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.

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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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Beyond April Fools: Everyday ‘Feminism’ Again

London, BL MS Royal 3.D.VI, f. 116 (detail).

London, BL MS Royal 3.D.VI, f. 116 (detail).

A very quick post, because I can’t not. Today, as you will have noticed, is April Fools’ Day. It is also, much more pleasantly,  – the day when medievalists, including the fantastic and wonderful Chaucer Doth Tweet, take to twitter to share snippets of medieval languages and texts. It’s really fun. Yesterday, two friends of mine, Sjoerd Levelt and Kate Wiles, were on the radio talking about why it is that so many medievalists take to twitter. Their piece is here, and it’s from 33 minutes in, and you should listen. In it, amongst other things, Sjoerd very elegantly expanded on a point first made by Dorothy Kim, that twitter’s cheery little bird icon has a special connotation for medievalists. In a lot of medieval poetry – and especially Chaucer’s work – the trope of the bird who speaks with the voice of a human is politicized: it lets poets take on a new persona, familiar but also strange, human but also not. Speaking birds interrogate the margins of human speech, the margins of comprehensible language. As Sjoerd explained, twitter may be understood as a margin, a space for the unofficial commentaries and informal conversations, but it’s also a forum that has given a lot of young academics a voice.

It won’t surprise you to know that there’s a gender connection in all of this. Many (though not all) of the birds in medieval poetry are female, and some – like the hawk I posted about before – seem to slip between genders. This reflects medieval views quite aptly. Women’s speech is always, in some sense, birdspeech, always, by virtue of gender, sub-human, Other. It requires interpretation before we know what it means, and it places us on the margins of the main discourse.

So, what does all this medieval tweeting have to do with Everyday Feminism? Well, I’ll tell you. A friend of mine, Sophia Baggins, just pointed out this cartoon on their site. Cheerfully, the editors of the Everyday Feminism write:

“What do you think when someone says “I’m not a feminist?” They might not mean what you think. If you identify as a feminist, check out some of the reasons people don’t.

And if you don’t call yourself a feminist, see if you find some of your reasons here. The stories in this comic can help us all have more respect for the wide range of ways we stand up to oppression.”

The cartoons show a variety of women (and one man), mostly, by implication, constructed as members of marginalized groups within feminism. The first is a Black woman, another wears a headscarf, another proclaims herself as a transwoman, yet another locates herself within indigenous culture. There’s finally, for good measure, the scapegoat: the woman who refuses to recognize her privilege.

All stand underneath the same two captions. Firstly, there’s “what they say”, under which each cartoon character proclaims that feminism is not for her, does not fit her identity, and so on. Secondly, there’s “what they mean”, under which each character gives her reasons for struggling to identify with feminism, or rejecting it entirely.

Now, I can see what the cartoonist was trying to do here. There are many reasons women (and men) don’t feel like identifying as feminists. Some of these reasons tell us about the history of feminism’s problems; many others remind us of ourselves, at times when we didn’t realize feminism can have space for us too. And these are important concerns we all have, and they need consideration.

But what I had a problem with was summed up neatly by Sophia’s comment to me. The cartoonist, she noted, refers throughout to these women as “they”. Not, ‘we’. They. There’s a good reason why lists like this – ‘what Brits say versus what Brits mean’ and so on – tend to be humorous in intention. And that’s because they’re fucking patronizing taken literally. There is a very long history of society telling women “what they mean”. A long history of claiming that women’s statements and emotions cannot be respected at face value. This is women’s speech presented as the speech of the Other, the speech that needs interpreting. It’s womanspeech, birdspeech, the not quite human speech that must be translated by someone else. In six hundred years, it seems we haven’t moved on much.

I’d love to think this cartoon is an April Fool, an subtle joke about how far we’ve come. But, unfortunately, it’s not.

