Sunday 29 September 2013

Four Medieval Texts for Michaelmas

Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (15th century)

Today is Michaelmas, the golden autumn feast of St Michael and All Angels. It falls at perhaps the most beautiful time of the year, on the cusp between the last glow of fiery summer and the yellow-gold 'fallowing' leaves of autumn; the wings of Michael and his angels seem to flutter in harmony with the unleaving of the trees. 'Michaelmas' has been the English name for the feast since at least the eleventh century, and it's a lovely one in every context: Michaelmas daisies, Michaelmas fairs, Michaelmas moons, and more. (Terms, too.) The Anglo-Saxon poem the Menologium alliteratively calls it the 'high-angel's tide in harvest', i.e. 'the archangel's day in autumn':

Hwæt, we weorðiað wide geond eorðan
heahengles tiid on hærfeste,
Michaheles, swa þæt menigo wat,
fif nihtum ufor... emnihtes dæg.

Lo, we honour widely throughout the earth
the high-angel's tide in harvest,
Michael, as the multitude know,
five nights after the equinox day.

St Michael is particularly associated with heights, and churches on hills and in high places were very often dedicated to him. Dragon-slayer, guardian of humanity, and bearer of the scales of divine justice, St Michael was an immensely popular figure in the Middle Ages, and in this post are four pieces about St Michael by medieval English writers: a Latin sequence by the eighth-century Northumbrian scholar Alcuin; an English homily from c.990 by Ælfric; a prayer in verse by John Lydgate (c.1370–c.1451); and a homily by John Mirk (fl. c.1382–c.1414). Illustrations are from a few favourite medieval manuscripts and some of the many, many depictions of St Michael to be found in medieval churches.

BL Harley 624, f. 134v (Canterbury, 12th century)

Michael, Archangel
Of the King of Kings,
Give ear to our voices.

We acknowledge thee to be the Prince of the citizens of heaven:
And at thy prayer God sends
His angels unto men,

That the enemy with cunning craft shall not prevail
To do the hurt he craves
To weary men.
Yea, thou hast the dominion of perpetual Paradise,
And ever do the holy angels honour thee.

Thou wert seen in the Temple of God,
A censer of gold in thy hands,
And the smoke of it fragrant with spices
Rose up till it came before God.

Kingsnorth, Kent

Thou with strong hand didst smite the cruel dragon,
And many souls didst rescue from his jaws.
Then was there a great silence in heaven,
And a thousand thousand saying "Glory to the Lord King."

Hear us, Michael,
Greatest angel,
Come down a little
From thy high seat,
To bring us the strength of God,
And the lightening of His mercy.

And do thou, Gabriel,
Lay low our foes,
And thou, Raphael,
Heal our sick,
Purge our disease, ease thou our pain,
And give us to share
In the joys of the blessed.

- Alcuin, Sequence for St Michael (translated by Helen Waddell, Medieval Latin Lyrics (New York, 1948), pp.91-3; the Latin text can be found here.)

BL Arundel 91, f. 26v
(Canterbury, 12th-century; compare a Victorian rendering of the same.)

"Ic secge eow þæt heora englas symle geseoð mines Fæder ansyne seðe on heofonum is." Mid þisum wordum is geswutelod þæt ælcum geleaffullum men is engel to hyrde geset, þe hine wið deofles syrwunge gescylt, and on halgum mægnum gefultumað, swa swa se sealm-scop be gehwilcum rihtwisum cwæð, "God bebead his englum be ðe, þæt hi ðe healdon, and on heora handum hebban, þelæs ðe ðu æt stane þinne fot ætspurne." Micel wurðscipe is cristenra manna, þæt gehwilc hæbbe fram his acennednysse him betæhtne engel to hyrdrædene, swa swa be ðam apostole Petre awriten is, þaða se engel hine of ðam cwearterne gelædde, and he to his geferum becom, and cnucigende inganges bæd. Þa cwædon þa geleaffullan, "Nis hit na Petrus þæt ðær cnucað, ac is his engel."

