Friday, 29 June 2012

Anselm's Prayer to St Paul: Our Greatest Mother

St Paul in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, British Library, Harley 76

This is an extract from the end of a prayer to St Paul by St Anselm, which he composed probably c.1070. After lamenting his own distance from God, Anselm appeals to the motherly love of Christ and Paul to comfort and console him.

O St Paul, where is he that was called
the nurse of the faithful, caressing his sons?
Who is that affectionate mother who declares everywhere
that she is in labour for her sons?
Sweet nurse, sweet mother,
who are the sons you are in labour with, and nurse,
but those whom by teaching the faith of Christ
you bear and instruct?
Or who is a Christian after your teaching
who is not born into the faith and established in it by you?
And if in that blessed faith we are born
and nursed by other apostles also,
it is most of all by you,
for you have laboured and done more than them all in this;
so if they are our mothers, you are our greatest mother...

And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?
Are you not the mother who, like a hen,
gathers her chickens under her wings?
Truly, Lord, you are a mother;
for both they who are in labour
and they who are brought forth
are accepted by you.
You have died more than they, that they may labour to bear.
It is by your death that they have been born,
for if you had not been in labour,
you could not have borne death;
and if you had not died, you would not have brought forth.
For, longing to bear sons into life,
you tasted of death,
and by dying you begot them.
You did this in your own self,
your servants, by your commands and help.
You as the author, they as the ministers.
So you, Lord God, are the great mother.

Then both of you are mothers.
Even if you are fathers, you are also mothers.
For you have brought it about that those born to death
should be reborn to life -
you by your own act, you by his power.
Therefore you are fathers by your effect
and mothers by your affection.
Fathers by your authority, mothers by your kindness.
Fathers by your teaching, mothers by your mercy.
Then you, Lord, are a mother
and you, Paul, are a mother too...

And you, my soul, dead in yourself,
run under the wings of Jesus your mother
and lament your griefs under his feathers.
Ask that your wounds may be healed
and that, comforted, you may live again.

Christ, my mother,
you gather your chickens under your wings;
this dead chicken of yours puts himself under those wings.
For by your gentleness the badly frightened are comforted,
by your sweet smell the despairing are revived,
your warmth gives life to the dead,
your touch justifies sinners.
Mother, know again your dead son,
both by the sign of your cross and the voice of his confession.
Warm your chicken, give life to your dead man, justify your sinner.
Let your terrified one be consoled by you;
despairing of himself, let him be comforted by you.
and in your whole and unceasing grace
let him be refashioned by you.
For from you flows consolation for sinners;
to you the blessing for ages and ages. Amen.

Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, trans. Benedicta Ward (London, 1973), pp.152-6.

This prayer can a bit startling to modern ears, but it's impeccably Biblical: the scriptural basis for the idea of Paul as a mother comes from the apostle's own words in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 and Galatians 4:18-19, while the metaphor of Christ as mother to a brood of chicks comes from Matthew 23:37. The image of a mother bird surrounded by her chicks is one which Anselm employed a number of times, in various contexts: in one story he compares himself to the mother (an owl, in that case) and his monks to the chicks, while in this letter to Matilda, wife of Henry I, he appeals to the queen to take on the role of Christ, the mother-hen.

You might also like to compare Anselm's prayer to St Peter, which I posted here.

St Paul preaching, BL Royal 19 B XV

Anselm's Prayer to St Peter: "Shepherd of Christ, gather up the lamb of Christ"

Peter and Christ in a 20th-century window at St Peter's, Redisham, Suffolk

This is an extract from St Anselm's prayer to St Peter, quoted from Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, trans. Benedicta Ward (London, 1973), pp. 135-140.

Holy and most kind Peter,
faithful shepherd of the flock of God,
chief of the apostles,
prince among such mighty princes.
You are able to bind and loose as you will;
you are able to heal and raise up as you will;
you can give the kingdom of heaven to whom you will.
Great Peter, rich with so many and such great gifts,
high in so many and such great dignities,
here am I, the poorest and weakest of men,
surrounded by many difficulties and hardships.
In my misery I need the help of your power and kindness,
but I have no words to express my need as it really is,
and my love is not great enough to reach up
from such a depth as mine to such a height as yours.

Again and again I try to shake the lethargy from my mind,
to prevent my thoughts from being scattered among vanities,
but when I have gathered together all my strength
I am not able to break out of the shadows of the torpor that holds me
because of the filth of my sins.
Nor do I have the strength to remain for long of the same mind.
I am the most wretched of wretches.
It really is so, it is not pretence, it is true.
Who is there to help a wretch
who has not the strength to express his trouble in words
or show the sorrow of his heart?

O great Peter,
if the cry of my trouble does not come up as far as you,
let the care of your goodness come down as far as me!
Shatter my hardness, shine on my darkness,
look upon my wretchedness.
Have a care, kind shepherd,
for the lamb of the flock committed unto you,
and have mercy on the misery in which he toils.
Do not make demands according to his wickedness,
but make allowance according to his prayer...

Remember that Christ asked you three times if you loved him,
and when three times you confessed it
he said to you, "Feed my sheep."
He is indeed a lover of the sheep
who thus sifts the love of the shepherd
before committing them to him.
When you had confessed that you loved him,
then he confided his sheep to you.
How, then, can his shepherd spurn his sheep?
Peter, shepherd of Christ,
gather up the lamb of Christ.
Your Lord sought and found him,
and bore him on his shoulders, rejoicing;
do not repel him now he comes back and prays.
The Lord bought him with his own blood
before he was born;
Christ's shepherd should not value him lightly
now he is reborn and so diligently commended to him.
Alas, how long shall I not know
that I am received, healed, cherished?


See, here is a soul needing mercy,
and here is the merciful apostle Peter
before the God of mercy,
who had mercy upon the apostle Peter
and taught him what to do and gave him power to do it.
See, here is misery, and there is mercy,
the mercy of God and his apostle Peter,
and a soul in misery, confiding in God,
and calling upon God and his apostle Peter.
O God, and you his greatest apostle,
is this misery of mine so huge
that it cannot be met by the wideness of your mercy?
Or if it can, but will not,
what is the enormity of my guilt
that exceeds the multitude of your mercies?
Is it that I have not confessed the whole of my sin?
Truly, I have confessed all I know of my sins.
Or is it because I do not make amends
by sufficient penitance?
Or because the good in me does not equal the bad?
I acknowledge that all this is true,
but this is the very misery by which I am tormented.
Is it true, then, that the more I am oppressed by misery,
the more mercy will tarry?
That is an unheard-of word from one who is merciful to one who prays...

[N. B.: this misery/mercy opposition works better in Latin, where it's miseria and misericordia. The last question here is Ergo quo plus coartat miseria, plus lenta erit misericordia?)

St Peter, prince of the apostles,
by the mercy shown you and the power given you,
loose my chains, heal my wounds.
Free me from the misery of the kingdom of sin,
and lead me into the bliss of the kingdom of heaven,
where rejoicing with you
I may give thanks and praise God for ever. Amen.

Hymns for St Peter and St Paul

Two of my favourite hymns for two favourite saints. I was baptised in a church dedicated to St Peter on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, so celebrating them together makes particular sense to me for reasons which are entirely personal. Later today I want to post extracts from Anselm's prayers to both saints, which are wonderful, but first some rousing hymns.

