Saturday, 26 October 2013

Alfred the Truly Great

Alfred at Wantage, his birthplace

Today is the anniversary of the death in 899 of Alfred the Great, one of the most attractive figures of Anglo-Saxon history. There are all sorts of reasons to love Alfred, 'England's darling' (as he is called in some twelfth-century sources): defender of his kingdom against the Vikings, maker of laws, patron of the church - all that good stuff. Of course it's possible to overdo the Alfred-worship; it's unfortunate that people sometimes have the impression that he was the only good king in Anglo-Saxon history, just because he's the most famous one (my particular bugbear is people saying he's 'the only king in English history to be called 'the Great''; Cnut might have something to say about that!). But it's impossible not be impressed by Alfred's educational and literary interests, and fans of Anglo-Saxon literature have much to thank Alfred for. Any competent king might win battles and make good laws - but how many rulers devote themselves, in the middle of wartime, to the education of their people, and the translation of literary texts?

Alfred believed that learning in England was in a poor state after the depredations of Viking attacks, and there were too few educated people to hold up literacy in the church and society at large. He approached this problem by inviting foreign scholars to come and help him revive learning in England, and he arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English: Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the first fifty Psalms, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. He also probably encouraged the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He believed these were the books 'most necessary for all men to know', and he wanted people to be able to read them in their own language. Let's hear from Alfred in his own words (from his famous Preface to his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care):

[M]e com swiðe oft on gemynd, hwelce wiotan iu wæron giond Angelcynn, ægðer ge godcundra hada ge woruldcundra; ond hu gesæliglica tida ða wæron giond Angelcynn; ond hu ða kyningas ðe ðone onwald hæfdon ðæs folces Gode ond his ærendwrecum hiersumedon; ond hie ægðer ge hiora sibbe ge hiora siodu ge hiora onweald innanbordes gehioldon, ond eac ut hiora eðel rymdon; ond hu him ða speow ægðer ge mid wige ge mid wisdome; ond eac ða godcundan hadas, hu giorne hie wæron ægðer ge ymb lare ge ymb liornunga, ge ymb ealle ða ðiowotdomas ðe hie Gode don scoldon; ond hu man utanbordes wisdom ond lare hieder on lond sohte; ond hu we hie nu sceoldon ute begietan, gif we hie habban sceoldon. Swæ clæne heo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron behionan Humbre ðe hiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; ond ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren. Swæ feawa hiora wæron ðæt ic furðum anne anlepne ne mæg geðencean be suðan Temese ða ða ic to rice feng. Gode ælmihtegum sie ðonc ðætte we nu ænigne onstal habbað lareowa! Ond for ðon ic ðe bebiode ðæt ðu do swæ ic geliefe ðæt ðu wille, ðæt ðu ðe ðissa woruldðinga to ðæm geæmetige swæ ðu oftost mæge, ðæt ðu ðone wisdom ðe ðe God sealde ðær ðær ðu hiene befæstan mæge, befæste. Geðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon. Ðone naman ænne we lufodon ðætte we Cristne wæren, ond swiðe feawa ða ðeawas.

Ða ic ða ðis eall gemunde, ða gemunde ic eac hu ic geseah, ær ðæm ðe hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned, hu ða ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefylda, ond eac micel mengeo Godes ðiowa; ond ða swiðe lytle fiorme ðara boca wiston, for ðæm ðe hie hiora nanwuht ongietan ne meahton, for ðæm ðe hie næron on hiora agen geðiode awritene. Swelce hie cwæden: "Ure ieldran, ða ðe ðas stowa ær hioldon, hie lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan ond us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfter spyrigean. Ond for ðæm we habbað nu ægðer forlæten ge ðone welan ge ðone wisdom, for ðæm ðe we noldon to ðæm spore mid ure mode onlutan."

Ða ic ða ðis eall gemunde, ða wundrade ic swiðe swiðe ðara godena wiotena ðe giu wæron giond Angelcynn, ond ða bec ealla be fullan geliornod hæfdon, ðæt hie hiora ða nænne dæl noldon on hiora agen geðiode wendan. Ac ic ða sona eft me selfum andwyrde ond cwæð: "Hie ne wendon ðætte æfre menn sceolden swæ reccelease weorðan ond sio lar swæ oðfeallan; for ðære wilnunga hie hit forleton, ond woldon ðæt her ðy mara wisdom on londe wære ðy we ma geðeoda cuðon."

Ða gemunde ic hu sio æ wæs ærest on Ebriscgeðiode funden, ond eft, ða hie Creacas geliornodon, ða wendon hie hie on hiora agen geðiode ealle, ond eac ealle oðre bec. Ond eft Lædenware swæ same, siððan hie hie geliornodon, hie hie wendon ealla ðurh wise wealhstodas on hiora agen geðiode. Ond eac eall oðra Cristna ðioda sumne dæl hiora on hiora agen geðiode wendon. Forðy me ðyncð betre, gif iow swæ ðyncð, ðæt we eac sume bec, ða ðe niedbeðearfosta sien eallum monnum to wiotonne, ðæt we ða on ðæt geðiode wenden ðe we ealle gecnawan mægen... Ða ic ða gemunde hu sio lar Lædengeðiodes ær ðissum afeallen wæs giond Angelcynn, ond ðeah monige cuðon Englisc gewrit arædan, ða ongan ic ongemang oðrum mislicum ond manigfealdum bisgum ðisses kynerices ða boc wendan on Englisc ðe is genemned on Læden Pastoralis, ond on Englisc Hierdeboc, hwilum word be worde, hwilum andgit of andgiete.

You can see a manuscript of this text here. To translate it 'into the language we can all understand':
It has very often come into my mind what wise people there once were among the English, both in sacred and secular states of life, and what a blessed time that was then among the English; how the kings who held power over the people in those days obeyed God and his ministers, and how they maintained their peace, their morality and their power within their borders, and also extended their kingdom beyond them, and how they prospered both by war and by wisdom; and also of those in holy orders, how enthusiastic they were about both teaching and learning, and about all the acts of service that they ought to do for God; and how men from abroad sought wisdom and instruction here in this land, and how we now have to get them from abroad if we want to have them. Learning had so completely declined among the English that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their services in English, or could translate a letter from Latin into English; and I think there were not many beyond the Humber, either. There were so few of them that I cannot even think of a single one south of the Thames, at the time when I became king. Thanks be to Almighty God that we now have any supply of teachers at all! And so I ask you to do what I believe you wish to do: that you disengage yourself from worldly matters as often as you can, so that wherever you can make use of that wisdom which God gave you, use it. Consider what punishments came upon us in this world when we neither loved wisdom in any way ourselves, nor passed it on to others. Then we loved only the name of being Christians, and very few loved the practices.

