Wednesday 31 July 2013

The Danish Conquest: 1000 Years

1013-1014 sees the 1000th anniversary of a successful invasion of England - and not many people seem to have noticed.  The invader was the Danish king Svein Forkbeard, who in the closing days of July 1013 descended on England with a formidable fleet.  Before the year was out, he had forced the English king Æthelred to flee the country, and was acknowledged as king by large parts of England.  Although Svein did not live long to enjoy his victory, his success enabled his son Cnut to repeat the venture a few years later, resulting in a triumphant two-decade reign, during which England was part of a great pan-Scandinavian empire.

This invasion changed the history of England.  If Svein and Cnut hadn't wreaked such chaos in Æthelred's family early in the eleventh century, the kingdom would not have been up for grabs in 1066, when William of Normandy decided to put his oar in - and no Norman conquest means an entirely different England.  But the story of Svein's conquest is interesting for all kinds of other reasons beside this: what it tells us about England's place in Europe (and Scandinavia), about ethnic and cultural identity among the 'Anglo-Saxon' people then and now, and about the north/south divide within England which persists to this day (literally).  The millennial anniversary of this conquest deserves a little more fanfare, and over the next few months I'm going to do my bit to provide some.

In this series of posts I'll reconstruct, as far as possible, the progress of the conquest through the course of the millennial year.  But we can start by asking ourselves why this conquest has been so comprehensively overshadowed by the later one in 1066.  There are lots of reasons, but here are a few of my suggestions.

1) It's less well-documented.  Or more accurately, it's incredibly well-documented but the sources are complex and varied in nature and language, and take some careful reading to interpret.  They range from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a near-contemporary and reliable source, but not an unbiased one) to the Encomium Emmae Reginae (an account written c. 30 years after the Danish conquest, for those who had lived through it, but creative with the facts and filtered through the perception of an author who knew little about England), to skaldic verse (poetry, not narrative, and always tricky to interpret), to histories written in England and Norway in the twelfth century and later (with all the problems which late sources bring).  By contrast, within a few years of the Norman conquest, historians were writing coherent and deceptively straightforward accounts of what had happened (partly in order to justify it); this makes the telling of that story easy in a way the story of the Danish conquest isn't.  We know that the Danes told stories about their conquest, but unlike the Normans they told them to each other - not to posterity.

2) There's no single decisive and memorable date and battle to fix the moment of conquest in the popular memory, as there would be at Hastings in 1066.  The Danish conquest was a long process - even if you fix the beginning in July 1013, you have to take into account the events of the preceding twenty years of Viking raids, and the two centuries of Danish raiding and settlement which preceded that.  There were multiple significant battles between 1014 and 1016, as well as agreements and peace-treaties, and it was not until late in 1016 (probably) that Cnut was widely accepted as king.  You might fix the final decisive battle as that at Assandun, on 18 October 1016 - strangely, almost fifty years to the day before the Battle of Hastings - but we don't even know for sure where Assandun was, so it's difficult to attach much mystique to it.  To my mind it makes the whole thing a more interesting story, a saga of shifting allegiances and extended periods of doubt and uncertainty, but it doesn't compare in the popular mind with the drama of Hastings: a king killed in battle, a kingdom conquered at a stroke.  (The Norman conquest was a long process too, of course, and involved a lot more than victory at Hastings - but it's usually told as the story of a sudden catastrophe.)

3) Related to the last reason - there's no 1016 equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry.  This sounds like a trivial point, but the Bayeux Tapestry is an extraordinary work of art which today holds a place in popular culture unrivalled by any other medieval object - for examples, take a look at this collection of Bayeux Tapestry memes, and here you can see the tapestry reimagined for Star Wars, The Simpsons, Batman, Winnie the Pooh and more.  Its style is immediately recognisable and it has been almost solely responsible for popularising the most famous 'fact' about the Norman conquest, that Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye.  There's no Danish equivalent, though there easily could have been (there's evidence for other Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian narrative tapestries, now lost) - and how awesome would the Vikings look in tapestry form?

Winnie the Pooh meets the Bayeux tapestry, from here

4) The problem of distinguishing between Svein's conquest and the Viking Age that led up it.  Let's say there are (to simplify massively) three kinds of Viking activity in England:

a) raiding
b) settling
c) conquest

c) is a product of a) and b), and correspondingly less easy to understand.  The image of Viking raids is one everyone's familiar with (burning churches, killing monks), and is the first thing which springs to mind at the word 'Viking', whether that's fair or not. The fact that Scandinavians settled in certain parts of England is not as colourful and not quite as entrenched in popular culture, but not totally unfamiliar - especially if you live in northern England, or any part of the former Danelaw, where the Norse influence on language and place-names is pretty widely remembered and celebrated (hurrah!).  But the legacy of that settlement, some 150 years before the conquest of 1013, is not what we're talking about here - although it seems to have made Svein's conquest possible, in a way I'll explore in future posts.  So put all thoughts of Lindisfarne and Alfred the Great and cake-burning out of your head - much had happened between then and 1013 ;)  Contrary to what the myth of Hastings would have us believe, conquest is about more than invasion, and is also something different from the settlement of peoples.  There had been Danish kings in England before - the kings of York, for example - but before Svein and Cnut there had never been a Danish king of the kingdom of England.  And this brings us to our last point.

