Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Medieval Song to Mary: 'The rich castle, where all the weary rest'

This attractive window is from the ancient parish church at Faversham in Kent, which is dedicated to St Mary of Charity - an unusual dedication, and the unusual subject of this window. The reason for recent silence on the blog is that I've been away in Kent, and in the process visited various interesting places I'll post about soon; one of those is Faversham and its rather wonderful church, to which I'll devote more attention another day. But as today is the Feast of the Assumption, and I'm about to post a medieval English poem in honour of the Virgin Mary, this window seemed an appropriate place to start.

The church on the right hand side of this picture, with the dramatic spire, is St Mary's, and I believe the one on the left side is a representation of the (now destroyed) Faversham Abbey - which had the same dedication to St Mary of Charity - though I may have remembered that wrong.

I like how from this angle the bars behind the window (I suppose?) form a triangle behind her head, within the glow of the halo. That leads us on nicely to today's poem, which begins by addressing the Virgin as "chamber of the Trinity" and, as you will see, has a little to say about sun shining through glass.

The poem dates from the early fourteenth century, and was probably written by a man called William of Shoreham, who was vicar of Chart Sutton in Kent (Shoreham, where he was presumably born, is also in Kent; it's a village just north of Sevenoaks). William of Shoreham can thus join the select group of medieval writers in English whose names we actually know. William's poems survive in only one manuscript, and this hymn to Mary is also linked in that manuscript to the name of the great Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (d.1253) - so it's been suggested that this poem may be a translation into English, by William of Shoreham, of a Latin original by Grosseteste.

The poem addresses the Virgin by a wide variety of titles, mostly taken from allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, some of which are dazzingly audacious. All the interpretations of Scripture in this poem are thoroughly traditional, and would not have seemed particularly new or surprising to a medieval reader schooled in this way of thought - but they have the power to startle today, when we are less familiar with these things (I'm speaking for myself here; I suppose I shouldn't presume my readers share my ignorance...). For instance, the line which tells Mary 'thou art the sling, thy son the stone with which David slew Goliath' certainly took me by surprise! And along with these, the poem contains some traditional images which, however familiar they become, never lose their force and beauty: "as sun that shineth through the glass, / so Jesu in her body was..."

Not only are these ways of thinking about the Virgin interesting in themselves - every verse is an intricate little treasure-store of images, each of which could be the subject of a longer poem - but to find them expressed in the English vernacular is always striking. For my money, medieval English Marian lyrics are among the most complex and beautiful poems of their age; the subject allows a vast range of approaches, from the high tragedy of the pieta lyrics (like this) to the tender intimacy of the lullabies, from bright carols of praise to the magnificent Latinate tour-de-force that is William Dunbar's 'O hie emperice and quene celestiall', from the quiet dignity of an Annunciation lyric like 'Ecce ancilla domini' to the passionate personal devotion of 'Now shrinketh rose and lily-flower'. Queen, peasant-girl, maiden, mother, ardent wooer and distant beloved; the poetry of Mary is in the paradox, as the author of 'In a tabernacle of a tower' would surely have agreed. Today's poem exemplifies another strand of this rich and diverse tradition: we see a highly-educated cleric working out ways of expressing sophisticated theology, familiar from Latin hymns and the patristic tradition, in the language of English poetry.

The text is from this edition, which also provides useful scriptural references for the various people and allusions in the poem; the translation is mine.

Marye, mayde mylde and fre,
Chambre of the Trynyté,
One wyle lest to me
Ase ich thee grete wyth songe;
Thagh my fet onclene be,
My mes thou onderfonge.

[Mary, maid, mild and gracious, chamber of the Trinity, listen to me a little while as I greet thee with my song; although my dish may be dirty, receive the food it bears. (i.e. 'although I am an unworthy vessel, accept the song I bring you')]

Thou art quene of paradys,
Of hevene, of erthe, of al that hys;
Thou bere thane kynge of blys
Wythoute senne and sore;
Thou hast yryght that was amys,
Ywonne that was ylore.

[Thou art Queen of Paradise, of heaven, of earth, of all that is; thou didst bear the king of bliss, without sin or sorrow. Thou hast made right all that was amiss, and won that which was lost.]

Thou ert the colvere of Noe
That broute the braunche of olyve tre,
In tokne that pays scholde be
Bytuexte God and manne.
Suete levedy, help thou me
Wanne ich schal wende hanne.

[Thou art the dove of Noah, which brought the branch of an olive tree, in token that there would be peace between God and man. Sweet lady, help me when it is time for me to go to Him!]

