Sunday 29 November 2020

'Time's handiworks by time are haunted'

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and it’s a strange one. Public worship is currently banned in England, though that’s supposed to end in a few days - but the first day of the new liturgical year will not begin in church, just as the most important feast of the Christian year couldn't be publicly celebrated back in the spring. We are in Advent where we were in Lent, preparing for a Christmas not much more cheerful than lonely Easter.

For many people, spring never really came this year. We never got out of the Long Lent; dreary February became anxious March, and then time stood still. I wrote back at Whitsun (also cancelled) about the unsettling feeling of living through unmarked time, cast adrift without the anchors of ritual, festival, and rites of passage. ‘Always winter and never Christmas’ was in the back of my mind as I wrote it, but then Christmas seemed like a long way away - and now here we are.

November, mid-afternoon

Everyone’s experience of this year has been different. Some people have been working much harder than usual, with no escape from work or the worry of unemployment; for them, time has not been plentiful. Many, especially those with caring responsibilities, probably feel as if they haven’t had a minute to themselves all year. That hasn’t been my own experience. I’ve mostly been very lucky; I haven’t lost my job, or lost anyone I love. (I did lose my home, so it’s not all been easy.) My experience has been one of emptiness: empty time and empty space. I’ve been working, and fortunate to have been so; but you can’t work all the time, and when there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do, the evenings and the weekends and all the time that’s not work can be very long and very empty. Of course you find ways to fill that time; nice ways, lots of them. But nine months of empty hours is a lot of time to fill.

As for empty space - I’ve spent a lot of time walking this year, through empty streets and empty fields, alone except for cows and birds. More recently, I’ve been going into my workplace, and it’s been very strange to be alone in rooms I used to know as full of crowds: communal spaces which were places of community and friendship, full of movement and chatter, now empty and silent. At times I’ve started to feel a bit like the ‘last survivor’ of Beowulf - an anonymous character who is the sole survivor of his vanished people, left with nothing to do but bury their treasures, because they are worthless with no one to share them. As he buries the treasures in the earth, he laments:

Death in war,
fierce deadly evil, has carried off
every man of my people who gave up this life, 
who saw the last of the joys in the hall. I have none to bear the sword
or carry the decorated cup,
precious drinking-vessel. The company has passed elsewhere...
There is no joy in the harp
or pleasure in the singing wood; nor does a noble hawk
swoop through the hall, nor the swift steed
stamp in the courtyard. Baleful death
has sent forth many of the human race.

He's describing a noble hall, once full of human joy and animal energy, now empty and desolate; all its precious trappings - sword, cup, harp - have lost their value now the people who treasured them are gone. Anglo-Saxon poets were fascinated by such empty places, which often evoked for them apocalyptic scenes of winter desolation (more on that in this week's Patreon post). We’re not quite at that level yet, but it’s the general sort of mood. Perhaps more the kind of thing is this reflection by Thomas Traherne:
I remember once the first time I came into a magnificent or noble dining room, and was left there alone, I rejoiced to see the gold and state and carved imagery, but when all was dead, and there was no motion, I was weary of it, and departed dissatisfied. But afterwards, when I saw it full of lords and ladies, and music and dancing, the place which once seemed not to differ from a solitary den, had now entertainment, and nothing of tediousness but pleasure in it. By which I perceived (upon a reflection made long after) that men and women are when well understood a principal part of our true felicity.
‘A principal part of our true felicity’ - I like that so much. What value are any of our treasures - tangible or intangible - if there is no one to enjoy them with? And many places usually full of people are currently standing empty - including churches, on the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent is a season for thinking about time, and I can't imagine that I'm the only person who has felt time pressing heavily this year. Some people have been confident, pretty much since the beginning, that all this will just be a blip - a brief pause in our lives, soon to be forgotten once we press the restart button and get life going again. Now that a vaccine is on the horizon, they’re convinced this will all soon be over, and they’re saying - just as they said back in March - that it’s simply a question of following the rules for a few weeks, and then everything will be back to normal. I admire the optimism, and I really do sympathise with the desire to believe this, but it seems to me unrealistic. You can’t press pause on life for a year and not expect that there won't be permanent and irreparable losses in the meantime. How hollow such ‘back to normal’ talk must sound to those who've lost their jobs and livelihoods, looking at years of work invested in businesses or careers which have been taken away from them and can’t be given back. All the parts of our lives which arise from our being humans with bodies and not virtual heads-on-Zoom can’t, fundamentally, be put on pause: we are all growing older all the time, and we can’t take a year off from that. Those who have this year lost months of good health, of fertility, of education, of time with swift-growing grandchildren or fast-ageing loved ones - they can never get that time back. Because of course time didn’t really stand still, just because we were unable to mark it: it carried us along on its inevitable forward progress, as it always does. And some people will have to live with the consequences of that lost time for the rest of their lives. 

