Sunday, 28 May 2017

Emma and her Encomium


My latest column for History Today, on the Encomium Emmae Reginae, is now online - here's a taste:

A marriage took place 1,000 years ago this summer which began one of the most intriguing partnerships in medieval history. In 1017 the young Danish king Cnut, who had conquered England just a few months earlier, summoned Emma, widow of his former enemy, King Æthelred, and married her...

Emma played an influential role during Cnut’s reign, survived him and remained a formidable force in English politics until her own death in 1052. This alone makes her a fascinating figure, unique in being the queen of two very different kings of England and mother of two more. Just as remarkable is that she also commissioned her own history of the events she had lived through, making her perhaps the first woman in England to participate so actively in the writing of history.

Read the rest here. The manuscript of the Encomium which contains the frontispiece of Emma and her sons, and the gorgeous dragon initial above, can be viewed online in its entirety on the British Library website.

'Highest of all kings'

'Aeterne rex altissime', with English gloss, in an Anglo-Saxon hymnal

For the Sunday after the Ascension, here's a fourteenth-century English version of the Ascension hymn 'Aeterne rex altissime', by the Franciscan friar William Herebert.

Kyng hexst of alle kynges, that havest non endynge,
Buggere of Cristenemen that beth of ryth levynge,
Thorou thee deth ys fordon and brouth to th'endinge,
And gyven ys ous the overe hond of graces findinge.
Thou styinge op to trone in thy Fadres ryhthond,
Havest, Jesu, fonge mythte that never shaft ne fond.
For hevene and erthe and helle, and al that thrinne ben,
To thee shullen bouwen hem and benden here knen.
Aungles that in hevene beth quaketh for wondringe,
That abouten dedlich mon seth so gret chaunginge,
For flesh sunneth and flesh beteth and flesh ys God regninge.
Thou, Crist, be oure blisse and oure glading,
That wythoute misse in hevene hast wonyng,
That al thys ylke myddelerd havest to yemyng,
And al thys wordles joye hast in forhowyng.
Therefore we byddeth thee oure gultes thou deface,
And oure hertes rer to thee thorouh thy grete grace.
That when thou shalt ferlich comen ous to deme,
Comen yne cloude bryth wyth blowinde beme,
From the pyne of helle, Jesu, thou ous yeme.
And yeld the lorene crounes, God we to thee reme.
Loverd that bove the sterre steye, to thee be wele and blisse,
Wyth the Fader and Holy Gost, ever boute misse. Amen.

That is:

King highest of all kings, who hast no ending,
Redeemer of Christians who are of right living,
Through thee death is destroyed and brought to its ending,
And given to us is the upper hand of grace's finding. [i.e. 'the triumph of grace'!]
Thou, rising up to the throne at thy Father's right hand,
Hast, Jesu, received power such as created things never had.
For heaven and earth and hell, and all that therein be,
To thee shall bow and bend the knee.
Angels in heaven quake for wondering,
Who in mortal man see such great changing:
For flesh sins and flesh atones and flesh is God reigning.
Thou, Christ, be our bliss and our gladdening,
Who without doubt in heaven hast dwelling,
Who all this middle-earth hast in keeping,
And all this world's joy hast in thy guarding.
Therefore we pray thee our sins to deface, [blot out, obliterate]
And our hearts raise up to thee through thy great grace.
So that when thou shalt come wondrously to judge us,
Come in clouds bright with trumpets blowing,
From the pains of hell, Jesu, thou wilt protect us,
And restore our lost crowns, God, we cry to thee.
Lord who rose above the stars, to thee be joy and bliss,
With the Father and Holy Ghost, ever without end. Amen.

The original Latin hymn is anonymous, first recorded in the ninth century, and its best-known modern English translation is probably J. M. Neale's 'Eternal Monarch, king most high'. William Herebert, as usual, stays closer to the Latin than modern translators tend to do, though it's interesting to compare his version of the memorable fourth verse to Neale's:

Yea, angels tremble when they see
how changed is our humanity;
that flesh hath purged what flesh had stained,
and God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.

Aungles that in hevene beth quaketh for wondringe,
That abouten dedlich mon seth so gret chaunginge,
For flesh sunneth and flesh beteth and flesh ys God regninge.

