Saturday, 14 May 2016

The fiftieth day and 'the tranquility of greatest peace': Bede on Pentecost

The giving of the law to Moses, next to Pentecost in a 'typological picture-book', c.1405 (BL King's 5, f. 27)

This year we have been living through a rare series of dates which would have delighted a medieval expert on the calendar. As I discussed a few months ago, Good Friday fell this year on March 25, which was traditionally believed to be the historical date of both the Crucifixion and the Annunciation. All subsequent dates which are dependent on Easter have therefore also fallen this year on their 'true' dates, including the Feast of the Ascension (May 5) and tomorrow's feast, Pentecost, which is on its supposed historical date of May 15.

From an early date in church tradition, other important events in salvation history were aligned with these significant dates, with which they were typologically linked: March 25 was said to be not only the date of the Crucifixion and the Annunciation to Mary, but also Old Testament events which foreshadowed Christ's death, such as Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, the crossing of the Red Sea, and so on. However, from the very beginning Pentecost already commemorated two anniversaries which link the Old Testament and the New: it takes its date from the Jewish festival celebrated fifty days after Passover, marking the day when the law was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and therefore subsequently the date fifty days after Easter when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. It's a double anniversary in more ways than one.

In case it's of interest, here are two short extracts of texts from Anglo-Saxon England which touch on the connection between the Old and New Testament events celebrated at Pentecost. First a section from the Old English Martyrology, in its entry for May 15 (text from here, with my translation):

On þone fifteogðan dæg þæs monðes bið se micla dæg þe is nemned Pentecosten. Se dæg wæs mære on þære ealdan æ ær Cristes cyme, forðon þe on þone dæg God spræc to Moyse of heofonum geherendum eallum Israhela folce. Ond þy dæge God sealde his æ ond his bebodu þæm ylcan folce on twam stænenum bredum awritene on Sinai þære dune; ond eft æfter Cristes uppastignesse to heofonum þy ilcan dæge he onsænde his þegnum þone halgan gast, ond ealra þara monna wæs on anum huse hundteontig ond twentig. Þa færinga wæs geworden sweg of heofonum swa swa stranges windes sweg: ond se sweg gefylde þæt hus þær hi sæton, ond ofer heora ælcne onsundran sæt swa swa fyr, ond hi mihton þa sona sprecan on æghwelc þara geþeoda þe under heofonum is; ond þa hælendes þegnas mihtan siððan don heofonlico wundor þurh þone gast. Þæm gaste æghwelc gefullwad man nu onfehð þurh biscopa handa onsetenesse, ond se gast wunað mid æghwelcne þara þe god deð, ond he gefyhð on þæs clænan mannes heortan swa swa culfre, þonne heo baðað on smyltum wætre on hluttere wællan.

On the fifteenth day of the month is the great day which is called Pentecost. This day was celebrated in the Old Law before Christ’s coming, because on this day God spoke to Moses from heaven, in the hearing of all the people of Israel. And on this day God gave his law and his commandments to that people, written on two stone tablets, on the mountain of Sinai. And again, after Christ’s ascension into heaven, on that same day he sent the Holy Spirit on his followers, and all the people who were in the house, one hundred and twenty. Then suddenly there came a noise from heaven like the noise of a strong wind, and the noise filled the house where they were sitting, and over each of them individually there rested something in the likeness of fire. And at once they were able to speak in every one of the languages which are under heaven, and the Saviour’s followers were afterwards able to perform heavenly miracles through that spirit. Every baptised person now receives that Spirit through the laying-on of the bishop’s hands, and the Spirit dwells with all those who do good; and it rejoices in the heart of the pure man, like the dove when she bathes in quiet water in a clear well-spring.

That last sentence is just beautiful. While the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a noisy rush of sound and fire (swa swa stranges windes sweg, 'like the noise of a strong wind'), the indwelling Spirit conferred at baptism is calm and peaceful as a dove, bathing in the clear and cleansing waters, which are described as hlutor 'clear, pure, bright'.

Those waters are surely meant to evoke baptism, since Pentecost was traditionally a time when baptisms took place. (The English name for the feast, Whitsun, is often said to derive from the white garments worn by the newly-baptised.) As Bede says in his homily for Pentecost:

In order to stamp the memory of this more firmly on the hearts of believers, a beautiful custom of holy Church has grown up, so that each year the mysteries of baptism are celebrated on this day, and as a result a venerable temple is made ready for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon those who believe and are cleansed at the salvation-bearing baptismal font. In this way we celebrate not only the recollection of a former happening, but also a new coming in the font of the Holy Spirit upon new children by adoption.
Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels: Book Two, Lent to the Dedication of a Church, trans. Lawrence Martin and David Hurst (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1991), pp.170-1.

In his Historia Ecclesiastica, Bede provides some examples of the early Anglo-Saxon church conforming to this practice: the baby girl he calls 'the first of the people of the Northumbrians to be baptised', Eanflæd, daughter of King Edwin of Northumbria and his wife Æthelburh, was baptised with a number of others on Whitsunday in 626.

The Pentecostal dove, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Add. 49598, f.67v)

To stay with Bede: the Martyrology's restful image of the dove, bathing in calm joy in the quiet waters of the heart, calls to mind Bede's discussion of 'rest' in his homily for Pentecost. In a virtuoso combination of mathematics and mystery, Bede describes the relationship between the descent of the Spirit and the giving of the Law to Moses, and explains how the number fifty, which establishes both dates, can be interpreted to represent the rest of heaven. After commenting on baptism, he says:

Therefore, you dear ones, be attentive to how the type and figure of the feast of the law is in agreement with our festivity. When the children of Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt by the immolation of the paschal lamb, they went out through the desert so that they might come to the promised land, and they reached Mount Sinai. On the fiftieth day after the Passover, the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire, accompanied by the sound of a trumpet and thunder and lightning, and with a clear voice he laid out for them the ten commandments of the law. As a memorial of the law he had given, he established a sacrifice to himself from the first-fruits of that year, to be celebrated annually on that day... The law was given on the fiftieth day after the slaying of the lamb, when the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire; likewise on the fiftieth day after the resurrection of our Redeemer, which is today, the grace of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples as they were assembled in the upper room.
He draws a parallel between going 'up' the mountain and the 'upper room'; like Moses and the disciples, anyone who wishes to receive the Spirit must leave behind the things below and ascend to the heights.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, framed like a Pentecost scene (BL Sloane 346, f. 36)

Bede goes on:

[It] was not without deep significance that the number fifty was observed in the giving both of the law and of grace. It was on the fiftieth day after Passover that the former was given to the people on the mountain, and the latter to the disciples in the upper room. By this number the long-lasting quality of our future rest was surely being shown, since on this fiftieth day the ten commandments of the law were delivered, and the grace of the Holy Spirit was given to human beings. This was to point out clearly that all who carry out the commands of the divine law with the help of the grace of the Spirit are directing their course toward true rest. In the law, the fiftieth year was ordered to be called the year of jubilee, that is, ‘forgiving’ or ‘changed’. During it the people were to remain at rest from all work, the debts of all were to be cancelled, slaves were to go free, and the year itself was to be more notable than other years because of its greater solemnities and divine praises. Therefore, by this number is rightly indicated that tranquility of greatest peace when, as the Apostle says, at the sound of the last trumpet the dead will rise and we shall be changed into glory. Then, when the labours and hardships of this age come to an end, and our debts, that is all our faults, have been forgiven, the entire people of the elect will rejoice eternally in the sole contemplation of the divine vision, and that most longed-for command of our Lord and Saviour will be fulfilled: Be still and see that I am God.

