Thursday, 4 June 2020

Wistful Whitsun

Just sharing this piece, rather belatedly, at what would once have been the tail-end of Whitsuntide.

It doesn’t feel natural to go on living indefinitely in unmarked time, without holiday or festival. Normal cycles of work and leisure have been disrupted by this crisis: some people are working harder than ever, under impossible stress, while others have found themselves unemployed or on uneasy furlough, with time on their hands that can’t be enjoyed as carefree holiday.

Months of monotony, with nothing to look forward to and nothing to distinguish one day from another, is an experience which fundamentally conflicts with most of the ways societies throughout history have found to give structure to the passage of time. Most religions recognise the importance of marking time: celebrating rites of passage, appointing seasons for feasting and fasting, getting together at set times to celebrate, pray, or mourn. As religious holidays die away, secular society invents its own alternatives.

Over the past few months, we’ve been stripped of all that. Those keeping Easter, Passover, Ramadan or other commemorations have had to do so at home and online, for many a very imperfect substitute, and non-believers have lost their rituals too: no birthday parties, no graduations, not even the weekly trip to a favourite coffee shop. We’ve been deprived of almost every conceivable form of public, shared experience — perhaps most painfully of all, with restrictions on funerals, the rituals of grieving. These are anchors, and without them we drift.

It’s hard to assess the cumulative effect of all those missed rituals, all those cancelled joys, and the voids where memories should have been. The impact of their loss is intangible compared to the more obvious effects of this crisis, but perhaps we should acknowledge that this, too, brings a kind of grief — for the lonely funeral, the milestone birthdays that won’t come again, or just the ever-lurking recollection of what we would have been doing now, if

Friday, 10 April 2020

Good Friday Alone

The Virgin Mary and Christ, in a Book of Hours of c.1510-20 (BL Add MS 35214, f. 27)

Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

As I went this enders day [the other day]
Alone walking on my play
I heard a lady sing and say
'Woe is me and all alone!
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.'

To that place I drew me near
Of her song somewhat to hear.
There sat a lady with sorry cheer [a sad countenance]
That sore did sigh and groan,
'Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

Behold, my son crowned with thorn,
And all his body rent and torn,
Put to death with shame and scorn,
For mankind's sake alone.
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.'

For sooth it was a wondrous sight
To see her child, how it was dight [arranged, ordained]
For to bring mankind to light
To save us from our fone. [foes]
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

Sith it will no better be [since it can be no better]
Pray we to that child so free
That we may him in heaven see
What we shall hence gone. [when we depart from here]
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

For many of us this will be a solitary Good Friday, and so I've been thinking about the place of solitude - aloneness - in medieval imaginings of the story of Christ's Passion. This is a carol from the 16th century, an example of a very widespread poetic tradition giving voice to Mary's grief for her son, which takes the word alone as its refrain and keynote. The text is from a printed book of c.1550, and I've modernised the spelling from the carol as edited in Greene's Early English Carols. When I first read this poem, I was reminded of a similar carol, a few decades older, which also makes use of the moving refrain 'alone' - but this is a carol set at an earlier moment in Mary's life, when her son is still an infant. There her baby, as she ('alone') tries to soothe his crying, tells her the real reason why he is weeping so bitterly:

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

She is horrified at this declaration, as anyone would be. He explains to her that it is necessary, since he - and he 'alone' - must save mankind by his death, but she already sees the grief and loneliness it will mean for her:

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

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

He cannot tell her she will not grieve or have to bear solitude, but his comfort is to promise her that he will, in the end, ease her loneliness:

