Wednesday, 23 March 2016

'This doubtful day of feast or fast': Good Friday and the Annunciation

Annunciation and Crucifixion, from BL Add. 18850, f. 204v

This year Good Friday falls on Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation. This is a rare occurrence and a special one, because it means that for once the day falls on its 'true' date: in patristic and medieval tradition, March 25 was considered to be the historical date of the Crucifixion. It happens only a handful of times in a century, and won't occur again until 2157.

These days the church deals with such occasions by transferring the feast of the Annunciation to another day, but traditionally the conjunction of the two dates was considered to be both deliberate and profoundly meaningful. The date of the feast of the Annunciation was chosen to match the supposed historical date of the Crucifixion, as deduced from the Gospels, in order to underline the idea that Christ came into the world on the same day that he left it: his life formed a perfect circle. March 25 was both the first and the last day of his earthly life, the beginning and the completion of his work on earth. The idea goes back at least to the third century, and Augustine explained it in this way:

He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.

This day was not only a conjunction of man-made calendars but also a meeting-place of solar, lunar, and natural cycles: both events were understood to have happened in the spring, when life returns to the earth, and at the vernal equinox, once the days begin to grow longer than the nights and light triumphs over the power of darkness. Here's Bede explaining some of the symbolism of this latter point (from here, p.25):

It is fitting that just as the Sun at that point in time first assumed power over the day, and then the Moon and stars power over the night, so now, to connote the joy of our redemption, day should first equal night in length, and then the full Moon should suffuse [the night] with light. This is for the sake of a certain symbolism, because the created Sun which lights up all the stars signifies the true and eternal light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, while the Moon and stars, which shine, not with their own light (as they say), but with an adventitious light borrowed from the Sun, suggest the body of the Church as a whole, and each individual saint. These, capable of being illumined but not of illuminating, know how to accept the gift of heavenly grace but not how to give it. And in the celebration of the supreme solemnity, it was necessary that Christ precede the Church, which cannot shine save through Him... Observing the Paschal season is not meaningless, for it is fitting that through it the world's salvation both be symbolized and come to pass.
As Bede says at the end here, this dating is symbolic but it is not only a symbol; it reveals the deep relationship between Christ's death and all the created world, including the sun and moon and everything on earth. According to some calculations 25 March was also considered to be the eighth day of the week which saw the creation of the world (for more on that, see this post), as well as the date of certain events from the Old Testament which prefigured Christ's death, including the sacrifice of Isaac and the crossing of the Red Sea. It is the single most significant date in salvation history, and for that reason has also made it into some fictional history too: those of you who are Tolkien fans will know that the final destruction of the Ring takes place on 25 March, to align Tolkien's own eucatastrophe with this most powerful of dates.

Calendar, marking the Annunciation and Crucifixion on 25 March (BL Royal 1 D X, f.10)

But it's the link between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion which has most fascinated theologians and artists over the centuries. Here's one beautiful passage from the Old English Martyrology, in its entry for March 25, explaining what was by the ninth century the common understanding of the date (the text is from this edition, pp.72-7, with my translation):

On ðone fif ond twentegðan dæg þæs monðes com Gabrihel ærest to Sancta Marian mid Godes ærende, ond on ðone dæg Sancta Maria wæs eacen geworden on Nazareth ðære ceastre þurh þæs engles word ond þurh hire earena gehyrnesse, swa þas treowa ðonne hi blostmiað þurh þæs windes blæd.... Ond ða æfter twa ond ðritegum geara ond æfter ðrym monðum wæs Crist ahangen on rode on ðone ylcan dæg. Ond sona swa he on ðære rode wæs, ða gescæfta tacnedon þæt he was soð God. Seo sunne asweartade, ond se dæg wæs on þeostre niht gecierred fram midne dæg oð non.

On the twenty-fifth day of the month Gabriel first came to St Mary with God’s message, and on that day St Mary conceived in the city of Nazareth through the angel’s word and through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind... And then after thirty-two years and three months Christ was crucified on the cross on the same day. And as soon as he was on the cross, creation revealed that he was truly God: the sun grew black, and the day was turned into dark night from midday until the ninth hour.
At the Annunciation Mary becomes like the blossoming trees in spring, and like the tree which became Christ's cross: she bears new life to the world. The parallel reflects the ancient tradition which links Mary with scriptural images of the tree or the vine, frequently used in the liturgy on feasts of the Virgin - this, for instance. She is the root of Jesse from which grows the rod, the virgo who bears the virga. (For a fascinating discussion of this imagery in light of the parallel between Mary and the tree/cross in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, see this book.)