Incidentally, the picture above is a medieval wall-painting of SS. Peter, Paul and Andrew from Norwich Cathedral (I say 'wall-painting', but it's actually on the roof of the loft which is now the Treasury). Here's the same grouping in fifteenth-century alabaster, on display at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (originally from Chellaston, Derbyshire):

This hymn for St Peter, 'Forsaken once, and thrice denied', is by C. F. Alexander - an underrated hymnwriter, in my opinion. The tune, 'Derry' (appropriately named, since Alexander's husband was Bishop of Derry), can be heard here.

Forsaken once, and thrice denied,
The risen Lord gave pardon free,
Stood once again at Peter’s side,
And asked him, 'Lov’st thou Me?'

How many times with faithless word
Have we denied His holy Name,
How oft forsaken our dear Lord,
And shrunk when trial came!

Saint Peter, when the cock crew clear,
Went out, and wept his broken faith;
Strong as a rock through strife and fear,
He served his Lord till death.

How oft his cowardice of heart
We have without his love sincere,
The sin without the sorrow’s smart,
The shame without the tear!

O oft forsaken, oft denied,
Forgive our shame, wash out our sin;
Look on us from Thy Father’s side
And let that sweet look win.

Hear when we call Thee from the deep,
Still walk beside us on the shore,
Give hands to work, and eyes to weep,
And hearts to love Thee more.

Twelfth-century century St Peter from Malmesbury Abbey

The hymn for St Paul is the splendid 'We sing the glorious conquest', often sung to the tune Ellacombe; it's by John Ellerton, who has featured here before for another lovely hymn. The words are, fittingly, full of paradox and antithesis, wondering in awe and not attempting to explain; I like that in a hymn.

My favourite hymn for St Paul is still 'Athens', though...

We sing the glorious conquest
before Damascus' gate,
when Saul, the Church's spoiler,
came breathing threats and hate.
The ravening wolf rushed forward
full early to the prey;
but lo! the Shepherd met him,
and bound him fast today.

O glory most excelling
that smote across his path!
O light that pierced and blinded
the zealot in his wrath!
O voice that spake within him
the calm, reproving word!
O love that sought and held him
the bondman of his Lord!

O Wisdom ordering all things
in order strong and sweet,
what nobler spoil was ever
cast at the Victor's feet?
What wiser master builder
e'er wrought at thine employ
than he, till now so furious
thy building to destroy?

Lord, teach thy Church the lesson,
still in her darkest hour
of weakness and of danger,
to trust thy hidden power;
thy grace by ways mysterious
the wrath of man can bind,
and in thy boldest foeman
thy chosen saint can find.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

'Against all ills the fortified strong place'

Vaughan Williams' setting elevates this Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem, 'Heart's Haven' (of which the best thing is the title) to something very tender and beautiful:

Sometimes she is a child within mine arms,
Cowering beneath dark wings that love must chase,—
With still tears showering and averted face,
Inexplicably fill'd with faint alarms:
And oft from mine own spirit's hurtling harms
I crave the refuge of her deep embrace,—
Against all ills the fortified strong place
And sweet reserve of sovereign counter-charms.

And Love, our light at night and shade at noon,
Lulls us to rest with songs, and turns away
All shafts of shelterless tumultuous day.
Like the moon's growth, his face gleams through his tune;
And as soft waters warble to the moon,
Our answering spirits chime one roundelay.

(warble? roundelay? Pah. Whatever, Rossetti.)

Pugin on Songs of Praise

A fair number of people end up on this blog looking for pictures of Pugin's church at Ramsgate, which I have posted about here, here, and here. You can't get a very good idea of the church and monastery from my pictures (because I was concentrating on the stained glass windows), and so I therefore feel it's my duty to recommend the most recent episode of Songs of Praise, which will be available on iplayer until Sunday. It's an excellent programme, featuring some wonderful hymns (including two classics by members of my own college, 'Thy hand, O God, has guided' and 'Angel-voices ever singing', though without the best verse...), and you get to see lots of Ramsgate and other Pugin churches. And to hear about St Augustine and King Ethelbert, of course.


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Medieval Love Poem: Where I have chosen, steadfast will I be

Where I have chosen, steadfast will I be,
Never to repent in will, thought nor deed,
You to serve, whatever ye command me,
Never it withdraw for any manner of dread.
Thus am I bound by your godlyhead,
Which hath me caused, and that in every wise
While I in life endure, to do you my service.

Your desert can none other deserve,
Which is in my remembrance both day and night.
Before all creatures I you love and serve
While in this world I have strength and might,
Which is in duty, of very due right,
By promise made with faithful assurance,
Ever you to serve without variance.

This is another anonymous poem from the fifteenth-century Findern manuscript (like this one and also this). Because some of the Findern poems were probably written by women, this is sometimes described as a 'married woman's affirmation of her vows', or similar. I suppose you can read it that way (making it a more unusual kind of text, which is perhaps why critics find that interpretation attractive), but there's no explicit indication of gender in either direction, and the emphasis on serving the beloved might equally work within the conventions of medieval poetry by men addressing women.

Either way, it is unusual in a number of respects. I like that the emphasis is on the beloved's innate worth (godlyhead) rather than any other quality, such as physical beauty. It shares this feature with the other Findern poems I've posted - none commit themselves to a description of the beloved or say anything about him/her at all, really. There's no attempt to justify or explain the lover's feelings, and because the poem is addressed to the beloved and not some imagined audience, it has a more intimate feel than many medieval love lyrics - it's not 'my lover is beautiful and let me tell you about her' (as this is, for instance), but just 'I love you'. This is, of course, why we can't be sure of the genders involved. It creates a sense of directness and plain-speaking - this could almost be a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The artlessness is an illusion, of course; the poem is elegantly constructed. The syntax of the last three lines of the first verse is particularly nice (paraphrase: 'I am bound to this by your great worth, which has caused me, in every way, as long as my life lasts, to serve you'). I like how the poem plays with the language and the paradoxical ideas of freedom and obligation. The lover is bound by a promise s/he has freely chosen, but at the same time the promise made was, in a sense, compelled by the innate worth of the beloved: love is a 'duty, [born] of due right'. My favourite line is 'Your desert can none other deserve' which is almost tautological but not quite - it means, roughly, 'You deserve so much that you can deserve nothing else but this (to be loved and served by me)'.

Essentially the poem says 'Your goodness is such that I am bound to love you, and having made myself bound to love and serve you, I will keep my promise without changing or repenting of it.' I think this poet would have agreed with Chesterton on the subject of marriage vows:

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words - 'free-love' - as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

"Where I have chosen, steadfast will I be". That first line reminds me of the opening of this song, the lament of another woman unshakeably faithful to her lover:

Here's the unmodernised text of the poem:

Where Y haue chosyn, stedefast woll I be,
Newyre to repente in wyll, thowt ne dede,
Yow to sarue watt ye commaund me,
Neuer hyt withdrawe for no maner drede.
Thus am Y bownd by yowre godelyhede,
Wych hathe me causyd, and that in euery wyse
Wyle I in lyfe endure, to do yow my servyse.

Yowre desertt can none odere deserue,
Wych ys in my remembrauns both day and nyght.
Afore al creaturus I yow loue and serue
Wyle in thys world I haue strength and myght,
Wych ys in dewte, of very dwe ryght,
By promys made with feythful assuraunce,
Euer to yow sarue withowtyn varyaunce.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Call off thoughts awhile elsewhere; leave comfort root-room

My own heart let me have more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather - as skies
Betweenpie mountains - lights a lovely mile.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Lo! In thine honest eyes

Lo! In thine honest eyes I read
The auspicious beacon that shall lead,
After long sailing in deep seas,
To quiet havens in June ease.

