Sunday, 17 September 2017

On medieval 'superstition'

Readers of this blog may be interested in an article I've written for this week's Catholic Herald, discussing the outdated and ill-informed stereotypes which still unfortunately prevail in media treatment of the medieval church. The article can be read online here.

This is a subject I've written about at greater length in the following posts:

About this blog

Relics, Reburials, and Richard III

In Defence of 'Monks on the Make': Glastonbury, Lies, and Legends

In the last post, in particular, you can see some examples of the kind of thing I mean: greedy monks, ignorant peasants, lying priests and all. These kinds of stereotypes are particularly common in the UK media whenever a story about medieval Christianity turns up; I'm sure they work rather differently outside Britain, so readers from elsewhere may like to bear in mind that I'm writing about the British context here.

Just to add a point I didn't have space to develop in the article: I'm uncomfortable with the language of 'superstition' not only because it is inaccurate and unjust to the Middle Ages - though it is - but also because it perpetuates rhetoric which in the UK has historically been used to target a disadvantaged religious minority, working-class Irish and immigrant Catholics. It was these groups many earlier writers on the Middle Ages had in mind when they were discussing medieval 'superstition', and it coloured their view of the past in ways which were often prejudiced and misleading. Anyone who has read Victorian scholarship on medieval hagiography, for instance, will be very well aware of this. Here's an excellent brief history of the word from the historian Francis Young: https://innerlives.org/2017/01/23/superstitious-talk-is-it-time-to-move-on-from-the-s-word/

Journalists today who talk about the 'superstitious peasants' of the Middle Ages usually believe themselves to represent the height of modern, rational, secular liberalism; but in many ways they have unthinkingly inherited the language of their Victorian forebears for whom 'superstition' was simply a synonym for 'Catholicism'. What they meant by it was that this was a religion for peasants, foreigners, and ignorant women, who were superstitious, credulous, childish, and so stupid that they believed anything their wicked priests told them. Anti-Irish, anti-immigrant, sexist bigotry - not exactly the kind of thing schools today would like to think they're encouraging, and not at all useful in trying to gain an accurate and unbiased picture of the past. Is it really acceptable for journalists and educators to use this kind of language - at least without explanation and qualification - given its history? I assume (I hope) most modern writers who perpetuate these stereotypes are not consciously aware of what they're doing; but it shouldn't be allowed to go unchallenged.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

'An elephant in its bath'


An extract from my latest piece for History Today:

I recently read a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937, when The Hobbit had just been published. Tolkien wrote to his publishers to comment on the description on the dustjacket, which compares his book with the work of Lewis Carroll. As Carroll the mathematician amused himself in Wonderland, the blurb suggests, so Tolkien the medievalist took inspiration from his specialism to write his children’s book. ‘Here again a professor of an abstruse subject is at play,’ it trills.

With patient precision, Tolkien takes issue with the use of the word ‘abstruse’ to describe his academic work. ‘I do not profess an “abstruse” subject,’ he protests. ‘Some folk may think so, but I do not like encouraging them. Old English and Icelandic literature are no more remote from human concerns, or difficult to acquire cheaply, than commercial Spanish (say). I have tried both.’ He also objects to the publishers’ description of him as ‘a professor at play’ – ‘a professor at play rather suggests an elephant in its bath,’ he remarks wryly.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

'As the sun shines upon this middle-earth'

The Dormition of the Virgin Mary, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold 
On þone fifteogðan dæg þæs monðes bið seo tid þæt is sancta Marian tid. On þone dæg heo geleorde of middangearde to Criste, ond heo nu scineð on þam heofonlican mægene betwyh þa þreatas haligra fæmnena, swa swa sunne scineð on þisne middangeard. Englas þær blissiað, ond heahenglas wynsumiað, ond ealle þa halgan þær gefeoð in sancta Marian. Sancta Maria wæs on feower ond sixtegum geara þa þa heo ferde to Criste. Sancta Maria is godfæder snoru ond godes suna modur ond haligra sauwla sweger ond seo æðele cwen þara uplicra cesterwara; seo stondeð on þa swyðran healfe þæs heahfæder ond þæs heahcyninges.

On the fifteenth day of the month is the feast which is St Mary's feast. On this day she departed from the world to Christ, and now she shines in the heavenly host among the crowd of holy virgins, as the sun shines upon this middle-earth. Angels rejoice there, and archangels exult, and all the saints are glad with St Mary. St Mary was sixty-four years old when she went to Christ. St Mary is daughter-in-law of God the Father and the mother of God’s son, and mother-in-law of the holy souls and the noble queen of the citizens of heaven; she stands upon the right side of the great Father and High King.
- Old English Martyrology (from here)

Today is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, the first of the two great Marian feasts of the harvest. In medieval England both the Assumption and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, on September 8th, were known as 'Our Lady Day in harvest', to distinguish them from 'Lady Day in Lent' (the Annunciation, March 25 - 'Lent' meaning 'spring' here) and 'Lady Day in December (the Feast of the Conception, December 8). The different seasons of the year had their different Lady Days, though today the term usually refers only to the springtime feast. The Assumption was also called 'Marymass', especially in Scotland. The September feast was sometimes referred to as 'the latter Lady Day' - a name which appears as early as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - to distinguish it from the Assumption, and this period of slightly less than a month between the harvest feasts was a season too, when something might be said to have happened 'between Our Lady's days'.

All these feasts grew out of a wealth of ancient traditions about the life of the Virgin, part scriptural, part apocryphal, part popular legend. The Bible gives no information about the end of Mary's life, but numerous traditions and narratives on the subject had developed by the fifth and sixth centuries, telling how Christ received his mother's soul and/or body into heaven at the end of her life on earth. The details of these stories vary (see this book for details), but today I thought I'd post a few extracts from an anonymous Anglo-Saxon homily for the Assumption. This is a translation of a text known as the Transitus Mariae, a widely-known apocryphal account of Mary's life which circulated in several different versions and in multiple languages in the Middle Ages. The English translation comes from the tenth-century Blicking Homilies; it's too long to give in full, but the whole text can be found at part 1 and part 2. Here are three short extracts.

Men ða leofestan, gehyrað nu hwæt her segþ on þissum bocum, be þære halgan fæmnan Sancta Marian, hu be hire on þas tid geworden wæs. Heo wæs wæccende dæges & nihtes & hie gebiddende æfter Drihtnes upstige. Þa com hire to Drihtnes engel & he wæs cweþende, ‘Aris þu, Maria, & onfoh þissum palmtwige þe ic þe nu brohte, for þan þu bist soþlice ær þrim dagum genumen of þinum lichoman, & ealle Drihtnes apostolas beoþ sende þe to bebyrgenne.’ Þa cwaeð Maria to þæm engle, ‘Hwæt is þin nama?’ Þa cwæþ se engel to hire, ‘Hwæt secestu minne naman, forþon he is mycel & wundorlic?’

Þa Sancta Maria þis gehyrde þa astah heo on þone munt þe wæs nemned Oliuete. & þæt wæs soþlice swiþe scinende palmtwig, & hit wæs þa swa leoht swa se mergenlica steorra, þe heo þær onfeng of þæs engles handa. Þa wæs heo swiþe wynsumiende & mid mycle gefean gewuldrad. & ealle þa þe wæron hie gesawon þæt se engel þe ær com to hire astah on heofenas mid myclum leohte. Þa wæs Maria eft hweorfende to hire huse, & heo þa alegde þæt palmtwig mid ealre eaþmodnesse, þe heo ær onfeng of þæs engles handa; & heo eac alegde hire hrægl þe heo mid gegyred wæs, & þwoh hire lichoman & heo hie gegyrede mid þon selestan hrægle, & þa wæs swiþe gefeonde & swiþe blissigende, [& bletsode] God & wæs cweþende, ‘Benedico nomen tuum... et laudabile in secula seculorum. Ic bletsige þinne þone halgan naman, forþon þe he is mycel & hergendlic in worlda world. Ic þe bidde min Drihten þæt þu sende ofer me þine bletsunga.’ Þa wæs Maria cweþende, ‘Mid þy þe þu me hate of minum lichoman gewitan, þonne onfoh þu minre sawle.’ Þa wæs se engel cweþende, ‘Ne beo þu, Maria, geunreted.’ Mid þy þe heo þis gehyrde, þa wæs heo cleopigende & cegende ealle hire magas þa þe þær neah wæron, & wæs cweþende, ‘Gehyraþ me nu ealle, & gelyfaþ ge ealle on God Fæder Ælmihtigne, forþon þys morgenlican dæge ic beo gangende of minum lichoman & ic gange to minum Gode; & ic bidde eow ealle þæt ge anmodlice wacian mid me oþ þa tid on þæm dæge biþ mines gewinnes ende.’

Dearest men, listen now to what is related here in these books about the holy virgin St. Mary, what happened to her at this time. She was keeping watch by day and night and praying after our Lord’s ascension. Then an angel of the Lord came to her and said, ‘Arise, Mary, and receive this palm-branch which I have now brought you; for truly, before three days have passed you shall be taken from your body, and all the Lord's apostles shall be sent to bury you.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘What is your name?’ The angel said to her, ‘Why do you seek to know my name? For it is great and wondrous.’

