Sunday 22 December 2019

'With my darling 'Lullay' to sing'

In the Christmas edition of the Catholic Herald, I've written a short piece about the medieval carol 'Lullay, Myn Lyking' ('I saw a fair maiden'), often heard today in this beautiful setting by Gustav Holst:

Holst wasn't the first to set this medieval text to music, but his setting is very well-loved. In my piece I discuss the link between the carol and the woman in whose book Holst found it, Mary Gertrude Segar - a female Catholic medievalist in the days when such things were rare (not that they're exactly common today). When thinking about the accessibility of medieval English texts like this poem, I'm often struck by the fact that the very audiences for whom they were written were, for a long time, those most directly excluded from the opportunity to read them: think of all those medieval devotional works which were written to be read by Catholic women and men, but which, when they began to be edited in the 19th century, became the property of a scholarly world which neither women nor Catholics were yet allowed to join. The roots of anti-Catholicism in England run deep, and it's a well-known fact that in older scholarship discussion of the medieval church is often profoundly shaped by that prejudice, potently combined with anti-Irish racism, class snobbery, and hostility to Britain's Catholic European neighbours. However much scholarship has (or in some cases hasn't) moved on, that old prejudice has had a wearisome and lasting impact. Many modern popular misconceptions about the practices of the medieval church, whether it's relics, saints, pilgrimage, or beliefs about the church's attitude towards science or Biblical translation, derive in a straight line of descent from 19th- and early 20th-century anti-Catholic polemic - even if they masquerade today as rationalist critique. In that context, all the more reason to remember women like Mary Segar, who must often have encountered such prejudice, and who came to these texts with different eyes.

Some other medieval texts which Holst found in Segar's anthology became his 'Four Songs for Voice and Violin':

I sing of a maiden
That matchless is.
King of all Kings
Was her Son iwis.

He came all so still,
Where His mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass:

He came all so still,
To His mother's bower
As dew in April
That falleth on flower.

He came all so still,
Where His mother lay
As dew in April
That formeth on spray.

Mother and maiden
Was ne'er none but she:
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.

(Segar's modernisation of a 15th-century text)

On a related note, you may also be interested at this season in listening to a recently-uploaded extract from a study-day I led back in the summer, on the subject of 'Mary and the Lives of Medieval Women'. Many medieval artists and writers were deeply interested in exploring Mary's experiences of motherhood, both its joys and its sorrows. In this extract I discuss a number of medieval poems which imagine her feelings at the Annunciation, during her pregnancy, and in the first days after Jesus' birth.

These are poems I've written about before here, and this sweet little 15th-century carol seems particularly fitting with just a few days to go before Christmas:

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell!
Sing we with mirth,
Christ is come well
With us to dwell,
By His most noble birth.

Under a tree,
In sporting me
Alone by a wood-side,
I heard a maid
Who sweetly said,
"I am with child this tide.

Conceived have I
The Son of God so sweet;
His gracious will
I put me til, [into]
As mother him to keep.

Both night and day,
I will him pray,
And hear his laws be taught,
And every dell
His true gospel
In His apostles fraught. [every part of his true Gospel entrusted to his disciples]

This ghostly case [holy act]
Doth me embrace,
Without despite or mock,
With my darling
Lullay to sing,
And lovingly him to rock.

Without distress,
In great lightness,
I am both night and day;
This heavenly fode, [infant]
In his childhood,
Shall daily with me play.

Soon must I sing,
With rejoicing,
For the time is all run,
That I shall child,
All undefiled,
The King of heaven's Son."

Sunday 15 December 2019

An Advent Carol: O Orient Light

Annunciation (BL Add. 29433, f. 20)

Here's an Advent poem from a collection of carols which was compiled by James Ryman, Franciscan friar of Canterbury, at the very end of the fifteenth century. I've often posted carols from Ryman's extensive collection (his manuscript contains more than 150 carols, all accessible here), and they're suitable for all seasons for the year. Far from being for Christmas alone, medieval carols could be very diverse in their themes, even if you stick, as Ryman does, to sacred rather than secular topics; he does have a good number of Christmas carols, but also includes songs about the Passion, the Virgin Mary, the Trinity, his order's founder St Francis, and general moral themes of death and transience - much more varied than what we would think of as carol fare today. He has carol versions of a number of Latin hymns, such as the Advent hymns Conditor alme siderum and Vox clara, which act as a good example of how these Latin liturgical texts could serve as inspiration for vernacular poetry. And even within his Christmas material, there's considerable variation in tone: some of his carols are light-hearted - the cheeky 'Farewell Advent, Christmas is come!' is a particular highlight - while others are theologically sophisticated ('Behold and see') or poignant and sombre ('Mary hath borne alone').

This one drew my eye for its spirited rhyme scheme - one rhyme per stanza, repeated six times. It's a lively little bit of virtuosity, just for the joy of it. Since the language is pretty straightforward this is in modern spelling; here's a link to the Middle English.

O Christe, rex gentium,
O vita viventium.

O orient light shining most bright,
O son of right, adown thou light [i.e. alight from above]
And by thy might now give us light,
O Christe rex gentium.

O Saviour, most of honour,
Come from thy tower, cease our dolour
Both day and hour waiting succour,
O vita viventium.

O we in pain would, in certain, [i.e. we in pain truly desire]
Thou wouldst refrain, Lord, and restrain
Thine hand again of might and main,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O Jesse root, most sweet and sote, [lovely]
In rind and root most full of bote, [healing]
To us be bote, bound hand and foot,
O vita viventium.

O Assuere, prince without peer,
Come from thy sphere, to us draw near;
Our prayer hear, O Lord most dear,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O corner stone, that makest both one,
Hear our great moan and grant our bone [prayer]
Come down anon, save us each one,
O vita viventium.

O prince of peace, our bond release,
Our woe thou cease, and grant us peace
In bliss endless, that shall not cease,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O king of might and son of right,
O endless light so clear and bright,
Of thee a sight thou us behight, [promised]
O vita viventium.

This poem has no direct source as far as I know. but it seems to be loosely influenced by the O Antiphons, since some of the titles used here for Christ form part of that grouping of texts: Rex Gentium, Oriens, Root of Jesse. The sixth stanza also uses a phrase from the Rex Gentium antiphon, 'cornerstone that makes both one'. The form of the poem, with each verse beginning with an acclamation, 'O...', also echoes the antiphons, though it's an approach Ryman uses quite often elsewhere. In any case, the use of these texts is fairly free; there are several antiphons not alluded to here, they aren't in any particular order, and it took me a while even to spot the connection. There are lots of other things thrown in among them, including other Biblical allusions and a reference to 'Assuere', i.e. the king in the Book of Esther, which medieval Biblical interpreters took to be a story which prefigured the relationship between Mary, God and mankind. An erudite allusion for a carol, you might think, but it crops up pretty often in Ryman's collection!

My favourite verse, I think, is about the Root of Jesse:

O Jesse root, most sweet and sote,
In rind and root most full of bote,
To us be bote, bound hand and foot,
O vita viventium.

Modern interpretations of the O Antiphons seem to struggle a bit with the Root of Jesse image, partly because of hesitation about how it should best be rendered in English (you will sometimes hear instead 'Rod of Jesse' or 'Branch of Jesse' or similar variations, which don't all necessarily evoke 'plant'). I wonder if modern writers find it difficult to imagine a plant which is also a symbol of power, which can 'stand as a sign before the nations' and silence kings, as the antiphon imagines it (him) doing. But medieval poets were much more attuned than we are to religious imagery drawn from nature, including a rich and complex iconography of trees, flowers, and plants, and they were utterly familiar with the idea that plants could be healing, that the natural world was medicine to mankind and thus an analogy for Christ's redemptive work.

And so it is in this verse. 'Sweet and sote' is one of those alliterative doublets medieval English poets were very fond of, both in the Anglo-Saxon period and long after (another example which occurs in the third verse here, 'might and main', is still in use today). As is often the case, the meaning of the two words is almost synonymous; both words here basically mean 'sweet', though the first refers more to flavour and the second to fragrance. The Root of Jesse is imagined as a plant which both tastes and smells delectable, giving forth its sweetness like a breath of air. But it's also a plant which can heal, bringing 'bote'. 'Bote' is a very common word in Middle English religious writing, and it has a broad range of meaning, which Ryman is playing with in these lines, to do with remedy, redemption, and repair. In the first case, 'in rind and root most full of bote', it's the healing power of a plant, as if the Root of Jesse is a health-giving herb from which you can chop up the bark and root and make medicine. In the second case, 'to us be bote', it shifts towards the meaning 'redemption, amends', for those who are 'bound hand and foot' in the captivity of sin. The verse is fully alive to the botanical reality of the word but also to the other metaphorical possibilities it offers, all the different kinds of 'salvation' it can encompass.