With Mary's Ave from the angel at the Annunciation began the work of redemption completed on Good Friday; the word makes her the inverse of Eva, the means by which Eve’s sin is turned to good. In the Old English Martyrology, the next entry describes how on 26 March Christ descended into hell, to save Adam and Eve and all those who had died before his coming. Eve appeals to him by merit of her kinship with Mary:

Đær hine eac ongeaton Adam ond Eua, þær hi asmorede wæron mid deopum ðeostrum. Đa ða hi gesawon his þæt beorhte leoht æfter þære langan worolde, þær Eua hine halsode for Sancta Marian mægsibbe ðæt he hire miltsade. Heo cwæþ to him: ‘Gemyne, min Drihten, þæt seo wæs ban of minum banum, ond flæsc of minum flæsce. Help min forþon.’ Đa Crist hi butu ðonan alysde ond unrim bliðes folces him beforan onsende, ða he wolde gesigefæsted eft siðian to þæm lichoman.

Adam and Eve saw him there too, where they were stifled in deep darkness. When they saw his bright light, after that long age, Eve implored him there for the sake of her kinship with St Mary to have mercy on her. She said to him: ‘Remember, my Lord, that she was bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. Help me for that reason!’ Then Christ released them both from that place and also sent a countless number of joyful people before them, when, triumphant, he set out to return to his body.

Crucifixion and Annunciation (BL Add. 44949, f. 5)

The traditional pairing of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion means that the two scenes are often depicted together in medieval art, as above in a fourteenth-century manuscript, and in the image at the top of this post. The first example from England is probably the one found on the eighth-century Ruthwell Cross, where a depiction of the Crucifixion was added directly below the Annunciation scene some time after the original design was completed:

Some six hundred years later, artists were still finding new ways to explore this conjunction. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the idea inspired the development of a distinctive and beautiful image found almost uniquely in English medieval art: the lily crucifix. This iconography combines the Annunciation and the Crucifixion by depicting Christ crucified on a lily amid an Annunciation scene. The lily is the symbol of Mary, of course, and is often referenced in depictions of the Annunciation and in poetry about the Virgin; this idea grafts that flower imagery into the tradition which links Mary to the root of Jesse and the tree of the cross. Here's a gorgeous example of a lily crucifix from a Welsh manuscript, the Llanbeblig Hours, made at the end of the fourteenth century:

The Virgin sits under a green canopy, while Gabriel in green and red kneels facing her.

Another slightly later manuscript image can be seen here, but the lily crucifix is found in all kinds of media - there are estimated to be 19 surviving examples in all, ranging from painted screens and stained glass to carvings on stone tombs, misericords and wall-paintings. Here's a painted ceiling from the Lady Chapel of St Helen's Church, Abingdon, with the lily bearing the crucified Christ between Mary and the angel:

The rest of this impressive ceiling, which dates from c.1390, depicts the ancestors of Christ in a form of Jesse Tree. There are more pictures here.

Not far away in Oxford, there's a beautiful stained glass window of a lily crucifix in the church of St Michael at the Northgate:

This too was originally part of an Annunciation scene, though the other panels are now lost.

And here's a wonderful example in alabaster, now in the V and A, where a giant lily-stem carrying Christ soars right up into heaven:

Click to zoom in and study the detail! The top half of the panel is damaged, but clearly showed God the Father holding the crucified Christ, part of a common depiction of the Trinity - compare the image at the top of this post, and there are more examples collected here.

Mary and John at the foot of the cross (BL Sloane 2321, f.111v)

The lily cross flanked by two figures, Mary and the angel, offers a visual parallel to the usual Crucifixion scene, where Christ on the cross is attended by Mary and St John. One of the ways in which medieval Christians were most often encouraged to approach the Passion was by imagining and entering into Mary's emotions, to see Christ, as his mother might, as a vulnerable human child even at the moment of his death as an adult. There are many superb examples of poetic meditations on this subject - here's a particularly moving one, and more can be found here. This four-line poem is one of the best-known:

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

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

Although so short and apparently so simple, this is full of meaningful wordplay: as the sun sets behind the wood, so Christ the Son is shrouded in darkness on the wood of the cross, the tree. Rode can mean both 'face', and rood, of course.