Thy voice sings like an inland bird
First by the seaworn sailor heard;
And like road sheltered from life's sea
Thine honest heart is unto me.

In June I often think of this wonderful little poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. It reminds me of Stevenson's more famous 'Requiem' - all about seas and homes and havens. It's almost two years since I posted it here, so it's high time we had it again; the 'honest eyes' of the one for whose sake I then loved it did not prove very auspicious after all, but I still like the poem...

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The great forerunner of the morn

John the Baptist in BL Stowe 12 f.257

Yesterday I almost posted Bede's hymn for St Æthelthryth, but decided against it; so today I'll make it up to him by posting his hymn for St John the Baptist. 'Praecursor altus luminis' was rendered into English by J. M. Neale, and if you look at Bede's lengthy hymn below (I got the Latin text from here) you'll see what a sterling job Neale did in making it singable. In my experience only the first four verses are usually sung, which is a shame: 5-6, envisaging a conversation between Christ and God the Father, are in some ways the most interesting. I've mentioned before that I love hymns which contain rhetorical questions, but more importantly, it's a shame to lose the phrase "the day-star's gleam"...

For another under-appreciated John the Baptist hymn, see this post.

1. The great forerunner of the morn,
The herald of the Word, is born:
And faithful hearts shall never fail
With thanks and praise his light to hail.

2. With heavenly message Gabriel came,
That John should be that herald’s name,
And with prophetic utterance told
His actions great and manifold.

3. John, still unborn, yet gave aright
His witness to the coming Light;
And Christ, the Sun of all the earth,
Fulfilled that witness at His birth.

4. Of woman born shall never be
A greater prophet than was he,
Whose mighty deeds exalt his fame
To greater than a prophet’s name.

5. But why should mortal accents raise
The hymn of John the Baptist’s praise?
Of whom, or e’er his course was run,
Thus spake the Father to the Son?

6. "Behold, My herald, who shall go
Before Thy face Thy way to show,
And shine, as with the day-star’s gleam,
Before Thine own eternal beam."

7. All praise to God the Father be,
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
Whom with the Spirit we adore
Forever and forevermore.

Elham, Kent

Praecursor altus luminis
Et praeco verbi nascitur;
Laetare, cor fidelium,
Lucemque gaudens accipe.
Miranda cuius saeculi
Natiuitas per angelum
Innotuit parentibus.
Pia fide iam praeditis.
Sublime cui uocabulum
Iohannes ipse Gabriel
Imponit, et clarissima
Ipsius acta praecinit.
Qui matris adhuc paruulus
Vulua retentus, spiritum
Percepit almus gratiae,
Testis futurus gratiae.
Necdumque natus iam dedit
De luce testimonium,
Quod natus admirabili
Compleuit ipse in gloria.
Hic plurimos ex Israel
Christi fidei subdidit
Et corda patrum in filios,
Docens superna, transtulit.
In Eliae qui spiritu
Venit prophetae, semitam
Parare Christo ac plebibus
Iter salutis pandere
Quo feminarum in filiis
Propheta maior nullus est,
Quin ipse miris actibus
Plus quam propheta claruit.
Baptisma poenitentiae
Qui praedicabat ac dedit,
Turbasque Jesu gratiae,
Illuminandas obtulit.
Ipsumque Jesum qui omnia
Sancto lauans in spiritu
Emundat, in Jordanici
Tinxit fluento gurgitis.
Et baptizato protinus
Aperta uidit aethera.
Nobis suo baptismate
Pandit polique regiam.
Atque in columba Spiritum
Illum super descendere
Vidit, doli qui nescius
Mentes requirit simplices.
Audiuit et uocem Patris:
Dilectus hic est Filius
A saeculo, dixit, meus,
In quo mihi complacui.
Edoctus his oraculis
Baptista Jesum praedicat
Natum Dei, qui in Spiritu
Sancto fideles abluat.
Quid sermo noster amplius
Huius canat praeconia?
De quo Patris uox Filio
Olim locuta praecinit:
En, mitto, dixit, angelum,
Tuam paret qui semitam
Vultuque praecurrat tuum
Solem rubens ut Lucifer.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

St John's Eve

It's Midsummer Eve, although you wouldn't know it from the torrential rain currently pouring down outside my window. I had plans to go gathering roses tonight (if you pick a rose on Midsummer Eve, it will last until Christmas) but I'll have to be content with the dried petals I already have. This site has some nice suggestions for Midsummer customs and wikipedia has an exhaustive list of traditions around the world, but the ones I like best are (of course) the Scandinavian and the English ones. Thus, I am scattering rose petals, lighting a candle - a bonfire is not very practical in student accommodation, and in any case the citations here suggest people have been burning candles on St John's Eve for at least five hundred years - and listening to this song:

Hark, says the fair maid, the nightingale is singing,
The larks they are ringing their notes up in the air.
Small birds and turtledoves on every bough are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering; arise, my dear.

Rise up, my fair one, and pick your love a posy,
It is the finest flower that ever my eyes did see.
It's I will bring you posies, both lily-white pinks and roses;
There's none so fair a flower as the lad I adore.

Lemady, Lemady, you are a lovely creature,
You are the fairest flower that ever my eyes did see.
I'll play you a tune all on the pipes of ivory
So early in the morning before break of day.

Arise and pick a posy, sweet lily-pink and rosy,
It is the finest flower that ever I did see.
Small birds and turtledoves on every bough are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering; arise, my dear.

This is a Midsummer song because it's a version of this Midsummer Carol. 'Lemady' is probably not a person but a misunderstanding of lemman, Middle English 'lover, sweetheart' (on which see this post). It has nothing to do with lemons...

The Lady Etheldreda, Nun and Avenger

Etheldreda at lovely Fritton, Norfolk

23 June is the feast-day of St Etheldreda of Ely, arguably the most important female saint from Anglo-Saxon England. Etheldreda (also known as Æthelthryth, the Old English form of her name, or as Audrey, a familiar late-medieval version) was the founder of a great monastery and the first in an influential dynasty of royal saints. The story of her life is told in this section of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica: briefly, she was the daughter of the king of the East Angles, who despite being married twice preserved her virginity in hope of being able to pursue a religious life. She was eventually able to part from her second husband, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, and fulfilled her wish to become a nun. After a year at the abbey of Coldingham she went to Ely, an island in the Fens situated within her family's ancestral kingdom, where she founded her own abbey with two other women. She died there on 23 June 679. Bede composed a hymn to Etheldreda, which concludes:

Ah bride of Christ, bright fame on earth is thine!
More bright in Heaven thy bridal torches shine.
Exultant hymns proclaim in glad accord:
No power henceforth may part thee from thy Lord.

Ely became a kind of royal family monastery: after Etheldreda's death her sister Seaxburh succeeded her as abbess, to be followed by Seaxburh's daughter Eormenhild, and so on. These powerful women all became honoured as saints and were collectively referred to as the 'lady saints' of Ely - of whom Etheldreda was the first and greatest. Here are some of them in a fifteenth-century English Nottingham alabaster (on display in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich; I apologise for my terrible picture!):

Etheldreda is the one on the top row with the crown; the others on the top row (except the one on the far left, who is St Barbara) are conjectured to be the other lady saints, Etheldreda's relatives Wihtburh, Seaxburh and Eormenhild.

