Saturday 31 March 2012

A Hymn to God the Father

This is the anniversary of the death in 1631 of John Donne, and after pondering for a little which poem to post in his honour, I decided on one of his most famous, 'A Hymn to God the Father' - mostly because of what Izaak Walton says of this poem in his Life of Dr John Donne:

I have the rather mentioned this Hymn, for that he caused it to be set to a most grave and solemn tune, and to be often sung to the organ by the Choristers of St. Paul’s Church, in his own hearing; especially at the Evening Service; and at his return from his customary devotions in that place, did occasionally say to a friend, "the words of this Hymn have restored to me the same thoughts of joy that possessed my soul in my sickness, when I composed it. And, O the power of church-music! that harmony added to this Hymn has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude; and I observe that I always return from paying this public duty of prayer and praise to God, with an unexpressible tranquility of mind, and a willingness to leave the world."

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Christ in the Desert

In the Wilderness
Robert Graves

Christ of His gentleness
Thirsting and hungering,
Walked in the wilderness;
Soft words of grace He spoke
Unto lost desert-folk
That listened wondering.
He heard the bitterns call
From ruined palace-wall,
Answered them brotherly.
He held communion
With the she-pelican
Of lonely piety.
Basilisk, cockatrice,
Flocked to his homilies,
With mail of dread device,
With monstrous barbéd slings,
With eager dragon-eyes;
Great rats on leather wings
And poor blind broken things,
Foul in their miseries.
And ever with Him went,
Of all His wanderings
Comrade, with ragged coat,
Gaunt ribs—poor innocent—
Bleeding foot, burning throat,
The guileless old scapegoat;
For forty nights and days
Followed in Jesus’ ways,
Sure guard behind Him kept,
Tears like a lover wept.

Monday 26 March 2012

The Annunciation: Ecce ancilla domini

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire

"Ecce ancilla domini,"
Seid tho virgin withouten vice,
When Gabriell hur gret graciously,
That holy pinakell preved of price,
"Of thee schall springe a full swete spice."
Then seid the meydon full mildely,
"And sithen I am of so litill of price,
Ecce ancilla domini."

"Heil be thou, gracious withouten gilte,
Meydon borne alderbest!
Within thy body schall be fulfilled
That all these prophetes han preched so preste;
God will be borne within thy brest."
Then seide tho meydon full mildely,
"To me he schall be a welcome geste;
Ecce ancilla domini."

Bot when sche sawe an angell bright,
Sche was aferde in all her thoght,
And of his speche elles wonder sche might.
Then seide tho angell, "Drede thee noght!
A blestful tithinge I have thee broght."
Then seide tho meydon full mildely,
"As God will, so be it wroght;
Ecce ancilla domini."

That angell seide, "Conceive thou schalt
Within thy body bright
A childe that Jesu schall be called,
That is grate Goddes son of might.
Thou art his tabernakull idight."
Then seide tho meydon full mildely,
"Sethen he seide never ayeyns right,
Ecce ancilla domini."

"Call him Jesu of Nazareth,
God and mon in on degree;
Right as mon schall suffur dethe
And regne in David dignite.
A blestfull worde he sende to thee."
Then seide tho meydon full mildely,
"He schall be dere welcum to me;
Ecce ancilla domini."

"Bot with mannes mode never I mette;
Now, lorde, how schall I go with childe?"
Then seide tho angell that her grett,
"With none suche thou schalt be filede:
The holy goste will in thee bildon."
Then seide tho meydon full mildely,
"As God wille, so be it done,
Ecce ancilla domini."

When tho angell was vanesched awey,
Sche stode al in hur thoght,
And to herselfe sche can sey,
"All Goddes wille schall be wroght;
For he is well of all witte,
As witnesses welle his story."
At that worde knot was knitte:
"Ecce ancilla domini."

Medieval stained glass from St Winnow, Cornwall

This beautiful poem about the Annunciation comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.3.1. Here's a modernised version:

"Ecce ancilla domini,"
Said the virgin without a vice,
When Gabriel her greeted graciously,
That holy pinacle of proven price,
"From thee shall spring a full sweet spice."
Then said the maiden full mildly,
"Then since I am so little of price, [so lowly]
Ecce ancilla domini."

"Hail be thou, gracious without guilt,
Of all maids born the very best!
Within thy body shall be fulfilled
What all the prophets have preached so preste; [eagerly]
God will be born within thy breast."
Then said the maiden full mildly,
"To me he shall be a welcome guest;
Ecce ancilla domini."

But when she saw an angel bright,
She was afraid in all her thought,
And of his speech well wonder she might.
Then said the angel, "Dread thee naught!
A blessed tiding I have thee brought."
Then said the maiden full mildly,
"As God wills, so be it wrought;
Ecce ancilla domini."

That angel said, "Conceive thou shalt
Within thy body bright
A child who Jesu shall be called,
Who is great God's own son of might.
Thou art his tabernacle idight." [made]
Then said the maiden full mildly,
"Since he said never else but right,
Ecce ancilla domini."

"Call him Jesu of Nazareth,
God and man in one degree;
He as a man shall suffer death
And reign in David's dignity.
A blessed word he sends to thee."
Then said the maiden full mildly,
"He shall be dearly welcome to me;
Ecce ancilla domini."

"But with man's dealings never I met;
Now, lord, how shall I go with child?"
Then said the angel who her gret, [greeted]
"With nothing such shalt thou be defiled:
The Holy Ghost will in thee dwell."
Then said the maiden full mildly,
"As God wills, so be it done,
Ecce ancilla domini."

When the angel was vanished away,
She stood all in her thought,
And to herself she then did say,
"All God's will shall be wrought;
For he is well of all witte, [the source of all wisdom]
As witnesses well his story."
At that word the knot was knit:
"Ecce ancilla domini."

I think the last verse is my favourite: 'at that word the knot was knit' is a wonderful way of expressing what happened at the crucial moment of Mary's consent, the moment when heaven and earth, man and God are knit together in the tiny 'knot' of a child in Mary's womb. But the whole thing is exquisite, with some especially skillful use of alliteration. To make a dialogue of a fairly brief Biblical scene, the poet has given Mary some lovely lines to say in response to the angel: "To me he shall be a welcome guest" and "He shall be dearly welcome to me" are both beautiful.

For more Middle English Annunciation poems, see also 'Nu this fules singet', 'Gabriel fram evene king', 'There is a floure', and lots more here.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Christe qui lux es et dies

English and Latin versions of this hymn in an Anglo-Saxon hymnal (BL Cotton Vespasian D XII, f. 13)

'O Christ who art the light and day' is a hymn for Compline often sung during Lent, so it seems appropriate to post some medieval English versions of it in this season. You can read some information about the history of the hymn here; it was already in existence, and prescribed for use at Compline, by the end of the fifth century. As the manuscript above shows, it was known in Anglo-Saxon England; it's mentioned in St Æthelwold's rule for his reformed monastery at Winchester in the tenth century, to be sung at Compline, the service Anglo-Saxon monks called nihtsang (night song).

