Wednesday 31 December 2014

Some end of year thanks

The last day of the year seems like a good time to say thank you. Over the course of 2014 the number of visitors to this blog has risen rapidly, mostly because of people coming via Twitter, and I've made the acquaintance of many wonderful new readers. I want to end the year by thanking you all for reading, commenting, sharing and contributing here, and I want to explain a little why that means so much to me.

I hope you can tell from this blog that I love my work. I love research, and I love medieval literature, and I love teaching it and thinking about it and I'm never happier than when I'm absorbed in it. Nonetheless, academia is not always a happy place to work. I'm a very junior academic, and to people in my position a career in academia offers a daunting future: a life of short-term contracts and little security, with very limited ability to plan ahead. You can probably imagine the psychological effects of this, and the impact it can have on one's confidence and sense of self-worth; if not, this article explains very well what it's like to be in this situation. Most of my friends are also early career academics, in a similar position, and when I look at them I see talented young people consumed with anxiety and fear about the future, constantly doubting their value as scholars, and consequently as human beings. The system feeds, almost encourages, such anxiety. I remember that just after I started my current job we were learning about the training sessions on offer for junior academics, and were told that their most well-attended session ever had been about 'coping with a fear of failure'. Everyone kind of laughed and looked unsurprised, but this fact stuck with me, and it's sad, when you think about it. By no rational definition could any of the people attending such a session be considered failures: these are graduate students and young academics studying and working at Oxford, which proudly calls itself one of the best universities in the world. You can't get where they are without being talented and dedicated, incredibly hard-working and motivated, excelling again and again at exams and job applications and all the things one is supposed to succeed at in order to find a place in the world. It's hard not to feel that they've done everything right, but nonetheless they - we - can't feel secure. I'm in that position myself, and I too feel like a failure. I don't think I am, yet (am I? don't tell me, if you think I am) but I feel like one, every day.

The precarious nature of academic jobs is an endemic problem, perhaps not something individuals can do much about, but academics often don't help this pervading mood of anxiety by just not being very nice to each other. As an academic you are confronted all the time by scepticism, criticism, doubt, and to an extent, that's fine - that's how academia operates, its bread and butter, and constructive criticism can be a real gift. But a lot of the time you're dealing with criticism which feels unnecessarily vindictive, actually designed to torpedo your sense of self-worth. Criticism is all you ever hear, because it's no one's job to encourage you or tell you what's good about your work - only how it can be improved. Senior academics in positions of power who use that power to be generous and supportive towards younger scholars are absolutely worth their weight in gold, and I've been fortunate enough to be helped by several, but they often seem to be in the minority. Part of the fear of failure is feeling almost desperately dependent on the goodwill of more powerful people, without any control over the fate of your own work; reviewers and academic publishers, for instance, have a huge amount of power over my future, and I have no influence on them whatsoever. I have to get my work published if I ever want to get another job, so they're free to treat me however they want and I have to do as they ask, lest they decide to say 'actually, we won't publish this after all'. That's a frightening situation to be in.

This is where blogging helps. It might seem like nothing to you, but with blogging I'm in control of what I write and post; it might be badly written or contain errors or someone just might not like it, but at least I don't have to get anyone's approval to write it, or apply for permission, or dread the prospect of an anonymous critical attack. That sense of freedom has been very good for my scholarship, in ways I might discuss in another post, but it's also been good for me personally. In response to my blog I receive a constant stream of positive feedback, and I can't tell you what a boost that is to me amid my daily anxieties. Perhaps that makes it sound like the benefits of blogging are chiefly selfish, but what I love is not people saying nice things about me, but recognising the value of the texts I write about. 'That poem is amazing!' is my favourite type of comment; it means, I hope, that I helped someone see how and why a text they wouldn't otherwise have encountered can indeed be amazing. The tone is just so different: there's enthusiasm and interest and passion of a kind you rarely hear expressed within academia. People who aren't used to blogs worry about getting negative feedback through blogging, and of course you do get the occasional troll, especially on Twitter - but in six years of blogging I've never received a comment anywhere near as maliciously crushing as anonymous academic peer review can be. The overwhelming majority of my readers are friendly and eager to learn and ready to contribute knowledge of their own; if they have criticisms, they express them politely. It turns out that out there, outside academia, a lot of people are just really nice. And living and working as I do, inside my own head, it's a lovely surprise to find that out.

There's still debate within academia about blogging, and a considerable proportion of academics who don't understand why anyone would bother to do it. When people ask me about my blog (I never bring it up myself, because I worry what people I know in real life will think of it) they often do so with an air of puzzlement: why would you want to do that? Why would you write if you're not getting anything out of it? And it's true I'm not really getting anything tangible out of blogging, and career-wise it may do me more harm than good; I sometimes imagine sceptical 'real academics' stumbling across my blog, silently judging me, and going away again, and you never know how that might come back to hurt me. To many of the people who have power over my career, blogging doesn't count as a worthwhile activity, even as a form of outreach or impact. But the intangible benefits are immense, and it's been more rewarding than almost anything I've ever done. To be able to write about texts I care about, which I feel are interesting and important and should be better known, and then find a willing and appreciative audience who want to hear about them, is a daily joy. That's because of you, my generous and open-minded readers. I write about texts I like and want to share, and most of the things I choose to post about I could never publish in another forum, so it's particularly encouraging that many of my most popular posts this year have been about some of the most obscure texts: the Old English Menologium, Anglo-Saxon sermons, very minor Middle English lyrics, a little-studied Norse saga. These posts have each attracted hundreds of readers within a few days of posting, and have been received with an enthusiasm which amazes me. Perhaps the element of novelty is a draw - these texts are not the kind of thing anyone would encounter unless they had been studying medieval literature for a few years, and so they are unfamiliar and surprising, maybe. I think that many people who've never studied medieval literature (especially Old English), and even some who have, don't know just how much they don't know; they think the corpus is small and predictable, and so react with astonishment and delight to something unexpected, like Christ III. But still, if you had to pick anything - anything! - you thought a non-specialist audience would be interested in, Ælfric's sermons would be way down the list, let alone the Menologium or the Christ poems of the Exeter Book. Sometimes people comment on my posts (meaning to be kind) 'you should write a book about this!' which, although a well-intentioned comment, is a little painful to hear, because at the moment no one would publish a book by someone as junior as me about texts as obscure as the ones I write about. Who would want to read that? Well, my blog readers, thank goodness.

So, if you've read this far, thank you. Thank you for reading, commenting on, sharing my posts. Thank you for being enthusiastic and generous in your responses, for sharing my enthusiasm. If you're a non-specialist, as the majority of you are, thank you for being open-minded, willing to engage with texts which even within academia are seen as hopelessly esoteric, too obscure for undergraduates and the kind of thing no non-specialist would ever care about. And if you are a specialist, a 'real academic', thank you for being generous enough to read the blog of someone much junior to you, who values your approval more than you can imagine. And all of you, thank you for being kind.

Sunday 28 December 2014

'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'

This is an exquisitely sad nativity song, a lullaby addressed to the baby Christ, but full of compassion and pain and regret for the suffering that the child will later undergo. It dates to the fourteenth century and comes from a manuscript compiled by a Franciscan friar, John of Grimestone.

Lullay, lullay, litel child, child, rest thee a throwe,
From heighe hider art thou sent wyth us to wonen lowe;
Poure and litel art thou made, uncouth and unknowe,
Pyne and wo to suffren heer for thyng that nas thyn owe.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, sorwe mythe thou make;
Thou are sent into this world, as thou were forsake.

Lullay, lullay, litel grome, kyng of alle thyng,
What I thenke of thy myschief me listeth wel litel synge;
But caren I may for sorwe, if love were in myn herte,
For swiche peynes as thou shalt dreyen were nevere non so smerte.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, wel myghte thou crie,
For-than thy body is bleik and blak, soon after shal ben drye.

Child, it is a wepyng dale that thou art comen in;
Thy poure cloutes it proven wel, thy bed made in the bynne;
Cold and hunger thou most thoeln, as thou were geten in synne,
And after deyen on the tree for love of all mankynne.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, no wonder thogh thou care,
Thou art comen amonges hem that thy deeth shullen yare.