When St. Mary heard this, she ascended the hill which was called Olivet. And truly, that was a very shining palm-branch - as bright as the morning-star - which she had received from the angel’s hand. She was rejoicing and was glorified with great joy. And all those who were there saw that the angel who had earlier come to her ascended into the heavens, with great light. Then Mary returned again to her house, and with all humility she laid aside the palm-branch which she had received from the angel’s hand, and she also laid aside her garment with which she was clothed, and washed her body and adorned herself with the finest garment. Then she greatly rejoiced and exulted and blessed God, saying, Benedico nomen tuum quoniam magnum et laudabile in secula seculorum, ‘I will bless your holy name, because it is great and worthy to be praised, world without end. I beseech you, my Lord, send your blessing upon me.’ Mary said, ‘When you command me to leave my body, receive my soul.’ The angel said, ‘Be not sorrowful, Mary.’ When she heard this, she invited and called all her relations who were nearby, and said to them, ‘Now listen to me, all of you, and believe in God the Father Almighty, for tomorrow I am going from my body and going to my God. I pray you all that you watch with me together until that time, the day which will be the end of my labours.’

Mary receives the palm from the angel (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 132v)

The text then tells how the apostles gather around Mary, having been told that the end of her life is near, and she gives them instructions for her burial.
& þa æfter þysum wordum þa com þær ure Drihten & he hie gemette ealle anmodlice wæccende, & he hie onlyhte mid his þæs Halgan Gastes gife. & he wæs cweþende to him, ‘Broþor þa leofestan, ne sy eow nænigu cearo þæt ge geseon þæt þeos eadige Maria sy geceged to deaþe, & ne biþ heo no to þæm eorþlican deaþe ac heo bið gehered mid Gode, forþon þe hire bið mycel wuldor gegearwod.’ & mid þy þe he þis gecweden hæfde, þa ascean samninga mycel leoht on hire huse þæt ealle þa fynd wæron oferswiþde þa þe þær wæron, & þa þe þæt leoht gesawon þa ne meahton asecgan for þæs leohtes mycelnesse. & þa wæs geworden mycel stefn of heofenum to Petre & wæs cweþende, ‘Ic beo mid eow ealle dagas oþ þa gyfylnesse þisse worlde.’ & þa ahof Petrus his stefne & wæs cweþende, ‘We bletsiaþ þinne naman mid urum saulum & we biddaþ þæt þu fram us ne gewite; & we bletsiaþ þe & we biddaþ þæt þu onlyhte ure world, for þæm þe þu eallum miltsast þæm þe on þe gelyfaþ.’ & þis wæs cweþende se eadiga Petrus to eallum þæm apostolum & he trymede heora heortan mid Godes geleafan.
Æfter þyssum wordum gefylde, þa wæs Maria arisende & wæs ut gangende of hire huse, & hie gebæd to þæm gebede þe se engel hire tocwæþ þe þær com to hire; þa þis gebed wæs gefylled þa wæs heo eft gangende on hire hus & heo þa wæs hleonigende ofer hire ræste, & æt hire heafdan sæt se eadiga Petrus & emb þa ræste oþre Cristes þegnas. & þa ær þære syxtan tide þæs dæges þa wæs semninga geworden mycel þunorrad, & þær wæs swiþe swete stenc swa þætte ealle þa slepan þe þær wæron. & þa apostolas onfengon þære eadigan Marian & þa þre fæmnan þe him Crist ær bebead, þæt hie wacedon buton forlætnesse & þæt hie cyþdon Drihtnes wuldor be hire & ealle medemnesse be þære eadigan Marian. Þa slepan þa ealle þe þær wæron; þa com þær semninga ure Drihten Hælend Crist þurh wolcnum mid myccle mengeo engla & wæs ingangende on þære halgan Marian hus on þæt þe heo hie inne reste. Michahel se heahengel se wæs ealra engla ealderman, he wæs ymen singende mid eallum þæm englum, mid þy þe Hælend wæs ingongende. Þa gemette he ealle þa apostolas emb þære eadigan Marian ræste, and he bletsode þa halgan Marian & wæs cweþende, Benedico te quia quicumque promisisti — ‘Ic þe bletsige min Sancta Maria; & eal swa hwæt swa ic þe gehet eal ic hit gesette.’ Ond þa andswarode him seo halige Maria & wæs cweþende, ‘Ic do a þine gife, min Drihten, & ic þe bidde for þinum naman þæt þu gehwyrfe on me ealle eaþmodnesse þinra beboda, forþon þe ic mæg don þine gife. Þu eart gemedemod on ecnesse.’ & þa onfeng ure Drihten hire saule & he hie þa sealde Sancte Michahele þæm heahengle, & he onfeng hire saule mid ealra hisleoma eaþmodnesse. & næfde heo noht on hire buton þæt an þæt heo hæfde mennisce onlicnesse; & heo hæfde seofon siþum beorhtran saule þonne snaw...

þa cleopode semninga þære eadigan Marian lichoma beforan him eallum & wæs cweþende, ‘Wes þu gemyndig, þu gewuldroda Cyning, forþon ic beo þin hondgeweorc, & wes þu min gemyndig, forþon ic healde þinra beboda goldhord.’ & þa cwæþ ure Drihten to þære eadigan Marian lichoman, ‘Ne forlæte ic þe næfre min meregrot, ne ic þe næfre ne forlæte, min eorclanstan, forþon þe þu eart soþlice Godes templ.’

And then after these words our Lord came there, and found them all watching together, and he enlightened them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and said to them, ‘Dearest brethren, have no sorrow because you see that this blessed Mary is called unto death; for she is not called to earthly death, but she shall be favoured by God, for great glory is prepared for her.’ And when he had said this, there suddenly shone a great light upon her house, so that all the fiends who were there and those who saw the light were overpowered, and were unable to speak because of the greatness of the light. And then came a loud voice from heaven to Peter, saying, ‘I am with you always unto the end of this world.’ And Peter lifted up his voice, and said, ‘We bless your name with our souls, and we beseech you never to depart from us; and we bless you and beseech you to bring light to our world, for you have mercy upon all those who believe in you.’ And blessed Peter said this to all the apostles, and he strengthened their hearts with the faith of God.

After he had finished these words, Mary arose and went out of her house, and she prayed the prayer that the angel who came to her had told her. When this prayer was finished, she returned to her house and rested on her bed, and at her head sat the blessed Peter, and about the bed Christ's other disciples. And before the sixth hour of the day there suddenly came a loud thunder, and there was a very sweet smell, so that all that who were there slept, and the apostles and the three women, whom Christ had commanded to watch without intermission, took charge of the holy Mary, so that they should make known the glory of the Lord in her and all his kindness to the blessed Mary. And while all who were there were sleeping, our Lord Christ suddenly appeared there in a cloud with a great company of angels, and entered the house of the holy Mary where she was at rest. The Archangel Michael, the leader of all angels, was singing hymns with all the angels, as the Lord entered. He found all the apostles round the blessed Mary’s bed, and he blessed the holy Mary, and said, ‘Benedico te quia quæcumque promisisti — ‘I bless you, my holy Mary, and all I have promised you, I will perform.’ And holy Mary answered him, and said, ‘My Lord, I give forth your grace always, and I beseech you for your name's sake that you grant me obdience to your commands, so that I may give forth your grace. You are honoured for ever.’ And then the Lord received her soul, and gave it to Saint Michael the archangel, and he received her soul with reverence in all his limbs. She had nothing upon her save only a human body, and she had a soul seven times brighter than snow...

Then suddenly the body of the blessed Mary cried out before them all, and said, ‘Remember, glorious King, that I am your handiwork; and be mindful of me, for I keep the gold-hoard of your commandments’. And then our Lord said to the blessed Mary’s body, ‘I will never leave you, my pearl; I will never leave you, my arkenstone, for truly you are the temple of God.’

Mary's death, with Christ holding her soul (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 133)

There's some lovely language here. Christ calls Mary min eorclanstan, my arkenstone - more properly translated as 'my precious jewel' - a word with a long and fascinating history. She calls herself the goldhord of his commandments, his 'treasure-house'. Such tender speeches between Mary and her son are the most appealing part of texts about the Assumption - I posted some later medieval English examples here.

