Sunday, 31 December 2017

'Wyle New Year watz so yep that hit watz newe cummen...'

For this New Year, three medieval texts which play on three words appropriate for the season: nowell, new, Yule.

'Christe redemptor omnium' in an Anglo-Saxon hymnal
(BL Cotton Vespasian D XII, f. 33)

First, William Herebert's 14th-century version of the Christmas hymn, 'Christe redemptor omnium' (for the Latin text see this page).

Cryst, buggere of alle ycoren, the Fadres olpy Sone,
On toforen ey gynnyng boren over alle speche and wone.
Thou lyht, thou Fadres bryhtnesse, thou trust and hope of alle,
Lust what thy folk thorouout the world to thee byddeth and kalle.
Wrouhte of oure hele, nou have in thyne munde
That of o mayde wemles thou toke oure kunde.
Thys day berth wytnesse, that neweth uche yer,
That on alyhtest from the Fader, of sunne make ous sker.
Hym hevene and erthe and wylde se and al that ys theron,
Wrouhte, of thy comynge, hereth wyth blisfol ron.
And we, nomliche, that beth bouht wyth thyn holy blod
For thys day singeth a neowe song and maketh blisfol mod.
Weole, Louerd, beo wyth thee, yboren of o may,
Wyth Fader and the Holy Gost withouten endeday. Amen.

(Christ, buyer of all chosen, the Father's only Son,
One before the beginning born, above all speech and wone.
Thou light, thou Father's brightness, thou trust and hope of all,
Hear what thy folk throughout the world to thee pray and call.
Author of our salvation, have now in thy mind
That of a maid sinless thou took our kind. [nature]
This day bears witness, which renews every year,
That one alights from the Father, from sin to make us sker. [clean, pure, bright]
Him heaven and earth and wild sea and all that is therein,
Author of thy coming, praise with joyful song.
And we, especially, who are bought with thy holy blood
For this day sing a new song and make joyful mod. ['celebrate with glad hearts']
Glory, Lord, be with thee, born of a may,
With Father and the Holy Ghost, without an ending day. Amen.)

A few highlights of the language: 'olpy' in the first line might look like a mistake for 'only' but is in fact a distinct word, descended from Old English 'anlipig', which means 'single, sole, unique', a good way of translating the Latin unice. I always like Herebert's translation of auctor, 'creator, maker', into English as 'wright' (as in 'playwright'); and sker is also a nice word, from Old Norse skærr, 'bright, pure'; hence the old name for Maundy Thursday, Sheer Thursday.

This is a particularly fluent and confident translation, with a lovely swing in the rhyme and rhythm. It's also a poem which neatly manages to describe its own beauties, because song and singing and the delight they express are central to this hymn. It says that at Christmas all creation expresses its pleasure at Christ's coming in joyful song ('wyth blisfol ron'); heaven and earth and the wild sea sing ('wild' is Herebert's addition - isn't it great?) and we sing, too: 'singeth a neowe song and maketh blisfol mod'. The allusion here is to the psalm sung on Christmas Day: 'Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth'.

The song is 'new' because Christ's coming gives new life and new meaning to everything in the universe; but Herebert's song is 'new', too, because it's a new rendering of an old hymn (already at least six hundred years old by Herebert's day). A translation is always a process of renewal, of adding something new. The Latin hymn has some beautiful lines about the recurring observance of the Christmas feast, which returns every year to call the mind back to Christ's entrance into the world:

Hic praesens testatur dies,
currens per anni circulum,
quod a solus sede Patris
mundi salus adveneris.

(This the present day testifies,
turning in the circle of the year,
that one alone from the Father's seat
comes forth for the salvation of the world.)

Herebert renders this:

Thys day berth wytnesse, that neweth uche yer,
That on alyhtest from the Fader, of sunne make ous sker.

(This day bears witness, which renews every year,
That one alights from the Father, from sin to make us sker.)

Herebert translates the verb testatur ('bears witness'), and he retains the important tense of the verse ('alights', not 'alighted'), the present tense which suggests that Christ's coming is not only an event which happened far back in the past but something which recurs each year, in the eternal now of liturgical time. But Herebert adds a new idea, too: the day, he says, neweth every year, and this word suggests not only the newness and nowness of the Christmas feast - that every year it happens now, anew - but also its rejuvenating power, because in Middle English newen suggests renewal, new growth, rebirth, regeneration. Just as Christ's entry into human time brought a new kind of life, once and for all, so Christmas, recurring each year with the turning cycle of nature and the liturgy, brings a renewal of that life - a fresh start, a time of new beginnings.

'Christe redemptor omnium', with Old English gloss

This idea of renewal and the cycle of the year is linked, of course, with the fact that Christmas and the New Year fall so close together. In the north the cusp of December and January is a time of seasonal and cosmic rebirth; with the solstice we passed the darkest midpoint of winter, and now spring is in sight. Although historically there have been various ways of reckoning when the New Year began - different kinds of legal, liturgical, and bureaucratic calendars had their own dates, from the first Sunday of Advent to Lady Day in March - the idea that Christmas or 1 January was the beginning of the new year was always around somewhere throughout the medieval period, and the hymn's reference to the cycle of the year (per anni circulum) might have suggested to Herebert this wider context of the day which neweth - which brings renewal and new birth.

I think there may be a further play on words here, too, because to a fourteenth-century ear neweth might also have suggested the word 'Nowell'. In medieval England Nowell was both a name for Christmas and a greeting used to acknowledge the season (as in 'The first 'Nowell!' the angels did say...'). It was common in Anglo-Norman in Herebert's day, though it isn't recorded in English until the end of the fourteenth century; Herebert certainly knew Anglo-Norman, and this might have added a little something extra to his choice of word here. The etymology of nowell is ultimately from Latin natalis, via French (noël, of course), but once it became a Christmas greeting English poets liked to play with some of the cross-linguistic possibilities offered by this word. It was very common in the refrains of carols, and so, for instance, one fifteenth-century carol has some punning fun with Nowell and the phrase 'Now is well':

Now is well and all things aright
And Christ is come as a true knight,
For our brother is king of might,
The fiend to fleme and all his. [to put to flight the devil and everything belonging to him]
Thus the fiend is put to flight,
And all his boast abated is.

Since it is well, well we do,
For there is none but one of two: [no choice but one of these two]
Heaven to get or heaven forgo;
Other means none there is.
I counsel you, since it is so,
That ye well do to win you bliss.

Now is well and all is well,
And right well, so have I bliss;
And since all thing is so well,
I rede we do no more amiss. [I advise we sin no more]

(This is a version in modern spelling; here's the Middle English from E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick, Early English Lyrics (London, 1921), p. 177. The source is Oxford, Bodleian Library Eng. poet. e.1.)

William Herebert would have liked that image of Christ as a 'true knight'. In the one surviving manuscript this carol doesn't have a refrain, but we could imagine it being sung with a lively 'Nowell!' refrain like this medieval carol, or perhaps this one:



With such a refrain the repeated cry of 'Nowell!' would pick up the verses' emphatic assertion that Christ's coming means that 'now is well', and the only possible response therefore is strive to live virtuously, to 'do well'. It's funny what associations a little word like 'well' can conjure up: you might think of Julian of Norwich, and 'all shall be well', or of Piers Plowman and the quest to find out what it means to 'do well' - a kind of perpetual New Year's resolution.

