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.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

St Wihtburh and the Miracle on Holkham Beach

Wihtburh (Fritton, Norfolk)

Today I'd like to introduce you to a miracle performed by St Wihtburh, an Anglo-Saxon saint who was celebrated (in the few places where she was celebrated) on 8 July. Wihtburh lived in East Anglia in the first half of the eighth century, and according to legend she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and youngest sister of St Æthelthryth (Etheldreda) of Ely - although this may be only legend, since Wihtburh is not mentioned in Bede's otherwise well-informed account of Etheldreda and her family. Wihtburh's claim to sanctity was that she founded a monastery at Dereham in Norfolk, with the miraculous aid of deer who fed her workmen with milk as the monastery was being built - hence the deer in the stained-glass window above. Tradition said that she died on 17 March 743 (though this date is too late, if she really was Etheldreda's sister), and her body was later removed to Ely, where she was commemorated along with her saintly sisters. By 'removed', it would be more accurate to say 'stolen'; in fact that's what today's feast commemorates, because on 8 July 974 Abbot Byrhtnoth of Ely and a group of his monks purloined the relics of Wihtburh from Dereham despite fierce resistance from the townspeople, and spirited them away to Ely.

(This is a perfect example of what I was saying yesterday about translation feasts being hard to justify! But such pious thefts are a literary trope in translation narratives, and what this one probably tells us is that Abbot Byrhtnoth, who had led the refoundation of Ely as a Benedictine monastery, was gathering saints and relics for his community; and that he had decided to focus its interests on the saints linked to St Etheldreda, who included, besides Wihtburh, Etheldreda's sister Seaxburh, niece Eormenhild, great-niece Wærburh, and half-sisters Æthelburh and Sæthryth. The abbot's theft still seems to be rankling with whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry for Wihtburh, though; old grudges die hard in Norfolk...)

Anyway, the miracle-story I want to post today relates to Wihtburh's childhood, and is supposed to have taken place at Holkham, on the northern coast of Norfolk. It's told in a Vita S. Wihtburge composed at Ely in the early twelfth century, which is edited and translated by Rosalind Love in The Hagiography of the Female Saints of Ely (Oxford, 2004), pp.54-93 (this extract at pp.87-91):

[Wihtburh] was sent with her nurse to be brought up by the seaside, in a village on her father’s lands, called Holkham... While she was dwelling in that hamlet with her nurse and tutors, one day, as children are wont to do, she went to play with her friends on the dry parts of the sand. Although it is usual for boisterous games to be encouraged, she stood out from the crowd in her blessed innocence, was sweeter and gentler than the others, and joyfully and exultantly urged her companions to be nicer in their playing, and with a gentle manner summoning them altogether as they shouted one to another, she began to address them with sweetly coaxing voice, speaking, so I believe, in the spirit of God: ‘Let us go, my dear friends, to the nearby shore, to gather up the smaller pebbles which together with the sand are tossed out of the sea into high piles by the regular beating to and fro of the waves, because it may be that they assemble themselves together and gather themselves into a heap ready for building-work, just as if a church is to be constructed there.' When they heard this they quickly rushed up, happy and ready, eagerly they presented themselves all set for fetching and carrying. And when one by one they threw down in the middle all the pieces which they had each brought separately, however big it was, the whole heap, just as is the nature of pebbles, scattered all over the place. But that small quantity which the only virgin of the Lord, Wihtburh, brought, when she produced it, began to swell and multiply and at the same time to be reduced to one solid mass. At this her companions were turned to shock and amazement, and nodding to one another they haughtily turned to spite and envy against her, and by repeatedly kicking the mass with their heels tried to turn it back, and attempted to scatter into its former constituent parts the pile that had heaped into one and was now solidified. When she saw this she reached out her hand, made the sign of the cross, and called upon the Lord's name in the words of her own language, and by the power of the holy cross imprinted upon it, the heaped-up pile, as it had already begun to, stayed forever as if rooted and grounded. St Wihtburh did this every time her little companions gathered to play, as a true presage of future things...

