Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Sun and the Seed-Corn


Following on from this recent post about Anglo-Saxon wisdom literature, here are two extracts from the 'Metres of Boethius', a sequence of Old English poems based on the metrical sections of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. This is Metre 3.

Eala, on hu grimmum and hu grundleasum
seaðe swinceð þæt sweorcende mod,
þonne hit þa strongan stormas beatað
weoruldbisgunga, þonne hit winnende
his agen leoht an forlæteð,
and mid uua forgit þone ecan gefean,
ðringð on þa ðiostro ðisse worulde,
sorgum geswenced. Swa is þissum nu
mode gelumpen, nu hit mare ne wat
for gode godes buton gnornunge
fremdre worulde. Him is frofre ðearf.

O, in how fearsome and how fathomless
a mire struggles the darkening mind,
when the stern storms of worldly trouble
beat against it! Then, battling on,
it loses its own light,
and in grief forgets the eternal joy,
driven on into the darkness of this world,
oppressed by sorrow. So now it is
for this mind, now it knows no more
of God's goods but grieving
in an unwelcoming world. It needs comfort.


Here's the section on which this is based; the Old English is briefer and simpler, and somehow more poignant to me for that reason. My translation can't capture how much the sound of the poetry contributes to this picture of a mind growing dark, squelched by sorrow, sinking into a bottomless pit: the sweorcende mod, sorgum geswenced. Say out loud the word gnornunge - couldn't you guess without being told that it means 'grieving, lamenting'?

By contrast, here's the OE Metre 22, for which compare this.

Se þe æfter rihte mid gerece wille
inweardlice æfter spyrian
swa deoplice, þæt hit todrifan ne mæg
monna ænig, ne amerran huru
ænig eorðlic ðincg, he ærest sceal
secan on him selfum þæt he sume hwile
ymbutan hine æror sohte.
Sece þæt siððan on his sefan innan,
and forlæte an, swa he oftost mæge,
ælcne ymbhogan ðy him unnet sie,
and gesamnige, swa he swiðost mæge,
ealle to þæm anum his ingeðonc,
gesecge his mode þæt hit mæg findan
eall on him innan þæt hit oftost nu
ymbutan hit ealneg seceð,
gooda æghwylc. He ongit siððan
yfel and unnet eal þæt he hæfde
on his incofan æror lange
efne swa sweotole swa he on þa sunnan mæg
eagum andweardum on locian,
and he eac ongit his ingeþonc
leohtre and berhtre þonne se leoma sie
sunnan on sumera, þonne swegles gim,
hador heofontungol, hlutrost scineð.
Forðæm þæs lichoman leahtras and hefignes
and þa unþeawas eallunga ne magon
of mode ation monna ænegum
rihtwisnesse, ðeah nu rinca hwæm
þæs lichoman leahtras and hefignes
and unþeawas oft bysigen
monna modsefan, mæst and swiðost
mid þære yflan oforgiotolnesse,
mid gedwolmiste dreorigne sefan
fortihð mod foran monna gehwelces,
þæt hit swa beorhte ne mot blican and scinan
swa hit wolde, gif hit geweald ahte.
þeah bið sum corn sædes gehealden
symle on ðære saule soðfæstnesse,
þenden gadertang wunað gast on lice.
Ðæs sædes corn bið symle aweaht
mid ascunga, eac siððan mid
goodre lare, gif hit growan sceal.
Hu mæg ænig man andsware findan
ðinga æniges, þegen mid gesceade,
þeah hine rinca hwilc rihtwislice
æfter frigne gif he awuht nafað
on his modsefan mycles ne lytles
rihtwisnesse ne geradscipes?
Nis þeah ænig man þætte ealles swa
þæs geradscipes swa bereafod sie
þæt he andsware ænige ne cunne
findan on ferhðe, gif he frugnen bið.
Forðæm hit is riht spell þæt us reahte gio
ald uðwita, ure Platon;
he cwæð þætte æghwilc ungemyndig
rihtwisnesse hine hræðe sceolde
eft gewendan into sinum
modes gemynde; he mæg siððan
on his runcofan rihtwisnesse
findan on ferhte fæste gehydde
mid gedræfnesse dogora gehwilce
modes sines mæst and swiðost,
and mid hefinesse his lichoman,
and mid þæm bisgum þe on breostum styreð
mon on mode mæla gehwylce.

He who wishes to search in an ordered way
for the right, inwardly,
so deeply that no man may drive it out,
nor any earthly thing at all
corrupt it, he shall first
seek within himself that which for a time
he had once sought outside himself.
He must seek then in his mind within,
and utterly forsake, as often as he can,
every anxiety which is useless to him,
and gather, as much as he can,
all into one his inner thought;
say to his mind that it can discover
all within itself which it is now so often
always seeking outside itself:
every good. He will then perceive
all the harmful and useless things which he had long kept
within his inner chamber,
just as clearly as he may look upon the sun
with his present eyes;
and he will also perceive his inner thought,
lighter and brighter than the radiance
of the sun in summer, when the jewel of the sky,
serene star of the heavens, shines most brightly.
For the sins and heaviness of the body
and all its bad ways cannot
take from any human mind
reason, although now for every being
the sins and heaviness of the body
and its bad ways often trouble
the mind of man, greatly and cruelly,
with the evil of forgetfulness,
draw a mist of error over the sorrowful spirit,
the mind of every man,
so that it cannot blaze and shine
as brightly as it wants to, if it had the power.
But there will always be
a seed-corn of truth held within the soul
as long as the spirit and body live entwined together.
This seed-corn will always be quickened
by asking, and then by
good teaching, if it is to grow.
How may any man find an answer
for anything, a person with reason,
though a man might ask him about it
properly, if he has nothing
of wisdom or counsel in his mind,
great or small?
There is no man so entirely bereft of reason
that he cannot find any answer
in his mind, if he is questioned.
For it is a true speech which the ancient philosopher,
our Plato, long ago told us:
he said that anyone forgetful of reason
should swiftly turn within his own mind's memory;
in his secret chamber he will find reason,
hidden fast within his mind
amid the turbulence of his spirit
every day, greatly and cruelly,
and amid the heaviness of his body
and amid the cares which in the heart disturb
a man in his mind at all times.

This is complex and intricate and hard to translate - hard for me, and hard for the Anglo-Saxon poet, I would think. But Old English poetry had many ways of talking about the processes of the mind and the memory, and they get a good workout here. This is sophisticated psychological and philosophical reasoning, and it draws on Old English poetic diction as well as on Boethius and 'our Plato': there's a characteristic kenning for the mind, runcofan, 'secret chamber' ('chamber of secrets'?) as well as the usual vocabulary of mod and ferþ and sefa - the mind, spirit, heart, soul. And although the metaphor may be Boethius', the lines about the sun contain two beautifully Anglo-Saxon kennings:

and he eac ongit his ingeþonc
leohtre and berhtre þonne se leoma sie
sunnan on sumera, þonne swegles gim,
hador heofontungol, hlutrost scineð.

and he will also perceive his inner thought,
lighter and brighter than the radiance
of the sun in summer, when the jewel of the sky,
serene star of the heavens, shines most brightly.

Yesterday in Oxford the sun was blazing down, sunnan on sumera at its very brightest, hottest, most all-embracing. Can the mind, sinking in so fearsome and fathomless a mire, really learn to be brighter even than that?

Monday, 29 June 2015

'Each man ought himself to know'

Some life advice from the late fourteenth century.

1. In a pistel þat Poul wrouȝt,
I fond hit writen, & seide riht þis:
Vche cristne creature knowen himself ouȝt
His oune vessel, and soþ hit is.
Nere help of him þat vs deore bouȝt,
We weoren bore to luytel blis;
Whon al þi gode dedes beþ þorw-souȝt,
Seche, and þou schalt fynden amis.
Eueri mon scholde iknowen his,
And þat is luitel, as I trowe;
To teche vs self, crist vs wis;
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

2. Knowe þi-self what þou ware,
Whon þou were of þi moder born,
Ho was þi moder þat þe bare,
And ho was þi fader þer-bi-foren;
Knowe hou þei beþ forþ fare;
So schaltou þeiȝ þou hed sworen.
Knowe þou come hider wiþ care;
Þou nost neuer ȝif þou byde til morn;
Hou lihtly þou maiȝt be forlorn,
But þou þi sinne schriue & schowe;
ffor lond or kiþ, catel or corn,
Vche mon oute him-self to knowe.

3. Knowe þi lyf; hit may not last,
But as a blast blouh out þi breth;
Tote, and bi a noþer mon tast;
Riht as a glentand glem hit geth.
What is al þat forþ is past?
Hit fareþ as a fuir of heth.
Þis worldes good awey wol wast,
For synnes seeknesse þi soule sleþ.
And þat is a ful delful deþ,
To saue þi soule and þou be slowe,
Wiþ þi Maystrie medel þi meþ,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

4. Ȝif þou þi-self knowe con,
Sit doun, and tac countures rounde,
Seþþe furst þou monnes wit bi-gon
Hou ofte sunne þe haþ ibounde.
And for vch a synne lei þou doun on,
Til þou þi synnes haue isouȝt vp sounde;
Counte þi goode dedes euerichon,
Abyd þer a while and stunte a stounde;
And ȝif þou fele þe siker and sounde,
Þonk þou þi god, as þou wel owe;
And ȝif þou art in sunne ibounde
Amende þe, and þi-self knowe.