More kinds of wordplay on Nowell are possible too. Other carols pun on the echo between Nowell and news, which is a resonant word in the context of Christmas with its repeated stories of annunciation (to Mary, to Joseph, to the shepherds, to the magi...), the delivery of the 'good news' of Christ's birth. The carol in the video above uses both 'nowell' and 'tidings' to describe the message of the angel to Mary, and both might also be called news. I talked about 'tidings' and the idea of Christ's birth as brand-new and surprising 'news' in carols here.

And then there's that link between nowell and new, emphasising the idea of Christmas as a time of renewal. Early in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when Arthur's court are feasting at Yuletide, there's a delicate bit of wordplay on new/Nowell:

Wyle Nw Yer watz so yep that hit watz nwe cummen,
That day doubble on the dece watz the douth serued.
Fro the kyng watz cummen with knyghtes into the halle,
The chauntré of the chapel cheved to an ende,
Loude crye watz ther kest of clerkez and other,
Nowel nayted onewe, nevened ful ofte.

(When the New Year was so young that it was newly come,
That day the company were served double portions on the dais.
When the king was come with knights into the hall,
The chanting in the chapel having come to an end,
Loud cries were uttered there by clerks and others,
'Nowell' repeated anew, named again and again.)

Nowell is echoed in onewe, suggesting a scene of busy, cheerful noise: everyone is calling out 'Nowell!' to each other in celebration of the season. It's Christmas they've gathered to celebrate, but by the time of this feast - which is about to be dramatically disrupted by the Green Knight - it's apparently New Year's Day. We're told that the New Year is still very new, in its first youth and freshness - the year is described as yep (pronounced 'yeap'), a lovely word for someone young, lively and energetic. A few lines later the same word is used to characterise the youthful King Arthur himself:

Bot Arthure wolde not ete til al were served,
He watz so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered:
His lif liked hym lyght, he loved the lasse
Auther to longe lye or to longe sitte,
So bisied him his yonge blod and his brayn wylde...
Therfore of face so fere
He stightlez stif in stalle,
Ful yep in that Nw Yere
Much mirthe he mas withalle.

(But Arthur would not eat until all were served;
He was so merry in his youthfulness, and somewhat boyish.
He liked to take life lightly; he loved the less
Either to lie around or sit still too long,
He was so stirred up by his young blood and his wild brain...
So with a proud countenance
He stands masterful in the hall,
Very yep in that New Year,
Much mirth he makes withal.)

It's the youth of the year, and at the time of the poem Arthur's court too are in the flower of their youth - we're told that 'all was this fair folk in their first age'. Every reader of this poem would know what a tragic end that court would have, how its flower would fade and the fellowship of the Round Table would fall; but the poem captures them all when they're young and yep, beautiful and merry and a little wild. All the important things in Gawain happen during the Christmas season, and the Yuletide setting of the poem is vividly brought to life throughout - in the bleakness of Gawain's winter journey, the jollity of the court's celebrations, the warmth and intimacy of fireside feasting. Somewhere behind this, although difficult to pin down, is probably a myth of seasonal rebirth - a ritual death of the old year, perhaps, like the Green Knight who springs back to life when his head is cut off.

Gawain and Arthur at the feast (BL Cotton Nero A X, f. 94v)

But as poor Gawain learns, the promises you gaily make in the first flush of Yuletide celebrations eventually have to be put to the test as the year runs on in its course:

This hanselle hatz Arthur of aventurus on fyrst
In yonge yer, for he yerned yelpyng to here...
Gawan watz glad to begynne those gomnez in halle,
Bot thagh the ende be hevy haf ye no wonder;
For thagh men ben mery in mynde quen thay han mayn drynk,
A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldez never lyke,
The forme to the fynisment foldez ful selden.
Forthi this Yol overyede, and the yere after,
And vche sesoun serlepes sued after other...)

(This pledge of adventures Arthur had at the beginning
Of the young year, for he ever yearned to hear bold words...
Gawain was glad to begin that game in the hall,
But if the end be sorrowful, do not wonder at it:
For though men be merry in mind when they have drunk well,
A year runs very swiftly, and yields never the same again;
The beginning and the end rarely accord.
So this Yule passed, and the year that followed,
And every season in its turn succeeded one after another...)

The year goes round, and Gawain has to fulfil his promise to the Green Knight when Yuletide comes again. Young Gawain grows wiser through testing and temptation, and learns more from failure than from success - there's a comforting thought, if you find making New Year's resolutions as daunting as I do!

January (BL Royal 1 D X, f. 9)

In our own times New Year is a stand-alone secular celebration, so distinct from Christmas that some people go back to work in between the two dates and pack their decorations away before New Year's Eve; but that wasn't the case in the Middle Ages, where both were part of Yuletide and the Christmas season was a more organic whole. In the world of Gawain, the words Nowell and Yule and New Year are all very closely linked (a kind of alliterative concatenation, almost). When the Green Knight enters he brings Christmas, Yule, and New Year - and yep - all together as the occasion for his challenge to the court:

I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen,
For hit is Yol and Nwe Yer, and here ar yep mony.

(I demand in this court a Christmas game,
For it is Yule and New Year, and here are many yep men.)

Some medieval carols, similarly, treat Yule and New Year as essentially synonymous:

Now is Yule come with gentyll cheer; [excellent fun]
In mirth and games he has no peer,
In every land where he comes near
Is mirth and games, I dare well say.

Now is come a messenger
Of your lord, Sir New Year,
Bids us all be merry here
And make us merry as we may.

Since the late 20th century it's become common to invert the traditional relationship between fasting and feasting in the Christmas season. The ancient custom was to fast in Advent in preparation for the feast, and then to celebrate for at least twelve days after Christmas (and to some degree, all through January). Now we do it the other way around; for many people the feast is followed by a penitential fast, in the form of 'Dry January' or New Year's resolutions about eating less and going to the gym. As a manifestation of the desire for a fresh start, this 'New Year, new you' impulse is natural enough, but it does strike me as strange that it's so often framed in negative terms. There's an odd sense, encouraged mostly perhaps by journalists and advertisers, that the indulgence of Christmas is a 'sin' which has to be atoned for - as if eating and drinking with friends and family, to celebrate the turn of the year from darkness to light, is a moral lapse for which one must subsequently make amends by privation and self-punishment. We are much less kind to ourselves in these weeks after Christmas than the strictest confessor would have been in the Middle Ages. Feasting at Christmas is not something to atone for, but a proper observance due to the season; and that feasting is also the sustenance we need to carry us into the New Year with energy and strength. The renewal of Nowell in these medieval poems is not a repudiation of Christmas feasting, but the power and life with which Christmas endows us as the new year begins. Find something new in the New Year, certainly, but don't punish yourself for enjoying Christmas first! Sing a new song, seek new adventures; it's true that 'a yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldez never lyke', and we don't know what it will bring. But nevertheless: 'Now is well and all is well'.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Mundi Domina, the Door Between the Worlds

Wisdom depicted as a female figure enthroned (BL Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.36)

O mundi domina, regio ex semine orta,
ex tuo iam Christus processit alvo tamquam sponsus de thalamo;
hic iacet in praesepio qui et sidera regit.

