Monday, 31 August 2015

Playing with the Durham Proverbs

Assorted monks of Canterbury (BL Arundel 155, f. 133)

A bit more 'Old English wisdom' for you today. For this project I've been culling maxims and similar 'wisdom statements' from across the corpus of Old English literature, but I've become especially enamoured of two texts: the Durham Proverbs, and the English version of the Disticha Catonis. Today's post is an attempt to put together some thoughts I've been playing with about the first of those two collections of sayings, a selection of which you can read here.

When I said in this post that wisdom literature is not my own area of research, that wasn't strictly true; some of it does touch on one of my overarching interests, which is literature in England in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, especially across the traditional dividing-line of the Norman Conquest. My post last week about Canterbury jumped back and forth across that period and in the process, perhaps, illustrated how impossible it would be to put a hard line of division between the texts being read, written and thought about in that community through a hundred years or more of wars and conquests, fires and new foreign management. In that post I was trying to conjure up a picture of Canterbury in the early 1060s, and the Durham Proverbs (despite their title) come from precisely that world: in the middle of the eleventh century, at Canterbury, this collection of forty-six proverbs was written down in a slightly older manuscript (now Durham Cathedral, MS B. III. 32). The same manuscript contains hymns and canticles, including a hymn to St Dunstan, and it was bound together with a copy of one of Ælfric's educational works; in this edition of the hymns it's suggested that the manuscript was 'a fairly basic schoolbook, something like a teacher's handbook for beginners', from which novices could learn the texts they needed for the liturgy. So with the Durham Proverbs we are in exactly the milieu of the miracle-story with which last week's post began: praises to Dunstan, singing schoolboy monks, and their masters.

I find this an irresistible spur to the imagination, and as I read through the Durham Proverbs I like to picture young Osbern and his fellow schoolboys being reared on these eminently practical bits of wisdom. Perhaps when they were restless their masters used to say to them Geþyld byþ middes eades ('patience is half of happiness'), as my parents used to laughingly say to me, 'Patience is a virtue!' I wonder what the blind girl in Osbern's story would have made of the seventeenth proverb, Blind byþ bam eagum se þe breostum ne starat, 'He is blind in both eyes who does not look with the heart'. Perhaps once cured, as she marvelled at all the new sights open to her, she would have agreed with another of the proverbs: Ne wat swetes ðanc, se þe biteres ne onbyrgeð, 'He never knows the pleasure of sweetness, who never tastes bitterness'.

The Psalmist lifts up his eyes (BL Harley 603, f. 64v)

These are just my flights of imagination, but they're not too fanciful; it's at least a useful thought experiment to imagine how these proverbs might actually be used in daily life, and how they might be shared or read. These proverbs are playful, clever and witty, as well as poignant at times, and anyone who thinks medieval monks didn't have a sense of humour would do well to pay attention to them. One of the funny things about talking about Anglo-Saxon literature to the public is that you have to explain it was almost all written down by monks and clerics, which often takes people by surprise. Their response then is frequently to assume that these monks were being inappropriately worldly, perhaps a bit 'naughty', in being interested in life beyond the monastery; but what studying Old English literature teaches you is that Anglo-Saxon monks were interested in everything. And why not? Anglo-Saxon monks could be historians, scientists, poets, teachers, musicians, mathematicians, lawyers, doctors, architects, administrators, and politicians; and though their numerous outside interests sometimes attracted the disapproval of stricter reformers, in their own time and in later centuries, we can be very glad they were 'worldly' enough to write down for us - to save for us - such texts as Beowulf, the poems of the Exeter Book, and the Durham Proverbs.

Anyway, many of the proverbs are no less appropriate to monks than to anyone else:

Freond deah, feor ge neah; byð near nyttra.
A friend is useful, far or near; the nearer the better.

Æt þearfe mann sceal freonda to cunnian.
In time of need, a man finds out his friends.

Hwilum æfter medo menn mæst geþyrsteð.
Sometimes men are thirstiest after drinking mead.
(Monks knew all about mead-drinking; the Lives of Dunstan tell how one of the saint's followers miraculously provided extra mead for King Æthelstan, in the style of Christ at Cana!)

