Thursday, 31 May 2012

When do I see thee most, beloved one?

I've been listening to a lot of Vaughan Williams recently - it's very summery music for me, mostly because I love Silent Noon so very much. Beside 'Silent Noon', RVW set a number of other poems by DGR, or, as I like to think of him, the lesser Rossetti - more famous than his sister and possibly more talented but gosh, so much more of an idiot...

But Vaughan Williams can make anything good and so here's one of his settings, 'Love-sight':




When do I see thee most, beloved one?
When in the light the spirits of mine eyes
Before thy face, their altar, solemnize
The worship of that Love through thee made known?
Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone,)
Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies
Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,
And my soul only sees thy soul its own?
O love, my love! if I no more should see
Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee,
Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,—
How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope
The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope,
The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Church Romance, c.1500

Something fun for a sunny day: this vivid little medieval poem is amusing evidence that even three hundred years before Thomas Hardy's parents, men and women were flirting in church. It's also basically the sixteenth-century version of those 'missed connections' adverts you still sometimes see in newspapers, or indeed of this...

(I've modernised the spelling from this text)


Go, little bill, and commend me heartly
Unto her that I call my true-love and lady,
By this same true tokening:
That she saw me in a kirk on a Friday morning,
With a sparrow-hawk on my hand,
And my man did by her stand,
And an old woman sat her by,
That little knew of courtesy,
And often on her she did smile
To look on me for a while.
And yet by this, another token:
To the kirk she came with a gentlewoman
Even behind the kirk door
They kneeled both on the floor
And fast they did pitter-patter –
I'm sure they said matins together! [he's joking: no, they didn't...]
Yet once or twice, at the least,
She did on me her eye cast,
Then I went forth privily
And greeted them courteously.
By all these tokens, truly,
Commend me to her heartily!


Vincent Vidal, Young Woman Saying the Rosary

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

"All simple-souled, dove-hearted and dove-eyed"

Today is Whitsun Tuesday and so here is Christina Rossetti's poem, appropriately, 'Whitsun Tuesday'. I hadn't realised this before but apparently she wrote poems for almost every significant date in the church's calendar, as devout Victorian poets sometimes liked to do (under the influence of Keble's immensely popular The Christian Year, I suppose). Rossetti's collection is called Some Feasts and Fasts and some of the poems aren't... great, but others are rather good when read in isolation - one of her most famous poems, 'Love came down at Christmas', among them.

You can make up your own mind about 'Whitsun Tuesday'.



Lord Jesus Christ, our Wisdom and our Rest,
Who wisely dost reveal and wisely hide,
Grant us such grace in wisdom to abide
According to Thy Will whose Will is best.
Contented with Thine uttermost behest,
Too sweet for envy and too high for pride;
All simple-souled, dove-hearted and dove-eyed,
Soft-voiced, and satisfied in humble nest.
Wondering at the bounty of Thy Love
Which gives us wings of silver and of gold;
Wings folded close, yet ready to unfold
When Thou shalt say, "Winter is past and gone:"
When Thou shalt say, "Spouse, sister, love and dove,
Come hither, sit with Me upon My Throne."


Monday, 28 May 2012

Sunset over Oxford

George Herbert's 'Whitsunday'

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

Where is that fire which once descended
On thy Apostles? thou didst then
Keep open house, richly attended,
Feasting all comers by twelve chosen men.

Such glorious gifts thou didst bestow,
That th’ earth did like a heav’n appeare;
The starres were coming down to know
If they might mend their wages, and serve here.

The sunne, which once did shine alone,
Hung down his head, and wisht for night,
When he beheld twelve sunnes for one
Going about the world, and giving light.

But since those pipes of gold, which brought
That cordiall water to our ground,
Were cut and martyr’d by the fault
Of those, who did themselves through their side wound,

Thou shutt’st the doore, and keep’st within;
Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink:
And if the braves of conqu’ring sinne
Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink.

Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
The same sweet God of love and light:
Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.



I have a confession: I just don't get Pentecost (or Whitsun, or whatever you like to call it). Almost every other occasion in the church's year has some meaning for me, and if nothing else I can always make some kind of connection with the imagery or the music or the story of it, but Whitsun is just - there. And this is unfortunate, because you're meant to be all excited and spirit-filled and burning with passion (or whatever it was Ælfric was talking about in that sermon I posted earlier) and I really just never feel that way. I think it's because it's all rather intangible - ironically, for a feast which is about spirit becoming visible.  So for this reason I was interested to read today George Herbert's poem 'Whitsunday', in which he seems to reflect something of the same sense of disappointment - though maybe I'm reading my own feelings into it. He describes how glorious the first Pentecost was - so wonderful that the stars themselves "were coming down to know / If they might mend their wages [i.e. 'change their jobs'!] and serve here". At that time the Spirit, he says, 'kept open house' (that's a nice choice of phrase; it reminds me of what Herbert says elsewhere about what flowers do in winter), but now the door is shut: "Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink". Ouch. I think "if the braves of conqu’ring sinne / Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink" means something like 'if you weren't roused to action by the boasts of sinners, you'd just let us sink altogether'. And the last verse, while beautiful in itself, doesn't really resolve the question: Herbert comes back to belief in "the same sweet God of love and light" and suggests Pentecost isn't as good as it was once because we're not as good, since we change but God doesn't. Well, maybe. But for me, the image from this poem which lingers in the mind is that closed door.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Ælfric's Sermon for Pentecost


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

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

This is an extract from a sermon for Pentecost by the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric, in which he reflects on the symbolism of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and as tongues of flame. It makes a nice companion to Ælfric's homily on Candlemas, where he also talks about doves and kindling, but for a different purpose.