The singing of the O Antiphons begins (according to medieval English practice) on 16 December, running up to Christmas Eve. I've written quite a lot here about medieval poems inspired by, translating, or meditating on these rich texts, and Ryman's poem is one more to add to the collection. If you'd like to read some others, here's a Middle English poem based on the antiphons which is roughly contemporary with Ryman, from the late fifteenth century, and two carols of a similar date, based on two of the antiphons. And then there's the much longer, more intricate, more sophisticated meditation on these texts by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet; for an introduction to that glorious poem start here, and work your way back through the series. I promise, there's nothing better you could be reading in the run-up to Christmas...

Saturday 2 November 2019


The ossuary at St Leonard's, Hythe

All Souls, and a rainy November day in the season of remembrance. The three-day season of Hallowtide - Hallowe'en, All Saints, All Souls - is medieval in origin, as a time for remembering the dead both known and unknown. Medieval literature is rich in serious, profound meditations on mortality, on death, on transience, and in the later Middle Ages, particularly, the iconography and art of death abound; if you need a memento mori, go to medieval art. Sometimes this art pops up into view around Hallowe'en, when you might see, for instance, images of grinning skulls and 'The Three Living and the Three Dead' offered as seasonal fare on social media. It's useful to remember, however, that in the Middle Ages this interest in death was not really confined to any one season of the year - not even Hallowtide, though certainly it was important then. A few years ago I posted some medieval prayers, in poetry and prose, 'for all Christian souls'; but though appropriate for All Souls they weren't specifically intended for today's commemoration, and could be prayed at any time of the year. In the Middle Ages almost every day was a saint's feast, a day to remember the glorious dead; prayer for the dead was a Christian duty all year round, especially but certainly not only on All Souls' Day; and the whole point of a memento mori is that it reminds you that at any moment you are close to death - not just at Hallowtide.

In a strange way, which no one could have predicted at the beginning of the last century, the cusp of October and November has now become a more intensive season of remembrance, in England at least, than it has been at any time since the Middle Ages. Over the past few decades Hallowe'en has become more popular here than ever before, and has become much more universally linked with death and ghosts than it seems once to have been (i.e. rather than with love-divination and a bit of licensed lawlessness, as it is in much pre-20th century English folklore). It's only in the past century that All Souls' Day, hunted almost to extinction after the Reformation, has experienced a resurgence in the Anglican church, while Catholics are again able to mark it publicly. And most of all, the still relatively new institution of Remembrance Day on November 11, only a century old this year, means that requiems and services of commemoration are to be found all over the country in the first two weeks of November - and everywhere the splash of the red poppy, ancient symbol of death, new descendant of old beliefs about flowers born of blood shed in battle. In many churches All Saints/All Souls and Remembrance Day are kept on two subsequent weekends, more because of practicalities of when services can be held than because anyone has intended to create a fortnight-long season of remembrance - but the effect is that we think more about death at this time of year, and for longer, than our medieval forebears did.

But let me offer one short extract from a Middle English poem, from exactly this time of year, which chimes with the mood of this sombre season. It's from the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I'm often thinking about at the end of October and beginning of November. That's partly because this is a time when I'm sometimes teaching it, and partly because it offers several memorable passages about the changing of the seasons and the relationship between the natural world and the human experience of time. So at New Year, in spring, and in autumn, its poetry comes to mind.

If you don't know the poem, a plot summary can be found here. It opens at Christmas and New Year, when the Green Knight erupts into King Arthur's court and issues a challenge to the knights: to strike him with his axe, and then accept another blow in return after a year and a day. Young Gawain, Arthur's nephew, best and brightest of the knights of Camelot, takes up the challenge out of loyalty to his uncle and king; but he doesn't quite know what he's undertaken, and a year and a day is a long time to think about it. As the intervening period passes between the challenge and its return, the poet gives us a brief description of the swiftly-turning year, closing with autumn:

Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde,
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,
And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony,
And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez,
no fage,
Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage;
Þen þenkkez Gawan ful sone
Of his anious uyage.

[Wrathful winds from the sky wrestle with the sun
The leaves are loosed from the linden and light on the ground,
And all the grass greys that green was before;
Then all ripens and rots that formerly arose;
And thus runs the year in yesterdays many,
And winter wakes again, as the world asks,
in truth,
Until Michaelmas moon was come
With the first pledge of winter,
Then thinks Gawain all too soon
Of his troubling journey.]

'Michaelmas moon' (a phrase only recorded here) might mean either the full moon closest to Michaelmas, 29 September, or conceivably the month which follows Michaelmas, i.e. October. This is the time of year which brings 'winter wage', the pledge of winter. You might think of that as the first chill in the air in an October dusk, or the first time it seems to be getting dark too early, or the first breath of mist in the morning - anything which says that summer is gone, and the cold is coming. The financial connotations of 'wage' also suggest the idea of accounts to be settled, as they often were at Michaelmas - it was a quarter-day, when rents and bills and salaries would be paid. And so it is for Gawain, who was laughingly told by the Green Knight, last Christmas, that he must come and take his 'wages', the return blow, when Christmas comes again. So he too has an account to settle, to which his anxious thoughts are now beginning to turn. The next stanza takes us from 'Michaelmas moon' to All Saints' Day:

Ȝet quyl Al-hal-day with Arþer he lenges;
And he made a fare on þat fest for þe frekez sake,
With much reuel and ryche of þe Rounde Table.
Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies
Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,
Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:
Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.
For aftter mete with mournyng he melez to his eme,
And spekez of his passage...

[Yet until All Hallows' Day with Arthur he lingers,
And Arthur made a feast on that day for the knight's sake,
With much revelling and royal splendour of the Round Table.
Courteous knights and comely ladies
Were heart-sore for love of that man,
But nevertheless, not the less did they speak with mirth:
Many, joyless for the noble one's sake, told jokes all the same.
For after the meal, mourning Gawain goes to his uncle,
And speaks of his journey...]

It's time for him to leave the court, to find the Green Knight's castle and meet what awaits him there. The poet seems to be thinking of Hallowtide here partly as the beginning of the Christmas season, as it seems to have been considered, in a general sense, in some other late medieval texts too (There's one for those of you who regret that 'Christmas starts earlier every year!' A Christmas season which runs from 1 November to February 2...) It's exactly six months after May Day, which is conventionally the beginning of summer in medieval literature, and so it makes sense that this should mark the beginning of winter, the dark half of the year.

Most Arthurian knights go on their adventures in May; Gawain is unusual in having to set out in November. But the November setting resonates with the mood of the poem at this point, where All Hallows marks not only the coming of winter, but a shift in tone, a growing darkness. The year has run round swiftly, in less than forty lines of verse - all too fast for Gawain, who would like the time to pass more slowly. Now we're going to follow Gawain out on his journey, through the bleak cold of November and December in 'the wilderness of the Wirral', and by Christmas Eve he'll be at the Green Knight's castle, facing the test he promised to take a year before. All Hallows brings a change of mood for the whole court, even as they celebrate the season - feasting partly in honour of the day, partly in honour of the knight they all love. They feast in defiance of the fear lurking at their hearts, because they are afraid that Gawain, best of them all, is going away to meet what seems like certain death. It's not surprising that the words 'uyage' ('voyage') and 'passage', used to describe Gawain's journey to meet the Green Knight, are terms often used in Middle English as metaphors for death (as you can see from the Middle English Dictionary entries: viage and passage). Gawain's departure is no light-hearted adventure, no pony-ride in May sunshine, but the first realisation of his mortality; and all through the rest of the poem he's haunted by a growing fear of death, so that it even infests his dreams. The shadow of death has come upon them all.

This seems to chime with the feeling of moving into winter at the beginning of November, with spring a very long away ahead. But for all its wintriness, Gawain is a poem of youth, not age. Most of the action is set during Yule and the 'young year', and the court, even King Arthur himself, are all in the first flower of their youth. Gawain is just a boy, talented knight though he is - deeply principled and, as bright young people often are, intolerant of failure in himself and others. And though he faces death, he doesn't die. Unlike those boys, young soldiers too, for the sake of whose memory Hallowtide converged with Remembrance Day, Gawain gets another chance. He learns from his experience, and begins to mature; he comes through winter to another spring, another renewal of life, another opportunity to do better.

