Sometimes even poems you know well still have the ability to surprise you. In this extract from the Old English poem Guthlac A
, demons have been tormenting the hermit saint by showing him the sins and worldliness of monks, hoping to tempt him to anger and despair - but Guthlac answers them:
Setton me in edwit þæt ic eaðe forbær
rume regulas ond reþe mod
geongra monna in godes templum;
woldan þy gehyrwan haligra lof,
sohtun þa sæmran, ond þa sellan no
demdan æfter dædum, ne beoð þa dyrne swa þeah.
Ic eow soð siþþon secgan wille:
God scop geoguðe ond gumena dream;
ne magun þa æfteryld in þam ærestan
blæde geberan, ac hy blissiað
worulde wynnum, oððæt wintra rim
gegæð in þa geoguðe, þæt se gæst lufað
onsyn ond ætwist yldran hades,
ðe gemete monige geond middangeard
þeowiað in þeawum. þeodum ywaþ
wisdom weras, wlencu forleosað,
siððan geoguðe geað gæst aflihð.
þæt ge ne scirað, ac ge scyldigra
synne secgað, soþfæstra no
mod ond monþeaw mæran willað.
Gefeoð in firenum, frofre ne wenað,
þæt ge wræcsiða wyrpe gebiden.
You put me to reproach because I readily tolerated
loose regulations and impetuous minds
of young men in the houses of God.
You wanted to disparage the praise of holy men;
you sought out the worse, and did not value the better
according to their deeds, although these are not hidden.
I will tell you the truth of this:
God created youth and the joys of men.
They cannot from the first bear the fruit
of maturity, but take joy
in the world's pleasures, until a number of winters
have passed away in youth, so that the spirit loves
the look and substance of a mature state,
which many men throughout the world fittingly
serve in good ways of life. These men show wisdom
to the people, forsaking pride,
after the spirit puts to flight the foolishness of youth.
You do not admit this; instead you speak out
the sins of the guilty and are unwilling to celebrate
the courage and the virtue of those steadfast in truth.
You rejoice in sins; you do not hope for comfort,
that you may receive any relief in your journeys of exile.
Guthlac, a former soldier and scourge of demons, was no soft touch, and the poet who put these words into his mouth valued the saint's hardbitten courage in the face of extraordinary physical and mental suffering; yet this speech is generous and gentle. It's the kind of thing you want to show to anyone who talks about the 'brutality' of the Middle Ages. (This poem dates to the eighth or ninth century, by the way.) I never stop being struck by how often medieval saints are praised for their gentleness, kindness, good humour and holy cheerfulness; I was reminded of it again reading about Gilbert of Sempringham last week, but it comes up everywhere. Guthlac's speech about tenderly tolerating the follies of youth reminded me of a passage in Eadmer's Life of Anselm, in which the archbishop displays an educational philosophy which you might call very 'modern', if you were the kind of person who used 'modern' to mean 'enlightened':
On one occasion then, a certain abbot, who was considered to be a sufficiently religious man, was talking with him about matters of monastic discipline, and among other things he said something about the boys brought up in the cloister, adding: 'What, I ask you, is to be done with them? They are incorrigible ruffians. We never give over beating them day and night, and they only get worse and worse.'
Anselm replied with astonishment: 'You never give over beating them? And what are they like when they grow up?'
'Stupid brutes,' he said.
To which Anselm retorted, 'You have spent your energies in rearing them to good purpose: from men you have reared beasts.'
'But what can we do about it?' he said. 'We use every means to force them to get better, but without success.'
'You force them? Now tell me, my lord abbot, if you plant a tree-shoot in your garden, and straightway shut it in on every side so that it has no space to put out its branches, what kind of tree will you have in after years when you let it out of its confinement?'
'A useless one, certainly, with its branches all twisted and knotted.'
'And whose fault would this be, except your own for shutting it in so unnaturally? Without doubt, this is what you do with your boys. At their oblation they are planted in the garden of the Church, to grow and bring forth fruit for God. But you so terrify them and hem them in on all sides with threats and blows that they are utterly deprived of their liberty. And being thus injudiciously oppressed, they harbour and welcome and nurse within themselves evil and crooked thoughts like thorns, and cherish these thoughts so passionately that they doggedly reject everything which could minister to their correction. Hence, feeling no love or pity, goodwill or tenderness in your attitude towards them, they have in future no faith in your goodness but believe that all your actions proceed from hatred and malice against them. The deplorable result is that as they grow in body so their hatred increases, together with their apprehension of evil, and they are forward in all crookedness and vice. They have been brought up in no true charity towards anyone, so they regard everyone with suspicion and jealousy.