Since it is only by observance of the heavenly commands and the gift of the Holy Spirit that this stillness and vision of unchangeable Truth is reached, both the law of the ten commandments and the grace of the Spirit were given on that particular one of the days which designates rest. Nor is it to be passed over that this number fifty is appropriate to signify inward tranquility, for it is arrived at by multiplying seven times seven and adding one. Under the law the people were ordered to work for six days and to rest on the seventh, and to plow and reap for six years and desist during the seventh, because the Lord completed the creation of the world in six days and desisted from his work on the seventh. Mystically speaking, we are counselled by all this that those who in this age (which is comprised of six periods) devote themselves to good works for the Lord’s sake are in future led by the Lord to a sabbath, that is, to eternal rest.

The fact that the seven days or years are multiplied by seven indicates the manifold abundance of this rest, in which there will be given to the elect that sublime reward concerning which the Apostle exclaims, Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it occurred to the heart of man what things God has prepared for those who love him... The grace of the same Spirit is well described by the prophet as being sevenfold, since it is through his inspiration that one arrives at rest, and in the full partaking of and sight of him true rest is reached...

A person who trusts that he can find rest in the delights and abundance of earthly things is deceiving himself. By the frequent disorders of the world, and at last by its end, such a one is proven convincingly to have laid the foundation of his tranquility upon sand. But all those who have been breathed upon by the Holy Spirit, and have taken upon themselves the very pleasant yoke of the Lord’s love, and following his example, learned to be gentle and humble of heart, enjoy even in the present some image of the future tranquility.
Homilies on the Gospels, trans. Martin and Hurst, pp.171-6.

'Seven multiplied by seven suggests the perfection of that rest which will never be brought to an end or marred by any blemish... One is added to seven-times-seven... and thus the number fifty is perfectly completed.’ Such calculations as this don't feature much in sermons today, at least not in any I've ever heard; but if they don't appeal to you, bear in mind that the purpose of such detailed observation of times and dates is explicitly to point beyond time to eternity, to a place where anniversaries, numbers, and calendars are no more. As Bede says in his preceding homily, after explaining the significance of all his complicated fours, sevens, forties, and fifties:

We might be prompted in a pleasing way, by this annual festive celebration, to enkindle our desire always to obtain and hold fast to festal times that are not annual but uninterrupted, not earthly but heavenly. Our true bliss is to be sought not in the present time of our mortality, but in the eternity of our future incorruption – the solemnity where, after all our anguish has ceased, our life will be led totally in the vision and praise of God.

Homilies on the Gospels, trans. Martin and Hurst, p.156.

'The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles', marked on 15 May in a 12th-century calendar
(BL Lansdowne 383, f. 5)

See this post for a Pentecost sermon by Ælfric and some Old English poetry on the gifts of the Spirit, and here for a beautiful Middle English version of 'Veni Creator Spiritus'.

The Danish Conquest, Part 10: The Siege of London

Ða gelamp hit þæt se cyning æþelred forðferde ær ða scypo comon, he geendode his dagas on Sancte Georgius mæssedæg æfter myclum geswince 7 earfoðnyssum his lifes. 7 þa æfter his ende ealle þa witan þe on Lundene wæron 7 seo buruhwaru gecuron Eadmunde to cyninge, 7 he his rice heardlice wærode þa hwila þe his tima wæs. Þa comon þa scipo to Grenawic to þam gandagum, 7 binnan litlan fæce wendon to Lundene 7 dulfon þa ane micle dic on suðhealfe, 7 drogon hera scipo on westhealfe þære bricge, 7 bedicodon þa syððan, 7 þa buruh utan, þæt nan man ne mihte ne inn ne ut, 7 oftrædlice on þa buruh fuhton, ac hi him heardlice wiðstodon. Þa wæs Eadmund cyng ær þan gewend ut 7 geard þa Westseaxon, 7 him beah eall þæt folc to.

'Then it happened that King Æthelred died before the ships came. He ended his days on St George’s Day, after great labour and difficulties in his life. And then after his death all the witan who were in London, and the garrison, chose Edmund as king, and he held his kingdom stoutly while his time lasted. Then the ships came to Greenwich during the Rogation Days, and within a short time turned to London and dug a great ditch on the south side, and dragged their ships to the west side of the bridge, and then built a dyke around the town so that no one could get in or out. They frequently attacked the town, but it stoutly withstood them. King Edmund had previously got out, and went to Wessex, and all the people there submitted to him.'

This is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's description of the events of April-May 1016, picking up where we left it a month ago. After Cnut had obtained the submission of the north, by fair means or foul, the war shifted south again to London, where King Æthelred had been holed up for the past few months. And there he died, on St George's Day, after a reign of 38 years (minus one brief interruption) - one of the longest reigns of any English monarch, despite all his 'labour and difficulties'.

With hindsight, it seems especially ironic to a modern reader that Æthelred, remembered to history as the 'unready' unwarlike king, should die on the feast of such a martial saint. However, St George was not, of course, England's patron saint in the Anglo-Saxon period, so the irony would perhaps not have been so apparent to an eleventh-century reader. But there's plenty of hindsight at play already in this entry, which was clearly written not just after Æthelred's death but after the death of Edmund, too. We get here comments which serve almost as epitaphs for the two kings: Æthelred and Edmund respectively had 'great labour and difficulties in his life' and 'held his kingdom stoutly while his time lasted' - pretty kind judgements, really, especially when compared with the kind of epitaph Æthelred was getting a century or so later (this is from John of Worcester):

At that time, on Monday, 23 April, in the fourteenth indiction, Æthelred, king of the English, died, after the great toils and many tribulations of his life. These St Dunstan had prophetically announced could come upon him when he, on the day of his coronation, had placed the crown upon his head: ‘Because,’ he said, ‘you obtained the kingdom through the death of your brother, whom your mother killed; hear therefore the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord, ‘The sword shall not depart from thine house, raging against thee all the days of thy life’, slaying those of your seed until your kingdom is given to an alien power whose customs and tongue the people you rule do not know; and your sin and your mother’s sin and the sin of the men who committed murder at the wicked woman’s advice will not be expiated except by long-continued punishment.’ His body was honourably buried in the church of St Paul the Apostle.