God worshipped by the blessed in heaven 

The same poet who wrote so powerfully in Gawain of the fear of death also wrote perhaps the most moving poem of grief in the English language, Pearl. If Gawain has only just begun to think about death, the central figure in Pearl is intimately acquainted with it: he is mourning the loss of his little daughter, his precious pearl, not two years old when she died. Though his faith tells him that a child so young, so innocent, must be safely treasured now in heaven, he can't reconcile himself to her loss. Grieving beside her grave, he falls asleep and dreams of her: not a child now, but a woman dwelling in the New Jerusalem, one of the brides of the Lamb. Gently, patiently, she tries to explain to him where she is, and how she's come there, and why it might be for the best; but her father struggles with it every step of the way, wrestling with his longing for her, and only gradually and partially being brought to understand. However well she explains, child to father, the Christian teachings about death which his reason has already accepted, the two of them barely speak the same language; he is earth-bound, emotional, his mind fogged by grief, and so very far away from her.

Unlike Gawain, this poem is set in August, in harvest, when the richness of summer is just beginning to ripen to decay - perhaps around the time of the Assumption, the ultimate model of a good and holy death. But its consolatory vision is drawn partly from texts used on All Saints' Day, particularly the Book of Revelation. The significant number twelve, the building block of the heavenly Jerusalem, also provides the structural artistry of this intricately constructed poem. The dreamer's final vision of his daughter is amid 'the multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues':

Ryght as the maynful mone con rys
Er thenne the day-glem dryve al doun,
So sodanly on a wonder wyse
I was war of a prosessyoun.
This noble cité of ryche enpryse
Was sodanly ful, wythouten sommoun,
Of such vergynes in the same gyse
That was my blysful anunder croun.
And coronde wern alle of the same fasoun,
Depaynt in perles and wedes qwyte.
In uchones breste was bounden boun
The blysfyl perle with gret delyt.

With gret delyt thay glod in fere
On golden gates that glent as glasse.
Hundreth thowsandes, I wot ther were,
And alle in sute her livrés wasse;
Tor to knaw the gladdest chere.
The Lombe byfore con proudly passe
Wyth hornes seven of red golde cler.
As praysed perles His wedes wasse.
Towarde the throne thay trone a tras.
Thagh thay wern fele, no pres in plyt,
Bot mylde as maydenes seme at mas
So drov thay forth with gret delyt...

The Lombe delyt, non lyste to wene;
Thagh He were hurt and wounde hade,
In His sembelaunt was never sene,
So wern His glentes gloryous glade.
I loked among His meyny schene,
How thay wyth lyf wern laste and lade.
Then saw I ther my lyttel quene
That I wende had standen by me in sclade.
Lorde, much of mirthe was that ho made
Among her feres that was so quyt!
That syght me gart to thenk to wade
For luf longyng in gret delyt.

That is:

As suddenly as the powerful moon rises
Before the gleam of day has all sunk down,
In a marvellous manner
I became aware of a procession.
This noble city of rich renown
Was suddenly full, unsummoned,
Of virgins dressed in the same guise
As my blissful girl in her crown.
Crowned were they all in the same way,
Adorned with pearls and white garments.
On the breast of each was firmly fastened
The blissful pearl, with great delight.

With great delight they glided together
Down golden streets that gleamed like glass.
Hundreds of thousands, I say there were,
And all alike was their livery.
Hard to know which was the happiest face!
The Lamb before them proudly passed
With seven horns of pure red gold.
Like precious pearls were his garments.
Towards the throne they made their way;
Though they were many, there was no crowding,
But gently as girls go as mass,
So they moved on with great delight...

The delight of the Lamb, none could doubt,
Though he was wounded and bore a scar,
It was not visible in his manner,
So gloriously glad were his looks.
I looked among his bright company,
How they were full and laden with life.
Then I saw there my little queen,
Who I thought had been with me in the valley.
Lord, how much mirth she made
Among her friends, all in white!
That sight made me want to wade [across the stream]
For love-longing in great delight.

All this is from the Book of Revelation, and it faithfully evokes all the strange beauty of that heavenly vision, yet it's the homely touches which are most moving here: the simile of the unexpected vision manifesting like the sudden appearance of the full moon in a sunset sky (when it doesn't seem to rise but is just suddenly there); or the sight of his daughter, 'my little queen', among her white-clad companions like a flock of girls at their First Communion, 'mild as maidens seem at mass'. That sight is his consolation, though it doesn't lessen his grief. His reaction to seeing it is to start towards her, longing for her so much that he's not thinking straight; he tries to cross the river that parts them, and that breaks the dream. He's still alive, still mourning, still working to accept that her death is for the best, and still he can't reach her.

That's the strange doubleness of the Hallowtide season - when the dead seem so near to us, and yet so unimaginably far.

The dreamer and his Pearl reach out to each other, the stream between

Wednesday 30 October 2019

A little local museum

My latest column for History Today can be read online here. Here's a taste:

If you recognise the type of town museum I mean, you will know just what kind of displays it boasts. There will always be cases of assorted Roman and Anglo-Saxon stuff: tweezers, strings of beads, pins and brooches, anything not quite important enough to be claimed by a bigger museum. There will be stones from a ruined abbey – there is always a ruined abbey somewhere nearby – looking to the untrained eye like mere lumps of rock, until the caption explains where they came from...

There will be recreations of old shops, anything from miniature models to a full-size mock-up, a reminder of the days when the town had a plethora of grocers and ironmongers and haberdashers. The paraphernalia of these trades, laid out and carefully labelled, is as alien to visitors now as tools from an Iron Age grave. Perhaps one of those businesses might have done well enough to be taken over by a multinational and lose its local name, but it lives on in this museum, proud of any local success, which loyally documents its workers’ memories of factory outings and Christmas festivities.

What else? A neat sampler; a collection of model soldiers; taxidermy from a naturalist’s study; farming equipment found in somebody’s garden. Touches of whimsy: a place where schoolchildren (and adults, when no one else is looking) can dress up in a Cavalier’s hat or a Victorian bonnet, laugh at themselves in the mirror, and wonder for a moment what it would be like to wear such a clumsy thing every day.

The everyday – that is the charm of all this. If any of these objects were unusual, they would be kept somewhere else, in some grander museum; they are here precisely because they are common, and it is because they are common that they are precious. A museum like this is a treasure-house of the ordinary, where the material of everyday life is gathered up and cherished. Its Roman pins and workers’ memories tell local versions of a larger story, giving individual life and colour to the abstractions of history.

Read the rest here. Many different visits to many different museums fed into this piece, which has been in my mind for a long time - at least as long ago as 2012, when I wrote this post about a visit to Evesham and its wonderful little museum. More recently, I moved to a town which has a tiny but jam-packed heritage museum, with a gloriously miscellaneous approach which made me feel like I, though a brand-new resident of the place, could become part of its centuries-long story. I love such museums, I wouldn't change a thing about them, and I think any academic who really wants to understand how the public perception of British history is formed should spend some time reflecting on the experience they provide - not just the actual information, but how all the pieces of the puzzle are fitted together. If you're a medievalist who wants to appreciate how the average British person understands the term 'Anglo-Saxon' (just to pick a random example...), you'll get much closer to it by visiting this kind of museum than you will by reading the rants of angry people on the internet. (If you're too far away to visit in person, you might consider following one or two of them on Twitter.) In particular, the service these museums provide in educating school groups - and giving parents with children something to do on a wet afternoon - means they have a formative role in the communication of history to people who may never go on to study the subject further, but who may nonetheless retain a sense of its place in their perception of local and national identity.

Every place matters, and every place has a story to tell. And experiencing that story, somehow, can put things in perspective. When you spend most of your time thinking about just one period of history - even if that period is a thousand years long! - it's refreshing to experience the dizzyingly telescopic effect of visiting this kind of museum. The story of 10,000 years of human habitation in one small landscape, all told within the space of a museum you can visit in less than an hour. A thousand years are but as yesterday - 'the twinkling of an eye and the briefest of moments'.

I could count over the museums of this kind I've visited like a litany, and they would all be simultaneously distinct and yet somewhat akin. Here are a few which have particularly stayed in my mind: Cirencester, with Roman mosaics which have to be seen to be believed; Tamworth, in a castle, where excited children were playing with replica weapons from the Staffordshire Hoard; Ely, where you can learn all about Hereward the Wake and suddenly just feel how cold the Fens would be in winter; Chichester, with its Ozymandias-like fragment of a huge statue which guarded the Roman harbour; the Viking graves and silver hoards of York; Reading's bright and yet strangely moving display of Huntley & Palmer's biscuit tins. And all that surrounds the star items, which is the common and the everyday: the tools, the bits and pieces of working life, the day-to-day domesticity. Most lately I visited the museum which provided the pictures for this post, the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage. There you can travel from the needles of Anglo-Saxon craftswomen to the tools of lost rural industries to a display on the local atomic energy base just by turning your head. Three rooms, more than four thousand years of history - so many days of work, lives of skill and labour, which could be forgotten if they were not respected and honoured here.

