Sunday, 24 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Even Anglo-Saxon England.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dove and the flame

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Blogging, Academia, and Aspiration

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what next?

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Death of St Dunstan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 May 2015

'Nu is þon gelicost'

Christ's Ascension on the Wirksworth Stone

Today is the feast of the Ascension. Last year I posted extracts from an Old English poem, Christ II, which has a take on the Ascension story which is so beautiful and astonishing that I just have to link to it again today; if you haven't read it, do.

These are the closing lines of the poem:

Nu is þon gelicost, swa we on laguflode
ofer cald wæter ceolum liðan
geond sidne sæ, sundhengestum,
flodwudu fergen. Is þæt frecne stream
yða ofermæta þe we her on lacað
geond þas wacan woruld, windge holmas
ofer deop gelad. Wæs se drohtað strong
ærþon we to londe geliden hæfdon
ofer hreone hrycg. þa us help bicwom,
þæt us to hælo hyþe gelædde,
godes gæstsunu, ond us giefe sealde
þæt we oncnawan magun ofer ceoles bord
hwær we sælan sceolon sundhengestas,
ealde yðmearas, ancrum fæste.
Utan us to þære hyðe hyht staþelian,
ða us gerymde rodera waldend,
halge on heahþu, þa he heofonum astag.

Now it is very much like this: as if we were sailing
in ships across cold water, over the sea-waves,
beyond the wide ocean in water-steeds
traversing the floods. The waters are perilous,
the waves immeasurable, amid which we journey here
through this frail world, the stormy oceans,
across the paths of the deep. Dangerous was that life
before we came to land
across the rough waves. Help came to us
that we might be led to a haven of healing,
God's Spirit-Son, and gave us grace
that we might find, by the ship's side,
where we could moor our water-steeds,
our ancient wave-horses securely anchored.
Let us fasten our hope on that haven
which the Ruler of the skies opened for us,
holy in the heights, when he ascended into heaven.

I don't exactly know why I find these lines so moving, except that I do feel lost amid perilous seas at the moment, struggling alone and nearly overwhelmed by yða ofermæta. Everything is difficult, everything is lonely; I fail no matter how hard I try, and every stupid mistake leaves a scar. Hence probably the attraction of the hælo hyþe, 'haven of healing' - a phrase which has a very Tolkienish sound, like the Grey Havens, where the weary and the wounded find rest. Last year, translating this poem for the first time taught me the Old English word hyht, 'hope, joyous expectation' (earlier in the poem the Ascension is called Christ's hyhtplega, 'play of hope, action which brings joy', a word which fascinates me partly because I don't really understand it). Hope and joy and havens of healing all feel very far from me at the moment; and there's something mesmerising about this promise of rest, of a secure anchorage, even as it seems impossible.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

'Summer, sun-brightest': An Anglo-Saxon Summer

An Anglo-Saxon calendar for May, marking the beginning of summer on May 9 
(11th century, BL Cotton Tiberius B V, f. 5)

Good news: according to some medieval systems of reckoning, such as that followed by Bede in his De Temporum Ratione, 9 May is officially the first day of summer. In this system of calculation summer lasts for ninety days, and its mid-point (its high point, you might say) falls around the summer solstice on June 21/22. Over the course of the past year I've written posts at the beginning of autumn on 7 August, winter on 7 November, and spring on 7 February, exploring how those seasons are described in some Anglo-Saxon poems. So here's the summer edition to complete the set.

First, the coming of summer as extolled in the Old English Menologium, ll.75-95 (I posted part of this last year alongside some later medieval descriptions of May):

Swylce in burh raþe
embe siex niht þæs, smicere on gearwum,
wudum and wyrtum cymeð wlitig scriðan
þrymilce on tun, þearfe bringeð
Maius micle geond menigeo gehwær.
Swa þi ylcan dæge æþele geferan,
Philippus and Iacob, feorh agefan,
modige magoþegnas for meotudes lufan.
And þæs embe twa niht þætte tæhte god
Elenan eadigre æþelust beama,
on þam þrowode þeoden engla
for manna lufan, meotud on galgan
be fæder leafe. Swylce ymb fyrst wucan
butan anre niht þætte yldum bringð
sigelbeorhte dagas sumor to tune,
wearme gewyderu. Þænne wangas hraðe
blostmum blowað, swylce blis astihð
geond middangeard manigra hada
cwicera cynna, cyninge lof secgað
mænifealdlice, mærne bremað,
ælmihtigne.

