Thursday, 29 January 2015

'Tidings, tidings that be true: Sorrow is past and joy doth renew'


By this point in January, Christmas can feel like a distant memory. But in the Middle Ages the Christmas season lasted forty days, ending with the Feast of the Presentation on February 2, and medieval carols enjoin us to keep singing Christmas songs, and exploring Christmas themes, all through the season - 'Sing we Yule til Candlemas!', we are encouraged. According to the carols it's not until Candlemas that Christmas bids farewell, or that we bid farewell to him:

Farewell, Christmas fair and free!
Farewell, New Year's Day with thee!
Farewell, the holy Epiphany!
And to Mary now sing we:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.


The idea of celebrating Christmas for a month afterwards (rather than a month beforehand, as people generally do today) appeals to me, and seems somehow healthier than the modern desire to celebrate early and then purge as soon as January brings the return of workday routine. I don't know about you, but for me January is a much harder month to get through than December - colder and greyer, without anything in particular to look forward to - and if the thought of Christmas offers hope and comfort in the darkness, those are more welcome in January than at any other time. So I won't apologise for posting another medieval Christmas carol today; these carols are so full of wit, creativity and imagination that I can't resist sharing just one more out of the ample supply. (If you read a medieval Christmas carol a day for the forty days of the Christmas season, you wouldn't run out for years!). There are three of the forty days remaining, so here's a fifteenth-century carol which doesn't feel too out of place for the end of January; it looks both backward and forward.

Tidinges, tidinges that be true,
Sorowe is paste and joye dothe renue.

Qwereas Adam caused be sinne
Oure nature thus to be mortall,
A maiden sone dothe nowe begin
For to repaire us from that fall.
And that is true;
The name of him is Criste Jesu.

Sume of oure kinde hathe hadd such grase
That sin his birthe they did him se
Bothe sonne and mother fase to fase
In the chefe cite calde Jure.
And that is true;
Bothe kinges and schepardes they it knue.

The prophettes thereof ware nothing dismaide,
Of that tidinges before that they hadde tolde;
For nowe it is full righte as they saide,
A clene maide hathe borne a king in folde.
And that is true;
For he is borne to ware the purpull hue.

E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick, Early English Lyrics (London, 1921), p. 133. In the third verse, 'in folde' is the editors' suggestion to complete a defective line.

The language of this carol is fairly straightforward, but here's a translation all the same:

Tidings, tidings that be true,
Sorrow is past and joy doth renew.

Whereas Adam caused by sin
Our nature thus to be mortal,
A maiden's son doth now begin
For to repair us from that fall.
And that is true;
The name of him is Christ Jesu.

Some of our kind hath had such grace
That since his birth they did him see,
Both son and mother face to face
In the chief city called Jewry. [perhaps an error for 'of Jewry', i.e. Judea]
And that is true;
Both kings and shepherds they it knew.

The prophets thereof were nothing dismayed
Of the tidings before that they had told;
For now it is full right as they said,
A clean maid hath born a king in folde. ['on earth']
And that is true;
For he is born to wear the purple hue.

The point of the last verse is that the prophets found their own 'tidings' proved true, so they were not dismaide ('confounded'). 'The purple hue' is a royal robe, purple being the traditional colour of kings and emperors; but it's also the colour of blood and of mourning, and so a reminder that Christ is born to die.


This carol forms a natural bookend to one I posted in Advent, 'A marvellous thing I have mused in my mind'. It comes from the same manuscript, in which these two are the only carols among a disparate range of other texts (the manuscript is British Library, Lansdowne 379, whose contents are described in that link). But it's not only their manuscript context which makes these carols seem like twins. 'A marvellous thing' draws on the language and imagery of the Old Testament prophecies referenced in the third verse of 'Tidings':

A marvellous thing I have mused in my mind:
How that Veritas sprang out of the ground,
And Justicia for all mankind,
From heaven to earth he came down.

The mention of Veritas also finds an echo in this carol, with its refrain 'tidings that be true' and repeated line 'And that is true'. The more times I read this carol, the more I think its insistent repetition of the word true is significant. These refrains work on two levels: they don't just assert the verity of the 'tidings', but (thanks to the flexible nature of Middle English grammar) can also be read as a reminder that the tidings themselves are Truth, that is, Christ, truth incarnate. In Modern English we tend to restrict the relative pronoun that to inanimate things, but in Middle English it was regularly used for people; so if you wanted, you could read every instance in this carol of 'And that is true' not just as a general comment on the truth of the statement which has just been made, but as a reinforcement of the reference to Christ in the preceding verse. It works each time, I think:

'A maiden's son doth now begin / For to repair us from that fall; And he is true'
'Since his birth they did him see, / Both son and mother... And he is true'
'A clean maid hath born a king in folde, / And he is true'

You don't have to read it that way, but you could if you chose, and it adds an extra layer to the carol's focus on what is 'true'.

The refrain's exclamation 'Tidings!' means 'News!', but the word's an interesting one and worth a little exploration. It appears in the refrain of a number of carols, and in some cases seems to suggest a dramatic context - a person playing the character of a messenger who comes with news. But since the word runs the gamut from respectable, important news (the gospels, or prophecies) all the way down to gossip, rumour and slander, it's a slippery concept. Ultimately all 'tidings' are only words, and there's no guarantee of their truthfulness. This is an idea explored by Chaucer through his House of Fame, which is "full of tydynges... of fals and soth compouned" - rumour and gossip which spread like wildfire whether true or not. (Chaucer's House of Fame is Twitter, basically.) Maybe 'tidings which are true' is meant to be a little bit paradoxical, or at least to cause some surprise. We could compare the 'wonder tidings' in the carol 'What tidings bringest thou, messenger?', where the suggestion is that the messenger's tidings, the paradoxes of Christ's birth, are almost too radical and strange to be believed: a new-born baby who has always existed, a virgin bearing a child, a daughter who is her own father's mother. Who would believe such bizarre rumours, hearing them for the first time? And yet - 'that is true', the carols claim. In my post on 'A marvellous thing' I mused on the extraordinary power some medieval carols have for 'making strange', turning a well-known story (within what might seem to be the very simplest of poetic forms) into something new and fresh and wonderful, allowing you to hear it as if for the first time. In its exploration of the paradoxes of the Incarnation, 'What tidings bringest thou, messenger?' delights in a world turned upside down, and perhaps 'Tidings' does too, in a quieter way. (We could ask why the prophets might be 'dismayed' of their tidings, if it weren't the case that those tidings seemed too strange to be believed.) In these carols the familiar becomes strange, the strange becomes familiar, the impossible becomes true - something worth musing about for all forty days of the Christmas season, and beyond.

Monday, 19 January 2015

St Wulfstan of Worcester, 'sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people'

Wulfstan at Worcester Cathedral

19 January is the feast of St Wulfstan of Worcester, famous for being one of the few high-ranking English churchmen to keep his position after the Norman Conquest. When Wulfstan died in 1095 he was the only English-born bishop left in England, and the stories told about him suggest he was respected by Normans and English alike, not just for his personal holiness but, in a way, as a relic of the Saxon church, which was so comprehensively taken over by Norman prelates after the Conquest. For the English historian Eadmer, describing why St Anselm, as Archbishop of Canterbury, consulted Wulfstan about pre-Conquest English customs, Wulfstan was 'the one sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people'.

We have a detailed account of Wulfstan's life because his chaplain, Coleman, wrote a Life of the saint in Old English - it doesn't survive, but it was translated into Latin by William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century. William of Malmesbury also wrote about Wulfstan in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, written about thirty years after Wulfstan's death, and there he recounts stories he had heard about Wulfstan from people at Worcester who knew him - and they had a lot of stories to tell! It's the accumulation of anecdotes about Wulfstan which give us the clearest picture of the man and how he was perceived by his contemporaries, so this post is a collection of my favourite stories about the saint.

Quotations are from William of Malmesbury, Saints' Lives: Lives of SS. Wulfstan, Dunstan, Patrick, Benignus and Indract, ed. and trans. M. Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trans. Winterbottom and Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), vol. I. Most of the pictures come from Worcester Cathedral, where Wulfstan's memory is still venerated; I wrote about memorials to Wulfstan at Worcester here.


