Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The O Antiphons as Medieval Carols: O Root of Jesse, O Key of David

O radix Jesse supplices
Te nos inuocamus;
Veni vt nos liberes
Quem iam expectamus.

O radix Jesse supplices
Te nos inuocamus;
Veni vt nos liberes
Quem iam expectamus.

O of Jesse thow holy rote,
That to thi pepill arte syker merke,
We calle to the; be thow oure bote,
In the that we gronde all owre werke.

Thy laude ys exalted by lordes and kynges;
No man to prayse the may suffice;
Off the spryngith vertu and all gode thynges;
Come and delyuere vs fro owre malice.

Off the may no malice growe,
That thou thyselue arte pure godenesse;
In the be rotedde what we showe,
And graunte ows blisse after owre decesse.

O clavis Dauid inclita
Dans viam in portis,
O clavis Dauid inclita,
Dans viam in portis,
Educ nos de carcere,
Educ nos de carcere
Et de vmbra mortis.

O Dauid, thow nobell key,
Cepter of the howse of Israell,
Thow opyn the gate and geff vs way,
Thou open the gate and geff vs way,
And saue vs fro owre fendys felle.

We be in prison; vn vs haue mynde,
And lose vs fro the bonde of synne,
For that thou losest no man may bynde,
For that thou losest no man may bynde,
And that thou losest no man may bynde.

Lord, bowe thyn yere; to the we calle;
Delyuere thou vs fro wyckednesse,
And bryng vs to thy joyfull halle,
And bryng vs to thy joyfull halle
Where euer ys lyff withowten desstresse.

Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), p. 1.

These two Middle English carols date to the late 15th century, and represent two of the Advent O Antiphons: 'O radix Jesse' and 'O clavis David'. In the church generally, these antiphons are used on the 19th and 20th December respectively; in medieval English usage, one day ahead, they belonged to the 18th and 19th.

Like 'Marvel not, Joseph', these carols are from the Ritson Manuscript (British Library Additional MS. 5665). Both are accompanied by music set for two and three voices, attributed in the manuscript to Richard Smert (who was rector of Plymtree, near Exeter, from 1435-1477) and John Trouluffe. Of the two, 'O clavis David' sticks more closely to the original text, though neither is a straightforward translation: if you compare the Latin refrains with the antiphons (below) you'll see how both have been adapted to fit the rhyming form of a carol burden. 'O radix Jesse' is particularly interesting, because it plays with the plant imagery of the 'root', asking Christ to help us 'root' and 'ground' our works in him, talking of how all good things 'spring' from him, and nothing bad can 'grow' from that root. It talks of Christ as the source of vertu, a Middle English word which means 'power' more than 'virtue' in the sense of goodness; here it refers to the life-giving power of a plant, its healing sap, and thus the quickening force which runs through all the natural world. (Compare 'There is no rose of such virtue'.) It's life in the fullest and most powerful sense - in this context, the force of life springing from the stem of Jesse, in which the carol prays that we may be rooted and with which we may be infused.

Modernised versions of the two carols:

O root of Jesse, humbly
we pray to thee;
Come and deliver us
who now wait for thee.

O of Jesse thou holy root,
Who to thy people art a sure token,
We call to thee; be thou our bote, ['healing and redemption']
That we may ground all our works in thee.

Thy laud is exalted by lords and kings;
No man to praise thee may suffice;
Of thee springeth vertu and all good things;
Come and deliver us from our malice. [this means both 'suffering' and 'sin' - all 'bad things' generally]

Of thee may no malice grow,
Since thou thyself art pure goodness;
May what we bring forth be rooted in thee,
And grant us bliss after our decease.

O glorious key of David,
giving entrance through the gates;
O glorious key of David,
giving entrance through the gates;
Bring us out of prison
Bring us out of prison
and of the shadow of death.

O David, thou noble key,
Sceptre of the house of Israel,
Open thou the gate and show us the way,
Open thou the gate and show us the way,
And save us from our enemies fell.

We are in prison; to us give mind,
And loose us from the bond of sin,
For what thou loosest no man may bind,
For what thou loosest no man may bind,
And that thou loosest no man may bind.
[this last line is an error in copying; Richard Greene suggests the correct reading may be ‘And what thou bindest may no man twynne’, i.e. separate]

Lord, bow thine ear; to thee we call;
Deliver thou us from wickedness,
And bring us to thy joyful hall,
And bring us to thy joyful hall,
Where ever is life without distress.

For comparison, here are the Latin antiphons:

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

(O Root of Jesse, who stands as a sign for the peoples;
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
to whom the nations will make their prayer;
come to deliver us, do not delay.)

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
who opens, and no one can shut;
shuts, and no one can open:
come, and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.)

