Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A Medieval Life of St Benedict

St Benedict, Norwich Cathedral

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St Benedict, father of Western monasticism and spiritual father of some of my favourite medieval people. It's almost impossible to overestimate the influence of the Benedictines upon medieval England, especially in the early period - name a famous Anglo-Saxon who isn't a king, and they're probably a Benedictine monk or nun. Back in March, on the anniversary of his death, I posted an extract from an Old English sermon on St Benedict (by the Benedictine monk Ælfric) and today I feel like something a bit later and a bit less scholarly. So today I'm going to post extracts from a Middle English life of St Benedict.

Ælfric is a scrupulous translator of his source, Gregory the Great's Dialogues; the anonymous author of this poem is much more free-and-easy with his material, and consequently a bit more fun to read. (Sorry, Ælfric.) It comes from the collection of English verse saints' lives known as the South English Legendary, probably written some time in the early 1300s. The author basically picked out some of the most interesting episodes in Benedict's life and turned them into lively verse, with lots of dialogue. The whole thing is not very long, and you can read it all here. But these are the bits I found most interesting and the easiest to translate in verse. I made no effort to elevate my translation above the level of doggerel, because that's all the Middle English is - and the more fun for it!

[You'll note that this poem calls Benedict by the shortened form 'Benet', which crops up fairly often in England (e.g. in St Benet at Holme in Norfolk and church dedications all round the country). For some reason I find these shortened forms of saints' names very appealing - as if they remind you of a time when the saints and their names were on everyone's lips. 'Austin' for 'Augustine' is one I particularly like, and here's a couple more.]

We start in St Benedict's youth, while he is living alone as a hermit in the wilderness:

At Ester feste our Lord com to a prest ther biside.
"Thou makest," he sede, "mete inough agen this heie tyde,
And my seriaunt in wildernesse is in much pyne,
Vor he nath nother mete ne drinke. Parte myd him of thyne."
This prest, as our Lord him het, to wildernesse he gan gon;
Mete and drynke he nom with him, Seyn Benet he vond anon.
"Seyn Benet," he sede, "ichabbe thee here mete and drinke ibroght
That schost bothe ete and drinke, vor vaste ne schaltou noght."
"Yuse, sothes," quath this gode mon, "tyme it is to vaste,
Me and ech Cristeneman, the wule Leynte ilaste."
"Nai," sede the prest, "nost thou noght that Leynte is al ido,
"And the heie tyme of Ester is nou icome us to?"
"Seistou soth?" quath this holi mon, "Our Lord ous lete him queme.
Wat Crist, ich wende it were Leynte: ne nom ich never yeme.
Me thincth it were a quinte man, bote he couthe of gramerie,
That scolde stele a day of Leynte. Sugeth yif ich lie."
Seyn Benet et tho wel, and dronk, and thonkede Godes sonde,
And suththe he wende wide aboute and prechede in the londe.
To God he turnde much folc and to Cristendom,
So that to the hul of Casyn thoru Godes grace he com.
Maumets he vond ther vele, and men of luther lawe.
That folc he turnde to Jhesu Crist, the maumets he gan todrawe,
Of Seyn Jon the Baptist a chirche he let rere,
Ther men honoured Jhesu Crist, that hethene er were.
The ordre of Blake Monekes verst he made there.
Mony gode men come to him that the abit bere.
The verst abbei he let ther rere that was in eny londe.
To him and to his word also the devel hadde gret onde.
Another tyme, tho this worc was heie imad of stone,
The devel com to Seyn Benet as he sat alone.
"Benet," he sede, "thou hast worcmen. Icholle loke hou hem spede.
I ne com noght nei hem mony a day. Ich mot ofservy my mede."
Seyn Benet sende his worcmen word and bed hem iwar be;
He sede hor fo hem wolde lette, thei hi ne mighte him isé.
Ar the messager sede his ernde, the devel was wel yare,
And that worc velde up to doun: hi ne mighte hem be so ware.
A yong child, that monek was, was offalle there.
Gret deol his bretheren vor him made and bivore Seyn Benet him bere.
This holi mon thoru Godes grace rerede him fram dethe to lyve.
The devel nadde never eft no power his worc so to drive.
This holi mon wuste of alle thing, thei he ne seie it noght,
So that the tidinge of this wonder to the kynge was ibroght.
That sothe he wolde therof fonde. His beste robe he tok there
And clothede therwith a jogulour as thei he kyng were.
Noblich he eode to Seyn Benet: kyng he was, he sede.
"Leve sone," quath this holi mon, "do of other monnes wede.
Kynges clothes thou hast on, vor he dude the hider sende,
Ac a fol thisulf thou hider come, and a fol thou schalt hom wende."
A monek wende out in a day, ac so ne aughte he noght do,
Withthoute leve of Seyn Benet and withthoute his blessynge also.
He wende to speke with his frend, as he dude er ilome,
And among his frendes he deide ther, ar he agen come.
Me dude bi him as me aughte do, and burede him wel vaste,
Ac the erthe, anon so he was iburede, up agen him caste.
Hi burede him enes and efsones, ofte and fele sithe,
Ac the erthe him caste up agen. His frend were wel unblithe.
Seyn Benet hurde herof telle: thuder he gan gon.
He blessede this wrech bodi and het it burie anon.
This men in the erthe it burede: stille anon it lay.
Ech mon hadde therof wonder, that this miracle isay.
The erthe him nolde avonge, vor he iblessed nas
Of this holi mon Seyn Benet. Nas this a wonder cas?
Tho he was old and feble inou, his ending he say.
The tyme he told of his deth, ther bivore then sevethe day.
Tho son him nyme a strong fevere: bote six dawes he ne lay.
Then sixte day he lette his bretheren to the heie aughter him lede.
And there he let him houseli and his orisouns he sede.
To our Lord he huld up his honde and thonkede his swete sonde,
And ther righte deide at the weved, bitwene his bretheren honde.
In the vif hondred yer, and in the eightethe yere,
After that God an erthe com, Seyn Benet deide here.
Twei monekes thulke nyght, that in diverse stude were,
Seie, hem thoghte, on metynge, as the angel hem gan lere.
Hem thoghte hi seie a wel vair wei, with floures swote and brighte,
Fram Seyn Benetes celle, estward, swithe lighte,
Into Hevene tille the other ende, and the angel hem sede:
"Thervorth Seyn Benetes soule to Hevene we gonne lede."
Nou God, vor the love of Seyn Benet, ous lete then wei wende,
And to the joie that he is inne, to him come aten ende.