Wulfstan was born at Itchington in Warwickshire on the eve of the Danish Conquest (c.1008 or a little later), into a well-connected family. His mother may have been the sister of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, a prominent homilist and law-maker who was an influential adviser first to King Æthelred and then to the Danish conqueror Cnut. (So the elder Wulfstan was also a bishop adept at making himself acceptable to conquerors - clearly it ran in the family). The younger Wulfstan was probably named for his famous uncle, but Coleman's life notes that Wulfstan's parents named him from a combination of their own names: his father was called Æthelstan ('noble stone') and his mother was called Wulfgifu ('wolf gift'), so they named their son 'Wulfstan', joining elements from the two names - a nice insight into Anglo-Saxon naming practices.

Wulfstan was educated in the monastery of Peterborough, where he was taught by a monk named Earnwig, an expert scribe and illustrator. Coleman's life tells how Earnwig gave young Wulfstan some books to look after - a sacramentary and a psalter, with letters illuminated in gold. The boy fell in love with these beautiful books, captivated by the rich decorations, but his teacher, with an eye to winning royal favour, presented the books to Cnut and his queen, Emma. The child was heartbroken at the loss, but the story has a happy ending: Wulfstan had a dream in which an angel promised the books would be returned to him, and much later they were. Cnut sent the books to Cologne as a diplomatic gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, and in the reign of Edward the Confessor they happened to be brought back to England, and were given to Wulfstan as a gift by someone who did not know of his dream. All bibliophiles will sympathise with little Wulfstan here, and you can't blame him for falling in love with the books; high-status English manuscripts of the early eleventh century, decked in gold, are absolutely stunning. Earnwig's books would have looked something like the Bury Gospels, the Cnut Gospels, the Grimbald Gospels, or the Eadui Psalter - like this:


Coleman also tells a story about Wulfstan's adolescence, describing how the teenage Wulfstan, back home with his parents in Warwickshire, was tempted by a lustful local girl. One day a large group of young people had gathered in a field, competing in races and athletic games, and Wulfstan won all the honours of the game. The crowd shouted his praises, but Wulfstan, of course, remained humble despite all their flattery. So the Devil put it into the mind of the girl to tempt Wulfstan:

Nothing loath, she employed indecent gestures and movements to act the role of a dancing-girl in search of applause, all to play the slave to the eyes of her sweetheart. Though he had not yielded to her words and touch, he was so affected by her that he gave himself over wholly to love. But he immediately came to his right mind, shed tears, and bolted to a spot bristling with thorns and brambles. He lay there some way off while the others went on with their sport unheeding, and sleep crept over him as he pondered deeply and belaboured himself with reproaches. Then a portent was to be seen. Down from above came a bright cloud that played on the eyes of those watching with a pleasant glow; for a while it veiled the prostrate Wulfstan, and bemused the spectators. (SL, 19).
The onlookers came and asked Wulfstan to explain what it meant, and he said it was a sign of heavenly love, and that from henceforth he would always be free from sexual temptation. His biographer Coleman notes that as an old man he often told these stories about his own life to encourage others - he told the story about his childhood to boys, and this story to young men.

After thus confirming his vocation to celibacy, he became a priest and then a monk at Worcester. One night he was praying in the church at night when an old peasant came in and scolded him for being there so late, and challenged him to a fight. Wulfstan - knowing, of course, that it was the Devil in disguise - wrestled with the peasant until he vanished in a puff of smoke.

But so that [the Devil] should not seem to have failed altogether, he trod on the good man's foot with all the force wickedness could muster, and pierced it as though with a red-hot iron. The damage penetrated to the bone, so Godric, a monk of that house, bore witness; according to Coleman, he said he had often seen - I do not know whether to call it wound or ulcer. The same Coleman avows that he knew the rustic whose shape the Devil took on, a man well suited from his superhuman strength, wicked character and grim ugliness, to be the one into whom that wicked bandit transformed himself. (SL, 29)


Wulfstan was made Bishop of Worcester in 1062, late in the reign of Edward the Confessor. The tone of his time as bishop was set, according to William of Malmesbury, by the Bible verse chosen at his consecration (at random, as was customary, as a prognostication): 'Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile'. The stories about Wulfstan's career as bishop illustrate this belief in his guilelessness, his remarkable simplicity and humility, even when he was mixing with the most powerful people in the land. Wulfstan had been closely associated with Harold Godwineson, but he nonetheless managed to retain his position after the Norman Conquest when many English abbots and bishops were deposed. Legend said that when he was ordered to surrender his episcopal staff, he stuck it into the tomb of King Edward, declaring that as Edward had appointed him, only Edward could take it from him. No one could pull the staff out of the tomb except Wulfstan himself - his own sword-in-the-stone miracle. So he kept his position.


Typical of the stories about Wulfstan's simplicity of life is this witty exchange with a Norman bishop who teased Wulfstan for dressing in humble lamb-skin, rather than grander clothes:
When he was on one occasion told off for this by Geoffrey bishop of Coutances, he retorted with some witty remarks. Geoffrey had asked why he had lamb-skins when he could and should wear sable, beaver or wolf. He replied neatly that Geoffrey and other men well versed in the way of the world should wear the skins of crafty animals, but he was conscious of no shiftiness in himself and was happy with lambskin. Geoffrey pressed the point, and suggested he could at least wear cat. But 'Believe me,' answered Wulfstan, 'the Agnus Dei is more often chanted than the Cattus Dei.' That made Geoffrey laugh: he was pleased that he could be made fun of and that Wulfstan could not be moved. (SL, 107-9)
 Wulfstan's unworldliness was fondly remembered:
If he was ever forced to go to the shire court, he started by pronouncing a curse on evil judges and a blessing on upright ones. Then he would sit down, and if some religious matter was under consideration he would concentrate hard; but if it was secular, as more often happened, he would grow bored and go off to sleep. But if anyone thought fit to speak against him, he soon found out that Wulfstan was no dullard when it came to replying. (GP, 429)

Such sleepiness, a trait Wulfstan shared with other saintly bishops including Anselm, is supposed to be a sign of holy indifference to earthly matters. This view of Wulfstan as an unworldly sign of contradiction, in opposition the worldliness of the Norman clerics, doubtless contributed a good deal to the nostalgic idea of him as "the one sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people", a relic of a simpler, gentler time before the Conquest made everything complicated. Thus, for instance, William of Malmesbury claims:
Never out of respect for any person, not even when he was at the king’s court and sitting at his table, did he fail to say the blessings which the English used to utter over their drink. (GP, 429)
(Wouldn't you love to know what those blessings were, and what King William thought of them?) Wulfstan can't have been all that much of a reactionary or he would hardly have survived as bishop for thirty years after the Conquest, and he showed no support for political rebellion against the Normans: he actually helped to put down the revolt of Waltheof and the earls in 1075, the last gasp of English resistance. You get the sense that affection for Wulfstan provided a safe outlet for nostalgia about the Anglo-Saxon past, which by the time of William of Malmesbury, some sixty years after the Conquest, had lost any real political resonance. It's just a little bit patronising; the Anglo-Saxon past was not, of course, simpler or less sophisticated than the Anglo-Norman present, but you can understand why it might have seemed that way in hindsight.

William of Malmesbury even credits Wulfstan with diagnosing one cause of the Norman Conquest. Wulfstan, you see, strongly disapproved of men with long hair:
Indeed if any of these offenders put his head within range, the bishop would personally snip a flowing lock. For this purpose he kept a small knife, which he used to tidy up his finger-nails or clean blots off books. With this he would take the first fruits of their tresses, enjoining them by their vow of obedience to return the rest of their hair to the same level plane. Anyone who thought it worth objecting he would openly charge with effeminacy, and openly threaten with ill: men who blushed to be what they had been born, and let their hair flow like women, would be no more use than women in the defence of their country against the foreigner. No one would deny that this was shown to be very true that same year when the Normans came. (SL, 59)
So that's why the English lost at Hastings! Elsewhere William of Malmesbury says exactly the opposite about the English defeat - it was the short hair that did it. Interesting theories, but I suspect neither would stand up to scrutiny...


