As I lay in winter’s night,
In a droupnynge before the day, [in uneasy sleep, before the dawn]
Methought I saw a selly sight, [marvellous vision]
A body, where it on bier lay,
That had been a comely knight,
And little served God to pay. [Who had done little to serve God]
Lost he had this life’s light;
The ghost was out and would away.
And when the ghost him should go,
It turned again, and yet with stood, [stood beside him]
Beheld the flesh where it came from,
So sorrowfully with dreary mood,
And said, 'Alas and wailawo!
Thou fickle flesh, thou false bold,
Why liest thou now stinking so
That whilen were so wild and wood? [Who once was so wild and bold]
This must be one of the most arresting openings of any medieval poem. Picture the vision which meets the eyes of this sleeper, as he tosses and turns in the darkness of a winter's night: the body of a knight, ready to be buried the next morning, and beside it the knight's soul, about to depart, but turning back to speak to the body he has left. It's the beginning of a poem known as ‘A Disputation between the Body and the Soul', a poem which survives in several different versions; this one dates to the late fourteenth century, and is preserved in the Vernon manuscript
. I'm going to post some extracts here in modernised spelling, but the full text, along with another version of the poem, can be found in this book
As the long nights of winter begin to envelop us, as the ghosts of Halloween and the sombre remembrances of November start to recur to the mind, this poem speaks out of the darkness. The word 'ghost' in this text still primarily means 'soul' (the original meaning of gast
in English was a 'spirit' of any kind, from the soul to the Holy Ghost), but from the way it's used here you can see how the word began to take on the meaning it has today. Though this is not a Halloween poem, it is definitely a ghost story. It's a chilling poem, deliberately gruesome, harsh, and cold; it is meant to frighten you.
The ghost of the knight continues to address the body:
Thou that were wont to ride
So high on horse in and out,
So queynte a knight and kud so wide, [So skilful a knight, and so widely known]
As a lion fierce and proud,
Where is now all thy mickle pride,
And thy leete that was so loud? [?honour that was so loudly proclaimed]
Why liest thou there, so bare thy side,
Pricked in so poor a shroud? [wrapped]
Where be now all thy worthy weeds? [rich clothes]
Thy somers with thy bourliche bed, [packhorses with your noble bedding]
Thy palfreys and thy noble steeds,
That thou about in destre led? [which you led by the hand]
Thy falcons that were wont to grede, [call]
And thy greyhounds that thou fed?
Methinketh thy good is thee full gnede; [your possessions are very scanty now]
Now all thy friends be from thee fled.
Where be thy castles and thy towers?
Thy chambers and thy high hall,
That painted were with fair flowers,
And thy rich robes all?
Thy quiltes and thy covertoures, [expensive bedding and coverlets]
That sendel and that purple pall? [silks and rich fabrics]
Lo, wretch, where is now thy bower?
Tomorrow shalt thou therein fall.
That bower is, of course, the grave. This catalogue of losses is a classic example of the ubi sunt
motif, that unanswerable question which has haunted many writers over many generations. 'Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?' This poem’s version begins with the trappings of medieval aristocratic life – castles and towers, horses and falcons – and then makes a sudden turn into the gruesome:
Where be now all thy cooks snell, [skilled]
Who would dress thy meat
With rich spiceries for to smell,
That thou were greedy for to frete, [gobble up]
To make thy foul flesh to swell,
That now will foul worms eat?
And in the pot and pan of hell [with a pun with 'pit and pain']
With thy gluttony hast thou gete. [you've got yourself]
The soul berates the body for spending money on minstrels to write poems about him, while never giving anything to the poor. He has piled up riches, and yet now:
Thou wretch, that in all thy sight
Were never of worldes wynne sad, [who was never sated with any worldly pleasures]
Now hast thou neither land nor light,
But seven foot, and hardly that...
But tomorrow when it is day,
Out from kith and all thy kin
Bare shalt thou wend away.
And leave all this world’s wyn. [joy]
In proud palace though thou here lay,
With worms is now become thine inn; [dwelling-place]
Thy bower is built so cold in clay,
The roof to rest upon thy chin.
So many times were thou thrat [threatened]
What thou, wretch, shouldest have,
And little gavest thou of that,
Though thou see all thy kind in grave.