Six nights after this in the city
comes sweeping swiftly, gloriously adorned
with woods and plants, radiant þrymilce
into the towns; mighty May brings
blessings everywhere among the multitudes.
On the same day those noble companions,
Philip and James, brave thegns,
gave their lives for love of the Lord,
And two nights afterwards God showed
blessed Helena the noblest of trees,
on which the Lord of the angels suffered
for love of mankind, the Ruler on the gallows
by his Father's will. So around the first week,
less one night, sun-bright days
bring to men summer to town,
with warm weather. Then the meadows
quickly bloom with blossom, and joy mounts up
throughout the earth among many kinds
of living creatures, who in manifold ways
speak the praise of the King, extol the glory
of the Almighty.

þrymilce is the Old English name for May, which is explained by Bede as referring to the fact that 'in that month the cattle were milked three times a day; such was at one time the fertility of Britain, or of Germania, from where the nation of the English came to Britain.' This abundance is perhaps why we are told here that May brings þearfe, which I translated as 'blessings' but which more strictly means something like 'goods', things which are needful. It brings abundance in everything and especially in wudum and wyrtum, 'woods and plants', with the fullness of summer growth. Falling between May 1st and the coming of summer on the 9th are two feasts, of Philip and James and of the Finding of the Holy Cross on May 3 - and amidst these blossoming woods, it seems natural for the cross to be described as æþelust beama, 'noblest of trees'.

Six days later, summer with its 'sun-bright days' (sigelbeorhte dagas) brings warmth, blossom and birdsong, and so joy mounts up (astihð) everywhere, like the rising sun. Later in the poem, the summer solstice at midsummer is described in similar language:

... on þam gim astihð
on heofenas up hyhst on geare,
tungla torhtust, and of tille agrynt,
to sete sigeð. Wyle syððan leng
grund behealdan and gangan lator
ofer foldan wang fægerust leohta,
woruldgesceafta.


[June], in which the jewel climbs up
into the heavens highest in the year,
brightest of stars, and descends from its place,
sinks to its setting. It likes then to gaze longer
upon the earth, the fairest of lights
to move more slowly across the fields of the world,
the created globe.

This talk of the sun rising up through the heavens might perhaps recall a feast which often falls in May - the Ascension, of which it would also be possible to say on þam gim astihð on heofenas up. (Especially since, as we saw in December, Christ is the Arkenstone - a name for Christ which seems more natural when you remember how frequently in Old English poetry the sun is called a gem.) The Old English poem Christ II offers a wonderful take on the Ascension, but I won't attempt to summarise it here because it's too complex and just too glorious to paraphrase; instead I'll refer you to this post.

Wæs se siexta hlyp,
haliges hyhtplega, þa he to heofonum astag
on his ealdcyððe. þa wæs engla þreat
on þa halgan tid hleahtre bliþe
wynnum geworden. Gesawan wuldres þrym,
æþelinga ord, eðles neosan,
beorhtra bolda. þa wearð burgwarum
eadgum ece gefea æþelinges plega.

The sixth leap,
the Holy One's hope-play, was when he ascended to heaven
into his former home. Then the throng of angels
in that holy tide was made merry with laughter,
rapt with joy. They saw the glory of majesty,
first of princes, seek out his homeland,
the bright mansions. After that the blessed city-dwellers
endlessly delighted in the Prince's play. 