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

This kind of interaction, where Mary begs her son not to die and leave her alone and grieving, is also a frequent part of poetic dialogues in the 'Stabat Mater' tradition. Many medieval poets devoted attention to imagining Mary's feelings at these different moments of grief: when as a young mother she begins to understand what her child's future will hold, when she sees her son dying in front of her eyes, when she holds his body in her arms. There are countless examples of poems in this tradition, and many of them are absolutely heartbreaking. Even if you don't have much sympathy with this emotive style of devotion, it's hard not to be moved by these poems; they are powerful expressions of grief and love which will resonate - as they are designed to - with every reader's own personal experiences of loss. Mary's grief is unique, but also universal. Hers is a parent's grief, and every time I hear the strange canard that, because infant mortality was high in the Middle Ages, medieval people didn't really love their children or grieve for them when they died, I think of these heart-wrenching poems; they are born of, and absolutely depend on, a widespread cultural acceptance that the loss of a child is one of the most devastating experiences a person can imagine. But these poems aren't only meant for parents, but for everyone, and they aim to draw on wells of tears springing from many other kinds of love and grief. They expect the audience to recognise and respond to it with strong emotion, weeping as Mary weeps.

The 'Alone' carol is probably meant to evoke a Pietà image, Mary holding Christ's body in her arms, and the characteristic feature of that artistic and literary tradition (as distinct from, for instance, Deposition and Entombment scenes where Mary holds her son's body) is that it's only the two of them. She is alone with him, and yet he's not there - she only has his dead body to cradle, a particularly painful kind of solitude. In the first carol the speaker is also 'alone' when they witness Mary's lament, and so her solitude echoes their own. Such poems are often framed as an encounter with Mary, where the speaker of the poem - as here - comes across her unexpectedly, or sees her suddenly appear to them in a vision. We never learn much about the speaker (they're not much more a pair of eyes and ears through which the reader is able to see and hear) but we are told that they are, very often, 'alone' - here wandering out for a solitary ramble, and in other poems lying awake at night, 'alone in my longing'. It's at such moments that these poems might be designed to be read and meditated upon; in solitude, the reader has time to reflect and to feel, to open their heart to what they read, and perhaps even to encounter some kind of mystical or visionary experience.

Alone in quarantine: Christ enters the desert for his 'karenine', his forty-day fast (BL Yates Thompson MS. 13, f. 111)

A focus on aloneness is also appropriate when attempting to consider Christ's own suffering at the Passion, in which there are several key moments where he is, humanly speaking, completely alone. I wrote in my last post about Christ's entry into what was in the Middle Ages called 'quarantine', his solitary forty days in the desert, and the story of his death has more such moments: the Agony in the Garden, the silence of the tomb. In medieval liturgy, the ritual reenactment of those days used a variety of means to powerfully evoke those experiences of isolation and desolation - the gradually enveloping darkness of the Tenebrae service, the stark exposure of the stripped altar and the empty tabernacle, the extensive use of silence both within and around the liturgy of the day. (There's some evidence that in early medieval England the last three days of Holy Week were known as 'the silent days', swigdagas.) Even when experienced collectively, these practices cut off the individual worshipper from those around them, alone in a silent and perhaps invisible crowd.

In extra-liturgical devotional practice, the believer might also be encouraged to go with Christ into that aloneness, to - paradoxically, in a way - share his solitude. One early English example occurs in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, a vision of the Passion story narrated by the cross, in which Christ is imagined alone in the tomb, 'weary after the great battle': reste he ðær mæte weorode, 'he rested there, with little company' (that's the understated Anglo-Saxon way of saying 'completely alone'). The same words are then, significantly, repeated of the person who is having this vision, lying awake while others are sleeping; the dreamer says the vision appeared þær ic ana wæs / mæte werede, 'where I was, alone, with little company'. In that aloneness, the dreamer comes so close to Christ that the same words describe them both.