When I remembered all this, then I also remembered how I had seen, before it was all ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books, and there were also a great many of God's servants; they got very little benefit from those books, for they did not understand anything in them, and could not, because they were not written in their own language. It was as if they said: 'Our elders, who once held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us. Here one may still see their footprints, but we cannot follow after them; and so we have now lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not bend down our minds to study their tracks.'

When I remembered all this, then I wondered very much that the good and wise people who there formerly were among the English, who had learned all those books to the full, did not translate any of them into their own language. But I answered myself at once, and said: 'They did not think that people would ever become so careless, or that learning would decay so much; they chose not to do it, thinking that there would be more wisdom in the country, the more languages we knew.'

Then I remembered how the Law was first established in the Hebrew language, and afterwards, when the Greeks learned it, they translated it all into their own language, and also all the other books [of the Bible].  And later in the same way the Romans, when they had learned them, translated them all through wise interpreters into their own language; and all other Christian peoples have also translated some part of them into their own language.  Therefore it seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we too translate certain books - those which are most necessary for all men to know - into the language we can all understand... When I remembered how knowledge of Latin had formerly decayed throughout England, and yet many knew how to read written English, then I began among the other sundry and manifold cares of this kingdom to translate into English the book that is called in Latin 'Pastoralis', and in English "Shepherd-book," sometimes word for word, and sometimes sense for sense...

This is wonderful: an explanation of the advantages of translation, an assertion of the value of wisdom and learning, and a programme for the production of vernacular literature. It's fitting that this is one of the pieces of prose often set as translation practice for people learning Old English, and it has something to say not only to translators and teachers of language (Old English or otherwise) but to teachers and learners of all kinds. In another of his prefaces Alfred says that one of the challenges of translation is that you can't convey everything of the original text - he compares it to going out gathering wood in a forest, and only being able to bring back as much as you can carry, even if you can see many things it would be useful to have with you at home. One of the things I would have liked to 'carry home' in translating the above Preface is the similarity between the two verbs in the phrase we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon, 'we neither loved [wisdom] in any way ourselves, nor passed it on to others'. And again: Ure ieldran, ða ðe ðas stowa ær hioldon, hie lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan ond us læfdon, 'Our elders, who once held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us'. The likeness between those verbs lufodon and lefdon implies that there is an intimate connection between loving knowledge and leaving it to someone else ('leave' in the sense of 'pass on, bequeath'), and we have a duty to do both. Which is why Alfred translated St Gregory in the ninth century, and why we translate Alfred today.

Alfred (Wells Cathedral)

Friday, 25 October 2013

Just a Picture


I have a large number of half-written posts sitting in my drafts folder at the moment, mostly consisting of photographs for which I can't yet find the right words.  The fate of good intentions!  Not even half written is an intended post on the church of Bishopsbourne in Kent, which has extensive medieval wall-paintings and some bits of fourteenth-century glass, including this angel.  There are four like him, with different coloured wings (and all with the same well-defined toes).  But he will have to stand in for all of them, and for much more, until I can find the energy to go in search of the right words.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Battle of Assandun: Three Sources


Today is the anniversary of an eleventh-century battle in which the English were routed by an invading army, the flower of the English nobility were slain, and the country was conquered by a foreign power which displaced the native royal dynasty. No, it's not the Battle of Hastings - it's the other one.

The Battle of Assandun, fought in Essex on 18 October 1016, marked the final decisive stage of the Danish Conquest of England, the end of a long series of battles fought between the Danes led by Cnut and the English army led by Edmund Ironside, son of Æthelred the Unready. I've been writing a series of posts (all collected here) to mark the 1000th anniversary of the events of 1013-16, beginning when Cnut's father Svein Forkbeard first conquered England by driving King Æthelred into exile. In the first post in the series I ventured some preliminary thoughts on why we don't remember or commemorate the Danish Conquest as extensively as the Norman Conquest. My first suggestion was the complexity of the primary sources, and so I thought for the anniversary of Assandun I would post three extracts from those sources here, with the aim of showing that although the sources are complex, that's part of what makes them so fascinating. I've chosen three, in English, Latin and Old Norse: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (written in the early 1040s for Cnut's wife Emma) and a poem composed in honour of Cnut during his reign.

But first, the background in four sentences: Svein died in February 1014, as king of England, and the leading counsellors agreed to invite Æthelred back as king (if he promised to do a better job than previously), so Cnut returned to Denmark, not in a position to fight for the kingdom. But Æthelred did not do a better job; he viciously punished two prominent noblemen who had made an alliance with Svein, and as a result his son Edmund Ironside rebelled against him. By the time Cnut came back to England in the summer of 1015 with a huge fleet, the country was divided against itself: large parts of Wessex and Mercia submitted to him, while Edmund struggled to put an army together. Only when Æthelred died in April 1016 did southern England finally unite behind Edmund, and there was a series of battles over the course of the summer all over the south, both armies chasing each other through England.

(Was that four sentences? I think it was.)

And this brings us to October 1016. At this point we can turn to our first source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS. D):

Se here gewende eft up on Eastseaxan, 7 ferde into Myrcan, 7 fordyde eall þæt he oferferde. Ða se cyning geahsade þæt se here upp wæs, þa gesamnade he fiftan siðe ealle Engla þeode 7 ferde him æthindan, 7 offerde hi innon Eastseaxan æt þære dune þe man hæt Assandun, 7 þær togædere heardlice fengon. Þa dyde Eadric ealdorman swa swa he ær ofter dyde, astealde þæne fleam ærast mid Magesætan, 7 swa aswac his kynehlaforde 7 ealle þeodæ Angelcynnes. Ðær ahte Cnut sige, 7 gefeaht him wið ealle Engla þeode. Þa wearð þær ofslægen Eadnoð biscop, 7 Wulfsie abbod, 7 ælfric ealdorman, 7 Godwine ealdorman, 7 Ulfkytel of Eastenglan, 7 æþelward ælfwines sunu ealdormannes, 7 eall seo duguð of Angelcynnes þeode.