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

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

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

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

The Holy Spirit descending on the apostles at Pentecost, in Norman carving in the porch of Malmesbury Abbey

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the sermon here.


The passage on the gifts given to different individuals by the Holy Spirit (based on 1 Corinthians 12.4-13) is often compared to a section in the Old English poem Christ II, ll.664-683:

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

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

This is a mixture of the Biblical and the specifically Anglo-Saxon - climbing trees and sailing ships not being among the gifts listed in Corinthians.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

St Martin's Church, Canterbury


Here are some pictures from a recent visit to the church of St Martin's in Canterbury, the oldest church in England (probably; certainly the oldest still in use). It was already a church when Augustine arrived to convert the Anglo-Saxons in 597: it had been a Christian site in Roman times, and when the Frankish princess Bertha married King Ethelbert of Kent, the king, himself a pagan, gave his wife and her chaplain this church to worship in.


Our documentary information on this subject comes from Bede (who got it from informants at Canterbury about a century later). However, the archaeology of St Martin's supports what he says about its Roman origins. The red material in the church walls is apparently reused Roman brick:


What's more, the fact that it was correctly known to be a Christian church in Ethelbert's time, centuries after the end of Roman occupation, suggests that there may have a small community of British Christians continuously worshipping at the site all through the intervening period. How else would the pagan Saxons have known it was a church?


So this church has certainly been in continuous use for the past 1400 years, and perhaps for another few centuries before that. It's a little way outside the city walls of Canterbury, on the road that leads eastwards to the sea (roughly along the Roman road to the port of Richborough). The monastery of St Augustine's, about which I wrote recently, is on the same road, between St Martin's and the city.

You can see the towers of the cathedral from the churchyard of St Martin's:



How I love those towers!

So let's take a little tour of the church, having wandered around outside it (admiring the Roman bricks but also, when I was there, waiting for it to open...). Come in this way:


This part of the church is only (!) thirteenth century; the part used by Queen Bertha is the chancel, underneath which are the foundations of the Roman building.


The chancel looks like this:


Looking back towards the west door:


Within the chancel is this beautiful modern figure of Bertha, installed in 1997 in commemoration of the 1400th anniversary of Augustine's arrival. It was made by a nun of Minster-in-Thanet, the sculptor Mother Concordia Scott:


The wall around her is more Saxon work making use of Roman materials.


In case you were likely to forget:


Not strictly Augustine-related, and almost modern by comparison with the rest of the church, is the Norman font, which was brought here from Canterbury Cathedral:


It's made of Caen stone and was probably made at the time of the building of the Norman cathedral in the last quarter of the 11th century. The guidebook compared the carved arcade along the top of the font to the pillars of the crypt at the cathedral, the oldest part of the present building.


Columns and arcading I know nothing about, but I was excited to think that perhaps Anselm and Eadmer and Osbern had seen this font.

There's some nice stained glass in the church too; this of Bertha:


Complete with Saxon plaits, as always!

This is her daughter Ethelburga, who married Edwin of Northumbria and helped to bring about the conversion of the north of England to Christianity:


The story of Augustine's arrival is depicted at the east end of the church. Augustine arrives at Ebbsfleet:


(Though I'm distinctly unconvinced by those red rocks, hardly a fair representation of the brilliantly white cliffs which overlook Augustine's landing-place...)

Meanwhile, Bertha attends Christian worship at St Martin's:


Augustine arrives in Canterbury, with an extraordinary physics-defying thurible:


And finally, King Ethelbert is baptised by Augustine, in a font evidently inspired by the one in the church:

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Venerable Bede and the Blink of an Eye

Pugin's Bede at St Augustine's, Ramsgate


The Venerable Bede, one of medieval Europe's greatest scholars, is commemorated on 25 May. He actually died on the 26th, but as that's the same day as St Augustine of Canterbury (and isn't that a nice coincidence?), he gets his own feast today. Everyone loves Bede and the internet is full of information about him, so I don't have much to contribute; but there's one story of his which never gets tired, however many times you read it.

When King Edwin of Northumbria was considering converting to Christianity in 627, he took council with his men, and one of them told him:

"Þyslic me is gesewen, þu cyning, þis andwearde lif manna on eorðan, to wiðmetenesse þære tide þe us uncuð is, swylc swa þu æt swæsendum sitte mid þinum ealdormannum 7 þegnum on wintertide, 7 sie fyr onælæd 7 þin heall gewyrmed, 7 hit rine 7 sniwe 7 styrme ute; cume an spearwa 7 hrædlice þæt hus þurhfleo, cume þurh oþre duru in, þurh oþre ut gewite. Hwæt he on þa tid, þe he inne bið, ne bið hrinen mid þy storme þæs wintres; ac þæt bið an eagan bryhtm 7 þæt læsste fæc, ac he sona of wintra on þone winter eft cymeð. Swa þonne þis monna lif to medmiclum fæce ætyweð; hwæt þær foregange, oððe hwæt þær æfterfylige, we ne cunnun. Forðon gif þeos lar owiht cuðlicre 7 gerisenlicre brenge, þæs weorþe is þæt we þære fylgen."