Alone and not alone: the Agony in the Garden, with Christ accompanied in the darkness by faces keeping watch (BL Yates Thompson MS. 13, f. 118v)

But though solitude may offer a way to communicate with the divine, it may also heighten and intensify human grief. In another Anglo-Saxon poem, the focus is instead on Mary Magdalene and the other women among Christ's followers who went to the tomb early on Easter morning, and found it empty. The poem speaks of their anxiety about their Lord being left alone; the word, ana, is repeated twice within a few lines. 'They thought that he would have to lie in the grave / alone on that Easter night.' There's something so poignant about that attribution to them of the very natural desire to be with the body of the person they are mourning - even in death, they don't want him to be alone. It was a key part of medieval meditative practice to enter into these Biblical experiences of grief in the most naturalistic way possible, by drawing on your own knowledge or fear of how it feels to lose someone you love, or not to be able to mourn them as you would wish. An even more powerful expression of this idea is offered by St Anselm, in his prayer to Mary Magdalene, where he imagines with extraordinary sensitivity the depth of her grief at not being able to find the body of Jesus when she went to the tomb to anoint him:

More than all this, what can I say, how can I find words to tell, about the burning love with which you sought him, weeping at the sepulchre, and wept for him in your seeking? How he came, who can say how or with what kindness, to comfort you, and made you burn with love still more; how he hid from you when you wanted to see him, and showed himself when you did not think to see him; how he was there all the time you sought him, and how he sought you when, seeking him, you wept.

But you, most holy Lord, why do you ask her why she weeps? Surely you can see; her heart, the dear life of her soul, is cruelly slain. O love to be wondered at; O evil to be shuddered at; you hung on the wood, pierced by iron nails, stretched out like a thief for the mockery of wicked men; and yet, "Woman," you say, "why are you weeping?" She had not been able to prevent them from killing you, but at least she longed to keep your body for a while with ointments lest it decay. No longer able to speak with you living, at least she could mourn for you dead. So, near to death and hating her own life, she repeats in broken tones the words of life which she had heard from the living. And now, besides all this, even the body which she was glad, in a way, to have kept, she believes to have gone. And can you ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Had she not reason to weep? For she had seen with her own eyes -- if she could bear to look -- what cruel men cruelly did to you; and now all that was left of you from their hands she thinks she has lost. All hope of you has fled, for now she has not even your lifeless body to remind her of you. And someone asks, "Who are you looking for? Why are you weeping?" You, her sole joy, should be the last thus to increase her sorrow. But you know it all well, and thus you wish it to be, for only in such broken words and sighs can she convey a cause of grief as great as hers...

But now, good Lord, gentle Master, look upon your faithful servant and disciple, so lately redeemed by your blood, and see how she burns with anxiety, desiring you, searching all round, questioning, and what she longs for is nowhere found. Nothing she sees can satisfy her, since you whom alone she would behold, she sees not. What then? How long will my Lord leave his beloved to suffer thus? Have you put off compassion now you have put on incorruption? Did you let go of goodness when you laid hold of immortality?

Mary Magdalene was famous for her tears (which is why her name became our word maudlin), and Anselm dwells on them at length in his prayer, with the intention of evoking answering tears in himself and in the reader. These tears of grief will turn to tears of joy, and yet Anselm explores how closely mingled the two must be, must have been:

For love's sake he cannot bear her grief for long or go on hiding himself. For the sweetness of love he shows himself who would not for the bitterness of tears. The Lord calls his servant by the name she has often heard and the servant knows the voice of her own Lord. I think, or rather I am sure, that she responded to the gentle tone with which he was accustomed to call, "Mary." What joy filled that voice, so gentle and full of love. He could not have put it more simply and clearly: "I know who you are and what you want; behold me; do not weep, behold me; I am he whom you seek." At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting.

