Monday, 30 April 2012

"My heart is like a singing bird"



Continuing yesterday's youtube theme, this video is an absolutely perfect combination of words, music and pictures - for none of which am I responsible, but which I highly recommend. (Also, I know the birthday is this poem is a metaphorical one, but today actually is my birthday, and I couldn't think of anything else to post about...)

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Medieval Multimedia

So I had (what seemed at the time like) a bright idea, and started a youtube channel of me reading stuff in Old and Middle English, to supplement things I've posted on this blog. There's lots of videos of people reading medieval stuff on youtube and some of it is great (this for instance is fantastic) and some of it is pretty bad (so many versions of the General Prologue!), so I figured I might as well contribute to the cacophony. So far I've posted some videos of me reading from the Old English Gospels, and 'Stond wel moder under rode'. And also 'When the nightingale sings' because, well, it's April.

I think you can find it here...

Psalm Translations: By the waters of Babylon

I was thinking about something today - I don't know why - and as so often happens, a psalm at Evensong tonight resonated with my thought, and worked to crystallise it somehow. So if this post goes off on a tangent at the end, you'll have to forgive me.

It was Psalm 136/7:




1. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept : when we remembered thee, O Sion.
2 As for our harps, we hanged them up : upon the trees that are therein.
3 For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody, in our heaviness : Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
4 How shall we sing the Lord's song : in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, : let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth : yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.
7 Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem : how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.
8 O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery : yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us.
9 Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children : and throweth them against the stones.


I love that setting, which is by George Garrett; it's so beautiful it breaks your heart.

This is perhaps the most famous setting of the Latin version:



1 Super flumina Babylonis ibi sedimus et flevimus, cum recordaremur Sion.
2 Super salices in medio eius suspendimus citharas nostras.
3 Quoniam ibi interrogaverunt nos qui captivos duxerunt nos verba carminis et qui adfligebant nos laeti: canite nobis de canticis Sion.
4 Quomodo cantabimus canticum Domini in terra aliena?
5 Si oblitus fuero tui, Hierusalem, in oblivione sit dextera mea.
6 Adhereat lingua mea gutturi meo, si non recordatus fuero tui si non praeposuero Hierusalem in principio laetitiae meae.
7 Memento, Domine, filiorum Edom in diem Hierusalem dicentium evacuate evacuate usque ad fundamentum eius.
8 Filia Babylon vastata, beatus qui retribuet tibi vicissitudinem tuam quam retribuisti nobis.
9 Beatus qui tenebit et adlidet parvulos tuos ad petram.


Now for some medieval translations. I don't have an Old English translation to offer you, but I can direct you to this illustration from a Psalter produced at Canterbury in c.1000. The organ and harp hanging on the sinewy trees are wonderful!

The earliest English translation I could find is by Richard Rolle (I didn't look very hard, so there may be earlier ones).

1. Aboven the flodes of Babilon, thar we sat and gret whils we umthou3t of Syon.
2. In the wylghis in the myddis of hit we hang up our orgoyns.
3. For thar thei askyd us, tho that caitifes led us, wordes of songes, and tho that away led us ȝmpne synges til us of the sanges of syon.
4. How shal we syng the song of Lord in aliens land?
5. If I forgete thee Jerusalem, til forgetyng be gifen my riȝthand.
6. My tong draw til my chekis, if i had thouȝt not of thee, if i sett nouȝt of thee, Jerusalem, in begynnyng of my joy.
7. Be menand, Lord, of the sunnys of Edom in day of Jerusalem, the whilk seys "temys, temys, til the ground in hit."
8. Dowȝghtur of Babilon, wrech, blisful he that shal ȝeld til thee the ȝeldyng that thou ȝeldid til us.
9. Blisful he that shal holde and knok his smale til the stone.


Rolle's is a psalter with commentary, and his comment on this last verse is, "These small [things] are evil stirrings in man's thought, of pride, covetise and lechery, but he is blessed that holds them, that they pass not into delight, and knocks them against Christ, that they perish through his might, for if he let them wax, they will not so soon be overcome." I like that!

His comment on the first verse is, "Floods of Babylon are all things that are loved here and pass away, which holy men behold and forsake, sitting above them, and weeping for their own pilgrimage and their sins that are ravished into the floods while they think of Sion - that is, of heaven, where nothing runs away, but all joy is together. Worldly men weep for the loss of their goods or their friends, as they joy in nothing but in their wealth; but each man should weep when thinking of Sion."

We'll come back to that.

Here's a Wycliffite translation from the late 14th century:

1. On the floodis of Babiloyne there we saten, and wepten; while we bithouyten on Syon.
2. In salewis in the myddil therof; we hangiden up oure orguns.
3. For thei that ledden us prisoners, axiden us there the wordis of songis. And thei that ledden awei us seiden "Synge ye to us an ympne of the songis of Syon."
4. Hou schulen we singe a songe of the Lord in an alien lond?
5. If I foryete thee, Jerusalem, my riyt hond be youun to foryeting.
6. Mi tunge cleue to my chekis, if I bithenke not on thee, if I purposide not of thee, Jerusalem, in the bigynnyng of my gladnesse.
7. Lord, haue thou mynde on the sones of Edom, for the dai of Jerusalem. Whiche seien, Anyntische ye, anyntische ye; til to the foundement ther ynne.
8. Thou wretchid douyter of Babiloyne; he is blessid, that schal yelde to thee thi yelding, which thou yeldidist to vs.
9. He is blessid, that schal holde; and hurtle doun hise litle children at a stoon.


It took me a ridiculously long time to realise that the word ympne in "Synge ye to us an ympne of the songis of Syon" is of course hymn. Should have spotted that sooner...

This would be a useful psalm to learn condemnations from. That "Anyntische ye, anyntische ye" in verse 7 means 'bring to nothing, destroy' (related to the French anéantir), while Rolle's "temys, temys" comes from a word of Old Norse origin meaning 'to spill, to pour out'. Choose your method of destruction.

Rolle was a Yorkshireman and our next translation is also from Yorkshire, from the thirteenth-century Surtees Psalter (the numbering of the verses is a bit different here):

1. Stremes ofe Babilon, þare sate we on,
And wepe, whils we mined of Syon.

2. In selihes in mide ofe ite
Our organes henge we yhite.

3. For þider asked vs, þat wrecches swa
Led vs, wordes of sanges ma;

4. And þat outlede vs: "ympne singe yhe
Til vs of sanges ofe Syon be."

5. Hou sal we singe sange with blisse
Ofe lauerd in outen land þat isse?

6. Ife I forgete þe, Jerusalem land,
To forgetelnesse giuen be mi righte hand.

7. Mi tunge to mi chekes cleuand be,
Ife þat I noght mine ofe þe;

8. Ife I forsete þe noght, Jerusalem, ai
In biginninge ofe mi fainenes al dai.

9. Mine, lauerd, ofe Edom sones, þat tem,
In daie ofe Jerusalem,

10. Þat saies: “lesses, lesses yhite,
Vnto þe grondstaþelnes in ite!”

11. Doghtre of Babilon, wrecched alle!
Seli þat foryhelde salle
To þe þi foryheldinge nou
Þat til vs foryhelded þou;

12. Seli þat sal hald on-ane
And giue þi smale vnto þe stane.


Seli is one of my favourite words for 'blessed'; in Middle English it means 'fortunate, favoured', but also 'innocent, blameless', and over time the latter meaning came to be used of things deserving of compassion or pity, like children or animals (especially sheep, for some reason - so you will sometimes find Christmas carols which have the shepherds 'leave their silly sheep'). And this tender epithet came to have overtones of 'weak, foolish', and thus we get today's silly, still used of things or people towards whom one feels more pity than contempt.


