Saturday, 25 March 2017

'Our Lady's Lay'

Annunciation, c.1310 (BL Royal MS 15 D II, f.3)

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, 'Lady Day'. As I explored last year, the medieval church considered 25 March to be the single most important date in history, at once the beginning and the end of Christ's life on earth: it was the date of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the eighth day of Creation, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the sacrifice of Isaac, all profoundly meaningful events in the carefully-crafted divine story of salvation history. Its resonances reached even unto Middle Earth, as Tolkien aligned the downfall of the Ring to this most auspicious of dates.

Here's a lovely little poem about the Annunciation by William Herebert, the early 14th-century friar and poet. It's a poetic retelling of the Gospel for this feast, Luke 1:26-38, and in Herebert's manuscript is headed 'Evangelium: Missus est angelus Gabriel'. It begins with a brief prologue:

Prologus:
Seynt Luke, in hys godspel, bryngeth ous to munde
Hou Godes Sone of hevene com tok oure kunde,
And sayth who was messager and of whom ysend,
Into whuch lond, to what wymman, and yn whuch toun alend.
Of Luk leche, oure levedy prest, lofsom in apryse,
Lustneth lythe oure levedy lay that gynth in thisse wyse.

Missus est:
Ysend was thaungel Gabriel vrom God the Trinite
Into the lond of Galilee, to Nazareth cite,
To a mayde that hedde o mon ykald Joseph to spouse,
That was of grete kunne, of kyng Davides house.
The mayde to whom Gabriel ysend was on hye,
He rediliche to wysse ynemned was Marie.
And when thaungel was in-wend to speke wyth the mayde,
Hendeliche he grette hyre on thys wyse and sayde:
"Hayle be thou, vol of grace, oure Loverd ys wyth the;
Among alle wymmen thou yblessed be."
When he thys herde, a was ystured in thaungles spekynge,
And inwardlyche thouthte whuch was thys gretynge.
Thenne sayde thaungel bryht, "Marye, dred thou nouht.
Thou havest yvounde grace tovore God ysouht.
Lo, in the conceyve thou shalt and sone bere,
Whom thou shalt 'Jesu' nemnen, that Englys ys 'helere.'
Thes shal be muchel, and nemned 'worth,' the alre hextes Sone,'
And oure Loverd hym shal ȝeve hey stoede vor to wone.
Hys oune vadres see, David, and he shal be regnynge
In Jacobes house wythouten ey endynge,
And hys kyneryche shal boen aylastinge."
Thenne spak Marie to thaungel anon,
"Hou may thys ben? vor knoulechyng have ich of no wepmon."
Thaungel hyre onsuerede and sayde to ryhte,
"The Holy Gost vrom bouenuorth in the shal alihte,
And the shal byshadewen the alre hextes myhte.
And lo ther Elyzabeth, thy cosyne on the heelde,
Haveth conceyved ane sone in dawes of hyre eelde,
Vor nothyng impossible nys to God that al may welde."
Thenne spak Marye and mekelyche sayde,
"Lo me her alredy my Lordes hondmayde.
To me be do, vollyche also, ase thou rather saydest."

Who so nule nouht lye that maketh trewe asay,
Of oure levedy Marie thys ys seynt Lukes lay,
To hevene he make ous stye at oure endeday. Amen.

This poem twice identifies itself as a 'lay' - first 'Our Lady's lay', then 'St Luke's lay'. In Middle English this would suggest a song to be sung with accompaniment, which makes this poem a little different from Herebert's other translations. The poem actually does read like a song, with a real musical quality and a smoothness to the rhythm and rhyme which are only apparent when you read it aloud - so here's a recording of it, which aims to convey at least a little of its melodious sound. And a translation:

Prologue:
Saint Luke, in his gospel, brings to our mind
How God's Son from heaven came and took our kind; [nature]
And says who was messenger and from whom he was sent,
Into which land, to what woman, and to which town he came.
By Luke the physician, our Lady's priest, praiseworthy in renown,
Listen with pleasure to our Lady's lay that begins in this manner.

Sent was...
Sent was the angel Gabriel from God the Trinity
Into the land of Galilee, to Nazareth city,
To a maid who had a man called Joseph to spouse, [i.e. as her betrothed]
Who was of great kin, of king David's house.
The maid to whom Gabriel sent was from on high,
He knew very truly was named Mary.
And when the angel had come in to speak with the maid,
Courteously he greeted her in this way and said:
"Hail be thou, full of grace, our Lord is with thee;
Among all women thou blessed be."
When she this heard, she was stirred at the angel's speaking,
And inwardly wondered what was this greeting.
Then said the angel bright, "Mary, dread thou not.
Thou hast found grace before God.
Lo, in thee conceive thou shalt and a son bear,
Whom thou shalt 'Jesu' name, that in English is 'healer.'
Who shall be great, and named 'worth,' 'the Son of the most high,'
And our Lord shall give him a high place to dwell:
His own father's seat, David, and he shall be reigning
In Jacob's house forever without ending,
And his kingdom shall be everlasting."
Then spake Mary to the angel anon,
"How may this be? for knowledge have I of no man."
The angel answered her and said aright,
"The Holy Ghost from above in thee shall alight,
And thee shall beshadow the highest one's might;
And lo, Elizabeth, thy cousin in grace,
Hath conceived a son in the days of her old age,
For nothing impossible is to God who governs all."
Then spake Mary and meekly said,
"Behold me here all ready, my Lord's handmaid.
To me be done, fully also, as thou hast said before."

Whoever tells no lies, proves to tell the truth,
Of our lady Mary this is Saint Luke's lay,
To heaven may she make us rise at our end-day. Amen.

The song-like quality of this poem made me wonder whether Herebert had heard the popular song on the same subject, 'Angelus ad virginem' - according to Chaucer, at least one 'clerk' of fourteenth-century Oxford was accustomed to sing that song for his own amusement, 'so sweetly that the chamber rang'. But this poem is worlds away from the naughty young clerk of the Miller's Tale, and stays much closer to the Biblical text than the other song does. The only real addition, apart from the introduction and conclusion, is an English translation for the name 'Jesus': 'that in English is healer'. In Old English 'healer' (Hælend), meaning 'saviour', was very commonly used in place of the name Jesus - Ælfric, for instance, does this almost all the time (here's a good example). This occurs in Middle English, too, though less frequently, so Herebert's audience probably would have been well acquainted with this interpretation of the name.

There are a few other grace notes, adding little touches of loveliness to the familiar story. Particularly elegant are the two lines which aim to catch the ear of the hearer, and say 'listen to this!':

Of Luk leche, oure levedy prest, lofsom in apryse,
Lustneth lythe oure levedy lay that gynth in thisse wyse.

By Luke the physician, our Lady's priest, praiseworthy in renown,
Listen with pleasure to our Lady's lay that begins in this manner.