5) This is perhaps the most important one: I would contend that the Danish conquest is less well-remembered than the Norman conquest because the Danes were a different kind of conquerors - and arguably, better. The conquest itself was violent (on both sides) but after a few years of bloodshed, Cnut became a king both English and Danes could accept. There's no evidence of English rebellion against the Danish conquerors, nor much sign of ethnic tension of the kind we associate with the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Cnut largely ruled England with existing English laws; he was conciliatory towards, and lavishly generous to, the English church; he was advised by English churchmen and promoted a few Englishmen (like Harold Godwineson's father) to be his earls. There was no Danish Domesday Book, no 'counting every cow and pig' in the country - no jettisoning of the English language or widescale destruction of the land. Cnut and his followers enjoyed hearing poems about how they had crushed the English in battle, but in most respects they worked with, not against, the society they had conquered. Now, this relative tranquility came after decades of Viking attacks, so perhaps we shouldn't give the Danes too much credit; but the real achievement of Cnut's conquest was to make the aftermath of conquest seem fairly painless - and thus, less memorable.

As a result of these factors (and others) the Danish conquest has never attracted as much scholarly or popular interest as the Norman conquest. Its effects seem less traumatic, less long-lasting, and less well-recorded; it's not surprising there's been less interest. But there's something else I wonder about, which is the hierarchy of cultural interests in England. Popular culture has always liked the myth of the Vikings more than the truth - it is an attractive myth! Even in academia it's not uncommon to encounter a kind of snobbery towards the Vikings, sometimes from the most sophisticated and subtle scholars of medieval literature. When I'm answering the question 'what do you work on?' and get to the point where I have to explain 'oh, Old Norse, it's the literature of the Vikings' - I more often than not get the puzzled reply 'Did the Vikings have any literature?' (They did.) People will swallow any kind of nonsense about the Vikings - witness this BBC article, which quite soberly repeats the ridiculous idea that Svein Forkbeard's army went around impaling babies on spears. (They didn't.) For many people, Vikings belong to the wild north, where savages delight in bloodshed and worship gods with absurd legends; they might have a certain glamour, but we can't see them as conquerors in the way Normans can be conquerors. We can accept them as settlers in far-off 'desolate' parts of northern England, but not as kings enthroned at Winchester and London. If you wanted to think this has a connection with class snobbery, well, I wouldn't disagree with you.

The fact is that we have only really just managed to persuade the world to accept that the Anglo-Saxons were a complex, sophisticated people with a rich history, culture and literature, rather than a bunch of savages whose chief distinguishing characteristic is that they weren't the Romans (though this view persists); the Danes will have to wait their turn.  It's not one or the other, though.  As I said above, there is much interesting discussion to be had about the Norman conquest, 'its causes and results', and I don't want to make it sound less complex than it was to talk up the Danes; there's only so much you can say in a blogpost.  But there's no question that whatever other effects the Norman conquest had on England, it produced one illusion which has never faded: it made Anglo-Saxon England look like another world.  To the endless irritation of scholars of Old English, 1066 is still treated as a starting-point: the beginning of 'English' history and language.  To take one example of how the Norman conquest cut Anglo-Saxon England off from us decisively: what I wrote recently about jokey suggestions that the royal baby should be named 'Æthelred', as if that were self-evidently absurd and comic, is a direct result of the Norman conquest. Æthelred, and many other Anglo-Saxon names, are alien to us, and the people who bore them seem correspondingly further away, stranger, perhaps more primitive and barbaric. You'd be amazed how many people I talk to about medieval literature just can't get past the strangeness of the names; it's as if they can hardly see people with names like Guthlac and Byrhtnoth and Ælfheah as human beings at all, let alone English ones.  The only Anglo-Saxon names familiar and not-strange are those of kings the Norman conquerors wanted to remember - like Edward - or those rehabilitated by enthusiastic later historians, like Alfred.  A handful of saints make certain names familiar (Cuthbert, Mildred, Oswald, Hilda), although if you hear a sermon or glance at Twitter on the feast-day of a Saxon saint you're as likely to encounter jokes about the saint's name as anything that takes seriously the memory of an actual living person.  In this view of English history, the Danes are with the Saxons - on the other side of the gulf of 1066, all barbarians and foreigners together.

So let's try and bridge the gap, in this millennial year.  Take yourself back exactly 1000 years, to the closing days of July 1013.  Svein and his fleet have sailed from Denmark and are mustering at Sandwich, on the Kent coast.  If you're Æthelred, there's no real way to predict what a fleet like this is going to do - sometimes they raid and go home, but two years previously, in September 1011, a fleet led by the Danish earl Thorkell had sacked and burned the city of Canterbury (which is just inland from Sandwich) and then gone over to the English side.  Æthelred and his supporters had no reason to expect an attempt at invasion - they were perhaps anticipating nothing worse than more raids.

But some people in England knew different.  And so we come at last to what is, for me, one of the most fascinating features of the 1013 invasion: that when Svein came he was welcomed. Not at Sandwich, but a few days later, at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, where the leaders of Northumbria and the East Midlands came to Svein and acknowledged him as king.  Within a few weeks all the country north of Watling Street - the ancient dividing-line between the north and south of England - had broken oaths of loyalty to Æthelred to accept the Danish king as their ruler.  That's roughly half the country - and they did it without any threats of violence, without any harrying, and without a single battle.  In a few days we'll ask ourselves why.

Sandwich harbour (it was bigger when the Danes were there!)

ETA: All the posts in this series (so far) can be found here.

Sunday 28 July 2013

'The city by the fording': Some Oxford Poems

I learned just yesterday that Tolkien wrote a poem about Oxford. It's untitled, and it goes like this:

From the many-willow'd margin of the immemorial Thames,
Standing in a vale outcarven in a world-forgotten day,
There is dimly seen uprising through the greenly veiled stems,
Many-mansion'd, tower-crowned in its dreamy robe of grey,
All the city by the fording: aged in the lives of men,
Proudly wrapt in mystic mem'ry overpassing human ken.

According to this book, the poem was written in October 1911 (Tolkien's first term in Oxford) and published in 1913 in the Exeter College student magazine.  It seems to anticipate to an almost absurd extent - for just six lines! - the interests of Tolkien's later work: willows and towers and things 'aged in the lives of men', not to mention the etymologising touch in 'the city by the fording'.  The willows in question grow at Iffley (shown in the picture above), from where I personally have never been able to see the towers of Oxford - but perhaps things were different a century ago.