Songs and hymns, streams and floods and waters. I didn't even realise until I started writing this post just how close this psalm comes to what I've been thinking about in my own life. It's something about singing in exile. Rolle is quite right: "The floods of Babylon are all things that are loved here and pass away". Recently I've been feeling self-conscious about the things I love - essentially, all the stuff I post about on this blog. It's such an odd and silly assortment, and pretty much no one I know in real life shares my love for any of it. I've spent my whole life being a little embarrassed about my taste in music and literature, and wishing really that I could just be normal and like the things everyone else likes; I don't feel that as much as I did when I was younger, but I still wish I could love my own things a little less. Perhaps it's just an extreme case of the grad student's curse - which is the knowledge that absolutely no one cares about your subject as much as you do - but I suspect really it's a manifestation of Sehnsucht, C. S. Lewis' Joy, the 'inconsolable longing for we know not what', and the sense of utter aloneness which comes with it.

And somewhere in there is Chesterton, and his idea of things 'saved from the wreck':

Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck...

I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe's ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.

'The greatest of poems is an inventory' - I love that. I've quoted it before in reference to this poem (and it's even more true of this one). Chesterton was being typically ebullient, but hoarding hills and seeing in them a sudden glimpse of the hills of heaven are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes it's cosy, sometimes it's "the old stab, the old bittersweet". Everyone would have their own list of things saved from the wreck; this was C. S. Lewis':

the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

That longing, that love, is an endless hunger of hopeless things, and sometimes it's more wonderful than painful, and sometimes the other way around. I suppose everyone feels it to some degree, but some people seem more susceptible than others; and these days I wish I was less susceptible.

And I've forgotten what this has to do with the psalm.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

O’er the moor I wander lonely

You can here a snippet of what sounds like an excellent version of Percy Grainger's setting of this 'Song of the North' here. The words are by A(nnie) C(ampbell) Macleod, collector of the Skye Boat Song.


O’er the moor I wander lonely,
Ochon-a-rie, my heart is sore;
Where are all the joys I cherished?
With my darling they have perished,
And they will return no more.

I loved thee first, I loved thee only,
Ochon-a-rie, my heart is sore;
I loved thee from the day I met thee,
What care I though all forget thee!
I will love thee evermore.

Friday, 27 April 2012

"This April twilight on the river"

This past week in Oxford has been all April showers - sudden cataracts of rain and frail sunshine changing place with each other by the minute. But April is not always like that; here are two poems about quiet, spring-like April twilights upon a river.

First, Rupert Brooke's 'Blue Evening', written in 1909.


Blue Evening

My restless blood now lies a-quiver,
Knowing that always, exquisitely,
This April twilight on the river
Stirs anguish in the heart of me.

For the fast world in that rare glimmer
Puts on the witchery of a dream,
The straight grey buildings, richly dimmer,
The fiery windows, and the stream

With willows leaning quietly over,
The still ecstatic fading skies...
And all these, like a waiting lover,
Murmur and gleam, lift lustrous eyes,

Drift close to me, and sideways bending
Whisper delicious words. But I
Stretch terrible hands, uncomprehending,
Shaken with love; and laugh; and cry.

My agony made the willows quiver;
I heard the knocking of my heart
Die loudly down the windless river,
I heard the pale skies fall apart,

And the shrill stars' unmeaning laughter,
And my voice with the vocal trees
Weeping. And Hatred followed after,
Shrilling madly down the breeze.

In peace from the wild heart of clamour,
A flower in moonlight, she was there,
Was rippling down white ways of glamour
Quietly laid on wave and air.

Her passing left no leaf a-quiver.
Pale flowers wreathed her white, white brows.
Her feet were silence on the river;
And "Hush!" she said, between the boughs.


And now, Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Air of Diabelli's', much warmer and more tranquil a poem (whatever Rupert Brooke is, he's never tranquil):


Call it to mind, O my love.
Dear were your eyes as the day,
Bright as the day and the sky;
Like the stream of gold and the sky above,
Dear were your eyes in the grey.
We have lived, my love, O, we have lived, my love!
Now along the silent river, azure
Through the sky's inverted image,
Softly swam the boat that bore our love,
Swiftly ran the shallow of our love
Through the heaven's inverted image,
In the reedy mazes round the river.
See along the silent river,

See of old the lover's shallop steer.
Berried brake and reedy island,
Heaven below and only heaven above.
Through the sky's inverted image
Swiftly swam the boat that bore our love.
Berried brake and reedy island,
Mirrored flower and shallop gliding by.
All the earth and all the sky were ours,
Silent sat the wafted lovers,
Bound with grain and watched by all the sky,
Hand to hand and eye to . . . eye.

Days of April, airs of Eden,
Call to mind how bright the vanished angel hours,
Golden hours of evening,
When our boat drew homeward filled with flowers.
O darling, call them to mind; love the past, my love.
Days of April, airs of Eden.
How the glory died through golden hours,
And the shining moon arising;
How the boat drew homeward filled with flowers.
Age and winter close us slowly in.

Level river, cloudless heaven,
Islanded reed mazes, silver weirs;
How the silent boat with silver
Threads the inverted forest as she goes,
Broke the trembling green of mirrored trees.
O, remember, and remember
How the berries hung in garlands.

Still in the river see the shallop floats.
Hark! Chimes the falling oar.
Still in the mind
Hark to the song of the past!
Dream, and they pass in their dreams.

Those that loved of yore, O those that loved of yore!
Hark through the stillness, O darling, hark!
Through it all the ear of the mind

Knows the boat of love. Hark!
Chimes the falling oar.

O half in vain they grew old.

Now the halcyon days are over,
Age and winter close us slowly round,
And these sounds at fall of even
Dim the sight and muffle all the sound.
And at the married fireside, sleep of soul and sleep of fancy,
Joan and Darby.
Silence of the world without a sound;
And beside the winter faggot

Joan and Darby sit and dose and dream and wake -
Dream they hear the flowing, singing river,
See the berries in the island brake;
Dream they hear the weir,
See the gliding shallop mar the stream.
Hark! in your dreams do you hear?

Snow has filled the drifted forest;
Ice has bound the . . . stream.
Frost has bound our flowing river;
Snow has whitened all our island brake.

Berried brake and reedy island,
Heaven below and only heaven above azure
Through the sky's inverted image
Safely swam the boat that bore our love.
Dear were your eyes as the day,
Bright ran the stream, bright hung the sky above.
Days of April, airs of Eden.
How the glory died through golden hours,
And the shining moon arising,
How the boat drew homeward filled with flowers.
Bright were your eyes in the night:
We have lived, my love;
O, we have loved, my love.
Now the . . . days are over,
Age and winter close us slowly round.

Vainly time departs, and vainly
Age and winter come and close us round.

Hark the river's long continuous sound.

Hear the river ripples in the reeds.

Lo, in dreams they see their shallop
Run the lilies down and drown the weeds
Mid the sound of crackling faggots.
So in dreams the new created
Happy past returns, to-day recedes,
And they hear once more,

From the old years,
Yesterday returns, to-day recedes,
And they hear with aged hearing warbles

Love's own river ripple in the weeds.
And again the lover's shallop;
Lo, the shallop sheds the streaming weeds;
And afar in foreign countries
In the ears of aged lovers.

