Friday, 17 February 2017

'Whan alle tresors arn tried,' quod she, 'Treuthe is the beste'

‘There I could see winged wonders fly’, by Warwick Goble (1912)

My latest column for History Today is out now, and can be read here. It's about Chaucer's brilliant, dizzying, disturbing poem The House of Fame, and its vision of what we have recently started calling a 'post-truth' world - in which stories spread and circulate regardless of whether they are true or not.

Chaucer then describes an even more disturbing sight, more chaotic and unstable than the House of Fame: one built of twigs, whirling and spinning about at an incredible speed. This house is full of ‘tidings’; a useful Middle English word, which can simply mean news or information, but often has negative overtones of gossip and rumour. Tidings circulate in this house on every subject imaginable and, as they pass from one person to another, they grow in the telling, quickly becoming an inseparable amalgam of false and true. They spread like fire ‘from a spark sprung amiss / until all a city burnt up is’.

In one especially vivid moment, Chaucer describes a false story fighting with a true one to escape out of a window of the house, each crying ‘Let me go first!’. They agree to go around the world as sworn brothers, so closely mingled together that no one will ever be able to separate truth from lie. These tidings are then carried abroad by travellers, sailors and pilgrims - groups in medieval society stereotypically notorious for caring more about a good story than about the facts.

Chaucer’s noisy, dizzying house of rumours will sound familiar to any user of Twitter. What Chaucer understands and brings sharply to life in this poem is that truth is rarely the most important factor in determining whether a story will spread. We are all capricious readers, who respond to and share stories that in some way accord with our own understanding of the world. This idea was a long-standing interest for Chaucer and lies behind The Canterbury Tales, too: as the pilgrims in that poem tell stories to each other, they demonstrate how complex the process of hearing and sharing tales can be. Whether they react to each other’s stories with praise or violent disapproval, the pilgrims are motivated more by their own interests and preoccupations than by the intrinsic value of the story. Once a tale is told, the teller cannot control how its hearers will receive it.
Here are some extracts from The House of Fame (far be it from me to paraphrase Chaucer when he can so eloquently speak for himself!). First the description of the house of rumour:

And ever mo, as swyft as thought,
This queynte hous aboute wente,
That never mo hyt stille stente.
And therout com so gret a noyse
That, had hyt stonden upon Oyse,
Men myghte hyt han herd esely
To Rome, y trowe sikerly...
And on the roof men may yet seen
A thousand holes, and wel moo,
To leten wel the soun out goo.
And be day, in every tyde,
Been al the dores opened wide,
And be nyght echon unshette;
Ne porter ther is noon to lette
No maner tydynges in to pace.
Ne never rest is in that place
That hit nys fild ful of tydynges,
Other loude or of whisprynges;
And over alle the houses angles
Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles
Of werres, of pes, of mariages,
Of reste, of labour, of viages,
Of abood, of deeth, of lyf,
Of love, of hate, acord, of stryf,
Of loos, of lore, and of wynnynges,
Of hele, of seknesse, of bildynges,
Of faire wyndes, and of tempestes,
Of qwalm of folk, and eke of bestes;
Of dyvers transmutacions
Of estats, and eke of regions;
Of trust, of drede, of jelousye,
Of wit, of wynnynge, of folye;
Of plente, and of gret famyne,
Of chepe, of derthe, and of ruyne;
Of good or mys governement,
Of fyr, and of dyvers accident.
And loo, thys hous, of which I write,
Syker be ye, hit nas not lyte,
For hyt was sixty myle of lengthe.
Al was the tymber of no strengthe,
Yet hit is founded to endure
While that hit lyst to Aventure,
That is the moder of tydynges,
As the see of welles and of sprynges;
And hyt was shapen lyk a cage.

That list of 'rounynges and of jangles' is just brilliant. The dreamer's eagle-guide drops him inside the house, where he finds it's full of crowds of people busily whispering to each other and spreading tidings:

And every wight that I saugh there
Rouned everych in others ere
A newe tydynge prively,
Or elles tolde al openly
Ryght thus, and seyde: "Nost not thou
That ys betyd, lo, late or now?"
"No," quod he, "telle me what."
And than he tolde hym this and that,
And swor therto that hit was soth -
"Thus hath he sayd," and "Thus he doth,"
"Thus shal hit be," "Thus herde y seye,"
"That shal be founde," "That dar I leye" -
That al the folk that ys alyve
Ne han the kunnynge to discryve
The thinges that I herde there,
What aloude, and what in ere.
But al the wondermost was this:
Whan oon had herd a thing, ywis,
He com forth ryght to another wight,
And gan him tellen anon-ryght
The same that to him was told,
Or hyt a forlong way was old,
But gan somwhat for to eche
To this tydynge in this speche
More than hit ever was.
And nat so sone departed nas
Tho fro him, that he ne mette
With the thridde; and or he lette
Any stounde, he told him als;
Were the tydynge soth or fals,
Yit wolde he telle hyt natheles,
And evermo with more encres
Than yt was erst. Thus north and south
Wente every tydyng fro mouth to mouth,
And that encresing ever moo,
As fyr ys wont to quyke and goo
From a sparke spronge amys,
Til al a citee brent up ys.
And whan that was ful yspronge,
And woxen more on every tonge
Than ever hit was, hit wente anoon
Up to a wyndowe out to goon;
Or, but hit myghte out there pace,
Hyt gan out crepe at som crevace,
And flygh forth faste for the nones.
And somtyme saugh I thoo at ones
A lesyng and a sad soth sawe,
That gonne of aventure drawe
Out at a wyndowe for to pace;
And, when they metten in that place,
They were achekked bothe two,
And neyther of hem moste out goo
For other, so they gonne crowde,
Til ech of hem gan crien lowde,
"Lat me go first!" "Nay, but let me!
And here I wol ensuren the,
Wyth the nones that thou wolt do so,
That I shal never fro the go,
But be thyn owne sworen brother!
We wil medle us ech with other,
That no man, be they never so wrothe,
Shal han on of us two, but bothe
At ones, al besyde his leve,
Come we a-morwe or on eve,
Be we cried or stille yrouned."
Thus saugh I fals and soth compouned
Togeder fle for oo tydynge.

This piece seems to have struck a chord, for obvious reasons. It seems appropriate that we should turn to Chaucer for comment on such a question: few writers have given more thought to what it means to share a story (or tell a tale), and what that act can reveal about the teller. If social media is like Chaucer's House of Rumour or his Canterbury pilgrimage writ large, it's important to emphasise that for him this is in part a literary question, in the broadest sense: it demonstrates the importance of studying and understanding story, narrative, reading and interpretation, the use of words. All 'tidings' are only words, and so in order to understand them we should learn from thinking about how stories work and where they derive their power.