Herebert has added to his source a lovely phrase in the second-to-last line: 'Loverd that bove the sterre steye...' I discussed the verb steye in my last post about Herebert, where I talked about it meaning 'ascend' but with connotations of active, powerful movement (like mounting horses and climbing trees), and I said it's a verb which connects Good Friday (when Christ 'steye' upon the cross) and the Ascension. And so it does here, alliteratively: Christ steye above the stars.

The end of the Latin hymn gives a vivid picture of Christ, who ascended into the heavens, returning at Doomsday in a sunset sky: 'when you come to shine forth from your reddening cloud of judgement...' Herebert renders this:

when thou shalt ferlich comen ous to deme,
Comen yne cloudebryth wyth blowinde beme...

'ferlich' is a difficult word to translate into Modern English; it suggests something marvellous and wonderful (in the literal sense of 'causing wonder'), but also terrible and strange. 'Blowing beme' literally refers to blasting trumpets but also evokes rushing winds and beams of light - a world-shaking image of an apocalyptic sky.

Like this, maybe

The imagery in this hymn is cosmic, majestic, mythic: angels quake, the heavens open, and a god who wore human flesh manifests a power beyond any that created things could ever attain ('mythte that never shaft ne fond'). It's impressive stuff. Ascension Day seems to be one of those feasts which the modern imagination struggles to deal with: preachers get embarrassed (I heard a few this week!), and feel the need to start their sermons with an apologetic disclaimer to demonstrate how modern and sophisticated they are: 'well, of course we know that heaven isn't 'up in the sky', and so of course we (unlike childish people in the olden days) know it's silly to talk about Jesus going up. It makes him sound like a rocket, haha!'

This seems to me pretty unimaginative (and, as always, unfair to people in the 'olden days', by which they usually mean the bad old Middle Ages). It's a bit sad, really, for a preacher to have so little poetry in their soul that when they think of the heavens they can only think 'rocket, haha!' As if the skies offer no other objects of mystery and wonder, no images and themes to feed the imagination. Are the starry heights and thunderous clouds of this hymn, for instance, really any less potent symbols of power and majesty for us than they were for William Herebert or the ninth-century author? Here last night, after a week of heat, the clouds amassed for a summer storm, and broke in a sudden torrent of drenching rain which was breathtaking in its force. Be as modern and sophisticated as you like; at such moments you're still subject to the power of the heavens. And as for the stars - well, if you stop feeling wonder at the stars I can't really imagine what would amaze you...

I wrote on Thursday about two more powerful 'skyey influences' which medieval writers connected with the Ascension: the sun which climbs high in the summer sky (the Ascension is 'the sun rising', as this twelfth-century image has it); and Christ as a bird, as imagined by an Anglo-Saxon poet. This isn't just a nice pretty image - it's one of majesty, liberty, and command. Gerard Manley Hopkins put it even better than Cynewulf, in his poem addressed 'to Christ our Lord':

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume...

'The achieve of, the mastery of the thing.' On Ascension Day, I happened to find myself reading about another legendary hero who 'took to flight': Weland, the great smith of Anglo-Saxon and Norse legend. The story of Weland seems to have been widely known in Anglo-Saxon England, and he is referenced in several Old English poems; he is a fierce, frightening figure, but one of great skill and power, the forger of legendary swords and armour. One of the most famous moments in his legend tells how he was captured and imprisoned on an island, forced to work for his captor, but escaped by making for himself a suit of wings and flying away to freedom. A number of stone carvings from northern England, probably dating from the ninth to tenth centuries, appear to show Weland in his feather-suit.


In some ways Weland, though a hero, is very far from being a Christ figure: he murders his captor's sons and fashions goblets from their skulls, and he rapes his captor's daughter before he flies away. His power of flight comes from his skill as a smith, his ingenuity in being able to engineer wings (he doesn't transform himself into a bird, as some of the Norse gods, for instance, do - he remains human, though with magical skill). And yet, on the Franks Casket, made in Anglo-Saxon England in the early eighth century, a scene from Weland's story is placed next to one of Christ being adored by the Magi:


There are birds in both scenes; on the left-hand side, birds are being strangled so that Weland can make his wings from their feathers. Does this juxtaposition suggest a contrast or a parallel between Weland and Christ, a focus on how they are alike, or how they are different? No one can answer that for sure, though it's often noted that in Old English Christ, like Weland, is sometimes called a 'smith' or a 'smith's son' (because he was a carpenter). The juxtaposition brings out the common mythic element in both stories - the man human and yet more than human, skilful and of fearsome power, a creature of the skies as well as of the earth. To a modern eye, seeing a very well-known Biblical story in the context of Weland's strange and disturbing tale makes the familiar suddenly unfamiliar, marvellous, in the sense of something too powerful and terrible to comprehend - what Herebert calls ferlich.

