Tuesday 24 January 2017

Times and Seasons

My latest column for History Today can now be read online. Here's an extract:
Early medieval historians and scholars were fascinated by the calculation of time, and one of the most attractive insights into how they understood it is an Old English poem which survives in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is usually known as the Menologium, though one might more poetically call it ‘The Beauties of the Year’, since that is really its subject. The poem moves through the calendar year, month by month, feast by feast, finding something to praise about every season in the traditional language of Old English poetry. It marks saints’ days, the 12 months, the two solstices and equinoxes, and the beginning of each of the four seasons, which are dated to the days halfway between each solstice and equinox. Every significant date or season receives its own brief lyrical description...

This is an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time. The poem begins with Christmas (not January 1st) and opens: ‘Christ was born, glory of kings, at midwinter.’ After proceeding through the year, it ends with Christmas, too, reflecting the medieval understanding of the meaningful link between the astronomical and sacred calendars: Christ’s birth takes place in deepest winter, at the solstice, because it is a victory of light over darkness.

What fascinates about this poem is not only its praise of the glories of the natural year, but the fact that it was preserved in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the invaluable vernacular record of England’s early medieval history. What was the reasoning behind putting these two texts together, making the Menologium serve almost as a preface to the Chronicle? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also begins with the birth of Christ, but it locates the event not in reference to the season of midwinter but to a historical era: its first entry reads: ‘Octavian ruled 56 years, and in the 42nd year of his reign Christ was born.’ From that similar starting point the two texts follow their divergent courses, reckoning their different kinds of time.

Read the rest here. The manuscript in question is this one, where the poem opens with a beautiful initial 'C':

This is BL Cotton MS Tiberius B I, the C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (other manuscripts of the Chronicle have different prefatory material). It's an eleventh-century manuscript, usually said to have been written either at Abingdon or at Christ Church, Canterbury. And here's the beginning of the Chronicle:

BL Cotton MS Tib. B I, f. 115v

The poem describes a single, unchanging liturgical year, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a linear model of history dating from the Incarnation of Christ (Cristes geflæscnesse), but the timelines have numerous points of intersection. Many of the saints' days mentioned in the poem of course commemorate historical events: so the coming of the Magi, the feast of Epiphany in the annual cycle, is also an event in history recorded by the Chronicle (under the year 2 AD); the first entries of the Chronicle record the deaths of the apostles and early martyrs, who are each commemorated by annual feasts in the poem; the coming of St Augustine of Canterbury across the 'salt sea' to convert the Anglo-Saxons is mentioned in the poem (in the section for May) and in the Chronicle (under the year 596), and so on. What's more, the Chronicle frequently dates events by reference to feasts and liturgical seasons, as was common in the medieval period. The last entry in this version of the Chronicle, for the year 1066, contains a particularly memorable cluster of significant events dated to moments in the church's year: the year runs from the death of Edward the Confessor on 'Twelfth Day', through political crisis at Easter, Rogationtide, and the Nativity of the Virgin, to the very last event recorded, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on 'the Vigil of St Matthew the Apostle'. That last tumultuous year (the last year of Anglo-Saxon history, in one sense) was full of surprises and upheavals; but even so the yearly cycle was stable and unchanging.

BL Cotton MS Tib. B I, f. 115

Crist wæs acennyd, cyninga wuldor, on midne winter... Between the Menologium and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sits the wisdom poem now known as Maxims II (above). This poem, too, begins by musing on kings, power, and the passage of the seasons:

Cyning sceal rice healdan. Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne,
orðanc enta geweorc, þa þe on þysse eorðan syndon,
wrætlic weallstana geweorc. Wind byð on lyfte swiftust,
þunar byð þragum hludast. Þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle,
wyrd byð swiðost. Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost - he byð lengest ceald -
sumor sunwlitegost - swegel byð hatost -
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð.
Soð bið switolost, sinc byð deorost,
gold gumena gehwam, and gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.

A king should defend a kingdom. Cities are seen from afar,
the skilful work of giants, which are on this earth,
wondrous work of wall-stones. The wind in the sky is swiftest,
thunder is loudest in season. Great are the powers of Christ.
Fate is the most powerful thing, winter is coldest,
spring frostiest - it is the longest cold -
summer sun-brightest - the sun is hottest -
harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men
the year's fruits, which God sends them.
Truth is most treacherous, treasure is dearest,
gold to every man, and an old man is most wise,
made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.
Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide on.

Read together, as an eleventh-century reader might have read them, these three texts resonate with each other in fascinating ways. All are interested (among other subjects) in the passage of time, the seasons and the years, and in powers earthly and heavenly - and in the link between those things.

I've written about Anglo-Saxon poetry on the seasons in a series of posts on this blog (spring, summer, autumn, winter). Over the past few years, thinking about these texts has made me think differently about my own experience of the passage of time, and led me to pay much closer attention to the cycles of the natural year - as Maxims II, at least, seems to encourage us to do. The interaction between the seasonal cycle and the liturgical year, so beautifully detailed in the Menologium, was also the subject of my most popular post ever (!). It's an obvious thing to say, perhaps, but the experience of living through the seasons from year to year, reflecting on how that feels and what it might mean, seems to offer many people a powerful sense of contact with the past. It doesn't mean we interpret these seasonal experiences in the same way, of course, or draw the same lessons from them, or associate the same emotions with them - there are some intriguing differences, in fact. But it's a kind of ever-changing constant.