5. Knowe what god haþ for þe do:
Made þe after his oune liknes;
Seþþe, he com from heuene also,
And diȝede for þe wiþ gret distres.
For þe he soffrede boþe pyne and wo;
Knowe þou him and alle his:
Who-so greueþ him is worþi to go
To helle-fuir, but he hit redres,
And he be demed bi rihtfulnes;
But his grace is so wyde isowe,
From his wraþþe I rede vs bles,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

6. Knowe þi-self þat þou schalt dye,
But what tyme, þou nost neuer whenne;
Wiþ a twynklyng of an eiȝe,
Eueri day þou hiȝest þe henne;
Þi fleschly foode þe wermes wol fye:
Vche cristen mon ouȝte þis to kenne.
Loke aboute and wel a-spye,
Þis world doþ bote bi-traye menne;
And beo war of þe fuir þat euer schal brenne,
And þenk þou regnest her but a þrowe;
Heuene-blisse þou schal haue þenne,
For vche mon ouȝte him self to knowe.

7. Knowe þi flesch, þat wol rote;
ffor certes, þou maiȝt not longe endure;
And nedes dye, hennes þou mote,
Þei þou haue kyngdam and empyre.
And sone þou schalt beo forgote;
So schal souereyn, so schal syre.
Hose leeueþ not þis, I trouwe he dote,
For eueri mok most in-to myre.
Preye we to god vr soules enspire,
Or we ben logged in erþe lowe,
Heuene to haue to vr huire;
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

8. Knowe þi kuynde creatoure,
Knowe what he for þe dide;
Knowe þis worldly honoure,
Hou sone þat hit is forþ islyde.
Ende of ioye is her doloure;
Strengþe stont vs in no stide,
But longyng & beoing in laboure;
Vr bost, vr brag is sone ouerbide.
Arthur and Ector þat we dredde,
Deth haþ leid hem wonderly lowe.
Amende þe, mon, euene forþ mide,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

9. Þi concience schal þe saue and deme
Wheþer þat þou beo ille or good;
Grope aboute, and tak good ȝeme,
Þer maiȝt þou wite, but þou beo wood,
Þer schalt þou þe same seone.
Aske merci wiþ mylde mood,
Amende þe, þou wot what I mene.
Vche creatur þat beres bon and blood,
Preye we to god þat dyed on rode,
Ar vre breþ beo out iblowe,
Þat cristes face mai ben vr foode,
For vche mon ouȝte him self to knowe.

This poem survives in two manuscripts, two important collections of Middle English verse: the Vernon manuscript and the Simeon manuscript. Here's an image of part of it in the latter (BL Add. MS 22283, f.129v):


A translation (N.B. the epistle quoted at the beginning is 1 Thessalonians 4):

1. In an epistle which Paul made,
I found it written, and it said just this:
'Each Christian creature ought to know
His own vessel' - and true it is.
If not for help from him who us dearly bought,
We were born to little bliss;
When your good deeds are looked all through,
Seek, and you shall find amiss.
Every man should know what is his,
And that is little, as I believe;
To teach ourselves, Christ us guide;
For each man ought himself to know.

2. Know yourself, what you were
When you were of your mother born,
Who was your mother who you bore,
And who your father was before;
Know how they have departed;
So shall you, though you've sworn you won't.
Know that you came here with sorrow;
You never know if you will stay till morrow.
How easily you may be lost,
Unless your sins you confess and show!
Despite land or lineage, chattels or corn,
Each man ought himself to know.

3. Know your life; it cannot last,
But as a blast blows out your breath.
Look, but another man will taste;
Like a glancing gleam it is gone.
What is all that forth has passed?
It fares like a fire on the heath.
This world's goods away will waste,
For sin's sickness your soul slays.
And that is a very doleful death,
To save your soul if you are slain.
Temper your strength with moderation;
For each man ought himself to know.

4. If you would learn to know yourself,
Sit down, and take some counters round:
Since first you possessed human sense,
Count how often sin has you bound,
And for each sin lay a counter down,
Until all your sins have been reckoned up.
Count your good deeds, one by one,
Stay there a while, and take your time.
And if you feel healthy and sound,
Thank your God, as you ought to do;
And if you are in sin bound,
Make amends, and know yourself.

5. Know what God has done for you:
He made you after his own likeness;
Then he came himself from heaven,
And died for you, in great distress.
For you he suffered both pain and woe;
Know him, and all that is his:
Whoever angers him deserves to go
To hell-fire, unless he make amends,
If he is judged by right justice.
But his grace is so widely sown,
I say it will protect us from his wrath;
For each man ought himself to know.

6. Know yourself, that you shall die,
But at what time, you never can know when;
With a twinkling of an eye,
Every day you are hastening from hence;
The worms will make food of your flesh.
Each Christian man ought to know this.
Look about and consider well:
This world does but men betray;
And beware of the fire that shall burn for ever,
And think that you reign here but a short while.
Heaven's bliss you shall have then,
For each man ought himself to know.

7. Know your flesh, which will decay;
For certainly, you cannot long endure;
And must needs die, and go from here,
Though you have kingdoms and empires.
And soon you shall be all forgotten -
So shall sovereign, so shall sire.
Who believes this not, he is a fool:
All muck goes back into the mire.
Pray we to God our souls to inspire,
Lest we be stuck on earth so low,
Heaven to have as our reward,
For each man ought himself to know.

8. Know your loving Creator,
Know what he did for you;
Know this worldly honour,
How quickly it slides away.
The end of joy is sorrow here;
Strength will stay us in no stead,
For all our longing and our labour,
Our pomp and power all pass by.
Arthur and Hector whom we feared,
Death has laid them wondrous low.
Make amends, man, and right now,
For each man ought himself to know.

9. Your conscience shall you save and judge
Whether you be evil or good;
Consider it well, and take good care,
Wherever you may look, unless you're mad,
There you will see.
Ask mercy with a mild spirit.
Amend yourself; you know my meaning.
Each creature who bears bone and blood,
Pray we to God who died on the rood,
Before our breath is all blown out,
That Christ's face may be our support,
For each man ought himself to know.

Although this poem is perhaps not Middle English verse at its most sophisticated, it has some things to recommend it. There are several neat phrases made memorable by alliteration: we are told that life is like a 'glancing gleam', consisting of 'longing and being in labour' - while 'all muck goes back into the mire' is a particularly strongly-worded version of 'you are dust, and to dust you shall return'! The poem has a distinctive form and subject-matter which it shares with a number of poems in the same two manuscripts - I've posted several examples before, including 'In a church where I did kneel', 'Think on yesterday' and 'In summer before the Ascension'. They're poems of counsel and advice, urging the reader to consider the brevity of life and the ubiquity of human failings, and suggesting possibilities for amendment.

I'm sure there are some modern readers who find this form of moralising off-putting, very medieval-in-the-bad-sense, but I'll admit that I find this poem strangely reassuring. Of course 'know yourself' is excellent counsel, at all times and in all places - more prevalent perhaps even than the English poet knew. It is so old-fashioned as to be utterly timeless, and if you think the medieval poet is a little prolix in making his point, he is at least more concise and memorable than some modern counsellors giving the same advice. (Can you believe there's a Wikihow for 'How to Know Thyself'? It should just suggest reading this poem instead...)

The strategy for learning to know yourself here is, of course, overtly Christian, advising you to think about your good and bad deeds, but its approach to life is refreshingly straightforward and generally applicable: be glad if things are good, amend what you have done amiss, and everything will be fine. You might not much like the idea of tallying up sins with 'counters round', but it does offer an optimistic take on the human possibility for improvement and the chances of forgiveness and a fresh start - more perhaps than we allow ourselves today. The poem's suggestion of round 'counters' as a way of gaining self-knowledge reminded me with amusement of this self-assessment tool for researchers, which is designed to show you all the things you're supposed to be and do in order to become a successful academic. Although it's intended to be helpful, and many people doubtless find it so, as a form of self-reflection it utterly defeats me - it just makes me want to cry. I don't necessarily doubt my ability to acquire any or all of the skills listed, but I despair at being able to prove that fact to someone else's satisfaction. Is everything one does in life to be evaluated solely as evidence of skills to be demonstrated to a potential employer (even, absurdly, 'self-reflection' itself)? That Wheel of Inhuman Perfection is of a piece with all the formal education I've ever had - as a child of the 1990s, education was nothing but mark-schemes, and 'don't learn that, it won't be on the exam', and 'make sure you use the exact keywords or you won't get the points'. I went along with all that, dutifully ticked all the boxes - and all I ever really learned (by accident) is that no success will ever be enough to earn you approval or happiness or peace of mind. One of the most insidious effects of my current job situation is that the more I worry about my career, the more difficult it becomes to remember that my career is not my self, and to try and believe there's more to the value of my life than can ever be put on my CV. A career-focused view of life, especially in academia, insists that everything you do must be constantly up for evaluation, by people who don't really value you (or anyone) at all; I've learned, and wish I had realised sooner, how much this daily erodes my own sense of what's important and what I'm allowed to value about myself. It actively works against true self-knowledge by teaching you that you are only worthwhile in as far as you meet someone else's impossible standards.