And again in winter evens
Starred with lilies . . . with stirring weeds.
In these ears of aged lovers
Love's own river ripples in the reeds.



Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Saints Say Mass

Fifteenth-century Mass scene from the font at Westhall, Suffolk

This is a fifteenth-century poem - or rather song, though its music hasn't survived - which is completely one of a kind; I've never encountered anything else like it in medieval poetry. Here it is (in modernised form):

Merry it is on a May morning
Merry ways for to go.

And by a chapel as I came,
Met I with Jesu to church-ward gone,
Peter and Paul, Thomas and John,
And his disciples every one.

Saint Thomas the bells did ring,
Saint Nicholas the Mass did sing:
Saint John took the sweet offering,
And by a chapel as I came.

Our Lord offered what he would, [i.e. wished to]
A chalice all of rich red gold,
Our Lady the crown off her mowlde; [head]
The sun out of her bosom shone.

Saint George, who is Our Lady's knight,
Tended the tapers fair and bright;
To my eyes a semely sight,
And by a chapel as I came.

[semely = pleasing, beautiful, splendid]


The leading authority on English carols, Richard Greene, has this to say about the carol in his A Selection of English Carols:

"This chanson d'aventure, with its highly orthodox religious imagery, its 'popular fantasy uncontrolled by the book', and its characteristic style, quite unlike that of the other religious carols, has a good claim to be considered as true folk-song, that is, a piece originating outside of learned clerical society and passed on by oral transmission. There is nothing in canonical or apocryphal scripture or in liturgy or hymnology to point to as a source. The burden is certainly a borrowing from a secular May song, possibly accompanied by the borrowing of a tune...

The only other occurrence in poetry known to me of the strange conception of Christ as officiating priest is in a version of the ballad The Famous Flower of Serving-Men (Child No.106) collected as recently as 1942 from Mrs. Belle Richards of Colebrook, New Hampshire, by Marguerite Olney and published in Helen Hartness Flanders and Marguerite Olney, eds. Ballads Migrant in New England, p.125:

'Twas all alone I dug his grave
And all alone in it him I laid,
While Christ was priest and I was clerk
I laid my love in the clay-cold earth.

The collector remarks (p.125): 'I have looked through many regional collections as well as the monumental work of Professor Francis James Child and of Cecil Sharp but have not discovered the especial grief of this passage.' The special magic of the passage is found in this carol and the likeness of the image confirms the collector's judgement that it comes from the reservoir of unlearned tradition."

Greene, A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962), pp.231-2.


It's certainly an odd poem; I almost wonder if this is for once a medieval vision lyric which is what it purports to be, an actual dream, because it has that kind of vivid unreality. However, the idea of Christ as officiating priest is not quite as unusual as Greene suggests, because the poem bears comparison with this story from the Golden Legend (this is Caxton's translation):

We read an example of a noble lady which had great devotion in the blessed Virgin Mary, and she had a chapel in which she did do say mass of our Lady daily by her chaplain. It happed that the day of the purification of our Lady, her chaplain was out, so that this lady might that day have no mass, and she durst not go to another church because she had given her mantle unto a poor man for the love of our Lady. She was much sorrowful because she might hear no mass and for to make her devotions she went into the chapel, and tofore the altar she kneeled down for to make her prayers to our Lady.

And anon she fell asleep, in which she had a vision, and her seemed that she was in a church, and saw come into the church a great company of virgins, tofore whom she saw come a right noble virgin crowned right preciously. And when they were all set each in order, came a company of young men which sat down each after other in order like the other; after, entered one that bare a burden of candles, and departed them to them above first, and so to each of them by order he gave one, and at the last came this man to this lady aforesaid and gave to her also a candle of wax. The which lady saw also come a priest, a deacon and a subdeacon, all revested, going to the altar as for to say mass.

And her seemed that S. Laurence and S. Vincent were deacon and sub-deacon, and Jesu Christ the priest, and two angels bearing tofore them candles, and two young angels began the introit of the mass, and all the company of the virgins sang the mass. And when the mass was sung unto the offering, her seemed that thilk virgin so crowned went tofore, and after, all the others followed, and offered to the priest, kneeling much devoutly, their candles. And when the priest tarried for this lady that she should also have come to the offering, the glorious queen of virgins sent to her to say that she was not courteous to make the priest so long to tarry for her. And the lady answered that the priest should proceed in his mass forth, for she would keep her candle and not offer it. And the glorious virgin sent yet once to her, and she said she would not offer her candle.

The third time the queen said to the messenger: Go and pray her that she come and offer her candle, or else take it from her by force. The messenger came to this lady, and because in no wise she would not come and offer up her candle, he set hand on the candle that this lady held and drew fast, and she held fast, and so long he drew and haled that the candle brake in two pieces, and that one half abode still in the hand of the lady aforesaid, which anon awoke and came to herself; and found the piece of the candle in her hand, whereof she much marvelled, and thanked our Lord and the glorious Virgin Mary devoutly which had suffered her that day not to be without mass.

And all the days of her life after she kept that piece of that candle much preciously, like an holy relic, and all they that were touched therewith were guerished and healed of their maladies and sicknesses.

Now there's an odd story - am I just too naturally compliant, or is really not done to make a scene like this when the Virgin Mary asks you to hand over your candle? I don't think I could behave so badly even in my own dreams! Thank goodness the visionary in the English poem seems content to watch and wonder.

Visions involving the Mass are fairly common in medieval literature - generally in the form of visions which take place during a Mass, and especially at the moment of the elevation of the Host. Stories about visions in which the Host is transformed into a living child, or bleeds human blood when broken, were frequently cited as evidence for the Real Presence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the nature of the Eucharist became an increasingly controversial subject. Less gruesomely, St Bridget of Sweden had a vision at Mass of Christ himself in the hands of the priest, saying, "I bless all of you who believe; to those who do not believe I shall become a judge". St Bridget's visions were very popular in fifteenth-century England, and Margery Kempe (always a lady for a little oneupmanship) had a similar vision in which the Host fluttered in the priest's hand, and Christ said to her "Bridget never saw me in this way". There are also stories about how visions at Mass could give away priests who had behaved wickedly. One which springs to mind is told by Symeon of Durham, who had heard it from the son of the priest in question - the priest had spent the night with his mistress and went in the morning to celebrate Mass, but saw the wine in the chalice turn to fiery pitch as a sign of his unworthiness. (He repented and was forgiven. It doesn't give one a very good impression of twelfth-century Northumbrian priests, though!)

Anyway, the English poem is all much nicer and less polemical than those stories. One particularly attractive thing about it, I think, is how it combines the vision with the conventions of medieval lyrics, including the 'Merry May morning' refrain (the chanson d'aventure opening, from which folk song got its 'As I walked out one morning' type of first line), and the detail of the sun shining out of Mary's breast (which is related to this kind of Mary/sunshine imagery). And the saints are such familiar ones - St George, of course; the second St Thomas mentioned is probably Thomas Becket; and there's St Nicholas too, called "Sent Collas" in the original text (a corruption of the name found elsewhere, and somewhat along the lines of Tooley and Toosey).

And generally, doesn't it give you the clearest impression of stumbling across Mass in a fifteenth-century English parish church - tapers glowing, bells ringing, incense burning ('the sweet offering'), and the sun shining in?