Here's the Latin, a beautiful plea for peace and protection through the dark watches of the night:

1. Christe qui lux es et dies,
Noctis tenebras detegis,
Lucisque lumen crederis,
Lumen beatum praedicans.

2. Precamur sancte Domine,
Defende nos in hac nocte,
Sit nobis in te requies,
Quietam noctem tribue.

3. Ne gravis somnus irruat,
Nec hostis nos surripiat,
Nec caro illi consentiens,
Nos tibi reos statuat.

4. Oculi somnum capiant,
Cor ad te semper vigilet,
Dextera tua protegat
Famulos qui te diligunt.

5. Defensor noster aspice,
Insidiantes reprime,
Guberna tuos famulos,
Quos sanguine mercatus es.

6. Memento nostri Domine
In gravi isto corpore,
Qui es defensor animae,
Adesto nobis Domine.

7. Deo Patri sit gloria,
Eiusque soli Filio,
Cum Spiritu Paraclito,
Et nunc et in perpetuum. Amen.

You can see a literal Modern English translation side-by-side with the Latin here, and hear the chant in William Byrd's setting of the hymn (sung in English):

The translation sung here, probably the one most used today, is based on a version by W. J. Copeland ("always known as one of the best Latin scholars at Oxford", according to his wikipedia article. Well, all right then.):

1. O Christ, who art the Light and Day,
Thou drivest darksome night away;
We know thee as the Light of light
Illuminating mortal sight.

2. All holy Lord, we pray to thee,
Keep us tonight from danger free;
Grant us, dear Lord, in thee to rest,
So be our sleep in quiet blessed.

3. Let not the tempter round us creep
With thoughts of evil while we sleep,
Nor with his wiles the flesh allure
And make us in thy sight impure.

4. And while the eyes soft slumber take,
Still be the heart to thee awake,
Be thy right hand upheld above
Thy servants resting in thy love.

5. Yea, our Defender, be thou nigh,
To bid the powers of darkness fly;
Keep us from sin, and guide for good
Thy servants purchased by thy blood.

6. Remember us, dear Lord, we pray,
While in this mortal flesh we stay:
'Tis thou who dost the soul defend
Be present with us to the end.

7. Blest Three in One and One in Three,
Almighty God, we pray to thee,
That thou wouldst now vouchsafe to bless
Our fast with fruits of righteousness.

There are, however, numerous medieval translations of the hymn into English which predate this by many centuries. It was evidently a popular hymn, though most likely none of the following translations were intended to be sung - they're for personal, not liturgical use.

There's actually sort of an Old English translation of this hymn, in that glossed interlinear versions of the Latin text exist in eleventh-century manuscripts; you can see one above, and another is online here. They're interesting to read and would be a good way to learn Old English if you already knew Latin (which, vice versa, is partly the point!). Theoretically you could extract the Latin and be left with a very literal Old English paraphrase - nothing like what an Anglo-Saxon poet would actually have come up with in setting out to translate this hymn into verse, but a useful experiment nonetheless:

Eala O þu Crist, þu þe leoht eart & dæg,
neahte þeostru þu ofer helast
& leohtes leoht þu eart gelyfed
leoht eadig bodiende.

We biddaþ, O eala, þu halga drihten,
bewere us on þissere nyhte
sy us on þe rest
gedyfe nihte forgyf.

þæt ne hefi slæp onhreose
þæt ne feond us undercreope
þæt ne flæsc him giðafigende
us þe scyldige gesette.

Eagan slæp underfon
heorte to ðe æfre wacige
swiðra þin gescilde
þeowan þa ðe þe lufigað

Bewerigend ure beseoh
þa serwiendan ofþrice
begem þine þenas
þa ðe mid blode þa gebohtest

Gemun þu ure, O eala ðu Domine
on swarran þisum lichoman
þa ðe eart bewerigend sawle
ætbeo þu us drihten.

Gode fæder sy wuldor.

There are phrases here which might be recognisable even if you know no Old English: þu þe leoht eart & dæg 'thou who light art and day'; leohtes leoht þu eart gelyfed 'light's light thou art believed'; heorte to ðe æfre wacige '[be our] hearts to thee ever waking'; þa ðe mid blode þa gebohtest 'to those whom you bought with blood'. It doesn't require much of a leap to guess what the petition þæt ne feond us undercreope means, either...

To move into the more comprehensible sphere of late Middle English verse, jumping forward about three hundred years, I learned from an article by R. H. Robbins ('Middle English Versions of "Christe qui lux es et dies" in The Harvard Theological Review 47 (1954), 55-63), that this hymn was a very popular one. Robbins observes that there are more Middle English translations of this hymn than of any other - eight different versions of it survive (in case the statistics interest you as they do me, the next most popular hymn is 'Ave Maris Stella' with six surviving versions; then there are three each of 'Alma redemptoris mater', 'Hostis Herodes impie', and 'Vexilla regis prodeunt'. I've previously posted some translations of 'Ave Maris Stella', 'Hostis Herodis' and 'Vexilla Regis'.)

Robbins includes two versions of 'Christe qui lux es' in his article. Here's the one I liked best, from British Library, Harley 665:

Cryst, that art bothe lyght and day,
Derkenesse of nyght thou doyst away,
Lyght of lyght men may thee say,
A blysfull lyght prechyng us ay.

We pray thee, holy Lord of myght,
Kepe us thys nyght from wycked wyght;
Oure rest in thee be rewlyd with ryght,
And grawnt us all an esy nyght.

No grevous sclepe ayens us be;
The fynd thou make fro us fle,
That neuer the flesch asseutyd be
To make us gilty, Lord, to thee.

Oure eyen take sclepe unto thy pay, [as may please thee]
Our hert wake to thee alleway,
Thy ryght hand defende hem ay,
Thy servantys that thee love and pray.

Behold to us, defender god,
Put down oure enmys wyld and wood, [mad, frenzied]
Thou governe hem that bawghtyst on rood,
Lord Jesu, with thy swete blode.

Have mynd on us, thou Lord so dere,
In thys heavy body here,
Thou that savest mannys sowle fro where, [danger, peril]
When we haue nede thou be us nere.

Lovyng unto that fader be,
And to his commely soon so fre,
Wyth the holy gost, one god the three
Now and ay, Amen say we.

I like 'Amen say we'! And also 'grant us an easy night', where 'easy' means 'restful, comfortable'. The reference to our 'heavy body' evokes not just the weightiness of solid mortal flesh, but also the sleepiness anyone praying this hymn might be feeling as bedtime approaches. Compline hymns and prayers do tend to have a beautiful lullaby-like quality, calming and soothing the restless heart in preparation for sleep. 

With only a few tweaks, this is actually singable to the chant, should one be so inclined:

O Christ, who art both light and day,
Darkness of night thou dost away,
The light of light men may thee say,
A blissful light preaching us ay.

We pray thee, holy Lord of might,
Keep us this night from wicked wight;
Our rest in thee be ruled with right,
And grant us all an easy night.

No grievous sleep against us be;
The fiend thou make from us to flee,
That never flesh assailed be
To make us guilty, Lord, to thee.

Our eyes take sleep until the day,
Our heart awake to thee alway,
With thy right hand defend them ay,
Thy servants that thee love and pray.

Behold us now, defender good,
Put down our enemies wild and wood,
Govern them that thou bought'st on rood,
Lord Jesu, with thy sweet blood.

Have mind on us, Lord so dear,
In this heavy body here,
Thou that savest man’s soul from fear,
When we have need be to us near.

All laud unto the Father be,
And to his comely Son so free,
The Holy Ghost, one God the Three
Now and ay, Amen say we.

The other Middle English version I liked is not exactly a translation, but a looser poetic rendering of the text with Latin lines mixed in. It's by the Bury St Edmunds monk John Lydgate, whose work has featured on this blog just once before. The following poem is a modernised version of the text which can be found here:

Christ, that art both day and light,
And soothfast sun of all gladness,
Who dost away darkness of night,
And sovereign light of all brightness
Believed art in soothfastness,
Preaching this blissful light of peace,
Be our succour in all distress,
Criste qui lux es & dies.

O holy Lord, to thee we pray,
In this night thou us defend,
Against all foes that us werraye, [attack]
Be thou quiet, our life tamende, [calming]
And thy grace to us thou send
With night's rest in unity,
In thy service our life to spend
Precamur sancte domine.