Update: I wish I’d managed to articulate before (though I hope the implication was clear) that this cartoon has quite unpleasantly racist connotations, and that transmen – a group of people who patently do experience misogyny (trauma doesn’t disappear because you are transitioning, and identifying as a man does not magically make everyone treat you as one) – are, apparently, our only male ‘allies’. As you will notice, the one group absolved of either the responsibility to identify as feminists or the need to have their words interpreted is … men.

I wrote this piece on the fly, but I did want to come back and say just how appalling that is.

I have now been told that the cartoonist prefers the pronoun them for themself, so it may have been that this usage was not intended to invoke the history of othering women, and was just an accident. This doesn’t surprise me – I think Everyday Feminism is fundamentally well-meaning – but is sad in a different way.

Women, Hawks, and English Literature Exams

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At Cambridge, if you study English, you sit two compulsory final exams: one in Tragedy, and one in Practical Criticism, which is close reading of a selection of texts and extracts. On the spur of the moment, you have to work out how to take the text to pieces, and how to put it back together again in some form of coherent argument. I can’t honestly remember very much about my own Prac Crit exam, except that it over four hours long, it was a very hot summer and the room where I was taking my exam had malfunctioning heating, which couldn’t be switched off. But I was reminded of it the other day, as we discussed why this exam can seem so intimidating.

I know lots of people I know claim that doing English Literature ‘ruined’ books for them, that taking a book to pieces as you do when you’re doing close reading spoils it. The original idea of Practical Criticism – as it was developed by critics in the early twentieth century – was that students should learn to read texts without knowing the most basic details about them, such as the name of the author (and therefore, his or her gender) or the date he or she was writing. In theory, this should be freeing. It’s quite close to the anti-hierarchical aims of Feminist Pedagogy. And yet, it is still intimidating, and that sense that something has been pulled to pieces and laid bare can, I think, relate as much to us as readers, as to the texts we read. In short, you can feel very exposed doing close reading.

I love close reading (and I’ve done a bit of close reading in this post, largely as an antidote to writers’ block). But, as I did it, it occurred to me how difficult it is to untangle questions of gender and exclusion from English Literature, even when we think we’ve stripped back texts to their most basic, unmediated forms. So I thought I’d share what I was thinking.

This post also gives me the chance to link to this lovely piece about Tudor falconry, because, as you might guess from the image above, this post is partly about hawks. The other night, I went to a book talk in Heffers in Cambridge, because I wanted to see Helen MacDonald talk about her book H is for Hawk, which I read just before Christmas and which I’ve mentioned on here before. With her were David Cobham and Bruce Pearson, who wrote and did the images for The Sparrowhawk’s Lament. I’ve not read it (and I really want to now), but the book charts the state of British birds of prey, many of which are in very low numbers. MacDonald asked Cobham how he’d come to the title for his book, and he replied that it comes from a medieval poem, which he’d read in hospital while waiting for a serious operation.

Obviously, I pricked up my ears. It turns out that the poem he titles ‘The Sparrowhawk’s Lament’ is one of the many medieval lyrics that use the Latin refrain ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ – ‘The fear of death troubles me’.

As Cobham was being anesthetised, so he says, he thought he heard the ring of an Angelus bell, and the sound of a choir singing the Latin line – which is, of course, from the medieval Office of the Dead. This eerie anecdote made me think about the poem, and so I sat down to do some close reading on it. I’ve not pulled it together, but just left it as a sequence of comments to show you how I read the poem.

The burial of the dead (from the Office of the Dead). London, BL MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 211r.

The burial of the dead (from the Office of the Dead). London, BL MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 211r.

 The poem like this:

In what state that ever I be,
Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I me walked in one mornynge
I hard a bride both wepe and synge;                     bride=bird
This was the tenor of hir talkynge –                        substance of its reply
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked this bride what he mente.
He said “I am a musket gente.                                  musket=male sparrowhawk
For dred of deth I am nygh shent:                          nygh shent= nearly destroyed
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Jhesu Cryst, whan he shuld deye,
To his Fader lowde gan crye.                                    gan crye = cried out
‘Fader, he seyde, ‘in trynyte,
Timor mortis conturbat me’.”

