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.
This exhibit runs from September 24, 2015 – January 31 at the British Museum.
Celts: Art and Identity is an exhibit created by the British Museum in partnership with National Museums Scotland.British Museum lead curator of the exhibit, Julia Farley (she’s the Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum) describes it as “the first major exhibition to explore the full history of Celtic art and identity.”
Ms. Farley writes about the exhibit on the British Museum’s blog: Who were the Celts?
The British Museum’s official Celts: Art and Identity exhibit page (where you can buy tickets!).
There’s an exhibition catalog (paperback and hardcover).
Farley, Julia and Hunter Fraser. Eds. Celts: Art and Identiy. British Museum Press, 2015.
You can buy it from:
Ogma was a brewer, and so was Goibhniu, the smith god. Brigid too was a brewer, and there are many references to the consumption of beer in medieval Celtic texts. In that context the recent find that six specially constructed ditches previously excavated at Eberdingen-Hochdorf a 2,550-year-old Celtic settlement, were used to make high-quality barley malt, an essential beer ingredient. (You may recall Hochdorf as a principle Celtic site, where among other important finds in the museum is the grave of the Hochdorf prince.)
Archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart has published a paper in which he discusses the results of chemical analysis of some of the thousands of charred grains of barley found in the six ditches. The paper, published on January 4, 20 in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences is titled “Early Iron Age and Late Mediaeval malt finds from Germany—attempts at reconstruction of early Celtic brewing and the taste of Celtic beer.”
You can read the abstract, linked above, or download the .pdf of the paper, but the analysis of the malt, in the context of what we know about early brewing in the La Tène Period, fifth –fourth century BCE, Stika suggests that the beer would like have been somewhat smokey in character, with a sour taste (keep in mind that beer in this era would not have used hops).
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.”
The 13th Century Book of Aneirin has been completely digitized and placed online. This is one of the four major Welsh mss. mostly known because it contains the text of Y Goddodin, an epic poem retelling the historic battle of Catraeth wherein 300 Men from Manaw Gododdin, near Edinburgh, fought the Saxons at Catraeth (modern day Catterick, North Yorkshire) around the year 600AD. Only three of the Britons survived the battle, one of whom, the poet Aneirin, commemorates the fallen.
This is the last of the Four Ancient Books of Wales to be digitized and made publicly available. The other three books are:
Recently in the British Library’s excellent Medieval Manuscripts blog a curator mentioned a post medieval colleague noticing a marginal illustration showing a knight engaging in combat with a snail. This is not a rare motif in medieval mss. The Medieval Manuscripts post covers the bibliography regarding the motif, including a blog post by Carl Pyrdum on What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?
Various reasons for the popularity are proposed, but none are really convincing. I am therefore willing to propose another reason: Psalm 58. Here’s Psalm 58 in the Wycliffe translation. This is a psalm about divine vengeance, and the section I’m most interested in is this bit in verses 6–7:
6 God shall all-break the teeth of them in their mouth; the Lord shall break (al)together the great teeth of lions. (O God, break all the teeth in their mouths; O Lord, break all in pieces the great teeth of these lions.)
7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.)
8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)
I think the armored snail fighting the armored knight is a reminder of the inevitability of death; the knight, like the snail, will ultimately “melteth away into slime.”
Just because I can, here’s the sixteenth century metrical version of Psalm 58 from Sternhold and Hopkins. This particular version is the work of John Hopkins:
6 The teeth O Lord, which fast are set
in their mouth round about,
The lions’ teeth that are so great,
do thou, O Lord, break out.
7 Let them consume away and waste,
as water runs forth right;
The shafts that they do shoot in haste,
let them be broke in flight:8 As snails do waste within the shell,
and unto slime do run,
As one before his time that fell,
and never saw the sun.
I first discovered this version of Psalm 58 in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.