Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Battle of Maldon

10 August is the date of one of the most famous battles in Anglo-Saxon history: the Battle of Maldon, fought between the men of East Anglia and a force of Vikings on the coast of Essex in 991. Note that I said one of the most famous battles in Anglo-Saxon history, and not one of the most important; it's famous because it's the subject of a poem, but if it weren't for the poem we probably wouldn't see this as a particularly significant event among the many battles and skirmishes which culminated in the Danish Conquest of England in 1016. The poem is, however, so fascinating and so important in the history of Old English literature that it makes the battle correspondingly more interesting, and its anniversary more worth marking.

The poem which is today known as The Battle of Maldon is on the first-year undergraduate syllabus of the Oxford English course, which means that everyone in my world has taught and studied it a thousand times, and it feels like something 'everybody knows'. For this reason it's never seemed to me worth blogging about, but of course that's just silly; among the handful of Old English poems even vaguely known to the general public (a tiny fraction of the surviving corpus), none of them are well-known enough to have become not worth talking about in public. So if you do know this poem well, you'll have to forgive me blogging about it...

Byrhtnoth, All Saints' Church, Maldon

The poem as we have it - 325 lines long - is fragmentary, lacking its beginning and end, so what we have focuses on the immediate prelude to the battle and the events of the fight; we don't know whether the poem originally provided more in the way of set-up or aftermath, context or explanation, and what kind of interpretative frame the poet might have given his account of the battle. The story as we have it is briefly this: a band of Vikings (nameless and unidentified, in the poem as it stands) have come to the coast of Essex, where they are met by the ealdorman of East Anglia, Byrhtnoth, and his men, a mixture of his own trained soldiers and others from further afield in Anglo-Saxon England. The Vikings demand money, and tell Byrhtnoth that if they get it they'll go away peacefully. Byrhtnoth returns a bullish answer, declaring that instead of paying tribute he and his men will fight to defend their land and the kingdom of their lord, King Æthelred. He allows the Vikings to come ashore from the island in the estuary on which they are encamped (as it turns out, a tactical error - the result either of high courage or of overweening arrogance, depending on whose translation of the OE word ofermod you believe). Battle commences. Byrhtnoth is killed, but his men keep fighting to avenge his death, their numbers and strength dwindling; the poem breaks off as we see them declaring their intention to fight on to the last, but even without an ending we know that they are going to lose the battle and die.

One of the fascinating things about The Battle of Maldon is that it's one of the few Old English poems which can be fairly precisely dated, as it can only have been written within a few decades after the date of the battle; I think the latest date that's been proposed is in the 1030s, and it's usually dated considerably earlier than that. Since with most Old English poems we can only guess at a rough century of composition, this makes The Battle of Maldon special. It's also unusual among Anglo-Saxon poems (though not, I should stress, unique) in dealing with specific contemporary events and people, some of whom may have been known to the poem's first audience. In this text we see the immediate past being suddenly transmuted into literature, which should produce for us a jolt of disquieting juxtaposition: these are ordinary modern-day men being talked about in the language of heroic poetry, a minor battle on the Essex coast being turned into an epic struggle between invader and defender, heathen and Christian. And this poem, for all that it seems to elevate its characters out of everyday life into the world of heroic literature, can't help but have an electric political charge: the question of how the Anglo-Saxon nobility should respond to Viking raids, the debate we see acted out in The Battle of Maldon, was a problem which only became more acute in the years after 991. As Viking raids intensified, military and political leadership in England descended into chaos, reaching their nadir in the winter of 1013-14, when King Æthelred was forced to flee into exile and leave his kingdom to the triumphant Danish king Svein Forkbeard. (Svein may possibly have been fighting on the Danish side at Maldon, though the poem affects not to know the names of any of the Viking leaders.) The discussions in the poem about paying tribute vs. engaging in battle, or fighting to the death vs. fleeing to fight another day, or the loyalty a warrior owes to his leader, are thus not abstract theoretical debates but questions of the utmost importance and contemporary relevance. The poem commemorates the men who died at Maldon but it also uses their deaths to intervene in an ongoing debate, to offer implicit commentary on the conduct of the living as much as of the dead.

Where exactly you choose to date and place the poem in the decades after 991 makes a difference to how you read it, but any way you look at it, the actions of the characters in the poem, praised or condemned according to the poet's own agenda, are there to be interpreted, read, judged. And what they say is as important as what they do; several characters draw our attention to the disparity between what people boast they will do and what they will actually perform, which seems not just a commentary on the relationship between words and deeds (an abiding concern in heroic poetry) but an acknowledgement that this poem itself turns deeds into words, battle into language, history into poetry.

As a result, the speeches in The Battle of Maldon are some of its most interesting sections. Byrhtnoth's defiant speech to the Viking messenger, for instance, is a fine bit of rhetoric, which like the most effective political speeches constructs its own reality as it tells the audience, rather than the enemy, what they are fighting for:

"Gehyrst þu, sælida, hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan,
ættrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu þe eow æt hilde ne deah.
Brimmanna boda, abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean eþel þysne,
Æþelredes eard, ealdres mines,
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde. To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum to scype gangon
unbefohtene, nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg ær geseman,
grim guðplega, ær we gofol syn."

"Do you hear, seaman, what this people are saying?
They want to give you spears as tribute,
deadly spear-points and ancient swords,
war-equipment which will not help you in battle.
Sailors’ messenger, take a message back again:
tell your people a much more hostile reply,
that here stands undaunted an earl with his company,
who intends to defend this homeland,
the land of Æthelred, my leader,
people and ground.  The heathen shall
fall in battle.  It seems too shameful to me
that you should go to your ships with our money
unopposed, now you have come
so far into our country.
You shall not get treasure so easily;
spear and sword shall settle this between us,
fierce battle-play, before we pay tribute."

Besides the rhetorical flourish of 'weapons in place of tribute' (the kind of riddling substitution at which Anglo-Saxon poets particularly excelled), the emotional pull of this speech is exerted by ideas of territory, land, and boundaries, real and psychological. Byrhtnoth persistently calls the Vikings 'seamen' and 'sailors', creatures of the waters, while he and his men belong to the land - and the land, therefore, belongs to them. He talks about defending eþel þysne 'this homeland' and urne eard 'our land', highly emotive language, and he links the land on which the Vikings are encroaching to the very name of the English king - how could this eþel be anything other than Æthelred's land? The picture is of a strong, united England behind Byrhtnoth where he stands, unafraid, on the coast of Essex, ready to repel the unrighteous raiders who have come from the sea. This is fantasy. King Æthelred was no great symbol of national unity - controversial from the very beginning of his reign, and if not quite as tyrannical, weak and unpopular in 991 as he was later to become, already well on his way to earning the nickname Unready ('bad-counsel', unwise) by which he has become known to generations of schoolchildren. Byrhtnoth is not on firm ground in staking his appeal to national unity on Æthelred, and surely the poet and his audience knew this. It's rhetoric, not reality; but that doesn't mean it's not true, or that it would not be a powerful idea to which to appeal. Does a king have to be a good king for his name to be an inspiration? I wonder.

Coming to this poem after a week in which the news has been full of the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, as well as so many present-day conflicts, it's tempting to read the poem in light of the wars whose stories and myths are so familiar to us. This is almost unavoidable, I think, and not entirely illegitimate: generations of scholars who lived through the wars of the twentieth century have read The Battle of Maldon under their shadow. (Tolkien's 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son' is one good example.) So I'll now proceed to be shamelessly anachronistic for the rest of this paragraph, because the poem is commemorative story-telling as powerful as any Remembrance Day service, and perhaps some contemporary examples will illustrate that. Byrhtnoth's rhetoric is remarkably close to the kind we now call Churchillian: standing on a beach (or is it a landing-ground?) to proclaim his defiance to the invaders, he seems only one step away from declaring "we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be". But in trying to read the poet's attitude to the events he is recounting, the resonances are sometimes thought to be with another war-narrative familiar to a modern British audience - the 'lions led by donkeys' of the First World War. The references to Æthelred have been interpreted as deeply and bitterly ironic, intended to signal to us that this battle is ill-conceived, futile and doomed to failure (the later you date the poem, the more plausible this reading is). Byhrtnoth too has come in for a great deal of criticism, mostly for allowing the Vikings to cross the causeway (because of his ofermod) but also for his belligerent rhetoric and his loyalty to Æthelred. It's possible - I personally wouldn't do it, but it's possible - to read the poem as one long cynical attack on what happens when loyal soldiers have their devotion abused by arrogant war-mongering leaders. That would make the poet of The Battle of Maldon, I suppose, something like the Siegfried Sassoon of Anglo-Saxon war poetry.

