Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Spy Wednesday

Spy Wednesday is traditionally the day on which Judas went to betray Christ in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. There's a fascinating Middle English poem about Judas which is also one of the earliest ballads in English; it dates from about 1300.

This poem shows us a surprisingly sympathetic version of Judas. It tells the story that he is sent by Jesus to buy food for the apostles with thirty pieces of silver, but on the way he meets his wicked sister who berates him for supporting a false prophet. She persuades him to fall asleep, and when he wakes up the silver has been stolen. He is taken before Pilate, who asks him what it will take to make him betray Christ, and Judas says he would only do so to regain the thirty pieces of silver. Then, in characteristic ballad fashion, the scene cuts to Christ and the apostles dining together at the Last Supper. As in the Gospel account, Christ tells them that one of them will betray him, and Judas denies it (with what I think may be a deliberately ambiguous assertion of the kind popular in ballads and medieval romance, along the lines of Isolde's "only the beggar who carried me across the river touched me"). The repetition of whole lines and the use of dialogue is very reminiscent of later ballads, and Judas' confusion and anguish comes across well.

Here's a modernised version. I made up the verse divisions, but they seem to work...

It was upon a Sheer Thursday* that our Lord arose,
Full mild were the words he spake to Judas:
"Judas, thou must to Jerusalem our meat for to bugge*;
Thirty plate of silver thou bear upon thy rugge*.
When thou comest far in the broad street, far in the broad street,
Some of thine kinsmen there thou mayst meet."

He met with his sister, the swikele* woman:
"Judas, thou were worthy be stoned with stone;
"Judas, thou were worth be stoned with stone,
For the false prophet that thou believest upon."
"Be still, lief sister, may thine heart break!
Wist this mine Lord Christ, full well he would be wreke.*"

"Judas, go thou on the rock, high upon the stone;
Lay thy head on my bosom, sleep thou thee anon."
As soon as Judas of sleep was awake,
Thirty plate of silver from him were i-take.
He drow himself by the top that all it laved blood* -
The Jews out of Jerusalem wenden he were wod.

To him came the riche Jew that hight Pilatus:
"Wilt thou sell thy Lord that hight Jesus?"
"I nulle sell my Lord for none cunnes eiste*,
But it be for the plate that he me betaiste*."
"Wilt thou sell thy Lord Christ for any kind of gold?"
"Nay, but it be for the plate that he habben wold."

To him come our Lord God as his postles sat at meat.
"How sit ye postles, and why nulle ye eat?
"How sit ye postles, and why nulle ye eat?
I am bought and sold today for our meat."
Up stood him Judas, "Lord, am I that frec?
I was never in the stede where men thee evil spake."

Up him stood Peter and spake with all his might:
"Though Pilatus him come with ten hundred knights,
"Though Pilatus him come with ten hundred knights,
Yet I will, Lord, for thy love fight."
"Still thou be, Peter! Well I thee know:
Thou wilt forsake me thrice ere the cock him crow."

* Sheer Thursday, another name for Maundy Thursday. So, not Spy Wednesday!
* buy
* back
* when you come...
* wicked
* if my Lord Christ knew this, he would have his revenge
* he tore his hair until his head was covered in blood
* I will not sell my Lord for any kind of possessions
* except the money he entrusted to me

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Langland's Passion, I: Palm Sunday

At the beginning of Passus 18 in the B-text of Piers Plowman, the poem veers unexpectedly into an account of Christ's Passion, beginning with the entry into Jerusalem. Through the course of various dream visions, the protagonist Will has heard numerous arguments about God's mercy (among multiple other subjects - this is a poem of many arguments!), and he is struggling to understand what salvation means. Now he begins to see it in action:

Wolleward and wet-shod went I forth after
As a reckless renk that recketh of no woe,
And yede forth like a lorel all my life time,
Til I wax weary of the world and wilned eft to sleep,
And lened me to a Lenten - and long time I slept;
Rest me there and rutte fast til ramis palmarum.
Of gerlis and of Gloria, laus greatly me dreamed
And how osanna by organye old folk songen,
And of Christ's passion and penance, the people that ofraughte.

