Thursday, 19 March 2020

Stella celi extirpavit

The Virgin Mary in a fourteenth-century manuscript, BL Royal MS 6 E VII Part 2, f. 479

Back in Advent, I revisited the poems of the 15th-century friar James Ryman in order to write this post. I read a number of Ryman's poems which I hadn't really looked at before, and kept a record of those which interested me with an eye to future blogposts. One struck me as unusual, and I took note of it, though I was pretty sure I would never find a suitable occasion to post it here. But that was Advent, and here we are in Lent - the longest Lent of our lives. And this is a prayer for a time of plague.

The heavenly star so bright and clear,
That fed the Lord of indulgence, [mercy]
Hath put away both far and near
Of ghostly death the pestilence, [the plague of spiritual death]
That our parent wrought by offence:
[May] she cease the stars' war and wrath,
That dimmeth us by sharp stroke of death.

O spouse of Christ, mother of grace,
O benign queen of heaven bliss,
Cause us in bliss to have a place,
Whereof the joy shall never miss,
Where next unto God thy throne is,
And for our sin and our misdeed
Let not Satan ay us possess.

This is Ryman's translation of Stella celi extirpavit, a hymn first recorded in manuscripts from 15th-century England, in the decades after the Black Death. This article, which gives a history of the hymn, provides the following text and translation for the most common version of Stella celi (Ryman's is a little different):

Stella celi extirpavit
que lactavit Dominum
mortis pestem, quam plantavit
primus parens hominum.
Ipsa stella nunc dignetur
sydera compescere;
quorum bella plebem cedunt
dire mortis ulcere.
O gloriosa stella maris,
a peste succurre nobis.
Audi nos: nam Filius tuus
nihil negans te honorat
Salva nos, Jesu, pro quibus
virgo mater te orat.

Star of Heaven,
who nourished the Lord
and rooted up the plague of death
which our first parents planted;
may that star now deign
to hold in check the constellations
whose strife grants the people
the ulcers of a terrible death.
O glorious star of the sea,
save us from the plague.
Hear us: for your Son
who honours you denies you nothing.
Jesus, save us, for whom
the Virgin Mother prays to you.

The hymn addresses Mary, asking that since her child did away with the plague of sin which assailed the soul, her prayers will help to end the plague which attacks the body. The specific historical context is clear: the allusion to 'ulcers of a terrible death' is a direct reference to the swellings which were one of the symptoms of the Black Death.

In keeping with scientific thinking of the time, the hymn sees sickness as originating in the alignment of the stars, and so asks for Mary's help as 'star of heaven' - she is imagined as a good star of peace and life who can restrain the malign stars of war and death. Some of the language also draws on traditional imagery of Mary as healer and nourisher, in focusing for instance on her feeding her child (lactavit Dominum). In the image of her 'uprooting' the plant of death, there's perhaps a suggestion too of the well-established medieval association of Mary with life-giving plants, which figure her as a tree who bears the fruit of life, or a doctor who brings healing herbs. Altogether Mary is presented as all that is wholesome and nourishing, a powerful intercessor and a bringer of health and hope.

This text is widely recorded in late medieval sources, both with and without music. As well as Ryman's version, written down in Canterbury at the end of the 15th century, there are two more English poems based on the hymn, attributed to the Bury St Edmunds poet John Lydgate. Here's one of them (in modern spelling; the Middle English is here):

Thou heavenly queen, of grace our lodestar,
With thy chaste milk plenteous of plesaunce [full of grace]
Gave Jesu suck, puttest away the war
Of pestilence, to appease our grievance,
Our well of mercy, our joy, our sufficence,
Flower of virgins, mother of most price, [greatest value]
Racedist up all surfetis of mischance, [eradicated all sinful excess]
That our forefather planted in Paradise.

Thou same star, of stars none so bright,
Celestial star of beauty most sovereign,
To thee we pray, on us cast down thy sight,
Only of mercy that thou not disdain,
Of infected air the mists to restrain,
That by thy gracious most wholesome influence
We have no cause on hasty death to pleyne, [lament]
Which slayeth the people by sword of pestilence.

