A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas

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When I emptied out my desk in search of Christmas cards, I realised I’d been stockpiling quite a bit. Wrapping paper with yew and ivy and Christmas berries on it; stocks of illuminated manuscripts; multiple versions of deer in winter (I understand you can buy a Primark Christmas jumper with queer deer now, too); lots of birds sitting in amongst the illuminated branches and Christmas greenery. I’ve got birds on the tree, too, and my housemate made a wreath with mistletoe, holly and fir cones from Cambridge Botanic gardens (she works there). And I’ve been cutting back the laurel and ivy hedges in the back garden so I’ve got a mug full of ivy berries.

IMG_3428 It’s all traditional Christmas imagery – the outside brought inside; the reminders of winter forests. But for medieval people, Christmas was not just a mid-winter festival; it was also the culmination of the fasting season of Advent and the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the traditional time for Christmas games and feasting and also for hunting the animals to provide the Christmas food. The religious festival itself had a plangent and brooding undertone, which you can see from carols such as the mournful Coventry Carol, the austere, foreboding and triumphal ‘Out of Your Sleep/Arise and Wake’ and ‘Adam Lay Y-Bounden’, with their glances out from Christ’s nativity to the Harrowing of Hell it foreshadows. These carols shift our attention, from the expected centrality of Christ’s nativity, to focus on the narratives that run alongside, and outside, this one.

In Carol Ann Duffy’s modern Christmas poem Wenceslas, some of this atmosphere is recreated in a series of strange juxtaposition between inside and outside, celebration and sorrowing, feast and funeral. With deceptive nursery-rhyme cheer, the poem begins:

The King’s Cook had cooked for the King a Christmas pie,

Wherein the swan
Once bride of the river,
Half of forever,
six Cygnets circling her,
lay scalded, plucked, boned, parboiled,
salted, peppered, gingered, oiled;

and harboured the Heron,
whose grey shadow she’d crossed
as it stood witness,
grave as a Priest,
on the riverbank.

Now the heron’s breast was martyred with cloves.

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Heron, hanging from a hook, in the shape of a letter T (London, BL MS Add. 82957)

Inside the Heron inside the Swan –
In a greased cradle, pastry-sealed –
a Common Crane,
gutted and trussed,
smeared with Cicely, Lavender, Rose,
was stuffed with a buttered, saffroned
golden Goose.

Within the Goose,
perfumed with Fruits, was a Duck,
and jammed in the Duck, a Pheasant,
embalmed in Honey
from Bees
who’d perused
the blossoms of Cherry trees. 

You can read the whole poem online in the Guardian, with one of the beautiful images Stuart Kolakovic made to go with it, but if you can, look at the book – the layout is beautiful, scattering the lines amongst the images in random groups like little flurries of snow. This piecemeal, meandering structure reflects the disparate prior voices Duffy brings together – stealing the image of the heron-priest from Dylan Thomas, echoing the fifteenth-century feast atmosphere of Caput apri defero, and ending with a sideways glance at George Herbert’s seventeenth-century prayers.

As we read the poem we move from the strangely mournful image of the swan on the winter river, to a brief glimpse straight out of a saint’s life (‘now the Heron’s breast was martyred with cloves’), to a self-consciously old-fashioned list of ingredients reminiscent of Sophie Grigson quoting Elizabeth David (‘Pot-herbs to accompany this;/ Roasted Chestnuts, Red Cabbage,/ Celery, Carrots, Colly-flowre’).

Much of this is very medieval. Especially towards the end of the period – in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – people constructed their books in the same way we might use a notebook, or even in the way we might use a shelf on a bookcase: to bring together often-used bits of writing. So you find everything from recipes and jotted notes about the washing or the neighbour’s boundary, to copies of legal agreements or medical prescriptions, to stories, poems and prayers, saints’ lives, and recipes.

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‘Here biginneth a Boke of Kokery’ (London, BL MS Harley 4016, detail)

One such recipe gives details for the preparation of the second bird in Duffy’s faintly elegiac listing of waterfowl, with a practicality that undercuts her image of the living bird standing predator on the riverbank:

The heyroun schal be diyht as is the swan and it come quyk to kechen. The sauce schal be mad of hym as a chaudon of gynger & of galyngale, & that it be coloured with the blood or with brende crustes that arn tosted.

Another recommends that:

Cranys and Herons schulle be euarmud [wrapped] wyth Lardons of swyne and rostyd and etyn wyth gyngynyr.

