Ðeos tid fram ðisum andwerdan dæge oð ða halgan Eastertide is gecweden Cristes ðrowung-tid, and ealle Godes ðeowas on ðære halgan gelaðunge mid heora circlicum ðenungum wurðiað and on gemynde healdað his ðrowunge, þurh ða we ealle alysede wurdon. Secgað eac ure bec þæt we sceolon ðas feowertyne niht mid micelre geornfulnysse healdan, for genealæcunge þære halgan ðrowunge, and þæs arwurðfullan æristes ures Hælendes. On ðisum dagum we forlætað on urum repsum 'Gloria Patri,' for geomerunge þære halgan ðrowunge, buton sum healic freols-dæg him on besceote.
This season, from this present day until the holy Eastertide, is called Christ's Passion-tide, and all God's servants in the holy church with their divine liturgies honour and hold in mind his Passion, through which we were all redeemed. Our books say, too, that we should keep this fortnight with great devotion, because of the approach of the holy Passion and the glorious resurrection of our Saviour. In these days we omit in our responses 'Gloria Patri', in mourning for the holy Passion, except if a great feast-day occurs then.
This is the opening of Ælfric's sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. As he explains, the last two weeks before Easter are traditionally Passiontide, Cristes ðrowung-tid, a season with its own customs and character of deepening solemnity for genealæcunge þære halgan ðrowunge 'because of the approach of the holy Passion'. Along with practices such as that mentioned by Ælfric of omitting 'Gloria Patri' in the liturgy, the season has its own hymns, most famously 'Vexilla Regis Prodeunt':
Vexilla regis prodeunt;
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.
Quo vulneratus insuper
mucrone diro lanceae,
ut nos lavaret crimine,
manavit unda et sanguine.
Impleta sunt quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
regnavit a ligno Deus.
Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata Regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
Beata, cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
statera facta corporis,
praedam tulitque tartari.
O Crux ave, spes unica,
hoc Passionis tempore!
piis adauge gratiam,
reisque dele crimina.
Te, fons salutis Trinitas,
collaudet omnis spiritus:
quos per Crucis mysterium
salvas, fove per saecula.
For a translation and the history of the hymn, which is by Venantius Fortunatus, see this page. The concluding lines of Ælfric's sermon touch on similar ideas to the hymn, which he would have known:
Þurh treow us com deað, þaða Adam geæt þone forbodenan æppel, and ðurh treow us com eft lif and alysednyss, ðaða Crist hangode on rode for ure alysednysse. Ðære halgan rode tacn is ure bletsung, and to ðære rode we us gebiddað, na swaðeah to ðam treowe, ac to ðam Ælmihtigum Drihtne, ðe on ðære halgan rode for us hangode.
Through a tree came to us death, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and through a tree came to us again life and redemption, when Christ hung on the rood for our redemption. The token of the holy rood is our blessing, and to the rood we pray – not however to the tree, but to the Almighty Lord, who for us hung upon on the holy rood.
'Vexilla Regis Prodeunt' is perhaps most familiar today in the translation by J. M. Neale, 'The royal banners forward go', but it was first translated into English centuries before Neale. There's a surviving Old English gloss for this hymn, where the first verse is glossed as follows:
guþfanan cynges forþsteppaþ
scinað rode geryne
on þam flæsce flæsces scyppend
wæs ahangen on gealgan
This is not properly a translation, just a word-for-word gloss, but it gives us some interesting vocabulary. The first word, guþfana, 'war-banner', particularly struck me because I associate it with Vikings (specifically, the raven-banner-bearing Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 878), so I found its appearance here a bit startling! The usual English translation 'banners' makes it sound softer - but this is a war-standard, after all, not the kind of banner you carry in a church parade. And I learn from the OED that guþfana is related to the word gonfalon ('flag, banner') which I know only from its use as the name of the tune to which English translations of this hymn are often sung, Gonfalon Royal. That's a nice fact, which ties the earliest English translation of this hymn together with the form in which it's best known to English-speakers, a thousand years later.