The Burial of Christ (BL Harley MS. 2915, f. 173v)

Such prayers as this were the beginning of the devotional tradition which sought to approach God through human emotion, and which culminated in such poems as the 'Alone' carol. That song falls into the genre known as Planctus Mariae, 'the lament of Mary', and planctus of all kinds is a very popular form in medieval literature (compleint is the usual Middle English term). One purpose of planctus as a literary genre, whether the one lamenting is Mary or Dido, is that it gives space and voice to sorrow, to the kinds of emotion we all feel, but can't often express except through poetry, through other people's words. On this particular Good Friday, when grief is all around us, it is perhaps more important than ever to make space for those emotions, to acknowledge and find words for them. In the 'Alone' carol the grief is attached to one particular story - Christ's Passion - but much of its expression is taken from the wider tradition of compleint, which encompasses many other kinds of love and sorrow. Its refrain, 'Sore I sigh and all for one', very clearly echoes the language of secular love-songs; it could conceivably have been borrowed from an existing love-song, as was a common practice. Compare the similar phrasing found in the 16th-century manuscript below: 'Alone I live, alone, and sore I sigh for one'. In medieval love poems, too, it's conventional (as you might expect!) to lament loneliness, to pine for the absent and to long for reunion. Here's an example comparable to our 'Alone' carol by the 15th-century poet Charles d'Orleans, which begins:

Alone am y and wille to be alone;
Alone, withouten plesere or gladnes,
Alone in care, to sighe and grone,
Alone, to wayle the deth of my maystres,
Alone, which sorow will me neuyr cesse.
Alone, I curse the liif I do endure.
Alone this fayntith me my gret distres,
Alone I lyve, an ofcast creature.

[Alone am I, and want to be alone;
Alone, without pleasure or gladness,
Alone in sorrow, to sigh and groan,
Alone, to bewail the death of my mistress,
Alone, the sorrow which will never cease for me.
Alone, I curse the life I endure,
Alone, my great distress makes me faint,
Alone I live, an outcast creature.]

Each stanza continues in this way; read the whole thing here.


The transference of language like this between religious verse and secular love-poetry apparently did not seem as odd in the Middle Ages as it might to us today; it could in fact be a source of inspiration for religious poets and preachers, as they sought to articulate the experience of love wherever it might be found - with the belief that ultimately, truly and most completely, it will always be found in Christ. Looking for other comparable 'alone' poems, I came across a 14th-century sermon for Good Friday, which incorporates several short lyrics or couplets in English within the predominantly Latin text. The focus of the sermon is a quotation from the Song of Songs which was immensely popular in medieval devotional writing: amore langueo, 'I languish for love'. (This is also the refrain of two of the finest Middle English lyrics: one spoken by Christ, 'In a valley of restless mind', and the other by Mary, 'In a tabernacle of a tower, as I stood musing on the moon'). Here these words of love - from a book of course full of erotic desire - are interpreted as if they are Christ's, and as if they describe his actions on Good Friday. First, the author explains the paradoxical nature of Good Friday ('a doubtful day of feast and fast', he might have said!):

Dearly beloved, I think I can rightly say that this is a blissful day and a sorrowful day. It is a blissful day because on it occurred one of the greatest joys that ever happened to the human race, for mankind was led out of servitude, and he who was a slave became free. That this day was blessed among all that ever have been is proven by blessed Gregory when he says, 'What would we have gained by Christ's birth if he had not redeemed us?' as if to say, nothing. Since such great joy came to mankind on this day, we can say with the Psalmist, 'This is the day the Lord has made,' etc. Likewise, this is a sorrowful day because one of the most pitiful and sorrowful things that have ever happened occurred on it, for today, he who was innocent and without stain of sin was unreasonably and falsely killed and ended his life in pain like a lamb; and thus is fulfilled what he himself said through the prophet in a psalm: 'My life has ended in pain,' etc.

(This translation is from Siegfried Wenzel, Macaronic Sermons: Bilingualism and Preaching in Late-Medieval England (Ann Arbor, 1994); the bolded phrases mark words which in the original appear in English, while the rest is in Latin.) The preacher then goes on to expound his text, and to explore what it might mean to say that Christ 'languishes for love'.