To me, this reading undermines too much of the poem to be sustainable, but I think the poem is aware of the gap between Byrhtnoth's rhetoric (and all the soldiers' grand speeches) and the reality of the war they're fighting. I'd interpret the poem as engaging in the production of a fiction which stands at one remove from contemporary reality - while, as I said earlier, intervening in a live contemporary debate - to paint a picture of how people can and should behave in a crisis, thoroughly conscious that sometimes they can't and won't. Their inability and unwillingness doesn't ultimately undermine the power of the poetic fiction, which is close enough to truth to be effective. The poem shows us an ideal world, but not an idealised one - what the world could be, but isn't now.

I especially don't read the poem as all that critical of Byrhtnoth, but judge for yourself from the account of his death:

Stodon stædefæste; stihte hi Byrhtnoð,
bæd þæt hyssa gehwylc hogode to wige
þe on Denon wolde dom gefeohtan.
Wod þa wiges heard, wæpen up ahof,
bord to gebeorge, and wið þæs beornes stop.
Eode swa anræd eorl to þam ceorle,
ægþer hyra oðrum yfeles hogode.
Sende ða se særinc suþerne gar,
þæt gewundod wearð wigena hlaford;
he sceaf þa mid ðam scylde, þæt se sceaft tobærst,
and þæt spere sprengde, þæt hit sprang ongean.
Gegremod wearð se guðrinc; he mid gare stang
wlancne wicing, þe him þa wunde forgeaf.
Frod wæs se fyrdrinc; he let his francan wadan
þurh ðæs hysses hals, hand wisode
þæt he on þam færsceaðan feorh geræhte.
ða he oþerne ofstlice sceat,
þæt seo byrne tobærst; he wæs on breostum wund
þurh ða hringlocan, him æt heortan stod
ætterne ord. Se eorl wæs þe bliþra,
hloh þa, modi man, sæde metode þanc
ðæs dægweorces þe him drihten forgeaf.
Forlet þa drenga sum daroð of handa,
fleogan of folman, þæt se to forð gewat
þurh ðone æþelan Æþelredes þegen.

They stood steadfast. Byrhtnoth commanded them,
ordered that each warrior set his mind on warfare
who wanted to win glory against the Danes.
A warrior bold in battle advanced, lifted up his weapon
with his shield for protection, and moved towards that man.
Very resolutely the earl went towards the man;
each intended evil to the other.
Then the sea-warrior sent forth a spear of southern work,
so the warriors’ lord was wounded;
he shoved with his shield so that the shaft broke,
and the spear shattered so that it sprang back.
The battle-warrior was enraged: he stabbed with his spear
the proud viking who had given him the wound.
The war-soldier was skilled; he shot his spear
through the man’s neck, guided by his hand
so that he reached the life of his sudden assailant.
Then he quickly shot another
so that the mail-coat shattered; he was wounded in his breast
through the interlocking rings; in his heart
stood a deadly spear. The earl was the gladder:
he laughed then, the high-spirited man, gave thanks to God
for the day’s work which the Lord had given him.
Then one of the vikings sent a spear from his hand,
flying from his fist, so that it went all too successfully
through Æthelred’s noble thegn.

Byrhtnoth's men spring into action to kill his slayer, but the damage has been done. Byrhtnoth, fatally wounded, can no longer hold a sword, but he can still speak and encourage his men - words are sometimes better than weapons in Anglo-Saxon poetry. He dies with a prayer on his lips:

"Geþancie þe, ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe siðian mote
on þin geweald, þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan hynan ne moton."
ða hine heowon hæðene scealcas
and begen þa beornas þe him big stodon,
Ælfnoð and Wulmær begen lagon,
ða onemn hyra frean feorh gesealdon.

"I thank you, Ruler of nations,
for all the joys which I have experienced in this world.
Now, merciful Lord, I have the greatest need
that you grant good to my soul,
that my spirit may journey to you
into your power, Lord of angels,
and depart in peace.  I am beseeching you
that the fiends of hell may not injure me!"
Then heathen warriors cut him down
and both the men who stood beside him;
Ælfnoð and Wulmær both lay dead,
they gave up life alongside their lord.

At this moment some among the English begin to flee - 'more than was in any way right', says the poet, 'if they had remembered all the good things which he had done for their benefit'. But others will not leave their leader, even in death. We then get a series of speeches, brave words and deeds from men who know they are already defeated. A young warrior named Ælfwine urges his comrades on:

"Gemunan þa mæla þe we oft æt meodo spræcon,
þonne we on bence beot ahofon,
hæleð on healle, ymbe heard gewinn;
nu mæg cunnian hwa cene sy.
Ic wylle mine æþelo eallum gecyþan,
þæt ic wæs on Myrcon miccles cynnes;
wæs min ealda fæder Ealhelm haten,
wis ealdorman, woruldgesælig.
Ne sceolon me on þære þeode þegenas ætwitan
þæt ic of ðisse fyrde feran wille,
eard gesecan, nu min ealdor ligeð
forheawen æt hilde. Me is þæt hearma mæst;
he wæs ægðer min mæg and min hlaford."

"Remember the words which we often spoke over our mead,
when we raised up boasts on the benches,
heroes in the hall, about hard fighting:
now we may learn who is brave!
I will make known all my lineage,
that I was born in Mercia of a great family;
my grandfather was named Ealhelm,
a wise ealdorman, prosperous in the world.
I will not be reproached by thegns among those people
that I wanted to escape from this army,
to seek my home, now my leader lies
hewn down in battle.  It is the greatest sorrow to me;
he was both my kinsman and my lord."

Others echo his words:

Leofsunu gemælde and his linde ahof,
bord to gebeorge; he þam beorne oncwæð:
"Ic þæt gehate, þæt ic heonon nelle
fleon fotes trym, ac wille furðor gan,
wrecan on gewinne minne winedrihten.
Ne þurfon me embe Sturmere stedefæste hælæð
wordum ætwitan, nu min wine gecranc,
þæt ic hlafordleas ham siðie,
wende fram wige, ac me sceal wæpen niman,
ord and iren."

Leofsunu spoke and raised his linden-shield,
his shield as protection; he answered the warrior:
"I make this vow, that I will not flee one foot’s step
from here, but will go on,
avenge in battle my friend and lord.
Steadfast warriors near Sturmere will not need
to reproach me with their words, now my friend has perished,
that I journeyed home lordless,
went from the warfare; but I shall take up weapons,
spear and sword."

No sign here of Byrhtnoth's declaration that they are fighting for king and country; these men are dying for loyalty and duty alone. It is a hopeless but - the poem would have you believe - a noble sacrifice; they declare they would rather die with Byrhtnoth than live with the dishonour of retreat.

Dunnere þa cwæð, daroð acwehte,
unorne ceorl, ofer eall clypode,
bæd þæt beorna gehwylc Byrhtnoð wræce:
"Ne mæg na wandian se þe wrecan þenceð
frean on folce, ne for feore murnan."

Then Dunnere spoke, shook his spear,
a simple peasant, cried out above them all,
urged each of the warriors to avenge Byrhtnoth:
"He who intends to avenge his lord among those people
may not flinch or think of fear."

We hear name after name of the men who go on fighting for Byrhtnoth, and then die valiantly by his side - names for the most part meaningless to us, but perhaps very familiar to the poem's first audience. Wistan, Godric, Edward the tall, Oswald, Eadwold, Offa - some of these people have been identified by modern scholars, but like a World War I Roll of Honour, the bare names say much on their own. One by one they fight and die, and the last words of the poem (just before the only surviving copy breaks off) belong to the 'old retainer' Byrhtwold:

"Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.
Her lið ure ealdor eall forheawen,
god on greote. A mæg gnornian
se ðe nu fram þis wigplegan wendan þenceð.
Ic eom frod feores; fram ic ne wille,
ac ic me be healfe minum hlaforde,
be swa leofan men, licgan þence."

