Wednesday 26 December 2018

'Mary hath borne alone'

Virgin and Child, from a 15th-century Book of Hours (BL Add. 50001, f. 119v)

Mary hath borne alone
The Son of God in throne.

That maiden mild her child did keep
As mothers doth echone, [as all mothers do]
But her dear son full sore did weep
For sinful man alone.

She rocked him and sung 'Lullay',
But ever he made great moan.
'Dear son,' she said, 'tell, I thee pray,
Why dost thy weep alone?'

'Mother,' he said, 'I shall be slain,
Who sin did never none,
And suffer death with woeful pain;
Therefore I weep alone.'

'Lullay,' she said, 'sleep and be still,
And let be all thy moan,
For all thing is at thine own will
In heaven and earth alone.'

'Mother,' he said, 'how should I sleep?
How should I leave my moan?
I have more cause to sob and weep,
Since I shall die alone.'

'Dear son,' she said, 'the king of bliss,
That is so high in throne,
Knoweth that thou didst never amiss,
Why shouldest thou die alone?'

'Mother,' he said, 'only of thee
I took both flesh and bone,
To save mankind and make it free
With my heart blood alone.'

'Dear son,' she said, 'thou art equal
To God, that is in throne,
For man therefore, that is so thrall,
Why shouldest thou die alone?'

'Mother,' he said, 'my father's will
And mine, they be but one;
Therefore by skill I must fulfill [for this reason I must fulfill]
My father's will alone.'

'Dear son,' she said, 'since thou hast take
Of me both flesh and bone,
If it may be, me not forsake
In care and woe alone.'

'For man I must the ransom pay,
The which to hell is gone,
Mother,' he said, 'on Good Friday,
For he may not alone.' [man cannot do this by himself]

'Dear son,' she said unto him tho [then]
'When thou from me art gone,
Then shall I live in care and woe
Without comfort alone.'

'Mother,' he said, 'take thou no thought,
For me make thou no moan;
When I have bought that I have wrought, [when I have redeemed what I created]
Thou shalt not be alone.'

'On the third day, I thee behight, [promise]
After that I am gone,
I will arise by my great might
And comfort thee alone.'

Baby Jesus (BL Add. 50001, f. 95v)

This is a poem from a manuscript of carols which was compiled by the Canterbury friar James Ryman at the end of the fifteenth century. Ryman's manuscript (now CUL MS. Ee 1.12) contains more than 150 carols on a range of topics and in varying moods, from a cheery farewell to Advent fasting to stately songs in praise of the Virgin Mary and sombre songs like this one. In this week's Catholic Herald I've written a short piece about medieval Christmas celebrations, with an emphasis on festivity and fun and all the things people in the Middle Ages did to celebrate the season, and medieval carols give us some lively pictures of that merriment. But amid the jollity there is another strain, which seeks to explore something more serious, sad, and strange. Medieval carols can speak of joy, comfort, liberation - but they can also imagine a tiny baby telling his mother 'I shall die alone.'

At this time of year medieval images of the Nativity are to be found everywhere, and they usually look serene and beautiful - gazing mother, quiet baby, angels adoring. Some medieval Nativity carols are like this too, but others - a surprisingly large number - offer Nativity scenes which are not peaceful but deeply painful and poignant: the baby Jesus shivering in the cold, or crying and screeching, while Mary and Joseph lament their poverty. I wrote about one particularly powerful example in detail here, but I think this one, gentle and dignified and sad, is my favourite example of the theme:

Child, it is a wepyng dale that thou art comen in;
Thy poure cloutes it proven wel, thy bed made in the bynne;
Cold and hunger thou most thoeln, as thou were geten in synne,
And after deyen on the tree for love of all mankynne.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, no wonder thogh thou care,
Thou art comen amonges hem that thy deeth shullen yare.

The central idea in all these poems is that we live in a 'weeping world', a place of many sorrows; this baby faces pain and death in his future because he has come to share that sorrow, to feel the grief that all human beings feel, and to suffer for our sake.

In James Ryman's poem the keyword, repeated again and again, is that poignant alone. The carol plays delicately with the different shades of meaning this word had in Middle English, so it doesn't quite mean the same thing every time it is used here: sometimes it means 'solitary', but it also means 'only', conveying the sense that this child alone, by his death, can save mankind. In response to Mary's confusion about why her child should suffer by his Father's will, alone also emphasises the unity of will between the Father and the Son (they are 'all one'). No wonder poor Mary struggles to understand, and the carol follows several stages of her confusion and her attempts at comfort: if everything in the universe is at her baby's command, she wonders, what can there be to cry about? She knows her child's power, and his nature - that he is God, equal with his Father - but not what that means, or what it will mean for her. His death alone is also his choice alone; her child is God enough to choose his own death, and yet human enough to weep for it.

It's Mary's reaction which makes this poem particularly moving, especially when she begins to comprehend, and asks him not to leave her: 'If it may be, me not forsake / In care and woe alone.' The force of her grief is reminiscent (perhaps deliberately so) of the powerful dialogues between Mary and Christ on the cross, such as 'Stond wel, moder, under rode', where she clings to her son and cannot let him go, though he begs her to let him die. There she learns, her son tells her, a common sorrow: 'What pain they endure who children bear, / What sorrow they have who children lose.' In her grief she gains kinship with all mothers, just as Christ, becoming a crying baby, shares a pain we all have known.

