Since I started teaching this term, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes something inclusive. How do I include all of these students? How do I attract students who’re already worrying they may not ‘fit in’? At what point do I have to do something that threatens to leave some of them behind, and when can I afford to use terminology and concepts that aren’t easily accessible?
Medieval literature can seem pretty inaccessible. As a medievalist, I have a working familiarity with Latin; I know a fair bit about reading and handling manuscripts (these texts aren’t easy to read and even when printed in modern editions, they use letters we don’t usually see, like þ and з), and I rely on a lot of Christian theology which, like the Latin, can carry very awkward connotations about inclusion and exclusion.
This term, I was lecturing on the long Middle English poem Piers Plowman, which is phenomenally demanding. The impact of the exclusionary aspects of the text break down along gendered, racial and class lines, which is what makes them so difficult to teach around. To give the most obvious examples, students from State schools are less likely to be familiar with Latin; students who have never been targets of anti-Semitism may be less likely to find Langland’s habitual vitriol triggering, and I’m very conscious that my background as a high church Anglican gives me an advantage in coming to terms with the implications of a text that truly believes all non-Christians are in for eternal damnation. The effects of unfamiliarity are what we might call micro-exclusions (extending the useful concept of microaggressions). They’re tacit, but they do affect us along those lines of pre-existing discrimination.
This Sunday, I went to the Procession for Advent service at King’s College Chapel, a service that is not dissimilar in its liturgical texture, nor in its high potential for exclusion, to Piers Plowman. Now, I’ve got to admit, since I got my current job, I have been pinching myself to believe it’s not a giant mistake, and one of the things that got me most geekily excited was getting to hear King’s choir.
You can get a bit of the idea of the structure of the service from this youtube link (sorry for the quality), but basically it’s choir singing interspersed with Bible readings. It began in darkness – and 88 metres of cathedral can get very, very dark at the altar end when the only light is coming in through the far door – and gradually, as the choir processed slowly up towards the altar, they brought candles and light with them.
I’m no expert on liturgy, medieval or modern. And this service was set up in 1934 by the then Dean of King’s, so it’s not got a long history. Eric Milner-White served as a chaplain in the First World War, and I’ve always associated that kind of post-war atmosphere of piety with the kind of service this is.
But, despite its newness, the service made me think of the ancient pre-Easter service of Tenebrae, in which all the lights in the church are gradually put out, until at last a book is slammed shut and the noise echoes around the pitch black church. That service is threaded through the medieval narrative of Piers Plowman, in which the author imagines Christ descending into Hell in the form of a light, which leaves the world in darkness on Good Friday, but which lightens up Hell, blinds the devil, and frees the souls kept captive there.
This service is, obviously, a reverse of that one, and, in a similar way to Tenebrae or to a medieval poem like Piers Plowman, it was full of symbolic light and sound and gesture. The antiphons between readings or hymns were sung in Latin; there was a bit of post-conversion T. S. Eliot and a couple of medieval carols.
I know a lot of people would find many aspects of this service, and its context in a university college chapel, highly problematic. It’s not an accessible form of worship, as you can tell from the connotations I’m finding in it. It’s not designed to be easily interpreted, and a perfect (literal) example of this was found in the notes at the beginning of the service booklet, which warned us not to expect to be able to read it during the service itself. And you don’t just wander along. You can queue for a place in the street on the day, but you’ll be sitting behind the rood screen, and the majority of people who go, are going because they have tickets. Finally, you have a sense that you’re trespassing into male-only space. King’s choir has traditionally been all male, and it did piss me off to see that the male choir had a group of women processing with them, whose job was to carry the candles … but not to sing.
I was wondering how to respond to this, as I looked back over the carols the choir sung, and particularly one Middle English carol. It’s in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 26, f. 14v, if you’re interested, and A Clerk of Oxford has a nice blog post about it. There’s a version on youtube here, you can look at the manuscript page (complete with music) here, and here are the lyrics (I’ve modernised thorn to ‘th’ and yogh to ‘y’ or gh, but left the rest of the spelling as is):
Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel.
Owt of your slepe aryse & wake
For God mankynd nowe hath ytake
al of a maide without eny make,
of al women she bereth the belle.
And thorwe a maide faire and wys,
Now man is made of ful gret pris,
Now angelys knelen to mannys seruys,
& at this tyme al this byfel.
Now man is brighter than the sonne,
Now man in heuen an hye shal wonne,
Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.
That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she;
Now shal God deme both the & me,
Unto his blysse, yf we do wel.
Now man may to heuen wende,
Now heuen & erthe to hym they bende,
He that was foo, now is oure frende,
This is no nay that Y yowe telle.
Now, blessyd brother, graunte vs grace
At domes day to se thy face,
And in thy courte to haue a place,
That we mow there synge nowel.
The place where this carol manuscript was copied was an exclusionary space: a monastery in Worcester, a space whose exclusion mirrors wider exclusions of women throughout medieval society. The choir who sung it in King’s Chapel are performing in a context of music and worship which, likewise, has an exclusionary history, a history of male-only space in which the Church and the university often seem to speak in one (Latin) voice. Yet, this carol balances exclusion with strong, and interestingly gendered images of community.