And in modern 'verse':

At the Easter feast our Lord came to a priest there nearby:
"You have," he said, "food enough for this holy time,
And my servant in the wilderness is in much pain;
For he hath neither meat nor drink. Share of yours with him."
This priest, as our Lord him told, to the wilderness did go;
Meat and drink he took with him, St Benet he found also.
"St Benet," he said, "I have for you meat and drink brought
Which you should both eat and drink, for fast now shall you not."
"Yes, truly," said this holy man, "time it is to fast,
For me and every Christian man, as long as Lent shall last."
"Nay," said the priest, "don't you know that Lent is all done,
And the holy time of Easter to us is now come?"
"Is that the truth?" said this holy man, "May the Lord us speed!
By Christ, I thought that it was Lent: I had not taken heed!
It would take a wiser man, much cleverer than I,
To get an extra day in Lent. Tell me if I lie!"
St Benet then ate well, and drank, and thanked God’s sond, [messenger]
And afterwards he went widely about and preached in the land.
To God he turned those people, and to Christendom,
And to the hill of Cassino through God’s grace he came.
Heathens he found there many, and men of wicked law.
That land he turned to Jesus Christ, the heathens to him did draw.
To Saint John the Baptist a church he founded there,
And there men honoured Jesus Christ who heathens had been ere.
The order of Black Monks first he made there.
Many good men came to him who did the habit wear.
The first abbey he had built there which was in any place.
To him and to his word also the devil had great hate.

As they are building the first monastery, the devil tries to intervene:

Again, when this building had grown high, made of stone,
The devil came to St Benet as he sat alone.
"Benet," he said, "you’ve workmen here – I’ll see how they speed.
I haven’t been near them many a day, but I must get my meed." [reward, payment]
St Benet sent his workmen word and bid them wary be;
He said their foe would hurt them, though they might not him see.
Ere the messenger spoke these words, the devil was ready there,
And cast that tower to the ground; they had no time to beware.
A young child, who was a monk, was crushed and killed there.
Great sorrow for him his brethren made; to St Benet they did him bear.
This holy man through God’s grace raised him from death to life.
The devil never had the power again to cause his workmen strife!

More evidence of Benedict's miraculous insight:

This holy man knew of all things, although he spoke them not,
And tidings of this wonder to the king were brought.
The truth of this the king would test: his best robe he took there
And clothed with it a juggler as though the king he were.
Nobly he went to St Benet: he said he was the king.
“Dear son,” quoth this holy man, "take off another man’s things!
A king’s clothes thou hast on, for he did thee hither send,
But a fool thou hast hither come, and a fool thou shalt home wend."

And again:

A monk went out one day, as he never ought to do
Without the leave of Saint Benet and without his blessing too.
He went to speak with his friends, as he had often done,
And among his friends he died there, before he back could come.
They did by him as one should do, and buried him safe and fast,
But as soon as he was buried, the earth up again him cast.
They buried him once and then again, and many times more,
But the earth would cast him up again. His friends were worried sore.
St Benet heard tell thereof, and thither he did go.
He blessed this wretched body and had it buried once more.
The men in the earth it buried, and still at last it lay.
Everybody wondered, who this miracle saw.
The earth would not take him, unless he blessed had been
By this holy man St Benet. Wasn’t this a wondrous thing?

And St Benedict's death:

When he was old and feeble too, his ending he saw.
He told the time of his death: it would be on the seventh day.
At once strong fever took him, and for six days he lay.
The sixth day his brethren to the high altar him led
And there he was shriven and his prayers he said.
To our Lord he held up his hands and thanked him for his sweet grace,
And there died at the altar, in his brothers’ arms.
In the five hundredth and in the eightieth year,
After God to earth came, St Benet died here.
Two monks that same night, at their studies far away,
Saw, it seemed, the very same dream, as an angel did them say.
They thought they saw a most fair road, with flowers sweet and bright,
Lead from St Benet’s cell, eastward, very light,
To Heaven at the other end, and the angel to them said:
"Along that road St Benet’s soul to Heaven we have led."
Now God, for the love of St Benet, let us that same way wend,
And in the joy that he has there, come to him at our end.

St Benedict, Norwich Cathedral


Digitalnun said...

Thank you . . . from a modern-day Benedictine

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it!