Lullay, lullay, litel child, for sorwe myghte thou grete;
The anguissh that thou suffren shalt shal don the blood to swete;
Naked, bounden shaltow ben, and sithen sore bete,
No thyng free upon thy body of pyne shal ben lete.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, it is al for thy fo,
The harde bond of love-longyng that thee hath bounden so.

Lullay, lullay, litel child, litel child, thyn ore!
It is al for oure owene gilt that thou art peyned sore.
But wolden we yet kynde ben and lyven after thy lore,
And leten synne for thy love, ne keptest thou no more.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, softe sleep and faste,
In sorwe endeth every love but thyn atte laste.

John of Grimestone seems to have had a fondness for lullaby poems of this kind, since his manuscript also includes this lullaby and this on roughly the same subject. 'Lullay, lullay, little child, child, rest thee a throwe' is also close in style and theme to this poem in the same metre, which is not addressed to Christ but to an ordinary baby. In both cases the central image is of a crying child, innocent and uncomprehending, who weeps for no reason - and yet has a reason to weep, though he doesn't know it, because of the world he has been born into.

Here's a lightly modernised version, preserving the rhymes and some of the rhythm:

Lullay, lullay, little child, child, rest thee a throwe, [a little while]
From on high hither art thou sent, with us to dwell low;
Poor and little art thou made, unrecognised and unknown,
Pain and woe to suffer here for a crime that was not thine own.
Lullay, lullay, little child, sorrow thou mayst well make;
Thou art sent into this world, as if thou were forsaken.

Lullay, lullay, little boy, king of all things!
When I think of thy sad state, I hardly wish to sing;
But I may lament for sorrow, if love be in my heart,
For such pains as thou shalt suffer were never none so sharp.
Lullay, lullay, little child, well mayst thou cry,
Thy body then will grow pale and white, and then it shall grow dry.

Child, it is a weeping world that thou art comen in;
Thy poor rags prove that well, thy bed made in the bin; [manger]
Cold and hunger thou must endure, as one begot in sin,
And after die upon the tree for love of all mankyn. [mankind]
Lullay, lullay, little child, no wonder that thou cry;
Thou art come among those who shall cause thee to die.

Lullay, lullay, little child, for sorrow thou mayst well grete; [cry]
The anguish that thou suffer shalt shall cause thee blood to sweat;
Naked, bound, shalt thou be, and afterwards sorely beat, [beaten]
No part of thy body free of pain shall be lete. [left]
Lullay, lullay, little child, it is all for thy foe,
The hard bond of love-longing that has bound thee so.

Lullay, lullay, little child, little child, thine ore! [mercy]
It is all for our guilt that thou art pained so sore.
But would we yet more loving be, and live after thy lore, [according to your teaching]
And forsake sin for thy love’s sake, ne keptest thou no more. [your suffering would be over]
Lullay, lullay, little child, softly sleep and fast;
In sorrow endeth every love but thine, at the last.

That last couplet is so memorable. This loving, tender look ahead from the birth of the baby Christ to the suffering and death which awaits him is a sombre theme for Christmastide - perhaps surprisingly so for modern taste, but very much in harmony with medieval attitudes to the season. Many medieval writers about Christmas would have felt it gave only an incomplete picture of the Incarnation to celebrate Christ's birth without remembering too the death he came to suffer; to talk about one and neglect the other can fail to give the magnitude of his birth in a mortal human body its full weight and meaning. In the Middle Ages Christmas was a season of light and shade, not constant full-out festivity. The Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of holiday and celebration, but within that joyous season the feasts which clustered around Christmas Day involved violent stories of martyrdom: the second and fifth days of Christmas were the feasts of St Stephen, Christianity's first martyr, and St Thomas Becket, whose blood stained the stones of Canterbury Cathedral in Christmastide 1170. The eighth day commemorated Christ's Circumcision, the first time (medieval preachers say) that Christ's blood was shed.

And today, the fourth day of Christmas, is the feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the children slain by Herod as he sought to kill the infant Christ. Since the Anglo-Saxon period this has been known in English as 'Childermas' - the feast of the children. John of Grimestone's grief-filled lullaby finds an echo in the most famous text associated with the Childermas story, the Coventry Carol, a sad, strange medieval lullaby which still exerts a strong power:

Lullay, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, lullay, thou little tiny child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters two, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and may,
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

The Coventry Carol wasn't written for Christmas or Childermas; it's part of the cycle of the Coventry Mystery Plays, which would have been performed in the summer. The Massacre of the Innocents formed a regular part of mystery play cycles, following straight after plays depicting more joyful parts of the Nativity story, such as the visits of the Shepherds and the Magi. Like the Twelve Days of Christmas, mystery play cycles were an experience of juxtaposition and contrast, light and shade, shifting moods and emotions as different aspects of the Christian story were explored in turn.

Mystery plays about the Massacre of the Innocents offer some of the most moving depictions of grief in medieval culture. We see innocent babies killed because of a cruel tyrant's lust for power, and we see their mothers mourn. It's confronting and painful, and it doesn't allow you to look away. At one moment there's the Nativity, Mary and her baby, a happy image of parenthood and infancy; and then there's the other side of parental love, with grief, loss and despair. 'Longe lullynge have I lorn!', says one mother in the N-town Plays, as if remembering all the lullabies she's sung to her baby, all those long hours watching over the cradle, now lost because her child lies dead in her arms. She can see nothing but grief in her future: 'Sorrow I see behind and before / Both midnight, midday and at morn'.

The Coventry Carol is born of this particular story of grief, but over time it has come to speak for other losses. After centuries of suppression and neglect, there was a revival of interest in the mystery plays in the first half of the twentieth century. On Christmas Day 1940, the first Christmas after the terrible bombing of Coventry in the Second World War, the BBC broadcast a message from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral which included the singing of the Coventry Carol. It was a lament, but also a sign of hope and endurance: 'He suffers alongside of us, just as this Cathedral suffered the same fate as the city. He lost everything he had, and won the world. Nothing can destroy Him, any more than, in the words of our ancient Coventry Carol, 'Herod the King in his raging' could slay the Christ Child.'

Of the many hundreds of surviving medieval carols, the Coventry Carol is one of the very small number which have now found their way into the modern Christmas repertoire. It's regularly heard and performed at Christmas, widely known and recognised, both with its original haunting melody and in a diversity of new settings. It's a peculiar journey for a song from a medieval mystery play to take, from the streets of 16th-century Coventry to concert-halls and shopping malls, sung by everyone from Sting to Annie Lennox and the most unlikely performers. The popularity of this deeply sad song at Christmastime is intriguing, and it makes me wonder what draws people to it today in our very different Christmas season. Whatever it is, perhaps it's something akin to what drew John of Grimestone and other medieval readers to lullabies like 'Lullay, little child'. There are in fact a considerable number of medieval lullabies which share the mood of the Coventry Carol: somewhere between lullaby and lament, full of melancholy and pity for the child being comforted, whether it's Herod's victims, the Christ-child, or any baby born into a weeping world. (Here are some more beautiful examples: 'This endris night / about midnight'; 'This maiden hight Mary'; 'As I lay on Yule's night'; 'Learn to love as I love thee'; 'Mary hath borne alone') They use the lullaby form, the genre of song above all others associated with tenderness, vulnerability, comfort and love, to explore deeply poignant and painful ideas of the nature of human sorrow.

I wonder if the popularity of the Coventry Carol today indicates that it expresses something people don't find in the usual run of joyful Christmas carols - this song of grief, of innocence cruelly destroyed. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is not an easy subject for a modern audience to understand, and the images which often accompany it in medieval manuscripts, of children impaled on spears, are truly horrible. But they are meant to be; they are intended to disgust and horrify, and they're horrible because they're not fantasy violence but all too close to the reality of the world we live in. Children do die; the innocent and vulnerable do suffer at the hands of the powerful; and as this carol says, every single form of human love, one way or another, will ultimately end in parting and grief. Every child born into the world - every tiny, innocent, adorable little baby - however loved, however cared for, will grow up to face some kind of sorrow, and the inevitability of death. Of course no one wants to think about such things, especially when they look at a newborn baby; but pretending otherwise, not wanting to think otherwise, doesn't make it any less true.