Whan I shal deye I knowe no day
Therefore this song synge I may
What contree or place can I not seye
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I really love the language here. The Latin phrase itself is beautifut. ‘Conturbat’ suggests  disturbed motion. The verb ‘turbare’ means ‘unsettle’ or ‘disturb’ all on its own (it’s related to words like ‘turbulence’ and, I think, ‘tornado’), and the prefix ‘con’ intensifies that sense, so that you have a cumulative effect of overwhelming, spiralling movement. I think it’s probably what Yeats is getting at with the opening lines of The Second Coming: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer”.

This evocation of turbulent motion is juxtaposed with the following image of the bird, so that we have a suggestion of the hawk tossed and ruffled from the wind. This is supported by the words the bird itself uses to describe its condition: ‘nigh shent,’ or ‘almost destroyed. This word has three overlapping senses in Middle English: primarily, it refers to the physical state of being injured or hurt, a sense that is strengthened because it rhymes with the word ‘rent,’ meaning ripped or torn apart, and we know from studies carried out in psychology of reading that our brains subconsciously register rhyme words as we read. However, this first meaning of the word gives way to a spiritual meaning of ‘damned’ and a moral sense of ‘shamed’: to be ‘shent’ is to be injured in both body and soul. The line rationalising this injury is mysteriously vague: “For dred of deth I am nygh shent” could refer to the hawk’s own impending death – ie., fear of mortality, which is the usual inteprretation of the Latin line – but in this context of the speech of a bird of prey, a bird whose function is to deliver death, it could also suggest the fear of inflicting mortal wounds, which would explain the mingled fears of shame and damnation. 

This reminds me of T. H. White, whose novel The Sword in the Stone echoes this poem and imagines a goshawk half-mad with this fear and guilt, driven to kill whatever comes near it, but tormented by its own murderous impulse. White’s hawk is a real character in his novel, more than a mere personification of the fear of death, speaking – as this hawk does – almost in a human voice. Yet this hawk can also be read as a symbol, and the juxtaposition of the bird of prey with the narrative of Christ’s Crucifixion evokes another parallel, this time to a comparable medieval lyric. The Corpus Christi Carol begins plaintively “The falcon hath borne my mate away …” and the image of the falcon and its prey gives way to the image of a dead knight mourned by his lady, and, finally, to a tombstone that bears the legend “Corpus Christi”: the body of Christ. Here, as in ‘The Sparrowhawk’s Lament,’ the bird of prey foreshadows the death of Christ on the cross. It’s incredibly bleak, this image of Christ pleading on the Cross to his Father, but it gives the familiar, often over-theologised narrative a piercing immediacy: even Christ fears death.

The final stanza of this poem could seem enigmatic, even anti-climatic: instead of offering some kind of comforting resolution of these jumbled images of whirling death, the falcon, and the crucifix, it returns to a first-person speaker meditating on the utter unknowability of death. We can’t even be sure (because medieval texts don’t generally indicate one way or another, although modern punctuation can) whether or not the speaker of the last stanza is still the hawk, or whether it is now the ‘I’ of the opening lines. This anonymity of the speaking voice gives it a loneliness, but also allows it to speak for all of us – it could be anyone’s voice, facing down death.

If you look at what the rhymes are doing in this poem, you’ll see the rhyming tercets of the first two verses (rhymes across three lines, followed by the refrain, timor mortis conturbat me) give way to an imperfectly-rhymed quatrain in the third verse (deye/crye/trynyte/me) that seeks to incorporate the refrain into the rhyme scheme. And, finally, the last verse is a perfectly rhymed quatrain, with the refrain entirely incorporated, as if to still the turbulent movement and spiritual turmoil the line articulates. The Latin line initially jars the rhyme scheme and cannot be reconciled with the English speakers’ thoughts; by the end of the poem, it has become part of the speaker’s own idiom, chiming in with the speaker’s own thoughts.