One is inclined to be a bit suspicious of all the stories about Wulfstan's guileless simplicity, but he does seem to have been regarded with genuine affection by his pupils. There's a particularly sweet story about a monk named Nicholas:
Nicholas, his particular favourite among his pupils, later prior of Worcester, was once sitting at his feet. The bishop, in joyful mood, was gently stroking the young man’s head, coming near as it was to the reproach of baldness as the hair fled away. "I think," he said, "you will go bald." The youth was sad that he was growing old in that region while he was still so young, and he complained of departure of his locks. "Why can’t you keep them there?" he said. The bishop beamed. "Believe me," he said, "they will never disappear, the hairs that still remain, so long as I live." It turned out as he had said. But in the same week that Wulfstan bade farewell to this life, all Nicholas’s hair disappeared, who knows where, and left his pate bald. (GP, 437)
And yet fond of him as they were, Wulfstan's piety could sometimes grow tiresome to his pupils:

Wherever he went on horseback, he would go through the psalms again and again, repeating over and over any verses that came up containing prayers, until he who sang with him grew impatient. (GP, 429)

You can imagine them complaining: "Not another prayer, Wulfstan..."

Wulfstan offering his church to God

Many post-Conquest bishops embarked on ambitious building projects at their cathedrals, replacing the Saxon churches with larger, more impressive buildings in the new style. Wulfstan clearly felt he had to do the same at Worcester, but he mourned the loss of the old cathedral:

When the bigger church, which he had himself started from the foundations, had grown large enough for the monks to move across to it, the word was given for the old church, the work of St Oswald, to be stripped of its roof and demolished. Wulfstan stood there in the open air to watch, and could not keep back his tears. His friends mildly reproved him: he should rather rejoice that in his lifetime so much honour had accrued to the church that the increased number of monks made larger dwellings necessary. He replied: “My view is quite different. We unfortunates are destroying the works of saints in order to win praise for ourselves. In that happy age men were incapable of building for display; their way was to sacrifice themselves to God under any sort of roof, and to encourage their subjects to follow their example. But we strive to pile up stones while neglecting souls.” He said more along these lines, undermining opposed views with his own assertions. (GP, 429-31)

I wonder how he would feel about being remembered to history as a representative of 'that happy age' from which he here distances himself.

The crypt at Worcester Cathedral, a survival of Wulfstan's buildings

William of Malmesbury concludes his account of Wulfstan by saying:

Surely, if the easy ways of the ancients lived on, Wulfstan would long ago have been raised on high and proclaimed a saint. But our age’s lack of belief, which decks itself under a cover of caution, refuses to give credence to miracles even when they are seen or touched.

As for myself, I was afraid that I should be accused of suppressing facts if I consigned to oblivion things known on excellent authority, and deprived eager students of what they had every right to know. (GP, 439)

We eager students thank you, William. But you can see the contrast William is trying to draw between the easy ways of the olden days, as embodied by Wulfstan, and the sceptical modern age (the twelfth century). Sceptical age or not, Wulfstan was canonised in 1203, about eighty years after William wrote these words; and he was much venerated by later English kings, including Henry II and John, who chose to be buried in Worcester Cathedral before St Wulfstan's tomb. John is still there, in pride of place, although Wulfstan's tomb is gone.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

'What an inestimable benefit have they conferred on posterity...'


13 January is the anniversary of the death of Eadmer of Canterbury, probably my favourite medieval historian. The year of his death isn't known, but it most likely took place in or shortly after 1126; at that time he was in his sixties, and had returned after many travels to his first home, the cathedral priory of Christ Church, Canterbury. I've written about Eadmer fairly often, most recently here, and at greater length here. Born on the cusp of the Norman Conquest (c.1060), he grew up to be not only a monk, historian, and hagiographer but also the friend and biographer of St Anselm; he bridges the gap between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England, rooted in traditional Anglo-Saxon spirituality but fitted by taste and talent to flourish in the new world of twelfth-century continental monasticism. His work, especially the Historia Novorum and his biography of Anselm, is of great historical value and interest. But besides this, he's just very likable: it's hard not to be fond of eager Eadmer, with his care for detail, his ear for conversation, his loyalty to his home, his tendency to hero-worship. He takes us with him, vividly, into particular moments in his life: we see him as a child in the pre-Conquest monastery, listening to the stories of the older monks; going on a daring raid with Osbern (his fellow Canterbury historian) on the archives of the monastery, at a moment when they thought they might get away with it; chatting with Anselm, half familiar and half in awe; dreaming in exile of his guardian angel; excited at meeting bits of Canterbury history while far from home. His historical work is in general clear-sighted, accurate, and scholarly, but it's also intensely personal; he wrote about people and subjects which mattered a great deal to him, and somehow in reading him you feel like you are being invited to share in his love.

Here are some extracts from Eadmer's writing which give a fairly representative sense of what he thought the purpose and value of his work might be. First, from what is probably his earliest surviving work, this is a short sketch of English history as seen from the perspective of Canterbury, c. 1090:
Britain, which the English, since they defeated and expelled the Britons, inhabit and call England is surrounded on every side by the ocean and from ancient times has abounded to an amazing extent in riches both native and imported from everywhere. Just as Britain was rich in resources provided by the earth, so too was it in its great abundance of very holy men. The grace of Almighty God, by the exacting merits of these men and out of his own bountifulness, adorned the whole island to such an extent that worship and obedience to him were also increased everywhere; moreover, public as well as private affairs enjoyed much peace and blessed prosperity.

But since nature has conceded to worldly matters nothing that is perfect in every respect, the blind mistress of the mind – excessive desire – had led certain people to the point of not knowing how to be content with their own affairs, and she tore apart the ramparts of peace; and when peace was thus torn apart, she gave birth to acts of pillage and arson, civil discords, wars and the destruction of all good things. Sometimes the effect of these things was lessened by the holy men of that province; sometimes, because the calamities increased to an immeasurable degree, those who were struggling to prevent them were themselves ground down by the immensity of troubling events... [M]any were deprived of their rank, many were exiled from their native land, many also were slain by a most cruel death – and these were crowned most gloriously by God, who is a just Judge. The Church of the English experienced these things among its fathers: in the first stages of the faith as it was taking root, when they came to the church as preachers; it endured these things against its own preachers who had been brought forth within it as that faith developed; it suffered these things no less cruelly when the same faith had been established everywhere, at the hands of their own people and at the hands of foreign enemies. And so, to pass over to other matters, the venerable priests Mellitus and Justus were expelled from England and made for Gaul; the most holy father, Wilfrid, was removed many times from his seat of personal authority; and the most glorious King Edmund and the most blessed bishop Ælfheah were condemned to an unjust death and were crowned most worthily with glorious martyrdom. So also, it is well known that Dunstan, a very distinguished man and a father of most exceeding sanctity, was driven into exile. But let it suffice that I have touched upon these matters briefly. For our ancestors made note of many things worthy of memory about these people, and subsequently left their own writings – distinguished by the light of truth – for posterity.

Vita Sancti Wilfridi Auctore Edmero: The Life of Saint Wilfrid by Edmer, ed. and trans. Bernard J. Muir and Andrew J. Turner (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1998), pp. 9-11.

Like every good historian of Anglo-Saxon England, Eadmer is here partly following Bede, whom he calls "the most noble author of the history of our people"; but this is Bede's history of the English church updated for the post-Conquest world. It's a story of good people in each generation standing up against injustice and oppression, from Mellitus and Justus in the very earliest days of the English church, through Wilfrid in the seventh century, then Edmund of East Anglia and St Ælfheah, martyrs of the Viking Age, down to St Dunstan, who was in Eadmer's time Canterbury's most important saint. In the century after Eadmer wrote these words, two more archbishops of Canterbury were to follow Dunstan into exile: first Anselm, whose exile Eadmer himself would share (although at the time of writing this Eadmer had only met Anselm once); then, some forty years after Eadmer's death, Thomas Becket, who became the most famous of Canterbury's exiles and martyrs. I don't know what Eadmer would have thought of Thomas Becket (I don't really feel he would have been a fan), but he would have recognised Becket as the latest in a long line of succession, archbishops standing up for the rights of their church even if it meant their own suffering and death.