This genre of medieval poem can be painful reading at Christmastime, but it seems more honest and clear-eyed than the sentimentality which often surrounds a modern Christmas; there is no expectation here that everyone is happy and jolly, living the perfect life which really exists only in Christmas adverts and newspaper supplements. In truth many people at Christmas do feel very much alone; this is a season which, precisely because of its expectation of pleasure, draws painful attention to absences in our lives - whether a specific person or place we are missing, or a more general sense of something we wish to have and don't. These poems offer companionship in that sorrow. Their predominant mood is compassion, in its literal sense: Christ has come into this 'weeping world' to suffer with us. This baby grieves for us, and the idea is that we should be moved by these poems to feel compassion for him and for his mother. It's almost impossible not to, just as it's hard to hear a crying baby and not respond to it. These poems seek to provoke a stirring of what Middle English poets called kynd love - the love which is innate to all creatures, a part of our essential nature, which comes ultimately from God and can be trained to lead us back to him. The love between a mother and her baby is the most kynd instinct in the human heart, Julian of Norwich says; and so she explains why God chose to become a child to his mother that he might be a mother to us all:
Our kynd Mother, our gracious Mother, for he would all wholly become our Mother in all things, he took the ground of his work full low and full mildly in the maiden’s womb... Our high God, the sovereign wisdom of all, in this low place he arrayed him and dyte him [prepared himself] full ready in our poor flesh, himself to do the service and the office of motherhood in all things. The mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest. Nearest for it is most of kynd, readiest for it is most of love, and surest for it is most of truth. This office might not nor could never be done to the full but by him alone. We know that all our mothers bear us to pain and to dying. And what is that but our very Mother Jesus? He, all love, beareth us to joy and to endless living...

This fair, lovely word mother, it is so sweet and so kynd of itself that it may not verily be said of none nor to none but of him and to him who is very Mother of life and of all... And in this I saw that all our debts that we owe, by God’s bidding, to fatherhood and motherhood is fulfilled in true loving of God, which blessed love Christ worketh in us; and this was shewed in all, and namely in the high plenteous words where he sayeth, I it am that thou lovest.

Miniature Nativity (BL Add. 50001, f. 100v)

Saturday 22 December 2018

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O wondrous exchange

Grimbald Gospels, made in Canterbury in the 11th century, BL Add. 34890, f. 115

This is the last section of the Anglo-Saxon poem inspired by the Advent O Antiphons. It follows directly on from the section in my last post (comprising lines 416-439 of the poem), and is based on the antiphon 'O admirabile commercium', which has been set to music by a number of composers.

Eala hwæt, þæt is wræclic wrixl in wera life,
þætte moncynnes milde scyppend
onfeng æt fæmnan flæsc unwemme,
ond sio weres friga wiht ne cuþe,
ne þurh sæd ne cwom sigores agend
monnes ofer moldan; ac þæt wæs ma cræft
þonne hit eorðbuend ealle cuþan
þurh geryne, hu he, rodera þrim,
heofona heahfrea, helpe gefremede
monna cynne þurh his modor hrif.
Ond swa forðgongende folca nergend
his forgifnesse gumum to helpe
dæleð dogra gehwam, dryhten weoroda.
Forþon we hine domhwate dædum ond wordum
hergen holdlice. þæt is healic ræd
monna gehwylcum þe gemynd hafað,
þæt he symle oftost ond inlocast
ond geornlicost god weorþige.
He him þære lisse lean forgildeð,
se gehalgoda hælend sylfa,
efne in þam eðle þær he ær ne cwom,
in lifgendra londes wynne,
þær he gesælig siþþan eardað,
ealne widan feorh wunað butan ende. Amen.

O, that is a wondrous exchange in the life of men!
that mankind's merciful Creator
received from a maiden flesh unmarred,
and she had not known the love of a man,
nor did the Lord of Victory come
by the seed of a human on earth; but that was a more skilful art
than all earth-dwellers could comprehend
in its mystery, how he, glory of the skies,
high lord of the heavens, brought help
to the race of men through his mother's womb.
And coming forth thus, the Saviour of the peoples
deals out his forgiveness every day
to help mankind, Lord of hosts.
And so we, eager for glory, praise him
devotedly in deeds and words. That is high wisdom
in every person who has understanding,
ever to most often and most intently
and most eagerly praise God.
He will grant him the reward of grace,
the holy Saviour himself,
even in that homeland where he never before came,
in the joy of the land of the living,
where he will dwell, blessed, from thenceforth,
live forever without end. Amen.