[Every time this happened] they left those hardened masses there, but returning the next day found them shifted far away on to the top of a hill, in a very high place, well away from the stormy waves, placed a distance from the watery plain which is regularly made treacherous by the coming and going of the sea-tide, and this seems to offer a safe journey without fear to those who come near.

Her nurse prophesies that a church will one day be built on this miraculously-formed mound of pebbles, and her words came to pass: later a church was built there "which is called in English Withburgsstowe, where those stones are kept as a testimony to the event." The church at Holkham was (and still is) dedicated to St Wihtburh, the only church in England to bear that dedication.

Maybe it's just because I grew up by the seaside (though not in Norfolk), but I find this a particularly appealing miracle - if nothing else, a childhood miracle story in which the saint is shown actually playing like a child is an unusual and rather sweet thing to see! The whole situation is a charmingly ordinary one: a little girl on the beach with her nurse, all the children playing with the sand and pebbles (with buckets and spades, you might imagine), young Wihtburh trying to get them to play nicely (bossy little thing! but I sympathise) - and then her miracle is not much more than a giant sandcastle which turns into the site of a church! Plus, Holkham Beach is a distinctive and memorable landscape, just the kind of place which deserves a miracle-story of its own - have a look at it on Google Images. Interestingly, the church at Holkham stands on what is probably a man-made earthwork - a noticeable feature in a landscape of flat beaches - so this story about Wihtburh's miraculous mound-building was perhaps meant to explain that feature of the local environment. I wonder similarly about the miraculous 'deer' of Dereham, whether the story might have been an extrapolation from the place-name - it would have to be a late one, since in Old English deor refers to any kind of wild animal, but I think it might just about have been possible in the twelfth century, when the story is first recorded. There are similarities between Withburh's legend and that of St Mildred of Thanet, which also features deer and an aetiological explanation for a local earthwork; the two royal saints were related (somehow; I've lost track of the genealogy!) and there may have been some borrowing of motifs in one direction or the other. It was excellent work on the part of the anonymous Ely hagiographer to give Wihtburh a miracle-story which fits so well with the local landscape and with the role in which he has cast the saint - Etheldreda's baby sister.

(I'm also inclined to enjoy this story because I've recently been re-reading Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain, in which it happens that the young heroine - named Etheldred - puts heart and soul into getting a church built, and thus unconsciously imitates the childhood endeavours of her namesake saint's sister. That's the kind of coincidence which amuses me...)

In later centuries the site of Wihtburh's church was to become famous for a much grander pile of stones: the palatial Holkham Hall. But the church, retaining its unique dedication though much rebuilt, still stands in the grounds of the estate, and you can read about it here.

Wihtburh (second from left on the top row) and her sisters in fifteenth-century English alabaster,
on display in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Translation of St Thomas Becket: 'As storys wryght and specyfy'

The murder of Thomas Becket, BL Stowe 12, f.27v

7 July is one of the two feasts of St Thomas Becket which were celebrated in medieval England, commemorating the date in 1220 when his relics were translated to a splendid tomb behind the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral. This seems as good a reason as any to look at another of the medieval English carols celebrating St Thomas, of which I've previously posted five (!):

'Holy Thomas of heoueriche' and 'Clangat tuba'

'Listeneth, lordings, both great and small, I shall you tell a wonder tale'
 
'Saint Thomas honour we, through whose blood Holy Church is made free'

'I pray you, sirs, all in fere, worship St Thomas, this holy martyr'

And here's a sixth:

Pastor cesus in gregys medio
Pacem emit cruorys precio.

As storys wryght and specyfy,
Sent Thomas, thorow Goddes sond,
Beyng a byschop of Canturbery,
Was martyrd for the ryght of Englond.

Hys moder be blyssyd that hym bar,
And also hys fader that hym begatt,
For war we wel kep fro sorow and care
Thorow the deth of the prelat.

Thys holy mane of God was accept,
For whatsoever that he ded prayd,
Vs frome the daunger conseruyd and kepte.
Of the ransom we xuld haue payd.

To and fyfty poyntes onresonabyll,
Consentyd of byschoppes many on,
Thou wast no[th]yng thereto agreabyll,
Therfor thou sufferyd thi passyon.