Þa englas soðlice ðe God gesette to hyrdum his gecorenum, hí ne gewitað næfre fram his andweardnysse; forðan ðe God is æghwær, and swa hwider swa ða englas fleoð, æfre hí beoð binnan his andwerdnysse, and his wuldres brucað. Hi bodiað ure weorc and gebedu þam Ælmihtigan, þeah ðe him nán ðing digle ne sy, swa swa se heah-engel Raphahel cwæð to ðam Godes menn, Tobían, "Þaða ge eow gebædon, ic offrode eower gebedu ætforan Gode."

Seo Ealde Æ ús sægð, þæt heah-englas sind gesette ofer gehwilce leodscipas, þæt hi ðæs folces gymon, ofer ða oðre englas, swa swa Moyses, on ðære fiftan béc ðære Ealdan Æ, þysum wordum geswutelode, "Þaða se healica God todælde and tostencte Adames ofspring, þa sette he ðeoda gemæru æfter getele his engla." Þisum andgite geþwærlæcð se witega Danihel on his witegunge. Sum Godes engel spræc to Danihele embe ðone heah-engel þe Perscisce ðeode bewiste, and cwæð, "Me com to se heah-engel, Greciscre þeode ealdor, and nis heora nán mín gefylsta, buton Michahel, Ebreisces folces ealdor. Efne nú Michahel, án ðæra fyrmestra ealdra, com me to fultume, and ic wunode ðær wið þone cyning Persciscre ðeode." Mid þisum wordum is geswutelod hú micele care ða heah-englas habbað heora ealdordomes ofer mancynn, ðaða he cwæð, þæt Michahel him come to fultume.

Is nu geleaflic þæt se heah-engel Michahel hæbbe gymene cristenra manna, seðe wæs ðæs Ebreiscan folces ealdor, þa hwile ðe hí on God belyfdon; and þæt he geswutelode, þaða he him sylfum cyrcan getimbrode betwux geleaffulre ðeode, on ðam munte Gargano, swa swa we hwene ǽr ræddon. Þæt is gedón be Godes fadunge, þæt se mǽra heofonlica engel beo singallice cristenra manna gefylsta on eorðan, and þingere on heofonum to ðam Ælmihtigan Gode, seðe leofað and rixað á on ecnysse. Amen.
St Michael in medieval Opus Anglicanum, on the Syon Cope
"I say unto you that their angels ever behold the face of my Father who is in heaven." By these words it is shown that an angel is appointed for every believer as a guardian, who shields him against the devil’s plotting and supports him in holy virtues. As the Psalmist says of every righteous person: "God commanded his angels about you, that they should hold you and bear you in their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone." It is a great honour for Christians that each person, from birth, has an angel assigned to him as a guardian. Just so it is written of the Apostle Peter that the angel led him out of prison and he came to his companions and asked for entrance, knocking, and the faithful ones said, "It is not Peter who is knocking, it is his angel."

Truly, the angels whom God has appointed as guardians for his chosen never leave his presence, because God is everywhere, and wherever the angels fly they are ever in his presence, and enjoy his glory. They take news of our words and deeds to the Almighty, although to him nothing is hidden; as the Archangel Raphael said to the man of God, Tobias, "When you prayed, I offered your prayers before God."

The Old Testament tells us that archangels are set over every nation, above the other angels, so that they may protect the peoples, as Moses, in the fifth book of the Old Testament, reveals in these words: "When the high God separated and scattered the offspring of Adam, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the numbers of his angels". The prophet Daniel agrees with this in his prophecy: a certain angel of God spoke to Daniel concerning the archangel who guided the Persians, and said, "The archangel came to me, the leader of the Greek people, and none was my helper but Michael, leader of the Hebrews. Even now Michael, one of the foremost of the leaders, came to support me, and I remained there with the king of the Persians." With these words, when he said that Michael came to help him, it is shown what great care the archangels take in their authority over mankind.

Now it is to be believed that the archangel Michael has care of Christian people, who was the leader of the Hebrew people while they believed in God; and that he manifested himself when he built himself a church among a faithful people on the mount Gargano, as we read before. It is arranged by God’s dispensation that the glorious angel of heaven is continually the helper of Christians on earth and their advocate in heaven before Almighty God, who lives and reigns for ever in eternity. Amen.

