Friday saw my kids (in preparation for the weekend) all dressed up in their little threadbare monks' habits with their little peg legs and hooks poking out from various orifices and their eye patches all askew: munching on raw turnips and going down the street to school chanting "kyrie-eleison! Oh-arrr me hearties!" of course the other kids do tend to make fun of them, and occasionally throw things, but at least we're getting some momentum going here...
Yes, every year at this time you probably have and I certainly have celebrated that Wagner of the twelfth century; that most famous English composer of his generation (well indeed the only known English composer of his generation); that sometime notorious pirate who finally made good and became a hermit; that guy who obviously needs no introduction from me to you---and now we have to get everyone else to celebrate him too!
Out of the dim and distant past he came bringing freedom, justice and the Mediæval Way of Music! Able to leap tall hermitages at a single bound, more powerful than a raging King Henry II, and faster than a speeding (a type of broad beamed boat of the time), he was (like, Boudicca, Nelson, Newton, Benjamin Britten and of course myself) born in East Anglia. His poor parents were very poor and he had to work hard to climb the social ladder as far as pirate, but he persevered and seems eventually to have owned about three quarters of a boat, though unfortunately it wasn't all the same boat.
During a trip, to that much-looted monastery Lindisfarne (presumably in somebody else's boat) he was told the life of St. Cuthbert and was very much taken with it. That story seems to have totally altered his life because he straightway went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which had recently been overrun by Crusaders). It is even said in the chronicles that he helped Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, to escape Haifa in 1102 in a boat, though the completeness of the boat is nowhere mentioned. After a few more pilgrimages to various places in variously complete boats, he at last settled near Durham, and then, amazingly, he started to have visions. In one of them his dead sister, who had been a sister in a local convent, came to him accompanied by two strange angelic men, who promptly placed themselves either side of a, presumably portable, altar they had brought with them and started to sing. Well after this little episode he started making up songs of his own and was soon hitting the charts in a big way; he was also apparently famous for being given to predicting the death of Archbishop Thomas Becket; and when the had visitors he would often break off the conversation to pray for the souls of mariners whose far-off ships he could tell faced impending doom, which, whatever it did for the mariners, impressed the hell out of the visitors.
He was a very old man when he died on the 21st May in 1170: estimates of his age ranging as high as 105. Of course the unusual step of preserving his songs for posterity was taken less because of his venerability than because of the veneration in which he was held by the monks of Durham. They, good fellows, were well up on history, and had read their Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking Peoples1 to a man and so were all very well acquainted with the famous story of Cædmon2 and it certainly didn't take a William of Ockham to notice the similarity between Bede's tale of the cowherd given singing lessons in his sleep by an Angel, and all of our hero's stuff about meeting dead sisters singing with their angelic backing. The monks could see they would be onto a winner, especially when Becket was done in just as our hero kept on claiming he would be, and then when the King was really, really rather sorry about it, that was the clincher. So in 20 years or so they rushed out a Life (which was something of a publishing triumph at the time). So...
Cheerio for now and
from Richard Howland-Bolton.
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1 Ecclesiastical History
"... Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking Peoples" This viciously conflates the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) by the Venerable Bede with Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples to the ultimate detriment of each.
Sorry about that.
"... famous story of Cædmon"
Quod dum tempore quodam faceret, et relicta domu conuiuii egressus esset ad stabula iumentorum, quorum ei custodia nocte illa erat delegata, ibique hora conpetenti membra dedisset sopori, adstitit ei quidam per somnium, eumque salutans ac suo appelans nomine "Caedmon," inquit, "canta mihi aliquid." At ille respondens "Nescio" inquit "cantare; nam et ideo de conuiuio egressus huc secessi, quia cantare non poteram." Rursum ille qui cum eo loquebatur "At tamen" ait "mihi cantare habes." "Quid" inquit "debeo cantare?" Et ille "Canta" inquit "principium creaturarum."
Quo accepto responso, statim ipse coepit cantare in laudem Dei Conditoris uersus quos numquam audierat, quorum iste est sensus: "Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis, potentiam Creatoris et consilium illius, facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille, cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor extitit, qui primo filiis hominum caelum pro culmine tecti, dehinc terram Custos humani generis omnipotens creauit." Hic est sensus, non autem ordo ipse uerborum, quae dormiens ille canebat; neque enim possunt carmina, quamuis optime conposita, ex alia in aliam linguam ad uerbum sine detrimento sui decoris ac dignitatis transferri. Exsurgens autem a somno, cuncta quae dormiens cantauerat memoriter retenuit, et eis mox plura in eundem modum uerba Deo digni carminis adiunxit.
On one such occasion when he did so, he left the place of feasting and went to the cattle byre, as it was his turn to take charge of them that night. In due time he stretched himself out and went to sleep, whereupon he dreamt that someone stood by him, saluted him, and called him by name: "Caedmon," he said, "Sing me something." Caedmon answered, "I cannot sing; that is why I left the feast and came here because I could not sing." Once again the speaker said, "Nevertheless, you must sing to me." "What must I sing?" said Caedmon. "Sing," he said,"about the beginning of created things." Thereupon Caedmon began to sing verses which he had never heard before in praise of God the Creator, of which this is the general sense: "Now we must praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory and how He, since he is the eternal God, was the Author of all marvels and first created the heavens as a roof for the children of men and then, the almighty Guardian of the human race, created the earth." This is the sense but not the order of the words which he sang as he slept. For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity. When he awoke, he remembered all that he had sung while asleep and soon added more verses in the same manner, praising God in fitting style.
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