O Lady of the World, sprung of royal race,
now Christ has come forth from your womb as a bridegroom from his chamber;
here in a manger lies he who rules the stars.

This is one of a number of antiphons which in medieval tradition were grouped with the seven 'O Antiphons' in the days leading up to Christmas, though they are addressed not to Christ but to other figures or ideas in the story of the Incarnation - in this case Mary, 'Lady of the World'. This text forms the basis, loosely speaking, for the section comprising lines 275-347 of the Anglo-Saxon Advent Lyrics. The Old English poem expands this brief antiphon into a much longer and more allusive meditation on Mary's role in Christ's entry into the world; this is the longest section of the poem (at 72 lines) and it follows immediately on from the second longest (the 60-line poem based on O rex pacifice). It feels like the work of a poet excited by his or her own poetry, wrestling with imagery which is difficult to conceptualise and challenging to put into words - yet determined to go on until it has yielded up everything it has to offer.

Eala þu mæra middangeardes
seo clæneste cwen ofer eorþan
þara þe gewurde to widan feore,
hu þec mid ryhte ealle reordberend
hatað ond secgað, hæleð geond foldan,
bliþe mode, þæt þu bryd sie
þæs selestan swegles bryttan.
Swylce þa hyhstan on heofonum eac,
Cristes þegnas, cweþað ond singað
þæt þu sie hlæfdige halgum meahtum
wuldorweorudes, ond worldcundra
hada under heofonum, ond helwara.
Forþon þu þæt ana ealra monna
geþohtest þrymlice, þristhycgende,
þæt þu þinne mægðhad meotude brohtes,
sealdes butan synnum. Nan swylc ne cwom
ænig oþer ofer ealle men,
bryd beaga hroden, þe þa beorhtan lac
to heofonhame hlutre mode
siþþan sende. Forðon heht sigores fruma
his heahbodan hider gefleogan
of his mægenþrymme ond þe meahta sped
snude cyðan, þæt þu sunu dryhtnes
þurh clæne gebyrd cennan sceolde
monnum to miltse, ond þe, Maria, forð
efne unwemme a gehealdan.
Eac we þæt gefrugnon, þæt gefyrn bi þe
soðfæst sægde sum woðbora
in ealddagum, Esaias,
þæt he wære gelæded þæt he lifes gesteald
in þam ecan ham eal sceawode.
Wlat þa swa wisfæst witga geond þeodland
oþþæt he gestarode þær gestaþelad wæs
æþelic ingong. Eal wæs gebunden
deoran since duru ormæte,
wundurclommum bewriþen. Wende swiðe
þæt ænig elda æfre ne meahte
swa fæstlice forescyttelsas
on ecnesse o inhebban,
oþþe ðæs ceasterhlides clustor onlucan,
ær him godes engel þurh glædne geþonc
þa wisan onwrah ond þæt word acwæð:
"Ic þe mæg secgan þæt soð gewearð
þæt ðas gyldnan gatu giet sume siþe
god sylf wile gæstes mægne
gefælsian, fæder ælmihtig,
ond þurh þa fæstan locu foldan neosan,
ond hio þonne æfter him ece stondað
simle singales swa beclysed
þæt nænig oþer, nymðe nergend god,
hy æfre ma eft onluceð."
Nu þæt is gefylled þæt se froda þa
mid eagum þær on wlatade.
þu eart þæt wealldor, þurh þe waldend frea
æne on þas eorðan ut siðade,
ond efne swa þec gemette, meahtum gehrodene,
clæne ond gecorene, Crist ælmihtig.
Swa ðe æfter him engla þeoden
eft unmæle ælces þinges
lioþucægan bileac, lifes brytta.
Iowa us nu þa are þe se engel þe,
godes spelboda, Gabriel brohte.
Huru þæs biddað burgsittende
þæt ðu þa frofre folcum cyðe,
þinre sylfre sunu. Siþþan we motan
anmodlice ealle hyhtan,
nu we on þæt bearn foran breostum stariað.
Geþinga us nu þristum wordum
þæt he us ne læte leng owihte
in þisse deaðdene gedwolan hyran,
ac þæt he usic geferge in fæder rice,
þær we sorglease siþþan motan
wunigan in wuldre mid weoroda god.

Anglo-Saxon ivory plaque of Christ and Mary (c.1000-20, V&A)

O glory of the world,
the purest queen of all those
who have ever existed across the earth!
How rightly all speech-bearing ones
throughout the world address you and say,
joyous in heart, that you should be the bride
of the best Gift-giver of the skies.
And so too those highest in the heavens,
thegns of Christ, proclaim and sing
that you should be the lady, by holy powers,
of the heavenly host and of all the earthly kinds
of orders under the heavens, and of hell-dwellers.
For you, alone of all mankind,
gloriously resolved, courageous in purpose,
that you would bring your maidenhead to the Measurer,
give it without sin. There has never come another such
among all mankind, any other bride adorned with rings,
who since with shining spirit has sent the bright gift
to heaven-home. For the Lord of Victory commanded
his high messenger to fly here
from his glorious majesty and swiftly make known to you
the abundance of might, that you should bear the Lord’s Son by a pure birth
as mercy to mankind, and you, Mary,
from henceforth would remain ever undefiled.
We have also heard this, what long ago
a truth-bearing prophet said of you
in ancient days, Isaiah:
that he was led to where he beheld
life’s dwelling-place in the eternal home.
The wise prophet gazed across all that country
until he saw a spot where a noble entrance-way
had been established. That immense door
was bound about with precious treasure,
fastened with wondrous clasps.
He was sure that no man
could ever, in all eternity,
lift up those bars so firmly fastened,
or unlock the barriers of the city gates;
until an angel of God unraveled the matter,
glad in thoughts, and spoke these words:
‘I can tell you what will come true:
that God himself, by the power of the Spirit,
intends to pass through these golden gates
at a time yet to come, the Father Almighty,
and to visit the earth through these fastened locks,
and after him they will then stand forever
closed, always and eternally,
so that no other, except the Saviour God,
will ever be able to unlock them again.’
Now it is fulfilled, that which the wise one
there beheld with his own eyes.
You are the door in the wall; through you the All-wielding Lord
once only journeyed out into this world,
and even as he found you, adorned with powers,
chaste and chosen, Almighty Christ,
so the Lord of Angels closed you behind him again
with his limb-key, the Giver of Life,
immaculate in every way.
Show forth to us now the grace which the angel,
God’s word-bearer Gabriel, brought to you.
O, this we city-dwellers pray:
that you reveal that comfort to the people,
your own Son. Then may we all
rejoice in hope, united in mind,
when we gaze at the baby upon your breast.
Intercede for us now, bold in your words,
that he may not allow us any longer
to go astray in this deadly valley,
but that he may bring us into his Father’s kingdom,
where we, free from sorrow, may afterwards
dwell in glory with the God of hosts.

The virtues outside a city gate (BL Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.31v)

This section of the poem offers two images of Mary, each extraordinary in its own way. Elsewhere among the Advent Lyrics, Mary is the subject of 'O virgo virginum' and of the dialogue which begins 'O Joseph'; the latter brings to life the tension and pain in the story of her child-bearing, dramatising the anguished thoughts of a couple who have had a world-changing miracle erupt in the middle of their marriage. That's an emotional, intimate conversation - the Incarnation as personal human drama.