There's some nice play here on pairs of similar-sounding words, heavy with alliteration - Luke and leche (i.e. 'physician', since St Luke was traditionally said to be a doctor); priest and apryse ('price', renown); lady and lay (a little Dylan-esque, that); and lustneth ('listen') and lythe, which means something like 'gladly, with delight'. That last word suggests, I think, that the whole experience of listening to this poem is simply meant to be pleasurable. It's not really trying to do anything clever with this well-known story, but purely intending to make it pleasant, pretty, 'lovesome' to hear - food for glad and loving meditation. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Poetry of William Herebert: 'Thou wommon boute fere'

I've written a piece for this week's Catholic Herald on the medieval poet William Herebert:

In early 14th-century Oxford, surrounded by some of the foremost theologians of medieval Europe, a Franciscan friar named William Herebert was writing a precious little collection of poems.

Herebert’s name is not well known today, but his poems, beautiful and distinctive in their own right, also represent an important milestone for English Catholicism: he was one of the first people to turn the Latin hymns of the Church into English poetry.

Read the rest here. I've posted a number of William Herebert's poems on this blog before, and they can be found under this tag - I particularly recommend 'The kynges baneres beth forth ylad', 'Wele, herying and worshipe', and 'Hail, Lady, sea-star bright'.

As I was writing this piece it occurred to me that 2017 happens to be the closest we can get to an anniversary for Herebert: we don't know his exact dates of birth or death (c.1270 to c.1333 is the usual guess), but we do know that he became master of the Franciscan house in Oxford around 1317. This 700-year anniversary seems as good a date to mark as any - and as regular readers will know, I enjoy a good anniversary. So I've decided that over the course of this year I'll post the rest of Herebert's poems here, with translations, and maybe a few audio recordings too - like many Middle English poets, his verses are often better heard than read on the page. A few of Herebert's poems can be found in anthologies of Middle English verse, and there's one edition of his English poems which is available online, but that edition (while very useful) contains no translations or glossing to help the reader unfamiliar with Herebert's rather tricky dialect. I'll do my best to make his poems more accessible, and to highlight some of the qualities which make them so appealing.

Virgin and Child (All Souls, Oxford)

To get us started, here's one of Herebert's longer poems, one of the few which has no known source.

Thou wommon boute fere
Thin owne fader bere!
Gret wonder this was
That on wommon was moder
To fader and hire brother,
So never other nas.

Thou my suster and moder
And thy sone my brother,
Who shulde thenne drede?
Whoso haveth the king to broder
And eek the quene to moder
Well aughte for to spede.

Dame, suster and moder,
Say thy sone, my brother,
That is domesmon,
That for thee that him bere,
To me be debonere;
My robe he haveth opon.

Sethe he my robe tok,
Also ich finde in bok,
He is to me ibounde;
And helpe he wole, ich wot,
For love the chartre wrot,
The enke orn of his wounde.

Ich take to witnessinge
The spere and the crowninge,
The nailes and the rode,
That he that is so cunde
This ever haveth in munde,
That boughte us with his blode.

When thou yeve him my wede,
Dame, help at the nede;
Ich wot thou might fol well,
That for no wreched gult
Ich be to helle ipult,
To thee ich make apel.

Now, Dame, ich thee biseche,
At thilke day of wreche
Be by thy sones trone,
When sunne shall ben sought
In werk, in word, in thought,
And spek for me thou one.

When ich mot nede apere
For mine gultes here
Tofore the domesmon,
Suster, be ther my fere
And make him debonere
That my robe haveth opon.

For habbe ich thee and him
That markes berth with him,
That charite him tok,
The woundes all blody,
The toknes of mercy,
Ase techeth Holy Bok,
Tharf me nothing drede;
Sathan shall nout spede
With wrenches ne with crok.
Amen.

Here's a translation of the poem (but I like Herebert's use of 'dame' for 'lady', so I've kept that...):

Thou woman without compare,
[Who didst] thine own father bear!
Great wonder this was,
That one woman was mother
To father and her brother,
Such another never was.

Thou my sister and mother,
And thy son my brother;
Who then should dread?
Whoever has the king for brother
And the queen for mother
Well ought to succeed.

Dame, sister and mother,
Say to thy son, my brother,
Who is domesman, [judge]
That for thee who him did bear
To me be debonair; [merciful and gracious]
My robe he hath upon.

Since he my robe took,
As I find in book, [i.e. the Bible]
He is to me bound.
And help he will, I wot, [I know]
For love the charter wrote,
The ink ran from his wounds.

I take to witnessing
The spear and the crowning, [i.e. with thorns]
The nails and the rood,
That he that is so kind [benevolent in nature]
Have ever this in mind,
Who bought us with his blood.

Since thou gave him my weed, [clothing]
Dame, help at the need.
I know thou may full well,
That for no wretched guilt
I may be to hell ypult; [thrust]
To thee I make appeal.

Now, Dame, I thee beseech,
At that day of wreche [Judgement Day]
Be by thy son's throne,
When sins shall be sought [searched through]
In work, in word, in thought,
And speak for me, thou alone.

When I must needs appear
For mine sins here
Before the domesman,
Sister, be there my fere [companion]
And make him debonair
That my robe hath upon.

For if I have thee and him
Whom the marks beareth on him,
Which charity him took - [the marks which love gave him]
The wounds all bloody,
The tokens of mercy,
As teacheth Holy Book,
Nothing need I dread;
Satan shall not succeed
With wrenches nor with crook. [with tricks or guile]
Amen.

This is a fairly simple poem - deliberately simple, I think, perhaps because it's not a translation of a hymn. It aims to be direct, intimate and devotional, a private and meditative kind of prayer, and so it depends for its effect on repetition and more straightforward diction than Herebert tends to use in his hymn translations. This seems appropriate for a poem which so tenderly explores intimate family relationships, leaning on the kinship created when Mary gave her son 'my robe', the clothing of human flesh. Christ is our brother, he wears our clothes, and so how can he not be 'bound' by the bond of love?

The images here are ones traditional in medieval spirituality, including that striking idea that Christ wrote the 'charter' of human liberation with the ink of his own blood. His sufferings are called to be 'witnesses' to the transaction written upon his body. This is a legal image (fitting for a poem where Christ is not only a brother but domesman, 'judge'), but it's also part of a wider tradition of images drawn from books and book-making, common in medieval devotional writing; these speak, for instance, of Christ writing upon the book of the heart, or compare his body stretched upon the cross to stretched-out parchment on which a message of love is written. It's an image drawn from a literate, documentary, book-filled culture, perhaps inspired by the very ink which flowed from the poet's hands as he wrote these words in his manuscript.


It's a metaphor which would have resonated in early fourteenth-century Oxford. This picture, which the Catholic Herald chose to illustrate my piece, is very appropriate for Herebert, though none of the buildings visible here had been built when he lived in Oxford. This is the view from the tower of St Mary's church in the centre of the city, looking over what's now called Radcliffe Square. In Herebert's day, looking out from St Mary's, you would have seen not the elegant towers and spacious quadrangles of All Souls' but a cluster of small, closely-packed residential halls populated by students and teachers, the forerunners of Oxford's colleges. This street was the centre of the book trade in medieval Oxford, where you would have found the scribes, parchment-makers, bookbinders and copyists, all the people making the books and writing implements which the university relied on.