Dearly beloved, you should understand that not every love is a languishing love, but only intense love is said to be languishing, that is, when someone loves something so much that he thinks of nothing else beside it, nor has any taste or delight except for it alone. Such love did Christ have for us, as he clearly shows today. Hence we must in return have the same love for him. Speaking of such languishing love, it seems to me that I find seven clear signs by which we can recognize a man who languishes in love. They are:

He lesus is myth and waxit wan
He syket as a sorful man
Alone he drawes fro compenye
And euer he herkenes one ys drurie.
Louelyche he spekis to hys herte
For hym he suffrus peynis smert
Thorow tokenys of 3yftes 3yuynge
He schewet in hert loue-murnyng.

[He loses his strength and grows pale;
He sighs as a sorrowful man;
Alone he draws from company,
And he always listens for his beloved.
Lovingly he speaks to his heart,
For whom he suffers pains smart.
Through tokens of gifts given,
He shows in heart love-mourning.]

These are the seven signs by which we can tell a person who languishes from love, and all of them were on this day found in Christ.

He goes on to explain, one by one, how each of these features of the pining human lover could be seen in Christ on the day of his Passion. 'Alone he draws from company' is a characteristic of the lover (like Charles d'Orleans) but in the story of Good Friday, it's literally true of Christ:

The third sign of languishing love is that he who languishes for love withdraws from company, for there can be no companionship for him except that of his beloved. In this way Christ was alone, for no one remained with him, even 'his disciples abandoned him and fled.' At that time they did not yet fully believe in him, for they did not expect him to rise from the dead, all except the Blessed Virgin, in whom the Church's faith stood alive during those three days.

This offers a more positive reading of Christ 'alone' on Good Friday. In one sense his solitude is an abandonment, a painful isolation - but it's also an act of love, undertaken for the good of others. In this analogy 'his beloved' is all mankind; he withdraws from the company of his closest friends as an act of self-sacrifice, putting aside his particular love for his friends for the love of humanity in general. I wonder if there has ever been a Good Friday in the six centuries since this sermon was written when that interpretation of his aloneness has hit so close to home.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The Long Lent and the History of Quarantine


Strange new events call for new vocabulary, and over the last few weeks and months we have all been getting used to some novel and unfamiliar language: self-isolation, social distancing, lockdown. In my own mind, I've taken to calling this whole situation 'the Long Lent' - mostly because it sounds less frightening than 'global pandemic', and makes it seem a little bit less weird and impossible. It's also an apt name in several ways which suit the timing of this strange new reality. In the UK and some other parts of the world, this escalating situation has coincided almost exactly with the progress of Lent; at Ash Wednesday lockdown still seemed only a distant possibility, but by mid-Lent Sunday it was our new life. That life is Lenten in some familiar as well as unfamiliar ways. In a literal sense, of course, the constraints and restrictions we are all facing require the kind of self-denial and patience Lenten fasting is meant to teach; if we are lucky enough in ordinary times to have an abundance of all the food, time and pleasure we can wish for (of course not everybody is) that has changed abruptly in the last few weeks. The sombre themes which Lent demands we reflect on are now our daily preoccupation; texts used every year in the liturgy during Lent - contemplations of mortality and the brevity of life, the lamentations of Jeremiah, Psalm 91 with its promise of being saved from plague and pestilence - seem almost too pointed this year.

Even the suspension of worship in churches, though in some ways unprecedented, has a slightly uncanny Lenten parallel. (The date on which it ceased was also, as pointed out here, an extraordinary coincidence with the single comparable precedent for this in British history.) In Lent the church traditionally forgoes, temporarily fasts, from some aspects of the liturgy: the Alleluia is 'locked' away, as it was expressed in medieval England, to be unlocked again at Easter. During Passiontide, the last fortnight in Lent, statues and crucifixes in church are covered up, hidden and shrouded as a token of the deepening solemnity of the season. Last week, many people could still at least see the inside of churches they love via livestreamed services, but tighter restrictions mean that even that is now forbidden for many; and so Passion Sunday marked the beginning of a period when many churches will be entirely shrouded and invisible for a long time to come. It's a strange coincidence, of the kind a medieval historian, trained to be attuned to the intersections between unfolding human history and the liturgical year, would have found fascinating (and most likely they would have said it was not a coincidence at all).