Pugin's idea of a medieval Mass, in stained glass from St Augustine's, Ramsgate

The poem appears in a miscellany of verse and prose in a manuscript known as Porkington 10 (here's a list of other poems in the same manuscript), and here's the original text as printed by Greene:

Mery hyt ys is in May mornyng
Mery wayys for to gone.

And by a chapell as Y came,
Mett Y wyhte Jhesu to chyrcheward gone,
Petur and Pawle, Thomas and Jhon,
And hys desyplys everychone.

Sente Thomas the bellys gane ryng,
And Sent Collas the Mas gane syng:
Sente Jhon toke that swete offeryng,
And by a chapell as Y came.

Owre Lorde offeryd whate he wollde,
A challes all off ryche rede gollde,
Owre Lady the crowne off hyr mowlde;
The son owte off hyr bosom shone.

Sent Jorge, that ys Owre Lady knyghte,
He tende the tapyrys fayre and bryte,
To myn yghe a semley syghte,
And by a chapell as Y came.

 A priest saying Mass, from a 15th-century English MS (British Library, Harley 2915)

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Random Viking Thought

The thing about studying Old Norse is that every time you convince yourself it's a sensible academic subject, you come across something like I did this morning: a story of giants playing catch with a two-hundred-pound red-hot seal's head.

(From this text.)

This is going to be my afternoon now...

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Spring Poem


I who all the winter through
Cherished other loves than you,
And kept hands with hoary policy in marriage-bed and pew;
Now I know the false and true,
For the earnest sun looks through,
And my old love comes to meet me in the dawning and the dew.

Now the hedged meads renew
Rustic odour, smiling hue,
And the clean air shines and tinkles as the world goes wheeling through;
And my heart springs up anew,
Bright and confident and true,
And my old love comes to meet me in the dawning and the dew.


Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, 23 April 2012

Stained Glass for St George's Day


As a fan of English medieval saints, I can't get as interested in St George as I am in saints like Edmund, Edward, Dunstan, Alphege, Etheldreda, Hilda, Margaret, Thomas Becket, and the rest. I've nothing against St George himself, but there's something inorganic about his patronage of England - he has always been a fairly well-known saint in this country (here's Ælfric's tenth-century take on him) but there's no reason at all for him to be a national saint, and he only got that job because late-medieval aristocrats had such odd ideas about English history. Admittedly, it's nice that his feast is today one of the few reminders of a world in which communal time was measured out in saints' days, relic of a calendar shaped by something richer and more human than the demands of the corporate world - but I'd give that up in exchange for never having to read another article which breathlessly asks 'did you know St George wasn't even English?!' as if there is actually anyone at all who doesn't know that.

But saints' legends aren't logical and I don't see why they need to be; we're in the world of myth here, and only the most unimaginative person could feel that 'dragons don't exist' is an argument against celebrating St George's Day. If nothing else, St George is an excellent subject for art: dragons and armour are inherently dramatic. So here's a collection of photos of St George in stained glass windows - and other media - from various churches.

This is from St Peter Mancroft, Norwich:


A wonderful dragon!

This is from Elham, Kent (he really just looks like he's dangling the dragon on a chain here):


A carving of St George on a wooden chest in St Edmund's, Southwold:


From Chilham in Kent:


Medieval glass from St Winnow, Cornwall:


And from Haddon Hall in Derbyshire:


His moustache!  From nearby Bakewell, with a grateful maiden in the background:


St George and barber's pole... er, lance, at Ringwood, Hampshire:


From Rochester Cathedral:


And this rather terrifying St George is from All Saints', Maldon, in Essex:


He's part of a tremendous window commemorating the links between Maldon and Malden, Massachusetts, and its connections with the family of George Washington. It includes scenes from American history, flags of both countries, an American eagle, lots of heraldry, and Joan of Arc.


St George is everywhere at Maldon; this is from that church too:


And here he is again, with other soldier saints:


I was at Maldon not because of St George or George Washington, but for the sake of Byrhtnoth and the other men of Essex killed in 991 at the Battle of Maldon, the subject of one of the greatest Old English poems. Here's Byrhtnoth on the outside of the church:

Byrhtnoth, who in the poem declares his intention to fight against the Vikings to defend eþel þysne, æþelredes eard, ealdres mines, folc and foldan, 'this homeland, the country of Æthelred my lord, its people and land', was an early patriot of sorts, but he would not have called on St George to aid him in battle; probably he and his followers, as loyal men of East Anglia, would have prayed to St Edmund, who had himself been killed by a Viking army about a hundred years previously. The unwarlike King Æthelred, for whose land Byrhtnoth died, was himself to die on St George's Day 1016. He was succeeded by his son, also named Edmund - another very valiant fighter against Vikings, if an equally unsuccessful one.

Thinking of Byrhtnoth, I was touched by the stained glass window in which that last St George appears:


It's a memorial to a young man named Cecil Desborough Bright who was killed in action in Mesopotamia in 1916 (coincidentally, the name Byrhtnoth means 'bright courage'). The window depicts a theme which St George and Edmund and Byrhtnoth, soldiers all, would have understood:


"Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day."

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."


"Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."

þa wearð afeallen þæs folces ealdor,
Æþelredes eorl; ealle gesawon
heorðgeneatas þæt hyra heorra læg.
þa ðær wendon forð wlance þegenas,
unearge men efston georne;
hi woldon þa ealle oðer twega,
lif forlætan oððe leofne gewrecan.

(Then was fallen the leader of the people,
Æthelred’s earl. All the hearth-companions saw
that their lord lay dead.
Then there went forth proud thegns,
undaunted men hastened eagerly;
they all wanted one of two things:
to lay down their lives or to avenge their dear lord.)

An Eastertide Carol: Through each wonder of fair days


This Eastertide carol is a (very free) translation of the Piae Cantiones carol 'Tempus adest floridum', which goes like this. The tune which goes with it in that collection was used by J. M. Neale for 'Good King Wenceslas', and thus basically lost to its original springtime context - much to the horror of the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols. 'Good King Wenceslas' is firmly part of the Christmas repertoire nowadays, and I find the O.B.C.'s disdain for it rather amusing: the editors call it a "rather confused narrative... one of [Neale's] less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call 'doggerel', and Bullen condemns as 'poor and commonplace to the last degree'.  The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting ('Spring has now unwrapped the flowers') not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, 'Good King Wenceslas' may gradually fall into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time."

Bad luck, chaps - you were on the wrong side of history on that one!  However, 'Spring has now unwrapped the flowers' really does have delightful words, though the tune is indeed forever ruined for me.  Perhaps someone will set it to a less Christmassy tune one day.



1. Spring has now unwrapped the flowers,
Day is fast reviving,
Life in all her growing powers
Towards the light is striving:
Gone the iron touch of cold,
Winter time and frost time,
Seedlings, working through the mould,
Now make up for lost time.


2. Herb and plant that, winter long,
Slumbered at their leisure,
Now bestirring, green and strong,
Find in growth their pleasure;
All the world with beauty fills,
Gold the green enhancing,
Flowers make glee among the hills,
Set the meadows dancing.


3. Through each wonder of fair days
God himself expresses;
Beauty follows all his ways,
As the world he blesses:
So, as he renews the earth,
Artist without rival,
In his grace of glad new birth
We must seek revival.


4. Earth puts on her dress of glee;
Flowers and grasses hide her;
We go forth in charity -
Brothers all beside her;
For, as man this glory sees
In the awakening season,
Reason learns the heart’s decrees,
And hearts are led by reason.