That us no grievous sleep oppress,
Nor that our foe us undermine,
Nor that our flesh to frowardness
Assent, the spirit to incline,
For to bring it to ruin,
Thee to guilt through their debate,
But let thy grace on us shine
Ne grauis sompnis irruat.

Let our eyes rest take,
Only through thy benigne grace,
That the spirit ever awake
Thee for to serve each hour and space,
And when our foemen us menace
Let thy right hand, as thou art wont,
Defend thy servants in every place,
Dum oculi sompnum capiunt.

Our champion, see and behold,
Our waiting enemies thou repress,
Govern thy servants young and old,
Of thy mercy and thy goodness,
Whom thou boughtest in great distress
With thy holy blood most free,
And that the fiend us nought oppress
Defensor noster aspice.

Thou benigne Lord, on us remember
In this grievous body here,
Keep and preserve us, every member,
Since thou boughtest us so dear,
Who art defence, as books leere, [teach]
Of the soul through thy pity,
For which in mischief both far and near
Memento nostri domine.

To God the Father honour and glory,
And to his only Son also;
Worship, with heart and whole memory,
Also to the Holy Ghost be done,
Equal with the first two,
Both three and one per secula,
For which we sing in joy and woe
Deo patri sit gloria.

To close with another setting of the text, this is by Robert White (c. 1538-1574):

My faithful fond one

I thought I'd posted this pretty little song before, but since I haven't, here it is. The words of 'My faithful fond one' are translated from the Gaelic ('Mo Run Geal Dileas') by 'Professor Blackie' (you can read those here); this is how they appear in Songs of the North. Here's the sole performance on youtube, but it looks like Percy Grainger also set it - I must investigate this further...

My fair and rare one, my faithful fond one,
My faithful fair, wilt not come to me,
On bed of pain here who remain here
With weary longing for a sight of thee?

If wings were mine now to skim the brine now,
And like a seagull to float me free,
To Islay's shore now, they'd bear me o'er now,
Where dwells the maiden that is dear to me.

O were I yonder with her to wander
Beneath the green hills, beside the sea,
With birds in chorus that warble o'er us
And ruth of kisses so sweet to me.

For let the sky here be wet or dry here,
With peaceful breeze here or windy war,
In winter glooming or summer blooming,
'Tis all one season, love, when thou art far.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Death of St Benedict

St Benedict on the front of Norwich Cathedral, opposite Julian of Norwich

Benedictus se halga Abbud on ðisum andwerdum dæge gewat of ðisum deadlicum life to ðam ecan, ðe he ær deoplice mid haligre drohtnunge geearnode.

'Benedict, the holy Abbot, on this present day departed from this mortal life to the eternal, which he had thoroughly merited by his holy conduct.'

So begins Ælfric's sermon on the life of St Benedict, and since that's exactly how I would have begun my post, I thought I might as well let him say it (Ælfric would have made a great blogger!). 'This present day', March 21, is indeed the date of the death of St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. Recently I've been spending a large part of my life with the Benedictine monks of tenth and eleventh century England, and so in honour of today I had a look at Ælfric's sermon, which can be read online here. I've previously posted the extract which deals with Benedict's sister St Scholastica here.

In his homily Ælfric gives a summary account of Benedict's life, based closely on the much longer narrative in Gregory the Great's Dialogues (which you can read here). Although such a faithful translation, Ælfric's sermon is worth reading in its own right - if nothing else, for a few nice points of Old English religious language: for instance, he describes Benedict as Godes dyrling, 'God's darling' (translating 'dilectus Domino'). And I always like to note the appearance of the word leorningcniht, which means 'disciple, boy engaged in study' - this was the usual Old English word used to translate 'disciple', including in translations of the Gospels. It's only an accident of language history that means we don't talk about 'Christ's learning-knights' today. I also like Ælfric's wording of the description of the monastic Rule: he says the Rule was written mid micclum gesceade, mid beorhtre spræce, 'with great power of distinction, with bright language'.

Ælfric expresses his admiration for St Benedict in various places, including in his sermon for New Year's Day, where he gives his opinion that St Benedict's day in March ought to be the first day of the year - since it was the day on which time was created, and "the earth shows by the shoots which are then quickened again that this is the time which should most rightly be the year’s beginning". The importance of St Benedict in Anglo-Saxon England is well illustrated by this depiction of him, from a Psalter produced at Christ Church, Canterbury, between 1012 and 1023 (BL Arundel 155, f. 133). It shows Benedict, enthroned, with an abbot's staff in his hand, and the hand of God descending from above; the inscription around his head reads 'Sanctus Benedictus pater monachorum et dux', 'St Benedict, father and leader of monks'. A monk is holding a copy of St Benedict's Rule, and at his feet another monk - usually identified as the scribe who wrote this manuscript, Eadui Basan - humbly prostrates himself before the saint.

Here's an extract from the end of Ælfric's sermon, telling of Benedict's last miracle and his death:

Eft on oðrum timan, stod se halga wer on his gebedum uppon anre upflora, þær his bedd inne wæs: þa gestod he æt anum eh-ðyrle oð forð nihtes, þone Ælmihtigan God biddende; þa færlice asprang micel leoht beorhtre ðonne ænig dæg, swa þæt se halga wer oferseah ealne middaneard, and ofseah betwux ðam micclum leoman lædan mid engla werode anes biscopes sawle to heofenum; his nama wæs Germanus. Ða wolde se halga habban him gewitan þære wunderlican gesihðe, and ofclypode his diacon him hrædlice to, and he geseah sumne dæl þæs leohtes. Þa sende se halga wer swyftne ærendracan to þæs biscopes ceastre, þæt he sceolde geaxian hwæðer he lifes wære. Se ærendraca ða hine gemette deadne, and smealice ymbe his forðsið befran, and geaxode ða, þæt he on ðære tide gewat ðe se halga Benedictus his sawle to heofenan ferian geseah.

Wunderlic gesihð, þæt an deadlic man mihte ealne middaneard oferseon; þæh gif se man gesihð Godes leoht, þonne bið þæt gesceaft swiðe nearu geðuht, and ðæs mannes sawl bið on Gode mid þam leohte tospræd, swa þæt heo oferstihð middaneard, and eac hi sylfe. Hwilc wundor wæs, ðeah se halga wer ealne middaneard ætforan him gesawe, ðaða he wæs ahafen on his modes leohte ofer middanearde? Witodlice þæt leoht þe he wiðutan geseah wæs on his mode scinende, and his mod to ðam upplican abræd, and him æteowode hu nearowe ealle ða niðerlican gesceafta him wæron geðuhte, þurh ormætnysse þæs godcundlican leohtes.
Another time, the holy man was standing at his prayers on an upper floor, where his bed was. He stood there at a window until far in the night, praying to Almighty God, when suddenly a great light sprang up, brighter than any day, so that the holy man could see across all the world, and he perceived amid the great light the soul of a bishop being led with a company of angels to heaven. His name was Germanus. The saint wanted to have witnesses to that wondrous sight, and he quickly called his deacon to him, and he saw a part of the light. Then the holy man sent a swift messenger to the bishop's city, so that he could find out whether he was alive. The messenger found that he was dead. He asked all about the details of his death, and learned that he departed at that time when the holy Benedict saw his soul carried to heaven.

A wonderful sight, for a mortal man to be able to see across all the world! But when a man sees the light of God, then creation will seem very small, and his soul is spread out within that light, in God, so that it rises above the world and above itself also. What wonder was it that the holy man saw all the world before him, when he was raised up in his mind's light above the world? Truly, the light which he saw outwardly was shining in his mind, and drew up his mind to heaven, and showed him how small all creatures below would appear to him in the immensity of the divine light.