Sethe the tyme that God was boren,
This world was never so untrewe.
Men recchen never to ben forsworen,
To reuen that is hem ful duwe;
The peynted word that fel biforen,
Behynde, hit is another hewe.
Whon Gabriel schal blowe his horn,
His feble fables schul hym rewe.

Since the time that God was born,
This world was never so untrue;
Men care never to be forsworn -
The time to rue that is full due.
The painted word which falls before,
Behind, it shows another hue.
When Gabriel shall blow his horn,
These feeble fables they shall rue.

So wrote an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer, one of many writers in the late fourteenth century to lament what's been called that era's 'crisis of truth'. (Here's another one). In saying that 'this world has never been so untrue', he means something even more serious than Chaucer does in talking of tidings 'of fals and soth compouned'; at a time when trewthe meant not just factual accuracy but faithfulness, integrity, honour, an 'untrewe' world was a frightening prospect. How much worse would a post-truth one be?

In the opening scenes of Piers Plowman, when the dreamer falls asleep on the Malvern Hills, the very first thing he sees in his dream is a tower on a hill, standing in the east against the sun. It soars high above the 'fair field of folk' which is this world, where all classes of people are busily engaged in 'working and wandering'. That tower, the dreamer later learns, is the dwelling-place of Truth. The figure of Holy Church explains to him that Truth is nothing less than God: father, creator, provider of all good things in the world. The more human beings are like Truth, upright and honest in all their dealings, the more they are like God and his most trustworthy of treasures:

'Whan alle tresors arn tried,' quod she, 'Treuthe is the beste.
I do it on Deus caritas to deme the sothe;
It is as dereworthe a drury as deere God hymselven.
Who is trewe of his tonge and telleth noon oother,
And dooth the werkes therwith and wilneth no man ille,
He is a god by the Gospel, agrounde and olofte,
And ylik to Oure Lord, by Seint Lukes wordes.'

'When all treasures are tried,' said she, 'Truth is the best.
I appeal to [the text] 'God is Love' to prove the truth;
It is as precious a love-gift as dear God himself.
Whoever is true of his tongue and says nothing else,
And acts accordingly and wishes no man ill,
He is god-like, says the Gospel, on earth and in heaven,
And the image of Our Lord, by St Luke's words.'

Thursday, 2 February 2017

'All hail, lantern of light!'

The Presentation (BL Egerton 3277, f.114)

Today is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the end of the forty-day Christmas season. It takes its English name from the custom of blessing and processing with candles on this day, a practice linked to the words of Simeon on meeting Christ that he is 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'. This is a festival of light and hope, a first shoot of spring.

The name 'Candlemas' dates from the Anglo-Saxon period (the first recorded appearance of the name is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry on the death of Svein Forkbeard in 1014), and there's plentiful and evocative evidence of the observance of this feast in England from the tenth century onwards. In the past I've posted an Anglo-Saxon sermon for this feast, a Candlemas miracle-story about St Dunstan, Cnut's Candlemas song at Ely, a particularly lovely Middle English Candlemas carol 'The queen of bliss and of beauty', and Margery Kempe's description of her experience of the celebrations of this day - five centuries of Candlemas Days.

The liturgy for this day is particularly dramatic, encouraging the congregation to re-enact the Gospel story by bearing the light of Christ in their hands. The Presentation in the Temple is also represented in medieval drama, in several different versions, so here are a few short extracts, in modernised spelling, from the fifteenth-century N-Town Plays. The full text can be found here, and you might like to compare the treatment of the same subject from the York Corpus Christi Plays.

The play begins with the aged Simeon, expressing his desire to see God before he dies:

I have been priest in Jerusalem here
And taught God's law many a year,
Desiring in all my mind
That the time were coming near
In which God's Son should appear
In earth to take mankind, [human form]
Before I died that I might find
My Saviour with my eyes to see.
But that it is so long behind, [overdue]
It is great distress unto me.

For I wax old and want my might
And begin to fail my sight,
The more I sorrow this tide,
Save only as I tell you right:
God of his grace hath me hight [promised]
That blissful birth to bide.
Wherefore now here beside
To Sancta sanctorum will I go
To pray God to be my guide,
To comfort me after my woe.

He prays, and an angel tells him to go to the temple in Jerusalem, where he will see God's Son. Simeon rejoices:

Ah, I thank thee, Lord of grace,
That hath granted me time and space
To live and bide this.
And I will walk now to the place
Where I may see thy Son's face,
Which is my joy and bliss.
I was never lighter, iwis,
To walk never here before! [I have never been so happy to come here]
For a merry time now is
When God, my Lord, is born.

'Light' here means 'happy, light-hearted', but of course it suggests the 'light' which has come to him. Anna, the prophetess, greets him:

All hail, Simeon! What tidings with you?
Why make ye all this mirth now?
Tell me whither ye fare.

Simeon: Anne, prophetess, if ye knew why
So should ye - I make a vow -
And all manner of men that are,
For God's Son - as I declare -
Is born to buy mankind! [redeem humanity]
Our Saviour is come to end our care!
Therefore have I great mirth to go.
And that is the cause I haste me
Unto the temple, him to see,
And therefore hinder me not, good friend.

Anna: Now blessed be God in Trinity
Since that time is come to be!
And with you will I wend
To see my Saviour ende [gracious]
And worship him also
With all my will and my full mind.
As I am bound, now will I do.

Presentation in the Temple (medieval wall-painting, Chalgrove, Oxfordshire)

They go to the temple, and Mary and Joseph enter with the child and their offering. Simeon prophesies:

In the temple of God, who understood, [let it be understood]
This day shall be offered with mild mood
He who is king of all,
Who shall be scourged and shed his blood,
And after die upon the rood,
Without cause to call; [without deserving it]
For whose Passion there shall befall
Such a sorrow both sharp and smart
That as a sword pierce it shall
Even through his mother's heart.

Anna: Yea, that shall be as I well find,
For redemption of all mankind,
That bliss for to restore
Which hath been lost time out of mind
By our father of our own kind,
Adam and Eve before.