Virgin and Child (BL Add. 49598, f. 22v)

What strikes me about this section of the poem is its ending, which offers something quite different from anything that has come before - in pronouns, if nothing else! (What could be more Christmassy than a bit of poetic grammar?) When human beings appear in Christ I, it's usually in the plural: either as the plural pronouns 'we' and 'us' or as multitudes of humanity, 'speech-bearers' and 'earth-dwellers'. Mary, exalted in her uniqueness, is an important exception; in the whole 439-line poem only Mary and Joseph (and on one occasion an angel) speak in the first person singular. Otherwise this poem is full of groups and collective voices, of human beings and of angels alike. But here, though we don't get a first-person voice, we get a brief closing image of a single person: someone þe gemynd hafað, 'who has gemynd'. I always find gemynd difficult to translate; it refers to the powers of the mind, particularly memory and recollection, but also intellect and wisdom. Any of those (and probably all of them) are possible connotations of gemynd here. I'm sometimes tempted to translate it with the relatively modern word mindfulness: in the sense people use that word today it suggests a collected power of conscious, intentional reflection, and that's rather what this poet is suggesting. This individual with whom the poem closes is anyone who chooses to gather up the powers of their mind, to reflect upon the mysterious 'exchange' of human flesh and holy spirit, and - here at the end of the poem - to hold in memory all that has come before. By doing so this 'he' (who is any of us) comes to an eternal joy which is expressed, oddly but rather beautifully, in a closing muddle of pronouns:

He him þære lisse lean forgildeð,
se gehalgoda hælend sylfa,
efne in þam eðle þær he ær ne cwom,
in lifgendra londes wynne,
þær he gesælig siþþan eardað,
ealne widan feorh wunað butan ende. 

He will grant him the reward of grace,
the holy Saviour himself,

even in that homeland where he never came before,
in the joy of the land of the living,
where he will dwell, blessed, from thenceforth,
live forever without end.

Who is 'he' here? Sometimes clearly Christ, and sometimes the mindful man, but the last, at least, might well be both. Perhaps they become one in that strange place, a final wonder from a poem full of marvels: a land where humans have never yet been, but which is their true home.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Beautiful Trinity

The Trinity, with Mary ('Ælfwine's Prayerbook', BL Cotton Titus D XXVII, f.75v)

In the last week before Christmas, I'd like to turn once again to the Anglo-Saxon poem inspired by the 'O Antiphons', texts sung at Vespers in the closing days of Advent. You may have sung or heard a version of these texts without knowing it, because some of them are the basis of the popular hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel'; and more than a thousand years ago an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet used them as the basis for a dramatic, beautiful and allusive poem, which today is known as the Advent Lyrics or as Christ I.

This poem is the first text in the precious manuscript called the Exeter Book (currently to be seen sitting alongside three other major manuscripts of Old English poetry - together with many other items which testify to the richness of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture - in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition). It's an intricate poem, which repays close and attentive reading - meditative reading - and over the past few years I've translated and discussed different sections of the poem, one by one. Here are links to those posts, in the order in which they appear in the poem (not the order in which I, illogically, wrote them!):

O rex gentium (lines 1-17)
O clavis David (18-49)
O Jerusalem (50-70)
O virgo virginum (71-103)
O oriens (104-129)
O Emmanuel (130-163)
O Joseph (164-213)
O rex pacifice (214-274)
O mundi domina (275-347)
O caelorum domine (348-377)

Most commonly today seven O Antiphons are used, which are all addressed directly to Christ, but in medieval practice there were other antiphons grouped with these which meditate on other figures in the story of the Incarnation. In the Anglo-Saxon poem several of the sections focus on Mary, including a wonderful sequence I looked at in detail last year, as well as a dialogue between Mary and Joseph. There are also two - the last in the whole sequence - which are more general reflections on Advent themes, and I'll look at those this week.

First, a poem addressed to the Trinity (lines 378-415 of Christ I). It's not entirely clear which antiphon may have inspired this section, but as you read the translation you may spot allusions to some other, much more familiar, liturgical texts.

Eala seo wlitige, weorðmynda full,
heah ond halig, heofoncund þrynes,
brade geblissad geond brytenwongas
þa mid ryhte sculon reordberende,
earme eorðware ealle mægene
hergan healice, nu us hælend god
wærfæst onwrah þæt we hine witan moton.
Forþon hy, dædhwæte, dome geswiðde,
þæt soðfæste seraphinnes cynn,
uppe mid englum a bremende,
unaþreotendum þrymmum singað
ful healice hludan stefne,
fægre feor ond neah. Habbaþ folgoþa
cyst mid cyninge. Him þæt Crist forgeaf,
þæt hy motan his ætwiste eagum brucan
simle singales, swegle gehyrste,
weorðian waldend wide ond side,
ond mid hyra fiþrum frean ælmihtges
onsyne weardiað, ecan dryhtnes,
ond ymb þeodenstol þringað georne
hwylc hyra nehst mæge ussum nergende
flihte lacan friðgeardum in.
Lofiað leoflicne ond in leohte him
þa word cweþað, ond wuldriað
æþelne ordfruman ealra gesceafta:
Halig eart þu, halig, heahengla brego,
soð sigores frea, simle þu bist halig,
dryhtna dryhten! A þin dom wunað
eorðlic mid ældum in ælce tid
wide geweorþad. Þu eart weoroda god,
forþon þu gefyldest foldan ond rodoras,
wigendra hleo, wuldres þines,
helm alwihta. Sie þe in heannessum
ece hælo, ond in eorþan lof,
beorht mid beornum. Þu gebletsad leofa,
þe in dryhtnes noman dugeþum cwome
heanum to hroþre. Þe in heahþum sie
a butan ende ece herenis.