Benedict, in a window celebrating the Benedictine tradition at Norwich Cathedral
Þes eadiga wer Benedictus awrat muneca regol mid micclum gesceade, mid beorhtre spræce, on ðam mæg gehwa tocnawan ealle dæda his lareowdomes; forðan ðe se halga swa leofode swa he tæhte. Se eadiga wæs bliðe on andwlitan, mid hwitum hærum, fægere gehiwod, and mid micelre lufe on mode afylled, swa þæt he on heofonlicum eðle eardigende wæs, þeah ðe he on eorðan ða-gyt wunode. Þæs geares ðe he gewat he cyðde his forðsið on ær sumum his leorningcnihtum mid him drohtnigendum and sumum oðrum on fyrlenum stowum wunigendum. Seofon nihtum ær he gewite, he het his byrgene geopenian, and he ðærrihte mid swiðlicum fefore geond ða seofon niht þearle gedreht wearð. On ðam sixtan dæge his legeres he het hine beran into cyrcan, and þær hine gehuslian. He ða astod betwux his gebroðra handum, astrehtum handum wið heofonas weard, and betwux his gebedum his gast ut-ableow. On ðam ylcan dæge wearð aeteowod his twam leorning-cnihtum an weg fram ðam huse þe he on gewat, on ðam east-dæle, astreht oð heofonan. Se weg wæs mid pællum gebricgod, and mid ungerimum leohtfatum scinende. Ðær on uppon stod sum arwurðe wer mid beorhtum gyrlum, axigende hwæs se weg wære þe hi beheoldon? Hi cwædon þæt hi nyston. Þa cwaeð se engel him to, “Ðis is se weg ðe Godes dyrling, Benedictus, to heofenum on-astah.”
This blessed man Benedict wrote the rule of monks with great power of distinction, in lucid language, in which every one may recognise all the acts of his teaching – for the saint lived just as he taught. The blessed man was cheerful in appearance, with white hair, fair in body, and in mind filled with great love, so that he was living in the heavenly realm although he still dwelt on earth. The year that he departed he made known his death in advance to some of his disciples who were living with him, and to some others dwelling in distant places. Seven days before he died he ordered his tomb to be opened, and he was at once greatly afflicted with a severe fever throughout those seven days. On the sixth day of his illness he commanded them to carry him into the church, and there to give him the Eucharist. He then stood between the hands of his brothers, with hands outstretched towards heaven, and between his prayers he breathed out his spirit.

On the same day there appeared to two of his disciples a path from the building in which he died, on the east side, reaching up to heaven. The way was laid with palls and shining with numberless lights. On it there stood a venerable man with bright garments, asking what path it was that they beheld. They said that they did not know. The angel said to them, “This is the path by which God's darling, Benedict, ascended to heaven.”

Hwa mæg on worulde ealle ða wundra gereccan ðe se Ælmihtiga Scyppend, ðurh ðisne æðelan wer, middanearde geswutelode? Sy him wuldor and lof a on ecnysse, mid eallum his halgum, seðe ana is unasecgendlic God. Amen.

Who in this world can relate all the wonders that the Almighty Creator, through this noble man, has shown to the earth? To Him be glory and praise for ever through eternity with all his saints, who alone is ineffable God. Amen.

Westminster Cathedral

Monday 19 March 2012

Two Songs for St Joseph

St Joseph, from the church of All Saints, Freshwater, Isle of Wight

Last year on St Joseph's day I posted one of the many 'doubting Joseph' folk carols, and here are two more related-but-distinct examples from that popular genre. The number of surviving versions of the theme (in which we have to include the Coventry Mystery plays) attests to the fact that it was of widespread interest at least from the fifteenth century onwards. The Cherry Tree Carol is probably the most famous song in this sub-genre, and there are approximately ten million versions of it on youtube, choral and folky and everything in between. In terms of measuring the popularity of a song, the number of youtube iterations is the modern equivalent of the number of surviving broadsides or manuscripts! This is one I especially like:

(If you like that, have a look at Kerfuffle's 2009 album 'Lighten the Dark: A Midwinter Album', which has equally lovely versions of other traditional carols).

This is a good resource on the history of the Cherry Tree Carol, which also quotes the relevant dialogue from the Coventry Mysteries. I don't really have anything to add, except that some versions of the Cherry Tree Carol end with dialogue between Mary and the infant Christ which it's interesting to compare to more extended medieval treatments of the same scene, like this or this. I said in the first of those posts that "The idea of a baby who is childish enough to insist on being sung to, but who can yet predict his own life and death, seems to get right to the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation", and while that's in one way an absurdly bold statement (for which I apologise!) it is also true of the 'doubting Joseph' songs, which have the same homely-yet-profound approach to the mystery of the Virgin Birth. This is a concept which people today have a hard time grasping, and I'd venture this has probably always been the case; part of the appeal of songs like the Cherry Tree Carol is that through focusing on the very human figure of Joseph, they approach this difficult idea in domesticated, familiarised terms.

Speaking of domesticating the Holy Family, the carol I really want to post for St Joseph's day is less well-known than the Cherry Tree Carol, at least judging from the fact that I could only find one version on youtube:

This is a carol essentially constructed by Vaughan Williams, in that both tune and words are traditional, but he put them together and omitted ten of the original sixteen verses. The tune was collected at Weobley at Herefordshire, a pretty village which I visited a few years ago:

The words sung to this tune by Mrs Esther Smith at Weobley were, in Vaughan Williams' opinion, "full of the rather unpleasant imagery which is characteristic of much of the eighteenth-century evangelistic verse" (they were 'There is a fountain'), and so as not to waste the tune he replaced them with the much nicer 'Joseph and Mary' verses, a selection from this text (I think verse 10 is my favourite!):

1. Joseph being an aged man truly,
He married a Virgin fair and free,
A purer Virgin could no man see
Than he chose for his wife and dearest dear.

2. The Virgin was pure there was no nay,
The Angel Gabriel to her did say,
"Thou shalt conceive a Child this day,
The which shall be our dearest dear."

3. The Angel no sooner this message said
But all in his heart she was afraid;
"How may this be, and I a pure maid?
Say then to me, my dearest dear."

4. "The Holy Ghost, Mary, shall come unto thee,
The power of it shall overshadow thee,
And thou shalt bear a Son truly,
The which shall be our dearest dear."

5. Joseph being a perfect mild man,
Perceiving that Mary with child was gone,
Said, "Tell to me, Mary, and do not frown,
Who hath done this, my dearest dear?"

6. Then answered Mary meek and mild:
"I know no Father unto my Child
But the Holy Ghost, and I undefiled,
That hath done this, my dearest dear."

7. But Joseph thinking her most unjust,
Yielding her body to unlawful lust,
Out of his house he thought for to thrust
His own true love, his dearest dear.

8. But whilst in heart he thought the same,
The Angel Gabriel to him came,
As he lay sleeping on a frame,
Still dreaming on his dearest dear.

9. Who said, "Fear not to take to thee
Thy true and faithful wife Mary;
Most true and faithful is she to thee,
Then turn not away thy dearest dear."

10. When Joseph arose from his sleep so sound,
His love to Mary did more abound,
He would not for ten thousand pound
Forsake his love and dearest dear.

11. They lived both in joy and bliss,
But now a strict commandment is,
In Jewry land no man should miss
To go along with his dearest dear,

12. Unto the place where he was born,
Unto the Emperor to be sworn,
To pay a tribute that is duly known,
Both for himself and his dearest dear.

13. And when they were to Bethlehem come,
The inns were filled both all and some,
For Joseph entreated them every one,
But could get no bed for his dearest dear.