And here's Etheldreda depicted in golden glory in the tenth-century Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f. 90v), where she's the only English woman so honoured:

The opening of the blessing for St Etheldreda's day in the same manuscript (f. 91):

The East Anglian royal house died out two centuries after Etheldreda's lifetime, but her abbey was refounded in the tenth century by the man for whom this glorious manuscript was made, Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester. His Benedictional presents Etheldreda as one of the chief saints of the English church, one of only two Anglo-Saxon saints given this kind of prominent full-page miniature in the manuscript (the other is Winchester's own St Swithun).

After its refoundation Ely Abbey, of which Etheldreda was patron in life and death, went from strength to strength. It was one of a group of immensely powerful and influential monasteries which dominated the Fenland before and after the Norman Conquest. To illustrate how important it was that kings should win the favour of St Etheldreda, I have to link here to my favourite stories telling how the Danish conqueror Cnut made great efforts to woo the lady of Ely: the tale of Cnut's song and his trip across the icy fen.

Etheldreda in a 14th-century English manuscript, BL Stowe 12 f. 256v

What I find particularly interesting about St Etheldreda - which you might not expect from her life-story - is that in the Ely stories about her appearances after death she's presented as a kind of warrior-queen, a fierce defender of Ely's interests, who could swoop down with frightening power on anyone who attacked her monastery. The monks of Ely (it was a double monastery of monks and nuns in Etheldreda's time, but men-only after its 10th-century refoundation) were apparently perfectly happy to think of their female patron saint as a tough, defend-the-right avenger who could make a Viking cry like a baby.

(Actually she blinded a Viking (who had tried to plunder her tomb) but it's the same thing; see Liber Eliensis i.41.)

Medieval religious houses living in unstable times had few weapons to use in their own defence, but one of their best was the support of a supernatural protector who would avenge their insults and fend off their attackers. Ely had a particularly turbulent time after the Norman Conquest: it gave shelter to various anti-Norman rebels, including Hereward the Wake, and as a result was besieged for a time in 1069-1070. So it was in need of its defender. Here's a characteristic story, the Ely account of the punishment meted out to a Norman named Gervase, deputy of the sheriff Picot, who was (in the opinion of the monks of Ely) unjustly oppressing the monastery:

This man was extremely hostile to St Æthelthryth's people and, as if he had undertaken a special campaign against her, assailed the whole of her property with oppression, whenever he could. So everyone who was for whatever reason oppressed by him, confronted him with the name of the lady saint, with the aim that he might act with greater restraint: he would put one in fetters, pronounce condemnation on another, keep calling another to court, keep on afflicting another with cruelty...

[The abbot is summoned to appear in court against Gervase.]

On the night preceding the day on which the abbot was to come there, St Æthelthryth appeared in the form of an abbess with a pastoral staff, along with her two sisters, and stood before him, just like an angry woman, and reviled him in a terrifying manner as follows: 'Are you the man who has been so often harassing my people - the people whose patroness I am - holding me in contempt? And have you not yet desisted from disturbing the peace of my church? What you shall have, then, as your reward is this: that others shall learn through you not to harass the household of Christ.' And she lifted the staff which she was carrying and implanted its point heavily in the region of his heart, as if to pierce him through. Then her sisters, St Wihtburh and St Seaxburh... wounded him with the hard points of their staves.

Gervase, to be sure, with his terrible groaning and horrible screaming, disturbed the whole of his household as they lay round about him: in the hearing of them all he said, "Lady, have mercy! Lady, have mercy!" On hearing this, the servants came running and enquired the reason for his distress. There was a noise round about Gervase as he lay there and he said to them, "Do you not see St Æthelthryth going away? How she pierced my chest with the sharp end of her staff, while her saintly sisters did likewise? And look, a second time she is returning to impale me, and now I shall die, since finally she has impaled me." And with these words he breathed his last.

Now that this outcome had been arrived at, people went to meet the abbot; the matter was recounted, the abbot returned, and the report spread through the whole of the country. The lady saint became feared among all those who lived nearby, and for a long time none of the nobles, judges, administrators or men who had any power, dared to commit any outrage with respect to the property of Ely, because the holy virgin protected her possessions everywhere in manful fashion.

From the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis, ii.132, translated by Janet Fairweather in Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), pp.252-3.

The story was perhaps inspired by legends about St Edmund of East Anglia's revenge on Svein Forkbeard, and is a piece of wish-fulfilment for the people of an occupied country, who looked to Etheldreda as their best hope of defence.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Crowned with the light of memory

A nameless poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Dicksee, 'Memories'

Though deep indifference should drowse
The sluggish life beneath my brows,
And all the external things I see
Grow snow-showers in the street to me,
Yet inmost in my stormy sense
Thy looks shall be an influence.

Though other loves may come and go
And long years sever us below,
Shall the thin ice that grows above
Freeze the deep centre-well of love?
No, still below light amours, thou
Shalt rule me as thou rul'st me now.

Year following year shall only set
Fresh gems upon thy coronet;
And Time, grown lover, shall delight
To beautify thee in my sight;
And thou shalt ever rule in me
Crowned with the light of memory.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

In grief and anguish of my heart

Apologies for the slow blogging around here recently; at the moment just managing to get up in the morning counts as a major achievement, and anything else is a bonus. This morning, as I contemplated the imminent disaster that is my post-DPhil life, I remembered this poem, and it was a little glimmer of light. It's by Michael Drayton, and is based on the second chapter of the Book of Jonah.

It goes well with this:

The Song of Jonah in the Whale's Belly

In grief and anguish of my heart, my voice I did extend
Unto the Lord, and he therto a willing ear did lend:
Even from the deep and darkest pit, & the infernal lake,
To me he hath bow'd down his ear, for his great mercy's sake.
For thou into the middest, of surging seas so deep
Hast cast me forth: whose bottom is, so low & wondrous steep.
Whose mighty wallowing waves, which from the floods do flow,
Have with their power up swallowed me, & overwhelm'd me tho.
Then said I, lo, I am exiled from presence of thy face,
Yet will I once again behold, thy house and dwelling place.
The waters have encompassed me, the floods inclosed me round,
The weeds have sore encumbered me, which in the seas abound.
Unto the valleys down I went, beneath the hils which stand,
The earth hath there environ'd me, with force of all the land.
Yet hast thou still preserved me, from all these dangers here,
And brought my life out of the pit, oh Lord my God so dear.
My soul consuming thus with care, I prayed unto the Lord,
And he from out his holy place, heard me with one accord.
Who to vain lying vanities doth wholly him betake,
Doth err also, God's mercy he doth utterly forsake.
But I will offer unto him the sacrifice of praise,
And pay my vows, ascribing thanks unto the Lord always.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Aldhelm and A Confederacy of Idiots

Anglo-Saxon religious manuals don't often feature on the pages of the Daily Mail, but today I read this article:

The only way is no sex: Book of advice from 1,300 years ago shows even then the church had concerns about 'untamed impulses of bodily wantonness' among Essex girls

Essex girls don't exactly have a reputation for being paragons of virtue - and it seems 1,300 years ago that was no different.

A book of advice issued to nuns in the 7th century has revealed that even then the church had concerns about their conduct.

The book shows a senior cleric's disgust at the amount of flesh the nuns of Barking Abbey put on show and their relationship with the opposite sex.