An initial from Eadmer's Life of Anselm (BL Harley 315, f.21v)

Some fifteen years after writing the above, Eadmer wrote a Life of Dunstan - perhaps while he was in exile with Anselm - which closes with a moving passage reflecting on the state of England in the first decade of the twelfth century.
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. [Dunstan died in 988.] 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 of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), p.159.


In such times, what can a historian do? Well, he can record what he sees and hears around him, in the hope that future generations will find his testimony valuable, as Eadmer describes at the beginning of his most famous work:
What an inestimable benefit have they conferred on posterity who with an eye to the good of future generations have committed to writing a record of the events of their own times. This is the conclusion which seems to be borne in upon me when I note how men of the present day under stress of difficulties of one kind or another search laboriously into the doings of their predecessors, anxious to find there a source of comfort and strength and yet, because of the scarcity of written documents which has resulted in the events being all too quickly buried in oblivion, they cannot for all their pains succeed in doing so as they would wish. I cannot doubt that those who have composed such records, provided they have laboured with a good motive, will receive from God a good reward. Accordingly, having this consideration in mind I have determined, while aiming at brevity, to set down in writing the things which I have seen with my own eyes and myself heard. This I do both to comply with the wishes of my friends who strongly urge me to do so and at the same time to render some slight service to the researches of those who come after me if they should chance to find themselves involved in any crisis in which the events which I record can in any respect afford a helpful precedent.

Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 1.

(Eadmer has done much more than 'some slight service' to later historians!)


As well as recording the events of the present, the historian can look to the past, to the saints and great people about whom 'our ancestors made note of many things worthy of memory':
Wherefore, being mindful of what these writers have said in all respects, I trust that I shall say almost nothing which cannot be confirmed by their authority, nothing, to be sure, which may be wholly contrary to what they have said. Certainly, I pray that whoever deigns to read or listen to these things should understand that I have written them in this way, not as if I preferred what I have written to those, as it were, ancient versions, whatever they may be with respect to this matter, but rather that he should think that I wanted both to please my friends, who are asking it of me (as I have said), and to show some indulgence of my love and, at the same time, reverence to this holy man of God [Wilfrid].
Vita Sancti Wilfridi Auctore Edmero, trans. Muir and Turner, pp.11-13.


And he can stand up for the importance of accuracy and telling the truth. This is Eadmer describing why he felt it necessary to rewrite Osbern's Life of Dunstan, to correct a number of minor errors:
When asked by my friends the plain truth in all these matters I was concerned to investigate them with such zeal that it did not trouble me to send letters for this reason everywhere throughout England where I knew that studies in these sorts of things were thriving, and I myself was not able to go, believing it clearly despicable in every way to provide in either spoken or written form things deviating from the strict facts to people wishing to ascertain the truth. Therefore let no one judge me to be motivated by some sort of arrogance or jealousy when I set my hand to writing these things; since my conscience bears witness in the very truth from which it is not permitted for a Christian to deviate, I declare that unless the blindness of the human mind deceives me, in this regard the errors which I described have not had any influence, but the love of truth alone, by which I desired to commend this great father, with all ambiguity set aside both to those living and to those who will follow later...

Therefore if anyone should deign either to read or to listen to these things, I beg that he not read or listen in such a way as to rebuke the simplicity of my good intention. For I declare that these things have been described according to my ability not for those who are anxious to criticise, but for those who know how and are prepared to make allowances for my simple style and that of others like me. And so if anyone is not sympathetic to what I am seeking to do, may he not waste his time with the things I am writing.
Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, trans. Turner and Muir, pp. 45-9.

(I'd gladly put that last disclaimer on everything I write, too...)


The images in this post are all from manuscripts Eadmer himself would have known: BL Harley 315 and 624 are the remains of a multi-volume legendary from Christ Church, Canterbury, which was probably produced during Eadmer's time as precentor of the monastery and under his direct supervision. And this is his own handwriting, in a fragment of a Canterbury manuscript written around the same time as the first extract quoted above (BL Harley 5915, f. 12):


His personal manuscript of his works can also be viewed online.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

'Ða easternan tungelwitegan gesawon niwne steorran beorhtne'

Adoration of the Magi in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f. 24v)

Some extracts from Ælfric's sermon on the Epiphany, which can be read in full here.
Ðes dæg is gehaten Epiphania Domini, þæt is Godes geswutelungdæg. On þysum dæge Crist wæs geswutelod þam ðrym cyningum, ðe fram eastdæle middangeardes hine mid þrimfealdum lacum gesohton. Eft embe geara ymbrynum he wearð on his fulluhte on þysum dæge middangearde geswutelod, ðaða se Halga Gast, on culfran hiwe, uppon him gereste, and þæs Fæder stemn of heofenum hlude swegde, þus cweðende, "Þes is min leofa Sunu, þe me wel licað; gehyrað him." Eac on ðisum dæge he awende wæter to æðelum wine, and mid þam geswutelode þæt he is se soða Scyppend, þe ða gesceafta awendan mihte. For ðisum þrym ðingum is ðes freolsdæg Godes swutelung gecweden.

On ðam forman dæge his gebyrdtide he wearð æteowed þrym hyrdum on Iudeiscum earde, þurh ðæs engles bodunge. On ðam ylcum dæge he wearð gecydd þam ðrym tungelwitegum on eastdæle, þurh ðone beorhtan steorran; ac on þysum dæge hi comon mid heora lacum... Ða easternan tungelwitegan gesawon niwne steorran beorhtne, na on heofenum betwux oðrum tunglum, ac wæs angenga betwux heofenum and eorðan. Ða undergeaton hi þæt se seldcuða tungel gebicnode þæs soðan Cyninges acennednysse, on ðam earde ðe he oferglad; and forði comon to Iudea rice, and þone arleasan cyning Herodem mid heora bodunge ðearle afærdon; forðan ðe buton tweon seo eorðlice arleasnys wearð gescynd, þaða seo heofenlice healicnyss wearð geopenod.
As he often does, Ælfric begins his sermon by translating into English the name of the feast on which he is preaching: in this case Epiphania Domini becomes 'Godes geswutelungdæg', 'the day of God's manifestation'. It is a day of 'making clear', related to OE sweotol.
This day is called the Epiphany of the Lord, that is, 'the day of God's manifestation'. On this day Christ was manifested to the three kings, who from the eastern part of the world sought him with threefold offerings. Again, after the passage of years, he was manifested to the world on this day at his baptism, when the Holy Ghost, in the form of a dove, rested upon him, and the Father's voice sounded loudly from heaven, saying, "This is my dear Son, who is well pleasing to me; listen to him." On this day also he turned water into noble wine, and thereby manifested that he is the true Creator who could change created things. For these three reasons this feast is called God's Manifestation.

On the first day of his birth he was revealed to three shepherds in the land of Judea, through the announcement of the angel. On the same day he was made known to the three astronomers in the east, through the bright star, but it was on this day they came with their offerings... The eastern astronomers saw a new bright star, not in heaven among other stars, but a lone wanderer between heaven and earth. Then they understood that the wondrous star indicated the birth of the true King in the country over which it glided; and they therefore came to the kingdom of Judea, and sorely frightened the wicked king Herod by their announcement; for without doubt earthly wickedness was confounded, when the heavenly greatness was disclosed.
Ælfric calls the star an angenga, a 'lone wanderer', which alone follows its unique course through the heavens. This is an intriguing choice of descriptor, a rare and rather poetic word, which is used only a handful of times in the corpus of Old English literature - twice in Beowulf, where it refers to a wandering wolf and to the monster Grendel, who travels alone by night. But although rare, it parallels two evocative compounds famous in Old English poetry: the anhaga 'lone thinker' of The Wanderer, the solitary exile who journeys and meditates alone, and the anfloga 'lone flier' of The Seafarer, the wandering soul which cries like a wheeling seabird and urges the restless heart to travel and pilgrimage. Following the angenga puts the Magi, whether Ælfric intended it or not, into the company of Anglo-Saxon poetry's seekers, those who journey far from their homeland in search of another and a better home.