'Tower-crowned' is a particularly nice description of Oxford (and not the cliche it might seem at first); the city's crenellations do look like crowns, especially from a distance. To me it recalls one of the most famous poems written about the city, Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Duns Scotus' Oxford':

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Even the form of Tolkien's 'many-mansion'd, tower-crowned' seems to echo that distinctive series of compounds, 'bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded' - but it doesn't seem possible that Tolkien can have read Hopkins' poem, which (although written in 1879) was not published until 1918.

For comparison, this is C. S. Lewis' poem 'Oxford', published in Spirits in Bondage in 1919, when he too was a young undergraduate (although he had already been to war, and thus knew more about 'red battle's animal net' than most):

It is well that there are palaces of peace
And discipline and dreaming and desire,
Lest we forget our heritage and cease
The Spirit’s work — to hunger and aspire:

Lest we forget that we were born divine,
Now tangled in red battle’s animal net,
Murder the work and lust the anodyne,
Pains of the beast 'gainst bestial solace set.

But this shall never be: to us remains
One city that has nothing of the beast,
That was not built for gross, material gains,
Sharp, wolfish power or empire’s glutted feast.

We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.

She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold — barred against despair.

Just as 'From the many-willow'd margin' reflects Tolkien's fascination with memory and time, you might say that this poem points to Lewis' abiding interest in the tension between the bestial and the spiritual within human nature (though it's possible to take this kind of thing too far...) Speaking of echoes, conscious or unconscious, I've always wondered whether that last verse deliberately recalls Kipling's hymn to England in Puck of Pook's Hill:

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.

(Note that the rhyme is the same - air/prayer). Lewis wrote of his admiration for Puck of Pook's Hill in a number of letters from c.1915, so perhaps this is conscious homage. 'Gramarye' is not a place-name but a noun, from Middle English gramarie, and it means both 'magic' and 'learning'; perhaps Lewis saw a connection between Merlin's Isle and the city whose enchantment is cast by her scholarly ideals, 'a place of visions and of loosening chains'.

I'm surprised that Lewis and Tolkien's poems about Oxford aren't better-known, given how eager both city and university are to cash in on anything related to the Inklings. But since both poems like to imagine the city as essentially unworldly, or other-worldly, perhaps we should be glad they remain relatively obscure.

Friday 26 July 2013

St Anne in Some Medieval Manuscripts

[This post is a collection of depictions of Anne and Joachim, parents of the Virgin Mary, in medieval art and literature - but it starts with some meandering thoughts on genealogy, which you would lose nothing by skipping over, straight to the pictures!]

In the days following the royal family's "recent happy event" (as newspapers used coyly to call such things), there has been more media discussion about genealogy in one week than you would normally expect to hear in a year.  Journalists have been speedily educating themselves about all the various King Georges and how exactly the baby is related to each of them, and in the process all kinds of royal trivia get an airing: the Anglo-Danish king Harthacnut was name-checked in the Telegraph the other day for perhaps the first time ever, and any Anglo-Saxon names which sound humorous to a modern audience were wheeled out as comedy name-suggestions (a king called Ethelred? What an idea!).

Whatever your feelings about the monarchy, this can be trying.  However, I did appreciate the reminder that in this respect we are not so different from our medieval forebears, who were positively obsessed with genealogy of all kinds. This interest is a subject on which much has been written, and I won't attempt to summarise it except to say that genealogy formed a central part of what constituted wisdom both in pre-Christian Germanic societies and in medieval Christian learning. It's not difficult to see one reason why - genealogy is a vivid way of connecting the past to the present, an unbroken line of human lives which provides an illusion of continuity.  The medieval passion for genealogy, even in literary texts, baffles many students today - translators of Old Norse sagas and Old English chronicles often relegate extended genealogies to the footnotes, a striking indication of the difference between our priorities and those of the texts' first audiences. But as a keen family historian myself, I don't think there's an unbridgeable gap between the societies which preserved the genealogies in Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the culture which produces the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?.  If we leave aside its political implications, royal genealogy is this interest writ large. If nothing else, it's conveniently well-documented. I like learning the names of my nineteenth-century ancestors, if only because an examination of their lives converts comfortable assumptions about 'what the past was like' into sharp, spiky reality, but even with the best will in the world I'll never trace my line of Lincolnshire farm-labourers back much beyond 1600 - we all have distant ancestors, but we can't name or trace them. But this royal baby, not a week old, is a living link through centuries, whose ancestors can be traced all the way back to Alfred the Great, to Svein Forkbeard and Harold Godwinson and Margaret of Scotland (and beyond them into Saxon pre-history, to Hengist and Scyld Scefing and Woden himself). My favourite fact is that he is descended from the eleventh-century Danish Earl Siward (via his granddaughter Maud, who married into the Scottish royal family) and thus, through Siward's own complicated and much-elaborated genealogy, from a bear. According to legend Siward's father had the furry ears of a bear, a visible token of his ferocious ancestry; I hope that doesn't run in the family now...

In any case, the medieval passion for genealogy extended to Biblical characters, and this brings us to today's post. The Gospels, of course, provide paternal genealogies for Christ stretching back to King David and beyond, vividly depicted in medieval trees of Jesse and 'ancestors of Christ' windows such as those at Canterbury Cathedral.  On the maternal side the Gospels provide less information, but early on in Christian history (c.150) a tradition grew up that Mary's parents were named Anne and Joachim.  From there, many legends developed about the birth and childhood of Mary, and today we'll see how some of these were depicted in medieval manuscripts. Rather than an interest in genealogy, these visual depictions of St Anne reflect a different kind of fascination with the family: the idea that something as common and ordinary as the birth of a child might nonetheless have immense implications (you might argue that interest in the royal family springs from something similar). This is a marvel which is perhaps inherent in any human birth - who really knows what a child born today will live to see and experience? - but is certainly central to Christianity, the very mystery of the Incarnation.  St Anne, depicted in domestic and everyday scenes with her daughter and divine grandson, helps to humanise the Holy Family, much as medieval carols do with the infant Christ - a baby like any other, who shivers in the cold and cries for his mother to sing to him, yet is ruler of the whole world.

