Strange Motherhood, King’s College Cradle, and the Women of Bethlehem

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Virgin and Child with St Catherine and Mary Magdalene

It’s hard to write a warm, cheerful, joyous Christmas post this year. I have, personally, a lot to be joyful about, but undeniably the world looks pretty bleak. Families in Aleppo and across Syria have been torn apart; refugees are struggling to find countries to shelter them, and children are amongst those unable to leave war zones. Both here and in the US, we’re looking at leaders whose views of what kinds of people – and what kinds of families and communities – deserve protection and respect, are disturbingly narrow and exclusionary. And we struggle to welcome refugees, outsiders, those who do not ‘fit’.

In this context, it seems particularly self-centred to celebrate the religious narrative of Christmas in the way we’re so often encouraged to celebrate it. Well-meaning speakers and writers try to make Mary, Joseph and the baby sound like a cosy middle-class British family. Christmas is, after all, all about ‘family’ – and family, in this case, is defined with unthinking narrowness as the stereotypical configuration of father, mother, and children as approved by the most ‘family values’ Conservative. And we smooth away the parts of the Biblical account that are sadder, more uncertain, more unorthodox, than this comfortingly secure image.

I thought of this when I opened the paper this morning, to read a vicar explaining – without the most cursory indication of guilt – how, when he and his wife were struggling to have a baby, he’d insisted his wife be subjected to a battery of intrusive fertility tests before he agreed to provide a (painless) sperm sample, on the excuse that he was suffering ‘proud man syndrome’.The piece particularly jarred with me, because I saw it just after reading a very different account of the poet Lemn Sissay’s work to provide children in the foster system with a celebratory sense of Christmas. For context, my partner described one of these tests as ‘the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced’. Startlingly, it is still legal for fertility clinics to allow these painful and potentially dangerous procedures to be carried out before a painless test that could make them unnecessary. Apparently, though, it’s nothing compared to the existential agony of ‘living in a spermless marriage’. How this is excusable or remotely Christmassy, I’m not sure. I don’t doubt the author’s genuine sense of hurt. But the emphasis of the piece reminded me, uncomfortably, of a ham-fisted rewriting of the Christmas story I recently heard, and made me think of the dangers these seemingly anodyne narratives might be doing to our capacity to empathise.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a young and earnest preacher hastening to put Joseph’s perspective front and centre. Think, the preacher urged us, how embarrassed Joseph must have felt at the prospect of any chink in his social image. Imagine how impressive it was that he resolved his issues. This is, so far as it goes, not untrue, and yet it felt to me rather an odd attempt to normalise, to bowdlerise, what is essentially, a narrative that displaces earthly paternity. With Joseph’s worries centre stage, Mary is relegated to an anodyne feminine figure bewildered by the angel’s message, and the main fears are not Herod, nor the more distant Pilate, nor even human damnation, but the fragile masculinity of an otherwise saintly elderly man. And with that resolved, there’s nothing to trouble us, to challenge us or to make us uncomfortable.

This bland accessibility contrasts sharply with the discomforting view of the Christmas story we find in medieval writings. There, Mary is not innocently bewildered by the angel’s message. She has a deep foreknowledge of events to come, and her joy at the birth is tinged with sorrow about the pain to come; the Christ-Child knows His fate. The relationships are not those of the nuclear family; many of these relationships, too, are fractured by violence threatened or remembered, by loss and suffering. Carols voice the empty lullabies of the women of Bethlehem in the shadow of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents; they are, like Peter Warlock’s lovely, startlingly irreligiously composed carol ‘Bethlehem Down,’ permeated by the lingering scent of myrrh brought to the cradle to symbolise the death; they evoke the mixed joy and sorrow of a mother who knows she will mourn. Like the Christmas readings, Christmas music is anchored in the much older words of the Old Testament. At King’s college Advent Service this year, we listened to the beautiful, odd prose set to music of ‘This is the Record of John,’ with its ancient image of the voice crying in the wilderness and Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist … and our baby, who can hear the vibrations from the organ we were sitting almost underneath, kicked up a storm. The other voice crying through the Old Testament – ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children’ – also echoes into the New Testament, but bitterly, as a foreshadowing of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It, in turn, is memorialised in the plangent medieval Coventry Carol. Medieval lyrics do not tell us which emotions to privilege, which families – the broken or the complete, the orthodox or the atypical – to celebrate.

