Saturday, 1 November 2014

'þisne dæg eallum halgum': An Anglo-Saxon Sermon for All Hallows

Litany of saints in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript (BL Arundel 60, f. 131)
Holy teachers have instructed that the faithful church should celebrate and worthily keep this day to the honour of All Saints, because they could not appoint a feast for each of them separately, nor are all their names known to any man in this life; as John the Evangelist wrote in his divine vision, saying, "I saw so great a multitude as no man may number, of all nations and of every tribe, standing before the throne of God, all dressed in white garments, holding palm-branches in their hands, and they sang with a loud voice, Salvation be to our God who sits upon his throne. And all the angels stood around his throne, and bowed down to God, saying, To our God be blessing and brightness, wisdom and thanksgiving, honour and strength, for ever and ever. Amen."
This is the opening of a sermon for All Saints' Day, written in the tenth century by the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric. Here it is in Old English (the text is from here):
Halige lareowas ræddon þæt seo geleaffulle gelaðung þisne dæg eallum halgum to wurþmynte mærsige and arwurðlice freolsige; forðan ðe hi ne mihton heora ælcum synderlice freolstide gesettan, ne nanum menn on andweardum life nis heora eallra nama cuð, swa swa Iohannes se Godspellere on his gastlican gesihðe awrat, þus cweðende, "Ic geseah swa micele menigu, swa nan man geryman ne mæg, of eallum ðeodum and of ælcere mægðe, standende ætforan Godes þrymsetle, ealle mid hwitum gyrlum gescrydde, healdende palmtwigu on heora handum, and sungon mid hluddre stemne, Sy hælu urum Gode þe sitt ofer his þrymsetle. And ealle englas stodon on ymbhwyrfte his ðrymsetles, and aluton to Gode, þus cweðende, Sy urum Gode bletsung and beorhtnys, wisdom and þancung, wurðmynt and strengð, on ealra worulda woruld. Amen."

þisne dæg eallum halgum to wurþmynte mærsige... I couldn't resist calling this post 'a sermon for All Hallows', since that's what Ælfric himself calls it. When he talks about consecrating this day to the honour of eallum halgum 'all hallows' it's hard to tell whether that's meant to be the name of the feast or simply a description, but elsewhere he calls it ealra halgena mæssedæg, and other versions like ealra haligra tid ('All Hallows' tide') are also recorded. The name and phrase 'All Saints' came late into English, not being recorded, according to the OED, before the end of the fourteenth century; but the Old English Menologium calls today ealra sancta symbel 'the feast of all saints':

And þy ylcan dæge ealra we healdað
sancta symbel þara þe sið oððe ær
worhtan in worulde willan drihtnes.

And on the same day we keep
the feast of all saints, of those who early or late [i.e. at any time]
worked in the world the will of the Lord.

In his sermon Ælfric goes on to describe the different categories of saints, beginning with angels and moving on to the prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, desert fathers, and anything else you can think of. The whole text can be found at this link, but here are some extracts I particularly like.

Godes halgan sind englas and menn. Englas sind gastas butan lichaman. Þa gesceop se Ælmihtiga Wealdend on micelre fægernysse, him sylfum to lofe, and to wuldre and wurðmynte his mægenþrymme on ecnysse... Nu is þes dæg þisum englum arwurðlice gehalgod, and eac þam halgum mannum, þe þurh miccle geðincða fram frymðe middangeardes Gode geþugon. Of þisum wæron ærest heahfæderas, eawfæste and wuldorfulle weras on heora life, witegena fæderas, þæra gemynd ne bið forgiten, and heora nama þurhwunað on ecnysse; forðan ðe hi wæron Gode gecweme þurh geleafan, and rihtwisnysse, and gehyrsumnysse. Þisum fyligð þæra witegena gecorennys: hi wæron Godes gesprecan, and þam he æteowde his digelnysse, and hi onlihte mid gife þæs Halgan Gastes, swa þæt hi wiston þa towerdan ðing, and mid witigendlicere gyddunge bododon. Witodlice þa gecorenan witegan mid manegum tacnum and forebicnungum on heora life scinende wæron. Hi gehældon manna untrumnysse, and deaddra manna lic to life arærdon...