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, ed. and trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk (Oxford, 1995) vol. ii, p.485.

This prophecy, which in this storming Old Testament form derives from the fertile imagination of Dunstan's hagiographer Osbern of Canterbury, literally became poor Æthelred's epitaph. Æthelred was buried at St Paul’s (where the most recent high-profile victim of the Vikings, St Ælfheah, also lay), and by the later medieval period his tomb had an inscription quoting Dunstan's prophecy. The tomb was destroyed in 1666 in the Great Fire of London, but the inscription can be read here, and it looked like this:

Anyway, very soon after Æthelred's death the Danish army set about to besiege London. They arrived during the Rogation Days, the three days before Ascension Day, which were on 7-9 May in 1016. They dragged their ships to the west of London Bridge, presumably because the bridge itself was heavily defended, and then bedicodon 'bedyked' the city.

At this point we can return to a source which has been absent from this series for a while, the Encomium Emmae Reginae. The Encomium (as a reminder) was written in 1041-2 for Queen Emma, who was by then Cnut's widow, though in 1016 she was newly Æthelred's. It's been suggested that Emma herself was in London during the siege, though if that was the case it isn't mentioned in the Encomium. Its chronology of this period is a bit confused, but it does describe the siege of London, saying that Cnut

ordered the city of London, the capital of the country, to be besieged, because the chief men and part of the army had fled into it, and also a very great number of common people, for it is a most populous place. And because infantry and cavalry could not accomplish this, for the city is surrounded on all sides by a river, which is in a sense equal to the sea, he caused it to be shut in with towered ships, and held it in a very strong circumvallation.

And so God, who wishes to save all men rather than to lose them, seeing these natives to be pressed by such great danger, took away from the body the prince who was in command of the city within, and gave him to everlasting rest, that at his decease free ingress might be open to Knútr, and that with the conclusion of peace the two peoples might have for a time an opportunity to recover. And this came to pass. For the citizens, having given their prince honourable burial, and having adopted a sound plan, decided to send messengers and intimate their decision to the king, that is to say, that he should give them his pledge of friendship, and should take peaceful possession of the city. This occurred at a time when it seemed acceptable enough to Knútr, and a treaty was made, a day being arranged for his entry.

But part of the garrison spurned the decision of the citizens, and in the night preceding the day on which the king made his entry, left the city secretly with the son of the deceased prince, in order to collect a very large force again, and try if they could perhaps expel the invading king from their country. And they did not rest till they had assembled nearly all the English who were still inclined to them rather than to Knútr. Knútr, however, entered the city and sat on the throne of the kingdom. But he, nevertheless, did not believe that the Londoners were yet true to him, and, accordingly, he had the equipment of his ships renewed that summer, lest if the army of his foes happened to besiege the city, he should be delivered by the foes within to those without and perish. Guarding against this, he again retired for the moment like a wise man, and having gone on board his ships, he left the city and went to the island called Sheppey with his followers, and wintered there, peacefully awaiting the outcome of the matter.

And so Eadmund - for so the youth who had collected the army was called - when Knútr retired, came with an army not insignificant but immense, and entered the city in state. Soon all followed him, obeyed him, and bestowed their favour upon him, and urged him to be a bold man, declaring that he rather than the prince of the Danes was their choice.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp. 23-5.

Note that the Encomium - notoriously - does not name Æthelred, 'the prince who was in command of the city', even though he was the first husband of the woman for whom this text was written. Apparently Emma preferred not to mention him; but Edmund (her stepson) is described favourably here and throughout the account of Cnut's invasion.

Viking weapons of this date found in the Thames near London Bridge (Museum of London)

Despite what the Encomium says, Cnut did not enter London at this point; the Danish army besieged London on at least three separate occasions in the summer of 1016, and never captured it (each time ‘Almighty God rescued it’, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says). But the Danes don’t seem to have regarded this as a failure, at least judging by the skaldic poems, which are jubilant about the attacks on London. The anonymous poem Liðsmannaflokkr, ostensibly the voice of a rank-and-file soldier fighting among the Danish army during the siege, adds a splash of brilliant colour to the more sober accounts above. Here are one or two highlights (from this site, where you can find the whole poem):

Gǫngum upp, áðr Engla
ættlǫnd farin rǫndu
morðs ok miklar ferðir
malmregns stafar fregni.
Verum hugrakkir hlakkar;
hristum spjót ok skjótum;
leggr fyr órum eggjum
Engla gnótt á flótta.

Let us go ashore, before the staves of the metal-rain [BATTLE > WARRIORS] and large militias of killing learn that the ancestral lands of the English are traversed with the shield. Let us be brave-minded in battle; let us brandish spears and shoot [them]; an ample number of the English takes to flight before our blades.

Margr ferr Ullr í illan
oddsennu dag þenna
frár, þars fœddir órum,
fornan serk, ok bornir.
Enn á enskra manna
ǫlum gjóð Hnikars blóði...

Many a fierce Ullr (god) of the point-quarrel [BATTLE > WARRIOR] gets this day into the foul old shirt in which we were born and brought up. Once again let us nourish the osprey of Hnikarr (= Óðinn) [RAVEN] on the blood of English men...

Knútr réð ok bað bíða
(baugstalls) Dani alla;
(lundr gekk rǫskr und randir
ríkr) vá herr við díki.
Nær vas, sveit þars sóttum,
Syn, með hjalm ok brynju,
elds sem olmum heldi
elg Rennandi kennir.

Knútr decided and commanded all the Danes to wait; the mighty tree of the ring-support [SHIELD > WARRIOR = Knútr] went, brave, under the shields; the army fought by the moat. Syn [lady], it was nearly as if the master of the fire of Rennandi (river) [GOLD > MAN] were holding a maddened elk, where we attacked the army with helmet and mail-shirt.

Út mun ekkja líta
— opt glóa vôpn á lopti
of hjalmtǫmum hilmi —
hrein, sús býr í steini,
hvé sigrfíkinn sœkir
snarla borgar karla
— dynr á brezkum brynjum
blóðíss — Dana vísi.

The chaste widow who lives in stone will look out — weapons often glint in the air above the helmet-wearing ruler — [seeing] how the victory-avid leader of the Danes [DANISH KING = Knútr] attacks sharply the men of the city; the blood-ice [SWORD] clangs against British mail-shirts.

Hvern morgin sér horna
Hlǫkk á Tempsar bakka
— skalat Hanga má hungra —
hjalmskóð roðin blóði.