11th-century calendar, marking the beginning of summer on 9 May (BL Arundel 60, f. 4)

Thinking about summer and the climbing sun/Son reminds me too of Ælfric's homily for Rogationtide (the season of three days before the Ascension - this year it begins on Monday). Here he explores parallels between the sun and the Trinity:

Seo sunne ðe ofer us scinð is lichamlic gesceaft, and hæfð swaðeah ðreo agennyssa on hire: an is seo lichamlice edwist, þæt is ðære sunnan trendel; oðer is se leoma oððe beorhtnys æfre of ðære sunnan, seo ðe onliht ealne middangeard; þridde is seo hætu, þe mid þam leoman cymð to us. Se leoma is æfre of ðære sunnan, and æfre mid hire; and ðæs Ælmihtigan Godes Sunu is æfre of ðam Fæder acenned, and æfre mid him wunigende; be ðam cwæð se apostol, þæt he wære his Fæder wuldres beorhtnys. Ðære sunnan hætu gæð of hire and of hire leoman; and se Halga Gast gæð æfre of ðam Fæder and of þam Suna gelice; be ðam is þus awriten, "Nis nan þe hine behydan mæge fram his hætan"...

We sprecað ymbe God, deaðlice be Undeaðlicum, tyddre be Ælmihtigum, earmingas be Mildheortum; ac hwa mæg weorðfullice sprecan be ðam ðe is unasecgendlic? He is butan gemete, forðy ðe he is æghwær. He is butan getele, forðon ðe he is æfre. He is butan hefe, forðon þe he hylt ealle gesceafta butan geswince; and he hi ealle gelogode on þam ðrim ðingum, þæt is on gemete, and on getele, and on hefe. Ac wite ge þæt nan man ne mæg fullice embe God sprecan, þonne we furðon þa gesceafta þe he gesceop ne magon asmeagan, ne areccan. Hwa mæg mid wordum ðære heofenan freatewunge asecgan? Oððe hwa ðære eorðan wæstmbærnysse? Oððe hwa herað genihtsumlice ealra tida ymbhwyrft? Oððe hwa ealle oðre ðing, þonne we furðon þa lichomlican ðing, þe we onlociað, ne magon fullice befon mid ure gesihðe?

'The sun which shines above us is a physical creation, but nevertheless has three properties: one is its physical substance, that is the orb of the sun; the second is the light or brightness which is always shining from it, which enlightens the whole world; the third is the heat, which comes to us with its beams. The light is always coming from the sun, and is always with it; and the Son of Almighty God is always begotten of the Father, and always dwelling with him. The apostle said of him that he was the brightness of his Father's glory. The sun's heat proceeds from it and from its beams, and the Holy Ghost is always proceeding from the Father and the Son equally. About this it is written, 'There is nothing which can be hidden from its heat'...

We speak about God - the mortal about the immortal, the weak about the almighty, wretches about the merciful. But who may worthily speak about that which is beyond speech? He is without measure, because he is everywhere. He is without number, because he is eternal. He is without weight, because he upholds all creation without labour; and he ordained it all with three things, that is, measure, number and weight. But know that no man can speak fully about God, since we cannot even search out or reckon up the creation which he made. Who may speak in words of the ornaments of the heavens, or the fruitfulness of the earth? or who may sufficiently praise the course of all the seasons, or all other things, when we cannot even fully comprehend with our sight the physical things which we can see?'

Again we hear how the sun astihð into the heavens, but this time it's to make a larger point:

Beheald þas sunnan, hu heage heo astihð, and hu heo asent hyre leoman geond ealne middangeard, and hu heo onliht ealle ðas eorðan þe mancynn oneardað... Hwæt wenst ðu hu miccle swiðor is Godes andweardnys, and his miht, and his neosung æghwær. Him ne wiðstent nan ðing, naðer ne stænen weall ne bryden wah, swa swa hi wiðstandað þære sunnan.

'Consider the sun, how high it climbs, and how it sends its light throughout the whole earth, and how it enlightens all the earth which is inhabited by mankind... Now, think how much greater is God's presence, and his power, and his visitation everywhere. Nothing withstands him, neither stone walls nor broad barriers, even though they withstand the sun.'