Simeon and Anna greet the child in a beautiful bit of shared verse:

Simeon: All hail, my kindly comforter!
Anna: All hail, mankind's creator!
Simeon: All hail, thou God of might!
Anna: All hail, mankind's saviour!
Simeon: All hail, both king and emperor!
Anna: All hail, as it is right!
Simeon: All hail also Mary bright!
Anna: All hail, salver of sickness!
Simeon: All hail, lantern of light!
Anna: All hail, thou mother of meekness!

Mary: Simeon, I understand and see
That both of my son and me
Ye have knowing clear. [full knowledge]
And also in your company,
My son desires for to be,
And therefore take him here.


Simeon takes Jesus in his arms:

Welcome, prince without peer!
Welcome, God's own son!
Welcome, my Lord so dear!
Welcome, with me to wone! [dwell]

Then follow English versions of two Latin liturgical texts for Candlemas: the Introit, 'Suscepimus Deus misericordiam tuam' ('We have received thy mercy, O Lord, in the midst of thy temple') and the Nunc Dimittis.

Lord God in majesty
We have received this day of thee,
In midst of thy temple here
Thy great mercy, as we may see.
Therefore thy name of great degree
Be worshipped in all manere [every way]
Over all this world, both far and near,
Even unto the uttermost end;
For now is man out of danger
And rest and peace to all mankind.

Here the direction reads 'Nunc dimittis seruum tuum Domine, et cetera. The psalme songyn every vers, and therqwyl Symeon pleyth with the child and qwhan the psalme is endyd, he seyth:'

Now let me die, Lord, and hence pass,
For I, thy servant in this place,
Have seen my Saviour dear,
Which thou hast ordained before the face
Of all mankind, this time of grace,
Openly to appear;
Thy light is shining clear
For all mankind's salvation.
Mary, take your child now here
And keep him well, this man's salvation.


Joseph hands out candles to Mary, Simeon and Anna, and Mary takes the child to the altar:

Highest Father, God of power,
Your own dear son I offer you here,
As I to your law am sworn.
Receive thy child in glad manner,
For he is the first, this child so dear,
That of his mother is born.
But though I offer him you beforn, [to you]
Good Lord, yet give me him again,
For my comfort were fully lorn [lost]
If we should long asunder be!

She and Joseph make their offerings, and Mary's last words are as she places the birds upon the altar - a sacrifice which looks ahead to the greater 'offering' Christ will make, of his own life:

Almighty Father, merciful King:
Receive now this little offering,
For it is the first in degree
That your little child so young
Presents today by my showing
To your high majesty.
From his simple poverty,
By his devotion and my good will,
Upon your altar receive of me
Your son's offering, as it is skylle. [fitting]

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

'The Coming of Christ'


I've recently been thinking a bit about medieval drama, and in doing so came across a 'modern mystery play' which was new to me. The Coming of Christ, with words by John Masefield and music by Gustav Holst, was performed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1928. It was commissioned as part of the newly-instituted Canterbury Festival, and is said to have been the first attempt at reviving medieval mystery drama since the Middle Ages.

Apparently it was controversial at the time, attracting criticism both for representing sacred subjects on stage and for being performed inside the cathedral. It seems harmless enough now, and it's an interesting 1920s take on the medieval genre. The subject is the Nativity (though it was actually performed at Whitsun, on 28 May 1928), chiefly the adoration of the three kings and the shepherds. The kings are a capitalist, a tyrant and a mystical enthusiast, while the shepherds are cynical war veterans, who compare keeping watch over their sheep to their memories of night-watches in what sounds a lot like the trenches of the First World War. This was particularly controversial; for more on the context of the performance and its challenges, see this book.

Both Masefield and Holst worked with medieval texts and subjects on a number of occasions. I've written briefly about Masefield's poems on Anglo-Saxon saints before, as well as his Arthurian poetry. He was particularly fond of Chaucer, on whom he lectured and wrote frequently, so the Canterbury link here is apt; and I think there's a very faint whiff of the Pardoner's Tale in Masefield's shepherds. (Incidentally, do read Tolkien's brilliantly polite letter to Masefield, taking him to task for excessive praise of Chaucer as 'the first English poet'!) I don't know how much medieval drama Masefield might have read, but it seems relevant that he knew Piers Plowman; he drew a connection between the figure of Piers and the climactic scene in his most successful early poem, The Everlasting Mercy. (Both poems are set in the landscape of the Malvern Hills, near Masefield's native Ledbury).

For his part, Holst set a range of Middle English texts to music - most notable is probably 'Lullay my liking' (1916), but I also like this setting of four Middle English lyrics and his 'Four Old English Carols' (1907). I've so far only heard as much of the play's music as is available on Youtube, but there's a description of it from a contemporary review here and a fascinating account of the first performance here.


The play takes place in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral, which has a ready-made stage in the form of steps up to the Quire. What particularly interests me is the scene at the beginning of the play, which is set before the Incarnation. This is a discussion between the figure of 'Anima Christi' and four spirits: The Power, The Sword, The Mercy and The Light. Anima Christi has not yet entered into the world, but 'stands here at the brink / Of life's red sea which stains and overwhelms'. The spirits try to dissuade him from choosing to be born into the world as a man, warning him of the suffering he and his followers will undergo, and arguing that the dark and violent world is already past saving:

Man will not change for one voice crying truth,
And dying, beautiful as fire, for wisdom.
Like a stone falling in a stagnant pond,
You will but make a ripple swiftly stilled
By the green weed...
Men are but animals, and you will fail.
This is the harvest you will reap on earth:
Your mother, broken-hearted at the cross;
Your brother put to death; your comrades scattered.

But Anima Christi, though momentarily hesitant, is not swayed:

O spirits, I am resolute.
I lay aside my glory and my power
To take up Manhood.

This debate is reminiscent of the 'Parliament of Heaven' type of scene found in medieval drama and other kinds of medieval texts, including Piers Plowman. In this scene, four allegorical figures debate whether Christ's coming into the world to redeem mankind can be reconciled with the demands of justice, which requires punishment for sin. Here's one version of the idea from a medieval mystery play, and below is a rare representation of a Parliament of Heaven scene on a 15th-century English alabaster panel:


(See the V&A's website for a full description of the scene.) Christ is descending head-first to Mary, and the surrounding figures are the Four Daughters of God - Mercy, Truth, Righteousness and Peace. The personification of these female figures as the four principles to be reconciled is an idea based on the verse from Psalm 85: 'Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other'. These women are usually the figures who debate the apparently unresolvable question, and each can be roughly equated with one of Masefield's four (male) spirits. Apparently this scene was one of the most controversial aspects of the play, because of Christ's hesitation. I wonder what those who objected to the modern dialogue of Masefield's shepherds would have made of Langland's even more vigorous debate, in which Truth tells Mercy 'That thow tellest is but a tale of waltrot!', and Righteousness asks Peace 'What, ravestow? or thow art righty dronke?'!