O beautiful, plenteous in honours,
high and holy, heavenly Trinity
blessed far abroad across the spacious plains,
who by right speech-bearers,
wretched earth-dwellers, should supremely praise
with all their power, now God, true to his pledge,
has revealed a Saviour to us, that we may know him.
And so the ones swift in action, endowed with glory,
that truth-fast race of seraphim
and the angels above, ever praising,
sing with untiring strength
on high with resounding voices,
most beautifully far and near. They have
a special office with the King: to them Christ granted
that they might enjoy his presence with their eyes,
forever without end, radiantly adorned,
worship the Ruler afar and wide,
and with their wings guard the face
of the Lord almighty, eternal God,
and eagerly throng around the prince's throne,
whichever of them can swoop in flight
nearest to our Saviour in those courts of peace.
They adore the Beloved One, and within the light
speak these words to him, and worship
the noble originator of all created things:
'Holy are you, holy, Prince of the high angels,
true Lord of Victories, forever are you holy,
Lord of Lords! Your glory will remain eternally
on earth among mortals in every age,
honoured far and wide. You are the God of hosts,
for you have filled earth and heaven
with your glory, Shelter of warriors,
Helm of all creatures. Eternal salvation
be to you on high, and on earth praise,
bright among men. Dearly blessed are you,
who come in the name of the Lord to the multitudes,
to be a comfort to the lowly. To you be eternal praise
in the heights, forever without end.'

The Trinity, surrounded by angels with multi-coloured wings
(from the Grimbald Gospels, made in Canterbury in the 11th century, BL Add. 34890, f. 114v)

This is a poem peopled by many beings: the Trinity, multitudes of angels, and all of us creatures here on earth. It opens with the Trinity - the Old English word for that is simply þrynes, 'threeness' - and a triplet of alliterating adjectives, a little trinity of words: heah, halig, heofoncund 'high, holy, heavenly'. The first seven lines reflect on this threeness and its relationship to us, the eorðware, 'earth-dwellers'. There's another beautiful triplet in the sixth line, which packs together all in one half-line us hælend god, 'us, Saviour, God' (i.e. '[to] us a Saviour God [has revealed]'). The syntax underlines the idea that the Saviour (hælend means 'healer, saviour' but is also the usual name for 'Jesus' in Old English) unites us and God - a meaningful bit of grammar it's difficult to reproduce in translation.

As often in Old English religious verse, human beings - you and me - are here called 'speech-bearers', reordberende. This is a word which might perhaps be familiar from The Dream of the Rood, and it's a kenning which defines human beings by their ability to speak; but Anglo-Saxon poets were interested too in all the other creatures who might also have, or be imagined to have, voices of their own. In The Dream of the Rood it's when human 'speech-bearers' are asleep that a solitary wakeful listener is able to hear the voice of Christ's cross, a tree speaking to him out of the silence and the darkness. And in this poem, the loudest voices are those of the angels - not us earth-dwelling reordberende. They are 'ever praising', singing unaþreotendum þrymmum 'with untiring strength', beautifully and with voices which resound through the universe.

Christ and angels (BL Harley 603, f. 69v)

The angels here are a busy flock of flying creatures, 'eagerly' pressing close to the throne of God:

hwylc hyra nehst mæge ussum nergende
flihte lacan friðgeardum in.

whichever of them can swoop in flight
nearest to our Saviour in those courts of peace.

This is a lovely moment: lacan is a verb which means (as one dictionary defines it) 'to swing, wave about, move as a ship does on the waves, as a bird does in its flight, as flames do'. It's a free and unfettered movement, full of life and energy. The angels are like a flock of birds in flight, a murmuration swooping with one intent and calling with one voice: halig, halig, halig. This is an unearthly sight, but in those heavenly courts the king they serve is not a stranger: he's called ussum nergende, 'our Saviour', and he belongs to the earthbound as well as to the angels.

Within the light of heaven, they sing the words which human voices can join - and do join every time the Mass is celebrated, cum angelis et archangelis. Here the poem is drawing on a number of Biblical and liturgical texts which allude to the angels, but especially on the Sanctus and Benedictus:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The Old English poet is directly using this liturgical source (which he presumably knew in Latin) and yet in the middle of the passage translating the Sanctus, there are also two epithets which seem to belong to another world - non angeli, sed angli! God is called wigendra hleo, 'shelter of warriors', a phrase used in Anglo-Saxon poetry of kings and heroes; exactly the same phrase is used in Beowulf of Hrothgar, of the hero Sigemund, and of Beowulf himself. The word hleo means 'shelter' or 'refuge' (it survives in the word 'lee', as in 'leeward' or the lee of a hill - the side sheltered from the wind). It's paired here with the phrase helm alwihta, 'helm of all creatures', another kingly epithet. This too is a form of protection - a helm is a covering, a literal covering like a helmet or a metaphorical one like the 'helm' of night above the earth. So God is imagined as the lord and guardian and beloved leader of a heavenly troop, those flocks of angels, and of an earthly one too - the multitudes of the lowly, to whom comfort is coming.

 Christ with angels (BL Harley 603, f. 71)

Saturday 1 December 2018

'If in day of Doom one deathless stands'

Readers of this blog may be interested in watching this series of talks given recently in Oxford (in connection with the Bodleian Library's exhibition Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth) on the subject of the medieval languages which interested and influenced Tolkien. There were lectures on Old and Middle English, Medieval Welsh, Gothic and Old Norse (my contribution). If you're interested in Tolkien, the whole archive is worth exploring - the Bodleian have made available talks dating back to 2008, on a range of topics relating to Tolkien and his works.