Who can restore the year that the locusts have eaten? Nobody on earth. But this is Advent, and Advent, with its focus on Apocalypse as well as Incarnation, explores the possibility that there is more to understand about time than the little bit of it we live through. Pushing this belief that you can press pause on life to its logical conclusion, some of the ‘just a few more weeks’ people have recently been fantasising about delaying Christmas. Just push Christmas back to July, they say, when this will all be over! Again, I understand the impulse, and many people probably will choose to delay their usual celebrations, as indeed my own family are doing. But there’s perhaps no subject on which the UK media class are more consistently silly than manufactured controversies about Christmas and Easter, and of course 2020’s has to be lockdown-flavour. So journalists and commentators have been pretending not to understand why some people might feel deeply unhappy about not seeing family at Christmas, even if they accept it as necessary (‘what’s the big deal? It’s just one day!’), or pretending to be upset that a Christian festival is getting special treatment (conveniently forgetting that every other Christian festival this year has also been curtailed by lockdown - and also that in every other year these same journalists are making up a fake controversy about whether Christmas is actually a Christian festival at all.) It all feels very disingenuous, and really quite weird.

Like it or not, the reality is that in Britain just over 90% of people celebrate Christmas in some form, the majority as a secular rather than a religious festival. For most of those people, spending time with family is a key part of the celebration. So in terms of numbers alone, its loss affects many more people than the loss of other festivals (including other Christian festivals), and pretending not to understand why it poses a unique logistical challenge is little more than a cheap rhetorical trick. Since sneering at how other people celebrate Christmas is a regular part of journalistic ritual at this time of year, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that they also pretend to think that all people value about Christmas is food and presents - because then they get to roll out their yearly complaints about the supposedly selfish, greedy poor who spend all their money on turkey, garish lights, and piles of toys they can't afford (unlike good middle-class journalists, who keep a tasteful Christmas). Don't underestimate how much the tyranny of good taste underlies media chatter about how we 'ought' to celebrate Christmas, even in a time of pandemic.

Unless you're this particular kind of media person, it's not that difficult to understand why people invest money - and time, and thought, and planning and care - into making a happy Christmas for their families. The British festival year used to involve numerous seasons and holidays when people could gather together, in extended families and in local communities; now for many people in that 90% it's almost all concentrated on Christmas, and that's a lot of pressure. Of course advertisers exploit that pressure for their own ends, so many of us have a vision in our heads of the 'perfect family Christmas' which may bear little or no relation to how we have actually experienced the season. (I'm sure the journalists are attacking the imaginary advertisers' Christmas more than anything they've seen in real life.) 

It's typical of the modern Christmas, most of all in its focus on family and childhood, that it leads people to places of strong emotion, both good and bad. Whether your memories of childhood Christmas are happy or unhappy ones, when Christmas comes round there's no escaping them. Whatever your family is or isn't, or whatever you want it to be, this is the time when you are insistently pushed to think about it and to compare yourself to others. Any sense of loss or deficiency in the family is made worse by the contrast with images of other apparently perfect families, or by remembering past happiness, or imagining what could or should be. Grief is harder. Absences are more keenly felt. It's a season when one phrase or one note of a song can open floodgates of emotion, calling forth profound fears, griefs, and longings which in ordinary time we might manage to contain. Christmas used to be a season of ghost stories, and it's certainly a time when it's hard not to be haunted by memories - even happy memories, of 'those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light'.

You can call that sentimental, or irrational, but it's very powerful all the same. And it's no coincidence - of course it isn't - that this is all intensified because it takes place at midwinter, when the days are very short and the nights very long; when the weather is cold and hostile; when light is lowest, and the shadows longest. There's a reason we call this season 'the dead of winter', with all the sterility and hopelessness that implies. That makes the Christmas brightness all the brighter, or the darkness all the darker - the lights and the warmth and the company all the more welcome, or their absence all the more painful.

It's a bleak and lonely and isolating time of year, at the best of times; and these aren't the best of times. How much more endless the empty evenings seem now in November than they did in April, now they begin at four o'clock in the afternoon! The 'it's just one day' people can go on saying that as much as they like, but this particular day, after nine months of isolation or separation from family, is going to be hard for a lot of people.