Various places might claim to be the heart of the University of Oxford, but St Mary's has a particularly good right to that title: it was in this church that the first university library was established (around 1320, during Herebert's time in Oxford, and more than 150 years before the founding of the Bodleian) and in the early days of the university lectures, ceremonies, and graduations took place here. We know that Herebert preached at St Mary's on at least one occasion, since his manuscript of his works contains a sermon to be given there on 9 June 1314, the translation feast of St Edmund of Abingdon.

St Edmund, scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, grew up in Oxford about a century before Herebert was born, and had a strong connection to St Mary's. As a boy St Edmund was educated in a school attached to the church, where he had three miraculous experiences during his childhood (read about them here). On one occasion, a ghostly voice prevented him from running out of the church to play with other boys during Mass. Another time, a stone fell off the church tower while he was listening to a lecture in the churchyard, but Edmund was saved from harm. At twelve years old, Edmund made a vow of chastity which he confirmed by a mystical marriage with the Virgin Mary: he placed a ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin in St Mary's, from which he then found it could not be removed, and wore another ring himself as a token of his vow. These stories associate Oxford's local saint with the physical spaces inside and outside this church, which you can still walk through today even if most of the buildings around them have changed.

By the west door of St Mary's, where St Edmund was nearly hit by a stone...

As a Franciscan, William Herebert's home in Oxford was not here in the heart of the city but on its outskirts, in the parish of St Ebbe's. The Franciscan house there had been founded in 1224, two years before St Francis' death; it was, of course, demolished at the Reformation, and the site now lies underneath a supermarket. (The area is currently being redeveloped, bringing to light some fascinating glimpses into life at medieval Greyfriars.)

For such a deeply traditional university, Oxford has often been uncomfortable with its medieval roots - for a long time after the Reformation, acknowledging any continuity between the university and the scholarly communities of the monks and friars of medieval Oxford was all too dangerously Catholic. The university's humanist origin myth was established at the expense of people like Edmund of Abingdon and William Herebert, and this attitude has not entirely died out; in official publications it's not uncommon to see something like this short piece which makes the 'history of books in Oxford' begin only in 1478, with the first book printed in the city. Books and their readers and writers go back a long way before that, of course. For Herebert in the early fourteenth century, Edmund of Abingdon was already part of Oxford's history; at St Mary's he might have thought, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of Herebert's Oxford contemporary Duns Scotus, 'this air I gather and I release / He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what / He haunted'...

Edmund of Abingdon too has a place in the history of English poetry, since one of the earliest and most popular devotional poems in Middle English survives embedded in one of his Latin works:

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

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

We don't know who wrote this (it's just possible it was St Edmund himself) but it dates to the early thirteenth century, and is a reminder that Herebert, though an innovator in some ways, was following in a very well-established tradition of devotional English poetry. Herebert's poems to the Virgin, including 'Thou wommon boute fere', are very much in that tradition.

St Mary's (source)

The Oxford context for Herebert's work appeals to me for obvious reasons, but it's actually an important one: it challenges several popular stereotypes about the medieval period to find a trained theologian in a university city, in the early fourteenth century, spending his time translating Latin hymns into English verse. Firstly, it's a good example of how seriously medieval preachers took their pastoral duties - forget your lazy dark-ages myths about clerics gabbling away in Latin to maliciously hide religion from the unlearned. (I hope no one who reads this blog believes that nonsense, but it's still regularly promulgated to the public by people who should know better.) Part of Herebert's motivation was evidently that he wanted his congregation to understand the hymns of the church in the vernacular, in their language - which was his language too, though he was also thoroughly conversant in Latin and French. That doesn't even make him particularly unusual or controversial for his day; he was part of a very long tradition of pastoral and homiletic writing in the vernacular going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, representing perhaps the longest unbroken strand of continuity in English literature. And since people still go around saying that Chaucer was the 'Father of English poetry', 'one of the first people to write in English', and all that, it's always good to remember that no, he really wasn't...

I emphasise the Englishness of Herebert's verse in part because there's been a little flurry of writing about 'Englishness' lately. In the rather frantic journalistic search for historical analogies for Brexit, Norman Conquest parallels are all very last year - it's all about the Reformation now. Witness this, and this, and this, all of which depend on the idea that 'English identity' is absolutely and inextricably Protestant, constituted in large part by opposition to the medieval, Catholic, pre-Reformation past. This is hardly a new argument (far from it!) but it's a pretty awful one for all kinds of reasons. Quite apart from the dangers inherent in declaring any particular minority religion or denomination to be not English, it involves repeating popular myths about medieval England and its relationship to the rest of Catholic Europe which most historians stopped even bothering to refute decades ago, so simplistic and caricatured are they. Imagine thinking that for the nine hundred years (!) between the Synod of Whitby and the Reformation, England was 'subservient to Rome' and tied to the 'conformist Continent', only capable of innovation, liberty and creativity once free of those wicked foreigners and their Catholic shackles. It's such an ignorant and old-fashioned view - and a very limited and (ironically) constricting way of talking about how other people might understand their own overlapping ethnic, national and religious identities.

So now seems a good time to celebrate someone like Herebert and his very English Catholicism - his very Catholic Englishness - which was perfectly compatible for him with both scholarly Latin learning and fluency in French and Anglo-Norman literature. His manuscript is trilingual, representing a very catholic (with a small c) range of interests, and revealing the thoughtful creativity of his poetry and the sensitivity of his pastoral care. These make him appealing, but not at all unique; he was a man of his time. He was a product of the lively and dynamic culture of medieval England and Catholic Europe, which educated and nurtured Herebert and many more like him - and which deserves to be taken seriously in its own right, and not just as a prop in a lazy rhetorical argument.

Friday, 17 February 2017

'Whan alle tresors arn tried,' quod she, 'Treuthe is the beste'

‘There I could see winged wonders fly’, by Warwick Goble (1912)

My latest column for History Today is out now, and can be read here. It's about Chaucer's brilliant, dizzying, disturbing poem The House of Fame, and its vision of what we have recently started calling a 'post-truth' world - in which stories spread and circulate regardless of whether they are true or not.

Chaucer then describes an even more disturbing sight, more chaotic and unstable than the House of Fame: one built of twigs, whirling and spinning about at an incredible speed. This house is full of ‘tidings’; a useful Middle English word, which can simply mean news or information, but often has negative overtones of gossip and rumour. Tidings circulate in this house on every subject imaginable and, as they pass from one person to another, they grow in the telling, quickly becoming an inseparable amalgam of false and true. They spread like fire ‘from a spark sprung amiss / until all a city burnt up is’.

In one especially vivid moment, Chaucer describes a false story fighting with a true one to escape out of a window of the house, each crying ‘Let me go first!’. They agree to go around the world as sworn brothers, so closely mingled together that no one will ever be able to separate truth from lie. These tidings are then carried abroad by travellers, sailors and pilgrims - groups in medieval society stereotypically notorious for caring more about a good story than about the facts.