Medieval writers were honest and clear-eyed about such uncomfortable truths. The idea that thoughts like these are incongruous with the Christmas season (as you often hear people say about the Holy Innocents) is largely a modern scruple, encouraged by the comparatively recent idea that Christmas is primarily a cheery festival for happy children and families. Our images of Christmas joy, both secular and sacred, are all childlike wonder and picture-perfect families gathered round the tree. And this is nice, of course, for those who have children or happy families, but for those who don't - those who have lost children or parents or others dear to them, those who face loneliness or exclusion, those who want but don't have children, family, or home - it can be intensely painful. Not everyone can choose not to think about grief at Christmas; many people will find it intrudes upon them, whether they wish it to or not. 'In sorrow endeth every love but thine, at the last'. The modern version of Christmas tends to sideline and ignore that pain, asking it to at least keep quiet so as not to spoil the 'magic'. But that's not the case with medieval writing about Christmas and the Christ-child. There are, of course, many merry and joyful medieval carols, and the season was celebrated in the Middle Ages with great enthusiasm; but there are also many carols like this which are serious, melancholy, and sad, which acknowledge the fact that the child whose birth is celebrated came to earth to die. Older writings on Christmas, like this lullaby, do not exclude but encompass human pain - because it's that pain, they say, which Christ has come to earth to share. That was what it meant for God to become a human child. The idea is well expressed by John Donne, writing a little later than the medieval period (though only a few decades after the Coventry mystery plays were abolished), in a sermon he preached on Christmas Day 1626:

The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for, to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the manger as uneasy at first, as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.
John of Grimestone's poem perfectly illustrates that idea.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

'þe word is geworden': An Anglo-Saxon Christmas Sermon

Nativity, Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f. 15v)

Here are a few short extracts from one of Ælfric's sermons for Christmas Day, written at the end of the tenth century. The full sermon can be found here; this is one of two sermons he wrote for Christmas Day, and you can read the other here. He begins by translating the story according to Luke's Gospel:

Đa gelamp hit, þaða hi on þære byrig Bethleem wicodon, þæt hire tima wæs gefylled þæt heo cennan sceolde, and acende ða hyre frumcennedan sunu, and mid cild-claðum bewand, and alede þæt cild on heora assena binne, forþan þe ðær næs nan rymet on þam gesthuse.

Do you even need a translation of this?

Then it happened, while they were lodging in the town of Bethlehem, that her time came to give birth; and she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in baby-clothes and laid the child in the asses’ manger, because there was no room in the inn.

He goes on to translate the rest of the Gospel story before interpreting it, but for that you might prefer to read (and listen to) the translations in the West Saxon Gospels, here. Note that Christ is born in a gesthus and laid in a binn - you don't need me to tell you what those words mean!

Mary and Christ (BL Additional 49598, f. 22v)

Maria acende ða hire frumcennedan sunu on ðisum andweardan dæge, and hine mid cild-claðum bewand, and for rymetleaste on anre binne gelede. Næs þæt cild forði gecweden hire frumcennede cild swilce heo oðer siððan acende, ac forði þe Crist is frumcenned of manegum gastlicum gebroðrum. Ealle cristene men sind his gastlican gebroðra, and he is se frumcenneda, on gife and on godcundnysse ancenned of ðam Ælmihtigan Fæder. He wæs mid wacum cild-claðum bewæfed, þæt he us forgeafe ða undeadlican tunecan, þe we forluron on ðæs frumsceapenan mannes forgægednysse. Se Ælmihtiga Godes Sunu, ðe heofenas befon ne mihton, wæs geled on nearuwre binne, to ði þæt he us fram hellicum nyrwette alysde. Maria wæs ða cuma ðær, swa swa þæt godspel us segð; and for ðæs folces geðryle wæs þæt gesthus ðearle genyrwed. Se Godes Sunu wæs on his gesthuse genyrwed, þæt he us rume wununge on heofonan rice forgife, gif we his willan gehyrsumiað. Ne bitt he us nanes ðinges to edleane his geswinces, buton ure sawle hælo, þæt we us sylfe clæne and ungewemmede him gegearcian, to blisse and to ecere myrhðe...

Gelome wurdon englas mannum æteowode on ðære ealdan æ, ac hit nis awriten þæt hi mid leohte comon, ac se wurðmynt wæs þises dæges mærðe gehealden, þæt hi mid heofenlicum leohte hi geswutelodon, ða ða þæt soðe leoht asprang on ðeostrum riht-geþancodum, se mildheorta and se rihtwisa Drihten. Se engel cwæð to þam hyrdum, “Ne beo ge afyrhte; efne ic bodige eow micelne gefean, ðe eallum folce becymð, forðan þe nu todæg is acenned Hælend Crist on Dauides ceastre.” Soðlice he bodade micelne gefean, se ðe næfre ne geendað; forðan þe Cristes acenndenys gegladode heofenwara, and eorðwara, and helwara. Se engel cwæð, “Nu todæg is eow acenned Hælend Crist on Dauides ceastre.” Rihtlice he cwæð ‘on dæge’, and na ‘on nihte’, forðan ðe Crist is se soða dæg, se ðe todræfde mid his tocyme ealle nytennysse þære ealdan nihte, and ealne middangeard mid his gife onlihte...

Þa hyrdas ða spræcon him betweonan, æfter ðæra engla fram-færelde, "Uton gefaran to Bethleem, and geseon þæt word þe geworden is, and God us geswutelode." Eala hu rihtlice hi andetton þone halgan geleafan mid þisum wordum! "On frymðe wæs word, and þæt word wæs mid Gode, and þæt word wæs God". Word bið wisdomes geswutelung, and þæt Word, þæt is se Wisdom, is acenned of ðam Ælmihtigum Fæder, butan anginne; forðan ðe he wæs æfre God of Gode, Wisdom of ðam wisan Fæder. Nis he na geworht, forðan ðe he is God, and na gesceaft; ac se Ælmihtiga Fæder gesceop þurh ðone Wisdom ealle gesceafta, and hi ealle ðurh þone Halgan Gast geliffæste.

'In principio', BL Stowe 944, f. 44
Mary gave birth to her first-born son on this present day and wrapped him in baby-clothes, and because of lack of room she laid him in a manger. That child was not called her first-born because she afterwards had other children, but because Christ is the first-born of many spiritual brothers. All Christians are his spiritual brothers, and he is the first-born in grace and in divinity, born of the Almighty Father. He was wrapped in poor baby-clothes so that he could give us the immortal garment which we lost at the beginning of the world through man’s transgression. The Son of Almighty God, whom the heavens could not encompass, was laid in a narrow manger so that he could save us from the narrow confines of hell. Mary was a stranger there, as the Gospel tells us, and the crowd of people meant the inn was very full [the Old English word is genyrwed, 'narrowed, made crowded']. The Son of God was crowded in his lodging-place, so that he could give us spacious room in the heavenly kingdom, if we obey his will. He asks for nothing from us as reward for his labour, except the salvation of our souls, that we prepare ourselves for him, pure and unstained, for bliss and everlasting joy...

Angels often appeared to men under the old law, but it is not written that they came with light; that honour was reserved for the glory of this day, that they revealed themselves with heavenly light when the true light rose in the darkness for the righteous, the merciful and just Lord. The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which has come to all people, because now today for you the Saviour Christ is born in the city of David.” Truly he brought them tidings of great joy which will never end, because the birth of Christ brought gladness to the dwellers in heaven, in earth, and in hell. The angel said, "Now today for you the Saviour Christ is born in the city of David". He rightly said "today" and not "tonight", because Christ is the true day, who by his coming drives away all the dark ignorance of the old night and illuminates the whole world by his grace...

The shepherds then spoke amongst themselves, after the departure of the angels: "Let us go to Bethlehem, and see þæt word þe geworden is, which God has made known to us." O, how rightly they confessed the holy faith with these words! "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." A word is the revealing of wisdom, and the Word, which is the Wisdom, is brought forth from the Almighty Father, without beginning; for he was ever God of God, Wisdom of the Wise Father. He is not created, because he is God, and no created thing; the Almighty God created all created things through that Wisdom, and gave them life through the Holy Ghost.