"O king, it seems to me that this present life of man on earth, in comparison to that time which is unknown to us, is as if you were sitting at table in the winter with your ealdormen and thegns, and a fire was kindled and the hall warmed, while it rained and snowed and stormed outside. A sparrow came in, and swiftly flew through the hall; it came in at one door, and went out at the other. Now during the time when he is inside, he is not touched by the winter's storms; but that is the twinkling of an eye and the briefest of moments, and at once he comes again from winter into winter. In such a way the life of man appears for a brief moment; what comes before, and what will follow after, we do not know. Therefore if this doctrine [Christianity] offers anything more certain or more fitting, it is right that we follow it."


This is from the Old English translation of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, made in the ninth century; you can read a modern English translation of the Latin original here (II:13). We don't know the name of this counsellor of Edwin, if indeed he ever existed and this is not merely Bede adapting a common homiletic idea which seemed appropriate for the situation. But whether it was Bede or the anonymous ealdorman, he gave voice to an idea which is thoroughly typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry, both Christian and secular - and to a description of the human condition which is no less moving today.


Bede depicted on the ceiling of Westminster Cathedral

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

O the mind, mind has mountains

Doesn't it just. Here are two poems which don't have much in common except that they offer the only reliable comfort in this lonely world: sleep and oblivion.



No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief."'

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.




This is Ian Bostridge singing Benjamin Britten's setting of Louis MacNeice's poem 'Cradle Song for Eleanor'.


Sleep, my darling, sleep;
The pity of it all
Is all we compass if
We watch disaster fall.
Put off your twenty-odd
Encumbered years and creep
Into the only heaven,
The robbers’ cave of sleep.

The wild grass will whisper,
Lights of passing cars
Will streak across your dreams
And fumble at the stars;
Life will tap the window
Only too soon again,
Life will have her answer –
Do not ask her when.

When the winsome bubble
Shivers, when the bough
Breaks, will be the moment
But not here or now.
Sleep and, asleep, forget
The watchers on the wall
Awake all night who know
The pity of it all.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Songs of Godric of Finchale

Godric of Finchale, who died on 21 May 1170, was a merchant-turned-hermit and saint who is also one of the first named English songwriters - at least, his are the first songs in English for which the music survives. He was born at Walpole in Norfolk just after the Norman Conquest (c.1070), to English parents, and he became a successful merchant, trading and sailing to Scotland, Denmark and Rome.  He undertook several pilgrimages, but (partly inspired by a visit to St Cuthbert's Farne Islands) he was drawn to the life of a hermit, and eventually settled at Finchale near Durham, where he lived for the last sixty years of his life.

There are four verses attributed to him, preserved in accounts of his life by the monk Reginald of Durham.  Here are they are on one page from a manuscript in the British Library (Royal 5 F VII, f.85):


The first song here is said in the Life to have come to Godric when he had a vision of his sister Burhcwen, also a solitary at Finchale, being received into heaven.  She was singing a song of thanksgiving, in Latin, and Godric renders her song in English thus (bracketed by a Kyrie eleison):

Crist and sainte marie swa on scamel me iledde
þat ic on þis erðe ne silde wid mine bare fote i tredie

'Christ and St Mary so carried me with a crutch
That I never had to tread upon this earth with my bare foot.'

Godric's most famous song also came to him in a vision: the Virgin Mary told him to sing it whenever he was tempted, weary or in pain, and she would come to his aid.

Sainte marie uirgine
moder ihesu cristes nazarene
onfo schild help þin godric
onfang bring heȝilich wið þe in godes riche

Sainte marie xristes bur
maidenes clenhad moderes flur
dilie min sinne rix in min mod
bring me to winne wið þe selfd God

That is:

'Saint Mary, Virgin,
Mother of Jesu Christ of Nazareth,
Receive, shield, help your Godric;
Received, bring him on high with you in God’s kingdom.

Saint Mary, bower of Christ,
Purest of maidens, flower of mothers,
Efface my sins, reign in my mind,
Bring me to joy with that same God.'

In the first verse, Godric is playing on the meaning of his own name: godes riche means ‘God’s kingdom’. These verses already have some of the motifs which would later become so popular in Middle English devotional poetry, especially the romance tinge of Mary as 'bower of Christ', and the flower imagery.

And the last of Godric's verses is a prayer to St Nicholas:

Sainte Nicholaes godes druð
tymbre us faire scone hus
At þi burth at þi bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel þare

'Saint Nicholas, God’s beloved,
Build for us a fair bright house;
At the birth, at the bier,
Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there.'

(The interpretation of the third line is disputed, but this is the reading I'd go for - in other words, asking for Nicholas' help from birth to death).