"Courage must be the firmer, heart the keener,
mind must be the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Here lies our leader all cut down,
a good man on the ground.  He who now thinks of turning
from this battle-play will always regret it.
I am old in years; I will not go,
but by the side of my lord,
by the man so dear, I intend to lie."

It was an old-fashioned attitude even in the tenth century, the language of heroic poetry and not of real life; but at least one poet thought it noble - something to aspire to, perhaps something to inspire.

My own opinion is that this poem was written within ten years of the battle, most likely c.1000, and at Ely, where Byrhtnoth was buried and commemorated. (I should note that the date 10 August for the battle comes from an Ely calendar; other sources give slightly different dates.) An Ely chronicler, writing some 150 years later, recorded how Byrhtnoth was still honoured as a local hero there, and tells a story about how Ely provided hospitality for the English army on their way to Maldon, claiming that Byrhtnoth had previously tried to have his men accommodated at Ramsey Abbey. At Ramsey the monks offered him food for himself and only seven of his men, but in reply, the Ely writer claims, "he is said to have made the elegantly phrased response: 'Let the lord Abbot know that I will not dine alone without the men you refer to, because I cannot fight alone without them'." Very much in the spirit of the poem, and bearing probably about as much relationship to the reality of what happened at Maldon in August 991.

Luckily the monks of Ely were more generous than those of Ramsey; as well as feeding Byrhtnoth and his men, they buried him after the battle in what is now Ely Cathedral, where he was held in great esteem as a benefactor of the church. His widow Æthelflæd was supposed to have made and given to Ely a wall-hanging embroidered with her husband's deeds - one is tempted to imagine something along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry. But of course it's the poem which is Byhrtnoth's best memorial.

Friday, 1 August 2014

An Anglo-Saxon August

Harvesting (BL Harley 603, f. 66)

This year I've been posting at intervals extracts from the Old English poem known as the Menologium, a tenth-century poem which catalogues the months of the year, describing their characteristic seasonal features and saints' feasts. The sections for riotous May and the bright sun of June can be found in the posts A May Miscellany and 'Se lengsta dæg': The Anglo-Saxon Solstice. In this poem the month of July gets only six lines, mentioning no distinguishing events except the feast of St James; but nearly thirty lines are devoted to August, the month of Lammas and the harvest, and of several important saints' days. So let's take a look at how this poem describes the month which is called in Old English Weodmonað, 'weed-month', the month of long grasses. In Old English weed doesn't necessarily suggest an unwanted plant, only a wild and uncultivated one, so the name evokes the season's rampant growth in meadow, wood and hedgerow; and this is echoed, as we shall see, in the poem's interest in exploring growth and fruitfulness.

The text is from here (ll. 136-162); the translation is mine. For another Anglo-Saxon text about Lammas, see Latter Lammas and Second Shoots.

And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Weodmonað on tun, welhwær bringeð
Agustus yrmenþeodum
hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð
ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,
wlitig, wæstmum hladen; wela byð geywed
fægere on foldan. Þænne forð gewat
ymb þreo niht þæs þeodne getrywe
þurh martyrdom, mære diacon,
Laurentius, hæfð nu lif wiðþan
mid wuldorfæder weorca to leane.
Swylce þæs ymb fif niht fægerust mægða,
wifa wuldor, sohte weroda god
for suna sibbe, sigefæstne ham
on neorxnawange; hæfde nergend þa
fægere fostorlean fæmnan forgolden
ece to ealdre. Þænne ealling byð
ymb tyn niht þæs tiid geweorðad
Bartholomeus in Brytene her,
wyrd welþungen. Swylce eac wide byð
eorlum geypped æþelinges deað
ymb feower niht, se þe fægere iu
mid wætere oferwearp wuldres cynebearn,
wiga weorðlice. Be him wealdend cwæð
þæt nan mærra man geond middangeard
betux wife and were wurde acenned.

And after seven nights of summer's brightness Weed-month slips into the dwellings, everywhere August brings to all peoples Lammas Day; so the harvest comes, after that number of nights but one [i.e. six nights], bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed, beautiful upon the earth. Then, after three nights, the loyal prince went forth in martyrdom, the glorious deacon, Lawrence; for that he now has life with the Father of Glory, a reward for his works. And five nights after this the fairest of maidens, glory of women, sought the Lord of Hosts because of kinship with her son, a victorious home in the fields of Paradise. The Saviour repaid the virgin for his fostering with a beautiful reward, life in eternity. Ten nights after that is always celebrated here in Britain the feast of Bartholomew, an excellent event. And likewise after four nights is brought to fruition among men, far and wide, the death of the noble one, he who long ago sprinkled with water the Prince of Glory, the warrior most worthily. Of him the Ruler said that no more glorious person would be born of man and woman in this world.

The riddling style of the Menologium makes you work hard to figure out the dates and the people referred to; even if you know what you should be looking for, you have to set your mind at it! So it's worth saying plainly that the events mentioned here are:

1 August: Lammas Day, the first day of autumn
10 August: St Lawrence
15 August: the Dormition of the Virgin Mary
24 August: St Bartholomew
29 August: the Beheading of John the Baptist

(I don't completely understand how the arithmetic works, but that's the general idea.)

To begin at the beginning: the description of the harvest here is beautiful. In hlafmæssan dæg you can see another instance of the etymology of Lammas (as I said before) in the wild; the name comes from Old English hlaf, 'loaf' + mæsse, 'mass', from the custom of blessing loaves of bread made from the first corn of the harvest. Yet despite its markedly Anglo-Saxon name, the poem reminds us that the feast comes to yrmenþeodum 'all peoples, nations everywhere'. The opening of the extract describes the transition from summer to autumn (hærfest is the name of the season as well as the harvest itself): after a period of summer's brightness (sumere gebrihted), the harvest comes, wlitig, wæstmum hladen, 'bright, laden with fruits', and the earth reveals its wela - its plenty, abundance, riches. It's remarkable that centuries before William Blake praised 'Autumn, laden with fruit' and John Keats described how Autumn conspires to 'load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run' (in poems imaginatively titled 'To Autumn' and 'To Autumn', respectively) the Anglo-Saxon poet could write about autumn as wæstmum hladen, 'laden with fruits'. Nine hundred years of English poetry separate them, but they landed on the same word.

I think we can trace something of autumn and harvest running through the rest of the passage, too. In this poem you get at most a few lines of pen-portrait to describe each saint's feast, so it's a highly allusive and compressed style of description, packed with meaning. Every detail and every word has been carefully selected. So it struck me as interesting that in the descriptions of both St Lawrence and the Virgin there is an emphasis on the 'reward', lean, they receive for their deeds - for Lawrence's loyalty, the Virgin's fostering of her divine son. There's a focus on the idea of repayment, of Christ presenting them (might one say?) with the fruits of their labours.

And we also learn that the Virgin's reward is eternal life in neorxnawange. This is one of the oddest-looking Old English words; its etymology is obscure, but it means 'Paradise', usually in reference to the Garden of Eden. The second element wange means 'fields, plains', and in Old English poetry the word seems to connote greenness and open space (see the discussion of neorxnawange in Ananya Jahanara Kabir's Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature, on Google Books here). So the poet has chosen the most botanical word he could find for the setting of the Virgin's harvest, her life on the fields of Paradise.

We could take this a little further: John the Baptist's death is said to be widely geypped, which means 'made known, proclaimed' but can also refer to flowering and production of fruits - a general sense of 'bringing forth' is the key idea. And the detail the poet chooses to attach to St John is not his death (the actual subject of the August feast) but the fact that he sprinkled Christ with water, mid wætere oferwearp, like some kind of saintly gardener. This might be reading a little too much into it - though I'm not actually sure it's possible to read too much into the glorious complexities of Old English poetry - but I think we can detect a general musing on ideas and images of spiritual fruitfulness, production, yield, and harvest.