Last of all I would list one I mourn, Canterbury Heritage Museum, which closed just last year. That was probably the first such museum I ever visited, on a primary school trip. There you could wander from Roman Canterbury to Rupert the Bear, via a unique little Anglo-Saxon sundial, an early steam locomotive, a model of Canterbury Cathedral with poor William of Sens falling off the scaffolding (can I be remembering that right?), a tapestry about Thomas Becket, a replica of Joseph Conrad's study, and very poignant memories of the city under bombing during World War II. I hope all those precious things are safe and treasured somewhere, even if you can't visit them any more. But it's a reminder that we really do have to cherish these museums while we have them - we'll miss them badly when they're gone.

Friday 18 October 2019

An Alternative History of England

Cnut fights Edmund Ironside in a 13th-century manuscript CCCC MS. 26, f.80v

October is the season of conquest anniversaries. Four days after the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings falls a less well-known date: on 18 October 1016, a Danish army led by Cnut defeated the English king Edmund Ironside in battle at a place called Assandun in Essex, the last battle in Cnut's conquest of England. I wrote about that battle in detail, and the sources for our information about it, in this post from 2016, and about a visit to the area here. Like Hastings, Assandun was a battle which won a kingdom; but unlike at Hastings, the leader of the losing army was not killed, and so the aftermath was more complicated. It resulted in a treaty which divided England into two parts: Wessex for Edmund, and what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the norðdæle, 'the northern part', for Cnut.

This division of the kingdom between north and south reflected a regional split in England which by that time already went back more than a hundred years. Parts of northern England had been settled by Scandinavians and under Scandinavian rule at various times since the ninth century, and their culture, language and perhaps political affiliations were still significantly influenced by this settlement. When Cnut's father Svein Forkbead launched a serious invasion in 1013, he seems to have felt able to count on political support from at least some among the leaders of the north for Danish rule, and he and Cnut treated the north differently from Wessex during their invasions. The division of the kingdom proposed in 1016 thus reflected a pre-existing cultural divide, of which the legacy can still be seen with extraordinary clarity today in the place-names and dialect of northern and eastern England.

The exact regions which are meant to be encompassed by the term norðdæle in the 1016 division are not entirely clear, but it probably means Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia - a huge area, stretching from the south Midlands to north Northumberland, and geographically speaking, much more than half of England. (norðdæle is the term used in ASC D; other versions of the Chronicle just mention Wessex for Edmund and Mercia for Cnut, leaving unsaid what happened to the rest of the country, but perhaps implying Cnut's control of those areas further north was already established.) Although over the course of the tenth century the kings of Wessex, Edmund Ironside's ancestors, had extended their power over the rest of the formerly independent kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, some of these areas had also been ruled by Cnut's predecessors among the kings of the Danes. By 1016 both Cnut and Edmund could claim that not only had both their fathers, Svein and Æthelred, ruled the whole kingdom of England (though in Svein's case only very briefly) but that both had ancestors who had ruled regions of the country. It would be wrong to imply that everyone in this vast norðdæle thought of themselves as culturally Scandinavian or 'Danish', or that even if they did it would necessarily have translated into political support for a Danish king; but they may not all have thought of themselves as 'English', either. Regional identities, such as 'Northumbrian', may have mattered as much or more. The point is that we are dealing with a large area and a mixed population, whose perspectives and identities would have varied considerably, and whom it is difficult to label. The chronicler's use of norðdæle seems to imply a division between Wessex vs. 'everything else', but that 'everything' included a great variety.

As it turned out, the division between Wessex and the rest of England lasted only a few weeks. Edmund died on 30 November that same year, and left Cnut as king of the whole country, which he then ruled (with Denmark, and eventually Norway too) until his death in 1035. But let's pause a little in that brief period when England was split between the two kings. It's an opportunity to think about how the movements of history which can, with hindsight, appear irresistible are actually far from being so. If Edmund had lived, and the division of the country had lasted, perhaps there would never again have been a single kingdom of England. It's a reminder that political unions which may seem to us inevitable and eternal can, in fact, fracture very rapidly.

The distribution of Scandinavian-influenced place-names in England, from this site

Since I've already written quite a bit here about Assandun, I want today to share another edited extract from my book which offers an unusual perspective on the roots of Cnut's conquest and its place in English history. What I wanted to explore in the book was how medieval writers and audiences in England, between the end of the Viking Age and the fifteenth century, understood and interpreted the history of Viking activity in this country - activity which includes not just raiding, but also this history of substantial Scandinavian settlement and periods of rule by Scandinavian kings. To understand this question, it's important to realise that our modern academic knowledge of the Viking Age, as well as the idea of 'the Vikings' which is so prevalent in popular culture, both first emerged centuries after the end of the medieval period. Almost everything you think of when you think 'Viking' comes from the 19th- and 20th-century rediscovery of medieval sources of information which were not available in medieval England, whether that's the huge amount of written sources from Scandinavia and Iceland - not accessible to English-speakers in any real quantity before the 19th century - or other sources of information unavailable to medieval historians, such as archaeology, the scientific study of place-names, linguistics, and much more. The very word 'Viking', while frequently found in Old Norse sources, was not a word used in medieval England; it was introduced into English in the 19th century, as a result of English-speakers beginning to have access to - and fall in love with! - Old Norse sagas. (There was an Old English cognate, wicing, but it doesn't have exactly the same meaning, did not survive into Middle English, and is not the origin of the Modern English word.) Instead of 'Vikings', medieval English writers tend to talk of 'the Danes' instead, which is of course a massive oversimplification given what we know about the complex and fluid make-up of the Vikings, and yet reveals something about how English writers saw them. It makes a difference that 'Danes' relates to a specific country, and one geographically close to England.

So how did England's early medieval history look if you didn't have the vast majority of the sources of information which have fed our modern understanding of 'the Vikings' - if you had never read a saga, or seen a reconstructed Viking ship or a map of the Danelaw? There are quite a lot of answers to that question, depending on the perspective, time and (especially) place from which medieval writers look back on the Viking past.

A map of Scandinavian-influenced place-names in Lincoln Museum.
One reason local history museums are so important...

In the British Library's superb 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms' exhibition last year, which gathered together such a glorious wealth of material from early medieval England, the one thing I came away reflecting on with some regret was the absence of discussion of what happened to the north and east of England under Viking rule. The course of Anglo-Saxon history wended its way from Kent up to Bede's Northumbria down to Mercia and Wessex, but once we reached Alfred the Great and his successors, the centre of attention was firmly in the south, and stayed there. The Vikings were seen doing their 'Viking' thing, burning monasteries and looting the Codex Aureus, but they were certainly marginal to the main story; as soon as they appeared, the focus moved south. There was, as far as I spotted, only one brief reference to the Viking kingdom of York, and only in the context of Athelstan claiming control of it; none of its kings were named, and there was nothing to suggest the importance of this kingdom which extended across the Irish Sea to Dublin. It inherently reflects a particular perspective on 'English' history to treat Athelstan as a major figure and not even give Sitric a name. There was also no mention of the many forms of evidence for the lasting impact of Scandinavian settlement in the north, and no reference to Old Norse as a spoken language in England or its significant influence on the present-day English language. Of course I wanted to see those things in part because they're my special interest, but I'm also conscious that treating that aspect of Anglo-Saxon history as marginal means overlooking an important part of the story of northern England and its particular relationships with neighbouring peoples in Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia (and again, we're talking about what is geographically at least half of England - not just Northumbria, but the East Midlands and East Anglia too.) This is more an observation than a criticism of the exhibition; it was so very good, and no exhibition can include everything. You might well object that the Viking rulers of Northumbria or East Anglia weren't technically 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms', which I suppose is true. But perhaps it's also part of the problem. Both 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'English' are terms which in this period have political force, and reflect a certain perspective on what 'England' is and what it should be. 'Anglo-Saxon England' is more an idea than a place, an idea formulated in the first instance by elites in particular times and places who wanted to bring it into being, and as historians have long been aware, it's an idea which (like 'the Vikings') doesn't always map onto how these peoples saw their own identity. So does it include the Scandinavian settlers and their descendants and those who lived alongside them? Well, that's the question. It does and it doesn't; depends who you ask. The 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms' way of telling the story of early medieval English history is certainly a well-established and familiar one; it already was by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, because it's the story as seen from the perspective of the people who by that time were doing most of the history-writing. But it was not inevitable that it should be so; it was not inevitable that 'the history of the kings of Wessex' should merge seamlessly into 'the history of England'. If we look closely at the sources we can find alternative histories, different ways of telling the story, where other people and other places are not marginal but central to the imagined narrative of English history.