The idea that gods dwell in the heights, in the sky and on the mountains, is one of the most ancient religious impulses. It's hardly difficult to see a connection between that and Christ's Ascension, and going on about 'rockets, haha!' feels like a deliberate attempt not to see it. Those silly people of the olden days found poetry in the feast rather more easily than their clever modern descendants do: in Ascension Day folklore there was 'a strong connection between the day and all things pertaining to the sky, such as clouds, rain, and birds' (Roud). Rain which fell on Ascension Day was said to be blessed - 'neither eaves' drip nor tree-drip, but straight from the sky'. The day was connected with holy water in other ways, including the custom of well-dressing and visiting sacred springs. This expresses a sense that the heavens and the earth are interconnected at the most essential level - as of course they are, whether you think of that power as physical or spiritual or both. The kind of preacher who apologises for Ascension Day is likely to call that faith superstitious, but it's infinitely grander, really, than a worldview which finds no wonder in the heavens. We are earthbound, tied to this sublunary world and its many sorrows - but this is one day when the imagination can soar to the sky.

Anglo-Saxon carving of the Ascension (Wirksworth, Derbyshire)

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ascension Day and the Death of Bede

Bede (Norwich Cathedral)

Today is the feast of the Ascension, and it is also the feast of Bede, Anglo-Saxon England's greatest scholar and historian. Bede died on Ascension Day in 735, which that year fell on 26 May. His feast is usually celebrated on 25 May (to avoid a clash with the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, who also died on the 26th), which means that today, for once, it falls at the very same moment in the church's year as it did in 735. This is a lovely coincidence (or occasional mercy, rather) because the feast of the Ascension and the words of its liturgy were in Bede's mind, and on his lips, as he lay dying. We know this because a moving account of Bede's death was recorded by a monk named Cuthbert, a former pupil of Bede's and later abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Cuthbert was present at Bede's deathbed, and this is how he describes his death.

For nearly a fortnight before the Feast of our Lord's Resurrection he was troubled by weakness and breathed with great difficulty, although he suffered little pain. Thenceforward until Ascension Day he remained cheerful and happy, giving thanks to God each hour day and night. He gave daily lessons to us his students, and spent the rest of the day in singing the psalms so far as his strength allowed. He passed the whole night in joyful prayer and thanksgiving to God, except when slumber overcame him; but directly he awoke, he continued to meditate on spiritual themes, and never failed to thank God with hands outstretched. I can truthfully affirm that I have never seen or heard of anyone who gave thanks so unceasingly to the living God as he.

O truly blessed man! He used to repeat the saying of the holy Apostle Paul, 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God', and many other sayings from holy scripture, and in this manner he used to arouse our souls by the consideration of our last hour. Being well-versed in our native songs, he described to us the dread departure of the soul from the body by a verse in our own tongue, which translated means: 'Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers - before his soul departs hence - what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing'.

This English poem is known as 'Bede's Death Song', and this is how it is preserved in Old English (in the Northumbrian dialect, probably unfamiliar even to those of us familiar with Old English!):

Fore them neidfaerae naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.

Cuthbert goes on:
To comfort both us and himself, he also used to sing antiphons, one of which is 'O King of glory, Lord of might, who on this day ascended in triumph above all heavens, do not leave us orphaned, but send to us the Spirit of truth, the promise of the Father. Alleluia'. And when he reached the words 'do not leave us orphaned', he broke into tears and wept much. An hour later he began to repeat what he had begun and so continued all day, so that we who heard him sorrowed and wept with him...

During these days, in addition to the daily instruction that he gave us and his recitation of the psalter, he was working to complete two books worthy of mention. For he translated the Gospel of Saint John into our own language for the benefit of the Church of God as far as the words 'but what are these among so many'. He also made some extracts from the works of Bishop Isidore... On the Tuesday before our Lord's Ascension his breathing became increasingly laboured, and his feet began to swell. Despite this he continued cheerfully to teach and dictate all day, saying from time to time, 'Learn quickly. I do not know how long I can continue, for my Lord may call me in a short while.' It seemed to us that he might well be aware of the time of his departure, and he spent that night without sleeping, giving thanks to God.

