Friday 31 January 2014

'My woeful heart thus clad in pain'

My stats tell me that hordes of Googlers are, as every year, beginning to seek out 'medieval love poems' and 'medieval compliments' in preparation for Valentine's Day. While I am very glad to be of service to all these happy romantics, this mournful love poem is more to my current taste.

My woeful heart thus clad in pain
Knows not well what to do or say,
Long absence grieveth me so.

For lack of sight near am I slain;
All joy my heart hath in disdain,
Comfort from me is go.

And though I would somewhat complain
Of my sorrow and great pain,
Who should comfort me do?

There is no thing can make me fain,
But the sight of him again
Who causes my woe.

None but he may me sustain;
He is my comfort in all pain;
I love him and no mo. [other]

To him I will be true and plain,
And ever his own in certain,
Till death part us two.

My heart shall I never from him refrain;
I gave it him without constrain,
Ever to continue so.

Head of a woman (BL Stowe 12, f. 332)

This is a poem from the Findern Manuscript (Cambridge University Library Ff.1.6), a fifteenth-century anthology of poems which belonged to a family who lived in Findern in Derbyshire. The anonymous poems in this manuscript have a great deal in common in style, theme and diction, and if you've read any of the four I've previously posted ('Continuance of remembrance'; 'Ah mercy, Fortune, have pity on me'; 'Where I have chosen, steadfast will I be'; 'Yet would I not the causer fared amiss' ) you'll recognise their distinctive voice. They are distinguished by being understated: deliberately and deceptively simple, like this poem which uses just two rhymes throughout, perfectly, and without making any fuss about it.

The unmodernised poem:

My woofull hert this clad in payn
wote natt welle what do nor seyn
longe absens greuyth me so.

ffor lakke of syght nere am I sleyn;
All Ioy myne hert hath in dissedeyn,
Comfort ffro me is go.

then thogh I wold me owght complan
Of my sorwe and grete payn,
who shold comforte me do?

Ther is no thynge can make me to be fayn,
butt the syght of hym agayn
that cawsis my woo.

None butt he may me susteyn;
he is my comfort in all payn;
y loue hym and no moo.

To hym I woll be trywe and playn,
And euyr his owne in serteyn,
tyll deth departe us to.

my hert shall I neuer ffro hym refrayn;
I gaue hitt hym with-owte constrayn,
euyr to contenwe so.

Thursday 30 January 2014

A Candlemas Carol: 'The queen of bliss and of beauty'

The Presentation in the Temple in a 15th-century English Book of Hours (BL Harley 2915, f. 35)

February 2 is Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification, so here's a medieval Candlemas carol.

Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Behold what life that we run in,
Frail to fall and ever like to sin
Through our enemy's enticing;
Therefore we sing and cry to thee:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Come hither, Lady, fairest flower,
And keep us, Lady, from dolour;
Defend us, Lady, and be our succour,
For we cease not to call to thee:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Turn our life, Lady, to God's lust, [pleasure]
Sin to flee and fleshly lust,
For, after him, in thee we trust
To keep us from adversity.
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

This holy day of Purification
To the temple thou bare our salvation,
Jesu Christ, thine own sweet Son,
To whom therefore now sing we:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Farewell, Christmas fair and free!
Farewell, New Year's Day with thee!
Farewell, the holy Epiphany!
And to Mary now sing we:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

This is an exceptionally elegant and delicate carol - I particularly like verse 2, with each interjected 'Lady'. Candlemas is a feast with several avenues of rich imagery for a poet or a preacher to explore, and unlike, say, Ælfric, who concentrates on the themes of offering and of light ('though some people cannot sing, they can nevertheless bear the light in their hands; for on this day was the true Light, Christ, borne to the temple...'), this poem focuses on the role of Mary, 'Lady, fairest flower', 'queen of bliss' (a title also associated with Candlemas in the medieval carol 'Welcome, Yule'). The imploring refrain 'Revertere' comes from the Song of Songs, 6:13: 'Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee' (revertere, revertere, Sulamitis, revertere, revertere, ut intueamur te). This is a text used on the Feast of the Assumption, but it feels appropriate for Candlemas too: the appeal 'return, turn back' conjures up an image of the lady in movement - as, at the Assumption, moving towards heaven - and Candlemas is a processional kind of feast, about coming to the temple, and generally celebrated with a liturgical procession. (I posted a description of an English liturgical procession at Candlemas, from the tenth century, here.)

The theme 'revertere' also resonates with the idea that at Candlemas we cast a final look back towards Christmas, as we at last bid it farewell. This poem is very different in spirit from the cheery Candlemas carol I posted earlier in January, where Christmas says 'good day!', but it too addresses Christmas, the New Year, the Epiphany, and directs our thoughts back to them: 'turn back, that we may look upon thee' one more time. But there's a glance forward too: the collocation 'bliss and beauty' connotes spring, which is just beginning to peep out in February as the first snowdrops appear. Candlemas is in part a festival of early spring, and its focus on light appeals to the longing for winter to be over, for just a hint of returning life, in the dark time of the year.