Here are the songs being sung:



These verses are fascinating, partly because they provide a glimpse into the obscure and much-underrated world of twelfth-century English literature. The traditional view for a long time was that the thriving vernacular literature of Anglo-Saxon England came to an abrupt end at the end of the eleventh century, not to re-emerge until some time in the thirteenth - as if the Norman Conquest made everyone forget overnight that they had ever told stories or sung songs or heard homilies in the English language. Much did change, of course, but scholarship is increasingly showing the traditional 'rupture' model to be much too simplistic. Godric's songs are an interesting case-study in this context.  The verses are more than competent, the use of rhyme particularly - this clearly isn't somebody fumbling around with poetic techniques he didn't understand. As far as we know Godric had no formal education, and tracing the cultural influences of someone who lived such a well-travelled and varied life is a tricky endeavour. However, his Fenland origins are especially intriguing, because we do have a little evidence for vernacular song in the twelfth-century Fens - Cnut's song from Ely is my favourite example, but there may also have been verses about the local heroes Hereward and Waltheof (and as for English prose, monks at Peterborough, Ely, Crowland and Ramsey - the houses closest to Godric's native Walpole - were all certainly reading and in some cases writing English well into the twelfth century). It's just possible that Godric grew up with a tradition of English song, and that his verses should thus be seen as a development of this rather than a complete innovation. There's much about them that's new (bower/flower rhymes, for a start), and they are justly celebrated as a 'first' - but they didn't come out of nowhere.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

'Twere joy, not fear, clasped hand in hand with thee

O, were I loved as I desire to be!
What is there in the great sphere of the earth,
Or range of evil between death and birth,
That I should fear, - if I were loved by thee!
All the inner, all the outer world of pain,
Clear love would pierce and cleave, if thou wert mine;
As I have heard that somewhere in the main
Fresh water springs come up through bitter brine.
'Twere joy, not fear, clasped hand in hand with thee,
To wait for death - mute - careless of all ills,
Apart upon a mountain, though the surge
Of some new deluge from a thousand hills
Flung leagues of roaring foam into the gorge
Below us, as far on as eye could see.



I'm always surprised when I run across a Tennyson poem I don't know, but this one was new to me today. It's an early poem, published when he was 24 years old (!) in his second collection of poems, in 1833, the same year that Arthur Hallam's death was to change his life. The poem looks straightforward but there are some interesting things about it: the distinction between inner and outer worlds of pain; 'clear love' (what does that mean?); that wonderful image of fresh water springing up through brine.

Since visiting Tennyson's haunts on the Isle of Wight a little while ago, I can no longer think of him without thinking of Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived nearby and illustrated some of Tennyson's poems with her photographs (and it occurs to me now that the village they lived in is called Freshwater; what an odd coincidence). So the picture is her portrait of Ellen Terry, called 'Sadness'.

A Sunday Morning Hymn


The dawn of God’s dear Sabbath
Breaks o’er the earth again,
As some sweet summer morning
After a night of pain;
It comes as cooling showers
To some exhausted land,
As shade of clustered palm trees
’Mid weary wastes of sand.

Lord, we would bring for offering
Though marred with earthly soil,
Our week of earnest labour,
Of useful daily toil;
Fair fruits of self denial,
Of strong, deep love to Thee,
Fostered by Thine own Spirit
In our humility.

And, we would bring our burden
Of sinful thought and deed,
In Thy pure presence kneeling,
From bondage to be freed;
Our heart’s most bitter sorrow
For all Thy work undone;
So many talents wasted!
So few bright laurels won!

And with that sorrow mingling,
A steadfast faith, and sure,
And love so deep and fervent,
That tries to make it pure;
In His dear presence finding
The pardon that we need;
And then the peace so lasting,
Celestial peace indeed!

So be it, Lord, forever;
O may we evermore
In Jesus’ holy presence
His blessèd name adore,
Upon His peaceful Sabbath,
Within His temple walls—
Type of the stainless worship
In Zion’s golden halls.



This hymn is by Ada Cambridge Cross (1844-1926). I just discovered it, at the dawn of this Sunday morning. I have a fondness for literature in praise of Sundays, like George Herbert's beautiful poem of that name:

Sundays the pillars are,
On which heaven's palace arched lies:
The other days fill up the spare
And hollow room with vanities.
They are the fruitfull beds and borders
In God's rich garden: that is bare,
Which parts their ranks and orders.

The Sundays of man's life,
Thredded together on time's string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternal glorious King.
On Sunday heaven's gate stands ope:
Blessings are plentiful and rife,
More plentiful then hope.


People always talk about how dull Sundays were in the days before Sunday trading, when the Sabbath was strictly kept, and I'm sure they could be tedious. But this is the other side of it, which you don't hear so much about: a true day of rest, set aside from the cares and business of the week - whether "useful daily toil" or "so many talents wasted/so few bright laurels won" - a day of reflection and peace, to make us stronger for the week ahead. No wonder this hymn calls it the 'dear Sabbath'.

Also, I really like the kind of self-referential hymn which pays attention to what people might be thinking as they gather in church. Modern church music often tries to do this and sometimes does it badly, focusing on us and focusing what we're doing (singing a new church into being, apparently) rather than God. But this strikes a nice balance between acknowledging that people may have worries on their mind, and pointing them upwards to the eternal Sabbath in "Zion's golden halls". It reminds me of 'Not for our sins alone', another hymn which is highly self-referential but nonetheless humble and devotional, and completely focused in the right direction. 'Hymns about hymns' are always something special: this, one of my favourites, speaks of the other end of the Sabbath day:

Our day of praise is done;
The evening shadows fall;
But pass not from us with the sun,
True Light that lightenest all.

Around the throne on high,
Where night can never be,
The white-robed harpers of the sky
Bring ceaseless hymns to thee.