The opening of the entries for May in a Martyrology from St Augustine's, Canterbury 
(c.1100; BL Cotton Vitellius C XII, f. 127)

And that, I think, concludes this series on the cycle of the year in Anglo-Saxon texts. These posts have been much more popular than I would have expected, considering how obscure the poems in question are (especially the Menologium!). I like to think it has something to do with the pleasingly ordered system of calculation which allots equal, well-reasoned tallies of days to each season. It's not a system I'd given much thought to before this time last year, but it does make an intriguing way to think about and mark the passage of time, distinct from any system we use today and yet instantly recognisable if you pay attention as the seasons change. Ælfric asks, Hwa herað genihtsumlice ealra tida ymbhwyrft? 'Who may sufficiently praise the course of all seasons?' Maybe no one can - but it's fun to watch poets try. In the poem Maxims II, all four seasons are pithily characterised with one superlative each:

Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost - he byð lengest ceald -
sumor sunwlitegost, swegel byð hatost,
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð. 

Winter is coldest,
spring frostiest - it is the longest cold -
summer sun-brightest, the sun is hottest,
harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men
the year's fruits, which God sends them.

These might sound like obvious statements, but they're not quite as straightforward as they seem. It's true to say that 'winter is coldest', but do we say that because winter is the coldest season, or because we call the coldest season 'winter'? There may be years when spring is colder than winter - does that change the truth of the statement? What is the essential quality of the season; what makes it what it is? When I last posted this extract back in the spring, it received a number of comments about how spring couldn't begin in February, because it was still snowing in some places - a joke which reveals a less ordered way of thinking about the seasons, an unexamined assumption, perhaps, that they change from year to year depending on what the weather happens to be like. But this poem leaves nothing unexamined. Like the Menologium, it suggests to us that whatever our experience of a season may be in any particular year, it doesn't change what it actually is. And the lines which follow hint at the benefits this kind of mindful observation can bring:

Soð bið switolost, sinc byð deorost,
gold gumena gehwam, and gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Wea bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.

Truth is most treacherous, treasure is dearest,
gold to every man, and an old man is most wise,
made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.
Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide.

Truth is certainly treacherous in this poem - tricksy, at least, apparently simple but actually difficult to pin down. The statement about treasure and gold could be taken literally ('treasure is the most precious thing') but is perhaps better understood metaphorically, considering that the next statement is about wisdom and wisdom is often compared to treasure. 'An old man is most wise, made wise with years gone by'. Years pass, like clouds across the sky; what does their revolving course leave with the human observer? Sorrow, perhaps, but wisdom too. And wisdom can make your mind bright as the summer sun, as this passage from the Alfredian Metres of Boethius promises:

Se þe æfter rihte mid gerece wille
inweardlice æfter spyrian
swa deoplice, þæt hit todrifan ne mæg
monna ænig, ne amerran huru
ænig eorðlic ðincg, he ærest sceal
secan on him selfum þæt he sume hwile
ymbutan hine æror sohte...
He ongit siððan
yfel and unnet eal þæt he hæfde
on his incofan æror lange
efne swa sweotole swa he on þa sunnan mæg
eagum andweardum on locian,
and he eac ongit his ingeþonc
leohtre and berhtre þonne se leoma sie
sunnan on sumera, þonne swegles gim,
hador heofontungol, hlutrost scineð.


He who wishes to search in an ordered way
for the right, inwardly,
so deeply that no man may drive it out,
nor any earthly thing at all
corrupt it, he shall first
seek within himself that which for a time
he had once sought outside himself...
He will then perceive
all the harmful and useless things which he had long kept
within his inner chamber,
just as clearly as he may look upon the sun
with his present eyes;
and he will also perceive his inner thought,
lighter and brighter than the radiance
of the sun in summer, when the jewel of the sky,
serene star of the heavens, shines most brightly.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

'Ac ich alle blisse mid me bringe'


When the nyhtegale singes,
The wodes waxen grene,
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes
In Averyl, Y wene...

So says a famous Middle English love poem, telling us that April and nightingales, spring and love have long been almost synonymous with each other. In the following extract from the thirteenth-century debate poem The Owl and the Nightingale, the nightingale prides herself on bringing bliss with the coming of the spring - apt reading for the last days of April.

