Saturday, 19 April 2014

'The light that leapt out of thee': Piers Plowman and the Harrowing of Hell

The Harrowing of Hell (BL Harley 2838 f. 33v)

The following extract from the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman imagines the events following the Crucifixion, as Christ descends into hell to rescue those who had been imprisoned there before his incarnation. It's a vivid, dramatic envisioning of the scene: the sudden appearance of light in all-enveloping darkness, rumours of a great event, the devils in hell scurrying around in fear and confusion, a loud voice crying out of the blinding brightness, and then a sudden rush of loving embrace as the souls in hell are caught up by Christ. The whole passage brings to life a brief moment from earlier in the poem, which encapsulates these ideas in just six lines:

The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time
About midday, when most light is, and meal-time of saints -
Feddest Thou with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness:
Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem mugnam.
And the light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blente, [blinded]
And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.

Light is imagined as a physical force, capable of bursting open the gates of hell by the sheer power of love.

But (characteristically for this poem) we begin the scene with a debate, inspired by Psalm 85: "Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other". These four principles appear before the dreamer's eyes as four women, who argue about whether Christ's death is really enough to pay the price of Adam's sin - whether mercy and love can really triumph over justice and law.

I drow me in that derknesse to descendit ad inferna,
And there I saugh soothly, secundum scripturas,
Out of the west coste, a wenche, as me thoughte,
Cam walkynge in the wey; to helleward she loked.
Mercy highte that mayde, a meke thyng with alle,
A ful benigne burde, and buxom of speche.
Hir suster, as it semed, cam softely walkynge
Evene out of the est, and westward she lokede,
A ful comely creature and a clene, Truthe she highte;
For the vertue that hire folwede, afered was she nevere.
Whan thise maydenes mette, Mercy and Truthe,
Either asked oother of this grete wonder,
Of the dyn and of the derknesse, and how the day rowed,
And which a light and a leme lay bifore helle.
"Ich have ferly of this fare, in feith," seide Truthe,
"And am wendynge to wite what this wonder meneth."
"Have no merveille', quod Mercy, "murhte it bitokneth.
A maiden that highte Marie, and moder withouten felyng
Of any kynde creature, conceyved thorugh speche
And grace of the Holy Goost; weex greet with childe;
Withouten wem into this world she broghte hym;
And that my tale be trewe, I take God to witnesse.
Sith this barn was ybore ben thritti wynter passed,
Which deide and deeth tholed this day aboute mydday,
And that is cause of this clips that closeth now the sonne,
In menynge that man shal fro merknesse be drawe
The while this light and this leme shal Lucifer ablende.
For patriarkes and prophetes han preched herof often
That man shal man save thorugh a maydenes helpe,
And that was tynt thorugh tree, tree shal it wynne,
And that Deeth down broughte, deeth shal releve."
"That thow tellest; quod Truthe, "is but a tale of waltrot!
For Adam and Eve and Abraham with othere
Patriarkes and prophetes that in peyne liggen,
Leve thow nevere that yon light hem alofte brynge,
Ne have hem out of helle - hold thi tonge, Mercy!
It is but trufle that thow tellest - I, Truthe, woot the sothe.
For that is ones in helle, out cometh it nevere;
Job the prophete patriark repreveth thi sawes:
Quia in inferno nulla est redempcio."
Thanne Mercy ful myldely mouthed thise wordes:
"Thorugh experience," quod heo, "I hope thei shul be saved.
For venym fordooth venym - and that I preve by reson.
For of alle venymes foulest is the scorpion;
May no medicyne amende the place ther he styngeth,
Til he be deed and do therto--the yvel he destruyeth,
The firste venymouste, thorugh vertu of hymselve.
So shal this deeth fordo--I dar my lif legge--
Al that deeth dide first thorugh the develes entisyng;
And right as thorugh gilours gile bigiled was man,
So shal grace that al bigan make a good ende
And bigile the gilour - and that is good sleighte:
Ars ut artem falleret."
"Now suffre we!' seide Truthe, " I se, as me thynketh,
Out of the nyppe of the north, noght ful fer hennes,
Rightwisnesse come rennynge; reste we the while,
For heo woot moore than we - heo was er we bothe."
"That is sooth,' seide Mercy, "and I se here by sowthe
Where cometh Pees pleyinge, in pacience yclothed.
Love hath coveited hire longe--leve I noon oother
But Love sente hire som lettre, what this light bymeneth
That overhoveth helle thus; she us shal telle."
Whan Pees in pacience yclothed approched ner hem tweyne,
Rightwisnesse hire reverenced for hir riche clothyng,
And preide Pees to telle hire to whit place she wolde
And in hire gaye garnements whom she grete thoughte?
"My wil is to wende," quod she, "and welcome hem alle
That many day myghte I noght se for merknesse of synne,
Adam and Eve and othere mo in helle,
Moyses and many mo; Mercy shul synge,
And I shal daunce therto--do thow so, suster!
For Jesus justede wel, joye bigynneth dawe:
Ad vesperum demorabitur fletus, et ad matutinum leticia.
Love, that is my lemman, swiche lettres me sente
That Mercy, my suster, and I mankynde sholde save,
And that God hath forgyven and graunted me, Pees, and Mercy
To be mannes meynpernour for everemoore after.
Lo, here the patente!" quod Pees, "In pace in idipsum,
And that this dede shal dure, dormiam et requiescam."
"What, ravestow?" quod Rightwisnesse, "or thow art righty dronke?
Levestow that yond light unlouke myghte helle
And save mannes soule? Suster, wene it nevere!
At the bigynnyng God gaf the doom hymselve -
That Adam and Eve and alle that hem suwede
Sholden deye downrighte, and dwelle in peyne after
If that thei touchede a tree and of the fruyt eten.
Adam afterward, ayeins his defence,
Freet of that fruyt, and forsook, as it were,
The love of Oure Lord and his loore bothe
And folwede that the fend taughte and his felawes wille
Ayeins reson - I, Rightwisnesse, recorde thus with Truthe
That hir peyne be perpetuel and no preiere hem helpe.
Forthi lat hem chewe as thei chosen, and chide we noght, sustres,
For it is botelees bale, the byte that thei eten."