From an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August, BL Cotton Tiberius B. V, Part 1, f. 6v

As well as being Lammas Day, 1st August is also the anniversary of the death in 984 of Æthelwold, monastic reformer, educator, and influential Bishop of Winchester, under whose auspices this poem may have been composed. (Æthelwold has actually been suggested as a possible author of the Menologium.) To celebrate this pleasing coincidence, we can close by looking at how the month of August appears in another product of Æthelwold's Winchester: the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598). This manuscript of blessings, made for Æthelwold's own use, covers the cycle of the ecclesiastical year, and so here we are almost seeing how August might have looked through his eyes - how the month ahead might have been shaping up for the bishop at the beginning of August, in Winchester, around the year 980.

The blessings appointed for the feasts of August occupy ff. 101-105v of the Benedictional. This manuscript shares with the Menologium a surprising lack of interest in the month of July (St Swithun and St Benedict excepted; perhaps the monks of Winchester went on holiday in the second half of July); so after St Benedict's Day on 11 July, we resume in early August with a blessing for the feast of St Lawrence:

mære diacon Laurentius, the August saint who was burned on a griddle...


And the Dormition of the Virgin, with the apostles below and angels above:


Swylce þæs ymb fif niht fægerust mægða,
wifa wuldor, sohte weroda god
for suna sibbe, sigefæstne ham
on neorxnawange; hæfde nergend þa
fægere fostorlean fæmnan forgolden
ece to ealdre.

'And five nights after this the fairest of maidens, glory of women, sought the Lord of Hosts because of kinship with her son, a victorious home in the fields of Paradise. The Saviour repaid the virgin for his fostering with a glorious reward, life in eternity.'

(The green foliate border seems particularly apt here, with the poem in mind!)

The blessing for St Bartholomew's Day, the wyrd welþungen:

And for the Beheading of John the Baptist:

Call for Papers: Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300

Steffen Hope of My Albion and I are putting together a session at next year's Leeds International Medieval Congress on 'Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300'. If you work on saints in this period and are interested in giving a paper, get in touch! The Call for Papers is below.

St Dunstan nips the devil's nose (BL Harley 315, f. 15v)

Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300
Leeds IMC, 2015

We are seeking proposals for papers on the topic of renewal, reinvention and reinterpretation in the cults of saints in the period 1050-1300. Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

The reinvention of saints across cultural, national, or linguistic borders
The impact of church reform on the cults of saints
Reinterpretation of a saint's cult within cult practice, hagiography, liturgy and art
How a saint's cult might be renewed or revitalised for a new audience

Papers dealing with renewal in the cults of Anglo-Saxon or British saints in this period will be particularly welcomed.

Proposals for papers of 15-20 minutes should be sent to steffenabhope@gmail.com or eleanor.parker@ell.ox.ac.uk by 25 August.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

St Olaf in England


When Óláfr Haraldsson, King of Norway, was killed in battle on 29 July 1030, fighting against his own people, he was almost immediately hailed as a saint, and he became one of the most popular Scandinavian saints in the Middle Ages - in England as much as anywhere else. In this post I thought I'd draw attention to some of the evidence for veneration of St Olaf in England; it vividly illustrates the closeness between the English and Scandinavian churches, not only in the eleventh century (when it might be expected) but in the centuries after the Norman Conquest too.

At the time of Olaf's death in 1030 England, like Norway, was part of Cnut's pan-Scandinavian empire, and Cnut was an early adopter of the cult of his Norwegian rival. Ever alert to the political advantages of honouring the saints of the countries you've conquered, Cnut as king of England paid elaborate homage to English saints killed by Danes (especially Ælfheah and Edmund of East Anglia) and to murdered royal princes generally (notably Edward the Martyr and St Wigstan) - and Olaf, falling into both categories, was ripe for the same treatment. His death left Cnut - or more accurately his English wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, and her young son Svein - as ruler of Norway, until Cnut's death in 1035. This is probably the most important factor in the early spread of Olaf's cult in England, but Olaf himself had been closely involved in English affairs (that's putting it diplomatically) in his early life. Before becoming king of Norway, Olaf spent his youth in Viking raiding around the British Isles and elsewhere. It's difficult to distinguish fact from later legend on this point, but he was probably involved in the siege of Canterbury in 1009 or 1011 - on which see this post - before going into alliance with the English king against the Danes. (At one point he supposedly pulled down London Bridge.) During this period he converted to Christianity, and when he returned to Norway to claim his kingdom he took English churchmen with him. Some of these men later returned to England, doubtless bringing Olaf's story with them. So it's no surprise, perhaps, to see his death and his sanctity noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS. C), under the year 1030:

Her wæs Olaf cing ofslagen on Norwegon of his agenum folce, 7 wæs syððan halig.

'In this year King Olaf was killed in Norway by his own people, and was afterwards a saint.' Some of the earliest evidence for the liturgical celebration of Olaf is found in an English manuscript, in this mass for the saint in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 422 (the so-called 'Red Book of Darley'); and here's Olaf's name in the calendar from the same manuscript. This might be the influence of his English clerical supporters like Grimkell, who became a bishop in England after returning from Norway. (He spent some time at Canterbury, studiously not mentioning, one might imagine, how Olaf had once burned the city!) But various members of the Anglo-Danish aristocracy also seem to have enthusiastically adopted Olaf's cult: Siward, the Danish-born Earl of Northumbria, founded and dedicated a church to St Olaf in York, where he was buried in 1055; as the Chronicle records (MS. D, 1055):

On þisan gere forðferde Syhward eorl on Eoferwic, 7 he ligeð æt Galmaho on þam mynstre þe he sylf let timbrian 7 halgian on Godes 7 Olafes naman.

'In this year Earl Siward died at York, and he lies at Galamanho in the minster which he himself had built and consecrated in the name of God and Olaf.'

Meanwhile, down in Exeter, the Danish noblewoman Gytha - Cnut's sister-in-law, who had married the English earl Godwine - is recorded in the 1060s supporting a church dedicated to Olaf (it's still there). There seems to have been particular enthusiasm for Olaf in Exeter, one would like to think because of the influence of the fascinating and formidable Gytha: Olaf's name appears in the Litany in a Psalter made in Exeter (now BL Harley 863) and in a Pontifical (BL Additional 28188) adapted for use in Exeter Cathedral, both from the second half of the eleventh century. This is, remember, well into the reign of Edward the Confessor - no fan of Scandinavians! Some of the multiple churches dedicated to St Olaf in London were probably also founded in this period - the one at Southwark, for instance, where Gytha's husband Godwine owned land.

All this is important evidence of an Anglo-Scandinavian aristocratic culture which was fostered in the reign of Cnut but survived several decades beyond his death; powerful men and women like Siward and Gytha, living in England and married into English families, clearly maintained an interest in Scandinavian affairs which they carried over into culturally significant practices such as the patronage of churches. But this culture could not survive the Norman Conquest - quite literally; Siward's son Waltheof was executed for treason against William the Conqueror, and Gytha lost three of her sons in one day at the Battle of Hastings, most famously, of course, Harold Godwineson.

So after the eleventh century we have to look for other factors to explain the evidence for St Olaf's cult in England. Connections between the English and Scandinavian churches continued to be close, as witnessed by the career of someone like Eysteinn, Archbishop of Nidaros, who spent three years in enforced exile in England between 1180-3, probably bringing a copy of his own Life of St Olaf with him. Such recorded examples of direct contact can help to contextualise, if not to explain, the spread of a saint's cult, and in some cases there may be other factors at work too: it's hard not to see significance in the fact that in Grimsby in Lincolnshire, a town particularly proud of its Scandinavian roots, an abbey founded in the twelfth century was dedicated to St Olaf. Does this reflect an expression of local identity, a sense of north-eastern Scandinavian origins such as those celebrated in Havelok the Dane? Quite possibly. But then, even Oxfordshire has a church dedicated to Olaf (in Fritwell), so the overall picture is more complicated than that.