5. Praise the Maker, all ye saints;
He with glory girt you,
He who skies and meadows paints
Fashioned all your virtue;
Praise Him, seers, heroes, kings,
Heralds of perfection;
Brothers, praise Him, for He brings
All to resurrection!


The pictures are from the gardens of Magdalen College today, where flowers were indeed 'making glee among the hills'.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Anselm and Eadmer

Anselm on the Chicele tomb

After posting so much about St Anselm over the past few months for absolutely no reason, I finally have a good excuse - today is the anniversary of his death in 1109. After posting stories about Anselm's childhood dreams, adolescent arrogance, and sympathy for hares and owls, I wondered what was left to share with you. Well, what made me fond of Anselm in the first place was the Life of Anselm written by Eadmer, the English monk of Canterbury who was born on the cusp of the Norman Conquest and lived to become not only a historian and hagiographer but the friend, secretary and biographer of the greatest theologian ever to be Archbishop of Canterbury. So here's Eadmer's account of the genesis of his Life.

Eadmer obviously realised fairly early on after joining Anselm's retinue, around 1093, that posterity would be interested in what Anselm had said and done as archbishop, and he started making notes preparatory to a biography. He is particularly good at making records of conversations - one of the factors which helps to make his Life of Anselm such a fascinating source. He had open eyes and open ears, and liked to ask questions and make connections with people; he was a born historian! And he lived through interesting times: as I said, he was born on the eve of the Norman Conquest (c.1060) and grew up in the monastic community at Canterbury. The world before the Conquest was the world of his childhood, and in later life Eadmer remembered it with the heightened vividness of a child's first memories: for instance, he gives a full and detailed description of the layout of the Saxon cathedral, which was destroyed by fire when he was about seven years old - he recounts where all the altars and saints' tombs lay, like an old man describing his childhood home. Elsewhere he reports how the monks who were old when he was young would relate stories about the reign of Cnut and the gifts Queen Emma gave to the community. And so, nurtured in the cradle of English Christianity (as he would have seen it), he had strongly personal reasons for loving the Anglo-Saxon church, its saints and its customs (or what he thought were its customs). But it was a doomed world: Eadmer was still a child when Norman monks came to Canterbury, and his adolescence was spent in the transformed monastery created by Archbishop Lanfranc after 1070, a community "much more foreign in language and outlook, with the English element in it ever shrinking in numbers and importance" (in R. W. Southern's words). Eadmer speaks highly of Lanfranc but resented what he saw as Lanfranc's marginalisation of English saints like Ælfheah and Dunstan, Canterbury's pride and joy.

And then he encountered Anselm, in 1079, when Anselm visited Canterbury and gave his opinion on the question of whether Ælfheah was really a saint. No surprise that Eadmer loved Anselm for that! If the language of the passage below seems extravagant to you, remember that it's the work of a man writing about someone who had been his closest companion and friend for fifteen years, whom he had first encountered providing a rational defence of a world which the teenage Eadmer saw disappearing before his eyes, but was powerless to protect.

Anselm in the window of the chapel at Canterbury Cathedral where he is buried

Here then I shall bring this small work to an end, first however giving all who deign to read or listen to it a brief warning not to allow their minds to be injured by any lack of belief in the things which have been described. For in writing about them, I have made use of such authorities as I was quite certain were far removed from any suspicion of falsehood. Indeed I put together much of the first book from the words of the Father [Anselm] himself. For sometimes - since he was a man of a most pleasant disposition - he used as if in jest to relate in homely language in the midst of his other conversation what he did as a boy, as a young man, or before he adopted the monastic habit, or while he was a monk, or while he was prior or abbot, thinking that his hearers would take these stories in the same casual spirit in which they were told... Those miracles which are recorded in the second book were almost all either seen by me with my own eyes, or heard with my own ears, or learnt in some other way by personal experience, for it was my good fortune to enjoy his company constantly from the time when he began his pontificate. And I affirm that it is a shocking thing for anyone knowingly to write what is false in sacred histories. For the soul of the writer is slain every time they are read or listened to, since in the things which he has falsely written he tells abominable lies to all his readers.

Moreover, when I had first taken the work in hand, and had already transcribed onto parchment a great part of what I had drafted in wax, Father Anselm himself one day called me to him privately and asked what it was I was drafting and copying. And, when I had shown my desire to conceal the subject by silence rather than disclose it, he ordered me either to desist from what I had begun and turn my mind to other things, or to show him what I was writing.

Now as I had been supported by his help and strengthened by his corrections in some other things which I had written, I willingly obeyed, hoping that out of his natural kindness of heart he would correct whatever needed to be corrected and rearrange in its proper order anything which had taken place otherwise than I had described. Nor were my hopes deceived in this belief, for he did in fact, correct some things, and suppress others, change the order of some, and approve other things in this small work. At this my heart was not a little rejoiced, and I prided myself perhaps more than I ought to have done that what I had written was fortified by so great and rare an authority.

I think you would! This makes me wonder what Anselm would have been like as a doctoral supervisor - an intimidating prospect...

But a few days after the work had been corrected, the archbishop called me to him, and ordered me to destroy entirely the quires in which I had put together the work, for he considered himself far too unworthy for future ages to place the least value on a literary monument to his honour. This was certainly a severe blow to me. Nevertheless, I dared not entirely disobey his command, and yet I was not willing to lose altogether a work which I had put together with much labour. So I observed the letter of his command, and destroyed those quires, having first copied their contents onto other quires. Perhaps my action was not free from the sin of disobedience, for I carried out his order otherwise than I knew that he intended.

Wherefore I earnestly beg all those into whose hands these pages may fall; that - if there is anything in them that they find not altogether displeasing despite the weakness of the narrative - they will deign to intercede for this and for my other sins, lest the weight of them so holds me down that I am unable to come to him whose life and deeds I have however crudely described. For I can never forget how he replied to me once when I asked him to bring it to pass that, as he had had me for a companion in his labours here below, so I might share in his reward in Heaven. He said certainly he would willingly and gladly do this, only let me take care not to make myself too heavy for him. As to this, however, if the just Judge should put away his pity in assessing the weight of my sins, my soul would certainly not rise but go headlong into the bottomless pit.

Wherefore, as I began to say, now with all the prayers at my command I urge my readers to seek from God for me as for themselves that relief and remission of sins which they also desire to obtain. Otherwise the compassionate Father may be unable to raise me whither he has promised, burdened as I am with many sins; which may God who liveth, ruleth and reigneth over all, of his mercy keep far from me.

Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi (The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury), ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp.148-151.

Eadmer, from JPGM, MS. Ludwig XI 6, f.44v

This is perhaps as much about Eadmer as about Anselm (but then, Eadmer doesn't get a feast-day...), so to finish with something more appropriate, here's a prayer of St Anselm, an extract from his 'Prayer to Christ':

Hope of my heart, strength of my soul,
help of my weakness,
by your powerful kindness complete
what in my powerless weakness I attempt.

My life, the end to which I strive,
although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought,
still let my desire for you
be as great as my love ought to be.

My light, you see my conscience,
because, “Lord, before you is all my desire,”
and if my soul wills any good, you gave it me.

Lord, if what you inspire is good,
or rather because it is good, that I should want to love you,
give me what you have made me want:
grant that I may attain to love you as much as you command.