I withdrew into that darkness to descend into the depths, and there I saw truly, as scripture says, a girl - as it seemed to me - out of the west came walking in the way; she looked towards hell. That maid was named Mercy, a meek creature indeed, a very courteous lady, and gentle in speech. Her sister, as it seemed, came softly walking straight out of the east, and looked towards the west; she was a chaste and comely creature, and her name was Truth. Each asked the other about this great marvel, about the din and the darkness, and how the day dawned, and what was the light and gleam which lay before hell.

"I am amazed by this event, in faith," said Truth, "and have come to find out what that wonder means."

"Marvel not," said Mercy, "it means joy! A maiden called Mary, a mother untouched by any creature of nature, conceived through the words and grace of the Holy Ghost, and grew great with child; without stain she brought him into this world. And my tale is true, I take God as my witness, that thirty years have passed since the birth of this child, who died and suffered death this day, about midday - and that is the cause of the eclipse which now conceals the sun, as a sign that mankind shall be drawn out of darkness when this light and this gleaming turns Lucifer blind. Man shall save man with the help of a maiden, and that which was lost through a tree shall be won back through a tree, and that which death brought down, death shall restore."

"What you're saying," said Truth, "is nothing but rubbish! Adam and Eve and Abraham and the others, patriarchs and prophets lying in torment - you shouldn't believe that light can carry them aloft, or take them out of hell! Hold your tongue, Mercy! It's just nonsense you're talking; I, Truth, know what's true. Someone who is once in hell can never leave it again. Job the prophet patriarch proves your words wrong: 'For in hell there is no salvation'."

Then Mercy, very mildly, murmured these words: "From experience," she said, "I hope they shall be saved: for poison destroys poison, and that I can prove by reason. Of all venoms the worst is that of the scorpion, and no medicine can heal the place it has stung - until it is dead and placed on the wound. It destroys the injury, the first poisoning, by being the antidote itself. So this death - I lay my life upon it - shall destroy all that death destroyed first through the devil's tempting; and just as man was betrayed by a deceiver's guile, so the grace which all began shall make a good end, and beguile the guiler - and that's a good strategem: 'Art by art betrayed'."

"Now let us be quiet," said Truth, "I see, as it seems to me, out of the nip of the north, not very far from here, Righteousness come running. Let us wait for her, for she knows more than we; she existed before either of us."

"That's true," said Mercy, "and I see here, indeed, where Peace comes playing, clothed in patience. Love has long desired her; I believe Love must have sent her some letter to explain what is the meaning of this light which hovers over hell. She will tell us."

When Peace, clothed in patience, came near the two of them, Righteousness greeted her courteously because of her splendid clothing. She asked Peace to tell her where she was going, and whom she was going to meet in such gay garments.

"My intention," she said, "is to go and welcome all those whom for many days I have not been able to see because of the darkness of sin - Adam and Eve, and many others in hell, Moses, and many more! Mercy shall sing, and I shall dance to her singing - do so, sister! For Jesus jousted well; joy begins to dawn. 'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.' Love, my lover, sent me letters to say that my sister Mercy and I shall save mankind, and that God has freely given and granted to me, Peace, and Mercy to be mankind's surety for evermore. Look, here is proof," said Peace, "that this document will always be valid: 'In peace I will sleep and take my rest."

"Are you insane?" said Righteousness, "or are you actually drunk? Do you believe that light can unlock hell and save the souls of mankind? Sister, don't believe it! In the beginning God gave the judgement himself: that Adam and Eve and all who followed them would die straight out and dwell in torment ever after, if they touched a certain tree and ate of the fruit. Adam, after that, against the prohibition, ate of that fruit, and so turned away from the love of God and his law both, and followed what the devil taught and his companion's wishes, against reason. I, Righteousness, declare with Truth that their pain is perpetual and no prayer can help them. So let them chew what they bit off, and let's not argue, sisters - for the mouthful they are eating is suffering without relief."