Chaucer’s noisy, dizzying house of rumours will sound familiar to any user of Twitter. What Chaucer understands and brings sharply to life in this poem is that truth is rarely the most important factor in determining whether a story will spread. We are all capricious readers, who respond to and share stories that in some way accord with our own understanding of the world. This idea was a long-standing interest for Chaucer and lies behind The Canterbury Tales, too: as the pilgrims in that poem tell stories to each other, they demonstrate how complex the process of hearing and sharing tales can be. Whether they react to each other’s stories with praise or violent disapproval, the pilgrims are motivated more by their own interests and preoccupations than by the intrinsic value of the story. Once a tale is told, the teller cannot control how its hearers will receive it.
Here are some extracts from The House of Fame (far be it from me to paraphrase Chaucer when he can so eloquently speak for himself!). First the description of the house of rumour:

And ever mo, as swyft as thought,
This queynte hous aboute wente,
That never mo hyt stille stente.
And therout com so gret a noyse
That, had hyt stonden upon Oyse,
Men myghte hyt han herd esely
To Rome, y trowe sikerly...
And on the roof men may yet seen
A thousand holes, and wel moo,
To leten wel the soun out goo.
And be day, in every tyde,
Been al the dores opened wide,
And be nyght echon unshette;
Ne porter ther is noon to lette
No maner tydynges in to pace.
Ne never rest is in that place
That hit nys fild ful of tydynges,
Other loude or of whisprynges;
And over alle the houses angles
Ys ful of rounynges and of jangles
Of werres, of pes, of mariages,
Of reste, of labour, of viages,
Of abood, of deeth, of lyf,
Of love, of hate, acord, of stryf,
Of loos, of lore, and of wynnynges,
Of hele, of seknesse, of bildynges,
Of faire wyndes, and of tempestes,
Of qwalm of folk, and eke of bestes;
Of dyvers transmutacions
Of estats, and eke of regions;
Of trust, of drede, of jelousye,
Of wit, of wynnynge, of folye;
Of plente, and of gret famyne,
Of chepe, of derthe, and of ruyne;
Of good or mys governement,
Of fyr, and of dyvers accident.
And loo, thys hous, of which I write,
Syker be ye, hit nas not lyte,
For hyt was sixty myle of lengthe.
Al was the tymber of no strengthe,
Yet hit is founded to endure
While that hit lyst to Aventure,
That is the moder of tydynges,
As the see of welles and of sprynges;
And hyt was shapen lyk a cage.

That list of 'rounynges and of jangles' is just brilliant. The dreamer's eagle-guide drops him inside the house, where he finds it's full of crowds of people busily whispering to each other and spreading tidings:

And every wight that I saugh there
Rouned everych in others ere
A newe tydynge prively,
Or elles tolde al openly
Ryght thus, and seyde: "Nost not thou
That ys betyd, lo, late or now?"
"No," quod he, "telle me what."
And than he tolde hym this and that,
And swor therto that hit was soth -
"Thus hath he sayd," and "Thus he doth,"
"Thus shal hit be," "Thus herde y seye,"
"That shal be founde," "That dar I leye" -
That al the folk that ys alyve
Ne han the kunnynge to discryve
The thinges that I herde there,
What aloude, and what in ere.
But al the wondermost was this:
Whan oon had herd a thing, ywis,
He com forth ryght to another wight,
And gan him tellen anon-ryght
The same that to him was told,
Or hyt a forlong way was old,
But gan somwhat for to eche
To this tydynge in this speche
More than hit ever was.
And nat so sone departed nas
Tho fro him, that he ne mette
With the thridde; and or he lette
Any stounde, he told him als;
Were the tydynge soth or fals,
Yit wolde he telle hyt natheles,
And evermo with more encres
Than yt was erst. Thus north and south
Wente every tydyng fro mouth to mouth,
And that encresing ever moo,
As fyr ys wont to quyke and goo
From a sparke spronge amys,
Til al a citee brent up ys.
And whan that was ful yspronge,
And woxen more on every tonge
Than ever hit was, hit wente anoon
Up to a wyndowe out to goon;
Or, but hit myghte out there pace,
Hyt gan out crepe at som crevace,
And flygh forth faste for the nones.
And somtyme saugh I thoo at ones
A lesyng and a sad soth sawe,
That gonne of aventure drawe
Out at a wyndowe for to pace;
And, when they metten in that place,
They were achekked bothe two,
And neyther of hem moste out goo
For other, so they gonne crowde,
Til ech of hem gan crien lowde,
"Lat me go first!" "Nay, but let me!
And here I wol ensuren the,
Wyth the nones that thou wolt do so,
That I shal never fro the go,
But be thyn owne sworen brother!
We wil medle us ech with other,
That no man, be they never so wrothe,
Shal han on of us two, but bothe
At ones, al besyde his leve,
Come we a-morwe or on eve,
Be we cried or stille yrouned."
Thus saugh I fals and soth compouned
Togeder fle for oo tydynge.

This piece seems to have struck a chord, for obvious reasons. It seems appropriate that we should turn to Chaucer for comment on such a question: few writers have given more thought to what it means to share a story (or tell a tale), and what that act can reveal about the teller. If social media is like Chaucer's House of Rumour or his Canterbury pilgrimage writ large, it's important to emphasise that for him this is in part a literary question, in the broadest sense: it demonstrates the importance of studying and understanding story, narrative, reading and interpretation, the use of words. All 'tidings' are only words, and so in order to understand them we should learn from thinking about how stories work and where they derive their power.

Sethe the tyme that God was boren,
This world was never so untrewe.
Men recchen never to ben forsworen,
To reuen that is hem ful duwe;
The peynted word that fel biforen,
Behynde, hit is another hewe.
Whon Gabriel schal blowe his horn,
His feble fables schul hym rewe.

Since the time that God was born,
This world was never so untrue;
Men care never to be forsworn -
The time to rue that is full due.
The painted word which falls before,
Behind, it shows another hue.
When Gabriel shall blow his horn,
These feeble fables they shall rue.

So wrote an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer, one of many writers in the late fourteenth century to lament what's been called that era's 'crisis of truth'. (Here's another one). In saying that 'this world has never been so untrue', he means something even more serious than Chaucer does in talking of tidings 'of fals and soth compouned'; at a time when trewthe meant not just factual accuracy but faithfulness, integrity, honour, an 'untrewe' world was a frightening prospect. How much worse would a post-truth one be?

In the opening scenes of Piers Plowman, when the dreamer falls asleep on the Malvern Hills, the very first thing he sees in his dream is a tower on a hill, standing in the east against the sun. It soars high above the 'fair field of folk' which is this world, where all classes of people are busily engaged in 'working and wandering'. That tower, the dreamer later learns, is the dwelling-place of Truth. The figure of Holy Church explains to him that Truth is nothing less than God: father, creator, provider of all good things in the world. The more human beings are like Truth, upright and honest in all their dealings, the more they are like God and his most trustworthy of treasures:

'Whan alle tresors arn tried,' quod she, 'Treuthe is the beste.
I do it on Deus caritas to deme the sothe;
It is as dereworthe a drury as deere God hymselven.
Who is trewe of his tonge and telleth noon oother,
And dooth the werkes therwith and wilneth no man ille,
He is a god by the Gospel, agrounde and olofte,
And ylik to Oure Lord, by Seint Lukes wordes.'

'When all treasures are tried,' said she, 'Truth is the best.
I appeal to [the text] 'God is Love' to prove the truth;
It is as precious a love-gift as dear God himself.
Whoever is true of his tongue and says nothing else,
And acts accordingly and wishes no man ill,
He is god-like, says the Gospel, on earth and in heaven,
And the image of Our Lord, by St Luke's words.'