Nafað ænig mann freonda to fela.
No one can have too many friends.

Ne deah eall soþ asæd ne eall sar ætwiten.
It does no good to tell all truths or blame all wrongs.

Gyf þu well sprece, wyrc æfter swa.
If you speak well, act accordingly.

Soþ hit sylf acyþeð.
Truth will make itself known.

Earh mæg þæt an þæt he him ondræde.
A coward can only do one thing: what he fears.

Seo nydþearf feala læreð.
Necessity teaches many things.

Ne sceal man to ær forht ne to ær fægen.
One should not be too soon fearful nor too soon joyful.
(This parallels a line from The Wanderer, where it refers to the behaviour expected of a warrior; but that poem survives in a manuscript owned by the monks of Exeter.)

Ða ne sacað þe ætsamne ne beoð.
They do not quarrel who are not together.

Ne byð þæt fele freond, se þe oþrum facn heleð.
He who harbours treachery against another is not a faithful friend.

And so on.

But in some cases, while the proverbs make perfect sense in a secular context, imagining them being read by monks adds some extra fascinating layers. How about these three:

Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile.
Man acts as he is when he may do as he will.

How would an eleventh-century monk read this? Once sworn to obedience, a monk's will was not his own, and he could very rarely 'do as he will' - so when would he 'act as he is', and show his true nature? Is that a problem, or a positive advantage of the discipline of obedience? (I keep thinking about this proverb in light of the narratives of monastic choice, obedience and free will discussed in this fascinating book.)

To nawihte ne hopað, se to hame ne higeð.
He hopes for nothing, who does not think about home.

This doesn't need to be interpreted allegorically; yet one might choose to meditate upon it in relation to the many experiences of exile described in Old English literature, to compare The Seafarer urging us Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen, ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen ('let us consider where we have a home, and then think how we may come thither'), or to remember Ælfric preaching so beautifully about the wandering Magi and their journey towards their heavenly homeland. For a Benedictine monk, fixed by the principle of stabilitas in his home and community on earth, yet always seeking a heavenly home, this proverb seems very appropriate indeed.

Mete gæþ on banan hand.
Food comes to the killer’s hands.

This one seems utterly inappropriate, perhaps the most inappropriate of all, but a clever expositor might make something very striking of it - perhaps a Eucharistic metaphor?

And if we think about these proverbs alongside the other kinds of texts these monks were reading and writing, some interesting thoughts crop up. Translating that bit of Osbern the other day, I was reminded again how much he (like so many medieval writers) relies on wordplay as a means of thought: from its first sentence, his story is already playing on the phrase lucernae ardentes, the 'burning lights' of the liturgical response which heralds the miracle ('Sint lumbi vestri...'), as if the music is already running in the writer's head as he sits down to write the story. The blind girl 'cannot see the light of the world, but her heart is burning with desire for the light of eternity'; when the monks sing the injunction to 'keep your lights burning', these metaphorical lights become literal and visible for her, and she can now see real lights really burning in the church. The words and the music and the miracle are all interacting, all in harmony with each other as the story shifts between the visible and the audible, the real and the metaphorical.

Such patterns of thought are extremely common in this kind of writing (Osbern is, if anything, quite restrained here) and so, this week when I read the following fairly mundane proverb, I felt I could see how it might appeal to a monk trained in such ways of thinking:

Betere byþ oft feðre þonne oferfeðre.
Better to be often loaded than overloaded.

This works on the aural similarity between 'oft' and 'ofer' ('often' and 'over', which works almost as nicely in Modern English), and it is a playful, memorable way of giving excellent advice: don't try to do everything at once, little by little wins the race. The similarity expresses some kind of essential truth - this is play, but of a serious kind.

