Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Owl and the Nightingale

'An hule and one niȝtingale...':
the beginning of this poem in BL Cotton Caligula A IX, f. 233

A quick break in a long blog silence to link to my latest History Today column, which can be read online here. It's about the Early Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale, and if it whets your appetite to read this lively, spirited poem, there's a longer introduction to it and a full translation of the text on this site.

The Owl and the Nightingale is very quotable, and I've posted little snippets of it here before, including extracts from the nightingale's (self-congratulatory) celebration of spring and the owl's (also self-congratulatory, and very hypocritical) praise of peace and solitude. Here's a bit more, in which the owl defends her own song, and attacks the nightingale's.

ȝet þu me seist of oþer þinge,
And telst þat ich ne can noȝt singe,
Ac al mi rorde is woning
And to ihire grislich þing.
Þat nis noȝt soþ; ich singe efne
Mid fulle dreme and lude stefne.
Þu wenist þat ech song bo grislich
Þat þine pipinge nis ilich.
Mi stefne is bold and noȝt unorne;
Ho is ilich one grete horne,
And þin is ilich one pipe
Of one smale wode unripe.
Ich singe bet þan þu dest:
Þu chaterest so doþ on Irish prost;
Ich singe an eve a riȝte time,
And soþþe won hit is bedtime;
Þe þridde siþe a middelniȝte,
And so ich mine song adiȝte.
Wone ich iso arise vorre
Oþer dairim oþer daisterre,
Ich do god mid mine þrote
And warni men to hore note.
Ac þu singest alle longe niȝt
From eve fort hit is dailiȝt,
And evre leist þin o song
So longe so þe niȝt is long,
And evre croweþ þi wrecche crei
Þat he ne swikeþ niȝt ne dai.
Mid þine pipinge þu adunest
Þas monnes earen þar þu wunest
And makest þine song so unwurþ
Þat me ne telþ of þar noȝt wurþ.
Evrich murȝþe mai so longe ileste
Þat ho shal liki wel unwreste,
Vor harpe and pipe and fuȝeles song
Mislikeþ ȝif hit is to long.
Ne bo þe song never so murie
Þat he ne shal þinche wel unmurie
ȝef he ilesteþ ure unwille.
So þu miȝt þine song aspille;
Vor hit is soþ, Alvred hit seide,
And me hit mai ine boke rede,
“Evrich þing mai losen his godhede
Mid unmeþe and mid overdede.”
Mid este þu þe miȝt overquatie,
And overfulle makeþ wlatie;
An evrich mure3þe mai agon
ȝif me hit halt evre forþ in on,
Bute one, þat is Godes riche
Þat evre is swete and evre iliche.
Þeȝ þu nime evere of þan lepe
Hit is evre ful bi hepe.
Wunder hit is of Godes riche
Þat evre spenþ and ever is iliche.

A free and very loosely rhyming translation (for a closer prose translation see this page):

You accuse me of another thing,
And claim that I cannot sing,
That all my voice is wailing
And to hear a horrid thing.
That isn't true; I've a steady voice,
Which makes a loud and lovely noise.
You think that every song is grim
That isn’t like your chirruping!
My voice is bold, not weak at all;
It is like a mighty horn,
And yours is like a pipe
Of one little weed unripe.
Compared to you, my singing's best:
You chatter like an Irish priest!
I sing in the eve at the proper time,
And again when it is bedtime;
At midnight is my third time,
And that's how I my song align.
When I see, rising up afar,
The daybreak or the morning star,
My singing does a useful deed
And tells people where they ought to be.
But you sing all through the night,
From evening til it's daylight,
And carry on with your one song
As long as ever the night goes on.
Your wretched throat just croaks away,
And doesn't stop by night or day.
With a raucous din your pipings fill
The ears of people wherever you dwell,
And you give your song to so many
That no one counts it worth a penny.
Every pleasure may last so long
That in the end it stops being fun;
For harp and pipe and birdsong
Displease if they go on too long.
However delightful a song is,
It comes to seem very tedious
If it goes on longer than we want -
And thus you throw away your song!
For it is true, Alfred said it,
And you can read in books about it:
‘Any thing may its value lose
Through immoderation and overuse.’
Of good things you can have too much;
To stuff yourself makes for disgust;
And every pleasure can pass away
If it all goes on in the same way,
Except for one: the kingdom of God,
Which is ever sweet and ever as good.
Whatever you take from that store,
It only overflows the more.
O marvel of the kingdom of God,
Ever giving, ever just as good!

