The image for January (f.18v–19) features a snowy winter scene. In the background, a windmill works, and people are on the steps of a small church. Beyond the windmill and a church is a small figure on horseback and another kneeling in the snow. A man and a woman stand chatting in the path, near a bit of gate that looks very like a modern farm gate. In the foreground, inside a house with a smoking chimney and birds on the roof, a man stands at a small table, and a woman sits in a chair nursing a baby. You can just glimpse a bit of the fire, a winter convention in calendar pages. Outside the house a man in red stockings chops wood for kindling while a woman kneeling in the snow gathers the kindling in a sling-like bag looped across her shoulders. At the opposite end of the house you can see the attached byre with its cow. At the base of the page, several men are shown dragging another man on a sledge, an appropriate winter past time. The actual calendar page, on the right facing page, features a similar mirroring scene of men pulling a sledge, towards the left-hand scene.
The origins of the Medieval Latin responsorial chant known as “O Magnum Mysterium” are not really clear any more. It’s early; before the tenth century.
“O Magnum Mysterium” was part of the matins service for Christmas. For much of the Middle Ages, matins took place roughly at midnight. The Latin text describes the nativity scene in which Christ was born and laid in a manger, and animals were witnesses to the sacrament of his birth:
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
The text was inspired by two verses of the New Testament, first Luke 2:7 (quoted here from the Wycliffe Bible) :
And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wrappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.
Or in Modern English:
And she bore her first born son, and wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a cratche, for there was no place to him in no chamber.
The second part is derived from Isaiah 1.3 which refers to animals present at the birth of Christ:
An oxe knew his lord, and an asse knew the cratche of his lord; but Israel knewe not me, and my puple vndurstood not.
An ox knew his lord, and an ass knew the cratche of his lord; but Israel knew not me, and my people understood not.
The juxtaposition of the two verses in the minds of medieval illuminators and many poets led to the familiar scene of the nativity in a stable with the manger, with the resident animals looking on, and, in the words of Isaiah, they “knew” the baby as Christ.
It’s the reference to the manger, or cratche in Middle English, that led illuminators and others to set the scene in a stable. It isn’t strictly speaking accurate in terms of what the Greek text says, and what we know of the times. The Greek (Koine) word translated as “inn” is perhaps better thought of as the “guest room.”
For me, as a child hearing carols and seeing Medieval and Renaissance depictions of the nativity in my parents’ books, the part that caught my imagination was the folklore around animals talking at midnight on Christmas Eve. This has been captured in the Christmas Carol known today as “The Friendly Beasts.” This was one of my favorite carols as a child.1)“The Friendly Beasts” began life as a 12th century Latin song from France known as “Orientis Partibus,” translated and made popular in a version attributed to Robert Davis (1881-1950) in the 1920s.
There are a number of “settings” of the original Latin of “O Magnum Mysterium”; I’m partial to Palestrina’s (c. 1525 – February 1594) six-part motet, but there are many others including settings by William Byrd, Gabrielli, and for modern composers, the incredibly beautiful version by Morten Laridsen, which, as the composer explains, was also inspired by Francisco de Zurbarán’s 1733 “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.”
You can hear Morten Laridsen’s stunning “O Magnum Mysterium on YouTube.” O Magnum Mysterium is also part of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||“The Friendly Beasts” began life as a 12th century Latin song from France known as “Orientis Partibus,” translated and made popular in a version attributed to Robert Davis (1881-1950) in the 1920s.|
“Angelus ad virginem” is a Medieval Latin carol celebrating the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel telling the Virgin that she would conceive and bear the Christ child. The Latin lyrics are (here’s a rough translation):
1. Angelus ad virginem
Subintrans in conclave.
Demulcens inquit “Ave.”
Ave regina virginum,
Tu porta coeli facta
2. Quomodo conciperem,
quae virum non cognovi?
quae firma mente vovi?
‘Spiritus sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia;
Manebit in te pura
3. Ad haec virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei;
Ancilla sum humilis
Tibi coelesti nuntio,
Tanta secreti conscio,
factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
4. Angelus disparuit
Vi partus salutaris.
Qui, circumdatus utero
Novem mensium numero,
Crucem, qua dedit ictum
5. Eia Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelis et homini,
Cum Christum genuisti;
Tuem exora filium
Ut se nobis propitium
Vita frui beta
Post hoc exsilium.