Another good example of a text which approaches the Passion through Mary's motherhood is 'Stond wel, Moder, under rode', with its explicit appeal to a female audience and its poignant comment that by her grief Mary learns to understand 'what pain they have that children bear'. In this poem Mary's situation, though so extraordinary, gives her kinship with all women who have lost children or found in motherhood grief as well as joy. The link between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion brings together in one circle the beginning and the end of Mary's motherhood, its joy and its sorrow, as well as completing the circle of Christ's life on earth.

Crucifixion (BL Harley 2851, f. 31)

However, although the Annunciation and the Crucifixion are so closely linked, they don't often occur on the same day. Good Friday fell on March 25 in 1608, too, when John Donne wrote this poem on the occasion:

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away.
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angel’s Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is, and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or 'twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man, and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though one blood-drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

A paradoxical conjunction of feast and fast: was there ever a day more suited to metaphysical poetry? Although this wonderful poem is all so characteristically Donne, it explores many of the same parallels as the medieval texts and images we've already seen: the circle, the tree, beginnings and endings, and the two moments in the life of the Virgin, seen at once 'at almost fifty and at scarce fifteen'.

The coincidence of feasts gains rather than loses from being a rare occurrence, as Donne suggests - from falling 'some times and seldom'. It is, he says, an act of wisdom in the church, existing in time, to be moveable, while God is a fixed star, eternally the same. The overlapping cycles of the church's calendar offer many such conjunctions, which change every year as the fixed cycle intersects with the variable one. Although these coincidences often have their origin as much in pragmatic decisions about the calendar as in theology, with the kind of approach Donne exemplifies here they can be read in meaningful and imaginative ways. Through such eyes, a meeting of feasts like this year's is not exactly a coincidence, but perhaps one of those 'occasional mercies' of which Donne writes elsewhere: 'such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies'. They are moments which seem to reveal a purpose behind the randomness of life, to show both natural and man-made events and seasons to be part of an ordered and carefully structured universe. It's the calendrical equivalent of a pun, like the medieval poet's 'sun under wood' or Donne's orbity - a place where meanings meet.

This year's conjunction is a particularly rich example, but all through the year these coincidental graces can be found, as beauty and meaning are produced by the changing juxtaposition of feasts and fasts, the fixed and the moveable seasons. Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, Whitsun - all can at various times coincide with different fixed occasions, different stages in the seasons of spring and summer, and the experience of each can accordingly change from year to year. As the cycles intersect in different ways, familiar texts and images breathe new life into each other, and bring forth new and different fruit (to borrow the Old English Martyrology's metaphor for Mary's conception). In such ways the interlocking wheels of the calendar give cosmic meaning to the cycle of our own days, months, and years.

Crucifixion with living tree, sun and moon (BL Arundel 60, f.12v)

Of course, a fixed date of Easter would do away with all this. As a medievalist, I found the discussion of the question of fixing a date for Easter a few months ago rather depressing. If there were any theological arguments under consideration, no one seemed to think it worthwhile to articulate them publicly; discussion focused mostly on solving the non-existent problem that some people (schools, maybe?) apparently find a movable date for Easter a bit inconvenient. I've never in my life heard anyone complain about being inconvenienced by the date of Easter, so I really struggle to imagine who considers this a pressing issue. And for that, churches would break with nearly two thousand years of tradition, a complex system worked out with great care and thought and invested over centuries with profound meaning. The fixed dates proposed for Easter are in April, so never again would Good Friday fall on the feast of the Annunciation. So much loss for so little gain!

Bede truly would be spinning in his grave. It strikes me (once again) that however much many people today, in their ignorance of all but the broadest stereotypes about the Middle Ages, stigmatise the medieval church as worldly, rigid, and oppressive, it was in some ways immeasurably more humane and creative than its modern successors. It was happy to see human life as fully part of the natural world, shaped by the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons; it was able to articulate a belief that material considerations, convenience, and economic productivity are not the highest goods, and not the only standards by which life should be lived. When confronted by calendar clashes with the potential to be a little awkward or inconvenient, the medieval church could have the imagination not to simply suppress them or tidy them away, but to find meaning in them - meaning which springs from deep knowledge of the images and poetry of scripture, the liturgy, and popular devotion.