And so to the images, most of which have been provided through the generosity of the British Library.  The most extended part of the story of Mary's parents takes place before her birth. This is how the Catholic Encyclopedia summarises the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James:

In Nazareth there lived a rich and pious couple, Joachim and Hannah. They were childless. When on a feast day Joachim presented himself to offer sacrifice in the temple, he was repulsed by a certain Ruben, under the pretext that men without offspring were unworthy to be admitted. Whereupon Joachim, bowed down with grief, did not return home, but went into the mountains to make his plaint to God in solitude. Also Hannah, having learned the reason of the prolonged absence of her husband, cried to the Lord to take away from her the curse of sterility, promising to dedicate her child to the service of God. Their prayers were heard; an angel came to Hannah and said: "Hannah, the Lord has looked upon thy tears; thou shalt conceive and give birth and the fruit of thy womb shall be blessed by all the world". The angel made the same promise to Joachim, who returned to his wife.

A 15th-century French manuscript, BL Yates Thompson 3, f. 37, shows Joachim in the mountains and Anne at home reading when the angel descends, and then the joyful meeting:

(You can see the whole page here.)  This story was told in medieval drama, including a whole N-town play dedicated to Joachim and Anne.  It begins with them lamenting their childlessness, and Anne has the following speech, in response to Joachim's sorrow:

Youre swemful wurdys make terys trekyl down be my face.
Iwys, swete husbond, the fawte is in me.
My name is Anne, that is to sey, 'grace'.
We wete not how gracyous God wyl to us be.
A woman shulde bere Cryst, these profecyes have we.
If God send frute, and it be a mayd childe,
With all reverens I vow to his magesté,
Sche shal be her footmayd to mynyster her most mylde

[Your sorrowful words make tears trickle down my face!
Indeed, sweet husband, the fault is in me.
My name is Anne, that is to say, 'grace'.
We know not how gracious God will be to us.
A woman will bear Christ, these prophecies we have;
If God send us fruit, and it be a maid child,
With all reverence I vow to his majesty,
She shall be [that woman's] handmaid, to minister her most meekly.]

A beautiful piece of dramatic irony! Her child would not be the handmaid, but the prophesied woman herself. No one knows what their baby will grow up to be...

The play goes on to show the couple parting sadly (Anne comforting her husband with the proverbial saying "those who part in sorrow, may God make their meeting glad"), and Joachim being repulsed from the temple.  He takes refuge among his shepherds, for "shame maketh many man his head to hide", and they console him in his grief, telling him "after great sorrow, master, ever great grace groweth". Poor Joachim laments his sorrow and his wife's pain, but suddenly an angel appears, singing - "as light all around as if the world were on fire" - and tells him that his wife will have a child, Mary, who will be the mother of Christ. The angel tells him to go to the Golden Gate and meet Anne, so he does so - on the way sharing the good news with the shepherds, who tell him "We shall make us so merry, now this has happened, that a mile on your way ye shall hear us sing!"

Meanwhile, Anne is lamenting:

A, mercy, Lord! Mercy, mercy, mercy!
We are sinfullest, it sheweth, that ye send us all this sorrow.
Why do ye thus to my husband, Lord? Why, why, why?

But the angel appears to her too, and confirms the truth of the shepherds' simple proverb: "After great sorrow ever great gladness is had". She goes to meet her husband at the Golden Gate:

Joachim: Ah, gracious wife, Anne, now fruitful shall ye be!
For joy of this meeting in my soul I weep!
Have this kiss of cleanness, and with you it keep.
In God's name now go we, wife, home to our house.

Anne: There was never joy sank in me so deep!
Now may we say, husband: God is to us gracious, verily!

This fourteenth-century English Book of Hours, BL Yates Thompson 13, having depicted both annunciations (ff. 55v-57), shows the joyous meeting before the Golden Gate:

I'm afraid that's almost the last we'll see of Joachim; it's St Anne who is the real focus of interest in the following images, a reminder that these family scenes are an overwhelmingly female domain.  Depictions of the birth of Mary do sometimes feature her father, however.  In a fascinating blog post last week, the British Library collected some manuscript images of the births of 'celebrated infants' from Christ to Caesar; you might like to compare some of those with these nativity scenes.

A placid St Anne is presented with her baby, in the first illustration to John Lydgate's Life of the Virgin in BL Harley 629, f.1v:

As you can see, the big difference between depictions of the Nativities of Mary and Christ is the setting; instead of a stable, St Anne tends to give birth in a luxurious medieval chamber, complete with decorative bed-clothes.  The bedspread is particularly lovely in the following image, from Harley 7026, f. 17:

(Click to enlarge; the faces are wonderful.)

From the splendidly colourful Arundel 109, f. 203:

This French manuscript (Sloane 961 or 2467, f. 13) has the meeting before the Golden Gate, the birth of Mary, and then her presentation in the Temple, where (legend said) by her own choice she ascended the steps to take a vow of virginity:

In the N-town play, her parents give her the choice to go into the temple, and when she has said she will they take proud parental delight in how grown-up she is:

Joachim: Iwis, daughter, it is well said!
You answer as if ye were twenty years old!

Anne: With your speech, Mary, I am very well pleased!
Can ye go alone? Let us see! Be bold!