This poem gives us a very different view of Mary. Here she is a queen, and on a cosmic scale - ruler of the forces of heaven, earth, and hell. God and Mary are described in language and tropes drawn from Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry: they are the brytta and his bryd, the generous ring-giving lord and his resolute queen. Described thus, they might easily be Hrothgar and Wealhtheow in Beowulf, or even Cnut and Emma. Like many another woman in Anglo-Saxon poetry, Mary is a bride 'adorned with rings' (beaga hroden), but this bride is far from a passive figure: she is courageous and determined (þristhycgende, 'steadfast in mind'). This poem frames her situation in a distinctive way, presenting it as if she has decided to undertake a diplomatic mission from earth to heaven. Though literally this decision is made when she accepts Gabriel's message to her, the poem describes it as if she set out to travel on a journey to unite herself with God:

Forþon þu þæt ana ealra monna
geþohtest þrymlice, þristhycgende,
þæt þu þinne mægðhad meotude brohtes,
sealdes butan synnum. Nan swylc ne cwom
ænig oþer ofer ealle men,
bryd beaga hroden, þe þa beorhtan lac
to heofonhame hlutre mode
siþþan sende.

For you, alone of all mankind,
gloriously resolved, courageous in purpose,
that you would bring your maidenhead to the Measurer,
give it without sin. There has never come another such
among all mankind, any other bride adorned with rings,
who since with shining spirit has sent the bright gift
to heaven-home.

This kind of mission calls to mind the idea found in Anglo-Saxon literature of a royal bride as a 'peave-weaver', whose marriage makes a truce between two warring tribes; in this case the tribes Mary unites are heaven and earth, which are brought together in peace through her actions. The beorhtan lac she brings to God as a wedding-gift (lac means both 'gift' and 'offering, sacrifice') probably refers to her virginity, but it would also be an apt epithet for Christ, and it's a reminder that gift-giving too was part of a medieval queen's royal duty - Wealhtheow, the most famous peace-weaving queen in Anglo-Saxon poetry, rewards Beowulf for his services to her people with generous gifts of arkenstone-like treasure.

This view of Mary as a resolute, powerful queen continues to the end of the poem, where she is asked to intercede þristum wordum 'with bold words', on behalf of mankind. All this is perhaps inspired by the antiphon's reference to Mary's 'royal race', which the poem skillfully translates into the imagery and vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon royal womanhood. But in its second half the poem turns away from the antiphon completely to reflect on the vision of Ezekiel of the gate through which only God can pass:

Wlat þa swa wisfæst witga geond þeodland
oþþæt he gestarode þær gestaþelad wæs
æþelic ingong. Eal wæs gebunden
deoran since duru ormæte,
wundurclommum bewriþen. Wende swiðe
þæt ænig elda æfre ne meahte9
swa fæstlice forescyttelsas
on ecnesse o inhebban,
oþþe ðæs ceasterhlides clustor onlucan...
Nu þæt is gefylled þæt se froda þa
mid eagum þær on wlatade.
þu eart þæt wealldor, þurh þe waldend frea
æne on þas eorðan ut siðade.

The wise prophet gazed across all that country
until he saw a spot where a noble entrance-way
had been established. That immense door
was bound about with precious treasure,
fastened with wondrous clasps.
He was sure that no man
could ever, in all eternity,
lift up those bars so firmly fastened,
or unlock the barriers of the city gates...
Now it is fulfilled, that which the wise one
there beheld with his own eyes.
You are the door in the wall; through you the All-wielding Lord
once only journeyed out into this world.

The reference is to Ezekiel 44 (though the vision is mistakenly attributed to Isaiah), and the gate is interpreted as an image for Mary and her unique role in salvation - her unique place in the universe. One interesting feature of this poem is that the imagery of the first half is characteristically Anglo-Saxon, that of the second half firmly Biblical; but they are seamlessly woven together, and support and enrich each other. The union between heaven and earth which is implicitly brought about by Mary's peace-weaving in the first section is here given a different, but parallel expression; now she is the point of intersection between heaven and earth, the door through whom - and only through whom - Christ enters the human world. Mary, the great and terrible queen, is also the 'door in the wall' which separates us from the vast world beyond our universe - beyond human imagination, and yet accessible to us 'when we gaze at the baby upon [her] breast'.

Though Biblical in origin, the idea of this immense door between the worlds is the kind of metaphor which feels more at home in fantasy and science fiction than anywhere else - perhaps that's the only place now where we might encounter such a portal to another dimension as is imagined here. Mary is the wealldor: the door in the back of the wardrobe, the looking-glass with another world behind, the 'magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn'.

Stairway to heaven (A Matter of Life and Death)

The idea of Mary as the 'gate to heaven' (porta caeli), and the 'ladder to heaven' (scala caeli) are both metaphors with an ancient history, but to modern ears they can be surprising. I've had students find the image as applied to Mary in this poem difficult to grasp and almost unpleasant, so far is it from the much safer, small-scale religious imagery most of us are familiar with; but it's all the better for that. If it's initially challenging, the more rewarding the process of trying to comprehend it. This is the kind of image which opens a door onto the vast ambition of medieval writing about Advent and the Incarnation, which makes the modern equivalent (squabbles about whether we're allowed to sing about kings in Christmas carols) look utterly banal. Ancient texts about Advent are big: their scope is cosmic, their imagination boundless. They talk about Christ as ruler of time, creator of the stars, mystic fulfilment of all the myriad forms of human desire - not just (although, of course, also) a little baby in a manger. They are the very opposite of an exclusive, domesticated, cosy Christmas; they call down the powers of the whole universe, and all the powers and images which poetry has to offer - from the Bible to Beowulf - to find expression for this unimaginable marvel.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Caelorum Domine, Lord of the Heavens

Anglo-Saxon ivory plaque of Christ in Majesty, 11th century (V&A)

Of all the poetry you might read in Advent, the great season of paradox and interpretative possibility, the very best choice may be some of the poetry inspired by the 'O Antiphons'. The last week of Advent has for centuries belonged to these ancient songs of appeal, which are sung each day at Vespers as Christmas draws closer. You can read about the history of the O Antiphons here; these texts are now best known via J. M. Neale's hymn 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', but they have inspired poets since the earliest days of poetry in English. In the past I've posted several Middle English poems based on these texts - two poems and two carols - as well as the exquisite Anglo-Saxon poetic meditation inspired by the antiphons, which is known today as the Advent Lyrics or as Christ I.

This poem, which survives in the tenth-century Exeter Book, is incomplete (the beginning is lost), but as it stands it consists of twelve sections, each opening with the Old English equivalent of the antiphons' 'O': Eala. Some of these sections correspond with the seven antiphons which are today the best-known, but the first three (O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse) are missing, and there are several additions; diverse medieval practice encompassed a range of further antiphons no longer used today. In past years I've looked in detail at different sections of the poem, which you can find in the following posts:

O rex gentium (lines 1-17)
O clavis David (18-49)
O Jerusalem (51-70)
O virgo virginum (71-103)
O Oriens (104-129)
O Emmanuel (130-163)
O Joseph (164-213)
O rex pacifice (214-274)

Of the twelve there are still four I haven't looked at here, and this year I'll translate and explore two more of them. It's not entirely clear whether the Advent Lyrics are one poem or a sequence of poems, but either way they benefit from being read in stages like this, piece by piece - they are poems which ask you to read them slowly and meditate upon them. Each word, each metaphor, gives forth more meaning the more you dwell upon it. The O Antiphons are reflections on the idea of Christ under his different names and titles, a shifting succession of metaphors which attempt to express something, yet not all, of what he might be: the key, the root, the king, the sun, pure and complete wisdom. I've said in the past that I think the antiphons lend themselves particularly well to Anglo-Saxon poetry because this kind of allusive naming and renaming is exactly how much Old English poetry chooses to explore ideas (usually in the form of what's called 'variation') - it's an incremental, oblique progression of thought, where each name offers a new form of understanding or a different glancing light upon the thing described.