None of that has much to do with the Christian meaning of Christmas; it's all as true of a secular Christmas as of a religious one. And yet of course it does, because in Britain the Christian festival and the cultural significance of this time of year have grown up together, over many centuries, rooted in a particular place and a particular culture which have formed and influenced a particular expression of both. This has been a Christian country for well over a thousand years (that's a historical fact, not a polemical point); so if you want to understand the modern British Christmas, you can't untangle one from the other. 

In Britain, as elsewhere in northern Europe, Christmas is a midwinter festival. (This is where people start shouting 'because it was stolen from the pagans!' so I'm now going to talk about that; but please proceed with an open mind, and don't just shout at me...) By the time early medieval missionaries came to convert the various peoples of Britain to Christianity, Christmas, like Easter, was already a well-established festival in the church. It's a common mistake in modern discussions of this question to massively overstate the influence of English-speaking culture within the medieval Christian church; I talked about that in relation to Easter here. So it's important to say first that the association between Christ's birth and the winter solstice, between the Son of God and the sun as a potent symbol of light and life, predates this country's conversion to Christianity by several centuries. The story of its establishment is more complex than is popularly believed, and long before the festival reached this country it was already linked up with a network of other liturgical dates, including Easter and the Feast of the Annunciation, which were thought to trace their origins back to the Gospel narratives of Christ's life and death.

But such ideas, communicated and shared throughout the international church, also manifested themselves in distinctive ways in different Christian cultures - and latitudes and climates. When Christmas reached this part of the world, it met some kind of pre-existing midwinter festival(s) with which it subsequently became entwined. As always, we know much less about these festivals than we would like to know, and much less than is often confidently stated in the media. But in the Anglo-Saxon regions of Britain, that midwinter festival was probably Geola (Yule), and what resulted from that meeting was a new expression of Christianity which went on to develop its shape and meaning within a particular cultural context. As a parallel, we might compare what happened when the very widespread tradition of Biblical and early medieval Christian 'sun' imagery for the 'Son of God' entered the English language, where the words for sun and son were very close - to a medieval way of thinking, a meaningful conjunction rather than a linguistic accident. Anglo-Saxon Christians knew perfectly well that their ancestors had celebrated a midwinter festival too, and they didn't pretend otherwise; but the new religion had given new meaning to it, and in their eyes, a meaning more true and powerful.

Religious conversion is a profound cultural shift, which involves rebuilding the social architecture of an entire society. That works itself out in different ways in different places, with an almost infinite amount of diversity and variety. In England, when it came to the festival year, it involved harmonising a new religion which had its roots in the Middle East and the Mediterranean world with the climate and agricultural calendar of a country on the edge of northern Europe. That was a complex process of synthesis and negotiation - not a matter of simply laying one calendar on top of another, or just celebrating old festivals under new names, but of reinterpreting and rethinking the intersections between the divine and the human, between religious observance and the rituals of daily life. One reason I find it frustrating when people ignore this complexity to rant about 'stealing pagan festivals' is that it denies the agency and intelligence of the converted peoples, as well as of those doing the converting. This was a process which required serious thought on both sides, and its result was an English festival calendar which had a remarkable longevity, lasting - not by any means unchanged, but very stable - from the seventh or eighth century up to just a few decades ago. Comparable, but distinct, processes took place in other parts of Britain and in Ireland, where new festival calendars were formed within these different contexts - no more or less Christian, but the product of differing cultural forces and forms of negotiation. Those variations are regularly glossed over in modern discussions of these subjects (see: Lammas, Halloween), as if all parts of what's now Britain and all forms of non-Christian religion were basically the same; but of course they weren't, and the differences are important to note.

I’m increasingly troubled by the discourse of cultural purity which surrounds the ‘stolen festivals’ myth, since it's not only historically inaccurate but also would imply, if taken to its logical conclusion, that no cultures are ever allowed to change or influence each other. I do wonder if the people who aggressively assert, more than a thousand years after Britain converted to Christianity, that Christian festivals are still a foreign imposition, unjustly supplanting some kind of native pagan religion, are really prepared to accept the implications of that argument. Are they truly suggesting that mutual influence between different cultures and religions can only ever be seen as illegitimate and corrupting? That there is one form of religion indigenous to the British Isles (paganism), and every religion introduced later has no rightful place here? That immigrants to a country should never be allowed to integrate or combine their religious traditions with those of their new home, and that even centuries after their arrival the traditions they've introduced - even if they have been widely and enthusiastically adopted - must always be stigmatised as inauthentic, not really British? I can't imagine how stultifying it must be to think of culture in such prescriptive terms, nor what it suggests about their attitude to religious diversity in general.

