Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Saints Say Mass

Fifteenth-century Mass scene from the font at Westhall, Suffolk

This is a fifteenth-century poem - or rather song, though its music hasn't survived - which is completely one of a kind; I've never encountered anything else like it in medieval poetry. Here it is (in modernised form):

Merry it is on a May morning
Merry ways for to go.

And by a chapel as I came,
Met I with Jesu to church-ward gone,
Peter and Paul, Thomas and John,
And his disciples every one.

Saint Thomas the bells did ring,
Saint Nicholas the Mass did sing:
Saint John took the sweet offering,
And by a chapel as I came.

Our Lord offered what he would, [i.e. wished to]
A chalice all of rich red gold,
Our Lady the crown off her mowlde; [head]
The sun out of her bosom shone.

Saint George, who is Our Lady's knight,
Tended the tapers fair and bright;
To my eyes a semely sight,
And by a chapel as I came.

[semely = pleasing, beautiful, splendid]

The leading authority on English carols, Richard Greene, has this to say about the carol in his A Selection of English Carols:

"This chanson d'aventure, with its highly orthodox religious imagery, its 'popular fantasy uncontrolled by the book', and its characteristic style, quite unlike that of the other religious carols, has a good claim to be considered as true folk-song, that is, a piece originating outside of learned clerical society and passed on by oral transmission. There is nothing in canonical or apocryphal scripture or in liturgy or hymnology to point to as a source. The burden is certainly a borrowing from a secular May song, possibly accompanied by the borrowing of a tune...

The only other occurrence in poetry known to me of the strange conception of Christ as officiating priest is in a version of the ballad The Famous Flower of Serving-Men (Child No.106) collected as recently as 1942 from Mrs. Belle Richards of Colebrook, New Hampshire, by Marguerite Olney and published in Helen Hartness Flanders and Marguerite Olney, eds. Ballads Migrant in New England, p.125:

'Twas all alone I dug his grave
And all alone in it him I laid,
While Christ was priest and I was clerk
I laid my love in the clay-cold earth.

The collector remarks (p.125): 'I have looked through many regional collections as well as the monumental work of Professor Francis James Child and of Cecil Sharp but have not discovered the especial grief of this passage.' The special magic of the passage is found in this carol and the likeness of the image confirms the collector's judgement that it comes from the reservoir of unlearned tradition."

Greene, A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962), pp.231-2.

It's certainly an odd poem; I almost wonder if this is for once a medieval vision lyric which is what it purports to be, an actual dream, because it has that kind of vivid unreality. However, the idea of Christ as officiating priest is not quite as unusual as Greene suggests, because the poem bears comparison with this story from the Golden Legend (this is Caxton's translation):

We read an example of a noble lady which had great devotion in the blessed Virgin Mary, and she had a chapel in which she did do say mass of our Lady daily by her chaplain. It happed that the day of the purification of our Lady, her chaplain was out, so that this lady might that day have no mass, and she durst not go to another church because she had given her mantle unto a poor man for the love of our Lady. She was much sorrowful because she might hear no mass and for to make her devotions she went into the chapel, and tofore the altar she kneeled down for to make her prayers to our Lady.

And anon she fell asleep, in which she had a vision, and her seemed that she was in a church, and saw come into the church a great company of virgins, tofore whom she saw come a right noble virgin crowned right preciously. And when they were all set each in order, came a company of young men which sat down each after other in order like the other; after, entered one that bare a burden of candles, and departed them to them above first, and so to each of them by order he gave one, and at the last came this man to this lady aforesaid and gave to her also a candle of wax. The which lady saw also come a priest, a deacon and a subdeacon, all revested, going to the altar as for to say mass.

And her seemed that S. Laurence and S. Vincent were deacon and sub-deacon, and Jesu Christ the priest, and two angels bearing tofore them candles, and two young angels began the introit of the mass, and all the company of the virgins sang the mass. And when the mass was sung unto the offering, her seemed that thilk virgin so crowned went tofore, and after, all the others followed, and offered to the priest, kneeling much devoutly, their candles. And when the priest tarried for this lady that she should also have come to the offering, the glorious queen of virgins sent to her to say that she was not courteous to make the priest so long to tarry for her. And the lady answered that the priest should proceed in his mass forth, for she would keep her candle and not offer it. And the glorious virgin sent yet once to her, and she said she would not offer her candle.

The third time the queen said to the messenger: Go and pray her that she come and offer her candle, or else take it from her by force. The messenger came to this lady, and because in no wise she would not come and offer up her candle, he set hand on the candle that this lady held and drew fast, and she held fast, and so long he drew and haled that the candle brake in two pieces, and that one half abode still in the hand of the lady aforesaid, which anon awoke and came to herself; and found the piece of the candle in her hand, whereof she much marvelled, and thanked our Lord and the glorious Virgin Mary devoutly which had suffered her that day not to be without mass.