In my lecture I talked about Tolkien's interest in Old Norse and especially in the legend of the Völsungs, which he explored in his long poem The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. This text interests me because it's such an individual take on the story; though it arises from a deep engagement with the medieval sources, it's far from a straightforward retelling of the legend. There are several ways in which this is true, but in the lecture I focused on the element of Tolkien's retelling which interests me the most: his Christian-inflected retelling of the story of Ragnarök. This too is highly individual, and while some lovers of Norse mythology might feel it detracts from the powerful bleakness of the Ragnarök myth, Tolkien's version has a poignant beauty of its own. His Sigurd, dragon-slayer, is not just a great hero but a Christ-like figure, the Chosen One (that's Tolkien's proposed interpretation of Völsung): the promised Saviour, the fulfilment of prophecies, whose return at the end of time will be the salvation of the world.

A seer long silent
her song upraised –
the halls hearkened –
on high she stood.
Of doom and death
dark words she spake,
of the last battle
of the leaguered Gods.

'The horn of Heimdal
I hear ringing;
the Blazing Bridge
bends neath horsemen;
the Ash is groaning,
his arms trembling,
the Wolf waking,
warriors riding.

The sword of Surt
smoketh redly;
the slumbering Serpent
in the sea moveth;
a shadowy ship
from shores of Hell
legions bringeth
to the last battle.

The wolf Fenrir
waits for Ódin,
for Frey the fair
the flames of Surt;
the deep Dragon
shall be doom of Thór –
shall all be ended,
shall Earth perish?

If in day of Doom
one deathless stands,
who death hath tasted
and dies no more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Ódin,
then all shall not end,
nor Earth perish.

On his head shall be helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendour.
The Serpent shall shiver
and Surt waver,
the Wolf be vanquished
and the world rescued.'

(Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, ed. Christopher Tolkien (2009), pp. 62-3)

Some of this is drawing on (in places directly translating) the description of Ragnarök in Völuspá, the first poem in the Poetic Edda, but its context and function are very different in Tolkien's poem. The fulfilment of this prophecy, as Odin ensures, is to be Sigurd: he who shall come, 'who death hath tasted / and dies no more.' Tolkien's reworking of Sigurd as a Christ-like figure is done with a light touch - a bit of subtle source-reshaping here, a resonant turn of phrase there - and it takes away nothing from the original story, but invites us to read it in a new light, with new eyes.

All this seems particularly appropriate to think about here at the beginning of Advent, the season which by ancient tradition is not just a preparation for Christmas but an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between prophecies and their fulfilment, between the Old Testament and the New, between the first Advent and the Second Coming at 'the day of Doom'. Tolkien's interpretation of the story of Sigurd is a kind of typological reading of the myth, somewhat like the way medieval readers interpreted the different 'types' for Christ they found in the figures of the Old Testament: Isaac, Moses, Jonah, and more. Those figures and their stories were understood simultaneously to be real historical episodes and to be signs foreshadowing the story of Christ's birth, death and resurrection; neither reading takes anything away from the other, but offers an additional layer of meaning in the divinely-composed narrative of human history.

The idea of a parallel between Sigurd and Christ is something I wrote about a few years ago in this Advent post; there I was discussing the history of the word arkenstone (Old English earcnanstan, Old Norse jarknasteinn), which - as Tolkien must have known - one Old English poem applies to Christ, and one Old Norse poem to Sigurd. The Old English instance occurs in a prophecy, embedded within an account of Christ's second coming at Doomsday:

...æt ærestan
foreþoncle men from fruman worulde
þurh wis gewit, witgan dryhtnes,
halge higegleawe, hæleþum sægdon,
oft, nales æne, ymb þæt æþele bearn,
ðæt se earcnanstan eallum sceolde
to hleo ond to hroþer hæleþa cynne
weorðan in worulde, wuldres agend,
eades ordfruma, þurh þa æþelan cwenn.

...from the beginning,
from the origin of the world, foreknowing men
with their wise wits, prophets of the Lord,
holy ones sage in spirit, spoke to men
often, not once only, of that noble child:
how the precious stone should
come into the world as refuge and comfort
to all the race of men, the ruler of glory,
beginner of bliss, through the noble woman.

This poem is known today as Christ III and as it comes down to us in the Exeter Book (though probably not as originally composed), it stands last in a sequence of three poems which moves from Advent to Apocalypse, from creation to destruction and rebirth - as Völuspá does too, in its different way.

As I've said before, the medieval understanding of Advent was as a season which encourages new and exciting kinds of reading - a season rich in imaginative possibility for those who are prepared to read with the right eyes. Advent is the time when the church reflects on the many different kinds of meaning which Scripture, and the world around us, can reveal: the season for interpreting 'the signs of the times' written in the book of the world, and for reading a Christian interpretation into the prophecies and poetry of the Old Testament (the same kind of light-touch typological reading Tolkien offers in his version of the Sigurd story). The ancient liturgy of Advent is crafted to appeal to all the faculties of the mind and heart which we call upon when we read poetry, or take in stories in any form: it offers metaphor, allegory, foreshadowing, wordplay, expressions of urgent desire, and (especially in the link between Advent and Apocalypse) creative thought experiments with narrative time. Medieval liturgists were some of the greatest literary critics who ever lived - sensitive and imaginative readers of Scripture, who wove together connections between texts, between characters and words and ideas, and between moments in time, and hallowed the very act of reading as a way of trying to understand the mind of God.