Every morning the Hlǫkk (valkyrie) of drinking horns [WOMAN] sees the helmet-destroyers [SWORDS] reddened with blood on the bank of the Thames; the seagull of Hangi ( = Óðinn) [RAVEN/EAGLE] must not go hungry.

‘holding a maddened elk’ – you don’t get that in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle! Amazing. Note that the army are fighting við díki, 'by the moat/dyke', with which the Danes had bedyked London. It's been suggested that the 'chaste widow' is Queen Emma herself, looking out from London's stone walls at the valiant young Danish king, while Odin's ravens feed on the blood of the English...

A Viking siege (in this case of Canterbury) from a 12th-century window in Canterbury Cathedral

So Cnut is near London and Edmund is in Wessex, both now accepted as king by some part of the country. We’ll be back at Midsummer for the commencement of some dramatic battles, and the first appearance of Earl Godwine...

Friday, 13 May 2016

'Lost Literature' and the companions of Hereward

My latest column in the May issue of History Today can now be read online here. (Or you could always subscribe to the magazine, of course...) It's inspired by an intriguing aside in the Gesta Herwardi, the twelfth-century account of the adventures of Hereward 'the Wake'. The Gesta Herwardi is full of awesomeness (yes, that's the technical term), and a particularly fantastic bit lists the various exploits of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls Hereward's genge, his 'gang':

As he had promised his men, Hereward returned to England, together with his two nephews, who were now distinguished in all warlike matters, and his wife Turfrida... They found some of his men in hiding, protecting themselves. Rejoicing at his return, these men quickly hastened to join him: namely, a certain Winter, a distinguished fighter, who was short in stature but very tough and strong, and Wenoth and Ælfric Grugan, notable in all courage and strength. These, as effective in deeds as they were big and tall, were joined by three of Hereward's nephews: Godwine Gille, who was called Godwine because he was not inferior to the Godwine, son of Guthlac, who was greatly celebrated in the tales of the ancients; and Duti and Outi, two twin brothers, alike in character and appearance and both praiseworthy warriors. However, the remainder of his band of followers was dispersed across the whole country. Before his departure he had arranged a signal for them, that he would set fire to three villages beyond Brunneswold near Bourne; and so he set them aflame and disappeared into the woods until his men were gathered around him.

And when they were all assembled, they were all the most eminent men. Not one among them was considered to have achieved knightly rank unless he had first performed some praiseworthy deeds. These are their names, with those mentioned above making up the number: Wulfric the Black, who got his name because he had once stained his face with charcoal and gone unrecognized into a garrison, and laid ten of them low with a single spear; and his friend, a certain Wulfric Rahere, or 'Heron', who was called that because he once happened to be at Wrokesham Bridge when four innocent brothers were brought there to be executed, and terrifying the executioners, who had called him 'heron' in mockery, he valiantly set the innocent men free and killed some of their enemies. Others too were numbered among the more famous of Hereward's knights: Godric of Corby, nephew of the Earl of Warwick, and Tostig of Daveness, kinsman of the same earl, whose name he received at baptism; Acca Vasus, the son of a nobleman from the outskirts of Lincoln who owned one of the towers of the city; and Leofwine Mowe, that is 'Sickle', who got his name because once when he happened to be alone in a meadow cutting grass, he had been set upon by a score of local peasants with iron pitchforks and spears in their hands, and single-handed, with only his sickle, he wounded many and killed some, charging among them like a reaper and finally putting them all to flight.

In company with these was also a certain Turbeorht, great-grandson of Earl Edwin, and Leofwine Prat, that is 'Crafty', who though frequently captured by his enemies cunningly escaped, often killing his guards - and so he had this nickname. And in addition to these must be numbered others, also very experienced in warfare: Leofric the Deacon and Ullicus [or perhaps 'the bailiff'] of Drayton, Thurkell and Utlahe (that is 'Outlaw'), Hereward's cook Hogor, Hereward's kinsmen Winter and Leofred, two distinguished men, and Rapenald, steward of Ramsey. These were leaders; so too were Wulfric the Black and Wulfric the White, Ælfric Grugan, Ylard, Godwine Gille, Outi, and the other Outi mentioned before, and those two splendid men, Siward and the other Siward the Red, who were Hereward's nephews. With these there were other most eminent knights: Godric of Corby, the Norman priest Hugo and his brother Ylard, Leofric the Deacon, Tostig of Rothwell and Godwine of Rothwell, Osbern, Alsinus, Leofwine Prat, Thurcytel, and Ullicus of Drayton. All of these were indeed the most distinguished and splendid knights in the whole kingdom; and there were several others, whom it would take too long to name and describe separately.

The Latin can be found here. This assortment of tales and nicknames suggests a lively culture of story-telling, which provides an interesting context for the reference to the 'tales of the ancients' about Godwine, son of Guthlac, which I discuss in the article. Some of the stories here may have come directly from the men concerned; the author of the Gesta Herwardi says he had met two of Hereward's companions, 'Brother Siward of Bury St Edmunds and Leofric Black', who were by his time still 'men of distinguished appearance, although they had lost the beauty of their limbs because of the trickery of enemies'.

But this fascinating text is much more than a concoction of old soldiers' anecdotes, and it draws its material from romance, hagiography and legend. Leofric the Deacon, named here, is elsewhere said to be the author of the English text on which the Gesta Herwardi claims to be based (another bit of lost literature, if it in fact existed); we're told 'it was the endeavour of this well-remembered priest to assemble all the doings of giants and warriors he could find in ancient tales as well as true reports, for the edification of his audience; and to commit them to writing in English, so they would be remembered'. What exactly is meant by this, and how literally should we take it? I'm still working that out...

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Danish Conquest, Part 9: Bloodshed in the North

1016 in the D version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (BL Cotton Tiberius B IV, f. 66)

1016 was a dramatic year in England. On this blog we've been marking the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest of England by following the course of this long-drawn-out conflict, and in the spring of 1016 things were finally coming to a head.

In the last installment, back in the autumn, we saw Cnut returning to England from Denmark with his fleet and raiding across Wessex. Meanwhile, King Æthelred was ill, and at odds with his son Edmund Ironside; the king's closest advisor, the Mercian ealdorman Eadric streona, had just defected to the Danes (not for the last time).