The burial of Mary (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 134v)

After this Mary's body is buried, and there's a story around her funeral, too long to post, which involves the conversion of a Jewish leader who touches her funeral bier. When she is buried, Christ appears again with a host of angels, to lead her body out of the tomb:

& þa hraþe bead Drihten Gabriele þæm heahengle þæt he wylede þone stan fram þære byrgenne duru. Ond þa Michael se heahengel geong weardode þære eadigan Marian sawle beforan Drihtne. Ond þa wæs Drihten cweþende to Marian lichoman, ‘Aris þu, min seo nehste & min culufre & mines wuldres eardung, & forþon þe þu eart lifes fæt, & þu eart þæt heofenlice templ, & næron nænige leahtras gefylde on þinre heortan, ond þu ne þrowast nænige þrowunge on þinum lichoman.’ Ond þa cwæþ Drihten eft to þæm lichoman, ‘Aris þu nu of þinre byrgenne.’ & þa sona aras Maria of þære byrgenne, & ymbfeng Drihtnes fet, ond þa ongan wuldrian on God & wæs cweþende, ‘Min Drihten, ne mæg ic ealle þa gife forþbringan þe þu me forgeafe for þinum naman, & hweþre hi ne magon ealle þine bletsunge gefyllan. & þu eart Israhela God & þu eart ahafen mid þinum Fæder & mid þinum þy Halgan Gaste on worlda world.’ Ond þa ahof Drihten hie up & hie þa cyste, & hie þa sealde Michahele þæm heahengle & he hie þa ahof up on wolcnum beforan Drihtnes gesihþe. Ond cwæþ Drihten to þæm apostolum, ‘gangaþ nu to me on wolnum.’ & þa mid þy þe hie wæron gangende to him þa, wæs Drihten hie cyssende & wæs cweþende, ‘Pacem meam do uobis. Alleluia!’ Ic forlæte mine sibbe to eow þurh mines Fæder þone Halgan Gast. Ond ic eow sylle mine sibbe þurh min þæt hehste lof, ond ic beo mid eow ealle dagas oþ þa geendunga þisse worlde.’ & Drihten cwæþ to þæm englum, ‘ Singaþ nu & onfoþ minre meder on neorxna wonge.’

Then staightaway the Lord told Gabriel the archangel to roll away the stone from the door of the tomb. And then Michael went forward and took the soul of the blessed Mary to the Lord. And the Lord said to Mary's body, ‘Arise, my kinswoman, my dove, and the dwelling of my glory, for you are the vessel of life, and you are the heavenly temple; no sins were committed in your heart, and you will suffer no pain in your body.’ And the Lord said again to the body, ‘Arise now from your tomb.’ And immediately Mary arose from the tomb, and she embraced the Lord’s feet and began to glorify God, saying, ‘My Lord, I cannot produce all the gifts that you gave me for your name's sake,  nor can they exhaust all your blessings. You are the God of Israel, and you are exalted with your Father and with your Holy Spirit for ever.’ And then the Lord raised her up and kissed her and gave her to the archangel Michael, and he lifted her up in the clouds before the Lord's presence. And the Lord said to the apostles, ‘Come now to me into the clouds.’ And when they went to Him, the Lord kissed them and said, Pacem meam do vobis. Alleluia. ‘My peace I leave with you through my Father’s Holy Spirit, and my peace I give you through my highest praise, and I will be with you always unto the end of this world.’ And the Lord said to the angels, ‘Now sing, and receive my mother into Paradise.’

Mary is lifted up to heaven (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 135)

The above series of images comes from an illustration of the story in a 14th-century Book of Hours, BL Yates Thompson 13. It's four centuries later than the Old English text, but you can see that many of the details of the Transitus Mariae story are also present here - it continued to be popular throughout Europe during the medieval period, though is hardly known today. There are several versions in Middle English, including a lovely verse homily, as well as depictions in art. One of the most memororable of those depictions is found in the church of St Mary's, Chalgrove, Oxfordshire. This beautiful village church has an exquisite painted chancel, decorated in the first half of the fourteenth century, which shows scenes from the life of Mary and Christ, together with saints and angels, against a background of flowers.


The north side of the chancel depicts the life of Christ, from a blossoming Jesse tree at one end to the Crucifixion and Resurrection at the other. On the south side is the narrative of Mary's passing. The paintings were covered in limewash at the Reformation and so one or two later monuments have intruded into the series, but it's still remarkably complete. The first glimpse of it is breathtaking - no picture can do it justice.


The sequence begins with Mary receiving the palm from the angel, and praying on her knees:


We see her surrounded by the apostles and her friends, with the women in some beautiful fourteenth-century clothes:



Then comes the scene (now obscured by a monument) when her soul leaves her body, and Christ receives it:


Christ is the central figure, with angels behind him, and Mary's little soul is visible just next to him, being raised up from her body by angels.

Then comes her funeral procession, with the conversion of the Jewish leader, who touches her bier and then goes to preach to his friends:




Most of the burial scene is now lost, except for the tenderness with which this figure is cradling Mary's head:


Below are two almost lost scenes, then on the adjacent wall, beside the east window, are the Assumption and Coronation.



They parallel the upward movement on the other side of the window, of Christ's Resurrection and Ascension.


Chalgrove is a treasure of a church, and the chancel has the kind of air about it that Lady Chapels often have - a feeling of lightness and delicacy in the decoration, as of sunlight spun in spiderwebs. It sounds silly to say it, but it feels ladylike.


All the apocryphal stories about Mary's life, because of their uncertain authority, have long attracted criticism, and - like all but one of the 'Lady Days' - their place in British culture did not survive the Reformation. But it's not difficult to see why they were so popular in the Middle Ages. Though they contain plenty of miracles and marvels and angels, they're somehow very human and ordinary. At the heart of them is a woman, loving and much loved, whose life is traced from the first wonder of her conception to her peaceful death. In a sequence like that at Chalgrove, or in Ely's Lady Chapel, or in the Book of Hours or the plays, Mary's life is mapped out through domestic, everyday scenes: parents rejoicing in the birth of a longed-for baby; a little girl learning to read with her mother, or climbing the steps to the temple like a child on her first day at school; a teenage Mary with her female friends, happy with her baby, at her churching, or in the last days of her life. These were familiar rituals of childhood and motherhood which resonated with medieval audiences - with women especially, but not only women. They are completely relatable, not only for mothers like Margery Kempe but for anyone who has ever had a mother, ever been a child, and there's something beautiful about elevating such ordinary family relationships to the dignity of high art. In these scenes Mary is not an unapproachably distant figure but a woman imagined in relationship to others: a daughter, wife, mother, friend. In particular, the story of her passing is full of other people and their love for her - the apostles and her friends gathering around her bedside, Christ cradling her soul in his arms like a child. She is unique, but never alone.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

A Little History of Lammas


Today is Lammas, the earliest Anglo-Saxon harvest festival of the year. Its name comes from Old English hlaf, 'loaf' and mæsse, 'mass', and it may have been a day when loaves of bread made from the first corn were blessed. Much about the origins of Lammas is obscure, but it's a festival with a long, interesting and somewhat unusual history.

I said 'may have been' because we really don't know much about how Lammas might have been celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England. It's mentioned a number of times in Anglo-Saxon texts, but many of those references simply treat it as another name for August 1st, with no indication of any particular customs associated with the day. However, it's often suggested that since the date of Lammas corresponds to recorded Irish and Welsh harvest festivals, and there are no close continental parallels for a harvest festival on that date, 'Lammas' may well be a Christian name given by the Anglo-Saxons to a pre-Christian festival celebrated in Britain and Ireland. (Harvest festivals are of course always more regional than other kinds of celebration, because their dates depend on the climate and crops of a particular area.)

This means Lammas is often said to be a pagan festival (and it has been adopted as such by neo-paganism, where it seems to be considered as interchangeable with Lughnasadh). Historically speaking, that's an over-simplicification. Despite its likely pre-Christian origins, the name 'Lammas' is both Christian and English: the second element -mæsse ('mass') was borrowed into Old English from liturgical Latin, and is only used to refer to Christian or Jewish festivals. In the Anglo-Saxon period and long afterwards it was endlessly productive as a suffix, giving us not only names we still use, like Christmas and Candlemas, but an almost limitless variety of Christian festivals with comparable names: Childermas, Marymas, Petermas, Ellenmas, Lukesmas, Hallowmas, Roodmas, Crouchmas, and so on. It seems unlikely that it would be used for a festival which was perceived to have a substantial non-Christian component.

Similarly, our few references to Lammas are from fairly late Anglo-Saxon texts, and survive in a learned Christian context (as you would expect from the nature of the surviving sources). Lammas doesn't regularly appear in Anglo-Saxon calendars or liturgical books, where August 1st is instead the feast of St Peter ad Vincula and/or the Maccabees, but there are various intriguing references to it. The earliest may be in the Old English Martyrology, probably dating to the ninth century, which doesn't use the name Lammas but does refer to 1st August as the day of hlafsenunga, 'blessing of bread'. It's worth noting that sengung, which is related to the verb segnian, 'to make the sign of the cross', is another borrowing from ecclesiastical Latin (signare), so we're no closer to finding any pre-Christian terminology here.

Harvest, from an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 6v)

The first recorded use of the word Lammas itself is probably that in the Old English Orosius, which refers to 1st August in passing (while telling the story of Antony and Cleopatra) as 'the day that we call Lammas'. This text likely comes from the last decade of the ninth century, and that late date is interesting - it's already a good few centuries later than our usual authority on pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon customs, Bede (who doesn't mention Lammas). All the references to Lammas in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - again, simply as another name for August 1st - are from the tenth, eleventh or twelfth centuries. The homilist Ælfric, usually such a helpful guide to the cycle of the church year, also only mentions Lammas as an alternative name for 1st August: he refers to it it in passing in a homily about St Peter, telling his congregation that 1st August is the day 'you [not 'we'] call Lammas'. This might suggest he thought of it as primarily a secular rather than a religious observance (though not a pagan one, or he probably wouldn't mention it at all). Perhaps by this time it was an extra-liturgical custom, adopted and supported by the church but not incorporated into the liturgy.  If it was a day when people brought loaves to church to be blessed, we don't have any record of specific blessings attached to Lammas, though there are general blessings for bread and crops which might have been used.