Of knytes cruell and also wykyd
Thou sufferyd thi deth with mylde mod;
Wherefor the Chyrch is gloryfyyd
In the schedy[n]g of this blod.

To Cryst therefor lat vs prey,
That for vs deyyd on the rood,
Conserue vs al both nyght and day,
Thorow the schedying of Thomas blood.

This text is from Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), p. 61. The version printed by Wright has an additional English refrain:

Make we joy both more and lesse,
On the dey of Sent Thomas.

The song survives in two manuscripts, Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. e.1 (SC 29734) and British Library Additional MS. 25478. According to Greene, in the Bodleian manuscript this carol is 'defaced by a single stroke through each line' - the result of Henry VIII's 1538 decree that St Thomas should be "rased and put out of all the books", his shrine at Canterbury suppressed and all images of the martyr destroyed. Fortunately, this attempt to obliterate the memory of perhaps the most popular English saint of the Middle Ages did not succeed in robbing us of a huge number of images of St Thomas, or of these fascinating carols.

Here's a translation of the carol; the Latin text of its refrain - 'Pastor cesus in gregis medio, pacem emit cruoris precio' - is the antiphon used at First Vespers of the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas (December 29), and means 'The shepherd, slain in the midst of his flock, purchases peace at the cost of blood'. For more on the liturgies of St Thomas, see Kay Brainerd Slocum, Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket (Toronto, 2004), where the antiphon 'Pastor cesus' can be found at p.169.

Pastor cesus in gregis medio
Pacem emit cruoris precio.

As histories write and plainly say,
Saint Thomas, thorough God's command,
Who was bishop of Canterbury,
Was martyred for the rights of England.

Blessed be his mother who him bore,
And also his father who him begat!
Protected we were from sorrow and care
Through the death of the prelate.

This holy man was heard by God,
Whatever it was for which he prayed:
From that harm he us preserved and kept
Of the ransom we would have paid.

Two and fifty points unreasonable,
Agreed by bishops many a one,
You would not in any way consent to them;
For that you suffered your passion.

At the hands of knights cruel and wicked,
You suffered your death in humble manner,
And for that the Church is glorified
In the shedding of your blood.

To Christ therefore let us pray,
Who for us died on the Rood,
Preserve us all both night and day,
Through the shedding of Thomas' blood.

The 'fifty-two points' were the list of legislative points to which St Thomas refused to assent because they gave the king too much power over the church. They are regularly mentioned in the carols about the saint, and Richard Greene notes that these 'points' became a subject of contention again at the time of the Reformation:

A curious survival of the tradition of fifty-two points as late as 1532 is found in the petition to Cromwell of William Umpton, one of the grooms of the King's Hall, who had been a prisoner in the Tower for fourteen months, 'loaded with irons'. According to poor Umpton, 'a pardoner of St. Thomas' hospital at Woodstock said that St. Thomas of Canterbury died for 52 points concerning the commonwealth; "which 52 your said orator denied, one excepted for the clergy, and that the said 52 points were a dance called Robin Hood [apparently equivalent to frivolous nonsense]." Then the pardoner asked him if he would compare Robin Hood with St. Thomas before my lord of Lincoln; on which he fortuned to ask the same pardoner why St. Thomas was a saint rather than Robin Hood? For this he was accused of heresy...' (James Gairdner, ed., Letters and Papers... of the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 1880, v. 551). Umpton was ahead of his time, and his petition was fruitless.
Greene, The Early English Carols, p. 370.


This is a depiction of the translation of Thomas Becket in a fourteenth-century Breviary, BL Stowe 12, f. 270 (spot the words 'Pastor cesus' in the right-hand column!). Note the empty space in the rubric beside the initial, where Thomas' name has been removed, so that it now reads 'De translatione sancti... martyr'. The site of Thomas' tomb in Canterbury Cathedral is also now an empty space, its position marked by a candle:


This is the spot behind the high altar which was so carefully selected for Thomas' tomb in 1220 - this part of the cathedral was rebuilt around it, confirming Thomas' place as Canterbury's new foremost saint. It was this spot which was the destination of many thousands of medieval travellers, from Chaucer's pilgrims to (perhaps my favourite of Canterbury's medieval visitors) the Icelander Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, who presented the tusk of a narwahl at Thomas' shrine to thank the saint for a good catch. (Part of me really hopes they still have a narwahl tusk in a cupboard somewhere at Canterbury...)