Since these restrictions will not end for us at Easter, even when Lent is over, this looks to be a very Long Lent indeed. But there's an etymological fitness in the phrase 'Long Lent', too, which means the two words naturally collocate. In English, the original meaning of the word 'Lent' (Old English lencten) was simply 'spring', and though it was subsequently transferred in the Anglo-Saxon period to refer to the church season, the two meanings co-existed for a long time. 'Lent' continued to be the most common word for 'spring' in English until at least the 14th century. In medieval English usage, it's often difficult to distinguish whether any particular use of 'Lent' means 'spring' or specifically 'pre-Easter fast'; the two always coincide, and there wasn't often much need to differentiate. In origin, the etymology of 'Lent' probably derives from the same Germanic root as 'long' and 'lengthen', from the idea of spring as the time when the days are growing longer. Whether poets realised that or not (it wouldn't be hard to guess), the alliteration and aural similarity which links these words means they often appear together in medieval English poetry. For instance, here's a verse from a fourteenth-century springtime poem in praise of the Virgin Mary:

Lentun-dayes, thei ben longe,
And nou weor good tyme to amende
That we beforen han do wronge.
This world nis nothing, as I wende;
In sori tyme my lyf I spend.
This world is fals, and that I feel;
But Marie Moder me amende,
Amis I fare, and nothing wel.

(Lent days, they are long, and now is a good time to make amends for what we have previously done wrong. This world is nothing, I think; I spend my life unhappily. This world is false, and I feel that. Unless Mary mother helps me amend, I fare amiss, and in no way well.)

The suggestion here is that the natural lengthening of days in Lent helps to make them a particularly good time to do penance - not exactly, perhaps, because there are more hours of daylight to do good in, but because Lent/spring is a season of amendment, a time of growth and rebirth in the natural world, when light and life are increasing all around us. The lengthening days of Lent can be taken as a sign of hope for better things, a spur to aim for self-improvement. However, I confess that to me this Lent seems like a time when 'the days are growing longer' in a different way, because at times these formless days seem very long indeed...

A bit of more cheerful blossom

If we delve a bit further into linguistic history, we can see some more interesting connections. Along with adjusting to new vocabulary, we're also hearing much more these days of an older term, quarantine - a word most of us probably already knew, without often having the need to use it. This comes from the medieval Latin quarentena, from quaranta, 'forty', and in medieval Latin it's a measurement, both of length and of time: as a unit of length, the equivalent of English furlong (a length of forty rods), and as a unit of time, a period of forty days.

It's the latter which gives us our modern sense of the word. The history of quarantine as a public health measure dates back to the fourteenth century, when Venetian authorities, hoping to avoid outbreaks of plague, enforced a forty-day period of waiting before ships could enter harbour. In time similar measures were adopted elsewhere, and quarantine became a common word for such periods of isolation, whether or not the period in question was actually forty days long. (The OED helpfully quotes Pepys, writing in 1663, observing of a thirty-day quarantine that it's 'contrary to the import of the word; though in the general acceptation, it signifies now the thing, not the time spent in doing it'.)

However, the word quarantine has a longer history than that, and one which aligns it closely with Lent. A period of forty days is not a random unit of time, but one whose significance in medieval custom was established by important Biblical precedent: in the Old Testament both Moses and Elijah went without food for periods of forty days, sustained only by the power of God, and, of course, Christ fasted in the desert forty days and forty nights. In imitation of these fasts, and especially of Christ in the wilderness, a forty-day period of fasting was established in Christian practice in the fourth century, and gradually became codified as the season of Lent (in Latin Quadragesima, from the same root as quarentena). It matches the other significant periods of forty-day seasons which shape the liturgical year, the forty days between Christmas and Candlemas and between Easter and the Feast of the Ascension. Lent, Easter, and Christmas are each attached to a forty-day quarentena.