Alternatively - though it's impossible to say for sure - it might be that by this date Lammas was for some people just a name for 'the beginning of harvest', rather than a festival with any particular customs. (Something like 'Boxing Day' in modern Britain, a name for 'the day after Christmas' which everyone knows but can't really explain.)

Lammas appears just once in Old English poetry, in the beautiful calendar poem known as the Menologium. In the section for August, Weed-month, this poem describes Lammas and the coming of autumn:

And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Weodmonað on tun; welhwær bringeð
Agustus yrmenþeodum
hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð
ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,
wlitig, wæstmum hladen. Wela byð geywed
fægere on foldan.

And [after the feast of St James] after seven nights
of summer's brightness Weed-month slips
into the dwellings; everywhere August brings
to peoples of the earth Lammas Day. So autumn comes,
after that number of nights but one [i.e. on August 7],
bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed,
beautiful upon the earth.

According to the system of dating used by this tenth-century poem, the season of autumn began shortly after Lammas on August 7th - a date calculated by its position halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. I've written about this dating system before, and I wrote about some Old English harvest poetry in a post last year. This poem unfortunately tells us nothing about Lammas except that it comes 'to peoples everywhere' (which is actually far from true, since it was such a localised festival!). But you can see how closely it coincides with the coming of harvest/autumn - the Old English name for autumn is hærfest, so they're the same thing here. The link between autumn and harvest is one thing which makes the Anglo-Saxon view of this season quite different from our modern perspective. Think of autumn and you might think of reddening leaves, dewy chilly mornings, darker shorter days - probably not of harvesters working under a blazing August sun. But in Old English, linguistically speaking at least, autumn and harvest are indistinguishable.

Harvesting (BL Add. 50000, f. 4v)

Our final and perhaps most interesting Anglo-Saxon reference to Lammas appears in a ritual, intended to protect harvested corn from mice and other pests:

[...] lange sticcan feðerecgede 7 writ on ægðerne sticcan[...] ælcere ecge an pater noster oð ende 7 lege þone [...]an þam berene on þa flore 7 þone oðerne on [...] ofer þam oðrum sticcan. þæt þær si rode tacen on 7 nim of ðam gehalgedan hlafe þe man halgie on hlafmæssedæg feower snæda 7 gecryme on þa feower hyrna þæs berenes. þis is þeo bletsung þærto. Vt surices garbas non noceant has preces super garbas dicis et non dicto eos suspendis hierosolimam ciuitate. ubi surices nec habitent nec habent potestam. nec grana colligent. nec triticum congaudent. þis is seo oðer bletsung. Domine deus omnipotens qui fecisti celum et terram. tu benedicis fructum istum in nomine patris et spiritus sancti. amen. 7 Pater noster.

[Take two] long pieces of four-edged wood, and on each piece write a Pater noster, on each side down to the end. Lay one on the floor of the barn, and lay the other across it, so that they form the sign of the cross. And take four pieces of the hallowed bread which is blessed on Lammas day, and crumble them at the four corners of the barn. This is the blessing for that; so that mice do not harm these sheaves, say prayers over the sheaves and do not cease from saying them. 'City of Jerusalem, where mice do not live they cannot have power, and cannot gather the grain, nor rejoice with the harvest.' This is the second blessing: 'Lord God Almighty, who made heaven and earth, bless these fruits in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.' Amen. And [then say] a Pater Noster.

Quoted from Karen Louise Jolly, 'Tapping the Power of the Cross: Who and For Whom?', in The Place of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Catherine E. Karkov, Sarah Larratt Keefer, and Karen Louise Jolly (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press), p. 79; my translation.

The manuscript from which this charm comes, British Library, Cotton Vitellius E xviii, is a psalter, written in a monastery at Winchester in the middle decades of the eleventh century. This charm survives alongside other prayers and rituals and an assorted collection of highly useful information: good and bad days for bloodletting, how to cure sick cattle and sheep, how to keep people from stealing your bees, the most lucky days for childbirth, and so on. A list can be seen here. Although to modern eyes this kind of ritual often looks like pagan folk-magic, it's part of a complex picture of popular and learned devotion in early medieval England; this particular ritual might well have been performed by a priest, and it's made up of explicitly Christian symbols and practices - the cross, the Pater Noster, and the consecrated bread. This charm suggests that there was something special about the bread blessed at Lammas, but it might plausibly refer to the Eucharist consecrated at a mass said on Lammas Day rather than to specific Lammas loaves.

(If you'd like to read more about these kinds of fascinating texts and the people who used and recorded them, I refer you to the brilliant blog For the Wynn - on modern ideas about Anglo-Saxon paganism see especially this post.)


Well, that was an exhaustive history of the Anglo-Saxon sources! Let's skip over the next seven centuries a bit more quickly. Later in the medieval and into the early modern period Lammas seems to have retained this kind of quasi-official status, acting mostly as a fixed date for various secular customs rather than being celebrated as a festival itself. It was still commonly used as a name for August 1st and sometimes for the whole month of August; often it seems to be simply another name for 'the season of harvest'. Some later medieval writers understood the name to be 'Lamb-mass' (festum agnorum) and thought it had something to do with lambs, which suggests they didn't recognise the 'loaf' element or the connection with bread.

Given the time of year and the huge importance of getting in the harvest, Lammas was a popular date for fairs and local feasts. It was also one of the regular dates on which rents would be paid, debts settled, contracts made, and labourers hired. Because it was associated with such payments, 'latter Lammas' became a humorous phrase for 'a day which is indefinitely delayed', or 'never', as in these great OED citations (note how late the dates are!):

latter Lammas, a day that will never come. at latter Lammas: humorously for ‘never’.

1567 GASCOIGNE Instruct. Making Verse Posies (1575) Many writers...draw their sentences in length, & make an ende at latter Lammas.

1576 GASCOIGNE Steele Glas. This is the cause (beleue me now my Lorde)...That courtiers thriue, at latter Lammas day.

1642 FULLER Holy State. IV. xv. 316 This your will At latter lammas wee'l fulfill.

a1734 NORTH Lives of Norths (1826) I. 4 The very expectation of them puts me in mind of latter Lammas.

1805 W. TAYLOR in Ann. Rev. III. 244 This convocation was somewhat unbecomingly postponed to latter Lammas.

1857 KINGSLEY Two Years Ago vii, A treatise...which will be published probably...in the season of Latter Lammas, and the Greek Kalends.


In some English towns you still find fields and meadows called 'Lammas land', areas of common land where people could pasture their animals for a fixed season running from Lammas until the following spring. Above and below are the Lammas Lands at Godalming in Surrey, looking particularly beautiful in August last year.

I love those two phrases, 'latter Lammas' and 'Lammas lands' - while mundane enough in their definitions, both have an irresistibly poetic ring! And there's also the beautiful phrase 'Lammas growth' (also called 'Lammas leaves' or 'Lammas flush'), which is the name given to a renewed spurt of growth which occurs in some trees around early August - a second shoot of greenness following after the first burst of spring. A flush of fresh growth in a mature tree - isn't there a poem waiting to be written in that?


This is a wonderful puzzle of a festival. On the one hand, we have abundant evidence for its history over many centuries, from the Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote the Menologium to the keen eye of the gardeners looking out for 'Lammas growth', from the witty sixteenth-century courtiers joking about 'latter Lammas' to the cherished land-rights of medieval villagers. On the other hand, we have very little evidence for the celebration of the festival itself. But however obscure its origins, it's a day which has had meaning, of many different kinds, to a variety of people and communities for more than a thousand years.

It's worth concluding by emphasising that variety, because it adds some nuance to the way Lammas is often popularly presented these days. Having been almost entirely forgotten in our less agricultural society, it's now frequently characterised as a 'pagan festival' (often a 'Celtic pagan festival'), as if that were the beginning and end of its history. Here's a typical example, from the BBC's Religions subsite:

Lammas, also called Lughnasadh, comes at the beginning of August. It is one of the Pagan festivals of Celtic origin which split the year into four. Celts held the festival of the Irish god Lugh at this time and later, the Anglo-Saxons marked the festival of hlaefmass - loaf mass or Lammas - at this time. For these agricultural communities this was the first day of the harvest, when the fields would be glowing with corn and reaping would begin. The harvest period would continue until Samhain when the last stores for the winter months would be put away. Although farming is not an important part of modern life, Lughnasadh is still seen as a harvest festival by Pagans and symbols connected with the reaping of corn predominate in its rites.

This is OK for what it is, but notice how it elides everything between early paganism and modern pagan practice (and how 'still seen' suggests an unbroken continuity of practice which isn't there; the modern version is a reconstruction, of course). That's a whole lot of time just skipped over, jumping from the pre-Christian period straight to the twentieth century, and what's excluded is everything in the sources discussed above (including all the Anglo-Saxon sources).