So enjoy the coincidence this year, this meeting of dates which has inspired preachers, poets, and artists through many centuries of Christian tradition. Unless you plan to live until 2157, you won't see another in your lifetime - and if the date of Easter is fixed, it will never happen again.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Two Crucifixes and the Norman Conquest

In my column for History Today this month, I've written about a church in Oxfordshire which has two incredible surviving Anglo-Saxon sculptures: two roods, one a life-size carving of Christ with outstretched arms, the other a smaller scene including Mary and John at the foot of the cross. They probably date to the tenth or eleventh century, and are a sign that the church in this quiet village must once have had some wealthy patrons.

I'm fascinated by Anglo-Saxon life-size figures of Christ, such as this or the one at Romsey Abbey, and have written about them before here. They have a remarkably human presence, and the various records of how people interacted with them as if they were living creatures, and stories in which they actually come to life, make perfect sense when you are standing in front of them. The one at Langford can be seen from the road, before you even enter the churchyard; although now headless and damaged, its open-armed, welcoming embrace is strangely moving.

Also intriguing, particularly this year, is Langford's connection with a man named Ælfsige of Faringdon, who owned lands in the area both before and after the Norman Conquest. In this year, the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the events of 1066 are being commemorated in a variety of ways, including academic conferences, public events, and social media. I'm finding it all interesting to watch and participate in, especially because this year is also the 1000th anniversary of the Danish Conquest of England by Cnut - a bigger anniversary, receiving considerably less commemoration. Unlike 1066, Cnut's conquest doesn't even have a hashtag; and these days, can an event be said to exist at all if it doesn't have a hashtag? (That's a joke. Probably.)

There are many reasons for this disparity, some of which I explored three years ago when I began commemorating the anniversary of the Danish Conquest on this blog. (I'll consider it further later this year.) When it comes to engaging the public with history, anniversaries are very useful; as I've learned through my blogging and tweeting, there's no hook which seems to catch the public's attention more than 'On this day...' I don't entirely understand why this should be, but I think it's something more than idle curiosity; anniversaries have real power to stir the imagination, and I sometimes wonder about the relationship between this fascination, Twitter's daily obsession with new secular feasts in the form of 'National Whatever-it-is Day', and the fact that in the medieval church year, which I tend to follow in my blogging schedule, almost every single day is an anniversary of something in one way or another. (Most liturgical feasts are to some extent based on the idea of 'on this day', literally or metaphorically.)

So it's interesting to watch the various responses to the anniversary of the Norman Conquest, and it provides a useful challenge to the historian: what's the best way to talk in public about this famous story, which is not just familiar but full of popular half-remembered facts (1066 and all that!) and bound up with some very deep-seated national myths? It stirs up emotions which manifest themselves in unexpected places, and the language we use to talk about this story can be revealing - I'm often taken aback by the tendency of twentieth-century historians to talk about people like Ælfsige of Faringdon in anachronistic language as collaborators, traitors, even 'quislings', as if a generation of historians who had grown up in the years after World War II were consciously or unconsciously applying the language of Nazi occupation to eleventh-century England. (Better historians than me have written about this.) It's bizarrely emotive language - whatever you think of the Norman Conquest, the Normans were not the Nazis! Although now less common in academia, it still has quite a hold on popular history, and it can cause problems if it leads historians to talk about the aftermath of the Conquest as if there was only one right way to respond to it and anything else is a bit morally suspect. It leads to a focus on the oppression/rebellion kinds of narratives (interesting as they are), and an omission of the more complicated ones, perhaps of the people for whom violent anti-Norman rebellion was not an option - women, the young, the old, monks and nuns, and so on. There's lots of great research being done on these kinds of topics, and hopefully the anniversary will allow some of it to filter through to the public.

