Saturday 30 November 2013

St Andrew and the Bargain of Heaven

Prayers for the feast of St Andrew, BL Arundel 109, f.162

Here are some extracts from Ælfric's sermon for St Andrew's Day, 30 November, written at the end of the tenth century. (The whole sermon can be found here, but this is my translation.)

Crist on sumere tide ferde wið þære Galileiscan sæ, and geseah twegen gebroðra, Simonem, se wæs geciged Petrus, and his broðor Andream: et reliqua. 

Swa swa hi ær mid nette fixodon on sælicum yðum, swa dyde Crist þæt hi siððan mid his heofonlican lare manna sawla gefixodon; forðan ðe hi ætbrudon folces menn fram flæsclicum lustum and fram woruldlicum gedwyldum to staðolfæstnysse lybbendra eorðan, þæt is to ðam ecan eðle, be ðam cwæð se witega þurh Godes gast, "Ic asende mine fisceras, and hi gefixiað hi; mine huntan, and hi huntiað hi of ælcere dune and of ælcere hylle." Fisceras and ungetogene menn geceas Drihten him to leorningcnihtum, and hi swa geteah, þæt heora lar oferstah ealne woruldwisdom, and hi mid heora bodunge caseras and cyningas to soðum geleafan gebigdon. Gif se Hælend gecure æt fruman getinge lareowas, and woruldlice uðwitan, and ðyllice to bodigenne sende, þonne wære geðuht swilce se soða geleafa ne asprunge ðurh Godes mihte, ac of woruldlicere getingnysse. He geceas fisceras ærðan ðe he cure caseras, forðan ðe betere is þæt se casere, þonne he to Romebyrig becymð, þæt he wurpe his cynehelm, and gecneowige æt ðæs fisceres gemynde, þonne se fiscere cneowige æt þæs caseres gemynde. Caseras he geceas, ac ðeah he geendebyrde þone unspedigan fiscere ætforan ðam rican casere. Eft siððan he geceas ða welegan; ac him wære geðuht swilce hi gecorene wæron for heora æhtum, gif he ær ne gecure þearfan. He geceas siððan woruldlice uðwitan, ac hi modegodon, gif he ær ne gecure þa ungetogenan fisceras...

Wen is þæt eower sum cweðe to him sylfum on stillum geðohtum, Hwæt forleton has gebroðru, Petrus and Andreas, þe for nean nan ðing næfdon? ac we sceolon on þisum ðinge heora gewilnunge swiðor asmeagan þonne heora gestreon. Micel forlæt se ðe him sylfum nan ðing ne gehylt. Witodlice we healdað ure æhta mid micelre lufe, and ða ðing þe we nabbað we secað mid ormætre gewilnunge. Micel forlet Petrus and Andreas, ðaða heora ægðer þone willan to hæbbenne eallunga forlet, and agenum lustum wiðsoc.

Cwyð nu sum mann, Ic wolde geefenlæcan þam apostolum, þe ealle woruldðing forsawon, ac ic næbbe nane æhta to forlætenne. Ac God sceawað þæs mannes heortan, and na his æhta. Ne he ne telð hu miccle speda we on his lacum aspendon, ac cepð mid hu micelre gewilnunge we ða lac him geoffrion. Efne nu þas halgan cypan, Petrus and Andreas, mid heora nettum and scipe him þæt ece lif geceapodon. Næfð Godes rice nanes wurðes lofunge, ac bið gelofod be ðæs mannes hæfene. Heofonan rice wæs alæten þisum foresædum gebroðrum for heora nette and scipe, and eft syððan ðam rican Zacheo to healfum dæle his æhta, and sumere wudewan to anum feorðlinge, and sumum menn to anum wæteres drence... Mine gebroðra, scrutniað nu ða mid hu waclicum wurðe Godes rice bið geboht, and hu deorwurðe hit is to geagenne. Se ceap ne mæg wið nanum sceatte beon geeht, ac he bið ælcum men gelofod be his agenre hæfene.

'Christ at a certain time went by the Galilean sea, and saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew, et cetera.

Just as they had first fished with nets on the waves of the sea, Christ made it so that afterwards they would fish with his heavenly teaching for the souls of men; for they drew people from bodily lusts and from worldly sins to the stability of the land of the living, that is, to that eternal homeland of which the prophet [Jeremiah] spoke through God's spirit: "I will send my fishers, and they will fish for them; my hunters, and they will hunt them from every mountain and from every hill." God chose fishers and untaught men for his disciples, and taught them so that their learning excelled all the wisdom of the world, and with their preaching they brought kings and emperors to the true faith.

[In Old English this opposition between untaught disciples and wisdom of the world is reinforced by the fact that the OE word for 'disciple', leorningcniht ('learning-boy') preserves the Latin's relationship to the verb 'to learn' (discere).]

If the Saviour had from the beginning chosen eloquent teachers and men wise in the world, and sent such people to preach, then it would have seemed as if the true faith had not arisen through the power of God, but through worldly eloquence. He chose fishermen before he chose emperors, because it is better that the emperor, when he comes to Rome, should cast down his crown and kneel at the tomb of the fisherman than that the fisherman should kneel at the emperor’s tomb. Emperors he did choose, but nonetheless he appointed the poor fisherman before the powerful emperor. Again, he later chose the wealthy, but it might have seemed as if they were chosen for their goods, if he had not previously chosen the poor. He later chose men wise in the world, but they would have grown proud, if he had not previously chosen the unlearned fishermen...

It may be that one of you is thinking in his secret thoughts, “What did those brothers Peter and Andrew leave, if they had almost nothing?” But in this we should consider their desire rather than their possessions. He leaves much who keeps nothing for himself. Truly, we hold on to our possessions with great love, and the things we do not have we seek for with immense desire. Peter and Andrew left much, when they both entirely left the will to possess anything, and renounced their own desires.

Now someone might say, "I would imitate the apostles, who renounced all worldly things, but I don’t have any possessions to renounce." But God considers a man’s heart, and not his possessions. He does not count what great riches we spend in offerings to him, but observes with how great a desire we make offerings to him. Now truly, these holy traders, Peter and Andrew, with their nets and boats purchased for themselves eternal life. The kingdom of God has no valuation of price, but is priced according to what a man has. The kingdom of heaven was given to these brothers in exchange for their nets and boats, and afterwards to the wealthy Zacchaeus for half his possessions, and to a certain widow for a farthing, and to a certain man for one drink of water... My brothers, consider now at how small a price God’s kingdom is purchased, and how precious it is to possess! This bargain cannot be bought with any money, but is priced for every man according to what he possesses.'