I'm very glad that there are people today who celebrate Lammas, and for whom it has a sacred significance - I don't want to disparage that at all. But from a historical point of view, we should be careful about ignoring such a great swathe of recorded history just because it doesn't fit with modern black-and-white ideas of what is 'pagan' and what is 'Christian'. To modern eyes, a harvest festival somehow looks pagan - but that doesn't mean it is, and the assumption that it must be reveals more about us, and our impoverished view of the natural world, than it does about the past.

I'm conscious of this danger because I write fairly often about the seasons and the natural year in medieval literature, and although many readers seem to find this subject as interesting as I do, a small minority react very oddly and aggressively to it. For me, it's fascinating to see how medieval writers thought about and wrote about the seasons, and especially to try and tease out the kinds of meaning - poetic, religious, spiritual, philosophical or scientific - which they found in seasonal cycles. This is the theme of some of the loveliest poetry in Old and Middle English, as well as some intriguing examples of medieval science.

Because almost all surviving medieval English literature (my particular interest) was written down in a Christian culture, such poetry and science are often framed in explicitly Christian terms. This upsets some people very much. These people take the view that interest in natural cycles, or the natural world as a whole, is by definition solely 'pagan' (according to their understanding of that term, usually a markedly twentieth-century one), and that Christian writers have no business caring about it. In their view, the Christianized nature of a festival like Lammas is a kind of false shell within which the 'real' festival is somehow hiding. The nastier ones accuse me of deceitfully concealing this 'real' paganism for my own nefarious ends - they demand that I produce the secret pagan texts I'm hiding, and are never put off by the inconvenient fact that such texts simply don't exist. There is an presumption of bad faith, and they are determined to believe the worst both of me and of the medieval writers. In their imagination, someone like the Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote down the Lammas charm becomes part of some vast and wicked Catholic conspiracy, rather than a fairly ordinary product of his time, place and education.

What they can never seem to accept is that much of what modern audiences view as 'pagan' - solstices, the healing power of plants, astrology, and so on - were standard parts of medieval science, religion, and medicine. They were subjects of learned as well as popular interest, which even the most orthodox Christian writers accepted without question. (Not because they were too stupid to know better, but because their view of such learning and its sources and purpose was simply different from our own.) When people object to medieval Christians 'stealing' concepts they think of as pagan, it's often because they are projecting back onto the past a very modern view of such matters, one ingrained with suspicion of the catholic (and Catholic) nature of the medieval church.

I wouldn't mind this so much if it came from people who identify as pagans, but in fact it mostly comes from self-proclaimed atheists, who see it as a stick with which to beat Christianity. For them the idea that a conspiracy of Christians 'stole' seasonal feasts from paganism is a check-mate, proving that religion is a big fraud and they're the only ones smart enough to spot it. Having read a lot of Dan Brown and not much else, they wield a pub-bore armoury of 'facts', which are either very basic or entirely inaccurate (of the idiotic Ishtar/Easter variety); and my goodness, there are a lot of them about. Some of them even write for national newspapers. There's almost no point trying to talk to these people; they don't want to learn anything which might disrupt their existing prejudices, and all they want from historians is confirmation of what they already think they know. (People often ask me 'how did the Anglo-Saxons celebrate Easter?', to which the honest answer is 'well, what we know best from the surviving sources is that they went to church. Let me tell you about liturgical drama and some interesting Good Friday popular customs!' That answer, while true, isn't the one they want - they want an easy story about eggs and bunnies, and they don't much care whether it's accurate or not.)

The truth is, of course, that though the roots of a festival like Lammas, or other frequently cited 'pagan festivals' like Easter, are likely to be pre-Christian, we have very little (if any) firm evidence for how they may originally have been celebrated. What we do have is abundant evidence for the celebration of seasonal festivals over the many centuries which followed, which provide a fascinating insight into medieval (and later) culture and custom, both learned and popular, involving important aspects of local identity and history and a diverse range of communities and their self-governance. Lammas lands and 'latter Lammas' are not pagan by any definition, but they're part of the history of Lammas too - not more or less important than the putative pre-Christian festival, though much better attested. It doesn't make sense to argue about what the 'real' Lammas is - it's all real.


The idea that interest in the natural world is inherently pagan is one which would have made no sense at all to most medieval writers, or for that matter to most people for centuries after the end of the medieval period. It's a feature of an urban and post-industrial society to think that noticing and caring about natural cycles is an optional extra, or some esoteric magical secret - in fact, it's a modern luxury to be able to ignore them. We have light available to us, every hour of the day, at the flick of a switch, and so some people fiercely believe that only super-spiritual cosmos-attuned pagans could ever have thought to care about full moons and solstices. Go back even a hundred years and that's nonsense, of course; there was a time (and there are still many places) where solar and lunar cycles were unavoidably important, where moonlit nights were the only time it was feasible to go out in the evening and the lengthening or shortening of the days made a huge difference to the routines of daily life. Of course people knew when Midsummer was, and found ways to celebrate it  - it's not exactly a mystery! It's a failure of imagination not to realise that this is one of the ways in which the past (even the quite recent past) was very different to the present, and it's a very modern kind of arrogance to think that it takes some special deep insight to notice or care how the sun works.

This is especially true of the harvest and a festival like Lammas. In an agricultural society the harvest affects everyone - it's not an optional extra or a mystic observance. You don't even have to go back to the Middle Ages to become aware of this - think of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, oblivious that it's unreasonable to expect to hire a cart in the countryside in harvest-time because she holds 'the true London maxim, that everything is to be got with money'. Today many of us are more like than Mary Crawford than the farmers she offended; we're fortunate enough to be able to obtain food of whatever kind we like, all year round, without having to worry about scarcity or season, and that makes harvest festivals seem like nothing more than a nice decorative adornment to the calendar. But we shouldn't forget this is a modern and a privileged perspective, and we shouldn't impose it back onto the past.

Everywhere you look at the moment, you see people projecting their fantasies back into history, rather than allowing the past to be different from the present. This comes from people across the political spectrum, but what they all have in common is that they only really care about history as far as it serves modern political goals. They're only interested in the past to the extent that it supports their modern prejudices, whatever those happen to be; they can't or won't face it on its own terms and by its own lights. What doesn't fit, they choose to ignore. The people who angrily object to the idea that Lammas has a Christian history as well as a pagan one have their own fantasy, of a homogeneous, 'pure' paganism, and they want me to provide for them a version of Anglo-Saxon culture with the nasty Christianity taken out - not because they care one jot for pagan beliefs or the mystery and glory of the cycles of the earth, but because they want grist to the mill of their political opinions. Of course I don't demand that such people take an interest in the later history of the festival - they can be interested in whatever they like! - but I do object to them insisting that I, in writing about medieval texts, suppress or distort what the sources actually do give us because they don't fit with a modern fantasy. The past - at any particular place and any particular moment - was very different from the world you know. Let it be different. Let it be what it was, and not what you want it to have been.

If you'd asked your average Anglo-Saxon monk or medieval villager whether celebrating the harvest was a Christian or pagan thing to do, I wonder whether they would even have understood the question. It's the harvest; it matters to everyone. No one stole it from anyone, because it belongs to everyone. Of all British festivals, Lammas is perhaps simultaneously the most local and the most universal. Throughout its long history, and in its different forms, it has been a name which honours what we all need ('peoples everywhere', as the Menologium says): the fruits of the earth, and our daily bread.

Harvesters, in an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Cotton Julius A VI, f. 6v)

Saturday, 15 July 2017

'That time was a blessed and happy one...'

Swithun in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f.97v)

As a footnote to yesterday's post about Ælfric, here are some extracts from Ælfric's homily on St Swithun - since today is St Swithun's Day, when the weather-gods obey the saint of Winchester. 'St Swithun's day if thou dost rain / For forty days it will remain', and all that.

Ælfric had a personal connection to Swithun's story, and in this homily he adds in one or two comments to remind us of it. Swithun was an obscure ninth-century Bishop of Winchester whose cult was essentially invented by Æthelwold, his successor at Winchester more than a century later. Winchester was the royal city of Wessex but it was surprisingly short on saints, so Æthelwold did his best to elevate some of his predecessors to that status, including Swithun and St Birinus (a better-attested saint, though his popularity never caught on as Swithun's did). On 15 July 971, Æthelwold had Swithun's remains translated to a new shrine inside the Old Minster, Winchester. Ælfric, who was educated at Winchester under Æthelwold and had a great respect for his bishop, would have witnessed much of this, and by the time he wrote about it, around 25 years later, he had come to see Æthelwold's time - his own youth - as a kind of golden age for the English church, when the king and holy bishops worked together and religion and peace flourished in the land. By the 990s, with the Vikings suddenly once more a pressing threat, this seemed like a bright but vanished world.