For Ælfric angenga was, perhaps, an unusual word appropriate for an unusual occurrence - echoing the amazement of the 'watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken'. Although he begins by talking about the three cyningas, he mostly calls the travellers from 'the eastern part of the world' tungelwitegan, a word which literally means the 'star-wise'. I've translated it in this case as 'astronomers' - although what we would think of as astronomy and astrology were not, of course, separate fields of study in this period - because Ælfric goes on to condemn, at some length, what we would call astrology, the idea 'that every man is born according to the position of the stars, and that by their course his destiny befalls him'. He objects strongly to this, because Nis se man for steorrum gesceapen, ac ða steorran sint mannum to nihtlicere lihtinge gesceapene, 'Man is not made for the stars, but the stars are made to be a light by night for men'. This prompts a lengthy discourse be ðan leasan wenan, þe ydele men gewyrd hatað ('about that false idea, which foolish men call wyrd', i.e. fate) - a topic which much preoccupies the solitary wanderers of Old English poetry. But let's keep to the Epiphany today; if you're interested in his thoughts on the subject, read them here.

Uton nu fon on þæs godspelles trahtnunge, þær we hit ær forleton. Þa tungelwitegan eodon into ðæs cildes gesthuse, and hine gemetton mid þære meder. Hi ða mid astrehtum lichaman hi to Criste gebædon, and geopenodon heora hordfatu, and him geoffrodon þryfealde lac, gold, and recels, and myrran. Gold gedafenað cyninge; stor gebyrað to Godes ðenunge; mid myrran man behwyrfð deadra manna lic, þæt hi late rotian. Ðas ðry tungelwitegan hi to Criste gebædon, and him getacnigendlice lac offrodon. Þæt gold getacnode þæt he is soð Cyning. Se stor þæt he is soð God. Seo myrre þæt he wæs ða deadlic; ac he þurhwunað nu undeadlic on ecnysse...

Mine gebroðra, uton we geoffrian urum Drihtne gold, þæt we andettan þæt he soð Cyning sy, and æghwær rixige. Uton him offrian stor, þæt we gelyfon þæt he æfre God wæs, seðe on þære tide man æteowde. Uton him bringan myrran, þæt we gelyfan þæt he wæs deadlic on urum flæsce, seðe is unðrowigendlic on his godcundnysse. He wæs deadlic on menniscnysse ær his ðrowunge, ac he bið heononforð undeadlic, swa swa we ealle beoð æfter ðam gemænelicum æriste.

We habbað gesæd embe ðas þryfealdan lac, hu hi to Criste belimpað: we willað eac secgan hu hi to us belimpað æfter ðeawlicum andgite. Mid golde witodlice bið wisdom getacnod, swa swa Salomon cwæð, "Gewilnigendlic goldhord lið on ðæs witan muðe." Mid store bið geswutelod halig gebed, be ðam sang se sealmscop, "Drihten, sy min gebed asend swa swa byrnende stor on ðinre gesihðe." Þurh myrran is gehiwod cwelmbærnys ures flæsces; be ðam cweð seo halige gelaðung, "Mine handa drypton myrran." Þam acennedan Cyninge we bringað gold, gif we on his gesihðe mid beorhtnysse þæs upplican wisdomes scinende beoð. Stor we him bringað, gif we ure geðohtas ðurh gecnyrdnysse haligra gebeda on weofode ure heortan onælað, þæt we magon hwæthwega wynsumlice ðurh heofenlice gewilnunge stincan. Myrran we him offriað, gif we ða flæsclican lustas þurh forhæfednysse cwylmiað. Myrra deð, swa we ær cwædon, þæt þæt deade flæsc eaðelice ne rotað. Witodlice þæt deade flæsc rotað leahtorlice, þonne se deadlica lichama ðeowað þære flowendan galnysse, swa swa se wítega be sumum cwæð, "Ða nytenu forrotedon on heora meoxe." Þonne forrotiað þa nytenu on heora meoxe, þonne flæsclice men on stence heora galnysse geendiað heora dagas. Ac gif we ða myrran Gode gastlice geoffriað, þonne bið ure deadlica lichama fram galnysse stencum ðurh forhæfednysse gehealden.

Sum ðing miccles gebicnodon þa tungelwitegan us mid þam þæt hi ðurh oðerne weg to heora earde gecyrdon. Ure eard soðlice is neorxnawang, to ðam we ne magon gecyrran þæs weges ðe we comon. Se frumsceapena man and eall his ofspring wearð adræfed of neorxenawanges myrhðe, þurh ungehyrsumnysse, and for ðigene þæs forbodenan bigleofan, and ðurh modignysse, ðaða he wolde beon betera ðonne hine se Ælmihtiga Scyppend gesceop. Ac us is micel neod þæt we ðurh oðerne weg þone swicolan deofol forbugan, þæt we moton gesæliglice to urum eðele becuman, þe we to gesceapene wæron.

Matthew 2 in the Grimbald Gospels (BL Additional 34890, f. 12)
Let us now return to the exposition of the Gospel, where we previously left it. The astronomers went into the place where the child was staying, and found him with his mother. Then with prostrate bodies they worshipped Christ, and opened their coffers, and offered to him threefold gifts, gold, and incense, and myrrh. Gold is fitting for a king; incense belongs to God's service; with myrrh the bodies of the dead are prepared that they may not soon rot. These three astronomers worshipped Christ, and offered to him symbolic gifts. The gold betokened that he is true King; the incense that he is true God; the myrrh that he was then mortal, though now he continues immortal in eternity...

My brothers, let us offer to our Lord gold, for we confess that he is true King, and rules everywhere. Let us offer to him incense, for we believe that he was always God, who at that time appeared as a man. Let us bring him myrrh, for we believe that he was mortal in our flesh, who is incapable of suffering in his divine nature. He was mortal in human nature before his Passion, but he is henceforth immortal, as we all shall be after the universal resurrection.

We have spoken of these threefold gifts, how they apply to Christ. We also wish to say how they apply to us in a figurative sense. Truly gold betokens wisdom; as Solomon said, "A goldhoard much to be desired lies in the mouth of a wise man." Incense represents holy prayer, of which the psalmist sang, "Lord, let my prayer be sent forth like burning incense in thy sight." By myrrh is shown the mortality of our flesh, of which Holy Church says, "My hands dropped myrrh." To the born King we bring gold, if we are shining in his sight with the brightness of heavenly wisdom. Incense we bring him, if we set fire to our thoughts on the altar of our heart with the eagerness of holy prayers, so that through heavenly desire we may give forth something of a sweet smell. Myrrh we offer him if we quell the lusts of the flesh by self-restraint. Myrrh, as we have already said, works to keep dead flesh from rotting quickly. Truly dead flesh rots shamefully when the mortal body serves overflowing lust, as the prophet said of a certain one, "The beasts rotted in their dung." The beasts rot in their dung when fleshly men end their days in the stench of their lust. But if we offer myrrh to God spiritually, then will our mortal body be preserved through self-restraint from the stenches of lust.
This rather gruesome last section arises a bit more logically in Old English, where there's an obvious semantic link between flæsc and flæsclic (i.e. carnal) lusts, and between dead flesh and the deadlic (i.e. mortal) body. But my favourite line here is Gewilnigendlic goldhord lið on ðæs witan muðe: "a goldhoard much to be desired lies in the mouth of a wise man," Ælfric says, making the words of King Solomon sound for a moment like a line from Beowulf.

A great thing the astronomers showed to us by returning another way to their country. Truly, our country is Paradise, to which we cannot return by the way we came. The first-created man and all his offspring were driven from the joy of Paradise, through disobedience, and for eating the forbidden food, and through pride, when he wanted to be better than the Almighty Creator had created him. But there is great need for us 'by another way' to avoid the treacherous devil, that we may come in joy to our homeland, for which we were created.