Thursday, 2 February 2017

'All hail, lantern of light!'

The Presentation (BL Egerton 3277, f.114)

Today is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the end of the forty-day Christmas season. It takes its English name from the custom of blessing and processing with candles on this day, a practice linked to the words of Simeon on meeting Christ that he is 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'. This is a festival of light and hope, a first shoot of spring.

The name 'Candlemas' dates from the Anglo-Saxon period (the first recorded appearance of the name is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry on the death of Svein Forkbeard in 1014), and there's plentiful and evocative evidence of the observance of this feast in England from the tenth century onwards. In the past I've posted an Anglo-Saxon sermon for this feast, a Candlemas miracle-story about St Dunstan, Cnut's Candlemas song at Ely, a particularly lovely Middle English Candlemas carol 'The queen of bliss and of beauty', and Margery Kempe's description of her experience of the celebrations of this day - five centuries of Candlemas Days.

The liturgy for this day is particularly dramatic, encouraging the congregation to re-enact the Gospel story by bearing the light of Christ in their hands. The Presentation in the Temple is also represented in medieval drama, in several different versions, so here are a few short extracts, in modernised spelling, from the fifteenth-century N-Town Plays. The full text can be found here, and you might like to compare the treatment of the same subject from the York Corpus Christi Plays.

The play begins with the aged Simeon, expressing his desire to see God before he dies:

I have been priest in Jerusalem here
And taught God's law many a year,
Desiring in all my mind
That the time were coming near
In which God's Son should appear
In earth to take mankind, [human form]
Before I died that I might find
My Saviour with my eyes to see.
But that it is so long behind, [overdue]
It is great distress unto me.

For I wax old and want my might
And begin to fail my sight,
The more I sorrow this tide,
Save only as I tell you right:
God of his grace hath me hight [promised]
That blissful birth to bide.
Wherefore now here beside
To Sancta sanctorum will I go
To pray God to be my guide,
To comfort me after my woe.

He prays, and an angel tells him to go to the temple in Jerusalem, where he will see God's Son. Simeon rejoices:

Ah, I thank thee, Lord of grace,
That hath granted me time and space
To live and bide this.
And I will walk now to the place
Where I may see thy Son's face,
Which is my joy and bliss.
I was never lighter, iwis,
To walk never here before! [I have never been so happy to come here]
For a merry time now is
When God, my Lord, is born.

'Light' here means 'happy, light-hearted', but of course it suggests the 'light' which has come to him. Anna, the prophetess, greets him:

All hail, Simeon! What tidings with you?
Why make ye all this mirth now?
Tell me whither ye fare.

Simeon: Anne, prophetess, if ye knew why
So should ye - I make a vow -
And all manner of men that are,
For God's Son - as I declare -
Is born to buy mankind! [redeem humanity]
Our Saviour is come to end our care!
Therefore have I great mirth to go.
And that is the cause I haste me
Unto the temple, him to see,
And therefore hinder me not, good friend.

Anna: Now blessed be God in Trinity
Since that time is come to be!
And with you will I wend
To see my Saviour ende [gracious]
And worship him also
With all my will and my full mind.
As I am bound, now will I do.

Presentation in the Temple (medieval wall-painting, Chalgrove, Oxfordshire)

They go to the temple, and Mary and Joseph enter with the child and their offering. Simeon prophesies:

In the temple of God, who understood, [let it be understood]
This day shall be offered with mild mood
He who is king of all,
Who shall be scourged and shed his blood,
And after die upon the rood,
Without cause to call; [without deserving it]
For whose Passion there shall befall
Such a sorrow both sharp and smart
That as a sword pierce it shall
Even through his mother's heart.

Anna: Yea, that shall be as I well find,
For redemption of all mankind,
That bliss for to restore
Which hath been lost time out of mind
By our father of our own kind,
Adam and Eve before.

Simeon and Anna greet the child in a beautiful bit of shared verse:

Simeon: All hail, my kindly comforter!
Anna: All hail, mankind's creator!
Simeon: All hail, thou God of might!
Anna: All hail, mankind's saviour!
Simeon: All hail, both king and emperor!
Anna: All hail, as it is right!
Simeon: All hail also Mary bright!
Anna: All hail, salver of sickness!
Simeon: All hail, lantern of light!
Anna: All hail, thou mother of meekness!

Mary: Simeon, I understand and see
That both of my son and me
Ye have knowing clear. [full knowledge]
And also in your company,
My son desires for to be,
And therefore take him here.


Simeon takes Jesus in his arms:

Welcome, prince without peer!
Welcome, God's own son!
Welcome, my Lord so dear!
Welcome, with me to wone! [dwell]

Then follow English versions of two Latin liturgical texts for Candlemas: the Introit, 'Suscepimus Deus misericordiam tuam' ('We have received thy mercy, O Lord, in the midst of thy temple') and the Nunc Dimittis.

Lord God in majesty
We have received this day of thee,
In midst of thy temple here
Thy great mercy, as we may see.
Therefore thy name of great degree
Be worshipped in all manere [every way]
Over all this world, both far and near,
Even unto the uttermost end;
For now is man out of danger
And rest and peace to all mankind.

Here the direction reads 'Nunc dimittis seruum tuum Domine, et cetera. The psalme songyn every vers, and therqwyl Symeon pleyth with the child and qwhan the psalme is endyd, he seyth:'

Now let me die, Lord, and hence pass,
For I, thy servant in this place,
Have seen my Saviour dear,
Which thou hast ordained before the face
Of all mankind, this time of grace,
Openly to appear;
Thy light is shining clear
For all mankind's salvation.
Mary, take your child now here
And keep him well, this man's salvation.


Joseph hands out candles to Mary, Simeon and Anna, and Mary takes the child to the altar:

Highest Father, God of power,
Your own dear son I offer you here,
As I to your law am sworn.
Receive thy child in glad manner,
For he is the first, this child so dear,
That of his mother is born.
But though I offer him you beforn, [to you]
Good Lord, yet give me him again,
For my comfort were fully lorn [lost]
If we should long asunder be!

She and Joseph make their offerings, and Mary's last words are as she places the birds upon the altar - a sacrifice which looks ahead to the greater 'offering' Christ will make, of his own life:

Almighty Father, merciful King:
Receive now this little offering,
For it is the first in degree
That your little child so young
Presents today by my showing
To your high majesty.
From his simple poverty,
By his devotion and my good will,
Upon your altar receive of me
Your son's offering, as it is skylle. [fitting]

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

'The Coming of Christ'


I've recently been thinking a bit about medieval drama, and in doing so came across a 'modern mystery play' which was new to me. The Coming of Christ, with words by John Masefield and music by Gustav Holst, was performed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1928. It was commissioned as part of the newly-instituted Canterbury Festival, and is said to have been the first attempt at reviving medieval mystery drama since the Middle Ages.