In Piers Plowman the women appear from the four corners of the world: Righteousness 'out of the nyppe of the north', Mercy 'out of the west coste... walkynge in the wey', and so on. In a similar way, the figures in this play enter from the North and South Transepts of the cathedral, and through the Quire door from the east. When Anima Christi resolves to become incarnate in the world, he passes eastwards into the Quire as the four spirits strengthen him with their respective attributes.


As he does so the Host of Heaven sing:

O sing, as thrushes in the winter lift
Their ecstasy aloft among black boughs,
So that the doormouse stirs him in his drowse,
And by the melting drift
The newborn lamb bleats answer: sing, for swift
April the bride will enter this old house.

Awake, for in the darkness of the byre
Above the manger, clapping with his wings,
The cock of glory lifts his crest of fire:
Far, among slumbering men his trumpet rings:
Awake, the night is quick with coming things,
And hiding things that hurry into brake
Before the sun's arising: O awake.

Awake and sing: for in the stable-cave,
Man's heart, the sun has risen, Spring is here,
The withered bones are laughing in the grave,
Darkness and winter perish, Death and Fear;
A new Life enters Earth, who will make clear
The Beauty, within touch, of God the King;
O mortals, praise Him! O awake and sing!

Then the kings appear, discussing their quest, and the shepherds watching their sheep. Cold, tired, and resentful about their unappreciated service in the war, the shepherds are talking of revolution: 'let us have a turn at the fire, the rich have a turn at the fold... It's time the workers should command and have the wealth they make'. One of them speaks of his faith in God, though the others scoff ('I'm only a poor shepherd, but I've known Him', he says, Piers Plowman-like: Piers' very first line in the poem is 'I know him as kyndely as clerke doth his bokes'.)



Then 'the Angels appear at the Quire Door, on the Upper Stage and in the Gallery and Clerestory' of the cathedral, and sing:

Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth among men in whom God is well pleased.

Praise Him who brings into the dark
Of human life, this shining spark
Which will burn clear and be a mark
For wandering souls on earth and sea.
By his companionship and sign
The unlit souls of men will shine
And be a comfort and be divine,
And bring a glory to men to be.

Through Him who is born in stable here
Our heavenly host will come more near;
The presence of God, which drives out fear,
The glory of God, that makes all glow,
The comfort of God, that sings and swells
In the human heart like a peal of bells,
And the peace of God, that no tongue tells,
Are given to man to know.

Praise Him who shines in the bright sea,
In golden fruit, in the green tree,
In valleys clapping hands with glee,
In mountains that His witness are,
In heavens open like His hand,
In stars as many as the sand,
In planets doing His command,
And in His Son this star.

The child and his mother appear, framed by the door of the Quire. The angels sing:

You who have known the darkness slowly yield,
And in the twilight the first blackbird's cry
Come, with the dripping of the dew new-shaken
From twigs where yellowing leaves and reddening berries lie,
And seen the colour come upon the field,
And heard the cocks crow as the thorps awaken,

You know with what a holiness of light
The peace of morning comes, and how night goes -
Not goes, but, on a sudden, is not, even.
Now God Himself is Man and all the banded Night
Will perish and the Kingdom will unclose.
O man, praise God, praise Him, you host of heaven.


The kings and shepherds present their gifts to the child, and the shepherds carry him and his mother out on a litter as they sing:

By weary stages
The old world ages;
By blood, by rages,
By pain-sown seeds.
By fools and sages,
With death for wages,
Souls leave their cages
And Man does deeds.

In mire he trudges,
In grime he drudges,
In blindness judges,
In darkness gropes.
His bitter measure
Yields little pleasure;
For only treasure
He has his hopes.

The hope that sailing
When winds are failing
Above the railing
A coast may rise;
The thought that glory
Is not a story,
But Heaven o'er ye
And watching eyes.

Behold us bringing
With love and singing
And great joy ringing
And hearts new-made,
The prince, forespoken,
By seer and token,
By whom Sin's broken
And Death is stayed.

Now by his power
The world will flower,
And hour by hour
His realm increase;
Now men benighted
Will feel them righted
And love be lighted
To spirit's peace.

Our God is wearing
Man's flesh, and bearing
Man's cares, through caring
What men may be;
Our God is sharing
His light and daring
To help men's faring
And set men free.

All you in hearing
Assist our cheering
This soul unfearing
Who enters earth;
On God relying
And Death defying,
He puts on dying
That Life have birth.

This final hymn, 'By weary stages', was published in the 1931 edition of the hymnal Songs of Praise, with Holst's tune titled 'Hill Crest' (the name of Masefield's house near Oxford).

The four spirits reappear, and speak again:

The Mercy: By mercy, and by martyrdom,
And many ways, God leads us home:
And many darknesses there are.

The Light: By darkness and by light He leads,
He gives according to our needs,
And in His darkest is a star.

The Sword: The angry blood was once the guide,
But perisht boughs are thrust aside
In the green fever of the Spring.

The Power: Friends, Christ is come within this hall,
Bow down and worship one and all,
Our Father for this thing.

One by one the four spirits pass into the Quire (where two Anglo-Saxon monks once heard angels singing.)

Looking into Canterbury Cathedral from the door of the Quire

Thanne pipede Pees of poesie a note:
'Clarior est solito post maxima nebula phebus;
Post inimicicias clarior est et amor.
After sharpest shoures,' quod Pees, 'moost shene is the sonne;
Is no weder warmer than after watry cloudes;
Ne no love levere; ne lever frendes
Than after werre and wo, whan love and pees ben maistres.
Was nevere werre in this world, ne wikkednesse so kene,
That Love, and hym liste, to laughyng ne broughte,
And Pees, thorugh pacience, alle perils stoppede.'
'Trewes!' quod Truthe; 'thow tellest us sooth, by Jesus!
Clippe we in covenaunt, and ech of us kisse oother.'
'And lete no peple,' quod Pees, 'parceyve that we chidde;
For inpossible is no thyng to Hym that is almyghty.'
'Thow seist sooth,' seide Rightwisnesse, and reverentliche hire kiste,
Pees, and Pees hire, per secula seculorum.
Misericordia et Veritas obviaverunt sibi, justicia et Pax osculate sunt.