[The [Danish] raiding-army turned back up into Essex, and went towards Mercia, and destroyed all that they overtook. Then when the king [Edmund] heard that the army was inland, he gathered all the English nation for the fifth time and travelled behind them, and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Assandun, and there they fought a hard battle together. Then Eadric the ealdorman did as he had so often done before, and first began the flight with the Magonsæte, and so betrayed his king and lord and all the English nation. There Cnut had the victory, and won for himself the whole nation of the English. There Bishop Eadnoth was killed, and Abbot Wulfsige, and Ealdorman Ælfric, and Ealdorman Godwine, and Ulfkytel of East Anglia, and Æthelweard, the son of Ealdorman Ælfwine, and all the best of the English nation.]

As you can tell from the chronicler's repeated use of 'all the English nation' (ealle Engla þeode), this is the pro-Edmund point of view. When he uses this phrase it doesn't actually mean 'all the English nation' but all those among the English loyal to Edmund; there must have been Englishmen fighting for the Danes by this point in the war (however you choose to define 'Englishmen', which is not an easy question to answer). There's a strong chance, for instance, that by an extraordinary historical irony the father of the king who would lead the English at Hastings, fifty years later, was fighting for the invaders in this battle. Godwine (not the one named in the extract), father of Harold Godwineson, was said by later tradition to have defected to the Danes earlier in the year. He would go on to marry a Danish noblewoman and be richly rewarded for his service to Cnut - which is why he gave his son the Norse name Harold, after Cnut's grandfather (suck-up). This is how wonderfully complicated the eleventh century is...

In considering the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's picture of the 'best of the English nation' fighting the Danes, you also have to factor in the opinion of the chronicler that Eadric Streona, one of Edmund's closest advisers, was working to help the Danes. Eadric had already once defected to the Danes and come back again; the chronicler says that taking him back into his counsel was the most unwise decision Edmund ever made. Eadric later gained a reputation as the most notorious traitor in Anglo-Saxon history and was blamed for a whole variety of terrible things he may or may not have done, but this view of his behaviour at Assandun is shared by our second source, the Encomium Emmae Reginae. In Book II, chapters 9-10, it says of Assandun:

[Edmund] attempted to expel the king and the Danes from the country of the English, and advancing with a great multitude, planned a sudden attack upon them. But a report of this did not fail to become known to the Danes, who left their ships and went ashore, preparing to receive whatever they should encounter. Now they had a banner of wonderfully strange nature, which though I believe that it may be incredible to the reader, yet since it is true, I will introduce the matter into my true history. For while it was woven of the plainest and whitest silk, and the representation of no figure was inserted into it, in time of war a raven was always seen as if embroidered on it, in the hour of its owners' victory opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet, but very subdued and drooping with its whole body when they were defeated. Looking out for this, Thorkell, who had fought the first battle, said: "Let us fight manfully, comrades, for no danger threatens us: for to this the restive raven of the prophetic banner bears witness."

When the Danes heard this, they were rendered bolder, and clad with suits of mail, encountered the enemy in the place called Aesceneduno, a word which we Latinists can explain as 'mons fraxinorum'. And there, before battle was joined, Eadric, whom we have mentioned as Eadmund's chief supporter, addressed these remarks to his comrades: "Let us flee, oh comrades, and snatch our lives from imminent death, or else we will fall forthwith, for I know the hardihood of the Danes." And concealing the banner which he bore in his right hand, he turned his back on the enemy, and caused the withdrawal of a large part of the soldiers from the battle. And according to some, it was afterwards evident that he did this not out of fear but in guile; and what many assert is that he had promised this secretly to the Danes in return for some favour.

Then Eadmund, observing what had occurred, and hard pressed on every side, said: "Oh Englishmen, today you will fight or surrender yourselves all together. Therefore, fight for your liberty and your country, men of understanding; truly, those who are in flight, inasmuch as they are afraid, if they were not withdrawing, would be a hindrance to the army." And as he said these things, he advanced into the midst of the enemy, cutting down the Danes on all sides, and by this example rendering his noble followers more inclined to fight. Therefore a very severe infantry battle was joined, since the Danes, although the less numerous side, did not contemplate withdrawal, and chose death rather than the danger attending flight. And so they resisted manfully, and protracted the battle, which had been begun in the ninth hour of the day, until the evening, submitting themselves, though ill-content to do so, to the strokes of swords, and pressing upon the foe with a better will with the points of their own swords.

Armed men fell on both sides, but more on the side which had superiority in numbers. But when evening was falling and night-time was at hand, longing for victory overcame the inconveniences of darkness, for since a graver consideration was pressing, they did not shrink from the darkness, and disdained to give way before the night, only burning to overcome the foe. And if the shining moon had not shown which was the enemy, every man would have cut down his comrade, thinking he was an adversary resisting him, and no man would have survived on either side, unless he had been saved by flight. Meanwhile the English began to be weary, and gradually to contemplate flight, as they observed the Danes to be of one mind either to conquer, or to perish all together to a man. For then they seemed to them more numerous, and to be the stronger in so protracted a struggle. For they deemed them stronger by a well-founded suspicion, because, being made mindful of their position by the goading of weapons, and distressed by the fall of their comrades, they seemed to rage rather than fight. Accordingly the English, turning their backs, fled without delay on all sides, ever falling before their foes, and added glory to the honour of Knutr and to his victory, while Eadmund, the fugitive prince, was disgraced.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and trans. Alistair Campbell (London: Royal Historical Society, 1949), pp.25, 27 (paragraph breaks added).

Wonderful stuff. Now, the first thing you always have to say about the Encomium is that it can't be taken at face value: the author has a somewhat free-and-easy relationship with documented fact, because he's not writing dispassionate history (if there's any such thing) but a political tract intended to glorify Queen Emma and thus, Cnut. But that's what makes it so interesting. As I said last time I wrote about the Encomium, it's particularly fun when the author says things like 'it may be incredible to the reader, yet since it is true, I will introduce the matter into my true history', because that's usually a sign that it's definitely not true.