The opening of Ælfric's homily on Swithun, in an 11th-century manuscript (BL Cotton MS Julius E VII)

Today Swithun is really only famous for his weather-lore, because we know very little about what he did as Bishop of Winchester. (The weather-lore is a late development, not found in the Anglo-Saxon sources.) Ælfric didn't know either, as he tells us plainly:

On Eadgares dagum ðæs æðelan cynincges
þaþa se cristendom wæs wel ðeonde þurh God
on angel-cynne under ðam ylcan cynincge,
þa geswutelode God þone Sanct Swyðun
mid manegum wundrum þæt he mære is.
His dæda næron cuðe ærðan þe hi God sylf cydde,
ne we ne fundon on bocum hu se bisceop leofode
on þysre worulde ærðan þe he gewende to Criste.
Þæt wæs þæra gymeleast þe on life hine cuþon,
þæt hi noldon awritan his weorc and drohtnunge
þam towerdum mannum ðe his mihte ne cuðon;
ac God hæfð swa þeah his lif geswutelod
mid swutelum wundrum and syllicum tacnum.
Đes Swyðun wæs bisceop on Winceastre,
swa þeah ofer Hamtun-scire, gesælig Godes þeowa
and eahta bisceopas wæron betwux him and Sancte Æðelwolde.
Nu næs us his lif cuð, swa swa we ær cwædon,
butan þæt he wæs bebyrged æt his bisceop-stole
be westan þære cyrcan and ofer-worht syððan
oþþæt his wundra geswutelodon his gesælða mid Gode.

'In the days of the noble king Edgar, when by the grace of God Christianity was thriving among the English people under that king, God revealed St Swithun, showing by many signs that he is glorious. His deeds were not known until God himself made them known, and we do not find written in books in what manner the bishop lived in this world before he went to Christ. Such was the carelessness of those who knew him in life, that they did not write about his deeds and conduct for the benefit of future generations who did not know his virtue; but God nonetheless made known his life with manifest miracles and wonderful tokens. This Swithun was Bishop of Winchester, that is, over Hampshire, a blessed servant of God; there were eight bishops between him and St Æthelwold. Now, as we said before, nothing about his life is known to us, except that he was buried at his episcopal seat, to the west of the church, and a tomb was built over him, until his miracles revealed that he was blessed by God.'

Those miracles are the main subject of Ælfric's homily, showing how Swithun's holiness was revealed by visions and signs. You can read his account here, but here's one example, where Ælfric concludes by mentioning his own involvement:

Æþelwold þa se arwurða and se eadiga bisceop
þe on ðam dagum wæs on Winceastre bisceop
bead his munecum eallum þe on ðam mynstre wunodon
þæt hi ealle eodon endemes to cyrcan
and mid sange heredon þæs sanctes mærða
and God mærsodon swa on þam mæran halgan,
swa oft swa ænig wan-hal mann wurde gehæled.
Þa dydon hi sona swa and sungon þone lofsang
oðþæt heora laðode eallum þæt hi swa oft arisan -
hwilon þrywa on niht, hwilon feower syðum -
to singenne þone lofsang þonne hi slapan sceoldon
and forleton ealle endemes þone sang
forðam þe se bisceop wæs bysig mid þam cynincge
and nyste butan hi sungon þone lof-sang forð on.
Hwæt ða se halga Swyðun sylf com on swefne
wundorlice geglencged to sumum godan menn and cwæð,
“Gang nu to ealdan mynstre and þam munecum sege
þæt Gode swyðe oflicað heora ceorung and slæwð
þæt hi dæg-hwamlice geseoð drihtnes wundra mid him
and hi nellað herian þone hælend mid sange
swa swa se bisceop behead þam gebroðrum to donne,
and sege gif hi nellað þone sang gelæstan
þonne geswicað eac sona ða wundra,
and gif hi þone lofsang willað æt þam wundrum singan
swa oft swa wanhale menn þær wurðað gerihte
þonne wurðaþ mid him wundra swa fela
þæt nan man ne mæg gemunan on life
þæt ænig man gesawe swylce wundra ahwær.”
þa awæcnode se wer of þam wynsuman slæpe
and swyðe be-sargode þæt he geseon ne moste
ne nan læncg brucan þæs beorhtan leohtes
þe he mid Swiðune hæfde ða gesewen.
He aras swaðeah and swiðe hraðe ferde
to Æþelwolde bisceope and him eall þis sæde.
Æþelwold þa asende sona to þam munecum
of cyninges hyrede and cwæð þæt hi sceoldon
þone lof-sang singan swa swa he ge-set hæfde
and se þe hit forsawe sceolde hit mid fæstene
seofon niht on an swarlice gebetan.
Hi hit heoldon þa syððan symle on ge-wunon
swa swa we gesawon sylfe for oft
and þone sang we sungon unseldon mid heom.

'Æthelwold, the venerable and blessed bishop, who in those days was Bishop of Winchester, commanded all his monks who lived in the Minster that every time a sick person was healed they should all go in procession to the church, and praise in song the merits of the saint and glorify God because of the saint's holiness. They began to do this straightaway, and sang the song of praise, until it grew tiresome for them to have to get up so often - sometimes three times a night, sometimes four - to sing the Te Deum, when they could have been asleep. At last they all left off singing the hymn, because the bishop was busy with the king, and did not know that they had ceased their custom of singing.

But then St Swithun himself appeared to a certain good man in a dream, richly attired, and said, "Go to the Old Minster, and say to the monks that God is greatly displeased by their grumbling and sloth, that every day they see the miracles of God performed among them, but they do not want to praise the Saviour with hymns as the bishop commanded the brothers to do. Tell them that if they do not sing the hymn, the miracles will soon cease; but if they sing the Te Deum for the miracles, as often as sick people are healed there, then so many wonders will be performed among them that no one alive will be able to remember when any man saw such wonders anywhere."

The man woke up from his sweet sleep, and mourned that he could no longer see and enjoy the beautiful light which he had seen accompanying Swithun. Nonetheless he got up and quickly went to Bishop Æthelwold, and told him all this. Æthelwold straightaway sent a message from the king's court to the monks, and said that they should sing the Te Deum just as he had set down for them, and that anyone who neglected to do this should heavily atone for it by fasting for seven nights continuously. Afterwards they always kept this custom, as we have very often seen for ourselves - and we have often sung that hymn with them.'

The replacement for the destroyed tomb of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral

Ne mage we awritan ne mid wordum asecgan
ealle þa wundra þe se halga wer Swiðun
þurh God gefremode on ðæs folces gesihþe,
ge on gehæftum mannum ge on unhalum mannum,
mannum to swutelunge þæt hi sylfe magon
Godes rice geearnian mid godum weorcum
swa swa Swiþun dyde þe nu scinð þurh wundra.
Seo ealde cyrce wæs eall behangen mid criccum
and mid creopera sceamelum fram ende oð oþerne
on ægðrum wage þe ðær wurdon gehælede
and man ne mihte swa ðeah macian hi healfe up.
þyllice tacna cyþað þæt Crist is ælmihtig God
þe his halgan geswutelode þurh swylce wel-dæda...
We habbað nu gesæd be Swiðune þus sceortlice
and we secgað to soðan þæt se tima wæs gesælig
and wynsum on angel-cynne þaþa Eadgar cynincg
þone cristen-dom ge-fyrtðrode and fela munuclifa arærde
and his cynerice wæs wunigende on sibbe
swa þæt man ne gehyrde gif ænig scyp-here wære
buton agenre leode þe ðis land heoldon
and ealle ða cyningas þe on þysum iglande wæron,
cumera and scotta, comon to Eadgare
hwilon anes dæges eahta cyningas
and hi ealle gebugon to Eadgares wissunge.
þaer-to-eacan wæron swilce wundra gefremode
þurh þone halgan Swyðun, swa swa we sædon ær,
and swa lange swa we leofodon þær wurdon gelome wundra.
On ðam timan wæron eac wurð-fulle bisceopas:
Dunstan se anræda æt ðam erce-stole
and Aþelwold se arwurða and oðre gehwylce,
ac Dunstan and Aþelwold wæron drihtne gecorene
and hi swyðost manodon menn to godes willan
and ælc god arærdon Gode to cwemednysse
þæt geswuteliað þa wundra þe God wyrcð þurh hi.

'We cannot write, nor recount in words, all the miracles that the holy man Swithun performed, by the power of God, in the sight of the people, for prisoners in chains and for sick people, to show to everyone that they themselves may earn the kingdom of heaven by good works, just as Swithun did, who is now made glorious by his miracles. The old church was hung all round with the crutches and stools of cripples who had been healed there, from one end to the other on either wall - and even so they could not put half of them up. Such tokens declare that Christ is Almighty God, who revealed his saint by such good deeds...

We have now spoken thus briefly of Swithun. We say, truly, that time was a blessed and happy one in England, when King Edgar fostered Christianity and built many monasteries, and his kingdom ever continued in peace, so that no ship-army was heard of, except that of the people who ruled this land. All the kings of the Welsh and Scots in this island came to Edgar in one day - that was eight kings - and they all submitted themselves to Edgar's rule. And, moreover, many miracles were performed through St Swithun, as we have said, and as long as we have lived frequent wonders have been done in that place. At that time there were worthy bishops, Dunstan the resolute, in the archbishopric, and Æthelwold the venerable, and others like them; Dunstan and Æthelwold were chosen of God, and they, most of all, exhorted men to do God's will, and advanced everything good, to the pleasure of God, as is testified by the miracles which God works through them.'