Prayers to St Andrew, Yates Thompson 13

This reflection on value and exchange plays around with the language of economic transactions: bycgan 'to buy' and ciepan 'to purchase, to barter'. It seems even more appropriate now that St Andrew's Day falls in the middle of Christmas shopping! (I assume it wasn't in Ælfric's day; at least, I don't think the Anglo-Saxons had a version of Black Friday...) Ælfric calls the kingdom of God a ceap, a 'bargain' - the word from which we get 'cheap', as well as many English place-names like Cheapside, Chipping, Chepstow, the names of places which were once (and often still are) areas of markets and trading. Peter and Andrew, who purchase heaven by giving up their boats, become halgan cypan 'holy traders' - holy hagglers, you might say.

Ælfric goes on to describe Andrew's martyrdom, and to interpret the names of the apostles; Andrew's he interprets (accurately, I think?) as 'manly', in Old English ðegenlic, 'thegn-like'.  Elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon literature, this is a term of the highest approbation applied to a warrior of Essex named Offa, who died in battle at Maldon, killed beside his lord fighting against the Vikings: he læg ðegenlice ðeodne gehende, 'he lay, as befits a thegn, next to his lord'. In Old English poetry the apostles are regularly called 'Christ's thegns' and Andrew, of course, was martyred for his lord; it's nice to think that Offa and Andrew, though their lives were so different, had something in common in their deaths.

St Andrew in a 13th-century Psalter (BL Add. 50000, f. 8v)

Andrew's cult has a long history in England: Andrew was the dedicatee of one of the earliest churches founded after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, when in 604 Archbishop Justus founded St Andrew's at Rochester (now Rochester Cathedral). Andrew is also the subject of a remarkable Old English poem, known as Andreas, which tells a fantastic story about Andrew's journey to rescue St Matthew from the hands of cannibals, guided by Christ disguised as a sailor. Perhaps St Andrew's most enthusiastic Anglo-Saxon fan was St Dunstan, who owned a staff with one of Andrew's teeth set in the top of it, encased in silver, because of his devotion to the saint. Dunstan had broken a previous staff fighting against the devil (in the shape of a bear), and made this replacement with Andrew's tooth because he said the devil would never be able to break it. In the late eleventh century, pilgrims to Canterbury were miraculously healed by water in which this staff had been dipped, infused with the joint power of Dunstan and Andrew. (I can't help imagining that the staff looked like this...)

There are also plenty of later medieval depictions of St Andrew from England, as you can see from the images in this post (which are mostly fourteenth/fifteenth century), and as late as the nineteenth century the lacemakers of Bedfordshire and the Midlands were celebrating St Andrew's feast with 'tandry cakes', cross-dressing and elderberry wine; in Kent they apparently celebrated by going squirrel-hunting on this day! In the British Isles St Andrew now belongs by right to Scotland, but he has a good venerable history in England; we should enjoy his day too ;)

Andrew, Peter and Paul, in a medieval painting at Norwich Cathedral

Friday 22 November 2013

C. S. Lewis the Medievalist: Baldr, Brunanburh, Athelstan, and Edmund the Just

King Athelstan in a tenth-century manuscript (image from wikipedia)

Today the internet is full of people paying tribute to C. S. Lewis, who died fifty years ago on 22 November 1963. It's difficult to say anything about Lewis that hasn't been said before, but I wanted to pay my own tribute anyway; he's been important to my imaginative life ever since I learned to read, and (although I only realised this rather late in the game) he was a big part of the reason I became a medievalist.  The Chronicles of Narnia are a splendid introduction to medieval literature, because Lewis delighted in cramming in as many allusions as possible from all kinds of literary sources, often, it seems, just for his own scholarly amusement. I've talked about this before in reference to Lewis' wonderfully playful attitude to literary language in the Chronicles; the language soars far above the average child reader's vocabulary to experiment and luxuriate and delight in different registers of literary discourse. Today I went and re-read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in the Bodleian - quite without shame, because I'm old enough to read fairy tales openly now! - and was pleased to be reminded of one lovely instance of this: by the end of the book, when the children have reached adulthood in Narnia, they've started to speak in the most ridiculously brilliant medievalese:

Then said King Peter (for they talked in quite a different style now, having been Kings and Queens for so long), "Fair Consorts, let us now alight from our horses and follow this beast into the thicket; for in all my days I never hunted a nobler quarry."

"Sir," said the others, "even so let us do."

So they alighted and tied their horses to trees and went on into the thick wood on foot. And as soon as they had entered it Queen Susan said, "Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron."

"Madam," said King Edmund, "if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof."

"By the Lion's Mane, a strange device," said King Peter, "to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!"

"Sir," said Queen Lucy, "by likelihood when this post and this lamp were set here there were smaller trees in the place, or fewer, or none. For this is a young wood and the iron post is old." And they stood looking upon it. Then said King Edmund,

"I know not how it is, but this lamp on the post worketh upon me strangely. It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream."

"Sir," answered they all, "it is even so with us also."
Absurd, but so much fun! The narrator plays along too - 'answered they all' is straight out of Le Morte d'Arthur. And then the first thing that comes back to them as they return to England is their ordinary everyday language:

So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamppost, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats.
Within a sentence the narrator has switched back from 'a score of paces' to just 'twenty more'; we are back in the modern world.  I adore this kind of thing, and it's a fantastic introduction to the idea of literary language and appropriate styles of discourse; Lewis was forming his child readers into little literary critics.

This is true on another level too, because - rather like the Canterbury Tales - the Narnia books are a compendium of literary genres, a joyous introduction to all the different kinds of things literature can do. The Magician's Nephew plays in the world of E. Nesbit's children's stories, The Horse and His Boy in the world of the Arabian Nights; Prince Caspian offers the dynastic conflicts of Shakespeare's history plays, its hero a fine Tudor prince properly educated in the quadrivium (!); The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is all Mandevillian 'Travels in the East', complete with sea-serpents and monopods; The Silver Chair starts with Middle English romance (Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and gets progressively more Norse as the story goes north, until we end up in the Prose Edda; and The Last Battle takes us to apocalypse by way of Brave New World.  This is something deeper than pastiche; it's born of a great love of literature and its many possibilities. From a spiritual point of view, Lewis famously talked of the 'baptism of the imagination' which literature could provide; he envisaged the Narnian stories producing an effect which was only to be fully realised in later life, when the reader encountered an idea (or image or story) which they recognised as having met before. According to his biographer:

His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. 'I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child's imagination.'
But this 'pre-baptism' works on a literary level as much as a religious one; reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child prepared me to appreciate a whole range of genres before I knew what genre was, to love literary exploration and experimentation before I had much idea what 'literature' consisted of. "So is there in us a world of love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be" - as Lewis, quoting Thomas Traherne, heads the chapter in Surprised by Joy where he talks about his own childhood reading. It's a particularly good baptism for a medievalist, and I know that in some indefinable way Narnia (especially the three books of Narnia's Middle Ages, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair) prepared me for the work I do now.