Six months on, the situation was not looking much better for Edmund and the English. Early in 1016, with Cnut's forces now increased by the addition of Eadric's ships, Edmund began to summon up an army, but he could not look for much help from his ailing father. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) begins its entry for 1016:
Her on þissum geare com Cnut cyning mid his here .clx. scipa. 7 Eadirc ealdormann mid him ofer Temese into Myrcan æt Cræcilade. 7 wendon þa to Wæringscire innon þære middewintres tide. 7 hergodon 7 bærndon 7 slogon eall þæt hi to comon. Ða ongan se æðeling Eadmund to gadrienne fyrde. Þa seo fyrd gesomnod wæs. þa ne onhagode him buton se cyng þære wære. 7 hi hæfdon þære burhware fultum of Lundene. Geswicon þa þære fyrding. 7 færde ælc mann him ham. Ða æfter þære tide þa bead mann eft fyrde be fullum wite. þæt ælc mann þe feor wære forð gewende. 7 mann sende to þam cyninge to Lundene. 7 bædon hine þæt he come ongean þa fyrde mid þam fultume þe he gegaderian mihte. Ða hi ealle tosomne comon. þa ne beheold hit naht þe ma þe hit oftor ær dyde. Þa cydde mann þam cyninge þæt hine mann beswicon wolde. þa þe him on fultume beon sceolden. Forlet ða þa fyrde. 7 cyrde him eft to Lundene.
[In this year King Cnut came with his army of 160 ships, and Ealdorman Eadric with him, over the Thames into Mercia at Cricklade, and then turned into Warwickshire during the midwinter festival, and they raided and burned and slew all that they came to. Then the atheling Edmund began to gather an army. When the army was assembled, they would not be satisfied unless the king were there and they had the support of the garrison from London. So they gave up the campaign, and everyone went home. Then after the festival the army was commanded again, under full penalty, that every man who was able should come, and the king was sent to in London and asked to come to join the army with all the support he could gather. When they were all come together, it was no use, any more than it had often been before. Then the king was told that they were going to betray him, those who should have supported him; he left the army, and went back again to London.]

This picture of disorganisation and general mistrust among the English leaders is typical of the chronicler's narrative of these years (whether accurately or not), and he sounds especially jaded here. The Chronicle goes on:

Ða rad se æþeling Eadmund to Norðhymbran to Vhtrede eorl. 7 wænde ælc mann þæt hi woldon fyrde somnian ongean Cnut cyng. Þa ferdon hi into Stæffordscire. 7 into Scrobbesbyrig. 7 to Legeceastre. 7 hergodon hi on heora healfe 7 Cnut on his. 7 wende him þa ut þurh Buccingahamscire into Beadafordscire. 7 þanon to Huntandunscire. andlang fennes to Stanforda. 7 ða into Lincolnescire. þanon to Snotingahamscire. 7 swa to Norðhymbran to Eoforwicweard. Ða Uhtred geaxode þis. ða forlet he his hergunga 7 efeste norðweard. 7 beah þa for nede. 7 ealle Norðhymbran mid him. 7 he gislode. 7 hine man ðeah hwæðere ofsloh. 7 þurcytel Nafanan sunu mid him. 7 þa æfter þæs se cyng Cnut gesætte Yric into Norðhymbran to eorle. eall swa Uhtred wæs. 7 syððan wendon him suðweard oðres weges eall be westan. 7 com þa eall se here toforan þam Eastron to scipon. 7 se æþeling Ædmund wende to Lundene to his fæder. 7 þa æfter Eastron wende se cyng Cnut mid eallum his scipum to Lundeneweard.

[Then the atheling Edmund rode to Northumbria to Earl Uhtred, and everyone thought they intended to gather an army against King Cnut. They went into Staffordshire and into Shrewsbury and to [Chester], and they raided on their side, and Cnut on his; and [Cnut] then turned out through Buckinghamshire into Bedfordshire and from there to Huntingdonshire, along the fen to Stamford, and then into Lincolnshire, from there to Nottinghamshire, and so to Northumbria towards York. When Uhtred heard this, he left his raiding and hurried north, and submitted out of necessity, and all Northumbria with him, and he gave hostages; but nonetheless he was killed, and Thurcytel, son of Nafena, with him. And after this King Cnut appointed Erik as earl in Northumbria, just as Uhtred was, and afterwards went southwards by another route, down the west. And then all the [Danish] army came to the ships before Easter, and the atheling Edmund went to London to his father, and after Easter King Cnut went towards London with all his ships.]

Effectively this was Cnut's conquest of the north. The Chronicle only details his route up through the Midlands into Northumbria, but Scandinavian sources tell us that along the way he was fighting battles in 'green Lindsey', and at Hemingbrough in Yorkshire. No wonder Uhtred made haste to meet him! As the most powerful man in the north of England, head of the family who had ruled Northumbria from Bamburgh for several generations, Uhtred was an important ally of Edmund and Æthelred; his murder, supposedly committed under a promise of safe-conduct, delivered the north to the Danes. Sources disagree on the immediate cause of Uhtred's murder: the C version of the Chronicle blames it on the advice of Eadric streona (which seems possible, but is a bit suspicious, given the habit of blaming everything on Eadric streona). A later but better-informed northern source says that Uhtred was killed by a man with whom he had a long-standing feud, Thurbrand Hold, and that his death began a series of revenge killings which lasted right into the 1070s. It's sometimes hard to get a clear picture of what was going on in the complex world of Northumbrian politics, but it seems here that Cnut had waded right into the middle of it. In Uhtred's place Cnut appointed (perhaps not straightaway, but certainly by 1017) England's first ever earl, a word which now began to be used in England instead of ealdorman: the Norwegian Eiríkr Hákonarson, one of his most experienced supporters.

Bamburgh from afar

And down in the south, both armies were now converging on London, where by mid-April Æthelred was entering the last days of his life.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

'That we may sing without ending'

Virgin and child (Medieval stained glass, Stowting, Kent)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for medieval carols, which - despite the associations the term may have for many people today - were not confined to the Christmas season. There are carols for all seasons of the year, on subjects sacred and secular, serious and light-hearted, and most things in between. (If you're in the UK you can watch me talking about this subject on the Easter Sunday edition of Songs of Praise, should you wish to...)

There are numerous medieval carols about the Passion of Christ, but not quite so many for the Easter season, for some reason. But here's one carol which seems appropriate for Eastertide. It comes from the collection of carols put together by the Canterbury Franciscan James Ryman in 1492, and it's a macaronic text which takes its Latin lines from the Marian antiphon used in the season of Easter, Regina caeli:

Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia.
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia.
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia.
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia,
For He whom you were merited to bear, alleluia,
Has risen, as he said, alleluia.
Pray for us to God, alleluia.

James Ryman's extensive collection of carols can be read in full online. It contains many carols in praise of the Virgin, and a fair number making use of a 'Regina caeli' refrain - I've posted two examples before here and here. They all cover pretty much the same ground, naturally, but they are variations on a theme - they experiment with different imagery, different ways of integrating Latin and English lines, and so on. Here's a more extensively macaronic example, which is a skillful piece of work. The following carol is not quite so difficult, but I like it for of its clever use of internal rhyme, which nicely echoes the form of the antiphon's rhyming third line (Resurrexit, sicut dixit). The Latin and English play out their own antiphonal structure of verse and response, and they work beautifully together - if you mentally translate the Latin phrases as you read, you'll see that in every verse they fit perfectly with the sense of the English lines, which is not an easy trick to accomplish! It feels like there's something playful about those chiming rhymes, even in a carol which is serious and devotional.