The carol appears to have been a popular one, preserved in several mss. It was so popular that in c. 1400 or so Chaucer alludes to it in Canterbury Tales, specifically, in “The Miller’s Tale,” where we are told that “hendy” Nicholas sings and accompanies himself on the psaltry:
And over all there lay a psaltery
Whereon he made an evening’s melody,
Playing so sweetly that the chamber rang;
And Angelus ad virginem he sang;
And after that he warbled the King’s Note:
Often in good voice was his merry throat.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins created a very loose translation that’s perhaps better read as a poem inspired by the Latin hymn) under the title “Gabriel, from Heaven’s King.”
In the British Library’s MS Arundel 248, a collection of various texts in several languages from the early 13th century, the Latin text and tune for “Angelus ad virginem” is immediately followed with a related song in Middle English. This kind of macaronic preservation of songs in multiple languages, side-by-side, is a not uncommon practice in medieval manuscripts, and given that the Church used Latin and scribes used English and or French, or German or Irish or . . . multilingual songbooks make a great deal of sense. The way this collection of folios are organized, with a brief crudely drawn staff for the tune, followed by the lyrics is very reminiscent of a modern musician’s cheat book.
Gabriel, fram heven-king
sent to þe maide sweete,
broute hir blisfúl tiding
and fair he gan hir greete:
5 “Heil be þu, ful of grace ari3t!
For Godes son, þis heven-li3t,
for mannes love
wil man bicome
10 fles of þee, maide bri3t,
mankén free for to make
of sen and devles mi3t.”
Mildëlich him gan andswere
þe milde maide þanne:
15 “Wichëwise sold ich bere
[a] child withute manne?”
þangel seid, “Ne dred tee nout:
þurw þoligast sal been iwrout
þis ilch þing
20 warof tiding
al mánken wurth ibout
þurw þine sweet childínge
and ut of pine ibrout.”
25 Wan þe maiden understood
and þangels wordes herde,
mildëlich with milde mood
to þangel hie andswerde:
“Ure lords þewe maid iwis
30 ich am, þat heer aboven is.
þat ich, sith his wil is,
35 [a] maid, withute lawe,
of moder have þe blis.”
Þangel went awei mid þan
al ut of hire si3te;
hire womb arise gan
40 þurw þoligastes mi3te.
In hir wes Crist bilok anon,
sooth God, sooth man in fles and bon,
and of hir fles
45 at time.
Warþurw us kam good won;
he bout us ut of pine
and let him for us slon.
Maiden-moder makëles,1)Makëles or “matchless” is a triple pun; she is without peer, without a mate, also used in the Middle English lyric “I Sing of a Maiden.”
50 of moder ful ibunde,
bid for us him þat tee ches,
at wam þu grace funde,
þat he forgive us sen and wrake
and clene of evri gelt us make
55 and heven-blis
wan ur time is
us give, for þine sake,
him so heer for to serve
60 þat he us to him take.
The tune for the Middle English version is usually easily recognized as the Latin hymn. The same Latin text of “Angelus ad virginem” inspired a Basque Christmas carol “Birjina gaztettobat zegoen” collected by Charles Bordes.2)Archives de la tradition basque, 1895 Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) folklorist, novelist, and poet responsible for several hymns (including “Onward Christian Soldiers”) spent some time in the Basque region of Spain as a child, and translated the carol from Basque to English, in the process reducing the original 6 stanzas to 4.
1. The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
2. “For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
3. Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!
4. Of her, Emanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
This was one of my favorite childhood carols, familiar from a 1963 Time Life record, an album rich with Medieval carols, under the title “The Angel Gabriel.” It’s also been released as “Gabriel’s Message,” and “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came.”
These are all available in contemporary recordings. “Angelus ad virginem” has been recorded by The Tallis Scholars on Christmas with the Tallis Scholars and by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers on the album Christus Natus Est. Anonymous 4 have recorded the Middle English version as Song: Gabriel, fram heven-king on their album On Yoolis Night — Medieval Carols & Motets. Sting on the album If On A Winter’s Night recorded the Basque derivative under the title “Gabriel’s Message.” There’s a video of Sting singing “Gabriel’s Message” here. I particularly favor Sting’s rendition because it’s both simple and complex in the way Medieval music often is, and he doesn’t sing in an artsy pseudo operatic tenor.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Makëles or “matchless” is a triple pun; she is without peer, without a mate, also used in the Middle English lyric “I Sing of a Maiden.”|
|2.||↑||Archives de la tradition basque, 1895|
The Da Costa Hours is in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan library. It, like the Golf Book hours in the British Library was illuminated by Simon Bening (1483/84–1561); Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515.