I praise and thank you for the desire that you have inspired;
and I offer you praise and thanks
lest your gift to me be unfruitful,
which you have given me of your own accord.

Perfect what you have begun,
and grant me what you have made me long for,
not according to my deserts but out of your kindness
that came first to me.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, trans. Benedicta Ward (London, 1973), pp. 93-4.

An initial from Eadmer's Life of Anselm, from BL Harley 315, f. 21v, a manuscript produced at Canterbury around the time of Eadmer's death

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Nameless Lassie



There 's nane may ever guess or trow my bonnie lassie's name,
There 's nane may ken the humble cot my lassie ca's her hame;
Yet though my lassie's nameless, an' her kin o' low degree,
Her heart is warm, her thochts are pure, and, O! she 's dear to me.

She 's gentle as she 's bonnie, an' she 's modest as she 's fair,
Her virtues, like her beauties a', are varied as they're rare;
While she is light an' merry as the lammie on the lea--
For happiness an' innocence thegither aye maun be!

Whene'er she shews her blooming face, the flowers may cease to blaw,
An' when she opes her hinnied lips, the air is music a';
But when wi' ither's sorrows touch'd, the tear starts to her e'e,
Oh! that 's the gem in beauty's crown, the priceless pearl to me.

Within my soul her form 's enshrined, her heart is a' my ain,
An' richer prize, or purer bliss, nae mortal e'er can gain;
The darkest paths o' life I tread wi' steps o' bounding glee,
Cheer'd onward by the love that lichts my nameless lassie's e'e.




'The Nameless Lassie' is a song by James Ballantine (1806-1877) - who was both a poet and stained-glass artist, what a combination!  Unlike the other Victorian Scottish songs I've posted so far, this one shades a little too far into the sentimental and the didactic for me (my tolerance level for Victorian sentimentalism is sky-high, but this is just a bit much - I think it's the 'lammie' that does it!).  But I do like the last verse, and, in combination with the lovely tune, by Alexander Mackenzie (1819-1857), the effect is really rather charming.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

St Alphege

Alphege on the Chichele tomb in Canterbury Cathedral

In 1011, between 8-29 September, Canterbury was besieged by a Viking army. Archbishop Ælfheah was captured and held prisoner for seven months with the Danish fleet moored at Greenwich, before being killed on 19 April 1012 - by a group of drunken Danes, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - pelted with bones and ox-heads because he refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his freedom. The violent death of the innocent archbishop came as a terrible blow to a country which had suffered years of Viking raids, especially painful because of the symbolic significance of Canterbury as the mother church of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. The Chronicle laments the archbishop's imprisonment in unusually impassioned language, saying "Then was he a captive, who had been the head of the English race and of Christianity; there wretchedness might be seen where bliss had often been seen before, in that wretched town from where there first came to us Christianity and joy before God and before the world!" ('Wæs ða ræpling, se ðe ær wæs heafod Angelcynnes 7 Cristendomes. Þær man mihte ða geseon yrmðe þær man oft ær geseah blisse on þære earman byrig þanon com ærest Cristendom 7 blis for Gode 7 for worulde'). It might have seemed things could not get worse, but they did: a year later, the Danish king Svein Forkbeard mounted a successful invasion of England and forced King Æthelred into exile.

I've written about the death of St Ælfheah before - from the English perspective, from the Danish perspective, and from the perspective of St Anselm and the Canterbury monks looking back after an interval of sixty years - as well as about the return of his body to Canterbury by Cnut in 1023 (and the service at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011 commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the siege). But I've never posted about the fullest account of Ælfheah's life and death, which was written in the 1080s at Canterbury, and today I'll rectify that omission.

That account was written by Osbern, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, at the instigation of Lanfranc, the first post-Conquest archbishop of Canterbury. When he arrived in England as archbishop Lanfranc found himself confronted with its array of native saints, and he seems initially to have been uncertain how to treat the bunch of scantily-recorded people with unfamiliar Saxon names who were treasusred saints of the English church. According to the Canterbury monk Eadmer, Ælfheah (hereafter Alphege, as he is called today by those who - like Lanfranc - find Anglo-Saxon names tricky!) was one of those whose sanctity Lanfranc doubted. Eadmer claims that Lanfranc had to be convinced by the reasoned arguments of St Anselm that Alphege was really a martyr because he died for the principle of justice. Once Lanfranc had been persuaded, he commissioned Osbern to write a verse account of Alphege's life and death which was set to music and sung in honour of the saint, as well as a prose Vita.

Osbern's Life of Alphege in a 12th-century Canterbury manuscript (BL Cotton MS Nero C VII f.46v)

Lanfranc could not have chosen a more willing hagiographer. Osbern is an interesting character in his own right, an underrated writer whose life and work bridged the gap between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. Born about fifteen years before the Norman Conquest, he grew up at Canterbury and spent most of his life there, eventually becoming precentor of the monastery. He was widely respected for his musical skill - William of Malmesbury said that in his day he was the best musician in England, and he wrote two treatises on musical subjects, now lost - and his works on the Canterbury saints Dunstan and Alphege are fascinating. But he was a troublesome young monk: shortly after the Norman Conquest imported a foreign hierarchy into Canterbury, he seems to have clashed with the new prior and perhaps with Lanfranc too - possibly because they didn't respect his beloved Canterbury saints as much as he would have liked - and as a punishment he was sent to the monastery of Bec, to study with St Anselm. He comes across as a rebellious young man, extremely bright but difficult and resentful of authority, and too clever for his own good. During his time at Bec Anselm wrote a letter to Lanfranc asking for indulgence for Osbern, describing his quick mind and tenacious memory, sympathising with his bouts of serious illness, and saying Osbern repented of his imprudent behaviour; it's really rather hard not to warm to him.

Osbern, in a manuscript made at Canterbury shortly after his death (BL Arundel 16, f. 2)

When Osbern returned to Canterbury, having matured a little, he wrote first the verse hymn to Alphege (which is now lost) and then prose accounts of his life and of the translation of his body from London to Canterbury during Cnut's reign. The Life is available in translation in this useful little book, and it has lots of interesting things to say about Alphege. Some historians have questioned whether anything was actually known about Alphege at Canterbury at this time, some sixty years after his death, and have therefore suggested that Osbern basically just made lots of it up. However, there is much of interest in Osbern's Life even if it doesn't accurately represent the events of 1011-12. Osbern's intense personal devotion to Canterbury's two most recent saints, Alphege and Dunstan, is not only a product of local pride but of the times in which he lived: it's no wonder that someone who had himself lived through a violent conquest, whose own life had been shaped by its aftermath, found relevance and value in writing about the Viking siege of Canterbury.

And so, this is a summary of Osbern's account of Alphege's death, based on the translation by Frances Shaw in Osbern’s Life of Alfege (London: St Paul's, 1999); quotations are from that book.