It warns the congregation to dress appropriately and to avoid garments which 'set off' the body before giving a series of pointers to the girls on the benefits of virginity and how to avoid the sin of pride.
The author of De Laude Virginitatis [In Praise of Virginity] is the Anglo-Saxon cleric Aldhelm, who goes on to say he is ashamed of the nuns' 'bold impudence' and 'stupidity'.

He tells the nuns that abstinence from sex is not enough - their 'stainlessness of bodily virginity' must be accompanied by a 'chastity of the spirit' if they are to avoid the 'untamed impulses of bodily wantonness'.

Sigh. The actual news story buried among all the nonsense is that Sotheby's is selling four pages from a manuscript of De Laude Virginitatis, a Latin text written in the seventh century for the nuns of Barking by Aldhelm, one of the greatest scholars Anglo-Saxon England ever produced. It goes without saying, I hope, that there is no substance whatsoever to the 'sexy nuns' interpretation put on this story by both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and international news outlets who have subsequently copied them (large parts of the Mail and Telegraph stories are word-for-word identical, so either one of them is copying and pasting from the other, or else they both plagarized the same source without giving credit; nice to see the very highest journalistic standards at work here).

So let's deal with the facts quickly: is Aldhelm's text a 'rule-book' telling the nuns not to dress so sexily? Of course it isn't. That's insulting to Aldhelm, to the nuns of Barking, and to the intelligence of us all. It's not a rule-book or a rant, but a treatise written in praise of the principle of virginity, addressed to women who had already made vows of chastity - standard Christian doctrine and practice, then and now. Aldhelm explains why virginity is valued by the Church; he cites examples from the lives of saints; he considers the dangers of sexual misbehaviour, including immodest dress, to society and the individual soul. He's not lecturing; the nuns doubtless already agreed with him, as would every orthodox Christian from the seventh century until this day.

But this would not make for a story in the Daily Mail. In fact, auctions of medieval manuscripts are not very headline-worthy, and so I can only assume it was someone at Sotheby's who decided 'No sexy outfits for nuns' was a good spin to put on the story, and one which would get them some publicity. The journalists reporting the story demonstrate remarkable shallowness of mind, but idiotic and insulting as the 'Essex girls' twist is, the real distortion here comes from the person who fed the quotes from Aldhelm to the press. Someone knew Aldhelm's work well enough to quote it and describe him, but thought it was OK to misrepresent him and the nature of the text. I hope I'm not alone in finding that reprehensible.

Presumably that person wasn't Timothy Bolton, who is quoted in the article doing his valiant best to explain the facts in a way which is both interesting and, you know, accurate:

Timothy Bolton, a specialist in western medieval manuscripts at Sotheby’s, said: “Aldhelm’s work is remarkable because there simply aren’t any texts by English authors addressed to women before this.
"He expects the nuns to study and understand his sophisticated writings, raising the bar of education for women to the same level of men, becoming the first English feminist author.”

To anyone with a scrap of intellectual curiosity, this is far more intriguing than the newspapers' version. The truth is always better than a cliche! To call Aldhelm 'the first English feminist author' is a tiny bit of a stretch, but yes, it is remarkable that in seventh-century England a group of nuns could be expected to understand Aldhelm's difficult Latin. Aldhelm was a great scholar (one might estimate his brain-power at approximately 60 Daily Mail journalists): he knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew and wrote poetry and prose of astonishing complexity, and the subjects he is known to have studied (at Canterbury in 670-3) included Roman law, the 100 different types of poetic metre, the technicalities of marrying verse with chant, mathematical calculation and astronomy.* Can you do any of that stuff? I can't. And this is in seventh-century England, an era most people still call the Dark Ages, and in a period when only a tiny minority of people could read or write.

(*Unlike professional journalists, I cite my sources: Nicholas Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury: Christ Church from 597 to 1066 (Leicester, 1984), pp.94-7).

That a scholar like Aldhelm was writing for the nuns of Barking is a great compliment to their intelligence. Anglo-Saxon nunneries were powerhouses of women's education: they fostered the education of women to an extent that was impossible in lay society, and to be a nun was to have opportunities for learning which were not to become available to most women for centuries. St Hilda is one excellent example of a woman widely respected for her learning and wisdom, and there are numerous others. What makes the 'Essex girl nuns' thing especially galling is that Barking Abbey had a particularly strong tradition of educated women throughout the medieval period: the nuns not only formed a responsive audience for sophisticated authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin but several nuns, in the post-Conquest period, composed their own poetry and prose, making them some of the earliest known female authors in England. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne has described Barking as "perhaps the longest-lived, albeit not continuously recorded, institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history". Representing these nuns as a bunch of provocatively-dressed Essex girls is kind of sickening, actually. Who is denigrating women here - Aldhelm, who believed the women of Barking could appreciate a learned Latin treatise, or the twenty-first century media, who are only interested in the fact that he was talking to nuns about sex?

I wasn't originally going to post about this story, since my first thought when I read it was 'What do you expect from the Daily Mail?' (I did once expect better from the Telegraph, but its online edition is getting dumber by the day). I shrugged and moved on, but then I had second thoughts. A story like this goes around the internet, and people comment on it, and blog about it (under titles like 'Medieval dress code for nuns put up for auction', as if that's all it is!), and base arguments about the Church on it which are entirely inaccurate - because the basic premise is distorted. Does it matter? I think so. Remember that stupid pyjamas story I blogged about last month? That was based entirely on a misrepresentation of the situation, and contributed to a public view of Oxford that is false and damaging. The misrepresentation could have been easily corrected (yes, reader from a Daily Mail IP address, I saw you reading my blogpost half an hour before you posted your inaccurate rubbish), but it wasn't, despite the college's efforts, and the lie is more memorable than the truth. But the truth should at least be out there on the internet for someone to discover.

The public perception of medieval religion is, in general, mind-blowingly ignorant and inaccurate. A story like this plays into an utterly false narrative about the medieval Church's oppressive treatment of women, while also encouraging the objectification of nuns in a way that is repulsively sexist - and is, in fact, a wholly modern phenomenon (look at this treatment of the story, if you can bear it). The journalists churning out their stories should know better, but the really shocking behaviour here is that of the person who allowed this - encouraged it, even - by presenting the text to the media as a 'dress code for slutty nuns'.

This kind of thing is exactly how public engagement in academia should not be done. I'm all for promoting public knowledge of medieval literature; I think it's vital precisely in order to counter the widespread ignorance this story exemplifies. But if you do it in this way, by distorting the truth and encouraging sloppy mischaracterisations of the facts, you're doing everyone a disservice. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who had never heard of Aldhelm now have an impression of him as a woman-hating slut-shamer, and think that the educated nuns of Barking were a bunch of promiscuous Essex girls who had to be lectured about their trashy behaviour. That's disgraceful.

Let me finish by quoting what a nun of Barking wrote, a few centuries after Aldhelm's death, in the introduction to a text she herself translated from Latin into Anglo-Norman (she is Clemence, arguably the first known woman author from England):

All those who know and understand what is good have a duty to demonstrate it wisely.

Every scholar should take this to heart. If you're lucky enough to have studied something really interesting, and you want to tell people about it, you have a duty to do so wisely, accurately, and honestly. You have no right to distort the truth for the purpose of getting headlines and hits in the Daily Mail, and if you do, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Something Cool

I've always had a bit of an addiction to recordings of poetry read aloud, and as a teenager one of my favourite collections was Ted Hughes' 'By Heart', an anthology intended to encourage the memorising of poetry. Ted Hughes had the most fantastic voice and his readings are idiosyncratic but absolutely brilliant (also: very easy for the listener to memorise, though usually complete with Hughes' own peculiar phrasing!). Someone has put the whole collection on youtube, and I thoroughly recommend it. This is part one (of four):

'Inversnaid' at 7:45 is particularly wonderful, and search out 'Donal Og' at about 10:25; it will break your heart.