These texts draw their emotional depth from allusions to relationships that lie outside of – or on the edge of – that image of the nuclear family headed by a man. I have written before about the hauntingly beautiful carol ‘Arise and Wake,’ with its roots in a medieval monastery  and its resonant picture of heaven itself as an echo of the same community of ‘brothers’ united not in blood, but in religious vows. So too, the voices of the ‘sisters’ in the Coventry Carol gathered around their doomed children, or the dialogues between angels and humans, prophets and listeners across the ages. Disruptions of the neat flow of time underline disruptions to the neat and restrictive pictures of what constitutes a family, what constitutes a community.

These temporal disruptions – images of the ending cradled in the beginning – are very old, and often literalised. We see this in the rhetoric of Lancelot Andrews, who, while he was Bishop of Ely, preached a sermon for Christmas Day 1618, broadens the emotional vocabulary of the Christmas story to its widest compass. Andrews was one of the main architects of the King James Bible, and his sermon has a similar, simple eloquence. It is filled with layered puns on the cratch, the cradle or crib in which Christ was laid, and the way people cratch (scratch) the sign of the cross to make the most primitive of signatures. Andrews writes:

We may well begin with Christ in the cratch [manger]; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross?

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King’s College Chapel

Andrews was –  as I am indebted to King’s chaplain Andrew Hammond for observing –  a bishop tellingly immune to the calculatingly feminine flirtations of Elizabeth I; a man who never married. His moving description of a baby in a cradle is, then, not merely the voice of paternal experience, but something based more in empathy and thought. Cambridge, where he studied and where he was master of a college, was then dominated by the brooding rectangular mass of King’s College Chapel. Now, that structure is crowded on the skyline by other buildings: the spire of John’s, and the blocky twentieth-century tower of the University Library, the high concrete roofs of the Lion Yard and the Grand Arcade. Then, though, it was recognisable for its lone, distinctive shape. As Nicky Zeeman’s history of the building explains, the chapel was once known as ‘the Cradle’ on account of this shape, which resembles a high-sided, barred medieval or early Modern cradle, of the kind that was used in nativity scenes to house the infant Christ.

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Cradle of the Infant Christ (Met Museum).

This cradle – a strange, giant, stone-built crib rearing against the sky – served a congregation predominantly made up not of families and children, but a community very like that of the medieval monastery. Its name bears witness to the fact that feelings we too often imagine to be narrowly restricted to certain roles – motherhood, fatherhood – might resonate much further beyond.

Community is built, not of blood relationships, but of the shared emotions, the shared spaces, the shared volitions of people who come together. A narrative is built, not of neat and tidy steps from beginning to ending, but of juxtaposed images, juxtaposed past and present and future, juxtaposed emotions of joy and sorrow, which coexist and make room for one another.

The fourteenth-century lyric ‘Als I lay at Yoolis Night‘ captures the poignancy implicit in this doubled sense of present and future. Over on her blog, Eleanor Parker has also written about this lyric, in the version that’s found in a preacher’s handbook of 1372. But I was most interested in the copy I saw in Cambridge University Library the other day, which is the only version to survive with musical notation, and which records the name of one of its owners – John, a joculator or professional performer – and a note describing how he obtained the book. John was given his book by one Thomas Turke, sometime a Dorset vicar, but by 10th December 1418 (the date on which he gave his book away) a Carthusian monk in the Charterhouse of Hinton. This history is touching and revealing in itself, for Carthusians were, in theory, strictly enclosed in their monasteries, and even restricted from community life within the monastery, spending most of their time in solitary cells. Paradoxically, though, the English Carthusians had a keen interest in the simplest, most emotional and accessible forms of religious devotion, and frequently flouted the rules of their order in able to maintain bonds of shared faith with the most unlikely of laypeople.