So the little girl ascends the steps - an attractive subject for illustrators, as in the fourteenth-century Egerton 2781:

In the play, Mary ascribes a meaning to each step as she climbs it (obedience, humility, study, devotion, etc.) Meanwhile her anxious parents look on, waiting until she has safely ascended the steps - "I would not for all the earth see her fall", says Anne.

(This is from King's 6.)

Another common scene of Mary's childhood with her parents is her mother teaching her to read.  For this I offer a few stained-glass examples, first from All Souls, Oxford:

And from Haddon Hall in Derbyshire:

The clothes in each case are just wonderful - I particularly like the head-dresses!  It's not surprising that this scene is popular - what could make for a more touching, everyday image than a mother teaching her young daughter to read?  It's still popular in modern stained-glass; here are three examples I've encountered, first from the parish church at Aldeburgh (from a window about female education which I described here):

From St Peter Mancroft, Norwich:

And from Selworthy in Somerset:

Two more from manuscripts, Harley 2897, f. 340v:

And from Yates Thompson 5, f. 119:

The other context in which St Anne is often depicted is with her daughter and the infant Christ - a 'three generations' picture of the kind the media is eagerly awaiting from the royal family.  Here, mother and grandmother seem to have taken the baby out for a stroll (Harley 2846, f. 40v):

 Here they're seated in splendour, but the baby looks a bit restless (Royal 2 A XVIII, f. 13v):

And here the grandmother, with her arm around her daughter, seems to be distracting the baby with a toy of some kind (Egerton 1070, f. 97):

We can close with a fifteenth-century English carol to St Anne, by John Audelay, 'Swete saynt tanne we þe be seche'. It makes allusion to Anne's childlessness and Joachim's prayers for a child (with some nice wordplay on the idea that Anne was blessed to deliver a child, and thus deliver the world from sin), and shares phrases and imagery with what is today Audelay's best-known carol, 'There is a flower sprung of a tree'.

(I've modernised the spelling from the text printed in E. K. Chambers and Frank Sidgwick, 'Fifteenth Century Carols by John Audelay, II', MLR 6 (1911), 68-84.)

Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

Sweet Saint Anne, we thee beseech
Thou pray for us to our lady,
That she will be our souls’ leech [physician]
On the day when we shall die.
Therefore we say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

Through thee was gladdened all this world
When Mary of thee born was
Who bore the bairn, that blissful lord
Who grants us all mercy and grace.
Therefore we say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

Barren thou wert full long before,
Then God looked on thy meekness,
That thou shouldest deliver what was forlore [lost],
Man’s soul which lay in the fiend’s distress.
Therefore we say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

For Joachim that holy husband
Prayed to God full patiently
That he would send his sweet sond [message, gift]
Some fruit between you two to be.
Therefore we say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

Then God him granted graciously
That between you two a flower should spring;
The root thereof is called Jesse,
Which joy and bliss to the world shall bring.
Therefore I say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

The blissful branch this flower on grew
Out of Jesse, to my knowing
Was Mary mild that bore Jesu,
Maiden and mother to heaven’s king.
Therefore I say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

Called Jesus of Nazareth
God’s son of high degree,
Came here as man who suffered death
And reigned in David’s dignity.
Therefore I say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

In Bethlem, in that blessed place
Mary mild this flower hath borne,
Between an ox and an ass
To save his people that were forlorn.
Therefore I say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

Mater ora filium
That he will after this outlere [exile]
Nobis donet gaudium
Sine fine, for his mercy.
Therefore I say,
Mother of Mary, that merciful may,
Pray for us both night and day.

Thursday 25 July 2013

'Ere the world was waxen old'

I've recently become a little obsessed with William Morris' Sigurd the Volsung. I'm a great lover of the Volsung legend but until recently I avoided this poem, thinking it couldn't possibly live up to the medieval versions of the story - but it does, in its own way, and is simply wonderful.  This is the opening:

There was a dwelling of Kings ere the world was waxen old;
Dukes were the door-wards there, and the roofs were thatched with gold;
Earls were the wrights that wrought it, and silver nailed its doors;
Earls' wives were the weaving-women, queens' daughters strewed its floors,
And the masters of its song-craft were the mightiest men that cast
The sails of the storm of battle adown the bickering blast.
There dwelt men merry-hearted, and in hope exceeding great
Met the good days and the evil as they went the way of fate:
There the Gods were unforgotten, yea whiles they walked with men,
Though e'en in that world's beginning rose a murmur now and again
Of the midward time and the fading and the last of the latter days,
And the entering in of the terror, and the death of the People's Praise.

Thus was the dwelling of Volsung, the King of the Midworld's Mark,
As a rose in the winter season, a candle in the dark;
And as in all other matters 'twas all earthly houses' crown,
And the least of its wall-hung shields was a battle-world's renown,
So therein withal was a marvel and a glorious thing to see,
For amidst of its midmost hall-floor sprang up a mighty tree,
That reared its blessings roofward, and wreathed the roof-tree dear
With the glory of the summer and the garland of the year.
I know not how they called it ere Volsung changed his life,
But his dawning of fair promise, and his noontide of the strife,
His eve of the battle-reaping and the garnering of his fame,
Have bred us many a story and named us many a name;
And when men tell of Volsung, they call that war-duke's tree,
That crownèd stem, the Branstock; and so was it told unto me.

So there was the throne of Volsung beneath its blossoming bower,
But high o'er the roof-crest red it rose 'twixt tower and tower,
And therein were the wild hawks dwelling, abiding the dole of their lord;
And they wailed high over the wine, and laughed to the waking sword.