Monday, 30 January 2017

'Trewthe is put in low degree'

Truth, Mercy, Peace and Justice before the Throne of God (BL Royal 20 B IV, f. 7)

God be with trewthe where he be!
I wolde he were in this cuntre.

A man that schuld of trewthe telle,
With grete lordes he may not dwelle.
In trewe story as clerkes telle,
Trewthe is put in low degree.

In laydies chaumberes cometh he not;
There dare trewthe setten none fot.
Thow he wolde, he may not
Comen among the heye mene.

With men of lawe he hath non spas;
They loven trewthe in none plas;
Me thinketh they han a rewly grace
That trewthe is put at swich degree.

In holy cherche he may not sitte;
Fro man to man they schuln him flitte.
It reweth me sore in mine witte,
Of trewthe I have gret pite.

Religious, that schulde be good,
If trewthe cum there, I holde him wood.
They schulden him rende cote and hood,
And make him bare to flee.

A man that schulde of trewthe aspie,
He must seken esilye
In the bosum of Marie,
For there he is for sothe.

This is a carol from the fifteenth-century manuscript BL Sloane 2593. It's one of a number of medieval English poems lamenting contemporary society's lack of 'trewthe' (which in Middle English has a broad meaning encompassing integrity, honour, honesty, loyalty, etc.). A translation:

God be with truth wherever he be!
I wish he were in this country.

A man who ought of truth to tell,
With great lords he may not dwell.
In true story, as clerks tell,
Truth is put in low degree.

In ladies' chambers comes he not;
There dares truth set not a foot.
Though he would, he cannot
Come among the high mene. [in 'high society']

With men of law he has no space;
They love truth in no place;
It seems they have a rewly grace [an unfortunate lot]
That truth is put at such a degree.

In holy church he cannot sit;
From man to man they would him flit. [drive him on]
It rues me sore in my wit,
Of truth I have great pity.

Religious, who should be good -
If truth comes there, I hold him wood. [mad]
They would him rend coat and hood,
And make him bare to flee.

A man who would of truth espy,
He must seek it easily [perhaps 'simply, quietly']
In the bosom of Mary,
For there he is, in truth.

Compare this post on a Christmas carol, 'Tidings that be true'.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Times and Seasons

My latest column for History Today can now be read online. Here's an extract:
Early medieval historians and scholars were fascinated by the calculation of time, and one of the most attractive insights into how they understood it is an Old English poem which survives in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is usually known as the Menologium, though one might more poetically call it ‘The Beauties of the Year’, since that is really its subject. The poem moves through the calendar year, month by month, feast by feast, finding something to praise about every season in the traditional language of Old English poetry. It marks saints’ days, the 12 months, the two solstices and equinoxes, and the beginning of each of the four seasons, which are dated to the days halfway between each solstice and equinox. Every significant date or season receives its own brief lyrical description...

This is an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time. The poem begins with Christmas (not January 1st) and opens: ‘Christ was born, glory of kings, at midwinter.’ After proceeding through the year, it ends with Christmas, too, reflecting the medieval understanding of the meaningful link between the astronomical and sacred calendars: Christ’s birth takes place in deepest winter, at the solstice, because it is a victory of light over darkness.

What fascinates about this poem is not only its praise of the glories of the natural year, but the fact that it was preserved in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the invaluable vernacular record of England’s early medieval history. What was the reasoning behind putting these two texts together, making the Menologium serve almost as a preface to the Chronicle? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also begins with the birth of Christ, but it locates the event not in reference to the season of midwinter but to a historical era: its first entry reads: ‘Octavian ruled 56 years, and in the 42nd year of his reign Christ was born.’ From that similar starting point the two texts follow their divergent courses, reckoning their different kinds of time.

Read the rest here. The manuscript in question is this one, where the poem opens with a beautiful initial 'C':


This is BL Cotton MS Tiberius B I, the C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (other manuscripts of the Chronicle have different prefatory material). It's an eleventh-century manuscript, usually said to have been written either at Abingdon or at Christ Church, Canterbury. And here's the beginning of the Chronicle:

BL Cotton MS Tib. B I, f. 115v

The poem describes a single, unchanging liturgical year, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a linear model of history dating from the Incarnation of Christ (Cristes geflæscnesse), but the timelines have numerous points of intersection. Many of the saints' days mentioned in the poem of course commemorate historical events: so the coming of the Magi, the feast of Epiphany in the annual cycle, is also an event in history recorded by the Chronicle (under the year 2 AD); the first entries of the Chronicle record the deaths of the apostles and early martyrs, who are each commemorated by annual feasts in the poem; the coming of St Augustine of Canterbury across the 'salt sea' to convert the Anglo-Saxons is mentioned in the poem (in the section for May) and in the Chronicle (under the year 596), and so on. What's more, the Chronicle frequently dates events by reference to feasts and liturgical seasons, as was common in the medieval period. The last entry in this version of the Chronicle, for the year 1066, contains a particularly memorable cluster of significant events dated to moments in the church's year: the year runs from the death of Edward the Confessor on 'Twelfth Day', through political crisis at Easter, Rogationtide, and the Nativity of the Virgin, to the very last event recorded, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on 'the Vigil of St Matthew the Apostle'. That last tumultuous year (the last year of Anglo-Saxon history, in one sense) was full of surprises and upheavals; but even so the yearly cycle was stable and unchanging.

BL Cotton MS Tib. B I, f. 115

Crist wæs acennyd, cyninga wuldor, on midne winter... Between the Menologium and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sits the wisdom poem now known as Maxims II (above). This poem, too, begins by musing on kings, power, and the passage of the seasons:

Cyning sceal rice healdan. Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne,
orðanc enta geweorc, þa þe on þysse eorðan syndon,
wrætlic weallstana geweorc. Wind byð on lyfte swiftust,
þunar byð þragum hludast. Þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle,
wyrd byð swiðost. Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost - he byð lengest ceald -
sumor sunwlitegost - swegel byð hatost -
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð.
Soð bið switolost, sinc byð deorost,
gold gumena gehwam, and gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.


A king should defend a kingdom. Cities are seen from afar,
the skilful work of giants, which are on this earth,
wondrous work of wall-stones. The wind in the sky is swiftest,
thunder is loudest in season. Great are the powers of Christ.
Fate is the most powerful thing, winter is coldest,
spring frostiest - it is the longest cold -
summer sun-brightest - the sun is hottest -
harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men
the year's fruits, which God sends them.
Truth is most treacherous, treasure is dearest,
gold to every man, and an old man is most wise,
made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.
Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide on.