The author had access to some very good first-hand sources, and there are things in this account that he could not have made up himself; someone told them to him, and it was obviously someone with a generally pro-Danish view of events (the best clue is the magical raven banner - a Danish legend). So it's interesting to note the people he chooses to mention, all of whom had been dead for twenty years by the time he wrote, and how he presents them. His 'according to some' and 'what many assert' about Eadric's treachery suggests Eadric's guilt was still being talked about as a factor in the defeat (by this time Eadric was conveniently dead - at Cnut's orders - and therefore free to be vilified by English and Danes alike; he probably deserved it). By contrast, Thorkell the Tall, Cnut's chief supporter/rival, gets a big moment in the spotlight, encouraging the troops - a role you might have expected Cnut himself to have, unless this detail is a) true or b) coming from people who still remembered Thorkell with interest (e.g. his son, still living in England until 1042). Considering this is supposed to be Cnut's great victory, he's strangely absent from every detail of the battle. And it's interesting that the author also gives Edmund Ironside a heroic speech, pro libertate et patria: 'O Englishmen, fight for your liberty and your country!' Edmund died six weeks after the battle at Assandun, and in later years Cnut honoured his memory with gifts to his tomb at Glastonbury, reflecting either respect for a worthy adversary or an attempt to claim legitimacy as his successor (or both).

But the Encomium nonetheless says this was a glorious victory for the Danes, as does our final source, an extract from an Old Norse poem in honour of Cnut, composed by an Icelandic poet, Óttarr svarti, probably late in the 1020s. This poem lists Cnut's greatest triumphs, and the first half of verse 10 extols the victory at Assandun:

Skjöldungr, vannt und skildi
skœru verk, inn sterki,
(fekk blóðtrani bráðir
brúnar) Assatúnum.

Strong Skjöldungr, you performed a feat of battle under the shield; the blood-crane [raven/eagle] received dark morsels at Ashingdon.

Óttarr svarti, Knútsdrápa, ed. and trans. Matthew Townend, in Diana Whaley, ed., Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages I (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), Part 2, p.779.

This too is wonderful stuff, packed with just as much of interest in four lines as the Encomium has in all its long phrases. 'Skjöldungr' is a reference to Cnut's Danish ancestors, the legendary Skjöldung dynasty - the Scyldings of Beowulf. The 'blood-crane' is a very common motif in Old English and Old Norse poetry, one of the 'beasts of battle' who gather to feast on the slain, but it's a little bit tempting to be reminded of the raven banner, to which the Encomium gives such prominence in its account of Assandun. And note there's no mention of Thorkell here; Cnut is the sole hero.

Just look how heroic he is. (British Library, Stowe 944, f.6)

After Assandun, Edmund was finally forced to make peace with the Danes: the two kings met and agreed a division of the country, in which Edmund kept control of Wessex but the rest was under Danish rule. Edmund died at the end of November, apparently of natural causes (though some people said Eadric killed him, of course), leaving Cnut as king of the whole country - and England as part of the Danish empire.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Twelve Ages of Man

When I was at primary school in the mid-1990s, we used to sing a hymn of which I now remember only the first verse:

January brings the snow
And the white frost glistens,
I'm a child, full of love,
Speak, Lord, and I'll listen.

Or at least, it went something like that; my memory of the words is a bit hazy, and I mostly remember the jaunty tune and the excessive sibilant emphasis my classmates liked to put on the first syllable of glisss-tens. (Children are strange.)  I don't remember any more of the verses, but the basic idea was to equate the months of the year with the stages of human life.  I can't remember if there really were twelve verses, and for once the internet can't help me dredge my memory, because although I found the song it's in copyright and the lyrics aren't online.  I do remember it was a pretty dreadful song, though, like almost everything we learned to sing in primary school, whether 'cords that cannot be broken' or 'jet planes meeting in the air to be refueled'; if those references don't mean anything to you, I envy your education!

(Isn't it one of the unfairnesses of human existence that the period of life when things are most easily absorbed into the memory is also the period when one is exposed to the greatest amount of rubbish? So many wonderful poems I have attempted to memorise have faded helplessly from my mind, but the array of banal songs I learned in primary school will apparently never leave me.)

Anyway, the point of this little trip down memory lane is that today I found a medieval poem which reminded me of that January song. The months/ages of man thing is fairly common in literature and art, a subset of the ubiquitous 'ages of man' theme perhaps most famous from Shakespeare's 'All the world's a stage'. I found this particular instance in the book Monumenta ritualia ecclesiae Anglicanae, a volume I've grown to love (it contains all kinds of miscellaneous and fascinating information about the pre-Reformation church, including lots of the Middle English prayers I've been posting here over the past few months). The editor attributes this poem to a sixteenth-century Prymer, and a related book now in Canterbury Cathedral library can be seen on their website here.

January.
The first vi yeres of mannes byrth and aege,
May well be compared to Ianyuere:
For in thys month is no strength, no courage,
More than in a chylde of the aege of vi yere.

February.
The other vi yeres is lyke February,
In the ende therf begynneth the sprynge.
That tyme chyldren is moost apt and redye,
To receyve chastisement, nurture, and lernynge.

March.
Marche betokeneth the vi yeres folowynge,
Arayeng the erthe wt pleasaunt verdure:
That season youth careth for nothynge,
And without tought dooth hys sporte & pleasure.

Apryll.
The next vi yere maketh foure and twenty,
And figured is to ioly Apryll :
That time of pleasures man hath moost plenty,
Fresshe and louynge his lustes to fulfyll.

Maye.
As in the month of Maye all thyng is in myght,
So at xxx yeres man is in chyef lykyng:
Pleasaunt and lusty, to every mannes syght
In beaute and strength, to women pleasyng.

June.
In June all thyng falleth to rypenesse,
And so dooth man at xxxvi yere olde,
And studyeth for to acquyre rychesse,
And taketh a wyfe to kepe his housholde.

July.
At xl yere of aege or elles neuer
Is ony man endowed with wysdome:
For than forthon hys myght fayleth euer,
As in July dooth euery blossome.

August.
The goodes of the erthe is gadred euermore
In August, so at xlviii yere
Man ought to gather some goodes in store,
To susteyne aege that than draweth nere.

Septembre
Lete no man thynke for to gather plenty
Yf at liiii yere he haue none:
No more than yf his barne were empty
In Septembre, whan all the corne is gone.

Octobre.
By Octobre betokeneth lx yere
That aege hastely dooth man assayle,
Yf he haue ought, than it dooth appere
To lyye quyetly after his trauayle.