But, in God's name, I would have you tell me why you are so incensed against them. Are they not human? Are they not flesh and blood like you? Would you like to have been treated as you treat them, and to have become what they now are?
Now consider this. You wish to form them in good habits by blows and chastisement alone. Have you ever seen a goldsmith form his leaves of gold or silver into a beautiful figure with blows alone? I think not. How then does he work? In order to mould his leaf into a suitable form he now presses it and strikes it gently with his tool, and now even more gently raises it with careful pressure and gives it shape. So, if you want your boys to be adorned with good habits, you too, besides the pressure of blows, must apply the encouragement and help of fatherly sympathy and gentleness.'
To which the abbot replied: 'What encouragement? what help? We do all we can to force them into sober and manly habits.'
'Good,' said Anselm, 'just as bread and all kinds of solid food are good and wholesome for those who can digest them; but feed a suckling infant on such food, take away its milk, and you will see him strangled rather than strengthened by his diet. The reason for this is too obvious to need explanation, but this is the lesson to remember: just as weak and strong bodies have each their own food appropriate to their condition, so weak and strong souls need to be fed according to their capacity.
The strong soul delights in and is refreshed by solid food, such as patience in tribulation, not coveting one's neighbour's goods, offering the other cheek, praying for one's enemies, loving those who hate us, and many similar things.
But the weak soul, which is still inexperienced in the service of God, needs milk—gentleness from others, kindness, compassion, cheerful encouragement, loving forbearance, and much else of the same kind.
If you adapt yourself in this way according to the strength and weakness of those under you, you will by the grace of God win them all for God, so far at least as your efforts can.'
When the abbot heard this, he was sorrowful, and said, 'We have indeed wandered from the way of truth, and the light of discretion has not lighted our way.' And he fell on the ground at Anselm's feet confessing himself a miserable sinner, seeking pardon for the past, and promising amendment in the future.
We recount this incident so that from this example may be known how much gentleness and discretion he showed towards all men.
Anselm, though often ahead of his time, was not alone in this compassionate attitude; corporal punishment and sanctity do not generally go together in medieval sources. One standard type of saintly miracle features the saint posthumously intervening to protect schoolboys from being beaten by their cruel masters, a merciful miracle attributed in this story
to St Dunstan, and elsewhere (to take only English examples) to St Eormenhild of Ely and London's St Erkenwald.
We don't live in a society which favours corporal punishment, but nor do we live in a society which places much value on gentleness, especially in men - nor 'kindness, compassion, cheerful encouragement, loving forbearance, and much else of the same kind'. Guthlac's refusal to condemn would not get him very far in life today; how can you prove that you're right
without constantly telling other people that they're wrong
I was about to go on to recount the various ways in which our society, in love with argumentative outrage and righteous indignation, has decided to equate gentleness and mercy with weakness, but to do so would only be to make myself sad - which is against the whole spirit of 'cheerful forbearance', and would not please either Anselm or Guthlac! (I might as well confess that this whole post is what comes of me spending too much time on the internet, especially Twitter, the place where gentleness goes to die.) I'm not by nature a cheerful person, but I generally try to contemplate positives rather than condemn negatives - I don't know if I've ever said so, but this entire blog is one long attempt to battle depression with the weapons of beauty and light - and in that spirit, Anselm's list of virtues brought to mind two of my very favourite passages from Middle English literature. First, from Piers Plowman
, with Langland 'translating' 1 Corinthians 13 into his own world as well as his own language:
"Charite,' quod he, "ne chaffareth noght, ne chalangeth, ne craveth;
As proud of a peny as of a pound of golde...
He is glad with alle glade and good til alle wikkede,
And leneth and loveth alle that Oure Lord made.
Corseth he no creature, ne he kan bere no wrathe,
Ne no likynge hath to lye ne laughe men to scorne.
Al that men seyn, he leet it sooth, and in solace taketh,
And alle manere meschiefs in myldenesse he suffreth.
Coveiteth he noon erthely good but heveneriche blisse...
For Charite is Goddes champion, and as a good child hende,
And the murieste of mouth at mete where he sitteth.
The love that lith in his herte maketh hym light of speche,
And is compaignable and confortatif, as Crist bit hymselve:
Nolite fieri sicut ypocrite tristes &c.
For I have seyen hym in silk and som tyme in russet,
Bothe in grey, and in grys, and in gilt harneis -
And as gladliche he it gaf to gomes that it neded.