Given how fiercely Thomas' cult was targeted at the Reformation, we're fortunate that so many tokens of his medieval popularity survive - from the carols to the various images of him I posted here (and many, many more). But the absences are in some ways still more eloquent. This, for instance, is what remains of a roof boss in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral, which depicted the murder of Becket:


A nearby reconstruction shows how it might have looked (based on this, I think):


St Thomas was not the only one to suffer from this particular purge; nearby roof-boss depictions of the murder of St Ælfheah by Vikings and St Dunstan's nose-nipping encounter with the devil were similarly destroyed, making it a clean sweep of Canterbury's best saints.


I find these absences, these scars, moving wherever I encounter them, and a day like today makes me wonder why. Partly it's because they show so vividly how we are cut off from the medieval world in which I (mentally!) spend so much of my time. It can be difficult to explain my interest in medieval saints, and although I usually don't feel the need to defend it - if you didn't like it, you really wouldn't be reading my blog! - I sometimes reflect on the purpose and value of blogging about them for the public. Being interested in medieval saints is completely normal in academia, but it looks very odd outside that context - I sometimes get the impression that people think I'm a religious fanatic for blogging about saints and their feasts, and it's rather wearing to have to explain that you can take something seriously, and think it's important, without necessarily believing it to be true (however you want to interpret 'true').

Translation feasts like today's are particularly tricky to explain to a modern audience. It's easy to be cynical about their original motivation, since the practical benefits are usually so obvious as to make the whole idea seem like nothing more than a money-grab: building a bigger or more prominent tomb to attract and accommodate pilgrims, providing a saint with an extra feast to celebrate (often at a more convenient time of year for travel or liturgical commemoration - as clearly illustrated in the case of Becket, whose December feast, awkwardly close to Christmas, was supplemented by a summer translation one), claiming a saint as belonging to one church rather than a rival, and so on. Some medievalists get very sniffy about the pragmatism of it all, their high-minded idealism clearly offended by the idea of churches trying to make money off their saints. There's a lingering Puritanism in some circles (even within academia, but certainly outside it) which can't quite allow that medieval cults of saints were ever anything but a big con - that the saints of the Middle Ages were mostly a bunch of obscure people who were praised far beyond their merits, credited with patently invented miracles, and lauded in tiresome hagiography, with the aim of extracting money from gullible pilgrims. Some of this is not entirely without foundation, but I tend to feel it's an unhelpful way of discussing this historical situation; gleefully dissecting pious frauds of centuries ago is just not a very interesting way of approaching the past. It's marginally more helpful than some other favourite modern strategies for engaging with medieval saints - laughing at their funny names, for instance, my particular bugbear when it comes to the Anglo-Saxons - but not much. To commemorate these saints' feasts today, and to blog about them, without a religious motive, might seem foolish or naive; why should we mark such dates, if they're just artificial creations? Well, it's partly because an awareness of the liturgical calendar is a simple necessity for understanding many medieval texts; to blog through the year helps me in thinking about my work, and many people really seem to like it. But to me it's also an attempt to take the medieval past seriously on its own terms. At the risk of seeming completely humourless, I'm not a fan of the Horrible Histories-type approach to medieval saints (which was how I was taught about Thomas Becket in school, gullible pilgrims and all); I can't bring myself to laugh at 'funny names' which are stigmatised because a violent conquest made them unfashionable, and I think it's important to remember that however silly a miracle-story may seem to us, it often has behind it a tale of real need or suffering in an age where saints might be a desperate person's only hope. What's more, in many cases (as with St Dunstan and the devil) the absurdities of the legends are meant to be laughed with, not at, if we could only allow ourselves to believe that medieval authors and audiences were capable of understanding fun and irony rather than being merely credulous fools. It's important to me in blogging (and even more so on Twitter, which is full of this stuff) not to be getting laughs out of anything which really mattered to real people, even if those people had unfamiliar names and died hundreds of years ago. It's that attempt to take the past seriously which makes me look like a religious fanatic, I fear!