Early in his dream Will encountered a ploughman, Piers, who at first looks like an embodiment of the ordinary Christian who understands his faith through love and not reason or argument. But Piers keeps popping his head up at moments of crisis, when Will is most confused, and every time he appears he is imbued with a greater significance and power. The last time Will saw him, he was defending the Tree of Charity from the attacks of the devil, protecting the fruit which grows there - men and women, the fruit of the love of God. Now Piers is mentioned again, and he is more important than ever:

One semblable to the Samaritan, and somdeel to Piers the Plowman,
Barefoot on an ass's back bootles came prikye,
Withouten spores other spear; spakliche he looked,
As is the kynde of a knight that cometh to be dubbed,
To geten him gilt spurs on galoches ycouped.
Then was Faith in a fenestre, and cried "A Fili David!'
As doth an herald of arms when aventrous cometh to jousts.
Old Jews of Jerusalem for joy they sungen,
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

Will, always asking questions, turns to the personification of Faith (looking out of a window) and asks him to explain what's going on. Who is this knight coming to fight a combat? 'Piers fruit the Plowman' is 'the fruit of Piers the Ploughman', the human souls for whom Christ is about to die:

Then I frayned at Faith what all that fare bymente,
And who should joust in Jerusalem. "Jesus,' he said,
"And fetch that the fiend claimeth - Piers fruit the Plowman.'
"Is Piers in this place?' quod I, and he preynte on me.
"This Jesus of his gentries will joust in Piers' arms,
In his helm and in his haubergeon - humana natura.
That Christ be not biknowe here for consummatus Deus,
In Piers paltok the Plowman this prikiere shall ride;
For no dynt shall him dere as in deitate Patris.'

Like many a hero of chivalric romance, Christ doesn't fight in his own armour but in the arms of another knight, Piers the Ploughman; and so now Piers represents the human form of God incarnate on earth. You could never have guessed this at his first appearance in the poem, and that's one of the things which is so wonderful about Piers Plowman - you can't read it without feeling that the dream has a life of its own.

Now, in explaining to Will, Faith introduces the manner in which the poem will present Christ's Passion, as a combat - a joust - between Christ and the forces of evil, between life and death:

"Who shall joust with Jesus?' quod I, "Jews or scribes?'
"Nay,' quod Faith, "but the fiend, and false doom to die.
Death seith he shall fordo and adoun bring
All that liveth or looketh in land or in water.
Life saith that he lieth, and layeth his life to wedde
That, for all that Death can do, within three days to walk
And fetch from the fend Piers fruit the Plowman,
And lay it where him liketh, and Lucifer bind,
And forbeat and adown bring bale death for ever:
O Mors ero mors tua!'

The idea that Life and Death are arguing about whether Christ will triumph - even that they're laying bets on it ('to wedde' is 'as a wager') - is so typical of this poem's approach to personification and to the resolution of debates. Everything has a voice; everyone has an argument to make. Even as the narrative gets deep into the Biblical story, it doesn't leave behind this characteristic love of dialogue - notice how the voices of the crowd come through in those scraps of liturgical and scriptural Latin, and how it's through Faith's explanation that Will learns what's going on. I love that.

Piers Plowman is not particularly concerned with the gory emotive details of Christ's suffering and death, the prints of nails and the drops of blood we find elsewhere in medieval poetry; the poem cares about what it all means, and what its result will be - human salvation. It is always confident in Christ's triumphant Resurrection, and here the Passion is a battle, a heroic event. O Death, I will be your death!

Palm Sunday, and not-palms

At church this morning, and on this day for as long as I can remember, we carry crosses made of real palms: thick, yellow-beige, almost shiny, which when I was a child used to fascinate me by their strangeness. It hardly seemed like they could ever have been living plants, and to me it gave the ceremony an especially exotic feeling to be holding these strange objects. I'm so used to it that it never occurred to me that when medieval sources talk about palms in this context, they often mean something different.

Palms, of course, not being native to England, they used willow or yew branches on Palm Sunday. The things you learn from the OED! We find this under palm:

3.a. Freq. in pl. A branch or sprig of any of several early-flowering willows (esp. the sallows, Salix caprea and S. cinerea), esp. as substituted in northern countries for the true palm in celebrations of Palm Sunday; a branch of several other kinds of tree or shrub used in a similar way, as yew, Taxus baccata, (N. Amer.) T. canadensis, and spruce, Picea abies; (occas.) any of the trees or shrubs providing such branches. Freq. also: these branches or sprigs collectively.

