Saturday, 25 March 2017

'Our Lady's Lay'

Annunciation, c.1310 (BL Royal MS 15 D II, f.3)

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, or 'Lady Day in Lent', as it was known in the Middle Ages. As I explored last year, the medieval church considered 25 March to be the single most important date in history: it was both the beginning and the end of Christ's life on earth, the date of his conception at the Annunciation and his death on Good Friday. To underline the harmony and purpose which, in the eyes of medieval Christians, shaped the divinely-written narrative of the history of the world, 25 March was also said to be the date of other significant events: the eighth day of Creation, the crossing of the Red Sea, the sacrifice of Isaac, and other days linked with or prefiguring the story of the world's fall and redemption. The date occurs at a conjunction of solar, lunar, and natural cycles: all these events were understood to have happened in the spring, when life returns to the earth, and at the vernal equinox, once the days begin to grow longer than the nights and light triumphs over the power of darkness. The resonances of 25 March reached even unto Middle Earth, as Tolkien aligned the downfall of the Ring to this most auspicious of dates.

'Lady Day in Lent' is the springtime feast of the Virgin Mary, one of several 'lady days' which marked the seasons of the medieval year. There is a vast amount of medieval poetry and art on the theme of the Annunciation, more than you could read or look at in a lifetime, and much of it is exquisite: I've posted some of my own favourites under this tag. Over and over again, through many centuries, thousands of poets and artists have tried to imagine this scene, where heaven and earth meet and the fate of the universe hangs upon a young woman's word.

For today, here's a lovely little poem about the Annunciation by William Herebert, friar and poet, writing in the early 14th century. It's a poetic retelling of the Gospel for this feast, Luke 1:26-38, and in Herebert's manuscript is headed 'Evangelium: Missus est angelus Gabriel'. It begins with a brief prologue:

Seynt Luke, in hys godspel, bryngeth ous to munde
Hou Godes Sone of hevene com tok oure kunde,
And sayth who was messager and of whom ysend,
Into whuch lond, to what wymman, and yn whuch toun alend.
Of Luk leche, oure levedy prest, lofsom in apryse,
Lustneth lythe oure levedy lay that gynth in thisse wyse.

Missus est:
Ysend was thaungel Gabriel vrom God the Trinite
Into the lond of Galilee, to Nazareth cite,
To a mayde that hedde o mon ykald Joseph to spouse,
That was of grete kunne, of kyng Davides house.
The mayde to whom Gabriel ysend was on hye,
He rediliche to wysse ynemned was Marie.
And when thaungel was in-wend to speke wyth the mayde,
Hendeliche he grette hyre on thys wyse and sayde:
"Hayle be thou, vol of grace, oure Loverd ys wyth the;
Among alle wymmen thou yblessed be."
When he thys herde, a was ystured in thaungles spekynge,
And inwardlyche thouthte whuch was thys gretynge.
Thenne sayde thaungel bryht, "Marye, dred thou nouht.
Thou havest yvounde grace tovore God ysouht.
Lo, in the conceyve thou shalt and sone bere,
Whom thou shalt 'Jesu' nemnen, that Englys ys 'helere.'
Thes shal be muchel, and nemned 'worth,' the alre hextes Sone,'
And oure Loverd hym shal ȝeve hey stoede vor to wone.
Hys oune vadres see, David, and he shal be regnynge
In Jacobes house wythouten ey endynge,
And hys kyneryche shal boen aylastinge."
Thenne spak Marie to thaungel anon,
"Hou may thys ben? vor knoulechyng have ich of no wepmon."
Thaungel hyre onsuerede and sayde to ryhte,
"The Holy Gost vrom bouenuorth in the shal alihte,
And the shal byshadewen the alre hextes myhte.
And lo ther Elyzabeth, thy cosyne on the heelde,
Haveth conceyved ane sone in dawes of hyre eelde,
Vor nothyng impossible nys to God that al may welde."
Thenne spak Marye and mekelyche sayde,
"Lo me her alredy my Lordes hondmayde.
To me be do, vollyche also, ase thou rather saydest."

Who so nule nouht lye that maketh trewe asay,
Of oure levedy Marie thys ys seynt Lukes lay,
To hevene he make ous stye at oure endeday. Amen.

This poem twice identifies itself as a 'lay' - first 'Our Lady's lay', then 'St Luke's lay'. In Middle English this would suggest a song to be sung with accompaniment, which makes this poem a little different from Herebert's other translations. The poem actually does read like a song, with a real musical quality and a smoothness to the rhythm and rhyme which are only apparent when you read it aloud - so here's a recording of it, which aims to convey at least a little of its melodious sound. And a translation:

Saint Luke, in his gospel, brings to our mind
How God's Son from heaven came and took our kind; [nature]
And says who was messenger and from whom he was sent,
Into which land, to what woman, and to which town he came.
From Luke the physician, Our Lady's priest, praiseworthy in renown,
Listen with pleasure to Our Lady's lay, which begins in this manner.