Æfter þam apostolican werode we wurðiað þone gefæstan heap Godes cyðera, þe ðurh mislice tintrega Cristes ðrowunge werlice geefenlæhton, and ðurh martyrdom þæt upplice rice geferdon. Sume hi wæron mid wæpnum ofslagene, sume on lige forswælede, oðre mid swipum ofbeatene, oþre mid stengum þurhðyde, sume on hengene gecwylmede, sume on widdre sæ besencte, oðre cuce behylde, oðre mid isenum clawum totorene, sume mid stanum ofhrorene, sume mid winterlicum cyle geswencte, sume mid hungre gecwylmede, sume handum and fotum forcorfene, folce to wæfersyne, for geleafan and halgum naman Hælendes Cristes. Þas sind þa sigefæstan Godes frynd, þe ðæra forscyldgodra ealdormanna hæsa forsawon, and nu hi sind gewuldor-beagode mid sige heora þrowunga on ecere myrhðe. Hi mihton beon lichamlice acwealde, ac hi ne mihton fram Gode þurh nane tintregunga beon gebigede. Heora hiht wæs mid undeadlicnysse afylled, þeah ðe hi ætforan mannum getintregode wæron. Hi wæron sceortlice gedrehte, and langlice gefrefrode; forðan ðe God heora afandode swa swa gold on ofne, and he afunde hi him wyrðe, and swa swa halige offrunga, hi underfeng to his heofonlican rice.

Æfter ablunnenre ehtnysse reðra cynega and ealdormanna, on siblicere drohtnunge Godes gelaðunge, wæron halige sacerdas Gode ðeonde, þa mid soðre lare and mid halgum gebysnungum folces menn to Gode symle gebígdon. Heora mod wæs hluttor, and mid clænnysse afylled, and hi mid clænum handum Gode Ælmihtigum æt his weofode ðenodon, mærsigende þa halgan gerynu Cristes lichaman and his blodes. Eac hi offrodon hi sylfe Gode liflice onsægednysse butan womme, oþþe gemencgednysse þwyrlices weorces. Hi befæston Godes lare heora underþeoddum, to unateorigendlicum gafele, and heora mod mid þreatunge, and bene, and micelre gymene to lifes wege gebigdon, and for nanum woruldlicum ege Godes riht ne forsuwodon; and ðeah ðe hi swurdes ecge ne gefreddon, þeah ðurh heora lifes geearnunga hi ne beoð martyrdomes bedælede, forðan þe martyrdom bið gefremmed na on blodes gyte anum, ac eac swylce on synna forhæfednysse, and on biggenge Godes beboda...

Eala ðu, eadige Godes cennestre, symle mæden Maria, tempel ðæs Halgan Gastes, mæden ær geeacnunge, mæden on geeacnunge, mæden æfter geeacnunge, micel is ðin mærð on ðisum freolsdæge betwux þam foresædum halgum; forðan ðe ðurh þine clænan cenninge him eallum becom halignyss and ða heofonlican geðincðu. We sprecað be ðære heofonlican cwene endebyrdlice æfter wifhade, þeahhwæðere eal seo geleaffulle gelaðung getreowfullice be hire singð, þæt heo is geuferod and ahafen ofer engla werod to þam wuldorfullan heahsetle. Nis be nanum oðrum halgan gecweden, þæt heora ænig ofer engla werod ahafen sy, buton be Marian anre. Heo æteowde mid hire gebysnungum þæt heofonlice lif on eorðan, forðan þe mægðhad is ealra mægna cwen and gefera heofonlicra engla. Ðyses mædenes gebysnungum and fotswaðum fyligde ungerim heap mægðhades manna on clænnysse þurhwunigende, forlætenum giftum, to ðam heofonlicum brydguman Criste geþeodende mid anrædum mode, and haligre drohtnunge, and sidefullum gyrlan, to þan swiðe, þæt heora for wel menige for mæigðhade martyrdom geðrowodon, and swa mid twyfealdum sige to heofonlicum eardung-stowum wuldorfulle becomon.

Eallum ðisum foresædum halgum, þæt is, englum and Godes gecorenum mannum, is þyses dæges wurðmynt gemærsod on geleaffulre gelaðunge, him to wurðmynte and us to fultume, þæt we ðurh heora þingrædene him geferlæhte beon moton. Þæs us getiðige se mildheorta Drihten, þe hi ealle and us mid his deorwurðan blode fram deofles hæftnedum alysde. We sceolon on ðyssere mærlican freolstide mid halgum gebedum and lofsangum us geinnian, swa hwæt swa we on oðrum freols-dagum ealles geares ymbrynes, þurh mennisce tyddernysse hwonlicor gefyldon, and carfullice hogian þæt we to ðære ecan freolstide becumon.

Crowned saints (BL Add MS 49598, f.1v)
God's saints are angels and human beings. Angels are spirits without body; the Almighty Ruler created them in great beauty, for his own praise and to the honour and glory of his majesty in eternity... Now this day is worthily consecrated to these angels, and also to the holy people who through great virtues have flourished for God from the beginning of the world. First of these were the patriarchs, righteous and glorious men in their lives, the fathers of the prophets, whose memory shall not be forgotten, and their names shall last for ever, because they were pleasing to God through faith, and righteousness, and obedience. These were followed by the chosen company of prophets: they spoke with God, and to them he made known his secrets, and enlightened them with the grace of the Holy Ghost, so that they knew the things to come and proclaimed them in prophetic song. Truly the chosen prophets by many signs and tokens shone forth in their lives. They healed the sick, and the bodies of the dead they raised to life...