Friday, 14 July 2017

Eynsham and Ælfric


One of the most valued regular contributors to this blog is the prolific Anglo-Saxon monk Ælfric, who lived in the second half of the tenth century. Ælfric is best known for his two great collections of English homilies, which aimed to provide sermons for the whole cycle of the church's year, as well as another large collection of saints' lives - more than 160 homilies in all, which display the full range of his remarkable talents as a communicator. He translates and explains an impressive variety of Biblical extracts, patristic texts, liturgical customs, and historical and theological material of many different kinds. This was an incredibly ambitious project, but it was only one part of Ælfric's extraordinary body of work: he also composed letters of pastoral guidance and instruction on various subjects, and a range of works for use in the monastic classroom, including English 'textbooks' on Latin grammar and science.

Almost all Ælfric's writing is educational or pastoral in purpose, and he was a teacher to his fingertips, constantly engaged with the question of how best to communicate complex and challenging ideas to his audiences. He was a fluent writer of English prose, and later in his career he developed a beautifully measured blend of prose and alliterative verse which falls melodiously on the ear. His Life of St Edmund is a nice example of that style; I'm also fond of his poetic Christmas homily, and there are lots more in the archives. He was a popular as well as a prolific writer, and his works were still being read and reused as late as the thirteenth century - he had provided an invaluable resource for others to draw on, and while political upheavals in the centuries after his death altered other aspects of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, the pastoral work of the church for which Ælfric had laboured still went steadily on.


Ælfric was educated at Winchester, under the influential reforming bishop St Æthelwold, and then spent nearly twenty years at Cerne Abbey in Dorset, where he wrote most of his homilies between 987 and 1005. He ended his life as abbot of Eynsham, a village about five miles from Oxford. I recently visited Eynsham for the first time, and this post is really an excuse to share some of my pictures from that visit - there's nothing left of Eynsham Abbey, but it's a lovely village, and it's possible to stand on the site where Ælfric's abbey once stood.

Eynsham was 'Ælfric's abbey' in more ways than one, since it was founded - in a way - for him. He was its first abbot, and it was founded in 1005 by his patron Æthelmær, the head of one of the leading families of Anglo-Saxon England. Æthelmær and his father Æthelweard had supported Ælfric's work for many years, and his collection of Lives of Saints was written for them (you can read the preface addressed to them here). They were a powerful and well-connected family, descended from one of the brothers of Alfred the Great, who were proud of their roots in the royal line of the kings of Wessex and were involved in contemporary politics - as ealdorman of the 'western shires', Æthelweard governed part of the south-west (probably Somerset, Devon and Dorset), and was a counsellor to King Æthelred. Both father and son had sophisticated literary and spiritual interests: Æthelweard was the author of a chronicle in Latin - a remarkable achievement for a layman at this date - and the family's patronage of Ælfric must have been a great help and protection to him.

Æthelweard probably died around 998, and a few years later his son Æthelmær founded Eynsham Abbey and installed Ælfric as its abbot. There may have been a monastic community of some kind at Eynsham earlier in the Anglo-Saxon period, but under Ælfric - with his impeccably Benedictine education - it became a Benedictine monastery.

Eynsham lies near the Thames, a little way south of what was once the great forest of Wychwood, and divided from Oxford by the green hills of Wytham Woods, which you can see in the distance here. This view can't have changed much since Ælfric's day:


This is a quiet corner of Oxfordshire now, but when the abbey was founded in 1005 England was in turmoil, under near-constant attack from Viking armies, and riven by internal conflict too. Three years earlier there had been a horrific incident just a few miles away in Oxford, when on St Brice's Day 1002, in response to an edict from King Æthelred, a group of Danes living in the city were chased into a church (on the site of what is now Christ Church Cathedral) which their pursuers burned down. In 1005, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also records a 'great famine in England, such that no one ever recalled one so terrible before'. The following year a Viking army burned Wallingford - less than twenty miles away from Eynsham - and flaunted their dominance over Wessex all along the Berkshire Downs (I'll tell you that story another day), finishing up by parading their stolen booty past the very walls of Winchester, Ælfric's former home.

Æthelmær seems to have founded Eynsham around the time he left Æthelred's court for a few years, perhaps escaping the violent factionalism which reigned there in the early 1000s. (He came out of retirement in 1013, to lead the submission of Wessex to the Danish king Svein Forkbeard.) Eynsham was perhaps a kind of retirement post for Ælfric, too; most of his writings were composed in the 990s, so when he came here his life's work was almost all behind him, and he is thought to have died around five years later.

But Ælfric was anything but unworldly - though he was 'in the world but not of the world' - and medieval abbots were expected to be practical people, so it can't have been entirely a sinecure. There are plenty of reminders of industrious abbots at Eynsham, dating mostly to the centuries after Ælfric: while the first abbot probably never had the chance to do much here, the village is criss-crossed by signs of later monastic fishponds, building programmes, water engineering - all the practical things which leave marks on a landscape over many centuries of daily life.



It's a pretty village of honey stone, quiet and friendly, an oasis between the noisy A40 to the north and to the south the 'warm, green-muffled hills' which separate it from busy Oxford. It feels like another world - a peaceful, pleasant world. When Ælfric came here a thousand years ago, Oxford was already a town (a burh) but not yet a university city; in him, little Eynsham can claim an older scholarly heritage than its neighbour, the oldest university in England.


If you like going in search of medieval abbeys in England you have to use a fair bit of imagination, because most of the time you'll be looking at ruins - or empty space. For various reasons, in the past few years I've visited several sites of what were once great abbey complexes, and they all have their own stories to tell about the way later centuries have managed to accommodate the traces of their monastic past. I've been to St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, now an English Heritage site with an entrance fee and guidebooks and the footprint of the abbey carefully marked out; Crowland, a dream of a Gothic ruin; Bury St Edmunds, a large and well-kept public park where children play on the graves of the abbots; Abingdon, where the stones of the abbey led by Ælfric's teacher St Æthelwold are rearranged into tasteful Victorian follies; Peterborough, where the town has largely eaten up whatever remained of the monastery; and Reading, where the abbey's former precincts now contain modern skyscrapers more ghostly in their glittering emptiness than any medieval ruin could be. Most of these towns once revolved around their monasteries, and losing them must have been like having their heart ripped out. But places grow back, and build in different ways upon the ruins.


Eynsham was never on the scale of those great monasteries, but what stands on its site now is more appropriate than any of them. It's a churchyard, of the rambling shadowy rural kind, which lies between the (Anglican) church of St Leonard's on one side and the (Catholic) church of St Peter's on the other. Their two adjoining graveyards cover the space where the abbey church once stood. The site has been well investigated, and a neat little collection of signs point out the exact spot of each of the abbey's buildings; if you exercise a bit of imagination you can see church, cloisters, refectory, rising up out of the ground before you.



This sign on the wall marks the site of the high altar of the Anglo-Saxon church, and it points out that Ælfric - as the first abbot, entitled to a place of honour in death - was probably buried very close by. I hadn't expected that. If this is the site of his now-vanished tomb, it's a beautiful one - surrounded by well-tended graves just a few years old, bright with flowers and tokens of love. On this July day it was like an informal rose garden, with a view of the green hills beyond, still and quiet except for the occasional shriek of a red kite. A resting-place among Eynsham's parishioners seems fitting for this most pastorally-minded of monks - the shepherd amid his flock.


Fitting too that the site should span the grounds of both the Catholic and Anglican churches - however it turned out that should happen, it's a lovely thing. When you stand on the site of a destroyed medieval abbey - and if you are, as I am, fond of medieval monks and their ancient, industrious, imperfect but very human communities - it's hard not to think of the wanton violence which laid waste to them and all that unnecessary loss. But this is something more peaceful and rather beautiful, a belated healing of wounds. (A very recent one; the Catholic church was only built in the 1960s.)


Some remains found during the excavation of the abbey are buried in the Catholic cemetery.


The Anglican church, St Leonard's, was (and is) the parish church for the people of the town, and dates to the thirteenth century. The abbey church in its heyday would have been quite a bit larger.


Inside the church, I was pleased to find Ælfric in glass:


The church also displays various bits of stone which are supposed to have come from the abbey buildings when they were destroyed, such as this stranded above the doorway:


And the base of the font, said to have been a capital in the abbey church:


And some fragments of medieval stained glass, reassembled into a kaleidoscope of colour:




The Catholic church, on the other side of the abbey-now-churchyard, is very different, and has an interesting history of its own which you can read about here.


Though plain on the outside, inside it's elegant in its simplicity, and warmly welcoming.



This church adjoins the site of the abbey buildings, and behind the church is a meadow where the refectory and kitchens used to be:


It's called the Tolkien Meadow, after Tolkien's eldest son, Fr John Tolkien. He was the priest here when the archaeological excavations were going on in the early 1990s, and apparently took an enthusiastic interest in the project to discover more about the abbey. It's wonderful to think of Tolkien's son in Ælfric's abbey - Tolkien (the elder) must have taught Ælfric's work many times, and there's even a brilliant little nod to Ælfric in The Lord of the Rings...



The meadow contains a limestone boulder which was discovered under the foundations of the abbey when they were excavated. According to the guide, it was in a deep ditch which was dug over 3000 years ago, and 'the archaeologists think that the builders of the abbey decided to incorporate the stone into the wall foundations rather than move it'. It's a solid reminder of the ancientness of this site - Ælfric, living here a thousand years ago, is closer to us than he was to the people who dug the ditch where this stone lay.