I’ve written about the May calendar image from the British Library’s Golf Book. It’s very similar in terms of motifs to this one. On the calendar page itself the Gemini twins are featured in the rondel at the base of the page. Just as in the Golf Book calendar page for May, Bening in the Da Costa Hours features a boat with greenery and musicians celebrating May 1 and the arrival of Spring.
Beyond the boaters (click for a larger image) you can see a castle, swans, and a group on horseback in the background. They too have been busy gathering the green boughs of May.
The Feast of the Annunciation is generally observed on March 25, nine months before Christmas and the date celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Feast of the Annunciation commemorates the “announcement” by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she had conceived and would bear the Christ child (Annunciation is anglicised from the Latin Vulgate Luke 1:26-39 Annuntiatio nativitatis Christi).
The story of the Annunciation is contained in Luke 1 26-38; the very first verse of which states that the Annunciation occurred “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. A separate shorter annunciation as that in Luke, is given occurs Matthew 1:18-21, in which Gabriel tells Joseph that Mary will bear Jesus.
Here’s the text of Luke 1 26:39 in the Wycliffe Middle English translation (c. 1382 to 1395).
26 But in the sixte moneth the aungel Gabriel was sent fro God in to a citee of Galilee, whos name was Nazareth, 27 to a maidyn, weddid to a man, whos name was Joseph, of the hous of Dauid; and the name of the maidun was Marie. 28 And the aungel entride to hir, and seide, Heil, ful of grace; the Lord be with thee; blessid be thou among wymmen. 29 And whanne sche hadde herd, sche was troublid in his word, and thouyte what maner salutacioun this was. 30 And the aungel seide to hir, Ne drede thou not, Marie, for thou hast foundun grace anentis God. 31 Lo! thou schalt conceyue in wombe, and schalt bere a sone, and thou schalt clepe his name Jhesus. 32 This schal be greet, and he schal be clepid the sone of the Hiyeste; and the Lord God schal yeue to hym the seete of Dauid, his fadir, and he schal regne in the hous of Jacob with outen ende, 33 and of his rewme schal be noon ende. 34 And Marie seide to the aungel, On what maner schal this thing be doon, for Y knowe not man? 35 And the aungel answeride, and seide to hir, The Hooly Goost schal come fro aboue in to thee, and the vertu of the Hiyeste schal ouerschadewe thee; and therfor that hooli thing that schal be borun of thee, schal be clepid the sone of God. 36 And lo! Elizabeth, thi cosyn, and sche also hath conceyued a sone in hir eelde, and this moneth is the sixte to hir that is clepid bareyn; 37 for euery word schal not be inpossible anentis God. 38 And Marie seide, Lo! the handmaydyn of the Lord; be it don to me aftir thi word. And the aungel departide fro hir. 39 And Marie roos vp in tho daies, and wente with haaste in to the mounteyns, in to a citee of Judee.
Art based on the Annunciation often shows Mary reading, either in a sitting room or a garden, lilies, and a sunbeam which symbolizes the divine conception. See for example the central panel of the Robert Campion Merode Altar piece above. If you look closely at the top left, there’s an image of an tiny figure sliding in on a sunbeam, carrying a cross. Mary is shown reading a book, perhaps a psalter, and there are lilies on the table (this barely touches the iconography used in this image, and of the Annunciation in general).
The Annunciation is a particularly popular subject for miniatures and full page illustrations in Psalters and Books of Hours, most often as one of the illustrations for the Hours of the Virgin.
I started Scéla (this blog) in 2002.
I’ve had at least one Christmas-related post almost every year since then. Here they all are:
Christmas Eve, 2004 I posted the Christmas story in Old English from Matthew 2, c. 995, taken from Joseph Bosworth, The Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels in Parallel Columns.
Christmas 2004, I posted “Ryse, hyrd-men heynd” from the Second Shepherd’s Play/ Secunda Pastorum by the Wakefield Master.
Christmas 2006 I posted Luke 2:1 in Gothic.
Christmas Eve 2007 I posted an English version of a Flemish carol about “The Angel Gabriel”.
Christmas Eve 2008 I posted Luke 1:26–2:24.
On Christmas Eve of 2009 I posted another in a series of posts about carols; this time, about the Latin carol Gaudete.
On Christmas 2009 I posted an excerpt about King Arthur and Christmas at Camelot from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
December 20th of 2010 I posted about The Wexford Carol.