But if we take translation feasts as an example, trying to understand rather than to condemn or mock, they can tell us fascinating things about the communities who organised them. They can help us trace, for instance, which parts of a community's history were most important to its identity at any point in time, or how a community defined itself against other nearby houses - the translation of Thomas Becket marked the moment when he became Canterbury's most famous saint (as he remains today), surpassing the Anglo-Saxon archbishop-saints, who were still venerated but no longer as culturally useful as they had been for the community in the period immediately following the Norman Conquest (on which see this post on Dunstan and this on Ælfheah). A translation tells us not all that much about the saint whose physical body is its focus, but a great deal about what a saint's memory meant to the people who venerated him or her. What is really commemorated today, then, is not just Thomas Becket but his importance to Canterbury and to the wider world: the fame which brought pilgrims to his shrine, the political charge which made him important enough for his name to be scratched out and his carols cancelled in the sixteenth century, and, yes, the income which built Canterbury Cathedral, a treasure-house of medieval art which still draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year. All this deserves to be remembered - and even blogged about.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

'Se lengsta dæg': The Anglo-Saxon Solstice

The sun on Midsummer Eve
On xii kalendas Iulius byð sunstede, þæt ys on Lyden solstitium and on Englisc midsumor.
Today is the summer solstice, for which the Old English name, provided in the quotation above by Byrhtferth, was sunstede - stede meaning something like 'fixed place, point of standing still' (today might have been called the 'sunstead', if we had held on to this word). Since this year I've been blogging on and off about Anglo-Saxon seasons, from autumn to Advent to spring, I thought today I'd post two Old English descriptions of the summer solstice.

The first comes from the Menologium, a poem composed probably in the second half of the tenth century. The Menologium catalogues the course of the year and the saints' feasts which occur in each month, but it's much more than just a functional list; it combines useful knowledge and Christian learning with the traditional images and language of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I translated part of the section about May, full of flowering meadows and noisy birds, in this post. The section quoted below (ll.106-119) describes the month of June - ærra Liða is the Old English name - as far as June 24th, the feast of John the Baptist and the traditional date of Midsummer Day. It follows on from the section on May - naturally! - and so begins by dating the first of June as the sixth day after the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, May 26th.

Þænne monað bringð
ymb twa and feower tiida lange
ærra Liða us to tune,
Iunius on geard, on þam gim astihð
on heofenas up hyhst on geare,
tungla torhtust, and of tille agrynt,
to sete sigeð. Wyle syððan leng
grund behealdan and gangan lator
ofer foldan wang fægerust leohta,
woruldgesceafta. Þænne wuldres þegn
ymb þreotyne, þeodnes dyrling,
Iohannes in geardagan wearð acenned,
tyn nihtum eac; we þa tiid healdað
on midne sumor mycles on æþelum.

Then after two and four long days the month brings ærra Liða to town for us, June into the dwellings, in which the jewel climbs up highest in the year into the heavens, the brightest of stars, and descends from its place, sinking to its setting. It likes then to gaze longer upon the earth, the fairest of lights to move more slowly across the fields of the world, the created globe. Then after thirteen and ten nights [i.e. 24th June] the thegn of glory, the Prince's darling, John, was born in days of old; we keep that feast at Midsummer, with great honour.

This is just beautiful. We don't get a word for the solstice here but that's clearly what's being described: the sun climbs to its highest point in the year (hyhst on geare) and from that station (till) sinks again to its setting. gim, 'gem, jewel' is a common poetic name for the sun in Old English - in other poems it is called gimma gladost 'loveliest of jewels', heofenes gim 'the jewel of the heavens', wuldorgim 'glory-jewel'. Here the sun is personified, if I'm reading it correctly; I think the verb wyle must imply desire on the part of the sun, who wants, chooses or likes 'to gaze longer upon the earth' (wyle... leng grund behealdan). It's almost as if the days are longer at the solstice because the sun is lingering above the earth, unwilling to depart, lovingly beholding the world and wanting to travel more slowly across the beautiful summer fields (gangan lator ofer foldan wang).