14. Then were they constrained presently
Within a stable all night to lie,
Where they did oxen and asses tie
With his true love and his dearest dear.

15. The Virgin pure thought it no scorn
To lie in such a place forlorn,
But against the next morning our Saviour was born,
Even Jesus Christ, our dearest dear.

16. The King of all power in Bethlehem born,
Who wore for our sakes a crown of thorn;
Then God preserve us both even and morn,
For Jesus' sake, our dearest dear.

The wedding of Mary and Joseph, from (The Beheading of) St John the Baptist, Doddington

Sunday 18 March 2012

A Mothers' Day Carol

Today is Mid-Lent Sunday or Laetare Sunday or 'Refreshment Sunday', the day when Lenten discipline is relaxed a little. In England it's also Mothering Sunday (for the history of which, see here), and the Oxford Book of Carols includes a sweet little modern carol in honour of this (semi-)medieval tradition, 'It is the day of all the year'.

Various places on the internet will tell you this is a medieval carol, but it's not - it was written by George Hare Leonard, a writer and historian, in the first part of the twentieth century. It's a nice bit of medieval revivalism, and it is sung to a medieval tune - that of the fifteenth-century German carol, 'Ich weiss ein lieblich Engelspiel' ('I know a lovely angel-game'), which you can hear here (at 2:48):

(If you're like me, you can't hear the name of that carol without thinking of the Chalet School's Christmas plays and Joey Bettany's 'golden voice' reducing everyone to tears...)

The Oxford Book of Carols editors have this mouth-watering note:

"'He who goes a-mothering finds violets in the lane' [this is a proverb]. In many parts of the country it was the custom for the children of the family who had left the old home to come back to visit their Mother on the 4th Sunday in Lent (Mid-Lent Sunday). The eldest son would bring a wheaten cake - in modern times a plum cake with an icing of sugar, or a simnel-cake. Sometimes cinnamon comfits ("lambs'-tails") or little white sugar-plums with a carraway seed, or some morsel of spice within - such as may still be found at country fairs - were brought for an offering. One of the children home for the day would stay in and mind the house, so that the mother should be free for once to attend morning service at the church."

Perhaps we could also name today Sugar-Plum Sunday.

It is the day of all the year,
Of all the year the one day,
When I shall see my mother dear
And bring her cheer,
A-mothering on Sunday.

So I'll put on my Sunday coat,
And in my hat a feather,
And get the lines I writ by rote,
With many a note,
That I've a-strung together.

And now to fetch my wheaten cake
To fetch it from the baker,
He promised me, for mother's sake,
The best he'd bake
For me to fetch and take her.

Well have I known, as I went by
One hollow lane, that none day
I'd fail to find - for all they're shy -
Where violets lie,
As I went home on Sunday.

My sister Jane is waiting-maid
Along with Squire's lady;
And year by year her part she's played
And home she stayed
To get the dinner ready.

For mother’ll come to Church you'll see-
Of all the year it's the day-
'The one,' she'll say, 'that's made for me'
And so it be:
It's every Mother's free day.

The boys will all come home from town
Not one will miss that one day;
And every maid will bustle down
To show her gown,
A-mothering on Sunday.

It is the day of all the year,
Of all the year the one day;
And here come I, my mother dear,
And bring you cheer,
A-mothering on Sunday.

Saturday 17 March 2012

How to Choose an Archbishop of Canterbury

Since Rowan Williams has announced that he is to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury for the doubtless much more congenial atmosphere of a Cambridge college, the speculation about his successor has begun. Just as being Archbishop of Canterbury has always been a difficult job, choosing one has always been a matter of factions and politics (you may find this a comforting thought if you find church politics as depressing as I do). For instance, William of Malmesbury gives a detailed and near-contemporary account of the debate about the election of a successor to Anselm, who died in 1109. With the passage of nearly 900 years, this kind of thing becomes amusing rather than disheartening!

Henry I took five years to get around to the business of appointing a new archbishop, for motives William impugns:

After Anselm of venerable memory had escaped the captivity of his body of clay and bidden farewell to this life, his see was vacant for a full five years... All this time, whenever the king was warned to look to the widowhood of his mother the church, he put his advisors off with a bland reply: the archbishops sent by his father and brother [i.e. Lanfranc and Anselm, chosen by William I and William II respectively] had been of high quality, and he was unwilling to fall short of the good fortune of his relatives; there was therefore need of careful consideration to make sure he put in place an archbishop who equalled or came near to the virtues of his predecessors.

Replies like this seemed entirely lawful and proper, but a pile of money kept the king's mind happy, and cured the unease with which others regarded the delay. Finally, when he could not put it off any longer without almost irremediable scandal, the king assembled a council at Windsor, intending to bring the matter to a conclusion.

Amusingly, in the process of revision William emended this last paragraph to: "Replies like this seemed entirely lawful and proper, and indeed they were. So after long and anxious discussion, the king assembled a council..." Do you believe him? I don't!

[The king's] intention was that the choice should fall upon Faricius abbot of Abingdon, a man of great severity, together with remarkable energy in carrying through his plans. The king, however, did not insist on having his own way, at least in the choice of archbishop, and left it to the decision of the meeting as a whole. Here and on other occasions he, as is well known, displayed remarkable self-control; but as for the bishops, it will make a difference to them at the Last Judgement in what spirit they exercised the decision delegated to them.

Good point, William. He goes on:

When they expressed a preference for someone in clerical orders [i.e. not a monk], objections were raised: no cleric had ever been archbishop of Canterbury, save only Stigand, who had come into the see through impudence and had been properly expelled from it; there was no need for a custom of such long standing to be annulled, particularly as it could not be shown to conflict with the faith.

Disappointed in this plan, and being suspicious of the inflexible Faricius, the bishops made the following points in their deliberations: 'If that Lombard is made archbishop, there will be quarrels and schisms all over again. He will spare no one of us, especially as the king thinks as highly of him as if he had been sent down from heaven. [!] But this is not to be said openly. The argument we must use has to be one that wounds no one's feelings. Thus [they said publicly]: We have had more than enough foreign archbishops. There is good store of men who speak the language of the country, as learned as Lanfranc, as pious as Anselm, and monks like them both. There is, for instance Ralph bishop of Rochester, reputed the equal of the ancients, and better than both old and new for humility and approachability. If you trace his lineage, he is sprung from respectable Norman stock. If you enquire into his life, there is no blot on his copybook. He is the only one whose piety even malice could not carp at, for it is beyond cavil. If you look at his learning, he has drained all Athens dry, if you examine his eloquence, speech flows from his mouth like honey; and his language is that of his native Maine, meticulous and (so to say) well combed.'

Note that when they say they've had enough foreign archbishops, they don't mean they want an Englishman - it means 'a Norman, not an Italian'. None of the bishops at this council were English, and there wouldn't be an English-born Archbishop of Canterbury until Thomas Becket (of Norman ancestry, but born in London) half a century later. By 'the language of the country' they mean Norman French (and it's a bit surprising that Faricius, who was born in Tuscany but had been Abbot of Abingdon for nearly 15 years by this point, didn't speak it). The compromise candidate, Ralph, was Norman by birth but had been in England on and off since about 1102; he was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1108 and was present at Anselm's deathbed. So he wasn't a foreigner by their standards.

You might wonder how William of Malmesbury knew what the bishops discussed behind closed doors, and how they decided what it would and would not be politic to say; the editors of the Gesta Pontificum suggest it's possible he got this information from his fellow historian Eadmer, who as a senior monk of Christ Church Canterbury was probably present at the discussions, and whom William had certainly met.