The medieval attitude to the development of religious festivals and seasons was considerably more flexible than such a rigid modern perspective would allow. In the early medieval period, liturgical calendars were organic in their growth, and very localised. Over time things became more standardised, but the story of the development of the Christian calendar in the first millennium is often one of feasts beginning in a particular place, where they're found to be meaningful and valuable, and then spreading elsewhere if that meaning could be translated to a new context. Some remained local, as many saints' feasts did; others started local but caught on, like All Saints' Day, or the Advent fast, and became more widely celebrated throughout the church.

In general, there's a balance between diversity and universality in early medieval practice which many people in post-Christian Britain struggle to understand. If they've only encountered one variety of Christianity - most likely a form of Anglo-American Protestantism, which they often know better from TV than from personal experience - they assume that its beliefs and practices must be universal, rather than culturally conditioned. If that's Christianity, they think, everything which varies from it must be deviant, and the easiest thing is to label those deviations 'pagan'. Some Christians are prone to this too, of course. This applies to many things, such as attitudes towards scriptural authority or interactions with the dead, but anything to do with the natural world - cycles of the earth or the sun and moon - is especially liable to fall into this category, even though it's self-evidently absurd to think that nature is somehow inherently pagan. (People who think lunar calendars are 'pagan' might want to take a look at some other major religions sometime.) How can the experience of living through the seasons, which is the most universal experience imaginable, belong to one religion more than another? What can it possibly mean to say that the feeling of living through midwinter, for instance, somehow intrinsically belongs more to paganism than it does to any other religion, such that it can be 'stolen'? The experience is the same: when it's cold and it gets dark early, people want light and warmth and the hope that this won't last forever. They may link those wants and hopes with their religious beliefs, or they may not; but surely no way of acknowledging those feelings and marking the season can be more or less right or wrong, pure or impure, native or stolen. It’s just human beings, living through time.

There are many troubling assumptions underlying this binary approach to religion, as well as a long history of what we now know to be faulty scholarship - in particular, that of 19th-century scholars who sought to identity pagan roots for Christian practices because they preferred that to acknowledging these practices' Jewish or Catholic history. One reason it would be good for the British media to take religion more seriously, and for journalists to attempt to educate themselves about a much greater diversity of religious practices, is that it would help to get away from these binary ways of thinking - basically, to understand that the world contains many more religious options than 'Anglo-American Protestant' and 'pagan'. They could, for instance, learn to recognise the kinds of symbolic language in which many religions speak about the divine, rather than insisting on taking everything with such a tired literalism ('but would it really snow in Bethlehem?'). Or they could try to understand the role of tradition and the interpretation of sacred texts in different religions, with all their complicated history and nuance (rather than thinking they're being clever by saying 'Jesus' birthday isn't mentioned in the Bible, so the date must be arbitrary!'). It would be nice to think that as we engage in another profound cultural shift, from Christian to post-Christian Britain, we could discuss these questions in more open and less intolerant ways.

'Christ was born...' (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B I)

To return to midwinter. Anglo-Saxon writers often use 'midwinter' as another name for Christmas, even in the most explicitly Christian contexts. 'Crist wæs acennyd... on midne winter' ('Christ was born at midwinter'), begins the most unambiguously liturgical Old English poem. Even in the eleventh century, when England had been soaked in Christian culture for many generations, Christmas could be called 'Midwinter's mass-day', as a completely unremarkable alternative name for the feast. That's certainly not because these writers were consciously or unconsciously still a bit pagan; it's because, like the early medieval church more widely, they were part of a culture fascinated by the intersection of liturgical time and natural time. As they saw it, God created time, like everything in the natural world; and so time and the seasons, like everything else, was pregnant with potential meaning. That meaning they understood by the light of their own environment and their Christian faith. It's no coincidence that Bede (who had thought very seriously about the transition from pagan belief to Christianity within his particular cultural context), chose a winter scene to illustrate something about that transition, giving voice to the thoughts of a pagan Northumbrian discussing whether or not to accept the new faith:
The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.
The point of this story is that not that Christianity, unlike paganism, protects you from the storms of winter. It's more bleak than that, more honest. The lighted hall, full of people and warmth and feasting (so different from Thomas Traherne's empty magnificence) is human society on this earth - all that we build to shield us from the cold and darkness. Pagan or Christian, an individual life coming into that society is still like the brief flight of a sparrow, fragile, vulnerable, transient. But the point is that if this new religion meant anything at all, it meant a glimpse of something outside the hall: of a different kind of time to that which is known to us. It meant the hope of a presence out there in the emptiness, a light in the midwinter darkness.