"Al so þu dost on þire side:
vor wanne snov liþ þicke & wide,
an alle wiȝtes habbeþ sorȝe,
þu singest from eue fort a-morȝe.
Ac ich alle blisse mid me bringe:
ech wiȝt is glad for mine þinge,
& blisseþ hit wanne ich cume,
& hiȝteþ aȝen mine kume.
Þe blostme ginneþ springe & sprede,
boþe ine tro & ek on mede.
Þe lilie mid hire faire wlite
wolcumeþ me, þat þu hit wite,
bit me mid hire faire blo
þat ich shulle to hire flo.
Þe rose also mid hire rude,
þat cumeþ ut of þe þorne wode,
bit me þat ich shulle singe
vor hire luue one skentinge:
& ich so do þurȝ niȝt & dai,
þe more ich singe þe more I mai,
an skente hi mid mine songe,
ac noþeles noȝt ouerlonge;
wane ich iso þat men boþ glade,
ich nelle þat hi bon to sade:
þan is ido vor wan ich com,
ich fare aȝen & do wisdom.
Wane mon hoȝeþ of his sheue,
an falew icumeþ on grene leue,
ich fare hom & nime leue:
ne recche ich noȝt of winteres reue.
Wan ich iso þat cumeþ þat harde,
ich fare hom to min erde,
an habbe boþe luue & þonc
þat ich her com & hider swonk.


This is such pacy and lively dialogue that it seems a shame to render it in prose, so here's a fairly free rhyming translation - a more literal one can be found here (ll. 429-462). The nightingale begins by insulting the owl for singing in the winter, when life is hard and people are melancholy:

"That's what you do on your side:
For when the snow lies thick and wide,
And every creature feels sorrow,
Then you sing from eve til morrow.
But I all brightness with me bring:
Each creature's glad at my coming!
They all rejoice when I arrive,
And at my coming all are blithe.
The blossom starts to spring and spread,
Both in the tree and on the mead.
The lily, white and fair as snow,
Welcomes me, as you well know;
And beckons with her pretty eye,
To say that I must to her fly;
The rose, with her complexion red,
Growing from the thorny hedge,
Bids me that I must sing,
For her love, one little thing;
And so I do, by night and day,
The more I sing, the more I may.
I give them pleasure by my song,
Yet, nonetheless, not for too long -
Though I like to see them glad,
Too much pleasure makes men sad.
When all is done for which I came
Away I fare - and wise I am!
When men's minds turn towards their sheaves
And yellow comes to the green leaves,
Then I go home, and take my leave;
I don't care a bit for winter's grief!
When I see the hard times come,
I travel back to my own home,
And thanks and love I with me take,
Because I worked here for their sake."

This poem is a debate, so of course the owl has a riposte: winter's the time when people need music the most, she says, and so she sings carols to cheer and comfort them. And she takes the war into the enemy's camp by accusing the nightingale of going around kindling shameful thoughts of love and lust in the spring. But on an April day, our sympathies are probably with the nightingale.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Reburying Anglo-Saxon Kings

I've just written another blog post for the BBC History website, History Extra, about the various fates which befell the bodies of Anglo-Saxon kings after death - you can read it here. This was inspired, of course, by the recent reburial of Richard III (well, by that and slogging through William of Malmesbury's De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae, from which the first story comes). If you're interested in that particular subject, I wrote about the similarities between Richard's reburial and medieval translation narratives here.

Numerous aspects of this topic interest me, beyond the rather gruesome facts of the burials themselves. The details can be illuminating: William of Malmesbury's story probably suggests an incipient cult, never brought to fruition, of King Edgar at Glastonbury, while the treatment of Svein and Æthelred's bodies amid the exigencies of wartime is a reminder of just how dangerous England was in 1014-16. Going further back, I find it fascinating - living now in an age when London dominates all - to think about the decentralised world of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the days when Bedford or Malmesbury or little Repton could be places of royal significance. Winchester was a royal capital long before Westminster had an abbey, much less a parliament - when it was just a thorn-covered island in the Thames. St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury was once a royal mausoleum, where for nearly a millennium the first English Christian king lay in an honoured tomb; the abbey is now in ruins, the tomb vanished. And this is only Anglo-Saxon England, well-documented and relatively modern history, which feels like yesterday compared to landscapes like Stonehenge or Wayland's Smithy, the eald enta geweorc which were ancient to the Saxons themselves. It's a tantalising glimpse at a lost, enchanted landscape, a reminder that however inevitable and natural the current state of things might seem to us, the geography of power changes - and will change again, some day.