Here's one alternative history of early medieval England which comes from 12th-century Lincolnshire. It's predicated on the idea that the Danes, far from being late-comers to England - invaders and raiders and enemies of the English - were actually there first, and had a presence in at least parts of the country long before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. (Though modern historians now question the traditional idea of the adventus Anglorum, 'the coming of the English/Angles', most medieval historians accepted it as established fact, so just go with it...)

This story is recorded by a writer named Geffrei Gaimar in his Estoire des Engleis, written in c.1136-7. The Estoire tells the story of the 'history of the English', in sprightly Anglo-Norman verse, all the way from the coming of the Saxons to the death of William Rufus in 1100. Gaimar wrote for a female patron, a woman named Constance Fitz Gilbert, a member of a well-connected aristocratic family in Lincolnshire. The Estoire is, therefore, intended primarily for a secular, aristocratic, French-speaking audience, which makes its version of Anglo-Danish history all the more interesting. Gaimar presents a narrative of English and British history freely drawn not only from his two main sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but also from romance and oral tradition which he probably encountered in Lincolnshire. It's a potent blend of history and legend, with just enough of each to keep things lively.

Gaimar tells stories about a number of semi-legendary Danish kings who supposedly ruled in England as long ago as the days of King Arthur, which here means some time in the fifth century - kings whose historical basis is not clear, though some of them do appear in other sources. The powerbase of these Danish kings is in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but they also rule lands in Denmark itself. They're at war with Arthur and his descendants, and then when the Saxons come they're at war with them too. First there's King Adelbriht, who starts off as king of Norfolk, but then extends his rule down as far as Colchester in Essex. (Adelbriht would generally be an English name, but he's explicitly said to be Danish). His royal capital seems to be Thetford, since that's where he is when he dies, and he's buried in Colchester. His daughter Argentille marries Haveloc, the son of another Danish king named Gunter; Haveloc has been orphaned as a child and brought up in Grimsby, but there's a long story about how he rediscovers his true identity and becomes a successful king. (It's an alternative version of the Havelok legend which I've written about elsewhere and discuss at length in the book; and see also this post by Caitlin Green on Gaimar's Haveloc and Lincolnshire history) The story of Haveloc and Argentille ends with them ruling a Danish kingdom which stretches from Colchester up to the Humber, and apparently includes at least part of Denmark too.

And by this point in the story it's still only 495! It's only now that the Saxons begin to turn up in (what was to become) England. Later we meet Wasing - whose name might have something to do with Walsingham - a Danish king of Norfolk who goes to war with the Saxons of Wessex. And so when some Danish ships arrive on the coast of Dorset in 789, an incident recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which later historians often took to be the 'beginning of the Viking Age', it's not really the beginning at all:

E en cel tens vindrent Daneis
pur guereier sur les Engleis:
un senesçal al rei oscistrent,
la terre saisirent e pristrent,
mult firent mal par les contrees,
si nen u[re]nt ke treis navees.
Puis realerent en lur païs
si asemblerent lur amis;
en Bretaigne voldrent venir,
as Engleis la voldrent tolir
car entr’els eurent esgardé
e dit ke ço est lur herité,
e mulz homes de lur linage,
urent le regne en heritage
ainceis kë Engleis i entrast
ne home de Sessoigne i habitast:
li reis Danes tint le regnez,
ki de Denemarch[e] fu nez:
si fist Ailbrith e Haveloc,
e plus en nomerent ovoc,
purquai il distrent pur verité,
Bretaigne ert lur dreit herité.

It was during this time that the Danes arrived to wage war on the English. They killed a certain royal steward, seized and secured the land and, despite their only having three ships, caused a great deal of damage throughout the region. They then returned home and enlisted their allies with the intention of coming to Britain to seize the island from the English, for they had reached the decision between them, and claimed that this country was part of their heritage, and that many of their ancestors had established an inheritance claim before any English had even arrived or before anyone from Saxony came to live there. King Dan, who was born in Denmark, had ruled over the kingdom, as had Adelbriht and Haveloc, and they named others in addition who had done so. It was on this basis that they claimed it to be true that Britain was their rightful inheritance.
Geffrei Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. Ian Short (Oxford, 2009), pp. 114-15.

According to this story, Viking attacks on England aren't opportunistic raids of plunder but a coordinated attempt at national expansion. The Danes are would-be conquerors who target England - and actually the whole of Britain - specifically because their ancestors had once ruled there, not only Adelbriht and Havelok, as described above, but also this mysterious 'King Dan'. King Dan does not appear in any other sources from England, but there are several references in Scandinavian historical writing to a king named Dan, progenitor of the Danes. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus begins the first book of the Gesta Danorum by naming the brothers Dan and Angul as the originators of the Danish and English nations, respectively. According to Saxo, this Dan was the grandfather of Sciold/Scyld, from whom the Scyldings were descended (the Scyldings are the Danes in Beowulf, Hrothgar et al, and Cnut seems to have considered himself a Scylding too). Dan is also found in some other Scandinavian sources: a King Dan is mentioned in the twelfth-century Chronicon Lethrense as a king who ruled Denmark in the time of the Emperor Augustus and gave his name to the Danes, and Snorri Sturluson, in the prologue to Heimskringla and in Ynglinga saga, says that Dan was the first person to be called king by the Danes.

King Dan is probably a purely legendary figure, a back-formation from the name of the Danes, as Angul is from the English. It's possible that Gaimar and these Scandinavian sources arrived at the same name independently (it would be a natural etymological deduction!) but it's also possible that the ultimate source of Gaimar’s information was connected to these beliefs about Danish history - an Anglo-Danish tradition in Lincolnshire, perhaps. This East Midlands perspective, with its specific focus on ties to Denmark (rather than, for instance, Norway) is itself likely to be very different from ideas which might have been current elsewhere in northern England.

Cnut and Edmund in CUL MS. Ee 3 59, f. 5

And that brings us to Cnut. When Gaimar tells the story of Cnut and Edmund Ironside meeting to divide England between them in 1016, he has Cnut inform Edmund that they are both the sons of kings who have ruled the country, but that his ancestors held England many years before the coming of the Saxons:

e bien sachez, loi[n]gtenement
l’urent Daneis nostre parent:
prés de mil anz l’out Dane aince[i]s
ke unc i entrast Certiz li reis.
Certiz, ço fu vostre ancïen;
e li reis Danes fu le mien.
Daneis le tint en chef de Deu,
Modret donat Certiz son feu:
il ne tint unkes chevalment,
de lui vindrent vostre parent.
Pur ço vus di, si nel savez,
si vus od mai [vus] combataz,
l[i] un de nus ad greignur tort,
ne savom liequels en ert mort.
Pur ço vus vol un offre fere
e ne m’en voil de rien retrere:
partum la terre dreit en dous,
l’une partie en aiez vus,
l’altre partie me remaigne!

Our Danish ancestors, I’ll have you know, have been ruling here for a very long time. Almost a thousand years before king Cerdic came to the throne, Dan was king. Cerdic was your ancestor, and king Dan was mine. A Dane held the land in chief from God. It was Mordred who granted Cerdic his fief; he never held it in chief, and your family is descended from him. In case you don’t already know, I’ll tell you that if you fight me, one of us is going to be in the wrong more than the other, though we don’t know which one of us will die as a result. This is why I’m willing to make you an offer – one that I will not seek to back down from: let us divide the kingdom exactly in two, with one part going to you and the other remaining with me.
Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. Ian Short, pp. 234-7.