The text pivots, as so many medieval carols do, around the wordless refrain of of the lullaby (‘lullay, lullay’). But it begins as a dream-vision, with the medieval singer falling asleep on Christmas Eve night – just hours away as I write this – and dreaming of a conversation between a pair of speakers, never identified by name, a maiden and her newborn child. The maiden seeks to rock her child to sleep without singing; the child – authentically and delightfully demanding – insists upon a song:

The childe him thought sche ded him wrong
And bad his moder synge

“Synge now, moder,” seyde the childe
“Wat schal to me befal
Heerafter wan I cum til eld
For so doon modres all.”

The child’s request – for a song telling what will be his future when he comes to maturity, such as all mothers sing – is met with consternation from the unnamed maiden.

“Swete sune,” seyde sche,
Weroffe schulde I synge?

Ne wist I nere yet more of thee
But Gabrielis gretynge.”

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Gabriel’s Greeting

The words are deceptively simple. Of what should I sing? .. I have not known more of you yet/ Than Gabriel’s greeting. So the maiden claims, but that ‘yet’ works against the grammar of the tense (‘I never knew’). The response sounds like – and is – an evasion, a response which, by the logic of the carol, marks Mary out from the common run of mothers who sing to their children with stories of what those children will be when they grow to maturity, and yet a response which in which Mary denies any knowledge of her position outside the common run of mothers. Gabriel’s greeting, in the lyric, is the moment in which we listeners can positively identify the speakers of the text as the Christ-child and his mother; the moment at which we know what that fate ‘what I cum til elde’ will be. Yet the moment of knowledge is inseparable from the depiction of the mother pretending not to know who her baby is and what pain is his to come. Mother and child mime the actions of a typical human family, but do so with a foreknowledge and a foreboding that echoes unspoken through the text, deepening its Christmas message to something that disrupts the tidy present moment with the timelessness of the narrative. Mary’s motherhood is both an experience shared by all mothers – a role as traditional and stereotyped as any unimaginative sermon I might hear – and also something more uncertain, unmoored, and filled with uncomfortable potential. The dreaming listener, whose vision frames the whole carol, looks back into the Biblical past to find a narrative weaving in and out of its own present and future, never stably moored.

Medieval lyrics, with their tangling of present, past and future, remind me of the poem a friend of mine, Daisy Black, wrote just a few days ago, reflecting on the aftermath of brutal violence. The poem is sad, as it must be, in the context of the current crises in Aleppo, and across Syria. Yet this new poem also offers us ways to speak about the present world without evasions, without perpetuating the unthinkingly exclusionary, narrow, and hurtful hierarchies we seek to escape.

From their plangent carols, generations of medieval and early Modern listeners and singers pieced together the stuff from which their religious communities were cemented and built up. Like stone cradles rearing dark against the skyline, or scribbled carol notations passed from man to man, or otherwise-inclined bishop-translators birthing a new Bible for a new Anglican age, these texts may seem unlikely Christmas narratives. They would make uncomfortable images for listeners who would like something ‘relatable’ to confirm cherished stereotypes. But, in all their oddity, they – and this new poem – are more inclusive than the attempts of many preachers and vicars to make a neat twenty-first century version of a Nativity story, for they contain the room to bear witness to the possibilities for sorrow and joy, for fear and hope, for the unorthodox and the strange, as well as the secure default.