This last paragraph is just glorious, as Ælfric ties himself up in a joyous knot of language over the phrase þæt word þe geworden is. In Old English word can mean 'message, tidings', and geworden can just mean 'happened', so what the shepherds say to each other is 'let us go to Bethlehem, and see these tidings which have happened'. But because word also means 'word', and geweorþan also means 'to come to be', the shepherds' speech - 'with these words' (mid þisum wordum) - can be interpreted in another way. þe word is geworden: the Word has come to be. There's something similar in the Vulgate, where the shepherds say videamus hoc verbum quod factum est (and the linking of this to the opening of John's Gospel was traditional), but the English is even more intimately linked because word is embedded within geworden. And since words can be mined for meaning in this beautifully complex way, 'a word is the revealing of wisdom' (there's a motto for all students of literature to take to heart!); and this Word is the revealing of Wisdom, God from God, Wisdom from the Wise Father. The Word is not geworht, he is geworden - not 'created', but 'come to be'. This is difficult to convey in translation, but it's a beautiful felicity of language and you can almost feel Ælfric delighting in it, grammarian and translator and lover of language as he was. The things words can do! 'A word is the revealing of wisdom'; and "On frymðe wæs word, and þæt word wæs mid Gode, and þæt word wæs God".

Saturday 20 December 2014

Some Thoughts on Canterbury Cathedral and Community

If you're in the UK, you may have been watching the recent BBC series of programmes about Canterbury Cathedral. If you haven't been, I recommend it - the series is on iplayer here. I grew up near Canterbury and know the cathedral well - and I study its medieval history, as you will have gathered if you've been reading this blog any length of time - but this series has nonetheless been full of surprises, showing a friendly side of the place which is usually kept hidden from the public behind high and forbidding walls. Away from the cathedral, the highlight for me was seeing the boys' choir visit a shrine to St Thomas Becket in Norway, continuing testament to the great popularity of St Thomas in Scandinavia - in the Middle Ages the English and Scandinavian churches had very close links, and after his murder Becket rapidly became a popular saint in the north. There's an Old Norse translation of Thomas's life, and sagas contain various references to Norwegian and Icelandic pilgrims to St Thomas' tomb: my favourite example to cite is Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, who visited Canterbury in the late twelfth century and presented the tusk of a walrus at St Thomas' shrine to thank the saint for a good catch. It was nice to see these links still valued by the present-day church.

The series is a look at the life of the cathedral, not a historical documentary, and some of its way of talking about the cathedral's history set this medievalist's teeth on edge; that's only to be expected in a programme of this kind. (At one point the narrator says the monks 'disappeared' in the sixteenth century, which is a pretty facile euphemism for what actually happened to the thousand-year-old community when Henry VIII came along.) But it's thought-provoking for a medievalist, too. I'm currently working on history-writing at Canterbury in the late eleventh/early twelfth centuries, looking at texts which provide fascinating snapshots of the cathedral community in that period. This series' focus on community has therefore been helpful for me in thinking about the context within which the texts I'm interested in were produced; as an academic it's often easy to forget that medieval writers, especially monks, were not (like me) hidden away in a library, consorting mostly with other scholars, but were working in the middle of busy communities among people who didn't necessarily care that much about history or the things which preoccupy historians. A medieval monk-historian did not get to spend his hours at will on books and writing, but had to share in the life around him, all its concerns and business, big and small. A monastic community is different from a cathedral one, of course, but there's still all the stuff of daily life to deal with: maintaining the building, managing visitors, trying to raise funds, balancing conflicting priorities.

My favourite Canterbury historians are Osbern and Eadmer, two English monks who entered the cathedral community as children, in the decade or so before the Norman Conquest. (Osbern was born probably c.1050, Eadmer c.1060.) They both grew up in the monastic community at Canterbury, and spent most of their lives there. In that period they saw a huge amount of change at the cathedral, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Conquest: the English archbishop was deposed, new Norman monks imported into the community, and even its physical fabric collapsed around them when a fire in 1067 destroyed the Anglo-Saxon church (most of what we know about that building comes from Eadmer's memories). By the time Osbern and Eadmer reached adulthood, all the certainties with which they had grown up had been called into question. They wrote, in part, to defend the good things about Canterbury's Anglo-Saxon history against ignorant or sceptical incomers. They had no doubt that Canterbury was the oldest and the most important of the English churches, which had been the home of saints and scholars for centuries. Osbern interprets Canterbury's pre-Saxon name Dorobernia (that is, Durovernum) as if it were an Old English compound meaning 'door of the barn', because it is, he says, the very door to the kingdom of England. (This etymology is hilariously wrong, because it's not an Old English word, but you can't really blame him for not knowing that - and it neatly encapsulates how important he believed Canterbury was.) By the late eleventh century Canterbury already had a roll-call of great men to be honoured, chief among them the incomparable tenth-century archbishop, scholar and administrator St Dunstan, and St Alphege, the saintly archbishop who had been martyred by Vikings in 1012. Osbern, who grew up to be a talented musician and precentor of the cathedral, wrote only about these two saints, but Eadmer was much more prolific: he wrote lives of several more of Canterbury's Anglo-Saxon saints, and much else. After Anselm was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 Eadmer became his companion and friend and eventually wrote a wonderful biography of Anselm - as well as a 'history of recent times in England' which is of inestimable value. With Anselm, Eadmer travelled through Europe and saw many great churches and many great people, but Canterbury always had the first place in his heart.

Contrary to the impression given by the BBC series, Canterbury was a destination for pilgrims long before St Thomas Becket's death in 1170, and the stories Osbern and Eadmer tell about visiting pilgrims vividly conjure up the busy life of the eleventh-century cathedral. There are touching stories of old blind women and sick children coming to be healed at St Dunstan's shrine, typical of the genre but endearingly precise in their everyday details: the little blind girl whose mother found out she could see when she ran off to chase an apple rolling away into the church, or the monk who had been paralysed for thirty years and, when cured and able to stand up, turned out to be unusually tall. The monks, of course, interacted with these pilgrims, and Osbern describes two miracles he witnessed in the cathedral when he was a child which clearly made a lasting impression on him. One day, he says, he was singing with the boys in the choir when he witnessed a young girl being healed of blindness by Dunstan's intercession, blood pouring from her eyes as the boys looked on in amazement; on another occasion he was in the church tending an altar and was asked by a sick woman to direct her to Dunstan's tomb, where she was healed - Osbern's first foray into guiding people towards St Dunstan, which was to be his life's work. And it's not just the pilgrims who are brought to life in these texts: we see glimpses of the fractured state of the cathedral community under Lanfranc, Anselm longing to stay at home at Canterbury with his monks like an owl among her chicks, monks having visions inspired by the cathedral's own saints.

Eadmer and Osbern create such a vivid sense of eleventh-century Canterbury and the people who inhabited it that it feels very real to me, as if I had seen it myself; and it was nice to watch the BBC series and think of the clergy, administrators, gardeners, stonemasons, choirboys (and now girls) filling the places of their medieval forebears. It gave me quite a different sense of the cathedral community to the one you get if you actually visit it. I love Canterbury Cathedral, but it's not a particularly welcoming place; the set-up is designed for big groups of tourists rather than visitors who want to take their time, and it's the kind of church where very posh guides hover disapprovingly around the lone wanderer while allowing hordes of schoolchildren to rampage around unchecked. The guides get uncomfortable if you look at things which don't have big signs next to them to tell you they're important. Unfortunately I care more about the Anglo-Saxon history of the place than the history they have decided tourists ought to care about, and there are no big signs pointing out the highlights of Canterbury's distinguished Anglo-Saxon history. Those six centuries of which Eadmer and Osbern were so proud are hard to find there unless you know what you're searching for; the cathedral seems to have concluded that Thomas Becket is the big tourist draw, and not much else gets a look-in. I find it particularly striking that the sites of the tombs of St Dunstan and St Alphege are marked only by small inscriptions flat on the floor beside the high altar, at the top of steps you're not allowed up - at least, I think there are inscriptions there, but since you're not allowed close enough to see them I can't actually be sure. (They're beside the high altar because they were once perceived to be central to the cathedral's history, of course.) Meanwhile, the site of Becket's tomb has an ever-burning candle and a big sign. No candle burns for Dunstan or Alphege - not even for St Anselm. Alphege did get a bit of attention for the 1000th anniversary of his death a few years ago, but on an ordinary visit to the cathedral there's really nothing. If you walked into Canterbury Cathedral today and asked for the way to Dunstan's tomb, as the sick woman did when young Osbern was tending the altar, I wonder if they could tell you; but the guides would only give you a rude answer, anyway. (The ones on TV looked so friendly, but they're not like that in real life! I wonder if churches have any idea how much unpleasant guides can damage the atmosphere of a place, or how it leaves a bad taste in your mouth to be snapped at like a suspicious character when you are trying to feel like a pilgrim. Do they care? Maybe not; you've already paid by that point.)