So these are texts rich in metaphor, alive with language and images of profound beauty; and yet they are something more, because in Christ, as nowhere else, metaphor collapses into truth. The antiphons suggest that in some mystical sense what is coming at Christmas is more truly the sun (or root, or king) than the sun itself. It is the external world which is the metaphor, Christ who is the reality. God is a poet who has written the world in metaphors which reveal his truth, his self; and our task - our pleasure - is to learn how to read them.

At the same time, there's something about the antiphons, and the poems inspired by them, which is not solely meditative - they are urgent and immediate and dramatic (in every sense of that word). They are to be sung as if in the voice of the whole church, the whole world, calling out in longing to its Lord. Each is a cry of desire, bearing a startling emotional intensity, and they encourage the reader to dwell with that desire - to feel it, explore it, attempt to understand its source. What is it we long for? What do we hope for, what do we seek? Sometimes the poems articulate what they are asking for - they appeal for light, or for freedom, or for strength - but at other times the desire is left undefined, and perhaps more powerful for being so. The poems do not promise that desire will or can be fulfilled; they long for and ask for fulfillment, but they don't possess it yet. They exist forever in a state of hope and uncertainty, acknowledging the world's great wound of need, and appealing for it to be healed.

Christ in Majesty, from a 10th-century English manuscript (Cambridge, Trinity MS. B 10 4, f. 16v)

So, here's the first of this year's translations: 'O caelorum domine'. This is the antiphon on which the poem is (rather loosely) based:

O caelorum domine,
qui cum patre sempiternus es una cum sancto spiritu,
audi tuos famulos,
veni ad salvandum nos, iam noli tardare.

O Lord of the heavens,
who with the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally lives,
hear your servants,
come to save us, do not delay.

This is so simple - what could be simpler? But look what the Anglo-Saxon poet made of it.

Eala þu halga heofona dryhten,
þu mid fæder þinne gefyrn wære
efenwesende in þam æþelan ham.
Næs ænig þa giet engel geworden,
ne þæs miclan mægenþrymmes nan
ðe in roderum up rice biwitigað,
þeodnes þryðgesteald ond his þegnunga,
þa þu ærest wære mid þone ecan frean
sylf settende þas sidan gesceaft,
brade brytengrundas. Bæm inc is gemæne
heahgæst hleofæst. We þe, hælend Crist,
þurh eaðmedu ealle biddað
þæt þu gehyre hæfta stefne,
þinra niedþiowa, nergende god,
hu we sind geswencte þurh ure sylfra gewill.
Habbað wræcmæcgas wergan gæstas,
hetlen helsceaþa, hearde genyrwad,
gebunden bealorapum. Is seo bot gelong
eall æt þe anum, ece dryhten.
Hreowcearigum help, þæt þin hidercyme
afrefre feasceafte, þeah we fæhþo wið þec
þurh firena lust gefremed hæbben.
Ara nu onbehtum ond usse yrmþa geþenc,
hu we tealtrigað tydran mode,
hwearfiað heanlice. Cym nu, hæleþa cyning,
ne lata to lange. Us is lissa þearf,
þæt þu us ahredde ond us hælogiefe
soðfæst sylle, þæt we siþþan forð
þa sellan þing symle moten
geþeon on þeode, þinne willan.

O holy Lord of the Heavens,
from of old you were with your Father
equal-being in the glorious home.
Not one angel had yet been made,
nor one of the mighty and majestic host
which guards the kingdom in the skies,
the splendour-dwelling of the Prince and his thegns,
when first you were with the eternal Lord
yourself establishing this vast creation,
the wide and spacious lands. One with you both
is the sheltering Spirit. Saviour Christ,
we all pray to you in humility
that you may hear the voice of the hostages,
of your captives, Liberating God,
how we are sore pressed by our own desires.
The cursed spirits, hate-filled hell-foes,
have cruelly confined the exiled race,
bound with bale-ropes. The remedy is
dependent entirely on you alone, eternal Lord.
Help the heart-sore, that your coming here
may comfort the wretched, though we
through our desire for wickedness have made a feud against you.
Have mercy now on your servants and think on our sorrows,
how we stumble on, weak at heart,
wandering hopelessly. Come now, king of men,
do not delay too long! We need kindness,
for you to rescue us and give us the true
grace of salvation, so that we may henceforth
always be able to do the better thing
to thrive among the people: your will.

There's a very sudden shift in this poem which occurs around the halfway point - a vertiginous plummet from heaven down to hell. The first half is all glory, eternity, stability, strength; the second half suffering, sorrow, constriction, frailty. By the swiftness of the transition, the poem enacts the descent it asks for: the entry of Christ, 'Lord of the heavens', into the world of exiles and captives. It reminds me of this image from an Anglo-Saxon Psalter of a gigantic Christ leaning down to pluck his people from the jaws of hell:


This is the kind of disparity of scale the poem evokes, with its contrast between the brade brytengrundas, 'the wide and spacious lands' of his dwelling-place, and the confining (genyrwad, i.e. 'narrowed' ) limits of ours.

The first half of the poem is stately and measured, with some elegant negatives:

Næs ænig þa giet engel geworden,
ne þæs miclan mægenþrymmes nan...

Not one angel had yet been made,
nor one of the mighty and majestic host...

There's language of stability and constancy: eternity, of course, and the establishment of the heavens, described as a þryðgesteald, a 'dwelling of glory' (gesteald suggests a fixed dwelling, stable and steadfast.) And we have a reminder too that there was almost no theological concept which Anglo-Saxon translators wouldn't render in English if they could; so notice here efenwesende, 'equal-being', as the Old English for 'consubstantial'!

But the second half is darker and sadder. The last lines are very moving, offering two affecting verbs to characterise what humans do in the world: we stumble and we wander (tealtrigað and hwearfiað). The verb tealtrian suggests tottering, stumbling, unsteady movement, while hwearfian is something more turbulent: 'to turn, change, roll about, revolve, wander'. I particularly associate hwearfian with The Seafarer, where it describes the movement of the soul which flies out of the body to roam restlessly across the earth, 'eager and greedy'. That's an image, and a poem, of ravenous desire - of 'hunger' and 'longing' and 'lust', which drive the speaker out onto the ocean, away from the safe and familiar to an existence which is painful, lonely, but better than the life he has known on land.

In the Advent poem, too, desire is a powerful force. We are in captivity, bound not just by the ropes of devils (bealorapas) but by our own desires: we sind geswencte þurh ure sylfra gewill. By our love of sins (firena lust) mankind has enslaved itself, and placed itself in 'feud' with God. If the O Antiphons take their power in part from the force of their desire for God, this poem suggests what happens when that potent desire is misdirected. The only cure is liss, one of those far-ranging Old English words which means many beautiful things: mercy, favour, grace, gentleness, kindness, joy. Alliteratively speaking, liss often collocates in Anglo-Saxon poetry with life and with love; but here it's with ne lata to lange, a cry of impatience: 'Do not delay too long.'