Alphege on the south front of Canterbury Cathedral

Osbern describes the beginning of the siege, telling how the city hears that the Viking fleet has arrived at the port of Sandwich when it is too late to make preparations. The archbishop is urged to flee, but refuses; he knows he will be a target for the army because he has converted many Danes to Christianity, but he won't abandon his flock. By contrast, Osbern says, many of the Kentish nobility do flee Canterbury and leave the city to its fate. On Michaelmas Day, after a twenty-day siege, the army set fire to the city and finally break in. If you had seen that terrible blaze "you would think you were looking at Nero marvelling at the fire of Rome, or Aeneas weeping at the fire of Troy", says Osbern (who had himself witnessed Canterbury in flames, in the catastrophic fire which destroyed the cathedral just after the Norman Conquest). Alphege goes to the leaders of the Danes and appeals to them, offering himself to them in place of the people. They seize him, put him in chains, and force him to watch the burning of the cathedral and the monks being killed by the sword as they are forced out one by one. Like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Osbern sees this moment as a powerful symbolic turning-point, the end of England's glory and the beginning of inevitable decline: "Each singly would have been calamity enough to the kingdom – either the harm done to the priest or the deadly destruction of the city – so that deprived of either glory England would never from that time on regain her former status". From remarks in his other works, it's clear that Osbern is thinking here not only of the damage done by Viking raids but of the national humiliation of the Norman Conquest; for him England's golden age was the late tenth century, and after that all was decline and loss.

Alphege is dragged out of the city and taken to the Danish fleet at Greenwich, which was under the command of Thorkell the Tall. He is kept in captivity there for seven months, until April 1012. On Easter Sunday the leaders of the army ask Alphege to pay a ransom for his freedom, and tell him to convince the king to pay them a huge sum in tribute in exchange for a peace treaty. He refuses to sell the Church's treasures for such a purpose (Osbern compares him to St Lawrence in this respect), and after his refusal the Danes begin to plan his death. Five days later Alphege has a vision, which seems to him like an angel leading him from his prison cell out into the marshes around Greenwich. There, in the darkness, the vision suddenly disappears, and he realises it was no angel, but the devil leading him away from his fate with false hope. Alphege cries out in despair, "The prison is behind me, the river is in front of me, shadows are all about me; but their creator is at hand!" God, hearing his prayer, sends an angel to lead him back to prison, to await his martyrdom.

(This scene must be entirely Osbern's imagination, but it's wonderfully atmospheric.)

Reading for St Alphege's day in a Canterbury manuscript (BL Harley 624, f.137)

In the dawn of the following morning, the Saturday after Easter, Alphege has a vision of St Dunstan welcoming him into heaven, and saying to him, "Unconquered soldier of our Eternal King, we have come to honour you with our respect. We have been sent by him who has laid up victory for you from hatred, and has prepared an everlasting crown for you in heaven. Ah, whose company shall you enjoy after the death of the flesh? [That of] the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem and the servants of God – if you endure patiently in your flesh your sufferings, which fall far short of Christ’s. For we have seen the manifold troubles of the city: the burning of the temple, the slaughter of her sons, the dishonour done to you in your shackles, the tortures heaped upon you – twice as many as the kindnesses you have done. Accept whatever remains gladly, fortified by God’s power! Know that the suffering of this time is no match for the glory to come, which will be revealed in you. For there will be this one day only for the punishment, but an eternal, everlasting day for the prize."

The watchmen tell the men keeping guard over the army that visions have been appearing in the prison, and people flock to Alphege in curiosity. He has been preaching to them throughout his time in captivity, and has baptised some of the Danes secretly; on Maundy Thursday, he had cured many of the plague by feeding them with consecrated bread. Enraged by his behaviour, the leaders of the army immediately pronounce sentence of death upon him. "They feared that if he lived any longer, their men would march in arms against them and they would perish more grievously at the hands of their own men than slain by men of other nations". Alphege is taken from prison to the court, borne in a cart because his feet, damaged by his shackles, are too sore to walk. The leaders of the army again demand gold from him, but he, though silent at first from exhaustion, replies at last by saying simply, "I will set before you the gold of divine wisdom".

The angered army set upon Alphege with their axe-hafts and cast stones and ox-bones at him. Under the onslaught Alphege prays for his attackers, until a Danish man whom he had previously baptised (elsewhere named as Thrum) comes running up and sees Alphege struggling on the edge of death. Compassionately, "moved by piety to an impious deed", he aims his axe at Alphege's head, and it is the fatal blow.

Alphege's capture and death, from St Alphege's church, Canterbury

The leaders of the Danes want to throw Alphege's body in the river, but those he has been teaching rise up against this and won't permit it. They say Alphege is a martyr, and the leaders agree to ask the dead man to display his miraculous power, if he really is a saint. The Danes are allowed to choose the means of this miracle, and they present an oar, cut from an ash bough; they say, "if the dawn should find this growing after it has been dipped in his blood, we too will agree that we have killed a just and holy man, and he will be yours to bury with honour". They fix the oar in the earth, and in the morning it's growing green, sprouting fresh growth. (Could there be a better symbol - presumably Osbern's own choice - for a saint who converted Vikings, and died within the Octave of Easter?) The Danes are convinced, and the body is given over to the English to be buried in London. And "a house of prayer was constructed over him, and many Princes of the Danes were baptised, reborn of water and the Spirit, and entered the heart of mother Church."

Alphege was buried at St Paul's in London. Within five years of his death the Danes, under Cnut, had conquered England, and in 1023 Cnut allowed Alphege's body to be conveyed - in a royal dragon-prowed longship, Osbern says - back to Canterbury, where he was reburied with great honour. A Viking fleet took him from Canterbury, and a Viking ship brought him back.

The siege of Canterbury and the capture of Alphege, in a 12th-century window from Canterbury Cathedral

Monday, 16 April 2012

Repost: Magnus the Martyr, The Saint Who Hid In A Tree

I'm reposting this from last year in honour of St Magnus, because I just love this story!


Magnus Erlendsson, who is commemorated on April 16th, is the pre-eminent saint of the Orkneys, and if you would like a proper account of his life I suggest you go here. There are two things I principally remember about Magnus, and one is that he did miraculous favours for English gamblers, and the other is that he hid up a tree. This is the tree story.

At the end of the eleventh century, when Magnus was born as the son of the Earl of Orkney (one of the twin brothers who held that title jointly, in fact), the independence of Orkney was constantly under threat from the kings of Norway. In 1098 the king of Norway (also called Magnus, helpfully - stick with me here) arrived in Orkney and declared himself its new ruler. He deposed the twin earls and took their sons, including Magnus, into his service, and installed his own son as the new earl. He then went on an expedition around the Irish Sea, doing his bit to extend or enforce Norwegian power through the various islands, and taking the Orkney boys with him.

(The son of Harold Godwinson was also with them, in case you ever wondered what happened to him.)

Anyway, the story goes that Magnus Erlendsson, who was already known for his piety and gentle nature, was a bit of a young pacifist. (He was in his early teens at this point). When King Magnus and his men were preparing for a battle off Anglesey against the Welsh and some Norman earls from the Welsh borders, young Magnus refused to take part. This is how Orkneyinga saga tells it:

"When men were getting out their weapons and preparing themselves for the fight, Magnus Erlendsson sat down in the forecastle, and did not arm himself. The king asked why he sat there. He said he had no quarrel with any man there - "That’s why I will not fight." The king said: "Get down below deck, then, and don’t lie here under our feet, if you're afraid to fight - for I don't think it's piety that makes you do this." Magnus took a psalter, and sung while the battle lasted, but did not shield himself. This battle was both hard and long, and spears were thrown and blows struck; it was long so that it could not be seen between them which way the fight would turn."

King Magnus won the battle, but it only got worse for young Magnus...

"King Magnus had made Magnus Erlendsson his page, and he always served at the king’s table; but after the battle in Anglesey King Magnus took a great dislike to him. He said he had behaved like a coward. It happened one night when King Magnus lay off Scotland that Magnus Erlendsson ran away from King Magnus’ ship when he thought he had the best chance of escaping from the king. He jumped overboard and swam to land, and made up his berth so that it seemed as if a man lay there.