Cnut is claiming that the Danes have a prior claim to England dating back to centuries before the foundation of the kingdom of Wessex, long before Cerdic and Edmund Ironside's other ancestors had ever come to the country. Numerous other medieval chroniclers have versions of a story about this meeting between Cnut and Edmund (I wrote about some of them in a previous version of this post), but no one else includes this bold claim to ancient Danish sovereignty. From a historical point of view this clearly can't be accurate, but what's interesting is that Gaimar treats it as basically a sound and legitimate argument: it's only repeating what has already been shown several times in the Estoire, and Edmund Ironside is said to admire ‘how humbly and how justly the good king spoke to him’. Edmund agrees to the division of the country along the lines proposed by the Danish king, and his response to Cnut’s argument implicitly accepts it as a valid interpretation of the history. Cnut’s offer to divide the kingdom, in this light, is a magnanimous one: he has a prior claim to rule the country, and is generously conceding part of it to Edmund to put an end to the fighting. (Most medieval and indeed many modern retellings of this story would put it the other way around - that Edmund is the one conceding something rightfully 'his'). Morally and historically, Cnut is on the strongest side.

So what's going on here? Gaimar's narrative is a fascinating mash-up, combining Anglo-Saxon historical sources with the newly popular world of Arthurian romance beloved by the Norman aristocracy; but the firm belief in Danish right to rule and the general sympathy with Danes over Saxons suggests that at least some of this material has its roots in the Anglo-Scandinavian society of 12th-century Lincolnshire, where Gaimar was writing. It's worth pointing out that in the 1130s Danish claims to rule England were not only the stuff of distant history, but also of the fairly recent past: there were serious threats (or promises, I suppose, depending on your view) that the Danes would invade England on and off well in the 1080s. Yet, as the title of the Estoire suggests, the Danes and Saxons all form part of the 'History of the English' - and so, implicitly, do the French-speaking audience of the Estoire. Gaimar retells the story of pre-Conquest England for a Norman aristocratic audience who may have seen themselves as the latest in a long line of conquerors, relatively new to England but nonetheless heirs to its land and its history. Danes, Saxons, Normans - 'English' is a capacious term which expands to include these new arrivals.

Of course, the Estoire is not actually wrong to suggest that the Danes had a long-established history in England, or that they had ruled in the East Midlands: Adelbriht and Haveloc and King Dan are (probably) fictional, though there may be a grain of truth in their stories, but certainly there had been Danish kings of East Anglia of whose existence we can be confident. The Estoire just locates this history about five centuries too early, perhaps as a way of claiming primacy over an alternative version of pre-Conquest history: that centred on Wessex. It's the Wessex version we get almost everywhere else in late Anglo-Saxon sources, and in most of the Anglo-Norman chroniclers who follow them - the version which sees the creation of a kingdom of England, ruled from the south, as the teleological end-point of Anglo-Saxon history. So in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of Assandun, for instance, the chronicler can insist by fervent repetition that Edmund is fighting on behalf of 'all the English people', while Cnut is an outsider whom only traitors support:

Se here gewende eft up on Eastseaxan, 7 ferde into Myrcan, 7 fordyde eall þæt he oferferde. Ða se cyning geahsade þæt se here upp wæs, þa gesamnade he fiftan siðe ealle Engla þeode 7 ferde him æthindan, 7 offerde hi innon Eastseaxan æt þære dune þe man hæt Assandun, 7 þær togædere heardlice fengon. Þa dyde Eadric ealdorman swa swa he ær ofter dyde, astealde þæne fleam ærast mid Magesætan, 7 swa aswac his kynehlaforde 7 ealle þeodæ Angelcynnes. Ðær ahte Cnut sige, 7 gefeaht him wið ealle Engla þeode. Þa wearð þær ofslægen Eadnoð biscop, 7 Wulfsie abbod, 7 ælfric ealdorman, 7 Godwine ealdorman, 7 Ulfkytel of Eastenglan, 7 Æþelward Ælfwines sunu ealdormannes, 7 eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode.

[The [Danish] raiding-army turned back up into Essex, and went towards Mercia, and destroyed all that they overtook. Then when the king [Edmund] heard that the army was inland, he gathered all the English people for the fifth time and travelled behind them, and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Assandun, and there they fought a hard battle together. Then Eadric the ealdorman did as he had so often done before, and first began the flight with the Magonsæte, and so betrayed his king and lord and all the English people. There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole people of the English. There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfcytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Æ[thel]wine, and all the best of the English people.]

The chronicler here uses 'Engla þeode' and 'Angelcynnes þeode' interchangeably, and both should probably be translated as 'English people' (þeod might equally be translated, with caveats, as 'nation'). But it's important to be alert to the extent to which this use of 'English' is propagandistic, deliberately exclusionary, defining 'the English people' to mean 'Edmund Ironside and his supporters'. It is a much more restricted definition than that put forward by the French-speaking Gaimar 120 years later, for whom Engleis potentially includes anyone living in England. Here, 'English' is made to exclude not only people of Danish birth, like Cnut, but even those among the English who were supporting him; by going over to the Danes, they have somehow forfeited their 'Englishness'.

But would people have recognised this restricted definition in Lincolnshire, or other parts of the former Danish-ruled areas of England? Might some of them have thought there was another version of history in which a concept and term like 'all the English nation' could readily encompass Danes and Danish kings, since it had done so in the past? That was certainly the approach Cnut himself took as king: ready to rule like the kings of Wessex from Winchester, but happy to be compared to long-ago Viking kings who had ruled from York. One of his poets lauded him by reminding the king and his followers that:

Ok Ellu bak,
at, lét, hinns sat,
Ívarr ara,
Jórvík, skorit.
Ok senn sonu
sló, hvern ok þó,
Aðalráðs eða
út flæmði Knútr.

Ívarr, who ruled at York, had Ælla’s back cut with an eagle. And Cnut soon defeated or drove out the sons of Æthelred, every one.

Ivar is the famous Ivar the Boneless, Ælla a Northumbrian king who was one of his victims, and it was 150 years or so from their time to Cnut's. Whether Cnut or his supporters really did trace the precedent of a Danish England all the way back to King Dan, this poem too finds a precedent for Danish rule in an alternative reading of English history which places its Danish kings front and centre. Here it's the West Saxons who are a footnote, the sons of Æthelred (like Edmund Ironside) who are the ones driven away, marginalised, swept out of the mainstream by history's apparently inevitable onward tide. It could easily have been that way. It very nearly was.

A pendant of Thor's hammer found in Lincolnshire,
one of many found across the areas of Scandinavian settlement in England

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Beowulf - and more

Just a short post to say that I've written a piece on Beowulf for this month's issue of the BBC History Magazine (not online at the moment, but I'll add a link if it turns up on their website.) It's very much a basic introduction to the poem, but I tried also to suggest some of the complexities of the poem's worldview and its approach to legend and history.

Shocking as this might be to confess, Beowulf is not a poem I'm naturally drawn to; I had to teach myself to find it interesting, and though I do appreciate its fine qualities I somewhat regret that it so much dominates public perception of early medieval English literature. It's the only Anglo-Saxon text most people have ever heard of - in the UK, Beowulf is often the very first thing people think of when they hear the term 'Anglo-Saxon'. (Second is primary school lessons about the Battle of Hastings!) Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that even one Anglo-Saxon poem has that kind of name-recognition, and it's important to have a reference point which can help people steer their way through this largely unfamiliar landscape. Yet in many ways Beowulf is not particularly representative of the rich and varied body of literature which survives from early medieval England (for one thing, it doesn't take place in early medieval England!). There are many other fascinating texts, poetry and prose, which will never make their way into any popular history magazine, nor ever be turned into a blockbuster film, but which are nonetheless very much worth exploring - remarkable for their poetic dexterity, their sensitivity of thought, their glimpses into an unfamiliar cultural world.

So if you're new to Anglo-Saxon literature other than Beowulf , and would like to explore some less well-known texts from the period in translation, here a few freely accessible online resources which you may not have come across before:

The Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project is an extraordinarily ambitious and wide-ranging collection of open-access translations of Old English poems - from short lyrics on all kinds of subjects to long and complex narratives telling stories from the Bible and the lives of saints.

The Riddle Ages blog translates and discusses the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book, a fabulous set of little poems by turns witty, beautiful, and mystifying (and often all at the same time).

A diversity of many types of short Old English texts, with valuable discussion, can be found at the wonderful blog 'For the Wynn' - there you will encounter Anglo-Saxon prayers, prognostics, medical and scientific texts, charms, and much more...

If you like Beowulf, you'll really like this post on the poem Widsith, and other material at the same fine blog.

I've written here often about some of my own favourite Old English poems: this tag will take you back through the archive, and if you'd rather go through it seasonally, here's a page with links to many posts on The Anglo-Saxon Year. A couple of times I've written for History Today about Anglo-Saxon texts: this on a beautiful poem about the seasons and the natural world, and this on a collection of 11th-century proverbs.