Thou didst all as the world thee bad,
And as thy foul flesh would crave; [demand]
I suffered thee, and did as mad, [I allowed, and foolishly, you]
To be master and I thy knave.' [servant]
Though he speaks in the familiar language of lament and loss, this knight's soul is not melancholy, but bitterly angry: because of the indulgences of his body, he has lost the hope of heaven. At this point our sympathy might be with him, as he finally escapes from the prison of the flesh, and turns back at the last to regret how it has hampered him in all his better impulses. But then the body, lying dead on the bier, twitches, groans, and answers back:
The body groaned, and began to say,
'Ghost, thou hast the wrong, iwis,
All the guilt on me to lay,
That thou hast thus lost thy bliss.
Where was I, by wood or way,
Sat or stood or did aught amiss,
That I was never under thine eye?'
The soul was the one who should have known better, he says, and everything he did was with the soul's consent. He's just a body, with bodily needs and desires like any other animal; how was he supposed to know what was right or wrong, unless the soul told him? He has a fair point.
They continue to wrangle over whose fault it is, but neither seems to be in the right; they are both self-deceiving, and they are both to blame. ‘Where the blind leads the blind, / In ditch they fall both two.’ The soul taunts the body with the ugliness of his decomposing flesh – no woman would look at you now, he says, and if your friends saw you in the street they would run away. He laments all the lost opportunities for repentance – all the times when he tried to tell the body to get up early to carry out his good resolutions, and the body decided to stay in bed instead. (Relatable.) In a scene worthy of A Christmas Carol
, the knight is told that even now his executors are pawing through his possessions, and have already forgotten about the man who owned them.
But the body keeps retorting that it’s no good for the soul to blame his weakness, or reject his ugliness: it was the soul who should have guided him.
And when the ghost with grisly chere
Had thus made his mickle moan, [great lament]
The body where it lay on bier,
An atelich thing as it was one, [A hideous thing it was]
The head haf up and the swire, [It raised up its head and neck]
As thing all sick it gave a groan,
And said, ‘Whither thoughtest thou fere, [where did you think you would go]
That were thus freshly from me gone?
What aileth thee, thou grimly ghost,
That me thus braidest of my unhap, [that you upbraid me with my bad fortune]
So brothliche as my heart burst, [suddenly]
The death so dolefully me drap; [struck me down]
I am neither first nor last,
That shall drink of that nap. [cup]
The cup of death awaits all, and even the strongest and the best will come to it.
What breidest thou that I shall rot?
For so did Samson and Caesar,
That no man can now find a mote
Of them, nor of mother that them bare;
Worms forgnawen their alre throte, [have devoured the throats of them all]
So shall they mine, now am I ware. [now I know]
Where death, so ready, finds a door open
Ne may help no again-char.' [it's no use turning back]
again: 'Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.' Caesar and Samson both regularly feature in these kinds of medieval reflections on mortality: here they are the epitomes of political and physical power, crumbled into dust. Beside them other poets
list such figures as Aristotle and Cicero, supreme examples of learning and eloquence; Solomon, of wisdom; Absolom, of beauty - great in their day, and now vanished from the earth. This knight can readily draw on such examples, and yet he didn’t think it would happen to him, in the height of his own wealth and power. But ‘death, that can so stilly steal’, seized him too - it was the one thing he did not expect, though the one thing he should have known to expect.
Such reminders of mortality are for our benefit, because for this knight it's already too late. The soul warns the body it's no use deflecting the blame:
Wendest thou thus to get grith, [Do you hope thus to get mercy]
Though thou liest rotted in the clay?
Not though thou rot pile and pith, [both skin and flesh]
And blow with the wind away,
Yet shalt thou come with limb and lith [limbs and joints, i.e. in a whole body]
Again to me at Doomsday;
And come to court, and I thee with,
For to keep our right pay.
'You can't escape me', taunts the soul; 'we'll be damned together. You should have taken my advice':
But when I spoke of soul's needs,
Mass, matins or evensong,
Thou must first do other deeds,
And toldest it all idle-jong; [counted it all for nothing]
To river or to chase thou eodes, [you went]
Or to court to deem wrong. [make unjust judgements]
The knight, who let bribery influence him in the judgements he pronounced, is now in the hands of a judge who can't be bribed.