But the use of an anniversary, a single date, has its problems too. The focus on one watershed moment, even one so undeniably dramatic and important as the Battle of Hastings, threatens to come at the expense of nuance. It's hard to simultaneously commemorate the anniversary of 1066 as a single decisive moment and to tell the longer story of what came before and after, and it can become all too easy to overlook the facts and stories which might get in the way. 'Are you Norman or Saxon?' asks this clever little English Heritage quiz, getting you to decide your allegiance on the day of battle - but of course it's not as simple as that. There are a hundred extra factors to take into account, from the other parties involved in the events of 1066 (the Norwegians, not to mention the Danes, who took an active role in the aftermath), to the fact that those who fought on the defending side at Hastings were more likely to call themselves 'English' than 'Saxon' - as English as English Heritage itself. The fact that we don't often call them that says a lot about the effect the Norman Conquest still has on popular perceptions of history in this country, cutting off centuries of history and English literature as if they belonged to some kind of pre-history of a people who are not 'us'. The English Heritage website classifies all of Anglo-Saxon England, right up until 1066 (!), as 'the Dark Ages', which is pretty revealing about where their sympathies lie. How can you hope to tell the story of the Norman Conquest with anything like objectivity when your unquestioned assumption is that the Normans brought 'light' into the 'dark' world of the Anglo-Saxons?

Dividing history into periods is always difficult, of course, though necessary, but there's no reason to use such pejorative language when there are plenty of less loaded alternatives available. No terminology is perfect, but acknowledging that fact openly can lead to useful discussions about how historians make these kinds of decisions. When it comes to engaging with the public, I think it never hurts to remind people that this sort of periodisation is mostly a matter of convenience, and that historical periods don't map easily onto human lives. If 1065 was the 'Dark Ages', and 1067 was 'medieval', how do you talk about the people, like Ælfsige of Faringdon, who lived through the decades before and after? (Or, for instance, St Wulfstan of Worcester, Earl Waltheof, St Margaret of Scotland, ordinary English monks, and so on.) It's not easy to classify the identities and allegiances of these people, or to label the world(s) they lived in; nor perhaps should we wish to.

It's when you get past the labels that the most interesting stories appear. To take one example: I was amused (and pleased!) to see that one of the questions in the English Heritage quiz helps you determine your allegiance by asking you to pick between pre-Conquest and post-Conquest manuscripts. The 'Saxon' images come from the New Minster Liber Vitae and the Bury Gospels, the 'Norman' ones from this Life of St Dunstan and a Passionale from St Augustine's, Canterbury. All four are beautiful manuscripts, and they make good examples of pre- and post-Conquest manuscript art from the early eleventh and early twelfth centuries. But, as it happens, they also nicely illustrate the complexity of the situation. For one thing, none of these manuscripts belong to any period anyone might reasonably call the 'Dark Ages' (just look at them!). All four are texts of Christian learning, produced in monasteries which had far more in common with each other, and with similar institutions across Europe, than with the England of the fifth century or the fifteenth.

On the 'Saxon' side, the New Minster Liber Vitae is the manuscript which contains the famous image of Cnut and Emma presenting a cross to the monastery, and it dates to c.1031, when England was part of Cnut's Scandinavian empire; if there's any such thing as an Anglo-Danish rather than an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, this is surely it. But it kept being used and added to throughout the eleventh century, and for decades after the Conquest; Norman names were added alongside English and Norse ones in the lists of friends of the monastery. The other manuscript, the Bury Gospels, belonged to a monastery which claimed Cnut and the Danish earl Thorkell as its founders, and which was an especially cosmopolitan centre of learning, even by the standards of late Anglo-Saxon England. At the time of the Conquest it had a French abbot, appointed by Edward the Confessor, and he remained in his post for more than thirty years after 1066.

As for the 'Norman' side, one of the images chosen (above) comes from an account of the life of a pre-Conquest English saint, Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. The text dates to the late eleventh century (c.1090) but is based in large part on written sources from the tenth century. This image is of the text's author, the Canterbury monk and historian Osbern, who grew up in England before the Conquest and lived through its aftermath. Osbern later spent time in Normandy, grew close to St Anselm, dedicated some of his work to Archbishop Lanfranc, and lived in what we call 'Anglo-Norman' Canterbury. But he wrote only, and proudly, about English history, drawing on his memories of the pre-Conquest monastery as well as earlier written texts. So it's an image of an Englishman, writing about an Englishman, in a manuscript made in England at the birthplace, as Osbern describes it, of English Christianity; the very letter he's sitting is in an R for Regnante magnifico Anglorum rege Æthelstano, beginning a sentence which dates the birth of Dunstan, and the reign of 'Æthelstan, glorious king of the English', by reference (in true Bedan tradition) to adventus Anglorum in Britanniam. Is this a symbol of 'Norman' identity?