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‘Inside the swan inside the heron …’

The details of these recipes – perhaps not the prevalent ginger, but certainly the bread sauce and the wrapping of a bird ready for roasting with strips of fatty bacon – sound timeless, not so very different from the way many of us might cook a turkey or a goose for Christmas Day.

But the medieval choice of bird here – the heron – was a wildfowl, suggestive of icy lakes and cold grey rivers rather than cosy farmyard domesticity. In medieval bestiaries, we read that herons represent those who shun and fear ‘the disorder of the world’, and whose spirits seek to soar upwards. The collective term for a group of herons is a ‘sege‘, the same word that in modern English is spelt ‘siege’, an the word symbolises the strange sense of mingled threat and danger with which these birds are associated in a string of medieval (and post-medieval) lyrics, carols and stories: both predator and prey, linked both to the Christmas feast and to the chilly winter riverbank outside the court.

In the otherworldly romance Sir Orfeo, a king’s wife is abducted into a supernatural kingdom as she sleeps, and the king sees her – silent and surreal – only when she rides out to hawking in a company of sixty ladies who pass him by unspeaking:

And ich a faucoun on hond bere,
And riden on haukin bi o rivere.

Maulardes, hayroun, and cormeraunt;
The foules of the water ariseth,
The faucouns hem wele deviseth;
Ich faucoun his pray slough …

(And each one carried a falcon in her hand,
And rode, at hawking, by the river.

Mallards, herons, and cormorants:
The fowls of the water arise;
The falcons well their way devise;
Each falcon slew his prey …)

It’s eerie: the lost woman has become transmuted from prey to predator: first the victim of a hunt, she now plays out in dumb-show the same dynamic, caught in an enchantment just as the water-birds are caught in the talons of the falcons.

This type of hunting provides the backbone for a charged episode in Rosemary Sutcliff’s spare, poetic novel Knight’s Fee, set in the eleventh century. The young protagonist, Randal, slips out unnoticed to confront his foster-father’s enemy as the men ride to a heron hunt, and the tension of his uneven match with this man is foreshadowed in the tension of the birds above the river bank:

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Guillaume Tardif, Book of Falconry (Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 269, detail)

… The heron climbed desperately the blue circles of the upper air, striving to gain height to use her own weapon, her dagger bill; and behind her the falcons mounted steadily, dark-winged death on her track. Randal could hear the hawk bells ringing, a shining thread of sound as thin as lark song, as they climbed, and narrowed his eyes to follow the deadly chase. Up and up and up into the sunlit blue and silver of the February sky, until at last the foremost falcon, soaring like an arrow from a bow, overtopped her and stooped, avoiding the despairing dagger thrust of her beak, and made his kill.

The falcon – the traditional adversary of the heron – features in a medieval carol, too:

Lully lullay, lully lullay,
The faucon* hath borne my make** away                              *falcon      **mate

He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown,

In that orchard there was an hall,
That was hanged with purple and pall,

And in that hall there was a bed,
And it was hanged with gold so red.

And in that bed there lith a knight
His woundes bleeding day and night

By that beddes side ther kneleth a may
And she weepeth both night and day. 

And by that beddes side ther standeth a stoon
Corpus christi* writen thereon.                                                 *Body of Christ

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Bird of Prey, Stained Glass at Monks Risborough

The carol lifts us up, listening, into the spaces between things, spaces governed by unmoored prepositions – up, down, and finally the repeating ‘away’ of the refrain, that places the action beyond the reach of the speaker. John Stevens argues that the carol echoes a much older romance, the story of Yonec by Marie de France. The protagonist of the story is a woman who is imprisoned in a tower by her jealous husband. Her lover takes the form of a dark-winged goshawk and flies through her window, proving his good faith to her by taking the Eucharist (the Body of Christ) in a Christian mass. Suspecting infidelity, the jealous husband surrounds his wife’s tower window with iron spikes, which mortally wound the hawk. A trail of blood leads the woman to a city of silver, where she finds the hawk-knight on his deathbed. Fleeing away, she hears the bells of the city tolling for his death, and when her son is born, she seeks out the tomb of his dead father to inspire him to revenge.

It’s possible the carol is evoking some – or all – of this, but the romance is mingled with religious iconography – with the weeping maiden as the Virgin Mary, the wounded knight as Christ and the tombstone bearing its Eucharistic message. Because it is a ‘carol’ – a poem with a refrain – it became caught up in later celebrations of Christmas, and drawn more centrally into the religious narrative of the nativity.