In terms of prose, you can read many of the sermons of the great Anglo-Saxon teacher, preacher and writer Ælfric in parallel-text translation here - the translation is old-fashioned, but solid. There are some of his saints' lives available here and here, and I've posted a few translations and discussions of Ælfric's sermons under this tag. (His works for teaching are fun too...) You can also read a translation of Ælfric's short work which he intended to introduce a few key principles of early medieval science, from equinoxes to leap years and the causes of different kinds of weather.

You can also read the entirety of Bede's Ecclesiastical History online in translation from the Latin. Translations (older, but still useful) of the longer prose Old English works are available through, such as the English version of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy associated with Alfred the Great. You could even read the West Saxon translation of the Gospel of John, and follow along in a modern English translation...

And because English and Latin were not the only literary languages to be found in Anglo-Saxon England, let's have a word for the Old Norse poems I sometimes talk about which were (probably) performed in this country, such as those composed for Cnut when he was king of England and Denmark. Translations of some of these can also be found online, if you know where to look: this is a poem in praise of Cnut's conquest of England which glories in his victories over the English, enumerating his battles across the country, north and south, by the Ouse, the Tees and the Thames. (Just in case you ever wondered what the Vikings called Norwich or the Forest of Dean.) If you prefer your triumphal poetry to be at the expense of the the Normans, here's a short poem about the Anglo-Danish earl Waltheof and his victory over Norman forces at York in 1069.

Should you read those and then decide 'forget the Anglo-Saxons, I want to read Old Norse!', the Viking Society have got you covered with their wonderfully generous archive of open-access publications. It's a long way from Beowulf, but not entirely so - because Beowulf is about Scandinavians, after all... ;)

Sunday 29 September 2019

Birds and Angels

St Michael, with bright wings (BL Royal MS 18 D II, f. 161v)

Today is Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and All Angels - a beautiful feast at perhaps the loveliest time of the year. In honour of the day I want to post a medieval English poem which I stumbled across for the first time recently. It's not strictly for Michaelmas (it's set in the spring) but by the time you reach the end of it you'll understand why I'm posting it today.

For reasons which may become obvious, this poem reminds me a little of the 14th-century masterpiece Pearl, a glowing jewel of a poem, a meditation on love, grief, and loss which attempts to render in the intricate beauty of its words something of the surpassing beauty of heaven. This poem is nowhere near as ambitious or accomplished, but like Pearl it begins with the loss of something precious, couched in metaphorical terms which seem to hint at a deeper grief. The precise circumstances are kept obscure from us, and are more powerful for not being openly expressed. Within the first few stanzas of this poem the speaker meets, falls in love with, and loses a beautiful bird. By the time he meets her again, if we are even vaguely familiar with medieval love-poetry, we probably think we know what we are dealing with here: the bird is a woman, he's her lover, and he's going to try and woo her back again. But when he does begin to woo her, he does so in a way that confounds our expectations - and from there the poem becomes something stranger, richer, and more beautiful.

The poem comes from a 15th-century manuscript which was probably written in the West Midlands. You can view images of the manuscript here, and read a list of the poems it contains here. Some of the poems in the manuscript are relatively well-known - it contains, for instance, 'The Boar's Head Carol'! - but according to DIMEV this one has only been edited once. You can read that edition online here to get the Middle English text, but I've given the poem below in modernised spelling, with some glosses. The opening lines, which are so conventional and idiomatic as to be difficult to translate literally, just mean something like 'Good lords and ladies, splendidly-dressed women, and all who listen to my story...'

Lovely lordinges, ladies lyke,
Wives and maidens ryallyke,
So worthy under wede,
And all who listen to my talking,
God grant them his dear blessing,
And heaven to their mead. [as their reward]

By a forest as I did ride,
I saw a bird by a wood-side,
Bright she was of blee. [complexion]
Her wings were of colours rich,
As an angel methought her like,
Full semely it was to see. [very beautiful to look on]

The bird was gone; my joy was still,
For woe, alas! myself I spill. [destroy]
To Christ I make my moan, [lament]
For a love that was so new,
That so bright was of hue,
From me was she gone.

A blissful song that bird did sing
And I abode for love talking,
To wit of whence she were. [to find out where she came from]
And as soon as she saw me,
She took her flight for to flee
To a holt so hoar. [a wood which is 'hoary' white, probably with blossom]

Forth I walked in that forest,
By a river east and west,
Under a holt side, [beside a grove of trees]
Till I come under a lovely tree,
That semely one I did see [I saw that beautiful one]
Under a busk abide. [stopping by a wood]

That lovely bird on boughs bare,
She sang a song with sighing sore
Upon a hazel tree,
With words mild and hende, [gentle and courteous]
To that bird did I wend,
Of bale her bote to be. [to be her relief from sorrow]

When that I to her come,
By the wings I her nome, [took, caught]
And stroked her full soft,
With words mild and still, [gentle and quiet]
I asked the bird of her will [what she wanted]
Fele times and oft. [again and again]

Up to this point, the allegory seems straightforward enough. The clues are all telling us that the bird is a beautiful woman, and this is a love scene. The word 'bird' in Middle English is frequently used as a poetic term for a lady; to call a woman a 'bird' today (at least in Britain) is not exactly polite, but in Middle English its connotations were quite different - burd meaning 'lady, noblewoman' was actually in origin a separate word, nothing to do with feathered birds but with high birth and noble lineage. By the time this poem was written the two words had already become very similar in form and spelling, and poets play on the similarity between the two: if you can compliment a woman (whether it's your lover, or the Virgin Mary) by calling her a dove or a lark or a falcon, you can certainly call her a 'bird', most politely, in both senses of the word. Most of the phrases the speaker uses to describe this 'bird' are also terms often used in Middle English poetry to describe women, such as 'bright of blee', 'that semely one', etc. And he also says she seems to him like an angel. That, too, is a conventional term of praise for a woman - but keep it in mind...

The language in this last stanza is distinctly euphemistic, full of romantic and sexual connotations: we seem to be witnessing a seduction, and in another poem that's exactly what this would be. He's found her and caught her, is stroking her softly, and now he wants, in a conventionally euphemistic phrase, of bale her bote to be, that is, (put it in air quotes in your mind) 'to relieve her sorrow'. What you might expect next in such a poem is for the bird/woman to put up some resistance, and then either give in or make her escape, having shamed her would-be seducer. Here, too, she does protest:

The bird answered and said, 'Do way! [Leave off]
Me likes not of thy play, [your play is displeasing to me]
Nor talking of thy tales.
I am known under this tree,
Just as I came, let me flee,
By downs and by dales.

For wont I was to be in cage, [I was accustomed once to live in a cage]
And with my feres to play and rage, [and to play and sport with my companions]
With game and with glee, [merriment]
Now I fly with my feather-hame, [plumage]
As wild fowl and nothing tame, [as a wild bird, not a bit tame]
By dear God, woe is me!'

Now things start to get surprising. Her lament is not what you might expect: you might predict this bird will demand her freedom, telling the man she's happier without him, and doesn't want to be caught. A wild bird, 'nothing tame', seems an image of freedom and liberty - but this bird feels differently. For this bird, her freedom is a burden; it's loneliness, separation from her friends back in the cage where they were happy and carefree together. She's not a wild bird but a lost bird, and she wants to return to her home.

And our speaker (whoever he is) begins to offer her that home:

'Nay, dear bird, let be thy care. [cease your sorrow]
If thou wouldst gladly with me fare, [go]
And believe in my talking,
Of thy ruth I would aruwe, [I would have pity on your sorrow]
Thy cage shall be made anew;
Thou shalt have thy lykynge.' [pleasure]

The bird answered with words free,
'Whereof should my cage be,
If I thee love would?'
'The floor should be of argentum, [silver]
Clean silver all and some, [entirely of pure silver]
That true love might behold.

The walls shall be of galmeowne, [?jasmine]
Frankincense and lymesone, [?tortoise-shell]
The savour that is so sweet. [the scent of which is so sweet]
The posts shall be of cypress,
The first tree that Jesu chose,
Of bale to be our bote. [to relieve us from sorrow]

This is an allusion to the tradition that the cross was made in part from the wood of the cypress-tree. The phrase used here for Christ's act of redemption, the turning of sorrow into joy, is 'of bale to be our bote' - the same conventional phrase which a few stanzas earlier seemed to have clearly romantic connotations. Here it's been transformed, transmuted, from romantic to divine love, without anything to signal the slippage from one world to another. We started off by hearing a description of a pretty bird-cage for a treasured pet, but this is becoming something else: this is a description of heaven.