I end with Daisy’s poem:

The Girls Left

Afterwards, the women of Bethlehem said never again.
They turned their faces away from the palace
And emptied all their love into their surviving children.
A group of girls grew up without brothers.
Learned to pull the plough, to herd the sheep,
To barter at the market, to cut a fair deal with traders,
To play in the streets without shame.
They wove cloth with sand worked into bright threads.
Without brothers they learned to track the stars’ remote courses.
They learned to read.
A thousand young women grew
The gritty weight of Rachel’s cries at the core of their frames.
As they sowed, cut and milled their own grain,
Herod withered softly behind his gold doors.
When the exiles returned from Egypt
The town thrummed with new stars.

*

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Happy (and hopeful) Christmas!

 

‘Spices I have, in my Ships’: Crusaders, Caricatures and the Medieval Kitchen

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The image above comes from a manuscript made in the late fourteenth century. The company of the French king, Charles V, sit at a lavish dining table as they watch a re-enactment of the Crusades – complete with an impressive prop ship captained by the legendary hero Godfrey de Bouillon:

A ship with masts, sails and rigging was seen first; she had for colours the arms of the city of Jerusalem: Godfrey de Bouillon appeared on deck, accompanied by several knights armed cap-a-pee: the ship advanced into the middle of the hall, without the machine which moved it being perceptible. Then the city of Jerusalem appeared, with all its towers lined with Saracens. The Ship approached the city: the Christians landed, and began the assault; the besieged made good defence; several scaling-ladders were thrown down; but at length the city was taken.

This interlude brings together jingoistic nationalism with the celebrations of the feast. The association between celebratory food and the triumphal caricaturing of a subdued foreign enemy may seem strange, but it’s deeply rooted in medieval culture. Feasts were filled with symbols of status and hierarchy, with reminders of wealth and dominance. Nicola McDonald writes about the way a medieval delicacy known as ‘the Turk’s head’ – a  pie made to resemble a dark-skinned, long-haired man’s head with a luridly coloured filling, and flavoured with cloves, pepper, sugar and pistachio – reflects the same dehumanising attitudes towards ‘exotic’ foreign enemies that we find in the Crusader romances of the period.

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A Saracen or Ethiopian Crusader battles a Sea-Monster in a Fourteenth-Century Prayerbook

For kings – but also, increasingly through the medieval period, for prosperous people much further down the social scale – images of exotic foreignness went hand in hand with the luxury items for the table. As Charles V and his companions watched their interlude, they ate food flavoured with spices brought in on the same sea routes the Crusaders had followed in reverse.
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Medieval manuscripts are filled with recipies for ginger, for saffron, for cinnamon and mace. By the fifteenth century, we find recipes mentioning not only the spices, but also a new ingredient – sugar – and a play performed around 1500 has a character describe the exotic cargo of his merchant ships: ‘Spycis I hawe..In my shyppes..Gyngere, lycoresse and cannyngale’ (‘Spices I have … in my ships … ginger, liquorice, and galingale’). In the same year, the cosmopolitan text Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land foreshadowed a hundred foodie blogs in conflating quality of ingredients with obscurity of their source, advising: ‘Of peres..suche other comfytes, the further ye gone the better shall ye fynde, as well as grene gyngere’ (‘As concerns pears … and other such preserves, the further you travel the better quality you’ll find, and the same with green ginger’). These spices serve as metonyms for the geographies from which they come, representing the wide reach of English and French trading ships and the prosperity that enabled Western European nations to import their cargoes.

Recipies blend with medical remedies, with spices featuring in both. In one textbook on surgery, in a fourteenth-century manuscript, we find the recommendation to give patients ‘fleisch..sauerid with swete spicerie, as canel, gynger’ (‘meat … seethed in sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger’); in another, copied in the fifteenth century by Yorkshireman Robert Thornton, the list of ‘spices þat are hate: gynger, longe pepir, white pepir, aloes epotik’ (‘spices that are heating: ginger, long pepper, white pepper, liver-coloured [hepatic] aloes’).