Once it might have been the job of educators to challenge that limited view of human life, to insist on exploring the consequences of the obvious truth that 'this world does but men betray' - to teach that rather than striving for money, success, or power, you might be happier if you try to know yourself and focus on what's really important. But that's not what schools and universities do any more. The goal of all my school's fussy box-ticking was not really to teach us anything, just to prepare us to get a job - but even with the best career in the world, still 'this world's goods away will waste'. Medieval schools might have been pretty tough, but at least they didn't teach children that the value of their life lay in how many exams they could pass. The reason this poem reads a bit like a list of cliches is that the ideas it promotes were ubiquitous in medieval literature, as a glance at just a few examples will demonstrate; medieval 'clerks' brought up on The Consolation of Philosophy and similar texts had such messages inculcated in them from their earliest schooldays. 'Know this worldly honour, how quickly it slides away...' By comparison with their modern equivalent, such doom-laden lessons seem (perhaps paradoxically) tremendously humane, generous, and wise. Sit down with your little counters, 'stay there a while and take your time', and learn to understand the true value of your actions - learn how to be a good person, not just a successful one. It encourages reflection, patience, and compassion towards yourself and others, and the insistent focus on the idea that 'you reign here but a short while' is a reminder to focus on what's important, to consider what really matters in the end - which is not, for most of us, going to be any great achievement or worldly success, but our relationships with others, and the good we manage to do in the little time we have. Primary school children in this country now have lessons in mindfulness, to help them cope with the stress of constant assessment; perhaps we should do the medieval thing, and teach them Boethius instead.

Know where you came from, what you really are, and where you are eventually going. What more do you need? This triad is more pithily expressed in the wonderful Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore?:

Child, if betidith that thou ssalt thriue and the,
Thench thou were ifostred vp thi moder kne.
Euer hab mund in thi hert of thos thinges thre:
Whan thou commist, what thou art and what ssal com of the.

Child, if it should happen that thou shalt thrive and thee [flourish]
Think how thou wert fostered at thy mother's knee.
Ever have mind in thy heart of these things three:
Whence thou comest, what thou art, and what shall become of thee.

'Whence, what, whither': the best advice you'll ever get.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

'Swa swa se dægsteorra gæð beforan ðære sunnan'

The Birth of John the Baptist (BL Additional 49598, f.92v)

Þænne wuldres þegn
ymb þreotyne, þeodnes dyrling,
Iohannes in geardagan wearð acenned,
tyn nihtum eac; we þa tiid healdað
on midne sumor mycles on æþelum.

Then after thirteen and ten nights [i.e. on 24th June]
the thegn of glory, the Prince's darling,
John, was born in days of old;
we keep that feast at Midsummer, with much honour.

- The Old English Menologium

On this Midsummer feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, here's an extract from Ælfric's homily for the day. It can be read in full here.

Ðreora manna gebyrdtide freolsað seo halige gelaðung: ðæs Hælendes, seðe is God and mann, and Iohannes his bydeles, and ðære eadigan Marian his moder. Oðra gecorenra manna, ðe ðurh martyrdom, oððe þurh oðre halige geearnunga, Godes rice geferdon, heora endenextan dæg, seðe hi æfter gefyllednysse ealra earfoðnyssa sigefæste to ðam ecan life acende, we wurðiað him to gebyrdtide; and ðone dæg, ðe hi to ðisum andweardan life acennede wæron, we lætað to gymeleaste, forðan ðe hi comon hider to earfoðnyssum, and costnungum, and mislicum fræcednyssum. Se dæg bið gemyndig Godes ðeowum ðe ða halgan, æfter gewunnenum sige, asende to ecere myrhðe fram eallum gedreccednyssum, and se is heora soðe acennednys; na woplic, swa swa seo ærre, ac blissigendlic to ðam ecum life.

Ac us is to wurðigenne mid micelre gecnyrdnysse Cristes gebyrdtide, ðurh ða us com alysednys. Iohannes is geendung ðære ealdan æ and anginn ðære niwan, swa swa se Hælend be him cwæð, "Seo ealde æ and witegan wæron oð Iohannes to-cyme." Siððan ongann godspel-bodung. Nu for his micclan halignysse is gewurðod his acennednys, swa swa se heah-engel behet his fæder mid ðisum wordum, "Manega blissiað on his gebyrdtide." Maria, Godes cynnestre, nis nanum oðrum gelic, forðan ðe heo is mæden and modor, and ðone abær ðe hi and ealle gesceafta gesceop: is heo forði wel wyrðe þæt hire acennednys arwurðlice gefreolsod sy...

He wæs asend toforan Drihtne, swa swa se dægsteorra gæð beforan ðære sunnan, swa swa bydel ætforan deman, swa swa seo Ealde Gecyðnys ætforan ðære Niwan; forðan ðe seo ealde æ wæs swilce sceadu, and seo Niwe Gecyðnys is soðfæstnys ðurh ðæs Hælendes gife.

Anes geares cild hi wæron, Crist and Iohannes. On ðisum dæge acende seo unwæstmbære moder ðone mæran witegan Iohannem, se is geherod mid þisum wordum, ðurh Cristes muð, "Betwux wifa bearnum ne aras nan mærra man ðonne is Iohannes se Fulluhtere." On middes wintres mæssedæge acende þæt halige mæden Maria þone Heofenlican Æðeling, se nis geteald to wifa bearnum, forðon ðe he is Godes Sunu on ðære Godcundnysse, and Godes and mædenes Bearn ðurh menniscnysse...

Nis butan getacnunge þæt ðæs bydeles acennednys on ðære tide wæs gefremod ðe se woruldlica dæg wanigende bið, and on Drihtnes gebyrdtide weaxende bið. Þas getacnunge onwreah se ylca Iohannes mid ðisum wordum, "Criste gedafenað þæt he weaxe, and me þæt ic wanigende beo." Iohannes wæs hraðor mannum cuð þurh his mærlican drohtnunga, þonne Crist wære, forðan ðe he ne æteowde his godcundan mihte, ærðam ðe he wæs ðritig geara on ðære menniscnysse. Þa wæs he geðuht ðam folce þæt he witega wære, and Iohannes Crist. Hwæt ða Crist geswutelode hine sylfne ðurh miccle tacna, and his hlisa weox geond ealne middangeard, þæt he soð God wæs, seðe wæs ærðan witega geðuht. Iohannes soðlice wæs wanigende on his hlisan, forðan ðe he wearð oncnawen witega, and bydel ðæs Heofonlican Æðelinges, seðe wæs lytle ær Crist geteald mid ungewissum wenan. Þas wanunge getacnað se wanigenda dæg his gebyrd-tide, and se ðeonda dæg ðæs Hælendes acennednysse gebícnað his ðeondan mihte æfter ðære menniscnysse.
'The holy church celebrates the birth-tide of three people: of the Saviour, who is God and man, and of John his herald, and of the blessed Mary his mother. Of other chosen people, who have gone to God's kingdom through martyrdom or other holy merits, we celebrate as their birth-tide their last day, which, after the fulfilment of all their labours, bore them victorious to eternal life; and the day on which they were born to this present life we let pass unheeded, because they came here to hardships and temptations and various dangers. The day is worthy of memory for God's servants which sends his saints, after victory won, from all afflictions to eternal joy, and that is their true birth - not tearful, as the first, but rejoicing in eternal life.

But the birth-tide of Christ is to be celebrated with great care, through which came our redemption. John is the ending of the old law and the beginning of the new; as the Saviour said of him, "The old law and the prophets were till the coming of John." Afterwards began the preaching of the gospel. Now, because of his great holiness, his birth is honoured, as the archangel promised his father with these words, "Many shall rejoice in his birth-tide." Mary, parent of God, is like to none other, for she is maiden and mother, and bore him who created her and all creation: therefore she is most worthy that her birth should be honourably celebrated...

He was sent before the Lord, as the day-star goes before the sun, as the beadle goes before the judge, as the Old Testament before the New; because the old law was like a shadow, and the New Testament is the truth itself, through the grace of the Saviour.

They were the children of one year, Christ and John. On this day the barren mother gave birth to the great prophet John, who is praised in these words from the mouth of Christ: 'Among the children of women there arose none greater than John the Baptist.' On midwinter's day the holy maiden Mary gave birth to the heavenly prince, who is not counted among the children of women, because he is God's Son in his divinity, and God and the Virgin's Son in his humanity...

It is not without meaning that the herald's birth at this season came to pass when the earthly day is waning, and the Lord's birth when it is waxing. This meaning John himself revealed with these words: "It is fitting for Christ that he should increase, and for me that I should decrease." John became known to people, through his famous actions, earlier than Christ was, because he did not reveal his divine power before he had lived thirty years in human nature. So it seemed to the people that he was a prophet, and that John was Christ. But then Christ made himself known through great signs, and his fame waxed throughout all the world, that he was true God, who had previously seemed a prophet. Truly John's fame was waning, because he was recognised as a prophet, and herald of the heavenly Prince, who a little while before was believed to be Christ by uncertain guesses. This waning is betokened by the waning day at the season of his birth, and the increasing day at the Saviour's birth signifies his increasing power according to his human nature.'


This follows the traditional understanding of the relationship between the date of the solstices and the births of Christ and his herald: as Bede (for instance) explains, just as Christ was conceived at the spring equinox and born at the winter solstice, so John was conceived at the autumn equinox and born at the summer solstice. They were, as Ælfric says, anes geares cild, 'the children of one year'. After Midsummer se woruldlica dæg wanigende bið, the earthly day is waning, and it goes on waning until the winter solstice brings Earendel and the birth of the sun.


The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, produced a little earlier in the tenth century than Ælfric's sermon, depicts the birth and naming of John the Baptist (BL Additional 49598, f.92v): above, Elizabeth with the baby; below, Zechariah writes 'His name is John'.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

In Wisdom's Court

Alfred the Great, from Wantage

I've recently begun a new Twitter project, called Old English Wisdom. The idea is to tweet proverbs, maxims, and other miniature bits of wisdom and advice from Old English poetry and prose, anything which falls under a very broad definition of 'wisdom'! Old English literature abounds in such pithy statements, ranging from wry proverbs about mead-drinking and money to practical advice about moderate behaviour, from a warrior's code of conduct to profound reflections on how one acquires wisdom and the benefits it can bring; so there's almost a limitless amount to tweet, and it seemed to me it might be an interesting way to combine the popular fascination with the Old English language (which never ceases to take me by surprise) with an opportunity to post about some texts which are not very well-known. (Who would read the OE 'Precepts' except in bite-size chunks!)