Too faint our anthems here;
Too soon of praise we tire;
But O the strains, how full and clear,
Of that eternal choir!

Yet, Lord, to thy dear will
If thou attune the heart,
We in thine angels’ music still
May bear our lower part.

’Tis thine each soul to calm,
Each wayward thought reclaim,
And make our life a daily psalm
Of glory to thy name.

A little while, and then
Shall come the glorious end;
And songs of angels and of men
In perfect praise shall blend.


Have a happy Sunday!


Pictures: two sunny Suffolk churches, Aldeburgh (top) and Stoke-by-Nayland

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Thou'rt the music of my soul: Maiden of Morven


Maiden of Morven: An Ossianic Love-Lament

The lament of an Ossianic hero for the death of his lady-love, accidentally lost in a storm off the point of Ardnamurchan



Moan ye winds that never sleep,
Howl ye spirits of the deep,
Roar ye torrents down the steep,
Roll ye mists on Morven.
May the tempests never rest
Nor the seas with peace be blest
Since they tore thee from my breast,
Maiden of Morven!

Fairer than the flowers that grow,
Purer than the rills that flow,
Gentler than the fallow doe
'Mid the woods of Morven;
As the leaf is to the tree,
As the summer to the bee,
So wert thou, my Love, to me,
Maiden of Morven!

Ossian's harp sings Fingal's praise;
Wild the lilt of Carril's lays,
Men and maids of other days
Fire his tales of Morven.
Though their chords like thunder roll,
When at Beltane brims the bowl,
Thou'rt the music of my soul,
Maiden of Morven!

Oft I chased the deer of yore;
Many a battle-brunt I bore,
When the chiefs of Innistore
Hurled their might on Morven.
Blunt my spear, and slack my bow,
Like an empty ghost I go,
Death the only hope I know,
Maiden of Morven!


This dramatic piece of Victorian Scottish antiquarianism is by Harold Boulton. I don't know much about Ossian and his laments, but you don't really need to in order to enjoy the awesomeness of this song. The tune is an old Highland melody with a super-dramatic setting by Malcolm Lawson, like thunder clouds rolling; you can sort of hear it in this recording at Amazon.

Innistore, according to the note in Songs of the North, is "the Orkney Islands, then like many of the Islands under the dominion of the Scandinavian Kings, who were frequently at war with the Celtic Fingalians of the Mainland". Oh, those Scandinavian kings, always at war with someone. Archaeology helpfully confirms the historical records, since just last year there was a very exciting discovery in Ardnamurchan: a Viking ship-burial complete with the body and artefacts.

Most of my knowledge of this part of Scotland comes from the film 'I Know Where I'm Going', and so this stormy song always makes me think of its climatic scene in Corryvreckan whirlpool (the whole film is on youtube; the whirpool scene starts at about 1:07:00). It's a wonderful film, impossible not to fall in love with; you should definitely watch it if you have an hour or two to spare. The plaintive tune playing as the boat returns is, appropriately, The Boatman, because Powell and Pressburger had excellent taste...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Stories of St Dunstan, 7: The Boys of Canterbury and St Dunstan's Ghost


Here's a final story from the Miracles of St Dunstan, which supposedly took place at Canterbury in the tumultuous year which followed the Battle of Hastings, some eighty years after Dunstan's death. It concerns the boys of the cathedral school, and is recorded by two of Dunstan's hagiographers who were at this time themselves boys being educated at the monastery. This is Eadmer's version of the story, following on from an account of how Dunstan posthumously healed a little boy from paralysis:

It pleases me to add to this pious deed performed on behalf of a little boy another act of love of this most loving father carried out for the boys of the church.

The feast day of the birth of Christ was approaching [in the year 1067]. It was an ancient custom in that same monastery on the fifth day before this feast that the boys… within the schools be beaten with severe and excessive lashes. This punishment of the wretched boys was inflicted not for any sins committed but out of custom, and for that reason they were in no way able to escape it, except when the strenuous intercession of advocates might reduce the viciousness of the schoolmasters.

And so on a certain occasion the teachers were of one mind and inflamed with such great wrath against the boys that no prayer by their advocates, no intercession poured forth by anyone on their behalf could at all succeed in calming the madness which had seized them. The wretched boys knew not what to do nor where to turn. Only one refuge remained, to invoke the love of loving Dunstan.

Already on the night before this unspeakably cruel event the boys were trembling with fear when behold, the loving father, appearing to one of the boys in a dream, asked in a gentle manner why he and his companions were afflicted with such grief. And he, unaware of who it was that spoke to him, broke out in tears and explained how the rage of the teachers had conspired against them without a thought for mercy.

But he replied, ‘Have no fear; for I am your father Dunstan whom you have asked for help. I have considered the boundless and unholy wrath of your teachers and I have seen your great need. Do not be afraid, for I will be present with you and you shall suffer no harm. So let your liberation today serve as a signal for you to speak on my behalf to the custodians of the church so that they remove the stinking corpse of the son of Harold, which out of adulation – something I abhor – certain men have buried next to me. Moreover, I am all the more troubled by this because I know that the soul of this boy is damned because it has not been reborn [i.e. baptised]. So if the body is not removed immediately, let them know that before too long the whole church will suffer a grave loss on this account.’

