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
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.