation is one which especially appeals to me, and not only because it can be sung to that wonderful tune 'The Truth from Above'. Internet sources say that it's a composite translation and credit no single author, which is a shame. Though not very literal, it has some nice features, especially the first verse and the phrase 'conscious skies' - what a lovely way to put it!

1. O chief of cities, Bethlehem,
Of David’s crown the fairest gem,
But more to us than David’s name,
In you, as man, the Saviour came.

2. Beyond the sun in splendour bright,
Above you stands a wondrous light
Proclaiming from the conscious skies
That here, in flesh, the Godhead lies.

3. The wise men, seeing Him so fair,
Bow low before Him, and with prayer
Their treasured eastern gifts unfold
Of incense, myrrh, and royal gold.

4. The golden tribute owns Him King,
But frankincense to God they bring,
And last, prophetic sign, with myrrh,
They shadow forth His sepulchre.

5. O Jesus, whom the Gentiles see,
With Father, Spirit, One in Three:
To You, O God, be glory giv’n
By saints on earth and saints in Heav’n.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Where they need no star to guide,/ Where no clouds Thy glory hide

Epiphany window by Burne-Jones in Winchester Cathedral

Catching up on this week's Choral Evensong from Winchester Cathedral reminded me that it's still Epiphanytide, of course. So here's an Epiphany hymn - I think my favourite (competing only with this). Apparently some people find it boring (fools!), but to my taste the parallelism of the 'as... so...' clauses in verses 1-3 is supremely elegant, understated, and beautiful; and verse 4 and 5 are superb. It's poetry, not 'just' a hymn. You don't even notice the demanding rhyme scheme, he makes it look so easy.

The author of this hymn is William Chatterton Dix, who also wrote 'What child is this?', 'Alleluia, sing to Jesus', 'Come unto me, ye weary', and this harvest hymn. That's a pretty good list. According to the unquestionable authority of a cursory google search, he seems to have written many of his hymns in his twenties, while confined to his bed with a severe illness and serious depression. I wonder if you can see any of that reflected in the last line of verse 4.

The tune adds substantially to this hymn's charms.

1. As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold,
As with joy they hailed its light
Leading onward, beaming bright,
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led to Thee.

2. As with joyful steps they sped
To that lowly manger bed,
There to bend the knee before
Him whom heaven and earth adore,
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy seat.

3. As they offered gifts most rare
At that manger rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin's alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King.

4. Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.

5. In the heavenly country bright,
Need they no created light;
Thou its light, its joy, its crown,
Thou its sun which goes not down;
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King.

The introduction to Choral Evensong welcomed the listener to Winchester Cathedral thus: "in this place where the mortal remains of many of our Saxon kings rest. Epiphany in Winchester reminds us of the Christian inspiration of monarchy that built our nation". I liked that, of course; and it makes a nice excuse to post this Winchester picture of 'kings [and one or two queens] coming to the brightness of thy rising'.

Parishioners and Troublesome Priests at Fordwich

Stained glass from Fordwich - note the lion!

I've been reading a charming book today: A History of the Town and Port of Fordwich, written in 1895 by a clergyman named C. Eveleigh Woodruff. I intend to post about lovely little Fordwich in the next few days with some more extracts from this book, which is full of great snippets - but for now just let me bring to your attention these amusing stories about trouble between priest and parishioners.

The first dates from 1577. In that year the parish complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury about their rector, William Smith, claiming:

We say that our parson cometh to the Ale house, then he goeth home and falleth out wyth his wife unhonestly.

The charges against Smith were dismissed, but he clearly continued to have problems with his parishioners: around the same time he appealed against John Elmer, one of the church's sidesmen, "for that he called him knave and cock-brayned foole". Ouch!