The night before Palm Sunday, boys would go 'palming' to collect the branches. I wonder where they come from now? A church supplies shop, probably. I also learned from the same source that just as there's a Whitsun, so there was once a 'Palmsun', shortened from Palm Sunday:

1. Palmsun eve the day or the evening before Palm Sunday.

2. In other attrib. uses: designating things relating to or connected with Palm Sunday; spec. designating an event held on or around Palm Sunday.
1531 W. MORE Jrnl. (1914) 339 For the makyng up of ij garnesshe in our kycheon at Worceter lost conveyd from palmeson tyme til nowe.
1813 Sporting Mag. 42 43 The Palmsun Horse Show, at Malton.  
1875 E. TWEDDELL Rhymes Cleveland Dial. 27 Ah'll gan neea mair tit Pomesun Fair.
 1928 A. E. PEASE Dict. Dial. N. Riding Yorks. 92/2 With us the Fairs held in the week preceding or in that following Palm Sunday are ‘Palmsun Fairs’, when, among other customs, it is the practice to exhibit the stallions of each breed. ‘Stowsla Paumsoon Fair is of a Saterda an' Gisbrouff of a Teuwsda.’  
1960 P. B. G. BINNALL Caistor, Lincs. 18 The Caistor Palmsun Fair, held from time immemorial on the Saturday before Palm Sunday for the sale of sheep and cattle, was an institution famous all over this part of England.

As far as Google can inform me, there doesn't seem to be a Palmsun fair in Caistor any more. The OED calls this word 'regional (chiefly north.)' and not obsolete, but it surely must be now - although maybe in the north...

It was the 'willow palms' that really interested me, though. It makes quite a difference to think of crowds bearing branches of greenery, freshly gathered from the fields the night before, rather than the dried dead things we carry. It's much less authentic, of course, if you want to strictly imitate a crowd in first-century Jerusalem, but that wouldn't have mattered so much even a century ago in this country, and even less so in medieval England. Medieval Christians were very good at interpreting foreign elements of the faith in the light of their native culture (as well as vice versa). That's how medieval history works: just as Chaucer's Troy looks like fourteenth-century London, and Noah in the mystery plays talks like any medieval tradesman, a Jewish crowd might wave willow branches from the banks of English rivers. It's not lack of imagination, though in the case of the palms it probably arises from nothing more than necessity. If anything, it's ingenuity: the same process leads to the best literary effects of the period, because it involves taking complete possession of whatever story is being told, engaging thoroughly with it in every detail, and imagining it as no less fresh and living than something that happened yesterday.

Thinking about this reminded me that it's now time to turn to Piers Plowman again, as I like to do in the week before Easter. The later sections of the poem retell the story of the Passion as if it's being witnessed by Will, the protagonist, and it's full of glorious poetry which weaves the language and actions of the liturgy into a startlingly vivid narrative, all while reflecting on time and history and justice and mercy and love, and everything in between. I'll dig it out and post about it. There's so much good medieval literature about the Passion - from the Dream of the Rood to Middle English lyrics to the mystery plays, it's an endless source of inspiration for medieval poets. You couldn't read it all in a week - perhaps not in a lifetime!

Thursday, 25 March 2010


Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, known in medieval England as Lady Day. It was also the beginning of the New Year until, I believe, the eighteenth century, so if you don't like the way 2010 has been going so far, take the opportunity to make a fresh start...

Another old name for the Annunciation is the Salutation, from which several ancient pubs (!) in England take their name. There's a delightful fifteenth-century song on this theme called 'The Salutation Carol', which is in the Oxford Book of Carols (a little altered by the editors):

Refrain: Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell
This is the salutation of the Angel Gabriel.

1. Tidings true there be come new,
Sent from the Trinity
By Gabriel to Nazareth,
City of Galilee.
A clean maiden, a pure virgin,
By her humility
Shall now conceive the Person
Second in deity.

2. When that he presented was
Before her fair visage,
In most demure and goodly wise
He did to her homage;
And said, “Lady, from heaven so high.
That Lordes heritage,
For he of thee now born will be,
I'm sent on his message.

3. “Hail, Virgin celestial,
The meek'st that ever was!
Hail, temple of the Deity!
Hail, mirror of all grace!
Hail, Virgin pure! I thee ensure,
Within a little space
Thou shalt conceive, and him receive
That shall bring great solace.

4. Then bespake the maid again
And answered womanly,
“Whate'er my Lord commandeth me
I will obey truly.”
With “Ecce sum humillima
Ancilla Domini;
Secundum verbum tuum,”

She said, “Fiat mihi.