The Sun in an eleventh-century English manuscript (BL Arundel 60, f.12v)

A less poetic but no less interesting description of the solstice is provided by the tenth-century homilist Ælfric in his De Temporibus Anni, which you can read in translation online here. I'll only quote the bit which is relevant for today, but do go and read the whole thing: it's not very long, and it's fascinating to see how he describes the seasons of the year and the reckoning of time, the nature of the sun, moon and stars, and the operation of the winds and the weather. This text may be intended as a brief and accessible (and vernacular) introduction to the principles of Anglo-Saxon science and calendar-reckoning, based largely on Bede. Of the solstice Ælfric says:
Feower tida sind getealde on anum geare, þæt sind Ver, Estas, Autumnus, Hiemps. Uer is lenctentid, seo hæfð emnihte; Estas is sumor, se hæfð sunstede; Autumnus is hærfest, se hæfð oðre emnihte; Hiemps is winter, se hæfð oðerne sunstede. On ðisum feower tidum yrnð seo sunne geond mislice dælas bufon ðisum ymbhwyrfte 7 þas eorðan getemprað. Soðlice þurh Godes foresceawunge þæt heo symle on anre stowe ne wunige, 7 mid hire hætan middaneardlice wæstmas forbærne; ac heo gæð geond stowa, 7 temprað þa eorðlican wæstmas ægðer ge on wæstme ge on ripunge.

þonne se dæg langað þonne gæð seo sunne norðweard oð þæt heo becymð to ðam tacne þe is gehaten cancer. þær is se sumerlica sunstede, forðan þe heo cyrð þær ongean eft suðweard 7 se dæg ðonne sceortað, oð þæt seo sunne cymð eft suð to ðam winterlicum sunstede, 7 þær ætstent. ðonne heo norðweard bið, þonne macað heo lenctenlice emnihte on middeweardum hire ryne; eft ðonne heo suðor bið, þonne macað heo hærfestlice emnihte. Swa heo suðor bið swa hit swiðor winterlæcð, 7 gæð se winterlica cyle æfter hire; ac ðonne heo eft gewent ongean, ðonne todræfð heo þone winterlican cyle mid hire hatum leoman.

[Four seasons are reckoned in a year, that is, Ver, Estas, Autumnus, Hiems. Ver is spring (lenctentid), which has an equinox; Estas is summer (sumor), which has a solstice; Autumn is autumn (hærfest), which has the other equinox; Hiems is winter (winter), which has the other solstice. In these four seasons the sun runs through various regions around the globe, and makes the earth temperate. Truly it is by God's providence that it does not always remain in one place and burn up the fruits of the earth with its heat; it moves through different places, and tempers the fruits of the earth both in growing and in ripening.

When the day grows longer, the sun goes northwards until it comes to the sign which is called Cancer. The summer solstice is there, because there it turns back again southwards, and then the day grows shorter until the sun comes again south to the winter solstice, and there stands still. When it is moving northwards, it makes the spring equinox in the middle of its course; and when it is moving south, it makes the autumnal equinox. The further south it goes, the closer winter is, and the winter chill follows after it. But when it turns again, then it drives away the winter chill with its hot rays.]


Later he explains how the solstice has different lengths in different parts of the world, from Italy to Iceland, and of England he says:

On Engla lande hæfð se lengsta dæg seofontyne tida. On ðam ylcan earde norðeweardan beoð leohte nihta on sumera, swilce hit ealle niht dagige, swa swa we sylfe foroft gesawon.

[In England the longest day has seventeen hours. In the northern part of that land, the nights in summer are as light as if it were day all night long, as we ourselves have very often seen.]

The sun in an Anglo-Saxon psalter (BL Harley 603, f.33v)

Related: Ælfric's description of the sun in his homily on Rogationtide, and the Old English version of the antiphon 'O Oriens', which falls on the winter solstice.