And all the days of her life after she kept that piece of that candle much preciously, like an holy relic, and all they that were touched therewith were guerished and healed of their maladies and sicknesses.

Now there's an odd story - am I just too naturally compliant, or is really not done to make a scene like this when the Virgin Mary asks you to hand over your candle? I don't think I could behave so badly even in my own dreams! Thank goodness the visionary in the English poem seems content to watch and wonder.

Visions involving the Mass are fairly common in medieval literature - generally in the form of visions which take place during a Mass, and especially at the moment of the elevation of the Host. Stories about visions in which the Host is transformed into a living child, or bleeds human blood when broken, were frequently cited as evidence for the Real Presence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the nature of the Eucharist became an increasingly controversial subject. Less gruesomely, St Bridget of Sweden had a vision at Mass of Christ himself in the hands of the priest, saying, "I bless all of you who believe; to those who do not believe I shall become a judge". St Bridget's visions were very popular in fifteenth-century England, and Margery Kempe (always a lady for a little oneupmanship) had a similar vision in which the Host fluttered in the priest's hand, and Christ said to her "Bridget never saw me in this way". There are also stories about how visions at Mass could give away priests who had behaved wickedly. One which springs to mind is told by Symeon of Durham, who had heard it from the son of the priest in question - the priest had spent the night with his mistress and went in the morning to celebrate Mass, but saw the wine in the chalice turn to fiery pitch as a sign of his unworthiness. (He repented and was forgiven. It doesn't give one a very good impression of twelfth-century Northumbrian priests, though!)

Anyway, the English poem is all much nicer and less polemical than those stories. One particularly attractive thing about it, I think, is how it combines the vision with the conventions of medieval lyrics, including the 'Merry May morning' refrain (the chanson d'aventure opening, from which folk song got its 'As I walked out one morning' type of first line), and the detail of the sun shining out of Mary's breast (which is related to this kind of Mary/sunshine imagery). And the saints are such familiar ones - St George, of course; the second St Thomas mentioned is probably Thomas Becket; and there's St Nicholas too, called "Sent Collas" in the original text (a corruption of the name found elsewhere, and somewhat along the lines of Tooley and Toosey).

And generally, doesn't it give you the clearest impression of stumbling across Mass in a fifteenth-century English parish church - tapers glowing, bells ringing, incense burning ('the sweet offering'), and the sun shining in?

Pugin's idea of a medieval Mass, in stained glass from St Augustine's, Ramsgate

The poem appears in a miscellany of verse and prose in a manuscript known as Porkington 10 (here's a list of other poems in the same manuscript), and here's the original text as printed by Greene:

Mery hyt ys is in May mornyng
Mery wayys for to gone.

And by a chapell as Y came,
Mett Y wyhte Jhesu to chyrcheward gone,
Petur and Pawle, Thomas and Jhon,
And hys desyplys everychone.

Sente Thomas the bellys gane ryng,
And Sent Collas the Mas gane syng:
Sente Jhon toke that swete offeryng,
And by a chapell as Y came.

Owre Lorde offeryd whate he wollde,
A challes all off ryche rede gollde,
Owre Lady the crowne off hyr mowlde;
The son owte off hyr bosom shone.

Sent Jorge, that ys Owre Lady knyghte,
He tende the tapyrys fayre and bryte,
To myn yghe a semley syghte,
And by a chapell as Y came.

 A priest saying Mass, from a 15th-century English MS (British Library, Harley 2915)


Derek Olsen said...

I seem to recall Hildegard attending a heavenly mass celebrated by John the Baptizer as well.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Interesting! I would imagine there are plenty of such stories, but I don't know whether anyone has collected them together.

Steffen said...

This is a fascinating and very educational post encompassing a great variety of elements worthy of comment.

I for my part was struck in particular by two of these elements. First of all that St. George is (to borrow a term from the Norwegian hird system) the candleman - or kertilsvein - of the Virgin. This is a representation of George I haven't come across before, and adds an interesting detail to the cult of St. George in the 15th century.

Secondly, I'm reminded of St. Edward the Confessor's vision of Christ during mass at Westminster, here rendered in a lesson from MS. Rawlinson liturg. g. 10. The manuscript is from the turn of the century, but the text in question is probably from the 12th century.

tercia mirabilis
nam christus visibilis
edwardo apparuit
cum misse interfuit.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks for adding that, Steffen; this is not an area I know a great deal about, and I was mostly just thinking of the various 'Mass visions' I've encountered in different texts, so I'm glad to learn of more.

Chris said...

I'm not quite sure reading this whether Christ is the celebrating priest, offering his chalice in that sense - it seems to me to read that S Nicholas is "singing the Mass" as celebrant, and Christ and the disciples are the congregation. Which seems, admittedly, odd.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, perhaps you're right - it may be that Christ and the Virgin are in the role of aristocratic lay patrons, giving rich gifts, rather than offering the chalice as part of the Mass.