So it occurred to me that today I might post one thing I stumbled across in my medieval reading which made me think of Narnia (here's another I posted about previously).  If this parallel has been pointed out by anyone else, I would like to know - I don't keep up with Lewis scholarship!  It is, I think, the only bit of Anglo-Saxon literature to feature in Narnia - though I could be wrong...

Unlike Tolkien, Lewis was a late-medieval/Renaissance scholar by taste and training, and most of the medievalism in the Narnia books reflects that, apart from an occasional nod to the Norse texts which had inspired in him, as a child, a deep love of 'pure Northernness'. It seems to me that the moments of Northernness, although rare, actually occur at some of the most emotionally significant moments in the books: consider what it means that in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe the witch's reign is one long fimbulvetr, and that the return of Aslan is accompanied by a thaw such as that which, according to Norse myth, would have wept the god Baldr back to life again. It was Baldr - specifically, a line from Longfellow's Tegner's Drapa, 'I heard a voice that cried, "Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!"' - who gave Lewis one of his earlier experiences of Joy:

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

Lewis' love for Norse mythology was far more than literary appreciation; he continues in Surprised by Joy:

At the time, Asgard and the Valkyries seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else in my experience—than the Matron Miss C., or the dancing mistress, or my chances of a scholarship. More shockingly, they seemed much more important than my steadily growing doubts about Christianity. This may have been—in part, no doubt was—penal blindness; yet that might not be the whole story. If the Northernness seemed then a bigger thing than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not. It was not itself a new religion, for it contained no trace of belief and imposed no duties. Yet unless I am greatly mistaken there was in it something very like adoration, some kind of quite disinterested self-abandonment to an object which securely claimed this by simply being the object it was. We are taught in the Prayer Book to "give thanks to God for His great glory," as if we owed Him more thanks for being what He necessarily is than for any particular benefit He confers upon us; and so indeed we do and to know God is to know this. But I had been far from any such experience; I came far nearer to feeling this about the Norse gods whom I disbelieved in than I had ever done about the true God while I believed. Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.

It's no surprise, then, that when Lewis came to write his own myth he drew quite openly on Norse motifs, circling round again to the literature which had first baptised his imagination. [ETA: for discussion of Lewis' lifelong engagement with Old Norse myth, see now this book.] By comparison, Anglo-Saxon literature is not well represented in the Narnia books; I don't get the impression that it had the same emotional or spiritual resonance for Lewis as the Norse texts did (or as Old English literature did for Tolkien, whose direct and indirect 'quoting' of Old English poems like The Wanderer and Christ I held a deep personal significance). But there is one exception, which may or may not exist only in my own head.  See what you think.

It's about Peter and Edmund, or rather, about their names. Now, the inspiration for the name of Peter is obvious; Wikipedia helpfully observes that it was the only one of the four children's names to be there from the early stages of planning The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and it must have seemed like a natural choice for the boy who was to be High King. If Aslan is Christ, Peter is - well, St Peter; a High King over other kings is prima inter pares. That's straightforward enough - one of the most common English male names, and one full of Christian meaning. 

Edmund, however, is not anywhere near as common (even in the early twentieth century, when it was more popular than today). It's an Anglo-Saxon name, and there are three famous Anglo-Saxon Edmunds to whom we might look as Edmund Pevensie's namesake. St Edmund of East Anglia, king and martyr, is perhaps the best-known, but in the Anglo-Saxon sources he is so simply purely virtuous that he doesn't have much in common with the more human Edmund, the traitor. Then there's the valiant Edmund Ironside, but this too doesn't feel quite right: the fictional Edmund is not known for his skill in battle, but for his hard-won wisdom. I think instead we should look to another King Edmund, brother of King Athelstan, because it may have been that brotherly relationship which inspired Edmund's name.

Wordplay on St Peter's name is a key part of his story: Peter means 'rock', and thus, 'You are Peter, and on this rock will I build my church'. Etymological wordplay of this nature was dear to the medieval mind, as Lewis knew very well; names mean things, and those meanings tell you something about the person who bears the name. Take the wordplay one step further into Old English, and there is no better equivalent for 'Peter' than Æthelstan, a name which means 'noble stone'. Athelstan is less well-known today than some other Anglo-Saxon kings (notably his grandfather, Alfred the Great) but he had a truly magnificent reputation in the Middle Ages, as a wise and pious king who was also triumphant in battle. He appears in later medieval chronicles as the greatest of the English kings, and also features in a Middle English romance or two; his reputation endured.

Athelstan's most famous triumph was his victory at Brunanburh in 937 over the combined forces of Constantine of Scotland and Óláfr Guðfriðsson. This is perhaps the greatest victory in Anglo-Saxon history and it is commemorated in an important Old English poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, known to every student of Anglo-Saxon literature. Lewis would certainly have known this poem. Apart from being a standard text, it had obtained some degree of popularity in the nineteenth century, as witnessed by the fact that Tennyson wrote a poetic version of it (which this useful site compares with the Old English poem). The poem is preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and is the only surviving example of an Old English poem celebrating victory in battle (rather than glorious defeat!). It begins like this:

Æthelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,
beorna beahgifa, and his broþor eac,
Eadmund æþeling, ealdorlange tir
geslogon æt sæcce sweorda ecgum
ymbe Brunanburh.

Æthelstan king, lord of earls,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Edmund the prince, eternal glory
won in battle with the sword's edge
around Brunanburh.

This poem is a panegyric, an unabashed glorification of the kings of Wessex - and key to it is the mutual triumph of Athelstan and his brother, joint-victors in this crucial battle. This praising of king and prince together is unusual in Old English poetry and springs probably from the poet's desire to extol the whole royal line; since Athelstan had no children, Edmund inherited the kingdom from his brother. The brotherly relationship struck some later medieval historians as significant: William of Malmesbury, who esteemed Athelstan very highly because he was buried at Malmesbury, claimed that Athelstan was notable for his kindness to his brothers. (Athelstan is also famous among medievalists for marrying his sisters to foreign rulers, something earlier Anglo-Saxon kings had not really done - and which forms a plot point in The Horse and His Boy.)  So if Lewis, having chosen the name Peter for all its many associations, was musing on an appropriate name for the king's brother, 'Eadmund aetheling' would be a natural namesake.

I don't know whether these two brother-kings and their victory at Brunanburh were really in the back of Lewis' mind as he wrote The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but two more details make me think they might have been. One, we are told that after many years in Narnia Edmund becomes known as 'Edmund the Just' - a name also given to King Edmund by some later historians Lewis might have known (here's an example).  And two: although the battle which Peter and Edmund fight together receives little attention in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (far less than in the recent film), we do learn that it takes place at Beruna - close enough to 'Brunanburh' for me!