Thou art the bosche of Synay,
Thou art the rytte Sarray,
Thou hast ybrought ous out of cry
Of calenge of the fende.
Thou art Crystes oghene drury
And of Davyes kende.

[Thou art the bush of Sinai, thou art the true Sarah; thou hast brought us out of the reach of the devil's calling. Thou art Christ's own beloved, of the kin of David.]

Thou ert the slinge, thy sone the ston
That Davy slange Golye opon;
Thou ert the yerd al of Aaron,
Me dreye isegh spryngynde.
Wytnesse at ham everechon
That wyste of thyne chyldynge.

[Thou art the sling, thy son the stone which David hurled at Goliath; thou art the rod of Aaron, which was seen to spring forth green, though it was dry. Everyone may bear witness to that who knows about thy child-bearing.]

Thou ert the temple Salomon;
In thee wondrede Gedeon;
Thou hest ygladed Symeon
Wyth thyne swete offrynge
In the temple atte auter-ston
Wyth Jhesus hevene kynge.

[Thou art the temple of Solomon, at thee Gideon wondered. Thou hast gladdened Simeon with thy sweet offering, in the temple, at the altar-stone - with Jesus, king of heaven.]

Thou ert Judith, that fayre wyf,
Thou hast abated al that stryf;
Olofernes wyth hys knyf
Hys hevede thou hym bynome.
Thou hest ysaved here lef
That to thee wylle come.

[Thou art Judith, the fair woman: thou hast brought an end to all that strife, and taken from Holofernes his head, with his own knife. Thou hast saved the lives of all those who wish to come to thee.]

Thou ert Hester, that swete thynge,
And Assever the ryche kynge
Thee heth ychose to hys weddynge
And quene he heth avonge;
For Mardocheus thy derlynge
Syre Aman was yhonge.

[Thou art Esther, that sweet one; Ahasuerus, the powerful king, chose thee to be his bride and took thee as his queen. For the sake of Mordecai, whom you loved, Haman was hanged.]

The prophete Ezechyel,
In hys boke hyt wytnesseth wel:
Thou ert the gate so stronge so stel
Ac evere yschet fram manne;
Thou erte the ryghte vayre Rachel,
Fayrest of alle wymman.

[The prophet Ezekiel witnesses to this in his book: thou art the gate as strong as steel, ever shut against man. Thou art the truly fair Rachel, most beautiful of all women.]

By ryghte toknynge thou ert the hel
Of wan spellede Danyel;
Thou ert Emaus, the ryche castel
Thar resteth alle werye;
In thee restede Emanuel,
Of wan yspeketh Ysaye.

[By true interpretation, thou art the hill of which Daniel told. Thou art Emmaus, the rich castle where all the weary rest; in thee rested Emmanuel, of whom Isaiah told.]

Ine thee hys God bycome a chyld,
Ine thee hys wreche bycome myld;
That unicorn that was so wyld
Aleyd hys of a cheaste:
Thou hast ytamed and istyld
Wyth melke of thy breste.

[In thee is God become a child; in thee is anger turned to gentleness. The unicorn, which was so wild, is tamed by a chaste woman; thou hast tamed and calmed him with the milk of thy breast.]

Ine the Apocalyps Sent John
Isey ane wymman wyth sonne bygon,
Thane mone al onder hyre ton,
Icrouned wyth tuel sterre:
Swyl a levedy nas nevere non
Wyth thane fend to werre.

[In the Book of the Apocalypse, St John saw a woman crowned with the sun, the moon beneath her toes, crowned with twelve stars. There was never such another woman to make war against the Fiend!]

Ase the sonne taketh hyre pas
Wythoute breche thorghout that glas,
Thy maydenhod onwemmed hyt was
For bere of thyne chylde.
Nou, swete levedy of solas,
To ous senfolle be thou mylde.

[As the sun takes his passage through the glass, without breaking it, so thy maidenhood was untainted by bearing thy child. Now, sweet lady of solace, be merciful to us sinful ones!]

Have, levedy, thys lytel songe
That out of senfol herte spronge;
Agens the feend thou make me stronge
And gyf me thy wyssinge,
And thagh ich habbe ydo thee wrange,
Thou graunte me amendynge.

[Take, lady, this little song, which springs out of a sinful heart! Make me strong against the Fiend, and give me thy guiding; and though I have done wrong to thee, grant me amendment.]

Annunciation scene, Framlingham, Suffolk

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