This is in modern spelling for ease for reading, but the Middle English can be found here.

Stella maris, micaris clare:
Regina caeli, laetare.

Behold and see, O lady free,
Quem meruisti portare,
God and man is he, thus believe we,
Regina caeli, laetare.

King Assuere, thy son so dear,
Quem meruisti portare,
In bliss so clear he hath no peer,
Regina caeli, laetare.

Since thy son is the king of bliss,
Quem meruisti portare,
With him and his thou shalt not miss, [shall not fail to be]
Regina caeli, laetare.

That lord so good, with so mild mood, [disposition]
Quem meruisti portare,
Upon the rood shed his heart’s blood,
Regina caeli, laetare.

O lady free, glad mayst thou be,
Quem meruisti portare,
As he told thee, arise did he,
Regina caeli, laetare.

By thy sweet child, so meek and mild,
Quem meruisti portare,
Man, that was wild, is reconciled;
Regina caeli, laetare.

That lord, who wrought all things of nought,
Quem meruisti portare,
Mankind hath bought and to bliss brought;
Regina caeli, laetare.

The heavenly choir that lord so dear,
Quem meruisti portare,
With voices clear laudeth in fere [praises in harmony]
Regina caeli, laetare.

That lord and king to bliss us bring
Quem meruisti portare,
That we may sing without ending:
Regina caeli, laetare.

The reference in the second verse to 'King Assuere' is an allusion to the Biblical story of Esther, who was considered to be a typological figure of Mary as Queen of Heaven - a reminder that Ryman and any reader of his carols could be expected to have a sophisticated understanding of theology and Biblical exegesis.

Ryman's carols don't come with music, sadly, though this one feels more than usually singable. (With voices clear laudeth in fere...) But for some related music, you could do worse than listen to this jolly carol from half a century earlier than Ryman, or Byrd's Regina Caeli, from just over a hundred years later.

Coronation of the Virgin (BL Harley 2838, f. 51v)

Sunday, 3 April 2016

'When I see blossoms spring'

Iffley, Oxford

When Y se blosmes springe,
Ant here foules song,
A suete love-longynge
Myn herte thourhout stong,
Al for a love newe
That is so suete ant trewe,
That gladieth al my song.
Ich wot al myd iwisse
My joie ant eke my blisse
On him is al ylong.

Of Iesu Crist hi synge,
That is so fayr and fre,
Swetest of alle thynge;
His othwe hic oghe wel boe.
Wl fer he me sothte,
Myd hard he me bothte,
Wyth wnde to and three;
Wel sore he was yswnge,
And for me myd spere ystunge,
Ynayled to the tree.

When Y miselve stonde
Ant with myn eyen seo
Thurled fot ant honde
With grete nayles threo,
Blody wes ys heued,
On him nes nout bileved
That wes of peynes freo.
Wel, wel ohte myn herte
For his love to smerte,
Ant sike ant sory beo.

Jesu, milde ant softe,
Yef me streynthe ant myht
Longen sore ant ofte
To lovye the aryht.
Pyne to tholie ant dreye
For the sone, Marye.
Thou art so fre ant bryht,
Mayden ant moder mylde,
For love of thine childe,
Ernde us heven lyht.

Alas, that Y ne con
Turne to him my thoht,
Ant cheosen him to lemmon!
So duere he us hath yboht
With woundes deope ant stronge,
With peynes sore ant longe,
Of love ne conne we noht.
His blod that feol to grounde,
Of hise suete wounde,
Of peyne us hath yboht.

Jesu, milde ant suete,
Y synge the mi song;
Ofte Y the grete
Ant preye the among.
Let me sunnes lete,
Ant in this lyve bete
That Ich have do wrong.
At oure lyves ende,
When whe shule wende,
Jesu, us undefong.

Here's a springtime poem for Eastertide, from the early fourteenth century. It's one of the 'Harley lyrics', from the collection of English, French and Latin poems found in British Library, Harley 2253, where it looks like this:

(The second verse I've included here comes from another version of the poem in British Library, MS Royal 2. F. VIII.)

'When I see blossoms spring', with its speaker pierced to love-longing by blossom and birdsong, begins very like another of the Harley lyrics (several of them, actually):

Bytuene Mersh ant Aueril,
When spray biginneth to springe,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge.
Ich libbe in loue-longinge
For semlokest of alle thynge;
He may me blisse bringe;
Icham in hire baundoun.

(Between March and April, when the blossom begins to spring, the little bird takes its pleasure in singing in its own language. I live in love-longing for the loveliest of all things. She can bring me to bliss; I am in her power.)

But this is a secular love-poem, and the love-longing in this case is for a woman called Alisoun. The first verses of these two poems are almost interchangeable - gender aside - and you can see how smoothly 'When I see blossoms spring' takes the conventions of springtime love-poetry and applies them to Christ. The association between spring and Easter must have made such a device seem quite natural (in every sense), as in the texts I looked at in my last post and many others: of course spring is the season when Easter is celebrated, but spring is a reflection of the meaning of Easter, too. It's not a coincidence! You might like to compare the slightly earlier, but perhaps even more lovely, 'Summer is come and winter gone'.

Here's a modernised version:

When I see blossoms spring,
And hear the birds' song,
A sweet love-longing
Entirely pierces my heart,
All for a love new
That is so sweet and true,
That gladdens all my song:
I know in truth, iwis,
My joy and all my bliss
On him is all ylong. [is all because of him]

Of Jesu Christ I sing,
Who is so fair and free, [noble]
Sweetest of all thing;
His own ought I well to be.
So far for me he sought,
With suffering he me bought,
With wounds two and three;
Well sore he was swung,
And for me with spear was stung,
Nailed to the tree.

When I myself stand
And with my eyes see
Pierced foot and hand
With great nails three;
Bloody was his head,
On him was nothing left
That of pain was free.
Well, well ought my heart
For his love to smart,
And sigh and sorry be.

Jesu, mild and soft, [merciful and gentle]
Give me strength and might
To long sore and oft
To love thee aright.
Pain to suffer and endure
For thy son, Mary,
Thou art so free and bright!
Maid and mother mild
For love of thy child,
Win for us heaven's light.