Just over a century later, in 1713, the vicar was a man named John Nicholls. This incident happened when Nicholls was in his previous post as vicar of Sheldwich:

He was engaged to preach a course of sermons in Selling Church during a vacancy in that benefice. He chose for his subject the history of Joseph, and continued to discourse thereon for five Sundays. The agreement with the Churchwardens was that he should receive ten shillings per sermon, but the authorities did not approve of this perpetual harping upon one string; accordingly Churchwarden Hogben, meeting the preacher after Church, made answer to the enquiry as to whether his services would be required again, "Why no Sir I think not; I have given you fifty shillings for carrying Joseph into Egypt, and I will not give you ten shillings more to bring him back again."

Five Sundays! That poor congregation. Nicholls was a supporter of Queen Anne, and upon the accession of George I in 1714 he preached a pointed sermon at Fordwich against the new king. He might have thought that in his sleepy church no one would object, but he was reported to the authorities by Colonel Short, the inhabitant of the Manor House, and suspended. In time he was returned to his post:

but does not appear to have forgiven Colonel Short for his share in the matter, for on that worthy’s decease, in 1716, the wrong evidently still rankled, and in the parish register the following remarkable entry appears – ‘Buried Samuel Short Esquier and Informer!’.

Nicholls was also involved in a dispute with a parishioner named Thomas Jennings, and when Jennings’ daughter was baptised the Rector made the following note in the register:

Dorothy daughter of Thomas and Susan Jennings baptised, to whom I pray God grant more grace than he has given to the parents.

For all this Nicholls was apparently popular in the town and was twice elected mayor, the only Rector of Fordwich to hold that post. One of his daughters married an ancestor of the author of this book, Mr Woodruff, and the other daughter Catherine married a man named Thomas Mantell of Chilham (presumably a relative of this fellow). Fordwich is now a redundant church, without a vicar; I assume not because its previous incumbants were so difficult to get on with!

All quotations from C. Eveleigh Woodruff, A History of the Town and Port of Fordwich, with a transcription of the XVth century copy of the Custumal (Canterbury: Cross and Jackman, 1895).

Thursday 19 January 2012

Oxford Interviews: Not That Much Fun

OK, I'll bite. Normally when stories about Oxford interviews appear in the national press I just roll my eyes and turn the page, because they're always inaccurate, irrelevent and, most of all, boring. They always go the same way:

Someone rejected by Oxford: Oxford is elitist!
Oxford (feebly protesting, but usually shouted down): We're not elitist, we take lots of state school kids and do lots of outreach...
Rejectee: Oxford is elitist!
Uninformed audience concludes: Oxford is elitist.

So I tried to ignore this story which is in the news about a kid who wrote a 'rejection letter' to Magdalen College after being interviewed there; all over my facebook page Oxford students are protesting that Oxford isn't elitist and she's just bitter, and it's all the same argument as usual. Her letter is indeed fairly silly and pretty badly-written (heaven defend us from teenagers who think they can be witty!) but she obviously has a flair for self-publicity, so good luck to her.

The thing that got to me about this story, and which made me unable to ignore it, is that I too was interviewed at Magdalen College, more than eight years ago now. It was the most miserable experience of my life. Magdalen is a beautiful place and the person who interviewed me is, I now know, an extremely talented literary scholar; but I have never, ever felt as unhappy and lonely and lost as I was after that interview, and so I do think this girl, silly as her letter is, raises a useful point.

Oxford interviews are often not much fun. The letter-writer complains that the college took it too seriously, but that isn't the problem; it's a serious matter, and it's quite right that tutors who conduct interviews should take the responsibility of it very seriously indeed. They work hard to make sure they choose the right students for their college. But it's important to remember that not every student who is bright enough to be at Oxford is the right fit for every college, and that quickly becomes apparent at interview. It is heart-wrenching to be in an ancient, venerable institution which by reputation you already love (Magdalen, home of C. S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde, my teenage self's ill-assorted heroes!) and to which you sorely want to belong - and yet to find out that the people there are not like you; you don't belong there, and they know it as well as you do. I didn't belong there; I still don't, even now, eight years later, with my First Class Honours from Oxford, my Master's degree, and my soon-to-be-obtained doctorate. I'm not listing those things to boast - I'm using them to suggest that it's not about academic ability. I'm very glad I didn't get into Magdalen, but was accepted by another college, and have been at Oxford ever since. I've been happy; I've done well. I still think I would have been miserable at Magdalen.