Thursday 21 November 2013

Anglo-Saxon Autumns

It's a truism among medievalists that Anglo-Saxon poetry is full of winters. Snow, hail, frost, rain and ice beset the characters of many Old English poems: the classic examples are The Wanderer and The Seafarer, in which a bleak winter landscape emphasises the distance between the speaker and the delights of human companionship. In the first poem this intensifies the speaker's loneliness and misery; in the second it seems to represent a kind of ascetic separation from the things of this world, for winter stands opposed to everything that human society can provide: protection, warmth, friendship, love. In Bede's story of the sparrow, it is winter which represents the vast unknowable beyond lying outside human perception: all that we know and experience is represented by the companionship of the hall, where "a fire is kindled and the hall warmed, while it rained and snowed and stormed outside". All else is winter darkness.

Elsewhere the trauma of winter is that it 'fetters' the earth, holds it in painful stasis; in Beowulf being trapped by winter brings simmering tensions to a head, and the vocabulary of winter (of which there is a great deal) involves snow and frost binding, trapping, pressing, crushing. It's a pleasing fact about the Old English language that winters were also the way of counting years, so when The Wanderer says "ne mæg weorþan wis wer, ær he age wintra dæl in woruldrice", 'a man may not become wise before he has had his share of winters in the world', it's not clear whether he is talking about learning from experience of years or winters or both. Anglo-Saxon poets were not incapable of seeing beauty in winter, particularly in the miraculous new 'bridges' formed by jewel-bright ice, but the poetic uses of winter are almost overwhelmingly negative: it is a threat, everything antithetical to human happiness.

All this is a well-known feature of Old English poetry (at least to those who read Old English poetry...), but this post was sparked by re-reading The Wanderer and musing on the compound wintercearig, 'winter-sorrowful', which appears only in this poem and was probably coined by the poet. It reminded me of the Middle English poem 'Winter wakeneth all my care', but the landscape envisaged by the Middle English poet is different from that presented in The Wanderer: the later poem is concerned with the fall of the leaves, not snow and ice. So I got interested in whether Anglo-Saxon poets talk about this phase of the year, between harvest and midwinter. Since we are in autumn and the snow hasn't come yet, here are two brief descriptions of what comes before winter, when the leaves fall.

The pictures were all taken in Christ Church Meadow in Oxford earlier this week.

Lytle hwile leaf beoð grene;
ðonne hie eft fealewiað, feallað on eorðan
and forweorniað, weorðað to duste.
Swa ðonne gefeallað ða ðe fyrena ær
lange læstað, lifiað him in mane,
hydað heahgestreon, healdað georne
on fæstenne feondum to willan.

(Solomon and Saturn, 333-341)

A little while the leaves are green;
then they wither again, fall to the earth,
and die, turn to dust.
Just so fall those who for a long time
continue in their crimes, live in wickedness,
hide their treasures, hoard them eagerly
in safe places at the pleasure of the devil.

Beam sceal on eorðan
leafum liþan; leomu gnornian.

(Maxims I, 26-7)

A tree on the earth must
lose its leaves; the branches mourn.

These two extracts offer two different ways of considering the fall of the leaves. The first is from a poem which imagines a debate between Saturn, a pagan prince, and the wise King Solomon: it's something like a riddle contest, in which Saturn challenges Solomon with a series of questions about the nature of the world, and Solomon provides cryptic and not entirely satisfying answers. The text is difficult and obscure, but by any standard Saturn's questions are unanswerable ones (to us as well as to Solomon): Why are earthly goods distributed unequally? Why do sorrow and laughter live so close together? Why cannot all men be saved? The most unanswerable question of all concerns wyrd, the Old English word for 'fate' or 'the course of events': "Why does mighty wyrd torment us?" This is perhaps the Anglo-Saxon version of the problem of pain.

The questions Saturn asks about the natural world reflect this sense that the world is a mysterious and unfathomable place, governed by forces beyond control, in which all is not as it should be; rather than searching out scientific knowledge, these questions have an unspoken but unmistakable metaphorical tone. Why does the sun not shine evenly across the world, but leaves darkness in many places? Why is the sea never quiet? And, of course, there is a question about winter: "Why does snow fall and cover the ground, conceal the shoots of plants, bind up the fruits, crush and repress them, so that they are shrivelled with cold?"

The section parallelling the fall of the leaves with the fall of the wicked man (which sounds to me like an echo of Psalm 37) is Solomon's attempt to discern order in this chaos and inequality. Here alone the natural world is presented as in harmony with principles of justice. But his effort is not entirely successful; it's difficult not to feel sympathy for the falling leaves, and thus for the falling men.

The description of what happens to the leaves involves three alliterating verbs: fealewiað, feallað and forweorniað. The last two mean 'fall' and 'perish, die' respectively; the first verb, fealewian, means 'to turn fallow', fallow being the name of a colour between red and brownish yellow (the colour from which the fallow-deer gets its name). Old English colour-names do not map easily on to modern ideas of colour, but fallow, fealo, is the shade of autumn leaves, wooden shields and turbulent winter waves - whatever that says to you. The Old English verb fealewian became Middle English fallowen, which appears in reference to autumn fading in both 'Winter wakeneth all my care' and 'Now shrinketh rose'. The latter instance refers to flowers (speaking metaphorically of the flowers of a woman's beauty) but the former paints the same opposition as Solomon between the green leaves of spring and the yellow leaves of autumn, and this colour opposition crops up a few times in Early Middle English poetry. It appeals, because aren't the leaves of spring yellow-green in their beginning, as the leaves of autumn are yellow-red in their dying?

And by comparison we have:

Beam sceal on eorðan
leafum liþan; leomu gnornian.

A tree on the earth must
lose its leaves; the branches mourn.

It's tempting to leave that uncontextualised, so beautiful does it look standing all alone; but in context (in a poem which is a compilation of short observations and maxims about life and the natural world) it forms part of a larger reflection on grief and human frailty:

Sceal wif ond wer in woruld cennan
bearn mid gebyrdum. Beam sceal on eorðan
leafum liþan, leomu gnornian.
Fus sceal feran, fæge sweltan
ond dogra gehwam ymb gedal sacan

A woman and man must bring into the world
a child by birth. A tree on the earth must
lose its leaves; the branches mourn.
Those who are ready must go; the doomed die
and every day struggle against their departure
from the world.