Morris captures the fierce intensity of the Norse versions of the legend, with his own particular additions: an artist's eye, and the ever-present sense, which you can see in the passage above, that the world of these characters is full of beauty and glory but is passing away, constantly in decline.  Even to the poet of Beowulf, more than a thousand years ago, the story of Sigmund was a legend about ancient history - something irretrievably past and gone, a world that has been but never more will be. This particular mood, perhaps most familiar in the modern era as the all-pervading melancholy of Tolkien's Middle-earth, has never been better expressed than by the anonymous author of The Wanderer:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?  Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

- 'grown dark under the helm of night, as if they never were.'  This is Morris' account of the death of the aged Sigmund in battle, observed from afar by his new wife Hiordis:

So men ride adown to the sea-strand, and the kings their hosts array
When the high noon flooded heaven; and the men of the Volsungs lay,
With King Eylimi's shielded champions mid Lyngi's hosts of war,
As the brown pips lie in the apple when ye cut it through the core.

But now when the kings were departed, from the King's house Hiordis went,
And before men joined the battle she came to a woody bent,
Where she lay with one of her maidens the death and the deeds to behold.

In the noon sun shone King Sigmund as an image all of gold,
And he stood before the foremost and the banner of his fame,
And many a thing he remembered, and he called on each earl by his name
To do well for the house of the Volsungs, and the ages yet unborn.
Then he tossed up the sword of the Branstock, and blew on his father's horn,
Dread of so many a battle, doom-song of so many a man.
Then all the earth seemed moving as the hosts of Lyngi ran
On the Volsung men and the Isle-folk like wolves upon the prey;
But sore was their labour and toil ere the end of their harvesting day.

On went the Volsung banners, and on went Sigmund before,
And his sword was the flail of the tiller on the wheat of the wheat-thrashing floor,
And his shield was rent from his arm, and his helm was sheared from his head:
But who may draw nigh him to smite for the heap and the rampart of dead?

White went his hair on the wind like the ragged drift of the cloud,
And his dust-driven, blood-beaten harness was the death-storm's angry shroud,
When the summer sun is departing in the first of the night of wrack;
And his sword was the cleaving lightning, that smites and is hurried aback
Ere the hand may rise against it; and his voice was the following thunder.

Then cold grew the battle before him, dead-chilled with the fear and the wonder:
For again in his ancient eyes the light of victory gleamed;
From his mouth grown tuneful and sweet the song of his kindred streamed;
And no more was he worn and weary, and no more his life seemed spent:
And with all the hope of his childhood was his wrath of battle blent;
And he thought: A little further, and the river of strife is passed,
And I shall sit triumphant the king of the world at last.

But lo, through the hedge of the war-shafts a mighty man there came,
One-eyed and seeming ancient, but his visage shone like flame:
Gleaming-grey was his kirtle, and his hood was cloudy blue;
And he bore a mighty twi-bill, as he waded the fight-sheaves through,
And stood face to face with Sigmund, and upheaved the bill to smite.
Once more round the head of the Volsung fierce glittered the Branstock's light,
The sword that came from Odin; and Sigmund's cry once more
Rang out to the very heavens above the din of war.
Then clashed the meeting edges with Sigmund’s latest stroke,
And in shivering shards fell earthward that fear of worldly folk.
But changed were the eyes of Sigmund, and the war-wrath left his face;
For that grey-clad mighty helper was gone, and in his place
Brave on the unbroken spear-wood 'gainst the Volsung's empty hands:
And there they smote down Sigmund, the wonder of all lands,
On the foemen, on the death-heap his deeds had piled that day.

Ill hour for Sigmund's fellows! they fall like the seeded hay
Before the brown scythes' sweeping, and there the Isle-king fell
In the fore-front of his battle, wherein he wrought right well,
And soon they are nought but foemen who stand upon their feet
On the isle-strand by the ocean where the grass and the sea-sand meet.

And now hath the conquering War-king another deed to do,
And he saith: "Who now gainsayeth King Lyngi come to woo,
The lord and the overcomer and the bane of the Volsung kin?"
So he fares to the Isle-king's dwelling a wife of the kings to win;
And the host is gathered together, and they leave the field of the dead;
And round as a targe of the Goth-folk the moon ariseth red.

And so when the last is departed, and she deems they will come not aback,
Fares Hiordis forth from the thicket to the field of the fateful wrack,
And half dead was her heart for sorrow as she waded the swathes of the sword.
Nor far did she search the death-field ere she found her king and lord
On the heap that his glaive had fashioned: not yet was his spirit past,
Though his hurts were many and grievous, and his life-blood ebbing fast;
And glad were his eyes and open as her wan face over him hung,
And he spake: "Thou art sick with sorrow, and I would thou wert not so young;
Yet as my days passed shall thine pass; and a short while now it seems
Since my hand first gripped the sword-hilt, and my glory was but in dreams."

She said: "Thou livest, thou livest! the leeches shall heal thee still."
"Nay," said he, "my heart hath hearkened to Odin's bidding and will;
For today have mine eyes beheld him: nay, he needed not to speak:
Forsooth I knew of his message and the thing he came to seek.
And now do I live but to tell thee of the days that are yet to come:
And perchance to solace thy sorrow; and then will I get me home
To my kin that are gone before me. Lo, yonder where I stood
The shards of a glaive of battle that was once the best of the good:
Take them and keep them surely. I have lived no empty days;
The Norns were my nursing mothers; I have won the people's praise.
When the Gods for one deed asked me I ever gave them twain;
Spendthrift of glory I was, and great was my life-days' gain;
Now these shards have been my fellow in the work the Gods would have,
But today hath Odin taken the gift that once he gave.
I have wrought for the Volsungs truly, and yet have I known full well
That a better one than I am shall bear the tale to tell:
And for him shall these shards be smithied; and he shall be my son
To remember what I have forgotten and to do what I left undone.
Under thy girdle he lieth, and how shall I say unto thee,
Unto thee, the wise of women, to cherish him heedfully.
Now, wife, put by thy sorrow for the little day we have had;
For in sooth I deem thou weepest: The days have been fair and glad:
And our valour and wisdom have met, and thou knowest they shall not die:
Sweet and good were the days, nor yet to the Fates did we cry
For a little longer yet, and a little longer to live:
But we took, we twain in our meeting, all gifts that they had to give:
Our wisdom and valour have kissed, and thine eyes shall see the fruit,
And the joy for his days that shall be hath pierced mine heart to the root.
Grieve not for me; for thou weepest that thou canst not see my face
How its beauty is not departed, nor the hope of mine eyes grown base.
Indeed I am waxen weary; but who heedeth weariness
That hath been day-long on the mountain in the winter weather's stress,
And now stands in the lighted doorway and seeth the king draw nigh,
And heareth men dighting the banquet, and the bed wherein he shall lie?"