They continue to argue, Truth and Righteousness asserting that it would be a violation of God's own justice for mankind to be saved from hell. But then another voice appears, speaking out of the light before the gates of hell:

"Suffre we!" seide Truthe, "I here and see bothe
A spirit speketh to helle and biddeth unspere the yates:
"Attolite portas.''
A vois loude in that light to Lucifer crieth,
"Prynces of this place, unpynneth and unlouketh!
For here cometh with crowne that kyng is of glorie."
Thanne sikede Sathan, and seide to helle,
"Swich a light, ayeins oure leve, Lazar it fette;
Care and combraunce is comen to us alle!
If this kyng come in, mankynde wole he fecche,
And lede it ther Lazar is, and lightliche me bynde.
Patriarkes and prophetes han parled herof longe -
That swich a lord and a light shal lede hem alle hennes."
"Listneth!" quod Lucifer, "for I this lord knowe;
Bothe this lord and this light, is longe ago I knew hym.
May no deeth this lord dere, ne no develes queyntise,
And where he wole, is his wey - ac ware hym of the perils!
If he reve me of my right, he robbeth me by maistrie;
For by right and by reson the renkes that ben here
Body and soule beth myne, bothe goode and ille..."
"Quiet!" said Truth, "I can hear and see a spirit speaking to hell, bidding them unbar the gates. A loud voice in the light cries out to Lucifer, 'Princes of this place, unbar and unlock! For here comes crowned he who is king of glory.'"

Then sighed Satan, and said to those in hell, "Such a light as this fetched Lazarus, against our will; care and trouble has come to us all! If this king comes in, he will fetch mankind and take it where Lazarus is, and easily bind me. Patriarchs and prophets have long been talking of this, saying that such a lord and a light should lead them all out of here."

"Listen," said Lucifer, "I know this lord, both this lord and this light - long ago I knew them. This lord cannot be harmed by death or any devil's trickery; and where he will is his way. But let him beware danger! If he takes what's mine by right, he robs me by sheer force, for by right and by reason the people here belong to me, body and soul, both good and wicked."

The devils panic and argue about whether Christ has any right to take their captives out of hell, since they admit that they won the souls of mankind by trickery. Adam and Eve and their descendents were condemned to hell by God himself; can he break his own law? But as they argue, the light is still at the gates:

Eft the light bad unlouke, and Lucifer answerde,
"Quis est iste?
What lord artow?" quod Lucifer. The light soone seide,
Rex glorie,
The lord of myght and of mayn and alle manere vertues -
Dominus virtutum.
Dukes of this dymme place, anoon undo thise yates,
That Crist may come in, the Kynges sone of Hevene!"
And with that breeth helle brak, with Belialles barres -
For any wye or warde, wide open the yates.
Patriarkes and prophetes, populus in tenebris,
Songen Seint Johanes song, "Ecce Agnus Dei."
Lucifer loke ne myghte, so light hym ablente.
And tho that Oure Lord lovede, into his light he laughte,
And seide to Sathan, "Lo! here my soule to amendes
For alle synfulle soules, to save tho that ben worthi.
Myne thei ben and of me - I may the bet hem cleyme.
Although reson recorde, and right of myselve,
That if thei ete the appul, alle sholde deye,
I bihighte hem noght here helle for evere.
For the dede that thei dide, thi deceite it made;
With gile thow hem gete, ageyn alle reson.
For in my paleis, Paradis, in persone of an addre,
Falsliche thow fettest there thyng that I lovede...
Now bigynneth thi gile ageyn thee to turne
And my grace to growe ay gretter and widder.
The bitternesse that thow hast browe, now brouke it thiselve
That art doctour of deeth, drynk that thow madest!
For I that am lord of lif, love is my drynke,
And for that drynke today, I deide upon erthe.
I faught so, me thursteth yet, for mannes soule sake;
May no drynke me moiste, ne my thurst stake,
Til the vendage falle in the vale of Josaphat,
That I drynke right ripe must, resureccio mortuorum.
And thanne shal I come as a kyng, crouned, with aungeles,
And have out of helle alle mennes soules.
Fendes and fendekynes bifore me shul stande
And be at my biddyng wheresoevere me liketh.
Ac to be merciable to man thanne, my kynde it asketh,
For we beth bretheren of blood, but noght in baptisme alle.
Ac alle that beth myne hole bretheren, in blood and in baptisme,
Shul noght be dampned to the deeth that is withouten ende...
Thus by lawe,' quod Oure Lord, "lede I wole fro hennes
Tho leodes that I love and leved in my comynge.
And for thi lesynge, Lucifer, that thow leighe til Eve,
Thow shalt abyen it bittre!" - and bond hym with cheynes.
As troth and al the route hidden hem in hernes;
They dorste noght loke on Oure Lord, the lothlieste of hem alle,
But leten hym lede forth what hym liked and lete what hym liste.
Manye hundred of aungeles harpeden and songen,
"Culpat caro, purgat caro, regnat Deus Dei caro.'

Again the light commanded them to unlock, and Lucifer answered, "Who is this? What lord are you?" Swiftly the light replied: "The king of glory; the Lord of might and main and all manner of virtues; the Lord of power. Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates at once, that Christ may come in, the King of heaven's Son!"