The Presentation in a C14th English Book of Hours (BL Egerton 2781, f. 85v)

This carol survives in Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. e. I, a fifteenth-century manuscript of English poems and carols which also contains versions of 'This endris night', 'Of a rose, a lovely rose', 'Now is the twelfth day icome', 'Sing we Yule til Candlemas', 'In Bethlehem that fair city', and 'Under a tree, in sporting me'. And that's just (some of) the Christmas carols; see the full list here.

This is the text as edited in Richard Greene, A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962), p. 95.

Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Behold what lyfe that we ryne ine,
Frayl to fale and ever lyke to syne
Thorow owr enmys entysyng;
Therfor we syng and cry to the:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Come hyder, Lady, fayryst floure,
And kepe us, Lady, from doloure;
Defend us, Lady, and be owr socoure,
For we cease not to cal to the:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Torne owr lyfe, Lady, to Goddys luste,
Syne to fle and fleschly luste,
For aftur hym in the we trust
To kep us frome adversyte.
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Thys holy day of Puryfycacyon
To the temple thou bare owr salvacyon,
Jhesu Cryst, thin own swet Sone,
To whome therfor now syng we:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Farwell, Crystmas fayer and fre!
Farwell, Newers Day with the!
Farwell, the holy Epyphane!
And to Mary now syng we:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

The remains of a medieval wall-painting of the Presentation (Chalgrove, Oxfordshire)

One or two more depictions of the Presentation which I particularly like - here the child clings to his mother:

These scenes usually contain Joseph with his offering of birds, but in keeping with the liturgical celebration of the feast, one of the figures is also often shown holding a candle, as in this 14th-century Breviary (made in Norwich):

And, very clearly, in this beautiful scene from an early 13th-century English Psalter:


Tuesday 21 January 2014

Mist at Minster Lovell

This time last year I took a trip into the Oxfordshire countryside to Minster Lovell, a small village to the north-west of Oxford. For technological and other boring reasons, I never finished writing my post about this lovely place and its treasures, but now, a year on, I'll try again.

The reason I was interested in seeing this village is not, in fact, located in Minster Lovell, but in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It's this:

That's the Minster Lovell jewel, an exquisite object familiar to Anglo-Saxonists as a cousin of the more famous Alfred jewel, and probably made in the same workshop around the same time, in the late ninth century.  There's a better view of it here.  It was found in the parish of Minster Lovell, though we don't know how it got there.  For this reason Minster Lovell is a name of magic to my ears, and the church is dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon saint Kenelm, which is unusual and intriguing.  So I got on a bus and went to see it.

This was the view from the bus as we drove along - grey as far as the eye could see.  Minster Lovell is about fifteen miles away from Oxford and this is the rolling countryside of the Cotswolds, not that you can tell!  The bus stopped by the side of a main road, with only misty fields and a few modern houses in sight, and I wondered where this medieval village was supposed to be.  But then I spotted a signpost and, following it, made my way along an alleyway ankle-deep in damp leaves, plunging steeply down into the river valley.

My first view of the valley was of this smoky fire, and the thought wandered into my mind (I had been reading Tolkien) that I had come into a 'wild country'.

It's not a wild country, of course; it's Oxfordshire at its most serene, even on a day of unremitting greyness.  But it is a watery country, a world of weeds and willows, and a landscape shaped by its river, which bears the supremely Tolkien-esque name of the Windrush. At the time of Domesday this river was the boundary of the great forest of the Wychwood (which still exists, though much reduced). Windrush, Wychwood - could you ever invent such evocative names?

I spied the church at a distance, over the bridge, away in the mist.  The dedication to St Kenelm, and the finding of the Saxon jewel, and the name 'Minster' might all suggest a significant Saxon settlement here, but, oddly, there's apparently no evidence of such a thing.  The dedication to Kenelm is no earlier than the fifteenth century, and there's no sign of a minster.

The village is delightful, even when deserted.  All day I was mentally comparing it to Stanton Harcourt, where I went the previous autumn, and they do have a similar appearance - but sunny Stanton Harcourt in November had a very different feel to Minster Lovell in January!  One thing they have in common is that, just as Stanton Harcourt got the second part of its name from its Norman lords, so Minster Lovell is named for the Lovell family, who held land here after the Conquest. Francis Lovell, fervent Yorkist and pro-Richard III rebel, is perhaps the most famous of them.

The village consists chiefly of this one long road:

Culminating in this signpost:

'To the church' is right, for the road goes nowhere else.