The verb I've translated here as 'must' is sceal, part of the fixed form of a maxim which describes both how things are and how they must be; part of the difficulty in translating and interpreting the maxims is trying to understand the source and the power behind this must, if indeed it has a source at all. If it is wyrd, we should not necessarily imagine a personified force of fate, a vengeful Nemesis or destiny-weaving Norn (although that also can't be ruled out); wyrd is a noun formed from the verb weorþan, 'to become, to happen, to come about', so perhaps it is nothing more than 'things that happen' - a mysterious power enough, to ordain that the leaves must fall and men must die.

gnornian has the full force of 'mourn, lament, grieve'; the emotion is attributed to the tree and not the parents, but the parallel is clear, and the organic metaphor a natural one. It helps, perhaps, that in Old English both trees and humans have leomu 'limbs' (that's the word for 'branches' here), and that there's so close a resemblance in sound and form between the words bearn and beam, 'child' and 'tree'. I'm reminded of Guðrún in the Old Norse poem Hamðismál, lamenting the loss of her brothers and daughter:

Einstæð em ek orðin,
sem ösp í holti,
fallin at frændum
sem fura at kvisti,
vaðin at vilja,
sem viðr at laufi,
þá er in kvistskæða
kemr um dag varman.

I am standing alone
like the aspen in the wood,
deprived of kinsmen
like a fir of its branches,
stripped of joy
like a tree of its leaves,
when a girl gathering branches
comes on a warm day.

It is a common lament in Old English poetry that "Modor ne rædeð, ðonne heo magan cenneð, hu him weorðe geond worold widsið sceapen" - 'a mother cannot foresee, when she bears a child, how his journey through the world will be shaped for him'. Or, to put it another way, what his winters will bring.

Friday 15 November 2013

Some Kent Churches: Stodmarsh in Summer

As November goes on it becomes difficult to remember what summer feels like; but I remember that on a sunny day in August, under a cloudless blue sky, I visited an unpretending little church in the village of Stodmarsh in Kent. I think you can guess from its name what kind of landscape Stodmarsh inhabits; the marsh in question lies east of Canterbury, between the city and the Isle of Thanet, where there was once a channel navigable by ship. The channel silted up centuries ago, but Stodmarsh still has the name it had in June 686, when Eadric, king of Kent, gave land at 'the marsh called Stodmersch' to the monastery of St Augustine's, Canterbury, which was at that time less than a hundred years old.

The area near the village is now a nature reserve. I can't tell the difference between reserved nature and unreserved nature, and in any case I only went to the church; but I did see a butterfly or two.

The church's little bell-tower was being renovated, but it was still a beautiful sight under a blue sky:

It's right next to an oasthouse, as all Kent churches really ought to be:

The scholarship of the Kent Archaeological Society, in its detailed description of Stodmarsh, had informed me that there are fragments of 12th-century carving somewhere in the churchyard, but I failed to locate them (not for want of trying). They apparently have a pattern comparable to the stunning Norman font at St Martin's in Canterbury. It was a shame to miss them, but I was charmed by the exterior nonetheless: a tiny green garden of a churchyard, growing up from the road without even a wall to separate them, overlooked by that oasthouse, and by this lady beside the west door:

Her weatherbeaten face was a reminder that a marshside landscape can be a harsh climate, but on that sunny August day the landscape felt peaceful and full of blessings; it's as difficult to remember winter under a summer sky as the opposite, now in November.

The south doorway bears a mass dial, and a selection of assorted, anonymous crosses:

The little nave, with no windows on one side, was sunlight and shadow:

But as another reminder of the challenges of living and building on a marsh, there are some huge wooden supports inside the church, holding up the wall at the west end:

In the chancel we encounter Early Modern spelling in the wild:

"Hir Body lieth here to rest
Hir Soul with God & Christ is Blest." 

The windows in the chancel are thirteenth-century, with elegant arches:

But, even better, one of them has all its original glass:

Complete thirteenth-century windows don't come along every day, especially in out-of-the-way village churches. The church didn't make much fuss about it, but this is really quite special in its age and completeness. It's grisaille glass, which I usually don't find very attractive, but the soft pink and green touches in this relieve the monotony (monochromy, rather).

There are some other windows with sections and fragments of medieval glass:

These last are fifteenth-century fragments and according to our guide, they were still part of an intact window in the late eighteenth century, depicting "the figure of the blessed Virgin, crowned, with the child in her arms; and the figure of a woman, with the head of an old man lying on her arm; both beautifully done". I wonder what scene would be depicted by a woman with an old man lying on her arm? It's a sting to think of what is lost to us - but how much more reason to treasure what remains.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

'Trusty, dusky, vivid, true'

My Wife
Robert Louis Stevenson

Trusty, dusky, vivid, true,
With eyes of gold and bramble-dew,
Steel-true and blade-straight,
The great artificer
Made my mate.

Honour, anger, valour, fire;
A love that life could never tire,
Death quench or evil stir,
The mighty master
Gave to her.

Teacher, tender, comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart-whole and soul-free
The august father
Gave to me.

Ever since I discovered Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry during one lonely Long Vacation a few years ago (a discovery which can be helpfully charted via this blog here and here) I've kept a file of my favourites among his poems, for the purpose of posting them.  This one is the last remaining, which I suppose tells you it's the least favourite of my favourites.  That's not because I don't think it's as lovely as the others but because I find it so hard to believe that any man has ever loved a woman for the qualities described here: 'honour, anger, valour, fire', particularly.  Nice thought, but...

However, Stevenson was an unusual man in lots of ways - perhaps this was one of them.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Story of Cnut and the Waves

King Cnut died on 12 November 1035, aged probably not much more than forty. At the time of his death he was the ruler of a great Scandinavian empire which included Denmark, Norway, England and part of Sweden, but he died at Shaftesbury and was buried at Winchester, in England and in the ancient heart of the kingdom of Wessex - and in this fact lies part of the fascination of Cnut. The image above was made in his lifetime and depicts him at the height of his power, presenting a splendid golden cross to the New Minster, Winchester (where Alfred the Great was buried - what would Alfred have thought!). Here's the whole thing:

One hand on the cross and one hand on his sword, which swaggeringly pierces the frame of the picture - however much the angels point upwards to Christ, you're not permitted to forget who's in charge here.

The most successful of Scandinavian kings, Cnut is also the subject of some of the best post-Conquest stories about Anglo-Saxon history: whether he is chasing after peasants, composing songs about the beauty of monastic chant, or chopping off a traitor's head with a snappy pun, he gets all the best lines, all the grandest gestures. The most famous story of all is one of the few bits of Anglo-Saxon history to have entered widespread popular discourse - it's a tale with a hold on the public imagination rivalled only, perhaps, by Alfred and his burnt cakes.  Many people who know absolutely nothing about medieval history could nonetheless tell you that Cnut tried to hold back the waves. Although it's such a widely-known myth, the story of Cnut and the waves actually has some interesting things to tell us about Cnut, his reign, and his reputation in England.*

First, the story in its earliest recorded form, as told by the twelfth-century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon (writing c.1140, a century after Cnut's death). When he reached the point in his chronicle when he had to note the death of Cnut, Henry wrote:

A few words must be devoted to the power of this king. Before him there had never been in England a king of such great authority. He was lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of Scotland. In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds.