There's an imaginative fertility and a reaching ambition about the medieval view of Advent which offers something much richer than just a cheery countdown to Christmas. For many people the basic details of the Christmas story are so familiar that its strangeness and power and meaning have been sucked dry, and it doesn't have the imaginative appeal that other kinds of less well-known mythic story do - the story of Ragnarök, for instance, or the fierce beauty of the Poetic Edda. But Advent can be a yearly exercise in 'making strange' - reading old stories with new eyes.

Saturday 10 November 2018

All Things Weird

My column in the November issue of History Today can be read online here (and do buy the magazine - lots of good stuff in it this month!). Here's an extract:

There is a widespread myth about the history of the English language, which goes like this: it began as the sturdy, rugged Germanic tongue of the Anglo-Saxons – good for writing about battles, but not much else – and was refined into a decent level of sophistication by the influence of Norman French, which shaped it into a language fit for discussing elegant and cultured topics. This trajectory – from earthy to elegant, coarse to cultured – is a story regularly repeated in popular narratives of English history, usually by those who have not read much Anglo-Saxon literature; the stereotype of Old English as unsophisticated or ‘rude’ (in every sense of that word) falters in the face of contact with the intricate poetry or thoughtful prose written in that language.

In the late Anglo-Saxon period, Old English was developing a sophisticated technical vocabulary with which to discuss scholarly, scientific and theological subjects. Many of these terms have not survived to the present day, but they are evidence of how carefully some Anglo-Saxon writers thought about their own language and how much consideration went into the production of new words and compounds.

One example is an intriguing word that brings us back to my opening question: wyrdwritere, meaning ‘historian’. This word was coined towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, probably in the tenth century, as an English equivalent for the Latin word historiographus. It was then adopted by some Anglo-Saxon scholars to refer to writers of various works of history, including the authors of the historical books of the Old Testament and Roman historians.
Read the rest here, on what the Old English word wyrd might actually mean and how it became our modern weird. I'm fascinated by this word and the twists and turns of its history, from The Wanderer to Macbeth; at no point is it particularly easy to define, and any single translation ('Fate', especially) has the potential to be misleading. I've discussed this mysterious power as it appears in some different Old English poems here and here, but wyrdwritere is a term from learned Old English prose, coined (as Mechthild Gretsch argues in The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform, pp. 160-2) in the tenth century by scholars glossing the works of Aldhelm. This usage of the word very definitely refers to works of written history, but there is a broader sense in which wyrd, in poetry, often appears in connection with reflections on the passage of time and the contemplation of the remains of past societies - the stuff of history, at least as medieval writers understood it. Most famously:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.
Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma.

Where is the horse? Where is the warrior? Where is the treasure-giver?
Where are the seats of feasting? Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior!
Alas, the glory of the prince! How that time has passed away,
grown dark under the cover of night, as if it had never been.
There stands now in the tracks of the dear troop
a wall, wondrously high, decorated with serpents.
The warriors were taken away by the power of spears,
weapons greedy for slaughter, wyrd the famous;
and storms batter those rocky cliffs,
snow falling fetters the earth,
the tumult of winter.
(The Wanderer)

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras...
ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan.

Wondrous is this wall-stone, wrecked by wyrd,
cities broken open, the work of giants destroyed.
Roofs are ruined, towers fallen...
eaten by age. The grip of earth holds
the mighty builders, decayed and gone,
the hard grasp of the ground, until a hundred generations
of peoples have passed away.
(The Ruin)

In The Seafarer, the reflection that 'there are no kings or caesars, nor gold-givers as there once were' prompts the conclusion:

Wyrd biþ swiþre,
meotud meahtigra þonne ænges monnes gehygd.

Wyrd is stronger,
the Measurer mightier than any man's thought.

And in Maxims II, as well as the cities of past societies, wyrd's power is somehow connected with the passage of time through the seasons of the year, and through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

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.

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.
Wyrd 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.

Perhaps it's not difficult to see the movement from this to the historian's contemplation of past events, expressed by the word wyrdwritere. Wyrd in these contexts is usually translated as 'fate', but here at least I tend to think that it means rather 'the passage of time': an inexorably unfolding sequence of events, which from moment to moment can only sweep us forwards. It does mean other things in other contexts, most notably in the (imagined) pagan world of Beowulf, but the instance I think of most often comes from Solomon and Saturn:

Gewurdene wyrda,
ðæt beoð ða feowere fæges rapas. (156-7)

The second line means 'those are the four ropes of the doomed', and the first something like 'things which have happened', or 'deeds done'. Simple, and astonishingly powerful.