Some concoctions sound fairly unpleasant to modern readers – in the 1325, we find instructions for cooking pike or turbot with almond milk, spices, saffron and sugar – though others sound more familiar, such as the ‘good hypocras’ made of wine and spices – mulled wine – recommended by John Lydgate in the fifteenth century. In the Middle English romance Reinbrun, found in the London Auchinleck manuscript of the 1330s, we hear of merchants bringing expensive and varied stocks including spices:

Gingiuer and galingale,
Clowes, quibibes, gren de Paris,
Pyper, and comyn, and swet anis;

Fykes, reisyn, dates,
Almaund, rys, pomme-garnates,

Kanel and setewale …

(Ginger and galingale,
Cloves, cubeb [pepper], grains of Paradise,
Peper, and cumin, and sweet anise;

Figs, raisins, dates,
Almond, rice, pomegranates,
Cinnamon and turmeric … )

These spices were popular – luxury items, certainly, but in the category of luxuries affordable to quite a lot of reasonably well-to-do people, and as a treat, to more. Official documents relating to legal weights and measures give an intriguing insight, recording that ‘warys that be sold by the lb., as peper, saffryn, clowys, mace, gynger and suche other..be called Sotyll Warys’ (‘goods that are sold by the pound, as pepper, saffron, cloves, mace, ginger and such others … are called Subtle Wares’). The term ‘subtle’ suggests refined luxury, but the idea of buying a pound of ginger – let alone saffron – would be beyond most keen cooks’ budgets today.

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Comparative lists, giving the prices of various items – some luxuries, some common purchases – bear out the (relative) availability of spices. In a letter of 1471, one member of the Paston family writes to another, off on business, asking ‘sende me word qwat price a li. of peppyr, clowys, masis, gingyr, and sinamun’ (‘send me word – what price is a pound of pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, and cinnamon?’). As early as the thirteenth century, we find surnames redolent of the spice trade: Roger Spice, William Gingerer, Simon Pepperwhite.

The rich fragrance of spices, and their appealing colours and shapes, lent themselves to imaginative imagery, much of it drawn from the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible translates the ornate lists of spices and aromatics in the Song of Songs into English as ‘fruytis of applis, cipre trees, with narde; narde, and saffrun, an erbe cleipid fistula, and canel, with alle trees of the Liban, myrre, and aloes, with alle the beste oynementis’ (‘fruits of apples, cypress trees, with nard [incense]; nard, and saffron, a herb called cassia, and cinnamon, with all trees of Lybia, myrrh, and aloes, with all the best ointments’).

The same lyricism, and same profusion of spices, is put to very different, and sadder ends, in the Middle English elegy Pearl, where the speaker laments over his dead daughter’s grave and declares:

That spot of spyses mot nedes sprede
Ther such ryches to rot is runne:
Blomes blayke and blwe and rede
Ther schyne ful schyr agayn the sunne.

(‘That spot must spread with spice-plants,
Where such richness has run to rot,
Blossoms yellow and blue and red
Must shine there, clear, against the sun.’)

As this lament reminds us – like the familiar imagery of the myrrh brought to the baby Jesus and foreshadowing his death – spices are also associated with the colder side of religious life. The preparation of spices for medicine gives rise to more monitory and penitential metaphors, such as this description of penitence, found in the didactic Book to a Mother:

Þe soule..pouneþ in a morter of hure conscience monye and diuerse bitter spices of hure synnes. 

(‘The soul … pounds in the mortar of her conscience many and diverse bitter spices of her sins.’)

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‘Thiese serpentes … with white peper theym feden.’

Spice suggests both sanctity and penitence, both sweet taste and bitter medicine, the mingled attraction and danger of the exotic. A (fictional) letter from the great conqueror Alexander claims that dragons – serpents – fed on white pepper.  In Cynthia Harnett’s children’s novel A Load of Unicorn, the ringleaders of a Lancastrian plot against the Yorkist king Edward IV use a quick-witted Cockney spice-peddlar as go-between, and his seemingly innocent tallies of wares conceal a careful scheme to record covert sympathisers to the cause: “I’ll put them down as peppercorns in my list of spices.” 