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Herebert's 'Holy moder, that bere Cryst'

The Virgin in glory (from a fourteenth-century manuscript, BL Royal MS 6 E VII Part 2, f. 479)

It's a while since we've had any poetry on this blog, and it seems time to correct that. This year I've been paying particular attention to the works of the early fourteenth-century English poet William Herebert, and especially his sensitive, thoughtful versions of Latin hymns; and since we're in Advent, let's take a look at his version of 'Alma Redemptoris Mater', the Compline antiphon for this season. (For another Middle English poetic response to the same text, see this post.) It's a short text; the Latin is:

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

Listen to it here. This is Herebert's version:

Holy moder, that bere Cryst, buggere of monkunde,
Thou art ȝat of hevene blisse that prest wey ȝyfst and bunde.
Thou sterre of se, rer op the folk that rysing haveth in munde.
In thee thou bere thyn holy fader,
That mayden were after and rather,
Wharof so wondreth kunde.
Of Gabrieles mouthe thou fonge thylke "Ave";
Lesne ous of sunne nouthe, so we bisecheth thee. Amen.

Which is:

Holy mother, who bore Christ, buyer of mankind,
You are gate of heaven's bliss, who gives the near and ready way.
You, star of the sea, raise up the folk who intend to rise.
Within you you bore your holy father,
Who maiden were before and after,
At which nature wonders.
From Gabriel's mouth you received the 'Ave';
Release us from sins now, we beseech you. Amen.

That gives you the sense of Herebert's version, but not the poetry. Herebert is a faithful translator but he always adds something to his sources, and close attention to his choice of language is immensely rewarding. I've been thinking recently about how approaching familiar texts through Old and Middle English translations brings to life certain aspects of religious language which have become, in Modern English, so conventional and familiar as to be almost dead metaphors. There's a perfect example here in Herebert's version of redemptor, which is buggere, to be pronounced (I promise!) as buyer - the sense being that Christ has 'bought back' (i.e. redeemed) mankind from the slavery of sin. It's a fairly common Middle English translation of redemptor, giving an English equivalent rather than adopting, as we do now, the Latin word; redeemer turned up late in English, in the fifteenth century, and Herebert's far from the only one to use buyer or again-buyer. (The Wycliffe Bible says: 'I wot that myn aȝeenbiere liueth, and in the laste dai I am to rise fro the erthe...')

The financial metaphor is there in the Latin redemptor, of course - emptor is buyer, as in 'caveat emptor' - but it's probably not alive to most people today who use the word 'redeemer'. (Though other poets have made use of it; compare, perhaps, 'Redemption' by Herebert's namesake, George Herbert...) But it was alive to Herebert, and must have been to a medieval reader of this poem. Herebert's whole first line is only translating three words of the Latin, the opening phrase of the hymn - alma redemptoris mater - and yet he has space not only for that metaphor but also for aural play on buyer and bear, a similarity of sound which links Mary's action ('bearing') to Christ's action ('buying'), and thus underlines the fundamental link between them which motivates the whole poem: the role that Mary plays in salvation, through her choice to become Christ's entry into the world and her acts of love to mankind.


The hymn imagines Mary as the open door to heaven, a road by which Christ enters the world and by which mankind can travel to joy. Herebert's description of that road is again a little more expansive than the Latin, and he plays with a beautiful ambiguity in his language which is not present (I think) in his source. He says that Mary the 'prest wey ȝyfst and bunde'; I translated this above as 'gives the near and ready way', but it's not quite as simple as that. Both prest and bunde mean something like 'ready, prepared, near at hand', and the sense is that the road to heaven is accessible and open (pervia is the Latin word he's building on). However, both words mean a good deal more than 'open'. Both also connote energy, readiness, and eagerness, and in other Middle English texts are more often used of people than of objects or roads: of an army preparing for battle, a servant promptly attending on his lord, a lover eager to do his lady's bidding - of anyone quick, lively, spirited, attentive, ready to spring into action. They're incredibly life-filled words.

And so, perhaps, they suggest the eager, life-bearing, near-at-hand person in an Advent context: Christ, who stands ready to spring into the world through the gate opened by Mary. Herebert's verb ȝyfst offers more than the Latin, too: Mary 'gives' (not only 'remains') the way to heaven, and of course, she gives Christ to the world. The way in this poem is primarily the road to heaven but Christ, too, is 'the way', and the adjectives used to describe the way here could apply equally well - if not rather better - to him.

Herebert's Christ is always an energetic figure, active, determined, and forceful, brimming with physical as well as spiritual vitality. I talked about this earlier in the year in reference to Herebert's poems for Easter and the Ascension, which have Christ climbing onto the cross and then into the skies, and it's most obvious of all in his poem 'What is he, this lordling, that cometh from the fight?' In that poem he imagines Christ as a young knight coming bloodied from battle, who through his strength and douhtynesse has won a hard struggle against evil. This is the Christ whom the medieval church saw in the young man of the Song of Songs, who comes seeking his beloved:

Look, he comes leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle, or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me, 'Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone... Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.'

As Gregory the Great wrote (and an Anglo-Saxon poet turned into poetry):

Hence it is that Solomon has put into the mouth of the Church the words: 'Behold, He cometh! leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.' These hills are his lofty and noble achievements. 'Behold, He cometh leaping upon the mountains.'

When He came to redeem us, He came, if I may so say, in leaps. My dearly beloved brethren, would you know what His leaps were? From heaven he leapt into the womb of the Virgin, from the womb into the manger, from the manger on to the Cross, from the Cross into the grave, and from the grave up to heaven.

Lo, how the Truth made manifest in the Flesh did leap for our sakes, that He might draw us to run after Him for this end did He rejoice, as a strong man to run a race.
This isn't the passive, suffering Christ of most medieval poetry about the Crucifixion, nor the grave gentle Jesus of later imaginings; it's something immensely vital, virile and alive, a shape-shifting force of pure energy. Herebert's word prest exactly describes this Christ.


But Christ is only hinted at here; the focus of the hymn is Mary, and her intermediary role. The images of her as 'gate of heaven' and 'star of the sea' are familiar ones, which Herebert also translates in his version of another Marian hymn, 'Ave maris stella'. I'll come back to the 'gate' image in another post this Advent (if I get around to it!) because there's a wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem which does even more, brilliantly, with that image of Mary as the door between the worlds. Here it's only one aspect of her role as mediator. She is implored 'rer op the folk that rysing haveth in munde' ('raise up the folk who want to rise', with a nice alliterative touch), and 'lesne ous of sunne', a more specific petition than the Latin's peccatorum miserere - asking to be 'released' from sin loops back to the opening idea of Christ as 'redeemer'. So the poem comes full circle, and returns to the link between Mary's action and Christ's - the one who bought us and the one who bore him.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

St Edmund and Abingdon

St Edmund (Chichester Cathedral)

16 November is the feast of St Edmund of Abingdon, Oxford scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1240. (It's also the feast of St Margaret of Scotland and one of the feasts of St Ælfheah, a predecessor of Edmund's at Canterbury two centuries earlier.) St Edmund had a long and somewhat turbulent career, as many medieval bishops did, and we have a mass of detailed information about his life - the cause of his canonisation was started very shortly after his death, which means that materials to support the cause were gathered from his contemporaries and those who had known him well.