The well-established significance of the forty-day period meant that it was a convenient one to use for various purposes in the Middle Ages, long before it became a means of keeping out the plague. Some of the earliest appearances of the word quarantine refer to legal customs which stipulated a fixed forty-day period within which a particular thing had to be done. For instance, there was a law that a woman whose husband had just died was allowed a quarantine: she had the right to continue living in her late husband’s house for forty days, unmolested, while her share of the estate was decided. This right to a 'widow's quarantine' was included in Magna Carta.

Another kind of forty-day quarantine might be a time for fasting, chosen or imposed as a penance. It was a way of imitating the Biblical periods of fasting, but at any time of the year. The fourteenth-century English poet John Gower, writing in French, says that 'He who fasts a single day with you [i.e. Charity] receives a more sure reward than another who fasts a quarantine (un quarantain) without you', suggesting that a fast of one day, faithfully undertaken, is of more virtue than the more extravagant commitment of forty days. There are numerous comparable uses of the term in sources in medieval Latin (quarentena) and in Anglo-Norman (quarantaine), in the centuries before the word began to take on its more restricted present-day meaning.

Interestingly, though often used by English writers when writing in Latin or French, the word quarantine doesn't appear in English in any of these senses until after the medieval period. There are several reasons for this, one being that most legal and ecclesiastical business in the period we're looking at (twelfth-fifteenth centuries) was still conducted or at least recorded in either Latin or French, so an English equivalent for a technical term like the 'widow's quarantine' would not have been necessary. But the other reason is that when speakers of Middle English wanted to talk about a forty-day period of fasting, they would call it a lent - a term which by this time could refer to a fast at any time of year, not only the universal pre-Easter fast. If Gower had been writing in English, he would surely have used the word lent where he says quarantain, just as a contemporary of his writes of a penance being imposed for 'the lengthe of a Lenten' at a non-Lent time of the year. This means that to some degree lent and quarantine are basically synonymous, since both can mean 'a forty-day period of penitential fasting'.

And that brings us to the other link between them, the only sense the word quarantine does have in medieval English, according to the Middle English Dictionary.

By yonde ys a wyldernys of quarentyne,
Wher Cryst wyth fastyng hys body dyd pyne;
In that holy place, as we rede,
The deuyl wold had of stonys bred;
Aboue that wyldernys ryght fer and hy
The fende to Cryst schewyd regna mundi,
And sayde, 'Yf thow wylt me worschyp do
Al these shalt thou haue thy lordschyp to.'

This is the fifteenth-century writer William Wey, describing the region around Jerusalem, which he had visited on pilgrimage in 1456 and subsequently wrote about in his Itineraries. One of the pilgrimage sites one could visit in that region was the desert where Christ fasted, which was named Quarantine, because of the forty-day duration of his fast. (Today, Mount Quarantania.) Margery Kempe went there too, in 1413, to 'the Mownt Qwarentyne ther owyr Lord fastyd fowrty days'; she tells us how difficult she and her party found it to get up the mountain, and how she could not manage it at all until she found a kindly 'Sarazyn' to help her. That mountain, pilgrims were told, was where Christ fasted and was tempted by the devil, as Wey explains:

Beyond is a wilderness of Quarantine,
Where Christ with fasting afflicted his body.
In that holy place, as we read,
The devil demanded to have bread from stones.
Above that wilderness, right far and high,
The devil to Christ showed the kingdom of the world,
And said, 'If you will worship me,
You shall have this in your power.'

That was the fast and self-denial which the practice of Lent was supposed to imitate. And it all took place in Quarantine.

Christ in Quarantine (British Library, Add MS 18851, f. 71, opening the readings for the First Sunday of Lent)

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