Our trust is fully, and our confidence,
Undespaired in our opinion, [belief]
Against all weathers of corrupt pestilence,
By thy request and mediation,
And by thy Son's glorious Passion,
And remembrance of thy joys all,
Against froward airs causing infection,
Defend us, Lady, when we to thee call.

For as Phoebus chaseth mists black,
Toward midmorrow with his beams clear,
And Lucifer biddith sluggy folk awake, [the sun bids sleepy people wake]
In the orient first, when he doth appear,
Right so mayest thou in thy celestial sphere,
O star of stars, star of most excellence,
Maid and mother, by means of thy prayer, [through the intercession of your prayers]
Save all thy servants from stroke of pestilence.

Neither this poem nor Ryman's make reference to ulcers, as the Latin hymn does; their descriptions of the illness and its cause are (perhaps deliberately) more general than the Latin, more applicable to any outbreak of disease. Lydgate speaks of 'froward airs causing infection' and the unhealthy 'mists' which he asks Mary to clear away like the sun at morning. Ryman's version is less scientific, asking instead for deliverance from the force which 'dimmeth us by sharp stroke of death'. The thought that epidemics 'dim' us, i.e. cast a dark shadow over our lives, is particularly poignant. In their astrological and medical thinking, all versions of this hymn come from a medieval world very foreign to us - and yet for once it feels very near.

'Stella celi' in BL Royal Appendix MS. 58

Several early settings of this hymn survive in 15th-century manuscripts. The oldest is the unearthly setting below by John Cooke, a member of Henry V's household chapel, who went with the king to Agincourt in 1415 and seems to have ended his life as a singer at St Paul's Cathedral. His version of Stella celi is preserved in this manuscript.



From later in the century, there's this setting by Walter Lambe, from the Eton Choirbook:



And there are numerous other attestations of the hymn from England, Portugal and elsewhere, including 15th-century evidence that the hymn was in regular use among students at Oxford - sung at the ringing of the curfew bell on Marian feasts and after Compline in Magdalen College chapel. For a full list, see Christopher Macklin, 'Plague, Performance and the Elusive History of the Stella Celi Extirpavit', Early Music History 29 (2010), 1-31, available online here. Macklin proposes a connection between the hymn and the Franciscan order, who 'were intimately involved in caring for the sick during the Black Death and in subsequent epidemics', and as a result suffered catastrophic mortality rates across Europe. These learned origins would fit with the hymn's specifically astrological and medical approach to the understanding of disease.

But it was not only a hymn for friars and students. In the collection of mystery plays from 15th-century East Anglia known as the 'N-town Plays', there's a reference to this hymn in the play about the Adoration of the Shepherds. The Shepherds sing it as they go to Bethlehem to meet the Christ-child, and though the use of Stella celi is only brief (and a bit surprising - why might a prayer against the plague be thought appropriate here?), the scene is so lovely and so loving that I can't resist quoting at length. We begin when the shepherds have just heard the angels sing 'Gloria in excelsis' and, wonderfully, they're struggling to puzzle out the - to them unfamiliar - Latin words. (Again this is in modern spelling; for the Middle English see this page)

Shepherd 1: Ey, ey, this was a wonder note
That was now sung above the sky!
I have that voice full well, I wot —
They sang “Gle, glo, glory."

Shepherd 2: Nay, so mot y the, so was it nowth! [as I may thrive, it wasn't that!]
I have that song full well inum; [I got it right]
In my wit well it is wrought:
It was “Gle, glo, glas, glum."