Apparently it was controversial at the time, attracting criticism both for representing sacred subjects on stage and for being performed inside the cathedral. It seems harmless enough now, and it's an interesting 1920s take on the medieval genre. The subject is the Nativity (though it was actually performed at Whitsun, on 28 May 1928), chiefly the adoration of the three kings and the shepherds. The kings are a capitalist, a tyrant and a mystical enthusiast, while the shepherds are cynical war veterans, who compare keeping watch over their sheep to their memories of night-watches in what sounds a lot like the trenches of the First World War. This was particularly controversial; for more on the context of the performance and its challenges, see this book.

Both Masefield and Holst worked with medieval texts and subjects on a number of occasions. I've written briefly about Masefield's poems on Anglo-Saxon saints before, as well as his Arthurian poetry. He was particularly fond of Chaucer, on whom he lectured and wrote frequently, so the Canterbury link here is apt; and I think there's a very faint whiff of the Pardoner's Tale in Masefield's shepherds. (Incidentally, do read Tolkien's brilliantly polite letter to Masefield, taking him to task for excessive praise of Chaucer as 'the first English poet'!) I don't know how much medieval drama Masefield might have read, but it seems relevant that he knew Piers Plowman; he drew a connection between the figure of Piers and the climactic scene in his most successful early poem, The Everlasting Mercy. (Both poems are set in the landscape of the Malvern Hills, near Masefield's native Ledbury).

For his part, Holst set a range of Middle English texts to music - most notable is probably 'Lullay my liking' (1916), but I also like this setting of four Middle English lyrics and his 'Four Old English Carols' (1907). I've so far only heard as much of the play's music as is available on Youtube, but there's a description of it from a contemporary review here and a fascinating account of the first performance here.


The play takes place in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral, which has a ready-made stage in the form of steps up to the Quire. What particularly interests me is the scene at the beginning of the play, which is set before the Incarnation. This is a discussion between the figure of 'Anima Christi' and four spirits: The Power, The Sword, The Mercy and The Light. Anima Christi has not yet entered into the world, but 'stands here at the brink / Of life's red sea which stains and overwhelms'. The spirits try to dissuade him from choosing to be born into the world as a man, warning him of the suffering he and his followers will undergo, and arguing that the dark and violent world is already past saving:

Man will not change for one voice crying truth,
And dying, beautiful as fire, for wisdom.
Like a stone falling in a stagnant pond,
You will but make a ripple swiftly stilled
By the green weed...
Men are but animals, and you will fail.
This is the harvest you will reap on earth:
Your mother, broken-hearted at the cross;
Your brother put to death; your comrades scattered.

But Anima Christi, though momentarily hesitant, is not swayed:

O spirits, I am resolute.
I lay aside my glory and my power
To take up Manhood.

This debate is reminiscent of the 'Parliament of Heaven' type of scene found in medieval drama and other kinds of medieval texts, including Piers Plowman. In this scene, four allegorical figures debate whether Christ's coming into the world to redeem mankind can be reconciled with the demands of justice, which requires punishment for sin. Here's one version of the idea from a medieval mystery play, and below is a rare representation of a Parliament of Heaven scene on a 15th-century English alabaster panel:


(See the V&A's website for a full description of the scene.) Christ is descending head-first to Mary, and the surrounding figures are the Four Daughters of God - Mercy, Truth, Righteousness and Peace. The personification of these female figures as the four principles to be reconciled is an idea based on the verse from Psalm 85: 'Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other'. These women are usually the figures who debate the apparently unresolvable question, and each can be roughly equated with one of Masefield's four (male) spirits. Apparently this scene was one of the most controversial aspects of the play, because of Christ's hesitation. I wonder what those who objected to the modern dialogue of Masefield's shepherds would have made of Langland's even more vigorous debate, in which Truth tells Mercy 'That thow tellest is but a tale of waltrot!', and Righteousness asks Peace 'What, ravestow? or thow art righty dronke?'!

In Piers Plowman the women appear from the four corners of the world: Righteousness 'out of the nyppe of the north', Mercy 'out of the west coste... walkynge in the wey', and so on. In a similar way, the figures in this play enter from the North and South Transepts of the cathedral, and through the Quire door from the east. When Anima Christi resolves to become incarnate in the world, he passes eastwards into the Quire as the four spirits strengthen him with their respective attributes.


As he does so the Host of Heaven sing:

O sing, as thrushes in the winter lift
Their ecstasy aloft among black boughs,
So that the doormouse stirs him in his drowse,
And by the melting drift
The newborn lamb bleats answer: sing, for swift
April the bride will enter this old house.

Awake, for in the darkness of the byre
Above the manger, clapping with his wings,
The cock of glory lifts his crest of fire:
Far, among slumbering men his trumpet rings:
Awake, the night is quick with coming things,
And hiding things that hurry into brake
Before the sun's arising: O awake.

Awake and sing: for in the stable-cave,
Man's heart, the sun has risen, Spring is here,
The withered bones are laughing in the grave,
Darkness and winter perish, Death and Fear;
A new Life enters Earth, who will make clear
The Beauty, within touch, of God the King;
O mortals, praise Him! O awake and sing!

Then the kings appear, discussing their quest, and the shepherds watching their sheep. Cold, tired, and resentful about their unappreciated service in the war, the shepherds are talking of revolution: 'let us have a turn at the fire, the rich have a turn at the fold... It's time the workers should command and have the wealth they make'. One of them speaks of his faith in God, though the others scoff ('I'm only a poor shepherd, but I've known Him', he says, Piers Plowman-like: Piers' very first line in the poem is 'I know him as kyndely as clerke doth his bokes'.)



Then 'the Angels appear at the Quire Door, on the Upper Stage and in the Gallery and Clerestory' of the cathedral, and sing:

Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth among men in whom God is well pleased.

Praise Him who brings into the dark
Of human life, this shining spark
Which will burn clear and be a mark
For wandering souls on earth and sea.
By his companionship and sign
The unlit souls of men will shine
And be a comfort and be divine,
And bring a glory to men to be.

Through Him who is born in stable here
Our heavenly host will come more near;
The presence of God, which drives out fear,
The glory of God, that makes all glow,
The comfort of God, that sings and swells
In the human heart like a peal of bells,
And the peace of God, that no tongue tells,
Are given to man to know.

Praise Him who shines in the bright sea,
In golden fruit, in the green tree,
In valleys clapping hands with glee,
In mountains that His witness are,
In heavens open like His hand,
In stars as many as the sand,
In planets doing His command,
And in His Son this star.

The child and his mother appear, framed by the door of the Quire. The angels sing:

You who have known the darkness slowly yield,
And in the twilight the first blackbird's cry
Come, with the dripping of the dew new-shaken
From twigs where yellowing leaves and reddening berries lie,
And seen the colour come upon the field,
And heard the cocks crow as the thorps awaken,

You know with what a holiness of light
The peace of morning comes, and how night goes -
Not goes, but, on a sudden, is not, even.
Now God Himself is Man and all the banded Night
Will perish and the Kingdom will unclose.
O man, praise God, praise Him, you host of heaven.


The kings and shepherds present their gifts to the child, and the shepherds carry him and his mother out on a litter as they sing:

By weary stages
The old world ages;
By blood, by rages,
By pain-sown seeds.
By fools and sages,
With death for wages,
Souls leave their cages
And Man does deeds.