Read together, as an eleventh-century reader might have read them, these three texts resonate with each other in fascinating ways. All are interested (among other subjects) in the passage of time, the seasons and the years, and in powers earthly and heavenly - and in the link between those things.

I've written about Anglo-Saxon poetry on the seasons in a series of posts on this blog (spring, summer, autumn, winter). Over the past few years, thinking about these texts has made me think differently about my own experience of the passage of time, and led me to pay much closer attention to the cycles of the natural year - as Maxims II, at least, seems to encourage us to do. The interaction between the seasonal cycle and the liturgical year, so beautifully detailed in the Menologium, was also the subject of my most popular post ever (!). It's an obvious thing to say, perhaps, but the experience of living through the seasons from year to year, reflecting on how that feels and what it might mean, seems to offer many people a powerful sense of contact with the past. It doesn't mean we interpret these seasonal experiences in the same way, of course, or draw the same lessons from them, or associate the same emotions with them - there are some intriguing differences, in fact. But it's a kind of ever-changing constant.

I was thinking about this when re-reading Beowulf the other day, because in that poem there are a few moments when the poet turns to the seasons as a way of expressing continuity between past and present. To the poet, the world of Beowulf is already in the distant past, a pre-Christian Scandinavia different in several key aspects from contemporary Anglo-Saxon England. But one thing they have in common (he thinks) is the passage of the seasons.

Gewiton him ða wigend wica neosian
freondum befeallen, Frysland geseon,
hamas ond heaburh. Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme; eard gemunde
þeah þe ne meahte on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; holm storme weol
won wið winde, winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, oþ ðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales sele bewitiað
wuldortorhtan weder. Ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm; fundode wrecca,
gist of geardum. (1125-1140)

The context for this is the story of Finn and Hengest, a legend Tolkien was particularly interested in, so here's Tolkien's translation from his version of Beowulf:

Then the warriors bereft of their friends departed to look upon their dwellings, to see the Frisian land, their homes and mighty town. Still Hengest abode with Finn that blood-stained winter, keeping fully to his word. He thought of his own land, even though he could not speed upon the sea his ship with curving beak. The deep was tossed in storm and battled with the wind; winter locked the waves in icy bond, until another year came to the dwellings of men, even as it doth yet, those weathers gloriously fair that unchangingly observe the seasons. Now past was winter, and fair the bosom of the earth. The exile, the guest of Finn, was eager to be gone from those courts.

I won't attempt to recap the story; all you need to know is that for the poet of Beowulf, the time of Hengest and Finn is even further back in the legendary past than the world of his poem. Yet the changing seasons he imagines Hengest living through (impatiently, wanting to be gone) are essentially the same as his own time: as winter passes into spring oþer com gear in geardas, swa nu gyt deð, 'another year came to the dwellings of men, as it does yet'. In Hengest's day, in Beowulf's, and in ours, the weathers of the world observe their appointed seasons - syngales sele bewitiað.

There's another such moment when Beowulf is fighting against Grendel's mother, and his sword begins to melt like a spring thaw:

Þa þæt sweord ongan
æfter heaþoswate hildegicelum,
wigbil wanian. Þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend Fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla; þæt is soð Metod. (1605-11)

Then that sword began
to waste away because of the war-sweat,
the blade into battle-icicles. That was a great wonder:
it all melted, just like ice
when the Father loosens the bonds of frost,
unwinds the water's chains, he who has power
over times and seasons. He is the true Measurer. [the one who 'metes out' destiny]

Note the present tense as the poet shifts into metaphor. What could be further from the ordinary everyday world than a hero in a monster's underwater cave, fighting for his life with a miraculous sword? But this metaphor of the thawing ice is drawn from our world, our time, our seasons. Again there's that link between the seasons and power, as in Maxims II - the divine governance over time which is so immeasurably greater than any earthly geweald. This scene is a display of human, almost super-human, strength - Beowulf is the mightiest man in the world, in his days - but the mysterious power which rules the seasons is far beyond his.

Metod eallum weold 
gumena cynnes, swa he nu git deð;
forþan bið andgit æghwær selest
ferhðes foreþanc. Fela sceal gebidan
leofes ond laþes se þe longe her
on ðyssum windagum worolde bruceð. (1057-62)

The Measurer governed all for mankind, as he now does yet;
and so understanding is best everywhere,
forethought of mind. Much must he endure
of love and hate, who long here
in these days of strife enjoys the world.

These are perhaps simultaneously the most comforting and uncomforting lines of Beowulf. We do indeed live in days of strife - but you can always rely on the literature of the past to remind you that there's nothing new or unusual about that. 'These days of strife' are not a particularly troubled moment in history, but all the days of this world. But there are other ways of thinking about time, and the events which happen within it - what an Anglo-Saxon poet might call wyrd - in a more positive way. We don't have to think about history only as a stream of events down which we helplessly drift, talking and fretting solely about the very latest thing to happen, without a moment for reflection or memory. (We'll call this the 'social media timeline' model of history). There are other options, even if they're not very fashionable ones: paying mindful attention to the details of the natural world, listening to the voices of poets of the past, thinking about patterns and constants and the changeless, instead of being solely fixated on the present. Reflecting on what even the greatest earthly power can and can't do helps, too - no king or politician, as Beowulf hints, has power over times and seasons! Maxims II seems to promise that in such ways we can learn to be wise, simply by noticing and abiding the passage of time:

gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.


an old man is most wise,
made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.
Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide on.

Friday, 23 December 2016

'Every word here is a wonder'

Nativity (Royal MS 17 E VII 2, f.134, 14th century)

I've just written a short piece for the classical music website Corymbus on the medieval carol 'As I lay on Yule's night'. It's a beautiful and poignant lullaby carol, and you can read about it here.

This carol survives in several versions, but the one I discussed comes from a manuscript compiled by a Norfolk friar, John of Grimestone, in 1372. (The manuscript is now Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS. 18.7.21.) It seems to have been John's preaching handbook, in which he collected texts and materials for use in his sermons. His collection includes several tender poems about or addressed to the infant Christ, as well as the one described in my article: this lullaby (Lullay, lullay, little child/Thou who wast so stern and wild), 'Learn to love as I love thee', and 'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'.