Then failed the voice of Sigmund; but so mighty was the man,
That a long while yet he lingered till the dusky night grew wan,
And she sat and sorrowed o'er him, but no more a word he spake.
Then a long way over the sea-flood the day began to break;
And when the sun was arisen a little he turned his head
Till the low beams bathed his eyen, and there lay Sigmund dead,
And the sun rose up on the earth; but where was the Volsung kin
And the folk that the Gods had begotten the praise of all people to win?

Arthur Rackham's Sigmund (from wikipedia)

Where indeed?  Ultimately, nowhere; but at this point in the story, within Hiordis' womb.  Her child, Sigmund's only surviving son, unborn at the time of his father's death, grew up to be Sigurd the Volsung - Europe's greatest hero.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

'The heat, the stir, the sublime vacancy / Of sky and meadow and forest and my own heart'

Apologies for the lack of posts recently - it's been too hot to think clearly, and I've been doing what I said I never would, and neglecting the blog for twitter.  I'll try and get back in the swing of things over the next few days, but in the meantime here's a poem by Edward Thomas which I encountered recently.  It's an extraordinary poem, but I won't say anything more about it - not only because I can't think clearly, but because any attempt at commentary would be inadequate.

The Glory

The glory of the beauty of the morning, -
The cuckoo crying over the untouched dew;
The blackbird that has found it, and the dove
That tempts me on to something sweeter than love;
White clouds ranged even and fair as new-mown hay;
The heat, the stir, the sublime vacancy
Of sky and meadow and forest and my own heart: -
The glory invites me, yet it leaves me scorning
All I can ever do, all I can be,
Beside the lovely of motion, shape, and hue,
The happiness I fancy fit to dwell
In beauty's presence. Shall I now this day
Begin to seek as far as heaven, as hell,
Wisdom or strength to match this beauty, start
And tread the pale dust pitted with small dark drops,
In hope to find whatever it is I seek,
Hearkening to short-lived happy-seeming things
That we know naught of, in the hazel copse?
Or must I be content with discontent
As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?
And shall I ask at the day's end once more
What beauty is, and what I can have meant
By happiness? And shall I let all go,
Glad, weary, or both? Or shall I perhaps know
That I was happy oft and oft before,
Awhile forgetting how I am fast pent,
How dreary-swift, with naught to travel to,
Is Time? I cannot bite the day to the core.

Thursday 11 July 2013

'Rich music breathes in Summer's every sound, and in her harmony of varied greens'

This is an extract from John Clare's poem 'Summer Images'; you can read the whole thing here. I couldn't begin to pick a favourite verse, but keep an eye out for the 'startled frog'...

Me not the noise of brawling pleasure cheers,
In nightly revels or in city streets;
But joys which soothe, and not distract the ears,
That one at leisure meets
In the green woods, and meadows summer-shorn,
Or fields, where bee-fly greets
The ear with mellow horn.

The green-swathed grasshopper, on treble pipe,
Sings there, and dances, in mad-hearted pranks;
There bees go courting every flower that's ripe,
On baulks and sunny banks;
And droning dragon-fly, on rude bassoon,
Attempts to give God thanks
In no discordant tune.

The speckled thrush, by self-delight embued,
There sings unto himself for joy's amends,
And drinks the honey dew of solitude.
There Happiness attends
With inbred Joy until the heart o'erflow,
Of which the world's rude friends,
Nought heeding, nothing know.

There the gay river, laughing as it goes,
Plashes with easy wave its flaggy sides,
And to the calm of heart, in calmness shows
What pleasure there abides,
To trace its sedgy banks, from trouble free:
Spots Solitude provides
To muse, and happy be.

There ruminating 'neath some pleasant bush,
On sweet silk grass I stretch me at mine ease,
Where I can pillow on the yielding rush;
And, acting as I please,
Drop into pleasant dreams; or musing lie,
Mark the wind-shaken trees,
And cloud-betravelled sky.

There think me how some barter joy for care,
And waste life's summer-health in riot rude,
Of nature, nor of nature's sweets aware.
When passions vain intrude,
These, by calm musings, softened are and still;
And the heart's better mood
Feels sick of doing ill.

There I can live, and at my leisure seek
Joys far from cold restraints—not fearing pride—
Free as the winds, that breathe upon my cheek
Rude health, so long denied.
Here poor Integrity can sit at ease,
And list self-satisfied
The song of honey-bees.

The green lane now I traverse, where it goes
Nought guessing, till some sudden turn espies
Rude batter'd finger post, that stooping shows
Where the snug mystery lies;
And then a mossy spire, with ivy crown,
Cheers up the short surprise,
And shows a peeping town.

I see the wild flowers, in their summer morn
Of beauty, feeding on joy's luscious hours;
The gay convolvulus, wreathing round the thorn,
Agape for honey showers;
And slender kingcup, burnished with the dew
Of morning's early hours,
Like gold yminted new.

And mark by rustic bridge, o'er shallow stream,
Cow-tending boy, to toil unreconciled,
Absorbed as in some vagrant summer dream;
Who now, in gestures wild,
Starts dancing to his shadow on the wall,
Feeling self-gratified,
Nor fearing human thrall.