The first is that he gave his daughter in marriage to the Roman emperor, with indescribable riches.

The second, that on his journey to Rome, he had the evil taxes that were levied on the road that goes through France, called tolls or passage tax, reduced by half at his own expense.

The third, that when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, ‘You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.’ But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, ‘Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws’. Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy rest.

Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.367-9.

There are actually two roughly contemporary versions of the story, and this is the other one:

[After becoming king of Norway] Cnut was lord over three kingdoms, and few people were to be found who dared oppose his wishes. Nevertheless he did meet resistance and his orders were on one occasion treated with contempt. He was in London on the bank of the River Thames, and the tide was coming in near the church called Westminster. The king has dismounted and was standing on the sand along the strand. The tide kept rising and rising remorselessly, and as it got closer, it came right up to the king. Cnut grasped his sceptre in his hand and addressed the tide: ‘Turn back and get away off me, otherwise I shall strike you!’ The sea did not leave off on his account, and the tide kept rising and rising. The king stood his ground and waited, then struck the water with his sceptre. This did not make the water leave off; on the contrary it came right up and drenched him.

Understanding that he had waited too long, and that the tide was taking not the slightest notice of him, he retreated from the strand. Then, standing up on a stone, he stretched out his hands towards the east. Just hear what he said in the presence of his people: ‘He who causes the sea to rise is the right and proper person to place one’s trust in and to honour. He is a just and virtuous king, whereas I am a miserable wretch. I am a mere mortal, whereas he is everlasting. Every single thing obeys his command, and he is the one to whom I pray for protection. My intention now is to go [as a pilgrim] to Rome to worship him, and all my land I will [henceforth] hold as his vassal.’

Whereupon, wishing to start out without delay, he begins preparations for his journey. He took large amounts of gold and silver with him.

Geffrei Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. and trans. Ian Short (Oxford, 2009), pp.254-6. Additions in square brackets, except the first, are Short’s.

I find this story fascinating. Popularly, the story is still often misunderstood as Cnut being foolish and arrogant, which doesn't fit with Henry's telling - Henry is perfectly clear that this is a "fine and magnificent deed", so he saw it as a proper demonstration of the king's humility before God. Cnut was given to grand gestures of royal piety and lavish gifts to religious shrines - just look at that cross in the image above! - and as a result, some scholars have suggested this story has its roots in such a gesture, Cnut knowing all along that the tide won't obey him, and choosing this way of demonstrating his humility. It's certainly possible, though it's hard to picture the logistics of such a gesture - do you carry a chair all the way to the sea-shore just for this? - or to think that many witnesses would take it in the spirit it was intended: people today seem to find the image of a king with the sea around his ankles irresistibly funny, and I don't think Cnut's Danish followers were deficient in that kind of humour. They might have laughed too, and then the grand gesture falls a little flat!

It's also not quite clear who exactly would be the audience for this demonstration, or that there is an audience at all; Henry doesn't mention one and Gaimar barely does. Who's being demonstrated to? You often hear the story explained today as a rebuke to the flattery of the king's followers (John Milton's comment on the story in his History of Britain is typical, and amusing: he calls it "one remarkable action done by him, as Huntingdon reports it, with great Scene of circumstance, and emphatical Expression, to shew the small Power of Kings in respect of God; which, unless to Court-Parasites, needed no such laborious Demonstration… [U]nless to shame his Court Flatterers who would not else be convinc’t, Canute needed not to have gone wet-shod home"). But there aren't any court flatterers in either of the earliest versions - and anyway Cnut, a great patron of praise-poetry, was more inclined to reward than rebuke flattery from his followers.

So I'm inclined to think that this story is not true nor based on truth, but just that: a story. And not a story invented by the twelfth-century historians, but a story of meaning and use to Cnut and his court, told for a particular purpose, and drawing on a certain attitude to power which is identifiably Anglo-Scandinavian. (It may be no coincidence that the two earliest sources for this story, Henry of Huntingdon and Gaimar, were both writing in the East Midlands, an area of particularly concentrated Scandinavian cultural influence.) Cnut's power came, in the most literal sense, from his dominion over the sea: he was a Viking and the heir to Viking kings, who had conquered England by their superior ships and their swift sea-journeys. The splendour of these ships is lauded in the wonderful Old Norse poems written for Cnut, and in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written for his wife. The poems describe a young Cnut setting out to conquer kingdoms in his ships, preparing and launching his fleet, and personally steering them to glory; one of them addresses him 'You won great fame on the banks of the Thames, ruler of the leaping rollers' steed!', which is particularly impressive when you remember where Gaimar says Cnut demonstrated his powerlessness. To Cnut and his Scandinavian followers, sea, and control over the sea, was the very basis of the king's power, and as a result, to portray Cnut saying that the sea does not follow his orders is not the recognition of an obvious fact of nature - it's a real concession.

What's more, narratives about control over the sea occur in other English stories about Cnut acknowledging the power of English saints, and also in a Scandinavian context among stories about the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity; the ability to produce calm weather at sea is routinely brought forth as evidence of the power of the Christian God and his saints. These accounts represent a Christian point of view (with this Gospel story as one obvious source) and are of course paralleled outside Scandinavia, but they may have been narratives which had particular force for a Scandinavian aristocratic audience.

So the story of Cnut and the waves is a Christian story told in the language of Viking power. You could read it as a conversion story, describing not actually the moment Cnut was converted to Christianity, but symbolically the moment when a pagan Viking king was converted into a Christian monarch. At the time he became king of England Cnut was nominally a Christian (he had been baptised) but the idea of Christian kingship was not very old in his native Denmark; his father Svein was - in English eyes, though not in reality - an infamous pagan, and Cnut's first appearance in English sources shows him doing some truly horrible things which gave no hint that he would become the pious king depicted in that image above, crowned by angels and with his hand upon the cross. In the early days of his kingship his English clerical advisers (chiefly Archbishop Wulfstan) pulled off something like a miracle: they helped to Cnut sound, look and act like a Christian king. This new kind of kingship found expression in the Old Norse poems written for Cnut, which praise him for going on pilgrimage to Rome and consorting with the 'Lord of monks', while still retaining all the traditional poetic markers of Scandinavian royal authority. In this they're the poetic equivalent of that image from the New Minster Liber Vitae: the king with one hand on the cross and one hand on his sword. The story of the waves does something similar, and would have appealed most to the king's Danish followers, many of whom enthusiastically followed Cnut's example of generous piety. It reinforced, rather than rebuked, an idea which had especial resonance for them: honour is due to the one who rules the seas, whether that's Cnut or the Christian God.