Anyway, the bishops' tactful realpolitik achieved their ends:

These opinions made the king change his mind and come round to their view forthwith. This took place four days after the fifth anniversary of the death of Anselm [i.e. 26 April 1114].

Let's hope it doesn't take that long to find a successor this time...

Quotations from William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), vol.1, pp.201-203.

Google and the Book of Kells

I got very excited this morning when I saw that the Google doodle is celebrating St Patrick's Day by taking inspiration from the Book of Kells! It's a lovely idea and a gorgeous design. Despite my Irish ancestors and general love of saints' days, St Patrick's Day is not my favourite holiday, but this is a delightful way to celebrate Irish culture. (I understand why people like St Patrick's Day, but I get vaguely annoyed when it goes along with this weird fascination some English people have with Ireland and its uniquely mystical magical super-special medieval history. "Celtic spirituality is so profound," they sigh, "why don't we have anything like that in England?" Well, we do, you just never troubled to educate yourself about it...)

Anyway, I hope this starts a trend - Google, next Tuesday (2o March) is St Cuthbert's feast day, so maybe we could have something from the Lindisfarne Gospels? And next month, something like this for the 1000th anniversary of St Alphege's death? A medieval manuscript for every day of the year would be just lovely, thank you.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Anselm and the Owl

Cloister at Canterbury Cathedral

The Life of St Anselm, written by Anselm's close companion and devoted admirer, the Canterbury historian Eadmer, contains many vivid stories about the archbishop: from his childhood visions of God's home in the Alps, to his youthful anxieties about his vocation, to his sympathy for hunted hares and an equally endangered Anglo-Saxon saint, it's full of stories and records of conversations which bring Anselm irresistibly to life. The following episode is perhaps my favourite, a touching story in which Anselm, assailed with the various troubles that come with being an archbishop, laments that he has lost the peace of the cloister. This is something of a trope in the lives of saintly bishops, but it's not difficult to believe it may well have been true of Anselm, who gave up a life of study and contemplation in the abbey at Bec (where he wrote his first philosophical works) to become mired in controversy and political wrangling as Archbishop of Canterbury. The conversation Eadmer describes here probably took place early in his time as archbishop, in the mid-1090s; the king mentioned in this passage is William Rufus.

When Anselm began now to think of all the peace he had lost and all the labour he had found, his spirit was torn and tormented with bitter anguish. For he saw in his mind's eye the life which he had been accustomed to lead as prior and abbot - how joyfully he had reposed and delighted in the love of God and of his neighbour, how devoutly he had been heard by all to whom he ministered the words of life, how still more devoutly his hearers had hastened to put into practice what he taught, and thereby (as he hoped) added to the sum of his reward. And now how different it was! As bishop he ought to have gone on to better things; but he saw his days and nights taken up with secular business; he saw himself unable to devote his attention either to God or to his neighbour in God's name as he had formerly done; and he saw no-one willing to listen to the Word of Life from his lips or to carry it out; and thereby he lost (as he thought) his reward.

To add to these evils of his own, the cruel oppression of his men daily afflicted his ears; and he was deafened by the threats of worse to follow, made by malicious men on all sides. For it was well-known that the king's mind was worked up in a fury against him, and as a result every wicked man thought himself happy if he could hit on any device to exasperate him further. Thus he was tossed by the storms of injuries of many kinds... [Yet he] had some relief from these trials, finding his chief consolation in burying himself in the cloister with the monks and talking to them of things pertaining to their rule of life.
Ruins of the monks' dormitory at Canterbury Cathedral
He referred to this once when he was presiding in their chapter [at Canterbury]. He had as usual been discoursing freely about matters which concerned their rule, and when he came to the end of his discourse he made a joking comparison, saying with cheerful good-humour: "Just as an owl is glad when she is in her hole with her chicks and (in her own fashion) all is well with her; and just as she is attacked and torn to pieces when she is among crows and rooks and other birds, and everything then is far from well with her; so it is with me. For when I am with you, all is well with me, and this is the joy and consolation of my life. But when I am separated from you, and my ways lie among men who are in the world, then I am torn this way and that by the onrush of disputes of many kinds and I am harassed by secular business which I hate. Then indeed I am in an ill state, and I tremble with horror at the great danger to my soul which may ensue."

Although he had begun, as I said, in jest, he broke into most bitter tears as he spoke, adding, "But you at least my friends, do you, at least, take pity on me, for the hand of the Lord is upon me." [Job 19:21]

Since his chief recreation was in such companionship, when he was deprived of it he was grievously afflicted. God knows I often heard him most vehemently protest that he would rather be one of the boys in the monastic community, trembling under the master's rod, than sit aloft in the pontifical throne among the congregration of the people having the pastoral care of the whole of Britain.

Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi (The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury), ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp.69-71.

I can't help sympathising with Anselm here, and thinking that his is the lament of many a scholar even today! Anselm's comparison of himself to an owl, like his comments about the hare on this occasion, is based on a traditional medieval interpretation of the animal's characteristics. In bestiaries, drawing ultimately on classical sources, the owl is commonly interpreted in a negative way: as a creature which loves darkness and shuns the daylight it was taken to represent the sinner who rejects the light of righteousness. (This is often a surprise to modern readers, who think of owls as benevolent wise old creatures.) But in literature about the contemplative life, of which Anselm would have been thinking here, the owl was often associated with the monastic vocation: it's a solitary bird, which wakes at night while others sleep, and a verse from Psalm 102, 'I am become like a pelican in the wilderness, and like an owl that is in the desert', is often quoted in reference to the life of the monk who has withdrawn from the world to follow a life of contemplation.

Anselm was particularly fond of the metaphor (which is a Biblical one) of a mother bird surrounded by her chicks - it also appears in one of his letters to Queen Matilda, and in his prayer to St Paul, where it's Christ who is the mother hen and Anselm himself one of the chicks.

In nature owls are apparently often set upon or 'mobbed' by other birds, as Anselm mentions here, and this crops up as a theme in medieval art - for instance, here's a lovely manuscript illustration from a bestiary:

And a misericord from Norwich Cathedral:

This 'mobbing' is often interpreted in the bestiaries as an allegory for the just hostility of the righteous towards the wicked, but Anselm, following the more positive interpretation of the owl, sees it in terms of the unjust violence of the wicked towards those who have set themselves apart for God. More generally, the little birds tearing away at the poor owl are an effective image of Anselm's worldly cares, those niggling little worries which unsettle the soul and keep it from peace.

In the thirteenth-century English poem The Owl and the Nightingale, the titular birds have a vigorous debate about their good and bad qualities, and the owl seems at times to align herself with the contemplative life: she sings the canonical hours of the monastic day and night, and talks about her love of peace and stability (a particularly Benedictine virtue). At one point she says:

Vorþi ich am loþ smale fo3le
Þat floþ bi grunde an bi þuvele.
Hi me bichermet and bigredeþ
And hore flockes to me ledeþ.
Me is lof to habbe reste
And sitte stille in mine neste.
Vor nere ich never no þe betere,
Þe3 ich mid chauling and mid chatere
Hom schende and mid fule worde,
So herdes doþ, oþer mid schitworde.
Ne lust me wit þe screwen chide,
Forþi ich wende from hom wide.

'For this reason [her sharp claws and beak] I am hated by small birds which fly along the ground and in thickets; they shriek and cry out at me and lead flocks against me. It is dear to me to have peace, and sit still within my nest. I would never be any better off if I argued with them, with squabbling and jabbering and with foul words and bad language, like shepherds do. I take no pleasure in arguing with wicked people, and so I stay far away from them.'

Anselm might not have put it quite like this (it would be interesting to know whether schitworde was part of his perhaps-not-extensive English vocabulary), but essentially he said the same thing to the monks of Canterbury.