This has involved spending my free time re-acquainting myself with some Old English texts I haven't read in a while. It throws up surprises, not always directly useful for the project, but thought-provoking in other ways; when you go looking for wisdom, you find all kinds of things. This week, for instance, I've been re-reading some of the translations credited to Alfred the Great, who would be the patron saint of Anglo-Saxon wisdom, if it had such a thing. Among all his other achievements as king, Alfred arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English, many of which have interesting things to say about how wisdom is to be gained and used: they include (among other works) Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and Augustine’s Soliloquies. As Alfred's famous Preface to the Pastoral Care explains, he believed that learning in England had gone into serious decline in his own days, and that to restore it would be to repair the 'wealth and the wisdom' of the kingdom both together. 'Consider what punishments came upon us in this world when we neither loved wisdom in any way ourselves, nor passed it on to others,' he says; and his translation project explicitly seeks wisdom as a means of finding a way through such serious worldly troubles as Viking invasion. As a result of all this there's a good bit of myth-making about Alfred's wisdom, and by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period he was already regarded as an image of the wise king, that ever-potent symbol. His very name prepared him to be an expert in ræd ('counsel, advice'), and later in the medieval period he was spuriously credited as the omniscient author of a collection of proverbs, cited in texts like The Owl and the Nightingale as an impeccable authority, England's own Solomon. So I picked him as the face of this Twitter project, as imagined (above) by a statue in Wantage, his birthplace, which offers a very Victorian iteration of the Alfred myth:


So the Alfredian texts were a natural place to go in search of wisdom; and passages which are too long to tweet are probably going to end up on this blog! Here, for instance, is an extract from the Old English translation of Augustine's Soliloquies, which is one of several extended additions to the source (the text is from here, with my translation).
Geðenc nu hweðer awiht mani mann cynges ham sece þær ðær he ðonne on tune byð, oððe hys gemot, oððe hys fird, oððe hweðer ðe ðince þæt hi æalle on anne weig þeder cumen? Ic wene þeah ðæt hi cumen on swiðe manige wegas: sume cumað swiðe feorran and habbað swiðe længe weig and swiðe yfelne and swiðe earfoðferne; sume habbað swiðe langne and swiðe rihtne and swiðe godne; sume habbað swiðne scortne, and þeah wone and nearone and fuulne; sume habbað scordne and smeðne and rihtne, and þeah cumað æalle to anum hlaforde; sume æð, sume uneð, naðer ne hi þeder gelice eaðe cumað, ne hi þer gelice eaðe ne beoð. Sume beoð on maran are and on maran eðnesse þonne sume, sume on læssan, sume ful neah buton, buton þæt an þæt he lufað. Swa hit bið æac be þam wisdome. Ælc þara þe hys wilnað and þe hys geornful byt, he hym mæg cuman to and on hys hyrede wunian and be lybban, þeah hi hym sume near sian, sume fyer; swa-swa ælces cynges hama: beoð sume on bure, sume on healle, sume on odene, sume on carcerne; and lybbað þeah æalle be anes hlafordes are, swa-swa æalle men lybbað under anre sunnan and be hyre leohte geseoð þæt þæt hy geseoð. Sume swiðe scearpe and swiðe swotele lociað; sume unæaðe awiht geseoð; sume beoð stæreblind and nyttiað þeah þare sunnan. Ac swa-swa þeos gesewe sunne ures lichaman æagan onleoht, swa onliht se wisdom ures modes æagan, þæt ys, ure angyt.
Consider now, how many men seek the king's court when he is in town, or at his assembly, or with his army; and do you think that they all come there by the same road? I think, in fact, that they come by many different roads. Some come from afar, and have a very long and very bad and very difficult road. Some have a road which is very long and very direct and very good. Some have a very short road, which is nonetheless dark and narrow and dirty. Some have a short and smooth and direct road. Yet they all come to the same lord, some with ease, some without ease.

They do not come there with equal ease, nor are they equally at ease when they are there. Some are in great honour and in more comfort than others, some in less, some almost without any, except for the one whom he loves. So too it is with wisdom. Every one who desires it and eagerly asks for it may come to it and dwell in its household and live close to it, but some are nearer to it, some further away. So it is in every king's court: some are in the chamber, some in the hall, some on the threshing-floor, some in the jail-cell; yet they all live there by the favour of one lord, just as all people live under one sun and by its light see all that they see. Some see very sharply and clearly, some can only see anything with great difficulty; some are stark blind, yet still enjoy the sun. And just as the visible sun gives light to the eyes of our body, so wisdom gives light to the eyes of our mind, that is, our understanding.

The speaker here is 'Reason', addressing the Augustine persona, who is (perhaps) the Alfred persona too. The funny thing about Alfred later being mythologised as such a great sage is that if we can locate his voice anywhere in his translations it would be as the learner, not the teacher - he is no Solomon, but a humble, anxious searcher after wisdom, who is not at all sure he will find it. Here Reason offers a very apt metaphor to his royal pupil, and and this is an appropriate passage, of course, for a text sponsored by a king: the king in his court is implicitly, flatteringly, compared to the sun and to wisdom itself. His are (royal 'favour', but in a broad and positive sense) extends like the rays of the sun, throughout his household and his estate from private chamber to jail-cell and beyond. It's worth remembering that the maintenance of good roads was the kind of task a responsible medieval king might take an interest in - as Alfred himself did - and so perhaps all the many roads which lead to his court are also under his jurisdiction, under his are, as much as the people travelling on them. The king's roads are the king's responsibility, and they all lead to the same place.

This extended metaphor, lovely as it is, is perhaps a long roundabout way of expressing an idea we might convey with a simple proverb: 'all roads lead to Rome'. But although there are no proverbs in this passage, it draws on the traditional language of wisdom literature; it provides, for instance, three nice examples of the sum... sum... lists which frequently appear in Old English prose and poetry to illustrate the varying states and conditions of human beings, the many different ways they can live and die. I quoted two examples at the end of my last post, lists of the various gifts of human skill. The most famous instance is perhaps this passage in The Wanderer:

Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas.
Woriað þa winsalo, waldend licgað
dreame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,
wlonc bi wealle. Sume wig fornom,
ferede in forðwege, sumne fugel oþbær
ofer heanne holm, sumne se hara wulf
deaðe gedælde, sumne dreorighleor
in eorðscræfe eorl gehydde.

The wise hero must perceive how terrible it will be
when all this world's wealth lies waste,
as now in various places throughout this earth
walls stand blown by the wind,
covered with frost, the buildings snow-swept.
The halls decay, the ruler lies
deprived of joys, the troop all dead,
proud by the wall. Some were taken by war,
carried on their way, one the bird bore off
across the deep sea, one the grey wolf
shared with death, one the sad-faced man
buried in an earthy grave.

A list of all the ways people can die - this is the kind of thing which leads to wisdom literature being frequently cited as one of the aspects of medieval culture which modern audiences find especially challenging, or, worse, especially dull! I've heard this said many times, but I'm not sure it's actually true, and it was partly to test this assumption that I began my little Twitter experiment. The internet has fostered a boom in new kinds of wisdom literature, in the form of 'inspirational quotes'. These sayings walk a fine line between the profound and the banal, and as so often happened with medieval wisdom, they are often spuriously attributed to a famous name who can lend the words a bit of cachet (apparently this phenomenon has a name: 'Churchillian Drift'). It's easy to make fun of this, but it does make me wonder about the relationship between medieval wisdom and modern self-help, and ponder what it is about this genre that academics don't always 'get'. For instance, I recently attended a seminar about the Old English Menologium where a roomful of medievalists were genuinely at a loss to answer the question 'why on earth would anyone write or read a poem like this?'; yet I've found that on this blog, posts about the Menologium (and related poems, wisdom literature about the cycle of the year) regularly attract hundreds more readers than an average post. Almost all those readers, and most of the 700 people who've started following 'Old English Wisdom' in the past three weeks, are not academics or medievalists, nor even people with a literary or academic background. What is it they find so attractive about Anglo-Saxon wisdom poetry? What is the appeal of the obvious statement, the truism, when expressed in language which is both familiar and strange (whether that's because it's in Old English, or because it follows the language and rules of poetry)?

In some ways the answer is obvious. Wisdom of this sort is not theoretical, but eminently practical wisdom: it is meant to console you. The preface to the Old English translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (called in Old English froferboc, 'book of comfort') claims that Alfred translated it amid 'the various and manifold concerns with which he was often busied, both in mind and body'. Boethius' work was immensely popular in the Middle Ages, and it's not hard to understand the appeal of that kind of wisdom in unsettled times to a busy and anxious mind. Reading through these texts again, I find I feel their attraction now as I didn't at other seasons in my life. (Where Alfred had Vikings to trouble him, I have the job market - given the choice, I'd take Vikings every time!) Of course Boethius is much more profound than Twitter's plethora of 'inspirational quotes', but it's a continuum. People seek those, too, because they want or need inspiration, encouragement, guidance, support; however banal these popular sayings may seem, they represent a kind of search for wisdom, and academics disparage such things at their peril. There are many roads to wisdom, and some of them go by very circuitous routes; but þeah cumað æalle to anum hlaforde.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

'We wurðiað þæs Halgan Gastes tocyme': An Anglo-Saxon Sermon for Pentecost

We wurðiað þæs Halgan Gastes tocyme mid lofsangum seofon dagas, forðan ðe he onbryrt ure mod mid seofonfealdre gife, þæt is, mid wisdome and andgyte, mid geðeahte and strencðe, mid ingehyde and arfæstnysse, and he us gefylð mid Godes ege.