Novembre.
Whan man is at lxvi yere olde
Whiche lynkened is to bareyne Nouembre,
He wexeth unweldy, sekely, and colde,
Than his soule helth is tyme to remembre.

Decembre.
The yere by Decembre taketh his ende,
Aad so dooth man, at thre score and twelue:
Nature wyth aege wyll hym on message sende,
The tyme is come, that he must go hym selue.

Twelve Ages of Man, from British Library Arundel 83 f. 126

A modernised version:

The first six years of man's birth and age,
May well be compared to Januare:
For in this month is no strength, no courage,
More than in a child of the age of six year.

The next six years is like February:
At the end therof beginneth the spring.
At that time children are most apt and ready
To receive chastisement, nurture, and learning.

March betokeneth the six years following,
Arraying the earth with pleasant verdure:
That season youth careth for nothing,
And without thought he has his sport and his pleasure.

The next six year makes four and twenty,
And figured is to jolly April:
That time of pleasures man hath most plenty,
Fresh and loving his desires to fulfill.

As in the month of May all thing is in might,
So at thirty years man is in chief lykyng: [greatest happiness, good estate]
Pleasant and lusty to every man's sight,
In beauty and strength to women pleasing.

In June all thing falleth to ripeness,
And so doth man at thirty-six years old,
He studieth for to acquire riches,
And taketh a wife to keep his household.

At forty years of age or else never
Is any man endowed with wisdom:
For from then on his might faileth ever,
As in July doth every blossom.

The goods of the earth are gathered evermore
In August, so at forty-eight year
Man ought to gather some goods in store,
To sustain him in old age that then draws near.

Let no man think for to gather plenty
If at fifty-four years he has none:
No more than if his barn were empty
In September, when all the corn is gone.

By October betokeneth sixty year,
When age in haste doth man assail,
If he have aught, than it doth appear [= is fitting]
To live quietly after his travail.

When man is at sixty-six years old
Which likened is to barren November,
He waxeth unwieldy, sickly, and cold,
Then his soul's health it is time to remember.

The year by December taketh his end,
And so doth man, at three score and twelve.
Nature and age will him one message send:
The time is come that he must go himself.


For some reason, I find this poem a little bit funnier than I think it's supposed to be - partly because it reminds me of that ridiculous hymn, and partly because it's so specific about the ages at which one ought to do things.  Did you know that thirty-six was the optimum age to get married?  And that if you're not wise at forty, you never will be?  (I feel like marriage and the pinnacle of wisdom ought to be more separated in time; one leads to the other, I would think.) And at fifty-four it's too late to save for your retirement, sorry...

But it's good news if you're still on the young side: since the recent influx of undergraduates to Oxford has made me start to feel elderly, it's a relief to know I'm still in the Maytime of my life. It makes up for having spent so much of the February singing awful hymns!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Morning Hymn: 'Now the day's star in his heavenly sphere'

Now the deys sterre in hys hevynly spere,
ffresche as febus, a peryth in owr syght,
Whos bryghtnes gladeth all owre emyspere,
Chasyng a wey the darknes of þe nyght;
Prey we þe lord of mercy and of myght
That he vs kepe frome synne and all noysaunce
Thys dey, and haue us in hys gouernance.

And þat he wyll owr tunge rule & restrayne,
Gydyng hyt so þis dey by temporance,
That non offence we do wyth wurdes veyne,
Cawsyng debat ne Stryff or perturbance;
And of owr syght he have þe governance,
That worldly thyng wyche we be hold and see,
Ne styr us nott to caduk vanite.

Thyntralys of owr hert be clene and pure,
By meditacione contemplatyff,
Soo þat noo cowardie us disensure
A yenst þe flesch whan we debat and stryve
To valour heer, and downe heer pryd to drive;
We may her kepen vndir subiugate
In meyt and drynk yff we be moderate.

And erly makene we owr preyer
That whan þe dey shall nighene with hys lyght,
Causing the nyght wyth drawene and dispare,
Be abstinence we ben in clennes dyght,
That we may syng vnetyll owr lord a ryght
Ympnes and song and laude & glorie,
Wyche is þe dey lastyng eternally.


I awoke this morning to a fiery red dawn, an occurrence to be treasured in the midst of cloudy October, and it made me think of this poem. It's a translation of the sixth-century hymn 'Iam lucis orto sidere', used in the morning Office. I can never get enough of morning and evening hymns, which elevate and sanctify the cycle of the day and night, and encourage us to be mindful of the passing of time. The poetic language of dawn and sunrise is also worth paying attention to. I was recently teaching my students the Old English word dægred, 'dawn', literally 'day-reddening', which survived into Middle English and provided one English version of the name of the Office of Lauds: daired-sang, 'dawn song' (for 'song' as 'office', cf. 'Evensong', the medieval English name for Vespers).  The origin of our word 'dawn' is in the Old English verb dagian, 'to become day'; in a world of electric light, where we can make day happen at the flick of a switch, it can be startling to be reminded by etymology that 'dawning' is a process of becoming, a gradual growth of light.

Old English also has a word for the period just before dawn, uht, and so another name for one of the morning Offices was uhtsang, 'song before dawn' (it can refer either to Nocturns or Matins). In poetic compounds, this gives us the wonderful Old English word for a feeling of dread before the dawn, uhtcearu, 'morning care' - it seems to refer to the anxiety of lying awake in the early morning, waiting to get up, and worrying over what the day will bring.  In Beowulf, a dragon is an uhtfloga, a creature which flies before dawn; something to worry about, indeed.

As for day, the Middle English dictionary entry for compounds with dai makes evocative reading: 'day's eye' (the sun), 'day-gleam' (dawn), 'day-rim' (the rays of dawn), 'day-star', of course, and 'dayspring', a word which is so familiar from religious contexts that it's easy to forget its origin as a Middle English poetic compound.

Here's a modernised version of the Middle English poem, which comes from British Library, MS. Additional 34193:


Now the day's star in his heavenly sphere,
Fresh as Phoebus, appeareth in our sight,
Whose brightness gladdeth all our hemisphere,
Chasing away the darkness of the night;
Pray we the Lord of mercy and of might
That he us keep from sin and all noisaunce [trouble, distress]
This day, and have us in his governance.