There are several Middle English versions of 'Vexilla Regis Prodeunt', including three separate translations of the first verse alone. My favourite is by William Herebert (d.1333), which you can read in the manuscript image above; Herebert was a prolific translator of Latin texts into English verse, and this is one of the best of all his many translations.
Þe kynges baneres beth forth ylad,
Þe rode tokne ys nou tosprad
Whar he, þat wrouth hauet al monkunne,
Anhonged was uor oure sunne.
Þer he was wounded and vurst yswonge,
Wyth sharpe spere to herte ystonge;
To wassȝen ous of sunne clene,
Water and blod þer ronne at ene.
Yvoluuld ys Dauidþes sawe,
Þat soth was prophete of þe olde lawe,
Þat sayde: "Men, ȝe mowen yse
Hou Godes trone ys rode tre."
Ha tre, þat art so vayr ykud,
And wyth kynges pourpre yshrud,
Of wourþy stok ykore þou were,
Þat so holy limes opbere;
Blessed be þou, þat hauest ybore
Þe wordles raunsoun, þat was uorlore:
Þou art ymaked Crystes weye;
Þorou þe he tok of helle preye.
Ha croyz, myn hope, onliche my trust,
Þe nouþe ich grete wyth al my lust.
Þe mylde sped in rithfolnesse,
To sunfole men sheu mylsfolnesse.
A God, þe heyȝe Trinite,
Alle gostes heryȝe þe.
Hoem þat þou bouhtest on rode tre,
Here wyssere euermore þou boe. Amen.
Below is my rather free modernised version. The fifth verse is my favourite, a fabulous image which Herebert carries over from the Latin: it takes the idea of 'ransom' in its literal sense, a price to be paid in exchange for release from captivity, and imagines the arms of cross as a pair of scales on which it is weighed out.
The king’s banners are forward led;
The symbol of the rood is spread,
Where he, who wrought hath all mankind
For our sin was hanged on high.
There was he wounded and first swung,
With sharp spear to the heart was stung;
To cleanse us from the sins of man,
Water and blood from his side ran.
Fulfilled is now King David’s saw,
Prophet’s true words of the old law,
Who said: “Men, you now may see
That God’s throne is the rood tree.”
O tree, which art so fairly dressed,
And with king’s purple richly blessed!
Of worthy stock chosen thou were,
That such holy limbs didst bear.
Blest be thou, that thou hast borne
The ransom of a world forlorn!
Christ’s balance-scales, on which he weighed
The price he for hell’s prey hath paid.
O cross, my hope, my only trust,
Thee now I praise with all my love.
Speed well the meek in righteousness,
And sinful men with mercy bless.
O God, thou Blessed Trinity,
Let every soul adore thee!
Since thou boughtst them on the rood tree
Grant now their guide to ever be.
And here are the three translations of the first verse alone. First, from the mid-fourteenth century (a few decades later than William Herebert):
þe kinges baner bigan to sprede
On þe crouch sewynde scynys vs spede
Wech f[l]esh of flesh makere of mede
it heng on rode for oure misdede.
This appears in a manuscript of sermons and other texts collected by John Sheppey, Bishop of Rochester (d. 1360), which is now Merton College MS. 248. You can find this verse on f. 74, where it begins six lines down from the top of the second column (marked out with a squiggle on the right-hand side). 'Crouch' is a common Middle English alternative form of 'cross', a word which came into English from Latin but took various forms; Herebert instead has the form croyz. One medieval name for the Feast of the Invention of the Cross was 'Crouchmas', which is just a wonderful word. (As you can see, the Old English word 'rood' also survived into Middle English; it appears here in the last line, and in two of the versions below).
In another manuscript of sermons (Bodleian MS. Lat. th. d. 1), this time dating to the 1430s, there's another translation of this verse:
Now begynnys to go þe banner of our lord þe kyng
now kun spryng wide þe crose tokenyng
God þat made man and eueri thyng
is hongid on þe rode tre for our giltis and synnyng.