Sent was...
Sent was the angel Gabriel from God the Trinity
Into the land of Galilee, to Nazareth city,
To a maid who had a man called Joseph to spouse, [i.e. as her betrothed]
Who was of great kin, of king David's house.
The maid to whom Gabriel sent was from on high,
He knew very truly was named Mary.
And when the angel had come in to speak with the maid,
Courteously he greeted her in this way and said:
"Hail be thou, full of grace, our Lord is with thee;
Among all women thou blessed be."
When she this heard, she was stirred at the angel's speaking,
And inwardly wondered what was this greeting.
Then said the angel bright, "Mary, dread thou not.
Thou hast found grace before God.
Lo, in thee conceive thou shalt and a son bear,
Whom thou shalt 'Jesu' name, that in English is 'healer.'
Who shall be great, and named 'worth,' 'the Son of the most high,'
And our Lord shall give him a high place to dwell:
His own father's seat, David, and he shall be reigning
In Jacob's house forever without ending,
And his kingdom shall be everlasting."
Then spake Mary to the angel anon,
"How may this be? for knowledge have I of no man."
The angel answered her and said aright,
"The Holy Ghost from above in thee shall alight,
And thee shall beshadow the highest one's might;
And lo, Elizabeth, thy cousin in grace,
Hath conceived a son in the days of her old age,
For nothing impossible is to God who governs all."
Then spake Mary and meekly said,
"Behold me here all ready, my Lord's handmaid.
To me be done, fully also, as thou hast said before."

Whoever tells no lies, proves to tell the truth,
Of our lady Mary this is Saint Luke's lay,
To heaven may she make us rise at our end-day. Amen.

As often with early medieval English religious poetry, part of the charm of the language lies in the mixture of the strange and the familiar. Much of the English vocabulary of devotion to Mary has remained remarkably stable since the Middle Ages (especially considering how forcefully that devotion was suppressed in the post-medieval period). For instance, you can see that the words with which Herebert translates the angel's greeting, in the early 14th century, are still deeply familiar to English-speaking Catholics 700 years later: 'Hayle be thou, vol of grace, oure Loverd ys wyth the.' And yet some words which are familiar to us might have seemed a little less so to Herebert's audience; alongside its homely vocabulary this poem also gives us the first recorded example of the word impossible in English, for 'nothyng impossible nys to God'.

The song-like quality of this poem made me wonder whether Herebert had heard the popular song on the same subject, 'Angelus ad virginem' - according to Chaucer, at least one 'clerk' of fourteenth-century Oxford was accustomed to sing that song for his own amusement, 'so sweetly that the chamber rang'. But this poem is worlds away from the naughty young clerk of the Miller's Tale, and stays much closer to the Biblical text than the other song does. The only real addition, apart from the introduction and conclusion, is an English translation for the name 'Jesus': 'that in English is healer'. In Old English 'healer' (Hælend), meaning 'saviour', was very commonly used in place of the name Jesus - Ælfric, for instance, does this almost all the time (here's a good example). This occurs in Middle English, too, though less frequently, so Herebert's audience probably would have been well acquainted with this interpretation of the name.

There are a few other grace notes, adding little touches of loveliness to the familiar story. Particularly elegant are the two lines which aim to catch the ear of the hearer, and say 'listen to this!':

Of Luk leche, oure levedy prest, lofsom in apryse,
Lustneth lythe oure levedy lay that gynth in thisse wyse.

From Luke the physician, our Lady's priest, praiseworthy in renown,
Listen with pleasure to Our Lady's lay that begins in this manner.

There's some nice play here on pairs of similar-sounding words, heavy with alliteration - Luke and leche (i.e. 'physician', since St Luke was traditionally said to be a doctor); priest and apryse ('price', renown); lady and lay (a little Dylan-esque, that); and lustneth ('listen') and lythe, which means something like 'gladly, with delight'. That last word suggests, I think, that the whole experience of listening to this poem is simply meant to be pleasurable. It's not really trying to do anything clever with this well-known story, but purely intending to make it pleasant, pretty, 'lovesome' to hear - food for glad and loving meditation. And very lovely it is.


Mariangel said...

Beautiful, and thank you for recording it too! It sounds a little like French.

I love reading your posts as a way to mark special feast days.

grandadrepsher said...

A very lovely poem. Thank you.

David Wilson said...

Lay, Lady lay...

Mariangel said...

It appears that my previous comment did not go through. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for the beautiful post on the Annunciation and for recording the poem: I liked very much to be able to hear how it should be pronounced.

I have now taken the habit of coming to your blog on solemnities and read the carols, poems or meditations that you post about them.