I don't blame Magdalen for this. I blame my state school, who didn't have the faintest idea how to prepare me for the interview; I blame myself, for being so shy and awkward; and I blame Oxford, a little, for perpetuating the fiction that all colleges are the same and that it doesn't really matter which one you apply to. That's simply not true. Magdalen, because it's famous and beautiful, attracts a high number of applicants and is thus statistically harder to get into. I wish someone had told me that when I applied. Furthermore, from my experience of Oxford over the past nine years, I have also seen that Magdalen has a college culture in which extremely self-confident people particularly shine. There's nothing wrong with either of those facts, but the truth is that not all old, beautiful colleges are like that, and if I'd known a single thing about the Oxford admissions process I would never have applied to Magdalen in a million years. It's just a bad fit for me.

If you find this post because you're a state school pupil who wants to go to Oxford, take heart: if you love learning and you want to enjoy everything Oxford has to offer, you really can do that. I dreamed about going to Oxford all through my teenage years, but it always seemed more or less impossible for someone like me. My unhappiness at my first encounter with Magdalen was the misery of disappointed love and a shattered dream; but nothing since that has disappointed me here, and it has been better than my best dreams. I love Oxford and I am immensely grateful for my time here - though everything about its way of life baffles the people I went to school with!

If you come here, you will not be discriminated against in any way. But it's a big university and you will like some parts of it more than others. There's no point pretending that you won't meet people who make you feel bad about yourself - even without meaning to - because a lot of the people here are extremely intelligent, prosperous, confident, beautiful and happy. That's the nature of the place. If you're lucky, it will teach you to learn how to value yourself at your real worth - to see what you have that other people don't, and to understand how to use it. If you can learn how to distinguish between what is important and what merely claims to be important, you'll gain more from your time here than a degree with an impressive name.

P.S. I really think that demystifying the differences between colleges would help a lot in giving people unfamiliar with Oxford a fair chance in the applications process. So, these are some of the colleges at which I think I, as a shy, academically-minded state-school-educated eighteen-year-old, would have been happy (I'm not saying anything specifically against the others - I don't have experience of them all - but these are where I would think first of applying to now):

In my experience it's hands down the most friendly and welcoming college in Oxford.


Lady Margaret Hall




St Anne's

St Hilda's
The college who took me when Magdalen wouldn't, and who gave me a positive, generous, encouraging experience at my interview.


My advice would be to at least look at those before you check out the big, intimidating colleges, at least if you're as much of a wuss as teenage me was.

P.P.S. This girl has a point in complaining they didn't give her a glass of water. Those tiny things count. I still remember how it nearly made me burst into tears when one of the scouts at Magdalen was kind to me, while the academics were so distant. It was very cold that winter, and I was huddled up under a duvet in the room they'd allocated me, freezing and desperately trying to cram for the interview; I can't remember what she said, but she was sympathetic and gently kind, human. A smile like hers from the person who interviewed me would have made worlds of difference.

St Canute: England and Denmark in the Days Before TV

Danish chic at Jelling, in the church founded by St Cnut's
great-great-grandfather Harald Bluetooth in 965

Denmark is cool these days. With the arrival of the political drama Borgen on British TV (it's the West Wing! But in Danish!), various articles have pondered why Denmark is so appealing to English viewers - and the answer, according to the Guardian, is because love of Scandinavia is "a pretty good bellwether for British middle-class homebound taste". Well, no one knows more about the middle class than the Guardian, so we must accept this judgement.

The basis for this theory, reasonably enough for a TV review, goes back only as far as World War II, but England and Denmark have a long, pre-television history which is sort of my specialist subject (well, it's meant to be). Today is the feast-day of Cnut IV, Denmark's first canonised saint, who helps to exemplify it.