In mire he trudges,
In grime he drudges,
In blindness judges,
In darkness gropes.
His bitter measure
Yields little pleasure;
For only treasure
He has his hopes.

The hope that sailing
When winds are failing
Above the railing
A coast may rise;
The thought that glory
Is not a story,
But Heaven o'er ye
And watching eyes.

Behold us bringing
With love and singing
And great joy ringing
And hearts new-made,
The prince, forespoken,
By seer and token,
By whom Sin's broken
And Death is stayed.

Now by his power
The world will flower,
And hour by hour
His realm increase;
Now men benighted
Will feel them righted
And love be lighted
To spirit's peace.

Our God is wearing
Man's flesh, and bearing
Man's cares, through caring
What men may be;
Our God is sharing
His light and daring
To help men's faring
And set men free.

All you in hearing
Assist our cheering
This soul unfearing
Who enters earth;
On God relying
And Death defying,
He puts on dying
That Life have birth.

This final hymn, 'By weary stages', was published in the 1931 edition of the hymnal Songs of Praise, with Holst's tune titled 'Hill Crest' (the name of Masefield's house near Oxford).

The four spirits reappear, and speak again:

The Mercy: By mercy, and by martyrdom,
And many ways, God leads us home:
And many darknesses there are.

The Light: By darkness and by light He leads,
He gives according to our needs,
And in His darkest is a star.

The Sword: The angry blood was once the guide,
But perisht boughs are thrust aside
In the green fever of the Spring.

The Power: Friends, Christ is come within this hall,
Bow down and worship one and all,
Our Father for this thing.

One by one the four spirits pass into the Quire (where two Anglo-Saxon monks once heard angels singing.)

Looking into Canterbury Cathedral from the door of the Quire

Thanne pipede Pees of poesie a note:
'Clarior est solito post maxima nebula phebus;
Post inimicicias clarior est et amor.
After sharpest shoures,' quod Pees, 'moost shene is the sonne;
Is no weder warmer than after watry cloudes;
Ne no love levere; ne lever frendes
Than after werre and wo, whan love and pees ben maistres.
Was nevere werre in this world, ne wikkednesse so kene,
That Love, and hym liste, to laughyng ne broughte,
And Pees, thorugh pacience, alle perils stoppede.'
'Trewes!' quod Truthe; 'thow tellest us sooth, by Jesus!
Clippe we in covenaunt, and ech of us kisse oother.'
'And lete no peple,' quod Pees, 'parceyve that we chidde;
For inpossible is no thyng to Hym that is almyghty.'
'Thow seist sooth,' seide Rightwisnesse, and reverentliche hire kiste,
Pees, and Pees hire, per secula seculorum.
Misericordia et Veritas obviaverunt sibi, justicia et Pax osculate sunt.

Monday, 30 January 2017

'Trewthe is put in low degree'

Truth, Mercy, Peace and Justice before the Throne of God (BL Royal 20 B IV, f. 7)

God be with trewthe where he be!
I wolde he were in this cuntre.

A man that schuld of trewthe telle,
With grete lordes he may not dwelle.
In trewe story as clerkes telle,
Trewthe is put in low degree.

In laydies chaumberes cometh he not;
There dare trewthe setten none fot.
Thow he wolde, he may not
Comen among the heye mene.

With men of lawe he hath non spas;
They loven trewthe in none plas;
Me thinketh they han a rewly grace
That trewthe is put at swich degree.

In holy cherche he may not sitte;
Fro man to man they schuln him flitte.
It reweth me sore in mine witte,
Of trewthe I have gret pite.

Religious, that schulde be good,
If trewthe cum there, I holde him wood.
They schulden him rende cote and hood,
And make him bare to flee.

A man that schulde of trewthe aspie,
He must seken esilye
In the bosum of Marie,
For there he is for sothe.

This is a carol from the fifteenth-century manuscript BL Sloane 2593. It's one of a number of medieval English poems lamenting contemporary society's lack of 'trewthe' (which in Middle English has a broad meaning encompassing integrity, honour, honesty, loyalty, etc.). A translation:

God be with truth wherever he be!
I wish he were in this country.

A man who ought of truth to tell,
With great lords he may not dwell.
In true story, as clerks tell,
Truth is put in low degree.

In ladies' chambers comes he not;
There dares truth set not a foot.
Though he would, he cannot
Come among the high mene. [in 'high society']

With men of law he has no space;
They love truth in no place;
It seems they have a rewly grace [an unfortunate lot]
That truth is put at such a degree.

In holy church he cannot sit;
From man to man they would him flit. [drive him on]
It rues me sore in my wit,
Of truth I have great pity.

Religious, who should be good -
If truth comes there, I hold him wood. [mad]
They would him rend coat and hood,
And make him bare to flee.

A man who would of truth espy,
He must seek it easily [perhaps 'simply, quietly']
In the bosom of Mary,
For there he is, in truth.

Compare this post on a Christmas carol, 'Tidings that be true'.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Times and Seasons

My latest column for History Today can now be read online. Here's an extract:
Early medieval historians and scholars were fascinated by the calculation of time, and one of the most attractive insights into how they understood it is an Old English poem which survives in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is usually known as the Menologium, though one might more poetically call it ‘The Beauties of the Year’, since that is really its subject. The poem moves through the calendar year, month by month, feast by feast, finding something to praise about every season in the traditional language of Old English poetry. It marks saints’ days, the 12 months, the two solstices and equinoxes, and the beginning of each of the four seasons, which are dated to the days halfway between each solstice and equinox. Every significant date or season receives its own brief lyrical description...

This is an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time. The poem begins with Christmas (not January 1st) and opens: ‘Christ was born, glory of kings, at midwinter.’ After proceeding through the year, it ends with Christmas, too, reflecting the medieval understanding of the meaningful link between the astronomical and sacred calendars: Christ’s birth takes place in deepest winter, at the solstice, because it is a victory of light over darkness.

What fascinates about this poem is not only its praise of the glories of the natural year, but the fact that it was preserved in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the invaluable vernacular record of England’s early medieval history. What was the reasoning behind putting these two texts together, making the Menologium serve almost as a preface to the Chronicle? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also begins with the birth of Christ, but it locates the event not in reference to the season of midwinter but to a historical era: its first entry reads: ‘Octavian ruled 56 years, and in the 42nd year of his reign Christ was born.’ From that similar starting point the two texts follow their divergent courses, reckoning their different kinds of time.