Alongside these longer poems, the manuscript also contains numerous miniature verses in English - mostly translations of Latin proverbs or verse tags - of the kind a medieval preacher might slip into a sermon. They are very short, often just couplets, and there are more than two hundred of them in total (here's a list). I find them strangely fascinating, in their extreme brevity and pithiness, so here are a few of my favourites. First, four lines 'on pleasures worth attending to':

To þe flour springende
To þe foul singende
To þe deu fallende
To þe snow meltende

To the flower springing
To the bird singing
To the dew falling
To the snow melting.

Good advice! On the dangers of wasting time (lorn = lost):

For lore of godes I wepe sore
but more for lore of day
Þou godes ben lorn I may han more
Time lorn aȝen comen ne may.

For loss of goods I weep sore
But more for loss of day;
Though goods be lorn I may get more;
Time lorn I never may.

On wisdom:

He is wis þat can ben war or he is wo
He is wis þat louet is frend & is fo
He is wis þat hat inou & þanne seit Ho
He is wis þat dotȝ ay wel an seit ay so

He is wise who can beware before he comes to woe;
He is wise who loves his friend and his foe;
He is wise who has enough and then says ‘Whoa!’
He is wise who does ever well and says ever so.

On study and sin:

Bisiliche ȝef þe to lore
Als þu suldest liuen eueremore
But fle senne in ich a play
As to morwen sulde ben þi ded day

Busily give yourself to lore [learning]
As if you should live evermore;
But flee sin in every play [pleasure]
As if tomorrow were your dying day.

Why you should beware of praise:

To eueri preysing is knit a knot
Þe preysing wer good ne wer þe but
I ne woth neuere wer it may ben founde
Þat with sum but it is ibounde

Within all praise is knit a knot:
Praise would be good, were it not for the 'but';
I know not where it may be found
Where with a ‘but’ it isn't bound.

And so on...

These miniature texts intersect with John's longer poems in interesting ways. The tender approach to children found in the lullaby lyrics is also noticeable in these verses, as in this couplet:

Children ben litel brith & schene & eþe for to fillen
Suetliche pleyȝende fre of ȝifte & eþe for to stillen

Children are little, bright and fair, and easy to satisfy;
Sweetly playing, free with giving, and easy to pacify.

And the poignancy of the lullaby lyrics is there too:

With a sorwe & a clut
Al þis werd comet in & out


With a sorrow and a clout
All this world comes in and out.

A 'clout' is a cloth, a winding-sheet, such as both infants and corpses are wrapped in. The idea here, vividly expressed, is that the beginning and end of life are in many ways very similar. This couplet succinctly encapsulates a poetic conceit explored at much greater length in the lullaby lyrics (especially 'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'): that the crying of a baby, and perhaps also here the pain of childbirth, is a kind of foreshadowing of life's inevitable sorrows. The idea is that a baby, who cries without understanding why it's crying, has cause indeed to cry, because it has been born helpless into a world full of pain. The lullaby lyrics apply this to Christ by having him speak of his painful future and his death, not because it is unique to him, but because it is the common human fate he has chosen to share. The difference is that the baby Christ, the infant Word, knows it and (in these poems) can articulate it, where an ordinary baby has only a wordless cry.

'With a sorrow and a clout / All this world comes in and out.' John of Grimestone's language here finds an echo in the Christmas sermon of a later preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, describing how 'He that cometh here in clouts, He will come in the clouds one day':
We may well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross... To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross? But so, — primo... ne discrepet imum, 'that His beginning and His end may suit well and not disagree', sic oportuit Christum nasci, 'thus ought Christ to be born', and this behoved to be His sign...

Signs are taken for wonders. 'Master, we would fain see a sign,' that is a miracle. And in this sense it is a sign to wonder at. Indeed, every word here is a wonder. An infant, Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word... swaddled; and that a wonder too. 'He,' that (as in the thirty-eighth of Job he saith), "taketh the vast body of the main sea, turns it to and fro, as a little child, and rolls it about with the swaddling bands of darkness' — He to come thus into clouts, himself! 3. But yet, all this is well; all children are so. But in præsepi, that is it, there is the wonder. Children lie not there; He doth. There lieth He, the Lord of glory without glory. Instead of a palace, a poor stable; of a cradle of state, a beast's cratch; no pillow but a lock of hay; no hangings but dust and cobwebs; no attendants, but in medio animalium, as the Fathers read the third of Habakkuk. For if the inn were full, the stable was not empty we may be sure. A sign, this, nay three in one, able to amaze any...

For loquitor signis, 'signs have their speech,' and this is no dumb sign. What saith it then to us? Christ, though as yet He cannot speak as a new-born babe, yet by it He speaks, and out of His crib, as a pulpit, this day preaches to us; and His theme is, Discite a Me, 'Learn of Me, for I am humble,' humble in My birth ye all see. This is the præcipe of the præsepe, as I may call it, the lesson of Christ's cratch.

This is from a sermon preached in 1618. Poetry and preaching can be very close together, as John of Grimestone knew; and Andrewes' words are probably best known today not from his sermon but via Eliot's Gerontion:

Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers.

Þa hyrdas ða spræcon him betweonan, æfter ðæra engla fram-færelde, "Uton gefaran to Bethleem, and geseon þæt word þe geworden is, and God us geswutelode." Eala hu rihtlice hi andetton þone halgan geleafan mid þisum wordum! "On frymðe wæs word, and þæt word wæs mid Gode, and þæt word wæs God". Word bið wisdomes geswutelung, and þæt Word, þæt is se Wisdom, is acenned of ðam Ælmihtigum Fæder, butan anginne; forðan ðe he wæs æfre God of Gode, Wisdom of ðam wisan Fæder. Nis he na geworht, forðan ðe he is God, and na gesceaft; ac se Ælmihtiga Fæder gesceop þurh ðone Wisdom ealle gesceafta, and hi ealle ðurh þone Halgan Gast geliffæste.

The shepherds then spoke amongst themselves, after the departure of the angels: "Let us go to Bethlehem, and see þæt word þe geworden is [the thing which has come to pass], which God has made known to us." O, how rightly they confessed the holy faith with these words! "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." A word is the revealing of wisdom, and the Word, which is the Wisdom, is brought forth from the Almighty Father, without beginning; for he was ever God of God, Wisdom of the Wise Father. He is not created, because he is God, and no created thing; the Almighty God created all created things through that Wisdom, and gave them life through the Holy Ghost.

And this is Ælfric, preaching on the same text as Lancelot Andrewes, six hundred years earlier. Ælfric was a poet too, and a lover of language; and þæt word þe geworden is, Ælfric's version of 'this thing which has come to pass', is literally a 'word within a word', since word is wrapped inside geworden. (I wrote about this at greater length here). 'Every word here is a wonder'!