Also from the fifteenth century, a freer translation in Cambridge University Library Kk. 4. 24:
Ower kynges baneres byth foorþe y-bore
now schynes þe crouches þat raþer was pryuee
wher þe maker of man þat was for-lore
now hangeth on þe rood tree.
And finally, some Lydgate:
Royal banerys vnrolled of the kyng
Towarde his batayle, in Bosra steyned reede,
The Crosse his standart celestyal of schynyng
Wyth purple hewe depeynt, I tooke good heede,
Vita was Capteyne, whech lyste hymself be ded,
And to slee deth his conqueste to termyne,
Fygure of Isaak from patriarkys seed
And downe descendid from Abrahamis lyne.
Frute of a tree caused al our lose,
Wheche to recure he weryd a purple weede,
Lyff sleyng deth, deyde vpon þe Crose:
In prophesies þe mysteryes 3e may rede,
Thus deth geyne deth lyste his blood to schede,
Callid carnis conditor, prophetis wroote also;
To make vs partable of his trivmphal mede
Criste was suspensus in patibulo.
Sone of kyng Dauit was sleyne, & his ayre,
Pure Innocent, nayled to a tree,
Moriens ful hygh vp in þe eyre,
Slouth the Tyrant for al his cruelte.
Pride was bore downe with humilite,
Senum tirannum vinciens,
Where we were thrall fau3t for our liberte,
Et nos ab morte liberans.
Ouer al this he, woundyd to the deth,
To scowre þe ruste of our mortal grevaunce,
Vnto his fader clamans 3alde vp the breth,
Than roof his hert Longeus with a launce,
Blood & watur ran out in habondaunce,
Vt nos lauaret crimine,
O synful man! haue this in remembraunce,
Manauit vnda sanguine.
Al thyng acomplyssched, deth & his woundes scharpe,
With all þe misteries of olde prophesie,
The funeral compleyntis Dauit songe with his harpe,
With wepyng tvnis, notyd in Jeremie,
Whose coote armure was lyke a bloody skye
Recoorde Esdras & Recoorde Isaye
Regnauit aliguo deus.
Fayrest of trees celestial fresche schynyng,
Wyth royal purplys al bloody was thyn hewe,
Aftur þy batayle inperyal of schewyng,
For a memorial regystred newe & newe,
Palme of þis conqueste be repoort is so trewe
Electa digno stipite,
Cheef gryfe of Paradise who so þe greyne wel knewe,
Tam sancta membra tangere.
Blesset þat stoke, of whiche thys ryche frute
Armys & body ranson incomperable
Henge on þy braunchis, repaste & cheef refute,
Restouratyff set in oure feyth moost stable,
Geyne all oure hurtis & soorys incurable,
This stok statera facta est corporis,
Wheche spoylled Hell & Sathan mooste vengable
Predam que tulit tartaris.
O only hope to wrecchis in distresse!
O Cristus Cros! scheeld & proteccyon
Oure medycyne, oure bawme in al sikenesse,
Oure rycheste triacle geyne al goostely poyson,
And cheef refuge in our tribulacyon,
Auge piis Iusticiam,
Be the .v. woundes & thi passion
Reis que dona, veniam.
Thow þat arte called Oon, too & thre,
Hiest of Lordes in the heuenly consistorie,
Alle thre, God! in perfite vnite,
To whome be 3oue laude honour & glorie,
Myght to þe Fader, conquest & victorie
Vnto þe sone, for oure redempcyon,
To þe holy Gooste grace to haue memorie
On his fyue woundes & his passion.
'To scowre þe ruste of our mortal grevaunce'! Amazing.
The first and last pictures in this post are two very different versions of the 'rode tokne' from the church of St Andrew's, Westhall, Suffolk (on which more here) - at the top, a modern altar cross made from old timbers, and here a medieval wall-painting of a consecration cross, sprouting tendrils of new growth, as medieval crucifixes are apt to do.