And with that breath hell broke open, and Belial's bars; despite any guard or watchman, the gates opened wide. Patriarchs and prophets, the people in darkness, sang St John's song: 'Behold the Lamb of God!' Lucifer could not look, he was so blinded by light. And those whom Our Lord loved he caught up into his light, and said to Satan:

"Lo, here is my soul to make amends for all sinful souls, to save those who are worthy. Mine they are, and of me, and so I may the better claim them. Although reason and my own justice said that if they ate the apple all should die, I did not condemn them to hell for ever. For the deed which they did was caused by your deceit; with guile you got them, against all reason, for in my palace Paradise, in the shape of a serpent, you falsely seized from me that which I loved... Now your trick begins to turn against you, and my grace grows ever greater and wider. The bitterness you have brewed, now drink it yourself; you who are doctor of death, drink what you made! For I who am Lord of Life, love is my drink, and for that drink today I died upon earth. I fought so that I am still thirsting for the sake of mankind's souls. No drink can moisten me or slake my thirst until the vintage comes in the vale of Josaphat, when I will drink new wine from ripened grapes at the resurrection of the dead. And then I shall come as a king, crowned, with angels, and take out of hell all men's souls. Fiends and devils shall stand before me, and be at my bidding as best pleases me. But I will be merciful to mankind then, as my nature demands of me, for we are brethren in blood - although not all in baptism - and all who are my whole brethren, in blood and baptism, shall not be condemned to the death which is without end... Thus by law," said Our Lord, "I will lead from hence the people whom I loved and who believed in my coming. And for the lies, Lucifer, which you told to Eve, you shall pay bitterly!" And he bound him with chains.

Astroth and all the devils hid themselves in corners; the least of them did not dare look on Our Lord, but let him lead forth as he liked and leave what he pleased. Many hundreds of angels harped and sang, 'Flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, and God, the flesh of God, hath reigned!'

Peace, Truth, Righteousness and Mercy are all reconciled; they admit that Christ's arguments (I've cut some of his speech but you can read the whole thing here), and even more so his death, have satisfied the demands of justice as well as the law of love:

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.
Truthe trumpede tho and song Te Deum laudamus,
And thanne lutede Love in a loud note,
"Ecce quam bonum et quam iocundum &c.
Til the day dawed thise damyseles carolden,
That men rongen to the resurexion - and right with that I wakede,
And called Kytte my wif and Calote my doghter:
"Ariseth and reverenceth Goddes resurexion,
And crepeth to the cros on knees, and kisseth it for a juwel!
For Goddes blik body it bar for eure body,
And it afereth the fend - for swich is the myghte,
May no grisly goost glide there it shadweth!"

Then Peace piped a note of poetry... "After sharpest showers the sun is brightest, and there is no weather warmer than after watery clouds; love is never dearer, nor friends more precious, than after war and trouble when love and peace reign. There was never war in this world or wickedness so fierce that Love, if he liked, could not turn it to laughter. And Peace, through patience, stopped all perils."

"Truce!" said Truth, "you tell us true, by Jesus! Let us embrace in accord, and kiss each other."

"And let no one," said Peace, "perceive that we argued; for nothing is impossible to Him who is almighty."

"You say the truth," said Righteousness, and reverently kissed Peace, and Peace her, for ever and ever. 'Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.'

Truth blew a trumpet and sang 'Te Deum laudamus', and then Love sang to the lute in a loud song, 'Behold, how good and pleasant it is [for brethren to dwell in unity].'

Until the day dawned these damsels carolled, until the bells began to ring for the Resurrection - and at that moment I awoke, and called Kit my wife and Calote my daughter. "Arise and go reverence God's resurrection, and creep to the cross on your knees and kiss it as a jewel! For it bore God's blessed body for our redemption, and it frightens the fiend - for such is its power that no grisly ghost may glide where its shadow falls."

Friday, 18 April 2014

'Woefully arrayed'


Wofully araide,
My blode, man,
For thee ran,
It may not be naide;
My body blo and wanne,
Wofully araide.


Beholde me, I pray thee, with all thine whole reson,
And be not hard-herted for this encheson,
That I for thy saule sake was slaine in good seson,
Begylde and betraide by Judas fals treson;
Unkyndly entretid,
With sharpe corde sore fretid,
The Jewis me thretid,
They mowid, they grynned, they scornyd me,
Condempnyd to deth, as thou maist se,
Wofully araide.

Thus nakyd am I nailid, O man, for thy sake!
I love thee, then love me; why slepist thou? awake!
Remembir my tendir hart rote for thee brake,
With panys my vaynys constreyned to crake;
Thus toggid to and fro,
Thus wrappid all in woo,
Whereas neuer man was so,
Entretid thus in most cruell wyse,
Was like a lombe offerd in sacrifice,
Wofully araide.

Of sharpe thorne I haue worne a crowne on my hede,
So paynyd, so straynyd, so rufull, so red;
Thus bobbid, thus robbid, thus for thy loue ded,
Onfaynyd, not deynyd my blod for to shed;
My fete and handes sore
The sturdy nailis bore;
What might I suffir more
Than I haue don, O man, for thee?
Cum when thou list, wellcum to me,
Wofully araide.

Off record thy good Lord y haue beyn and schal bee;
Y am thyn, thou artt myne, my brother y call thee;
Thee love I enterly; see whatt ys befall me!
Sore bettyng, sore thretyng, too make thee, man, all free;
Why art thou unkynde?
Why hast nott mee yn mynde?
Cum yett, and thou schalt fynde
Myne endlys mercy and race;
See how a spere my hert dyd race,
Wofully araide.

Deyr brother, noo other thyng y off thee desyre
But gyve me thyne hert fre to rewarde myn hyre;
Y wrought thee, I bowght thee frome eternal fyre;
Y pray thee aray thee tooward my hyght empyre,
Above the oryent,
Wherof y am regent,
Lord God omnypotent,
Wyth me too reyn yn endlys welthe;
Remember, man, thy sawlys helthe.