Cnut was the great-nephew of his namesake Cnut the Awesome - er, I mean, Cnut the Great, who united England and Denmark (and Norway and Sweden and Scotland, sort of) in a single North Sea Empire, under his rule, from 1018-1035. Sadly this empire didn't survive his death and the general rubbishness of his sons, and by the accession of Edward the Confessor, only seven years after Cnut's death, England and Denmark were severed once more.

That didn't stop the Danish kings, first Cnut's nephew Svein Estrithson and then his many sons, from taking an interest in the English throne, and hoping they might get it back again. Svein apparently declined the opportunity to invade England in 1066, unlike just about every other king in Northern Europe; but in 1069, when the rule of William the Conqueror was looking distinctly unstable, Svein sent his brother and three of his sons, including the future saint Cnut, on an exploratory raid on the east coast of England. They joined up with English rebels led by Waltheof and occupied York for several days; if they'd held out a bit longer they might have triumphed, and the Norman Conquest would have been only a three-year blip in English history.

But the loose coalition between them fell apart (as Borgen shows us coalitions are wont to do) and the Danes sailed away again, pausing only to accept some of the spoils of Peterborough Abbey as plundered by Hereward the Wake. I didn't say they were the good guys. Svein's sons had another go at teaming up with Waltheof in 1075, but it didn't work any better (some stories say William the Conqueror bribed Svein's brother to stay away, infuriating the Danish king. Maybe he promised to build him a motorway.)

Anyway, time passed, Svein died, his son Harald took the throne, Harald died, and then Cnut became king in 1080. His time was occupied by various rebellions, but he didn't lose interest in England: in 1085 he gathered a fleet to invade, which apparently worried William the Conqueror quite a bit, but a threat from Germany distracted Cnut's attention and the fleet never set sail.

The following year, Cnut was murdered during an uprising while taking refuge in a church. Like many kings killed in such a way, he was soon considered a martyr and a saint. By 1101 he had been officially canonised - fast work for those days! (It took Wulfstan of Worcester, today's other saint, more than a hundred years. In the process, Cnut's name was transformed into Canute because of the Pope's inability to pronounce the one-syllable version - a problem we all sympathise with...)

I said Cnut hadn't lost interest in England - and England hadn't lost interest in him. From its early days the veneration of him as a saint was supported by English monks, mostly from the abbey of Evesham in Worcestershire. The priory at Odense, where Cnut was killed, had been founded by English monks and dedicated to St Alban, and throughout the twelfth century it remained in close communication with both Evesham and St Mary's in York (which had been founded by a Dane, Earl Siward of Northumbria, in 1055).

A twelfth-century document says that at that time any Evesham monk was allowed to live at Odense for as long as he wished, and vice versa. We can name at least one man who did so: the first person to write a Life of St Cnut was an Englishman named Ælnoth, a monk educated at Canterbury, who had lived in Denmark for twenty-four years when he wrote his Vita.

The Peterborough Chronicle records Cnut's death thus:

Swa hit wæs on Denemearcan þet þa Dænescan, þe wæs ærur geteald eallra folca getreowast, wurdon awende to þære meste untriwðe 7 to þam mæsten swicdome þe æfre mihte gewurðan: hi gecuran 7 abugan to Cnute cynge 7 him aðas sworon, 7 syððan hine earhlice ofslogon innan anre cyrcean.

So it happened in Denmark that the Danes, who have always been considered the most trustworthy of people, turned to the greatest betrayal and the worst treachery which could be: they chose and accepted Cnut as king and swore oaths to him, and afterwards they shamefully slew him in a church.

You might wonder why a Peterborough monk of the late eleventh century, after three hundred years of Viking attacks, would think of the Danes as 'the most trustworthy of people'. There's a long answer to that question involving settlement patterns and trading routes and Beowulf and the development of national and regional identity in England; but let's go for the short answer: Denmark is cool.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Mirie it is

Rain beating on the windows made me think of this little song.