Hearing these things the boy awoke and turning over what he had heard in his mind he vacillated between hope and fear. And now, dawn, that is, the dreaded hour, had arrived; armed with bull-hide whips and knotted lashes the teachers stood waiting in opportune places for the boys to pass by there. But suddenly all at once a most deep sleep enveloped those malevolent men, so that none of them was able to stop the boys passing through their midst, nor to inflict injury upon anyone.

It was not the viciousness which they bore against the innocent children that roused the teachers from their slumber, but the singing and rejoicing of these innocents, and the high feast itself. They were confused, and regretted too late that by falling asleep they had lost the chance to indulge their savagery, from which they had allowed the boys to escape without anyone interceding on their behalf.

But the boy to whom the holy father had appeared, knowing for certain that it was blessed Dunstan whom he had seen, related to the custodians of the church what he had been told about removing the stinking cadaver. Those men considered the words of the youth to be of little consequence, and likewise spurned the warnings and threats of the blessed bishop. Wherefore afterwards that same father was sometimes seen leaving that place by certain pious monks of the church. Whenever he was stopped by them and asked why he was leaving he would reply that he was no longer able to tolerate the stench of pagan flesh in that place, nor the iniquities of certain evil men. And he said, ‘But if these things are not rectified swiftly, mark my words I predict that that the entire city as well as the church will very soon pay a well-deserved penalty for that.’

What in fact happened afterwards proved this premonition to be true. For only a few days after these things had happened the city, together with the whole church and the workplaces of the servants of God, was consumed by fire. Nevertheless it transpired through the great mercy of God and the intercession of holy Dunstan that two buildings, without which the brothers could not have existed, remained unscathed by the conflagration, namely the refectory and the dormitory with the cloisters which adjoined it.

Eadmer of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford, 2006), pp.173-5.

The fire which Dunstan's ghost predicted, as it left its grave and walked to and fro, took place on 6 December 1067, and destroyed the Anglo-Saxon cathedral - a catastrophe for Christ Church, following close on the heels of the Norman Conquest, with which this miracle-story is obliquely linked. Not everything in this tale quite makes sense (the dating is a bit off), but it's an intriguing glimpse into community politics at a very tense time for England and Canterbury. It seems likely that the Harold whose son's presence caused Dunstan's spirit such distress was Harold Godwineson (Osbern in his version of the story talks about 'Earl Harold'). If so, this unbaptised child, who presumably died in infancy, must have been the son of Harold and his long-time consort Eadgyth. As earl or king, Harold might well have had the power to have his child buried near St Dunstan's tomb, but he was, of course, a controversial figure in 1066-7 - no surprise if some of the monks objected to his son being buried at Canterbury! Was it disapproval of Harold, or of his irregular relationship with Eadgyth, which made the burial so controversial? Or was someone worried that it was dangerous for Christ Church to appear too loyal to the dead king? Either way, the tension had apparently filtered down to the boys, and found expression in this tug-of-war over Dunstan's wishes and the masters' cruelty. It suggests something about the way the potency of a great name can linger on within a community; none of the boys in this story were old enough to remember Dunstan, but they knew that invoking his name would win their case for them.

Similar miracles involving protecting children from a cruel beating are attributed to other saints, including St Eormenhild, and here it perhaps reflects Eadmer's adoption of St Anselm's well-known opposition to corporal punishment for the young. However, I like Nicholas Brooks' comment on this story, from his The Early History of the Church of Canterbury: "Some will also see in the story evidence of a brutal and unimaginative discipline; others evidence that even in the eleventh century middle-aged and elderly Englishmen liked to recall the corporal punishment that had characterized the educational system of their youth". (There was no corporal punishment in my youth, but I've certainly heard old men at high table in Oxford reminiscence fondly about what they endured at public school - bizarre as it sounds to people like me!) More than nostalgia, however, this is a complex and extraordinary story - slightly unpleasant in some ways, but an incredibly vivid insight into the life of a monastic community under great strain.

Dunstan, from St Dunstan's church, Canterbury

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Stories of St Dunstan, 6: The Thief and the Cliff


As Archbishop of Canterbury Dunstan acquired a reputation for wisdom, humility and holiness, particularly impressive for someone who was also the leading minister of state. He was much loved at Canterbury, and after his death was by far the cathedral's most popular saint until the day Thomas Becket was murdered before his own altar - Dunstan had no story dramatic enough to compete with that! But for the two centuries before that, Dunstan was their hero. This comes across in the many, many stories his later hagiographers tell about occasions after his death when he intervened to help his monks. I'll save my favourite tale of this kind for tomorrow, but this is also a good one - a miracle which was told to William of Malmesbury in the early twelfth century. Dunstan, he says,

"was able to lighten the woes of his sons by great miracles. One of these I have not seen in writing, though I recently heard it narrated by a monk of Christ Church [probably Eadmer]. A thief, condemned to fall to his death, called on the aid of St Dunstan; his eyes already blindfolded, he was pushed away by his executioners and leapt into the chasm, but without coming to any harm. The blessed Dunstan spoke with him in person there, and removed his bandages. The poor man, heartened by this help, found his way along rough paths to higher ground; an invisible hand on his back supported him as he clung to the cliff-face, and prevented him slipping backwards".

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom, vol.II, p.15.


Incidentally, this is "apparently the earliest reference to the customary local mode of execution called ‘infalisation’, according to which felons were thrown from a cliff called Sharpeness at Dover". You know how tall the white cliffs of Dover are? Think of that bit in King Lear:

How fearful
And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumbered idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.