We honour the coming of the Holy Ghost with songs of praise for seven days, because he inspires our minds with sevenfold gifts: that is, with wisdom and understanding, with counsel and strength, with knowledge and devotion, and he fills us with awe of God.

This is an extract from a sermon for Pentecost by the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric, written at the end of the tenth century. The sermon, which can be read in full here, covers a lot of ground: Ælfric explains the Old Testament origins of Pentecost and the reason it falls fifty days after Easter; translates into English the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit and subsequent events from the Acts of the Apostles; recaps the story of Babel and the cause of the multiplicity of languages on earth; and finally interprets the symbolism of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and as tongues of flame. It's an ambitious work of teaching and translation, appropriate for the event it commemorates, at which, as he puts it:

eal se halga heap Cristes hyredes wæs sprecende mid eallum gereordum; and eac þæt wunderlicor wæs, ðaða heora an bodade mid anre spræce, ælcum wæs geðuht, ðe ða bodunge gehyrde, swilce he spræce mid his gereorde, wæron hi Ebreisce, oððe Grecisce, oððe Romanisce, oððe Egyptisce, oððe swa hwilcere ðeode swa hi wæron þe ða lare gehyrdon.
'all the holy company of Christ's followers were speaking in all languages, and, what was more wonderful, when one of them preached in one language, it seemed to each who heard the preaching as if he spoke in his own language, whether they were Jews, or Greeks, or Romans, or Egyptians, or whichever nation they were from who heard that teaching.'

Even Anglo-Saxon England.

This is the final section of the homily, which makes a nice companion to this homily for Candlemas - there Ælfric also talks about doves and kindling, but for a different purpose.

Se Halga Gast waes æteowod ofer ða apostolas on fyres hiwe, and ofer Criste, on his fulluhte, on ante culfran anlicnysse. Hwi ofer Criste on culfran hiwe? Hwi ofer Cristes hirede on fyres gelicnysse? On bocum is gerædd be ðam fugelcynne þæt his gecynd is swiðe bilewite, and unscæððig, and gesibsum. Se Hælend is ealles mancynnes dema, ac he ne com na to demenne mancynn, swa swa he sylf cwæð, ac to gehælenne. Gif he ða wolde deman mancynn, ðaða he ærest to middangearde com, hwa wurde þonne gehealden? Ac he nolde mid his to-cyme ða synfullan fordeman, ac wolde to his rice gegaderian. Ærest he wolde us mid liðnysse styran, þæt he siððan mihte on his dome us gehealdan. Forði wæs se Halga Gast on culfran anlicnysse gesewen bufan Criste, forðan ðe he wæs drohtnigende on ðisre worulde mid bilewitnysse, and unscæððignysse, and gesibsumnysse. He ne hrymde, ne he biterwyrde næs, ne he sace ne astyrede, ac forbær manna yfelnysse þurh his liðnysse. Ac se ðe on ðam ærran tocyme liðegode, þam synfullum to gecyrrednysse, se demð stiðne dom þam reccleasum æt þam æfteran tocyme.

Se Halga Gast wæs gesewen on fyrenum tungum bufon ðam apostolon, forðan ðe he dyde þæt hi wæron byrnende on Godes willan, and bodigende ymbe Godes rice. Fyrene tungan hi hæfdon, ðaða hi mid lufe Godes mærða bodedon, þæt ðæra hæðenra manna heortan, ðe cealde wæron þurh geleaflæste and flæsclice gewilnunga, mihton beon ontende to ðam heofenlicum bebodum. Gif se Halga Gast ne lærð þæs mannes mod wiðinnan, on idel beoð þæs bydeles word wiðutan geclypode. Fyres gecynd is þæt hit fornimð swa hwæt swa him gehende bið: swa sceal se lareow don, seðe bið mid ðam Halgan Gaste onbryrd, ærest on him sylfum ælcne leahter adwæscan, and siððan on his underðeoddum.

On culfran anlicnysse and on fyres hiwe wæs Godes Gast æteowod; forðan ðe he deð þæt ða beoð bilewite on unscæððignysse, and byrnende on Godes willan, þe he mid his gife gefylð. Ne bið seo bilewitnys Gode gecweme butan snoternysse, ne seo snoternys butan bilewitnysse; swa swa gecweden is be ðam eadigan Iob, þæt he wæs bilewite and rihtwis. Hwæt bið rihtwisnys butan bilewitnysse? Oððe hwæt bið bilewitnys butan rihtwisnysse? Ac se Halga Gast, ðe tæhð rihtwisnysse and bilewitnysse, sceolde beon æteowod ægðer ge on fyre ge on culfran, forðan ðe he deð þæra manna heortan ðe he onliht mid his gife, þæt hi beoð liðe þurh unscæððignysse, and onælede ðurh lufe and snoternysse. God is, swa swa Paulus cwæð, fornymende fyr. He is unasecgendlic fyr, and ungesewenlic. Be ðam fyre cwæð se Hælend, "Ic com to ði þæt ic wolde sendan fyr on eorðan, and ic wylle þæt hit byrne." He sende ðone Halgan Gast to eorðan, and he mid his blæde onælde eorðlicra manna heortan. Þonne byrnð seo eorðe, þonne ðæs eorðlican mannes heorte bið ontend to Godes lufe, seoðe ær wæs ceald þurh flæsclice lustas.

Nis na se Halga Gast wunigende on his gecynde, swa swa he gesewen wæs, forðan ðe he is ungesewenlic; ac for ðære getacnunge, swa we ær cwædon, he wæs æteowod on culfran, and on fyre. He is gehaten on Greciscum gereorde, Paraclitus, þæt is, Frofor-gast, forði ðe he frefrað þa dreorian, þe heora synna behreowsiað, and sylð him forgyfenysse hiht, and heora unrotan mod geliðegað. He forgyfð synna, and he is se weg to forgyfenysse ealra synna. He sylð his gife ðam ðe he wile. Sumum men he forgifð wisdom and spræce, sumum god ingehyd, sumum micelne geleafan, sumum mihte to gehælenne untruman, sumum witegunge, sumum toscead godra gasta and yfelra; sumum he forgifð mislice gereord, sumum gereccednysse mislicra spræca. Ealle ðas ðing deð se Halga Gast, todælende æghwilcum be ðam ðe him gewyrð; forðam ðe he is Ælmihtig Wyrhta, and swa hraðe swa he þæs mannes mod onliht, he hit awent fram yfele to gode.

'The Holy Ghost appeared over the apostles in the form of fire, and over Christ at his baptism it appeared in the likeness of a dove. Why did it appear over Christ in the form of a dove? Why over Christ’s followers in the likeness of fire? We read in books about that species of bird that its nature is very meek, and innocent, and peaceful. The Saviour is the Judge of all mankind, but he did not come to judge mankind, as he said himself, but to save. If he had chosen to judge mankind then, when he first came to earth, who would have been saved? But he did not want to condemn the sinful by his coming, but wanted to gather them into his kingdom. He wanted to guide us first with gentleness, so that he might afterwards save us at his judgement. This is why the Holy Ghost was seen above Christ in the likeness of a dove, because he was dwelling in this world in meekness, and innocence, and peacefulness. He did not cry out, nor was he inclined to bitterness, nor did he stir up strife, but bore the wickedness of men in his gentleness. But he who at his first coming was gentle, so that the sinful might be converted, will give a stern judgement at his second coming to those who do not heed.

The Holy Ghost was seen as fiery tongues above the apostles, because he caused them to be burning with God’s will and preaching about God's kingdom. Fiery tongues they had when with love they preached the greatness of God, that the hearts of heathen men, which were cold through faithlessness and bodily desires, might be kindled to the heavenly commands. If the Holy Ghost does not teach a man's mind from within, in vain will be the words of the preacher proclaimed without. It is the nature of fire to consume whatever is near to it, and so ought the teacher to do who is inspired by the Holy Ghost: first to extinguish every sin in himself, and afterwards in those under his care.

In the likeness of a dove and in the form of fire God’s Spirit was manifested, for he causes those whom he fills with his grace to be meek in innocence and burning with the will of God. Meekness is not pleasing to God without wisdom, nor wisdom without meekness; as it is said of the blessed Job, 'he was meek and righteous'. What is righteousness without meekness? And what is meekness without righteousness? But the Holy Ghost, who teaches righteousness and meekness, should be manifested both as fire and as a dove, because he causes the hearts of those men whom he enlightens with his grace to be blameless through innocence, and kindled by love and wisdom. As St Paul said, 'God is a consuming fire'. He is a fire unspeakable and invisible. Of that fire, the Saviour said 'I come because I wish to send fire on earth, and I want it to burn.' He sent the Holy Ghost on earth, and he by his inspiration kindled the hearts of earthly men. The earth burns when the heart of an earthly man is kindled to the love of God, which before was cold because of fleshly lusts.

The Holy Ghost does not exist in his nature in the form in which he was seen, because he is invisible; but for the sake of the symbol, as we have described, he appeared as a dove and as fire. In the Greek language he is called Paraclitus, that is, Comforting Spirit [Frofor-gast], because he comforts the sorrowful who repent of their sins, and gives them hope of forgiveness, and lightens their troubled minds. He forgives sins, and he is the way to forgiveness of all sins. He gives his gifts to whomever he will. To some men he gives wisdom and eloquence, to some good knowledge, to some great faith, to some the power to heal the sick, to some the power of prophecy, to some the power to distinguish between good and evil spirits; to some he gives various languages, to some interpretation of various sayings. The Holy Ghost does all these things, distributing to everyone as seems good to him; for he is the Almighty Maker, and as soon as he enlightens the mind of a man, he turns it from evil to good.'