An eðel, 'homeland', is what all the wanderers and exiles of Anglo-Saxon poetry are seeking. As the 'lone wanderer' the star leads the wise men, so the 'lone flier' the soul urges the Seafarer to leave his homeland in search of another, and to exhort:

Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen
ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen.

Let us consider where we have a home,
and then think how we may come thither.

Hwæt is ðis deadlice lif buton weg? ('what is this mortal life but a journey'?) we heard Ælfric ask a few weeks ago in his Advent sermon, and that journey presses ever onward; 'we cannot return by the way we came', but must go another way.

The Adoration of the Magi (r) and a scene from the legend of Weland, on the Franks Casket

For some later medieval English writing on the Epiphany, have a look at William Herebert's translation of 'Hostis Herodis impie', and the following lovely Middle English carols:

'Now is the twelfth day come'
'Out of the east a star shone bright'
'There is a blossom sprung of a thorn'
'Come, love we God'

And also this carol for the end of the Christmas season: 'I am Christmas, and now I go my way'. Even 'Sir Christmas' has a journey to undertake in the year ahead!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

'As do mothers all'


This yonder night I saw a sight,
A star as bright as any day,
And ever among a maiden sung,
'By by, lully, lullay.'

This maiden hight Mary, she was full mild,
She knelt before her own dear child.
She lulled, she lapped,
She rolled, she wrapped,
She wept, without a nay;
She rolled him, she dressed him,
She lissed him, she blessed him,
She sang, "Dear son, lullay."

She said, "Dear son, lie still and sleep!
What cause hast thou so sore to weep?
With sighing, with sobbing,
With crying and with screeching,
All this long day,
And thus waking, with sore weeping,
With many salt tears dropping?
Lie still, dear son, I thee pray."

"Mother," he said, "for man I weep so sore,
And for his love I shall be torn,
With scourging, with threatening,
With bobbing, with beating,
For truth, mother, I say;
And on a cross full high hanging,
And to my heart full sore sticking
A spear on Good Friday."

This maiden answered with heavy cheer, [great sorrow]
"Shalt thou thus suffer, my sweet son dear?
Now I mourn, now I muse,
I all gladness refuse;
I, ever from this day.
My dear son, I thee pray,
This pain thou put away,
If it possible be may."


Like the lullaby I posted the other day, this carol about the infancy of Christ seems like appropriate reading for the days and weeks after Christmas. Much of the power of this poignant little poem lies in its swift-moving rhythm and rhyming verbs, which don't entirely come through in translation, so in the above version I've left some words untranslated: she lissed him means 'she comforted him' and bobbing is 'beating, tormenting'. Here's the unmodernised poem, as edited from the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole 189 (SC 6777) by Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century (Oxford, 1939), pp. 7-8:

Thys yonder ny3th y sawe A sy3te,
A sterre As bry3th As ony daye
& euer A-monge A maydene songe,
'by by, lully, lullaye.'

Thys mayden hy3th mary, she was full mylde,
she knelyde by-fore here oune dere chylde.

She lullyde, She lappyde,
she rullyde, she wrapped,
She weppede wyth-owtyne nay;
She rullyde hym, she dressyde hym,
she lyssyd hym, she blessyd hym,
She sange 'dere sone, lullay'.

She sayde, 'dere sone, ly styll & slepe.
What cause hast þu so sore to wepe,

Wyth sy3hyng, wyth snobbynge,
wyth crying & wyth scrycchynge
All þis londe daye;
And þus wakynge wyth sore wepynge
Wyth many salt terys droppynge?
ly stylle, dere sone, I þe pray.'

'Moder,' he sayde, 'for mane I wepe so sore
& for hys loue I shall be tore

Wyth scorgyng, wyth thretnyng,
wyth bobbyng, wyth betyng
for sothe, moder, I saye;
And one A crosse full hy hanggyng,
And to my herte foll sore styckynge
A spere on good frydaye.'

Thys maydene Aunswerde wyth heuy chere,
'Shalt þy thus sovere, my swete sone dere?
Now y morne, now y muse,
I All gladnes refuse;
I, euer fro thys day.
My dere sone, y þe pray,
thys payne þu put Away,
and yf hyt possybyll be may.'

As a vision of Mary and her baby son, this poem belongs with a group of related poems which also begin 'this yonder (or endris, 'other') night', such as this one I posted last year. But this is perhaps the most insistently heart-tugging example, urgent and restless in tone, and offering no comfort in its final lines. This is not a peaceful scene of a mother lulling her baby to sleep: the piling up of verbs in the first verse suggests her increasingly frantic attempts to find something which will comfort the 'screeching' child (we don't often think of the baby Christ 'screeching'!). Whatever she does the baby won't be soothed, and his mother, too, is weeping - exhausted like many a new mother, we might imagine. When the child speaks he only makes things worse, explaining why he has good cause to weep, and this carol does not end, as some of the poems do, with Christ promising he will make everything right after his death; it closes with his mother's shock and grief at the future foretold for him. (Although the end of the poem may have been lost, of course). In style this carol is reminiscent of 'Suddenly afraid', another poem full of distinctive rhyming verbs and a vision of the Virgin with her son on her lap: but in that poem Christ is dead, and it's his mother who weeps and cannot be comforted.


I posted this poem today partly as an excuse to repost the following carol (of which the unmodernised text can be found here):

Lullay, lullay, la, lullay,
My dear mother, lullay.

As I lay upon a night
Alone in my longing
Methought I saw a wondrous sight:
A maid a child rocking.

The maiden wished without a song
Her child asleep to bring;
The child thought she did him wrong,
And bade his mother sing.

"Sing now, mother," said that child,
"What me shall befall
Hereafter, when I come to age,
As do mothers all.

"Every mother, truly,
Who can her cradle keep
Is wont to lullen lovingly
And sing her child asleep.

"Sweet mother, fair and free,
Since that this is so,
I pray thee that thou lullen me,
And sing somewhat thereto."

"Sweet son," said she,
"Whereof should I sing?
I never yet knew more of thee
Than Gabriel's greeting!

"He greeted me well, upon his knee,
And said, 'Hail, Mary,
Full of grace, God is with thee.
Thou shalt bear Messiah.'

"I wondered greatly in my thought
For man knew I never none.
'Mary,' he said, 'fear thee not:
Trust God of Heaven alone.

'The Holy Ghost shall do all this.'
He said it should be done
That I should bear mankind's bliss,
Thee, my sweet son!

"He said, 'Thou shalt bear a king
In King David's city,
In all Jacob's nation
King there shall he be.'

"He said that Elizabeth
Who barren was before,
A child now conceived hath,
'Therefore believe me the more!'

"I answered blithely,
For his words me pleased,
'Lo, God's servant, here am I,
Be it as thou me said.'

"There, as he said, I thee bore
On a mid-winter night,
In maidenhead, without sorrow,
By grace of God almighty.

"The shepherds that waked in the wold
Heard a wondrous mirth
Of angels there, as they told,
At the time of thy birth.

"Sweet son, certainly,
No more can I say;
But if I could I gladly would,
To do all at thy pay." ['everything that would please you']

"Mother," said that sweet thing,
"To sing I shall thee lere [teach]
What I shall endure of suffering,
And do while I am here.

"When the seven days are done
Right as Abraham wished,
Cut shall I be with a stone
In a very tender place.

"When the twelve days are done,
By leading of a star
Three kings shall seek for me then
With gold, incense, and myrrh.

"The fortieth day, to fulfill the law,
We shall to the temple go;
There Simeon shall pronounce a saw
And shall tell you of woe.

"When I am twelve years of age,
Joseph and thou, mourning,
Shall me find, mother mild,
In the temple teaching.

"Til I be thirty at the least
I never shall from thee sever,
But ever, mother, be at thy behest,
Joseph and thee to serve.

"When the thirty years be spent,
I must begin to fulfill
That for which I am hither sent,
Through my Father's will.