I was thinking about this when re-reading Beowulf the other day, because in that poem there are a few moments when the poet turns to the seasons as a way of expressing continuity between past and present. To the poet, the world of Beowulf is already in the distant past, a pre-Christian Scandinavia different in several key aspects from contemporary Anglo-Saxon England. But one thing they have in common (he thinks) is the passage of the seasons.

Gewiton him ða wigend wica neosian
freondum befeallen, Frysland geseon,
hamas ond heaburh. Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme; eard gemunde
þeah þe ne meahte on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; holm storme weol
won wið winde, winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, oþ ðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales sele bewitiað
wuldortorhtan weder. Ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm; fundode wrecca,
gist of geardum. (1125-1140)

The context for this is the story of Finn and Hengest, a legend Tolkien was particularly interested in, so here's Tolkien's translation from his version of Beowulf:

Then the warriors bereft of their friends departed to look upon their dwellings, to see the Frisian land, their homes and mighty town. Still Hengest abode with Finn that blood-stained winter, keeping fully to his word. He thought of his own land, even though he could not speed upon the sea his ship with curving beak. The deep was tossed in storm and battled with the wind; winter locked the waves in icy bond, until another year came to the dwellings of men, even as it doth yet, those weathers gloriously fair that unchangingly observe the seasons. Now past was winter, and fair the bosom of the earth. The exile, the guest of Finn, was eager to be gone from those courts.

I won't attempt to recap the story; all you need to know is that for the poet of Beowulf, the time of Hengest and Finn is even further back in the legendary past than the world of his poem. Yet the changing seasons he imagines Hengest living through (impatiently, wanting to be gone) are essentially the same as his own time: as winter passes into spring oþer com gear in geardas, swa nu gyt deð, 'another year came to the dwellings of men, as it does yet'. In Hengest's day, in Beowulf's, and in ours, the weathers of the world observe their appointed seasons - syngales sele bewitiað.

There's another such moment when Beowulf is fighting against Grendel's mother, and his sword begins to melt like a spring thaw:

Þa þæt sweord ongan
æfter heaþoswate hildegicelum,
wigbil wanian. Þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend Fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla; þæt is soð Metod. (1605-11)

Then that sword began
to waste away because of the war-sweat,
the blade into battle-icicles. That was a great wonder:
it all melted, just like ice
when the Father loosens the bonds of frost,
unwinds the water's chains, he who has power
over times and seasons. He is the true Measurer. [the one who 'metes out' destiny]

Note the present tense as the poet shifts into metaphor. What could be further from the ordinary everyday world than a hero in a monster's underwater cave, fighting for his life with a miraculous sword? But this metaphor of the thawing ice is drawn from our world, our time, our seasons. Again there's that link between the seasons and power, as in Maxims II - the divine governance over time which is so immeasurably greater than any earthly geweald. This scene is a display of human, almost super-human, strength - Beowulf is the mightiest man in the world, in his days - but the mysterious power which rules the seasons is far beyond his.

Metod eallum weold 
gumena cynnes, swa he nu git deð;
forþan bið andgit æghwær selest
ferhðes foreþanc. Fela sceal gebidan
leofes ond laþes se þe longe her
on ðyssum windagum worolde bruceð. (1057-62)

The Measurer governed all for mankind, as he now does yet;
and so understanding is best everywhere,
forethought of mind. Much must he endure
of love and hate, who long here
in these days of strife enjoys the world.

These are perhaps simultaneously the most comforting and uncomforting lines of Beowulf. We do indeed live in days of strife - but you can always rely on the literature of the past to remind you that there's nothing new or unusual about that. 'These days of strife' are not a particularly troubled moment in history, but all the days of this world. But there are other ways of thinking about time, and the events which happen within it - what an Anglo-Saxon poet might call wyrd - in a more positive way. We don't have to think about history only as a stream of events down which we helplessly drift, talking and fretting solely about the very latest thing to happen, without a moment for reflection or memory. (We'll call this the 'social media timeline' model of history). There are other options, even if they're not very fashionable ones: paying mindful attention to the details of the natural world, listening to the voices of poets of the past, thinking about patterns and constants and the changeless, instead of being solely fixated on the present. Reflecting on what even the greatest earthly power can and can't do helps, too - no king or politician, as Beowulf hints, has power over times and seasons! Maxims II seems to promise that in such ways we can learn to be wise, simply by noticing and abiding the passage of time:

gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.

an old man is most wise,
made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.
Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide on.


sensibilia said...

I like your analysis of the "social media timeline" model of history.
But what do you think the poet meant when he wrote "Truth is most treacherous"?

Rick Wilcox said...

Thank you. Wonderful as usual.

Mark Hausam said...

What a beautiful analysis! Thank you.

Anselm said...

Your insights are so timely. They always tend to appear when needed with a message so meaningful. Thank you.

sophy0075 said...

Sorrow does certainly cling. And happiness, like Time, glides away like the clouds.

Thanks for posting these Anglo-Saxon and your reflections.

Geoffers said...

Lovely piece. Thank you.