The soul and body resent each other, and yet they will never be separated; the fate of the one is the fate of the other. The clever thing about this poem is that the real horror of the vision lies not in the rotting flesh, nor in the grisly ghost, but in their realisation, too late, of how they have been trapped. The destiny that awaits them was shaped by a sequence of wrong choices – small, imperceptible daily slips – which has led them both to this prison, and bound them there for eternity, with a fellow prisoner they have come to loathe. (Forget Hamlet
; this is more like Sartre for the fourteenth century.)
There is a horror, too, in the impossibility of the debate they are having, for the question they are wrangling over - were all those wrong decisions the choices of the body or the soul? - has no answer. It's not entirely clear how far they were deliberate choices at all, those sins of carelessness, self-indulgence and apathy which one by one have forged the chains of the knight's imprisonment. What the poem is exploring here is a mystery of human psychology: the influences and impulses which from minute to minute motivate and govern our actions. Do we understand, consciously, the decisions we are making, when we ‘choose’ how to spend our money or our time? Are we fully mindful of our actions and their consequences, or do we just glide along from day to day, letting time slip away from us? Whatever you make of the threats of hellfire in this poem, that
is a frightening and confronting question.
And when the body saw the ghost
Such dole and such moaning make,
And said, 'Alas, my life is lost!
That ever I lived, for thy sake!
That my heart anon ne burst, [Alas, that my heart didn't burst]
When I was from my mother take!
Or be in a pit cast
With an adder or a snake!
For then I had never learned
What was evil or what was good,
Nor for no wrong thing yearned,
Nor pain suffered, as I now must,
Where no saint may beode our ernde [plead our cause]
To him that bought us with his blood,
That we be not in this fire burned
Through his mercy to do us bote.' [to help us]
'Nay, wretch, nay, now is to late
For to pray or for to preach;
Now is the carriage at the gate...
I may now no longer dwell,
Nor stand here to speak with thee,
For hell hounds I hear yell,
And fiends more then I can see,
That come to fetch me to hell,
Nor may I no way flee;
And thou shalt come in flesh and fell [skin and blood]
At doomsday to dwell with me.'
With the hounds of hell 'yelling' in the ears of the soul, the debate finishes. The dreamer sees a thousand devils come swarming up from hell to capture the knight, and the poem closes by describing the torments they inflict on him as they drive him, in a horrible parody of a nobleman’s hunt, to the brink of hell. He is thrown into the pit, and the earth closes over him.
Dawn is approaching, and the vision is over; the speaker, with a drop of sweat 'on every hair', lies frozen with terror. He can only pray, desperately; it may be too late for this knight, but he hopes it is not too late for him, or for you and me.
A sinful wretch as I lay there,
All sinful I rede them rede, [I give this advice to all sinners]
Their sins for to rue sore;
For there is no sin in the world so great
That Christ’s mercy is not more.
Ah, Jesu, that us all hast wrought,
Lord, after thy fair face, [in thy fair image]
And with thy precious blood ybought,
Of amendment give us space,
So that thine handiwork lose not
In so doleful stead and place,
But the joy thou hast us wrought,
Grant us, God, for thine holy grace. Amen.
The idea of a debate between the Soul and Body is a widespread trope in medieval literature; it appears in a number of Old English homilies and poems, as well as in Latin and French, and was well-established by the time the oldest version of this poem was written in the thirteenth century. This poem seems to have been one of the most popular manifestations of the idea: it survives in differing versions in seven manuscripts
, a testament to its popularity. One of those manuscripts is Bodleian Laud Misc. 108, where it appears right next to Havelok
. At a key point in his story Havelok also has a powerful dream (as you'll know if you've read my book
!), but otherwise the two poems don't have much in common; Havelok, prince-turned-kitchen-boy, is not the kind of nobleman who needs reminding that earthly riches are not to be trusted.
As I lay in winter's night
In a droupnynge before the day...