Pheasants wandering among the ruins of the monks' dormitory

Tuesday 13 March 2012

'Bold Fisherman' and the Heroes of Medieval Romance

[I started writing this post about a folk song, but it somehow turned into a post about Havelok the Dane instead. So I left it for a few days and started writing a post about a different folk song, only for that also to turn into a post about Havelok the Dane before I'd even realised it. This is ridiculous, and probably makes the points I was trying to make in each post look less convincing that they otherwise would be, because you're just going to think I'm obsessed with Havelok the Dane and attempting to link everything to it whether appropriate or not. I assure you that's not the case! I could post this one and then leave the other for a few weeks, to make myself look like obsessive, but instead I'm just going to post them both and if it undermines my point, I apologise. The songs are still great ;)]

A Folk Song A Day reminded me that I've long been meaning to post about one of my favourite traditional songs, 'Bold Fisherman'. You can listen to an excellent rendering at that link, but I think I still prefer Tim Van Eyken's gorgeous version:

'Bold Fisherman' is a widely-distributed song, collected from all over England and beyond; this page has different versions of the lyrics and here you can see all the places it was collected/recorded, which is lots of fun if you like that kind of thing (which I do). For instance, Vaughan Williams collected it in East Horndon, Essex, while at Northmoor, just outside Oxford, a woman named Sarah Calcott sang it to Alfred Williams, who wrote:

Northmoor is a lonely little village on the banks of the Thames between Standlake and Oxford. The road is broken by the river which must be crossed by ferry to Bablock Hythe and Appleton. The old woman, who lives alone, sang me several songs including Lord Bateman, while her pet jackdaw sat upon the arm of her chair in the fire light. At the same time, though extremely poor, she insisted upon my taking tea with her, and proudly filled my pockets with choicest apples to eat on the way home.

Awesome. Isn't it wonderful, the stuff you can find on the internet?

Lucy Broadwood collected it from a woman named Mrs Joiner at Chiswell Green, Hertfordshire, on 7th September 1914, and wrote a little about it in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society 19 (1915), pp.122-148. There she says:

I have always had a strong impression that the modern broadside may be a vulgar and secularized transmutation of a mediaeval allegorical original. To students of Gnostic and Early Christian mystical literature, the River, the Sea, the royal Fisher, the three Vestures of Light (or Robes of Glory), the Recognition and Adoration by the illuminated humble Soul, the free Pardon, the mystical Union of the Bride to the Bridegroom in the House of the Father (or Father-House), are familiar elements, and we can find them all, certainly, amongst the variants of this ballad.

This is the opinion which attracts some derision in the articles linked above, and it does obviously go too far; it's also very typical of this era of folk-song studies (just look at all those capital letters!). But it's not actually that silly a theory in essence, though of course unprovable; the allegory Lucy Broadwood was looking for would be most profitably sought not in 'Gnostic and Early Christian Literature' but in medieval romance.

The idea of Christ-as-suitor is everywhere in medieval religious literature; I can't think of a better way to illustrate this than to link to this passage from Ancrene Wisse, in which Christ is imagined as the knightly suitor of a proud and disdainful lady. Another example which always springs to mind when I'm listening to 'Bold Fisherman' is the fifteenth-century lyric 'In a valley of this restless mind', which also features a handsome nobleman seeking and wooing his wayward spouse, and forgiving her inability to love him - but it is, of course, Christ wooing the soul. What we see in these texts as in so many others are generic features of romance being adapted for Christian literature in imaginative, creative ways, intended to inspire the soul with a love of God.

And this goes both ways: just as Christ is often presented as a hero of romance, so heroes of romance are often presented as Christ figures. By this I mean that they are paragons of men: handsome, humble, generous, chaste, brave, explicitly Christian (attending mass, praying, bearing crosses, etc.), with near-supernatural strength but also near-supernatural heroic virtue. Men in folk songs are not usually like this... The bold fisherman, who has come specifically to seek his lover, who is covered in (highly symbolic, kingly) chains of gold, and who is superbly forgiving of the woman's transgression, is much more like a hero of medieval romance than anything else. I'd be prepared to bet that this is what set off Lucy Broadwood's intuition (or "strong impression") that this song has a little more to it than the obvious boy-meets-girl story. I can see how it's easy to be scornful of her language, but some parallels from medieval romances might help to set the song in context.

For instance, the verse where the fisherman takes off his shirt and she realises he's a nobleman. Heroes in romance often have physical tokens which promote recognition of their true identity even when in disguise - unusual beauty, resemblance to some particular person (a father, for instance), their own particular heraldry, distinctive clothes or weapons, etc. In this particular case I can't help being reminded of Havelok, from the Middle English romance Havelok the Dane, which takes this extremely literally. Havelok, the son of the king of Denmark, is deprived of his inheritance and his royal identity as a child by a wicked usurper, but his true nature literally shines out of him: when he sleeps, a light streams from his mouth. He also has a birthmark (the romance calls it a kinemerk, which means 'royal token') in the shape of a red gold cross on his right shoulder - the kind of birthmark only a king could have. The combination of the shining light and the golden cross reveals his true identity on three crucial occasions in the romance - first as a child, when he is about to be killed by the fisherman who has been ordered to murder him; again when he is staying with a Danish nobleman, and when he's asleep the whole house sees the light streaming from his mouth and the cross on his naked shoulder; but most famously on his wedding night, when his new wife Goldboru, who believes Havelok to be only a kitchen boy, realises from these tokens that she has in fact married a prince (I posted an extract from that scene a little while ago).

Recognition scenes are a very common trope of both romance and folk song, but I do wonder just a little bit if the revelation moment in 'Bold Fisherman', where the woman learns the fisherman's true identity by seeing rings of gold concealed by his clothing, is a rationalisation of a kinemerk sort of scene. It's a little different from the use of a ring as a recognition token, which is extremely common in ballads and folk songs - including one which is definitely a version of a medieval romance, Hind Horn, a much-shortened version of King Horn, a romance in which the hero does a great deal of 'rowing upon the tide' to meet his lady love. Fishes feature prominently in King Horn, where the heroine has a frightening dream in which a giant fish bursts from a net (symbolising that someone will try to destroy her); when she is captured and held prisoner, the royal hero (another dispossessed prince) disguises himself as a fisherman to gain entrance to the castle, in order to show her the gold ring that reveals his true identity. Horn, with his extraordinary personal beauty and virtue and his twelve loyal disciples... sorry, I mean, 'companions', is another Christ figure, and there's no way that in this romance the fisherman disguise is not meant to recall that.

(I hope you noticed that Havelok was supposed to be killed by a fisherman; that man adopts Havelok instead and brings him up, living a fisherman's life at Grimsby. Havelok contains more words for different kinds of fish than any not-about-angling book you could care to mention).

So fishermen and rings and secret marks of identity all say 'medieval Christian romance' to me, and this is the context in which I think 'Bold Fisherman' is best interpreted. Of course this does not admit of definite proof, and I wouldn't encourage anyone to accept Lucy Broadwood's ideas about allegories of mystic union and Gnosticism - that's looking in the wrong direction. But the relationship between the ballad and medieval romance is undeniable, and that means that some of the generic features of medieval romance - such as Christ-as-wooer, and wooer-as-Christ - have made their way into ballads. Make fun of allegorical theories and call it just a 'very classic love story' all you like, but stories have histories, and those histories help us understand them. I don't know why folk singers are so fond of claiming otherwise.

Sunday 11 March 2012

The Shrine of St Augustine at Ramsgate

Some wonderful news in the wake of Pugin's bicentenary, from here:

Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark has formally established Pugin’s church of St Augustine in Ramsgate as a shrine of the ‘the Apostle of the English’. In an official decree the Archbishop grants the shrine canonical privileges and designates it as a place of pilgrimage.