The towers shall be of ivory,
Clean carved by and by, [perfectly carved all about]
The door of whale's bone;
The cowpuls all of galyngalle, [?corbels of ginger-root]
The beams all of rich coral,
Royally begone; [adorned]

The dosers all of camaca, [tapestries of rich fabric]
The benches all of taffeta,
The cushions all of velvet;
The windows all of jasper stone,
The pillars of coral every one,
With joy joyned in gete. [beautifully joined at the top]

The roof thereof shall be blue,
And diaper-cloth with azure hue,
Comely for the nonce; [very beautiful indeed]
Pinnacles all of aurum, [turrets of gold]
Clean gold all and some,
Full of precious stones.

The crest blue and white as rice,
The pinnacle shall go all by vysse, [?be made as it ought to be]
Within and without,
With Veni Creator Spiritus,
And Gloria in excelsis
With angels' song all about.

Five wheels therein shall be,
In the middle shall be the Trinity,
Which peer has none,
And the four thereabout,
To Jesu Christ for to lowte, [bow]
Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

The perch shall be of carbuncle stone,
To rest you on, my joly lemone, [my merry darling]
So semely is to my sight; [so beautiful in my sight]
The nightingale, the throstlecock, [song-thrush]
The popinjay, the joly laverok, [the parrot, the merry skylark]
Shall sing to you day and night.

The popinjay, your lady free,
In your cage with you to be,
You to honour and queen.
The throstlecock Gabriel,
Who greeted Our Lady well,
With Ave, gratia plena.

The nightingale with benedicite [a blessing]
In your cage with you to be,
For the fiend's rout; [to drive away the devil]
The laverok shall sing high,
With Gloria tibi Domine,
And bless the cage all about.

This cage is made without weme, [flaw]
For the love of one woman,
Mary, who is so free. [noble]
The man who better cage make can
Take this bird to his lemman, [to be his beloved]
That is the Trinity.

God, that is full of might,
And suffered for us pain's plight,
For his orders ten, [ten orders of angels and human beings]
Save and keep this company
From shame and eke from villainy,
Ad vitam etemam. Amen. [to eternal life]

Angels encircling Christ, Mary and St Peter (from a manuscript of Dante's Paradiso)

It was these last stanzas which attracted me to this poem. The idea of heaven as a gilded birdcage is an odd one, and perhaps not immediately appealing (we'll get to that), though the description of the riches of the heavenly cage is at least useful in providing lots of Middle English vocabulary for jewels and spices and architectural features. Some of my glosses are the MED's conjectures, because the words aren't recorded anywhere else, and some are just guesses - but the general sense of splendour and luxury and beauty is clear, if not especially original. (And Pearl does it better...)

But once we are inside the birdcage, and the birds have been transfigured into angels, that's a remarkable moment. 'The throstlecock Gabriel'! The whole poem is worth it for that one line - for the startling idea of Gabriel's Ave, gratia plena, the greeting which in medieval thought was perhaps the most important utterance in human history, as the chirp of a thrush's song. The skylark singing Gloria, the nightingale with its holy benedicite as a guard against evil, and Mary, who seems to be both the lady who treasures this beautiful cage and the popinjay (the parrot) who sings within it. Heaven as a cage of singing birds: what an idea.

Birds and cages (from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves)

Songbirds and angels: the visible and the invisible, the tiny and the mighty, the familiar and the utterly strange. In some ways they could not be more different, but to yoke them together as this poem does encourages us to consider how they might be akin. Medieval ideas of angels are not generally sentimental; these are beings of cosmic power, especially the archangels: Michael the warrior, Gabriel the great ambassador from the heavenly regions, Raphael the guide and healer. But fundamentally they are creatures of joy, messengers of a mighty gladness. They are an assurance that the cosmic forces of the universe, fearsome as they may be in their power, are on the side of good, and of human happiness; in their different ways, they are all instruments helping to bring about the triumph of right over wrong, light over darkness, joy over sorrow. In medieval poetry about the Resurrection, angels do not only sing but laugh at the moment of Christ's triumph over death, because this is a victory of ultimate joy - the divine comedy. Songbirds, you might imagine, offer the same message in miniature. In Middle English birdsong is proverbially joyful: a happy person might be said to be 'as glad as a bird on a bright morning', and in religious poetry the dawn chorus may be imagined as a joyous herald of the coming of the eternal day. Perhaps birdsong and angels' song are thought of as notes in the same melody: the singing of larks and thrushes, which we can hear, is a contribution to what we cannot, the angels' endless song of joy.

Though I've never encountered anything exactly like this equation of birds and angels elsewhere in medieval poetry, bird imagery for Mary, too, is not surprising; any kind of rare or beautiful bird seems to have been thought fitting for her. Thus John Lydgate in his Ballad in Commendation of Our Lady:

O trusty turtle[-dove], trewest of al trewe,
O curteyse columbe, replete of al mekenesse,
O nightingale with thy notes newe,
O popinjay, plumed with al clennesse,
O laverok of love, singing with swetnesse.

Or indeed in Pearl:

Now for synglerty o hyr dousour
We calle hyr Fenyx of Arraby
That freles flewe of hyr fasor.

(Because of her unique sweetness
We call her Phoenix of Arabia,
Who flawless flew from her creator...)

And in one of James Ryman's carols about the Assumption, Christ invites his mother into heaven by saying: 'Come, my myelde dove, into thy cage, / With joye and blis replete whiche is...' 

Saints surrounded by birdcages (from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves)

Still, the idea of heaven as a birdcage needs a little unpacking. It wasn't an image I'd come across before, and I expect I won't be alone among modern readers in finding it a bit strange at first glance. The immediate connotations seem to be of restriction and imprisonment - at the very best, the dwelling of some pampered pet. The mind jumps to brightly-coloured budgies and canaries singing in a Victorian drawing-room! It would be very different if the bird was promised a beautiful nest - that would seem homely and comfortable, not constraining. But that image wouldn't work as well for what the poet is doing. A nest is something a bird might construct for itself, while a cage is a gift from someone else, a more powerful being, a guardian and provider, who fashions it as an act of care - surely a better analogy for the relationship between the soul and God. This birdcage, made of gold and silver and precious stones, with towers of ivory and cushions of the richest fabric, is absolutely a constructed thing: designed and built of the finest, most priceless materials, because every beautiful detail is a token of the maker's love.

In any case, medieval readers clearly did not have difficulty associating positive connotations with a birdcage. As I learned from a fascinating chapter in this book, the birdcage is used in medieval iconography in some very complex ways, including as a metaphor for various aspects of well-ordered religious life: an image, for instance, of the monastic vocation, where one might choose to live within an enclosed space in order to pursue contemplation and meditation - and, of course, to sing the praise of God by day and night. Or the birdcage could be used as a metaphor for the well-trained monastic memory, where information is organised in the mind like doves in a dovecote, each piece of information in its own mental 'pigeonhole'. Not so far a step, then, to think of heaven as another kind of birdcage.

Once we have ended in this heavenly birdcage, of course we have to go back and reconsider our reading of the opening of the poem. The little lost bird is not, it seems, a wooed woman at all, but a soul - perhaps the speaker's own soul, which he loves and loses sight of, chases and seeks to win back to its heavenly home. Or is the speaker Christ himself, promising the soul her rest in heaven? The image of the soul as a bird is an ancient one, of course - and now we understand why, when the speaker first saw this bird-soul, he thought her 'like an angel'. So she is, not in any loose romantic cliché but in the most literal sense, the sense of the psalm: 'thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with majesty and honour'. If the angels are birds, so is this anxious, restless, lonely bird a creature who belongs among the angels: her true home is in their glorious palace-cage, joining in their song of praise.

St Michael with golden wings (Haddon Hall, Derbyshire)

In medieval art, you do fairly often see angels depicted with colourful birds' wings. In this 15th-century Book of Hours, St Michael with his bright wings is triumphing over one winged creature (the dragon) while keeping company with two others in the margin - a peacock and a butterfly:

And on birdsong as one of the delights of heaven, compare the homilist John Mirk describing St Matthew preaching about paradise:
[Matthew] prechet hom þe ioye of paradyse, and sayde how þat þere was euer day and neuer nyght, ther was euerlastyng youþe and neuer eld, algates helþe and neuer sekenes, song and myrþe wythout sese, roses and flowres wythout welewyng, popynjayes and bryddes euermore syngyng, loue, and rest, and all maner lykyng.

[Matthew] preached to them about the joy of paradise, and said how there was ever day and never night, there was everlasting youth and never age, always health and never sickness, song and mirth without ceasing, roses and flowers without withering, popinjays and birds evermore singing, love, and rest, and all manner of delight.