Ælfric's Wyrdwriteras us secgað (Oxford, Bodleian MS. Hatton 115, f. 63)

I first encountered wyrdwritere in the short piece by Ælfric known as Wyrdwriteras us secgað, where he adduces a number of historical precedents on the question of whether kings ought to lead their armies into battle themselves, or delegate to trusted commanders. (A controversial issue in the reign of Æthelred, it seems...) Ælfric uses wyrdwritere a number of times in his writings, but elsewhere he also explicitly objects to ideas of fate and destiny relating to ðan leasan wenan, þe ydele men gewyrd hatað ('that false idea, which foolish men call wyrd'). So the question of what he personally understood the word wyrdwritere to mean is an intriguing one. The origins of wyrd, as far as we can guess, are likely to be pre-Christian - a power which corresponds to some kind of pagan idea of destiny. But there is also a significant Christianised understanding of the word which Ælfric must have been familiar with from other Anglo-Saxon sources: in the Old English translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, attributed to Alfred the Great, wyrd is the term used to refer to the working-out of God's will in time (Boethius' fatum).

Se God wunaþ simle on þære hean ceastre his anfealdnesse and bilewitnesse. Ðonan he dælþ manega 7 mistlice gemetgunga eallum his gesceaftum and þonon he welt eallra. Ac þæt, þætte we hataþ Godes foreþonc 7 his foresceawung, þæt biþ ða hwile þe hit þær mid him biþ, on his mode, ærþam þe hit gefremed weorþe ða hwile þe hit geþoht biþ. Ac siððan hit fullfremed bið, ðonne hatað we hit wyrd.

Be þy mæg ælc mon witan þæt hi sint ægþer ge twegen naman ge twa ðing: foreþonc and wyrd. Se foreþonc is sio godcunde gesceadwisnes. Sio is fæst on þam hean sceopppende þe eall forewrat hu hit geweorþan sceal ær ær hit geweorþe. Ac þæt, þæt we wyrd hataþ, þæt biþ Godes weorc þe ælce dæg wyrcþ, ægþer ge þæs þe we geseoþ, ge þæs þe us ungesewenlic biþ. Ac se godcunda foreþonc heaþeraþ ealle gesceafta þæt hi ne moton toslupan of heora endebyrdnesse. Sio wyrd ðonne dælþ eallum gesceaftum andwlitan and stowa and tida and gemetgunga. Ac sio wyrd cymþ of þam gewitte and of þam foreþonce þæs ælmihtigan Godes. Se wyrcþ æfter his unasecgendlicum foreþonce þonne swa hwæt swa he wille. Swa swa ælc cræftega þencþ and mearcaþ his weorc on his mode ær ær he it wyrce, and wyrcþ siððan eall, þios wandriende wyrd þe we wyrd hataþ færþ æfter his foreþonce and æfter his geþeahte, swa swa he tiohhaþ þæt hit sie.

[God dwells eternally in the high city of his oneness and mercy; from there he deals out many and various measures to all his creatures, and in that way he governs them all. But regarding that which we call God’s forethought and his foresight, it exists while it abides with him in his mind, before it is brought to pass, and while it is only thought. But as soon as it is accomplished, then we call it wyrd.

From this everyone may know that there are two names and two things: forethought and wyrd. Forethought is the Divine Reason, and remains fast in the high Creator who knows how everything shall come to pass before it happens. But that which we call wyrd is God’s work, which he works day by day, both that which we see, and that which is invisible to us. The divine forethought holds up all creatures, so that they may not fall asunder from their true place. Wyrd therefore allots to all things their forms, places, seasons, and proportions; but wyrd comes from the mind and the forethought of Almighty God. He causes to happen whatever he chooses, according to his ineffable forethought. Just as every craftsman thinks over and marks out his work in his mind before he works it out, and then carries it out altogether, so this changing wyrd [perhaps here 'course of events'] that we call wyrd proceeds according to his forethought and purpose, just as he determines that it shall be done.]

(Isn't that glorious prose? Nothing earthy or 'rude' about that!) This seems to be the careful adoption of a native term into the discourse of Christian philosophy - almost, perhaps, an attempt to give the word a new definition, or to clarify what it means in this particular context as distinct from its various other meanings. It was perhaps in this sense that Ælfric used wyrdwritere, especially when thinking about the writers of the Old Testament: those who chronicle the unfolding of God's purpose as it is revealed in time.

An illustration from the Old English translation of the Book of Genesis 
(of Jacob and his people journeying to Egypt), in BL Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 66v

Whatever way you take it, it is very different from the modern understanding of a historian's role. Getting away from the Anglo-Saxons for a moment, I'm interested in the idea of alternative words for historian in part because it's a term whose use today is somewhat contested. Every so often in the history corner of Twitter (a lively place!) there's a skirmish about the question of who is entitled to call themselves, or to be called, a 'historian'. Is it a term which requires particular qualifications? Should it be restricted to those who have an undergraduate degree in History, or a doctorate in History, or are engaged in academic teaching and research in the field? Or can it be used more loosely to refer to anyone writing or broadcasting about the past? These disagreements usually break out in response to the British media's very liberal approach to the term, where it is applied to just about anyone who does any activity relating to anything which happened more than a decade or two ago (especially if it's a man and he's famous). Professional historians, understandably, are often troubled by this and argue back against it. You might think this is primarily an academic concern, but the question does seem to worry the audiences of popular history too - I lurk in a big amateur history group on Facebook where these debates pop up regularly and become pretty acrimonious. Many people attach a very definite status to the word historian, and object to what they see as its misuse.