For me (quite selfishly), the interest of the hagiographical material about St Edmund lies in his early life, as a child in Abingdon and then a young scholar in late twelfth-century Oxford. It gives a vivid picture of Oxford in the early days of the university, which is not dissimilar, in some essential ways, from the work of universities and schools today. Education was one of the glories of the medieval church, and it's a shame that so many people today believe (on the basis of unthinking assumption, rather than fact) that the church in the Middle Ages was somehow 'anti-education'; nothing could be further from the truth, as St Edmund's life and story (and those of many others like him) demonstrate.

It’s also rare to know so much about the early life of a medieval figure, or to have such specific details about their childhood that it becomes possible to visit and envision the scenes of their youthful experiences. In this post I thought I'd share some of those early stories about Edmund, and take you on a visit to Abingdon, where they still cherish the memory of their home-grown saint.

All quotations are taken from the thirteenth-century The Life of St Edmund by Matthew Paris, ed. and trans. C. H. Lawrence (Stroud, 1996).

St Nicholas' church, Abingdon

Abingdon is a market town on the River Thames, six miles south of Oxford, and (like the village of Eynsham, north of the city) it has a much longer history - and longer scholarly history - than its more famous university neighbour. Abingdon actually claims to be 'the oldest town in Britain', because there's evidence of settled inhabitation here in the Iron Age; it subsequently became a Roman town, and in the Anglo-Saxon period it was the site of an important monastery. One of the most dynamic and influential figures in the late Anglo-Saxon church, St Æthelwold - he of the splendid Benedictional, and a champion of monastic reform and education - was abbot of Abingdon before he became Bishop of Winchester, and the town still bears traces of the work he did here in the tenth century. (The abbey millstream still follows the course he set for it, a thousand years later.)

Abingdon from above, looking south-east (from the roof of the town museum)

In Edmund's day the abbey would have been an imposing presence in the town, physically, institutionally, and psychologically. It was a major landowner here and for miles around, as well as the chief provider of education and healthcare. St Edmund was born in Abingdon around 1174, probably into a fairly prosperous middle-class family in trade. His parents were named Reginald and Mabel, and Edmund seems to have been the eldest of a large family; he had at least three brothers and two sisters, whom he took responsibility for after his parents’ death. Edmund's name might perhaps suggest that he was born or baptised on the feast of St Edmund of East Anglia (20 November); in the last days of his life he made reference to his namesake, telling his companions that after his death he would return to them on the feast of St Edmund, king and martyr, so perhaps he saw a link between himself and the Anglo-Saxon saint.

Abingdon from the river

Records show that Edmund's father owned several properties in Abingdon, and the family home was in West Street (now West St Helen Street). The house was remembered as Edmund's birthplace, and a chapel was established nearby at the end of the thirteenth century in memory of the saint. The street-name St Edmund's Lane preserves the name:



These were relatively modest origins, and it was entirely through Edmund's parents' commitment to his education, and his own hard work, that he later achieved a position of eminence. It was Edmund’s mother Mabel who was the guiding and inspiring influence of his early life, especially his education. His father died when Edmund was young, and Mabel encouraged her sons’ education, supporting them first at Oxford and then at Paris. She was a particularly devout and determined woman, known for her works of fasting, almsgiving and prayer; ‘of all the widows of Abingdon she was said to have been the jewel’, Matthew Paris says.

Abingdon has two medieval churches in addition to the lost abbey church, and one of them, St Nicholas', is associated with Mabel; at least, she was buried there. St Nicholas' stood at the edge of the abbey grounds, and though the abbey and its big church are gone, the little church of St Nicholas remains. This is what it looked like on St Edmund's day two years ago:


The church was founded in 1170, so it was brand-new in Edmund's childhood and not very old when Mabel was buried there. It has a plaque to Edmund and his mother:

A view of the inside:


Attached to the church is a gateway which would once have led into the abbey's grounds:


There's something evocative about a doorway which still stands and gapes, but no longer leads to the place it was built for.


This gateway is from the fifteenth century, and has a statue of the Virgin Mary above the door:


St Æthelwold and his fellow abbots were running a school at Abingdon when Oxford was just an ordinary Anglo-Saxon town, a ford over the Thames, but by Edmund's youth in the late twelfth century Oxford was increasingly gathering the communities of teachers, scholars and students who would in time form the nucleus of the university. Reginald and Mabel sent their son to be educated in a grammar school in Oxford, and the first signs of his future sanctity were said to have manifested themselves when he was around twelve years old. He was a devout child, and at that age he decided to pledge himself in a sacred marriage to the Virgin Mary. He placed a ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin in token of his vow, and after making his promise he tried to remove the ring - but by miraculous power it could not be removed. (This miracle was supposed to have taken place in the church of St Mary the Virgin, in Oxford.)

Another miracle in Edmund's childhood took place when he went out one midsummer day for a walk with some fellow students in the meadows near Oxford (traditionally said to be the river meadows near what is now Magdalen College). He wandered away from his companions,
And, lo, he came upon a bush marvellously covered with most beautiful flowers, contrary to its habit and out of its proper season, scattering its fragrance far and wide all around. As he pondered on this, it occurred to him that it had some heavenly meaning, and kneeling down, he prayed, saying 'O God, who didst appear to the holy Moses on Mount Sinai in the figure of a burning bush that was not consumed, reveal to me what is portended by this miraculous thing.'

As he sank down on his knees, alone, praying tearfully, a flood of light from heaven shone round him, and in it, to his stupefaction, there appeared the infant Christ shining with great clarity, who spoke to him words of consolation: 'I am Jesus Christ, the son of Blessed Mary the Virgin, your spouse, whom you wedded with a ring and took as your Lady. I know the secrets of your heart, and I have been your inseparable companion as you walked alone. From now on I promise you that I and my mother, your spouse, shall be your helpers and comforters.' Saying this, he imprinted a blessing on the young man's brow with these words: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, and added 'Sign yourself often thus and repeat this in memory of me.'

He remained long in that place, praying on his knees and asking the Holy Spirit to grant him the learning that conduces to salvation with the other virtues.

The spire of St Helen's church, Abingdon, from the meadows outside the town

This window in the church of St Edmund and St Frideswide, Oxford, shows Edmund's vision:


The scene at the bottom is his vision of the Christ-child, with towers which evoke Oxford's spires behind him:


As he grew older Edmund continued his education at Oxford and then at Paris, before coming back to Oxford to teach. He remained a serious and devout young man, and his hagiographer observes that ‘when as a youngster of more mature years he was put to the study of liberal arts, he proceeded of his own will along the road by which he had previously been led, being – as his name signified – blessed and pure’. (The Old English name-element ead- means ‘blessed’.) He engaged in strict ascetic practices to mortify his flesh, following the example to which his mother had encouraged him; when he was studying in Paris she sent him clothes (as mothers do!) along with a hair-shirt, urging him to wear it as a form of self-discipline. But despite this he remained, his companions recalled, ‘affable and kind to others’, ‘full of joy and gaiety’, and ‘a refuge of the oppressed, a consoler of the wretched and a most kind comforter of the afflicted’.