Monday 2 November 2020

The company of the dead

There’s a particular horror in the idea of dying alone, and the fear of a lonely death haunts many of us. But in one or way another, death is always lonely. The grave is a solitary place, and death is a journey you have to undertake alone. Different cultures develop their own ways of lessening the loneliness of the grave, providing those who are grieving with some continuing connection to the dead. In the Christian Church, for the past thousand years, an important season for bridging the gap between the living and the dead has been the twin feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’, on 1 and 2 November.
As the names suggest, both feasts offer the very opposite of solitude: they are opportunities to connect with multitudes, communities, vast companies of the dead. The first day celebrates the saints in heaven, the “cloud of witnesses” and the “great multitude which no man could number”, as they are described in Biblical texts read at this feast; the second day is for everyone else, all the “faithful departed” — an even greater crowd of souls.
By the later Middle Ages, these days formed a coherent and widely observed season of remembrance, known in medieval England as “Hallowtide”. The two days had distinct but related aims: All Saints’ was intended to celebrate the glorious dead and to ask for their prayers, but the purpose of All Souls’ was to pray for the dead, for those in Purgatory who needed the prayers of the living to help them in their passage to heaven. It was a time not only to remember the dead but to look after them, to give them assistance and comfort. On the nights of Hallowtide, church bells rang out to reassure the souls in Purgatory that the living had not forgotten them. It must have been profoundly comforting to the grieving, too, to feel that they could still do something to help those they had lost.
Caring for the dead wasn’t just for Hallowtide, though. In the Middle Ages, looking after the dead was a duty incumbent on believers all year round. Prayer for the dead, known and unknown, was a regular feature of medieval devotion, and was seen as an important act of charity. Believers were encouraged to pray for the souls of those they had known in life — their family, godparents, or benefactors — but also for those whom they had not personally known, but with whom they shared some connection: deceased members of their professional guild, or all the dead buried in their parish church. And they were asked to pray too, as many still do today, for those who had no one else to pray for them. No one was to be left alone in death.

I've written for Unherd about All Souls Day in this year of solitude; read the rest there

It's struck me so forcefully this year that whatever else you might say about the medieval church, they knew how to deal with death: learning how to face it, and how to talk about it, were seen as skills fundamental for living a good life as a thinking person in this world. For many modern people, the vast medieval literature about death and the rituals and structures for facing it are easily dismissed as superstition; but as we've seen this past year, ignoring the reality of death doesn't tend to make societies less irrational about it. Not wanting to talk about the inevitability of death doesn't make it go away; and if you don't learn to face the fear of death, the fear itself can consume you, and swallow up everything else you hold dear.

Friday 18 September 2020

The Lives of Others

From my latest column for History Today:

‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’, says the heroine of Jane Austen’s Emma, playfully trying to reassure her ever-anxious father that other people can enjoy amusements he would never himself like. In Austen’s novel Emma is often wrong, but she is certainly right about this. Over the past few months, it has been evident that there are some people for whom the pleasures of their fellow human beings are not only unappealing, but incomprehensible. As our society, like those across the world, has undergone rapid and disorienting changes within a short space of time, many have lost, at least for a period, access to the mundane pleasures that give joy to daily life.

Publicly acknowledging the painful, isolating effects of that disruption has not always been welcome. Whatever the activity – a visit to the pub, going to the beach, or browsing in a shop – the loss and then qualified return of non-essential pastimes caused storms on social media. Many on Twitter hastened to proclaim scornfully that they could not understand why anyone would want to do these things, not just in the middle of a pandemic, but at all. In ordinary times these are harmless pleasures, which many value not just for the sake of the activity but for the people they share it with: social joys of a kind social media cannot replace. Even if they are not to your taste, it is surely possible to hold two thoughts in your mind: that cancelling these activities might be necessary for the greater good, but that people can also justly mourn for their absence and wish for their return.

At the same time, it has been clear that one half of the world cannot understand the other’s troubles, either. The ‘new normal’ which some welcome is, and will continue to be, a real hardship for others. If you have a stable home, a secure source of income and a family situation which makes home-working straightforward, then your experience of this year has been very different from that of anyone who does not have those things. To see some in that fortunate position dismissing others’ struggles has been troubling.