And the most striking post-Conquest evidence for Olaf's cult in England actually comes from Norfolk. It appears in the 'Carrow Psalter', Walters MS. W.34 (image from here, f.42):


The manuscript was made in East Anglia in the middle of the thirteenth century, and this page, the 'B' for 'Beatus' at the opening of the Psalter, depicts scenes from the life of St Olaf, identifiable by his huge battle-axe. This is a very prominent position within a Psalter manuscript, and it must suggest particular interest in Olaf. Let's take a closer look:


We see Olaf calming a storm at sea, having a vision of an angel, healing a man whose arms and legs have been cut off (no, really - middle row on the right), and seated in glory, axe in hand. We can't be at all sure who in thirteenth-century East Anglia might have been this interested in Olaf, or what value they saw in his story. Was his 'Scandinavian-ness' important to them? Or was it his role as a royal martyr, a king murdered by his own people? Or his visions and miracles? We don't know, and it's important not to over-simplify. One thing we do know is that this manuscript later belonged to the nuns of Carrow near Norwich, where it has been suggested Julian of Norwich may have spent some time. This is perhaps the only point of contact between Julian of Norwich and a Norwegian Viking martyr!

On the eastern coast of East Anglia, on the border between Suffolk and Norfolk, there's a thirteenth-century priory dedicated to St Olaf of which the ruins survive:



Perhaps this is where the Carrow Psalter was made. But that doesn't begin to explain why - why Olaf, and why here? You could point to various possible reasons: trade links between the Norfolk coast and Scandinavia; ecclesiastical contact between East Anglian monasteries and Norway; anxiety about royal power in thirteenth-century England; some sense of 'Norse identity' in an area of former Scandinavian settlement. Was it any or all of these? Who knows.


The image at the top of this post is from the church at Fritton, just down the road from St Olave's priory. That church also contains an early wall-painting of the murder of St Edmund which I posted about here.


St Edmund, king and martyr, who died at the hands of a Viking army a century before Olaf was born, and St Olaf, king and martyr, and Viking, thus come together on a distant corner of the Norfolk coast.

All this evidence for Olaf's cult in England paradoxically makes me think, more than anything, about what such evidence does not tell us. From the complex politics of the eleventh century - the mixture of piety and parade in the actions of that astute operator Cnut, or Gytha and Siward's performance of Scandinavian identity in their new English lives - to the exiled Archbishop Eysteinn, bringing Olaf's story to England in a kind of exchange for Thomas Becket's; from Grimsby's fascination with its Scandinavian roots to the unknown benefactor of the Carrow Psalter, there are cross-currents of cultural influence which we should not pretend we can fully reconstruct. It's so tempting to make a simple story out of this, to enjoy (as I just did) the historical irony of a Viking saint commemorated alongside the victim of Vikings, as if ninth-century Danes and eleventh-century Norwegians can all easily be called 'Vikings'; or to think about Olaf 'pulling down London Bridge', a stone's throw from the church later dedicated to him at Southwark, as if a medieval legend about what he might or might not have done in 1014-16 really has anything to do with how a church got its dedication in the 1060s; or to talk as if honouring a Norwegian saint automatically and straightforwardly suggests sympathy towards Norway or Scandinavia (maybe it doesn't). There may be some degree of truth in these ways of interpreting the facts, but they are only interpretations, if well-informed ones; history is always more complicated and more interesting than that.


N.B. I found many of the details in this post via the following articles, though the images (except of the Carrow Psalter) are mine:

Bull, Edvard, ‘The Cultus of Norwegian Saints in England and Scotland’, Saga-book of the Viking Society VIII (1913-4), 135-48.
Dickins, Bruce, ‘The Cult of S. Olave in the British Isles’, Saga-book of the Viking Society XII (1937-45), 53-80.
Townend, Matthew, ‘Knútr and the Cult of St Óláfr: Poetry and Patronage in Eleventh-Century Norway and England’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1 (2005), 251-79.

There's much more evidence for Olaf's cult in England than I could include in this post, so do have a look at all these articles, especially the last.

Friday, 25 July 2014

'Restless longing, heavenly avarice, that never could be satisfied': Roads and Pilgrims

Since it's the feast of St James, by medieval tradition the patron of pilgrims, here's a miscellany of texts touching on pilgrimages, roads, and seeking.

St James, attired as a pilgrim (1320s, Norwich; BL Stowe 12, f.279v)
The gode pilegrim halt eaver his rihte wei forth-ward. Thah he seo other here idele gomenes ant wundres bi the weie, he ne edstont nawt as foles doth, ah halt forth his rute ant hiheth toward his giste. He ne bereth na gersum bute his speonse gnedeliche, ne clathes bute ane theo thet him to neodeth. This beoth hali men the, thah ha beon i the world, ha beoth th'rin as pilegrimes ant gath with god lif-lade toward te riche of heovene, ant seggeth with the Apostle, Non habemus hic manentem civitatem, set futuram inquirimus - thet is, "nabbe we na wununge her, ah we secheth other." Beoth bi the leaste thet ha mahen, ne ne haldeth na tale of na worltlich frovre, thah ha beon i worltlich wei - as ich seide - of pilegrim, ah habbeth hare heorte eaver toward heovene, ant ahen wel to habben. For other pilegrimes gath [i] muche swinc to sechen ane sontes banes, as Sein James other Sein Giles, ah theo pilegrimes the gath toward heovene, ha gath to beon i-sontet, ant to finden Godd seolf ant alle his hali halhen, liviende i blisse, ant schulen livien with him i wunne buten ende. Ha i-findeth i-wis Sein Julienes in, the wei-fearinde men yeornliche bisecheth.

[The good pilgrim always keeps on his direct road forward. Although he may see or hear idle games and marvels beside the way, he does not stop, as fools do, but keeps on his road and hastens towards his lodging. He does not carry any treasure except his frugal expenses, and no clothes except only those which are necessary to him. These are holy men who, though they live in the world, live in it as pilgrims, and travel in a good way of living towards the kingdom of heaven, and say with the Apostle, Non habemus hic manentem civitatem, set futuram inquirimus; that is, we do not have a dwelling here, but we seek another. They make do with the least they can, and do not set any store by earthly comfort, though they are on the earthly road, as I said, as pilgrims; but their hearts are always directed towards heaven, and well they ought to be. For other pilgrims travel with great labour to seek the bones of a single saint, such as St James or St Giles, but these pilgrims, who travel towards heaven, go to be made saints and to find God himself and all his holy saints living in glory, and will live with him in joy without end. They truly find St Julian’s house, which wayfaring men earnestly seek.]

- from Ancrene Wisse

Canterbury Cathedral

I wol ful fayn, at Cristes reverence,
Do yow plesaunce leefful, as I kan.
But trusteth wel, I am a southren man,
I kan nat geeste 'rum, ram, ruf,' by lettre,
Ne, God woot, rym holde I but litel bettre;
And therfore, if yow list - I wol nat glose -
I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose
To knytte up al this feeste, and make an ende.
And Jhesu, for his grace, wit me sende
To shewe yow the wey, in this viage,
Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage
That highte Jerusalem celestial...

Oure sweete lord God of hevene, that no man wole perisse, but wole that we comen alle to the knoweleche of hym, and to the blisful lif that is perdurable, amonesteth us by the prophete Jeremie, that seith in thys wyse: "stondeth upon the weyes, and seeth and axeth of olde pathes (that is to seyn, of olde sentences) which is the goode wey. And walketh in that wey, and ye shal fynde refresshynge for youre soules, etc." Manye been the weyes espirituels that leden folk to oure lord Jhesu Crist, and to the regne of glorie. Of whiche weyes, ther is a ful noble wey and ful covenable, which may nat fayle to man ne to womman that thurgh synne hath mysgoon fro the righte wey of Jerusalem celestial; and this wey is cleped penitence.

