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.

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