Part of this incomprehension seems to be a lack of imagination. One person admits to finding a certain situation difficult to deal with; another responds by saying: ‘This isn’t a problem for me, so I can’t imagine why it would be for anyone else.’ The phrase ‘can’t imagine’ in such assertions is often a self-satisfied rhetorical tactic, but it is not anything to be proud of. Can we really not imagine why someone in different circumstances might respond differently to the same situation? Or are we simply unwilling to try?

Read the rest here.

Wednesday 12 August 2020



If you were asked to guess the oldest town in Britain, you might not think of Abingdon. But the market town, which lies six miles south of Oxford, claims — and with some justice — to be the “oldest continuously occupied town” in this country. Situated on a loop of the Thames, in a green river valley, Abingdon was a densely-occupied and well-defended settlement by the Iron Age, surrounded by ditches which can still be traced in the plan of the modern town. Throughout the Roman and early Anglo-Saxon periods, the town’s population persisted, and by the tenth century had become the site of an important monastery.

Tourists who come to Oxford from around the world rarely make their way to Abingdon; it’s a working town, not a showplace. Its central shopping area was a casualty of post-war planners, a mass of modern concrete and chain stores; to the north, new housing estates are creeping ever closer to the famous university city. What might have been Abingdon’s chief tourist attraction, its cathedral-like abbey church, was destroyed five centuries ago.

And yet few towns are better proof of just how long and rich the history of apparently ordinary places can be. The two caveats in Abingdon’s claim to longevity (“town”, rather than city, and “in continuous occupation”) are significant, because it’s in these smaller communities — and the remarkable continuity of their institutions and collective lives — that the bedrock of British history lies.

Read the rest, on St Æthelwold and St Edmund of Abingdon, at Unherd

Tuesday 14 July 2020

As a fantasy

I wolde witen of sum wys wiht
Witterly what this world were.
Hit fareth as a foules fliht;
Now is hit henne, now is hit here,
Ne be we never so muche of miht,
Now be we on benche, now be we on bere;
And be we never so war and wiht,
Now be we sek, now beo we fere,
Now is on proud withouten peere,
Now is the selve iset not by;
And whos wol alle thing hertly here,
This world fareth as a fantasy.

The sonnes cours, we may wel kenne,
Aryseth est and geth doun west;
The ryvers into the see thei renne,
And hit is never the more almest.
Wyndes rosscheth her and henne,
In snouȝ and reyn is non arest;
Whon this wol stunte, ho wot or whenne,
But only God on grounde grest?
The eorthe in on is ever prest,
Now bidropped, now al druyȝe;
But uche gome glit forth as a gest,
This world fareth as a fantasye.

Kunredes come, and kunredes gon,
As joyneth generations,
But alle he passeth everichon,
For al heor preparacions.
Sum are forgete clene as bon
Among alle maner nations;
So schul men thenken us nothing on
That now han the ocupacions;
And alle theos disputacions
Idelyche all us ocupye,
For Christ maketh the creacions,
And this world fareth as a fantasye.

Whuch is mon, ho wot, and what,
Whether that he be ought or nought?
Of erthe and eyr groweth up a gnat,
And so doth mon whon al his souht;
Thaugh mon be waxen gret and fat,
Mon melteth awey so deth a mouht.
Monnes miht nis worth a mat,
But nuyȝeth himself and turneth to nought.
Ho wot, save he that al hath wrought,
Wher mon bicometh whon he schal dye?
Ho knoweth bi dede ought bote bi thought?
For this world fareth as a fantasye.

Dyeth mon, and beestes dye,
And al is on ocasion;
And alle o deth, hos bothe drye,
And han on incarnation.
Save that men beoth more sleyghe,
Al is o comparison.
Ho wot ȝif monnes soule styȝe,
And bestes soules synketh doun?
Who knoweth beestes ententioun,
On heor creatour how thei crie,
Save only God that knoweth heore soun?
For this world fareth as a fantasye.

Eche secte hopeth to be save,
Baldely bi heore bileeve;
And echon uppon God heo crave.
Whi schulde God with hem him greve?
Echon trouweth that othur rave,
But alle heo cheoseth God for cheve,
And hope in God echone thei have,
And bi heore wit heore worching preve.
Thus mony maters men don meve,
Sechen heor wittes hou and why;
But Godes merci us alle biheve,
For this world fareth as a fantasye.

For thus men stumble and sere heore witte,
And meveth maters mony and fele;
Summe leeveth on him, sum leveth on hit,
As children leorneth for to spele.
But non seoth non that abit,
Whon stilly deth wol on hym stele.
For he that hext in hevene sit,
He is the help and hope of hele;
For wo is ende of worldes wele,
Eche lyf loke wher that I lye.
This world is fals, fikel and frele,
And fareth but as a fantasye.