A shrine to St Augustine existed on the Isle of Thanet before the Reformation and so this new place of pilgrimage recovers an ancient tradition. St Augustine’s is a Catholic church already dedicated to the saint and stands closer than any other to the place of Augustine’s landing, his first preaching and his momentous encounter with King Ethelbert of Kent in 597AD.

The official day on which the foundation of the shrine will be remembered is 1st March. This is Pugin’s birthday and recently the day of popular bicentenary celebrations held in his honour. This day links the erection of the shrine with the church’s founder who is buried within. The cult of St Augustine is fully in tune with the heart and mind of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852). He states in his letters that he selected the Ramsgate site because ‘blessed Austin landed nearby’ and he personally chose the dedication name and wanted the church to be a memorial to the founding identity of Christian England and its early saints.

There already exists a strong local interest and devotion to the saint. His feast day each year in celebrated in Ramsgate with a festival of Catholic history and culture called ‘St Augustine’s week’. Prayers are said and hymns sung in his honour. St Augustine’s has already functioned as a quasi-shrine and pilgrims already journey there from all over England and beyond to learn about the conversion of the English and the beginnings of Christianity in this land. In 1997 thousands descended upon the St Augustine’s site to celebrate 1500th anniversary of the Augustine landing. Hundreds of monks joined Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Bowen in the pilgrimage. In the year 2000 St Augustine’s was a ‘Jubilee Shrine’ and had special indulgences attached. This continued a long pilgrimage tradition surrounding St Augustine in Ramsgate and Thanet.


Fr Marcus Holden the parish priest and custodian of St Augustine’s commented, ‘This is amazing news for us. Pugin’s church is secured by this added living identity which also fulfils many of his own dreams in honouring the English saints and St Augustine in particular. There was need here not only to rescue the church as a great work of art but also to find a fitting spiritual significance for the future of the site. Through his decree, the Archbishop has done just that. The shrine will now draw pilgrims keen to learn about the early saints and to pray for an evangelisation of England in our own times’.

The church is presently being restored and brought back to its former glory and major celebrations are planned this year surrounding the feast day of St Augustine.

This is fantastic news! I wrote in my first post on St Augustine's about the various saints of the Anglo-Saxon church who are prominently commemorated there, and it's wonderful to see this officially recognised. In my previous post I touched on the idea that the existence of St Augustine's, Ramsgate goes some way to remedy the loss of the abbey of St Augustine's, Canterbury. From the very early days of Augustine's mission, Canterbury had two significant religious communities, centres of art, learning and literature whose importance it is difficult to overstate; today Christ Church lives on through the cathedral, but of St Augustine's, now in ruins, barely a shadow survives. The original shrine of St Augustine, at the site of his burial, was destroyed at the Reformation (unless it's at Fordwich or Chilham, as I mentioned the other day!). This new shrine repairs a wrong.

I was present at the celebrations for the 1400th anniversary of Augustine's landing in 1997 mentioned in the article; I remember it fondly, though I didn't know then that I would ever come to care quite so much about the medieval history of Canterbury (to be fair, I was only eleven years old). Let's hope for many more such celebrations to come.

Daffodils and Anchorites, Iffley and the Splendour of Light

Chaucer was right: when spring comes, 'then longen folk to go on pilgrimages'. It isn't April yet, but we're having what they call a forward spring, and the young sun and Zephyrus' sweet breath impelled me forth into the open air yesterday. And where to go on a pilgrimage within walking distance of Oxford city centre? Iffley church, I decided. I've lived in Oxford for seven years, but I've never been to Iffley church, having somehow missed the fact that it's both historically interesting and extraordinarily beautiful. Canterbury would of course always be my first choice for a pilgrimage, but Iffley is a good substitute.

So, having decided on Iffley, I set off along the river. It was sunny with the cold sun of early spring, with almost too much light to be comfortable. There were lots of people around - cycling, walking their dogs, rowing (well, this is Oxford). And there was blossom on the trees, and lots of it:

The small birds were making melody very loudly, almost drowning out the ever-present sound of traffic.

Iffley is the kind of church you have to see to believe in. It was built in 1170, at the expense of the local Norman lord of the manor, and in grand style. The outside is covered with Romanesque carving, roughly contemporary with my Kentish favourites at Barfreston and the Bournes, but preserved with a crispness even those two lack; these could have been carved yesterday:

The church itself is unusually long and narrow, since when the original building needed to be extended, previous generations decided to build forwards rather than sideways (I seem to recall the church guide said something about structural reasons for this). And so when you tear yourself away from the carving and peer in, you see something like a long, dark corridor, with light glinting off the altar-cross at the very end:

I was there at about half past three in the afternoon, so the sun was declining a little in the west; it was behind the west window so brightly that there was too much light for my camera:

But if one is prepared to wait a little, the sun always moves in the end; then the west window looks like this:

All the stained glass is delightful; there are two especially good modern windows, including this one by John Piper:

This was installed in 1995 and is based on a story which is most familiar to me as the subject of Charles Causley's The Animals' Carol - a Latin dialogue between various animals at the time of Christ's birth. "Christus natus est," crows the cock; "Quando? Quando?" quacks the goose; "In hac nocte," croaks the raven; "Ubi? Ubi?" asks the owl; and the lamb bleats, "In Bethlehem." You can read Causley's version of the story (which is longer, and matches up animals and words rather differently) here. My mother loved this book when I was a little girl, and taught me to love it; I used to go around chanting, "Cui? cui? rings the chough, On the strong, sea-haunted bluff" without having the slightest idea what a chough was. Anyway, for that reason I was very happy to see this window.

The other window is equally beautiful, and all the more so because I had seen so much blossom on my walk along the river:

This is even newer than the Piper window - just a few years old, I think, and so new that the parish website makes no mention of it. But a blossoming crucifix is one of my favourite things, and this one is gorgeous.

I don't know if it was because these windows are so lovely or because the body of the church was so dark, but I was very conscious of how the light was falling. I took lots and lots of pictures like this, of the coloured light thrown by the west windows:

Even the windows which were less beautiful in themselves had a kind of glory to them, as if they had extra power of trapping light.

I lingered in the empty church for a long time, taking photographs, and thinking, and reading a bit of St Anselm's prayer to St Mary (this is St Mary's church). Then I went outside to study some more of the carving:

I was particularly fond of this collection - a ladybird, a cobweb, and Norman carving. To see such fragile transient things wandering freely across a stone that has looked exactly the same for eight hundred years, as sharp as when its carver set down his tools - at such moments, time is nothing at all.

The churchyard was full of daffodils, a different kind of gold to the honey colour of the stone, or the chilly splendour of the sunlight.

This is the site of one of Iffley's unusual features, the remains of an anchorite's cell:

The anchoress who lived here was called Annora. I wonder if there were daffodils in her day.

When I at last thought it was time to return home, I walked back a little way through Iffley village, which is so golden-stone-and-thatched-cottagey that it's hard to believe we're so close to busy Oxford:

I cheated by getting the bus back into town (don't tell me Chaucer's pilgrims wouldn't have done that if they had the chance) and as I arrived in the High, the sun was beginning to set.

Then I went to Evensong at Christ Church, and by the time I left it was almost dark and the stars were out - the brightest stars I've seen in a long time. It was Venus and Jupiter, together in the western sky above Tom Tower. At Evensong we sang 'Immortal, invisible':

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest—to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render: O help us to see
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.

After the daffodils, I could only think of 'flowers that glide' at the third verse; but at the fourth I thought of the light which was with me in Iffley church, the light too bright to be captured by a little camera, and I thought - maybe.