['Charity,' said he, 'does not barter, nor make demands, nor ask for favours, as proud of a penny as of a pound of gold... He is glad with all who are glad and good to all the wicked, and gives freely and loves all that Our Lord made. He curses no creature, and bears no grudges, and never takes delight in lying or laughing men to scorn. All that people say he trusts to be the truth, and takes it as comfort, and he bears every kind of injury with mildness. He covets no earthly good, only the bliss of heaven... For Charity is God's champion, as gracious as a well-behaved child, and the merriest in conversation at dinner wherever he goes. The love that lies in his heart makes him light of speech, and he is sociable and cheerful, as Christ himself taught: 'Do not be sad like the hypocrites'. For I have seen Charity in silk and in woolen cloth, both in rich furs and in golden armour - and he gave it away gladly to anyone who needed it.']
Apologies for my feeble translation; Langland at his best is untranslatable. And there are no good equivalents for some of these words: for hende
, for instance,
I can only recommend the Middle English Dictionary entry
, for what translation could suffice? Noble, courteous, gracious
, but without overtones of condescension or social superiority; generous
would all get close to it, and perhaps, since it's the quality of a 'good child', obedient
would be a good equivalent, had it not acquired negative overtones of weakness which make 'meek and mild' today a phrase to be scorned (regrettably, because the collocation has a venerable history in English going all the way back to the Ormulum
; and one of the great apparently-paradoxical facts of linguistic history is that it was the Vikings who gave us the word meek
, from Old Norse mjúkr,
'soft, gracious, gentle'). The OED definition for mild
makes my point for me: 'Gentle and conciliatory in character, disposition, or behaviour; not easily provoked; not giving offence to others; not rough or fierce in manners. Of manners, behaviour, etc.: gentle, conciliatory. In later use sometimes used with disparaging implication of weakness.' Yes, indeed.
That brings me to my second favourite passage, which is from Havelok
. The hero of this romance is literally the strongest man in England, but also the meekest
Of alle men was he mest meke,
Lauhwinde ay and blithe of speke;
Evere he was glad and blithe -
His sorwe he couthe ful wel mithe.
It ne was non so litel knave
For to leyken ne for to plawe,
That he ne wolde with him pleye.
The children that yeden in the weie
Of him he deden al here wille,
And with him leykeden here fille.
Him loveden alle, stille and bolde,
Knictes, children, yunge and holde -
Alle him loveden that him sowen,
Bothen heye men and lowe.
Of him ful wide the word sprong,
Hw he was mikel, hw he was strong,
Hw fayr man God him havede maked...
Als he was heie, als he was long,
He was bothe stark and strong -
In Engelond non hise per
Of strengthe that evere kam him ner.
Als he was strong, so was he softe;
They a man him misdede ofte,
Neveremore he him misseyde,
Ne hond on him with yvele leyde.
[He was the meekest of men, always laughing and merry in speech; he was always glad and merry, and ever able to conceal his sorrows. There was no child so little that he was not ready to play with him - the children who met him in the road, he would let them have their own way with him, and play with him as much as they wanted. Everyone loved him: shy and bold, knights, children, young and old - everyone loved him who saw him, both high and low. His reputation spread far and wide: how he was tall and strong, and how fair a man God had made him... Just as he was tall, as he was big, he was also strong and powerful: in England there was no one his equal in strength. As he was strong, so was he gentle: even if a man mistreated him again and again, Havelok never insulted him, or laid a hand upon him.]
Geographically speaking, Havelok and Guthlac are not very far apart (just the length of Lincolnshire between them), but otherwise I'm not quite sure how I got from one to the other. We might as well veer right out of the medieval period all together in this thought-association game, and take in a passage which always reminds me of these lines from Havelok
- John Henry Newman's fascinating description of a gentleman (from here
Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.
He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.
If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits. If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.
Newman is not proposing this as an ideal (read the text linked above for his whole argument) and I know some readers will wince at the very word 'gentleman'; but I find this description intriguing, and appealing, and can't help thinking it's really just a later culture's version of the humble hero envisioned by the Havelok
-poet. Our society long ago abandoned such ideals, and I don't suppose you could find one man in the world who would want to behave like the gentleman Newman describes; most men take pleasure in the amount of pain they are able to cause, in the name of what they call honesty. More might aspire to be like merciful Guthlac, or gentle Havelok, but it still requires a greater degree of humility, more meekness
, than our culture can easily accept. I've known one or two men something like this (that doesn't sound like a lot - but indeed, 'I rather wonder at your knowing any
'!), and rather more women; but there are no rewards for it, usually quite the reverse.