Or thread the sunny valley laced with streams,
Or forests rude, and the o'ershadow'd brims
Of simple ponds, where idle shepherd dreams,
Stretching his listless limbs;
Or trace hay-scented meadows, smooth and long,
Where joy's wild impulse swims
In one continued song.

I love at early morn, from new mown swath,
To see the startled frog his route pursue;
To mark while, leaping o'er the dripping path,
His bright sides scatter dew,
The early lark that from its bustle flies,
To hail his matin new;
And watch him to the skies.

To note on hedgerow baulks, in moisture sprent,
The jetty snail creep from the mossy thorn,
With earnest heed, and tremulous intent,
Frail brother of the morn,
That from the tiny bent's dew-misted leaves
Withdraws his timid horn,
And fearful vision weaves.

Or swallow heed on smoke-tanned chimney top,
Wont to be first unsealing Morning's eye,
Ere yet the bee hath gleaned one wayward drop
Of honey on his thigh;
To see him seek morn's airy couch to sing,
Until the golden sky
Bepaint his russet wing.

Or sauntering boy by tanning corn to spy,
With clapping noise to startle birds away,
And hear him bawl to every passer by
To know the hour of day;
While the uncradled breezes, fresh and strong,
With waking blossoms play,
And breathe Æolian song.

I love the south-west wind, or low or loud,
And not the less when sudden drops of rain
Moisten my glowing cheek from ebon cloud,
Threatening soft showers again,
That over lands new ploughed and meadow grounds,
Summer's sweet breath unchain,
And wake harmonious sounds.

Rich music breathes in Summer's every sound,
And in her harmony of varied greens,
Woods, meadows, hedge-rows, corn-fields, all around
Much beauty intervenes,
Filling with harmony the ear and eye;
While o'er the mingling scenes
Far spreads the laughing sky.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

A Morning Hymn: The Bird of Bliss

The gladsome bird, the day's messenger,
Singing with musical harmony,
Sayeth in his song the day begins to clear,
And biddeth us address ourselves and hie
Towards the life, the life that shall not die;
This is the voice right of the bird of bliss
Singing to us that the day coming is.

This biddeth this heavenly pursuivant:
That we should all from slumbering arise,
And that we should been wholly attendant
To please God devoutly with service;
Righteous and chaste and eke in sober wise, [also in a sober manner]
The light of grace is drawing to us near
Of our darkness the clouds away to clear.

The text as printed in Frank Allen Patterson, ‘Hymnal from MS. Additional 34193 British Museum’, in Medieval Studies in Memory of Gertrude Schoepperle Loomis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927), pp.443-488:

The gladsom Byrd, þe deys mesanger,
Synggyng with musicall armonye,
Sayth in hys song þe dey gynnyth to clere,
And byddyth vs Adressone us and hye
Toward þe lyff, þe lyf þat schall not dye;
Thys is ye voyce ryght of þe byrd of blys
Syngynge tyll vs þat þe dey cummyng is.

Thys byddyth þis heyvynly pursyuant,
That we schuld all from slomoryng Aryse,
And þat we schuld bene holly attendaunt
To plesen godd deuotly with seruice;
Ryghtwos and chast and eke in sobre wyse,
The lyght of grace is drawyng tyll vs nere
Of owr derknes þe clowdes for to clere.

This is a translation of the first two verses of a morning hymn by Prudentius, 'Ales diei nuntius'. It comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript of English hymn translations of which I have previously posted an Advent hymn, another morning hymn, and a hymn to the Holy Ghost. The whole manuscript is full of delights, and this is no exception. There are three things about this hymn which I particularly love:

1) the word 'gladsome', possibly my favourite word in the English language

2) the word 'pursuivant', a royal messenger or herald, perhaps familiar to those of you who know Malory, or his loyal Victorian imitators like William Morris; it's the language of the court and of literary romance, and thus a splendid example of a translator adapting a Latin hymn to the imaginative world of his own culture.

3) the fact that it reminds me of the wonderful Middle English proverbial phrase 'as glad as a bird when the day dawns', which I wrote about here. I almost wonder if this phrase, or at least this idea, was in the translator's mind as he worked - his happy bird with its 'musical harmony' is more suggestive of a dawn chorus than Prudentius' crowing cock. It's such a vivid simile, a striking way to express exuberant joy. I've been more than usually aware of the dawn chorus this summer; a tree near my bedroom window is a veritable choir-stall, and birdsong has seemed to be everywhere, even in the city - not only in April do 'smale foweles maken melodye, that slepen al the nyght with open ye'. In past years I've hardly taken notice of it, but what a remarkable thing it is, if you take a moment to think about it: if you were reading a novel about a fantasy world in which little winged creatures flitted around in the trees, singing and chirping, each different and with their own distinctive song, you'd think it a delightful invention. And there they are, all the time, not caring if you listen to them or not. It's one of those things for which 'we need nothing but open eyes to be ravished like the cherubims' - or open ears, in this case.

Here's the loveliest manuscript illustration I've found recently, this bluetit from BL, Royal 3 D VI:

This thirteenth-century English manuscript contains several very naturalistic birds (take a look at this stork!), and I find them mesmerising. They seem to have been drawn from nature, which means that the little bird this artist saw - and heard - died seven hundred years ago; and yet here he is. Isn't he a gladsome bird indeed, a bird of bliss? I could look at this picture all day.

And here's some bird-like harmony to start the day:

Last week I was at a concert in Canterbury Cathedral which featured 'The Lark Ascending'. A young violinist was playing the solo, and as those last trilling notes died away into the darkness of the nave there was a silence of the kind where no one wants to breathe; then after a few heartbeats it was broken by the cathedral bell, high above us, tolling the hour.