This is a romantic way of thinking about history but it can be a salutary one, a poetic strain more starkly challenging than the most sober facts. What really interests me about the varying fates of kings' bodies is the philosophical lesson which any medieval historian would have been ready to draw from such stories: earthly power is fleeting. (Henry of Huntingdon is particularly good on this subject.) This is, in one way, too obvious to be worth saying, but at the same time - especially since we in the UK are in the middle of an election campaign - it can't be said often enough. Medieval literature has many profound things to say about power and its limitations, which speak to a world in which we are not good at conceptualising the parameters of our own importance. Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?, the question asked by so many medieval poems, is a cliche only because it is so important and so self-evidently true.

Telle me where is Salamon, sumtime a kinge riche?
Or Sampson in his strenkethe, to whom was no man liche?

Or the fair man, Absolon, merveilous in chere?
Or the duke, Jonatas, a well-beloved fere?

Where is become Cesar, that lord was of al?
Or the riche man cloithd in purpur and in pal?

Telle me where is Tullius, in eloquence so swete?
Or Aristotle the philisophre with his wit so grete?

Where ben these worithy that weren here toforen?
Boithe kinges and bishopes her power is all loren.

All these grete princes with her power so hiye
Ben vanished away in twinkeling of an iye.

The English translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy written by (or for) Alfred the Great famously asks, replacing Boethius' Fabricius with a native hero: 'Where now are the bones of Wayland, and who knows where they now may be?' We can ask the same question about the bones of Alfred, as Alfred himself might have expected us to do; but it's a philosophical, not an archaeological, question - an invitation to meditate, not to dig up Hyde Abbey.

It's not hard to imagine modern equivalents for those medieval Doomsday scenes where the naked dead, facing judgement, bear some token of their power in life - like the above from Wenhaston. Replace those little hats with whatever signs would be most appropriate for modern power: Prime Ministers, bankers, advertisers, celebrities, whatever you like - it all comes to the same thing in the end. This medieval focus on death and mortality, which to a modern audience may seem morbid, can in fact be radically liberating. It's both humbling and empowering: your own actions may be nothing, your age a blink of an eye, in the incomprehensibly long history of the world, but freedom from the constraints of your own time liberates you to ask big questions, to act in whatever way you think will do most good in the little space allotted to you. It's those who have contempt for the world (in the old sense of contemptus mundi) who are most free to improve it, being least in thrall to its chains of success, wealth and power.

For thou woost not today that thou shalt live tomorewe,
Therfore do thou evere weel, and thanne shalt thou not sorewe.

A memento mori is not morbid if it encourages you to value what is lasting over what does not endure.

This lesson is especially poignant when knowledge of it is attributed to kings themselves, and I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the best-known stories about Anglo-Saxon kings relate to this very moral: King Alfred, the thoughtful reader of Boethius, being reminded at his lowest ebb that to a woman baking cakes a king is no better than any other man; and Cnut, the great Viking who could rule the seas but could not control the tide. The idea is perhaps most powerfully expressed in the completely unhistorical but nonetheless haunting legends surrounding the idea that Harold Godwineson might have survived the Battle of Hastings, about which I wrote here. Those stories, inspired by a terrible injustice, are wish-fulfillment fantasies about how things could or should have been, a lament for a lost king and a lost country. But they don't describe Harold returning in battle to reclaim his conquered kingdom; the wish being explored is not violent or vengeful. Harold becomes a hermit, and his loss of earthly power gives him unique spiritual insight - a humiliation better than any glory and a wisdom greater than any crown.