Related to this is the question of how far people who feel strongly about the term will allow it to be applied to pre-modern writers about the past; they often propose that such writers, too, should be subjected to some kind of qualifying test. Medievalists tend to call writers like Bede and William of Malmesbury historians (though with the implicit understanding that their conception of the purpose of writing about history was different from our own), but there are those who argue that the presence of miracle-stories or anecdotes in the works of medieval historians disqualifies them entirely - if it's not academic history in the modern sense, they say, it shouldn't be called history at all. It gets more complicated still with the multifarious medieval forms of writing about the past which are less palatable to modern historians even than historia and chronicle: romance history or hagiography, for example, which don't fit easily into modern generic categories but which were for many centuries immensely popular and influential ways of writing about what we call 'history'.

Of course the reason for all this is that historian is a term which means different things to different people, with connotations formed in a particular social, cultural, and institutional context, and therefore no more easy to define than wyrdwritere is. I don't personally have strong feelings about the question - though I do understand why some professional historians do - and as an observer I find the debate quite interesting. My own academic background is in English literature, so I don't tend to think of myself as a historian; those of us who work on the Middle Ages get to use the conveniently general term medievalist, and like many medievalists, my work is very much interdisciplinary, since the boundaries between history and literature are less strictly drawn in my field of study than they are for those who work on later periods. I research, teach and write about texts which straddle the boundary, which don't belong by rights to one field or the other, and that's a common and understood practice within my discipline. But medievalist is a term not much used outside academia, and I was a bit taken aback a few years ago when this blog started to get a bigger audience and all of a sudden people were referring to me as a historian. By the definition of the people I mentioned above who have strong feelings about historians' qualifications, I'm not a historian at all, nor do I particularly want to be one (I like studying literature!) - but what other term is there? In public, I pretty much have to be a 'historian'. Outside academia, that's almost the only word available for people who write about the past - from whatever angle - but it's not a perfect one, and no wonder it's contested.

My field doesn't have an equivalent term, and so we don't really have equivalent debates about how to define or defend it (there aren't exactly tons of media personalities clamouring to declare themselves literary critics). But it's also a disadvantage when it comes to public communication, and that does trouble me a bit. There's an established market and an audience for popular history as there isn't for other fields, and so for public consumption everything relating to the literature, art, religion, and intellectual culture of the past tends to be subsumed into 'history'. This can be done well - History Today, for instance, does it very well indeed, offering an interdisciplinary and holistic view of the past by using a very inclusive definition of 'history' for a wide audience. Not all forums for popular history are so broad-minded, and I think there are a lot of topics which don't get as much attention as they should, or don't perhaps get the right kind of attention, because they can't be squeezed into 'history'. It's not that there are no forums for discussing those topics, but they don't feature much at the more popular end of the pop history spectrum (especially in the publishing of popular history books) - and I think that's a shame. I'm convinced that one reason the popular stereotype of the dark and stupid Middle Ages persists is that there are not many places where the interested public can be introduced to what medieval people thought, rather than just what they did - so they conclude, not unnaturally, that medieval people didn't really think at all. It's hard to hear their voices, their words, ideas, beliefs, and stories, if popular history insists on focusing only on their deeds; and for the medieval period, popular history usually means battles - kings and battles. That's the only thing that sells, publishers say, and I expect they're right - but then, it's the only thing they offer for sale. (It would be hypocritical of me to say I'm opposed to books on kings and battles, of course, though my book too fits uneasily under the 'history' label, and I wish there was somewhere else for it to go). It's no wonder that people think that kings and battles are all the medieval period consisted of, and it's a vicious cycle; if only this kind of history gets published, only this kind of history sells, so only this kind of history gets published. And many of the people who are successful at writing this kind of history, as I said above, have a particular view of what history should and shouldn't consist of and have been trained in a way which makes them well-informed about some aspects of the past but not about others (which is why some popular historians keep saying English evolved from the Anglo-Saxons' rugged earthy grunting into a sophisticated... you know. Because they never read Ælfric.)

The evolution of English from its monstrous origins, as illustrated for us by the Guardian

Anyway, there's not much any of us can do about this (gæð a wyrd swa hio scel), but it's good to remember that terms like historian have a history themselves, and do not set the limits of our potential interest in the past. Wyrd doesn't have much to do with history as modern historians understand it, because it relates not so much to what happens as why, in the largest possible sense of that question: what is the power which governs events in the world, which makes leaves grow and cities fall? Fate, time, God - all are possible explanations, and the question is still one which human beings seek to answer, and probably always will. It's not a question which belongs within the discipline of history as currently understood, though it used to be, and may one day be again - you never know, wyrd being what it is. But it's a timeless question, which many people have thought about over the centuries, and a question where writers, thinkers, and poets of the past have valuable perspectives to contribute. The reason I'm not a historian is, partly, that I care about their thoughts, and their words, on this and many other matters too deep for the historian's art.

Monday 29 October 2018

'In a droupnynge before the day'

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]

Hamlet 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.

This poem in BL Add. 22283, f. 80v (the Simeon Manuscript)

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 drop, 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 (or droupning, 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.)

Gawain 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, dream, 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.