You can see the tune here. It's very jolly. So much so, in fact, that there is a drinking song from the same period to the same tune called 'Bryng us in good ale' ('for our Blessed Lady's sake', of course). Marian devotion to the tune of a minstrel song (or vice versa)? Sometimes medieval literature is exactly what you think it's going to be, and more.

Another famous salutation carol is Angelus ad Virginem, as sung by Chaucer's conceited Oxford student Nicholas in the Miller's Tale - but let's not say too much about that...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Still working on this one...

By an act of the understanding therefore be present now with all the creatures among which you live; and hear them in their beings and operations praising God in an heavenly manner. Some of them vocally, others in their ministry, all of them naturally and continually. We infinitely wrong ourselves by laziness and confinement. All creatures in all nations, and tongues, and people praise God infinitely; and the more, for being your sole and perfect treasures. You are never what you ought till you go out of yourself and walk among them.

- Centuries of Meditations 2:76

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Love and Lent

'That violence wherewith sometimes a man doteth upon one creature, is but a little spark of that love, even towards all, which lurketh in his nature. We are made to love, both to satisfy the necessity of our active nature, and to answer the beauties in every creature. By Love our Souls are married and solder'd to the creatures and it is our Duty like God to be united to them all. We must love them infinitely, but in God, and for God and God in them: namely all His excellencies manifested in them. When we dote upon the perfections and beauties of some one creature, we do not love that too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this world loved too much, but many things have been loved in a false way: and all in too short a measure.'

- Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations 2:66

I like that phrase 'to answer the beauties in every creature'. I've had a dark few days this week (felicity seeming very distant, just when I was so caught up in thinking about it!) and fear about interacting with other people, anxiety about the way I relate to all these creatures of God Traherne is so rapturous about, has been the chief cause. In such a frame of mind it is very difficult to answer the beauties in every creature. It's hard enough even to see those beauties, or believe that they exist, when I'm swallowed up with fear of what other people might say to me or think of me; to answer them with the fulness of my heart, freely and openly and honestly, is impossible. When everyone who looks at me seems a threat, it is difficult to love them. And then being reminded that not to love them is to fail in a Christian duty makes it worse, makes me feel guilty and inadequate for being instinctively wary and defensive rather than overflowing with love. Frankly, there have been times this Lent when hearing Thomas Traherne rave about how lovely everything is makes me want to throw the book down in anger, and pick up some Hopkins instead - he at least knew that the mind has mountains, and he knew this feeling, and at times that's more comfort than endless rejoicing. It's a temperamental difference, I think; I always tend more towards the shadow than the light.

It's good for me to be pushed to think about these things, even if I find them uncomfortable; I suppose that makes Centuries of Meditations a good book for Lent, in a way I completely didn't expect. It's hurting, but perhaps that means it's working.

Sunday, 7 March 2010


Credenhill, Herefordshire, where Thomas Traherne was rector from 1657-1666

The World is unknown, till the Value and Glory of it is seen: till the Beauty and the Serviceableness of its parts is considered. When you enter into it, it is an illimited field of Variety and Beauty: where you may lose yourself in the multitude of Wonders and Delights. But it is an happy loss to lose oneself in admiration at one's own Felicity: and to find God in exchange for oneself: Which we then do when we see Him in His Gifts, and adore His Glory.

I have a particular, irrational, instinctive fondness for the word 'felicity'. It may be only one of many words for happiness, but to me it signifies the very highest kind of transcedent, ineffable, overflowing joy. It has a tint of archaism which appeals to me: it is at the same time typically Middle English (it's used by Chaucer many times), and Metaphysical (a favourite and characteristic word of Thomas Traherne), and Victorian (used in a weaker, but elegant sense). It's also one of my favourite names (though - or perhaps because - I've never known anyone called that, either in real life or in fiction). And so I am especially attracted to St Felicity, whose memorial is today. SS Perpetua and Felicity are among the saints mentioned in the Canon of the Mass; everything else I know about them comes from that encyclopedia page, so I don't really know what this post is about. Except, perhaps, that sometimes a word or a thought comes to mean more than it strictly ought to mean, as if it is leading to something; as if one day we will look back and understand how all the scattered instances which kept cropping up, for no reason and apparently with no meaning, were not random but patterned, tracing a path through life like a golden thread.

Friday, 5 March 2010


My book for Lent is Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations. It's full of good things and I've been taking notes; I came across this one again today. It should be pinned up above the desk of every academic:

As nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well.