The O Antiphons still capture the imagination today, just as they did for the people who wrote and sang these carols in medieval England. They're perhaps the most evocative of all the many forms of countdown to Christmas which the church and the secular world have given us, full of meaning and richness. My favourite piece of evidence for the importance of these antiphons in medieval monasteries is this (which I got from here via this blog):

The right of intoning one of the O Antiphons was jealously limited by immemorial custom to certain higher officers in the community and each of these great functionaries had his own appropriate antiphon. In most monasteries, the antiphon O Sapientia (O Wisdom) was reserved to the Abbot and O Adonai to the Prior. Some antiphons were intoned by the obedientiary or functionary most closely associated with the theme of the antiphon: O Radix Jesse was reserved to the gardener, O Clavis David to the cellarer whose duty it was to keep things under lock and key, and O Rex Gentium to the infirmarian, since the antiphon contained the clause, "Come and save (or heal) man whom you have formed out of clay."

This splendid combination of the earthly and the heavenly illustrates, to me, just how much wit, creativity and sheer life there was in medieval religion, at its best - something these carols also bring out.

Besides being two of the O antiphons, these carols have a further link because they invoke two of the ancestors of Christ, Jesse and David. If you look at a Tree of Jesse, an invention of medieval art, you will always see Jesse and his son David together; I wonder if that link was why these two antiphons were translated, and not the others (though there may of course have been carol versions of those which don't survive). Here are my two favourite medieval Jesses and Davids - first from Canterbury Cathedral (restored):

And from Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire:

Jesse is sleeping at the bottom of the window, and to one side is David with his harp:

Dorchester's window is a unique 14th-century composition which combines carved stone and stained glass; here's a picture of the whole thing.

You might think that the complexities of Biblical genealogy would have principally a learned appeal, but it was not only the monks of Canterbury and Dorchester Abbey who took pleasure in tracing the tree of Jesse - there's also a mystery play on the subject, from the East Anglian 'N-town' cycle. This play is a series of dramatic monologues in which each of the ancestors of Christ, accompanied by Old Testament prophets, steps forward in turn to give a short speech about themselves. Here are Jesse and David's:

JESSE: A blessed branch shall spring of me
Which shall be sweeter than balm's breath.
Out of that branch in Nazareth
A flower shall bloom of me, Jesse Root,
The which by grace shall destroy death
And bring mankind to bliss most sweet.

DAVID: I am David of Jesse's Root,
The valiant king by natural succession.
And of my blood shall spring our bote
As God himself hath made promission: [has promised]
Of regal life shall come such foyson [grace]
That a clean maid a mother shall be,
Against the Devil's false illusion,
With royal power to make man free.

The whole thing is here.

In previous years I've never given much thought to the idea of the 'root of Jesse'; my inclination in Advent is always to turn to metaphors of light in darkness, the rising sun, the daystar. But throughout this year flowers and roots and the life-force that drives them have been clustering together in my thoughts, from George Herbert's 'Flowers that glide' and the daffodils of Iffley to Lammas flush and the treacle balm at Binsey. It's interesting to compare the traditional imagery of the Root of Jesse, the healing plant 'sweeter than balm's breath', with Langland's description in Piers Plowman (Passus I, 148-58) of the incarnation as love overflowing from heaven like a plant overburdened with sap:

For Truthe telleth that love is triacle of hevene:
May no synne be on hym seene that that spice useth.
And alle his werkes he wroughte with love as hym liste,
And lered it Moyses for the leveste thyng and moost lik to hevene,
And also the plante of pees, moost precious of vertues:
For hevene myghte nat holden it, so was it hevy of hymself,
Til it hadde of the erthe eten his fille.
And whan it hadde of this fold flessh and blood taken,
Was nevere leef upon lynde lighter therafter,
And portatif and persaunt as the point of a nedle,
That myghte noon armure it lette ne none heighe walles.

[''For Truth tells that love is the treacle (healing balm) of heaven: no sin may be seen on him who uses that medicine. And he wrought all his works with love, as it pleased him, and he taught it to Moses as the dearest thing and the thing most like to heaven. And, too, the plant of peace, most precious of vertues, for heaven could not hold it, it was so heavy with its own sap, until it had eaten its fill of the earth; and when it had taken flesh and blood from this earth, there was never leaf upon a linden-tree lighter than it was, weightless and piercing as the point of a needle, so that no armour could stop it, nor no high walls.']

That sap is love, life, healing and uncontainable. "Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just; let the earth be opened, and bud forth a Saviour".

Tree of Jesse, from Nackington, Kent


Gatepost productions said...

I could spend the rest of my days drawing obscure windows and stone carvings, with Plainchant echoing around.

I can see why Medieval monks existed.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Oh, me too! In some ways it feels like the ideal life.

Speaking of drawing obscure windows, your print arrived today - thank you so much! It's beautiful, even more so in the 'life' than on a computer screen...

ColmCille said...

I am new to this so please forgive my ineptitude.
I have been asked to prepare a manuscript of the great 'O' antiphons and I would wish to include the pictorial symbols of Sapientia &c with the plainchant.
Could you advise me where I might access copies please ?

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm not sure if this is what you're looking for, but this site has images of each chant (click on the musical note beside each of the antiphons): http://www.fisheaters.com/customsadvent10.html

And this might be helpful too, though it only includes the first three antiphons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Poissy_Antiphonal,_folio_30v.jpg

I hope that helps!