And that he will our tongue rule and restrain,
Guiding it so this day by temperance,
That no offence we do with wordes vain,
Causing debate nor strife nor perturbance;
And of our sight he have the governance,
That worldly things which we behold and see
May stir us not to caduk vanity. [transitory, fleeting vanity]

The entrails of our heart be clean and pure,
By meditation contemplative,
So that no cowardice us disensure [unsettle, deprive of assurance]
Against the flesh when we debate and strive
For valour here, and down its pride to drive;
We may our flesh keep subjugate
In meat and drink if we be moderate.

And early maken we our prayer
That when the day shall draw nigh with his light,
Causing the night to withdraw and disappear,
By abstinence we be in cleanness dight, [we may be made pure by abstinence]
That we may sing unto our Lord aright
Hymns and songs and laud and glory,
Who is the day lasting eternally.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

'In the green and gallant Spring'

In the green and gallant Spring,
Love and the lyre I thought to sing,
And kisses sweet to give and take
By the flowery hawthorn brake.

Now is russet Autumn here,
Death and the grave and winter drear,
And I must ponder here aloof
While the rain is on the roof.


I've observed before that Robert Louis Stevenson had a particularly good way with very short poems and with striking first lines, and this is an excellent example of both.

Friday, 11 October 2013

St Ethelburga and the Nuns of Barking

St Æthelburh (or Ethelburga) was the first abbess of Barking Abbey in Essex, which was founded for her in the mid-seventh century by her brother, St Earconwald. Earconwald also founded Chertsey Abbey in Surrey, and later became bishop of London. Not much is known about the family origin of these two saintly siblings, but their names suggest they might have been connected to the Kentish royal family; Ethelburga shares a name with St Æthelburh of Kent, the daughter of King Ethelbert who became queen of Northumbria and abbess at Lyminge, while her brother's name-element earcon, as in Arkenstone, is found in the names of a king of Kent and his daughter (names and name-elements were commonly repeated in Anglo-Saxon royal families). Almost everything we know about the two of them comes from Bede, who says a little about Earconwald, and much more about Ethelburga, in Book 4 of his Historia Ecclesiastica (chapters 6-9):

Both before and after his consecration as bishop, Earconwald is said to have lived so holy a life that heaven still affords proof of his virtues. To this day, the horse-litter in which he travelled when ill is preserved by his disciples, and continues to cure many folk troubled by fever and other complaints. Sick people are cured when placed under or against the litter, and even chips cut from it bring speedy relief when taken to the sick.

Before he became bishop, Earconwald had built two well-known monasteries, one for himself and the other for his sister Ethelburga, and had established an excellent regular discipline in both houses. His own monastery stood by the River Thames at Cerotaesei - meaning, Cerot's island - in the district of Surrey. The convent where his sister was to rule as mother and instructress of women devoted to God was at a place called In-Berecingum in the province of the East Saxons. Entrusted with the affairs of this convent, she always bore herself in a manner worthy of her brother the bishop, upright of life and constantly planning for the needs of her community, as heavenly miracles attest.

In this convent many proofs of holiness were effected, which many people have recorded from the testimony of eyewitnesses in order that the memory of them might edify future generations; I have therefore been careful to include some in this history of the Church...

When Ethelburga, the devout Mother of this God-fearing community, was herself about to be taken out of this world, one of the sisters whose name was Tortgyth saw a wonderful vision. This nun had lived for many years in the convent, humbly and sincerely striving to serve God, and had helped the Mother to maintain the regular observances by instructing and correcting the younger sisters. In order that her strength might be 'made perfect in weakness' as the Apostle says, she was suddenly attacked by a serious disease.  Under the good providence of our Redeemer, this caused her great distress for nine years, in order that any traces of sin that remained among her virtues through ignorance or neglect might be burned away in the fires of prolonged suffering. Leaving her cell one night at first light of dawn, this sister saw distinctly what appeared to be a human body wrapped in a shroud and shining more brightly than the sun. This was raised up and carried out of the house where the sisters used to sleep. She observed closely to see how this appearance of a shining body was being raised, and saw what appeared to be cords brighter than gold which drew it upwards until it entered the open heavens and she could see it no longer. When she thought about this vision, there remained no doubt in her mind that some member of the Community was shortly to die, and that her soul would be drawn up to heaven by her good deeds as though by golden cords. And so it proved not many days later, when God's beloved Ethelburga, the Mother of the Community, was set free from her bodily prison.  And none who knew her holy life can doubt that when she departed this life the gates of our heavenly home opened at her coming.

In the same convent there was also a nun of noble family in the world, who was yet more noble in her love for the world to come.  For many years she had been so crippled that she could not move a single limb; and hearing that the venerable abbess' body had been carried into the church until its burial, she asked to be carried there, and to be bowed towards it in an attitude of prayer.  Then she spoke to Ethelburga as though she were still alive, and begged her to pray to God on her behalf, and ask him of his mercy to release her from her continual pain.  Her request received a swift reply; for twelve days later she was set free from the body, and exchanged her earthly troubles for a heavenly reward.

Three years after the death of the abbess, Christ's servant Tortgyth was so wasted away by the disease that I mentioned earlier that her bones scarcely held together, until finally, as death drew near, she lost the use of her limbs and even of her tongue. After three days and nights in this condition, she was suddenly refreshed by a vision from heaven, opened her eyes, and spoke.  Looking up to heaven, she began to address the vision that she saw: "I am so glad that you have come; you are most welcome." She then remained silent for a while, as if awaiting an answer from the person whom she saw and spoke to; then, seeming a little displeased, she said, "This is not happy news." After another interval of silence, she spoke a third time: "If it cannot be today, I beg that it may not be long delayed." Then she kept silent a little while as before, and ended: "If this decision is final and unalterable, I implore that it may not be delayed beyond the coming night."  When she had finished, those around her asked her to whom she had spoken.  "To my dearest Mother Ethelburga," she replied; and from this they understood that she had come to announce that the hour of her passing was near.  So after a day and a night her prayers were answered, and she was delivered from the burden of the body and entered the joys of eternal salvation.

Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Harmondsworth, 1974), pp. 217-8, 220-2.