January 2011 I posted about the New Year’s day passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The passage (and the post) features an exchange of gifts, including hondeselles, and the relationship of the “kissing games” alluded to in SGGK to “handy-dandy, prickly-prandy.”
Last August the Getty Museum announced that it has made 4,600 pieces of art from the museum’s collection free to use. They’re focussing on “public domain” works of art, that means works that have endured beyond the limits of copy right, and users are free to use, modify, and publish these works for any purpose.
These are high-resolution, reproduction-quality images with embedded metadata, some over 100 megabytes in size. You can browse the images, or look for individual “download” links on the Getty Museum’s collection pages. Before the download actually begins, the Getty site asks simple questions about how you plan to use the images.
There’s a well-written Getty Open Content Program FAQ.
The Getty released images of many of its most famous works, including paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, but I’m especially excited by the medieval manuscripts (The Getty purchased the Ludwig collection, a huge collection of manuscripts rich in psalters and books of hours several years ago, and already had a solid collection, and they’ve added mss. since).
May day or the first of May is also known as Beltane, as I’ve noted before. I’ve written about both of my favorite May Books of Hours images from the Golf Book, and the Très Riche Heures, so here’s another lovely May image.
Here’s an image from a Book of Hours illuminated by Jean Poyer; the Hours of Henry VIII/The Prayer Book of Ann de Bretagne, from the collections of The Morgan Library. This is the calendar page for May, otherwise known as f. 3. The image below is from the top part of the folio, above the calendar proper.
Notice that it appears to be a courtship scene, entirely appropriate for May, and May day (they tend to favor courting and hawking scenes, often accompanied by greenery). They look as if they’ve been out “bringing in the May,” or “getting some green,” in the wee hours of May 1.
While we know the work is that of Jean Poyer, and that it was once owned by Ann de Bretagne, there’s an unproven eighteenth-century tradition that claims King Henry of England once owned this book of hours.
Mostly, I just like the Maying reference, and the little dog.
We often think of December as an entry to winter and to Christmas. In the middle ages, typically, winter featured much more dramatically than Christmas. The calendar pages in Books of Hours for December often feature an image of either hog butchering, a boar roast, or a boar hunt (sometimes they feature an image of St. John boiling in oil, or the baking of bread).
The image to the left is from the Très Riches Heures of Jean, duc de Berry (Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 65) calendar image for December. It features a wild boar hunt. The building in the background is the Château de Vincennes. The forest bordering the estate was famous for its game (and was reserved as a royal forest). The boar has been cornered, speared by a huntsman off to the side, and is being destroyed by boar hounds. On the right another huntsman blows the mort, or death call, on his small horn. It doesn’t look terribly wintery, I admit, though you’ll notice the huntsman are not dressed for summer. But December serves as a good time for a boar hunt or butchering because it was cold, and because the boar had, like his cousin the domestic hog, had been fattening all fall by eating the mast (nuts and acorn) that had fallen or been shaken down from trees (November calendar pages often feature pigs eating acorns).
This wintery scene on the right of hog-butchering is the work of Simon Bening, from the Da Costa Hours (Belgium, Bruges, c. 1515) now in The Morgan Library. (MS M.399, f. 13v). You’ll notice that the landscape is snowy. The people are also dressed much more warmly. They appear to be bleeding out the hog.
At this time of year, I always think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because the tale opens and closes with references to Christmastide. It also features a boar hunt, the second of three hunts that Sir Gawain’s host at Haut Desart, Sir Bertilak, indulges in while Sir Gawain is pursued by the lady of Haut Desart. The boar hunt takes place on the 30th of December, and starts about line 1412.
This image from The Morgan Library’s ms. of Gaston Phoebus’ Le Livre de la chasse/The Book of the Hunt (MS M. 1044 (fol. 64) shows that the lymerer and his lymer, the huntsman with a dog who flushes the boar into the open, have forced the boar into the open. Another huntsman is about to spear the boar, and the grooms are ready to release more hounds. It’s quite similar in many respects to the boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
Schalkez to schote at hym schowen to þenne,
Haled to hym of her arewez, hitten hym oft;
Bot þe poyntez payred at þe pyþ þat pyȝt in his scheldez,
And þe barbez of his browe bite non wolde—
Þaȝ þe schauen schaft schyndered in pecez,
Þe hede hypped aȝayn were-so-euer hit hitte.
Bot quen þe dynteȝ hym dered of her dryȝe strokez,
Þen, braynwod for bate, on burnez he rasez,
Hurtez hem ful heterly þer he forþ hyȝez,
And mony arȝed þerat, and on lyte droȝen.