This is, obviously, a poem about mourning, and a poem about the basic Christian confrontation with death. But, as I read its echoes backwards into the ancient Latin of the liturgy, sideways into the medieval Corpus Christi Carol, and forwards into Yeats and White, I think it’s also a poem about communication. How do we express fears? At what point do we manage to grapple with the language of death in such a way that it becomes part of our own vocabulary? When does the strange speech of the hawk suddenly start to make sense?

British Library MS Harley 7026, f. 16r (detail)

British Library MS Harley 7026, f. 16r (detail)

I know this poem, but not primarily as a medievalist, because in T. H. White’s Sword in the Stone (the story of King Arthur’s childhood), the birds of prey kept in the castle mews sing a version of it. This neatly links Cobham’s and MacDonald’s books, since she talks a lot about White and his writing. The version of the poem I’ve quoted above is from a manuscript written by a grocer, Richard Hill, who lived in London in the late fifteenth century. In fact, I happen to know that the Corpus Christi Carol I quoted above is in the same manuscript, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the two texts echo each other. However, the poem is much older than the late fifteenth century: in a slightly different version, it’s found in the Vernon manuscript, a huge book (it weighs over 2okg), which was copied somewhere in the West Midlands, in the 1390s. So, the poem is at least this old, and might well be even older.

It is difficult not to notice – even before I add the contextual historical information about Richard Hill – that the echoes that readily come to my mind to contextualise this poem, are echoes of male writers’ texts, or (in the case of the Corpus Christ Carol), echoes of texts whose authors are unknown. The gendered speakers of the poem are male, although we do not know the gender of the initial speaker who hears the bird ‘both weep and sing,’ and since women certainly did fly sparrowhawks, there is no strong reason to assume a male speaker. One of the most famous medieval texts on hawking, which lists each bird alongside the person to whose social status it is most appropriate (… in what state so ever I be …”) is associated with a woman, Dame Juliana Berners. More persuasively, the Corpus Christi Carol, which maps the same image of the falcon and the dying Christ onto a love story, a story of the bird’s lost mate and the lady mourning her lover, might prompt us to hear a female speaker. Like the hawk that both weeps and sings, the lady of that poem “weepth both night and day“.

In the earlier version of this poem, the version written sometime in the fourteenth century, the pronouns used to refer to the sparrowhawk are less settled than they are in this later version. In the version I quote, the hawk is a male, a ‘musket,’ and is ‘he’ (I promise I looked carefully at the manuscript, and though it’s swirly handwriting, it’s definitely ‘he’). But in the earlier version, the hawk is ‘she,’ although still a ‘musket,’ presumably because hawks (like ships or bells) are often ‘she’ even when given male names. Once we recover these facts, the significance of that ‘anonymous’ voice in the final lines comes clearer – to me, anyway. The speaker is not gendered, but – like hawks, ships and bells – anonymous speakers throughout English Literature are often, in Virginia Woolf’s words, women. Finally, Helen MacDonald points out that hawking itself is a gendered business, with hawks imagined as women to be courted, romantic partners like the mournful lady in the Corpus Christi Carol.

To recover female voices within such a male-dominated poem – and within such a male-dominated textual tradition, with its echoes of Yeats and White, the clerics of the medieval Church and the Father and Son of the Trinity – is difficult, and daunting. As is fairly often the case, it requires more contextual knowledge to find the echoes of women’s voices in this poem. This is because close reading is never really close reading in perfect isolation from the hierarchical structures of English literary culture – as the first proponents of Cambridge Practical Criticism thought it could be. It’s a tool we use, not an ideology. But, at the same time, we can’t forget that, studying hundreds of years of male-dominated literature and literary criticism, it’s a tool that can’t be separated from the ideological conditions in which it was developed.

Note

I wrote this in the middle of 1) horrible writers’ block and 2) lurgy, so please be gentle. It’s Cambridge-focussed, but the basic question – how do we learn to read literature, and can the tools we use ever be free of gender bias – is pretty relevant to all of us, I think.