Tuesday, 31 January 2017

'The Coming of Christ'


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


As he does so the Host of Heaven sing:

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four spirits reappear, and speak again:

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

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

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

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

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

Looking into Canterbury Cathedral from the door of the Quire

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

Monday, 30 January 2017

'Trewthe is put in low degree'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Times and Seasons

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

BL Cotton MS Tib. B I, f. 115

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

Cyning sceal rice healdan. Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne,
orðanc enta geweorc, þa þe on þysse eorðan syndon,
wrætlic weallstana geweorc. Wind byð on lyfte swiftust,
þunar byð þragum hludast. Þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle,
wyrd byð swiðost. Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost - he byð lengest ceald -
sumor sunwlitegost - swegel byð hatost -
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð.
Soð bið switolost, sinc byð deorost,
gold gumena gehwam, and gomol snoterost,
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.
Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.


A king should defend a kingdom. Cities are seen from afar,
the skilful work of giants, which are on this earth,
wondrous work of wall-stones. The wind in the sky is swiftest,
thunder is loudest in season. Great are the powers of Christ.
Fate is the most powerful thing, winter is coldest,
spring frostiest - it is the longest cold -
summer sun-brightest - the sun is hottest -
harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men
the year's fruits, which God sends them.
Truth is most treacherous, treasure is dearest,
gold to every man, and an old man is most wise,
made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.
Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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