Wharto wilne we forte knowe
The poyntes of Godes privete?
More then him lustes forte schowe,
We schulde not knowe in no degre;
And idel bost is forte blowe
A mayster of divinite.
Thenk we lyve in eorthe her lowe,
And God an heigh in mageste;
Of material mortualite
Medle we, and of no more maistrie.
The more we trace the Trinite,
The more we falle in fantasye.

But leve we oure disputisoun,
And leeve on him that al hath wrought;
We mowe not preve bi no resoun
How he was born that al us bought;
But hol in oure ententioun,
Worschipe we him in herte and thought,
For he may turne kuyndes upsedoun,
That alle kuyndes made of nought.
When al our bokes ben forth brouht,
And al our craft of clergye,
And al our wittes ben thorwout sought,
Yit we fareth as a fantasye.

Of fantasye is al our fare,
Olde and yonge and alle ifere.
But make we murie and sle care,
And worschipe we God whil we ben here.
Spende our good and luytel spare,
And eche mon cheries othures cheere.
Thenk how we comen hider al bare;
Our wey wendyng is in a were.
Prey we the prince that hath no pere,
Tac us hol to his merci
And kepe our concience clere,
For this world is but fantasy.

Bi ensaumple men may se,
A gret treo grouweth out of the grounde;
No thing abated the eorthe wol be
Thaugh hit be huge, gret, and rounde.
Riht ther wol rooten the selve tre,
Whon elde hath maad his kuynde aswounde;
Thaugh ther weore rote suche thre,
The eorthe wol not encrece a pounde.
Thus waxeth and wanieth mon, hors, and hounde,
From nought to nought thus henne we highe.
And her we stunteth but a stounde,
For this world is but fantasye.

This is a poem from the end of the 14th century, which survives in two famous manuscripts of that period, the 'Vernon Manuscript' and the 'Simeon Manuscript'. It's a fine and accomplished poem, which draws on well-established medieval tropes and language of the poetry of transience and loss - well-worn, and because ancient, timeless. In places it's specifically indebted to Ecclesiastes: 'Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun... I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.'

Here's a translation.

I want to know from some wise creature
Truly what this world may be.
It is like the flight of a bird:
Now is it hence, now is it here.
And however mighty we may be,
Now we are on the bench, now on the bier;
And be we never so watchful and strong,
Now are we sick, now are we well.
Now is there one proud, without a peer,
Now is the same of no account;
And whoever will all things truly hear,
This world passes as a fantasy.

The sun's course, we may well know,
Rises in the east and goes down in the west;
The rivers run into the sea,
And yet it is never the greater.
Winds rush here and there,
The snow and rain never cease;
How this will stop, who knows, or when,
But only God, greatest in the world?
The earth is ever alike beset,
Now drenched, now dry;
But every man glides away like a guest.
This world passes as a fantasy.

Kindreds come, and kindreds go,
As generations knit together,
But they all pass away, every one,
For all their preparations.
Some are forgotten, clean as bone,
Among all kinds of nations.
So shall people think not at all of us,
Who now have the possession,
And of all the disputes
Which vainly occupy us.
For Christ makes all created things,
And this world passes as a fantasy.

What is man? who knows, and what?
Is he something, or nothing?
Out of earth and air a gnat grows,
And so does man, when the truth is known.
Though a man may grow great and fat,
He melts away just like a moth.
Man's might is not worth a straw,
But it vexes himself and turns to nothing.
Who knows, save he who made all things,
Where man will go when he must die?
Who knows anything by experience, not only by thought?
For this world passes as a fantasy.

Man dies, and beasts die,
And all have one condition
And all one death, however strong they are,
And have one flesh.
Except that men are cunning,
It's all the same thing.
Who knows if the souls of men ascend,
And the souls of beasts sink down?
Who knows the thoughts of beasts,
How they cry out to their creator,
Except for God, who knows their voices?
For this world passes as a fantasy.

Each sect boldly expects to be saved
Because of their faith,
And each one cries out to God.
Why should God trouble himself with them?
Each one believes the others mad,
But all think they have God on their side,
And put their hope in God,
And justify their actions by their clever reasoning.
Thus people start many arguments,
And search their wits to understand how and why,
But God's mercy is necessary for us all,
For this world passes as a fantasy.