Some of my favourites are on part two - Mad Tom's Song, 'Stop all the Clocks', Betjeman's 'A Subaltern's Love Song'... But it's all excellent.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

On this last and lovely night

My Dark-Haired Maid

Mo nighean dubh, the hills are bright,
And on this last and lovely night,
I'd fain frae auld Knockgowan's height
Look owre the glen wi' thee.
Never mair we'll tread its heather,
Never doun the lea
Liltin' will we shear thegither,
Fu' o' mirth and glee,
Fortune's blasts o' wintry weather
Drive us owre the sea,
But lang's we're blest wi' ane anither,
Fie! let fears gae flee.
Yet see, my dear, the hills are bright,
And on this last and lovely night
I'd fain frae auld Knockgowan's height
Look owre the glen wi' thee.

Mo nighean dubh, 'twas there we met,
And O! that hour is precious yet,
When first my honest vow could get
Love's tearfu' smile frae thee.
Hearts were pledged ere either knew it,
What's to be maun be,
Mine was tint ere I could trow o't
Wi' that glancing e'e.
Dear Knockgowan and the view o't
Ne'er again we'll see,
O let me gang and tak adieu o't
Laoth ma chree, wi' thee.
Mo nighean dubh, 'twas there we met,
And O! that hour is precious yet,
When first my honest vow could get
Love's tearfu' smile frae thee.

The words to this song were written for the tune 'Mo nighean dubh' by Dr John Park (1805-1865), who was a Presbyterian minister in St Andrews. According to Songs of the North, whence I got the text, 'Laoth ma chree' is a Gaelic expression which means literally "calf of my heart". This is Percy Grainger's choral version of the song:

Friday, 15 June 2012

Considering the lilies

Two poems by Christina Rossetti, based on Matthew 6:25-34:

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Consider (1866)

The lilies of the field whose bloom is brief:—
We are as they;
Like them we fade away,
As doth a leaf.

The sparrows of the air of small account:
Our God doth view
Whether they fall or mount,—
He guards us too.

The lilies that do neither spin nor toil,
Yet are most fair:—
What profits all this care
And all this coil?

The birds that have no barn nor harvest-weeks;
God gives them food:—
Much more our Father seeks
To do us good.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Flowers preach to us if we will hear:--
The rose saith in the dewy morn:
I am most fair;
Yet all my loveliness is born
Upon a thorn.
The poppy saith amid the corn:
Let but my scarlet head appear
And I am held in scorn;
Yet juice of subtle virtue lies
Within my cup of curious dyes.
The lilies say: Behold how we
Preach without words of purity.
The violets whisper from the shade
Which their own leaves have made:
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read.
But not alone the fairest flowers:
The merest grass
Along the roadside where we pass,
Lichen and moss and sturdy weed,
Tell of His love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed.

The second is better, to my taste (some of the rhymes in the first are a little dodgy) - but it's interesting that she was moved to write two such different poems on the theme.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Psalm Translations: I was glad

Some medieval translations of Psalm 122 (123), which we've been hearing rather a lot in this Jubilee year, because of its use in the coronation service. I like this psalm very much in its Book of Common Prayer formulation, so I was curious to see how earlier translators had rendered it.

To start with the most familiar version, this is the BCP:

1. I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
2. Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
3. Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
4. For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
5. For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
6. O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
7. Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
8. For my brethren and companions' sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
9. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.

I was disappointed not to be able to find a version of this set to Anglican chant on youtube; there's at least one particularly lovely setting, and the words really lend themselves to that aesthetic, especially the first declaration "I was glad" and the gorgeous rich alliteration of 6-8: pray, peace, prosper, plenteousness, palaces, prosperity... So much fun to sing!

However, I suppose we ought to have a link here to Parry instead:

And now for some medieval translations. Here's the Latin from which most of the medieval translators were working:

1. Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi in domum Domini ibimus.
2. Stantes erant pedes nostri in atriis tuis Hierusalem.
3. Hierusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas cuius par ticipatio eius in id ipsum.
4. Illic enim ascenderunt tribus tribus Domini testimonium Israel ad confitendum nomini Domini.
5. Quia illic sederunt sedes in iudicium sedes super domum David.
6. Rogate quae ad pacem sunt Hierusalem et abundantia diligentibus te.
7. Fiat pax in virtute tua et abundantia in turribus tuis.
8. Propter fratres meos et proximos meos loquebar pacem de te.
9. Propter domum Domini Dei nostri quaesivi bona tibi.

Here's an Old English translation from the Paris Psalter (online here) - this is from the tenth century. I've inserted verse numbers which match up with the Latin, so you can compare.

(1) Ic on ðyssum eom eallum bliðe,
þæt me cuðlice to acweden syndon,
and on godes hus gange syððan.

(2) Wæron fæststealle fotas mine
on þinum cafertunum, þær ure cyðð wæs,
on Hierusalem geara ærest.

(3) Hierusalem, geara ðu wære
swa swa cymlic ceaster getimbred,
þær syndon dælas on sylfre hire.

(4) þær cneorisse cende wæron
cynn æfter cynne; cuðan þa drihten
and on þære gewitnesse wæran Israelas,
þe his naman neode sceoldon
him andetnes æghwær habban.

(5) Oft hi þær on seldon sæton æt domum;
þu eart ðonne dema, Dauides hus,
þæt on heofenum siteþ heah gestaðelod.

(6) Biddað eow bealde beorhtere sibbe,
ða ðe on Hierusalem gode syndan;
and geniht agun, þa þe neode þe
on heora lufun lustum healdað.

(7) Si þe on þinum mægene sib mæst and fyrmest,
and on þinum torrum wese tidum genihtsum.

(8) For mine broðru ic bidde nu,
and mine þa neahstan nemne swylce,
þæt we sibbe on ðe symble habbon.

(9) And ic for mines godes huse georne þingie,
and to minum drihtne deorum sece,
þæt ic god æt him begitan mote.

This is a poetic translation, not a literal one, and I'll discuss the vocabulary in a moment; first, let's have two later translations (both from the fourteenth century). This is a Wycliffite translation:

1. I am glad in these thingis, that ben seid to me; We schulen go in to the hous of the Lord.
2. Oure feet weren stondynge; in thi hallis, thou Jerusalem.
3. Jerusalem, which is bildid as a citee; whos part taking therof is in to the same thing.
4. For the lynagis, the lynagis of the Lord stieden thidir, the witnessing of Israel; to knouleche to the name of the Lord.
5. For thei saten there on seetis in doom; seetis on the hous of Dauid.
6. Preie ye tho thingis, that ben to the pees of Jerusalem; and abundaunce be to hem that louen thee.
7. Pees be maad in thi vertu; and abundaunce in thi touris.
8. For my britheren and my neiyboris; Y spak pees of thee.
9. For the hous of oure Lord God; Y souyte goodis to thee.

And this is from the Surtees Psalter:

1. I am faine in þa þate saide are to me:
“In hous ofe lauerd ga sal we”.

2. Standande ware our fete als beme
In þi porches ofe Iherusaleme.

3. Ierusalem, þat bigged als cite isse,
Ofe wham in him-selfe del-taking hisse.

4. Þider sothlike vpstegh on heght
Kinde, kinde ofe lauerd reght,
Witnes ofe Irael þe same,
For to schriue to lauerdes name.