Alas, that I am not able
To turn to him my thought,
And choose him as my love!
So dear he us hath bought
With wounds deep and strong,
With pains sore and long,
Of love we know nothing at all!
His blood that fell to ground,
From his sweet wound,
From pain us hath bought. [redeemed]

Jesu, mild and sweet,
I sing thee my song;
Often I thee greet
And pray to thee among:
Let me sins forsake,
And in this life amends make
For what I have done wrong.
At our life's end,
When we shall wend,
Jesu, us underfong. [receive]

Blossoming cross (BL Stowe 39, f. 23v)

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

'This doubtful day of feast or fast': Good Friday and the Annunciation

Annunciation and Crucifixion, from BL Add. 18850, f. 204v

This year Good Friday falls on Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation. This is a rare occurrence and a special one, because it means that for once the day falls on its 'true' date: in patristic and medieval tradition, March 25 was considered to be the historical date of the Crucifixion. It happens only a handful of times in a century, and won't occur again until 2157.

These days the church deals with such occasions by transferring the feast of the Annunciation to another day, but traditionally the conjunction of the two dates was considered to be both deliberate and profoundly meaningful. The date of the feast of the Annunciation was chosen to match the supposed historical date of the Crucifixion, as deduced from the Gospels, in order to underline the idea that Christ came into the world on the same day that he left it: his life formed a perfect circle. March 25 was both the first and the last day of his earthly life, the beginning and the completion of his work on earth. The idea goes back at least to the third century, and Augustine explained it in this way:

He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.

This day was not only a conjunction of man-made calendars but also a meeting-place of solar, lunar, and natural cycles: both events were understood to have happened in the spring, when life returns to the earth, and at the vernal equinox, once the days begin to grow longer than the nights and light triumphs over the power of darkness. Here's Bede explaining some of the symbolism of this latter point (from here, p.25):

It is fitting that just as the Sun at that point in time first assumed power over the day, and then the Moon and stars power over the night, so now, to connote the joy of our redemption, day should first equal night in length, and then the full Moon should suffuse [the night] with light. This is for the sake of a certain symbolism, because the created Sun which lights up all the stars signifies the true and eternal light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, while the Moon and stars, which shine, not with their own light (as they say), but with an adventitious light borrowed from the Sun, suggest the body of the Church as a whole, and each individual saint. These, capable of being illumined but not of illuminating, know how to accept the gift of heavenly grace but not how to give it. And in the celebration of the supreme solemnity, it was necessary that Christ precede the Church, which cannot shine save through Him... Observing the Paschal season is not meaningless, for it is fitting that through it the world's salvation both be symbolized and come to pass.
As Bede says at the end here, this dating is symbolic but it is not only a symbol; it reveals the deep relationship between Christ's death and all the created world, including the sun and moon and everything on earth. According to some calculations 25 March was also considered to be the eighth day of the week which saw the creation of the world (for more on that, see this post), as well as the date of certain events from the Old Testament which prefigured Christ's death, including the sacrifice of Isaac and the crossing of the Red Sea. It is the single most significant date in salvation history, and for that reason has also made it into some fictional history too: those of you who are Tolkien fans will know that the final destruction of the Ring takes place on 25 March, to align Tolkien's own eucatastrophe with this most powerful of dates.

Calendar, marking the Annunciation and Crucifixion on 25 March (BL Royal 1 D X, f.10)

But it's the link between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion which has most fascinated theologians and artists over the centuries. Here's one beautiful passage from the Old English Martyrology, in its entry for March 25, explaining what was by the ninth century the common understanding of the date (the text is from this edition, pp.72-7, with my translation):

On ðone fif ond twentegðan dæg þæs monðes com Gabrihel ærest to Sancta Marian mid Godes ærende, ond on ðone dæg Sancta Maria wæs eacen geworden on Nazareth ðære ceastre þurh þæs engles word ond þurh hire earena gehyrnesse, swa þas treowa ðonne hi blostmiað þurh þæs windes blæd.... Ond ða æfter twa ond ðritegum geara ond æfter ðrym monðum wæs Crist ahangen on rode on ðone ylcan dæg. Ond sona swa he on ðære rode wæs, ða gescæfta tacnedon þæt he was soð God. Seo sunne asweartade, ond se dæg wæs on þeostre niht gecierred fram midne dæg oð non.

On the twenty-fifth day of the month Gabriel first came to St Mary with God’s message, and on that day St Mary conceived in the city of Nazareth through the angel’s word and through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind... And then after thirty-two years and three months Christ was crucified on the cross on the same day. And as soon as he was on the cross, creation revealed that he was truly God: the sun grew black, and the day was turned into dark night from midday until the ninth hour.
At the Annunciation Mary becomes like the blossoming trees in spring, and like the tree which became Christ's cross: she bears new life to the world. The parallel reflects the ancient tradition which links Mary with scriptural images of the tree or the vine, frequently used in the liturgy on feasts of the Virgin - this, for instance. She is the root of Jesse from which grows the rod, the virgo who bears the virga. (For a fascinating discussion of this imagery in light of the parallel between Mary and the tree/cross in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, see this book.)

With Mary's Ave to the angel at the Annunciation began the work of redemption completed on Good Friday; her word makes her the inverse of Eva, the means by which Eve’s sin is turned to good. In the Old English Martyrology, the next entry describes how on 26 March Christ descended into hell, to save Adam and Eve and all those who had died before his coming. Eve appeals to him by merit of her kinship with Mary:

Đær hine eac ongeaton Adam ond Eua, þær hi asmorede wæron mid deopum ðeostrum. Đa ða hi gesawon his þæt beorhte leoht æfter þære langan worolde, þær Eua hine halsode for Sancta Marian mægsibbe ðæt he hire miltsade. Heo cwæþ to him: ‘Gemyne, min Drihten, þæt seo wæs ban of minum banum, ond flæsc of minum flæsce. Help min forþon.’ Đa Crist hi butu ðonan alysde ond unrim bliðes folces him beforan onsende, ða he wolde gesigefæsted eft siðian to þæm lichoman.

Adam and Eve saw him there too, where they were stifled in deep darkness. When they saw his bright light, after that long age, Eve implored him there for the sake of her kinship with St Mary to have mercy on her. She said to him: ‘Remember, my Lord, that she was bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. Help me for that reason!’ Then Christ released them both from that place and also sent a countless number of joyful people before them, when, triumphant, he set out to return to his body.

Crucifixion and Annunciation (BL Add. 44949, f. 5)

The traditional pairing of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion means that the two scenes are often depicted together in medieval art, as above in a fourteenth-century manuscript, and in the image at the top of this post. The first example from England is probably the one found on the eighth-century Ruthwell Cross, where a depiction of the Crucifixion was added directly below the Annunciation scene some time after the original design was completed:

Some six hundred years later, artists were still finding new ways to explore this conjunction. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the idea inspired the development of a distinctive and beautiful image found almost uniquely in English medieval art: the lily crucifix. This iconography combines the Annunciation and the Crucifixion by depicting Christ crucified on a lily amid an Annunciation scene. The lily is the symbol of Mary, of course, and is often referenced in depictions of the Annunciation and in poetry about the Virgin; this idea grafts that flower imagery into the tradition which links Mary to the root of Jesse and the tree of the cross. Here's a gorgeous example of a lily crucifix from a Welsh manuscript, the Llanbeblig Hours, made at the end of the fourteenth century:

The Virgin sits under a green canopy, while Gabriel in green and red kneels facing her.