High cliffs were no match for Dunstan, of course.

And let me assure you, this punishment is no longer customary in the Kentish legal system...

Ascension Day in Oxford


I thought a few of my readers might be interested in pictures of some of Oxford's Ascension Day traditions. Like many parishes in England, the city centre churches here continue the ancient practice of 'beating the bounds' of the parish, because it's Rogationtide, the time when you pray for blessings for your land. There's not a lot of farmland in central Oxford but there are a lot of fertile young minds, and they need blessings as much as anyone.

I went beating the bounds with the parish of St Michael at the Northgate in 2008, when Ascension Day fell on May Day (another important day in Oxford - but that's for another post...) The way it works is that a group of clergy and parishoners take long sticks of wood and walk around the perimeter of the parish, marking boundary stones with a prayer and a ceremonial beating (of the stone, not of people). The boundaries fall right in the middle of, for instance, Oxford's Cornmarket:


And inside Marks and Spencers (ladieswear section, in case you were wondering):


And the back wall of a restaurant:


But also in the more beautiful Brasenose Lane:


And the wall of the Bodleian Library:


What they do is write a cross, with SMNG around it (for St Michael at the North Gate) and then the date:


The chalk markings build up over the years, and where two boundaries meet, you can see the evidence - as here outside Brasenose College Office, where the boundaries of St Michael's and St Mary the Virgin join:


Inside Brasenose:


Lincoln and Brasenose have their own separate tradition on Ascension Day, commemorating the historical rivalry between the colleges. The colleges back onto each other, and at noon on Ascension Day, for five minutes only, the underground passageway which leads from one to the other is opened and Brasenose students go through into Lincoln.

(This sounds like one of those Oxford myths, but I assure you, it really happens.)

There Brasenose students are served with free beer, laced with ivy, supposedly in reparation for the fact that Lincoln once, in the time of town riots in Oxford, refused to admit a Brasenose student who was being chased by a mob. Having drunk the disgusting beer, we gather in Lincoln's beautiful quad to watch pennies being thrown from their tower to waiting children below. It's an eccentric form of almsgiving!



Viri Galilaei, quid admiramini aspicientes in caelum?

;)



They scrabble for pennies. We all learn a lesson about greed. It's pretty great.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Stories of St Dunstan, 5: Dunstan's Dream

Dunstan having a vision of the Virgin, from British Library, Royal 2 B VII, f.228v

One of the most lurid stories about Dunstan concerns the consecration of young King Eadwig in 955: when the king was nowhere to be seen, Dunstan went in search of him and found him cavorting with a noblewoman and her mother. This is probably a scandalous myth, but it's true that Dunstan and Eadwig did not get on at all. According to Dunstan's first biographer, his fellow monks at Glastonbury were plotting against him too, and Dunstan was eventually forced into exile on the continent. And that's the context for the following dream:

The mercy of his God was with him, and he found favour with a local magnate, who looked after him with a father's affection during his exile. This nobleman's care saw to his everyday needs with all kindness.

Yet Dunstan's mind was constantly back in the land from which he had been expelled so remorselessly. Often did he lament, shedding floods of tears, whenever, now an exile, he recalled the grand religious life he had left behind in his monastery. He had long been taken up with doleful reflections of this kind, when lo and behold! he saw one night in his sleep a vision of the familiar scenes he so eagerly conjured up in his mind while awake. He was back in his familiar monastery, his band of brethren by him, singing Vespers, and, after the final canticle, 'My soul doth magnify the Lord', [they sang] the antiphon 'Wherefore did ye detract from the sayings of truth? You put together words to reproach, and strive to overthrow your friend. Yet...' At this point in Dunstan's dream, they all stopped singing at the same moment and fell quite silent, unable to find the voice or the words to finish the antiphon. And though they vainly tried again and again, they could only sing as far as the same place as before, never able to add the two last words.

In his dream, Dunstan rebuked them: 'Why won't you finish the antiphon with "complete what you design"? From another quarter he at once heard the reply of God: 'Because, I say, they will never bring to pass what they are plotting, namely your expulsion from control over this monastery.' And waking up from his dream he gave thanks to the Almighty for consoling him.

The Early Lives of St Dunstan, ed. and trans. Michael Lapidge and Michael Winterbottom (Oxford, 2012), pp.73-5.


It turned out all right for Dunstan: Eadwig only reigned four years, and was followed by his brother Edgar, one of Anglo-Saxon England's greatest kings and a firm supporter of the church. Under Edgar Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury; the service which Dunstan devised for Edgar's consecration is still the basis of the coronation ceremony for British monarchs, more than a thousand years later.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Stories of St Dunstan, 4: Dunstan and the Devil


According to legend, St Dunstan had a number of encounters with the devil. The most famous story, which entered popular folklore, tells how he pulled the devil by the nose (as depicted above in a twelfth-century Canterbury manuscript!).

While he was living as a hermit in a cell at Glastonbury, after leaving the royal court as a result of the events in yesterday's post, he continued to occupy himself with his various crafts, including metalwork. One day, as evening was coming on, an old man appeared at his window and asked him to make a chalice for him. Setting aside what he was working on, Dunstan agreed to the request and set to work. But as he was working his visitor began to change shape: one moment he was an old man, then a young boy, then a seductive woman.