5. For þare sat þai setels in dome with,
Setel ouer þe hous ofe Dauid.

6. Biddes whilke at pais ere Ierusalem land,
And mightsomnes to þe louand.

7. Pais be in þi might esse,
And in þi toures mightsomnes.

8. For mi brethre and mi neghburghs be,
Spake I mikel pais of þe.

9. For hous ofe lauerd, our god es he,
Soght I godes vnto þe.

The first words of this psalm gives us an opportunity to explore medieval terms for happiness - "Laetatus sum!" Last time I did one of these psalm translation posts, I ended up talking about various kinds of curses, and the time before that it was words for sorrow and sadness, but this is a nicer subject! These three translations have, respectively, blithe, glad, and fain, all lovely words. The Old English begins Ic eom bliðe, which means 'I am glad, I rejoice'. Modern English blithe can have slightly negative overtones ('oblivious, careless'), but it was entirely positive in Old English: in this case it means 'glad, merry, joyful', but it could also mean 'kind, mild, gentle, merciful' (cf., I suppose, the last of these terms of endearment). Blithe and glad are both Old English words and together they became a very common phrase in Middle English poetry - "ever he was glad and blithe", says the author of Havelok about the most good-humoured hero in English literature. Fain often appears in these doublet phrases too - glad and fain, fain and merry, blithe and fain, all largely interchangeable. (Mentioning fain means I also have to give a link here to this post about one particularly lovely phrase - 'as fain as a bird when the day dawns'.)

An interesting feature of all three words is that they share a similar three-fold range of meaning, according to the OED: 1) the primary sense, 'glad, joyful', 2) 'kind, mild, gentle', and 3) 'beautiful', literally and metaphorically, and in the case of both glad and blithe, 'shining, bright'. I think it's delightful that these three qualities meet in these words; it's both more vague and more precise than our sense of gladness. It's a bit like how Old English uses 'bright' to describe anything lovely - on the one hand it seems thoughtless and just a meaningless stock phrase (as sometimes it is), but it also expresses something of a sense of what constitutes beauty. Similarly, glad, blithe and fain (and also merry) tell us about what constitutes happiness in medieval literature. Happiness is not exactly a feeling, or not just a feeling - these words all suggest a particular kind of cheerfulness which is also a moral quality, an indwelling sense of joy which is the rejoicing of the angels but also expresses itself in everyday courtesy, simple kindness and generosity. I think that to understand this helps make various things about medieval literature more comprehensible - saints' lives, for instance. A saint like Edward the Confessor is often credited with a mild cheerfulness which doesn't entirely fit with our idea of how a royal saint should behave (in these stories, for instance), and saintly jests are a mini-genre of their own (think of Wulfstan's 'Cat of God' joke). It seems almost undignified to us, but I think it's supposed to express a sense of abiding light-heartedness, a constant rejoicing in God which makes for gentleness and a peaceful spirit.

This question reminds me a little of what Chesterton says about pre-modern joy as embodied in the works of Dickens, and C. S. Lewis talks about this somewhere when he describes medieval ideas of what it is to be 'jovial'. We tend to denigrate medieval merriment as the stereotyped jolliness of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood - contrived tricks and schemes, and sudden bursts of slightly forced laughter. Medieval gladness is somehow 'lighter' than that - if the Green Knight is jovial, Gawain is constantly glad (and not just because it alliterates with his name!). In the romances such gladness belongs to courteous heroes, good-humoured and humble, generous and open-handed. In an utterly characteristic passage, Langland describes Charity as follows, while riffing on 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

He is glad with alle glade and good til alle wikkede,
And leneth and loveth alle that Oure Lord made.
Corseth he no creature, ne he kan bere no wrathe,
Ne no likynge hath to lye ne laughe men to scorne.
Al that men seyn, he leet it sooth, and in solace taketh,
And alle manere meschiefs in myldenesse he suffreth.
Coveiteth he noon erthely good but heveneriche blisse...
For Charite is Goddes champion, and as a good child hende,
And the murieste of mouth at mete where he sitteth.
The love that lith in his herte maketh hym light of speche,
And is compaignable and confortatif, as Crist bit hymselve:
Nolite fieri sicut ypocrite tristes &c.
For I have seyen hym in silk and som tyme in russet,
Bothe in grey, and in grys, and in gilt harneis -
And as gladliche he it gaf to gomes that it neded.

[He is glad with all who are glad [i.e. 'rejoices with those who rejoice'] and good to all the wicked, and gives freely and loves all whom Our Lord made. He curses no creature, and bears no grudges, and never takes delight in lying or laughing men to scorn. All that people say he trusts to be the truth, and takes it as comfort, and he bears every kind of injury with mildness. He covets no earthly good, only the bliss of heaven... For Charity is God's champion, as gracious as a well-behaved child, and the merriest in conversation at dinner wherever he goes. The love that lies in his heart makes him light of speech, and he is sociable and cheerful, as Christ himself taught: 'Do not be sad like the hypocrites [Matt. 6:16]'. For I have seen Charity in silk and in woolen cloth, both in rich furs and in gilt armour - and he gave it away gladly to anyone who needed it.]

That says it all - no sour-faced saints here! St Paul doesn't actually mention cheerfulness and good dinner-table conversation as expressions of Love, but in my experience they really can be. "The love that lith in his herte maketh hym light of speche" - how beautiful.

Oh right, the psalm. I'll just point one or two more things:
- Note that in the Old English Jerusalem is a ceaster, which is the OE word for a fortified city like a Roman castrum, and therefore the source of many English place names of towns which had been Roman settlements: Chester, Worcester, Gloucester, Colchester, etc.
- I like how the Surtees Psalter has the psalmist standing "in the porches of Jerusalem"! Seems like a perfectly reasonable translation of atrium to me...
- a funny piece of linguistic history is illustrated in verse 7. The word to be translated is abundantia, 'abundance' (the BCP's splendid plenteousness). The Wycliffite translation logically renders it abundaunce. The Old English equivalent is tidum genihtsum, 'plentiful seasons'; this latter word means 'plentiful', and the Surtees Psalter's mightsomnes is sort of derived from the Old English word, but in an odd way. In Early Middle English the word genyhtsumnes became inihtsumnesse, which was rare and seems to have been misunderstood by the medieval scribes who copied it; if you imagine inihtsumnesse written in a manuscript, with all those joined-up minim strokes, you can see how a scribe unfamiliar with Old English might think the word was mihtsomnesse. Such a word had never existed in English, but in this way it was born - though it only appears in this one Psalter, a number of times. You have to sympathise with those poor scribes...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

And love that’s wakened so / Takes all too long to lay asleep again

A Memory

Rupert Brooke

Somewhile before the dawn I rose, and stept
Softly along the dim way to your room,
And found you sleeping in the quiet gloom,
And holiness about you as you slept.
I knelt there; till your waking fingers crept
About my head, and held it. I had rest
Unhoped this side of Heaven, beneath your breast.
I knelt a long time, still; nor even wept.

It was great wrong you did me; and for gain
Of that poor moment’s kindliness, and ease,
And sleepy mother-comfort! Child, you know
How easily love leaps out to dreams like these,
Who has seen them true. And love that’s wakened so
Takes all too long to lay asleep again.

Waikiki, October 1913.