After the company of the apostles we honour the steadfast band of God's martyrs, who through various torments bravely imitated the passion of Christ, and through martyrdom passed to the kingdom on high. Some of them were slain with weapons, some burned by fire, others beaten with whips, others pierced with stakes, some slain on a cross, some sunk in the wide sea, others flayed alive, others torn with iron claws, some overwhelmed with stones, some afflicted by the winter's cold, some slain by hunger, some with hands and feet cut off, as a spectacle to people, for their faith and the holy name of Jesus Christ. These are the victorious friends of God, who scorned the commands of wicked rulers, and are now crowned with glory by the triumph of their sufferings in eternal joy. They could be killed in body, but they could not by any torments be turned away from God. Their hope was filled with immortality, though before men they were tormented. They were afflicted for a short time, and comforted for a long time; because God tested them as gold in a furnace, and he found them worthy of him, and as holy offerings received them into his heavenly kingdom.
This list of torments is, I take it, an elaboration on Hebrews 11.32-12.2 - but I can't help noting that the addition of martyrs 'afflicted by the winter's cold' (mid winterlicum cyle geswencte) is very characteristically Anglo-Saxon! Such a list can be compared to the 'fates of men' trope in Old English wisdom poetry, which is the subject of a whole poem as well as in briefer passages in The Wanderer and other poems.

A group of saints (BL Add MS 49598, f.1)

After the persecution of the cruel kings and rulers had ceased, in the peaceful condition of God's church, there were holy priests flourishing in God, who with true teaching and holy examples constantly guided people to God. Their minds were spotless and filled with purity, and with pure hands they served God Almighty at his altar, celebrating the holy mystery of Christ's body and his blood. They likewise offered themselves as a living sacrifice to God, without blemish or taint of wicked deeds. They established God's teaching in their followers as an unfailing treasure, and with chastisement and prayer and great care guided them in the way of life, and did not remain silent about God's law for any fear of the world. And though they did not feel the sword's edge, yet because of the merits of their lives they are not deprived of martyrdom; for martyrdom is not accomplished by bloodshed alone, but also by refraining from sins and keeping God's commandments...

Female saints (BL Add MS 49598, f.2)
O thou, blessed mother of God, ever virgin Mary, temple of the Holy Ghost, virgin before conceiving, virgin in conceiving, virgin after conceiving, great is your glory in this feast among the saints of whom we speak! For through your pure child-bearing holiness and heavenly honour came to them all. We speak about the queen of heaven last because she is a woman, although all the faithful church confidently sing of her that she is exalted and raised up above the hosts of angels to the throne of glory. Of none of the other saints is it said that any of them are raised up above the hosts of angels, except for Mary alone. She made visible by her example the life of heaven on earth, because chastity is queen of all virtues and companion of the heavenly angels. This virgin's example and footsteps were followed by an uncountable number of celibate people living in purity, renouncing marriage, uniting themselves to the heavenly bridegroom Christ with a steadfast mind and holy conduct and the clothing of virtue, so much so that many of them suffered martyrdom to preserve their virginity, and so with a twofold virtue gloriously came to the heavenly dwelling-place.

To the honour of all these aforesaid saints, that is, angels and God's chosen people, this day is celebrated in the faithful church, for their honour and for our support, so that through their intercession we may be united with them. May the merciful Lord grant us this, who with his precious blood redeemed them all and us from the captivity of the devil. On this glorious festival we should complete, with holy prayers and hymns, whatever we have performed less perfectly through human weakness at other festivals through the course of the year; and seriously reflect, that we may come to the eternal festival.

There is some lovely phrasing in this final paragraph, carefully balancing the two groups of us and them (the saints): this festival is appointed him to wurðmynte and us to fultume, þæt we ðurh heora þingrædene him geferlæhte beon moton 'for their honour and for our support, so that through their intercession we may be united with them'. The word I've translated as 'united' is geferlæhte, which has at its root the noun gefera 'companion, friend'; the prayer is that we should be brought into their happy company, led to the 'eternal festival' by the earthly festival of All Hallows.

St Peter welcomes the dead into heaven (BL Stowe 944, f. 7)


caterina said...

I love Aelfric's beautiful expression him to wurðmynte and us to fultume, as well as his whole depiction of the saints as our companions, now and perhaps someday at the best party ever. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Aelfric was a great prose stylist and a great homily writer.