And the hills are older still, of course, and he would have seen them.


After inspecting the site of the abbey church, it's possible to walk the perimeter of the medieval abbey - boundaries change slowly in the English countryside, and the modern roads still follow the lines of their medieval predecessors. It's the kind of place where the guide says 'the main road was diverted west in 1217 to expand the abbey precincts', and there the road still is, as if 1217 was really just the other day.



Another set of useful signs trace the path to the south of the village, around the sweep of the abbey's fishponds. This was the grand plan of a thirteenth-century abbot, and the land has hardly been touched since the abbey was destroyed; it's now an extensive green meadow, with weeds and waterfowl, still watery after eight centuries.


I do like a good heritage trail, and this is a very good one - a kind of secular Stations of the Cross, or Rogation procession of the kind Ælfric preached about. Part of the idea of a Rogationtide procession is that by walking the borders of your community you come to know it better, to feel its shape, and to remember what (and who) falls within its bounds. That has a practical and a spiritual function, at one and the same time. I wonder if Ælfric took a Rogation procession out into the fields the first spring he was at Eynsham, as he got to know the lands and souls entrusted to his care.


There are lots of things to think about here, in an empty meadow on a sunny July day. I was thinking about service. In his Preface to the Lives of Saints, Ælfric addresses his two noble patrons and summarises for them some of the characteristics of the collection which is to follow:

Ælfric gret eadmodlice Æðelweard ealdorman, and ic secge þe, leof, þæt ic hæbbe nu gegaderod on þyssere bec þæra halgena þrowunga, þe me onhagode on Englisc to awendene, for þan þe ðu, leof swiðost, and Æðelmær swylcera gewrita me bædon, and of handum gelæhton eowerne geleafan to getrymmenne mid þære gerecednysse, þe ge on eowrum gereorde næfdon ær...

We writað fela wundra on þissere bec, for þan þe God is wundorlic on his halgum, swa swa we ær sædon, and his halgena wundra wurðiað hine, for þan þe he worhte þa wundra þurh hi. An woruldcynincg hæfð fela þegna and mislice wicneras; he ne mæg beon wurðful cynincg buton he hæbbe þa geþincðe þe him gebyriað, and swylce þeningmen þe þeawfæstnysse him gebeodon. Swa is eac þam ælmihtigan Gode þe ealle þincg gesceop: him gerisð þæt he hæbbe halige þenas, þe his willan gefyllað, and þæra is fela on mannum anum, þe he of middanearde geceas, þæt nan bocere ne mæg, þeah þe mycel cunne, heora naman awriten, for þan þe hit nat nan man. Hi synd ungeryme swa swa hit gerisð Gode; ac we woldon gesettan be sumum þas boc mannum to getrymminge and to munde us sylfum, þæt hi us þingion to þam ælmihtigan Gode swa swa we on worulde heora wundra cyðað.

[Ælfric humbly greets ealdorman Æthelweard, and I say to you, my beloved man, that I have now gathered in this book the Passions of the saints which it was appropriate for me to translate into English, because you, my dearest man, and Æthelmær asked me for such writings, and received them from my hands in order to strengthen your faith by means of these stories, which you never had in your own language before...

We will write about many wonders in this book, because God is wonderful in his saints, as we said before; and the wonders of his saints bring honour to him, because he worked those wonders through them. An earthly king has many thegns and various officers; he cannot be an honourable king unless he has the things which are fitting to him, and such attendants to offer him their obedience. So it is also with Almighty God who created all things: it is fitting for him that he have holy thegns, who carry out his will, and of these there are many among mankind, whom he chose out of the world, so that no learned person – even if he knows many things – can write down their names, because no one knows them. They are beyond number, as is fitting for God. But we wanted to compile this book about some of them, for the encouragement of people and as security for ourselves, so that they could intercede for us with Almighty God, just as we make their wonders known in the world.]

The metaphor of the saints as God's 'thegns' is obviously one chosen to suit Ælfric's audience: Æthelweard and Æthelmær knew very well that 'an earthly king has many thegns and various officers', since they had fulfilled such a role themselves. The king's court was as apt a metaphor for them as it was for Alfred the Great when he used it in a text all three may have been familiar with, talking about how everyone at the king's court - from the highest to the lowest, from the royal chamber to the jail-cell - is in some sense in the presence of the king, just as everyone in the world is to some degree in the presence of divine wisdom, though some may be closer and others further away. There is a suggestion of that diversity here too in the reference to the mislice 'diverse, various' kinds of servants who serve God, and it's a theme Ælfric develops at greater length in his sermon for All Saints' Day - there are many different kinds of saints, who by their different lives and deaths bring glory to God.

This doesn't only apply to saints, of course. One of the most attractive themes which crops up in several places in Old English poetry is the 'gifts of men', celebrating all the many and various skills which different people contribute to society. When Ælfric addresses this theme he does so in an explicitly Biblical context, in his homily for Whitsun, where he describes the gifts of the Holy Spirit:

He sylð his gife ðam ðe he wile. Sumum men he forgifð wisdom and spræce, sumum god ingehyd, sumum micelne geleafan, sumum mihte to gehælenne untruman, sumum witegunge, sumum toscead godra gasta and yfelra; sumum he forgifð mislice gereord, sumum gereccednysse mislicra spræca. Ealle ðas ðing deð se Halga Gast, todælende æghwilcum be ðam ðe him gewyrð; forðam ðe he is Ælmihtig Wyrhta, and swa hraðe swa he þæs mannes mod onliht, he hit awent fram yfele to gode.

[He gives his gifts to whomever he will. To some men he gives wisdom and eloquence, to some good knowledge, to some great faith, to some the power to heal the sick, to some the power of prophecy, to some the power to distinguish between good and evil spirits; to some he gives various languages, to some interpretation of various sayings. The Holy Ghost does all these things, distributing to everyone as seems good to him; for he is the Almighty Maker, and as soon as he enlightens the mind of a man, he turns it from evil to good.]

But other Anglo-Saxon writers elaborated on the theme with a wider range of very practical skills, including climbing trees, sailing ships, architecture, swimming, looking after horses, hunting and hawking, and much more. Here's an example from the poem Christ II:

Sumum wordlaþe wise sendeð
on his modes gemynd þurh his muþes gæst,
æðele ondgiet. Se mæg eal fela
singan ond secgan þam bið snyttru cræft
bifolen on ferðe. Sum mæg fingrum wel
hlude fore hæleþum hearpan stirgan,
gleobeam gretan. Sum mæg godcunde
reccan ryhte æ. Sum mæg ryne tungla
secgan, side gesceaft. Sum mæg searolice
wordcwide writan. Sumum wiges sped
giefeð æt guþe, þonne gargetrum
ofer scildhreadan sceotend sendað,
flacor flangeweorc. Sum mæg fromlice
ofer sealtne sæ sundwudu drifan,
hreran holmþræce. Sum mæg heanne beam
stælgne gestigan. Sum mæg styled sweord,
wæpen gewyrcan. Sum con wonga bigong,
wegas widgielle. Swa se waldend us,
godbearn on grundum, his giefe bryttað.

To one he sends wise speech
into his mind’s thoughts through the breath of his mouth,
fine perception. One whose spirit is given
the power of wisdom can sing and speak
of many things. One can play the harp well
with his hands loudly among men,
strike the instrument of joy. One can tell
of the true divine law. One can speak of the course of the stars,
the vast creation. One can skilfully
write with words. To one is granted success in battle,
when archers send quivering arrows flying
over the shield-walls. One can boldly
drive the ship over the salt sea,
stir the thrashing ocean. One can climb
the tall upright tree. One can wield a weapon,
the hardened sword. One knows the expanse of earth’s plains,
far-flung ways. Thus the Ruler,
God's Son on earth, gives to us his gifts.

I love these catalogues of skills. They are celebratory and generous, finding something to praise in gifts of many different kinds, and valuing them all. All require skill and labour, all are important to society, all have a beauty of their own. In this context it's an explicitly Christian viewpoint, but a distinctively Anglo-Saxon one too - fitting for a culture for whom Weland the Smith was a hero. I can't really imagine what a modern version of this poem would look like ('One can phrase snarky Tweets so they fit within 140 characters...'); we just don't value craft in the same way, and our hierarchy of skills is quite a bit more rigid.

Within this view of the world, all gifts can be not only valuable in themselves, but a service to others and to God. Eynsham made me think of that. Æthelweard and Æthelmær had practical gifts of their own ('wise speech', they must have hoped, whether Æthelred listened to them or not) and they nurtured Ælfric's gifts as a writer and teacher, and Ælfric in his turn spent his life sharing those gifts with the world. Think of all the skills, too, which built and maintained an abbey like Eynsham - the labourers and craftsmen, the abbot with his fishponds, the cooks in the kitchen which is now Tolkien Meadow. Building and running a community takes so much dedicated labour - just read this touching history of Eynsham's Catholic church and see all the years of work which went into getting that church built, and all the very different but clearly much-loved parish priests whose diverse gifts are affectionately remembered by their parishioners. Such work is rarely celebrated and is often lost to history, because it's not dramatic or self-aggrandising - it's incremental, collaborative, self-giving, and it does an unfathomable amount of good.