Monday, 11 June 2012

"A strange, marvellous, and amiable possession"

Yesterday marked the end of a happy and beautiful period in my life: five years of Oxford Sundays. My Sundays for the past few years have had a familiar, much-loved routine (which I described here), but I'm coming to the end of my DPhil, and this is my last week of term as an Oxford student. I've actually been a student at Oxford for eight years, but the first three, though intellectually stimulating, had nothing of joy to compare to what the last five years have been at Brasenose. Indulge me now as I say goodbye to it!

I wrote about some of my college's particular qualities two years ago and called it then 'the ideal of what an academic community should be'. I still believe that and everything else I wrote in that post (except for the naive hopes about David Cameron, which I wouldn't subscribe to now). Brasenose was my 'low door in the wall', the first place in my life, other than my family home, where I loved and was loved, and felt lovable, almost even beautiful, among a group of people themselves extraordinarily beautiful in every respect. Here I met the most truly good people I have ever known, the most talented, the most generous and most original, all in their own various and diverse ways. Here I learned to treasure beauty; I unlearned the cynicism which my previous education and life in the modern world had taught me. I felt for a while that I belonged somewhere, that there were other people in the world who loved the same things as me, and that I could learn to be as good as them. I even thought sometimes that I found God here, though I'm not so sure about that now. It wouldn't be true to say I was happy here for the first time in my life, but for the first time I knew I was happy, in all senses of the word.

After a few months of this life, back in the spring of 2008, I started to keep a diary of happy moments, to consciously treasure them, and that diary is now pages and pages of blessed memories. Under the influence of Thomas Traherne, I called it the 'diary of felicity'. Happiness doesn't come easily to me by nature but felicity, I think, does, though such intensity of love can sometimes bring as much pain as pleasure - "the old stab, the old bittersweet". It's an exulting, tender, adoring kind of love, as full of wonder and awe as of affection - wonder that such beauty can exist, and that I should be allowed to witness it.

I shouldn't talk too much about what has been; I'll only make myself miserable to be leaving it - losing it, I almost said. Traherne, Brasenose-educated himself, says it all better than I can. So here are my favourites from five years of photographs of this precious place, with some of my favourite quotations from Traherne (in random order, but mostly from the third century in Centuries of Meditations).

Having been at the University, and received there the taste and tincture of another education, I saw that there were things in this world of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination. There I saw that Logic, Ethics, Physics, Metaphysics, Geometry, Astronomy, Poesy, Medicine, Grammar, Music, Rhetoric all kinds of Arts, Trades, and Mechanisms that adorned the world pertained to felicity; at least there I saw those things, which afterwards I knew to pertain unto it: and was delighted in it. There I saw into the nature of the Sea, the Heavens, the Sun, the Moon and Stars, the Elements, Minerals, and Vegetables. All which appeared like the King's Daughter, all glorious within.

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.

Our Saviour's meaning, when He said, "He must be born again and become a little child that will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" is deeper far than is generally believed. It is not only in a careless reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to become little children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger and simplicity of our passions, but in the peace and purity of all our soul. Which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended. For we must disrobe ourselves of all false colours, and unclothe our souls of evil habits; all our thoughts must be infant-like and clear; the powers of our soul free from the leaven of this world, and disentangled from men's conceits and customs. Grit in the eye or yellow jaundice will not let a man see those objects truly that are before it. And therefore it is requisite that we should be as very strangers to the thoughts, customs, and opinions of men in this world, as if we were but little children. So those things would appear to us only which do to children when they are first born.

Thenceforth I thought the Light of Heaven was in this world: I saw it possible, and very probable, that I was infinitely beloved of Almighty God, the delights of Paradise were round about me, Heaven and Earth were open to me, all riches were little things; this one pleasure being so great that it exceeded all the joys of Eden.

I remember once the first time I came into a magnificent or noble dining room, and was left there alone, I rejoiced to see the gold and state and carved imagery, but when all was dead, and there was no motion, I was weary of it, and departed dissatisfied. But afterwards, when I saw it full of lords and ladies, and music and dancing, the place which once seemed not to differ from a solitary den, had now entertainment, and nothing of tediousness but pleasure in it. By which I perceived (upon a reflection made long after) that men and women are when well understood a principal part of our true felicity.

I desired no more the honours and pleasures of this world, but gave myself to the illimited and clear fruition of that: and to this day see nothing wanting to my Felicity but mine own perfection. All other things are well; I only, and the sons of men about me, are disordered. Nevertheless could I be what I ought, their very disorders would be my enjoyments. For all things should work together for good to them that love God. And if the disorders, then certainly the troubles, and if the troubles, much more the vanities of men would be mine. Not only their enjoyments, but their very errors and distractions increasing my Felicity. So that being heir of the whole world alone, I was to walk in it, as in a strange, marvellous, and amiable possession, and alone to render praises unto God for its enjoyment.

By an act of the understanding therefore be present now with all the creatures among which you live; and hear them in their beings and operations praising God in an heavenly manner. Some of them vocally, others in their ministry, all of them naturally and continually. We infinitely wrong ourselves by laziness and confinement. All creatures in all nations, and tongues, and people praise God infinitely; and the more, for being your sole and perfect treasures. You are never what you ought till you go out of yourself and walk among them.

As in many mirrors we are so many other selves, so are we spiritually multiplied when we meet ourselves more sweetly, and live again in other persons.

The World is not this little Cottage of Heaven and Earth. Though this be fair, it is too small a Gift. When God made the World He made the Heavens, and the Heavens of Heavens, and the Angels, and the Celestial Powers. These also are parts of the World: So are all those infinite and eternal Treasures that are to abide for ever, after the Day of Judgment. Neither are these, some here, and some there, but all everywhere, and at once to be enjoyed. The World is unknown, till the Value and Glory of it is seen: till the Beauty and the Serviceableness of its parts is considered. When you enter into it, it is an illimited field of Variety and Beauty: where you may lose yourself in the multitude of Wonders and Delights. But it is an happy loss to lose oneself in admiration at one's own Felicity: and to find God in exchange for oneself: which we then do when we see Him in His Gifts, and adore His Glory.

It is the Glory of God to give all things to us in the best of all possible manners. To study things therefore under the double notion of interest and treasure, is to study all things in the best of all possible manners. Because in studying so we enquire after God's Glory, and our own happiness. And indeed enter into the way that leadeth to all contentments, joys, and satisfactions, to all praises, triumphs and thanksgivings, to all virtues, beauties, adorations and graces, to all dominion, exaltation, wisdom, and glory, to all Holiness, Union, and Communication with God, to all patience, and courage and blessedness, which it is impossible to meet any other way. So that to study objects for ostentation, vain knowledge or curiosity is fruitless impertinence, tho' God Himself and Angels be the object. But to study that which will oblige us to love Him, and feed us with nobility and goodness toward men, that is blessed. And so is it to study that which will lead us to the Temple of Wisdom, and seat us in the Throne of Glory.

I saw moreover that it did not so much concern us what objects were before us, as with what eyes we beheld them, with what affections we esteemed them, and what apprehensions we had about them. All men see the same objects, but do not equally understand them. Intelligence is the tongue that discerns and tastes them, Knowledge is the Light of Heaven, Love is the Wisdom and Glory of God, Life extended to all objects is the sense that enjoys them. So that Knowledge, Life, and Love are the very means of all enjoyment, which above all things we must seek for and labour after. All objects are in God Eternal: which we by perfecting our faculties are made to enjoy.