- Ælfric, Homily for Michaelmas, from the first series of his Catholic Homilies. The whole sermon, of which this is only the conclusion, can be found online here):

Medieval wall-painting, Lenham, Kent

As in the painting above, St Michael is frequently depicted weighing souls, balancing their good and bad deeds in his scales to judge which side will prevail. In this image from a 14th-century manuscript, Michael weighs the soul of a dying man, as devils try to seize it and the Virgin intercedes on its behalf (Yates Thompson 13, f. 151):

Sometimes, as in this stunning painting from South Leigh (Oxfordshire), the Virgin lays her rosary beads on the good side of the scale:

The devils in the details are wonderful too:

And here's the extraordinary 'Doom' painting at Wenhaston in Suffolk, with Michael weighing the soul itself against its little evil deeds:

These paintings are all on a grand scale, taking up half a wall or more - a cosmic battle played out on the walls of quiet village churches.

St Michael and the Virgin, 15th-century alabaster (source)

O Myghell! by grace of Cryst Iesu
Callid among angelis þe hevenly champioun,
Be a prerogatyf synguler of vertu,
Held a batayll, venquysshed the dragoun,
Be thow our sheld and our proteccyoun
In euery myschef of daungeris infernall,
Dyffende our party, presente our orisoun,
Vp to the lord that gouerneth all.

- John Lydgate (from here)

Stowe 12, f. 305 (Norwich, 14th century)

That is:

O Michael, by grace of Christ Jesu
Called among angels the heavenly champion,
[Who] by a special property of virtue
Held a battle, vanquished the dragon,
Be thou our shield and our protection
In every trouble of dangers infernal,
Defend our cause, present our prayer
Unto the Lord who governeth all.

Arundel 109, f. 207 (London, 1446)

Good men and woymen, suche a day 3e schull haue Seynt Michaeles day, Goddys holy archangyll. þe whech day 3e schull comme to chyrch and worschyp God and þys holy archangyll. Then schull 3e know þat holy chyrche þat day makyþe mencyon of all Goddys holy angels for þe gret helpe and seruice þat mankynd haþe of hom. But specyale he makeþe mynde of Saynt Mychaell for þe prerogatyues þat he haþe before all oþer; for he ys wondurfull yn aperyng, he ys mervelous yn myracles worchyng, and victoryus yn his feghtyng...

He kepyth paradyse, and takyþe yn sowles þat ben send þedyr. He schall sle þe Antecryst yn þe mownt of Olyuete. He schall byd all þe ded ryse yn þe day of dome. He schall bryng to þe dome þe crosse of Cryst, þe nayles, þe spere, þe crowne of þornes, and all oþer ynstrumentys of his passyon...

Then schull ye all knel adowne, and pray to Seynt Michaell þat he apere to you, when ye schull passe out of þys world, and defende you from your enmyse, and bring you to þe ioye of paradise. Amen.

- John Mirk (from here)

St Winnow, Cornwall

Good men and women, on such a day you should keep St Michael's Day, God's holy archangel; on this day you should come to church and worship God and this holy archangel. You should know that holy church on that day makes mention of all God's holy angels, for the great help and service that mankind has from them; but especially it keeps the memory of St Michael, because of the particular powers that he has above all others, for he is wonderful in appearing, he is marvellous in miracle-working, and victorious in his fighting...

He guards paradise, and receives the souls which are sent thither. He shall slay the Antichrist on the mount of Olivet.  He shall bid all the dead to rise on the day of doom, and he shall bring to the doom the Cross of Christ, the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns, and all other instruments of his Passion...

So you should all kneel down, and pray to Saint Michael that he may appear to you when you pass out of this world, and defend you from your enemies, and bring you to the joy of paradise. Amen.