Read the rest here. The manuscript in question is this one, where the poem opens with a beautiful initial 'C':


This is BL Cotton MS Tiberius B I, the C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (other manuscripts of the Chronicle have different prefatory material). It's an eleventh-century manuscript, usually said to have been written either at Abingdon or at Christ Church, Canterbury. And here's the beginning of the Chronicle:

BL Cotton MS Tib. B I, f. 115v

The poem describes a single, unchanging liturgical year, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a linear model of history dating from the Incarnation of Christ (Cristes geflæscnesse), but the timelines have numerous points of intersection. Many of the saints' days mentioned in the poem of course commemorate historical events: so the coming of the Magi, the feast of Epiphany in the annual cycle, is also an event in history recorded by the Chronicle (under the year 2 AD); the first entries of the Chronicle record the deaths of the apostles and early martyrs, who are each commemorated by annual feasts in the poem; the coming of St Augustine of Canterbury across the 'salt sea' to convert the Anglo-Saxons is mentioned in the poem (in the section for May) and in the Chronicle (under the year 596), and so on. What's more, the Chronicle frequently dates events by reference to feasts and liturgical seasons, as was common in the medieval period. The last entry in this version of the Chronicle, for the year 1066, contains a particularly memorable cluster of significant events dated to moments in the church's year: the year runs from the death of Edward the Confessor on 'Twelfth Day', through political crisis at Easter, Rogationtide, and the Nativity of the Virgin, to the very last event recorded, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on 'the Vigil of St Matthew the Apostle'. That last tumultuous year (the last year of Anglo-Saxon history, in one sense) was full of surprises and upheavals; but even so the yearly cycle was stable and unchanging.

BL Cotton MS Tib. B I, f. 115

Crist wæs acennyd, cyninga wuldor, on midne winter... Between the Menologium and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sits the wisdom poem now known as Maxims II (above). This poem, too, begins by musing on kings, power, and the passage of the seasons:

Cyning sceal rice healdan. Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne,
orðanc enta geweorc, þa þe on þysse eorðan syndon,
wrætlic weallstana geweorc. Wind byð on lyfte swiftust,
þunar byð þragum hludast. Þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle,
wyrd byð swiðost. 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.
Soð bið switolost, sinc byð deorost,
gold gumena gehwam, and gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.


A king should defend a kingdom. Cities are seen from afar,
the skilful work of giants, which are on this earth,
wondrous work of wall-stones. The wind in the sky is swiftest,
thunder is loudest in season. Great are the powers of Christ.
Fate is the most powerful thing, 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.
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 on.

Read together, as an eleventh-century reader might have read them, these three texts resonate with each other in fascinating ways. All are interested (among other subjects) in the passage of time, the seasons and the years, and in powers earthly and heavenly - and in the link between those things.

I've written about Anglo-Saxon poetry on the seasons in a series of posts on this blog (spring, summer, autumn, winter). Over the past few years, thinking about these texts has made me think differently about my own experience of the passage of time, and led me to pay much closer attention to the cycles of the natural year - as Maxims II, at least, seems to encourage us to do. The interaction between the seasonal cycle and the liturgical year, so beautifully detailed in the Menologium, was also the subject of my most popular post ever (!). It's an obvious thing to say, perhaps, but the experience of living through the seasons from year to year, reflecting on how that feels and what it might mean, seems to offer many people a powerful sense of contact with the past. It doesn't mean we interpret these seasonal experiences in the same way, of course, or draw the same lessons from them, or associate the same emotions with them - there are some intriguing differences, in fact. But it's a kind of ever-changing constant.

I was thinking about this when re-reading Beowulf the other day, because in that poem there are a few moments when the poet turns to the seasons as a way of expressing continuity between past and present. To the poet, the world of Beowulf is already in the distant past, a pre-Christian Scandinavia different in several key aspects from contemporary Anglo-Saxon England. But one thing they have in common (he thinks) is the passage of the seasons.

Gewiton him ða wigend wica neosian
freondum befeallen, Frysland geseon,
hamas ond heaburh. Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme; eard gemunde
þeah þe ne meahte on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; holm storme weol
won wið winde, winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, oþ ðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales sele bewitiað
wuldortorhtan weder. Ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm; fundode wrecca,
gist of geardum. (1125-1140)

The context for this is the story of Finn and Hengest, a legend Tolkien was particularly interested in, so here's Tolkien's translation from his version of Beowulf:

Then the warriors bereft of their friends departed to look upon their dwellings, to see the Frisian land, their homes and mighty town. Still Hengest abode with Finn that blood-stained winter, keeping fully to his word. He thought of his own land, even though he could not speed upon the sea his ship with curving beak. The deep was tossed in storm and battled with the wind; winter locked the waves in icy bond, until another year came to the dwellings of men, even as it doth yet, those weathers gloriously fair that unchangingly observe the seasons. Now past was winter, and fair the bosom of the earth. The exile, the guest of Finn, was eager to be gone from those courts.

I won't attempt to recap the story; all you need to know is that for the poet of Beowulf, the time of Hengest and Finn is even further back in the legendary past than the world of his poem. Yet the changing seasons he imagines Hengest living through (impatiently, wanting to be gone) are essentially the same as his own time: as winter passes into spring oþer com gear in geardas, swa nu gyt deð, 'another year came to the dwellings of men, as it does yet'. In Hengest's day, in Beowulf's, and in ours, the weathers of the world observe their appointed seasons - syngales sele bewitiað.

There's another such moment when Beowulf is fighting against Grendel's mother, and his sword begins to melt like a spring thaw:

Þa þæt sweord ongan
æfter heaþoswate hildegicelum,
wigbil wanian. Þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend Fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla; þæt is soð Metod. (1605-11)

Then that sword began
to waste away because of the war-sweat,
the blade into battle-icicles. That was a great wonder:
it all melted, just like ice
when the Father loosens the bonds of frost,
unwinds the water's chains, he who has power
over times and seasons. He is the true Measurer. [the one who 'metes out' destiny]

Note the present tense as the poet shifts into metaphor. What could be further from the ordinary everyday world than a hero in a monster's underwater cave, fighting for his life with a miraculous sword? But this metaphor of the thawing ice is drawn from our world, our time, our seasons. Again there's that link between the seasons and power, as in Maxims II - the divine governance over time which is so immeasurably greater than any earthly geweald. This scene is a display of human, almost super-human, strength - Beowulf is the mightiest man in the world, in his days - but the mysterious power which rules the seasons is far beyond his.

Metod eallum weold 
gumena cynnes, swa he nu git deð;
forþan bið andgit æghwær selest
ferhðes foreþanc. Fela sceal gebidan
leofes ond laþes se þe longe her
on ðyssum windagum worolde bruceð. (1057-62)

The Measurer governed all for mankind, as he now does yet;
and so understanding is best everywhere,
forethought of mind. Much must he endure
of love and hate, who long here
in these days of strife enjoys the world.

These are perhaps simultaneously the most comforting and uncomforting lines of Beowulf. We do indeed live in days of strife - but you can always rely on the literature of the past to remind you that there's nothing new or unusual about that. 'These days of strife' are not a particularly troubled moment in history, but all the days of this world. But there are other ways of thinking about time, and the events which happen within it - what an Anglo-Saxon poet might call wyrd - in a more positive way. We don't have to think about history only as a stream of events down which we helplessly drift, talking and fretting solely about the very latest thing to happen, without a moment for reflection or memory. (We'll call this the 'social media timeline' model of history). There are other options, even if they're not very fashionable ones: paying mindful attention to the details of the natural world, listening to the voices of poets of the past, thinking about patterns and constants and the changeless, instead of being solely fixated on the present. Reflecting on what even the greatest earthly power can and can't do helps, too - no king or politician, as Beowulf hints, has power over times and seasons! Maxims II seems to promise that in such ways we can learn to be wise, simply by noticing and abiding the passage of time:

gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.


an old man is most wise,
made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.
Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide on.