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.