Monday 24 September 2018

Domne Eafe's Deer

Minster Abbey

My latest column for History Today can be read online here. It's about a text very close to my heart: the Kentish Royal Legend, one of our earliest written sources for the story of St Mildred and the Anglo-Saxon history of Thanet, the island on the eastern tip of the Kent coast where I was born. I gave a talk on this text earlier this year at St Augustine's in Ramsgate, and will be speaking about it again later this week at the North Downs Way Pilgrimage Festival. Going back to it for this purpose, I was struck by the prominence it gives to the succession of saintly royal women who were descended, over several generations, from King Ethelbert and his wife Bertha. The founder of Minster-in-Thanet, Domne Eafe, is the text's (and my own) favourite, but Bertha herself, Æthelburh of Lyminge, and Eanswythe of Folkestone are all mentioned too. Here's a summary of what the Kentish Royal Legend says about Domne Eafe:

Most of all, it celebrates a woman named Domne Eafe, the founder of Minster Abbey. The text tells how Domne Eafe, the great-granddaughter of Æthelberht and Bertha, managed to obtain land for the foundation of her monastery from Ecgberht, king of Kent. Her two young brothers had been murdered by one of the king’s followers, so Ecgberht offered Domne Eafe restitution for their murder in the form of land. The Kentish Royal Legend describes how she managed to manoeuvre the king into giving her as much land as she wanted (and perhaps more than he intended) by persuading him to grant her all the lands which her pet deer could run around on the island of Thanet. She set the deer running and it followed the course of her will, marking out the ground for her abbey, which the king had to grant.

This story is, of course, not to be taken too literally, yet it is striking how the text presents Domne Eafe: it emphasises her mastery of the situation and her subtle but powerful control of both the king and the deer. In her skilful manipulation of the king, bringing good out of the evil of her brothers’ murder, she demonstrates the ability to wield what the Anglo-Saxons called ræd, the practical wisdom and good judgement which was deemed an essential quality of an effective ruler. This was apparently how the nuns of Minster Abbey chose to remember their founding mother.

This is the kind of story I love - right in the sweet spot between legend and history. This is a localised and Christianised version of a story-type which is found all over the world, in lots of different contexts to do with the apportioning of land. Folklorists categorise it as the 'Deceptive Land Purchase': someone is granted as much as land as they can plough in a day, walk round in an hour, cover with a tree, encircle with an ox-hide (that one's from the Aeneid), etc., etc. And then they get more than they were initially promised through some clever exploitation of the promise.

A list of 'Deceptive Land Purchases' from Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature

Above is a list of some examples from a reference guide to the subject - evocative, as all such lists are! Clearly Domne Eafe and her deer belong with these. Since her story involves an island, we might particularly compare, for instance, the story at the beginning of the Prose Edda about the Norse goddess Gefjon, which tells how King Gylfi of Sweden granted her as much land as she could plough in a day and night with four oxen. Gefjon produced four gigantic oxen, which were so powerful and ploughed so deep that they dragged the piece of land out to sea, and it became the island of Zealand.

Does that mean we just dismiss Domne Eafe's story as a legend - 'medieval fake news!', as some people have recently started crying when they encounter any kind of pre-modern legend, romance, or fiction? Of course not; legends are not lies, and they are absolutely not the same thing as what we have recently started calling 'fake news'. Thinking they are will lead you badly astray; here's a recent offender, where the phrase is used to describe a programme which turned out to be an object lesson in how not to analyse medieval history-writing. (That is: it set up a binary opposition between 'the truth' - provided by the magic of archaeology - and the supposed fake news of medieval romance history, which was simply cast aside as inaccurate once 'tested' against the archaeology. The concept that written sources are themselves complex objects which require specialised interpretation was nowhere to be seen; it did not seem to occur to anyone that it might be a good idea to interpret a twelfth-century source within a twelfth-century context, rather than simply reading it as an inaccurate record of events 600 years before.)