Shepherd 3: The song methought it was “Glory."
And afterward, he said us to
There is a child born shall be a prince mighty!
For to seek that child, I rede we go. [I advise we go]

Shepherd 1: The prophecy of Boosdras is speedily sped. [swiftly fulfilled]
Now leyke we hence as that light us lead. [let's go where the light is leading us]
Might we see once that bright on bed,
Our bale it would unbind; [it would relieve our trouble]
We should shudder for no shower.
Busk we us hence to Bethlem borough [let's hurry to Bethlehem]
To see that fair fresh flower,
The maid mild in mind.

Shepherd 2: Let us follow with all our might,
With song and mirth we shall us dight [prepare]
And worship with joy that worthy wight,
That Lord is of mankind.
Let us go forth, fast on hie
And honour that babe worthily
With mirth, song and melody.
Have done! This song begin.

Stage direction, in Latin: 'Then the shepherds will sing Stella celi extirpavit as they go to look for the Christ'

Shepherd 1: Hail, flower of flowers, fairest found!
Hail, pearl, peerless primrose of price!
Hail, bloom on bed! We shall be unbound
With thy bloody wounds and works full wise!
Hail, God greatest! I greet thee on ground!
The greedy devil shall groan grisly as a gryse [like a boar]
When thou winnest this world with thy wide wounds
And puttest man to Paradys with plenty of price! [abundance]
To love thee is my delight.
Hail, flower fair and free,
Light from the Trinity!
Hail, blessed may thou be!
Hail, maiden fairest in sight!

Shepherd 2: Hail, flower over flowers found in frith! [in the woods]
Hail, Christ kind in our kith! [sharing in our nature]
Hail, worker of weal to wonen us with! [doer of good, come to dwell with us]
Hail, winner, iwis,
Hail, former and friend, [creator and friend]
Hail, feller of the fiend,
Hail, clad in our kind!
Hail, Prince of Paradise!

Shepherd 3: Hail, lord over lords who lies full low!
Hail, king over kings, thy kindred to know!
Hail, comely knight, the devil to overthrow!
Hail, flower of all!
Hail, worker to win
Bodies bound in sin!
Hail, in a beasts' bin, [manger]
Bestad in a stall. [laid in a stall]

Joseph: Herds on hill [shepherds from the hills]
Be not still, [silent]
But say your will
To many a man:
How God is born
This merry morn —
That is forlorn
Find he can. [he can find the one who is lost - i.e. like the Good Shepherd]

Shepherd 1: We shall tell
By dale and hill
How Harrower of Hell
Was born this night,
Mirths to mell [to speak joy]
And fiends to quell,
That were so fell
Against his right.

[Having paid homage to the baby, they take their departure.]

Shepherd 2: Farewell, babe and bairn of bliss!
Farewell, Lord that lovely is!
Thee to worship, thy feet I kiss.
On knees to thee I fall,
Thee to worship, I fall on knee.
All this world may joy of thee!
Now farewell, Lord of great pousté! [power]
Yea, farewell king of all.

Shepherd 3: Though I be the last that take my leave,
Yet, fair mullynge, take it not at no grieve. [don't be upset, pretty darling]
Now, fair babe, well may thou cheve! [thrive]
Fair child, now have good day.
Farewell, mine own dear darling:
Iwis, thou art a right fair thing!
Farewell, my Lord and my sweeting!
Farewell, born in poor array.

Mary: Now ye herdsmen, well may ye be;
For your homage and your singing
My son shall quit you in heaven see, [reward you in heaven]
And give you all right good ending.

Though at first not even able to recognise the angels' song, the shepherds are very soon inspired to sing themselves in words of eloquent praise, with tender affection for the 'dear darling' and the 'fair flower' his mother. They are so very sweet towards the baby (kissing his feet!), but they also trust him to overthrow the devil and deliver the whole world from pain. Perhaps that's why they sing Stella celi, a hymn which with extraordinary confidence finds its hope for deliverance from sickness not only in the motion of the stars, but in the most everyday act of love: a mother who by feeding her baby saved the world from disaster.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

'So glorious a gleam, over dale and down'

The Adoration of the Magi, British Library, Add. 18850, f. 24v

Two carols for Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany. The visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus is a very popular subject in medieval carols, perhaps partly because of the appeal of the dramatic details of the Gospel narrative - the urgency of the questing kings, their tense interaction with Herod, the atmosphere of danger in which their search for the child takes place. But it might also be partly because Twelfth Night, as the culmination of the main period of Christmas festivities (though not the official end of the Christmas season, which was Candlemas), would have been a good time for singing carols. In the past I've posted a few examples of Epiphany carols out of the many which survive.