Perhaps this all just seems like pedantic nitpicking, but I'm not actually being critical - whatever image you chose might raise the same issues, and it's the complexity of those questions which makes the situation so fascinating. (And I approach these issues as a historian of literature; an art historian, or a legal historian, or an archaeologist would take a different view of periodisation here). You can tell the story of the Norman Conquest as a tale of goodies and baddies, the triumph of sophisticated Normans over the 'Dark Ages' of the primitive Saxons - but why would you want to, unless you think the public aren't capable of understanding anything more nuanced? There's nothing 'dark' about late Anglo-Saxon England, even in the sense of 'unrecorded' - there are ample surviving sources of all kinds, including an extraordinarily rich and sophisticated literature in both English and Latin. (It's one of my bugbears that because most people haven't heard of any Old English texts except Beowulf, they confidently assert that 'Anglo-Saxon England didn't have much literature'. So I try to redress the balance a little here...) Attempting to understand what did and didn't change at the Norman Conquest isn't helped by promoting the idea that someone just flicked a switch one day in 1066 and turned on the lights.

Anyway, there will be plenty of opportunities to think about these matters in this anniversary year. Though Langford is just a few miles from where I live, I only learned of its existence through a reader of this blog, who contacted me and invited me to go out and visit the church. It was a joy! I'll write a proper post about the church when I get a chance, but in the meantime you can read a bit more about it here.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

'And thanne mette I with a man, a myd-Lenten Sonday'

Something to read on Mid-Lent Sunday, from Piers Plowman.

And I awaked therwith, and wiped myne eighen,
And after Piers the Plowman pried and stared,
Estward and westward I waited after faste,
And yede forth as an ydiot, in contree to aspie
After Piers the Plowman - many a place I soughte.
And thanne mette I with a man, a myd-Lenten Sonday,
As hoor as an hawethorn, and Abraham he highte.
I frayned hym first fram whennes he come,
And of whennes he were, and whider that he thoughte.
"I am Feith,' quod that freke, "it falleth noght me to lye,
And of Abrahames hous an heraud of armes.
I seke after a segge that I seigh ones,
A ful bold bacheler--I knew hym by his blasen.'
"What berth that buyrn,' quod I tho, " so blisse thee bitide?'
"Thre leodes in oon lyth, noon lenger than oother,
Of oon muchel and myght in mesure and in lengthe.
That oon dooth, alle dooth, and ech dooth bi his one.
The firste hath myght and majestee, makere of alle thynges:
Pater is his propre name, a persone by hymselve.
The secounde of that sire is Sothfastnesse Filius,
Wardeyn of that wit hath, was evere withouten gynnyng.
The thridde highte the Holi Goost, a persone by hymselve,
The light of al that lif hath a londe and a watre,
Confortour of creatures--of hym cometh alle blisse.
So thre bilongeth for a lord that lordshipe cleymeth:
Might, and a mene his owene myghte to knowe,
Of hymself and of his servaunt, and what suffreth hem bothe.
So God, that gynnyng hadde nevere, but tho hym good thoughte,
Sente forth his sone as for servaunt that tyme,
To ocupien hym here til issue were spronge -
That is, children of charite, and Holi Chirche the moder.
Patriarkes and prophetes and apostles were the children,
And Crist and Cristendom and alle Cristene Holy Chirche...

I hadde wonder of hise wordes, and of hise wide clothes;
For in his bosom he bar a thyng, and that he blissed evere.
And I loked in his lappe: a lazar lay therinne
Amonges patriarkes and prophetes pleyinge togideres.
"What awaitestow?' quod he, "and what woldestow have?'
"I wolde wite," quod I tho, "what is in youre lappe."
"Lo!" quod he - and leet me se. "Lord, mercy!" I seide.
"This is a present of muche pris; what prynce shal it have?'
"It is a precious present," quod he, "ac the pouke it hath attached,
And me therwith," quod that wye, "may no wed us quyte,
Ne no buyrn be oure borgh, ne brynge us fram his daunger;
Out of the poukes pondfold no maynprise may us fecch
Til he come that I carpe of: Crist is his name
That shal delivere us som day out of the develes power,
And bettre wed for us wage than we ben alle worthi -
That is, lif for lif - or ligge thus evere
Lollynge in my lappe, til swich a lord us fecche."
"Allas!' I seide, "that synne so longe shall lette
The myght of Goddes mercy, that myghte us alle amende!'
I wepte for hise wordes.