Wofully araide,
My blode, man,
For thee ran,
It may not be naide;
My body blo and wanne,
Wofully araide.


This is a poem from the end of the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century; it survives in a number of manuscripts (listed here) and is attributed to John Skelton. In one manuscript it is accompanied by music by William Cornysh:



The poem derives much of its power (more when read than when sung) from its urgent, insistent rhythm and patterned rhyme scheme, which bears a close relationship to that of another Passion poem, 'Suddenly afraid'. I've tried to preserve it here:

Woefully arrayed,
My blood, man,
For thee ran,
It may not be naide; [denied]
My body pale and wan,
Woefully arrayed.

Behold me, I pray thee, with all thy whole reason,
And be not hard-hearted for this encheson, [cause]
That I for thy soul's sake was slain in good season,
Beguiled and betrayed by Judas' false treason;
Unkindly treated,
With sharp cords sore fretid, [stung]
The Jews me thretid, [threatened]
They mocked, they grinned, they scorned me,
Condemned to death, as thou mayst see,
Woefully arrayed.

Thus naked am I nailed, O man, for thy sake!
I love thee, then love me; why sleepst thou? awake!
Remember my tender heart-root for thee brake,
With pains my veins constrained to crake;
Thus tugged to and fro,
Thus wrapped all in woe,
As never man was so,
Treated thus in most cruel wise,
Was like a lamb offered in sacrifice,
Woefully arrayed.

Of sharp thorn I have worn a crown on my head,
So pained, so strained, so rueful, so red;
Thus bobbed, thus robbed, thus for thy love dead,
Unfeigned, not denying my blod for to shed;
My feet and hands sore
The sturdy nails bore;
What might I suffer more
Than I have done, O man, for thee?
Come when thou wilt, welcome to me,
Woefully arrayed.

Of record thy good Lord I have been and shall be;
I am thine, thou art mine, my brother I call thee;
Thee love I entirely; see what is befall me!
Sore beating, sore threating, to make thee, man, all free;
Why art thou unkind?
Why hast not me in mind?
Come yet, and thou shalt find
My endless mercy and grace;
See how a spear my heart did race, [pierce]
Woefully arrayed.

Dear brother, no other thing I of thee desire
But give me thine heart free to reward my hire; [labour]
I wrought thee, I bought thee from eternal fire;
I pray thee, array thee toward my high empire,
Above the orient,
Whereof I am regent,
Lord God omnipotent,
With me to reign in endless wealth;
Remember, man, thy soul's health.

Woefully arrayed,
My blood, man,
For thee ran,
It may not be naide;
My body pale and wan,
Woefully arrayed.

There is, as you might expect, a very large body of Middle English poetry about the Passion of Christ, varying widely in style and approach. Here are some examples I've posted in the past:

'Stond wel moder under rode'

'I sigh when I sing'

'O man unkind, print in thy mind'

'O all women that ever were born'

'Unkind man, give heed to me'

Cold winds and Christ's Passion

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

'It was upon a Sheer Thursday'

Judas accepting the silver (BL Egerton 2781 f. 133v)

The Wednesday of Holy Week, sometimes called 'Spy Wednesday', is traditionally considered to be the day on which Judas went to betray Christ for thirty pieces of silver. There's a fascinating Middle English poem about Judas' betrayal, dating to the end of the thirteenth century, which gives us an unusual take on the story: Judas is forced into betraying Christ to regain money which has been stolen from him. The poem tells how Judas is sent by Jesus to buy food for the apostles with thirty pieces of silver, but on the way he meets his sister, who berates him for supporting a false prophet. She lulls him to sleep, and when he wakes up the silver has been stolen. Judas, in despair at having lost the money Jesus entrusted to him, is taken before Pilate, who asks him what it will take to make him betray his lord. Judas says he will never betray Christ, except to regain the thirty pieces of silver. The poem doesn't tell us what happens next - a very pregnant pause - but the scene cuts to Christ and the apostles dining together. Christ tells them that one of them has betrayed him, and Judas denies it. Peter speaks up to deny it too, but Christ tells him "Peter, I know you well; you will forsake me three times before the cock crows".

Here's the poem:

Hit wes upon a Scere Þorsdai þat vre louerd aros,
Ful milde were þe wordes he spec to Judas.
"Judas, þu most to Jurselem vre mete for to bugge;
Thritti platen of seluer þu bere vp othi rugge.
Þu comest fer iþe brode stret, fer iþe brode strete,
Summe of þin cunesmen þer þu meist i-mete."
Imette wið is soster, þe swikele wimon:
"Judas, þu were wurþe me stende the wið ston!
Judas, þu were wurþe me stende the wið ston
For þe false prophete þat þu bileuest upon."
"Be stille, leue soster, þin herte the tobreke;
Wiste min louerd Crist, ful wel he wolde be wreke."
"Judas go þu on þe roc, heie vp on þe ston
Lei þin heued i mi barm, slep þu þe anon."
Sone so Judas of slepe was awake
Thritti platen of seluer from hym weren itake.
He drou hym selue bi þe cop þat al it lauede ablode
Þe Jewes out of Jurselem awenden he were wode.
Foret hym com the riche Jeu þat heiste Pilatus:
"Wolte sulle thi louerd þat hette Jesus?"
"I nul sulle my louerd for nones cunnes eiste,
Bote hit ne for þe þritti platen þat he me bitaiste."
"Wolte sulle þi Lord Crist for enes cunnes golde?"
"Nay, bote hit be for þe platen þat he habben wolde."
In him com vr lord gon as is postles seten at mete:
"Wou sitte ye postles ant wi nule ye ete?
Wou sitte ye postles ant wi nule ye ete?
Ic am iboust ant isold to dai for vre mete."
Vp him stod Judas: "Lord, am I þat frec?
I nas neuer othe stude þer me iþe euel spec."
Vp him stod Peter ant spec wið al his mi3te:
"Þau Pilatus him come wid ten hundred cni3tes,
Þau Pilatus him come wid ten hundred cni3tes
Yet ic wolde, Louerd, for thi loue fi3te."
"Still þu be Peter, wel I þe icnowe.
Þu wolt fursake me þrien ar þe coc him crowe."