- Chaucer's Parson, telling the last tale of the Canterbury Pilgrimage (full text here)

The Parson in the Ellesmere Chaucer (from wikipedia)

Thanne hente Hope an horn of Deus tu conversus vivificabis nos
And blew it with Beati quorum remisse sunt iniquitate
That alle Seintes in hevene songen at ones,
Homines et iumenta salvabis, quemadmodum multiplicasti misericordiam tuam.
A thousand of men tho thrungen togideres,
Cride upward to Crist and to his clene moder
To have grace to go seke Truthe - God leve that they moten!
Ac there was wight noon so wys, the wey thider kouthe,
But blustreden forth as beestes over baches and hilles,
Til late was and longe, that thei a 1eode mette
Apparailled as a paynym in pilgrymes wise.
He bar a burdoun ybounde with a brood liste
In a withwynde wise ywounden aboute.
A bolle and a bagge he bar by his syde.
An hundred of ampulles on his hat seten,
Signes of Synay and shelles of Galice,
And many a crouch on his cloke, and keyes of Rome,
And the vernicle bifore, for men sholde knowe
And se bi hise signes whom he sought hadde.
This folk frayned hym first fro whennes he come.
"Fram Synay," he seide, "and fram the Sepulcre.
In Bethlem and in Babiloyne, I have ben in bothe,
In Armonye, in Alisaundre, in manye othere places.
Ye may se by my signes that sitten on myn hatte
That I have walked ful wide in weet and in drye
And sought goode seintes for my soule helthe."
"Knowestow aught a corsaint," quod thei, "that men calle Truthe?
Koudestow wissen us the wey wher that wye dwelleth?"
"Nay, so me God helpe!" seide the gome thanne.
"I seigh nevere palmere with pyk ne with scrippe
Asken after hym er now in this place."
"Peter!" quod a Plowman, and putte forth his hed,
"I knowe hym as kyndely as clerk doth hise bokes.
Conscience and Kynde Wit kenned me to his place
And diden me suren hym siththen to serven hym for evere,
Bothe to sowe and to sette the while I swynke myghte.
I have ben his folwere al this fourty wynter--
Bothe ysowen his seed and suwed hise beestes,
Withinne and withouten waited his profit,
Idyked and idolve, ido that he hoteth.
Som tyme I sowe and som tyme I thresshe,
In taillours craft and tynkeris craft, what Truthe kan devyse,
I weve and I wynde and do what Truthe hoteth.
For though I seye it myself, I serve hym to paye;
I have myn hire of hym wel and outherwhiles moore.
He is the presteste paiere that povere men knoweth:
He withhalt noon hewe his hire that he ne hath it at even.
He is as lowe as a lomb and lovelich of speche.
And if ye wilneth to wite where that he dwelleth,
I wol wisse yow wel right to his place."
"Ye, leve Piers!" quod thise pilgrimes, and profred hym huyre.
"Nay, by the peril of my soule!" quod Piers and gan to swere,
"I nolde fange a ferthyng, for Seint Thomas shryne!
Truthe wolde love me the lasse a long tyme after."

- Piers Plowman, Passus V

St James (c.1500, from Westhall)

I travell'd on, seeing the hill, where lay
My expectation.
A long it was and weary way.
The gloomy cave of Desperation
I left on th'one, and on the other side
The rock of Pride.

And so I came to Phansies medow strow'd
With many a flower:
Fair would I here have made abode,
But I was quicken'd by my houre.
So to Cares cops I came, and there got through
With much ado.

That led me to the wilde of Passion, which
Some call the wold;
A wasted place, but sometimes rich.
Here I was robb'd of all my gold,
Save one good Angell, which a friend had ti'd
Close to my side.

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,
Where lay my hope,
Where lay my heart; and climbing still,
When I had gain'd the brow and top,
A lake of brackish waters on the ground
Was all I found.

With that abash'd and struck with many a sting
Of swarming fears,
I fell, and cry'd, Alas my King;
Can both the way and end be tears?
Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv'd
I was deceiv'd:

My hill was further: so I flung away,
Yet heard a crie
Just as I went, None goes that way
And lives: If that be all, said I,
After so foul a journey death is fair,
And but a chair.

- George Herbert, 'The Pilgrimage'

Pilgrims' crosses, Stodmarsh

Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth nor blessed abode,
But the hope of the City of God at the other end of the road.

Not for us are content, and quiet, and peace of mind,
For we go seeking a city that we shall never find.

There is no solace on earth for us - for such as we -
Who search for a hidden city that we shall never see.

Only the road and the dawn, the sun, the wind, and the rain,
And the watch fire under stars, and sleep, and the road again.

We seek the City of God, and the haunt where beauty dwells,
And we find the noisy mart and the sound of burial bells.

Never the golden city, where radiant people meet,
But the dolorous town where mourners are going about the street.

We travel the dusty road till the light of the day is dim,
And sunset shows us spires away on the world's rim.

We travel from dawn to dusk, till the day is past and by,
Seeking the Holy City beyond the rim of the sky.

Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth nor blest abode,
But the hope of the City of God at the other end of the road.

- John Masefield, 'The Seekers'

South Elmham St James, Suffolk

Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.
Swylce geac monað geomran reorde,
singeð sumeres weard, sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord. þæt se beorn ne wat,
esteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.
Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas, cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig, gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif,
læne on londe.

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
fields grow beautiful, the world hastens on;
all these things urge on the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.
The cuckoo too gives warning with mournful voice,
summer's watchman sings, foretells sorrow,
bitter in the heart. Of this that man knows nothing,
the warrior blessed with wealth, what some endure
who furthest tread the paths of exile.
And so now my spirit roams beyond the confines of the heart,
my spirit over the sea-flood;
it wanders wide over the whale's home,
the expanse of the earth, and comes back to me
eager and greedy; the lone flier cries,
incites the heart to the whale's way, irresistible,
across the ocean's floods. And so to me
the joys of the Lord are warmer than this dead life,
lent on land.

- 'The Seafarer'


(Halted around the fire by night, after moon-set, they sing this beneath the trees)

What light of unremembered skies
Hast thou relumed within our eyes,
Thou whom we seek, whom we shall find? . . .
A certain odour on the wind,
Thy hidden face beyond the west,
These things have called us; on a quest
Older than any road we trod,
More endless than desire. . . .

Far God,
Sigh with thy cruel voice, that fills
The soul with longing for dim hills
And faint horizons! For there come
Grey moments of the antient dumb
Sickness of travel, when no song
Can cheer us; but the way seems long;
And one remembers. . . .

Ah! the beat
Of weary unreturning feet,
And songs of pilgrims unreturning! . . .
The fires we left are always burning
On the old shrines of home. Our kin
Have built them temples, and therein
Pray to the Gods we know; and dwell
In little houses lovable,
Being happy (we remember how!)
And peaceful even to death. . . .

O Thou,
God of all long desirous roaming,
Our hearts are sick of fruitless homing,
And crying after lost desire.
Hearten us onward! as with fire
Consuming dreams of other bliss.
The best Thou givest, giving this
Sufficient thing - to travel still
Over the plain, beyond the hill,
Unhesitating through the shade,
Amid the silence unafraid,
Till, at some sudden turn, one sees
Against the black and muttering trees
Thine altar, wonderfully white,
Among the Forests of the Night.

- Rupert Brooke, 'The Song of the Pilgrims'

'Christ and the pilgrims' on the road to Emmaus (BL Yates Thompson 13, f.127v)
There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has traveled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned. Nor are these emotions a memory or a reversion only as one crude theory might pretend; we craved these things - the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth - before we made them; they are part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.

Of these primal things the least obvious but the most important is The Road. It does not strike the sense as do those others I have mentioned; we are slow to feel its influence. We take it so much for granted that its original meaning escapes us. Men, indeed, whose pleasure it is perpetually to explore even their own country on foot, and to whom its every phase of climate is delightful, receive, somewhat tardily, the spirit of The Road. They feel a meaning in it; it grows to suggest the towns upon it, it explains its own vagaries, and it gives a unity to all that has arisen along its way. But for the mass The Road is silent; it is the humblest and the most subtle, but, as I have said, the greatest and the most original of the spells which we inherit from the earliest pioneers of our race. It was the most imperative and the first of our necessities. It is older than building and than wells; before we were quite men we knew it, for the animals still have it to-day; they seek their food and their drinking-places, and, as I believe, their assemblies, by known tracks which they have made.

It is easy to re-create in oneself to-day a sense of what the Road means to living things on land: it is easy to do it even in this crowded country. Walk, for instance, on the neglected Pennines along the watershed of England, from Malham Tarn, say, to Ribblehead, or from Kirkby Stephen up along the crest to Crossfell and so to Alston, and you will learn at once what follows on an untouched soil from the absence of a track of a guide. One ravine out of the many radiating from a summit will lead to the one valley you seek; take another stream and you are condemned at last to traverse mountains to repair the error. In a fog or at night, if one has not such a path, there is nothing to help one but the lay of the snow or the trend of the vegetation under the last gale. In climbing, the summit is nearly always hidden, and nothing but a track will save you from false journeys. In descent it alone will save you a precipice or an unfordable stream. It knows upon which side an obstacle can be passed, where there is firm land in a morass, and where there is the best going; sand or rock - dry soil. It will find what nothing but long experiment can find for an individual traveller, the precise point in a saddle or neck where approach is easiest from either side, and everywhere the Road, especially the very early Road, is wiser than it seems to be...