The carol places Christ’s birth in the context of his coming battle with the devil, which will see Mary reign as ’emperesse of Hell’. The ‘game’ begun with Christ’s birth is this contest, and this word reminds me very much of other medieval narratives. Langland’s Piers Plowman, which was written perhaps sixty or so years before this carol is first recorded and was circulated in the same West Midlands area, imagines the conflict between Christ and the devil over the rights to the souls in Hell as a matter of wit and trickery, not just a contest of brute force. In the same way, Langland’s contemporary the Gawain-poet, also writing in the West Midlands, uses the motif of a ‘Christmas game’ to stage a conflict over the human soul of his hero.
I love the drama of that image, and I love how the carol telescopes time, so that everything from Christ’s birth to the Harrowing of Hell is condensed into this single narrative, with a glance forward even to the end of Time.
The image of the first verse is completely standard, even a bit of a cliché: Mary is ‘a maide without eny make,’ that is, a woman without a ‘make’ (= mate, or husband) and a woman without any ‘make’ (= match or peer; ie., a peerless woman). The next mention of her, however, jolts us out of cliché:
Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.
The chronology of the carol skips straight from Christ’s birth and the beginning of the ‘game’ for man’s soul, to the image of the Virgin reigning over conquered Hell. There’s a similar startling discontinuity in another medieval carol, Adam Lay Y-Bounden, which I’ve written about before, and which jumps straight from the taking of the apple in the garden of Eden, to its unexpectedly fortunate result, the coming of the Virgin Mary to be humanity’s intercessor in heaven.
The exclusion of parts of the well-known narrative lets us look at it in a new light. On the one hand, the writer has entirely excluded the human history of Mary from his carol. This image of Mary as a powerful empress rather than a human mother harks back to the older iconography (which you can still see a lot of in the Orthodox Church). It’s deliberately more awe-inspiring and less sympathetic than the later imagery of Mary as nurturing mother, and it’s slightly out of step with the fifteenth century, slightly exclusionary and distant, bringing us up short. But, at the same time, it makes me wonder whether this exclusionary image doesn’t have its positive points: it’s an image of a female figure who is primarily powerful rather than emotional, awe-inspiring rather than humble.
And the depictions of gender become even more startling. When the author describes ordinary humanity, he writes:
“That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she”
(‘Whoever was enslaved, now he is free./ Whoever was small, now great is she.’)
This is the sort of elegantly gender-balanced language you’d expect in a modern piece of writing, by someone rendering feminist theories of language into religious verse. And yet it fits into this fifteenth-century carol.
Finally, what puts a shiver down my spine (in a good way) is the last verse, which I’ll quote again in modern English:
“Now blessed brother grant us grace
At doomes day to see thy face,
And at thy court to have a place,
That we may there sing nowell.”
Partly, this works for me because in medieval literature, there are dozens of writers who use unexpected family relationships to imagine their bond with God. But I like both the parity and the monasticism implied by ‘brother’. Since this manuscript was copied (if not necessarily composed) in a monastery, I like to think that the writer might have been imagining Christ as if he were another ‘brother’ in religion. It suggests a real familial warmth to the relationships between monks, which I don’t think we often think about.
I do think this is interesting in terms of gender. We’re so often encouraged to think about how oppressed or disempowered groups might establish mutually supportive relationships, and we often study the bonds created in the women-only spaces inhabited by medieval nuns, or the support between medieval women from all walks of life.
But we’re less inclined to look at the emotional and familial bonds between men, perhaps because emotional and familial bonding is (in modern culture) so often seen as part of the feminine sphere and, in the extreme, as an aspect of wifework, which I’ve written about before. So, we end up reinforcing the idea that emotion and accessability are gendered, that we should always be able to imagine and relate to women’s emotions, while men’s are a closed book.
The author of this carol didn’t imagine a Christian community in which ‘he’ meant ‘all humanity’ and women weren’t mentioned, which is something some modern writers still fail to do. And I find it difficult to fault him for falling back on the exclusively male space of the medieval monastery as his personal image of the ‘court’ of heaven, because I can see how, for a medieval monk, the language of ‘brotherhood’ might provide the most immediate emotional connection.
I feel lucky to be able to read all of the resonances of liturgy and medieval context into a service like this one, a poem like Piers Plowman, or a carol like ‘Arise and Wake’. I’m conscious that people often perceive the kinds of texts I read, and the kinds of experiences I’m having at the moment, as inaccessible, and feel these kinds of text or performance are ‘not for them’. I’m trying to find ways to make these texts more accessible – not by ignoring the difficulties of interpretation they cause, but by exploring the ways in which they can question even the exclusionary situations within which they were produced. The richness of these medieval carols, of this (perhaps exclusionary) modern liturgy, of a poem like ones I teach, is something incredibly difficult to grasp. But when you do grasp it, and get through all of those micro-exclusions, you may find texts – and people – struggling with the same questions of how to avoid exclusion, how to imagine a properly inclusive community.
I just thought I’d link to an account of the Carols from Kings TV service, filmed a few days ago, on Mary Beard’s blog. I was passing through King’s as the TV crew were preparing to film, and found out they light the chapel from outside, which makes sense, but also makes it look amazing as you look back across the river. Here.
It’s worth knowing that, as a college, King’s has an established tradition of active efforts to attract students who might not initially feel comfortable applying to Cambridge.
If you want to know more about medieval carols or their manuscripts, check out this blog post over at the British Library site, by Sandra Tuppen. It’s a lovely Christmassy read.