It intrigues me that the pre-Thomas Becket history of the cathedral should be thus largely ignored. Priorities change, and our view of the past is always shaped by the needs of the present; that's the whole story of Canterbury in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, too, which is one reason I take note of these things. I take an interest (as you may have noticed on this blog) in how English churches remember their Anglo-Saxon history, and while there's always a bit of me that's not surprised when they overlook it, it's remarkable to see how sensitively and creatively some places are prepared to respond to this part of their past. When I visited Worcester in September, for instance, they had a thoughtful exhibition about the cathedral's early history, including descriptions and images of manuscripts produced at the monastery and quotations from Old English texts, and reflections on Anglo-Saxon spirituality (the spirit of John of Worcester lives on there, perhaps). In the summer I visited Ely and Bury St Edmunds for the first time and was impressed by the quiet certainty in both cathedrals that visitors would be ready to learn about St Etheldreda and St Edmund, and their provision of outward signs of devotion (candles, prayer cards) to encourage serious reflection on the saints' lives and significance. But at Canterbury, that doesn't fit with the story the cathedral wants to promote about its medieval history. Thomas Becket is easy to sell, and a mildly cynical précis of Chaucer's worldly pilgrims entertains the tourists. (Don't get me started on the irony of perpetuating any kind of 'worldly pilgrims/greedy medieval monks fleecing their visitors' story in a church which charges a hefty entrance fee.) There's something sadly appropriate in Canterbury's readiness to forget its Anglo-Saxon past, since the very reason Osbern and Eadmer wrote about Dunstan and Alphege was, they thought, to save them from oblivion.

I don't mean to sound too critical; I want to love Canterbury as much as Eadmer and Osbern did, but the people sometimes make it difficult. This documentary series has been a nice insight into an otherwise invisible world: behind the scenes, away from the snappish guides who are the public face of the cathedral, there are many dedicated and apparently lovely staff and volunteers keeping the place alive. There always have been, even when those dedicated and lovely people were chiefly monks. (Some of the monks probably weren't that friendly to visitors, either.) It's important to be reminded that communities always have difficult people in them, and that good work is often produced amid trying circumstances. This was true in the eleventh century, and it's true today.

Thursday 18 December 2014

'The words linger': Christ the Arkenstone and 'The Hobbit'

Shooting a dragon (BL Arundel 91, f. 28v)

Today I want to share with you a very short extract from an Old English poem, which I hope will be of interest this week for two reasons: firstly because it's about Advent and the birth of Christ, and secondly because it contains a single word which features prominently in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. This is a pleasing confluence of events, and entirely a coincidence (somehow I don't think Advent had much to do with the timing of The Hobbit movie, except that we've replaced Advent with the commercial potential of the run-up to Christmas...)

I wrote about The Hobbit and its relation to some medieval stories about werebears and dragon-slayers last year, but today's poem offers a particularly nice coincidence because it brings us close to the Old English version of the O Antiphons, appropriate reading for the last week before Christmas. Scholars, somewhat lacking in imagination, have traditionally given the name Christ I to the untitled poem based on the O Antiphons, because it's the first poem in the manuscript and it's about Christ. The third poem in the same manuscript is known as Christ III (I bet you can't guess why...). While Christ I is about the first coming of Christ into the world, Christ III is about the second coming: it describes the end of the world in fire, Judgement Day, the joy of the saved and the misery of the damned, the terrible beauty of Christ as he returns in glory. (The whole poem can be read online in translation here.) It's in this poem that we meet our word from The Hobbit, and the title of this post has given away the clue: the word is Arkenstone, the name Tolkien gave to the great jewel of the dwarves, which he took from the Old English earcnanstan, 'precious stone'. This word appears a handful of times in Old English, sometimes in reference to a particular gemstone - a pearl or a topaz - and sometimes for jewels generally. But in Christ III (ll. 1190-8) it's used for something a bit more special:

...æt ærestan
foreþoncle men from fruman worulde
þurh wis gewit, witgan dryhtnes,
halge higegleawe, hæleþum sægdon,
oft, nales æne, ymb þæt æþele bearn,
ðæt se earcnanstan eallum sceolde
to hleo ond to hroþer hæleþa cynne
weorðan in worulde, wuldres agend,
eades ordfruma, þurh þa æþelan cwenn.

...from the beginning,
from the origin of the world, foreknowing men
with their wise wits, prophets of the Lord,
holy ones sage in spirit, spoke to men
often, not once only, of that noble child:
how the precious stone should
come into the world as refuge and comfort
to all the race of men, the ruler of glory,
beginner of bliss, through the noble woman.

The context of these lines is rather difficult to explain, because this is, quite apart from anything else, a beautifully intricate manipulation of narrative time: this description of the incarnation comes after the destruction of the world, when Christ appears in glory with the radiant Cross at his side. At the sight of the wounds he bears, sinful mankind is forced to confront the evidence of their cruelty towards him, which the poem describes; then it says they should have known who he was, because 'from the origin of the world' it had been prophesied that the earcnanstan would come. In the middle of a poem which is about the future, the end of the world and the second coming, this loops back to a moment when the first coming itself was still in the future, the subject of prophecies and hope but not yet of reality. Such a link between Advent and Apocalypse is an ancient part of the church's observance of the season before Christmas (an idea explored in an Anglo-Saxon context by Ælfric in an Advent sermon I posted recently), and this description of the incarnation, embedded within an account of the end of the world, follows that conventional association of ideas.

But why is Christ called the earcnanstan? One reason might be that this poem, like the Biblical descriptions of the Apocalypse, is studded with literal and metaphorical precious gems: Revelations describes God as appearing like jasper and ruby, enthroned upon a rainbow like an emerald, and in Christ III the stars are called tungolgimmas 'starry gems', the eyes heafodgimmas 'the head's gems'. Among all these jewels, Christ is the most precious: the gem, the earcnanstan. In the passage quoted above there's a notable emphasis on the language of nobility, drawn from secular lordship; God is called wuldres agend, literally 'the owner of glory', and both Christ and Mary are called æþele 'noble'. The word used for Mary, cwenn, can just mean 'woman', but frequently also 'queen' (it's the origin of the Modern English word, of course). The earcnanstan seems to fit with this royal context. Not only are precious stones naturally associated with kings and queens, but the first element, earcnan, seems to mean something like 'noble'; it's found in some early Anglo-Saxon royal names, such as Eorcenberht, seventh-century king of Kent, and St Erkenwald. Perhaps 'noble stone' would be a better translation - fitting for The Hobbit's royal heirloom.

Even so, it strikes me as an unusual name for Christ in this particular situation (the incarnation is Christ becoming flesh, and what's less like flesh than a precious stone?) but that very strangeness makes it a richer image, something which rewards extended thought. The Old English translations of the O Antiphons meditate on some of the mysterious titles given to Christ: key, cornerstone, craftsman, king, daystar, 'God mid us'. This creative poetic naming comes, in that instance, from the liturgy and ultimately from scripture, but it's just the kind of variation and allusive titling and re-titling which harmonised with Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, and in which Old English poetry abounds. Just look at the different titles by which Christ is called in the few lines quoted above: noble child, precious stone, ruler of glory, beginner (in the sense 'author, source') of bliss. The Old English version of 'O Emmanuel', a poem especially concerned with Christ's name and titles, offers even more examples

In medieval tradition precious stones were not only beautiful but powerful, that is, they were considered to have the ability to heal; so to call Christ a precious stone is fitting in more ways than one. Somewhere behind this is an echo of the 'pearl of great price', for which earcnanstan is used in an Old English translation of Matthew 13:45-6: Gelic is rice heofunas menn ceape sohte gode ercnanstanas... The Virgin Mary, too, is addressed by God as min meregrot... min eorclanstan 'my pearl, my precious stone' in one of the Blicking Homilies. The pearl is the central image of a later medieval poem with which Tolkien was deeply engaged, a text of dazzling complexity in which the pearl stands for a multiplicity of things. (It's worth noting that the Middle English poem Pearl is often linked to a poem in a similar style about St Erkenwald, and they're sometimes ascribed to the same author; the pearl and this earcnan- name thus have an additional tie for anyone who has worked on both texts.)