Another slightly later manuscript image can be seen here, but the lily crucifix is found in all kinds of media - there are estimated to be 19 surviving examples in all, ranging from painted screens and stained glass to carvings on stone tombs, misericords and wall-paintings. Here's a painted ceiling from the Lady Chapel of St Helen's Church, Abingdon, with the lily bearing the crucified Christ between Mary and the angel:

The rest of this impressive ceiling, which dates from c.1390, depicts the ancestors of Christ in a form of Jesse Tree. There are more pictures here.

Not far away in Oxford, there's a beautiful stained glass window of a lily crucifix in the church of St Michael at the Northgate:

This too was originally part of an Annunciation scene, though the other panels are now lost.

And here's a wonderful example in alabaster, now in the V and A, where a giant lily-stem carrying Christ soars right up into heaven:

Click to zoom in and study the detail! The top half of the panel is damaged, but clearly showed God the Father holding the crucified Christ, part of a common depiction of the Trinity - compare the image at the top of this post, and there are more examples collected here.

Mary and John at the foot of the cross (BL Sloane 2321, f.111v)

The lily cross flanked by two figures, Mary and the angel, offers a visual parallel to the usual Crucifixion scene, where Christ on the cross is attended by Mary and St John. One of the ways in which medieval Christians were most often encouraged to approach the Passion was by imagining and entering into Mary's emotions, to see Christ, as his mother might, as a vulnerable human child even at the moment of his death as an adult. There are many superb examples of poetic meditations on this subject - here's a particularly moving one, and more can be found here. This four-line poem is one of the best-known:

Nou goth sonne under wod,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

[Now goes the sun under the wood,
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face;
Now goes the sun under the tree,
I grieve, Mary, for thy son and thee.]

Although so short and apparently so simple, this is full of meaningful wordplay: as the sun sets behind the wood, so Christ the Son is shrouded in darkness on the wood of the cross, the tree. Rode can mean both 'face', and rood, of course.

Another good example of a text which approaches the Passion through Mary's motherhood is 'Stond wel, Moder, under rode', with its explicit appeal to a female audience and its poignant comment that by her grief Mary learns to understand 'what pain they have that children bear'. In this poem Mary's situation, though so extraordinary, gives her kinship with all women who have lost children or found in motherhood grief as well as joy. The link between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion brings together in one circle the beginning and the end of Mary's motherhood, its joy and its sorrow, as well as completing the circle of Christ's life on earth.

Crucifixion (BL Harley 2851, f. 31)

However, although the Annunciation and the Crucifixion are so closely linked, they don't often occur on the same day. Good Friday fell on March 25 in 1608, too, when John Donne wrote this poem on the occasion:

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away.
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angel’s Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is, and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man, and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though one blood-drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

A paradoxical conjunction of feast and fast: was there ever a day more suited to metaphysical poetry? Although this wonderful poem is all so characteristically Donne, it explores many of the same parallels as the medieval texts and images we've already seen: the circle, the tree, beginnings and endings, and the two moments in the life of the Virgin, seen at once 'at almost fifty and at scarce fifteen'.

The coincidence of feasts gains rather than loses from being a rare occurrence, as Donne suggests - from falling 'some times and seldom'. It is, he says, an act of wisdom in the church, existing in time, to be moveable, while God is a fixed star, eternally the same. The overlapping cycles of the church's calendar offer many such conjunctions, which change every year as the fixed cycle intersects with the variable one. Although these coincidences often have their origin as much in pragmatic decisions about the calendar as in theology, with the kind of approach Donne exemplifies here they can be read in meaningful and imaginative ways. Through such eyes, a meeting of feasts like this year's is not exactly a coincidence, but perhaps one of those 'occasional mercies' of which Donne writes elsewhere: 'such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies'. They are moments which seem to reveal a purpose behind the randomness of life, to show both natural and man-made events and seasons to be part of an ordered and carefully structured universe. It's the calendrical equivalent of a pun, like the medieval poet's 'sun under wood' or Donne's orbity - a place where meanings meet.

This year's conjunction is a particularly rich example, but all through the year these coincidental graces can be found, as beauty and meaning are produced by the changing juxtaposition of feasts and fasts, the fixed and the moveable seasons. Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, Whitsun - all can at various times coincide with different fixed occasions, different stages in the seasons of spring and summer, and the experience of each can accordingly change from year to year. As the cycles intersect in different ways, familiar texts and images breathe new life into each other, and bring forth new and different fruit (to borrow the Old English Martyrology's metaphor for Mary's conception). In such ways the interlocking wheels of the calendar give cosmic meaning to the cycle of our own days, months, and years.

Crucifixion with living tree, sun and moon (BL Arundel 60, f.12v)

Of course, a fixed date of Easter would do away with all this. As a medievalist, I found the discussion of the question of fixing a date for Easter a few months ago rather depressing. If there were any theological arguments under consideration, no one seemed to think it worthwhile to articulate them publicly; discussion focused mostly on solving the non-existent problem that some people (schools, maybe?) apparently find a movable date for Easter a bit inconvenient. I've never in my life heard anyone complain about being inconvenienced by the date of Easter, so I really struggle to imagine who considers this a pressing issue. And for that, churches would break with nearly two thousand years of tradition, a complex system worked out with great care and thought and invested over centuries with profound meaning. The fixed dates proposed for Easter are in April, so never again would Good Friday fall on the feast of the Annunciation. So much loss for so little gain!

Bede truly would be spinning in his grave. It strikes me (once again) that however much many people today, in their ignorance of all but the broadest stereotypes about the Middle Ages, stigmatise the medieval church as worldly, rigid, and oppressive, it was in some ways immeasurably more humane and creative than its modern successors. It was happy to see human life as fully part of the natural world, shaped by the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons; it was able to articulate a belief that material considerations, convenience, and economic productivity are not the highest goods, and not the only standards by which life should be lived. When confronted by calendar clashes with the potential to be a little awkward or inconvenient, the medieval church could have the imagination not to simply suppress them or tidy them away, but to find meaning in them - meaning which springs from deep knowledge of the images and poetry of scripture, the liturgy, and popular devotion.

So enjoy the coincidence this year, this meeting of dates which has inspired preachers, poets, and artists through many centuries of Christian tradition. Unless you plan to live until 2157, you won't see another in your lifetime - and if the date of Easter is fixed, it will never happen again.