Bot þe lorde on a lyȝt horce launces hym after,
As burne bolde vpon bent his bugle he blowez,
He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,
Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.
Þis day wyþ þis ilk dede þay dryuen on þis wyse,
Whyle oure luflych lede lys in his bedde,
Gawayn grayþely at home, in gerez ful ryche
of hewe (ll. 1454–1471).
Here’s Jesse Weston’s prose translation:
Then the men made ready their arrows and shot at him, but the points were turned on his thick hide, and the barbs would not bite upon him, for the shafts shivered in pieces, and the head but leapt again wherever it hit.
But when the boar felt the stroke of the arrows he waxed mad with rage, and turned on the hunters and tore many, so that, affrighted, they fled before him. But the lord on a swift steed pursued him, blowing his bugle; as a gallant knight he rode through the woodland chasing the boar till the sun grew low.
So did the hunters this day, while Sir Gawain lay in his bed lapped in rich gear.
In some ways, this Morgan library image from the same Gaston Phoebus ms. is even more similar; the boar, exhausted by the hounds, is attempting to flee, but one noble hunter (notice the clothing and the horses) has a spear at the ready, another a sword, and there’s also a standing hunter ready with a crossbow. In the case of SGGK, after spending all day chasing the boar, the boar makes for a hole, by a mound and a large rock, where he turns and faces the hunters and dogs who are on foot, across a stream from him.
Til þe knyȝt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
Syȝ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde;
He lyȝtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȝt bront and bigly forþ strydez,
Foundez fast þurȝ þe forþ þer þe felle bydez.
Þe wylde watz war of þe wyȝe wiþ weppen in honde,
Hef hyȝly þe here, so hetterly he fnast
Þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
Þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
Þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepeȝ
In þe wyȝtest of þe water; þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult, þat þe hert schyndered,
And he ȝarrande hym ȝelde, and ȝedoun þe water
ful tyt (ll. 1581–96).
The lord rides up, dismounts, wades into the stream, with his sword, and stabs the boar, in the chest and through the heart with his sword (thus providing an instance of the Celtic motif of death at the ford).
The boar was an important food source, though largely for the wealthy, especially the domesticated boar. While the head was regarded as a trophy, nothing was wasted, and all was used. There was a Christmastide tradition of ceremonially cooking and presenting the boar’s head as a main course at a feast. Indeed, Queen’s college still celebrates a notable boar and an alum in “The Boar’s Head Carol.”
Tradition says, or at least William Henry Husk, Librarian to the Sacred Harminic Society, says that the boar’s head tradition of a feast at Queens derives from
Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,” and fairly choked the savage with the sage (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868 reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973).
The Middle English version of The Boar’s Head Carol:
Chorus: Caput afri differo (The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens ‘laudes’ domino (Giving praises to the Lord).
The bores heed in hand bring I,
With garlans gay and rosemary,
I pray you all synge merely
Qui estis in convivio (As many as are in the feast).
The bores heed, I vnderstande,
Is the ‘chefe’ seruyce in this lande;
Loke, where euer it be fande,
Seruite cum cantico (Let us serve with song).
Be gladde lordes, both more and lasse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde
To chere you all this Christmasse,
The bores heed with mustarde.
I grew up hearing “The Boar’s Head” carol every Christmas, by way a Time Life album my mom had. But I think my very favorite recording is the one from Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen. It’s a super collection of medieval and renaissance Christmas carols, and it’s neither too folksy nor too operatic. I’ve linked to it to the left; the iTunes album is Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe – Harry Christophers & The Sixteen. You can also just buy The Boar’s Head Carol.
I’m probably going to start my annual re-read of SGGK in a couple of weeks. I confess to toying with the idea of blogging the re-read. It encapsulates the festive nature of the season, as well as the cyclical aspects seasons. Plus, it’s a nifty capsule review of Pacific Northwest weather.
As a Celticist, I have an abiding interest in Irish culture, and around March 17, so, apparently, does most of the United States. I’ve written a rant about Irish cultural myths, I’ve written about the true place of corned beef in terms of Irish culture, genuinely Irish food, like Irish Soda Bread, colcannon, Guinness, and Irish Whisky, and even Irish loan words in English, and the real nature of Leprechauns.
All of that said St. Patrick seems to have been a fifth century Romano-Britain, a speaker of a language closely related to Welsh, before he became the national saint of Ireland.