Judas accepting the silver (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 116)

And my translation:

It was upon a Sheer Thursday that our Lord arose,
Full mild were the words he spoke to Judas:
"Judas, you must go to Jerusalem to buy our food;
Take thirty coins of silver to carry on your back.
When you come far into the broad street, far into the broad street,
Some of your kinsmen there you may meet."
He met with his sister, a wicked woman:
"Judas, you deserve to be stoned with stones!
Judas, you deserve to be stoned with stones,
For the false prophet you believe in."
"Be quiet, dear sister - may your heart break!
If my Lord Christ knew of this, he would have his revenge."
"Judas, go to the rock [in Jerusalem], up upon the stone,
Lay your head in my lap; go to sleep now."
As soon as Judas awoke from sleep,
Thirty coins of silver were stolen from him.
He tore his hair until his head was covered in blood;
The Jews of Jerusalem thought that he was mad.
To him came the rich Jew who was called Pilate:
"Will you sell your Lord, who is named Jesus?"
"I will not sell my Lord for any sum of money,
Except for the thirty coins which he entrusted to me."
"Will you sell your Lord Christ for any sum of gold?"
"No, except for the coins which he wants to have."
To him came our Lord as his apostles sat at dinner.
"Why do you sit here, apostles, and why won't you eat?
Why do you sit here, apostles, and why won't you eat?
I am bought and sold today for our meat."
Up stood Judas: "Lord, am I that man?
I was never in the place where evil was spoken of you."
Up stood Peter, and spoke with all his might:
"Though Pilate himself come with ten hundred knights,
Though Pilate himself come with ten hundred knights,
Yet would I, Lord, for your love fight!"
"Be quiet, Peter, well I you know:
You will forsake me three times before the cock crows."

The Last Supper (BL Egerton 2781, f. 134v, as above)

The poem survives in one manuscript, Cambridge, Trinity College B.14.39 (323), a miscellany of texts in English, French and Latin which was made in the second half of the thirteenth century, probably in the West Midlands. It gives us a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of Judas, presenting him as a man torn between Christ and his own family, caught by Pilate's questioning in a difficult and paradoxical position: forced into betraying his lord so as not to betray his lord's trust. This sympathy for Judas is striking, but the poem is not just a literary curiosity; the narrative is swift-moving and dramatic, and poor Judas' confusion, anguish and jittery self-justification come across well. Much of the story is told through dialogue, one of the features which has led to this poem being called 'the first ballad in English' (Child included it in his collection of ballads). Particularly important are the speeches of Christ, who appears as an enigmatic figure, distinguished by his gentleness (he is 'full mild') and by his omniscience: he has three speeches in the poem, each of which reveals that he knows exactly what is happening and is going to happen. He sends Judas out knowing full well that he will meet his hostile relatives, he rebukes Peter, and - after we have left Judas poised at the moment of choosing whether to turn traitor - it is Christ's own words which reveal to the audience what Judas has chosen, when he tells the apostles, with understated irony:

"Why sit you, apostles, and why won't you eat?
I am bought and sold this day for our meat."

Meat in Middle English means 'food', not just 'flesh', and there's an unspoken double meaning here. Literally, Christ has been 'sold for our meat' because Judas was going to buy food with the thirty pieces of silver - but a medieval reader would also remember that this meal is the Last Supper, and therefore the institution of the Eucharist, through which Christ himself becomes 'our meat'.

A note on the first line: 'Sheer Thursday' is a common Middle English alternative name for Maundy Thursday (the MED entry for 'Sheer Thursday' can be found here). Sheer comes from ME skere, a loanword from Old Norse meaning 'innocent, pure, bright, cleansed from sin', and the OED speculates that the name "appears to have been applied to Maundy Thursday with allusion to the purification of the soul by confession, and perhaps also to the practice of washing the altars on that day". To which I would add that Maundy Thursday is also the day on which altars are stripped and on which feet are washed, both practices of ritual cleansing which make things skere. But that's for tomorrow.

The arrest of Christ, from Haddon Hall

Friday, 11 April 2014

A Pilgrimage to Crowland


Today is the feast of the Anglo-Saxon hermit St Guthlac- in fact it's the 1300th anniversary of his death in 714 - and in his honour I thought I'd post about Crowland, the site of his hermitage and of the monastery which guarded the memory of the saint. I visited Crowland last August and took lots of pictures, so join me today on a ramble around Crowland and its beautiful ruined abbey.

Medieval Crowland is one of my particular interests (not only because of Guthlac), and I was about ten times more excited to visit Crowland than anyone has been in the past century, probably - maybe ever. In the Old English poems about Guthlac, the physical landscape in which he lives is crucial to his story: his retreat from the world to a devil-haunted island in the wild Fens makes him the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a desert hermit. The Fens are no longer a watery wilderness (whether they're devil-haunted or not I couldn't say), but to see Crowland is to understand the place, and Guthlac, much more clearly. Today the town of Crowland, amid the endlessly flat Lincolnshire landscape, is perfectly ordinary and unassuming.


But even the centre of this ordinary town has something extraordinary to offer:


(Spot the abbey in the distance.) This is Trinity Bridge, which was built - according to the helpful plaque it bears - between 1360 and 1390, replacing an earlier structure. It's a beautiful thing, and unique: a three-sided bridge, which originally provided a crossing over the place where a tributary flowed into the River Welland. The rivers have since been redirected, so the bridge crosses nothing - not even the road. It just stands there, stranded.




It's an entirely decorative bridge, but who could resist scrambling up and down it - if only to get a better view of the town, and admire the worn stonework of the steps?



And when we've walked up the bridge and down the bridge and round the bridge, we encounter something even more interesting:


This is a statue, nearly life-size, which probably represents Christ with an orb in his hands:


It presumably came from the abbey, where (as we'll see in a moment) stone-carving and statues are the chief relics of Crowland's monastic past.


And now we can go to the abbey. You can't miss it; it towers over the town and all the surrounding area.


Isn't that the loveliest ruin you ever saw? On the day I visited I took an accidental circuit around the perimeter of the churchyard (because the main gate wouldn't open, and I was looking for another one), so here's a view from the south-east:


What was originally the north aisle of the monastic church is now the parish church, and the ruined area beside it is part of what would have been the nave:


It's now a forest of finely-carved arches and arcades which lead into empty sky.



The chancel of the monastic church would have extended some way beyond this point, and that's where the relics of St Guthlac and Crowland's other saints would have been kept. The late-medieval chronicle of Crowland - a creative work of historical fiction or a nonsensical forgery, depending on your point of view - claims that in the eleventh century Cnut presented Crowland Abbey with the rich gift of twelve white bear-skins to lay before the altars of the church. This may be complete fantasy, but it's fun to imagine nonetheless. (The chronicle also says Cnut gave the abbot of Crowland a silk suit embroidered with eagles; I find that somewhat harder to picture.)


Bear-skins or no bear-skins, the overwhelming impression produced by the ruins of Crowland is of splendour, confidence and skill.



John Clare, who was born not far away in Helpston, described the ruins thus, in his sonnet 'Crowland Abbey':

In sooth, it seems right awful and sublime
To gaze by moonlight on the shattered pile
Of this old Abbey, struggling still with Time,­—
The grey owl hooting from its rents the while;
And tottering stones, as wakened by the sound,
Crumbling from arch and battlement around,
Urging dread echoes from the gloomy aisle,
To sink more silent still. — The very ground
In Desolation’s garment doth appear,
The lapse of age and mystery profound.
We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stones,
On tombs whose sculptures half erased appear,
On rank weeds, battening over human bones,
Till even one’s very shadow seems to fear.

'Struggling still with Time' the abbey may be, but on that August day it was hard to see the slightest shadow of Clare's gloomy Gothic imaginings; even in their present state, the ruins are an impressive monument to Crowland's one-time glory.



Best of all is the spectacular frontage:


This would have been the west front of the church, and it's still adorned with statues of saints and patrons of the abbey, a sculpture-gallery in stone.


Of course I looked for Guthlac, and of course he is shown crushing a devil at his feet:


Also depicted is the most controversial of Crowland's patrons (and my real reason for being interested in the abbey), Waltheof, the Anglo-Danish earl who was executed for rebellion against William the Conqueror in 1076. The monks of Crowland believed this anti-Norman insurgent was a martyr and a saint; they recovered his body from the place where it had been ignominiously buried and brought it to Crowland, where it performed miracles and attracted pilgrims. For a time Waltheof replaced Guthlac as the abbey's chief saint, but this statue - in armour, with his dog - is the only sign of that at Crowland now.

Medieval Crowland loved rebels. Its chronicle claims that Hereward the Wake, another anti-Norman insurgent, chose to be buried at the abbey after a long and heroic career; there's no evidence to support this, but it's not impossible. Hereward is not, however, depicted on the front of the abbey (not being a saint by anyone's standards), which confines itself to apostles and bishops, each individually and meticulously characterised:


I love the apostle with his hand raised to his chin.



And when the sun comes out, what gorgeous golden stone!


Above what would have been the west door is a depiction of scenes from the life of St Guthlac.



The wonderful thing about this is its parallels with the Guthlac Roll, which tells the story of Guthlac's life in a series of roundels, similar but not identical to the scenes above the church door - for instance, here the scene of Guthlac arriving at Crowland (comparable to this) also shows a sow suckling piglets on the island, a propitious sign borrowed from the Aeneid:


This is a modern reproduction of the Guthlac scenes, made in 2002, which shows how they might have looked.


