Thursday 11 December 2014

An Advent Carol: Behold and see

The Annunciation, with prophets in the border (BL Sloane 2321, f. 41)

Ecce quod natura
mutat sua iura:
Virgo parit pura
Dei filium.

Beholde and see how that nature
Chaungith here lawe: a mayden pure
Shalle bere a chielde (thus seith scripture),
Jhesus, oure savyour.

Beholde, the flease of Gedeon
Wexed wete, that no dewe fel on;
Beholde, the yerde of Aaron
Unmoysted bare a floure.

The prophete Isay seith thus:
"A mayde shall bere a childe to us
Whose name shall be called Jhesus,
Oure helpe and our socour.

"A yerde shall goo oute of Jesse rote
Wherof a floure shall ascende full soote."
This floure is Crist, oure helth and boote,
This yerde, Mary, his boure.

Seynt Mathew seith in the gospell,
"A mayde shall bere Emanuell,
That is to sey, God with us to dwell,
That lovely paramour."

Forsoth, to us is borne a chielde;
A sonne is yeven to us full myelde
Of virgyne Marie undefielde
To cease oure grete langoure.

This is the stone cutte of the hille,
Criste borne of Marie us untille
Without synne in thought, dede, and wille
To save us fro dolour.

This chielde shall be the Prince of Peas,
Whose kingdome shall ever encrease,
Wherof the peas shall nevir ceas
But encreace day and houre.

Seint Anselme seith, "So Criste did pas
Thurgh Marie myelde, as his wille was,
As the sonne beame goth thurgh the glas,
That mayde full of honoure."

Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1962), 67.

This is a carol from the manuscript of the Canterbury Franciscan James Ryman (Cambridge University Library MS. Ee 1.12), source of so many interesting fifteenth-century English carols. Its refrain is taken from the Latin Christmas hymn 'Ecce novum gaudium', but this is not a translation; only the first verse is really based on the hymn. The rest draws on traditional imagery of the incarnation - the Virgin as the fleece of Gideon and the miraculously flowering rod of Aaron - and on texts much used in Advent, such as the prophecies of Isaiah. Although simple in its language, it's a beautiful carol, weaving a wealth of images rich in poetry and meaning into its short English lines. And for once, it can be translated without losing any of that beauty:

See how nature
changes her laws:
a pure virgin bears
the son of God.

Behold and see how that nature
Changeth her law: a maiden pure
Shall bear a child, thus saith scripture:
Jesus, our Saviour.

Behold, the fleece of Gideon
Waxed wet, that no dew fell upon;
Behold, the rod of Aaron
Unmoistened bore a flower.

The prophet Isaiah saith thus:
"A maid shall bear a child to us
Whose name shall be called Jesus,
Our help and our succour.

A rod shall grow out of Jesse root
Whereof a flower shall ascend full sweet."
This flower is Christ, our health and bote, [redemption]
This rod Mary, his bower.

Saint Matthew saith in the gospel,
"A maid shall bear Emmanuel,
That is to say, God with us to dwell,
That lovely paramour."

Forsooth, to us is born a child;
A son is given to us full mild,
Of virgin Mary undefiled
To ease our great langour.

This is the stone cut of the hill,
Christ born of Mary us until, [unto]
Without sin in thought, deed, and will
To save us from dolour.

This child shall be the Prince of Peace,
Whose kingdom shall ever increase,
Whereof the peace shall never cease
But increase day and hour.

Saint Anselm saith, "So Christ did pass
Through Mary mild, as his will was,
As the sunbeam goeth through the glass,
That maid full of honour."

Perhaps the carol's simple language only enhances its beauty, conveying complex theological ideas without obscuring them; it becomes transparent, you might say. The image in the last verse, of Christ entering the world through Mary like the sunbeam passing through the glass, is a very common simile in medieval literature, and one that I'm fond of (compare this carol, and this poem). The attribution to St Anselm is not strictly accurate, in that the image doesn't appear in his works, but it was 'a simile much used in the school of Anselm', according to R. W. Southern. For the practice of citing a learned authority in a carol, compare the reference to St Ambrose in 'This world wondreth'.

The sun shining through the glass in the chapel where Anselm is buried, Canterbury Cathedral, December 2012

I can't find any recordings of the English carol, but here's the Latin hymn 'Ecce novum gaudium':


Busyantine said...

Another delightful post. Thank you for all the fascinating, scholarly, obscure and intriguing matters you have brought to our attention throughout the year. It is much appreciated.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Robert Wayne Moore said...

Thank you for so many inspiring and insightful blog posts. You help to make these intriguing times of history come alive.

Rachel said...

I really enjoyed this. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you for such new old songs in English and Latin!

The rime connecting all the stanzas got me wondering if the rime-words would all be Epithets like those of the most familiar O Antiphons: "savyour", "floure", "socour", but then came "boure", though "paramour" was another instance - and might "honour" be an Epithetical wordplay, or is that unhistorical fancy?

Stanza 8 seems to echo Isaiah 9:6-7, but that "encreace day and houre" has no exact source there, and seems somehow familiar (though I cannot place it) and yet unusual. Do you happen to know if it is unusual, or, quite the contrary? It reminds me of the "sequor"-"extendens"-"persequor" of Philippians 3:12-14.

An Old Mertonian

Clerk of Oxford said...

Nigel, Robert, and Rachel, thank you all! And Merry Christmas!

O.M. - that phrase feels familiar to me too, but I can't place it. About the rhyme, it did occur to me that the vowel sound in the rhyming -our words is close to the dominant sound in the Latin refrain (natura/iura, etc.), so there's a kind of echo or assonance there, if not strictly a rhyme. And the rhyme-scheme of the English verses also follows that of the Latin refrain.

David Torkington said...

Have discovered your delightful blog. Thank you. I have re-shared on twitter and google+ and you have already had many deserved re-shares. Thank you.
A happy Advent, Christmas and 2014 to you.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you very much! And the same to you.