St Michael on the painted screen at Westhall, Suffolk

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Some Kent Churches: Scraps of Stone at Bridge

Approximately three miles south-east of Canterbury, lying right on the straight line of the old Roman road from Canterbury to Dover, is a village with the plain and unpromising name of Bridge.  As the name suggests, the place owes its existence to a thoroughfare; it's a crossing-place over the Nailbourne river, and the village basically consists of one road:

Despite its name, it's an attractive place - the road is populated by nice solid Kentish houses and pubs (I counted three within a short distance of each other, presumably left over from their service to all those Canterbury pilgrims).  The church is right on the road, and from that perspective looks like this:

But from a better perspective round the other side, it looks like this:

As you can see, from the outside it's all Victorian flint, not promising of much in the way of medieval delights.  It was heavily restored in 1859 - 'disastrously over-restored', says this authority.  But Arthur Mee promised me it contained 'medieval sculpture', and that's what I came to see.  In any case, any church which keeps an open door (and even a friendly sign saying 'come inside') is worth a visit, if only out of gratitude for such a welcoming spirit. This particular open door is a twelfth-century one:

With this friendly face, who survived the flinting:

Unexpected fragments of medieval stonework pretty much characterise Bridge.  This is what it looks like inside:

But this is where Arthur Mee led me, up to the chancel:

You see that semi-circular thing stranded in the middle of a wall on the left?  That's what we've come to see.

It's a tympanum, or the remains of one.  Its origin is a mystery; what door it topped, and where it stood and what happened to it, seem to be unknown.  But whatever strange history led it to its current abandoned position, it's remarkably well-preserved.  I'm more used to seeing things like this weathered by the elements, but this - the lower part, at least - is as clear as if it had been carved yesterday.  There are even traces of paint, always a vivid reminder that these objects looked very different in their original state.

It's probably fifteenth or early sixteenth century, to judge from the style and lettering (which is mostly indecipherable).  The top part depicts Christ in glory, with five scenes from the Book of Genesis below.  As you can see, the top is badly damaged - I assume deliberately - though you can make out the essentials of the scene: Christ in the centre, apparently on a cloud, between two figures, probably Mary and John, with angels around carrying scrolls. If you get close you can see the angels' wing quite distinctly:

But this is only a hint at what it might once have been, and it's the little scenes below which are really interesting.  They show the story of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Abel.  First on the left we see the expulsion from Eden, as they are driven out by an angel with a sword:

The text above them reads 'justicia dei', the justice of God.

Then Adam and Eve with the serpent (rather oddly placed after the expulsion):

Note the traces of bright blue paint by Eve's right shoulder and behind the serpent - there are also smudges of green on the leaves of the tree.  I like the delicate waves of Eve's hair.

The next three scenes depict the story of Cain and Abel.  First we see them offering their different sacrifices to God - Cain offers sheaves, and Abel a ram. In the central scene Abel is on the left and Cain on the right (they're labelled, 'Caym' and 'Abel').  The idea of the contrasting sacrifices is reinforced by the similar composition of the two scenes, and perhaps Abel's kneeling posture indicates his greater humility, intended to explain why his sacrifice was more pleasing to God.

For comparison, you might want to look at some manuscript illustrations of the scene in Harley 4381, Royal 17 E VII, and Royal 19 D II.

I particularly like the tongues of fire consuming the sacrifice on the altar - is it my imagination, or can you see a tinge of red paint remaining at the top of the flames?  There was certainly a blue sky, and I think you can tell that Cain was in red and Abel in green.

Finally, of course, Cain kills Abel:

Note how the curve of the frame follows the bending body of the murderer; it's always worth paying attention to how an object like this fits into its physical context.

I was surprised by both the quality of this tympanum and its location at Bridge. There's some very impressive carving just down the road at Patrixbourne, which was the subject of one of my earliest posts here, four years ago - that's Norman, but perhaps it inspired some anonymous artist or patron to this work 300 years later.

There are various other fascinating bits of carving nearby, such as this effigy of a vicar of Patrixbourne who died in 1512:

For some reason, it's cut in half, and his legs are separated from his head by some odd magic trick.  I don't know how it got this way (no, really, don't ask me, I have no idea), but the split is tastefully covered by a chair:

Above him is this, spattered by light from the east window:

The inscription which the pointing hand wants you to read is 'levavi oculos meos in montes', 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills...'

On the other wall of the chancel, two more memorials:

Yes, that's a skull with worms crawling into it.  Lovely.  And a finger pointing at it, just so you don't miss it!

These are some of the surprises of Bridge.  It also has unusual double columns in the nave:

And interesting bits of stone wherever you look:

The stained glass was particularly bright, and cast colours all through the church:

Surprises everywhere.