Dunstan realised that his guest was a devil; but, pretending not to notice, he went on with his task. He took up the tongs from among his tools and laid them in the fire, waiting until they were red-hot. Then, pulling them out of the fire, he turned round and seized the devil by the nose with the tongs. The devil struggled and screamed, but Dunstan held on until at last he felt he had triumphed. Then he threw the devil out of his cell and it fled, running down the street and crying "Woe is me! What has that bald devil done to me? Look at me, a poor wretch, look how he has tortured me!"

Many people heard and saw this, and the following day they came to Dunstan and asked him what had happened. He said to them, "These are the tricks of devils, who try to trap us with their snares whenever they can. But if we remain firm in the service of Christ, we can easily defeat them with his help, and they will flee from us in confusion." And from that time he dwelt safely in his little cell.


On another occasion, when Dunstan was praying alone, the devil appeared to him in the likeness of a wolf with a gaping mouth, snarling and baring his teeth. Dunstan would not be distracted from concentration on his prayers, so the devil suddenly changed himself into a little fox, trying to get Dunstan's attention by jumping about, contorting himself and trying to get Dunstan to laugh at him. But, smiling a little, Dunstan only said, "You are revealing how you usually behave: by your tricks you flatter the unwary so that you can devour them. Now get out of here, wretch, since Christ, who crushed the lion and the dragon with his heel, will overcome you by his grace through me, whether you're a wolf or a fox."

Dunstan draws and the devil tries to distract him (source as above)

The episode with Dunstan nipping the devil by the nose is perhaps the best-known story about the saint. It first appears as told above in the late eleventh century, in the Life and Miracles of St Dunstan written by Osbern, precentor of the cathedral church at Canterbury. Osbern, who as a child had witnessed and been involved with several miracles attributed to St Dunstan, had a great personal devotion to the saint. He tells of a visit he made to Dunstan's cell at Glastonbury, and how deeply moved he was to touch the saint's own writing implements: he says that he wept copious tears, "for I remembered how often he had heard me when I called upon him in danger, and how mercifully he had helped me; and so I neither wished to restrain my tears nor to leave the spot". A writer and a musician himself, perhaps he saw in Dunstan a kindred spirit as well as a fatherly patron.

Dunstan had already been the subject of a fairly extensive Vita at the end of the tenth century, but Osbern rewrote it and provided the saint with a plethora of lively miracles - some of them reworked from the earlier rather dull Vita, some of them arising from a century of posthumous cures at Dunstan's tomb, but all of them testifying to Osbern's ear for a good story. There are a few Dunstan vs. the devil stories in the earlier hagiography (I considered why that might be here) but Osbern's are the first ones which are actually funny. And so, the story of how Dunstan nipped the devil by the nose became a popular legend and a regular part of the iconography of Dunstan in the later Middle Ages and beyond.


The story was of course retold in other forms, as here in playful fashion in the South English Legendary:

þe deuel he hente bi þe nose & wel faste drou;
He twengde & ssok hure bi þe nose þat þe fur out blaste.
þe deuel wrickede here & þere & he huld euere faste,
He 3al & hupte & drou a3en & made grislich bere.
He nolde for al is bi3ete þat he hadde icome þere!
Wiþ is tonge he strok is nose & twengde him euere sore,
Forte it was wiþinne ni3te þat he ne mi3te iseo namore.
þe ssrewe was glad & bliþe inou þo he was out of is honde
And flei & gradde bi þe lift þat me hurde into al þe londe:
"Out, wat haþ þis calwe ido? wat haþ þis calwe ido?"
In þe contreie me hurde wide hou þe ssrewe gradde so.
As god þe ssrewe hadde ibeo habbe ysnut atom is nose,
He ne hi3ede namore þuderward to tilie him of þe pose.

[He seized the devil by the nose and pulled very hard; he tweaked and shook him by the nose so that fire burst out. The devil wriggled here and there, and he still held fast. He yelled and hopped and pulled away and made a horrible commotion. He wished for all the world that he'd never come there! With his tongs Dunstan yanked at his nose and nipped him very sore, until night came on and he could no longer see. The villain was glad and happy indeed that he was out of his hands, and fled and cried out so it was heard all over the land: "Alas, what's this bald one done? What's this bald one done?" It was heard far around how the wicked one cried out. The villain had got such a good tweaking of his nose, he never hurried back there again to heal his cold!]

Here are some examples of the popularity of the story, including this rhyme:

St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull'd the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.

('þat me hurde into al þe londe', indeed!) There's a great description of a 1687 pageant (!) of the scene organised by the goldsmiths of London, and Dickens refers to the story in A Christmas Carol:

Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then, indeed, he would have roared to lusty purpose.

(It occurs to me that Dickens and Osbern would have got on well.) In the 1840s, R. H. Barham, in his cheerily absurd 'Lay of St Dunstan', claimed the story of Dunstan's devil-pinching was too well-known to relate:

St Dunstan stood in his ivied Tower,
Alembic, crucible, all were there;
When in came Nick to play him a trick,
In guise of a damsel passing fair.
Every one knows
How the story goes:
He took up the tongs and caught hold of his nose.

So Barham makes up his own story, which I recommend to all medievalists who want to know what rhymes he finds for 'witangemot', 'Elgiva', 'Saxon', and 'Reginald Heber'.