 'Gaude mater Ethelburga', British Library Harley 2900, f.68v 
(I'm not sure if this is the Barking Ethelburga or the abbess of Faremoutiers-en-Brie)

Bede was writing within half a century of Ethelburga's death, and his source for all this was probably a now-lost account of the miracles of Ethelburga written at Barking. Several other miracles are also recorded, relating to an outbreak of plague in the community, but I liked the description of these three linked, peaceful deaths. In Ethelburga's time Barking was a double monastery (for men and women), as was common in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period, but it's the bonds of community and affection between Ethelburga and her nuns which emerge most memorably from Bede's account - 'golden cords' of another kind than those Tortgyth saw in her vision.

Barking Abbey grew to be one of the most important monasteries in the country, and at the time of the Dissolution was the third richest nunnery in England. It was closely associated with a number of powerful royal and noble women, the daughters and sisters of kings (and even Thomas Becket's sister); the Abbess of Barking was not only an important landowner but a baroness in her own right, required to supply the king with soldiers in wartime like any secular lord. It also had a strong literary and educational tradition throughout the medieval period: Aldhelm and Goscelin wrote Latin works for the nuns of Barking, and several nuns composed their own poetry and prose. Perhaps the first female author from England whom we can actually name was Clemence of Barking, who wrote a Life of St Catherine in Anglo-Norman in the twelfth century; a nun of Barking (either Clemence or someone else) also wrote a Life of Edward the Confessor around the same time. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne has described Barking as "perhaps the longest-lived, albeit not continuously recorded, institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history". And it all began with Ethelburga.

Ethelburga's feast in a calendar from Ely (BL Arundel 377, f.5)

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Some Kent Churches: Denton, 'a glasse light'

Denton is a very small place.  Its wikipedia article contains two sentences, and the first one tells you everything I know about it: 'Denton is a village near Canterbury in Kent, England'.  I don't suppose Denton church gets many visitors; for one thing, it's nearly impossible to find, though clearly marked on the map. You have to go up an unsignposted private drive until you spot a fingerpost that says 'to the church', which appears to be pointing to a field. Not believing the fingerpost, you'll drive straight past it until you get to a house, at which point you realise you've gone too far, and go back, and put your faith in the fingerpost after all. It leads you not quite across the field but along it, to what looks like a wood. And within the wood is the church and its churchyard, isolated from everything except the manor house next door, and so screened by its trees that you can't even see the house from the churchyard.


The manor house is Denton Court, home to a number of different families over the years; its most famous resident was the eccentric bibliophile Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges. You can read a little about the house at this link.  It sounds attractive, but I can't confirm anything of that description, because of its shielding trees; the church lives in its own world.

This is the view westwards from the church, that misleading field:


And looking south:


Thomas Gray visited Denton in the summer of 1766, staying with his friend the rector; he wrote after his visit that "the country is all a garden, gay, rich, and fruitful, and (from the rainy season) had preserved, till I left it, all that emerald verdure, which commonly only one sees for the first fortnight of the spring."


Denton certainly has one of the greenest churchyards I've ever seen, more like a garden than a graveyard. It's a peaceful place to rest, an encircled garth of tranquil enclosure. Thomas Gray was part of the reason I went there this summer; he was on my mind for work-related reasons (he wrote Norse Odes, thus edging himself into my subject area). At the time he visited Denton's grassy graveyard he had already written what is now perhaps the most famous poem about a churchyard in the English language, and it's hard not to think of him, and it, there:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.



Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbad: nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.


Inside, the church is small and plain and rather dark. There's little sign of its grand next-door neighbour, hardly even a monument; the families who came and went in Denton Court didn't leave much trace behind.



There's one bit of medieval glass, almost unrecognisable as a human face:


It was probably a head of Christ, but all that remains of its beauty (if it ever had any) is the mix of soft colours: green and gold, blue and white.


The most prominent monument, above the pulpit, is indecipherable:


The porch bears crosses carved, so legend says, by crusaders on their way to the wars:



But war of any kind seems very distant; far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife...



Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps not; but nonetheless these two epitaphs were my favourite things in the church:


'Reader, beware, lest you inadvertently trample upon sacred ashes!'  I tried not to, Mr Lunn, but it was difficult.  In any case there was a chair on top of the stone, and the lower half was covered by a pew, so we will never know in what way the rector was particularly indefatigable.  But his immediate successor was Gray's friend, William Robinson.


Sir Anthony Percivall, K., deceased Jan 12, 1646, aged about 45, & Dame Gertrude his lady, deceased May 12, 1647, aged 33, from hence expect the speedy returne of their blessed Saviour.

Beehold the ashes of a worthy Knight,
Which make for thee, O Reader, a glasse light.
Hee had not bene confined to this grave
If wit or Prudence him from thence could save.
But these his vertues only were the shade
Of Heavenly Grace that flowers in their fade.
And thou in Christ thy choicest giftes must raise
To have thy monument adorned with praise.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

'My keeper so sweet': More Medieval Prayers to a Guardian Angel

In the past on this blog I've posted and discussed five different medieval English prayers addressed to a guardian angel - three in this post, and two in 'A nun's prayer to her guardian angel'. Not surprisingly, given the popularity of this devotion in medieval England, there are more to be found! This post contains two: 'Hail, holy spirit' and 'I pray thee, spirit, that angel art'. I found both in Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford, 1939), pp. 202-5.

The first is from British Library, Additional MS. 31042, a fifteenth-century compilation of texts on religious and other subjects, put together by a Yorkshire landowner named Robert Thornton.

Haile! holy spyritt, & Ioy be vn-to the!
My keper so swete, myne Aungelle so fre,
In-to thi handis I pray the to take
My fastyng, my penance, my prayers þat I make,
My ympnys, my psalmys, my syngyng for syne,
My knelynge, my louynge, my charite þat I ame ine,
My wakynge, my wepynge & my deuocyoun,
My pacience, my angyrs & my tribulacioun,
My werkes of mercy & my almus dede,
And offere þame to Ihu, & gete me some mede.
And all my gude dedis, gyffe þay littill be,
I pray þe to presente þame bifore þe trynyte,
And to my lorde, Ihu, þu me recomende,
& thanke hym of alle gudnesse þat he hase me sende.
And if I haue seruede & worthy be to payne,
3itt some drope of his mercy þu brynge me agayne,
His pite & his gudnesse in me for to schawe,
þe wrethe of myne enemy þat I may with-drawe.
And alle þat me sekis to angyre & to ill,
To lufe & to charyte þu conuerte þaire will;
And my gastely enemys, all þat fandys me ay,
Dystrowe þu þaire myghtis by nyghte & by day.
And so þat all spirittes, þat me will assaile
In fandynge, be feble & of strenghe faile,
With þe blyssynge of his righte hande he me defende,
þat regnys god in trynyte, in worlde withowtene ende. Amen.