When he became a Master of Arts and began lecturing at Oxford, he was known for going to hear mass daily before giving his lectures, ‘which was more often than customary among lecturers at that time’, comments Matthew Paris (or indeed any time, I suspect...). While he was still what we’d now call an Early Career Researcher, Edmund gave financial help to support poor scholars at the university (sometimes selling his own books in order to do so) and built a chapel in Oxford dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The miracles of this phase of Edmund’s life are closely tied to his work as a lecturer: stories tell how he contended with the devil while making lecture notes for his students; how he healed one of his scholars from a serious illness; how he miraculously kept rainclouds away when he was preaching outside, and so on. He wrote, lectured and preached with great skill and eloquence; ‘when he lectured or preached, it seemed to his hearers that the finger of God was writing in his heart the words of life that flowed from his mouth like the river of paradise.’ He had so little concern for wealth that one of his colleagues testified that ‘when he received money from his scholars, he was in the habit of placing it, or rather tossing it, in the window, as if it were available to everybody’, and people would carry it away!

By this time his mother had died, but she was still exerting a powerful influence on his life. At this point he was lecturing on the liberal arts, but had not yet progressed to teaching theology; and then he had a vision of his mother which sent him in a new direction:

[At a time when he was giving lectures on geometry to his students] his most pious mother, who had died shortly before, appeared to him in a dream, and said: ‘My son, what are those shapes to which you are giving such earnest attention?’ When he replied, 'These are the subject of my lecture,' and showed her the diagrams which are commonly used in that faculty, she promptly seized his right hand and painted three circles in it, and in the circles she wrote these three names: 'Father. Son. Holy Spirit.' This done, she said, 'My dearest son, henceforth direct your attention to these figures and to no others.'

Instructed by this dream as if by a revelation, he immediately transferred to the study of theology.

This is a lovely story – a spur of parental guidance (disapproval?) from beyond the grave! The fact that she draws circles on his hand, as a mother might with a child, is a nice touch, echoing the sign Christ drew on Edmund's forehead in his earlier vision. Mabel is not imagined here disapproving of geometry per se; the point is that this is basic knowledge, and it’s now time for Edmund to progress to higher and deeper subjects, through the study of theology. This story suggests something of the powerful bond between Edmund and his mother, enduring after her death; but it’s also relevant that in the Middle Ages educational subjects – from Boethius’ Lady Philosophy to Geometry and Theology, as in the image below – are often represented as female. Here the real woman Mabel is envisaged teaching her son as if she were a vision of Theology itself, guiding the promising student towards the Queen of the Sciences.

A female figure teaching Geometry (BL Burney 275, f. 293)

Edmund's best-known work in the Middle Ages was his Speculum Ecclesie, which was probably written during this period of his career. It's a work on the contemplative life, offering (among other things) meditations on different moments in the life of Christ, aiming to help the reader to enter imaginatively into the scenes of his Passion and feel intense compassion for his sufferings. I don't know whether people read the Speculum Ecclesie today, but most students of Middle English will have read a poem which survives as part of it. This is one of the earliest, shortest, and most popular devotional poems in Middle English:

Nou goth sonne under wod,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

[Now goes the sun under the wood,
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face;
Now goes the sun under the tree,
I grieve, Mary, for thy son and thee.]

This short poem is designed to be a spur to meditation on the Crucifixion, perhaps at the appropriate hour of the day when the sun begins to set. Apparently very simple, the poem is dense with meaningful wordplay: as the sun sets behind the wood, so Christ the Son is shrouded in darkness on the wood of the cross, the tree; that is, the 'rode', which means both 'face', and 'rood' (cross). And here we have another pair of a mother and her son, and their strong emotional bond: the poem encourages the reader to meditate and dwell on Christ's crucifixion by approaching the Son through the Mother, to feel compassion for his suffering as it is reflected in her grief (underlined by that wordplay on 'rode' - his cross and her face). We don't know who wrote this precious little poem, but it's possible it was St Edmund himself - and either way, how wonderful it is that this poem should be associated with a saint whose mother was such an important presence in his life.

In 1222 Edmund became treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, and began increasingly to preach outside Oxford; in 1233 he was selected (as fourth choice) to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. His time as archbishop involved mediating in various political crises and disputes between Henry III and his barons, as well as conflict between Edmund and the monks of Canterbury; but it lasted only seven years. In 1240, on his way to Rome for a council with the Pope, he was taken ill on the journey. He died, and was buried at Pontigny - a long way from Abingdon and the banks of the Thames.

On his deathbed he was happy and peaceful, and made play with a proverb which the hagiographer quotes in English:
After being fortified by the viaticum of salvation, he began to seem a little better, and became merry, as though he had been fed to repletion by the celestial banquet. Supported by a pillow so that he could sit, he looked serene and he joked with those standing around, telling them this proverb in English: ‘Men seth gamen goth on wombe. Ac ich segge, gamen goth on herte’; which is to say, play enters the belly, but now I say play enters the heart. The meaning of this epigram is: it is commonly said that a fully belly makes men joyful and ready for play; but it is my opinion that a heart fed by a spiritual feast produces a serene conscience, freedom from anxiety and joyfulness. In fact, he displayed such joyfulness and hilarity that those who were with him were quite astonished.


Edmund's name is preserved in Oxford in the college St Edmund Hall, in the east of the city, which stands on the site of a house where Edmund is said to have taught. There's a modern sculpture of Edmund in the grounds of the college (above), which shows him reading - a companion to today's students, who can sit and read next to him if they like. He is depicted in thirteenth-century stained glass, made within a few decades of his death, in the church of St Michael at the Northgate:


Back in Abingdon, the Catholic church (a Victorian building) is dedicated to him and to the Virgin Mary, the mother and bride who was so constant a presence in his spiritual life:



And to close, here are a few more pictures of Abingdon, because I'm very fond of it. A lively small town, full of civic pride and rich in history, is just about my favourite kind of community (like Edmund, I grew up in one); it's not very fashionable to love such places, but I do. Abingdon has an excellent town museum, in this gorgeous building in the centre of the town:


From the roof you can look across the town, down to the Thames and beyond to Didcot Power Station...




The clump of trees in the last picture are growing on the site of Abingdon Abbey, which still takes up a large expanse of ground in the east of the town. Much of the site is now a public park (well, a bit of it's under Waitrose carpark).


Standing here in the Middle Ages, you would have been looking at the west end of a huge church - apparently along the lines of the west front at Wells Cathedral. Can you imagine it?


This would all have been where the abbey church once stood:



The park has some picturesque ruins which look like they're the remains of the abbey, but are in fact mostly Victorian follies (in some cases with medieval stone):




Lots of empty and evocative doors to nowhere here.




But there are some remaining buildings from the abbey, too - this is the impressive 'Long Gallery' (perhaps built as a guesthouse for the abbey), dating to the fifteenth century:



Look at those beams!


And underneath are some impressive vaults:


If that's just the guesthouse, what might the church have been like...


I was in Abingdon most recently on August Bank Holiday this summer; the park was full of children and their parents, playing on the site of the abbey church, and the flowerbeds were bright with colour. I don't know what St Æthelwold would have thought of it all, but it brought Edmund and Mabel to mind.