When I came across this poem it was the first two lines which captured my interest, before I had any idea what the rest of the poem was about. My attention was drawn by that unfamiliar word droupning
, which means (I now know) 'an uneasy, troubled sleep'. It's a rare word, probably of Old Norse origin, which is related to the modern word droop
. The Old English cognates gave us drip
, and the differing connotations of those three very similar words is a nice illustration of how subtle differences can creep into the history of even closely-related words. (Rain drips
, flowers drop
, sad heads droop.
The verb droupen
is not uncommon in Middle English, where it can mean 'to sink, fall down, sag', both literally and figuratively, and 'to mourn, grieve, be downcast' - it evokes a heavy, lethargic state of depression. But drouping
as it appears in this poem) is recorded only three times, and seems to refer specifically to a kind of unhappy sleep. Besides this example, there's one instance in an alliterative poem
about the fall of Troy, where Paris, who has just abducted Helen from her home, reproaches her for lamenting it:
What lyffe is þis, lady, to lede on þis wise?
Noght sesyng of sorow, & sobbyng unfaire
On dayes to endure, with drouping on nightes.
Who sothely might suffer þe sorow þat þou mase,
With care & with complaint comynly ay,
Lamentacoun & langour the long night over? (3289-94)
(What life is this, lady, to lead in this way?
Never ceasing to sorrow, and sobbing terribly,
Suffering by day, and drouping by night.
Who truly could bear the sorrow you make,
With grief and complaint at all times,
Lamentation and langour, all the long night?)
He expects her to dry her tears, since he thinks they're spoiling her beauty; and she does, because, as she says, she has no choice. 'I wot, sir, witterly, will I or noght, / Your wille I moste wirke.'
And in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
, when Gawain, awaiting his fate in the Green Knight's castle, tosses and turns in uneasy dreams:
He watz in drowping depe...
In dreȝ droupyng of dreme draveled þat noble,
As mon þat watz in mornyng of mony þro þoȝtes,
How þat destiné schulde þat day dele hym his wyrde
At þe grene chapel, when he þe gome metes,
And bihoues his buffet abide withoute debate more. (1748-54)
(He was in drouping deep...
In heavy drouping of dreams the noble one muttered,
As a man maundering over many threatening thoughts,
How destiny that day would deal him his wyrd
At the green chapel, when he would meet the knight,
And must abide his blow without any argument.)
is set in the very depth of midwinter, and just as the poem evokes the pleasures of winter - friendly chats around the Christmas fire - it also conjures up winter's discomforts: a journey through the chilly wilderness, getting up early and dressing in the dark, and here a long winter night of troublesome dreams.
In the second line here the word drouping
alliterates with three other words of probable Old Norse origin: dreȝ
, and draveled
. The adjective dreȝ
means 'grievous, sad, troublesome', with connotations of weight and heaviness, the kind of sorrow that weighs you down. You know what a dream
is, but in the sense in which we know it it's another gift from Old Norse; the word exists in Old English but there it means 'music, joy', and in the Middle English period that meaning was replaced by the sense the word has in Old Norse, 'vision experienced during sleep' (swefn
is the usual Old English term for that).
As for draveled
, this is another rare word, which seems to suggest the muttering of uneasy sleep. The OED suggests an origin in ON drafa
'to talk indistinctly', and gives the meaning 'to sleep unsoundly, have troubled sleep; ?to talk in one's sleep'. The 16th-century Scottish poet Gavin Douglas uses it when describing that terrifying feeling you sometimes get in dreams, when you try to move or speak and find that you can't. Such moments occur, he says:
Quhen langsum dravillyng or the onsond sleip
Our eyn oursettis in the nyghtis rest.
(When weary dravelling or unsound sleep
Overpowers our eyes in the night's rest.)
That sense of helplessness is also what's troubling Gawain, and Helen, too, we might imagine, as in the waking world both feel trapped in situations beyond their control.
The hours before the dawn are a dangerous time in medieval literature: when the sap of life is at its lowest, when dragons fly and armies attack, and there's nothing to do but lie awake and wait for the day. An anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet coined the word uhtceare
to describe this 'sorrow of the early morning' (uht
is the name for the last part of the night, and so the dragon in Beowulf is an uhtfloga
, a creature who flies before dawn).