The same link between spices and enemy threat crops up in Mummers’ Plays, which were recorded in versions from the medieval period onwards. There are several versions of the St George Mummer’s play – one here – and it makes use of the stock characters of medieval interludes and romances: St George, the enemy Turkish knight, the King of Egypt’s beautiful daughter. Early versions give St George a jingling rhymed challenge in defiance of the Turkish knight:

“I’ll slash him and stab him as small as the flies!
And send him to the cookshop to make mincepies!”

Later on, the homely English ‘cookshop’ is replaced with a more exotic location. In 1899, we hear:

“I’ll hack him up as small as dust,
And send him to Jamaica,
To be made into mince-pie crust!”

Here, ‘Jamaica’ probably functions not so much as a ‘real place’ as it does as a generalised symbol of the exotic, a mingled image of racial alterity and of the sugar and spices of mincemeat. Yet the racist undertone is pointed up by a third alternative, which has the valiant St George vow to send his Turkish adversary ‘to Satan, to make his mincepies!’.

Charles Causley’s brilliantly chilling Christmas poem ‘Innocent’s Song’ – which gives the Coventry Carol a run for its money – exploits the same imagery, with its description of the evil King Herod as a ‘smiling stranger/ With hair as white as gin’. Echoing the medieval ‘Saracen’s Head’ delicacy, or the Mummer’s Play with its Turkish knight chopped into spiced mince-meat, Causley’s poem transforms the human figure into a concoction from the medieval kitchen:

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

The image, like the earlier texts, turns a once-real threat of danger into something both more exotic, and more palatable. The texts exoticise and parody images of foreignness in a way that makes us uncomfortable, linking to a disturbingly long tradition of caricatured, indeterminate foreign Others – Saracen, Turkish, Jamaican, Ethiopian; they also draw on the seductive scents and tastes of spices to cover up – like rotten meat – the unsavoury hints of nationalistic propaganda lurking beneath.

But, there is another side to this coin. The images and anecdotes, recipes and remedies and lists of prices for spices here prove to us that medieval English men and women were not cut off from a world of cultural – and racial – difference. Even ingredients we tend not to expect in medieval cooking – sugar, for example, or cubeb peppers, cumin, turmeric – are all there alongside the more traditionally-expected mace, ginger and cinnamon. In the same way, these texts and images are part of a wider reminder that medieval England – and medieval Europe – were not unvaryingly white spaces. The Medieval People of Color project – which I’ve mentioned before, and which regularly receives abusive comments for its excellent work uncovering the histories and images of medieval people of color – gives a fascinating and complex picture.

It’s hard to guess at what ordinary medieval people – of whatever skin colour – thought of the images around them, or of the geographies evoked by the spices that passed through their kitchens. But we can at least look at this history and acknowledge it, think about it, work its images of strangeness and familiarity into our understanding of the medieval past.

Happy Christmas!
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With thanks to Ruth Allen for the St George Mummers’ Play, Sjoerd Levelt for the baby dragon in the margin of BnF Latin 919, and Emma Goss for food styling. 

References:

Food History Almanac, Vol 1, ed. Janet Clarkson (2014)

Peter Millington, ‘Textual Analysis of English Quack Doctor Plays: Some New Discoveries’, Folk Drama Studies Today (2003), 97-132.

Nicola McDonald, ‘Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion,’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester: University Press, 2003), pp. 124-150.

Images in this post are taken from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813; London, British Library, Add MS 4213o; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 919; Musée du Petit-Palais L.Dut.456 and London, British Library, Royal MS 10.

The medical textbooks are to be found respectively in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1396 and Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91. The play with the spice-merchant’s ships is found in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, in Dublin, Trinity College MS 652. The Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land is found in London, British Library, Cotton Appendix 8. The Book to a Mother is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 416.

 

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.