Anyway, dismissing legendary history as 'fake news' is not a particularly useful or enlightening approach. More interesting is to ask what a legend like Domne Eafe's might be able to tell us about the community which originated it, and what it reveals about their values, priorities, and concerns. This is a difficult sell for popular history, where you're often just supposed to be able to explain what really happened; but sometimes what people believe to have been the truth is just as important as what the truth actually was - especially where the truth is unrecoverable. What did Domne Eafe really do when she founded her monastery? We don't know, and we probably never will. But it matters what the Anglo-Saxon author(s) and audiences of the Kentish Royal Legend believed she did. They chose to believe this woman was the kind of person who would take on a wicked king to get justice for her brothers - quick-thinking and in control of events, she was a woman who could turn a murder into a miracle.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

'This fast is kept four times in the year'

A diagram of the Ember Days in a manuscript made at Thorney Abbey, c. 1110

Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of this week are the harvest Ember Days, a three-day period of prayer and fasting which recurs four times over the course of the year. By ancient tradition there are four periods of Ember Days, corresponding with the four seasons: they fall in the weeks following the first Sunday in Lent, Whitsun, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), and St Lucy's Day (December 13). The last two, being tied to fixed rather than moveable feasts, will always fall fairly close to the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and so at the mid-point of these seasons (in traditional reckoning the solstices and equinoxes were usually understood to mark the middle or height of seasons rather than, as often today, the beginning).

The origins of the Ember Days are usually explained as lying in pagan Roman custom, petitioning the gods for aid at different points in the agricultural cycle, from the seed-time to the harvest, in the height of summer and the depth of winter. By the fifth century, and perhaps before, they had been adopted for Christian use by the church in Rome, and as they gradually spread further afield they were widely observed by the medieval church. Though not much noticed today, they are a reminder of how closely linked the medieval church was to the natural world, intently attuned to its seasons and cycles, and always ready to see human life not as separate from nature or from God but as part of one organic whole, in which the natural, the human, and the divine are interrelated at the most essential level.

(I've written about this many times, especially in reference to the Anglo-Saxon church - a collection of links can be found on this page.)

The Ember Days were observed in Anglo-Saxon England from at least the eighth century onwards; they are regularly prescribed in lawcodes and mentioned in standard learned works on computus (the calculation of time and church calendars - a very complicated science, which was an endless fascination to mathematically-minded early medieval scholars!). Most of the images in this post come from 11th and 12th-century English manuscripts which find different ways of representing the Ember Days in diagram form - divine science which is turned into art, too.

In Latin these days are called quatuor tempora, and tempora might perhaps be the origin of the Old English name, ymbren, from which we get 'Ember'. However, since ymb- is a very common Old English prefix, meaning 'around', a learned Anglo-Saxon might have perceived a (perhaps etymologically spurious, but nonetheless meaningful) connection between the word ymbrendæg and a large group of words relating to cycles and circles, such as ymbhweorfan 'to revolve, turn around', ymbhwyrft 'a ring, a circular course, an orbit', ymbhabban 'to surround, encircle', and so on.

The link between the Ember Days and the cycle of the year was made clearly visually in diagrams such as the one above (where the Ember Days are in the four corners of the circle), and in the works of scholars of computus, such as Byrhtferth of Ramsey, who links them to the numerous other patterns of four and its multiples which, to him, structure not just the year but everything in the world: four seasons, four solstices/equinoxes, twelve months, twelve astrological signs, the elements, the winds, the four cardinal virtues, and the four seasons of human life (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age). It's all connected...

Byrhtferth's diagram of interconnection (BL Harley 3667, f. 8)

Other scholars in Anglo-Saxon England were less interested in the calculation of the Ember Days than in their history and their moral purpose. There was a firm belief, mentioned in several late Anglo-Saxon sources, that they had been introduced into England by St Augustine of Canterbury himself when he was sent by Pope Gregory to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons at the end of the sixth century. (It's possible this is true, though it would be hard to prove either way.) A homily attributed to Wulfstan gives a memorably rhyming encapsulation of this detail: 'Ymbrenfæstena healde man rihte, swa swa Scs. Gregorius Angelcynne sylf hit gedihte' (roughly: 'Ember-fasting keep we ought, / as St Gregory the English taught'). To Anglo-Saxon Christians of this period, educated in the tradition of Bede's narrative of the English church, there was no greater earthly authority than that of St Gregory and Augustine; they were the founders and fathers of English Christianity, and a custom linked with them must be supremely venerable.