And here are two more which are roughly contemporary with each other, from manuscripts produced in the second half of the fifteenth century. They tell the same story, but in different ways; one makes effective use of dialogue and of melodious repetition, while the other is more interested in the symbolism of the tale, its fulfilment of prophecies, and the central image of the star - that gleam of unearthly brightness which guides the pilgrim-kings to their journey's end.

The beginning of this poem in Cambridge, St John's College, MS. S 54

The first poem comes from a scrappy little manuscript of carols, perhaps originally from East Anglia, which is now in St John's College, Cambridge. You can browse through it here, though it's not much to look at, and pretty difficult to decipher! It shows considerable signs of wear and was clearly more for use than for ornament, perhaps as an aide memoire to communal carol-singing. All the carols it contains were published in this edition, which I've relied on for the text which follows, though I've modernised the spelling and expanded abbreviations. There's no music in the manuscript, but the repeated lines give an unusually strong sense of how beautiful this text might be when sung (anyone fancy setting it to music?). The first verse is especially lovely, I think.

When Christ was born in Bethlehem,
There rose a star as bright as leme [fire, radiance]
That gave so glorious a gleam
Over dale and down,
Over dale and down it sprang and spread.
It made three kings to be adread [afraid]
Into an unchond land it them led [it led them to an unknown country]
Into a town;
They were three kings of great renown.

They came to seek Herod the king
And asked him of all that thing,
And spered after the child so ying [inquired after the child so young]
That should be king,
That should be king of all Jewry.
'We saw a star secyrly [certainly]
Therefore we worship him forthy [for that reason]
That child so ying
Here gold and homage we him bring.'

'Wend ye forth all three in fere, [all three of you go forth together]
And of that child if ye may hear,
That ye will come again in fere
I you beseech,
I you beseech that ye me say
As ye come homeward again in your way
That I myself him worship may,
That child so meek,
On my bare feet I would him seek.'

The kings no longer there abode
But forth to Bethlem then they rode,
And the star before them glode [glided]
Until they were,
Until they were where Jesu lay,
Wounden in a crib of hay;
Them thought it was a poor array.
[line missing]
Of prince of peace that hast no peer.

'Now kneel we down, all three in fere,
And offer to this darling dear
Gold for [aye?] and rekels clear [rekels is an old word for incense]
And myrrh also,
And myrrh also in tokening
That he is very man and king,
Suffering prince over all thing,
One and no mo [other/more]
For holy writ bears witnesses also.'

An angel warned them in their sleep
That they should them for Herod keep [beware of Herod]
They thanked God with devotion deep
And home they went,
And home they went on their journey.
When thereof Herod heard say,
He said 'Alas, and welaway,
For I am shent! [ruined]
This child, he will my kingdom hent!' [seize my royal power]

This Herod was both wode and wroth [mad and furious]
With mickle ire he made his oath
That all the land it should be loath [sorry]
That he was born,
That he was born that should be king.
He did to do a spiteful thing [he caused a spiteful thing to be done]
To slay children both old and ying
In Bethlem born
Within two winters there before.

The children sprongyld on the spears, [struggled]
The mothers wept full bitter tears,
That Herod did them guiltless derys [caused them, innocent, terrible harm]
That fiend so fell,
That fiend so fell, foul must him befall,
That thus these children martyred all.
Unto Mary we gye and call [turn and appeal]
To shield us from the pit of hell
There in bliss well.

