Saturday 2 February 2013

On this day

I recently had cause to be reading the Regularis Concordia, a tenth-century code of regulations for monastic usage which is one of the most important documents of the Anglo-Saxon church.  That doesn't make it sound very interesting, but it is, at least if you like Anglo-Saxon monks as much as I do.  The Regularis Concordia is the product of the movement in the tenth-century English church which is usually called the Benedictine Revival - briefly, a move to reinvigorate and reform monasticism in this country in line with continental practice and the original ideals of St Benedict.  It was led by the people I wrote about recently with reference to Worcester Cathedral - Dunstan, Oswald and Æthelwold.  These were the movers behind the Regularis Concordia, which was issued in 970 after a council between King Edgar and the leading churchmen of the day, and which lays out the vision Æthelwold, Dunstan and Oswald had for monastic practice.

Now, there's no reason you should be interested in this unless you study tenth-century religious movements, and if you do you know it all already.  But the reason I want to post the following extract from the Regularis Concordia is not historical, but literary - an imaginative exercise, you might say.  I've become increasingly aware over the last few years of the value of thinking of the past not just as history to be studied but as a sequence of present moments - in one sense, accessible only to the people who have lived through them, but in some way also accessible by imagining oneself back into that specific, unique historical moment in time and place.  Because of my own interests, I usually think of this in a medieval context; Henry of Huntingdon's reflections on 'this is the year which holds the writer' have stayed with me.  This is one reason why I've been so fascinated this year by Eadmer's biography of St Anselm, which offers precise descriptions of many such moments, from direct observation and at second-hand - one day on the road to Hayes in the summer of 1097, for instance, but there are many more.  This is the point at which a historian or a literary critic begins to get a little suspicious, and says, 'But some of these are literary tropes, or standard narrative motifs; how do we know they really happened?'  To which I have no answer except that I think the stories people tell about themselves, and the things they say about the people they knew, are important in many and various ways whether they really happened or not.

And so to Candlemas, February 2, in some Anglo-Saxon monastery towards the end of the tenth century - let's say, Worcester or Canterbury or Winchester in the year 974. We can think ourselves back into this scene because the Regularis Concordia describes it so exactly (and while this is a rule, i.e. a description of the ideal, I hope we can be confident that even if no one else followed it, Dunstan or Æthelwold at least would have done so themselves!):

On the Purification of St Mary candles shall be set out ready in the church to which the brethren are to go to get their lights. On the way thither they shall walk in silence, occupied with the psalms; and all shall be vested in albs if this is possible and if the weather permits. On entering the church, having prayed awhile, they shall say the antiphon and collect in honour of the saint to whom this same church is dedicated. Then the abbot, vested in stole and cope, shall bless the candles, sprinkling them with holy water and incensing them. When the abbot has received his candle from the doorkeeper, the chanting shall begin and the brethren shall receive and light their candles. During the return procession they shall sing the appointed antiphons until they reach the church doors; then, having sung the antiphon Responsum accepit Simeon, with the collect Erudi quaesumus Domine, they shall enter the church singing the respond Cum inducerunt Puerum. Next they shall say the Lord's prayer, and Tierce shall follow; after which, if the brethren were not vested for the procession, they shall vest for the Mass during which they shall hold their lighted candles in their hands until after the Offertory, when they shall offer them to the priest.

The monastic agreement of the monks and nuns of the English nation, trans. Thomas Symons (London, 1953), p.31.

You can picture the scene: the candles, the chant, the monks in their albs (if the weather permits, in this particular moment - think what the English weather can be like in February!). Perhaps Bishop Æthelwold read from this book, the Benedictional made for him, in which you can see the form for the blessing of candles here. Liturgical time enables us to say that it happens 'on this day', in some sense beyond the literal - on this day was Christ borne to the temple, and on this day the monks of Worcester or Canterbury or Winchester went and got their candles and sang their chants, and on this day Ælfric preached about it. And on this day earlier in the century, perhaps in 909, in a wooden church in Glastonbury, Dunstan's own holiness was revealed while he was yet unborn; on that day the crowd with their lighted candles saw a miracle, a miniature Anglo-Saxon version of the presentation in the temple - a greater light kindling a less.


Steffen said...

First of all, you are wrong in one regard: even though I'm neither an Anglo-Saxon scholar nor a 10th-century scholar, I find this little piece very interesting and illuminating (yes, pun intended). Of course, being an enthused medievalist and having worked with liturgy for my MA, I can perhaps relate to this better than most people, but anyway, I'm very happy for this little peek into 10th-century England. It's a fascinating reminder of the importance of liturgy in medieval life.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, liturgy is certainly very powerful in that respect.

Steffen said...

It reminds me, by the way, of the commemorative mass that was held in the chapel of St. John in Nidaros Cathedral on the 850th anniversary of its construction (in 2011). The mass was Catholic and the liturgy fit very well within those stone walls, which of course is natural, seeing as it was constructed for that very purpose. The construction of the chapel was instigated by your good friend St. Eysteinn.

Rob Scot said...

I don't think I've commented here before, though I've visited a number of times. I really like your blog. Fascinating and beautiful stuff; I'm always learning.

We had a Candlemas procession at my parish this morning; it was the first time I had the opportunity to take part in one. Our priest encouraged us during her homily to employ some historical thinking during the celebration of this feast which dates at least to the fourth century church in Jerusalem. It was a beautiful liturgy. Thank you for providing more information!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks for commenting! I took part in a Candlemas procession for the first time yesterday too, and it was a beautiful experience - something about carrying lights all around the church is very powerful, and there was a real sense of joy and unity in the congregation.