[like they do in kids' TV shows! This would make such a great cartoon...]

"But when he came to land he ran into the woods. He was only dressed in his underclothing. He struck his foot, and hurt himself sorely, as he was barefoot, and so he could walk no further. He came to a large tree, and climbed up there into the branches, and there he bound up his foot, and hid himself in the branches for some time. But in the morning when men went to eat on board the king’s ship, the king asked where Magnus Erlendsson was. He was told that he was asleep in his berth. The king bade them wake him, and said something else than sleep must have come over him when he lay in bed longer than other men. But when they went to his place, he was missing. Then the king bade them search for him and let loose the dogs. But when the dogs were loose, they at once got on his track, and ran off to the wood, and came to the tree where Magnus was hiding. Then one hound ran round and round the oak and bayed. Magnus had a stick in his hand, and threw it at the hound, and hit him on the side. The hound laid his tail between his legs and ran down to the ships, and the others after it. The king’s men could not find Magnus. He lay hidden for a while in the wood, and was next heard of in the court of Malcolm the king of Scots, and stayed there a while, but sometimes he was in Bretland with a certain bishop. He was sometimes in England, or in other places with his friends, but he did not come back to the Orkneys while king Magnus lived."

And who could blame him? It didn't go too well when he got back to the Orkneys, either, and that's why he's a martyr; but that's another story.



The picture of the man up a tree is from the Luttrell Psalter. I don't think he's actually *hiding* up the tree, but I couldn't resist...

Sunday, 15 April 2012

A Corner of Jane Austen's Kent


There are two lovely churches in Kent which have special connections to Jane Austen. They have similar names: Godmersham and Goodnestone (pronounced 'Gunston', and not to be confused with the Goodnestone which is near Faversham and which has its own delightful church). I've been to Godmersham only once, Goodnestone many times, most recently this time last year - and it was so lovely that the return of Easter has reminded me of it, and made me want to post about it.

But Godmersham first, because I have a little less to say about that. The house at Godmersham, which is about half way between Canterbury and Ashford, was the residence of Jane Austen's brother Edward. The house now belongs to the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (which always sounds to me like the beginning of a joke) and you can't visit it, though you have to drive through their drive, as it were, to get to the church.


The church (dedicated to St Lawrence) is a Saxon foundation; Godmersham belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Domesday Book, and that's usually a guarantee of an ancient, well-built church. Which this is. It's got some interesting medieval things, including this blocked doorway:


And a twelfth-century carving of a bishop who is probably Thomas Becket, given that every bishop in the vicinity of Canterbury tends to be identified as Thomas Becket:


But we came here for the Jane Austen connection, and here it is:


"In the family vault beneath are deposited the remains of Edward Knight of Godmersham Park and of Chawton House in the county of Southampton, Esq., who departed this life Nov. 19th 1852, in the 86th year of his age. Mr Knight, whose paternal name was Austen, succeeded by will in 1794 to the estates of his cousin Thomas Knight Esq., and on the death of his widow in 1812 assumed the name and arms of Knight."

"In the same vault is buried Elizabeth his wife, third daughter of Sir Brook Bridges of Goodnestone Park".

That nicely explains how the two churches of this post fit together. Jane Austen often visited her brother in Kent and worshipped at this church while staying at Godmersham. The interior would have looked a little different in her day, pre-Victorian restoration:



And before the adding of curtains and tasteful blue cupboards (which create a pretty, light kind of effect when you enter):



The day I went there the church was full of flowers, because a wedding had just finished. What's more Jane Austen-like than a wedding? Everyone looked very happy; and Jane did say after all that "Kent is the only place for happiness; everybody is rich there."


This certainly feels like a well-cared for, prosperous kind of church. I was taken with this little tribute to Chaucer's pilgrims, of course:


Godmersham's past vicars include the antiquary Samuel Pegge, who is known to me for being the first person to question the historicity of Guy of Warwick. Good work, Pegge. But that was before Jane's day.


And now to Goodnestone, which has a special place in my heart. The connection with Jane Austen is arguably weaker than at Godmersham - though she certainly did stay at the house and visit the church - but it would still be one of the most delightful spots on earth even if Jane Austen had never set foot there.


You can't visit the house (except for special events) but the gardens are open to the public. And when I say 'open to the public' I don't mean in a National Trust way, with slick gift shops and busy cafes and staff rushed off their feet - I mean in the most charming, low-key, personal way possible. It's utterly uncommercial and yet the best value for money you'll get anywhere in Kent. Let's imagine I'm taking you on a tour. So we wander around, and look at the house from various angles:



And wonder from which direction Jane Austen approached it, and which Austen house it's most like (too small for Rosings, too grand for Longbourn, but I always imagine Hartfield or Mansfield Park being just like this):



These pictures were from a visit in June (of 2008), which explains the blue sky and the abundance of flowers in the walled garden:


Isn't 'walled garden' one of the most enchanting phrases in the English language?


From this garden the tower of the church, just beyond the garden wall, forms the perfect backdrop to the scene:


This may be the most English vista you will ever see!


I know approximately nothing about flowers (I can usually identify a rose and a lily, and that's about it). Gardeners seem to approve of Goodnestone's, though I can only tell you that they're very bright and very pretty, and surrounded by green lawns and hedges and other lovely things.



So we wander around among the flowers for a while, and then we find a bench and sit down, and reflect that 'To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment'.



Then we leave the walled garden, and find ponds with dragon-flies:


We try to think of something to connect Jane Austen and dragon-flies, and fail to find anything...

The walled garden is best in the summer, but if we happen to be here in spring, there's plenty in the way of blossom and bluebells:




These pictures are from last Easter, during a Bank Holiday heatwave, when the pink blossom (of some kind... I'm not much better with trees than with flowers) fell scattered across the formal garden at the front of the house.


The house looks out over parkland, and the village cricket pitch, where you'll sometimes see a game going on.


Mention of the village reminds me that this post was supposed to be about the church. House and church and estate cottages all sit cosily together, and when we've finished our leisurely stroll through the gardens we wander over to the church, by which time the sun is probably beginning to slant into the west.



I used pictures from Goodnestone church to illustrate my post on Thomas Hardy's 'A Church Romance', with its 'sinking sad tower window light', but there's nothing sad about the afternoon light at Goodnestone; it's quiet and calm and contented, a happy church taking its peaceful rest.


The nave, restored in the nineteenth century (after Jane's time), is elegant and light, with 'frozen fountains playing' of pillars and arches.


Some things Jane would recognise: presumably this memorial to local philanthropist Gabriel Richards, who died in 1672, was there when she came.


I like this because you don't see much Greek on church monuments! 'The Charity of Gabriel Richards, otherwise known as Goodnestone Hospital' seems to exist to this day.

Other ancient things include some medieval stained glass:


St Michael, of course, and a bishop who always looks to me as if he's waving:


(It's actually a gesture of blessing). More bishops:


And the light they cast:


A recent memorial in the north aisle tells of the generosity of the last owner of Goodnestone Park in 'restoring and beautifying this ancient church'. This seems to me a perfect illustration of the ideal relationship between village and great house, between Colonel Brandon at the hall and Elinor and Edward at the parsonage - or the idyll which Fanny and Edmund would have made for themselves at Mansfield Park.


Since our tour takes place after Easter, there are flowers here too.