It dates from the early thirteenth century and survives, with its original music, on a single leaf of parchment which was bound into another manuscript. You can see a picture of the leaf here on the Bodleian website (not the side with this song, but the other side of the page, which has two songs in French). It looks like it's faced some violent weather indeed...

Mirie it is while sumer y-last
With fugheles son
Oc nu neheth windes blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this nicht is long!
And ich with wel michel wrong
Soregh and murne and fast.

Merry it is while summer lasts
With birds' song;
But now draws near the wind's blast
And weather strong.
Ei, ei, what, this night is long!
And I with very great wrong
Sorrow and mourn and fast.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Good and Bad Dickens News from the BBC

Good Dickens news: I just discovered this project, in which a BBC journalist promises to post one line of Dickens every weekday for a year. Although I am extremely jealous that someone else - and not me - is getting paid to read Dickens and pick out the best bits (most fun job in the world? I think so), I still really like the idea and will be watching his selections with interest. He seems to be beginning with The Pickwick Papers, which I re-read over Christmas and which is indeed full of brilliant jokes - besides all the Wellerisms (he quotes one of my favourites: 'He wants you partickler; and no one else'll do, as the devil's private secretary said ven he fetched avay Doctor Faustus"), a line I remember fondly is a character feeling "as much out of his element as a dolphin in a sentry-box"... Oh, Dickens.

And as a medievalist, I love this episode, a warning to the foolish antiquarian:

It was at this moment that Mr. Pickwick made that immortal discovery, which has been the pride and boast of his friends, and the envy of every antiquarian in this or any other country. They had passed the door of their inn, and walked a little way down the village, before they recollected the precise spot in which it stood. As they turned back, Mr. Pickwick's eye fell upon a small broken stone, partially buried in the ground, in front of a cottage door. He paused.

'This is very strange,' said Mr. Pickwick.

'What is strange?' inquired Mr. Tupman, staring eagerly at every object near him, but the right one. 'God bless me, what's the matter?'

This last was an ejaculation of irrepressible astonishment, occasioned by seeing Mr. Pickwick, in his enthusiasm for discovery, fall on his knees before the little stone, and commence wiping the dust off it with his pocket-handkerchief.

'There is an inscription here,' said Mr. Pickwick.

'Is it possible?' said Mr. Tupman.

'I can discern,'continued Mr. Pickwick, rubbing away with all his might, and gazing intently through his spectacles—'I can discern a cross, and a 13, and then a T. This is important,' continued Mr. Pickwick, starting up. 'This is some very old inscription, existing perhaps long before the ancient alms-houses in this place. It must not be lost.'

He tapped at the cottage door. A labouring man opened it.

'Do you know how this stone came here, my friend?' inquired the benevolent Mr. Pickwick.

'No, I doan't, Sir,' replied the man civilly. 'It was here long afore I was born, or any on us.'

Mr. Pickwick glanced triumphantly at his companion.

'You—you—are not particularly attached to it, I dare say,' said Mr. Pickwick, trembling with anxiety. 'You wouldn't mind selling it, now?'

'Ah! but who'd buy it?' inquired the man, with an expression of face which he probably meant to be very cunning.

'I'll give you ten shillings for it, at once,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'if you would take it up for me.'

The astonishment of the village may be easily imagined, when (the little stone having been raised with one wrench of a spade) Mr. Pickwick, by dint of great personal exertion, bore it with his own hands to the inn, and after having carefully washed it, deposited it on the table.

The exultation and joy of the Pickwickians knew no bounds, when their patience and assiduity, their washing and scraping, were crowned with success. The stone was uneven and broken, and the letters were straggling and irregular, but the following fragment of an inscription was clearly to be deciphered:—

S. M.

Mr. Pickwick's eyes sparkled with delight, as he sat and gloated over the treasure he had discovered. He had attained one of the greatest objects of his ambition. In a county known to abound in the remains of the early ages; in a village in which there still existed some memorials of the olden time, he—he, the chairman of the Pickwick Club—had discovered a strange and curious inscription of unquestionable antiquity, which had wholly escaped the observation of the many learned men who had preceded him. He could hardly trust the evidence of his senses.