The dove and the flame

The rest of the sermon can be read here. The passage on the gifts given to different individuals by the Holy Spirit, which is based on 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, might be compared to a section in the Old English poem Christ II, ll.664-683:

Sumum wordlaþe wise sendeð
on his modes gemynd þurh his muþes gæst,
æðele ondgiet. Se mæg eal fela
singan ond secgan þam bið snyttru cræft
bifolen on ferðe. Sum mæg fingrum wel
hlude fore hæleþum hearpan stirgan,
gleobeam gretan. Sum mæg godcunde
reccan ryhte æ. Sum mæg ryne tungla
secgan, side gesceaft. Sum mæg searolice
wordcwide writan. Sumum wiges sped
giefeð æt guþe, þonne gargetrum
ofer scildhreadan sceotend sendað,
flacor flangeweorc. Sum mæg fromlice
ofer sealtne sæ sundwudu drifan,
hreran holmþræce. Sum mæg heanne beam
stælgne gestigan. Sum mæg styled sweord,
wæpen gewyrcan. Sum con wonga bigong,
wegas widgielle. Swa se waldend us,
godbearn on grundum, his giefe bryttað.

To one he sends wise speech
into his mind’s thoughts through the breath of his mouth,
fine perception. One whose spirit is given
the power of wisdom can sing and speak
of many things. One can play the harp well
with his hands loudly among men,
strike the instrument of joy. One can tell
of the true divine law. One can speak of the course of the stars,
the vast creation. One can skilfully
write with words. To one is granted success in battle,
when archers send quivering arrows flying
over the shield-walls. One can boldly
drive the ship over the salt sea,
stir the thrashing ocean. One can climb
the tall upright tree. One can wield a weapon,
the hardened sword. One knows the expanse of earth’s plains,
far-flung ways. Thus the Ruler,
God's Son on earth, gives to us his gifts.

This is a mixture of the Biblical and the specifically Anglo-Saxon - climbing trees and sailing ships not being among the gifts listed in Corinthians! There's also a whole Old English poem on this theme known as 'The Gifts of Men', sadly too long to translate here, which adds to this list such varied skills as architecture, swimming, metal-working, looking after horses, tasting wine (!), hunting and hawking, and gymnastics. Anglo-Saxon poetry loves to praise craft and skill, the technical ability and power of thought which goes into making beautiful and useful things, and these poetic lists of 'gifts' paint an appealing picture of a society in which everyone's contribution, from the greatest to the least, is unique and valuable, however mundane it might seem. In the king's hall, in a smith's forge, in a monk's cloister, 'there are many gifts, but the same Spirit'.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Blogging, Academia, and Aspiration

My site statistics tell me that this blog has just reached its 1000th post. That seems like an impossibly huge number, and if you'd asked me to estimate how many posts I've written here I wouldn't have guessed anything like that - but Google knows all, so it must be accurate! I've been writing this blog since 2008, and 1000 posts in seven years works out to a fairly respectable number. I managed to complete a Masters' degree and write a doctoral thesis and a couple of articles in that time too, so I don't feel like I wasted all my time blogging.

Actually, at this particular moment I feel like the time spent blogging has been more valuable than just about anything else I've done in those seven years. I may never now publish an academic book, but 1000 (award-winning!) posts of freely available information, texts, translations, and pictures, read by thousands of people and available for anyone to find and use, do have a value of their own. I wrote here about some of the personal benefits of blogging, and here about some of the rationale behind my choice of what to blog about; this kind of milestone seems to require a bit more self-reflection, but I couldn't really think how to write about blogging again without repeating myself. I had half a cheery post written on 'why academics might want to blog'. But just at the moment I'm so sick of academia that I don't want to think of myself as an academic, let alone an 'academic blogger'. It's been a difficult week, for reasons I probably shouldn't talk about, and I'm feeling pretty raw. Coming to the end of my current contract, I've been questioning for a while why I would want to stay in academia at all; just about anything else looks more worthwhile than colluding in this toxic culture. So if this post ends up being sad and bitter rather than a good-humoured series of musings on the value of a successful blog, you'll have to excuse me just this once.


If I turn my back on academia at this point, after a postdoctoral research fellowship, eleven years after beginning my undergraduate degree, I can still feel I've been very lucky. I got to spend those years in Oxford, studying and working in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with some wonderful people, learning things I could not have guessed at before I came here. Oxford could hardly be more different from the place where I grew up, but over the years it has come to feel like my home. For all its flaws (and it does have many), it can at its best come close to the ideal of what a university ought to be. What we call 'academia', as practiced in universities today, is a modern invention, not more than a century or two old, and it seems to me that it's swiftly reaching the point at which it becomes no longer sustainable; but scholarship and learning are much bigger than academia, and living somewhere like Oxford helps you to hold that in mind. The human desires to understand, to study, to teach and to learn are fundamentally good and beautiful things, however much any particular institution or any age may distort them, and Oxford's long history of scholarship is a reminder of that: from its medieval origins, the monks and friars who gathered here to study and teach, through its history of benefactors, women and men who endowed colleges and gave money, asking nothing in return but prayer, to the countless generations who have laboured in its libraries to win the secrets of books, a silent wrestling-match with no prize but knowledge.

This is an idealistic picture, I know, but you'll have to forgive me for being a little wistful right now. Most of the scholars, great in their day, who have worked within Oxford's cloisters would not survive five minutes in modern academia, and I can't help feeling that's not a good thing. Of course I know that the world I'm describing would for most of its history have excluded people like me (a woman, from a non-traditional-Oxford background). But in effect, it still does; it still speaks in code, to keep insiders in and outsiders out. You might think that after eleven years in Oxford I'd have learned to crack the code, learned to fit in, but there are times when I'm as mystified as ever. It's not just Oxford, anyway, but academia as a class - a culture still dominated by patronage, opacity and exclusion, only now in different ways. Now they talk the language of inclusion, while being as exclusive as ever. Oxford has a little bit of polite verbiage they put in their job adverts these days: 'Applications for this post are especially welcome from women and ethnic minorities, who are under-represented among the University’s academic staff'. Well, you can certainly apply; but if you don't respond well to an aggressive and hostile interview, you might end up quoting that verbiage back to yourself rather wryly. If I leave academia now, I just become a statistic. But I've received so much kindness and such rigorous teaching in this place (the vast majority of it from women); when I leave, I'll take that with me, and do some good with it somewhere.


You probably don't need me to tell you what a poisonous environment academia can be, but let me talk about it; it will make me feel better, if nothing else. I don't hope to gain anything by it except sympathy (I could really do with that!), and a chance to take some control of the sick feeling of powerlessness which has been controlling me for the past week. Perhaps it's not wise to talk so openly about it, but this kind of culture thrives on silence and secrecy, and the hope that the people who get hurt will just keep quiet and go away. In person, academics can make use of their power to interrupt me, contradict me, shame me into silence; but no one gets to silence me on my own blog.

There are some senior academics who (to put the most charitable interpretation on their behaviour) don't appear to realise how vulnerable a position their precariously-employed juniors are in; they have not got used to the idea that the kind of pettiness for which certain types of academic culture are famed - that old line about academic discourse being so bitter because the stakes are so low - might be manageable among equals, but can be devastating when aimed from someone in a position of seniority, security and power towards someone junior and powerless. They might think they're toughening us up, I don't know; a lot of the time it feels like cruelty for the sake of it, and it can cause untold damage long after the powerful person has forgotten all about it. When this kind of thing happens to you, you're encouraged to blame yourself and think you must deserve it; but when I see this aggressive culture hurting some of the people I care about most, things come into clearer focus. The young, talented academics I see around me, eaten up by anxiety and worry about their future, are doing their very best to produce good work amid difficult circumstances, and they need and deserve support, not casual contempt. Not everyone is quite as close to the edge as I've been this past week, but many people are a lot closer than they dare to show in public, and you don't know what the consequences of a careless sneer might be.

Many senior academics seem blind or indifferent to the callous behaviour they at best permit, at worst perpetuate. It's the culture in which they have succeeded, so they can't imagine anything different, and they don't know (I hope) how intimidating and baffling the processes of academia can be for those at the bottom of the ladder. It's easy to make a misstep, and when they see weakness - especially in women, of course - they go in for the kill; if you falter under their scorn, they can shrug and say you weren't tough enough. You can't win; all you can do is escape, preferably before it's too late to do something else, and that's all I can think about doing right now. I've had enough of the scorn, the stress, the fear. It's just not worth it. How could anything be worth it - let alone such a low-stakes endeavour as teaching medieval literature? It's almost laughable that anyone would choose to endure this toll on their physical and mental health for such a purpose. We're not saving lives, or fighting a war - why exactly do we need to be toughened up? What's so wonderful about a job in miserable modern academia, that I should sacrifice my health and my happiness to it, that I should meekly put up with being badly treated in the hope of succeeding in a culture where no one can ever really succeed? This is the great prize of life in academia: one short-term job after another, overworked and underpaid at every stage, surrounded by unhappy people under unrelenting pressure to perform. It's a world of very clever people trying to make each other feel stupid, using their talents as a weapon rather than directing them outwards to serve the wider world. Who would want to be part of that?