When I was there, I was a little disappointed that the weather was so endlessly grey, but looking at the photographs I like how the monochrome of the sky and leafless trees highlight the texture of the stone, which I probably wouldn't have noticed on a brighter day.

On this bleak day, the church could not have been more welcoming: an unlocked door and a bright electric star, guiding me inside (it was just after Epiphany when I visited).

A warm welcome, but it was ice-cold inside - and so dark that, as I was experimenting with the black and white mode on my camera, I now honestly can't tell whether some of these pictures were taken in that mode or not.

The church has an interesting shape, with a central tower resting on immense pillars:

The pillars are decorated with carved heads - lady, bishop, fool, and this creature erupting from the wall:

From below, the tower is an impressive sight:

And the roof, yet more black and white, makes a beautiful pattern as you look back into the nave:

Almost the only splash of colour is in the top of the windows, where there are fragments of fine medieval stained glass.

This was my favourite, a golden-haired St Lucy with long plaits.

Below her is a tiny, charming figure, who seemed to have popped into this window by mistake; I have no idea what he's doing there!

After Lucy, the best glass depicts the prophet Daniel:


A very faint St Agnes (on the right) and an unidentified saint:

This man, because of his doctor's bottle, is identified as either St Cosmas or Damian:

This rather puzzling window apparently shows St Edmund:

And this is St Peter Martyr (on the right):

You see how those little blocks of colour stand out from the rest of the church. The other thing which enlivened the January grey was a Christmas tree - a little incongruous perhaps, but very welcome. I like Christmas trees in churches because they remind me of visiting Ickham. This tree was positioned near a splendid tomb belonging to one of the Lovells (which one is not entirely clear, but perhaps William, d.1455):

This Lovell is very finely carved in alabaster:

By his head is this ingratiating lion:

Around the tomb, among repainted shields, are several beautiful original figures. St Christopher, ankle-deep in water:

St Margaret, with her dragon:

Her crown is very delicate, and there are traces of colour on her hair:

The Virgin and Child:

And several 'weepers', although most were hidden by the Christmas tree:

Although I had to dodge the tree to see the tomb, I did like the way its branches were silhouetted against the window:

(That's a polar bear ornament...)

The chancel:

The chancel contains various bits of stone which looks like they've been relocated from elsewhere, including a lolling cherub with his hand on a skull.

Between the chancel and the tower are some stone squints, so you can get a peek back at the Christmas tree:

Medieval stained glass, alabaster saints and carved stone heads - that's enough to keep me happy at any church!  But Minster Lovell has still more to offer, in the shape of a ruined mansion.  Walk around the back of the church, and this is what you see beyond the gravestones:

This was the home of the Lovells.  It's now in the care of English Heritage, but you can wander freely around this ruin of what must have been a grand riverside manor house.  There is a story - completely untrue, it seems, but too good not to repeat - that in the eighteenth century a secret chamber was discovered in this house, in which was found the skeleton of a man, sitting at a table, with paper and pen in front of him.  It was said there were the remains of Francis Lovell, who disappeared after the Battle of Stoke in 1487; he was seen escaping from the battle, but his fate has never been discovered. The legend (as told in the guidebook) says that he hid himself in a chamber at the hall, with only his dog for company and a faithful servant to bring him food, but 'when the servant died suddenly, or turned treacherous, Francis remained incarcerated and helpless.'

The story is related to a romantic tale known as the 'Legend of the Mistletoe Bough', in which the victim is a bride on her wedding-day, playing hide-and-seek in a chest which traps her and becomes her tomb. This version of the story became the subject of a Victorian ballad by Thomas Haynes Bayly (listen to it here), where the unfortunate girl is now 'young Lovell's bride', 'the star of the goodly company':

They sought her that night, and they sought her next day,
And they sought her in vain while a week passed away;
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly - but found her not.
And years flew by, and their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
And when Lovell appeared the children cried,
"See! the old man weeps for his fairy bride."

At length an oak chest, that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle - they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay moldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair!
O, sad was her fate! - in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring! - and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasped in her living tomb!

So you see the Lovells have kept their name in the story somehow - but many houses lay claim to the legend.

Minster Lovell hardly needs a ghost story to make its ruins more romantic, though it never hurts; but from now on I'll allow them to speak for themselves.

I know that last is a tree and not window tracery, but they were beginning to look the same in the fading light. The only intact part of the manor is the dovecote:

The heyday of the house was the fifteenth century, and it's been in decline ever since. The Lovells lost it as a consequence of Francis Lovell's loyalty to Richard III; it was seized by Henry VII and passed through the hands of various families. In Thomas Hearne's day it was "a quaint and picturesquely situated house half in ruins through neglect', and by the mid-eighteenth century it was abandoned altogether.

But when you look towards the river (visible in the picture below), you are reminded that Minster and the Windrush were here before the Lovells, and have now outlived them all.