An Old English poem known as 'Seasons for Fasting', probably written in the eleventh century, describes the history and practice of the Ember Days in this light. It traces their history back to Moses and four fasts of the year described in the Old Testament, emphasising continuity between the Christian practice and the Jewish heritage of the church. It goes on:

Nu we herian sceolan her for life
deorne dædfruman, and him dogera gerim
ælmesdædum ure gefyllan,
and on fæstenum, swa se froda iu
Moyses mælde, and we þa mearce sceolan
heoldan higefæste mid Anglum,
swa hie gebrefde us beorn on Rome,
Gregorius, gumena papa.

Now we should praise here for life
the glorious Deed-doer, and for him complete
our tally of days with almsdeeds
and fasting, as the wise one, Moses,
taught long ago, and we should keep
the dates resolutely among the English,
as the princely man in Rome appointed for us,
Gregory, Pope of the people.

The poem describes the dating of each of the four periods of Ember Days, and then goes on to preach about the benefits of fasting in reconciling human beings to God. (At the time there was some dispute about the dating of the spring and summer Ember Days, and part of the poet's purpose is to urge people to keep the 'English' dates supposedly taught by Gregory rather than any continental alternatives; don't let any Bretons or Franks tell you differently, he says, these are the right days! The dates the poem recommends are the ones we keep now, since the controversy was settled later in the eleventh century.)

In the poem the discussion of the Ember Days and fasting in general is followed by a fervent denunciation of sinful priests, whose duty is to help the laity become closer to God, but who are themselves, it says, too often stained by sin: they 'daily offend the Lord by their neglect', misleading their people and caring more for drinking wine and eating oysters (!) than for their sacred duties. At this point the poem breaks off, before the poet can enumerate any further enormities of the contemporary clergy. The gluttony and self-indulgence for which the poem attacks priests are, of course, meant to be tamed by fasting and self-denial such as practised in the Ember Days.

Another and more widespread explanation of the Ember Days is provided by the Golden Legend, the hugely popular medieval compendium of saints' lives which originated in the thirteenth century and circulated for centuries in various different forms. This text offers no fewer than eight ways of understanding the four-fold pattern of the Ember Days and their relation to the four seasons of the year. Here's what it has to say (in Caxton's 15th-century translation):

The fasting of the Quatretemps, called in English Ember days, the Pope Calixtus ordained them. And this fast is kept four times in the year, and for divers reasons. For the first time [first season, i.e. spring], which is in March, is hot and moist. The second, in summer, is hot and dry. The third, in harvest, is cold and dry. The fourth in winter is cold and moist. Then let us fast in March which is printemps [spring], for to repress the heat of the flesh boiling, and to quench luxury or to temper it. In summer we ought to fast to the end that we chastise the burning and ardour of avarice. In harvest for to repress the drought of pride, and in winter for to chastise the coldness of untruth and of malice.

The second reason why we fast four times; for these fastings here begin in March in the first week of the Lent, to the end that vices wax dry in us, for they may not all be quenched; or because that we cast them away, and the boughs and herbs of virtues may grow in us. And in summer also, in the Whitsun week, for then cometh the Holy Ghost, and therefore we ought to be fervent and esprised in [inspired by] the love of the Holy Ghost. They be fasted also in September tofore Michaelmas, and these be the third fastings, because that in this time the fruits be gathered and we should render to God the fruits of good works. In December they be also, and they be the fourth fastings, and in this time the herbs die, and we ought to be mortified to the world.

The third reason is for to ensue [follow] the Jews. For the Jews fasted four times in the year, that is to wit, tofore Easter, tofore Whitsunside, tofore the setting of the tabernacle in the temple in September, and tofore the dedication of the temple in December.

The fourth reason is because the man is composed of four elements touching the body, and of three virtues or powers in his soul: that is to wit, the understanding, the will, and the mind. To this then that this fasting may attemper in us four times in the year, at each time we fast three days, to the end that the number of four may be reported to the body, and the number of three to the soul. These be the reasons of Master Beleth.

The fifth reason, as saith John Damascenus: in March and in printemps the blood groweth and augmenteth, and in summer choler, in September melancholy, and in winter phlegm. Then we fast in March for to attemper and depress the blood of concupiscence disordinate, for sanguine [blood] of his nature is full of fleshly concupiscence. In summer we fast because that choler should be lessened and refrained, of which cometh wrath. And then is he full naturally of ire. In harvest we fast for to refrain melancholy. The melancholious man naturally is cold, covetous and heavy. In winter we fast for to daunt and to make feeble the phlegm of lightness and forgetting, for such is he that is phlegmatic.