All this is a resonant context for Tolkien's Arkenstone. This stone, which has its own alternative title ('heart of the mountain'), shines 'of its own inner light', like Earendel/Christ who tida gehwane of sylfum þe symle inlihtes 'of thine own self ever enlightenest every age'. Remembering the apocalyptic context in which the word appears in Christ III, the title of the short chapter in The Hobbit which deals with Bilbo's bartering over the Arkenstone is particularly striking: 'A Thief in the Night' refers to the little burglar himself, of course, but it is a reference to St Paul's description of the second coming in 1 Thessalonians 5: 'the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; for when they shall say, peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.' All this is the subject of Christ III; in fact the poem opens with this very image, saying that 'the great day of the Lord' will come like

...sceaða fæcne,
þeof þristlice, þe on þystre fareð,
on sweartre niht...

...a crafty burglar,
a bold thief who moves in the darkness,
in the black night...

(sceaða means 'robber, criminal' so I don't think burglar is too inapposite a translation...) Bilbo's nighttime deed of daring with the Arkenstone brings about a day of judgement of sorts - and certainly sudden destruction.

The Second Coming, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Add. 49598, f. 9v)

If you look for the Arkenstone in some of the many guides to Tolkien's use of Anglo-Saxon literature, you'll be informed that the word appears in Beowulf, in the form eorclanstan. There the stones in question are not just any gems, but the most famous jewels of Germanic mythology: the necklace of the Brísingamen, treasure of the goddess Freyja, forged for her by dwarves. It is mentioned in Beowulf because after killing Grendel, Beowulf is presented with many rich rewards for his labours, among them a precious neck ring. The narrator says that he has never heard tell of any greater treasure – except, that is, for the 'necklace of the Brosings', which he calls þa frætwe wæg, eorclanstanas 'the ornamented thing, the precious stones' (1207-8). Unlike the earcnanstan of Christ III, these jewels are a dangerous treasure: in Norse tradition they are the product of sexual bartering by Freyja, constantly coveted and stolen, and the object of immoderate desire and dragonish lust. Thorin never had a chance against this kind of arkenstone.

Virgin and Child (BL Additional 34890, f. 115)

But Beowulf aside, the connotations of the word are generally positive. The cognate Old Norse word is jarknasteinn, and this too is applied to a human being in one memorable instance - in the Poetic Edda, as a comparison for the great hero Sigurðr the Völsung. After Sigurðr's death, his wife Guðrún mourns him with a moving lament:

Svá var minn Sigurðr hjá sonum Gjúka
sem væri geirlaukr ór grasi vaxinn
ða væri bjartr steinn á band dreginn,
jarknasteinn yfir öðlingum.

So was my Sigurðr, compared to the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
like a green leek growing up out of the grass;
like a bright stone threaded on a string,
a precious stone among the princes.

Sigurðr was by far the most famous dragon-slayer of Germanic legend (it wouldn't have taken him three movies to kill Smaug), and there's not as big a gap as you might think between Sigurðr and Christ; the scene of Sigurðr killing the dragon appears on early carvings in a Christian context, which are difficult to interpret but may show Sigurðr's triumph being cast as a battle between good and evil. Tolkien, of course, produced his own version of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, though he did not include this poem, so we don't know how he would have rendered Guðrún's word jarknasteinn. (The Edda contains several different variants of Guðrún's story; this lament comes from Guðrúnarkviða I, and Tolkien instead based his telling on Guðrúnarkviða II.) Tolkien's Sigurðr is a very noble figure indeed: 'sun-bright Sigurd', he is called, 'golden Sigurd / glorious shining'. After he is killed he goes to Valhalla, to await the war with which, in Norse mythology, the world will come to an end:

There feasts he long
at his father's side,
for War waiting,
the World's chosen.

Perhaps there is an echo of this in Thorin's words as he lies dying: 'I go now to the halls of waiting, to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed'. (This is omitted from the film, for reasons which pass understanding.) Thorin is buried, within the mountain, with the Arkenstone on his breast. But Sigurðr, the jarknasteinn, will have a second coming:

In the day of Doom
he shall deathless stand
who death tasted
and dies no more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Óðin:
not all shall end,
nor Earth perish.

On his head the Helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendour.
When war passeth
in world rebuilt,
bliss shall they drink
who the bitter tasted.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 2009), pp. 179-180.

Tolkien was working on this poem, according to Christopher Tolkien's recent edition, in the early 1930s, during which time he was also teaching and lecturing on the Poetic Edda at Oxford (as well as on Beowulf and his other medieval interests, of course). This is also the period when The Hobbit was written, so the Sigurðr story must have been at least in the back of his mind. The Hobbit's most obvious debt to the Poetic Edda is in the names of the company of dwarves, which come straight from a list in Völuspá, the first poem in the Edda, but there are some other elements of the story strongly reminiscent of the Sigurðr legend. Sigurðr (in the Norse poems and in Tolkien's translation) seeks his dragon through misty mountains, Mirkwood, and withered heaths; he famously learns to understand the language of birds, like the helpful speaking thrushes and ravens which swoop through the last pages of The Hobbit. The final section of the book leans heavily on an equivalency between dragon-fire and literal and figurative 'rivers of gold', which is a key part of the story of Sigurðr's treasure-hoard. And Thorin's rapturous list of similes for the Arkenstone - 'it shone like silver in the firelight, like water in the sun, like snow under the stars, like rain upon the Moon' - is structurally not unlike Guðrún's lament for Sigurðr: 'like a green leek growing up out of the grass, like a bright stone threaded on a string, a precious stone among the princes...'

In his edition of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Christopher Tolkien quotes his father saying in a lecture on Guðrúnarkviða II that he (unlike many readers of the Edda) was more interested in Guðrún, 'usually slighted, and considered as of secondary interest', than in her rival, Brynhildr, contrasting the long agony of Guðrún's grief to Brynhildr's 'brief and terrible storm' of passion. Guðrún lives for many years after the death of Sigurðr, forced to marry again to a man who develops an all-consuming lust for Sigurðr's dragon-won treasure. This terrible greed brings about destruction in which Guðrún loses her brothers, is a second time widowed, and kills her own children. Tolkien's version of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun ends with Guðrún's grief:

While the world lasteth
shall the words linger,
while men are mindful
of the mighty days.
The woe of Gudrún
while world lasteth
till the end of days
all shall hearken.

Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, ed. C. Tolkien, p. 305.

'The words linger'. No one did more than Tolkien himself to make this come to pass; every time you hear the word 'Arkenstone', even amid the sound and fury of the Hobbit movies, you're hearing a word of Guðrún's lament.

Dragon-fight (BL Additional 34890, f. 158)

You can make up your own mind on how much all this tells us about the Arkenstone of The Hobbit, but it's a reminder of how complex a history any single word 'borrowed' from Old English or Old Norse really has – what a deep well of legend and poetry Tolkien was drawing from as he created his mythology. A word which can be used as a name for Christ and for the pre-eminent dragon-slayer of Germanic legend, for the kingdom of heaven and for one of the most perilous objects of Norse mythology, for the Virgin Mary and for the necklace of the goddess Freyja, is a word located at the centre of an intricate web of literary traditions. Perhaps you might think that to investigate these contexts is excessively pedantic, but it follows a good example: Gandalf's very first words in The Hobbit are a philological quibble, insisting to know what, out of a four possible meanings, Bilbo means by his polite 'good morning'. If we imitate him and ask what 'arkenstone' means, we have to take all these many medieval contexts into account.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The O Antiphons in Middle English: 'To þe we clepe with alle owre hert and brethe'

14th-century calendar for December, with 'O Sapientia' on the 16th (BL Egerton 3277, f. 6v)

In medieval England, 16th December was the first day of the sequence of texts known as the O Antiphons. (In other parts of the church they began on 17th December, but they lasted eight days, rather than seven, in English tradition.) Every day between now and Christmas Eve, at Vespers, in the early dusk of a midwinter evening, the antiphon would be one of these ancient songs of longing and desire, which address Christ by a series of allusive titles drawn from scriptural tradition and appeal to him: Come. The antiphons cry out to Christ as the embodiment of wisdom, justice, hope, and light - the liberator of captives, the bringer of unity, the sun who will lighten the darkness of this darkest season of the year.