The advantage of the story is that it pleases two audiences at the same time, something Cnut was extremely good at - it 'speaks two languages', as Cnut did himself. To the English church it plays like a gesture of humility and conversion, but it does so in the political language most acceptable to the king's Danish followers. Even better, in presenting his crown to a crucifix, Cnut was aligning himself with continental rulers who had made similar gestures - it takes a truly great politician to be able to say 'look how humble I am' and 'look how I'm just as good as the Holy Roman Emperor' in the exact same moment, and convince people you mean it. It's ironic that Cnut's name has today become a byword for vainly trying to hold back the tide of events, because no one was better than Cnut at recognising which way the tide was flowing and taking advantage of it. As Cnut's poets would have us remember, he was a sailor, and that's what sailors do.

This is the chest in Winchester Cathedral where Cnut's bones may rest (although perhaps not; see this post). 'The power of kings is empty and worthless', indeed!

Monday 11 November 2013

'The life of man is but a span'

A selection of very short verses on the subject of the brevity of life, more like proverbs than poems, and mostly taken from medieval sermons (via the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, with images from the British Library).

'Quid est homo?'
Man ys dethys vnderlyng
Man is a gest in hys dwellyng
Man is a pylgrym in his pasyng.

('What is man?'
Man is death's underling;
Man is a guest in his living;
Man is a pilgrim in his passing.)

London, University of London MS 657

'The Dialogue with Death', Stowe 39, f. 32

A man is a mirrour of soro & of wo
A man is a somer flour þat sone vill goo
A man is a tre of tenefull tylyng
& a man is a reue of ruful rekynyng

(A man is a mirror of sorrow and of woe;
A man is a summer flower that soon will go;
A man is a tree of troublesome cultivating
And a man is a bailiff of sorrowful reckoning.)

Hereford, Hereford Cathedral Library O.3.5

The Three Living and Three Dead, Yates Thompson 13, f. 123

Hou sort a feste it is þe ioyȝe of al þis werd
Als þe schadwe is of man in þis midel herd
Þat oftentime withdrawith þe blisse withouten ende
& driuet man to helle to ben þer with þe fend

(How short a feast is the joy of all this world,
As the shadow of a man in this middle-earth;
Often it draws him from the bliss without end
And drives him to hell to live with the fiend.)

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 18.7.21

þe ende of lagthre is woþ
and þe ende of bliz is sorege
for wende fwer þu wende
soreges is tin ende

(The end of laughter is woe
and the end of bliss is sorrow;
For wend wherever thou wend,
Sorrow is thine end.)

Oxford, Magdalen College Lat. 30, f. 103

Werdis ioyȝe is menkt with wo
He is more þan wod þat trostet þerto
Werdis gile is wol michil
Þerfore it is boþe fals an fikil
Þe werd passeteuere mo
& werdly loue dot also

(This world's joy is mixed with woe;
He is more than mad who trusts thereto.
This world's guile is most mickle [very great]
And so it is both false and fickle.
The world passeth evermo [ever more]
And so doth worldly love also.)

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 18.7.21

This image of 'The Three Living and Three Dead' also contains a verse along the top, voicing the thoughts of first the living and then the dead:

"Ich am afert;
Lo what ich se!
Me thinketh hit beth develes thre."

"Ich wes wel fair.
Such scheltou be.
For godes love be wer by me."

("I am afraid;
Lo, what I see!
It seems to me it's devils three."

"I was very fair;
Such shalt thou be.
For God's love, take heed by me.")

The life of man is but a span,
And cut down in its flower,
We are here to-day, and to-morrow gone,
We are all dead in an hour.

- English folk carol

Well, this is a cheerful post.  The transience of all earthly things is one of the most popular medieval subjects for art and poetry; I have a whole series of posts about such poems here, and the extreme brevity of these little poems appealed to me. The combination today of dreary November, Remembrance Day, and a recent bereavement have had me thinking a lot about death; and it doesn't help that my working week is going to centre on the Old English elegies, heart-breaking laments of much finer quality than these Middle English sermon tags.  As an observance Remembrance Day may be less than a hundred years old, but a thousand years ago (and surely in November) an Anglo-Saxon poet, 'remembering from afar much slaughter', wrote these words:

Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,
frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
"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.
Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma, þonne won cymeð,
nipeð nihtscua, norþan onsendeð
hreo hæglfare hæleþum on andan.
Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice,
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!"
Swa cwæð snottor on mode, gesæt him sundor æt rune.
Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ, ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene
beorn of his breostum acyþan, nemþe he ær þa bote cunne,
eorl mid elne gefremman. Wel bið þam þe him are seceð,
frofre to fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð.

He who thought wisely on that foundation, [a ruined building]
and deeply considers this dark life,
wise in spirit, remembers often from afar
much slaughter, and speaks these words:

Where is the horse? Where is the young warrior? Where is the treasure-giver?
Where are the seats of feasting? Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior!
Alas, the glory of the prince! How that time has passed away,
grown dark under the cover of night, as if it had never been.
There stands now in the tracks of the dear troop
a wall, wondrously high, decorated with serpents.
The warriors were taken away by the power of spears,
weapons greedy for slaughter, fate the famous;
and storms batter those rocky cliffs,
snow falling fetters the earth,
the tumult of winter. Then dark comes,
night-shadows deepen; from the north there comes
a fierce hailstorm hostile to men.
All is full of hardship in this earthly realm,
the working of fate changes the world under the heavens.
Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting,
all the foundation of this world turns to waste.

So spoke the wise man in his mind, where he sat apart in secret thought.
Good is he who keeps his word; the warrior must never make known
his grief too quickly from his breast, unless he already knows how to achieve the remedy,
a man with courage. It is well for the one who seeks mercy,
consolation from the Father in the heavens, where for us all fastness stands.

Thursday 7 November 2013

An Autumn Poem: 'Now shrinketh rose'

Mary healing a sick monk

Now we're into November, it feels like time to post a particularly lovely medieval seasonal poem. It's an autumn poem in praise of the Virgin Mary, which begins by contemplating the transience of earthly life, of human beauty which fades like summer flowers, and then turns to the remedy: the healing herbs of Mary, the best doctor 'from Caithness to Dublin', whose beauty and love do not fade.

The poem comes from British Library MS. Harley 2253, one of the most important manuscript collections of medieval poetry from England; you can read about it here and see pictures of it here.  (The images of Mary in this post are all from British Library, Egerton 2781, which has been dated to the same decade as the Harley manuscript, the 1340s).

Nou skrinketh rose ant lylie-flour,
That whilen ber that suete sauour
In somer, that suete tyde;
Ne is no quene so stark ne stour,
Ne no leuedy so bryht in bour
That ded ne shal by glyde.
Who-se wol fleysch lust forgon
Ant heuene blis abyde,
On Iesu be is thoht anon,
That therled was ys side.