'Sint lumbi vestri', from the Winchester Troper (CCCC MS. 473)

And finally (I promise) it occurs to me that even some of the five most quirky proverbs can benefit from being read in a monastic context. The wry proverb 'Things are bad everywhere, said he who heard wailing in hell' (Wide ne biþ wel, cwæþ se þe gehyrde on helle hriman) fits quite nicely with the kind of story commonly found in hagiography where one 'he' (the saint) actually does hear or see people suffering in hell. Osbern's Life of Alphege, for instance, tells how when Alphege was at Bath Abbey he had a vision of a gluttonous monk, who had recently died, being tormented by devils in the middle of the monks' refectory. Again, St Dunstan (says Osbern) had a vision of King Eadwig's soul being dragged off to hell; Dunstan entered into vigorous debate with the devils about it, and negotiated for mercy on the king's behalf. Many stories about Dunstan (especially Osbern's) involve a squealing devil or two, and most of them are at least a little bit funny, even as they demonstrate the saint's power; one can believe in the reality of such things, as medieval hagiographers surely did, and still find such a proverb amusing. Imagine Dunstan quipping 'Things are bad everywhere,' with the dry cool wit of an action hero, as he sends another devil scuttling back to hell...

(And since this proverb is a Wellerism, I repeat my observation from some years ago that I think Osbern and Charles Dickens, king of Wellerisms, would have got on very nicely.)

Dunstan sees the wailing in hell (top scene) in a window from Canterbury Cathedral

Well. These are some random, not entirely serious thoughts, and perhaps they don't really add up to anything. I suppose I'm just thinking about how often we underestimate the readers of the past, and their capacity for playful, flexible, creative reading, which allows proverbs like these to be productive of all kinds of meaning beyond the literal. Or perhaps it's all 'ordinary readers' scholars consistently underestimate (not that there's any such thing as an ordinary reader, of course.) In preparing these proverbs, and similar texts, for my tweets, I do a bit of background reading on them in various scholarly sources, and am often amused to find critics tying themselves up in knots trying to decide how to interpret the things. 'Can we venture to call this a joke?' they say; or 'it is difficult to see what wisdom this statement offers'; or 'this is so obvious as to verge on the banal' (I think that was in reference to the maxim Werig sceal se wiþ winde roweþ, 'Weary shall he be who rows against the wind'). Many profess incomprehension at the idea of proverbs or wisdom literature having value or interest at all, and at best seem to regard them as alien fragments of pre-modern culture which scholars can, with great and very solemn difficulty, strive to understand.

Yet somehow, when I come to tweet these very same statements, they don't seem to confuse anyone. People who clearly have no knowledge of Old English literature, and probably not much formal background in literary study at all, have no trouble whatsoever understanding what the idea is: they read the little text, they interpret it, they offer commentary on it. They jump in to say whether they agree with it, or how they would apply it to the modern day, and their responses are playful and imaginative - sometimes wilfully misreading for the sake of a joke, sometimes adducing similar or contrasting statements to read against the original tweet. They don't struggle to see a metaphor behind something like 'weary shall he be who rows against the wind'; they get it straight away, and enjoy it. If the metaphor or the meaning isn't immediately obvious (and some of these maxims are not at all transparent), people are happy to talk about it and play around with it until they come up with a reading which fits, which makes sense to them; and they discuss each other's interpretations, as if they are a virtual community of readers, although complete strangers to each other and to me.

I don't prompt these responses, and in fact I hadn't anticipated them at all when I started (I thought the unfamiliarity of the Old English language would make people tentative about engaging with the tweets). But I love it. It delights me every single day, and all the more so because I think we might imagine eleventh-century textual communities acting in similar ways. Many of these proverbs work perfectly well on the most simple level, and require nothing but assent to convey their meaning. But others are like poems in miniature, making full use of the pleasures of language (rhyme, alliteration, wordplay) and the riches of the human imagination: imagery and metaphor, comedy and the bizarre. They're like tiny lessons in the sheer joy of literature, a reminder of all the many pleasures of reading and sharing what we read. Without prompting, people know exactly what to do with these proverbs; they know the rules of the game. They don't need to be told to comment and interpret, to think metaphorically, to rework texts for new contexts - they just do it, and have fun with it. They're better at it than many professional literary critics, and it's a joy to watch - a reminder that there's nothing 'ordinary' about the act of reading, and the interpretative games which anyone can play.


Apprentice said...

"One should not be too soon fearful nor too soon joyful."
The construction of this maxim reminds me of my Swiss grandfather's comment, "I am too soon old and not too soon wise."

chris elliott said...

You sound much happier than last time I read your blog
Thanks for the fun proverbs