When dawn broke on Wednesday, he told us to write diligently what we had begun, and we did this until Terce. After Terce we walked in procession with the relics of the saints as the custom of the day required, but one of us remained with him, who said, 'There is still one chapter missing in the book that you have been dictating; but it seems hard that I should trouble you any further.' 'It is no trouble,' he answered: 'Take your pen and sharpen it, and write quickly.' And he did so.

But at None he said to me, 'I have a few articles of value in my casket, such as pepper, linen and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of the monastery, so that I may distribute among them the gifts that God has given me.' In great distress I did as he bid me. And when they arrived, he spoke to each of them in turn, requesting and reminding them diligently to offer Masses and prayers for him. They readily promised to do so, and all were sad and wept, grieving above all else at his statement that they must not expect to see his face much longer in this world. But they were heartened when he said, 'If it be the will of my Maker, the time has come when I shall be freed from the body and return to Him who created me out of nothing when I had no being. I have had a long life, and the merciful Judge has ordered it graciously. The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.'

He also told us many other edifying things, and passed his last day happily until evening. Then the same lad, named Wilbert, said again: 'Dear master, there is one sentence still unfinished.' 'Very well,' he replied: 'write it down.' After a short while the lad said, 'Now it is finished.' 'You have spoken truly,' he replied: 'It is well finished. Now raise my head in your hands, for it would give me great joy to sit facing the holy place where I used to pray, so that I may sit and call on my Father.' And thus, on the floor of his cell, he chanted 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit' to its ending, and breathed his last.

We may confidently believe that as he had devoted himself with such ardour to the praises of God here on earth, his soul was borne by the angels to the longed-for joys of Heaven. And all who saw and heard of the death of our father Bede declared that they had never known anyone end his days in such deep devotion and peace.

Translated in A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, rev. R. E. Latham (London, 1974), pp. 18-20 (paragraphs added).

The antiphon at which Bede broke down in tears is 'O rex gloriae', sung on the feast of the Ascension, which alludes to Christ's words to his disciples: 'If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth... I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.'


The English translation of John's Gospel which Bede was working on at his death has not survived, and nor have any of Bede's other English writings (it's not clear whether his 'Death Song' was of his own composition, or if he is quoting a poem he knew). But a century or so after Bede's death, an Anglo-Saxon poet composed a poem on the Ascension which must be one of the greatest poems ever written on that subject. I quoted it at length here, but this is my favourite part:

Swa se fæla fugel flyges cunnode;
hwilum engla eard up gesohte,
modig meahtum strang, þone maran ham,
hwilum he to eorþan eft gestylde,
þurh gæstes giefe grundsceat sohte,
wende to worulde. Bi þon se witga song:
'He wæs upp hafen engla fæðmum
in his þa miclan meahta spede,
heah ond halig, ofer heofona þrym.'
...Wæs se siexta hlyp,
haliges hyhtplega, þa he to heofonum astag
on his ealdcyððe. þa wæs engla þreat
on þa halgan tid hleahtre bliþe
wynnum geworden. Gesawan wuldres þrym,
æþelinga ord, eðles neosan,
beorhtra bolda. þa wearð burgwarum
eadgum ece gefea æþelinges plega.


So the beautiful bird ventured into flight.
Now he sought the home of the angels,
that glorious country, bold and strong in might;
now he swung back to earth again,
sought the ground by grace of the Spirit,
returned to the world. Of this the prophet sang:
'He was lifted up in the arms of angels
in the great abundance of his powers,
high and holy, above the glory of the heavens.'
...The sixth leap,
the Holy One's hope-play, was when he ascended to heaven
into his former home. Then the throng of angels
in that holy tide was made merry with laughter,
rapt with joy. They saw the glory of majesty,
first of princes, seek out his homeland,
the bright mansions. After that the blessed city-dwellers
endlessly delighted in the Prince's play.

In Europe, the Ascension is the feast of summer skies. With Ælfric, who encourages us to 'behold the sun', we stand gazing into the heavens, which at this time of year are (sometimes) a glorious, fathomless blue; and like Christ at the Ascension, the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky as the solstice draws near. Birds, back for the summer, wheel and soar through the air. This week a flock of swifts have returned to the street where I live; in the long light evenings they swoop and swing through the sky, quicker than thought, sheer energy and life and unfettered freedom. That's how this Anglo-Saxon poet imagined Christ.