"John Baptist, of merit most,
Shall me baptise by name;
Then my Father and the Holy Ghost
Shall witness what I am.

"I shall be tempted by Satan,
Who fallen is in sin;
Just as he tempted Adam,
But I shall it better withstand.

"Disciples I shall gather
And send them out to preach,
The laws of my Father
In all this world to teach.

"I shall be so simple
And yet so all-knowing
That a great part of the people
Shall want to make me king."

"Sweet son," then said she,
"No sorrow could cause me pain,
If I might live to see the day
When you were made a king!"

"No, no, mother," said that sweet,
"For that came I not,
But to be poor, and ease the woe
To which man has been brought.

"Therefore when two and thirty years be done
And a little more,
Mother, thou shalt make great moan
And see me die so sore.

"The sharp sword of Simeon
Shall pierce into thine heart,
For my great grief and dreadful pain
Sorely thee shall smart.

"Shamefully then I shall die
Hanging on the rood,
For man's ransom shall I pay
Mine own heart's blood."

"Alas! son," said that maid,
"Since this will be so,
How can I live to see the day
That will bring thee such woe?"

"Mother," he said, "take it light,
For I shall live again,
In flesh like yours, through my might,
For else I lived in vain.

"To my Father I shall wend
In human flesh to Heaven;
The Holy Ghost I shall thee send,
With his gifts seven.

"I shall thee take, when the time is,
To me at the last,
To be with me, mother, in bliss:
All this have I cast.

"All this world judge I shall,
At the dead's rising;
Sweet mother, this is all
That I will now sing."

Certainly this sight I saw,
This song I heard sing,
As I lay this Yule's day,
Alone in my longing.

This is less unrelentingly painful than the first carol, simpler in form and language, but in other ways considerably more complex. At 37 verses long, it's hard to believe this was ever sung as a carol; the author got a little carried away with the poetic potential of his subject, I think, but he had good reason to. There are many things I like about this poem: the interplay between mother and child is very naturalistic (she hopes to get him to sleep without having to sing a lullaby, but the child insists, as little children often do!), and Mary's reactions are entirely believable (I like her readiness to tell the story of his birth - a subject on which mothers generally need little encouragement to talk - and her delight that her son will be a king). The entwining of voices is beautifully intricate, as Mary repeats what Gabriel said to her and what she said in reply, partly in direct and partly in indirect speech, as if she really is telling the story of her own experiences and trying to comprehend what has been said to her. And then the child takes over the story, and the parent's role of prophesying a baby's future. He's clearly no more than a few days old - even his circumcision, on the eighth day after his birth, is still in his future - but his knowledge is complete, his mother's incomplete; he teaches her to sing. All the familiar story of Christ's life is recast as the past, present, and future of these two people, who are in many ways an ordinary mother and baby (even if this baby isn't 'screeching'). There is even something ordinary about the act of prophecy, though in this case it comes from the child himself. The act of forecasting a baby's future over its cradle is both literary tradition and a natural human impulse; and although this scene is a vision, lit by a miraculous star, its setting in the unearthly lonely silence of a winter's night reminds me of a later parent, baby, and prophecy:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness...

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself...

(from 'Frost at Midnight')

'Far other lore, and far other scenes' from the medieval poem; but the same impulse, perhaps.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Some end of year thanks

The last day of the year seems like a good time to say thank you. Over the course of 2014 the number of visitors to this blog has risen rapidly, mostly because of people coming via Twitter, and I've made the acquaintance of many wonderful new readers. I want to end the year by thanking you all for reading, commenting, sharing and contributing here, and I want to explain a little why that means so much to me.

I hope you can tell from this blog that I love my work. I love research, and I love medieval literature, and I love teaching it and thinking about it and I'm never happier than when I'm absorbed in it. Nonetheless, academia is not always a happy place to work. I'm a very junior academic, and to people in my position a career in academia offers a daunting future: a life of short-term contracts and little security, with very limited ability to plan ahead. You can probably imagine the psychological effects of this, and the impact it can have on one's confidence and sense of self-worth; if not, this article explains very well what it's like to be in this situation. Most of my friends are also early career academics, in a similar position, and when I look at them I see talented young people consumed with anxiety and fear about the future, constantly doubting their value as scholars, and consequently as human beings. The system feeds, almost encourages, such anxiety. I remember that just after I started my current job we were learning about the training sessions on offer for junior academics, and were told that their most well-attended session ever had been about 'coping with a fear of failure'. This fact didn't surprise anyone, but it's sad, nonetheless. By no rational definition could any of the people attending such a session be considered failures: these are graduate students and young academics studying and working at Oxford, which proudly calls itself one of the best universities in the world. You can't get where they are without being talented and dedicated, incredibly hard-working and motivated, excelling again and again at exams and job applications and all the things one is supposed to succeed at in order to find a place in the world. It's hard not to feel that they've done everything right, but nonetheless they - we - can't feel secure. I'm in that position myself, and I too feel like a failure. I don't think I am, yet (am I? don't tell me, if you think I am) but I feel like one, every day.

The precarious nature of academic jobs is an endemic problem, perhaps not something individuals can do much about, but academics often don't help this pervading mood of anxiety by just not being very nice to each other. As an academic you are confronted all the time by scepticism, criticism, doubt, and to an extent, that's fine - that's how academia operates, its bread and butter, and constructive criticism can be a real gift. But a lot of the time you're dealing with criticism which feels unnecessarily vindictive, actually designed to torpedo your sense of self-worth. Criticism is all you ever hear, because it's no one's job to encourage you or tell you what's good about your work - only how it can be improved. Senior academics in positions of power who use that power to be generous and supportive towards younger scholars are absolutely worth their weight in gold, and I've been fortunate enough to be helped by several, but they often seem to be in the minority. Part of the fear of failure is feeling almost desperately dependent on the goodwill of more powerful people, without any control over the fate of your own work; reviewers and academic publishers, for instance, have a huge amount of power over my future, and I have no influence on them whatsoever. I have to get my work published if I ever want to get another job, so they're free to treat me however they want and I have to do as they ask, lest they decide to say 'actually, we won't publish this after all'. That's a frightening situation to be in.

This is where blogging helps. It might seem like nothing to you, but with blogging I'm in control of what I write and post; it might be badly written or contain errors or someone just might not like it, but at least I don't have to get anyone's approval to write it, or apply for permission, or dread the prospect of an anonymous critical attack. That sense of freedom has been very good for my scholarship, in ways I might discuss in another post, but it's also been good for me personally. In response to my blog I receive a constant stream of positive feedback, and I can't tell you what a boost that is to me amid my daily anxieties. Perhaps that makes it sound like the benefits of blogging are chiefly selfish, but what I love is not people saying nice things about me, but recognising the value of the texts I write about. 'That poem is amazing!' is my favourite type of comment; it means, I hope, that I helped someone see how and why a text they wouldn't otherwise have encountered can indeed be amazing. The tone is just so different: there's enthusiasm and interest and passion of a kind you rarely hear expressed within academia. People who aren't used to blogs worry about getting negative feedback through blogging, and of course you do get the occasional troll, especially on Twitter - but in six years of blogging I've never received a comment anywhere near as maliciously crushing as anonymous academic peer review can be. The overwhelming majority of my readers are friendly and eager to learn and ready to contribute knowledge of their own; if they have criticisms, they express them politely. It turns out that out there, outside academia, a lot of people are just really nice. And living and working as I do, mostly alone, it's a lovely surprise to find that out.