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In Alison Uttley’s novel A Traveller in Time, a teenage girl, Penelope, goes to stay in the ancient manor farmhouse of her aunt and uncle, and finds herself slipping backwards in time. Uttley bases the novel on the Babington plot against Elizabeth I, the (doomed) plan to free the captive Mary Queen of Scots, led by the impetuous young Anthony Babington, a Derbyshire squire living in the manor house on which she sets her story. Uttley’s story is full of Penelope’s sense of fear and involvement, of dislocation from her time, and it echoes with carols and with scenes of winter weather:

The stars slowly faded as I stood there, the brightness was dimmed, a cloud seemed to move over the surface of the heavens and an icy stillness made me shiver with apprehension. Then there was a sound so faint I felt it with my own extreme consciousness, a movement as the earth listened also. A few feathers of snow shimmered through the air, then more and more, great flakes came fluttering down, caught in their beauty by the light from an unshuttered window, heralding a snowstorm.

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‘Grene growth the holy’ (London, BL MS Add. 31922, f. 37v (detail)).

The details of the novel keep reminding us that Penelope knows more – or should know more, in the present day – than the people around her, including the ultimate fate of the plot unwinding around her. In particular, Uttley has a repeated theme of familiar songs.

When asked to sing for her sixteenth-century audience, Penelope is forced to explain how she already knows a song brand-new to her audience, and at Christmas, she hears the lady of the house, Mistress Babington, learning a new Derbyshire carol to sing for her husband. It’s another version of the Corpus Christi Carol:

Down in yon forest there stands a hall –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring
It’s covered all over with purple and pall –
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

In that hall there stands a bed –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring –
Covered all over with scarlet so red –

And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring
Which ever blows blossom since Adam was born –
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

                                Over that bed the moon shines bright –
                                       The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring –
                               In sign that our Saviour was born this night –
                                                              And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

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‘Down in yon forest there stands a hall’

Here, the austere medieval carol is transformed into a more celebratory Christmas song, its refrain explicitly devotional and its conclusion triumphantly related to Christ’s nativity. The mysterious imagery of the earlier version, with its ties to supernatural and romance narratives, is replaced with a well-known image of the thorn that ‘ever blows blossom since Adam was born’, an image that ultimately derives from the Latin Vulgate version of the Christmas reading from Isaiah: ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. In the Latin, the word for ‘rod’ is virga, a green stalk, and it puns on the word virgo, the Virgin Mary, from whom Christ – the descendent of the royal house of Jesse – is to be born. It’s the sort of prophetic punning link between Old and New Testament that medieval religious thinkers found particularly reassuring, and it draws the odd carol onto firmer religious ground, away from its strangely resonant ambiguities.
Much later, in Scotland, we find another version surfacing, clearly part of the same tradition and closely linked to the earliest, medieval carol:

The heron flew east and the heron flew west,
The heron flew to the fair forest,

there she saw a lovely bower,
Was a’ clad o’er wi’ lilly-flower,
And in the bower there was a bed
With silken sheets, and weel down spread,
And in the bed there lay a knight
Whose wounds did bleed both day and night;
And by that bed there stood a stane,
And there was set a leal* maiden                                               *loyal
With silver needle and silken thread
Stemming the wounds when they did bleed.

heron

Here, we’re back to the images of the dying knight – with just a suggestion of the Virgin Mary in the association of the maiden with the lily, the emblem of the Virgin – but in place of the predatory falcon soaring over the orchard and the forest hall, we have the falcon’s prey, the heron, flying over the woodland.

The three carols, across three centuries, return over and over to images of the wilderness – the stooping falcon, the winter forest, the flying heron. The glances of wilderness and cold, of the terror of the hunt and the threat of discovery – recall another medieval bird image, Bede’s sparrow – blown by winter gales into the sudden light, warmth and noise of the hall and darting immediately out of the opposite window into the storm again. The tension, poignancy, and even the eerie fearfulness of these texts make them perfect for Christmas – reminders of the wilderness and darkness outside, while we sit inside reading in the warmth.

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Medieval Stained Glass, Shibden Hall, Halifax.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas

  1. Reblogged this on Girl Power Academy (Girl Soda Atlas) and commented:
    This Jeanne de Montbaston post, “A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas” connects to much of what the GPA crowd has been delving into! A must read for our Medieval studies about birds and women in symbolism and how it all relates to contemporary issues list!

    Thanks to the author/teacher for the work you do, once again. This is an amazing article.

    ~Tabby

  2. Pingback: A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas | Girl Power Academy (Girl Soda Atlas)

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