Souls in the bosom of Abraham (BL Stowe 17, f.188)

And with that I awoke, and rubbed my eyes,
and after Piers the Plowman peered and stared about;
eastwards and westwards I looked for him,
and went forth like a fool, searching the region
for Piers the Plowman; many a place I sought.
And then I met with a man, on mid-Lent Sunday,
as hoary as a hawthorn-tree, and Abraham was his name.
I asked him first whence he had come,
and where he was from, and where he was going.
"I am Faith," said that man, "it befits me not to lie;
a herald of arms in Abraham's household.
I seek for a man I saw once,
a most bold knight - I knew him by his blazon."
"What does that warrior wear," I asked, "as bliss betide you?"
"Three figures in one person, none larger than another,
of one degree and power in length and in breadth.
What one does, all do, and each does alone.
The first has power and majesty, maker of all things:
Father is his proper name, a person in himself.
The second of that lord is Truth, the Son,
guard of all who have wits, who ever was without beginning.
The third is called the Holy Ghost, a person in himself,
the light of all that live on land and on water,
comforter of creatures - of him comes all joy.
So three attributes belong to a lord who lordship claims:
might, and the means of expressing his might,
his own and his agent's, and what sustains them both.
So God, who never had beginning but what seemed good to him,
sent forth his Son, to be servant for a time,
to labour here until issue was brought forth -
that is, the children of charity, with Holy Church the mother.
Patriarchs and prophets and apostles were the children
And Christ and Christendom and all Christians are Holy Church...'

[He goes on to discuss the Trinity further, and tells some of Abraham's story.]

I wondered at his words, and at his voluminous clothes -
for at his bosom he bore something which he kept blessing.
And I looked within his cloak: a leper lay there,
among patriarchs and prophets playing together.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked, "and what is it you want?"
"I want to know," said I, "what is in your cloak."
"Look," he said, and let me see. "Lord, mercy!" I said.
"That's a precious gift; for what prince is it intended?"
"It is a precious gift," he said, "but the devil has seized it -
and me, as well," said that one, "and no ransom may redeem us,
nor can anyone pay our bail or free us from his power;
no payment of surety can take us out of the devil's prison,
until the one comes whom I speak of: Christ is his name,
the one who shall deliver us, some day, out of the devil's power,
and pay a better price for us than we are all together worth:
that is, life for life. Else we would lie thus for ever,
lolling in my lap, until such a lord saved us."
"Alas," I cried, "that sin so long should hinder
the might of God's mercy, which might us all amend!"
I wept for his words.

Dives and Lazarus (BL Egerton 3277, f.128)

As the dreamer looks into Abraham's lap he sees the souls of the dead, the righteous who had died before the coming of Christ, waiting in a place of comfort until Christ's incarnation. The image of these souls resting 'in the bosom of Abraham' comes from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and it was a popular subject in medieval art. In Piers Plowman, the combination of the idea with Abraham's explanation of the nature of the Trinity strikingly echoes an image found in medieval English alabaster, such as this beautiful example (follow the link for more images):

The souls here rest in a cloth held between the arms of God the Father, who has his hand raised in blessing. He holds the crucified Christ between his knees, with a symbol of the Holy Ghost marked above the cross. This way of depicting the Trinity, known as a 'Throne of Mercy' image, is common in medieval art, but this combination with the Bosom of Abraham is found only in English alabaster.

Piers Plowman brings this kind of iconography unforgettably to life, as we see the 'patriarchs and prophets playing together' in Abraham's lap. The little naked souls in these images look like children, and here they are 'the children of charity, with Holy Church the mother'. Like children they 'loll' in their parent's lap, happy enough but helpless 'til such a lord us fetch.' It's a tender, maternal image, fitting for this moment in the liturgical year, as the poem is starting to run towards Jerusalem to re-enact the events of the Passion. The Epistle for Mid-Lent Sunday speaks of the two children of Abraham, and of 'Jerusalem our mother'; and in part for this reason, the Fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally kept as Mothering Sunday in Britain. Here Abraham holds the souls against his breast and is constantly 'blissing' them, like a mother soothing and comforting her baby. There's something very poignant about Abraham's tenderness and the little creatures' vulnerability; no wonder it moves the dreamer to tears.

The story of Dives and Lazarus, as told in an English folk-song:

And reimagined by Vaughan Williams: