Sunday, 23 November 2014

St Clement's, Sandwich

St Clement (Westhall, Suffolk)

23 November is the feast of St Clement, the first-century pope and martyr who was, rather incongruously, a favourite saint with Vikings. (He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea, therefore he is often shown with an anchor, therefore he is the patron of seafarers, and therefore of Vikings. Impeccable logic!) This is only tangentially related to the subject of today's post, but it is one of my favourite Viking facts; it probably accounts for the dedication of St Clement Danes in London, St Clement's here in Oxford, and many churches dedicated to St Clement in the former Danelaw.

Today's post is also only vaguely related to St Clement himself, because it's not really about him but about something which happened in the eleventh century in a church dedicated to him. It occurs in a curiosity of Anglo-Saxon literature known as 'The Vision of Leofric', a short Old English prose text which recounts several visions experienced by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, probably in the 1040s or 1050s (Leofric died in 1057). This text tells of four visions attributed to Leofric. The first is a dream in which he sees St Paul saying Mass before a crowd of people, in a beautiful field, while the second and third episodes take place inside the church at Christ Church, Canterbury: in one Leofric, seeking to pray in the church at night, finds the locked door miraculously opened for him (even though the sacristan is too drunk to let him in), and in the other he goes to pray close to the tomb of St Dunstan and experiences miraculous noises and lights. And this is the last:

Not long afterwards the king was at Sandwich with his ships. It was [Leofric's] custom that every day he would hear two masses (unless it was more) and all the office too, before he went out. He was going about some necessary business, and Mass was being said before the king in St. Clement’s church. He said to his companions that it would be better if they went to Mass. He went in, and someone called to him at once; he went straightaway inside the sanctuary on the north side, and the king was standing on the south side.

There was a triple-threaded wall-hanging there, very thickly woven, which hung behind the altar, and a moderate-sized cross standing on the floor in the north-east corner; there was as much as a good hand's breadth of the cross visible below the hanging, and the rest was between the hanging and the wall. The priest was saying Mass beside the cross. Then [Leofric] saw above the cross a hand, as if it were blessing. At first he thought that it was someone blessing him, because the church was very full of people, but it was not so. Then he looked at it more carefully, and he saw the whole cross as clearly as if there were nothing in front of it, and the blessing hand was moving and going upwards. Then he was afraid, and doubted whether it could really be as it seemed to him. Then as his mind doubted, the hand became visible to him as clearly as he could see his own: its beautiful fingers were slender and long, and the nails distinct, and the large part below the thumb was all visible, and from the little finger to the arm and part of the sleeve. Then he dared not look at it any longer, but hung down his head, and then it ceased from blessing. That was near the time when the Gospel was being read.

What Leofric sees above the cross seems to be a living embodiment of the 'hand of God' motif which is often a part of Anglo-Saxon crucifix scenes - as, for instance, in the Romsey crucifix, made about twenty years before Leofric had his vision. Leofric's vision in Sandwich was later connected with the hagiography of Edward the Confessor and taken to be related to the saintliness of the king, but there's no sign of that here (the king isn't even named); this is all about Leofric.

It's hard to know quite what to make of this text; without it we would not think of Earl Leofric as anything other than an ordinary eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon nobleman, perhaps a little more pious than the average, but not a visionary. The specificity of the details of the setting is unusual - in the two visions which take place within Christ Church, too - and produces an incredibly vivid impression. (Although you might like to compare these roughly contemporary visions which also took place within Christ Church.) For this reason, among others, I find the text very interesting, but it also intrigues me because it takes place in a location I know well - Sandwich in Kent. This vision is the first reference to a church in Sandwich dedicated to St Clement, a church which today looks like this:


Sandwich, on the easternmost point of the Kent coast, was an important port in the medieval period, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that King Edward was regularly there with his fleet in the troubled years of the 1040s and 1050s - so this is probably when Leofric's vision took place in St Clement's. Of Sandwich's several medieval churches, this is the one closest to the harbour, an appropriate place for a church dedicated to the seafarers' saint.

The fact that the church is first mentioned in Leofric's vision, plus the dedication to St Clement, suggests it was founded in the early eleventh century - probably during the reign of Cnut, as I discussed here. St Clement's today is not the building Leofric would have known, but it's still a lovely church, so let me show you some pictures of it. (You can read a detailed description of the church fabric here, should you be so inclined.) The church's most distinctive feature is its massive central Norman tower, built in the twelfth century:


Just look at that thing! It's more like a castle keep than a church bell-tower.


(This is the only picture I have of St Clement's in the sunshine - but this golden light is what I associate most with Sandwich.)

Inside the church, the tower completely dominates the space:



It's a big church for a little bit of the town (especially since, as I said, there are several medieval churches in Sandwich), but once they'd built that massive tower I suppose they couldn't keep things on a small scale. Also the nave was rebuilt and extended in the fifteenth century, after it was destroyed when the French attacked the town. Because that's the kind of thing which happens in Sandwich.


It's a strange feeling to stand within the huge tower and look up; it's really not like being in a church at all.



But the best bit is around the corner behind the tower, above a little door which leads up to the belfry:


This is Norman carving of the loveliest kind - dated to the mid-twelfth century, I believe.



This is recognisably akin to the decoration on the Norman font now in St Martin's, Canterbury, which originally came from the cathedral.


And best of all:


Isn't that wonderful? It's a deer and a duck, I think - maybe a hunting scene of some kind. So lovely, and so tiny, and just hidden away around a corner.


The cathedral priory of Christ Church was given the port of Sandwich in the eleventh century, by grant of Cnut (or so they said), and they measured their control in a particularly memorable and vaguely Scandinavian way:

I, Cnut, by the grace of God king of England and of all the adjacent islands, lay the royal crown from my head with my own hands upon the altar of Christ in Canterbury for the benefit of the said monastery, and I grant to the said monastery for the sustenance of the monks the harbour at Sandwich with all the landings and dues on either side of the river from Pepperness to Marfleet, extending as far as a small axe can be thrown from a ship onto the land, when the ship is afloat and the river is in full flood.

And if there is anything in the great sea beyond the harbour, their rights shall extend as far as the sea at the utmost recedes, and [as far as] the length of a man holding a pole in his hand, and stretching himself as far as he can reach into the sea."

(Full text here).

I wonder what St Clement, the sailors' saint, would think of this kind of watery dominion.


The eastern end of the church has been rebuilt, and we can only imagine the cross and the triple-threaded wall-hanging of Leofric's vision - but it's not hard to imagine them. The Saxon church may have looked different, but it was on this spot that Leofric saw whatever it was he saw.







And that's St Clement's. Now that I've made myself thoroughly homesick for Kent, I'll stop; but for more on the Vision of Leofric, see the following articles:

Peter A. Stokes, 'The Vision of Leofric: Manuscript, Text and Context', Review of English Studies 63 (2012), 529-550.
A. S. Napier, 'An Old English Vision of Leofric, Earl of Mercia', Transactions of the Philological Society 26:2 (1908), 180-188.
Milton McC. Gatch, 'Miracles in architectural settings: Christ Church, Canterbury and St Clement's, Sandwich in the Old English Vision of Leofric', Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993), 227-252.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

'Eadmund se eadiga, Eastengla cynincg'


Today is the feast of St Edmund, King of East Anglia, killed by a Viking army in 869. I've posted about St Edmund quite a bit over the years I've been writing this blog, not only because the Vikings in England are my particular interest, but because Edmund is today one of the most popular of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially beloved in his former kingdom. (And therefore much depicted in modern church art). I wrote about the later medieval developments in Edmund's legend here, but today I want to post some of the Old English Life of Edmund written at the end of the tenth century by the homilist Ælfric. I've posted an extract from this text at least once before, but I'll do so again because - well, why not. This was one of the first pieces of Old English I ever learned, as a first-year undergraduate, so it has a special place in my heart.

It's a translation of a Latin Passio of Edmund by Abbo of Fleury, and Ælfric begins by explaining the chain of sources which led to the composition of his Life:

Sum swyðe gelæred munuc com suþan ofer sæ fram sancte Benedictes stowe on Æþelredes cynincges dæge to Dunstane ærcebisceope, þrim gearum ær he forðferde, and se munuc hatte Abbo. Þa wurdon hi æt spræce oþþæt Dunstan rehte be sancte Eadmunde, swa swa Eadmundes swurdbora hit rehte Æþelstane cynincge þa þa Dunstan iung man wæs, and se swurdbora wæs forealdod man. Þa gesette se munuc ealle þa gereccednysse on anre bec, and eft ða þa seo boc com to us binnan feawum gearum þa awende we hit on englisc, swa swa hit heræfter stent.

'A very learned monk came from the south across the sea from St Benedict's monastery [i.e. Fleury], in the days of King Æthelred, to Archbishop Dunstan, three years before he died; and the monk was called Abbo. They talked together until Dunstan told the story of St Edmund, just as Edmund's sword-bearer told it to King Æthelstan in the days when Dunstan was a young man and the sword-bearer was a very old man. Then the monk set down all the story in a book, and afterwards when the book came to us a few years later we turned it into English, as follows hereafter.'

This is an impeccable chain of authorities: learned Abbo, saintly Dunstan, the glorious King Æthelstan, and an eyewitness. The chain covers about 130 years between Edmund's death and Ælfric translating the Life: Edmund was killed in 869, Æthelstan ruled between 924-39, and Dunstan died in 988. The East Anglian royal line was wiped out by Edmund's death, and by the time of Æthelstan the kings of Wessex, now kings of all England, had in a sense adopted the martyred East Anglian king as one of their forebears. So we can imagine the old sword-bearer telling his story at Æthelstan's court, and young Dunstan listening ('with tears in his eyes', Abbo says) in between all his music, metalwork, manuscript-correcting, and devil-fighting. (This was presumably before Dunstan was driven out of Æthelstan's court by accusations of black magic...) If there weren't already enough reasons to admire multi-talented Dunstan, his role in preserving Edmund's story gives him a claim to the gratitude of all fans of Anglo-Saxon saints.

Ælfric produced his Lives of Saints in the late 990s. Between Dunstan telling the story to Abbo in 985, and Ælfric translating Abbo's Passio some ten years later, Edmund's death had suddenly become all too topical. The Vikings were back, more organised and effective than ever. In the last years of Dunstan's life, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Viking raids along the south coast of England for the first time in decades, and it was later believed that Dunstan in his last days knew this was the beginning of worse to come - that he prophetically foresaw all the disasters which would befall England through the course of the eleventh century. If Dunstan was telling stories from his youth about St Edmund in 985, this might be why. And by the late 990s things had only grown worse: one might argue (I would, in fact) that at the same time as Ælfric was writing his Life of Edmund a poet somewhere in Edmund's old kingdom was busy writing The Battle of Maldon, a poem which similarly tells of an East Anglian nobleman slain by a Viking army, and which in a different way finds heroism in a catastrophic defeat.

Edmund, Ely Cathedral

The whole Life can be found online in Old English and in Modern English, but here are some extracts. (I've added punctuation, and the translation is mine. Abbo's original can be found here.) It's particularly worth seeing the Old English alongside the translation because this text is written in Ælfric's distinctive style of alliterative, rhythmical prose, which can produce some beautiful effects - as exemplified by a line like 'Eadmund se eadiga, Eastengla cynincg', the first line of the Life proper. Here the alliteration also plays on the first element of the saint's name (ead, blessed).
Eadmund se eadiga, Eastengla cynincg, wæs snotor and wurðfull and wurðode symble mid æþelum þeawum þone ælmihtigan god. He wæs eadmod and geþungen and swa anræde þurhwunode þæt he nolde abugan to bysmorfullum leahtrum ne on naþre healfe he ne ahylde his þeawas ac wæs symble gemyndig þære soþan lare: 'þu eart to heafodmen geset? ne ahefe þu ðe, ac beo betwux mannum swa swa an man of him.' He wæs cystig wædlum and wydewum swa swa fæder and mid welwillendnysse gewissode his folc symble to rihtwisnysse and þam reþum styrde and gesæliglice leofode on soþan geleafan.

'Edmund the blessed, King of the East Angles, was wise and honourable, and always honoured Almighty God in noble conduct [þeawas]. He was humble and virtuous and endured so resolutely that he would never submit to shameful vices, nor on either side deviate from his virtuous practices, but was always mindful of the true teaching: 'Have you been appointed as ruler? Do not exalt yourself, but be among men as if you are one of them.' [Ecclesiasticus 32.1] He was generous to the poor and like a father to widows, and with benevolence always guided his people to righteousness, and restrained the violent, and blessedly lived in the true faith.'

Bury St Edmunds
Hit gelamp ða æt nextan þæt þa deniscan leode ferdon mid sciphere hergiende and sleande wide geond land, swa swa heora gewuna is. On þam flotan wæron þa fyrmestan heafodmen Hinguar and Hubba, geanlæhte þurh deofol, and hi on norðhymbralande gelendon mid æscum and aweston þæt land þa leoda ofslogon. Þa gewende Hinguar east mid his scipum and Hubba belaf on norðhymbralande gewunnenum sige mid wælhreownysse. Hinguar þa becom to east englum rowende on þam geare þe ælfred æðelincg an and twentig geare wæs, se þe west-sexena cynincg siþþan wearð mære. And se foresæda Hinguar færlice swa swa wulf on lande bestalcode and þa leode sloh weras and wif and þa ungewittigan cild, and to bysmore tucode þa bilewitan cristenan.

He sende ða sona syððan to þam cyninge beotlic ærende þæt he abugan sceolde to his manrædene gif he rohte his feores. Se ærendraca com þa to Eadmunde cynincge and Hinguares ærende him ardlice abead. "Hinguar ure cyning, cene and sigefæst on sæ and on lande, hæfð fela þeoda gewyld and com nu mid fyrde færlice her to lande þæt he her wintersetl mid his werode hæbbe. Nu het he þe dælan þine digelan goldhordas and þinra yldrena gestreon ardlice wið hine and þu beo his underkyning, gif ðu cucu beon wylt, for ðan þe ðu næfst þa mihte þæt þu mage him wiðstandan.
'It happened in the end that the Danish people came with a ship-army, harrying and killing throughout the country, as is their habit. [!] The foremost leaders of the fleet were Inguar and Ubbe [i.e. Ivar the Boneless and his brother, sons of the legendary Danish king Ragnar Lothbrok], united through the devil, and they landed in Northumbria with their ships and laid waste the land and slew the people. Then Inguar turned east with his ships, and Ubbe remained in Northumbria, having won the victory with cruelty. Then Inguar came rowing to East Anglia in the year that Alfred the prince was twenty-one years old, who was later to be the glorious king of the West Saxons [that's Alfred the Great, of course]. And this Ingvar suddenly stalked the land like a wolf, and slew the people, men and women and innocent children, and too shamefully harassed blameless Christians.

Soon afterwards he sent a boasting message to the king, saying that he should submit to enter his service if he valued his life. The messenger came to King Edmund and quickly told him Inguar's message. "Inguar our king, brave and victorious on sea and on land, rules many peoples, and is now swiftly coming with an army here to this land, so that he can take winter-quarters here with his company. Now he commands you to quickly share your concealed gold-hoards and your ancestors' treasure with him, and you must become his under-king, if you want to live, because you don't have the power to withstand him."'

Before answering the messenger, Edmund consults with a bishop, who advises him to submit. Edmund says he would rather fight and die in battle than do that, but the bishop reminds him that he does not have the forces to fight, because so many of his people have been killed. His only options are to submit or to die.

Þa cwæð Eadmund cyning, swa swa he ful cene wæs, "þæs ic gewilnige and gewisce mid mode, þæt ic ana ne belife æfter minum leofum þegnum þe on heora bedde wurdon, mid bearnum and wifum, færlice ofslægene fram þysum flotmannum. Næs me næfre gewunelic þæt ic worhte fleames, ac ic wolde swiðor sweltan gif ic þorfte for minum agenum earde, and se ælmihtiga God wat þæt ic nelle abugan fram his biggengum æfre, ne fram his soþan lufe, swelte ic, lybbe ic."

'Then King Edmund said, in his great courage, "This I desire and wish in my mind, that I may not survive alone after my dear thegns who have been suddenly slain in their beds, with their children and wives, by these seamen. It was never my custom to flee; I would rather die, if I must, for my own land, and Almighty God knows that I will never turn away from his service, or from his true love, whether I live or die."'

Edmund's death (St Mary's, Bury St Edmunds)

He sends a message back to Inguar saying that he will not submit unless the Danish king converts to Christianity. Inguar orders Edmund to be captured, bound and killed. The Danes descend on Edmund as he stands within his hall, and he does not resist them.

Hwæt þe arleasan þa Eadmund gebundon and gebysmrodon huxlice and beoton mid saglum, and swa syððan læddon þone geleaffullan cyning to anum eorðfæstum treowe and tigdon hine þærto mid heardum bendum, and hine eft swuncgon langlice mid swipum, and he symble clypode betwux þam swinglum mid soðan geleafan to hælende Criste, and þa hæþenan þa for his geleafan wurdon wodlice yrre for þan þe he clypode Crist him to fultume. Hi scuton þa mid gafelucum swilce him to gamenes to oð þæt he eall wæs besæt mid heora scotungum swilce igles byrsta, swa swa Sebastianus wæs. Þa geseah Hingwar se arlease flotman þæt se æþela cyning nolde Criste wiðsacan, ac mid anrædum geleafan hine æfre clypode, het hine þa beheafdian, and þa hæðenan swa dydon. Betwux þam þe he clypode to Criste þagit þa tugon þa hæþenan þone halgan to slæge and mid anum swencge slogon him of þæt heafod, and his sawl siþode gesælig to Criste.

Þær wæs sum man gehende, gehealdan þurh God behyd þam hæþenum, þe þis gehyrde eall and hit eft sæde swa swa we hit secgað her. Hwæt ða se flothere ferde eft to scipe and behyddon þæt heafod þæs halgan Eadmundes on þam þiccum bremelum þæt hit bebyrged ne wurde.

'Then the wicked ones bound Edmund and shamefully mocked him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards led the faithful king to a tree fixed in the earth and tied him to it with hard bonds. They scourged him for a long time with whips, and he constantly cried out between the strokes with true faith to the Saviour Christ, and the heathen were madly enraged by his faith because he cried to Christ to help him. They shot at him with missiles as if for their amusement, until he was entirely covered with their shots like the spines of a hedgehog, just as Sebastian was. When Inguar, the wicked seaman, saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with steadfast faith constantly called upon him, he ordered him to be beheaded, and the heathens did this. While he was still calling upon Christ, the heathens dragged the holy one away to slay him, and with one stroke cut off his head; and his soul travelled in blessedness to Christ.

There was a certain man nearby, kept hidden by God from the heathens, who heard all this and afterwards told it just as we say here. So then the sailors went back to their ships and hid the head of holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it could not be buried.'


When the Danes are gone, people come to look for Edmund's body, and search the woods to find his concealed head:

Wæs eac micel wundor, þæt an wulf wearð asend þurh Godes wissunge to bewerigenne þæt heafod wið þa oþre deor ofer dæg and niht. Hi eodon þa secende and symle clypigende swa swa hit gewunelice is þam ðe on wuda gað oft, "Hwær eart þu nu, gefera?" and him andwyrde þæt heafod, "Her, her, her!" and swa gelome clypode andswarigende him eallum swa oft swa heora ænig clypode oþþæt hi ealle becomen þurh ða clypunga him to. Þa læg se græga wulf þe bewiste þæt heafod. And mid his twam fotum hæfde þæt heafod beclypped grædig and hungrig and for Gode ne dorste þæs heafdes abyrian, and heold hit wið deor. Þa wurdon hi ofwundrode þæs wulfes hyrdrædenne and þæt halige heafod ham feredon mid him, þancigende þam ælmihtigan ealra his wundra, ac se wulf folgode forð mid þam heafde oþþæt hí to tune comon swylce he tam wære and gewende eft siþþan to wuda ongean. Þa landleoda þa siþþan ledon þæt heafod to þam halgan bodige and bebyrigdon hine swa swa hí selost mihton on swylcere hrædinge and cyrcan arærdan sona him onuppon.

'Then there was a great wonder, that a wolf was send by the guidance of God to protect the head against other wild beasts by day and night. They went seeking and constantly crying out, as is common for those going through the woods, "Where are you now, friend?" And the head answered them, "Here, here, here!" And so it repeatedly called, anwering them as often as any of them cried out, until they all came to it because of its calling. There lay the grey wolf which had guarded the head, and it had the head clasped between its two feet - greedy and hungry, and yet for God's sake it dared not eat the head, but protected it against wild beasts. They marvelled at the guardianship of the wolf and carried the holy head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all his marvels, but the wolf followed with the head until they reached the town, just as if he were tame, and then went back again to the woods. Then the people of that region laid the head with the holy body, and buried him as best they could in such haste, and soon built a church over him.'


Some time later, after peace has been restored, it is decided to build a better church for the saint. His body is inspected:

þa wæs micel wundor þæt he wæs eall swa gehal swylce he cucu wære mid clænum lichaman and his swura wæs gehalod þe ær wæs forslagen and wæs swylce an seolcen þræd embe his swuran ræd, mannum to sweotelunge hu he ofslagen wæs. Eac swilce þe wunda þe þa wælhreowan hæþenan mid gelomum scotungum on his lice macodon wæron gehælede þurh þone heofonlican God and he liþ swa ansund oþ þisne andwerdan dæg, andbidigende æristes and þæs ecan wuldres.

'There was a great wonder, that he was as whole as if he were alive, with an intact body, and his neck was healed which had previously been cut; it was as if there were a red silken thread about his neck, to show men how he had been killed. And the wounds which the cruel heathen had made in his body with many shots were healed by heavenly God, and he lies thus uncorrupted until this present day, awaiting the resurrection and eternal glory.'


Ælfric then recounts some miracles which took place after Edmund's death, and concludes by saying "Nis Angelcynn bedæled drihtnes halgena" - 'the English are not deprived of the saints of God' - and he lists a few other examples as well as Edmund. This is, of course, characteristic Anglo-Saxon understatement - what he means is that the English have plenty of saints of their own.


These are the ruins of the abbey church at Bury St Edmunds, which was founded in the eleventh century, some thirty-five years after the writing of Ælfric's Life. According to Bury St Edmunds tradition the abbey was founded by Cnut; after he became king of England Cnut was an enthusiastic patron of St Edmund's cult - one way for a Danish king of England to reconcile his dual roles as successor to the kings of Wessex and heir to the conquests of the Danish kings (including Ivar the Boneless). Later legend said that St Edmund was responsible for the death of Cnut's father Svein Forkbeard in 1013, getting some revenge on the Danes from beyond the grave.

Bury St Edmunds soon became one of the leading religious houses in England, a prominence it retained throughout the medieval period, and the church which now lies in ruins was once in size and splendour the equal of any cathedral in the country. So in case the death of St Edmund was making you think ill of the Vikings today, it's salutary to remember it was a Viking king who helped to build this monastery, which for hundreds of years fostered physicians, poets, artists, chroniclers, administrators, and key moments in constitutional history, as well as many hidden lives of pilgrimage and prayer. Next time you feel like using 'medieval' as a pejorative, consider that a Viking king founded this place - and in 1539 a Tudor king tore it down.



I visited Bury St Edmunds last summer, and, knowing that its abbey had been destroyed, had not really been expecting to find it very interesting. But it's an absolutely lovely town - the extensive abbey ruins are now a public park, where children were climbing over the graves of Abbot Samson and his fellows, and the size of the ruins has to be seen to be believed. There are some more substantial medieval relics, such as a Norman tower:


But this would once have been dwarfed by the towers around it. When I was there the tower contained the friendliest group of bell-ringers you could ever hope to meet; I think they must have been the guardian spirits of the place, they were so overwhelmingly welcoming.

The present-day cathedral is tiny compared to what the abbey church would have been (it only became a cathedral in 1914, and was previously a parish church on the edge of the abbey precincts) but is a rather wonderful mixture of the medieval and the brand-new:





This tower was built in 2005!

Since Bury St Edmunds was once a great centre of manuscript production, it was lovely to see some tapestries in the cathedral based on manuscripts made at the abbey:



These are based on images from the fifteenth-century BL Harley 2278 and the twelfth-century 'Bury Bible', respectively. More former monastic churches should do things like this - when manuscripts have been swallowed up into institutional libraries, it's all too easy to forget where they originally came from.

The cathedral also houses this new statue of Edmund, which has become my favourite modern depiction of the saint. It shows him as a young king, proud and defiant in his bonds.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

An Anglo-Saxon Prayer to St Alphege

Alphege window, Canterbury Cathedral

16 November is a feast shared by two excellent medieval English saints: St Margaret of Scotland, one of my favourites, and Oxford's own St Edmund Rich. But before it was their feasts - in fact, before either of those people was born - today was kept in eleventh-century Canterbury as the feast of the ordination of St Alphege. By the middle of the eleventh century the recently-martyred archbishop Alphege already had two perfectly good feasts, in April and in June (his death and translation, respectively), but when you have such an admirable martyr to commemorate you can hardly go overboard, I suppose. Eleventh-century Canterbury, especially during the reign of Edward the Confessor, was not so secure that it could afford to neglect its heavenly patrons. The ordination feast was probably introduced some time between the return of Alphege's body to Canterbury in 1023 and the Norman Conquest; it might be a legacy of Archbishop Æthelnoth the Good, who was responsible for bringing Alphege's relics back to the city he had left in 1011 as the prisoner of a Viking fleet.

In the middle years of the eleventh century, some prayers for a variety of purposes were added to a splendid Psalter which had been made at Canterbury c.1012-23, which is now British Library, Arundel 155. These prayers, some 44 of them, are in Latin with an interlinear Old English gloss. They've been published in two batches, the first group by Ferdinand Holthausen in 'Altenglische Interlinearversionen lateinischer Gebete und Beichten', Anglia 65 (1941), 230-54, and the rest by Jackson J. Campbell in 'Prayers from Ms. Arundel 155' Anglia 81 (1963), 82-177. Among these prayers are two addressed to Canterbury's chief saints, Dunstan and Alphege, and since I'm working on these saints I've made a translation of these prayers for my own use. I thought for St Alphege's (third) feast-day I'd post my translation of the prayer to the saint, though for the Latin and English text you'll have to search out Campbell's article. This prayer appears in ff. 186-7 of the manuscript, pp. 95-9 in Campbell.

There's one particularly interesting thing to note about this prayer. The name Alphege was naturally left untranslated by the person who made the Old English gloss, but more than a century later another hand came along and updated the prayer to adapt it for Canterbury's newest martyr - every instance of Alphege in the Latin was glossed instead with Thoma, for Thomas Becket. So this is a multi-purpose prayer, and a good example of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript which continued to be in use for a long time after its English glossing would have become archaic.

My thoughts and my desires I make known to you in sorrow and anguish, beloved of God, holy father Alphege. I wish that I could express with mouth or lips how in my inmost heart I pour out prayers to God and to you, and crave merciful pardon from God through your intercession. I know myself to be guilty, gracious father Alphege, and my sins to be more numerous than I can bring to mind or count. To God and to you I confess, therefore, all my life's deeds, which are known to God, and which I cannot conceal or amend, if not for the grace of God and, St Alphege, your interceding mercy.

Holy father Alphege, wicked is my life in the sight of God, stained is my soul with wrongful thoughts and all vices of sins, at the guilt of which my own conscience is offended. Far from me are truth and mercy, if it were not that he, the Saviour of mankind, coming down from the heavens, forbade despair and promised forgiveness to sinners. Long ago he would not suffer delays in the destruction of my weakness, that I fall not into despair. But because it is good to hope in the Lord, and blessed are all they who trust in him, with mind and with body, prostrate before God and you, with humble devotion I crave your merciful protection, holy father Alphege, that, with strength and honour greatly shining forth on earth, through your intervention in heaven you reconcile me, your servant, with God, and redeem me from all sins by your gracious intercession. O noble father Alphege, jewel of bishops and glorious beauty of Christ Church, hear sinful me humbly praying to you, and unceasingly plead for my offences to the blessed Saviour. Holy father Alphege, implore the Lord that he keep far from wretched me sinful lusts and wicked desires, and turn wrongful thoughts away from me, and deliver me from every pollution of the devil and his ministers, that I may become worthily pleasing to God, and fittingly perform this with all love for God and for you.

I pray also through you, holy father Alphege, to all the blessed host of saintly martyrs, who by their steadfast faith and shedding of their blood have achieved heavenly rewards, that supported by the protection of so many saints in this present life I may leave and shun all things which are harmful to the body and the soul, and love Christ entirely with a pure mind, and steadfastly endure in the Lord's commands. And, thus enduring, intercede for me, holy father Alphege, that Christ the Lord may grant that I may deserve to come to eternal bliss, where health, life and joy endure for all those beloved of God, through all ages of ages.

One of the glossed prayers in this manuscript, Arundel 155 f. 182

I particularly like the last section here, where the petitioner asks for grace to steadfastly perseverare 'endure, continue' in God's commands (þurhwunian is the Old English word), so that he may come to the place where salus, vita et felicitas (hæl, lif and gesælhþ) perseverat, þurhwunaþ, endure for ever.

Here's a flavour of one of this prayer's elegant sentences, first in Latin:

Sed quia bonum est sperare in domino et beati omnis qui confidunt in illum, mente et corpore, et domino et tibi prostratus supplici devotione piam paternitatem tuam sancte pater...

And in Old English (bearing in mind it's a gloss, so the word order is determined by the Latin):

ac forþi god ys hihtan on drihtan, 7 eadige ealle þa þe truwiaþ on hine, mid geþance 7 mid lichaman, 7 gode 7 þe nyþerastreht mid eadmodre estfulnesse milde mundbyrde þine sancte pater...

Calendar for November in Arundel 155, f. 7, showing the feast of the ordination of St Alphege

By way of comparison, this is the prayer to St Alphege with which Osbern concludes his Life of the saint.

Alphege, great soldier of a great King, who washed your robe in the blood of Almighty God, accept the prayers of the sons who cry to you, and by your gracious intercession raise up those whom you have honoured by your holy Passion. Made strong by divine assistance, you overcame the prince of death; father, strengthen us against him, and help us to vanquish him. You had mercy on those who stoned you; have mercy on those who pray to you, that the fury of those who rave may not gain more than the devotion of those who love. Do not let your servants know the gates of death and hell, but bring them to the gates of Paradise through the power given to you by the Saviour, who lives and reigns together with the eternal Father and co-eternal Spirit, the one, only, true God, through endless ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, 7 November 2014

'After that comes Winter's Day'


I'm sorry to break this to you, but it's now officially winter. At least, it is according to the Old English calendar poem The Menologium, which calls 7 November 'winter's day' - the first day of winter:

And þy ylcan dæge ealra we healdað
sancta symbel þara þe sið oððe ær
worhtan in worulde willan drihtnes.
Syþþan wintres dæg wide gangeð
on syx nihtum, sigelbeortne genimð
hærfest mid herige hrimes and snawes,
forste gefeterad, be frean hæse,
þæt us wunian ne moton wangas grene,
foldan frætuwe.

And on the same day [November 1] we keep
the feast of All Saints, of those who recently or long ago
worked in the world the will of the Lord.
After that comes Winter’s Day, far and wide,
after six nights, and seizes sun-bright autumn
with its army of ice and snow,
fettered with frost by the Lord's command,
so that the green fields may no longer stay with us,
the ornaments of the earth.

The phrase 'Winter's Day' doesn't occur elsewhere with this precise meaning, but November 7 is dated as the first day of winter by the best Anglo-Saxon authorities on the calendar: Bede in his De Temporum Ratione and Byrhtferth in his Enchiridion. According to their reckoning winter has 92 days and runs from 7 November to 6 February, which means that midwinter falls around the time of the solstice - as you would expect. (I note with surprise that there are lots of people on the internet who say winter begins on the winter solstice; Bede would not be impressed...)

In its description of 'Winter's Day' the Menologium is following in this learned, scientific tradition, but it's also drawing on a conventional topos of Old English poetry: the threat of winter. This is a poem which finds beauty in almost everything about the turning year; in its formulaic phrases, every month is ‘ornamented’ or ‘adorned’ or ‘distinguished’ by the features and feasts it contains, and in past posts on this poem we’ve seen the exuberance of spring, the brightness of summer, the plenty of autumn. But there’s no such lingering on the beauty of winter; all the beauty belongs to what's lost when winter takes hold. We have a last glimpse of the loveliness of the abundant harvest, sigelbeortne hærfest, 'sun-bright autumn'. Then winter seizes it (the verb is a violent one, genimð ‘plucks, snatches’) with its army of frost and snow, and captures the earth for another year. Winter comes in like an invading warrior and puts autumn in chains, and the green fields which decorate the earth are permitted to stay with us no longer. There's a melancholy contrast between the two similar-sounding words frætuwe and gefeterad – between the green summer fields adorned (‘fretted’) with beauty, and the winter fetters of frost.

11th-century calendar from Christ Church, Canterbury (BL Arundel 155, f.7) 
with the beginning of winter marked on 7 November

This idea of winter imprisoning and chaining the earth will be familiar to anyone who's read a little Old English poetry. There are many, many examples of winter as danger and sorrow: The Seafarer lamenting his cold feet and his burning heart as he sails on the icy ocean, the speaker in The Wife's Lament imagining her lover in exile beneath a storm-dashed cliff, Weland in chains in Deor suffering 'wintercealde wræce'. But perhaps the most famous - and my favourite - instance is The Wanderer, in which an exile, mourning the loss of home, lord and friends, is trapped in a winter which is his own grief:

Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan. Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille.
Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman.
Forðon domgeorne dreorigne oft
in hyra breostcofan bindað fæste;
swa ic modsefan minne sceolde,
oft earmcearig, eðle bidæled,
freomægum feor, feterum sælan,
siþþan geara iu goldwine minne
hrusan heolstre biwrah, ond ic hean þonan
wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind...
Wat se þe cunnað, hu sliþen bið sorg to geferan,
þam þe him lyt hafað leofra geholena.
Warað hine wræclast, nales wunden gold,
ferðloca freorig, nalæs foldan blæd...

Often I must alone, every day before dawn,
lament my sorrow. There is now none living
to whom I dare openly speak
the thoughts of my mind. I truly know
that it is a noble virtue among warriors
for a man to bind his spirit-chest fast,
conceal his heart, whatever he may think.
The weary mind cannot withstand fate,
nor the troubled heart provide help.
And so those eager for glory often
bind fast sorrowful thoughts in their breasts;
so I have had to keep my mind –
often wretched, deprived of homeland,
far from kinsmen – fastened in fetters,
since long ago I buried my lord
in the darkness of the earth, and I from there
journeyed, winter-sorrowful, over the binding waves...
He who has experienced it knows
how cruel sorrow is as a companion
for him who has few beloved friends.
The path of exile holds him, not twisted gold;
a frozen spirit, not the glory of the earth.

In this poem winter infects you, it gets into your heart: the speaker describes himself as wintercearig, 'winter-sorrowful', perhaps 'as desolate as winter', and he has a 'frozen spirit', ferðloca freorig. This is a painful, claustrophobic kind of enclosure; the earth is trapped beneath its winter covering like the aching heart concealed in the grieving warrior’s breast, which strains at its enforced silence. But this is not only a personal but a universal sorrow, the fate of all human society, as if the future of the world could be summed up in one phrase: winter's coming.

Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,

wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma, þonne won cymeð,
nipeð nihtscua, norþan onsendeð
hreo hæglfare hæleþum on andan.
Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice,
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð.


The wise hero must perceive how terrible it will be
when all this world's wealth lies waste,
as now in various places throughout this earth
walls stand blown by the wind,
covered with frost, the buildings snow-swept...
The warriors were taken away by the power of spears,
weapons greedy for slaughter, fate the famous;
and storms batter those rocky cliffs,
snow falling fetters the earth,
the tumult of winter. Then dark comes,
night-shadows deepen; from the north comes
a fierce hailstorm hostile to men.
All is full of hardship in this earthly realm,
the course of events changes the world under the heavens.
Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting,
all the foundation of this world turns to waste.


Ac forhwon fealleð se snaw, foldan behydeð,
bewrihð wyrta cið, wæstmas getigeð,
geðyð hie and geðreatað, ðæt hie ðrage beoð
cealde geclungne?

But why does snow fall, cover the ground,
conceal the shoots of plants, bind up fruits,
crush and repress them, so that they are for a time
shrivelled with cold?

So asks the pagan prince Saturn in The Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn, as he seeks answers from Solomon about the nature of the world; but the answer wise Solomon would have given to this question is lost (on a missing leaf in the manuscript). So we don't know.

But another poem, Maxims I, has a promise of something better:

Forst sceal freosan, fyr wudu meltan,
eorðe growan, is brycgian,
wæter helm wegan, wundrum lucan
eorðan ciðas. An sceal onbindan
forstes fetera, felamihtig God;
winter sceal geweorpan, weder eft cuman,
sumor swegle hat.

Frost must freeze, fire burn up wood,
the earth grow, ice form bridges,
water wear a covering, wondrously locking up
shoots in the earth. One alone shall unbind
the frost’s fetters: God most mighty.
Winter must turn, good weather come again,
summer bright and hot.

This is a more positive image of winter: it not only promises that the season will end, will turn again as everything in the year turns, but it actually finds something marvellous in winter itself, in the 'bridges' miraculously formed by the ice. 'Water wears a covering' is like the beginning of a riddle - and in fact there is a one-line riddle in the Exeter Book which reads, in its entirety:

Wundor wearð on wege; wæter wearð to bane.
There was a wonder on the way: water turned to bone.

'Ice' seems the most likely solution; winter has its wonders, too. And Maxims I asserts that, inexplicable as may be the oppression of winter and the sorrow of human life, God has power to unlock the chains; just as in Beowulf, when the monster's blood melts the hero's sword,

þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend Fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla.


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.

11th-century calendar from Winchester, 
noting the beginning of winter on 7 November (BL Arundel 60, f. 7)

I could go on listing examples all day, but that's probably enough for now to welcome winter. I'm aware that many of my readers live in more fortunate climates, where it's not winter yet (or where summer is just beginning), but here in the south of England it does suddenly feel like winter: a few unusually warm days at the end of October were suddenly laid waste by cold and fog, though not yet by ice and snow. So I'm happy to agree with the Anglo-Saxons calendars that this really is the beginning of winter; in this respect, as in many others, you can't wrong following Bede. It's Bede, of course, who in the voice of a counsellor to King Edwin gives us perhaps the most famous use of winter in Anglo-Saxon literature, which I quoted here recently but will unashamedly quote again, in the Old English translation:

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

"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 a feast 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."

Dark and cold the winter may be, but this vignette also conjures up one of its best features: feasting in good company, 'the fire kindled and the hall warmed, while it rained and stormed and snowed outside'. Something to look forward to in the 92 days ahead.


This image is from BL Harley 5431 (f.38v), a copy of the Rule of St Benedict made in Canterbury at the end of the tenth century. St Benedict's Rule divides the monastic year into two seasons, summer and winter, which had their different timetables and schedules of prayer; winter began in November, and this section describes the schedule hiemis tempore 'in the time of winter'. Its big initial H is formed from spiky lines which always look to me like brambles, or like bare branches black against the winter sky.