It was heartening to see, as this demonstrates, that the modern incumbents of Crowland Abbey are very proud of St Guthlac; when we move inside we find that the church has a detailed display about him which even includes images and description of the Guthlac Roll. It's wonderful when churches are interested in their medieval saints, even more so when they know about the manuscript treasures their forebears produced - and the Guthlac Roll is truly something to be proud of. I was a little disappointed, though not at all surprised, that the church literature had nothing to say about Waltheof, except a note identifying one of the statues as him. Poor Waltheof! Crowland was the only place in England where he was commemorated, and today he's not even commemorated there. But he is buried there - somewhere - and his dust mingles with its stones. The very building recalls him, because it was built from the stone quarried from a place which (Crowland tradition said) Waltheof gave to the abbey.

What first greets you when you enter the church (and God bless them for being open! If I'd gone all that way and the door was locked I would not have been happy) is the elegant soaring lines of the bell-tower:



The Crowland chronicle tells us (as always, not totally trustworthy but immensely interesting) that the medieval bells of the abbey were named Guthlac, Bartholomew, Beccelm, Turketel, Tatwine, Pega and Bega. Bartholomew was Guthlac's patron, Beccelm his servant, Pega his sister; Turketel was a tenth-century abbot of Crowland, about whose life the chronicle tells the most fantastic (in both senses) narratives - that he fought at the Battle of Brunanburh, for instance, and heroically saved the day despite not actually killing anyone. He was supposedly the chancellor of King Eadred, grandson of Alfred the Great, and best friends with St Dunstan, and he retired from the world to be abbot of Crowland because he was so impressed by the hospitality he received there when he visited the abbey, en route to a battle in the north. From his praise of Crowland (says the chronicle) the abbey gained the nickname 'Crowland the courteous', which it still had in the late Middle Ages. There's a medieval rhyme which describes the characteristics of the different Fenland abbeys thus:

Crowland as courteous as courteous as may be,
Thorney the bane of many a good tree,
Ramsey the rich, and Peterborough the proud,
Sawtry by the way that poor abbey,
Gave more alms than all they.

An alternative version:

Ramsey, the rich of gold and of fee;
Thorney, the flower of the fen country,
Crowland, so courteous of meat and of drink,
Peterborough the proud, as all men do think.
And Sawtrey by the way that old abbey
Gave more alms in one day than all they.

Crowland's reputation for hospitality is supported by William of Malmesbury, who tells us in the twelfth century that 'the place cannot be approached from any side except by water, but in front of the monastery door there is, as it were, a public highway for those sailing by. The result is that there is almost never any lack of guests, on their journeys to and fro.'

Crowland is certainly very courteous to its visitors now, and the church is clearly well-kept and much-loved. Although the present church only gives us the faintest indication of how splendid the monastic church would have been, it's full of interesting things.


Here we see the crest of the abbey, which combines the symbols of St Bartholomew (the knife with which he was flayed) and Guthlac (the flail which Bartholomew gave him to fight off demons).


In the fifteenth century the monks of Crowland used to give away souvenir knives to pilgrims who came to the abbey on St Bartholomew's Day - sadly no longer...

Of course I was looking for Guthlac, and he is much in evidence:

And in this window, with St Bartholomew:


Guthlac has a particularly scary little devil:


St Bartholomew and knife:


(No sign of poor Waltheof!)

This is the chancel of the present-day church:


It has an impressive wooden screen, with some lovely details.




A Green Man up in the roof:



This is perhaps the abbey's most famous non-Guthlac object, the tomb of one of the masons who built this place:


He is William of Wermington, Master of the Works c.1427, and he holds the tools of his trade, a pair of compasses and a 'T' square.


Otherwise, I was surprised by how many bits of unidentified stone were scattered about the church, as if the ruin hasn't stopped falling down yet (the sign warning of unstable stone on the west front was a bit concerning).




The whole place is a memorial to Guthlac and the monks who built it, but the most interesting post-medieval memorial is this:


'Beneath this place in six foot in length against ye clarks pew lyeth the Body of Mr Abrm Baly he dyed ye 3rd of Jan 1704. Also ye Body of Mary his wid[ow] she Dyed ye 21th of May 1705. Also ye Body of Abrm son of ye s[ai]d Abrm and Mary, he dyed ye 13 Jan 1704, also 2 wch Dyed in there Enfantry. Mans life is like unto a winters day. some brak there fast & so departs away. others stay dinner then departs full fed; the longest age but supps & goes to bed. O Reader then behold & see: as wee are now so must you be. 1706.'

The verse is a quotation from a local poet, a seventeenth-century bishop of nearby Peterborough, but Guthlac and Waltheof would certainly have understood the image of life as a feast on a winter's day. Waltheof, as a native of Northumbria who was educated for a monk (so tradition at Crowland said), could have probably have quoted Bede's famous story about the sparrow flying through the lighted hall:

"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."

Guthlac would have recognised the idea, though not the text; he and Bede were the same age, and when Guthlac came to Crowland Bede had not yet written his Historia. In the ruins of Crowland, amid John Clare's 'wrecks of ornamented stones', this reflection on the transience of earthly glory seems not unfitting; but nonetheless Guthlac's fame has lasted 13 centuries, and there is much remaining at Crowland to bear witness to the abbey's glorious past.