To study something of great age until one grows familiar with it and almost to live in its time, is not merely to satisfy a curiosity or to establish aimless truths: it is rather to fulfil a function whose appetite has always rendered History a necessity. By the recovery of the Past, stuff and being are added to us; our lives which, lived in the present only, are a film or surface, take on body - are lifted into one dimension more. The soul is fed. Reverence and knowledge and security and the love of a good land - all these are increased or given by the pursuit of this kind of learning. Visions or intimations are confirmed. It is excellent to see perpetual agony and failure perpetually breeding the only enduring things; it is excellent to see the crimes we know ground under the slow wheels whose ponderous advance we can hardly note during the flash of one human life. One may say that historical learning grants men glimpses of life completed and a whole; and such a vision should be the chief solace of whatever is mortal and cut off imperfectly from fulfilment...

For my part I desired to step exactly in the footprints of such ancestors. I believed that, as I followed their hesitations at the river crossings, as I climbed where they had climbed to a shrine whence they also had seen a wide plain, as I suffered the fatigue they suffered, and laboriously chose, as they had chosen, the proper soils for going, something of their much keener life would wake again in the blood I drew from them, and that in a sort I should forget the vileness of my own time, and renew for some few days the better freedom of that vigorous morning when men were already erect, articulate, and worshipping God, but not yet broken by complexity and the long accumulation of evil. It was perhaps a year ago that I determined to follow and piously to recover the whole of that doubtful trail whereby they painfully made their way from one centre of their common life to the sea, which was at once their chief mystery and their only passage to the rest of their race - from Hampshire to the Straits of Dover.
- Hilaire Belloc, following the Pilgrims' Way from Winchester to Canterbury in 'The Old Road'


From my current favourite pilgrims, A Walk Around Britain

There are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the old road, and as you walk, think of them and of the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme and the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers. The same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing, as I often do, you're so close to those other people that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And when I turn the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I've only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me.

- A Canterbury Tale (1944)


For giving me desire,
An eager thirst, a burning ardent fire,
A virgin infant flame,
A love with which into the world I came,
An inward hidden heavenly love,
Which in my soul did work and move,
And ever, ever me inflame
With restless longing, heavenly avarice,
That never could be satisfied,
That did incessantly a paradise
Unknown suggest, and something undescribed
Discern, and bear me to it; be
Thy name forever praised by me.

My parched and withered bones
Burnt up did seem; my soul was full of groans;
My thoughts extensions were:
Like paces, reaches, steps they did appear;
They somewhat hotly did pursue,
Knew that they had not all their due,
Nor ever quiet were.
But made my flesh like hungry, thirsty ground,
My heart a deep profound abyss,
And every joy and pleasure a wound,
So long as I my blessedness did miss.
Oh happiness! A famine burns,
And all my life to anguish turns!

Where are the silent streams,
The living waters and the glorious beams,
The sweet reviving bowers,
The shady groves, the sweet and curious flowers,
The springs and trees, the heavenly days,
The flow'ry meads, and glorious rays,
The gold and silver towers?
Alas! all these are poor and empty things!
Trees, waters, days, and shining beams,
Fruits, flowers, bowers, shady groves, and springs,
No joy will yield, no more than silent streams;
Those are but dead material toys,
And cannot make my heavenly joys.

O love! Ye amities,
And friendships that appear above the skies!
Ye feasts and living pleasures!
Ye senses, honors, and imperial treasures!
That satisfy all appetites!
Ye sweet affections, and
Ye high respects! Whatever joys there be
In triumphs, whatsoever stand
In amicable sweet society,
Whatever pleasures are at His right hand,
Ye must before I am divine
In full propriety be mine.

This soaring, sacred thirst,
Ambassador of bliss, approached first,
Making a place in me
That made me apt to prize, and taste, and see.
For not the objects but the sense
Of things doth bliss to our souls dispense,
And make it, Lord, like Thee.
Sense, feeling, taste, complacency, and sight,
These are the true and real joys,
The living, flowing, inward, melting, bright,
And heavenly pleasures; all the rest are toys;
All which are founded in desire,
As light in flame and heat in fire.

- Thomas Traherne

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

'With springing tears to the spring of mercy': Anselm's Prayer to Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalen (St Winnow, Cornwall)

22 July is the feast of St Mary Magdalene - a major feast in medieval England, for which recorded names include 'the Maudeleyn day' and 'Maudlintide' (pronounced like the Oxford college which bears her name). The MED entries for Maudelaine and Marie 2(a) make interesting reading as pointers towards her significance in the medieval period; her popularity was so great and the interpretations of her life so various that I couldn't begin to cover them in a blogpost, but it seems appropriate to begin with a dictionary entry, because the meaning of this saint's legend is closely wrapped up with the meaning of her name.


The above image shows the opening of a prayer to Mary Magdalene in BL Harley 2882, a collection of prayers made in the twelfth century for a community of nuns near Durham. It is in fact, I think (the BL catalogue doesn't say, and only the opening is visible online) a copy of a prayer to Mary Magdalene by St Anselm:

St. Mary Magdalene, you came with springing tears to the spring of mercy, Christ; from him your burning thirst was abundantly refreshed; through him your sins were forgiven; by him your bitter sorrow was consoled.

My dearest lady, well you know by your own life how a sinful soul can be reconciled with its creator, what counsel a soul in misery needs, what medicine will restore the sick to health. It is enough for us to understand, dear friend of God, to whom were many sins forgiven, because she loved much.

Most blessed lady, I who am the most evil and sinful of men do not recall your sins as a reproach, but call upon the boundless mercy by which they were blotted out. This is my reassurance, so that I do not despair; this is my longing, so that I shall not perish.

I say this of myself, miserably cast down into the depths of vice, bowed down with the weight of crimes, thrust down by my own hand into a dark prison of sins, wrapped round with the shadows of darkness.

Therefore, since you are now with the chosen because you are beloved and are beloved because you are chosen of God, I, in my misery, pray to you, in bliss; in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity.

Recall in loving kindness what you used to be, how much you needed mercy, and seek for me that same forgiving love that you received when you were wanting it. Ask urgently that I may have the love that pierces the heart; tears that are humble; desire for the homeland of heaven; impatience with this earthly exile; searing repentance; and a dread of torments in eternity. Turn to my good that ready access that you once had and still have to the spring of mercy. Draw me to him where I may wash away my sins; bring me to him who can slake my thirst; pour over me those waters that will make my dry places fresh. You will not find it hard to gain all you desire from so loving and so kind a Lord, who is alive and reigns and is your friend.
For who can tell, beloved and blest of God, with what kind familiarity and familiar kindness he himself replied on your behalf to the calumnies of those who were against you? How he defended you, when the proud Pharisee was indignant, how he excused you, when your sister complained, how highly he praised your deed, when Judas begrudged it. And, more than all this, what can I say, how can I find words to tell, about the burning love with which you sought him, weeping at the sepulchre, and wept for him in your seeking? How he came, who can say how or with what kindness, to comfort you, and made you burn with love still more; how he hid from you when you wanted to see him, and showed himself when you did not think to see him; how he was there all the time you sought him, and how he sought you when, seeking him, you wept.

But you, most holy Lord, why do you ask her why she weeps? Surely you can see; her heart, the dear life of her soul, is cruelly slain. O love to be wondered at; O evil to be shuddered at; you hung on the wood, pierced by iron nails, stretched out like a thief for the mockery of wicked men; and yet, "Woman," you say, "why are you weeping?" She had not been able to prevent them from killing you, but at least she longed to keep your body for a while with ointments lest it decay. No longer able to speak with you living, at least she could mourn for you dead. So, near to death and hating her own life, she repeats in broken tones the words of life which she had heard from the living. And now, besides all this, even the body which she was glad, in a way, to have kept, she believes to have gone. And can you ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Had she not reason to weep? For she had seen with her own eyes -- if she could bear to look -- what cruel men cruelly did to you; and now all that was left of you from their hands she thinks she has lost. All hope of you has fled, for now she has not even your lifeless body to remind her of you. And someone asks, "Who are you looking for? Why are you weeping?" You, her sole joy, should be the last thus to increase her sorrow. But you know it all well, and thus you wish it to be, for only in such broken words and sighs can she convey a cause of grief as great as hers. The love you have inspired you do not ignore. And indeed you know her well, the gardener, who planted her soul in his garden. What you plant, I think you also water. Do you water, I wonder, or do you test her? In fact, you are both watering and putting to the test.