Nativity from BL Stowe 12, which is (like John of Grimestone) from 14th-century Norfolk

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Danish Conquest, 15: The Death of Edmund Ironside

The death of Edmund Ironside (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f. 5)

On this day in 1016 Edmund Ironside died, after just seven months as king of England. After the death of his father Æthelred on St George's Day 1016, he had inherited a kingdom half-overrun by a Danish army, and he spent most of his reign fighting Cnut and the Danes for control of England. The last battle was fought at Assandun on 18 October 1016, after which Edmund and Cnut reached a peace-treaty and agreed to divide the kingdom - so at the time of his death Edmund was king only of Wessex, while Cnut held what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the norðdæle, the northern part of England. Following Edmund's death, as the peace-treaty may have arranged, Cnut became king of the whole country, and went on to rule it for nearly twenty years.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only observes that Edmund died on St Andrew's Day and was buried with his grandfather, King Edgar, at Glastonbury. It gives no details as to the location or manner of his death, and later sources provide varying information on both. Some sources say he died in Oxford (which was near the northern border of his much-diminished kingdom), others in London (then occupied by Danish ships). We don't know the cause of his death, and it may well have been from natural causes: he died at the end of a year of almost continuous warfare, just six weeks after a heroic last stand at the Battle of Assandun, so it's very possible he succumbed to an existing wound.

But this simple explanation seems not to have appealed to contemporaries or to later medieval historians. Within a few decades (and perhaps from the first) his death was being blamed on Eadric streona, one of his commanders, a Mercian ealdorman of impressively fluid loyalties. Eadric had betrayed Edmund in the past, and switched allegiance between the Danes and the English and back again more than once in the years before Edmund's death. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle regularly highlights his betrayals, and post-Conquest sources blackened his already pitch-black name by crediting him with a whole range of extra crimes, including but not limited to the St Brice's Day Massacre, the murder of Svein Forkbeard's sister Gunnhild, the death of St Ælfheah, the English defeat in more than one battle against the Danes, and the murder of Edmund. The twelfth-century historians are pretty well agreed that Eadric was largely to blame for the Danish Conquest, and if they could have found some way to blame the Norman Conquest on Eadric, they would probably have done that too.

Perhaps surprisingly, no English sources cast suspicion on Cnut or suggest he was involved in his rival's death - quite the opposite, in fact. Cnut was not above executing political opponents (including one of Edmund's brothers, and his own brother-in-law) so it would hardly have been out of the question, and some late Scandinavian sources have no doubt Cnut was responsible. The English historians, however, tell a very different story. The treaty made between Cnut and Edmund, illustrated by their kiss of peace in the thirteenth-century manuscript above, had made them 'partners and pledged-brothers' (feolagan 7 wedbroðra), and William of Malmesbury says that Cnut continued to refer to Edmund as his brother; he even visited Edmund's grave at Glastonbury on the anniversary of his death and presented a rich cloak decorated with peacocks at his tomb.

Many later sources go even further, and say that Cnut was not only saddened by his opponent's death, but took it upon himself to avenge Edmund. The earliest incarnation of this story occurs in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, whose author derived much of his information (and surely this story) from members of the Anglo-Danish court of Cnut's son, Harthacnut. It is cited as evidence that Cnut was 'as yet in the flower of youth, but was nevertheless master of indescribable wisdom':

It was, accordingly, the case that he loved those whom he had heard to have fought previously for Eadmund faithfully without deceit, and that he so hated those whom he knew to have been deceitful, and to have hesitated between the two sides with fraudulent tergiversation, that on a certain day he ordered the execution of many chiefs for deceit of this kind. One of these was Eadric, who had fled from the war, and to whom, when he asked for a reward for this from the king, pretending to have done it to ensure his victory, the king said sadly: "Shall you, who have deceived your lord with guile, be capable of being true to me? I will return to you a worthy reward, but I will do so to the end that deception may not subsequently be your pleasure." And summoning Eiríkr, his commander, he said: "Pay this man what we owe him; that is to say, kill him, lest he play us false." He, indeed, raised his axe without delay, and cut off his head with a mighty blow, so that soldiers may learn from this example to be faithful, not faithless, to their kings.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949),  pp.31-3.

It's tempting to see this bit of grim wordplay as some classic Viking black humour: Eadric gets his 'reward', but not the reward he was expecting. Cnut did indeed have Eadric killed in 1017, probably not quite as flamboyantly as this - but this sounds to me like the kind of story which might have been in circulation at court, and it might well have some origin in fact. From the twelfth century onwards, historians elaborate not only as to the nature of Eadric's punishment but the manner of poor Edmund's death. Here's Henry of Huntingdon's version, with some even better wordplay:

When [Edmund], fearful and most formidable to his enemies, was prospering in his kingdom, he went one night to the lavatory to answer a call of nature. There the son of Ealdorman Eadric, who by his father's plan was concealed in the pit of the privy, struck the king twice with a sharp knife in the private parts, and leaving the weapon in his bowels, fled away. Then Eadric came to King Cnut and saluted him, saying, ‘Hail, sole king!’ When he disclosed what had happened, the king answered, ‘As a reward for your great service, I shall make you higher than all the English nobles.’ Then he ordered him to be beheaded, and his head to be fixed on a stake on London’s highest tower.

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.360-3.

'Higher', get it? Justice with a pun. This story, puns and privies and all, is actually quite a restrained version: as time went on, other medieval historians added lurid details about some kind of bizarre privy-based stabbing machine which Eadric used to kill Edmund, yet more puns about reward/debt/being made 'highest', and Cnut throwing Eadric into the Thames with a catapult.

Edmund Ironside and his descendants (BL Royal 14 B VI)

Whatever vengeance Cnut may or may not have enacted on Edmund's behalf, history did bring him a measure of justice. At the time of his death, he had two infant sons by his wife Ealdgyth. They were taken out of the country, and grew up in exile. One of them married a Hungarian princess and by her became the father of three children, including Margaret of Scotland; and Margaret's daughter, in 1100, married Henry I, thus grafting the line of the Anglo-Saxon kings back into the royal family tree. It's a nice irony of history that Edmund should have died on St Andrew's Day, when his descendants would go on to become rulers (and patron saint) of Scotland; and it's through them and through Edmund Ironside, though only seven months' king, that the English monarchy can today claim descent from the kings of Wessex.