From Petresbourh in o morewenyng,
As y me wende o my pleyghyng,
On mi folie y thohte;
Menen y gon my mournyng
To hire that ber the heuene kyng,
Of merci hire bysohte:
'Ledy, preye thi sone for ous
That ous duere bohte,
Ant shild vs from the lothe hous
That to the fend is wrohte.'

My herte of dedes wes fordred,
Of synne that y haue my fleish fed
Ant folwed al my tyme,
That y not whider I shal be led
When Y lygge on dethes bed,
In ioie ore into pyne.
On o ledy myn hope is,
Moder ant virgyne;
We shulen into heuene blis
Thurh hire medicine.

Betere is hire medycyn
Then eny mede or eny wyn.
Hire erbes smulleth suete;
From Catenas into Dyuelyn
Nis ther non leche so fyn
Oure serewes to bete.
Mon that feleth eni sor,
Ant his folie wol lete,
Withoute gold other eny tresor
He may be sound and sete.

Of penaunce is his plastre al,
Ant euer seruen hire y shal,
Nou ant al my lyue;
Nou is fre that er wes thral
Al thourh that leuedy gent ant smal -
Heried be hyr ioies fiue!
Wher-so eny sek is,
Thider hye blyue;
Thurh hire beoth ybroht to blis
Bo mayden ant wyue.

For he that dude is body on tre,
Of oure sunnes haue piete
That weldes heouene boures!
Wymmon, with thi iolyfte,
Thou thench on Godes shoures!
Thah thou be whyt ant bryth on ble,
Falewen shule thy floures.
Iesu, haue merci of vs,
That al this world honoures.

Virgin and Child

A literal translation:

Now wither the rose and lily-flower which once bore a sweet scent, in summer, that sweet season. There is no queen so powerful or mighty, nor any lady so bright in chamber, that death shall not come upon her. He who wishes to forgo bodily lusts and win the joys of heaven, let his thought be ever on Jesu, whose side was pierced.

From Peterborough one morning, as I went out to amuse myself, I thought upon my folly. I made appeal in my sorrow to her who bore the heavenly king, and beseeched her for mercy: 'Lady, pray for us to thy Son, who bought us at so dear a price, and shield us from the hateful house that is prepared for the devil.'

My heart was terrified at all the sinful deeds with which I have fostered my flesh and have followed all my life. I do not know where I shall be led when I lie on my death-bed, whether to joy or suffering. In one lady is all my hope, mother and virgin; we may come into heaven's bliss through her medicine.

Better is her medicine than any mead or any wine; her herbs smell sweet. From Caithness to Dublin there is no doctor so good for the healing of our sorrows: the man who feels any grief and wishes to forsake his folly, without gold or any treasure may be made whole and well [by turning to her].

Penance shall be such a man's plaster. I will ever serve her, now and all my life. Now all those who were ever enslaved are free, all because of that lady, beautiful and slender. Praised be her five joys! Wherever there is anyone sick, let them go to her joyfully; through her both maiden and wife are brought to bliss.

You who rule the bowers of heaven, have pity on our sins, for the sake of him who gave his body on the tree! Women, in your gaiety, think on the pains of God: though you may be fair and beautiful to look at, your flowers shall fade. Jesu, whom all this world honours, have mercy on us.

This is one of those poems where much of the beauty of the verse is lost in translation, so here's a looser rendering preserving some of the rhymes. You can hear a reading of the poem here.

Now shrinketh rose and lily-flower,
That once did bear that sweet savour
In summer, that sweet tide;
There is no queen so strong or stour, [powerful]
Nor no lady so bright in bower
To whom death shall not glide.
He who will fleshly lust forgon [forsake]
And in heavenly bliss abide,
On Jesu be his thought anon,
Who pierced was in his side.

From Peterborough one morning,
As I went out in my playing, [recreation]
On my folly I thought;
Moaning I made my mourning
To her who bore the heavenly king,
For mercy her besought:
'Lady, pray thy son for us
Who us so dearly bought,
And shield us from the hateful house
That for the fiend is wrought.'

My heart of deeds was afraid,
For sin that I have my flesh fed
And followed all my time;
I know not whither I shall be led
When I lie on death's bed,
In joy or into pain.
On one lady my hope is,
Mother and virgin;
We shall enter heaven's bliss
Through her medicine.

Better is her medicine
Than any mead or any wine;
Her herbs smell sweet.
From Caithness to Dublin
Is no doctor so fine
Our sorrows to relieve.
The man who feels any sore,
And his folly will leave,
Without gold or any treasure
May be made sound and safe.

Of penance is his plaster all,
And ever serve her I shall,
Now and all my life;
Now is free that ere was thrall
All through that lady kind and small, [slender]
Praised be her joys five!
Anyone who sick is,
To her should hasten blithe; [gladly]
Through her may be brought to bliss
Both maiden and wife.

For he who put his body on the tree,
Of our sins have pity,
You who reign in heaven's bowers.
Women, in thy gaiety,
Think thou on God's showers! [pains]
Though thou be fair and bright on ble, [beautiful in appearance]
Fade shall thy flowers.
Jesu, have mercy of us,
Whom all this world honours.

There are some lovely things going on in this poem. Flower imagery is very common in Middle English lyrics to describe the Virgin Mary, and in this poem there's an implicit contrast between the earthly rose and lily, which fade and die, and the Virgin, 'rose of Sharon, lily of the valley', as well as between the transitory summer scents of the flowers and the sweet-smelling herbs of the Virgin's medicine, 'better than any mead or wine'.

The flowers mentioned in the first verse are a reminder of the transience of all earthly things, but they're not just a bit of decorative elaboration, or seasonal colouring: the poem presents a contrast in efficacy, in power, between plants which are beautiful but passing and plants which heal. It's interesting to read this poem in conjunction with one of the most famous Middle English carols about Mary, 'There is no rose of such vertu/ As is the rose that bore Jesu': the vertu of a plant is its quickening power, the life-giving sap which is also the salve in the Virgin's medicinal herbs. Perhaps it's not just because of the rhyme that Christ's cross, in the final verse, is called 'the tree' - another life-bringing plant. The last verse plays on the double meaning of 'shours', which means both 'pains' and 'showers' (of rain, etc.); the female reader is asked to reflect on Christ's suffering but also on the rains - autumn showers - which will wither the flower of her own beauty.

Mary helps a man venerating her statue

For more Middle English poems to Mary, see this page and the following posts:

'Come, my dear spouse and lady free'
'Mirror without spot, red rose of Jericho'
Ecce ancilla domini
In a tabernacle of a tower
Nu this fules singet
Marye, mayde mylde and fre
Glade us maiden, moder milde