It appears from the Transactions of the Club, then, that Mr. Pickwick lectured upon the discovery at a General Club Meeting, convened on the night succeeding their return, and entered into a variety of ingenious and erudite speculations on the meaning of the inscription. It also appears that a skilful artist executed a faithful delineation of the curiosity, which was engraven on stone, and presented to the Royal Antiquarian Society, and other learned bodies: that heart-burnings and jealousies without number were created by rival controversies which were penned upon the subject; and that Mr. Pickwick himself wrote a pamphlet, containing ninety-six pages of very small print, and twenty-seven different readings of the inscription: that three old gentlemen cut off their eldest sons with a shilling a-piece for presuming to doubt the antiquity of the fragment; and that one enthusiastic individual cut himself off prematurely, in despair at being unable to fathom its meaning: that Mr. Pickwick was elected an honorary member of seventeen native and foreign societies, for making the discovery: that none of the seventeen could make anything of it; but that all the seventeen agreed it was very extraordinary.

Mr. Blotton, indeed—and the name will be doomed to the undying contempt of those who cultivate the mysterious and the sublime—Mr. Blotton, we say, with the doubt and cavilling peculiar to vulgar minds, presumed to state a view of the case, as degrading as ridiculous. Mr. Blotton, with a mean desire to tarnish the lustre of the immortal name of Pickwick, actually undertook a journey to Cobham in person, and on his return, sarcastically observed in an oration at the club, that he had seen the man from whom the stone was purchased; that the man presumed the stone to be ancient, but solemnly denied the antiquity of the inscription—inasmuch as he represented it to have been rudely carved by himself in an idle mood, and to display letters intended to bear neither more or less than the simple construction of—'BILL STUMPS, HIS MARK'; and that Mr. Stumps, being little in the habit of original composition, and more accustomed to be guided by the sound of words than by the strict rules of orthography, had omitted the concluding 'L' of his Christian name.

The Pickwick Club (as might have been expected from so enlightened an institution) received this statement with the contempt it deserved, expelled the presumptuous and ill-conditioned Blotton from the society, and voted Mr. Pickwick a pair of gold spectacles, in token of their confidence and approbation: in return for which, Mr. Pickwick caused a portrait of himself to be painted, and hung up in the club room.

Mr. Blotton was ejected but not conquered. He also wrote a pamphlet, addressed to the seventeen learned societies, native and foreign, containing a repetition of the statement he had already made, and rather more than half intimating his opinion that the seventeen learned societies were so many 'humbugs.' Hereupon, the virtuous indignation of the seventeen learned societies being roused, several fresh pamphlets appeared; the foreign learned societies corresponded with the native learned societies; the native learned societies translated the pamphlets of the foreign learned societies into English; the foreign learned societies translated the pamphlets of the native learned societies into all sorts of languages; and thus commenced that celebrated scientific discussion so well known to all men, as the Pickwick controversy.

But this base attempt to injure Mr. Pickwick recoiled upon the head of its calumnious author. The seventeen learned societies unanimously voted the presumptuous Blotton an ignorant meddler, and forthwith set to work upon more treatises than ever. And to this day the stone remains, an illegible monument of Mr. Pickwick's greatness, and a lasting trophy to the littleness of his enemies.

So very true...

Oh, but the Bad News: there's no sign of the wonderful new adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood being released on DVD! Bad, bad BBC. The rather feeble Great Expectations which was also on this Christmas is already available, but not the far superior Edwin Drood - a drama for grown-ups, subtle and dark and intelligent, and full of wonderful music and Rochester Cathedral. What more could you want in a TV programme? Only for it to be available on DVD...

ETA: It is apparently now available on DVD in the US - but not in the UK. Well, that's annoying.