For thus men stumble and wither up their wits,
And wrangle over subjects many and various;
Some believe this, some that,
Like children just learning to speak.
But no one holds to anything that will last
When stilly death steals upon him.
For he that sits highest in heaven,
He is the help and hope of health;
For sorrow is the end of worldly joy.
Can anyone tell me that I'm lying?
This world is false, fickle, and frail,
And passes as a fantasy.

Why do we seek to know
The intricacies of God's secrets?
More than it pleases him to show,
We should not know, by any means.
A vain boast is that which is asserted
By a Master of Divinity.
Think that we live low here on the earth,
And God on high in majesty;
In the mortality of material things
We have a share, and no more power than that.
The more we trace out the Trinity,
The more we fall in fantasy.

But let us leave our disputations,
And believe in him who made all things.
We cannot prove by any reason
How he was born, who redeemed us all;
But, whole in our intention,
Let us worship him in heart and thought,
For he may turn nature upside-down,
Who made all nature out of nothing.
When all our books are brought out,
And all our clerkly skill,
And all our wits are sought all through,
We still pass as a fantasy.

Of fantasy is all our faring,
Old and young and all together.
But let us make merry and put by care,
And worship God while we are here;
Spend our goods and spare little,
And let each man encourage another to be cheerful
Think how we came here entirely bare.
Our way wends on, we know not where.
Pray we that the Prince who has no peer
May take us wholly to his mercy,
And keep our conscience clear,
For this world is but fantasy.

By this example you may understand:
A great tree grows out of the ground,
And the earth is not a tiny bit diminished,
Although the tree is tall, big and round.
The tree will still be rooted there
When old age has brought down his kindred;
Though there were three such trees rooted there,
The earth will not be enlarged by any degree.
Thus wax and wane man, horse, and hound,
From nothing to nothing from hence we fly,
And here we stay but a little while;
This world is but fantasy.

One of the clever things about this poem is that it mixes technical vocabulary of medieval reasoning, logic, and philosophy - occasioun, condicion, material mortualite - with blunt, homely images: 'fares like a bird's flight', 'forgotten clean as bone', 'not worth a straw'. It fits with the poem's insistent message about the futility of all human thought, speculation, dispute, argument, and wrangling, set against the inevitable and unavoidable reality of material existence: death.

The most striking example of a technical term is the poem's keynote, the word fantasye. At the time this poem was written, fantasy was a relatively new borrowing into English. The general sense in which it's used in this poem might seem not so far away from how we would use it today - 'something insubstantial and unreal' - but it has a more precise meaning: in medieval psychology, fantasy was the name for the faculty of imagination, the power of conjuring up in the mind thoughts or images of things which are not materially present. You might think of that as a relatively positive (or at least neutral) power, but since it deals with all things unreal, intangible and insubstantial, it can have strongly negative overtones too. As the Middle English Dictionary puts it, it may be 'a projection of deluded or illusory imagination... an appearance not having reality, an apparition, a phantom', and 'a deluded notion or false supposition; an unfounded speculation or suspicion; hence, untruth, a lie'. To the author of this poem, that's all the world is.

This poem has been in my mind lately, partly because I find a bit of medieval wisdom poetry helps a lot when everything is so unrelentingly sad. So many, many good things have gone in the past few months and they're probably never coming back, so it's genuinely useful to be reminded that always and everywhere, 'wo is ende of worldes wele'. Of course. What else is to be expected? Something about this particular poem's emphasis on 'fantasy' also seems an apt way of describing our strange 'new normal', where the virtual world, absent and insubstantial, is supposed to take the place of so many of the forms of tangible human contact we once knew and relied on. The fantasy of the virtual world creates the illusion of bringing people before us, but the moment the screen goes black they vanish into nothingness, much swifter than the flight of a bird. You're still alone in an empty room. And if virtual life isn't that, it's social media, with its hate and anger and violence, lurching from one crisis to the next, full of people utterly unwilling to extend kindness or understanding to strangers when they can shout at them instead. That's fantasye as phantom, nightmare. For me, real-life contact with other human beings is ordinarily what stops all that from becoming overwhelming, and makes it flee away like a bad dream. Often, one little friendly interaction with a stranger on the bus or in a shop has been enough to give me hope that most people aren't really be as awful as they seem on the internet. But that's gone; those harmless interactions are impossible now. Smiling faces are hidden, life's little grace notes of sympathy are silenced, while the howling roar of virtual rage goes on louder than ever. Well, that too isn't really new, but just the same endless wrangling which this poem warns against. 'Each side thinks the others rave'... A horrible new normal all this may be, but there's nothing new under the sun.

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)