Individually, I may not be much of a loss to academia. But any culture which eats its young is unsustainable, or should be; and if there's any justice, it will be the loser in the end. If academia is led by a privileged, self-replicating group of people, frequently deficient in empathy or compassion, it's no wonder it can't communicate to the wider world. How can such an environment teach students effectively, when many students, undergraduates and graduates alike, are coping with huge secret pressures of their own? And can such a culture really produce good scholarship? What I find so crushingly ridiculous - or at least it would be ridiculous if it weren't heartbreaking - is that my field is literature. Can you imagine the absurdity of trying to study and teach literature, explorations of grief, doubt, love, anxiety, all human thought and emotion, while pretending to ourselves and each other that we never feel any of those things? It's just laughable. How can you be an expert on Margery Kempe, and have no sympathy for a student with mental health problems? An expert on Piers Plowman, and yet have no patience with incompleteness, with students who have more ideas than they know what to do with? An expert on Julian of Norwich, and belittle female scholars? How can you study teachers and writers like Ælfric, who worked so hard to share their learning with non-specialist audiences, and yet see no value in public outreach? (Please note, these are general, not specific examples.)

If scholarship is a bigger thing than academia, so too is literature; academia scrabbles around the edges of it, claims to understand it, but can never fully account for its reach and its power. Some literature is written to be analysed and studied, but most aspires to do something greater than that, and it's disingenuous, dishonest even, for academics to pretend they can stand outside it, judge and analyse it, while ignoring the lessons it strives to teach them. (More academics should take William Dunbar's advice.) This is all the more damaging when they are the gatekeepers who control access to the texts themselves. Literature is so powerful that academia can't kill it, but my own focus, medieval literature, operates at a disadvantage, because of its general inaccessibility. Thanks to the efforts of some great scholars over the years, a small group of medieval texts have escaped the academy and run wild in the world for anyone to do what they like with them; but huge swathes of wonderful literature are still kept locked up in untranslated books, discussed only at conferences by people insulated from the rest of the world by their mutual self-satisfaction, and obscured by a system of publishing apparently designed to prevent anything from being published, let alone read.


I didn't mean for this post to become a rant about academia, but it's naturally on my mind at present, as I try to work out whether this is really the best use of my life. I usually try to focus here on the positive, the good, for my own sanity and peace of mind; it's important to talk about the negative, if it means you can begin to change it, or even just for the sake of comforting sympathy and fellow-feeling, but there are times when to look at the positive can be life-saving. I blog for pleasure, after all. I do take blogging seriously, as I hope you will have noticed, but it's a kind of play all the same, a healthy exercise for the mind. It's so easy to get stuck into ruts of thought, fixating on details or panicking about criticism, and blogging has kept me sane: it reminds me of the pleasures of research (of inspiration, quest, discovery), of reading (contact with another mind; the moment when your inkling of thought proves to be true), of writing (making words do things; pushing into a text and finding it push back), of teaching (sharing something which is too good to keep to yourself; hearing other people respond in ways you could never have imagined). What place does any of that have in academia? But it is scholarship.

I always write here about things I personally find valuable - beautiful, moving, true. They're not always happy things, but they all have some kind of beauty about them. The people who produced them, most of them nameless poets, preachers and artists, long dead and past any hope of profit, deserve the tribute of being read, and you and I deserve the chance to read them. It's to them and to you, and not to academia or those who perpetuate its injustices, that I feel a sense of duty. I'll admit that this is one reason why I value blogging so much: I see it as a way of connecting with a longer tradition of scholarship, in a way the structures of academia don't allow. There's no code here, no mystery - there's just you and me, researching, reading, and writing. I write if I want to; you read it if you want to; there's no one to ask for permission, or approval, or money. There's just me, and my thousands of readers, and some texts I hope they'll value as much as I do. Very often here I'm translating or explaining the works of writers who were themselves translating or explaining complex texts to non-specialists, and (without in any way comparing myself to any of these people), I like to think I am aspiring to the same ideals as translators like Alfred the Great or William Herebert, as teachers like Ælfric, as historians like Eadmer. That might sound arrogant, but it's an aspiration which leaves one humbled - more humble than those academics who affect to explain such writers' works without believing they themselves have anything to learn from them.

I'm idealistic about blogging in another way, too, because to me it has always felt like a kind of duty - just the right thing to do. I've been privileged to have a thorough and wide-ranging education in medieval literature and languages, one of the best the world has to offer. I've worked hard and I've made financial and personal sacrifices to obtain it, but still, it's an immense privilege to have received this education, the kind of privilege my parents and grandparents could never have dreamed of. The information and knowledge I've been given access to is too precious to be taken for granted, and too valuable not to be shared. If people want to share in it, and I can help them, I feel it's right to do so. Since some academics think it's beneath them to make academia transparent even to their own junior colleagues, let alone to the general public, there's an appreciable gap even someone as inexperienced as me can fill. Just by making myself visible online, I've been contacted by people who want information I can provide: students, journalists, amateur historians, artists, musicians (lots of musicians!), people who think Old English looks intriguing and want to learn a few words of it, people who want me to track down something they don't have the resources to find themselves. And it's not just information they're seeking: people contact me to let me know that my posts about medieval texts have comforted them in grief, made them feel less lonely, given them a new appreciation for the place they live in, taught them something they didn't even realise they wanted to learn. I suppose I could use the power which comes with privilege to sneer at them, laugh at them for not knowing what seems obvious to me, but somehow I'm never even the tiniest bit tempted to do that. No wonder I won't succeed in academia.

Perhaps I shouldn't give my knowledge and effort away as freely as I do here, but I don't regret it in the slightest. Although I'm not quite in the mood to admit it at present, there are many, many academics who are generous with their time and knowledge, working for pure and genuine love for their subject and their students, in the face of obstacles which are no less powerful for being largely unnecessary. They share time, resources, ideas, experience, advice - though these things are often an academic's intangible stock-in-trade, they give them away freely. Within the system, this love is often exploited, and generosity in free giving can be turned all too easily into an unjust expectation of working for free. So I want to be careful here: it can be hard enough to put a fair price on academic labour, without encouraging the idea that it doesn't have a monetary value. And loving what you do does not, of course, make it easy. But there are some things people give away because they aren't of value, and some things they give away because they're too valuable for a price. Being asked or expected to do things for free can be a burden, but choosing to give away your time and effort - really choosing, not feeling forced to choose - can be empowering. When I write and research and translate here to give pleasure and support to myself and others, it feels like reclaiming those powers for myself, reminding myself they belong to me. They're mine, the product of my brain and heart, and all the reviewers and assessors and interviewers who claim the right to judge them don't own them and can't take them away from me. I give them away here gladly and freely, gratis, as people do out of love, and lose nothing by it, but only gain; the reward is gratitude and kindness, which I sorely need.


So, 1000 posts, seven years, a good bit more than half a million page views. It's a risky thing, blogging in public when you're young and inexperienced - inevitably there are some things about my earlier posts which embarrass me, and it takes an effort not to go through and prune a few of the sillier things I wrote in the beginning. (Although I do that sometimes, if they're actually inaccurate - it's one of the advantages blogging has over traditional forms of publication!) There are posts in which, after the passage of a few years, I can now see my own ignorance, but with the distance of time comes self-compassion. Ignorance and inexperience are not the worst sins. I can think about the person who started this blog with amused kindness, and think her intentions and her instincts were good, even if she didn't always carry them out as well as she might have done. I've been growing as a scholar (and a person, I hope) over the past seven years, and I can see milestones in that journey marked out on this blog - visible only to me, perhaps, but useful for the purposes of self-evaluation. I have to at least be kind to myself, see value in myself and my abilities, however much academia attempts to convince me otherwise.

Anyway, I'm going to close with a poem which will make most academics roll their eyes, but which expresses some of the scholarly aspiration I've been thinking about. In 1919, when he was still an undergraduate (and not yet a Christian), C. S. Lewis published a poem called 'Oxford'. It's full of youthful idealism, but it would be unjust to call it naive; the boy who wrote this poem had lived through a war worse than anything most of the people who inhabit a place like Oxford can even begin to imagine. He had a right to his idealism and his hope for a better world.

It is well that there are palaces of peace
And discipline and dreaming and desire,
Lest we forget our heritage and cease
The Spirit’s work — to hunger and aspire:

Lest we forget that we were born divine,
Now tangled in red battle’s animal net,
Murder the work and lust the anodyne,
Pains of the beast 'gainst bestial solace set.

But this shall never be: to us remains
One city that has nothing of the beast,
That was not built for gross, material gains,
Sharp, wolfish power or empire’s glutted feast.

We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.

She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold — barred against despair.

'The Spirit’s work — to hunger and aspire'. There's a lot of talk about 'aspiration' in Britain at the moment: it's become a political buzzword, code for something no one has quite yet managed to define, sometimes apparently meaning little more than 'wanting to be middle-class'. Politicians naturally deal in material aspirations, not spiritual ones. But C. S. Lewis, a star Latinist even as an undergraduate, could have told you that 'aspiration' is the 'Spirit's work' to its very etymological core; from ad + spirare, it is what you 'breathe towards', the thing to which your spirit (spiritus, the breath of life) leads you. In a world where owning a house or having a steady job is something people of my generation can only 'aspire' to, we should not allow anyone else to define for us what aspiration looks like. Academia, I now realise, may not fulfill my aspirations. But there's life, and learning, beyond its narrow confines.

So, what next?