But now, good Lord, gentle Master, look upon your faithful servant and disciple, so lately redeemed by your blood, and see how she burns with anxiety, desiring you, searching all round, questioning, and what she longs for is nowhere found. Nothing she sees can satisfy her, since you whom alone she would behold, she sees not. What then? How long will my Lord leave his beloved to suffer thus? Have you put off compassion now you have put on incorruption? Did you let go of goodness when you laid hold of immortality? Let it not be so, Lord. You will not despise us mortals now you have made yourself immortal, for you made yourself a mortal in order to give us immortality.
 Christ and Mary (Haddon Hall)
And so it is; for love's sake he cannot bear her grief for long or go on hiding himself. For the sweetness of love he shows himself who would not for the bitterness of tears. The Lord calls his servant by the name she has often heard and the servant knows the voice of her own Lord. I think, or rather I am sure, that she responded to the gentle tone with which he was accustomed to call, "Mary." What joy filled that voice, so gentle and full of love. He could not have put it more simply and clearly: "I know who you are and what you want; behold me; do not weep, behold me; I am he whom you seek." At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting. How different is, "Master!" from "If you have taken him away, tell me"; and, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him," has a very different sound from, "I have seen the Lord, and he has spoken to me."

But how should I, in misery and without love, dare to describe the love of God and the blessed friend of God? Such a flavour of goodness will make my heart sick if it has in itself nothing of that same virtue. But in truth, you who are very truth, you know me well and can testify that I write this for the love of your love, my Lord, my most dear Jesus. I want your love to burn in me as you command so that I may desire to love you alone and sacrifice to you a troubled spirit, "a broken and a contrite heart."

Give me, O Lord, in this exile, the bread of tears and sorrow for which I hunger more than for any choice delights. Hear me, for your love, and for the dear merits of your beloved Mary, and your blessed Mother, the greater Mary. Redeemer, my good Jesus, do not despise the prayers of one who has sinned against you but strengthen the efforts of a weakling that loves you. Shake my heart out of its indolence, Lord, and in the ardour of your love bring me to the everlasting sight of your glory where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, God, for ever. Amen.
Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, trans. Benedicta Ward (London, 1973), pp.201-6. The Latin text can be found here.

What a wonderful piece of writing. Among the many beautiful, delicate turns of thought and language in this prayer, I most like how Anselm explores the liquid imagery inspired by Mary's tears: Christ as the spring of mercy, thirst refreshed, the healing balm of salvation, the watered garden where Christ the Gardener has planted Mary's soul. According to medieval tradition, Mary's most famous tears were those with which she bathed the feet of Christ, but Anselm focuses here on her tears of grief when she cannot find and anoint his body in the tomb - her very human desire to do this last service for the one she loves.

Tears were an important part of Mary Magdalene's legend, both in learned and in popular tradition; folklore said that her tears, when they fell to earth, became daisies, and various plants in the daisy family were known by her name - Magdalen daisy, sweet maudlin, costmary. There seems to lie behind this a thematic link between healing tears of penitence, the medicinal power of these plants, and the ointment with which Mary Magdalene was associated and with which she is usually depicted (licour would be the Middle English word which covers all three).
Prosit mihi, carissima, familiaris conversatio quam habuisti et habes circa fontem misericordiae. Hauri mihi ab illo unde lavem peccata mea. Propina mihi de illo unde satietur sitis mea. Infunde mihi ex illo unde irrigetur ariditas mea...

Dearest, turn to my good that ready access that you once had and still have to the spring of mercy. Draw me to him where I may wash away my sins; bring me to him who can slake my thirst; pour over me those waters that will make my dry places fresh...
It was traditional in medieval Biblical exegesis to interpret the name 'Mary' as meaning 'bitterness', and therefore Mary Magdalene as signifying the bitterness of penitence - as explained for instance in Ancrene Wisse (Part 6):
...the threo Maries bohten deore-wurthe aromaz, his bodi for-te smirien. Neometh nu gode yeme, mine leove sustren. Theos threo Maries bitacnith threo bitternesses, for this nome, "Marie," as "Meraht" ant "Merariht," thet ich spec th'ruppe of, spealeth "bitternesse." The earste bitternesse is i sunne bireowsunge ant i deadbote, hwen the sunfule is i-turnd earst to ure Laverd. Ant theos is understonden bi the earste Marie, Marie Magdaleine - ant bi god rihte, for ha with muche bireowsunge ant bitternesse of heorte leafde hire sunnen ant turnde to ure Laverd. Ah for-thi thet sum mahte thurh to muche bitternesse fallen into unhope, "Magdaleine," the spealeth "tures hehnesse," is to "Marie" i-feiet, thurh hwet is bitacnet hope of heh mearci ant of heovene blisse.

...the three Marys [who went to the tomb on Easter morning] bought precious spices to anoint his body. Now take good heed, my dear sisters. These three Marys betoken three kinds of bitterness, because this name Mary, as meraht and merariht, means 'bitterness', as I spoke about earlier. The first bitterness is in repentance of sin and in penance, when the sinner first turns to our Lord. And this is signified by the first Mary, Mary Magdalene, and with good reason, because she, with much repentance and bitterness of heart, left her sins and turned to our Lord. But because some may fall into despair through too much bitterness, 'Mary' is joined to 'Magdalene', which means 'the height of a tower', and this betokens hope of high mercy and heavenly joy.
Anselm implicitly draws on the same interpretation of the name 'Mary' when he talks about Mary Magdalene's amarissime dolens, her 'most bitter sorrow'.
Quid denique, quid dicam, vel potius quomodo dicam, cum eius amore flagrans eum ad monumentum quaerendo flebas, et flendo quaerebas? Quam affabiliter, quam amicabiliter te, quam consolari venerat, magis accendebat; cum ipse se celabat videnti, et ostendebat non videnti; dum praesens ipse quem quaerebas, quem quaereres et cur fleres quaerebat...

Erumpit amantis dulcedo, ut non erumpat flentis amaritudo. Nominat Dominus consuetum ancillae nomen, et cognoscit ancilla consuetam Domini vocem. Puto, vel certe affirmo quia sensit solitam suavitatem, qua vocari consueverat, Maria. O vox delectabilis! o quantum blandimenti! quantum sapuit amoris! nec brevius nec celerius hoc exprimi potuit. Scio quae sis, et quid velis. Ecce me, ne plores. Ecce me, quem quaeris. Illico mutatae sunt lacrymae: non enim credo mox esse restrictas: sed quas contritum cor se torquendo prius exprimebat, eas postmodum cor gaudens exsultando effundebat. O quam dissimilia sunt: Raboni; et: Si tu sustulisti eum, dicito mihi! O quam dissona sunt: Tulerunt Dominum meum, et nescio ubi posuerunt eum; et illud, quia vidi Dominum, et haec dixit mihi!
He tenderly traces how Mary's tears are turned from bitterness - the amaritudo implicit in her very name - into tears of joy: 'At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting'. In his prayers St Anselm is - perhaps surprisingly to a modern reader - notably lachrymose, and here he sympathises and identifies with Mary's tears much as did a later devotee of the saint, Margery Kempe. Margery, as a penitent woman who herself found relief in floods of devout tears, identified strongly with Mary Magdalene in her devotions, and began her book on the day following Mary's feast in the year 1436 (for more details, see this article). In her lifetime Margery was often rebuked for her tears, and she is sometimes criticised for them even today - a criticism she shares with her patron Mary Magdalene. As the OED entry shows, tears like those described by Anselm and imitated by Margery became synonymous with Mary Magdalene's name; hence the unfortunate post-medieval development whereby those (penitent, Catholic, feminine) tears became stigmatised as excessive, sentimental, and maudlin.