The combination here between outright rudeness (not only to the nightingale but to Irish priests!) and a somewhat serious moral reflection at the end is characteristic of this irreverent poem. And the description of the nightingale's song - a vanishing sound these days, and not something anyone now can hear often enough to find it excessive and tiresome - has some nicely observed details.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019


My latest column for History Today can be read online at this link. Most of it is about Piers Plowman, but here's the final paragraph:
This poem’s concern with wasteful words is part of a wider conversation in medieval society about the misuse of speech. Many medieval writers condemn what they call ‘janglers’ – an expressive descriptor for people who use words in a wasteful or destructive way, by idle chatter, spreading gossip and slander, or hurting other people. This concern was personified by the story of the devil Titivillus, a demon whose speciality was keeping track of sinful words. He was said to go around the world collecting idle words (and even scribal errors, the medieval equivalent of careless typos) and gathering them up in a sack, so that their speakers could be held accountable for them at Judgement Day. This, too, feels disconcertingly timely: what would Titivillus collect today but hasty, intemperate, or ill-considered tweets?

From a glance at the Middle English Dictionary's entries for jangler and janglen, you can see that this concern about harmful words was a very wide-ranging one. It covers all classes of people, from bishops to schoolboys, and all kinds of destructive speech: snide carping, drunken boasts, unnecessary arguments, ignorant gossip, and many forms of excessive, wasteful words. Since the onslaught of email and social media in the past few years, it has sometimes felt as if our culture is drowning in words - billions of words, most of them of no lasting good to anyone, and many of them actively doing harm. (Appropriately, you can see in the MED entry that one of the uses of jangle was to refer to birds' chatter, to which noisy human speech, then as now, was often compared, and so 'to twitter' is in fact one of the definitions of the word.) But perhaps it felt the same in the Middle Ages. Of course the problem is not the words, but the fallible human beings who use them; with 'jangling' as with 'tales' - they often go together for medieval writers - new technology only presents us with old problems in new forms.

One of the most memorable medieval depictions of the devil Titivillus, expert in sinful words, appears in the 15th-century English play Mankind. In this play, the character of Mankind is caught between an array of worldly temptations on the one hand, and on the other hand the figure of Mercy, who is trying to strengthen him to resist. That makes it sound incredibly worthy, but in fact it's a very clever and witty play, in which language and the right use of words is explored with great subtlety and humour. Mercy speaks with dignified authority, and gives Mankind lots of good advice in stately, poetic, Latinate speech; like Holy Church in Piers Plowman, he preaches on self-restraint, not wasting time, and the benefits of moderation ('Mesure ys tresure', he says). But a crowd of raucous, riotous temptations, the demon Titivillus among them, drowns out Mercy's speeches with their cacophony of words, as they tease and taunt and tempt Mankind into joining their wicked ways. Their quick, funny, irreverent byplay would delight any audience, and they don't just seduce Mankind, but the viewer as well; at one point they get the whole audience to sing along with a song which rapidly turns very rude indeed. Because Titivillus talks directly to the audience, we are drawn into his schemes to distract Mankind away from his prayers, and are even induced to give him money. It's the wicked characters who have all the the energy and all the best lines, and they even have modern fashion on their side; two of them are 'New Guise' and 'Nowadays', presumably because people are always inclined to think that the temptations of their own day are the worst there have ever been...

You can read the whole play online here, with an introduction to its context - do read it, it's really quite something. It has been suggested that it was intended to be performed at Shrovetide (i.e. today): the carnival spirit of the play is fitting for the eve of Lent, and so too is its concern with temptation, penance, and reform. The audience watching this play, laughing along with the vices and demons, would recognise from observing their own reaction just how seductive sinful speech can be - how it looks like cleverness, or wit, or a bit of harmless fun, right up until the moment when somebody really gets hurt. Medieval moralists often say that the best remedy for sinful jangling is another, holier kind of speech, 'shrift of mouth', the confession or shriving from which Shrovetide takes its name. Whether or not you'll be going to confession this Shrove Tuesday, a better use of words is something we can all aim for.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

An Icelander in Lincoln

My latest column for History Today is now available to read online at this link: Learning in Lincoln. Here's a taste:

Some time around 1160, a young Icelander arrived in England to study at the cathedral school in Lincoln. His name was Thorlak Thorhallsson. Before coming to Lincoln he had spent a few years studying in Paris; in his future was a career as a bishop back in his native Iceland, then, after his death in December 1193, veneration as Iceland’s first homegrown saint. This short spell in Lincoln was only a brief period in his life, but it provides an intriguing moment of connection between two worlds which were – geographically, at least – very far apart. What did Thorlak make of 12th-century Lincoln, and what did Lincoln make of him?

Because Thorlak became Iceland’s first native saint, admired by his contemporaries for his pastoral care as bishop and his role as a moral leader, several posthumous accounts of his life were written in Latin and Old Norse. From these we know of his time in Paris and Lincoln, but they give few details, saying only that there he ‘learned a great deal, valuable both to himself and to others’. Therefore, we can only speculate about what he studied or whom he met, but we do have plenty of information about medieval Lincoln, which can help us to imagine how it might have looked through Thorlak’s eyes.

If you're interested in learning more about St Thorlak's life, take a look at this new book about the saint: Thorlak of Iceland by Aimee O'Connell.