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Death of St Dunstan

St Dunstan (BL Stowe 12, f.248v)

St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, died on 19 May 988. He was one of Anglo-Saxon England's greatest saints, a hugely dynamic and at times controversial figure who loomed very large over the English church in his lifetime and in the centuries after his death. One mark of his importance is the wealth of hagiographical material about him, which tells memorable stories about his forthright interactions with kings, his encounters with the devil, his learning and teaching, his talents at music and metal-working, the accusations that he was involved in black magic - all kinds of unforgettable things. I wrote about some of these stories here and here, and at some length about the most famous story, Dunstan nipping the devil by the nose, here.

Dunstan and the devil (BL Add. MS 42130, f. 54v)

There are two peaks in the production of hagiographical writing about St Dunstan: the years immediately following his death (which saw the writing of the earliest Life and this hymn to Dunstan, among other things) and the decades after the Norman Conquest. The latter period is my particular interest. In the forty years between c.1090 and c.1130, three Lives of Dunstan were written: by the monk Osbern, precentor of Christ Church, Canterbury and hagiographer of St Alphege, by his younger and more prolific successor Eadmer, and by William of Malmesbury. They differ in subtle and interesting ways, although Osbern's - the first of the three and the most inventive - is always a bit underrated compared to the other two. (It hasn't even been properly edited, since 'inventive' is not exactly what most modern historians look for in a saint's life...)

This is Eadmer's account of the final days of Dunstan's life, which were spent at Canterbury in 988. As the beginning of his life was heralded by a miraculous sign at Candlemas, the end was marked by one on Ascension Day, when he had a vision which revealed he was about to die.

And so the festive day began to break on which the Lord, the Son of God, our God, victoriously ascended to heaven after conquering death, and Dunstan, having finished the night Office, was alone in the church of our Saviour at Canterbury and was fixed in total concentration on Christ as he reflected upon such a joyous event. While he was doing this he looked up and, behold, a countless multitude of men in white, wearing golden crowns upon their heads and gleaming with unimaginable brightness, burst in through the doors of the church and stood gathered together in a group all around Dunstan and with one voice they rendered words of greeting to him in this way: 'Greetings, beloved Dunstan, greetings. The Son of God, whom you piously desire, orders, if you are prepared, that you should come with us and celebrate this day, whose joys you yearn for with undivided love, thankfully and joyously in his court.' Dunstan was not at all disturbed by their faces and voices, and asked who they might be. 'We are the Cherubim and Seraphim,' they said, 'and we would like to know how you wish to respond to these things.' Then Dunstan, in a devout state of heart and mind, and rendering due thanks for such great favour with suppliant voice, said: 'You know, O holy and blessed spirits, what honour, what hope, what joy occurred on this day for the human race th[r]ough the ascension of Jesus Christ, Lord and God of everyone. You know, nonetheless, that it is my duty on this day to refresh the sheep of that same Lord of mine, who have been entrusted to me, with the bread of eternal life and to tell them by what path they ought to follow him, where he has gone before. Moreover, many people have assembled on this account and I must not let them down in such an important matter. For this reason I cannot come today to where you have invited me.' They replied: 'Well then, ensure that on the sabbath you are ready to travel with us from here to Rome and to sing 'Holy, holy, holy' forever before the supreme pontiff. He agreed with what they had proposed”, and they vanished from his sight.
Eadmer of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford, 2006), p.151.

In case you're wondering how anyone knew of this private vision: it was witnessed by one Ælfgar, at that time a priest in the church of Canterbury. Eadmer says on that Ascension Day Dunstan preached 'as he had never preached before', three times in one Mass, his face resplendent with such radiance that there was no one in the congregation able to look directly at him. His final promise to the people was that though he might be absent from them in body, his spiritual presence would never leave them. He died the following Saturday, and was buried in the place he had chosen for his tomb: "namely," says Eadmer, "in the place where the divine office used to be celebrated daily by the brothers, which was in front of the steps by which you ascend to the altar of Christ the Lord". This refers to the layout of the Saxon cathedral, which burned down when Eadmer was a child, but which he vividly remembered.

In the later medieval cathedral, the site of Dunstan's tomb was on the right of this picture

The central place of Dunstan's tomb at the heart of the church was important to Eadmer:
I do not doubt that he made this arrangement from a sense of great love. For this most kindly father wished even in bodily death to be constantly present there in the midst of the sons whom he truly loved and was leaving behind him in this troubled world, so that they would be able to declare confidently in his presence whatever they wanted, as if he were alive, and not doubting that his spirit would always be with them, in keeping with the promise he had made them. And indeed I may say this, from what I know happened since that time and from what I see still being done today around his most sacred body by monks of this church. For those who desire solace in their needs, whether of body or soul, hasten there every day and plead for assistance as if from a most blessed father living among them physically... Therefore it should not be doubted that Dunstan knew these things before his death and so promised that he would be amongst his people in spirit, and for these reasons and being full of love he desired all the more for his body to be placed in their midst.
After Dunstan's death his monks sorely needed his fatherly care, as Eadmer goes to explain:
Furthermore, it is clear enough from the chronicles and from our own tribulations without my saying anything what misery has enveloped all of England since his death, and by enveloping it has ruined it. Wherefore I do not see why I should write anything about it since those events are so clearly evident without a single word being written that there is no one could not see the real misery there. I do not know what the outcome of these things might be or when it will occur, but I have no doubt at all that everything which he has done, God has done in true judgement of us because we have sinned against him and not obeyed his commandments. Wherefore, since I do not have the physical strength and have no one to advise me, I do not know what might be said or done, except that God, who has ground us down, should be begged with humble heart that he give glory to his own name and deal with us according to the bounty of his mercy and the merits and intercession of our most blessed father, Dunstan, who predicted these things would happen, and that he deliver us according to his wondrous works. O good Lord and loving omnipotent God, whether you do this at some stage because of your bountiful mercy or do not do it on account of your inscrutable justice, may your name be blessed forever, O God of Israel. Amen.
Eadmer, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, trans. Turner and Muir, pp.157-9.

This was probably written in the first decade of the twelfth century, some 120 years after Dunstan's death. In that period, England and Canterbury had seen many troubles: England had been conquered twice, by Danes and Normans; Canterbury had suffered a Viking siege, town riots, and a disastrous fire, in which the cathedral and monastery had suffered badly; one of Dunstan's successors as archbishop had been brutally murdered, and two others had been humiliatingly deposed. It was believed at Canterbury that Dunstan had foreseen all these disasters, and prophesied that his death would be the beginning of the end for England, as Eadmer discusses elsewhere. Eadmer may have written this while he was in exile with St Anselm, and the tone is so desolate it's hard not to feel for him. 'Since I do not have the physical strength and have no one to advise me'! Oh, Eadmer, I know the feeling.

His account of Dunstan's last days and death makes much of the promise of Dunstan's continuing, comforting physical presence within the church at Canterbury - quite conventional in hagiography, of course, but poignant in the light of this anguished conclusion. The numerous miracle-stories about St Dunstan recorded by Osbern and Eadmer from the years after the Norman Conquest suggest that it was Dunstan, more than any other saint, to whom the English monks of Canterbury appealed for help in the difficult years after 1066 - his memory which they clung to as an talisman, representing all the Anglo-Saxon church had been and was no longer. In 1067, after fire had destroyed the cathedral (a disaster prophesied by apparitions of Dunstan's ghost) the monks prayed amid the ruins at Dunstan's tomb. When Archbishop Stigand was deposed and Lanfranc appointed, the relics of St Dunstan were removed from the place described by Eadmer, and apparently put in a storage room while the cathedral was rebuilt, in a place where the monks could not access them. No disrespect was necessarily intended, but it was a sore point with Eadmer, and the memory of that time might underlie his emphasis here. His Miracles of St Dunstan (adapted from Osbern's) tells of a hauntingly sad incident from c.1075 in which a young English monk named Æthelweard, while serving at mass in the cathedral, was suddenly seized by a bout of violent insanity in full view of the horrified monks. Although he briefly recovered, the next night at Compline he disrupted the service and assaulted the prior, an appointee of Lanfranc's. Later, in the dead of night, he burst out with terrible screams, attacking his brothers with accusations of the secret sins they were concealing, which had been revealed to him by the devil said to be possessing him. We're told the devil spoke in French, a language Æthelweard did not know. In the chaos Lanfranc and the prior were unable to find a cure, and it was only when an elderly English monk (the Ælfwine named in this story) secretly sought the intervention of St Dunstan that poor Æthelweard could be healed.

So perhaps this kind of incident too explains Eadmer's focus on the comfort and support of Dunstan's physical presence. I wonder if it's relevant that he clearly knew that in 988 the date of Dunstan's death (as this year) fell between Ascension Day and Pentecost, a time when the church is thinking about absence and presence, loss and consolation, Christ's physical departure compensated for by the sending of 'the spirit of comfort'. In the emphasis on Dunstan's fatherly presence in the midst of his sons, you might be reminded of a scriptural verse used in the liturgy of both the Ascension and Pentecost: Christ's promise, 'I will not leave you orphans'. The spirit of comfort, the Paraclete, is called in Old English frofre gast (or the related frefriend 'the one who offers frofre'), and in Old English poetry and prose the alliterating words fæder and frofre ('father' and 'comfort') often appear together, used for God and for such spiritual fathers as Archbishop Lanfranc (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry which records his death). Typical is a line from an Old English poem on the Ascension: Habbað we us to frofre fæder on roderum 'We have as a comfort to us a Father in the heavens'. Perhaps this association, of fatherly comfort and the Ascension/Pentecost loss and gain, was in the back of Eadmer's mind. If he had been writing in English, rather than Latin, he might have called Dunstan, like Lanfranc, muneca feder 7 frouer, 'comfort and father of monks'.

Readings for St Dunstan's Day, from a Canterbury manuscript (BL Cotton MS Nero C VII, f.73v)