The sixth reason is for the printemps is likened to the air, the summer to fire, harvest to the earth, and the winter to water. Then we fast in March to the end that the air of pride be attempered to us. In summer the fire of concupiscence and of avarice. In September the earth of coldness and of the darkness of ignorance. In winter the water of lightness and inconstancy.

The seventh reason is because that March is reported to infancy, summer to youth, September to steadfast age and virtuous, and winter to ancienty or old age. We fast then in March that we may be in the infancy of innocency. In summer for to be young by virtue and constancy. In harvest that we may be ripe by attemperance. In winter that we may be ancient and old by prudence and honest life, or at least that we may be satisfied to God of that which in these four seasons we have offended him.

The eighth reason is of Master William of Auxerre. We fast, saith he, in these four times of the year to the end that we make amends for all that we have failed in all these four times, and they be done in three days each time, to the end that we satisfy in one day that which we have failed in a month; and that which is the fourth day, that is Wednesday, is the day in which our Lord was betrayed of Judas; and the Friday because our Lord was crucified; and the Saturday because he lay in the sepulchre, and the apostles were sore of heart and in great sorrow.
This traces eight different ways in which the Ember Days can related to patterns of human and natural cycles, encompassing interpretations moral, allegorical, seasonal, historical, scientific, and medical. Such an assortment of post-hoc explanations for the practice, provided by various authorities and supported by reference to the science of the four humours, might today raise a smile, but it's really rather beautiful in its own way; rather than simply explaining the history of the Ember Days, as a modern preacher might, this seeks to explore deeper correspondences between the four seasons, and the fasts which mark them, and cycles of growth and death which affect everything in the natural world, including the human body. (I particularly like that in autumn 'we fast in order to control melancholy'; that feels about right!) The various explanations are meant to complement each other, and they reflect a view of the world as essentially ordered, in which the cycles of human health, or human emotion, or natural growth and decay, are all connected to divinely-arranged patterns which shape the universe.

The Ember Days in Ælfwine's Prayerbook (Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v)

Saturday 8 September 2018

'Who walk in this world, like unto the sea'

The Nativity of the Virgin (BL Harley 7026, f. 17; England, c.1400)

8 September is 'Latter Lady Day', the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, the second of the two Marian feasts to fall in the harvest season. One of the hymns sung on this day is 'Ave maris stella', so here's a simple but rather sweet poem/prayer inspired by that hymn; it comes from a 15th-century manuscript which was probably made in a Carthusian monastery in Yorkshire or northern Lincolnshire. Since the language is fairly straightforward this is in modern spelling; a proper edition can be found here.

Hail sea-star, God's Mother holy,
Pray thou thy sweet Son, save us from folly,
That walk in this world like unto the sea,
Ebbing and flowing, full of vanity.
For to all wretches that will forsake their sin,
Thou shines as a star them ready to win [rescue],
And evermore ready for us to pray
To get us forgiveness withouten delay
Of all sins our and great trespass
That we have done, both more and less.
Now sweet Lady, both meek and mild,
And mother of God, maiden undefiled,
Crowned above all angels Queen of Heaven,
Blessed art thou therefore evermore to neven [name, call upon].
Thou pray thy Son to give us grace our life to mend,
And his burning love into us send.
Think on, good Lady, thus for us to pray,
That we with thee may dwell for ever and aye. Amen.

In the last couplet, 'Think on, good Lady, for us to pray' means 'remember us in your prayers', but if you wanted to read it with a Yorkshire twang (given the provenance of the manuscript) I wouldn't like to discourage you ;)

The image of this world as a sea, 'ebbing and flowing' in its instability and changeableness, is a very ancient and widespread one, and yet somehow never loses its power, for all its ubiquity. Here's an image of the poem in the manuscript, with an illustration of a drowning man praying to Mary, who kneels before Christ - whether literally or figuratively drowning in the waters of this world, it's to Mary that he calls.

Monday 3 September 2018

The History of Vikings

Just a quick announcement: my book, Dragon Lords, is coming out in the US later this month! You can listen to me talking about it in an interview with the fabulous podcast 'The History of Vikings' at this link - make sure to listen to some of the other great episodes too.