As the poet of Gawain and the Green Knight
knew, the long nights and late dawns of winter are the worst time for sleep if you have something on your mind. But in Middle English literature, winter nights also seem to be the time for unearthly visions of the kind described in the Soul and Body poem. The eerie feeling conjured up there reminds me of the group of poems where the speaker, alone on a midwinter night, has a vision of the baby Christ foretelling his painful future to his mother. Those visions also often begin 'As I lay upon a night', and they may be heralded by a burst of starlight in the middle of darkness - 'a star as bright as day
' - or appear to a speaker who, for reasons undisclosed, is troubled and solitary, 'alone in my longing
'. Those poems deliberately walk you into uncanny territory, I think, by their manipulation of the lullaby form, the poetic genre of all others most associated with soothing comfort and safety, which here becomes the vehicle for comfort only of the most discomforting kind. The talking baby who speaks with foreknowledge of his own violent death brings a message of comfort, certainly, but one which can only be achieved through a willingness to see with open eyes the stark reality of death and suffering. (Perhaps that, too, is the message of the Soul and Body poem).
It's natural enough to associate winter darkness with the eerie and unearthly, and in England winter was once (before in the twentieth century Halloween came to dominate this season) a time strongly associated with ghost stories. It's also on a winter's night - specifically, 10 December - that Chaucer is carried up into the heavens to see the House of Fame, in the strangest and most unsettling of his dream visions - playfully told, of course, because it's Chaucer, but still chilling. He sees the capricious workings of the goddess Fame, who determines whose deeds will be remembered in this world, and whose will be cast into oblivion. She is as hard to comprehend as Gawain's Destiny, and equally frightening. The House of Fame
opens with a famous meditation on the nature of dreams, and the puzzle of where they come from - God, demons, bad digestion?
God turne us every dreem to gode!
For hit is wonder, be the rode,
To my wit, what causeth swevens [dreams
Either on morwes, or on evens...
As if folkes complexiouns
Make hem dreme of reflexiouns;
Or ellis thus, as other sayn,
For to greet feblenesse of brayn,
By abstinence, or by seeknesse,
Prison, stewe, or greet distresse;
Or elles by disordinaunce
Of naturel acustomaunce,
That som man is to curious
In studie, or melancolious...
Or if that spirites have the might
To make folk to dreme a-night
Or if the soule, of propre kinde
Be so parfit, as men finde,
That hit forwot that is to come,
And that hit warneth alle and somme
Of everiche of hir aventures
Be avisiouns, or by figures,
But that our flesh ne hath no might
To understonden hit aright,
For hit is warned to derkly; -
But why the cause is, noght wot I.
The photographs in this post are all of Holy Rood church at Sparsholt, a village on the Berkshire Downs, lying in the shadow of the hill of the White Horse of Uffington. Three effigies in this church, shown together in the picture above, are believed to represent Sir Robert Achard, who died in 1353, and his two wives, Lady Joan (d. 1336) and Lady Agnes, who survived her husband and died around 1357.
Unusually, they are made of wood, which would once have been painted, but is now plain and sombre. Effigies of knights and ladies in stone or alabaster are very common in medieval churches, but wooden bodies are not so often met with. I visited Sparsholt back in August this year, in the middle of the heatwave, but there was a chill about this church; it's afflicted by damp, which has stained the walls green in places, and even on a bright afternoon the church was dark and cold. In its darkest corner lie three tomb-chests, with the wooden effigies on top. The bottom part of the tomb-chests are carved with some astonishingly lifelike little figures, marching or dancing their way around the tombs.
Beside and above them are watchful angels, and at their feet are their dogs. ‘No harm could come to sleepers so carefully guarded', the church guidebook said tenderly.
These wooden figures have a very different feeling from the faces you see carved in serene alabaster, or weighty stone. For one thing they are more vulnerable, and over the years have suffered numerous vicissitudes - fire, rot, death watch beetle. Sir Robert has a hole in his chest. They are fractured bodies, but they have outlived by almost 700 years the people whose dead faces and hands they were carved to represent. There was something both more fragile and more vital about them than any medieval effigies I've ever seen, more like flesh and blood; stone and alabaster are dead, but wood is a living thing. To come face to face with them was like a jolt of life in that dark, quiet church. It felt as if these figures were not dead but sleeping - in a sleep longer than a winter's night - and a touch of the hand might awaken them from their dreams.