In the last week of Advent, the antiphons served as a daily, insistent reminder that Christmas is growing ever closer - that the arrival so urgently and so long desired was very near at hand. In the Middle Ages, before Advent calendars and Advent wreaths, the antiphons must have served a similar purpose to those traditions as a countdown to Christmas, focusing the mind on the feast that was coming. So memorable was the beginning of these antiphons that it was marked on 16th December in medieval calendars like the one above, almost as if it were a saint's day - an honour not usually accorded to liturgical antiphons! Turn to the calendar for December in the Book of Common Prayer, and you'll find it there too.

The O Antiphons date back to the sixth century, and today they're best known as the basis for the hymn 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', though many people who sing that well-loved carol might not realise just how ancient its roots are. That hymn is by J. M. Neale, but he wasn't the first, by a long way, to turn the antiphons into English poetry. There are numerous medieval responses to these texts, going back to the earliest days of poetry in English. They were the inspiration for the superb Anglo-Saxon poem known as the 'Advent Lyrics', which may be from the ninth or tenth century - I've written about that version in great detail here. In the past I've also posted some fifteenth-century English carols based on 'O Clavis David' and 'O Radix Jesse'. Today I want to look at two more Middle English interpretations of these antiphons. The first comprises only a four-line version of today's text, 'O Sapientia':

Þu wysdom þat crepedest out of Godes mouþe
þat rechest frame est to west, fram norþ to souþ
þat alle þynges mades throw þy myth
come to tech vs þe wey of flyth.

Thou wisdom, who crept out of God's mouth,
Who reaches from east to west, from north to south,
Who all things made through thy might
Come to teach us the way of flight.

The antiphon is O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae ('O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence'). Hear it sung here

The English verse survives in a fourteenth-century manuscript of sermons (Worcester, Worcester Cathedral Library F. 126), and is recorded in Siegfried Wenzel, 'Unrecorded Middle-English Verses', Anglia 92 (1974), 55-78 (72). (It's the only one of the O Antiphons to be translated there, but the same manuscript also contains a short English version of the Advent collect which begins 'Stir up, O Lord...', rendered 'Egg our hearts, Lord of might...'!).

It might seem odd to describe Wisdom 'creeping' out of the mouth of God (translating the Latin prodisti), but the word appears a few times in Middle English literature in reference to Christ's entry into the world; it reminds me of the description of the Incarnation in 'In a church where I did kneel':

All the world in woe was wound
Until he crept into our kin, -
A lovely girl he lit within,
The worthiest that ever was.

The word suggests quiet, steady movement, perhaps - something gentle, like a breath. I assume that in the last line 'the way of flight' means something like 'the means of departing from this world', though it doesn't seem like an accurate translation of viam prudentiae. But isn't 'from east to west, from north to south' a beautiful way of rendering a fine usque ad finem, 'from one end to another'?

'O Sapientia' and Capricorn, 13th century (BL Lansdowne 420, f. 6v)

As well as this little verse, there's also a surviving English poetic translation of all eight of the antiphons. It's preserved in BL Harley 45, added in a hand of the late fifteenth century to a slighter earlier manuscript of religious texts. At the time this version of the O Antiphons was added to the manuscript, it seems to have belonged to a woman named Margaret Brent, who was possibly a laywoman from Salisbury. The poem consists of a verse for each antiphon, with the Latin text followed by an English translation and expansion. I won't claim it's great poetry, but several of the verses are lovely; 'O Oriens' and 'O virgo virginem' are my favourites. And it's a testament to the power and popularity of these antiphons, the richness of their imagery and the breadth of their appeal; if you were inclined to think of the antiphons as a solely monastic or clerical interest, the example of the devout laywoman Margaret Brent would suggest otherwise.

Here's the text as it appears in Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century (Oxford, 1952), pp. 90-2, and a modernised version follows.

O Sapiencia que ex ore altissimi prodisti Attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter Suauiter disponensque omnia Veni ad docendum nos viam Prudencie.

O Sapiencia of þe ffader, surmountyng all thyng,
Procedyng from his mowthe his hestis to fulfill,
Alpha and Oo, both end & begynnyng,
ffrom end so to end dost atteyne and tylle,
Disposyng ich werk swetly at his wyll,
We the besiche, lord, with humble reuerence,
Come þu and teche vs þe ways of prudence.

O Adonay et dux domus Israel qui moysi in igne flamme rubi apparuisti & ei in syna legem dedisti veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O adonaye, chieff duke of Israell,
Which them conduced from thrall captiuite,
Apperyng to Moyses madist hym of counsell
In þe mount of syna, ther shewyng thy maieste,
Tokyst hym thy law in a bushe fire flamme,
We lowly be-sich the, lord omnypotent,
Come and redeme in thy powre most extente.

O Radix Iesse qui stas in signum populorum super quem continebunt reges os suum quem gentes deprecabuntur veni ad liberandum nos iam noli tardare.

O Radix Iesse, most Souerayne and excellent,
Stondyng in godly signe of euery nacion,
Tofore whome all kyngys þer mowthys shalle stent,
Beynge ryghte mywet and styll as any stone,
Shall knele in þi presence & mak deprecacione,
Them to delyuer & vs all in a throwe,
Sprakly, blyssyd lorde, be nott ther-in slowe.

O clauis david & septrum domus Israel, qui aperis & nemo claudit, claudis & nemo aperit, veni & educ uinctum de domo carceris sedentem in tenebris et in umbra mortis.

O clauis dauid, of whom Isaias tolde,
Hote septure & key, to eche look welle mett
Of Israelle – I meane of Iacobus howsholde –
Thowe opynyst lokes whiche no wyghte can shett,
And closist a-geyn þat cannott be vnshett;
Lowse vs, þi presoners, boundene in wrechidnesse,
Off synne shadowed with mortalle derknesse.

O oriens splendour, lucis eterne & sol iusticie, veni et illumina sedentes in tenebris & umbra mortis.

O oriens splendor of euer-lastynge lyghte,
Whos bemys transcende þe commyn clerenesse
Of sonne or mone, for we of very ryghte
The clepe þe bryght sonne of trowth, ryghtwysnesse
With iustice & mercy eche wrong to redresse,
To þe we clepe with alle owre hert & brethe,
To lyght vs þat sytt in þe derknesse of dethe.

O rex gencium & desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis vtraque unum, veni [et salva] hominem quem de limo formasti.

O rex gencium, whom alle people disire
To honour & love with herty affeccione,
The corner stone þat craftly brow3th nyre
The both testamentis, makyng þem one,
Oold & newe madest lawfully vnyon,
Saue, lord, mankynd, thy most noble creture,
Made of vile erthe to resemble þi fayre figure.

O Emmanuel rex & legifer noster, expectacio gencium & saluator earum, veni ad saluandum nos domine deus noster.

O emanuel, owre souerayne lord & kyng,
In whom we crystene mene trust in especiall,
Geue to thy suggetis grace, by good lykyng
Wele to perfourme þi preceptis legalle,
And saue vs, thy seruauntis, fro myscheff all.
Thus we pray, owre graciouse sauyowre,
Owr lord, owre good, owre louyng redemptore.

O uirgo uirginum, quomodo fiet quia nec primam simile, uisa es nec habere sequentem, filie ierlm quid me admiramini diuinum est misterium hoc quod operata est in me.

O uirgo uirginum, alle pereles in uertu,
Wymmen of ierlm, muse on þis mater,
How þu, a maydyn, art the moder of Ihu.
Natheles, if ony of them þis secretly enquire,
Swet lady, then shortly make to þem þis an-swere:
‘The hye myght of god þis mystery first be-gane.
3e dameseles of Ierlm, why wonder 3e so thane?’