I actually found this poem when searching for hymns to the Holy Spirit, and realising after the first line that this was an address to an angel took me by surprise; but since the usual Middle English term for the third person of the Trinity is 'Holy Ghost', I assume there would have been no confusion for the original audience. There's something enjoyable about the pace of these couplets - they just rattle along. Compared to some of the other prayers to a guardian angel, this is fairly pragmatic and unsentimental: a description of the things an angel can do, and a petition to one's angel to do them, if he would be so kind. Something like 'O sweet angel, to me so dear' is notably more affectionate, almost caressing, in tone.

Here's a modernised version:

Hail, holy spirit, and joy be unto thee,
My keeper so sweet, my angel so free, [noble, gracious]
Into thy hands I pray thee to take
My fasting, my penance, my prayers that I make,
My hymns, my psalms, my singing, for my sin,
My kneeling, my praising, my charity that I am in,
My waking, my weeping and my devotion,
My patience, my troubles and my tribulation,
My works of mercy and my alms deeds,
And offer them to Jesu, and gain me some mede; [reward]
And all my good deeds, though little they be,
I pray thee to present them before the Trinity,
And to my Lord Jesu thou me recommend,
And thank him for all goodness that he hath me sent.
And if I have served and worthy be of pay, [reward]
Some drop yet of his mercy thou bring me again,
His pity and his goodness to me for to show,
The wrath of mine enemy that I may withdraw. [escape]
And all who seek me in anger and for ill,
To love and to charity convert thou their will;
And my ghostly enemies, all which tempt me ay,
Destroy thou their might by night and by day;
And so that all spirits which me would assail
In tempting, be feeble, and of their strength fail,
With the blessing of his right hand may he me defend,
Who reigns, God in Trinity, world without end. Amen.

The archangel Raphael and Tobias (British Library, Stowe 12, f.128)

The second prayer:

I pray þe, spirit, þat angell arte
To whom y ame be-take,
That þu me kepe in clene lyf,
Wheþer y slepe or wake.

God of hys grace haþ me þe sende,
To kepe me boþe daye & ny3t,
Tyde and tyme me to defende,
And with þe fende for me to fy3t.

Louely angell, counforte me
In what desese þat y be ynne,
Helpe with grace þat y maye flee
In wyll and dede & deedly synne.

All temptacions þu put me
ffro þe fendes þat wyll me drede.
Where-euer y goo my fere þu be
That y maye knowe þy helpe at nede.

þow y haue be to þe vnkynde,
To þe mercyfull kynge for me þu praye,
þat no gylt in me be founde,
Whan y schall ryse at domesdaye.

Whanne þu seest me goon with wronge,
ffor hym þat haþ me wro3t,
To hym a-3ey þu me wysse,
Ellys y lese my blys for no3t.

What sorow or what desese,
Helpe me with þy prayere,
My lordes face þat y may see
At domys daye with-outen fere.

Also y praye þe, myn angell swete,
3yf yt maye be by anye waye,
þat þu do me to wete
Of my lyuyng or þe last daye.

Suffre not the fende blake,
With [s]cornis ne with wanhope,
Neyþer my mynde fro me to take,
My sowle to see.

Whan y schall owte of þys worlde goo,
ffor-sake my no3t tyll þu brynge
Me hym to that my sowle came fro,
Euer in ioye with angeles to synge. Amen.

This is from Cambridge University MS. Ii.6.43, a fifteenth-century collection of prayers and spiritual material (you can see a list of the manuscript's contents here). Here's my version of the poem:

I pray thee, spirit, that angel art
To whom I am betake, [entrusted]
That thou me keep in clean life,
Whether I sleep or wake.

God of his grace did me thee send,
To keep me both day and night,
Tide and time me to defend,
Against the fiend for me to fight.

Lovely angel, comfort me
Whatever trouble I may be in,
Help with grace that I may flee
In will and deed from deadly sin.

All temptations thou put [from?] me,
From the fiends who will me drede. [who want to frighten me]
Wherever I go, my companion be
That I may know thy help at need.

Though I have been to thee unkind,
To the merciful King for me thou pray,
That no guilt in me be found,
When I shall rise at doomsday.

When thou seest me go with wrong,
For him that hath me wrought,
To him away thou me guide,
Else I lose my bliss for nought.

Whatever sorrow or trouble come,
Help me with thy prayer,
My Lord's face that I may see
At doomsday without fear.

Also I pray thee, my angel sweet,
If it may be by any way,
That thou cause me to know
Of my life before the last day.

Suffer not the fiend black
Neither with scorn nor with despair
My mind from me to take,
My soul to save.

When I must out of this world go,
Forsake me not until thou bring
Me to him that my soul came from,
Ever in joy with angels to sing. Amen.

In the second verse, 'tide and time' means 'at all times'; the OED says this phrase was in origin either "an alliterative reduplication, in which the two words were more or less synonyms" or meant "time and (or) season". The Middle English Dictionary has a list of ME citations under 8i. In case you were wondering, the proverb which has kept the phrase alive - although perhaps in a misunderstood version, since people tend to think it refers to the sea - is first recorded in the fifteenth century, in the form 'the tide abideth for no manner of man'.


This illustration is from an English Book of Hours (BL Royal 2 B XV) which was made in c.1500 for the family of Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond. It shows a man with his guardian angel guiding him at prayer, and on the rest of the page is a Latin prayer to the guardian angel:


The text (from a different source, but almost identical) and a translation can be found here. It's useful to have a reminder that devotion to guardian angels could be found at varied levels of society: with this image we've moved from Robert Thornton, a member of the Yorkshire minor gentry, to one of the wealthiest noblemen in the country. Similarly, the owners of the manuscripts with guardian angel prayers in my previous posts included a London merchant, a Chester nun, and the grandmother of Henry VII.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

'Nothing is certain, only the certain spring'


Time to revisit some autumn poetry, as we find ourselves in October. This poem by Laurence Binyon, written during the Second World War, is called 'The Burning of the Leaves'.


Now is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Spark whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.