My favourite thing about this carol is the first verse, with those lovely alliterative phrases describing the star. After that, I also like the easy shifts between narrative and speech, especially between Herod and the Magi. Herod gets a verse to himself, and a bit of angry expostulation, true to his usual presentation in medieval literature: he's often shown as a blusterer, full of angry words, and that's how he comes across on the stage of medieval mystery plays, where his storming and ranting became proverbial. (That's what Hamlet is referring to when he advises his actors not to overdo their storms of passion, like those who seek to 'out-Herod Herod' on the stage with furious gestures and shouting). He exclaims angrily here, and his words to the three kings briefly sketch a dishonest, insinuating character: his promise 'On my bare feet I would him seek' has the exaggerated touch of a confident liar. The carol seems about to end in a dark place, with his anger and cruelty - until that last turn, 'unto Mary'. Again, it recalls the effect sought in medieval mystery plays, which intercut scenes of Herod's pride, rage and tyranny with the exact opposite, the next stage in the story, at Candlemas: there the earthly power embodied by Herod is shown to be vain, while poverty, patience, innocent love and frail old age encounter a light hidden from the eyes of the powerful.

The Magi doused in starlight, BL Add. 18850, f. 75

Next, another carol from the 1492 collection of James Ryman, Franciscan friar of Canterbury. This too tells the story of the Magi's visit, but through its refrain, and the couplet which is repeated at the end of each stanza, it keeps drawing our attention back to the star, and the day of its appearance - this day.

A star shone bright on Twelfth Day
Over that place where Jesus lay.

On Twelfth Day this star so clear
Brought kings three out of the east
Unto that king, that hath no peer,
In Bethlehem Judah, where he did rest.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Both gold, incense and sweet myrrh tho [then]
All three they gave unto that child,
The which is god and man also,
Born of a virgin undefiled.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

For he was king of majesty,
They gave him gold with great reverence.
For he was god in persons three,
Meekly to him they gave incense.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

For he was man, they gave him than [then]
Myrrh in token that he should die
And be buried for sinful man
And arise again and to bliss stye. [ascend]
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

When their offering all three had made
To Christ, that king and lord of all,
Right soon the star away did fade,
That brightly shone over that hall.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

As they were going in their way,
They met Herod, that mody king. [proud king]
He bade them wit where that child lay, [told them to find out where the child lay]
And come by him and word him bring.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

King Herod fain would them have slain,
But they were warned on a night
They should not go by him again,
By an angel both fair and bright.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

They were full glad, and as he bad
They be gone home another way,
And King Herod was wroth and sad,
That he of them had lost his prey.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Into Egypt Joseph then fled
With the mother and with the child,
Where they abode til he was dead, [they lived until Herod was dead]
And of his will he was beguiled. [and was thwarted of his will]
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

King Herod then in his great wrath
Seeing of them his purpose lorn [seeing his plans for them lost]
Infants full young he put to death
Through all Bethlehem, that there were born.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Then, as the prophet Ysay [Isaiah]
Had prophesied long time before,
A voice was heard in bliss on high
Of great weeping and wailing sore.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

Honour to Christ, that now was born,
As prophecy had said before,
To save mankind, that was forlorn,
And to his bliss for to restore.
This star that day then went away
From that sweet place where Jesus lay.

The events of the carol are explicitly set on 'Twelfth Day', and if you imagine this carol being sung at Twelfth Night festivities, there's a particular immediacy to the time reference - it was on this day that the star 'did fade' and 'went away / from that sweet place where Jesus lay'. (In a neat touch, the carol itself has twelve verses.) I like that emphasis on departure, as if to suggest that it's not only the star which takes its leave on Twelfth Day, having done its work; it's also the Christmas season itself, and there's a sense of an ending here, a culmination. Just as the star departs from the 'sweet place' of the birth, and the three kings take their departure, and Joseph and Mary flee into Egypt, so we as the readers of this carol are taking our leave of Christmas - with all its sweet joys - on Twelfth Day.

The Magi see the star, BL Add. 18850, f. 75