'O Sapientia', noted in a 13th century calendar (BL Royal 1 D X f. 14v)

And in modernised form:

O Sapiencia que ex ore altissimi prodisti Attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter Suauiter disponensque omnia Veni ad docendum nos viam Prudencie.

O Wisdom of the Father, surmounting all things,
Proceeding from his mouth his behests to fulfill,
Alpha and O, both end and beginning,
From end to end dost attain and till, [extend and reach]
Disposing each work sweetly at his will,
We thee beseech, Lord, with humble reverence,
Come thou and teach us the ways of prudence.

O Adonay et dux domus Israel qui moysi in igne flamme rubi apparuisti & ei in syna legem dedisti veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, chief duke of Israel,
Who them didst lead from thrall captivity,
Appearing to Moses, madest him of counsel [made him wise]
In the Mount of Sinai, there showing thy majesty,
Revealed to him thy law in a bush of fiery flame,
We lowly beseech thee, Lord omnipotent,
Come and redeem with thy power's greatest extent.

O Radix Iesse qui stas in signum populorum super quem continebunt reges os suum quem gentes deprecabuntur veni ad liberandum nos iam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, most sovereign and excellent,
Standing as a holy sign to every nation,
Before whom all kings their mouths shall stent, [close]
Being right mute and still as any stone,
Shall kneel in thy presence and make deprecation, [pray]
Them to deliver and us all in a throwe, [very soon]
Swiftly, blessed Lord, be not therein slow.

O clauis david & septrum domus Israel, qui aperis & nemo claudit, claudis & nemo aperit, veni & educ uinctum de domo carceris sedentem in tenebris et in umbra mortis.

O Key of David, of whom Isaiah told,
Called sceptre and key, to every lock well fit
Of Israel – I mean of Jacob’s household –
Thou openest locks which no creature can shut,
And closest again what cannot be unshut;
Loose us, thy prisoners, bound in wretchedness
Of sin, shadowed with mortal darkness.

O oriens splendor, lucis eterne & sol iusticie, veni et illumina sedentes in tenebris & umbra mortis.

O Daystar, splendour of everlasting light,
Whose beams transcend the common clearness
Of sun or moon, for we of very right
Thee call the bright sun of truth, righteousness,
With justice and mercy each wrong to redress,
To thee we call with all our heart and breath,
To light us who sit in the darkness of death.

O rex gencium & desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis vtraque unum, veni [et salva] hominem quem de limo formasti.

O King of the Nations, whom all people desire
To honour and love with hearty affection,
The corner-stone that skilfully brought nigher [i.e. nearer]
The two testaments, making them one,
Old and new made lawfully union,
Save, Lord, mankind, thy most noble creature,
Made of vile earth to resemble thy fair figure.

O Emmanuel rex & legifer noster, expectacio gencium & saluator earum, veni ad saluandum nos domine deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our sovereign lord and king,
In whom we Christian men trust above all,
Give to thy subjects grace, with good lykyng [desire, delight]
Well to perform thy precepts legal,
And save us, thy servants, from mischief all.
Thus we pray, our gracious Saviour,
Our Lord, our God, our loving Redeemer.

O uirgo uirginum, quomodo fiet quia nec primam simile, uisa es nec habere sequentem, filie ierlm quid me admiramini diuinum est misterium hoc quod operata est in me.

O Virgin of Virgins, all peerless in virtue,
Women of Jerusalem muse on this matter:
How thou, a maiden, art the mother of Jesu.
Nonetheless, if any of them this secretly enquire,
Sweet lady, then shortly make to them this answer:
'The high might of God this mystery first began.
Ye damsels of Jerusalem, why wonder ye so then?'

The first of the O Antiphons, in a 14th-century Breviary (BL Stowe 12, f. 13v)

Monday 15 December 2014

'Mirabilem mysterium': A marvellous thing I have mused in my mind

Mirabilem misterium:
The Son of God ys man becum.

A mervelus thyng I hafe musyd in my mynde:
Howe that Veritas spronge owghte of the grounde,
And Justicia for all mankynde,
From heuen to erthe he cam adowne.

Than Maria, that marcyfull maye,
Seyng man was dampnde for hys tre[s]pas,
Hathe sent down Sapiencia, the sothe to saye,
Man to redeme and bryng to grase.

Celestyall cytezens, for vs that yowe praye
To hym that ys bothe Alpha and O,
That we maye be sauyd on domusdaye
And browghte to that blysse he bowghte vs to.

Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), p.50.

This carol, which dates from c.1500, comes from a manuscript (now BL Lansdowne 379) containing just two carols, amid a diverse range of other texts. According to Richard Greene's list, it includes: "English sermons on the Eucharist, for Easter, and for All Saints. A copy of Bishop William Lyndewode's Constitutiones Provinciales... Prescriptions for the stone, toothache, etc. Notes of the temperaments of the body and the four elements. Notes on chronology. English prayers (imperfect) by a member of the Charterhouse, London" (Greene, pp.304-5). Quite a spread of interests, spiritual and secular! This carol, with its sprinkling of Latin, has rather a learned air, and it's infused with the liturgy of Advent and Christmas: the Latin phrase in the refrain is taken from an antiphon used on the Octave of the Nativity (more properly 'Mirabile mysterium'), and the first verse is based on Psalm 85:11 (or 84:12), veritas de terra orta est et iustitia de caelo prospexit, used as an antiphon at Christmas and as the refrain in another English carol. The second and third verses appear to draw on the description of wisdom in Wisdom 8, which is used in the first of the Advent 'O' Antiphons, 'O Sapientia'; 'hym that ys bothe Alpha and O' seems to echo attingens a fine usque ad finem, and tomorrow I'll post a Middle English translation of the antiphon which renders it in just that way. I think the last verse is my favourite: 'celestial citizens' and 'brought to the bliss he bought us to' are both nice turns of phrase.

A translation:

Mirabilem mysterium: [A marvellous mystery]
The Son of God is man become.

A marvellous thing I have mused in my mind:
How that Truth sprang out of the ground,
And Justice for all mankind,
From heaven to earth he came down.

Then Maria, that merciful maid,
Seeing man was damned for his trespass,
Hath sent down Wisdom, the truth to say,
Man to redeem and bring to grace.

Celestial citizens, for us may you pray
To him who is both Alpha and O,
That we may be saved on doomsday
And brought to that bliss he bought us to.

(The text of the second verse seems a bit confused, though you could play with it a little to help it make sense - 'He through Maria...', perhaps?)

Celestial citizens (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 138v)

In the spirit of 'musing in my mind', I've been thinking about the positive response to my recent post on a medieval Advent carol, which both here and on Twitter was rather more enthusiastic than I was expecting. (I like the carol very much, but I don't always expect my readers to love what I love!) I wonder if it was in part the reaction of surprise. It seems to me that the medieval carols best known today are those which deal with the Nativity, or perhaps with the Virgin, and I wonder if this perpetuates a slightly inaccurate impression of what medieval carols are like: people often talk knowingly, though wrongly, about medieval carols as simple and charmingly 'naive', sweet little ditties about a baby in a manger and his gentle mother singing lullabies. But in fact there's almost no limit to the complexity of the ideas and images which medieval carols could encompass, informed by scripture, the liturgy and the writings of the Church Fathers; many of them are theologically learned, intelligent poems, no less sophisticated for being composed in short rhyming English verses. This carol, though not especially brilliant or original, belongs in that tradition, along with 'Behold and see', or 'This world wondreth', or the carol translations of 'Conditor alme siderum' and the O Antiphons (and to move away from Christmas, carols about the Trinity and the Eucharist and any number of other intricate concepts). In these texts there's a willingness to address huge, abstract ideas, things which are 'marvellous' and beyond understanding, yet which repay meditation and the exercise of poetic skill. The carols which explore the story of the Nativity, too, often do so in startlingly fresh and imaginative ways; I'm thinking of 'Under a tree', which imagines the pregnant Mary picturing her half-known, half-unknown future with her unborn baby, or 'Marvel not, Joseph', which conjures up a doubting, worried St Joseph, or the darkly beautiful lullabies in which the baby Christ describes his own death. These texts are infinitely thought-provoking, not only about the story of the Incarnation, in which abstract concepts like truth and justice and wisdom become concrete, become flesh, but also about human experience of time, memory, hope, and loss - many 'marvellous things' to muse on.