There's still debate within academia about blogging, and a considerable proportion of academics who don't understand why anyone would bother to do it. When people ask me about my blog (I never bring it up myself, because I worry what people I know in real life will think of it) they often do so with an air of puzzlement: why would you want to do that? Why would you write if you're not getting anything out of it? And it's true I'm not really getting anything tangible out of blogging, and career-wise it may do me more harm than good; I sometimes imagine sceptical 'real academics' stumbling across my blog, silently judging me, and going away again, and you never know how that might come back to hurt me. To many of the people who have power over my career, blogging doesn't count as a worthwhile activity, even as a form of outreach or impact. But the intangible benefits are immense, and it's been more rewarding than almost anything I've ever done. To be able to write about texts I care about, which I feel are interesting and important and should be better known, and then find a willing and appreciative audience who want to hear about them, is a daily joy. That's because of you, my generous and open-minded readers. I write about texts I like and want to share, and most of the things I choose to post about I could never publish in another forum, so it's particularly encouraging that many of my most popular posts this year have been about some of the most obscure texts: the Old English Menologium, Anglo-Saxon sermons, very minor Middle English lyrics, a little-studied Norse saga. These posts have each attracted hundreds of readers within a few days of posting, and have been received with an enthusiasm which amazes me. Perhaps the element of novelty is a draw - these texts are not the kind of thing anyone would encounter unless they had been studying medieval literature for a few years, and so they are unfamiliar and surprising, maybe. I think that many people who've never studied medieval literature (especially Old English), and even some who have, don't know just how much they don't know; they think the corpus is small and predictable, and so react with astonishment and delight to something unexpected, like Christ III. But still, if you had to pick anything - anything! - you thought a non-specialist audience would be interested in, Ælfric's sermons would be way down the list, let alone the Menologium or the Christ poems of the Exeter Book. Sometimes people comment on my posts (meaning to be kind) 'you should write a book about this!' which, although a well-intentioned comment, is a little painful to hear, because at the moment no one would publish a book by someone as junior as me about texts as obscure as the ones I write about. Who would want to read that? Well, my blog readers, thank goodness.

So, if you've read this far, thank you. Thank you for reading, commenting on, sharing my posts. Thank you for being enthusiastic and generous in your responses, for sharing my enthusiasm. If you're a non-specialist, as the majority of you are, thank you for being open-minded, willing to engage with texts which even within academia are seen as hopelessly esoteric, too obscure for undergraduates and the kind of thing no non-specialist would ever care about. And if you are a specialist, a 'real academic', thank you for being generous enough to read the blog of someone much junior to you, who values your approval more than you can imagine. And all of you, thank you for being kind.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'


This is an exquisitely sad nativity song, a lullaby addressed to the baby Christ, but full of compassion and pain and regret for the suffering that the child will later undergo. It comes from a manuscript which belonged to a Franciscan friar, John of Grimestone, who may or may not be the author; he seems to have had a fondness for lullabies, anyway, since his manuscript also includes this lullaby and this one on roughly the same subject. Today's lullaby is also close in style and theme to this poem in the same metre, one of my very favourite medieval poems, which is not addressed to Christ but to an ordinary baby - that poem laments the sorrows of the world and the human condition, while this focuses on the sorrows of Christ. In both cases the central image is of the crying child, innocent and ignorant, who weeps for no reason - and yet has a reason to weep, though he doesn't know it, because of the world he has been born into.

Lullay, lullay, litel child, child, rest thee a throwe,
From heighe hider art thou sent wyth us to wonen lowe;
Poure and litel art thou made, uncouth and unknowe,
Pyne and wo to suffren heer for thyng that nas thyn owe.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, sorwe mythe thou make;
Thou are sent into this world, as thou were forsake.

[Lullay, lullay, little child, rest you a while; from on high you are sent here to dwell with us below. Poor and little are you made, unrecognised and unknown, to suffer pain and woe for a crime that was not your own. Lullay, lullay, little child, sorrow you might well make; you are sent into this world like one who has been forsaken.]

Lullay, lullay, litel grome, kyng of alle thyng,
What I thenke of thy myschief me listeth wel litel synge;
But caren I may for sorwe, if love were in myn herte,
For swiche peynes as thou shalt dreyen were nevere non so smerte.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, wel myghte thou crie,
For-than thy body is bleik and blak, soon after shal ben drye.

[Lullay, lullay, little boy, king of all things! When I think of your sad state I hardly want to sing; but I may lament, for sorrow, if love be in my heart, because such sharp pains as you will suffer have never been known. Lullay, lullay, little child, well might you cry! Your body then will grow pale and white, and then it shall grow dry.]

Child, it is a wepyng dale that thou art comen in;
Thy poure cloutes it proven wel, thy bed made in the bynne;
Cold and hunger thou most thoeln, as thou were geten in synne,
And after deyen on the tree for love of all mankynne.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, no wonder thogh thou care,
Thou art comen amonges hem that thy deeth shullen yare.

[Child, it is a weeping world that you have come into! Your poor rags prove this well, and your bed made in the manger. Cold and hunger must you suffer, like one begotten in sin, and afterwards die upon the cross for the love of all mankind. Lullay, lullay, little child, no wonder that you cry; you are come among those who shall cause you to die.]

Lullay, lullay, litel child, for sorwe myghte thou grete;
The anguissh that thou suffren shalt shal don the blood to swete;
Naked, bounden shaltow ben, and sithen sore bete,
No thyng free upon thy body of pyne shal ben lete.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, it is al for thy fo,
The harde bond of love-longyng that thee hath bounden so.

[Lullay, lullay, little child, for sorrow you may well cry; the anguish that you shall suffer will make you sweat blood. Naked, bound, you will be, and afterwards sorely beaten; no part of your body shall be left free of pain. Lullay, lullay, little child, it is all for your foe, the hard bond of love-longing that has bound you so.]

Lullay, lullay, litel child, litel child, thyn ore!
It is al for oure owene gilt that thou art peyned sore.
But wolden we yet kynde ben and lyven after thy lore,
And leten synne for thy love, ne keptest thou no more.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, softe sleep and faste,
In sorwe endeth every love but thyn atte laste.

[Lullay, lullay, little child, little child, your mercy! It is all for our guilt that you are sorely suffering. But if we yet acted rightly and lived according to your teaching, and left sin for your love, your suffering would be at an end. Lullay, lullay, little child, softly sleep and fast; in sorrow ends every love but yours, at the last.]


That last couplet cuts like a knife, doesn't it? I can't help feeling that this lullaby, fine poetry as it is, is almost too sad to post at Christmas, but it seems appropriate for the feast of the Holy Innocents, whose own sad, strange medieval lullaby still exerts a strong power:

Lullay, lullay, thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, lullay, thou little tiny child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and may,
For thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.


The Coventry Carol is among the medieval carols most often heard today, and I find the popularity of this profoundly sad song at Christmastime intriguing. As John of Grimestone's lullaby suggests, there are actually a considerable number of medieval lullabies which share the mood of the Coventry Carol: somewhere between lullaby and lament, full of melancholy and pity for the child being comforted, whether it's Herod's victims, the Christ-child, or any human baby born into a weeping world. (Here's another beautiful example.) I wonder if the popularity of the Coventry Carol today indicates that it expresses something people don't find in the usual run of joyful Christmas carols - this song of grief, of innocence cruelly destroyed. Holy Innocents is not an easy feast for a modern audience to understand, and I'll confess I find the medieval manuscript images of children impaled on spears just horrible - but then, they are meant to be, and they're horrible because they're all too close to the reality of the world we live in. The idea that this is incongruous with the Christmas season (as you often hear people say) is largely a modern scruple, I think. It's our modern idea that Christmas is primarily a cheery festival for happy children and families - our images of Christmas joy, both secular and sacred, are all childlike wonder and picture-perfect families gathered round the tree. This is very nice, of course, for those who have (or are) children, or happy families, but for those who don't - those who have lost children or parents, who face loneliness or exclusion, who want but don't have children, family, or home - it can be deeply painful. The modern Christmas tends to sideline and ignore that pain, asking it to at least keep quiet so as not to spoil the 'magic'. But none of this is true of medieval writing about Christmas and the Christ-child, which can be - alongside the very many merry and joyful carols, of course - serious, melancholy, and sad. Medieval Christmas texts like this lullaby do not exclude but encompass human pain - it's that pain, they say, which Christ has come to earth to share. As John Donne said, in a sermon he preached on Christmas Day 1626:

The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for, to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the manger as uneasy at first, as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.
John of Grimestone's poem perfectly illustrates that idea.